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Highlights from Villa Maria Dinner with Josh Hammond

A sold out crowd of 80 guests joined us for last week’s tutored tasting and dinner event with Josh Hammond, Villa Maria’s Marlborough winemaker.

Hammond grew up in the Marlborough region, in a grape growing family who sold grapes to this most award winning winery and one of the largest in the country. With over one million cases produced at the Marlborough facility, four winemakers to manage, and an intense Canadian tour schedule, Hammond certainly has his hands full and we appreciate the time he took to enlighten us regarding this exciting cool-climate region.

Villa Maria Winemakers Dinner

We had the opportunity to taste the Private Bin series of Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer as well as the Vineyard Select Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Lastly, we were treated to the Single Vineyard Series Southern Clays Pinot Noir showing remarkably well with a rich unctuous texture and an exciting depth of flavour. Minimalist intervention and careful bunch selection are the hallmark of these wines.

Villa Maria Winemakers Dinner

A very sumptuous, thematic and keenly paired menu was offered by the team at Rosewater Supper Club which featured duck prosciutto and roasted rack of New Zealand lamb (ensuring that Hammond didn’t feel so far from home). Thank you to the teams at Philippe Dandurand Wines and Villa Maria for helping to make this event so successful. For information on availability in your area, simply type “Villa Maria” into the Google custom search on WineAlign. We look forward to seeing you at the next exclusive WineAlign tutored tasting.

About Rosewater

Minutes from Toronto’s Financial and Theatre districts, the Rosewater offers a fresh and unique dining experience. From the intimate setting of the upper mezzanine level, which overlooks the main dining room, to the self-contained supper club on the lower level, this building lends an air of romance and casual decadence when dining on a fusion of modern classics.

Villa Maria Winemakers Dinner

Our winemaker events have been consistently and quickly selling out.  If you are interested in attending one in the future we advise you to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

Photos courtesy of Dan Trcka, GrapeSelections.com


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Dinner and Tutored Tasting with Kim Crawford Winemaker – Anthony Walkenhorst

WineAlign is pleased to present an exclusive Dinner with Kim Crawford’s award-winning Senior Winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst 

[NOTE: Both nights for this event are now sold out]

Kim CrawfordKim Crawford is one of New Zealand’s most exciting and innovative wine producers. Kim Crawford Wines started out in a small Auckland cottage in New Zealand. Since its launch in 1996, the label has gained critical acclaim around the globe. The website reads: “We do things unconventionally, take risks, start things, and welcome different.”

Seasoned winemaker, Anthony Walkenhorst, joined Kim Crawford in 2005, working alongside the founder Kim Crawford. The first wine Anthony made won the Sauvignon Blanc Trophy at the New Zealand Wine Awards and the following year the Small Parcels Rise-and-Shine won a trophy for best Pinot Noir. He continues to carry the torch, crafting bold, unique and vibrant wines that ensure Kim Crawford’s exceptional style is present in every bottle.

Anthony Walkenhorst

Kim Crawford Winemaker – Anthony Walkenhorst

On Thursday night Anthony will be joined by our own David Lawrason.

Wines to be sampled at dinner:

- Kim Crawford Small Parcels Fizz, Marlborough Methode Traditionnelle

- Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2013

- Kim Crawford South Island Pinot Noir, 2012

- Kim Crawford East Coast Unoaked Chardonnay, 2012

- Kim Crawford Small Parcels Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2013

- Kim Crawford Small Parcels Pinot Noir, 2012

Event Details:

Date: Thursday, Oct 3rd, 2013 [SOLD OUT]

Date: Friday, Oct 4th, 2013 [SOLD OUT]

Location:  Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St W, Toronto)

Reception: 6:30pm

Five Course Dinner/Tutored Tasting: 7:00pm – 8:30pm

Price: $60 (includes all fees and taxes) 

Purchase Tickets here  [Sold Out]

About Kim Crawford

Kim Crawford

Kim Crawford Vineyards

Since launch in 1996, the Kim Crawford label has gained critical acclaim around the globe. Being big was never our aim. Being the best has been. Now, New Zealand producer, Kim Crawford is rejoicing in anticipation of the 2013 harvest and believes it will be a vintage to remember, the “Vintage of a Lifetime.” In addition to earning the distinction for being New Zealand’s driest growing season in about 70 years, the 2013 vintage has also benefited from the sunniest first three months of the year since 1930, rivaled in observed history only by the 1978 season. Consumers can expect flavorful, delicious white wines from the 2013 vintage.  

About Anthony Walkenhorst

Before joining Kim Crawford, Anthony received his First Class Honours Bachelor of Agricultural Science Degree from the highly esteemed University of Adelaide in Southern Australia. To further his wine education, Anthony then travelled the vintage trail to work harvests from Australia to the Napa valley but finally ended up in New Zealand.  Visit Anthony’s blog 

About Gladstone Hotel

Gladstone Hotel

Gladstone Hotel

Internationally recognized as Canada’s favourite Boutique Art Hotel, the Gladstone uniquely blends historical Victorian architecture with contemporary luxury, downtown culture and whole lot of art, making it an iconic Toronto hub for locals and international travelers alike.

Supporting 37 artist designed hotel rooms, over 70 art exhibitions a year, 4 diverse event venue spaces and 2 restaurants, all on a strong values-based mandate, the Gladstone strives to foster an authentic experience for its guests and the local community.

Note: Our winemaker events have been consistently and quickly selling out.  If you are interested in attending then we advise you to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 13 Release

The County is Back, Bargain Burgundy, California’s L’Aventure & Cade and Lifford’s New Zealand Offerings

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Popular brands from New Zealand and a handful of decent value Portuguese reds get the limelight on this release but as colleague John Szabo amply covered them last week, I veer off in other directions. Due to a whopping head cold on one of my tasting days I was not able to cover the entire release, but I did catch the Prince Edward County wines, some terrific In Store Discoveries and other sundry delights. I also had a chance to taste the growing portfolio of New Zealand pinots being offered for direct purchase by Lifford Wine & Spirits, so I offer links to some favourites reviewed here on WineAlign.

But first I want to dedicate this edition to two friends in wine who passed away last week. Barbara Ritchie was a colleague on the tasting/writing circuit for many years, a gentle, intelligent and diligent taster and writer who beyond all expectation long survived the death of her twin sister Ann in 1996. They were founding members of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada, and both will be remembered in a service at The Toronto Hunt on Sunday, April 21.

I also sadly salute the passing of David Churchill, a film critic and novelist who indulged his passion for wine by researching and writing for the LCBO’s VINTAGES magazines that we have all relied on for years. He was a creative, quick-witted, generous and gregarious lad who lived life with gusto, and he was an immeasurable help to me in accommodating my deadlines and writings about VINTAGES offerings. He is missed.

County Wines Re-Visited

Since moving back to Toronto from the Prince Edward County region in 2010, I have done my best to keep on top of new wines and wineries. This spring sees the opening of Hubbs Creek Vineyard on Danforth Road in Hillier where John Battista Calivieri and partners have been growing pinot noir and white grapes since 2001. The 2010 pinot is a very fine, very Burgundian addition to the County lexicon. And ThreeDog Vineyards has its official opening in June, as yet an “un-tasted” property growing pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris and hybrids in the north end of the County off Highway 49.

You can personally check out all the latest offerings at “County in the City” on Thursday, April 25 at the Berkeley Church in Toronto. The evolving line-up includes newer wineries like Lighthall, Exultet, Stanners and Devil’s Wishbone. Meanwhile, County standards like Norman Hardie, Rosehall Run and Huff Estate are also featured on this month’s release.

Rosehall Run Cuvée County Chardonnay 2010Huff Estates South Bay Vineyards Chardonnay 2009Norman Hardie County Unfiltered Pinot Noir 2011Rosehall Run 2010 Cuvée County Chardonnay ($21.95) is a benchmark County chardonnay from a winery that has focused on the County’s best grape from Day One. This is sourced from the winery’s own site on Greer Road as well as nearby Hillier region vineyards. It’s typically light and lively with nicely ripe fruit flavours thanks to the warmer 2010 vintage – if not quite as deep as its JCR Rosehall Vineyard portfolio mate.

Huff Estates 2009 South Bay Vineyards Chardonnay ($29.95) shows some real class and depth at the hands of winemaker Frederic Picard. It’s a maturing, quite buttery style from a lighter vintage. The South Bay Vineyard lies very near a bay of the same name near the County’s south shore – not at the winery itself which last year added a restaurant to its excellent inn, and the terrific Oeno Gallery.

Norman Hardie 2011 County Pinot Noir ($35.00) follows evenly in the footsteps of previous vintages even though 2011 was a “lighter” vintage. The only place this evident is in the very pale ruby colour. This will cause some to pause, but the aromatics are convincingly ripe, clean and complex. Pinot fans will be pleased, right through to the typical County minerality on the finish.

Fine, Affordable Burgundy & Beaujolais

If Prince Edward County pinot noir deserves comparison to any place in the world it is Burgundy. The County has not yet developed the vine age, nor perhaps does it have the sites, to be compared to top 1er Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy, but I have tasted some basic Bourgogne that are akin to County pinots.

Domaine Des Marrans Fleurie 2011Domaine Parent Pinot Noir Bourgogne 2011Domaine Parent 2011 Pinot Noir Bourgogne ($21.95) is a case in point, with a juicy tartness and cranberry scented fruit that is very reminiscent of some County pinots. And this wine rises well above its station at the bottom of the Burgundy pecking order. Anne and Catherine Parent hand harvest and sort the best fruit from flatter sites near their home base in Pommard and Volnay to create this wine. The 2011 vintage in Burgundy is being called very good, with a somewhat larger crop and lighter structure than the age-worthy 2010s or the very ripe 2009s.

Domaine Des Marrans 2011 Fleurie ($19.95) continues the string of delicious “Cru” Beaujolais from the south of Burgundy. They are based on gamay, not pinot noir. When I was in Burgundy last spring one sommelier sniffed that Beaujolais was a great “luncheon wine”. Indeed it is. But regular readers will know I have taken a shine to the “crus” ever since a new generation of elegant, floral and ripe wines began to appear with the 2009 vintage. I have been drinking them for dinner quite regularly, indeed just last week I BYO’d a bottle of 2010 Cote de Brouilly to an excellent French dinner at Celestin on Mt Pleasant (free corkage on Tuesday nights).

Huge Mosel Value

Dr. Hermann Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 2007I continue to be amazed by the nose-diving prices of fine German wines. It’s almost inconceivable that a maturing beauty like Dr. Hermann Ürziger Würzgarten 2007 Riesling Spätlese could be offered here for a mere $16.95. Everything about this wine is classic. The family has been in the Mosel wine business for centuries, although the current generations only created this winery in 1967. This riesling is harvested from impossibly steep vineyards on the home property above the village of Urzig, one of a handful of vineyards the family owns, totalling no more than 7.5 ha in the middle of Mosel. What a great opportunity to explore Mosel riesling’s charm and ageworthiness. Try it to celebrate the first truly lovely evening of spring – whenever that arrives.

California’s L’Aventure & Cade

About two years ago I was on a crash, seven-day group tour of several California wine regions. On day one in Paso Robles, admittedly bleary-eyed after the travel and a late first night, we visited L’Aventure, one of the most memorable tastings of any that would follow. But first we had to make it through a very long introduction by winemaker Stephen Asseo. Thank goodness his tale was interesting – a French winemaker bored by the strictures of AOC regulation at home and setting off in 1996 to find great terroir elsewhere in the world. He arrived in the Pacific cooled western hills of Paso Robles with their calcareous-based soils and shouted Eureka! He densely planted over 100 acres of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and mourvedre, and undertook a laborious, organic growing regimen that yields a paltry two tons per acre. He kept repeating that above all he wanted balanced wines, and when we crowded into his tasting room and he began to pour his inky reds I was still a doubter. By the end of the tasting I was hooked, and I am delighted to report that I remain a convert after a more leisurely and studied tasting of the pair being released now as In Store Discoveries.

Cade Napa Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2009L'Aventure Côte à Côte 2010L'Aventure Estate Cuvée 2010L’Aventure 2010 Estate Cuvée is a profound, complex, structured and nuanced blend of almost equal parts cabernet and syrah with some petit verdot. L’Aventure 2010 Côte-À-Côte is an equally massive if softer blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. Both hit well over 15% alcohol, with barely a warm buzz. Both are $95.  Both are worth a look by collectors of California wine. Both are better than Opus One, also being released April 13, at just over twice the price.

But if it must be Napa cabernet and Opus is too rich for your blood, do try Cade Napa Cuvée 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is equally as good but much less than half the price at $78.95. This is a new, organically farmed Howell Mountain winery complete with LEED certified environics (the walls are insulated with blue jean rags). It is owned by the Plumpjack group – most well-known to wine collectors for cultish Plumpjack Cabernet. But the partners, including Gavin Newson, a former mayor of San Francisco, and Gordon Getty, an L.A composer and Shakespearean, also own three wine shops and now have interest in three hotel properties. In any event, this a classic, sculpted Napa cabernet with some mountain minerality on the finish.

More Great White Bordeaux

Château Haut Bergey Blanc 2009I jumped the gun on the last newsletter extolling the virtues of white Bordeaux. Three more have turned up as In Store Discoveries this time. All are over $50, but fans of the genre won’t complain. I especially draw your attention to the magnificent Château Haut-Bergey 2009 Blanc from Pessac-Léognan at $57.85. This is one of the great whites of the year to date, with wonderful vitality and richness. The small, ancient property was purchased by Sylvaine Garcin-Cathiard, wife of a Bordeaux wine merchant, in 1991. The white wine vineyard is a paltry 2ha of gravelly soil planted to 82% sauvignon blanc and 12% semillon. The wine was barrel fermented and aged 12 months in new French oak but you barely recognize the oak effect amid the exotic fruit and richness.

Lifford’s New Zealand Offerings

As mentioned, four important New Zealand wineries are featured with multiple listings on this release – Oyster Bay, Coopers Creek, Cloudy Bay and Dog Point (don’t miss Dog Point). Multiple listings seems to be a new strategy by VINTAGES, and the fact that three of the four are top-selling brands, suggests some deal-making at play. Which is all fine until you consider the hundreds of other worthy NZ wineries that would have loved to have been a part of this feature.

While VINTAGES does its thing, wine importers are busy doing theirs, and Lifford Wine & Spirits in particular has taken a shine to NZ wine and is busy building a market. Owner Steven Campbell recently took some of his staff, plus key sommeliers from across Canada, to the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 conference in Wellington. “I have been to every conference from day one” he says, “always looking for great new producers”. He was not alone this year as representatives from Ontario’s B & W Wines and Connexion Oenophelia were also on scouting missions.

Lifford's New Zealand Portfolio Tasting

Lifford’s New Zealand Portfolio Tasting

Lifford presented its beefed up NZ portfolio to buyers in Toronto earlier this month – with a fine range of wines by Ata Rangi of Martinborugh, Carrick and Felton Road of Central Otago, Craggy Range of Hawkes Bay, Staete Landt of Marlborough, and two new houses: Mountford of Waipara Valley and Neudorf of Nelson. Over 30 wines were poured. I focused on the many pinot noirs in the line-up, partially in preparation of a planned article on NZ pinot noir that will pinpoint over 20 sub-regions where this grape is showing its diversity.

Meantime, here are links to some of my favorites. Some of the wines are currently on consignment, others available by private order through Lifford until April 19.

Ata Rangi 2011 Pinot Noir, Martinborough $79.95
Ata Rangi 2011 Crimson Pinot Noir, Martinborough $36.95
Carrick 2010 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago $44.95
Craggy Range 2011 Pinot Noir Te Muna Road, Martinborough $49.95
Craggy Range 2010 Calvert  Pinot Noir Calvert, Central Otago, $67.95
Felton Road 2011 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago $71.50
Felton Road 2011 Calvert Pinot Noir, Central Otago $84.95
Mountford 2009 Village Pinot Noir,  Waipara Valley $46.95
Mountford 2009 Pinot Noir Estate, Waipara Valley $89.95
Neudorf 2011 Moutere Pinot Noir, Nelson $69.95
Staete Landt 2009 Paladin Pinot Noir, Marlborough $39.95

And that’s a wrap for this edition. In the days ahead I hope to see you at Malbec World Day on April 16 (which includes many other Argentina varieties) and at County in the City on April 25 (where the winemakers bring Prince Edward County to you).

Cheers.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 13, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


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County in the City


Malbec World Day

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 13, 2013

Iconic New Zealand; Bargain Portugal; Smart Buys from the Jura and for the Cellar, and more.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

New Zealand is the main feature of the April 13 VINTAGES release, but of eleven wines offered, only four producers are represented, and ten of the wines are from Marlborough. A fair representation it is not, and it comes across as a very corporate assortment. Nevertheless, Cloudy Bay and Dog Point are the clear quality leaders, and I highlight their best releases in this report.

And where the LCBO falls short, private consignment agents have stepped in to fill the gaps. For those interested in the true inside scoop on what to buy, stay tuned for a comprehensive report on New Zealand’s top producers by region, all represented in Ontario, to be released prior to the upcoming New Zealand Wine Fair. For more background, re-visit my piece on what it’s like to travel in New Zealand, and for the really keen, my piece with thoughts on the New Zealand wine industry.

Pairing Food & Wine for DummiesThis report also highlights five fine values from Portugal, the other theme of the release, as well as the Top Ten Smart Buys, including a pair for the cellar and a fantastic ‘terroir’ wine from the little-known Jura. Pour yourself a glass and check out my video interview on “Pro and Kon” with writer and CBC radio host Konrad Ejbich about Pairing Food and Wine [for Dummies].

Highlights From Top Ten Smart Buys

Sommelier’s Choice: The Jura

The Jura is a small, 80-kilometer long sliver of eastern France opposite Burgundy’s Côte d’Or on the other side of the Bresse plain, framed to the east by the foothills of the Alps and the nearby Swiss border. It belongs to the greater region known as Franche Comté, once part of the Duchy of Burgundy, but later under Spanish rule thanks to the expansion of Carlos V’s empire. The Spanish influence of this period is still felt strongly in the peculiar wine style for which the Jura is known, Vin Jaune, a savagnin-based wine aged under a veil of yeast, just like Fino Sherry.

Vin Jaune Ageing in Barrel

Vin Jaune Ageing in Barrel

But chardonnay, planted in the Jura since the 15thC, can also be extraordinary, not surprisingly, since the Jura is, after all within sight of Burgundy with similar limestone-based soils. Yet wine style and labeling confusion has held exports in check. Chardonnay from the Jura comes in either the sherry-like oxidative style called locally “typé or traditionelle“, while others are more modern and reductive, called “fruité” or “floral” in local parlance. Both can be excellent, but often there’s no way to know what to expect from the label alone. So Jura wines remain largely insiders’ picks for those in the know, at least for now. They’re what sommeliers love to drink on their days off, given the remarkable terroir expression at non-Burgundian prices.

Château-Châlon Vineyards

Château-Châlon Vineyards

Henry Le Roy is the Paris-born owner of Domaine de l’Aigle à Deux Têtes in Vincelles, in the southern part of the region. I had lunch with him in Château Châlon last fall – he’s a quietly confident man who competed in two world kayaking championships. He’s still fit.

Le Roy fell in love with the Jura, as many who come here to holiday do. But it wasn’t easy to make the move from Paris and establish his domaine. “An outsider is someone who comes from more than 10kms away” he remarks somewhat sardonically. “To be considered a local you must have at least five generations in the cemetery.” Being from Paris makes him the ultimate outsider, but he has managed to acquire some top terroirs and is crafting excellent wines.

Le Roy’s 2009 ‘En Griffez’ Chardonnay Côtes Du Jura ($23.95) is made from 50+ year old vines planted on a ludicrously steep, 40% south facing grade with fully calcareous stony soils and fermented with wild yeast (bien sûre). It’s a lovely, earthy-mineral wine, with slightly soft texture thanks to the warm 2009 vintage, and beautifully integrated old wood spice flavours. 12.6% alcohol is deceptive – this is powerful and stony wine for fans of top notch Burgundian style chardonnay and shouldn’t be missed.

Comparative Tasting

Bachelder Bourgogne ChardonnayAnd speaking of Burgundian chardonnay, for a truly decadent and educational soirée, compare the En Griffez above with the 2010 Bachelder Bourgogne Chardonnay ($29.95) from Canadian Thomas Bachelder. He’s another outsider who has found a home, at least part of the time, in Burgundy, that is when he isn’t making chardonnay in Niagara or in Oregon. This is a very fine Bourgogne Blanc to be sure, from a vintage I like very much, well above the average quality for the generic appellation. It offers intriguing green peach and nectarine, green walnuts and lime-lemon citrus flavours alongside old wood spices like cinnamon and cassia bark, with really well-balanced, mid-weight palate, crisp but also creamy, and exceptional length for the category.

A Pair For the Cellar

Collectors seeking age worthy wines should consider this pair that will make for brilliant drinking in a decade. The 2009 Château Latour Martillac, Pessac-Léognan, Cru Classé ($53.85) is a refined and aristocratic Bordeaux, in which the ripeness and concentration of the 2009 vintage is evident. It has perfectly ripe but fresh red and black fruit tied to the warm earth/terra cotta notes typical of Péssac, classically styled, yet still supple and balanced. It’s temptingly delicious now, though will really be in full swing by the end of the decade.

Château Latour Martillac 2009Domaine Durieu Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010The 2010 Domaine Durieu Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($35.95) is likewise an intense, dense and terrifically complex southern Rhône, traditionally styled, aged entirely in large concrete vats. It offers rich, succulent black cherry and baked strawberry fruit allied to black olive tapenade, dried resinous herbs and orange peel spice, while tannins are firm but fully coated in fruit extract, acids balanced and alcohol generous but also in check (14.5% declared). This should be best after 2018.

Also featured in the top ten you’ll find an excellent Rioja, a well-priced, classically styled Bourgogne Rouge, solid and satisfying reds from Mendoza and Sicily, and a pair of wonderfully fragrant whites from cool climate Europe. See them all here.

Marlborough, New Zealand: The Connection between Cloudy Bay and Dog Point Vineyards

Cloudy Bay, and especially Dog Point, are the wines from New Zealand to look for on April 13th, and there’s an interesting connection between them. Cloudy Bay Vineyards, established in 1985 by David Hohnen, co-founder of Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, is the winery that put Marlborough on the world map back in the late 1980s. The style of sauvignon blanc for which the region would become famous was developed by winemaking team of Ivan Sutherland, James Healy, and Kevin Judd. Much of the fruit for Cloudy Bay’s celebrated sauvignon came from Sutherland’s personal property at the convergence of the Brancott and Omaka Valleys in the southern part of the region, which he and his wife Margaret purchased and planted in 1979.

Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010Dog Point Chardonnay 2011Sutherland and Healy stayed at Cloudy Bay until 2003, when the pair left to launch Dog Point Vineyard. Today, their 100 hectares, including some of the original plantings, are farmed organically and hand picked (a rarity in Marlborough). Some of the fruit still goes to Cloudy Bay, but according to Sutherland and Healy, they (sensibly enough) keep the top, hillside vineyard fruit for Dog Point. The style is intense and edgy, with lots of lees contact and wild yeast complexity, some of the finest wines in the region in my view.

Kevin Judd, incidentally, also left Cloudy Bay in 2009 to start his own, very good label called Greywacke, and he gets 95% of his fruit from the Sutherland vineyard, and makes his wine at the Dog Point winery.

Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon BlancCloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012Cloudy Bay remains a top player in the region, however. The iconic winery was bought by luxury goods firm LVMH in 2003, the same year Healy and Sutherland moved on. And after a dip in quality when production of the sauvignon blanc was ramped up to over 100,000 cases by the end of the decade, Cloudy Bay appears to be back on form with a strong set of recent releases. The 2012 sauvignon is the classic one to watch for, while the Te Koko Sauvignon, wild fermented in barrel with full malolactic, is a relatively new expression of Marlborough sauvignon, one that is gaining in popularity as producers look to distinguish their offerings and move away from the ubiquitous (and rather homogenous) pungently grassy style.

Wines to try:

2009 Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc ($47.95)

2012 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($29.95)

2011 Dog Point Chardonnay ($39.95)

2010 Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 ($39.95)

2012 Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($23.95)

Five Best Buys From Portugal

Portugal is the other theme of the April 13 release and there are some excellent bargains on offer. Topping the list for value is the 2010 Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas ($16.95). It’s a typical Douro blend of tinta roriz, touriga franca and touriga nacional from two (duas) farms (quintas): the Quinta de Ervamoira in the heart of the Douro with its warm micro climate and schist soils, and the Quinta dos Bons Ares at cooler elevation and on granite soils. The result is a wine with terrific complexity and structure for the money.

2009 Quinta De Ventozelo Reserva Douro Tinto ($21.95) is a more bold and ripe, intensely fruity and expressive blend of mainly touriga nacional with 20% each of touriga franca and tinta roriz (tempranillo) that drinks nicely now. The palate is suave and polished, yet with sufficient grip and structure to ensure development over at least the short to mid term.

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 2010Quinta De Ventozelo Reserva Douro Tinto 2009Delaforce Touriga Nacional 2009Monte Vilar Reserva 2011Deu La Deu Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2011

Also worth a look from the Douro is the 2009 Delaforce Touriga Nacional ($18.95), while the 2011 Monte Vilar Reserva Vinho, Regional Alentejano ($14.95) from further south delivers plenty of character and satisfaction for under $15. Fans of bright, fragrant-floral whites will enjoy the 2011 Deu La Deu Alvarinho, Vinho Verde ($19.95).

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

John Szabo, MS

From the April 13, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Best Buys from Portugal
All Reviews


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Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008


Malbec World Day


County in the City

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 2, 2013

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

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

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

California Discoveries

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

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

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

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

Central and Southern Italy Smart Buys

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

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

And other March 2 Smart Buys

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

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

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

Pinot 2013

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

Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Opening Ceremony
Pinot Noir NZ 2013

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

New Zealand: Industry strengths

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

Minor variations on a theme of terroir

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborative spirit

Winemaker's divebombing into Wellington Harbor

Winemaker’s divebombing into
Wellington Harbor

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

Access to market

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

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

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

Sustainability

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

Stunning Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Stunning Rippon Vineyards
Central Otago

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

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

Industry challenges

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

Profitability

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

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

In Defense of Deference

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

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

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

Cultural cringe

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


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On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand

If you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand.

On The Road: A Snapshot of What it’s Like to Travel in New Zealand

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

When I arrive at the Gisborne airport to collect my rental car, I’m met by a friendly woman, who knows my name before I give it to her. She leads me to the small parking lot outside of the diminutive, low-slung building, which also doubles as the baggage pick-up area. Convenient. She politely opens the right side door of the car, and I start to throw my knapsack down onto the passenger seat as I always do. Then I realize it’s not the passenger’s side. It’s the driver’s side. Oh yeah, this is a former British colony and they drive on the other side of the road. Time to pay attention. Words of advice: when crossing the road, remember: look right.

More sheep pastures

More sheep pastures

New Zealand is a sparsely populated country, with famously more sheep than people. This is no exaggeration. Sheep outnumber citizens by 7-1 (although the ratio is down from the 1982 high of 22 sheep for every citizen). It’s possible to travel for miles on back roads without crossing a single soul, and one gets the impression that time has spun a little more slowly here. In fact, New Zealand feels as though it were several decades, and in a few places, several centuries behind the rest of the hyper-developed world.

Phone numbers here still have seven digits and license plates just 6 characters. Apparently it’s OK to park in the bus stop zone during certain hours, as long as you leave enough room for the bus. You’re as likely to pick up magnetic resonance as cell phone reception outside of city and town centers. New Zealand is emphatically not underdeveloped; there’s electricity and running water and amenities of all kinds, even organic produce, espresso coffee and concept restaurants. It’s just that the water is still clean – there are lakes and streams that you can drink from without Maori revenge.

Picton Habour, South Island

Picton Habour, South Island

And there’s a small town feel to the entire country. An anecdote to illustrate: I left my hat at the Inter Islander Ferry Terminal in Picton on the south Island after the trip over from Wellington. When I realized it, I track down the number for the terminal to inquire, though I had little hope of ever recovering it. Leave something, say, at Pearson Airport, or even the Toronto Bus Terminal and just try to get a live person on the phone who can help you. And even if you manage to reach someone, you can almost hear the sarcastic laughter.

But when I ring up the Ferry terminal, a living, breathing woman answers straight away, without having to press zero or pound or some cryptic code of characters. Panicked by having to interact with a real person, I stutteringly ask for the lost and found department, managing to spit out that I may have left my hat in one of the men’s washrooms. She responds, most shockingly, that she has the hat, even though I hadn’t even gotten around to describing it. She then even offers to send it by post to wherever I was staying. “Brilliant, I say in disbelief tinged with bewilderment, “but how can I get the money to you to cover the cost?” There was a brief silence, a silence of puzzlement, as though my question were a little queer. Finally she responds that “we” would take care of it. Well, whoever you are, I thank you. And yes, I got my hat back.

St Leonard's Woolshed

St Leonards Vineyard Cottages
The Woolshed

Another anecdote illustrative of the small town, frontier spirit evident throughout the country: Paul and Daphne, the owners of St. Leonards Vineyard Cottages in Marlborough where I stay (in a rustic but fully refurbished, airy and comfortable former sheep-shearing shed) inquire on the day of my departure if I might happen to be heading to Kaikoura on the coast. I think it an extraordinary coincidence that I am indeed heading past Kaikoura, on my way down to North Canterbury (extraordinary, that is, until I later realize that there was pretty much no other direction to go in other than back from where I had come). When I say that I am, they ask me, very politely, if I would mind, and I quote, “delivering a bag of lemons to the store in Kekerengu on the way?” I’m a little puzzled at first, not knowing of course where Kekerengu was, or even the name of the store, or how I would enter the address in my GPS. The details are more than vague, even if the request is not untoward.

I make a non-committal agreement to run the errand, happy to help out, though admittedly somewhat wearily considering the long drive I have ahead on unknown roads, wondering how far out-of-the-way I might have to go to, and how easy it would be to find this store to deliver a bag of lemons. I wait expectantly for more information; Daphne doesn’t seem to understand my hesitation. After a slightly awkward silence, I press for details. “So where is the store exactly and what’s it called? I ask.

The Store, Kekerengu

The Store, Kekerengu

She smiles, finally understanding my confusion. “Well, it’s actually called “The Store”, she says. “Oh, I see”, say I, “is it easy enough to find in Kekerengu”?

She laughed again and replies that The Store is all there is in Kekerengu. Kekerengu is not so much of a town as it is an outpost with a single building called The Store. “You’ll come out of the hills, over a rise, then as the road veers left towards the coast you’ll see The Store. You can’t miss it.”

So much for the GPS. It’s rarely needed in New Zealand and besides, it doesn’t know where The Store is anyway.

Loaded with fragrant Meyer lemons, we embark on the drive out of Marlborough over the Kaikoura Mountain range (more like hills, really) down into the Awatere Valley, past yet more vineyards that are part of the Marlborough region, sheep-dotted pastures and grazing lands and on down to the Pacific coast.

After a stop at “The Store” in Kekerengu to deliver the Meyer lemons, precisely where Daphne said it would be, and another hour’s drive further south along the coast between hills, the railway and the ocean beyond, we turn inland from highway One and climb high into the real mountains. I get my first taste of backcountry driving in New Zealand.

One-lane bridges

One-lane bridges

This is the land of the two-lane highway; four lanes are far more rare than black sheep. We cross about a dozen nearly dry rivers, each spanned by a one-lane bridge. Luckily the roads are virtually empty and we don’t have to wait to cross a single one. Indeed we pass no more than half a dozen cars over the course of the 100 kilometer journey from Kaikoura to our next stop at the accurately named Hurunui River Retreat, a truly remote retreat in the most unlikely of places. It’s to be found just off the loosest of gravel roads some five kilometers off the main road, with no signs. Strike two for the GPS, which declares that we have arrived at our destination in front of an open shed filled with bails of hay. Not promising.

You have arrived at your destination

“You have arrived at your destination”

It turns out that the real Retreat is another two kilometers down this most improbable of access roads from the GPS’s declared location. Fortunately the cell phone miraculously crackles to life and we reach the owner of the retreat. She gives us the courage to keep grinding along the gravel until we see the two small cottages that comprise the Hurunui River Retreat. She’s standing at the top of the drive just to be sure we don’t drive on past at the speed of the city.

Huruniu River Retreat

Huruniu River Retreat

In addition to innumerable sheep I see along the way, I also spot that rarest of breeds, the hitchhiker. I see them all over the roads, sometimes alone, occasionally in pairs, and even in larger packs. And they seem happy and hopeful and carefree, not like a hitchhiker in Europe or North America, if they still exist. There they look forlorn, desperate. There’d be no other reason to put your life at risk other than some catastrophic circumstance. In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a plausible way to get around. On more than one occasion, the winemakers who were touring me around made apologetic gestures to these itinerant travelers as we drove past, as though to say they would have gladly picked them up were it not for the foreign journalist in the passenger’s seat, who might think it strange. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone hitchhiking in Toronto.

Nature's works of art

Nature’s works of art

New Zealand is also the land of the camper van, a sensible form of transportation/lodging, considering the scarcity of accommodation options once you’re outside the last village or town. If you want to go back-country exploring, it’s probably the only way to go, and most townships invite you to the “free camping zone” – meaning you can park your campervan just about anywhere without hassle from local authorities. The coasts are largely undeveloped, much as I imagine California’s coastal Highway 1 might have been a hundred years ago, or BC’s Sea to Sky highway in the 1950s.

New Zealand is a land of considerable natural beauty. It’s also the land of the long white cloud, or Aotearoa in Māori. If you enjoy open space, a natural gallery of nature-hewn works of art with few people to share them with, excellent lamb and some pretty fine wines, you’ll enjoy traveling in New Zealand.

Watch WineAlign for over 300 New Zealand wine reviews which will be posted in the days ahead.

John Szabo, MS

Letter from Gisborne; John Szabo’s New Zealand
Letter from Hawke’s Bay; John Szabo’s New Zealand

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Letter from Hawke’s Bay; John Szabo’s New Zealand

Dateline: Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s North Island,
January 2013

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Hawke’s Bay: Driving through parts of this North Island region is like making your way through a maze. Narrow roads are lined on either side by 30-foot high, orderly walls of cedar bushes so thick and dense that you can’t see through them. But hiding the fields lining the road from view is not their purpose. These hedges are windbreaks to protect the orchards they surround from strong offshore winds from the nearby Pacific Ocean, never more than a few kilometers away. The Hawke’s Bay area is New Zealand’s fruit and produce capital, producing 95% of the island nation’s tender fruit and produce. Heinz Asia has a huge processing plant here; if you’re eating ketchup anywhere in Australasia, there’s a very good chance the tomatoes used to make it were grown here.

I’m at the top of Te Mata Peak, a 550m lookout on a site that’s of sacred significance for the Maoris. I’m with Nicholas Buck, whose family owns the Te Mata Estate, Hawke’s Bay’s second oldest winery, established in 1896. He gives me a brief history and explains the lay of the land.

Panorama from the top of Te Mata Peak

Panorama from the top of Te Mata Peak

Vines have been grown here for well over a century, but real development of the wine industry wouldn’t get underway until the early 1970s, as in the rest of the country. The temperance movement in New Zealand was well established from the late nineteenth century right up until the end of the 1960s. The country narrowly voted against full-on, nationwide prohibition of alcohol in 1917; in fact the vote initially swung in favour of banning alcohol, until soldiers returning from the war, plied with beer and spirits from local companies, were encouraged to vote against the measure in a national referendum. Boozy soldiers swung the vote by the slimmest of margins.

Nicholas Buck of Te Mata Estate

Nicholas Buck of Te Mata Estate

Yet one of the measures put in place in this period were highly restrictive opening hours for restaurants and bars serving alcohol: six pm was mandatory closing time. The early closures inadvertently led to one of the darker social phenomena in the country’s history, known as the “five o’clock swill”. On their way home after work, men would stop in to the pubs and guzzle large amounts of alcohol in the short hour before closing and emerge drunk on the streets – a regular scene in working class neighborhoods after six each workday.

Additionally, each county in New Zealand was required to hold a referendum every three years on prohibition; if any are were to vote in favour, all producers of alcohol operating in the county were to be shut down immediately without compensation. It was hardly a comfortable climate in which to open a winery. Some counties eventually did go dry, and even today a handful of townships have special trusts set up to control alcohol consumption.

Radical political change swept through New Zealand in the late 1960s, as elsewhere around the world, and successive governments quickly lifted alcohol restrictions. Several entrepreneurs seized new opportunities and wineries quickly flourished. Thus began the re-birth of the New Zealand’s wine industry.

Hawke’s Bay is now Zealand’s second largest region with around 5000 hectares, and is considered the top spot in the country for full-bodied reds. The climate is among the warmest of the wine growing regions, with sufficient heat and sunlight to ripen varieties like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah.

Over time, several distinct growing zones within Hawke’s Bay have emerged. The area out near the coast by Te Awanga benefits from the full mitigating effect of the ocean. Constant breezes cool the vineyards and grapes ripen up to two weeks later here than those grown further inland. Finely etched chardonnays, along with aromatic varieties like pinot gris and sauvignon blanc, and the occasional syrah, are strengths.

The Tutaekuri River

The Tutaekuri River from Te Mata;
Craggy Range Winery below

A short drive inland and you’ll arrive on the Heretaunga Plains north of the town of Hastings, across which flow two main rivers – the Ngaruroro to the south and the Tutaekuri to the north. These spring forth from the interior’s high mountains and reach the sea a few hundred meters apart just south of Napier, the largest city in the region and one of New Zealand’s most important deep water ports.

It was the Ngaruroro River, which, over millennia of meanderings, brought down thick layers of river stones, and deposited them across the plains, forming the base for the region’s future star wine sub-zone, the Gimblett Gravels. But it wasn’t until a violent flood in the 1860s stripped away the overlying layers of silt and sand of a section of the plain, that the gravels were exposed. These free-draining, poor gravelly soils were useless for agriculture or even sheep farming, and the area remained barren for over a century. Eventually in the 1980s it was discovered that grapes vines could flourish on these gravels, as they do on similar soils on the Left bank of Bordeaux.

Gimblett Gravels

Gimblett Gravels Wine Growing District

The Gimblett Gravels name is controlled today by an association of winegrowers. The group demarcated the zone based strictly on the boundaries of the unique gravelly soil, the first appellation in the world, they claim, to be drawn exclusively according to the predominance of a soil type. In order to use the Gimblett Gravels designation on a label, 95% of a wine must be source from the zone. The winery must also be a fee-paying member of the association. Several small producers with vineyards within the 800 or so hectares of delimited Gravels aren’t permitted to use the designation on the label as they are not members.

The Gravels excel in producing medium-full bodied reds. There’s on-going debate as to what should be the flagship wine: Bay blends (mostly Bordeaux varieties led by merlot), or syrah. In a lighthearted, humorous debate and showdown tasting put on by the Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Association pitting syrah against blends, our international group of wine writers voted for syrah to be the calling card of the region.

For my money, although the blends can be excellent, balanced, fresh yet substantial wines, syrah produces a more distinctive wine that could rightly be considered a regional classic, or should be, in time. It’s perhaps premature to pass such a judgment, considering that the first syrah vines of the modern era in the Gimblett Gravels were planted only in 1984. And with the majority of syrah planted with the last decade, vines have yet to mature to full potential. But already the style is distinctive and the quality of the top wines exceptional.

The Syrah vs. Blends debate

The Syrah vs. Blends debate set up in the Chapel at Mission vineyard

The typical Gimblett Gravels syrah profile is more northern Rhône than Aussie or Californian, yet with cleaner, fresher, more pure red fruit flavours. Zesty, mouth watering, natural acids and fine-grained, dusty tannins carry a lick of licorice, violet and black pepper. The style is delicious, and highly food friendly. Wines from the gravels in general also seem to have that much more density, structure and mid-palate flesh than wines grown in the surrounding areas, with likely better ageing potential, but time will tell.

Another potential sub-zone awaiting further organized action to designate is the Bridge Pa Triangle, adjacent to the Gimblett Gravels. You’ll also find gravel here, but it’s buried under a thicker layer of topsoil, up to several feet of silt, clay and sands. The wines are more immediate, with softer tannins and more fleshy texture, but also very good.

The two other zones worth mentioning that produce distinct wines are the higher elevation hillside vineyards of the Havelock Hills, visible from our perch atop the Te Mata Peak between the ocean and the Heretaunga Plain, and so-called Central Hawke’s Bay, up river in the foothills of the higher mountains ranges. Vineyard expansion on the Havelock Hills is unlikely, however, considering the price of real estate. Havelock is one of the most expensive communities in New Zealand, with its suave, ideal climate, easy commute to other parts of the country via the nearby Napier airport, beautiful, unspoiled beaches minutes away, and ski resorts barely more than an hour inland. Nicholas points out a fallow patch of about 2 acres of land next to Te Mata Estate’s vineyards; there’s a modest shack on it, nothing more. The asking price: close to $3 million. Though he’d love to purchase the piece and extend his vineyards, at that price, it would take several generations to see any return. In any case, Te Mata’s Coleraine Vineyard, a cabernet-dominated blend with merlot, grown in the Havelock hills, is one of the country’s finest reds.

Central Hawke’s Bay has some of the region’s only limestone soils, and at over 200m off of the plain, the cooler conditions are well suited to pinot noir and chardonnay, as wineries like Lime Rock have shown.

Nicholas takes me back down the hill to Te Mata Estate for a tasting. I’ll publish my reviews, along with several dozen other Hawke’s Bay wines on WineAlign in the days ahead.

John Szabo, MS

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Red, White and New; Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Feb 2 Release

Winter Warming Reds, Ontario Whites and New Zealand’s Scintillating Syrahs

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Valentine’s Day is the theme of this release, but it is a candy coated selection that doesn’t seem particularly relevant or romantic. I was much more struck by some of the big reds – both expensive reds and great value reds – that will warm the winter soul and fuel romance in their own in way. I was also struck by two snappy Ontario whites to put away for a spring day. And finally I want to bring you a report on New Zealand syrahs – one of the great revelations of my current stint in the other hemisphere.

More Expensive Reds

Villa Girardi Amarone Della Valpolicella ClassicoBarossa Valley Estate Ebenezer ShirazCirrus Syrah 2007Cirrus 2007 Syrah from Stellenbosch ($33.95) is one of those wines that could make you re-evaluate your perceptions of South Africa. It has certainly re-enforced my thinking that South Africa has gone off on the wrong tangent in emulating Bordeaux (cabernet) when the climate and terroir is much more south of France/Australia. This is profound, edgy, challenging wine. Not a thing of grace, but it has energy.

Barossa Valley Estate 2007 Ebenezer Shiraz from South Australia ($40.95) is absolutely delicious and virtually at peak readiness – a real cracker. Ebenezer is made from 100% Barossa grapes that just miss the cut for the famous E & E Black Pepper Shiraz, which became legendary in the 1980s as one of the monumental wines of the region.

Villa Girardi 2008 Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($41.95) is from a fairly new winery established in 1986 – new by Italian standards. I have always enjoyed the elegant and more polished touch of this house, perhaps having to do with the limestone soils of their estate near Verona. Regardless, this is a real smoothie and a cuddler.

Less Expensive Reds

Chateau Tanunda Barossa Tower ShirazHecht and Bannier Côtes Du Roussillon Villages 2010Aneto Red 2009If the Ebenezer above is just a bit rich for your pocketbook have a go at Chateau Tanunda 2010 Barossa Tower Shiraz ($18.95). It is not as complex and deep, but still a Barossa classic at an excellent price. It is claimed that the restored Chateau Tanunda – an iconic building that really does have a tower – is the birthplace of the South Australian wine industry in 1854. Many of Australia’s best winemakers have worked in its cellars.

Hecht & Bannier 2010 Côtes Du Roussillon-Villages ($23.95) is yet, another rich and polished wine, this time from the sunniest corner of France up against the Spanish border in the Mediterranean southeast. The boys of Hecht & Bannier only went into business ten years ago but they have done a great job as “negociant eleveurs” to highlight wines from various appellations and present them in a modern style, at good prices.

Aneto 2009 Red from the Douro Valley is a fine example of the youth movement underway in Portugal’s famed port region. Founded only in 2001, with a mere seven hectares of vineyard, Francisco Montenegro has fashioned a rich wine with poise and structure, and delivered it for only $19.95. It really is quite delicious, yet built to last as well.

Ontario Whites

Norman Hardie Chardonnay 2009Tawse Sketches Of Niagara RieslingTawse 2010 Sketches of Niagara Riesling is not one of the nuanced single vineyard biodynamically farmed Tawse rieslings. But nonetheless, priced at only $17.95, it captured a gold medal in the Canadian Wine Awards last year and helped propel Tawse to its third straight honour as Canada’s Winery of the Year. There is an infectious brightness and balance to this riesling.

Norman Hardie 2009 Chardonnay ($35) hails from a Niagara vineyard, not Hardie’s home base in Prince Edward County. But the combination of a leaner, high acid vintage in 2009, as well as Hardie’s riveting winemaking style makes this a mouth-watering chardonnay of the traditional Burgundy school. The length is quite remarkable.

New Zealand’s Scintillating Syrahs

This report was penned in New Zealand when I was attending Pinot Noir NZ 2013, a massive event held every three years in Wellington, the windy capital, to celebrate NZ’s most famous red grape. There were certainly some wonderful wines and great surprises among the hundreds of pinots I tasted, and I will report on them in due course. But for now I want to talk syrah, the great revelation of the journey.

Syrah is a newcomer to New Zealand, a place once thought to be too cold for syrah to ripen properly. But around the world, syrah keeps proving that it can perform well in cooler or moderate climates, as long as one is seeking a more northern Rhone-like expression of syrah, and not an Australian shiraz expression. The northern Rhone wines of Hermitage and Côte Rotie, are after all, from a more moderated climate that straddles continental and Mediterranean.

Gimblett Gravels

First syrah planted in Hawkes Bay’s Gimblett Gravels in 1984

What is the Rhone expression? It is mid-weight, more acid and mineral driven style of syrah with lifted scents of pepper and smoked meat amid the fruit. The fruit is normally “black fruit” like black cherry, blackberry, but in cooler climates it can express as red fruit as well – raspberry, currants. The syrahs of New Zealand move between the red and black fruit spectrums, depending on microclimates, but there is no question that they are Rhone-like and not Australian.

This point was amply made in a blind syrah tasting staged by the Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers that pitted eight Hawke’s Bay syrahs against three Rhones and one Australian (that stood out like a sore thumb). It was more difficult to separate the NZ and Rhone syrahs, although I did well enough getting two out of the three. The organizers of such taste-offs always claim the purpose is not necessarily “to win” but to show their wines belong on the same playing field. In this case my favourite wine was a terrific Cote Rotie from Yves Cuilleron, and my least favourite wine was also a Rhone – Jaboulet’s legendary Hermitage La Chapelle, which was a disappointment to one and all.

But that left the Hawke’s Bay syrahs comfortably in the middle ground, and those from the excellent 2010 vintage really stood out – Crossroads 2010 Syrah Winemaker’s Collection, Craggy Ranch 2010 Syrah Gimblett Gravels and Trinity Hill 2010 Syrah Gimblett Gravels, all hit ratings above 90 pts, as did Villa Maria 2009 Reserve Syrah. All were perfumed, complex, elegant, almost silky yet finishing with depth and firmness. Later, still in Hawkes Bay, Trinity Hill would rise to the top again as I encountered one of the great red wines of New Zealand.  Trinity Hill 2010 Hommage Syrah, is one of those wines that leaps from the glass and imprints directly into your memory banks. Sourced from very low yielding, 15 year old vines in the Gimblett Gravels sub-region, it sells for $120 in NZ. Yes folks – Hawke’s Bay syrah over $100. And worth it!

Trinity Hills Winery

Trinity Hills Winery, home of
Hawkes Bay’s finest syrah

But Hawke’s Bay, with its moderate climate and seams of excellent well drained, riverbed gravel soils is not the only place I tasted great syrah. One of the first wines I encountered on Waiheke Island off shore of Auckland was the silky, quite dense and powerful Man O’War 2010 Dreadnaught Syrah, from a young vineyard planted on a steep volcanic slope that almost seems to rise from the sea. In the Martinborough region at the bottom of the South Island I tasted a fine 90 point Kusuda 2010 Syrah, among others. And even farther south in Marlborough I encountered excellent examples in Fromm 2010 La Strada and Staete Lane 2009, the latter organically grown.

So how relevant is all this to us here and now in Canada? NZ syrah is still only being produced in relatively small quantities and not much finds its way to us yet. However, VINTAGES did release two excellent examples (and only two) last fall, and both remain in stock despite achieving 90 point WineAlign ratings. And nor are they very expensive. So I encourage you to try them – Trinity Hill Syrah 2010 and Alpha Domus The Barnstormer Syrah 2010, to get a sense of the elegant styling, and to glimpse what will surely be an important wine in NZ’s future.

And that’s it for this time. I did not get to taste all the wines on the February 2 release, but I will try to catch up on my return. Next stop is Nelson and a conference built around aromatic white grape varieties; then back to Canada and B.C. for the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna on Feb 8 and 9.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the February 2, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


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Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008


Rosehill Wine Cellars

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Letter from Gisborne; John Szabo’s New Zealand

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Dateline: Gisborne, New Zealand’s North Island
January 22, 2013

Gisborne. A sleepy little town. I struggle to see signs of civilization as the small prop plane circles out over Poverty Bay before heading back inland to touch down on the small, grass-lined airstrip. The airport is a single, low-slung building. Lots of private, single-prop aircraft line the field, and I get the feeling I’ve landed at some far-flung outpost, which, it seems, I have. I’m struck by the scent of the sea and of wildflowers and of lush, sub-tropical flora as I step out of our small plane onto the tarmac and into the bright summer morning sun. 

Hertz Rental Car Welcome

Hertz Rental Car Welcome

At the Hertz rental car desk I’m greeted by two friendly ladies who know my name before I even open my mouth. “You must be Mr. Szabo”, exclaims one. I nod, weary after 30 hours of travel, barely able to string together a muffled syllable. The longhaired brunette, welcoming and bubbly, informs me of the score of the Leafs game from Saturday night. She’s better informed about the Leafs than I am. It turns out that she has cousins in Mississauga. Damned, it’s a small world.

She leads me to my rental car and opens the right side door. I start to throw my knapsack down onto the passenger seat as I always do, until I realize it’s not the passenger’s side. It’s the driver’s side. Oh yeah, this is a former British colony and they drive on the wrong side of the road. Time to pay attention. I jump into the car and head to the Emerald hotel in ‘downtown’ Gisborne. I pass several roundabouts and a single one traffic light on my way in. I check my cell phone; coverage is still weak in this part of the world.

Nick Nobilo and his GW vines

Nick Nobilo and his GW vines

There’s just enough time to strap on the trainers and head out for a quick run before I’m to be picked up by Nick Nobilo, formerly of the eponymous estate, sold to BRL Hardy’s/Constellation in 2000, and now the proprietor of the boutique Vinoptima Estate winery. I turn left out of the hotel and pick up the nearby trail down by the river that leads out to the sea. Within seven minutes I’m on a expanse of beach that must be 30 meters wide. Several surfers in wet suits are out limping along on modest waves. I can’t resist, and after a few minutes of running on the soft sand, I take off the shoes and jump in the cold, salty water. It’s heaven. Just what you need after 24 hours in a tin can.

Today, Gisborne is known for it’s voluptuous chardonnay, viognier and gewürztraminer. Few reds are grown, though there’s speculation that malbec may prove suitable, and there’s a strong case for chenin blanc, based pretty much entirely on the efforts of Millton Vineyards to date.

I have a fine time with Nick Nobilo. Here’s a dedicated man. After pioneering so many successful wines, including New Zealand’s first commercial pinot noir in 1973, the most popular Muller-Thurgau brand of the 70s and 80s (“Nobilo Muller-Thurgau German Style”) and NZ’s most successful export wine of the 80s, he returned to Gisborne after the big cash-out with Hardy’s in 2000 to nurture his first true love: gewüztraminer. It’s an affair that dates back to the 60s when, after planting a trial vineyard at the family estate outside of Auckland, he fell for the variety’s “strong physiology” and unique, perfumed taste.

Auckland proved not to be the spot for gewürztaminer, but Gisborne is another story. Today, it’s the only wine Nobilo makes: Vinoptima Gewürztraminer Reserve (and very occasionally, tiny quantities of a nobly rotten version of the same). We tour vineyards; we taste a mini vertical of 04, 06, 08, 09, and 10. It’s astonishing how well these wines age.

Foudres at Vinoptima

Foudres at Vinoptima

Usually GW is in the drink-as-young-as-possible category, but the extract and concentration of Nobilo’s wines give them the power to age. Nobilo picks very ripe at 25-26º brix when the skins of the grape are deep pink-garnet. He’s not concerned about low acidity or excessive sugar, as he believes that phenolics (extract from grape juice and skins with a pleasantly bitter taste) provide the balance for the wine’s high alcohol and residual sugar. He approaches winemaking like a chef approaches a dish, combining as many ingredients as necessary to create layers of flavour: some wild yeast ferments, some inoculated, some parcels aged in big old German oak foudres, of different sizes, some stainless components. That’s the attention to detail one can effectively manage when there’s only one grape variety in play. In the end, my favourites are the 06 and 04.

After a welcome spread of patés, terrines, salads, grilled skewered prawns, marinated chicken and bacon-wrapped scallops (pronounced skah-lopes here), and cheese, its time to move on to Millton Vineyards. 

(Vinoptima is Represented in Ontario by : John Hanna & Sons)

John Szabo, MS

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Highlights and Values; Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Jan 19 Release

Highlights & Values from Spain, B.C. and Around the World, plus Postcards from New Zealand

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The January 19 release is a large and rambling affair with over 100 wines, and the vast majority are priced under $25 to reflect the post-holiday impecuniary blues. I must say that there were more disappointing wines than normal, with several scoring below 85 points. But there were also many worth your attention, which is why we spend hours in the VINTAGES lab tasting them all.

Spain’s Priorat and Montsant

Baronia CIMS Del Montsant 2010Planets De Prior Pons 2008The many faces of Spanish wine are featured in this release, in a selection that manages to cover most of the country, albeit with only one or two selections each. WineAlign colleague John Szabo has penned a comprehensive look at the various wines and the fortunes of Spanish wine in Ontario, so I won’t repeat, except to highlight very good buys from two of my favourite DOCs – Priorat and Montsant. These appellations neighbour each other in the harsh, arid mountains of southern Catalonia not far from the Mediterranean.

Whereas many Spanish reds are softer, there is a nerve and minerality to the wines of this region that is invigorating, which will appeal to those who like pinot noir and some of Tuscany’s reds. Priorat in particular emerged in the 90s as a super-premium niche region, followed soon after by less expensive Montsant that sits in less steep terrain nearby. Both use the same blend of Mediterranean grapes like carignan and grenache along with syrah, cabernet and merlot. Planets De Prior Pons 2008 from Priorat at only $22.95 is a fine example of the value that can now be attained in post-recession pricing of Priorat. And the 2010 Baronia CIMS Del Montsant is simply a steal at only $15.95.

B.C.’s Range

Unlike four other provinces, Ontario has still not “approved” the direct purchase and importation of B.C. wines via the internet for your personal use here in Ontario, despite the federal government legalizing the practice last June through Bill C-311. Many Ontarians are doing it anyway, as the government’s position is unenforceable. If you are squeamish about doing it however, or you just want to buy a bottle or three, instead of ordering by Gray Monk GewürztraminerMission Hill Quatrain 2008the case, then VINTAGES offers a small but quite good selection on this release. It’s a microcosm of what the Okanagan Valley is doing in terms of styles – aromatics in the north, chardonnay and pinot noir in the centre, and big reds in the south, including the iconic plush reds of Burrowing Owl, the winery that first drew attention to just how big and rich B.C. southern reds could be. I draw your attention to two wines that define the polar extremes of Okanagan winemaking.

Gray Monk 2011 Gewürztraminer ($19.95) is a super bright, fresh and fruity example of a lovely patio/picnic style of gewürz – indeed Gray Monk (sitting right on the 50th degree of latitude) is a veteran, reliable producer of good value, pristine aromatic whites. Consider this one for spring/summer drinking.  From the opposite end of the valley, almost within view of the 49th parallel and the US border, comes a big red from almost desert vineyards that leads the way in a growing field of multi-grape blends based on merlot and cabernet. Mission Hill 2008 Quatrain ($41.95) deftly adds about 30% syrah to the mix, and ferments them in small French oak to create a wine of considerable depth, complexity and elegance.

Three White Highlights

Château De Montmollin Chasselas 2011Roche De Bellene Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne ChardonnayMcnab Ridge Shadow Brook Farms RoussanneThe roussanne grape, which is indigenous to the Rhone Valley in France, is in global expansion mode, especially in New World as winemakers in warm climates grow to appreciate its natural acidity and tropical yet understated fruit. McNab Ridge 2009 Shadow Brook Farms Roussanne ($18.95) from Mendocino California is a fine example. The Parducci family is a pioneer in this neck of the woods, and this off-shoot winery by Chris Parducci is focused on less well known grape varieties.

Roche De Bellene 2010 Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne Chardonnay from Burgundy’s Nicolas Potel is not all that unusual, but it is made in a bright, pure style that defines the grape and region very well for $19.95.  A dandy, affordable and quite classy chardonnay.

And Château De Montmollin 2011 Chasselas from Auvernier-Neuchâtel in Switzerland is also very well made. Chasselas can be soft, flabby and boring, but this fine effort brightens the quiet fruit and presents flavours that remind me just a bit of sake. It’s all very subtle, very nicely balanced and easy to drink.  Very much worth exploring at $18.95.

Four Red Values

For several years now I have watched Chile struggle with pinot noir. There is a juicy exuberance in Chilean reds that somehow does not wear well in pinot, which should be very layered, restrained and elegant. Terra Noble 2010 Reserva Pinot Noir from the Casablanca Valley is still exuberant, with raspberry and evergreen scents, but somehow manages better balance and more length than most, and at a very good price of $14.95. A fine little chillable summer patio pinot.

Terra Noble Reserva Pinot NoirHeartland Shiraz 2009From Australia, Heartland 2009 Shiraz has shockingly intense, perfumed and pure aromas of cassis, a signature I have come to expect in reds from the Langhorne Creek region of South Australia that borders the Murray River delta. Langhorne is home base for Heartland, a collaboration among several partners but Ben Glaetzer is the magician behind this wine. And Ben Glaetzer is the nephew of John Glaetzer, who put Wolf Blass on the map with some remarkable Langhorne reds back in the day. In any event, this is a real mouthful for $19.95, richly fruited and wonderfully vibrant.

Château Ksara Réserve Du Couvent 2009The Grinder PinotageSouth African pinotage, a hybrid grape bred on the Cape, has over the decades, become something of a plaything for winemakers. There is a shrill and unusual native character in pinotage that many seem to want to avoid, and the latest trick is to infuse highly roasted coffee bean flavours, as in Café Culture. The Grinder 2011 Pinotage is in that camp, but less coffeed than I expected given the blatant coffee references in the packaging. I think one reason that the pinotage fruit manages to stay so vital in this example is its origin in Swartland, a warmer area of old vines. Anyway, at $13.95 you can afford to try this out for yourself.

And for something really off the beaten track, don’t miss a great little winter red from Lebanon. Château Ksara 2009 Réserve Du Couvent is a blend of syrah, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon aged six months in oak. Ksara a historic 19th Century producer in the high altitude Bekaa Valley has modernized its production, but this wine maintains a very smooth, warm and leathery ambiance that is pleasantly older school. The main point is that offers a lot of character for $14.95.

Postcards from New Zealand & A Tasting of Villa Maria

I am writing this report from a small, comfortable motor lodge in the farming town of Cromwell in the heart of Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. I am in the country for a three week tour of eight regions, that also includes three conferences, centred by Pinot Noir NZ 2013 in Wellington January 28 – 31. I am visiting three to four wineries per day, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. But you can follow some observations on Twitter @DavidLawrason, and I am also sending updates via WineAlign’s Facebook page. You can check out the first in the series on Waiheke Island’s Man O’ War winery at Postcards from New Zealand

Auckland Winery

Villa Maria Winemaker – Alastair Maling
Auckland Winery

On my second day in the country I sat down to a terrific tasting with Villa Maria winemaker Alastair Maling, a Master of Wine and chair of Pinot 2013 conference. It was held at Villa Maria’s impressive new winery/restaurant/vineyard improbably located and almost hidden within a dormant volcano crater in an industrial area near Auckland airport. The quality across the range of wines rather took me by surprise. I was well aware of the Private Bin general listings in Ontario – Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2011 and Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2012. But as the tasting moved along I was struck by the consistent purity and accuracy and inviting drinkability of all the wines, regardless of variety and price point. Suddenly all the medals won by Villa Maria over the years made sense, and it proved that you can do things well on a large scale if quality control is truly the focus of the exercise.

In the very near future all my reviews from this tasting will be posted on WineAlign. It was assembled to reflect wine now available, or soon to be available in Canada, so if you want to search for a particular wine, or scan the entire range simply search by Villa Maria.

So that’s it for this time. I will be writing my next report from New Zealand as well. Meanwhile check out all my January 19 reviews below.

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine

From the January 19, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


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Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008


Rosehill Wine Cellars

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008