Lawrason’s Take on Vintages August 20th Release: Surprising Southern France, Alt-California, Curious Leyda Sauvignon, Penfolds Iconic Bins, Amiable Oregon Pinot and Dapper Douro.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The Sunny, Unpredictable South of France:  Vintages major theme this release is the massive arc of vineyard hugging the entire south coast of France from Italy in the east to Spain in the west. It is one of the most dynamic and exciting wine regions in the world today – a true tippler’s and explorers paradise, as long as you are fine never knowing exactly what’s in that next bottle. With literally thousands of producers large and small spanning dozens of appellations the permutations are endless. Among the more well known appellations in the arc – Provence, the Rhone Valley, Costieres de Nimes, Coteaux du Languedoc, Minervois, Corbieres and Roussillon.

All share the same essentials.  Red wines made from the ‘Rhone’ varieties – syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan (to name the most important) – dominate the landscape.  The region also makes a lot of very good, dry rosé from these same varieties, plus a few, improving and sometimes intriguing whites from indigenous varieties like roussanne, grenache blanc and picpoul.  Foreign northern grapes like merlot, cabernet and chardonnay can be grown here but they are gathered under a single appellation of Vin de Pays d’Oc, which to me is a kind of so-what appellation, marketing driven rather than terroir driven.  The AOC wines from the native varieties are far more interesting, especially when derived from older, dry farmed vineyards which abound in this age-old area.

Château L'argentier Vieilles Vignes De Carignan 2007The region is quite hot and dry, resulting in deeply coloured, full bodied wines stuffed with ripe fruit, lots of alcohol and tannin – that can be a struggle to control. Raisiny over-ripeness, hot alcohol, blustery tannins and acetic volatility always lurk as dangers. There is a certain rusticity to many of the wines, or put another way, elegance is not their strong suit.  But they make up for it with complexity and depth, and a certain amount of intrigue.  Another result of the hot, dry Mediterranean climate is the widespread use of organic and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, which when properly applied, renders even more interesting, deep and better balanced wines.  When not done well expect some earthy, tannic monsters.

Domaine La Croix Belle Syrah 2009Vintages has done a good job in this release in putting together a selection that catches the diversity and personality  – warts and all – of the south of France.  The other important theme is that the wines are all relatively inexpensive and affordable to anyone with the slightest curiosity.  It was difficult to pick which wines to feature here, but I ended up going for authenticity and value. CHATEAU L’ARGENTIER 2007 VIEILLES VIGNES DE CARIGNAN from the Vin de Pays du Gard ($19.95) bursts with Mediterranean character, having a distinctive and wonderful aroma of what the locals call garrigue (wild herbs and flora) that somehow blends rosemary, lavender and carignan’s distinctive sour plum/rhubarb scent.  It is made at an organically tended 24 hectare property founded in 1937 and now owned by Elisabeth and Francois Jourdan. And for sheer value, in a slightly more familiar flavour profile, I also draw your attention to DOMAINE LA CROIX BELLE 2009 SYRAH, a delicious, juicy rendition from another naturally farmed family property, at the impossibly low price (for this quality) of $12.95.

Drilling Down in Alt-California 
Ampelos Gamma Syrah 2006I was also intrigued by Vintage’ selection for the California mini-feature. It  features some smaller, less well known producers, non-cabernet/merlot based wines, and again some being organically produced.  California, like the south of France, is Mediterranean in climate and temperament.  And I have long maintained that if the California industry had been far less focused on chasing the Bordeaux model, they would have been a lot farther ahead – or at least true to their sense of place – by making delicious southern France inspired reds . It is sure where I look for value in California, which despite recessionary pricing and currency parity with the Canadian dollar, remains one of the world’s most expensive wine regions.  Proof in the pudding is AMPELOS 2006 GAMMA SYRAH from the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County ($27.95), a powerful yet fine biodynamically produced wine by Peter and Rebecca Work, who planted in 1999 and began making wine in 2004 along with their son Don.  Production is small at 3,500 cases, but the wine is big hearted and delicious.
Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay 2009

The whites in the California feature are all chardonnay, again with an organics theme in the subtext.  Chardonnay has of course been California’s white strong suit all along, and it’s not about to fade away anytime soon – although cheap California chardonnay is being challenged by cheap pinot grigio. Serious, more expensive chardonnay is often excellent, especially from carefully chosen, cooler sites affected by proximity to the Pacific, or higher altitude.  The pioneering Chalone estate benefits from both influences, with the original property founded at 1800 metres in limestone laced Gavilan Mountains above the Salinas Valley in 1919.  The vineyards were expanded in 1946, then in the modern era vineyards on the Pacific-cooled valley floor were added. The latter is the source for the great value CHALONE 2009 MONTEREY COUNTY CHARDONNAY being released Saturday at a remarkable price of  $16.95. In fact, all four chardonnays in this feature are very well priced and quite good buys.

Chile’s Unusual Leyda Sauvignons
Montes Limited Selection Leyda Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010I spent quite awhile lingering over MONTES 2010 LIMITED SELECTION LEYDA VINEYARD SAUVIGNON BLANC from Chile. Not because I was trying to decide on its quality, which is excellent, but trying to decipher its off-beat aromas, and trying to decide how much I personally liked it. It’s the kind of deliberation that is required when a new region and/or genre surfaces. I am familiar with Chile’s coastal Leyda Valley, indeed I was surprised by the massive scale of sauvignon planting when I visited in 2009. And I love the lightness and liveliness expressed in the wines; so much more interesting, refreshing and pure than in the clumsy, overripe sauvignons grown in the warmer Central Valley appellations a decade ago. They are also a bit more elegant and tidy than most from New Zealand’s Marlborough region.  The  closest comparisons would be sauvignons from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, but even here the Leyda editions seem even lighter and somehow more ethereal. But this doesn’t mean they are less flavourful. The Montes is a great example, packing in all kinds of complexity and flavour intensity with fresh herbs, citrus and exotic sub-tropical fruit. And it is clean as whistle, it dances and it lasts and lasts on the palate. I almost found it overwhelming in its flavour intensity.  Anyway, at a mere $14.95 I invite you to try it, spend some time as well, and do your own familiarization tour.

Oregon’s Bon Anne Amie
Anne Amie Cuvee A Pinot Noir 2008After several minutes on the website of Anne Amie I could not unearth the unusual naming of this winery. But I did discover much more.  Anne Amie is the reincarnation of Chateau Benoit, an early days property in the northern Willamette Valley that got off to  a bit of false start by focusing on riesling and muller-thurgau due to a prevailing wisdom deemed Orgeon’s and Washington’s “northern climate” (compared to California) to be most suitable for Germanic varieties.  Those old vineyards still remain but in 1999 it was purchased by a Portland businessman, philanthropist and writer named Dr. Robert Pamplin, who wanted to join the pinot movement that was by then thoroughly ensconced in the region. He funded a major renovation of vineyards, staff and winery and we are now seeing some excellent results. To quote the website, Cuvee A pinot is a lower priced “selection of our most forward and charming barrels of Pinot noir, blended in a style meant to capture their bright, fresh flavors and aromas”.  American critics are scoring it in the 87 point range. I was more enthused at 90 points. The 2008 vintage was cool and late in Oregon, perhaps resulting in a lighter, less ripe, more tart, cranberry-fruited style deemed less typical by the American tasters. And perhaps due to me being from Ontario I liked it more, rating it 90. Anyway, ANNE AMIE 2008 CUVEE A PINOT NOIR  is a very fine, cool climate pinot noir at a decent price.

Penfolds 2008 Bin 128
Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 2008It has always been a personal peeve of mine that Vintages can’t or won’t release Penfolds excellent Bin wines altogether, and keep them in stock.  To me they are not only excellent, they are a tour de force regional and varietal education.  Over the years I have had several opportunities to taste the Bins side by side, and I have marvelled at the consistent quality, within the variation presented by the various regional origins. They have helped me understand Australia, and wowed me at the same time. In February I tasted the entire 2008 range at the original Penfolds homestead site in the Barossa Valley – a long, detailed, tutored tasting by senior, veteran winemaker Steve Lienert.  It was a great tasting of an excellent vintage, and it is interesting to note that PENFOLDS 2008 BIN 128 SHIRAZ from Coonawarra ($34.95) was poured fairly early in the line-up to highlight it’s “lighter, more elegant” style.  When tasting it beyond this context at Vintages or anywhere else it hard to imagine this is lighter wine, but indeed there is just a bit more tension and refinement than its Bin peers, a result I ascribe to Coonawarra’s slightly cooler, more southerly location. Anyway, it is a very fine, well structured wine, and if you are one of those who has strayed from Australian shiraz because it is just all too much, I recommend re-grounding here.

A Douro Gem
Quinta De Ventozelo Touriga Nacional 2007And speaking of big reds with finesse don’t miss QUINTA DE VENTOZELO 2007 TOURIGA NACIONAL from Portugal’s Douro Valley at only $19.95. I have highlighted previous vintages from this enterprise before, based on the lovely sense of refinement and complexity it achieves at the price. Quinta de Ventozelo encapsulates the now well-embedded transition of Portugal’s famous port wine area to the production of dry, table reds.  For decades this Quinta (estate) supplied A-grade grapes to top port producers. In 1999 it was purchased by a Spanish wine group called Proinsa bent on developing it is a brand in itself, and introducing not only dry table wines, but single varietal wines from the region’s excellent grapes whose individual character had been locked away in aged ports for decades. So now we get to experience what touriga nacional is actually like, (others like tinto roriz and touriga franca are bottled separately as well). It produces very aromatic, almost floral, deeply fruited wines that are not as tannic as one might expect. No wonder touriga it occupies such a central place in the production of port!

And that’s it for now.  Happy sipping through the remaining days of summer.  I am off to judge the Canadian Wine Awards in Halifax next week, and get the lowdown on what’s happening on yet another up and coming Canadian wine region. Stay tuned.

See all my reviews from August 20th here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign