Confessions of a Serial Taster, and Sorting out Australia’s Present from the Past
By John Szabo MS
“We live in an era of fear of the strange and unfamiliar”, wrote the Irish poet Thomas Moore almost two centuries ago. But the words are equally applicable to our era, and in fact any era. Fear of the unfamiliar drives us to the comfort of known entities. In the case of wine consumption, that means familiar brands, regions, grapes. But unlike the real-life dangers of the unknown, trying an unfamiliar wine has no dire consequences; it’s rarely even genuinely unpleasant, perhaps mildly disappointing or annoying at most. The February 20th VINTAGES release offers a fine opportunity to dispense with the mantra of “safety first”, and explore lesser-travelled trails – I pick a half-dozen unusual wines to try. The main feature is Australia, a largely disappointing collection that fails to reflect the current dynamic reality of the Aussie wine scene. But I’ve sorted through the offerings to find the wines more representative of 2016 rather than 2006. Read on for details.
As I pondered aloud the staggering popularity of the seemingly blandest, most predictable wines at the LCBO lab last Friday, veteran wine writer Billy Munnelly turned to me and said: “it’s all about safety and comfort. It’s part of the culture of western civilization”.
Now, comments made during wine tastings often trip into the philosophical, but Munnelly’s comments struck me as particularly poignant, enough to cause me to take a break and reflect. I’d wager that anyone who has spent any significant time in any field laments to some degree the homogenized requirements of popularity: pop music, pop art, pop food, pop films, pop fiction, pop wines, it doesn’t matter.
The most widely consumed products are invariably made to a standard recipe in order to become popular, the same recycled plot line, or repetitive back beat. Attaching a familiar name (brand, celebrity) makes these products even more irresistible. But at the same time, they become less desirable to anyone immersed within the same sphere. It’s a curious phenomenon. Familiarity breeds both comfort and contempt depending on the observer.
“It’s all about a comfortable sofa, a safe house and car, Bud Light”, Munnelly continues. His thoughts dovetail from the Thomas Moore quote he later sends me: “We live in an era of fear of the strange and unfamiliar, and therefore a fear of life and vitality. It stems from a cultural fundamentalism that is uncomfortable with all forms of ‘otherness’ and therefore strives to make everything one”.
We understandably have a natural yearning for comfort, and unfamiliar is uncomfortable, and even potentially dangerous. I had certainly noticed the popular-familiar-homogenous connection before, but hadn’t quite linked it back to some fundamental, cultural, biological imperative.
Confessions of a Serial Taster
There’s no doubt that I value safety and familiarity in my life, but when it comes to taste, I draw the line. It’s not a question of chasing after the latest shiny object, but rather the insatiable curiosity that landed me in the wine business in the first place. Taste is the one area of my life where I actively court danger of the unknown. I rarely ever buy a full case of wine; once I’m familiar with it, I’m ready to move on. I rarely ever order the same dish at a restaurant, and prefer to try out new places whenever possible. Beer? I’ll mix a six every time. I switch coffee and tea suppliers as often as I fill my car with gas (always at the same comforting gas station). I am a beverage brand’s worst nightmare.
But I could also argue that it’s the purpose of a critic, in any field, to suggest, at least occasionally if not exclusively, a route to a different destination rather than the same, familiar one. Otherwise, I would need only look up sales statistics and recommended the most popular product in any category. I’d be perfectly safe, but utterly useless to you. I do see the value in a comforting, familiar wine, and even endeavor to suss out the ones that deliver the most comfort for your money. But alongside those wines, I also value discovery, and enjoy sharing the good ones.
So, if you value discovery as well, at the risk of my reputation and your dollars, here are half a dozen, likely unfamiliar wines, from grapes far from the mainstream. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s only a bunch of fermented grapes, not a walk down a dark alley in a foreign city, after all. New tastes can also make the old ones even more comforting, just as travel can make you love your home even more.
A Scary Half Dozen
Topping the list of frighteningly foreign-sounding (unless you’re Croatian), but most shockingly delicious wines in the release is the Ilocki Podrumi 2013 Premium Grasevina, Hrvatsko Podunavlje, Croatia ($21.95). Admittedly it took a bit of research to discern the who from the what and where, but Ilocki Podrumi is the producer, boasting a cellar that dates back to the 15th century, one of the oldest still operating in Croatia. Grasevina is the white grape, perhaps marginally better know as welschriesling (one of the most prolific and highly variable grapes in Eastern Europe, unrelated to riesling), and Podunavlje the region in northeastern Croatia. In any case, this is an absolute gem of a wine, rendered in a style that is reminiscent of Vouvray demi-sec, or a slightly late harvest Alsatian pinot gris. The nose is wonderfully aromatic and floral, full of white flowers, honey, apple blossom, ripe orchard fruit, sweet herbs and ginger, jasmine, and, well, you get the point: highly complex. And the smooth texture will certainly appeal. Give it a go; roast chicken would be a nice, safe accompanying dish.
Just north of Podunavlje, the southernmost Hungarian wine region of Villány is the origin of the Vylyan 2012 Belzebub ($14.95), a fleshy and generous blend of local kadarka and kékfrankos (aka blaufränkisch) with zweigelt and a splash of merlot to mitigate the fear factor. Vylyan (the company name stems from the name of the region as written in a 15th century manuscript) has established itself as one of the region’s leading producers over more than a quarter century, crafting rich, modern style wines. Bezelbub (The Devil) is focused on dark and savoury fruit, without notable wood, while tannins are plush and ripe. In case you’re still afraid, according to the website, “This devil is loveable”, highlighting “the light and ‘lovely’ side of our fabulous devil, not the ‘demonic-heavy’ face”. This is a devilishly good value indeed, one of the best in the release.
Closer to home and much less foreign is the excellent Peller Estates 2013 Private Reserve Gamay Noir, VQA Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95). I’m sure you’ve heard of Niagara, and probably even gamay, but although the grape is eminently well suited to the region, it has yet to slip into the mainstream, remaining unfairly on the fringe. This ambitious, expression with a smoky backbeat will help nudge it closer to wide acceptance, bright acids, tart red fruit and all. This wine also garnered silver at the 2015 WineAlign National Wine Awards, so risk is minimal.
The Iberian Peninsula is a rich source of unique local varieties, largely thanks to a presumed grapevine ‘refuge’ during the last ice age in the southwest corner – an area where indigenous vines were able to survive (see my article on the subject here). A low-risk, high-reward entry point is the Beyra Vinhos de Altitude 2012 Reserva, Beira Interior, Portugal ($15.95). I recommended an excellent white from this producer last year, and this is the red follow up, an easy-drinking but characterful blend of mencía and touriga nacional, full of freshness and life, an over-achiever in the price category. Drink lightly chilled.
Bodegas Bhilar’s 2011 Pasolasmonjas, San Martín de Unx, Navarra, Spain ($20.95), made by the dynamic David Sampedro Gil (DSG Wines), is an excellent discovery of old vine grenache (70+ years in some cases), farmed biodynamically in the region of Navarra. Here garnacha is rendered in an intriguingly high-toned, orange-tinged expression, like candied orange blossoms, with full and dense palate, firmly structured, quite tannic for the grape but not unyielding. This will expand your definition of what garnacha can deliver. Best 2016-2021.
Also from Spain, and one of the most fascinating wines in the release is the Bodegas Ponce 2013 La Casilla Estrecha, Manchuela, Spain ($36.95). Manchuela is a southern region inland from Valencia, which specializes in the little-known bobal grape, of which this is a pure example. The under thirty-something Juan Antonio Ponce is part of Spain’s increasingly fashionable and large circle of natural wine producers, biodynamically farming his 80 year-old, bush-trained, tightly spaced vines (estrecha means narrow, referring to the spacing), and applying little else but a dash of sulphur in the winery. This is reductively crafted to respect the fruit, with ample structure, freshness and plenty of fruit tannins, while flavours span a wide spectrum from black pepper, liquorice and tarragon to crushed lavender and succulent grapefruit, and on into fresh black fruit – a genuinely complex expression without recourse to obvious wood. Best 2016-2023.
Oz c. 2016
The Australian feature for the February 20th release is largely disappointing. The majority of selections remind me of what Australian wines tasted like a dozen years ago: alcoholic, fat, sweet, obviously acid-adjusted. How things have changed down under, and how sad to see so few of those changes reflected on our shelves. Wine Australia, the marketing arm of the industry, has worked hard to change the old die-hard perceptions of the nation’s wines, backed by the help of hundreds of winemakers who are new to the scene, or who have found new gods to worship, those of balance and drinkability, and especially regionality. There are dozens of exciting new players. Where are they? Opportunity lost for Ontarians. You might say the LCBO is just providing what the market demands, and that it’s good business strategy. That may be true, but I’d say a balance between leading and following the market would be preferable.
But don’t let this release undo the progress made. Look instead to the established producers represented here who have been getting it right from the start. The late, venerable Peter Lehmann, for example, was a leader from start to finish in his long career, and almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of growers in the Barossa in the difficult early eighties. Lehmann Wine’s contemporary 2012 Layers Shiraz Tempranillo Mourvèdre Grenache, Barossa, South Australia ($17.95), is a wine with real life and energy, firm, ripe but not jammy fruit, and genuine complexity, delivering admirably on quality and complexity at the price. It’s the finest value in the Aussie feature in my view, and representative of the current state of Australian wine in which balance is preferred over sheer weight.
Tasmanian sparkling wine has grown to impressive heights in the 20 years, represented here by the Josef Chromy 2010 Sparkling, Tasmania ($29.95), a fine and complex traditional method vintage bubbly from a reliable name in Tassie wine. This is fully dry and firm, with a nice mix of tart green apple/citrus fruit and brioche-yeasty-autolysis character, and sits comfortably in the premium, cool climate sparkling wine category, not to say champagne.
No pure shiraz made my list, sadly, considering how many great ones are made today. But the Salomon 2012 Norwood Shiraz Cabernet, South Australia ($20.95) is certainly worth a look for its combination of balance and depth. From the Salomon family of Austrian descent, this is ripe without excess, firmly structured, with fine acid structure and depth, and impressive length – a generous, satisfying mouthful for the money, best 2016-2020.
Three pure cabernets, however, are nicely representative of their respective regions, all from well-established producers. Tahbilk is the elder statesman of the trio, one of the oldest wineries in Australia, established in 1860 in the Nagambie Lakes area 120 kilometers north of Melbourne. While evidently not part of the cutting edge, new wave of Aussie wines, the Tahbilk 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($22.95) has simply got it right from the start: balanced, firm and structured, dark fruit-flavoured, everything you’d want at the price, best now-2022 or so.
Katnook Estate’s cellar door in Coonawarra was built in 1896 by regional pioneer John Riddoch, and is still used today to age wines like the Katnook 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.95). The welcome coolness of Coonawarra comes through in this lively, complex and concentrated red, a textbook wine from the region that has required little stylistic change to meet modern tastes circa 2016. I’d give it another year or two in the cellar for full development, but there’s no need for long term cellaring.
Xanadu Wines was one of the pioneers in now-fashionable Margaret River region in Western Australia, established in 1977, a full three years before the film of the same name starring Olivia Newton-John was released. The Xanadu 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Margaret River, Western Australia ($29.95) puts the maritime climate on display with its fresh and fruity-herbal profile, proudly parading some cabernet leafiness. I like the genuine acids and the better-than-average length. Best 2016-2022.
Some Somm Fun & Fundraising
The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) Ontario chapter is hosting a fundraising event on Monday, February 29th to celebrate Canadian wine talent. Your support will help CAPS send a Team Canada delegation focused on promoting the participation of Canadian wine professionals in the World’s Best Sommelier Competition being held in Mendoza this April. Come out to see Terroni’s new event space on Adelaide, to taste and buy, bet on auction items and participate in activities with guest Sommeliers. Tickets are only $40 ($30 for CAPS members) – all to support your Canadian wine community. This event is open to the trade and the public. Hope to see you there. (You can find more info here: https://teamcanadacaps2016.eventbrite.ca)
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
From VINTAGES February 20, 2016
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