VINTAGES Preview Part 1 – Oct 14th, 2017

Sky High Napa and Globetrotting Pinot Noir

This week we tackle the two VINTAGES features at the same time. David Lawrason covers the Napa feature with commentary and reviews on the best buy featured wines, plus thoughts from the recent Napa Valley VINTAGES-sponsored event. Sara d’Amato comments on the pinot noir feature showcasing wines from eight regions around the world. John Szabo tees up next week to mine gems from the rest of the world. 

Napa is Flying Sky High
By David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel

VINTAGES’s Napa feature this week was timed around the now annual visit of Napa Valley Vintners Association wineries to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on October 3.

[As we head into the weekend with a VINTAGES release full of Napa treasures, our hearts ache for those affected by the numerous wildfires in the region – which started days after our original post. There is very little to say from the vantage point of our Ontario comfort zone except that despite these most challenging times, we believe the people of Napa and Sonoma will find their way. Stay strong California and remember, all of us at WineAlign are on your side.]

I was only able to spend about 90 minutes at the afternoon trade event, and focused on “new” wineries. But that proved challenging. Thirty-two wineries came to Toronto, but of those, ten were wineries of which I had no prior knowledge. I am impressed that tiny new wineries would seek markets here, where taxation inflates prices of already expensive wines to nosebleed levels.

Of the newbies I was most impressed with the cabernet offerings from O’Shaugnessey (represented by Rogers & Co), Y. Rousseau (Le Sommelier), Vineyard 7 &8 (Halpern), Krupp Brothers (Brand New Day), Somnium and Quixote (the latter two not represented in Ontario).

It is stunning that so many wineries are crammed into this breathtaking valley. The Napa Valley Vintners Association boasts 530 member wineries. Nearly 80% produce less than 10,000 cases, and 95% are family owned. Napa itself only produces 4% of California wine, which makes the concentration of small wineries even more remarkable.

Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port

The truth is, that if you can afford millions to open a winery in Napa, it is a license to make even more, or at least stroke your ego. Of the 79 wines offered at the VINTAGES Trade Event, 38 were priced over $100. Napa may now be the most expensive wine region in the world, or at least certainly challenging Bordeaux, Burgundy and Tuscany for that title.

Cabernet sauvignon – Napa’s star variety – has hijacked the price agenda, which catches other varieties like merlot, zinfandel and petite sirah in the updraft. (Only 12 wines at the event were under $50, and only two were under $40).  The pricing has made Napa the least value oriented region in the world in my view. One can still routinely find good value in Bordeaux, Tuscany and Burgundy. In Napa it is possible but rare.

But hey, there is some damn fine Napa wine too. And everyone wants the chance to taste it. Which is why the VINTAGES event sold out in a week, 400 tickets at $150 per person.

At such events I do not attempt to write publishable assessments and reviews. As to the VINTAGES selection being released on October 14, here are some of our picks:

Buyer’s Guide VINTAGES Oct 14th Napa Valley

Robert Mondavi 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, To Kalon Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley ($149.95)
David Lawrason – Despite the history behind this wine, this is in no way a sentimental choice.  It is a gorgeous, seductive cabernet – so nicely intense, rich and sculpted while retaining tension and poise. It really is all together. There are several cabernet-based reds in the world that are more expensive (if that helps) but not many are as impressive as this wine from a great Napa vintage. …
Michael Godel – I had the pleasure of tasting this at the source back in May alongside with other similar terroir cabernets, in this case by Cliff Lede, Alpha Omega, Provenance and Cornerstone. The Mondavi would show as a muscular cabernet in a solo tasting irrespective of the flight but with To Kalon sweet acidity and tannin, leaving extracted bitterness behind. The excellence is rounded out with some fragrance from petit verdot and further finessed, grainy tannin by cabernet franc.
Sara d’Amato – Robert Mondavi’s substantial share of the iconic To Kalon vineyard site is used to make everything from humbly priced sauvignon blanc to substantial, flagship reds such as this. It is hard to find fault with this impeccably balanced, judicious oak aged and perfectly polished example of Napa cabernet with real guts and glory. A classic wine from a premier vintage.

Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley ($29.95)
Michael Godel – Mostly cabernet sauvignon, with minor amounts of merlot, malbec, petit verdot and syrah from winemaker Janet Myers. It’s quietly commercial and respectfully true to its roots with fruit certainly sheathed by Americanized vanilla oak. Savoury to a point but still quite naked truthful about fruit in its ripe clothing. Always well made and at its best in 2014.
Sara d’Amato – There is a satisfying, broody intensity to this cabernet sauvignon that makes it highly compelling. This incarnation is less commercial and more candid with fruit ruling over vanillan on the palate.

Atalon 2012 Pauline’s Cuvée, Napa Valley ($42.95)
David Lawrason – Good value from Napa, which is not something I often write. This is a bright, tense and juicy merlot-based blend that delivers impressive intensity and depth. Great acidity is the driver. Tannins are still quite firm and adding to the tension.

Stags’ Leap Winery 2014 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley ($49.95)
David Lawrason – The Petite Sirah grape makes some of the inkiest, most solid wines in the world. The nose is not effusive but it is pretty with ripe blueberry, considerable oak smoke, chocolate and spice. It is full bodied, dense, firm and balanced within its bigness.

Atalon Pauline's Cuvée 2012Stags' Leap Petite Sirah 2014Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay 2014

Clos Pegase Mitsuko’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Carneros, Napa Valley ($34.95)
Michael Godel – Mitsuko’s Vineyard is a sprawling 365 acres in the Los Carneros appellation within Napa Valley, due north of San Pablo Bay. The growing conditions in this calcareous, rolling soils moondance section at 300m is windy as hell and makes for some pretty intense chardonnay from low yields. If nothing else it is texture noted on the mid-palate with thanks to extended lees contact and repeated bâttonage.
Sara d’Amato – An undeniably sophisticated chardonnay and although the price has spiked somewhat, there is still great value to be had here. Reminiscent of a stellar Meursault, this richly enticing wine is cut by fresh mineral character and vivacious acidity.

Globetrotting Pinot
By Sara d’Amato, with notes from David Lawrason and Michael Godel

No longer should Burgundy be the benchmark for pinot noir when so many exceptional examples are available from across the globe’s cool climate growing areas. UK Wine Writer Jancis Robinson MW recently remarked at Wellington, New Zealand’s “Pinot” conference: “It is palpably not true that great pinot can only come from Burgundy” and went on to give statistics on her top scoring pinot noirs. Of those pinots that scored 18 out of 20 or more, the greatest number came from New Zealand, followed by California in 2nd place, subsequently Australia and then Oregon in 4th place. This is not to say that great pinot noir no longer comes from Burgundy but that its competition is rather outstanding. Holding Burgundy back is perhaps the eruption of Négociants that tend to choose conformity over distinctiveness.

Pinot 2017 Wellington, NZ - What is greatness?

Pinot 2017 Wellington, NZ – What is greatness?

There are many causes of the global expansion of pinot including, but not limited to: the proliferation and redistribution of perceptive, internationally trained winemakers, the discovery of new, highly suitable growing areas as well as a changing global palate that is beginning to prefer elegance over power. One such well-traveled winemaker whose ambition to craft authentic examples of pinot noir led him to New Zealand from Frankfurt in the 80s is Marcel Giesen of Giesen wines. In a recent pinot noir focused lecture, Giesen proposed that great pinot noir should be produced with humility and that power isn’t size but persistence, movement, nervosity and energy. This appreciation of subtlety, intricacy and verve is what makes this grape variety so fascinating and provokes winemakers to obsessively search for greatness in pinot noir.

Karen Bergström preoccupied with pinot in Oregon's prestigious Dundee Hills AVA - 1

Karen Bergström preoccupied with pinot in Oregon’s prestigious Dundee Hills AVA

If great pinot noir embodies purity, it is imperative that the winemaker listens to the voice of the land in order to craft a truly expressive example of this elusive grape variety. Pinot Noir is a grape particularly sensitive to its environment and expresses vintage variation in more dramatic ways than many other varieties. This expression can sometimes result in unexpected wines that mirror their environment in a spellbinding way. Unfortunately, more often than not, wines derived from pinot do not meet such high expectations and instead generate monotone and generic specimens. Still, for those of you who seek greatness in wine, pinot noir is often seen as the variety most likely to engender momentous, perspective-changing experiences.

So that you don’t have to wade your way through a sea of potentially disappointing examples of pinot noir, we have tasted through all of the offerings in the upcoming pinot noir VINTAGES feature to select those that are most memorable and worthy of your attention.

Buyer’s Guide VINTAGES Oct 14th Pinot Noir

Hamilton Russell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa ($57.95)
Sara d’Amato – Certainly not inexpensive but for those pinot lovers tirelessly searching for that one truly memorable, perspective changing find, you’ll be glad you spent the dollars. Hamilton Russel tries to avoid the “fruity” style of pinot noir and instead focuses a great deal of energy creating structure and length. The very low yields of their estate vineyards puts a microscope on the cool, maritime influenced climate resulting in a huge aromatic profile.
Michael Godel – This welcome ethereal return of Hamilton Russell’s Hermanus benchmark pinot noir follows on the heels of the early-picked, dense, muscular and compressed 2015. Comfortable alcohol meets optimum phenolic ripeness so let’s think on it in terms of ’08 burgundy, though perhaps not as tight and classic. It should always be noted that all the HR grapes go into these wines, no reserve wines, no single-vineyard, no divergence from monopole.

Hamilton Russel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016Moraine Pinot Noir 2015

Moraine 2015 Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley BC ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – Moraine’s success at the past several National Wine Awards of Canada suggests that this is producer to watch. Winemaker Jacqueline Kemp has an impressive résumé of pinot production across the globe from Central Otago in New Zealand to Burgundy. She brings her substantial expertise with the grape variety to the Naramata Bench in BC resulting in dynamic wines with persistence, personality and intensity that express local character.
David Lawrason – From a small, impressive winery on the Naramata Bench (which boasts Canada’s highest concentration of wineries) This is a very bright, juicy and fresh pinot with both charm and a sense of structure

Oyster Bay 2015 Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Don’t look now but NZ’s biggest exporter is doing good work. This is a lively, mid-weight, slightly juicy pinot with intensity and depth that took me by surprise. Good pinot value.
Sara d’Amato – As Oyster Bay is certainly not a new face on the shelves, it may get overlooked for newer and more obscure finds. If you do this, you’re missing out on a show stopping pinot noir at under $20 from the excellent 2015 pinot vintage and a wine that combines high quality fruit and notable winemaking prowess.

Oyster Bay Pinot Noir 2015Roche De Bellene Collection Bellenum Gevrey Chambertin Villages 1999Ritual Pinot Noir 2015

Roche de Bellene Collection 1999 Bellenum Gevrey Chambertin Villages, Burgundy ($86.95)
Michael Godel – The 1999 vintage has been my go to for cellar pulling success since purchasing some Girardin Premier Cru more than 15 years ago. Nicolas Potel is both lucky and highly intelligent in his negotiating some 1999 from Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a beautifully rich and red liqueur red though I can see how some would see it as showing some microbes to change the conversation. No matter though because tannin following structure is securely intact

Ritual 2015 Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($21.95)
David Lawrason – This youthful, exuberant pinot shows somewhat off-beat but typically Chilean flavours of blackcurrant/raspberry fruit, violets and Chile’s fresh evergreen “garrigue”. It is medium weight, fairly soft, yet juicy with easy tannin.

In closing, a quick reminder to drop in on a new Ontario wines Pop Up wine education, tasting and retailing location that will be operating in downtown Toronto at the Spoke Club, 600 King Street West (west of Spadina). A  Discovery Tasting Bar operates from noon to 9:30 pm, with weekend and evening tutored tastings and events. Check it out at Taste Local Pop-up Experience. It only runs until October 15. And with Thanksgiving upon us, consider buying local wine (John has some suggestions) as well as local produce for your table.  The options for buying Ontario wines are expanding, with the LCBO, winery stores, some supermarkets and farmers markets now selling VQA wine.

Cheers, David
VP of Wine

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix

New Release and VINTAGES Preview