The pre-Christmas roll out of big names continues in this huge release of 149 wines (spirits, sakes etc not included in the count). As I tasted through the selection of “Our Finest” wines in Vintages lab I actually paid little attention to price. This is because price is not factored into my ratings. The most important role of wine reviewing is to help wine drinkers find better for less, and if wines were rated on value as opposed to absolute quality it would be difficult for consumers to make that call. The quality quotient of cheap wines would be blurred, as would the value quotient of very expensive wines.
There can indeed be good value in expensive wines. True, many are priced in triple digits not because they are wines that are shockingly good, but because they are famous and thus in higher demand. That fame may be due to the fact they were pioneering wines like Sassicaia, the first cabernet out of Tuscany’s Bolgheri region, or because they once the topped the charts for a vintage or two like Caymus Special Selection which was long ago a Wine Spectator Wine of the Year. Both are excellent wines, to be sure, and they may reward those who invest and trade in wine on the auction circuit, but in terms of bang for the buck drinking pleasure many icon wines do under-deliver. But there are also some priced on merit like the $149.95 PENFOLDS 2006 RWT SHIRAZ, which I have rated 96 points. It stood a head taller than Caymus and Sassicaia and other big wines in the release. It is also half the price but way more than half the wine of big brother Penfolds Grange. The other decent value in this collection is BODEGAS Y VIÑEDOS 2006 ALION from Spain’s Ribera del Duero region, a $73.95 wine that I have rated 94 points. It too is a junior cousin to Spain’s Vega Sicilia, a wine so expensive and rare it is virtually off my radar altogether.
Although not broken out in separate “feature” by Vintages, one of the highlights of the release is an intriguing selection of global pinot noirs; most of them rating 89 to 93 points. I would love to swoop in after the release and buy one of each, but then I am particularly afflicted by pinot noir. I love the way it exposes and expresses its sense of place, and I have always loved to travel. It was hard to pick a favourite among the offerings from Burgundy, Niagara, Sonoma, New Zealand’s Wairapara, Oregon and Chile’s Limari Valley, but I settled on highlighting FOG DOG 2007 FREESTONE VINEYARD PINOT NOIR from California’s Sonoma Coast. It resonated not only because it’s an excellent pinot noir, but because it symbolizes the growing stature of pinot outside of Burgundy, and pinot’s move into the mainstream. A generation ago few wine lovers or critics or producers believed pinot could be made successfully elsewhere. There were only a handful of pioneering purists in Oregon, California and Australia who were prepared to give it a go. Nowadays we have wines like Fog Dog, a new label from Joseph Phelps. For almost 40 years Phelps has symbolized the dominance of Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon, embedding that reputation with the creation of a pioneering “Bordeaux” blend called Insignia. But Phelps has never stood still, and I remember visiting about five years ago and hearing them talk excitedly about their new project “out on the coast” where they were clearing virgin land almost within site of the Pacific to plant chardonnay and pinot. And voila here it is their excellent pinot on our shelves and tables.
The selection of chardonnays is almost as impressive and internationally varied, with a number of heavy hitters. I love great chardonnay, and always encourage those who say they don’t like it to move upscale to truly understand what it is about. Chardonnay has been cheapened and demoted by its own commercial success, turning away legions of wine drinkers in the process. I took the opportunity in the tasting room to do a side by side comparison between two $65 chardonnays, the DOMAINE ALAIN CHAVY 2008 PULIGNY-MONTRACHET LES FOLATIÈRES 1ER CRU from Burgundy and LE CLOS JORDANNE 2008 LE GRAND CLOS CHARDONNAY from Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench. For the record, I scored the Burugndy one point higher, due to its terrific sense of compactness, integration and cool elegance. The top drop from Le Clos Jordanne was not far off that structural mark however, and actually had a bit more flavour depth. I am so tired of hearing Ontarians say that Ontario wine is too expensive without comparing apples to apples.
Some of those disenchanted chardonnay drinkers are turning to simpler, unoaked, and pinot grigio from Italy and elsewhere. And at the moment Italian pinot grigio is responding with improved quality and prices that are very reasonable. There are a handful of lovely under $15 Italian whites on this release, none better than MACULAN 2009 PINOT GRIGIO that offers 90pt complexity, depth and polish at only $13.95. Maculan has long been one of the best white wine producers of Italy.
Still on the value watch, I would like to direct your attention away from a couple of very expensive and very good Champagnes from Krug and Bollinger, to a lovely, little cava from Spain. 194803 LANGA HERMANOS REYES DE ARAGON 2007 BRUT RESERVA CAVA also clocks in at 90 points for $13.95. Most Spanish cava hails from the Penedes region which grows local grapes like parrelada, macabeo and xarello. This nifty number is from high altitude, old vineyards in the small DO of Catalayud in the neighbouring province of Aragon. It is a blend of 30% high acid macabeo (also called viura) and 70% chardonnay, made in the traditional method, and offering character way beyond its price. There are several other interesting, obscure and very good sparklers in the release as well.
Staying with Spain, I also want to highlight a surprising little Rioja that caught my eye. Not because it is a blockbuster in terms of quality or value, but because it is such an engaging wine. CASTILLO DE SAJAZARRA 2004 SOLAR DE LÍBANO RESERVA is already showing some maturity, but the fruit is of such bright timbre, and the acidity and tannin is so well proportioned, that it should live another five to eight years. At just over $20 it is one of those great little discoveries that you will be happy you bought when you pull it out of the cellar.
And finally, over the border in Portugal there are a handful of good ports being released just in time for winter sipping. In the same way that I becoming restless with expensive icon table wines, I am losing some interest in vintage port, at least as a drinking proposition. It is great to taste deep, elegant wines like WARRE’S 2007 VINTAGE PORTbut it is $84.95 and a wine that needs to disappear into the cellar for ten years in order to develop the complexity that is already splendidly available in wines like QUINTA DO NOVAL TAWNY PORT at one-quarter the price. For $16.95 you get 90 point quality – a wine that is quite svelte in texture with intriguing black tea, fig and anise flavours hitting excellent length.
That’s a wrap for now; the big December 11 release is next. Due to a combination of travel and shuffling of tasting dates by Vintage I am getting only one crack at tasting it. Will do my best.
See all my reviews for the November 27th release here.
- David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign