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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 19th, 2011 – California & the Iberian Peninsula

Californian hurricane rips through France & Italy, smiling barrel salesmen in the Iberian Peninsula & smart buys

John Szabo, MSIn this article: a Californian hurricane rips through France and Italy, leaving many unopened and unsold bottles in its wake; south of the Pyrenees it’s hit and miss in the Iberian peninsula, though barrel salesmen are smiling. Also at a glance: Top Ten Smart BuysTop Californian, wines not to miss at the annual California Wine Fair and Top Iberian Wines.

California Devastates the Establishment
A recent press release announced the big news that US wines have overtaken those of both France and Italy to become the number one category in LCBO-Vintages. In the past year, net sales of US wines, which means of course Californian wines, were up 21.5% to almost $71m, which equals just over 1/5 of Vintages total turnover. The American juggernaut has edged out long-time leaders France, with 19.6% market share, and Italy at 18.8%.
“There has been an unprecedented demand for California wines in VINTAGES,” says Tom Wilson, Vice President, VINTAGES, which accounts for over 96% of US wines sales. “California wines offer superb quality and value at all price points and more and more customers are buying premium and super-premium wines, priced from $35 to $150 a bottle.”
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut ChampagneValue at $150 you say? Certainly at the super-premium end of the scale we can talk quality, but value remains a more contentious issue in my view, up and down the scale. Not that I don’t understand relative value. It doesn’t take long to realize that everything in the world is relative, including value. Value doesn’t mean inexpensive. Value exists at all price levels. Krug Grande Cuvée ($254.15) is far better value than Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs 1995 ($4529.00), just as Château Margaux 2006 ($799.00) is better value than 2006 Pétrus ($2000.00).
But this relative argument only holds true if you define value purely in terms of elemental wine quality, that is, the pleasure derived exclusively from the liquid, stripped of the warm fuzzy cognitive pleasure you get from drinking something that no one else can find or afford. Knowing that this is almost never the case, that most of the wine drinking public (and some pro wine reviewers, too) get at least some percentage of pleasure from the label or scarcity or back story or some other positive association with the country/region/grape/producer/etc. beyond the liquid, Mr. Wilson’s comment makes more sense. If exclusivity rocks your world, Pétrus or Clos d’Ambonnay is the way to go. I believe that the perceived value in California wine is, in some cases, tied to some image of the Sunshine State and not the juice in the bottle.
You see, Ontarian’s are generally giddy at the thought of California. First it was the reliably warm and sunny weather, then it was gold, and then it was the weather again that attracted people. The western world’s entertainment capital, Hollywood is here, and it’s full of famous and glamorous people. You can find beaches, deserts, forests, grassy plains, valleys and snowy mountains, and go surfing, snorkeling, camping, skiing and snowboarding pretty much all in the same day. The eat-local craze started there in the 1970s, as did flower power. Its citizens are confident (or scared) enough to vote a super action hero into their highest office. And if that’s not enough to alight those butterflies in your stomach, there’s even a life-sized Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Who doesn’t want the California lifestyle?
SlomkaRick Slomka (left), Canadian Director for California Wines, one step ahead as usual, nailed it: “California vintners have always prided themselves on staying true to their west coast roots by creating world-class wines that add enjoyment to life. It’s thrilling to see how VINTAGES customers have embraced that one-of-a kind California lifestyle and brought it into their homes.”
To be sure, there’s no guilty pleasure in enjoying a bottle for reasons beyond the wine. Indeed, we all do it and it’s part of the human condition. It almost can’t be otherwise, unless you live in a bubble and have a benevolent friend or neighbor who’s willing to buy all of your wines and serve them to you in a paper bag so that all you can hope to enjoy is the liquid.
But if it’s really the liquid you’re interested in more than the lifestyle, here’s my position on the March 19th Vintages release and the wines to avoid and those that excite beyond a warm remebrance of Mickey Mouse:
Wines of genuine excitement:
2007 DOMINUS Napa Valley $119.95
2005 OJAI BIEN NACIDO SYRAH Santa Barbara $47.95
Dominus 2007 Ojai Bien Nacido Syrah 2005 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Merlot 2005
Wines of questionable value:
2007 OPUS ONE Napa Valley $339.95
Full list of Top Californian wines in the release here.
California Wine FairIf you’re heading to the annual California Wine Fair on Monday April 4th at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, or Wednesday April 6 at The Westin Ottawa ($70 for 400+ wines; click here for tickets), here’s a sneak preview of the wines that should be on your list to taste:
• 2007 Vineyard 7 & 8 Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 93  NA
• 2006 Peju Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92  $65.00
• 2005 Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 92  $78.95
• 2005 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92  $220.00
• 2006 St. Michelle Wine Estates Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92 NA
• 2002 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 91  $33.95
• 2006 Oakville Ranch Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 91  $45.00
• 2007 E&J Gallo Frei Ranch Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County 90  $34.95
• 2007 Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder Napa Valley 90  $85.95
• 2007 Chimmey Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 90 NA
And if you care what the rest of Ontario is drinking in the California category, here are the stats. Not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon is the top seller, +27% this year, followed by Chardonnay (+33% – ABC movement? Yah right), and Zinfandel (+40%).
Top performing brands in sales growth in the VINTAGES Essentials Program over the last year (clearly not related to WineAlign’s influence) were: Riverstone Chardonnay from J. Lohr, +88% ($18.95, 2009 vintage not rated by WineAlign), Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon from J. Lohr, +29% ($21.95, 87 points Steve Thurlow), Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Beringer, +15% and Toasted Head Chardonnay from R.H. Phillips, at +8% (2009 not rated).Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon remains a consistent top seller ($18.95, 2008 vintage 86 points John Szabo).
Happy Barrel Salesman in the Iberian Peninsula
The other theme to the March 19th Vintages release is the Iberian Peninsula, namely Spain and Portugal. Long time readers know that I’m a fan of Iberian wines, though I can’t help pointing out that both of these countries are in many respects lagging behind the rest of Europe, and many parts of the new world, in terms of their winemaking maturity. In the initial stages of establishing a modern wine industry (forget the 3000 years of ancient wine history), there’s a tendency to be overly enthusiastic in order to capture that craved international attention. Many feel that have to scream the loudest to be heard.
In wine terms, screaming means more: more ripeness, more wood, more extract, more alcohol. Australia and California, for example, have largely been there and done that, but have since matured to the point where they are confident in their terroir, their grapes and their abilities to let the wines speak in a more ‘indoor’ voice. Having checked out for most of the 20th century for political reasons, Spain and Portugal have much catching up to do, and are still working out what they can do best and what the world wants – it’s a painful process.
When they get it right, however, the Iberian Peninsula is a source of extreme value. This release highlights both sides, the confident and the insecure. Several of the wines were hard, hot, harsh, and overly woody and raisined – I half wish I were a barrel salesman working the Iberian territory as I suspect I’d be doing pretty well. Others wines were balanced and integrated, quietly self-assured. If you prefer the latter, try this pair of fine values from the same corner of the peninsula: 2009 VARANDA DO CONDE ALVARINHO/TRAJADURA VINHO VERDE DOC, Sub-Região Monção e Melgaço $13.95 and 2009 PEIQUE TINTO MENCÍA DOCBierzo $13.95. Click here for the full list of recommended wines from Spain and Portugal.
Varanda Do Conde Alvarinho/Trajadura Vinho Verde 2009 Peique Tinto Mencía 2009
From the March 19th Vintages release:

Top Sunshine State Wines

Top Iberian Wines

All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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