In this article: Chenin Blanc Steals the Smart Buy Spotlight; Top Ten Smart Buys; Features Report: Where’s the Real Pink? Avoiding Alsace and Cali Confidential + Top Ten Wines from the California Feature (90+ points)
The May 28th Vintages release has a great collection of smart buys, but not one of the wines from the featured regions came close to making the list. The unlikely hero stealing the spotlight this week instead is Chenin Blanc from South Africa: 3 wines in three different styles, all valid and all superb, and though we’re all growing sick of the word, yes, they’re good value, too.
Not long ago, Chenin Blanc was maligned by South African winemakers as the ubiquitous local grape, best reserved for brandy production. It has so often been the case that natives don’t recognize the potential beauty or worldwide importance of what comes out of their own backyard precisely because it has always been there. A sort of inferiority complex sets in, and the belief that the old, the familiar and local must necessarily be inferior to something new, exciting and above all foreign. Canada, after all, certainly has no monopoly on inferiority, imagined or actual, (though I’m still quite sure that no one, inside or out of Ontario, will ever recognize Baco Noir as a world beater).
Like so many winemakers from Portugal to Italy to Greece to Hungary and elsewhere, South African winemakers disdained local grapes in favor of foreign, purportedly superior (mostly French) varieties, and chenin was all but forgotten (chenin too, is foreign, but it’s been in South Africa for so long – it was likely one of the first grapes introduced in the Cape by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1655 – and is so widely planted – still #1 with 18% of SA’s vineyard area – that I’m taking the liberty of considering it a local specialty). It certainly didn’t help that South Africans lived in relative commercial isolation until just a couple of decades ago, being effectively cut off from the exploration that would have eventually led them back home. Pretty much anything other than chenin blanc would sell on domestic markets for much higher prices, and since exports were, well, illegal, there was obviously no incentive to attempt to show the world the potential brilliance of South African chenin blanc.
Fortunately, times have changed. Today there’s a self-help group devoted to the grape with 69 members: The Chenin Blanc Association . The intro on their home page states: “It’s a little known fact, but a fact all the same, that South African Chenin Blanc wines are among the world’s finest” Well, we are listening now. With a treasure trove of gnarly old vines, planted on some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world that impart a unique stony-minerality, and a world that is eagerly searching for some unique, distinctive regional specialties, times are indeed exciting for both chenin producers and wine drinkers.
A tremendous value not to be missed is the 2009 THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE BUSH VINE CHENIN BLANC WO Stellenbosch $11.95. Remember: these are not intended to be loud, in-your-face wines. This one is all about grace and integration, and remarkable texture and depth. And hey, it’s 12 bucks! Can you really go wrong?
If you want a more amped-up version with power and punch, pull out an extra Sir Wilfred Laurier from your pocketbook and pick up the 2009 GRAHAM BECK BOWED HEAD CHENIN BLANC WO Paarl $17.95. This has plenty of ripe but fresh tropical fruit flavours with a stunning whack of chalky-minerality. Not a wine for your mother-in-law, in other words.
Midway in style between the intensity of the Graham Beck and the refinement of the Winery of Good Hope is perhaps the most outstanding of the three: 2009 KEN FORRESTER CHENIN BLANC WO Stellenbosch $17.95. After a start in the hotel industry, Forrester and his wife and young family purchased an old farm in Stellenbosch with a derelict Cape Dutch homestead and nearly abandoned vineyards. Most of the farm was planted to old chenin blanc vines, and rather than replant, Forrester set out instead on a quest to produce a chenin that could compete with any white wine in the world. As a founding member of the Chenin Blanc Association and a tireless international advocate for the grape, Forrester is in a sense, Mr. Chenin Blanc.
Click here for the rest of the Top Ten Smart Buys, including a lovely Douro red from the excellent 2007 vintage. A brilliant traditional method bubbly for under $16, and a fantastically (and dangerously) drinkable German riesling for under $14
As for the features this week, Cali Confidential, Alsace Alliance and Premium Ontario Rosés, here’s what you need to know:
Where’s the Real Pink?
Premium Ontario rosés? Forget it, they’re not in this release, unless a mini parade of sugary pink drinks is the new premium standard. It seems most Ontario producers are clearly focused on everything but rosé, bottling it as an afterthought, or at least engineering a medium-dry style to service the bus loads of blue haired tourists who travel annually to Ontario wine country. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling wine, of course, though I do find it problematic to list this motley collection of white zin look-alikes under such a lofty banner. It could give folks the wrong idea. For the record, the best of the rosés in this release was in my view a wine from Chile: 2010 EMILIANA ADOBE RESERVA ROSÉ SYRAH Rapel Valley $11.95. Note that it’s also the cheapest.
“One of the world’s most distinctive wine regions, Alsace has a unique identity….” Says the LCBO catalogue. Agreed to be sure, it’s just that Alsace’s most unique wines will emphatically not be release on May 28th. I suppose the uncommonly challenging task of triangulating producer willingness, availability, price, agent competence and timing has eliminated all but a handful of rather mediocre Alsatian wines, the best of which is easily the 2008 TRIMBACH RÉSERVE RIESLING AC Alsace $25.95, even if it is not likely to set the world on fire. Nobody said it was easy to buy for 10 million people, and there’s no question consumers are suffering because of it.
California, and especially the hyper-inflated luxury regions led by Napa Valley, is rarely accused of over-delivering on the quality/value scale. There’s no question that the quality is high, in fact in my books no fewer than ten wines in this release are outstanding (90+ points), from Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties. But then again, the average price in the Top Ten Wines from the California Feature is almost $46, so value remains in the eye of the beholder. Among the wines that I would consider buying is the2006 VILLA MT. EDEN GRAND RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $24.95. It’s an understated, balanced and refined version of Napa cabernet, in the style that anyone who has compared notes with me will recognize as the kind of wine that I’m drawn too. And at $25, it’s also more than fairly priced.
A little higher up the price ladder, but also a step or two up in concentration and complexity without sacrificing elegance, is the 2007 STAGS’ LEAP WINE CELLARS ARTEMIS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $49.95. I like the stylistic direction in which Stags’ Leap is heading, and now under the restrained hand of French winemaker Christophe Paubert, the wines look set to get even better. The ’07 Artemis is a cabernet of considerable refinement, not short on Napa richness to be sure, but balancing the power with a nice dose of juiciness and succulence, firm but honest and balanced tannins, and terrific length.
Devotees of syrah will want to consider the 2007 FESS PARKER RODNEY’S VINEYARD SYRAH Santa Barbara County $39.95. This is the wine’s VINTAGES debut, and it struck me with its floral, spicy, smoky and savoury character, complete with black pepper and fresh road tar in the way syrah fans love. It’s certainly rich and full but not heavy, with firm, grippy tannins, adequate acidity, and great length.
From the May 28th Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier