Lawrason’s Take on Vintages August 31 Release

Quantifying Quality, A Mixed Case of 90-pointers, Germany’s Re-Invention

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The August 31 edition of VINTAGES magazine has grouped 90+ point wines under the heading Settling the Score. It describes various scoring systems including the 100 point scale, and maintains that critics who use it add up points for colour, aroma, flavour, finish and overall quality. This is not my method however, and I feel it is important to explain now and again, for new readers in particular, what I am doing. Readers who have heard it all before can skip right to my picks, and see the system in action.

My score out of 100 is my overall, numerical opinion of quality. I define quality as true and generous expression of origin. Under trueness I measure purity (absence of faults) and balance (no one element too dominant at the expense of others). Under generosity I measure aroma/flavour intensity (low to high), complexity (number of flavours) and depth (how long they last). These are all measurable – quantifiable – and they can be applied to any wine. I also judge whether a wine accurately reflects its origin and what the label says it is, but in general, the higher the quality the better that reflection. Value, by the way, is not part of my rating – but the best value wines do get pushed into the limelight in other ways.

To translate the numbers into words, a wine scoring under 80 is very notably flawed and likely unpleasant; 80 to 84 is good with noted imperfections, 85 to 89 is very good (largely correct and typical), 90 to 94 is excellent (pure, precise and classic), above 95 is an “outstanding”, dramatic amalgam of all the elements. So yes, I am really only using 20 points, but within that 80-100 range every point matters, allowing a detailed and quite succinct expression of my opinion. And oh yes, I have never scored a wine 100.

Because different critic’s score with a different method their ratings will vary. If however any attempt has been made to be objective and assess all wines on measurables – rather than personal preferences – the scores should be within close proximity. Which is why I am okay with VINTAGES using scores by professionals like The Wine Spectator and Parker who taste a lot of wine. I won’t agree on every wine, but I have come to know them over the years, and how to calibrate them to my scale. Experience and context are everything.

I do not give much credence to scores until I know the reviewers work and that he or she has been tasting wines professionally and comparatively for about three years, at a rate of about 2,500 wines per year, or 50 per week (a solid part-time job at a minimum). Which is why I do trust the ratings of so many of my colleagues right here in Ontario who have been tasting for years at the LCBO’s media tastings – including all the WineAligners. And the more they taste, the more I respect their opinions. Yet again quality is quantifiable.

Here are a dozen of my 90 point plus picks from the August 31 release, with explanation as to why they earned the ratings. And please note that they are from diverse grapes and origins. Quality is not regional; it is how well winemaking delivers the origin message.

90+ Point Whites & Sparkling

Santo Assyrtiko 2011Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ChampagneBillecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne, France ($91.95, 93 Points) – Champagne has best mastered the art of subtlety, which makes it harder to analyse sensorially and score. The same parameters apply but you need to pay even closer attention. Pink champagne even more so because the colour suggests aromas of red fruit that may or may not exist. Balance and depth of flavour emerge as key markers described with words like “racy, very fine and elegant” with “excellent to outstanding length”. Classy indeed.

Santo 2011 Assyrtiko Santorini, Greece ($16.95, 90 Points). I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of presence, power and how well it captures the essence of this unusual, sea-inspired wine grown on the wind-swept heights of the most famous and photographed Greek Island. It is not a smooth, refined seduction, but its elements are balanced and the length of finish is excellent. Again, there are no points for price, but this is very good value.

Château Moncontour Vouvray Sec 2011Gallo Family 2009 Laguna Vineyard ChardonnayChâteau Moncontour 2011 Vouvray Sec, Loire Valley, France ($18.95, 90 Points). Vouvray was the first appellation I visited in France many years ago when I began to research wine in depth, so its character is burned deep in my memory. My note says “classic”, which indicates top marks for typicity/authenticity. This means that natural acidity of the chenin blanc grape is well expressed, as is the chalky minerality of the region’s limestone based “tuffeau” soils. Its length of finish is also excellent.

Gallo Family 2009 Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California ($19.95, 92 Points). It’s important not to let fashion interfere with quality assessment. This oaky style of chardonnay is not much in vogue nowadays. But that doesn’t mean the genre can’t be excellent quality, and yes it also means that I might be more receptive to oaked wines than some other critics nowadays. In this case age/maturity has rendered great complexity – with many elements other than oak – and superb balance. Words like velvet are a sure sign that balance is near perfect. And at $20, it is great value, although one wonders how a 2009 chardonnay of this calibre came to be priced so low.

Zind Humbrecht Turckheim Riesling 2010Champy Pernand Vergelesses En Caradeux 1er Cru 2010Kistler Les Noisetiers Chardonnay 2011Kistler 2011 Les Noisetiers Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California ($76.95, 94 Points). The very high rating reflects a superb coming together of all the elements. I use the word “textbook” in my review. It combines everything that makes chardonnay such a great grape variety in Burgundy and super-imposes its Sonoma origin. I also use the word “focused” which describes a kind of front-to-back balance. What begins on the nose translates directly onto the palate, then runs deep on the finish – no wavering or distraction from elements like too much alcohol, or oak. Very impressive wine.

Champy 2010 Pernand-Vergelesses En Caradeux 1er Cru ($49.95,  93 Points). Here is another case of a chardonnay rating very well because it offers virtually all that this variety can muster, and does it with refinement and precision. It has all the aromas and flavours of excellent white Burgundy. I make special note of its “great grip and minerality” which I am sure comes from the 2010 vintage and a high degree of limestone in this particular vineyard which lies on a steep slope just opposite the Grand Cru site of Corton-Charlemagne. It is often argued that minerality is not a flavour; but it is very much a taste and texture expressed through a certain interaction with acidity that is delivered in different ways by different soil types. It is the essence of origin in the world of fine wine.

Zind Humbrecht 2010 Turckheim Riesling, Alsace ($26.95, 92 Points). This biodynamically grown riesling is amazing in how it counterpoints richness of flavour and exquisite firm yet delicate texture. And the reason in this instance is not just great fruit and winemaking; it is the particular structure of the 2010 vintage in Alsace, indeed much of France and Germany, which by all accounts should make these wines more age-worthy than most – if that’s your wish. It is also drinking beautifully now. It is pure, complex and intense and deep with the only possible negative being a touch of bitterness on the finish.

90+ Point Reds

Louis Jadot Beaune Boucherottes 1er Cru 2010Thornbury Pinot Noir 2010Louis Jadot 2010 Beaune Boucherottes 1er Cru ($52.95, 92 Points). The key descriptors of this pinot noir are “fine, fragrant and nicely balanced”. And I describe the fruit aroma as cran-raspberry, which very specifically notes a degree of grape ripeness that I love in pinot, and consider to be a classic fragrance of a well grown, cool climate style – especially in Burgundy. The cranberry denotes less ripe, the raspberry more ripe – and this is nestled nicely right in between. The wines of Beaune tend to be less structured and refined than neighbouring Volnay and Pommard, but using words like fresh, firm and excellent length indicates this wine is in the big leagues. Again, thanks to 2010.

Thornbury 2011 Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand ($24.95, 91 points). Lovers of pinot from Burgundy might look at the deep colour of this wine and dismiss it as over-ripe and over-extracted. Fair enough – one likes what one likes, and there is no right or wrong. However, most Otago pinots have this deep colour, exude ripe cherry fruit, and have a rather plush, warm feel. I also noted “thyme” on the nose, which is very much an Otago signature. Having tasted over 100 Otago pinots earlier this year; the excellent quality of this wine made origin immediately recognizable. And my overall comment that the wine is “delicious” speaks to a sense of generosity and balance that I more often find in New World styles.

Achaval Ferrer Malbec 2011Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2010Fonterutoli 2010 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($24.95, 90 Points). This wine presented the conundrum of whether to score it 90 or 89. Fair or not a “90” creates an expectation far out of proportion to an “89” only a notch lower (which is my main criticism of the system). My hesitation was that it is less authentic as a Chianti than many might expect; and lacking just a bit of the nerve that makes Tuscan reds so vital with food. It is a soft, modern, internationally tuned wine using techniques like blending a small portion of merlot and ageing in French “barriques”. But it is very well rendered by one the top winemaking families of Tuscany (Mazzei) and if Italian regulation now accepts this style as being Chianti, it is indeed bona fide. With a bit more complexity and depth it would have scored higher.

Achaval Ferrer 2011 Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($24.95, 91 Points). Regular readers may have noted that Argentina’s malbecs are not consistently rating over 90 in my books. In general I find them overwrought, coarse and heavy – lacking elegance. One reason is that they are released too young for their formidable size. They are tough to taste and rate in youth, so again it requires some context and experience to be able to carve through and separate the details. The lovely aroma of this wine reeled me in to discover that it is actually very well proportioned within its hulking frame – like a well-toned wrestler. And looking through the youthful tannin I sense a wine that will deliver some grace a few years on.

Nugan Estate Mclaren Parish Vineyard Shiraz 2010Domaine Fontaine Du Clos Reflets De l'Âme VacqueyrasNugan Estate 2010 McLaren Parish Vineyard Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($24.95, 92 Points). So it’s time for the alcohol debate. This is up there at 15.4%. I know some folks would not even consider purchasing the wine at that rate – just not to their taste and perhaps they just don’t want that much alcohol all at once. Fair enough. But in terms of quality, alcohol is just one more element that needs to be in balance, and here it comes very close. There is some sense of alcohol abrasion but the richness of texture and explosion of perfectly ripened “cassis” fruit with classic shiraz “pepper” and “chocolate” fill in well around the alcohol, and they run deep.

Domaine Fontaine Du Clos 2011 Reflets De l’Âme Vacqueyras, Rhone Valley, France ($20.95, 92 Points). The grenache-based wines of Vacqueyras are getting under my skin recently, in a good way. I have had some great examples over the last two or three years; so they are on my radar (while at the same time I am becoming grumpy over the patchier quality and poor value of Châteauneuf-du-Pape). This combines rich textures, deep complex ripe plummy flavours and a real sense of power – and with all those aromas of dried herbs and pepper it just must be from the south of France. And get a load of the price/quality ratio.

First Thoughts from Germany

I have just returned from a fascinating week-long visit to five regions in Germany to look at that country’s significant progress with organic/biodynamic winemaking; with pinot noir and other white pinot cousins (blanc and gris); as well as the introduction of their new Burgundy-modelled classification system that shifts labelling away from style (sweetness designations like auslese) to dry wines from specific vineyards. As in four previous trips to the country much of the time was spent grappling with communication, or lack thereof, about what’s happening, all through the difficult filter of German to English translation.

This time there was a palpable sense of excitement and conviction that German wine is finally being re-invented (or at least expressing itself better), and that it can be awfully damn good. A new generation of winemakers is driving the movement to dry, high quality, often organically produced wines that express a sense of place. On my last day I tasted virtually every Grosse Lage (single grand cru vineyard) pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris in the country – 93 in all  – at the annual trade media new vintage preview of an association of top estates called the VDP. I rated 53 at 90 points or better.

Treve Ring and David Lawrason

Treve Ring and David Lawrason exploring the wines and vines of Germany

Over the next weeks I will be teaming up with WineAlign’s Treve Ring of Victoria, who was also on the international press trip, to write about what we found in more detail. There is laughably little (cryably little?) evidence of Germany’s new site-driven wine on Canada’s liquor board shelves, but be forewarned that a new era has dawned and the time will come. Germany will always be in tough competition commercially with ever improving Canadian wines of the same grapes and northern style, but we are nowhere near as evolved in terms of vineyard age and sites and nuances of terroir that Germany exhibits.

And that’s it for this edition. I am looking forward to a jam-packed autumn, beginning with the first WineAlign World Wine Awards of Canada (The WWACs, or Wackies?). I am also gearing up for the annual, national 10-city Gold Medal Plates tour in Oct/Nov, as well as teaching a full slate of WSET Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced courses in Toronto starting as early as Sept 11, plus a Foundation course in Ottawa, Sept 29 (www.finevintageltd.com).

Summer’s over!

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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From the Aug 31, 2013 Vintages release:

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