David Lawrason’s Take on Vintages July 21 Release
Victoria Rising, Ontario Refreshing, Mature Reds and Collector Classics
Over forty new wines from Victoria, Australia, are coming through Vintages this year, including 20 this Saturday, July 21. The WineAlign team has had an opportunity to taste most of them, with reviews and wines to be found here. Please enjoy this expanded newsletter with some personal perspective on this significant release, then read on for other July 21 highlights.
I had a day off in Melbourne last year at the end of a ten day whirlwind visit to Australia’s wine regions. I walked the streets of that spectacular, vibrant city, with its great green spaces, gleaming towers and its classic bridges spanning the Yarra River. It felt somewhat like Toronto. And I reflected that Toronto was also similar in having thriving new wine regions nearby – Niagara and Prince Edward County. But then Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria, has 21 designated wine regions and over 850 wineries within a four hour driving radius.
The stunning range of wines in the state of Victoria hit home when I ended my walk at a small wine bar in time for dinner. Melbourne has a thriving food and wine scene that locals claim is the best in Oz, although there is predictable regional debate on that. But it was hard to argue when I dropped into the tiny, packed City Wine Shop on Spring Street, which doubles as a bistro and retail wine store. You can pick any bottle off the shelf to take home, or open at your table for dinner – very much unlike Toronto, I deeply regret. I study wine for a living and I had not even heard of 80% of the labels on the shelves there.
So I sympathize with Ontarians who may be overwhelmed by all the new wines of Victoria featured in this Saturday’s Vintages release – with names like Kooyong, Punt Road, Tar & Roses and Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch. To my mind, this release is the most interesting and important themed release Vintages has put together in awhile. In a timely manner, with impressive scope, it captures much of the excitement now swirling around the wines of Victoria. And there is more Victoria to come this fall, with a focus on Mornington Peninsula pinot noirs on September 29, and other releases right through December.
Vintages July 21 catalogue captures the mood with its headline “Oz Keeps its Cool: Hot New Wines from the State of Victoria”. And WineAlign colleague John Szabo, gets to the nub with the statement that “… along with Tasmania, Victoria is only state that is able to hang its hat predominantly on cooler climate style wine – where the majority of regions could rightly be classified as relatively cool”.
But Victoria has been making wine since the 19th Century, and the climate has not changed (that much). Which begs the question, why is it only “hot” now? Why all this fuss? Why am I saying this is the most important Vintages release in awhile? Well, it is all about the re-hatching of Australian wine’s reputation. It’s about Australia’s passage into adulthood as a wine producing country.
Why Victoria’s Rise is Important
Australia took the world by storm in the 80s and 90s with big, tasty jammy, boisterous and unruly teenaged reds. There were also serious, historic wines, but most sent to our shores were delicious, sweetish, hottish and inexpensive; marketed as almost child-like Australian swagger, and no one really cared where they came from – producers or consumers alike.
But every wine type and country has fashion cycles and our palates began to overdose on Australia about ten years ago. We grew increasingly bored with the flavour homogeny and brashness; we grew weary with alcohol heat, and fed up of all those critter labels that said nothing about the wine. (Some of the current colloquial, yuk-yuk branding is now striking me the same way). And so we began to go elsewhere – particularly South America – for better value and better communicated wines.
Australia as a wine growing country is huge. There are roughly 2,500 wineries, spread thousands of kilometres across five states. Anyone who has given any thought to European wine, that encompasses the same distance from Moscow to Madrid, must look at Australia and say, ‘well there is just no way that all its wines are the same, or can be considered under one umbrella’. Even within geographically tiny France, regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Alsace owe their existence to their individuality as regions, not merely by being French. So why, logically, should Australian wine be identified as only Australian? There is much, much more to Australia as a country than Ayers Rock and kangaroos. And as Victoria is now amply demonstrating, there is much more to Australian wine than big, jammy, five alarm shiraz.
So it is a sign of intellectual and/or philosophical maturity as a wine country – among producers and marketers – that Australia is moving rapidly into regionalism. And Victoria is leading the way by capitalizing on the fact that it has more cooler climate vineyards, on average, than the others. Cool does not mean better, by the way. But is does mean a better probability of diversity, individuality and elegance.
So diversity makes Victoria more interesting on the one hand, but more difficult to learn on the other. It’s just a matter of how deep you want to dive. There are some who devote their life to understanding Burgundy alone. And it’s becoming apparent that one could spend their life studying the wines of Victoria – especially by living in Melbourne, and dining at the City Wine Shop. It has crossed my mind.
Delving into Wines of Victoria
This newsletter is not the appropriate place for a long, region by region essay on Victoria’s history, geology, climate and hundreds of wineries. There is a website built for that purpose by Wine Australia at www.apluswines.com. The essential piece of Victoria wine logic is that vineyards closest to the sea are coolest, those in the mountain and hill ranges are cooler, while those vineyards located at lower altitudes and farther inland are progressively warmer.
After that, the nitty gritty study of Victoria must come one wine at a time, and I can help by pointing you to eight wines on this release that do reflect the diversity and most important themes in Victorian wine, as I know it. So here is a microcosmic journey from cooler to warmer, from sea to mountains, and back again. If you think of Melbourne, an almost coastal city in the centre of Victoria, as the centre of a clock, we will be starting at six o’clock and travelling counter-clockwise to about ten o’clock.
Kooyong Massale 2011 Pinot Noir ($39.95) is from a pinot specialist on the Mornington Peninsula, an hour due south of Melbourne (at six o’clock) on a narrow spit of land that divides Port Phillip Bay from the Southern Ocean. Truly maritime it was first recognized as a special cool climate in 1972 and now there are over 50 producers focused on pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris. Varied terrain and soil types create a very complex wine landscape, and in one afternoon there I tasted some of Australia’s most intriguing pinots to date from tiny estates like Quealy, Baillieu and Dexter. In a 2011 issue of Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine that I picked up at the time 14 of the top 29 new Aussie releases reviewed were cool climate Aussie pinots scoring over 90 points. Two single vineyard pinots from Kooyong were in the top eight; and they are coming to Vintages September 29.
Caledonia Australis 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($39.95) hails from the Gippsland, at five o’clock, southeast of Melbourne. It is definitely cooler climate although most vineyards are farther inland than Mornington. It is large area reaching right to the New South Wales border, so its 50 wineries experience considerable variation in microclimate and soil type. Caledonia Australis is one of several wineries to spring up here in the last twenty years with a solid focus on chardonnay and pinot noir.
De Bortoli Windy Peak 2010 Pinot Noir ($17.95) is from the Yarra Valley, at about three o’clock east of Melbourne. It is wonderfully lush green enclave within an easy commute of the city, which has hastened its fame and development into a region that is perhaps more Napa-like than any in Australia. Certainly chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling thrive here, but it is more moderate than the coastal areas, so it’s not uncommon to see shiraz, merlot and cabernet sauvignon as well; if cooler climate examples. Due to Melbourne’s proximity it was Victoria’s first wine region, and one of its most populated, with 80 wineries.
Tar & Roses 2011 Tempranillo ($24.95) is blended from two regions, Heathcote (64%) and Alpine Valleys (36%), located deeper inland and at higher altitude at about one o’clock from Melbourne. Alpine Valleys is apparently as pretty as it sounds, a small region in Australia’s ski country with only ten wineries that is carving out a reputation for alternative European varieties. Heathcote to the west is lower altitude, warmer and larger and known for its bigger reds like shiraz. With similarity to the plains of northern Spain it is no surprise to see tempranillo popping up.
Tahbilk Museum Release 2007 Marsanne ($22.95) is from the Nagambie Lakes, a sub-appellation of the Goulburn Valley, at twelve o’clock and two hours due north from Melbourne. It is a hot, fairly flat valley land with the Goulburn River and Nagambie Lakes as central features. There are about 20 wineries, and the wine history goes way back to the 19th Century, with Tahbilk’s large planting of marsanne – a white Rhone variety – at the centre of the story. Don’t miss this wine!
Buller Victoria Tawny ($18.95) is a nod to the era of the mid 20th Century when fortified wines, or stickies, were all the fashion. Most of them came from the searing interior of Rutherglen, even deeper inland at twelve o’clock. It still makes incredibly good fortified muscats, which aficionados rank in the same league as the best Portuguese ports, but the 20 wineries in the area also make red and white table wines. The value expressed in this rich, sweet Buller Tawny is silly good.
Camelback 2008 Shiraz ($27.95) is from the Sunbury region, very close to Melbourne, inland at eleven o’clock. It is a fairly cool, lower altitude and flatter region of grasslands and low hills known for a cool climate take on whatever it grows, with shiraz being the leading varietal. If you wanted to get right off the plane and being wine touring, Sunbury’s ten wineries are closest to Melbourne airport. And by the way, the cabernet franc grown in this region would be a fine transition for travellers from Ontario.
Pyrenees Ridge 2009 Shiraz ($20.95) is the sole representative on this release from the arc of five major regions that lie from nine to eleven o’clock farther inland northwest of Melbourne. The others are Macedon Ranges, Bendigo, Grampians and Henty. They are regions of varying altitude with Pyrenees being located at ten o’clock in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, a subset of the Great Dividing Range. This is fairly warm, dry region with shiraz being the superstar, and the home to about 30 wineries, most of them small, family properties like Pyrenees Ridge.
And so ends the Counter-Clockwise Victoria Wine Tour, at least with wines on this release. The last official region at seven o’clock is Geelong, which lies opposite Mornington. It too is a maritime region, on the rise with pinot noir. And by the way, despite the arbitrarily drawn state line between Victoria and South Australia to the west, I would group Coonawarra climatically and stylistically with the wines of Victoria as well.
Ontario Refreshes Best
Coolness is relative. Melbourne sits at 37 degrees latitude in the southern hemisphere. Niagara is at 43 degrees in the north. The distance between the two latitudes, if they were in the same hemisphere, would be about 800 kilometres. So indeed Niagara is a much cooler place to make wine than Victoria. And it explains why our wines are so refreshing compared to those of Australia. The difference in feel was immediately recognizable as I tasted the Niagara whites and rosés in the same room as the Victoria wines at Vintages lab. Even as the Ontario wines warmed, they had a certain spryness and crispness. And the three highlighted below also show great purity, balance and varietal accuracy.
Southbrook Triomphe 2011 Organic Cabernet Franc Rosé ($19.95) is a real gem; the only organically produced rosé in the province. The cab franc aromatics are as vivid as a stop-action photo; there is almost crystalline purity and the drinkability is spot on. I would prefer a touch less sweetness but I know this will please the vast majority. Featherstone 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95) from Twenty Mile Bench crackles with the same kind of purity and intensity, all nettles and lime and bright 2011 acidity. And Malivoire 2010 Gewürztraminer ($24.95) sourced from vineyards in the broader Niagara Escarpment appellation, may not be as refreshing but gewurz fans will go crazy for its precision, detail and veracity. And by the way, it joins the ranks of several very good Ontario gewurz’s I’ve tasted in recent months. I think our winemakers are finding the handle with this ornery grape variety.
Mature Reds for the Heat Wave
I was surprised to find a handful of very good, not hugely expensive mature reds on this mid-summer release; just as you may be surprised at my suggestion that they might ideal for summer drinking. Well it works like this. Sometimes we drink at night. After you have put all those boisterous daytime rieslings and sauvignons to bed, and you are on the deck as the air softens and little chill descends, a smooth, rich red could be ideal. I am conjuring up a cheese plate as well.
There are at least a half dozen mature reds on this release but three are particularly good. The best buy at only $16.95 is Pasquale Petrera Fatalone 2006 Primitivo from the Gioia del Colle appellation in Puglia. It is wonderfully complex, spicy and engaging – reminding me of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. Or re-visit a terrific now maturing, very tidy Bordeaux from the excellent 2005 vintage. I remembering extolling this vintage a couple of years ago, and Château Lamothe-Cissac 2005 ($23.95) from Haut-Médoc was a reminder of just how good it still is. And from Italy, out rolls another lovely Brunello di Montalcino. Livio Sassetti Pertimali 2006 is sensually smooth and loaded with woodsy aromas and flavours, and a very good buy at $47.95. Bring on the sunset.
Three Classics for Collectors
Again, mid-summer is not the time that most think of buying grand wines for their cellars. So for those who have taken their eye off the ball, here are three classics worth your consideration.
Hewitt Vineyard Estate Grown 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon ($63) from Napa Valley, is a classic Rutherford cabernet, a bit reserved at the moment but very complex, solid and ageworthy in the manner of a top Bordeaux, as opposed to a flashy, juicy California cab. The vineyard occupies hallowed ground in the neighbourhood of Dominus and Mondavi Reserve.
Every farm in Chianti seems to have a super-Tuscan blend of sangiovese, merlot and cabernet. Some are more famous than others, some are way more expensive than others. This great value comes from a less well-known farm near Siena in southern Chianti. The 21 hectare clay and limestone vineyard was replanted in 1998 to add merlot and cabernet. Canonica a Cerreto 2006 Sandiavolo, is a steal at $24.95 – just beginning to offer maturing complexity, but structured well enough to age another ten years.
After tasting through a raft of chardonnays from around the world, I landed on one that really moved me. Domaine Latour-Giraud 2009 Les Narvaux Meursault is a wine of impressive cohesion, complexity and depth, and if you are a cool climate chardonnay fan you will not regret paying $45.95. White Burgundy from the hot 2009 vintage is often maligned for being too ripe and flabby, and certainly there are examples that I have tasted. This however struck me as very well structured and age-worthy.
Will ICU @ I4C ?
And on that note, the long-awaited International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) rolls this weekend in Niagara. We pray for cooler temperatures, but after 36+ this week anything will feel cooler. And the lakeside venues at Jackson-Triggs on Friday night and the Vineland Research Station on Saturday night should help. John Szabo and I have put our heads and the wines together for our Chardonnay Re-Boot Camp seminar at 4pm Saturday. We will explore what it means to be “Burgundian”. It’s a term loosely tossed in the Chardonnay-dom, so we will examine white Burgundy alongside Chardonnays from Ontario and elsewhere to focus on what characteristics are unique to Burgundy versus characteristics that might be attributed to similar climates and winemaking techniques. We are almost sold out. Tickets for the evening grand tasting that follows immediately after our seminar on Saturday evening are still available. So even if you can only spare four or five hours on Saturday, you will get maximum benefit of the I4C. More details here.
That’s it for now. From the July 21st Vintages release:
VP of Wine