John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – February 3rd, 2018

Club Med Bargains and Ocular Safety while Drinking
By John Szabo, MS, with notes by David Lawrason, Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

A Danish man was recently left in a coma after an attempt to open a bottle of sparkling wine went horribly wrong. That story, and other CO2-related calamities, were the inspiration to create the video clip featured in this report. In the one-minute segment, I’ll show you the safe way to open bubbly, limiting injury risk to yourself and those around you. Then assuming we make it through the sparkling aperitif course, the WineAlign crü has a strong group of well-priced Mediterranean wines to recommend for the rest of the meal, theme of the VINTAGES February 3rd release. Vineyards from around the Mediterranean Basin are surely among the world’s most fertile hunting grounds for value. Let me explain.

Sparkling Safety: Don’t Be That Person!

At the Court of Master Sommeliers examinations, we see hundreds of candidates open bottles of sparkling wine. You’d think that the level of competence and safety would be high, but the truth is otherwise. Plenty of examiners have been threatened by loaded bottles pointed at them like loose, hand-held canons (what we call a “kill-fail”); clumsy fumbling has sent countless corks screaming into the air and frothy foam on the floor. And sometimes worse. So don’t be embarrassed if you’re uncomfortable opening a bottle of bubbly. But if you plan on doing it, you really need how to do it safely.

Injuries caused by bottles of bubbly are thankfully rare, but often serious. Read, for example, this Drinks Business story about a Danish man who was left in a coma on New Year’s Eve after a bottle exploded between his legs while he was attempting to open it. I, too, have had my hand sliced by shattering glass during an attempt to saber a bottle of champagne (at an event in front of 300 people, no less). Dripping blood and fainting guests was not the performance I was going for. Note to all you sabrage enthusiasts out there: do it enough times and it will happen to you. Just sayin’.

More common than breaking glass (caused by a defect in the bottle, another reason to avoid cheap sparkling), are injuries caused by projectile corks.

Consider that most traditional method sparkling wines contain around 5-6 atmospheres of pressure, or up to 90 pounds per square inch. That’s almost 3 times the average pressure in your car tires. Uncontrolled, ejected corks can go from zero to over to 80 kilometers per hour in a split second. (Newtonian physicists out there may find amusement in calculating the force thus exerted, Force = Mass x Acceleration, knowing that an average champagne cork weights about 9 grams).

In any case, that’s easily enough to explode an overhead light bulb, or, say, shred through a priceless 18th century oil painting.

But since most people are looking down at the bottle as they open it, ejected corks find more than their fair share of faces. Indeed, many thousands of bubbly-opening-related accidents are reported each year around the world, with a notable increase around holiday seasons. But statistically, weddings are the most dangerous places to be. Fair warning. Most incidents never make it into the media, unless of course it happens to involve a celebrity, like tennis player Novak Djokovic, who hit himself in the face with a cork after winning the Italian Open in 2015.

Far less comical are the serious eye injuries that occur regularly, including permanent blindness. Referred to as “cork eye trauma”, the “blunt instrument can damage the ocular structures of the anterior and posterior segments both directly in the impact area and also through a process of counterblow”, causing “contusive ocular closed-globe trauma.” Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

And just to complete the fear mongering, consider for a moment the estimated two dozen people who are actually killed each year by champagne projectiles, like the unfortunate Chinese businessman Dingxiang Loeng, who suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage after being stuck in the temple by the cork from the bottle he was opening to celebrate his 50th birthday. Words can’t begin to describe how much that sucks.

Concerned yet? Like sabrage, I guarantee that if you carelessly open enough bottles of sparkling in your life, sooner or later the cork will fly. Don’t be that person who catches it in the face, or hits somebody else.

Safety Tips

Watch the video below from a series called 99 Things About Wine I’m compiling for FlavourTV, for a visual how-to. (If you find this useful, I’d be happy to know what other topics you’d like to see covered). And follow these basic tips:

  • Chill well. Pressure is reduced at lower temperatures.
  • Don’t shake the bottle. Duh, that increases pressure.
  • Keep the bottle tilted at a 45-degree angle while opening. This increases the surface area of wine in contact air, and thus CO2 release occurs less forcefully over a larger area rather than restricting the same pressure across a smaller surface area.
  • Once the cage is unscrewed, NEVER take your hand off the cork, until it’s out. Part two to that is: don’t remove the cage. How can you do that without taking your hand off the cork, even if only for a second or two?? Refer again to the above point.
  • Place a folded towel over the cage to provide an additional shield and to catch any foam that might follow the cork.

A Sparkling to Test Drive Your Opening Skills

Now that you’re fully up to speed on the steps to safely opening a bottle of sparkling, here’s a fine wine to test drive your skills from the February 3rd release: Patrick Chan 2011 Sparkling Blanc De Blancs, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara ($29.95) – Of all the celebrity wines to have come out of Ontario over the years, this is surely one of the best. Made by Flat Rock Cellars (and presumably selected by Chan), it’s a lovely, complex, mature and toasty traditional method sparkling chardonnay. The mousse is fine and well integrated, and the texture is seamless, at once both lively and creamy, balanced and rich. Yeasty-toasty autolysis flavours are a major part of the profile and length is excellent. Classy and elegant stuff.

Patrick Chan Sparkling Blanc De Blancs 2011

Club Med Bargains

Vineyards around the Mediterranean are a smart place to search for value. The main reason is simple: the weather is nice. Given the benign climate, it’s far easier to produce large quantities of inexpensive wine than it is in wetter and colder regions. Thus places like Puglia, Sicily, the Languedoc-Roussillon, Algeria, and Southern Spain have historically taken on the (highly profitable) role of bulk producers, supplying northern regions with decent, cheap wine, either for direct sale in bottle, or earlier, by the tanker load to beef up the anaemic wines of the north. The die-hard image of mass production still dogs these areas, suppressing prices. Wine pricing is, after all, driven largely by image.

Also on a historic note, wine has always been, and has largely remained a daily staple in the Mediterranean, not a commercial commodity for profit. While the aristocrats of Northern Europe were busy trading their Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Barolo for evermore money and prestige, the southerners were simply drinking their stuff. There was little pretension to grandiose reputations or king’s ransoms, a reality that lingers to this day.

Another reason, not unique to the Mediterranean but prevalent there nonetheless, is that many estates have been in families for generations. That means vineyards and installations are often owned outright. No property mortgages, no equipment amortization. Prices are much more reflective of the actual cost of production, (low in the Mediterranean in any case for reasons mentioned above), rather than also being tied to paying off expensive investments over a reasonable time frame. Cost of living is also often lower in southern Europe than northern Europe, so the pressure to increase prices is not as acute (see this quick COL comparison between Milan and Palermo, for example).

Also related to this is the number of the wealthy northerners who have headed south to expand their ranges, usually in lower price tiers, in order to grow their market reach. Vineyard land is scarcer and often far more expensive in the north, making the south look not only attractive, but also the only viable option for expansion. The influx of money, know-how and the plan to make less expensive wine adds up to Mediterranean value. One need only look at the number of Burgundians or Northern Rhône producers operating in the Languedoc and Roussillon, or the Tuscans, Venetians and Piedmontese in Sicily and Puglia.

Now graft onto this framework the wide-scale improvement in grapegrowing and winemaking across the Mediterranean, a range of grape varieties perfectly adapted to local conditions over centuries (millennia), and unique styles that have been honed over time, and you have the recipe for great discoveries at accessible prices.

Try the wines below for a little sampling of bargains from the Mediterranean.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES February 3rd:

Mediterranean Whites

Argyros 2016 Assyrtiko, PDO Santorini, Greece ($27.95)
John Szabo – 3000 years of experience and adaptation have made assyrtiko from Santorini one of the best wines and most original wines in the Mediterranean, while the Greek economy keeps prices unsustainably low (for now). This textbook example from Argyros offers the usual vague white grapefruit flavours, but mostly scorched earth and hot dry stone flavours, while the palate is thick and stuffed with dry extract, with great tension and palpable salinity. It’s delicious now, but surely better in 2-4 years.…
Sara d’Amato – Despite a notable increase in price, this radiant assyrtiko that beams verve and saltiness remains an easy purchasing decision. The texture and body of this unoaked white is most surprising and largely due to the 80-100 year old ungrafted vines used that have been allowed full expression.
Michael Godel – This assyrtiko is unwavering in its crisp, saline and unctuous presentation. It’s always an exact measure of place (Santorini), varietal and treatment so why should 2016 be any different? Perhaps more depth and early notes that include citrus pith and bitters but always the mineral salt stands up as the dominant trait. Plenty of fruit too, almost peachy but doused in lime.

Feudo Montoni 2016 Inzolia dei Fornelli, DOC Sicilia, Italy ($22.95)
John Szabo – If ever there were a wine that smelled land tasted like the Mediterranean, this is it, swinging between the essential oils of citrus – lemon-grapefruit-tangerine, and wild herbs and flowers. This medium-full bodied, fleshy and generously proportioned white would be spectacular at the table with an herb-inflected grilled Mediterranean sea bass drizzled in pungent Sicilian olive oil, for example.
Michael Godel – If trust for the handling of inzolia is going to be placed in the hands of any Sicilian producer it may as well be Feudo Montoni. There is both body and soul in this Fornelli, a southern white more mineral than fruit though it carries a segment or two of acidulated grapefruit and a spoonful of white-fleshed tropical fruit syrup. Also herbal and fresh, tangy and tart, bitter and intense. A must try for the open-minded and the curious.
Sara d’Amato – The indigenous Sicilian grape of inzolia is more traditionally known used in the production of marsala but is growingly expressed in single varietal form. This knockout version from Feudo Montoni stands on par with many of the great southern whites offering compelling flavours of marzipan, brine, saffron and white pepper coaxed out of fruit laden with sunshine and whipped by wind.

Argyros Assyrtiko 2016Inzolia Dei Fornelli 2016Novellum Chardonnay 2016Alta Alella Pb Pansa Blanca 2016

Domaine Lafage 2016 Novellum Chardonnay, Product of France ($17.95)
John Szabo – This was originally created for the US market by importer Eric Solomon looking to get the most bang for the buck (and logically he looked to Mediterranean France, and to perennial value producer Domaine Lafage). Together they’ve nailed it, a highly appealing, unusually fruity and fragrant chardonnay (it spends some time on viognier lees) with delicate-fresh wood aromatics. The palate also delivers remarkable freshness and liveliness, balanced-crisp acids, and fine lingering cinnamon-tinged, salty finish. Blind I’d have guessed a slightly more aristocratic wine from a little further north.

Alta Alella 2016 Pb Pansa Blanca, Catalunya, Spain ($15.95)
David Lawrason – Catalonia is increasingly exciting for its white wines. This 100% xarello locally called pansa blanca offers good complexity and structure for $16, with ripe vaguely tropical banana/melon fruit, honey and slightly stony aromas and flavours. It is medium-full bodied, quite lively, firm and sour-edged. Great value.
Michael Godel – PB is pansa-blanca, Catalonian for xarel-lo. Like delicious Cava without the bubbles, faintly oxidative and in delivery of a wet concrete meets sweet lime nose. The flavours bring ripe pear and a hit of white grapefruit with some spicy nasturtium in the background. Lovely bit of life with an eye to the past.
Sara d’Amato –Alta Alella is one of nine wineries in the small DO of Alella producing both reds but more curiously whites from xarello (pansa blanc in Catalan) and chardonnay. Proving that xarello can do so much more than Cava, this organic find makes for a delightful, out of the ordinary weeknight sipper offering subtle complexity and invigorating notes of tarragon, olive oil and grapefruit.

Mediterranean Reds

2007 Poggio Verrano Chance, IGT Maremma Toscana Tuscany $38.95)
John Szabo – Alright, Tuscany is not really a hot bed of screaming value, but this wine is both A) technically Mediterranean, and B), fantastic value, so it makes the cut. It’s a terrifically complex, mature red delivering marvellous resinous-herbal perfume, dried earth and wild mushrooms, pot pourri/dried flowers and more on a satisfying, full-bodied frame. All things considered, the price is nice. Best 2018-2022.

Feudo Maccari 2015 Noto Nero d’Avola, IGP Terre Siciliane Sicily, Italy ($16.95)
John Szabo – It’s no longer a secret that Sicily offers much to value seekers. Examples like this prove the point, a smoky, lifted, high-toned, savoury, liquorice and leather-inflected nero d’Avola in the varietal wheelhouse, but more elegant and bright than the mean. Best 2018-2022.

Poggio Verrano Chance 2007Feudo Maccari Nero d'Avola 2015Perle de Roseline Rouge 2015Château De Treviac 2015

Perle By Roseline 2015 Rouge, AP Côtes de Provence, France ($17.95)
John Szabo – Provence is mostly the exception to the general southern-France-equals-value equation, thanks to price-warping movie stars and high-ante casinos. But lo and behold! Here’s one from Cru Classé producer Château Sainte Roseline. Even at the entry range, quality is taken seriously, and the result in the fine 2015 vintage is pleasantly light-mid-weight, succulent red providing plenty of dark fruit, wild herb and orange peel flavours. While not a blockbuster, it’s the sort of food-friendly red that is applicable is so many scenarios, around the table or even for casual sipping. Serve with a light chill to maximize freshness and the fruity-herbal side.

Château de Tréviac 2015 Corbières, Languedoc, France ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato –A tribute to 30 years of Corbières’ AOC status, this fleshy, meaty number is chock-full of local garrigue, plentiful in fruit and substantial in mouthfeel. Regardless of organic certification, ideal conditions such as dry heat and gusty winds from the northwest make for a region where chemical pesticide usage is rarely required.  This sensual of 80/20 syrah would make an ideal accompaniment for a home-cooked Valentine’s night meal.
David Lawrason – Lots here for the money – structure, complexity and depth even if a bit rugged. It is a fairly hefty, generous and lively red with complex aromas of licorice, garrigue, very ripe plum/prune fruit and pepper. It is medium-full bodied, fairly dense, firm and complex.

Lafage 2015 Côté Sud, IGP Côtes Catalanes, France ($15.95)
David Lawrason – This dandy value shows gentle panache and good depth for the money. It is a syrah grenache blend with very pretty, classic ripe strawberry/cherry aromas with fine pepper, shrubby evergreen and a hint of oak. It is full bodied, smooth, and very refined, with fine tannin and lovely, subtle stoniness on the finish.

Parés Baltà Mas Petit 2015 Garnatxa/Cabernet Sauvignon, Penedès, Spain ($16.95)
David Lawrason – From a fairly large, organic, family producer comes an honest, lively red with nicely fragrant, quite ripe red with strawberry/plum jam fruit, hay, pepper and dried flowers. It is a mid-weight, gentle yet fresh red with a slightly earthy and tannic finish.

Lafage Côté Sud 2015Parés Baltà Mas Petit Garnatxa Cabernet Sauvignon 2015Edetària Via Edetana 2014Domain Mega Spileo Grand Cave Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Edetària Via Edetana 2014, DO Terra Alta, Spain ($23.95)
Michael Godel – From a fourth generation family vineyard in Gandesa and off the famous panal soil, fossilized sand dunes low in organic material and even lower in yields. It’s a blend but remains a child of garnatxa no matter how you try to slice, dice or combine it. The firm grip, high acidity, healthy but reasonable alcohol and dry tannic pulse make this more than just a reasonable Rhône detour.

Domain Mega Spileo Grand Cave Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Peloponnese, Greece ($29.95)
Michael Godel – From the awe-inspiring Achaia vineyard below the great monastery this 100 per cent cabernet sauvignon is wild, rustic and its secondary notes could confuse a blind taster into imagining the tar and roses of older nebbiolo or the curative cherry liqueur by aged sangiovese. If you’ve never tried Kalavryta reds you should and here with the getable gateway drug cabernet sauvignon en route to the deeper soul of mavro kalavryta and mavrodaphne.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Sommelier Selection

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


Anko Flor De Cardón Malbec 2014