Repetitive Wine Lists, Italian Whites & Reds, Sparkling
By John Szabo MS, with notes from Sara d’Amato
The mid-June VINTAGES release has mini-features on sparkling wines, Italian whites, rosé and father’s day suggestions. This week Sara and I will cover the first two (and we’ve added our top Italian reds of the release for balance) while David is down in the schist in Priorat and the Douro Valley (he’ll be back next week for part two).
Although the selection of Italian whites is predictably repetitive, rather than a focused effort to showcase Italy’s best, there are at least several commendable wines. Ditto for the sparkling selection, in which wines from outside of Champagne (and France) really shine, showing the breadth of options that the 21st century offers.
Same Old Same Old
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Italian whites offered on June 13th look as though they were selected out of a random (very large) pile of submissions, based on a whole bunch of criteria that supersede any logical reasons for being included in a feature on Italian whites.
You’d be forgiven because that’s essentially how it works. A high score plucked at random from the vast worldwide sea of wine reviews, the reputation of the agent who made the submission to the LCBO, the willingness of the winery or agent to “support” the sale of the wine through LCBO stores, the agreement of the winery to wait many, many months for payment and risk a discount if sales don’t meet quota, and a host of other, often opaque, criteria are used to put these features together.
A wine’s contribution to the breadth and completeness of the LCBO’s offering comes far down the list, if at all. “Theme” is rather a grand word. It seems instead that these themes – and not just Italian whites but so many other of the LCBO thematics – is retrofitted to a group of wines that made it through.
Consider that of the seven wines under this banner, only two are new to the province, all are from the north, all but one are stainless steel fermented, and two are from the same grape and nearly the same price. Italy’s greatest, most distinctive white grapes, like fiano, greco, verdicchio or carricante, to name but a few, are nowhere to be found. Instead, we have more pinot grigio, like we have every release. Ah, it’s because pinot grigio sells, you say. Well of course it does if that’s all that’s offered. Where’s the discovery? Where’s the expertise of the buyers? If a sommelier student were to hand me this list of Italian whites, presented as even a small representative collection of what Italy has to offer, they’d flunk on the spot. In a country that’s positively fermenting with innovation, none of it is even hinted at here.
So much for choice…
I frequently see parallels on restaurant wine lists. It’s very obvious when a sommelier has been “bought” (or is plain lazy or inept). The list will contain a number of wines that have no real business being there. Picture, for instance, a short list with, say, five similarly-styled chardonnays out of fifteen whites. Or a list on which half the wines are from the same country or region (without any obvious ethic or regional theme to the restaurant). Or a half-dozen wines from the same winery, or twelve versions of the same jammy, heavily oaked, or zesty, tart berry fruit-flavoured red. Such overlaps don’t add anything to a wine program, in fact they take away from it. Each repetitive selection takes up dollars and space that could be reserved for a different grape/style/category of wine, broadening the selection without increasing inventory costs, offering more choice to customers, while at the same time lessening the tyranny of having to choose between a bunch of wines that all taste the same.
But such is invariably the list compiled by a sommelier who sits back and waits for wine agents to show up at the door. They’ll just buy what they’re told to, what’s convenient, or rely solely on the supplier who bought the umbrellas on the patio.
The best lists, on the other hand, are assembled by a sommelier who actively pre-determines what the list should contain, establish his/her own selection criteria, and then does the leg work to go out and find the best wines to fill each category.
Now, it’s not a perfect parallel, and I’m not suggesting that the LCBO has been bought, or is even lazy or inept. I know category buyers are hamstrung by a tangle of rules that often precludes them from being the true “architects” of a really useful, representative collection of wines under any theme. I do not envy them. Send each of the category managers on research trips to see what’s really happening on the ground, who’s making the best wines, the best values, what are the classic and innovative styles? No question of it. Instead, they’re treated as little more than administrative clerks passively sending out tenders then shuffling though files and sorting data by “Score: highest to lowest”.
It’s frustrating to know that so much more ground could be covered, literally. Our monopoly system limits Ontarians’ wine choice. Period. It’s like a repetitive restaurant wine list, only it’s the only restaurant in the province. Or rather, chain of restaurants.
On the Bright Side…
On the bright side, at least the wines in the thematic are strong, even within a very narrow band of style. I’m not griping about quality, just selection. So read on below for the best.
Buyers Guide for Italian Whites
Pieropan 2011 La Rocca Soave Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy ($39.95)
John Szabo – This is the single best white in the release, from any country, and a steal in the premium white wine category. La Rocca is Pieropan’s steeply terraced, calcareous-limestone vineyard on Monte Rochetta, within sight of Soave’s medieval castle, one of the oldest “cru” white wines in Italy, first bottled in the 1970s. It has a distinctively chalky smell, not dissimilar to top Chablis, along with substantial depth and complexity, seamless texture and marvellously mineral, non-fruit complexity. It should age beautifully over at least another decade.
Sara d’Amato – Anything but your basic Soave, in case the price wasn’t a giveaway. Complex and quite traditional with a very pleasant evolved character beginning to show.
Sergio Zenato 2012 Riserva Lugana, Veneto, Italy ($30.95)
John Szabo – Zenato’s Lugana Riserva is often one of my favourites from the company’s portfolio, and a fine expression of trebbiano di Lugana. 2012 yielded a particularly generous and mouth-filling wine, with the faintly sweet tinge of wood-derived caramel flavour lingering alongside ripe tropical fruit; in a blind tasting I might be fooled into guessing barrel fermented sauvignon blanc.
Alois Lageder 2013 Pinot Grigio DOC Südtirol – Alto Adige, Italy ($21.95)
John Szabo – A premium, biodynamically-grown pinot grigio far above the oceans of innocuous PG that flood northern Italy. This is somewhere between the leaner Italian style and richer Alsatian versions. Marked minerality adds interest. Drink or hold short-term.
Le Monde 2013 Pinot Bianco DOC Friuli Grave Italy ($16.95)
John Szabo – Vigneti Le Monde has vineyards in a particularly chalky district of northern Friuli, off of the more common gravelly soils, which accounts perhaps for the finesse and fragrance exhibited here. It’s a gentle and fragrant, spring blossom-scented pinot blanc, light-mid-weight, neither tart nor flabby, just well-balanced.
Masera 2013 Gavi, Piedmont, Italy ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – So many Gavis that make it to the shelves of VINTAGES are unfortunately dilute and very simple, certainly not representative of the elegant but appealing and playful nature of cortese. In this example from Masera, the vibrant acids take center stage along with concentrated citrus and tree fruit.
Villanova 2014 Traminer Aromatico, Friuli, Italy ($13.95)
Sara d’Amato – All that is wonderfully fragrant about spring is captured in the nose of this easy-breezy, elegant, ethereal white. Lovely as an aperitif or for brunch with friends.
Buyers Guide for Italian Reds
Batasiolo 2012 Sabri Barbera d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy ($15.95)
John Szabo – For the money, this is a polished and fruity, zesty and juicy barbera that over-delivers. This would make a great restaurant by-the-glass pour, full of joyful fruit and bright acids.
Sara d’Amato – A juicy, fleshy, well-made and easy-drinking barbera under $16 – a great summer house red to pull out for barbeques and unexpected guests.
Castello Di Ama 2009 Riserva Chianti Classico DOCG, Tuscany, Italy ($34.95)
John Szabo – Beautifully evolved at this point, yet still bold and full, like a mouthful of warm gravel, neither austere nor hard, this is a fine example of mature Chianti. Best with the tempering of food – roasted or grilled protein ideally.
Feudo Arancio 2013 Nero d’Avola DOC Sicilia, Italy ($13.95)
John Szabo – A terrific little wine for casual BBQs and the like, honest, firm and dusty in the Italian style, an essence of the herbally fragrant Sicilian countryside.
Quercia Al Poggio 2009 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($21.95)
Sara d’Amato – An unexpectedly concentrated and age-worthy find at a steal of a price. Produced from organically farmed sangiovese and a small percentage of indigenous varieties fermented in cement, the wine sees very little oak and offers a great deal of pure but balanced fruit.
Buyers Guide for Sparkling
Showcase 5 Blanc De Noirs 2009, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($55.00)
John Szabo – “This wine is journey into the unknown for me. A rare glimpse into what Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier can evolve to when tiraged for 5 years in the cellar. We just kept pushing it and it just kept getting better and better over time”, says winemaker Craig McDonald of the inaugural release of the Trius “Showcase 5”. I say fantastic. Not a wine for sipping, mind you, this should be a centerpiece at the table; it’s a fine value in the context.
Sara d’Amato – Trius’ handcrafted, small-lot Showcase series allows veteran winemaker Craig McDonald to show his true colours. This succulent and substantial traditional method vintage Blanc de Noirs will make you an instant fan.
Josef Chromy Tasmanian Cuvée Méthode Traditionnelle, Tasmania, Australia ($28.95)
John Szabo – Chromy is a reliable name in Tassie, and Australian, sparkling wine. The style is quite dry with highly chiseled acids – some might find them jarring, but I appreciate the no-compromise cut and sharpness. The balance of toasty-yeasty character and citrus-green apple fruit is spot on. A perfect aperitif style.
Sara d’Amato – Tasmania’s cool climate is ideal for the high acid grape growing that is needed to produce great sparkling wines. This very appealing traditional method cuvée is a blend of two of the island’s most widely planted varietals: chardonnay and pinot noir.
Tawse 2013 Spark Limestone Ridge Riesling Sparkling, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($19.95)
John Szabo – A crisp, off-dry, apple-scented bubbly, indeed very much like riesling with bubbles, which of course it is. This fits nicely into the sipping category.
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut Champagne, Champagne, France ($73.95) (384529)
Sara d’Amato – Bollinger’s Special Cuvée is a premium non-vintage offering resulting from a blend of new wine and reserve wines including some that have been aged in Bollinger’s library cellar for over 15 years in magnum. The outcome is an incredibly complex Champagne with ample body, length and a yeasty, biscuity flavour.
Wines of Portugal, A World of Difference.
On Tuesday, June 9th, you’re invited to discover the exceptional diversity of Portuguese wines – with yours truly along as your guide. Here’s your chance to kick the varietal habit and come to terms with regional identity instead. Portugal has 200+ grapes, and all old vineyards (and there are many in Portugal) are field blends, like the wines. It’s the region that makes the style difference. This is the way wine has always been made, and understood. We should get back there. Find out more and save $10 on your ticket with WineAlign’s access code.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, MS
From VINTAGES June 13th, 2015
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