John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 12th – Getting comfortable in your own (wine) skin; Premium Products; Top Smart Buys
Premium Products – Last week’s newsletter was dedicated to reducing the unknown unknowns of the wine world. This week, given the theme of “premium products” for the November 12th Vintages release, it’s all about (re-)defining premium. My active imagination has spotted an unlikely parallel: could the maturing work of a great filmmaker mirror the wine drinker’s evolutionary curve? Are subtlety, austerity and minimalism the quintessence of both the artist and the winegrower?
This thought was provoked by the bevy of massive, alcoholic, bruising, rococo-style wines on offer in this release, which still seems to be the prevailing definition of “premium”, but maybe it’s time to re-evaluate. “Subtle”, once a euphemistic way of describing mediocre wines, might just well be chic again. After all, the rococo style died out in the late 18thC (by the mid-1800s, the term rococo already meant “old-fashioned” or “superficial” and “of poor taste” ). Considering that no less of a cinematic genius than Pedro Almodóvar has moved from the Burlesque to the minimalist with his latest work, I’d wager that in time, there’s a good chance your definition of premium will change from in-your-face to understated. If you’re already ahead of the curve, then head straight to the Recommended [Subtle] Wines and the Top Ten Smart Buys.
What Happened to Pedro Almodóvar Could Happen to You, If You Drink Enough
Of all the adjectives used to describe the films of well-known Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, subtle is not one, at least not yet. During Almodóvar’s 30-year, 18-film career, he has taken audiences on challenging journeys into the dark recesses of society, exploring sexuality, relationships, moral bankruptcy, emotional bonds, and identity, among many recurring themes, in mostly abstract representations of reality. The preoccupations of his films, like all great artworks, challenge the viewer; they make you question your sense of self, of identity, of morality. Countless scenes make you squirm, others make you smile, while others still are beautiful or downright perplexing. It’s the mind of a genius at work – who else could dream up a convent of destitute nuns, each of whom explores a different sin, led by a lesbian, drug-addicted mother superior? (Dark Habits (Entre Tinieblas), 1983.) Things that make you think make you evolve.
But thoughts can often be provoked as much by what isn’t said or shown, or by what is whispered and not shouted. It takes time to gain the experience that leads to the confidence to be subtle. Almodóvar doesn’t want to imitate life in movies, he wants to represent it, just as great wine isn’t an imitation, but a representation of a place and a belief. Almodóvar’s message doesn’t change in his latest film, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito); the underlying themes are as complex and dark as ever. But he has refined his delivery. David Gritten of The Telegraph notes that “Almodóvar’s story-telling is nowhere near as shrill as it once was: as a mature artist, he has refined his skills to a point where these soap-opera tropes assimilate smoothly into a complex whole….. The Skin I Live In is the work of a master near the top of his game.” Antonio Banderas, who plays the lead role of a geneticists-turned-modern-day-Frankenstein in the film, had this to say about Almodóvar in a recent interview [reported in Metronews.ca]: “ the logical progression for a director like him is searching always for himself and he became more minimalist, more austere and more profound”. In other words, the work is anything but simple, but is seamless, nuanced and subtle. Sound familiar?
I couldn’t help but think as I read this that wine drinkers, as well as directors, evolve in a similar way, moving towards more contained, minimalist, representations over time. At first, the young winemaker wants nothing more than to flex his or her newly acquired winemaking knowledge and put a strong personal stamp on the wine rather than let it tell it’s own story. In time, most learn to step back and let the wine evolve, with a minimalist guiding hand here and there. Similarly, wine drinkers at first seek out the biggest, boldest and most obvious wines, but as they grow more comfortable with their own tastes, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards subtler, more transparent and complex expressions.
It is possible to be minimalist, yet not simple, as Almodóvar and countless other artists have proved. There’s Hollywood, and then there’s art house. There’s room for both, but as a seasoned drinker or moviegoer, you start to look for more than superficial sizzle. You’ll realize that there’s beauty in subtlety, that true complexity doesn’t derive from over ripe fruit, exaggerated alcohol and heaps of oak flavour designed by an overzealous winemaker or marketing team, but rather from a unique representation of a place, transparent, well-articulated. At least that’s what has happened to me, and to Pedro.
Recommended Subtle Yet Meaningful Wines
Of the many beautiful representations of place in this release (almost 40 wines in the outstanding, 90+ category), I’d like to highlight 2007 MARKUS MOLITOR HAUS KLOSTERBERG RIESLING AUSLESE QmP $24.95. The Mosel is one of the world’s epicenters not only for great Riesling, but also for wines with authentic regional character. The top examples form this northerly stretch of steep hillside vineyards yields a flavour profile unlike any other patch of the planet: once tasted, never forgotten. In the hands of a winegrower such as Markus Molitor, whose sole aim is to reflect the characteristics of the region and individual vineyard sites, the end result is nothing short of astonishing. The Haus Klosterberg, a blend of several sites, is a model of purity, delicacy and finesse with a deceptively powerful message. It would be hard to imagine a lighter wine with a deeper message.
I was happy to come across the 2007 CASTELLO DI QUERCETO CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA DOCG $27.95. Tuscany has changed so radically in the last two decades, and not always for the better, with so many wines becoming imitations of somewhere else, or anywhere else or everywhere else. Over ripe, raisined fruit and loads of new oak have obscured so many of the region’s wines, so it’s always a pleasure to come across well-made examples that actually taste like they come from Tuscany. I’ll often avoid riserva-level bottlings since the minimum required ageing in wood can result in overly woody, dried out wines. But this one from Querceto is a brilliant example, and fairly priced at that. It has that typical blend of earthy, forest floor and pot pourri flavours alongside dusty cherry fruit, while the palate is firm and lean as sangiovese should be – a traditional message in a bottle.
Also noteworthy from Italy is celebrated Toronto restaurateur and entrepreneur Franco Prevedello’s (Pronto, Centro, Splendido, Nota Bene, among many others) 2010 PREVEDELLO ASOLO SUPERIORE EXTRA DRY PROSECCO DOCG $16.95 . His goal was to produce a wine from around the steep hills of his hometown Asolo in the heart of quality prosecco country that was “a little richer than the average, capable of moving from aperitif to the table”. This example is indeed a little more concentrated than most, without sacrificing the easy-drinking appeal for which the bubbly is loved. I enjoyed the intense and fragrant aromas, full of pear and citrus blossoms, while the off-dry palate is finely balanced by crisp, green apple acidity.
Value seekers should certainly check out the 2009 THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE VINUM CHENIN BLANC WO Western Cape $14.95. As the winery’s website puts it: “Chenin remains totally under-rated across the planet, which we think is not only a travesty but a wonderful opportunity.” Agreed. And outside of the Loire, South Africa has more chenin blanc than anywhere else, including plenty of old vineyards. This is an excellent value, characterful wine made from mostly old vines in the Ocean-facing vineyards of Stellenbosch’s Helderberg Mountain. It’s fullish and fleshy, mineral and taught, with well-balanced acidity, no detectable oak, and terrific length for the price. A smart buy, and capable of ageing for 2-4 in the cellar, too.
The southern Rhône is another historic region suffering from an identity crisis, and paradoxically, from the success derived from the high praise showered on certain wines by Robert Parker. As I learned, off the record, from a Rhône winemaker last week, certain properties in the Rhone Valley –particularly the southern Rhône – have sadly resorted to denaturing their wines in order to get the high scores in the Wine Advocate that guarantee easy sales and big money. One Châteauneuf producer in particular recently left his Grenache on the vine until it had reached 21% potential alcohol (!) in order to achieve the range of flavours that please the still-influential Parker. Of course, it had to be watered back to a more reasonable 16% or so, but remains a massive monolith. I’m not anti-profit or anti-success, but I say “sadly” because when asked how he likes his ‘new style’, the winemaker himself replied that he could no longer drink his own wines. What future can we hope for if a winemaker refuses to drink his own wine? For a more compelling, and drinkable, style of Châteauneuf, try the excellent 2009 LE VIEUX DONJON CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE AC $57.95 . Although not inexpensive, there is a lot of wine here for the money, and not just alcohol and power, but also classic spicy, garrigue-tinged flavours, grippy tannins and enough acidity to invite further sips.
From the November 12th Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier