Southern Rhône and Fresh and Fruity
By John Szabo with notes from Sara d’Amato and David Lawrason
This week’s report takes a look at the 2011 vintage in the Southern Rhône – a challenging one with lots of variability, and especially after the exceptional duo of 2009 and 2010, a disappointment. The smart money is on the lower end in 2011, or even smarter is to buy up the remaining ‘09s and ‘10s and the few very promising ‘12s already on shelves. The VINTAGES May 24th release also features a fine range of “fresh and fruity” whites for summer sipping. See Ontario’s top sommeliers battle for the title of best in province in Toronto on June 22nd, or if you’re generally more participant than spectator, start your training with the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory course in Montreal on June 1-2, or in Toronto on August 24-25.
The 2011 Vintage in the Southern Rhône
I suppose it was statistically probable that after two exceptional vintages in 2009 and 2010, that 2011 would likely disappoint, but even out of that context the wines are by and large not special. The helter-skelter season produced an unusually motley cohort of wines that suffer in general from lack of flesh and substance, and from excessive alcohol and hard tannins. 15%+ alcohol is commonplace, which for grenache-based wines is not radical by any means, but many wines are empty and hollow, dressed in a cloak of astringent tannins. With only a few exceptions, these are not wines I’d buy for my cellar.
The Stars Align
Domaine Des Fines Caillottes Pouilly-Fumé 2012, France ($26.95). John Szabo - This is fine Pouilly-Fumé from the reliable Jean Pabiot, fresh, ripe and composed, with a lovely range of citrus key lime, blood orange and winter melon aromas and flavours framed by finely etched chalky mineral notes. The palate is crisp and dry, balanced with very good length. Classy and textbook stuff, best 2014-2018. Sara d’Amato - This sustainably produced Pouilly Fumé is juicy and complex with a touch of the exotic and a palate that boasts an almost electric vibrancy. Above average in every category – an impressive find amidst some rather bleak group of white offerings this release.
Clos Bellane Côtes Du Rhône Villages Valréas 2010, France ($19.95). John Szabo - Here’s a particularly spicy and savoury southern Rhône red grown at high elevations, over 400m. The freshness and pepperyness is noted, as are succulent acids and firm, dusty tannins. There’s a whack of umami-savoury character here overall, and this is just entering a fine drinking window. I like the firmness and structure here, though it’s anything but a round, soft, cuddly style. Serve with salty protein or hold 2-4 years in the cellar. Sara d’Amato - A straight shooter and a solid value, this Côtes du Rhône Villages is traditional, concise, and distinctive. Valréas is a unique southern appellation featuring cool, clay and fairly drought resistant soils along with a climate that benefits from the cool air of the Alps. Due to the confluence of these factors, the wines tend to be more fresh and full of red and wild berry fruit. This version throws elegant dried herbal notes and tobacco into the mix delivering a boost of complexity.
Domaine De La Valériane Vieilles Vignes Côtes Du Rhône 2012, France ($17.95). John Szabo - Old vines grenache and syrah grown on hillsides near Avignon yield here a wine of structure and depth, with firm and drying tannins, yet sufficient fruit and flavour extract to ensure harmonious ageing and integration. Best 2016-2020. Sara d’Amato - The current winemaker and owner of Domaine de la Valériane was destined to produce wine. As a youngster, Valerie Collomb’s parents named their newly established winery after their young daughter and set her on an oenological path that would have her produce stunning wines such as this from her home farm just outside the city of Avignon. This 50/50 blend of syrah and grenache is produced from 30-40 year old vines that exude seductively concentrated fruit, plenty of spice and tension, and all the complexity you could want at under $20.
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Roger & Didier Raimbault Sancerre 2012, France ($27.95). I spent several hours with Didier Raimbault in the fall of 2012 as the grapes for this wine were ripening. He’s the tenth generation to grow grapes in Verdigny, with vineyards on terres blanches, limestone-rich soils also known as griottes, and on caillotes, similar in origin yet filled with small white pebbles that crumble and make their way to the base of the slopes. The parcels are blended to make the regular estate Sancerre, but I had the chance to taste them still unblended in tank (the 2011s). The caillotes has a fine, zesty mineral attack and marked freshness, though finishes rather short, while the griottes is much firmer, harder, less giving up front but much longer on the finish. It’s fascinating to see such marked differences arise from nothing other than soil type, and also easy to see why the two terroirs are blended to make a more complete estate wine. This 2012 hits all of the right notes in a substantial yet linear and well-chiseled guise. Really fine stuff, best 2014-2020.
Kew Vineyards Blanc De Noir 2011, Niagara Peninsula ($29.95). Newcomer KEW vineyards’ sparkling blanc de noir (from old vines) offers a pale pink tinge with fairly advanced and oxidative aromatics – read complexity – with floral notes and baked citrus fruit flavours. A solid first release to be sure – this is quality wine. Tasted May 2014.
Beauvignac Picpoul De Pinet 2013, Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($13.95). What a fine little wine for $14 here: crisp, dry, flavourful and fruity, with a nice range of flavours from citrus to melon-tropical, and great length to boot for the price category. A smart buy for summer drinking on the dock/patio/terrace.
Crios De Susana Balbo Torrontés 2013, Argentina ($13.95). By no means a subtle wine, this explosively aromatic torrontés delivers better balance and freshness than most in the category – I like the crispness and liveliness here without excessively hard (adjusted) acids. A fine match for aromatic and spicy foods -think Indonesian – a successful match that I put to the test while assembling the wine list for Little Sister, an Indonesian Food and Wine Bar set to open at the end of the month on Yonge south of Eglinton.
Domaine Lafond Roc-Épine Lirac 2011, France ($18.95). One of the better balanced and more refined, not to mention ‘complete’ 2011 southern Rhônes, with both elegance and flesh, substance and structure. Textbook wine with high drinkability factor at a nice price. Best 2014-2019.
Château Grand Dignitaire Côtes Du Rhône-Villages Gadagne 2012, France ($18.95). A nicely dense and dark, ripe and spicy yet still authentically southern Rhône style wine with plenty of weight and substance, extract and concentration. I like the impressive range of flavours and the savoury-garrigue notes that epitomize southern France. This is still 2-3 years away from prime enjoyment, best 2016-2020.
Domaine La Guintrandy Côtes Du Rhône 2012, France ($15.95). A clean and juicy, fruity and savoury, entry-level southern Rhône. Tannins are suave and soft and this is ready to enjoy.
E. Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007, Rhône, France, ($59.95) To see the 2007 Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape released in VINTAGES should make you take note. This example from the highly favorable vintage for the southern Rhône is showing beautifully and ageing at a snail’s pace given the vibrancy and concentration of fruit on the palate. This will certainly have a short life on the shelf (but not a short shelf life) so don’t delay.
Domaine Courtois La Grange Vinsobres 2011, Rhone, France ($20.95) Vinsobres is a newer appellation in southern Rhône (2006) and the one that showcases syrah in its highest form. Due to its northerly situation and higher altitudes, it ripens the varietal slowly, giving the wines an expressively peppery and musky nature. The voluptuous mouthfeel, authentic flavours and the wine’s sophisticated display of both power and delicacy are indicative of its slow maturation gentle handling.
Domaine Martin Plan De Dieu Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2011, Unfiltered, AC, Rhône, France ($19.95) Plan de Dieu is a very rugged almost barren terrain from which only red wines are produced with pleasant rusticity and concentration that comes from very low yields. This smartly priced example shows very well the characteristic peppery, herbal notes with edgy tannins and southern charm.
Aromas Das Castas 2012 Alvarinho/Trajadura Vinho Verde, Portugal ($15.95). Sara d’Amato - This friendly and approachable Vinho Verde fits the “Fresh and Fruity” bill to a T. The palate is zesty with crunchy saline and mineral that deliciously boosts the ripe stone fruit. A wine that certainly over-delivers for the price. David Lawrason –This is a delightful light, crunchy and savoury white with lifted aromas of evergreen fresh herbs and lime. The kind of wine to take to the cottage and sip on deck beneath swaying pines. Actually, you better bring more than one bottle.
Vineland Estates 2011 Chardonnay Musqué, Niagara Escarpment ($17.95) – This ripe, polished white is a tour de force for a grape variety that does occasionally show flashes of brilliance in Niagara. It captures the weight and richness expected of chardonnay as well as the florality of this particular clone.
Les Grands Crus Blancs 2012 Pouilly-Loché, Burgundy, France ($20.95) This is a very stylish, mid-weight, creamy chardonnay, with barely any oak. It’s from a tiny appellation in the Macon district that is comprised of only 32 ha of vines, adjacent to the much more famous, and expensive, Pouilly-Fuisse – and in that light this offers great value.
Domaine Saint-Pierre 2011 Vacqueyras ($25.95). Here is more rounded, almost voluptuous take on Vacqueyras, one of the bigger and often most rustic reds of the southern Rhone. It’s from a family winery that has 4.5 ha in the appellation. Could use another year or two before cracking it open.
Château Saint Estève 2010 Massif d’Uchaux, Côtes Du Rhône-Villages ($18.95). Massif d’Uchaux does not yet have its own appellation, but the heavily wooded hill area has 750 hectares under vine, and given the quite unique complexity and juicy elegance I encountered here, it deserves its own AOC. Great value here from vineyard that converted to organic viticulture in 2006.
Best Ontario Sommelier Competition
Have you ever been served by an amazing Sommelier? Ever wonder what it takes to be the BEST Sommelier in the Province? Find out June 22 at the BEST ONTARIO SOMMELIER COMPETITION. Attending the competition is free. Watch as the three finalists are put through their paces with Decanting Service, Champagne Service, Food and Wine Pairing, and Blind Tasting. Following the competition is a walk-around wine tasting ($5) featuring international and Ontario wines; all proceeds go to help the winning Sommelier with travel expenses to the Americas competition (Mendoza, Argentina 2015) and hopefully the Worlds (2016).
The Gala Dinner ($150) includes a silent auction, cocktail reception and a four course dinner prepared by Oliver and Bonacini, with, of course, tons of wine, and an after party.
This event only takes place once every two years.
When: June 22, 2014
Where: Arcadian Court, Toronto
Wine tasting 3:00-5:00
Cocktail Reception 5:00-7:00
Dinner 7:00-10:00, After Party 10:00 -
Upcoming Court of Master Sommelier Courses
Montreal (Level I) June 1-2, L’ Auberge Saint- Gabriel, 426 Rue Saint-Gabriel Old Montreal
Toronto (Level I & II), August 23-25th, The Air Canada Centre
Level I ($525 US) Introductory Course & Exam. Includes a fast paced review for a day and a half with a theory exam at the end of the second day. Candidates should have been employed in wine service for a minimum of three years, although this is not mandatory.
Level II ($325 US)Certified Sommelier Exam, a one-day exam only with no classroom work.
Alsace: At the Crossroads
For fans of distinctive wines, especially white wines, you’ll find happiness in Alsace. Check out my new report Alsace: At the Crossroads. I offer a list of recommended producers, top terroirs and their characteristics, and wine recommendations for each.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, MS
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