A Fistful of Fine Bargains – Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Feb 18th release
The Bachelder Chardonnays, 90pt Ontario Whites, The Sunny South of France, New World Values, plus Muscat Musings & Sweet Endings.
The February 18 release is a large and rambling affair with little focus or newsworthiness. The main theme is Customer Favourites, which is a welcome return engagement for wines that have done well in the past. The wine industry continually laments how hard it is to build brands via Vintages single purchase modus operandi, and consumers likewise lament how hard it is to re-purchase the wines they like. So hopefully this bunch will spread some joy.
But news? Well, when I was tasting at the downtown HQ lab this week there was no running water to rinse our glasses and spittoons. They better get the plumbing fixed before hanging the “For Sale” sign on that old building, as premier Dalton McGuinty intends to do as part of his new austerity measures. Interestingly, as pointed out by some newspaper types this week, he is not talking at all about selling the entire LCBO. Now that would make a real dent in the deficit.
The Bachelder Chardonnays
Wait; there is something newsworthy this week – the simultaneous release of three chardonnays by rambling Canadian winemaker Thomas Bachelder. Thomas was the first winemaker at Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne, the earnest Burgundy-modelled joint venture between Vincor Canada and Boisset of Burgundy. Boisset has since pulled out, and soon after so did Bachelder, who has always been a gypsy spirit. He started in wine as a Montreal-based wine writer for Tidings magazine in the 80s, then disappeared into cellars around the world to actually make the stuff. His pre-Jordanne journeys took him to Burgundy and Oregon. So it comes as no surprise that his latest project is to make individual chardonnays from the three places he knows best – Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy.
I highly recommend spending just over $100 to buy one each of these bottles, open them together and go to school on terroir and regionality. Together they are a tour de force of modern chardonnay, and an educational opportunity that rarely if ever comes along. There was discussion among we pundits over which one was best, but actually all three are excellent. The level of winemaking skill is readily apparent, not only in the sense of purity and polish, but the way the fruit shines in all three amid the intricate barrel complexities, and the way the three origins express themselves. The Bachelder 2009 Bourgogne Chardonnay($34.95) was the lightest, narrowest and most poised. Bachelder 2009 Oregon Chardonnay, Willamette Valley ($36.95) was the broadest and most rich. The Bachelder 2009 Chardonnay from the Niagara Peninsula ($31.95) version was the most powerful and structured.
The debate over where Ontario should focus – white or red – is never far from the surface in Niagara. There is enough vintage and site variation that one can argue for virtually any style and variety then name wines to back that position. But in the end the marketplace will decide which wines Ontario can sell most consistently, with price and competition in the equation. From that perspective three wines being released on Saturday make a strong argument that Ontario needs to be focusing on white wines. All are under $20 and I have rated the three at 90 points, while the reds on offer are forgettable.
I am not the only one to be wowed by Tawse Sketches of Niagara 2009 Chardonnay from Niagara, especially at $19.95. Among 86 chardonnays entered in the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards it was one of only six gold medalists, and all its Ontario peers were over $30. It may not have the depth of a great modern white Burgundy but it fooled and wowed 16 of Canada’s top palates. Mike Weir 2008 Riesling from Niagara-on-the-Lake is a great find for riesling friends at $14.95. Of note, it was made at Château des Charmes whose 2008 Old Vines Riesling was White Wine of the Year at the 2011 Ontario Wine Awards. And finally we have 90 point excellence in another genre altogether. I find most inexpensive white blends from Niagara rather boring, but Creekside 2009 Laura’s White at $18.95 is a terrific and creative, complex blend of sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay, viognier and muscat.
Behold the Sunny South of France
The bounty from the south of France spills onto this release as well, with a slate of 2009s from the Rhone and neighbouring Languedoc. Seriously, if you have not started to put some funds towards this vintage and region, you need to re-consider your priorities. Think of how many bottles of delicious Gigondas, Corbières, Minervois or Roussillon you could buy instead of one case of 2009 Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, or a case of high scoring Napa Cabernet. I know that quantity is not necessarily the end game for folks who collect the world’s most famous wines, but you could be philanthropic and spread those cases of highly drinkable, sunny southern French reds around to your friends.
The Rhone selections are by and large solid, except for the Kosher version. (Most of the Kosher selections are quite good actually). I want to focus you however on Château Saint-Roch Chimères 2009 from Côtes du Roussillon-Villages. At $18.95 this Wine of the Month is a sock’em 90 point buy and I would not be at all surprised to see some peers score even higher for this dark, rich engaging blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan. I am very enamoured of this tiny corner of France against the Spanish border, where old vines hug steep, rugged hillsides within the glint of the Mediterranean. The wines have a wonderful sense of ripeness that will tug at New World heartstrings, yet there is enough minerality and structure to please Euro fans as well. And for a real terroir experience don’t miss the wonderfully fragrant Château de Fontenelles 2008 Cuvée Notre Dame from neighbouring Corbières, a steal at $15.95. Be prepared for a distinctive, high toned rosemary herbal scent that frequently leaps from bottles in Languedoc.
90 Point New World Reds Under $25
There is a great array of well-made New World reds on this release. There are of course some top end entries from California and Australia, but I was most intrigued by good buys under $25. The parade is led by the excellent Araucano 2009 Syrah from the Lolol Valley, Chile at a stunning $14.95. This wine is made by world travelling Bordeaux-based Francois Lurton, who set up Hacienda Araucano in the Lolol Valley, a sub-region of the Colchagua Valley that lies closer to the Pacific. The region routinely experiences fog that reduces sunlight hours and heightens acidity.
There are a number of California reds on the release, and most are overpriced for quality delivered. The exceptions are the excellent Ridge 2007 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon at $49.95, and the well-priced Clos du Val 2009 Zinfandel Napa Valley at $23.95. I have always liked the genteel styling, layered and nuanced styling of Clos du Val. When I set into the group of big Aussie reds I was most impressed by d’Arenberg 2009 The Footbolt Shiraz from McLaren Vale at $22.95. There is inbred poise and complexity that many jammier Aussie reds lack. I expect it will age very nicely for a decade if you so desire.
The chardonnay theme continues with two great Southern Hemisphere buys. Xumek 2010 Chardonnay from the Zonda Valley in the province of San Juan, Argentina, is a very fine effort at $15.95. Zonda is a highland region and this chardonnay expresses impressive finesse and brightness – perhaps also due to the hand of wine consultant Paul Hobbs, yet another roving oenologist who actually specializes in chardonnay (I did not like the Xumek reds). Backsberg 2011 Chardonnay from Paarl, South Africa ($17.95) is a Kosher wine with complexity, depth and Burgundian character that outstrips its price. And I am pleased to feature the return of an old favourite. Mount Riley 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand continues to one of New Zealand’s coolest customers, for all those who find much Kiwi sauvignon to be too edgy. Also a steal at $15.95.
Muscat Musings and Sweet Endings
And finally, this release presents a three-wine clinic on the muscat grape. I have always been a fan of its over-the-top perfumy essence. And when well made in either its fizzy moscato style, dry Alsatian style, medium sweet dessert style or fully fortified style I tend to score it well. Some hate this grape, so be warned.
François Schwach 2008 Muscat from Alsace, France is a shining example of a dry muscat with great purity, poise and freshness. Circling back to the Rhone Valley and upping the sweetness and alcohol level, I was also pleased as punch with the purity of expression in Domaine des Richards 2010 Muscat Beaumes de Venise, a Vin Doux Naturel at $16.95 per half bottle. Get a load of all that orange and anise! And saving the best for last, both in terms of quality and value, treat yourself to Massandra 2008 Muscat from Crimea in The Ukraine. Unbelievable 94 point quality for $15.95! But so it goes in the vastly under-appreciated world of fortified wines. The Massandra cellar near the Black Sea town of Yalta has been a treasure trove of great fortifieds for over 100 years, and at one point its Massandra Collection of over one million bottles was named the largest in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. This wine itself tastes like it has been steeped in history, for decades. Don’t miss it.
That’s all for this week! Watch for more picks from Vintages March 3 release. Meanwhile I am off to the Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival February 26 to March 3, and may have some insights and finds to tell you about at the same time. Watch next week for a feature on B.C. wines. I have just returned from the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna where I did a great tasting of Similkameen Valley wines, plus tastings of wineries like Ex Nihilo, Spierhead, Bartier & Scholefield, Le Vieux Pin, Nichol Vineyard and Moon Cruiser.
VP of Wine at WineAlign