Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Sept 17th release – Bordeaux Bashing, Off-Beat Bargains & VSO Gems
Bordeaux 2008, Bordeaux Southern Mirrors, Super Champagne, Rabl Rousing Gruner, Off Beat Bargains, Plus VSOs: Lafond Pinot Noir, Vigorello and Saint Gayan of Gigondas
Bordeaux’s Standard: Bordeaux still enjoys a different and unwarranted standard in the world of wine. Witness all the attention surrounding the first release of its 2008s by Vintages on September 17. Before continuing I am not specifically picking on Vintages, as other retailers and some media are as just as guilty of overblowing this region, and ignoring how uninteresting and overpriced many of its wines can be. The wines being offered Saturday are not bad, nor underripe nor green. The 2008 vintage seems to be okay. But this group of 15 wines squeaked out only two 90 point ratings, and most of the prices are up in the $30, $40 and $50 range. While most are good to very good (86 to 89 points) they simply aren’t that exciting, and they are expensive. Bore-dough indeed.
Yes, Bordeaux can make great wine. I have been there often, and tasted hundreds if not thousands of its wines, and I can talk firsthand about every vintage since 1970. I get Bordeaux; I don’t hate Bordeaux. But its lofty position in the world really is a matter of geography and history – not intrinsically superior quality as the world has come to believe. Situated on the Atlantic coast of France, not far from England, it’s industry developed during the 18th and 19th Century – a golden age for both nations – and the British in particular took Bordeaux to their bosom – indeed having huge influence in the Bordeaux wine trade itself. And it was the British upper class – the ultimate fine wine consumer – that later also developed the genre of wine writing. So of course they wrote about Bordeaux, and little else. We thus now live with this generationally ingrained legacy that Bordeaux is somehow premiere, to be revered above others, with a standard all its own, and worthy of endless parcing, praise and punditry.
And it is somehow blithely accepted that consumers should be so fascinated with Bordeaux that it deserves to have an average vintage like 2008 occupying the cover and 12 pages of Vintages magazine, under the heading “Fairy Tale in Bordeaux”. Fairytale indeed! Where is a dissection of Ontario’s 2009 vintage which, when you read the month by month weather reports in Vintage’s magazine, sounds very similar to Bordeaux 2008? Or why not the same treatment for Coonawarra in Australia or Hawkes Bay in New Zealand or other places that make great wines by blending cabernet and merlot? (See below)
Having ranted, I point you to the two wines I did rate as excellent, and if you were to taste both side by side you would end up with a great tutorial in traditional versus modern winemaking approaches in Bordeaux. CHÂTEAU ST. GEORGES 2008 St-Georges St-Émilion ($29.95) is a classic large estate just beyond the Saint-Emilion appellation boundary, thus priced more reasonably. CHÂTEAU FOMBRAUGE 2008 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($45.00) is an old property on the slope just outside of Saint-Emilion that has recently been restored and its wines modernized. I visited this property in 2010 and was very impressed with its wines. As it is not far from iconic properties like Chateau Ausone we are actually lucky that it is only classified as Grand Cru and not Grand Cru Classé, thus available here at half the price, and decent if not outstanding value.
Great Southern Cab-Merlots
As mentioned above, the New World has several regions that mirror Bordeaux in terms of latitude, climate, maritime influence and even soil structure – everything except heritage. Off the top I can think of Long Island (New York), Niagara (to a degree), Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia, Stellenbosch in South Africa, and some cooler enclaves in Chile. Wines from two of those regions are available on the September 17 release, with better quality/price ratios that any from Bordeaux. TE MATA 2007 COLERAINE from Hawkes Bay on New Zealand’s North Island is certainly not cheap at $59.95, but it is great wine from a maritime gravelly soiled region. First made in 1982 from a single plot Coleraine now comes from several vineyards within Te Mata’s estate. Some have called it NZ’s best red wine, and the Wine Advocate has rated this wine 95 points. I am not 95 point-enthralled but it is a great, modern red. And so is WYNNS COONAWARRA ESTATE 2008 CABERNET SAUVIGNONat half the price – only $24.95. It’s supple, refined exterior and sheer drinkability almost belies its sound structure and depth. Penfolds fans should also grab the finely structured PENFOLDS 2008 BIN 407 CABERNET SAUVIGNON at $34.95.
I could go on a similar campaign about the Champagne standard, but I will spare us all. One of the nice little surprises on this release is the quality and value of a “small” Champagne from the Marne Valley. At $41.95 MARC HÉBRART BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS CHAMPAGNE 1er Cru is pretty much at the floor price of French Champagne in Ontario, but it delivers complexity, depth and structure closer to the ceiling. I am not an expert on the intricacies of Champagne and its hundreds of crus and growers. I don’t know this producer other than what I could find on Google (not even their own website). But the story here is very similar to what’s happening across France as the next generation of well-travelled, well schooled winemakers take the reins at small family properties. It is a good reason to be paying attention to names we have not heard before, especially among the increasingly important world of what are called “grower” Champagnes.
Rudolph Rabl and family are at the top of their game in Austria, and RUDOLF RABL 2009 RESERVE VINUM OPTIMUM GRÜNER VELTLINER is flag waver for their approach. Based in Kamptal Rabl is using only top estate fruit for their Vinum Optimum wines. They come from stony hillsides with reduced crop levels. In the winery, fermentations are done at moderate (not too cold) with natural yeasts and long maceration with the solids to draw out more extract and flavours. “Thin wines are not something you will find here” says Rabl’s website. Indeed not; it is pleasantly rich and comfortable yet still precisely varietal with a refined, mineral edged finish. Great value for $19.95 .
Sometimes labels just don’t tell the story well at all. And very often prices don’t communicate well either. The label and overall packaging of TERRAS D’ALTER 2010 RESERVA WHITE from Alentejano in Portugal is so bland that I almost didn’t notice it in the forest of bottles at Vintages. And when I checked the price ($13.95) I actually considered not even bothering to try the wine. I expected boredom. But lo and behold it is a vibrant, complex and intriguing white that blends viognier with a local Portuguese variety called arinto. I remember being very impressed with arinto in Portugal when I travelled there, and it’s a great aromatic fit with viognier, while putting its firm acidity to good use amid viognier’s blowsiness.
Likewise, my expectations of TERRA NOBLE 2008 GRAN RESERVA CABERNET SAUVIGNON from Colchagua Valley in Chile was coloured by its old-style, almost kitchy label, and I also highly doubted the wine would deliver much of Colchagua’s quality as $15.95. Wrong again! It is an unusual cabernet that doesn’t taste much like cabernet, but it has remarkable depth, smoothness and presence. Read my review then try one to see if you like.
VSOs – Lafond Pinot, San Felice Vigorello & Saint Gayan Gigondas
Vintages released a larger batch of new wines through its Vintages Shop On Line (VSO) portal on September 8th, gearing up for the big fall buying season. There are several excellent wines here, but none better in my books than LAFOND POMMARD CLONE 2007 PINOT NOIR ($44.95) from California’s Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. As any “Sideways” fan knows this is great territory for pinot, especially the cooler, more coastal Santa Rita Hills. In fact Pierre Lafond, a McGill University grad, opened his winery in 1962 (the first in Santa Barbara County since Prohibition) and planted in the Santa Rita Hills in 1972. The planting of French clones of pinot noir – like the Pommard – has been part of the reason for the region’s success, and this is a wonderful example, with a sense of elegance and subtlety so often overwhelmed by California’s ripe fruit and alcohol.
Elsewhere among the VSOs, collectors and fans of Tuscan reds should not miss San Felice 2006 Vigorello ($52.95). It’s deep, dark, penetrating yet refined, to stow away in the cellar for a decade or more. There is an interesting historical note to Vigorello as well, as its producers claim it was the first “super-Tuscan” to blend sangiovese with cabernet and merlot, ahead of icons like Antinori’s Tignanello.
And finally, for those wanting an authentic wine experience from the south of France, don’t miss Domaine Saint Gayan 2006 Gigondas. I visited this tiny, 10,000 case family estate in May and just loved its history, authenticity, purity and unassuming character of its wines – not flashy but so solid, and nuanced and balanced. It was founded in 1709 – that’s 302 years ago folks and has been in the family ever since. It makes all its wines from estate owned vines, the last in the appellation to be hand harvested. Located on bench-lands spilling down from the Dentelles Mountains, there are seven different soil types. Oak treatment is kept way in the background, mostly via old barrel and foudres. It couldn’t be a better snapshot of honest, carefully made French country wine.
That’s it for this release. Read all my reviews here and watch for the next edition before the October 1st release. And don’t forget to tune into to our latest video, episode six of So, You Think You Know Wine, as the WineAlign critics try to crack a Carrick Pinot Noir from New Zealand.
Cheers and enjoy, David
– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign