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Malcolm Jolley: Gordon Ramsay’s blasphemous new wine (is actually pretty good)

Commentary

I have been reading and enjoying Anya von Bremzen’s new book, National Dish. In it, she travels the world investigating the origins of a foodstuff famously linked to a country. So far, I have read through France (pot-au-feu), Italy (pizza and pasta), and Japan (ramen and white rice). And so far von Bremen has entertainingly uncovered a great deal of invented tradition.

Like most food and wine writers, von Bremzen is keenly aware that authenticity makes for great marketing. One of the most successful marketed products of all time, Coca-Cola, calls itself The Real Thing. More recent emphasis on food and drink authenticity has moved away from industrialized products, like Coke, to focus on traditional ingredients, techniques, or recipes.

While von Bremzen demolishes the myths that send tourists for authentic dishes, like pizza in Napoli, or even Japonica rice in Japan, it doesn’t stop her from enjoying them. And frankly, since truth is almost always stranger than fiction, the real stories or theories of the origins of her national dishes are more interesting than the marketing.

I thought of von Bremen’s book when I tried a new Italian wine this week: Selezionato da Gordon Ramsay Intenso Rosso 2020. It’s an unusual wine in that neither its production nor its marketing pays any heed to concepts of authenticity. Except, of course, for the celebrity name on the bottle.

About the red wine, which is part of a series that also includes a white and a rosé, the back label says about the celebrity chef:

“[Gordon Ramsay] has worked in partnership with renowned Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini to source these unique blends. This contemporary range of table wines from some of Italy’s best growing regions, combines Gordon’s passion with the heart and soul of Italian winemaking.”

I have watched him on TV, and I have no doubt Ramsay is full of passion. I know Senor Antonino’s winemaking pedigree, which in Tuscany alone includes his family’s estate at Poggiotondo, Frescobaldi, Col d’Orcia, and Antinori. If anyone knows about the heart and soul of Italian winemaking, he does. But I’m not sure that’s exactly what’s happening here.

If I were going to describe the heart and soul of Italian winemaking, as described to me by winemakers from Alto Adige in the Dolomite Alps to Mount Etna in Sicily, I might use a French term “terroir.” Terroir is the place from which and in which the grapes of a wine are made. It includes things like soil type, weather and climate, elevation, proximity to the sea, angle of light, length of season, and anything and everything that Mother Nature could possibly contribute to a bottle of wine.

The thing about Gordon Ramsay’s intense selection of red wine is that it doesn’t come from someplace, it comes from at least two. Further digging reveals that the 2020 Intenso Rosso is made from a blend of Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany and Montepulciano and Merlot grapes from Abruzzo. This is why it carries only the most basic classification, the humble designation of Wine of Italy.

Wines of Italy that blend grapes from more than one region are usually cheap, mass-produced bulk wines. Big producers in Canada do this kind of thing all the time since they are allowed to blend up to 75 percent foreign wine into products, what’s called Cellared in Canada. What’s in the blend typically depends on the time of year switching between sources in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres like Spain and Chile.

Cuvée is a fancier French term for a wine made with grapes from more than one place. But the practice, whether it’s declared or not, usually means a blend of grapes from more than one vineyard in proximity to each other. The Ontario winemaker Norman Hardie stretches it with some of his highest-end wine, Cuvée L, which is made only in some years from a blend of grapes from sites in Niagara and Prince Edward County. He justifies the distance between the two regions as being quite small, the distance, as the crow flies, across Lake Ontario.

For Ramsay and Antonini to make a cuvée with grapes from Abruzzo, though, is a particularly ballsy move, considering the history of the region. Like much of the production of wine in the Mezzogiorno, Italy’s south, wines from Abruzzo regularly trucked up to more prestigious regions to be blended quietly into wines posing as all Northern. 

Much of the modern history of the Abruzzo DOC has been about reversing this practice and marketing Abruzzo wines for their own qualities and terroir. Antonini knows this. He also knows that Tuscan producers, like those in Chianti Classico, are passing new classification rules that lean heavily on terroir, by naming the village closest to the winery, or on grape variety, by requiring increasing percentages of indigenous grape varieties (never mind ones from another region altogether).

I suspect the Selezionato da Gordon Ramsay Intenso Rosso 2020 has made a lot of people angry in both Abruzzo and Tuscany. So what? It’s actually pretty good, especially for a wine that retails for $17 even.

The fruit on the wine is big and forward: black cherry from the Sangiovese (50 percent) and Blackberry from the Montepulciano (30 percent), and Merlot (20 percent). There’s a mineral seasoning of flint or graphite on the finish and a healthy acidity. It’s an uncomplicated drink built for food, as one would expect from a wine made by a chef. I shared the rest of my bottle over a dinner of grilled salty Italian sausages, which worked brilliantly. I speculate this wine would do even better with a cheeseburger.

I am not giving up on the wino religion of terroir. There is something fascinating about how a particular place and time affect what’s in a glass of wine. But I’m OK with a little blasphemy now and again if it tastes good.

Alex MacDonald: What the government gets wrong on housing: Canada needs housing affordability, not just more affordable housing

Commentary

Evidence of Canada’s housing crisis continues to mount. Rising interest rates and more stringent mortgage regulations have seemingly done little thus far to slow down the market. Sale prices and rental costs continue to reach historic highs in major cities and increasingly outside of them.

The Trudeau government has gradually come to recognize the issue’s urgency. The appointment of Sean Fraser as the new federal housing minister reflects an effort to better address it through a combination of incremental policy and stronger communications.

The main problem however may be how the government and adjacent experts and scholars have come to conceptualize the problem. So much of their attention is focused on increasing the supply of affordable housing rather addressing housing affordability in the market-based share of the housing market. Yet the distinction is key to developing policies that actually respond to growing public concerns.

The housing market can be understood as a spectrum or continuum across which all forms of housing “stock” is accounted for: shelters, social housing, rental, and every shape and size of single-family homes (e.g. townhouse, duplex, single detached, and so forth). This spectrum of housing types has corresponding prices, ownership and rental models, and demographics. 

As part of this spectrum, there’s non-market housing which includes public housing, non-profit housing and non-profit co-operatives and market-based housing which refers to homes that are sold or rented according to market forces. The former represents about 6 percent or so of the overall housing market. The vast majority of Canadians live in the latter.

Both, of course, are important and inter-related in some broad ways. But the government has failed to explain how its focus on expanding affordable housing (which may be a good idea in and of itself) will manifest itself in the market-based sharing of the housing market. There’s evidence that it may help those on the margins of market-based housing but it’s far from obvious that it will improve housing affordability for most Canadians.

It’s important therefore that the Trudeau government and its provincial counterparts turn their collective attention more fully to the entire housing market, including the more ambitious construction of market-based housing.

New home construction sets the economic, or market, baseline for housing in any given area. After all, “affordable housing” is pegged to new home construction, hence why it’s often referred to as “below market value housing.” There’s a case in fact that the causal relationship between affordable housing and market-based housing goes the opposite way than one would think based on the government’s disproportionate focus on the former. Slowing the growth in market-based prices (or even reducing them) through more building would actually help to stabilize prices for affordable housing.

But, more fundamentally, the best way to stabilize prices in the market-based share of the market is to bring supply and demand into greater equilibrium by expanding supply. Population growth exceeded 1 million in 2022. Yet we have historically built something like 285,000 homes per year. That gap will need to close or the country’s housing affordability challenges will continue to persist.

It speaks to the inherent problem with the federal focus on affordable housing over market-based housing. The longer that governments narrowly focus on affordable housing as the rest of the housing continuum continues to become less accessible to Canadians, the risk that more and more people fall out of market-based housing and overall demand for government-funded affordable housing will grow. The calls for more government funding from advocates will inevitably follow. Suffice it to say, it’s expensive to build affordable homes when the entire market is increasingly unaffordable. 

Recent data for Scotiabank Economics makes this point quite clearly: “While the National Housing Strategy has provided an important framework to anchor actions, its $78.5 bn funding pales in comparison to Canada’s housing stock at $3.8 tn (or 2 percent which doesn’t even keep pace with annual depreciation).”

The government simply cannot spend its way to affordability when it only focuses on one end of the spectrum—particularly the one that touches on a relatively small share of the overall market.

Thus far, however, Minister Fraser hasn’t signaled a major policy departure from his predecessors. He recently doubled down on the government’s emphasis on affordable housing while at the same time proclaiming that, “Our goal is not to decrease the value of [a homeowner’s] home.”

The Conservatives, by contrast, seem to understand the magnitude and nature of the problem. They’re focused primarily on the market-based share of the housing market and are prepared to use public policy to “build, build, build.” It’s no surprise therefore that their housing policy seems to be connecting better with Canadians.

It’s bigger than politics though. This “whole-of-market” approach is a useful framework for actually addressing housing affordability. It’s up to the Trudeau government for a proper reset on the housing file and match the Conservatives with its own whole-of-market approach to Canada’s housing crisis.