John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 1, 2014
Hidden Gems; Australia in the spotlight; Local VQA Wine On Tap…?
The February 1st VINTAGES release features an intriguing collection of sub-$20 wines from various corners of the world, both known and obscure. Some may take you out of your comfort zone, but then again, there’s no better way to expand your drinking horizons, and the risks are low. I’ve selected ten wines from six countries (5 red, 5 white) for you to consider, with analogies to better-known wines where useful. Australia is also featured, and I’ve highlighted my top five. And lastly, consider local wine on tap in restaurants: will it gain momentum in 2014? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Hidden Gems & Smart Buys: Reds
The old world comes up strong in this release, delivering a range of wines with ample regional character, structure and complexity at highly attractive prices.
Topping the list of values is the 2010 Tilenus Envejecido En Roble Mencía ($18.95). Regular readers of this report will already be familiar with Bierzo in Northwestern Spain, which has, over the last decade or so, become established as a source of some of “New Spain’s” best reds. Its success has a lot to do with an unusually high percentage of old vines and the quality of the local red grape mencía, not to mention a consumer shift to fresher, livelier reds, as undeniable by now as global warming.
Bodegas Estefanía’s rise to prominence mirrors the region’s, established in 1999 with the aim to exploit the vast wealth of quality old vineyards, and has moved from strength to strength ever since. The vines for this cuvee are between 40 and 60 years old, and a short 8 months in wood allows the concentrated, fresh black fruit character to shine.
Fans of old world pinot noir will also find pleasure in the 2010 Nicosia Fondo Filara Etna Rosso ($19.95). After nearly a century of obscurity, the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna have been exploding lately (figuratively, and literally), attracting serious attention with an ever-increasing offer of quality whites but especially reds from the indigenous nerello mascalese and cappuccio varieties. It’s striking to consider that when Nicosia was founded in 1898, the Etna region counted an astonishing 50,000 hectares of vines (1.5 times the current area of champagne), the produce of which went largely to northern Italy and France in bulk to bolster lighter wines with its marked volcanic minerality and firm structure.
Today there are far fewer vines, but the focus is on pure Etna. These are deceptively pale in colour but deeply flavoured, with a distinctive salty minerality, savoury red fruit and well-chiseled structure.
And from the slopes of Etna to Macedonia in northern Greece is but a stylistic half-step. The xinomavro-based wines of the Naoussa appellation are often compared to the great nebbiolos of Piedmont, or, as an Athens-based sommelier friend once put it, “it’s like pinot noir in jeans”. The 2010 Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro ($19.95) is well worth a look, representing a more modern expression of the region and grape with its forward ripeness and relatively rich texture. But make no mistake; this is still tightly wound, made as it is from a grape whose name translates as “acid black”. Give it another 2-4 years in the cellar and then pour it blind for your Italian wine-loving friends and wait for the guesses of Barbaresco or Barolo to roll in.
The south of France continues to over-deliver quality and character, for prices that must make the owners of new, posh operations planted on expensive real estate cringe with envy. $16 will get you a wine of distinctive personality, as in the 2011 Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes ($15.95). This syrah-based blend grown on the schistous soils of Saint Chinian delivers a whack of scorched earth minerality and smoky character, rustic to be sure, but serve it with an herb-encrusted roast leg of lamb and marvel at its range of flavours and succulent texture.
Portugal’s Douro Valley is slowly re-tooling its reputation as the source of port to the country’s top region for quality dry table wine, with over half of the harvest these days destined to remain unfortified. Quality and style still vary widely, but the combination of vertiginous slopes of pure schist, the richness of old vineyards, and the collection of quality grapes like touriga nacional makes the Douro a prime source for savvy drinkers.
The 2011 Tom De Baton Casal De Loivos ($14.95) is a fine intro to the Douro, an unoaked, inexpensive but characterful wine. Part of the blend comes from old terraced vineyards with mixed plantings of traditional varieties, with the balance from newer plantings of touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta barroca. It has a pleasantly spicy and floral nose focused more in the red fruit spectrum, relatively fresh and engaging, with a mid-weight palate and fine-grained, dusty but ripe tannins.
Hidden Gems & Smart Buys: Whites
Italy remains an unparalleled source of obscure varieties, some worth remaining so. But once in a while you’ll come across a grape that captures a place and delivers an expression that makes the search worthwhile. Enter the: 2012 Cantine San’Isidoro Pausula ($15.95), admittedly my first taste of the maceratino grape (aka ribona), which grows exclusively along Italy’s Adriatic coast, especially in Le Marche. There’s some speculation that it’s related to greco or verdicchio, but nothing has been confirmed yet. In any case, this has flavour intensity and complexity well above the mean for the price category. Crisp acids, well-integrated and very modest oak influence, and a fine range of ripe tree fruit flavours impress on the palate. Here, as in Le Marche, you can perfectly imagine this alongside grilled, herb-inflected fish with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil.
France offers a pair of tidy wines from regions and grapes that are certainly better known: 2011 Jean-Marc Brocard Domaine Sainte Claire Chablis ($19.95) and 2012 La Haute Févrie Le Fils Des Gras Moutons Muscadet Sèvre-Et-Maine Sur Lie ($14.95). Brocard’s Chablis is a classic old school example complete with that unique cheese rind flavour I frequently encounter in the region, while the muscadet delivers all one could want in crisp, dry, minerally white for the money.
Albariño is by now quite well established, at least in sommelier circles, as a go-to food-friendly white with wide appeal. For me, it often smells like viognier but tastes more like riesling, as in the 2012 Pazo Pondal Leira Albariño, Rias Baixas ($16.95). It’s hard not to like the engaging, succulent lemon and orange flavours washed over wet stones.
And it’s no secret that riesling performs consistently well in Niagara, with at least a dozen wineries with a decade+ track record of success to make the point. Flat Rock Cellars was founded in 1999 with the express purpose of making premium chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling, and year after year, the 2012 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($19.95) is one of the region’s best. Nadja’s is Flat Rock’s southern-most and highest altitude vineyard, a 2.5-acre block of riesling sitting on top of the Niagara Escarpment on a solid bed of limestone. The 2012 nicely balances the ripeness and warmth of the vintage with the vibrancy of this cool site.
David Lawrason has already covered the upcoming Australian promotion at the LCBO with a comprehensive round-up of what’s to come and what’s already in progress, which you can read here. But in the spirit of WineAlign, here are my top five picks from the February 1st release for you to compare. I know I’ll be picking up a bottle or two, if only so that I can live vicariously through David, who’s currently basking in +30ºC temperatures down under as we surrender to another polar vortex.
2009 Mountadam Estate Chardonnay High Eden, Eden Valley ($24.95)
Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011, McLaren Vale ($24.95)
McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2006, Hunter Valley ($19.95)
Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz 2011, Padthaway, South Australia ($16.95)
Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling 2012, Western Australia ($17.95)
(We’ve tagged all of the Australian promotions wines for you here: Australian Wine Promotion 2014)
Wine on Tap: Here To Stay?
In the restaurant sector, 2013 has seen the emergence of wine on tap as a legitimate delivery system for premium local wines. WOT is already well established in BC and Québec, but its development in Ontario was made possible by a change in VQA rules in July of 2012, when it became legal to package Ontario VQA wine in 19.5l kegs. Having been personally involved in an operation pouring VQA wine on tap, I’ve seen an increasing number of local winemakers willing to sell wine in kegs (and in some cases convinced them). It seems a proverbial no-brainer, provided the right tap system is in place. It’s a triple win: better quality wine, at a lower price thanks to savings on the expensive packaging, with lower environmental impact. What’s not to love? As long as restaurateurs and wineries focus on quality wine, gaining the confidence of restaurant customers, it seems sensible.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you’ve experienced wine on tap, what has worked and what hasn’t, and if you’d like to see more restaurants pouring quality local wines. Drop us a line.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
From the February 1, 2014 Vintages release: