Friday, August 30, 2013

How Many Wineries Are There in the United Kingdom Now?

Though I’ve visited the UK more than 15 times, including a semester abroad at Oxford during my junior year at university, I still haven’t had a chance to visit any of the British wineries. Such a trip is definitely on my bucket list. Believe it or not, there are now 124 wineries in the UK!

In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to have Joe Towner, who is assisting in promoting the UK wine industry, contact me about a new information source for wine lovers – a guide to UK wine. It is available at the following link and includes maps, statistics, and other fascinating information:

Joe also provided an excellent commentary on the state of the industry, as well as encouraging news on the number of gold medals British wines have won at recent competitions.

Guest Post by Joe Towner on UK Wine Industry

When people think of the great wine regions of the world, usually low down on the list, beyond the most well-known and the new world producers, is the United Kingdom. Even in the UK it’s difficult to find home-grown wine in restaurants and supermarkets, which is a great pity, because although the level of production is relatively low, around 4 million bottles a year, some fantastic quality wines are being made consistently.

This year’s International Wine Challenge awards saw 4 gold medals for English wines, three of which were sparkling, an area the UK does particularly well in with Ancre Hill Estates’ 2008 Sparkling Wine winning a best in the world award from Italian magazine Euposia. It was even deemed fit for royalty when a Chapel Down white wine was chosen to be served at the 2011 Royal Wedding.

With a growing industry and so many great wines to shout about, it seemed there was a need to communicate, in a way that could really grab people’s attention, just how interesting and vibrant the UK wine industry can be. Therefore, I decided the best way to kick off our new Appreciating Wine blog was with an infographic all about UK wine. It takes the form of a map which includes the most significant vineyards, wineries, festivals and shops across the country, as well as some useful statistics and a little bit of history.

The London and South East region is at the centre of the industry with its climate and chalky soil making it ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes. In fact West Sussex based Nyetimber recently announced the launch of the UK’s first single vineyard sparkling wine, in a limited edition run of 2,500 bottles.

Though the industry remains a niche one, mainly due to the difficulty in producing consistent volume year on year, the high quality of English and Welsh wine is not in doubt. The UK is the fifth largest consumer of wine in the world, but unfortunately only 1% of that is currently home-grown. Perhaps with a little bit more excitement, recognition and cultivation, that number will start to grow.

For additional information, please contact Joe at

Monday, August 5, 2013

Wines of Quebec and the Exquisite Vandal Cliché Grape

This past week I attended a French Immersion class in Quebec City, Canada and stayed with a local family to insure I was “immersed” in the French language. It was a very pleasant experience, and I had the opportunity to visit several wineries and taste wines made from the unique Vandal Cliché grape, which was developed at Laval University in Quebec.

Quick Facts on Canadian and Quebec Wine

There are over 600 wineries in Canada, with the majority clustered in the Niagara Peninsula area of Ontario and the sunny lake region of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. However, Quebec has grown its wine industry over the past 20 years and now can boast over 60 wineries, with 15 of them surrounding the historic Quebec City settled in 1608.

As the climate is cold, they primarily grow French-American hybrids. Examples of the white wines include Vidal Blanc – primarily used for ice wine (vin de glace), Syval Blanc, and the exquisite Vandal Cliché grape that is similar to Riesling with a floral nose, and grapefruit and honeysuckle on the palate with a refreshing acidity. I felt in love with this grape while I was visiting.

Red wines are primarily made from Marchel Foch, St Croix, Baco Noir and Frontenac. The advantage of these types of varietals is they can withstand the cold snowy winters and the grapevines do not need to be buried as is required with vitus vinifera vines, e.g. chardonnay, merlot, etc.

Brief History of the Walled City of Quebec and the Isle of Bacchus

The French explorer, Jacques Cartier, first came to the territory of Quebec in 1535. He sailed up the St. Laurent River until he reached the area where the river narrows and is filled with islands. The term “Quebec” is the Indian name describing, “where the river narrows.”

While exploring he found many native grapevines on one of the large islands and name it “Isle de Bacchus.” Later the name was changed to “Isle d’ Orleans.” Cartier attempted to establish a colony, but the cold winters and unfriendly natives scared everyone away. It was’t until 1608 that Samuel de Champlain returned to the area and began to build Quebec City on a high rocky point overlooking the river, which was easy to defend.

Over the years they built a wall around the city, and today it is the only walled city in North America. In 1763 France ceded Quebec to the British at the end of the Seven Year’s War, but in 1840 Quebec regained it’s independence when the Province of Canada was formed. Today it still retains much of its French roots, including the French language and cultural similarities.

Wine Tasting Near Quebec City

While visiting, I had the opportunity to taste the wines of four different wineries. The first 2 were on the Isle d’Orleans, a15 minute drive from Quebec City, and filled with charming farms selling fresh berries, duck foie gras, cider, crème de cassis, and local vegetables. The other 2 were located closer to Montreal, and I tasted the wines in the Farmer’s Market and a restaurant.

Vignoble Isle de Bacchus – a small adorable winery with a very friendly tasting room and outdoor restaurant overlooking the vineyards and river. They produce around 50,000 bottles per year (around 4,000 cases), and use 16 different types of hybrids in their winemaking.

I arrived just in time to join a $3 guided tasting (in English) of their 7 major wines. Highlights were both of the dry white wines made from the Vandal Cliché grape. The first – the 1535 Isle de Bacchus Dry White 2012 – is fermented in stainless and is a blend of 3 other grapes, including Vidal. It is fresh, fruity with cleansing acidity. Lovely! The second was 100% Vandal Cliché but aged for 6 months in oak – the 1535 Isle de Bacchus Reserve Blanc 2012. The result was more complex wine with a distinct toasty character added to the citron notes. I was also able to order a glass of this at the Lapin Saute Restaurant in Quebec City later in the week.

The 2012 Rose of St. Pierre was interesting blend of St. Croix (red grape) and Vidal (white). It had a dusty raspberry nose that carried through on the palate with a crisp acidity. The remainder of the reds was rather sharp on the palate with strong acid and tannins, but I fell in love with their Isle de Bacchus Vidal Blanc 2011 Ice Wine, which had a lovely floral nose, kiwi on the palate, and a very long finish.

Vignoble Sainte-Petronille – is a larger winery located only about 5 minutes away from the Isle d’ Bacchus winery. This one also has an outdoor patio where you can buy small snacks and a glass of wine while viewing the vineyards, river, and a waterfall in the distance (Chute de Montmorency). It is a lovely setting. The tasting room reps told me they now have 6 hectares with 17,000 vines, but didn’t have case production information.

Here I tasted 8 wines for the very reasonable tasting fee of $3. Again my favorites were the whites made with Vandal Cliché, with the 2011 Voile de la Marine (75% Vandal Cliché) and the 2011 Reserve de Bout de Isle (100% Vandal Cliché); enchanting me with the floral nose and citrus palate. The rose here was bitter and sharp, and the reds followed suite. The 2011 Vandal White Ice Wine, made with Vandal Cliché and Vidal, was stunning, and I immediately bought a bottle.

One very clever bit of wine marketing innovation that I discovered here and at the previous winery was attaching a small bottle of crème de cassis to their white wine bottles and selling it as a “kir.” In France, a kir is quite popular, and is simply white wine with the addition of cassis liquor. It creates a charming, pink, slightly sweet drink that is excellent on a hot day. Since there are so many black currant bushes that grow wild here and many farms that make crème de cassis, this marriage is obvious, but also very clever from a marketing perspective. Perhaps we should consider attaching a small bottle of different flavors to our wine bottles in the US in order to create more consumer interest – just as the vodka companies have added flavor to their vodkas.

Domaine de Lavoie – I was able to taste the wines of this domaine in the Farmer’s Market in downtown Quebec City on the port. It is open from 9am to 5pm every day in the summer and is a delight to attend with all of its local products. This winery is located closer to Montreal, and also produces cider. I tasted 6 wines with no tasting fee, and found the quality to be at varying levels. There was no Vandal Cliché here, but the 2012 Seyval I tasted was lovely, and the 2011 Vidal Ice Wine was exquisite. No one can do Vidal Ice Wine as well as Canada!

Riviere Du Chene – I only tasted one wine, the 2012 Le Rose Gabrielle, from this winery but it was a very positive experience, because it was the best Quebec rose I had. The wine was featured by the owner of La Pizzaoi Restaurant, who told me that he had personally selected it because he was impressed with the quality. They also offer a red and white wine from the winery. The rose was fruity and refreshing with a raspberry nose and more complex berry on the palate with some citrone. Very refreshing.

Altogether I would say that the Quebec wine industry has found a new star in the Vandal Cliché grape and they should consider publicizing it more. Also their Vidal Blanc ice wines are wonderful, but most of the world already knows that Canada produces lovely vin de glaces.

Restaurants and Wine in Quebec City

In general, the local specialties of the area include: foie gras, caribou stew, Quebec venison pie, and salmon with maple syrup. In addition there are some interesting local cheeses, and many dishes with fresh berries.

Quebec City and the surrounding area have more than 450 restaurants, but the population is only 600,000. There are many tourists, but I still wondered how so many restaurants are able to stay in business. Despite all of these restaurants, it was rather hit and miss in terms of quality. The first two days we found restaurants that had both poor food and service, so we consulted Trip Advisor and found their recommendations to be “spot on” in most cases. In the end, our favorite restaurants were:

#1 Le Saint-Amour – expensive, but if you go here for lunch it is only around $25 for 3 courses. Beautiful French food with a Quebec flair and perfect, friendly service. A recommendation from our local family as the best place to eat in town.

#2 La Pizzaoi – the most amazing and creative thin crust pizzas I’ve ever eaten. A cute little restaurant with indoor and outdoor tables. Not fancy, but excellent with a very friendly owner who explained how he developed his unique recipe.

#3 Graffiti – outside the old city on the Rue Cartier, a famous shopping street with many charming restaurants. Excellent food and wine list. Nice décor with outdoor seating.

#4 – Lapin Saute – probably the prettiest restaurant in Quebec City, and definitely a tourist trap, but still very charming with tiny tables in a garden. Looks like a fairytale setting. I ordered the rabbit, duck, and foie gras plate, which was delicious.

#5 – La Gallette – a Lebanese take-out place hidden amongst the flashy Grand Allee bars and restaurants. It looks like a dive from the outside but for $7.75 you can have an incredible “Lebanese burrito” with fresh ingredients and incredible spices that will fill you up for most of the day. Delicious and messy!

#6 Bistro Bissou – the friendliest service we found and decent food for a decent price. On Rue St. Joseph outside of the old city. Consider the daily lunch special for only $11.50.

#7 Les Ancêtres – on the Isle d’Orleans has one of the best sunset views around and overlooks the St. Laurent river. Though the service is iffy, the food is beautifully presented with local herbs and edible flowers.

In general, Quebec City restaurants do a good job at offering at least one local wine on their wine lists. This made me happy, because one of my pet peeves is restaurants that do not feature local wines. Indeed at Lapin Saute, when they did not have the local rose they advertised on the menu, they opened a bottle of Vandal Cliché and poured me a glass for a very decent price. Now that is good service, and very supportive of the local wine industry.

I should mention the very high tax rate of 15% that shocked me when I received my first few bills. This coupled with an expected tip rate of 15% on top of the tax rate, can make your meal much more expensive that it first appears on the menu. Food and wine prices, in general, are similar to the US, but the additional tax rate makes it seem much higher.

Local Sites & Activities

There is plenty to do around Quebec City. Some of the highlights include just wandering the streets of both the high and low part of town to see the historic architecture, old walls, winding streets, and colorful shops and restaurants. Horse drawn carriages give it an air of by-gone days, and you feel as if you are in a European city. There are several museums, and this summer is the last time the Cirque du Soleil will do its free shows. We had the opportunity to see one, and it was fabulous.

Close by are the battlegrounds in the Plains of Abraham park with the old British citadelle and the Joan of Arc garden. Fun sections of town outside the old city include the Grand Allee, Rue Cartier, and the Rue Joseph districts. We drove the 15 minutes to see the famous waterfall called the Chutes de Montmorency, which was worthwhile, and a great workout climbing up and down the steps.

We also spend a whole day exploring the Isle of Orleans, which I think was one of my favorite places with all of its charming farms with old barns painted white and red. There are many places to stop and taste wine, cider, crème de cassis, local jams, fruits, and foie gras. A truly enchanted island.