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The SAQ does natural wines – part 1

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On April 23, the SAQ came out with its first ever official release of natural wines* (“official” because a few natural wines have made their way onto the monopoly’s shelves in the past, a recent example being the Jean-Michel Stephan Côte-Rôtie that the Mo’ Wine Group swooned over in July). Friends and I had planned to taste through the lineup soon after the release but, for various reasons, the event was postponed until last Friday.

Due to the postponement, most of the wines are – like my free time – now in short supply, so it hardly seems worthwhile to give them the full Brett Happens treatment. Yet the release is a milestone of sorts for the SAQ and for local lovers of natural wines, one that shouldn’t go unremarked. What’s more, the tasting left me with a few thoughts about the operation and the future of such wines at the SAQ. My solution is a set of quick notes followed by a comment or two.

Of the eight wines in the release, two – a Chardonnay and a Syrah made by Gérard Bertrand – were either new vintages or restockings of unmemorable wines that the SAQ started carrying a few months ago. We focused on the other six and on a mystery wine served at the end.

The 100% Gamay, near-Beaujolais Vin de France 2013, Le P’tit Poquelin, Maison B. Perraud ($21.75, 12517998) smells of jujubes and spice with unmistakable meat and soy sauce notes. While the wine is fruity, it’s also very dry, especially on the extremely short, black pepper-scented finish. What structure there is comes from acidity, not tannins. The bottom line? To riff off Gertrude Stein, there’s not much there there. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a red wine with so little presence. Buy again? No.

Another 100% Gamay, this time from 50-year-old vines in the Loire valley, the Touraine 2013, Première Vendange, Henry Marionnet ($24.20, 12517875) has a strikingly lactic nose that, when combined with the fruit, has you thinking of raspberry-strawberry yogurt. In the mouth, it’s richer, deeper, plusher-tannined and more minerally than the P’tit Poquelin, and the juicy finish has a lingering astringency. On its own terms, enjoyable enough – though, when you can get excellent Morgons from Brun for the same price and from Foillard for $3 more, the QPR seems way off. Buy again? No.

If you score a bottle of the 100% Cabernet Franc Chinon 2012, Cuvée Beaumont, Épaulé Jeté, Domaine Breton ($22.70, 12517921), be sure to carafe it before serving because on opening the wine has little to say. After breathing for an hour, it suddenly blossoms. The nose gains notes of red fruit, cured meat, forest floor, green sap, sawed wood and spice. The austere, ungiving palate turns rich and expressive: the texture supple, the fruit bone dry but juicy and pure, the acidity singing, the tannins caressing, the finish long and clean. In short, a beaut. Buy again? Definitely.

*What is a natural wine? According to the Association des vins naturels, the basic principles of natural winemaking are organic or biodynamic farming (not necessarily certified), manual harvesting, fermentation with native yeasts and the avoidance of harsh physical procedures (reverse osmosis, cross-flow filtration, flash pasteurization, thermovinification, etc.) and of additives, including sugar, with an exception being made for small amounts of sulphur dioxide added as a stabilizer at bottling. As a definition, that works for me, though I’d add that many natural winemakers say that their wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar, that their goal is to add nothing and take nothing away, which leads them to adopt a non-interventionist approach in the cellar and to largely or completely avoid filtering and fining.

The upsides of natural wines include their individuality and a juicy vibrancy that, in the best examples, seems very close to the fruit and terroir. Many also have a rustic appeal – a sense of not taking themselves too seriously – that their more polished and manipulated counterparts lack. Downsides include greater bottle-to-bottle variability, the ever-present possibility of reductive notes on opening, the need to store the bottles at cool temperatures (ideally 14ºC/57ºF or less) and, for some drinkers and some wines, their cloudy appearance and funky bouquets.

SAQ natural wines tasting: post 1 of 3.

Written by carswell

May 25, 2015 at 14:15

One Response

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  1. Hi carswell, As discussed with you (!) over a delightful bottle of Poquelin … you must have had some bad bottles your first 2 tastings.

    P’tit Poquelin is a wonderful little wine — fresh, crisp, with lovely light cherries & strawberry notes, nice acidity. Not the most structured wine in the world, but it’s got everything I look for in a well-priced, lighter vin naturel … and once open for a while, accompanied by cheese, the finish elongates a little and Poquelin offers a whole new dimension.

    For me this was my “under $25 find of the year/ house wine”.

    Hugh McGuire

    August 17, 2015 at 16:07

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