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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 19th – California’s Fading Icons, Iberia, Mission Hill , Penfolds & a Bargain Rhone

An Iberian Education, California’s Fading Icons & Bright New Lights, Mission Hill’s State of Grace, Classy Kalimna from Penfolds, A Tiny Perfect Rhone and Classical Amarone.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

An Iberian Education

If there is one region of the world to challenge even the most studied wine enthusiast nowadays it is Spain and Portugal, collectively known as Iberia. As Europe’s southern peninsula gets it act together in the modern age countless new and old grape varieties and regions are coming to the fore. There is no other region on the planet more diverse and difficult to comprehend. But none are as compelling either. Iberia is exploding with great wine and value.  Vintages makes Iberia a feature on this release, and puts together an eclectic collection in the name of education, fairness and mass market price point. There is nothing super expensive or super exciting or great value.

But you can begin your exploration of obscure regions like Toro that are experiencing an awakening in the international market. In this hot, arid region on the central plateau northwest of Madrid they use tempranillo – Spain’s everywhere grape variety – to make big black reds with historically high alcohol.  But wine’s like ETERNUM 2008 VITI ($18.95) are bringing some style to the equation as well.  And over the border in Portugal the story is very similar with modern winemaking being applied to native varieties and blends in a series of regions from the north to the south.  To me the Douro Valley – home of port wine – is the most distinctive and exciting for table wines. The best producers are making very modern wines with real depth and elegance, taking advantage of all that sun-ripened fruit.  CISTUS 207 RESERVA($18.95) is a fine example.

Eternum Viti 2008 Cistus Reserva 2007

California’s Fading Icons and Emerging Bright Lights

Ojai Bien Nacido Syrah 2005 This release features a who’s who of California’ icon reds – circa 1995 –Opus, Caymus Special Selection, Dominus et al.  I leave it to you to contemplate who is actually farthest behind the curve – California itself for continuing to ride the coattails of these vastly overpriced Napa labels, or the people who keep buying them wines.  Most of are technically excellent, scoring 90 points or slightly better, but my goodness, the scores should be much higher at these prices. I am almost furious at Opus One. Really, it has become so glib, sweet and commercialized that it comes across as facile, almost infantile. I have rated in 90 points, mostly on its flavour depth, but where is the tension, complexity, the wow factor that people have a right to expect when they spend $339? They have every right to great expectations too. When I buy Chateau Margaux (which I don’t) I know I am getting one the best wines on the planet. Opus One is clearly not in this league. The other Napa icons are more interesting and less outrageously priced, but still fall below expectation.

Smart California wine buyers are looking way beyond these fading Napa icons, perhaps beyond Napa as a region as a whole.  I am looking in particular at the syrahs and pinot noirs coming out of the Central Coast and I direct your attention to two wines that are really quite exciting and far better value.  OJAI 2005 BIEN NACIDO SYRAH from Santa Barbara ($47.95) is from a 30 year pioneer in the region who has kept his winery and profile small but has obviously mastered his craft. While JONATA 2005 EL CORAZÓN DE JONATA of the Santa Ynez Valley ($59.95) brings some dazzle with a creative blend of several not often seen red and white grapes.

Overall, the price and value quotient of California wine is improving, and Ontarians are proving their loyalty to, and fascination with, wines of the Golden State. I know California better than almost any other wineries outside of Canada. I am heartened that it now claims to be re-gaining status as one of the top international regions at the LCBO in terms of sales. And every year we return en masse to the California Wine Fair, scheduled April 4th at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, and on April 6th at the Westin in Ottawa. You too may be drawn by an opportunity to taste the iconic names, but with only two or three hours in a crowded room I urge you to go off the beaten path to explore less well known regions and producers. Tickets are still available at

Mission Hill’s State of Grace

Mission Hill Quatrain 2006I had tasted through the top California icon reds (above) in Vintages lab then I moved down the line to MISSION HILL 2006 QUATRAIN Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($44.95)  and it not only stood its ground, it aced some of California’s top names. Quatrain has power and tension – this sense of internal combustion built on the taut interplay of acidity, alcohol and tannin  – that can rarely be found in warm climates; but comes naturally to France, and yes folks, Canada. Three days later I tasted a preview sample of Mission Hill’s 2007 Oculus. Same story – great wine, layered and tense.

If you find Mission Hill to be a conundrum, I understand. The brand plays awkwardly in a complex corporate arena; being a commercial winery of the masses with three or four price tiers and brands, yet set in a magnificent, ecclesiastical premise on a BC hilltop that would lure Dionysus himself out of godly retirement. I have been there at least a dozen times. It’s breathtaking every time. I know the owner Anthony Von Mandl and key senior staff, including the resolute winemaker John Simes. But I have always had this arms length relationship with their wines – in the sense that they have not always reached in and grabbed me.  Until recently that is with the release of Quatrain and Compendium, and subsequently with the new 2007 vintage of Oculus, which at $80 BC price, is indeed the best BC can do so far with the Bordeaux varieties. (I still think syrah is a more natural variety here). The big problem with big BC red in general is their bigness, and lack of grace. Oculus 2007 captures a state of grace.

Oculus is not yet available at the LCBO. Your best bet is to go on line to order it, although its release is so recent that the website is not yet showing it (the 2006 is still there). And by the way, Mission Hill is playing it very smart to offer their wines in Ontario. To circumvent stupid regulations that Canadian wineries cannot take and deliver interprovincial web-based orders, Mission Hill, through its importing arm Mark Anthony Group, offers an Ontario-based website for the ordering of any of its wines. And while you are browsing there don’t overlook the judiciously oak aged 2009 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.

Penfolds 2007 Kalimna Shiraz
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2007

Amid all the star power of California, the handful of Australian reds being offered seemed rather mundane. But an old standby – PENFOLDS 2007 BIN 28 KALIMNA SHIRAZ ($34.95) – leapt out of the pack.  It has incredible richness, ripeness and composure. I did sense that it was perhaps a bit sweeter than in years past but even if it actually does have more residual sugar it is not at all out of balance.  It still has that firm, solid core and gorgeous plummy/mulberry fruit that is a signature of all Penfolds’ reds. In short it is a textural masterpiece that you can drink now or age for a decade. But there are so many good reds from Penfolds it becomes a problem as to which wines to buy. I was at the winery earlier this year and have tasted through the entire 2008 range that will be en-route to the LCBO in the months ahead. The vintage is being hailed as one the greats of recent years, and I can vouch that you will indeed have a hard time making your decisions.

Cave De Monterail Côtes Du Rhône Villages Séguret 2009A Tiny Perfect Rhone

One of the greatest pleasure of pre-tasting all (or most) of the Vintages releases is stumbling across unheralded great little buys.CAVE DE MONTERAIL 2009 CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES SÉGURET($13.95) is the kind of wine I would easily take home by the case, for those downtime moments when I am just kicking around with a casual meal. I have written before about the excellent, ripe 2009 vintage in the Rhone Valley, and this is apparently just one more example of how good it is.  I have also written that Vintages should not really be trading in cheaper wines under $15; that this is really the purview of LCBO stores. But until the LCBO can find its way clear to regularly launch new, even speculative, smaller lots of wines like this, I urge Vintages buyers to keep bringing us the best they can find under $15.

A Classic Amarone

Farina Le Pezze Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2006And finally, a breath of classic brilliance from the increasingly befuddled and crowded realm of Veneto ripassos and amarones.  Seriously, is anyone else generally disappointed with this range of wines of late?  So many are either less rich than expected, volatile and/or slightly soapy.  And it is getting really difficult to know just what to expect as the appassimento technique of fermenting dried grapes is being applied to different appellations, brands and grape varieties by countless producers.  I know that Sandro Boscaini of Masi, who essentially pioneered the technique, is very concerned about the profusion and resultant muddying of style and quality that he unwittingly unleashed. I bet in one way he wishes he had never let that little genie out of the bottle. Anyway, there are still some great wines being made. FARINA LE PEZZE 2006 AMARONE DELLA VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO ($32.95) is a classic, supple, rich and complex wine from a great amarone vintage, and it is now drinking beautifully. I have often been stopped in my tracks by Farina, largely because they consistently offer well priced wines, and a very drinkable, classic style.

Enjoy, and see all my reviews for this release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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