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February 2016

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – MASI AGRICOLA

masi appassimento

If you live in Canada and like Italian wines, you have certainly come across the prodigious line up from Masi Agricola. They are known as one of the founding fathers of Amarone. Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending a tasting of some of their finest cuvées.

The process of drying the finest grapes to make richer, more concentrated wines is an old one in the Valpolicella region. However, until fairly recently, production was largely dedicated to crafting the sweet recioto style. Amarone, meaning “the great bitter”, refers to the technique of fermented the raisined grapes to near dryness, making for a full-bodied, high alcohol yet still luscious and velvetty red wine. Masi has dedicated generations to perfected their Amarone style. The grapes undergo the appassimento (drying) process on small bamboo racks in well aerated drying rooms. While the minimum drying time for the appellation is 55 days, Masi holds themselves to a higher standard, waiting an average of 100 days (until the grapes lose 35% of their weight). The resultant Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC wines are bold and intensely flavourful.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.  Another case in point is Ripasso della Valpolicella. While the process of macerating the Valpolicella wines on Amarone pomace was used by many winemakers throughout the region, each estate had their own name for the technique. Masi coined the phrase “ripasso” in the 1980s and started selling the medium bodied reds internationally. The name and style caught on and, in 2009, a DOC was granted. By this time however, Masi had already abandoned the concept.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.

They decided that simply steeping the lighter (and generally lesser quality) Valpolicella in the dregs of the Amarone wasn’t yielding the quality of wines they sought. They therefore developped a new process dubbed “double fermentation”. The concept is simple. The grapes are classed in three quality tiers; the best for Amarone, the second best for their former Ripasso wines and the third level (less concentrated grapes) for their simpler, every day wines . The second tier is further subdivided, with a portion immediately fermented and the rest put through the same appassimento process as Amarone, but only to a weight loss of 15%.  The dried grapes are added to the fermented wine causing a secondary fermentation to occur, making for a more complex, layered wine. Masi’s Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC wines like the delicious Montepiazzo cuvée are crafted in this manner.

Masi Agricola has been in the Boscaini family since 1772. Their story began with the acquisition of a vineyard plot called Vaio dei Masi (little valley). The estate was thus named and a legacy was born. Today, patriarch Sandro Boscaini heads up the estate, with children Alessandra and Raffaele managing the technical department. Like Robert Mondavi’s role promoting the Napa Valley, the Boscainis work tirelessly to show that the Veneto is capable of world class wines. Deemed “Italy’s wine factory” by Jancis Robinson, the region is best known for the millions of entry level bottles of light bodied Valpolicella and neutral Soave. Great vintages are rarely hailed in the press like those of Piedmont or Tuscany. The Boscainis have therefore taken matters into their own hands, creating a “5 star” concept to highlight top quality vintages like 2012. Weather conditions need to be optimal during the growing season and the appassimento period (good aeration of the drying grapes) for a vintage to be named.

My top picks from the tasting included the following:

Masi MontePiazzo Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC 2014 – 89pts. PW

Attractive dark ruby colour, with ripe notes of plum, black cherry, mixed spice and earthy undertones. Rounded acidity, medium bodied and a velvetty texture define the palate, with classic sour cherry flavours on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.00$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Molinara

Masi Grandarella Refosco delle Venezie IGT 2011 – 88pts. PW

Refosco is an ancient variety, native to the Veneto region. It is generally quite a bold, tannic grape with a touch of bitterness. It is blended here, with Carmenère, which is planted in small pockets of the Veneto and Fruili regions. Intriguing aromatics of potpourri, red cherry, cedar and a subtle animal note define the nose. Pleasant on the palate, with a dense structure and tart acidity providing lift through the mid-palate. Ever so slightly rustic with ripe, chewy tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.30$), LCBO (28.95$)

Blend details: 75% Refosco, 25% Carmenère

Masi Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 1997 – 94pts. LW

A brilliant example of the ageing potential of fine Amarone. The nose delights, with a lovely mix of tertiary earthy, truffle and prune notes, and fresh red and black berry fruit. Still bold and full-bodied, yet showing the mellow smoothness of its age. Sweet sappy fruit, and lifted tones of sour cherry linger on the persistent finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 95pts. LW

South west facing slopes catch the afternoon sun and benefit from the drying effects of the prevailing wind, ensuring optimally ripe, healthy grapes.  The result is an elegant wine, redolent with floral notes, cedar, black cherries, dark berries and subtle tertiary aromas. Firm, yet broad through the mid-palate with tangy acidity and a long, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$ – 2007 vintage), LCBO (101.95$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2008 – 92pts. LW

A denser, more structured style. Subtle botrytis notes on the nose interweave nicely with macerated black fruits, spice and dried floral aromas. Full bodied with big, chunky tannins that frame the cedar, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (86.75$), LCBO (69.95$)

Blend details: 65% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 15% Molinara (Serego Alighieri clone)

Masi Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 91pts. LW

Intense aromas of plum, mixed black berries and a lively minerality feature on the nose. Full bodied, fresh and tightly woven, with firm, chewy tannins and a lingering toasted note.

Where to buy: SAQ (99.25$), LCBO (101.95$ – 2007 vintage)

Blend details: 75% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Reviews Wines

Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux 2012 Tasting

Smith Haut Lafitte aeriel view

When I was a kid, my dad used to buy Bordeaux futures and pull them out with much pomp and circumstance on special occasions. These bottles marked my vinous awakening. An evening of 1982 Cos d’Estournel and Léoville Las Cases was one of those seminal wine tasting moments for me; like the scene in “Amadeus” when Salieri describes hearing Mozart’s music for the first time.

Unfortunately, I don’t get as many opportunities to drink top class Bordeaux these days, so when a tasting like the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux rolls through town, I am a happy gal. 70 of the most prestigious Bordeaux estates under one roof, pouring their 2012 vintage…definitely an event worth the trouble of wearing heels on an icy January afternoon.

…definitely an event worth the trouble of wearing heels on an icy January afternoon.

2012 was not an easy vintage in Bordeaux. It was late ripening vintage, with a hot spell mid-summer. Merlot dominant blends fared well, but ill timed rain early October wreaked havoc on the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. Jancis Robinson described the vintage as “timorous” and Robert Parker’s vintage charts give all but Pomerol good, but not great scores in the high 80s. The SAQ invitation however hyped the vintage as fabulous though…so I thought I should check it out for myself. After all, the growers of the Union des Grands Crus never really have terrible vintages. They harvest in several passes, and carefully sort, ensuring only the ripest, healthiest grapes make the cut for the “grand vin”.

The tasting area was organized as a walk-around tasting leading tasters from Graves, to Saint Emilion and Pomérol, and then back to the left bank for the Médoc and its famed crus. There was a good sized crowd of happy faces, sipping and nodding earnestly while the wineries spun their lustrous tales. I started with the whites. Péssac-Leognan, a top quality enclave within the Graves region, is reputed for its dry Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends. Imagine the tangy acidity, and fragrant citrus, gooseberry aromas of Sauvignon Blanc, but with more weight, a creamy, layered texture and a smooth, oak-kissed finish. This is top Bordeaux blanc…summed up briefly. The 2012 did not disappoint. Château Smith Haut Lafitte was particularly stunning with enticing white floral aromas, vibrant acidity, a velvetty core and lingering, flavourful finish.

The left bank reds were surprisingly approachable for such a recent release. The mid-summer warmth of the vintage is apparent in the bright, fruity aromatics and general lack of pyrazine (bell pepper) notes. The majority showed fresh, balanced acidity, smoothness, rounded tannins and well-integrated oak. Each appellation was true to form, with the Graves a little lighter and more delicate and the Margaux perfumed and silky. The power and depth of the best vintages is lacking in most, but for an early drinking option, 2012 seems to have a lot of charm. Château Gruaud-Larose was one of my top picks for its intoxicating cassis and exotic spiced nose and dense, brooding core. Château Phélan Ségur, Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, Château Léoville Barton and Château Brane-Cantenac were also heavy hitters.

The majority showed fresh, balanced acidity, smoothness, rounded tannins and well-integrated oak.

The right bank wines showed nicely; very smooth and polished. The Saint Emilion were a little more restrained, with attractive cassis and floral notes. The Pomérols really jumped out the glass though; brimming over with plum, red and black fruits, and spicy oak. The 2012 vintage offers the hedonistic pleasure of smooth, fruit-driven young wines and the tannin structure to age gracefully for 10 years or more.  Château Canon, Château Le Bon Pasteur and Château Clinet showed very nicely.

Sauternes was the only minor dip in the tasting. Sémillon is low in acidity at the best of times and with residual sugar regularly over 100g/L, Sauternes can easily become a little cloying. The range of aromatics on display was phenomenol. Château La Tour Blanche was redolent with tropical fruit, marmelade, honey and spiced notes. However, the acidity faded too quickly on the palate, leaving the finish mouth-coatingly sweet.

Detailled tastings notes for my favourite wines:

Château Smith Haut Lafitte AOC Pessac-Léognan white 2012 – 94pts. LW

Smith Haut Lafitte is a leader in sustainable development for the Bordeaux region. This ultra-stylish white, from 50 year old vines, shows enticing white floral and grapefruit aromas, vibrant acidity, a creamy, velvetty core and lingering, flavourful finish.

Blend: 90% Sauvignon Blanc, % Sauvignon Gris, 5% Sémillon

Château Canon AOC Saint Emilion 2012 – 93pts LW

Situated in pride of place atop the famed limestone summit, Château Canon produces particularly elegant Saint Emilion. Highly complex aromas of plum, floral notes, blackberry and herbal undertones follow through on the palate. Fresh acidity, dense, juicy mid-palate and firm, polished tannins. The finish is long and layered, with hints of cedar.

Blend: 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc

Château Le Bon Pasteur AOC Pomerol 2012 – 92pts LW

Fermented and aged in 100% new oak, this is a potent Pomerol with an intense raspberry, cherry, plum and spicy oak fragrance. Fresh and full body, with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel, firm, chewy tannins and a persistent, creamy finish.

Blend: 85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc

Château Clinet AOC Pomerol 2012 – 93pts. LW

From the highest elevation of the famed Pomerol plateau, Château Clinet combines power and finesse. Attractive plum, cedar and black cherry on the nose, with a juicy, full bodied palate. Firm, grippy tannins provide a solid framework. The finish is fresh and long.

Blend: ~85% Merlot, ~10% Cabernet Sauvignon, ~5% Cabernet Franc

Château Brane-Cantenac AOC Margaux 2012 – 94pts. LW

An opulent style of Margaux, with heady floral aromas, underscored by ripe black currant and black cherries. The full-bodied palate shows lovely balance and poise; with vibrant fruit providing lift through the mid-palate. Aged 18 months in 70% new French barriques, the oak provides structure and a creamy texture without overpowering the fruit. The medium weight, polished tannins frame the long finish nicely.

Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot

Château Gruaud Larose AOC Saint-Julien 2012 – 96pts. LW

“The King of wines; the wine of Kings” is the motto of this renowned estate, dating back to 1725. This was definitely my feeling when tasting the elegant, highly complex 2012. Fragrant aromas of exotic spice, black and red currants, cedar and violets spring from the glass, gaining in intensity upon aeration. Powerful and brooding, with dense, concentrated layers of rich berry fruit and spice. and ripe, fine grained tannins. Lovely, fresh flavours linger on the beautifully persistent finish.

Blend: 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot

Château Léoville-Barton AOC Saint-Julien 2012 – 94pts. LW

Heady and stylish, with attractive aromas of mint, saffron, black fruits and floral undertones. Bright acidity leads into a full-bodied, dense core, with lots of juicy, black berry fruit and firm, fine grained tannins. The minty notes return on the finish, mingling with the cedar oak on the long, vibrant finish. The high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon makes this a bolder, more structured style of Saint-Julien.

Blend: 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron AOC Pauillac 2012 – 92pts. LW

Only 40 of the 73 hectares that make up the Pichon-Longueville Baron estate are deemed fit for the “grand vin”. A further strict selection is carried out during blending, ensuring that only the finest quality barrels make up this cuvée. The 2012 offers classic Pauillac aromas of cassis, cedar and graphite, with a touch of bell pepper. Very firm and powerful, with big, grippy tannins and a medium length cedar-scented finish.

