Buyers Guide to VINTAGES – Aug 18th, 2018

Noble Grapes versus Native Grapes
By David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Michael Godel

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Last week John shone a light on the new wave of grape varieties re-making Australian wine in VINTAGES August 18 release – thanks to an uncharacteristically daring collection assembled by VINTAGES buyer Greg MacDonald. Langhorne Creek Montepulciano eh?

This week I want to stay on-theme and discuss the rise of native/indigenous/autochthonous grape varieties on a global basis, with some of our recommendations focused on Saturday’s secondary theme – “Europe Less Travelled”.

You can skip to the picks here, or you can pour a glass of something unusual and sit a spell.

I am currently reading a new book titled “Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavour and the Search for the Origins of Wine”. It is an earnest, enjoyable and educational read by American journalist Kevin Begos who found fascination with the origins of wine and vines while stationed in the Middle East. He is not a wine journalist, but a good journalist, telling an important and well researched story.

Aside from the labyrinth of historical anecdotes, I am most intrigued by the concept he presents that the ‘noble French varieties’ have unfairly and strategically dominated the international landscape for the past 50 years or so. And that 50 years is but a blip on the graph of the viticultural timeline that ranges back over almost 10,000 years.

Could it be that the growing interest in alternative wine styles (natural, orange, pet nat) and obscure native grape varieties (of which there are thousands), is the beginning of the end of the international dominance of the French noble varieties? Especially when you add climate change thus terroir shift into the discussion?

So what are these so-called “noble” varieties? There is no regulation around the term, nor do you see it on labels. They are French varieties promoted in the last decades of the 20th Century, when French wine was the best promoted wine around. They are simply the mainstay varieties of France’s most historic regions, and they certainly can make great wine in those regions. But that doesn’t mean they automatically make great wine when planted elsewhere.

Among whites the core “nobles” are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. Among reds they are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah. VINTAGES August 18 release has 49 wines based on these seven varieties (or 46% of the 107 still wines on offer).

Some argue for inclusion of other French varieties in the court of nobility. Among whites chenin blanc, pinot gris, semillon and perhaps gewürztraminer. Among reds cabernet franc and others in the Bordeaux family like malbec and petit verdot, and over in the Rhône camp grenache and mourvedre. Whither gamay and tannat? If you roll these varieties into the numbers then VINTAGES release has 75 still wines made from French varieties, or 69% of the release.

Niagara Grape & Wine Festival

“It is a marketing scam that we ended up with ten (or so) varieties that are destined to be the best in the world” according to Andy Walker, a Chair of Viticulture at the University of California, Davis. He is quoted in “Tasting the Past”, along with others who claim the wine industry has long advocated for the noble varieties for financial reasons and suppressed the use of lesser known indigenous varieties which are actually better suited to local terroirs.

I experienced this first hand in Majorca, Spain this spring where an impoverished, isolated, island wine industry had embraced the international noble varieties in the 1990s in an effort to please the millions of tourists who visit every year. The native varieties like the red mantonegro and white prensal were on the brink until two appellations were created on the island that required a minimum percentage of native grapes blended with merlot, syrah etc. It was a compromise, and the blends are pleasant enough but not all that engaging, with the indigenous character subsumed by the nobles. And then I tasted a handful of 100% indigenous wines, and I was suddenly interested and impressed.

Bringing it closer to home, Sean Myles, a Nova Scotian viticulture researcher who published a 2011 paper on grape biodiversity was talking about winter hardy French-American hybrids when he was quoted in “Tasting the Past”. He said “If applied to any other category you’d say this is just plain racism. A little bit of wild ancestry? Ah, you’re still a hybrid, and inferior to the noble European grapes”.

In fact, French-American hybrids are officially segregated in Ontario wherein VQA rules only allow them the broad Ontario appellation – not the more specific terroirs of Niagara Peninsula or Prince Edward County. The exception is vidal when used for icewine. It can say Niagara Peninsula. Perhaps because icewine makes a lot of money for Niagara’s icewine producers?

On that note, the noble varieties are responsible for making the world’s most expensive and collected wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and Tuscany.

The industry will quickly argue that the noble varieties are what the marketplace wants – and thus they are fulfilling a need. This is true to some extent, and many of the wines are indeed very good. I am not arguing the quality of these noble vines, except when they are planted in the wrong places (usually places that are too hot or sometimes too cold). In Canada, which is more like France than most other New world regions, many do very well indeed.

But back to the point, it’s not so much that the mass market wants the noble varieties, as much as it is these are the only grapes the mass market knows.  And why is that?  Most consumers readily admit to being intimidated and baffled by wine – by its scope, diversity, vocabulary and fashions.  So there is comfort in knowing just a handful of grapes, and hopefully liking the wines that some of them produce. The French nobles were simply first out of the gate.

The more educated we become however the more we want different flavours, styles, places, stories and grapes. And this is what the next generation is bringing to the discussion and eventually, I think, to the marketplace.  We longer term (senior) writers may tend to pigeon-hole the next gen of natural and orange wine advocates as hipsters making political and personal statements, but in fact – as in anything – there are those who genuinely care and those who have jumped on the band wagon.

Many people do thirst after meaning in wine. They are bored with replication and homogeny and are searching for difference and authenticity. And there are signs the movement is taking hold. We had our first flight of orange wines at the National Wine Awards of Canada this year, and most received medals. The very publication of “Tasting the Past” by a previously marginally wine-engaged writer is another.

The alt-wine movement is bristling around the world, while here in Ontario we remain relatively insulated, even sedated, by a retailer fuelled by past sales performance, not future trends. The Australian selection on this release is a ray of light. The Less Travelled Europe feature is a nod to the diversity out there, but it is half-hearted with only a couple of good wines therein. And the selection from Lebanon (arriving late on Sept 29) is a blend of syrah and cabernet.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES Aug 18th

Native (Non-French) Whites

Forstreiter 2017 Classic Grüner Veltliner, Niederösterreich, Austria ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Gruner Veltliner is a popular Austrian white now reaching into cooler New world regions like New Zealand and British Columbia. This is a quite delicate, fresh and nicely fruited example with sweet peach/pear fruit, subtle spice, fine acidity and a touch of sweetness. There is sense of textural delicacy, with a dash of spritz.

Forstreiter Classic Grüner Veltliner 2017Paco & Lola Albariño 2017

Paco & Lola 2017 Albariño, DO Rías Baixas, Spain ($19.95)
John Szabo – Albarino is a fine white variety from maritime Galicia in northwest Spain. Another fine, fragrant, highly perfumed albariño from the reliable house of Paco & Lola, with inviting floral notes and plenty of green citrus. I love the crisp, dry, refreshing palate, the sharp, ripe acids and the very good length. A superior example.

Villa Sparina 2016 Gavi di Gavi 2016, Piemonte, Italy ($19.95)
Michael Godel – The cortese grape is rarely found outside its base in northwest Italy. Sparina’s cortese in the unusual bottle is wild and wooly, full of metalloid fruit and really tangy acidity. It’s quite resinous in a near-Retsina way, with pine sap, preserved lemon and all the herbs you can pack into a bottle of Gavi. It’s not for everyone but certainly worth a look and a deeper gander.

Villa Sparina Gavi Di Gavi 2016Carpinus Hárslevelu Dry White 2016

Carpinus 2016 Hárslevelu Dry White, Tokaj, Hungary ($14.95)
David Lawrason – This is a well made, clean and bright dry white from the native harseleveu variety but aromas and flavours are a walk on the mild side.  Very low intensity on the nose with some peach, honey and vague florality. It is medium weight, with medium acidity and some warmth.

Noble (French) Whites

Radford Dale 2016 Renaissance Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($39.95)
John Szabo – This is excellent wine from the minimalist folks at Radford Dale, properly flinty in the popular modern style, with breadth and depth well above the mean. The palate is generous and mouth filling, with excellent length and overall complexity. I like the pineapple and yellow-fleshed orchard fruit flavour on offer now, but this will continue to evolve and should be at its best after 2020.
David Lawrason – Here is a magnificent  broad and deep chenin that has been discreetly oaked. Love the ripe peach/yellow pear fruit, spice, daffodil and honey on the nose and palate. It is quite smooth, rich and warming but not too hot or abrasive – a gentle giant.

Radford Dale Renaissance Chenin Blanc 2016Rustenberg Chardonnay 2016Fleuron De La Rebourgère Sur Lie Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine 2016

Rustenberg 2016 Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($19.95)
Michael Godel – There are global values for chardonnay and there is the annual input from Rustenberg. Once again you get what you want and what you need; ripeness, richesse and full Stellenbosch flavour. The barrels speak loud and clear but acidity ties the room together so that balance comes away clean and complete.
David Lawrason – Here’s a powerful, bold, complex chardonnay wearing it all on its sleeve. Expect intense, smoky, reductive (flint/onion), buttered corn, lemon and dried apple aromas and flavours. It is full bodied, firm, notably dry with a finish hitting excellent to outstanding length.

Fleuron de la Rebourgère 2016 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, Loire, France ($14.95)
Michael Godel – As fruity as Muscadet can get (and that’s not usually the operative) this is the fruity one. It’s almost tropical to nose and quite peachy to taste. Reminds me of sun-worshipped vermentino though the marine influence remains, showing that melon de bourgogne will flex its oyster shell muscles no matter the fruit extension. Not textbook perhaps but in other ways wholeheartedly so and still great value.

Native (non-French) Reds

Koncho 2015 Semi-Sweet Red, Alazanis Valley, Kakheti, Georgia ($15.95)
David Lawrason – The Caucuses Mountains of Georgia are likely the birthplace of wine, and today improving winemaking with native varieties – like the saperavi employed in this medium sweet red – is receiving international interest. It has nicely generous plummy, floral notes quite similar to Cotes du Rhone. It is medium weight, with good acidity, moderate alcohol and a certain grapy freshness. There is mild tannin drying the finish. Chill a bit.

Koncho Semi Sweet Red 2015Forstreiter Exclusiv Zweigelt 2015Lanciola Le Masse Di Greve Chianti Classico 2013

Forstreiter 2015 Exclusiv Zweigelt, Niederösterreich, Austria ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Zweigelt is an important Austrian variety that has done good work in cooler regions like British Columbia. This is a fairly pale, bright ruby shaded example with generous aromas of raspberry fruit, peony and notable peppery spice. It is medium weight, nicely fruity, lively and well balanced with mild, slightly green tannin. Fans of both gamay and pinot should really enjoy this fine effort.

Lanciola Le Masse di Greve 2013 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($23.95)
Michael Godel – Give a Chianti Classico an extra two or three years in bottle and it will tell you what it’s made of. This is muscular sangiovese that has thankfully settled after having built the house it now lives in. It’s wet earth and shale-salty, barrel toasty with a humidity meeting acidity that is quite special. The tannins must have been fierce at some point but now there is this wave of hypnotics that grab ahold of your senses. This is not your average, every day Chianti Classico with mass commercial appeal. It’s idiosyncratic, wildly characterful and meant to speak its mind. That it does.

Noble (French) Reds

Domaine Les Bugadelles 2014 Pays d’Oc, France ($27.95)
John Szabo – An ambitious, structured, earthy, scorched earth, very syrah-driven southern French red from the Languedoc (in the La Clape cru; wines from 2016 on will bear this appellation), with high flavour intensity and excellent length. This is serious stuff, and quite fairly priced I might add, considering the depth and complexity on offer. Certified organic. Drink or hold into the mid-twenties.
David Lawrason – From the emerging superstar region of La Clape, this is an organically grown grenache/syrah blend. It has a very fetching, fragrant and spicy fragrance with lifted cran-raspberry, peony, black pepper and vanilla notes. Lovely aromatics. It is medium weight, fresh if a touch sweet, with some heat. But very engaging, fresh and drinkable, with excellent length. Tasted August 2018.

Domaine Les Bugadelles 2014Garzon Reserva Tannat 2015

Garzon 2015 Reserva Tannat, Uruguay ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Tannat is slow ripening, very tannic native variety from southwest France that has transposed nicely to warm, almost tepid Uruguay, and is gaining popularity elsewhere. This example is from a spectacular winery whose scale and quality focus challenges modern projects globally let alone within Uruguay. The Atlantic Ocean is 18km from the massive 230-hectare vineyard set on a granite outcrop.  This is a new more international take on the very tannic grape. It’s dark with ripe blackberry/currant, roasted herbs, some stoniness from the granite soils (and concrete egg fermentation). It is quite full bodied yet shows fine acidity and firm tannin. The length is very good but I would wish for more as the vines mature – planted 2007. This wine had captured so many accolades that 5000 cases sold out in 48 hours around the world upon release.  Garzon held back 300 cases for Vintages. Grab a bottle if you find one.

Keint-He 2014 Portage Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($24.95)
David Lawrason – This is a very pale yet complete and engaging pinot with classic County strawberry-cherry fruit, florals, gentle oak toast and some minerality. It is light bodied with fine acidity and just slightly bitter tannin. The length is very good to excellent. Nicely done and drinking in the moment.

Keint He Portage Pinot Noir 2014El Enemigo Malbec 2014Chakana Estate Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

El Enemigo 2104 Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($25.95)
David Lawrason – This is a nicely savoury, lively malbec with a quite complex and generous nose of mulberry jam, fresh shrubbery and herbs, violets and peppery spice. Very fragrant. It is medium-full bodied with good tension, warmth and slightly green tannin. Almost a salty subtext here, giving a parched desert feel.

Chakana Estate Selection 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Gualtallary, Tupungato, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina ($19.95)
Michael Godel – Chakana’s cabernet sauvignon is a varietal ringer for what it should be, where it comes from and how it should act. The Gualtallary section of the Uco Valley expresses the soil with a smoky, deep red fruit and high-toned, peppery voice. It’s a limestone and gravel vernacular mixed with good fruit and high acidity. Altitude always matters so expect savoury, juicy and piquant. This brings all that and more.

And that’s a wrap for this release. John will be back next week to take the first release of the fall.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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