Last week Raspipav held a wine tasting salon at the Marche Bonsecours. The last time I was in the basement of that building was for Made With Love, an annual very hip cocktail competition. Normally the wine salons happen on the upstairs level of the Marché and have a much more…um…snooty atmosphere. But downstairs, just like at the cocktail comp, it was all party, with Montreal’s wine importation companies setting up kiosques to sample their newest and best offerings.
What’s private import wine? you ask.
Private import wines are ones you can’t get at the SAQ. It makes up most of the wine lists you find at restaurants known for wine: Les Trois Petits Bouchons, Pullman, Toqué!, and tons more, from neighbourhood bistros to the Portuguese place down the street, to Le Club Chasse et Peche, (whose employees I actually met at the salon—my version of a celebrity spotting). The SAQ brings in the wine as they’re in charge of every drop of alcohol that comes into this province. But restaurants can fill out the paperwork to bring in specific bottles from small-scale wineries that aren’t big enough to distribute to the SAQ, extremely special bottles from lesser known wine-producing countries (Croatia, Lebanon), or unique varietals or bottles that the SAQ just hasn’t requested (we definitely need more Greek Assyrtiki). They can only house so much wine in their warehouses and stores, after all, and it’s work and money to bring in new products.
But these special wines that you can’t buy at the SAQ (though the SAQ imports them, the private import companies pick them up and distribute them) are much more expensive than the winery price tag since restaurants generally mark up alcohol by more than you want to know. Ever wonder how the bar down the road with the worst burger in the world stays open? Or that awful bistro near Place des Arts? Booze.
A $50 bottle at a restaurant is a good bargain on your average night out. But when was the last time you bought a $50 bottle of wine from the liquor store? (If you answered yes, please invite me to dinner. We will be friends.) So what do you do? You find a wine importation agency and order cases of wine directly through them. They’re the ones bringing in these interesting bottles and selling them to the restaurants. They travel and meet the producers. They learn about soil and good years. They throw parties and special wine producer dinners to introduce new products. And they set up shop at wine salons like this one to unveil their wares. Because if customers (restaurants or individuals) are going to invest in 6 or 12 bottles of a given wine (which is how they sell the wine—not by the bottle), then they like to know what they’re getting, beyond the vague but glowing descriptions of wines with words like “spatious,” “peppery,” and “haunting.” What do those even mean when it comes to Valpolicella?
Wine importation agents are middle men (and women). They’re wine-lovers. And they’re fun. Every wine import agency has a specialty or an atmosphere or a certain type of clientele. Some specialize in Italian reds. Others in natural French wines. Oenopole, for example, does good business in Greek wines, and I’ve yet to have a low-quality sample of anything poured by Theo Diamantis. Rézin has some of the coolest, most passionate sommeliers in town, balancing the love of imbibing with the love of youthful, fun wines—unusual flavours such as Austrian Rieslings, unusual wine production methods like cow horn biodynamics, and interesting wine makers.
But the most interesting winemaker I met at the salon was brought in by Importations Syl-Vins. Klur Winery is a biodynamic winery in Alsace, and the winemaker (not a representative, but the winemaker himself) was informative and passionate about the quality of his wine, but in a way that he wasn’t trying to convince you it was good—he knew it was good, and soon you would too. Yes Klur does Reislings and Gewurtztraminers (traditional Alsatian varietals), but their pinot noir was the most special. It was somewhere between a light French burgundy and a mouth-full-of-sugar, all grown up California version. My notes on it:
Klur 2012 Pinot Noir
Spice at the end.
Full but not heavy, without thick tannins.
Klur’s whole line was quality. There was no funk to the Reisling, no excess sugar to the Gewurtz or Pinot Blanc. Everything was refined, not skinny; round, not fat. He was also a lovely older gentlemen who talked about the different soil and being the first biodynamic winery in Alsace. Gentil Hugel this was not. The Pinot Noir is a $38 bottle from Syl-Vins, but if you find it at a restaurant it will cost at least $80 and more likely around $100 or so. Suddenly $38 is a deal.
The next wine highlight of the salon was the Hatzidakis Satorini 2012 from Oenopole. This one is actually also available at the SAQ, but you’ll want to check the availability as it was not at my local store when I was looking for a good Greek white to go with a whole roasted lamb on a spit at Greek Easter a few weeks ago. It’s a bargain at $23 a bottle. If you just want one bottle, go to the SAQ, but it’s worth getting a case from Oenopole. You get it for a buck less through them, and you’re going to want 6 for summer drinking. No more running to the SAQ last minute and not being sure what to drink. Besides, that way you make fun wine friends at Oenopole.
…which you’ll be glad you have when you realize you also want a case of a Cretian red: Oikonomoy 2006 Liatiko from Domaine Economou. It’s $37.50 and only available in 12’s through Oenopole, but it’s not getting any worse any time soon. So if you can make the investment in a genius red, go for it:
Oikonomoy 2006 Liatiko
Fresh, young, but perfect for drinking now. Not too big.
Tannic but not too much
Surprise spice that only comes at the end, but not too much
By this time I’d sipped and spit enough wine to get the phone number of a Satay brother (he offered to build me a garden trellis…) and was feeling very friendly when I met with catastrophe (it should be capitalized, but it’s more dramatic this way).
Gamay noir, merlot, cab franc blend
Biodynamic wine from Ontario’s Cattail Creek Winery
Cattail Creek’s whites were very “Niagara/Prince Edward Country-esque”: sweet, oaked, and full of lychee and mangosteens and peaches. I find it all a little too dessert wine-y and headache-inducing. But this red brought in by Actuel-Realisation, was a great example of what most of Quebec doesn’t know about Ontario wine: that bottles coming from across the ocean aren’t the only well-produced, incredibly drinkable options. If you take out that airplane ride and only bring things from across a provincial border it costs a bit less, too. Not to mention that the sommelière representing her family’s winery, Roselyn Dyck, was hilarious. She’s completely the opposite of old-school, old-age wine producers snubbing their noses at curious, young (relatively poor) drinkers. We all start somewhere, after all. That’s not to say her wines aren’t for those for whom a Sunday isn’t a Sunday without a bottle of good Bordeaux. I can only find the 2012 Riesling on Actuel-Realisation’s list, but giving them a call about this red wouldn’t be a bad idea. An email also works.
By this point I’d given up on only drinking biodynamic, light, refreshing, cool wines. It was time for Nebbiolos, my guilty pleasure. Nebbiolo is the light-hearted cousin to heavyweight Amarone and Brunello di Montalcino. A 2012 nebbiolo I tried at Vinitor was more tannic than I like but beautifully sweet without being cloying. It needed pasta and steak and a meal that makes your eyeballs roll back in your head from pure gluttonous joy. It was also in the $50 range, as Nebbioli can be, which is too much for my average meal.
I was done sampling, but the friendly rep from Vinitor thought I was holding on better in heels than I really was, and offered me a sample of a $126.42 Barolo. How do you say no to that? What kind of heartless, tastebud-less person would I be? The wine was everything it should be. Big and rich and still not pure sugar, but with lots of meat to it. Heat. Strength. I’d never buy it. But you should if that’s something that makes your life a better place.
What you could buy and let age a couple years was a $45 Brunello di Montalcino.
Brunello di Montalcino 2008
Good representation of the cepage.
Dark and tannic.