John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Aug 3, 2013
Are Wine Critics Saving You Money? Five French Country Whites; Smart Syrah/Shiraz; Top Smart Buys
The National Post’s drinks columnist Adam McDowell recently published a controversial article questioning the motives, reliability and general usefulness of wine critics with the provocative title of “Vintage snobbery: Are wine critics fooling us into buying pricier bottles?” It was yet another in a recent string of similarly-themed articles with plenty of sizzle but little meat, recycling a collection of questionable studies to make his point. Click here for what I have to say in response.
This week’s report features a collection of archetypal French whites and suggestions for a syrah vs. shiraz tasting, all from the VINTAGES August 3 release. You’ll also find more smart buys, as well as a list of past smart buys made even smarter, thanks to an LCBO bin end sale; there are some killer values.
Learning by Concept: Archetypal Whites
It’s tough to beat France for sheer variety and originality when it comes to white wines, and indeed many of the world’s white wine archetypes are born French. Spain has a handful of fine offerings: fragrant albariño and blends from Rias Baixas in Galicia, grassy verdejo from Rueda, stony godello from Valdeorras and the spritzy txacolis of Basque Country come to mind.
Portugal gives the world the invitingly tropical fruit flavoured Antão Vaz and blends from the Alentejo, the crisp, lively blends of Vinho Verde, lighter versions of their neighbors across the Spanish border in Galicia, and of course the occasionally stunning dry white blends of the Douro Valley. Germany is the beating heart of riesling, Austria shares the marvelously multifaceted grüner veltliner, Switzerland claims chasselas, while Greece, Croatia, Hungary each have a handful of regional specialties, the best of which are surely astonishing values, but none of these countries can claim the diversity found in France.
Of all, Italy comes closest to France’s hegemony. There’s been a strong revival in interest in native Italian varieties of late. Distinguished professor of enology Attilio Scienza speculates that there are some 3,500 different red and white varieties in existence, of which only 700 or so currently make distinguished wine, while Jancis Robinson & co.’s latest tome Wine Grapes puts the number of Italian grapes in commercial production at a little over half that. But the number that could rightly be called classic, and turn up, say, on a Master Sommelier examination with a reasonable expectation that the candidate could deduce its identity, is relatively small. Verdicchio? Arneis? Pinot Grigio? Fiano or Greco? Soave? Not so obvious. At least not yet – I’m certain that will change.
Three whites from this week’s Smart Buys list highlight some non-French white archetypes:
2011 Pedro Escudero Fuente Elvira Verdejo, Spain ($15.95)
2012 San Raffaele Monte Tabor Pinot Grigio, Italy ($14.95)
2011 Lua Cheia Em Vinhas Velhas, Portugal ($15.95)
But for the time being, France remains the greatest repository of white wine archetypes. Consider the quartet of Alsatian varieties: riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and muscat, all worthy of blind tasting identification. The Loire offers sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and melon de Bourgogne. Burgundy of course created classic chardonnay, and Bordeaux the typical blend of semillon and sauvignon. The Rhône defines viognier, marsanne and roussanne. And those are just the obvious examples. Look a little deeper into the French countryside and there’s plenty more to discover in the lost vineyards of Provence, the Languedoc-Roussillon, the Southwest, Savoie, The Jura and elsewhere.
The August 3 VINTAGES release celebrates French whites, with a smart collection of major and minor classics. It’s a nice opportunity to re-familiarize yourself with the benchmarks, and perhaps discover new friends that add layers of depth to the French offering.
On that latter theme, I was particularly impressed by a couple of sideroad specialties: 2011 Domaine Des Lauriers Prestige Picpoul De Pinet ($13.95) and 2011 Domaine Capmartin Pacherenc Du Vic-Bilh ($15.95).
The appellation of Picpoul de Pinet, the largest for white wine in the Languedoc, describes some 1400 hectares devoted to the picpoul grape between Montpellier and Béziers around the Thau Basin and the town of Pinet itself. Picpoul is an ancient Mediterranean variety, frequently referred to as the “Muscadet of the south” thanks to its crisp acids, slim body and floral-citrus aromatics. It’s a splendid match for seafood, especially the mussels harvested from the nearby Thau Basin. It’s also a classic with croquettes de brandade, a Languedoc and Provençale specialty of puréed salt cod, potato, and olive oil (see recipe). Domaine des Laurier’s version is a fantastically mineral, almost riesling-like wine with its petrol and lemon-lime-on-wet-granite character. The palate is all about cleansing acids and superb flavour intensity, especially at the price. It’s a wine to enjoy young.
Pacherenc du Vic Bilh AOP takes you far deeper into the Southwestern French countryside. It covers the same zone as AOP Madiran, an appellation for sturdy reds made principally from tannat, while AOP Pacherenc du Vic Bilh is reserved for both dry and sweet white wines made from a collection of rare indigenous grapes: arrufiac, gros and petit manseng and courbu. As for the appellation’s curious name, “Pacherenc refers to the rows of vineyard stakes that covered the landscape before the 19th century phylloxera plague, while Vic-Bilh means “old country” in the local dialect.” (More.)
Capmartin’s Pacherenc, made from 80% gros manseng and 10% each of petit manseng and arrufiac is a few sideroads off the mainstream flavour highway to be sure, but is well worth a look for something completely different. I was drawn in by its clean but lightly oxidative profile, with lightly bruised orchard fruit and cold orange pekoe tea, canned pineapple and pear aromas and flavours. But it’s not just weird; the palate is balanced and flavourful, and it definitely has above average complexity for the money.
Returning to the main highway where you’ll run into more familiar flavours, I have three classics to recommend:
2010 Domaine Chevallier Chablis ($19.95): Domaine Chevallier is back on full form here with this arch-classic 2010. This delivers textbook crunchy green fruit on a bed of crushed limestone and oyster shell, with riveting but ripe acids and very good length. It has unmistakable regional character – I wish that all unoaked Chablis could taste like this, and be offered at this price.
2012 André Blanck Altenbourg Gewürztraminer ($18.95): Full-on, exuberantly aromatic nose in the typical register of the variety, with lusciously ripe stone fruit and floral components, lychee and rose petal. The palate is medium dry, fat, soft and round, generously proportioned, with significant density and richness, all on a reasonable 12% alcohol frame. Very good to excellent length – a smart buy for gewürzt fans.
2011 Marc Brédif Vouvray ($20.95): A textbook, clean, classic, just off-dry Vouvray, complete with apple, wet hay and honey aromatics. Acids are tight and crisp to balance the gentle sweetness, while 12.7% alcohol is relatively light and refreshing.
Syrah vs. Shiraz
Syrah/shiraz is the other theme of the August 3 release, with a quartet of wines worth highlighting.
For fans of syrah (read: old world style, peppery, smoky, firm-textured) consider the 2010 Ferraton Père & Fils La Source Saint-Joseph ($24.95). With fruit sourced from steep, granite hillsides, this Saint Joseph is still rather closed, but is certainly a firm and structured example, with tight tannins and acidity to match. You can literally taste the hard granite soils in this wine, or at least sense them in the texture. This needs protein on the plate at present to soften, or tuck in the cellar for 2-4 years.
And from the one DOC in Italy that has made a specialty out of syrah, the 2010 Baracchi Smeriglio Syrah, DOC Cortona ($26.95) from Tuscany offers a fine and complex, refined nose of spicy black fruit, medicinal cherry liqueur, and integrated, quality oak spice. The palate is soft, generous, dry, mid-weight, with brisk underlying acids, while intensity, length and depth are well above the mean.
Fans of the more generous and riper style that’s usually under the shiraz alias should instead pick up the 2009 St. Hallett Blackwell Shiraz Barossa, South Australia ($34.95). It offers a typically deep, inky purple-black colour matched by an equally rich, blueberry and black currant jam-inflected nose, spiced up by both sweet and resinous herbs, and integrated wood influence. The palate is full, rich, fat, succulent and massively fruity, delivering just about everything one might hope for from the region/grape combination. It’s hugely satisfying.
Also from Australia but a little less brazen is the 2011 Swings & Roundabouts Shiraz Margaret River ($21.95). It accurately reflects the cooler maritime conditions of the region with a pleasantly fruity-spicy, firm and peppery flavour profile, and a nice bit of grip and lively acids on the palate. This is fine and balanced, highly drinkable Aussie shiraz all around.
More Smart Buys
In addition to the three whites noted off the top, this week you’ll find an absolutely cracking value chenin blanc from South Africa, a Rioja tinto that perfectly blends the best of old and new schools, a highly impressive super Tuscan blend for under $24, and a very smart value red Bordeaux from the acclaimed 2009 vintage for less than $23. Click below to see them all. And finally, don’t miss out on some terrific bin end sales at the LCBO. I’ve tagged a couple dozen spectacular deals below (about 25% of an average) out of nearly 500 products, many of which were already smart buys from previous releases. (Quantities are very limited, so check your store’s inventory)
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
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From the Aug 3, 2013 Vintages release: