Lawrason’s Take Vintages March 16 Release

The California Blitz, Bargain Euros, ISDs and Ruminations on a 100-Point Tasting

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

If you have perhaps given up wine for Lent and stayed away from the LCBO in recent days, you may be excused for not being aware that we are in the midst of a California wine promotion blitz. In fact it’s a nationwide blitz, which makes sense because Canada is the largest export market for California wine. We bought $307 million dollars worth of California wine last year.

The flood gates opened at the Vancouver International Wine Festival on February 26, and the tide will continue to wash right across the country through to the last of six California Wine Fairs in Halifax on May 2. In Ontario, the fair dates are April 5 for Ottawa and April 8 for Toronto. But the fairs are not the only opportunities to be swept up in the current. On March 21, over 30 wineries will be pouring at an LCBO sponsored event at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto called Legends of California. Or you can check out 35 new wines released by VINTAGES on March 16 and March 2; or some new general listings (watch this space next week). California wine, by the way, leads all other regions in sales through VINTAGES ($74 million) and the volume is growing!

What’s most interesting to me is that California wine does so well at the generally high prices it commands. It seems that in almost every other category we love to find bargains, but when it comes to California we open our wallets wide. Why? I think we are simply very comfortable with California wine. We like its smooth, ripe, fruit-rich ambiance. Many of us have travelled to its wine regions. There is no strange-ness around language, grapes and labels. And we trust the overall quality, which, in my view is actually improving of late as California settles into middle-age maturity. There is still a yawning “value gap” between the price and quality of some of the most expensive wines – particularly in Napa – but having tasted a lot of excellent wines in recent days I can say that the gap is closing, and that if you look beyond the most iconic names there are actually some decent values out there.

Here are my California value picks from the March 16 release:

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2009Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2009Inglenook 2009 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel ($54.95) is zin the way I like it – lush yet poised with that unmistakable brambleberry, woodsy character I first fell in love with as I tracked down old vine zins during rambling travels to California in the 80’s. The vines on Inglenook’s site date back decades but this is a new label and presentation. Delicious, and you will feel better if you can’t afford the $239 Inglenook Cabernet being released at the same time.

Ravenswood 2009 Dickerson Zinfandel ($39.95) is one of several old-vine single vineyard zins in the Ravenswood portfolio. Normally I find Ravenswood renderings too oaky (including the Ravenswood Big River also being released), but this one sings with fruit and its terroir. Dickerson sits, appropriately, on Zinfandel Lane in Napa. It’s a dry farmed site with most of its vines over or nearing the century mark. Wow!

Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2010Calera 2009 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49.95) is one of two single vineyard pinots being released and both are excellent. Both hail from sites on Mt. Harlan, a unique limestone based outcropping in San Benito County, which some might say is almost the birthplace of top quality California pinot noir, thanks to pioneering efforts by Josh Jensen, chronicled in the book called “The Heartbreak Grape”.

Chateau Montelena 2010 Chardonnay ($57.95) offers all kinds of complexity and energy; easily on par with top chardonnays from Burgundy and yes, Ontario. I think it has everything to do with being bio-dynamically farmed. This is not a glossy market-driven chardonnay; it’s quite crisp, more lean and mineral driven.

Euro Bargains under $20

For true bargains I invite you, once again, to wander paths less well travelled – in this case through Europe.

Takler Pince Kékfrankos 2009Menguante Selección Garnacha 2007Monte Del Frá Bardolino 2011Monte Del Frá 2011 Bardolino ($13.95) is one of my favourite simple summer reds. Bardolino neighbours more famous Valpolicella on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy, and like Valpolicella this made from corvina and rondinella with a splash of sangiovese. No oak here, just juicy sour red fruit from a very conscientious producer.

Menguante 2007 Selección Garnacha from the Carinena region of Spain is a great buy at $16.95.  Well priced, old vine grenache from the arid steppes of northern Spain is no longer a rarity, but some can be too jammy and heavy. This is very generous but finishes with a firm, more mineral driven feel. Lo and behold, it turns out to be bio-dynamically farmed as well. The bodega (winery) was founded in the 18th century.

Takler Pince 2009 Kékfrankos ($13.95) from Hungary’s Szekszárd region is a great little buy that pinot and gamay lovers will fancy. The grape is the same as blaufrankisch or lemberger that you may be more familiar with as an important variety in neighbouring Austria. It is actually widely found in central and eastern Europe, where some refer to it as “the pinot of the east”.

Domaine De Papolle Gros Manseng 2011Muga Barrel Fermented White 2011Domaine De Papolle 2011 Gros Manseng from the Côtes de Gascogne in southwest France is a most intriguing white wine ($19.95) from a producer of Armangnac that has a growing reputation for still wines. The gros manseng grape offers one of the most unique spicy aromas in winedom. And once you get past that nose you will find yourself in an equally intriguing landscape of sweetness and acidity.

Muga 2011 Barrel Fermented White from Rioja, is a marvelously balanced, genteel white from the viura grape, and a great buy at $15.95. You will rarely get an oaked chardonnay with this kind of poise and depth for $16. I am not going to suggest that you should age this for a long time, but grand traditionally made white Rioja’s are capable of incredible longevity.

Rolling out the ISDs

For several years VINTAGES has been releasing small lots of wines into a few selected stores and calling them “In Store Discoveries”, or affectionately, ISDs. They were never put out for media tastings, and often Product Consultants didn’t get to preview them. The idea was that keen-eyed shoppers would be delighted to “discover” them in-store all by themselves. Well I guess that idea is not translating too well into sales, because ISDs are now appearing in release catalogues and we scribes are being invited to pre-taste them too. And I am happy to do so, as small lots often offer interesting explorations. Now if only they could find a way to get all those Shop On-Line and Classics Catalogue wines out on the shelves too. Anyway, here are a couple of noteworthy ISDs that you will only find at the following “flagship” stores: Toronto – Summerhill, Queens Quay, Bayview Village; Oakville – Trafalger & Cornwall Drive; Ottawa – Rideau & King Edward. And by the way, as ISDs are no longer factually ISDs, they need a new name. Should we run a contest?

First Drop Pintor TempranilloSan Felice Arkeos CampogiovanniSan Felice 2008 Arkeos Campogiovanni ($42.95) is a unique blend of a pugnitello and sangiovese from Tuscany. Pugnitello is an ancient variety that has literally been rescued from extinction by San Felice, a winery that has contributed a great deal to modern agriculture research. This is an intriguing wine that attempts to combine the rugged power of pugnitello with the vivacity of sangiovese, and it works well.

First Drop 2010 Pintor Tempranillo ($37.00) from the Barossa Valley of South Australia is more of a curio than a must-buy. But at the same time First Drop’s “ode to the great wines of Rioja” is also a tasty drop, that is very much Australian in the flavour department, but less hefty and dense than most Barossa shiraz or cabernets. Spanish? Not really, but why should it be? By the way, the fun-loving lads at First Drop are really into twitchy You-Tube videos

Ruminations on a 100 Point Tasting

Rob Groh of The Vine, a Toronto-based wine importer ( recently invited the city’s top sommeliers to a tasting of eleven wines scored 100 points by Robert Parker with the stated goal of generating discussion about scoring wine on the 100 point scale. It’s an age-old and rather tiresome debate, but the anti-scoring forces are gathering as the population becomes more wine savvy and perhaps less in need of professional guidance.

Here are some observations about The Vine tasting, in an effort to share in and widen the debate. First, no one turned down the invitation to attend – which alone illustrated the power of the allure of tasting “perfection”. And none of the very expensive wines are actually available, which also speaks to the power of a 100 point score.

Second, most of the commentary about scoring by numbers was negative. There was appropriate philosophical angst expressed about assigning a number to a work of art like wine. There were cautionary comments that one must always consider the source. And there were protestations that taste is so individual and fleeting that it defies being ascribed a numeric value. Very few of the sommeliers said they would sell a wine by number on their wine list. But when I asked who would like to see scores abolished as a tool of wine criticism, only half a dozen of about 40 sommeliers raised their hands.

Said one who voted in favour of scoring: “It’s almost like scores are the law; chaos would ensue if we got rid of them”. This re-enforced a critical point made by WineAlign’s John Szabo who moderated the discussion. To paraphrase, scores – like’em or not – are in fact a natural and necessary tool to distinguish among so many wines. And as much as we would love to spend the time to analyse and expound on all the detail of each and every wine, that is just not possible. There needs to be a fairly succinct way to sort and communicate our impressions.

The third general observation was that none of the eleven wines poured generated anything like the kind of awe, reverence or passion one might expect at a 100 point tasting.  Audience scores were tabulated and averaged and no wine scored more than 94 by the group. All the wines were American cabernet-based reds that Robert Parker deemed “perfect”. They included six wines from Verite of Sonoma, and two from Loyota of Napa, two from Washington’s Quilceda Creek and one vintage of Napa’s Cardinale.

All were technically excellent, but only three, in my numerical opinion, ranged above 95 points, into that territory that delivered the head spinning, jaw dropping emotional impact that I expect of great wines. They were Loyota 2001 Mount Veeder Cabernet; 2005 Verite La Joie and 2007 Verite La Muse. But I have had dozens upon dozens of other wines in my career that were more wondrous and moving.

So is wine judging emotional? Yes – great wines can move you to tears or put a lump in your throat – like music or art or some spellbinding natural vista. But there are measurable factors like purity, balance, complexity and depth that “add up” to create that emotional effect. So the score becomes a way to try to communicate that emotional opinion or attachment, and valid scores need to address those building blocks.

Experts taste more, and hopefully have a greater frame of reference and understanding of how perfection is created, which should result in more objectivity. I have respect for Robert Parker’s deeper knowledge of American cabernets than I have, and his willingness to call some perfect. For that reason too I was drawn to this tasting. I really wanted to taste these wines. And I learned more about the subject, which may never have happened if Parker had not scored them so highly.

And that is the real reason that scores matter. They put more great wine in front of more people, who might not otherwise consider buying that bottle. What you get out of that is up to you, and there is no right or wrong.

So that’s it for this edition. There were many very interesting wines on this release, so open a bottle, pour a glass and enjoy.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the March 16, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

The Good Food & Drink Festival