John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 12th 2012: Golden California, Spring into Pink, Limestone in Israel; Top Ten Smart Buys.
May 12th shines the spotlight back on the Golden State, though California is already golden in the eyes of LCBO-Vintages buyers – it’s the number one selling region in Vintages. I explore the secrets of their success and pick out the highlights from the release. Israel is featured with a selection of eight wines designed to underscore the country’s potential (it’s not a kosher wine feature). I take a closer look at one estate in particular, Clos de Gat, and pick out a pair of intriguing wines worth highlighting. And rosés are back on drinkers’, and LCBO buyers’ minds, with a dozen on offer May 12th. There was the usual wide variation in style, and my preferred three also made it into the top ten smart buys, covered in this report.
Top Ten Smart Buys: Rosés
Rosés are featured in the May 12th release, and I found three exceptional bottles. The 2011 Château la Tour de l’Evêque Rosé Côtes de Provence is a long-time favorite and regular yearly listing at Vintages. It’s in the top-end price category (with two others at $18.95), but well worth the premium for fans of classic Provençal rosé. The château comes by its name honestly: in centuries past it was the summer residence of the Bishops of Toulon. In 1958 the property came into the hands of the Soumeire family, and in 2005 the vineyards became certified organic. The 2011, the first vintage made in a new gravity-fed facility, is typically dry and medium-full-bodied, with plenty of red berry fruit and wild Mediterranean herbal flavour, like a stroll through the Côtes de Provence at dusk.
The nearby Costières de Nîmes, on the other side of the Rhône delta, is the source of another excellent French rosé, 2011 Mas des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé ($13.95). From a family with six generations of winemaking experience in vineyards from Bordeaux to Algeria, Mas des Bressandes is among the leading estates in the appellation. The rosé is a typical blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault, and is generously proportioned with ample wild herb and red berry flavour in a plumper, fuller style.
And rounding out the recommended rosés, we go across the Pyrenees to Rioja and the delicate 2011 Muga Rosé ($12.95). Muga’s vineyards are in the Rioja Alta sub-region, where it’s notably cooler than the lower lying areas of the appellation. Like the French rosés, this too is based on garnacha (grenache) with 10% tempranillo and 30% of the white variety viura (aka maccabeo). The inclusion of viura makes this a particularly juicy example, bone dry, fragrant and lively, with tart, mouth-watering acids and light, red berry-strawberry-currant flavours.
Other top ten smart buys include a classic ten year-old Rioja for under $25, an excellent and characterful garnacha from the little-known Montsant DO next door to trendy Priorat, and an indigenous plavac from the Peljesac (pell-yeah-SHATZ) Peninsula in southern Croatia, a country whose wines have seen a huge surge in interest of late thanks in large measure to a visit from everybody’s favorite gastro bad boy, Anthony Bourdain, to film an episode of No Reservations. See the full Top Ten.
As mentioned in the intro, California is hot. Total US wine exports, driven 90% by California, were up over 25% by revenue from 2009 to 2010. And Canada is the number one country by value, purchasing almost $308 million worth of wine. (The entire 27 member European Union accounted collectively for $435 million, but breakdown by individual country is complicated by trans-shipments between EU members, so we’ll claim nº1).
But what’s most interesting to note is that volume of US exports to Canada was actually down by 23%, while value was up over 27% – that’s a huge swing, showing clearly that people are paying more, much more for California wine than in previous years. What’s the reason for this success? Aside from obviously very good wines with reputations to match, and a recovering economy, I’d say it has much to do with the relentless and effective marketing efforts of the California Wine Institute, of specific regional associations, and of individual wineries. Virtually every week I’m invited to at least one trade tasting of California wines, with producers or winery principals on hand to lead it. And consumers have plenty of opportunities to taste as well; for example, I’ll be co-hosting a WineAlign-promoted tasting with Etude’s (Sonoma) Jon Priest on May 16th, an event that sold out in a day at $65/person. The lessons to be learn? The market responds to education and to direct contact with wineries; marketing pays off.
But back to the wines: there’s a pair of terrific chardonnays in the May 12th release, which underscore a now-several vintages old trend towards, lighter, less oak-driven and more refreshing wines. The 2009 Talbott Logan Estate Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County ($26.95), is an excellent example, and a super value at that. Don’t worry, Cali hasn’t gone all Chablis on us; this is still rich and generous, and with 14.9% alcohol can hardly be called light and stony, but it has marvelous depth of flavour that’s certainly the equal of many wines at twice the price.
And at about twice the price but also worthy is the 2009 Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres Vineyard Chardonnay ($49.95). Les Pierres has always been my favorite from Sonoma-Cutrer’s range of single vineyards, sitting atop an ancient riverbed thick with cobblestones and heavily moderated by fog off of San Pablo Bay. It consistently yields a tighter, leaner more minerally style of chardonnay. The excellent 2009 vintage resulted in a wine of distinction and class, with terrific length carried on generous but balanced 14.5% alcohol. It’s drinkable now, but will be better in 1-2 years.
On the red side, there’s a pair of Zinfandels worthy of note, a grape to which I am rarely drawn even if it was first brought to California by a Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy. It’s so frequently made in a likeness to motor oil (or sweet blush) that one could be forgiven for all but writing it off. If you, too, have become jaded, then try a little remedy in the form of Storybook Mountain Estate’s 2009 Mayacamas Range Napa Estate Zinfandel ($46.95). Zinfandel has been made at Storybook Mountain since 1880, and such history tends to regard current fashion with some disdain. It’s hardly inexpensive, but considering how classy, elegant, well balanced and above all lively this is, it may just make you a believer. In any case it’s a zinfandel of rare depth, intensity, minerality and freshness with a degree of complexity that should be the envy of those from the over ripe/raisined school of production.
I was happily surprised by the 2009 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($23.95). Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, considered one of the godfathers of California Zin, is also well known for his motto of nullum vinum flaccidum, or, “no wimpy wines”. So when I tasted this balanced example I could only guess that maybe Peterson’s getting a little wimpier (for the better) with age. This is still big and ripe to be sure, but with complexity well above the mean. There’s intriguing licorice, cherry, dried flower and spice aromas/flavours, while the palate is dense, full, well-structured but also balanced with bright acids, firm but moderate tannins and generous but not excessive (14.5%) alcohol. Terrific length, too, and well priced for discovery.
And speaking of tasting opportunities, if you missed getting a ticket to the Etude event, there’s a large Vintages-sponsored “Zinfinite Possibilities” Taste & Buy event on the same evening in Toronto where you’ll taste dozens of different wines in every style imaginable. Visit the Vintages website for details. See the full list of top rated California wines here, including wines from Shafer and Far Niente.
Israeli wines are also featured in the May 12th release, and though some are kosher, that’s not the theme, but rather a look at what the country can do. But despite the tight selection, there was evidence of erratic winemaking and over-exuberant use of wood. There was nonetheless enough to generate some real excitement for Israel’s potential. Of the estates on offer, Clos de Gat was clearly the most interesting, with vineyards in foothills of the Judean Mountains surrounding a 3000 year-old wine press (“Gat” is Hebrew for winepress). Thin topsoil over limestone bedrock is particularly well suited to quality grape production, and natural yeasts are used for fermentation. The 2009 Clos de Gat Chardonnay ($47.95) is an intriguing blend of old and new world style, offering generous alcohol, ripe orchard fruit flavours and full body, but underneath there’s significant minerality and marked leesy, nutty, rancid butter notes that’s more reminiscent of Burgundy. It’s well worth a look if you were under the impression that Israel couldn’t make fine wine. The red counterpart from the same estate, the 2007 Clos de Gat Ayalon Valley ($47.95), was less successful in my view. Although there’s the same sense that the terroir is really quite exceptional, the winemaking is heavy handed and obscures the potential distinctiveness.
My preferred Israeli red is the 2007 Recanati Reserve Single Vineyard Merlot, Galilee ($28.95). It’s crafted more in an old world style with marked herbal, crushed leaves and black tea flavours alongside ripe black berry fruit.
From the May 12, 2012 Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier