Best of November ’06

Best of November ’06

In November I attended 16 events in Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston, tasting approximately 400 wines. It wasn’t easy therefore for a wine to get my attention. But here are 10 that leapt onto the radar through impressive quality, value, or simple uniqueness. They are not necessarily available on shelf at the LCBO—indeed, several this month are from producers probing our market, a huge, rarely written about realm. But it’s one that Ontarians need to tap into more often in order to experience the much wider world that exists beyond the LCBO. They are listed from most to least expensive (so you have to read to the end for the best buys).

Krug Grande Cuvee Brut, Champagne, France ***** ($244.95, Vintages Dec. 9 )It’s been awhile since I tasted the legendary Krug, formerly a general listing that re-appears this Saturday on Vintages special sparkling wine release. Paying this price is obviously a personal and moral decision but the wine is terrific, full of personality, power and poise. Yellow-gold colour indicates the longer wood ageing that Krug receives. Gentle, fine aromas of yellow fruit, peanut brittle and buttered toast are very well integrated, and always revealing something new. Medium-full bodied, rich yet delicate on the palate. Outstanding length. I suggest you open another Champagne first and taste up to this, just to help focus on its character—and put its price tag into perspective.

La Spinetta 2001 Barolo Vigneto Campe, Piedmont, Italy 2001 ***** ($164.95, dashing Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta dashed through Toronto early in November to meet with new agent Peter Bodnar Rod of Tannin Fine Wines, and introduce his very fine, elegant and pricy Piemontese reds to staff at Canoe. (He loved the view from the top of the TD Centre!) The range is very modern in temperament and very high quality, with beautifully integrated, ripe fruit and finest wood. This single vineyard barolo is awesome in its power and finesse, with huge, complex aromas of cedar, coffee, truffle, wood smoke and ripe currant-cherry fruit. It’s full, firm yet not the least austere with outstanding flavour length. Never quits. Should live another 20 years but the La Spinetta style does not require long ageing. Private order only.

La Spinetta 2004 Gallina Barbera d’Alba, Piedmont, Italy ****1/2 ($54.95, www.tanninfinewines.comThis winery (see barolo above) was only founded in 1977, dedicated solely to making the first single-vineyard Moscato d’Asti. The first red was a barbera in 1985, followed by the pioneering barbera-nebbiolo blend in 1989 called Pin. Since then, expansion has been rapid (and into Tuscany) and the overall level of quality is very high. But Giorgio Rivetti remains particularly fond of the firm’s barberas, and so do I. Why indeed spend so much more on nebbiolo? From 30-year-old vines in the calciferous Gallina vineyard, this shows shocking fragrance with leather, touches of barbera’s gaminess, sour cherry and truffle. It’s mid-weight, very supple and sensuous, with very fine tannin and outstanding length. A less-expensive, very good value Barbera Ca’di Pian **** is also on the roster and may be easier to acquire. Private order only.

O. Fournier 2002 Alfa Crux, Valle de Ujo, Argentina **** ($40, ex-Cellar Wine Services, 416-822-8187)José Manuel Fournier is an ambitious Spanish émigré who also owns vineyards back home in Ribera del Duero. He has built a magnificent showpiece winery in Mendoza. Wine Spectator has lauded his efforts, rating this wine 93. It’s among the best of his portfolio but not 93 great. It has more poise and structure than his other ripe, rich, somewhat hot and oaky efforts, perhaps because the acidity of 68% tempranillo (Spain’s main grape) braces the blend, while the balance is fleshed out by malbec and a touch of merlot. Lovely cedar, plum and mocha flavours set in full, savoury and balanced frame. I like it because it’s a creative, new, successful blend. Private order.

Crane Canyon 2000 Mourvèdre Noble Vineyard, Sonoma County, California **** ($25.85, fascinating to see a winemaker attached to a certain wine as if it were an unruly teenage son. Mourvèdre, a non-conformist grape variety best known as the backbone of Bandol in Provence, was the first wine made by ER physician Gardner Britt in 1990—making it now a relative adolescent. Its intense, rustic, handmade and oxidative style would make many modern winemakers cringe, but it does fit the template of southern France that Britt aims to emulate. If you don’t mind some farmyard, but appreciate leather, wild herbs and dried blueberry-prune fruit aromas, you’ll love this. It’s full-bodied, very well-balanced, fleshy yet firm, with excellent to outstanding flavour penetration. Consignment.

Fattoria La Lecciaia 2002 Rosso di Toscana, Tuscany, Italy ****1/2 ($20, www.thewinecoaches.comTWC Trading poured several consignment wines during the recent Gourmet Food and Wine Expo, and I was very impressed by several, including the prosecco and the Geoff Merrill Shiraz (see below). Located in the heart of Montalcino near Biondi-Santi, this 60 hectare vineyard was purchased in 1983, just as the region was transitioning to modern methods. This is essentially de-classified Brunello. No Riserva was made in this weaker vintage, leaving more to spill down to the Rosso category. It shows surprisingly complex, fragrant pine, dried herbs. leather, ripe red currant and gamy notes that are authentically Tuscan. It’s mid-weight, supple, smooth yet firm, slightly tannin and mineral on the finish, with excellent length. Drinking beautifully right now. The 2001 Brunello ****1/2 ($50) is even better, with the same pine-juniper family imprint. Ask about buying some of each. Consignment.

Geoff Merrill 2002 Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Austrailia ****1/2 ($25.00, www.thewinecoaches.comGeoff Merrill was one of the early pioneers of Australia’s renaissance in the ’80s, and he’s back in the limelight after his yet-to-be-released 2004 Shiraz won the coveted Jimmy Watson Trophy in 2005. Merrill holds his wines in order to age them before release, thus 2002 is the current vintage. This black wine billows with huge blueberry, mincemeat and wood spice aromas. It’s full-bodied, rich and creamy, that classic McLaren mouthfeel with real fruit vibrancy and fine tannin. Focused and very long on the finish. Consignment.

Massotina Prosecco Extra Dry, Italy **** ($20, you are entertaining during the holidays and bubbly is on the menu, don’t hesitate to grab a case of this lovely sparkler whose silvery complexion will shine at any holiday gathering. More expensive than the average prosecco in Ontario, but worth it. Rare fruit lift and purity for prosecco. Wonderfully fresh green melon-apple fruit. Light bodied, pristine feel. There is a hint of sweetness but the acidity is so fresh and vibrant. Prosecco is rarely complex and deep, but that’s not the point or the appeal here. Consignment.

Porcupine Ridge 2005 Syrah, South Africa **** ($14.95, Vintages)I rarely buy wine by the case because I suffer no shortage of wine. But I buy a case of this each year specifically to dispense at Christmas to friends and neighbours—and the mail lady who’s always on the look-out for great cheap red. It combines the Cape’s sweet ripe black cherry fruit with smoky, black olive and tar mindful of northern Rhone—all set in a smooth, rounded but not the least soupy texture. Length is astounding for $15— more like a wine
three times the price. And it’s perfectly enjoyable now. Although it was released on October 14, hundreds of bottles remain on shelf as of December 4.

Obikwa 2006 Shiraz, South Africa ***1/2 ($9.05, LCBO)During the Gourmet Expo I took an hour at the South African booth to taste through several shiraz for my February column in Toronto Life. While the Porcupine Ridge above may have been the best, the value of this new Obikwa vintage—2006 already!—stopped me in my tracks. All kinds of dried herbs, black licorice, prune smoky character. Fairly dense on the palate, and a bit rough with notable sweetness helping it along, but it’s very generous, long and complex for under $10.