Lawrason’s Take on Vintages July 9th Release – Pointers on 90 Pointers, Holy Smoking Sauvignons, Exciting 09 French Reds, Tuscan Class and an Odd Duck Basque Country.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Pointers on 90 Pointers:  Vintages July 9 release repeats an easy-sell formula – a grouping of 90 point wines from all over the world, as reviewed and rated by the leading American critics who write for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.  As my colleague John Szabo has pointed out we Canadian critics are rarely quoted by Vintages, yes with some sour grapes attached.  There are at least two reasons for this, and the first is practical.  As John said, we don’t have access to the wines early enough to be quoted in Vintages publications. We are indeed fortunate to taste new releases at the LCBO, but the LCBO controls when the media “samples” (about five weeks ahead of the release) and also the number of “samples” available to the importers, who therefore find it prohibitively costly and difficult to sample local media and sommeliers individually on Vintages products before they are released.  Second, 90 points, as I said, is an easy sell, so retailers around the world have fallen into the lazy ways of simply quoting numbers, and none are more widely quoted than Parker and Spectator. No reason why the LCBO should be any different, but I would love to hear more often from their expert palates as why some wines were chosen, especially those qualifying as first time ‘discoveries’.  And I know that some of those experts at the stores do not enjoy it when customer’s come in fixated on the 90-pointers to the point there is no point discussing anything else.

We have written before that when following scores as a buying tool it is important to get to know the reviewers, and match your palate to theirs. So do we Canadian critics have palates different from the Americans, and perhaps more attuned to Canadian consumer palates?  In that spirit of inquiry, a comment on my scoring in comparison to the big American critics. Of the twenty-four 90-pointers Vintages release Saturday I have only scored seven at 90 points our better. I wonder sometimes how much the American critics pay attention to balance and flavour depth, or for them is it more about flavour generosity and richness? They are not mutually exclusive by the way and 90 point wines should have both.

WineAlign, with a growing stable of critics who review and rate independently, provides an ideal way monitor and get a feel for critics palates, not so much through their scores but by reading their critiques side by side. And in case you weren’t aware, you can also adjust or weight the importance of our critics (to you) so that you end up with personalized overall WineAlign rating. Having said that however, our critics scores are usually quite consistent, within two points – which tells me that experience and professionalism and objectivity are very much at play.

Holy Smokin’ Sauvignons

Château Larrivet Haut Brion Blanc 2007Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008Two whites not in the 90 point feature are my two favourite wines of the release. I am personally a big fan of barrel aged sauvignon-semillon blends, although I know some are not. I first discovered this affinity years ago when white Bordeaux from Graves and Pessac-Leognan were more common in Ontario than they are now. I have since paid close attention to off-shoots like Fumé Blanc in California (fume obliquely referred to the smokiness from barrel aging), sem-sauv blends from Australia, and in the last five years some fine examples from B.C., Niagara, and even more recently Prince Edward County.  There is just something about the interplay of spice, fruit, citrus and herbaceousness that I like, and that differentiates these wines from oaked chardonnay. Anyway, I am delighted to see a mini-invasion of three examples from Bordeaux this release and I am thrilled with the quality of CHÂTEAU LARRIVET-HAUT-BRION 2007 BLANC one of the most exciting wines of the year to date, and well worth $55. The greater surprise quality-wise is STAR LANE VINEYARD 2008 SAUVIGNON BLANC ($21.95) from a region of California barely known for this variety. The Santa Ynez Valley is much better known for pinot and chardonnay but deeper inland where the micro-climate is warmer the Bordeaux white and red varieties do well.

Exciting 2009 French Reds

As Vintages releases roll along this year and the reds from France’s ripe 2009 vintage roll out, it has become abundantly clear that the reds from across France have extra fruit depth and richness. And I am not talking only about the nation’s crus that usually get all the press and exorbitant prices. I am now tasting the LCBO General List in preparation for the Toronto Life Eating and Drinking Guide this fall, and even the Dominique Piron Les Pierres Morgon 2009basic $10 to $15 reds are showing this extra fruit dimension and poise.  Euro purists may tsk-tsk that the wines are too New World-like, but this is nonsense. They still taste like French wines, which to me usually have a finer, more compact sense of balance. The difference is that there are fewer which are lean, green and sour, and this is a good thing. They are just a bit more kind and gentle and fruit-focused, with few of them showing overripe, raisiny fruit condition or cooked/stewed character

Domaine Vincent Paris Saint Joseph 2009As a demonstration take a look at two great mid-level French reds from family domaines coming Saturday, both scoring 90 points. DOMINIQUE PIRON 2009 LES PIERRES 2009 MORGON ($22.95) is from a leading producer based in Morgon, one of the ten single village appellations of Beaujolais. It usually produces gamays with more granitic rigour than some of its neighbours, which is very apparent here, while also showing good fruit bloom, richness and a touch of meatiness that is oh-so French.  The other notable 2009 comes from another small domaine, this time in the northern Rhone. DOMAINE VINCENT PARIS 2009 SAINT JOSEPH  ($28.95) is a riveting syrah with all the classic smoked meat, caper, peppery attributes of the genre centred by wonderful pure cherry fruit.  Domaine Vincent Paris is an important producer in Cornas, based on almost 100 year old vines inherited from his father, but Vincent also owns a small plot in St. Joseph, which is located on the right bank of  the Rhone River opposite the famous hill of Hermitage.

St. Joseph  (Hermitage)

(My photo, taken this spring, which looks south from the top of Hermitage and shows Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhône Valley).

Tuscan Class

There are many Italian reds on this release from all over “the boot” and quality is variable. In general I found most of them to be from properties that are less familiar, which is always exciting as taster/follower, but not always guaranteed to deliver top quality. Obviously the best producers get noticed quickly and become a regular part of the supply every year, if allocations are available and Vintages buys expeditiously. Less well known producers, of which there are tens of thousands in Italy, are more likely to be one shot wonders, as in “wonder why they bought that?”  I found two new Tuscan ‘diamonds in the rough” that I really enjoyed for their authenticity, vibrancy and sense of balance. Italian reds are often erratically composed, either too sour, too tannic, too hot.  I want just a bit of all those elements, with the tangy red fruit of most Italian varieties front and centre. TENUTA DI GHIZZANO 2007 VENEROSO 2007 ($29.95) is a fine blend of sangiovese with about 30% cabernet. It hails from organically grown, low yield vines that have gradually been replanted since the estate was refurbished during the late 1970s.VECCHIA CANTINA 2007 VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO ($18.95) is a well priced edition of a traditional sangiovese, with small parts of canaiolo, trebbiano, that catches that extra aromatic lift and tannic edge that to me set Vino Nobile’s apart from Chianti. I suspect this wine will age very well.

Tenuta Di Ghizzano Veneroso 2007  Vecchia Cantina Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 2007

An Odd Duck 

Gurrutxaga Txakoli 2009GURRUTXAGA 2009 TXAKOLI ($18.95) is good wine (my rating is 87) but I don’t understand its 91 point rating from the Wine Advocate’s Jay Miller. I wonder if he was simply seduced by its incredibly difficult name, refreshing style and unique origin. When we taste the same grapes and regions day in and day out it is fun to run across something completely different and envigorating, but that doesn’t mean it is top quality wine.  This a very nervy, austere and slightly frizzante wine, from the Basque country of northwestern Spain. The label uses Basque language, which instantly turns Anglos into tongue tied fools. To help sort this out, Gurrutxaga is the brand name. Bizkaiko Txakonina is an official DO (appellation) near Bilbao in northwestern Spain on the Bay of Biscay (Bizkaiko is Basque for Biscay). White wines dominate in this cold maritime region, based on a native grape called ondarrabi zuri, here blended with two others called hondaribbi zuri and mune mahasta.  (You and I are both likely relieved that this is the last item in this blog as the words have worn me out.)  But one last thought. The style of this wine, including it searing acidity and petillance may seem off the wall, but when you look up and down the cold, damp Atlantic seaboard of Europe it fits right in there with Vinho Verde to the south in Portugal, with the colombards of Gascony just over the French border to the north, and even to Muscadet at the mouth of the Loire River. Shell fish wine grown not far from some of the largest oyster beds in the world. The world is a logical place, and its best wines are always the most logical wines.

That’s it for now. Read all my reviews here, and I look forward to seeing you at Ontario’s International Cool Climate Chardonnay events July 22-24. By the way you get to rub shoulders with Matt Kramer, my favourite American wine writer. Tickets for most events are still available at

And please take a moment to check out Episode #3 in our new series, “So, You Think You Know Wine?“.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of over 100 wines in this release.