Lawrason’s Take on Vintages November 26th Release: An Embarrassment of Riches, Mature New World Classics, Napa Mountain Cabs, Masi Amarones, Les Grand Clos, Bargain Whites
With great names like Sassicaia, Beaucastel, Pontet Canet, Dunn and many, many others, Vintages release on Saturday, November 26th is enough to make wine lovers crazy. Either deliriously happy if you can afford these iconic wines, perhaps morosely depressed if you cannot. So allow me to temper the insanity around the world’s most sought after wines by saying one thing – they are not really worth the money. There – feel better?
I am not saying this to be an anti-wine snob snob. The fact is that the process of being able to taste all these triple-digit wines side by side in the clinical, comparative environment of the LCBO tasting lab, reveals them to be merely mortal. Sure, they are excellent, sometimes even outstanding. But so are many wines under $50, or even under $25.
You are paying a huge premium for their fame. And that fame is usually derived from being not only excellent quality, but having a story that at one point thrust them into the spotlight. A notoriety often backed the force of personality or wealth of the winemaker or owner. And there is nothing wrong with all that, as long as you know what you are paying for.
I did not get to taste this entire release but I have picked off the big names, because it is in this snack bracket that objective critique is most useful. And within this set I have isolated a couple of themes of interest (I hope). My picks are not necessarily the highest scoring or most famous kids on the block.
Mature New World Classics
One sub-plot of this release is the opportunity to try mature icon reds from the New World – at prices equal or less than current vintages. We get so accustomed to tasting young and delicious California, Australian and other New World reds that we tend to forget they, too, can age.
I am often asked “how do you know a wine will age well?” The answer has nothing to do with where it comes from. It is always a matter of fruit depth and balance, which needs to be clearly evident when the wine is young. The more depth or density the longer the wine will age (which is particularly pertinent to New World wines). And the better the balance the more gracefully the wine will age. If a New World wine is too hot (high in alcohol), overly ripe, volatile, or low in acid it will probably never be much better down the road.
A pair of 2005s from Australia begin to tell the tale. Six years of age is hardly old times for big Australian reds but again, given our fixation with new releases, it is fascinating to watch the early development of these wines, with leather beginning to creep into the flavour mix, and tannin softening a bit. BAROSSA VALLEY ESTATE 2005 E & E BLACK PEPPER SHIRAZ ($89.95) – an old favourite of mine (and many others) – is very complex, with great tension and depth. Even more fascinating are the symphony of both youthful and maturing flavours in HENSCHKE 2005 MOUNT EDELSTONE VINEYARD SHIRAZ from the Keyneton sub-district of the Eden Valley in South Australia ($99.95). If I had just $100 to spend on one wine in this release; this would be my pick.
Stepping back almost a decade, BERINGER 1997 PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON from California’s Napa Valley ($119.95) is ageing very nicely. The company’s top wrung cabernet has faced criticism for being a bit too oaky, obvious and generous in its youth, but fourteen years after it is showing engaging richness, considerable complexity and still bright, perfectly ripened if maturing fruit – more than just berries and cream.
Over to Europe now, into the fairly tale world of Quintarelli – who I have always pictured to be the magical gnome-like smith in some Italian children’s storybook. A man and a wine, living in another time, where time itself is the meaning of all existence. When have you ever had a young Quintarelli wine? And if everyone reveres and loves his wine so much why are so few wines made this way nowadays? QUINTARELLI 2002 ROSSO CA’ DEL MERLO, Veneto ($84.95) is firstly not a merlot. It is a blend of native corvine and other varieties from a single vineyard called Merlo. And it is wonderful, heady experience.
Napa Valley’s Mountain Reds
The line-up of big name California reds is powerful and deep enough to field against the New York Yankees – Pahlmeyer, Far Niente, Peter Michael, Philip Togni, Aventura – etc. As I tasted down the line I was struck not by how seductive and succulent they were but by how understated they were. Most were impressively smooth and sculpted but not very arresting of challenging – until I hit DUNN VINEYARDS 2007 HOWELL MOUNTAIN CABERNET SAUVIGNON from Napa Valley ($96.95). Here was a cabernet with more personality, with something to say about the gutsy nature of the cabernet grape, and the classic man vs nature conflict inherent in its creation. Those other overpaid $100 players from Napa’s floor seemed almost wimpy, or at least effete, in comparison. Then, out of the minor leagues (under $50) came another mountain-grown Napa cab that sealed the deal. CUVAISON 2007 CABERNET SAUVIGNON from vineyards high on Mount Veeder ($49.95) did not have quite the depth of the Dunn, but it had the same dark, brooding black fruit presence and sense of sinew, for half the price.
