The Vancouver International Wine Festival turns 37 this year, and as you read this a sellout crowd of wine lovers are working their way through hundreds of wines and scores of events adding yet another layer of knowledge to their growing wine resume.
Key among the 2014 refrains, where France is the theme country, is the subject of terroir. It's something that French wine producers believe their vineyards have in spades. And it's almost as hard to argue against the notion of terroir as it is to understand its meaning. What I do know is we are all exposed to terroir throughout our lives — all you need do is look around and observe it.
Whistlerites surely know where all the best runs on the local mountains are, or where the early morning powder is the best, or even which late-day runs are tops to finish your day on. That ability to pay attention to your environment, combined with years of experience, is at the heart of the notion of terroir. In the case of vineyards and wine, the French are masters at it.
Rhone Valley-based Michel Chapoutier is one of the big names at this year's show and if ever there was a terroir-iste, he is it. Not only can he espouse what is impossible to translate, but as a winemaker he lives and breathes the concept of terroir into every one of his wines. Chapoutier once stated that the rest of the world claims to have terroir but they are all liars (if you haven't guessed he's controversial, to say the least).
The Chapoutier mantra on terroir states that it's all about "paying attention to each plot, listening to the world, the environment, anticipating the needs of the earth." This is not the norm in modern wine production but then neither is Chapoutier, who lives as one with his environment.
The farming at Chapoutier is biodynamic; the philosophy is keeping an open mind and being consistent from vineyard to vineyard. Each individual plot of land tells its story and each year that story changes ever so slightly to reflect the growing season or climate of the vintage.
To say the style of French wines does not have a huge global fan club is crazy. But what is that style and how does it relate to us sitting here in the New World, not far from the Okanagan Valley, not to mention Washington, Oregon and California?
It's easy to suggest that New World wines are richer, riper and more alcoholic on the palate but that's too superficial. It is no less simplistic to claim that French wine or Old World bottles tend to be leaner in structure, bear more acid, firmer tannins and, in most cases, are crafted to accompany food. The answer, like in most such cases, lays somewhere in the middle.
What's interesting is that 40 years after the birth of varietal wine in the New World, the gap between New and Old has closed. This week, in honour of the French invasion (look for them on the slopes, too) we share with you ten amazing French wines that over-deliver for their price.
These are neither New or Old World, but possibly the Next World. Open them, give them some air, try them with food and but most of all, see if you can detect a sense of place and terroir.
It's an impressive lineup, all of which try to tell a story, to speak to a place or piece of dirt that, in a world full of high alcohol, chocolate, sugary reds and oaky, buttery whites, is different than any other. It is a product that comes from somewhere and it is made by somebody and that expresses its unique origin in every vintage. Vive la France!
M. Chapoutier Domaine De Bila-Haut Rouge 2012 Côtes Du Roussillon $16. Back up the truck. This has everything you want in an honest, food-friendly, juicy red wine with plummy, wild smoky, peppery, fruit flavours. A fabulous example of biodynamically grown fruit at a giveaway price. Grilled sausage would be a great pairing.
Chateau De Nages Butinages Rouge 2011 Rhone Valley $20. Another excellent food wine, thanks to a stony, briary mix of meaty, earthy, licorice flavours. Grilled lamb chops and salad is the ticket here.
Pierre Sparr Extrem Riesling 2011 Alsace $22. This is cutting-edge stuff, hence the 'Extrem' moniker. A cool steely, guava/lemon flavoured white, all under screwcap that works well with Chinese, Thai, Indian, sushi, or even barbecue pork.
Gérard Bertrand Chateau L'Hospitalet La Reserve La Clape 2011, Languedoc $27. Bertrand is leading southern France out of the doldrums and back onto the main stage of French wine. Smoke and pepper, black cherry, floral, savoury licorice fruit all add to its fine length and texture. Serve now with a great piece of firm cheese or a grilled steak.
Maison Blanche Medoc 2009, Bordeaux $27. Finally, some value and style from one of the best value cru Bourgeois we have seen in years in B.C. The palate is dense and weighty with smoky, spicy, dark fruit flavours. Steak frites is the classic match.
Schieferkopf Riesling 2011 Alsace $29. This is a Chapoutier venture in Alsace and has that typically juicy, round and drier style than its German equivalent. Love the citrus, lemon, granny smith flavours and bright acidity. Great with pizza or sushi.
Louis Bouillot Perle d'Aurore Rosé Crémant de Bourgogne, Burgundy $27. Sparkling Rosé from Burgundy — do you need more explanation? The mix is 80/20 pinot noir/gamay. The bubbles are light and the style is slightly sweeter with very fresh acidity and cherry, strawberry and citrus/lees flavours. Smoked salmon is the match.
Arc Du Rhône Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011 $15. A pleasant, fruity, light-bodied red with licorice, black cherry and rosemary flavours. Try this with take-out or homemade barbecued ribs.
Cuvée du Haut-Censy Muscadet Sèvre et Main Sur Lie 2012, Loire $16. In a province awash in fresh oysters this fresh, bright, delicate white with electric, juicy lemon and green apple fruit is the perfect match.
Domaine Serres Mazard Cuvée Henri Serres 2008, Corbières, Languedoc $22. The palate is full and rich with dry, savoury, black olive, black fruit flavours perfect for rich, hearty late-winter stews.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com