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A Cult Napa Tasting – Not Your Everyday Affair

Best of California Cabernet
by John Szabo MS

John Tasting

John Szabo, MS

The following is a report on a (more than likely) once-in-a-lifetime tasting of the best of California cabernet, part of a week-long event with the rather grand title the “The California Wine Summit” organized by the Wine Institute of California last October. Admittedly, however, its grandness surpassed expectations, and this was just one of multiple landmark tastings throughout the week, if you can believe that.

The selection of wines was done simply (and cleverly) enough: the Institute asked some of California’s most respected writers, including Jon Bonné (San Francisco Chronicle), Linda Murphy (US contributor to the Oxford Companion To Wine and co-author with Jancis Robinson of American Wine), Alder Yarrow (Vinography: a wine blog), Karen MacNeil (author of The Wine Bible), and Patrick J. Comiskey (Wine & Spirits Magazine), to submit a list of their favorite Napa Cabernets, no holds barred.

The Institute then tallied up the results and the wines with the most mentions were tracked down, miraculously in some cases, and presented to our group of international wine press. All manner of rarities were included, the sort of tasting one hardly ever reads about, let alone participates in. And to make matters better, the tasting was expertly prepared and hosted by Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp, while additional colour commentary was provided by Patrick Comiskey, Karen MacNeil and Alder Yarrow. It was extraordinarily grand, a tasting not even the great Chateaux of the Médoc could touch (not least because the Bordelais would never allow anyone else to select, let alone publicly comment on their wines, on their own dime).

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet..

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet…

The formal tasting was followed by dinner at Silver Oak, where more fine wines were heaped upon the table like the grandest Medieval wedding , including many older vintages of the same wines. It was a night to remember to be sure, but those later notes remain my private property.

Napa Cabernet: The Best of the Best

The reviews below were edited only for spelling, making it an intimate and unadulterated view of the moment, including some impressions that surprised even me. Wines are ordered by my score, top down; prices are approximate.

Diamond Creek 2009 Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($200.00)

Really pretty, lifted, floral, spicy, tar and roses-scented, almost nebbiolo-like red from the iconic Diamond Creek estate, in this case from the iron-rich red soils of the Red Rock Terrace parcel. The complexity is extraordinary to be sure. Tannins are grippy and firm, grasping your palate and leaving no doubt that this will age magnificently. The finish goes on and on. Extraordinary stuff.  Tasted October 2013. 98 points.

Dunn 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($90.00)

A supremely dense, spicy, lightly herbal-vegetal, scorched earth and mineral-flavoured wine within the regional, almost savage profile of Howell Mountain. The palate is rustic and thick, with firm, tannic structure – this will age magnificently no doubt – built on a solid frame, yet there’s more than enough fleshy fruit to ensure full integration over time. All in all, quite approachable considering the customary burly house style. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Corison 2009 Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley St. Helena ($125.00)

From Cathy Corison’s flagship, 40-year old vineyard planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, the 2009 Kronos delivers a dense, dark-fruited, briary, highly spicy, orange peel-scented nose, with very well-integrated oak profile. It’s structurally tense, anchored on almost tart acids with ripe, almost red fruit, and old vine vinosity. Terrific length. I suspect this will be best from about 2017 on, with the potential to live well into its third decade. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Quintessa 2010 Napa Valley Rutherford ($145.00)

Classic, ripe black and blue fruit, with savoury forest floor, pine needle, marked but gentle wood influence, and high-toned floral notes. This is polished and elegant on a big frame, like Bordeaux in a very warm vintage, classy and complex. Best after 2015. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Spring Mountain 2010 Elivette Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain ($150.00)

Spring Mountain Vineyards has been producing cabernet for a century, with vineyards now farmed virtually biodynamically on the top of Spring Mountain and its volcanic and sedimentary soils. There’s a freshness and lifted floral note, more red fruit-driven, and light sweet baking spice touch alongside an earthy undertone. The palate offers excellent succulence, and fine-grained, firm tannins. A very fine and elegant wine, with depth and complexity, to be enjoyed after 2018 or so. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Ridge 2009 Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains ($160.00)

Apparently enough folks named the Monte Bello among their favourite wines that is was included in this otherwise all-Napa lineup. The 2009 includes about 30% merlot and petit verdot along with cabernet, offering wonderfully perfumed aromatics, high-toned, violet-floral, sweet but just ripe black berry fruit. Amazingly enough, the American oak in which this is aged is a gentle spice addition (wood is air-dried long-term). The palate is mid-weight in the usual elegant style of Ridge, with fine, succulent acids, balanced alcohol (13.5%) and terrific length. Although surprisingly approachable now, this is of course a wine with great tension and tremendous ageing potential. Best from 2019- 2039. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Spottswoode 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley St. Helena ($145.00)

A classically styled Napa Cabernet from the historic Spottswoode property, biodynamically-farmed, ripe yet with a distinct roasted vegetable note. Fruit is both black and blue, with a sweet core and dense concentration and very firm, ageworthy structure. Alcohol is generous. This is far from prime, I’d say this will be best after about 2018, and should last several decades after that without a stretch. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Scarecrow 2007 Rutherford ($500.00)

From an old plot of vines adjacent to Inglenook, planted in the 1940s. This is classy to be sure, with evident ripeness and concentration and a vinous, old wine density, excellent balance and extraordinary length. A very fine wine to be sure. There’s great precision and elegance beyond the dense masses of flavour – a wine you can truly drink and enjoy, not just sit on a pedestal. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Harlan Estates 2009 Oakville ($770.00)

The 2009 Harlan is quite classy and surprisingly approachable at this early stage (if still a long way from maturity), with a marvelous amalgam of earth, spice box, tobacco, leather and of course plenty of dark fruit, and dried prune, figs and dates. Tannins are bold, ripe, anchoring the masses of fruit, with excellent length. For fans of the full on, bold, dense, rich Napa style. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2009 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap District ($145.00)

Quite sweet and oak-tinged on the nose, with masses of (high-quality) barrel spice notes, vanilla, bitter chocolate, espresso bean, plus dense black fruit verging on liqueur-like concentration. The palate is smooth and supple, with very ripe, plush tannins, generous alcohol and long, long finish. There’s a scorched earth, red iron-like mineral note, though this remains a wood-infused bottle for the time being. To be revisited after 2017, with longevity of a couple of decades I’d suspect. Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

Continuum 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Pritchard Hill ($175.00)

The project of Tim Mondavi, an estate (92% estate fruit) wine from about 40 acres on Pritchard Hill, with 15% cabernet franc on iron-rich volcanic-derived soil. The nose is suppressed for the moment, a dense and brooding wine, though with a surprisingly supple and approachable palate – the texture here is fully beguiling, silky, yet densely packed and high in alcohol. The finish is long but carried on alcohol vapours – more of a winemaker’s wine, yet very fine in any case. Best from 2015. Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

Bond 2009 Pluribus, Spring Mountain ($250.00)

A markedly spicy, and lifted, wood spice-driven wine, very refined and elegant, yet with high, palate warming alcohol. There’s an intriguing aromatic profile with orange peel nuances I more often associate with Italian wines. Structurally the wine is firm and fine-grained, buoyed on alcohol, with nutty, chestnut flavours lingering over ripe red and some black fruit. Great length.  Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

Silver Oak 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($110.00)

The all-American oak ageing regime of Silver Oak comes through in spades in this 2009, delivering plenty of melted butter, coconut, and sandalwood – the particular house style is well-marked. The palate is as always neither heavy nor light, with vibrant acids, nicely succulent and balanced. One gets the sense that the base material is really very fine here, though you must also enjoy the heavily wood-derived profile to enjoy the ensemble, or wait at least a decade before opening. Tasted October 2013. 91 points.

Dalla Valle Maya 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville ($N/A)

Fully ripe and raisined, evidently a forward and dense, stylized wine, complete with a touch of VA. The palate is thick, hot, very firm, almost astringent, with very good length. All in all, an exaggerated style, with challenging drinkability in my view. Tasted October 2013. 91 points.

Shafer 2009 Hillside Select, Stag’s Leap District ($275.00)

Full on blue fruit and espresso, wood-derived flavour, in an unabashedly ultra-ripe, Napa valley style. Alcohol is hot, likely over 15%, with blueberry yoghurt flavours. All in all this comes across as rather one-dimensional, not in the top league in my view, though revisit in 4-6 years. Tasted October 2013. 90 points.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

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The Successful Collector – The Haut-Médoc

Stomping grounds for value
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

If there’s one problem Bordeaux has yet to overcome, it’s convincing enthusiasts that great claret need not break the bank. Yet many less-esteemed appellations throughout one of France’s most celebrated winegrowing areas are nowadays consistently able to combine both quality and ageability with youthful scrumptiousness and value. Of these, the Haut-Médoc is arguably at the forefront.

The largest appellation on the Left Bank of the Gironde, the Haut-Médoc surrounds the far more renowned appellations (excluded like a jigsaw puzzle from the map shown right) of Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe, each home to the lion’s share of the most famous estates in Bordeaux. The others are situated further upriver, just south of the city of Bordeaux, in the appellation of Pessac-Léognan. As a result, the finest estates of the Haut-Médoc are routinely overlooked.

But this has begun changing for some time, particularly in parts of the Haut-Médoc most blessed with higher gravel mounds on which to plant vines. As with the finest sections in the more celebrated appellations mentioned above, these gravel mounds represent one of the most significant characteristics of the greatest terroirs on the Left Bank. While regrettable, estates with vines sourced from lower-level locations simply cannot make the same wines.

The boundaries of the Haut-Médoc are extensive. Extending only several kilometres into the hinterland, the appellation begins just northeast of the city of Bordeaux along the Left Bank of the Gironde. It concludes several kilometres north of St-Estèphe, where the gravel mounds finally give way to lower-lying vineyards located in an appellation known simply as Médoc. Merlot tends to play a much greater role in the blends at this point along the river, with Cabernet Sauvignon habitually used in much smaller amounts.

Throughout much of the Haut-Médoc, Cabernet Sauvignon is used in fairly generous proportions, reinforced by Merlot and small percentages of Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot may be found from time to time, while Malbec may turn up in extremely small sums here and there. While the most illustrious estates may employ hand pickers at harvest time, many estates will often bring in their grapes via mechanical harvesters. Unlike the most famous estates of Margaux or Pauillac, many establishments in the Haut-Médoc are unable to afford such a luxury. The use of new French oak barriques will also vary according to financial constraints and/or quality of the grapes.

Of rankings, the Haut-Médoc contains only five estates belonging to the famous yet contentious 1855 Classification, each varying in quality and typically ranging in VINTAGES and the SAQ from $45-100. In terms of overall value, better examples may be found among the numerous estates ranked as Cru Bourgeois, the chief ranking category of the appellation. With the odd exception, prices in this category usually range from $20-40.

In the past, the majority of such wines were excessively lean and required years of cellaring in order to blossom. Not anymore. As a result of better winegrowing techniques and changes in climatic conditions (think global warming), the best Cru Bourgeois wines nowadays routinely offer immediate, concentrated appeal, and may be kept for up to ten years or more in the cellar. What’s more, their prices are strikingly reasonable, unlike their counterparts in St-Julien or St-Estèphe, where estates included in the 1855 Classification have all but been cordoned off except to the most well-heeled of buyers.

In the twenty-first century, never before has the winegrowing region of Bordeaux made such sizeable quantities of excellent wine. Yet the consequences of celebrity have grown all too apparent in appellations like Margaux or Pauillac, where wines once considered reasonable have become anything but. For diehard claret lovers, therefore, the fast-improving Haut-Médoc could not be more of a lifesaver.

My top choices:

Château Peyrabon 2010 Haut-Médoc is situated in the commune of St-Sauveur (just to the east of Pauillac) and represents terrific value for money. Although a rather oak-driven affair, all the component parts of this sumptuous claret are in marvellous alignment. Drink now or hold for up to ten years or more. Decanting is recommended. 

Château Sénéjac 2009 Haut-Médoc is situated in the commune of St-Pian (located in the southern part of the appellation) and is easily the most serious vintage I’ve tasted from this estate to date. Regrettably, only a handful of bottles are left in VINTAGES at time of publication. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more. Decanting is recommended. 

Château Peyrabon 2010Château Senejac 2009Château Larose Trintaudon 2010Château Moulin De Blanchon 2009Château De Gironville 2009

Château Larose-Trintaudon 2010 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Laurent (just to the east of St-Julien) and is the largest estate on the Left Bank. Though quality has been limited for many years, recent vintages such as the ’10 have been excellent. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Château Moulin de Blanchon 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Seurin (just to the north of St-Estèphe) and represents a sincerely beautiful outing. From a part of the Haut-Médoc with some extremely fine wineries, it’s wines like these that typify the future of the appellation. Drink now or hold for up to six years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château de Gironville 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of Macau (just to the south of Margaux) and is a truly delicious affair. Containing 10% Petit Verdot (unusual for a Haut-Médoc), there are only a handful of bottles left in VINTAGES at time of publication. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château La Lagune 2010Château Belgrave 2009Château Belgrave 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Laurent (just to the east of St-Julien) and is ranked as a Fifth Growth in the 1855 Classification. Though twice the cost of a standard Cru Bourgeois, the ’09 really is an outstanding claret. Drink now or hold for up to fourteen years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château La Lagune 2010 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of Ludon (located in the southern part of the appellation) and is ranked as a Third Growth in the 1855 Classification. This is widely regarded as one of the finest wines of the Haut-Médoc, and is highly recommended for serious collectors. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES and the SAQ that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores.


Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find Julian’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

All Julian Hitner Reviews

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Greek Wine Report: Outstanding 2013 Whites And Going Native

John Szabo reports on top whites (and a few reds) from Greece, land of singular flavours and excellent value, and offers compelling reasons to drink native varieties

2013 has yielded an exceptional crop of wines throughout Greece, especially whites, playing to the strengths of the country’s enviable range of native varieties. According to the harvest report on the New Wines of Greece website “winemakers throughout Greece are hailing 2013 as one of the best in recent years. Favorable growing conditions, without the extreme heat that usually characterizes Greek summers were aided by cool northern winds allowing grapes to mature evenly and completely, with relatively few problems. The wines have excellent acidity and good alcohol levels with the whites showing intense aromatic qualities.”

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

A tasting in Toronto in May left no doubt of the high quality of the vintage, with many familiar estates making the finest wines I’ve tasted in the last decade. Below are some of my top picks; click on the name of each for the full review and availability.

Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine

Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine

Why Go Native

Although the names/varieties and regions for the majority of the recommendations will be utterly foreign, I’d urge you to go native and not to miss out. The prices remain amazingly low relative to quality, and this is your chance to discover new and intriguing flavours. And it makes sense to focus on the indigenous grapes in a country that has over 300 known varieties, and probably many more waiting to be documented. If these varieties are still around in the 21st C., there’s probably a very good reason.

Consider this: Greece has been making wine for the better part of four thousand years. Yet the actual cause of alcoholic fermentation (yeasts consuming sugars and spitting out alcohol) wasn’t discovered until Louis Pasteur took a microscope to fermenting grape juice a little over a hundred years ago. The technological bag of tricks that winemakers today have at their disposal to tweak a wine’s aromatics and structure and stabilize it against the ravaging effects of oxygen is a mere few decades old. (And new oenological products continue to emerge on the market like the latest range in a seasonal fashion catalogue.)

All of this development has enabled grape varieties to be transplanted in places around the world for which they are not naturally suited, and for commercial grade wine to be made from them. It has also allowed winemakers to customize a wine to fit a perceived market, denaturing the style that a region is naturally inclined to produce. The commercial pressure to put a popular variety on a label is often too much to resist, and indigenous grapes have often been ripped out to make way for chard, cab and co.

Now back to the Greeks and a few thousand years ago. No products, no technology, little understanding. In fact, ancient winegrowers had very little ability to materially affect the outcome of their winemaking ritual, and you can be sure that plenty of vinegar was made, even with fingers crossed and all.

Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC

Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC

But the one area in which they did have some control over the process was the type of vines planted in their vineyards. Good old-fashioned empirical trial and error would have led to a natural selection of varieties (distinguished easily enough by leaf shape, bunch size, and other basic morphological features – no Ph.D. required), which over time would have proved themselves to be naturally adapted to the local growing environment. And by adapted I mean that they would have been the varieties that yield naturally balanced wines – ones that would have been stable enough to last at least until the next vintage before turning to vinegar (remember, this was an era in which wine was more than a part of life, it was nothing less than a staple). By today’s standards, this means wine that doesn’t require any tinkering or chemical adjustments: crush, ferment, press, drink.

One of the most important features of a well-adapted variety is the retention of natural acidity/low pH, given that no bags of tartaric acid were available at the local supply store. This is especially critical in a generally warm, dry, Mediterranean climate where ripeness is easy to achieve – high acid/low pH is a natural defense against bacterial spoilage. You’ll find that the majority of native Greek whites from indigenous grapes are remarkably fresh and lively considering the southerly latitude on which they’re grown – a perfect illustration of natural selection.

So over the course of several thousand years, suitable grapes and places were matched up as efficiently as an online dating service: assyrtiko with the poor, wind-swept volcanic soils of Santorini, moscophilero with the cool, high mountain plateau of Mantinia, or vidiano with the arid, hot, north-facing slopes of Crete, to name but a few. Stick with the native varieties and your chances of finding, naturally well-balanced, authentic wines increase dramatically.

Although Greek winemakers of this era are as well-trained and technologically equipped as any, in some cases the grape growing and winemaking techniques employed several thousand years ago are still practiced, simply because they still work (though fewer keep their fingers crossed). I love that fact that this gives us a window on the ancient world and on what the wines sold in Athens c. 200 BC might well have tasted like.

Time to go prospecting.


This year’s harvest was one of the earliest ever in Santorini, beginning at the end of July, but because of the residual effects of a “perfect storm” (Winds over 11 Beaufort) that damaged vines during the previous 2012 growing season, production was down over 20% from last year. This year’s wines are being compared to the benchmark vintages of 2009 and 2011, and similar to these years, the 2013 wines are showing exceptional aromatic qualities, great structure, firm acidity and, of course, intense minerality, a Santorini trademark.” – NWOG Harvest Report

Vineyards, Santorini

Traditional vineyards, Santorini

Estate Argyros 2013 Santorini, Greece ($23.95) Matthew Argyros represents the 4th generation of winemaking at the family-run estate, founded in 1903 by George Argyros. The estate owns some of the oldest vines on the island, including a parcel reputed to be over 150 years old. The 2013 estate, from the oldest vines, is so distinctively Santorini with its riveting salty-sulphurous minerality, yet tightness and acidity are taken to new heights. This is quite literally crunchy and electrifying, with a perfect pitch of alcohol and dry extract, firm and gently tannic on the palate.

Similar in style to the Estate but just a narrow step below is the Argyros Assyrtiko 2013 Santorini, Greece $19.95. It’s made from the “young vines” (50-60 years old), and offers impressive density and weigh, palpable astringency from tannins even though this is made from free-run juice, and extraordinarily fresh acids, finishing on a quivering mineral-salty string. Like the estate, this really shouldn’t be touched for another 2-3 years.

Paris Sigalas

Paris Sigalas, Santorini

Paris Sigalas is another leading grower on the Island whose wines rarely fail to excite. This former mathematician applies precision to his process and the Sigalas 2013 Santorini, Greece ($22.95) is a beautifully balance, extraordinarily rich and stony example with textbook volcanic minerality – that hard-to-describe saltiness that permeates the wine from start to finish. Fruit character is as usual subdued – assyrtiko rarely exudes much more than a whiff of grapefruit-citrus-pear – this is much more about the almost sulphur hot springs-like aromatics. Given my experience with Sigalas’ wines, this should age beautifully, and likely hit peak somewhere around 6-8 years of age, if you can wait.

Rounding out the Santorini selections (although one other excellent grower, Haridimos Hatzidakis, did not present at the tasting) is the Gaia Thalassitis 2013 Santorini, Greece ($23.95). Made by the skillful hands of Yiannis Paraskevopoulos who makes the wine at Gaia Estate in Nemea and teaches oenology at the University of Athens, Thalassitis is often a little more tame than the above-mentioned wines. In this case it’s notably reductive off the top (flinty-matchstick notes) and very tightly wound on the palate with ripping acids and firm, tart, lightly tannic texture. A fine wine, best after 2016 I’d say, and should hold a dozen years in all without any stretch.


“2013 is considered by the island’s winemakers to be the best vintage in the last 20 years. In spite of the early harvest, the growing season was characterized by a stable, constant rate of grape maturity due to spring winds and moderate summer temperatures.” NWOG Harvest Report

Nikos Douloufakis is the third generation to make wine at the family estate in the village of Dafnes, a few kilometers south of Heraklion on north facing, undulating hills. The focus here is on indigenous grapes, though winemaking is clean and modern, and price/quality is excellent. The Douloufakis Femina 2013, PGI Crete, Greece ($14.95) made from malvasia is not a particularly complex wine, but is explosively aromatic, with crunchy, zesty green fruit and plenty of floral-orange blossom notes. Hard to believe this comes from Crete; it would be equally at home in Northern Italy, stylistically. A perfect match for spicy Asian fare.

Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete

Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete

A richer and more “serious” wine from Douloufakis is the Dafnios White 2013, PGI Crete, Greece ($18.95) made from 100% vidiano, one of the top white varieties on the Island. The 2013 is a fine, fruity unoaked wine that runs in the same style spectrum as, say, viognier, substantially flavoured and very ripe, with mostly yellow orchard fruit and some mango-guava-papaya tropical fruit flavours. Drink this over the short term.

Mantinia (Peloponnese)

“This year’s harvest yielded very good results for Moschofilero, although production was down 20-30% because of frost damage that occurred near the end of April. Early results indicate this year’s vintage will have excellent aromatic potential with good structure.” – NWOG Harvest Report

It took Yiannis Tselepos ten years of careful observation before deciding to establish his vineyards on the eastern foothills of Mt. Parnon on the plateau of Mantinia in 1989. He consistently produces one of the top wines in this sought-after appellation. Overnight skin contact for the Tselepos 2013 Mantinia Moschofilero, Greece ($19.95) extracts maximum aromatics, though this is anything but rustic. The 2013 is one of Tselepos’ best, wonderfully fresh and fragrant, floral and fruity in the typical moschophilero fashion, with zesty acids and mid-weight palate. Enjoy now or hold short term – this is best fresh.

Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia

Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia

The Spiropoulos family, with ties to the wine industry stretching back to the 19th century, is another top grower in Mantinia. The Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia 2013, Peloponnese, Greece ($16.95) is made from all-estate grown moschofilero, organically farmed, and has a pale pink tinge, reflective of the dark skins of fully ripe moschofilero (like pinot gris when ripe. The palate shines with its vibrant fruity flavours in a fairly substantial and weighty expression (though still just 12.5% alcohol).

Northern Greece

Ktima Biblia Chora 2013 Assyrtico / Sauvignon, Greece ($22.95) The Biblia Chora Estate was established in 1998 by two well known winemakers, Vassilis Tsaktsarlis and Vangelis Gerovassiliou, who developed their model organic vineyard of 140 hectares at the foot of Mount Pangeon in Kokkinochori, Kavala (northeastern Greece). Assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc are common blending partners in this region, the former adding depth and structure and the latter adding its perfume and zest. The palate is rich and explosive, deep and flavourful, with tremendous intensity and length. Terrific stuff here, with evident concentration.


Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

Alpha Estate 2013 Axia Malagouzia, PGI Florina, Greece ($17.95) Alpha Estate is likewise a partnership between two wine industry veterans, viticulturist Makis Mavridis and oenologist Angelos Iatridis, who, after years of consulting winemaking experience in various parts of Greece, chose the Amyndeon appellation (central-northwest Greece in the regional unit of Florina) to create his own wine. The 2013 Malagouzia is the best yet from the estate, offering all of the lovely rich, ripe fruit in the tropical spectrum that the variety is capable of, with a generous, plush texture and very good length. This will appeal to fans of generously proportioned and aromatic whites like viognier, with a little more of a cool and fresh acid kick. (The 2012 is currently in VINTAGES).

And the Reds…

And for those who can’t do without red, here are a couple of currently available standouts to track down:

Boutari 2008 Grande Reserve Naoussa, Greece ($16.95)

Alpha Estate 2009 Syrah / Merlot / Xinomavro, Macedonia, Greece ($32.50)

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010, Unfiltered, Naoussa

Domaine Karydas Naoussa 2009, Dop Naoussa

Katogi Averoff 2008, Metsovo


That’s all for now. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

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Ontario’s Emerging Wine Regions: The South Coast

By John Szabo MS

Ontario’s First Vintage?

The year was 1669. I can’t confirm if it was indeed Ontario’s first vintage but it seems probable. The moment is recorded in the Mémoires de la Société Historique de Montréal, in a text written by explorers MM Dollier and Galinée. The intrepid duo stopped to overwinter near present day Port Dover on the north shore of Lake Erie, where they discovered wild grapevines “which grow only in the sands on the shores of lakes and rivers”, and which produce “few grapes, but as big and sweet as the best in France.” In predictable French fashion, they made wine, which Dollier used to say mass throughout the winter of ’69-’70, and which, in their words, was “as good as the wine from Grave, a big black wine just like it”, a reference to the fine wine of the Graves region in distant Bordeaux. So abundant were the vines that the explorers reckon they could have easily made 25 or 30 barriques of their nectar.

Voyage de MM. Dollier et Galinée

Yet I can only image that MM. Dollier and Galinée felt a very long way from home and very homesick, worn by the hardships endured by early Canadian explorers, maybe even delirious from tick and mosquito bites, or just plain drunk, to have drawn the hopeful comparison. I’m quite certain their wine had very little to do with Bordeaux. Even nearly 350 years later, with the benefit of technology and experience, the wines produced in the emerging Ontario wine region dubbed South Coast bear little resemblance to anything from France.

“Ontario’s South Coast” is the tourism tag applied to the shores of Lake Erie in Norfolk County centered around the summer resort town of Port Dover, and spilling over into neighboring Elgin and Haldimand counties. Drive south essentially from anywhere between Hamilton and London and you’ll pass through the region on your way to the lake. It’s also the name that the South Coast Wineries Association hopes to officially apply to their proposed Viticultural Area, a dossier that currently sits on the desk of the VQA for approval. If passed, South Coast would become Ontario’s fourth official wine region.

History & Development

This is old tobacco country, once the region’s most important crop by a country mile. But the government’s overnight elimination of tobacco quotas in 2009 sent many local farmers scrambling to find a new cash crop. Some turned to soybeans or strawberries or ginseng, others, looking north to Niagara and Prince Edward County, decided to try their luck with wine grapes. Today, this is some of the most diversified farmland in Canada.

But grapes, aside from the wild ones discovered by Dollier and Galinée, had been planted long before the great tobacco crash, perhaps in a prescient anticipation of change. The first winery to plant grapes was Quai du Vin in Elgin County north of Port Stanley way back in 1971, several years before even Kaiser and Ziraldo planted their first grapes for Inniskillin in Niagara.

Phil Ryan of Villanova Estate planted the region’s first vinifera varieties – riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot – in 1996, about the same time as the first viniferas were planted in Prince Edward County. But growth has been slow and organic, and the region has yet to achieve anywhere near the notoriety of either Niagara or PEC, likely in part because of the profitability of tobacco farming.

The Current Scene


Today there are some 130 acres of vines in the proposed South Coast appellation (compared to 13,600 acres in the Niagara Peninsula, Canada’s largest region), planted in the mainly sandy soils near the lakeshore. There are eleven wineries, including two in Elgin, one in Haldimand, and eight in Norfolk County. Of these, eight are open to the public, while the other three are in various stages of opening, but all are producing wine in one form or another, from both grapes and other fruits.

The Challenges

The greatest challenge for South Coast wineries, like their neighbors further west in the Lake Erie North Shore region, is winter. Unlike the deep waters of Lake Ontario, which moderate temperatures year-round on the Niagara Peninsula and to a lesser extent in Prince Edward County, shallow lake Erie has a much weaker influence and occasionally freezes over during cold snaps. This means that vineyards are left unprotected and temperatures can drop to vine-killing depths for all but the hardiest varieties.

Planting winter sensitive grapes like merlot is as fanciful as the annual planting of palm trees on the Port Dover beach, a resort ambiance-enhancing measure necessarily repeated annually to replace the dead trees. Merlot, like the trees, stands little chance of surviving the winter – Phil Ryan of Villanova tells me he has yet to get a single crop from the merlot he planted in 1996, though he doesn’t have the heart to rip out the vines. Wineries are thus largely limited to planting cold hardy whites like Riesling, or near-indestructible hybrids like vidal, seyval, baco, foch and chambourcin.

The Annual Palm tree planting at Port Dover Beach

The Annual Palm tree planting at Port Dover Beach

The Wines and Wineries

A representative tasting hosted by the South Coast Ontario Wine Association in late May, while cruising off the waters of the coast on the charter boat Kayloe, was generally a hit and miss affair. A respectable but slightly cidery ’12 Trout Fly Riesling ($13.95) from Villanova Estate, the whimsically-named, easy-drinking ’12 Frisky Beaver White ($13.95) from Smoke and Gamble, the flinty but plush ’12 Chardonnay ($13.50) from Quai du Vin were among the better wines. Also noteworthy were some very good fruit-based wines, most notably the Gala Apple ‘wine’ from Wooden Bear L winery, and the 2011 Cranberry-Blueberry blend ($15.95) from Blueberry Hill Estates.

Doug Beatty, VP and GM of Burning Kiln Winery

Doug Beatty, VP and GM of Burning Kiln Winery

The most important and commercially successful winery to date is Burning Kiln, the only South Coast winery to have listings in the LCBO. The operation was established by a group of seven businessmen and the first vines were planted in 2007. Consulting winemaker Andrezj Lipinski (also of Colaneri, Foreign Affair, Cornerstone and his own label, Big Head Wines), known for his expertise in the appassimento method – making wine from partially dried grapes – was involved in the project from the start, with the idea of linking the tobacco farming heritage to grape growing. All of the reds at burning Kiln are air-dried in old tobacco Kilns, and the wine names, like Strip Room Merlot-Cabernet Franc or the Cureman’s Chardonnay, take their cues from the tobacco industry. The most interesting wine out of this commercially solid range for my money is the 2012 Stick Shaker Savagnin ($24.95, in LCBO), an appassimento white with fine aromatics and lush texture.

Local Interest

Yet overall, South Coast wines remain for the time being largely of local interest, unlikely to appear on Toronto restaurant wine lists anytime soon. The challenges are significant: there’s little mainstream appetite for hybrid grapes, red or white, which represent the majority of plantings. The region’s predominantly sandy soils, as observed by Dollier and Galinée, yield by and large light-structured, fruity, easy drinking wines. Yet the commercial imperative for a winery to make “important” wines (read: expensive) leads here to unbalanced, over-oaked, dried out and often charmless wines – there’s simply not enough fruit depth to extract heavily, nor structure to support long ageing in wood.

Rustic winemaking, in the form of volatile acidity and oxidation, are also not the exception. The appassimento technique used by several wineries is useful to make more consistent and ‘bigger’ wines, but is more of an imposed style, rather than a regional expression. It does little to define the uniqueness of the region outside of the heritage of the tobacco industry. Or perhaps that’s the angle? Fruit wines are a strength, but again have yet to carve out a serious commercial niche beyond the cellar door.

On the other hand, the region has an envious strength: the tourism draw. The warm waters of Lake Erie, sandy beaches including Long Point, the world’s longest natural sand spit, also a provincial park and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and plenty of sporting and recreational activities such as biking, birding, canoeing, kayaking and much more give tourists plenty of reasons to visit the area. Wine tourism is on the rise, and South Coast wineries are well situated to take advantage of the traffic with cellar door events, tastings and sales. In recognition of this, Burning Kiln’s sister company, Long Point Eco Adventures functions equally as a draw for the winery in a clever symbiotic relationship.

The picturesque Light House, Port Dover

The picturesque Light House, Port Dover

An Official South Coast Viticultural Area?

“Taking a cue from the European model for appellation of origin, Canada’s thriving and rapidly expanding wine industry has developed around regions that produce wines of unique character”, says the VQA website in relation to official Viticultural areas. But it’s hard to say what the unique characteristics of the proposed South Coast Viticultural Area would be, other than a geographic delimitation and a collective brand name. Few wineries produce 100% South Coast wines; most purchase and blend grapes from Niagara to supplement production. So the sampling of 100% South Coast wines is too small to even begin to talk about regionality.

It’s argued that Prince Edward County started out in the same way – with few wineries and blended PEC-Niagara wines (and many PEC wineries still supplement their harvest with fruit from Niagara). While the creation of a South Coast appellation would create a rallying point for wineries, and encourage more 100% local wines to be sure, one wonders if it isn’t still a bit premature.

For now, I’ll happily drink a well-chilled fruity South Coast white after a day on the Port Dover beach, though I won’t be dreaming of Bordeaux.

For more information visit:

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

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Lawrason’s Take – Australia 2014

Ten Trends in Australia Right Now & Ten Great Wines
by David Lawrason

An eight day trip  to Australia in January, as co-host of a Fine Vintage Ltd tour, has changed many of my perceptions of Australian wine – as travel should.  There is a lot going on!  From afar here in Canada we get broad marketing messages from the larger wineries and associations focused on the Canadian market.  They are not inaccurate, but so generalized and softly spun that they don’t have much traction.  So I thought I would jot down some more pithy and specific perceptions, based on personal observations and those gleaned from conversations and writings with other who are deeply engaged.  So here we go, in no particular order. And don’t miss the Top Ten Wines I tasted in Australia following this article.


Vineyard at Coldstream Hills, a leading name in the evolution of Aussie pinot and chardonnay

#1 – Shiraz may not be the best grape for much of Australia, and it is over-planted in hot regions and under-planted in cooler regions. I frequently heard that syrah/shiraz was doing  very well in the moderate climate of the Yarra Valley, and in higher elevations of Victoria like the Pyrenees and Macedon Ranges. And it is also very fine in Coonawarra and Margaret River in West Australia.  Within South Australia it seems to make its finest wines in the higher altitudes of the Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley (i.e Hill of Grace). When you look globally at where shiraz excels solo the list includes moderate to cool northern Rhone, eastern Washington and the Okanagan, Stellenbosch and, in my view, Chile.  And if it is true that hot Barossa in particular is actually not ideal for shiraz what of the massive tracks of shiraz planted in the even hotter, interior Riverland regions that churn out oceans of the stuff for the lower priced market? Was this a huge miscalculation by the big companies?

#2 – South Australia is a Mediterranean region best suited varieties like grenache, mourvedre and other varieties of Spain and southern Italy Again and again in the Barossa Valley and in McLaren Vale winemakers talked of old vine grenache grown in sandy soils being their hidden treasure and secret weapon.  In Barossa I also tasted a few excellent mataros or mourvedres (Langmeil and Tuesner) or blends thereof that include grenache and shiraz.  Italian varieties like vermentino, fiano, dolcetto, nero d’avola and primitivo; plus Spanish and Portuguese varieties like tempranillo, graciano and touriga nacional are all ascending.

#3 – McLaren Vale is the most progressive, edgy region in Australia.  The medium sized region south of Adelaide on the coast of the Gulf of St. Vincent seems to be attracting its share of inquiring and passionate winemakers. There are an inordinately large number of small wineries for its size. It boasts the largest percentage of sustainably kept vineyards in Australia (over 70%) with 7% being biodynamic (led by the surprisingly large Gemtree.  There are a handful of “natural wines”, as well.  And a rash alternative white and red varieties have broken out of the experimental phase and can be readily found on restaurant lists and bottle shop shelves. Pockets of Victoria and certain producers are also pushing new boundaries.

# 4 – Medium and lighter bodied wines are hot.  Overly alcoholic, soupy, jammy big reds are on their deathbed, at least among the more expensive wines of Australia. I suspect there are many big brand, medium priced alcohol grenades still being produced, but winemakers of conscience continually talked about the lighter wines, lower alcohol and balance.    “You won’t’ find heavy wines anywhere in the restaurants of Melbourne” said Steve Weber of De Bortoli, in neighbouring Yarra Valley.

# 5 – Australia is Old World too!  Barossa in particular (along with McLaren Vale, Coonawarra and Hunter Valley)  has a deep history, heritage and old vine viticulture that must be preserved and utilized.  With vineyards like Langmeil’s Freedom and Penfolds Block 42 counting among the oldest vineyards in the world; with Seppeltsfield still selling incredible 100 year old fortified wine; with countless grower families counting back generations to the mid 19th Century when hard-working Prussians broke this hard land – one must give Australia the respect it deserves as an old world country.  And it was interesting to see adherence to and reversion to more historical wine-making techniques (open top wood fermentors, concrete – even dabblings with amphora) and respect for other European grapes.

# 6 – Australia is making outstanding pinot noirs. There are still jammy, hot pinots out there  but several enclaves are cool enough to make pinot that Burgundy lovers will enjoy. One is Tasmania, the other a circle of sites around that spoke outward from Pt Philip Bay and Melbourne on Victoria’s south coast. These include clockwise  Geelong, Macedon Ranges, Upper Yarra, Gippsland and the Mornington Peninsula.  There are also pinot cool spots in the Adelaide Hills and out west in Great Southern.

# 7 –  Terroir driven chardonnay could be Australia’s next great white. One local enthusiast – and a Master of Wine – went as far as to claim Australia may be the most exciting chardonnay region outside of Burgundy. I kept interjecting that Ontario can/will rank there too, but I must admit being very impressed with the energy, depth and minerality of many that I tasted, again largely from cooler Victoria and Tasmania (ie. Penfold’s Yattarna). And everybody, almost, claimed the era of over-oaked, high alcohol, soupy chardonnays to be dead in the water.

# 8 – Riesling is broadening its appeal.  The general perception of Aussie riesling is of powerful, petrol and lime driven examples from the Clare Valley and Eden Valley. And yes I had some great examples. But what I most enjoyed were those with some age on them.  And I  glimpsed the kinder, gentler but still fresh, vital and more stone fruit driven examples from outposts in Victoria, Tasmania and Great Southern in WA (this may be the one place that will most surprise us in the near future)

#9 – The Australian industry is at a crossroads. All this positive news is set against a backdrop of great anxiety, being felt most by the largest producers. Aussie exports have dropped over 40% since 2007 – and competition in volume and quality increasing from other nations in Europe and the New World is intense.  Even from neighbouring New Zealand.  James Haliday’s 2014 Australian Wine Companion reviews and rates 1369 properties, with that many again relegated to listing on his website.  There is a lot of wine in Australia, and believe me, they would love to export a lot more to Canada

#10 – But Canada’s liquor boards continue to befuddle, bemuse and aggravate Australian winemakers. This is not new, nor specific to Australia, but I suspect the outspoken, impatient Aussie’s find our closed system particularly irritating. Eyeballs often rolled when the monopolies were mentioned; which should make Canadian wine lovers angry.  We are not seeing a lot of Australia’s best wines as a result.

Ten Great Australian Wines

Here is a straightforward list of my top ten favourite Australian wines tasted on this tour. Full notes are on the WineAlign database, whether or not the wines are currently listed in Canada.  All deserve to be here.

Henschke Hill Of Grace Shiraz 2008

Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2010

Penfolds Grange 2008

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2010

Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2009

Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay 2011

Coldstream Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2012

Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2011

Curly Flat Chardonnay 2011

Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2011

Editors Note: You can find David’s complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the wine names highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

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The Successful Collector – Value at the premium end in France

Where to Find Value in Top French wines
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When venturing into the potentially prohibitive arena of premium French wine buying in VINTAGES, enthusiasts may have to dodge a few landmines to score the best finds. Even then, what is ‘premium’ by French standards? Subliminally speaking, $40-50 is often the starting point, which is still quite a lot of money to spend on any single bottle of wine, to say nothing of those costing a great deal more. What vinous liquids from the world’s most illustrious winegrowing nation could possibly be worth the extra cash?

The answer is largely subjective, though commentators and sommeliers over the years have reached some form of consensus. In each case, overall quality and aging potential are among the two most important factors.

Logo UGCC JEPGFor whites, Grand Cru Chablis is routinely at the top of the list, with prices ranging between $50-100. Compare this to a single bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, which usually fetches at least $200. In the words of UK-based expert Hugh Johnson: “Parity would be closer to justice.” Regrettably, the same cannot be said of most other white Burgundies.

Further north, outlays for the best dry whites of Alsace have long remained remarkably reasonable. Of special interest are the finest examples of riesling and gewürztraminer, usually hailing from specific parcels within the region’s many Grand Cru vineyards. In VINTAGES, the best examples typically fetch around $30-85. Such wines are not only intensely flavoured and downright delectable, but are usually just as ageworthy as their counterparts in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Why the best dry whites of Alsace continue to fetch such comparatively low prices is beyond me.

On the red side of the spectrum, there are an even larger number of choices. The only catch is that Bordeaux and Burgundy really aren’t the best places to be looking for them. Instead, buyers should arguably be on the lookout for the greatest offerings of the Rhône (particularly the southern appellations) and Midi, where both overall quality and ageability have skyrocketed over the past fifteen years.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in picturesque Gigondas, where wines mainly consist of grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. About a half-hour’s drive northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the most famous appellation in the region), the greatest producers nowadays manage to coax astounding concentration, character, and ageing potential out of their wines. On VINTAGES shelves, most Gigondas costs between $30-70, the best representing astounding value for money when compared to the costliest Châteauneufs, the latter easily surpassing $125. Southwest of here, the finest wines of Vacqueyras are also turning heads.


Picturesque Gigondas

The same can also be said of the Midi (Languedoc-Roussillon), the crescent-shaped portion of Mediterranean France that was mostly recognized for its bulk wine in the past. Not anymore. Nowhere in the country has quality leapt so high in such a short period of time as this gorgeously rugged set of winegrowing areas. In most places, the same grapes as the Southern Rhône dominate the best bottlings, though old-vine carignan is also highly prized. While specific appellations are too varied to list, prices in VINTAGES often begin as low as $30 for some truly exemplary offerings, rising to $60 or more on a few occasions. Compared, once again, to Bordeaux or Burgundy, such wines are a proverbial steal.

Switching to sparklings, every French wine lover understands that Champagne is the most celebrated of its type in the world, though value at the premium end is oftentimes viewed as a contradiction in terms. After all, even the most basic, non-vintage offerings begin at $40 or more in Ontario. As a result, many enthusiasts tend to overlook the more costly vintage-stated versions. But these are precisely the wines to watch out for, especially those from $60-100. Though admittedly not of the same quality as a super-extravagant cuvée like Cristal (nearly $300), such wines are nonetheless almost always profoundly superior to their non-vintage counterparts, capable of cellaring for at least several years.

Then there are the innumerable sweet wines of France. Believe it or not, this is where Bordeaux shines brighter than most of its counterparts, for the likes of Sauternes and Barsac are among the most truly inimitable types of botrytis-affected dessert wines around. Despite the amount of skilled labour and material costs involved, wondrous examples may be had in the range of $40-75, most in 375-mL bottles. Though much cheaper versions are available elsewhere, the quality is oftentimes simply not the same. Hence, along with the fantastic chenin blanc-based dessert wines of the Loire (these simply cannot be omitted), this is arguably the one instance where the most famous examples truly represent the best buys.

Of course, there are many other premium wines throughout France that have not been listed here. From the most prized reds of Madiran and Cahors in the Southwest to the spellbinding Vouvrays (plus a few from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) in the Loire, the number of choices at the luxury level are unimaginable. But this is a column about the truly best of the best, combining both colossal quality and long-term ageability (hence my need to append a few names just a moment ago, along with mourvèdre-based Bandol in Provence and top single-cru Beaujolais). In the end, there will always be an astounding number of tolerably priced premium French wines to choose from, as well as plenty that, in true draconian style, will have to be left out.

My top choices:

Domaine William Fèvre 2011 Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru ($90.00) is sourced from a 2.11-ha parcel of old vines at the foot of the vineyard. Showcasing fantastic harmony, character, and charm, it’s wines like these that get me so excited about Grand Cru Chablis. Drink now or hold for six years or more.

Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru ($65.00) is a perfect illustration of how underpriced Grand Cru Chablis currently stands. For the record: I wrote up this wine in glowing terms in a previous column, yet there are still a few bottles left. Such elegance and harmony! Not to be missed. Drink now or hold for up to nine years.

Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling ($27.95) has been selected not just because of its price (nor because pickings at the moment in VINTAGES are rather slim), but mainly on account of its remarkable quality. From one of the greatest producers in Alsace, this has all the elements of a premium wine, minus the cost. Drink now or hold for five years or more.

E. Guigal 2009 Gigondas ($31.95) is a wine of great power, focus, and clarity of fruit. From one of the most famous producers in the Rhône, this surpasses a whole horde of basic Châteauneufs we wine commentators routinely examine every year. Drink now or hold for ten years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Montirius 2011 Les Clos Vacqueyras ($32.00) delivers both excellent freshness and focus for a wine of its type. As a whole, this producer has consistently delivered both high quality and value over the past several years, making for some very worthy recommendations. Drink now or hold for five years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru 2011Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru 2011Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2010 E. Guigal Gigondas 2009Montirius Le Clos Vacqueyras 2011

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige St-Drézéery ($29.95) encapsulates virtually everything I’ve said about the remarkable value of Midi-based wines, particularly from a standpoint of both quality and ageability. From an especially well-regarded establishment, I have yet to taste a non-overachiever from here. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Moët & Chandon 2004 Grand Vintage Brut Champagne ($83.95) is well less than half the price of Dom Pérignon and yet of truly wonderful quality. Retaining tremendous precision and harmony (not to mention exemplary fruit expression and style), sparkling lovers will not want to miss out on this exemplary vintage champagne. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years.

Larmandier-Bernier 2007 Terres de Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne ($75.00) packs a great deal of firepower for such a young vintage. Boasting considerable intensity and harmony, I’m amazed VINTAGES hasn’t made greater efforts to source more champagnes from this particular house. Drink now or hold for up to ten years.

Château de Myrat 2009 Barsac ($28.00) is not just ridiculously underpriced, but is also likely the best wine ever produced at this estate. Combining resolute harmony with acute deliciousness, this 375-mL bottle serves as a liquid testament to how undervalued great Barsac (along with Sauternes) continues to be. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years.

Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne 2004Larmandier Bernier Terres De Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne 2007Château De Myrat 2009

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores. All price ranges have been researched so as to reflect current availability.


Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find Julian’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

All Julian Hitner Reviews

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Les bons choix de Marc – Mai

Le revival du blanc
par Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau sm

Marc Chapleau

Quand j’ai commencé dans le vin, au milieu des années 1980, le blanc occupait environ les deux tiers des parts de marché à la SAQ. Aujourd’hui, à peu de choses près, c’est l’inverse. Sauf qu’on observe depuis quelques temps un regain de popularité du vin blanc : en 2013, il représentait ainsi 26 % des ventes, en hausse de 3 % par rapport à l’année précédente – et tout semble indiquer que cela va continuer à monter.

La boutade voulant qu’un grand vin soit d’abord rouge a donc de plus en plus de plomb dans l’aile. Les excellents blancs abondent, l’offre s’est beaucoup diversifiée, il y a, dans le lot, amplement de quoi s’amuser.

Mais les rouges aussi ont suivi le même chemin, il n’y a pas que les blancs qui soient dans l’ensemble mieux faits, de nos jours — en grande partie parce que le consommateur lui-même s’est raffiné, il goûte mieux que celui d’avant, et les vignerons n’ont pas eu le choix que de s’ajuster, eux aussi.

Alors pourquoi les blancs grugent-ils quand même le terrain occupé par les rouges ? Bonne question. Et plus qu’une seule réponse. Il y a sûrement aussi là-dedans un simple effet de mode, le changement pour le changement.

Autre possibilité, l’éclosion des cuisines du monde, le fait qu’on peut aujourd’hui facilement retrouver de tout dans son assiette, qui favorise les blancs – tout comme les rosés, du reste. Or, comme ils sont pratiquement dépourvus de tannins, les blancs s’accordent à une multitude de plats qui, autrement, entreraient en collision avec des vins plus ou moins astringents — c’est-à-dire bon nombre de rouges.

Polyvalence surfaite

Paul Jaboulet Aîné Le Chevalier De Sterimberg 2011, Ac Hermitage BlancDomaine Belle Les Terres Blanches 2012Château De Beaucastel Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2012L’explication ne tient cependant pas tout à fait la route, dans la mesure où cette polyvalence des blancs à table est surfaite. Je ne compte plus le nombre de fois, personnellement, où l’accord avec un blanc, fût-ce avec du poisson ou des fruits de mer, n’a pas fonctionné, un goût bizarre s’est formé, il n’y avait entre le verre et l’assiette vraiment pas d’atomes crochus — il faudra d’ailleurs que je demande à mister Chartier de m’éclairer là-dessus…

De toute manière, quoi qu’il en soit, je ne vais pas vous parler de blancs sans vous en suggérer quelques-uns. Surtout, diront les mauvaises langues, que si un indécrottable amateur de rouge comme moi les a aimés, c’est qu’ils sont vraiment très bons.

À tout seigneur, tout honneur. Pour commencer, trois blancs du Rhône, une région qui donnait jadis, voilà 30 ans, au pic de la popularité du vin blanc, des vins souvent mous, riches et gras mais manquant d’acidité et de bagout. Que les choses ont changé !

Pour s’en convaincre, on goûtera le Coudoulet de Beaucastel blanc 2012, le Crozes-Hermitage « Les Terres blanches » 2012 Domaine Belle ou le superbe, mais aussi beaucoup plus cher, Chevalier de Sterimberg 2011 Hermitage Jaboulet. Leur dénominateur commun : comme ils sont relativement riches et corsés, on les prendra à table, en mangeant, et non pour eux-mêmes, à l’apéro. Avec quoi ? Hum… Embêtant, après ce que j’ai dit tantôt… Bon, disons une viande blanche, alors, du bon vieux poulet grillé, par exemple.

Ijalba Maturana Blanca 2012Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis 2012Chanson Père & Fils Bastion de L'OratoireKünstler Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Kabinett Trocken 2012

Autre bon vin blanc plein et généreux comme les précédents, l’espagnol Ijalba Maturana Blanca 2012.

Pour l’apéritif, et bien qu’on pourrait aussi les associer à divers plats, direction la Bourgogne avec le très bon Chablis 2012 Louis Moreau (bouché avec une capsule dévissable, yé !) et le frais, intense et finement boisé Bastion De L’oratoire Chanson Meursault 2011 ; on pourrait aussi lorgner du côté de l’Allemagne, du Rheingau plus précisément, avec l’excellent Riesling Kabinett Künstler Hölle 2012, à la fois cristallin et puissant.

Étonnant Portugal

Bacalhoa Catarina 2013Enfin une curiosité, mais pas vraiment une nouveauté parce que je crois me souvenir que Michel Phaneuf, à l’époque, au début des années 1990, avait eu de très bons mots pour ce vin portugais, qu’on trouvait donc déjà à la SAQ. Chose certaine, ce Catarina Bacalhoa 2013 de la péninsule de Sétubal (juste au sud de Lisbonne) vaut le détour. Surtout qu’on peut l’obtenir pour une chanson ou presque – 14 $.

Maintenant, en terminant, ceci : vous pouvez bien entendu réagir à ce que je viens d’écrire, pour me dénigrer, par exemple, ou au contraire m’abreuver de compliments, notamment pour la qualité de mes accords vins-mets ;-)

Sauf que… si j’ai ensuite l’air d’être aux abonnés absents, si c’est silence radio de ma part, j’ai mes raisons. Je m’éloigne en effet de la civilisation et des médias sociaux pour les prochains jours. Parti loin dans le nord taquiner la mouchetée, la grise et le doré. J’apporte du blanc avec moi, of course, mais également beaucoup de rouge (on ne se refait pas), des pinots noirs de Nouvelle-Zélande notamment, qui vont à peu près avec n’importe quoi. Je les ai aussi choisis avec des capsules dévissables, histoire de ne pas avoir à apporter de back-ups au cas, très probable, où on serait autrement tombé sur des bouchonnés.

Bon long congé à vous autres itou.


Note de la rédaction: vous pouvez lire les commentaires de dégustation complets en cliquant sur les noms de vins, les photos de bouteilles ou les liens mis en surbrillance. Les abonnés payants à Chacun son vin ont accès à toutes les critiques dès leur mise en ligne. Les utilisateurs inscrits doivent attendre 30 jours après leur parution pour les lire. L’adhésion a ses privilèges ; parmi ceux-ci, un accès direct à de grands vins!

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , , , ,

John Szabo’s Free Run – Alsace Part I

Alsace: At the Crossroads Part
By John Szabo MS

Note: news broke on May 13th of the untimely death by suspected heart attack of Laurence Faller, winegrower of Domaine Weinbach, pictured below in November 2013. She was just 47 years old, and a mother of two. I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions. She was truly an extraordinary person and exceptional winemaker, and will be missed by all in the wine community and beyond. Her outstanding wines, however, live on. My sincere condolences to her family.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The following is a special report on Alsace, written after a week long visit in November of 2013 organized by the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Alsace (CIVA), and their Canadian representative, Sopexa.

Part I looks at the cultural and geological factors that have shaped the region’s wines, including political, philosophical and religious influences. Alsace’s strengths, as well as some of the challenges the region faces today, are also explored.

Part II (posted here) offers a list of recommended producers, top terroirs and their characteristics, and wine recommendations for each. For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.

Part I: Calling All Wine Lovers (and Geologists)

Fans of distinctive wines, especially white wines, find happiness in Alsace. The region’s deep repertoire includes world archetypes of riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat, among other varieties – thirteen officially – made in a complete range of styles from fruity to floral to stony, from open and fragrant to tightly wound and mineral, and anywhere from bone dry to lusciously sweet. The finest have an unlikely counterpoint of verve and flesh, acidic tension and substance, as perfectly balanced as a piquant crème fraîche. Receptive drinkers can find a tactile dimension of acids that vibrate now vertically, now horizontally across your palate, depending on the nature of the mother rock underlying the vines – a mesmerizing phenomenon. At the table, Alsace has a match for virtually any dish, and in the cellar, few white wines of the world can match the ageability of the region’s top crus.

View from Top of Rangen de Thann

View from Top of Rangen de Thann

The explanation for such a vast qualitative range of expression lies largely unseen, underground. From the geologist’s perspective, Alsace is an entire textbook sandwiched into a single region, where you can study rock formations from multiple eras without getting in your car to dig new holes. The Vosges Mountains, which run north-south on the western side of the wine growing region, are the mirror image of the hills of Baden on the other side of the Rhine Valley in Germany, once united, now separated by the sinking trough of land where the River Rhine now flows.

In the foothills of the Vosges where vines are planted, volcanic activity and the sedimentary deposits of multiple periods have been subsequently exposed by shearing faults, and modified by mechanical and chemical erosion, creating an immensely complex geological patchwork, like a giant layer cake that’s been upended and sliced on the bias, then further mixed by a pack of hungry school children each trying to grab a piece with their eager fingers. The combinations of soils, elevations and aspects are bewildering, and producers could easily argue that this polyvalent terroir demands a wide variety of grapes and a broad stylistic range to do Alsace justice, even if marketers might disagree.

At The Crossroads of Europe

A recent immersion visit to the region also underscored the reality that the complexity of Alsace hardly stops at soils and grapes. The region’s wines are equally suffused with less tangible and quantifiable influences, and are informed by oscillating ideologies, which contribute yet more layers of distinctiveness.

Alsace is positioned at the crossroads of Europe, a frontier land wedged between the religious, linguistic and philosophical influence of two of continental Europe’s dominant cultures, Latin and Germanic. And there is hardly a tribe that hasn’t passed through the area at one point or another to either trade or make war, which has left Alsatians with both openness and weariness towards outside cultures.

Politically, Alsace has changed hands multiple times, most recently falling again under French control after WWI. But the scars of successive overlords run deep. Alemannic influence is audible in the Alsatian dialect, a language of Germanic roots spoken in the region, closely related to Swiss-German and similar dialects across the Rhine, yet peppered here and there with loan words from French and other languages. Although recognized by the French government in the country’s official list of languages, it very nearly died out and is still in decline.

Government policies have quietly deterred the spread of “non-French” languages, even if Germanic village names and the very non-French custom of labeling wines by grape variety persist. Many growers of the current generation recount how it was strongly discouraged to speak Alsatian at schools right up until the 1980s, a not-so-tacit distancing from Germanic culture. As a consequence, most of the current generation of winegrowers may understand Alsatian, but can’t properly speak it. Several recall how in their childhood their parents would speak in dialect when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying.

Reason vs. Romanticism

Then scratch even lightly beneath the surface here and you’ll discover the tension between Cartesian reason, and Voltaire and Diderot’s Enlightenment on the one hand, and on the other, German romanticism and naturalism embodied by Goethe and its movement to foster intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism. Add in the current German preoccupation with precision and a little Latin-French joie de vivre and you have a very complex mélange indeed. Most Alsatians live and breathe this dichotomy, and their wines draw inspiration from both sides.

I Think, Therefore I am Alsatian

André Ostertag

André Ostertag

“I went to a very Cartesian French school”, says the introspective André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag in the village of Epfig, “but my soul is not at all Cartesian. It’s more Romantic. I feel torn between the two”, revealing his Faustian two-fold nature (“Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast”, from Faust Part One, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

This sentiment is shared by many vignerons in the region, and it explains perhaps why Ostertag is driven to produce wines that are on the one hand dry, precise, and clearly defined as either fruity, floral or stony, while at the same time he struggles with the notion of defining grand cru terroirs and villages, limiting each to a legally narrow range of permitted grapes and wine styles, a process recently initiated by the INAO, the French wine authority. More on this below.

The Lasting Influence of Naturalism and Steiner

Ostertag, like a large and growing number of Alsatian vignerons, follows the scientifically nebulous (non-Cartesian) method of biodynamic farming (even if some would argue its rationality), whose origins stem from the other side of the Rhine. It’s worth noting that Alsace has among the highest percentage of vineyard area in France farmed organically or biodynamically, some 14% of total surface currently, and increasing.

Why, I had always wondered, until I learned that the first institute devoted to biodynamic agriculture is in Colmar, in southern Alsace. It’s a strong manifestation of the lasting influence of naturalism and both the physical and philosophical proximity to Rudolph Steiner, the father of biodynamics, in the area. Steiner was born in Austria, but delivered his famous lectures on biodynamics, based in part on Goethean science, in Silesia, then disputed between Germany and Poland.

According to Demeter International, Germany has more hectares devoted to biodynamic agriculture (all crops) than any other country, over 68,000 among over 1400 farms, or nearly half of the world’s total (some 153,000ha) compared to France’s 8,500ha between 420 farms. It could be said that Alsace, as a porthole to Germany, has been critical in spreading biodynamics throughout France, bridging the worlds of Goethe and Descartes from its position between the two.

A Form of Religious Determinism (of Wine Style)

Religious beliefs, too, have exerted their influenced on Alsatian wine. The ideologies of German Protestants and French Catholics, who have long intermingled in the region, are physically reflected in Alsatian villages, and philosophically expressed in their wines, an essential element of the Christian Eucharist. “Strolling in the villages, you can easily tell which village was Protestant and which was Catholic, if you observe”, declares Pierre Gassmann of Domaine Rolly Gassmann, whose family has been making wine in the village of Rorschwhir since the 1600s.

Pierre Gassmann In His Vines

Pierre Gassmann In His Vines

“Take my village for example”, he continues. “You’ll see fairly plain facades on the houses, not ornately sculpted, making the village appear poorer than others. It’s a catholic village. Why poorer? Because wine sales were obliged to pass through the clergy, who took a hefty “sales commission”, meaning that the growers received less. In protestant villages, vignerons could sell directly to consumers, with fewer intermediaries, so they made more money. That’s why their villages are more richly decorated, with more ostentatious wealth.”

For historical buffs, there are other keys to reading this complex and fascinating region. “The relative [politico-religious] importance of each village can also be seen by the height of the bell tower on the church. The higher the tower, the greater the power and importance of the village”, reveals Gassmann.

And as Gassmann tells me, the wine styles of each village were dictated to a large degree by its religious orientation. Protestants, it seems, preferred the forthrightness of dry wines (a reflection of exiled English puritan Protestants who settled in Germany?). Catholics preferred sweeter, more ostentatious, opulent wines. The confusion between dry and sweet wines remains a communication challenge for Alsace, much more so than religious orientation these days. (See more below.)

The heads of churches, local abbeys and the seigneurs who ruled over each village were early connoisseurs and believers in terroir. They were well aware of where the finest and most ageworthy wines originated, and selected their tithes and taxes accordingly. “The notion of superior “crus” were much better understood by our ancestors than they are today, up until the Revolution”, Gassmann assures me. “Some vineyards were valued higher than the cost of fortifying an entire village, which could take up to a century to pay off”.

Each year, official “gourmands”, trained courtiers, selected the best wines in each village usually as percentage of total production or occasionally by single lot, for further maturation in warehouses owned by merchants or religious entities. It was not uncommon for some lots to be aged for 30 or 40 years or more before being consumed or sold. The wine cellar of Strasbourg City hospital, the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg, still houses one of the oldest wines in the world, a barrel still filled with wine from 1472, last tasted by the liberators of Strasbourg in 1944.

Troubled Times

Despite the region’s unquestionable strengths and delicious complexity, not to mention the longest period of peace in generations, these are troubled times for winegrowers in Alsace. The region is truly at a crossroads, at which many critical decisions will need to be made on how to present its wines to the world. But there appears to be little solidarity or agreement among growers and officials on exactly how to do so.

At the root of the problem is a general lack of profitably. Although average wine quality is arguably higher than ever before, prices at the bottom end of the market remain unsustainably low. Stop into any local supermarché and you’ll see grand crus for $10 or $12 dollars, something that quality-oriented producers lament, and which evidently downgrades both the image of what are supposed to be the region’s best wines, as well as Alsatian wine overall. Imagine finding grand cru Burgundy or classified Bordeaux at comparable prices. Such downward pressure on prices reduces profitability and creates a sliding spiral of quality as corners are necessarily cut to stay afloat.

Jean-Michel Deiss

Jean-Michel Deiss

And for growers, times are even harder. I’ve was told of many growers who have been unable to sell their grapes for much more than the hard costs to grow them, not including their own labour, a situation that has been exacerbated by lower than average crops in three out of the last four years. Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim related to me the story of a local grower who was forced to sell his crop this year at 1,22 euros/kilo. His accountant calculated the cost of growing at 1,11 euros/kilo, earning a thin margin of just 11 cents per kilo. Considering his modest yields, he was left with a paltry 600 euros (c. $900) per month for him and his family to live on – not exactly a princely sum.

Many growers are on the brink of bankruptcy, and it’s expected that a large number of vineyards and small domaines will disappear or be swallowed up by larger companies in the next few years if the situation doesn’t ameliorate.

Why is Alsace struggling? The answer is naturally multi-faceted. The current generation’s preference for red wine and the consequent difficulty of selling premium white wine from anywhere in the world at sustainable prices, is partly to blame. But there’s already evidence that the market for quality white wine is firming up, and prospects are improving.

Yet in order to capitalize on the rising tide, the region must be properly positioned. As it stands, Alsace faces multiple challenges in the international market place, mainly surrounding their communication strategy. How to increase profitability and communicate such a complex region to consumers?

Following are a few of the main issues that are being confronted. None on its own is unique to Alsace, but in combination, they make the situation particularly tough for Alsatian winegrowers and the entities that communicate their message.

Dry or Sweet?

As already mentioned above, there is confusion over what style of wine one can expect when purchasing a bottle of Alsatian wine. The style palate is broad and deep, and the label alone rarely tells the whole story. Will the wine be dry or sweet? Partially botrytis affected and dry, or partially affected and sweet? Or somewhere in between?

Several ideas have been proposed to inform consumers, ranging from pictograms visually depicting the wine on a sweetness scale, to numbered indexes ranging from one to five (or six) according to perceived sweetness (not measurable sugar), or according to a more complex equation relating residual sugar to total acidity. Most estates are operating independently with their own version; as yet there is no region-wide consensus on how best to communicate this important piece of information to consumers. It’s a bit of a mess.

Terroir Chaos

There’s also the more subtle reality that the range of terroirs in the region –granites, limestones, sandstones, and volcanic sediments, all with varying mixes of clay and sand – yield wines of widely varying personality even with the same grape variety, to say nothing of individual growers’ personal influence.

Deiss Schofweg next to limestone from the vineyard

Deiss Schofweg next to limestone from the vineyard

How best to express these differences? It’s not reasonable to expect the average consumer to recall the soil types in each of the 51 grand crus and the wine style they result in, translated over four authorized grape varieties, not to mention the hundreds of other unclassified vineyard sites. And, are the wines aged in large old oak foudre, or barrels or stainless steel, or something else, each of which will add a different dimension? All techniques are employed in the region.

Given all of the potential variations, it’s rare to encounter a producer who doesn’t make at least a dozen different wines every year, some up to 40 or even more by separately bottling different grapes, terroirs and sub-parcels, vine ages, ageing regimes and degrees of sweetness. They’re often labeled under a mixture of grape, terroir and frequently a proprietary cuvee name (usually the name of family members), the latter of which means nothing to outsiders and does nothing to express what’s inside the bottle. Add to that significant vintage variation in this variable northern climate, and you’ve got an unruly portfolio of wines to try to grasp, understand, and remember when standing before one of them on a retail shelf or restaurant list.

And that’s just one of hundreds of portfolios. It’s virtually impossible to remember the character and nature of so many cuvees even within the range of a single producer unless you live and breathe Alsace, and the label rarely serves to clarify the matter. Is cuvee “X” the dry or the off-dry one? From the old vines or the young vines? The top of the hill or the bottom of the hill? So much, I’d suggest, could be solved by more informative back labels.

Brand vs. Cru?

Then there’s the conflict between producers marketing their wines based on a brand name as opposed to the name of one of the officially recognized grand crus or lieux-dits. An extreme example is Trimbach’s celebrated Riesling Clos Sainte Hune, Alsace’s most expensive dry wine. The clos has been a monopole of the Trimbach family for over 200 years, which is entirely within the Rosacker grand cru in the village of Hunawhir. But you’ll have to read the small print to learn that Clos Ste. Hune comes from the Rosacker, and even then there’s no mention of it being a “grand cru”– Trimbach doesn’t advertise this fact – a willful distancing from the appellation system. For them, the name of the clos, a Trimbach brand for all intents and purposes, has more value than the name of the cru, and much more even than the classification grand cru.

Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr

Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr

Clos Sainte Hune is unquestionably Rosacker’s greatest riesling, and indeed one the world’s finest, which must make both other producers of Rosacker even more regretful that there’s no mention of the official cru name on Trimbach’s label, and appellation authorities frustrated that there’s no mention of the classification. The name and classification on such a prestigious wine would serve to validate and raise the cru’s image, and by extension, that of the entire classification, thereby helping to establish an international reputation for the best sites in Alsace, in the fashion of Le Chambertin or Le Musigny in Burgundy.

But even this staunchly traditional house has begun to re-consider its disillusioned views towards officialdom. As Jean Trimbach explains, “when the grand crus were created, there was no control, so we didn’t play. But now the situation is completely different, so maybe we will start to include the name of the cru”. So there is hope. Should a regional leader like Trimbach choose to embrace the appellation system, others are sure to follow.

But for the time being Alsace remains full of examples of proprietary brand names or monopoles used to identify the wine, rather than the shared appellation or cru name, serving the producer over the region.

Varietal or Terroir Wines?

