Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 28th Release: How Sweet it is, New Zealand Whites, Veneto my Veneto and more!

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

How Sweet It Is – or Isn’t   Before launching into Vintages April 28th release, some seismic news from the LCBO that will affect millions of Ontario wine buyers (actually more than you might think).

As of Sunday the LCBO will be replacing its infamous numeric Sugar Code scale. Soon we will no longer buy that Barolo because it is a “zero”. Instead, we will see it described as “extra dry” and we will be able to read the actual sugar content as expressed in grams per litre.

And some day our children will no longer have to endure the stupefied stares of restaurant servers outside of Ontario who have no concept of our question: ‘is this wine a zero?’

For generations Ontario has been the only jurisdiction, to my knowledge, to classify its wines by a number reflecting measurement of the actual sugar content of the wine. That changes as of April 29. Now shelf tags at both the LCBO and Vintages stores will verbalize sweetness as: Extra Dry (XD), Dry (D), Medium (M), Medium Sweet (MS) and Sweet (S). This determination will be arrived at by both laboratory and sensorial analysis – the latter taking mitigating factors like acidity and alcohol into account. It is indeed high time this more accurate and human determination of wine taste was put into service, a project in the works at the LCBO for the past three years in a process that involved staff and consumer focus groups and the development of algorithms to harmonize fact and perception.

But for those who want the numbers for dietary and health reasons, the actual sweetness measured in grams per litre will also be on the shelf tag. The general threshold for perceiving sweetness in wine is at about 7 grams per litre of sugar. A wine that reaches over 45 grams per litre will be classified as sweet, but up to 45 grams the sweetness descriptor will take sensory experience – i.e the taste – into account.

The new shelf tags will be rolled out in the upcoming weeks, but will only apply to table wines. Sparkling, dessert and fortified wines will not be included in the program at this point – but we confidently predict that dessert wines will be rated “S”.

New Zealand White Tour de Force
Eradus Sauvignon BlancLet’s play “Desert Island”. If you could have only one region supply white wines to your desert island for the rest of your life, what region would that be? Well, Ontario is an option for sure. As is northern France, and Austria. But for sheer, brilliance, exuberance, refreshment and flavour New Zealand would be my choice. Saturday’s mini-release of New Zealand wines is supporting the upcoming New Zealand Wine Fair in Ottawa May 8 and Toronto May 10. The wines are a tour de force across several white grape varieties – sauvignon blanc of course, chardonnay, gewürztraminer and pinot gris (but no riesling this time). I have scored five of the six wines 90 points or better.

Eradus Sauvignon Blanc 2010 marks the second appearance from this small family winery in the Awatere Valley, a slightly cooler, more maritime sub-region of Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island. How small is Eradus? Well according to the website “The Eradus Wines Team comprises of Hanna (mum), Michiel (dad), Poppy and Ana (2 beautiful girls), and Homer the dog”. Then there is “Jeremy, ‘the Viti with the Midas touch’, and Jules, the Winemaker.” But there is nothing cute about the wine. It is bold, powerful yet balanced, a great expression of sauvignon with a green edge. And very good value at $17.95. The Two Rivers Of Marlborough Convergence Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is also excellent.

Spy Valley Pinot GrisDog Point ChardonnayColleague John Szabo has also sung the praises of Dog Point Chardonnay 2009 from Marlborough. At $39.95 it joins the growing ranks of complex, powerful, mineral-driven international chardonnays that are ambitiously positioning themselves at the head of chardonnay’s renaissance. Ontario’s best chardonnays are right in the midst of this movement as well; indeed Ontario will once again host the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration in Niagara July 20-22. The Dog Point Chardonnay splendidly captures all the complexity, nuance and minerality of the genre, with that little extra booster of ripe, sub-tropical New Zealand fruit.

In a world increasingly moving to mild, subtle but often indistinct pinot grigio, Spy Valley Pinot Gris 2011 ($20.95) from Marlborough is almost a shocker. Grown on low yielding vines on a stony riverbed the grapes are left to ripen fully and are partially fermented in old oak. All of which explains why such ripe, lush fruit also contains a hint of spice and a cool mineral finish. This reminds me of some of the most opulent pinot gris from Alsace. Just as the Lawson’s Dry Hills Gewürztraminer 2009 reminds me of Alsace as well.

Veneto, Veneto Wherefore Art Thou?
If you have ever visited Verona, Italy, the wonderful walled town of bridges and balconies that provided the backdrop for Romeo and Juliet, you will have some appreciation of the region’s classicism. At one point its wines – led by fresh Valpolicella on the one hand and stately, rich Amarone on the other – were the perfect conveyance of the region’s moods. But nowadays the twin forces of internationalism and ripasso (making wine by refermenting in contact with dried grape skins) have collided and set off an uncontrolled explosion of wines that confuse the vinous landscape. It has become very difficult to surmise what the wine will be like stylistically given the information on its label, and quality of course varies even more.

Farina Amarone Della Valpolicella ClassicoWhile tasting Vintages selection I found myself attracted to the more traditional styles. By that I mean, wines that are not just about gobs of ripe fruit, French oak and alcohol; wines that are smooth but have nuances of leather, marzipan and chestnut. Yes old flavours, both in terms of more mature wine, and the style that dominated a generation ago. There are four wines on the release that fit this bill, with Farina Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2008 ($34.95) being the poster child. You can tell by the classical label that this will be a classic wine (a good trick for sorting Italian wine styles, by the way). The wine is made by very traditional techniques, but the key to the flavour perhaps is three years ageing in old Slavonian oak barrels (not new French barriques).

Monte Del Frá Tenuta Lena Di MezzoBrigaldara ValpolicellaAmong the lighter table reds my favourite and the best value is Brigaldara Valpolicella 2010 at a mere $14.95.  What’s most interesting is that this very young, honest wine drinks with both vibrancy and richness. A little investigation revealed some sangiovese in the blend amid the Veneto grapes like corvina, rondinella and molinara – perhaps bringing a bit more liveliness. Monte Del Frá Tenuta Lena di Mezzo 2008 Valpolicella Classico Superiore($15.95) is another wine that over-delivers on price, with some maturity adding complexity to a very well made wine. I really like this estate that is based on the shores of Lago di Garda in the Bardolino DOC. In fact Monte Del Fra Bardolino 2010 released April 15 at a mere $12.95 is still on the shelves and highly recommended as a great little summer red.

Burgundy’s Vincent Girardin
In 1980, nineteen-year-old Vincent Girardin took over a small family parcel of vines in Santenay that had been in the family since the 18th Century. From that moment he tended his vines and made wines in “a simple and natural way”, and in the intervening years he built his business into an enterprise based on 20 hectares throughout the Côte de Beaune, which is no small feat in Burgundy where vineyard holdings are impossibly small and ownership fractured. The winery is now based in Meursault, with the great whites of the Côte de Beaune a focal point of his efforts, but a range of reds and whites that span the Côte d’Or and now reach south into the Chalonnaise and Macon. His very polished, pure style of winemaking came onto my radar a few years ago when his wines started to show up at Vintages, imported by Halpern Enterprises. They have been making quite regular appearances ever since, and finding their way frequently onto my best buy lists.
Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes Mâcon FuisséVincent Girardin Santenay Les Gravières

I stop to pay special attention this time because there are two significantly good buys. The first is Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes 2009 Mâcon-Fuissé at only $19.95. It sports wonderful elegance, depth and minerality for Macon, perhaps because it is sourced from vineyards in the Fuissé commune, near the more famous Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. The second is Vincent Girardin 2009 Santenay Les Gravières 1er Cru, which is a very fine pinot noir buy at $38.95. Les Gravièries is one of five vineyards that Vincent Girardin works in his home turf at the southern end of the Côte de Beaune.

Mendel Malbecs 
Mendel MalbecOn my trip to Argentina in December many of my Mendoza tastings were set up with several producers convened at one property to present their wines in a “mini-fair” format. This speed dating exercise required considerable focus and attention when all the external factors ganged up to distract you. It was in such a setting that I first encountered Mendel, a very serious new winery based in the classic region of Lujan de Cuyo. I remember being impressed with the wines, but the experience was brought closer to home when, to my surprise, I found that Canadian Richard Dittmar was on hand presenting the wines. Based in Vancouver, where I had met him often at the Playhouse Wine Festival, Dittmar was a key figure in setting up a fine wine agency called Trialto in the west, which is now in Ontario as well. Unknown to the general populace in Ontario, the importers actually have a powerful role in establishing which wines end up on the shelves, and I have come to have a general sense of the quality and focus of many of the agents in Ontario. Trialto ranks very near the top, because they are professional and passionate about wine. When I tasted Mendel 2009 Malbec ($24.95) in the LCBO lab I had forgotten all about the Richard Dittmar connection, and the fact that he was personally spending time in Argentina on the Mendel project. But I was very impressed by the wine!  By the way, there are actually two Mendel malbecs released Saturday, with the Mendel Lunta Malbec 2009 being a bit less expensive and concentrated but still very good.

Run Sister’s Run
Sister's Run Epiphany ShirazOr, as the old saying has it – you go girl! I was just about finished my tastings at the LCBO, working through the last of the Australian wines. I looked at the rather plain label and the $15.95 price of Sister’s Run 2008 Epiphany Shiraz and I was prepared to be bored. But wow, an epiphany indeed! It knocked my socks off for the price, and not because it was wonderfully smooth, layered and refined, as might be expected from a lady winemaker. (I can often identify wines made by women for just this reason and I truly believe they have gentler touch than male winemakers). This was different – a big, burly, black and masculine shiraz with depth and complexity far beyond its price. I did some research when I got home and read the story of Sister’s Run – a new (almost) all-girl enterprise in McLaren Vale, with a motif of a high heel shoe beside a work boot.

To pull from the website: “Sister’s Run is serious fun. Our talented young winemaker Elena (Brooks) wears steel cap work boots every day of course, but carries a pair of high heels in back of the ute, only for emergencies, like last minute invitations to accept trophies at gala wine show dinners and the like. Returning from a ‘knees-up’ at midnight, mid vintage, she managed to kick off one high heel and slip back into a boot’ just as the cellar crew cried out, ‘Run Sister Run’; and exactly then our winemaker and label took flight!”

Upcoming Ontario Wine Events
Jon PriestAnd that’s it for this time. But I want to draw your attention to some interesting Ontario wine events in the days and weeks ahead. Check out the results of the Ontario Wine Awards after the Awards dinner in Niagara-on-the-Lake on May 4; Somewhereness (trade only) at the MARS centre in Toronto May 8; Terroir in Prince Edward County on May 26; and finally the Great Canadian Cheese Festival in Picton June 1 to 3. I am involved in selecting PEC, and hopefully some B.C. and Niagara wines for this event, and conducting a Cheese and WinePairing seminar.

And finally, don’t forget about the WineAlign rare inside track opportunity to meet with Jon Priest of California’s Etude winery at a sit-down tutored tasting at Sassafraz on May 16th. In my mind he is one the great unsung winemakers of California, making great pinots and chardonnays at his Carneros-based winery.

From the April 28, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines

All Reviews

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign