Brett happens

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The SAQ does natural wines – part 3

with 8 comments

The mystery wine is brought out in a decanter. The bouquet wafts around the table even as the glasses are poured. And what a lovely bouquet it is, a mix of crushed blackberry and blackberry jam with hints of pumice dust, smoke and game and a floral note pitched somewhere between violet and rose. In the mouth, the wine is fresh and pure, medium-bodied and supple, filled with sun-ripe yet ethereal fruit, dusty minerals and juicy acidity, framed by springy tannins that persist through a long, savoury finish. What can it be?

The wine’s solar quality has us immediately eliminating northern climes. After dallying with southern France and considering the flavour profile, we turn our attention to Italy. The fine structure and excellent balance are not unlike those of a Nebbiolo, yet the taste isn’t Baroloesque and that touch of jamminess seems incongruous. The host demands a guess. A newfangled Piedmont blend from a hot vintage?

The answer – and some thoughts about the SAQ’s first ever natural wine operation – are after the jump.

IGT Sicilia 2011, Siccagno, Arianna Occhipinti ($45.00, 12296671)
Everybody loved the wine though some grumbled about the price until it was pointed out that we had here what is arguably the ultimate expression of Nero d’Avola and unarguably one of Sicily’s top wines, not to mention one that leads blind tasters to think of a fine bottle from Piedmont. Buy again? Yes, with only a little grumbling about the price.

Final thoughts on the SAQ’s first ever natural wines release?

Well, it’s about time.

The buzz over natural wines has been crescendoing for years and has even reached the point where prominent members of the wine establishment are feeling threatened, are railing against the concept (looking at you, Mr. Parker). Closer to home, natural wines are big in Quebec. They have long featured prominently on wine lists in high-profile restaurants. There are local agencies that specialize in nothing but. In fact, Quebec is a hotbed of naturalism. In the spring of 2010, Montreal was declared North America’s top city for natural wines by no less than Joe Dressner. That it has taken the SAQ so long to catch on does not inspire confidence in its claimed agility and responsiveness, in its being branché au goût des clients as their promotional material now puts it.

Nor do the wines selected for the release inspire confidence in the monopoly’s self-styled product experts. Three nos, a maybe, a sure and only one definitely is a poor showing by any standard. More disturbingly for an operation designed to introduce SAQ customers to the category, a natural wine virgin who tasted through the lineup, especially one who didn’t carafe the wines an hour or two in advance, would not understand what the fuss over natural wines was about. Only the Breton Chinon hints at why so many people find natural wines so exciting.

(And before anyone trots out the “there are no great wines, only great bottles” argument, dismisses our findings with an “it’s only one sample,” let me note that I’ve tasted two of the five less-than-definitely wines twice and one three times with consistent impressions. And I’m not the only one.)

Still, better this than nothing.

To its credit, the monopoly is at last beginning to acknowledge a growing niche market: individuals interested in natural wines but unable or unwilling to buy case lots, especially of wines they haven’t tried. The operation brings natural wines to a larger public, one more and more interested in organic farming, in pesticide-free eating and drinking and in artisanal anything.

And the positive reception the wines received is sure to encourage the SAQ to repeat and expand on the operation. This bodes well for the future. In fact, if the increasingly hard-to-ignore rumours are true, the operation may be part of the SAQ’s testing the waters for what would be one of the most revolutionary shifts in its history: selling private imports by the bottle through

Storage conditions will continue to be an issue, however. On a cool spring evening a few years ago, I rendezvoused with Arianna Occhipinti at a major SAQ store before taking her to the tasting room to lead a MWG tasting. Her first comment after the greetings were over? “Man, it is hot in here.” She was right. It was arguably too warm for regular wines, let alone low-sulphur natural ones, which need to be kept at cool temperatures to avoid problems like refermentation. Pretending this issue doesn’t exist, like the SAQ is currently doing, won’t make it go away.

SAQ natural wines tasting: post 3 of 3.

Written by carswell

June 1, 2015 at 15:58

8 Responses

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  1. I would add that they have done natural wines – and themselves – a but of a disservice with this release by not also highlighting the natural/quasi-natural wines that the SAQ already carries (Lapierre, Guy Breton, COS, etc etc).


    June 1, 2015 at 16:14

    • True though for the Lapierres and quite possibly most of the others, the versions found at the SAQ are special bottlings that have been filtered and sulphured as per the monopoly’s requirements. For the genuinely natural bottlings, you still have to go through the private import channel. See flight 3 of the following tasting, which predates your MWG arrival:


      June 1, 2015 at 18:51

  2. “And the positive reception the wines received is sure to encourage the SAQ to repeat and expand on the operation. This bodes well for the future. In fact, if the increasingly hard-to-ignore rumours are true, the operation may be part of the SAQ’s testing the waters for what would be one of the most revolutionary shifts in its history: selling private imports by the bottle through”

    We will already have a new natural arrival in October, but the private imports through would be fantastic.

    Julien Marchand

    June 1, 2015 at 16:19

    • Had heard only rumours of an October release, Julien, so it’s good to know it’s going to happen. Though I’ve not been able to confirm that will be selling private imports, I have come across several indications that such a development is in the pipeline and none that it isn’t. Will wait until the situation becomes a little clearer before drafting a post on the details of my research.


      June 1, 2015 at 19:05

  3. This Siccagno is incredible. Unlike any Nero d’Avola I had (not that I had tons of it though). Subttle, supple, long, mineral yet full of crushed black fruits. I grumbled and bought one bottle. I checked the US price: the same in US$. I’m grumbling less now. It was also rated #1 Nero D’Avola by Asimov of the NYTimes:


    June 3, 2015 at 14:21

    • Well, I’ve tasted quite a few Nero d’Avolas in my day and have encountered nothing like it (COS comes closest).

      Another thing to bear in mind when comparing SAQ and US prices is that the SAQ price always includes sales tax (currently about 14% in Quebec) while the US prices almost never do (currently a bit under 9% in NYC if I’m not mistaken). Add on that extra 9% and the difference is often in the SAQ’s favour, especially for bottles over, say, $30.


      June 3, 2015 at 15:19

    • I’ve had a very good experiences with the wines from Gulfi. There was one at the SAQ, but they also do single-vineyard bottlings (available through private import) at Bambara Selections which were also quite spectacular. The price tag comes along with it too, unfortunately.

      Julien Marchand

      June 4, 2015 at 13:34

  4. […] For several years now, the shadows have increasingly seemed to indicate that the SAQ was preparing to make a major shift in its sales model: to begin selling private imports directly to consumers (instead of requiring them to pass through an agency) and to stop requiring that all private import purchases be by the case. […]

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