Sara d’Amato’s Take on the Aug 18th Vintages Release
Sunshine Breeds Charm in the Southern Rhône, Cool Whites of the Pacific Northwest and Food for Thought from Italy
Only a couple of short weeks ago I was lamenting leaving the beautiful Provencal countryside and the bustling, rampart-encircled city of Avignon where I had spent the last five weeks with my two little boys. After a fully relaxing trip, due in part to the calming lavender aromatics that permeated the air at the peak of harvest, the indelible sunshine, and the leisurely tempo of locals, it was back to reality in the clinical, whitewashed LCBO tasting lab. To my delight, a ray of nostalgic sunlight was beaming through in the form of a substantial Southern Rhône release due to hit the shelves in just a few days. The breadth of the selection is impressive and the quality is certainly representative of the charm of the region.
Also of note is this week’s mini feature of the Pacific Northwest – small and limited but with a couple of wines of note. Finally, Southern France is not the only hot/Mediterranean climate to grace the shelves in abundance this week as the sweeping selection of Italian wines emanating from north to south prove to be an impressive offering.
Unlike the classic, renown regions of the northern Rhône that engender immediate respect and admiration like Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Condrieu, the diverse regions of the southern Rhône typically inspire less reverence, with the glaring exception of the eminent Châteauneuf-du-Pape. From an abundance of pop culture references to a long, reverent history, this wine has become synonymous with the elite and glitterati. Nevertheless, despite its notoriety and considering other French regions of repute, the price of Châteauneuf is relatively reasonable. And keeping in mind that Châteauneuf is generally at the peak of the Southern Rhône price point, there lies a sea of great value wines from less famous yet equally impressive appellations, most notably that of Gigondas. The regions of Vacqueyras, Cairrane, Vinsobres and Rasteau are also not to be overlooked, though are generally made to be less ageworthy than the notorious Châteauneuf.
There does exist a great divide between the profiles of appellations to the north and south. The northern style tends to be more ageworthy, heady, tense and focused, permitting only the use of Syrah in the reds and Viognier most notably in the whites although Marsanne and Roussane are also used. In the south, a plethora of grapes are permitted – 13 in total for use in reds, all found in the prestigious blend of Château Beaucastel. The wines of the south are also more charming – some would call them rustic. They benefit from and are impacted by more extreme heat, sunshine and drought along with the famous galets (large stones), that are sometimes over a meter deep, and that reflect and retain heat to regulate the needs of the vines. The term ‘garrigue’ is a terroir descriptor of the south and refers to the aromas that surround the vineyards such as thyme, lavender, anise and dusty earth, and that with any luck find their way into your glass. These are mood changing wines, escapist wines, and wines that emanate sunshine.
Worthy of your examination are three wines that embody the best of these characteristics. Of course, there are others in this release that deserve your attention as well but these particularly embody the charm that the south has to offer. From the generic Côtes du Rhône appellation, the Domaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs Côtes Du Rhône 2010 ($16.95), mentioned also by John Szabo, most notably expresses the term ‘garrigue’ in a glass, even more so than its slightly more complex counterpart in this release, the Cuvee Philippine. Gigondas often falls in the shadow of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but I will often find wines of equal or even greater refinement in the former. Grapes are grown primarily on slopes and benefit from cooler breezes that help to preserve acidity in the wine. A fine example of this finesse and charm is Domaine Le Clos Des Cazaux La Tour Sarrasine Gigondas 2010 ($26.95). Largely Grenache based, it benefits as well from terrifically spicy Syrah. Finally, Bosquet Des Papes Cuvée Tradition Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010 (42.95) exudes that traditional rusticity and allure that make Châteauneuf-du-Pape so endearing.
If you are in the mood to venture further north, the family name synonymous with the northern Rhone, Guigal, has a particularly intriguing offer at a mere $15.95. The E. Guigal Côtes Du Rhône Blanc 2011 made largely from Viognier but also blended with Roussane and Marsanne, delivers exceptional impact and flavour for the dollar.
Pacific Northwest Mini Feature
The Pacific Northwest Mini feature (and Mini it is) unfortunately offers a largely commercial style selection of wines, but there are a couple of noteworthy whites that should not be disregarded. The first stems from Eyrie Vineyards, an Oregon pioneer who was responsible for shockingly showing up the French way back in 1979 in Paris and 1980 in Beaune (subsequent to the legendary Paris Spurrier tasting) when the 1975 Eyrie Vineyard pinot noir outshone many great Burgundies. This largely gave rise to the serious pinot noir production we now benefit from today in Oregon. This estate is also home to America’s first pinot gris, and the vines have greatly benefitted from their tenure since the ‘60s. Elegant, exotic and spicy, the 2009 Eyrie Pinot Gris ($25.95) is well worth discovering.
Homegrown and from an estate that is constantly in the spotlight for its award winning wines, in particular those complex Burgundian varietals, Quails’ Gate has put forth a solid Chardonnay for less than $20. (2010 Quails’ Gate Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia). Able to outshine many Burgundian offerings at this price, this well-oaked but integrated Chardonnay has great charisma and ageworthy potential.
And although it surely stretches the geographic boundaries of the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t help but highlight the 2009 Calera Pinot Noir, Central Coast, California, ($31.95). Generous, polished, and showing exceptional distinctiveness, it is fortunately available to us locally. Calera plants their estate Burgundian varietals on limestone rich slopes at a dizzying 2200 feet above sea level, lowering the temperatures significantly from the lower lying, surrounding area. However, for this Central Coast series, the grapes are sourced from select growing partners throughout the Coast.
Food for Thought from Italy
Nowhere in the world is there produced such an abundance of food friendly wines as in Italy. For those who have spent any time in this extremely diverse country, you’ll notice that the one thing that every region has in common is thinking ahead to the next meal. That unifying feature is pervasive in the wine culture and it becomes difficult not to taste the wine and immediately think of what one would eat. I generally try to save these wines for last when tasting through the upcoming release as it usually inspires my dinner ahead.
Given the number of Italian wines in this release, there could easily have been a second feature. At the same time, there is no obvious theme to this release, making a spotlight difficult. In an effort to help navigate these offerings, here are, simply, some highlights.
From northern Italy, in the region of Fruili, resides a red stemmed, wild, nutty, and perfumed varietal known as refosco dal peduncolo. An old varietal, it is presumed indigenous to Italy. I was greatly pleased by the following example from Stocco Refosco Dal Peduncolo Rosso 2009, ($14.95) for its value and its clean, modern take without sacrificing the varietal distinctiveness. It is a full-bodied yet cooler climate red with delightful freshness and plenty of versatile food matches. Try with spaghetti Bolognese or stuffed red peppers with beef and tomatoes.
A classic and consistent Vintages offering is Altesino Rosso Di Montalcino 2009, Tuscany ($18.95), a vibrant Sangiovese-dominant blend with a touch of Cabernet and Merlot. Try with freshly grilled porcini mushrooms. Lastly, Due Torri Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2008, Veneto, Italy, ($39.95) is sure to turn heads. Not exactly a classic vintage for Valpolicella but one that has proved interesting as the wines generally exhibit greater freshness and less heaviness due to cooler temperatures and heavy rain during most of the summer. It is believed by some that the slight amount of additional acidity will add to the structure and give this vintage greater longevity – completely reasonable, but only time will tell. Certainly, the Due Torri is showing signs of graceful maturity but it is no push over. Try with aged, herbal infused cheeses or a hearty Ossobucco.
Over and out! David will be back from British Columbia shortly and will surely have plenty of stories with which to regale you. He will also be back covering the next release as per usual. Enjoy the weekend and I look forward to sharing more stories of recent Rhône adventures soon. Next week I’ll be off to judge the Intervin Wine Awards in Niagara and will be sure to report on those that captivated our attention.
From the August 18th, 2012 Vintages release: