Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Feb 6, 2016
To Taste or Not To Taste; Beautiful Southern France
By John Szabo MS
Controversy is currently swirling around Ontario’s own appellation system, regulated by the Vintners Quality Alliance, or the VQA to you and me. A growing number within the industry believe that it’s time to do away with, or at least modify, the sensory – i.e. tasting – evaluation, which all VQA-aspiring wines must pass to earn the VQA designation. Does the VQA’s current definition of “free of faults and defects”, and “character and typicity of the stated wine category or grape variety”, match the reality of the ever-evolving wine world? Is the acceptable style range too narrow, stifling innovation, creativity, and, paradoxically, suppressing the potential quality of locally grown wines? I share some thoughts on the matter, and would love to hear yours.
If you’re more interested in the excellent and surprising wines from Southern France featured in the February 6th VINTAGES release, skip directly to the top smart buys. Next week, the Buyers’ Guide will highlight all of the WineAlign crü’s top picks from February 6th, while Michael Godel will publish a lyrical piece on developments in South Africa (the mini-theme from the release), along with currently available smart buys from this excellent source of value wines.
Op Ed: To Taste, or Not to Taste?
Last month I sat down with Vintners Quality Alliance executive director Laurie MacDonald, winemakers Norman Hardie and Jonas Newman, and wine industry veterans Will Predhomme and Peter Boyd, to discuss the state of the Ontario wine industry, and specifically the role of the Vintners Quality Alliance tasting panel. The VQA is Ontario’s appellation authority, which guarantees provenance, and regulates production, authorized grapes, and labeling. Additionally, all wines hoping for the VQA seal are put through a rigorous blind tasting to evaluate quality and varietal character before earning a pass.
Hardie had called the meeting to raise some concerns about the future of the industry, leveraging recent comments by respected British critic Jancis Robinson, who wrote after a tasting last May in London that, although there were some notable highlights, “several Chardonnays had that slightly formulaic pineapple-chunk quality that I more readily associate with the 1980s and early 1990s than with this century…”
Although Hardie agrees that the tasting panel has played an important role in raising the overall quality of Ontario wines during the past quarter century, protecting their fragile reputation in the beginning, he, along with a growing number of winemakers, contend that the tasting panel is forcing uniformity and standardization on Ontario wines, but not in the positive sense, and preventing innovation and evolution. Although the lows are screened out, so are the highs, which lie outside of the mainstream, a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Hardie’s own 2008 County Chardonnay failed the VQA tasting panel after multiple submissions for a technical fault – excessive sulphides (aka reduction, or flintiness) – despite strong demand from Ontario restaurants, and critical claim at home and abroad. (It was eventually narrowly passed by an appeals panel). Other high-profile failures in the past include Pearl-Morissette’s ‘Black Ball’ Riesling, deemed atypical and oxidized, though it, too, has garnered somewhat of a cultish following in Toronto sommelier circles.
The Benefits of VQA Designation
None of this would matter much if obtaining VQA designation weren’t so critical to the financial success of a business. Wines without VQA status (but still 100% grown and produced in Ontario) are forcibly sold at far slimmer margins, under government laws, while VQA-approved wines enjoy significantly enhanced profit margins.
For example, according to a pricing calculator provided by Duncan Gibson, Director of Finance for the Wine Council of Ontario, from a $19.95 bottle of VQA wine sold directly to a restaurant, the winery retains $14.38. The same bottle of wine without VQA designation, sold to the same restaurant at the same price, earns the winery just $9.64, a 33% reduction in profits. Furthermore, non-VQA wines are effectively excluded from the LCBO’s retail distribution network, which leaves only cellar door or licensee-direct sales opportunities. The difference, especially for small wineries, is quite literally the life or death of the business.
As Norm Hardie puts it: “The economic pressure to pass [the VQA tasting panel] is enormous. Winemakers are encouraged to aim inside the box and not to shoot for potential greatness outside of the box, for fear of failure. Without the VQA sticker it is practically impossible for a winery to stay to economically viable.”
Eliminate the margin double standard and the problem is resolved – the panel could carry on maintaining the same standards for VQA wines, while other wineries would be free to pursue their own quality vision for Ontario wines without risking profitability, under some generic appellation designation. The aim of the financial incentive was, logically, to support the nascent Ontario industry, and encourage production of wines that met with VQA approval. But now, it has become a hindrance to further development. As I understand from MacDonald, however, quashing it would require a major government mobilization and take years to push through.
The Panel Process
The VQA hires the LCBO to facilitate the tasting panel process: trained LCBO product consultants taste groups of submitted wines blind at the LCBO laboratory, applying a set of rigid quality standards, established by the VQA. Arbitrary standards are set for acceptable levels, of, for example, volatile acidity, oxidation, sulphides, lack of fruit, and unclean aromas and flavours. And it’s a very tightly run ship. Guidelines, and the results and approval rates, are consistent. That’s not the issue. The real issue is the guidelines themselves.
So the question remains: is the VQA tasting panel’s definition of wine too restrictive? Does upholding minimum quality and style standards come at the expense of stifling experimentation and industry development?
Many, including winemakers and wine buyers, feel that rather than ensure quality, the restrictive mandate of the panel instead now shackles the industry within a very narrow band of acceptable wine styles. Is it time then to eliminate the panel, or at least broaden its definition of acceptable, and allow companies the scope and latitude to follow their own vision of quality?
Such a move would simply recognize the reality that the world wine industry has changed radically in the last decade, and that the thresholds of acceptance of certain aspects of wine, such as volatile acidity, turbidity, oxidation, and brettanomyces, to name just a few, are in constant flux, and change from region to region, country to country, sommelier to sommelier, wine writer to wine writer.
Never has this been more clear than in the last half-dozen years, which have witnessed the rise of ‘counter-culture’ or ‘natural’ wines. A growing cadre of winemakers around the world have begun to reject the limiting definition of ‘quality wine’ that was spawned by numerous wine making schools around the world, obsessed with uniform, standard, technical perfection. They’ve embarked on new trails of experimentation, which in many instances have been the re-discovery of old, pre-industrial trails. And sommeliers, critics and consumers are demanding such wines, viewed as unique and artisanal, reflective of their origins, not a recipe. Who’s to say what’s truly good or bad, authentic or contrived? Everyone has an opinion, but no one has an answer. That’s because there is no single answer.
Skin macerated white wines are a good case in point. Although “orange” wines have become exceedingly popular in bellwether markets like London, New York, Tokyo and San Francisco, such wines currently fall outside of VQA tasting norms and would not be approved. A dossier is currently being drawn up to define skin-macerated white wines in VQA-acceptable terms – I was part of a recent tasting with Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble and a large gathering of professionals to attempt to assess just what the taste/style parameters should be for skin contact whites. But the discussion struck me as doomed from the beginning. Any effort to define necessarily excludes, and I wouldn’t want to be shouldered with the responsibility of defining an entire wine category. Yet that is exactly what the VQA, and the tasting panel it oversees, is expected to do: grapple with the slippery notion of typicity, and box in the notoriously flexible edges of faults and defects.
Ontario would not be alone in implementing change. Australia has eliminated the tasting panel requirement for export approval, faced with the embarrassing reality that certain wines, for which importers were clamoring around the world, had been denied an export certificate based on an arbitrary definition of what’s good. South Africa, too, has overhauled its tastings, adding categories that wholly embrace natural wines. Other countries like the United States never established tasting panels in the first place, opting instead to control origin and labeling only, and let the market decide what is good, as should be the case in any free market economy.
(It’s worth noting, as a side bar, that there is a growing number of imported wines that fail the LCBO or SAQ laboratory tests due to high levels of Volatile Acidity, for example, as determined by arbitrary limits. With enough insistence, however, agents have been able to secure the release of these wines, pre-sold in many cases to an eagerly awaiting market, with the caveat that returns will not be accepted. The point is that there is a market for ‘alternative’ wines. Ontario wineries have no recourse for such a release, if they want the VQA seal of approval and financial benefits.)
The role of the VQA should be first and foremost, like all appellation bodies, to regulate origin and to ensure that wines are safe for public consumption – a mandatory chemical analysis is already provided by the excellent LCBO laboratory for all wines sold in Ontario. Beyond that, in a young region, growing dozens of permitted grape varieties, and with no traditional, established winemaking techniques, how is it possible to determine varietal typicity and intrinsic quality?
