Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Nov 26th, 2016

Top VINTAGES Buys & Fine Volcanic Wines
by John Szabo, with notes from David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

There was an explosive wine party in Toronto last Tuesday, ostensibly to celebrate the launch of my latest book, Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power. But really, it was a great excuse to gather five dozen of the best wines grown in volcanic soils around the world for a grand taste-and-buy event. Judging by the crowd, the category has erupted. Read on for my Coles Notes on what makes these wines special, or for the full report, buy the LP version. I also pick a killer volcanic dozen from the tasting in consignment now to start your collection. November 26th is a massive 160+ product VINTAGES release on the theme of “Our Finest”. Such a number exceeds my daily tasting tolerance, so I sifted carefully and came up with five smart whites and reds worth a look, in a couple of cases aligning with the picks of Sara and Michael last week. David Lawrason adds his five favourites to round out the list.

The Mystery of Volcanic Wines Revealed (Well, sort of)

Although volcanic soils account for only about 1% of the world’s land surface, grapes occupy a disproportionate share. So what’s the secret? Volcanic soils, it turns out, have some useful properties that make them especially well suited for high quality, distinctive wine.

For one, young volcanic “soils” formed on recent lavas are often more rock than soil – they haven’t had time to weather into water-retentive clays – and thus hold very little moisture. It’s well established that less water favours higher grape quality. Soils derived from volcanic ash and sand likewise drain like sieves, and by the very nature of where they form, volcanic soils are almost always on hillsides where water drains offs, further reducing water availability.

Paradoxically, despite their reputation, volcanic soils, at least the best ones for wine growing, are relatively infertile. Though lavas have generous amounts of the major macro and micronutrients required by plants, they’re not readily available to root systems. They must first be weathered into an available form, and then made soluble in water to be taken up by roots. But water, as we’ve just seen, is not often available, and minimally weathered soils/rocks are not ready to give up their nutrients in any case.

Vineyards, southern Santorini

Vineyards, southern Santorini

In the end, vines get a broad diet, but in small quantities (low fertility but without particular deficiencies), which triggers them to focus on ripening fruit rather than growing shoots and leaves. Semi-parched, semi-starved vines produce less fruit, smaller bunches, thicker grape skins (where most aromas and flavours are stored), and result in more concentrated, structured and age worthy wines with a broad range of flavours.

Wine styles vary, naturally, given the wide range of grape varieties and climates, as well as the precise chemical-physical makeup of soils found around the world, not to mention the human factor. But some recurring features temptingly link volcanic wines. For one, they hinge on a common mouth-watering quality, sometimes from high acids, almost always from palpable saltiness, sometimes both. They’re often more savoury than fruity, and magnificently “mineral”, a useful, multi-dimensional term that covers a myriad of sensations reminiscent of rocks. They seem to have another dimension, a sort of density that can only come from genuine extract in the wine. It’s a sort of weightless gravity, intense, heavy as a feather, firm but transparent, like an impenetrable, invisible force shield of flavor. They can be gritty, salty, hard, maybe even unpleasant to some, but unmistakable. I’ve posted a list of a dozen wines that will make you a believer. Jump to the Volcanic Wine list here, or read on as David and I unearth the top picks from the VINTAGES release.

Top picks from the November 26th VINTAGES release:

John Szabo’s Top Reds

High-Altitude Malbec

The Catena Institute of Wine has studied the effects of high altitude viticulture more thoroughly than anyone else, unveiling the effects of higher thermal amplitude (day-night temperature shifts), and intensified ultraviolet-B light (the most energetic fraction from sunlight) on grape composition. The acquired knowledge has been practically harnessed to produce some of the best wines in Mendoza today, and the Catena Alta 2013 Historic Rows Malbec, Mendoza (49.95) underscores the fact. It offers that lovely, beguiling floral note of high-mountain-grown fruit, and firm, abundant, but polished and delicate tannins, and seamlessly integrated acids. This is one for the cellar, best after 2018, with a long life ahead.

While you’re waiting, enjoy the scaled-down but excellent value Salentein 2014 Reserve Malbec Uco Valley, Mendoza (17.95). It too is from the upper Uco Valley, showing genuine cool climate freshness and balance. Wood is a minimal input, and acids keep things lively and fresh –a welcome change from the more ponderous versions that have flooded the market. Best 2016-2022.

Beaujolais Vieux

Forget that nasty grapey nouveau and try some real Beaujolais, one of France’s best-kept secrets (at least in Ontario; Québec is swimming in great Beaujolais). The top crus challenge great Burgundy from further north at a fraction of the price, and they’re even better with a bit of age. For a snapshot, try the Château Grange Cochard 2013 Vieilles Vignes Morgon (19.95). Morgon is generally one of the more sturdy versions of gamay from Beaujolais, and this example is evolving nicely, shifting into the orange peel, dried red fruit, and meaty end of the flavour spectrum. The palate however remains juicy, firm and fresh, with great acids and a fine lick of savoury-umami tastes that invite additional sips. Best 2016-2023.

Catena Alta Historic Rows Malbec 2013Salentein Reserve Malbec 2014Château Grange Cochard Vieilles Vignes Morgon 2013Rocca Di Castagnoli Stielle Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2011Barão De Vilar Feuerheerd's Tinto 2014

Great Selection

The recent Chianti Classico Gran Selezione designation continues to impress me, despite a philosophical objection to the notion that quality can be linked to time in the cellar before release (it should be vineyard based). Yet the Rocca da Castagnoli 2011 Stielle Gran Selezione Chianti Classico ($45.95) shows yet again that producers are taking the category seriously. It’s made with sangiovese from Castagnoli’s Stielle vineyard at up to 550m, vinified with 40% whole clusters, and aged in large, old wood. The result is a classy and elegant wine, sanded by time to a fine-grained texture, yet still with plenty of properly tart red fruit spiked with wild herbs. Best 2016-2025.

Value Alert

Owned by the less famous branch of the van Zeller family, an old and important name in the Douro Valley, Barão De Vilar’s 2014 Feuerheerd’s Tinto DOC Douro ($14.95) is nonetheless a top value pick this release. It’s all freshness and minerality, light tannins and bright acids. There’s an extra measure of savoury spice on the back end that’s unusual in this price category, not to mention length. Genuine. Enjoy now.

John Szabo’s Top Bubbles & Whites

White Hot Value

I’ll be picking a dozen great sparkling wines for my mid-December annual fizz guide, but I couldn’t help but include this terrific value here: Le Mesnil Brut Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs Champagne AC ($49.95). Pure chardonnay from grand cru village Le Mesnil under $50 is a rarity, doubly so when the quality is this good. I love the toasty and biscuity, brioche and white chocolate, blanched almonds flavours in the classic, classy, blanc de blancs style, as well as the dry and firm palate with impressive concentration and depth.

Exotic Riesling

Looking to Domaines Schlumberger 2012 Kessler Riesling AC Alsace Grand Cru ($27.95) Nicely open and aromatic at this stage, evolving, this offers a fine and complex mix of limey-citrus, exotic floral-jasmine notes, ginger and honey. The palate is still tightly wound with riveting acids, bone-dry impression, and terrific length. A superior riesling all in all, drinking well now but also comfortable for another half dozen years in the cellar. Best 2016-2024.

Quiet Confidence

Cave Spring has been quietly making some of Ontario’s most reliable, and occasionally astonishing, wines at prices that attract little excitement from status seekers and aspirational label drinkers. But genuine value seekers should not miss the lovely Cave Spring 2014 Estate Bottled Chardonnay Beamsville Bench (18.95). It’s bright and lean, minimally wooded, and minerally, vibrant and lively, which could compete with chards a tier or two up in price.

Le Mesnil Brut Grand Cru Blanc De BlancsDomaines Schlumberger Kessler Riesling 2012Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2014Vigne Surrau Branu Vermentino Di Gallura 2014Domaine Cauhapé Jurançon Symphonie De Novembre 2012

Textbook Salty White

I’d call the Vigne Surrau Branu 2014 Vermentino di Gallura DOCG (21.95) a textbook example of vermentino from northern Sardinia. It delivers an appealing mineral-herbal twang, with a mildly saline kick from the nearby Mediterranean. I also appreciate the genuine flavour concentration and fine length.

Bring Out the Cheese Board

Indeed a symphony of autumnal flavours, Domaine Cauhape 2012 Symphonie de Novembre AC Jurançon (38.95) is a lovely wine worth discovering from France’s deep southwest. It’s deeply coloured and rather exotic, with tropical fruit, ginger spice and wild flowers, while the medium-sweet palate has savoury, balancing acids and exceptional length. I’d sip this in the afternoon, or after dinner, or especially with the cheese course. Best 2016-2026.

David Lawrason’s Fab Five

Mailly 2008 Grand Cru Champagne, France ($94.95)
David Lawrason – I am tempted to invest. Last week I did a grand Champagne tasting in B.C. that lined up the who’s who – from Dom Perignon to Taittinger Comtes to Pol Roger Vintage 2006 and many others. Reviews have been added to WineAlign.  Tasting this mature, refined, very complex bubbly took me immediately back to the top wines I tasted days ago. Yes, it is almost $100, but it is not $200 or $300 like some of the big names – an quality-wise it is a comfy fit with compelling flavours.

Jean-Pierre et Michel Auvigue 2013 Solutré Pouilly-Fuissé, Burgundy, France ($33.95)
David Lawrason – The limestone rock/cliff of Solutre is one of the great landmarks of Burgundy. From vineyards below, this is a quite rich, complex yet so nicely poised chardonnay made in a traditional just vaguely reductive style. I am most impressed with silky texture, tenderness, depth and subtle minerality. If someone told me blind that it was from Ontario I wouldn’t have argued. A class act.

Mailly Grand Cru Champagne 2008Jean Pierre Et Michel Auvigue Solutré Pouilly Fuissé 2013Tenuta Rocca Barbera D'alba 2014Livio Sassetti Pertimali Brunello Di Montalcino 2009Bonterra Mendocino County Zinfandel 2013

Tenuta Rocca 2014 Barbera d’Alba, Piedmont, Italy ($16.95)
David Lawrason – Sometimes you just want a good value, authentic, balanced Italian trattoria red;  a wine you can open three bottles of while entertaining on pizza night, without fuss. This is that wine – very Euro, balanced with barberas naturally high acidity carving a path of refreshment that will work while the food is on. Maybe not a solo sipper.

Sassetti Pertimali 2009 Brunello Di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy  ($49.95)
David Lawrason – Here’s a very classy, refined, mature Brunello to pull from the cellar whenever the mood hits. I have always been a fan of Pertamali, which captures authenticity, elegance and even charm within the amplified world of Brunello. I can easily visualize this with a fine herbed, jus-soaked winter roast.

Bonterra 2013 Zinfandel, Mendocino County, California ($19.95)
David Lawrason – In a release full of super-expensive California reds, it was so nice to find this authentic, organically grown zin that shows the purity of aroma so often missing in less expensive California zins today.  This has not been glossed over by mocha and nutmeg – so the grape’s lifted, floral. brambleberry/plummy fruit is allowed to shine. Quite delicious and well balanced despite the daunting 15% alcohol.

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






John Szabo, MS

Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Nov 26th – Splurge-Worthy and Value Finds

Use these quick links for immediate access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix
All November 26th Reviews

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

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


Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012