So here’s a question for you? And the right answer of course will be up to each individual. But why buy a good wine under $15 when you can buy a very, very good or even excellent wine somewhere under $20. As a solvent wine lover surely a couple of bucks here or there is just not an issue.
I pondered this often as I tasted through the huge swath of mostly under $20 wines on Vintages, January 22 release. I have posted 115 new notes on WineAlign this week. (Another dozen or so were not tasted or require a second dip in the pool before being reviewed). The majority of the wines are right where they should be under $20, in the “very good” score range of 86 to 88 points. But these are flanked on the low side by several average wines (often under $15 and under 85 points), and some true bargains that hit 89-91 while still staying shy of $20. (See below).
My second question is why Vintages, with its limited shelf space and the whole world clamouring for a spot on its shelves, would buy any but the greatest value wines under $15 wines, or any mediocre wines under $20? Surely there are enough of these in LCBO stores. I would much rather see Vintages start at $15 and go up from there, with a really keen eye to the quality being offered. I am not saying Vintages is not watching the ball on this issue – I think we are being generally well served by knowledgeable and conscientious buyers. But I do think Vintages parameters are askew; that it should get out of the volume, cheap wine business, and leave that to the LCBO (formerly referred to as the general list). They may justify that under $15 is where the sales volumes are, and it’s what the customer wants. But that view forgets they are just one part of a larger monopoly system (and part of the same store building) in which every wine must find a precious niche while avoiding duplication.
The argument above really began to ferment as I was tasting through the Chilean reds featured on this release. Most of them are very tasty. Chile is improving rapidly at all price points thanks to its terrific climate and increasingly skilled winemaking. Under $15 it’s hard to beat Chile, as it is under $20 or $25. But the under $15 wines tend to become more commercial, monochromatic and facile – ripe berries, perhaps a dash of herbaceousness, then this cocoa flavour emanating from the barrels, or wood chips, or god knows what other trick of the trade. Anyone else want to join a new ABC movement (Anything But Cocoa)? Chile is not alone in this by the way – call it “global cocoa-ing”. But it was prevalent in the cheaper Chilean wines, while just a dollar, two or three up the price ladder it faded off, replaced by very good, genuine wines that show off the strident, pure fruit character and texture that Chile so handily achieves. I rated several in the 88-89 range, but isolate ESCUDO ROJO 2008 ($16.95) for being just a little more elegant than most. It’s a lovely blend of Bordeaux varieties and syrah from the Rothschilds, with some of that French feel for subtlety and complexity setting it apart.
Ontario 2008 Riesling
There’s a nifty Niagara 2008 riesling trio on this release, a great little showcase for an excellent riesling vintage. (Having just tasted about thirty 2008 Ontario chardonnays for the upcoming Seriously Cool campaign to New York City, I think 2008 is a better riesling vintage than a chardonnay vintage- but that’s another story, for later). What gives added gravitas for Niagara’s riesling claims is that this group doesn’t include any of the common riesling stars like Cave Spring, Vineland, Tawse, Hidden Bench or Thirty Bench. What’s more, I thought they were better than the German rieslings on this release. I was actually hard pressed to pick one highlight among the Creekside, Henry of Pelham and Jackson-Triggs – they are all very good to excellent wines. But I picked CREEKSIDE ESTATE BUTLER’S GRANT RIESLING ($15.95) to emphasize the importance of the growing number of maturing riesling sites like Butler’s Grant in the Beamsville, Twenty Mile and Short Hills Bench vineyards.
California: Growing What Belongs
From riesling that so obviously belongs in Niagara, I want to switch your attention to a red that so obviously belongs in California. TRENTADUE 2006 OLD PATCH RED($15.95) from the Alexander Valley, Sonoma County is a blend of zinfandel, grenache, carignan, petite sirah and a 5% pinch of sangiovese. These are all hot climate/Mediterranean grape varieties. Further, all but sangiovese perhaps, have a very long history in California, dating back to the late 1800s when California wine went through its first heyday. At that time grape varieties were usually inter-planted in the field, and harvested the same way at the same time, to produce what I imagine to have been swarthy, rustic, powerful and very complex reds. Nowadays California wines are much more carefully sculpted and designed, and perhaps missing some soul as a result. This great little number offers all kinds of flavour and complexity and ruggedness. It comes from vines planted by the pioneering Trentadue family in the 1950s and 60s, indeed the vineyards were so good that they drew the attention of Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards who created a “field blend” called Geyserville that lives on to this day and sells for three times the price. He liked the Geyserville site so much he bought it from the Trentadue family in the 90s.
Southern France Keeps on Delivering
Speaking of blends from hot, dry places, there are a handful of very good Rhone and Midi reds on this release, so again it was hard to isolate one. But in my mind CHÂTEAU DE SAINT COSME LES DEUX ALBIONS 2008 CÔTES DU RHÔNE ($19.95) cracks excellent territory. I was initially surprised because it bears the simple Cotes du Rhone appellation, and basic CDRs are usually pretty, simple and plummy reds at the $15 mark. But this obviously is stitch above, likely due to the fact that this Gigondas-based property – which has been under vine since the 15th Century and in the same family for 14 generations – is drawing grenache, syrah etc from some very good, older vine sites. Interestingly, the wine is co-fermented with 10% white clairette, a technique also used in some Cote Rotie’s where viognier is co-fermented with syrah to bind colour, smoothen texture and add a dab of perfume to the nose. This wine has some of that charm, as well as depth beyond its price.
Biodynamic in Australia
Still with Rhone-inspired wines we move to Aussie shiraz. With so much rich, powerful shiraz being made, how on earth is a winemaker supposed to make a difference, and make something really noteworthy. Well, Gemtree winemaker Mike Brown has been considering tadpoles. GEMTREE VINEYARDS 2008 TADPOLE SHIRAZ ($17.95) is so-named out of Brown’s affection for frogs, or at least their importance as early warning indicators of environmental alarm. According to Brown there are several species of frog commonly found in McLaren Vale, including the Brown Tree Frog, Spotted Marsh Frog, Eastern Banjo Frog and Common Froglet. Who knew? And so he is wading into a wetlands preservation project with this web-footed friends front of mind. Not that that affects the wine directly (no swampy flavours). But it does explain why Brown went to biodynamic viticulture in 2008, and perhaps why his wine – with zero filtration, zero fining and minimal intervention – is so rich, pure, soft and ultimately delicious. Just can’t believe it is under $20.
A Scot Makes Spanish Garnacha
Nor can I believe that LA MULTA 2008 OLD VINE GARNACHA from Spain is only $13.95. But once again it is the story of old vines growing where they belong, this time in very old sites in the arid, Ribota Valley of the Catalayud in central-northeast Spain. But this time it is a young Master of Wine Scotsman named Norrel Robertson (educated in New Zealand) who has ridden in to make something of this treasure trove. He has gone into business with the local Bodega San Gregorio to source grapes from local growers. All the fruit is hand-picked from the stumpy-looking old vines. The new company operated under the name of El Escoces Volante. Anyway, this is superb effort which captures all the warm hearted generosity of grenache without letting alcohol run rampant. Great mid-winter sipping stock indeed.
That’s it for now, tune in for the next instalment in front of the Feb 5th release, where Tuscany takes the spotlight.
See all my reviews for the January 22nd release here.
– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign