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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 30th – Part Two

Pacific Northwest in Passing & Other Critic’s Picks
by David Lawrason with notes from Sara d’Amato and John Szabo MS

David New 2014

David Lawrason

Nothing sparks a wine critic quite like a discussion of scoring wines, but I am personally so tired of the debate after 30 years of critiquing wine, that I find little energy for it. Last week John Szabo hit all the right high points and low points about VINTAGES selection of 90-point wines on this release. I will only add that one of the reasons I love WineAlign is that it’s the only website/publication I know that attempts to let readers align their palates to several expert opinions at once. Scores are nothing if not numerical opinions, and you need to choose who you “Follow”.

I am charged today with focusing on the secondary theme of the release – the Pacific Northwest. VINTAGES focuses only on Oregon and Washington, and misses a great opportunity to include more than two wines from British Columbia – which is of course geographically, culturally and vinously very much in synch with its neighbouring states to the south. The southern Okanagan Valley is actually the northern finger of the Sonoran Desert that cradles the best wines of eastern Washington. The choice of grapes and their stylistic outcome is very similar indeed, and across the entire PNW there is a great spirit of newness, exploration and a brightness in the wines that is defined by higher acidity than achieved in warmer California.

I hold great personal fondness for the northwest – being Vancouver-born and still having strong family ties on Vancouver Island. Some of my closest and dearest friends are from B.C. as well, some of whom I have met through countless visits to Okanagan wine country. I am a bit less familiar with Oregon but I have visited twice, and Washington three times. So when I say I am disappointed by the wines on this release, and VINTAGES general lack of attention to PNW over the years, I do so with a real sense of loss and frustration.

Part of the problem is the price of the wines. VINTAGES is very much stuck in a groove of offering most of its wines just under the $20 mark. Sure, they go over that where a region naturally commands a higher average price, but when a region is less well established they get even more cautious. PNW wines on average are not cheap, so in order to get tax-bloated wines on shelf here at $20 they start scraping the bottom of the commercial PNW barrel. Which is why I do not ‘flag’ any very good buys among the four whites on offer (although John does highlight the Elk Cove Pinot Gris). The reds are a bit more interesting and last week I did give a nod to the A to Z Pinot Noir from Oregon and also like Innocent Bystander Pinot. This week, I’ll add in the Ecole 41 Cabernet Sauvignon (see below).  But that’s about it, until next time, perhaps three years from now, when VINTAGES decides to focus its low wattage spotlight on the region.

Meanwhile, there are many other great buys on shelf Saturday (in some stores sooner). Last week we gave you a long list, and here we three chime in with even more – aligning at times as we go.

White & Sparkling Wines

Blue Mountain 2012  Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($23.95)
David Lawrason – I can’t think of another B.C. winery doing such consistently fine work in recent vintages. The root of its success is the well-established, organically tended vineyard near Okanagan Falls in mid-valley. To me this ideal chardonnay and pinot country, and fine winemaking by the Mavety family that shows restraint and true respect for the terroir is pushing Blue Mountain to the top.
John Szabo – Blue Mountain has been cranking out superb wines across the board in the last couple of vintages, and must be counted among BC’s most reliable (and solid value) names. This is judiciously oaked, savoury and spicy chardonnay, more focused on mature notes rather than simple primary fruit, with much of the enjoyment coming from the layered texture. Best 2014-2018

Elk Cove 2013 Pinot Gris Willamette Valley, Oregon ($24.95)
John Szabo – Forty years make Elk Cove one of the most experienced wineries in Oregon (est. 1974), practicing genuinely sustainable production since long before it became fashionable. But what counts here is what’s in the bottle: a richly flavoured, mineral-inflected, substantial and complex pinot gris made with evident care and ambition. This has the stuffing to get even more interesting over time.

Schloss Reinhartshausen 2012 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Kabinett Rheingau, Germany ($20.95)
David Lawrason – This venerable, large estate in the Rheingau often sends us brilliant mature rieslings. But they can do ‘young’ very well too. This is super fresh, off dry, lovely riesling with lifted apricot/honeydew melon fruit, gentle spice and a touch of petrol and minerality. Ideal for a late summer’s evening.

Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2012 Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2013 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Kabinett 2012 Clos Marguerite Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Laurent Perrier Brut Champagne

Clos Marguerite 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, New Zealand ($21.95)
John Szabo – The small family winery of Belgian couple Jean-Charles Van Hove and Marguerite Dubois stood out for me when traveling through New Zealand last year. I appreciated then, as now, the evident density and extract, flavour concentration and length of their wines, not to mention the restrained mid old-new world styling. The cooler Awatere Valley sub-region of Marlborough lends its distinctively zesty character to this example, well worth a look by fans of serious sauvignon blanc from anywhere. Best 2014-2018.

Laurent Perrier Brut Champagne, France ($63.95)
Sara d’Amato – I was quite dazzled by this classic Laurent Perrier Cuvée that can easily to stand up to many of the big name Champagnes (and high prices) of this TIFF-inspired release. Save yourself the big bucks and enjoy big names on the silver screen instead.
David Lawrason – This too was my favourite TIFFer Champagne. And you can buy five bottles for the price of one Cristal, or buy one and spend the extra $220 on theatre tickets.

Rose & Reds

Mas Des Bressades 2013 Cuvée Tradition Rosé, Costières De Nîmes, Rhône, France ($15.95)
Sara d’Amato – The 2013 Mas Des Bressades proves once again to be one of the best value rosés at the LCBO. This ever charming rosé is dry, generous in fruit and offers plenty of lovely garrigue of the Southern Rhône.

L’Ecole 41 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington ($24.95)
David Lawrason – Situated in a rural schoolhouse this is one of the pioneering wines of Walla Walla, a region that straddles the Washington/Oregon border and produces some quite magnificent Bordeaux-variety reds. This less expensive edition casts a wider net sourcing from the much larger Columbia Valley AVA. It is a solid, authentic cabernet at a very good price, and particularly good value from Washington.

Porcupine Ridge 2012 Syrah/Viognier, Swartland, South Africa ($16.95)
John Szabo – Mark Kent (of Boekenhoutskloof) has had enormous success with the Porcupine Ridge brand, and it’s easy to see why, even if the measured dose of coffee-chocolate wood flavour isn’t usually my cup of tea. But one can’t argue with the length, depth and pleasure that exceed expectations for the price category. Another fine value from the up-and-coming Swartland region that drinks well now, but personally I’d like to see it in 2-3 years. Best 2014-2019.

Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé 2013 L'ecole 41 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Porcupine Ridge Syrah Viognier 2012 Chilensis Lazuli 2011 Domaine Jean Bousquet Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Chilensis 2011 Lazuli, Maule Valley, Chile ($17.95)
David Lawrason – Named after Chile’s famous turquoise stone – lapus lazuli – this is a well managed blend of six grapes led by cabernet, with all the other Bordeaux varieties, plus a dollop of syrah. That may account for its complexity. But its sense of finesse is, I think, reflective of the slightly cooler aspect of the Maule Valley about 300 kms south of Santiago. In any event, I was taken with the balance and lighter touch here.

Domaine Jean Bousquet 2012  Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Tupungato Valley, Uco Valley, Argentina ($14.95)
John Szabo – The wines grown in the high vineyards of Tupungato are increasingly distinguishing themselves from those of lower, flatter, hotter Mendoza. This is fine, and savoury, characterful and well-balanced cabernet with plenty of flavour for the money. Best 2014-2018.

Casa Brancaia 2011 Tre,  Tuscany, Italy ($23.95)
David Lawrason – Tre encapsulates modern Tuscany, as an entity onto itself. It draws grapes from three vineyards in both the Classico zone and southerly Maremma. It uses three grape varieties, with sangiovese leading at 80% plus cabernet and merlot. And it combines all these elements into an artful wine that is both refined and lively, hitting excellent length without being at all ponderous.

Xavier 2010 Côtes Du Rhône, Rhône Valley, France ($15.95)
Sara d’Amato – This project by consultant oenologist Xavier Vignon hailing from the Southern Rhône is impressive at first sip. A finely crafted crowd-pleaser – fleshy and well balanced with an abundance of fruit and a voluptuous mouthfeel (not to mention great packaging).

Brancaia Tre 2011Xavier Côtes Du Rhone 2010 Montresor Capitel Della Crosara Valpolicella Ripasso 2011Domaine Des Amouriers Signature Vacqueyras 2011 Marziano Abbona Pressenda Barolo 2008

Montresor 2011 Capitel Della Crosara Valpolicella Ripasso, Veneto, Italy ($18.95)
David Lawrason – I struggle to enjoy and define what passes for ripasso these days. The lines and the quality between ‘basic’ Valpolicella, ripasso and amarone are blurring. Then along comes a fine, more traditional, slightly firm (less soupy) ripasso that gives me back my bearings. Very fragrant, balanced and delicious.

Domaine Des Amouriers 2011 Signature Vacqueyras, Rhône Valley, France ($24.95)
David Lawrason – The 2011 vintage was not the most opulent or concentrated in the southern Rhône, and indeed this does seem a bit ‘lighter’. But it still carries the richer ambiance of Vacqueyras, it is balanced and hits all the high notes with pepper, licorice, dried herbs. The Polish Chudzikiewicz  family has farmed the 25-ha site since 1900, with fourth generation Igor converting the site to organic viticulture this year.

Marziano Abbona 2008 Pressenda Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($52.95)
David Lawrason – I have to be stirred fairly deeply to include a $50 Barolo as a value; but this mature, very elegant, complex example is everything I look for in this famous wine. So often we hear and write about Barolo’s needing time, having great potential etc. etc.  But this one is ready to drink, and should be put on the shopping list of anyone who has been wanting to go to school on Barolo.

And that’s the ballgame for this week. One of the greatest and busiest weekends of the year is coming up. We hope you get to enjoy it with a fine meal and bottle of wine or two. We return in September with a full slate of Buyers Guides to VINTAGES releases, to the LCBO General List, and with a special Ontario Wine Report that will highlight the very best from Niagara, PEC and Lake Erie that we have encountered at the National Wine Awards of Canada and elsewhere.

Until next time!

 

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES August 30th release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews
August 30th Part One – Southern France

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


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Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 2012

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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 30th – Part One

Head-Scratching 90-point wines, and more importantly, Smart Buys
By John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s time again for the yearly 90+ point wine release at LCBO-VINTAGES [yawn]. It used to cause so much excitement, including those frenzied pre-dawn lineups on Saturday morning as buyers scrambled to get their allocations of top-scoring bottles like limited concert tickets. Now, it seems to slide languidly by more like a late summer stream, eddying lazily under the weeping willows, barely causing a stir.

You can be forgiven for thinking that a 90-point score means little these days, especially when presented as virtually all retailers, including the LCBO, do. The basic protocol is to scour planetary archives for the highest score for whatever’s on sale, and drop it into the catalogue without context as though there were some international treaty defining the meaning of the 100-point scale. Anybody’s review is fair game, credible or not, only stopping short at repurposing reviews from buyareview.com. Look long enough, and eventually you’ll find the number you’re looking for.

93 point, $13.95 grüner vetliner? I’m sure even the producer is scratching his head at that one. There are plenty of competent, well made wines in this release (like that grüner), but it would be a supreme hot yoga stretch to count them in the very top echelon of wines made around the world, as a 90+ rating would imply, at least in my context.

Ultimately this approach is a disservice to consumers. It distorts reality and sets up untenable expectations, and makes it impossible to sort out the good from the really and truly excellent. The 100-point scale loses the only value it has, which is a measure of one reviewer’s preference, within his or her relative context, and as a simple way of sorting out thousands of options to arrive at a starting point. And when scores become completely meaningless, what will those retailers do?

But rather than flog the scoring issue more than I already have, we’ll focus this report instead – like all WineAlign reports – on a handful of wines that David, Sara and I think are worth your attention, and more importantly, money, including a handful of particularly good pinot noirs in this release. You can decide what score, if any, is applicable.

Next week David will turn the spotlight on the Pacific Northwest, and BC in particular.

Buyer’s Guide LCBO-Vintages August 30th 2014: Smart Buys

New World Pinot Noir

The New World, and the Southern Hemisphere come up big in this release. Three emerging classic regions south of the equator are worth investigating, and Niagara also shows its quality, versatility, and value.

Waipara Hills Pinot Noir 2012Schubert Block B Pinot Noir 2011Schubert Block B 2011 Pinot Noir, Wairarapa, New Zealand ($55.95)
John Szabo – Schubert is one of the leaders in Wairarapa (Martinborough), and this pinot shows the depth and spiciness of which the region is capable. Although not inexpensive, to borrow a quote from Allen Meadows (burghound.com), in the world of pinot “you don’t always get what you pay for, but you never get what you don’t pay for”. I can easily picture the low-yielding vines and small bunches from this naturally un-generous region (in the best, qualitative sense). This is an excellent, concentrated, very masculine pinot. Best 2016-2023.

Waipara Hills 2012 Pinot NoirCentral Otago, New Zealand ($24.95)
David Lawrason – Waipara Hills winery is on the east coast north of Christchurch; but the grapes for this wine are from Central Otago, about six hours by car farther south and inland.  The pinots achieve considerable ripeness here in this semi-arid region, showing cherry jam, a certain juiciness and warmth, and richness. This shows the style well.
Sara d’Amato – Central Otago’s distinctive power and aromatic impact is most distinctively represented in this savory Waipara Hills. Violets and spice make their way to the lush and fruity palate which remains bright and buoyant.

Innocent Bystander 2012 Pinot NoirYarra Valley, Australia ($21.95)
John Szabo – Yarra is firmly on the map as a source of excellent pinot noir, and this example from Innocent Bystander, their entry range (Giant Steps is the top, and also excellent range) is perfectly zesty and lively, spicy and fresh, all raspberry and strawberry, nicely capturing the spirit of the region at a very fair price. Best now-2017.

Familia Schroeder 2012 Saurus Select Pinot NoirPatagonia, Argentina ($19.95)
John Szabo – During my last trip to Argentina Patagonia stood out as the country’s most exciting region, especially if seeking more balanced, fresher wines. Although this is undoubtedly a full-bodied and concentrated wine, ripe and extracted relative to Innocent Bystander’s version, I do appreciate the purity and density of fruit. For fans of New World-style pinot in any case. Best 2014-2018
Sara d’Amato – A modern, but cool climate, new world style of pinot noir from the southern tip of Argentina. This generous pinot delivers a great deal of impact and impressive complexity for the price.

A To Z Wineworks 2012 Pinot Noir, Oregon USA ( $24.95)
David Lawrason – Pinot lovers knows that Oregon is an international frontrunner. To me the style nestles between California and BC which of course makes sense geographically as Oregon’s Willamette Valley lies at 45 degrees latitude. A to Z  has grown out of the Rex Hill Winery property as the vision of Oregon pinot veterans who wanted to make more affordable pinot (a noble pursuit in a region where high prices prevail)  This is not perfect but it delivers the spirit of Oregon pinot well – some weight and ripeness without the jaminess of California.

Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir 2012 Familia Schroeder Saurus Select Pinot Noir 2012 A To Z Wineworks Pinot Noir 2012 Fog Head Highland Series Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 Sperling Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012

Fog Head 2012 Highland Series Reserve Pinot Noir, Monterey County, California, USA ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Between the influence of the fog and the cooler vintage, this savory, aromatic pinot noir seems to hit all the right notes. Cherry blossom, ginger, a touch of dried leaf – this compelling wine of good length is certainly a steal.

Sperling Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($27.95)
David Lawrason – The slopes on the east and west sides of the lake near Kelowna are, in my mind, prime pinot country in BC. The Sperling site is farther “inland’  and higher altitude, producing a lighter, tighter, leaner pinot style, that is still based on a “hot rock-lava”minerality I have come to pick up in this region.  Riveting, mouthwatering wine that should age very well. Sara d’Amato – Sperling’s home vineyard site in the Okanagan is home to this expressive and world-class pinot with both freshness and impact. Modern, stylish but well endowed with classic pinot charm.

Local Pinot

Château Des Charmes Estate Bottled Old Vines Pinot Noir 2010Rosewood Select Pinot Noir 2012Rosewood Select Series 2012 Pinot Noir, Niagara Escarpment ($21.95)
John Szabo – Of the two local pinots I recommend this week, Rosewood’s represents the light and delicate, feminine side of the grape, also in the dusty, savoury and earthy flavour spectrum. I think this style works well for Niagara, especially at the price. Think savoury Côte de Beaune style. Best 2014-2017.
Sara d’Amato -This premium series pinot noir from meadery Rosewood Estate is an impressive feat of complexity, depth and compelling texture. Long and elegant and featuring notes of exotic spice, bramble and cherry.

Château Des Charmes 2010 Estate Bottled Old Vines Pinot NoirNiagara-on-the-Lake ($18.95)
John Szabo – Compared to the Rosewood pinot, CdC’s is decidedly meaty, firm and tannic, reflective of this warmer corner of Niagara and the typical sort of rustic profile I often find in St. David’s Bench pinot. I’d let this unwind for another year or two for maximum enjoyment. Best 2015-2020.

Sparkling, White and Red

Graham Beck Brut Rosé Méthode Cap Classique, Western Cape, South Africa ($20.95)
John Szabo – This is a terrific value for money from Graham Beck, delivering substantial red berry and toasty brioche flavours in a complex ensemble.

Gaston Chiquet Brut Rosé, Champagne, France (54.95)
David Lawrason – This 23 hectare family property has delivered a quite delicate well balance pink Champagne. It is based predominantly on pinot meunier, the third cousin red grape of the region, with some pinot noir. Although not a high-strung, acid driven Champagne it does deliver gentle red fruit flavours with some charm and tenderness. Please don’t over chill this mild-mannered wine.

Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve Champagne, France ($64.95)
David Lawrason – This famous house delivers real finesse in its Champagnes.  It is light, elegant and racy with mature aromas of straw, honey, pear custard and spice. Very refined with great length.

Graham Beck Brut Rosé, Méthode Cap Classique Gaston Chiquet Brut Rosé Champagne Billecart Salmon Brut Réserve Champagne Evening Land Seven Springs Chardonnay 2011 Stags' Leap Winery Viognier 2013

Evening Land 2011 Seven Springs ChardonnayEola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($58.95)
John Szabo – From the vineyard of the same name and made by Canadian Isabelle Meunier (formerly assistant winemaker at Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara) under the consultancy of Dominique Lafon, this is a stellar wine, even if from relatively young vines. I love the salty, tangy, savoury profile fully shifted into the tertiary phase (i.e. not simply fruity), and wonderful textured – an authentic terroir expression. Best 2014-2021.

Stags’ Leap Winery 2013 Viognier Napa Valley, California ($34.95)
John Szabo – One of the best viogniers from this storied estate that I’ve had – the wines seem to get better here every year under Christophe Paubert. It would make a cracking match with Vietnamese dishes inflected with basil and a touch of heat. Best 2014-2019.

De Buxy Buissonnier 2011 Montagny 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($19.95)
David Lawrason – I’ve always been a fan of tender, fruity chardonnays of Montagny, a village in the Chalonnais blessed with a seam of limestone soil. This is a classic Burgundy chardonnay with pure apple, grapefruit and just a touch oak spice.

Domaine Le Verger 2012 Chablis, France ($22.95)
David Lawrason – Great value here in a basic but quite exciting taut, firm mouthwatering Chablis, just what I expect from chardonnay grown around the sleepy village in northern France.  No oak; just mouth-watering acidity and Chablis’s certain stoniness.

Domaine Cauhapé 2013 Chant Des Vignes Dry Jurancon, France ($16.95)
John Szabo – Looking for something different? Try this original wine from southwest France made from gros and petit manseng. It’s more fruity than floral, and more stony than fruity, yet with most of the action on the palate. Density and weight are great for the money, and length is also impressive. Cauhapé is a reference for the region. Best 2014-2018.

De Buxy Buissonnier Montagny 1er Cru 2011 Domaine Le Verger Chablis 2012 Domaine Cauhapé Chant Des Vignes Dry Jurancon 2013 Creekside Backyard Block Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 2012

Creekside 2013 Backyard Block Sauvignon Blanc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula ($17.95)
John Szabo – Creekside has made a specialty of sauvignon blanc, and this 2013 from the vineyard behind the estate (the “Backyard”) delivers fine intensity and depth. It sits on the riper side of the spectrum, more guava and passion fruit than green herbs and asparagus, with lovely fleshy orchard fruit on the palate.

Penfolds 2012 Bin 128 Shiraz Coonawarra, South Australia ($34.95)
John Szabo – It would be hard to imagine a more consistent company than Penfolds, and the Bin 128, created in 1962 to reflect cooler, spicy Coonawarra shiraz, has just about everything one could want at the price. French oak, which replaced American from the 1980 vintage onward, contributes to making this a relatively restrained and elegant example, albeit definitely dense and concentrated. Best 2014-2022.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES Aug 30th:

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

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


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South Africa in The Spotlight Part Two: Getting Cooler

South Africa in The Spotlight: Part Two

Part one of the series last week makes the pitch for South Africa as one of the most exciting countries in the world of wine, and examines the Swartland region and its top producers. This entry covers the cool Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

Regions to Watch: The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (“heaven and earth”) is technically three separate wards within the district of Walker Bay: there’s the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley itself as well as the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, as you move inland from the seaside town of Hermanus. There are currently eleven wineries in the valley and 14 grape growers, and growing.

The coast by Hermanus, Walker Bay

The coast by Hermanus, Walker Bay

This is pinot noir and chardonnay territory par excellence, cooled by breezes off the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn are chilled by the icy Benguela current that surges up from Antarctica and bounces off the Cape. Soils vary greatly, but follow the general South African pattern of variations on shale, sandstone and granite. The clay content, however, heavier at either end of the valley but lower in the middle, regulates the relative weight of pinot noirs, Anthony Hamilton Russell tells me. “The middle part of the valley [the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde] will always make lighter and delicate pinots”, he says, while more clay equates to fuller bodied and more structured examples.

Anthony’s father Tim Hamilton Russell was the first to plant vines in Walker Bay, although it wasn’t known then as Walker Bay. Travelling frequently to his holiday home in the old seaside fishing town of Hermanus, he was struck by the possibility of winegrowing in this cool maritime region. At the time it was outside of any official demarcated wine growing areas, and the pinot, chardonnay and sauvignon that Hamilton Russell made in the mid-eighties was labeled simply as “Western Cape Red/White Wine” without mention of region or grape.

Eventually the government would create the Walker Bay District, but it is a very large area with vastly different soils and micro climates, and so without logical coherence. It was then broken up five years ago into five wards: the Standford Valley, Bot River Valley, and the three Hemel-en-Aarde wards. “It’s been a commercially difficult transition, as the appellation is a mouthful to be sure, whereas Walker Bay is known and easy” says Hamilton Russell.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with the Atlantic in the distance, seen from Newton Johnson Vineyards

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with the Atlantic in the distance, seen from Newton Johnson Vineyards

Early challenges in the region included a lack of good plant material. The first clone of pinot noir available in South Africa was the Swiss Wadenswill clone, better suited to sparkling wine production in cool climates, and evidently not ideal for the Cape. “One of the frustrations for pinot noir producers in this country is that we’re in the minority” laments Bevan Newton Johnson of Newton Johnson Vineyards. “Nurseries are much better equipped to respond to the demands of cabernet, merlot and shiraz producers. We’d send in orders but there was no incentive to offer quality clones. They knew we’d have to take what was available”.

Better clonal material such as the Dijon clones would eventually arrive, but another ongoing problem is endemic leaf roll virus. Most vineyards have to be replanted every dozen or so years, meaning that many vines may never reach their maximum quality potential.

Yet challenges aside, the wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde have a finesse and elegance unknown elsewhere in South Africa, and I suspect this little piece of heaven and earth will soon be much better-known both domestically and internationally.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Producers to Know 

Anthony Hamilton Russell in his beautiful Canadian beaver pelt fedora

Anthony Hamilton Russell in his beautiful Canadian beaver pelt fedora

Hamilton-Russell. Little intro is needed here; Hamilton Russell is the original and still the gold standard for the region. The wines are all class, like Anthony Hamilton Russell himself, an English aristocrat who happens to be South African. Watch out for the turtles roaming the gardens in front of Braemar, the home of Anthony & Olive Hamilton Russell. The very good Southern Right and Asbourne labels are also produced by the Hamilton Russell team.

Newton Johnson Vineyards. This is a gorgeous spot in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde with a view to the coast down the Valley. It’s very much a family affair, with father Dave Newton Johnson a Cape Wine Master with thirty years experience in the business, and sons Gordon (winemaking) and Bevan (Managing Director, marketing).

Prior to settingling in the valley, Dave worked at Distell, South Africa’s largest wine company. But pinot noir was always his passion, and he used to drag his kids up to Walker Bay to see Peter Finlayson (former winemaker at Hamilton Russell before launching his own winery, Bouchard Finlayson, with a group of 18 investors including Paul Bouchard from Burgundy) to taste pinot. Pinot noir was, after all, Dave’s dissertation topic in the 1980s for his Master’s degree, a time when very little was known about the grape in South Africa.

Bevan (left) and Gordon Newton Johnson

Bevan (left) and Gordon Newton Johnson

He eventually purchased land in the area in the late 1990s and was joined by his sons; the purpose was clear: to focus on pinot noir. They started from scratch and have since planted sixteen hectares over the years 2002-2004. Chardonnay, sauvignon and the Rhône varieties play supporting roles.

Lunch at Newton Johnson (pork belly is all the rage in South Africa, too)

Lunch at Newton Johnson (pork belly is all the rage in South Africa, too)

Overall, the wines at Newton Johnson are pristine and perfumed, finely crafted, elegant, with a minimum of extraction and emphasis on elegance, precisely what the lighter soils in this middle section of the valley are best suited to produce. Research and experimentation continues. “Nobody has more than 30 years experience growing pinot in South Africa. We have so much to learn”, Bevan reveals.

As an aside, the restaurant at Newton Johnson is one of the finest in the Cape and certainly Michelin star-quality. Don’t miss a chance to dine here if you find yourself in the area.

Creation Wines. Husband and wife team Jean-Claude (JC) and Carolyn Martin run this tidy operation in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward. The couple started from the ground up, converting a sheep farm under the imposing Babylon Mountain peak to vineyards in 2002, and following that with a cellar and restaurant in 2007. This part of the valley is about ten kilometers from the sea and at 300m elevation. And the climate is notably more continental: “midnight is always 12ºC cooler than the daytime high” JC tells me, and “harvest is two weeks later than the lower part of the Valley”.

Jean-Claude Martin, Creation Wines

Jean-Claude Martin, Creation Wines

More clay surfaces here amidst the 450 million-year-old Bokkersfeld shale soils, as it does lower down, favouring more structured wines. The Martins have forty hectares planted principally to pinot noir, with a mix of other varieties including chardonnay, syrah and grenache. 

Over lunch we’re treated to a first hand dose of Ridge weather. From calm, hot and sunny on arrival, within a matter of minutes a large front moves in from the north. Weather events hit here about a day after they move through Stellenbosch and Paarl as fronts curl around the cape and head up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The wind picks up and guest quickly scurry inside as the restaurant staff scrambles to lower umbrellas and close the sliding doors. Rain is imminent. The weather can change here in five minutes.

Carolyn Martin, Creation Wines, with her fancy double decanting device

Carolyn Martin, Creation Wines, with her fancy double decanting device

Safely inside, we sit down to a well-orchestrated wine and food pairing. Correctly speaking, Creation doesn’t have a restaurant, I’m told, but rather a “degustation room”. Carolyn is emphatic about ensuring that everything works to highlight the wines. On the menu, every dish is accompanied by a wine – in fact ordering food without wine is frowned upon (there’s a separate playroom for children – a brilliant idea that should be emulated the world over in my view – so that the adults can play in peace). Carolyn works daily with the chef, fine tuning dishes to pair with Creation wines, and everything is expertly done with love and care, down to proper serving temperature (reds are served cool) and double decanting wines when necessary. We have an excellent experience.

JC, who is of Swiss-French origin, is no less precise on the winemaking side. These are skillfully crafted and widely appealing wines, to the point that one almost wishes for a hair to be out of place. But there isn’t – every bottle is neatly coloured within the lines, a reasonable feat considering a production of 200,000 bottles under the Creation label, and another 150,000 bottles under the Whale Pod, made mostly from purchased fruit “and bits and pieces” of estate fruit. There are three tiers: Creation Estate, Creation Reserve, and the two top wines labeled “The Art of Chardonnay” and “The Art of Pinot Noir”. And JC tells me that his clones of pinot noir are virus-free, unlike the majority in the valley, meaning that as they age the full potential of Hemel-en-Aarde terroir may be revealed.

Also Noteworthy:

Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson

Sumaridge. A quality producer in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, owned by the Bellingham Turner family. Chardonnays here are a little denser and riper than the average in the region. Look also for the excellent “Epitome” cuvée, a shiraz-pinotage blend reminiscent of the southern Rhône.

Bouchard Finlayson. Although quality is highly variable from wine to wine and vintage to vintage, the estate is worth a mention as one of the longest-established in the region after Hamilton Russell, where Peter Finlayson was winemaker until the early 1990s. The 2007 and 2011 Galpin Peak pinot noir are among the best I’ve tasted from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, while the Overberg unoaked chardonnay is also worth a look.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Part One: Revolution in the Swartland; Buyer’s guide to South African Wines

Bad cop, good cop - Québec journalist Jessica harnois and Laurel Keenan of Wines of South Africa

Bad cop, good cop – Québec journalist Jessica Harnois and Laurel Keenan of Wines of South Africa


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 16th – Part Two

Malbec and Mighty Fine Whites
by David Lawrason with notes from Sara d’Amato and John Szabo MS

David New 2014

David Lawrason

Argentine malbec is a secondary feature in the August 16th release (south of France was featured in Part One). There are six wines that range from $15.95 (the price many are used to paying) up to $74.95 (which will undoubtedly cause some to question the new world order). And in between there are malbecs at $22.95 and $45.95. The more expensive wines do indeed show elevated quality. In fact the Colomé Reserva ($74.95) may be the best red of the release, at least on par with two just-under-$100 Bordeaux that are In Store Discoveries. But it will likely gather moss on the shelf. Which outlines the huge difficulty New World nations face in establishing the cred that Europeans (and now Napa) takes for granted. Wine reputations take time; and it takes courage to keep putting them out there. I am delighted that VINTAGES has purchased this wine, and so should Argentina be delighted.

But what of Argentine malbec in general – as reflected by half of the lower priced entries? Malbec was a wine that swept to power in the late 2000s as a tasty and affordable red just as the market for pricey wine was going into a recessionary tailspin. But now that the dust is settling we are taking a harder look. It is, if nothing else, big – at a time when sensibilities are lightening up. And you can’t just make malbec lighter with the flip of a switch. You can try to make balanced, complex and more refined malbecs, but this is difficult if you have to sell them under $20. Sweetening and oaking become key tools to impart drinkability, and then they all tend to taste the same. The homogeny of cheap Argentine malbec has become its biggest obstacle. So my mission now is to seek out, and be prepared to pay more for more expensive malbecs from producers focused on making higher quality, smaller batch, regional examples.

Meanwhile, there are several other wines worth a look on this release, including a bevy of nifty Italian and other Euro whites that superbly catch the sultry mood of August. We actually have triple alignment on the enchanting Basa Rueda from Spain. There are also excellent aged German rieslings, and Ontario chips in with a great Norman Hardie chardonnay. Plus there is an assortment of other reds put forward Sara d’Amato, John Szabo and I. Happy hunting!

Argentine Malbec

Colomé 2010 Reserva Malbec, Calchaquí Valley, Salta, Argentina  ($74.95)
David Lawrason – This very serious red hails from a historic winery in the province of Salta, far to the north of Mendoza. It registers excellent to outstanding depth, complexity and overall quality, but what I find intriguing is the different, more compact and linear demeanour that it demonstrates compared to Mendoza malbec peers.
Sara d’Amato – Colomé is one of Argentina’s oldest wineries and is home to the world’s highest elevation vineyards (we’re talking 3000 meters above sea level) – no wonder they can produce a wine of such balance, brightness and depth. This highly recommended example, although pricey, is both cellar worthy and undeniably memorable.

Decero 2011 Remolinos Vineyard Malbec, Agrelo, Mendoza, Argentina ($22.95)
David Lawrason – This is a refined, even keeled malbec from a single vineyard in the sub-region of Agrelo which lies in the heart of Mendoza south of the city. The Remolinos site is at 1050 metres, at the highest point of the region, where ripening is slowed thanks to cooling winds that sweep down from the Andes at night.

Colomé Reserva Malbec 2011 Decero Remolinos Vineyard Malbec 2011 Viña Cobos Bramare Malbec 2011 Graffigna Grand Reserve Malbec 2010

Viña Cobos 2011 Bramare Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina, ($45.95)
Sara d’Amato – Here is a wine that will bring out the fiery tango dancer in you. This is a riveting malbec with the depth and complexity to rival the best in this category. Unctuous and texturally intriguing with the elusive “sweet spot” of balance masterfully achieved. Vina Cobos is a shared partnership between renowned American oenologist Paul Hobbs and Argentine winemaking partners Andrea Marchiori and Luis Barraud.

Graffigna 2011 Grand Reserve Malbec, San Juan, Argentina, ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – In the best value category of this feature, this San Juan gem is refreshingly dry, a little tart and pleasantly fruity. A malbec you needn’t fear will overwhelm your main course but also one that is sure to please a crowd.

Whites

Norman Hardie Niagara ChardonnayBasa Blanco 2013Basa Blanco 2013, Rueda Spain ($17.95)
David Lawrason – This is a lovely, lively verdejo from great Spanish winemaker Telmo Rodriguez. Rueda whites are based on a terrific white grape called verdejo, that often is blended with a bit of sauvignon blanc. That was the formula for Basa as well, but in 2013 the sauvignon was replaced by 8% viura, a high acid native Spanish variety that has perhaps given this wine its amazing freshness.
John Szabo – Another fine edition, perhaps one of the best yet, of the Basa Rueda signed by Telmo Rodriguez. This smells like quality sauvignon blanc, or more accurately fumé blanc, with its gentle sweet herbal aromas and fruit shifting into the tropical – melon, guava, passion fruit spectrum.
Sara d’Amato – A sophisticated blend of verdejo and viura by iconic producer Telmo Rodriguez who is well-known for his work promoting indigenous varietals and delving into lesser known regions. This wine benefits from his keen and gentle touch and delivers a generous dose of zest, mineral and pure, refreshing fruit to the palate. A fabulous summer treat!

Norman Hardie 2012 Niagara Unfiltered Chardonnay, Niagara Peninsula ($35.00)
John Szabo – It’s more often Hardie’s County wines that excite me, but this 2012 Niagara chardonnay is a beauty – a wine of serious substance and minerality, and terrific depth. I love how he can stuff so much flavour into a wine with under 13% alcohol – a lesson that should be absorbed by more winemakers everywhere. Best 2014-2020
David Lawrason – This took a gold medal at the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada. Both it and its County counterpart are stunningly good in 2012, wowing both local and international critics at i4c. Having followed Norm Hardie from day-one I am not surprised by his success, but in 2012 his chardonnays have leapt to a new level.

Dr. Hermann 2005 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany ($23.95)
John Szabo – What a great price for this superb, mature auslese, by no means at the end of life, with abundant minerality, succulent fruit and gentle spearmint notes (a flavour I often get in aged German riesling) – hard to beat this.
David Lawrason – This mature, sweet, honeyed riesling offers character far beyond its price. It is almost a must-buy for anyone who needs a bit of education on riesling’s ability to age. (no image available)

Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2012 Alana Tokaj Tokaji Harslevelu 2005 Beyra Vinhos De Altitude 2012 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2012

Vineland Estates 2012 Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling, Niagara Escarpment, Ontario ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – This continues to prove a top-caliber riesling, not only for Niagara, but is also a world-class example. This picture of elegance and power stems from an esteemed vineyard site from the Vineland estate itself planted in 1979. Vibrant, nervy and energetic – here is a firecracker of a riesling.

Alana-Tokaj 2005 Tokaji Dry Harslevelu Tokaj, Hungary ($24.95)
John Szabo – And here’s another beautifully mature wine that still has lots of life left, from an artisanal producer in Tokaj. Although the label says dry, it’s more like a gentle late-harvest style with the merest sensation of sweetness, and complexity is off the charts. Look for the saliva-inducing saltiness of volcanic terroir underlying the weighty ensemble – for $25 this is a real tour de flavour. Best 2014-2018.

Beyra Vinhos De Altitude 2012, Beiras Interior, Portugal ($13.95)
John Szabo – Here’s a brilliantly lively and perfumed blend of local varieties siría and fonte cal, like Chablis meets Sancerre. Vineyards at 700m on the schist soils of inland Portugal (just south of the Douro) are cool enough to yield this perfectly ripe wine at just 12% alc, focused on delicate citrus and sweet green herbs, with a killer streak of wet stone minerality.

Valdespino Inocente Single Vineyard Fino Dry SherryMiopasso Fiano 2012Beringer 2012 Private Reserve ChardonnayNapa Valley, California ($44.95)
David Lawrason – In a field of generally boring, over-oaked Calfornia chardonnays, this classic stood out for its poise and complexity – combining all the elements and expressing them with both authority and restraint. I am often hard on California wines for its pricing – this one is worth the money, perhaps even good value.

Miopasso 2012 Fiano Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy ($14.95)
Sara d’Amato – The Miopasso range of wines focuses on indigenous varietals from southern Italy. This 100% fiano is flinty, smoky and mineral with a burst of citrus and delicate floral aromas. It is totally refreshing and immensely pleasurable.

Valdespino Inocente Single Vineyard Fino Dry Sherry, Spain ($22.95)
John Szabo – So salty and savoury, this is like an aperitif and an appetizer wrapped into one. Fantastic nuttiness, green olive brine, fresh bread and waxy citrus fruit flavours, in short, tremendous complexity, is apparently not for everyone (considering slumping sherry sales). But why would you spend the same $23 or more on a me-too generic cabernet from anywhere? Bring on the tapas.

Other Reds

Carvalhais 2011 Duque De Viseu Red, Dão, Portugal ($13.95)
Sara d’Amato – Portugal once again proves to be the land of great value. At under $14, this lightly perfumed and characteristically spicy wine from Dao is full-bodied and chalk full of perfectly ripened fruit. This lovely specimen will serve you well from aperitif to main course.
David Lawrason –
About halfway through tasting this dark, delicious, fruit-packed red I paused to check its price and just fell off my chair in surprise.  Enough said. You must try it.

Ninin De Antonino Izquierdo 2009Ribera del Duero Spain ($23.95)
John Szabo – Coming into its own now, I like the florality reminiscent of reds from further north in Spain like Bierzo, and the fine, pleasant bitterness. Best 2014-2019.

López De Haro 2008 CrianzaRioja Spain ($15.95)
John Szabo – It’s hard to ask for more for a $16 wine, especially if you’re a fan of old school Rioja. The resemblance to great traditionalist Lopez de Heredia Bodega doesn’t stop at the name and label design. This is an authentic regional wine. Best 2014-2020.

Carvalhais Duque De Viseu Red Ninin De Antonino Izquierdo 2009 López De Haro Crianza 2008 Apollonio Copertino Rosso 2007 Abad Dom Bueno Mencía 2008 Domaine De L'olivette Excellence Chusclan Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2012

Apollonio 2007 Copertino Rosso, Puglia, Italy ($18.95)
David Lawrason – This mature, rustic Italian country red will work better with a winter stew (the website actually recommends horse meat as a potential food much), but grab some now. It’s a blend of negroamaro 70% and montepulciano 30% that is absolutely stuffed with mouth-filling flavour and it has surprising harmony.

Abad Dom Bueno 2008 Mencía, Bierzo, Spain ($16.10)
David Lawrason – Here is yet another mencia-based red that performs well above its price with the power, structure and depth found in $40 reds from more famous regions of Spain and indeed the rest of Europe. The more I taste Bierzo the more I am convinced the mencia grape belongs in the gallery of the worlds best red wine grapes – up there with cabernet,syrah and company.

Domaine De l’Olivette 2012 Excellence Chusclan Côtes Du Rhône Villages, Rhône, France ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Chusclan is a tiny village appellation of only 250 hectares located on the banks of the Cèze river, a minor tributary of the Rhône and close to the town of Orange. This is a hot a sunny appellation, heavy in grenache, commonly known for its juicy, easy drinking reds and Tavel-style roses. This example from l’Olivette was a delight to discover with delicious botanical notes and distinctive garrigue.

****

That’s a wrap for this edition. Watch next week for our first Preview of the August 30 release, and don’t forget to check out Steve Thurlow’s round-up of the best new LCBO General List arrivals. Our national WineAlign team is convening in Toronto to judge the World Wine Awards of Canada. Busy times indeed.

Until next time!

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES August 16th release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews
August 16th Part One – Southern France

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


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 16th – Part One

Southern France
By John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Southern France in general, and the sprawling crescent-shaped region of the Languedoc-Roussillon in particular, is one of the smartest places to go shopping for character-filled wines at inordinately low prices. That’s the focus of this week’s report, and of the VINTAGES August 16th release. Read on for some terrific values in the robust red category and more.

Southern France: Hot Spot for Value

Southern France, or the Midi as it’s popularly known (because the scorching sun always seems to be right above your head, as at noon), continues on the trajectory towards quality wine started back in the 1990s. The bureaucracy-fraught process of identifying unique terroirs (and getting everybody to agree on where to draw the lines) continues in French wine officialdom, even if the most experienced growers in this millennial wine region have known the sources of the top wines since time immemorial.

The latest area to be granted official AOP status (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) is the Terrasses du Larzac, while La Clape awaits its promotion likely later this year, joining now fifteen table wine appellations and four fortified muscat AOPs in the Languedoc. The Roussillon is home to another three table wine and six fortified wine AOPs. In all, this massive region is incredibly varied at best, and hopelessly bewildering at worst, with terroirs as diverse as the sandy seaside AOPs like Picpoul de Pinet, to the more elevated, inland AOPs where altitude (as in the sparkling wine enclave of Limoux), and myriad soils like schist in St. Chinian, limestone in Minervois-La Livinières or sandstones in the Grès de Montpellier play an important role in wine style. Considering that together the Languedoc and Roussillon contribute nearly 30% of France’s annual wine production, there’s a lot to discover.

Sara d’Amato, who has just returned from her 27th trip to southern France, has this to say:

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

“I feel like I know it less than ever before; the region is an incredibly complex tapestry that is still being sewn. It’s both steeped in tradition and yet has some of the most progressive producers, and with every visit there are new appellations to discover (one of interest in the August 16th release is Malepère).”

But what’s also important to know is that this corner of France, perhaps because of its sheer size, its complexity and the historic reputation for inferior bulk wine that still seems to dog the region, is an excellent source for value. The Languedoc-Roussillon still has yet to really establish itself as a source of high quality in the way that many other parts of France have, and thus prices run up against the relatively low ceilings of commercial reality. Yet it’s not for lack of effort or even quality in the glass.

The climate, “one of the sunniest and driest on earth”, a bronzed Sara reminds me, lends itself to quasi de facto organic viticulture. Many of the top estates have been farming this way for generations. Large tracks of old vines are the rule rather than the exception, and the myriad of grape varieties and terroirs offer an enticing palette of styles. And most importantly, a large and growing number of vignerons, including of course locals, but also foreigners (especially English) who’ve fallen in love with the region and its climate and have been inspired to make small batches of quality wine, as well as celebrated winegrowers from other parts of France who’ve recognized the confluence of potential quality and relatively low production costs, are taking advantage of the circumstances to make excellent inexpensive wine.

For the southern France-themed VINTAGES release on August 16th, many of the same, larger producers appear again (thanks in part to their active and competent importing agents), and thus as usual many of the smaller boutique producers get pushed out. But there’s nonetheless a decent collection of wines with which to begin, or renew, your discovery. The following are recommended by one of more WineAlign critics.

Buyer’s Guide for VINTAGES August 16th: Southern France

Hecht & Bannier Minervois 2011Château De Lastours Grande Réserve Corbières 2008Guillaume Aurèle 2013 ViognierGuillaume Aurèle 2013 Viognier, Pays d’Oc, France ($13.95).
John Szabo – Here’s a delicious little value, full of typical varietal character like candied violets and succulent peach-nectarine orchard fruit. The palate remains remarkably fresh and balanced, with tingling acids and integrated alcohol. A smart buy for summer sipping outdoors, when aromatic amplitude is needed to combat gentle breezes.
David Lawrason – Viognier is always an adventure, its strong personality enchanting some, but turning others off. This one may be extra challenging – it’s savoury, powerful and dry – but I can’t believe the gumption and depth it delivers at $14. For devotees or adventurers only.

Château De Lastours 2008 Grande Réserve Corbières, France ($22.95)
John Szabo – This is an evidently ripe, modern style, but the masses of fruit should be more than enough to see it through to full integration. Although a distant analogy, it should appeal to fans of classy Napa cabernet, especially at the price. Despite six years of age, I’d still tuck this away until 2016, and then pull it out blind for your friends and wait for the superlatives to fly. Best 2016-2020.
Sara d’Amato: Corbières is the largest appellation in Languedoc-Roussillon and one of the largest in all of France. Previously known for producing inexpensive but cheerful reds, it now boasts many an interesting gem. Reds dominate, produced from 50% carignan – a variety that does best in warm, dry climates and produces wines of significant tannin, colour and ever-important acidity. Balanced and elegant but rich and full bodied, this example is immensely compelling and memorable – not to be missed!

Hecht & Bannier 2011 Minervois Ac France ($20.95)
John Szabo – The reliable negociant house of Hecht & Bannier established in 2002 rarely disappoints – this dynamic pair specializes in red wines, visiting hundreds of producers each year to select the most representative wines of each appellation, often from higher elevation sites and very old vines. 600l demi-muids preserve fruit as well as the savoury Mediterranean flavours that make these wines so interesting.
Sara d’Amato – Minervois vineyards benefit from relatively high altitude – up to 350m, near Carcassonne on the foothills of the Montaigne Noire that protects the vines from northern winds. The wines can be a little more racy and nervy than typical Languedoc-Roussillon wines and often boast delicious minerality, like this outstanding example.
David Lawrason - Minervois has always struck me as a more rugged, less refined and rustic wine. Even in the hands of these modernist winemakers, the sense is unchanged.   This is solid yet approachable, and it rings true.

Château De Treviac 2011Hecht & Bannier St Chinian 2011Gérard Bertrand Grand Terroir Pic Saint Loup 2011Château De Treviac 2011 Corbières Ap, France ($17.95)
John Szabo – A deep, dark, resinous herb (bay leaf, oregano, lavender) and spicy fruit-flavoured Corbières, with no small measure of the attractive savage qualities typical of this corner of southern France, which occasionally finds a new world counterpart in Chile.
Sara d’Amato – Another great value Corbières and this time with unusually complex flavours and surprising length. Although we’ve seen this very vintage grace the LCBO shelves in the past, it remains impressive with a solid framework of tannins and a real depth of flavour.

Hecht & Bannier 2011 St-Chinian AC, France ($25.95)
John Szabo - Of the two excellent Hecht & Bannier wines in the release, the St. Chinian is the more characterful, minerally wine, almost painfully so. It’s by no means easy drinking; attentive tasting is required to fully appreciate, but I love the regionally distinctive scorched earth, schistous stoniness and firm, dusty tannins. Best after 2015 – let it unwind a bit.
David Lawrason – H&B is a relatively new, dynamic negociant that purchases grapes, juice and wine across the south of France – paying the highest prices, they claim. And they turn out intense, bright and savoury reds. I love their objective for St. Chinian: “We first focus on finding the areas where the Syrah presents a floral and licorice bouquet”. They’ve nailed it here.

Gérard Bertrand 2011 Grand Terroir Pic Saint Loup, Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($19.95)
John Szabo – One of my favourite terroirs in the Languedoc, the Pic St. Loup itself is a massive limestone ridge about 20kms from the sea that marks the transition from coastal plains to the inland hilly zone. The savoury character of this example is a direct reflection of the wildly fragrant vegetative scrub (garrigue) that covers the region. This is lovely stuff for the money, with additional capacity to improve over the next 2-3 years. Best 2014-2021.

Château De Gourgazaud Cuvée Mathilde Minervois 2011Gérard Bertrand Saint Chinian 2009Château De Cointes Marie Anne Malepère 2011Château De Cointes Marie-Anne 2011 Malepère Ac, France ($19.95)
John Szabo – Malepère marks the divide between Atlantic and Mediterranean-influenced zones, also reflected in the permitted varietal mix. This blend of 1/3 each of merlot, cabernet franc and grenache, works beautifully; I love the freshness and florality from the Bordeaux components, along with the luscious, generous and ripe side from grenache, resulting in a complete and highly appealing ensemble. Best 2014-2019.

Gérard Bertrand 2009 Saint-Chinian Syrah Mourvèdre, Languedoc-Roussillon, France ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Gerard Bertrand produces some authentic feeling wines and this aged example is no exception. Saint-Chinian is known for wines that are tannic and quite muscular but have a lovely freshness and fruit spice about them. They are planted solely on slopes that face the sea, which allows them to benefit from moderating temperatures and breezes.

Château De Gourgazaud 2011 Cuvée Mathilde Minervois, France ($14.95)
David Lawrason – Gourgazaud deserves an endurance medal for holding up the Minervois category – indeed all of the Languedoc – at the LCBO for years on end. The limestone-soil based estate uses only syrah and mourvèdre, providing a lifted, linear, spicy ambiance that I have always loved. Mathilde infuses more fruit presence and richness. This is delicious and ridiculously cheap.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES Aug 16th:

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

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


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 2nd – Part Two

The Mid-Summer Acid Test – Riesling, Sauvignon and Chenin
by David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo MS

David New 2014

David Lawrason

A small selection of whites from France’s Loire Valley and Alsace regions have been grouped as a mini-feature in VINTAGES Aug 2 release. (John covered off the main California feature last week). I thought I would elaborate on the essential concept of these whites from northern France – pure acidity set against pure fruit. No oak to soften or spice. No alcohol (hopefully) to numb the freshness. No blending or oxidation to mask personality. Whites that draw a line through a tepid evening like an ice-cube down the spine.

