John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 4, 2014

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

I admire that you’re already looking forward to 2014 and contemplating which wines to replenish your party-weary, depleted wine collection with, which, if it looks like mine, resembles a yet un-harvested vineyard destined for Icewine in the aftermath of a Hitchcockian visit of hungry starlings. January 4th offers a decent lineup of sub-$20 smart buys, plus a couple of premium options to tuck away until the next cause for celebration, such as making it to next weekend.

Of Oysters and Smart Buys

Admittedly, I often find myself daydreaming of Chablis and oysters. There’s something very Hemingway-esque about the image, as there is with just about any scene involving alcoholic beverages and food for that matter. It’s such a fine example of perfect natural harmony, like two complementary musical frequencies that fill each other’s troughs and cannot be improved upon.

The wine, born in soils created from so many million marine shells (exogyra virgula) crushed and compacted over time, kept pure and pristine, electrifying and transparent, finds its harmonizing counterpart in oysters, left to raise themselves naturally in frigid saline waters. Both are served chilled and unadulterated (I take half a drop of lemon occasionally, but nothing else), and the tastes and flavours of sea salt, iodine, crushed rock and lemon-lime, cucumber and green apple are transformed into the Vienna Boys Choir.

But at $2.50-$4 or so apiece in a decent oyster house, with a half-dozen the bare minimum respectable order (a dozen for two), those little bivalves dig deeply into your pocket. And with a bottle of good village Chablis starting at about $50, your daydream has suddenly set you back the equivalent of a bottle of Grand cru Burgundy.

2011 Hervé Azo BourgogneSo, my band-aid solution this January for when the sea sirens call and the mere thought of the tingle of Chablis on your tongue causes involuntary salivation: dine at home, buy a pound of fresh mussels per person (about the same price as a single oyster), top quality unsalted butter, shallots and garlic and a bottle of 2011 Hervé Azo Bourgogne ($16.95) and you’re just about there.

Azo left his high-powered job in Paris and settled in Chablis in the 1970s and slowly began to acquire prime vineyard land. The domaine, now totaling 15ha, has since transitioned into the hands of Chablisienne winegrower Jean-Marc Brocard, but has been maintained as a separate label. I only learned of this connection while researching this report, but the similarity between Brocard’s and Azo’s wines had always been striking, and now it all makes sense. The vineyards, like all of Brocard’s, are farmed organically, and this Bourgogne Blanc is essentially Brocard’s Chardonnay “Kimmeridgien”, a pure chardonnay from the Kimmeridgian limestone soils of the Chablis AOP, declassified into the generic appellation. Wild yeast fermented and aged in stainless steel, this wine tastes more Chablis than many Chablis, complete with Brocard’s recognizable lactic, lightly buttery style. At $16, you can use a splash to steam your mussels, find lactic harmony with the fresh butter, and add depth to the ensemble with a pinch of chopped shallots, garlic and parsley or tarragon. I think Hemingway would have approved.

The Frenchman Turns Red

13th Street Merlot 201213th Street winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas has been dogged by the reputation of regularly producing top-notch whites (remember, he worked in Chablis before coming to Canada in 2000) but hit-and-miss reds. But the 2012 13th Street Merlot ($17.95) is a sure sign that JP’s still got a trick or two up his sleeve. There was an audible gasp in the LCBO tasting lab when fellow WineAlign critic David Lawrason tasted this wine, followed by a thorough scrutinizing of the label and the question: “did Jean-Pierre really make this?” I too, did a double take upon tasting, taken by the fullish, firm and juicy, even succulent, palate, the masses of fruit and wet clay character typical of merlot, and the exceptional depth for the price category. Whatever happened at 13th Street in 2012 (releases are solid across the board), I hope it keeps happening.

Smart Wintry Reds From Value Hot Spots

Three of my go-to regions for value pop up on January 4th yet again: Sicily, Portugal’s Dão, and Rioja. The 2010 Cusumano Noà ($19.95) is a ripe, dark fruited, substantially flavoured red blend (Nero d’Avola, with 30% each of cabernet sauvignon and merlot), with thick, dense and concentrated palate and more than a little wild Mediterranean herbal character, perfect for winter roasts or braises.

Cusumano Noà 2010Quinta Das Camélias Reserva 2010Rio Madre 2011The Dão region, just south of the Douro Valley, has of late become a crossroads for wines of class, elegance and value. The region sits on a raised plateau of pure granite (just look around and see what all buildings are made of; even vineyard posts are often made of granite) protected on three sides from inclement weather. Touriga Nacional is the flagship variety, which shows through nicely in the 2010 Quinta Das Camélias Reserva ($14.95), blended with jaen (mencía) and alfrocheiro. Wild violets and rockroses mix with succulent black fruits, while structure and length are far above the price category. Slightly excessive wood influence detracts on the finish, but another year or two should see this reach better balance.

2011 Rio Madre Rioja ($14.95) is a rare example made exclusively from graciano, a long way from classic Rioja of any description, but well worth a look at this price. It’s a deeply coloured and intriguingly aromatic wine, with a certain wildness and florality. Fruit is lightly candied, but acids are still firm and tannins tight, giving this a juicy and appealing drinkability and firmness.

Fresh Shiraz Trending

Romate Fino SherryDomaine Tournon Mathilda Shiraz 2011Following in the trend towards fresher shiraz, Domaine Tournon’s 2011 Mathilda Shiraz from Victoria ($19.95), made by the Rhône Valley’s Marc Chapoutier, is a lively, fragrant, clearly cool climate-inspired wine that draws you in with its beguiling peppery, floral, cold cream, and dark berry aromatics, while a modest 13% alcohol makes this all the more fun to enjoy after holiday excesses.

Fine Fino

Sherry is at long last gaining traction in our market, if the turnout for and enthusiasm witnessed during October’s Sherry Fest, the first of its kind in Toronto, is any indication. It’s really just a matter of time before the winds of fashion blow favourably once again over this 3000-year-old wine region. For a sense of the high complexity/dollar ratio that great examples offer, try the Romate Fino Sherry ($15.95). It’s not a fino built on freshness exclusively, but rather incorporates considerable fruit depth and intense yeasty-flor character, leading into a finish with terrific persistence. Goes great with bullfights, tapas and January Sunday afternoons in Canada.

Premium Smart Buys

On the premium ($25+) side of the equation, I’d strongly recommend the 2008 Punset Barbaresco ($52.95), fit for fans of the nebbiolo genre, or for anyone into fine and distinctive wine. The Marcarino family has been farming organically since 1987, and this Barbaresco from the fine and elegant 2008 vintage is crafted in the old school style, replete with engaging rusty-iron, dried red fruit, faded flowers and gritty, salty flavours. It’s lovely, traditional stuff, enjoyable now or hold to 2020.

Punset Barbaresco 2008Domaine Des Baumard Clos De Saint Yves Savennières 2010Château Caronne Ste. Gemme 2009Premium white drinkers shouldn’t miss the 2010 Domaine Des Baumard Clos De Saint Yves Savennières ($31.95). Clos de Saint Yves is a monopole vineyard of Domaine des Baumard, planted on schistous soils streaked with volcanic rock. Like many intensely terroir-driven wines, this is not a wine of fruit or grape varietal character, but rather an expression of place – there’s no mistaking this for Vouvray or any other chenin-based appellation from the Loire Valley. The nose is intense and smoky, honeyed, like a wool sweater soaked with rain drying by the fireplace as you sip an Islay malt whisky. You could this drink now, or hold it a decade or more.

And lastly, Bordeaux drinkers can rejoice at finding more value in the highly touted 2009 vintage with the Château Caronne Ste. Gemme ($25.85). It’s a classy left bank Bordeaux at a nice price, complete with graphite-pencil shavings, dark fruit, and abundant but integrated and well-matched wood spice-vanilla flavours. The tannic structure has just started to loosen its hold, making this enjoyable now but capable of another 4-8 years in the cellar without a stretch. Considering the high price and average quality of 2011, ‘12 and ’13 Bordeaux, fans should buy up as much of the remaining 2009 and 2010 values, wherever they are to be found.

That’s all for this week. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year 2014. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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From the Jan 4, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

Penfolds Grange 2008

Vancouver International Wine Festival - Feb 27, 28 and Mar 1