Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – July 23, 2016
Spanish Cante Jondo, and the non-linear price-quality relationship of sauvignon blanc
by John Szabo, MS
In flamenco music there’s a style known as cante jondo (aspirate that ‘j’), which means literally “deep song”. It’s said to be the purest form of flamenco, unchanged over centuries (watch this short clip). On a parallel plane, this week’s report takes us deep into Spanish wine, exploring the country’s wealth of ancient vines, handed down to us by generations of growers, and less well-travelled regions, seemingly untouched for centuries. This is Spanish wine in its purest form. I’ve highlighted my top picks from the Spanish-themed VINTAGES July 23rd release, as well as some excellent wines from a new Spanish specialist in Ontario, Cosecha Imports. These are some of the most exciting Spanish wines to reach our market in the last decade, available by private order, but well worth the effort.
I also have a look at the curious price-quality relationship of sauvignon blanc. It’s a wine that appears to be priced based entirely on origin rather than quality, which means that some inside information is needed to find the best values in this minefield. I pick a quartet of smart buys to illustrate the point. Read on for the details.
Buyer’s Guide: Spanish Cante Jondo
Alejandro Fernandez, the founder of the Grupo Pesquera, is the man largely credited with putting Ribera del Duero on the map, starting in 1972. Tinto Pesquera is still one of the appellation’s top wines. Fernandez added three other bodegas over the years – Condado de Haza (Ribera del Duero), El Vínculo (La Mancha), and Dehesa la Granja (Castilla y Léon) – and it was wine from this last estate that caught my attention in this release, the 2008 Dehesa La Granja, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León ($22.95). The vineyards around Zamora deep in old Castille are not particularly well known for top quality wine, but this is exceptional tempranillo, unabashedly spicy and wood-inflected, exotic and complex, full of cedar and sandalwood scents in the traditional Spanish style. It’s the best Dehesa I can remember tasting, and superb value at that. Beware the heavy sediment; you’ll want to stand this up for a day and decant. Best 2016-2028.
The roots of the Merayo family run deep in the region of Bierzo (northwest Spain), and they have always owned vineyards, and occasionally made wine. But in 2010, a definitive step was taken to establish a commercial winery. On July 23rd you’ll see the 2014 Merayo Las Tres Filas Mencia, DO Bierzo, Spain ($19.95) reach LCBO shelves, a bright, ripe, red and black cherry flavoured red drawing on the wealth of 80+ year-old mencía vines in the family holdings. I like the rustic, deeply honest country styling; tannins are a little rough and tumble, but in time – 2-3 years – this should soften up nicely. Acids provide necessary energy and tension, and the length is excellent. Best 2018-2024.
Almansa is hardly a region that flows off the tongue in general wine conversations, even amongst professionals. But this backwater in the country’s deep southeast corner (province of Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha) has plenty to offer, including high elevations to temper heat, ranging from 700m up to 1000m above sea level, and just enough water-conserving limestone in the soils to keep vines alive. The ambitious Gil family, who also bring us excellent values from Jumilla D.O. under Bodegas Juan Gil, are behind Bodegas Atalaya, and the 2014 Laya, DOP Almansa, Spain ($15.95) is another terrific bargain for fans of bold, ripe, oak-influenced wines. A blend of garnacha tintorera and monastrell gives rise to this modern style, full-bodied red, generously endowed with spicy, vanilla-tinged oak flavour, smoky, like well-peated Scotch, and wild resinous herb notes to round out complexity. Best 2016-2022.
Cosecha Imports – Some Producers to Track Down
In May I sat down with Philip George of Cosecha Imports, a new player in the field focusing exclusively on Spanish wines. The company has managed to scoop a handful of “New Spain’s” most exciting producers, exploiting little-known, ancient regions and old vines, and applying post-modern techniques – earlier harvests, old wood, whole bunch indigenous fermentations and a host of other hip practices – that yield, when done correctly, beautifully perfumed and balanced wines, and above all, infinitely drinkable. This is vino jondo.
Rafael Palacios is among the portfolio headliners. A scion of the famous Rioja winemaking family, he struck out on his own in 2004, settling on the northern region of Valdeorras in Galicia to make his mark. He works exclusively with the native white godello, making some of Spain’s most exciting white wines today. Bolo (c. $20) is the excellent, stainless steel fermented entry level version; vine age, complexity and ageability are ratcheted up in Louro, which includes a splash of native treixadura and is fermented in old 3000l cask, in my view the best value in the lineup, while the top in the portfolio, As Sortes ($70), made from vines approaching a century old and fermented in demi-muid, is a wine of astonishing depth. These are all worth seeking out.
Commando G is another cultish producer turning heads around the world. It’s the project of Daniel Landi and Fernando Garcia, who selected the remote Sierra de Gredos area about an hour’s drive outside of Madrid as their regional canvas, already painted with garnacha reaching up to 80 years old. Farming is organic/biodynamic in these small parcels, necessarily without machinery, which rise up over 1200m above sea level. If you think garnacha is heavy and alcoholic, you must try these wines, suffused with elegance, freshness and finesse. The prices of the ultra-limited cuvees rise steeply, but I loved the entry point 2014 Bruja de Rozas (c. $30), a vino de pueblo (village blend) of wonderfully silky and spicy garnacha, fresh and mid-weight, very Burgundian in feel.
Other excellent producers to look for in the Cosecha portfolio include Joan D’Anguera in Montsant D.O. and Pardas in the Penedès. It’s so great to see the Spanish wine offering expanding in the province.
On the Curious Relationship between Sauvignon Blanc and Price
The price of sauvignon blanc in LCBO VINTAGES is curiously predictable. It seems to be based on origins, rather than any notion of quality, however slippery that is to define. Chilean and South African sauvignon is invariably in the mid-teens. So too is basic Touraine or Bordeaux, while Aussie sauv seems able to fetch a dollar or two more. New Zealand hovers around $18, occasionally just over $20, alongside Friulian sauvignon, while Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé will set you back somewhere in the mid-twenties. Napa is in a neighbourhood of its own, in which $40 seems to be the standard point of entry.
Are these prices tied to how delicious the wines are? Hardly. It would be an eye-opening exercise to buy a range of sauvignons from $12 to $40 and taste them together, blind, with origins concealed. The results will surprise you. You’ll find that the cost appears much more directly linked to the wine’s home address than any other aspect of enjoyment. You might then buy 3 or 4 wines from the same region at the same price and repeat the exercise, observing how quality diverges at identical cost.
Now, wine pricing is a complex calculation to be sure. It’s based in part on hard production costs, including real estate and labour, currency exchange, and no small measure of regional and winery brand recognition, with a dash of speculation thrown in. Most regions are constrained to offer their wines in a more or less fixed range of prices, as the cost structure, and market tolerance, is similar for all (minus the individual brand recognition and speculation factor). But for sauvignon blanc, the price range is amazingly consistent, and narrow, from region to region, more so than for any other variety. It’s as though the producers get together to set a standard price for all. Even pinot grigio comes in greater price variation, based to some degree on quality. Why is that? Is it because sauvignon blanc is more a commodity than it is wine? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In any case, as a buyer, it’s frustrating knowing that a wine fetches a price based on birthright, not merit. But then again, as a smart buyer, I know that when looking for a typical sauvignon blanc experience, I needn’t overpay, either, just for the smart neighbourhood (unless I’m drinking the label). I can get a similar experience in an underprivileged neighbourhood for far less. It’s something to be aware of.
Below is a quartet of sauvignons that can be considered the nicest houses on their respective blocks. You only need choose what neighbourhood you want to live in.
Buyers’ Guide: Sauvignon Blanc
Roger & Didier Raimbault 2014 Sancerre AC, Loire Valley, France ($26.95) A Sancerre archetype: more stony than fruity, more citrus than tropical, more herbal than vegetal. The length, too, is excellent. Textbook. Best 2016-2024.
Domaine de la Commanderie 2014 Quincy AC, Loire Valley, France ($19.95) The so-called Sancerre satellite appellations (i.e. Reuilly, Quincy, Menetou Salon) are usually about 20 percent cheaper than Sancerre, but can offer a similar, lean and brisk profile in the classic Loire style. This is a fine example, a nicely tart, lemony and lightly stony sauvignon, brimming with green herbs and citrus. It’s perfectly satisfying; a classic oyster wine.
Boya 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley, Chile ($15.95) Chile just may offer the best value sauvignon on the planet, especially if you prefer the pungent and smoky, vegetal/green pepper/pyrazine-driven style. Cool coastal regions like the Leyda do it best, and the Garcés Silva family (of Amayna) do it as well as anyone. Boya is the fine ‘entry range’, and this youthful 2015 offers great acids and a nicely acidulated, citrus fruit finish. There’s a lot of energy and life in this bottle for the price.
Sutherland 2014 Sauvignon Blanc WO Elgin, South Africa ($14.95) South Africa also vies for a spot at the top of the southern hemisphere sauvignon heap of value, again drawing from cooler areas, like southerly Elgin, to produce pungent gently smoky and green pepper-inflected wines. Sutherland is well-established Thelema Mountain Vineyards’ newish project in Elgin, and this 2014 is a compelling, if slightly unusual sauvignon. Fruit shifts into the orchard spectrum, like nectarine and green peach, while the palate is quite broad and deeply flavoured, with earthy-medicinal character alongside the ripe-tart fruit and smoky-leesy character. It’s a wine of strong personality.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES July 9th, 2016
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