Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES September 9 Release

Vintage Matters

By John Szabo, MS with notes from David Lawrason, Michael Godel, Sara d’Amato, and Megha Jandhyala

September is upon us and the local harvest is around the corner. Some have already started. Spare a thought for Ontario vignerons—Ontario is the feature region in the Vintages Sept. 9 release—as they’ve been through a lot this summer. Plenty of rain—too much rain—and high humidity presented numerous challenges, especially relentless weed growth and disease pressure that made it an exhausting summer. This will be one of those “vintages of the winegrower,” separating the diligent and hyper-attentive grape growers from those less so, in a year where there was no margin for error. By next year, we’ll get a clear(er) sense of who the top Ontario growers are, and their wines may well be excellent.

Meanwhile in this release you can relive the great 2019 Niagara vintage through Hidden Bench’s superb Estate Riesling (183491, $24.95), the National Wine Awards of Canada’s 2023 winery of the year, or Cloudsley Cellar’s refined and classy Twenty Mile Bench Pinot Noir (11665, $34.95), or the very short crop (down nearly 50 percent) but generally excellent 2022 vintage with Vineland Estates’ classic old vines Niagara Escarpment St. Urban Vineyard Riesling (38117, $22.95). Beyond Ontario, there are plenty of excellent wines to recommend, many of which highlight the fact that vintage does indeed matter. Read on to find out why—and it’s probably not what you’re thinking.

And lastly, but importantly, Michael and I have some valuable reporting on Italy to share. Michael brings us his top picks from the latest Barbaresco releases from the Nebbiolo Prima tasting and winery visits we attended earlier this year, and I report in-depth on the recently official Unità Geografiche Aggiuntivi, additional geographic units, or simply “UGAs” of Chianti Classico, which this historic appellation into 11 distinct zones along communal, geologic and cultural boundaries. Sara’s and my Wine Thieves podcast will feature a three-part series on Chianti Classico including an in-depth interview with Alessandro Masnaghetti, the mapmaker who drew up the new UGA borders. Be sure to watch for that in the coming weeks.

Vintage Reports: Not Always a Linear Equation

Many of the recommendations in this release highlight the reality that vintage does indeed matter, especially as worldwide weather patterns continue to grow more erratic. It’s really a terrible time to be in the business of agriculture of any kind, but grapes, and the wines they produce, are particularly sensitive to, and dependant on, the weather.

It’s not all bad news, however, depending on your perspective. Take the 2021 vintage across France, for example, generally panned by the trade after a string of warm and sunny vintages. Multiple spring frosts lowered yields significantly across the country, as much as one-third less than in 2020 in regions like the Loire Valley and Burgundy, which is undeniably bad from a grower’s perspective. Then a generally cool, stormy summer followed, also exhausting for winegrowers, requiring a constant battle against weeds and disease, like in Ontario this summer. But, on the positive side for wine drinkers, some would hail 2021 as a “return to normal.” It’s easy to forget that just 20 to 30 years ago, clouds and rain were the norm, not the exception, and that ripeness in cooler regions was always hard to achieve, demanding low yields to allow grapes to fully ripen.

A case in point is Jean-Max Roger’s Cuvée Les Caillottes Sancerre 2021 AC Loire, France (65573, $33.95), a much more “classic” vintage than the opulent 2020, declared at 12.5 percent alcohol v. the 14 percent in 2020. Both are excellent, but I love the stony tension of the 2021, the way the grapes “simmered” rather than boiled to ripeness, reaching full flavour development (no green pepper) at a much lower sugar level. It’s textbook Sancerre, that is, if the textbook were written in 1994. Ditto the Domaine Hamelin Beauroy Chablis 1er Cru 2021 AC Burgundy, France (391805, $41.95), a throwback to the days of lean, ultra-mineral and fruit-backwards Chablis the way I remember them when I was studying the classics back in the 1990s and early 2000s. By and large, 2021 is a vintage to celebrate classical freshness and moderate alcohol levels, a welcome back to zesty, mouthwatering wines.

Even in reliably warm and sunny climates like the Mediterranean, seemingly negative weather patterns on the surface can have a positive effect. Try the magnificent Vassaltis Santorini Assyrtiko 2022 PDO Santorini, Greece (#33859, $69.95) for an example of how a high-yielding, cool year by Santorini standards resulted, perhaps counter-intuitively, in one of the finest vintages of the last decade. In Santorini, sun is the rain, the main viticultural hazard, whose relentless heat dries out grapes, and results in often pitifully low yields which, in turn, can produce overly astringent, hard wines as producers struggle to extract any juice at all with aggressive pressing. But in 2022, nearly two months of continuous cool north winds, sufficient moisture, and a harvest that started about two weeks later than average meant that plump, juicy assyrtiko, could be harvested fully ripe at lower potential alcohol, pressed more gently, and fermented into wines of marvellous finesse and elegance.

Above average rainfall is also part of the excellence of the 2022 Tesselaarsdal Chardonnay from the Hemel-En-Aarde Ridge in South Africa’s Walker Bay Region (32933, $48.95), a classy and stony, sophisticated wine, uncommonly firm and sharp, with no shortage of mineral, non-fruity character. Tasting this wine blind, you’d be hard pressed to place it in sunny South Africa, even if the Hemel-en-Aarde is a genuinely cool(ish) place to grow grapes and yields the country’s best chardonnay and pinot noir (see also Tesselarsdal’s excellent pinot noir in this release; 32934, $67.95). In generally warm dry climates, “above average” rainfall can be a very positive thing.

Of course, while nobody wishes hardships on grape growers anywhere on the planet, apparent adversity can yield excellent results in the glass. It’s something to keep in mind as you read those vintage reports so eager to draw linear conclusions between too much, or too little rain or sun or crop levels or whatever calamity is the click bait of the year.

Buyer’s Guide Sept. 9: White

Pablo Claro Special Selection Chardonnay 2021

Dominio De Punctum Pablo Claro Special Selection Chardonnay 2021, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain
$16.95, The Living Vine Inc.
John Szabo – This Demeter-certified, unusually aromatic chardonnay offers loads of apple and apple blossom aromas and flavours with excellent purity and drive, a richly-extracted palate, and highly impressive concentration—hard to believe this delightful wine is under $17 a bottle. I can’t think of too many wines/regions that can compete with this. Drink or hold 2–4 years.

There are 18 other VINTAGES Release recommendations this week that are currently only available to our premium members. This complete article will be free and visible to all members 30 days after publication. We invite you to subscribe today to unlock our top picks and other Premium benefits

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

John Szabo, MS

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Micheal’s Mix
Sara’s Selections
Megha’s Picks

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