Wine Review: Winter Warmers, Part 2

27 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Red or white? Before wine became a serious subject of study for me, I gravitated towards whites, and not premium quality ones either, a preference that was likely the product of early learning (e.g., that box of German plonk that was a nigh-permanent fixture on the kitchen counter) coupled with an irrational phobia of such mythological creatures as “tannin-induced hangovers”. As it turns out, there is a general trend in humans towards a greater appreciation for bitter flavors and pucker-inducing sensations that comes with age and experience. Years later, I adore red wine while continuing to appreciate characterful whites. At this point the distinction between red versus white is but a minor factor in my choice of which wine to consume at a given point in time, one that can sometimes influence me at the very early stages of decision-making (“is it a red or a white night?”), but that ultimately carries less weight than varietal, region, style, or what’s for dinner. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada webpage indicates that at the national level, Canadians prefer red wine to white, with the exception of British Columbia, where whites are more popular. Heedless of the overall trend, many (myself included) continue to associate winter with hearty reds. Without further ado, let’s launch into part 2 of our robust red reviews, following Dan’s introduction from late last week.

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2011 Montecillo Rioja Reserva ($18)

Spain has more area under vines than any other country and is the third largest producer of wine in the world. Spanish wine on the whole was considered rather rustic and ragged until a major shift towards improved quality occurred in the mid-20th century, before which time it was not unheard of to dilute the wine with lemonade to increase palatability (!). Rioja remains the best-known area for red wine production in Spain, although recently a few upstart regions have made inroads. Tempranillo is Spain’s top indigenous variety, with plantings doubling across the country over the past decade, and is the dominant grape in almost all Rioja reds. I found a great quote from a top Rioja producer in Benjamin Lewin’s book “Wine: Myths and Reality”: “Everywhere in the world, people want to make wine like Burgundy. But it is not in our history, we have  always blended”. Historically, Rioja’s very warm vineyards resulted in full ripening of any given grape varietal, such that blending was necessary to achieve the desired complexity. In a traditional blend, fruitiness came from Tempranillo, while Garnacha (Grenache) provided more color, body, and alcohol, with relative rarity Graciano providing acid to offset the softness of the other two. This classic blend often yielded wines featuring what Lewin calls “savory, almost animal notes of mature red fruits”. Use of American oak for aging has also led some to conclude that Tempranillo is rather neutral flavor-wise, with vanilla and char notes from oak constituting Rioja’s “true” distinctive flavor profile. Regardless, much Rioja is now made in a soft, fruit-forward style. Some producers have decided to split the difference and offer both traditional and modern bottlings.

Bodegas Montecillo was founded in 1874 and is the third oldest winery in Rioja. This producer identifies as the founder of the “modern Bordeaux style” of Rioja, a proclamation I found to be reasonably well-reflected in the bottle reviewed here. Montecillo lauds its use of technology to yield optimal “elaboration” of grape aroma and flavor, while also emphasizing its roots in tradition. This attempt to convey the best of both worlds is not a rare maneuver, although the practice of sourcing grapes from across the entire region is indeed the traditional one, in contrast to the more recent emphasis on single vineyards and pure varietal expression. Montecillo sources grapes from hundreds of growers and around 2,800 different parcels across the region. This Reserva features 20 days of skin contact and then spends 24 months in French and American oak, which is twice the minimum duration required by law, followed by another 1+ year aging in bottle before release.

IMG_0935This blend is 95% Tempranillo, 3% Mazuelo (Carignan), and 2% Garnacha, and is ruby red in the glass. I found the aroma faint at first, although the wine opened up nicely with some air to yield blackberry, fig, cigar box, mint, and bay leaf aromas, with a slight whiff of the Parmesan that I often get on older Reservas and Gran Reservas. A sip reveals an initial top note of fresh tart brambles and red stone fruit: blackberry, pie cherries, and huckleberry, with some woodiness. This is fruit forward after a fashion, but not exceedingly vibrant, with the mostly dark fruits swimming through a savory matrix of menthol cigarette, Fisherman’s Friend lozenges, vanilla and old cinnamon sticks, dried leaves, and faint wood char. The expected oaky presence asserts itself, with the overarching impression being aromatically herbal. Some fresh acidity provides a lactic tang. Tannins are rich, slightly savory, and fine-grained. This is a sleeping giant of sorts: pacific and mellow, but an understated power lurks beneath.

89+ Points

2015 Nugan Estate Alfredo Second Pass Shiraz ($15)

We now turn to Australia, a region that has compelled me since the beginning of my wine journey. Australia’s vinous calling card has “intensity of flavor” on one side, and “near-universal appeal” on the other. Up until quite recently, there was relatively little emphasis on Australia’s specific terroir or differences between its wine regions. Instead, there was an ambitious drive to become the world’s largest exporter of branded accessible wines crafted from international varieties, using modern methods. Some unbelievably quick progress saw Australia surpass France as largest exporter to the British market and brands like Yellow Tail become international icons. However, supply eventually succeeded demand, such that production and enthusiasm both leveled off. Perhaps as a consequence, winemakers started to look at their lands in a different way, and some realized that there might be a future in a terroir focus and vintage variation after all, at least when it comes to wine aficionados and other quality-conscious consumers.

Shiraz (or Syrah) remains Australia’s signature red grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon a clear-cut runner up. Australian Shiraz is classically dense, concentrated, aromatic, and loaded with bright fruits. Although the grape is grown throughout the country, Barossa and McLaren Vale are the regions best known for intense, full-bodied Shiraz, and it is from the latter region that Nugan Estates sources this fruit. Australian wine critic James Halladay describes the rise of Nugan as meteoric, with the now expansive company starting out as a small fruit and vegetable packer before branching out into grape growing/selling, and then finally deciding to make wine of their own. Nugan is clearly a big brand and is one of Australia’s top 20 wine exporters, albeit one that is dedicated to sourcing all of its grapes from the family’s own vineyards, where varieties are carefully matched to local growing conditions.

IMG_1020The most immediately interesting aspect of this particular bottle is the descriptor “second pass”, which refers to the fact that this Shiraz was done in a “ripasso” style. Ripasso is typically associated with the Valpolicella wine region in Italy and refers to the use of grape pomace (skins and other leftovers) after the initial winemaking is complete to impart additional structure and flavour, in a fashion analogous to steeping tea. In this case, the wine was racked onto both the pomace and lees of the Alfredo Dry Grape Shiraz, another Nugan wine made using dried grapes (Amarone-style, much as ripasso in Valpolicella is made using Amarone pomace). It is not clear how long this soaking occurred, but the wine is barrel aged in French and American oak for 12 months prior to release. The result is a blackish-purple opulent flavour bazooka, although as you will see I was pleasantly surprised by its lingering earthy complexity. The tannins are plush, with no scratchiness to speak of, and there is a sweet dried cherry and strawberry fruitiness from front to back, an element accompanied every step of the way by another that recalls a heavy peppery cola syrup. I started to worry that this would become cloying rather quickly. Fortunately, a smokiness emerged over time and actually grew quite pungent as the wine was exposed to air, like a smudge pot, and what started out as a morass of blueberry, black plum/prune, blackberry jam, and fudgesicle morphed into something almost medicinal, recalling ginseng, juniper berry, green peppercorn, and a dab of Tiger Balm (camphor). The hell? Some people are going to love this, and more might hate it. Such is often the case with a unique sip. I appreciate the complexity and the robust changes on the palate over the course of a generous pour, changes that save this from being monolithic.

90+ Points

2014 Bodega Norton Privada ($24.50)

Finally we land in Argentina. Wine production here goes back to the 16th century, although these early wines were made in large quantities from varieties called Criollas, which by most accounts are decidedly mediocre. There has been a recent emphasis on quality production for the export market, although Argentina lags behind its neighbour Chile in this regard. Argentina has nevertheless found an international superstar in the form of Malbec, once a major Bordeaux varietal and now almost extinct there. Although some writers consider Malbec to be decidedly second-rate compared to Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (Lewin concludes that if nothing else, Argentina can now claim it as its own, a clear case of damning via faint praise), this often-plummy dark purple wine has its own charms. The best Malbec wines hail from Mendoza, where the grape actually outcompetes Cabernet Sauvignon for premium high altitude vineyard sites. Here, Malbec can yield wines with a tart black fruit palate and enough fine tannins to support aging. One can also blend in some Cab and/or Merlot to yield an “everything old is new again” Bordeaux-style blend, as is the case here.

Bodega Norton was founded by English engineer Sir Edmund James Palmer Norton, with the initial allotment of vines imported from France. A vineyard work system called “Mapping the Practice” is used at Bodega Norton, such that vineyards are divided into small parcels that enable individual tracking to achieve maximum potential in terms of fruit quality. Five farms at Bodega Norton have over 1,200 hectares dedicated to growing vines, around 680 of which are currently cultivated. Over 150 families of vineyard workers live and work there, and Norton has, like Nugan Estates, developed an international reputation for high quality at a reasonable price.

IMG_1042This is 40% Malbec, 30% Merlot, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. As expected, this one is inky purple in the glass. The nose provides an immediate oaky sensation, with some graham cracker and pungent fresh ground coffee, followed by blue and black fruits and dusty cinnamon stick. I think back to the Rioja and this has more prominent fruit, yet somehow strikes a more intense, serious chord that the former does not: this has more “gravitas”. On the palate I get fresh blackcurrant, black raspberry/blackberry, and a generous dose of black plums. Malbec is interesting in that it sometimes tastes like actual grapes, unlike most dry red wines. I get some of that here, grape that just barely grades into black raisin territory. Some cigarillo-like tobacco and cacao powder notes add complexity. For a second I think I taste milk chocolate, like an Aero bar. Acid and tannin are both very high, with the latter being plush but sturdy, a structure that probably contributes to the aforementioned gravitas. This wine is an edifice. Even the bottle is made of thick glass and feels like a brick. It is too fruity and plush to be austere, but too acidic and tannic to be deemed a true crowd-pleaser. In short, it’s a great mid-point on a continuum.

91 Points

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Cork/Stelvin Ratings: 5/10 x2, 2/10: Some branding apparent on the corks, but lots of open space. The Stelvin is straight black and that’s it? Its like Marvin the Martian’s face, sans eyes.

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