Masi’s $100 Single Vineyard Amarones
Sandro Bosciani of Masi is one of the most engaging and interesting winemakers on the planet – and one of the most travelled and hardest working too. His career is a litany of innovations. Most importantly, Campofiorin, Italy’s first “ripasso” red made by refermenting Valpolicella after adding the lees left over from amarone fermentations. Then there were creative new blends from native, sometimes obscure Veneto varieties in wines like the white Masianco. He aged his Serego Aligheri Valpolicella in cherry wood instead of oak. He expanded into Tuscany where he tried intriguing new blends (again with indigenous varieties). He went to Argentina and applied ripasso technique to a corvina malbec blend called Passo Doble. And all these wines are available at the LCBO!
Most importantly he has fostered greatness with amarone, Veneto’s signature red made from dried or appasimento grapes. On Saturday Vintages releases his two great single vineyard amarones from the very good but not great 2004 vintage. They are MASI MAZZANO 2004 AMARONE DELLA VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO and MASI CAMPOLONGO DI TORBE 2004 AMARONE DELLA VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO, both selling for $99.95. I was immediately struck by how much these wines do not fit the common perception of amarone as a sumptuous, lavishly rich smooth and raisiny red. They really came across more like powerful, nuanced, firm and cellar-worthy dry reds with great acid structure.
“This is the future of amarone”, said Sandro Boscaini, when he visited Toronto in October. Well that might be true, but it was statement made with as much hope as actual foresight. Amarone has become hugely popular and profitable, it’s style and quality now widely dispersed and diluted. Having unleashed the beast he is still trying to tame and focus it, on quality.
Le Clos Jordanne’s Top 2009s
Les Grand Clos – the king and queen of Jordan – are being set out for the public on Saturday, the matching pair white and red – chardonnay and pinot noir – from the top vineyard site of Le Clos Jordanne. This is the proud and earnest project, established in Niagara’s Jordan area almost a decade ago in a joint venture between Boisset of Burgundy and Vincor Canada. Since then Vincor has been purchased by U.S giant Constellation Brands, and Boisset has quit the project, but LCJ carries on as earnestly as ever when it comes to the winemaking under Sebastien Jacquey. He is achieving finesse and nuance that still escapes many in Niagara. LE CLOS JORDANNE 2009 LE GRAND CLOS CHARDONNAY ($75) is a very fine piece of work – very elegant and almost ethereal. In my mind, after five full vintages, chardonnay remains a stronger performer at Le Clos than pinot noir. LE CLOS JORDANNE 2009 LE GRAND CLOS PINOT NOIR, also $75, is also the best of single vineyard pinot offerings, but showing an edginess and tartness in this vintage that I am not sure will ever be transcended.
Great New World Whites Under $20
And now a quick sip of three delicious, pure and inspired whites that should be in your cabinet for the holidays, or sipping next spring.TERRAZAS DE LOS ANDES 2010 RESERVA TORRONTÉS ($14.95) from the northern Salta province of Argentina is as fine and elegant version of this floral, citrusy white grape as I ever come across. Terrazes is, in my mind, one of the great producers of Argentina, with a French sensibility that brings refinement to their reds and (now) their whites.
I don’t often get excited about pinot gris/grigio but MOMO 2010 PINOT GRIS ($18.95) from New Zealand’s Marlborough regions is as exacting, pure and delicious as you are ever likely to find in a commercially priced example. Momo is a line of organically made wines from Seresin, this pinot gris being partial fermented with wild yeast and partially aged a short spell in French oak. The fruit remains wonderfully expressive of pinot gris despite these techniques.
And from Stellenbosch, South Africa, have a look at the surprising complex, elegant and deep AMANI 2009 CHARDONNAY, a steal at $17.95. It was made by Carmen Stevens, who since 2005 has made the wine for owner Jim Atkinson. Since purchasing a prime site in Stellenbosch in 2001 he and his family have been busy replanting to high density viticulture. I love the website’s description of the benefit. “The vines being planted so closely together create a bonsai effect causing the berries to be smaller and bursting with flavours”.
Cheers and enjoy, David
– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign