Lawrason’s Take on Vintages May 12th Release: 90 Point Reds, Rosé, Alsace and French “Natural” Wines

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Last week colleague John Szabo covered off the featured themes in Vintages May 12 release – California, Rosé and Israel. It’s an intriguing release for the variation in its themes, and there are some very notable – if pricey – wines, especially from California. I will touch on some favourites in each theme but I have not tasted the full release this time due to an in-progress trip to France. So I also want to bring some fresh perspective to some items related to my travels. This month I am blessed to be spending one week in Alsace, one week in the southern Rhône and Provence, and a third in Burgundy. The theme of biodynamic and “natural” wines is popping up everywhere, so I have included some recent thoughts. Open a bottle of something you like and read along.

90 Point Cabs, Merlots and Blends
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon

There are several big California reds coming out Saturday, yet another wave in a season that since Christmas has brought us dozens of heavy hitters. The best and most expensive on this release is Far Niente 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, but when looking for value I would put my money on Sequoia Grove 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley at $54.95. This house has been on the landscape for as long as I can remember, but not one that has attracted much attention. Sitting on the valley floor in Rutherford it just seems to blend in rather than stand out. But this well-structured, quite powerful and complex vintage leapt out of the line-up. 2007 was a great vintage for Napa cabs, the kind of year where you should always be looking for lesser known wines to rise up.

Recanati Reserve Single Vineyard MerlotChâteau FonplégadeSpeaking of California, have a look at the very California-like wines of Israel. The general quality level of the Israeli wines is very good, and Vintages has put together some interesting new names. Overall I was struck by the ripeness, richness and cleanness of the wines. Among the best is Recanati 2007 Reserve Single Vineyard Merlot ($28.95) from a modern winery founded in 2000. It draws grapes from several sites in Upper Galilee. I was struck by how well this wine captures merlot’s rich, soft, evenness. It could have been from Napa.

Château Fonplégade 2008 St-Émilion, Grand Cru Classé ($47.95) is actually a bit of a New World styled Bordeaux, quite ripe for 2008, very brightly made and layered in fruit. Not historically known as one of the best châteaux on the St. Émilion hillside it has fairly recently undergone a makeover and its quality has jumped.

And finally, the release also features one of the more serious Bordeaux style blends made in Ontario in 2008. This was a cool, wet vintage that, at the time, was expected to be a write off for red wines. But at Hidden Bench they practiced patience by letting healthy grapes hang as long as possible, then doing rigorous berry sorting. The result is the excellent 2008 Hidden Bench Terroir Caché Meritage, Beamsville Bench at $35.20.

Hidden Bench Terroir Caché Meritage

In the Pink in Provence

Muga RoséChâteau d'Aquéria Tavel RoséI am writing this from a Canadian-owned Relais & Châteaux Hôtel Crillon le Brave in a medieval hilltop town at the base of Mont Ventoux, on the vinous boundary between Provence and the southern Rhône. I am wine-hosting 60 Canadians from Montreal to Vancouver who bid on a Gold Medal Plates gastro-cycling epic in support of Canadian Olympians. (We have raised almost $6 million in six years). We are in rosé country – the pale, salmon coloured wine that seduces in spirit, and brings a brisk, sometimes heady if subtle ambiance to any summery endeavour. The concept of light, dry pink wine was born in this region, made from a blend that usually includes grenache, carignane and syrah. Rosé seems to be drunk anywhere and anytime in this area, so we decided to put it to the table test, by drinking nothing but rose – some very local to the Ventoux region, some from the Côtes de Provence, and some from Tavel.

We ended our pink Provencal feast with Château d’Aquéria 2011 Tavel Rosé, being released Saturday at $18.95. This wine has come to Vintages every year of late. It’s a bright pristine example of France’s most famous pink, Tavel, a rosé that clocks in at an average of 14% alcohol, and pairs with just about any food you might want to serve on the deck. But I also want to draw your focus to a pristine, very light and crisp pink from northern Spain – which to be fair has a rosé heritage almost as robust as southern France. In terms of climate and terroir southern France and northeastern Spain are cousins – so no surprise about pink prowess. Muga 2011 Rosé from Rioja is a steal at $12.95. It is very light, dry and ultra-fresh – some may find it almost watery – but there is a fine precision at work here. Much classier than $13 suggests.

Electric 2010s of Alsace

Helfrich GewurztraminerI have just spent five days in Alsace, tasting about three hundred wines over 14 wineries. There was also a terrific tasting of over 40 biodynamic wines hosted by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA). I have written more about biodynamic and natural wines below, and I hope to write more in depth soon about this incredibly complex, terroir driven region. There are 13 soil types, 51 grand cru vineyard sites and over 900 producers in one of the oldest wine regions of Europe.

But I want to briefly alert you to an important and easily digestible insight. The 2010 vintage in Alsace is terrific. Growers are grumpy because bad weather at spring flowering reduced crop yields as much as 30%. But that is great for quality because it concentrated flavours in the remaining 70%. And it was a coolish year (especially compared to the ripe 2009s) and it has produced laser beam, poignant whites. I am delighted to be able to recommend Helfrich 2010 Gewürztraminer as a case in point. It is being released Saturday at only $19.95, and gewürz fans shouldn’t miss it. I tasted this wine before leaving for Europe and I was mightily impressed by its intensity and great tension.

The Motley Crus; France’s Natural Wines

I will discuss Alsace more in the weeks ahead, but I want to discuss this move to “natural” wines based on observations at a wine fair called Salons des Vins Libres that I attended in the town of Rouffach on my last day in Alsace. It brought together producers from all over France, plus Serbia. Not on my official itinerary I tagged along at the suggestion of Vincent and Brigitte Fleith who make biodynamic wines at their small family winery in Ingersheim near Colmar.

Foire Ecobio d’AlsaceWhen we arrived at the Salon I felt like I had stepped back into a farmers market in 1935. It was a completely agrarian event, and a community event, and a family event – as far removed from posh hotel ballrooms and Michelin restaurants as you could get. Although a Michelin starred sommelier from Strasbourg was there with an entourage, on a buying trip. Yes, one could buy wines! People arrived in jeans and sweaters with dollies to take wines to their Citroëns. Children played hide and seek among the stands; fromageries sold cheese; boulangers sold pastries; a chip truck sold frites in the courtyard.

And the wines were indeed an odd and motley collection of crus. I had more flawed wines in two hours than I have experienced so far this year in the Vintages tasting room. Oxidation, brettanomyces, acetic acid, bacterials and wines that smelled of stinky cheese. But – and this is a huge but – the wines had amazing structure, energy, textural perfection built of great balance, and incredible length of finish. And when I did taste examples that were also clean, the wines were thrilling.

This tasting posed serious questions about the “natural wine” movement – which is by definition organic and biodynamic. But more than that it is a philosophical, anti-establishment/anti-big movement. It is a revolt against clinical, squeaky clean wines. In a larger scope it is an agrarian revolt against urbanization, convenience and artifice.

So when do such funky wines become acceptable? I guess when one accepts them. That could take awhile in arenas like Ontario. Many of these wines would never pass LCBO tasting panel scrutiny. One producer I talked to actually had 30 cases of wines smashed by the LCBO because they contained too much of some substance that she didn’t know the name for in English, nor I in French.

For two generations now, ever since technology came to the world’s vineyards and cellars, we have become culturally attuned to cleaner and cleaner wines. And most who have invested in making these wines will not soon change their minds or abandon the world’s gleaming wine factories.

Regardless, tastes can change, and it is conceivable that this “natural” movement is the leading edge of a huge shift in wine taste. It is certainly embraced by sommeliers and writers who ferret out the latest trends, both in France and in Canada. And I will add my voice to those who are getting just a bit fatigued by the homogeny of modern wine and I will admit there is a certain appeal to the ideals of these idealists.

But how far can I go as a critic, who values purity as a cornerstone of quality? Well I certainly appreciate and enjoy the sense of energy and life in most biodynamic and “natural” wines. And I do like some degree of funk in my wines as well. But to me the fruit is sacrosanct. It too is natural, and flavours – intended or accidental – that divert my attention too far from that central pleasure, are negatives. Natural wines can’t be an excuse for bad wines, whether made out of ideological or slovenly practices.

And a Correction

In the last issue I discussed the LCBO’s new method for indicating sweetness levels in the wines, as it moves away from the numerical sugar scale. The new system measures not only sugar in the wines, but acidity as well, which gives us a much more accurate indication of how the wine actually tastes. But I made an error in saying that the acidity level reading was achieved by a taste panel. It, like the sugar, is actually measured in the lab. Watch for the new system – that indicates Extra Dry, Dry, Medium, Medium Sweet and Sweet wines to be rolled out in stores in the weeks ahead.

That’s it for this time. Onward towards Burgundy.

From the May 12th, 2012 Vintages release:

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David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign