John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for August 20th 2011: A Year in Provence & The Midi, New-Age Californian Quartet and Top Ten Smart Buys
A Year in Provence & The Midi – There are many wines worth highlighting this week, many of which are part of the LCBO’s main theme for the August 20th release: Provence and the Languedoc. Those of you who’ve read Peter Mayle’s 1989 classic A Year in Provence need only recollect the whimsical tale of a British couple who move to Provence and spend their first year getting used to the mighty Mistral wind, the life-changing pace of life, the expected delays for everything from house repairs to buying bread, driving to the coast or driving out house guests, and the generally art-inspiring beauty of the region, to get in the mood for this release. Those who haven’t can simply pick up the whimsically-shaped bottle that contains the 2010 L’AMPHORE DE PROVENCE ROSÉ AC Côtes de Provence $13.95 and start your own day-dreaming of a new life, inspired by the inimitable pale salmon-rose coloured lens of Provençal rosés.
But don’t buy a house in the Lubéron just yet if value for money is your MO: the majority of the top buys hail not from Provence but from the other side the Rhône, down towards the Pyrenees and the Spanish Border. It may not be as sexy as Provence, but there are plenty of fine wines to discover.
The Languedoc-Roussillon has that image of a once derided, then accepted, but never fêted region, a source of good sturdy country wines of better-than-average value. Despite more than a little exporting success, the Languedoc never seems to have really broken into mainstream consciousness in Canada, for reasons that remain obscure to me.
The wine world is nothing if not tradition-bound, slow to change and evolve and embrace new things, I suppose. Likewise, the absence of any kind of true fine wine history, in a country absolutely dripping with centuries-old elevated wine culture, has surely hindered the Languedoc’s progress. The wisps of smoke from burning Cathars during the 12thC Albigensian Crusades, lingering immovably in the region like smog in Mexico City and forever linking Languedociens with heretics, can’t help either. Then there’s the mess of appellations, wide range of permitted grapes, difficulty in identifying typical regional styles, and to be fair, lots of mediocre wine attempting to masquerade as some new world varietal brand. I guess I just answered my own question. But forget all that and believe that the Midi is well worth investigating.
The 2009 GÉRARD BERTRAND RÉSERVE SPÉCIALE VIOGNIER Vin de Pays d’Oc $14.95 is a fine starting point if you enjoy textbook viognier character, with appealing floral, honeysuckle, cherry and apple blossom plus ripe peach and apricot aromas and flavours. I was struck by the class, concentration and varietal accuracy of this wine for the price. Bertrand’s is a sizable 250 hectare operation in the Languedoc, spread over five estates. He made his first wine at the age of 10 alongside his father, and while in the process in of building up his mini wine empire, found time to play professional Rugby for a decade. Most of the wines from his portfolio are worth a look.
A top smart buy for red wine drinkers is the 2008 CHATEAU DE L’ILLE CUVÉE ANGÉLIQUE CORBIÈRES AC $15.95 . Move beyond the kitschy label and get into this open, old school, authentic and aromatic expression of the Corbières, made from a blend of 60% syrah and 40% Grenache. The vineyards sit right on the Mediterranean coast and thus benefit from the cooling effect of sea breezes, moderating the fierce southern French sun. You’ll enjoy inviting aromas of wild violet, dried wild herbs, mature black raspberry and bramble berry, in other words, fine complexity at the price, while the palate delivers a fullish and juicy expression with enough firmness to keep its shape.
There are at least another half dozen southern French reds worth trying, stylistically spanning the range from ultra-modern, new world style wines to more authentic, classic regional expressions. That’s part of the beauty of being from a region that’s inventing itself as it goes along. See the full list of recommended Provence and Midi wines here.
New Age California
The other mini-theme of the August 20th release is California, and there’s a quartet of fine wines to write about. Notwithstanding Oz Clark’s recent assertion in Decanter Magazine that “big, creamy [Californian] wines are here to stay” (link to article) – and he’s probably right – along comes the remarkable 2009 CHALONE MONTEREY COUNTY CHARDONNAY Monterey County $16.95. It’s delightful for its lightness, freshness and pronounced acidity, with little oak influence and plenty of stony flavours, not at all bland or boring. Considering that it was selected by an LCBO panel of tasters working for 10 million Ontarians, and not some rogue sommelier for his/her three equally esoteric wine-loving friends, I’d say that the contrary trend to lightness identified by other industry watchers might be influencing our provincial selections, and happily so.
There’s also much talk in the press about the glut of syrah in California due to over-enthusiastic planting in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine why these wines aren’t being bought up with equal enthusiasm when you taste a pair like the 2007 MORGAN SYRAH Monterey County $24.95 and the 2006 AMPELOS GAMMA SYRAH Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara $27.95 . Morgan’s version is the more immediately appealing of the two, with a well-measured mix of sweet dark berry fruit, baking spice and spicy smoked paprika notes. The Ampelos, made from organically grown grapes, offers a more ‘classic’ profile, with marked black pepper character, smoke, tar, cold cream and wild herbs. Yours to discover.
And finally, if you’ve previously steered clear of California’s own grape, zinfandel, for fear of encountering either a sweet pink drink, a breakfast topping for your toast, or a liquid better re-purposed to power the shuttle into space, try the 2009 BONTERRA ZINFANDEL Mendocino County $19.95 . This is a fruity, savoury, and above all, well-balanced example of the grape, fully red-coloured and with a modest 14.5% alcohol. One wonders whether Bonterra’s organic farming methods might have a little to do with the natural balance in this wine.
Please note that due to scheduling conflict, my next newsletter covering the September 3rd Vintages release will be published on August 31st instead of August 26th.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier