Lawrason’s Take on Vintages January 21st Release: Australia’s GSMs de Pâpe, Mature Reds Unearthed, Palacios of Spain, Yabby Lake and Great Whites

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

There are many interesting wines on this release, certainly more than in the previous batch on January 7th.  Some of them are grouped in the “Australian Open” feature in Vintages magazine. The theme implies that Australia has opened up to produce more than hot and heavy shiraz, and this is true. Last year I travelled to Australia then wrote in this space about the push to regionalism, new grapes and cooler styles.  It is manifested in the very good selection offered on January 21st.  But rather than repeat what Vintages is saying, and what I have said before, I want to put some of the Australian wines in the context of broader themes encountered in my three tasting sessions. (I was able to cover the whole release this time and spend plenty of time with the wines, which is not always possible given fixed tasting dates at the LCBO and a self-imposed restriction to not attempt more than 50 wines at a time)

GSM de Pâpe

The Aussie-coined acronym GSM has become part of the global wine vernacular – for better or for worse. Do we need more “insider” lingo? (Well yes, because the need to explain such lingo does help keep we wine writers employed).  GSMs are red blends of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre, the fulcrum varieties in the blends of the appellations of the southern Rhone Valley in France. The most famous of these is Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, which actually allows up to 13 different red and white varieties. In creating GSM blends the Australians were doing two things – logically using varieties that grow well in hot, dry Australia to make a very good wine, and trying to cash in on a popular French wine/concept.  But no shame there; New World has been built on attempts (sometimes mis-guided) to replicate, or at the very least trade off, the wines of the Old.

This release contains several GSM blends from Australia, France and even South Africa, and it is immediately obvious that the Australian examples are bigger, bolder, juicier and in many ways more fun and appealing than the French, which strive for more restraint.  As an aside, I am very frequently let down by Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe in particular, as was the case on this release as well. It’s fame and price assured, it seems that many producers in overcrowded Châteauneuf are just not trying very hard, with more effort perhaps going toward elevating their other, much less expensive Rhone wines like Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

The overall style of Aussie GSMs is full bodied, broad, juicy and very complex – great winter wines – but the variations and fine tuning are as endless as the permutations of grape proportion, region of origin and vintage.  For a classic, structured and age-worthy style that has some restraint reminiscent of Châteauneuf du Pape, don’t miss PENFOLDS 2009 BIN 138 GRENACHE/SHIRAZ/MOURVÈDRE from the Barossa Valley ($34.95).  For the next evolution of the Australian GSM look to HEWITSON 2009 MISS HARRY, also from Barossa Valley, and good value at $23.95.  It contains not just the big three southern Rhone grapes, but carignan and cinsault as well. These are less aromatically distinctive varieties but they have very good acidity and a certain toughness that big, jammy hot Aussie reds can use to good effect. (I predict we will see much more carigan in Australia).  And finally, for the most typical, fleshy, warm, jammy and cuddly style try the well-priced ($19.95) TURKEY FLAT 2009 BUTCHER’S BLOCK SHIRAZ/GRENACHE/MOURVÈDRE, again from Barossa. It’s only negative – which can be applied to the genre as whole – is excessive alcohol heat.  I actually recommend chilling Aussie GSMs a bit before serving to make them just a bit cooler and more linear, and yes French.

Penfolds Bin 138 Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2009  Hewitson Miss Harry 2009   Turkey Flat Butcher's Block Shiraz/Grenache/Mourvèdre 2009

Fine Mature Reds Unearthed

An unexpected strength of the January 21st selection are three excellent, matured-to-prime reds that allow you to go to school on older wines without paying heavy tuition fees.  Vintages regularly buys affordable mature wines for those without the wherewithal in terms of cash and space to age their own wines. This is very welcome, but sometimes the mature wines are not so great.  And it’s becoming a tougher call because our palates are becoming so attuned to the fruit laden aromatics of young reds. Leather, mushroom and dried fruit may not be on everyone’s greatest sniffs list. Nor mine, but I am seeking mature wines with nuances of all those old (or tertiary in wine parlance) flavours as well as vital fruit. They still need to be alive! No excessive oxidation please, or staleness, or volatility.

Three wines rise to occasion this week, two from regions where graceful old age is de rigeur, and one from a surprising source.  BERONIA 2001 GRAN RESERVA from Rioja, Spain ($32.95) is textbook Rioja from an excellent vintage. Nowhere in winedom is maturity so central to the culture of a place. Rioja regulations stipulate a minimum of two years in oak (and three in bottle) for Gran Reserva’s, and some wineries add even more time. The silken texture and complexity of this wine are all the proof one needs that the theory is sound.

Beronia Gran Reserva 2001

Back in the 19th Century Rioja took its cue from Bordeaux on matters of wine ageing (these two world famous, Atlantic influenced regions are actually quite near each other – about four hours by autoroute). In Bordeaux age-worthy structure is intrinsic to the notion of quality, but I have noted that some modern Bordeaux are not ageing well, including a couple of other 2006s on this release. However, CHÂTEAU LE CASTELOT 2006 St-Émilion Grand Cru ($34.95) is a shining example of mid-weight merlot that is hanging in beautifully because the winemaking got the balance and proportions right in the first place – not under-ripe, not over-ripe, not too tannic, not too soft.  Moderation always wins out, even in wines without the pedigree of a classified growth.

Château Le Castelot 2006

And finally, check out ROSS ESTATE 2006 LYNEDOCH ($28.95). This Bordeaux blend is estate grown on a 100 acre property near the village of Lyndoch in the southern edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australia. There is a rustic sensibility to the flavour profile that is partially due to age, and partially due to winemaking philosophy. In any event, this is deep, complex and even – and very good value.

Ross Estate Lynedoch 2006

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2009 Palacios of Spain: Best Buy of the Release

DESCENDIENTES DE J. PALACIOS 2009 PÉTALOS from the Bierzo region of Spain stands as the single best buy of the release in my books ($21.95). Such class, charm and effortlessly woven, deep fruit!  I visited last fall and was blown away by the wines being crafted by winemaker Ricardo Perez, nephew of Spanish wunderkind Alvaro Palacios.  Like many next generation Spanish winemakers it is Palacio’s vision to elevate unsung, local varieties and regions in Spain. In the northwestern enclave of Bierzo there is a dark-skinned, high acid red grape called mencia that is luring dozens of winemakers (there are now about 60 wineries) into the region’s verdant hills and vales in search of the next “great one”. Actually, Palacios may already have created it in biodynamically grown sensations like Los Lamas, Moncerbal, Corullon and the exceedingly rare, ethereal La Faraona (three barrels made) that I have rated 97.  Petalos is the entry level bottling, but very fine in its own right – just a little earlier to mature and less deep.  I had the 2006 Petalos with dinner over the holidays and it was in great condition.

Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2007 Yabby Lake of Mornington

One of the signature culinary delicacies of Australia is the yabby, a small freshwater crayfish similar to those found in Ontario’s northern lakes. But Yabby Lake is no critter wine.  Given the deep attachment to the land and passion for food of founders Robert and Mem Kirby, it was a great name for a new winery that strove for recognition when they helped pioneer the Mornington Peninsula in the early 1990s. Now, I place Mornington as one of the southern hemisphere’s great pinot noir regions. When I drove into the impressive Red Hills on this finger of land jutting in to the sea south of Melbourne a year ago I was bowled over the quality of the pinots being made there. Winemaker, renowned show judge and pinotphile Tom Carson saw the potential too, elevating Yabby Lake to the top wrung of producers in the area.YABBY LAKE 2007 PINOT NOIR ($49.95) catches the taste of Mornington perfectly, almost defining the place with fruit character that wafts back and forth among cool climate cran-rhubarb and warmer raspberry-strawberry. And the oak touch is just perfect too.

Great Whites, Big Deals

It’s becoming a tradition to end this report with a miscellany of exciting, inexpensive white wines. For the record I love white wine, and often find more reason to drink it than red. Many red wine drinkers find white too light and/or simple, but I don’t find either. The best are actually very complex, the aromatics are often intriguing and exotic, and even if light in stature they are very generous in terms of fruit depth. Here are some great examples, for so little money.

HENRY OF PELHAM 2009 RESERVE OFF-DRY RIESLING from the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula is a great buy at $15.95, and another example of Ontario’s increasing prowess with riesling as many vineyards reach full maturity. This site was planted in the late 80s. I love the apricot/honey fruit definition here, where so many Niagara’s lean heavily on greener apple and citrus.  It is better than any other riesling in this release, from anywhere.

Henry Of Pelham Reserve Off Dry Riesling 2009

SPICE ROUTE 2009 CHENIN BLANC is from the Swartland region of South Africa, a more isolated region northwest of Paarl/Stellenbosch known for its old, non-irrigated bush vines. Spice Route is now a label in the portfolio of Charles Back (Fairview and Goats du Roam). He was one of four partners when the brand was created in the mid-nineties in effort to create modern, intense wines from old vine fruit in this area. Well this, big, golden barrel fermented chenin certainly fits the mould, a real mouthful at  $17.95.  Those who prize more elegant, non-oaked Loire-styled chenins may not like this, but it is a bona fide and popular style in the Cape, co-existing peacefully with the non-oaked versions.

Spice Route Chenin Blanc 2009

MICHEL TORINO 2010 CUMA ORGANIC TORRONTÉS from Argentina’s Cafayate Valley is a steal at $12.95. The signature, highly aromatic white torrontes grape is gaining momentum in Argentina and abroad, with most producers now making at least one version. The high altitude Cafayate Valley in the northern province of Salta is the favoured fount of torrontes – usually making a very racy, citric and herbal style. But other warmer regions are now offering softer, richer versions for situations and palates that might require something less shrill.

Michel Torino Cuma Organic Torrontés 2010

And that’s it for now. I am off to catch part of Niagara’s Icewine festivities this weekend (see our WineAlign feature on Icewine Revelations), then moving on to California next week for a long, long overdue re-visit of Paso Robles, Livermore, Napa and Sonoma, ending up at the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates) tasting in San Francisco. Whither zinfandel? Has it succumbed entirely to bland commerciality, or are there pockets of resistance?  Stay tuned.

Check out reviews on over 100 wines from the January 21st release here.


David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign