John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 29th 2012
Switching Your Pleasure Meter From Price to Typicity; Top Ten Smart Buys; Top Ten Tuscan Wines
This week’s report comes live from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the country’s top six wine professionals are competing for the title of Canada’s Best Sommelier. So I’m busy marking papers and putting these wine pros through the wringer of mock restaurant service and blind wine tasting (it’s far easier to be on the judges’ side of the table). The winner and runner-up will move on to represent Canada at the Pan-American sommelier championships in Brazil later next month. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for anyone willing to put their reputations on the line and push themselves to the limit; it’s the only way of discovering your strengths and weaknesses. Those who don’t test themselves never truly know where they stand. Regardless of the final results, each of the candidates will be, well, stronger for it.
Sara d’Amato will be doing a full report on the competition in a forthcoming posting. So I’ll focus on a revolutionary way to get pleasure without necessarily spending a fortune on wine, as well as a quick round-up of my Top Ten Smart Buys from the September 29th Vintages release. I also lay out my top ranked wines from the main thematic of the release, Tuscany.
Pleasure Without the Price
Last week I was in the Loire Valley, traveling from Sancerre to Nantes (Muscadet country) getting reacquainted with the region’s wines. A full report will be published next week, but I wanted to share a thought with you this week that came into focus while talking to a particularly thoughtful vigneron, Claude Papin of Château Pierre Bise in Anjou. In the business we’re forever talking about things like quality and value. And I know that anyone who shops for, and drinks wine, considers those notions, at least from time to time, and maybe even all the time. I wrestle with the subject often – as regular readers know, it’s one of my great preoccupations.
Last week I found myself enjoying dozens of wines, I mean, really enjoying. But it was causing some consternation because the vast majority were inexpensive, and some even downright cheap, the sort of wine that you’d see on a shelf and keep right on walking by, thinking to yourself that wine that cheap couldn’t possibly be any good (I’m talking below $15 on an LCBO shelf). But these inexpensive wines were offering a lot of pleasure. Then I began to realize that the more I travel and taste and learn, the less direct the relationship between price and pleasure becomes. In fact, more often than not, I prefer the less expensive wines in a given winery’s range, or some of the less heralded producers in an expensive, name brand appellation, or even the wines of a totally unknown region.
So my terroir hunting colleague Bill Zacharkiw of the Montreal Gazette and I arrived at Papin’s estate late one afternoon just before sunset. We immediately jumped into his station wagon and headed out to the vineyards, the beginning and the end of the story that relates what’s in the glass. In the midst of a thesis level discussion of terroir and viticulture that was admittedly beyond my grasp at times, we got on to the subject of wine, pleasure and value. Then Papin, rather matter of factly and without any hesitation, issued forth a truth so basic and unassailable that it could only have been arrived at after years of thoughtful deliberation. “Well”, he said, “quality is purely subjective, but typicity is objective. You can measure typicity, and it can also give you pleasure”. It took a moment for the profoundness of the simple statement to sink in, but suddenly all was clear. Once you’ve understood and accepted that anyone’s notion of quality is indeed purely subjective – what I like or you like or she likes – and that wines of typicity, that is, wines that reflect a place and grape, can be identified and quantified (as happens in blind tastings), you can free yourself from the shackles of price and re-orient your entire notion of pleasure.
I realized that I have been drawn ever closer to wines of typicity, that my greatest pleasure comes from identifiable wines. It also made clear why I care less and less for many of the world’s most expensive wines, those that are stuffed full of wood and alcohol and unnatural concentration, the ones that score all of the points in most publications, but that you’d be hard pressed to identify in a blind tasting. I quickly felt comfortable again about enjoying inexpensive wines, knowing that typicity can come at all price points. I know I get more pleasure from a $15 wine with sense of place and made with minimal intervention than I do from a $100 bottle chock-full of winemaking techniques that could have been made in any part of the world.
At the same time, I also realized that Papin’s deep insight is discomforting for the majority of wine consumers. Price is easy to understand. Impact impresses. A personal notion of quality is self-evident and takes no expertise. But typicity, on the other hand, has the disadvantage of requiring significant context. You have to know what typicity is to recognize it. And it’s not easy to know what all of the world’s wines are supposed to taste like, unplugged, without a thousand enological adjustments (not to mention that typicity is still being established in many new growing regions). This also explains why top sommeliers and wine geeks are always switched on to wines that most people frankly don’t like, at least not on first sip, because they have the context that we don’t always have. You need to build some context before you can, enjoy, say, a searingly acidic Gros Plant du Pays Nantais that most people would use to clean windows. That is, until you understand that it’s supposed to be that way.
So if you’re tired of needing to spend $30 or $50 or more to really get your kicks, try switching your pleasure mode from price/quality to typicity. Get to know a region, taste as much as you can, and build your context. Familiarity breeds pleasure, not contempt, in the world of aromas, flavours and tastes. Then the next time you come across a wine whose profile matches what you know the region/grape typically produces, you will derive pleasure, guaranteed. You’ll see how a $13 “classic” Muscadet, to give just one example, can make you happier than a $30 non-distinctive, designer bottle of chardonnay from anywhere. It’s fun. And barring significant effort for context development, you can always count on my top picks to deliver high on the typicity scale, at least the way I see it. I’ve got a decent measure of context, and my only goal is to build it up more and more.
Smart Buys with Typicity
In the spirit of typicity, here are a half dozen highlights from the September 29th release. They’re not all cheap wines; some are even expensive by most standards, but they are distinctive.
LA CRAU DE MA MÈRE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE 2010 $44.95
Richly aromatic, spicy, immediately recognizable southern Rhône character here with full, concentrated, fleshy savory fruit, massive extract and concentration but likewise so much fruit depth to compensate. This wine should last for at least a couple of decade, but is also delicious now – imagine a savory slow-grilled leg of lamb or lamb barbacoa Mexican style and you’ll be happy.
ELK COVE PINOT NOIR 2009 $37.95
A very pretty, classy, elegant example of Willamette Valley pinot noir, a little riper than many (though still in a cool climate idiom). Fruit covers a nice range of tart red berries, fresh black berries, old wood spice and fresh earth. The palate is firm and well structured, while 14.2% alcohol is perfectly integrated. This has the stuffing to age and improve to be sure. Lovely wine.
JACOPO BIONDI SANTI SASSOALLORO 2008 $35.95
Richly aromatic, complex and spicy on the nose, with a fine blend of red and black berry fruit, earth, resinous herbs, licorice and on and on. The palate is succulent and juicy, firm and fresh, deceptively concentrated despite the medium weight impression – this has genuine depth without recourse to excess ripeness or oak. Very fine, in an elegant style.
DEI VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO 2008 $28.95
Here’s a fine, fragrant, elegant style of Vino Nobile, more floral than fruity, with light vanilla and cinnamon spice notes. The palate is medium-bodied, balanced, with fine-grained tannins and vivid acids; very good length. A feminine wine all around, with lots of appeal.
A classy, perfumed, inviting spätlese from one of the top vineyards in the Mosel. The warmth of this full south-facing precipitously steep site shines through in this example, delivering succulent, fully ripe peach, pear, nectarine and yellow plum flavours underpinned by acids and minerality. Excellent length and depth. Terrific wine, excellent value.
GILLES BLANCHET POUILLY-FUMÉ 2011 $19.95
This is a lively, stony-mineral, yet also fleshy and succulent (quite ripe and concentrated) version of Pouilly-Fumé. There’s an extra measure of depth and ripe fruit flavour on the palate, with evident density and weight, plus excellent length. Fine wine, nice price.
FINCA NUEVA FERMENTADO EN BARRICA BLANCO 2010 $15.95
Never mind the totally nondescript label; This is an intriguing, ripe, creamy but still fresh example of white Rioja, with marked but reasonably well integrated, and good quality, oak. The depth and length are impressive for the money to be sure. Worth a look for fans of barrel-aged wines, especially when serving white meat or rich seafood.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
From the September 29, 2012 Vintages release: