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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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The Successful Collector – Value at the premium end in France

Where to Find Value in Top French wines
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When venturing into the potentially prohibitive arena of premium French wine buying in VINTAGES, enthusiasts may have to dodge a few landmines to score the best finds. Even then, what is ‘premium’ by French standards? Subliminally speaking, $40-50 is often the starting point, which is still quite a lot of money to spend on any single bottle of wine, to say nothing of those costing a great deal more. What vinous liquids from the world’s most illustrious winegrowing nation could possibly be worth the extra cash?

The answer is largely subjective, though commentators and sommeliers over the years have reached some form of consensus. In each case, overall quality and aging potential are among the two most important factors.

Logo UGCC JEPGFor whites, Grand Cru Chablis is routinely at the top of the list, with prices ranging between $50-100. Compare this to a single bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, which usually fetches at least $200. In the words of UK-based expert Hugh Johnson: “Parity would be closer to justice.” Regrettably, the same cannot be said of most other white Burgundies.

Further north, outlays for the best dry whites of Alsace have long remained remarkably reasonable. Of special interest are the finest examples of riesling and gewürztraminer, usually hailing from specific parcels within the region’s many Grand Cru vineyards. In VINTAGES, the best examples typically fetch around $30-85. Such wines are not only intensely flavoured and downright delectable, but are usually just as ageworthy as their counterparts in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Why the best dry whites of Alsace continue to fetch such comparatively low prices is beyond me.

On the red side of the spectrum, there are an even larger number of choices. The only catch is that Bordeaux and Burgundy really aren’t the best places to be looking for them. Instead, buyers should arguably be on the lookout for the greatest offerings of the Rhône (particularly the southern appellations) and Midi, where both overall quality and ageability have skyrocketed over the past fifteen years.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in picturesque Gigondas, where wines mainly consist of grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. About a half-hour’s drive northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the most famous appellation in the region), the greatest producers nowadays manage to coax astounding concentration, character, and ageing potential out of their wines. On VINTAGES shelves, most Gigondas costs between $30-70, the best representing astounding value for money when compared to the costliest Châteauneufs, the latter easily surpassing $125. Southwest of here, the finest wines of Vacqueyras are also turning heads.

Gigondas

Picturesque Gigondas

The same can also be said of the Midi (Languedoc-Roussillon), the crescent-shaped portion of Mediterranean France that was mostly recognized for its bulk wine in the past. Not anymore. Nowhere in the country has quality leapt so high in such a short period of time as this gorgeously rugged set of winegrowing areas. In most places, the same grapes as the Southern Rhône dominate the best bottlings, though old-vine carignan is also highly prized. While specific appellations are too varied to list, prices in VINTAGES often begin as low as $30 for some truly exemplary offerings, rising to $60 or more on a few occasions. Compared, once again, to Bordeaux or Burgundy, such wines are a proverbial steal.

Switching to sparklings, every French wine lover understands that Champagne is the most celebrated of its type in the world, though value at the premium end is oftentimes viewed as a contradiction in terms. After all, even the most basic, non-vintage offerings begin at $40 or more in Ontario. As a result, many enthusiasts tend to overlook the more costly vintage-stated versions. But these are precisely the wines to watch out for, especially those from $60-100. Though admittedly not of the same quality as a super-extravagant cuvée like Cristal (nearly $300), such wines are nonetheless almost always profoundly superior to their non-vintage counterparts, capable of cellaring for at least several years.

Then there are the innumerable sweet wines of France. Believe it or not, this is where Bordeaux shines brighter than most of its counterparts, for the likes of Sauternes and Barsac are among the most truly inimitable types of botrytis-affected dessert wines around. Despite the amount of skilled labour and material costs involved, wondrous examples may be had in the range of $40-75, most in 375-mL bottles. Though much cheaper versions are available elsewhere, the quality is oftentimes simply not the same. Hence, along with the fantastic chenin blanc-based dessert wines of the Loire (these simply cannot be omitted), this is arguably the one instance where the most famous examples truly represent the best buys.

Of course, there are many other premium wines throughout France that have not been listed here. From the most prized reds of Madiran and Cahors in the Southwest to the spellbinding Vouvrays (plus a few from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) in the Loire, the number of choices at the luxury level are unimaginable. But this is a column about the truly best of the best, combining both colossal quality and long-term ageability (hence my need to append a few names just a moment ago, along with mourvèdre-based Bandol in Provence and top single-cru Beaujolais). In the end, there will always be an astounding number of tolerably priced premium French wines to choose from, as well as plenty that, in true draconian style, will have to be left out.

My top choices:

Domaine William Fèvre 2011 Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru ($90.00) is sourced from a 2.11-ha parcel of old vines at the foot of the vineyard. Showcasing fantastic harmony, character, and charm, it’s wines like these that get me so excited about Grand Cru Chablis. Drink now or hold for six years or more.

Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru ($65.00) is a perfect illustration of how underpriced Grand Cru Chablis currently stands. For the record: I wrote up this wine in glowing terms in a previous column, yet there are still a few bottles left. Such elegance and harmony! Not to be missed. Drink now or hold for up to nine years.

Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling ($27.95) has been selected not just because of its price (nor because pickings at the moment in VINTAGES are rather slim), but mainly on account of its remarkable quality. From one of the greatest producers in Alsace, this has all the elements of a premium wine, minus the cost. Drink now or hold for five years or more.

E. Guigal 2009 Gigondas ($31.95) is a wine of great power, focus, and clarity of fruit. From one of the most famous producers in the Rhône, this surpasses a whole horde of basic Châteauneufs we wine commentators routinely examine every year. Drink now or hold for ten years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Montirius 2011 Les Clos Vacqueyras ($32.00) delivers both excellent freshness and focus for a wine of its type. As a whole, this producer has consistently delivered both high quality and value over the past several years, making for some very worthy recommendations. Drink now or hold for five years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru 2011Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru 2011Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2010 E. Guigal Gigondas 2009Montirius Le Clos Vacqueyras 2011

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige St-Drézéery ($29.95) encapsulates virtually everything I’ve said about the remarkable value of Midi-based wines, particularly from a standpoint of both quality and ageability. From an especially well-regarded establishment, I have yet to taste a non-overachiever from here. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Moët & Chandon 2004 Grand Vintage Brut Champagne ($83.95) is well less than half the price of Dom Pérignon and yet of truly wonderful quality. Retaining tremendous precision and harmony (not to mention exemplary fruit expression and style), sparkling lovers will not want to miss out on this exemplary vintage champagne. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years.

Larmandier-Bernier 2007 Terres de Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne ($75.00) packs a great deal of firepower for such a young vintage. Boasting considerable intensity and harmony, I’m amazed VINTAGES hasn’t made greater efforts to source more champagnes from this particular house. Drink now or hold for up to ten years.

Château de Myrat 2009 Barsac ($28.00) is not just ridiculously underpriced, but is also likely the best wine ever produced at this estate. Combining resolute harmony with acute deliciousness, this 375-mL bottle serves as a liquid testament to how undervalued great Barsac (along with Sauternes) continues to be. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years.

Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne 2004Larmandier Bernier Terres De Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne 2007Château De Myrat 2009

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES 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

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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Reaching out for Silent Auction Wines

Supporting Second Harvest’s food rescue program
By Julian Hitner

Second Harvest logoOn Sunday 8 June 2014 at Corus Quay (25 Dockside Drive) beginning at 6:00 p.m., hundreds of gourmet cuisine and wine connoisseurs will be flocking to Toronto’s revitalized waterfront for a calorically colossal evening of great foods, craft beers, and fine wines. Toronto Taste is organized every year by charitable food distributor Second Harvest (the largest in Canada), the event also includes a silent wine auction, which I have headed for over five years.

Obviously, we need wines to make this happen. This year, we are reaching out to legions of wine-lovers and agents throughout Ontario in hopes of securing a few extra donations for this year’s exciting charitable event. In exchange for your generosity, your name or organization (if desired) shall appear on the auction bidding sheet. All donors shall also receive a tax receipt based on the appraisal value of the wine. There is no minimum amount (or value) you have to submit. We’re happy to take everything we can get and auction it off to support those in our city who most need our help.

Second Harvest

If you would like to donate some wine, please contact me at julianhitner@hitnerwine.com or telephone Jennifer Chow (416.408.2594 ext. 240) at Second Harvest directly. To make things as easy as possible, all submissions will be picked up at your place of residence or business. Though we will be accepting donations right up until the last week of May, we need to get a head start on this right away. Sorting and cataloging of all these wines takes time!

Cheers,

Julian Hitner


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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – The new Gran Selezione Category of Chianti Classico

Raising the bar or raising prices?

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Debuting this spring, the new ‘Gran Selezione’ category of Chianti Classico has the entire wine world abuzz. What exactly is this new premium wine category? What are the rules? And when might we expect to begin seeing bottles labelled as Gran Selezione in VINTAGES stores?

Such questions were uppermost on my mind when I attended the official launch of Gran Selezione in Florence last month. Held in the illustrious Throne Room of the Palazzo Vecchio, the excitement of participating producers (some of the best in the region) was palpable. For many, the creation of the Gran Selezione category had been a long time coming. With the widely recognized rise in the quality of Chianti Classico over the past several years, it was only natural that a new ranking be developed at the top level so as to reflect the calibre of the best bottlings. To most in attendance, this was at least the message the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico very much wished to convey.

Chianti LogoThe rules for Gran Selezione are reasonably simple. First and foremost, all grapes must be estate-grown. In other words, producers may not purchase grapes from other growers (such as bulk producers) for the purpose of adding them to the final blend. Second, the wine must be matured for at least 30 months in wood prior to release, including at least 3 months in bottle. Finally, the wine is to be strictly examined by an expert panel of impartial judges before release. As with Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, all Gran Selezione must be produced from 80-100% Sangiovese. In addition to local grapes such as Canaiolo and/or Colorino, grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot may constitute up to 20% of the final blend.

The establishment of this new category has been met with considerable anticipation, though several issues remain. Of these, the most significant is how this new premium ranking will affect other existing categories of Chianti Classico. For instance, will the style of wines bottled as ‘Chianti Classico Riserva’ be changed? According to existing regulations, Riservas must be aged for at least 2 years in wood, including 3 months in bottle. They also do not have to be crafted exclusively from estate-grown fruit. But even already (and this should not come as a surprise), some producers have begun diverting their best estate-grown fruit from wines formerly destined to be labelled as Riserva to bottles destined to be labelled as Gran Selezione. As a whole, does this mean the quality of Chianti Classico Riserva is destined for a nosedive? Only time will tell.

Chianti Pyramid

 

Another issue is whether Gran Selezione wines (the grapes of which are not even obliged to come from single vineyards) will even be qualitatively superior to Chianti Classico Riserva or ‘standard’ Chianti Classico in the long run. Simply put, is the Gran Selezione category nothing but a price grab in the making? So far, this does not seem to be the case. From what I tasted during my time in Firenze, wines labelled as Gran Selezione almost always represented the finest, most qualitatively appreciable bottlings of any given estate, at least among Chianti Classico offerings. A good omen of things to come? Once again, only time will tell.

Indeed, the quality of initial offerings are truly impressive, with many possessing a much-welcomed extra degree of concentration and complexity that seem to definitively separate them from their ‘standard’ counterparts. But personal preference does play a role, as not everyone might appreciate their Chianti Classicos aged for so long in oak at the expense of fruit freshness and approachability. Hence the contradictorily positive effect(s) of the new Gran Selezione category: an expansion of styles and more diverse levels of quality than ever before.

Availability of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione:

At present, wines labelled as ‘Chianti Classico Gran Selezione’ are set to be released in VINTAGES stores over the next several years. At time of publication, we are uncertain if these wines will be featured in bi-weekly releases or if they will be offered exclusively through the VINTAGES Classics Collection. For now, all wines may only be purchased through the agent listed. They are truly worth seeking out.

My top choices:

Mazzei Castello di Fonterutoli 2010 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($75.00) surpasses a large number of expectations. For both its concentration and refinement, this is definitely one of the most powerful, most delicious versions I have ever tasted from this extraordinary establishment. Decanting is recommended. Available through Trialto Wine Group.

San Felice 2010 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($35.00) is a first-rate outing, representing one of the best buys of this premium new category. In addition to 80% Sangiovese, five other grape varietals made it into the final blend. Decanting is recommended. Available through John Hanna & Sons.

Fontodi 2010 Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($95.00) is the finest version I have tasted thus far, hailing from one of the most accomplished producers in Tuscany. A potential legend in the making, the Manetti family has every reason to take pride in this incredible offering. Decanting is certainly warranted. Available through Rogers & Company.

Il Molino di Grace 2010 Il Margone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($75.00) is built for the very long-term, but may be consumed now with unbridled gusto. For those unfamiliar with this winery (launched in 1999), Frank Grace’s eponymous operation has developed quite a reputation for itself in a very short time. Decanting is recommended. Available through Connexion Oenophilia.

Antinori 2009 Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($60.00) is to be commended on so many levels, not just for its sensational pedigree but also for its obvious superiority to a good number of its predecessors. An immensely rewarding wine. Decanting is recommended. Available through Halpern Enterprises.

Chianti Classico Riservas currently available:

Castello di Bossi 2008 Berardo Chianti Classico Riserva ($29.95) hails from an estate with which I am only just beginning to become familiar. Owned by the Bacci family, human activity appears to have taken place at Castello de Bossi since ancient Roman times. A very fascinating locale for winegrowing. Decanting is recommended.

Fontodi 2009 Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Riserva ($75.00) represents one of the top offerings of its graduating class, and may very well be the last vintage of Vigna del Sorbo to be bottled as ‘Riserva.’ A wine of remarkable disposition and breed, this will keep for up to a dozen years. Decanting is recommended.

Castelgreve 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva ($29.95) provides an extremely solid introduction to wines crafted more in the ‘traditional style.’ This usually means greater emphasis placed on dried fruits and cedarwood, an approach that tends to lend itself well to all sorts of Italian foods. Decanting is recommended.

Castello San Sano 2008 Guarnellotto Chianti Classico Riserva ($19.25) was tasted a year ago and has since been reduced in price. Enjoyable over the medium term, this may not be the most complex wine, though the quality of its ingredients makes for a rather impressive experience. Decanting is recommended but not mandatory.

Click the links below for more Chianti Classico wines and reviews.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find our critics reviews by clicking on any of the links. 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 reviews.

Julian’s Chianti Classico Reviews
All Julian Hitner Reviews


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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – Ribera del Duero

One exciting winegrowing region

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Without question, Ribera del Duero is a land of extremes. How else to describe a region where summer day-/night-time temperatures vary by double digits and soil compositions are too numerable to relate. Such is the crux of Ribera, nowadays lauded as one of the most prosperous and popular names on the Spanish winegrowing scene.

An hour’s drive north of Madrid, the last twenty years have witnessed an unfathomable transformation in this 115-km stretch of the Duero River, which eventually flows into Portugal (passing the port vineyards) and empties into the Atlantic. From just a handful of bodegas in 1990 to over 200 today, vineyards continue to be planted at a breathtaking pace. While this has not been without controversy on account of too many vines being planted in overly productive sites, the result has been a growing appreciation of just how glorious Tinto Fino can be.

Ribera del DueroOtherwise known as Tinta del País (another local name for this particular strain of Tempranillo), much of Ribera’s success may be attributed to the ways in which the region’s finest growers have brought out the best qualities of this marvellous grape. Of these, lush strawberry-driven flavours (often rather fragrant), full-bodiedness, and structural acuity are particular hallmarks. Though other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec are also permitted, the best examples usually consist of 100% Tinto Fino, sourced from extremely old vines ranging from 35 to over 100 years. Styles tend to range from the more floral and sensual to the more blatantly oak-driven and saturated.

As always, personal preference plays a role. Some may prefer a less powerful, more fruit-forward ‘Crianza’ (aged for a minimum of one year in wood and one in bottle). A wine labelled as ‘Joven’ will have had no wood ageing at all, while one marked as ‘Roble’ will have been aged in wood for well under a year. Others may opt for a more poignant, tighter structured ‘Reserva’ (aged for a minimum of one year in wood and two in bottle); while some may enjoy a full-bodied, especially complex ‘Gran Reserva’ (aged for a minimum of two years in wood and three in bottle). Finally, there are those who may prefer the increasingly celebrated single-vineyard bottlings for which many of the finest winegrowing establishments are famous. These are usually aged along more Bordelaise-style lines in French and/or American oak barrels for roughly 18 to 24 months or more.

Such wines owe as much to Tinto Fino as to the conditions in which this star grape has been able to thrive. As mentioned in the beginning, soil compositions are fretfully varied, though clay-based sands over alternating layers and limestone and marl (sometimes chalk) are generally the norm. Tinto Fino seems to do remarkably well when planted in such conditions.

Ribera del Duero

A typical vineyard in Ribera del Duero

Climate would seem to play an even more significant role. Located on the great northern plateau of the Iberian Peninsula, elevations are unusually high in this part of the country, between 750 to over 850 metres. In the summer months, this means extremely hot days (up to 36 degrees) and very cool nights (as low as 8 degrees). The result is a slow, prolonged ripening cycle, accentuating the potential flavour of the grapes without any loss of acidity. Few other places in the winegrowing world enjoy such variations in temperature. Rainfall is also notably low, usually taking place in the winter months.

All of this has lead to an incredible leap in both the overall quality and popularity of the region’s wines, not to mention a colossal proliferation of bodegas throughout the D.O. Many of these are family-owned and are supplied by estate-grown or purchased grapes. The difference between the two is a source of great pride for most winegrowers, as the former are usually considered preferable over the latter (though some growers may opt to lease vineyards via a long-term agreement).

Also not to be discounted is wine tourism, which is likely to play an increasingly prominent role in the coming years. Not surprisingly, many bodegas both old and new have invested heavily over the past decade in renovating and expanding their buildings. Though many owners are quick to point out that their primary aim is to improve quality, there is little mistaking the effect an architecturally attractive building can have on the eye. At the end of the day, the name of the game is to impress.

The excitement at the moment is certainly palpable. In just a short period of time, Ribera del Duero has gone from comparative anonymity to one of the most successful winegrowing regions in Spain, showing few signs of slowing down. How long this will last is anyone’s guess, though wine lovers everywhere stand the most grateful beneficiaries.

Top estates in Ribera del Duero:

Vega Sicilia: The most famous estate in the region, the wines of Vega Sicilia are synonymous with individuality and luxury. Under the skillful, philosophical hand of director Xavier Ausas, the estate has gone from strength to strength since its inception in the mid-19th century, having inaugurated an entirely new winemaking facility just a few years ago. Each parcel in the vineyards is now vinified separately, Ausas likening this arrangement to a painter utilizing every colour and infinite number of shades on the palate. Three wines are produced from mostly old-vine Tinto Fino: Valbuena, Único, and Único Especial (a blend of various vintages). Most estates would do well to produce wine half as fine as those crafted at Vega Sicilia.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5 Cosecha 2009Aalto PS 2011Vega Sicilia 2009 Valbuena 5 Cosecha ($185.00) is generally regarded as the ‘second wine’ of the bodega, boasting incredible concentration and charm. Though the flagship Único is unaffordable for most persons, the ’09 Valbuena 5 Cosecha is highly recommendable any day of the week. Decanting is highly advisable. Available through Halpern Enterprises.

Aalto: Co-owned by former Vega Sicilia winemaker Mariano Garcia and former director of the Consejo Regulador Javier Zaccagnini, Aalto has only been in existence for only fifteen years and is already widely considered one of the top bodegas in Ribera del Duero. The partnership between these two brilliant gentlemen has been a roaring success, their unsurpassed wealth of expertise bringing to bear two wines of sensational quality: Aalto and the flagship label Aalto PS. Both are crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, sourced from extremely old vines from some of the finest plots in the region. Quality is unimpeachable.

Aalto PS 2011 ($135.00) is one of my most insistent recommendations. The flagship label of the bodega, this magnificent creature (crafted from 100% Tinto Fino) delivers unparalleled concentration, structure, and flavour. I’ve even ordered a case for my own cellar. Decanting is obligatory. Available through Trialto Wine Group.

Dominio de Pingus: The boutique winery of Danish owner/winemaker Peter Sisseck, Dominio de Pingus has enjoyed cult status for some time now. The wines are crafted from 100% Tinto Fino and are worth every laurel they almost always receive: Pingus and ‘second wine’ Flor de Pingus. The philosophy at this super-small establishment is Burgundian in inclination and holistic in orientation. Grapes are sourced from extremely old vines planted in some of the best soil conditions in the region. In the mid-1990s, Sisseck made the unusual decision of selling all of his wine en primeur (i.e. before they are bottled), freeing his team up so that they may concentrate exclusively on quality. The results speak for themselves.

Dominio De Pingus Flor De Pingus 2012Dominio de Pingus 2012 Flor de Pingus ($125.00) is the ‘second wine’ of this cult operation. Though not yet bottled at time of examination, it augurs a phenomenal future. Crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, every Spanish wine lover ought to do their utmost to get their hands on this magnificent wine. Decanting is advisable. Available through Profile Wine Group.

Viña Sastre: An impeccable source for some of the most powerful examples in the region, Viña Sastre enjoys a considerable reputation these days. With access to extremely old vines (mostly Tinto Fino), the aim of co-owner/winemaker Juan Manuel is to craft wines of extraordinary concentration and depth. New oak (both French and American) is employed in abundance; and while the style might not be for everyone, the quality of the range is remarkably high. Five wines are produced: Roble, Crianza, Pago de Santa Cruz, Regina Vides, and Pesus. The oak regimens on the last three are especially marked, demanding long-term cellaring.

Bodega Rodero: Owner/winemaker Carmelo Rodero is something of a maverick when it comes to winemaking, employing a radical system of rotating vats and bins lifted by pulleys so as to avoid the use of pumps during fermentation. The results are very impressive: powerful, chewy wines crafted from old-vine Tinto Fino and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. A resplendent new winery and welcome centre (including a banquet room for large functions) was completed several years ago. These are wines worth getting excited about.

Pago de Carraovejas: Owned by the Ruiz family, Pago de Carraovejas is a highly estimable operation, particularly when considering its size. Quality is generally excellent, though the better balanced examples are those where the use of new oak is less apparent. Four red wines are produced from mostly Tinto Fino: Crianza, Reserva, Cuesta de las Liebres, and El Anejón. The three whites (each 100% Verdejo) are also of high quality: Quintaluna (based out of Rueda), Ossian, and Ossian Capitel (sourced from 160-year-old vines). Because whites may not be labelled as Ribera del Duero, Ossian and Ossian Capitel are marketed as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Léon. Other large-sized establishments could learn a great deal from this producer.

Wines currently available in Vintages:

Cepa 21 Hito 2010Resalte De Peñafiel Peña Roble Reserva 2004Bodegas Vizcarra JC Vizcarra 2010Bodegas Vizcarra 2010 JC Vizcarra ($28.95) delivers a decisively beautiful amalgam of aromatic and textural characteristics, making for an outstandingly delicious offering. Having now tasted several wines from this impeccable bodega, my advice to Spanish lovers would be to stock up whenever (and wherever) possible. Decanting is advisable.

Resalte de Peñafiel 2004 Peña Roble Reserva ($31.95) is performing superbly at ten years of age, though it will keep for some time yet. Sourced from vines over twenty-five years of age, it’s wines like these that serve only to highlight the successes of Ribera del Duero as a whole. A gentle decanting for sediment is worthwhile.

Cepa 21 2010 Hito ($17.95) is an ideal recommendation for everyday drinking, though it will mellow further for those with a proper cellar. Crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, its most prominent feature is its appropriate accessibility of fruit—an often overlooked attribute for wines of this type. Decanting is likely unnecessary.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find our critics reviews by clicking on any of the links. 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 reviews.

Julian’s Ribera del Duero Reviews
All Julian Hitner Reviews


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An evening of claret: Looking at Bordeaux 2011s

by Julian Hitner and Sara d’Amato

On the evening of Thursday 16 January 2014, the LCBO played host at the Royal Ontario Museum to over 90 estates belonging to the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) as châteaux representatives poured wines from the 2011 vintage.

For those still interested in placing orders, Vintages will be selling futures of the 2011 vintage until March 6, 2014. To place your order call helloLCBO at 416-365-5900 or toll-free at 1-800-668-5226 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am-6pm, Saturday 9am-6pm). There is no minimum order size and quantities are limited. The 2011s are expected to arrive between Spring 2014 to Winter 2015. For more information, visit: Vintages.com

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

But is the 2011 vintage even worth buying? If so, what wines are the best? Year in and year out, these are the two most significant questions facing Ontario’s ever-increasing ranks of Bordeaux aficionados. But fear not, for we WineAlign commentators were on hand to taste as many different wines as time would permit. Between Sara d’Amato and myself, we were resoundingly thorough, though we do apologize in advance for any wines we may have overlooked. There were over a 110 wines to review and therefore I took on the enormity of the task of covering the Left Bank wines while Sara focused on the Right Bank and Sauternes.

Are the prices worth it?

Beyond all other concerns, the most pressing matter for Bordeaux buyers is whether or not the 2011 vintage is worth patronizing. For my part, I am inclined to respond with a provisional yes. Taken as a whole, some surprisingly fine wines were made in what has largely been deemed an average year. Caution is key. Many estates and ‘négociants’ – the latter commonly serving as intermediaries between châteaux and retailers – were far too ambitious in their pricing strategy. As a result, many 2011s have been absurdly overpriced and should be avoided at all costs. This said, there are luckily a very reasonable number of wines meriting the prices at which they’ve been pegged. Such are the offerings Sara and I are delighted to recommend in this column.

The Left Bank and Pessac-Léognan

Home to some of the most iconic estates in Bordeaux, the Left Bank (otherwise known as the ‘Médoc’) produced some surprisingly beautiful, bountiful wines in 2011. In Pauillac, accessibility of fruit seems to be a primary characteristic, reinforced by decent tannic backbone and overall ripeness. The same would seem to apply to an even greater extent in St-Julien, where some of the best wines of the vintage were produced. Things were more subdued in Margaux, though the more diligent estates were nonetheless successful in producing some extremely fine clarets of exemplary fragrance and body. Of St-Estèphe, there were too few estates at the event to formulate any generalizations. As for the Haut-Médoc (I was unable to taste any wines from the Médoc AOC), quality at the finest estates does not appear to have been much of problem, though prices were arguably too ambitious on the part of most wineries involved.

In Pessac-Léognan, I regret to report that I had only enough time to taste a handful of wines, though those I was able to examine were, along with St-Julien, some of the most notable examples of the evening: finely structured, full-bodied, and reasonably priced. The same could probably be said of the whites (at least judging from what I’ve heard through the grapevine). If only I had enough time to taste any of them—the LCBO really ought to make these events longer!

Julian’s Top Picks from the Left Bank
Domaine de Chevalier 2011Château Léoville Barton 2011Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2011Château Grand Puy Ducasse 2011Château Langoa Barton

Domaine de Chevalier 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($69.00) is easily one of my top choices of the vintage, representing incredible value for money. Though historically known for its wondrous white wine, the estate’s red version in recent years has emerged as one of the most undervalued premium clarets in Bordeaux. Not to be missed.

Château Léoville Barton 2011 St-Julien ($97.00) is very much in keeping with the owner’s long-standing policy of never overcharging on his wines, despite the fact that Léoville Barton has long been considered one of the top estates in St-Julien. Surprisingly concentrated when considering the limitations of the vintage, this beauty comes very highly recommended.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($99.00) is a truly substantial effort on the part of this extraordinary estate. A classic example of conscientious winegrowing in the face of challenging conditions, this along with Domaine de Chevalier represents one of the best outings in Pessac-Léognan.

Château Grand-Puy Ducasse 2011 Pauillac ($69.00) exceeds a plethora expectations. Surpassing even the ’10 (no mean achievement), this is easily the finest wine I have tasted from this estate to date. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Grand-Puy Ducasse would emerge as one of my top suggestions.

Château Langoa Barton 2011 St-Julien ($75.00) is an exceptional Third Growth under the same ownership as Château Léoville Barton (the latter is actually produced at the same estate as the former). Over the past several years, Langoa has taken a giant leap forward in quality, with the ’11 defying expectations in more ways than one.
Château Saint Pierre 2011Château Labégorce 2011Château Gloria 2011Château Carbonnieux 2011Château Maucaillou 2011

Château Saint-Pierre 2011 St-Julien ($75.00) hails from the smallest Classed Growth in St-Julien, which means that its wines don’t always get the recognition they deserve. The ’11 is a classic example: full-bodied, excellently structured, and capable of long-term cellaring. For my part, I wish I had more wines from Saint-Pierre in my collection.

Château Labégorce 2011 Margaux ($39.00) is not only one of finest wines ever produced at this estate, it also represents one of the best bargains of the vintage. Surprisingly full-bodied and flavourful, a case of this may very well find its way into my own wine cellar before the ordering deadline passes.

Château Gloria 2011 St-Julien ($51.00) is widely recognized as the top non-Classed Growth of St-Julien, under the same ownership as Château Saint-Pierre. Tasted alongside, the two wines in ‘11 have much in common: outstanding concentration, balance, and style. If the 1855 Classification were ever revised, you can bet the likes of Château Gloria would be included.

Château Carbonnieux 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($49.00) might not have the same name recognition as some of its peers, which is all the more reason to buy it. Like many estates throughout Pessac-Léognan, it used to be the much-improved whites that hogged the spotlight; but now that the reds have caught up, the latter represent some of the best values around.

Château Maucaillou 2011 Moulis-en-Médoc ($35.00) is one of the most reasonably priced wines in its neck of the woods. A very beautiful outing, wines like this will undoubtedly become increasingly popular as the Classed Growths become all but unaffordable for most claret connoisseurs in the years to come.

Navigating the Tumultuous 2011 Vintage
Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Once again, Julian Hitner and I have joined forces to cover this year’s UGC de Bordeaux Tasting (Union des Grands Crus) hosted by Vintages. On the heels of two praise-worthy and very pricy vintages, the 2011 crop of Bordeaux proved highly variable and certainly lacking the consistency of the two exceptional vintages it supersedes. Therefore a little extra caution is recommended this year in making purchasing decisions. Although the prices are down, they are not down enough. Certain producers refuse to drop their prices accordingly for fear of devaluing their brand or creating a fight to increase the price later. Others, however, respect the lesser quality and take the hit. At the end of the day, it is the market that will ultimately influence further pricing and this is a critical year.

Having spoken to several former colleagues over the course of the growing season, I had the impression that they were quite baffled by the season and could not predict what sort of outcome they would have. The growing season was oddly reversed with a scorching hot spring and then a very cool and rainy summer. What saved the wines was a rather long Indian summer that evened out the vintage and allowed the producers a break from the erratic to come to gradual and calculated courses of action.  Careful winemaking was paramount in such a vintage as muscular tannins required a gentle hand to manage.

Just as the season was erratic, so are the offerings. There are some very fine, dare I say, values amidst some unimpressive offerings lacking depth. All in all, I suspect that the right bank fared slightly better than the left as merlot and cabernet franc proved somewhat hardier in the dense clay soils which may have allowed for a more steady pace of ripening in the face of these turbulent conditions. This being said, there are some terrific wines in this group that are certainly worthy of your attention.

Sara’s Top Picks from the Right Bank and Sauternes

Saint-Emilion and Pomerol

Château Pavie Macquin 2011Château Troplong Mondot 2011Château Trotte Vieille 2011Chateau Trotte Vielle 2011, Saint-Emilion ($225.00). A fascinating estate with a remarkable, small and rare plot of pre-phylloxera vines. Known for careful, small-batch production and keen winemaking, it is no wonder this Chateau faired exceptionally well in this vintage. The level of complexity and thunderous intensity is nothing short of brilliant.

Chateau Troplong-Mondot 2011, Saint-Emilion ($119.00). For centuries, Troplong-Mondot has been producing praise-worthy wines, considered one of the top estates of Saint-Emilion. Today it is run by Christine and Xavier Pariente – a couple who proudly continue this great tradition. This compelling 2011 exhibits a presence impossible to overlook.

Chateau Pavie-Macquin 2011 Saint-Emilion, 1er Grand Cru Classe ($89.00). Known for its impactful, dense and powerful wine, the founder of Pavie-Macquin, Albert Macquin, was responsible for helping save Saint-Emilion from phylloxera during turn of the century by introducing the process of grafting root-stocks to the region. Balanced, generous and revealing, this carefully crafted offering has serious technical merit.

Château Villemaurine 2011Château La Couspaude 2011Château Le Bon Pasteur 2011Chateau Villemaurine 2011 Saint-Emilion ($59.00). Made purely of merlot (80%) and cabernet franc (20%), this offering is an example of how these varietals have proved shinning stars this vintage.  Feminine, floral, poised and elegant but also generous and affable.

Chateau La Couspaude 2011, Saint-Emilion ($79.00). Vanessa Aubert puts on many hats at Chateau including that of winemaker, having inherited the property along with her two siblings from generations of men in her family since 1908. After studying enology at the University of Bordeaux, has devoted herself to continuing the illustrious tradition of the property. The Aubert family also owns eight other left bank properties. Not to be missed – this is a complex, carefully crafted and sublimely enjoyable offering.

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur 2011, Pomerol ($95.00). Le Bon Pasteur benefits from both an interesting location, at the junction of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion known as the “Maillet sector”, and by the current managers, descendents of the original owners, Jean-Daniel and Michel Rolland (yes, The Michel Rolland). Once again, meticulous winemaking wins the day in this age worthy offering with classic structure.

Sauternes

Château La Tour Blanche 2010Château De Fargues 2011Chateau de Fargues 2011, Sauternes ($179.00). Chateau de Fargues never ceases to impress me with concentration and complexity that is far superior to any of the greats I taste from this region. Owned by the Lur Saluces family for over five centuries, this sought-after nectar is worth the premium price.

Chateau La Tour Blanche 2011, Sauternes ($95.00). Known for its history giving back to the industry in helping establish a tuition-free viticulture school in the region, Chateau La Tour Blanche is also known for its modern methods and progressive attitude. It has certainly adapted to this vintage remarkably well.

Our Featured 2011 Bordeaux
Julian’s complete list of 2011 Bordeaux reviews
To order 2011 Boardeaux, visit: Vintages.com

Editors Note: You can find our critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. 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!


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The Successful Collector – Classics Taste and Buy Event

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

First Look and Top Picks

For premium wine lovers in Ontario, the Vintages Taste the Classics event – a preview of wines likely to be released in early-2014 as part of the Classics Collection (which can also be ordered by phone right away – 416-365-5767 or toll-free at 1-800-266-4764) – was long overdue. Held last week in the illustrious Governor’s Room at the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex (Exhibition Place), a sold-out crowd of eager connoisseurs were on hand to taste over 65 wines from around the winegrowing world.

Though it may come as a surprise to some, the LCBO is surprisingly adept at hosting events like these. From outstanding wines to an overabundance of food accompaniments (offered to ensure that inebriated guests depart the event on a full stomach), my only bone to pick is that such events aren’t held with much greater frequency. For one thing, the public can’t seem to get enough of them, which would seem to indicate that most of the costs of arranging such shindigs are Taste the Classicsessentially recuperated. Just as important, the events should be more than just two and a half hours in duration so as to allow for enough time to taste all the wines properly. After all, the spittoon is a marvellous invention…

Here are a few selections from the November 2013 Taste the Classics event:

Whites:

Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru ($65.00) is a perfect reminder that some famous French wines remain underpriced. I’m actually quite serious: great Chablis is truly as every bit as fine as its counterparts in the Côte de Beaune (think Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet). The ’11 Les Clos will benefit from decanting if consumed young.

Château de Beaucastel 2011 Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc ($159.00) shall likely breach the ‘perfection barrier’ over the next several years. Crafted from 100% Roussanne, this omnipotent offering is worth every penny, and will likely keep for well over thirty years. Decant vigorously if enjoyed at a more youthful stage of development.

Domaine Weinbach 2009 Cuvée St-Catherine Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling ($74.00) is one of the greatest wines from this celebrated Alsatian producer. A dynamic combination of intensity and elegance, it’s wines like these that have been known to convert many a non-Riesling drinker to born-again status. Decanting is recommended.

Domaine Jean-Marc Morey 2010 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru ($77.00) is sourced from one of the greatest sites in Chassagne-Montrachet, a commune that deserves (nearly) as much praise its neighbour Puligny-Montrachet to the north. For white burgundy lovers, this is not to be missed. Decanting is advisable.

Reds:

Casanova di Neri 2007 Brunello di Montalcino ($63.00) is one of the best bargains for premium wines around. An overachiever in more ways than one, Brunello lovers unfamiliar with the wines of Casanova di Neri are doing themselves a serious disservice by not ordering a case of the ’07 right away! Decanting is warranted.

Paulo Scavino 2005 Bric dël Fiasc Barolo ($123.00) comes from one of the top sites within the commune of Castiglione Faletto and is a truly sensational wine, despite hailing from a more challenging vintage. Drinking fabulously now, this will also probably keep to the end of the next decade. Decanting is highly recommended.

Penfolds 2008 Grange ($750.00) is the best, most perfect vintage since the indomitable ’98, for which chief winemaker Peter Gago ought to be immensely proud. A candidate for super-long cellaring, this will probably take around ten years just to fully harmonize, which means those wishing to drink this now ought to undertake a double-decanting to get the most out of it.

Domaine Antonin Guyon 2010 Corton Clos du Roy Grand Cru ($99.00) is a stellar red burgundy of exemplary finesse and breed. All too often, the best red Cortons are overlooked for more prestigious wines in the communes further north, from Vosne-Romanée to Gevrey-Chambertin. What a shame. Decanting is arguably unnecessary.

Domaine de la Janasse 2011 Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($123.00) is the top bottling of this exquisite domaine. From a vintage many have already written off, this stunning Châteauneuf is not only drinking phenomenally now (good for people like me who enjoy rack of lamb for Christmas) but will keep for decades to come. Decanting is compulsory.

Jonata 2007 El Desafío de Jonata ($145.00) is an astonishing blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, the rest Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. From one of the most lauded operations in the Santa Ynez Valley, the sheer decadence and copiousness of this wine is incredible. Decanting is compulsory.

Vega Sicilia 2003 Único ($424.00) comes from one of the most celebrated wineries in Spain. The flagship bottling of the establishment, the ’03 (from one of the hottest vintages on record) is what you’d expect: dramatically opulent, polished, and seductive. Drink now with absolute pleasure of hold for a few decades. Decanting is obligatory.

Castello dei Rampolla 2007 d’Alceo ($195.00) is the flagship label of this exemplary winery, delivering incredible sophistication and structure. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Petit Verdot, this is a very special Super Tuscan of glorious stylization and stature. Perhaps a tad unwieldy at the present stage, decanting is essential should patient cellaring prove untenable.

Click here to view my entire list of Classics previews

Wish They Were Here:

Champagne tasting in Chicago:

Comité interprofessionnel du vin de ChampagneOn 29 October 2013, I attended a large-scale champagne function hosted by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) in downtown Chicago. A one-day trip to the Windy City to delve through copious quantities of champagne. What was I thinking? Did I not realize how tiring such an adventure would leave me, to say nothing of the effects of systematically examining several dozen different samples of bubbly before flying back home? Were it not for spittoons (used almost exclusively), I might not have made it back in one piece, it was that tiring a jaunt.

In fact, the day (at time of writing) is not even over. With half an hour left until boarding and nothing productive to do, one might question my decision to begin this column under a cloud of acute mental and physical exhaustion. But efficient use of time knows few obstacles, plus many of the greatest wines of the day remain fresh in my mind.

To get the ball rolling: a luncheon held at NoMI at the Park Hyatt. This was my first face-to-face meeting with Sam Heitner, head of the Champagne Bureau US (a subsidiary of the CIVC) and an inveterate, Templar-like defender of champagne labelling laws. According to Heitner (whose last name is eerily similar to my own), the name of ‘champagne’ has been misleadingly used on labels of sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne for decades. For Heitner and many other likes him (I count myself among them), this has been a considerable detriment to the quality of sparkling wine produced in the actual winegrowing region of Champagne—in other words, that which is the genuine article.

As the main promotional body of the region, the CIVC has worked tirelessly to correct this, painstakingly negotiating with government authorities worldwide to ensure that only sparkling wine produced in Champagne is labelled as such. Taken as a whole, their successes have been plentiful, as increasing numbers of countries throughout the world (especially those producing sparkling wine) have come to legally recognize that the integrity of ‘champagne’ is unequivocally dependent on the adequate protection of its namesake.

Canada is set to become one such nation. As of 1 January 2014, Canadian winegrowers will no longer be permitted to use the name ‘champagne’ on any wine label, no matter how qualitatively sound (or poor) the contents of any given bottle might be. This means ‘President Champagne’ or ‘Baby Canadian Champagne’ will be going the way of the dodo, or at very least relabeled. As for the increasing number of Canadian growers nowadays producing ever-better quality sparkling wine via the ‘Classic Method’ (the same method by which champagne is produced), such wines will be mostly unaffected by the new rules coming into effect. Virtually none of them use the name ‘champagne’ on their labels, anyway.

Here are a few champagne selections:

Whites:

Bollinger 2004 La Grande Année Brut ($139.00) is an absolute darling of a champagne, representing one of my top choices from this exceptional vintage. A blend of 66% Pinot Noir and 34% Chardonnay, this will keep with little fuss over the next dozen years or more, but why wait?

Louis Roederer NV Premier Brut ($63.95) might not have been available to taste at the Classics event, though it unquestionably remains one of the best buys around. From the same house that produces Cristal, this has long been one of my favourite ‘standby’ champagnes.

Click here to view my entire list of champagnes

Cheers,

Julian

Editors Note: You can find Julian Hitner’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. 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!

Julian’s VSO Wines
All Julian Hitner Reviews

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The Successful Collector; 2011 Vintage Port and Classics Collection

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

For this month’s column, I am delighted to provide unmatched coverage of the widely declared 2011 vintage ports. At 8:30 a.m. on 1 November 2013, Ontario’s LCBO (Vintages) rolled out the proverbial red carpet for these stunning fortifieds, via telephone ordering (1-800-266-4764). See vintages.com for further details.

So what of this fabulous vintage? Perhaps its most admirable feature is the unusual combination of finesse and breed of the wines, particularly in the face of abundant ripeness and extract. Indeed these are elegant, richly endowed ports capable of aging for up to a century. Just as important, most are remarkably approachable now, a common theme for many recently declared vintages. My notes on the ‘09s and ‘07s will attest to this thoroughly.

But today the 2011s are our focus, and those fortunate enough to lay their hands on them are in for one spellbinding treat. With this mind, the selection of a port house (example Warre’s) is a very personal affair, much akin to champagne or scotch preferences. My own recommendations from 2011 very much mimic this, though there is almost certainly something matching everyone’s taste. Taking this into account, below are a lucky seven set of selections.

First, for those who need a little background on port, check out my WineAlign column published last spring that comprised a full-length piece on the unparalleled supremacy of vintage port.

The Magnificent Seven; 2011 Vintage Ports:

Dow’s 2011 Vintage Port ($90.00) is as close to perfection as the genre of vintage port gets. Examined with unobstructed enthusiasm, the depth and pedigree of this wine is remarkable and may be enjoyed now (after a thorough decanting) or saved for one’s grandchildren. Along with Warre’s and Smith Woodhouse, this is my top choice of the vintage.

Smith Woodhouse 2011 Vintage Port ($65.00) is my top recommendation when taking into account the reciprocal nature of value and price. Perennially underrated year after year, port lovers should always be on the lookout for wines from this house, though the ’11 is definitely the best vintage yet. Decanting is mandatory.

Warre’s 2011 Vintage Port ($80.00) is one of several wines flirting with perfection and may be rightly considered a legend in the making. From one of the most lauded port houses of them all, a wine like this is practically ageless. More tannic than many of its peers (especially at this toddler-stage of development), decanting is beyond compulsory.

Taylor Fladgate 2011 Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port ($250.00) merits a perfect score in my humble opinion (though the ‘regular’ 2011 Taylor Fladgate is almost as good). Considerably more expensive than its peers, this hails from one of the most esteemed vineyards on the planet. Decanting must be carried out.

Fonseca 2011 Vintage Port ($130.00) is a near-perfect gem. Along with Taylor Fladgate and Croft (to name but a few), this is priced higher than the bulk of its peers, which may seem strange when considering the quality of wines likes Dow’s and Warre’s. If it helps, the ’11 Fonseca is easily one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted from this house. Decanting is essential.

Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port ($95.00) is an absolute darling of a wine. As any port lover will tell you, the style of this house is generally sweeter than many others (I tend to prefer the greater solidity of Warre’s or Dow’s). But quality is irrefutably the same, and the 2011 Graham’s is probably the most youthfully approachable of its graduating class. Decanting is obligatory.

Cockburn’s 2011 Vintage Port ($80.00) is unquestionably the greatest wine this house has ever produced. This is no mean achievement, especially considering how long the place has underperformed (though the new owners are quickly making amends). My honest opinion: if you have a little money left in the kitty, buy Cockburn’s! Decanting is critical.

VINTAGES Classics Collection:

For those unfamiliar with the VINTAGES Classics Collection, every four months the LCBO releases a catalogue of super-premium wines for consumers to purchase. The choices are oftentimes mesmerizing, from top-end Bordeaux and Burgundy (not to mention Rhône and Champagne) to some of the best wines of Italy, Spain, California, Australia, and everything else in between. The price range is vast, though the least expensive wines usually begin at around $35.00 and may represent some of the best values on offer. For the most part, however, wines worth purchasing typically range from $45-$300 and beyond.

VINTAGES Classics Collection Oct 2013The ordering process is simple enough: visit the VINTAGES website and click on the “Classics” link to view the entire collection. Once you’ve made your choices, you have the option of telephoning the LCBO and placing your order, or you can create a VSO account and order your wines online. The latter method (usually made available several weeks before telephone ordering) is strongly recommended for wines that sell out quickly.

Unfortunately, wines from the Classic Collection are not available for tasting in the LCBO lab, which means us WineAlign commentators must seek them out elsewhere. For the most part, the limited number of wines we manage to taste are poured at private events, usually organized by Ontario’s many wine agencies. For my part, I usually wind up tasting around a quarter of all wines by the time any given Classics Collection is released, rising to around 50% or more a year or two later.

But what does is matter? For those who prefer the much more tangible process of physically viewing/handling the wines and placing them in a shopping cart, any wines gone unsold will wind up on LCBO shelves usually two or more months later. Case in point: the October 2013 Classics Collection. Though ordering began on the first day of the month (or last month if you prefer), many of the wines will likely appear in LCBO stores (in the Vintages section) by early-December. Plenty of choices before the Christmas rush!

Here are a few selections from the October 2013 Classics catalogue:

Whites: 

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2010 Vieilles Vignes Riesling ($89.00) hails from the esteemed Grand Cru vineyard of Brand and is an absolutely marvellous specimen. Befitting the style of the estate, the level of concentration and finesse of this wine is superlative. Decanting is not really necessary, though it may help to bring out secondary aromas and flavours.

Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 2009 Pessac-Léognan ($154.85) can go head-to-head with the best of white burgundy any day. Over the past ten years, premium white Bordeaux has soared in quality, and the wines of this particular state are consistently among the most prized of Pessac-Léognan (home to most of Bordeaux’s greatest white wines). Decanting isn’t exactly mandatory, though it ought to help ‘awaken’ the wine.

Reds:

Château Langoa Barton 2009 St-Julien ($99.85) is one of the best vintages ever produced at this perennially underrated estate. Admittedly costly, the good news is that it hails from a vintage with remarkable approachability, though a beauty like this will easily keep at least two decades. A perfect gift for the serious claret lover (or WineAlign columnist). Decanting is compulsory.

Groth 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($123.00) comes from one of the cooler vintages of the Napa Valley in recent years—with superlative results. Though the price is high, a wine like this will provide immediate pleasure for enthusiasts of concentrated, full-bottled bottles. It will easily keep for the next fifteen years or more. Decanting is highly recommended.

Errázuriz 2009 Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve ($80.00) is one of the most premium wines crafted at this enormous estate. Crafted with long-term cellaring in mind, to drink this now would be a deprivation of enhanced complexity and personal pleasure. But if you must (for it is a truly outstanding wine), a rigorous decanting might very well go a long way.

Domaine Faiveley 2010 Premier Cru Les Porêts St-Georges ($88.00) is by no means cheap but is certainly a remarkable red burgundy. From one of the finest vineyards in the commune of Nuits-St-Georges, this is grown entirely from estate-owned grapes and may be kept in the cellar for ten years or more. Decanting is ill-advised so as to preserve aromatics.

Tedeschi 2007 Monte Olmi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($69.00) is just about at the top of its class. Logging in at a mammoth 16% alcohol, this is the type of Amarone that simply begs a hearty meal, otherwise even a single glass may cause one to stumble. Decanting is highly advisable.

Château Lafon-Rochet 2009 St-Estèphe ($82.85) has actually already been released several times by the LCBO (Vintages) and is an incredible claret. From one of the greatest vintages ever recorded, this beauty will last at least until the end of the next decade. Decanting ought to be undertaken to enjoy this fabulous St-Estèphe to its fullest.

Domaine Bouchard & Fils 2010 Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus Premier Cru ($119.00) delivers both extraordinary pleasure and aging potential. Sourced from a specific parcel within the esteemed Grèves vineyard in the commune of Beaune, the ’10 has a very long life ahead of it but may be enjoyed now. Just be sure to serve in the correct glasses and at the correct temperature. Decanting is arguably unnecessary.

Desserts:

Château Climens 2009 Barsac ($194.95) is also sold in a half-bottle format and comes from one of the greatest dessert wine producers in France. Usually served after a meal, one would be well-advised to pair such a wine with the most decadent, most chocolate-packed ice cream available for sale to the general public. Decanting isn’t warranted.

Cheers,

Julian

Editors Note: You can find Julian Hitner’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. 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!

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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – VSO wines and biodynamic winegrowing

VSO Wines – A Friendly Reminder:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

For those unfamiliar with the Vintages Shop Online (or VSO) programme, several years ago the LCBO began offering wines exclusively over the internet, with all payments to be made directly online. As mentioned previously, the programme has not been all that successful, due in no small part to the fact that so few wine aficionados are even aware of its existence. An additional problem is that all purchases must be picked up at local LCBO outlets of customers’ choice, for there is currently no home delivery. Finally, it was only a year or two ago that the LCBO even began permitting members of the press to taste VSO wines in the lab at Queens Quay on a regular basis.

Last month, we at WineAlign were privy to examine a neat selection of VSO wines at reduced prices. In contrast, recommendations for this month are a bit more pricy (at least in some cases), but no less worthy of purchase. Curious buyers – not to mention those willing to go through the drudgeries of creating a VSO account (a prerequisite for participating in the programme) – will be sufficiently rewarded.

Shop On-lineCritic reviews for many of the VINTAGES Shop Online wines can be found on WineAlign. The wines can be identified by this shopping bag symbol. Clicking on the symbol will take you directly to the VINTAGES website where you confirm availability and place your order.

Great Wines of all Types

Gabriel Meffre Laurus Gigondas 2010Baigorri Reserva 2005Gabriel Meffre 2010 Laurus Gigondas ($30.00) comes from one of the finest appellations in the Southern Rhône, from a producer that has shown steady improvement over the past several vintages. A blend of Grenache and Syrah (percentages unknown), a vigourous decanting is well advised if consumed young.

Baigorri 2005 Reserva Rioja ($38.00) is crafted from 100% Tempranillo and represents a growing trend in Rioja toward placing greater emphasis on freshness and body instead of excessive maturation in oak barrels. Of considerable quality, many of the best reds nowadays are derived from much better fruit and will probably keep much longer in the cellar than many of their more ‘traditional’ counterparts. From the best vintage of the mid-2000s (along with 2004 for those who are interested), decanting is highly advisable.

Jean Fannière Grand Cru Extra Brut ChampagneDomaine Du Grand Tinel Cuvée Alexis Establet Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010Domaine du Grand Tinel 2010 Cuvée Alexis Establet Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($54.00) is crafted from 100% Grenache and hails from one of the most celebrated appellations in France. For cravers of full-bodied red wines, a great Châteauneuf-du-Pape is hard to beat, and will often perform brilliantly even in youth. Just be sure to enjoy at the proper temperature (around 17°C or perhaps slightly lower), otherwise the alcohol may seem a tad overwhelming. Decanting is almost always recommended.

Jean Fannière NV Origine Grand Cru Extra Brut Champagne ($62.00) has got to be tasted to believed. Based out of Avize in the Côte des Blancs, I have only examined a handful of champagnes from this small-scale producer, yet they have all been of exceptional quality. Crafted from 100% Chardonnay, what really stands out is the frothiness. I hope to taste more from Fannière sooner rather than later, as well as add a few bottles to my personal collection.

Biodynamic winegrowing

For those unfamiliar with the subject, Biodynamic winegrowing is best described as an extreme form of organic wine production, replete with environmentally friendly initiatives and (more controversially) a wide range of holistic practices. These days, an increasing number of quality-minded producers are embracing Biodynamic principles in order to improve the quality of their vineyards and make better wines.

Demeter InternationalThe principles of Biodynamic winegrowing were first promulgated by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in the mid-1920s. Nowadays, in order for an estate to be certified as Biodynamic, they must apply to one of several institutions, the most common being Demeter, an organization formed in 1928. Though it may come as a surprise to some, official government regulation of “Biodynamic” (a registered trademark of Demeter) practices is essentially minimal in most jurisdictions, with France being a major exception.

So what are some of those quirky rules we’ve all heard about in order for an estate to earn their Biodynamic certification? As pointed out by Caroline Gilby MW, perhaps the most seemingly bizarre of these is the practice of inserting specially treated cow manure into a horn (also of a cow) and burying it in the ground. The reason: to stimulate root growth and humus formation. However, at roughly one horn per hectare, more than a handful of individuals have claimed this to be an entirely bogus procedure. Another questionable practice? The spraying of specially prepared (or ‘dynamised’) herbal teas onto compost in order to make nutrients more available to the vines. According to Demeter: “The preparations develop a strong yet subtle power whose effect may be compared to that of homeopathic remedies.” Take from this what you will. For my part, I have absolutely no idea what this means, nor do I exactly comprehend the reason for which the use of teas and cow components are only administered at certain times of the year, according to “life forces” dictated by the phases of the moon.

These reservations notwithstanding, there is absolutely no question that Biodynamic practices have resulted in an incredible improvement in quality at many estates. I just don’t attribute these to cow horns or teas (the jury that comprises my brain cells is still out on the moon stuff). Instead, the vast improvements in winegrowing at estates fully or partially engaged in Biodynamic procedures may be largely attributed to a colossal leap in what many of us in the business would simply call “conscientious winegrowing.” This involves placing far less emphasis on the need for aggressive fertilizers, pesticides, and unnecessary machinery. Instead, winegrowers seek to utilize more natural means of crafting better wines, from managing pests by intentionally introducing predatory insects to using horse-drawn ploughs in lieu of tractors to deal with the soil.

(Two Biodynamic examples worth a look: Château Maris Las Combes Minervois Cru La Livinière 2009 and Domaine Zind Humbrecht Calcaire Gewürztraminer 2009)

The moral of the story? While Biodynamic certification might look good on a winery’s résumé, many of the holistic practices are perhaps better omitted than included. At very least, they merit a more scientific, less “dynamised” examination.
Cheers,

Julian Hitner

P.S. “Dynamisation” is the practice of rapidly stirring mixtures in one direction to create a vortex and then quickly reversing the direction. This is carried out for roughly one hour, the purpose of which is to “energize” the mixture.

Editors Note: You can find our critics reviews by clicking on any of the links. 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 reviews.

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Time to Revisit VINTAGES Shop Online

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

For those unfamiliar with the VINTAGES Shop Online (or VSO) programme, several years back the LCBO began offering wines exclusively over the web, with all payments to be made directly online. As mentioned in a previous column, the programme has only enjoyed mixed success, due mainly to the fact that so few wine lovers know about its existence. An additional problem is that all purchases must be picked up at local LCBO outlets of customers’ choice. There is no home delivery.

On a positive note, the VSO programme often features vast quantities of bin ends on sale, wines that never reach LCBO shelves for one reason or another. On average, price reductions range from 15-25% per bottle, which in some cases represent fabulous deals. At time of publication, there are 95 bin ends available for ordering on the VSO website. Here are a few favourites:

Great Value Whites:

Dunham Cellars Shirley Mays Chardonnay 2009Alkoomi Wandoo Semillon 2005Alkoomi 2005 Wandoo Semillon ($24.75) has been reduced from $32.95 and is a marvellous choice. Though the Hunter Valley in New South Wales is much more famous for its own versions of immaculate dry Semillon, the grape seems to do extremely well in many other parts of Australia, from the Barossa Valley in South Australia to Frankland River in Western Australia. The ’05 Wandoo is finely aged and full of vitality and flavour.

Dunham Cellars 2009 Shirley Mays Chardonnay ($20.05) has been reduced from $24.00 and is a neat, refreshing offering. On the whole, my familiarity with Washington State whites is somewhat minimal, as this particular part of the Pacific Northwest really is more famous for its reds. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this matter in the future. In the meantime, the ’09 Shirley Mays should find favour with many fellow wine lovers.

Top Choice Reds:

Fall Line Cabernet SauvignonChâteau Des Erles Fitou 2004Fall Line 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.00) has been reduced from $27.00 and represents incredible value for money. Sourced from the Yakima Valley, it seems remarkably youthful for a wine already six years old, at least when examined in the LCBO tasting lab. At 15% alcohol, it demands appreciable quantities of food. Decanting is also merited.

Château des Erles 2004 Fitou ($31.45) has been reduced from $51.00 and is a brilliant example of a properly aged Roussillon. A blend of Grenache, Carignan, and Syrah (percentages unknown), it hails from an appellation worth getting to know. Located just south of Corbières not excessively far from the border with Spain, Fitou was granted appellation status as early as 1948. Decanting is highly recommended.

Coriole Lloyd Reserve ShirazCoriole 2007 Lloyd Reserve Shiraz ($37.90) has been reduced from $49.00 and has a very long life ahead of it. The Flagship label of Coriole, I have tasted many vintages of this wine over the past several years. Immensely pleasurable now, the ‘07 will easily keep for another ten years, provided it is cellared in the proper conditions. Decanting is definitely advisable.

Upcoming Postings:

For the past two years, I have been painstakingly preparing notes of my favourite wines for publication on WineAlign. It has been a very slow process, as most of my notes cover a vast premium spectrum of fine wine production. However, a few months ago I finally began visualizing a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Long story short: there are great quantities of notes on the way!

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links for immediate access to Julian Hitner’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

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VINTAGES Shop OnlineCritic reviews for many of the VINTAGES Shop Online wines can be found on WineAlign. The wines can be identified by this shopping bag symbol. Clicking on the symbol will take you directly to the VINTAGES website where you confirm availability and place your order.

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