Highlights & Values from Spain, B.C. and Around the World, plus Postcards from New Zealand
The January 19 release is a large and rambling affair with over 100 wines, and the vast majority are priced under $25 to reflect the post-holiday impecuniary blues. I must say that there were more disappointing wines than normal, with several scoring below 85 points. But there were also many worth your attention, which is why we spend hours in the VINTAGES lab tasting them all.
Spain’s Priorat and Montsant
The many faces of Spanish wine are featured in this release, in a selection that manages to cover most of the country, albeit with only one or two selections each. WineAlign colleague John Szabo has penned a comprehensive look at the various wines and the fortunes of Spanish wine in Ontario, so I won’t repeat, except to highlight very good buys from two of my favourite DOCs – Priorat and Montsant. These appellations neighbour each other in the harsh, arid mountains of southern Catalonia not far from the Mediterranean.
Whereas many Spanish reds are softer, there is a nerve and minerality to the wines of this region that is invigorating, which will appeal to those who like pinot noir and some of Tuscany’s reds. Priorat in particular emerged in the 90s as a super-premium niche region, followed soon after by less expensive Montsant that sits in less steep terrain nearby. Both use the same blend of Mediterranean grapes like carignan and grenache along with syrah, cabernet and merlot. Planets De Prior Pons 2008 from Priorat at only $22.95 is a fine example of the value that can now be attained in post-recession pricing of Priorat. And the 2010 Baronia CIMS Del Montsant is simply a steal at only $15.95.
Unlike four other provinces, Ontario has still not “approved” the direct purchase and importation of B.C. wines via the internet for your personal use here in Ontario, despite the federal government legalizing the practice last June through Bill C-311. Many Ontarians are doing it anyway, as the government’s position is unenforceable. If you are squeamish about doing it however, or you just want to buy a bottle or three, instead of ordering by the case, then VINTAGES offers a small but quite good selection on this release. It’s a microcosm of what the Okanagan Valley is doing in terms of styles – aromatics in the north, chardonnay and pinot noir in the centre, and big reds in the south, including the iconic plush reds of Burrowing Owl, the winery that first drew attention to just how big and rich B.C. southern reds could be. I draw your attention to two wines that define the polar extremes of Okanagan winemaking.
Gray Monk 2011 Gewürztraminer ($19.95) is a super bright, fresh and fruity example of a lovely patio/picnic style of gewürz – indeed Gray Monk (sitting right on the 50th degree of latitude) is a veteran, reliable producer of good value, pristine aromatic whites. Consider this one for spring/summer drinking. From the opposite end of the valley, almost within view of the 49th parallel and the US border, comes a big red from almost desert vineyards that leads the way in a growing field of multi-grape blends based on merlot and cabernet. Mission Hill 2008 Quatrain ($41.95) deftly adds about 30% syrah to the mix, and ferments them in small French oak to create a wine of considerable depth, complexity and elegance.
Three White Highlights
The roussanne grape, which is indigenous to the Rhone Valley in France, is in global expansion mode, especially in New World as winemakers in warm climates grow to appreciate its natural acidity and tropical yet understated fruit. McNab Ridge 2009 Shadow Brook Farms Roussanne ($18.95) from Mendocino California is a fine example. The Parducci family is a pioneer in this neck of the woods, and this off-shoot winery by Chris Parducci is focused on less well known grape varieties.
Roche De Bellene 2010 Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne Chardonnay from Burgundy’s Nicolas Potel is not all that unusual, but it is made in a bright, pure style that defines the grape and region very well for $19.95. A dandy, affordable and quite classy chardonnay.
And Château De Montmollin 2011 Chasselas from Auvernier-Neuchâtel in Switzerland is also very well made. Chasselas can be soft, flabby and boring, but this fine effort brightens the quiet fruit and presents flavours that remind me just a bit of sake. It’s all very subtle, very nicely balanced and easy to drink. Very much worth exploring at $18.95.
Four Red Values
For several years now I have watched Chile struggle with pinot noir. There is a juicy exuberance in Chilean reds that somehow does not wear well in pinot, which should be very layered, restrained and elegant. Terra Noble 2010 Reserva Pinot Noir from the Casablanca Valley is still exuberant, with raspberry and evergreen scents, but somehow manages better balance and more length than most, and at a very good price of $14.95. A fine little chillable summer patio pinot.
From Australia, Heartland 2009 Shiraz has shockingly intense, perfumed and pure aromas of cassis, a signature I have come to expect in reds from the Langhorne Creek region of South Australia that borders the Murray River delta. Langhorne is home base for Heartland, a collaboration among several partners but Ben Glaetzer is the magician behind this wine. And Ben Glaetzer is the nephew of John Glaetzer, who put Wolf Blass on the map with some remarkable Langhorne reds back in the day. In any event, this is a real mouthful for $19.95, richly fruited and wonderfully vibrant.
South African pinotage, a hybrid grape bred on the Cape, has over the decades, become something of a plaything for winemakers. There is a shrill and unusual native character in pinotage that many seem to want to avoid, and the latest trick is to infuse highly roasted coffee bean flavours, as in Café Culture. The Grinder 2011 Pinotage is in that camp, but less coffeed than I expected given the blatant coffee references in the packaging. I think one reason that the pinotage fruit manages to stay so vital in this example is its origin in Swartland, a warmer area of old vines. Anyway, at $13.95 you can afford to try this out for yourself.
And for something really off the beaten track, don’t miss a great little winter red from Lebanon. Château Ksara 2009 Réserve Du Couvent is a blend of syrah, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon aged six months in oak. Ksara a historic 19th Century producer in the high altitude Bekaa Valley has modernized its production, but this wine maintains a very smooth, warm and leathery ambiance that is pleasantly older school. The main point is that offers a lot of character for $14.95.
Postcards from New Zealand & A Tasting of Villa Maria
I am writing this report from a small, comfortable motor lodge in the farming town of Cromwell in the heart of Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. I am in the country for a three week tour of eight regions, that also includes three conferences, centred by Pinot Noir NZ 2013 in Wellington January 28 – 31. I am visiting three to four wineries per day, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. But you can follow some observations on Twitter @DavidLawrason, and I am also sending updates via WineAlign’s Facebook page. You can check out the first in the series on Waiheke Island’s Man O’ War winery at Postcards from New Zealand.
On my second day in the country I sat down to a terrific tasting with Villa Maria winemaker Alastair Maling, a Master of Wine and chair of Pinot 2013 conference. It was held at Villa Maria’s impressive new winery/restaurant/vineyard improbably located and almost hidden within a dormant volcano crater in an industrial area near Auckland airport. The quality across the range of wines rather took me by surprise. I was well aware of the Private Bin general listings in Ontario – Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2011 and Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2012. But as the tasting moved along I was struck by the consistent purity and accuracy and inviting drinkability of all the wines, regardless of variety and price point. Suddenly all the medals won by Villa Maria over the years made sense, and it proved that you can do things well on a large scale if quality control is truly the focus of the exercise.
In the very near future all my reviews from this tasting will be posted on WineAlign. It was assembled to reflect wine now available, or soon to be available in Canada, so if you want to search for a particular wine, or scan the entire range simply search by Villa Maria.
So that’s it for this time. I will be writing my next report from New Zealand as well. Meanwhile check out all my January 19 reviews below.
VP of Wine
From the January 19, 2013 Vintages release: