John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – February 17th, 2018

Wine & Oil Wars, Piedmont’s Chiarlo & Sandrone, and Top Under $15
By John Szabo, MS, with reviews and text by Sara d’Amato and reviews by David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week, indignation and absurdity flow in western Canada as wine once did, thanks to Alberta’s desperate low blow to BC. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley proclaimed an immediate boycott on all imports of wines from British Columbia on Tuesday in retaliation for BC’s stalling of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project, like a trade war between former soviet republics, as a bemused world looks on. Read on for the BC wine industry’s classy kill-‘em-with-kindness response. In Ontario, we’ll focus on a short but attractive list of sensational wines under $15, uncovered among VINTAGES Feb. 17th release featuring “Rising Stars”, wines from off-the-radar, up-and-coming regions. That’s kinda a specialty of ours at WineAlign. And to round it off, two Piedmontese stars at the top of their respective tax brackets were in town this past week; Sara and I report on tastings with Barbara Sandrone of Luciano Sandrone, and Alberto Chiarlo of Michele Chiarlo, representing top quality and value, respectively.

Wine & Oil Trade Wars: BC retaliates with Love

Make no mistake: the stakes are high. Thousands of Albertan oil jobs hang in the balance of the Kinder Morgan Trans Pipeline Expansion Project, and now, so to do many jobs on the other side of the border in BC in a totally unrelated industry: Wine.

Alberta is the largest ‘export’ market for BC wine, representing nearly a third of all wine sold in that province. So premier Notley’s announced boycott of BC wines will have a measurable impact on BC producers, the vast majority of which are small, family-run affairs.

Notley said in a CBC interview: “The wine industry is very important to B.C. Not nearly as important as the energy industry is to Alberta and Canada, but important nonetheless’, adding, “I know a lot of Albertans who love B.C. wine. Quite frankly, I’m one of them.”

The calculated, soft underbelly strike was clearly intended to hurt, and especially to gather as much press for the cause as possible along the way. One must admire premiere Notley’s resolve to push her agenda through, even if it means she’ll have to forego her favourite BC tipple for now. But judging by the social media uproar, it seems the move to garner sympathy has had quite the opposite effect. Really, Notley? Picking on the comparatively tiny wine industry? So much for Canadian cool-headedness and maturity.

“We are shocked that the Alberta Premier and Government are aggressively boycotting BC wineries over a yet-to-be-determined British Columbia government policy in a different sector”, writes a dismayed BC Wine Institute president Miles Prodan in a press release. No doubt the 250+ wineries operating in BC are scratching their heads wondering how they got dragged into this dirty sandbox.

Notley, of course, had a much more sensible and effective course of action: call Trudeau. Inter-provincial pipelines falls under federal jurisdiction (except, of course, alcohol pipelines). According to legal experts, BC’s stance to stall the pipeline is both illegal and unconstitutional. Trudeau has already stated that, “That pipeline is going to get built’. So, call the feds to action, and continue sipping BC wine. Oh, and open up the damned inter-provincial wine pipeline while you’re at it, JT.

The BC wine industry, for its part, responded in the classiest of fashion. Rather than lash out angrily, they’re instead throwing a BC wine and Alberta beef party. How’s that for throwing sand in the eye.

Led by Okanagan Crush Pad owner Christine Coletta, a group of BC wineries under the banner of “Farm Friends” is calling for people to support their local wine industry during the month of March, while continuing to purchase Alberta products.

“We want everyone to see that we are better together,” says Coletta. “We do not want to do anything that could potentially hurt farmers or small family businesses, no matter where they live. “Working side by side to find solutions is ideal over political grand standing,” she continues. “There are so many links and synergies between the two provinces that we need to remember and embrace.”

A series of planned events will showcase BC wine along with Alberta foods such as beef and bison, and made by Edible Canada and guest chefs. Kudos to BC vintners for staying out of the schoolyard melee. I’ll be raising a glass or two of BC wine to that.

Piedmont Stars: Michele Chiarlo and Luciano Sandrone

This past week, two of the most important producers in Piedmont made stops in Toronto to share news and new vintages. Luciano Sandrone is widely celebrated as one of the top producers of Barolo, and a personal favourite of mine since I first tasted his wines over a decade and a half ago. The new releases are stunning.

Michele Chiarlo is likewise a giant of the industry, especially in Canada, where his wines lead the Piedmont category in both Québec in Ontario. Among the larger producers, Chiarlo’s wines are noted particularly for their sharp quality/price ratio, as evinced once again by the fine latest and upcoming releases.

Luciano Sandrone

Luciano Sandrone celebrates his 40th vintage this year, having established his eponymous winery and released his first Barolo, from the Cannubi Boschis cru, in 1978. The estate is still family run, with daughter Barbara, and increasingly grandchildren Alessia and Stefano, involved in the business. Sandrone has been selling wine into Ontario for 20 years.

Sandrone’s wines are often lumped into the modernist style camp, but the reality is much closer to a balanced middle ground. His style is informed in part by his first job in the cellars of traditionalist Giacomo Borgogno at the age of 15, and subsequently at the more modern-leaning Marchesi di Barolo. He remained as winemaker at Marchesi until 1990, but had launched his own project in the meantime beginning with the first small piece of vineyard he was able to purchase on the famed Cannubi hill in the commune of Barolo. Along the way he absorbed the most valuable lessons from both approaches and found his own comfortable style, which has changed little in 40 vintages.

Wild ferments and ageing in nothing smaller than 500l tonneaux are standard, of which only a small percentage are renewed each year and toast levels are low to zero. But the real work is in the vineyards; strict yield reduction and bunch thinning are practiced even on the dolcetto (the least expensive wine in the range), and become even more severe moving up the ladder. Barbara Sandrone describes the special elongated scissors used to painstakingly trim off the ends of nebbiolo bunches, notoriously long and uneven in ripening, especially in the lower extremities.

Sandrone owns 24 hectares of vineyards in the Barolo appellation including cru parcels in Baudana (Serralunga), Villero (Castiglione Falletto), Vignane (Barolo) and Merli (Novello), which are blended into Barolo Le Vigne, as well as the original parcel in Cannubi Boschis bottled separately and now called Aleste after grandchildren ALEssia and STEfano. An additional three hectares in the Valmaggiore cru yield one of the top nebbiolos in the Roero district.

Quality took a leap forward in 1998 with the construction of a new winery just outside of Barolo, a smart, three level, gravity-fed cellar that was cutting edge at the time. These are wines of supreme class and elegance, but also great depth and power, polished but not ‘modern’. Click below for reviews on the latest vintages of each of the five wines in the Sandrone portfolio. Wines are imported by The Case For Wine. – John Szabo, MS

Sandrone Dolcetto d’Alba 2016
Sandrone Barbera d’Alba 2015
Sandrone Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore 2015
Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne  2013
Sandrone Barolo Aleste 2013

Michele Chiarlo

Venerable winemaker Michele Chiarlo celebrated his 60th harvest in Piedmont this past year alongside his sons Stefano and Alberto. Chiarlo is in large part responsible for the recognition of Barolo in North America due to the company’s focus on export and its endeavours to promote high calibre Piedmontese wine to the world.

Alberto Chiarlo

Alberto Chiarlo

Alberto Chiarlo visited Toronto last week on a particularly brisk afternoon reminding us that Piedmont gets its fair share of snow too. Influenced by both maritime and alpine climates, elevation and variation in soil type also play significant roles in the Langhe resulting in a fractured tapestry of vineyards. Although vineyards of importance have been delimited in Barolo for generations, it was not until recently that they have been formalized by study and analysis.

The now 181 (or 166, depending on which source you consult) official Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive (“additional geographic mentions”) define distinctive vineyards in the 11 villages of the Barolo appellation and 66 within the three communes that make up the Barbaresco DOCG, largely based on survey and examination and sometimes on politics. Regardless, very few places outside of Burgundy exhibit such pixelated complexity.

Chiarlo shared more evidence of global warming, which he describes as “significant” in Piedmont. The meteorological data stations scattered throughout the estate’s vineyards indicate a 1.2-degree increase in temperature over the past decade, as well as an alteration in precipitation patterns, which Chiarlo describes as “sub-tropical”.  Vintage variation in the region has intensified.

Notwithstanding, Chiarlo continues to focus on traditional, light-handed winemaking and steers clear of excessive oak influence. The philosophy sounds simple enough: focus only on the top four indigenous Piedmontese varieties, nebbiolo, barbera, cortese and moscato, grown on historically significant single vineyard sites in Barolo, Barbaresco, and Gavi.

The family has acquired 148 acres in Piedmont and manages another 50. The most prestigious sites include Cerequio in La Morra of which Chiarlo owns an impressive 9 of 15 hectares (where most growers have only a hectare or less). Property on the terraces of Cannubi, the oldest Italian cru, and the barbera vineyard of La Court in Nizza compose, among others, the family’s formidable portfolio.

Alberto’s recent visit was not only to share some cracking wine or to wax-poetic about the winery’s stunning new Relais, Palas Cerequio in La Morra, but to inspire with the region’s most famous gastronomic delicacy: il tartufo. Contrary to popular belief, the best (white) truffles of Piedmont are unearthed not in November (when the truffle market opens in Alba) but rather later on into January. Tartufi are also the quintessential food pairing with barbera and especially nebbiolo.

Tasted of particular interest were mini verticals of Barolo Cerequio (2001 & 2013) along with Barbaresco Asili (2015) and the estate’s flagship vineyard blend and top value, Barolo ‘Tortoniano’ (2009 & 2013). See reviews below. – Sara d’Amato

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2001
Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2013
Michele Chiarlo Barbaresco Asili 2015
Michele Chiarlo Barolo Tortoniano 2009
Michele Chiarlo Barolo Tortoniano 2013

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES February 17th:

Whites under $15

Piattelli 2016 Reserve Torrontés, Cafayate Valley, Salta, Argentina ($14.95)
John Szabo – This is one of the better torontés’ I’ve come across in some time, with ample perfume in the muscat spectrum (very floral), and richly extracted palate with notable salinity. It’s more seamless and a little more polished than the mean. Fans of aromatic whites should take note.…

Sara d’Amato – The northern Argentinian territory of Cafayate is one of the world’s highest wine-growing regions and one of the most spectacular, surrounded by iridescent sandy stones and towering mountains. It is surprisingly a region of good value, too, with a wealth of old, pre-phylloxera vines that offer exceptional concentration. Torrontés grown at these extreme elevations under intense radiant sunshine is considered some of the finest in Argentina and tends to show more restraint and nerve than those grown in Mendoza. This torrontés ferments at low temperatures in Piattelli’s gravity flow winery, and sees barely any oak resulting in a sublimely elegant expression.

Porcupine Ridge 2016 Chardonnay, WO Franschhoek, South Africa ($14.95)
John Szabo – Here’s a very tasty little chardonnay from Boekenhootskloof, fleshy, round, balanced and flavourful, delivering more than expected for the money. Tidy value.

Piattelli Reserve Torrontés 2016Porcupine Ridge Chardonnay 2016Château De La Bretesche Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine Sur Lie 2016

Château de La Bretesche 2016 Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine Sur Lie, AC Loire, France ($14.95)
John Szabo – Lovely clean, sharp but substantial muscadet here, with very little fruit to report, but rather plenty of wet stone and smoky-leesy flavours. Acids are surprisingly ripe if still trenchant, and the balance is just fine. Great length for the price category.
Sara d’Amato – A fresh, ethereal wine that typifies Muscadet which is made from a cold hearty grape variety known as melon de Bourgogne on the western edge of the Loire Valley. Its delicate nature has been given a boost from lees ageing which contributes texture and a toasty character to the wine.

Reds under $15

Le Cirque 2014 Grenache Noir/Carignan/Syrah, IGP Côtes Catalanes, Roussillon, France ($12.95)
John Szabo – Hard to argue with the quality/price ratio of this wine, which delivers classic southern France grenache-carignan-syrah character for a small portion of what you’d pay a little further east in the Côtes du Rhône. Everything fits nicely together.
David Lawrason – This is very good value if you like the sweetish, jammy nature of grenache. It captures that character very well for the money. Not much depth or structure, though typical grenache strawberry jam fruitiness, gentle pepper and earth are pleasant enough.
Sara d’Amato – The Languedoc is France’s cradle of value and Le Cirque’s grenache based blend offers a cornucopia of flavour from candied red fruit and black licorice to violets and pepper. Produced by the innovative VTV cooperative of Tautavel, this well-priced find is sourced from low yielding, 50+ year old vines resulting in an engaging character, a mid-weight profile and great accessibility.

Le Cirque Grenache NoirVale Do Bomfim 2015

Vale do Bomfim 2015 DOC Douro, Portugal ($12.95)
John Szabo – This was the other finalist in the battle of the values on offer this release, a fine, juicy, firm, characterful red blend from the upper Douro Valley. There’s abundant dark fruit and purple floral notes, and limited oak interference, allowing for a more honest and natural expression. Great length, too. You’d be hard pressed to find more wine for the money, from anywhere in the world.
David Lawrason – This is an amazing value from a fine house in a great vintage. It offers not only ripeness and density but a modicum of finesse. It is not complex and profound, so the score can’t go much higher, but the purity of the blackberry fruit, herbs and the gentle if rich texture are impressive for $13.

Château Recougne 2014 AC Bordeaux Supérieur, France ($14.95)
John Szabo – Henry IV apparently marvelled at the quality of the wine during his stay at Château Recougne. I’m sure the style has changed, but in any case this is solid, firm-juicy, fresh and tart red Bordeaux, highly drinkable without needing to contemplate. If it happened to be a casual Tuesday night, no doubt his Majesty would have been satisfied.

Château Recougne 2014Stobi Vranec 2015Château Bellevue La Forêt 2014

Stobi 2015 Vranec, Tikves, Macedonia ($12.95) (317297)
Sara d’Amato – A wine you may easily overlook when scanning the shelves but you’d be missing out on a top value if you let unfamiliarity steer you away. Stobi’s Bordeaux-trained winemaker, Andon Krstevski, runs an awe-inspiring barrel program and has a special affinity with the local vranec variety believing that the best examples should showcase the “wild” and “untamed” nature of this deeply coloured grape. This is one of the best examples I have tasted in the value category fit for wintry stews or snowy barbeques.

Château Bellevue La Forêt 2014, Fronton, Southwest, France ($14.95) (354134)
Sara d’Amato –This southwestern appellation near the city of Toulouse is a region of significant value, kept from international export for centuries thanks to Bordeaux’s iron grip over trade and transport. The intriguing local grape, négrette, is showcased making up 50% of the blend, with the balance in cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah. You’ll find this a touch riper than typical Bordeaux, more approachable but offering plenty of punch and surprising substance.

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
Sara’s Sommelier Selection

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


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