Blend: 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot

Château Phélan Ségur AOC Saint-Estèphe 2012 – 95pts. LW

Phélan Ségur, with its fleshy Merlot character and enticing mineral notes, is always an attractive example of Saint-Estèphe. The 2012 doesn’t disappoint. The nose is sweet and perfumed, brimming with red and black fruit, violets and earthy minerality. Very harmonious and smooth on the palate; the full body is off-set by bright acidity, a concetrated, fruit-driven core and firm, chewy tannins.

Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot

Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2012 – 91pts. LW

Glorious exotic notes of mango, pineapple and passion fruit overlay botrytised notes of honey and marmelade. Lively acidity on attack, that falls just a touch flat on the finish. High viscosity, lots of juicy, exotic fruit and subtle, vanilla notes on the medium length finish.

Blend: 83% Sémillon, 12% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle

Education

a nerdy little guide to tannin descriptions

Grapes on sorting table

If you read enough tasting notes, you will know that there is a whole language of descriptive words for things like acidity, mouthfeel, structure, and none more so than tannin. They are useful tools to describe a wine as precisely as possible. Some adjectives are fairly obvious, like silky or chewy, giving you an immediate sense of how they would play across your palate. Other terms are a little more obscure.

I was finding myself a little baffled by the majority of different tannin descriptors that I had heard or seen used…so, after talking to a number of MWs, winemakers, wine critics, etc., I decided to compile this nerdy little guide.

LEVELS

Low: soft, light, delicate, fine

Medium: moderate

High: big, massive, powerful

TYPES

Though there are no hard and fast rules, the following terms are most often used to describe a specific level of tannin. They are therefore (roughly) grouped by level.

Generally Associated with Light to Medium Tannin

Silky: Glides across the palate leaving little trace (ie. Burgundian Pinot Noir in ripe years)

Rounded: Well integrated, ripe and smooth. No harsh edges. Similar terms: supple, smooth.

Powdery: quantity of fine tannins that spread out all across the tongue & mouth (ie. Grenache dominant Châteauneuf-du-pape & Priorat)

Generally Associated with Medium to High Tannins

Velvetty: smooth textured; slightly more present than silky tannin (ie. Argentinian Malbec)

Plush: similar to velvetty, with a notion of richness/ sweetness (ie. Merlot – Pomerol, St. Emilion, Napa Valley, etc.)

Fine grained: firmly structured yet smooth (ie. High quality left bank Bordeaux)

Polished: smooth, seamless. Like silky but with more structure (ie. Zinfandel, some modern Rioja styles).

 Sinewy: like muscular but slightly more lean (ie. St. Estèphe)

Chalky: a shade rougher and thicker than powdery (ie. good quality Chianti, certain Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignons)

Grainy: slightly astringent, rough edged like sand (ie. cheap Chianti). Similar terms: sandy.

 Generally Associated with Very High Tannins

Chewy: coats the sides of the mouth, feels present and weighty enough to chew (ie. Douro red blends, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage)

Chunky: big, powerful and bulky…like chewy but bigger (ie. Barossa Shiraz, Aglianico)

Muscular: powerfully chalky tannins; generally associated with young wine. Similar terms: assertive (ie. Premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon).

 Grippy: tannin that sticks to the sides of your mouth (ie. Barolo)

 Angular: tannins that hit one particular spot on your palate; jagged (ie. Bordeaux in lean years)

General Descriptors

These terms can apply to one or more tannin levels.

Unresolved vs. Resolved: Very firm, tightly knit referring to a young, highly tannic wine vs. softer, more mellow tannins after a period of ageing

Ripe: lack of any green, astringent or drying sensation

Firm: solid, unyielding. Generally medium + to high tannin wines. Similar terms: dense, tightly-knit.

Broad: opposite of firm. Generally medium to medium minus tannin wines.

Negative Descriptors

Often due to under ripe tannins or excessive extraction of bitter tannins (from seeds and/ or stems)

Harsh: rough and aggressive like sandpaper; drying. Similar terms: hard

Rustic/ Coarse: similar to harsh or aggressive, but slightly less damning

Aggressive: overly dominant, throwing off balance. Unpleasant. Similar terms: rigid.

Astringent: bitter and drying

Stalky: green, unripe, astringent