Lawrason’s Take On Vintages Sept 1st Release
Russian River Gold, NZ Beyond Sauvignon, Great Bargain Whites and Petit Verdot
The last Vintages release of the summer or the first of fall (you decide) is a large and rambling affair, as usual. As I tasted through the Vintages lab lineup there seemed to be so many wines scoring in the predictable 84 to 88 range, many lumped into Vintages Outdoor Entertaining feature. But then along would come a nugget of value, or a surprising high end wine. And speaking of high end I hope you don’t mind if I pass on featuring the triple-digit TIFF Champagnes. They are the wines you want to be seen enjoying, not really wines you want to have to pay for yourself. Actually, colleague John Szabo has nicely isolated the pair under $100 that do offer plenty of character and might be a better fit financially.
Rush to Russian River
The most exciting mini-theme in this release is the snapshot of California’s Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. All of California’s wine regions are achingly beautiful, and worth a visit, but for me, when I add in the wine excitement factor, the Russian River comes out on top. And yes, that means I would rather visit and taste in the Russian River than Napa, Paso Robles or Santa Barbara. The fact that this Pacific cooled, forest clad and vineyard carpeted region is all about pinot noir and chardonnay is a big reason that I am so attracted. Visit the website (www.rrvw.org) for the Russian River Winegrowers Association (featuring 85 wineries), and you can read all about the climate, topography and history that makes the region special. But to really understand the attraction, treat yourself to some of the top notch wines Vintages has assembled for this release. I only wish there were more.
Paul Hobbs 2009 Chardonnay ($44.95) is a beautiful piece of work by a now famous global wine consultant who learned all he knows in the Russian River (even though he grew up in Niagara County NY and planted family vineyards during the summer as a teen). He describes his modus operandi as “meticulous vineyard management followed by minimally-invasive winemaking”. There is nothing new in this philosophy – nor in using techniques like natural yeast fermentation and no fining or filtering. But having the ability, patience and vision to do everything required is perhaps what sets him apart. This is a lovely chardonnay.
I was also delighted by the very fine De Loach Green Valley Pinot Noir 2011 ($44.95). This is one of the pioneering Russian River wineries, planted in 1973 at the beginning of California wines rennaissance. When it was purchased 30 years later by Boisset, the largest wine company of Burgundy, there was concern about the direction it would take. But the doubters under-estimated Jean-Charles Boisset’s commitment to quality among top wines. (He was the French impetus behind Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara). He converted the property to bio-dynamic viticulture, installed open top fermenters, and in this bottling has created a most elegant, very Burgundian pinot. The Russian River pinot style, by the way is quite rich and floral with raspberry-cherry fruit; this one is just a touch leaner.
On the other hand, Merry Edwards 2009 Pinot Noir ($64.95) is full-on Russian River pinot – a drop dead gorgeous wine from one of the leading properties. Merry Edwards has been a marquée California winemaker from the days she founded Matanzas Creek in the 80s, to the opening of her own pinot-focused winery in the Russian River in 2008. There are five single vineyard bottlings, with this Russian River label being an assemblage of left overs. I don’t often quote winemaker/marketers descriptions of their own wines but the following nicely captures what I experienced when tasting this wine. “The largesse of the fruit spills over into the palate resulting in a deeply succulent mouth-feel. There is a sophisticated balance here, found in the seamless evolution of this wine from start to finish”
New Zealand Beyond Sauvignon
There are some snapping good New Zealand sauvignon blancs on the Sept 1st release, but there are also three very good non-sauvignons. Have you noticed, by the way, the growing presence of New Zealand wines in Vintages and on the LCBO general list? The tiny green land is starting to feel like a major force in the marketplace, thanks I suspect, to the generally very clean, generous and precise varietal character of its wines. There are few negative surprises.
Momo 2011 Pinot Gris ($19.95) is a great example of the purity, generosity and drinkability of NZ whites in particular. Momo is an off-shoot brand of Seresin, using grapes from bio-dynamically farmed sites. The grapes were fermented with natural yeasts and 70% was put in barrel for five months to build palate weight. Works very well too, as I describe this has having almost Alsatian pinot gris feel and richness, without oak even crossing my mind. It is delicious.
Trinity Hill 2010 Syrah from Hawkes Bay on the North Island is stupendous value at $20.95. This much awarded property, founded by veteran winemaker John Hancock (ex Morton Estate) and British partners in the 90s, focused on the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawkes Bay. Given the huge portfolio they should be more prevalent in Ontario, but perhaps that time is coming. Anyway, if their $20 syrah made from several Hawkes Bay sites can offer such terrific syrah purity and richness, I can’t wait to try their iconic Hommage Syrah that sells for $120 in New Zealand.
Mohua 2009 Pinot Noir from Central Otago ($25) is from a line of less expensive wines by Peregrine Winery, one of the icon labels of this now fashionable and exciting pinot noir region, located in the mountainous interior of the South Island at 45 degrees of latitude. (Prince Edward County by the way is at 44ish). This wine doesn’t have the depth or seamless finesse to score 90, but it handily expresses all the complexity and energy I have come to love about Otago. It’s a great pinot for autumn drinking at a fair price.
Petit Verdot Struggles for Respect
Southbrook Winery in Niagara has a petit verdot very cleverly and aptly called “So Who are you Calling Petit?” It perfectly captures the false bravado of wines made from this difficult red grape. When it does fully ripen its wines can be riveting, statuesque and powerful; but it hardly ever achieves this because it ripens later than most others. Thus its name, which loosely translates as “small green one”. The result is wines with impressive colour, great aromatics (including signature graphite and some meatiness) and very good density. But they also can have searing acidity and astringency. It is a real problem in cooler Bordeaux where it is one of the five blending varieties. But in warmer climes, where ripening should be easier, there is growing interest in PV, and I have noticed growing presence at Vintages, including three on this release.
Mendoza, Argentina is one region that has great potential. Ruca Malen, a modern enterprise founded by French partners in the Uco Valley is one winery taking a serious shot. The 2010 Ruca Malen Reserva Petit Verdot ($17.95) is a huge wine, thick and drenched with flavour, yet still unmistakeably sinewy on the finish. Stick some in the cellar.
Tepid Australia should also be ideal for PV, and wineries like Pirramimma have made it a real success (with their PV joining the general list this autumn). Thorn-Clarke 2010 Shotfire Petit Verdot ($25) from an eight hectare block in the Eden Valley sub-region of Barossa, once again starts full of promise but loses its way with a leaner, angular palate.
So maybe the answer, as always has been done by most Petit Verdot practitioners, is to blend. One of the most successful examples has turned up from a surprising source. Casa de la Ermita 2006 Idílico Crianza Selección ($19.95) is from the hot Jumilla region of eastern Spain. There is some confusion on the company website about the use of petit verdot in this blend with mourvedre, but it certainly appears to contain petit verdot, and tastes as if does, with classic PV graphite. But finally, here, there is fine sense of poise and balance.
Bargain White Trio
As summer draws to close I can’t resist one last shot at highlighting some terrific white wine bargains.
Schloss Reinhartshausen Erbacher Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese 2005 is a remarkable value at $19.95. Schloss Reinhartshausen (est 1337) is the largest privately owned estate in the Rheingau with 15 vineyards totalling 80 ha. Which explains why it has had the inventory to continually send older vintages our way. This brilliant, classic is a late-picked (spatlese) riesling from a single 15 ha “monople” vineyard wholly owned by the Schloss. If Niagara was turning out riesling like this for under $20 we would all be howling with amazement.
Château Ka Source Blanche 2010 from the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon is the surprise white of the release – partially because of its origin in tumultuous Lebanon; but also because of its composition and success at only $15.95. Lebanese native Akram Kassatly opened the winery in 2005, but only after a long career in wine making and selling that saw him working in Burgundy as well as Lebanon. It is actually a perfect late summer wine with flowery but subtle muscat, viognier and sauvignon blanc elements calming together very nicely.
Pedro Escudero Fuente Elvira Verdejo 2010 from Spain’s Rueda region is a wonderful expression of the verdejo grape at only $14.95. Its soaring, exotic, semi-tropical aroma transported me back a year to my visit to this region northwest of Madrid, and how I was impressed by the growing importance of the regions wines. The Pedro Escudero clan has owned over 30ha of old vine verdejo for several generations, which explains the concentration and complexity in this wine.
WineAlign Welcomes Grant Burge
As far as I am concerned Labour Day is the New Year’s Eve of the wine world. The harvest is days away (depending on where you live) and the marketplace begins its slow build toward the Holiday crescendo. It promises to be a very busy autumn for WineAlign, starting September 13 with a special tasting event with Australia’s Grant Burge at the terrific new Arcadian Lofts.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Grant at a similar trade tasting about a year ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him. As a pioneer of Barossa and still one of its most successful family wineries, he has much to say about Australian wine past and present, and makes no bones about speaking his mind. And you will come away feeling immersed. The tasting will be co-hosted by WineAlign’s Sara d’Amato, who promises to be the perfect foil for the garrulous Mr. Burge as he leads you through eight wines. For a sneak peek, whether you can make it to the event or not, don’t miss Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz 2010 arriving any day on the LCBO general list.
That’s it for this edition. I’ll be back next week with a special update on happenings in B.C. following two weeks of travel in August centred on the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards. My thanks to Sara for stepping in to cover the Aug 18 release.
From the Sept 1st, 2012 Vintages release:
VP of Wine