John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for August 4th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

What’s Your Favourite?; Germany’s Secret Society; Reflections on Cool Chardonnay

The Vintages theme for the August 4th release is “customer favourites”. Although my top smart buys don’t line up with what the LCBO has identified as favourites, this report highlights no less than a baker’s dozen of three star values, with all but 3 wines under $20 and a half dozen under $15. Most of these wines have come through our system in previous years, so perhaps there’s a parallel pattern of my favourites emerging. You’ll find all the details in the Top Ten Smart Buys, as well as the secret about German wines, the mini-theme of the release. And to round it off, I share a few things I learned about cool climate chardonnay, having just returned from Niagara for the 2nd annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c). It was a spectacular event, the best industry and consumer tasting to be held in Ontario thus far. I’m already looking forward to next year.

The Stars of the Stars: Highlights from the Top Ten Smart Buys

Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices SyrahThere’s an excellent line up of value wines hitting the shelves on August 4th. Topping the smart buy list this week is a repeat of a previous favourite, the 2009 Domaine les Yeuses les Épices Syrah ($13.95). The previous two vintages of this wine were also top smart buys, so this is clearly more than a one-off success. The 2009 is a little riper, richer and more noticeably oaky than the previous editions, definitely edging towards a more new world style, thanks no doubt to the warm 2009 growing season. The cuvée is selected from the oldest and lowest vines on the property, situated on gentle limestone hillsides a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. It’s quite amazing how much flavor is packed into this wine at the price.

Château D'anglès La Clape ClassiqueThe Languedoc continues its streak of over-delivering with the 2007 Château d’Anglès la Clape Classique ($14.95). The story of this estate reads like a clichéd fairy tale, with proprietor Eric Fabre trading in his career in Bordeaux (including eight years as wine maker at Château Lafite Rothschild) to settle in an idyllic Château in the south of France over-looking the Mediterranean. But I suspect it was more than rural beauty and architecture that attracted the Fabres, as there’s clearly something special about the dirt, too. Although this is only the entry-level “classique” range, it’s a delightfully mature, smoky, savoury, syrah-driven southern French red, with well above average complexity for the money and engaging garrigue and dusty fruit flavours. A very attractive value all in all that’s ready to roll anytime.

Tormentoso Old Vine Chenin BlancAnother fine value comes from South Africa and the not-so-fashionable chenin blanc variety: 2011 Tormentoso Old Vine Chenin Blanc ($14.95). But it’s precisely because of its out-of-vogue status that you should be checking it out, especially when it comes from an un-irrigated, bush vine vineyard planted on dry, rocky-shale soils 35 years ago. Tormentoso is the premium range of vineyard-focused wines made by Man Vintners, a successful partnership between three men (MAN is an acronym from the first letter of each of their wives first name) based in Stellenbosch. The wine delivers well-measured barrel influence (40% barrel fermented), lively acids and marked minerality, all stuffed into a sub-$15 wine. Lemon and green apple flavours simmer under the light oak spice and cream. Great length for the money and this even has the stuffing to hold on in the cellar for a few years, too.

Terre Dora Fiano Di AvellinoAnother personal favourite comes from Campania, Italy: 2010 Terredora Fiano di Avellino ($18.95). I’ve long been a fan of fiano, widely considered one of southern Italy’s best white grapes. Terredora has been using exclusively estate grown grapes since 1994, focusing on the indigenous varieties of the region. Indeed, when the famous Mastroberardino family of Campania divided up the family wine business, one part kept the historic name, while the Terredora faction kept the top vineyards. This wine is intriguingly smoky despite being oak-free, with lemon zest and fresh, sweet green herbs, fresh earth, honey and dried hay, all well within the typical fiano spectrum. The palate is medium-full bodied, with bright, tart acids, significant flavour depth and excellent length. It’s a serious, and age worthy, example, that I’d recommend stuffing in the cellar for another year or two for maximum enjoyment.

Fielding Estate Cabernet FrancInniskillin Winemaker's Series Montague Vineyard ChardonnayAnd lastly it’s worth drawing your attention to two fine Ontario wines in the top smart buys this week: 2010 Inniskillin Winemaker’s Series Montague Vineyard Chardonnay ($18.95) and 2010 Fielding Estate Cabernet Franc ($21.95). Inniskillin winemaker Bruce Nicholson has been slowly but surely pushing the Montague chardonnay towards more refinement and elegance as opposed to the buttered popcorn style of early vintages, following a trend that’s occurring worldwide. In 2010 he seems to have hit the mark, avoiding the temptation to harvest over ripe grapes in Ontario’s hottest vintage on record (we’ll see about 2012…) and crafting instead a textbook, modern, new world style, mouth filling example. Wood and buttery notes are well reigned in, allowing ripe orchard fruit to dominate. Fielding’s cabernet franc is likewise another fine paradigm for the province, capturing the ripeness of 2010 while still retaining the sweet herb, tobacco, violet and spice character that gives the variety its noble profile.

Germany’s Secret Society

You might not be aware, but there’s a secret society of German riesling lovers across the world. They’re not easy to spot on the street, but you’ll be able to identify them by how they refer to themselves: sommelier. I’ve yet to meet a savvy sommelier who doesn’t have a disproportionate love for German riesling, especially when you add value to the equation.

Markus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling SpätleseKönigschaffhausener Vulkanfelsen Trocken Pinot GrisIf there’s still lingering doubt in your mind, try the 2008 Markus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese Prädikatswein ($26.95), a textbook Mosel riesling with perfectly ripe peach-apricot-nectarine, jasmine, light honey, fresh quince and orange peel, aromas, and on and on it goes. How you can put that much intensity on such a light frame is the eternal mystery of the Mosel.

Two other rieslings are included in my quartet of recommend German wines, but the star value has to be the 2011 Königschaffhausener Vulkanfelsen Trocken Pinot Gris. Forget trying to pronounce it; the wine really is as much of a mouthful as the name leads to believe. It has wonderful orchard fruit flavours enveloped in a succulent, rich texture, and drinks like a top notch Alsatian pinot gris for a mere $14.

Chardonnay: Reflecting on Cool

The second annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) weekend held in Niagara July 20-22nd was an unqualified success (nice to see some of you at the WineAlign Boot Camp led by David Lawrason and me).

WineAlign Member Experience at the 14c

Cool Chardonnay Boot Camp

Perfectionists might argue that winemakers are more useful in a winery than under a tent cooking food for guests (as occurred on Saturday night at the marquee event), but all in all, the spirit was terrific, the attendees enthusiastic, the winemakers from here and around the world utterly devoted to the cause, and the wines, well, simply excellent.

Here are some things I learned over the weekend:

1. There are Many Ways to be Cool.

Several factors can make for cool vineyards. Latitude is the most obvious, as the further you move from the equator, the thicker your thermal underwear needs to be. Exemplifying this were the very fine champagnes of Ayala (especially the Pearl d’Ayala Nature). Champagne sits at 50º-north latitude, about as far north as you can go and still ripen grapes sufficiently to make wine. Under 10% alcohol is common for base wines in the region, which is why sparkling wine makes most sense. Elevation can be cool, too, as shown by Pablo Sanchez of Catena Zapata in Argentina and his White Bones Chardonnay, grown in the Adrianna Vineyard at 1500m elevation, in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. And where latitude and elevation aren’t so cool, water can chill things out. Coastal vineyards can be heavily moderated by cold bodies of water, such as those of Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsula, Australia, near the Bass Straight, and Flowers Vineyard, way out on the Sonoma Coast near the frigid Pacific Ocean.

2. Chardonnay Needs to be Cool

David Lawrason posed the question during the Friday morning technical session on extreme winemaking: Does chardonnay need to grow in a cool climate, or is it just the style of wine that we all like? Well, the technical answer to that is yes, at least according to several winemakers present over the weekend. Aside from that cool, prickly feeling chardonnay lovers get when drinking crisp, minerally versions, the most scientifically rigorous explanation (and justification of what we already sensed) came from David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma. Ironically during one of the hottest lunches I have ever sat through, held in a greenhouse on a 33ºC afternoon (closer to 40ºC inside), he described chardonnay as a “short cycle” variety, one that reaches maturity over a relatively short growing season. The trouble with hot climates is that chardonnay ripens too quickly; sugars (and potential alcohol levels) accumulate rapidly, before much flavour has had a chance to develop, and acidity falls. The result is a simple, sweetish, soft, tropical fruit flavoured version of the grape that may be pleasant enough, but will never be extraordinary.

Stephen Brook

i4c Keynote Speaker
Stephen Brook

Great chardonnay needs a longer, cooler growing season to reach the type of flavour complexity that gets us all so excited about it in the first place. As Stephen Brook, author, Decanter Magazine contributor and i4c keynote speaker observed in his speech, “The consequences of coolness are well known to us all: higher natural acidity, a good attack on the palate, a crispness to the mouthfeel, a more taut structure, and good length of flavor.” I’ll drink to that.

3. Coolness Alone Is Not Enough, and Dirt Makes A difference

“Coolness itself is no guarantor of quality”, continued Brook. And yes to be sure, featureless green wine, absent other qualities, is hardly great wine. The trouble is, chardonnay is a rather boring grape. It’s not particularly aromatic, but rather more understated. It’s greatest strength is its marvelous ability to articulate the composition of the dirt in which it’s grown. “It’s not an intrinsically interesting variety. Paradoxically, its very blandness is its strength”.

So aside from a cool climate, chardonnay also needs the right terroir. They’ve known this in Burgundy for centuries: how seemingly minor variations in composition and depth can make for significant differences in the glass. Chardonnay grown in a vineyard better suited to potato farming will never make great wine, no matter how clever the winemaker is or how cool the climate. Burgundy is not an extreme region by any stretch. It’s neither cold nor hot, rainy nor dry, though it does have more or less the right climate for a short cycle grape like chardonnay. But it’s the soil that makes the difference, that has made Burgundy the reference, the mother ship, the yardstick against which all other chardonnay are still measured. The variations on a terroir theme from Chablis to Corton to Meursault or Puligny translate into fantastic complexity and nuance in the glass.

“I don’t have any clear idea of what Chardonnay should smell or taste like,” reveals Brook. “I can pin down certain manifestations of Chardonnay – a Chablis, a Meursault, a Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve – but they emerge from specific conditions.” In other words, it’s about both climate and soil working in tandem.

4. Heavy Hands Make for Homogeneous Wine

And since chardonnay is such a neutral grape, there’s a strong temptation for the winemaker to impose his or her style. Late harvesting can eradicate the climate effect, while other techniques can expunge the soil’s signature. At the i4c there was little evidence of over bearing winemaking, I suppose precisely because those that came all the way to Niagara to attend the celebration know that it’s all about the climate and the dirt. Winemakers here seemed to get it, that over oaking kills site specificity, and with it, what makes wine different from all other manufactured beverages. Anybody can make a fruity-oaky wine. Only some people have the right vineyards to make distinctive wines, and only a few of those know enough to step back and let nature take over.

So when it all comes together, cool climate, great dirt and savvy hand, the results are sensational. And there’s no world monopoly – dozens of regions, Ontario included, are making fine chardonnay in the key of cool. If you missed this year’s i4c, be sure to sign up next year (scheduled for July 19-21, 2013). Because if you think you know chardonnay, it’s time to drink again.

From the Aug 4, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
German Quartet
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier


Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay

The Wine Establishment - Le Nez deu Vin