John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for June 25th 2011: What’s a Pure Expression? Dangerous Education; Celebrating Canada’s Birthday, and Top Ten Smart Buys
I’ll lead off with a couple of recommendations for celebrating on Canada’s day, from Canada, naturally. Bubbles immediately come to mind, and in the June 25th release the 2006 JACKSON TRIGGS ENTOURAGE SILVER SERIES BRUT MÉTHODE CLASSIQUE VQA Niagara Peninsula $22.95 earns top marks. It’s an impressive traditional method sparkling wine with a good deal of yeasty complexity for the money. Fill your glasses before the fireworks begin. If it’s afternoon sipping you’re after, the 2008 NO. 99 WAYNE GRETZKY ESTATES ESTATE SERIES SAUVIGNON BLANC VQA Ontario $15.95 is my top pick, and at a deliciously light 11.7% alcohol (belying serious flavour intensity), the hot afternoon can float along at a languid pace into the twilight.
We’ve got reasons to celebrate as well, with the launch of our new video series, “So, You Think You Know Wine?”. Please take a moment to review our premiere episode.
What’s a Pure Expression?
‘Pure expressions’ is the main theme of the June 25th release, and for white wine fans it’s one of the best in some time. I’m not quite sure which criteria were used to define the selection, but for me, a pure expression can either be a great expression of a grape variety or better yet, a faithful expression of a place, but in neither case does the hand of the winemaker take the spotlight.
That’s not to say there isn’t a talented hand behind a pure expression, but it’s a hand with the self-confidence to know when to leave well enough alone and to let his/her grape or place tell the story – no muddling the message with extraneous flavours and textures, or imposing a style on the wine other than what your grape and place tend to naturally offer. Everything else is by my definition a commercial product, custom-engineered to meet the needs of a market. This is the wine business after all, and wineries need to sell wine, but I sincerely hope that there will always be a place in the wine world for decidedly un-commercial wines, quirky, idiosyncratic, original. The world needs more pure expressions. Just try a glass of the classy and outstanding value 2007 CHÂTEAU SAINT-ROCH DE LAURENS FAUGÈRES AC $18.95, or the spot-on 2010 SALTERIO ALBARIÑO DO Rías Baixas $17.95 to understand what I’m talking about: both marvelous combinations of grape and place, and nary a winemaker to be found.
A little Education Can Be Dangerous
Prominent institutions that offer professional degrees in oenology have been largely responsible for raising the overall level of wine quality worldwide, but they have also been responsible for the increasing homogenization of wine style. Graduates of these programs have been taught the essential technical skills of how to grow and transform grapes into wine and get it safely bottled, but they have also been taught dozens of techniques that allow them to engineer wines through chemical and physical modifications in order to fit them into a narrowly defined spectrum of accepted styles. If you are drawn as I am towards wines which taste like they come from somewhere as opposed to anywhere, this is bad news. I’m apprehensive to learn of another young graduate returning home only to toss out his/her father’s and grandfather’s equipment and techniques, relishing the opportunity to try out all of those new tricks of the trade.
Consider all of the possible manipulations from vineyard to bottle: delaying or staggering harvest, boosting alcohol by adding sugar, or removing it using specialized equipment, adjusting acidity and pH up or down with the right substance and a measuring cup, artificially concentrating via reverse osmosis, pre-determining the aromatic profile by selecting a laboratory-isolated strain of yeast with known properties and fermenting at the recommended temperature, using enzymes to enhance colour and flavour extraction, adding gum arabic to enhance mouth feel, powdered tannins to add structure or micro-oxygenating to soften tannins, sweetening by adding concentrated grape must, ageing in new oak barrels to give a creamy texture and additional flavours of coffee, chocolate and caramel… And I’m barely scratching the surface. And I’ll point out that all of these techniques and more are perfectly legal, and are in fact encouraged in the name of better wine. The end result is that too many wines taste like they were made by the same winemaker using the same vineyards and the same grapes. Technical competence yes, but no variation, no room for different, original, unique.
Fortunately, there is an underground movement launched by winemakers swimming against the current, aiming to produce ‘natural wines’ by a minimalist and non-interventionist approach. It starts, of course, with the right grape growing in the right place that doesn’t require any artificial manipulation to transform it into drinkable wine, and it ends with wines that aren’t afraid to be different. Now, ‘natural wine’ isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the lazy man’s get-out-of-jail-free card for sloppy winemaking and is no excuse for outright defects. Most can agree that vinegar is best used in salads and nail polish remover is best for, well, removing nail polish. But it’s quite a simple equation: less manipulation equals less homogenization of flavours and more originality. Period. That’s my idea of a pure expression. Beyond that, it’s up to each individual to determine how open-minded they’ll be to new or unusual flavours, and to choose which wines they’ll ultimately filter through their taste buds and liver.
In addition to the wines mentioned off the top, there was a trio of old world whites among the June 25th releases that gave me a tingling sense of place: The 2008 DR. H. THANISCH RIESLING KABINETT QmP, Bernkastel Badstube $18.95 delivers the unmistakable taste of wet slate from the Mosel that never fails to excite. Campania’s most noble white grape finds an authentic expression in the 2009 TERREDORA FIANO DI AVELLINO DOCG $18.95. It’s ripe but not heavy, with characteristic flavours of honey, hay and chamomile in addition to succulent orchard fruit. And Salomon-Undhof’s 2009 WIEDEN & BERG TRADITION GRÜNER VELTLINER DAC Kremstal $19.95 is a fine example from a fine vintage, clean and precise, with classic citrus/orchard fruit coupled with fresh turnip and lentils, underpinned by a fine streak of wet stone minerality.
Overall the quality of the reds in this release less consistent, and the Argentina mini-feature was a notable disappointment (a definite shortage of purity). Worth a look however is the 2009 SALENTEIN RESERVE MALBEC Uco Valley, Mendoza $19.95. From the high altitude, cooler vineyards of the upper Uco Valley, Salentein’s malbec is distinguished by its fresh black fruit flavours, firm tannins and balanced acidity in a lineup that included plenty of clumsy, alcoholic, oaky and baked wines.
Fans of well made, classic Bordeaux will enjoy the 2005 CHÂTEAU RAHOUL AC Graves $29.95. It’s entering into peak drinking now with a broad range of flavours and complexity above the mean. 2008 WYNNS COONAWARRA ESTATE SHIRAZ Coonawarra, South Australia $19.95 is another superb example for the money from ever-reliable Wynns. Smoky, spicy, peppery aromas make this a classic syrah/shiraz expression – pure Coonawarra.
Pure expressions do not necessarily imply a higher price tag, but two of the purest expressions in this release happen to be cost far more then the average. But if you can afford it, they’re worth it. Vittorio Fiore’s 2007 POGGIO SCALETTE IL CARBONAIONE IGT Alta Valle della Greve $67.95 has consistently been one of my top Tuscan wines since I first tried it from the 1994 vintage. It’s made from the Il Carbonaione vineyard near the town of Greve just south of Florence, which was planted shortly after WW1 with the small-berried, superior sangiovese di Lamole clone. Year in and year out it’s a refined, elegant and above all authentic expression of Tuscan sangiovese, though wait at least another couple of years before opening, and I’m confident it will age gracefully into the mid-twenties if you have the patience (and the cellar), as past vertical tastings have proved.
It’s been amply shown around the world that the holistic approach of biodynamic farming is a particularly powerful tool for crafting pure expressions, and GRGICH HILLS uses it to full effect in their 2007 ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $69.95. This is still a long way from prime drinking, but already it gives a sense of wonderful balance and proportion, combining the generosity of Napa cabernet with discreet oak influence and deceptive underlying structure that should see it age comfortably for twenty years.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier