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County in the City 2014 – Try and Buy Event

Special Offer for WineAlign Members:  $5 Off the Ticket Price (Promo Code: winealign)

Join us on Thursday, April 3, for the 3rd Annual County in the City, and sample some of the best wines Prince Edward County has to offer! Many County wineries all under one Toronto roof!


At the 3rd annual “County in the City”, samples of more than 50 different wines (including many vintage and specialty wines) will be showcased from 5pm-9pm to the public. This tasting event will delight the palates of Torontonians and introduce them to some of the most enticing flavours of Prince Edward County; the world’s fastest growing wine region. Wine Spectator magazine dubbed the County as the “world’s least-known great wine zone“.

Many of the County wines showcased at the event are not available at retail wine outlets in the GTA, so guests can take part in the “Try and Buy” program and have delicious County wines delivered right to their door. Mix and match bottles from different wineries and receive FREE shipping (minimum 6 bottles).

Along with the delicious wines there will be fabulous food pairings from the Berkeley Events’ kitchen including, Butter chicken with quinoa and naan, roast beef on mini Yorkshire pudding w/ horseradish cream, Mini gourmet grilled cheese on brioche, Pierogies (bacon optional), Plus a surprise dish!

Event Details:

Thursday, April 3, 2014
Location: Berkeley Church – 315 Queen St. East
Time:  5pm to 9pm
Tickets: $49.00 in advance (includes all wine and food samples)
Tickets: $60.00 at the door (subject to availability)

WineAlign Members receive $5.00 off tickets purchased in advance – Use Promo Code: winealign

 Purchase Your Tickets Here


Participating wineries include:

Broken Stone Winery
Casa Dea Estates Winery
Devil’s Wishbone
Grange of Prince Edward County Vineyard and Estate Winery
Harwood Estate Winery
Huff Estates Winery
Karlo Estates
Keint-He Winery and Vineyard
Lighthall Vineyard
Norman Hardie
Rosehall Run
Sandbanks Winery
Stanners Vineyard
ThreeDog Winery


About Berkeley Church:

berkeley-st-church1Built in 1871, The Berkeley Church has been transformed into Toronto’s most original event venue.Nowhere else will you find such a beautiful blend of traditional ambiance and modern decor. Details such as the original 17-foot stained glass windows, hard wood floors and Victorian Inspired bar makes the Berkeley Church a stunning escape from the ordinary. This location is accessible by TTC, taxi and Green P parking is available on all surrounding streets for responsible designated drivers.

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California Wine Fair 2014 – Canadian Tour

The 2014 California Wine Fair is fast approaching!2014-03-06_12-52-23

The California lifestyle embodies all the characteristics of a fine wine – vibrant, spirited and full of excitement. You are invited to drink in the famous, sun-kissed wine country of the Golden State and share the passion for liquid sunshine in a glass.

Raise a glass to California and enjoy a unique opportunity to sample a wide selection of more than 400 premium wines from 150 of California’s top producers.

This is the largest tasting tour of California wines in Canada!

Ottawa: Friday, April 4, 2014 (The Westin Ottawa)

Toronto: Monday, April 7, 2014 (Fairmont Royal York Hotel)

WineAlign Members receive $5.00 off the ticket price for the Toronto and Ottawa Shows – Use Coupon Code: WACALI
(The coupon code can be submitted on the checkout page.)

Click here for other Canadian cities.

Read about John Szabo’s and Sara d’Amato’s top picks from the California-themed March 15th VINTAGES release here.


Top 10 Reasons to Attend the California Wine Fair

10.  Get Inspired – learning about California wines at the California Wine Fair may just inspire you to visit the Golden State in 2014.  Get help planning your trip at

9.  Great Value for Money! – for one fair price you can sample a myriad of wines at varying price points without having to purchase extra tasting tickets.

8.  Amazing Flavour Sensations – along with California’s most beloved varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel), get ready to taste wines made from a huge range of varieties such as Pinot Noir, Viognier, Rhone varieties, Bordeaux varieties, and Sauvignon Blanc.

7.  Appellations Abound! – drill deep into the stylistic differences of wines from a variety of appellations including Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Coast, Oakville, Sta. Rita Hills, Monterey County, Lodi, Carneros and Paso Robles, to name a few.

6.  California Wines are Eco-Friendly – the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) developed the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing in 2002 to promote environmental stewardship and social responsibility in the California wine industry.


5.  Largest California Wine Tasting in Canada – and it’s all under one roof.  Explore the types of wines you like and experience the many flavours available at this event.

4.  Diversity of Styles – vintners will be coming from all over the Golden State and bringing a huge range of wines with them.  It’s a convenient way to learn the differences between the varieties and styles of wine.  There’s definitely something for everyone.

3.  Exciting New Wineries – explore a number of new wineries never before seen in Canada.  Check out the complete list at

2.  More Participants than Ever – the event is bigger and better than ever before – 165 wineries, 450 wines, and numerous friends from the wineries and vineyards.

1.  Let California Sunshine Brighten your Spring! – after the winter of 2014, we could all use a little California sun this spring.  Come out to the California Wine Fair and experience sunshine in a glass.

To find more information about California wines, please visit

Purchase Your Tickets Here


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Vintages Preview for March 15th 2014

This week’s report looks at California’s record-breaking export success, and some top wines from the California-themed March 15th VINTAGES release selected by John Szabo MS and Sara d’Amato. Link also to John’s Benvenuto Brunello report on the latest releases – mainly the 2009s and the 2008 riservas – from Brunello di Montalcino, in which he examines the unofficial proposal to subdivide Montalcino into subzones, canvassing several growers for their views, reports on the 2009 vintage, and highlights over 30 top picks. Keen fans of this great Tuscan red won’t want to miss Benvenuto Brunello event in Toronto on March 10th, the first time the Brunello Consortium has come here to present new releases in a decade. Elsewhere, read John’s controversial defense of France as the birthplace of terroir.

California Wine Exports Reach All-time High in 2013

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Ontario, and Canada are very strong markets for Californian wines. We like the Golden State’s offerings well enough to rank as their second largest export market, behind only the 28-member European Union (considered a single market for statistical purposes). In 2013 we drank 454 million dollars worth, up 12% over the previous year. California is also flying high in the rest of the world, breaking all export records in 2013 and hitting 1.55 billion in winery revenues.

So what’s the secret of success? Producing excellent wines is an obvious factor. “Consumers across the globe continue to recognize the quality, diversity and value of California wines, despite significant trade barriers and heavily subsidized foreign competitors,” says Wine Institute President and CEO Robert P. (Bobby) Koch. “Our outstanding 2012 and 2013 California vintages, heralded for quality as well as quantity, were a record high so we have the ability to expand.”

But success is also due to a very organized and efficient marketing arm, with a significant budget at their disposal to spread the love of California. “We have an aggressive global marketing campaign underway that communicates California as an aspirational place with beautiful landscapes, iconic lifestyle, great wine and food, and as an environmental leader,” says Wine Institute Vice President International Marketing Linsey Gallagher.

And I’d anticipate even more California promotion over the coming year, considering that, for example, The Napa Valley Vintners’ 18th annual Premiere Napa Valley made history by bringing in a total of $5.9 million, nearly doubling the previous record of $3.1 million raised in 2012. The money raised goes into the NVVs war chest to promote the region’s wines. “We are overwhelmed by the response we saw today,” said Russ Weis, chair of the NVV Board of Directors and general manager of Silverado Vineyards. “It shows there is a renewed confidence in the fine wine market in general and in Napa Valley wines specifically.” The average wholesale price per bottle sold at the auction was a staggering $283, with bidding fueled by the fact that more than 90 percent of the lots were from the 2012 harvest, one of the most anticipated vintages in recent history.

And it’s indeed at the high-end that California performs best. In my view, great wine under $30 is as rare as rain in the dessert. Most inexpensive wines, it seems, are increasingly simple, fruity and notably off-dry, vying for market share with younger palates. But at the top end, quality, and diversity, have never been matched. The “counter-culture” wine movement driven by commentators like Eric Asimov of the New York Times and Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, along with a new generation of well-traveled winegrowers, also influenced by young European vintners coming to do crush in California, have diversified the offering dramatically. This is excellent news; finesse and balance grow alongside power and opulence, and there’s quite literally a bottle for everyone.

John’s California Picks

Of the premium wines hitting the shelves on March 15th, and out of the latest releases from Treasury Wine Estates (Etude, Beringer, Stags’ Leap and Château St. Jean), here are the bottles to look for:

Premium chardonnay

Etude Carneros Estate Chardonnay 2011Stags' Leap Winery Chardonnay 2012Premium chardonnay is perhaps the most dramatically evolved category in California. No longer the exclusive domain of big and buttery (though there are still plenty of these), the new Cali chard marries power and finesse, ripe fruit and restrain. The 2011 Etude Carneros Estate Chardonnay Sonoma County ($39.95) is a perfect example, made by the delicate hand of John Priest. It’s harvested at relatively low brix (ripeness) by California standards to retain freshness and verve, and is fermented and aged in all old barrels resulting in a fine, lifted, vibrant wine.

2012 Stags’ Leap Winery Chardonnay Napa Valley ($34.95) is likewise a lovely wine by Christophe Paubert from the soon-to-be legend 2012 vintage. Paubert’s principal contribution to this wine since arriving in 2009 has been to shift fruit sources further south in Napa to the cooler AVAs, this one being exclusively from Oak Knoll and Carneros, made without malolactic fermentation, and aged in just 25% new wood, with 25% in stainless steel and 50% neutral oak. Give it 2-3 years to reach full drinking enjoyment.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Etude Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Dominus 2010Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Cab remains the mainstay of the premium segment, and the top wines have reached new levels of balance and structure, like setting the clock back to the great examples from the early 1980s, only better. Fans of elegance will already be familiar with the superb wines of Ridge in the Santa Cruz mountains, and the 2010 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($52.95) is a beautifully refined example.

But finesse can be done well in the heart of the Napa Valley as well, as is demonstrated by the excellent 2010 Dominus Napa Valley ($151.95) and 2010 Etude Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($100.00). Both of these cabs perfectly straddle the line between balance and power, delivering the supple, ripe, dark fruit one expects from Napa in a alongside tangy-ripe acids and supremely well-managed wood influence. Both should age magnificently, well into the late 2020s and beyond.

For those seeking slightly larger-scale, generously proportioned cabernet, I’d highlight the following trio:

Cade Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 2009Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 20102010 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($99.95). The Stars Align as this is recommended by both John and Sara. JS – The Cade Cabernet Sauvignon is a highly attractive, elegant but structured wine from the volcanic terroir of Howell Mountain, which should continue to evolve and improve over the next decade. The cooler-than-normal 2010 growing season resulted in a floral and nuanced expression, with ripe but fresh black berry flavours and well-chiseled tannins. SD – What exactly is so special about Howell Mountain? Using the catch phrase “above the fog”, the Mountain is gifted with long growing days of sustained temperatures due to its high elevation. It has very good drainage from rocky soils that tend to be of the nutrient deficient type, composed of volcanic ash or red clay. From this exquisite deprivation are produced these highly revered wines that are both challenging and age worthy. This cooler vintage for Cade has produced a delightfully revealing and feminine wine.

2009 Château St. Jean Cinq Cépages Sonoma County ($74.95) is the 20th release of Cinq Cépages, Château St. Jean’s flagship Bordeaux blend (77% cabernet sauvignon in this vintage). It’s just starting to move into a nice drinking window with its fully ripe, macerated black, blue and red berry fruit, light pot pourri and resinous herb flavours, and a palate that’s both structured and supple, with fine depth and length.

2010 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($149.95) is a dense, compact, dark fruit flavoured wine, dominated fully by blackberry and cassis flavours that should be best after 2016-2018.

Other Reds

Ridge Lytton Springs 2011Etude Pinot Noir Carneros Estate 2011Stags Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah 2009Fans of the southern Rhône, great Bandol or Priorat, for example, will not want to miss the superb 2009 Stags’ Leap “Ne Cede Malis” Petite Sirah Napa Valley ($85.00). It’s an exceptional field blend originally planted in 1929, led by about 85% petite sirah, with another dozen or so varieties including most of the southern Rhône cultivars and even some white grapes. I love the wild berry fruit, savory and resinous herbs, and scorched earth flavours. You can drink or hold for this a couple of decades without a stretch.

For a classic Carneros expression of pinot pick up the 2011 Etude Pinot Noir Carneros Estate ($59.95), while Ridge’s 2011 Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley ($48.95) is a zinfandel-led blend crafted in an remarkably elegant style, with very suave, supple tannins, fresh dark wildberry flavours and finely integrated wood spice.

Sara’s California Picks

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

As the highly touted 2012 and 2013 vintages begin to trickle in, California is currently facing its worst drought in decades. Grape yields in this challenging year promise to be low, and older vineyards are likely to fare best as their deep roots are able penetrate pockets of ground water. But despite the current stunted grape growth, there is no stopping the boom of growth in export sales in this heart of the US wine industry that is slated to hit 2 billion dollars by the year 2020.

The wines offered in this VINTAGES feature are a mix of the very refreshing, moderate, and progressive alongside wines that demonstrate classic heavy oak and alcohol. Much of this diversity has to do with the great variation in vintages that California has seen in the past half-decade. For example, pick up a bottle of the 2010s that we have coming in on the shelves and you’ll find evidence of a much cooler and longer growing season as wines are showing greater elegance, more acidity and because of this delicacy, a restrained use of oak to match. This type of vintage allows us a stripped-down appreciation of the sites and grapes.

More classically, 2012 proved an excellent year for many varietals, especially pinot noir. The growing season was long, sunny and saw even-keeled temperatures. Uneventful and consistent often make for the best vintages. Producers were able to pump out an abundance of high quality grapes – a dream year for growers! Speaking of pinot noir, my top picks are as follows (in addition to the Cade cabernet above which saw our palates “align”):

Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2010La Crema Pinot Noir Los Carneros 2012La Crema Pinot Noir Los Carneros 2012 ($44.95). I have largely been a great fan of this pinot noir that has proved consistently complex and an exemplary new world style. With a hefty price tag, it is fitting for both special occasion and mid-term cellaring. Straddling both the Napa and Sonoma appellations, Carneros is home to some of California’s most elegant pinots partly due to the influence of the wind and fog that keep the heat at bay and the acids from diminishing. Creamy, layered with flavour and a serene harmony that will have you foggy-headed.

Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley ($54.95). Honest, pure and revealing – nicely reflecting the cooler 2010 vintage. Although well-structured, the wine is showing terrific complexity, unencumbered by an oaky haze. The winery refers to their iconic cabernets as “modern day liquid treasures” – a very evocative and, in this case, apt description. Named after the statuesque Sequoia trees that frame the winery, it is located on the Rutherford Bench known for its mineral rich soils and its low lying area that captures the morning fog, cooling off the vineyard and allowing for a very elegant flavour profile.

That’s all for this week. We’ll be back next week with the ‘best of the rest’ of this release.

From the Mar 15, 2014 Vintages release:

Classic California
All Reviews

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

Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

California Wine Fair

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 12, 2013

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s release sets up a tasting of Burgundy and Barolo, two regions frequently compared for their similar philosophical approach to wine making. I recommend a pair from each with which you can make your own connections. There’s also rash of Californian wines to be stocked on shelves October 12, headlined unsurprisingly by Napa Valley cabernet. While prices are uniformly high, quality is not, and styles vary significantly. I highlight the wines that bring it all together. In the rest of the smart buys, you’ll find some fine fizz, crisp aromatic whites, and serious reds for autumn dining. Read on.

Smart Buys: Serious Reds, Crisp, aromatic whites & Fizz

This week’s smart buys feature a trio of superlative Languedoc-Roussillon reds all for under $20, an arch-classic Coonawarra cabernet celebrating its 53rd vintage, and a sumptuous Priorat from one of Spain’s most iconic names. You’ll also find a pair of very fine, $20 traditional method sparkling wines for your champagne dreams on a crémant budget, and a vibrant pair of aromatic whites, including a remarkable $14 Beamsville Bench Riesling – the best yet from this winery. See them all here.

Burgundy vs. Barolo?

One single grape, a multitude of expressions. Such is the wine making approach that philosophically binds the regions of Burgundy and Barolo. In contrast to regions such as Bordeaux or the southern Rhône Valley, Valpolicella or even Chianti where most often several grapes are enlisted, as some observers would say, to increase complexity, or less romantically, to mitigate the risks of seasonal variation, both Burgundy and Barolo rely on a single variety to articulate their respective terroirs. Furthermore, both have refined the concept of a cru, that is, a discreet parcel of land with unique characteristics and quality potential that differs even from adjacent parcels, to its most triumphal and sophisticated heights. Both regions produce wines from regional blends, from single villages, and from single superior vineyards within a village. And in both regions, producers and vintages make all the difference, and since land is strictly limited, the stakes are high.

As kindred spirits, Burgundy and Barolo both tend to attract the same souls: drinkers looking for wines that are intimately connected to the land, in which vineyard expression sings lead vocals over backup varietal character. In Burgundy, pinot noir is of course the red variety elected over centuries of trials as the maximum vector with which to reflect the nuances of the Côte d’Or, while Barolo calls upon the aristocratic nebbiolo to channel the myriad soil types and slope aspects of the Langa Hills. Yet travel in either region and you’ll notice that grapes are rarely ever mentioned. It’s more about the village, or the cru, where the wines were born.

One region thus leads inevitably to the other, linked as they are by a direct portal in the wine universe. For me, Burgundy came first, but soon after I succumbed to the spirit of Barolo. Indeed, it’s exceedingly rare to come across Burgundy lovers who don’t appreciate Barolo, or vice versa, and, tellingly, you’ll find many bottles of Barolo in the cellars of Burgundian wine producers, and vice versa. The connection is strong. So it’s not Burgundy vs. Barolo, but rather Burgundy AND Barolo.

So, if you love either one of these regions but haven’t already made the connection, tarry no longer.

Giacosa Bussia Barolo 2008Aurelio Settimo Rocche Barolo 2006From the October 12th VINTAGES release, the 2006 Aurelio Settimo Rocche Barolo ($52.95) shouldn’t be missed. It’s a classic old school Barolo from the brilliant Rocche cru in La Morra, in a powerful vintage. Vinified traditionally with long maceration in concrete followed by 2 years in large, old oak casks (2500-3500 liters), it’s garnet coloured, with superbly complex savoury, earthy, tar, pot pourri, dried red berry fruit and dried leaf character. The texture is firm and dusty – evidently not a wine for casual sipping, but rather a concentrated, intense Barolo best enjoyed at the table with savoury protein, or left in the cellar for another 3-5 years. Decant before serving in either case.

From a lighter but very pretty vintage, the 2008 Giacosa Bussia Barolo ($39.95) is another traditionally made wine from the storied Fratelli Giacosa estate (not to be confused with Bruno Giacosa; as in Burgundy, the splitting of families over centuries has resulted in multiple domaines with the same family names). In 1895, Giuseppe Giacosa learned of a prime property in Neive that had come on the market for the princely sum of three thousand lire, well beyond his means. Yet that night he had a dream, and the following morning bought a lottery ticket, playing the numbers that had come to him in his restless sleep. With his winnings he purchased the vineyards that still belong to the family.

Bussia is a large cru in the commune of Monforte d’Alba, generally regarded for its big, sturdy wine. But the cooler conditions of the ’08 vintage and gentle handling have yielded a more modestly structured Bussia, yet still authentic and pure, with typical red berry, licorice and tarry-resinous herbal flavours leading the way. This is ready to enjoy now with decanting thirty minutes or so ahead, or hold short term.

Domaine Albert Morot Beaune Aigrots 1er Cru 2009Aurélien Verdet Morey Saint Denis 2010Over in Burgundy, the 2009 Domaine Albert Morot Beaune Aigrots 1er Cru ($53.95) is my top pick of the release. Les Aigrots is on the mid-to upper slope at the southern end of Beaune’s Premier Cru vineyards, adjacent to the more famous Clos des Mouches cru towards Pommard. This is a fine example of the generous 2009 vintage, fully ripe and fleshy without slipping into the overripe/exaggerated spectrum. Tannins are silky but firm, acids balanced, and flavours firmly in the ripe red berry range. This is genuine and complex red Burgundy, best after 2015.

In general I prefer the firmer, tighter, more classic 2010 Burgundies, and the 2010 Aurélien Verdet Morey-Saint-Denis ($44.95) is a solid example. It’s a firm and grippy Morey-Saint-Denis, built on a svelte, lean frame, with brisk acids, modest concentration and extract, and light but dusty tannins. This too, will be best after 2015, though there’s no need to hold it long term.

Premium California

By press time, I’ll have just spent six days touring in the Golden State’s wine country, attending the first ever “California Wine Summit”, put on by the California Wine Institute. I’ll be issuing a special report on my discoveries towards the end of October with a focus on the future direction of Californian wine, and will be posting all of my tasting notes on WineAlign.

In the meantime, California wine sales continue to crack glass ceilings across Canada. The US leads all other imports in VINTAGES sales in Ontario, propelled by California, and especially by Napa and Sonoma. So it’s not at all surprising to see yet another sizable list of ultra-premium labels hitting the shelves on October 12th, in time for holiday excess.

As I see it, California is at a major crossroads. The prevailing mood within the wine trade (sommeliers, journalists) is that a change of philosophy is needed. At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, many producers appear content to continue along the road taken over the past fifteen or so years, banking upon the bigger-is-better model of winemaking – alcohol, ripeness, wood: the more the merrier. Any nuance of “green flavour” is morbidly feared, as though its presence were a health hazard. But the tide of preference for these wines is retreating out to sea. How long they will remain commercially popular is the question.

To be sure, the pendulum has already started to swing back from the extremes, but there are still extremists out there. Few producers resisted the commercial pressure to play the same game during this period, though they exist (see Corison below). And now, a new generation of winemakers, once marginalized as counter-culture radicals, are becoming ever more mainstream figures, and taking Californian wines in new directions.

These individuals (check out radicals like Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project, Arnot-Roberts, Brock Cellars, Donkey and Goat, for example) are eloquently demonstrating that complexity and depth needn’t come at the expense of balance and genuine freshness, even under the California sun, and they are enriching the diversity of the wine scene.

For regular WineAlign readers, my preference is clear: overripe grapes stuffed with oak don’t result in better quality. Such wines blur any regional, vineyard or varietal character in the pursuit of a stylized commercial product, and one that’s not very pleasurable to drink at that in my view. But perhaps that’s also the point. As I’ve said many times, wine is profoundly undemocratic. Without the right patch of land, even the most skilled winegrowers are handicapped from the start. So with second-rate terroir, squishing raisins into new wood may be your only option for impact if you want to break into the high stakes commercial game.

I’d like to recognize a couple of the new releases of cabernet that convey a deeper and more complex meaning of Napa. While I’d still have a hard time convincing anyone, including myself, that these are good values, they are nonetheless excellent wines in their own right.

Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2005Cathy Corison is now into her 27th vintage in the heart of the Napa Valley, farming benchland vineyards between Rutherford and St. Helena to organic standards. Her wines rarely surpass 14% alcohol, and her stated philosophy is to “make complex wines that walk the fine line between power and elegance”. I’ve tasted at least a half dozen vintages of Corison cabernet and they are always impeccably balanced and fresh, notably free of excessive pomp, elegant in an understated way. The 2005 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon ($113.95) is on offer this week, from a cool, late vintage. It’s a lovely and classic representation of the grape and region, complete with noted herbal character, lively fresh black berry fruit just starting to offer some evolved, tertiary complexity, and beautifully poised and balanced acid-tannin structure. Alcohol is a refreshing 13.6%, and the length is terrific, finishing on classy licorice and savoury black fruit notes. Enjoy now or hold another 10-15 years without a stretch – the way fine Napa cab, and wine in general, should be.

Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon 2007Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Another wine of superior depth and class, and an indelible sense of place, is the 2010 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon ($137.95). Although labeled simply as Napa Valley, this is an estate wine from vineyards planted at over 600 meters in the Spring Mountain AVA, at the northern end of the valley on the steep terraces of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Napa from Sonoma, on a low-yielding mix of volcanic and sedimentary soils. Expect plenty of scorched earth and dried herbs, roasted red peppers and sulphurous, volcanic-like minerality on the nose among many other things. The palate is firm and juicy, structured and succulent, with superior depth and genuine complexity. This is very fine wine, expressive of place. Lovely now, but better after 2015 no doubt.

Also worth noting in this release is the 2007 Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon ($83.95), a classy, high-toned, floral, elegant example of Napa cabernet, as I’ve come to expect from Heitz, with polished tannins, well-integrated oak, and long, perfumed, dusty finish. And for those wishing to spend a smaller fortune, check out the 2010 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon ($39.95), a generous, ripe, rounded style that sits about mid-way on the continuum from understated to exaggerated, and should please widely as such.

Closer to home, my WineAlign colleague David Lawrason is hosting an event with Flat Rock Cellars‘ engaging proprietor Ed Madronich and winemaker Jay Johnston. Our winemaker events have be selling out quickly, so you might want to check this out.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

From the October 12, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
Burgundy & Barolo
Premium California
All Reviews

Penfold's Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon

Taste Ontario - Ottawa & Toronto dates

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18 Defining California Wineries; Critic Picks

A Playbook for the California Wine Fairs coming to Canada in April

California Wine Fairs will roll through six cities across Canada in April, with over 150 participating wineries at the largest events. WineAlign has decided to profile eighteen wineries that fair-goers should visit this year – an arbitrary number on the one hand, but a somewhat realistic number for any fair-goer to tackle in one evening. And undoubtedly others will grab your attention along the way, as they should.

WineAlign critics Anthony Gismondi, John Szabo and David Lawrason have each chosen six. They had a chance to taste California in-depth during the recent five-day Vancouver International Wine Festival where California was the theme region (so there is no Vancouver fair in April). That exercise – which included several seminars and regional tastings – yielded new discoveries and rekindled some old relationships.

The reasons for their selection are varied – from appreciation of the wine style, to the philosophy and outlook of the wineries, to those who are simply doing things very well. Each has also highlighted a wine or three that can be located through WineAlign. And most will also be poured at the California wine fairs. For a full list of wineries in each city, as well as ticket information use this link to the California Wine Fair 2013 website.

Anthony Gismondi’s Six

Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

Kendall Jackson, Sonoma County

Sommeliers are often a fine source of information regarding unknown obscure producers making fascinating, one-off wines but sometimes they brush off wineries they shouldn’t. Point in question Kendall Jackson. KJ as it’s known to its peeps is a vastly underrated producer of California wine that is often lumped in with large commercial producers who simply are not in the same ballpark. While some wine companies were busy acquiring other wine companies over the last two decades, KJ was busy buying land, as in 10,545 acres of coastal and mountainside vineyards. That allows the family to claim that all the chardonnay grapes used in a bevy of labels are grown on vineyards the family controls. That’s an amazing 2.4 million cases of control from vineyard to bottle. The current structure of Kendall-Jackson’s chardonnay empire (don’t bet against more evolution) begins with the calling card of Vintner’s Reserve 2010 made from individual lots of grapes blended from multiple appellations. Stepping up in intensity and complexity of flavour is the Grand Reserve label. It’s made from a severe selection estate grown grapes blended from one or two appellations, in this case Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties. Its pinnacle chardonnays are labelled Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, wines that showcases specific estate vineyard sites located on “mountains, ridges, hillsides and benchland influenced by the cool coast of California.” Two examples well worth seeking out are the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2010 and the newest food friendly Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2011 (The former is an almost even split of Monterey and Santa Barbara fruit while the Avant is a slimmer juicier style that has impressed us with its early releases, the 2011 is t quite up to those releases but all in all good value.

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay

Joseph Phelps Vineyards (Freestone), Napa Valley, Sonoma Coast

Joseph Phelps Vineyards, founded in 1973 has been around most of my wine drinking life. Founded by Joe Phelps at St. Helena in the Napa Valley, the winery now works with or owns some 375 acres of vines on eight estates in Napa Valley and in 1999 expanded that number with some ultra-cool chardonnay and pinot noir producing vines grown near the town of Freestone on the Sonoma Coast. There is no doubt the fame of Phelps is closely linked to its signature Napa Valley blend, Insignia, but there is little to suggest its Freestone estate on the western Sonoma Coast won’t become equally valued in the decades to come. The family is so pleased with the early wines it has already reworked the original Freestone winery labels adding the Joseph Phelps brand name and highlighting Freestone Vineyards as an estate designation. Joe Phelps was always a fan of the cooler weather that moderates the Sonoma Coast and he was sure that top –flight pinot noir and chardonnay could be made there. He was right. I just love the Freestone wines the electricity in the Joseph Phelps Chardonnay Freestone Vineyards 2010 is crazy good and a benchmark for the future. Similarly the red brother Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir Freestone Vineyards 2010 entices with its sleeker cooler leaner style.

Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir Freestone Vineyards

Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County

Rodney Strong, the dancer turned winemaker is long gone but his spirit and foresight remains evident at his eponymous Sonoma County winery located just outside the picturesque town of Healdsburg. What Strong started, San Francisco businessman Tom Klein seems determined to finish or at least bring to fruition. Klein has built an impressive team of people led by chief winemaker Rick Sayre. Sayre’s first harvest was 1979 and over 30 years later Rodney Strong has become a beacon of the Alexander Valley, a region often said to be too warm to produce high quality reds. Sayre’s team has dismissed that fallacy and more with a trio of excellent hillside, single vineyard reds. The iconic and now revamped Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon, the Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon and the Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon each tell a story of terroir and exposition that would make Rodney the dancer fly through the air.

Sayre is also responsible for establishing the “Winery within the Winery’ at Rodney Strong. The blocks, be they single clones, or grapes grown on a special soil type, are tracked from the minute they enter the winery until they are bottled. Sayre’s sidekick is the youthful Greg Morthole who began working at Rodney Strong in 2005, and has quickly progressed to become the “Winery within a Winery” winemaker and is now responsible for another Klein family acquisition, the boutique Russian River pinot noir and chardonnay winery Davis Bynum. If anyone winery in Sonoma has helped to turn around the image of modern California chardonnay among the masses Rodney Strong is it. There are two labels to look for: the Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill 2010 from white ash soils of the Chalk Hills appellation, and slightly rustic but intense and ageworthy the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.

Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay

Signorello Estate, Napa Valley

Ray Signorello Jr. appears much younger than his years but don’t be fooled by the boyish grin. Signorello has more than 25 Napa Valley vintages to his credit and that makes him more establishment than newcomer in his beloved Napa. Signorello is a student of fine wine, young and old. His experience and observation with great wines from around the globe have shaped his thinking and the steady rise of quality at Signorello Vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon is the largest single grape variety planted on the Signorello hillsides. Signorello cabernet is all about finesse and balance no easy task in a region that wrestles with ripe fruit. His goal is to make complex reds that age gracefully a la the great bottles of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and more.

Signorello has a pair of talented Frenchmen helping him make the wine Pierre Birebent and Luc Morlet and while he says he is not making French wine, quality has its benchmarks and Bordeaux is never far from their minds. I’m a fan of understated Napa cabernet and Signorello makes just that. Padrone is a salute to his father and founding partner is fast becoming wine to reckon with in all of Napa Valley. Signorello Padrone 2009 is all Napa Valley with concentration and intensity but with finesse and restraint youthful tannins on the finish need 3-5 years to soften. Signorello Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is a surprisingly fine wine given the difficult vintage in Napa. With only cabernet franc in the mix now the regular cab is just beginning to hit its stride.

Signorello Padrone Proprietary Red

Schug Carneros Estate, Sonoma County

Walter Schug began his winemaking career as the original winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1973 – think Insignia, Backus and Eisele Vineyards cabernets. His move to Carneros in 1980 signalled a longing for a cooler maritime climate and a focus his true love pinot noir and chardonnay. By 1992 he was making estate chardonnay and pinot noir and the rest is history. In 1995 Sonoma-born winemaker Michael Cox joined Walter and a year later took over the reins. Walter Schug has a clear vision of what his wines should be and it begins with elegance and finesse. Always understated and refined the Schug chardonnay was modern long before the rest of Sonoma caught on. It’s easy to say Schug is European old school until you consider he was working with some 600 independent growers and several thousand acres of prime vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties in 1966. His journey continues with his 50th crush this season and I for one can’t wait to taste his latest chardonnays and pinot noirs because they represent some of the best value, intriguing, food friendly wines in America. Schug Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is exceptional, proving that Walter Schug understands the essence of Sonoma County freshness, minerality and electricity and he has all three running through this bottle. The Schug Pinot Noir Carneros 2010 is a mix of cool Sonoma Coast vineyards: rhubarb, raspberry, carrot top and caraway mark this juicy style pinot with excellent fruit and finesse.

Schug Sauvignon Blanc

Marimar Estate, Sonoma County

You only have to meet Marimar Torres once to understand she has never taken no for an answer when it comes to wine. Fluent in six languages she made her way from Spain to America after first selling the family wines in Europe and then North America. She settled in California in 1975 and by 1986 she was planning her beloved Don Miguel Vineyard situated in the Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley. Today the 81 acre site is planted to 30 acres of chardonnay and 30 acres of pinot noir. She also has another 20 acres of a 180-acre property planted to pinot noir between Freestone and Occidental in cool West Sonoma County. Torres is busy converting her vineyards from organic to biodynamic while technical director Bill Dyer, (Sterling Vineyards, Burrowing Owl, Church and State) is cranking out exceptional chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines are not European but like Schug, Phelps, Kendall Jackson, Rodney Strong and Signorello the wines of Miramar Torres use the California sun in measured amounts and balance that with a daily dose of cool air and fog. The result is wines you will not want to miss. Marimar Estate Pinot Noir Don Miguel Vineyard La Masia 2009 is a very complex wine from the Russian River. It could use a few years in bottle and it’s excellent value. Even more attractive is the Marimar Estate Chardonnay Don Miguel Vineyard Acero Unoaked 2010 also from the Russian River. Expect honey, floral, spicy, baked peach and orange muscat flavours that should appeal to many especially when served with Asian seafood dishes.

Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo’s Six

Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz

Randall Grahm may have started out on his wine journey as an “insufferable wine fanatic” (his words) searching for the “Great American Pinot Noir”, but his path led him instead into a thicket of Rhône and Italian grapes. He purchased land in the quaintly named Bonny Doon area of the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1981, and has since gone on to create nothing short of an amazing array of wines that stretch both the palate and the mind. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the “Rhône Rangers” movement, proving that Mediterranean grapes are shockingly well suited to California, and he was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Rhone Rangers organization. His philosophical musings are legendary in the wine community, and 350,000+ followers surely makes him the Ashton Kutcher of the wine twitterverse (sorry, Randall). Don’t forget to read the labels when you stop by the table to taste. The following will be at the California Wine Fair: 2010 Le Cigare Blanc Roussanne/Grenache Blanc Beeswax Vinyard; 2010 Contra Carignane/Syrah; 2009 Le Pousseur Syrah; and the 2008 Le Cigare Volant Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah/Cinsault. (Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2006)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant

Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Mendocino County

The original vineyards now belonging to Bonterra were once part of Fetzer’s holdings in Mendocino County. Bob Blue, the founding and current head winemaker, crushed his first harvest at Bonterra in 1990. Blue had worked under seminal American organic/biodynamic winemaking figures Paul Dolan and Dennis Martin at Fetzer, and has never looked back. It’s striking that fully one-quarter of Mendocino County’s vineyards are organically farmed, compared to 3% overall in California. Bonterra now farms an astonishing 915 acres of vines both organically and biodynamically. I’ve always appreciated the freshness and balance of Bonterra’s range, as well as the value. (Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010).

Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, Santa Barbara County

I visited Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, in the fall of 2011. The winery is tucked up in the upper hills of Santa Barbara County in what’s known today as the Happy Canyon AVA, where conditions are ideal for Bordeaux varieties. The winery itself is a remarkable structure that would be the envy of many Napa Valley wine temples, and the wines, too, are worth the detour inland. Both the Star Lane and Dierberg labels are made at this facility, equipped with every gadget a winemaker could dream of, but Star Lane is reserved for sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and a red blend called Astral, all grown in Happy Canyon, while Dierberg focuses on a range of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah in the cooler AVAs of Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills. These are intense and highly polished wines. (Dierberg Chardonnay 2008)

Dierberg Chardonnay 2008

Flowers Vineyard & Winery, Sonoma County

In 1989, Joan and Walt Flower purchased 321 acres of land on a ridge top a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean in northern Sonoma. Flowers Vineyards is thus one of the ‘true’ Sonoma Coast AVA properties, and with vineyards that top out at almost 600 meters, winegrowing is extreme. The focus is (almost) exclusively on chardonnay and pinot noir, from both the Camp Meeting ridge and Seaview Ridge estate vineyards, as well as other select sites from the coolest corners of Sonoma. These are finely etched, pure and precise expressions, with more than a slight nod back to the old world. (Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2010)

Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2010

Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich has some history in the business. He was the winemaker of the 1973 Château Montelena chardonnay that shocked the wine world by placing first in the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. Grgich Hills was established shortly after in 1977, and Mike was inducted in the Vintner’s Hall of Fame in 2008. For the last decade, all of Grgich Hills’ wines are made from 100% estate fruit, farmed organically and biodynamically. The complexity derived from wild yeast fermentations and the purity encouraged by gentle oak ageing are the hallmarks of these balanced and elegant Napa wines. Stop by and pass on your best wishes to Mike, who turns 90 on April 1st. (Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2009 and Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008).

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2009

Stags’ Leap Winery, Napa Valley

Stags’ Leap Winery (not to be confused with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), is, unsurprisingly, in the Stag’s Leap district AVA. There’s something special about this appellation: it could be the volcanic-derived soils; it could be the cool air that funnels through in late afternoon from San Pablo Bay. In any case, the wines are distinctive, and this is a reliable producer. The wines have always been very good, but since Frenchmen Christophe Paubert took over as winemaker in late 2009, the quality has risen further. You can still expect the richness and intensity of fruit for which Napa is known, but the wines have a degree of refinement and elegance that makes these more subtle, complex and drinkable than the average. (Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2008Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008).

Stags' Leap Winery Viognier 2011

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason’s Six

Etude Wines, Sonoma County

“The state of pinot in California is strong; it’s on fire as a matter of fact. The availability of quality-based Dijon clones and matching them to micro-climates and terroirs is making all the difference. The growing range is also expanding, and it’s become so popular. It’s becoming a better wine overall”. So said Etude winemaker Jon Priest at a pinot noir seminar in Vancouver. Priest is very much at the forefront of California’s pinot revolution. With owner Tony Soter and viticulturalist Franci Ashton, he oversees a small, unique volcanic soiled vineyard in the northwest corner of the Carneros appellation. Over 20 pinot clones, including ten that he describes as ‘heirloom’ clones are planted. The pinots are big and profound yet nuanced and sensitive, and in my books, modern treasures – I have rated the 2010 Heirloom not yet available in Canada at 94 points. Etude also makes Napa cabernet, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot. (Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros)

Etude Pinot Noir

Seghesio Family Vineyards, Sonoma County

Peter Seghesio is the outspoken, almost irascible winemaker of Seghesio, a family enterprise with roots in Sonoma dating back to 1895. He is also in charge of over 300 acres of vineyard in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley – most of it zinfandel, most of it old vines. In Vancouver he compared zin to pinot noir saying “both are thin skinned, expressive of their site, have red fruit flavours, and they are high maintenance”. It was so refreshing to hear someone speak with reverence and almost fond annoyance about zin – whereas so many nowadays make cheap zin as a candy bar wine and talk about its worth in SKUs. What’s more Seghesio makes zinfandels that try so hard to transpose this grape into the glass, while sculpting them to a balanced modern style. In Vancouver I swooned over the small production single vineyard zins like the burly, granitic 2010 Rockpile grown above the fog-line in the Alexander Valley appellation, and the elegant rich and seductive 2010 Cortina Vineyard from the Dry Creek Valley. (Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel 2009)

Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010

Heitz Cellars, Napa Valley

I have always been a big fan of Heitz, just like everyone else who cares about fine wine. Joe Heitz was a true Napa pioneer, starting into the business when Napa had only eleven wineries. He made his first vintage in 1966, from grapes purchased – to this day – from the 35 acre Oakville vineyard of Tom and Martha May. It was a later ripening site, and Joe noticed the distinctive style and quality of the cabernet that was to become Napa’s first vineyard designated wine – Martha’s Vineyard. (I tasted the silken 2001 Martha’s in Vancouver and it had barely begun its life’s journey). If they are not pouring Martha’s Vineyard freely at the Wine Fairs cut them some slack, as it’s a $215+ wine. But you should look for their Trailside and Fay Vineyard wines as well. And don’t miss the surprisingly stylish, complex and deep 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, a variety they only began to producer in 2006. I loved this sauvignon, and it put Heitz back on my radar. No currently available Heitz wines are reviewed on WineAlign, a situation we hope changes as a result of Heitz’s return to Canada through the Wine Fairs. (Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2001)

Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County

The intriguing thing about Chateau St. Jean is its historic attachment to chardonnay. Yes, I like its pinot noirs, and I understand what makes its red Bordeaux blend called Cinq Cepages a collectors favourite, even though it has never thrilled me. But this is a house – actually a very elegant chateau in Sonoma Valley – that chardonnay built. It made its reputation on single vineyard chardonnays from growers like Robert Young as far back as the early 1970s. Today they still make three vineyard designate wines – Robert Young, Belle Terre and Durell Vineyards. What I admire throughout the range, even in the widely available Sonoma County Chardonnay – that proved a challenge in Episode 3.2 of WineAlign’s blind tasting video called “So, You Think you Know Wine” is the wonderfully balanced, rich yet delicate winemaking of Margo Van Staaveren, who has made Chateau St. Jean wines for over 30 years. To me they define Sonoma chardonnay. (Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay 2011)

Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay

Justin Vineyards, Paso Robles

It has taken me a long time to “get” Justin. I found the wines odd, somehow idiosyncratic and over-marketed and over-hyped. But I have been captivated by recent releases, including the flagship 2009 Isoceles, and the “regular” 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2010 Syrah. Justin was founded in 1981 by an international banker named Justin Baldwin who at the time wanted to replicate Bordeaux in California (he was not alone in this mindset). Whether through shrewdness or dumb luck I think he may have actually ended up planting his Bordeaux varieties in an ideal site at higher, cooler elevation on the western flank of the Paso Robles appellation. Elsewhere in Paso Robles syrah and Rhone varieties are important, but syrah is only a minor part of his portfolio. Iscoceles is a “left-bank” Bordeaux inspired blend based heavily on cabernet sauvignon and it impressed me with richness, uniqueness and poise. And I almost hate to say this, but at $80 it is a very good value compared to some iconic, triple digit Napa cabs.

Justin Vineyards Isosceles

Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley

A year ago I would not have included Robert Mondavi on a list like this. It’s a winery I know well and have visited and tasted often from 1978 onward, with an especially memorable pinot tasting with Tim Mondavi in 1984, then some of Napa’s first “sub-appellation tastings with Michael Mondavi during the 90s. When the ambitious, adventurous and much beloved Robert Mondavi sold to Constellation brands a few years ago, I too let go, and frankly thought the wines floundered thereafter. But after re-visiting in January 2011, then tasting Mondavi again in Vancouver in some depth, I realized I really liked at least five of the company’s wines. The flagship 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is outstanding, and so is the stunning 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve. And the Fume Blanc Reserve remains one of California’s great white wines. Then, when I gave excellent ratings to the basic 2010 Chardonnay and 2010 Pinot Noir, I realized that Mondavi, and the work of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, was actually very much worth noting.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

County in the City

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Lawrason’s Take Vintages March 16 Release

The California Blitz, Bargain Euros, ISDs and Ruminations on a 100-Point Tasting

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

If you have perhaps given up wine for Lent and stayed away from the LCBO in recent days, you may be excused for not being aware that we are in the midst of a California wine promotion blitz. In fact it’s a nationwide blitz, which makes sense because Canada is the largest export market for California wine. We bought $307 million dollars worth of California wine last year.

The flood gates opened at the Vancouver International Wine Festival on February 26, and the tide will continue to wash right across the country through to the last of six California Wine Fairs in Halifax on May 2. In Ontario, the fair dates are April 5 for Ottawa and April 8 for Toronto. But the fairs are not the only opportunities to be swept up in the current. On March 21, over 30 wineries will be pouring at an LCBO sponsored event at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto called Legends of California. Or you can check out 35 new wines released by VINTAGES on March 16 and March 2; or some new general listings (watch this space next week). California wine, by the way, leads all other regions in sales through VINTAGES ($74 million) and the volume is growing!

What’s most interesting to me is that California wine does so well at the generally high prices it commands. It seems that in almost every other category we love to find bargains, but when it comes to California we open our wallets wide. Why? I think we are simply very comfortable with California wine. We like its smooth, ripe, fruit-rich ambiance. Many of us have travelled to its wine regions. There is no strange-ness around language, grapes and labels. And we trust the overall quality, which, in my view is actually improving of late as California settles into middle-age maturity. There is still a yawning “value gap” between the price and quality of some of the most expensive wines – particularly in Napa – but having tasted a lot of excellent wines in recent days I can say that the gap is closing, and that if you look beyond the most iconic names there are actually some decent values out there.

Here are my California value picks from the March 16 release:

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2009Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2009Inglenook 2009 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel ($54.95) is zin the way I like it – lush yet poised with that unmistakable brambleberry, woodsy character I first fell in love with as I tracked down old vine zins during rambling travels to California in the 80’s. The vines on Inglenook’s site date back decades but this is a new label and presentation. Delicious, and you will feel better if you can’t afford the $239 Inglenook Cabernet being released at the same time.

Ravenswood 2009 Dickerson Zinfandel ($39.95) is one of several old-vine single vineyard zins in the Ravenswood portfolio. Normally I find Ravenswood renderings too oaky (including the Ravenswood Big River also being released), but this one sings with fruit and its terroir. Dickerson sits, appropriately, on Zinfandel Lane in Napa. It’s a dry farmed site with most of its vines over or nearing the century mark. Wow!

Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2010Calera 2009 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49.95) is one of two single vineyard pinots being released and both are excellent. Both hail from sites on Mt. Harlan, a unique limestone based outcropping in San Benito County, which some might say is almost the birthplace of top quality California pinot noir, thanks to pioneering efforts by Josh Jensen, chronicled in the book called “The Heartbreak Grape”.

Chateau Montelena 2010 Chardonnay ($57.95) offers all kinds of complexity and energy; easily on par with top chardonnays from Burgundy and yes, Ontario. I think it has everything to do with being bio-dynamically farmed. This is not a glossy market-driven chardonnay; it’s quite crisp, more lean and mineral driven.

Euro Bargains under $20

For true bargains I invite you, once again, to wander paths less well travelled – in this case through Europe.

Takler Pince Kékfrankos 2009Menguante Selección Garnacha 2007Monte Del Frá Bardolino 2011Monte Del Frá 2011 Bardolino ($13.95) is one of my favourite simple summer reds. Bardolino neighbours more famous Valpolicella on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy, and like Valpolicella this made from corvina and rondinella with a splash of sangiovese. No oak here, just juicy sour red fruit from a very conscientious producer.

Menguante 2007 Selección Garnacha from the Carinena region of Spain is a great buy at $16.95.  Well priced, old vine grenache from the arid steppes of northern Spain is no longer a rarity, but some can be too jammy and heavy. This is very generous but finishes with a firm, more mineral driven feel. Lo and behold, it turns out to be bio-dynamically farmed as well. The bodega (winery) was founded in the 18th century.

Takler Pince 2009 Kékfrankos ($13.95) from Hungary’s Szekszárd region is a great little buy that pinot and gamay lovers will fancy. The grape is the same as blaufrankisch or lemberger that you may be more familiar with as an important variety in neighbouring Austria. It is actually widely found in central and eastern Europe, where some refer to it as “the pinot of the east”.

Domaine De Papolle Gros Manseng 2011Muga Barrel Fermented White 2011Domaine De Papolle 2011 Gros Manseng from the Côtes de Gascogne in southwest France is a most intriguing white wine ($19.95) from a producer of Armangnac that has a growing reputation for still wines. The gros manseng grape offers one of the most unique spicy aromas in winedom. And once you get past that nose you will find yourself in an equally intriguing landscape of sweetness and acidity.

Muga 2011 Barrel Fermented White from Rioja, is a marvelously balanced, genteel white from the viura grape, and a great buy at $15.95. You will rarely get an oaked chardonnay with this kind of poise and depth for $16. I am not going to suggest that you should age this for a long time, but grand traditionally made white Rioja’s are capable of incredible longevity.

Rolling out the ISDs

For several years VINTAGES has been releasing small lots of wines into a few selected stores and calling them “In Store Discoveries”, or affectionately, ISDs. They were never put out for media tastings, and often Product Consultants didn’t get to preview them. The idea was that keen-eyed shoppers would be delighted to “discover” them in-store all by themselves. Well I guess that idea is not translating too well into sales, because ISDs are now appearing in release catalogues and we scribes are being invited to pre-taste them too. And I am happy to do so, as small lots often offer interesting explorations. Now if only they could find a way to get all those Shop On-Line and Classics Catalogue wines out on the shelves too. Anyway, here are a couple of noteworthy ISDs that you will only find at the following “flagship” stores: Toronto – Summerhill, Queens Quay, Bayview Village; Oakville – Trafalger & Cornwall Drive; Ottawa – Rideau & King Edward. And by the way, as ISDs are no longer factually ISDs, they need a new name. Should we run a contest?

First Drop Pintor TempranilloSan Felice Arkeos CampogiovanniSan Felice 2008 Arkeos Campogiovanni ($42.95) is a unique blend of a pugnitello and sangiovese from Tuscany. Pugnitello is an ancient variety that has literally been rescued from extinction by San Felice, a winery that has contributed a great deal to modern agriculture research. This is an intriguing wine that attempts to combine the rugged power of pugnitello with the vivacity of sangiovese, and it works well.

First Drop 2010 Pintor Tempranillo ($37.00) from the Barossa Valley of South Australia is more of a curio than a must-buy. But at the same time First Drop’s “ode to the great wines of Rioja” is also a tasty drop, that is very much Australian in the flavour department, but less hefty and dense than most Barossa shiraz or cabernets. Spanish? Not really, but why should it be? By the way, the fun-loving lads at First Drop are really into twitchy You-Tube videos

Ruminations on a 100 Point Tasting

Rob Groh of The Vine, a Toronto-based wine importer ( recently invited the city’s top sommeliers to a tasting of eleven wines scored 100 points by Robert Parker with the stated goal of generating discussion about scoring wine on the 100 point scale. It’s an age-old and rather tiresome debate, but the anti-scoring forces are gathering as the population becomes more wine savvy and perhaps less in need of professional guidance.

Here are some observations about The Vine tasting, in an effort to share in and widen the debate. First, no one turned down the invitation to attend – which alone illustrated the power of the allure of tasting “perfection”. And none of the very expensive wines are actually available, which also speaks to the power of a 100 point score.

Second, most of the commentary about scoring by numbers was negative. There was appropriate philosophical angst expressed about assigning a number to a work of art like wine. There were cautionary comments that one must always consider the source. And there were protestations that taste is so individual and fleeting that it defies being ascribed a numeric value. Very few of the sommeliers said they would sell a wine by number on their wine list. But when I asked who would like to see scores abolished as a tool of wine criticism, only half a dozen of about 40 sommeliers raised their hands.

Said one who voted in favour of scoring: “It’s almost like scores are the law; chaos would ensue if we got rid of them”. This re-enforced a critical point made by WineAlign’s John Szabo who moderated the discussion. To paraphrase, scores – like’em or not – are in fact a natural and necessary tool to distinguish among so many wines. And as much as we would love to spend the time to analyse and expound on all the detail of each and every wine, that is just not possible. There needs to be a fairly succinct way to sort and communicate our impressions.

The third general observation was that none of the eleven wines poured generated anything like the kind of awe, reverence or passion one might expect at a 100 point tasting.  Audience scores were tabulated and averaged and no wine scored more than 94 by the group. All the wines were American cabernet-based reds that Robert Parker deemed “perfect”. They included six wines from Verite of Sonoma, and two from Loyota of Napa, two from Washington’s Quilceda Creek and one vintage of Napa’s Cardinale.

All were technically excellent, but only three, in my numerical opinion, ranged above 95 points, into that territory that delivered the head spinning, jaw dropping emotional impact that I expect of great wines. They were Loyota 2001 Mount Veeder Cabernet; 2005 Verite La Joie and 2007 Verite La Muse. But I have had dozens upon dozens of other wines in my career that were more wondrous and moving.

So is wine judging emotional? Yes – great wines can move you to tears or put a lump in your throat – like music or art or some spellbinding natural vista. But there are measurable factors like purity, balance, complexity and depth that “add up” to create that emotional effect. So the score becomes a way to try to communicate that emotional opinion or attachment, and valid scores need to address those building blocks.

Experts taste more, and hopefully have a greater frame of reference and understanding of how perfection is created, which should result in more objectivity. I have respect for Robert Parker’s deeper knowledge of American cabernets than I have, and his willingness to call some perfect. For that reason too I was drawn to this tasting. I really wanted to taste these wines. And I learned more about the subject, which may never have happened if Parker had not scored them so highly.

And that is the real reason that scores matter. They put more great wine in front of more people, who might not otherwise consider buying that bottle. What you get out of that is up to you, and there is no right or wrong.

So that’s it for this edition. There were many very interesting wines on this release, so open a bottle, pour a glass and enjoy.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the March 16, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

The Good Food & Drink Festival

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 16, 2013: California Icons and Top Smart Buys

California Icons; Can California Cabs age? Top Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s been a deluge of California. This week’s report features Top California Icons, the main feature for the March 16th release. I’ll also take a deep look at the age-ability of wine, specifically, can California Cabernets stand the test of time, and more generally, how modern winemaking philosophies and techniques have tinkered with the shelf life of those expensive bottles. I’ve got reviews from a dozen Iconic California cabernets heading back to 1991 to illustrate the point. And if you’re looking outside of California, I’ve picked a half-dozen Top Smart Buys from the release to replenish your day-to-day stocks.

And there’s more: check WineAlign over the next week for several dozen new BC reviews and more top California reviews recorded at the 35th annual Vancouver International Wine Festival, on last week in a cool, grey and wet Vancouver. All of the WineAlign principal critics were out to sip, spit and report on the scene, not to mention announce the official launch of WineAlign in British Columbia. I’ll also be posting a couple dozen reviews from the LCBO’s recent Grandi Marchi event, featuring several of Italy’s top estates. If you were wondering what wine to buy, I’ve got something here for you; read on to find out.

A Half-Dozen Smart Buys

Disznókó Tokaji Dry Furmint 2011Loimer Grüner Veltliner 2011Loimer Grüner Veltliner, Austria ($19.95). 2011 is a terrific vintage for Loimer’s grüner, with a real driving purity and honest range of flavours, dry and crisp, lean but not austere. Apple and wet stone flavours dominate in an old world, minerally style. Very good to excellent length.

2011 Disznókó Tokaji Dry Furmint, Hungary ($14.95). Clean and very minerally on the nose, with green apple, apple skin, sage oil, wet clay and a white mushroom note that may remind one of TCA taint, but it’s not – that’s tokaji (and it’s closed with screw cap). The palate is both lean and fleshy at once, with tart green apple-malic acid yet solid fruit weight to balance, along with perhaps a gram or two of residual sugar, though this comes across as dry. Very good to excellent length, especially at this price. Superb value for fans of distinctive old world wines with earthy character.

Cantine Riondo Vinea Garganega 2011Vergenoegd Estate Shiraz 20032011 Cantine Riondo Vinea Garganega, Italy ($13.95). A late harvest but dry version of the Veneto’s great garganega grape, with considerable flesh, glycerol and extract. Partial wood ageing imparts a slightly creamy-leesy texture; the palate offers plenty of pithy fruit and spiced pear-apple flavours and a pleasantly bitter grapefruit pith finish. Fine value for money, and an intriguing by-the-glass pour for restaurants.

2003 Vergenoegd Estate Shiraz, Stellenbosch ($22.95). Lovely to see a mature South African shiraz in the line up in the release. This is a prime example of a wine at its prime, fully mature, just at the setting sun of fruit and the rise of earthy, tea and tobacco leaf flavours. It was surely never a blockbuster to begin with, but the alcohol-acid-tannin balance must have been in place from the start to achieve this harmony ten years on. Quite decent length and fine perfume all around – well worth a look for fans of mature wines at a fair price.

Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Xinomavro 2007F. Tinel Blondelet l'Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly FuméF. Tinel-Blondelet l’Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly-Fumé, France ($22.95). L’Arrêt Buffatte is my preferred parcel from Tinel Blondelet, giving rise to the most minerally Pouilly in their fine range. The 2010 is drinking beautifully now, an archetypical Central Loire sauvignon that mixes wet chalk with citrus-green apple flavours. The palate is just starting to flesh out, though retains the lean, firm texture that one looks for in these wines. Very good to excellent length. Don’t miss this with a piece of chalky goat’s cheese for a regional classic match.

2007 Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Xinomavro, Greece ($17.95). A clean, mature, ripe and savoury example of xinomavro from Katogi-Strofilia, as is the house style, with earthy, sun-dried tomato, black olive tapenade and leathery fruit – all very inviting and engaging. The palate is mid-weight, firmly structured but not austere, with dusty tannins and crunchy acids, but quite fine length and depth overall. For fans of Italian-style, dusty reds, excellent with grilled proteins.

A Half Dozen California Icons

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon 20092006 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($99.95). This is another superior wine from Dunn Vineyards, grown in the high elevation, volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Fruit is succulent and juicy, vibrant and just beginning to evolve into the dried spectrum, while tannins and acids remain firm and impart solid structure. There’s a beguiling floral perfume that wafts out of the glass, as sultry, smoky minerality emerges. Classic, and more importantly, infinitely drinkable.

2009 Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley ($239.95). Unquestionably a deep, dense, rich, massively structured and concentrated red from the newly-renamed Inglenook estate, formerly Niebaum-Coppola. Flavours are fixed in the dark fruit/black berry world, with layers of high quality oak expressed as sweet baking spice and tobacco leaf, almost port-like ripeness and good to very good length. The acidity is, amazingly enough, sufficient to balance this massive ensemble, and I’d suspect this needs another 3-6 years to enter into a more mature, interesting drinking range. Impressive in any case.

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 20092009 Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir Mt. Harlan, Central Coast ($49.95). The March 16th LCBO release provided an interesting opportunity to taste Calera’s ’09 Ryan side-by-side with the Villiers vineyard bottling, and they’re radically different. In the end, I prefer the Ryan. It’s a lighter and less obviously ripe wine, with firmer, more mineral flavour profile, dusty, earthy, savoury fruit and very good length. This brings together the best of California with an old world restraint and class. Ultimately more age worthy, too.

2009 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga, Napa Valley ($58.95). The ’09 Montelena is a clean, fragrant, lively, certainly ripe but still fresh cabernet, with fruit in the black berry, verging on blueberry, range. Acids are firm and succulent, tannins ripe but also firm and grippy, and the length very good to excellent; alcohol is balanced at 13.8%. This is another Montelena with class and elegance, with fine ageing potential ahead. It’s enjoyable now, but will develop that extra range of savoury nuances over the next 6-8 years and continue to hold into the 2020s without stretching.

Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2009Duckhorn Merlot 20102009 Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford, Napa Valley ($54.95). This is an intense version of zinfandel, with gobs of oak to be sure but lots of intriguingly spicy, smoky, inviting dark fruit flavours. The palate is full, but firm, succulent but structured and generous, with significant extract and length. A fine, classic California zin with more stuffing and complexity than the usual, even at this price.

2010 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley ($56.95). Duckhorn’s ’10 merlot is a fully ripe, plummy, jammy version of  merlot, with still-abundant wood influence with coffee grounds and bitter chocolate. The palate is med-full bodied, with significant extract, firm tannins and generous, mouth filling alcohol (14.5% declared). Long finish on palate-warming alcohol vapors. All in all, a big, bold ripe style though well-structured to be sure.

Ageing Well: Can California Cabernet Stand the Test of time?

In addition to the general trade show at the 35th annual Vancouver Festival, I attended several excellent sit down seminars put on by the California Wine Institute, with titles such as “California Titans”, “Sonoma Face-off: Pinot vs. Zin” and “Napa Valley Rocks”. But the most interesting of the series was a master class entitled “Ageing Well: California Cabs”. Moderate by educator/writer DJ Kearney, with twelve winery principals in attendance, this was a rare opportunity to taste and compare a dozen cabernets (and blends) stretching back over 20 years to 1991, the oldest vintage on the table. And when it comes to scooping the un-fined, unfiltered story, there’s really no substitute for speaking directly with the creator of a wine (my apologies to sales agents and marketing directors).

California Wines

DJ Kearney, with twelve winery principals

The session allowed for not only a long deep think on the age-ability of California cabernet, but also some reflection on the myriad changes in winemaking philosophy, know-how and techniques, that have joined the mainstream in the last two decades, to which you could arguably add climate change, and how they have impacted the age-ability of wine on a general level. As goes California, so goes the world, you could say; the Golden State is a world leader, and what happens in vineyards and wineries here, especially in Napa and Sonoma, is sooner or later adopted in other parts of the world.

Defining Ageing Well

But before getting to the question of whether California cabernets age, and how evolving philosophies from the early 1990s to today have affected longevity of wine, a couple of precisions: when I refer to wines that age well, I mean of course wines that improve with age, not just get old. Obviously you can leave any wine in your cupboard for a decade and it will change, but not necessarily for the better.

And by improving I mean a wine that develops additional aromatic and flavour complexity, that is, a greater range of flavours than it previously had. The initial, and almost exclusive fruit and oak flavour should evolve and expand to include additional savoury nuances like dried mushrooms, tea, forest floor, pot pourri, essentially earthy-woodsy nuances. The fruit should never disappear altogether; it too, will evolve into the dried/baked spectrum, but once it’s fully gone I consider the wine gone as well. Obvious oak should also fade: the brash coffee/vanilla/clove/caramel flavours of young oaky wines should merge into the spicy-earthy ensemble so that it’s no longer recognizable as the taste of toasted oak tree.

A wine’s texture will also evolve. Astringent tannins should dissolve, turning from raw wool into silk; wines that remain hard and puckering after the fruit has already started to fade will likely never come into balance and it’s time to cut the losses and drink up. Finally, the basic components of a wine have to be in balance from the start of its life in order to age gracefully. There’s no magic that happens in the bottle. Nothing is created or destroyed in a bottle, no tannins appear, no increase or decrease in acidity; sugar and alcohol levels remain, for all intents and purposes, stable. Although compounds combine to create different aromas and flavours and tannins link up and drop out as sediment, the essential balance remains the same, so everything better be in line the day the wine is bottled.

Considering these criteria, there are surprisingly few wines that actually improve with age. But broadly speaking, wines with an abundance of tannin, acid, and concentration of flavour, and sugar in sweet wines, are the most likely candidates for the cellar. Alcohol, too, is a preservative, but more on that in a moment.

Cutting to the Chase

So the simple answer to the question of whether California cabernets can age is unsurprisingly yes. That much was abundantly clear during the tasting, with many of the wines including the nearly 20 year-old examples still deeply-coloured, full of fruit and vibrancy. Wines at the level included for the Vancouver master class clearly had the stuffing and structure to last and improve in the bottle over a couple of decades, which is about as long as you should expect from any wine with the rarest of exceptions. See below for my more-detailed-than-usual tasting notes on each of the twelve wines.


But, and here’s the big but, the question that follows is: will the more recent vintages of the wines put on display age as well as those vintages from an earlier, very different era? And generally, how have modern philosophies and new techniques changed the cellaring game?

Those questions are harder to answer, and any attempt will necessarily be based more on speculation than fact. But here are a few observations:

Ripeness Level and The Loss of Tannin and Acid

One of the biggest differences between wines of the current era and wines from the early nineties is the dramatic difference in the level of ripeness at which grapes are typically harvested. In North America, grape sugar levels, an important indicator of ripeness, are measured in degrees brix. The acceptable range varies, but 19º brix is considered barely ripe by most standards, giving a finished, dry wine with about 10.5-11% alcohol (under ripe for most) up to somewhere in the range of 35-40º brix for extremely sugar-rich juice such as Icewine or botrytis affected wines (finished alcohol depends on how much sugar is not converted and remains in the wine). Historically, most dry red wines have fallen between 21º-25º (12.5%-14%). Today, at least in some parts of the world, the numbers are much higher.

Several panelists at the master class such as Scott Kozel, winemaker at E&J Gallo, and Tracey Mason from Clos du Val both noted that they are picking their cabernet at several degrees brix higher now than they were in the 1990s. The 1991 E&J Gallo was picked at 23.1º brix (around 13% abv), whereas today anything less than 26º brix is considered unripe (giving you anywhere from about 14.5% to 15.5%+, depending on how efficient your yeasts are, among other factors).

High alcohol alone is not a measure of imbalance or indication of age-ability. As was pointed out many times during the seminar, balance can come at any number. And high alcohol wines such as port (19-22% alcohol) are notoriously age-worthy.

Consequences of High Ripeness

The issue is that to achieve such high levels ripeness/ºbrix, grapes are left out to hang until late in the season, effectively raisining as water evaporates. Aside from stressing the vine and reducing its lifespan, late harvesting means that acid levels drop, and that grape tannins begin to “soften” on the vine, what the scientist describe as polymerization. Polymerization is the process that traditionally has happened as wine ages in the cellar or the bottle, and is what accounts or the smoothing out of a young red’s rough texture. In any case, super ripe grapes translate to low acid/high pH, soft tannin and high alcohol wines.

Tannins or Acids?

I put the intentionally naïve question to the panel whether it is believed that tannin or acidity is the more important factor contributing to a wine’s age-ability. Not surprisingly, there was some discussion, and more or less an even split, each side citing reasonable arguments and examples to support one or the other cause. One, panelist, Steve Spadarotto, VP of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, put forth the idea of the golden ratio, a mathematical theorem of balance in triangles and rectangles. Basically, he posited that the amount of tannin, acid, alcohol or anything else doesn’t really matter, as long as each component falls within a ‘golden ratio’, i.e. balance, with everything else. I like this theory; wines can be balanced at any number, and it’s true.

But whatever you believe will make a wine with the potential to evolve favorably – tannins, acids, the golden ration – it appears that late harvesting is the wrong way to go. It only makes sense for wines that are meant to be drunk young.

Frequently the late harvest technique requires a winemaker to adjust the balance of the wine in the cellar. Adding in acid becomes critical to lower the pH, which, when it hovers close to 4, and sometimes even higher for the ultra extreme, makes the wine a bacterial time bomb. Natural tannins are often insufficient to support the wine, making powdered tannins additions also necessary for stabilization. (Although higher levels of natural tannin can be also be pulled from the grapes by more aggressive extraction techniques, or by raising the temperature of the ferment, as several on the panel revealed. Kozel, for example, used to ferment cabernet at 78ºF (25ºC), now the norm is 92ºF (33ºC). There’s no fear of extracting the harsh green tannins of less ripe grapes, he says.)

The sugar level of super ripe grapes often has to be reduced, too, otherwise the wine won’t ferment fully dry. The simplest, if illegal way of doing this is adding water to reduce the sugar concentration in the juice. Excessive alcohol perceived as out of balance (the hot, burning sensation it causes) in finished wine can also be adjusted down using modern techniques such as spinning cone and reverse osmosis. But a wine with contrived balance of components, added acid, tannins or manipulated alcohol – will never age as well as one with those components in natural balance, one that begins with the golden ratio.

But Who Cares. We Want Wines ready to Drink on Release

But maybe that’s not the point. It was clear that many of the panelists are aiming to produce a wine today that’s more or less ready to drink on release. Peter Lindenlaub of Caymus told the audience about owner Chuck Wagner’s own realization: “Chuck decided to stop chasing Bordeaux,” he said. “Ripeness is no longer hidden. What we’re looking for now is big California fruit, lower acidity so that the tannins don’t peal the enamel off of your teeth, and tannins that are absolutely integrated on the finish. We know that wines are often consumed within hours, and we want the consumers to be able to pull the cork straight away and enjoy.” Wagner himself prefers his own wines at around 5-7 years of age.

It’s a familiar refrain that I’ve also heard from winemakers around the world: we need to make wines that are approachable on release. Yet many also believe that this style of wine will also age well. They’re equally well balanced, just on a bigger frame then the old wines of the under ripe years. Tracey Masson says that Clos du Val is looking for wines that have “deliciousness on release and yet are still age-able”. I wonder if those two goals are fully compatible.

Ultimately, whether the ultra-ripe wines will age as well as the versions picked earlier with higher acid, lower sugar and firmer tannins remains to be seen. There aren’t decades of back vintages yet of the style to go back to check in. My gut feeling is that they won’t, based on the experiences I’ve had with wines of this style with only a handful of years in the cellar. And if that’s the case, there will have to be a good PR campaign put in place to convince consumers that ageability is not a sine qua non attribute of fine (and expensive) wine, has it has been for centuries.

There are many wineries in California that have never chased after the ripeness and jammy flavours that characterize many styles today – Montelena, Corison, Dunn – spring to mind. Others, like Stag’s Leap Cellars, whose 1995 is still magic, concede that wine is subject to the whim of fashion. The press, sommeliers and consumers began demanding the big wines, and the wineries delivered. But now that the tide has shifted and the general trade (and to a lesser extent consumer) opinion has swung back towards lower alcohol and natural balance, wineries will inevitably shift back to lower ripeness levels.

So back to the original question, can California cabernets age, the long answer is that, well, it depends.

The Wines, with some Current Vintages for Comparison

1991 Gallo of Sonoma Estate, Sonoma Valley

Gallo of Sonoma Estate1991 was only the second vintage of the estate cabernet sauvignon, born of E&J Gallo’s decision to bottle the best wine out of Sonoma County each year. And this is the last wine that Giulio Gallo blended himself, from grapes grown on AXR1 rootstock in the Frei Ranch in the Dry Creek Valley, blended with 10% cabernet franc and 8% merlot. It was picked at 23.1 brix, very low ripeness by today’s standards in California; now Gallo regularly picks their cabernet at 26º brix and higher. It was a cool vintage generally with the occasional heat spike, and a warm, dry September. The wine as you’d expect is fully mature and driven by savoury-umami character: forest floor, dried black fruit, mission fig, faded violets, and more. The palate offers a really fine silky texture, with fully integrated tannins and balancing natural acidity. This is in terrific shape admittedly, drinking beautifully – perhaps the biggest surprise of this tasting.

1992 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection, Napa Valley
(Compare with recent release:  2010 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon)

Caymus Winery opened in 1972, although the farm had been in the Wagner family since 1948. 1975 was the first vintage of the Caymus Special Selection, which has been made in every year since, except ’77, ’93 and ’96. Wagner admits to having attempted to emulate Bordeaux in the early years before an epiphany around 2000 caused him to re-think the style and celebrate instead the richness and ripeness that the Napa Valley is capable of achieving. The ’92, still in the period of a more restrained style, is made exclusively from the Rutherford Ranch, another point of difference from modern versions (which are blends), and this has just 13% alcohol. It was a long, even ripening vintage. This 100% cabernet spent 30 months in barrel, and amazingly enough, is still marked by wood. The colour is deep and the tannins still fierce, bolstered by quite high acidity. The flavours are confined to the black fruit spectrum. Bitter finish and slightly woody tannins, with the palate drying out and the fruit beginning to fade. All in all, I’d say the modern style of Caymus – more ripeness, wood, alcohol – seems to be a more comfortable style for the house; this is neither a good imitation of Bordeaux nor forward Napa cab. Drink now.

1993 Clos Du Val, Napa Valley

Most of Clos du Val’s old cabernet vineyards had already been ripped out by 1993 to replant vines on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, but this bottling was made from the small parcel that had yet to be pulled. It’s a blend that includes 11% cabernet franc and 3% merlot, and has just 13% alcohol. 1993 was a very long season with long hang time, resulting in a really fine, savoury, dried herb and exotically perfumed wine. There’s still a vestige of wood flavour noticeable, slightly sappy and green, though the palate is quite refined and elegant, with remarkable acidity such as you rarely find in Napa cabernet today. The texture is fine and filigree, still firm and dusty, with tart red fruit flavour hanging on. This is showing very nicely all in all, held together over the years by both tannin and acidity.

1994 Hess Collection Mount Veeder, Napa Valley

Mt Veeder is one of the cooler Cabernet AVAs, given it’s the exposure to the south and the cool winds off of San Pablo Bay. Elevation, with most vineyards above the fog line at about 350 meters, up to over 600m, also contributes a cooling effect. Eastern exposition means mostly morning sun with most vineyards avoiding the much hotter afternoon sun, though the combined result of these factors means that getting cabernet ripe here is not always guaranteed, and Hess has had to replant some of the coolest sites with earlier ripening varieties like malbec. 1994 was considered a pretty average vintage, but this is holding on to an amazingly deep colour, and still crunchy black fruit, still fresh and pure, with genuine cassis flavours and even roasted vegetal notes. The acids and tannins are still strongly felt on the palate, giving fine structure; terrific length. It’s interesting to note how well this has aged considering cooler, less ripe vintage, yet another indication that acidity plays a critical role in the ageing process of wines.

1995 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
(Compare with current release: 2008 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon )

1995 was one of the coolest, longest growing seasons in the winery’s records, harvested over two weeks later than the norm up until that time (now late harvesting is far more frequent to achieve high degrees of ripeness). Veraison came very late, but dry weather through the fall allowed grapes to hang long enough to achieve a decent level of ripeness.  All of the fruit for this wine came from the To Kalon vineyard, with its free-draining, alluvial – gravel soils. Winery representative Mark De Vere MW notes that this was fined with 6 egg whites per barrel and racked 5-6 times before bottling, practices that the winery no longer follows – so how did such oxidative treatment affect the ageability of the wine? The colour is deep but decidedly garnet-brick, showing more age than even some of the older examples on the table. And this is also slightly funky off the top, too, with leathery, dusty and earthy character mingling with a distinctive vegetal note; red fruit flavours also confirm a lower-than-normal degree of ripeness. The palate is medium bodied, with fine, quite light and refined tannins and zesty acids, although interestingly enough this has the highest pH of all the Mondavi cabernets from the 1990s. Just goes to show that the numbers don’t always add up to the taste profile. Beautiful, lingering finish. Certainly not a robust style, more axed on sandy, gritty acid-tannin balance and modestly ripe fruit, but really quite lovely all in all, fully ready to drink.

1995 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV, Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.VThis is one of the highlights of the tasting to be sure, showing beautifully; the Stag’s Leap AVA is a special place to grow grapes without question. The zone has a combination of a radical diurnal shift, moving from very hot to very cool quite quickly towards 5 or 6pm each afternoon as the cool air rushes up the Valley from San Pablo Bay, locking in acids and preserving fresh dark berry flavour, while soil of volcanic origin contributes a high degree of savoury minerality. The SLV cabernet from a volcanic vineyard under the Stag’s Leap palisades is the most youthful in appearance of the lot so far on the table. It has a terrific nose, loaded with savoury, smoky, dark, brambly fruit and heaps of black berry and black berry pie, and cassis jam aromas – high intensity to be sure. The palate is succulent, juicy, with a yet another whack of dark fruit flavour cosseted by firm, dusty tannins. There’s pleasantly reverberating alcoholic warmth and marvelously lingering finish. A very fine wine, ready to drink or capable of evolving further to the end of the decade I’d wager – genuine density, acidity and structure make for ageworthy-ness.

1997 Signorello Estate Winery Padrone, Napa Valley

Poured from magnum. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 9% cabernet franc ’97 was Signorello’s first vintage for Padrone, named for Ray Signorello’s father.  It’s a savoury, slightly rasined, earthy and dusty, rather Italian style wine that reminds me of traditional Brunello, complete with leathery, incense nuances. The palate is likewise firm and dusty, with excellent length to be sure. I’d like to drink this now – I don’t feel there’s a great deal of improvement left, and it’s drinking nicely.

1998 Joseph Phelps Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Winery principal Mike McEvoy admitted that this was the toughest wine of the flight to comment on, considering how widely panned the 1998 vintage was by the wine press. It was a cool, wet, el niño year with troublesome weather throughout. It flipped between to hot and too cold, with buckets of rains to add to the challenges, and vines struggled to ripen. Most of the fruit used in this wine would not have quality for today’s Josephs Phelps cabernet, as the selection criteria have become much stricter. A good percentage of fruit came from contract growers, a solid proportion of which was from the region known today as Coombsville AVA, an already cool growing region south of the town of Napa ripeness was a real issue. The challenges of the year are evident in the wine, as this is decidedly green-tinged. The palate is likewise vegetal and slightly weedy, with moderate structure, more dilute flavours than the average, and more obvious wood (or less obvious fruit to balance the presents of oak). The length, too, is merely average. This was evidently neither the vintage nor the wine to cellar long term, even if I’d suspect that this was quite pleasant early on in its life, especially if you don’t mind, as I don’t, lightly vegetal/herbal character in your cabernet. But this makes it clear that density and concentration have a role to play in age ability.

1999 Paul Hobbs Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

The 1999 Hobbs cabernet contains 10% merlot, only because it performed very well in the vintage, though there’s no fixed rule on blending for this wine. The fruit was sourced from the To Kalon, Stagecoach and Hyde (Carneros) vineyards. I’d speculate that this is going through a bit of a dumb phase for the moment, with less pop and vibrancy to the fruit, slightly raisined and flat, and curiously short and slightly bitter on the palate. Smoky oak is still present (43% new wood only), and has yet to fully integrate – one wonders whether it ever will. IN any case, revisit this in 2-3 years.

2001 Heitz Cellar ‘Martha’s Vineyard’, Napa Valley

Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard1966 was the first vintage for Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard cabernet, a vineyard which incidentally never been owned by the Heitz family; it belongs by Tom and Martha May. Regardless, it’s the oldest labeled single vineyard cabernet from the Napa Valley. It’s in Oakville on the valley floor, moving up to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, situated on alluvial loamy-gravelly fans, a later ripening site. The vines were replanted in 1992 on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, and were just 9 years old when this wine was made; it’s 100% cabernet sauvignon and spent 3.5 years in oak, of which the first year is large, neutral oak, before being racked into French Limousin oak (a rare thin in the wine world, most Limousin barrels are used for Brandy production). Wines are held at the winery until the fifth year. The nose is still shockingly youthful, with fine, deep violet and fresh herbal-eucalyptus notes (there are a few eucalyptus trees surrounding the vineyard, though the winery believes the minty notes come from the particular, proprietary clone of cabernet planted in the vineyard. And when visiting, if you describe the wine as smelling like eucalypt, you’re liable to be thrown out of the tasting room). The palate is firm without massive structure, with a fine amalgam of red and black fruit, cassis. Tannins are sandy and dusty, neither chewy nor hard, but structure-giving. Some dark chocolate/wood-derived notes mark the finish. This still needs another half decade I’d say to really enter prime drinking.

2003 Silver Oak Cellars Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley

Silver Oak is the renegade winery in this tasting, using 100% American oak for ageing its wines rather than more popular and traditional French wood. And oak is indeed a major style feature of Silver Oak cabernets as it always has been from the first vintage in 1972, a decision made by co-founder and winemaker Justin Meyer after some blind trials using different cooperages. The focus has likewise been on cabernet from the start, and both the Napa Valley and Alexander Valley bottlings from Silver Oak are 100% cabernet. The 2003 spent two years in 50% new, 50% one-wine barrels, and sits around 13% alcohol. This is still heavily marked by the vanilla, melted butter and coconut character of American oak, along with tart, dried red fruit, making this taste like chocolate-covered cranberries. The palate here is remarkably fine and juicy however, with the most acid I’ve seen in a wine from this estate. The flavour profile is a matter of personal taste – to me it tastes like hot-buttered popcorn with a drizzle of caramel – but it’s quite juicy and surprisingly svelte and compact, avoiding some of the excesses of ripeness and pruney flavours that plague other popular, cultish Napa cabernets.

2004 Girard Winery Napa Valley Artistry Blend, Napa Valley

It’s tough for the youngest wine in a flight of more mature wines to stand out on the table, but the 2004 Girard Artistry red blend is in any case a wine of modest complexity and depth. It’s sourced from almost 30 different growers across the Valley, each parcel vinified and aged separately before the blending takes place. In the end, the 2004 was composed of 69% cabernet, 13% petit verdot, 9% malbec, and 3% cabernet franc. It offers simple, slightly raisined fruit notes, currant jam and other dried fruits in a fairly one-dimensional expression. The palate is fleshy, fruity, but likewise modestly structured. Average length; pleasant enough, though I would hold onto this more than a handful of years.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 16, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
Top California icons
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

Filed under: News, Wine, , ,

Lawrason’s Take Vintages March 2 Release

California’s Paso Robles, Italian Rarities, Handsome 2009 Bordeaux, Spanish Bargains

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Vintages rolls out an exciting – if too small – collection of “cutting edge” California wines on March 2, timed for the launch of an LCBO-wide California promotion. It’s actually a nationwide promotion marked by California’s 62 winery presence at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (where several of us from WineAlign are hanging out this week).  I was also very intrigued to find four rare grape varieties in the feature on southern Italy, plus some handsome Bordeaux 2009 reds, and two tasty cheap bargains from Spain.

Paso Robles, California’s Rhone

If Napa Valley is the Bordeaux of California (with all those structured cabernets), and if coastal Sonoma is the Burgundy (with its pinot noirs and chardonnays), then it surely follows that Paso Robles is the Rhone Valley of California. It is inland and warmer on the Central Coast, and more Mediterranean in feel.  It has adopted syrah as its centrepiece variety, with some producers also doing grenache blends, as well as Rhone style whites with viognier, grenache blanc and roussanne. There is also a spirit of adventure and mold-breaking in Paso Robles that I find very refreshing.

For all is “new worldliness” California remains a very conservative wine region, like France. The wine establishment in San Francisco and the North Coast wine regions still consider Paso Robles to be somewhat marginal; just as the Bordelaise and Burgundians still consider the Rhone to be just a bit rustic.  The good news is that being marginal and rustic results is cheaper wine, with no less quality. So welcome to some terrific buys from Paso Robles.

Justin Syrah 2010Justin Vineyards Isosceles 2009Two of them are from a pioneering Paso winery called Justin, which was founded by a former international banker named Justin Baldwin in 1981. That was very early days – indeed even pre-Rhone varietal days – for Paso Robles, when Mr. Baldwin was living out a Bordeaux first-growth fantasy. Fortunately he found some spectacular higher elevation sites (up to 1700 feet) within the coastal range that cuts Paso proper off from the Pacific (raising its temperature). His cooler site is terrific for the Bordeaux varieties. His Justin Vineyards Isosceles 2009 – 94% cabernet sauvignon – is a masterpiece approaching “first growth” quality. If you normally spend over $100 for collector cabernets, its price of $78.95 is a steal. As is the gorgeous Rhone-inspired Justin 2010 Syrah at $36.95,

Burly Gary Eberle, a former footballer, was another Paso pioneer, and a founding member of the Paso Robles Winery Association in 1980. As early as 1973 he was involved in his family’s winery called Estrella River, which he re-built and re-branded as Eberle in 1983. At only 25,000 cases it is actually one of the larger Paso wineries (there are now 180 wineries and over 26,000 acres of vineyard). Eberle makes a wide range but when I visited a year ago I was most struck by the excellent viognier, an aromatic white grape with Rhone roots as well. Eberle Mill Road Vineyard 2011 Viognier ($29.95) is one of the classics in the genre, managing some elegance without giving up any power or depth.  One third was aged in tank, one third in neutral oak on its lees, the final third was aged in neutral oak without lees – an apparently very successful formula.

Eberle Mill Road Vineyard Viognier 2011Vina Robles White 4 2010And there is another white that speaks loudly to the spirit of adventure in Paso Robles. Vina Robles 2010 White 4 ($18.95) is a very effective blend of the aforementioned viognier with vermentino, verdelho and sauvignon blanc, creating an off-beat, exotic and quite rich white that also has some nerve. The varieties were separately fermented and aged in neutral oak, like Eberle’s viognier above.  Vina Robles was founded by Swiss partners Hans Nef and R. Michel who, like many Europeans making wine abroad, feel that they are combining “European inspiration with California character”. Such sentiments are all very nice but usually not much evident in the glass. There is however something textural in this white that is a bit more Euro.  In any case it offers a refreshing change of pace among California whites.

Rarities Under $20 from Central/South Italy

With headlines like “a Jaunt through Central and Southern Italy” and “Local Heroes” Vintages copywriters miss a theme I suspect that the buyers very much had in mind while assembling this interesting selection of very well priced wines. Four of the eleven selections are from grapes I would truly consider “rarities” – varieties that for most wine followers would be once or twice in a lifetime experiences.  And that’s one of things I love most about Italy – there is so much wine in Enotria that one can continue to discover new grapes, and the Italians are currently in a frame of mind to be restoring and promoting these antique varieties

Fina Taif Zibibbo 2011Statti Mantonico Bianco 2010Statti 2010 Mantonico Bianco ($18.95) is a revelation! Who knew that Calabria even made white wine, let alone grew a grape (mantonico) that could render such an interesting rich, dry and complex wine. Maybe I didn’t know because previously most mantonico was dried to make a sweet passito style white – very much a traditional approach with white grapes in the Mediterranean basin. In any event Statti, and a larger Calabrian firm called Librandi, are shepherding this old variety into new stylistic territory.

The same thinking is behind Fina Taif 2011 Zibibbo from Sicily – another steal at $16.95. Zibbibo is not a new or re-discovered grape however. It is actually the southern Italian name for Muscat of Alexandria, and is also widely used in Sicily (and the island of Pantelleria) to make sweet, passito wine.  The wonderful name zibbibo comes from the Arabic word zabib, meaning dried grape. This dry, table wine version is all fireworks, a very lifted exotic wine to consider with mid-eastern or Asian cuisine.

Lucchetti Lacrima Di Morro d'Alba 2011Caruso & Minini Sachia Perricone 2010Two rare red varieties are also in this release. Lucchetti Lacrima Di Morro d’Alba 2011 ($17.95) features an ebulliently fruity red grape from the Marche region on central Italy’s Adriatic coast. It is one of these situations common in Italy where the name of a grape (lacrima) and a town (Morro di Alba) combine for the official DOC appellation name. Lacrima means “tears”.  I did not get all weepy over this wine but the sweetish ambiance, roundness and fragrant floral aromas  make for a very appealing, easy drinking style of red.

And from Sicily once again, try the Caruso & Minini Sachia 2010 Perricone ($13.95). Perricone (also known as Pignatello) planted throughout the island. I didn’t pick up any truly distinguishing character, which may be one reason it is often blended with other varieties, but it is again a decent value in everyday Italian red. Apparently some “riserva” level wines are made from this grape.

Handsome 90 Pt Bordeaux

Bordeaux from the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages are now making their way into Vintages regular releases, and I am pleased. Frankly it has been a bit of a slog through the “minor or petits chateaux” 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages over the past couple of years – very hit and miss. On March 2 there are three fairly priced 2009 Bordeaux under $40 that I have rated 90 pts or better. This was a ripe year in Bordeux bringing packing just a bit more fruit and flesh into these cabernet/merlot blends.

Château La Vieille Cure 2009Château Beaumont 2009Château La Tour De Mons 2009Château La Tour De Mons 2009 Margaux ($39.95) is the most expensive, but still decent value. It’s rare to find any Margaux AOC wines under $40 and this is a perfectly fine and authentic example from a 50 ha limestone and gravel vineyard on the Gironde Estuary. Technical director Christel Spinner says the 2009 “is one of our great successes”, and I would agree.  They are serious here, right down to individual berry sorting tables.

Château Beaumont 2009 Haut-Médoc is huge value at $22.85, a wine to enjoy now or cellar for another five years. If I was beginning to collect Bordeaux on a limited budget I wouldn’t hesitate to add a half dozen bottles of Beaumont. It’s consistently good!   It’s from 53 % cabernet sauvignon, 40% merlot, 4% cabernet franc and 3% petit verdot, from a vineyard between Margaux and St. Julien. Current ownership is shared by Groupes Castel et Suntory of Japan.

Château La Vieille Cure 2009 Fronsac ($36.85) is a merlot dominated wine from a single 20 hectare, south-east oriented site on the right bank. Since being purchased by American partners in 1986 it has been partially replanted (some very old vines were left intact); the winery has been refurbished and concerted marketing has made it one of the best known, most widely available Fronsac wines.

Two Everyday Bargains from Spain

Piñol Ludovicus Tinto 2010Tarima Monastrell 2010When tasting along the row of over 100 wines at Vintages one encounters a wide array of styles and quality levels in random and rapid succession. So it’s no surprise that sometimes the little guys get lost along the way.  It’s easy to skip full scrutiny of $12 wines; so they must reach out and demand attention. Which actually happened twice on this release with a pair of reds from Spain.  Neither are “excellent” or “over-delivering” wines. But they are correct, balanced and eminently drinkable wines that you can afford on Tuesday night (or three bottles on Friday night for you and your drop in friends, neighbours and family).

Piñol Ludovicus 2010 Tinto ($13.95) is from a small appellation called Terra Alta in southern Catalonia. It is not too far from Priorat and Montsant and in this case uses a very similar blend of five grapes, led by grenache. From farther south along the Mediterranean coast Tarima 2010 Monastrell ($12.95) from the Alicante DO offers up all kinds of ripe, plummy blackberry mourvedre fruit, very much with an Australian ambiance if less creamy and warming. Both could stand a light chill and be served without fanfare, but with pleasure every day.

And that’s a wrap for this edition. See all my reviews below.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

WineAlign VIP Access - Cuvée Weekend 2013


Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 2, 2013

New Zealand Industry Strengths & Challenges; California and Southern Italian Discoveries and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud: New Zealand.

Three sunny summer weeks and a few thousand kilometers later and I’ve scratched deeply into the surface of a country that occupies a place of growing importance in the world of fine wine. Over a mere three decades, New Zealand has earned an envious international reputation for its high average quality wine production, now widely exported to all of the world’s major markets. Sauvignon blanc, mainly from Marlborough, remains the country’s calling card. But the real story, of course, runs much deeper. Read below for some observations on the industry.

And since I was in New Zealand during the media tasting for the March 2nd release, I was able to taste only about half of the new wines on offer. The features are California and Central-Southern Italy, and there are some fine discoveries from each, which I’ve folded into the top ten smart buys.

California Discoveries

Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay 2010Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Those familiar with Frog’s Leap won’t consider this a ‘discovery’, but others unaccustomed to Napa cabernet with moderate alcohol, fresh fruit flavours and even a hint of herbal-green flavour might be pleasantly shocked by the 2010 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($56.95). This winery has long espoused a balanced, fresh, lively style (it’s also farmed organically), and this 2010 is indeed fresh and succulent, with genuinely juicy acids and balanced alcohol (13.9%), not to mention terrific length. Most importantly, this wine gives you the desire to come back for another sip.

In a similar fashion, devotees of balanced and crisp, minerally chardonnay will be pleased with the 2010 Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay ($29.95). Chalone is a perennial favorite for its classy, restrained style, and this 2010 is refreshingly crisp with mouth-watering acids and remarkable flavour intensity, lingering on chalky-limestone minerality. It’s enjoyable now, or hold for a half-dozen years or so.

Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010Vina Robles White 4 2010Quality pinot noir from anywhere in the world under $20 is a rarity, making this 2010 Bonterra Pinot Noir from Mendocino County ($19.95) all the more memorable. Don’t expect a life-changing experience, but this organically grown, mid-weight example is pure and inviting and varietally accurate, with lightly dusty tannins and balanced acidity – a perfect mid-week sort of pinot.

Of the discovery wines from the Central Coast area, the 2010 Vina Robles White 4 ($18.95) is worth a look. It’s an original blend of viognier, verdelho, sauvignon blanc and vermentino, surprisingly subtle on the nose, though the palate picks up the flavour intensity. It’s nicely balanced and contained overall, showing generous but balanced alcohol (14.2%), and above average length.

Central and Southern Italy Smart Buys

Terrelíade Nirà Nero d'AvolaSelvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico 2009Choose carefully from the Italian feature. Vintages has unearthed a few authentic, genuine Italian treasures alongside some undistinguished, internationally styled commercial wines aimed, one supposes, at drawing non-Italian wine drinkers into the category. Topping my list for regional character and value is the 2009 Selvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico ($15.95). This is a wine with a real sense of volcanic minerality; you can clearly taste the rusty iron, tar, scorched earth-like soil profile, allied to tart red and black cherry fruit and dried herbs-pot-pourri-faded flowers. Tannins are fierce and grippy, giving this a distinctively rustic, old world structure. It’s categorically not a fruity wine, but a terrific value for fans of unique, terroir-driven wines. Cellar 2-3 years, or serve with hard cheese or grilled lamb.

The 2010 Terrelíade Nirà Nero d’Avola ($18.95) is made in a similar, if less dramatically rustic vein, tailor-made for grilled or braised game meats. It’s intriguingly spicy and herbal, like roasted green pepper, with black licorice, dried leaves and spiced black cherry fruit. The tannins are also tough and rustic, but coated by generous alcohol (14.5%), balancing the palate and adding succulence.

And other March 2 Smart Buys

Te Awa Chardonnay 2010Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe ChardonnayOther smart buys worth pointing out include a pair of cool chardonnays: the 2010 Te Awa Chardonnay ($18.95) and 2011 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay ($21.95). It’s not a stretch to say that the wines from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and those from the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of the Niagara Peninsula share some commonalities. Both areas are slightly warmer than the relative mean, and tend to produce fairly generous and round styles while still respecting the cool climate idiom.

Southbrook has really nailed it on the head with this 2011, moving away from a more oxidative/wood-inflected style to an example that’s axed on ripe orchard fruit flavours, even honeydew melon and pineapple tropical fruit, while still maintaining a sense of cool climate restraint. The palate is pure, flavourful, effortlessly balanced with very good length and little wood influence. Te Awa’s example is likewise a classy, elegant and refined barrel-aged chardonnay at an attractive price, in which citrus, orchard fruit and judicious oak intermingle on a balanced frame of acids and alcohol.

Marqués De Cáceres Gran Reserva 2004And finally I might be accused of hoarding were I not to draw your attention to the 2004 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva Rioja ($29.95). The Spanish tradition of releasing wines at maturity is largely under-appreciated in a world where the younger and fresher, the better it is. Gran reservas by law can’t be released until their 6th year from vintage, and this eight-year-old wine is in brilliant drinking form right now, with no need for further cellaring (though you can certainly hold onto this for another decade without pushing the limits). It’s a refined, complex, elegant wine, but what I most appreciate is the fine balance between old and new school styles – this sits comfortably between the two, and it’s just about perfect as such. (See my full list of Top Ten Smart Buys here).

Pinot 2013

My visit to New Zealand was occasioned by the 5th edition of the Kiwi’s celebrated Pinot Noir NZ conference, a triennial affair that attracts a huge delegation of local and international journalists, importers, sommeliers and winemakers. Such has been the success of the conference that it’s enough to mention “I’m going to Pinot” in wine circles, and the meaning is clear. That’s no small feat for a country that had no pinot noir, nor virtually any other vine planted for that matter, prior to the early 1970s.

Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Opening Ceremony
Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Following are some observations, including some strengths and challenges ahead for the New Zealand wine industry as I see it. I’m in the process of posting over 300 New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign from the tastings over those three weeks (even though I tasted many more wines than that), some from the pinot conference itself, others from prior and subsequent visits to wineries on both the North and South Island. My April 13th report will sketch out the major regions with a focus on pinot noir, along with profiles of recommended producers and their top wines, so stay tuned, and colleague David Lawrason who was also in New Zealand has many more reviews, observations, and regional reports to share. And finally, if you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand. Read it on WineAlign at: On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand.

New Zealand: Industry strengths

New Zealand has experienced unquestionable growth in the last twenty years. In 1991, just 12% of wine production was exported. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 70%, with major markets in the UK, Australia and the US (Canada purchases 3% of NZ’s production). There are now over 700 wineries across the country, farming a total of just over 34,000ha, almost exactly the same size as Champagne, a considerable area. Success has been swift and abundant, and here are some of the explanations why.

Minor variations on a theme of terroir

Winery owners and marketers are quick to play the uniqueness and diversity card, as well they should – it’s a sine qua non these days to sell wine at premium prices. But the reality is that New Zealand is not France or Italy, which can be considered an advantage. By this I mean that despite slight variations in climate and soils, New Zealand wines on the whole occupy a relatively small stylistic sphere, focusing on a select few varieties, unlike France or Italy. New Zealand is much more uniform.

The climate is cool. Even in the warmest regions like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, the temperature rarely breaks 30ºC. It get’s much hotter in Southern Ontario. The secret to a reliable grape crop lies not with heat but with the relatively dry climate, thanks to the rain shadow effect produced by the stretch of mountains that form the backbone of the country from the North to the South Island. All of the country’s vineyards lie on the east side of the ranges where rainfall is moderate – the west side can see as much as eight or nine meters of rain per year. Sunlight is also unusually intense, with high UV due to the thin layer of Ozone over this part of the planet. Thus sunny, dry, cool, conditions prevail in the majority of regions, with long growing seasons.

The net result is stylistic similarity across grapes: the cabernet blends are invariably more Bordeaux than Napa, the syrah more Rhône than Barossa, the pinot and chardonnay more Burgundy than California. This in turn allows New Zealand to present their wines as a collection of variations on a similar theme, rather than a hodge-podge of radically varying styles sharing only a country code. All marketers know the power of a simple and consistent message; it’s much easier to get across than a complex one. What united message could France or Italy possibly put forth to the world, other than that of bewildering diversity?

One need only look to the obvious example of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and its wild success to see the benefits of consistency. Indeed, if anything negative could be said about Marlborough sauvignon it would be that’s been too successful at being consistent, with one brand barely distinguishable from another. (Interestingly, the way forward now in Marlborough is introducing more variation – more on this in an upcoming article).

Of course there are nuances between regions and producers, between the Wairau Valley and the Awatere valley of Marlborough, or limestone soils of North Canterbury and the schists of Central Otago. But initial success is based on consistency across a region.

Collaborative spirit

Winemaker's divebombing into Wellington Harbor

Winemaker’s divebombing into
Wellington Harbor

Another easy lesson of success is that of a collaborative spirit, evident at every turn in New Zealand (or at least internecine strife was well hidden). During Pinot2013, presentations were divided into regional groups. Producers gave the delegates a collective regional overview before the tastings each morning and afternoon, with several winemakers rising to speak for each region. For the most part, there was a real sense of mutual respect and deference between winemakers, and an understanding that the rising tide raises all boats. My hat’s off especially to the crew from Central Otago, who put together an informal, informative presentation delivered by at least a half-dozen (mostly barefoot), winemakers. There was a fun, unpretentious, let’s-get-together-and-show-the-world-what-we-do spirit that is often absent between producers in the same region, who consider themselves in competition with one-another.  The smart ones know that the competition is not with each other, but with the rest of the world. Divided they fall.

Access to market

Another of New Zealand’s strengths appears to be relative freedom from government intervention and open access to market. This is as much a comparative comment on the Ontario wine industry, which has been retarded by antiquated alcohol distribution laws and a quality-incompatible grape growers collective that protects prices, not quality, but the benefits for NZ producers should be outlined.

Like Canada, New Zealand, too, had it’s flirtation with prohibition, in fact a much more serious relationship with it than did Canada. Several NZ counties went fully dry for a period, and some still hold a referendum every three years to gauge the public’s position on the matter. But when the tide changed in the late 1960’s, it was a wholesale turnaround, not a halfway compromise as in Canada. Kiwis have been known for their radical and extreme social experiments on themselves.

Today, NZ wineries are free to distribute in restaurants, private shops, though their cellar door or export. In other words, each producer has equal opportunity access to market, a critical advantage that Canadians especially can appreciate. In order to build a solid export market, it’s critical to have strong following at home. In NZ you can ship a case of wine from the North to the South Island without obscene taxation, or sell in any shop that’s willing to carry your product. That’s something to be thankful for.


Finally, but not lastly, New Zealand as a country also enjoys an enviable international brand image of clean and green, a fact capitalized upon by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association in their key tag line “Pure Discovery”. New Zealand is indeed an environmentally conscious and beautiful country with an understanding of the importance of natural resources, the inescapable consequence of living on a remote Pacific Island. (And this despite early European settlers’ best efforts to chop down as many trees as possible to make way for sheep pasture.)

Stunning Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Stunning Rippon Vineyards
Central Otago

An initiative to encourage sustainable winegrowing was launched in the mid-1990’s, later called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, or SWNZ.  The key areas of focus were biodiversity; soil, water and air; energy; chemicals; byproducts; people; and business practices. The program has been highly successful: “Participation in SWNZ rose to almost 100% between the launch of the policy and the target date of 2012 — an estimated 94% or more of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area (accounting for approximately 90% of the wine produced) is now SWNZ certified. A further 3-5% of vineyard area operates under other certified organic programs.” (Source: That’s pretty impressive.

Furthermore, wines from vintage 2010 on must have been produced under one of the recognized, independently audited, sustainability programs in order to participate in any of the New Zealand Winegrowers’ national and international marketing, promotional and awards events. Most of the growers I spoke with were very positive about the SWNZ program, and had been motivated to improve their business practices because of it. And once certified by SWNZ, the step to organic certification is considerably easier, so it’s expected that organic production will rise to almost 20% of the total by the end of the decade. New Zealand is certainly not the only country that has launched a sustainable scheme, but it is clearly one of the most successful. This is something that seems to resonate ever-more with consumers around the world.

Industry challenges

All industries have challenges, and New Zealand wine has a few obstacles ahead as I see it.


In hand with the concept of sustainability is profitability. A winery that is not profitable is not sustainable. It’s more than a little alarming that several of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed producers, as I have been informed, are not turning a profit. Growing top quality wine is expensive anywhere, but particularly so in New Zealand. It’s a shockingly expensive country to live in, as I experienced first hand. How will these growers convince the market that their wines are worth enough to make them sustainable? Or will their top wines remain loss leaders, while lower end, volume wines pick up the tab, as seems to be happening in some Marlborough operations in particular? Again, this challenge is hardly unique to New Zealand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage. It would be a shame to see the industry consolidate around a safe low to middle-ground range of quality and deprive the rest of the world of some pretty amazing wines.

Relatively high production costs and the need to be sustainable lead to high prices. In regards to pinot noir in particular, prices are aggressive. Good quality, inexpensive pinot noir is hard to come by in any country, but the early promise that NZ pinot would fill in the gaping hole in the market left by Burgundy, namely in the $20-$30 price segment, has never been realized. It seems NZ prices went from zero straight to $35, at least for the good stuff, without stopping in between. Yet to sell for any less would most likely be unsustainable, not too mention that if you can sell in the home market for $50 or more from the cellar door, there’s little motivation to drop prices for export. How this will all work out remains to be seen. In any case, these wines will have to compete with the best from around the world.

In Defense of Deference

In reference to the point regarding the strength of wine style similarity, and the one above regarding profitability, it’s perhaps deference, or a combination of more experience, better understanding of terroir, and a healthy dose of deference that could well become the distinguishing factor that preserves the very top end of New Zealand wine. Matt Kramer’s now infamous thought-provoking (and anger-provoking, too, it seems) opening address for pinot2013, the 2+2=5 speech (actually entitled “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir”), brought the discussion of how to make truly great wine to the forefront of many subsequent talks, speeches and private discussions, so it obviously resonated. (See Alder Yarrows admirably accurate transcription of the speech on his website vinography and don’t miss the amusing, occasionally enraged comments of some readers).

While many seem to have missed the point of Kramer’s talk – it has nothing to do with religion, nor is it an anti-science manifesto, and still less any kind of comparison to Burgundy – Kramer essentially argues that complete and obsessive control over the entire winemaking process, from blocks of identical clones picked at uniform ripeness to a host of other possible manipulations to regularize production, can take you to four, that is, a very good wine. But to get 2+2 to equal five, at least with our current understanding of the unfathomably complicated set of inputs and outputs that result in wine, requires a bit of deference to nature, or terroir, or whatever you wish to call it. The factors that comprise greatness are as yet not fully measurable or quantifiable. Winemakers the world over could well produce more interesting results (along with less interesting results occasionally, too) by slacking off on the reins of control, and allowing for potential “imperfections” to actually make more meaningful wines. Beauty is often in the imperfect. Will New Zealand winemakers have the courage and faith in their terroir to ease off and give it a chance to speak? Authenticity and uniqueness have been proven to command high prices in the wine market.

What was also mostly lost in Kramer’s speech and in the bluster that followed, is the importance of the observer, in this case the drinker. The drinker has to be pre-disposed to believe in greatness in order to find it. There’s no inherent greatness, no ‘5”, in a concoction of molecules in a glass. No doubt most of the scientific community will disagree (see Dr. Jamie Goode’s thoughtful reflection on Kramer’s speech at wineanorak), but for many, I’d argue even most wine lovers, a little perceived mysticism makes for more enjoyment. Deference to a natural process is a better story than rigid adherence to a set of numbers. Clever wine salespeople rarely attempt to wow you with clonal numbers, measurements of brix and pH and titratable acidity. Winemakers in New Zealand and elsewhere can raise the bar on perceived quality with a judicious combination of scientifically sound and deference-imbued wines, and charge sustainably for them.

Cultural cringe

Also, it must be said, that New Zealanders suffer at times from cultural cringe, a common complex in post-colonial nations, an admission I heard frequently during my travels. As a Canadian I can relate; we too suffer at times from a feeling that our own culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries, or in this case, that our wines are not as good as theirs. As a backlash against the cringe, by the end of pinot2013, it became virtually taboo to even mention Burgundy in relation to NZ pinot noir. Panelists during the final tasting moderated by Tim Atkin were forewarned that any mention of Burgundy would result in an immediate red card (Atkin actually had a set of football style yellow and red cards with him). Only “the place that begins with a B”, or “the MS” (for Mother Ship), were permissible mentions.

It’s surely tiresome to always compare yourself to something else, but conscious and intentional avoidance of any comparisons whatsoever also invoke a bit of a cringe. In the specific case of New Zealand pinot, many of the wines are tremendous, and should have to neither seek out nor avoid bench-marking against other examples from anywhere else in the world. A diminishing cultural cringe and a growing sense of self-confidence borne by time should pave the way for a new and original method of communicating NZ wines to the world.

On the other hand, the flip side of cultural cringe is excessive back-slapping. Some winemakers expressed concern about the growing sense of complacency within the industry considering the already considerable success to date. Perhaps in this respect a little cringe is a good thing, since blinding yourself to everything else is a sure-fire way to cease learning and improving. Winemaking psychology, like fine wine itself, is a fine balance.

All in all, New Zealand’s strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and the future is bright. And I haven’t even really touched upon the actual quality of the wines. Suffice to search for the top scoring examples on WineAlign and let the wines do the talking. And don’t miss my report for this coming April 13 VINTAGES release, with a focus on New Zealand wines.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:
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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner~ Zinfandel – the pride of many in California ~ 12 May 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Getting to know the last grape in the alphabet:   In 2006, lawmakers pressed hard to have Zinfandel declared the ‘state grape’ of California, drafting a bill and presenting it to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for approval. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Ranked third in popularity after Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Zinfandel’s affiliation with California, from both an historical and contemporary perspective, is undeniable. In the twenty-first century, it has become the grape collectors and wine enthusiasts have come to identify as quintessentially Californian.

Seghesio old-vine Zinfandel

But is Zinfandel truly Californian? While the grape has been cultivated throughout much of the state since the 1870s, its true origins have only recently been discovered. Through DNA fingerprinting, oenologists—thanks to the efforts of Dr. Carole Meredith during her tenure at the University of California at Davis (UCD)—now know that Zinfandel is actually the same grape as Primitivo, one of the most important full-bodied workhorse varietals in Puglia, the provincial ‘heel’ of southern Italy. Even more important, it was recently discovered that the original birthplace of Zinfandel/Primitivo is not even Italy, but present-day Croatia. Hailing from various Dalmatian islands along the Croatian coastline in the Adriatic, the exact vine was discovered to be one named Crljenak Kaštelanski—the first word is pronounced ‘tsurl-yen-nak.’

So what does this mean for Californian winegrowers and fervent admirers of Zinfandel? Does this revelation make Zinfandel any less California-specific? Hardly, for few would disagree that California, not Puglia or Dalmatia, has done more for Zinfandel than any other place in the world. Seriously, is there any other place one can think of where Zinfandel is crafted to such fruity sumptuousness, such darkly fragrant and incense-driven lustre, such alcoholic potency and length, agreeable when the wine is in balance?

Zinfandel Grapes

So let’s take a closer look at this marvellous grape. Found throughout many winegrowing regions of California, Zinfandel usually performs best in warm conditions and long growing seasons. Indeed, there are few other grapes that seem to tolerate heat so well, with excessive ripeness seeming almost a non-factor in the eyes of many top growers. In fact, some have even claimed high potential alcohol to be an actual prerequisite for the crafting of great Zinfandel. However, as with all other types of wine, the ratio of opinion-to-qualitative execution will vary from winemaker to winemaker.

Ridge Lytton Springs

Of soils, while Zinfandel doesn’t seem particularly fussy about where it is planted, the best examples often hail from poor, well-drained hillsides, with places of greater mineral content proving additionally advantageous. However, for most winegrowers (excepting Ridge’s Paul Draper), soil conditions are considered secondary to the actual age of the vine. In particular places throughout California, the most sought-after grapes are those from vines over fifty years old. Compared to their younger siblings, the oldest Zinfandel vines provide for such greater intensity, sumptuousness, flavour, and additional cellaring potential that collectors and enthusiasts seldom have trouble figuring out which is which.

Rafanelli 2010 Zinfandel

So where does the best Zinfandel come from? For all intents and purposes, the most famous is probably Dry Creek Valley, located in northern Sonoma. This is where some of the most potent old-vine versions are made, benefitting from the region’s hot days and cool nights (particularly on the eastern side of the valley), with temperatures becoming increasingly warmer as one heads north from Healdsburg. Located on benchlands, the best sites tend to have a mixture of gravel and red clays, making for good drainage and reduced risk of rot. Other AVAs in Sonoma to watch out for are Alexander Valley and, on occasion, Russian River Valley. This said, many Sonoma producers will often source grapes from multiple AVAs to craft a superior wine. This means that many of the best wines will often simply be labelled as ‘Sonoma County.’

Chateau Montelena Zinfandel

The same applies to many of the best versions throughout the Napa Valley. Even more so than Sonoma, the most premium bottlings are oftentimes excellent: full-bodied, plummy, and carrying just an extra speck of acidity that seems to improve the wine beyond measure. Just as intriguing is the fact that the best producers are often those whose primary speciality are Cabernet-blends, not Zinfandel.

Another bastion for the grape is Mendocino County, the most northerly fine winegrowing region in California. As in most other places, the first vines were planted on hillsides over a century ago by Italian immigrants. And while Mendocino Zinfandels might not be the best known, the finest examples are often of remarkable quality, not to mention well priced.

The same applies for those of the Lodi AVA, located south of Sacramento. Like Mendocino, there are few famous names here, though the area is littered with fantastic old-vine plantings. Soils here are washed down from the Sierras, and the best bottlings are agreeably full-bodied and supple. Further east in the Sierra Foothills, even more powerful versions in the Amador vicinity can be found: full-bodied, sumptuous, and packing quite an alcoholic wallop.

Finally, the gargantuan Paso Robles AVA in San Obispo County is home to some of the most forceful Zinfandels in California, similar in style to those found around Amador and just as imposing; though the more balanced versions will also reflect the former’s hot days and maritime evenings. As with virtually all other plantings in California, the best wines will be sourced from dry-farmed old vines, planted many decades ago by Italian trailblazers. Like Zinfandel, where would California winemaking be without the Italian influence?

By and large, the best Zinfandels can be cellared for a fairly long time, up to fifteen years in some cases. Still, most people prefer to drink their wines young, when such aromas as blackberries, currants, cherries, berries, incense, and plummy black fruits are at their fullest abundance. Other scents to pick up in young Zinfandels are baked fruits, licorice, rose petals, mocha, toasted oak, and spice.

Like other wines, more mature Zinfandels will often lose their primary fruits, featuring more savoury nuances that often include tobacco, cigarbox, and more texturally creamy characteristics. While decanting is always recommended for young wines, older Zinfandel seems to demand it. A temperature range of 16-18°C for premium examples is probably your best bet. Whether the same rule applies for Crljenak Kaštelanski is anyone’s guess.

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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008