Three important high acid grape varieties do that better than any other – riesling, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc – and they grow far and wide beyond France as well. To experience them at their best, open a bottle before dinner is served so you can focus entirely on what’s in the glass. Yes they should be chilled, but when quality is in place they may actually suffer from over-chilling. Whet your appetite with these values, then read on to other whites and reds that John and I have flagged as great buys as well. We have aligned on four wines, most notable perhaps a killer syrah from Chile.

Pierre Sparr Granit Riesling 2010Hidden Bench 2013 Estate RieslingHidden Bench Estate Riesling 2013, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($23.95).
John Szabo - One of the province’s top riesling producers, Hidden Bench regularly delivers quality far above the average, underscoring that there’s simply no substitute for meticulous farming. Even though this is the “mere” estate blend, it could easily sit among the top single vineyard bottlings in the region, at a nice price.
David Lawrason – A cooler vintage like 2013 is ideal for Niagara’s acid driven whites. This is a very fine, firm, subtle and dry riesling. It needs a year or two to open, but it is solid and well-structured with minerality and excellent length.

Pierre Sparr 2010 Granit Riesling, Alsace, France ($16.95). Riesling’s acid core makes it perhaps the best of the hot weather whites. And when acid combines with minerality, and a highly structured vintage like 2010 in Europe the effect is doubled (and so is the value quotient). This has core minerality and firmness that is front and centre, just slightly coarse and tart but nervy and solid. DL

Fournier Père & Fils 2012 Les Deux Cailloux Pouilly-Fumé ($26.95).
David Lawrason – This is a solid, not at all heavy, sauvignon from a lighter vintage that showcases freshness. Almost tingling acidity and a hint of C02 on the palate with dry, bitter grapefruit and stony finish.
John Szabo – A stony, very natural-smelling Pouilly Fumé, with excellent density and concentration. Best 2014-2020.

Jean-Max Roger 2012 Cuvée C.M. Sancerre Blanc ($27.95).
John Szabo - The “C.M” comes from “Caillottes” and “Kimmeridgian Marls”, two of the three prevalent terroirs in the Sancerre AOC. According to Roger, the “caillottes” give the wine its floral and fruity notes, along with its lightness and freshness, while the “terres blanches” (Kimmeridgian marls) provide structure, richness and power. This is a fine synthesis of the two.
David Lawrason – a particularly delicate classic indeed from a staunch producer of quality sauvignon.

Fournier Père & Fils Les Deux Cailloux Pouilly Fumé 2012Jean Max Roger Cuvée C.M. Sancerre Blanc 2012Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2013Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2013Domaine Du Vieux Vauvert Vouvray 2012

Greywacke 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($24.95). Just back from Marlborough, I can attest that not all kiwi ‘savvies’ are brash and vegetal. The best, like this fine example, are nicely composed, compact and firm, positioning green herbs (celery leaf), passion fruit, grapefruit and pepper. Fine sense of levity and quench here from Kevin Judd, whose been doing Marlborough sauvignon for as long as anybody. DL

Ventisquero 2013 Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($13.95). This is particularly good value. Chilean sauvignon can be heavy and blunt, but this nicely balanced effort from cooler Casablanca blends guava topicality fresh green herbs and pepper. While in NZ I read an article in a local wine industry mag alerting New Zealanders to the rise of Chilean sauvignon. Here’s why. DL

Domaine Du Vieux Vauvert 2012 Vouvray ($15.95). So often I find the chenin blancs of Vouvray bothered by some earthy/fungal character and sulphur. This textbook, great value is squeaky clean with classic quince/pear fruit, light florality and beeswax. Gentle, poised and delicious. There is a hint of sweetness but it does not dull the effect. DL

Other Whites

Domaine Du Chardonnay Chablis 2012Loan Wines 2005 Special Reserve Semillon UnoakedLoan Wines Special Reserve Semillon 2005, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($16.95). The previous vintage of this wine was also a spectacular value, and one wonders how you can get so much flavour in a wine for $17. Admittedly the flavour profile won’t appeal to all (don’t buy it for the wedding party), but this is well worth a look for fans of original, regional specialties. JS

Domaine Du Chardonnay 2012 Chablis ($21.95). A textbook regional Chablis, and a perfect oyster wine, the kind I’d like to be sipping every Sunday afternoon. JS

Reds

Matetic 2011 Corralillo Syrah, San Antonio Valley, Chile ($23.95).
David Lawrason - Here is a big, juicy, ultra fresh syrah from a biodynamic producer lodged in the coastal ranges of Chile. There is an obvious juiciness here, but it is also solid and circumspect. Huge blackcurrant fruit is etched with fresh forest greens, pepper, meatiness, dark chocolate graphite. One can argue successfully it is not like syrah from France, or anywhere else for that matter. But does it have to be? This is Chilean to its stirrups.
John Szabo - Cool, coastal Chile is a hot spot for sauvignon blanc, and increasingly, syrah. And make no mistake: this is not shiraz, but much more old world in style. Matetic is certified organic and biodynamic (Demeter), and their vineyards are in the Rosario Valley (a subdivision of the San Antonio Valley), an enclosed valley that runs perpendicular to the Pacific. I love the savoury herbal-bay leaf flavours, reminiscent of native Chilean trees like Quillay, Maitén, Boldo and Peumo that grow in the area. Cellar this for another 2-3 years for maximum enjoyment.

Ascheri 2011 Fontanelle Barbera D’alba Podere Di Rivalta ($17.95). Ascheri nicely buffs the tart edges of barbera, without sacrificing the grape’s natural vibrancy or fruit. The secret seems to be finer tannin management. This has a lifted nose of redcurrant/cherry (pinot fans will like it), a touch of leathery/meatiness and gentle vanillin. Could work lightly chilled on a summer eve with a cold pasta salad. DL

Boutari 2009 Naoussa, Greece ($13.95). As always, an attractively priced, savoury old world red from Boutari, their ‘regular’ bottling of Naoussa (made from xinomavro). To put this into context, think of traditional style sangiovese from Chianti and you’re in the right style zone. JS

Matetic Corralillo Syrah 2011 Ascheri Fontanelle Barbera D'alba 2011 Boutari Naoussa 2009 Santa Alicia Gran Reserva De Los Andes Carmenère 2011c

Santa Alicia 2011 Gran Reserva De Los Andes Carmenère, Maipo Valley, Chile ($15.95). I am studying carmenère closely these days because they continue – through complexity and depth – to offer good value. Then, if they are well balanced too, they can be huge value. The world has not yet caught on to this so many remain underpriced – as is the case with solid, savoury example. DL

Domaine La Fourmone 2011 Le Fauquet Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France ($28.95). There is a certain amiable freshness and vibrancy here but set within the Rhône’s comfy framework. Not at all heavy or thick – a fine drink-anytime red with class and some elegance. Gigondas offers more finesse than any of the other fine villages strung out along the base of the saw-toothed Dentelles in the southern Rhône. DL

****

And speaking of the southern Rhône, Sara d’Amato and family have been camped out there for July, so expect some thoughts from her when she returns. Other upcoming works include an article by Julian Hitner on the value to be found in classic, dry European rieslings.  And John Sazabo returns next week with the first preview of the Aug 19 release. May your Civic Holiday weekend be wonderfully civil.

Until next time!

From VINTAGES August 2nd release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
All Reviews
August 2nd Part One – Pure California

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


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 2nd – Part One

Pure California: 100+ Reviews of the Best of “New” California; The Icons of Napa Cabernet, and Sandhi, A Name to Know.
by John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The theme of the report this week is pure California, the focus of the VINTAGES August 2nd release, and David Lawrason and I list our top picks (with significant alignment). Next week David will lead coverage of Alsace, the Loire Valley, Greece, and the best of the rest along with my picks (Sara d’Amato is in the south of France conducting serious research). I’ve also included a couple of outstanding Santa Barbara chardonnays tasted at the i4c last week, and I’ve finally managed to publish close to 100 reviews from landmark California tastings held last October in San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma. Find the best pinot, chardonnay, Rhône blends and so much more on WineAlign; fans of California wine, and I know there are many of you, will want to track these down. But wait, there’s more – check out this report on the very best of the best Napa Cabernets. Read on for all the gold.

A California Wine Summit

Before we get into the top picks from the VINTAGES August 2nd release, those deeply into California wines may want to consider searching further afield. I’ve published nearly 100 of my top picks (mostly current releases) from an extraordinary set of tastings held last October in California. The “California Wine Summit” was organized and hosted by the Wine Institute of California for a select group of international journalists (WineAlign’s Anthony Gismondi also attended), with the aim of sharing the radical changes and developments that have occurred within the California wine industry over the last decade or so.

These extraordinary tastings were compiled and led by some of California’s most respected critics, authors and winemakers, including Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and his top chardonnays, Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, and her favorite Pinot Noirs, Patrick J. Comiskey, critic for Wine & Spirits magazine and terrific California blends, and a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of iconic Napa Valley cabernets led by master sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp. And those were just some of the formal tastings.

The New California Wine

Jon Bonné and his top Chardonnays, with Gerard Basset MS, MW, OBE

Jon Bonné and his top Chardonnays, with Gerard Basset MS, MW, OBE

Perhaps Jon Bonné has best captured the zeitgeist in his recently published book The New California Wine, which is “the untold story of the California wine industry: the young, innovative producers who are rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking; their quest to express the uniqueness of California terroir; and the continuing battle to move the state away from the overly technocratic, reactionary practices of its recent past.” Fans of California wine are well advised to grab a copy of this book – it’s an accurate synopsis of what’s going down in the Golden State.

No stones were left unturned during the summit as we tasted through every notable grape variety and wine style that the state has to offer over the course of a week, with detailed information, expert comparative analysis and historical perspective provided along the way by the folks who know it best. Only one tasting failed to shine: “California does value”, the one area where even the best of the new California often falls short. Value is of course relative, though with few exceptions, compelling sub-$20 (CAD) wines are few are far between in my view. The majority of entry-priced brands, at least those we find on shelves in Canada, prey on the human weakness for sugar. But once again, sales figures are in diametric opposition with me, so what do I know.

Dollars aside, the new California (as well as the California that’s so old it’s new again, and the California that never followed fashions of any kind) has an extraordinary offering of wines on shelves now. If you’ve turned away from California for whatever reason, I’d suggest you give Ontario’s most important foreign wine supplier another look.

Set your WineAlign search parameters to “California” and pick your favourite grape/style to see what’s on top. Be sure to check “show wines with zero inventory” for the full list, as some wines have yet to reach our shelves.

The Best of the Best of Napa Cabernet

I’ve also posted a blow-by-blow report of a tasting of iconic Napa cabernets, including all of the rarities – it was the sort of tasting one hardly ever reads about, let alone participates in. The notes were edited only for spelling, making it a more intimate and unadulterated view of the moment, including some impressions that surprised even me.

Buyer’s Guide for Vintages August 2nd 2014: California

White

Hahn S L H Estate Chardonnay 2012Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2012Alignment: Robert Mondavi 2012 Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley ($23.95)
John Szabo – One of the most reliable and consistent Fumé Blancs, not to mention the original, from California, Mondavi (and winemaker Geneviève Janssens) still leads the way and delivers wide pleasure at the right price. I like the balanced between tropical and orchard-citrus fruit, in an approachable, round and soft style. Best 2014-2018.
David Lawrason – In California’s Mediterranean climate it is difficult to make snappy, acid-driven sauvignon blanc. Robert Mondavi engineered a great alternative years ago by adding semillon and barrel ageing, and calling it Fume Blanc. It has been one of my favourite California whites ever since – uniquely spicy with intriguing green olive an evergreen notes.

Hahn 2012 S-L-H Estate Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County ($32.95). David Lawrason – Hahn has emerged as dominant player in Monterey with huge vineyards and polished fruit driven style of wines. This is unabashedly big, generous and fruit driven – as so many chards are in California – yet it retains a sense of composure

Red

AlignmentNapa Angel 2008 Aurelio’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($62.95)
John Szabo - Chilean vintner Aurelio Montes’ Napa project is a particularly dense and full cabernet sauvignon, with tightly knit dark fruit and chocolate flavours, unsurprisingly, similar in style to his top wines from Chile. This is mature and drinking well now. Best 2014-2022.
David Lawrason – If you detect a certain Chilean bloom and piquancy in this delicious, sensuous Napa cab it is due to the fact that it is made by Chilean Aurelio Montes (who makes some of grandest reds of Chile’s Colchagua Valley, including Purple Angel).  This is excellent, collectible an drinkable cabernet – complete, profound and deep.

Grgich Hills 2010 Estate Grown Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($48.95). John Szabo – Biodynamic estate Grgich Hills rarely disappoints with any of their wines, which remain, relatively speaking, fairly priced within the Napa Valley context. This is an unusually aristocratic version of zinfandel, with fruit so very lively and vibrant – a difficult thing to achieve with zin in the Napa Valley. Best 2014-2020.

Beringer 2007 Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Bancroft Ranch Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($79.95). John Szabo – The Bancroft Ranch wines are often among my favorites from the vast Beringer portfolio, which for me has more distinctive character than the (more expensive) Private Reserve, of which this cabernet is often a notable component. This 2007 has evolved nicely into a dusty-grippy, savoury and dark fruit flavoured wine with a nice streak of scorched earth and minerality from the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Best 2014-2020.

Seghesio 2012 Zinfandel Sonoma County, California ($29.95). David Lawrason – I am not at all happy about the sweetening and mocha-fication of California’s commercially priced zins. To rise above the soup you need to raise your price ceiling and focus on classic producers like Seghesio – a family with zin its veins for generations.

Montes Napa Angel Aurelio's Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Grgich Hills Estate Grown Zinfandel 2010 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Seghesio Zinfandel 2012

Sandhi: The California Wines You Want to Get to Know

It wasn’t my first exposure to the wines of Sandhi in Santa Barbara County – one, the Sandford and Benedict Vineyard bottling, had been selected by Jon Bonné for his tasting of top Chardonnays during the California Wine Summit. But it was a pleasure to sit and taste a few more wines with co-owner Rajat Parr during the i4c weekend in Niagara. Sandhi, which mean “collaboration” in Sanskrit, is a joint venture established in 2010 between Parr, then, and still, wine director of the Michael Mina restaurant group, partner in San Francisco’s landmark RN74 and one of the US’s most recognizable wine figures, Charles Bank, the former owner of Jonata and Screaming Eagle, and winemaker Sashi Mormann. The winery is focused on small lots of chardonnay and pinot noir from select vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County, particularly the cooler stretches of the AVA a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

I was delighted but not surprised to find that Parr, an outspoken advocate for balanced, moderate alcohol wines in his buying role for Mina, has upheld his position for his own production. The Sandhi wines are all about finesse and freshness, structure and balance, well articulated without attempting to replicate European wines- the fruit is still Californian, as it should be. Sandhi wines are available through the Trialto Wine Group across Canada, as are Parr’s other joint ventures, Domaine de La Côte, also in Santa Barbara (check out the excellent syrah), and Maison l’Orée in Burgundy.

Two to Try:

Sandhi 2012 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, California ($48.00). A vibrant, moderate alcohol, terroir-driven chardonnay. Flavours are in the ripe orchard and even lightly tropical spectrum, though this is all about the zesty acids and firm structure, including a pleasantly chalky, tacky mineral texture.

Sandhi 2011 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County, California ($78.00). A wine of serious depth and complexity off the charts; the balance is pitch-perfect, on the upper end of the intensity scale, with terrific length. Really top-notch stuff for current enjoyment or mid-term hold. Tasted July 2014.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES Aug 2nd:

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All Reviews

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


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A Cult Napa Tasting – Not Your Everyday Affair

Best of California Cabernet
by John Szabo MS

John Tasting

John Szabo, MS

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

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

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

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet..

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet…

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

Napa Cabernet: The Best of the Best

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

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

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

Dunn 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($90.00)

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

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

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

Quintessa 2010 Napa Valley Rutherford ($145.00)

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

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

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

Ridge 2009 Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains ($160.00)

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

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

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

Scarecrow 2007 Rutherford ($500.00)

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

Harlan Estates 2009 Oakville ($770.00)

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

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

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

Continuum 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Pritchard Hill ($175.00)

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

Bond 2009 Pluribus, Spring Mountain ($250.00)

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

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

Silver Oak 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($110.00)

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES July 19th – Part One

A Complete Starter’s Kit for the i4c and Very Cool Chardonnay
by John Szabo MS with notes from Sara d’Amato and David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report features chardonnay in the key of cool, the thematic of the VINTAGES July 19th release, as well raison d’être of the upcoming International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. The i4c, as it’s better known, is just that: a celebration of chardonnay grown in cool places around the world. The WineAlign team has put together a robust preview of some of the top wines that will be poured over the course of the weekend, which runs from July 18-20th in venues across Niagara. And even if you’re not going, these chardonnays are worth knowing. Next week, we’ll cover the top picks for the obligatory backyard BBQ.

The idea for the i4c was dreamt up on a summer’s night in 2009 by a group of local winemakers lounging around a backyard fire. These winemakers believed that chardonnay, one of the most widely planted grapes in Ontario, “is deserving of a renaissance. It’s resilient and refined. It can be steely or floral, complex or focused. It expresses terroir better than any other grape we grow.” And the Niagara-based celebration of cool climate chardonnay was born.

The forward-thinking group also realized that Ontario chardonnay needed to be put into an international context, and so it was mandated that at least half of the participating wineries in the yearly celebration would be from outside of the province to ensure a truly global view of the myriad nuances of chardonnay grown in cool climates. The celebration’s clever motto – 400,000 acres can’t be wrong – tells the story of chardonnay’s dominance of the fine wine world, with Ontario seeking to establish its own niche within.

School of cool

The School of Cool at i4c

It was also determined that a respected international keynote speaker with an important outsider’s perspective would be invited each year – a show of confidence by the local industry. The inaugural celebration in 2011 welcomed Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator, Stephen Brook (Decanter) joined in 2012 and Steven Spurrier (Decanter) in 2013. Tim Atkin MW, a multi award-winning London-based wine writer and broadcaster will deliver this year’s keynote address and share his perspective on how Ontarian vintners are performing while the world is watching.

Although there is a full day of technical talk aimed at the trade on Friday the 18th at Brock University, the rest of the weekend’s events are designed for general enjoyment. Stephen Brook had this to say about the 2012 edition: “We gathered to celebrate some great cool climate wines and to explore what makes them distinctive, but we also enjoyed those wines with top international winemakers alongside great food in a delightfully informal atmosphere. The perfect blend of sophisticated appreciation and unsophisticated fun”.

Principals from fifty-eight wineries and around 2000 guests are anticipated over the course of the weekend, and I’d hope to see you among them. I’ll be moderating the technical sessions on Friday, so if you’re particularly keen, stop by with your most detailed questions. Panels of experts have been convened to discuss topics like “Yield in Context: a discussion regarding the importance of yield in producing high quality wines, in relationship to other factors (terroir, weather, mesoclimate, vine age”. It’s the sort of stuff that has kept you up at night wondering. For all of the rest of the event details and tickets visit: www.coolchardonnay.org

Your i4c Starter Kit: Some Top Preview Picks

Unless you’re amazingly efficient and plan on staying in Niagara for the whole weekend, it’ll be tough to taste over a hundred wines. So here’s a short, if not comprehensive, list of what not to miss to get you started; even if you’re not attending the i4c, these are chardonnays worth tracking down. All recommendations will be either released through VINTAGES on July 19th, or are available directly from wineries.

International Selections

Domaine Dublère Savigny Lès Beaune Aux Vergelesses 1er Cru 2011Champy Pernand Vergelesses En Caradeux Premier Cru 2011Triple Alignment! No chardonnay celebration of any kind would be complete without wines from the spiritual and physical home of chardonnay, and Burgundy is indeed represented by several fine wines. At the top of the quality pile is the Maison Champy 2011 Pernand-Vergelesses En Caradeux 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($49.95).

John Szabo – Although En Caradeux may not be the most celebrated 1er cru in Pernand, Champy’s bottlings in recent vintages have been outstanding, and this one follows in the same vein. It also underscores the dramatic improvements that the larger negociant houses have been forced to make to keep up with the rising quality of small family-run domaines. The 2011 is an excellent success for the vintage, to be enjoyed after 2016 or held into the mid-twenties.
David Lawrason - Sitting at the foot of the Corton-Charlemagne vineyards this Pernand is one of the great underrated white wine sites of Burgundy. Combine that with much improved winemaking at the tiny negociant firm of Champy in Beaune and you get one exciting, cracking good chardonnay.
Sara D’Amato – En Caradeux is a tiny 1er Cru climat located within Pernand Vergelesses that produces both chardonnay and pinot noir, but is best known for its whites. There is great dimension and length to this wildly compelling wine with a touch of naughty volatility.

Triple Alignment!

John Szabo – The village of Savigny-les-Beaune is arguably the best of the lesser-known communes of the Côtes de Beaune, and one of my favourite hunting grounds for value, such as it exists in the Côte d’Or. The 2011 Domaine Dublère Savigny-Lès-Beaune Aux Vergelesses 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($58.95) is hardly inexpensive, but drinks like solid Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru with its restrained, firm, tightly wound, briskly mineral style.  It’s another exception to the rule of usually light and delicate 2011s, best after 2017.
David Lawrason – Savigny les Beaune and Pernand Vergelesses are adjoining AOCs, so I am assuming this hails from a site somewhere on the border. And it delivers similar quality and style to the Maison Champy Pernand, if in a slightly more sleek and tender style of Savigny.
Sara D’Amato – The Vergelesses vineyard is the closest of the Savigny-les-Beaune sites to Pernand-Vergelesses which nuzzles up to the Grand Cru sites of Corton. Expect terrific depth, poise and substance from this exceptional chardonnay that I rarely reward with such a score.  Both grand and reserved, this is an epic wine.

DECELLE-VILLA SAVIGNY-LES-BEAUNE BLANC 2012Domaine Nadine Ferrand Lise Marie Pouilly Fuissé 2011Also fine value from the same village is the Decelle-Villa 2012 Savigny-Les-Beaune Blanc, Burgundy, France ($40.95), a producer who has attended the i4c in the past. Olivier Decelle is the man behind the highly regarded fortified Roussillon wines of Mas Amiel, while Pierre-Jean Villa helped develop les Vins de Vienne, a sought-after boutique négociant in the northern Rhône. The pair has joined forces in Burgundy, where they share a cellar with Canadian Thomas Bachelder (also at i4c 2014), making wine from both purchased grapes and estate parcels all managed organically or biodynamically. Wood has been masterfully integrated into this minerally ensemble, while elegant white-fleshed fruit dominates the palate.

Domaine Nadine Ferrand Lise-Marie 2011 Pouilly-Fuissé, Burgundy, France ($27.95). Southern Burgundy is another regional hot spot where quality and value intersect. The limestone-rich soils of the hills surrounding the villages of Pouilly and Fuissé yield the region’s top crus (an official cru system is currently being proposed), and Nadine Ferrand farms 10 hectares in the heart of the appellation. In 2011 she produced a very floral Pouilly Fuissé with substantial intensity and depth. I appreciate the freshness and balance on offer, the ethereal nature without being insipid. This is simply well-balanced, genuinely concentrated, well made, regionally representative wine.

Miguel Torres Gran Viña Sol Chardonnay 2012Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay 2012The Russian River Valley of Sonoma is not a particularly cool region admittedly, but the Marimar Estate 2012 Acero Chardonnay Don Miguel Vineyard Russian River Valley, California, USA ($29.95) is an unoaked cuvée (acero means stainless steel in Spanish) from Marimar Torres, aimed at, and achieving, freshness balanced with typically ripe Russian River fruit. I like the equilibrium of fleshy fruit and firm acids; serve it chilled to tone down generous alcohol and up the freshness.

Double Alignment!

John Szabo – And keeping it in the family, Marimar’s father Don Miguel offers the keenly priced Miguel Torres 2012 Gran Viña Sol Chardonnay, Penedès, Spain ($15.95). Cool and Spain aren’t often in the same sentence, but a case can be made for the genuinely cooler highlands of the upper Penedès region north of Barcelona where this wine is grown. It’s simple but fresh and lively, with intensity that’s more than in line with the price category.
Sara D’Amato – The grapes of this well-priced chardonnay come from the middle and upper Penedès at higher elevations (up to 800 meters above sea level) which gives the wine a cooler climate feel of lively fruit and vibrant acids. Just a touch of oak is welcome and matches the intensity of this peppery wine well.

A Banker’s Dozen Very Cool Ontario Chardonnays (All will be at the i4c)

Hidden Bench 2011 Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($38.00) From Hidden Bench, owned by the former i4c chairman Harald Thiel, this a really very fine chardonnay. The Felseck vineyard on the Beamsville Bench has consistently yielded minerally, palpably chalky-textured wines over the past several vintages and the 2011 even brings that minerally edge up a notch or two. It’s tightly wound and stony the way we like it, and surely one of the top chardonnays of the vintage.

Hillebrand Showcase Series 2012 Wild Ferment Chardonnay Oliveira Vineyard, Lincoln Lakeshore ($36.20)The Oliveira Vineyard in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation is one of the few sites below the Niagara Bench that’s capable of producing genuinely mineral and composed examples of chardonnay, as Hillebrand (now Trius) has consistently shown over several vintages. The 2012 is given royal treatment in the cellar including a ‘wild ferment’ with native yeasts, and is rich and powerful to be sure, but also poised and highly stony, with impressive balance.

Tawse 2011 Quarry Road Chardonnay, VQA Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $34.95 The Quarry Road vineyard in the cool Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation is consistently my favorite chardonnay from the excellent Tawse range, and 2011 has yielded another first class edition. It stands out for its purity, precision and pristine fruit and limestone character.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2011Hillebrand Showcase Series Wild Ferment Chardonnay Oliveira Vineyard 2012Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2011Malivoire Mottiar Chardonnay 2011

Malivoire 2011 Mottiar Chardonnay, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($29.95) Malivoire winemaker Shiraz Mottiar spotted the site that he would eventually purchase while cycling along the Niagara Escarpment, divining that this abandoned pear orchard, directly under the limestone cliff of the Escarpment could potentially yield fine wine. He appears to have been right. It was planted in 2003, and has since proved itself to be an excellent source for mineral-suffused, true cool climate chardonnay. This 2011 version is neither rich nor lean, but offers a certain honey-slathered stone character that I find highly appealing.

Norman Hardie 2012 Unfiltered County Chardonnay, VQA Prince Edward County ($39.00) Norm Hardie has done as much as anyone to put Canadian chardonnay on the map, and his wines have become staples on top wine lists across the country. The 2012 ‘County’ offers immediate enjoyment without sacrificing the hallmark minerality and elegance of the house style. This also has a bit more weight and flesh than the mean and fills the mouth in satisfying fashion, though still clocks in at just 12.1% without a hint of green – the magic of Prince Edward County.

Lailey Vineyard 2012 Chardonnay Old Vines, VQA Niagara River, Niagara Peninsula ($40.20) This wine could certainly be included in a panel discussion on vine age vs. quality, making an eloquent that argument that older vines make better wine. From vines planted over 35 years ago, this is well-made, quality wine with integrity and honesty.

Norman Hardie County Chardonnay Unfiltered 2012Lailey Vineyard Chardonnay Old Vines 2012Cave Spring Csv Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2011Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2011

Cave Spring 2011 CSV Estate Bottled Chardonnay, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($29.95)A cool and composed, vintage for the Cave Spring CSV chardonnay, one of the most reliable in Ontario year after year. It’s more than fairly priced for the quality on offer.

Bachelder 2011 Niagara Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($29.95) Thomas Bachelder is an obvious chardonnay (and pinot) fanatic, making these two grapes in three countries (Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara). Just about anything under his label is worth a look, including his ‘entry level’ Niagara chardonnay blended from three blocks (Wismer, Saunders and Wismer-Foxcroft) He’ll also be pouring the excellent single vineyard Wismer chardonnay at the i4c as well.

Triple Alignment! Le Clos Jordanne 2011 Village Reserve Chardonnay VQA Niagara Peninsula ($30.00)

John Szabo – 2011 is shaping up to be a fine vintage for Le Clos’ whites, a combination of maturing vines, and winemaker Sébastien Jacquey getting more attuned to the vagaries of Niagara and the specifics of his vineyards. This is certainly no major step down from the other “crus”, so fair value to be sure.
David Lawrason - The Village reserve may be the basic “vineyard blend” in the Le Clos lineup, and perhaps lacking a bit of finesse of its more expensive stable mates, but this is solid, complex, thoughtful cool climate chardonnay.
Sara D’Amato – Liquid loveliness – this entry level chardonnay from Le Clos Jordanne benefits from a superb vintage that was, by all accounts, warm and dry but with a bit of a dicey start that may have caused some natural thinning and subsequent concentration in the resulting wines. Here is a wine with definition, with amplitude and on a path of graceful maturation – a fine example of cool climate character.

Le Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Chardonnay 2011Southbrook Vineyards WhimsyStratus Chardonnay 2012

And for those who like more sumptuous versions of chardonnay, there are two from the marginally warmer growing area south of Niagara on the Lake. The Southbrook Vineyards 2012 Whimsy! “Richness” Chardonnay, VQA Niagara On The Lake ($34.95) is a barrel selection of wines that fit winemaker Ann Sperling’s whimsy of the vintage. It’s from biodynamically-grown estate fruit, and is really is all about the palate: thick and dense, rich and full, as the name promises.

In a similar vein, the Stratus 2012 Chardonnay, Niagara On The Lake ($48.00) is a wine for fans of full-bodied chardonnay that coats the palate. The overall impression is highly reminiscent of California-style (more Sonoma than Napa) chardonnay, ambitiously oaked and very creamy, not surprising given the input of California consultant Paul Hobbs at Stratus.

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

From VINTAGES July 19th release:

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


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Greek Wine Report: Outstanding 2013 Whites And Going Native

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

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

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

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

Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine

Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine

Why Go Native

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

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

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

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

Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC

Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC

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

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

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

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

Time to go prospecting.

Santorini

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

Vineyards, Santorini

Traditional vineyards, Santorini

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

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

Paris Sigalas

Paris Sigalas, Santorini

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

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

Crete

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

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

Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete

Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete

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

Mantinia (Peloponnese)

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

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

Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia

Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia

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

Northern Greece

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

 

Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

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

And the Reds…

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

Boutari 2008 Grande Reserve Naoussa, Greece ($16.95)

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

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010, Unfiltered, Naoussa

Domaine Karydas Naoussa 2009, Dop Naoussa

Katogi Averoff 2008, Metsovo

 

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

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


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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008