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Un petit quelque chose aux pommes avec ça ?

Hors des sentiers battus
par Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau sm

Marc Chapleau

Notre site s’appelle Chacun son vin, c’est vrai, mais pour ma part, et j’ose croire qu’il en est de même pour plusieurs d’entre vous, je ne dédaigne pas une bonne bière, la plupart du temps. Surtout avec l’éclosion incessante de nouvelles microbrasseries au Québec, et des combinaisons de saveurs parfois un peu tirées par les cheveux mais ô combien réussies, et je pense notamment à la Lambic Fruit de la passion de la ferme-brasserie Schoune de Saint-Polycarpe, près de Valleyfield, vendue dans certaines épiceries et dépanneurs spécialisés.

Cette digression, désolé, pour vous emmener plutôt vers le cidre –  on ne peut plus de saison alors que l’action, en cette fin d’été, se déroule surtout dans les vergers.

Que les 50 ans et plus ne s’enfuient pas tout de suite ! Et que les plus jeunes sachent, si ce n’est pas déjà le cas, que le cidre qu’on a recommencé à commercialiser dans les années 1970 après avoir connu une longue période d’interdiction était sinon infect, du moins traître au possible…

Les cuvées alors proposées titraient allègrement 13 ou 14 pour cent d’alcool et étaient bourrées de soufre. On faisait le cidre dans ce temps-là, ont par la suite colporté les mauvaises langues, à partir de pommes tombées au sol et souvent pourries.

J’en sais quelque chose. À propos de tanguer à cause de ça en direction du plancher des vaches, j’entends…

Nous sommes d’ailleurs plusieurs quinquas à avoir pris nos premières brosses avec ce maudit cidre. On était à l’époque des hipsters et des Pôpa avant l’heure, avec nos barbes de prophètes et nos chemises à carreaux. Et tout ce qu’on a récolté pour toute cette peine qu’on s’est donnée à faire de la réintroduction du cidre un succès… c’est des mals de cheveux carabinés. (Je sais, au pluriel, mal c’est maux, mais « des maux de
cheveux », de vous à moi, ça ne fait pas très sérieux…)

Tout ça pour dire que si un gars comme moi dit aujourd’hui du bien du cidre québécois, il ne faut surtout pas le prendre à la légère.

Ça a été long, pas loin de 20 ans, mais l’industrie s’est bel et bien reprise en main. Le cidre de glace par exemple, qui ne le sait pas, est même devenu l’un de nos fleurons gastronomiques. Quant aux cidres de table, appelons-les comme ça, tranquilles, mousseux, secs et demi-secs proposent aujourd’hui une boisson saine et équilibrée, au fruité souvent très pur, on ne peut plus « pomme ». C’est tout ce que le client demande, la plupart du temps.

De fait, le cidre – sauf exception – est rarement très complexe. Il l’est du reste moins que le vin et même que la bière, souvent. N’empêche : compte tenu de notre long passé pomicole, et ne serait-ce que parce qu’on compte au Québec actuellement dix fois plus d’hectares de vergers que d’hectares de vignes, le cidre n’en demeure peut-être pas moins la boisson du terroir la plus authentiquement et plus naturellement québécoise.

Il s’agit seulement, pour les baby-boomers, de faire abstraction du passé et de l’aborder sans préjugé.

À boire, aubergiste !

J’ai goûté ou regoûté récemment un certain nombre de cidres vendus à la SAQ. Tous, ou à peu près, sont bons et bien faits, équilibrés et bien fruités. Certains ressortent tout de même du lot. Surtout au niveau de la texture, ai-je noté, les meilleurs exemples ayant plus de profondeur, une structure en bouche plus affirmée et parfois même, une légère et délicieuse astringence.

Trois cidres tranquilles pour commencer, c’est-à-dire sans effervescence.

Les Vergers Lafrance Légende D'automne 2012 Domaine Pinnacle Verger Sud La Face Cachée De La Pomme Dégel

Le Légendes d’automne 2012 Vergers Lafrance, à base de McIntosh, n’est pas trop sucré, plutôt léger (9 % d’alcool), simple et de bon goût.

Le Vergers du Sud Domaine Pinnacle m’a de prime abord fait sourciller, étant donné sa bouteille très lourde. Pas d’esbroufe en bouche cependant, équilibre exemplaire, et une agréable pointe saline.

Enfin, le Dégel La Face cachée de la pomme est comme le précédent riche et corsé, avec juste ce qu’il faut d’acidité pour le garder pimpant. À réserver par exemple pour les fromages, plus que pour l’apéro, étant donné son coffre, sa corpulence.

Michel Jodoin Cidre Mousseux Rosé Domaine Lafrance Cidre Mousseux 2013 La Face Cachée De La Pomme Bulle De Neige

Du côté des cidres mousseux, j’ai à nouveau bien aimé le Cidre léger rosé Michel Jodoin, élaboré à partir de la variété de pomme Geneva, à la chair rougeâtre, d’où la couleur du cidre. Une belle réussite à seulement 7 % d’alcool, signée par le duo Michel Jodoin/Laurence Lamboley.

Plus sucré et assez corsé, le Cidre mousseux 2013 Domaine Lafrance a tout de même une bonne fraîcheur et d’engageants arômes de pomme dès l’abord.

On renoue en gros avec le style du cidre léger de Jodoin avec le Bulle de Neige La Face cachée de la pomme, demi-sec, rafraîchissant et bien soutenu par son acidité.

Les cidres de glace

La Face Cachée De La Pomme Neige Première Ice Cider 2011 La Face Cachée de la Pomme Neige Récolte d'HiverJ’aurais pu ici parler des produits du domaine Pinnacle, du Clos Saragnat, des Vergers de la Colline et de bien d’autres encore. Si je n’en retiens que deux, du même producteur qui plus est, c’est que je viens tout juste de les regoûter et donc mon commentaire est plus à jour.

De bons points, ainsi, pour le Neige Récolte d’hiver La Face cachée de la pomme , liquoreux et quasi sirupeux mais qui demeure nerveux, malgré ses quelque 190 g de sucre résiduel par litre.

Même constat pour le Neige Première 2011 La Face cachée de la pomme, celui-ci issu d’une récolte d’automne obtenu par cryoconcentration naturelle (jus mis à geler à l’extérieur). Très compote de pomme et pas trop sucré, un excellent dessert par lui-même.

Santé !

Marc

Note de la rédaction: vous pouvez lire les commentaires de dégustation complets en cliquant sur les noms de vins, les photos de bouteilles ou les liens mis en surbrillance. Les abonnés payants à Chacun son vin ont accès à toutes les critiques dès leur mise en ligne. Les utilisateurs inscrits doivent attendre 60 jours après leur parution pour les lire. L’adhésion a ses privilèges ; parmi ceux-ci, un accès direct à de grands vins!


Penfolds clinique de rebouchage

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The Successful Collector – Wachau Riesling

Austria’s greatest white wines?
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Conversing with colleague — and my former instructor — John Szabo MS several months back, I was shocked to learn that riesling accounts for less than 5 per cent of total plantings in Austria. 4.1 per cent, to be precise. How can this be? Would someone explain why Austria, home to the wondrous Wachau, one of the greatest and most beautiful winegrowing regions in the world, produces such minuscule quantities of this magnificent grape?

As a partial explanation, it is only relatively recently that the potential for riesling in the Wachau and nearby regions has been meaningfully set to purpose by more than just a handful of producers. Unfortunately, this means that overall plantings have had to play an unwinnable game of catch-up with grüner veltliner, Austria’s most famous grape, red or white, for popular recognition. Not that this has discouraged producers from expanding their holdings throughout this glorious 20-km stretch of the river. Based mainly on extremely steep terraces overlooking the water, the best riesling parcels are usually found on the upper slopes, where soils consist mainly of granite, gneiss, and mica-schist.

Wachau Map (Courtesy Domäne Wachau)

For the most part, great Wachau riesling is often low-keyed in youth, routinely consisting of steely green fruits intermixed with lemon citrus, herbs, and an abundance of minerals. Yet with just a smidgen of bottle age (depending on the wine), more honeyed, kerosene, and nut-driven impressions seem to take over. Cellaring capability is extremely high, the best examples potentially lasting for at least a few decades. The richest and longest lived are those labeled ‘Smaragd’ (named after a local lizard), with alcohol levels at 12.5 per cent or higher. Wines labeled ‘Federspiel’ (11.5 – 12.5 per cent) are usually drier and less pronounced, while those labeled ‘Steinfeder’ (up to 11.5 per cent) are the lightest.

At this year’s VieVinum in Vienna, I discovered a great deal about the Wachau’s greatest vineyards. Out of 900-odd Rieden (or sites), about a dozen stand above the rest for riesling. Furthest west, along the Spitzer Graben tributary, Bruck is situated on an extremely high hillside, with terraced rows so narrow that tractors cannot even pass through — a common theme throughout many of the best sites. These are extremely minerally, citrus-laden wines. Further east, the Offenberg and Setzberg vineyards are also of similar configuration and quality, though perhaps more fruit-driven in youth. In these cooler parts of the Wachau, soils are mainly derived from mica schists, resulting in wines of considerable elegance and vitality.

East of the village of Spitz, the Danube plays an even greater role in most of the top riesling vineyards, particularly in terms of temperature moderation. Singerriedel is just such a Ried, well-protected from wind and privy to the warm autumn sun late in the evening. Wines of excellent concentration and class are produced here, along with those of Hochrain to the south. Much more famous, however, is the Ried of Achleiten, situated just to the north of the village of Weissenkirchen. Composed of slate and gneiss, it produces riesling of unmistakable minerality and finesse. Those of neighbouring Klaus are also of significant regard.

Singerriedel (Courtesy Domäne Wachau)

In what might be considered the heart of the Wachau, the villages of Dürnstein and the Loibens (Unter- and Ober-) possess some of the most renowned riesling vineyards in Austria. Of these, Kellerberg is traditionally ranked at the top, though grüner veltliner also comprises a large minority of plantings here. Mixed vineyards are very common in the Wachau. Enjoying ample sunlight, broad day-/night-time temperatures, and complex soils consisting mostly of granitic gneiss, Kellerberg riesling is both marvellously fulsome and long-lived. Other nearby vineyards of great repute are Loibenberg, Schütt, and Höhereck, each with their own distinctive personality and eminence. Last but not least, great riesling is produced south of the river around the village of Mautern. The top producer here is indisputably Nikolaihof, a boutique winery whose greatest offerings from Steiner Hund (located across the border in Kremstal), Vom Stein, and Im Weingebirge are widely in demand.

Indeed, small producers throughout the Wachau are routinely among the finest riesling cultivators. Unfortunately, availability in VINTAGES is profoundly lacking, with only one or two wines currently in the system. As something of a small mercy, however, some of the top producers possess agency representation in Ontario, several of which presently carry Wachau rieslings on consignment (immediate delivery) or are able to handle orders directly from the winery. As usual, such wines must be ordered in twelve- or six-bottle cases, though delivery usually takes several months.

Granted, ordering such wines from private agencies might be a nuisance—not because of poor service but because of the necessity of buying by the case—but the rewards are truly beyond measure. When it comes to top-notch Wachau riesling and the best sites from which they are sourced, all one has to do is be in the know.

Top estates in the Wachau

F.X. Pichler – The wines of F.X. Pichler are generally regarded as the most stunning in the Wachau, at times equalled by several other estates, yet never surpassed. With parcels in some of the greatest vineyards around the village of Dürnstein and the Loibens (Unter- and Ober-), every bottling is a testament to the originality and quality of each individual terroir. Ontario Representative: Le Sommelier

F.X. Picher 2013 Dürnsteiner Kellerberg Riesling Smaragd is perhaps the most sensational, most in-depth dry white I have ever tasted (at least to date) from the Wachau. From what is widely considered the most prized vineyard in the region, this sensational offering will keep for up to two decades in the right conditions.

Franz Hirtzberger – Based out of the village of Spitz in a more westerly sector of the Wachau, few wines are as singularly delicious as those of Franz Hirtzberger. Much of the region’s modern-day successes may be traced to Franz’s tireless efforts in spearheading the Vinea Wachau (an association of winegrowers) and promoting perfectionist winegrowing techniques. Not represented in Canada

Franz Hirtzberger 2013 Hochrain Riesling Smaragd is both remarkably intense and stylish. Located just below the famed Singerriedel vineyard, Hochrain routinely yields wines of this design, oftentimes with astonishing aging potential. This particular example may be kept for up to fifteen years or more.

Emmerich Knoll – With 15 ha of vineyards, Emmerich and Monika Knoll (along with their son) are among the most committed, most dynamic winegrowers in the Wachau. Based out of the village of Unterloiben, the style here is one of luminosity and breed. Normally tight in youth, these are wines of phenomenal elegance and ageability. Québec representative: Les Vins Alain Bélanger

Emmerich Knoll 2013 Ried Loibenberg Riesling Smaragd is one of several spellbinding wines produced at this estate. Possessing incredible sophistication and character, it will probably require a vigorous decanting if consumed young, and will likely keep for nearly two decades if cellared correctly.

Mature Nikolaihof RieslingNikolaihof: – Perhaps the most celebrated Biodynamic producer in the Wachau, the Saah family’s approach to winemaking is unique. From a mindboggling number of bottlings to an innate understanding of individuality, the wines of Nikolaihof are as mouth-watering as they are unique. Based out of Mautern, to taste from here is a special experience. Ontario representative: The Living Vine

Nikolaihof 2013 Vom Stein Riesling Federspiel is only barely alluding to its potential at such a young age, though it should open up if given a coaxing. Invigorating and balanced (to mention resoundingly dry), this will likely benefit from a thorough decanting if enjoyed young. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more.

Alzinger – One of the most up-and-coming estates in the Wachau, the wines of Leo Alzinger (now produced with his son) merit profuse exploration. Based out of Unterloiben, this gifted family of winegrowers possess parcels in some of the best vineyards of the region, each with their own personality and charm. Québec Representative: Vinealis

Alzinger 2013 Höhereck Riesling Smaragd is a wine of remarkable purity and harmony. Situated just under the famed Kellerberg vineyard, Höhereck is an especially brilliant site, resulting in wines of incredible vitality and elegance. Drink now or enjoy over the next dozen years or more.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Link to Julian’s complete list of Austrian white wines
Link to John Szabo’s Austria Report

Editors Note: You can find our critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


Kellerberg (Courtesy Domäne Wachau)

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Ontario wine is busting out all over.. and our critic’s pick their fave’s

Ontario Wine Report – 2014 VintageSept. 11, 2014

by David Lawrason with notes Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

It’s that time of year to zero in on the fruits of labours past, and Ontario winemakers and wine lovers should be pretty pleased at the moment. On to vintage 2014 in a moment, but we are now enjoying some cracker cooler clime 2013 whites and richer 2012 reds (the best balanced hot vintage wines to date).

But first to tasting and buying opportunities. On Saturday VINTAGES releases a chunk of notable Ontario wines, which John Szabo covered right here. Meanwhile the folks across the hall on the General List side of the soon-to-be-sold LCBO HQ launched an Ontario TasteLocal promotion of their own, with a youth-oriented tasting on Queen Street West before Labour Day, and a release of new wines as well, although many are marketing driven commercial blends or less expensive varietals of little real interest.

Looking ahead, The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival launches Sept 13 with three full weekends of tastings and events at www.niagarawinefestivals.com. And Wine Country Ontario is gearing up for its big annual downtown Toronto VINTAGES-sponsored tasting of over 100 wines at the Royal Ontario Museum on October 2. See Taste Ontario at www.vintages.com. So no excuses not to find wine to taste.

On a political level, things are also perking along for wider distribution of Canadian wine. At the recent premiers conference in Charlottetown PEI,  B.C. Premier Christy Clark managed to squeeze a commitment out of Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne that within a year Ontario would do something about opening its borders to the direct import of B.C. wine for personal consumption. (B.C. already allows Ont wine to be direct shipped). We await the details and timelines, but as I have said all along – go ahead and order it anyway. The feds made it legal in June 2012.

Just before that announcement, the C.D. Howe Institute endorsed greater competition and privatization of wine sales in the province http://www.cdhowe.org/uncorking-a-strange-brew-the-need-for-more-competition-in-ontarios-alcoholic-beverage-retailing-system/27217, which would suit The Wine Council of Ontario just fine. It has rightly and bravely been promoting the sale of both domestic and imported wines in private wine shops in Ontario at www.pairsperfectly.com.

And finally, in the vineyard, where it all counts for quality, Ontario winemakers are also breathing a bit easier for the 2014 vintage. The frigid winter played havoc with exposed (un-buried) vines, reducing crop levels, and severely damaging winter sensitive varieties like merlot, sauvignon blanc and syrah. Some Lake Erie vineyards will have only 10% of their normal crop! A late spring and coolish summer had ripening set back by a couple of weeks, with enough rain and humidity to make it a typically challenging Ontario season. But the last ten days of above average temperatures have helped. Harvesting of earliest varieties could be underway momentarily. C’mon September, play nice!

As you contemplate all this, and decide to enjoy Ontario wines along with Ontario corn, tomatos, peaches and plums, Sara and I offer our thoughts on some of the more interesting Ontario wines encountered this season – no matter where and how encountered – although we draw heavily from the platinum and gold medal ranks of the WineAlign National Wine Awards judged in June (full results here). Some may be on the shelf under your nose, others might require some web-surfing or a weekend in wine country. Some are ground-breaking, some are controversial, some are excellent quality – but none are boring.

David Lawrason’s Picks

Hidden Bench 2011 Tete De Cuvee Chardonnay,
Beamsville Bench, $45.20
Hubbs Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2011 Peller Estates Private Reserve Gamay Noir 2012 No Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason DziverTasting blind, I didn’t know what had hit me during the preliminary round of the National Wine Awards but this brilliant, profound and concentrated chardonnay almost knocked me out of my chair – as it did panel mate Bill Zacharkiw of Montreal. So how it missed a platinum in the second round – and settled for gold – is beyond me. Maybe however it won’t sell out as quickly. Don’t you miss it if you get a chance.

Peller Estates 2012 Gamay Reserve, Niagara Peninsula, $18.90
With an Ontario Lieutenant-Governor’s Award and a gold at the National Wine Awards of Canada, Peller’s Reserve Gamay by winemaker Katie Dickenson (who took over in 2012)  leaps to the head of a genre in Ontario that many are yet to embrace.  During the LG Awards a panelist asked if one could really take this out into the world as an example of excellence in Ontario wine. To which I replied – yes, and I would take it straight to Beaujolais.

Hubbs Creek 2011 Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County, $28.90
I put this National Wine Awards silver medalist on my list not so much for what it is now (a solid 90 point, beautifully integrated county pinot) but for what it represents and will be.  The 2012 awaiting release in the months ahead is clearly a 90+, and it stems from committed high density viticulture by owner John Battista Calvieri.  Although the 1000 case winery has only produced three vintages, some of the vines, planted in some of the County’s stoniest soils on Danforth Road, date back to 2002.  The ring of County authenticity is loud and clear.

No Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason Dziver

Exultet 2013 Pinot GrigioExultet Pinot Grigio 2013, Prince Edward County, $30.00
I had three head turning experiences with mineral driven County pinot gris this summer – a finely tuned 2013 by Hubbs Creek above, an excellent Alsatian styled, mineral-driven Grange of Prince Edward 2012 and this amazing and delicious and profound yet light on its feet “Grigio” by Exultet.  It is the best pinot gris I have yet had from Ontario and yes, worth the brave price of $30.

Tawse 2012 Carly’s Block Riesling,  Beamsville Bench, $31.95
With a second consecutive Lt Governors Award and a Platinum at the National Wine Awards there can be little doubt that Carly’s Block – named for Moray Tawse’s daughter –  planted in 1978 and now farmed biodynamically, is one of the greatest riesling sites in the province.  This is scintillating riesling, and particularly notable for 9.8%, a direction more Niagara riesling producers need to go.

Sara D’Amato’s Picks

No Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason DziverTawse 2011 Robyn’s Block ChardonnayNo Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason Dziver, Twenty Mile Bench, ($45.95)
This is a serious cool climate endeavor; one that has helped put Ontario on the map as a world-class chardonnay producer. With locally trained winemaker Paul Pender at the helm, the wines of Tawse are afforded a real sense of place and benefit from a superb collection of carefully chosen sites.  The Robyn’s block is the oldest of the winery’s estate plantings and is home to 30 year-old chardonnay vines. The quality of the fruit is immediately evident on the nose alone as is the quality of the French oak in which it spends a full year. Rich and with enviable depth and complexity, this top local chardonnay is one of those wines I like to bring abroad to showcase what we do best.

Eastdell Estates 2011 Black Label Shiraz By Diamond Estates, Niagara Peninsula, ($19.95)
Cool climate syrahs certainly turned heads at the National Wine Awards this year and the category was one of my favourite to judge. Syrah’s pepper, musky loveliness can be muted in warmer years or climates. It takes a very sensitive understanding of the varietal to find just the right location where it will thrive and a deft hand to know when it is ready to harvest. This lip-smacking, sensually inviting example from a longer growing season, delivers exotic spice, freshly ground pepper, black fruit and succulent sour cherries to the palate. Finish of great length is pleasantly earthy and musky.

No Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason DziverFlat Rock Cellars 2012 Gravity Pinot NoirNo Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason Dziver, Twenty Mile Bench, ($30.15)
There are so many astounding, utterly compelling pinot noirs to be found now as the ages of vines increases in Niagara and as we focus more fine-tuning and small batch production. Flat Rock Cellars Gravity pinot noir is one of those iconic examples, which offers terrific complexity, lovely dimension, and, in this warmer vintage, a beautifully lifted nose of wildflowers and cherry. Locally trained Winemaker Jay Johnston has made his rounds of Ontario wineries and has now settled into this well-suited role at Flat Rock producing expressive wines with grace and poise.

Chateau Des Charmes 2012 Cabernet Franc, St. David’s Bench Vineyard, Niagara, ($25.95)
The Bosc family has been producing wine in their well-established locale in St. David’s Bench, just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, for over 35 years. One of the founding families of quality wine production in Ontario, and developers of new and unique clones, appealing wines with “charm” have become a hallmark of their portfolio. This lovely cabernet franc exhibits grace, balance and elegance along with the pepper and perfume typical to perfectly ripened cool climate styles.

No Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason DziverHidden Bench 2012 Roman’s Block Rosomel Vineyard RieslingNo Unauthorized Reproduction WineAlign @Jason Dziver, Beamsville Bench,  ($32.00)
Such a small amount of this site specific riesling was produced and we should all be glad this project came to fruition. This impressive result features a palate which is zesty and pure with an abundance of mineral and delicate layers of floral and tender fruit. Ethereal, nervy and distinctively Niagara.

Niagara College Teaching Winery 2012 Dean’s List Prodigy Icewine, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($43.00)
Niagara College Teaching Winery has graduated many of Ontario’s most talented winemakers and has a fully operational winery teaming with students anxious to learn the ropes. Birthed from such a dynamic and experimental setting comes this exquisite Icewine. So much complexity has been coaxed out of this vidal, a grape known more for its hardiness than its intricacy, delivering concentrated notes of honey, dried herbs, soy sauce and balsamic. A distinctive and truly memorable feat exhibiting terrific balance which makes you feel like you can have more than just a sip or two.

And that’s it for now. In the days ahead John Szabo will be publishing a special report on Niagara riesling, which many claim is the single best wine that Ontario makes.

Cheers
David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Austria Report 2014: Visiting Vienna, Best of Blaufränkisch; Little Black Danube Valley Address Book + Ontario Buyer’s Guide

Sept. 9, 2014

VieVinum-logo-2014-02John Szabo reports on his latest trip to the Imperial capital of Vienna for the 2014 edition of Vievinum. Apparently, he had fun, and he shares some discoveries that will be useful to all but die-hard, one-brand wine drinkers.

Mozart + Schnitzel +… Wein
by John Szabo MS

Mozart, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Salzburg music festival, the waltz, Wiener schnitzel, 19th century coffee houses or skiing in Innsbruck… Austria has many cultural references with which many North Americans will have at least some vague familiarity, if not personal intimacy. But wine from Austria? Awareness in Canada that wine is produced in this tiny, mostly Alpine central European country is as limited as the number of shelf-facings on Canadian government monopoly stores. That is, at least outside of the cozy world of sommeliers and wine writers and the not-so-occasional wine consumer unafraid to venture into the darker corners of the Vintages section. For these people, Austrian wine has already emerged from the dark Vienna Woods.

But since Austria may well produce some of the finest wines you’ve never tasted, it’s high time to experience Austrian life beyond Mozart.

So here’s my pitch. It includes suggestions on what to do in romantic Vienna to get you in the mood, followed by a look at the current Austrian wine scene, a list of the cream from nearly four score of blaufränkisch recently tasted (that’s Austria finest red grape), and the addresses in the Danube Valley that every wine lover should have (from the flagship appellations – Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal – for the country’s most important white variety, gruner veltiner, as well as riesling – Austria’s best kept secret and some of the very finest in the world). I’ll round it up with a Buyer’s Guide of wines currently available in Ontario. There is, of course, so much more. But it’s a start.

Visiting Vienna

A Gustav Klimt original tapestry at Café Griensteidl

A Gustav Klimt original tapestry at Café Griensteidl

Each time I travel to Vienna, I’m swept up by the romance that hangs in the air, that suffuses the old wood panels and ancient stones, and lingers in the almost audible string quartets echoing off the cobbled streets and dancing in the dying light glinting off the Danube. I sit on the patio of the 19th C. coffee house Grienstiedl in the Michaelerplatz sipping a g’spritzer, an upscale version of soda and white wine, while listening to the soulful strings of a concert-level celloist reverberate off the walls of Empress Sisi’s Hofburg Palace residence with a sound that most concert halls would envy, busking more for practice than for pay.

I never miss a chance to travel up to the Nussberg vineyard on the northwest hills above the city to take in its magnificent, commanding view over all of Vienna, the spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the Stephansplatz a tiny toothpick in the distance.

The Nussberg Vineyard overlooking the Danube River and Vienna

The Nussberg Vineyard overlooking the Danube River and Vienna

And it’s from this vineyard that one of my favorite Viennese wines hails: the Nussberg Alte Reben from Franz Wieninger, made from an interplanted mix of old vines that ripen each year under the Pannonian sun. This traditional field blend and others made from the 650-odd hectares within the city’s boundaries are a uniquely Viennese specialty officially called gemischter satz, which is almost as much fun to say as it is to drink. (If the Alte Reben isn’t available, Wieninger’s straight up Gemischter Satz is a more than worthy substitute.)

Mayer am Pfarrplatz

Mayer am Pfarrplatz

It’s unthinkable not to spend an evening in one of the dozens of heurigen in the outlying districts, like the Mayer am Pfarrplatz in the 19th district where Beethoven stayed in 1817 to work on the Eroica and begin composing the 9th symphony, and more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his entourage nearly knocked me over on their way out through the narrow wooden door. Heurigen are Austrian institutions devoted to local food and especially wine scattered around the city’s outlying districts, where everything is produced on-premise, including the wine, and is served on long wooden tables in the open air under vine-covered pergolas. And the accordion plays on.

Then I’ll return to the center and stroll through the cobbled streets of this Imperial City, and admire its magnificent baroque buildings and palaces, heavily statued parks and squares, the rows upon rows of museums, the extravagant wood-paneled shrines to coffee, and inhale the strangely pleasant and authentic scent of fresh horse manure as I idle past the rows of carriages parked outside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral waiting to ferry passengers around the old quarter of the 1st district.

A Carriage ride through Vienna, passing the Hofburg Palace

A Carriage ride through Vienna, passing the Hofburg Palace

If hungry, there’s always the city’s most famous schnitzel at Figlmuller’s or the incomparable tafelspitz at Plachutta – a Rabelesian feast of boiled meats – or for more refined Austrian cuisine, the Michelin-starred Steiereck.

And throughout it all, I’m constantly struck by the nation’s inherent composure and self-confidence; you can’t help but get a sense that Austrians are secure, and more than just financially. There’s a sense of comfort related to both the past and present, and indeed a conspicuous absence of insecurity regarding the future.

I suppose such a city couldn’t help but produce that legendary Viennese haughtiness – so pronounced in some cases as to make even a real Parisian blush – that I’ve come to expect, and even appreciate, being such a dramatic change from Canadian politeness. I suspect the attitude is born of this culture of precision and suspicion, even intolerance, of anything sub-standard that seems to be shared by all of Alpine Europe. Is it the mountain air? Order your drinks and get on with it, no time for polite dithering.

The Wine Scene

Wine culture thrives in Vienna, but not in the self-conscious, self-congratulatory way it often does in North America. In countless restaurants and wine bars, details are taken seriously but matter-of-factly, and one inevitably concludes that serving a wide selection of local wines at the proper temperature in gorgeous crystal stems is really just the way things are done, not how some star sommelier has dictated they should be in order to gain advantage over the competition and notoriety for himself. Switzerland may have watches, but Austria has some of the world’s finest glassware, such as the ever-expanding range from Georg Riedel, and Zalto, which for my money is easily the best high-end stemware on the market, so there are no excuses.

No visit to Vienna is complete without a stop at Wein & Co. just off of the Stephansplatz, one of the best wine shops/wine bars in the city where you can browse, buy, and bring your wine over the to bar side for chilling and sipping. That’s if you don’t find anything you like on the already extensive “regular list”. The historic Zum Schwarzen Kameel is also a favorite, especially if you find a seat on the crowded patio. You’ll experience fine wine and Viennese attitude all in one.

The Austrian Wine Zeitgeist

Austrian confidence permeates the wine industry, too, particularly refreshing in a business that is constantly looking over the fence to see what’s happening on the other side. Not to say that Austrian winemakers aren’t interested in the rest of the world, nor arrogantly under the impression that they make the world’s best wine – far from it – but neither do they feel an urgent need to change what they’re doing to chase current consumer trends. It’s as if to say, “stay the course and success will come”.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Only a few short decades ago the entire Austrian wine industry was in a state of crisis, if not outright panic, in the face of an overblown scandal that saw exports drop off the radar. It was as though a millennial tradition of winemaking had evaporated like the angel’s share from a barrel of wine. The remote, glorious past meant nothing to contemporary wine drinkers.

But setbacks can be turned into opportunities, and Austrians wasted no time in revamping the entire industry from top to bottom, imposing some of the strictest quality controls in the world of wine. The return road to international markets was bumpy and many of the same mistakes that have hampered other new and old world winemaking countries were committed, such as over reliance on international, often unsuitable grapes, adherence to the belief that clever winemaking could fix any problems, and devotion to over ripeness and the flavour of new oak. “The past three decades have seen plenty of setbacks, wrong turns and detours” says Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.

White Wines

Near Weißenkirchen in the wine region Wachau in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria). View from single vineyard Achleiten towards west. © AWMB / Egon Mark

Near Weißenkirchen in the wine region Wachau in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria). View from single vineyard Achleiten towards west. © AWMB / Egon Mark

White wines have historically been Austria’s strength, and the fine-tuning that has occurred over the last three decades has shifted them into the top world leagues. Gruner veltliner remains the most planted grape by a good margin and in many ways defines Austrian wines, at least for export markets. It’s a polyvalent variety, running the spectrum of styles from light and whit-pepper scented from cooler areas like the Weinviertel, to round, full-bodied lush examples from the wind-blown loess soils west of Vienna on either side of the Danube (especially the regions of Wagram and Traisental), and piercing, firm, minerally wines from vineyards planted right on primary rock (gneiss, granites, etc.) in the Danube Valley.

Riesling Rocks

Yet Austrian Riesling, in my view, and at the risk of offending a large percentage of the wine industry, produces the country’s very finest white wines. The examples from the primary rock terraces lining the Danube west of Vienna, especially the Wachau region and select sites in the Kamptal and Kremstal, are strikingly mineral, powerful, enormously complex wines capable of long-term cellaring and shouldn’t be missed by fans of the grape. See below for some trustworthy names to look for.

Other Exotics

Other more exotic local grapes like rotgpfler and zierfandler from the Thermenregion south of Vienna can surprise by their dense orchard fruit and minerally character. Look for the wines of Stadlmann for a good introduction. In the southern part of the country, in the region called Steiermark (Styria), sauvignon blanc is the calling card. Steep slopes of varying composition including volcanic, gravel, limestone soils yield pungent sauvignons, somewhere between Loire Valley, Bordeaux and New Zealand in style, and most closely resembling the perfumed examples in Italy’s neighboring Friuli region. Look for Sattlerhof or Tement to get yourself started.

I’ll also put in a word for Styria’s pale rose specialty called Schilcher [SHILL-hair] made from the blauer wildbacher grape. These bone dry, searingly tart wines are a bit of an acquired taste, but I personally love the vibrancy and first-sip-of-the-day acids. Try Reiterer’s Alte Reben (“Old Vine”) Engleweingarten schilcher for a pleasant shock.

Reds on the Rise

Hands down, however, the greatest improvements in Austrian wine have come in the red wine category. I recall the first tasting of Austrian reds I attended some fifteen years ago in Toronto, where I was struck by how woeful they were for the most part: thin, green, weedy, or crushed by excessive oak and over-extraction. Klinger, referring specifically to red wines, is appropriately circumspect: “Looking back, we can see that while each of these innovations [international varieties, extraction, excessive oak use] were important steps on the way to new red wine highs, they were not the essence of this development.”

Now Austrian vintners, at least the top tier, have moved past this developmental phase to the point where terroirs and native varieties have been embraced with confidence. “Austria has three aces up its sleeve, namely the indigenous grape varieties Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. It is only now that we really understand how to play this incredible starting hand,” says Klinger.

Top Austrian Red Wine Tasting at the Hofburg Palace (Can you spot the WineAlign logo on someone's computer?)

Top Austrian Red Wine Tasting at the Hofburg Palace (Can you spot the WineAlign logo on someone’s computer?)

My most recent tastings, including wines from the excellent 2011 and 2012 vintages, underscore the point. Austrian winemakers today can confidently spend more time looking at their vineyards rather than outside the country, comfortable in the knowledge that both their native grapes and their varied terroirs are able to produce wines that are as distinctive and qualitative as any other great local specialties around the world.

Proof of Success

A quick glance at the steep upward graph depicting Austrian wine exports over the last three decades tells a clear tale: foreign markets have grown increasingly confident in the quality of Austrian wines, and are willing to pay more and more for them. Exports reached an all-time high of 137m euros in 2013, all the more remarkable considering the steady or even decreasing exports by volume, thanks in part to several consecutive short crops. The value curve has been rising steeply for a decade. Also, average export price per liter topped 3 euros (c. $5) for the first time in 2013. That may not seem like a lot to Canadian consumers used to paying $15 and up for a decent 750ml bottle of wine, but that figure is among the highest in the world.

Still Work to Be Done

But there is, of course, still work to be done – any country that stands still in today’s market is quickly left behind. Red wine quality is still not uniformly high, and too many still rely on the crutch of over-making wines. The divide between progressive and backward looking winemakers is still wide. Blaufrankisch, despite its firm tannins and marked acids, is nonetheless a dainty variety, with delicate tart red fruit flavours that need to be preserved through careful handling. Heavy wood/caramel flavours all too easily overwhelm the delicate fruit character that makes the grape so attractive in the first place, and one gets the sense that great fruit is often compromised by aggressive winemaking. Several of the wines recently tasted are not at international level, while a handful could even be considered defective, and this among what are supposed to be the country’s top rated wines.

“When it comes to Blaufränkisch, we have seen that it was the right decision to move the focus away from cellar techniques and place it on the work in the vineyard,” emphasizes Klinger, words that more winemakers need to take to heart.

For detailed information on the Austrian wine industry and all appellations, visit the Austrian Wine Marketing Board excellent and comprehensive website.

The Wines: Top Blaufrankisch from 2011-2012

Following are a dozen blaufrankisch to track down at all costs. The wines were tasted in June 2014 during the biennial fair called Vievinum held in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The list of wines to be tasted was compiled by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board from the highest rated wines as judged by the local press.

The Burgenland in the far east of Austria on the border with Hungary, and its various sub-appellations, remains the reference region of production. Among my general observations is that limestone and slate soils seem to give the best – most refined, elegant and mineral – versions of blaufrankisch. The Leithaberg and Eisenberg DACs are almost uniformly excellent, while the silty-loam-clays of Carnuntum were generally less exciting, with many wines bearing the heavy hand of the winemaker. Exceptions, however, prove the rule.

A Killer Dozen

Weingut Ernst Triebaumer 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Mariental Burgenland. Ernst Tribaumer took over the 300 year family operation in 1971, implementing a new quality direction. Many cite the 1986 Triebaumer Mariental blaufrankisch as the first great serious Austrian red wine, and it continues to be a reference point. The Mariental vineyard is an east-facing, mostly calcareous vineyard in Rust, with over 50-year-old vines, bottled separately only in exceptional vintages. The 2011 intense and concentrated, but without exaggeration, in the darker fruit spectrum, dense, rich, compact. Nearly twenty years on since this wine first catapulted Austrian reds into the international spotlight, this still remains a top reference. Best after 2018 – this can also age magnificently into the late ’20s.

Roland Velich of Moric, a Blaufränkisch specialist

Roland Velich of Moric, a Blaufränkisch specialist

Moric 2011 Blaufränkisch Lutzmannsburg “Alte Reben” Burgenland. Roland Velich is a widely recognized master of blaufrankisch, a variety he has pushed to the limits to see what could be obtained. His range of village and single vineyard wines is nothing short of extraordinary, vinified meticulously with the lightest of touches and refinement and elegance in mind. The old vines from Lutzmannsburg, some over 100 years and planted in high density, is all about finesse and florality, pure and authentic, the hallmarks of this sandy-loam over primary rock site. An energetic, natural wine of top quality.

Weingut Gernot und Heike Heinrich 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Alter Berg Burgenland. Gernot Henrich runs a sizable operation (500k bottles annually) from a stylish, modern facility in the Burgenland, producing several ranges of wines, each at the top of their respective price categories. Grapes are biodynamically farmed, and the key words here are purity and elegance. The Alter Berg is a sea fossil-rich site in the Leithagebirge hills on the western shore of Lake Neusiedl, vinified à la pinot noir, in open top wooden fermenters and aged in 500l barrels. This is classic blaufrankisch: pure wild cherry, floral, blood orange character, clean and pure, with gorgeous, juicy acids and fine-grained tannins. For current enjoyment or mid term hold.

Former sommelier-turned-blaufränkisch-producer Uwe Schiefer

Former sommelier-turned-blaufränkisch-producer Uwe Schiefer

Weingut Uwe Schiefer 2012 Blaufrankisch Königsberg, Burgenland. A former sommelier at Vienna’s top restaurant, Steiereck, Uwe Schiefer is another acknowledge blaufrankisch specialist and among the first to pursue the more refined and elegant side of the variety. From his excellent range, the Königsberg vineyard stood out; this pure limestone site planted with over 50-year-old vines is a beauty. Classy, spicy and beautifully structured, with terrific length, it should hit prime towards the end of the decade. Look also for the 2012 Eisenberg, a top notch schist-quartz expression of the grape.

Weingut Wachter-Wiesler 2011 Blaufränkisch Reserve “Alte Reben” Eisenberg. This was a great discovery for me, the first wine I’ve tasted from Wachter-Wiesler, established in 1999 with the amalgamation of the two families’ vineyards. “For me, a wine is most interesting, natural and authentic when it is known where its grapes are grown,” says Christoph Wachter, and every effort to preserve the natural vineyard expression is made. The Alte Reben (“old vines”) is made from eighty year-old vines grown on the green slate soils that dominate the Eisenberg appellation, aged in 1500l casks. It delivers high density and intensity, compact tannins and firm acids, not to mention tremendous length. A serious wine, succulent, elegant and balanced.

Weingut Birgit Braunstein 2011 Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC. Another great discovery are the wines of Birgit Braunstein, made from organically grown, minimally-handled grapes. The limestone-rich soils of the Leithaberg favour finesse, which is perfectly preserved by wild ferment wild in wood vats and ageing in old 500 liter barrels. This 40 year-old vine cuvée is pure, and fragrant, succulent and lively. I love the fresh acids firm, structured tannins, balanced by ripe and zesty red berry fruit. Good to very good length. Best after 2016.

Weingut Familie Prieler 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Goldberg Burgenland. The Prieler family has been in Schützen for at least 150 years practicing polyculture, and made the transition to a dedicated wine estate in 1972. Today the family farms 30 hctares of vineyards on the western shores of Lake Neusiedl under a nature reserve. The Goldberg and its mineral-rich slate soils is the top blaufrankisch bottling, pure, red fruit driven with typical herbal spice. I like the black currant character, juicy, lively acids, and fully integrated wood (26 months in small barrel, though must be well-used).

Dorli Muhr, Muhr-van der Niepoort wines, Carnuntum

Dorli Muhr, Muhr-van der Niepoort wines, Carnuntum

Weingut Muhr – van der Niepoort 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Spitzerberg Carnuntum. This is the only non-Burgenland blaufrankisch to make my top list, though considering the unusually high limestone content of the Spitzerberg, and the partnership between Dorli Muhr and Dirk Neipoort (of the extraordinary Niepoort wines in the Douro Valley, Portugal, it’s not surprising that it sits in the top class. This is fine, fragrant, balanced and elegant blaufrankisch, highly minerally, with lovely wild cherry fruit. And if you think this is good, just wait for the 2012s to be released.

Weingut Pittnauer 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Ungerberg Burgenland. Although considered St. Laurent specialists, the biodynamically-farmed, wild yeast fermented blaufrankisch from the Ungerbrg vineyard is a stunning wine. It spends 20 months in old barrels, delivering an intriguing aromatics including green olive, citrus-blood orange, and authentic grape spice while the palate is arch classic blaufrankisch with its mid-weight, fine but dusty tannins and crunchy acids, plus mineral character.

Weingut Anton Hartl 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Rosenberg Leithaberg DAC. Organically certified grapes (since 2010), high limestone content in the vineyard and gentle handling give Toni Hartl’s blaufrankisch a quality edge. The 2011 is just on the right side of reductiveness, with lively red berry fruit, tart and juicy – a blaufrankisch on the more elegant and succulent side.

Weingut Anita & Hans Nittnaus 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Tannenberg Burgenland. Although not the most expensive wine in the Nittnaus range, the Tannenberg vineyard blaufrankisch is for me their finest wine. Made from biodynamically-grown grapes, the 2011 has genuine complexity and character, voluminous and substantial palate, with fine-grained, firm tannins and succulent acids. A superb wine, best after 2016.

Weingut Krutzler 2011 Blaufränkisch Reserve Burgenland. In opposition to the current trend in the Burgenland for site-specific bottlings, the Krutzlers “no longer rely exclusively on single vineyards, but rather focus on the interplay of premium fruit, consistent vineyard management and steady stylistics”. The Reserve is made from 15- to 30-year-old vines on the estate’s top sites on the Eisenberg and in Deutsch-Schützen, and this offers a nicely balanced nose and palate to match, with a fine mix of tannins and acids, alcohol and fruit. Everything is nicely in place, with excellent length. Best after 2016.

Little Black Book Addresses in The Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal

While not an exhaustive list, these are the producers you shouldn’t miss when traveling through the Danube Valley west of Vienna, or when shopping anywhere for top bottles of grüner veltliner and Riesling from Austria.

Wachau

Weingut Franz Hirtzberger

Weingut Emmerich Knoll

Nikolaihof

Weingut F.X. Pichler

Weingut Rudi Pichler

Weingut Veyder-Malberg

Weingut Pichler-Krutzler

Peter Veyler-Malberg

Peter Veyler-Malberg, Wachau

 

Kamptal

Weingut Rudi Rabl

Weingut Kurt Angerer

Weingut Allram

Weingut Bründlemayer

Weingut Jurtschitsch

Weingut Fred Loimer

 

Kremstal

Weingut Geyerhof

Schloss Gobelsburg

Weingut Hiedler

Weingut Nigl

Salomon Undhof

 

Buyer’s Guide: Top Smart Buys in Ontario

The following recommended wines are currently available in Ontario, either at the LCBO or via consignment agents. Click on each for the details.

White

Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner 2012 Kamptal, 94 $64.95

Weinrieder Riesling Kugler 2009, Weinviertel 92 $29.95

Weingut Loimer Grüner Veltliner Terrassen 2012 Niederösterreich, 92 $39.95

Domäne Wachau Achleiten Smaragd Riesling 2011, Wachau, Austria 92 $36.95

Biohof Pratsch Steinberg Grüner Veltliner 2010, Niederösterreich 91 $35.95
Salomon Undhof Wachtberg Reserve Erste Lage Gr†Ner Veltliner 2011, Kremstal 91 $27.95

X. Pichler Federspiel Loibner Klostersatz Grüner Veltliner 2012 Wachau, 91 $37.95

Salomon Undhof Wachtberg Reserve Erste Lage Grüner Veltliner 2011, Kremstal, 91 $27.95

Loimer Grüner Veltliner Trocken 2013, Dac Kamptal 90 $23.95

Wieninger Gemischter Satz 2013, Vienna 90 $20.95

Kurt Angerer Grüner Veltliner Kies 2013 Niederösterreich, 90 $19.95

Meinklang Grüner Veltliner 2013, Burgenland 89 $15.95

Winzer Krems Edition Chremisa Grüner Veltliner 2012 Niederösterreich, 89 $24.95

Domäne Wachau Terraces Grüner Veltliner 2012, Wachau, 88 $17.95

Zahel Gruner Veltliner Goldberg 2013, Vienna 88 $22.60

Weingut Loimer, Grüner Vetliner ‘lois’ 2013 Niederösterreich, 87 $18.95

Sattlerhof Sauvignon Blanc Vom Sand 2013, Südsteiermark 87 $19.95

 

Red

Heinrich St Laurent 2010, Burgenland 91 $36.95

Weingut Heinrich Blaufränkisch 2012, Burgenland 89 $24.95

Heinrich Zweigelt 2012, Burgenland 89 $24.95

Zantho St Laurent 2011, Burgenland 88 $18.00

 

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

 

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South Africa in The Spotlight Part Two: Getting Cooler

South Africa in The Spotlight: Part Two

Part one of the series last week makes the pitch for South Africa as one of the most exciting countries in the world of wine, and examines the Swartland region and its top producers. This entry covers the cool Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

Regions to Watch: The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (“heaven and earth”) is technically three separate wards within the district of Walker Bay: there’s the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley itself as well as the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, as you move inland from the seaside town of Hermanus. There are currently eleven wineries in the valley and 14 grape growers, and growing.

The coast by Hermanus, Walker Bay

The coast by Hermanus, Walker Bay

This is pinot noir and chardonnay territory par excellence, cooled by breezes off the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn are chilled by the icy Benguela current that surges up from Antarctica and bounces off the Cape. Soils vary greatly, but follow the general South African pattern of variations on shale, sandstone and granite. The clay content, however, heavier at either end of the valley but lower in the middle, regulates the relative weight of pinot noirs, Anthony Hamilton Russell tells me. “The middle part of the valley [the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde] will always make lighter and delicate pinots”, he says, while more clay equates to fuller bodied and more structured examples.

Anthony’s father Tim Hamilton Russell was the first to plant vines in Walker Bay, although it wasn’t known then as Walker Bay. Travelling frequently to his holiday home in the old seaside fishing town of Hermanus, he was struck by the possibility of winegrowing in this cool maritime region. At the time it was outside of any official demarcated wine growing areas, and the pinot, chardonnay and sauvignon that Hamilton Russell made in the mid-eighties was labeled simply as “Western Cape Red/White Wine” without mention of region or grape.

Eventually the government would create the Walker Bay District, but it is a very large area with vastly different soils and micro climates, and so without logical coherence. It was then broken up five years ago into five wards: the Standford Valley, Bot River Valley, and the three Hemel-en-Aarde wards. “It’s been a commercially difficult transition, as the appellation is a mouthful to be sure, whereas Walker Bay is known and easy” says Hamilton Russell.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with the Atlantic in the distance, seen from Newton Johnson Vineyards

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with the Atlantic in the distance, seen from Newton Johnson Vineyards

Early challenges in the region included a lack of good plant material. The first clone of pinot noir available in South Africa was the Swiss Wadenswill clone, better suited to sparkling wine production in cool climates, and evidently not ideal for the Cape. “One of the frustrations for pinot noir producers in this country is that we’re in the minority” laments Bevan Newton Johnson of Newton Johnson Vineyards. “Nurseries are much better equipped to respond to the demands of cabernet, merlot and shiraz producers. We’d send in orders but there was no incentive to offer quality clones. They knew we’d have to take what was available”.

Better clonal material such as the Dijon clones would eventually arrive, but another ongoing problem is endemic leaf roll virus. Most vineyards have to be replanted every dozen or so years, meaning that many vines may never reach their maximum quality potential.

Yet challenges aside, the wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde have a finesse and elegance unknown elsewhere in South Africa, and I suspect this little piece of heaven and earth will soon be much better-known both domestically and internationally.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Producers to Know 

Anthony Hamilton Russell in his beautiful Canadian beaver pelt fedora

Anthony Hamilton Russell in his beautiful Canadian beaver pelt fedora

Hamilton-Russell. Little intro is needed here; Hamilton Russell is the original and still the gold standard for the region. The wines are all class, like Anthony Hamilton Russell himself, an English aristocrat who happens to be South African. Watch out for the turtles roaming the gardens in front of Braemar, the home of Anthony & Olive Hamilton Russell. The very good Southern Right and Asbourne labels are also produced by the Hamilton Russell team.

Newton Johnson Vineyards. This is a gorgeous spot in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde with a view to the coast down the Valley. It’s very much a family affair, with father Dave Newton Johnson a Cape Wine Master with thirty years experience in the business, and sons Gordon (winemaking) and Bevan (Managing Director, marketing).

Prior to settingling in the valley, Dave worked at Distell, South Africa’s largest wine company. But pinot noir was always his passion, and he used to drag his kids up to Walker Bay to see Peter Finlayson (former winemaker at Hamilton Russell before launching his own winery, Bouchard Finlayson, with a group of 18 investors including Paul Bouchard from Burgundy) to taste pinot. Pinot noir was, after all, Dave’s dissertation topic in the 1980s for his Master’s degree, a time when very little was known about the grape in South Africa.

Bevan (left) and Gordon Newton Johnson

Bevan (left) and Gordon Newton Johnson

He eventually purchased land in the area in the late 1990s and was joined by his sons; the purpose was clear: to focus on pinot noir. They started from scratch and have since planted sixteen hectares over the years 2002-2004. Chardonnay, sauvignon and the Rhône varieties play supporting roles.

Lunch at Newton Johnson (pork belly is all the rage in South Africa, too)

Lunch at Newton Johnson (pork belly is all the rage in South Africa, too)

Overall, the wines at Newton Johnson are pristine and perfumed, finely crafted, elegant, with a minimum of extraction and emphasis on elegance, precisely what the lighter soils in this middle section of the valley are best suited to produce. Research and experimentation continues. “Nobody has more than 30 years experience growing pinot in South Africa. We have so much to learn”, Bevan reveals.

As an aside, the restaurant at Newton Johnson is one of the finest in the Cape and certainly Michelin star-quality. Don’t miss a chance to dine here if you find yourself in the area.

Creation Wines. Husband and wife team Jean-Claude (JC) and Carolyn Martin run this tidy operation in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward. The couple started from the ground up, converting a sheep farm under the imposing Babylon Mountain peak to vineyards in 2002, and following that with a cellar and restaurant in 2007. This part of the valley is about ten kilometers from the sea and at 300m elevation. And the climate is notably more continental: “midnight is always 12ºC cooler than the daytime high” JC tells me, and “harvest is two weeks later than the lower part of the Valley”.

Jean-Claude Martin, Creation Wines

Jean-Claude Martin, Creation Wines

More clay surfaces here amidst the 450 million-year-old Bokkersfeld shale soils, as it does lower down, favouring more structured wines. The Martins have forty hectares planted principally to pinot noir, with a mix of other varieties including chardonnay, syrah and grenache. 

Over lunch we’re treated to a first hand dose of Ridge weather. From calm, hot and sunny on arrival, within a matter of minutes a large front moves in from the north. Weather events hit here about a day after they move through Stellenbosch and Paarl as fronts curl around the cape and head up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The wind picks up and guest quickly scurry inside as the restaurant staff scrambles to lower umbrellas and close the sliding doors. Rain is imminent. The weather can change here in five minutes.

Carolyn Martin, Creation Wines, with her fancy double decanting device

Carolyn Martin, Creation Wines, with her fancy double decanting device

Safely inside, we sit down to a well-orchestrated wine and food pairing. Correctly speaking, Creation doesn’t have a restaurant, I’m told, but rather a “degustation room”. Carolyn is emphatic about ensuring that everything works to highlight the wines. On the menu, every dish is accompanied by a wine – in fact ordering food without wine is frowned upon (there’s a separate playroom for children – a brilliant idea that should be emulated the world over in my view – so that the adults can play in peace). Carolyn works daily with the chef, fine tuning dishes to pair with Creation wines, and everything is expertly done with love and care, down to proper serving temperature (reds are served cool) and double decanting wines when necessary. We have an excellent experience.

JC, who is of Swiss-French origin, is no less precise on the winemaking side. These are skillfully crafted and widely appealing wines, to the point that one almost wishes for a hair to be out of place. But there isn’t – every bottle is neatly coloured within the lines, a reasonable feat considering a production of 200,000 bottles under the Creation label, and another 150,000 bottles under the Whale Pod, made mostly from purchased fruit “and bits and pieces” of estate fruit. There are three tiers: Creation Estate, Creation Reserve, and the two top wines labeled “The Art of Chardonnay” and “The Art of Pinot Noir”. And JC tells me that his clones of pinot noir are virus-free, unlike the majority in the valley, meaning that as they age the full potential of Hemel-en-Aarde terroir may be revealed.

Also Noteworthy:

Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson

Sumaridge. A quality producer in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, owned by the Bellingham Turner family. Chardonnays here are a little denser and riper than the average in the region. Look also for the excellent “Epitome” cuvée, a shiraz-pinotage blend reminiscent of the southern Rhône.

Bouchard Finlayson. Although quality is highly variable from wine to wine and vintage to vintage, the estate is worth a mention as one of the longest-established in the region after Hamilton Russell, where Peter Finlayson was winemaker until the early 1990s. The 2007 and 2011 Galpin Peak pinot noir are among the best I’ve tasted from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, while the Overberg unoaked chardonnay is also worth a look.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Part One: Revolution in the Swartland; Buyer’s guide to South African Wines

Bad cop, good cop - Québec journalist Jessica harnois and Laurel Keenan of Wines of South Africa

Bad cop, good cop – Québec journalist Jessica Harnois and Laurel Keenan of Wines of South Africa


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South Africa in the spotlight: Excitement & Revolution

Is South Africa One of the World’s Most Vibrant Wine Countries?
by John Szabo MS

Part One: Revolution in the Swartland, South Africa’s hottest region; Buyer’s guide to South African Wines

(Watch for Part Two next week: The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley)

Cause for Excitement

Though 354 years old, the modern South African wine industry is barely celebrating its twentieth birthday. It’s only been a couple dozen years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom, and twenty years since the first multiracial elections in the country, which effectively ended decades of international embargos and sanctions. The number of cellars crushing grapes has nearly tripled since 1991 (from 212 to 564 in 2013, with a high of 604 cellars in 2009). What was before an entirely insular industry has grown in the last two decades into one of the most vibrant and exciting wine scenes in the world.

Night falling over Table Mountain, view from Durbanville Hills

Night falling over Table Mountain, view from Durbanville Hills

Change of course hasn’t been easy. When the Cape opened up in the early nineties, the lure of chasing seemingly limitless international wine markets (and a very limited domestic one) was irresistible. Since the fashion of the time dictated red wine, many growers were motivated to rip out old vineyards of white grapes destined mainly for brandy and replant them with fashionable jet-setting grapes like cabernet, merlot and shiraz, which were minor players under the old winemaking regime. In 1990 cabernet represented just 4% of total acreage, and merlot and shiraz just 1% each. In 2012, the proportions had shifted massively, with those grapes representing 12%, 6% and 11% respectively. In the same period, chardonnay quadrupled to 8% of plantings, and sauvignon blanc moved from 2% to 10%, while at the same time, chenin blanc acreage was nearly cut in half from 32% to 18%.

New Plantings In Paarl

New Plantings In Paarl

The strategy at the time appeared reasonable enough, were it not for the reality that South Africans were a couple of decades behind the rest of the world. Revamping a vineyard is not like switching from corn to barley or cotton to sugarcane; it takes many years to establish a new variety. And there’s a truism in the world of wine: if you chase what’s fashionable, by the time you get there fashion will have moved on.

It’s not hard to see why in the rush to join the rest of the world, mistakes were unavoidable. In many cases, grapes and places didn’t match up. Although South Africa is blessed with a variety of climates and soils, many regions are simply too warm to make fine cabernet and merlot, or interesting chardonnay, while the regions that are suited were still being discovered. Not to say that there aren’t fine cabernets and blends – there are, particularly in Stellenbosch, but exceptions always prove the rule.

Many bet heavily on sauvignon blanc, made fashionable in the nineties by New Zealand, but it has proven over time, with rare exceptions, to make mildly interesting wine at best – nothing to shake the world or cause anxiety in Kiwi land. The hope that pinotage – a grape virtually unique to (and created in) South Africa – might one day become the country’s flagship grape were all but dashed by planting it in areas that are patently too warm for a variety that ripens earlier than pinot noir. The lamentable solution: mask the shortcomings with mocha-chocolate-coffee flavours. And there are other examples.

It’s easy in hindsight to say that the South African wine industry should have stuck with what it was already doing well, but that of course would never have happened. Often in this business you have to take a step forward in order to be able to take two steps back. And this is where I see South Africa today: the early leap forward into an uncertain future has allowed the industry to look back into the past with clarity and renewed purpose. Today it is so much clearer which regions and grapes, and their combinations, work, and yield wine that can truly be called distinctive. It would have taken a mighty visionary surveying the wine scene circa 1994 to see the future as it is today.

Fine-tuning the complex matrix of cultivar, climate and soil is well and truly underway, guided by both the important hand of history as well as hyper-acute technological tools. What used to take centuries and multiple generations has been accomplished in a mere couple of decades.

Always with us: Nelson Mandela still watches over vines at Fairview Cellars

Always with us: Nelson Mandela still watches over vines at Fairview Cellars

And the technical proficiency and open-mindedness that comes from travel and exchange of knowledge, unavailable to the previous generation of South African winegrowers, is widely enjoyed by today’s cohort. It has given the necessary confidence to both neglect fashion and be lazy in the winery, letting grape and place speak more loudly than technique. Such an attitude is possible only with self-assurance and a belief that one’s patch of dirt and distinct variety can make something of worth, and something that can finally and truly be called South African. And that attitude is spreading like wildflowers across the Cape’s astonishingly beautiful and incredibly bio diverse landscape.

That’s what makes South Africa one of the most exciting and vibrant winegrowing countries in the world, with so much more great wine to come. And when you throw all-important value into the mix, driven in part by the country’s weak rand, the story is even more exciting.

A full report on the SA wine scene would require far more words than even internet publications accept (not to mention time more time to read than anyone has), so I’ve written up mini profiles on two diametrically opposed but equally exciting regions that give a flavour for the overall South African wine scene. Part one covers the Swartland, along with the producers whose wines you’ll want to find, and drink, and part two next week looks at the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. I wrap up each with a buyer’s guide of South African wines currently available in Canada.

Part One Places to Watch: Revolution in The Swartland

We drive down a dusty, unpaved bumpy road passing parched fields of grass and wheat, grazing cattle, and vineyards scattered here and there with gnarled old vines spread like shrubs across the dry and stony ground. This is the land that was forgotten: The Swartland. The name means literally ‘the black land’, from the now endangered indigenous renosterbos (rhino bush) which once coloured the landscape dark. But it too has been forgotten.

Swartland Landscape - the land that time forgot (or at least the 1990s wine industry boom)

Swartland Landscape – the land that time forgot (or at least the 1990s wine industry boom)

When the wine industry upheaval came in the nineties, excitement was focused on Stellenbosch. Swartland wasn’t part of the boom. But recently it’s been Swartland’s turn for an all-out revolution, and it has become South Africa’s hottest zone for prospectors, punters and winegrowers fuelled by passion but with bank accounts running on empty. But some larger companies are already moving in and/or sourcing fruit in the region (Fairview, Mulderbosch, Boekenhoutskloof), and it’s only a matter of time before everyone is saying “Sf-var-t-lande” in proper Afrikaans.

The cause of the excitement is in plain sight, for anyone who takes the three-hour car ride up from Cape Town: old bush vines of unfashionable grapes. Land prices are still cheap (at least relative to areas like Stellenbosch where creeping urbanization is putting immense pressure on vineyard land, driving up values to unsustainable levels), I’m told about $5,000 per hectare (although most properties are large and can’t be subdivided), which in turn draws an anti-corporate, post-modern collection of young maveric winemakers seeking to make a unique artistic statement rather than simply collect a pay check. And voilà – you have a quality revolution. It’s more or less the same set of circumstances that have made places like Italy’s Mt. Etna or Spain’s Bierzo and Priorat (and what might make Southern Chile’s old vine pais and carignan) the sin-qua-nons of any cutting edge wine list over the last decade.

As a result of being spared participation in the first phase of the industry revamp, a disproportionate number of old vineyards in the Swartland were left untouched, farmed without fanfare by anonymous cooperatives churning out anonymous wines from grapes nobody had heard of or cared much about. But now in the ongoing worldwide search for distinctive regional authenticity, these ancient vines, perfectly adapted to their surroundings, have moved up to the order of national treasures. South Africa is simply identifying and acknowledging its own national viticultural treasures. Today Swartland has the highest percentage of old vines in South Africa, and South Africa has the greatest acreage of old white vines in the new world – that’s cause for excitement.

Grapes that were once thought useful only for distillation or jug wine, like chenin blanc and cinsault are proving otherwise. And they’ve been joined more recently by varieties that fit the region, like grenache, syrah, mourvedre, roussanne and viognier. Considering the scarce rainfall (300-500mm per year) and a heat summation equivalent to region IV – that’s like scorching southern Spain – Mediterranean varieties are logical. And the palette of soils ranging from decomposed granites to shales, schists and iron-rich red soils called Koffieklip provide for diverse expressions and intriguing blending possibilities.

Still, there are many old vineyards whose grapes are pumped into bulk tanks or cheap bag-in-box, so there’s ample opportunity for fine Swartland wine to grow. For now it’s believed that the market is not yet ready to absorb a massive influx of high end wines from this as-yet little known region, which is undoubtedly true. As consumers, we’d be smart to get in and buy what’s currently available before the rest of the world finds out how good these wines can be.

The Swartland Producers To Know

Sadie Family Wines

Eben Sadie

Eben Sadie

Winemaker Eben Sadie is one of South Africa’s most reflective and philosophical characters. On arrival I’m treated to a well-rehearsed one-hour discourse on his beliefs including, for example, the logic of blending grapes in the Swartland, as is done in other warm climates around the world (single variety wines are the domain of cool regions – think about it: Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, northern Italy, vs. southern France and Spain), or the dangers of dogmatic idealism (he’s on the minimal intervention side of the spectrum, but if the wine needs a touch of sulphur, he’ll add it), or the need to evolve over time (there used to be lots of new wood in the cellar, which has slowly given way to old barrels, large old wooden vats and more recently concrete eggs and clay amphora).

Sadie has one of the best collections of empty wine bottles in his office I’ve ever seen – all of the world’s greats are there – which I find highly comforting. He clearly knows what fine wine is. His passion for wine is matched only by his passion for surfing “I love it like you have no idea. It’s what I do”. He pours his wines in Zalto Burgundy glasses – in my view some of the best vessels in the world out of which to experience wine, and what Sadie describes as being like “flying to the moon”. It’s also reassuring: here wine is treated with care and respect. I later find out that he acquired his large and expensive glassware fleet by trading bottles of his top wine, Columella, with the owner of Zalto glassware in Austria “one for one”. I’m tempted to say that Herr Karner got the better deal, given the finite scarcity of Sadie’s wines; only 4000 cases in total (all labels) are made annually, with no intention to grow.

Sadie and his latest clay amphora

Sadie and his latest clay amphora

I appreciate Sadie’s confidence and thoughtfulness, almost as much as his wines. These are among South Africa’s best wines without question, hitting the right spot on the continuum of naturalness, with depth, precision, genuine complexity, purity and clarity. The multi-cépage blends Columella (red) and Palladius (white) sit at the top of the estate’s hierarchy; they’re also among the South Africa’s most expensive (approximately $130 and $70 respectively), but in an international context, are worth every penny and more.

He has recently introduced a range of single vineyard wines that should expose more consumers to his wines, if not in quantity, than at least in price, at around $40-$50 per bottle. These wines are the result of an obsessive search for old vine parcels that can produce at the highest quality levels. Starting from literally hundreds of potential sites, Sadie has slowly whittled the options down to a mere handful. The collection includes an astoundingly good chenin blanc ‘Skurfberg’ made from vines planted in 1888, a lovely, fine and firm cinsault ‘Pofadder’ (a grape Sadie describes as being “like your brother in jail – you love him but you can’t talk about him”), a floral and powerful, whole bunch-fermented grenache ‘Soldaat’, and a rare and arresting tinta barroca ‘Treinspoor’,  which he describes as being like “syrah married to nebbiolo”.

Sadie Family's latest single vineyard range. No concessions made to international markets - these labels are unapologetically South African

Sadie Family’s latest single vineyard range. No concessions made to international markets – these labels are unapologetically South African

The second label of sorts is called Sequillo (a red and white blend are made) and offer tremendous value. Sadie describes Sequillo as his R&D company. The wines change every year, and “all of the freak stuff goes into it”. But since even the freaky here is freakishly good, these are wines you’ll want to drink.

Mullineux Family Wines

Chris Mullineux

Chris Mullineux

In many ways Chris Mullineux and his wife Andrea are emblematic of the Swartland revolution. Chris has both an accounting degree (useful in the wine business) and a winemaking degree from Stellenbosch, so he is technically well-prepared. Andrea is from a winemaking background in California, and the couple met in the south of France while she was making wine in Chateauneuf and he in Bandol – so both are well traveled and experienced (and they continue to make a little bit of wine together in Napa from fruit grown in the Sierra Foothills). Chris made wine for five years at Fable Vineyards (formerly Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards), where he worked with purchased fruit from all over South Africa, including the Swartland, so he’s familiar with multiple regions.

When it was time for the Mullineux to strike out on their own, the choice of region was easy. Chris already knew that fruit from the Swartland was “the easiest to make into interesting wine without much manipulation”, and the grapes are suited to wine styles they both like to drink. The dry climate makes it easy to farm organically, yields are naturally low, and diverse soils and growing conditions provide lots of possibilities. Plus, Chris already knew all of the top growers and best sites in the region, grapes were available and inexpensive, and it was possible to set up a functional operation with minimal overhead, which would have been impossible in Stellenbosch. The pair moved in 2007 and crushed their first harvest in 2008.

Today they lease 42 different parcels, about 25 hectares in total. Emphasis is on blending, as Chris says “it’s tough to find a single site that has the full balance”. The Mullineux, like all of the avant-garde in the Swartland, are minimalist winemakers, a luxury made possible in part by working with old vines which tend to come into the winery already in balance. There are no additions to any of the wines, Chris tells me, but he’s not “dogmatic or fundamentalist”. He’ll filter if necessary, and bounce out bretty barrels. “It’s not a philosophy. It’s to make the most authentic expressions possible”, he says.

The spartan tasting bar at Mullineux, though outfitted with vineyard rock samples (left to right: schist, koffieklip, sandstone), always a reassuring sign

The spartan tasting bar at Mullineux, though outfitted with vineyard rock samples (left to right: schist, koffieklip, sandstone), always a reassuring sign

The Mullineux Family White, a blend of about 3/4 Chenin, 35-65 years old, clairette blanche and viognier, fermented and aged in mostly old foudre is rich and expressive, layered and textured with intriguing nutty/almond/marzipan flavours. The syrah, blended from parcels grown on granite, schist and koffieklip soils and fermented with 50% whole bunches offers lovely perfume in the violet spectrum, with pure dark fruit, blackberry, a touch of leafiness and lively acidity. “Weight and bigness happen naturally here”, says Mullineux, “it’s the freshness that we focus on, and what takes the most effort”. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

A second label called Kloofstreet has evolved over time from leftover wine that didn’t fit into the main range to a fully fledged brand. From two barrels in the first year that they didn’t want to sell in bulk, the Kloofstreet wines are now purpose-made from earlier picked, younger vines. The chenin blanc, from the ‘young’ 35 year old vines is crunchy and fresh, while the Kloofstreet Rouge, mostly syrah, is pure, spicy and peppery. Both are highly drinkable and fine value at about $20/bottle.

Lammershoek

Lammershoek winemaker Craig hawkins, old vines and Swartland landscape

Lammershoek winemaker Craig Hawkins, old vines and Swartland landscape

Craig Hawkins, winemaker since 2010, got doubly lucky when he met Carla Kretzel, the sales and marketing manager for Lammershoek. In one shot he scored a lovely girlfriend and a job in one of the most beautiful corners in the country (Carla’s father owns the property). It’s a relatively small operation, producing 150,000 bottles annually, and it’s fair to say the style has changed dramatically since Hawkins’ arrival. The wines have lightened up in every sense except character and quality, and the blazes here now mark out unbridled experimentation and rigorous non-interventionist winemaking.

Craig admits to being inspired by his brother, who makes and sells natural wines, and the painted words over the cellar door, “Made From Grapes” sums it up succinctly. Novelties under the “Cellar Foot” range, like the “Underwater Wine”, a carignan-grenache-mourvedre blend aged for a year in barrels stored underwater, the Hárslevelú, one of the only examples of the grape I’ve ever scene outside of Hungary, are just some of the ongoing tasty experiments.

Lammershoek-ageing wine underwater

Lammershoek: ageing wine underwater in a concrete vat

Not everything is successful, mind you, – cidery notes and oxidation creep in here and there – but by and large these are pure, fine, fresh, low alcohol, infinitely drinkable wines. The Lam rosé is one of the most delicious I’ve tasted: pale, 11% alcohol, bone dry and savoury beyond, while the Roulette Blanc, a blend of chenin, viognier, chardonnay and clairette, manages an impossible balance of richness and depth on a lithe 12.5% alcohol frame. The predominance of sandy, decomposed granite soils on the farm tend to yield lighter wines for early drinking, but then again, most are so delicious they wouldn’t last in my cellar anyway.

Lammershoek crest and credo: "Therefore, we drink wine"

Lammershoek crest and credo: “Therefore, we drink wine”

Boekenhoutskloof

Porseleinberg Syrah, Boekenhoutskloof

Porseleinberg Syrah, Boekenhoutskloof

Boekenhoutskloof. Mark Kent’s celebrated operation is based in Franshhoek, but recognizing the potential of the Swartland and the need to secure a reliable grape supply from the region, he recently purchased land on the Porseleinberg. The original parcels were planted in the late 1980s, while others are recent – Kent’s plan is to expand. The fruit finds its way in the excellent value Wolftrap and Porcupine Ridge labels, among others, but the real gem is the Porseleinberg Syrah, a wine of spectacular aromatics and massive depth and structure, made from 100% whole bunch fruit and aged in foudre and concrete eggs. The 2010 is years away still from prime drinking. And check out the beautiful label hand-pressed on a nineteenth century printing press.

Also noteworthy:

AA Badenhorst Family Wines. Although I haven’t visited the estate and their 28 hectares of old bush vines in the Paardeberg Mountain, what I’ve tasted from here has been enough to cause excitement.

If you wish to join the Swartland Revolution, plan to be in the region November 7-8th of this year, where you’ll get to taste what all the excitement is about.

sr_ticket-sales-emailer

 

Buyers’ Guide: South Africa

The following recommended wines show inventory in the LCBO, SAQ or BC Liquors stores at time of publishing:

Sequillo Cellars Red 2009, Wo Swartland

Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2012, Stellenbosch (231282) $17.95

Fairview Petite Sirah 2011, Wo Paarl (366252) $23.95

Avondale Cyclus 2010, Wo Paarl (295220) $24.75

Bosman Adama White 2010, Wo Western Cape (282764) $15.60

Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012, Coastal Region (12724) $22.95

Waterkloof Circle Of Life 2011, Stellenbosch (284588) $24.95

Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2012, Wo Upper Hemel En Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, (660878) $26.95

Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Wo Cape Point (285221) $15.95

Bayton Chardonnay 2012, Wo Constantia (269084) $17.95

~

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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The Successful Collector – Old World Riesling

The most undervalued white grape?
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Placed in the hands of even the most lacklustre of attorneys, a compelling court case could be made for convincing wine jurists that riesling is the greatest, most versatile white grape in Europe. The fact that other types of wine fetch higher prices at the premium end is neither here nor there. Granted, the best dry white Burgundy and Bordeaux may cost a great deal more, but one could easily argue this is more a result of rarity and present consumer trends than a reflection of comparative worth. Not that the quality of top Burgundy or Bordeaux has been exaggerated, more that prices for top riesling in many parts of the Old World are at present comparatively low, almost to the point of unreasonableness. As a result, there are more bargains for exemplary riesling than virtually any other type of white wine.

In the twenty-first century, few would deny that Alsace, Austria, and the most acclaimed winegrowing regions of Germany represent a sort of vinous triumvirate of unique places where riesling is able to thrive. At the premium level, the types produced in each area are at their greatest distinctiveness.

Alsace

Rows of vines in Alsace

Rows of vines in Alsace

In Alsace, the greatest rieslings usually hail from single-vineyard Grand Cru sites on steep hillsides, oftentimes (though not exclusively) consisting of sand and clay. Site variation in this part of the winegrowing world is extreme, with increasing numbers of producers vinifying and bottling specific parcels within their vineyards as separate wines. Relative dryness and higher alcohol (usually 12.5 per cent or more) remain essential hallmarks, though many top wines will often possess considerable richness, extra body, and some residual sugar. While flavour profiles are hard to generalize, the finest Alsatian rieslings tend to possess a resounding concentration of citrus-infused orchard fruits (such as peaches and pears), taking on more honeyed and kerosene-like tendencies as they age. The greatest bottlings may be easily kept for up to two decades or more. Current prices in VINTAGES for the best bottlings tend to range from $55-85, though many extremely good wines may be found for less than thirty bucks.

Austria

In Austria, the emerging style in the most famous regions for riesling (such as Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal) is one of astonishing minerality and heightened gradations of dryness. In most cases, the greatest wines derive from single vineyards, oftentimes bottled as single-parcel cuvées, grown on incredibly steep slopes facing the Danube.

Riesling vines along the Danube

Riesling vines along the Danube

Unlike Alsace or Germany, these vineyards are not officially ranked, though the best sites, usually based on granite, gneiss, and mica-schist, have long enjoyed widespread recognition over their less exalted counterparts. Alcohol levels are even higher than in Alsace (and much higher than in Germany), sometimes reaching up to 15 per cent. Compared to Alsace or Germany, the flavour of fine Austrian riesling is often much more low-keyed in youth, usually consisting of steely green fruits intermixed with lemon citrus, herbs, and an abundance of minerals. With age, more honeyed, kerosene, and nut-driven impressions seem to take over. Cellaring capability for the finest wines easily match those of Alsatian or Germanic extraction. Current availability of Austrian riesling in VINTAGES is profoundly lacking, with prices ranging from around $15-35.

Germany

For many, Germany is where riesling finds its greatest expression. As with Alsace and Austria, the best wines are those of single-vineyard persuasion, from the slate-dominant sites of the Mosel to the more clay-based areas of the Mittelhaart of the Pflaz. Styles are traditionally measured according to sweetness via the QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) system. From driest to sweetest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. The best wines of the Mosel and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer tend to reflect this system more concisely than most, while producers throughout the Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz are increasingly crafting their best single-vineyard wines in drier styles. Such wines are often labelled as ‘Grosses Gewächs,’ and invariably contain higher levels of alcohol at the expense of residual sugar. This said, the QmP system is just as useful for understanding different styles throughout most riesling-dominant regions. On the label, a stated vineyard is usually preceded by the village with which it is affiliated.

Riesling vines along the Mosel

Riesling vines along the Mosel

To this day, consumers continue to have difficulty comprehending the meaning behind different types of German wine labels. But this should not prove a barrier to obtaining some of the most underappreciated, undervalued types of riesling in Europe. Currently in VINTAGES, extremely fine, ageworthy examples logging in as low as 8 per cent alcohol (depending on the region) may be found for as little as $20, with top bottlings fetching up to $70. The sweetest versions such as Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, not to mention Eiswein, are prodigiously more expensive, and are not exactly meant for everyday drinking.

Of more off-dry examples such as Kabinett and (to a lesser extent) Spätlese, flavours often include an addictive cornucopia of white peaches, green fruits, lemon citrus, and traces of kerosene, the latter becoming more pronounced and honeyed as time wears on. As white wines go, the capacity of German riesling to age is incredible, though Kabinett versions are at their best around the vicinity of ten years. Great Auslese, on the other hand, whose special nature places it more in the medium-sweet camp, may keep for decades and decades in the right conditions. Tragically, these types of wines are not nearly as popular as they once were. This may largely be attributed to both lax and unintelligible German wine laws, along with the plain fact that many enthusiasts continue to believe that all German wine, regardless of what is stated on the label, tastes excessively sweet.

A Comeback is Coming

In some respects, this would suggest that German riesling is long overdue for a comeback, particularly as examples in Alsace and Austria continue to enjoy an increasing number of successes. The quality is there, the ageability substantial, the prices even for moderately premium versions beyond modest. What’s more, with legions of ‘wine civilians’ being dutifully summoned every day as serious enthusiasts, it is only a matter of time before this collective jury of palates renders a verdict in riesling’s favour. Impatient as some wine commentators might be, it is only a matter of time.

My top choices:

Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling has been recommended more than once this past year, for there are still a reasonable number of bottles remaining in LCBO outlets. From one of the greatest white wine producers in Alsace, this is exactly what great Old World Riesling is all about. Drink now or hold for five years or more. 

Léon Beyer 2005 Cuvée des Comtes de d’Eguisheim Riesling is the top label (in dry format) from this particular Alsace-based establishment. Though nearing ten years of age, it is still endowed with an abundant sense of liveliness, intensity, and harmony. Only just over two dozen bottles remain in LCBO outlets. Drink now or hold for up to nine years or more. 

Zilliken 2011 Saarburg Rausch Riesling Kabinett logs in at a miniscule 8% alcohol, at the same time possessing outstanding roundness, harmony, and weight. Somewhat off-dry, few wines of the Saar (a tributary of the Mosel in Germany) manage to combine such gracefulness with such ferocity of character. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years. 

Schloss 2008 Schönborn Macrobrunn Riesling Kabinett is a premium type of German (Rheingau) Riesling at a remarkably reasonable price. Crafted in an off-dry style, wines like this were all the rage throughout much of the twentieth century and preceding eras. There is no reason why they should not be again. Drink now or hold for up to eight years.

Domäne Wachau 2011 Achleiten Riesling Smaragd hails from the Wachau, easily the most prestigious winegrowing region (at least for whites) in Austria. Retaining remarkable vibrancy and balance, this invigorating example is precisely why premium Austrian Riesling, alongside Grüner Veltliner, is becoming so popular. Drink now or hold for seven years or more.

Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2010Léon Beyer Cuvée Des Comtes D'eguisheim Riesling 2005Zilliken Saarburg Rausch Riesling Kabinett 2011Schloss Schönborn Macrobrunn Riesling Kabinett 2008Domäne Wachau Achleiten Smaragd Riesling 2011

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES and the SAQ that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores. All price ranges have been researched so as to reflect current availability.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

P.S. Stay tuned next month for my exciting summary of top riesling vineyards of the Wachau, Austria’s most prestigious white winegrowing region.

Editors Note: You can find Julian’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

All Julian Hitner Reviews


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A Cult Napa Tasting – Not Your Everyday Affair

Best of California Cabernet
by John Szabo MS

John Tasting

John Szabo, MS

The following is a report on a (more than likely) once-in-a-lifetime tasting of the best of California cabernet, part of a week-long event with the rather grand title the “The California Wine Summit” organized by the Wine Institute of California last October. Admittedly, however, its grandness surpassed expectations, and this was just one of multiple landmark tastings throughout the week, if you can believe that.

The selection of wines was done simply (and cleverly) enough: the Institute asked some of California’s most respected writers, including Jon Bonné (San Francisco Chronicle), Linda Murphy (US contributor to the Oxford Companion To Wine and co-author with Jancis Robinson of American Wine), Alder Yarrow (Vinography: a wine blog), Karen MacNeil (author of The Wine Bible), and Patrick J. Comiskey (Wine & Spirits Magazine), to submit a list of their favorite Napa Cabernets, no holds barred.

The Institute then tallied up the results and the wines with the most mentions were tracked down, miraculously in some cases, and presented to our group of international wine press. All manner of rarities were included, the sort of tasting one hardly ever reads about, let alone participates in. And to make matters better, the tasting was expertly prepared and hosted by Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp, while additional colour commentary was provided by Patrick Comiskey, Karen MacNeil and Alder Yarrow. It was extraordinarily grand, a tasting not even the great Chateaux of the Médoc could touch (not least because the Bordelais would never allow anyone else to select, let alone publicly comment on their wines, on their own dime).

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet..

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet…

The formal tasting was followed by dinner at Silver Oak, where more fine wines were heaped upon the table like the grandest Medieval wedding , including many older vintages of the same wines. It was a night to remember to be sure, but those later notes remain my private property.

Napa Cabernet: The Best of the Best

The reviews below were edited only for spelling, making it an intimate and unadulterated view of the moment, including some impressions that surprised even me. Wines are ordered by my score, top down; prices are approximate.

Diamond Creek 2009 Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($200.00)

Really pretty, lifted, floral, spicy, tar and roses-scented, almost nebbiolo-like red from the iconic Diamond Creek estate, in this case from the iron-rich red soils of the Red Rock Terrace parcel. The complexity is extraordinary to be sure. Tannins are grippy and firm, grasping your palate and leaving no doubt that this will age magnificently. The finish goes on and on. Extraordinary stuff.  Tasted October 2013. 98 points.

Dunn 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($90.00)

A supremely dense, spicy, lightly herbal-vegetal, scorched earth and mineral-flavoured wine within the regional, almost savage profile of Howell Mountain. The palate is rustic and thick, with firm, tannic structure – this will age magnificently no doubt – built on a solid frame, yet there’s more than enough fleshy fruit to ensure full integration over time. All in all, quite approachable considering the customary burly house style. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Corison 2009 Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley St. Helena ($125.00)

From Cathy Corison’s flagship, 40-year old vineyard planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, the 2009 Kronos delivers a dense, dark-fruited, briary, highly spicy, orange peel-scented nose, with very well-integrated oak profile. It’s structurally tense, anchored on almost tart acids with ripe, almost red fruit, and old vine vinosity. Terrific length. I suspect this will be best from about 2017 on, with the potential to live well into its third decade. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Quintessa 2010 Napa Valley Rutherford ($145.00)

Classic, ripe black and blue fruit, with savoury forest floor, pine needle, marked but gentle wood influence, and high-toned floral notes. This is polished and elegant on a big frame, like Bordeaux in a very warm vintage, classy and complex. Best after 2015. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Spring Mountain 2010 Elivette Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain ($150.00)

Spring Mountain Vineyards has been producing cabernet for a century, with vineyards now farmed virtually biodynamically on the top of Spring Mountain and its volcanic and sedimentary soils. There’s a freshness and lifted floral note, more red fruit-driven, and light sweet baking spice touch alongside an earthy undertone. The palate offers excellent succulence, and fine-grained, firm tannins. A very fine and elegant wine, with depth and complexity, to be enjoyed after 2018 or so. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Ridge 2009 Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains ($160.00)

Apparently enough folks named the Monte Bello among their favourite wines that is was included in this otherwise all-Napa lineup. The 2009 includes about 30% merlot and petit verdot along with cabernet, offering wonderfully perfumed aromatics, high-toned, violet-floral, sweet but just ripe black berry fruit. Amazingly enough, the American oak in which this is aged is a gentle spice addition (wood is air-dried long-term). The palate is mid-weight in the usual elegant style of Ridge, with fine, succulent acids, balanced alcohol (13.5%) and terrific length. Although surprisingly approachable now, this is of course a wine with great tension and tremendous ageing potential. Best from 2019- 2039. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Spottswoode 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley St. Helena ($145.00)

A classically styled Napa Cabernet from the historic Spottswoode property, biodynamically-farmed, ripe yet with a distinct roasted vegetable note. Fruit is both black and blue, with a sweet core and dense concentration and very firm, ageworthy structure. Alcohol is generous. This is far from prime, I’d say this will be best after about 2018, and should last several decades after that without a stretch. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Scarecrow 2007 Rutherford ($500.00)

From an old plot of vines adjacent to Inglenook, planted in the 1940s. This is classy to be sure, with evident ripeness and concentration and a vinous, old wine density, excellent balance and extraordinary length. A very fine wine to be sure. There’s great precision and elegance beyond the dense masses of flavour – a wine you can truly drink and enjoy, not just sit on a pedestal. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Harlan Estates 2009 Oakville ($770.00)

The 2009 Harlan is quite classy and surprisingly approachable at this early stage (if still a long way from maturity), with a marvelous amalgam of earth, spice box, tobacco, leather and of course plenty of dark fruit, and dried prune, figs and dates. Tannins are bold, ripe, anchoring the masses of fruit, with excellent length. For fans of the full on, bold, dense, rich Napa style. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2009 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap District ($145.00)

Quite sweet and oak-tinged on the nose, with masses of (high-quality) barrel spice notes, vanilla, bitter chocolate, espresso bean, plus dense black fruit verging on liqueur-like concentration. The palate is smooth and supple, with very ripe, plush tannins, generous alcohol and long, long finish. There’s a scorched earth, red iron-like mineral note, though this remains a wood-infused bottle for the time being. To be revisited after 2017, with longevity of a couple of decades I’d suspect. Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

Continuum 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Pritchard Hill ($175.00)

The project of Tim Mondavi, an estate (92% estate fruit) wine from about 40 acres on Pritchard Hill, with 15% cabernet franc on iron-rich volcanic-derived soil. The nose is suppressed for the moment, a dense and brooding wine, though with a surprisingly supple and approachable palate – the texture here is fully beguiling, silky, yet densely packed and high in alcohol. The finish is long but carried on alcohol vapours – more of a winemaker’s wine, yet very fine in any case. Best from 2015. Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

Bond 2009 Pluribus, Spring Mountain ($250.00)

A markedly spicy, and lifted, wood spice-driven wine, very refined and elegant, yet with high, palate warming alcohol. There’s an intriguing aromatic profile with orange peel nuances I more often associate with Italian wines. Structurally the wine is firm and fine-grained, buoyed on alcohol, with nutty, chestnut flavours lingering over ripe red and some black fruit. Great length.  Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

Silver Oak 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($110.00)

The all-American oak ageing regime of Silver Oak comes through in spades in this 2009, delivering plenty of melted butter, coconut, and sandalwood – the particular house style is well-marked. The palate is as always neither heavy nor light, with vibrant acids, nicely succulent and balanced. One gets the sense that the base material is really very fine here, though you must also enjoy the heavily wood-derived profile to enjoy the ensemble, or wait at least a decade before opening. Tasted October 2013. 91 points.

Dalla Valle Maya 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville ($N/A)

Fully ripe and raisined, evidently a forward and dense, stylized wine, complete with a touch of VA. The palate is thick, hot, very firm, almost astringent, with very good length. All in all, an exaggerated style, with challenging drinkability in my view. Tasted October 2013. 91 points.

Shafer 2009 Hillside Select, Stag’s Leap District ($275.00)

Full on blue fruit and espresso, wood-derived flavour, in an unabashedly ultra-ripe, Napa valley style. Alcohol is hot, likely over 15%, with blueberry yoghurt flavours. All in all this comes across as rather one-dimensional, not in the top league in my view, though revisit in 4-6 years. Tasted October 2013. 90 points.

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS


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The Successful Collector – The Haut-Médoc

Stomping grounds for value
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

If there’s one problem Bordeaux has yet to overcome, it’s convincing enthusiasts that great claret need not break the bank. Yet many less-esteemed appellations throughout one of France’s most celebrated winegrowing areas are nowadays consistently able to combine both quality and ageability with youthful scrumptiousness and value. Of these, the Haut-Médoc is arguably at the forefront.

The largest appellation on the Left Bank of the Gironde, the Haut-Médoc surrounds the far more renowned appellations (excluded like a jigsaw puzzle from the map shown right) of Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe, each home to the lion’s share of the most famous estates in Bordeaux. The others are situated further upriver, just south of the city of Bordeaux, in the appellation of Pessac-Léognan. As a result, the finest estates of the Haut-Médoc are routinely overlooked.

But this has begun changing for some time, particularly in parts of the Haut-Médoc most blessed with higher gravel mounds on which to plant vines. As with the finest sections in the more celebrated appellations mentioned above, these gravel mounds represent one of the most significant characteristics of the greatest terroirs on the Left Bank. While regrettable, estates with vines sourced from lower-level locations simply cannot make the same wines.

The boundaries of the Haut-Médoc are extensive. Extending only several kilometres into the hinterland, the appellation begins just northeast of the city of Bordeaux along the Left Bank of the Gironde. It concludes several kilometres north of St-Estèphe, where the gravel mounds finally give way to lower-lying vineyards located in an appellation known simply as Médoc. Merlot tends to play a much greater role in the blends at this point along the river, with Cabernet Sauvignon habitually used in much smaller amounts.

Throughout much of the Haut-Médoc, Cabernet Sauvignon is used in fairly generous proportions, reinforced by Merlot and small percentages of Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot may be found from time to time, while Malbec may turn up in extremely small sums here and there. While the most illustrious estates may employ hand pickers at harvest time, many estates will often bring in their grapes via mechanical harvesters. Unlike the most famous estates of Margaux or Pauillac, many establishments in the Haut-Médoc are unable to afford such a luxury. The use of new French oak barriques will also vary according to financial constraints and/or quality of the grapes.

Of rankings, the Haut-Médoc contains only five estates belonging to the famous yet contentious 1855 Classification, each varying in quality and typically ranging in VINTAGES and the SAQ from $45-100. In terms of overall value, better examples may be found among the numerous estates ranked as Cru Bourgeois, the chief ranking category of the appellation. With the odd exception, prices in this category usually range from $20-40.

In the past, the majority of such wines were excessively lean and required years of cellaring in order to blossom. Not anymore. As a result of better winegrowing techniques and changes in climatic conditions (think global warming), the best Cru Bourgeois wines nowadays routinely offer immediate, concentrated appeal, and may be kept for up to ten years or more in the cellar. What’s more, their prices are strikingly reasonable, unlike their counterparts in St-Julien or St-Estèphe, where estates included in the 1855 Classification have all but been cordoned off except to the most well-heeled of buyers.

In the twenty-first century, never before has the winegrowing region of Bordeaux made such sizeable quantities of excellent wine. Yet the consequences of celebrity have grown all too apparent in appellations like Margaux or Pauillac, where wines once considered reasonable have become anything but. For diehard claret lovers, therefore, the fast-improving Haut-Médoc could not be more of a lifesaver.

My top choices:

Château Peyrabon 2010 Haut-Médoc is situated in the commune of St-Sauveur (just to the east of Pauillac) and represents terrific value for money. Although a rather oak-driven affair, all the component parts of this sumptuous claret are in marvellous alignment. Drink now or hold for up to ten years or more. Decanting is recommended. 

Château Sénéjac 2009 Haut-Médoc is situated in the commune of St-Pian (located in the southern part of the appellation) and is easily the most serious vintage I’ve tasted from this estate to date. Regrettably, only a handful of bottles are left in VINTAGES at time of publication. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more. Decanting is recommended. 

Château Peyrabon 2010Château Senejac 2009Château Larose Trintaudon 2010Château Moulin De Blanchon 2009Château De Gironville 2009

Château Larose-Trintaudon 2010 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Laurent (just to the east of St-Julien) and is the largest estate on the Left Bank. Though quality has been limited for many years, recent vintages such as the ’10 have been excellent. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Château Moulin de Blanchon 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Seurin (just to the north of St-Estèphe) and represents a sincerely beautiful outing. From a part of the Haut-Médoc with some extremely fine wineries, it’s wines like these that typify the future of the appellation. Drink now or hold for up to six years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château de Gironville 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of Macau (just to the south of Margaux) and is a truly delicious affair. Containing 10% Petit Verdot (unusual for a Haut-Médoc), there are only a handful of bottles left in VINTAGES at time of publication. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château La Lagune 2010Château Belgrave 2009Château Belgrave 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Laurent (just to the east of St-Julien) and is ranked as a Fifth Growth in the 1855 Classification. Though twice the cost of a standard Cru Bourgeois, the ’09 really is an outstanding claret. Drink now or hold for up to fourteen years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château La Lagune 2010 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of Ludon (located in the southern part of the appellation) and is ranked as a Third Growth in the 1855 Classification. This is widely regarded as one of the finest wines of the Haut-Médoc, and is highly recommended for serious collectors. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES and the SAQ that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find Julian’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

All Julian Hitner Reviews


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Greek Wine Report: Outstanding 2013 Whites And Going Native

John Szabo reports on top whites (and a few reds) from Greece, land of singular flavours and excellent value, and offers compelling reasons to drink native varieties

2013 has yielded an exceptional crop of wines throughout Greece, especially whites, playing to the strengths of the country’s enviable range of native varieties. According to the harvest report on the New Wines of Greece website “winemakers throughout Greece are hailing 2013 as one of the best in recent years. Favorable growing conditions, without the extreme heat that usually characterizes Greek summers were aided by cool northern winds allowing grapes to mature evenly and completely, with relatively few problems. The wines have excellent acidity and good alcohol levels with the whites showing intense aromatic qualities.”

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

A tasting in Toronto in May left no doubt of the high quality of the vintage, with many familiar estates making the finest wines I’ve tasted in the last decade. Below are some of my top picks; click on the name of each for the full review and availability.

Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine

Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine

Why Go Native

Although the names/varieties and regions for the majority of the recommendations will be utterly foreign, I’d urge you to go native and not to miss out. The prices remain amazingly low relative to quality, and this is your chance to discover new and intriguing flavours. And it makes sense to focus on the indigenous grapes in a country that has over 300 known varieties, and probably many more waiting to be documented. If these varieties are still around in the 21st C., there’s probably a very good reason.

Consider this: Greece has been making wine for the better part of four thousand years. Yet the actual cause of alcoholic fermentation (yeasts consuming sugars and spitting out alcohol) wasn’t discovered until Louis Pasteur took a microscope to fermenting grape juice a little over a hundred years ago. The technological bag of tricks that winemakers today have at their disposal to tweak a wine’s aromatics and structure and stabilize it against the ravaging effects of oxygen is a mere few decades old. (And new oenological products continue to emerge on the market like the latest range in a seasonal fashion catalogue.)

All of this development has enabled grape varieties to be transplanted in places around the world for which they are not naturally suited, and for commercial grade wine to be made from them. It has also allowed winemakers to customize a wine to fit a perceived market, denaturing the style that a region is naturally inclined to produce. The commercial pressure to put a popular variety on a label is often too much to resist, and indigenous grapes have often been ripped out to make way for chard, cab and co.

Now back to the Greeks and a few thousand years ago. No products, no technology, little understanding. In fact, ancient winegrowers had very little ability to materially affect the outcome of their winemaking ritual, and you can be sure that plenty of vinegar was made, even with fingers crossed and all.

Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC

Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC

But the one area in which they did have some control over the process was the type of vines planted in their vineyards. Good old-fashioned empirical trial and error would have led to a natural selection of varieties (distinguished easily enough by leaf shape, bunch size, and other basic morphological features – no Ph.D. required), which over time would have proved themselves to be naturally adapted to the local growing environment. And by adapted I mean that they would have been the varieties that yield naturally balanced wines – ones that would have been stable enough to last at least until the next vintage before turning to vinegar (remember, this was an era in which wine was more than a part of life, it was nothing less than a staple). By today’s standards, this means wine that doesn’t require any tinkering or chemical adjustments: crush, ferment, press, drink.

One of the most important features of a well-adapted variety is the retention of natural acidity/low pH, given that no bags of tartaric acid were available at the local supply store. This is especially critical in a generally warm, dry, Mediterranean climate where ripeness is easy to achieve – high acid/low pH is a natural defense against bacterial spoilage. You’ll find that the majority of native Greek whites from indigenous grapes are remarkably fresh and lively considering the southerly latitude on which they’re grown – a perfect illustration of natural selection.

So over the course of several thousand years, suitable grapes and places were matched up as efficiently as an online dating service: assyrtiko with the poor, wind-swept volcanic soils of Santorini, moscophilero with the cool, high mountain plateau of Mantinia, or vidiano with the arid, hot, north-facing slopes of Crete, to name but a few. Stick with the native varieties and your chances of finding, naturally well-balanced, authentic wines increase dramatically.

Although Greek winemakers of this era are as well-trained and technologically equipped as any, in some cases the grape growing and winemaking techniques employed several thousand years ago are still practiced, simply because they still work (though fewer keep their fingers crossed). I love that fact that this gives us a window on the ancient world and on what the wines sold in Athens c. 200 BC might well have tasted like.

Time to go prospecting.

Santorini

This year’s harvest was one of the earliest ever in Santorini, beginning at the end of July, but because of the residual effects of a “perfect storm” (Winds over 11 Beaufort) that damaged vines during the previous 2012 growing season, production was down over 20% from last year. This year’s wines are being compared to the benchmark vintages of 2009 and 2011, and similar to these years, the 2013 wines are showing exceptional aromatic qualities, great structure, firm acidity and, of course, intense minerality, a Santorini trademark.” – NWOG Harvest Report

Vineyards, Santorini

Traditional vineyards, Santorini

Estate Argyros 2013 Santorini, Greece ($23.95) Matthew Argyros represents the 4th generation of winemaking at the family-run estate, founded in 1903 by George Argyros. The estate owns some of the oldest vines on the island, including a parcel reputed to be over 150 years old. The 2013 estate, from the oldest vines, is so distinctively Santorini with its riveting salty-sulphurous minerality, yet tightness and acidity are taken to new heights. This is quite literally crunchy and electrifying, with a perfect pitch of alcohol and dry extract, firm and gently tannic on the palate.

Similar in style to the Estate but just a narrow step below is the Argyros Assyrtiko 2013 Santorini, Greece $19.95. It’s made from the “young vines” (50-60 years old), and offers impressive density and weigh, palpable astringency from tannins even though this is made from free-run juice, and extraordinarily fresh acids, finishing on a quivering mineral-salty string. Like the estate, this really shouldn’t be touched for another 2-3 years.

Paris Sigalas

Paris Sigalas, Santorini

Paris Sigalas is another leading grower on the Island whose wines rarely fail to excite. This former mathematician applies precision to his process and the Sigalas 2013 Santorini, Greece ($22.95) is a beautifully balance, extraordinarily rich and stony example with textbook volcanic minerality – that hard-to-describe saltiness that permeates the wine from start to finish. Fruit character is as usual subdued – assyrtiko rarely exudes much more than a whiff of grapefruit-citrus-pear – this is much more about the almost sulphur hot springs-like aromatics. Given my experience with Sigalas’ wines, this should age beautifully, and likely hit peak somewhere around 6-8 years of age, if you can wait.

Rounding out the Santorini selections (although one other excellent grower, Haridimos Hatzidakis, did not present at the tasting) is the Gaia Thalassitis 2013 Santorini, Greece ($23.95). Made by the skillful hands of Yiannis Paraskevopoulos who makes the wine at Gaia Estate in Nemea and teaches oenology at the University of Athens, Thalassitis is often a little more tame than the above-mentioned wines. In this case it’s notably reductive off the top (flinty-matchstick notes) and very tightly wound on the palate with ripping acids and firm, tart, lightly tannic texture. A fine wine, best after 2016 I’d say, and should hold a dozen years in all without any stretch.

Crete

“2013 is considered by the island’s winemakers to be the best vintage in the last 20 years. In spite of the early harvest, the growing season was characterized by a stable, constant rate of grape maturity due to spring winds and moderate summer temperatures.” NWOG Harvest Report

Nikos Douloufakis is the third generation to make wine at the family estate in the village of Dafnes, a few kilometers south of Heraklion on north facing, undulating hills. The focus here is on indigenous grapes, though winemaking is clean and modern, and price/quality is excellent. The Douloufakis Femina 2013, PGI Crete, Greece ($14.95) made from malvasia is not a particularly complex wine, but is explosively aromatic, with crunchy, zesty green fruit and plenty of floral-orange blossom notes. Hard to believe this comes from Crete; it would be equally at home in Northern Italy, stylistically. A perfect match for spicy Asian fare.

Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete

Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete

A richer and more “serious” wine from Douloufakis is the Dafnios White 2013, PGI Crete, Greece ($18.95) made from 100% vidiano, one of the top white varieties on the Island. The 2013 is a fine, fruity unoaked wine that runs in the same style spectrum as, say, viognier, substantially flavoured and very ripe, with mostly yellow orchard fruit and some mango-guava-papaya tropical fruit flavours. Drink this over the short term.

Mantinia (Peloponnese)

“This year’s harvest yielded very good results for Moschofilero, although production was down 20-30% because of frost damage that occurred near the end of April. Early results indicate this year’s vintage will have excellent aromatic potential with good structure.” – NWOG Harvest Report

It took Yiannis Tselepos ten years of careful observation before deciding to establish his vineyards on the eastern foothills of Mt. Parnon on the plateau of Mantinia in 1989. He consistently produces one of the top wines in this sought-after appellation. Overnight skin contact for the Tselepos 2013 Mantinia Moschofilero, Greece ($19.95) extracts maximum aromatics, though this is anything but rustic. The 2013 is one of Tselepos’ best, wonderfully fresh and fragrant, floral and fruity in the typical moschophilero fashion, with zesty acids and mid-weight palate. Enjoy now or hold short term – this is best fresh.

Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia

Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia

The Spiropoulos family, with ties to the wine industry stretching back to the 19th century, is another top grower in Mantinia. The Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia 2013, Peloponnese, Greece ($16.95) is made from all-estate grown moschofilero, organically farmed, and has a pale pink tinge, reflective of the dark skins of fully ripe moschofilero (like pinot gris when ripe. The palate shines with its vibrant fruity flavours in a fairly substantial and weighty expression (though still just 12.5% alcohol).

Northern Greece

Ktima Biblia Chora 2013 Assyrtico / Sauvignon, Greece ($22.95) The Biblia Chora Estate was established in 1998 by two well known winemakers, Vassilis Tsaktsarlis and Vangelis Gerovassiliou, who developed their model organic vineyard of 140 hectares at the foot of Mount Pangeon in Kokkinochori, Kavala (northeastern Greece). Assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc are common blending partners in this region, the former adding depth and structure and the latter adding its perfume and zest. The palate is rich and explosive, deep and flavourful, with tremendous intensity and length. Terrific stuff here, with evident concentration.

 

Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

Alpha Estate 2013 Axia Malagouzia, PGI Florina, Greece ($17.95) Alpha Estate is likewise a partnership between two wine industry veterans, viticulturist Makis Mavridis and oenologist Angelos Iatridis, who, after years of consulting winemaking experience in various parts of Greece, chose the Amyndeon appellation (central-northwest Greece in the regional unit of Florina) to create his own wine. The 2013 Malagouzia is the best yet from the estate, offering all of the lovely rich, ripe fruit in the tropical spectrum that the variety is capable of, with a generous, plush texture and very good length. This will appeal to fans of generously proportioned and aromatic whites like viognier, with a little more of a cool and fresh acid kick. (The 2012 is currently in VINTAGES).

And the Reds…

And for those who can’t do without red, here are a couple of currently available standouts to track down:

Boutari 2008 Grande Reserve Naoussa, Greece ($16.95)

Alpha Estate 2009 Syrah / Merlot / Xinomavro, Macedonia, Greece ($32.50)

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010, Unfiltered, Naoussa

Domaine Karydas Naoussa 2009, Dop Naoussa

Katogi Averoff 2008, Metsovo

 

That’s all for now. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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