Our Finest from Europe
by John Szabo MS, with notes from Sara d’Amato
John Szabo, MS
November 14th marks the first major holiday release at VINTAGES, with nearly 170 wines and spirits arriving (or re-arriving) on shelves. The theme is “our finest”, which means a healthy collection of premium products that stretch into the upper echelons of price. On that note, in this report I offer some perspective on wine pricing, before Sara and I line up our recommendations from Europe ranging from $17 to $100+ (David is hopping across Canada to raise funds for Canadian athletes via Gold Medal Plates and returns to cover the November 28th release). The rest of the world follows next week.
Read to the bottom for details on upcoming events and tastings, including the Gourmet Games, the Thirty Bench Wine Makers’ dinner, the Food and Wine Show Tutored Tasting on Volcanic Wines, and an upcoming grower champagne masterclass.
Is Wine Overpriced?
First, a warning: You may find some of the recommendations in this report expensive. $50 or $100 is after all a considerable sum to spend on a bottle of fermented grape juice. Even $20 can seem unnecessarily high. I’ve been among the first to lament the steadily increasing baseline price of decent wine, and even more so the ever-inflating price of premium bottles. So, are wines overpriced?
A recent experience helped me regain some perspective. The scene was a new hipster juice bar in Toronto, the kind that serves fresh-pressed juices from exotic organic ingredients that have popped up like mushrooms after the rain across the city. I ordered the Refresher, a healthy-sounding mix of cucumber, romaine, celery, ginger and green apple. The price? $7 for a 500ml plastic cup’s worth. I wasn’t shocked; that’s a standard ticket for such juices. But then I paused to reflect on what it takes to make them.
The cost of ingredients is of course minimal, even for grade A organic produce. Inventory costs are equally low, since the majority of ingredients come in and out in a matter of days, or hours. No special expertise is required to acquire or process the materials – it’s basically a shopping list, fulfilled with a quick call to a supplier or two, or a few minutes at the Ontario Food Terminal. If one supplier is out of an ingredient, you can go to another without compromising your product. There’s no cost to train the servers behind the counter to prepare the beverages; a couple of minutes on how to operate the juicer should do it. Packaging is cheap, a few pennies per unit, less for the straw. There’s little marketing or promotional necessary. The space was small and décor minimal. There’s no commission to pay, and no shipping and handling fees. They don’t give out free samples to convince you to buy a whole cup, and no one returns the juice because they don’t like how it tastes. There’s no special added juice tax that pays for health care and infrastructure, so beyond standard HST, all of those 7 dollars go towards the shop’s revenue.
In the food & beverage industry, that’s about as low risk as it gets. People were lining up for these juices; evidently, no one was balking at the cost.
Now consider the wine business. Decent quality grapes cost anywhere from about $3 per kilo (you can find cheaper, but you usually get what you pay for), and up to $30 in extreme, ultra premium cases, which is about what you need to make one bottle of wine. The cost of purchasing land, and planting and maintaining a vineyard to supply your own needs is extravagant to say the least. Then, growing grapes and making wine competently requires years of schooling, training and practical experience, or paying someone else handsomely to do it for you. And don’t forget that grape growing is fraught with countless perils, at the mercy of everything from a long list of diseases, to heavy rain, wind, frost, drought, hungry birds and animals, and other sundry acts of God that can severely reduce or entirely decimate a year’s harvest. The worse the year, the higher the farming costs; and even with zero crop, you still have to pay.
Production and equipment costs make accountants weep. A new oak barrel alone immediately adds $3 to the cost of a bottle of wine. And fine wine, as you know, needs to rest in the cellar before release, a massive inventory expense. The cost of bottles themselves, and closures and labels and cartons add up quickly, at least another couple of dollars/bottle.
And you’ll need to get your message out if you expect to sell anything in such a saturated, hyper-competitive market. That means building a tasting room and staffing it with properly trained people (it takes considerably more than a couple of minutes to teach a wine salesperson the necessary production details and the messaging you want to convey), travelling extensively (airplane tickets, hotels, meals, etc.) to pour and talk about your wines with professionals and consumers, paying for expensive stands at wine fairs, buying advertising, giving away free samples to writers, distributors and sommeliers, among other activities. And really, I’ve only scratched the obvious surface costs that need to be covered by the price of a bottle of wine; lots more lurk at every turn.
And don’t forget that a winery only sees about a third of the dollars you spend on wine in Ontario; the rest goes to the government, shippers, brokers and agents. A $7/500ml juice, the equivalent of about $10 worth of liquid in a 750ml bottle, made from fermented grapes and imported into Canada, would retail on our shelves at close to $30 (you can roughly calculate how much a winery actually gets from the sale of a bottle by dividing the retail price by 3). But compared to the juice shop model, the actual profit margin for the winery is incomparably lower, if there’s any left at all.
Most start-up wineries, even those with hopes to charge premium prices, count roughly a decade and a half before expecting to see the account books turn black, and that’s not including initial capital expenditures – I’m talking break even on operating expenses. Starting a winery from scratch these days is almost invariably the folly of the ultra-wealthy in search of tax deductions, for which the wine business is unparalleled.
So despite rising prices, wine growers are not getting any richer, if anything, the wine business is growing less and less profitable. I see many, even multi-generational vignerons all around the world struggling to keep their businesses afloat in a frighteningly competitive market, which only grows more cut-throat each year.
These thoughts and others crossed my mind as I sipped my fancy juice. You can only conclude that A) taxes, shipping and commissions on wine are too high; B) wine is necessarily a costly luxury; C) starting a winery is a bad idea if profit is your goal, or D) starting a juice business is an awesome idea.
But it’s unfair, at least in most cases, to conclude that wine is overpriced. Wine is not expensive, even if it costs a lot.
It’s something to think about as you contemplate the seemingly inflated price tag on any of the recommendations below. Or maybe, you’ll open a juice bar.
Buyers Guide For November 14th: Our Finest European White
Terradora 2014 Falanghina IGT Campania, Italy ($16.95)
John Szabo – Falanghina is a great entry into the compelling whites of Campania, a region with as much history as another in Italy – this grape was planted in the vineyards of Pompeii. While it’s not the top cultivar in terms of depth and complexity (look to Greco and fiano for that), in the hands of Terradora, it hits a perfect mix of terroir and pleasure at the price.
Sara d’Amato – Although one of southern Italy’s largest wineries, Terredora produces dynamite Falanghina that can be happily found on the VINTAGES shelves year after year. Falanghina is a varietal known for its floral aromatics and flavours of fresh lemon, lime and tangerine, as are notable in this example. The grape is widely planted around the volcanic soils of Mount Vesuvius. This lovely vintage is fresh and fruity, very characteristic and perfect with pan-seared white fish.
La Chablisienne 2012 Montmains Chablis 1er Cru, France ($32.95)
John Szabo – The cooperative La Chablisienne continues to impress, and this 2012 Montmains was a standout from my last visit and tasting across the entire range in 2014, and again now in international context. It comes from mostly from the Butteaux sous-climate (95%) of this left bank hillside cru, strikingly mineral and notable earthy – a wine that “looks down” for its more earthy-stony stylistic guidance, in the words of director Hervé Tucki, a more clay-rich cru that gives a powerful, dense expression with terrific length. Best 2015-2022.
Domaine Billaud-Simon 2010 Mont de Milieu Chablis 1er Cru AC, France ($44.95)
John Szabo – Striking Chablis from a terrific vintage, hitting a beautiful stage of maturity now, though with lots of life ahead; be sure to use large glasses or decant before serving to give it some air. This has density and complexity at grand cru level. Best 2015-2025.
Louis Jadot 2013 Pouilly Fuissé, Burgundy, France ($35.95)
Sara d’Amato – With verve and energy, this upbeat Pouilly Fuissé is fresh, enticing and packs a punch. Although it still has some years ahead, this chardonnay can be pleasurably enjoyed now with soft, ripened cheeses.
Buyers Guide for November 14th: Our Finest European Red
Château Croze de Pys 2010 Prestige Malbec, Cahors, Southwest, France ($16.95)
John Szabo – This is a terrific find for fans of solid, well-built wines, ready to enjoy alongside some salty protein. It blends the iron-like minerality of classic Cahors, but with ripe fruit and tannins that are firm but not hard or astringent. Best 2015-2022.
Château De Ségure 2012 Fitou, Languedoc-Roussillon, France ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato – Fitou is located in southeastern Languedoc where carignan and grenache make up the majority of the blends. It butts up against Corbieres and although very similar, Fitou insists on remaining proudly independent. This sultry, voluptuous and peppery example is also juicy and fresh with characteristic notes of licorice and raspberry and blackberry. Won’t disappoint – an excellent value.
Boutari 2008 Grande Reserve Xinomavro, Naoussa, Greece ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – As usual, the Boutari Grande Reserve is an outstanding value. Older vintages of xinomavro such as this allow full expression of this age-worthy varietal. From a hot and dry vintage, this mid-weight example is wildly complex and savory with notes of dried herbs and cherry along with earth and fig. Ready to drink.
Cantina del Taburno 2011 Fidelis Sannio Aglianico, Campania, Italy ($19.95)
John Szabo – Benevento province is Campania’s source of softer and riper versions of Aglianico, relative to Taurasi or Monte Vulture in Basilicata, the other two main regions of production, as reflected nicely in this wine. The accomplished coop of Taburno has rendered a polished and appealing style, without abandoning the grapes typical savoury dark fruit. A satisfying mouthful, ready to enjoy or hold until the early ‘20s.
Château De Nages 2012 Vieilles Vignes Costières De Nîmes, Rhône, France ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Located in a cool pocket in the southern Rhone, Costières de Nîmes is influenced by the Mediterranean breezes of the Camargue, the warmth of the Languedoc and soils similar to that of the southern Rhône. This nexus of a locale is responsible for some pretty intriguing wines. This old vines example from leading producer Michel Gassier is farmed organically with grenache and syrah that make up the majority of the blend along with mourvèdre, the up-and-comer of the region. This cooler vintage is easy to drink with a lovely peppery character and an abundance of red and black fruit.
Château Rahoul 2010, Graves, Bordeaux, France ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – This old school charmer exhibits a little funk and rusticity but also with characteristic Graves minerality and extensive breadth of flavours. Drinking beautifully now but can do with another 2-3 years in cellar.
Marchese Antinori 2012 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($32.95)
John Szabo – I’m glad the marketing department at Antinori put Tenuta Tignanello on the label, a reminder that I can drink three bottles of this for the price of one bottle of this wine’s big brother, Tignanello without giving up too much. It’s mature, savoury, earthy and dusty, i.e. a classic Tuscan expression, classy, sophisticated and elegant. Best 2015-2027.
Poggio Verrano 2005 Dròmos, Maremma Toscana, Tuscany, Italy ($39.95)
John Szabo – Your ticket for a perfectly mature Tuscan red (alicante, cabernet, cabernet franc and merlot), with terrific complexity. I love the earthy, wet clay, succulent ripe blue fruit character and leathery notes, with fully integrated wood and great length. Best 2015-2020.
Alvaro Palacios 2013 Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses, Priorat, Spain ($46.95)
John Szabo – Priorat pioneer Alvaro Palacios’ old vines 2013 is a dense and full, concentrated and balanced wine, with great palate presence, offering loads of immediate pleasure up front though will surely hold, and improve, over the next decade or more. Best 2015-2028.
Sara d’Amato – Breaking the noteworthy familial tradition of production in Rioja, Alvaro Palacios, a winemaker with serious clout (years at Chateau Petrus), is considered a pioneer of modern Priorat. Progressive and dynamic, like the wines he creates, Palacios’ old vine blend of almost equal amounts of garnacha and cariñena is distinctively heady and aromatic, intense but polished.
Château Haut Corbin 2000 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France ($58.95)
John Szabo – A very good choice for those seeking classic Bordeaux, with age. This is pretty much at full maturity, on a plateau no doubt for another half dozen years or more judging on structure. Best 2015-2020.
Le Serre Nuove Dell’Ornellaia 2013 Bolgheri Rosso, Tuscany, Italy ($59.95)
John Szabo – It’s entirely inadequate to call this a second wine from Ornellaia – at any other estate this would be a highly respectable top wine. The 2013 is really singing – evidently an excellent vintage. Leave this in the cellar for at least another 4-5 years, or hold into the late ’20s. Best 2020-2030+.
Masi Campolongo di Torbe 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, Veneto, Italy ($101.95)
John Szabo – When it comes to dried grape wines, few can match the technical prowess and fine vineyard sources of Masi. Campolongo di Torbe is for me the more elegant of this great house’s single vineyard Amarone, though 2009 is a massively structured wine to be sure, crafted with that hard-to-achieve balance between full ripeness, lack of green/vegetal flavour, and no appreciable volatile acids (varnish), often inevitable in this style of wine. It’s at least a decade away from prime maturity, and surely more. This should reach into the ’40s without a stretch. Monumental. Best 2024-2045+.
Buyers Guide For November 14th: Our Finest European Fortified
Lustau East India Solera Sherry, Spain ($24.95)
John Szabo – A terrific bottling from Lustau, medium-sweet, rich, treacly and caramel-flavoured, with tremendous length and depth, and the lovely aromatic lift of wines that spend years in barrel. I love the salted caramel and pure hit of umami on the finish. A beautiful sipping wine, or for hard cheese, nuts, figs dates and pecan pie.
Sandeman 2011 Vintage Port, Portugal ($70.00)
John Szabo – Dense, intense, incredibly ripe and powerful, decades away from prime enjoyment – this is a real tour de force. Tannins are big, thick, rich, puckering. To be revisited after 2026 or so. A spectacular vintage for long ageing. 2026-2050.
The 3rd Annual Gourmet Games
The Gourmet Games is a food and wine experience that goes beyond simply consuming food and wine. It aims to educate, excite, and challenge. Wineries and distilleries from 18 global regions will sample over 75 products at the Games. With many 90+ rated wines in the room, the Gourmet Games offers an array of exemplary taste profiles to satisfy every palate. Buy tickets now – Save $25 .
When: Tuesday, November 17th, 6:30 – 11pm
Where: Gladstone Hotel
*Special offer for WineAlign Members*
An Exclusive Dinner Celebrating the Best Small Winery of the Year – Thirty Bench Wine Makers
On Thursday, November 19th, WineAlign and Thirty Bench Wine Makers are pleased to present a special winemaker’s dinner celebrating the 2015 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada’s Best Performing Small Winery. Buy tickets now.
When: Thursday, November 19th, 6:30 – 10 pm
Where: Holts Café (Holt Renfrew)
Gourmet Food and Wine Show Tutored Tasting: Volcanic Wines
From the Ring of Fire to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the meeting of the Eurasian and African Tectonic plates in the Mediterranean, join Master Sommelier John Szabo for an exotic tour of the world’s best volcanoes! Or rather, the exceptional wines that grow on them. Since the dawn of time, humankind has been drawn to these lethal but irresistible fissures in the earth, not least because the soils surrounding them are incredibly mineral-rich and whatever grows on them, including grapes, has flavours as intense as a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. Salty, gritty and powerful — these are the world’s best volcanic wines. Buy tickets now
Host: John Szabo, Master Sommelier
When: Friday November 20th, 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Maison Bereche Champagne vineyard
IWEG Masterclass: The Intrigue of Grower Champagne
Hosted by John Szabo, Canada’s first Master Sommelier and IWEG WSET Diploma Graduate, experience the nuances that make grower Champagne so exceptional and unique! Taste 8 premium single estate Champagnes produced in limited quantities, most of which will not be available in the LCBO.
When: Tuesday, November 24th, 7-9pm
Where: IWEG Drinks Academy, 211 Yonge St., Suite 501
Cost: $105 / $95 for IWEG alumni
Sign up at IWEG.org
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, MS
From VINTAGES November 14th, 2015
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
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