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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – April 30, 2016

Buyers’ Guides for the Pacific Northwest & Rosé, The State of Pinot Noir (and other varieties), and Prince Edward County
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report is overflowing with recommendations and reviews, a reflection of a busy past couple of weeks of tastings and trade seminars. The VINTAGES April 30th release features a lopsided Pacific Northwest selection with some excellent Oregon pinot noir. California is also heavily featured in this report, following on the heels of the hugely successful annual wine fair, that is, if the number of attendees is correlated to success.

Over 1,000 industry insiders not only showed up, but even lined up, to squeeze their way into to the Canadian Room at the Fairmont Royal York to revel and taste in its carnival-like atmosphere. The Wine Bible (revised edition 2015) author Karen MacNeil, also keynote speaker at the luncheon, launched the day with an excellent overview and memorable tasting of pinot noir representing over 800 kilometers of coastal Californian vineyards from the Anderson Valley to Santa Ynez. Click for this week’s feature article on the State of California pinot and reviews of some of the state’s top bottlings. Although the specific wines reviewed are as widely available as white unicorns, all of the producers on the list and their other cuvees are worth tracking down.

For more immediate gratification, see my full list of 18 recommended California wines – the state does more than just pinot noir, you know. These were whittled down from over 60 samples of currently available or incoming wines sent to the Media Room, where I hid for most of the day to avoid the California trade crush.

Small but mighty Austria likewise held a trade fair last week, with a trade seminar focused on the country’s vastly improved red wines, now serious contenders. The addition of local varieties such as Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent to the worldwide roster of worthwhile reds is like discovering a new exotic spice to add to your culinary repertoire. Also on display were the first releases of fresh whites from the superlative 2015 vintage, destined to become a classic. I’ll be highlighting some of the best in a mini Austrian Wine Buyer’s Guide to be posted at a later date.

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County in the City – The calm before the evening storm

The annual County in the City tasting brought the best of Prince Edward County to Toronto on the same day, featuring mostly a mix of the very promising 2015s, and the few drops of the 2014s that survived the yield-crippling (but paradoxically quality-improving) May frost. I was pleased to see that the established names continue to deliver exceptional wines, spurred on in part by increasing competition; a clutch of relative newcomers is knocking at the door. And while chardonnay and pinot noir are still the flagships, pinot gris is clearly another grape to watch in the County. See my mini PEC Buyers’ Guide for some of the best.

VINTAGES Preview

And read on for highlights of the VINTAGES April 30th release, which features a lopsided Pacific Northwest selection, with some excellent Oregon pinot noir, and a largely disappointing, commercial range from Washington State. British Columbia was inexplicably officially left out of the thematic (“Though no agreed boundary exists, a common conception [of the PNW] includes the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia”, according to Wikipedia), though there are two BC wines worth your attention, which I’ve added to my recommendations.

Mount Hood from the Dundee Hills-8781

Mount Hood from the Dundee Hills, Oregon

A range of rosés representing all major wine producing continents is timed perfectly for the long-awaited arrival of spring in Ontario. It’s a perfect illustration of why southern France remains the world hotspot for pink, that is, if you’re after premium dry, delicate but flavourful, purpose-made rosés. I’ve listed three excellent examples.

And since that’s more than enough for one report, I’ll throw the rest of my miscellaneous top picks, including a couple from the “Aussie Whites” mini-feature, into next week’s general Buyers’ Guide along with the rest of the WineAlign crü.

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: Oregon

Willakenzie Estate Gisèle Pinot Noir 2013 Soléna Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir 2012Pinot Noir has been planted in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since 1966, and has been the focus of the rapidly expanding industry ever since. Being at the edge of viable ripening is where pinot likes to be, and the grape’s propensity to magnify even small variations in micro climate and soil chemistry and structure make it perfectly suited to the Willamette’s cool climate and varied soils. Two fine value variations on the marine sedimentary soils known as “Willakenzie” found in the Yamhill-Carlton sub-AVA are on offer April 30th, both unusually refined for the often firmly tannic, black fruit flavoured wines most typical of these soils.

The Soléna 2012 Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir ($35.95) is a particularly classy wine. Very fragrant, pretty, concentrated, delivering verve, depth and fine-grained structure. Soléna is run by Laurent and Danielle Montalieu, who purchased the 80-acre Domaine Danielle Laurent in May of 2000 as their wedding gift to each other, planting six clones of pinot noir shortly after (also wedding gifts to one-another, offering another dimension to the vow ‘till death do us part’). Best 2016-2022.

Even lighter, more fragrant and delicate is the Willakenzie Estate 2013 Gisèle Pinot Noir ($36.95), also from Yamhill-Carlton, the entry-level blend from various estate parcels designed for early enjoyment. It’s crafted in the pale, oxidative style, filled with tart red fruit and beetroot, earth, and pot pourri flavours, while tannins are very light. You might call it a fragile pinot noir, though not in a negative sense, ready to drink now or hold short term at best. I do appreciate the delicate nature of this wine – not all reds need be dark and burly.

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: British Columbia

The Naramata Bench on the east side of Lake Okanagan, north of Penticton, is increasingly recognized as a sweet spot in the valley, improbably capable of delivering everything from fresh whites to serious reds, like the Laughing Stock 2013 Portfolio, BC VQA Okanagan Valley ($54.95). Have to say, I love their tag line: “We wake up every day with the constant motivation of not living up to our name”. You surely won’t be laughing while chewing on this intense, ripe, regionally accurate flagship Bordeaux blend (the full portfolio), complete with sage brush and ripe black fruit, measured but noted oak, and a wide range of spicy aromatics. Ambition is evident. Best 2016-2023.

Osoyoos in the southern Okanagan is the source of the Nk’mip 2013 Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay, BC VQA Okanagan Valley ($24.95). Pronounced kw-em kw-empt in the Osoyoos First Nation’s language (meaning ‘achieving excellence’), Qwam Qwmt is the top range from Nk’Mip. In this case a ripe, rich, resinous and wood-inflected chardonnay, with lots of polish and concentration in a classic west coast style – the kind that often sells for much more a few hundred miles further south.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2013 Nk'mip Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2013Hogue Genesis Meritage 2012 Joel Gott Riesling 2012

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: Washington State

As mentioned in the intro, the selection of Washington wines generally fails to excite, especially considering some of the terrific wines made now by over 800 wineries in the United State’s second largest wine producing state. For an example of the widely appealing, easy-drinking commercial style, try the Hogue 2012 Genesis Meritage, Columbia Valley ($18.95). It’s a modern and ripe, oak-inflected Bordeaux blend, medium-full bodied. It won’t change your life, but nobody will get hurt, either.

Washington does riesling quite well, arguably the state’s most successful white variety. The Joel Gott 2012 Riesling Columbia Valley ($19.95) is a perfectly serviceable example, crunchy and just off-dry, fresh and fragrant in a typical lime zest-inflected varietal idiom. Ready to enjoy.

Buyers’ Guide to Rosé

Côteaux Varois en Provence

Côteaux Varois en Provence – credit to: CIVP F.Millo

Rosé is a challenging category to understand. Different varieties, wildly varying climates and especially winemaking techniques conspire to broaden the stylistic field. You’ll find everything from deeply coloured, sweetened versions to pale and bone dry, all labeled simply as rosé. How are you to know what you’ll get without tasting? Sadly, you can’t. That is, unless you’re seeking the bone dry, serious, pale versions, which I admittedly do. By legal definition, the rosés of Provence (and its various appellations, mainly Côtes de Provence, Côteaux d’Aix en Provence Côteaux Varois) are pale and dry, and as reliable as they come.

Gabriel Meffre Saint Ferréol Tavel Rosé 2015 Château la Tour de L'évêque Rosé 2015 Saint Aix Rosé 2015There are two fine examples arriving on shelves on April 30th: Saint Aix 2015 Rosé, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, France ($22.95) is the finest. A serious, fragrant, flavourful, balanced and bone dry, fresh rosé here that’s dangerously drinkable but also offers a more sophisticated flare, and great length, too. Also excellent is the ever-reliable Château la Tour de l’Évêque 2015 Rosé, Côtes de Provence France ($19.95), a regular fixture on LCBO shelves. The 2015 is another classic Provençal example, though a touch riper and softer than the previous vintage, more advanced and ready to go with heaps of red fruit and herbs. Alcohol is a heady 13.5%, so while it’s infinitely drinkable, it’s no light, afternoon sipper to be sure.

A little further north, the southern Rhône appellation of Tavel is unique in being the only AOC in the Rhône Valley dedicated purely to rosé, also invariably dry. Tavel is famous for it’s powerful style, as evinced in the Gabriel Meffre 2015 Saint Ferréol Tavel Rosé, Rhône Valley ($19.95), replete with inviting liquorice-fennel seed and white pepper to spice up succulent red fruit.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

johnszabosignature

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES April 30, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All April 30th Reviews

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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Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay 2012

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John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: Prince Edward County April 2016

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The annual County in the City tasting brought the best of Prince Edward County to Toronto on April 14th, featuring mostly a mix of the very promising 2015s, that is, the few drops that survived the yield-crippling (but paradoxically quality-improving) May frost, reportedly the coldest May 23 since 1961.  Many excellent 2014s were brought out for the first time, a vintage that looks to have produced the finest wines yet in several growers’ portfolios.

The Vintner’s Quality Alliance now counts 31 registered VQA wineries currently operating in the County (although adherence to the VQA is not obligatory and so the actual number of commercial wineries is higher), up from 26 the previous year. This shows that the PEC wine industry continues to inch onward and upward. In fact, a shortage of grapes is becoming a more familiar refrain, and not just in very low-yielding vintages like 2015.

It’s clear that the region’s unsympathetic climate is a grand challenge for winegrowers – there’s no easy route to financial success, and the top wines are necessarily costly. If you’re thinking it’s time to buy land and plant a vineyard in the County to sell grapes for profit, you’d better check those numbers again, carefully. Yet the results of what makes it to bottle are promising enough, and in many cases are already more than good enough, to justify such a tenuous existence. I can only hope that more people will take up the challenge to exploit one of North America’s best, if least profitable, terroirs. Didn’t somebody say that nothing worthwhile is easy?

During this latest snapshot, by no means comprehensive, of the state of PEC wine, I was happy to see the established names continue to deliver exceptional wines. No doubt they’ve been spurred on in part by increasing competition; a clutch of relative newcomers is now knocking at the door, broadening the range of wines worth tracking down. And while chardonnay and pinot noir remain the flagship grapes, I’d like to throw pinot gris into the ring, clearly another grape to watch in the County. The number of VQA-approved pinot gris’ jumped to 15 labels in 2014, still a relatively small number of wines (just over 100 VQA PEC wines were produced in the same year), but confidence in the grape appears to be growing, and the results are highly encouraging.

Here are some recommended current releases by grape.

Chardonnay

2014 This marks the first vintage for which new winemaker Keith Tyers was in full control, and he appears to have dialled back ripeness and barrel influence in the Closson Chase 2014 Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay ($28.95), favouring a more chiselled and tightly wound style, and less of the cream-custard-style of earlier vintages (also abetted by the cool 2014 vintage). This is terrifically lean, tight and stony, and I like the way this comes together on the palate, allying firm acids with citrus and green peach/pear fruit, and just a light delicate touch of caramel wood spice on the finish which will surely fade into the ensemble in short order (this spent just under a year and a half in barrel, of which less than 10% were new). Best after 2017.

Closson Chase

It’s fantastic see Lighthall Vineyards come on so strong in 2014, with a string of great wines across the board at attractive prices. The Lighthall Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay (25.00) is pure, fresh and stony; if ever there were discussion about the Chablis-like expression of chardonnay from the county, this could be cited as evidence. I love the crunchy citrus fruit, the grapefruit flavours. Enjoy now or short term hold.

2014 is likewise a breakout vintage for winemaker Colin Stanners, having rendered his 2014 Chardonnay ($30.00) from estate fruit into a marvellously chalky, reductive, Puligny-like pure expression of limestone, with no holds barred and no concessions to easy commercial appeal. The palate is tight, even with a touch of residual sugar, but it works here in the rivetingly acid milieu. This could use another 6 months to a year in cellar to flesh and round out. Distinctive, and very promising for the future of this site.

Keint-He continues to sharpen it’s range of both PEC and Niagara wines under winemaker Ross Wise, and this first release of the 2014 Greer Road Chardonnay ($30 est.) is a fine and crisp, crunchy and lively, very fresh expression, very transparent. Wood sticks out a little for now on the skinny frame, but cellar for another 6 months for better integration.

Pinot Gris

PEC pinot gris is gaining in popularity, at least in terms of the number of labels, and Lighthall enters the ring for the first time with the Lighthall Vineyards 2014 Pinot Gris ($25), a real cracker, produced from fruit grown at Huff Estates. It’s open, fragrant, lightly honeyed, barely off-dry on the palate, but with a real sense of stoniness and saltiness, a fine addition to the growing County lineup.

2015 was the first County vintage for former Lailey (Niagara) winemaker Derek Barnett, and it’s great to see such a confident hand at the helm at Karlo Estates after the untimely passing of Richard Karlo. The Karlo Estates 2015 County Pinot Gris ($29) is a very strong release, crafted in somewhat of a richer, fuller, Alsatian style relative to other examples. It’s off-dry and apple-flavoured, quite densely packed (though with only 12% alcohol – still generous for PEC). I like the sense of stoniness allied to ripe fruit, the generous proportions, and the solid length.

County Pinot Gris

The most intriguing and experimental version goes hands down to Stanners Vineyard 2014 Pinot Gris Cuivré ($25), a wine crafted in a style that approximates the ancient, ‘farmhouse’ approach regaining popularity in northeastern Italy known as ramato (‘coppered’ in Italian) or cuivré in French. Skins are soaked for 24 hours before pressing and fermentation, just long enough to give this a distinct copper hue. It’s the second vintage in this style for Stanners, and the result is a pleasantly lean and bright wine, with deceptive length that hangs on and on. Don’t expect opulence; this is more about freshness, and the light, tacky, textural experience from tannins extracted during the maceration, more grippy than rosé, and just on this side of a light red. Stainless steel ageing preserves the fruit and spice, and florality of the variety. It’s an intriguing wine worth tracking down; be sure to carafe before serving to give it air (and not too chilled either).

The most patio-sippable version comes from Huff Estates and their 2015 Pinot Gris ($20), a crisp, clean, fresh, citrus-scented version, closer to pinot grigio than pinot gris in style. It’s an easy-drinking, bright and fresh, aperitif style wine. 

Pinot Noir

Norman Hardie rarely misses a beat, and his 2014 County Pinot Noir Unfiltered ($39 est, not yet released) emerges here with supreme grace, with fine-grained, delicate texture, seemingly light but anchored on solid base of impossibly ripe fruit at just 10.9%. I love the length, the absence of any wood flavor, the terrific mineral saltiness. It’s really in a class of its own.

Frédéric Picard at Huff Estates made a very convincing and competitively priced 2014 Pinot Noir ($25) from estate fruit and vineyards in South Bay, easily the best yet from the Huff. It’s clearly genuinely concentrated and ripe (even if still light in the County style), with finely integrated wood influence (fermented and then aged in 3000l oak foudres) and plenty of succulent red fruit and spice. It’s great to see such quality at the price; just hope it can be maintained, even if that’s wishful thinking.

Lighthall Vineyards winemaker Glenn Symons has likewise upped his game with the 2014 Pinot Noir ‘Quatres Anges’ ($30), the fifth reserve pinot produced at the estate, and by all accounts the best. He describes the 2014 growing season as “perfectly balanced with epic, unequalled ripening, allowing the fruit to fully express itself”. My translation of that from the glass is a light, fragrant, leafy County pinot, really well-pitched, with delicate tannins and silky texture. It’s filled with grace and charm and ready to enjoy this summer.

Glenn Symons - Lighthall Winemaker

And establishing the growing consistency of their range, the Stanners 2013 Pinot Noir ($35) is also worth a look. It’s likewise a pinot for fans of pale and delicate reds, yet this slim wine (11.5% alcohol) nonetheless carries a solid freight of flavour, based on faded floral/pot pourri, dried red fruit notes, sour and fresh. Tannins are ultra-fine and soft, while acids are balanced-bright, sufficient to drive saliva. Only resinous wood notes (from less-than-stellar barrels?), lets the expression down somewhat. Drink now with a light chill.

That’s all for this report. See you over the next bottle.

johnszabosignature

John Szabo MS

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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California: The State of Pinot Noir

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

“The quality of pinot noir has escalated dramatically in the last ten years”, asserts Karen MacNeil in her introduction to a tasting of thirteen California pinot noirs held last week to kick-off the annual California Wine Fair. The author of best selling The Wine Bible (fully revised in 2015) and chairman and creator of the program at The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, MacNeil is as well qualified as anyone to make the claim. She’s been a keen observer of the California wine industry since the 1970s, and as a native New Yorker, is unfettered by regional chauvinism. The wines she selects for the tasting amply prove the point.

And I couldn’t agree more with MacNeil’s assessment of the state of California pinot noir. The grape has undergone a radical makeover over the last decade, more than any other variety. Chardonnay, too, it can be said, has been given a 21st century facelift, slimmed down, toned up, and applied less makeup to be sure. But pinot’s evolution has been more complete, transforming from garish cabaret dancer to elegant ballerina (just keeping up the mixed metaphors) in under a generation.

Perhaps that’s because pinot noir had so much further to go in order to find a comfortable and natural regional expression, while great California chardonnay has a much longer and more robust history, with many protagonists. Once all but indistinguishable from merlot or even cabernet, California’s finest pinot noirs are now clearly recognizable as pinot noir, while still informed by the generous sun and thick fog that flood coastal vineyards and give rise to the state’s unique style.

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir-4982

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir

There are of course producers who found a confidently Californian expression many years ago – pinot pioneers Josh Jensen of Calera, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Burt Williams and Ed Selyem of Williams-Selyem spring to mind. But the list of people making memorable pinot noir now stretches into the dozens, drawing on vineyards spread over 800 kilometers from the Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Barbara down south. Pinot noir is California’s 5th most planted variety, and it finally has an expression all its own, in all of its infinite nuances. This is fantastic news for devotees of the grape.

The turning point for pinot noir came sometime around the turn of the millennium, when it was apparently recognized that pinot is in fact not cabernet, and that it needs to be farmed differently, in different areas, and treated with more deference in the winery. During the tasting, MacNeil shared the thoughts of one winemaker who makes both pinot noir and cabernet (a rarity). After spending some time away from the winery, he likened his cabernet to a Labrador retriever that jumps and slathers you in delight on your return, happy, undemanding, unchanged. Pinot noir, other the other hand, is more like the sullen, aloof cat, which eyes you suspiciously and rancorously as you walk in the door, as if to say: “where have you been?” before slinking off moodily into another corner. Compared to pinot noir, cabernet is a breeze to make, another reason why it has taken so long to master.

What Makes for Great California Pinot Noir?

As we taste, MacNeil, a consummate educator, asks us to consider some key points that distinguish great California pinot noir. She speaks of “corruptness”, a twist on a common theme discussed amongst pinot fanatics, where slight imperfections contribute to the appeal of a wine. “Pinot Noir needs a little corruptness, something dark, primordial”, she says. Indeed, beauty often resides in slight asymmetry; technical perfection has all the romance and excitement of differential calculus. MacNeil quickly points out that she’s not referring to outright flaws, just minor deviations.

Also critical to pinot greatness (and the greatness of any wine) is what Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton describes as ‘negative space’. As in visual arts, what isn’t there often helps to define what is, the visual equivalent of deafening silence, or the spaces that hang between the notes in a piece of music. To illustrate, MacNeil taps out a beat – a constant “rhythm” that great pinot should lay down as it washes across the palate, like a trusty metronome, with essential silence between the beats.

Texture is also critical, one of the pinot noir’s greatest assets. California’s pinots are most often softer and gentler – read less tannic – than red Burgundy, a feature, McNeil speculates, which arises from enlightened winemakers’ desires to get as far away as possible from cabernet. There is undoubtedly a suppleness and softness in California pinot that is rare to find elsewhere.

And one last hugely important point: understanding the difference between richness and concentration. These separate attributes are frequently confused, as MacNeil suggests. California wines are rarely short on concentration; that’s easy to achieve in a warm, sunny climate. Harvest your grapes after they start to shrivel into raisins and you’ll get plenty of concentration (and alcohol). But that’s not genuine flavor richness and certainly not complexity. MacNeil quotes famed wine importer Kermit Lynch: “turning up the music loud doesn’t make it any better.” Exaggerated concentration was a common flaw (and still is in some cases), but the best of the new generation have honest richness and depth and breadth of flavour, something that can’t be faked in the winery.

The road to pinot greatness requires of course vineyards in the right areas, a trial-and-error process that takes considerable time. But by now it has become clear where the most suitable pinot noir sites are found in California.

Three Top Regions to Consider

If I were forced to narrow down California’s 137 AVAs to just three essential regions for Pinot Noir, these would be the Sonoma Coast, the Sta. Rita Hills and the Anderson Valley. What all three have in common is their proximity to the Pacific and its heavy cooling effect felt in onshore vineyards. Fog, too, plays a mighty role in moderating climate and slowing ripening in all sites except those located above the fog line.

Sonoma Coast-3146

Sonoma Coast

The Sonoma Coast is a large, sprawling AVA (the largest in Sonoma County), so to be more specific, I’m referring to what the locals call the “West Sonoma Coast” (or sometimes “far, true, real or extreme Sonoma Coast”), an unofficial distinction that carves out the coolest, westernmost 10% of the AVA. It runs roughly from Jenner, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, north to Annapolis, and from just a couple kilometers inland from the coast to no more than about 20 kilometers, except in the most southerly section where lower coastal hills allow cooling influence to seep a little further, to near Freestone, Occidental, Green Valley and Sebastopol. In short, it’s the coolest, rain and fog-soaked western margin of the county in the coastal hills, often within sight of the Pacific. And the distinction is taken seriously by those eager to distinguish themselves by the more sun-soaked vineyards of inland Sonoma Coast. There is in fact a West Sonoma Coast Vintners (WSCV) Association of some 40 vintners with vineyards in the West Sonoma Coast, or who source grapes from it. Most of the top names in Sonoma pinot make wines from this area.

A little further north in Mendocino County, the Anderson Valley is likewise a cool, heavily Pacific-moderated AVA, about 25 kilometers from end to end. The west end of the Anderson Valley, open directly to the ocean via the Navarro River valley (also known as “the deep end”) and reliably bathed in morning fog, is only a few kilometers from the Pacific. It’s classified as a Region I viticultural area, the coolest still viable for grape growing. Aside from pinot noir, Anderson Valley is also known for its chardonnay, riesling and gewürztraminer, and especially traditional method sparkling wine. Champagne house Roederer set up shop here.

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Hirsch Vineyards

Although nearly 800 kilometers further south, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County is another hot, cool spot for fine pinot. In California, as in Chile, its proximity to the ocean that principally defines climate, not latitude, and here a similar Pacific-exposed geography plays out to create cool, coastal growing conditions. The Sta. Rita Hills AVA could also have been called a valley, indeed one of the most clearly delineated transversal valleys (east-west) on the western coast of the Americas, thanks to tectonic plate movements that spun the coastal hills 90º clockwise, from parallel to perpendicular to the coast (see this brief video of plate motion). The resulting open end to the Pacific draws in cold air and fog with occasional ferocious intensity, and vineyards, especially those at the western end near Lompoc are indeed at the marginal edge of viable viticulture.

If you’re just starting your California pinot road trip, these would be my first three stops.

A Tasting of Cool California Pinots

The following wines were selected by Karen MacNeil to illustrate the current state of California pinot. To avoid repetitiveness in describing production techniques, virtually all wines were made from 10-20 year old vines, including multiple clones of pinot noir, fermented with wild yeasts, punched down by hand in open top fermenters, and aged in barrel but with minimal new oak. You might call it a recipe for the best.

(Ontario Agents are listed where available.)

Foursight Wines 2012 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

A relatively new, small family-run operation. Pale garnet colour. Delicately aromatic, tending towards the oxidative, more floral, faded fruit, leafy end of the spectrum. The palate is mid-weight, very soft and gentle, low tannin, with some baby fat and balanced acids, neither fat nor racy. Good length on light caramel wood notes. A really lovely style, for fans of delicate pinot. 91

Failla Wines 2013 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Eric Jordan has never studied winemaking; his degree is in Art History “Artistic intuition is hard to teach.”) Fruit comes from David Hirsch’s vineyards on the far Sonoma Coast, the pinot pioneer in the region with some parcels planted in the 1970s. This is saturated red-garnet, with pronounced fruity-cherry aromatics, like spiced morello cherry, with little obvious wood. The palate is firm and succulent-juicy, with great tension and sappy red fruit flavor, and very good length on lifted alcohol vapors. Great length – there’s considerable underlying power here. This will develop nicely over the next 2-3 years, and gain in complexity. 92

Talley Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Valley (The Vine Agency)

The Arroyo Grande AVA is about halfway between Mendocino and Los Angeles, historically a big fruit-growing area. Subdued aromatics, slightly dusty and medicinal, showing old wood and slight volatility. The palate is a little sharper, leaner, with less depth and richness of flavor. Simple and straightforward. 88

Sandford Winery 2013 La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills (Terlato International)

Richard Sandford is co-responsible for the first pinot noir plantings in Santa Barbara, the Sanford and Benedict vineyard planted in 1971. La Rinconada abuts the original site on a north-facing slope. This has quite a saturated red colour, pure, holding on to some ruby hints. The nose offers riper, darker fruit within the pinot spectrum, with a measure of dark spice though it’s not obviously woody. The palate is verging on full, firmly textured, with dusty, structure-giving tannins, marked acids, with impressive length on the finish. I find this appealingly salty, savoury in the most positive way. 93

Williams-Selyem 2013 Precious Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Tre Amici)

Fairly dark ruby colour, matched by a core of dark fruit, like spiced black cherry, with cola nut and dried twig-leafy notes, more brooding and introspective. Wood influence is more prominent here. The palate is surprisingly light and lithe, low in tannins, axed more on acids, with lingering, high-toned notes (pleasantly lifted VA), and tightly wound texture. An intriguing wine that hasn’t quite come together – give it another 2-3 years. 90

Laetitia Vineyard & Winey 2013 La Colline Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Vineyard

Made from a selection of ‘Martini clones’. Pure, limpid red with a light ruby rim. Rather simple but pleasant red-fruited pinot noir, lightly candied. The palate offers an impression of sweetness, with an intriguing herbal note that brings to mind mescal and also brings balance to otherwise very ripe fruit. Tannins are lightly grippy. This stays on the right side of balance. 89

Brewer-Clifton 2014 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills (Barrel Select)

From vineyards practically on sand dunes by the coast. Pure ruby-garnet red. Some stem inclusion (whole bunch) is evident from the marvelous aromatics, mixing fresh red and slightly darker fruit character with a measure of fresh earth, twiggy-leafy spice and more, including a touch of funk. The palate is rich and sappy, with fine flavor density and notable salinity, and great length – this has genuine concentration and a broad range of flavours. Fleshy, satisfying and dense, without excesses. Love the seaside saltiness. 94

McIntyre Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands

The warmest AVA on the table and it shows in this simple, medicinal cherry fruit-flavoured example, more power than finesse. The palate offers an impression of sweetness, with sweet oak notes. More of a plundering wine that rolls across the palate, focused on concentration rather than elegance. 89

Wrath Vineyards 2013 Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highland

Another warm(er) climate example, resulting in a broad, very ripe, dark fruit and spice-flavoured pinot, more languid on the palate, even fat, with a vague sweet impression. Sweet baking spice lingers. 89

Kosta Browne 2013 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Halpern)

Closed aromatically, revealing only oak-spiced, mostly red but very ripe fruit, and vanilla extract. The palate is thick and full, structured, more palate grabbing, but also slightly sweet and generous with alcohol. This is certainly less edgy and bright than typical far Sonoma Coast pinot, pushed into a more powerful style. A bit of a bruiser. 90

Radio-Coteau 2013 Savoy Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley (Cru Wine Merchants)

There’s some funk leading off on the nose, though the palate is lovely, lean and vigorous, energetic, focused on fresh red fruit, cran-cherry, neither shrill nor over-wrought. Acids are firm and driving, bolstering light but dusty, structure-giving tannins. Great length. Really like this. Perhaps not the most complex, but alive and tension-filled. 93

Au Bon Climate 2012 Knox Alexander Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

California pinot pioneer, and mentor to so many winemakers on the south-central coast, Jim Clendenen delivers the most old school style wine on the table. This 2012 Knox Alexander, named for his two children, is open and oxidative, earthy, old wood-driven, driven by acids, twiggy, with light but dusty-grippy tannins. A lovely, savoury style, infinitely drinkable, lighter but with serious flavor intensity. 92

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Valley (Authentic Wines & Spirits)

The darkest pinot on the table, with dramatic oak, fruit and intensity to match, a ‘back end’ wine that hits you on the finish. This is a big, ripe, intense, palate-gripping example with notable oak, and marked but ripe, supple tannins, abundant but not obtrusive. Better in 2-3 years in any case. For fans of power over finesse. 90

And just in case pinot is not your thing, here are 18 other recommended California wines from the fair: John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: California Wine Fair Highlights

johnszabosignature

John Szabo MS

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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Season 5, Table 10 of “So, You Think you Know Wine?”

A Proper Pinot Noir (aka Blind Taster’s Treat)

The oh-so serious sport of wine tasting is receiving a major reality check in Season 5 of WineAlign’s “So, You Think You Know Wine?”. Without any clues, host Seán Cullen takes each table through the swirling, sniffing, and gurgling ritual of wine tasting – asking them to correctly identify the grape, country, region, vintage, and price of the wine.

Table 10 brings together Sara d’Amato, Véronique Rivest, Brad Royale and chef Chris McDonald. Véronique has her heart set on pinot noir from the very first sniff and leads off with that strong suggestion. Then, for the others, it comes down to a contest of vintage, country and region. The one thing they all agree on is that this is a lovely wine.

Click here to watch Table 10 or read on to learn more about the contestants and the scoring method.

Score Card:

Tensions are mounting as the scores have now been released. ONLY the top six will advance to the playoffs. Here’s a look at how the contestants are doing so far, not including today’s episode.

Score up to Table 9

Table 10

As always, the video series brings together Canada’s top wine experts, but this time a few well-known food personalities have taken on the daunting task of competing against wine critics, sommeliers, and wine educators.

Sara d’Amato

Sara is a Toronto-based wine consultant, sommelier, wine critic and principal partner with WineAlign. She has worked in cellars both in Niagara and in France, as Sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel and at the Platinum Club of the Air Canada Centre. She is also a contributor to Chatelaine magazine. Sara is the first and only woman to have won the Grand Award at the prestigious Wine Tasting Challenge.

Sara d'Amato

Brad Royale

Brad has been involved in retail and restaurant management for fifteen years and he is now the Wine Director for Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts. He has won multiple awards for his wine programs. In 2012 Brad launched his own wine label, Kitten Swish…it’s delicious.

Brad Royale

Véronique Rivest

Véronique won second place at the prestigious Sommelier du Monde Competition in 2013, in fact, she is the first woman ever to have made it to the podium. She is a wine columnist for Ottawa’s Le Droit newspaper and Radio-Canada and she has just opened her own wine bar in Gatineau, Quebec called Soif.

 

Véronique Rivest

Chris McDonald

Chris has worked in Toronto restaurants for 40 years. He started out as a busboy and quickly traveled up the ranks eventually becoming chef and owner of two of Toronto’s most loved restaurants – Avalon and Cava.  He’s now taking a well-deserved break before he starts his next adventure.

Chris McDonald

The Scoring

The scoring on each wine remains similar to past seasons with points for Variety, Country, Region, Appellation, Vintage and Price.

Variety:  3 points
Country, Region, Appellation:  up to 4 points
Vintage:  up to 2 points
Price (within 10% on either side): 1 point

Let the games begin! Pour yourself a glass of wine and watch table 8.

For those of you new to our video series, “So, You Think You Know Wine?”, we have saved all previous episodes under the Videos tab.

Previously on Season 5 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”:

Table 1 – Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2013
Table 2 – Creekside Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Table 3 – Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Table 4 – The Grinder Pinotage 2013
Table 5 – Faustino VII Tempranillo 2012
Table 6 – Gnarly Head Pinot Noir 2012
Table 7 – Laroche Chablis St. Martin 2012
Table 8 – Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva 2010
Table 9 – Root: 1 Carmenère 2012

We hope that you find this new series entertaining and that you have as much fun watching as we did filming. As usual, please send your comments to feedback@winealign.com and feel free to share this video with your friends and family.

Special thanks to our glassware sponsor, Schott Zwiesel, for their beautiful glasses and carafes used during filming.


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 30 – Part One

Pinot Noir’s New World and Ontario Whites
by David Lawrason, with notes from John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Nowadays I am having a barrel of fun tasting and tracking pinot noir’s global gallop. The selection coming May 30 to VINTAGES in Ontario is a clinic on the state of affairs.

When I starting following pinot noir in the mid 80s it was an almost monastic, local grape variety turning out occasionally brilliant wines on a slope called the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, France. With over 400 years of experience they had pretty much figured out that this thin-skinned, nervous and unpredictable grape variety had a knack for showing its place or origin. To taste a line-up of pinots from Burgundy from the same vintage and same producer but different appellations – a horizontal tasting – is still the most important thing an inquisitive wine fan can do for him or herself. It is an indelible lesson on terroir.

For most of the past 30 years the wine world has tended to believe that Burgundy – because it was the first and sometimes brilliant – was the only place where pinot noir could possibly be interesting and of high quality. But of course that is not true. A grape that can show terroir in one place can show terroir anywhere. And what we are now enjoying is the rooting of pinot noir in distinctive terroirs around the world.

The only unifier is a certain preferred climate where it is fairly cool through latitude, altitude or proximity to maritime influence to preserve essential acid tension and fruit purity. The pinot vine can actually grow in different soil types, where it will render different textural nuances, and although styles may vary, quality need not. That is in the hands of the winemakers, and pinot winemakers are among the most serious in the world.

I have been paying a lot of attention to New World pinot through my career – it being a focus of my first extended wine travel in 1984, in California. Yes California, where it was supposed to be too hot for pinot. But go tell that to Josh Jensen who had established Calera, Dick Graff at Chalone, the Carneros pioneers at Acacia and Saintsbury, Jim Clendenen at Sanford in Santa Barbara, or Santa Cruz Mountains men like Martin Ray who planted pinot in the sixties. Even Tim Mondavi, back in his exuberant youth was enthralled by California pinot, and we opened a few together in 1984. My personal taste affair with good California pinot has continued ever since, as long as sweetness and confection do not interfere.

Most recently my attention has shifted to New Zealand, which I have visited three times in two years. I think it is the most exciting pinot region outside of Burgundy. Pinot noir is the country’s most important red variety and it grows very well in the cooler southern half of the country. There are many terroirs here, and I have gone over-length in a recent article published here to outline what I think are 24 pinot noir appellations. But I am equally intrigued by pinots in other southern hemisphere locales in the past five years, and how they show their origin. And of course I have written a lot about pinot in Canada. Even Germany, the world’s third largest producer of pinot noir (Spatburgunder) could be considered a “newish world” for pinot.

Beyond the terroir hunting, what I like most about New World pinot is a certain fruit lift, exuberance and drinkability. Great Burgundy can be ethereal, and I have had some NW pinots that get close to that as well. But what I enjoy just as much is simply drinking a fresh, yet complex and generous pinot noir. And that is what this VINTAGES collection offers. They are interesting enough to be discussed, yet generous enough to be enjoyed, ideally with a light chill, from a large, fine rimmed glass, on the deck before, during and after dinner.

Here are our picks, and interestingly almost every pinot in the release has been “picked” by one or more of us. Such is the individuality of pinot, and in a weird way, its greatest strength.

The Pinots

Auntsfield 2012 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand ($29.95)

Rosehall Run Hungry Point Pinot Noir 2013 Auntsfield Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012David Lawrason – I am delighted to see Southern Valleys on the label! This is a large “unofficial” but increasingly obvious sub-district of Marlborough where pinots are growing on gravel/clay soils. There are very exciting terroir-driven pinots in the five southern valleys that each might one day have their own appellation – Fairhall, Ben Morven, Omaka, Brancott, Waihopi. This is lovely, very expressive pinot from a cooler year, although still showing considerable ripeness.
Sara d’Amato – David Herd, one of New Zealand’s forefather’s of wine, was responsible for planting the first of Auntsfield’s grapes in 1873. Needless to say, Auntsfield is one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries and produces a masterful pinot noir.
John Szabo – The Cowley family now runs Auntsfield, an established regional leader in the Southern Valleys sub-region widely acknowledge as the best spot for pinot noir in Marlborough. This is a wine of pure pleasure, not massive structure, well balanced, juicy and succulent. I love the immediate drinkability; serve with a light chill. Best 2015-2020.

Rosehall Run 2013 Hungry Point Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($24.95)

David Lawrason – Being a County pinot this is a light weight among others in this release, but it does have great aromatic lift and cool climate pinot cranberry-sour cherry fruit. It is not as deep as Dan Sullivan’s more expensive JCR pinot, but there is great piquancy and charm here. County to its roots.
Sara d’Amato – Every time I taste this pinot noir (now for the third time) that is quickly coming into its own, it becomes more and more enjoyable. It is produced on the legendary “Hungry Point” site which surrounds Rosehall Run and is formerly known for its inability to produce sustenance. It is now a premium, nutrient-poor growing site for coaxing out only the most concentrated flavours from the berries.

Argyle 2012 Artisan Series Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA ($44.95)

John Szabo – Although Argyle started off in the late 1980s as a dedicated sparkling wine producer (launched by Brian Croser of Petaluma fame and Bollinger champagne, among others), it was quickly realized that fine table pinot noir could also be produced in the region. This Reserve is made from Argyle’s top lots in the Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills AVAs and their predominantly volcanic-Jory soils, yielding a perfumed, lightly floral, silky-textured pinot, well-tuned to this ripe vintage. Best 2015-2020.
David Lawrason – This nicely defines Oregon’s pinot place, a cross-hatching of ripeness and tension. Look for pretty aromas of fresh red cherry jam, spice, herbs and light toast. There is elevated youthful tannin, so I would give it a year or two – and it should last admirably for five.

Argyle Artisan Series Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 Montes Limited Selection Pinot Noir 2012 Saint Clair Premium Pinot Noir 2013 O'Leary Walker Pinot Noir 2012

Montes 2012 Limited Selection Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($14.95)

David Lawrason – Pinot Noir in Chile is a relatively recent endeavour, and not yet considered a whole-hearted success. But Chilean pinot is developing a signature that echoes its cabernets and carmeneres reds, showing lifted blackcurrant, fragrant rosemary like herbaceousness derived from its local “garrigue” called boldos. This is ultra-fresh, juicy and lively. And very well priced.

Saint Clair 2013 Premium Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand ($24.95)

Sara d’Amato – I was instantly enamored by this juicy and succulent Marlborough pinot noir offering plenty of verve and a very pleasant note of red currant jelly. This consistently good value producer is most known in Ontario for their sauvignon blanc and it is no surprise that their pinot noir is of equal and perhaps better quality.

O’Leary Walker 2012 Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, South Australia ($24.95)

David Lawrason – The western edge of the forest clad hills above the city of Adelaide offer the best pinot noir conditions in all of South Australia. O’Leary Walker is based in the Clare Valley two hours away but the family has Adelaide Hills holdings with vines planted in the 90s. Very lifted aromatics here and it is fresh and juicy with considerable tannin.

Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 Jekel Pinot Noir 2012 Migration Pinot Noir 2013

Frei Brothers 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, USA ($27.95)

John Szabo – This nicely captures the approachable nature of RRV pinot without slipping into excesses of fruit, oak or ripeness. I like the punchy and edgy nature, with balanced fruit and alcohol, herbal and earthy character playing nicely to all preference camps. Best 2015-2020.

Jekel 2012 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, California  ($19.95)

Sara d’Amato – Bill Jekel is well regarded as an influential and boundary-pushing producer who was instrumental in the creation of a Monterey AVA. If you enjoy this both substantial and elegant pinot, the Jekel riesling is also one to watch for.

Migration 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, USA ($44.95)

David Lawrason – Migration is the Sonoma wing of the Duckhorn flock. And it has the lovely raspberry and florality that I love in Russian River pinot, with just a touch of evergreen foresty character. It’s delicate, fruity and well balanced.

Ontario Whites

Hidden Bench 2013 Estate Riesling, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($23.95)

Lailey Unoaked Chardonnay 2013 Redstone Limestone Vineyard South Riesling 2012 Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2013John Szabo – One of the province’s top riesling producers, Hidden Bench regularly delivers quality far above the average, proving there’s no substitute for meticulous farming. The 2013 estate bottling is clean, pure, crisp, dry and firmly structured, and even though this is the “mere” estate blend, it could easily sit among the top single vineyard bottlings in the region.
David Lawrason – This is a very complete and complex riesling; a dandy statement to riesling’s prowess on the Beamsville Bench.

Redstone 2012 Limestone Vineyard South Riesling, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($18.95)

David Lawrason – Redstone is a Tawse owned property that will begin to make its mark in the summer of 2015 when it opens, complete with a restaurant. This riesling comes from the Limestone Vineyard over near Flat Rock on Twenty Mile Bench. The ripe 2012 vintage has provided generous peach, honey and petrol character.

Lailey 2013 Unoaked Chardonnay, Niagara Peninsula Canada, Ontario ($14.95)

John Szabo – Unoaked chardonnay is rarely a category that excites, but Derek Barnett has managed to coax an unusual amount of flavour out of this 2013. It’s vaguely nutty and creamy, but still lively and crisp and genuinely dry, and altogether more “serious” than the price would imply. In other words, it’s a great buy for serious Tuesday night sipping.

Other Whites and Rosé

Château De Sancerre 2013 Sancerre, Loire Valley, France ($24.95)

David Lawrason – The only ‘chateau’ in Sancerre is owned by Marnier-Lapostolle, the company that produces Grand Marnier liqueur, and also owns Casa Lapostolle in Chile. This is a beautifully refined, delicate and fresh sauvignon to reserve for delicate seafood occasions.

Maison Roche De Bellene 2012 Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne Chardonnay, Burgundy, France ($20.95)

Sara d’Amato – Tremendous value alert! This entry level Burgundy is anything but simple exhibiting a leesy texture, fresh acids and delicately integrated oak. Although this chardonnay would certainly prove versatile with food, I recommend sipping on its own, barely below room temperature.

Château De Sancerre 2013 Maison Roche De Bellene Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne Chardonnay 2012 Domaines Schlumberger Kessler Gewurztraminer 2010 Castello Di Ama Rosato 2014

Domaines Schlumberger 2010 Kessler Gewurztraminer, Alsace Grand Cru, France ($33.95)

John Szabo – Gewurztraminer is the most planted grape in this 28ha grand cru in the village of Guebwiller, and Schlumberger its most emblematic producer. The pink sandstone seems tailor-made to produce a terrifically rich, exotically ripe and plush, opulent style, such as this. The 2010 vintage also yielded wines with brilliant acids, which in this case beautifully balance the considerable residual sugar. A textbook lesson in Alsatian GW. Best 2015-2022.

Castello Di Ama 2014 Rosato, Tuscany, Italy ($21.95)

Sara d’Amato – Lending some credibility to the rosé category, the famed Chianti Classico producer, Castello di Ama, has put forth an undeniably sophisticated blend of merlot and sangiovese. Sourced from high-quality, low-yielding old vines, this rosé was certainly not a mere afterthought, as are many commercial pink wines.

~

That is enough for this week, and what a busy week it has been at WineAlign. We have published an Ontario Wine Report update on Prince Edward County, and have released our 7th instalment of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”. (We get better folks!). We are also ramping up for the National Wine Awards of Canada that are just a month away in Niagara Falls. We are pleased to announce that Jamie Goode will be joining us again from the UK. British Columbia wineries are rapidly reaching their shipping deadline and the response has been excellent, so now it’s time for Ontario wineries to ante-up and register their wines. In recent years the medal performance of B.C. and Ontario has nicely evened out.

John will be here next week covering the substantial southern Rhône Valley collection on the May 30 release.

Until then.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES May 30, 2015

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

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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Season 5, Table 6 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

Where in the (New) World is it From? (a.k.a. California Dreamin’)

Will “So, You Think You Know Wine?” contestants Sara d’Amato and the two Szabos – John and Zoltan – be able to pinpoint the Pinot at Table 6? Watch to see who comes close to scoring full points.

Without any clues, host Seán Cullen takes each table through the swirling, sniffing, and gurgling ritual of wine tasting—asking them to correctly identify the grape, country, region, vintage, and price of the wine. Cullen then issues each player a score but not without, first, testing a few of his own theories against the experts. A champion eventually emerges.

2015-05-06_14-06-04

Click here to watch Table 6 or read on to learn more about the contestants and the scoring method.

Table 6

As always, the video series brings together Canada’s top wine experts, but this time a few well-known food personalities have taken on the daunting task of competing against wine critics, sommeliers, and wine educators.

Sara d’Amato

Sara is a Toronto-based wine consultant, sommelier, wine critic and principal partner with WineAlign. She has worked in cellars both in Niagara and in France, as Sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel and at the Platinum Club of the Air Canada Centre. She is also a contributor to Chatelaine magazine. Sara is the first and only woman to have won the Grand Award at the prestigious Wine Tasting Challenge.

2015-05-06_13-42-32

Zoltan Szabo

Zoltan has worked in the hospitality industry for two decades and on three continents.  He worked his way up from dishwasher to sommelier to general manager.  Nowadays he’s a consultant, wine judge, educator, and journalist. In 2009, he won the title of Grand Champion in the prestigious Wine Tasting Challenge.

2015-05-06_13-41-30

John Szabo, MS

John is Canada’s first Master Sommelier. He’s a partner and principal critic for WineAlign and authors the bi-monthly Vintages Buyer’s Guide. John is wine editor for Toronto’s CityBites Magazine and is author of Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies. John also designs wine programs, teaches, speaks, judges and travels around the world, and to round out his experience and get closer to the land, he also owns a small vineyard in Eger, Hungary, the J&J Eger Wine Co. These days you’ll find him climbing volcanoes.

2015-05-06_13-41-56

The Scoring

The scoring on each wine remains similar to past seasons with points for Variety, Country, Region, Appellation, Vintage and Price.

Variety:  3 points
Country, Region, Appellation:  up to 4 points
Vintage:  up to 2 points
Price (within 10% on either side): 1 point

Let the games begin! Pour yourself a glass of wine and watch table 6.

For those of you new to our video series, “So, You Think You Know Wine?”, we have saved all previous episodes under the Videos tab.

Previously on Season 5 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”:

Table 1 – Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2013
Table 2 – Creekside Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Table 3 – Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Table 4 – The Grinder Pinotage 2013
Table 5 – Faustino VII Tempranillo 2012

We hope that you find this new series entertaining and that you have as much fun watching as we did filming. As usual, please send your comments to feedback@winealign.com and feel free to share this video with your friends and family.

Special thanks to our glassware sponsor, Schott Zwiesel, for their beautiful glasses and carafes used during filming.


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New Zealand’s 24 Pinot Noir Appellations

New Zealand has six regions whose names (appellations) appear on pinot noir wine labels. This article proposes there are another eighteen sub-regions/appellations within the original six that could/should appear on the labels. And that there will be many more in the years ahead. It’s a perspective from an engaged visitor from Canada, not an NZ industry insider. Grab a glass, crack the cap on an NZ pinot and read along.

by David Lawrason, WineAlignMay 6, 2015

 

 David Lawrason

David Lawrason

In the past two years I have been to New Zealand three times, drawn not by sauvignon which I do enjoy, but by pinot noir. During three weeks in 2013 I visited six pinot noir growing regions, 35 wineries and capped it with the four day NZ Pinot 2013 conference in Wellington. I tasted at least 300 hundred pinots and I became familiar enough with the range to suggest that there about 18 sub-regions distinct enough to be considered separate pinot appellations. And that is only an interim guesstimate. My most recent visits in 2014 and 2015 were not as intensive but I returned once more to Martinborough, and twice to Marlborough and Central Otago – the three largest pinot regions.

Premises and Overviews

What follows are observations based on an important premise. Interesting pinot noir is not cheap – I will be talking about wines for the most part that cost more than $30 in Canada or other markets outside of New Zealand. At this level pinot noir’s fascination is in the way its expresses its place of origin. And those who are going to spend more than $30 are interested. They want to know where the wine comes from, and they will pay for that individuality. They want to taste it and discuss it. So I am talking about NZ pinot noir as one of the world’s most engaging wines, not a commercial commodity.

New Zealand’s regulators are slow to address this issue. They are not yet properly identifying regions on the labels. Some argue that it is early days for New Zealand pinot noir; that sub-regionalization is a work in progress, that vineyards need to mature, that winemakers need more time to experiment in and define terroirs; that consumers are not ready to digest sub-regions; that New Zealand needs to present a simple, unified and easily understood face to the world. There are certainly logical arguments in all this, from a marketing perspective.

6 Otago Bannockburn

Bannockburn, Central Otago

This discussion is not about marketing. In the glass New Zealand pinot is already speaking in sub-regional dialects and its winemakers are too; indeed the whole theme of the NZ Pinot 2013 conference in Wellington was regionality. And as a pinot keener parachuting into the country to get to the bottom of NZ pinot noir it was abundantly evident that pinot noir is every bit as capable of expressing the details of terroir in NZ as it is in Burgundy, which has built its entire reputation on precisely the same foundation.

Some Kiwis seem to almost fear the Burgundy association. During the presentations at the Pinot Noir conference Burgundy became the “B word”, barely speakable. They argued their style is different, with which I agree – altho’ NZ pinot style is closer to Burgundy in fact that some other pinot regions. But style has nothing to do with my point; I’m talking about distinctions based on terroir. And instead of shunning Burgundy associations New Zealand should be embracing and emulating what Burgundy has accomplished in terms of putting terroir in the glass.

Some argue that sub-regionalization or Burgundization of New Zealand will make it too complicated. I ask, for whom?  Not those willing to pay for individualized wines – i.e. Burgundy lovers of which there are legions around the world

Some might argue that New Zealanders don’t want to play into the Burgundy snob factor. They want to be more populist and definitely more casual about it all. Yet they are busily building a distinct kiwi, barefoot and cut-off shorts pinot culture of their own.  It’s the way of the world, as natural as terroir itself and they need to get used to the fact they can be, and are, special.  No time for modesty and self-deprecation!

Generalizations and Stats

The Six Existing NZ Pinot RegionsIn 2013 New Zealand had 5,125 hectares of pinot noir (up 300ha over 2012), placing it in 4th in the world – after France, the USA and Germany. It is the largest production red wine in NZ, and second largest overall after sauvignon blanc. It represents only 9% of NZ’s production and 6% of its exports, but it is rapidly gaining traction outside of New Zealand. In the past five years pinot exports have increased 129%, and Canada remains a strong market – 4th after Australia, the UK and the USA.

The generalized view of NZ pinot noir is that is a fruitier, softer, jammier, higher alcohol and more approachable style than Burgundy, but lighter and leaner than California or perhaps even Oregon pinot. I would agree with this, but that style is more prevalent at lower price points where wines are expected to be drunk young.

Many NZ pinot winemakers are actually not fans of jammy, hottish pinots, and blame the local wine shows and writers for promoting that style earlier on. At the closing tasting at the Pinot Conference 2013 in Wellington – a tasting of wines considered to epitomize the top quality from each region – virtually are the wines were leaner, well structured, more savoury and age-worthy wines that were very high quality but rather brittle in their youth, despite considerable aeration in proper pinot glassware. They were quite Burgundian.

That particular tasting lined up two wines from each of the “established” pinot regions – the regional names that you will see on labels. And there were indeed different nuances of fruit expression (from currants to black cherry) and texture (from lean to rich). So let’s make these regions the starting point of the terroir exploration, arranged in geographic position from north to south. Within each I will discuss sub-regional differences that I encountered based largely on varying soil structures.

New Zealand Wine Regions

The Pinot Noir Regions and Sub-Regions (North to South)

1. Hawke’s Bay

311 pinot hectares
one potential sub-region

It may be odd to be opening a discussion of pinot noir with a region that is far better known for merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Indeed Hawke’s Bay is a warmish and rather humid coastal area to be growing rot-prone pinot, but there are some successful vineyards farther inland on terraces and south of the Heretaunga Plains in bordering hills where limestone and sandstone can be found. Lime Rock Vineyard has had notable success with its pinot on a 10ha, north-facing site in the Waipawa district. Sileni, Trinity Hill, Greyrock (Flying Sheep) and Osawa are all producing good pinot. From limited personal experience I expect Hawke’s Bay pinots to be fairly deeply coloured and soft with ripe raspberry fruit. Next trip I hope to look more closely at Hawke’s Bay. Don’t count it out.

2. Wairarapa

478 pinot hectares
three sub-regions
Martinborough
Te Muna Road
Gladstone/Masterton

1 Wairarapa Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard, Wairarapa

The Wairarapa Valley is large, long pastoral valley up and over the Tararua Ranges about 90 minute drive from Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island. It was one of the first regions to plant pinot noir back in the early 80s, so some vineyards in the core sub-region of Martinborough are now passing their 20 year mark. It is a region of small wineries, none larger than 100,000 cases, most well below 10,000 cases.

Wairarapa is something of an unfortunate name in terms of marketability. It’s difficult to pronounce and similar to the Waipara Valley, another wine region on the South Island, of which more in a moment. For this reason it’s natural for most to refer to it as Martinborough, the name of a small town that centres the most well-established, and greatest number of wineries. But there is more to Wairarapa than Martinborough.

The climate of Wairarapa is relatively even, warm and dry in the rain shadow of the Tararua range on the west, and lower hills that screen maritime influence on the east. The lower end of the Wairarapa is a bit cooler as it is closer to the coast and influenced by a large lake that pools the waters of the Huangarua River. The soils of Wairarapa’s pinot vineyards are largely stony terraces over which the river once flowed. In some places the stones are very large, densely strewn about and running several metres deep.

3. Martinborough

The notion of sub-regions in Wairarapa is tenuous. But no one disagrees that Martinborough is the central region. The wineries are tightly clustered around the town on flat, but very stony soils. It’s wines are ripe with black cherry, quite thick, lush and silky textured, and often showed notable alcohol heat. Many also carried a savoury note and dusty character on the finish. Many wineries show this style: Ata Rangi, Te Kairanga, Shubert, Magrain, Vynnfields, Archer McCrae, Alxander, Alana, Brodie, Elder and Escarpment – many of them dotted along Nelson and Huangarua Roads on the edge of town.

4. Te Muna Road

The locals are starting to distinguish wines from newer plantings on very densely-gravelled Te Muna Road that lies about 5km from Martinborough. This includes a huge new planting by Craggy Range below an embankment on the river’s edge. And I did taste a leaner more vibrant, style in a couple of single vineyard samples with fruit more in the blackcurrant spectrum from Julicher, Kusuda, Craggy Range Te Muna and Big Sky.

Dry River Terraces which lies west of Te Muna and marginally closer to the coast might also be considered a separate region, but production is virtually limited to one winery called Dry River, a pioneering winery with a reputation and price rising well above all others in Wairarapa indeed amongst the most expensive in New Zealand. Nearby are the relatively large holdings of Murdoch James. Their 32 acre site is on limestone based hillside (the only significant sloping and limestone driven site in the region) from which they bottle another vibrant currant pinot called Blue Rock.  It too might one day be a sub-app.

5. Gladstone

This is a smaller region about 30 kilometres up the valley and farther inland from Martinborough, where the climate may be slightly warmer. Gladstone Vineyards, first planted in 1986, anchors a cluster of small wineries on stony terraces at the edge of the Ruamahanga River; with neighbouring Borthwick having major acreage as well. (Nova Scotia born, Brock University educated Alexis Moore took over winemaking in 2013 at Gladstone Vineyards). From a small sampling I found the pinots somewhat paler in colour, with good weight and strawberry/cherry fruit character – not as dense and powerful somehow as those of Martinborough. Masterton is yet another nearby sub-region that will one day seek its own appellation.

6. Marlborough

2,397 pinot hectares (largest in NZ)
three sub-regions (arguably more)
Wairau River
Southern Valleys
Awatere Valley

2 Marlborugh Brancott Valley,

Brancott Valley, Marlborough

At the 2013 Pinot conference I was most surprised by the quality of the pinot coming out of Marlborough, over any other region. The surprise had something to do with preconceptions. I had always had an elevated view of Martinborough (above) as one of the original, pioneering regions, and likewise a high expectation of Otago as being the colourful wild west region. Marlborough was supposed to be the commercial pinot centre with big companies trotting out friendly, simple, raspberry-scented pinots.

But the real story delves much deeper, beginning with the fact that Marlborough has a cool-moderate climate latitude at 41.8 degrees – warmer than Burgundy or Ontario, but cooler than California. Add in coastal influence and it is cool climate indeed, although blessed with generous doses of intense sunlight from a “hole in the clouds” that seems to reside over the region. A sweet spot indeed – but then even within Marlborough there is considerable climatic and soil diversity. I have only listed three sub-regions for now, but there could easily be another five to ten claimed in the years ahead.  And a reminder here that many larger volume pinots could be and are blended from more than one sub-region.

7. Wairau Valley

The Wairau Valley forms the heartland of Marlborough, narrow upstream where hills pinch in on the Wairau River, then it broadens into a wider river plain as it finds its outlet into Cloudy Bay. The river course sits tight against the Richmond Ranges on the north and can be susceptible to more rain. But the soils here are very stony, and there are excellent vineyards sites along Rapaura Road. In an area called the Golden Mile there are also old riverbed terraces. Some sites are thick with often very large stones that radiate heat into the vines. Both Golden Mile and Rapaura Road could easily be claimed as appellations in their own right.  Out towards Cloudy Bay the soils get sandier and lighter, and in the other direction up river, some sites are creeping up into the hillsides, so again more fodder for future appellations. There are almost too many wineries to mention in this area but those making some higher end pinots from Wairau fruit and more familiar in Canada would include (listed from west up the valley eastward down to the coast) Clos Henri, Oyster Bay, Seresin, Forrest, Nautilis, Geisen, Staete Landt, White Haven, Stoneleigh, Cloudy Bay, Hunters and St.Clair.

8. Southern Valleys

On the south side of the Wairau Valley the flat lands poke like fingers into the Wither Hills in a series of five valleys: Ben Morven, Brancott, Omaka, Fairhall and Waihopai. Cold air descends from the Wither Hills into these valleys creating a cooler, later ripening climate than on the northern side of the Wairu plain, so the pinots tend to be a bit leaner.  Each of the valleys could one day be named as individual appellation, based largely on micro-climate and distance from Cloudy Bay on the Cook Strait. In general the soils are quite similar with significant stone content but they also have higher levels of clay than the other sub-regions. And then of course there is a rapid growth of planting into the hills and ridges that separate the valleys, and wineries located thus – like Churton for example – are clearly in the belief that separate Southern Hills appellations make sense, especially those that have limestone outcrops.

3 Marlborough Churton Vnyd, Southern Hills, Marlborough

Churton Vineyard, Southern Valleys

What I noticed while tasting pinot from the Southern Valleys, is that many are already being labeled with individual valley and vineyard names – St. Clair’s Omaka, Delta’s Hatter Hills, Wither Hills Benmorven, Wither Hills Taylor River, Fromm’s Brancott Valley. Individual appellations cannot be far off.  Wineries situated in and using predominantly Southern Valleys fruit include Marisco, Spy Valley, Omaka Springs, Fromm, Dog Point, Brancott, Auntsfield, Wither Hills and Lawsons. Given the number of larger and more well-known wineries in this list, I think the responsibility to delineate the different potential sub-regions in this diverse area – and to promote sub-apps in NZ as a whole – rests largely on their shoulders of the larger Marlborough producers. Go for it!

9. Awatere Valley

Of any Marlborough sub-region Awatere is clearly the most deserving, and perhaps closest to achieving distinct appellation status. Southeast of the Wairau, over the Wither Hills and closer to the Pacific coast, the vineyards of the Awatere experience a cooler, drier and windier growing season. The area can be more exposed to occasional cold weather from the south than the other sub-regions, which tends to create a later ripening crop and even longer growing season. The soils are typically alluvial gravel on wind-borne loess, often exhibiting a diverse composition of stone materials. The pinots from Awatere are some of the leanest, greenest and nervy of New Zealand with cranberry-curranty fruit. Many still get blended into “Marlborough” pinots but keep your eyes peeled for pinots from Yealands, Vavasour etc. There are also new plantings even farther down the coast past Awatere.

10. Nelson

193 pinot hectares
two sub-regions
Waimea Plain
Moutere Hills

The Nelson region sits atop the South Island one range of mountains to the west of Marlborough, at the same latitude. It is at the head of long sound that runs off of Cook Strait. So it is a moderate to cool region, very well known locally for its orchard fruits and cold water seafood.  It is also a thriving arts community with a rapidly evolving culinary scene. In terms of viticulture there are two regions for now the Waimea Plain and Moutere Hills, although some would argue for a third Moutere Coast region at the western edge where the Moutere Hills come down to meet the ocean.

11. Waimea Plain

This is the largest region of Nelson, the flattest and closest to the town. The flats come off a large tidal basin and extend inland for about ten kilometres, narrowing as they come up against the hills. The Waimea River carves a path through the region but is not big enough to have much climatic influence. The plain is cooler and sandier closer to the ocean. Pinot Noir is grown here but sauvignon blanc, riesling are more important. The pinots tend to lighter, floral and quite racy. Important pinot noir wineries in the region include Waimea Estate, TeMania/Richmond Plains, Seifried, Kaimara Estate.

12. Moutere Hills

This is a scenic area of rolling hills framing the western boundary of the Waimea Plain. The hills run up from the coast, rising in altitude the farther inland they reach. The region is generally cooler than the Waimea plain, but more importantly the soil structure changes to include more rock, including some limestone. The cool climate and limestone combine to create some of the most fragrant and elegant pinots of New Zealand, particularly at Neudorf, which is rising to become one of the iconic small producers of New Zealand. Woollaston, Harakeke Farm, Kina Cliffs, Sea Level and Rimu Grove are other notable producers of pinot. The latter, Rimu Grove, is making great pinots from an unusual site where the hills meet a coastal inlet. Rimu Grove and neighbours near the sea could rightly achieve a Moutere Coastal appellation at some point.

13. Canterbury/Waipara

334 pinot hectares
two sub-regions (north to south)
Waipara Hills
Waipara Valley
Canterbury Plains
Waitaki Valley

Spanning 200 kms along the eastern coast of the South Island Canterbury/Waipara is still in formation as a pinot region, and needs some official and difficult sorting out of names. Canterbury is the best known regional/political name, describing the region around the city of Christchurch where the first winery opened in 1978. But since then there has been a massive shift of viticulture to the Waipara Valley north of the city, and subsequently into the hills on both sides of the valley floor. It makes most sense to me, in terms of appellations to use the three different specific sub-regions below (all within Canterbury). It is a cool climate region and generally dry within the rain shadow of the Southern Alps. Hot northwesterly winds often blow here. But it is also coastal, and it is fairly common for cooler, more humid winds to blow up from Antarctica and change the weather.

14. Waipara Valley

About 40 kms north of Christchurch, which lies on the edge of flat coastal plain, a cluster of low hills rise directly on the coast. But behind them runs the north-south Waipara Valley, which is increasingly being planted with very large vineyards.  There is the gamut of cool climate grape varieties, but aromatic whites like riesling, gewurz and pinot gris are important, as well as pinot noir. The flats of the southern Waipara Valley are largely sandy and alluvial with gravel patches from current and former river bed soils and terraces. Pegasus Bay and Torlesse are the pioneering spirits, but Bellbird Springs is achieving international star status as well. And Mud House has recently opened at large winery here.

4 Waipara Valley

Waipara Valley

15. Waipara Hills

The Waipara Valley is framed by hills on three sides, and pinot viticulture in particular is moving into these areas. To the north the valley splays and melts into hills that pinch in from the coast and the interior as the mountains begin to veer east toward the sea.  To the west the land rises into foothills leading to the Weka Pass. As with all hill areas there are varying aspects, elevations and soil strata. And so the pinot terrain becomes quite complex with limestone derived clay, stone and even some areas of limestone outcrop, particularly inland in the Waikari region pioneered by the highly regarded Pyramid Valley and Bell Hill. And the limestone soiled Omihi Hills region could angling for sub-appellation as well. There are a surprising number wineries here, most quite small.  Crater Rim, Muddy Water, Mt Beautiful, Alan McCorkingdale, Bishop’s Head, Dancing Water and Mountford are all producing interesting pinots  with structure and depth.

16. Canterbury Plains

The flat Canterbury Plains surrounding Christchurch may have given birth to wine in the region, but is arguably becoming less important as a wine region as development takes strong hold in Waipara. It has a slightly cooler climate than Waipara due to direct exposure to the sea. The plains are comprised of mainly of shallow free-draining stony soils with varying alluvial deposits thanks to a large number of creeks and rivers crossing the plain now, and in former eras. West Melton, Banks Peninsula and Rolleston are all sub districts of this area, where white wines are much more prevalent than pinot. I have had not had enough pinot grown here to establish a wine style but I have sense a lighter touch, more foresty touch.

17. Waitaki Valley

Inland and south of Christchurch the west-east oriented Waitaki Valley is generating considerable pinot excitement and rapid expansion. Climatically it is more like Otago than Canterbury, but falls geographically and administratively on the edge of the Canterbury line. It is farther south thus cooler but being farther inland (60 kms from the ocean) it experiences less humidity, warm summers and typically, long dry autumns. The main draw here however is the limestone-ridden/schist soils on the hills above the valley floor.  The vineyards are planted on north-facing (sun-facing) slopes along the south bank of the river near the town of Kurow. I have been very taken with the fragrance, energy, depth and minerality of the few Waitaki pinots I have tried, including Ostler’s great Caroline Pinot. Other wineries to watch include Valli, Q Wine and Otiake. A star is emerging, very much worthy of its own appellation/regional status.  It isn’t Otago and it isn’t Canterbury, so let it be its own very special pinot haven.

18. Central Otago

1,356 pinot hectares
Six sub-regions
Gibbston Valley
Wanaka
Bendigo
Cromwell Basin (Pisa/Lowburn)
Bannockburn
Alexandra

Central Otago burst onto the NZ and international pinot scene through the 2000s; with wines and attitudes as brash and bold as the landscape – a magnificent mix of mesas/terraces, rivers and reservoirs back-dropped by snow-capped mountains. On my first trip to New Zealand in the mid 1990s I was asked if I would be interested in tasting pinot noir from a man named Alan Brady who had pioneered a winery called Gibbston Valley way down on the South Island near Queenstown. He would bring the wines to my B&B in Auckland.  Of course I agreed, and I remember being struck by the nerve, energy and fragrance of his wines. As well as by his passion for the future of Central Otago.

Today there are almost 100 wineries in Central (as they call it locally), all making pinot noir (plus riveting chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris). Pinot noir is 70% of Otago’s wine production. But as I quickly discovered during my first trip there in 2013, Otago is not one place, indeed there are at least six sub-regions. They are however united by latitude – a frost-prone 45-47 degrees (Niagara is 43.5, Burgundy is 47). It is claimed to be the most southerly wine region in the South Hemisphere.

They are also united by fairly high altitude in the arid lee of the Southern Alps (not unlike B.C.s Okanagan Valley at 49 degrees). So it is a cool region indeed, on paper. But the growing season can be hot and sunny indeed. Central Otago is more prone to make ripe-fruited pinots that often have high alcohol but also  good acidity thanks to cool night-time temperatures. Long cool and usually dry autumns also allow longer hang time and more flavour development.

It is the only continental climate pinot noir region in New Zealand!

The soils of Otago are essentially loess and gravel, which means they are quite well drained, even more so as most vineyards are some degree of slope. Shaped by glaciers and now carved by lakes, rivers there are a wide range of soils across the various sub-regions, comprised of schist, clay, silt loams, gravels, windblown sands and loess. The majority have stony sub-soils, with schist or greywacke bedrock.

Many Otago wineries have vineyards in more than one sub-region, and may blend regions. So the Central Otago appellation is widespread.

19. Gibbston Valley

5 Otago Gibbston Valley

Gibbston Valley, Central Otago

The Gibbston Valley is the first wine region visitors encounter when leaving Queenstown to explore Otago wineries. It was also the first place planted to produce a commercial pinot noir by Alan Brady back in 1987. The region is more like a shelf, bench or porch than a valley, running above the spectacular Kawarau Gorge that eventually tumbles into the Cromwell Basin. It is the highest sub-region of Otago and its cooler climate and north-facing hillside vines ripen later than neighbouring sub-regions. The soils are heavily schisted, and the combination produces pinots that are somewhat lighter, more elegant and stony than many Otago peers. Gibbston Valley was the original winery but others like Peregrine, Amisfield and Chard Farm are making some exciting wines

20. Wanaka

Lake Wanaka, with vineyards along its shoreline near the charming town of Wanaka, lies 80km and a couple of mountain ranges north of Queenstown. Rippon’s spectacular vineyard has become an iconic photo-opp for New Zealand wine, thanks to the backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Wanaka is a bit cooler and slightly wetter than other sub-regions, but the lake does reflect heat and helps prevent frosts. Rippon, an excellent biodynamic producer, anchors the small Wanaka region, but Mt Maude and Atiku are making wines of elegance as well.

21. Cromwell Basin (Lowburn/Pisa)

The large “central” valley of Central Otago winegrowing is defined by Lake Dunstan, a man-made 25km long reservoir with the orchard town of Cromwell at its south end. The lower altitude vineyards near Cromwell tend to be defined as coming from the Lowburn, while those from sloping sites and terraces on the lower slopes of the Pisa Range are defined as Pisa.  One might argue for two separate appellations here but there is a blurring of sites in my mind at least. It’s a warmer, earlier ripening area on sandier soils and overall I find the wine style to be quite ripe, fruit forward and fragrant with a certain juicy drinkability. Many Otago wineries have acreage here, but of those located in the Cromwell Basin look for Quartz Reef and Surveryor Thomson (both biodynamic), Rockburn, Archangel, Wooing Tree and Aurum.

22. Bendigo

Northeast of Cromwell, on slopes and terraces on the east side of Dunstan Lake,  Bendigo is possibly the warmest of all the sub-regions (although Alexandra is too) with vines planted on north facing slopes on stony and wind-blown loess soils. Some are at 220 metres, others higher up at 330 metres. At any rate, it’s rather wild country, with hot days and cool nights. I find the wines quite powerful, broad and chunky with a ripe fruit and garrigue (masculine as opposed to a more feminine style across the way in Pisa/Lowburn). Impressive wineries based on some personal experience are Misha’s Vineyard, Tarras, Mondillo and Prophet’s Rock.

23. Bannockburn

Bannockburn is perhaps the most well-established and well known of the Otago sub-regions, thanks to founding of three wineries in the 1990s that went on to carve out a great quality reputation outside of New Zealand – Felton Road, Carrick and Mount Difficulty.  The vineyards lie south of Cromwell (and removed from moderating effect of Lake Dunstan) on terraces and hills that have been carved into some breathtaking land forms. The region was once heavily mined for gold. This is a warm, dry region, producing powerful, age-worthy, distinctive and complex pinots, often with a note of wild thyme. Aside from Felton Road, Carrick and Mount Difficulty, look also for pinots from Hawkshead, Bannock Brae, Terra Sancta, Akarua, Georgetown and Wild Earth.

7 otago Alexandra

Alexandra Basin, Central Otago

24. Alexandra Basin

The most southerly sub-region of Otago, and perhaps the most southerly pinot region in the world actually had a winery in the 1860s, and the old walls still stand. The Clutha River drains out of the Cromwell Basin and flows south through a gorge into the Alexandra Basin.  It is very hot here during the summer but the nights are also very cool. The landscape is scenically average until you come upon some almost lunar-like outcroppings of decomposing schist, around which vineyards are often planted. I found the pinots here to be very ripe, rich and often possessing glorious cherry fruit.  Two Paddocks by actor Sam Neal is one of the most well-known Alexandra wineries, although tiny Grasshopper Rock is very much on my radar too. There are several other small wineries as well.

And that is a wrap for now. Hopefully this gives NZ pinot fans something of a more cohesive framework that begins to make some sense of what you are experiencing in the glass from New Zealand pinot noir. I urge NZ winemakers to get their regions onto the labels anyway they can to help the consumer cause. And I expect that over the next decade we will see many more appear.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine


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The beautiful frustration that is Burgundy

The Caveman Speaks
By Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

I am in Burgundy as I write this column. While I am gorging myself on some exceptional chardonnay, I’m here for the pinot noir. It is a bit of the holy grail. While most winemakers I talk with as I travel the globe might reference another place when talking about their wines, most seem happy to pursue an expression of where the grapes are grown. However mention to the vast majority of those winemakers who make pinot noir that their wine is “Burgundian” in style, and you will see even the most serious crack a smile.

What I like to call  “proper pinot” are wines that show a combination of fruit, acidity, minerality and tannin that are at once exceptionally delicate, and profoundly deep and lengthy. And I have tasted a number of very good pinot noirs from around the world, but few, if any, reach the heights of the best in Burgundy.

Why is that? Pinot noir requires a cool climate and a slow ripening period, which maximizes the aromatics and allows the grape to keep its acidity while at the same time developing ripe flavours and phenolics: tannins and colour. If the weather is just a bit too hot, the grapes can ripen too fast and you are left with grape juice. But too cool and the grapes don’t ripen fully and the resulting wines can be green and acidic. This is why the very best pinot noirs come from a relatively thin latitudinal band on the extremes of where grapes can be grown in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

While the mix of limestone and clay in the soils have something to do with it, Burgundy is home to very old vines. Add to that the accumulated wisdom of close to a thousand years of growing the grape, and you can understand why this place has it dialed.

But it is not without its hazards. Between 2011 and 2014, vignerons have had to deal with frost and/or hail every year. In some appellations, over 90% of the crop has been lost. Maybe that is why they are so humble. They are used to getting their butts kicked by Mother Nature.

There is something different about pinot noir people, those who collect and drink these wines. And for those of you who aren’t one of us, it might be a bit difficult to understand. But if they can be characterized by one word, I will borrow the characterization uttered by a wine writer friend of mine, Stuart Tobe: masochists.

Maxime at Domaine Georges Noellat makes a killer Echezeaux

Maxime at Domaine Georges Noellat makes
a killer Echezeaux

What’s it like to be a devoted pinot drinker? For me, it is more often than not a case of unrequited love. It might seem strange to spend inordinate amounts of cash on wines where you always expect to be disappointed in one way or another. Despite having drunk hundreds of pinots from around the world, I have to say that I have yet to have 100% satisfaction from any of these bottles. It’s not unlike having kids. Despite that they drive you absolutely nuts most of the time, nothing they can do will really stop you from loving them. And one, albeit brief, moment of joy is ample payback for all the annoyance and occasional disappointment.

Believe me, I have been close. Drinking pinot noir is about nuance, requiring patience and attention. When the wines are at their peak, and the vast majority of the best require at least a few years to reach that point, they are as fun to smell as to drink. The bouquet can be intoxicating, and if I tend to associate this with some sort of sexual act, it is because it can be a sensual experience.

I remember drinking one Vosne Romanée that was sooo close. I compared drinking it to having the lips of my truest love so close that I could feel her breath, yet we remained separated by the thinnest of veils. The closer we got to the end of the bottle, the more sensual the experience became. It smelt of a liquified rose, perfumed, delicate. My nose was so close to the wine in my glass, I almost inhaled it. We took over an hour to drink the bottle, and as I got to my last sip, I swirled and swirled my wine. Please, I thought, just give me one perfect sip. But no, the wine coated my mouth like satin, so complex, so rich, and then just as I was getting that shiver, it cut short.

I wrote in my tasting note: “You stick your nose in the glass, it draws you closer but there is a thin veil of tannin and acid that keeps pushing you away. It is why we drink Burgundy. To on one hand be given a glimpse of perfection, only to be denied by the other.” It’s a beautiful frustration and if that experience did anything, it was to add fuel to the fire: to buy, cellar and drink even more of these wines.

So why do we do it? Marq deVilliers, in his book about pinot noir, The Heartbreak Grape, nailed it for me. “They called it (pinot noir) the heartbreak grape because it was so stubborn, so particular, so elusive, so damn difficult to get right. And also because when it was at its best it made the most sublime wine of all. The heartbreak grape? You cannot break a heart without having captured it first.”

Burgundy is expensive. Over the past week I have tasted so many great wines, from such fabled Grand Crus like Musigny, Richebourg. But these wines are unaffordable and even if you could pay for them, they are incredibly hard to find. So I have found some good, relatively inexpensive example for you to try.

There are some excellent generic Burgundies on the market. If you want a more classic style, with bright acidity and crunchy fruit, try the 2013 Ursuline from Jean-Claude Boisset, or the 2012 Le Chapitre from Rene Bouvier.

Jean Claude Boisset Bourgogne Les Ursulines 2013 Domaine René Bouvier Bourgogne Pinot Noir Le Chapitre 2012 Domaine Des Perdrix Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2012

If you want a richer style, with darker fruits and a more Cote de Nuits style, the 2012 Bourgogne from Domaine des Perdrix is very good.

One of my favourite inexpensive Burgundies is from the Mercurey appellation. The 2012 Chateau de Chamirey is a beautiful wine that shows impeccable balance between power and finesse. In Ontario you pick up the 2012 Domaine Faiveley also from Mercurey.

Château De Chamirey Mercurey 2012 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey 2012Nicolas Potel Santenay Vieilles Vignes 2011 Maurice Ecard Savigny Les Beaune 1er Cru Les Narbantons 2009

Part of what I love about pinot noir is the aromatics. If you want a nose full of beautifully ripe fruit try the 2011 Vieilles Vignes Santenay from Nicolas Potel. If you are in BC, you can find the lovely 2009 Savigny Les Beaune 1er Cru Les Narbantons from Domaine Maurice Ecard.

For more selections. Set your “Find Wine” filter to “Pinot Noir” from “Burgundy” and let us help you find the best examples at stores near you.

Bill

“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critic’s reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 60 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

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Bourgogne Lovers Part II: Finding Value in Bourgogne

By John Szabo MSOctober 18, 2014

 

Some Regions & Producers to Seek Out, and a Buyer’s Guide of Currently Available Wines

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

Part I last week surveyed some of the challenges facing La Bourgogne. But despite the doom and gloom outlined, all hope is not lost for Bourgogne lovers. In fact, there are several pockets within the region that remain relatively good value in this high stakes game, and the quality of Bourgogne wines in general is better than anytime before in history. Not even Bourgogne’s lauded name on a label is sufficient to sell mediocre wines in today’s hyper competitive market. Ironically, Bourgogne’s versions of chardonnay and pinot noir remain the yardstick for the majority of producers globally, even if not all will admit it, so there are plenty of excellent alternatives from every coolish climate between Ontario and Tasmania to buy instead of poor quality Bourgogne. So even the homeland has had to keep apace qualitatively.

But it’s important to be realistic: you’ll never find great sub-$20 red Burgundy, or sub $15 white. And $30 and $20 respectively are more probable entry prices. I’ll never tire of quoting Burghound Allen Meadow’s brilliant observation about pinot noir pricing: “you don’t always get what you pay for, but you never get what you don’t pay for”. This is true not only in Burgundy, but just about everywhere else, too. So here, I’m talking value at the premium end of the wine spectrum, relative to the oft-inflated prices of wines from any well-known region. For the best of the originals, look for these regions and producers, or skip to directly to the Buyers’ Guide for wines currently available somewhere in Canada.

Chablis: Get It While You Can

For reasons I fail to fully understand, Chablis remains both a world reference for chardonnay as well as perhaps the single best value within La Bourgogne. Considering that many, including me, believe Chablis to be the world’s most unique, effortless expression of cool climate chardonnay, it’s puzzling, and even more so now that demand outstrips supply. How long can this last?

The Latest Developments

Guillaume Michel of Domaine Louis Michel

Guillaume Michel of Domaine Louis Michel

If 1980 was a critical turning point for Chablis in the cellar, with the widespread arrival of stainless steel tanks (enamel-lined tanks or wood vats predominated before), the most important recent changes have occurred in the vineyards. “The pruning has changed quite dramatically”, Guillaume Michel of Domaine Louis Michel tells me. “Today, it’s much shorter, as there’s much less risk of frost damage.” Global warming has been keenly felt in this part of France, and production is more regular now than in the past, even if average quantities are down as a result.

Overall, viticulture has also improved dramatically. “Thirty years ago, Chablis was like the moon”, continues Michel, referring to the widespread use of herbicides. “Nobody ploughed their vineyards. Now it’s commonplace.” Bernard Ravenau, one of the region’s most celebrated vignerons, further explains: “Twenty years ago, the top producers were the ones who had the balls to harvest late. Now, the top producers are the ones who harvest earliest. The goal is not a wine with 14% alcohol”.

Bernard Raveneau

Bernard Raveneau

Raveneau’s extraordinary 2010s weigh in at around 12.5%, so it’s clearly not just talk. The net result, at least in the top tier, is better wine than Chablis has ever produced before. And there’s little excuse for thin, mean and acidic Chablis, unless you’re greedy with yields.

At its best, Chablis captures an inimitable profile and bottles its essence. It’s that electrifying structure and palpable minerality that blatantly defies the naysayer scientists who claim that soil cannot possibly impart the taste of its rocks to a wine, which keeps me coming back.

Yet even Chablis’ grandest expressions, a Raveneau or a Dauvissat grand cru for example, cost a half or a third of a top grand cru from the Côte de Beaune, for a sensory experience you simply can’t find anywhere else. These are not cheap wines – c. $250 is a hell of lot to pay for any bottle – but all things considered, they are awesome value in the rarefied realm of fine wine.

Maybe it’s because of Chablis’ relatively large size (just over 3,300ha producing a little more than 25m bottles annually), which is double the size of the whole Côte de Nuits, where yields per hectare are also much lower on average than in Chablis. Or perhaps it’s because the quality of the region’s bottom-tier wines is bad enough to scuff the luster of the entire appellation, keeping average prices down (about 40% of regional production is still made by négociants), or that the silly money of the punters is spent mostly on red wine.

Whatever the case, learn a few reliable names, and buy their wines. $20 gets you fine quality entry-level village Chablis ($30 in BC), while an additional $10 or $15 gets you into premier cru territory. $70 gets you Chablis from one of the seven grand cru climats, with most still under $100. I realize we’re talking about the ultra premium wine category here, but if you’ve read this far, you’re interested enough to know the deal.

Recommended Producers (Not an exhaustive list)

Domaine François Raveneau and Domaine Vincent Dauvissat

I include these two producers more as a reference – you’ll be lucky to ever find a bottle from either. Production is tiny, and every last drop disappears quickly into the cellars of the enthusiasts lucky enough to get an allocation. The quality of both Bernard Ravenau’s and Vincent Dauvissat’s (and increasingly his daughter Etienette’s) recent and future releases experienced during a tasting in May 2014 confirms the iconic status of these two producers. Don’t miss a chance to taste either; the Raveneau 2010 Montée de Tonnerre is about as fine a white wine as I’ve ever had. [Barrel Select, ON]

Domaine Louis Moreau

Moreau is a sizable 50ha domaine with an enviable collection of five grand cru parcels, the jewel of which is the Clos de l’Hospice, a 0.4ha duopole within the Les Clos grand cru, shared with kin Christian Moreau. Although wood was experimented with in the past, it has been abandoned for all but the Clos de L’Hospice, which is fermented in 500l barrels and aims at a richer style. Louis Moreau believes that wood fermenting/ageing sacrifices both finesse and the mineral signature of each cru, a sentiment heard frequently, if not uniformly, in the region. The left bank Vaillons is considered the most delicate 1er cru in the Moreau range, though even it shows satisfying depth. [Vins Balthazard Inc., QC; Lorac Wine, ON].

Domaine Louis Michel et Fils

Guillaume Michel works on 25 hectares spread over all four appellations in the region (Petit Chablis, Chablis, 1er cru and grand cru) including six premier crus totalling 14ha, of which the highly priced Montée de Tonnerre is the largest. The house style has not changed here since Guillaume’s Grandfather Louis abandoned wood altogether in 1969. “He spent his time in the vineyards and didn’t have time to mess around in the cellar” says Guillaume. Wines ageing in wood are much more likely to go sideways than those sitting in a neutral environment like stainless steel.

The Michel style is all about tension and precision. From Petit Chablis to grand cru, everything is made in the same way: long, cool fermentations with wild yeast. Lees contact depends on the vintage: in 2012, for example some lees were retained to add texture, even if these are never remotely fat or creamy wines. The 2010 Grenouilles grand cru is a particularly special wine, though the 2012 Montée de Tonnerre and the 2011 Forêts are also excellent. [H.H.D. IMPORTS, ON]

Domaine de Pattes Loup

Thomas Pico, Domaines Pattes Loup

Thomas Pico, Domaines Pattes Loup

Thomas Pico is a rising star in the region. This fast-talking (literally) winegrower was born into the métier; both his father and grandfather made wine. Pico returned to the family estate in 2004 after oenology studies in Beaune and took over control of eight hectares, a part of his father’s Domaine Bois d’Yver. Control of the remaining Bois d’Yver vineyards will slowly shift to Thomas from his father; it was too much to take over all at once, and “my father had existing markets and relationships to respect” he says.

Pico immediately converted his parcels to organic farming (certified ECOCERT in 2009) and created the Domaines de Pattes Loup. Today he makes four premier crus and a village wine, including a delicate and mineral Vaillons and a rich and a powerful Butteaux (a 1er cru within the larger Montmains cru). Everything is barrel-fermented and aged in old wood, though like in all great barrelled Chablis, wood is rarely, or only very subtlely, detectable. The impact is rather more layered and textured, managing a seemingly mutually exclusive combination of richness and density with laser-sharp precision and freshness. I suspect Pico will be considered among the very best in the region in short order. It’s a shame that he refuses to deal with Ontario: “trop compliqué” he says, a familiar refrain from top growers who could sell their production twice over to importers who pay up within a reasonable time frame. (Oenopole, QC; The Living Vine, ON).

La Chablisienne

The cooperative La Chablisienne is well deserving of inclusion on this list. Established in 1923, this association of nearly 300 producers represents 25% of the entire production of the region (c. 2 million bottles), with an enviable collection of vineyards including eleven premier crus and five grands crus, of which the prized Château de Grenouilles vineyard is the coop’s flagship. It counts among France’s best-run and highest quality cooperatives, which, considering it’s size and relative influence on the image of the appellation, is a very good thing for everyone in the region.

The Venerable La Chablisienne Coop since 1923, with winemaker Vincent Bartement

The Venerable La Chablisienne Coop since 1923, with winemaker Vincent Bartement

Beyond the usual approach to quality of reduced yields and attentive viticulture, La Chabliesienne follows a couple of other notable qualitative protocols, such as extended ageing even for the ‘village’ wines, La Sereine and Les Vénérables, which spend a minimum of one year on lies in stainless vats and barrels, and the bottling of all wines in a single lot (as opposed to bottling to order). According to Hervé Tucki, Managing Director of La Chablisienne, “the aim is not to make fruity wine”.

Indeed, these are not simple green apple flavoured wines – chalkiness and minerality are given pride of place. The range is highly competent across the board from the “Pas Si Petit” Petit Chablis up to the Château Grenouilles Grand Cru. Of the 2012s tasted in May, I was especially enthusiastic about the left bank Montmains 1er Cru, 95% of which comes from the Butteaux climat, and the right bank Vaulorent 1er Cru, adjacent to the grand cru slope. Though it must be said that the “basic” Chablis “Les Vénerables Vieilles Vignes”, made from vines aged between 35 and over 100 years, is a terrific value and fine entry point to the region. [Vinexx, ON]

Northern Burgundy: Grand Auxerrois

I’m willing to guess that this is the least-known part of Burgundy. The “Grand Auxerrois” is a collection of regional appellations all beginning with prefix “Bourgogne”: Chitry, Côte-Saint-Jacques, Côtes d’Auxerre, Coulanges-la-Vineuse, Épineuil, Tonnerre, and Vézelay. The exceptions are the appellations of Saint Bris, the only AOC in Burgundy where sauvignon blanc is permitted and obligatory, and Irancy, an AOC for red wine made from Pinot Noir and, more rarely, César.

Pre-phylloxera, this part of the l’Yonne department was heavily planted; I’ve read that some 40,000 hectares were once under vine. But the region was all but forgotten subsequently. Yet now with global warming, this could once again become an important source of Bourgogne.

Jean-Hugues et Guilhem Goisot

Rocks and fossils on display at Domaine Goisot

Rocks and fossils on display at Domaine Goisot

Goisot is a multi-generational family Domaine with 26.5 hectares in Saint Bris and Irancy. After Guilhem Goisot had discovered biodynamics first in Australia and subsequently in France, he began trials on the family vineyards in 2001. In 2003 he converted the entire domaine and received the first certification in 2004. According to Goisot, a measured, deliberate thinker and speaker, biodynamics helps to “temper climatic variations”. After hail, for example, it used to take a couple of weeks for the vines to re-start the growing process. “Now with arnica applications, the vines get back to work after just two days” says Goisot.

All wines are bottled in single lots, and I’m reassured that place matters by the collection of rocks and fossils from different vineyard sites that Goisot has on display in the small tasting room. I have a terrific tasting here – from the tightly wound Irancy Les Mazelots  on highly calcareous soils, to the darker and spicy Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre La Ronce from a south-facing site on kimmeridgean blue marnes, each wine is clearly marked by soil, each like a window on the earth, pure and totally transparent. [Le Maître de Chai Inc., QC]

Marsannay: Last Refuge of the Côte de Nuits

As mentioned in Part I, top Côtes de Nuits wines are scarce. One village that remains accessible, however, is Marsannay, just south of Dijon. For myriad reasons the wines of Marsannay, the only Côte d’Or communal appellation to permit red, white and rosé wines, have failed to achieve as much renown as those from the villages to the south. Yet the name of the climat “Clos du Roy”, (formerly the “Clos des Ducs”) gives some insight on the degree to which certain vineyards were esteemed in the past. There are no official premier crus for the time being (the proposal has been made), but for single-parcel wines the appellation may be followed by the name of the climat as in “Marsannay Clos du Roy”. There are some 17 growers in the village with an average of 10 hectares each, far above the average for the rest of the Côte d’Or and one of the reasons that Marsannay is still reasonably priced and available. Stylistically the [red] wines of Marsannay resemble those of neighboring Fixin and Gevrey, which is to say pinots of darker fruit and spice character, and marked minerality, if lighter than most Gevrey.

Domaine Jean Fournier  

Laurent Fournier, Domaine Jean Fournier

Laurent Fournier, Domaine Jean Fournier

Jean and his son Laurent Fournier currently farm 17 hectares principally in the village, but also 1.5 in Gevrey, 1.5 in Côte de Nuits Village near Brochon and a half-hectare in Fixin, with another three being planted in Marsannay. Fournier began with biodynamics in 2004 and the domaine was certified in 2008.

On arrival I like the vibe immediately; the young Laurent Fournier is energetic and enthusiastic, the sort of vigneron who brings a smile to your face. It’s all the more pleasing when the wines, too, live up to expectation, and the range chez Fournier is uniformly excellent. The Clos du Roy and Longerois are the two red house specialties, the former made from vines over 40 years old on average, 50% whole bunch, aged in large tonneaux (half new) for 18 months and very grippy on the palate, a wine for cellaring another 3-5 years minimum, and the latter a more generously proportioned, plush and immediately satisfying wine. My favorite on the day however is the outstanding Côte de Nuits Village Croix Violettes Vieilles Vignes, from a half-hectare parcel of vines planted straight on the bedrock near Brochon between 1937 and 1943 in the days before tractors, and thus super high density.  It’s made with 80% whole bunch and delivers marvellous spice and firm tannins and minerals on the palate.

A Word on Coteaux Bourguignons AOC

In 2011, a new regional appellation called Coteaux Bourguignons was created. It covers essentially the former unfortunately-named Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire AOC, as well as Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains. Grapes can be sourced from anywhere within the four départements that make up greater Bourgogne. It was created in part to deal with the shortage of pinot noir over the last few vintages; even basic Bourgogne Rouge will be scarce and certainly more expensive – examples under $30 in CAD will be very hard to find. “The grapes have become too expensive” Thibault Gagey tells me, the man at the head of the formidable Maison Louis Jadot in Beaune. “In many cases the price of a pièce [a 228l barrel] have more doubled.”

But wines under this appellation will need to be selected with care. At the bottom end, Coteaux Bourguignon will become a dumping ground for poor quality gamay from the Beaujolais, while the best will incorporate a high percentage of pinot, or at least good quality gamay. Jadot’s very good version, for example is three-quarters gamay, but includes several declassified cru Beaujolais, including Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent from the Château des Jacques.

La Côte Châlonnaise: From the Miners to the Majors

Half way between Dijon and Mâcon, La Côte Chalonnaise, which is sometimes referred to as the “third Côte”, lies south of the Côte de Beaune a few kilometers from Santenay. It is the geological continuation of the Côte d’Or, sitting on the same fault line that gave rise to the Jurassic limestone and marls underlying the great wines of La Bourgogne, as well as those across the Sâone Valley in the Jura. The hillsides of the Côte Chalonnaise meander more erratically than the more uniform southeast-facing slopes of the Côte d’Or and this irregular topography means that site selection becomes critical.

Vineyards of the Côte Chalonnaise

Vineyards of the Côte Chalonnaise

And the feel of the region changes too. The more compact, well-appointed villages of the Côte d’Or, fairly dripping with the prosperity of the last decades gives way to more sparsely populated villages worn with time. Former grandeur shows the cracks of neglect, like aristocratic Vieille France in need of a makeover. The countryside is beautiful, but the charm is decidedly more rural than cosmopolitan, and one gets the sense that this was once a more important place that has somehow been left behind, like a former capital after the politicians and ministers have decamped with their expense accounts.

It was more a series of historic circumstances, rather than inferior wine quality, that led to the relative obscurity in which the Côte Chalonnaise lies today. For one, the villages of the Côte Chalonnaise are far enough away from Dijon to have been overlooked by the Ducs de Bourgogne – it’s about 70 kilometers from Bouzeron to Dijon, a long road to travel by horse-drawn carriage.  And during the industrial revolution, the miners of the nearby mines of Montceau and Creusot and slaked their unquenchable thirst on the wines of the region, leaving little for outsiders, and little incentive for local vignerons to break their backs for quality. Phylloxera, too, dealt its decisive blow, and the region has never fully recovered. Today less than 50% of the previous surface area is planted.

Yet the miners and the dukes are gone, replaced by insatiable worldwide markets for Bourgogne wines. And considering the shortage of wine, for reasons outlined above, now is the time for the Côte Chalonnaise to recapture its former position of importance and realize its quality potential in the major leagues. This after all, the geographic heart of viticultural Burgundy.

Wines of the Côte Chalonnaise

Wines of the Côte Chalonnaise

From north to south the Côte Chalonnaise encompasses the communal appellations of Bouzeron, Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny as well as the regional Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise AOC. Each is authorized to produce both red and white wines from pinot noir and chardonnay, with the exception of Bouzeron, an appellation reserved for whites from aligoté – the only one in Bourgogne – and Montagny, which is exclusively white from chardonnay. Whites dominate reds overall.

Styles of course vary widely, but in general the wines are endowed with an exuberant and appealingly fruity profile, the reds redolent of fresh raspberries and the whites full of pear and apple. The entry-level wines are for the most part accessible and immediately pleasing, while wines of the top echelon deliver a minerality that has nothing to envy the Côte d’Or. I’d pick Givry and Mercurey as the two most reliable villages for red wines, and Rully and Montagny for whites. Considering that prices are about half to two-thirds of equivalent quality wine from further north, the value quotient is high.

Climats de la Côte Chalonnaise

An association of nine quality-minded, family-run domaines was formed in 2010 with the aim re-positioning the region in its rightful place of respect. Known as “Les vignerons des Climats de la Côte Châlonnaise”, the group is hoping that 2012 will be their breakout vintage. The vintage was excellent in the region, and both it and members of this association are an excellent starting point to discover the wines of the “third côte”.

Côte Chalonnaise Producers

Domaine Jean-Marc Joblot, Givry

Jean-Marc Joblot, Givry

Jean-Marc Joblot, Givry

Although not part of the association, Jean-Marc Joblot, a fourth generation winemaker, has been a quality leader in the village of Givry, and in the region, for years. It was in fact the wines of Joblot that first turned me on to the Côte Chalonnaise back in the 1990s, when he was already well-known and respected in Canada, especially in Québec. Joblot farms thirteen hectares including nine premiers covering both red and white. Vines are meticulously tended and he is a self-declared “constructionist”, believing that wine is “the result of a hundred things that are interdependent”. Little is left to chance, but although he approaches winemaking with the mind of a scientist, he is not an interventionist, nor a technocrat. “When you make an apple or a peach pie, you won’t go and analyse the fruit. You taste it. It’s that simple”, he says. Seasonal rhythms are strictly respected; if you show up for a visit in May for example, a period Joblot considers critical for vineyard work, don’t expect the door to open no matter who you are.

Admittedly I find his insistence on 100% new wood for all of his crus curious, and in youth they are certainly marked by wood influence, yet the fruit depth and structure to ensure harmony over time is clearly there  – I’ve had ten year-old examples that prove the point.  Indeed, these are wines built on tension and intended for ageing, not immediate enjoyment. He most representative crus are the Clos de la Servoisine and Clos du Cellier aux Moines, both best a minimum of five years after vintage.

Domaine A et P de Villaine, Bouzeron

Purchased by Aubert and Pamela de Villaine (of Domanine de La Romanée Conti) in 1971, Domaine A et P de Villaine is run today by Pierre de Benoist, the nephew of de Villaine. This is a leading domaine, and both de Villaine and de Benoist were instrumental in the establishment of the association « Les Climats de la Côte Chalonnaise ». Of the 21 hectares under vine, ten are devoted to aligoté, coinciding with outcrops of granite where aligoté is most happy. Bouzeron is considered by most to yield the finest examples of this lesser-known variety in Bourgogne.

Pierre de Benoist, Domaine A&P de Villaine, Bouzeron

Pierre de Benoist, Domaine A&P de Villaine, Bouzeron

De Benoist reflects back on a 1964 Bonneau de Martray aligoté that was life changing – it was then he realized than Aligoté, treated with care, could produce mesmerizing wines. Unfortunately over-cropping and the negative association with crème de cassis (to sweeten and soften the shrill acids of over-productive vines) in the infamous Kir cocktail reduced aligoté to anecdotal acreage. Even today the entire appellation of Bouzeron counts less than sixty hectares (even Puligny-Montrachet is over 200ha), so don’t expect a revolution any time soon. Though I wish there were more Bouzeron of this quality to go around.

In an interesting twist, the INAO has asked several times for local producer to assemble a dossier of 1er crus in Bouzeron, but de Benoist has refused each time. “It would be a shame to ruin the quality-price rapport of the appellation” he says in uncharacteristic anti-capitalist fashion.

But the domaine isn’t all aligoté; there are also exceptional pinots and chardonnays, especially the marvellously mineral Rully Blanc Les Saint Jacques, the fragrant and fruity Bourgogne Côte Châlonnaise Rouge La Fortune, and the structured and brooding Bourgogne Côte Châlonnaise La Digoine from 65 year-old vines.

Domaine Paul et Marie Jaquesson, Rully

Henri Jacqusson established this domaine in 1946 in the wake of WWII when vineyards had been abandoned. Today Henri’s son Paul has passed the baton on to his daughter Marie to manage the thirteen hectare estate in the AOCs of Rully, Bouzeron and Mercurey. The Rully Blanc 1er Cru Grésigny is a particularly fine and layered white Bourgogne.

Domaine Ragot, Givry

Nicolas Ragot took over the family domaine from his father Jean-Paul, making him the 5th generation to farm vineyards in Givry. Nine hectares are divided between red and white all within the commune, and the wines are elegant, structured and refined in the old school style. The Givry Rouge 1er Cru Clos Jus is especially impressive, succulent and structured.

Stéphane Aladame, Montagny

This domaine was created in 1992 by Stéphane Aladame, and counts today eight hectares under vine of which 7 are in premier crus. Aladame favours freshness and minerality, particularly in the Montagny 1er Cru  Selection Vieilles Vignes from over 50-year-old vines (partially fermented in steel).

Cellier aux Moines, Givry

Originally established by Cistercian monks in 1130, the Cellier aux Moines is run today by Philippe and Catherine Pascal. There are seven hectares under vine including five in the original clos surrounding the ancient cellar. Wines are classically styled and built to age, with the Mercurey Blanc Les Margotons and the Givry Rouge 1er Cru Clos du Cellier aux Moines particularly fine and sinewy examples.

Château de Chamirey, Mercurey

Château de Chamirey

Château de Chamirey

The most important property in Mercurey since the 17th century, the Château de Chamirey is owned today by Amaury and Aurore de Villard. They are the fifth generation in this long family story, having taken over from their father Bertrand, who in turn succeeded from his father-in-law, the marquis de Jouennes. The style is more international, aimed overall at wide commercial appeal, though the Mercurey Rouge 1er Cru Les Ruelles is particularly sumptuous and satisfying.

Domaine de la Framboisière (property of Faiveley), Mercurey

The Domaine de la Framboisière is the recently re-launched domaine of the Faiveley family, formerly called simply “Domaine Faiveley”. La Maison Faiveley was founded in 1825, and the family remains one of the largest landowners/negociants throughout La Bourgogne. George Faiveley set up he first “ en fermage” contract with a Mercurey grower in 1933, and Guy Faiveley bought the family’s first property in 1963 in the same village. The domaine has since expanded into Montagny and Rully and counts now 72 hectares – one of the largest in the Côte Chalonnaise. The quality has improved greatly here in recent years with the arrival of a new winemaker. The style is pure, clean and generously fruity, perhaps not the most profound wines of the Côte Chalonnaise, but frightfully drinkable. The 1er cru monopole La Framboisière from which the domaine takes its name is especially enjoyable.

Domaine François Raquillet, Mercurey

Roots run deep in Mercurey; the Raquillet family has been here since at least the 15th century according to local archives. François officially established the domaine in 1963 and ceded control to his son, also François, in 1983. I find the house style a little heavy-handed, with grapes verging on overripe and the use of oak overly generous, though the wines are certainly not without appeal. The Mercurey Blanc 1er Cru Les Veleys is the best of the lot.

Buyer’s Guide: Top Smart Buys

The following recommended wines are currently available somewhere in Canada (Merci to Nadia Fournier for adding her picks from the SAQ). Click on each for the details.

John’s Picks:

Jean Marc Brocard Vau De Vay Chablis 1er Cru 2012

Domaine Du Chardonnay Chablis Vaillons Premier Cru 2010

Louis Michel & Fils Chablis 2012

Sylvain Mosnier Vieilles Vignes Chablis 2010

Domaine Le Verger Chablis 2012

Jean Marc Brocard Montmains Chablis 1er Cru 2011

Domaine Chenevières Chablis 2012

Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin 2011

La Chablisienne Sauvignon Saint Bris 2013

Maison Roche De Bellene Côtes Du Nuits Villages 2011

Bouchard Père & Fils Côte De Beaune Villages 2011

Maison Roche De Bellene Montagny 1er Cru 2011

Caves Des Vignerons De Buxy Montagny Les Chaniots 1er Cru 2010

Les Choix de Nadia:

Jean Claude Boisset Bourgogne Les Ursulines 2012

Jean Claude Boisset Bourgogne Chardonnay Les Ursulines 2010

Domaine René Bouvier Bourgogne Pinot Noir Le Chapitre 2012

Domaine Faiveley La Framboisiere 2010

Jadot Couvent Des Jacobins Bourgogne 2011

Domaine Michel Juillot Bourgogne 2012

Domaine Michel Juillot Mercurey

Domaine Goisot Bourgogne Aligoté 2012

Domaine De La Cadette La Châtelaine 2012

Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis 2012

Domaine Louis Moreau Petit Chablis 2012

Domaine Stéphane Aladame Montagny Premier Cru Sélection Vieilles Vignes 2012

Pierre Vessigaud Mâcon Fuissé Haut De Fuissé 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Part One: The Challenges

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names. Paid subscribers get immediate access to new reviews, while non-paid members do not see reviews until 60 days later. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Photo credit to John Szabo MS


Le Serein, the river that runs through Chablis Looking west onto Chablis from the top of Les Clos grand cru

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The International Pinot Noir Celebration

Opening The Doors of Perception
By Treve Ring

There’s a place where all devout pinot-philes go. No – it’s not heaven (the golden slopes of Burgundy) or hell (where MegaPurple flows from the faucets).

It’s the International Pinot Noir Celebration, colloquially IPNC, and widely recognized as the one annual pinot noir event to not miss. Affectionately and affirmably a Celebration (rather than a conference, forum, festival or event), the festive July event brings consumers, winemakers, sommeliers and pinot fans from around the globe to the campus of Linfield College in McMinneville, Oregon, for weekend of sharing and learning.

Linfield College at dusk

Linfield College at dusk

The historic school, an easy one hour drive southwest of Portland and in the heart of the Willamette Valley, has become the traditional home of IPNC, a fitting venue for the scholarly seminars, proximity to vineyards and convenient accommodation in dorms for the hundreds of attendees from around the world.

The 2014 edition marked the IPNC’s 28th year, and major plans are already in the works for 2015’s event which will celebrate the 50th anniversary of pinot noir in the Willamette Valley. During this year’s gathering, next year’s anniversary discussions were as hot as the temperatures (hovering around 30C).

Fitting Plate for IPNC

Fitting Plate for IPNC

The vision of IPNC began, as many good ideas do, over wine. In late 1985, an informal group of like-minded Oregon wine geeks, winemakers, restaurateurs and retailers envisioned a premier wine event, to be held in the core of Oregon wine country. The first event was held in 1987, and it has grown and matured each year since.

In 2014, the weekend welcomed approximately 800 registered attendees, including more than 140 representatives from 73 featured wineries. For Sunday evening’s main event, the legendary Northwest Salmon Bake, hundreds more arrive, many with stocked coolers in tow, for this long-standing gastronomic feast – one of America’s top dinners.

It’s worth repeating that this is not your average consumer event; the knowledge level of attendees, service staff (all sommeliers) and presenters is extremely high. Past speakers have included Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Michael Broadbent, Dominique Lafon and more luminaries.

This year featured one such luminary who needs no introduction to this column.  Honourary WineAlign member, Dr. Jamie Goode, – who judged with us at the National Wine Awards of Canada in June – moderated the Grand Seminar, investigating the theme of Pinot Noir and the Doors of Perception. It’s a topic of particular interest to me, as a wine journalist trying to clearly articulate my thoughts on wine in a way that readers, amateur and advanced, can relate to. If I write apples and someone else tastes pears, are we off page? Or is my apple, his pear? Is my ‘juicy and grippy’ her ‘acidic and tannic’? Is this the conversation we should even be having?

Perceiving Pinot with Jamie Goode

Perceiving Pinot with Jamie Goode

Turns out I’m not the only one grappling with these thoughts, as Dr. Goode, one of the world’s leading wine journalists, admitted to the same questions himself. He skillfully introduced a shining panel of professionals from around the world who each described how they relate wines that speak to them. I was particularly interested in hearing Elaine Brown, the award-winning wine-writing philosopher and poet behind the popular Hawk Hakawaka Wine Reviews website. She expresses tasting notes as hand drawings, expressing how wines affect her through visuals, rather than words. Can art be something we can all relate to, rather than fruit, or tannin, or acid, or other geeky wine vocabulary? Are there ways I can improve on sharing the message about a wine?

Black Tasting Glasses

Black Tasting Glasses

That’s just one example of how my wine world expanded at IPNC. A University of Pinot seminar on Loire Valley Pinot Noir led by newly pinned Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier was outstanding. The lauded somm of New York’s Michelin-starred pinnacle for vin naturel, Rouge Tomate was born and raised in the Loire, and her understanding of the region, and the characterful wines made sustainably and authentically was fascinating.

Similarly, a seminar with Dr. Jordi Ballester about The Aroma of Colour was a fantastic learning adventure A sensory scientist at the Université de Bourgogne, Dijon, he has devoted his academic career to exploring the question of how does one smell colour. The group were presented with wines in black glasses, and had to determine which was white, red and rose – a task much trickier than it sounds! Fortunately, I nailed the tasting (I credit the wine judging circuit) but most of the people in the room faltered. A fascinating experience illustrating how much our eyes perceive what we taste.

As mentioned, the grand Salmon Bake is the culmination of a full schedule of seminars, walk about tastings, lunches, discoveries and connections. That Saturday evening, as I feasted on an alfresco buffet of wild salmon roasted on alder stakes, local vegetables, salads, breads and too much more deliciousness to remember (all prepared by respected Oregon chefs), I clinked glasses with new and old friends and tasted dozens of wines from the IPNC library and personal cellars from around the globe. I was struck by the fact that we all came together to enjoy, rather Celebrate, pinot noir. Sometimes words, pictures, visuals, tasting notes and specs aren’t important – we were all united for our love of wine.

Salmon Bake Feast

Salmon Bake Feast

The 2015 International Pinot Noir Celebration will be held July 24-26, and will be an extra special event marking 50 years of growing pinot noir in the Willamette. http://www.ipnc.org

~ Treve

This year 73 pinot noir producers were featured, hailing from Alsace, Argentina, Burgundy, California, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Oregon, Washington plus one from Canada – Mission Hill Family Estate.

The following dozen pinot picks are from tastings over past year (including medalists from the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada).

Domaine Vincent Delaporte Sancerre Rouge 2011, Sancerre, Loire

CedarCreek Estate Winery Rosé 2013, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2011, Okanagan Valley

Matello Wines Cuvee Lazarus Pinot Noir 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Domaine Vincent Delaporte Sancerre Rouge 2011, Sancerre, Loire CedarCreek Estate Winery Rosé 2013Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2011Matello Wines Cuvee Lazarus Pinot Noir 2011   Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2011Josef Chromy Pepik Pinot Noir 2010

Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2011, Martinborough

Josef Chromy Pinot Noir 2010, Tasmania

Stoneboat Pinot Noir 2011, VQA Okanagan Valley

Spierhead Pinot Noir Gentleman Farmer Vineyard 2012, VQA Okanagan Valley

Stoneboat Pinot Noir 2011Spierhead Pinot Noir Gentleman Farmer Vineyard 2012 Pegasus Bay Estate Pinot Noir 2011 Keint He Voyageur Pinot Noir 2012 Mission Hill 5 Vineyards Pinot Noir 201250th Parallel Estate Pinot Noir Rose 2013

Pegasus Bay Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Waipara

Keint He Voyageur Pinot Noir 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula

Mission Hill 5 Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, VQA Okanagan Valley

50th Parallel Estate Pinot Noir Rose 2013, British Columbia

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 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008