Even in Europe, with its long-established history of wine production and traditional wine styles, the regional appellation model is cracking at the seams – many of the rules that were put in place originally often enshrined substandard practices, and top producers are struggling to get out.
It’s true that abolishing the tasting panel would open the door for ‘poor quality’ wines to reach the market under the VQA seal. But the reality is that this is already happening. The rejection rate is extremely low – (on average around 3% of submissions, according to the VQA; the panelists are aware of the economic impact of a rejection). The question is, how many more great wines would be made, how many more ground-breaking wines, how many more successful experimental wines would emerge if winemakers weren’t burdened with the knowledge that a wine must fit into a tidy little box in order to gain VQA approval. I think the risks are worth it. As Hardie states: “An ocean of one-dimensional wines is more damaging than one filled with exciting wines of character, mixed with a few oddball wines on the sidelines.”
Smart Buys from Southern France
VINTAGES surprises with the February 6th feature on southern France, listing a range of decidedly edgy, out of the box, and notably premium-priced selections. This is anything but a ‘safe’ selection of predictable but dull, widely appealing, commercial wines. Rather, the lineup includes a number of bold and intense, characterful wines, the kind that may polarize the room, but at least force you to take notice. It was refreshing to taste through the releases.
My top value for money is the Cave de Roquebrun 2013 La Grange Des Combes, Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun ($18.95). What a distinctive blend of 50% syrah, with grenache and mourvèdre! It’s rare to find sub-$20 wines with this much character, class and complexity, balance and concentration, grown on the poor schist soils of Roquebrun in northern St. Chinian (Langedoc). This is all cold cream, black pepper, smoke and tar, dried garrigue and much more, over dense dark fruit, aged in stainless steel. Chapeau bas, I’d say, best 2016-2025.
Slightly more edgy and bold is the Château Pech-Redon 2012 L’épervier La Clape, Coteaux du Languedoc ($24.95), a stylish, modern, very ripe and wood-inflected red blend (syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and carignan), flirting with volatility (acetic and acetone), and with dense and firm tannic structure. This has impressive depth of flavour and complexity, not to mention length. Palate-warming alcohol (14.5% declared) drives the finish home on wintry nights. Best 2016-2022.
Although Provençal wine production, and exports, are overwhelmingly pink, the region is home to supremely savoury red wines, like the fine value Domaine Houchart 2013 Red, Côtes de Provence ($16.95). This is a typical blend of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, carignan and syrah from near Aix-en-Provence, but somewhere between Bordeaux and the southern Rhône in style. Garrigue and fresh black fruit flavours mingle comfortably, offering above-average complexity, and lively, food-friendly acids. I’d serve this with a chill alongside pâtés, charcuterie and tomato-based sauces. Best 2016-2021.
But if rosé it must be (and it should be enjoyed outside the summer months), pick up former rugby star Gérard Bertand’s 2014 Côte des Roses Rosé, Languedoc ($18.95). It’s a lovely, classic southern French rosé blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah crafted in the Provençal style, which is to say, pale, delicate, fruity and bone dry, a sheer pleasure to sip and showing beautifully right now. The stylish package will make an impression on Valentine’s Day, too.
Although not technically part of the thematic but grown in southern France just the same, the top red in the genre is hands-down the exceptional Château La Nerthe 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($49.95). 2012 provided for a rich and heady, ripe but balanced vintage, made from nearly equal parts Grenache and Syrah, with 14% Mourvèdre and 5% Cinsault, aged two-thirds in barrel and one-third in foudre. It hits a pitch-perfect marriage of fruit, earth, and spice, as well as acid, tannin and alcohol, meaning that this should age exceedingly well, even if it’s already a joy to drink right now. Consider this an archetype from the modern end of the spectrum, best 2018-2028.
And finally, if you want to run the southern French theme all evening, start off with the fresh and engaging Beauvignac 2014 Picpoul de Pinet AP ($14.95). Picpoul from around the seaside town Pinet is considered the Muscadet of the Languedoc, and this is indeed a fruity and crunchy, aperitif-style white, or perfect accompaniment with the fish/seafood course.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
From VINTAGES February 6, 2016
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