Why Tuscany? Pretty Pinots Under $40, Sauvignons, Bargains and Constellation Brands
The monumental September 28 release at VINTAGES unleashes 137 new products, (of which I have tasted 85) and those numbers will only ramp up as we get deeper into the holiday buying season. The main focus is Tuscany and the selection is nicely representative of its various appellations and styles – at decent prices. My picks today are more far-reaching, with pretty pinots, snappy sauvignons and some well-priced off-the-beaten track, cool whites and reds. We end with wines of interest from Ontario’s Constellation wineries; Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin and Le Clos Jordanne.
Why We Buy Tuscany
It’s difficult to find something new to say about Tuscany because a) Italy’s premier region seems to be featured every year, and b) I have not been there for a while to bring you news. It remains a solid source of upscale, usually quite elegant, middlin’ weight reds that should add class to your table. As anyone who has visited Tuscany will tell you, the food connection is the lynchpin of Tuscany’s success. One never hears of people buying Tuscan wine to “drink” on its own. And only a few buy its top – overpriced – icon labels “to collect and lay away”. So most of us are buying it for the sense of tension and complexity that sangiovese, its main grape, brings to the table. And not just with Italian cuisine. It is a great choice with any foods that have some acidity and savoury character.
Argiano 2011 NC Non Confunditur, ($24.95). I have always been a fan of this classic estate in Montalcino. Its 48 acres of hilltop vineyard enjoy a mild climate and there is always a sense of richness and smoothness in their Brunello and Rosso. This blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 20% sangiovese, 20% merlot and 20% syrah was first created in 2002, and although young, this vintage is already offering some supple elegance.
San Felice 2009 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva, ($26.95) is truly a classic Tuscan, in intent and taste profile. It is 100% sangiovese grown in calcerous marl soils at 350-400 metres. Most of the wine (80%) is aged in large, old oak casks, the other 20% in new French oak, both for two years. It is then aged a further six months in bottle. In this case the hot 2009 vintage has added a bit of ripeness and richness.
Capezzana 2010 Barco Reale Di Carmignano, ($16.95). This is a great buy in the “second’ wine of this classic estate. Carmignano lies west of Florence a bit closer to the sea and at lower altitude than Chianti Classico. Thus cabernet sauvignon has long been allowed in the DOC, long before other areas waved it through. So there is somewhat meaty, tannic cabernet ambiance here despite only 15%, plus 5% cab franc, in the mix. Lots of stuffing, structure and Tuscan complexity for $17.
Of the 34 whites in this release, fifteen are chardonnays. And there some good ones. But I was more taken in terms of quality and value by some less well known wines that deserve your attention. And yes one is sort-of chardonnay – a chardonnay musqué – from a clone with a distinctive florality. I’ve heard some argument that “chardonnay” should be dropped from the label where musqué is involved because the wine is aromatically so removed from chardonnay’s normal profile. I would agree with that, but I am not much more in favour of calling it simply “musqué” because of the confusion with muscat, and the fact that there are “musqué” clones of other varieties as well, like sauvignon blanc. Let the debate, such as it is, continue.
Cave Spring 2011 Chardonnay Musqué Beamsville Bench, ($15.95) is well known to followers of Niagara wine because Cave Spring was first to bottle it separately many years ago. I consider it a bit of a bellwether for Niagara’s white vintages, usually preferring it in cooler years like 2011. Its fine fragrance and liveliness get too muddled in hot years. This is the best edition in recent memory.
Reichsgraf 2008 Von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett, ($20.95). Speaking of balance and precision – for which the Mosel is famous – few demonstrate it so succinctly as the Von Kesselstatt of the Ruwer (a tiny, steep banked tributary of the Mosel). With only 7.5% alcohol, melting sweetness and silvery acidity this wine almost floats along. And some maturity sews in intriguing complexity.
Fantinel 2011 Vigneti Sant’Helena Ribolla Gialla ($20.95). Ribolla Gialla is an antique variety thought to originate in Greece but settling at the top of the Adriatic in Friuli and Slovenia. Before phylloxera in the late 19th C it dominated this area, then fell to 1% of production, replaced by French varieties. I am happy to report it is back strong, and in the hands of good producers like Fantinel it shines brightly. Their website uses words like “luminescence” and “radiance”, with which I must agree. This is not a powerhouse, but it has a certain quite confidence and shimmer.
Pretty Pinots Under $40
The ten pinot offerings are overall very good this time out so I have picked two that surprised me in their finesse and a certain light-heartedness.
Bachelder 2011 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($34.95). Ontario-based Thomas Bachelder has established himself as a chardonnay specialist, making chardonnay in three countries. But having made pinot in Ontario, Oregon and France in his previous career, he is just about to launch tri-regional pinots as well. The first out of the gate is a very pretty, restrained and fragrant edition from Oregon, where many examples are often quite beefy and rich.
Seresin 2009 Leah Pinot Noir Marlborough, ($39.95). After spending two weeks tasting pinot in New Zealand earlier this year I cannot say that my mental image of the genre is one of delicacy and subtlety. So this one surprised me – being both exuberant and refined, and featuring fruit aromas in that cran-raspberry-currant zone that to me is the finest expression of pinot noir. I thought this must be from a single, blessed vineyard, but it is actually from three sites. So kudos to the winemaking!
There are only four sauvignons on the release and two are great buys in a style I really like. And interestingly they are from the two New World regions I think are at the top of the game; indeed I think Chile’s San Antonio/Leyda Valley is the greatest challenger/threat to Marlborough’s supremacy.
Matetic 2012 Corralillo Sauvignon Blanc, San Antonio Valley, Chile ($13.95). Matetic is an impressive winery/restaurant/hotel complex deep in the coastal hills with three large, organic and biodynamic certified vineyards straddling the Casablanca and San Antonio regions. This straightforward, sauvignon nicely parlays classic passion fruit, citrus and fine herbaceous elements. It also has more depth than expected at $14, which I chalk up to biodynamics.
Wither Hills 2012 Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand $17.95. When I visited Wither Hills earlier this year and tasted with winemaker Sally Williams, I was fascinated by the scope and technical advancement of this property, including an optical berry sorter worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But she was very down to earth, casual and practical, and there is a certain calm, cool, collected ambiance to this wine as well. It took the coveted Sauvignon Trophy at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards last year.
South of France Bargains Under $20
It’s becoming almost a cliché to find 90 Point bargains under $20 from the sprawling Mediterranean regions in the south of France – from Provence in the east, to the Rhône Valley, to the vast regions of Languedoc-Roussillon in the west.
Xavier 2011 Côtes-Du-Rhône-Villages ($18.95). Here is yet another biodynamically produced Rhône that packs in amazing purity, energy and depth for its price. And although there are many great organic wines in the dry, hot south, I am really heartened to see some now emerging in basic Côtes-Du-Rhône-Villages wines, at such honest prices. This wine is by Xavier Vignon, a consulting oenologist based in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Domaine Lafage 2011 Tessellae Vieilles Vignes Carignan ($16.95). Old vine carignan is becoming one of the new “it” wines for the somm set and industry insiders. Long buried in blends from southern France and northern Spain (where it is called carinena), it is emerging as a seriously good varietal in its own right when harvested from old vines and made with a modern eye to quality. But there is still something slightly rustic about it. Côtes Catalanes – the catch-all, non AOC, region of Roussillon, next to Catalonia in Spain – is prime real estate for this grape.
Piqued Interest in Ontario’s Constellation Wineries
I have long watched Ontario’s “Constellation” wineries – Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin and Le Clos Jordanne – evolve and manoeuvre through changes of ownership, branding and outlook. Each winery, over its history, has been on a different trajectory in terms of ambition, quality and focus. Pioneering Inniskillin started boutique and went large, with a focus on icewine. Jackson-Triggs started very big and commercial then added an up-market business. Le Clos Jordanne started boldy upscale and niche with pinot noir and chardonnay only. But after a recent visit to all three in one-day, it is apparent that things are evening out after several years of ownership by American-owned Constellation Wines – the largest wine company in the world.
Each winery continues to operate at separate, well-equipped facilities with its own winemaker and for the most part their own grape sources (at least in terms of company owned vineyards). But they do come together in that they are aiming collectively at the middle to higher end of the market to make super clean, polished, accessible (often with subtle sweetness) and fairly priced wines targeted to the larger consumer base. (Le Clos Jordanne is still super-premium, but even here there is new sense of wanting wider appeal). This is dictated by their large presence in LCBO stores and Constellation’s chain of Wine Rack stores. If you are looking for the rare and idiosyncratic you are not likely to find it here, but that said there are peaks and specialties that piqued my interest on a recent tour – where certain vineyards and winemakers clearly express their intent and their passions very well.
Here are wines that caught my eye. Click on each for the full story, review and rating:
And that’s it for this edition. I look forward to seeing some of you October 3 at our tasting and dinner with Anthony Walkenhorst, winemaker for Kim Crawford of New Zealand. We are assembling at the wonderfully funky Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. As this newsletter went “to press” on Thursday, Sept 26 the $60 tickets were selling very quickly indeed. No surprise given that Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc is one of the LCBO’s hottest sellers. (Here’s the link for more info) [Ed note: Thursday is now sold out, Friday night has been added due to demand.]
VP of Wine
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From the Sept 28, 2013 Vintages release: