The Wines of EcoTopia
By David Lawrason with wine notes from John Szabo MS and Sara d’Amato
This weekend VINTAGES releases 24 wines from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon – collectively the Pacific Northwest. It is a generous feature compared to many of late, and it hits all the right buttons in terms of identifying grapes and styles that define the region. The selection is centred on the average $19.95 price point that VINTAGES calls home, with a subsequent good to very good, 85 to 88 point scoring range generally defining the quality. The exceptions are some more expensive and higher quality Oregon pinot noirs. To delve into a wider and higher end selection, you could attend Vintages Goes Northwest event at Toronto’s Corus Quay Building Atrium (Queens Quay & Lower Jarvis) on Monday August 17. I hope to see you there!
The Pacific Northwest prides itself on a certain eco-freshness and sensitivity. An intriguing book called The Nine Nations of North America published in 1981 by American journalist and professor Joel Garreau, parsed the continent by geographic and economic influences – instead of the arbitrary political boundaries imposed by colonial powers in the 19th Century. It called the Pacific Northwest nation – wait for it – EcoTopia. I have never forgotten that name, or concept, because it is just so right. And if you don’t think so, just ask a resident of EcoTopia. They will set you straight.
What does this mean in wine terms? Well I look for freshness at these northerly latitudes and altitudes, and it does underpin the wines, especially when comparing them to the softer wines of California – the great southern seductress. But something else strikes me about PNW wines – a sense of winemaking newness and trying-too-hardness. There seems to be a pre-occupation with winemaking over terroir. Over-oaking is frequent, as well as pushing alcohol levels. And in some wineries – especially on the American side – pushing sweetness. It may just be at the quality and price level of this release, but that is what is being presented to you this time out.
It is of course still relatively early days for the Pacific Northwest, a premium wine region just 30 years, or one generation, down the track. And given its mountainous spine, there are great terroirs to be had – even if still being prospected. Many of the regional appellations on PNW labels, duly noted in VINTAGES catalogue, remain rather broad. The only real exception I noted in the release is the Similkameen red by Sandhill, which catches a riveting mineral nerve and less ripeness.
Here are some of the better and more definitive wines on the PNW feature, plus other reds of note. Last week John Szabo covered off the Loire Valley and other whites.
Cedar Creek 2013 Riesling, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($18.95)
David Lawrason. CedarCreek remains at standard-bearer for Okanagan wines of great clarity and varietal definition. This is a light, tart and juicy riesling loaded with green apple, lime and some flinty minerality. CedarCreek, along with winemaker Darryl Brooker (formerly of Flat Rock and Trius in Ontario) was recently acquired by Mission Hill.
A To Z Wineworks 2013 Chardonnay, Oregon ($19.95)
John Szabo – A to Z may be Oregon’s largest producer, but the range is highly competent. This is clean, fresh, nicely representative chardonnay from grapes sourced from throughout the state, mostly from the south. Oak is not a feature – this is all about the apple-citrus fruit in a cool climate idiom.
Sara d’Amato – America’s best selling Oregon chardonnay has thankfully graced us with its presence and offers a great deal of complexity, charm and vibrant energy for the price. The oak here, although present, is nicely restrained and bolsters the elegant fruit. Sip on its own or with buttery shellfish.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington ($16.95)
David Lawrason – Chateau Ste. Michelle has long been known as a riesling specialist, and this nods to that experience. It’s not a profound, complex example but the acid-sugar balance is very fine, and I really like the peach, floral and spicy nose that is nicely clean and expressive.
L’Ecole No. 41 2013 Semillon, Columbia Valley, Washington ($24.95)
David Lawrason – The little schoolhouse on the road to Walla Walla has become synonymous with this wine region. They have been making semillon from day one – and I can’t think of another American winery that has. This has a rich, dusty, spicy semillon nose of fresh fig, some blossom florality and candle wax. It’s quite full bodied, fleshy and spicy.
Sara d’Amato – This striking semillon offers fresh acids but more body and viscosity than its more famous South African counterparts. Lush and appealing with just a touch of funk to keep it interesting.
Adelsheim 2012 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($41.95)
John Szabo – David Adelsheim may be best know for having brought the “Dijon” chardonnay clones from Burgundy to Oregon in the early 1990s, but his pinot noirs are certainly among the best in the state. Even this non vineyard-designated example delivers the bright, savoury, crunchy red fruit and elegance that makes Willamette pinot so intriguing.
David Lawrason This is a very bright, generous, structured, quite youthful pinot with surprisingly lifted floral, raspberry plum fruit plus a hint of beetroot. It’s medium bodied, quite firm and tart with a mineral edge.
Domaine Drouhin 2012 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon ($45.95)
David Lawrason – This is an In Store Discovery in limited release, but well worth seeking out. Drouhin was the first Burgundy producer to invest in any pinot noir region outside of Burgundy. This has a reserved, very pretty nose of red cherry, nicely fitted with seamless oak vanillin, spice and cedar. Very delicate and fine aromatics! It’s medium weight, supple and refined.
Burrowing Owl 2013 Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($40.95) (556613)
Sara d’Amato – These ambitious pinots tend to evolve unpredictably and with varying degrees of success but I am particularly pleased with this example at this point in time. Mid-weight but voluminous with bright acids, supple tannins and lovely woody integration.
Sokol Blosser 2011 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon ($34.95)
John Szabo – Be sure to give this some time in the glass (or decanter, or cellar), this is very reductive (grapefruit-tinged) off the top, from a cool vintage. But the palate delivers fine, succulent balance, inviting savoury acids, and genuine mineral-saline character. All in all, a classic Jory-volcanic soils, Willamette pinot. Best 2015-2019.
Mission Hill 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $26.95
David Lawrason – This VINTAGES Essentials has taken one of two golds in the Cabernet Sauvignon category at the 2015 National Wine Awards. It is a really stylish, well composed red with generous oak melding nicely with currant/blackberry fruit. There are herbal notes, vanillin, tobacco and spices – all nicely integrated.
John Szabo – Perennial performer Mission Hill presents a nicely polished and firm, classically styled cabernet, with all of the necessary elements at the price: dark spicy fruit, integrated wood, balanced-crisp acids and fine length. Comfortably in the premium range. Best 2015-2022.
Sandhill 2012 Vanessa Vineyard Cabernet Merlot, Similkameen Valley, British Columbia ($19.95)
David Lawrason – The Similkameen – a parallel valley west of the Okanagan – is emerging has a great zone for energetic, granitic/mineral reds. This single vineyard red has a lifted nose with blackcurrant, herbs and spice. It’s medium weight, terse and coiled with intense slightly green flavours.
Airfield Estates 2012 Runway Merlot, Yakima Valley, Washington ($22.95)
John Szabo – A rare firm and dusty, grippy merlot, with no concessions to the typically soft and oaky style prevalent in eastern Washington. I like the herbal flavours and vibrant acids, as well as the lingering finish. Another year or two will benefit this to be sure. Best 2016-2022.
Lone Birch Syrah 2013, Yakima Valley, Washington ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – This sustainably farmed syrah, well priced and upbeat, is substantial, rich and modern in style. It offers harmony, style and concentration in a widely appealing package.
Espelt Viticultors 2013 Old Vines Garnacha, Emporda, Spain ($14.95)
David Lawrason – What a great summer burger and ribs red! It is a lovely, supple yet fairly rich and powerful garancha that shows off the fragrant strawberry/cherry jam fruit of the variety without soupy or confected excess. Pretty floral peony and white pepper aromas as well.
John Szabo – A hell of a wine for $15 from a little known corner of northern Spain, this should be bought by the case for summer BBQs, and/or winter stews. It’s big, ripe, wild and savage, balanced even at 15% alcohol, with inviting Mediterranean scrub-herbal flavours and firm acids/tannins. Best 2015-2023.
Vicchiomaggio 2010 Agostino Petri Riserva Chianti Classico Docg, Tuscany, Italy ($29.95)
John Szabo – Classy and refined, elegant Classico with terrific balance, succulent acids, and fine-grained tannins. The perfumed finish lingers nicely. Best 2015-2022.
David Lawrason – Indeed a classically style, for the short term cellar, although you could aerate and drink now as well.
Dei 2011 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy, ($27.95)
Sara d’Amato – A producer who stands its ground often producing wines of spectacular heights. Despite the obvious concentration and approachability, there is a traditional feel here with impressive structure and compelling notes of briny black olive, peppery violets and succulent black currant. Excellent value.
Paolo Conterno 2010 Riva Del Bric Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($39.95)
David Lawrason – A great vintage, a great price, a great producer. Can’t go wrong here! It is not a powerhouse or a dynamo, but it is well woven, complex, complete and well structured. The nose weaves classic nebbiolo sour cherry, spice, herbs, leather and earth – again all juxtaposed so well. The length is excellent.
Cosme Palacio 2009 Rioja Reserva, Spain ($22.95)
John Szabo – Lovely, succulent and harmonious Rioja, entering a fine stage of maturity, infinitely drinkable. Tannins are still firm, but the saline-juicy acids will keep you coming back for more. Nice stuff. Best 2015-2029.
Château De Lancyre 2013 Esprit De Garrigue, Languedoc, France ($15.95)
David Lawrason – Great value is charming, juicy summer red – a syrah, grenache blend that over-delivers! It is fairly pale but has a lifted very savoury, indeed garrigue nose, with pepper, balsamic, lavender and wild strawberry “fraise du bois” fruit.
Château Plaisance 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, Bordeaux, France ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Great value in Bordeaux can be hard to come by so this stunner for under $20 made me take note. Matured but still pleasantly youthful. This nicely composed blend is dry and savory with grippy tannins and elegant floral notes. Wonderfully balanced and ageworthy.
Clos Des Brusquières 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France ($47.95)
Sara d’Amato – This small producer in Châteauneuf was one of the first in this prestigious appellation to bottle its wines to current standards in the early 1900s. Super traditional, the wine is fermented stem and all in concrete and barrel and is a blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. This was an immediate hit with me and is a textbook example of this distinguished wine offering plenty of muscle, earth, leather and garrigue.
Ramos Pinto 2013 Duas Quintas, Douro, Portugal ($17.95)
John Szabo – Another fine vintage for this Douro table classic, the 2013 is forward, dark and deeply fruity with sweet currant and blackberry inflected with floral and old wood spice notes. I appreciate the succulence and density, the fine-grained but firm tannins, the impressive weight and length. Terrific value. Best 2015-2023.
Angove Vineyard 2013 Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, South Australia, ($22.95)
Sara d’Amato – Bad Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon is hard to come by so you’ve got great odds when something like the Angove Vineyard Select graces our shelves. A joyful example of this standout style that offers delightfully sweet brine, a touch of iodine along with an abundance of fruit peppered by notes of violets and roses.
Penfolds 2013 Bin 9 Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia ($23.95)
David Lawrason – This is a new mid-priced multi-regional blend from Penfolds. It sports great cabernet lift with soaring eucalyptus, searing blackcurrant, cordite and black pepper aromas. It is full-bodied, dense, tense and focused with great fruit and mint arching across the palate.
And that’s a wrap for this week. I will return next week with the lead up to the August 22 release that features wines scored 90 points by someone, somewhere. As we are not interested in promoting or debating scores by other reviewers we will pass on that theme and simply work to find you the best values, at any price or score. As we always do.
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES August 8th, 2015
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Part 1: Wine to Chill
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