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Wines and Vines in Europe: A Canadian Winemaker’s Perspective

by Mark Simpson August 14, 2003

Wine and Travel

One of the best ways to develop one’s palette and perspective is to travel. I find that my creative juices are always sharpened and refreshed by a visiting another country or a different part of my own country and enjoying the fruits of the local harvest. I always try to sample the local cuisine paired with local wines and aperitifs. Another key theme for me while on the road is to continually research new and better ways of presenting and marketing wines in ways that extols their unique virtues and engage the consumer.

Tradition and a history of excellence is the aura that surrounds the Châteauneuf-Du-Pape appellation in Provence, France. By virtue of the address of the winery, wines from this area command high prices. There are wines of equal quality made in the neighbouring regions of Côte-Du-Rhône and Côtes-Du-Ventoux, that don’t fetch the same prices with the negotiants and exporters. The rolling countryside here features bright, red ochre, smooth stones for ground cover, which keep the heat in the soil after sunset. The vineyards are very old with thick, gnarled rootstocks, with Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre being the principal varieties.

The rules of winemaking for this appellation here strictly specify the varieties allowed, as well as some of the vinification and blending techniques, but only rarely is information on the vinification is given on the label. The wines are magical and delicious, but you never quite know what you are drinking!

In my opinion, the new world approach to labeling, practiced best by the Australians, is taking away world market share from French wines, bit by bit. This approach is quite open about the grapes, oaking regime and winemaking techniques and says so right on the label, website and point of sale. Maybe the French will add some good solid consumer education to their mystery and charm, but don’t hold your breath.

I love going to wine shows like the Playhouse Festival in the Spring and reading over detailed vinification notes and talking to the winemakers while I enjoy their wines. To visit the old village of Châteauneuf-Du-Pape, is to be seduced by the rustic charm of the caves in old building that serve as wine shops. These wines are marketed with old world charm and grace with images of castles and ancient country side.  

In one memorable day, my wife and I visited seven different wineries and shops in the region trying these amazingly complex and delicate red wines, some of the best France has to offer. We followed up the winery visits with a trip to a luxury dark chocolate factory, and dinner in a small artisanal brewery in Apt that evening.

Moving on, Corsica found us on an Island that was neither wholly French nor Italian but a little of both. The Corsicans, like the Belgians, have been invaded many times over the centuries. This has impacted their character and expressed itself in the food, wine and liquor.

Traditionally forced into the rugged, mountainous interior to evade ocean-borne tyrants, the Corsicans have developed wonderful cuisine based on ingredients like wild boar, goat cheese and the wild herbs called “Herb de Maquis” that grow everywhere.  

The red wines are lighter in style than the Southern Mainland of France and feature some lesser known indigenous Grape varieties such as Nielluccio and Sciacarello (reds) and Vermentino and Ugni-blanc (whites). Their fiercely independent nature from mother France has perhaps limited the embracing of current developments resulting in a wine culture with pockets of excellence but overall mediocre quality.

It was a real pleasure however, to travel from village to village and see wine lists dominated by small regional wineries and a refreshing absence of the heavy hand of big wineries paired with the fantastic local cuisine.  

My favourite beverage was not wine but a great local beer called Pietra, made from Chestnut flour. The beer was amber colored, very refreshing and had a delicate, nutty flavor. The vintners and distillers of Corsica are similar to those of the Okanagan valley and Fraser Valley, who make the best of local grapes and zealously collaborate with the local farmers and restauranteurs to get the best out of a marriage of their terroir and ingredients.

One aspect I enjoyed was the prominence of 375 ml and 500 ml bottles in many French restaurants.  In Corsica, many wineries packaged their best vintages in these smaller formats. This made the wines more accessible to consumers (like me) who wanted a modest sample for a mid-day lunch or before driving.

In Grenoble, back on the mainland, it is common to find a “Pot de Lyon” which is a 450 ml jug of Vine de Pays or House wine. These servings mirror how wine with food is closely woven into daily life in France.

We should pay attention to these trends as the Canadian Wine Industry continues to find ways to engage consumers in trying wine, whilst facing the pressures of responsible use lobby groups.

I returned home to the last few days of cap punching and racking of some fantastic, ripe and silky Naramata Cabernet Franc. It is good to be back.

Mark is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Group Food and Beverage Consulting.

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Mark Simpson
Mark Simpson


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