Tuscany Unleashed & Gems from the Rhône, Oz, Ontario and Otago
Tuscany is the backbone of Vintages February 16 release, with most wines hovering around 90 point excellence in a collection that nicely showcases the major regions and styles. But I also found some other nuggets from the Rhône (it just keeps on delivering), Australia, Ontario, and a dandy pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago. I am just back from my long, eight region sojourn to Middle Earth, with almost 1000 tasting notes and several themes for the weeks and months ahead. There is nothing like travel to keep perspectives changing. But the early days of 2013 are bringing change in other ways too, as we say goodbye to Wine Access magazine which folded last week – 21 years after I founded it as a newsletter in 1991. At the same time we say hello to exciting new initiatives here at WineAlign to be revealed shortly, including Season 3 of “You Think You Know Wine“. I also return to the classroom delivering WSET programs in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal (see below).
This is an excellent Tuscan release! But don’t go looking for bargains. Tuscany has joined the elite wine regions of the world (with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa etc) and in this position it commands a decent buck. I would argue however that if you remove the overpriced collector wines like Tignanello, Solaia, Sassicaia and Masseto (I recently had a head-spinning 1996), Tuscany is easily the best value region among the elites. And if you are a wine drinker who likes reds with tension, complexity and finesse (if you are pinot fan) you will also like Tuscan reds. I really enjoyed tasting through this collection. I took my time, as the wines themselves demanded.
Castello Di Ama 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva ($34.95) defines Tuscany all by itself. Chianti Classico Riserva has always represented, to me, the essence of Tuscany – a sangiovese based blend grown at higher altitude in the Classico zone, selected from the best sites and aged a year longer. And Castello di Ama has worked its reputation up to the pinnacle of the genre. The property is ancient but the winery only opened in 1972, and did not begin to make its mark until the 90s after a young viticulturist named Marco Pallanti had re-planted 23 hectares of vineyard – after exhaustive research – with a strategy to highlight the best parcels for sangiovese. The result here is wine of wonderful precision, elegance and length, in a narrower style that is all about the traditional flavours of Tuscany.
Castello Di Querceto 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva ($27.95) is perhaps more hedonistically engaging, slightly richer but still very authentic. This estate has been around much longer, indeed it was a founding member of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico in 1924, a quality focused association with the famous black rooster as its emblem. It also went through a very similar process of vineyard parsing and replanting in the 1980s under the direction of Allesandro Francois, who has also developed Querceto as an ‘agritourismo’ property.
Terre Nere 2006 Brunello Di Montalcino ($34.95) is a terrific, mature Brunello from a great vintage. There are two other very good 2007 Brunellos on the release (the current release of this long-aged wine), but neither have quite the depth and structure of this wine. It is very much a traditional Brunello, lacking the manicure of modern wines but unleashing flavours that flood the senses and warm the heart. And it is absolutely ready to roll out for a February roast or stew, after an hour in a decanter.
Et tu, Rhône 2010?
The wave of delicious, well-structured 2009 Rhône reds that swept through Vintages last year was one of the top wine stories of 2012. Could the wave of 2010s – a great vintage in France – plus some lingering 2009s, continue to dominate this year? This seems to be the case, as four out of five Rhônes on this release are very much worth buying, with three hitting 90 points.
Domaine De Fontavin 2010 Terre d’Ancêtres Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($37.95) makes its debut in Ontario, as far as I can gather. And it is an auspicious debut – a finely constructed if not yet very showy wine that epitomizes the 2010 vintage. I have been disappointed with about 50% of the Chateauneufs of late, especially in terms of value, but this is a solid purchase, and a wine to cellar for about three years as it uncoils. It’s from a relatively new estate founded in the eighties that is expanding toward 45 hectares within eight villages in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The latest endeavour by Martine et Michel Chouvet is conversion to organic viticulture, a long process given the size and scattering of the holdings. The 2011 is the first organic vintage.
Delas Frères 2010 Les Launes Crozes-Hermitage ($20.95) is a fine young syrah that sets the tone for the vintage with classic smoked meat flavours, tension and stoniness. Do expect the 2010s to have more nerve than the softer 2009s. Delas is an old name in the Rhône that went through a massive facelift after being purchased by Roederer of Champagne in the nineties. It makes a very wide range, but its portfolio is focused on the northern Rhône. Les Launes is a compilation of the many soil types and aspects found in Crozes-Hermitage, an apron of vineyards that flows out from the side and back of the majestic hill of Hermitage.
Domaine Saint-Pierre 2009 Vacqueyras ($24.95) is remarkable for the youth it still possesses and its sturdy nature which will reward even further ageing. It is from a well-established domain based near Vacqueyras but owning almost 50 hectares of sustainably farmed vineyards throughout the southern Rhône. This Vacqueyras is very typically comprised of 60% grenache and 40% syrah harvested at fairly low yields. In recent years, since I began visiting the region annually with a Gold Medal Plates group, I have developed a keen understanding and appreciation of Vacqueyras’ powerful, masculine style.
An Excellent Aussie Pair
Penfolds 2009 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz from South Australia ($44.95) has always been my favourite of the mid-priced “Bin Series” wines. While moving through a fairly typical and average selection of Australian reds on Vintages tasting bench, this draped across my palate like a royal purple robe. It’s amazing how Penfolds manages to pack such depth, richness, precision and luminosity into its wines. What more can I say, except that I sense the special attributes of Bin 389 are due to the very successful melding of cabernet and shiraz.
Majella 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36.95) hails from one of the oldest family wineries in Coonawarra, with four generations of the Lynn family, that originated as shopkeepers in the local town of Penola. This is a wonderfully rich, evenly sculpted wine, bursting with energetic cassis and eucalypt flavours yet contained, dense and very long. With such a wine it is not difficult to understand why Coonawarra, with its terra rosa soils and moderated, coolish climate is one of the world’s truly great spots for cabernet – so good that they dare go with 100 cabernet sauvignon in this bottling.
Rosewood Estates 2010 Merlot from the Niagara Escarpment ($22.00) is fine little gem – everything you could want from a cool climate merlot – and very good value from the warm 2010 vintage. It is sourced from two vineyards – Wismer and Renencau – that were fermented and aged in barrel separately before blending. Having also recently reviewed an excellent Rosewood pinot noir, I would suggest that Rosewood is moving into the top ranks of Niagara wines. It took 16 medals in the Canadian Wine Awards and ranked 14th in the country. But all this comes with an asterisk since winemaker Natalie Spytkowsky’s departure last year. Her protégé Luke Orwinksi has is now involved as is Ross Wise, formerly of Flat Rock Cellars. It’s wait and see.
Palatine Hills 2010 Neufeld Vineyard Chardonnay from the Niagara Lakeshore ($22.95) is also a very good buy. It is a bit soft and warm as a result of the hot growing season, but there is fine complexity and nuance in and around the peachy fruit – a character I find often in Lakeshore wines. Palatine Hills is another label on the move with the arrival in 2011 of winemaker Jeff Innes who had honed his skills at the Grange of Prince Edward in PEC. He is selecting grapes from a very large vineyard acreage of maturing vines owned by winery owners John and Barbara Neufeld.
A Fine Otago Pinot
Loveblock 2011 Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand ($28.95) is first and foremost a quite delicious, fragrant and sturdy biodynamically-grown pinot noir. But the back story is also of interest. The label is a new endeavour by Erica and Kim Crawford, the NZ power-couple that launched Kim Crawford wines which was taken over by Vincor, then Constellation Brands a few years back. Kim Crawford remains one of the most recognized NZ exports and it sauvignon blanc is a best seller at the LCBO – but the Crawfords have nothing to do with it. Imagine your surname becoming a brand over which you have no control?
The other back story is how this wine represents the current situation in Central Otago, where I spent five days last month, tasting over 220 wines from virtually every producer. I will write more about Otago in future – specifically its diversity of terroirs that desperately need to be sorted out via sub-appellation labelling. For the moment however suffice to say Otago is in transition from frontier outpost of people with purple passion for pinot, into a much more commercial region wrestling with price point issues and distribution.
The 2008 recession forced the high-faluting prices to moderate, which meant developing more vineyards and economies of scale. The barefooted, renegade pioneers were forced to introduce lower tiers, and the rush was on as outsiders – like Erica and Kim Crawford – came in to establish brands for wider distribution, often making their wines elsewhere. The result is that I did encounter some ho-um Otago pinots, but in this case, the Crawfords have done a very good job of bringing in a reasonably priced, high quality wine that captures Otago authenticity.
Back to the Classroom – WSET
Throughout my career I have enjoyed teaching about wine as much as I have writing about it. I often run into “students” who remember my private tastings in the 90s and early 2000s in the cellars of Movenpick, Vines and Crush, and others who attended my CAPS New World courses at George Brown College during the mid-2000s. There has been a bit of a chalkboard lull since 2008, when WineAlign started up and life got extremely busy. But now an opportunity has come along that nicely puts me back at the lecturn.
Starting next month I will be conducting Level 1 (Foundation) and Level 2 (Intermediate) WSET courses in Toronto, in conjunction with Fine Vintage Ltd. WSET is the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, the world’s largest and globally recognized four-level program that ultimately leads to a Masters of Wine, for those hardy palates who can go the distance. There are very few MWs in Canada, and one of them is James Cluer, who runs Fine Vintage Ltd. I audited courses he ran in Toronto last fall, and will do so again this weekend, and I was struck by the level of professionalism and organisation, the quality of the materials, the rigour of the examination process and, importantly, the wine quality/budget he brings to this exercise. Even in the Foundation courses we let the wines do the teaching by focusing on very high quality regional wines. Fine Vintage was honoured as the WSET 2011 International Educator of the Year.
On a personal level, I also really like the location at the hotel/residences of One King West, steps from the subway, and the weekends-only schedule that allows students quick progression through the various levels (and works with my busy schedule as well). The one-day Foundation Course on Saturday, March 9 is already full. The three day Intermediate Course March 16, 17, 23 has space remaining. I will also be conducting courses in Montreal and Ottawa this spring, so please visit www.finevintageltd.com to check out all the details and upcoming schedules programs. Other WSET Courses are offered in Toronto through the Independent Wine Education Guild at www.iweg.org.
Cuvee Coming Up
The 25th edition of Ontario’s Cuvée is coming up on the weekend of Mar 1-3, offering a great opportunity to taste deep and put on the ritz. It opens Friday evening with a Grand Tasting Gala evening at the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, with those who purchased VIP tickets through WineAlign getting early access (5:30pm) to the over 40 producers who are pouring their best. On Saturday morning there is the always excellent invitation-only experts tasting at Brock University, while other guests begin two-days of Cuvée En Route passport tastings at the wineries. For full details and ticket information, read our blog posting or click on the advertisement below.
I’ll be back for the March 2 release, meanwhile see all my reviews below.
David Lawrason VP of Wine
From the February 16, 2013 Vintages release: