Monday, July 23, 2012

Watch Your Back

Over the past three months I have tasted a variety of Canadian wines that have astounded me. Artisan Wines, a boutique wine supplier in Connecticut has bravely entered four Canadian producers into the Connecticut market. 13 total new labels in the State and not a single ice wine among them, I’d certainly consider that brave. The producers are Hidden Bench, Tawse, Flat Rock Cellars and Norman Hardie. The main focus is Chardonnay and Riesling but the Pinot Noirs are really coming into their own.

The wines hail from the Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County in Ontario. The climate is similar to Oregon though the growing season is slightly warmer and the winters are much colder. It’s just north of the Finger Lakes but thanks to the great warming influence of Lake Ontario, its far warmer in the late growing season. The soil is the real story. Over 450 million years of glaciations and retreat have yielded a soil tremendously rich in minerals. It is being captured by the wines.

The wines I have tasted so far have been mineral driven, varietally correct and complex. I tried, desperately, to fall in love with the 2010 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir to no avail. Was I disappointed in the wine? Not at all, it is very good Pinot Noir in the $20 price group. The wine fell just a little flat on the palate. Its aromas are fantastic with floral and fruit notes and just a hint of smoke. Its youth does suggest it might develop the richness and depth on the palate that I was looking for. On the contrary, the 2009 Flat Rock Chardonnay was love at first sniff. Weight and texture while remaining mineral driven with lovely apple and lemon curd notes. This wine will develop nicely over the next few years. It’s just slightly nervous right now.

The 2009 Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay was simply stunning. Rich in texture with bright acidity keeping it focused. Baked apple and pear notes with a mineral mid palate leading to a long and graceful finish. The wine has me chomping at the bit to try the Riesling and the Chardonnay "Tete de Cuvée". It also has me thinking that California better watch their back. If Canada can consistently produce wines of this quality and get it on the shelf for $35, California will lose even more space on the shelves. The estate is run by Harald Thiel, who is widely regarded as one of the small, quality focused wineries that has helped bring the Niagara Peninsula into its modern age.

I urge you to try the wines from Norman Hardie. Norman is a South African that has produced wine in Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon before deciding that Prince Edward County would be the place where he would create his mark. His name is being dropped in all the right circles and Toronto restaurants are buzzing with his wines. I've only tried the 2009 Prince Edward County Pinot Noir which was quite beautiful, reminiscent of young Volnay. Bright, floral and earthy with notes of bing cherry and smoke. It will be a pleasure to watch this wine and Mr. Hardie’s career develop.

Admittedly, I'm on a California bashing spree. Rightfully so. The wines offered from the righteous State of California coupled with their pricing are almost embarrassing. Egos are über inflated as sub-cultures of celebrity wine producers meld with celebrity Somms creating this alternate universe of exclusion, gluttony and greed. I'm reminded of a tweet posted by Cathy Corison that said something like "In the end all we have left to sell is our integrity.” Perhaps if more California producers could be as humble as Ms. Corison, we might see an end to this putrid era of basking in one’s grandeur and a return to integrity in California wines. Until then, they should watch their backs. Regions like the Niagara Peninsula are ready to take charge. Some of us are listening.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Sunday Edition - A Vintage To Shine

Heartbreaking news hit the wire this week that sets a gloomy prediction for those with an affinity for either grower Champagne or Burgundy. Tremendously violent storms ripped through both areas causing the most damage in Aube and Beaune. The extent of the damage is not yet fully known, but reportedly the storms produced large hail and high winds. It seems Pommard, Volnay and Meursault were hit the hardest. Destroying upwards of 50% of the fruit. The timing could not be worse. These storms rip apart canopies and destroy fruit. Many are reporting mildew issues as well. 2012 is shaping up to be a challenging vintage for vineyard managers and wine-makers in these regions.

I love vintages like this. It's the kind of vintage that brings clarity, allowing the truly talented to shine in the face of so much adversity. The toughest challenge will be faced by those farming organically and/or bio-dynamically. Fighting off mildew will be quite a chore for them and they will face some very crucial decisions. Young stars like Ben Leroux, David Duband, Alexandrine Roy, Pierre Yves Colin Morey and Jean-Marie Fourrier will likely produce stunning wines. Their attention to detail in the vineyard will allow them to pick beautiful fruit and craft gorgeous examples of Pinot Noir. The downside, low yields. The upside, wonderfully balanced wines. In a vintage that many might end up describing as a total tragedy, look for these young stars to shine, proving that great wine is made with hard labor in the vineyards.

As news of the storms traveled, twitter feeds exploded with comments on pricing. Many erroroneously believe the wines will not be in high demand and pricing will finally drop. Don't bet on it. Crafting great wines in a challenging vintage is extraordinarily costly. Labor costs alone are enough for many to throw in the trowel. Production levels will likely be 50% below the norm. I've often advocated that prices for great wines from tough vintages should be more expensive than great wines from easy vintages. It's these wines that show the true talent of both vineyard manager and wine-maker. It's like the difference between Eli Manning and Tony Romo. As the challenges get tougher, one of them puts in extra work, the other goes on vacation with Jessica Simpson. Only one of them has two Super Bowl rings.

So for those with an affinity for grower Champagne or Burgundy,the news is bittersweet. We should see some truly remarkable wine-making and vineyard management skills from the 2012 vintage. However,the wines will be in short supply and likely a bit pricey. I'm personally going to stuff my cellar with both now and hope I can secure some terrific 2012 wines when they are released.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Sunday Edition - The Latest Burgundian Punch to the Face

I have to admit that this week's The Sunday Edition took an unexpected turn last Saturday that caused a missed edition. Its original goal was to debunk the fact that a gigantic negoçiant such as Labouré-Roi could put a Nuits Saint George on the shelves of US stores for under $40 and do so legally. It was a knee jerk reaction to the latest scandal that threatens to rock Burgundy to its very foundation. You can read about the latest fraud accusations here.  As a self professing crazed Burgundy lunatic I prefer to let someone else tell the story. It saves me the anger and the vision of punching a Cottin square in the face screaming, "What the hell were you thinking? Do you really need the money that bad?" Then, throwing a couple of euros and a towel at him saying "Clean yourself up." Fade to reality.

I started researching the actual costs associated with importing a singular bottle of wine into the US and delivered to a Connecticut retailer for sale to the consumer. Considering cost of glass, cork, capsule, State and Federal excise tax, shipping cost and label registration, I've come up with a crude estimate of $4.16 per bottle. Keep in mind there is no wine in that bottle yet nor any margin taken by any layer of the necessary three tier system. Add in those margins. Give the importer 20%, the wholesaler 25% and the retailer 30%.  $4.16 is quickly $9.90.  There is still no wine in the bottle! Think about that the next time you blame sulfites for your hangover.

While researching this crude number I ran across an article on written by Terry Theise. Yes, the Champion of Champagne, the Rex of Riesling, The Terror of Terroir, need I go on? I can always count on Mr. Theise to derail the direction of most things I write. All levels of wine consumer should be forced to read this article and I implore you to do so.  It so very well explains what the smart and passionate wine shops of our area are trying to accomplish. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.

So what's this have to do with the Labouré-Roi scandal? In The Wine Spectator article, Sherry Lehmann COO Shyda Gilmer is quoted as saying, "It's so important. This destroys the core of Burgundy." and "This is bad for Burgundy-definitely damages Burgundy, but it's really destructive for Labouré-Roi". The Wine Spectator also reports that Sherry Lehmann has pulled the Labouré-Roi wines from their shelves. If you are one of the premier wine shops in New York City why are you carrying and offering your customers Labouré-Roi Burgundies in the first place? Big business, that’s why. The very existence of powerhouse negoçiants such as Labouré-Roi, Louis Jadot and Vincent Girardin is the root of the why such fraudulent activities take place. The scandal is NOT bad for Burgundy. It IS bad for negoçiants and powerhouse companies with shareholders to answer to.  It exposes the very real threat to the consumer that when you buy from powerhouse companies you can’t possibly know exactly what you are getting. Why? Because even they don’t know. Many don’t even care. Their only interest is in the bottom line.

In the article on Terry Theise comments, “So all in all, the best way to ensure you are actually paying for wine in and of itself, is to buy from small family Old World domains. You also enjoy the collateral benefit of keeping these lovely cultures alive and healthy.”  It’s something to consider the next time you reach for the “the brand you know” rather than the “other guy”. Remember, if you saw it advertised or saw a major media score, you’re paying for that. Wouldn’t you rather reward the farmer and winemaker than the ad agency? Of course, considering all this, maybe I should shake the hand of a Cottin and say “Thank you”. Perhaps they have opened the eyes of many.