Related to the cru vs. brand discussion is the contentious proposition to entirely eliminate varietal labeling, which has a long history in Alsace, and identify wines only by the name of the general appellation, village, lieu-dit or cru, as is practiced in most other regions in France. Which approach adds more value to a wine?

The idea is espoused most vociferously by Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss, a deeply thoughtful but controversial figure in the Region. “Why compete with the rieslings or gewurztraminers from the rest of the world? We have great, and unique terroirs, but we lose this advantage by putting forward the names of grapes instead of places”, Deiss argues.

Deiss is legendary in Alsace for what some consider to be radical, heretical opinions, at least in the context of modern commercial viticulture. But his thoughts go far beyond mere commercial and communication considerations.  Taking the anti-varietal labeling concept even further, Deiss advocates the approach of co-planting multiple varieties on a single site, intermixed, rather than in mono-varietal blocks, allowing each terroir to reveal itself through multiple varieties rather than one single grape. He has several sites with mixed plantings of all thirteen permitted grape varieties, the names of which do not, of course, appear on the labels, and he makes no varietal wines; all are labeled by place.

Deiss, who farms biodynamically, doesn’t believe that the biodynamic system is compatible with the idea of a single variety. Woe to him who asks for the percentage breakdown of grapes in any of his cuvees; he’s face is liable to darken with a look of you-haven’t-understood-me-or-my-wines if you ask such a question. There’s never talk of grape, only terroir. His current project is to take the approach even further, by replanting some of his sites with no fewer than forty-seven different local varieties, mixed together in random proportions, including nine distinct rieslings that he has been able to find and propagate. The object: more complex wines, with less intervention in the vineyard and cellar.

Deiss draws an analogy with the alphabet: “I want to have more letters in the alphabet. Thirteen symbols [grapes] is too few, it makes for a dying language. I want more symbols to be able to write more complex words and to write more interesting novels.”

Jean Trimbach

Jean Trimbach

Deiss’ ideas have drawn support, but more frequently criticism in the region. More than once I was asked to keep comments about him off the record, indicating a curious mix of respect and disbelief towards him, like an adherent to one religion recognizing and respecting another’s, but not being stirred enough to convert, nor wishing to draw attention to the fact. Although many are happy to have a controversial thinker and practitioner in their midst, one who can draw attention to Alsace, few are prepared to follow. “What Deiss does is good, but don’t think the rest of Alsace can do that”, says Jean Trimbach matter-of-factly.

Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach is outright opposed to eliminating grapes and mixing plantations: “we have great cépages, and great terroir. Co-planting is generally done to compensate for a variety’s shortcomings. Each variety can express, can translate terroirs. Grapes and terroirs are equal. I try not to make hierarchies. To completely erase the grape is crazy. Deiss can do what he wants, but I don’t want to be forced to do the same.”

Gassmann, too, believes that not all varieties are capable of revealing the best in a particular terroir: “each variety absorbs different elements, thus for each terroir there is a better vector.”

Faller and others also point out that most wines made from co-planted vineyards are sweet, or at least not fully dry, since the different maturation times of varieties invariably results in varying percentages of ripe and overripe bunches. “It’s a shame that we’re loosing the notion of great dry wine. Technically this is not possible with mixed plantings,” says Faller, even if Deiss tells me that there is a harmonization of the ripening cycles of different varieties planted together. Deiss also claims that there’s a side benefit of higher disease resistance in mixed plantations. But, tellingly, virtually all of Deiss’ wines have some measure of residual sugar.

Ostertag, who also practices biodynamics and strives to separate dry and sweet wines in his range, agrees on the technical disadvantages: “great Riesling and gewurztraminer can’t co exist in the same vineyard. Riesling needs poor soil – just look around the world at where the best are grown. Gewürztraminer and pinot gris need richer soils to express their maximum”.

Any agreement between the schools of thought is likely to remain elusive. There is historical precedence for both approaches – varietal and mixed planting – as well as for labeling by place with no mention of grape. I suspect there will continue to be advocates for both. Ultimately it makes for a more interesting and complex landscape of wines, but the specter of communication challenges rises once again. In a region known for varietal labeling, to see more and more bottles come onto the market with only a place-name to identify them, and no indication of the grape(s), may further confuse consumers without a parallel communication strategy.

Defining the Wine Styles of the Grands Crus and the Villages?

As mentioned above, the INAO has undertaken the ambitious plan to define the wine styles of each grand cru and village. Should it be dry or sweet, red or white? Which grape or grapes to allow? But the very Cartesian plan, designed to simplify and clarify the over-arching message of Alsatian wine, and link grapes with crus and styles, has met with considerable resistance.

“I’m against a fixed idea of terroir”, continues André Ostertag. “The INAO is asking us to define precisely the type of wines we make in each cru. It’s like asking someone to describe what mood he’ll be in tomorrow morning. It’s not possible to define. The current bureaucracy wants to minimize or eliminate all variations and predict everything. It’s the influence of the Anglo-Saxon world. In Latin law, anything that isn’t specified is authorized. In English law, anything that isn’t mentioned is forbidden. I feel much more Latin in this instance. Death is rigid; to fix something is to kill it. Life is fluid and ever-changing.”

How’s that for a Romantic thought with a Latin twist, a good distance from Descartes’ rationalism.

Laurence Faller_Domaine Weinbach

Laurence Faller – Domaine Weinbach

And Ostertag is not alone in his resistance to terroir determination. “We can’t define everything, even though it would simplify the landscape. We have to allow some liberties. We can’t regulate everything,” says Laurence Faller.

Pierre Gassmann recounts how the INAO had proposed to combine twelve different terroirs into two grand crus in his home village of Rorschwihr, but: “we in the village refused the plan. Even the grape growers [who grow and sell grapes, but don’t make wine], refused to allow the assemblage of these terroirs. We have twelve highly reputed terroirs that are each distinct”, he says. Resistance runs deep.

Anyone with even the most basic level of international PR/marketing experience can see the challenge of communicating, for example, twelve single vineyard expressions in one small village in one small wine region, the names of which are unknown even to the majority of Alsatians, never mind wine consumers on the other side of the Rhine Valley, and even less on the other side of the world. But Gassmann, who’s family has been making wine since the 1600s, and his co-villagers, care little for such short sighted simplifications, even if it could mean a boost in prices thanks to the lofty, and widely understood, grand cru designation on a label. “But you’ll never to be able to extract the maximum that the site has to offer” says Gassmann, in a rationally romantic way.

Some growers, however, have been in favour of defining the wine profile (varieties, styles) for specific villages and the top sites within each, including the grand crus. Currently eleven such communal designations have already been created (see the official website for the wines of Alsace), but for the remaining villages, given the tenacity of some vignerons’ beliefs, it’s hard to see the region ever coming to a common accord any time soon.

Looking Ahead

Despite, or perhaps because of, the incredibly complex cultural, philosophical, religious and geological make-up of the region, and its politically volatile past, the future looks strong for Alsace. As Jean Trimbach believes, “Alsace is headed in the right direction”.

Diversity is a strength as well as a weakness, and as consumers continue to learn about wine in greater numbers, and knowledge levels run deeper, Alsace will inevitably attract a new generation of wine lovers.

A coherent and universal marketing message is perhaps not as critical as one would think, after all. A small step, like an informative back label, would be an easy fix for cuvee confusion, as some in the region have already started doing. The dry vs. sweet issue is more critical and needs to be resolved with a more systematic fix, the simpler the better. Perhaps legislating the inclusion of residual sugar in grams per liter on the label (something I believe all wines should do) could be a common baseline onto which producers can layer their own interpretive ideas.

I can see no clear resolution to the varietal vs. place labeling issue, but since these two factions aren’t truly hostile, they can continue to coexist. Great wines invariably find their markets, while pour quality wines will struggle no matter what’s on the label.

And as for the concern of profitability, here too, there is a strong probability that the situation will improve. As Olivier Humbrecht, of the iconic Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, states with a properly philosophical, long-term view: “don’t forget that only a generation ago in Bordeaux most families could barely afford to heat their châteaux. Now look at them.” He sums up the future prospects for Alsace with characteristic clarity: “In Alsace we have great terroirs, and great wines. Our time will come.”

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Part II: Terroirs, Top Wines & Producers

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , , ,

John Szabo’s Free Run – Alsace Part II

Alsace: At the Crossroads Part
By John Szabo MS

Note: news broke on May 13th of the untimely death by suspected heart attack of Laurence Faller, winegrower of Domaine Weinbach, pictured here in November 2013. She was just 47 years old, and a mother of two. I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions. She was truly an extraordinary person and exceptional winemaker, and will be missed by all in the wine community and beyond. Her outstanding wines, however, live on. My sincere condolences to her family.

Laurence Faller_Domaine Weinbach

Laurence Faller – Domaine Weinbach

The following is a special report on Alsace, written after a week-long visit in November of 2013 organized by the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Alsace (CIVA), and their Canadian representative, Sopexa.

Part I (posted here) looks at the cultural and geological factors that have shaped the region’s wines, including political, philosophical and religious influences. Alsace’s strengths, as well as some of the challenges the region faces today, are also explored.

Part II below offers a list of recommended producers, top terroirs and their characteristics, and wine recommendations for each. For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.

Part Two:  Terroirs, Top Wines & Producers

Following is a round-up of some of the top producers in Alsace, by no means an exhaustive list, but all are worth a visit, or a taste. All farm organically and/or biodynamically. I’ve also listed the main terroirs/soils found in Alsace (but again, not all), the most representative grand cru vineyards for each type, and a few of the best wines I’ve tasted from each. Click on each wine for tasting notes and availability – all producers are represented in Canada.

For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.

Exceptional Producers

Albert Mann
André Ostertag
Marc Kreydenweiss
Marcel Deiss
Rolly Gassmann

Christophe Erhard, JosMeyer 1 Kreydenweiss Labels 1

Very Good Producers

Barmès – Buecher
Bernard Schoffit
J.M. Sohler
Pierre Frick
René Muré
Valentin Zusslin

Geneviève Barmès Buecher 1 Hervé Sohler in his Cellar 1

Main Terroirs & Top Wines

(For more about Alsace Grand Crus and the details of each terroir visit the official Wines of Alsace website)


Granite soils yield wines that are fresh and floral, generally dry, and immediately open and appealing from the start even if capable of long ageing. Finesse and delicacy are common descriptors. Riesling performs very well in granite soils, as does pinot gris. Top Grand Cru vineyards on granite: Brand, Schlossberg, Sommerberg, Winzenberg.

2012 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Sainte Catherine

2011 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Grand Cru Brand

2008 Albert Mann Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg

2009 JosMeyer Riesling Grand Cru Brand

2011 Marcel Deiss Langenberg “La Longue Colline”

2012 Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss Pinot Blanc La Fontaine aux Enfants



Perhaps the most distinctive in Alsace, wines born of the rare sedimentary-volcanic soils are invariably deeper in colour, extremely rich in mineral extract and structured for long ageing. The aroma and flavour profiles are marked by a unique stony-sulphurous minerality and notable salinity that’s not necessarily immediately appealing. These are wines for attuned oenophiles seeking something distinct and original. The Rangen de Thann is Alsace’s only truly volcanic terroir, a heart-stoppingly steep, 60%, south-facing site at the very southern tip of the region featuring friable volcanic rocks overlying a thin layer of soil anchored on greywacke beneath. Alsace’s highest elevation makes this a windy, slow ripening site. Rangen wines stand out for their amplitude, weight and salinity, as well as gun flint, stony, smoky, wet stones aromatics. Riesling and pinot gris are the ultimate expressions of Rangen.

The excellent Muenchberg grand cru in Nothalten also contains some volcanic sands that lend its wines a uniqueness saltiness of their own.

2010 Domaine Bernard Schoffit Riesling Clos St. Théobald Grand Cru Rangen De Thann

2010 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain Grand Cru Rangen De Thann

2010 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Rangen De Thann

2012 Domaine Ostertag A360P Pinot Gris Grand Cru Muenchberg

2010 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Muenchberg Grand Cru

Grand Cru Muenchberg

Grand Cru Muenchberg


Marly-limy soils consist of thick deposits of compacted limestone and clay, called marl, with calcareous pebbles cemented within. This type of terroir is especially rich in assimilable calcium and magnesium, while the amount of clay in the mix determines the amount of other minerals and fertilizing elements – the more clay, the more minerals are available to the vine. Marl-limestone is one of the most frequent soil types and also one of the most sought-after by winegrowers given its suitability to the full range of Alsatian grapes, especially pinot gris, gewurztraminer and riesling. Top marl-limestone grand crus include the Altenberg de Bergheim, Goldert, Hengst, Mambourg, Pfingstberg, and Sonnenglanz.

2010 Marcel Deiss Mambourg Grand Cru

2010 Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Mambourg Vendange Tardives

2010 JosMeyer Riesling Grand Cru Hengst

2011 Bott Geyl Riesling Grand Cru Schœnenbourg

2008 Bott Geyl Pinot Gris Grand Cru Sonnenglanz

2008 Valentin Zusslin Riesling Grand Cru Pfingstberg

2010 Rolly Gassmann Auxerrois Moenchreben de Rorschwihr

Jean-Christophe Bott-Geyl

Jean-Christophe Bott-Geyl

Limestone (with more or less clay, sandstone, marl, muschelkalk)

Limestone comes in many variations in Alsace, including what’s known locally as muschelkalk – a grey limestone with layers of marl, dolomitic limestone, and the whitish oolitic (Jurassic) limestone, each with slight variations in their percentages of soluble (active) limestone, and thus potential for assimilation by the vine and expression in wine. In general, wines born of limestone are slow to open and evolve, but make for structured, highly ageworthy bottles. Some producers such as Pierre Gassmann believe that limestone terroirs are more prone to botrytis and that grapes must be harvested fully ripe (virtually at vendanges tardives levels of ripeness) in order to reach full potential. Gewurztraminer and muscat are usually best suited to limestone, where they achieve their full, expressive aromatics in grand crus like Furstentum and Steinert, while riesling performs magic in the Dolomitic limestone of the Rosacker grand cru.

2010 Trimbach Riesling Réserve

2007 Trimbach  Cuvée Frédéric Émile

2007 Trimbach Clos Sainte Hune

2011 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Windsbuhl

2010 René Muré Riesling Clos Saint Landelin

2007 René Muré Pinot Gris Clos Saint Landelin Sélection de Grains Nobles

2010 Valentin Zusslin Pinot Noir Bollenberg ‘Harmonie’

2009 Rolly Gassmann Riesling Sibelberg de Rorschwihr

2000 Rolly Gassmann Riesling Pflanzerreben de Rorschwihr

2010 Rolly Gassmann Riesling de Rorschwihr Selections de Grain Nobles

2008 Rolly Gassmann Pinot Gris Réserve Rolly Gassmann

2009 Marcel Deiss Schoffweg “Le Chemins des Brebis”

Véronique Muré, of Domaine René Muré 1 Pierre Gassmann and His Father 1

Additional Fine Wines from Various Terroirs

2012 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Fronholz

2008 Domaine Mark Kreydenweiss Pinot Gris Clos Rebberg

2010 Domaine Mark Kreydenweiss Riesling Kastelberg Granc Cru


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Part I: Calling All Wine Lovers (and Geologists)

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

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Soif d’ailleurs avec Nadia

Heureux mois de mai !

Nadia Fournier

Nadia Fournier

Pour les catholiques, c’est le mois de Marie. Pour les Français (quelle que soit leur confession), c’est le mois du muguet – et celui de tous les congés. Pour les Québécois, ce serait plutôt le mois du lilas, du renouveau, de l’éveil de la nature, du remisage des tuques, foulards et mitaines. Autant de raisons pour l’apprécier.

Et en mai, on fait ce qu’il nous plaît ! Enfin, pendant 30 jours. Parce que le deuxième dimanche de mai, on fait ce qui plaît… à nos mamans !

Ce dimanche donc, les familles québécoises se réuniront pour célébrer leurs mamans autour d’un repas. Et comme le disait avec justesse mon collègue Marc Chapleau dans son récent billet sur le menu pascal, ces festins composés d’une kyrielle de plats variés constituent un défi certain pour les accords mets-vins. Puisqu’il semble presque impossible de trouver LA bouteille qui se mariera à tous les plats, mieux vaut user de sagesse et opter pour des vins passe-partout.

Ah oui ! Si vous célébrez maman autour d’un brunch, privilégiez des vins modérément alcoolisés. Cela permettra de faire durer le plaisir…

Bonne fête des Mères !

Pour en finir avec les mimosas

Je ne sais trop pourquoi, mais j’entretiens un rapport trouble avec le mimosa. Remarquez, sur le fond, je n’ai rien contre. J’apprécie autant le jus d’orange que le vin effervescent. Mais j’aime le premier lorsqu’il est frais et le second lorsqu’il est bon. Or, ce cocktail traditionnellement servi au brunch est souvent un malheureux mélange de jus d’orange commercial et de vin effervescent de qualité douteuse.

Tselepos Amalia Brut Sparkling WineVignalta Fior D'arancioDepuis quelques années, j’ai cependant redécouvert les vertus du Moscato. Souvent cantonnée au dessert, cette spécialité du nord de l’Italie est tout indiquée pour les plats sucrés-salés du petit-déjeuner avec sa douceur et sa légèreté alcoolique. J’affectionne particulièrement le Fior d’Arancio 2011 Spumante, élaboré par Vignalta – un producteur phare des Colli Euganei, au sud-ouest de Padoue. Le muscat fior d’arancio, un cépage peu connu issu d’un croisement entre le muscat à petits grains et le chasselas, donne ici un vin délicieusement aromatique, avec des saveurs caractéristiques de fleur d’oranger. Abordable et disponible dans une cinquantaine de succursales de la SAQ.

Plus sec, mais tout aussi original par sa composition de moschophilero qui lui confère de fines tonalités florales, le Amalia Brut du producteur grec Yannis Tselepos est arrondi par un léger reste de sucre (10 g par litre), mais non moins équilibré et désaltérant.

Un brin de douceur, de légèreté et d’exotisme

Müller Catoir Qba Pfalz Trocken Riesling 2012Secateurs Badenhorst Chenin Blanc 2012Compagnon idéal des asperges, des salades, des quiches, du saumon fumé, du crabe et de la plupart des fruits de mer, le riesling est l’un des cépages les plus polyvalents qui soient, surtout à l’heure du lunch. Et même s’ils sont plus riches que ceux de la Moselle, les rieslings du Palatinat allemand font néanmoins preuve d’une grande « buvabilité ». Si la douceur naturelle des bons vins allemands vous agace, il vous faut goûter ce Riesling Trocken, c’est-à-dire sec, de la maison Müller-Catoir. Digeste, racé, désaltérant et abordable. Le meilleur des mondes !

Sur un mode plus vineux, voici maintenant un très bon vin de chenin blanc provenant d’Afrique du sud et nommément du Swartland, au nord-ouest du Cap. Ce secteur encore trop peu connu compte toujours plusieurs vieux ceps de chenin blanc, de cinsault et de syrah, qui donnent des vins complexes et substantiels. Quoique modeste, le chenin blanc Sécateur de Badenhorst est à retenir pour ses saveurs franches et son originalité. Le vin tout-aller que l’on peut apprécier autant à l’apéritif qu’à table, avec un ceviche.

Soif de rouge ?

Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages Combes Aux Jacques 2012Jean Paul Brun L'ancien Beaujolais 2012Les beaujolais sont des vins de soif par excellence ! Les meilleurs combinent la légèreté et le caractère juteux propre au cépage gamay, sans être banals ni dépourvus de personnalité. Parfois bourrus, parfois nuancés et élégants, tout en conservant ce caractère guilleret qui fait tout le charme des bons vins du Beaujolais.

Lors d’une entrevue réalisée plus tôt cette année en prévision de La Beaujoloise, Jean-Paul Brun, vigneron incontournable de la région, disait des beaujolais qu’ils sont des « vins d’avenir », en ce qu’ils correspondent à une demande internationale pour « des vins faiblement alcoolisés, légers, faciles à boire et à marier avec la cuisine. » On ne peu que lui donner raison lorsqu’on goûte sa cuvée L’Ancien 2012. Souple, léger (12 % d’alcool), rafraîchissant et très plaisant avec ses notes de cerise acidulée.

Un peu moins dense, mais non moins savoureux et rassasiant de fraîcheur, le Beaujolais-Villages 2012 Combe aux Jacques de Jadot est une valeur sûre parmi les vins rouges inscrits au répertoire général de la SAQ.

Frais comme un rosé !

Comment envisager un mois de mai réussi sans un verre de rosé ? Vin de seconde catégorie pour certains, le rosé mérite pourtant d’être considéré avec sérieux. Lorsqu’il est bon et élaboré dans les règles de l’art, on s’entend ! Mais, au fait, qu’est-ce qu’un bon rosé ?

D’abord, le vin sera sec, obligatoirement. Pour le reste, tout dépend des critères de l’appellation et du style que souhaite adopter le vigneron. Certains auront une couleur rose foncée – comme à Tavel, dans le Rhône –, d’autres seront à peine colorés – comme ceux de Provence, par exemple. Le vigneron devra ensuite trouver le juste équilibre entre l’extraction de la couleur et l’obtention d’une texture fine, entre les saveurs de fruits rouges et les tonalités florales, entre l’onctuosité et la fraîcheur. Pas si facile que ça, le petit vin d’été, tout compte fait !

Chartier Créateur D'harmonies Le Rosé 2013Pétale De Rose 2013Charles & Charles Rosé 2013En attendant que la plupart des bons vins rosés de spécialité (dont quelques bandols) ne soient bientôt mis en marché, on trouvera son bonheur avec les trois bons vins énumérés ci-dessous, secs (!) et disponibles en quantités importantes dans le réseau.

D’abord, soulignons l’arrivée en succursales du rosé de la gamme Chartier, Créateur d’Harmonies. Fruit d’un assemblage de cinsault, de grenache et de mourvèdre Le Rosé 2013 n’a rien de flamboyant ni d’original, mais s’avère un très bon vin de facture classique, sec et agréable à boire.

Classique d’entre les classiques en matière de rosé de Provence, le célèbre Pétale de Rose 2013 de Régine Sumeire est tout aussi recommandable cette année.

Dans l’État de Washington, Charles Smith – producteur et rock star – élabore aussi un très bon rosé d’inspiration rhodanienne. Plus dodu que le précédent, mais original et bien fait : Charles and Charles Rosé 2013.

À la vôtre !


Note de la rédaction: vous pouvez lire les commentaires de dégustation complets en cliquant sur les noms de vins, les photos de bouteilles ou les liens mis en surbrillance. Les abonnés payants à Chacun son vin ont accès à toutes les critiques dès leur mise en ligne. Les utilisateurs inscrits doivent attendre 30 jours après leur parution pour les lire.

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