Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 30 Release
Sérieux Sauvignons, Promising Malbecs, Niagara Rieslings, Euro Values & Sublime Closers
France’s beguiling Languedoc-Roussillon region headlines this release – and I have flagged three terrific 90-point red bargains below. But I will skip the backgrounder because colleague John Szabo has already done a fine job in last week’s exhaustive report. So we leap to another theme that caught my eye – especially as we desperately seek spring. I pry open the other world of sauvignon blancs that exists beyond New Zealand (its turn is coming with the April 13 release).
Très Sérieux Sauvignons Not from NZ
Sauvignon Blanc – lead by New Zealand’s brilliant savvies – has become our most prized warm weather white. Its natural acidity is the key to its refreshment, along with flavour elements like green apple, fresh herbs and limes that evoke summer. And it is not a wine that makes you work too hard to appreciate it. Even lesser quality examples offer their character with ease; and you don’t need to swirl, ponder and discuss in order to enjoy it. Great happy hour fare!
But that is just one side of the coin – the shiny side. Back in its French homeland sauvignon blanc is often more complex and nuanced – and some might argue, perhaps on the dull side. It still has acid-driven refreshment at its core, but in the cool, continental, central Loire Valley appellations of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Menetou-Salon and Quincy it absorbs more minerality from the limestone base of the soils. It is often less fruity and less stridently green as well, conforming to the French penchant for restraint and nuance. The idea here is to match it with food – shellfish, other seafood, anything with chèvre (goat cheese).
Domaine Fouassier 2010 Les Grands Groux Sancerre ($24.95) is fine example of this style, boosted by the 2010 vintage which has brought excellent firmness and depth to most of France’s white wines. It hails from older vines in a biodynamically farmed 5.5 hectare limestone vineyard centred on the hill of Sancerre.
Over in Bordeaux sauvignon blanc undergoes even more dramatic transformation. The climate is a bit warmer which means the acidity is less evident. So sauvignon is more suitably bolstered and fleshed out by blending semillon, and by subjecting the wine to barrel treatment. This creates a whole new sauvignon flavour landscape that is even more complex. The wines have added weight and gravitas, and are much better able to age. They are among my favourite whites on the planet.
Château Olivier 2009 Blanc from the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux ($48.85) is a magnificent example. This old estate belongs to the club of ‘Grand Cru Classe’ of Pessac-Leognan, south of the city of Bordeaux. It makes more red wine than white, but I have always much preferred its whites, from 12 hectares containing 55% semillon, 40% sauvignon blanc and 5% muscadelle. The average vine age is 40 years, with the vines planted at high density to promote greater flavour concentration. The wine is fermented in stainless steel then aged one year in one-third new French oak barrels. By the way, this is classed by VINTAGES as an In-Store Discovery only available in some of the largest/busiest flagship stores.
Far across the pond in Napa Valley, sauvignon blanc faces warm conditions more similar to Bordeaux than the Loire Valley, so the Bordeaux approach of blending semillon and oak ageing is used by most producers. The style was created by Robert Mondavi long ago when he created a barrel aged wine called Fume Blanc that is still among the best whites in California.
Spottswoode 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($37.95) is one of the most successful and sought after Napa sauvignons. Actually this bottling uses some Sonoma fruit, and a healthy portion of a clone called sauvignon musque that adds aromatic lift. Oak is nicely in the background adding just a touch of spice complexity. This is very classy indeed, although again in limited availability as in In-Store Discovery.
Frog’s Leap 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($26.95) is an organically produced example from Napa that tilts back more toward a fresher, fruitier style that fits somewhere between the Loire and Bordeaux and New Zealand. They dabbled with the addition of semillon at one point but went back to 100% sauvignon grown on their Rutherford property, fermented straight up in stainless steel without oak aging. With a whopping production of over 20,000 cases they have obviously struck a chord.
Promising Argentine Malbecs
Now that we are in the midst of a full-fledged Argentine malbec invasion – and perhaps even in the early stages of a popularity decline – it probably seems odd that I would apply the adjective “promising” to malbec. Here’s why. To me the problem with malbec is its homogeny, especially within the hordes of under $20 examples clogging the shelves at VINTAGES. What’s more, many of these big, fruit-driven, high alcohol wines are simply too young and coarse. I am not sure who’s more to blame here – Argentina for making such wines and shipping them prematurely, or VINTAGES (and other markets too) for demanding a certain price point for malbec which forces producers to go this route. Another problem is that the more expensive malbecs don’t really seem to be worth double the price in terms of showing appreciably more complexity and elegance than their under $20 peers.
So it was refreshing to note three wines in this release offering the promise that change is possible, and even more pleasing that two of them are made by Canadian Ann Sperling, who knows all about finesse and elegance.
Versado 2010 Malbec ($24.95) and Versado 2009 Reserva Malbec ($59.95) are the debut of Argentine wines by Niagara-based partners Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling. Peter has been a key figure in the development of important Niagara properties like Hillebrand (way back when), Stratus and Ravine. Ann who grew up in Kelowna, B.C. and still makes wine there at her family’s Sperling Vineyards, has worked most of her career in Niagara at Malivoire and now Southbrook. Together they purchased a small vineyard in the higher reaches of Lujan de Coyo, the heartland of Argentine malbec. And it is very apparent that they have brought a new sensibility, finesse and complexity to the genre. The Reserva in particular is a revelation.
Angulo Innocenti 2010 Malbec ($18.95) from the higher altitude La Consulta sub-region of the Uco Valley is another malbec style that I really like, and actually not dissimilar to the Versado wines in terms of textural delicacy, even if in a sweeter, more floral vein. The winery is new – founded in 2004 with a 100 hectare property called Finca Piedras Blancas between 3000 and 3500 metres altitude. And it seems that everything is done with greatest care, from hand harvesting to double sorting to gentle cooler fermentation and a shorter than usual stay in barrels. The secret weapon here, however, may be the 15% cabernet sauvignon in the blend, providing extra aromatic lift and some finesse.
A Fine Pair of Niagara Rieslings
Four Niagara rieslings are featured on this release, and all are very good. But I have selected, and given higher ratings to a pair that really sing, and should really please, perhaps over an Easter ham.
Rosewood 2010 Natalie’s Süssreserve Riesling is great value at $14.95. It is an off-dry version in an easy going style that will work as a sipper, or well chilled with simple Asian cuisine. It has been judiciously sweetened by the addition of unfermented riesling juice before bottling, a process the German’s employ freely and call “sussreserve”. This brand will likely disappear as winemaker Natalie Spytkowski moved on from Rosewood last year, but we hope the style remains under a new name.
Château Des Charmes 2010 Old Vines Riesling is also a great buy at $16.95. Because Château des Charmes riesling vines are not “on the Bench” like so many good rieslings (Cave Spring, Vineland, Tawse, Thirty Bench, Hidden Bench, Charles Baker, 2027 Cellars etc) – this wine tends to get overlooked, and dare I say, it is even undervalued by the winery itself. I am all for great value, and I appreciate the Bosc family’s generosity, but the almost 40 year old vines from their Four Mile Creek property, are churning out some mighty impressive quality. This wine is richer but no less structured than those from the Bench Bunch.
Bargain Euro Reds
In the past couple of years the tasting of low to mid-priced Euro reds has become one of my favourite exercises at VINTAGES lab. Viticulture and winemaking has improved so much within Spain, Portugal, southern France, southern Italy and Greece – although it’s not evident in all the wines and sorting is required. Likewise, most are also sticking to indigenous grape varieties and authenticity, again with the exception of those seeking to capture “international/New World” favour by adding to much cocoa flavouring. Here are three fine examples, all under $20, that flirt with excellence.
Luigi Righetti 2010 Campolieti Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($16.95) presents stunning value. It is not a powerful wine, indeed it seems to be shyly avoiding being cast as an amarone-chasing ripasso extrovert. There is a fine sense of elegance and maturity here, perhaps through the two years of barrel ageing required of a “superiore”. This small family company founded in 1909 has always provided supple finesse at remarkably fair prices. Campolieti means ‘happy fields”. Indeed!
Quinta Do Penedo 2009 is yet another demonstration that Portugal’s Dao region is on the move. And at 18.95 it’s a steal. The large, hilly, pine forested region in the centre of the country feels both maritime and continental climate effects, and is home to a wide range of soil types and grape varieties. It is said that touriga nacional – Portugal’s most well-known grape (that also makes up 70% of this wine) originated in Dao near the village of Touriga. The region has hundreds of growers but most change is being wrought by the larger companies that are working to upgrade single estates like Quinta do Penedo. The 20 ha property dates back to the 30s, but was purchased in 1998 by Cave Messias, which began re-structuring the vineyards in 2000.
Château Lajarre 2010 Cuvée Eléonore from the Bordeaux Superieur appellation is a classy intro to basic Bordeaux. It is a blend of 80% merlot with 20% cabernet franc from a 33 hectare property southeast of St. Emilion. There is a bit of mocha-fication but it’s in the background and essentially this delivers a finely balanced, drinkable Bordeaux to enjoy over the next three to five years. Thanks to the 2010 vintage perhaps. All for $15.95!
My Languedoc Picks
Still with Euro values, here are three wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon feature that most impressed me with their quality and value. And I will only add to John Szabo’s comments that I also find this area intriguing. I love the amazing variability in the red wines, and am fascinated by the seemingly infinite permutations wrought by the stable of five grapes – grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault and carignane – planted across several appellations and hundreds of micro-climates.
Château Pech Redon 2010 L’épervier from Côteaux du Languedoc’s sub-region of La Clape ($19.95) is dark, wild and moody. Château De Treviac 2010 Corbières ($15.95) is swarthy, suave and ripe. While Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes 2010 Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun ($17.95) is both refined and well structured, mindful of a fine Gigondas.
Sweet Closers: From the Sublime to the Sublime
Long time readers will know that I often give my highest ratings to sweet and fortified wines. It’s not because they are sweet, or fortified. I don’t have a sweet tooth necessarily and I don’t drink these wines often. No, this is about quality – as measured by complexity, balance and depth – and the world’s best dessert and fortified wines knock most table wines out of the park in this regard. They are often made from high quality, later picked, concentrated fruit and/or aged a long time in barrel and bottle. There are two on this release that rate well over 90; indeed the Chateau Giraud towers at 97 points.
Château Guiraud 2009 Sauternes 1er Cru is staggeringly good, and a superb buy at $44.85 per half bottle. No wonder it polled position #5 in the Wine Spectators Top 100 of 2012. It is a blend of botrytis-affected Semillon (65%) and sauvignon blanc (35%) harvested at less than one ton per acre, in one of the best Sauternes vintages of the past decade. It is wonderfully opulent yet ethereal.
Massandra 2009 White Muscat from the South Coast (Crimea) region of the Ukraine is a huge value and wide open window to one the great sweet wine styles of antiquity. At $15.95 you can’t afford to miss it. Chill it well and consider opening it some sultry spring summer evening with a selection of creamy, soft ripened, runny cheeses.
So that’s a wrap for this edition. Tune in again for my report on VINTAGES April 13 release, and watch your inbox for a new wave of WineAlign articles, many of which will now include Anthony Gismondi’s pithy prose.
Cheers, David Lawrason
VP of Wine
From the March 30, 2013 Vintages release: