Pacific Northwest in Passing & Other Critic’s Picks
by David Lawrason with notes from Sara d’Amato and John Szabo MS
Nothing sparks a wine critic quite like a discussion of scoring wines, but I am personally so tired of the debate after 30 years of critiquing wine, that I find little energy for it. Last week John Szabo hit all the right high points and low points about VINTAGES selection of 90-point wines on this release. I will only add that one of the reasons I love WineAlign is that it’s the only website/publication I know that attempts to let readers align their palates to several expert opinions at once. Scores are nothing if not numerical opinions, and you need to choose who you “Follow”.
I am charged today with focusing on the secondary theme of the release – the Pacific Northwest. VINTAGES focuses only on Oregon and Washington, and misses a great opportunity to include more than two wines from British Columbia – which is of course geographically, culturally and vinously very much in synch with its neighbouring states to the south. The southern Okanagan Valley is actually the northern finger of the Sonoran Desert that cradles the best wines of eastern Washington. The choice of grapes and their stylistic outcome is very similar indeed, and across the entire PNW there is a great spirit of newness, exploration and a brightness in the wines that is defined by higher acidity than achieved in warmer California.
I hold great personal fondness for the northwest – being Vancouver-born and still having strong family ties on Vancouver Island. Some of my closest and dearest friends are from B.C. as well, some of whom I have met through countless visits to Okanagan wine country. I am a bit less familiar with Oregon but I have visited twice, and Washington three times. So when I say I am disappointed by the wines on this release, and VINTAGES general lack of attention to PNW over the years, I do so with a real sense of loss and frustration.
Part of the problem is the price of the wines. VINTAGES is very much stuck in a groove of offering most of its wines just under the $20 mark. Sure, they go over that where a region naturally commands a higher average price, but when a region is less well established they get even more cautious. PNW wines on average are not cheap, so in order to get tax-bloated wines on shelf here at $20 they start scraping the bottom of the commercial PNW barrel. Which is why I do not ‘flag’ any very good buys among the four whites on offer (although John does highlight the Elk Cove Pinot Gris). The reds are a bit more interesting and last week I did give a nod to the A to Z Pinot Noir from Oregon and also like Innocent Bystander Pinot. This week, I’ll add in the Ecole 41 Cabernet Sauvignon (see below). But that’s about it, until next time, perhaps three years from now, when VINTAGES decides to focus its low wattage spotlight on the region.
Meanwhile, there are many other great buys on shelf Saturday (in some stores sooner). Last week we gave you a long list, and here we three chime in with even more – aligning at times as we go.
White & Sparkling Wines
Blue Mountain 2012 Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($23.95)
David Lawrason – I can’t think of another B.C. winery doing such consistently fine work in recent vintages. The root of its success is the well-established, organically tended vineyard near Okanagan Falls in mid-valley. To me this ideal chardonnay and pinot country, and fine winemaking by the Mavety family that shows restraint and true respect for the terroir is pushing Blue Mountain to the top.
John Szabo – Blue Mountain has been cranking out superb wines across the board in the last couple of vintages, and must be counted among BC’s most reliable (and solid value) names. This is judiciously oaked, savoury and spicy chardonnay, more focused on mature notes rather than simple primary fruit, with much of the enjoyment coming from the layered texture. Best 2014-2018
Elk Cove 2013 Pinot Gris Willamette Valley, Oregon ($24.95)
John Szabo – Forty years make Elk Cove one of the most experienced wineries in Oregon (est. 1974), practicing genuinely sustainable production since long before it became fashionable. But what counts here is what’s in the bottle: a richly flavoured, mineral-inflected, substantial and complex pinot gris made with evident care and ambition. This has the stuffing to get even more interesting over time.
Schloss Reinhartshausen 2012 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Kabinett Rheingau, Germany ($20.95)
David Lawrason – This venerable, large estate in the Rheingau often sends us brilliant mature rieslings. But they can do ‘young’ very well too. This is super fresh, off dry, lovely riesling with lifted apricot/honeydew melon fruit, gentle spice and a touch of petrol and minerality. Ideal for a late summer’s evening.
Clos Marguerite 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, New Zealand ($21.95)
John Szabo – The small family winery of Belgian couple Jean-Charles Van Hove and Marguerite Dubois stood out for me when traveling through New Zealand last year. I appreciated then, as now, the evident density and extract, flavour concentration and length of their wines, not to mention the restrained mid old-new world styling. The cooler Awatere Valley sub-region of Marlborough lends its distinctively zesty character to this example, well worth a look by fans of serious sauvignon blanc from anywhere. Best 2014-2018.
Laurent Perrier Brut Champagne, France ($63.95)
Sara d’Amato – I was quite dazzled by this classic Laurent Perrier Cuvée that can easily to stand up to many of the big name Champagnes (and high prices) of this TIFF-inspired release. Save yourself the big bucks and enjoy big names on the silver screen instead.
David Lawrason – This too was my favourite TIFFer Champagne. And you can buy five bottles for the price of one Cristal, or buy one and spend the extra $220 on theatre tickets.
Rose & Reds
Mas Des Bressades 2013 Cuvée Tradition Rosé, Costières De Nîmes, Rhône, France ($15.95)
Sara d’Amato – The 2013 Mas Des Bressades proves once again to be one of the best value rosés at the LCBO. This ever charming rosé is dry, generous in fruit and offers plenty of lovely garrigue of the Southern Rhône.
L’Ecole 41 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington ($24.95)
David Lawrason – Situated in a rural schoolhouse this is one of the pioneering wines of Walla Walla, a region that straddles the Washington/Oregon border and produces some quite magnificent Bordeaux-variety reds. This less expensive edition casts a wider net sourcing from the much larger Columbia Valley AVA. It is a solid, authentic cabernet at a very good price, and particularly good value from Washington.
Porcupine Ridge 2012 Syrah/Viognier, Swartland, South Africa ($16.95)
John Szabo – Mark Kent (of Boekenhoutskloof) has had enormous success with the Porcupine Ridge brand, and it’s easy to see why, even if the measured dose of coffee-chocolate wood flavour isn’t usually my cup of tea. But one can’t argue with the length, depth and pleasure that exceed expectations for the price category. Another fine value from the up-and-coming Swartland region that drinks well now, but personally I’d like to see it in 2-3 years. Best 2014-2019.
Chilensis 2011 Lazuli, Maule Valley, Chile ($17.95)
David Lawrason – Named after Chile’s famous turquoise stone – lapus lazuli – this is a well managed blend of six grapes led by cabernet, with all the other Bordeaux varieties, plus a dollop of syrah. That may account for its complexity. But its sense of finesse is, I think, reflective of the slightly cooler aspect of the Maule Valley about 300 kms south of Santiago. In any event, I was taken with the balance and lighter touch here.
Domaine Jean Bousquet 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Tupungato Valley, Uco Valley, Argentina ($14.95)
John Szabo – The wines grown in the high vineyards of Tupungato are increasingly distinguishing themselves from those of lower, flatter, hotter Mendoza. This is fine, and savoury, characterful and well-balanced cabernet with plenty of flavour for the money. Best 2014-2018.
Casa Brancaia 2011 Tre, Tuscany, Italy ($23.95)
David Lawrason – Tre encapsulates modern Tuscany, as an entity onto itself. It draws grapes from three vineyards in both the Classico zone and southerly Maremma. It uses three grape varieties, with sangiovese leading at 80% plus cabernet and merlot. And it combines all these elements into an artful wine that is both refined and lively, hitting excellent length without being at all ponderous.
Xavier 2010 Côtes Du Rhône, Rhône Valley, France ($15.95)
Sara d’Amato – This project by consultant oenologist Xavier Vignon hailing from the Southern Rhône is impressive at first sip. A finely crafted crowd-pleaser – fleshy and well balanced with an abundance of fruit and a voluptuous mouthfeel (not to mention great packaging).
Montresor 2011 Capitel Della Crosara Valpolicella Ripasso, Veneto, Italy ($18.95)
David Lawrason – I struggle to enjoy and define what passes for ripasso these days. The lines and the quality between ‘basic’ Valpolicella, ripasso and amarone are blurring. Then along comes a fine, more traditional, slightly firm (less soupy) ripasso that gives me back my bearings. Very fragrant, balanced and delicious.
Domaine Des Amouriers 2011 Signature Vacqueyras, Rhône Valley, France ($24.95)
David Lawrason – The 2011 vintage was not the most opulent or concentrated in the southern Rhône, and indeed this does seem a bit ‘lighter’. But it still carries the richer ambiance of Vacqueyras, it is balanced and hits all the high notes with pepper, licorice, dried herbs. The Polish Chudzikiewicz family has farmed the 25-ha site since 1900, with fourth generation Igor converting the site to organic viticulture this year.
Marziano Abbona 2008 Pressenda Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($52.95)
David Lawrason – I have to be stirred fairly deeply to include a $50 Barolo as a value; but this mature, very elegant, complex example is everything I look for in this famous wine. So often we hear and write about Barolo’s needing time, having great potential etc. etc. But this one is ready to drink, and should be put on the shopping list of anyone who has been wanting to go to school on Barolo.
And that’s the ballgame for this week. One of the greatest and busiest weekends of the year is coming up. We hope you get to enjoy it with a fine meal and bottle of wine or two. We return in September with a full slate of Buyers Guides to VINTAGES releases, to the LCBO General List, and with a special Ontario Wine Report that will highlight the very best from Niagara, PEC and Lake Erie that we have encountered at the National Wine Awards of Canada and elsewhere.
Until next time!
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES August 30th release:
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