In this report: A whole lot of “tops”: the top ten smart buys from the LCBO-Vintages February 5th 2011 release; ten top Tuscan wines, top bubbles for your Valentine, and, a list of top chardonnays from Canada, selected to represent our nation before a crowd of don’t-have-a-New-York-minute sommeliers, trade and media in the Big Apple on March 8th.
Top Ten Smart Buys
There are a handful of smart buys hitting the shelves on February 5th. Rhône Valley drinkers are well looked after with a choice pick from both the north and the south: 2007 DOMAINE BELLE LES PIERRELLES CROZES-HERMITAGE $22.95 and 2009 MONTIRIUS GARRIGUES VACQUEYRAS $23.95 . There was more than a subtle murmur of excitement in the LCBO tasting lab as the writers came upon the Crozes-Hermitage, made from pure syrah. The appellation is not as highly regarded as the neighboring hill of Hermitage to the south, nor Côte-Rôtie across on the west banks of the Rhône River and further up-stream, nor even Cornas opposite. It’s more variable in style and quality, with some Crozes made using the technique of carbonic maceration to yield soft, simple, fruity reds for early enjoyment, while others are just simply lighter and less complex versions of more ‘serious’ northern Rhône syrahs. Yet there are a few producers with privileged sites whose exceptions prove the rules. Alain Graillot comes to mind, as does Jaboulet’s Domaine du Thalabert. Domaine Belle, on the other hand, is a new discovery for me, and it seems, is under the radar for many.
Domaine Belle is a modest-sized family-run estate located in the village of Larnage, just a few kilometers north of the Hermitage AOC. Former member of the very good co-op in Tain-Hermitage, Philippe struck out on his own in 1988 after he had completed his winemaking education in Montpellier. The LES PIERRELLES CROZES-HERMITAGE is made from vines in the vineyard of the same name. It has classic spicy, peppery, leathery, unmistakable northern Rhône-styling, with character and class well above the asking price, and the depth and complexity of many Côte-Rôties and Hermitages. It also has the potential to improve with age over the next 2-3 years. In the US this sells regularly for about $30/bottle, so at $22.95, I’d consider it top value.
For southerners, your top option comes from the 5-generation family estate of Montirius in the village of Vaqueyras, which has been farmed and run according to biodynamics principles since 1996, long before it became the trendy thing to do. Current vigneron Eric’s Saurel’s father Max had a premonition back in 1980 that chemical fertilizers would be shown to have negative long-term impact, so he stopped using them altogether. Then in 1987, when Eric took over the domaine, he abandoned herbicides in favour of traditional manual weed removal. But the turning point to biodynamics came after his eldest daughter Justine’s failing health was successfully treated using homeopathy. “This discovery brought important changes in our way of treating our illnesses, our eating habits and our way of thinking. This self-questioning caused us to change our methods of growing and our ways of working the land.” The full conversion to biodynamics, a sort of homeopathic approach to agriculture, was completed by 1999 when the first wines made using Ecocert-certified grapes were released onto the market.
In the meantime, and even more importantly perhaps, the wines of Montirius are excellent. The Garrigues is a cru (single vineyard) wine produced from a 24 hectare vineyard divided into 12 different parcels situated on a plateau around Vacqueyras village. The average vine age is 55 years old, and the blend is 70% grenache, and 30% syrah. Like it’s counterpart from the north, this has classic southern Rhône character, with plenty of roasted red and black fruit, scorched earth, wild herbs, espresso and dark chocolate. The palate is full, rich, round, solidly flavoured and structured, with great length and depth.
Other top smart buys this week include the delicious 2009 DOMAINE DE PEYANNE AC Saumur $13.95 . This cabernet franc won’t appeal to everyone, but for me it was instant teleportation back to a small bistro in Paris specializing in cuisine from the Loire Valley, from where this wine originates. It’s wonderfully floral with loads of violets and pencil led and fresh dark berry fruit – the ultimately paté wine. And at under $14, I can almost afford to go back to Paris for real.
I know it’s still January, but I’d be remiss not to share the discovery of an outstanding rosé from Bordeaux in this release: 2009 DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER ROSÉ DE CHEVALIER AC Pessac-Léognan $18.95. A bone dry version with astonishing complexity and class for the price, I was comforted to know I wasn’t succumbing to vitamine D deficit when I learned that it’s made from the free run (saignée) juice of Domaine du Chevalier’s top estate red. That makes sense. Considering the excellent quality of the Domaine, coupled with the heralded quality of the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux, it isn’t surprising that this wine stands above the crowd.
Other smart buys come from Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, the Casablanca Valley and Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley – check it out here.
Seriously Cool Chardonnay
On Sunday January 16th a group of wine specialist gather for the second annual Seriously Cool Chardonnay selection tasting. You may recall last year the same group, brought together by Seriously Cool mastermind Bill Redelmeier of Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara, went through the a selection process to find the top wines to be sent to Canada House in London, England, on the eve of the London Wine & Spirits Fair to be shown to the top wine journalists in the UK. The event was a huge success by all accounts and became a defining moment for Canadian wines abroad. As legendary UK writer Steven Spurrier was overheard saying “there wasn’t a dog in the lot”. That’s high praise, English style.
This year, the Judges (David Lawrason, Tony Aspler, Linda Bramble, Konrad Ejbich, Steve Elphick, Michael Pinkus, Gord Stimmell, and yours truly), had a little more work to do. There were precisely 100 wines to taste from Nova Scotia to BC (last year was Ontario only, and just 62 wines were presented). And now the results are in. 31 wineries and 54 wines have qualified to go to New York City. The wines will be assembled on March 8, 50 stories above Times Square to offer the Press of New York a chance to see what Canadian wineries are capable of. Now that the wines have been revealed (the selection tasting was done blind, with only the vintage revealed), I’m pretty proud of the list and will be honoured to travel to NYC to present a short sit-down seminar on Canadian chardonnay to the city’s top palates. If you’d like to taste along a little more than vicariously, most of the wines are still available for purchase. Here’s the full list .
From the February 5th Vintages Release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier