Wednesday, December 19, 2007

To the south of France!

This will be my last post of 2007. It's been a few days, I've been extremely busy with finals. Really starting to feel burned out and just wasted. I definitely need a change of scenery.

I will leave Toronto on Dec 21, for Nice, France. I'm spending just under 2 weeks there. Yes, just the Cote d'Azur area, not Paris. A lot of friends have asked me why I'm not spending any time in Paris. I can't answer that - I just want to spend my holidays in the south.

This will be a solo adventure. Never done that before, a true solo trip, so I'm very excited. The purpose of this trip is to just completely immerse myself in French culture. I want to eat a lot of good food and drink litres and litres of wine. I'm aiming for 1.5 bottles a day - that's not too bad is it?

One thing I definitely won't do is all the touristy stuff when I'm there. I want to blend in, although it might be hard for a Chinese guy in Europe. I want to really explore the city, not just all the famous areas, but all the little streets and shops. My dream is to find, first, a cigar shop, then second, a wine shop, and third, a quiet little bistro to relax in.

I'm not sure about whether I'll be able to have internet access. I suppose I could use my cousin's or find an internet cafe, but I probably won't go into a lot of trouble to track one down. I'll be spending too much time finding places to eat! I'll take lots of pictures, and hopefully some of them will include myself in them!

This trip is definitely going to be an incredible experience. It's going to give me a completely different perspective on French culture, something that I've always been enamoured with but unable to see in person. So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone, and in 2 days, I'm off on my adventure!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A gentleman

This topic will seem a bit deviant, but it'll connect back to wine. I promise. I'm an economics major, making obscure connections is what we do.

Lately, I've rewatched two movies, 'The Last Emperor' and 'Troy'. What do they have in common? Well, they're both historical pictures, and they both feature Peter O'Toole. Let's examine each one seperately and combine our findings.

The Last Emperor. This movie was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1987, starring John Lone, Joan Chen, and Peter O'Toole. It won 9 Oscars, the most important being Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Music. It detailed the crowning of Aisin Gioro Puyi, the last Qing Dynasty emperor of imperial China. I watched it when I was young, several years ago, but I'm understanding it on a completely different level now. The performance that struck me the most was that by O'Toole, who played Reginald Johnston, the Emperor's tutor.

Johnston was Scottish. In the film, it shows him as someone who is deeply distrustful of the imperial system, yet somehow empathizes with Puyi. And the film casts Puyi in a very sympathetic manner, from his crowning to when he became little more than a running dog for the Japanese to when he was tried by the Communists as a war-criminal. O'Toole's performance was stunning. Quietly powerful and subtle, his eyes and facial expressions say it all. One of my favourite lines is when he says, "It's a matter of words, perhaps, but words are important. If you cannot say what you mean, then you will never mean what you say. And a gentleman should always mean what he says." To which Puyi asks him, "Are you a gentleman?" O'Toole answers, "I would like to be a gentleman, your Majesty. I try to be." A sublime performance, which definitely is the brightest part about this movie. If you're doing a biopic about Chinese history, don't you think the least you could do is find decent Chinese actors and do the whole film in Mandarin with subtitles? Instead of finding these Americanized Chinese people who butcher lines in their fake Asian accents? Come on!

Troy was also a film that O'Toole stars in. He plays King Priam, king of Troy. Again, he gives a muted, subtle, performance. He doesn't need to do much - his presence overwhelms anyone who's in the scene with him. His mannerisms are majestic, regal. And when he begs Achilles for the body of his son, there's heartbreak in his voice, for sure, but also this steely pride, one of honour and respect.

So what does this have to do with wine? A lot. Peter O'Toole, as an actor, displays what every great wine should show. Not something overtly overpowering or obvious, but something nuanced and subtle. Thats the word for today - subtle. Great wines demand your respect. They don't whore themselves at you. So what if you can taste the distinct fruit flavours, the oak, and describe in great detail how it finishes. What's important is that the wine has an identity.

In both films, O'Toole plays vastly different characters. But his identity as a person comes through in each performance. Can a wine have a distinct identity? Absolutely. The mark of a great wine, to me, is how it reveals itself, little by little. How it has the ability to transport you, how it goes beyond being a drink. When you drink, say a Rhone, can you picture yourself sitting in a cafe, in the South of France, drenched in sun? Does drinking a great Bordeaux make you picture what it'd be like drinking in a dark, musty chai surrounded by barrels? Recall what Proust said - that with a single bite of a madeleine, his entire childhood came flooding back. Wine may not trigger any childhood memories for me, but great wine has the ability to transport me to somewhere else. Romantic, isn't it?

I know I'm beginning to ramble. I understand if this doesn't make sense, because I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts into words at the moment. But please, know that there's more to wine than being able to distinguish all the smells and flavours. Sure, it'll seem impressive if you announce that you can smell cherry, cassis, and the nuttiness of an edam cheese. But what do I keep saying? Wine is an experience, and when you come across that special bottle, it is truly spiritual.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

To Gary

I woke up this morning to find an interesting, albeit unexpected comment on my last post. It was from the subject of my last post, I hope. And it made me think.

I was very rude in last night's post. Studying until past 4.........well, I'm not making excuses. I fully stand behind and defend my position in everything I've writen. But nonetheless, this was not a very good way to start a blog! I apologize for anything offensive I wrote about Gary. Having never met the guy, it's terrible to be bashing him, but I do feel very strongly about the subject. So I apologize.

Having said that, I still think he's a tacky person. The whole rating game is overdone and people need to start being more creative. Let's leave all that nonsense to people with no imagination like Parker and Johnson and Robinson. There's no joy for wine in watching someone gargle it and spit it out like Listerine. And saying shit like, "Let's take a sniffy sniff!"

Oh, and come on, no one posts such a nice comment when they read a post describing them as a "douche and a "schmuck". Come on now, be real.

Is this guy for real?

I'd like to clarify one thing first. The wine I wrote about yesterday, the Domaine Le Galantin Bandol - for some of you that are unsure, I didn't enjoy it. All I'm saying is that I was fascinated by the flavours and aromas that it was giving off. I had no idea that wine could smell like a horse stable. I guess if you like that kind of smell, then go get a bottle and try it. It's just too funky for me to really enjoy. I've been trying to figure out what could cause this taste - and to me, it seems that the winemaker is either being lazy or using inferior equipment. Short of growing the grapes in horseshit, I don't what else could produce a wine like this.

Anyways, on to what I was planning to talk about today. I came across this site, called Wine Library TV. It's hosted by this guy called Gary Vaynerchuk. He posts videos on his site, and basically tastes wines and gives "ratings". The episode I watched was about the Le Galantin, so I was interested. Apparently, this guy is pretty famous and he's been on TV. People like his enthusiasm.

Normally, I'll be glued to the screen if anything wine-related comes up. But I watched 2 min into his 16 min episode and I closed the browser. I couldn't watch or listen to him anymore. He's the biggest douche I've ever seen. EVER. I mean, everything from his tasting routine to his mannerisms pisses me off.

An example - he pours out the first glass. Just pours it out. I guess he wants to coat the wine glass with the wine, to remove any extraneous tastes. But even for a clean glass? And he immediately discounts a score some other "critic" gave this wine. It's like he's pulling numbers out of his ass, he gave it a 92. There's no basis to how he awards points, I guess he thinks that just arbitrarily assigning a number value to a wine will give him credibility among his viewers.

My job this summer involved a lot of work in this field. Where you have to give a numerical value to something that is judged subjectively. And how my company did it was very very specific. We'd break down major sections into many subsections, grading each according to a very specific rubric. We'd then produce a final score. It was all very scientific.

The only person in wine who can give out consistent scores is Robert Parker Jr. And even he has a scoring system that breaks down every component. For example, he rates things such as colour, smell, finish, etc. and then adds them up for a score out of 100. Not like this wanker who just says, "No, this wine tastes like a 92 to me." And by the way, Parker's scores don't mean much to the average wine drinker - but that's another post.

I can't believe how pompous this guy is. Unbelievable. I mean - he says shit like, "Let's take a sniffy-sniff." People who talk like that deserve to be hung up from a pole.

Yes, so I had to get that off my chest. I hope this is going to be the only post where I'm being so rude, but just watch one of his episodes if you don't believe me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A farm wine


Wow, what a rush. I finished my cost benefit analysis exam last night at 6, then hurried back to Toronto to attend to a bank issue, then hurried right back to Waterloo early Friday. I should say today, but its 4 am Saturday already.

Anyways, on the way back, I stopped by the LCBO at Waterloo, where I found..........a Flat Rock Cellars Gravity pinot noir!! This is their top of the line pinot noir, which I've been waiting for, for quite some time now. It cost $29.95, and I hope it's worth every penny. I also bought a bottle of 2004 Le Galantin Bandol. I have a bottle in my cellar already, but just want to try it. It's unfortunate that LCBO carries very little of Bandol wines, which is why I picked this bottle up immediately, a couple of months ago.

Upon opening the Le Galantin Bandol, I had this strange feeling about how it smelled. And then I realized - it smelled like a barnyard! I'm not kidding, it smells like a farm, a mixture of hay and dung. It smells like shit, quite literally. But not in a disgusting way, I'm enjoying this bottle. Yes, I'm finishing the entire bottle for my own good, because I have another exam coming up soon. It has bright fruit notes, of cherry and candied apple but this barnyard smell is quite dominating. This is the first time I've noticed this in any wine I've tasted, which is quite interesting. Also, on the tongue, there's this slight feeling that the wine is still carbonated - like when you try making wine at home and you havn't fully removed the yeasts. Very very interesting experience.

I don't know if this is a result of lazy winemaking or a natural effect of the mourvedre grape. I asked my roommate to take a sniff and my thoughts on the barnyard effect was confirmed. I enjoy this wine though, really interesting to taste this and remember it. By the way, it's quite strong, at 14.5% alcohol. Price went down a bit. I bought a bottle at $21.95 several months ago, and now, it's at $18.50.

LCBO sometimes pisses me off. I bought a bottle of Chateau L'Arrosee, a St.-Emilion Grand Cru Classe at $65 a bottle one year ago, just before Christmas. The same vintage, a 2003, sells for $61.95. Not a big difference but still, what the hell?

Anyways, it's late and I need to finish my wine and get to bed. A big weekend ahead of me, lots of work and studying to do! If you're interested in tasting what a dung-smelling wine tastes like, get the Le Galantin! You might not like it, but it's interesting for sure!!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Niagara






Ok, it's time to start writing about interesting stuff! This year in early October, for my dear roommate's 21st birthday, about 15 of us went up to Niagara Falls. The plan was to go up to do some shopping, grab a nice dinner, and then hit the casino. Well, that was the original plan.

I started asking around if anyone wanted to visit the local wineries with me. My last tour of the wineries was on July 1, and I was eagar to visit some of the estates again. I managed to drum up some interest, among some of my more viticulture-inclined friends. But due to some external reasons, the majority of the group decided to go to Buffalo. My wine group was down to myself and two buddies. So, we set off relatively early, considering my group of friends, on a rather downcast day. Made it into wine country in record time, where we proceeded to enjoy what each winery had to offer.

Before I go onto the specific wineries we visited, I want to talk about the Niagara region. My first couple of bottles that I remember drinking were Niagara. They were Jackson Triggs whites, a sauvignon blanc and a riesling as I recall. At the time, they seemed clean and refreshing, nothing really distinct about them, but more importantly, they didn't taste foul. However, as I began to explore old-world wines, Niagara seemed more and more to me like a region that still had a long way to go. Niagara was an infant industry, pushed up not by the quality of its nectar but rather by aggressive marketing by the LCBO.

That image all changed for me on July 1. I went up with family friends, just to enjoy the day. We ate at the Prince of Wales Hotel, at its restaurant Escabeche. When it was time to order the wine, I knew I wanted a Niagara pinot noir. At that moment, judging by what I was ordering, a pinot noir seemed perfect. The waiter informed me that Escabeche's sommelier recommended one local pinot noir above all others - Lailey Vineyard. For sure, at $70 a bottle the price was jacked up almost 3X but trust me when I say that it was absolutely worth it. By the way, it retails at the estate for $24.95.

This bottle of Lailey Vineyard pinot noir was spectacular. Nice, ripe fruit on the nose, it throws off enormous amounts of earth and gravel. On the palate it had this racy acidity, and this almost salty quality to it. If there is such thing as tasting the earth and the terroir, this is it. I was so blown away by this bottle, my whole perception of Niagara wine changed. Just like that. I ended up buying several bottles of the Lailey, to throw away in my cellar. Hold me to my word, the future of the Niagara Peninsula is in pinot noir.

So this time, I really wanted to go back, not only to Lailey, but several other properties whose wines really intrigued me. And of course, to taste as much pinot noir as I could. Our first stop was in the Thiry Mile Bench appellation, located in Jordan, Ontario. The winery was Flat Rock Cellars, and the moment we drove in, it was like a jolt of energy. We say workers picking the grapes, as the harvest was coming to a close. We went in for a tour, where we saw workers sorting and loading the grapes into the crusher. We also saw the fermenting vats as well as a peek of the barrels. Going into a working winery and actually seeing the process take place is really something else. Not like those other bullshit tours where they take you through a museum and then straight into the wine shop. We did not taste, but I ended up buying a couple bottles of their pinot noir, I wine that I had tasted the night before. I remembered its acidity vividly - it cuts straight into your palate, like a knife, and I would love to see what it can do with some age.

Two of the wineries we visited were decidedly more touristy places. The second winery on our tour was Chateau des Charmes. By now, it was pouring rain. There wasn't a tour, so we went straight to the wine bar, where we met a friendly gentleman named Roger. He was a bit effeminate, but he was also French, so I guess he has an excuse. We tasted the Reserve pinot noir, a cabernet sauvignon as well as a cabernet blend. They were all vegetal, one sided, non-interesting wines. I guess thats the problem when you're operation becomes so big, theres a tradeoff in concentration of your wine for mass-marketability. For some reason, I don't knwo why I wanted to come here. Maybe because the estate looks so impressive. It does, if you've never been, it's modeled after a Bordeaux chateau. I guess if you have the money... Didn't buy anything, and will never come back here again.

Next, we headed for Niagara-On-The-Lake. We had lunch at this family-style place, nice, but the service was terrible. We strolled around for a bit, always nice to walk here. Before I knew if, it was 1:30 and time for our next stop.

Winery #3 was Lailey Vineyard. I've only been here once before, but I am now a huge fan. I love these simple, small properties that don't worry about any of the bullshit, just producing nice, proper wine. Just simply a wine that will change your perception of Niagara reds. I really think its that fantastic. We tasted their cabernet blend and their cabernet sauvignon. They don't list the percentages of each blend, much like the French. The land that the grapes come from are the most important, not the grapes. Lailey's cabernet uses primarily cabernet sauvignon, and they use more cabernet franc than merlot. A Bordeaux-style blend indeed, but with a uniqueness to it that speaks of the Niagara River terroir. I bought 2 bottles each of the 2003 Cabernet and the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. I hate their bottle label design, why can't they stick to the classic design for their pinot noirs?

Winery #4 was just down the road, Inniskillin. This was of course, one of the biggest wineries in Ontario. There's virtually no one that does not know this place, evident of the huge museum they constructed as well as the busloads of tourists. This is the type of thing that ruins the experience for true wine-lovers. I hate tourists. It was so packed inside, couldn't get a spot at the bar because these jackasses were hanging around pretending to know what they're doing. I don't understand why you can't just drink and get out of the way, you're not fooling anyone into thinking you can tell the difference between a riesling and a chardonnay. I tasted the Montague Estate pinot noir, followed by the cabernet/merlot blend, and finally the Founder's Reserve pinot noir. The Founder's Reserve is hand-picked, resulting in its higher price but is sourced from different locations, as opposed to the Montague Estate, which is sourced from a single vineyard. I prefer the Montague; more character. The cabernet/merlot was sadly lacking in any depth. The 3 of us headed to the icewine bar, where we tasted the oak-aged vidal and the vidal sparkling icewine. They cost $7(!) each. Again, icewine just doesn't appeal to me. Apricot, peach, and florals, but nothing else in terms of acidity and terroir. One-dimensional wines for the people that think price is directly related to transcendent wine. But then again, I just don't particularly like icewine. I didn't buy anything from this over-commercialized, mainstream winery. I bought 2 bottles of the Montague Estate pinot noir last time, which is the only wine that I will drink from Inniskillin.

Last stop, winery #5 was Marynissen Estates. Really enjoyed their 2002 Cabernet/Merlot blend. I mean, I REALLY enjoyed it. Has the strength and concentration to last for many many more years, which is why I wanted to pick some up before they were gone. Tasted the cabernet blend as well as the cabernet sauvignon. While the cabernet blend was interesting, the straight cabernet sauvignon was not so appealing. This proves the point that blended is always better than full 100%. The cabernet was complex, had a beautiful hue, and was wonderfully elegant the more and more you aerate. So I bought 2 bottles of the 2002 Cabernet/Merlot and 2 bottles of the 2003 Cabernet. I had bought a cooler with me to store all the wine, and by now, it was absolutely full.

That day, the three of us concluded our winery tour early in the afternoon. It was an..........interesting experience waiting for the rest of our party to get back across the border.

All the wines that I bought that day are still happily resting in my cellar/cupboard. And I can't wait until my next trip up. Definitely I will visit Lailey and Marynissen again, and I will find some new properties to visit. If you have a chance, call some of the smaller wineries for a tour. Chances are, they won't hire some idiot student to take you around. At Lailey, for example, the winemaker shows you the estate. Now THAT would be a learning experience.

So, next time you see a bottle of Niagara wine, don't be so dismissive. I realized how naive I was, and now that I've seen the light, I'm really excited about where this region is going. There are people down there who are true to wine and true to the spirit of wine. As I said earlier, pinot noir will achieve greatness in Niagara, judging from the ones I've tasted. Just leave the Jackson Triggs and Chateau des Charmes alone. I am so prejudiced!!

The pictures on top are taken by my ex-roommate Rocky. He's a very talented photographer, look for his stuff up on Flickr. They were taken around the various wineries we visited. He took my profile picture as well, while we were in the Keg. I was having a gin & tonic to calm down.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The name

I feel like I should explain why I'm calling my blog 'La Cave de Fang'. It means Fang Cellars. Fang is my family name. Cellars...well, that should be obvious.

I made up my mind a long time ago that if I ever built the perfect cellar at home, I would nail a huge plaque on top of the entrance that read 'Les Caves de Fang'. That's what I would name my cellars. I thought of giving it the same title as my art studio, but since about 95% of my wine is French, the only appropriate thing was to give it a French sounding name.

Having a huge problem naming the thing, I asked my good buddy for some advice. I trust her judgement completely - she's one of the most creatively talented people I know and on top of that, she speaks French like a native. She recommended the singular form - La Cave instead of Les Caves because in her words, 'it's where all ur precious memories are stored within 1 secretive cellar'.

Perfect.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bonjour

Hello!

I suppose the first post should be an introduction. My name is David, a 4th-year student at the University of Waterloo, majoring in Economics with a specialization in Finance. I've lived in Toronto most of my life, so for now, that's home.

In terms of wine, we're serviced by the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The LCBO is basically a monopoly controlled by the government of Ontario, and regulates all alcohol purchase and consumption in the province. What implications does it have on wine-drinkers? Well, I guess we're lucky in that we have an enormous selection of wine to choose from and we have access to some of the rarest bottles in the world.

I have to mention that I was born in Shanghai, China. Being a 21 year old Chinese person, no one expects someone like me to enjoy wine. And why is that? One of the purposes of this blog is to share my experiences, to make it known that it's acceptable and quite noble in fact, to learn about and to enjoy wine.

My previous attitude towards wine was that it was for wrinkly old white men, and that I would never grow to like it. To me, they somehow all tasted the same; the only difference I could distinguish was the difference between red and white wine. Namely, they were two different colours. But starting from about 15, my entire disposition towards wine began to change.

I've always had great tolerance for alcohol. I'm not bragging, that's just how my metabolism's always been. No really, I'm serious. From when I was 2, my grandfather used to feed me rice wine off the tip of his chopsticks. I started drinking small amounts of beer and whatever my father was drinking when I was 7. My father's never been much of a connoisseur. I suppose he enjoys alcoholic beverages, but he's never been the type to really examine what he drinks. He just drinks it.

Around 15, when I was just about to graduate junior high, somehow my father stopped drinking beer. To him, wine's always been more of a natural product than beer, with less manipulation. And then he read a lot about how red wine supposedly has health benefits. So our family began to drink wine. And thats how my tiny flame of interest was sparked.

It wasn't until I was 18 that I really began to research into the subject. There wasn't a single bottle of wine that did it, or something significant that happened. I just fell in love with the entire culture involved with wine. It just facinated me, how the grape could be transformed into such a sublime form. Once I entered first year, it really started. I bought books and went to the LCBO with my father to pick a new bottle every week to try.

All my education regarding wine is from books or from actual practical experience. All of it. And from my neighbour Frances. Frances is retired, and is very much into European culture. He keeps a house in Villefranche, a city adjacent to Nice. He's a true oenophile, not only in his book knowledge but his practical knowledge as well. We've had many conversations, not just talking about anything wine-related, but also about cuisine, art, and culture. Talking with Frances is amazing and eye-opening.

So that was how it started. Things just snowballed. Apart from building a wine book library, I've started to build a cellar. I discovered quite early on that my true love was French wine. I began to purchase Bordeaux futures, from the 2005 and 2006 vintages. I've begun to follow specific estates, and in general, just getting my hands on whatever I can afford.

At present, I try to taste around 2-3 bottles a week. It's hard moving back and forth between Toronto and Waterloo every week but I try to have a bottle at home, and at least another bottle while I'm at school. My plan for now is to just try as many new regions, and not only from France. The exciting thing about wine is that there's a limitless amount to explore.

I've discovered that wine has become my passion. I don't think I've ever had anything I've loved and obsessed about so much. So please visit often and I'll try my best to post as much as I can. I don't want this to be like the other million or so wine blogs, where I give out my tasting impressions on the bottles I try. I want to talk about EXPERIENCE. Because wine is an experience, not just hints of ripe fruit amid overtones of oak and spice.