Monday, March 26, 2012

Why France Should Stick To Wine

I'm sure many of you who read my beer reviews must sometimes think to yourselves, what does this guy know about beer? What are his credentials?

Believe me: every time I try a new beer and then sit in front of my keyboard, I think the same thing.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself, and then I'll tell you why I like reviewing beer. And then, I'll give you another beer review.

While I've always liked beer, I pursued an interest in wine. It must have stemmed from house parties, where I saw everyone bring a case of beer to the party and then park themselves on it so that no one would steal a bottle. I thought that was crazy, and so I'd always show up with a bottle of red wine: I'd crack it open, pour myself a glass, and then leave the bottle in the middle of the kitchen table. No one would touch it.

When I got older, I decided that I wanted to be better educated in wine, having spent my teens and early 20s drinking nothing but B&G's Cuvée Speciale. Not that there was particularly anything wrong with it, but I wanted to branch out.

I started with a simple introductory book of wine, created by the sommelier of the Windows of the World restaurant in New York. I would research a wine region, go to my local LCBO, pick a bottle from that region, and then try it. This went on for a couple of years.

My favourite old-world wines come from France and Spain (I love Riojas); my new-world picks mostly come from Australia and Chile, though I developed a strong appreciation for Canadian wines.

In 1994, I was introduced to the Inniskillin Wine Boutique in downtown Ottawa, where I met the manager, Perry Mason. Over the course of a few years, he and I shared our interest in wine. Perry even taught a wine-appreciation course at Algonquin College, and so Lori and I signed up. The course was part of the sommelier program, itself part of the hotel and restaurant management program.

Lori and I took the first three levels of the program. Every evening of the course, we tasted at least six different wines from all over the world. We learned about the different regions and grape varieties. By the end of the third level, we could taste a wine without seeing the bottle and tell you what the grape was and what country it came from. Sometimes, we could even tell you which region it was. We could tell you if it was an old wine or a young one.

Once, while Perry was pouring a wine from a bottle that was concealed in a paper bag, I was able to tell the grape, country, region, vineyard, vintage, and winemaker. I even sketched the label. All by simply seeing the wine as it was being poured in the glass.

But that's another story.

I kept a wine journal. In the space of about two years, I had notes on more than 2,000 different wines. I knew wine. All thanks to Perry and our mutual wine friends.

But Perry's real passion was not wine, but beer. And so my education took another turn as Perry introduced me to different varieties of beer, as he was running his own microbrewery. Through Perry, I tried some fabulous ales, make by him and by other brewers. Over that time, I drank less and less wine, and more and more beer. Perry explained the brewing process and some of the techniques he used in making beer.

On my own, I've also visited many breweries and seen their beer-making processes.

And so I feel I know beer almost as well as I know wine. But one thing is certain. I know what I like.

A couple of weeks ago, I tried and reviewed a new style of beer for me, a Bière de Garde, a style that comes from northern France. I tend not to think of beer when I think of France: I think of a nice, flinty Alsatian Gewurztraminer or a full-bodied Cote du Rhone.

But this Bière de Garde was something else, and so I wanted to try some from the region than made it famous. And this pick is 3 Monts.

3 Monts Flanders Golden Ale
Fermentation Haute Speciale
Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre, France
$5.39, 750 mL; 8.5% alc/vol

Never before, have I needed more than one tool to open a bottle: a bottle opener. To open this bottle, I needed two tools: a screwdriver and a corkscrew. The screwdriver was used to pry a giant, metal staple-like strap that held a cork in place. And of course, I needed the corkscrew to withdraw the cork.

The first thing I detected was the smell of alcohol. At 8.5 percent, it's not the highest alcohol level I've tried, but it's respectable. For this beer, it was distinct.

In the glass, the beer was a pale straw colour, which surprised me after the glowing amber of the Mill Street Bière de Garde. Clearly, they were two distinct beers. The 3Monts had a clean, white, foamy head that held for most of the life of the beer in the glass.

The nose held high aromas of alcohol in the glass, with sharp hops. There was no fruit, none of the wonderful scents I had with the Ambre de la Chaudière. It was at this point I told myself not to compare the two, but to focus on this selection.

In the mouth, the alcohol continued on its way. There were hops, but to me they seemed sour. And the aroma, as it opened, felt stale. I know that a Bière de Garde is made for storing, but to me this one seemed stored too long.

I didn't finish the bottle.

I was disappointed with this beer. It seemed to ride on its alcohol strength, but little else. While the French have perfected the art of winemaking, they have a way to go as brewers.

There is one thing that I learned from my days as a wine student: if you are trying a wine, and you can afford it, buy two. That way, if you like it, you have another to put down for a special occasion. I bought two bottles of 3 Monts. But I don't think I'll keep the second.

There's no special occasion for this one.


  1. Ross, I was greatly disappointed as well by my 3 Monts. It was referred quite highly by my colleagues who special order it by the case until they found the corner store in Gatineau.

    I too found the alcohol dominating and very much off balance with any of the flavours of the beer which were quite weak. Sue outright rejected it and thought it was disgusting.

    Note: My second wine book was "Windows on the World Wine Course", I think my first one was Jancis Robinson's "Vines, Grapes & Wines".

  2. Tom: I'm glad I'm not alone in my opinion of 3 Monts. I have no problem with beers that tout a high alcohol level. But that alcohol must be balanced with other flavours and characteristics, and I found none in the bottle I opened.

    And now I have to find someone who was willing to take the second bottle off my hands: I had been hoping it was you...

    I have Jancis Robinson's encyclopedia, and several Hugh Johnson books, among others. I considered myself, at one point, to be a wine geek. But I'm a proud beer snob too.

  3. I tried this one over the weekend at a beer tasting party. The only way I could describe it was boozy.

    Like you, I've had much higher ABV beers but in those beers the alcohol didn't stick out so much. In this one it was overwhelming - really didn't like it.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Katy. It's good to know I'm not alone.