Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Nov. 10th Release
Piedmont Shining, Blockbuster Syrahs, Three at 93 and Fine French under $20
In the last newsletter I took a swipe at the hype-inflated, $100+ icon wines of a previous generation. This time, as Vintages continues to roll out more expensive “Festive Finds for the Holidays”, I am happier to report that there are many excellent, exciting wines – some from a new generation – that don’t cost over $60. But first a look at featured Piedmont, that oh-so earnest region tucked in the Langhe hills of northwest Italy.
It was a short but sweet tasting – a mere seven wines, from a region that staunch Euro enthusiasts revere. Piedmont is rightly compared to Burgundy, which lies not far away across the Alps. Both are coolish, landlocked and resting their reputation on a difficult grape variety that pours pale but packs a sensorial symphony when they get it right. In Burgundy the grape is pinot noir, in Piedmont it is nebbiolo, a variety that ripens late, often in mid-October when fog – after which it is named – shrouds the dramatically hilly landscapes of Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s starchy, gritty and bitter tannin is infamous, historically requiring long bottle age to soften, while the wine morphs into an orange glow.
Two wines brilliantly catch the nebbiolo phenomenon, one representing a modern approach to the winemaking that attempts to mollify the tannin while the wine is young, the other being more traditional. They are both from the 2007 vintage, which is somewhat less concentrated and perhaps evolving a bit more quickly, which is a good thing. Giacosa Basarin Vigna Gianmaté Barbaresco is a classic, indeed almost rustic style, complete with that volatile edge so often encountered in old school Italian reds. But it has terrific, uplifting woodsy aromatics and a very affordable tuition at $38.95. Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo is more expensive at $49.95, but a decent price for top Barolo. Renato Ratti gained fame in the 80s and 90s for making breakaway, modern but still very finely appointed nebbiolos that were just a bit easier to navigate than many of the more crusty wines of his peers.
Unlike Burgundy, Piedmont offers other local grapes that deliver the region’s firm, acid-tannin driven style, at lower prices. High acid barbera can be shrill and sour, and sometimes plain dull, but it can rise to aromatic heights that rival nebbiolo. Vintages has found a great example in Giacomo Borgogno 2010 Barbera d’Alba Superiore, a classic at only $19.95.
And another grape that Piedmont calls its own is dolcetto, much more deeply coloured than barbera or nebbiolo and offering more fruit plumpness, but rarely equal depth or complexity. Abbona Papà Celso 2010 Dogliani ($21.95) is one of the best I have encountered in recent times. Dogliani is the first Piemontese appellation created specifically for dolcetto, so the grape name itself disappears from the label – a conversely odd bestowal of status.
And finally, a new grape called albarossa appears on this release. (Alba is name of the main town in the region). It is a crossing of nebbiolo and barbera that is being taken to heart by a small group of winemakers. Regali la Lus Albarossa 2008 Monferrato Rosso ($24.95) is a thoroughly modern and stylish example, but it is a bit difficult to fix the grape’s character amid the gloss.
Blockbuster New World Syrah/Shiraz
It happens almost every time I taste at Vintages – some great dark syrah leaps out of the shadows of some far-flung New world wine region, grabs me by the throat and gives my head a shake. It could be labelled shiraz or syrah – shiraz if it’s from Australia and embodies a rich, ripe style, syrah if it’s more attuned to French Rhône styling. But that doesn’t really matter. What’s impressive is the richness, firmness and raw power this grape can deliver in so many locations. I think it really is a better “global” variety than cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Its climatic bandwidth is wider, liking sun (which most new world regions easily afford), while prospering in regions moderated by altitude or coastal cooling that deliver structure.
The wine of the release for me is Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier 2010 from the Pyrenees region of Victoria, Australia. I have rated it 95 points, and if you are a syrah fan it is a must-buy at $51.95. Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier is joint venture between Napa-based wine merchant Bill Terlato and Michel Chapoutier of Rhône fame. The latter has become one of the world’s leading biodynamic winemakers, bringing his methods to a 40 acre patch of intensely low yield vineyards in Victoria’s Pyrenees Mountains. A 17 acre block within called lieu dit Malakoff has spawned this remarkable syrah.
From the Pacific-cooled Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, California, comes another $50 thriller. Jonata Todos Red 2008 ($59.95) is a very intentional blend that includes syrah. Young Matt Dies has parcelled his 80 acre vineyard into a jigsaw of varietals and rootstocks precisely to yield multiple components to be blended into non-varietal wines. But there is no mistaking the syrah base of this wine; I can smell its peppery presence and feel its brooding power.
And from a South African estate first planted to vines in 1692 comes yet another massive syrah. The Cape is a classic example of a region settled by European, including British, émigrés who thought Bordeaux was the best wine in the world, thus planted cabernet sauvignon. When in reality the sunny but coastal climate is better suited to syrah. Hartenberg 2007 Shiraz, from the stony slopes of Stellenbosch ($34.95) is indeed blockbuster – a ham-fisted yet well proportioned, very dense red with great length.
Three at 93
The parade of excellent and affordable (if not cheap) wines for holiday drinking or gift giving continues with three wines I have rated 93 points. Still hovering around the syrah theme Le Vieux Donjon 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($53.95) in the southern Rhône Valley of France, is youthful and introverted at the moment, but it has a lovely sense of style, confidence and focus, from a smallish family domain that keeps things simple by making just one red and one white wine.
From farther north in Burgundy, comes a terrific chardonnay. Domaine Latour-Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime 2010 Meursault ($44.95) is a case study of the transformation of Burgundy – i.e. new generation winemaker (Jean-Pierre Latour) upgrades faded old house with organic, low yield viticulture in some prime sites, and brings a new barrel regimen. This is a big, solid, classy and cellar worthy Meursault.
And from California, Inglenook Cask 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($89.95) is a highly collectible red, both for its quality and story. This is the first vintage under the new Inglenook label since the trademark was acquired by film producer Francis Ford Coppola, the latest chapter in a long saga of changing ownership that began way back with a Finish sea captain in 1789. There are more characters and plot twists than in a season of Downton Abbey. What’s more important than who owns it is the quality of the prime Rutherford vineyard. This is terrific Napa cabernet.
Three Fine French Under $20
It is not all $50 wines on this release. I found three French gems for under $20 that are great value with 90-91 scores.
We start back in the Rhône with Pierre Amadieu la Grangelière 2010 Vacqueyras, at $19.95. This sun-baked, southern exposed appellation with its best sites on gravelly terraces is making some big, hearty and rustic wines that feel like Chateauneuf-du-Pape at half the price. And this is a good example from a large house that makes authentic wines from virtually all of the appellations of the southern Rhône.
It is almost shocking to see an Alsace Grand Cru at $17.95, so if you are an Alsace fan don’t miss Dopff & Irion 2009 Vorbourg Pinot Gris. The Vorbourg is a 72 ha site at the very southern end of Alsace, in one of the driest, warmest sub-regions, with limestone soils. Factor in the ripeness of the 2009 vintage, plus some age, and the result is a remarkable pinot gris with both richness and finesse.
And still in Alsace, Vieil Armand 2010 Médaille Gewürztraminer is yet another steal at $17.95. Regular readers will know I am a big fan of 2010 Alsatian whites since encountering them en masse during a week-long visit this spring. Cave Vieil Armand is a good, if not highly noted co-op with 125 grower members. If it can make such excellent gewurz at this price, think of what some of the top guns will be making.
WineAlign Welcomes Rosehill Wine Cellars
This newsletter is now sponsored in part by Rosehill Wine Cellars, a Toronto-based supplier of custom built wine cellars, wine cabinets, glassware, decanters and other wine accessories. I am particularly delighted by this because Gary LaRose has been a good friend since I first met him over twenty years ago. He showed up at my front door as a general contractor hired to do a modest kitchen renovation. He was fascinated by my wine collection, and it was here that he got the notion of building wine cellars. He offered to build one for me as a test case, in return for some ad space in my fledgling Wine Access newsletter. He also became a frequent student of my wine courses, coming back again and again until he got it right. And the rest is history. We have both evolved and grown and undertaken bigger and better things, but we remain grounded in our love wine, and trying to do things well. So thanks Gary and Sue, for having the faith in WineAlign, the next evolution.
This weekend (Nov 8-11) I am in Ottawa for the triple purpose of announcing the big winners of the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards with good friend and co-head judge Anthony Gismondi from Vancouver; leading two seminars at the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival; and promoting WineAlign at same. If you are one of our many subscribers in Ottawa you already know all about this event – the biggest on the capital’s wine calendar. Please drop by our booth and say hello. If you are not from Ottawa and find yourself with a free weekend, hop on a flight, the train, or into your car and head to the great new convention centre on the banks of the Rideau Canal. The whole program can be studied at www.ottawawineandfoodshow.com.
Until next time,
VP of Wine
From the November 10th, 2012 Vintages release: