Lawrason’s Take on Vintages December 10th Release: Escaping to Argentina, BC’s Big ‘O’ Reds, 92 Point Reds, Blinded by a PEC Pinot Noir & Bargain Whites

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I experienced a secret pleasure while spending twelve days in Argentina recently. It was not the perfect mid-summer temperatures, nor the surprisingly good food (beef and otherwise), nor those rich creamy malbecs. No, it was missing twelve days of pre-Christmas hype and circumstance here at home. There was virtually no Christmas razz-a-mattaz in the streets of Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Patagonia. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I am from a very large family for which Christmas was a fairy tale of fun, food and frolic. And it still is when our clan, that now numbers almost forty siblings and their off-spring, get together. But nowadays I find the banal consumerism of Christmas just too much, and it starts way too soon. I saw my first Christmas TV commercial while I was doling out Halloween candy!  Christmas should start right about now, December 10. Those who need more time to shop and prepare are perhaps doing and buying too much.

Escaping to Argentina

So if you want to escape Christmas, even for a little while longer, join me in a glimpse of Argentina. It’s a nation almost completely populated by Europeans, mostly from Spain and Italy, who at one point or other saw this vast land of plains and mountains as an idyllic escape themselves, not from Christmas but from poverty and persecution. There were several waves of European immigration in the 19th and 20th Centuries, with the latest being at the beginning of the 21st Century, as Argentina came out of a disastrous period of financial crisis. The latest wave is most evident in the burgeoning wine industry which has been hauled into the modern world and pushed onto the global stage by financiers and oenologists from Europe and elsewhere, who saw cheap land and endless potential for improving wine quality and value in this vast, warm and arid land. Wineries in new regions like Patagonia, Salta and the Uco Valley in Mendoza are monuments of modern, lavish architecture (Napa has nothing on these guys), and in stark contrast to the shoddy villages and crumbling roads encountered en route. But it is exactly the wealth, allure and global attraction of the wine industry that one day could be the engine to pull the rest of the country along, or so the government and banks hope having provided container loads of easy credit.

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Argentine is the planet’s fifth largest wine producing country with endless amounts of arid, semi-desert land available for vineyard growth, as long as water from the Andes or deep wells can be economically applied. (Water is the only thing that is expensive). There are about 1,200 wineries in Argentina and most of them are very large. The size of the vineyard holdings of some of the largest would almost consume most of Niagara or the Okanagan. The smallest winery I encountered was at about 20,000 cases almost twice the output of the largest in Prince Edward County. This economy of scale, plus cheap labour, combines with large yields per hectare, and growing conditions easily controlled by irrigation to make the wine dead cheap.

But value of course is a two-sided coin, and cheap wine alone would not sustain Argentina in the world for long. The oceans of $10 malbec do provide bang for buck, but I was bored by them before I arrived, and still was as I tasted them in their own backyard. They are fruity and rich but often simple, short and coarse. The real strength of Argentina now, and the point of the massive upgrade in technology and winemaking talent, is to make wine that still does not cost very much – $15 to $30 – and that completely over-delivers on quality. The wines in this category were the revelation of my journey. One after another – whether malbecs, cabernets, merlots, syrahs, petit verdots, tannats or blends thereof – I found myself swooning over their texture, complexity and depth – routinely posting scores of 88 to 92 points, or more.  To the point that the so-called “icon wines” over $30 and as much as $100, simply didn’t supply that much more gratification or much better quality.

Cicchitti Edicion Limitada Malbec 2008In Saturday’s release there are two great examples of terrific mid-priced Argentine reds. I did not visit the Mendoza winery (bodega) that made CICCHITTI 2008 EDICION LIMITADA MALBEC ($23.95) but this lush red from organically tended vineyards scattered at various elevations from 800 to 1200 metres is a great example of the current state of the art, and Argentine wine history. It is an Italian family winery founded in 1928 and very recently expanded and upgraded to catch the export wave.

Benmarco Expresivo 2008BENMARCO 2008 EXPRESIVO, also from Mendoza, is pricier at $36.95 but it was one of few that I would personally have no qualms buying above $30. It is a very cool, rich yet refined blend of five Bordeaux grape varieties, a common practice in Argentina where the majors like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc – as well as more difficult petit verdot and tannat – can each be planted at altitudes most suitable to their growing season, then blended after. Altitude blending is Argentine’s secret weapon. Benmarco is not a winery by the way, but a brand produced at an excellent winery called Dominio del Plata, based in the important sub-region of Agrelo.

The winemaker at Dominio del Plata is Susanna Balbo, who I consider to be one of the great talents of Mendoza. I was not able to taste her SUSANA BALBO 2010 SIGNATURE CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($22.95) by press time, but I will add my note shortly after the release on Saturday. Likewise with CLOS DE LOS SIETE 2008 ($21.95) which I will re-taste after a disappointing experience last spring. Everyone seemed to like it but me. This is one of the most famous “foreign invasion” brands of Argentina, created by Bordeaux oenologist Michel Rolland who began consulting in the region in the early nineties, along with California’s Paul Hobbs. This pair, along with local hero Nicolas Catena, are largely responsible for where Argentina sits today.  And Argentina is sitting pretty!

B.C.’s  Big ‘O’ Icon Reds

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2007During a seminar on wine in Canada that we guests did for the Argentine wine industry in Mendoza, I mentioned that British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, especially south of Oliver, was very much like Argentina, only at a latitude 15 degrees cooler (the Okanagan lies from 49 to 50 North, while Mendoza is at 30-32 South). Eyes opened and jaws dropped when I told them that B.C.s little desert was producing syrah, malbec, merlot and cabernets. I would have loved to be able to pour them the two B.C. icon wines being released Dec 10th –OSOYOOS LAROSE 2007 LE GRAND VIN at $45.00, or MISSION HILL 2007 OCULUS at $70.00. They would have experienced fine merlot-based blends crafted with attention to complexity, finesse and depth, if still a bit leaner than in hotter regions like Mendoza..

Mission Hill Oculus 2007Which is the better Big O? Osoyoos-Larose or Oculus? Well I have not tasted the 2007s side by side but I have scored Oculus one point higher. At $25 more however that puts the “best buy” question on the sidelines. More importantly, I think that in both cases the 2007 vintage is among the strongest yet produced by both companies, with Mission Hill having a head start with its first bottling in 1997, and Osoyoos-Larose in 2001. The Okanagan Valley is indeed vintage sensitive, much more so than Mendoza. The 2007 vintage started poorly but finished hot, creating a lighter year with some catch-up ripeness. Both wines seem to have a bit more refinement, and in general among B.C’s often burly and unbalanced big reds, this is a very positive trait. I think the real reason is that the winemaking is simply getting better (which implies a better understanding of and adaptation to the vintage conditions).

By the way Osoyoos-Larose in the 750ml size is a Vintages Essential with the 2007 vintage now taking over from the burlier 2006. The magnum bottle(1500ml) of Osoyoos-Larose 2007 is being released Saturday at $99.95.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Ep 2.3 - Keint-He Pinot Noir 2007

Ep 2.3 - Keint-He Pinot Noir 2007

No, I am not refering to the Leafs. I am talking about my performance in the latest episode of So, You Think You Know Wine, the video of WineAlign’s blind tasting tournament that pits we critics and guest sommeliers against one, taunting, humiliating gold foil wrapped bottle of wine set in front of us in a darkened studio. In this episode the wine was Keint-He 2007 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County. As soon as I nosed it Prince Edward County leapt to mind, as it should given that I have devoted much time and energy to this fascinating region in the past decade. As a rule I believe in the blind tasting principle that “the nose knows”. But I failed to do the proper analytical diligence when the palate texture took me in another direction. It was wonderfully elegant and almost creamy – very New World in feel – so I took the easy route to New Zealand instead of properly asking myself what conditions in PEC might induce this. Elements like maturity (it looked mature), a warm vintage (2007 was such a vintage), and excellent, low yield, natural winemaking (which is the stock in trade of Keint-He winemaker Geoff Heinricks). So I blew it under pressure, plain and simple.

Closson Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009

You can get to know PEC pinot noir with a very good example being released December 10th. CLOSSON CHASE 2009 CLOSSON CHASE VINEYARD  PINOT NOIR ($39.95) is one two pinots made by winemaker Deborah Paskus in 2009. This one is from the most mature vineyards (still only 10 years) on the original property. I have tasted it at least four times this fall, and I really like its taut, tart cran-raspberry County authenticity, but I would still age it a year or two to soften the edges. At the moment I am preferring its younger but more expensive sibling, the first vintage of CLOSSON CHASE 2009 CHURCHSIDE PINOT NOIR($49.95), from hilltop wines planted beside the little white church atop the northern slope across from the big purple barn. It has a bit less depth perhaps but I do prefer the more obvious barrel complexity and suppleness of texture. And it too should age well, at least for three to five years. It is available only at the winery.

A Pair of 92 Point Reds 

Kanonkop Pinotage 2008Bodegas Alion 2007KANONKOP 2008 PINOTAGE ($39.95) from South Africa’s Simonsberg-Stellenbosch district is a great example of pinotage, the grape hybridized in South Africa in the 1920s by crossing pinot noir and cinsault (a Rhone variety). Due to uneven ripening, a distinctive, often unpleasant flavour in some older examples, and a confusing array of styles pinotage is en route to extinction. But Kanonkop winemaker BeyersTruter made it is mission to embrace and elevate pinotage. I urge you to try what is one of the most intriguing wines on the release, if even only to try it once and say you did before it goes the way of the dodo.

BODEGAS ALION 2007 ALION TINTO from the Ribera del Duero region of Castilla y Leon in Spain, is pricier at $78.95, but again a terrific wine. This is a modern bodega founded in 1992 by the Alvarez family (owner of Vega Sicilia, Spain’s region’s most famous wine). It makes only one wine, from one grape – tempranillo locally known as tinto fino. It is aged in new French oak. I was blown away by the aromatics here!

And two Whites Steals Under $17

Château Des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2008Poderi Del Paradiso Vernaccia Di San Gimignano 2010CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES 2008 OLD VINES RIESLING Niagara-on-the-Lake ($16.95) has been wowing critics and competition judges all year, including WineAlign colleagues John Szabo and Sara d’Amato as we judged it the Best Wine at the Toronto Gold Medal Plates culinary competition in November. Prior to that it won White Wine of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards and a gold medal at the Canadian Wine Awards. When a wine is this decorated and only $16.95, you just have to try it.

PODERI DEL PARADISO 2010 VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO$14.95 was an unexpected charmer. I had largely lost interest in the whites from Tuscany’s most famous, touristic town because they had modernised to capture brightness, losing some individuality in the process. From a historic property at the foot of the hill, this is remains very well made but it is a stylistic return to the richer, honeyed and floral vernaccia’s of yore. This has been achieved by fermenting 20% in small oak barrels then ageing six months, as well as through long lees contact for the other 80% in tank.

And so it goes for the last Vintages release of 2011. We return with Vintages previews prior to the January 7th release, but keep watching for special holiday features and updates and Picks of the Day on The National Posts’ The Appetizer.

And a fun, frolicking Holiday season to all!

Check out reviews on over 120 wines from the December 10th release here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign