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John Szabo, MS
This week’s report covers the last VINTAGES release of 2013 on December 7th, another massive collection of over 170 products including spirits. Fizz is the main theme, but I’ll be publishing a more complete collection of recommended sparkling wines later in December, so I’ve focused instead on a dozen smart buys spanning the spectrum of prices and styles. I also sat last week with Piero Incisa della Rochetta to talk about his project in Patagonia, Bodega Chacra, and taste current releases. Learn more about this extraordinary biodynamically-farmed property with vineyards dating back to 1932, and why you should drop the term “super Tuscan” from your vocabulary.
If you’ve budgeted this year for luxury champagne and sparkling wine ($50++) stay tuned for my full report in mid-December – there will be lots to choose from for year-end celebrations and special gifts.
For more immediate occasions and ones that demand financial restraint without sacrificing much pleasure, consider one of these three options:
Brédif Brut Vouvray ($20.95) is a classic chenin blanc-based traditional method sparkler, complete with honeyed and wet hay nuances over sautéed apple and pear fruit. Incisive acids are softened by well-measured dosage, keeping the balance intact.
2009 Juvé Y Camps Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava ($17.95) is made from the classic cava varieties of the Penedes, maccabeo, parellada and xarel.lo at a centuries-old estate, and delivers superior depth and complexity in the category.
Ferrari Brut Metodo Classico ($25.95) Established by Giulio Ferrari in 1902 with the aim of making wine to rival Champagne, Ferrari remains to this day an exclusively sparkler wine producer. The Brut is a chardonnay-based traditional method wine, discreetly toasty, crisp, dry and with impressive concentration.
Among smart buys in white, one stands at the top for quality and authenticity: Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling ($34.00). 2011 was a ‘perfumed’ vintage, according to winemaker Ann Sperling, whose family property near Kelowna in the northern end of the Okanagan Valley has some of the oldest riesling vines in BC. This is indeed open and fragrant, with lovely green apple, citrus-lemon-lime, apple blossom, and a distinctive chalky minerality. The palate is very well-structured, tight but not hard, managing the fine balance between finesse and power. It’s surely one of BC’s best rieslings.
Two whites from Alsace stand out, the 2010 Pierre Sparr Altenbourg Riesling ($16.95) and 2011 Joseph Cattin Gewürztraminer ($17.95). The Sparr family traces its winegrowing routes back to 1680, and today, although no longer under family control, the company produces a large but solid assortment of wines from purchased fruit and the estate’s 34 hectares of vineyards. Altenbourg is a lieu-dit (a site recognized for its superiority, but not quite grand cru quality, and not to be confused with the Altenberg de Bergheim grand cru) and 2010 was a terrific vintage in Alsace, yielding rieslings with vibrant acids and energy. This is a fine riesling for the money, with ample regional character and stony minerality.
Cattin is a century-old family business based in Voegtlinshoffen in southern Alsace. Consistent quality is achieved across the range, and the 2011 Gewürztraminer stands out for its unmistakable varietal character. It’s sourced from regional limestone-clay vineyards, hand picked and made into a just-off-dry style.
The stream of value wines from South Africa continues flow, and the 2012 Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc ($14.95) is well worth a look. Pecan Stream is the entry range from Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch, and this is engaging chenin sourced from vineyards across the Western Cape. It’s essentially dry but with a pleasingly round, fleshy profile, delivering all one could want for under $15.
The 2009 Quinta Dos Carvalhais Duque De Viseu Red ($13.95) is among the best value reds to hit LCBO shelves recently. I’ve known this wine for almost two decades (it was the house wine in a Portuguese restaurant I worked in, and required regular “tasting”). I appreciated then, as I do now, its freshness and juicy drinkability, the savoury fruit and floral spice. It’s the sort of wine that mysteriously disappears from the bottle, especially when served with a light chill.
The 2010 Viña Casablanca El Bosque Carmenère Winemaker’s Choice ($15.95) will please fans of more substantial and full-bodied wines. It’s a complex and engaging, fruity-spicy example of carmenere, ripe, yet still retaining some of the herbal character of the variety. The palate offers sweet, dark fruit with a touch of espresso bean/wood flavour – a solid mouthful for the money.
2009 Château Bertinerie ($18.95) is a lively, lightly herbal, honest and attractive right bank Bordeaux for which expectations are matched by quality in the bottle. But if you’re seeking a distinctive wine of character, consider the 2010 Tawse David’s Block Merlot ($49.95). This is fully ripe, classy, concentrated merlot from the excellent 2010 vintage, one in which the Bordeaux varieties performed well in Niagara. There’s substantial richness and concentration, with the depth and intensity to continue to improve over the next 2-5 years, offering proof positive that Ontario can make excellent merlot when the conditions are suitable.
For dessert, cheese, or just to enjoy on its own, 2009 De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon ($31.95) is a compelling offering. This iconic botrytis affected wine is denser, richer, sweeter and more impressive than many Sauternes at the same price, while barrel ageing adds its touch of ginger-spiked, Chinese five-spice flavour. It should improve over the next 3-4 years, and hold easily into the twenties or longer.
Bodega Chacra and Marchese Piero Incisa della Rochetta
Piero Incisa is a soft-spoken gentleman, elegant and handsome like a well-casted aristocrat for a foreign film. With a slight change of wardrobe, he could be imagined stepping out of a Florentine palace at any period in the last seven hundred years without looking out of place. He speaks thoughtfully and deliberately in a light, lilting Italian accent, with well-timed delivery of carefully chosen words, obviously intelligent and exuding education and world experience. But it’s his understated sense of humor that draws you in, the sly remarks delivered in Italian-accented monotones, the subtle but sharp comments that belie the air of aloofness and remind you that he is fully engaged in the conversation.
After apologizing for the apparently miserly quantities of wine available for our tasting last week at Barberian’s, Incisa asks Ben Hodson from Trialto, the agent who represents Bodega Chacra, what song he, being a DJ, would have played after the carafe of Treinta y Dos pinot noir, Chacra’s top wine at over $100, inexplicably sprung a leak and began to gush its precious contents onto the white linen tablecloth, like blood from an accidental gunshot wound as the gunmen stares in disbelief at his unintended victim (Hodson had a small mishap as he prepared the wines for tasting). It was the sort of enlightening interpretation of a minor tragedy that only a man of means and deep family history, and thus perspective on the past and the future, can make, as though to say, “c’mon, this is only wine, meant to be drunk and enjoyed. Wine is groceries, wine is part of life. There will be more.” “Bridge over troubled water?” a smiling Incisa suggests with a barely a trace of sarcasm before Ben can answer.
The Marchese and his family own four wineries, in part or outright, including the most famous property in Tuscany, the Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri. This is the estate where Sassicaia was created, and which is today the only monopole DOC in Italy for a single wine, officially called Bolgheri-Sassicaia DOC. Sassicaia was also the first “super-Tuscan” wine, a term which Incisa disapproves of with unambiguous finality (don’t bring it up around him). “The term misleads consumers”, he says. “It has no legal meaning or definition. Even many sommeliers and journalists don’t understand it”.
Time to Drop Super Tuscans
He does have a point. “Super Tuscan” is essentially meaningless, a term used these days to vaguely describe virtually any blended red wine from Tuscany that contains, usually but not always, some non-traditional Tuscan varieties like cabernet and merlot. The term was originally coined for Sassicaia alone by a British journalist who had traveled to San Guido to see Piero’s grandfather, Mario Incisa della Rochetta. The journalist had made the journey to Bolgheri to write an article on the Marchese’s famous thoroughbred horses, yet he was so impressed by the “house wine” served to him during the visit that he decided instead to write an article on the wine of San Guido, Sassicaia, a wine barely known at the time outside of the estate.
Since Sassicaia was, and remains, a cabernet sauvignon-based blend, it didn’t conform to any of the traditional appellations of Tuscany and thus could only be labeled legally as a lowly table wine, a wine with no historical pedigree. Yet it was so fine that it deserved some recognition, thought the journalist. But I can’t write that your wine is a mere vino da tavola – a table wine – he said to Mario. British readers, accustomed to the cru classés of Bordeaux, would have thought him a fool reporting on table wine. And so the journalist hit upon the term “super Tuscan” to describe Sassicaia to his readers, a way of unofficially elevating its status to the level it deserved.
Even though “super Tuscan” was coined for Sassicaia alone, and not for a category of wines, the term has since been adopted and applied to almost every Tuscan blend, at widely varying price points, evolving into an undefined, unofficial category along the way. Many were complicit in this misappropriation, including journalists, sommeliers, wine merchants and wine producers who were happy to apply the term liberally to Tuscan blends for a little added value. “I’ve seen wines calling themselves super Tuscans that cost $150 that aren’t worth $20”, laments Piero. Indeed, the consumer can’t rely on the term for virtually anything other than inflated price. Beware the super Tuscan.
But I wasn’t meeting with Piero to talk about San Guido or Sassicaia, nor the Salviano estate in Umbria, nor even the family’s latest joint venture with Santadi in Sardegna, the Azienda Agricola Punica (which is excellent, by the way). Today was about Bodega Chacra, Piero’s 10-year-old venture deep in the southern hemisphere in Patagonia, Argentina.
Chacra: Fine Pinot Noir From the End of the World
How did an Italian winery owner of aristocratic lineage end up in Patagonia making pinot noir? According to Incisa, it happened many years ago that he tasted a pinot noir in New York. It was a wine that struck him, one of those moments when you spot a glimmer of greatness in a most unlikely and obscure place. Out of curiosity, mixed with excitement, he followed his intuition to the source.
Patagonia had once been a promising land for cool climate viticulture, and for sparkling wine in particular. Vineyards were established here in the late 19th century, but the climate proved too hostile, and many had since been abandoned. By the early 2000s when Incisa arrived, the wine renaissance of Patagonia was just getting underway, though it was by no means a sure bet, and it remained a largely rural, tender fruit-growing backwater ten hours by car from Buenos Aires.
Incisa landed at this end of the world in 2003 seeking the vineyards where that fateful pinot noir had originated. He eventually came upon the farmer responsible for the grapes, which he had been selling to the local cooperative. He owned many parcels of old vines, some of which were all but abandoned, including a small 2.2ha parcel of pinot noir planted in 1932.
Piero was intrigued enough by the prospects of this property to make an offer to purchase. “But the owner didn’t want to sell the land to me, for fear that I would go bankrupt” recalls Incisa. “The farmer said that these ancient vines produced only tiny amounts of fruit, that the bunches and berries were very small, that the pinot vines themselves weren’t uniform because they were all massale selection (vines planted or replanted directly from mother vine material) and weren’t planted on American rootstock, (since the area is phylloxera-free)”.
Each argument raised by the farmer against the viability of the vineyard stirred more excitement in Incisa. “My jaw dropped. It was like music to my ears, those were all of the qualities I look for in a vineyard to produce the best quality wine”.
Eventually he convinced the farmer to rent him the vineyard in 2004, and he made his first wines. The following year he managed to purchase the site, now called “Treinta y Dos”, along with another farm that included a vineyard planted in 1955 and one in the mid 1980s. Bodega Chacra was born.
Incisa engaged oenologist Hans Vinding-Diers to lead the project (co-owner/winemaker of nearby Bodegas Noemía and former winemaker of Castello di Argiano in Montalcino, before it was sold to Brazilian interests last year), though Incisa, too, has remained closely involved, and spends more time in Argentina now than in Italy. It was decided to farm both organically and biodynamically from the beginning, considering that the old vineyards had never seen pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Chacra is certified organic and biodynamic by Demeter, though the certifications do not appear on bottles (they’re posted on Chacra’s website). “It’s a racket”, says Incisa. “These associations require you to pay outrageous fees for the right to put the certification on the label.” He believes that associations such as these should be encouraging winegrowers to convert to organic/biodynamic winemaking, not profiteering and discouraging them through fees that can be as high as 10% of the value of the wine being certified. “My great grandfather wrote a book on viticulture outlining many of the same principals used in organic and biodynamic farming. He was happy to freely share his knowledge with anyone who was interested.”
Three pinot noirs are made at Chacra: Barda, Chacra Cincuenta y Cinco and Chacra Treinta y Dos.
Barda, the least expensive wine, was born in Chacra’s inaugural 2004 vintage as a “true second wine”, made from declassified lots of the Chacra Treinta y Dos. Today, Barda is made mainly from the younger vineyard planted on limestone and sand in the 1980s, plus any declassified lots from the Treinta y Dos. It’s fermented, as with all Chacra wines, with wild yeast, made with minimal extraction, and bottled unfined and unfiltered with very low SO2.
The 2012 Barda is notably cloudy and pale garnet coloured, in the style of minimal-intervention reds, delicate and refined, with enticing floral notes, faded roses, and lightly oxidative red fruit. The palate is fine and silky, lingering and elegant. A fine value overall, intended for early consumption.
The Chacra Cincuenta y Cinco is made from a predominantly clay vineyard planted in 1955. A high percentage of whole bunches are often included in the fermentation vat, with a varying percentage of de-stemmed fruit according to the vintage to minimize tannic impact. Fermentation is carried out under 20ºC to retain the more delicate, sought-after floral aromatics of pinot, and the wine is aged in used, 600l tonneau with light toasting for one year.
2012 was an unusually cool and rainy vintage in what is otherwise essentially a dessert, yielding a bright ruby red coloured ’55. It has a marvelous core of succulent and vibrant fruit, with great purity. Although tannins are filigree and very fine, there’s nonetheless solid structure and excellent, perfumed length. It’s surely Argentina’s, if not South America’s, most delicate pinots.
Chacra Treinta y Dos (“32” in Spanish) is the flagship wine made from Incisa’s original vineyard planted in 1932. It’s always fully hand de-stemmed, as it’s the most “masculine” wine in the Chacra range, relatively speaking, and needs no encouragement of structure. It’s then fermented in small, round concrete tanks (34-57 hl) specifically designed by Incisa to promote homogenous fermentation, then aged two years in lightly toasted barrels.
Despite its extra year of age, the 2011 ’32 is easily the darkest of the range, and an excellent, age worthy vintage. The nose is intense and powerful, while the palate offers terrific density and extract without any trace of heaviness. It has genuine concentration and fruit extract, not to mention complexity and length, the kind that is usually only possible from really old vines. It’s a pleasure to see such complexity derived from fruit rather than heavy oak treatment or exaggerated extraction. It’s a unique expression of pinot, neither Burgundian nor classically new world in style, but a marvelous and valid expression to be sure.
Considering this quality, it’s not surprising that Chacra has sold out each year since 2004, even at the relatively high prices (at least for Patagonia). The wines are sold in 28 countries, and distribution is largely separate from Tenuta San Guido and Sassicaia, which surprised me. I assumed that Incisa would piggyback on the success of San Guido to help move his rather less high profile Argentinean project. But, as he points out, “Cabernet drinkers are rarely pinot drinkers”. And, “distributors who work with Sassicaia generally sell to different markets, for example to Italian restaurants, where Argentinean pinot wouldn’t move”, says Incisa.
Chacra has made its name on quality, and not a halo effect from a distant, utterly different (if also refined) wine. When I ask Piero what’s next, he says “What do you mean what’s next? My family and I are satisfied. We have everything we want and need. Why would I want to make my life more complicated?”
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
From the November 23, 2013 Vintages release:
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