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Malcolm Jolley: Warming wines for winter nights

Commentary

What were you doing in 1983? Assuming, of course, there was a you that existed to do anything forty years ago. That spring and summer I was, at various times, learning to windsurf, watching a new kind of television called music videos, and looking forward to culinary and shopping adventures at Mr. Greenjeans. Meanwhile, the grapes that made the glass of wine poured in front of me a few weeks ago were growing and ripening into what would become the shockingly lively Xavier Vignon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1983 ($184.99 in Ontario, through Noble Estates Wines & Spirits).

I posed that question, somewhat rhetorically, to the table of a handful of wine professionals and media tasting the bottle, including the ever-smiling and good-natured Xavier Vignon himself. Monsieur Vignon’s answer was along the lines of “not making this wine”, as he was a teenager at the time, and living more than eight hundred kilometres north of Provence in Picardy, near France’s Belgian border.

Vignon might be a diminutive of the proper French word for vineyard, vignoble. And while Xavier (as he is almost always called, dropping the surname) has vineyards of his own in his adopted Southern Rhône Valley, the 1983 was grown on a property owned by a client of Xavier’s oenologic consultancy and made by that man’s father. It had sat in a concrete tank for four decades waiting to be rescued and put into the bottle.

The wine itself showed the slightest signs of third-level flavours like tar and tobacco hovering above remarkably youthful forest fruits running from red to black. It was, though, to me and some of my table mates showing brighter than the other older wine that was open, the Xavier Vignon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2000, which was darker and broodier, yet still lively; another find of Xavier’s in a dark corner of one of his clients’ cellar. Like the 1983, he bottled it in 2020 and his Ontario importer Nobel Estates had, at the time of the tasting, a small allotment at $129.99 a bottle.

Before tasting the rarities, we had got into a few wines whose authorship was 100 percent Xavier as grower, negociant (buyer of grapes), and winemaker.Xavier actually makes a budget-friendly Côtes-du-Rhone red called Cuvée 100%, so named because it includes grapes grown in all of the named terroirs of the Southern Rhône Valley. These included two more Châteauneufs.

The Xavier Vignon 2020 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($53.99) was a calm and tranquil, hedgerow fruit-dominated sipper with a finish of herbal garrigue.

The Xavier Vignon Almutia Clair-Obscur Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($59.99) is a non-vintage wine, made from grapes grown in more than a year, as is the common practice in Champagne, where Xavier began his winemaking career as a laboratory scientist. Borrowing also from the traditions of Champagne, Almutia is a blanc-de-noir: a white wine made principally from red (black) grapes; in this case Grenache Noir (40 percent) and Mourvèdre (25 percent).

Xavier explained that while the Cahier des Charges book of regulations says that Châteauneuf must be made from a combination of a number of the 13 grapes allowed in any blend, it offers no guidance on what kind of wine these grapes are made into. The scientist in him enjoys an experiment, and once he recognized the liberty, he took it.

The Almutia was complex: nectar-like and viscous with honeysuckle, while lively with notes of citrus and stone fruits. Robert Parker famously praised the reds of Châteauneuf with the adjective “hedonistic,” which suits this wine. It wants to be savoured slowly.

Gigondas, less than twenty kilometres northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, was the first village to get its own sub-appellation of Côtes-du-Rhone in the early 1970s. The limestone vineyards there are typically of a higher elevation (around 500 metres above sea level), often making for fresher wines.

The Xavier Vignon Gigondas 2019 ($44.95) shows the quality of bright raspberry fruit from this blend of 95 percent Grenache, with a hint of Mourvèdre to hold it all together. Xavier explained that the vineyards used for the wine are between 80 and 100 years old, and the limestones on which they sit are blanched white, so they don’t retain heat at night. My note on this wine includes the description: mood enhancing.

The 2019 Gigondas is almost all made of Grenache, but the Xavier Vignon Arcane XV Le Diable 2015 is 100 percent made of what Provençal vignerons call the Devil’s grape, Mourvèdre. It got its diabolical reputation because of its ability to withstand sustained hot temperatures, a trait that increasingly serves the variety well in the age of global warming.

The grapes selected for this wine also come from old vines in Northern areas of Côtes-du-Rhone, sometimes over 100 years old and exposed to the summer Mistral winds. Unlike the cold winter Mistral, Xavier explains the summer Mistral heats things up, acting like a “hair dryer” on the grapes. Minerals and salts are left behind when water on them evaporates, and the Arcane Le Diable is made to show a characteristic of salinity.

Under that seasoning of minerality, Xavier’s devil’s wine shows intense black currant and blueberry fruit, drawn out of an extended maceration on those salty skins. A small allocation has made it to the provincial liquor retailer in Ontario, in time for winter nights that require warming wines.

