California’s Paso Robles, Italian Rarities, Handsome 2009 Bordeaux, Spanish Bargains
Vintages rolls out an exciting – if too small – collection of “cutting edge” California wines on March 2, timed for the launch of an LCBO-wide California promotion. It’s actually a nationwide promotion marked by California’s 62 winery presence at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (where several of us from WineAlign are hanging out this week). I was also very intrigued to find four rare grape varieties in the feature on southern Italy, plus some handsome Bordeaux 2009 reds, and two tasty cheap bargains from Spain.
Paso Robles, California’s Rhone
If Napa Valley is the Bordeaux of California (with all those structured cabernets), and if coastal Sonoma is the Burgundy (with its pinot noirs and chardonnays), then it surely follows that Paso Robles is the Rhone Valley of California. It is inland and warmer on the Central Coast, and more Mediterranean in feel. It has adopted syrah as its centrepiece variety, with some producers also doing grenache blends, as well as Rhone style whites with viognier, grenache blanc and roussanne. There is also a spirit of adventure and mold-breaking in Paso Robles that I find very refreshing.
For all is “new worldliness” California remains a very conservative wine region, like France. The wine establishment in San Francisco and the North Coast wine regions still consider Paso Robles to be somewhat marginal; just as the Bordelaise and Burgundians still consider the Rhone to be just a bit rustic. The good news is that being marginal and rustic results is cheaper wine, with no less quality. So welcome to some terrific buys from Paso Robles.
Two of them are from a pioneering Paso winery called Justin, which was founded by a former international banker named Justin Baldwin in 1981. That was very early days – indeed even pre-Rhone varietal days – for Paso Robles, when Mr. Baldwin was living out a Bordeaux first-growth fantasy. Fortunately he found some spectacular higher elevation sites (up to 1700 feet) within the coastal range that cuts Paso proper off from the Pacific (raising its temperature). His cooler site is terrific for the Bordeaux varieties. His Justin Vineyards Isosceles 2009 – 94% cabernet sauvignon – is a masterpiece approaching “first growth” quality. If you normally spend over $100 for collector cabernets, its price of $78.95 is a steal. As is the gorgeous Rhone-inspired Justin 2010 Syrah at $36.95,
Burly Gary Eberle, a former footballer, was another Paso pioneer, and a founding member of the Paso Robles Winery Association in 1980. As early as 1973 he was involved in his family’s winery called Estrella River, which he re-built and re-branded as Eberle in 1983. At only 25,000 cases it is actually one of the larger Paso wineries (there are now 180 wineries and over 26,000 acres of vineyard). Eberle makes a wide range but when I visited a year ago I was most struck by the excellent viognier, an aromatic white grape with Rhone roots as well. Eberle Mill Road Vineyard 2011 Viognier ($29.95) is one of the classics in the genre, managing some elegance without giving up any power or depth. One third was aged in tank, one third in neutral oak on its lees, the final third was aged in neutral oak without lees – an apparently very successful formula.
And there is another white that speaks loudly to the spirit of adventure in Paso Robles. Vina Robles 2010 White 4 ($18.95) is a very effective blend of the aforementioned viognier with vermentino, verdelho and sauvignon blanc, creating an off-beat, exotic and quite rich white that also has some nerve. The varieties were separately fermented and aged in neutral oak, like Eberle’s viognier above. Vina Robles was founded by Swiss partners Hans Nef and R. Michel who, like many Europeans making wine abroad, feel that they are combining “European inspiration with California character”. Such sentiments are all very nice but usually not much evident in the glass. There is however something textural in this white that is a bit more Euro. In any case it offers a refreshing change of pace among California whites.
Rarities Under $20 from Central/South Italy
With headlines like “a Jaunt through Central and Southern Italy” and “Local Heroes” Vintages copywriters miss a theme I suspect that the buyers very much had in mind while assembling this interesting selection of very well priced wines. Four of the eleven selections are from grapes I would truly consider “rarities” – varieties that for most wine followers would be once or twice in a lifetime experiences. And that’s one of things I love most about Italy – there is so much wine in Enotria that one can continue to discover new grapes, and the Italians are currently in a frame of mind to be restoring and promoting these antique varieties
Statti 2010 Mantonico Bianco ($18.95) is a revelation! Who knew that Calabria even made white wine, let alone grew a grape (mantonico) that could render such an interesting rich, dry and complex wine. Maybe I didn’t know because previously most mantonico was dried to make a sweet passito style white – very much a traditional approach with white grapes in the Mediterranean basin. In any event Statti, and a larger Calabrian firm called Librandi, are shepherding this old variety into new stylistic territory.
The same thinking is behind Fina Taif 2011 Zibibbo from Sicily – another steal at $16.95. Zibbibo is not a new or re-discovered grape however. It is actually the southern Italian name for Muscat of Alexandria, and is also widely used in Sicily (and the island of Pantelleria) to make sweet, passito wine. The wonderful name zibbibo comes from the Arabic word zabib, meaning dried grape. This dry, table wine version is all fireworks, a very lifted exotic wine to consider with mid-eastern or Asian cuisine.
Two rare red varieties are also in this release. Lucchetti Lacrima Di Morro d’Alba 2011 ($17.95) features an ebulliently fruity red grape from the Marche region on central Italy’s Adriatic coast. It is one of these situations common in Italy where the name of a grape (lacrima) and a town (Morro di Alba) combine for the official DOC appellation name. Lacrima means “tears”. I did not get all weepy over this wine but the sweetish ambiance, roundness and fragrant floral aromas make for a very appealing, easy drinking style of red.
And from Sicily once again, try the Caruso & Minini Sachia 2010 Perricone ($13.95). Perricone (also known as Pignatello) planted throughout the island. I didn’t pick up any truly distinguishing character, which may be one reason it is often blended with other varieties, but it is again a decent value in everyday Italian red. Apparently some “riserva” level wines are made from this grape.
Handsome 90 Pt Bordeaux
Bordeaux from the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages are now making their way into Vintages regular releases, and I am pleased. Frankly it has been a bit of a slog through the “minor or petits chateaux” 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages over the past couple of years – very hit and miss. On March 2 there are three fairly priced 2009 Bordeaux under $40 that I have rated 90 pts or better. This was a ripe year in Bordeux bringing packing just a bit more fruit and flesh into these cabernet/merlot blends.
Château La Tour De Mons 2009 Margaux ($39.95) is the most expensive, but still decent value. It’s rare to find any Margaux AOC wines under $40 and this is a perfectly fine and authentic example from a 50 ha limestone and gravel vineyard on the Gironde Estuary. Technical director Christel Spinner says the 2009 “is one of our great successes”, and I would agree. They are serious here, right down to individual berry sorting tables.
Château Beaumont 2009 Haut-Médoc is huge value at $22.85, a wine to enjoy now or cellar for another five years. If I was beginning to collect Bordeaux on a limited budget I wouldn’t hesitate to add a half dozen bottles of Beaumont. It’s consistently good! It’s from 53 % cabernet sauvignon, 40% merlot, 4% cabernet franc and 3% petit verdot, from a vineyard between Margaux and St. Julien. Current ownership is shared by Groupes Castel et Suntory of Japan.
Château La Vieille Cure 2009 Fronsac ($36.85) is a merlot dominated wine from a single 20 hectare, south-east oriented site on the right bank. Since being purchased by American partners in 1986 it has been partially replanted (some very old vines were left intact); the winery has been refurbished and concerted marketing has made it one of the best known, most widely available Fronsac wines.
Two Everyday Bargains from Spain
When tasting along the row of over 100 wines at Vintages one encounters a wide array of styles and quality levels in random and rapid succession. So it’s no surprise that sometimes the little guys get lost along the way. It’s easy to skip full scrutiny of $12 wines; so they must reach out and demand attention. Which actually happened twice on this release with a pair of reds from Spain. Neither are “excellent” or “over-delivering” wines. But they are correct, balanced and eminently drinkable wines that you can afford on Tuesday night (or three bottles on Friday night for you and your drop in friends, neighbours and family).
Piñol Ludovicus 2010 Tinto ($13.95) is from a small appellation called Terra Alta in southern Catalonia. It is not too far from Priorat and Montsant and in this case uses a very similar blend of five grapes, led by grenache. From farther south along the Mediterranean coast Tarima 2010 Monastrell ($12.95) from the Alicante DO offers up all kinds of ripe, plummy blackberry mourvedre fruit, very much with an Australian ambiance if less creamy and warming. Both could stand a light chill and be served without fanfare, but with pleasure every day.
And that’s a wrap for this edition. See all my reviews below.
VP of Wine
From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release: