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Buyers Guide to VINTAGES May 10 – Part One

South America, Germany and Rosé
By John Szabo with notes from Sara d’Amato and David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s Buyers Guide to VINTAGES (note our new name) features wines from South America, Germany and the annual spring fling with rosé. I’m pleased to report that there are plenty of good values, and good wines in the release, and the stars align on a handful. David Lawrason and Sara D’Amato also add their personal recommendations. Read on to see the top picks.

South America

The South American feature is a well-chosen selection that for the most part thankfully avoids the raft of over-made wines that have plagued offers from Chile and especially Argentina in the past. There’s a focus instead on balance and drinkability, and the best selections deliver genuine character and class. It’s also pleasing to see far fewer ludicrously heavy bottles – the kind that weigh a kilo empty – that were once all the rage on the continent.

The Stars Align

Valle Secreto First Edition Carmenère 2011Achaval Ferrer Malbec 20122012 Achaval Ferrer Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($24.95). John Szabo – Since 1999 Achaval Ferrer has been making some of Argentina’s best wines under the guidance of Italian oenologist Roberto Cipresso. If I had to choose one word to describe the estate’s wines it would be purity, though I’d also want to add in elegance and refinement. I find this, their entry-level bottling from three vineyards in Mendoza ranging from 13 to 86 years old, to be one of the most attractive buys in Argentina. One can’t help but be drawn in by the freshness of fruit, the delicate, suave and supple palate and the exceptional concentration and length. Best 2014-2020. Sara d’Amato –  A fresh and elegant malbec that smacks of sophistication for a price that is easy to swallow. A combination of old vines and high elevations makes this a wine to covet for your cellar. Compared to its single vineyard siblings, this entry-level is an undeniable value.

2011 Valle Secreto First Edition Carmenère, Cachapoal Valley, Chile ($18.95). John Szabo –  Carmenère is often a love-it-or-hate-it variety, a late ripener that can be quite burly and green even in Chile’s warm climate. Though this example has its share of wintergreen and fresh bay leaf, it’s nicely balanced and backed by plenty of and black and blue fruit – a solid and satisfying drop. Best 2014-2019. Sara d’Amato – This is a modern carmenère that has fallen into careful hands. It’s beautifully ripened and offers a slowly unveiling palate of rich black fruit, salinity and hint of dried herbs. The unique terroir of the upper Cachapoal has afforded this wine a really delicate balance between alcohol, tannins and fruit that play so effortlessly together on the palate.

John Szabo Recommends

2010 Altos Las Hormigas Terroir Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina ($19.95). Another pair of Italians, Alberto Antonini and Attilio Pagli, are responsible for the exceptional wines of Altos Las Hormigas, a winery founded in Luján de Cuyo in 1995. The Malbec Terroir hails from the higher, and cooler, Uco Valley, highlighting the appealing floral side of the grape. Best 2014-2018.

2011 Ojo De Agua Cuvée Spéciale, Mendoza, Argentina ($19.95). Dieter Meier is an enterprising Swiss artist and musician, the man behind the electronic music group Yello, as well as a professional poker player and formerly a member of the Swiss national golf team, as I learned from his Wikipedia page. In his spare time, he also runs a restaurant in Zurich, and raises cattle and grows organic grapes and produces wine in Mendoza – now that’s a well-rounded CV. His lovely Cuvée Speciale made from half malbec with cabernet sauvignon and franc, is fine, fresh and honest stuff, best 2014-2018.

2010 Maycas Del Limarí Reserva Especial Chardonnay, Limarí Valley, Chile ($19.95). I’m pleased to see this re-released and back on the shelves of the LCBO, drinking beautifully at the moment. The limestone-rich Limarí Valley in Northern Chile is the finest region in the country for chardonnay in my view, suffusing wines with a distinctively salty minerality, while the cool coastal breezes from the Pacific just a few kilometers away keep grapes fresh and focused.

2009 Tabalí Reserva Especial Limarí Valley, Chile ($22.95). But the Limarí is not just about fine chardonnay, as this blend of 3/4 syrah, with merlot and cabernet from Tabalí clearly shows. I’ve been regularly impressed with the full range from this estate, which I visited several years ago, now celebrating 21 years in business. This is also a re-release from last year, when it was also recommended. The extra year of age has conferred softer tannins and better wood integration, making it even more appealing. Best now-2019.

Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Terroir 2010  Ojo De Agua Cuvée Spéciale 2011  Maycas Del Limarí Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2010  Tabalí Reserva Especial 2009  Maipe Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

More from Sara d’Amato

Maipe Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Mendoza, Argentina ($18.95). At over 3,000 feet above sea level where this delectable cabernet is grown, you can bet that the winds can be felt. The name Maipe means of the “Lord of the Wind” which is still called upon frequently to tame the summer heat. This entry-level cabernet delivers impressive depth and intensity all the while remaining open, honest and expressive.

Lawrason’s Take

Montes Purple Angel 2011Hermanos De Domingo Molina Hermanos Torrontés 2012Hermanos De Domingo Molia 2012 Torrontés Cafayate Valley, Salta, Argentina ($12.75). Torrontes must be the most obvious wine on the planet, with a peacock’s tail of perfumed aromatics. Some will hate it, others won’t. But whatever your stance, this is a textbook example. And at only $12.75 you can afford to find out where you stand.

Montes 2011 Purple Angel, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($59.95). For several years this has stood as an icon for Chile’s aspirations to make “great, global wine”. And as much as you might balk at spending $60 on Chilean red, I urge you to divert $60 from the purchase of any mainstream Bordeaux or California reds. And take the time to decant and delve into the fine nuances offered within its rich framework.


Riesling is still king in Germany, made in a style that I’ve yet to find reproduced anywhere else in the world, while pricing remains utterly attractive. Consider that barely a century ago, the top vineyards fetched higher prices than Bordeaux’s classified growths. Personally, I’m delighted with the situation – I’ll happily buy a hundred bottles of great riesling for the cost of one first growth. But the country offers more than just riesling, as David and Sara reveal.

The Stars Align

2011 C.H. Berres Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany ($18.25). John Szabo –  Rich, heady and ripe, as is frequently the case for rieslings from this astonishingly steep, perfectly oriented vineyard and its red volcanic soils, this is a real beauty. Have a look at the picture I took of the Würzgarten and marvel at the fact that anyone even bothers to grow grapes on this precipitous slope, and imagine the effort required to produce this wine. Then consider the price – I can say honestly say that $18 wouldn’t begin to cover my danger pay, though the vineyard workers surely have impressive calves. There’s enough dry extract, noble bitterness and lively acids to dry out the finish, making this off-dry wine seem virtually dry. Best 2014- 2023. Sara d’Amato – This prime Mosel house claims an impressive legacy: since 1510, twenty-one generations have worked the estate. Fermented with natural yeasts and afforded all the luxuries that riesling could ever want (and devoid of almost any interference), the result is a wonderfully expressive and highly intriguing wine – a steal!

C.H. Berres Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 2011  Max Ferd. Richter Riesling Kabinett 2007Heinrich Vollmer Altum Spätburgunder Dry 2008  Königschaffhausener Vulkanfelsen Trocken Pinot Gris 2012  Werner Anselmann Edesheimer Rosengarten Siegerrebe Spätlese 2012

John Szabo Also Recommends

2007 Max Ferd. Richter Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany ($19.95). The Sonnenuhr (Sundial) is one of the Mosel’s great vineyards, combining perfect exposure with well-drained, pure slate soils that consistently yield startling fresh and balanced Riesling. This 2007 was first released in August 2009, and amazingly five years on since my first tasting, the fruit has advanced, but not much, and there’s still a delicious sapidity and freshness to the orchard fruit, not to mention a large dose of classic Mosel slatey minerality. Ahh, the magic of Mosel Riesling, truly timeless wines.

More from Sara d’Amato

Looking down to the Mosel River from the Würzgarten

Looking down to the Mosel River from the Würzgarten

2008 Heinrich Vollmer Altum Spätburgunder Dry, Qualitätswein, Pfalz, Germany ($19.95). You say spätburgunder and I say pinot noir – it’s all the same and yet completely different when planted in the almost Mediterranean climate of the Pfalz. Here vines ripen more quickly, benefitting from sunnier days and a drier climate than much of winegrowing Germany. This pinot will surprise you with its complexity and brooding smokiness.

Lawrason’s Take

2012 Königschaffhausen Vulkanfelsen Trocken Pinot Gris, Baden, Germany ($14.95). One of the great revelations from a trip to Baden in southern Germany last summer was the quality, style and depth of their pinot gris and pinot blanc. Not surprising really given these varieties also thrive over the Rhine River border in Alsace; but I think the best examples from Baden – like this great value – bring a certain slender elegance and polish often missing in Alsace.

2012 Anselmann Edesheimer Roséngarten Siegerrebe Spätlese, Pfalz, Germany ($16.95). Not unlike the Argentine torrontes in this release, this has incredible aromatics – very heady stuff.  Indeed that is siegerrebe’s claim to fame. And as with torrontes some may find it over the top, but I guarantee there will be occasions as our weather warms and you are enjoying a citrus or tropical fruit based salad where a chilled bottle of this modestly priced wine will be just perfect.

John on Rosé

Rosé wines are hot in Canada. Consumption has grown by 38 per cent in the last five years, and a recent Vinexpo study forecasts another 45% increase in sales by 2016. Most of these impressive gains are driven by cheap sweet blush to be sure, but I was happy to taste through the range of releases for May 10th, a solid collection of mostly dry, serious, food-friendly wines. Nearly half of the features are recommended by one or more of the WineAlign cru. Southern France remains the region where I do most of my shopping – I love those pale, delicate, dry, aromatic versions – though there are some fine contenders from elsewhere, too.

2013 Château La Tour De l’Évêque Rosé, Provence, France ($18.95). I could cut and paste just about any previous review for this wine without misleading – this is consistently solid, arch-classic Provencal rosé, and 2013 continues in the same lineage, if perhaps a little riper than average with its generous 13.5% alcohol.

2013 Gérard Bertrand Côte Des Roses Rosé, Languedoc, France ($19.95). Bertrand’s entire collection of wines, a considerable portfolio, is invariably worth a look. Part of your money goes no doubt to cover the cost of the attractive bottle with the bottom molded like a rosé flower, but the wine inside is also of premium quality, in the pale, dry, savoury and fruity southern French style. I’m inclined to pay the premium, and think of the designs you can make in the sand on the beach this summer.

2013 Château Val Joanis Tradition Syrah Rosé, Luberon, France ($15.95). This vineyard in the Luberon sits on round pudding stones like much of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, though the higher elevation yields lighter and more finely detailed flavours. This is pale, dry and fruity-savoury in the classic southern French style, gentle and delicate.

2013 Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, Coastal Region, South Africa ($12.95). Be thankful that the Swedes, who guzzle countless thousand cases of Mulderbosch’s rosé, saved us a few. This is nicely priced, simple but well-balanced cabernet rosé, with the merest hint of sweetness but lots of juicy acids to keep it firm and focused.

2013 Château La Tour De l'Évêque Rosé  Gérard Bertrand Côte Des Roses Rosé 2013 Château Val Joanis Tradition Syrah Rosé 2013 Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2013  Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé 2013

Lawrason and d’Amato Align

2013 Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé, Costières de Nîmes, Rhône Valley, France ($15.95). David Lawrason – This nicely captures the basic appeal of southern French rosé – and despite the great pink leaps being made the world over the Rhône still owns this style, with classic fruit so deftly accented by fennel, pepper and that general sense of shrubby “garrigue”. Very well-balanced and priced. Sarah d’Amato – Consistently a bargain, this dry, classic, southern Rhône rosé brimming with spice and pepper is sure to bring the sunshine to you. Costières de Nîmes is located where the Rhône and Languedoc meet (and has changed sides of the border once already), and although the wines tend to be similar to those of the Southern Rhône (with that pleasurable garrigue and blasted by sunshine and heat), they do exhibit greater freshness due to the region’s proximity to the sea. No summer street festival of the South could do without.

Zenato Bardolino Chiaretto Rosé 20132013 Famille Perrin Tavel RoséAlso Recommended by Sara d’Amato

2013 Famille Perrin Tavel Rosé, Rhône, France, ($19.95). With Tavel on the shelves summer can’t be far behind (despite the fact that most of us are still waiting for spring). This small appellation surrounding the picturesque cliffside village of Tavel produces exclusively pink wines (and don’t dare call them rosé!), always dry, aromatic and savory. The Famille Perrin’s is super snappy and taught in an exciting and nervy way with Provençal herbs, lavender and perfectly ripened strawberries.

Lawrason’s Take

2013 Zenato Bardolino Chiaretto Rosé, Veneto, Italy ($14.95). This is utterly charming, and if that’s not what you want from rosé perhaps you are being too demanding. Based on the corvina grape, Bardolino is known for its light, fragrant charming reds and this ‘chiaretto’ is simply a lighter shade of pale. Very fresh, balanced and chock full of fruit and freshness.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Lawrason’s Take
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links 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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Malbec World Day by David Lawrason

Promoting the malbec grape of Argentina

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Every grape, it seems, has its day. Malbec World Day on April 17 is a recent phenomenon to promote the malbec grape of Argentina. This late ripening variety is actually from southwest France (Cahors) but the hot, even climate on the high steppes of Mendoza has given it a perfect home, and malbec is now a household name in North America and South.

Indeed it has achieved a formidable presence in the Canadian market; fulfilling predictions that it would be “the next big thing” – like Australian shiraz. But as shiraz has gone through a downturn in mass market affection, might malbec be experiencing the same thing? Or, put another way, has malbec already had its day?

I was in my local store in Toronto on the weekend checking out how much malbec is available. There is a ton. When you go to WineAlign and search Malbec-Argentina-All Prices you will find a whopping 64 brands in current inventory at the LCBO. Similarly there are 65 showing in British Columbia. But a look at the small print on the price tags showed that many of the brands in the LCBO’s Vintages stores are showing release dates of weeks or months ago, especially if they are more expensive.

And I noted something else – many of the labels were unfamiliar, even to one who follows such things more closely than the average punter. It’s as if, at one point, Vintages just threw out a net and imported any malbec that wanted to be exported – whether good or not. So without my WineAlign iPhone app allowing me to check out my own reviews I wouldn’t know what to buy either.

I do enjoy malbec when I want a big, swarthy red. Barbecue season is such a time, and it’s no co-incidence that most Argentines drink malbec with their ubiquitous slabs of grilled and heavily smoked beef. And I like it a lot when it shows off its lovely floral, blackberry fruit unencumbered by too much oak, alcohol, meatiness or stemminess.

But I do find lower priced malbec rather homogenous, and many are heavy, coarse and unbalanced. This is partially because many are released too soon. Australia seemed able to get away with releasing very young shiraz that was more or less in balance – the syrah grape is inherently softer – but young, inexpensive malbec is not quite as affable or quaffable.

On the other hand, more expensive malbecs, although showing better complexity and depth of flavour, often don’t seem all that different in flavour profile or balance. And high alcohol can continue to be a problem.

So how to spot the good ones? I am looking at two things.

First, I am finding more elegance and floral lift in malbecs from higher altitude Uco Valley at (900 to 1200 metres). The recently developed region is a sea of vines up against the Andes, with one flashy new winery after another that makes it feel like Napa, at least in terms of its energy. In particular I am looking at the labels for mentions of some of the best sub-regions like La Consulta, Altamira, Vista Flores and Tunuyan and especially the highest region called Gualtallary near Tupungato. These ‘appelations’ are no yet official but they are beginning to appear on labels.

Second, I am looking for certain producers that I have come to know and respect. With so many producers (Argentina has over 2000 wineries) this is a slow process; but having visited there late in 2011 and paying attention since then, my go to list is developing. And I share it with you for Malbec World Day, with links to some of my favourite wines still on the shelf.

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2009Altamira De Los Andes Reserve Malbec 2009Altamira De Los Andes Reserve Malbec 2009

This is made entirely from grapes grown in La Consulta and Vista Flores, two sub-regions of higher altitude in the Uco Valley. And it catches the floral charm I have come to expect of these regions. Lavish blackberry, violet fruit is nicely couched in moderated oak, vanillin and black licorice. It’s thick. elegant, sweetish and young with some alcohol kick, but essentially well composed, and excellent quality. Tasted February 2013.

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2009

From the southern and higher reaches of the Uco Valley in La Consulta, this dark malbec has a lovely nose of mulberry, violets, chocolate and a hint of meatiness. It’s full bodied, smooth and very rich, with fine-grained tannin and considerable alcohol heat. Quite luscious with smoked meat finish. Excellent length. Best now to 2016. Tasted July 2012.

Versado Malbec 2010Cicchitti Edición Limitada Malbec 2008Angulo Innocenti Malbec 2010Versado Malbec 2010

Versado is small, new Canadian-owned winery in Argentina, with Niagara’s Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble at the winemaking helm. They have wrought some complexity here that’s often missing in malbecs at this price – combining woodsy, leathery notes amid the ripe berry-dried fig fruit. It’s medium-full bodied, fairly dense and refined, with some drying tannin. The length is very good. Tasted March 2013.

Cicchitti Edición Limitada Malbec 2008

This is very deep ruby-purple-black. The nose is generous, sweet and very ripe with mulberry, vanilla, coffee/chocolate and pepper. It’s full bodied, sweet, creamy and thick, with a tarry, smoky finish. Excellent length. It has great curb appeal, but Euro fans will find it too sweet. Tasted November 2012.

Angulo Innocenti Malbec 2010

La Consulta is a higher altitude sub-region at the upper end of the Uco Valley, expressing a somewhat more floral aroma and more delicate feel in this example. It is still very deep black-purple colour. It has a lovely floral fragrance with blackberry and gentle wood spice. It’s quite thick but not heavy with some woodsy tannin and pepper on the finish. Very good to excellent length. Fine now or over the next three years while the fruit is in bloom. Tasted March 2013.

Benmarco Malbec 2009Bodega Séptima Séptimo Día Malbec 2011Bodega Séptima Séptimo Día Malbec 2011

Septimo is owned by Spain’s famed cava producer Codorníu. It’s 135 hectares of vineyards are located in the Agrelo and Uco Valley.Young winemaker Paula Borgo has the reins at a state of the art winery. The result here is a rather vivacious, intense and almost racy malbec, whereas many are heavy and plodding. But that is not to say it is light because there is good weight and density and excellent length. The flavours are intense with very ripe currant-cherry fruit, very generous tarry, smoky oak and some of malbec’s florality. The length is excellent, the finish warm and a touch youthfully gritty. Lots here for $16; but I would give it a year for tannin to soften and oak to integrate. Tasted April 2013

Benmarco Malbec 2009

This has a very good stuffing, colour and fruit density – easily worth the money. It’s only lacking a bit of tension to put it over 90 – slightly low acidity with a touch of over-ripeness. Otherwise, enjoy the generous plummy, violet and chocolate aromas and flavours. It’s medium-full bodied, supple and rich with fine tannin. Very good to excellent length. Best 2012 to 2015. Tasted November 2011.

For more information on Malbec World Day you can visit the official Website, follow the activities on #MalbecWorldDay on Twitter, or see if there are still tickets to the VINTAGES event tomorrow night in Toronto.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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Win FREE tickets to Malbec World Day

Win FREE tickets to this popular Argentina Wine Tasting Event

Wines of Argentina is giving away 5 pairs of tickets to this walk around tasting event – a $130.00 value! Read on for more information on how you can win.

On Tuesday April 16, discover wines made from Argentina’s popular signature grape Malbec, as well as wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Bonarda, Chardonnay and Torrontes. This popular VINTAGES event is being held in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall, 20 Simcoe Street.Enjoy fabulous wines, a tango demonstration, Argentina-inspired finger foods and music at this preview of 46 wines that will be available in stores in the coming months.

For more information and to purchase tickets go to or call 416-365-5767 or toll-free at 1-800-266-4764.

Malbec World DayFor a chance to win a pair of tickets, click the link below and answer the following question:

Did you know that Argentina has desert-like conditions in most of its wine growing regions, with many vineyards planted at cooler high altitudes. Which mountain range has the most influence on Argentine vines? 

Enter the Contest here

5 winners will be randomly selected from correct answers submitted by noon on Monday, April 8. Each of the 5 winners will receive a pair of tickets to the event. A $130.00 Value.


Malbec World Day

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 14th Release: Argentina Spotlight

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Tuesday, April 17th has been dubbed Malbec World Day by a marketing whiz within an organization called Wines of Argentina. It is a promotional exercise to focus the world’s attention on malbec specifically and Argentina’s wines in general, with events being held in over 40 countries. What’s most impressive is that 2012 is only the second year for Malbec World Day – and there has been a huge “buy-in” to the concept. Our very own Vintages stores are featuring several Argentine releases on April 14th. On April 12th there are trade and consumer events in Ottawa, and next week – on the 17th  – there will be trade and consumer events in Toronto. I look forward to leading the panel discussion and tasting for the Toronto trade, having visited Argentina with Rod Philips late last year. The two of us will also be collaborating on a regional tour in a WineAlign feature next week.

Mapema Malbec 2009Malbec still occupies more vineyard space, and head space, than any other variety in the country. I faced a malbec inundation, especially in Mendoza when I was there. But I was intrigued to begin to discover different takes on malbec based on differences in appellation and vineyard altitude, and I did find more expensive editions reaching for more finesse. But in the broader context malbec remains a big, cuddly, creamy red that delivers that essential mood just as easily in cheap wines as it does in expensive versions. Indeed, expensive malbecs often seem to not deliver that much extra for the additional money being asked. But at the other end of the scale, very inexpensive malbecs can become boring. So my general advice would be to target malbecs in the $17 to $25 range, like Mapema Malbec 2009 at $21.95, a proto-typical example that is balanced, fairly complex and rich.

Chakana Yaguareté Collection BonardaLa Puerta Alta BonardaI was more energized by some of the other varieties that play in malbec’s shadow, especially the dark skinned bonarda. This grape originated in sub-alpine Savoie region of France where it is known as corbeau, and it is found widely in sub-alpine regions of northern Italy (Piedmont and Lombardy). Fans of obscure California wines will know it as charbono. It has long been grown at high yields in Argentina to make fruity, simple jug wines, but it is now being made at lower yields, at higher altitudes, and/or barrel aged to bring it into premium quality levels. I love the florality and juicy exuberance of bonarda as best expressed by the simple Chakana Yaguareté Collection 2010 at only $12.95. The La Puerta Alta 2009 from the Famatina Valley in La Rioja, is a bit more rich and complex, and still great value at $14.95.

The release also has some decent Argentine cabernets and blends, but I was disappointed to find that there was a tasting sample mix-up with the Decero 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. A different vintage and bottling was presented in the lab, so I will taste it after release. Decero is a very good producer indeed.

Aussie Semillon Ain’t Getting Respect

St. Hallett SemillonTyrrell's Brookdale SemillonSemillon is the grape that some people love to hate, and many others simply choose to ignore. For as long as I have been writing about wine, semillon from Australia (in particular) has been on my radar as one of the great, unsung values among white wines. But the unique, often petrol/fusel scent inherent in most semillons takes some getting used to, along with the lime and minerality. Semillon seems to flat line in the fruit department. But the best also have great structure, proportion and depth, sometimes riding on remarkably low alcohol. And as they age they morph into exciting, quite rich and honeyed wines. If you are nimble you can own one of the last eight bottles remaining of Mt. Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2003 ($59), that is still available through Vintages ShopOnLine – an iconic, kick-in-the-senses masterpiece! Or you can purchase Tyrrell’s Brookdale Semillon 2011 from the Hunter Valley on Saturday. It is textbook Semillon and very much worth an experiment at $19.95; so grab at least three bottles, one to try now, two for the cellar. St. Hallett Semillon 2006 gets you part way down the maturity track at $19.95, but this Barossa example does not have the same energy. To ease you gently into Aussie semillon try the Devils Lair Fifth Leg Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2010 that resides on the LCBO general list, and is currently $14.95 with $1 off until April 29. And finally if your interest is piqued, I also point you to Stratus White 2008 from Niagara-on-the-Lake, a multi-grape barrel aged blend that has promoted semillon into a more dominant role this vintage.

Stratus White

A McLaren Vale Clinic

Brokenwood ShirazSometimes themes just present themselves. I was merrily tasting through the line-up of Australian reds when I came upon Brokenwood Shiraz 2009($29.95). ‘Rather light and quite charming for shiraz’ I thought to myself, after wading through a couple of other typically dense, creamy and rich Aussie reds. I paid closer attention to the origin and read McLaren Vale/Beechworth, South Australia/Victoria on the label – a statement of intent to move to slightly cooler regions. Beechwood is a higher altitude, almost mountainous area of central Victoria, while McLaren Vale is a much more well known, maritime area near Adelaide in South Australia.

Shottesbrooke Cabernet SauvignonPirramimma KatungaAs it happened the next two wines were also from McLaren Vale, and I noted a similar lightness of step. Shottesbrooke Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($21.95) is a quite elegant yet firm cabernet; while Pirramimma Katunga GTS 2007($24.95) is solid yet refined red with impressive layered complexity and length. GTS in this instance does not refer some ‘60s roadster, but to the very creative and effective blend of grenache, tannat and shiraz. To be clear, these are not lean, tart, mineral-driven cool climate wines; they are still smooth, ripe and Australian to their core. But by being just a little less texturally ponderous they open themselves up to more prolonged drinking pleasure with a wider palette of culinary options.

Best Power Reds

For those on the prowl for powerful, dense and cellar worthy reds allow me to point you to three New World offerings that have easily surpassed 90 points. But before delivering the good news, how about even better news? You could buy 2.5 bottles of all three of them (8 bottles total), or buy one bottle of Solaia 2008 at $249. For those who may not know, Solaia is an excellent, modern Tuscan cabernet by Antinori, one of the first great modern cabernets of Italy, for which it gained almost legendary notoriety, with price following suit. The 2008 vintage is excellent indeed if not quite as sensuous as I expected.

Spier Creative Block 3Grant Burge The Holy TrinityWith the first of the three power reds we stay in Australia, and the terrific Grant Burge The Holy Trinity Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2008 from Barossa, which I think is an excellent buy at $33.95. You are owning a bit of history here because Holy Trinity, which is patterned on Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France’s southern Rhône Valley, was one of the early GSMs (first vintage 1997). But most of all I love the sense of evenness and depth once the richness washes off – this is very nicely focused wine. The 2008 Spier Creative Block 3 from South Africa is very impressive and a huge value at $19.95. It too is a Rhône blend, but this time with shiraz, mourvèdre and a splash of viognier. And finally, I strongly urge Napa cab collectors to peer over the hills into Sonoma’s Alexander Valley – another cabernet hot spot. Alexander Valley VineyardsCyrus 2007 at $59, is a best blocks blend of 66% cabernet sauvignon, 23% cabernet franc, 6% merlot and 5% petit verdot. It’s named after Cyrus Alexander, a 19th century homesteader on the current AVV property, who lent his surname to the entire region. So you are buying a bit of history here as well, (and I scored it the same as Solaia).


Bargain Whites

Guy Saget Marie De Beauregard VouvrayLa Cappuccina SoaveVineland Estates Chardonnay MusquéAs has become almost a habit each release, we finish with a miscellany of great white wine values. I am a big white wine fan and as I have probably said before, more attentive and more technological winemaking is making it much more common to achieve great purity of fruit expression, which is the essence of white wine. That purity is readily apparent right here at home with Niagara and County whites too, and I am very impressed by Vineland Estates Chardonnay Musqué 2010 from the Niagara Escarpment, a great buy at $17.95. Musqué should be aromatic and floral but this fine effort releases new levels of aromatic complexity. Italy’s native white grapes are great benefactors of the quality revolution, when basic wines like La Cappuccina Soave 2011 can turn out such pristine, charming flavours at only $13.95. And over in France don’t miss what is textbook Loire Valley chenin blanc in Guy Saget Marie de Beauregard Vouvray 2009 at only $17.95.

Prince Edward County Showcase

You can take the boy out of the County, but you can’t take the County out of the boy. On Tuesday, 13 Prince Edward County wineries poured their wares at the Berkeley Church in Toronto, and I managed to taste most of the wines offered. I had not done this kind of comprehensive tasting since moving to Toronto from Belleville 18 months ago, and I was immediately transported back to that distinctive County essence. There continues to be winemaking issues in the County, largely traced to sour-edged volatile acidity, but the energy, flavour depth and distinctive minerality remain hugely exciting.

If you have not been to the County yet – and a surprising number of wine-interested Torontonians have not – then there are two prime opportunities coming up. The first is the annual Terroir Festival on Saturday, May 26 at the Crystal Palace in Picton. The second is one weekend later at the Great Canadian Cheese Festival June 1st to 3rd – same location. I will be helping to co-ordinate the wines for this event, with over a dozen County wineries on board. Between now and then I am hoping to post several new reviews of County wines right here on WineAlign. As most are not in the LCBO, search by winery name in the Search field.

And that’s a wrap, for now. To see all my reviews from April 14 please click here.


David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Uco Valley – the future of Mendoza ~ Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

A glimpse of the excitement:

A gigantic swath of land about 80 kilometres south of the city of Mendoza, many have written at length on the potential of the Uco Valley. Is it the future of winegrowing in Argentina, the nation’s ‘new Napa,’ as some have so grandiosely proclaimed it?

As food for thought, consider the following. The Uco Valley, or the Valle de Uco, now covers over 20,000 hectares of vines, much of it at altitudes between 1,000-1,700 metres. The highest of these are located in the sub-region of Tupungato, and many of the finest Argentinean winegrowers, as well as overseas investors, have begun planting ferociously here. Other subregions, or departments, of the Uco Valley include Gualtayary, Tunuyán, Vista Flores, La Consulta, and San Carlos.

Valle de Uco

The attraction of the Uco Valley, like many other up-and-coming winegrowing regions in Argentina, is largely due to the overall elevation of the area, a critical factor in the cultivation of vines throughout much of the country; as most places, semi-desert in composition, would be otherwise too arid and hot for the production of fine wines in this part of the world. In this extremely dry climate, growers are also attracted to conditions that offer the greatest temperature variations between night and day. For winemakers, the resulting wines are great in colour depth and flavour, both appealing traits to many modern enthusiasts, especially in North America, as well as collectors.

As mentioned before, the Uco Valley is a very large area, around 100 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide, most of which is surrounded by hills and mountains—think of the majestic Andes Mountains to the west.

Uco Vineyard

Of irrigation, as most vineyards are not dry-farmed (though this may change over time), most water is sourced from the Tunuyán and (smaller) Las Tunas Rivers, as well as from local wells and reservoirs. Indeed, irrigation throughout the valley is essential, as most parts only receive less than 300 millimetres of annual rainfall. Not surprisingly for an area so vast, soil compositions are remarkably varied, though Decanter contributor Anthony Rose reports that most are “geologically young at 30,000 years old,” and that “the main constituents are alluvial sandy loam containing sand, clay, gravel and rounded pebbles; and colluvial, rocky soils” (The New World’s Most Exciting New Terroirs, 5 June 2009, Thus, even at the beginning of 2012, winegrowers remain continually in the process of determining how best to exploit such a varying, promising terroir.

As for the wineries themselves, much has already been accomplished, with top establishments investing extraordinary sums of money to build the best facilities possible. Top names? Here’s a short list: Andeluna Cellars, Cheval des Andes, Clos de los Siete, O. Fournier, Monteviejo and Salentein. No doubt there will be others over the next several years. The future holds much potential.

Click here for a few gems from the 3 March 2012 Vintages Release along with several others

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages December 10th Release: Escaping to Argentina, BC’s Big ‘O’ Reds, 92 Point Reds, Blinded by a PEC Pinot Noir & Bargain Whites

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I experienced a secret pleasure while spending twelve days in Argentina recently. It was not the perfect mid-summer temperatures, nor the surprisingly good food (beef and otherwise), nor those rich creamy malbecs. No, it was missing twelve days of pre-Christmas hype and circumstance here at home. There was virtually no Christmas razz-a-mattaz in the streets of Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Patagonia. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I am from a very large family for which Christmas was a fairy tale of fun, food and frolic. And it still is when our clan, that now numbers almost forty siblings and their off-spring, get together. But nowadays I find the banal consumerism of Christmas just too much, and it starts way too soon. I saw my first Christmas TV commercial while I was doling out Halloween candy!  Christmas should start right about now, December 10. Those who need more time to shop and prepare are perhaps doing and buying too much.

Escaping to Argentina

So if you want to escape Christmas, even for a little while longer, join me in a glimpse of Argentina. It’s a nation almost completely populated by Europeans, mostly from Spain and Italy, who at one point or other saw this vast land of plains and mountains as an idyllic escape themselves, not from Christmas but from poverty and persecution. There were several waves of European immigration in the 19th and 20th Centuries, with the latest being at the beginning of the 21st Century, as Argentina came out of a disastrous period of financial crisis. The latest wave is most evident in the burgeoning wine industry which has been hauled into the modern world and pushed onto the global stage by financiers and oenologists from Europe and elsewhere, who saw cheap land and endless potential for improving wine quality and value in this vast, warm and arid land. Wineries in new regions like Patagonia, Salta and the Uco Valley in Mendoza are monuments of modern, lavish architecture (Napa has nothing on these guys), and in stark contrast to the shoddy villages and crumbling roads encountered en route. But it is exactly the wealth, allure and global attraction of the wine industry that one day could be the engine to pull the rest of the country along, or so the government and banks hope having provided container loads of easy credit.

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Argentine is the planet’s fifth largest wine producing country with endless amounts of arid, semi-desert land available for vineyard growth, as long as water from the Andes or deep wells can be economically applied. (Water is the only thing that is expensive). There are about 1,200 wineries in Argentina and most of them are very large. The size of the vineyard holdings of some of the largest would almost consume most of Niagara or the Okanagan. The smallest winery I encountered was at about 20,000 cases almost twice the output of the largest in Prince Edward County. This economy of scale, plus cheap labour, combines with large yields per hectare, and growing conditions easily controlled by irrigation to make the wine dead cheap.

But value of course is a two-sided coin, and cheap wine alone would not sustain Argentina in the world for long. The oceans of $10 malbec do provide bang for buck, but I was bored by them before I arrived, and still was as I tasted them in their own backyard. They are fruity and rich but often simple, short and coarse. The real strength of Argentina now, and the point of the massive upgrade in technology and winemaking talent, is to make wine that still does not cost very much – $15 to $30 – and that completely over-delivers on quality. The wines in this category were the revelation of my journey. One after another – whether malbecs, cabernets, merlots, syrahs, petit verdots, tannats or blends thereof – I found myself swooning over their texture, complexity and depth – routinely posting scores of 88 to 92 points, or more.  To the point that the so-called “icon wines” over $30 and as much as $100, simply didn’t supply that much more gratification or much better quality.

Cicchitti Edicion Limitada Malbec 2008In Saturday’s release there are two great examples of terrific mid-priced Argentine reds. I did not visit the Mendoza winery (bodega) that made CICCHITTI 2008 EDICION LIMITADA MALBEC ($23.95) but this lush red from organically tended vineyards scattered at various elevations from 800 to 1200 metres is a great example of the current state of the art, and Argentine wine history. It is an Italian family winery founded in 1928 and very recently expanded and upgraded to catch the export wave.

Benmarco Expresivo 2008BENMARCO 2008 EXPRESIVO, also from Mendoza, is pricier at $36.95 but it was one of few that I would personally have no qualms buying above $30. It is a very cool, rich yet refined blend of five Bordeaux grape varieties, a common practice in Argentina where the majors like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc – as well as more difficult petit verdot and tannat – can each be planted at altitudes most suitable to their growing season, then blended after. Altitude blending is Argentine’s secret weapon. Benmarco is not a winery by the way, but a brand produced at an excellent winery called Dominio del Plata, based in the important sub-region of Agrelo.

The winemaker at Dominio del Plata is Susanna Balbo, who I consider to be one of the great talents of Mendoza. I was not able to taste her SUSANA BALBO 2010 SIGNATURE CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($22.95) by press time, but I will add my note shortly after the release on Saturday. Likewise with CLOS DE LOS SIETE 2008 ($21.95) which I will re-taste after a disappointing experience last spring. Everyone seemed to like it but me. This is one of the most famous “foreign invasion” brands of Argentina, created by Bordeaux oenologist Michel Rolland who began consulting in the region in the early nineties, along with California’s Paul Hobbs. This pair, along with local hero Nicolas Catena, are largely responsible for where Argentina sits today.  And Argentina is sitting pretty!

B.C.’s  Big ‘O’ Icon Reds

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2007During a seminar on wine in Canada that we guests did for the Argentine wine industry in Mendoza, I mentioned that British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, especially south of Oliver, was very much like Argentina, only at a latitude 15 degrees cooler (the Okanagan lies from 49 to 50 North, while Mendoza is at 30-32 South). Eyes opened and jaws dropped when I told them that B.C.s little desert was producing syrah, malbec, merlot and cabernets. I would have loved to be able to pour them the two B.C. icon wines being released Dec 10th -OSOYOOS LAROSE 2007 LE GRAND VIN at $45.00, or MISSION HILL 2007 OCULUS at $70.00. They would have experienced fine merlot-based blends crafted with attention to complexity, finesse and depth, if still a bit leaner than in hotter regions like Mendoza..

Mission Hill Oculus 2007Which is the better Big O? Osoyoos-Larose or Oculus? Well I have not tasted the 2007s side by side but I have scored Oculus one point higher. At $25 more however that puts the “best buy” question on the sidelines. More importantly, I think that in both cases the 2007 vintage is among the strongest yet produced by both companies, with Mission Hill having a head start with its first bottling in 1997, and Osoyoos-Larose in 2001. The Okanagan Valley is indeed vintage sensitive, much more so than Mendoza. The 2007 vintage started poorly but finished hot, creating a lighter year with some catch-up ripeness. Both wines seem to have a bit more refinement, and in general among B.C’s often burly and unbalanced big reds, this is a very positive trait. I think the real reason is that the winemaking is simply getting better (which implies a better understanding of and adaptation to the vintage conditions).

By the way Osoyoos-Larose in the 750ml size is a Vintages Essential with the 2007 vintage now taking over from the burlier 2006. The magnum bottle(1500ml) of Osoyoos-Larose 2007 is being released Saturday at $99.95.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Ep 2.3 - Keint-He Pinot Noir 2007

Ep 2.3 - Keint-He Pinot Noir 2007

No, I am not refering to the Leafs. I am talking about my performance in the latest episode of So, You Think You Know Wine, the video of WineAlign’s blind tasting tournament that pits we critics and guest sommeliers against one, taunting, humiliating gold foil wrapped bottle of wine set in front of us in a darkened studio. In this episode the wine was Keint-He 2007 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County. As soon as I nosed it Prince Edward County leapt to mind, as it should given that I have devoted much time and energy to this fascinating region in the past decade. As a rule I believe in the blind tasting principle that “the nose knows”. But I failed to do the proper analytical diligence when the palate texture took me in another direction. It was wonderfully elegant and almost creamy – very New World in feel – so I took the easy route to New Zealand instead of properly asking myself what conditions in PEC might induce this. Elements like maturity (it looked mature), a warm vintage (2007 was such a vintage), and excellent, low yield, natural winemaking (which is the stock in trade of Keint-He winemaker Geoff Heinricks). So I blew it under pressure, plain and simple.

Closson Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009

You can get to know PEC pinot noir with a very good example being released December 10th. CLOSSON CHASE 2009 CLOSSON CHASE VINEYARD  PINOT NOIR ($39.95) is one two pinots made by winemaker Deborah Paskus in 2009. This one is from the most mature vineyards (still only 10 years) on the original property. I have tasted it at least four times this fall, and I really like its taut, tart cran-raspberry County authenticity, but I would still age it a year or two to soften the edges. At the moment I am preferring its younger but more expensive sibling, the first vintage of CLOSSON CHASE 2009 CHURCHSIDE PINOT NOIR($49.95), from hilltop wines planted beside the little white church atop the northern slope across from the big purple barn. It has a bit less depth perhaps but I do prefer the more obvious barrel complexity and suppleness of texture. And it too should age well, at least for three to five years. It is available only at the winery.

A Pair of 92 Point Reds 

Kanonkop Pinotage 2008Bodegas Alion 2007KANONKOP 2008 PINOTAGE ($39.95) from South Africa’s Simonsberg-Stellenbosch district is a great example of pinotage, the grape hybridized in South Africa in the 1920s by crossing pinot noir and cinsault (a Rhone variety). Due to uneven ripening, a distinctive, often unpleasant flavour in some older examples, and a confusing array of styles pinotage is en route to extinction. But Kanonkop winemaker BeyersTruter made it is mission to embrace and elevate pinotage. I urge you to try what is one of the most intriguing wines on the release, if even only to try it once and say you did before it goes the way of the dodo.

BODEGAS ALION 2007 ALION TINTO from the Ribera del Duero region of Castilla y Leon in Spain, is pricier at $78.95, but again a terrific wine. This is a modern bodega founded in 1992 by the Alvarez family (owner of Vega Sicilia, Spain’s region’s most famous wine). It makes only one wine, from one grape – tempranillo locally known as tinto fino. It is aged in new French oak. I was blown away by the aromatics here!

And two Whites Steals Under $17

Château Des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2008Poderi Del Paradiso Vernaccia Di San Gimignano 2010CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES 2008 OLD VINES RIESLING Niagara-on-the-Lake ($16.95) has been wowing critics and competition judges all year, including WineAlign colleagues John Szabo and Sara d’Amato as we judged it the Best Wine at the Toronto Gold Medal Plates culinary competition in November. Prior to that it won White Wine of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards and a gold medal at the Canadian Wine Awards. When a wine is this decorated and only $16.95, you just have to try it.

PODERI DEL PARADISO 2010 VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO$14.95 was an unexpected charmer. I had largely lost interest in the whites from Tuscany’s most famous, touristic town because they had modernised to capture brightness, losing some individuality in the process. From a historic property at the foot of the hill, this is remains very well made but it is a stylistic return to the richer, honeyed and floral vernaccia’s of yore. This has been achieved by fermenting 20% in small oak barrels then ageing six months, as well as through long lees contact for the other 80% in tank.

And so it goes for the last Vintages release of 2011. We return with Vintages previews prior to the January 7th release, but keep watching for special holiday features and updates and Picks of the Day on The National Posts’ The Appetizer.

And a fun, frolicking Holiday season to all!

Check out reviews on over 120 wines from the December 10th release here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

- David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 15th 2011 – Tuscany, Where Modern Meets Traditional; Argentina: the good, the bad and the heavy, and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Tuscany & Argentina – 
Poliziano Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 2007Tuscany and Argentina are featured in the October 15th VINTAGES release, familiar territory for most wine lovers. The former is a fully developed region with parallel streams of both ultra-traditional and post-modern, while the latter is a newcomer to the scene, still navigating the intricacies of selling wine internationally. Both are popular sources for wine. Of the Tuscans in this release, my most serious enjoyment was caused by the 2007 POLIZIANO VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO DOCG $25.95, also my top smart buy. It’s a model that I’d love to see more Tuscan producers follow: pure class in a classic and recognizably Tuscan style.  Like the region, the traditional and the modern co-exist in harmony at Poliziano. The winery is partly powered by clean, renewable solar energy and is equipped with all the modern winemaking aids. Yet the style remains resolutely classic: a mid-weight, sangiovese-dominated wine, with balance, integrity and complexity, relying more on finesse and refinement rather than heft, raw power or wood. The finish lingers on beautifully. Other recommended Tuscan wines include 2007 TENUTA DI NOZZOLE LA FORRA CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA DOCG $29.95 and 2008 VOLPAIA CHIANTI CLASSICO DOCG $21.95 . See the full list of recommended Tuscan wines here.
Tenuta Di Nozzole La Forra Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 Volpaia Chianti Classico 2008

Bye-bye Big Bottles
Navarro Correas Structura Ultra 2006Argentina delivers a couple of top wines, but first a rare deviation to the not recommended: basta with the heavy bottles, por favor. Argentina is one of the guiltiest countries when it comes to the outmoded crime of stupidly heavy bottles – it’s like 1997 calling all over again. I’d say that most switched-on wine drinkers are no longer fooled by the facile attempt to add value by adding ounces to bottle weight. The gravitas comes from within, where the money should be spent.

Riglos Gran Corte 2007Needless to say, there’s also the consideration of the serious environmental impact of producing, shipping and recycling heavier bottles. In this area the LCBO is a world leader – as of January 1st Ontario will not stock any wines in bottles weighing more than 420g (the most criminal come close to 1kilo, empty). Though this restriction is officially for wines at or below $15 retail, “favourable consideration will be given to product offers that are lower in weight”, says senior LCBO VP of Sales and Marketing Bob Downey. Thus any suppliers offering lighter weight bottles at premium price points will have an advantage over competitors. We can only hope that suppliers won’t just artificially raise the price of their wines above $15 so they can keep their barbarian bottles. Should you find yourself at Vintages and you haven’t gotten in your work out for the day, do a few curls with either 2006 NAVARRO CORREAS STRUCTURA ULTRA IP Mendoza, Limited Release $34.95 or 2007 RIGLOS GRAN CORTE Mendoza $37.95, though you may be stiff in the morning.
Catena Alta Malbec 2008
On the brighter, lighter side, there are a couple of brilliant Argentine wines in the release, headlined by 2008 CATENA ALTA MALBEC Estate Lots, Mendoza $49.95. Catena has been a leader and a pioneer for over one hundred years in Mendoza, and the experience, and confidence, shows. This ’08 has obvious class and complexity with beguiling violet-floral notes, ripe but fresh black fruit, and well-integrate wood spice, while the palate shows uncommon freshness and liveliness and tremendous length. Also excellent and worth the premium price is the 2009 CATENA ALTA CHARDONNAY Estate Lots, Mendoza $39.95.

Closer to the affordable value end of the scale, try the 2006 DURIGUTTI RESERVE MALBEC Mendoza, Unfiltered $26.95 or the 2008 LUIGI BOSCA RESERVA CABERNET SAUVIGNON Maipü, Mendoza $17.95, both well-balanced, representative examples. See all recommended Argentine wines here with reviews.
Catena Alta Chardonnay 2009  Durigutti Reserve Malbec 2006  Luigi Bosca Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Le Clos Jordanne Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009Top Ten Smart Buys

As for the top ten smart buys, well worth pointing out is the superb 2009 LE CLOS JORDANNE LE CLOS JORDANNE VINEYARD PINOT NOIR VQA Niagara Peninsula, Twenty Mile Bench $45.00. By general consensus, 2009 is the best vintage yet for LCJ, and for Ontario pinot noir in general (see my article). I predict that this will be a turning point for the Ontario industry. The full range from Le Clos is impressive so watch for this and other upcoming releases. You’ll also find an impressive bubbly from New Zealand for $21.95, a textbook Alsatian gewürztraminer, and a sturdy French country red for $16.95 that will be perfect with your autumnal game dishes, roasts and braises. See them all here.

Fom the October 15th Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Recommended Tuscany at A Glance
Recommended Argentina at A Glance
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages June 25th Release – Argentina Steps It Up, A Tale of Two Tempranillos, Brilliant Provence Rose, Bio-Grgich Cabernet, Wynn-Fall Shiraz, Trimbach Riesling, Deborah Paskus and the Little Fat Wino

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The fizzle seems to be going out of Fusion. Sales are still very healthy but it is no longer the buzz on the street.  The same can be said of inexpensive Argentine malbec in general.  Leading to the question: what next Argentina?  Well Vintages seems to have answered the question on this release with a dozen well chosen wines that include torrontes, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and blends thereof.  There are still four malbecs, but two at least are a step up from the everyday. And overall the wines presented are more interesting and higher quality than I expected.

Familia Zuccardi Organica Torrontés 2010Torrontes is a very aromatic, muscat-like white variety that thrives in Argentina. When tasting at the International Value Wine Awards in Calgary earlier this month I was pleased to encounter a flight of eight Argentine torrontes, a group that showed very well indeed. I noted two stylistic camps within the group – the racy, lifted, summer sippers and the more solid, drier weight examples that will work with food. The pair on this release illustrate the styles perfectly, and I particularly like the ultra fresh, almost dazzling FAMILIA ZUCCARDI 2010 ORGANICA TORRONTÉS at only $13.95.  A poolside winner that dances with citrus and floral flavours.  As evening sets in switch to the more reserved but powerful Alta Vista 2010 Torrontes, also $13.95, to match a meal of salads, cheese and charcuterie.

Benmarco Cabernet Sauvignon 2009At the same awards tasting there was some discussion after a very good blind flight of cabernet sauvignons, that Argentina was also a rising star for this most venerable of red grapes (that is doing extremely well indeed over the Andes in Chile). There is no reason that Argentina should not be making great cabernets. The growing season is long, warm and dry, and by pinpointing the right altitude, they can perfectly ripen cabernet sauvignon, or any grape for that matter. It’s said that every 100 metres difference in elevation is equivalent to 150 kilometres difference in latitude.  Anyway,BENMARCO 2009 CABERNET SAUVIGNON from Mendoza, is ample demonstration, with some good winemaking being brought to bear as well.  Winemaker Pedro Marchevsky is one of the most educated, experienced viticulturists in Argentina, managing vineyards for almost 30 years. For $16.95 he has delivered a minor masterpiece. Love the fruit ripeness here without sacrificing cabernet’s more herbal nature.

Terrazas De Los Andes Reserva Malbec 2008One of the malbecs is also a notch above the norm, offering great value under $20. I was particularly impressed with the structure of TERRAZAS DE LOS ANDES 2008 RESERVA MALBEC at only $17.95. While many go for exaggerated fruitiness and juiciness (often with hot alcohol in tow) this is both generous and dense yet restrained. It is from the hands of another highly experienced winemaker who knows a thing or two about malbec, as he manages over 250 hectares of it. Hervie Birnie-Scott trained at Montpellier in France, and worked in Napa and Australia before landing in Argentina in 1991 with Bodegas Chandon.  He went to co-author Cheval des Andes, a joint venture wine between Bordeaux’s Ch Cheval Blanc and Terrazes, which has become the country’s most prized and expensive collector’s red – a blend of malbec and cabernet with a splash of merlot.  This Reserva, at about one-quarter the price, is very fine and much better value.

A Tale of Two Tempranillos

There are two Argentine tempranillos on the release, an indication that Argentina is progressing with the grape that thrives in Spain’s similarly hot, arid climate.  I have always had trouble pinning tempranillo’s character, as it has chameleon-like ability to adapt its character to its surroundings. I can pick out a syrah or cabernet from anywhere due to certain distinguishing characteristics; but not so with tempranillo.  Nor does it help when oak is heaped on top, as often happens in Spain, and in both the Argentine examples offered here.  But I did find it intriguing to compare FAMILIA ZUCCARDI 2008 Q TEMPRANILLO with a Spanish tempranillo blend BARON DE LEY 2005 RIOJA RESERVA.  The similarity is in the heavy American oak influence in both wines – Zuccardi is obviously riffing on traditional Rioja styling.  The more interesting difference was in the structure, with the Argentine wine showing a very smooth, rich open-knit New World style, while the Rioja is more lean and elegant although still quite dense.  Both are very good, typical examples at the same price of $19.95.

Familia Zuccardi Q Tempranillo 2008 Baron De Ley Reserva 2005

Fine Provence Rosé

La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé 2010A short stay in Provence last month re-awakened me to the charms of Provencal Rosé in particular, and indeed it is quite different from others – even in the nearby Rhone Valley and Tavel. The colour is pale and less vibrantly pink, more of a glowing salmon shade. The fruit is not as obviously berryish and sweet; it’s a bit more exotic and tart like persimmon or perhaps ground cherry. Notes of herb, spices and a scent that reminds me of fresh onion skin are more dominant. And the wines are bone dry, taut and lively. There are two very good examples on this release. Chateau La Tour de Eveque 2010 is from Cotes de Provence, a large appellation whose production is 80% pink, made from typical southern French varieties like carignan, cinsault and syrah. LA BASTIDE BLANCHE 2009 BANDOL ROSÉ is a notch above, from a particular seaside, limestone-soiled appellation that demands at least 50% mourvedre. This is a very tidy, precise and dry rose that you must try with cold canapés at your next deck soiree.

Bio-Grgich Cabernet 

Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007The wines of Grgich Hills have been showing up steadily at Vintages of late, and I am very happy about that.  It is one of many great, almost legendary Napa pioneers, but to me it has always stood out for being a bit more conscientious about its wine than most, less concerned with gloss and willing to march to its own drummer, especially back in the day when Mike Grgich went all-white in the heart of Napa cab country. He did come around to cab, obviously, as GRGICH HILLS ESTATE 2007 CABERNET SAUVIGNON is featured here, at a healthy $69.95. It is a very well composed, subtle yet concentrated wine – not too oaky, not too rich and vitally honest. I think the reason lies in the bio-dynamically grown fruit. Few mainstream Napa wineries have gone so completely organic (Frog’sLeap on this release is another), and the task was even more daunting on converting 150 hectares, which was completed and Demeter certified in 2006. According to Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wine Guide, the impetus for conversion came in 2002 when vineyard manager Ivo Jeramaz attended a biodynamics symposium by famous French bio-promoter Nicolas Joly.  But would Grgich have converted without already having a conscience instilled by its founder? I’d bet not.  Biodynamics is as much an attitude as it is a process.

Wynn-Fall Shiraz Value

I tasted dozens of shiraz on my trip to Australia earlier this year, but none struck me as better value, in a serious, age worthy style, than WYNNS 2008 COONAWARRA ESTATE SHIRAZ. It offers up sinewy structure, density and depth well beyond its $19.95 price tag. Why? I expect it has to do with a very good vintage overlying the complex Coonawarra soils, plus the stringent work of a viticultural team led by veteran Allen Jenkins, a viticulturalist, teacher and writer with over 20 years in South Australia, and the last ten in Coonawarra specifically. He knows the region and its terra rosa soils like the back of his hand, and is heavily involved in the development of sub-appellations like Victoria and Albert Lane (or colloquially V&A Lane). I spent a fascinating two hours with him in the vineyard, and learned a great deal that had somehow escaped me over the past 25 years.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2008

Pierre Trimbach Visits Niagara

 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Riesling 2005In early June I also spent considerable time with Pierre Trimbach, the 11th generation family winemaker at perhaps the most famous riesling house in Alsace.  He was guest lecturer at Brock University’s Riesling Experience 2011, and I also met him for lunch prior to his first visit to Niagara. The Brock audience was largely comprised of winemakers so things got a bit technical over his lengthy two hour presentation. But he never let himself be drawn too deeply into explaining why he did what he did, in terms of things like yeast selection, maceration times etc.  He just seemed to know and accept what he had learned through 385 years of riesling winemaking experience. I particularly loved his response to a question about what was need to ensure riesling’s longevity, as we tasted his exquisite  CUVÉE FRÉDÉRIC ÉMILE 2005 RIESLING, then moved back to the even better 2001. “The first thing is balance” he said. “ The second thing is balance,  and the third thing is balance. The rest is just blah, blah, blah…”  I will attempt to cover more of the Brock Riesling Experience in the near future, which also brought together rieslings from the Great Lakes basin (Niagara, Ohio, New York and Michigan) but for now, the focus is on Trimbach as the wines are only available through a special offer at VINTAGES while small supplies last. I recommend the impeccably balanced 2005 Cuvee Frederic Emile ($59), and the ripe, rich yet still dry 2009 Riesling Reserve ($25.95). This wine is part of the Vintages Classics Collection. Click here for details on this offer.

Closson Chase Winemaker Deborah Paskus Awarded

Closson Chase K.J. Watson Vineyard Chardonnay 2008At the recent gala announcing the winners of the 16th annual Ontario Wine Awards (results at Ontario winemakerDeborah Paskus was given the inaugural “Larry Patterson Innovation in the Vineyard Award”.  More on Larry Patterson in a moment, but I wanted to add my two cents on how fitting it is that Deborah received this award, and to advise that you can taste her work on Saturday’s release via the incredibly rich, poised and complex CLOSSON CHASE 2008 K.J. WATSON VINEYARD CHARDONNAY grown in the Niagara River sub-appellation. Yes, it is a Niagara wine made at the Prince Edward County winery, but Paskus has had her feet planted in both regions for a very long time, and sees all of Ontario has her field of endeavour. She actually made her name back in the 90s with a low-Deborah Paskusyield, long wood aged Temkin-Paskus Niagara chardonnay made jointly with wine writer Steven Temkin, then worked at Niagara wineries like Thirty Bench, then Tawse. By the end of the 90s she was foraging for vineyard sites in Prince Edward County, well ahead of the pack, and she has continued to create some of the most controversial, unabashedly rich chardonnays in the country from both locales. On receiving the award she acknowledged Larry Paterson, and something about herself that her fans have long known.   “Knowing the truth is not enough, speaking the truth is required. The world squeezes hard for us to fall in line. Where nice is considered a character attribute, Larry Paterson spoke his truth and he had a quality I most admire: he was authentic.”  In the spirit of truth telling, I wish some of the guests had had the courtesy to zip it during the presentation of this award.

“Radical Red” Honours the late “Little Fat Wino”

The Little Fat Wino!As Deborah Paskus received her award she was given a bottle of Radical Red, a tribute bottling by Stoney Ridge winemaker Jim Warren honouring his long time friend Lawrence Peighton Paterson. For as long as I can remember Larry was much better known and embodied as the Little Fat Wino.  He passed away late in 2010 after a long career as a professional thorn in the paw of the Ontario wine establishment, including the LCBO.  He was the only LCBO staffer ever fired for breaking “the company” rules about the listing process. He was such a fierce promoter of Ontario wine that while working in the Lakefield LCBO (near Peterborough) he would drive to Niagara on weekends to bring in non-listed wines for display in the store.  Once relieved of his duties he became even more aggressive, writing in publications and on his own website, about anything he deemed stupid, arbitrary and artificial (including wine additives).

In later years he became a promoter of Ontario wine outside conventional regional and varietal boundaries, doing much to convince winemakers in fringe areas to consider new, hybrid grape varieties. One such grape called Landot (see his treatise here) became a calling card, and it is from this variety, blended with merlot, that Jim Warren has created his small lot of Radical Red. When I received the bottle from Jim Warren after the event, I thought I should keep it as a momento to Larry, but I decided to just go ahead and open it. That’s what Larry would have done, and having received the bottle as a journalist it was indeed my job to write about it.  Radical Red is not a remarkable wine. It is very good, with a richness that escapes many Ontario reds, but there is a fair bit of oak and a volatile and leathery edge to it as well, so that the fruit character is not particularly distinctive. What’s remarkable is that the wine exists, from vines grown with the greatest of patience by one of the most impatient men I have ever known.  Or at least a man impatient with anything that got in the way of his passion for the development of a unique and vibrant wine industry.

That’s a wrap. See the rest of my reviews on this release (I was not able to taste all of it) here.

And please take a moment to check out our new video series, “So, You Think You Know Wine?“.

Cheers and enjoy, David

- David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 5th, 2011 – Our most feminine Master Sommelier, South Americans from the fringes & a shocking VINEXPO study

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In this article:
• Canada’s first female master sommelier: Jennifer Huether;
• March 5th Vintages Preview with more great ‘fringe’ South American wines – Top 5 ChileTop 5 Argentina –  and a rare specialty of the Dolomites.
• What are we, and the world, drinking? A world wine market update with a smattering of Top Smart Buys

Canada’s newest Master Sommelier
What do 180 talented, knowledgeable, dedicated, evidently wine-crazed, relentless and single-minded wine industry professionals from around the world have in common? They’ve put themselves through, and emerged successfully on the other side, of one of the world’s most rigorous set of examinations, administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. After years of preparation and a nail-biting three‐stage oral exam (no pun intended), these candidates proved they have what it takes to attain the highest level of standards of wine theory, beverage service and tasting ability.

Jennifer Huether, Master SommelierSo grab a glass of LE MESNIL BLANC DE BLANCS BRUT CHAMPAGNE AC, Grand Cru $52.95 (from the February 19th release) and join me in a toast. It was with both admiration and delight that I greeted the news of Jennifer Huether MS’s success last week in Irving, Texas, when she became Canada’s first female master sommelier, and one of still only three in the country (Bruce Wallner of Paese Ristorante in Toronto was Canada’s second MS). Jennifer has been a pillar of the wine community in Ontario for over a decade. I still recall our days tasting together back in 1999-2000 ‘after hours’ in the LCBO lab with Claudius Fehr, then buyer of European wines for Vintages, for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust diploma course in Toronto. She was frighteningly sharp even then.  Today she’s head sommelier for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, so you can enjoy top-level service, and of course some fine wines, at places like the Air Canada Centre Platinum Cluband E11even where her team of sommeliers (including our own Sara d’Amato) is unparalleled in the province. Rumour has it that she will begin using WineAlign reviews on their new iPad wine menus to help dinners navigate through the list, so you know she’s on top of her game….

South America
There’s no question that South American wines, especially from Chile and Argentina, are hot. And not just in Canada: Chile’s international exports were up 57% in the period 2005-2009, making that thin sliver of a country the world’s fifth largest exporter by volume, behind France, Italy, Australia and the US. In Canada, Chilean imports rose 33% in the same period, making them also our country’s 5th most important wine trading partner.

Argentina does not yet figure among our top 8 sources for imported wines, but watch out. Those tango-dancing, Fernet-swigging Euro-Latinos enjoyed the most spectacular export growth of all, up 114% internationally from 2005-2009. Given the ramped-up excitement surrounding Argentine wines, it’s just a matter of time.
Concha Y Toro Maycas Del Limari Reserva Syrah 2009This week’s top South American release as well as the undisputed numero uno smart buy is the astonishingly good 2009 CONCHA Y TORO MAYCAS DE LIMARI RESERVA SYRAH Limarí Valley $14.95 (91pts). Yes, that’s right, 91 points for a $15 dollar wine. I nearly fell over, too, after tasting this wine and checking, and double-checking, the price.  I reported earlier this year on the unique soils and characteristics of the Limarì Valley, some 400kms north of Santiago, so click here if you’d like to read up. There’s also a video of the assistant winemaker from Maycas del Limarì describing the soils.

Two more of the top five from Chile in this release also happen to come from the Limarì Valley, proving that something special is going on there. From the same producer, try the 2007 CONCHA Y TORO MAYCAS DEL LIMARI RESERVA ESPECIAL CHARDONNAY Limarí Valley $19.95 . It’s a classy, barrel-fermented chardonnay that stands out for it’s pronounced minerality and lively natural acids; leave it another year in the cellar to show at it’s best. Also smart value is the 2008 TABALÍ RESERVA CABERNET SAUVIGNON Limarí Valley $14.95 . It’s chalk full of smoky, mineral, savoury flavours, making it a fine picnic-tablemate for the upcoming BBQ season.

Concha Y Toro Maycas Del Limari Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2007 Tabalí Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

In Argentina, like in Chile, it’s the ‘fringe’ zones that are causing the most excitement. I also reported in detail on the Argentine wine scene recently, following a two-week R&D adventure, so click here to read the news. While over ¾ of the country’s production comes from Mendoza, and there are of course many spectacular examples, in this release it’s all about the newly emerging areas to the far north and south. Try the 2007 MALMA RESERVA MALBEC Neuquén, Patagonia  $15.95 to get a sense. There’s an uncommon freshness to the black fruit flavours, fine, natural balance and salty-mineral flavours that distinguish the wines of Patagonia in general.

Malma Reserva Malbec 2007

Colomé Amalaya 2008A couple thousand kilometers to the north in Salta province is the home of Donald Hess’s Bodega Colomé project. Founded in 1831, it’s considered the oldest winery in Argentina, but it’s also cutting edge. Hess family Estates bought the farm in 2001, which included 11 hectares of pre-phylloxera vineyards, with some vines almost 150 years old and still producing. Hess also planted an experimental vineyard at a neighboring estate at the extraordinary elevation of 3,111 meters above sea level, the highest vineyard in the world to my knowledge. Check out the 2008 COLOMÉ AMALAYA Calchaquí Valley, Salta $18.95 from this release. It’s the excellent entry level wine from Colomé, principally malbec with some supporting grapes, offering a fine floral-violet fragrance and vibrant acidity. Another year or two in the cellar will allow the wood to better integrate.

World Wine Trends:
In case you didn’t know, Canada’s wine consumption will continue to grow
Robert Beynat, CEO of VINEXPOWhat will you be drinking tonight? Chances are I already know, at least statistically, thanks to the results ofVINEXPO’s 9th study on Global current and future trends to 2014: consumption, production, distribution and international wine and spirits trade were revealed last week in Toronto. And there’s at least a good chance that you will be drinking wine, as the study puts Canada’s wine consumption growth rate at six times the world average. According to the study, wine sales volumes are expected to grow 19% by 2014, while average worldwide volume growth totals 3.18%. “In the span of 10 years, Canada’s wine consumption will have grown 6 times faster than the world average,” explained Robert Beynat, CEO of VINEXPO.

Between 2005 and 2009, Canadians increased their wine consumption by over 22.5%, and from 2010 to 2014, wine consumption is forecasted to increase by 7.9 million cases, which would place Canada third behind China and the United States, in the running for the title of most improved wine consumers. We’re talking volume here, but even in terms of value, Canada should more than double the world’s growth projections (+18.58% vs. +6.73%). Not only do we like to drink more and more, but we also like to trade up to better wines: Canada is the 4th largest market worldwide for sales of wines priced more than US$10 per bottle, behind the U.S., UK and France. I’m guessing that there are few food products – aside from perhaps braised pork belly, poutine or gourmet burgers – that could claim such growth.

Despite our modest population, relatively to our envious size, Canada now ranks as the world’s 5th biggest wine importing country by volume, and imports are increasing steadily (+16% predicted to 2014). In 2009, imported wines represented 72% of your total wine consumption, with France still leading but trending down almost 2% in 2005-2009. But don’t be mistaken. France is making better wines than ever. It’s just that competition, which once did not exists, is now getting stiffer and stiffer. There are no fewer than 5 French wines in my top ten smart buys this week; for a sip of Gallic greatness try the 2008 DOMAINE DE LA TOUR CHABLIS MONTS-MAIN 1ER CRU $29.95. It will remind you of how good chardonnay can be. The 2009 CHAVET MENETOU-SALON BLANC $18.95 and 2009 CHÂTEAU DE LA GREFFIÈRE MÂCON-LA ROCHE VINEUSE $14.95 are also smart buys in the French white department.

Domaine De La Tour Chablis Monts Main 1er Cru 2008 Chavet Menetou Salon Blanc 2009 Château De La Greffière Mâcon La Roche Vineuse 2009

Italy is currently Canada’s second largest source for imported wines, but with a +23% increase over the same period 2005-2009, looks set to edge out the French for our greatest foreign affection. The mini theme in the March 5th release is northern Italy, and there’s a very tasty red from an obscure indigenous variety grown in the shadow of the pointy Dolomites to highlight: 2008 PISONI TEROLDEGO IGT Vigneti Delle Dolomiti $14.95. It’s food friendly in the typical Italian style, and fresh and lightly herbal, like cool climate cabernet franc mixed with syrah.

Pisoni Teroldego 2008

Despite these imports, we’ve not forgotten about our heroic local vintners: in the next five years domestic wines will see a 26% increase, meaning that Canadians will be knocking back a respectable 14.6 million cases of locally-produced wine. Though compared to the world’s average annual production of 3.083 billion 9-litre cases, Canada’s output remains a drop in the proverbial bucket. A drop worth buying this week is the 2009 TWENTY TWENTY-SEVEN CELLARS FEATHERSTONE VINEYARD RIESLING VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula 91 $24.95 ***, from young talented winemaker Kevin Panagapka. It’s made in an uncompromisingly tight, lean austere style, the way we like it.

Twenty Twenty Seven Cellars Featherstone Vineyard Riesling 2009

Red and Rosé: Red Hot
Red wine consumption has grown by 23% between over the last five years, and the VINEXPO study expects a further 20% increase in the next five. In 2010, over two-thirds of wines consumed in Canada were red. Also notable is the dramatic rise in rosé consumption, even if they only account for 3.5% of all wines drunk by Canadians. Pink was up 43.85% between 2005 and 2009, and will continue to grow by over 50%. There’s no worthy rosé in the March 5th release, but a smart red buy is the 2009 ST. GERVAIS RÉSERVE CÔTES DU RHÔNE AC $13.95 .

St. Gervais Réserve Côtes Du Rhône 2009

Other interesting worldwide tidbits:
Pull your weight, eh: C’mon you maritimers and you mid-westerners, you’re not pulling your weight. 90% of all wine drunk in Canada is consumed in just 4 provinces: Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta.
That Euro-lifestyle: half the world’s wine comes from France, Italy and Spain.
Betcha didn’t know: China ranks seventh in the world for wine production and nº1 in terms of growth expected: +77% between 2010 and 2014.
400M cases disappear each year: In 2009, more than 31.5 billion bottles of wine were consumed worldwide, up 4.5% compared to 2005. That equals 2.626 billion 9-litre cases. But average worldwide production is 3.083 billion 9-litre cases. So where did the other 400 million cases go?
A new arms race, but this time it’s a corkscrew: The VINEXPO study forecasts a moderate increase in world wine consumption of 3.18 %, ¾ of which is driven by just three countries: the U.S., China and Russia
The wine-spangled banner: The U.S. will become the world’s leading wine market in 2012, ahead of Italy and France.
Not enough sparkle: In 2009, still light wines accounted for 92.6% of all wine consumed across the world.
But there’s hope: in 2010, sparkling wines accounted for 7.4% of all wines drunk worldwide, with consumption is expected to grow by 5.61% (compared to the 2.98% growth rate of still wines) between now and 2014.
Think pink: of all wine categories, consumption of rosé wines will increase the most in the next five years.
Not just more, but better: total wine sales consumption by value in 2009 was up 9.25% compared to 2005, while over the same period, the volumes of still light wines consumed grew by 4.2%. The trend is expected to continue to 2014.
Forza Azzurri: Italy is the leading world exporter of wines by volume
But, vive les Bleus, too: France remains the leading world exporter of wines by value
Threat from other down unders: Chile’s is +33% in Canada putting them into 5th position in terms of volume. South Africa is Canada’s 7th largest supplier, but enjoyed the greatest increase 2005-2009: +62%. Other countries to watch: Argentina, up 114% internationally from 2005-2009, Spain and USA up by 42% in Canada.
More than just a body shot: Tequila has enjoyed the fastest growth of all spirits in the last five years, up 36% and ahead of vodka and bourbon (+23%). Cognac/Armagnac and Scotch whisky were the biggest losers at -7% and -6% respectively.

From the March 5th Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Five Chile
Top Five Argentina
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

Argentina: The next chapter – By John Szabo

John Szabo - Vineyards at Andeluna, Uco Valley

My year-end post comes from the end of the world, at least from our perspective: Argentina. Red hot in Canada and the US, Argentine wine has in a very short time moved from fringe to mainstream. But where will Argentina go after malbec and Mendoza? Does the country have the depth and diversity to hold the attention of our fickle wine market long term? I needed to do a little research and fact checking, so in late November, along with respected colleague Bill Zacharkiw of the Montreal Gazette, I boarded the AC overnight flight to Buenos Aires to get the scoop. From Salta in the north to Patagonia 2000km to the south, this is the next chapter in the story of Argentine wine.

But first, a little perspective on ‘La Argentina’: the name conjures up so many images in the minds of most Canadians. I had my own preconceived notions, and I expected this journey to either galvanize or dispel them. There’s nothing like a little knowledge to kill prejudice, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Prior to leaving, through a little reading and exposure to Argentineans in Toronto and elsewhere, I had the following pre-conceived notions:

1. Argentina is a remote but exotic destination, where the population survives almost exclusively on lean, grass-fed beef, cooked on a wood fired grill under open skies, served with lots of red wine and Fernet Branca mixed with coke.

2. The sultry accordion notes of Carlos Gardel’s tango music continually dance out onto the busy streets of Buenos Aires from every bar and restaurant, and couples spontaneously embrace in the provocative steps of the dance. Even the accent of Argentine Spanish seems to sway and flow to a tango beat, lilting, dropping, then swinging up again with a smooth, suave glide.

3. Argentina is the Europe of South America, with the legendary beauty of its people offering more than a passing resemblance to the citizens of Ancient Rome as depicted in images and on coins.

4. Argentines are fun, outgoing people, embodying the sort of culture where friendship is taken seriously and regularly re-established over long lunches that begin at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon and commonly stretch on well past the North American dinner hour, ebbing and flowing on the euphoria induced by Rabelaisian quantities of strong red wine, and later, Fernet Branca and Coca-Cola.

5. Gauchos, part outlaws, part cult heroes, still ride the plains of the Pampas and lead the life of rugged adventurers that many dream of.

6. Argentines all play soccer, and young children wear the baby blue and white striped jersey of the Argentine national soccer team, thrice World Cup Champions and arch-rivals of the world’s top soccer nations.

7. Everybody takes food seriously in Argentina as they do in Italy, with the best dishes of course being those that are prepared by your mamma or nonna (abuela). Everyone has an opinion on who makes the best dulce de leche, the national sweet, a condensed caramelized form of milk that’s used in everything from ice cream to cookie fillings.

8. Energy is palpable in the streets, especially Buenos Aires. There’s the ever-present sense of controlled chaos, of the silently tolerated transgression of arbitrary laws that might interfere with proper living, or Fernet Branca and coke.

9. Salaries are low, inflation is high, mortgages are virtually unattainable and another economic meltdown such as that experienced in 2001 seems all but inevitable, and yet there is no doom and gloom. Argentinean people are endearingly optimistic, with an unshakeable faith in the positive outcome of matters utterly beyond their control. Yet at the same time, they don’t trust anyone (there is reportedly more Argentine money held in offshore bank accounts and tied up in foreign investments than within the country itself, so I guess there’s no reason not to smile even as the country collapses around you). Nevertheless, they’ll deliver offerings at the many roadside shrines dedicated to Gauchito Gil (a legendary gaucho, Robin Hood hero, outlaw) with the matter-of-fact conviction their prayers will be answered as assuredly as their bank statement will reflect a recent deposit, or that Argentina will win the next world cup. Things just seem to have a way of working themselves out on their own in Argentina.

10. Argentina produces a lot of malbec, generally soft, oaky and fruity, and a fair bit of aromatic muscat-like Torrontés in desert-like conditions in the foothills of the Andes where hail the size of baseballs regularly pummels the vines. And they drink a lot of Fernet and coke.

Fernet, unofficial national beverage

Fernet, unofficial national beverage

So, were these notions accurate? Yes of course. And of course not. Argentina offers much more than meets the eye, especially in the world of wine.

Argentina’s positive cultural image has helped propel wine exports, a product intimately related to culture, to record highs. Bottled wine exports have surged up nearly 19% by value and 10% by volume in the last year overall. In Canada, Argentina’s second largest market after the USA, value is up 18.3% and average price per case has soared almost 22%, even while total volume slipped by 2.8%. This is likely explained due to the ‘Fuzion’ bubble bursting.

You may recall somewhere around 2008, Fuzion, a brand produced by Zuccardi in Mendoza, became Ontario’s single most successful product ever, across all categories, outselling everything including beer, spirits and ready-to-drink products. The frenzy to buy a case, like a Walmart-special-in-aisle-4-caused rush of humanity has all but subsided now, and there bottles sit on LCBO shelves where once they were gone before even hitting them. Like the wine or not, it put Argentina on the map and into the mainstream consciousness of wine drinkers in Canada.

It wasn’t so long ago, only a little over a decade or so, that Argentina didn’t need to export wine. Despite being the world’s 5th largest wine producer (after Italy, France, Spain and the US), Argentines consumed a prodigious amount of their own supply, to the liver-quivering tune of 90l per capita. That number has since dropped to 30l, creating a huge surplus in the home market. Solution: export. And timing couldn’t have been better. The Argentine peso, formerly pegged to the US$, was devalued by 2/3 overnight in the crash of 2001, making Argentine products cheap. Around the same period, world wine markets were coming of age, especially in North America, where consumers had become comfortable including wine in their lifestyle, had become familiar with many of the world’s classic wine regions, and had developed the confidence and curiosity to go out and discover what else was out there in the vast and mesmerizing world of wine.

Patagonia Chacra Pinots

Patagonia Chacra Pinots

Enter Argentina, an exotic country with a generally positive national ‘brand’ image. The country had good supply of inexpensive wine made predominantly from a relatively obscure but not totally unknown grape variety, malbec, of which they now have the world’s largest plantings. Malbec was something new and exciting to most, and it also happens to be a grape that delivers the type of wine of greatest popularity these days: red, deeply coloured, richly fruity, full bodied, structured but not too tannic, with an affinity for the flavours of new oak.

So there you have it: good, cheap wine in the style-du-jour from a new and exotic country and grape. The perfect storm. Then throw in one more significant weather event, a world-wide economic meltdown that made ‘good value’ the zeitgeist on every drinker’s lips, and voilà Argentina moves from fringe to mainstream and Fuzion goes fission, exploding with that much more power.

Stardate 2011: Argentina stands at the proverbial crossroads, basking in the success of the last few years, yet also in the anxiety of how to stay on top and ahead of the game. There’s the imminent danger that the country will lose its luster, it’s exotic, spicy edge, and that consumers will grow bored with the same old cookie-cutter style, interchangeable $14.95 malbecs. For with all of this success comes the inevitable pressure on supply and the subsequent temptation to cut corners. Quality in some cases is certainly on the rise, but not uniformly; some wines are slipping in quality from over-stretched production and expanded vineyard sources. It’s reminiscent of the Yellow Tail phenomenon, where at one point demand was so high that grapes and wine were sourced from anywhere and everywhere and manufactured at Beaujolais Nouveau-like speed with the aim to simply meet orders.

Given the popularity of malbec today and looking back, it’s ironic that a significant part of the country’s original old vine malbec vineyards planted by Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were ripped out in the 60s and 70s. Nobody wanted the grape. It yielded less than the more productive bonarda (Argentina’s second most planted red grape), and much much less than the depressing, lowly criolla, both of which replaced malbec when the undemanding internal market was guzzling prodigious quantities.

El Flaco, experienced vineyard worker

El Flaco, experienced vineyard worker

It wasn’t until the 90s that producers started to replant malbec as demand began to rise. There are still plenty of 80-90+ year old malbec vines, the source of some of Argentina’s greatest wines, but there are a lot of young vines as well, not yet in the prime of their quality-oriented life. The good news is that many of the newest vineyards have been established in areas previously thought unsuitable for viticulture: at high elevations in the foothills of the Andes, high above the flat, hot and fertile alluvial plains to the east, and in cooler regions like Patagonia.

These vineyards will write the next chapter in Argentina’s wine history, and the sequel to the now-familiar malbec story. These new developments were the real impetus for my Argentine adventure: to find out whether the country has the sufficient depth to keep hold of the world’s attention, and enough quality wines to ensure that they aren’t relegated exclusively to the ‘value wine’ ghetto like several countries before them.

The report is cautiously optimistic. On the one hand there’s risk of increased homogenization of styles and flavours through the well-intended efforts of international consultants such as Frenchmen Michel Rolland, Italian Alberto Antonini and American Paul Hobbs, all of whom consult for numerous properties throughout Argentina. Terroir or not, international consultants have their own philosophy of quality that transcends the walls of a winery and the boundaries of a vineyard, and tend to guide the fruit from various sources into the same style box. The style may be very successful, but the point is that diversity of style is utterly lost at precisely the time when it should be the ultimate aim in a maturing wine world that demands ever-more variety in tastes, textures and flavours.

I found it surprising that so many talented and highly trained Argentine winemakers employed outside consultants to guide them in their production. Most cited the fact that they simply don’t have any experience with international wines – there are virtually no foreign wines on the market in Argentina – and that foreign consultants help them keep in touch with what’s happening around the world. But that outside influence is a double-edged sword: the espoused styles may be popular internationally, but they are not necessarily recognizable as Argentinean. Such wines therefore lose the value-added edge of uniqueness, of originality, of distinction. Imagine if the monks of Burgundy had hired Bordeaux negociants to make their wine in the 17th century – I wonder what Burgundy would be like today. It is telling, however, that the three flying winemakers cited above each have their own properties in Argentina, in addition to consulting contracts, proving beyond a doubt that they, too, believe in the terroir of Argentina.

The other notable observation is the relative immaturity of the wine industry. Yes, wine has been made in Argentina since Spanish missionaries brought vines with them over the Andes from Peru and Chile. But the industry, and the internal wine market, have been completely isolated from the world until only about a decade or so ago. Little wine made it in or out of the country, and the only people exposed to quality foreign wines were the ones who could afford to travel.

The market, both producers and consumers, are still in the growth and development stage, much like California was been in the 1970s and 1980s, or Australia or even Chile in the 90s. Much of the winemaking points to a lack of confidence, that is, a lack of confidence in their own terroirs and grapes. There is still a prevalent belief that fine, expensive wine is made by doubling up: more ripeness, more alcohol, more extract, more wood. So often the ‘icon’ wines offered had no special story to tell other than the outmoded tale of more is better. To be sure, it will take some time for the regions/vineyards of greatest distinction to become clear, where concentration does not come at the expense of balance and real complexity is born in the vineyard not the cooperage.

Argentina's Wine Regions

Argentina's Wine Regions

The positive, optimistic side of this story comes from the discovery, or at least confirmation, that Argentina is home to diverse terroirs capable of producing distinctive wine styles, if not trumped by heavy-handed winemaking. Here are a few observations, facts and figures on Argentina’s main growing regions :


Beginning with Argentina’s largest and most famous region, Mendoza (70% of national production), the most notable discovery is the tremendous amount of diversity within this huge area. In fact, to put “Mendoza” alone on a label is about as useful as putting “Bordeaux”, with no further specification. Commercially, obviously, the names are highly recognized and will get the door open. But once you’re in, you must have something more to say. And there is more to say, much more. Like Bordeaux, the wines of the geographically diverse region of Mendoza can taste vastly different. There is easily as great a difference between the wines of the Uco Valley (south western Mendoza) and Rivadavia (eastern Mendoza) as there is between Pomerol and Pauillac. To capitalize on this distinctiveness requires winemakers first of all to reflect it, then wineries and their representatives to teach the trade and public about them. Not an overnight task.

Considering that the soils in Mendoza all share a similar alluvial composition of organic matter-poor sand, pebbles and clay (in varying proportions), and that rainfall varies little throughout the region (this is high desert country, and all vineyards here are irrigated with run-off from the Andes), the principal differences in style are due to the myriad micro-climates created by elevation. For example, sub regions like Rivadavia and San Rafael to the south and east of Mendoza City sit around 600-700m above sea level, and the harvest often occurs a full month ahead of some of the cooler, higher elevation zones. The flavours of malbec tend to be more cooked/baked/compoted red fruit, with softer tannins and more immediate appeal.

Hail nets, Mendoza's greatest threat

Hail nets, Mendoza's greatest threat

Vineyards in the Uco Valley, on the other hand, at up to 1500m in the foothills of the Andes produce more fresh black fruit flavours and highlight the floral-violet side of malbec. Day-night temperature shift during the growing season can top 20ºC, dropping at night to the point at which sugar accumulation and acid degradation virtually stop. This allows for full flavour development while retaining much higher levels of natural acidity and firmer tannins, making the wines of the Uco Valley suitable for long ageing.

The most historic vineyards in the close proximity to the River Mendoza in sub-regions like Luján de Cuyo and Maipù lie somewhere between these two extremes in style. The next step for wines from Argentina, in particular malbec from Mendoza, will be to begin to label wines by specific origin (under the umbrella of Mendoza) and to articulate these unique points of difference.


Insignificant in terms of volume of production – about 2% of the country’s wine production – Patagonia will have much greater impact on the quality wine scene in the near future.  The two main regions, Neuqén and Río Negro, are a full 800kms to the south of Mendoza at 42ºS, about the southern latitude equivalent to Toronto. This is not quite the Patagonia of penguins and glaciers (it’s another 2400km from Neuquén to Tierra del Fuego), but temperatures are markedly cooler than most other parts of the country. Aside from grapes, cool climate-loving tender fruits are a vital crop (cherries, apples, peaches). In the past this was an area focused on bulk table wines, with over 100 wineries in Rio Negro in the early-mid 20thC. All but one, Humberto Canale, were forced out of business in the 1960s and 1970s as they were unable to compete with the higher-yielding, lower production cost vineyards of Mendoza. Patagonia was and remains an expensive area to grow grapes, but with demand for top quality wines surging, the future looks bright. Bodega del Fin del Mundo pioneered the redevelopment of the region in the late 1990s, and there are now 15 wineries.

Patagonian Sky

Patagonian Sky

Frost is an issue, but the principal viticulture hazard in Patagonia is the fierce, near constant wind that can shred young shoots and wreak havoc at flower set, keeping yields naturally low. Vineyards are planted with buffering rows of poplar and willow trees to break the wind. The principal grapes grown are sauvignon blanc (an unexpected surprise), pinot noir, merlot and malbec. Cooler conditions yield wines with high natural acidity, vibrant, fresh fruit flavours and marked minerality; these are among the most refined and elegant wines in Argentina.


Salta is Argentina’s most northerly growing region at 22ºS, and it is only extreme elevation that makes quality viticulture possible. The world’s highest vineyards are located here, up to nearly 3000m. Viticulture dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest, but expect to hear more about Salta and its principal growing region, the Cafayate Valley, in the near future. Salta’s most emblematic grape, the fragrant-floral white torrontés variety (muscat x criolla) has become Argentina’s flagship white wine. The greatest challenge here is to protect the grapes from intense sunlight. For this reason the ancient pergola vine training system called parral is often still employed, even in new vineyards. It allows for a canopy of foliage to protect the grape bunches that grow beneath. The extreme day-night temperature shift also permits full ripeness at reasonable sugar levels (and thus moderate alcohol).

La Rioja

La Rioja’s best-known growing area is the wide, very arid Famatima Valley, flanked on two sides by the Velazco and Famatima mountains ranges at about 1000m elevation. It’s warmer than Mendoza on average, and produced mostly bulk wine until 15 years ago when the government backed a large project to shift the region into quality production. Vines are trained on the parral system to protect grapes from the sun and deal with the extreme climate. Torrontés Riojano, the most aromatic of the torrontés sub-varieties, and Bonarda (recently DNA finger-printed to be charbonneau, an ancient Savoie variety which has nothing to do with the bonarda of northern Italy) are the two flagship grapes.

San Juan

With close to 50,000 ha of grapes, (85% of which is for wine), San Juan is Argentina’s second largest wine producing province. The Tulum Valley is the most important growing area, representing close to 90% of San Juan’s production. But the quest to find cooler terroirs is pushing new vineyard development higher up into zones like the Zonda & Ullum Valleys at 900m, the Pedernal Valley at 1,300m and more recently the Calingasta Valley at about 2000m where a large diurnal temperature shift produces grapes with high extract and flavour intensity. The difference between these areas is pronounced, as a tasting of single vineyard Syrahs from Tulum, Zonda and Pedernal amply proved. Syrah has been established as the most important grape in San Juan.

The future is in the hands of Argentina’s wine producers and promoters. The potential exists to become a serious player in the world with everything from great value, entry-level to truly ultra premium wines (let’s drop the ‘icon’ designation). I look forward to following the story.

Some Key figures on Argentina in the world:

-          5th largest wine producer (1.375m liters produced in 2010, 1,341 wineries)

-          7th largest wine exporter: 230.667 hectoliters in 2010

-          8th largest wine consumer: 8 gallons consumption per capita in 2009 (775,180.20 hectoliters in total)

-          9th in Cultivated Surface: 228,575 ha

Source: Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura

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