VINTAGES Essentials: Fertile Ground for Value

Top New Vintages Essentials, July 2016
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The so-called “VINTAGES Essentials” is a collection of some 130-odd wines that is, essentially, a fancy extension of the LCBO’s regular listings. You already know that most of the wines sold in the VINTAGES section are purchased in discreet quantities and released every fortnight – these are the wines that WineAlign spends so much time reporting on, here today, gone tomorrow. When stock runs out, another listing takes its place.

But the Essentials are deemed, well, essential, and thus available on shelves year round, just like all of those familiar brands you see in the ‘regular’ sections of the LCBO. Really, the only difference is that they’re tucked away in the VINTAGES corner of your LCBO in all of its intimidating, wood-paneled glory, basking in the premium halo of the more rare, transient and expensive selections, and deliciously close to those locked glass armoires that harbour the really rare and expensive stuff.

The Essentials program is where the world’s premium wine brands want to be: always available (maximum sales potential, just for being there), yet without the déclassé stigma of being mixed with the hoi polloi on the ‘regular’ shelves, where discount drinkers go to fill their carts with boxed wine, vodka coolers and mickeys of Southern Comfort. Savvy wine companies, and their importing agents, know this, and often take a hit to shave down their pricing so it fits the Essentials matrix – it’s a coveted and therefore highly competitive space. And if you don’t meet minimum sales quotas, you’re booted to free up space for a potentially better-performing wine, ratcheting up the pressure (just as it is for the regular listings). Dropping your price by 10% or even 20% to move from a one-off VINTAGES purchase (with no guarantee of a re-order) into the Essentials category just might make financial sense.

And knowing this, the savvy shopper spots on opportunity: premium wines offered at artificially thin margins. The Essentials are fertile ground for value. But of course not all are killer – it still takes a little effort to sort out the good from the really good. And of course the vintages of these essential listings are constantly changing (that is, the year in which the grapes were grown), which occasions ups and downs in quality and style from year to year.

In June, the LCBO provided an opportunity to taste through the current crop of Essentials. Below are four whites and four reds that came knocking on my door of opportunity. (Be sure to check the vintage on the label – stores are likely to have multiple vintages on the shelves.)

White

Various factors, including a strong American dollar, high production costs and high cost of living make California an unlikely place to find real value. So it was all the more exciting to see one of my perennial favourites not only excel in the latest vintage, but also come down $3: Sonoma-Cutrer 2014 Russian River Ranches Chardonnay ($24.95). This is easily the classiest California chardonnay in the VINTAGES Essentials program, and the ‘14 is particularly well-balanced, crisp, fresh, minimally oaked, focused more on white-fleshed fruit – pear in particular – and citrus. Length and depth are impressive, and you can drink or hold this into the early ‘20s.

As I’ve recently reported, I believe chardonnay is Ontario’s most reliable and consistent grape, so it’s not surprising to find one on the Essentials list. The price, however, is surprising – surprisingly low, especially considering Ontario’s own elevated production costs and variable climate. I know Malivoire has had to stretch to get their 2013 Chardonnay ($19.95) just under the $20 wire, and it’s a fine value. It’s made in the bright, tight, minimally-oaked style, full of lively apple, pear and citrus fruit, and very light leesy-white chocolate flavours. Acids are sharp and crunchy in the best way, and the finish lingers nicely, making it a widely appealing, food-friendly style.

Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay 2014Malivoire Chardonnay 2013 Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2013 Flat Rock Twisted White 2014

Riesling would be my other pick for Ontario flagship white, excelling for value especially in the sub-$20 category. Cave Spring has been at it for over 35 years, helping to establish what has now evolved into the classic regional style, and the essential 2013 Estate Riesling ($17.95) is a benchmark. It features plenty of pear flavour and bright acids on a vibrant, off-dry frame, so very drinkable.

Blended whites is a more challenging category, often the dumping ground for leftover wine it seems, or a pure commercial play. But Flat Rock shows that they can be serious wines, too. The 2014 Twisted White ($16.95) is another fine and fragrant, just off-dry, joyfully aromatic mix of riesling, gewürztraminer and chardonnay, hitting a nice balance between fruit, floral, and ginger spice, and acids and sugar (with c. 17 grams of residual sugar, it’s slightly drier than Apothic red). This should be your go-to wine for those takeout Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese nights.

Red

Spain has shown itself to be a vast source of serious value in the last few years, and Essentials brings us two fantastic wines from the most historic red appellation, Rioja. On the more premium end, the Muga 2012 Reserva Rioja ($23.95) is a regular and consistent favourite. The 2012 is yet another engaging, fragrant, fruity-spicy edition that hits all of the right notes, perfectly pitched, mid-weight, lightly dusty, with vibrant acids and moderate wood influence in the modern style. Best 2016-2024.

Not as complex but a sheer joy to drink at a nice price is the Lan 2011 Crianza, Rioja ($15.95). It’s also on the more modern side, fruity, juicy and easy drinking with minimal wood influence. It would make a fine party/house/back yard BBQ wine.

Muga Reserva 2012 Lan Crianza 2011 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône 2012 Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore 2012

In a similar vein, the E. Guigal 2012 Côtes du Rhône ($16.95) is a regionally faithful example, appealingly dark and savoury. It delivers typical tar-like notes alongside dried flowers, resinous herbs, and liqueur-like red and black berry fruit, matching the textbook description of Southern Rhône red blends. Drink or hold short term, to about 2019.

Valpolicella ripasso is a challenging wine to get right in my view, but Zenato’s 2012 Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore Veneto, Italy ($24.95) is among the more reliable and consistently successful versions available at the LCBO. I like the bright acids, refined tannins and very good length, as well as the Mexican chocolate and cinnamon spice over lightly dried red fruit. It’s made using the classic ripasso method – soaking the skins leftover from Amarone pressings in straight Valpolicella to give it a boost – but the potentially confusing “Ripassa” name was born during the period when the Masi company owned the trademark for “Ripasso”, a term which they have since made available to all. Zenato’s brand, however, was already established, so they kept the name.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

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John Szabo MS

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