Xavier arrived in Provence in the 1990s as an outsider. He was from the North of France and had worked in Champagne and Bordeaux. He wasn’t a farmer by training, or even the son of a farmer; he was (is) a scientist. Not held back by tradition, he is happy to experiment. A project to age wine underwater resulted in a 10,000 Euro fine when authorities found his cache of wines under the sea near Marseille. Undaunted, he devised a way to submerge his vessels in a big unused fermenting tank.

The upshot of his curiosity is that he makes a lot of wine from across the Southern Valley. The fancy wines we tried with him on his visit to Toronto are just some of his projects. He makes a $20 Cotes-du-Rhone; the 2020 vintage is currently available in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec. It’s a juicy and enjoyable sipper, with enough freshness to accompany dinner. Fresh and fun, just like its maker.

Rudyard Griffiths: The News, brought to you by Big Tech and big government

Commentary

The last two weeks have seen a financial bonanza of epic proportions showered on newsroom operators across Canada.

The mana from heaven began with the Fall Economic Statement. Buried in its voluminous analysis of the country’s growing debts and deficits were a few lines of text that increased, by more than a hundred million dollars, the government’s already multi-hundred-million-dollar scheme to directly fund journalists. With a stroke of her pen, the finance minister topped up the per journalist wage subsidy to $29,000 for every “ink-stained wretch” making a cool $85,000 a year.

Then, not a week later, Google and the government announced their joint climbdown over the Online News Act that would have forced the world’s largest online platform into a binding arbitration process to “compensate” news providers for their content. In turn for being able to arrange its funding through a single association representing all eligible news organizations in Canada, Google has agreed to contribute $100 million annually to the production costs of news content. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if this subsidy is distributed based on the current headcount of newsrooms, news organizations could receive in theory a further $12,500 in direct subsidy per journalist from Google.

So where does this flurry of new subsidies leave the Canadian news industry?

On the positive side, it means Google isn’t going to purge its platform of news content. This would have been a horrible outcome both for Google users looking for more, not less, accurate news and information and for news outlets who could well have seen the traffic on their website drop by as much as half. In such a scenario the advertising revenues that news providers generate on a cost-per-click basis would have plunged precipitously setting off a doom loop for the industry and no doubt more calls for more direct government support.

More worrying, these announcements likely push the newsrooms of print and digital news providers (think The Globe and Mail or Toronto Star) to the point where fifty percent of the staff costs of their news operations are funded by direct and indirect government supports.

This represents a full doubling of the pre-FES status quo, an amount that arguably warrants a sustained public debate about the threat that these large subsidies represent to the independence of news organizations. It simply will not be credible to readers and viewers for editors of mainstream news outlets to puff their chests and assert that journalistic standards insulate them from the results of their owners’ conspicuous rent-seeking.

The source of the subsidies matter. These monies are coming from arguably two of the most powerful groups in society today: Big Tech and big government. For news outlets to argue that we ought to take them at their word that they will hold these behemoths to account when half or more of the salaries of the very reporters they assign to cover the federal government and Google will be paid for by the very same is a jaw-droppingly audacious contention. 

It is important to acknowledge the public opinion backdrop against which these extraordinary industry supports are being extended. As Richard Stursberg wrote yesterday for The Hub’s Future of News series, our collective trust in the media is in free fall. Only 39 percent of English Canadians trust most news most of the time, down from 58 percent only five short years ago.

Without public trust, it is not clear what news will in fact become. Arguably in an era where “The News” isn’t invested with some kind of shared belief that it is more often than not factual, unbiased, and in the public interest, it simply becomes information, open to endless contestation, debate, and deconstruction. This demonstrably isn’t what a deliberative democracy like ours needs to thrive. 

In the last two weeks, thanks to significantly increased direct and arranged government supports, we have taken another large step towards an information dystopia. We have done little to anything to address the implications of declining public trust in the news. Other ways to support journalism have been largely ignored. The news industry seems mostly disinterested in these issues and ever more focused on government subsidies.

The Hub is committed to continuing to debate what is happening to journalism in Canada and put forward alternative solutions and ideas. This is a hugely challenging public policy issue. Real thought and attention focused on this problem is urgently needed. Richard Stursberg provided a novel idea yesterday (i.e. news outlets should break up with social media), and Peter Menzies last week provided a series of constructive suggestions as to how to rethink government support with the idea of weaning the press off direct subsidies.

We will keep reform-minded ideas coming via our Future of News series, and hopefully a certain government in waiting is paying attention, because this policy challenge isn’t going away and issues that are at the heart of our democracy are in play.