In this posting, check out my top smart buys, which include a highlight from each of Southwest France & Chile, the themes of the January 22nd release. As a treat for terroir fanatics, I’ve included a video from my recent trip to Chile where Javier Villarroel explains the uniqueness of the soils of the recently re-discovered Limarì Valley.
This week’s smart buys include a pair of excellent German rieslings: 2008 MARKUS MOLITOR RIESLING SPÄTLESE $22.95 and 2006 KRUGER-RUMPF RIESLING SPÄTLESE $16.95. Both offer that incomparable combination of vague sweetness perfectly balanced by riveting acids and pronounced stony flavours, the way we love it. But not to be upstaged, Niagara secures a spot in the top ten with a Riesling their own, the lovely 2008 CREEKSIDE ESTATE BUTLER’S GRANT RIESLING VQA $15.95. It’s lightly honeyed, sweet grass-flavoured white at a superb price.
Elsewhere, Portugal and Southern France earn two spots each in the smart buys, Spain offers a rare but vibrantly delicious Rioja made from 100% graciano (usually just a small component of the traditional blend), and Oregon comes through with a lovely, old world style pinot noir at just $21.95, a great value, as fans of Oregon pinot will attest. See the full list here.
Southwest France – Madiran
Southwest France is a land of, plains and plateaus, lazy rivers, hearty duck-based cuisine (confit, foie gras, cassoulet etc.), prunes and Armagnac, Henry the IV, muskateers and Gascon swashbucklers. The accent is so thick down here that it is barely intelligible even to fluent French speakers. Once I was in Paris watching the news. A French reporter was interviewing a French farmer from what the rest of France calls la France profonde, or “deep France”, that is the deep southwest, and the farmer’s words were subtitled in French. At first perplexed, I turned quickly thankful, as I would have otherwise understood less than half. I didn’t feel badly though as evidently even Parisians are unable to fully comprehend the accent of their own countrymen. I suppose it’s much like speaking to an old Newfoundlander from the interior or a Quebecer from some lost little village.
Southwest France is far off most modern tourist itineraries and as such has been able to preserve an air of timelessness. It’s like a sort of time capsule that one could step into today and travel back 10, 20, 50 or a hundred years ago without noticing much change, other than perhaps fewer cars and sneakers and more horses and knee-high leather boots. And despite efforts to modernize and adapt to current fashions, the wines, too, seem caught up in an eddy of the past and unable to surge forward into the 21st century. But that’s a good thing. There’s enough of the commonplace, standardized international wines available elsewhere. I’m more interested in these regional relics, the dark firm wines of Cahors, the sweet, quirky whites of Jurançon, the stolid reds of Madiran.
Lovers of fruity, creamy-textured wines will likely run screaming from the tough malbec-based wines of Cahors and straight on to Mendoza. Ditto the wines of Madiran, made predominantly from tannat, a variety whose very name derives from its abundance of tannins and marked acidity. One of the toughest barrel tastings I’ve ever done was during a reconnaissance trip to southwest France. My partner and I had stopped in to see a Madiran producer; it was a sunny, hot June day with the mercury hovering above 30ºC, and air as still as a lake at dawn. We stepped into a somewhat cooler cellar filled with barrels stained deep purple-red, an ominous sign already. The vintner drew some inky-black liquid into his permanently stained pipette and let fall a viscous stream of wine into our glasses. With trepidation, we proceeded to taste some of the thickest, darkest, most tannic young red wine I have ever sunk teeth into. It was like swishing a mouthful of moist sand and gravel, leaving your mouth drier than the Sahara. After just three wines I was shattered and my teeth were more purple than if I had been sucking on a grape-flavoured lollipop all day. It was great. We agreed to start importing the wines immediately, knowing that in time, a long time, these wines would be outstanding. Then we repaired to the air-conditioned car parked under a tree for the entire afternoon until the saliva returned to our mouths.
The wines of Madiran were once well-known to outsiders, as this lost corner of France lies along the ancient pilgrimage route that leads across the Pyrenées all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. But you need not walk a thousand kilometers to have a taste. Just jump in your car and head down to the LCBO on January 22nd and pick up a bottle, or a case, of the 2005 CHÂTEAU PEYROS MADIRAN 14.95. Château Peyros is part of Lesgourgues vineyards, a collection of six estates that cover terroirs from Bas Armagnac to Uruguay, and from Madiran to Bordeaux and the heart of the Graves. The name Peyros means “a stony place” in Gascon language, as the château’s terroir is loaded with rolled pebbles churned up by glaciers. Vines are cultivated through sustainable agriculture and enriched by organic manure from a herd of 300 ewes that walks around the vineyard from October until May. The 2005 on offer here should appeal to fans of mature Bordeaux at a fraction of the price. It’s nicely mature, savoury, complex and earthy, with terrific complexity for the money.
Chile’s Limarì Valley
The other theme of the release is Chile, a country that by now needs little introduction for Canadian drinkers. My value highlight of the release, however, hails from a region that won’t be as familiar as the Maipo or Casablanca Valleys; I’m talking about the Limarì Valley.
The Limarí Valley lies 400kms north of Santiago. Though once the center of the Inca Empire, and considering that vines were first planted as early as 1548 (by a Franciscan monk named Limarì), in terms of quality, export-worthy wine, it has only recently hit the map. Many of Chile’s terroir hunters (Concha y Toro, Undurraga, De Martino, among others) have been persuaded to take a fresh look at the valley and explore its potential to make intense but elegant and mineral reds and whites.
Like other cooler coastal regions in Chile, fog from the Pacific Ocean, called the Camanchaca in Limarì, settles into the valley each morning, cooling and nourishing the vines, only to be burned off by mid-morning as the sun rises over the Andes and bathes the vines in pure sunlight all afternoon. The coastal mountains are lower here than further south, resulting in an even more marked marine influence. Strong wind is near-constant, and with less than 4 inches of rainfall per year, drip irrigation is essential here, as elsewhere in Chile.
Yet it’s not so much the climate that differentiates the Limarì Valley, but rather its unique soils. This is one of the few regions in Chile where active calcium carbonate (limestone) is close enough to the surface that vine roots can reach down and extract a little magical chalky flavour. This gives the wines of Limarì a distinctive mineral signature, and for me, ratchets up the excitement. Watch Javier Villarroel describe the soils of the Limarì here in this short video, shot last January during my visit to Chile (sorry for the Blair Witch Project-like shakiness, it’s not meant to be a horror show).
Almost half of the nearly 1700 hectares of vineyards is planted to cabernet sauvignon, but for my money, chardonnay, syrah and carmenere are the most interesting. My pick from the release is the 2008 TABALÍ RESERVA CARMENÈRE $14.95. Tabalì was among the first modern wineries to plant vines in 1993, and this signature grape shows an extra degree of class and complexity in the price category, with a savoury-mineral element and elegant proportioning overall.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier