The Super-Tuscans, Our Finest and New World Picks
by David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Sara d’Amato
VINTAGES November 28 release offers a once-a-year opportunity to buy all the major super-Tuscans in one fell swoop. And indeed they will be swooped. In most other places you could find them any time of year, but the system here forces them out through a window that can be only open for a matter of hours. I won’t rag on about that. Buyers of these very collectible wines already know that supplies are limited and the appetite is huge.
I thought it might be useful however to provide brief background on the super-Tuscans, and to compare the current offerings, to help you decide which ones to buy. I very conveniently had an opportunity to taste them shoulder to shoulder earlier this month. For starters all scored 90 points or better in my books – so yes they are excellent wines. But all sell for more than $100, with a couple nudging $200 and one at $250. One bottle of each will cost you $865! I have not scored any at 95 or better, which is where I think they should be at these prices. So if you are value shopping you might want to skip down to the other New World wines being recommended this week.
The original, core Super-Tuscans – the royal family – are Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia, Luce and arguably Guado Al Tasso, that came along later. (I would add San Felice’s Vigorello to the list but it is not in the Nov 28 tranche). They were all hatched in Tuscany in the heyday of the New World expansionism – post 1976 Judgement of Paris when California wine’s bold, fruit forward style began seeping into European consciousness. The innovative Antinori and Frescobaldi clans of Florence said – ‘we can do that’. They planted cabernet and merlot in the Chianti hills, and especially along the warmer coast near Bolgheri. They practiced safe winemaking, coddled the wines in French barriques, established high prices and voila – they were a hit, first with news-hungry journalists, then with collectors.
But because they didn’t adhere to local DOC appellation regulations the new wines were only labeled as ‘vino da tavola’, the lowliest classification. It is still debated who coined the term super-Tuscan, but it was Wine Spectator magazine that at least made the name known worldwide. It stuck because it is such an apt name, still enduring 30 years later. And the word super has now been adopted by every Italian producer making non-DOC wines. There are about a billion of them by now. Super this, super- that. Some not so super-duper at all.
My general sense of those being offered by VINTAGES on the 28th is that they are quite ripe (the summer of 2012 was hot), fairly supple, subtle, layered and refined – all good things. And they are very modern, with only Sassicaia leaning to a more traditional ambiance. I pinpoint my lack of 95-point enthusiasm more around lack of depth and length; and lack of wow factor. They are tidy, pristine and polished, but they are not world beaters; they are not magical or individual. This may be related to youthful reticence, and perhaps the hot summer has depreciated their acidity and nerve.
So here is my take on this royal family. Sassicaia is the leaner, age-worthy still very Euro cabernet, king of the empire, thin and wiry and ruling with a tight fist, but a recluse. Ornellaia, is the queen, a merlot based seductress with beguiling subtlety and depth of character. Luce, in this vintage at least, is the brute elder heir to the throne, muscular, a bit volatile and overripe – perhaps fearful of losing its rights to Guado al Tasso, the dashing yet substantial prince from the coast (and best buy of the bunch). And then there is Solaia, which in this vintage, for some reason, comes across like the court jester – notably sweet and engaging but lacking substance. Which is odd given it is the most expensive.
Here are recommended wines from the WineAlign court of opinion, not only on super-Tuscans and other wines from VINTAGES Our Finest selection, but from the New World offerings as well. Next week John leads off with Old World picks.
Ornellaia 2012, DOC Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany, Italy ($195.95)
John Szabo – In a side by side tasting of a half-dozen of the top 2012 super Tuscans, Ornellaia (and Sassicaia) came out measurably ahead of the pack. It was a warm and dry vintage with cool nights and a timely splash of rain towards harvest that shepherded grapes through to full and even ripening. The result is a marvellously composed, generous but balanced and seamlessly integrated edition of Ornellaia, bringing together a compelling mix or perfectly ripened fruits, integrated and subtle barrel spice, and slowly emerging earthy and savoury notes. The palate is pitch perfect, well structured, with fine-grained tannins and lively, vibrant acids building around a core of succulent fruit. Exceptional length. It’s not hard to see why this wine was nicknamed “L’Incanto” (The Enchantment) at the estate. Best after 2020, or hold until the late 2030s.
Sassicaia 2012 DOC Bolgheri Sassicaia, Tuscany, Italy ($199.95)
John Szabo – The 2012 Sassicaia is surely one of the wines of the vintage in Tuscany, and one of the most impressive from the estate in the last decade. As usual, it delivers the most old world, Italianate expression amongst the elite of the 2012 super Tuscans, focused more on structure and finesse than sheer concentration. It’s very firm at the moment, offering fine detail and remarkable freshness, but still years away from full unravelling. Yet already an impressive mix of red and black fruit, fresh and lightly dried, and subtle barrel spice and dusty, savoury Tuscan character are revealed, boding very well for future development. Best 2020-2035+.
Sara d’Amato – There is a great purity to this Sassicaia, rustic would be too gruff but there is certainly an authentic beauty to this marvellously expressive wine. A classic incarnation of this Bordelaise blend with distinct Tuscan charm.
Antinori 2012 Guado Al Tasso, Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany ($104.95)
David Lawrason – With the first vintage in 1990, Guado is the late comer to the Antinori super-Tuscan family, from an estate that rises from the sea coast into calcareous hills. It is a gorgeous, vibrant and refined, cabernet-merlot-franc-petit verdot blend with a fine sense integration. Best 2020 to 2030+. Best value among the super-Tuscans in my books.
Others from VINTAGES’ Our Finest
Barossa Valley Estate 2008 E&E Black Pepper Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($89.95)
David Lawrason – I am already quoted in VINTAGES magazine from a release of this wine last year, so I won’t go into full descriptive mode here. But an image came to mind as I tasted it – of a dusty black steam engine dragging a slow freight train across a weathered plain on rails of iron and graphite, spewing smoke and sparks as it goes. My top score of the Our Finest Collection.
Sara d’Amato – E&E’s small production has a cult following and for good reason. This classic, old vines Barossa shiraz is impactful, edgy and exotically spiced offering a complex, lengthy finish. Due to impressive structure and filling, you can happily tuck this one away for 5-10 years.
Catena Alta 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Historic Rows, Mendoza, Argentina ($46.95)
Sara d’Amato – Catena Alta’s limited production is sourced from top parcels at various elevations throughout Catena’s estate vineyards. High elevation cabernet sauvignon has a distinctly unique expression with a wild aromatic profile of violets, currants, sandalwood and pepper. A seriously sophisticated and structured offering with surprising approachability.
David Lawrason – This “Historic Rows” is from two older vines sites in the Agrelo heartland of Mendoza. It is deeply coloured with a lovely nose of ripe mulberry, sage, fine oak spice and vanilla. There is sophistication as well as generosity. The focus and length are excellent. Will age 20 years.
Joseph Phelps 2012 Insignia, Napa Valley, California($299.95)
David Lawrason – Here is a beautifully honed wine that showcases all kinds of sophistication through the winemaking, but doesn’t lose the lion-heartedness of cabernet sauvignon. Great aromatics here. It’s dense, continuous and deep. The length is outstanding.
Chateau Montelena 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga, Napa Valley, California ($187.95)
John Szabo – Although roundly panned in the press, 2011 is proving to be one of my favourite vintages in the Napa Valley, forcing many winemakers into a generally fresher, firmer more balanced style. Not that Montelena needed a push in that direction; the estate has steadfastly produced wines of genuine finesse, complexity and elegance for decades in an unwavering style. The 2011 flagship estate cabernet is outstanding, a beautiful, lifted, fragrant and complex, marvellously savoury and vibrant vintage, with crackling red and black fruit, fully integrated wood, terrifically elegant tannins and exceptional length. This is all class and finesse. Best 2020-2035+.
Ridge 2013 Geyserville, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California ($62.95)
John Szabo – 2013 yielded a terrific Geyserville from Ridge, with pitch-perfect balance, elegance and lingering finish. There are few wines that can carry 14.7% alcohol with so much grace and elegance; wood is not a flavour feature, but rather this is all about the wild and savage fruit flavours, and the California garrigue (resinous herbs). Best 2015-2028.
Quintarelli 2007 Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Veneto, Italy ($104.95)
Sara d’Amato – Quintarelli is not exactly known for value but if you want to know what all the fuss is about for a relatively moderate price (in Quintarelli terms), then here is your chance. This is certainly no ordinary, basic Valpolicella, however, offering a perfectly matured, highly pleasurable experience. Its mid-weight frame belies its power and complexity. A sleek, harmonious and exceptional bottle of wine
Shafer 2013 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, Napa Valley/Carneros, California ($76.95)
David Lawrason – This grand, opulent and silky chardonnay is not afraid to be California. The nose is quite spectacular – so tropical it’s almost as if some viognier is involved. Quite full bodied to be sure (14.9%) with some heat on the finish, and wood tannin as well, yet it has poise and depth within its large footprint.
Kistler 2013 Les Noisetiers Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California ($99.95)
John Szabo – Steve Kistler has focused exclusively on mostly single vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay since 1978, and his mastery of, and consistency with these grapes is by now beyond question. Les Noisetiers is a Sonoma Coast blend of mainly Vine Hill, Dutton Ranch and Trenton Roadhouse vineyards, all planted on the region’s coveted marine sedimentary Goldridge soil. In 2013 the results are superb: creamy, ripe but still fresh, a complete wine with balance and concentration, complexity and intensity. Comfortably in the premium category. Best 2015-2023
Cloudy Bay 2102 Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand ($35.95)
David Lawrason – This an elegant, tart edged, cooler vintage chardonnay from Marlborough with a sense of tartness and austerity Shows lovely, almost satiny texture spread thin over sour, lemony acidity. Burgundian to be sure.
Other New World Whites
Josef Chromy Pepik Sekt, Tasmania, Australia ($26.95)
Sara d’Amato – A dry, refreshing and elegant traditional method sparkling riesling from Joseph Chromy, a venerable personality in Tasmanian wine who spent his life investing in and developing its wine producing landscape before opening Josef Chromy Wines at the age of 76. Try with shrimp tempura.
John Szabo – Leading Tasmanian producer Joseph Chromy, nicknamed Pepik, delivers here a fine, fresh and apple –flavoured, riesling-based sparkling wine in the traditional method, with 12 months on the lees adding just a touch of toasty-biscuity character. This would make a fine Sunday morning Brunch wine, not overly complex but refreshing and enlivening.
Spy Valley 2013 Envoy Sauvignon Blanc, Waihopai Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand ($29.95)
John Szabo – Spy Valley’s premium Envoy range is a considerable step up from the ‘regular’ range. Sauvignon Blanc from the gravelly Johnson Vineyard, Spy Valley’s oldest vines, is barrel fermented and aged on lees for a year before bottling, though wood is barely detectable. It has lovely wild yeasty aromatics with pungent green herbs and dense citrus-pear-pineapple flavours in palate arresting concentration and complexity. Fans of distinctive wines will revel in this.
Tomich 2014 Woodside Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills, South Australia, ($16.95) (430660)
Sara d’Amato – Master of Wine John Tomich along with his son Randal are an innovative team creating new viticultural practices for cool climate growing regions such as their own Adelaide Hills site. Although there is no shortage of sauvignon blanc on the shelves of VINTAGES, here is one that stands out from the rest. Refined and elegant without overt grassiness or underripe vegetal undertones, it is lively and refreshing with notes of birch bark, lemongrass and quince.
Delheim 2014 Family Chenin Blanc 2014, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($17.95) (429720)
Sara d’Amato – Delheim is a consistent, value-oriented producer who has knack for chenin blanc. This lush and opulent example is sure to quell your craving for anything-but-chardonnay.
Other New World Reds
Lapostolle 2012 Canto de Apalta, Rapel Valley, Chile ($19.95)
John Szabo – Canto is the recently created second wine from Lapostolle’s excellent Apalta Estate in the heart of the Colchagua Valley, which, like the grand vin, is a carmenere-led blend, with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Wood, fruit concentration, acids and tannic structure are sensibly doled out in balanced measure, giving this high drinkability and an appealing, savoury-gritty edge. Best 2017-2022.
Clos De Los Siete 2012, Uco Valley, Mendoza ($23.95)
David Lawrason – This is one wine sourced from four French owned properties that have formed a foreign legion-like enclave at the base of the Andes in the Vista Flores sub-region of the Uco Valley. This a full bodied, warm, dense and powerful yet also vibrant malbec-based blend. Better than the 2011.
Stags’ Leap Winery 2012 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley, California ($39.95)
John Szabo – A perennial favourite of mine from Stags’ Leap, this savage and savoury petite sirah offers a fine mix of earth, resinous herbs and dark fruit character, and firm and burly tannins, but there’s more than ample fruit to ensure proper integration in time. Best 2017-2025.
Perez Cruz Limited 2012 Edition Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Alta, Chile ($19.95)
David Lawrason – This is estate grown from selected higher altitude vineyard blocks. It rings of a cooler climate cabernet with medium weight and lifted, slightly herbal aromas of roasted red pepper, cassis and chocolate mint.
Montes Alpha 2012 Malbec, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($19.95)
David Lawrason – This is a shiny, vibrant and quite juicy young Malbec – with a typically slender Chilean feel as opposed to the chunkier malbecs form over the Andes in Mendoza. Very nicely balanced and intense.
And that is a wrap for this edition. Tune in next week for a continued look at this huge release.
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES November 28th, 2015
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