John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 17th 2012: Spanish Styles; Fine Value from the Rhône and South Africa; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The week’s report focuses on Spain, the main wine theme of the March 17th Vintages release, highlights two pairs of fine value wines from the Rhône and South Africa, and delivers the Top Ten Smart Buys.

España- Buy on the Label

Spain continues to be an enigmatic country for wine lovers, a developing nation with wild variations in style even within the same appellations. The fifteen selections included in the March 17th release offer a view on the good and the bad, the old and the new.

On the one hand there are the traditional styles, at the other extreme, plenty of polished, modern renditions. This is not news, of course, to anyone who has been following Spain – the rumblings of political and stylistic revolution began not long after the death of Generalisimo Franco in the mid-seventies – and are part of a necessary and inevitable evolution. This generational conflict is playing out across the country in all of the traditional appellations, as Spain remains in search of a 21st century identity. So how is one to know which style to expect – traditional or modern – without having tasted the wine (or consulting WineAlign)?

Vega Sauco Adoremus Tinta De ToroBaron De Ley Gran ReservaThe answer, though it may be heretical for a wine critic to say, is to go on the label. Hey, you have to start somewhere. It’s not a perfect solution, of course, but Spain’s distinctive labels remain surprisingly faithful to the wine style therein.  Consider these two very good reds:2004 Vega Sauco Adoremus Tinta de Toro DO Toro $19.95 and 2001 Baron de Ley Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja $29.95. Both are top notch in my books, though the Adoremus Toro, as evinced by the modernist label, has an appealing international leaning. I describe it as a: “Super value with wide appeal, if not distinctive regional style.” The Baron de Ley Rioja with the classicists’ label (some of their wines still come clad in wire mesh, an old measure to protect against fraud) on the other hand, is described thus: “Old school to say the least… but lots else going on as well…. A fine pick for traditionalists.” The latter is immediately identifiable, recognizable, unmistakable – a welcome sniff on a sommelier’s blind tasting test, while the former, although very good, would be less easy to identify as Spanish. With nothing else to go on, start with the style of the label as a guide to wine style.

Another fine old style white Rioja is the 2009 Señorio de P. Peciña Chobeo de Peciña DOCa Rioja $17.95. It’s still a bit gangly and awkward for the moment, but cocoon it in the cellar for a half-decade or longer and you’ll be shocked by the butterfly that emerges. Such wines, with vivid acid and marked oak character take time to integrate, but develop into wonderfully complex, earthy, mushroom, saltwater taffy and dried fruit flavoured treats, with a lightness and ethereal quality that would be hard to believe if you’ve never experienced it. Naturally, if you prefer fresh, fruity wines, this is not for you, either now or later.
Chobeo De Peciña

A Spanish Love Affair with Wood

Excellent traditional style wines aside, the reason why Spanish wine has lost territory in today’s international markets is, in my view, because of the country’s torrid, centuries-old love affair with wood. Though the above-mentioned Chobeo de Peciña is oaky to be sure, it’s balanced, with sufficient stuffing to see it through. Other arch-traditionalists Rioja estates like Lopéz de Heredia or La Rioja Alta also make wines that are markedly oaky in youth, yet have an amazing capacity to be transformed into wondrous wines over time. In fact, both of these estates wait years, sometimes decades before releasing their wines, well beyond the minimum cellaring time required by law – one of the advantages of many traditional Spanish wines for those without the space, or patience, to age the wines themselves. And check out those marvelous labels straight out of the 19thC.

But oak alone does not make age worthy wines. It requires depth and concentration born in the vineyard and a deft, minimal-interventionist hand in the cellar. Spain’s enthusiastic use of American oak dates literally to the Conquista and the access to vast virgin tracks of American white oak stands that the new territories afforded. Yet today, so many of these unbalanced and oaky wines seem desperately anachronistic, relics of the past, as though they were clad in a conquistador’s suit of heavy armor:  the heavy Bodega Del Abad Dom Buenometal protection as useful today as the dripping caramel, butterscotch and treacly oak flavours are fashionable (while the fruit suffers the same fate as the Incas and the Aztecs). For an example of this style of Spanish wine, taste the 2001 Señorio del Águila Gran Reserva DO Cariñena $19.95. It’s not mature, just old and dried out, the vestiges of excessive oak remaining like the ghostly burnt out hull of an ancient Spanish Galleon run aground in the storm.

There are a handful of Spanish regions that have never known the ghosts of the past, principally because they weren’t on the map a couple of decades ago. Relatively new DOs like Bierzo and Rías Baixas, stepped from oblivion straight into the current era of modern wine. An excellent example of the former, and in fact my top value choice this week is the 2001 Bodega del Abad Dom Bueno Crianza DO Bierzo $14.95. I could scarcely believe the range of flavours and depth in this wine, what must be the very first release from this bodega whose doors didn’t open until 2003. If you enjoy the umami-driven flavours of perfectly mature wine, do not miss this extraordinary value.

A Pair from The Rhône

Outside of Spain but not too far away, I’d draw your attention to another pair of fine value 2009 southern Rhône reds, delivering on the promise of this excellent vintage: 2009 Jean-Marie Arnoux Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras AC $21.95 and 2009 Foncalieu la Réserve du Crouzau St. Gervais Côtes du Rhône-Villages AC $14.95.  The Vacqueyras is a typical blend dominated by Grenache, from some of the oldest vines on the Arnoux property. It’s marked by minerality and scorched earth, with intriguing cherry blossom and orange peel aromas. The CDR-Villages is dense and ripe and characterful, delivering all that one could hope for at this price.
Jean Marie Arnoux Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras La Réserve Du Crouzau St. Gervais

A Pair from South Africa

And finally, worthy of mention are two excellent wines from South Africa: 2009 Spice Route Shiraz WO Swartland $24.95 and NV Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine WO Western Cape, South Africa, Méthode Cap Classique $18.95. Spice Route is a label produced by the irrepressible Charles Back, creator of the highly successful Goats do Roam range, who visited Toronto for the first time in January of this year. Made from dry-farmed vines in Swartland, this is a thick, dense, intense shiraz with generous black pepper and ripe black fruit flavours.
Spice Route ShirazGraham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine

Graham Beck is a leader of Method Cap Classique (traditional method) sparkling wines. Fruit is grown in the Breed River Valley in Robertson, quite far inland from the Cape. The climate here is warm and dry, in fact quite the opposite of what one would intuitively seek out for quality sparkling wine, but the secret is the fossil-rich limestone soils that are imminently well suited to chardonnay and pinot noir. Proper farming delivers ripe but mineral and acid-rich grapes to the cellar, where they are transformed into full flavoured, toasty bubbly after 24 months on the lees. The Brut NV is superb value at $18.95.

From the March 17, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Picks
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier