Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 3rd Release: On Carmenère’s Case, Zinfandel’s Too; Miramar’s Bargain Chardonnay, The Curiosity of Andrezj Lipinski

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I am dispatching this newsletter from Vancouver where I am spending the week at the 34th Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. As a consumer/wine lover experience it is unparalleled in this country. The range of wines, wineries and winemakers on parade in the grand tastings is extraordinary. As is the variety of side events from dinners, seminars, grazing events and even speed dating exercises – all done with a sense of grace, class and community. No one minds paying the freight at Playhouse because one never feels ripped off. I am making a week in Vancouver an annual busman’s holiday. If you love wine you should too.

Whither Carmenère?Montes Purple AngelCasa Silva Reserva CarmenèreConcha Y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 CarmenèreI was not able to taste all of the March 3rd release but I did get to the Chilean carmenères, and I see many more in my immediate future. Chile is this year’s theme country here at Playhouse. So I will get a chance to test drive the theory I put forward below about the direction these wines should be going. I was underwhelmed by Vintages carmenère selection – almost bored – until I finally tasted Montes 2009 Purple Angel at $56.95.  But should it take $50 to deliver exciting carmenère? Here is a grape with all the potential tools – a propensity to show excellent depth and concentration, firm structure based on its thick skinned nature, and complexity to spare when properly ripened – when its green tendency is subsumed by ripe fruit and judicious oak treatment. Yet Chile seems fixated on hitting a “market” under $20 which in turn doesn’t allow carmenère to hit its potential.  This is Chile’s self appointed signature variety – a claim to fame and distinction. Give us a reason to buy it, other than it being inexpensive. Concha Y Toro 2008 Terrunyo Block 27 Carmenère from the Peumo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley is one example of a carefully ripened and thoughtfully made carmenère that maintains its sense of value at $29.95. Of the selections under $20 I liked Casa Silva 2009 Reserva Carmenère from the Colchagua Valley ($15.00) for its sense of unplugged authenticity, if lacking some grace. But at $15 one doesn’t expect great polish.

Et Tu California Zinfandel?
Ridge Three ValleysAs carmenère is the signature of Chile, zinfandel is the signature of California, and this release contains a terrific example from a leading producer – Ridge 2009 Three Valleys from Sonoma County. It is not cheap at $34.95 but I like it for its honesty and authenticity as well as its quality. The story of California’s “heritage” grape is oft’ told – its origins in Adriatic Europe, its emigration to California with Italians who joined the Gold Rush in the 1850s, and its renaissance as finer wine over a century later when folks like Paul Draper from Ridge began to source from pockets of old vines around the state.

To me Zinfandel makes sense in California simply because it is a Mediterranean grape and California has a Mediterranean climate. And it generally makes more sense in California than cabernet, merlot and pinot.  What’s more, it works wonderfully well when blended with other Mediterranean varieties like petite sirah, carignan and mourvèdre that provide structural ballast and more flavour complexity.

That is the formula in the Ridge Three Valleys, and in many of the better zinfandels I recently tasted at the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) love-in in San Francisco. There were over 500 zins from 204 wineries at this event, and it was attended by over 8,000 people.  The scope was stunning! One attendee called it the “University of Zinfandel”. Indeed, and the morning I spent there was a crash course on the many different winemaking perspectives on this grape.  It’s a minefield out there, but I have decided that like carmenère I really don’t like cheap zinfandel and that too many of the large producers treat it as a third class citizen. It too deserves more respect.

Miramar Torres and Sonoma Chardonnay
Speaking of California, the best white wine value of the release is Marimar Estate 2007 La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County – a stunning value at $19.95.  I had lunch with Miramar Torres and her agents (Family Wine Merchants) at Crush Wine Bar recently and discovered that this was a “one- off deal” at half the regular price. I don’t like to get mixed up in the pricing of wine, but like wine scores, prices are numbers too. And prices are suggestive of the producer’s, distributer’s or retailer’s opinion of the wine.  What does 50% off suggest to you about the situation of the wine and winery?  And will you still buy it when the price returns to $40?

Marimar Estate La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay 2007
In this case I would, because the wine is quite riveting and intriguing. The 2007 is mature, and I can see why there might be some rush to “move it”. But it remains a vital, complex and interesting wine made in a somewhat free-spirited, unconventional style that has defined Miramar’s biodynamic approach ever since she left her Torres family operation in Spain to venture into the New World in the 80s.  She was never really alone in this endeavour – her family always mentored and encouraged.  More so, she was unconventional within California, which is generally a very “safe” place for winemaking. She likes to say her approach is Burgundian, which to me defines a traditional, non-technical ambiance – and I certainly get that here. As I encountered in the 2008 La Masia coming next fall at closer to $40, and the splendid unoaked 2009 Acero Chardonnay now available through Family Wine Merchants.

Hartford Court Four Hearts Vineyards ChardonnayThe other interesting subtext bound up in a glass of Miramar La Masia is its origin in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley appellation. Her property is actually in the sub-region of Green Valley – a bit closer to the Pacific coast, a bit cooler and greener. There is no question in my mind that coastal Sonoma is a leading locale globally for chardonnay. Having visited Sonoma recently and having participated in several California chardonnay tastings and seminars, it is obvious that great attention is being focused on this grape in Sonoma, and in the Russian River in particular. If you want to understand why, try the Hartford Court 2009 Four Hearts Vineyards Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, at $47.95. It and many others are very classy indeed, as was the Rodney Strong Reserve 2009 on the previous release.

The Curiosity of Andrejz Lipinski
The Organized Crime GewurztraminerOne of the most interesting and controversial whites of this release is The Organized Crime 2009 Gewürztraminer from the Niagara Peninsula ($22.20). It is barrel fermented and aged gerwurz, a very unorthodox treatment for this aromatic variety and one that purists will not appreciate.  I too think it pushed an already big and powerful wine a bit too far to the point of being out of balance. But I do like the added flavour complexity and dimension, because winemaker Andrejz Lipinski has done a good job meshing the wood.  More than that, I simply enjoy tasting Lipinski’s wines precisely because they do challenge. Oaking gewürztraminer is not his only notoriety; he is better known for his work with making appassimento-styled wines (both red and white) from grapes dried after harvest (as in amarone). He first tried this style at A Foreign Affair, but has since moved on to ply this particular craft at Organized Crime, Colaneri, Cornerstone and the new Burning Kiln winery near Port Dover on Lake Erie. The latter winery is on former tobacco lands where there is a surplus of old tobacco drying kilns now converting to grape drying. I simply like his curiosity and creativity, something that is quite rare in mainstream winemaking these days.

March 8 VSOs Reviews Coming Up
There has been a bit of a hiatus in tasting of Vintages Shop-on-Line releases but I was able to taste some from the March 8 release – largely a selection of grand cru classé Bordeaux from 2005 and 2008. As these wines were not posted on Vintages site at our press time we are not able to create finished listings on Wine Align. But watch next week for my reviews to appear, with notification via Twitter.
Back to the Playhouse……

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlignCheck out reviews on over 100 wines from the March 3rd release here.