John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 28th 2012: Alice Feiring on Natural Wine; A Tale of Two Sauvignons, Cheap Venetians; Top Ten Smart Buys.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

April 28th shines the spotlight on New Zealand and the Veneto, Italy’s powerhouse region that gave the world Prosecco, Valpolicella, Soave and Amarone. But despite some big names and pricey wines, it’s the value end of the scale that shines from the latter in this release, whereas New Zealand delivers a trio of exceptional wines in the +$20 range. Read on for the highlights of the Top Ten Smart Buys.

As a follow-up to my last report on understanding sustainable/organic/biodynamic winegrowing practices, and a lead-in to the upcoming Terrior Symposium on April 23rd in Toronto, New York-based Author Alice Feiring joins me to answer a few questions on the who, what, where and when of natural wines, the growing movement towards non-interventionalist winemaking. Alice will be speaking at the symposium on the topic of: “Natural Wine: Highest Respect or Simply Neglect?” Tickets are available on the Terrior website. See the interview below.

Top Ten Highlights: New Zealand, A tale of two sauvignons (and a chardonnay)

Admittedly it’s been some time since I’ve been genuinely excited by Marlborough sauvignon blanc. It seemed like quality was slipping as production expanded to meet demand, and there was a dull sameness regardless of price. And I wasn’t alone in noticing; leading producer John Forrest of Forrest wines in Marlborough was recently quoted in Decanter saying: “Bulk production, combined with the excessive harvest of 2009 and a subsequent loss in quality has become an issue in Marlborough over the last five years”. Forrest advocates a self-imposed appellation system with strict controls over yield and quality, a forward thinking, bottom-up strategy with the potential to make a difference, a similar model to the highly successful and widely recognized VDP association in Germany.

Seresin Sauvignon BlancTwo Rivers Of Marlborough Convergence Sauvignon BlancAnd it’s clear that great wines are possible, as I was quickly reminded when I came across this pair of distinctive, characterful examples: 2011 Two Rivers of Marlborough Convergence Sauvignon Blanc ($29.95) and 2010 Seresin Sauvignon Blanc ($21.95).

Two Rivers, so named for the Wairau and Awatere Rivers of Marlborough, was established in 2004 by veteran winemaker David Clouston. Clouston made wine in the US, Australia, France, Spain and Chile before returning to New Zealand to focus on hand-crafted, varietal wines with purity and concentration well above the mean. The 2011 sauvignon delivers terrifically vibrant grapefruit and citrus peel flavour, neither over nor under ripeness, with added textural complexity from a small portion aged in barrel on the lees. It’s a rare example with the stuffing to age as well.

Michael Seresin’s wines are long-time favorites of mine. He has farmed organically since the estate’s first plantings in 1992, and later converted to biodynamics. Seresin’s philosophy is simple: sound grapes and minimal intervention in the winery. The 2010 sauvignon has an honest, no nonsense feel to it (wild yeast ferment) and bears only a distant relationship to typical Marlborough sauvignon. Pungent grassiness is traded instead for honey, wax and wet stone flavours, while the palate delivers considerable intensity and fine length.

Marlborough is not just about sauvignon blanc, as the excellent 2009 Dog Point Chardonnay ($39.95) eloquently shows. It’s an evidently premium wine from the first sniff, offering a fine balance of ripe orchard fruit and classy barrel influence, with a side order of minerals. The palate likewise delivers a first class mouthful: intense, perfectly balanced, excellent length. I’d confidently put this on the table against top chardonnays from anywhere around the world.

Dog Point Chardonnay

Cheap Venetians

And now over to the Veneto, where the more glamorous appellations are overshadowed by the humble. Regular WineAlign readers are already aware of my skepticism regarding the process of drying grapes for concentration as is done for Amarone. (An alarming, growing trend in Ontario, too; as CBC radio host Konrad Ejbich recently said to me: “cryo-extraction [artificially freezing grapes] is not permitted for Icewine, so why is kilning grapes ok for table wines?” Good question.) And while some Amarones are extraordinary (e.g. Quintarelli, Masi’s top kit), so many are simple raisin-prune flavoured wines at exorbitant prices compensating for a lack of genuine complexity and concentration by artificial drying.

Brigaldara ValpolicellaMaculan Brentino Merlot Cabernet SauvignonSo it’s refreshing to come across a wine that’s content to be just a joyful, delicious, fruity, food-friendly drop, harkening back to the days before big scores and competitions when the stuff was made to be drunk. Brigaldara’s 2010 Valpolicella ($14.95) is such a wine; fantastically vibrant and juicy, full of fresh, tart red berry fruit, strawberry, pomegranate, red currants and wildflowers, with no interference from wood. It’s the sort of lean, light, honest wine to serve with a chill, which can be enjoyed all afternoon alongside just about anything. It’s Valpolicella doing what Valpolicella does best.

In a similar fashion, the immaculate Fausto Maculan’s 2009 Brentino Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.95) delivers a highly enjoyable blend in a classy, elegant style. Its bright red and black berry fruit, moderate wood character, light tannins and bright acids probably won’t win any competitions, unless it’s a race to see which bottle is emptied first on the table.

In the rest of the top ten you’ll find a local riesling, a Georgian classic, a rare cabernet franc from northern Argentina, a classy malbec from Mendoza and a modern Spanish beauty. See them all here.

Alice Feiring on Natural Wine

As stated on her website, Alice Feiring is “hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I’m trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel welcome.” She is the author of The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved The World From Parkerization (Harcourt) and Naked Wine, Letting Grapes do What Comes Naturally (Perseus Books). Here’s what she has to say:

JSZ: What does the designation ‘natural wine’ mean (to you)?

AF: Starting with organic viticulture and then made with the philosophy of nothing added or taken away.

JSZ: When and where did this movement, if it can be called that, get started?

AF: It started in the Beaujolais, in Villié-Morgon in the late 70s when Marcel Lapierre hooked up with Jules Chauvet and Jacques Néauport. The wine was loved, others followed. A friend told a friend. There you go.

Alice FeirlingJSZ: Why have you become such a fervent supporter of natural wines?

AF: It just sort of happened, because it is certainly not a position I applied for. I started writing about wines that I loved. In the year 2000 I stumbled into a more rarified world, where I found a gathering of real wines, made by real people, I drank, I wrote, and then one day, I’d been writing about it longer than just about anyone. My first book barely had the word natural in it. To me the wines were just great wines.

JSZ: Do government agencies (like our LCBO) have a responsibility to set parameters for acceptable commercial wines? Or should the market decide what’s acceptable?

AF: Would be great if they’d set some parameters. I’d like to see an ingredient list that recognized grape concentrate, enzymes, tannins, and oak dust as ingredients and additives. It would be great to have to add if alcohol was removed. Lowering sulfur would be great, too. But I don’t believe there should be panels deciding if a wine is ‘correct’ enough to have the appellation. Tastes shouldn’t be standardized.

JSZ: Is the general definition of ‘good wine’ becoming too restricted, marginalizing other styles that fall outside this definition?

AF: See above. The wonderful thing about the blossoming of natural wine is that there is plenty of variety, with many different shapes, weights, colors and tastes.

JSZ: Is natural wine making possible on a large commercial scale, or will it forever be the province of small artisanal producers?

AF: Real Natural is the provenance of small. It’s difficult to pull off at lets say 100,000 bottles, which, by the way, is huge for someone who really works naturally. But it is certainly possible to do good honest work at a huge level, look at Chateau Musar or Lopez de Heredia. And it’s not impossible. What must be sacrificed is this notion that wine must taste a certain way and be standardized.

Soon to arrive, however, is industrial natural. Wineries will just focus on getting rid of sulfur but replacing it with something else. As Josko Gravner said, “To make natural wine, you have to be natural yourself.”

JSZ: Do you expect natural wine to gain in popularity? Has it already? Or will it remain an ultra-niche market segment?

AF: It’s way out of niche now. There’s not enough of the good stuff to go around. This is the little engine that could, but a little like me, it had no idea it was an engine. The people working this way just wanted to make a living, work honestly and make great wine. How can something authentic like that be a fad?

JSZ:  Are there any health risks associated with natural wines, as some claim for food products like raw milk cheese?

AF: It has alcohol and sometimes so delicious it’s hard to stop drinking.

JSZ: How can more naturally made wines be identified on a shelf or restaurant list?

AF: For this we rely on the wisdom of the shop or barkeep. Here in the states a good clue is the importer as several of them focus on these kinds of wines. I’m sure Canada has a similar situation. A biodynamic or organic wine certification is close, but still no guarantee. The best hope is to go to places with great wine lists and to shops that know their stuff so you can be guided to the wines you like.

JSZ: What aspects of natural wine do you intend to discuss at the Terroir symposium and what is the message that you hope everyone will take home?

AF: Where it came from, where it is and where it’s going. Why definition in this instance is identify and destroy. And most importantly, I hope people leave understanding that there should be no double standard with food and wine, they both offer the most satisfaction when as pure as possible, grown and handled with care, delivered to the plate with honesty and love.

You can read more from Alice on her website The Feiring Line, or better yet, meet her in person on April 23rd at the Arcadian Court in Toronto during the 4th annual Terrior Symposium.

From the April 28, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier