John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for August 18th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Olympic Special: Back-to-Back Golds for the Rhône Valley; Disqualifying Wineries from the Games and How To Win Gold in the Terroir Event

This Olympic-inspired report previews all of the highlights from the Southern Rhône’s 2nd gold medal winning vintage in as many years, the feature of the August 18th release. Considering the superb value on offer, it’s well worth your while to tune in. And in addition to the top ten smart buys, I also consider whether wineries should be disqualified from the Games and what high-performance athletes and terroir have in common. Read on for all the news, views and wines to choose.

The Southern Rhône wins Gold Again in 2010

Rhône Valley Vineyards

Southern Rhône 2010 is the feature for the Vintages August 18th release. Long time subscribers may recall my excitement over the 2009 vintage, which produced exceptional results in the Southern Rhône, and 2010 seems to be as strong or even stronger – another top performance. “2010 will be an exceptional vintage; it could be amongst the best ever made,” declared Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel at a tasting in London in October 2011. “The colour is far superior to anything I’ve seen in the last eight years to ten years and the Mourvèdre is sumptuous. We are expecting wines with freshness and balance. It’s the best vintage since 1978”.

Indeed there’s an extra degree of freshness and balance in the 2010, which should make these both delicious up front yet also eminently age worthy. The August 18th release is chalk full of excellent wines at, importantly, excellent prices. The top three on the podium for me are Domaine les Grands Bois Cuvée Philippine Côtes du Rhône-villages ($17.95), Domaine du Père Pape Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($37.95) and Domaine les Grands Bois Cuvée les Trois Soeurs Côtes du Rhône ($16.95).

Domaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Philippine Côtes Du Rhône VillagesDomaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs Côtes Du RhôneDomaine Les Grand Bois is a generational operation since 1929, and as such farms predominantly old vines – 3/4 of the estate was planted before 1950, and several parcels from 1902 are still in production. Grapes are certified organic. The Cuvée Philipine is a Grenache-dominant blend, tremendously full, rich and densely structured, with grippy tannins, plenty of spice, dark fruit and garrigue flavour, easily the equal of many Châteauneuf du Pape, and a great price as such. Les Trois Soeurs is very nearly as good, made from slightly higher yields (45hl/ha to 35 hl/ha). It’s a more floral, elegant, fruity-spicy example of Côtes du Rhône, pure and fresh, with tremendous appeal. Both of these wines show the impeccable balance that comes from mature vines in a fine vintage.

Domaine Du Père Pape Châteauneuf Du PapeDomaine du Père’s Châteauneuf is already rather open and fragrant with lovely exotic spice, leather, baked red and black berry fruit and kirsch-licorice flavours. It highlights the character of the vintage: immediately pleasing yet structured enough to age well. Click here for the top ten list of 2010 Rhônes, all 88 points of better with some very smart buys.

In the rest of the top ten smart buys this week, Italy makes a very strong showing with 5 wines qualifying for the finals. From a top value Sicilian white to a classic Chianti, there’s much to choose from. Two South Africans also make the finals, as well as a terrific Portuguese white that will have fans of classically styled, complex, old world whites waving their cash at the check out counter to grab another bottle. See all the results here.

Thoughts on Disqualifying Wineries From the Games and How to Win a Terroir Gold Medal

I haven’t been glued to the television watching the Olympics, though I did manage to catch a few of the highlights. There’s something special about watching people put themselves to the ultimate test. It’s really the only way to truly discover your strengths and weaknesses, and anyone willing to expose himself or herself to failure deserves some admiration. The rest of us are just armchair quarterbacks. I watched history’s fastest man Usain Bolt leave the field behind to claim his second gold medal and a new Olympic record in the marquee event of athletics, the 100m, and the heartbreaking loss of the Canadian women’s soccer team in the semi-finals against their arch-nemesis, the USA, conceding a goal in the extra seconds of extra time, after their lead in regular time was erased following an outlandish call by referee Christiana Pedersen on goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball too long. It was a perfectly by-the-book call, though one that is surely the footballing equivalent of getting a ticket for jaywalking. (At press time, the women’s team had defeated France to take the bronze – kudos to them for bouncing back and showing Olympic spirit)

There’s another Olympic side story that also caught my attention, one that has raised important ethical questions regarding the motivation of athletes and the purpose of the Olympics in the first place. Those of you following the games probably heard the story of the four pairs of badminton players who were disqualified from the games for what’s been described as match fixing – purposely losing their final round robin matches (after already qualifying to move on) in order to face a more favourable opponent in the next round. The Badminton World Federation sanctioned two teams from South Korea and one each from China and Indonesia, accusing the pairs of “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Then there was Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi’s suspicious exit from the track partway through an 800m qualifying heat. He was booted from the Olympics immediately afterwards, only to be reinstated a few hours later after a medical review. A nagging knee injury was the reason given for quitting the race. Yet the following day, Makloufi ran to win the gold in the 1500m. A miraculous recovery? It appeared to some observers as though Makloufi purposely stopped running the 800m in order to save himself for the 1500m, a race in which he had a much higher chance of medaling. Both cases have caused uproars in the sporting community and beyond. Olympic officials cried fowl, citing the duty of athletes to give their all, especially for the spectators who have paid dearly to watch them compete. Between tickets sales, sponsors and advertisers, there’s a lot of money at stake.

But wait a minute. I could have sworn that it was the aim of all Olympics athletes to win medals first, not entertain the crowd and please the sponsors. Their duty is first and foremost to their country, not advertisers. Some entertainment is bound to happen along the way. The problem in my view lies not with the athletes, but with the organizers of the competition, who, especially in the case of the format of the badminton tournament, opened the door to the possibility that loosing a match can work to your advantage. If that’s part of the strategy to win gold, then you have to live with it (I guess they could have lost with a little more subtlety and tact). At this level of competition winning and losing turns on a dime and strategy is a critical part of success. These athletes were using sensible strategy to do what they are supposed to do: win. But of course we love to see everyone give 110% all of the time, even if it’s not realistic.

Which brings me finally to my tenuous (even more than usual) tie in to wine. In view of these mini Olympic scandals, I turned to considering terroir – the nature of a patch of vineyard land – in the light of performance athletes. I began to wonder how many potentially great vineyards are underperforming because the efforts of the winegrower are focused elsewhere. Perhaps there’s another site where the chances of making gold medal winning wine are perceived to be higher, so all of the resources are logically invested there, as Makloufi opted to invest in the 1500m rather than the 800m. Or maybe, the winery restaurant or summer concert series or weekend events are drawing resources away from the business of making wine, and full potential is never realized, the reason why a decathlete can never really compete with the results of the top athletes in the individual events.

The wine business is a for-profit enterprise, as the business of sports is to win (and to make profit). To make great wine in a marginal climate (not naturally gifted) like Ontario’s is very expensive. Very few wineries have the financial ability to invest equal resources into all of their vineyard sites (unless, like an athlete who competes in a single event, the winery has only a single vineyard, into which they obviously put all of their love.) Should we expect 110% from every winery’s wines every time, or accept the commercial reality that winning with every wine is not realistic? That’s why most operations create different quality tiers: there are the everyday, amateur athlete wines with minimal investment, the mid-range competitive wines, and the high-end, ultra-elite performance athlete wines that get all of the funding.

There’s a direct correlation between investment and results. Canada’s disappointing medal count this year can be attributed directly to the relatively paltry sums invested into amateur sports: $62 million a year (of which $34m goes to summer sports). Compare that to Great Britain’s investment of over double that, roughly half a billion dollars since the last Olympics, and then look at GB’s medal haul this year and the connection is clear. Investment pays. Canada appears to be stuck in the bottom tier of world sports.

The particularly solvent wineries, like countries that invest heavily into sports, do everything it takes to make gold medal winning wines in all of their vineyards. Some wineries are the equivalent of the astonishingly gifted swimmer Michael Phelps. They win at everything they do. They’re successful because of two reasons: 1) they have the ability to invest; and 2) they have the vineyards with medal winning potential in the first place.

There’s the stark reality of the athlete who, no matter how much training he or she puts in, will never turn in a gold medal performance. Some patches of land simply don’t have what it takes to produce great wine, regardless of the amount of effort and investment made. There is poor terroir just as there is good terroir. How much time and energy is spent trying to make gold medal wine out of 8th place terroir, I wonder. I’ve seen many examples.

Then you start to wonder about all of the great terroirs that have yet to be, and maybe never will be discovered. What if Usain Bolt’s grade school teacher hadn’t suggested he try his hand at athletics? How many men potentially faster then Bolt never made it to a track? These are the terroirs that are still covered by scrub or forest, or worse, that have fallen prey to urban development, like countless hectares of potential cru classé vineyards buried under the paved streets of Bordeaux, or quite possibly, the streets of St. Catharines, or Beamsville or Grimsby. From a wine lover’s perspective, these urban planning ‘calls’ are the equivalent of Pedersen’s call that robbed the women’s soccer team of their chance to make gold (it was reported that US striker Abby Wambach goaded Pedersen into making the call by counting out loud in her ear every time McLeod picked up the ball, eerily similar to large real estate companies relentlessly lobbying urban planning commissions for the rights to develop agricultural land).

Or even more tragic, what about the great terroirs that have fallen into the wrong hands, like a team with immense potential left to languish in mediocrity under an incompetent coach, or an athlete raised in a country without sufficient resources to bring out their best? What of the incompetent or cash-strapped winegrowers who only ever turn out mediocre wine from a site with brilliant potential? Perhaps the yet-to-be-formed World Wine Federation should disqualify these wineries from the marketplace and suspend them for “not using one’s best efforts to make the best wine possible” or “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to great terroir.” Just a thought.

Gold Medal Terroir: Quarry Road Vineyard

In the midst of these errant musings, I happened to be tasting through the latest releases from Tawse Winery. Now here’s a Michael Phelps-esque operation with both the financial ability and the natural gift (good vineyards) to make multiple gold medal-quality wines (Tawse has been named winery of the year twice at the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards). Tawse also focuses on a wide range of single vineyard wines all made to similar exacting standards, so it was a perfect opportunity to host my own Olympic terroir event. I set up a few mini single blind tastings (I knew the wines but not the order) of pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling to see which terroir would come out on top.

In the end, one vineyard kept stepping up to the podium: Quarry Road. And considering its track record of exceptional wines from previous vintages, I was as surprised to see it come out on top as I was to see Bolt repeat in the 100m. It isn’t the biggest or strongest or fastest terroir – the Robyn’s Block chardonnay and the Cherry Avenue pinot noir are both bigger, more immediately impressive wines – but it was the most complete. There was an extra kick in the finish, like the ability to sprint the final stadium lap in the marathon. There was a more distinct sense of minerality, the elusive attribute that separates the very good from the very best, which can’t be taught or trained, it’s either there or it’s not. But the winegrower still has to bring it out.

Tawse Winemaker Paul Pender

Tawse Winemaker Paul Pender

Paul Pender, winemaker at Tawse Winery, once believed that the Quarry Road vineyard would never even qualify for the competition. It was only after converting to organics in 2006 and then to biodynamics in 2007, that he began to see the potential. It was in fact the chardonnay from the Quarry Road vineyard that most convinced him of the validity of biodynamics, even if he was skeptical at first. “The transition years were the toughest; getting the vines off chemicals is like getting junkies off of their fix [athletes off steroids?]. In 2006, 85% of the vineyard was declassified [into second-tier wines]”. Then BD was introduced, and “by 2008, the wine was beautiful: the minerality increased, the terroir became more transparent. It went from being my least favorite site to one of our best.” Perhaps biodynamics is the equivalent of a high-performance training center for athletes: apply it to the right sites/athletes and you get results.

But not all athletes put through the training center will achieve the same results. For me, Quarry Road is a site for chardonnay and pinot noir. The riesling is also excellent, but somehow less distinctive. And the gewürztraminer (though still very good) is like the weak link in the 4x100m, the 4th man on the Jamaican relay team alongside Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell.

In any case, these are all wines worth watching.

Quarry Road Vineyard Details

Location: Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation, near the top of the Niagara Escarpment.
Total Area: 43 acres, of which 20 acres of tightly planted Pinot Noir, 11 acres of tightly planted Riesling, 9 acres of Chardonnay and 3 acres Gewurztraminer.

Wines to try:

  1. Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $34.95
  2. Tawse Winery Pinot Noir Quarry Road Vineyard 2009, Vinemount Ridge $34.95
  3. Tawse Winery Quarry Road Vineyard Riesling 2011, Vinemount Ridge $23.95
  4. Tawse Quarry Road Gewurztraminer 2011, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $24.95

From the August 18th, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Golden Rhônes
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier


Sbragia Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabnernet Sauvignon