This week’s release sets up a tasting of Burgundy and Barolo, two regions frequently compared for their similar philosophical approach to wine making. I recommend a pair from each with which you can make your own connections. There’s also rash of Californian wines to be stocked on shelves October 12, headlined unsurprisingly by Napa Valley cabernet. While prices are uniformly high, quality is not, and styles vary significantly. I highlight the wines that bring it all together. In the rest of the smart buys, you’ll find some fine fizz, crisp aromatic whites, and serious reds for autumn dining. Read on.
Smart Buys: Serious Reds, Crisp, aromatic whites & Fizz
This week’s smart buys feature a trio of superlative Languedoc-Roussillon reds all for under $20, an arch-classic Coonawarra cabernet celebrating its 53rd vintage, and a sumptuous Priorat from one of Spain’s most iconic names. You’ll also find a pair of very fine, $20 traditional method sparkling wines for your champagne dreams on a crémant budget, and a vibrant pair of aromatic whites, including a remarkable $14 Beamsville Bench Riesling – the best yet from this winery. See them all here.
Burgundy vs. Barolo?
One single grape, a multitude of expressions. Such is the wine making approach that philosophically binds the regions of Burgundy and Barolo. In contrast to regions such as Bordeaux or the southern Rhône Valley, Valpolicella or even Chianti where most often several grapes are enlisted, as some observers would say, to increase complexity, or less romantically, to mitigate the risks of seasonal variation, both Burgundy and Barolo rely on a single variety to articulate their respective terroirs. Furthermore, both have refined the concept of a cru, that is, a discreet parcel of land with unique characteristics and quality potential that differs even from adjacent parcels, to its most triumphal and sophisticated heights. Both regions produce wines from regional blends, from single villages, and from single superior vineyards within a village. And in both regions, producers and vintages make all the difference, and since land is strictly limited, the stakes are high.
As kindred spirits, Burgundy and Barolo both tend to attract the same souls: drinkers looking for wines that are intimately connected to the land, in which vineyard expression sings lead vocals over backup varietal character. In Burgundy, pinot noir is of course the red variety elected over centuries of trials as the maximum vector with which to reflect the nuances of the Côte d’Or, while Barolo calls upon the aristocratic nebbiolo to channel the myriad soil types and slope aspects of the Langa Hills. Yet travel in either region and you’ll notice that grapes are rarely ever mentioned. It’s more about the village, or the cru, where the wines were born.
One region thus leads inevitably to the other, linked as they are by a direct portal in the wine universe. For me, Burgundy came first, but soon after I succumbed to the spirit of Barolo. Indeed, it’s exceedingly rare to come across Burgundy lovers who don’t appreciate Barolo, or vice versa, and, tellingly, you’ll find many bottles of Barolo in the cellars of Burgundian wine producers, and vice versa. The connection is strong. So it’s not Burgundy vs. Barolo, but rather Burgundy AND Barolo.
So, if you love either one of these regions but haven’t already made the connection, tarry no longer.
From the October 12th VINTAGES release, the 2006 Aurelio Settimo Rocche Barolo ($52.95) shouldn’t be missed. It’s a classic old school Barolo from the brilliant Rocche cru in La Morra, in a powerful vintage. Vinified traditionally with long maceration in concrete followed by 2 years in large, old oak casks (2500-3500 liters), it’s garnet coloured, with superbly complex savoury, earthy, tar, pot pourri, dried red berry fruit and dried leaf character. The texture is firm and dusty – evidently not a wine for casual sipping, but rather a concentrated, intense Barolo best enjoyed at the table with savoury protein, or left in the cellar for another 3-5 years. Decant before serving in either case.
From a lighter but very pretty vintage, the 2008 Giacosa Bussia Barolo ($39.95) is another traditionally made wine from the storied Fratelli Giacosa estate (not to be confused with Bruno Giacosa; as in Burgundy, the splitting of families over centuries has resulted in multiple domaines with the same family names). In 1895, Giuseppe Giacosa learned of a prime property in Neive that had come on the market for the princely sum of three thousand lire, well beyond his means. Yet that night he had a dream, and the following morning bought a lottery ticket, playing the numbers that had come to him in his restless sleep. With his winnings he purchased the vineyards that still belong to the family.
Bussia is a large cru in the commune of Monforte d’Alba, generally regarded for its big, sturdy wine. But the cooler conditions of the ’08 vintage and gentle handling have yielded a more modestly structured Bussia, yet still authentic and pure, with typical red berry, licorice and tarry-resinous herbal flavours leading the way. This is ready to enjoy now with decanting thirty minutes or so ahead, or hold short term.
Over in Burgundy, the 2009 Domaine Albert Morot Beaune Aigrots 1er Cru ($53.95) is my top pick of the release. Les Aigrots is on the mid-to upper slope at the southern end of Beaune’s Premier Cru vineyards, adjacent to the more famous Clos des Mouches cru towards Pommard. This is a fine example of the generous 2009 vintage, fully ripe and fleshy without slipping into the overripe/exaggerated spectrum. Tannins are silky but firm, acids balanced, and flavours firmly in the ripe red berry range. This is genuine and complex red Burgundy, best after 2015.
In general I prefer the firmer, tighter, more classic 2010 Burgundies, and the 2010 Aurélien Verdet Morey-Saint-Denis ($44.95) is a solid example. It’s a firm and grippy Morey-Saint-Denis, built on a svelte, lean frame, with brisk acids, modest concentration and extract, and light but dusty tannins. This too, will be best after 2015, though there’s no need to hold it long term.
By press time, I’ll have just spent six days touring in the Golden State’s wine country, attending the first ever “California Wine Summit”, put on by the California Wine Institute. I’ll be issuing a special report on my discoveries towards the end of October with a focus on the future direction of Californian wine, and will be posting all of my tasting notes on WineAlign.
In the meantime, California wine sales continue to crack glass ceilings across Canada. The US leads all other imports in VINTAGES sales in Ontario, propelled by California, and especially by Napa and Sonoma. So it’s not at all surprising to see yet another sizable list of ultra-premium labels hitting the shelves on October 12th, in time for holiday excess.
As I see it, California is at a major crossroads. The prevailing mood within the wine trade (sommeliers, journalists) is that a change of philosophy is needed. At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, many producers appear content to continue along the road taken over the past fifteen or so years, banking upon the bigger-is-better model of winemaking – alcohol, ripeness, wood: the more the merrier. Any nuance of “green flavour” is morbidly feared, as though its presence were a health hazard. But the tide of preference for these wines is retreating out to sea. How long they will remain commercially popular is the question.
To be sure, the pendulum has already started to swing back from the extremes, but there are still extremists out there. Few producers resisted the commercial pressure to play the same game during this period, though they exist (see Corison below). And now, a new generation of winemakers, once marginalized as counter-culture radicals, are becoming ever more mainstream figures, and taking Californian wines in new directions.
These individuals (check out radicals like Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project, Arnot-Roberts, Brock Cellars, Donkey and Goat, for example) are eloquently demonstrating that complexity and depth needn’t come at the expense of balance and genuine freshness, even under the California sun, and they are enriching the diversity of the wine scene.
For regular WineAlign readers, my preference is clear: overripe grapes stuffed with oak don’t result in better quality. Such wines blur any regional, vineyard or varietal character in the pursuit of a stylized commercial product, and one that’s not very pleasurable to drink at that in my view. But perhaps that’s also the point. As I’ve said many times, wine is profoundly undemocratic. Without the right patch of land, even the most skilled winegrowers are handicapped from the start. So with second-rate terroir, squishing raisins into new wood may be your only option for impact if you want to break into the high stakes commercial game.
I’d like to recognize a couple of the new releases of cabernet that convey a deeper and more complex meaning of Napa. While I’d still have a hard time convincing anyone, including myself, that these are good values, they are nonetheless excellent wines in their own right.
Cathy Corison is now into her 27th vintage in the heart of the Napa Valley, farming benchland vineyards between Rutherford and St. Helena to organic standards. Her wines rarely surpass 14% alcohol, and her stated philosophy is to “make complex wines that walk the fine line between power and elegance”. I’ve tasted at least a half dozen vintages of Corison cabernet and they are always impeccably balanced and fresh, notably free of excessive pomp, elegant in an understated way. The 2005 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon ($113.95) is on offer this week, from a cool, late vintage. It’s a lovely and classic representation of the grape and region, complete with noted herbal character, lively fresh black berry fruit just starting to offer some evolved, tertiary complexity, and beautifully poised and balanced acid-tannin structure. Alcohol is a refreshing 13.6%, and the length is terrific, finishing on classy licorice and savoury black fruit notes. Enjoy now or hold another 10-15 years without a stretch – the way fine Napa cab, and wine in general, should be.
Another wine of superior depth and class, and an indelible sense of place, is the 2010 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon ($137.95). Although labeled simply as Napa Valley, this is an estate wine from vineyards planted at over 600 meters in the Spring Mountain AVA, at the northern end of the valley on the steep terraces of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Napa from Sonoma, on a low-yielding mix of volcanic and sedimentary soils. Expect plenty of scorched earth and dried herbs, roasted red peppers and sulphurous, volcanic-like minerality on the nose among many other things. The palate is firm and juicy, structured and succulent, with superior depth and genuine complexity. This is very fine wine, expressive of place. Lovely now, but better after 2015 no doubt.
Also worth noting in this release is the 2007 Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon ($83.95), a classy, high-toned, floral, elegant example of Napa cabernet, as I’ve come to expect from Heitz, with polished tannins, well-integrated oak, and long, perfumed, dusty finish. And for those wishing to spend a smaller fortune, check out the 2010 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon ($39.95), a generous, ripe, rounded style that sits about mid-way on the continuum from understated to exaggerated, and should please widely as such.
Closer to home, my WineAlign colleague David Lawrason is hosting an event with Flat Rock Cellars‘ engaging proprietor Ed Madronich and winemaker Jay Johnston. Our winemaker events have be selling out quickly, so you might want to check this out.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names or bottle images highlighted above or by jumping to the lists with the links below. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
From the October 12, 2013 Vintages release: