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Rumour confirmed

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For those of us outside the SAQ, trying to understand the machinations, motives and plans of the company’s decision-makers is like being an inmate in Plato’s cave. Sitting with our backs to the entrance and forced to face a wall, we attempt to divine what is happening beyond the cave by studying the shadows the actors cast upon the wall.

For several years now, the shadows have 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 forcing them to pass through an agency) and to stop requiring that all private imports be purchased by the case.

Though rumours to that effect abounded, concrete signs were few. One of the earliest was the announcement that the SAQ intended to double its offer from the current 12,000 or so products to somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000 products in the next few years. How could it quickly and cost-effectively pull that off without massively expanding its store network, sales force and supply chain? Selling private imports online seemed the only answer. That in the neighbourhood of 10,000 to 15,000 products are currently available through the private import channel – exactly the number needed to pull off the trick – lent credence to the hypothesis.

Other signs? The monopoly’s increasing focus on online sales, including its recent introduction of products available only on SAQ.com. The roll-out of the Click, Purchase, Pick Up service. Factoids like the Montreal Distribution Centre’s reportedly setting aside a large area for an unspecified purpose.

In an interview with Bill Zacharkiw in today’s Gazette, Alain Brunet, the SAQ’s president and CEO, finally puts the rumours to rest (emphasis mine):

BZ: Now we are seeing a complete fragmentation of the market. Go to any wine bar or fine restaurant, and the vast majority of wines on the list aren’t even available at the SAQ, only as private imports. I don’t even know most of these wines.

AB: The private import market has really developed over the past five to 10 years. Over 70 per cent of the sales of private import wines are restaurants.

BZ: But that’s mostly due to restrictive policies that allow these wines to be purchased only by the case, which limits the individual consumer access to all this choice.

AB: We know this is an important trend and it’s over a $125-million business. We aren’t trying to slow it down; in fact, we want to accelerate it. What we have lacked is an effective way to distribute all these niche products. Now we have the technology, and within two years our goal is to have all wines available by the bottle on SAQ.com.

Insiders I’ve spoken to say the target launch date is the fall of 2018.

Agents I’ve spoken to don’t appear particularly excited about the concept. Then again, like the rest of us, they’ve been kept in the dark and have little idea of how it might work. That being said, most feel it is unlikely that every product in the private import channel will be available through SAQ.com.

This change and the overall push toward online sales will probably have major implications for the SAQ’s store network. Look for some thoughts on that in a future post.

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Written by carswell

February 25, 2017 at 11:23

Posted in Commentary, News

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The horse he rode in on

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Emilia Rosso 2014, Trebbiolo, La Stoppa ($23.10, 11896501)
A blend of Barbera (60%) and Bonarda (40%) from organically farmed three- to 20-year-old vines. Fermented with indigenous yeasts. Matured five months in stainless steel. Unfiltered and unfined. A small squirt of sulphur dioxide is added at bottling. Reducing sugar: 1.5 g/l. 13% ABV. Quebec agent: oenopole.
Some barnyardy funk on opening but also mulberry, raspberry candies, old wood, earth and hints of game and papier d’Arménie. As is sometimes the case with this cuvée, there’s a bit of spritz that mostly dissipates, especially if the wine is carafed. That aside, it’s medium-bodied and very dry, full of tangy fruit, tart acidity and medium tannins with a nice rasp and an appealing astringency that lingers through the minerally finish. Virtually begs for casual fare – think pizza, sausages, grilled pork – and can handle tomato with aplomb. Just don’t serve it too warm. A return to form after the verging on off-dry 2013, this has some of the rustic appeal of the much missed Gutturnio, which cuvée it replaces. (Buy again? In multiples.)

Preparing this note for posting has my mouth watering, so much did I enjoy the wine. Several friends have also expressed delight with the 2014 (“back to being eminently quaffable” to quote one of them). All of which gives the lie to another local blogger’s claim that (translating here and below) “No one could like this. Undrinkable!”, something said blogger knows is untrue as he goes on to cherry-pick Cellartracker comments in support of his position while ignoring the majority of favourable reviews appearing alongside them. (Not that I place stock in scores, but the Cellartracker average is 89 points for the 2013 and 2014 and 87 points for the 2012. Wine Spectator reportedly rated it 89 points. Hardly undrinkable.)

Maybe the wine’s not to the blogger’s taste. Fine: de gustibus non disputandum est. Maybe he doesn’t “get” natural wines. Maybe he is unaware that wines from this area and nearby parts of Piedmont sometimes have – and are prized for – the funky, fizzy qualities he objects to. Maybe his particular bottle was actually defective, a possibility that doesn’t appear to have occurred to him. Or maybe his declaring not just his bottle but every bottle to be a “foul horse,” his suggesting that the winemaker, agent and SAQ were asleep at the switch, his screaming in all caps that the wine should “be withdrawn at once” point to another agenda.

Notwithstanding such irresponsible reporting, the 2014 Trebbiolo has been selling well and is already in low supply at or long gone from stores like the Laurier and Beaubien Sélections, whose customers tend to be more clued-in than others. If you look, you’ll find bottles here and there on the island in addition to the 60 or so on SAQ.com. And if it’s the kind of wine that pushes your buttons, look you should.

Written by carswell

October 7, 2016 at 15:17

Cause for regret

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Bardolino Classico 2014, Tacchetto, Guerrieri Rizzardi ($19.50, 12132465)
Corvina (80%), Merlot (10%) and Rondinella (10%) from vines averaging five to 42 years old and grown in the dry-farmed Tachetto vineyard. The grapes are picked by machine and hand and destemmed. Fermentation at 25-30°C with selected yeasts lasts 10 to 15 days. Matured three to six months off the lees. Sees only stainless steel until bottling. Filtered. Reducing sugar: 3.8 g/l. 13% ABV. Quebec agent: Valmonti.
Lilting nose of funky cherry, fall leaves and sandalwood spice. In the mouth, it’s a featherweight, a caress of faintly sweet-and-sour fruit, fluid acidity and gossamer tannins that lend an ephemeral astringency to the finish. A light wash of mineral and wood flavours adds interest but not enough to stop you from thinking there’s not much there there. Serve lightly chilled. (Buy again? Probably not but… see below.)

While I didn’t taste them side by side, this 2014 initially seemed paler, sweeter and less alluring than the 2013, which I rather liked (“dry, tart, supple tannins, clean finish, moreish” per my May 2015 note). After Sunday dinner, I transferred the remaining wine into a half bottle (filling it right up), corked the bottle and stuck it in the fridge overnight. And lo, the wine was better the next day – slightly rounder and more vibrant, with the morello cherry to the fore – maybe even better enough to convince me to buy a second bottle.

And yet, as enjoyable as this and similar wines can be, I increasingly find drinking them a cause for regret – regret at what might have been. That point was driven home by a bottle of Ca’ de Noci‘s Sottobosco, a “natural” Lambrusco in everything but name, savoured the evening before I opened the Rizzardi. Though similar in weight and application, the Sottobosco delivered energy, refreshment, personality, engagement, charm and satisfaction that made the Bardolino pale in comparison. Imagine what the Tacchetto could be if the vineyard was farmed organically, if the yields were less than 85 hl/ha, if the grapes were picked only by hand, if native yeasts were used for fermentation, if intervention in the cellar was minimized, if the wine was bottled unfiltered and unsulphured. Unfortunately, at this point, imagine is all we can do.

Written by carswell

November 27, 2015 at 13:27

The SAQ does natural wines – part 3

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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.

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Written by carswell

June 1, 2015 at 15:58

Privateimportize the SAQ!

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Every few months there’s a wave of talk about privatizing the SAQ. Regardless of your feelings on the subject (I see at least as many downs as ups and suspect the idea is dead in the water because the unions won’t stand for it), if it ever happens, it won’t be soon.

In the meantime, here’s a modest proposal that would go some way toward assuaging those who disparage the monopoly’s purportedly pathetic selection: privateimportize the SAQ.

How would it work?

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Written by carswell

June 11, 2013 at 20:04

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The case of the missing Noilly Prat

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Ask people to name the different types of vermouth and most will probably answer red and white. Actually, vermouths are divided into three main styles: Provençal, Savoie and Italian. (In fact, it’s even more complicated than that; see here for details.)

The first of these styles, the Provençal, is generally considered the most complex. And the last remaining representative of the style is Noilly Prat.

Straw-coloured Noilly Prat Original Dry is arguably the quintessential ingredient for a classic dry martini. Many martini recipes specify it by name while leaving the choice of gin up to the mixologist. As the New American Bartender’s Handbook says, “No martini should be made without a splash of this.” What’s more, Noilly Prat Original Dry is a key ingredient in several Provençal dishes, especially fish dishes. T. S. Eliot even named one of his cats after it. The lighter, more delicate Savoie vermouths can be delicious but they lack Noilly Prat’s heft. Italian dry vermouths tend to be sweeter, heavier and less refined. The bottom line: Noilly Prat is both an icon and an essential addition to any self-respecting liquor cabinet.

And it isn’t available in Quebec or Ontario.

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Written by carswell

May 25, 2013 at 12:28

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MWG March 8th tasting (1/5): Four Campanian whites

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While this was technically a Cellier tasting, only two bottles from the March 7th release made it into the wine-up: Mastroberardino’s Falanghina and Umani Ronchi’s Verdicchio.

All four wines in the first flight were made similarly: fermented (for a couple of weeks) and matured (for a few months) in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. If the estate favours organic farming, uses native yeasts and avoids manipulation, fining, filtering and sulphur dioxide in the winery, they certainly don’t trumpet it.

Greco di Tufo 2011, Mastroberardino ($22.10, 00411751)
100% Greco di Tufo from c. 15-year-old vines. 12.5% ABV.
Muted nose of lemon-lime and chalk. Smooth and rainwatery on the palate, with stealth acidity and a bitter undercurrent. Wax and pear flavours linger though the tingly finish. (Buy again? Maybe.)

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio 2011, Mastroberardino ($19.20, 00972877)
100% Coda di Volpe from c. 20-year-old wines. 12.5% ABV.
Straw, pear, hot stones and something floral. Slightly denser than the Greco, drier, more savoury. High in acidity and lean on fruit. Lemon-pithy, minerally finish. (Buy again? Maybe.)

IGT Irpinia 2011, Morabianca, Falanghina, Mastroberardino ($19.75, 11873026)
100% Falanghina from c. six-year-old vines. 13.5% ABV.
Fragrant nose: mostly lemon blossom with some faint candied pineapple and a whiff of what one taster pegged as “freezer ice.” Probably the driest of the four. Underripe stone fruit sprinkled with lemon juice and set on sea shells. Bitter, puckery finish. (Buy again? Maybe.)

Fiano di Avellino 2011, Mastroberardino ($22.10, 00972851)
100% Fiano di Avellino from c. 15-year-old vines. 12.5% ABV.
Lime leaf, green pear, sweet pumpkin, bath salts, hazelnut skins. Somewhat less acidic and bitter than the others but also more saline. Pear and a little honey. Sustained finish. Balanced and refreshing. (Buy again? Definite maybe.)

As a concept, this flight had enormous appeal: four mono-varietals from four different Campanian grape varieties from the same vintage and made in the same way (cleanly in stainless steel, with no interfering oak) by the same producer. In practice, the flight was a study in shadings more than colours. On the plus side, all the wines were technically flawless and quite drinkable. And yet a little more personality wouldn’t have been out of place. It’s not as if they have to be low on character: Feudi di San Gregorio’s Fianos, for example, have character in spades and Mastroberadino’s high-end bottlings may well too. But we don’t have access to those, do we? As it is, these impeccably made but somewhat nondescript whites will work as an aperitif or an accompaniment to simply prepared seafood.

Speaking of Feudi di San Gregorio, has the SAQ dropped their products from its catalogue? If so, it’s a shame. The monopoly’s current Campania selection is small and dominated by one producer (Mastroberardino) and by affordable but relatively insipid bottlings, especially on the white side. With more than 100 indigenous grape varieties and a couple of thousand producers, the region is a potential source of a wealth of authentic wines. Yet we’re limited to a handful of mostly innocuous reds and whites from an even smaller handful of producers. Why?

Written by carswell

March 15, 2013 at 11:04