John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Nov 9, 2013

Gaia Gaja, How to Get The Most out of Your Sommelier and Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

A logistical contretemps at the LCBO warehouse saw samples of the November 23 release arrive at the tasting lab last Tuesday instead of the November 9 samples, so my coverage is less than complete this week. But we’ve marshaled additional regular WineAlign contributors for next week’s tasting to ensure that all new wines are covered. I’ve selected a half-dozen premium smart buys out of the three dozen or so wines I did manage to taste from the November 9 release to consider. A recent sit-down with the engaging Gaia Gaja provided an opportunity to report on changes at this iconic Italian estate and to review the latest releases, and I’ve also shared some insider’s tips on how to get the most out of your sommelier while dining out this season. 

Premium Smart Buys

The average bottle price for LCBO-VINTAGES releases jumps sharply around this time of year to coincide with consumers’ willingness to spend more. In that light, I’ve selected a half-dozen premium selections, between $25 and $60, that are worth the extra spend, and would make for respectable gifts for your wine loving friends (value-seekers can jump straight to the Top 25 Values from the WineAlign World Wine Awards). Click through for the notes and reviews on the wines below.

2010 Norman Hardie Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($39.00)

Norman Hardie Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir 2010

2011 Le Serre Nuove Dell’ornellaia DOC Bolgheri, Italy($59.95)

Le Serre Nuove Dell'Ornellaia 2011

2011 Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos, DO Bierzo, Spain ($24.95)

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2011

2011 The Chocolate Block, WO Franschhoek, South Africa ($39.95)

The Chocolate Block 2011

2008 Ruffino Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG Chianti, Italy($44.95)

Ruffino Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva 2008

2009 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz, South Australia ($44.95)

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

New Releases from Gaja, Pieve Santa Restituta & Ca’Marcanda

The unkempt vines and thick grass between rows in Gaja’s Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards is not a sign that the viticulture applied to some of Italy’s most prized bottles is starting to slip. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. “The warming climate and better understanding of grape growing and fermentation has led us to make some important changes”, reveals Gaia Gaja at a Toronto tasting this week. “Twenty years ago, fertilization was not recommended. It was believed that stress was good for quality. Grapes were definitely ripening earlier than they are now because of stress, but there were problems with the fermentations. There were not enough nutrients in the must. Thermoregulation and other fermentation management techniques were necessary. Now, fertilizing has remedied all of these problems”, she continues.

Gaia GajaOf course, Gaia, the daughter of famed winemaker Angelo Gaja, is not referring to standard industrial fertilizers; everything at Gaja is done at the highest level. In this case, the fertilizer comes from a heard of local cows, whose manure undergoes a lengthy 18 month processing before it’s applied to vineyards. Gaja does not farm biodynamically, but many principles are adapted.

Gaia mentions a few other recent adaptations in viticulture. For example, traditional canopies in Piedmont were always high, around two meters, in order to maximize foliar surface exposed to the sun in this typically cool and foggy region. Maximizing photosynthesis, and thus ripeness, was the principal. But the warming trend over the past decade has led to a new problem for Piedmontese growers: grapes are ripening too quickly, and are unbalanced. There’s too much photosynthesis and thus sugar accumulation in grapes, before flavours have had a chance to fully develop. Gaja has adapted by shortening the canopy to 1.5m or even lower in their top, south facing sites where it’s necessary to slow down ripening. They’ve all but stopped canopy trimming as well, since it encourages new leaf growth, and young leaves are much more efficient at producing sugar, which in turn leads to excessive alcohol in the finished wines.

Grass between vineyards rows, traditionally kept cropped low, is no longer cut but rather folded over by tractor when it gets too long in order to maintain soil moisture and reduce water stress. “The vineyards look messy” says Gaia, “not like they were twenty years ago, perfectly trimmed and neat. But it’s anything but neglect. It’s a different management strategy we’ve adopted to deal with changing conditions”.

Gaja WinesWe tasted wines from Gaja’s 250 acre Piedmont estate (spread across the Barbaresco district in the communes of Treiso and Barbaresco itself, and in Barolo, within the communes of Serralunga and La Morra), as well as the family’s two Tuscan properties, Pieve di Santa Restituta in Montalcino purchased in 1994, and Ca’ Marcanda in Bolgheri on the coast, acquired in 1996.

Anyone familiar with these wines knows that they are among Italy’s most sought after and collectable bottles, with pricing to match. But relatively speaking, within the elite world of wine, Gaja’s bottles remain fairly priced, with undeniable history and pedigree especially for the Piedmontese portfolio. Given the means, I would purchase Gaja’s nebbiolos in particular without buyer’s remorse.

Click below for reviews and scores.

1999 Sperss Langhe Nebbiolo

2009 Barbaresco

2008 Conteisa Langhe Nebbiolo

2008 Barolo Dagromis

2009 Ca’Marcanda Bolgheri

2008 Pieve Santa Restitua Brunello di Montalcino Rennina

2011 Ca’Marcanda Vistamare Igt Tsocana

How to get the most out of your sommelier:

The modern sommelier is on your side, there to make you happy, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice. No one knows more about the food and the wines on the list. Besides, s/he’s probably bored stiff pulling corks and pouring glasses of pinot grigio, so you’ll make someone happy, too. Here are a couple of tips to increase the odds of a successful encounter:

– Don’t shy away from talking price – you’ll both feel more at ease and avoid potential mutual embarrassment

– Give as much information as possible about what you like (if you’re bashful about your descriptive wine vocabulary, just tell the server what brand(s) you usually drink)

– Ask what the sommelier is most excited about – you’ll see her eyes light up, and might be led to a brilliant new discovery

– Ask the sommelier to pair your meal with wine – they’ll often rise to the challenge and over-deliver, and give you a free food and wine pairing clinic

If I could give one piece of advice:

Trust your own taste. Critics may guide you, but you’re still heading up the expedition.

John Szabo, A Master ClassJoin me for an insider’s tour through the world of wine. I’ve selected an outstanding lineup of up-and-coming grapes, regions, producers and styles – the stuff you wouldn’t likely know about unless you are immersed in the wine trade – that are ripe for discovery. Pick up some tips on how to taste, serve and pair wine and food like a master sommelier along the way. See more details and get your tickets here.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the November 9, 2013 Vintages release:

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All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Penfold's Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon

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