Vintages Preview March 1st 2014
Top Cabernets, Napa 2010s, Novelties vs. Classics, and Drinking in New York
by John Szabo, with Sara d’Amato and David Lawrason
This week’s report looks at the trending of little known grapes and regions in North America, and their place within the pantheon of classic wines. Do rarities and obscurities deserve the respect sommeliers are giving? Read on below. On the flip side, the VINTAGES March 1st release focuses on the world’s most planted grape, cabernet sauvignon. I’ve highlighted my top picks, as has Sara d’Amato. And David Lawrason offers thoughts on 2010 Napa cabernets tasted this week. Then for those wondering how New York is failing to live up to its reputation, as well as where the cool kids eat, drink and buy wine in the Big Apple, click for my brief NYC journal and photo essay.
Celebrating Cabernet Sauvignon (and Blends)
Regular readers of this report know that I certainly relish new discoveries and enjoy sharing them; no stones should be left unturned in the quest for good wine. But there’s also a reason why some grapes have gained prominence over others in the course of history. So, in the spirit of celebrating the world’s most planted fine wine variety, cabernet sauvignon, and leading up to the VINTAGES March 1st cab-themed release, here are some cabernets (and blends) deserving of their vaunted cultivar pedigree. Although cabernet is known for its imposing personality, what’s great about these wines is their distinctive expression, one in which variety and region fuse together to create unique wine.
Hedges 2011 Family Estate Three Vineyards Red, Washington ($32.95). The Stars Align as this is recommended by both John and Sara. It is a terrific example of the balance of fruity and savoury components, not to mention ripeness and freshness, which is possible with careful vineyard management in the right terroir, in this case Washington’s premium Red Mountain AVA. It’s solidly structured and stands to gain considerable complexity in time, so tuck it in the cellar for a couple of years. Best 2016-2022. (JS). There is no denying that Hedges is a serious force in the industry. They have a romantic past that brings an American athlete and traditional polished, French finishing school graduate together against all odds. Their children now contribute significantly to the business and the results are certainly fruitful. Both polish and power shine through harmoniously in this cabernet. (SD)
San Fabiano 2008 Calcinaia Cabernet Sauvignon, Toscana, Italy ($27.95). Much more regionally Tuscan in style than varietal cabernet sauvignon, this wine has the brick/terra cotta shade reminiscent of Tuscan sangiovese, not to mention its dusty resinous herbs, fresh earth and leather notes. The palate is generous and very flavourful, with high intensity and great length, finishing on very Italianate dusty tannins. Nicely priced for the complexity and depth on offer. Best 2014-2018, with rare-grilled, salted meats.
Château Pey La Tour 2009 Réserve Du Château Bordeaux Supérieur ($19.95). A very ripe, plush, wood-influenced Bordeaux, perfectly in line with the general style of the 2009s, with generous dark fruit and spice character and no small measure of sweet oak influence. Yet the ensemble stays in balance, as you’d expect from fine Bordeaux. One of the best wines from this château in memory. Drink now, though better in 2-3 years, or hold into the early 2020s.
Delaforce 2007 Touriga Nacional/Cabernet, Douro, Portugal ($24.95). Not pure cabernet evidently, but a fine wine in any case, and an eloquent argument in favour of broadening cabernet’s typical blending partners. This is deep, very ripe, jammy in the new world style, with a dense and rich, hugely satisfying palate. A lovely blend of old and new world expressions, in which boozy port meets savoury cabernet. Best 2014-2020.
Sara D’Amato’s Cabernet Picks
Amidst a fleet of ho-hum selections in this month’s feature, there are a few standouts that are impactful and, dare I say, soulful. What impressed me most were wines with restrained alcohol, brightness, purity of fruit and aromatic intrigue – basically wines that reigned-in the cosmetics and focused on the grape and freshness of flavour. The following recommendations will both withstand the test of time and provide oodles of intrigue:
Dry Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Sonoma County, California ($25.95). Dry Creek Valley excels at their ability to produce elegant, almost Old World, Bordelais-style wines that tend to temper blends (historically poached by Napa and Sonoma wineries alike). Located in the northern Sonoma, this is a region to which paying attention to will likely pay off before too long. With 83% cabernet sauvignon and the balance, Bordelais varietals, this typifies the great cabernet coming out of this region and for a reasonable price.
Angove 2010 Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, South Australia ($22.95). Coonawarra’s relatively cooler climate, iron-rich soils and uniquely produced wines stand out from the crowd. Five generations of family business are rarely seen in the New World but at Angove, the family is still passionately involved and belovedly traces their ancestry back from a tonic seeking ancestor to a winegrowing dynasty. Exhibiting delightful restraint and distinctive flavour. Terrific value.
Château Picard 2009, Saint Estèphe, Bordeaux, France ($32.95). Saint-Estèphe produces unique wines among those of the Médoc with grapes that can withstand longer ripening or vine hang time and produce greater colour, often firmer tannins and a more robust nature than its prestigious neighbours. It can sometimes come off as rustic, edgy but full of personality. Embodying these characteristics is this slowly maturing cabernet based blend that is incredibly striking. Decant for immediate enjoyment or cellar for 3-5 years.
Napa’s Unusual 2010 Cabs
This week four prominent California wineries in the portfolio of Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates trekked to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in just three days to present their new releases. Those wineries are Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap Cellars and Beringer. In Toronto three different events for media, trade and consumers focused on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from each property, the latter from the 2010 vintage. This was one of the coolest vintages in recent memory. Wine Enthusiast magazine from the U.S. summed it up this way: “It’s possible we will see that most rare species of Napa Cab: elegant, low alcohol and approachable—or flip a coin: green, vegetal, thin wines. Buyer beware.”
I really had to work at these wines but after tasting them twice in one day, and giving them time to open, I finally “got them”. All three were initially tight, sinewy, tannic and each showed a wisp of uncharacteristic greenness – especially when tasted from unyielding, small bowled ISO glasses. But once they began to open – towards the end of an excellent dinner at Sassafraz in Yorkville – they presented great fragrance, bright red and blackcurrant, and a tightly coiled balance and depth that suggests long ageing potential. I can see a California audience missing the suppleness and ripeness that Napa often presents, but anyone comfortable with cooler climate cabernets from Bordeaux, Niagara or B.C. should be quite enamored, and during the next decade they could provide immense satisfaction.
Check out my reviews of the following wines, with the Stags’ Leap 2010 being currently available as a VINTAGES Essential. The Beringer 2010 Private Reserve is being released March 15 in Ontario.
Etude Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Novelties vs. Classics
New York City, February 2014 – I’m just back from three full days of repeated exposure to what’s hot in one of the most dynamic, fastest-moving wine markets in the world. If you think like the city’s top sommeliers and wine buyers, your notion of fine wine has expanded well beyond the rows well traveled; the obscure has moved from fringe to virtually mainstream. While it’s not accurate to say that cabernet and chardonnay are dead (especially when it comes to cool, “mountain” cabs grown off the valley floor in Napa, or, of course, trend-proof white Burgundy), it is true that the world’s most recognizable grapes and regions are increasingly required to share shelf and list real estate with far more novel and obscure grapes in the city’s most trendsetting spots.
It’s clear that a strong contingent of the city’s highest profile sommeliers and coolest wine shop owners are embracing, and in some cases leading, this trend with manifest enthusiasm, relishing the chance to share their new discoveries and win customers over by acting as the conduit to novel flavours. Relatively unknown grapes and wines from the dark corners of the old world like Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Georgia, Greece and others are increasingly recommended with pride and a savvy wink, along with the even rarer examples of the same obscure old world grapes that somehow made it to places like California, rediscovered by maverick winemakers growing amongst tracks of old vines, or in the epilogues of vine nursery catalogues.
But the shift is not universally praised. Robert Parker for his part, posted a rant on his website accusing the anti-establishment (open-minded?) wine trade “absolutists” of “a near-complete rejection of some of the finest grapes and the wines they produce.” “Instead” says Parker, “they espouse, with enormous gusto and noise, grapes and wines that are virtually unknown. That’s their number one criteria – not how good it is, but how obscure it is… they would have you believe some godforsaken grapes that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc, have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest… can produce wines (in truth, rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend) that consumers should be beating a path to buy and drink.”
Jancis Robinson, who is regularly at odds with Parker’s views, shares in this instance a little of his dirge in a recent Financial Times article, albeit in a more measured and eloquent way: “America’s increasingly powerful sommeliers really do seem to be going further and further off-piste when making their selections. Diners on both sides of the Atlantic may search for classic Bordeaux or full-blooded California Chardonnay in vain.”
She continues: “There is a kernel of truth in [Parker’s] plea to celebrate the classics of the wine world”, but then smartly shifts the argument from one of rejection based on obscurity to the need to consider quality first: “I could not be more enthusiastic about indigenous grape varieties and the need to retain maximum biodiversity in the vineyard”, but I agree with Parker that viticultural rarity does not necessarily bestow wine quality.”
Quality is, of course, critical, a notion few would argue with. But so is value, as anyone who buys and sells wine, especially in shops and restaurants, lives and breathes daily. Wine, like any other commodity is priced in part on recognition, and seeking value often requires going off-piste, like tracking down the next fashion icon in a dodgy garment district warehouse. (Robinson suggests that “value-conscious wine lovers ignore [the lower reaches of] Bordeaux at their peril.”
But let’s leave aside the important question of value, and re-focus on quality. The trouble is, how do you define quality? Parker is derided in the wine trade for the lamentable homogenizing effect he has had on wine style, with only those that fall into his narrow bandwidth of “quality” receiving his important praise. The rest of the world’s myriad styles, and the grapes/regions that produce them, are left to languish in obscurity. His influence over the past thirty+ years has been such that it can be said, without much exaggeration, that he’s defined, and very tightly, the notion of quality for a generation of consumers.
But the world has changed. Robinson’s definition of quality is clearly far broader and encompasses a much wider range of grapes and styles. And perhaps going a step further, America’s, and Canada’s, leading sommeliers offer a similarly free-range definition of quality, one that’s far more inclusive of diverse flavours and textures. To say that anything outside of one individual’s definition of good quality is necessarily the opposite goes contrary to the notion of taste in the first place.
And obscurity in the wine world as defined by Parker and others is also a matter of perspective – geographic and historical – and one can easily succumb to taking too auto centric a view. Blaufränkisch (aka kékfrankos), for example, one of the obscure varieties targeted in Parker’s post, may be considered rare in the US, but it’s the most planted grape in Hungary, and is Austria’s second most planted red grape. In both these countries, cabernet sauvignon could be considered the exotic, rare foreign grape adored by local sommeliers (which it often is). Given this generation’s unprecedented access to information and multiculturalism, what future is there in looking at the world from such a singular, narrow perspective?
Similarly, the mention of grapes like Greece’s assyrtiko or xinomavro will surely garner blank stares from all but the most switched on wine industry folk. But the reason for their (decreasing) obscurity outside of Greece has much more to do with the fact that most of the wine, until recently, was consumed at home, and thus not available to become well-known on international markets. Obscurity was also maintained by the fact that the British, largely responsible for international wine trade over the past couple of centuries, never established strong wine trading ties with Greece as they did with, say, Bordeaux. It has nothing to do with any inherent deficiencies in quality. In fact, I’d rate these grapes among the world’s best. Apparently the Venetians of the late middle age felt the same way, given the volume of wine trade they did in the Aegean. If hip Venetian sommeliers were looking for something obscure and exotic, they might have tried one of those godforsaken wines made in the hinterland of Bordeaux.
While there are undoubtedly sommeliers and wine buyers who are seduced by rarity for rarity’s sake, the majority of those with whom I’ve come into contact use quality as their compass. Yet they are also open minded, and willing to push back the boundaries of the known world of quality wine. If a fine wine happens to come from a lesser-known variety or a country that most don’t even know produce wine, then so much the better – there’s nothing like finding a new source of potential drinking pleasure. At the same time, I’ve also seen plenty of poor quality obscurities scorned by these same hipsters with as much vehemence as they’d heap upon the most ubiquitously commercial cab or chard.
So while a smart business caters to its customers, and will likely fail by alienating them with an inscrutable collection of wines, a little broadening of the acceptable spectrum of wines styles benefits everyone. The smartest places will also have lots of classics to choose from, too, which no right-minded wine professional would totally ignore.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
From the Mar 1, 2014 Vintages release:
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