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Bill’s Best Bets at the SAQ, May 2014

The many faces of Syrah and Shiraz
By Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Would you prefer chocolate or bacon? A dash of pepper perhaps, or maybe black olive? Smoke or violets? Red or black fruit? Well, depending on where your syrah is grown, your wine may show any of the above.

And you have your choice of provenance. Syrah is one of the fastest growing red varieties in the world. In the mid 1980’s, there was under 20,000 ha of syrah planted worldwide, almost entirely in France and Australia. 25 years later, that number has exploded to over 140,000 ha with the majority of these new vines planted over the last 10 years.

But if syrah can now be considered a member of the elite club of true “international” varietals, unlike cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, there is something schizophrenic about syrah – it is known by two different names. Syrah and shiraz have come to signify more than just the name of a grape, for many it has come to represent a style unto itself.

It’s a climate thing

Syrah and shiraz are the same grapes. Researcher Carole Meredith at UC Davis confirmed via DNA profiling that it was the result of crossing a white grape, Mondeuse Blanche, and the one of France’s oldest red varietals, Dureza. But put a bottle of Côte Rôtie next to a Barossa shiraz and one would be hard pressed to say that they were the same grape.



While soils do make a difference in the grape’s expression, it’s the climate, and by extension, ripeness, that seems to be the most important factor in determining what aromas and flavours you will find in your syrah. As a general rule, cooler sites bring more aromatic nuance, including notes of violets, pepper, spices and red berries. Warmer sites give you more body, texture, power, smoked meat, cassis, blackberry, black olive and chocolate.

I tasted this on a micro-level on a recent trip to the northern Rhône where syrah is the only red grape authorized for the region’s appellations. Tasting through the region is a study of nuance, and one need look no further than the different expressions of Hermitage and Cornas.

Both hillsides are granite based, south-facing, and reach similar altitudes. The difference is that Cornas is 20 km further south, and the vineyard is in the shape of an amphitheatre, which keeps and amplifies the heat. In fact, Cornas in old Celtic language means “burnt earth.”

The result of this somewhat marginal difference in growing conditions makes a world of difference in the wines. Cornas tastes like blackberry jujube: intensely ripe, concentrated, dark fruited and almost jammy. In hotter years, you can find liquorice and olive notes. The tannins are big and burly.

Hermitage, with just a touch less ripeness shows a “lighter” dark fruit note, black currant as opposed to blackberry, more finessed tannins and much more spice. Power versus finesse, and 20km is the difference.

steep slopes of Cote Rotie

The steep slopes of Côte-Rôtie

Go 60 km further north to Côte-Rôtie and the syrah becomes an entirely different beast, much more feline in its expression. Here, at the northern edge of where syrah can ripen successfully, you get redder fruits, more florals and black pepper notes. Interesting to note that black pepper is a cool climate syrah characteristic, and is most prevalent in cooler vintages. In many ways, it is the equivalent of the “green” character in the cabernet family.

And what about the famous “smoked meat,” bacon character of syrah? This is a characteristic of the ripest and richest syrah, which can be found in Crozes-Hermitages, and to a lesser extent on Cornas.

The same climate distinction can be made in Australia, where shiraz is the most planted variety. In the hotter climate zones of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, you get Cornas on steroids. The wines are powerful, full-bodied with blackberry, black fruit, chocolate, plum. But tasting through the much cooler region of Victoria, the shiraz is much more floral with black cherry, plum, black pepper and exotic spice.

Cusumano Syrah 2012Qupé Syrah 2011Pfeiffer Shiraz 2011Of course there are other things at play here. Decisions on winemaking, grape growing techniques and ripeness levels at harvest will change the eventual wine. But climate, at least with respect to syrah, is paramount. So here are a few suggestions from around the globe for you to get better acquainted with the many faces of syrah and shiraz – no matter what you want to call it.

On the redder fruit and peppery spice side of the spectrum, try Pfeiffer’s 2011 shiraz. From the cooler region of Victoria you’ll see more peppery spice and redder fruits than classic Barossa jam. Equally interesting, and even fresher is Qupé’s 2011 California Central Coast syrah. Minerality, herbs and redder fruits with remarkable freshness.

For you bargain hunters, Cusumano’s 2012 Syrah is a nice meeting ground between the cooler and warmer styles. And while we can argue if $22 is indeed a bargain, South Africa’s Stark-Condé winery made one of the best syrahs I have tasted in a while at this price. Crozes Hermitages in style but arguably even better.

Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas 2011Domaine Belle Hermitage 2010Saltram MamreIf you want to taste the difference between a Cornas and a Hermitage, one need not spend a week’s mortgage. While these wines are very expensive, I found two excellent examples at very reasonable prices. Domaine Courbis’ 2011 Champelrose is classic Cornas with its blackberry fruit, hint of meat and spice. Compare it to Domaine Belle’s 2010 Hermitage, with its more subtle black currant notes and spice. Pay attention the tannin structure as well, and you will find a much grittier structure in the Cornas.

And no list of shiraz would be complete without a classic Barossa Valley expression of the grape. Try Saltram’s 2010 Mamre Brook. It won’t win any awards for finesse, but if you want a powerful red for your grilled steak, it wont disappoint.

Until next time.


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

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

Syrah vines at Donaine Courbis 2

Syrah vines at Domaine Courbis

Rhône photos courtesy of Bill Zacharkiw

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages June 22 Release

Unravelling the Rhône, South Africa, Canada and Other Wines of Interest

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

This edition is written from Niagara where the entire WineAlign team is assembled all week to taste through 1,100 wines at the National Wine Awards of Canada – an amazing process of co-ordination and endurance. One result however has been my missing a VINTAGES press tasting opportunity, thus reviewing fewer wines from the June 22 release, and offering a shorter newsletter. But I have captured the Rhône, South Africa and Canadian features, and found other wines of interest from locales as far-flung as Australia, Alsace and Rioja.

Unravelling the Rhône

It struck me as odd that VINTAGES would highlight a Rhône release as summer dawns. Rosé, sure – but this batch is mostly reds, and in some cases they are quite burly and tannic. Some of the lighter, softer examples might be okay lightly chilled and quaffed on the deck, but how do you tell which will fit that bill (other than reading our reviews one by one). I got a chance to explore that idea last week during a Rhône Valley trade seminar that laid out wines from almost all of the appellations side by side. Sponsored by InterRhone, there was also a Rhône overview presented by Veronique Rivest of Montreal, a good friend, sommelier and writer who finished second in the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Tokyo in March of this year.

The overriding message was that the Rhône Valley is complicated, with 22 authorized grape varieties (eight are white) grown among 23 appellations and another 18 sub-regions with a village name attached. This does not include the overriding Cotes du Rhône appellation that accounts for almost 75% of the entire volume produced. And of course, every year the vintage conditions vary. So for those who want to dive deep the Rhône is almost as absorbing and complex as Burgundy.

Don’t worry; I am not going to attempt to explain it all here. But I do want to pass on some general tips to help sort out which are likely to be the softer, rounder and easier/earlier reds and which will be the more linear, firm and tannic (perhaps for longer ageing). The softer reds will have a dominant portion of grenache in the blend; the firmer reds will be based on syrah, and even firmer if there is a high proportion of the tannic mourvedre grape. The softer reds will also be from more sandy and or clay soils found on the valley floor and lower slopes (where grenache tends to flourish), while the firmer reds will be from stonier, higher elevation sites (where syrah is more often found).

In terms of appellations, all the ‘northern Rhône’ AOCs are on steep, granite based slopes that support syrah only. These include Cote Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph and Cornas. By and large they make firm, age-worthy often quite elegant (and expensive) reds. That’s the easy part.

Domaine Saint Gayan Gigondas 2009Château Bizard Montagne De Raucoule 2010Romain Duvernay Cairanne 2010The southern Rhône is more complicated because all the grape varieties are used, and most often are blended. But grenache is usually the dominant grape – so southern Rhône wines are softer, rounder and higher in alcohol than those in the north. Within the south look to the lower, sandier appellations for the softest wines, led by Châteauneuf du Pape, then Lirac, Costieres de Nimes, Plan de Dieu, Gadagne (new), Cairanne, Rasteau, Visan and Grigan-les-Ahdemar. Two wines on the release stand out as very good value examples of this style. Romain Duvernay 2010 Cairanne ($18.95) – a Wine of the Month – has classic Rhône plummy fruit and pepper, albeit in the more compact and structured style of the 2010 vintage. Château Bizard Montagne 2010 De Raucoule ($20.95) is from the new Grignan-les-Adhemar appellation, formerly known as Coteaux du Triscatin at the northern edge of southern Rhône. This wine is particularly smooth, rich and almost velvety – a style I can’t wait to try with a BBQ.

For wines with more firmness and complexity look to the hillside oriented appellations of Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise, Gigondas, Sablet, Seguret and perhaps Vinsobres. Domaine Saint Gayan 2009 Gigondas ($30.95) is a very elegant, focused wine from a family that has been making wine on their property since 1709. Montirius Garrigues Vacqueyras 2010 is also a biodynamic beauty from a great property in Vacqueyras, but to buy this wine you will have to go VINTAGES Shop Online.

White Wines of Interest

Avondale Cyclus 2010Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 2012Avondale 2010 Cyclus from Paarl, South Africa ($29.95) is part of a new breed of big, rich, Rhône-inspired oaked whites from the Cape, this one led by viognier, with chenin blanc and semillon in the blend. The estate grows biodynamically. It’s a profound and quite magnificent wine.

Benjamin Bridge 2012 Nova 7 from Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley (a spur of the Annapolis Valley) has been a sensation ‘down east’ for the last couple of years. Benjamin Bridge is a critically acclaimed sparkling wine producer doing very serious Champagne-styled wines, but this is much more in the Moscato d’Asti realm –super-fresh, off-dry, clean as a whistle. A summer fruit salad to serve snapping cold. ($25.95)

Schlumberger Grand Cru Kessler Pinot Gris 2008Henry Of Pelham Reserve Off Dry Riesling 2010Henry of Pelham 2010 Estate Riesling from the Short Hills Bench in Niagara is an amazing value at $15.95. From mature vines it exudes ripe, peach, honey and waxy notes, whereas many Niagara rieslings are leaner, greener and more petrol driven. There is a seamless elegance and richness here.

Domaines Schlumberger Kessler 2008 Pinot Gris is a mature pinot gris that seems to have emerged from the woodwork at VINTAGES – a 2008 now? But it is a great opportunity. It is massive pinot gris, especially within the mild-mannered gris/grigio universe. So it may not appeal to all. It is from an excellent age-worthy, acid driven vintage. Hailing from a Grand Cru vineyard in the south of Alsace, this has real torque and richness, and it is a great value at $25.95

Red Wines of Interest

Flagstone Writer's Block Pinotage 2010Creekside Laura's Red 2010The Hedonist Shiraz 2009Flagstone Writer’s Block 2010 Pinotage ($19.95) from the Western Cape in South Africa, is a good value pinotage that, finally, is more than coffee and cocoa. A wine called Café Culture started that Starbucks trend and it is spreading like a plague. I admit actually liking the flavour, but it does ruin the fruit of pinotage. Flagstone has some of that mocha-fied character in the background, but it is not the whole show. Some of pinotage’s wild pinosity comes through. (Pinotage is crossing of pinot noir and cinsault)

Creekside 2010 Laura’s Red has long been one of Niagara’s fine, under-sung Bordeaux-style blends, barreled blends. It was named for previous owner Laura McCain, but the brand is now established, so why change the name? And the credit firmly belongs to winemaker Rob Power who’s cabernet and syrah based reds always show strongly in awards. And this vintage is now starting to show as the best yet for Niagara’s bigger reds. A great buy at $19.95!

The Hedonist 2009 Shiraz is biodynamically farmed from a maritime-exposed vineyard situated in the Willunga foothills of McLaren Vale, South Australia. It was aged in 50-50 French and American oak. There is a very positive trend in Aussie shiraz to deliver power and authenticity in a drier, more restrained style – and this is on program. Great value at $23.95

Marqués De Murrieta Finca Ygay Reserva 2006Poggio Il Castellare Rosso Di Montalcino 2010Grant Burge Corryton Park Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Grant Burge 2009 Corryton Park Cabernet Sauvignon is from one of the highest vineyards in the Barossa Valley of South Australia – located at the south extremity on the edge of the Adelaide Hills. Cabernet often prospers in moderated/cooler climes like this (and in Coonawarra and Margaret River) and I was very impressed by the tension and complexity. Great cab for $32.95

Poggio Il Castellare 2010 Rosso Di Montalcino is a delicious and complex wine that out-performs most big brother brunellos at more than double the price. Normally Rosso is supposed to be a light-hearted and easy drinking. This engages at a more intense and vital level, without trying to be elegant and profound. It’s is Chianti Classico territory with a bit more richness. A steal at $20.95.

Marqués De Murrieta Finca Ygay 2006 Reserva is from one of the great, venerable estates of Spain – known far beyond Rioja. It has a history of making very age-worthy wines in a traditional style. This move to a slightly softer, rich more modern style but it has all kinds of structure and depth for $24.95.

And that’s it for an abbreviated version from Niagara. We’ll be back for the July 6th Release.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links to find all of David Lawrason’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

From the June 22, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay 2012

Flat Rock Club on the Rock

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for June 22, 2013

South Africa Re-examined; Seductive Southern Rhônes; and More Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Like a high-yielding grapevine, this week’s report is over-loaded with smart buys and top picks. I cover the two VINTAGES features for June 22, namely South Africa, including top picks from the consignment/private order world, and the unstoppable southern Rhône Valley. The Rhône continues to issue forth as many smart buys as Rob Ford’s office issues explanations, and it’s clear what I’d rather swallow. There’s also another half-dozen smart buys for you to consider. Read on for all of the details.

South Africa: Redefining Impressions

I suspect consumers without any special connection to South Africa rarely consider Cape wines when it’s time to go shopping. And it’s my feeling that this is because South African wines suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, there are the ever-popular confected pinotages that are little more than commercial recipes and plenty of cheap but unexciting big brand wines that could be from anywhere, and on the other, an increasing range of serious, regionally unique, authentic wines that have a deserving place in the world of serious wines. Most are familiar with the former, but it’s the latter category that should be much better known and which has the potential to capture some consumer mind-space.

You’ll often hear South African wines being described as mid way between old world and new world in style, and I think the cliché is true. The best have the structure of European wines – firm tannins, bright acids and earthy-herbal flavours – along with the fruit ripeness and generosity of warm new world regions. Think of a blend between Bordeaux and Napa cabernet, malbec from Mendoza with Cahors in Southwest France, or Barossa shiraz with northern Rhône syrah and you get the picture. South African wines satisfy a broad range of personal preferences, and there’s more than enough terroir talk of granites, shales and sandstones, breezes and elevations, and old, unirrigated bush vines to keep the punters engaged. There’s also plenty of value to be found in the low to mid-range, $12-$30 bottle, with many delivering pleasure far above their price category, just to sweeten the deal.

Following are a couple of recommended wines from the June 22nd release, and digging a little deeper into the market, some worthwhile picks from a recent tasting hosted by Wines Of South Africa featuring some fine consignment/private order wines. You’ll have to work a little to get these, but it’s a worthwhile journey and a great way to start re-shaping your image of South African wines.

Sijnn Red 2009Sijnn White 2011A pair of wines from a former Ostrich farm in the hamlet of Malagas, Swellendam, 40kms from the nearest vineyards, were the most striking of the lot at the WOSA tasting: 2009 Sijnn Red ($32.50) and 2011 Sijnn White ($29.80). Sijnn (pronounced “sane”) is a joint venture established in 2004 between winemaker David Trafford, who has his own highly regarded winery in Stellenbosch, South African environmental businessman Quentin Hurt, and Simon Farr of UK importers Bibendum. The attraction was a stony plateau littered with pudding stones over fractured shale reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with a warm dry Mediterranean climate moderated by breezes from the sea 15kms away.

The focus is logically on Mediterranean varieties: Sijnn red is a wild blend of 46% syrah, 29% mourvèdre, 13% touriga nacional, and 6% each of trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon. The profile is all black and blue fruit with lots of floral-violet character, gentle spice, ripe and suave tannins and very good to excellent length. This is classy, quality wine made with care, minimal intervention and maximum passion.

Sijnn White is equally compelling, a blend of about 3/4 chenin blanc and 1/4 viognier barrel fermented in 225L and 700L French oak barrels, about 20% new, and bottled unfiltered. The result is a rich and full, succulent, openly inviting style with plenty of depth and length. Wood is of course noted, but the fruit concentration is more than enough to balance. Acids, too, are balanced, and 14.5% alcohol integrated. Availability: Private Order, Gradwell Wine Agency.

Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet FrancLemberg Spencer PinotageIf you’ve given up on pinotage because so many examples today taste like they’ve been blended with Tia Maria, the 2011 Lemberg Spencer Pinotage Tulbagh ($35.55) might just change your mind. It’s from a single site in the southern end of the Swartland, with 20+-year-old vines, unfined, unfiltered, with authentic varietal character, generous but balanced wood influence, and thick, rich, medium-full palate. There’s a backbone of acidity that rides through the finish and freshens up the profile. Best 2015-2020. Availability: Private Order, Gradwell Wine Agency.

Cabernet Franc is not particularly widely planted in South Africa, but the 2009 Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Franc Banghoek, Stellenbosch  $36.95 91 is a reason to plant more. It’s grown on the highest part of the property at around 400m elevation, yielding a lovely and floral, ripe but finessed version of the grape. Availability: Private Order, WineMoves.

Lammershoek LAM RoseI’m a big fan of Lammershoek in Paardeberg, Swartland, an organically farmed vineyard with a collection of unusual grapes like harslevelü and tinta barroca, along with more familiar Mediterranean grapes, produced with nothing added other than a minimal amount of SO2, and sometimes not even that. I fell immediately in love with the 2011 Lammershoek LAM Rosé ($20.00) when I first tasted it. It’s a fantastically savoury and drinkable, pale salmon pink-coloured, bone-dry rosé made from 100% syrah. At just 11.5% alcohol one would expect either some green character or residual sugar, but there’s none of that here. It’s all about succulent acids and umami-rich, saliva inducing red berry and floral character with no small measure of garrigue-like resinous herbal notes. Marvelously lean, delicate and vibrant. Availability: Consignment, Bokke Wine.

Rooiberg Sauvignon BlancRooiberg ShirazAnd finally value seekers (and restaurateurs), will be pleased and the quality/value proposition of a pair of wines from a cooperative outfit called Rooiberg in the Breede River Valley: 2012 Rooiberg Shiraz and 2012 Rooiberg Sauvignon Blanc. These are both impressive $12 wines ($10.50 licensee), perfect as a house/by the glass/party options. The shiraz spends one year in old wood and delivers a nice mix of fruity-spicy, very pleasant aromatics and lightly grippy palate fleshed out by solid fruit extract. The sauvignon blanc is as good as many examples in the high teens, with plush tree fruit flavours and no greenness. Availability: Consignment, Lamprecht International.

From the selection on offer at VINTAGES, head straight for the 2010 Avondale Cyclus, $29.95. Here is yet another example of a wine that I’ve tried for the first time without any prior knowledge of the winery, been mightily impressed, and then only after doing some research discovered that it’s a certified organic operation practicing biodynamic winegrowing. Is it yet another coincidence of biodynamic wines rising to the top? It seems less and less likely as anecdotal evidence mounts.

Avondale Cyclus 2010Graham Beck Brut Sparkling WineAvondale’s website begins: “Our ethos, Terra Est Vita meaning ‘Soil is Life’ encapsulates our view of Avondale Estate as a dynamic living system where soil, water and energy; plants, animals and people; even our buildings, are part of a complex web of relationships and networks, interconnected and interdependent.” I suggest you join in the relationship by buying this blend of 60% viognier, along with chenin blanc, chardonnay and semillon. A little more than half was fermented in 500l barrels and the rest in stainless steel, and the result is a rich, intensely flavoured, very ripe and plush textured white from Paarl, with fruit wavering between ripe orchard-peach and fully tropical-pineapple, honeydew melon. Wood is not a major factor, outside of its creamy, textural influence. Fans of plush, new world style whites with more than a touch of earthy old world minerality should especially take note.

Sparkling wine lovers should grab a bottle of the always reliable Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine, $18.95. Beck is somewhat of a sparkling wine specialist, and the Brut non-vintage is an all-round pleasing traditional method (aka “Cap Classique”) blend of chardonnay and pinot noir with about 18 months on the lees. It delivers a solid dose of toasty-biscuity flavour, with bright underlying citrus fruit and sharp acids, fine on it’s own or at highly versatile at the table.

Southern Rhône: More Beautiful ‘09s, ‘10s, and ‘11s

Domaine Saint Gayan GigondasDOMAINE DE LA CHARBONNIÈRE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPEChâteau La Nerthe Châteauneuf Du PapeThe Southern Rhône is thrust once again into the spotlight on June 22nd. It seems every release has at least a handful from the region and it’s not hard to figure out why, especially if the LCBO’s mandate really is to offer good deals from time to time. At this point, reporting on the quality and value emerging from the southern Rhône valley is a bit like reporting on the shenanigans plaguing Rob Ford’s mayoralty: the whole world already knows what’s going on, nothing surprises, and more and more juicy stories just keep coming out.

But on a much more positive, note, the continuous stream of superb wines – both quality and value – especially from 2009, 2010 and now some 2011s coming out of the southern Rhône should cause nothing more serious than the first world problems of lineups or stock outages at the LCBO.

At the top end, the wines worth jostling elbows for are the 2010 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($43.95), a beautifully composed and balanced, finessed wine; the more dense and massive 2010 Domaine De La Charbonnière Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($39.95); and another fine wine from Domaine Saint Gayan The 2009 Gigondas ($30.95), which drinks with the texture of pinot noir and the weight and flavour profile of grenache.

CHÂTEAU SIGNAC CUVÉE TERRA AMATAOrtas L'estellan GigondasLe Ferme Du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes Du Rhône VillagesFor wines closer to the everyday end of the price scale (pretty good days), I recommend the 2009 Château Signac Cuvée Terra Amata ($22.95) with masses of dark berry fruit and savoury-smoky-earthy character; the 2011 Ortas L’estellan Gigondas ($19.95) and its silkier, grenache-based flavour profile of baked red berry, garrigue and scorched earth; and finally, the smart value 2011 La Ferme Du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes Du Rhône-Villages ($17.00) a well-balanced, succulent and savoury wine with well above average complexity, depth and length for the money.

More Smart Buys

Outside of South Africa and the southern Rhône, my list below includes another half-dozen smart picks from Spain, Chile, Portugal, France and Georgia (the republic, not the state).

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links to find all of John Szabo’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

From the June 22, 2013 Vintages release:

John’s Top Smart Buys
Seductive Southern Rhône
All New Releases


Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay 2012

Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Southern Rhone reds

Vintages released a selection of southern Rhone reds today tailor-made for barbecued meats. Find these picks via

Domaine de Pierre Pape Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010
$37.95 (91 Points)
This is a full-bodied Rhône from Vignobles Maynard, a fifth-generation family-run estate. Vines are an average of 45 years old with grenache the dominant grape; the rest are syrah and cinsault. Deep with ripe berry and prune flavours, and notes of pinecone and garrigue, it’s a good match for grilled lamb or steak.

Domaine Grandy Vacqueyras 2010
$18.95 (89 Points)
A blend of 60% grenache with the rest syrah and mourvèdre, this vintage scored a gold medal at the Concours des Vins à Orange 2011. Tannins are velvety and the bouquet is of ripe berry with notes of wild herbs and chocolate. Mouth-filling with ripe strawberry/cherry flavours and hints of meaty bacon while a lively acidity keeps all in balance. Have with grilled duck breast.

Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux La Tour Sarrasine Gigondas 2010
$26.95 (91 Points)
This blend of largely grenache with syrah and mourvèdre grapes is sustainably grown on a family estate at the foot of the mountain range les Dentelles de Montmirail at Gigondas. It’s medium-full bodied, complex and spiced, yet remarkably balanced with silky tannins. Pair with game meats such as venison and wild boar.

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Sara d’Amato’s Take on the Aug 18th Vintages Release

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Sunshine Breeds Charm in the Southern Rhône, Cool Whites of the Pacific Northwest and Food for Thought from Italy

Only a couple of short weeks ago I was lamenting leaving the beautiful Provencal countryside and the bustling, rampart-encircled city of Avignon where I had spent the last five weeks with my two little boys. After a fully relaxing trip, due in part to the calming lavender aromatics that permeated the air at the peak of harvest, the indelible sunshine, and the leisurely tempo of locals, it was back to reality in the clinical, whitewashed LCBO tasting lab. To my delight, a ray of nostalgic sunlight was beaming through in the form of a substantial Southern Rhône release due to hit the shelves in just a few days. The breadth of the selection is impressive and the quality is certainly representative of the charm of the region.

Also of note is this week’s mini feature of the Pacific Northwest – small and limited but with a couple of wines of note. Finally, Southern France is not the only hot/Mediterranean climate to grace the shelves in abundance this week as the sweeping selection of Italian wines emanating from north to south prove to be an impressive offering.

Southern Rhône

Pont d'Avignon

Pont d’Avignon and Lavender

Unlike the classic, renown regions of the northern Rhône that engender immediate respect and admiration like Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Condrieu, the diverse regions of the southern Rhône typically inspire less reverence, with the glaring exception of the eminent Châteauneuf-du-Pape. From an abundance of pop culture references to a long, reverent history, this wine has become synonymous with the elite and glitterati. Nevertheless, despite its notoriety and considering other French regions of repute, the price of Châteauneuf is relatively reasonable. And keeping in mind that Châteauneuf is generally at the peak of the Southern Rhône price point, there lies a sea of great value wines from less famous yet equally impressive appellations, most notably that of Gigondas. The regions of Vacqueyras, Cairrane, Vinsobres and Rasteau are also not to be overlooked, though are generally made to be less ageworthy than the notorious Châteauneuf.


Galets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

There does exist a great divide between the profiles of appellations to the north and south. The northern style tends to be more ageworthy, heady, tense and focused, permitting only the use of Syrah in the reds and Viognier most notably in the whites although Marsanne and Roussane are also used. In the south, a plethora of grapes are permitted – 13 in total for use in reds, all found in the prestigious blend of Château Beaucastel. The wines of the south are also more charming – some would call them rustic. They benefit from and are impacted by more extreme heat, sunshine and drought along with the famous galets (large stones), that are sometimes over a meter deep, and that reflect and retain heat to regulate the needs of the vines. The term ‘garrigue’ is a terroir descriptor of the south and refers to the aromas that surround the vineyards such as thyme, lavender, anise and dusty earth, and that with any luck find their way into your glass. These are mood changing wines, escapist wines, and wines that emanate sunshine.

Bosquet Des Papes Cuvée Tradition Châteauneuf Du PapeDomaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs Côtes Du RhôneWorthy of your examination are three wines that embody the best of these characteristics. Of course, there are others in this release that deserve your attention as well but these particularly embody the charm that the south has to offer. From the generic Côtes du Rhône appellation, the Domaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs Côtes Du Rhône 2010 ($16.95), mentioned also by John Szabo, most notably expresses the term ‘garrigue’ in a glass, even more so than its slightly more complex counterpart in this release, the Cuvee Philippine. Gigondas often falls in the shadow of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but I will often find wines of equal or even greater refinement in the former. Grapes are grown primarily on slopes and benefit from cooler breezes that help to preserve acidity in the wine. A fine example of this finesse and charm is Domaine Le Clos Des Cazaux La Tour Sarrasine Gigondas 2010 ($26.95). Largely Grenache based, it benefits as well from terrifically spicy Syrah. Finally, Bosquet Des Papes Cuvée Tradition Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010 (42.95) exudes that traditional rusticity and allure that make Châteauneuf-du-Pape so endearing.

If you are in the mood to venture further north, the family name synonymous with the northern Rhone, Guigal, has a particularly intriguing offer at a mere $15.95. The E. Guigal Côtes Du Rhône Blanc 2011 made largely from Viognier but also blended with Roussane and Marsanne, delivers exceptional impact and flavour for the dollar.

E. Guigal Côtes Du Rhône Blanc side

Pacific Northwest Mini Feature

The Pacific Northwest Mini feature (and Mini it is) unfortunately offers a largely commercial style selection of wines, but there are a couple of noteworthy whites that should not be disregarded. The first stems from Eyrie Vineyards, an Oregon pioneer who was responsible for shockingly showing up the French way back in 1979 in Paris and 1980 in Beaune (subsequent to the legendary Paris Spurrier tasting) when the 1975 Eyrie Vineyard pinot noir outshone many great Burgundies. This largely gave rise to the serious pinot noir production we now benefit from today in Oregon. This estate is also home to America’s first pinot gris, and the vines have greatly benefitted from their tenure since the ‘60s. Elegant, exotic and spicy, the 2009 Eyrie Pinot Gris ($25.95) is well worth discovering.

Calera Pinot NoirQuails' Gate ChardonnayEyrie Pinot GrisHomegrown and from an estate that is constantly in the spotlight for its award winning wines, in particular those complex Burgundian varietals, Quails’ Gate has put forth a solid Chardonnay for less than $20. (2010 Quails’ Gate Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia). Able to outshine many Burgundian offerings at this price, this well-oaked but integrated Chardonnay has great charisma and ageworthy potential.

And although it surely stretches the geographic boundaries of the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t help but highlight the 2009 Calera Pinot Noir, Central Coast, California, ($31.95). Generous, polished, and showing exceptional distinctiveness, it is fortunately available to us locally. Calera plants their estate Burgundian varietals on limestone rich slopes at a dizzying 2200 feet above sea level, lowering the temperatures significantly from the lower lying, surrounding area. However, for this Central Coast series, the grapes are sourced from select growing partners throughout the Coast.

Food for Thought from Italy

Nowhere in the world is there produced such an abundance of food friendly wines as in Italy. For those who have spent any time in this extremely diverse country, you’ll notice that the one thing that every region has in common is thinking ahead to the next meal. That unifying feature is pervasive in the wine culture and it becomes difficult not to taste the wine and immediately think of what one would eat. I generally try to save these wines for last when tasting through the upcoming release as it usually inspires my dinner ahead.

Given the number of Italian wines in this release, there could easily have been a second feature. At the same time, there is no obvious theme to this release, making a spotlight difficult. In an effort to help navigate these offerings, here are, simply, some highlights.

Stocco Refosco Dal Peduncolo RossoFrom northern Italy, in the region of Fruili, resides a red stemmed, wild, nutty, and perfumed varietal known as refosco dal peduncolo. An old varietal, it is presumed indigenous to Italy. I was greatly pleased by the following example from Stocco Refosco Dal Peduncolo Rosso 2009, ($14.95) for its value and its clean, modern take without sacrificing the varietal distinctiveness. It is a full-bodied yet cooler climate red with delightful freshness and plenty of versatile food matches. Try with spaghetti Bolognese or stuffed red peppers with beef and tomatoes.

Due Torri Amarone Della Valpolicella ClassicoAltesino Rosso Di MontalcinoA classic and consistent Vintages offering is Altesino Rosso Di Montalcino 2009, Tuscany ($18.95), a vibrant Sangiovese-dominant blend with a touch of Cabernet and Merlot. Try with freshly grilled porcini mushrooms. Lastly, Due Torri Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2008, Veneto, Italy, ($39.95) is sure to turn heads. Not exactly a classic vintage for Valpolicella but one that has proved interesting as the wines generally exhibit greater freshness and less heaviness due to cooler temperatures and heavy rain during most of the summer. It is believed by some that the slight amount of additional acidity will add to the structure and give this vintage greater longevity – completely reasonable, but only time will tell. Certainly, the Due Torri is showing signs of graceful maturity but it is no push over. Try with aged, herbal infused cheeses or a hearty Ossobucco.

Over and out! David will be back from British Columbia shortly and will surely have plenty of stories with which to regale you. He will also be back covering the next release as per usual. Enjoy the weekend and I look forward to sharing more stories of recent Rhône adventures soon. Next week I’ll be off to judge the Intervin Wine Awards in Niagara and will be sure to report on those that captivated our attention.

Cin Cin,


From the August 18th, 2012 Vintages release:

Sara’s Top Picks
All Reviews


Sbragia Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabnernet Sauvignon

Filed under: Wine, , , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for August 18th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Olympic Special: Back-to-Back Golds for the Rhône Valley; Disqualifying Wineries from the Games and How To Win Gold in the Terroir Event

This Olympic-inspired report previews all of the highlights from the Southern Rhône’s 2nd gold medal winning vintage in as many years, the feature of the August 18th release. Considering the superb value on offer, it’s well worth your while to tune in. And in addition to the top ten smart buys, I also consider whether wineries should be disqualified from the Games and what high-performance athletes and terroir have in common. Read on for all the news, views and wines to choose.

The Southern Rhône wins Gold Again in 2010

Rhône Valley Vineyards

Southern Rhône 2010 is the feature for the Vintages August 18th release. Long time subscribers may recall my excitement over the 2009 vintage, which produced exceptional results in the Southern Rhône, and 2010 seems to be as strong or even stronger – another top performance. “2010 will be an exceptional vintage; it could be amongst the best ever made,” declared Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel at a tasting in London in October 2011. “The colour is far superior to anything I’ve seen in the last eight years to ten years and the Mourvèdre is sumptuous. We are expecting wines with freshness and balance. It’s the best vintage since 1978”.

Indeed there’s an extra degree of freshness and balance in the 2010, which should make these both delicious up front yet also eminently age worthy. The August 18th release is chalk full of excellent wines at, importantly, excellent prices. The top three on the podium for me are Domaine les Grands Bois Cuvée Philippine Côtes du Rhône-villages ($17.95), Domaine du Père Pape Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($37.95) and Domaine les Grands Bois Cuvée les Trois Soeurs Côtes du Rhône ($16.95).

Domaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Philippine Côtes Du Rhône VillagesDomaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs Côtes Du RhôneDomaine Les Grand Bois is a generational operation since 1929, and as such farms predominantly old vines – 3/4 of the estate was planted before 1950, and several parcels from 1902 are still in production. Grapes are certified organic. The Cuvée Philipine is a Grenache-dominant blend, tremendously full, rich and densely structured, with grippy tannins, plenty of spice, dark fruit and garrigue flavour, easily the equal of many Châteauneuf du Pape, and a great price as such. Les Trois Soeurs is very nearly as good, made from slightly higher yields (45hl/ha to 35 hl/ha). It’s a more floral, elegant, fruity-spicy example of Côtes du Rhône, pure and fresh, with tremendous appeal. Both of these wines show the impeccable balance that comes from mature vines in a fine vintage.

Domaine Du Père Pape Châteauneuf Du PapeDomaine du Père’s Châteauneuf is already rather open and fragrant with lovely exotic spice, leather, baked red and black berry fruit and kirsch-licorice flavours. It highlights the character of the vintage: immediately pleasing yet structured enough to age well. Click here for the top ten list of 2010 Rhônes, all 88 points of better with some very smart buys.

In the rest of the top ten smart buys this week, Italy makes a very strong showing with 5 wines qualifying for the finals. From a top value Sicilian white to a classic Chianti, there’s much to choose from. Two South Africans also make the finals, as well as a terrific Portuguese white that will have fans of classically styled, complex, old world whites waving their cash at the check out counter to grab another bottle. See all the results here.

Thoughts on Disqualifying Wineries From the Games and How to Win a Terroir Gold Medal

I haven’t been glued to the television watching the Olympics, though I did manage to catch a few of the highlights. There’s something special about watching people put themselves to the ultimate test. It’s really the only way to truly discover your strengths and weaknesses, and anyone willing to expose himself or herself to failure deserves some admiration. The rest of us are just armchair quarterbacks. I watched history’s fastest man Usain Bolt leave the field behind to claim his second gold medal and a new Olympic record in the marquee event of athletics, the 100m, and the heartbreaking loss of the Canadian women’s soccer team in the semi-finals against their arch-nemesis, the USA, conceding a goal in the extra seconds of extra time, after their lead in regular time was erased following an outlandish call by referee Christiana Pedersen on goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball too long. It was a perfectly by-the-book call, though one that is surely the footballing equivalent of getting a ticket for jaywalking. (At press time, the women’s team had defeated France to take the bronze – kudos to them for bouncing back and showing Olympic spirit)

There’s another Olympic side story that also caught my attention, one that has raised important ethical questions regarding the motivation of athletes and the purpose of the Olympics in the first place. Those of you following the games probably heard the story of the four pairs of badminton players who were disqualified from the games for what’s been described as match fixing – purposely losing their final round robin matches (after already qualifying to move on) in order to face a more favourable opponent in the next round. The Badminton World Federation sanctioned two teams from South Korea and one each from China and Indonesia, accusing the pairs of “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Then there was Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi’s suspicious exit from the track partway through an 800m qualifying heat. He was booted from the Olympics immediately afterwards, only to be reinstated a few hours later after a medical review. A nagging knee injury was the reason given for quitting the race. Yet the following day, Makloufi ran to win the gold in the 1500m. A miraculous recovery? It appeared to some observers as though Makloufi purposely stopped running the 800m in order to save himself for the 1500m, a race in which he had a much higher chance of medaling. Both cases have caused uproars in the sporting community and beyond. Olympic officials cried fowl, citing the duty of athletes to give their all, especially for the spectators who have paid dearly to watch them compete. Between tickets sales, sponsors and advertisers, there’s a lot of money at stake.

But wait a minute. I could have sworn that it was the aim of all Olympics athletes to win medals first, not entertain the crowd and please the sponsors. Their duty is first and foremost to their country, not advertisers. Some entertainment is bound to happen along the way. The problem in my view lies not with the athletes, but with the organizers of the competition, who, especially in the case of the format of the badminton tournament, opened the door to the possibility that loosing a match can work to your advantage. If that’s part of the strategy to win gold, then you have to live with it (I guess they could have lost with a little more subtlety and tact). At this level of competition winning and losing turns on a dime and strategy is a critical part of success. These athletes were using sensible strategy to do what they are supposed to do: win. But of course we love to see everyone give 110% all of the time, even if it’s not realistic.

Which brings me finally to my tenuous (even more than usual) tie in to wine. In view of these mini Olympic scandals, I turned to considering terroir – the nature of a patch of vineyard land – in the light of performance athletes. I began to wonder how many potentially great vineyards are underperforming because the efforts of the winegrower are focused elsewhere. Perhaps there’s another site where the chances of making gold medal winning wine are perceived to be higher, so all of the resources are logically invested there, as Makloufi opted to invest in the 1500m rather than the 800m. Or maybe, the winery restaurant or summer concert series or weekend events are drawing resources away from the business of making wine, and full potential is never realized, the reason why a decathlete can never really compete with the results of the top athletes in the individual events.

The wine business is a for-profit enterprise, as the business of sports is to win (and to make profit). To make great wine in a marginal climate (not naturally gifted) like Ontario’s is very expensive. Very few wineries have the financial ability to invest equal resources into all of their vineyard sites (unless, like an athlete who competes in a single event, the winery has only a single vineyard, into which they obviously put all of their love.) Should we expect 110% from every winery’s wines every time, or accept the commercial reality that winning with every wine is not realistic? That’s why most operations create different quality tiers: there are the everyday, amateur athlete wines with minimal investment, the mid-range competitive wines, and the high-end, ultra-elite performance athlete wines that get all of the funding.

There’s a direct correlation between investment and results. Canada’s disappointing medal count this year can be attributed directly to the relatively paltry sums invested into amateur sports: $62 million a year (of which $34m goes to summer sports). Compare that to Great Britain’s investment of over double that, roughly half a billion dollars since the last Olympics, and then look at GB’s medal haul this year and the connection is clear. Investment pays. Canada appears to be stuck in the bottom tier of world sports.

The particularly solvent wineries, like countries that invest heavily into sports, do everything it takes to make gold medal winning wines in all of their vineyards. Some wineries are the equivalent of the astonishingly gifted swimmer Michael Phelps. They win at everything they do. They’re successful because of two reasons: 1) they have the ability to invest; and 2) they have the vineyards with medal winning potential in the first place.

There’s the stark reality of the athlete who, no matter how much training he or she puts in, will never turn in a gold medal performance. Some patches of land simply don’t have what it takes to produce great wine, regardless of the amount of effort and investment made. There is poor terroir just as there is good terroir. How much time and energy is spent trying to make gold medal wine out of 8th place terroir, I wonder. I’ve seen many examples.

Then you start to wonder about all of the great terroirs that have yet to be, and maybe never will be discovered. What if Usain Bolt’s grade school teacher hadn’t suggested he try his hand at athletics? How many men potentially faster then Bolt never made it to a track? These are the terroirs that are still covered by scrub or forest, or worse, that have fallen prey to urban development, like countless hectares of potential cru classé vineyards buried under the paved streets of Bordeaux, or quite possibly, the streets of St. Catharines, or Beamsville or Grimsby. From a wine lover’s perspective, these urban planning ‘calls’ are the equivalent of Pedersen’s call that robbed the women’s soccer team of their chance to make gold (it was reported that US striker Abby Wambach goaded Pedersen into making the call by counting out loud in her ear every time McLeod picked up the ball, eerily similar to large real estate companies relentlessly lobbying urban planning commissions for the rights to develop agricultural land).

Or even more tragic, what about the great terroirs that have fallen into the wrong hands, like a team with immense potential left to languish in mediocrity under an incompetent coach, or an athlete raised in a country without sufficient resources to bring out their best? What of the incompetent or cash-strapped winegrowers who only ever turn out mediocre wine from a site with brilliant potential? Perhaps the yet-to-be-formed World Wine Federation should disqualify these wineries from the marketplace and suspend them for “not using one’s best efforts to make the best wine possible” or “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to great terroir.” Just a thought.

Gold Medal Terroir: Quarry Road Vineyard

In the midst of these errant musings, I happened to be tasting through the latest releases from Tawse Winery. Now here’s a Michael Phelps-esque operation with both the financial ability and the natural gift (good vineyards) to make multiple gold medal-quality wines (Tawse has been named winery of the year twice at the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards). Tawse also focuses on a wide range of single vineyard wines all made to similar exacting standards, so it was a perfect opportunity to host my own Olympic terroir event. I set up a few mini single blind tastings (I knew the wines but not the order) of pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling to see which terroir would come out on top.

In the end, one vineyard kept stepping up to the podium: Quarry Road. And considering its track record of exceptional wines from previous vintages, I was as surprised to see it come out on top as I was to see Bolt repeat in the 100m. It isn’t the biggest or strongest or fastest terroir – the Robyn’s Block chardonnay and the Cherry Avenue pinot noir are both bigger, more immediately impressive wines – but it was the most complete. There was an extra kick in the finish, like the ability to sprint the final stadium lap in the marathon. There was a more distinct sense of minerality, the elusive attribute that separates the very good from the very best, which can’t be taught or trained, it’s either there or it’s not. But the winegrower still has to bring it out.

Tawse Winemaker Paul Pender

Tawse Winemaker Paul Pender

Paul Pender, winemaker at Tawse Winery, once believed that the Quarry Road vineyard would never even qualify for the competition. It was only after converting to organics in 2006 and then to biodynamics in 2007, that he began to see the potential. It was in fact the chardonnay from the Quarry Road vineyard that most convinced him of the validity of biodynamics, even if he was skeptical at first. “The transition years were the toughest; getting the vines off chemicals is like getting junkies off of their fix [athletes off steroids?]. In 2006, 85% of the vineyard was declassified [into second-tier wines]”. Then BD was introduced, and “by 2008, the wine was beautiful: the minerality increased, the terroir became more transparent. It went from being my least favorite site to one of our best.” Perhaps biodynamics is the equivalent of a high-performance training center for athletes: apply it to the right sites/athletes and you get results.

But not all athletes put through the training center will achieve the same results. For me, Quarry Road is a site for chardonnay and pinot noir. The riesling is also excellent, but somehow less distinctive. And the gewürztraminer (though still very good) is like the weak link in the 4x100m, the 4th man on the Jamaican relay team alongside Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell.

In any case, these are all wines worth watching.

Quarry Road Vineyard Details

Location: Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation, near the top of the Niagara Escarpment.
Total Area: 43 acres, of which 20 acres of tightly planted Pinot Noir, 11 acres of tightly planted Riesling, 9 acres of Chardonnay and 3 acres Gewurztraminer.

Wines to try:

  1. Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $34.95
  2. Tawse Winery Pinot Noir Quarry Road Vineyard 2009, Vinemount Ridge $34.95
  3. Tawse Winery Quarry Road Vineyard Riesling 2011, Vinemount Ridge $23.95
  4. Tawse Quarry Road Gewurztraminer 2011, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $24.95

From the August 18th, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Golden Rhônes
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier


Sbragia Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabnernet Sauvignon

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , , ,

Lawrason’s Take On Vintages June 9th Release

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Hot Times, Chile’s Rhône-ifcation, Tempting Tempranillos, Nifty Whites, and Stratus Meets Paul Hobbs  –  

Breaking News – On to Vintages June 9 release momentarily, but first, Parliament last night unanimously passed Bill C-311 opening up personal carrying and shipping of Canadian wine between provinces. The Canadian wine landscape just shifted. I am planning to write about reaction and ramifications in the days ahead, but in the meantime congratulations to Okanagan MP Dan Albas for getting his private members bill passed into law. WineAlign has been reviewing many winery-only BC wines for some time, and BC shoppers as well as those from other provinces can find a wealth of Ontario wines as well. Stay tuned!

Chile is the featured country in this release, and as colleague John Szabo has already pointed out – it is a very strong line-up. And I echo his praise for Concha Y Toro as the engine behind the quality of this particular group of wines, and perhaps Chile as a whole. To have such a powerful and conscientous leader sets the bar high for and inspires the rest of the country. Indeed I would argue that collectively the top companies of Chile – including Santa Rita/Carmen, Errazuriz and Montes – have done their country very proud as they have brought it into the forefront of the wine world in the past generation. I will return to Chile momentarily with an observation about its Rhone-ification, but first to the South of France itself.

Hot Times for Mediterranean France

If you have only recently registered for WineAlign you may not be aware that in the past year our critics have been doing handsprings over the red wines from the Rhône Valley and the South of France. It began with the arrival of the near-perfect 2009 vintage, and it continues with the excellent 2010s. The theme re-appears in this release with very well priced reds from various appellations in Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. I would have grouped Saturday’s Rhône releases in this bunch as well because the Rhône Valley is at the heart of the matter, located between Provence and Languedoc, and using the same gang of grape varieties – with grenache, syrah, mourvedre, carigan and cinsault leading the way.

Provence vineyards near Mt. Ventoux

Bordeaux is about refinement, Burgundy is about energy, Mediterranean France is about richness and warmth. I spent a week in Rhône/Provence last month, and I can still feel the sun on my skin, smell the lavender scented garrigue in the air, and taste the ripe plum fruit, hot stones and melted licorice on my palate. I was staying near the foot of Mont Ventoux, only a few kilomtres from the beginning of a “wine road” that passes through Côtes du Rhône villages that are nestled against the hillsides of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Outings took me often through appellations like Beaumes-de-Venise, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Sablet, Seguret and Rasteau;  and I have begun to deliniate their individual styles, and to bond with them. I really enjoy Gigondas, for example, where limestone soils and slightly northwest skew imbue a certain finesse to the otherwise rich and lush wines. Seek out one of the last 80 remaining bottles of Pierre Amadieu Domaine Grand Romane Cuvée Prestige Gigondas that was released last December. The Chateau du Trignon 2006 being released Saturday is a good showcase for the finesse of Gigondas if missing a bit of depth.

Montirius Le Clos VacqueyrasRomain Duvernay VacqueyrasBut Vacqueyras, which was only granted Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée status in 1990, is the region that has somehow gotten deepest under my skin. It is the most rugged, warm and Rhônish – perhaps more like Châteauneuf-du-Pape the iconic appellation it faces across the flatter ground dissected by the Rhône River. But Vacqueyras wines are half the price of Châteauneuf. It’s aspect tilts more to the south, around the bend from Gigondas, and gets less effect of the northerly Mistral winds that cool. The soils here are very sandy, dry and stony creating wines that are very ripe, powerful and somehow dusty, like the excellent Romain Duvernay Vacqueyras 2009 ($24.95). The conditions here also attract organic and biodynamic winemakers, and although I have not yet tasted grenache-based Montirius le Clos Vacqueyras 2007 ($28.95), I will buying a few bottles Saturday to add to my dwindling batch of 2006 purchased last year. This is beefy, deep bio- red indeed!

Mont Tauch Le Tauch FitouHegarty Chamans No. 2The huge, rambling Languedoc-Roussillon region to the west of the Rhône Valley offers even better value than the Rhône itself – but I would need to stay there a year to figure out the complex permutations of soil, aspect, maritime proximity and altitude (hmm, not a bad idea). “The Midi” was a land that time seemed to forget as modern-day fine wine production focused on other regions of France and the New World, but it is now emerging – largely thanks to sons and daughters and few foreigners – to take its rightful place. By and large its wines are still priced under $25, which might make some shy away in fear that the wines might be inferior. Well most are actually under-priced, like Mont Tauch Le Tauch 2009 from the appellation of Fitou, which given its rich, succulent melted licorice palate is a steal at $19.95. Likewise the 2009 Hegarty Chamans No. 2 from Minervois at $21.95. I have not scored/reviewed this at press time due to a hint of cork taint in one bottle but it is a hugely impressive, rich red farmed biodynamically on 15 ha of clay-limestone surrounded by woodlands on the slopes of the Montaigne Noir in Minervois. I will re-taste on release.

Chile’s Rhone-ification

We have all come to associate Chile with Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, carmenère and merlot, largely because these varieties were all that mattered in the wine world when the various waves of European immigrants arrived, first in the post-phylloxera era of the late 19th Century, then 100 years later when the Bordelais (Rothschilds) and Californians (Mondavi) flew in to create iconic Bordeaux-inspired blends. If you wanted to be a “somebody” in the wine world in the 80s and 90s you had to make great cabernet-based wine.

But Chile, as a scan of the atlas will tell you, is more Mediterranean in clime, and so is California for that matter. That means the aforementioned Rhône grape varieties should do very well in Chile, and they do.  But the first syrah was only planted by Errazruiz in 1993! My greatest revelation in Chilean wine came about three years ago when I was tasting at De Martino, which brought out some wonderfully, rich, fragrant and ripe Viejas Tinajas harvested from 100 year old carignan vines planted in heart red soils in coastal mountains in the Itata region far to the south.

Maycas Del Limari Reserva Especial SyrahOveja Negra The Lost BarrelEmiliana Signos de Origen la Vinilla 2010 are Rhone varieties, and at $19.95 it offers great value in buxom grill-ready white, and an intriguing flavour journey where the spicy persimmon-like marsanne and anise scented viognier in particular hold their own. I would love to see the result without any chardonnay mollification.

Among reds 2008 Oveja Negra The Lost Barrel ($24.95) is a successful composite of 40% syrah, 40% old vine carignan, plus carmenère and petit verdot from a new project in the Maule Valley by Edgard Carter, formerly of Errazuriz. And finally, we witness the return of Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Syrah 2008 ($19.95) from the Limarí Valley of northern Chile. Syrah in particular seems well suited to this region, where direct coastal influence sweeps inland across rolling terrain that is underpinned by limestone soils that are fairly rare in Chile.

Tempting Tempranillos

Zuccardi Q TempranilloI’ve always had a hard time nailing the character of Spain’s tempranillo grape. This is partially because it is such a chameleon in its homeland, changing its personality according to its terroir, quite naturally so. But Spain’s historical penchant for ageing its reds a long time in oak and subsuming the fruit doesn’t help. Wouldn’t you know that it has taken a couple of off-shore tempranillo’s to help with the task. First came Tar & Roses 2011 Tempranillo from Victoria, Australia that will be released in July (watch for a special WineAlign report on Victoria). Amid this less oaked version I found the bright cherry fruit I recognized as tempranillo (especially in young less oaky wines from Ribera del Duero). Then, on this release, came Zuccardi Q Tempranillo 2008($19.95) from the Santa Rosa Vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina. It too is heavily oaked in a nod to the old country, but the fruit is so ripe and rich in sunny Mendoza that it shines through, again with the brightness of a fresh baked cherry pie (if with mocha nut ice cream on the side). Love the rich texture here too, by the way – this slightly different style of big red is ideal for the barbecue.

Fernández De Piérola ReservaIf your tastes lean more to the classical interpretation on tempranillo a la Rioja, don’t miss the riveting Fernández de Piérola Rioja Reserva 2004 at $25.95. With its share of farmy funk, and mature nutty, oaky character it will not appeal to all perhaps, but as mentioned before I like some farmy funk in my wines as long as it doesn’t send the fruit out to pasture. And this has lovely cherry-currant fruit and all kinds of other complexity set in an elegant, piquant frame.

Nifty Summer Whites

It’s becoming a tradition to group some of my favourite whites into a little corner of their own. I might add that whites of this type – meaning bright, purely reflective of their origins and inexpensive – find their way onto my personal shopping lists more than reds – especially at this time of year. My white wine fridge is always full, indeed sometimes choked up with favourites from releases last year or the year before. And yes I have a separate 60 bottle white wine unit with temperature lowered for immediate drinking – the best cellaring/wine enjoyment strategy I have ever employed.

Coyote's Run Black Paw Vineyard ChardonnayHunter's Jane Hunter Sauvignon BlancLes Piliers Viognier 2010Ontario of course is prime territory for crisp, pure summer whites. On this release I refer you to Coyote’s Run Black Paw Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($21.95) from the Four Mile Creek appellation in Niagara.  Winemaker David Sheppard, who worked many years for Inniskillin, can turn out some fine, elegant wines. Sometimes I feel Coyote’s Run is trying to make too many wines (they are not alone in Niagara in this) but I always pay attention to their single vineyard Black Paw offerings, one of the finest little “crus” in Niagara. From Marlborough, New Zealand don’t miss Hunter’s Jane Hunter Sauvignon Blanc 2011, a crisp, crunchy, mouth-watering steal at $19.95. And here we are back in the south of France to close out the selection. Les Piliers Viognier 2010, wearing nothing but the new Vin de France appellation label, offers very good viognier character, purity and ease of drinking for only $15.95. In 2010 Vin De France was created to allow varietal labelling of wines that might have been blended from anywhere in France. Critics at the time bemoaned the loss of ‘heritage’ and predicted French wine would become as homogenized as Coca-Cola, which of course is alarmist sound-bite nonsense. This is indeed a nifty viognier indeed, and still as French as can be.

Stratus Debuts at the ROM

J-L Groux and Paul Hobbs

Next Thursday, June 14, Stratus Vineyards is holding a tasting at C5 Restaurant at the Royal Ontario Museum that debuts three new wines, each made in consultation with California and Argentina-based oenologist Paul Hobbs. All from 2009, they include a Chardonnay, Malbec and Syrah.  Other new releases will also be featured. For tickets ($45), which include food by ROM chef Corbin Tomaszeski, click here.

I was able to taste the wines and meet Paul Hobbs in Toronto in late April. The very talented Californian, who I have been following since he made his first pinots in Sonoma over 20 years ago, did not have much direct influence on the Stratus 2009s as his contract only began that year. But he has already had impact in terms of viticultural methods to lower yields and introducing winemaker J. L Groux to techniques to handle fermentation with native yeasts. Hobbs said in April that he is very keen on chardonnay in Ontario, and also sees potential for malbec and syrah. He actually grew up in wine country –  Niagara County, New York.

To check out my reviews on many of the new Stratus wines, simply type Stratus into the WineAlign Search field and scroll away (or click here).

Wynns Tasting with Sue Hodder

A few tickets remain for the WineAlign exclusive tastings with Wynn’s winemaker Sue Hodder in Ottawa (June 19) and Toronto (June 20). Rod Phillips will lead the Ottawa event at the Empire Grill, I will host Sue in Toronto at the Arcadian Lofts. I have met and tasted with this fine winemaker several times, most recently on her turf in Coonawarra, South Australia in 2011. The day was a revelation. She will modestly tell you that much of the great improvement to Wynn’s wines has come from incredible viticulture research by the Wynn’s team, but there is a certain natural polish, richness and elegance that reflects the winemaker too.  The full list of wines to be tasted, plus ticket purchasing info is available here .

And that’s it for this edition. I have tasted about 60% of this release (missed the rosés and sparklers), but I will attempt to fill in the holes in the days ahead after the wines are released.

From the June 9th, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

 Wolf Blass Premium Selection Shiraz

 Toronto Wine & Spirit Festival

Aussie Barbie

The Wine Establishment

Filed under: Wine, , , , , ,

The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part II (Rhône and Champagne) ~ Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Collectors and top regions of France: For most French wine collectors, the most prestigious winegrowing regions of France are Bordeaux and Burgundy. What follows is more open to debate. Some would say the Rhône Valley takes the bronze medal, others Champagne.

Of the two, which is better is difficult to say, the wines of each region are so different stylistically. The Rhône, divided between north and south, plays host to some of the greatest full-bodied red wines of France, complimented by an increasing smattering of fine whites. Champagne, on the other hand, while coming across as a one-trick pony, is anything but. The world’s undisputed mecca for premium sparklers and one of the most addictive types of wine in existence, to understand and appreciate the many nuances between one great champagne and another is one of life’s noble pleasures.

And yet, it’s probably a safe bet that most French collectors have far more Rhône wine in their cellars than champagne, especially when considering the heightened price of a standard bottle of bubbly. Sheer selection is another factor. There are far more Rhône wines of different type than those in Champagne. On this score, the Rhône even has vague similarities to Bordeaux.

Guigal La TurqueIn the Northern Rhône, where Syrah is the only permitted red grape, there are four appellations of critical worth. Closest to Lyon are the steep slopes of the celebrated Côte-Rôtie, where Syrah may be blended with up to 20% Viognier—in reality most producers use much less. Combining ruggedness with finesse and long-term aging potential, the most lauded examples tend to hail from the Côte Blonde and Côte Brune, of which the three single-vineyard labels of Marcel Guigal are must-haves: La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. Aside from Guigal, other outstanding domaines/négociants include Gerin, René Rostaing, Chapoutier, Joseph Jamet, and Bernard Burgaud. Other respected operations include Ogier, Jean-Michel Stephan, Clusel-Roch, Château de St-Cosme (Gigondas-based), Tardieu-Laurent, and Gilles Barge.

Georges Vernay CondrieuSouth of Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu. On the verge of extinction fifty years ago, the speciality here is Viognier, a grape which has practically exploded in popularity over the past fifteen years. Though nowadays planted in just about every major winegrowing nation on Earth, few would dispute that those of Condrieu are best, particularly those sourced from single vineyards. Top producers, many of which also make excellent wines from neighbouring Côte-Rôtie, are Georges Vernay, Guigal, René Rostaing, Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, and François Villard. There are at least several others, along with Château Grillet, a single-estate AOC located within Condrieu.

Chave HermitageFurther south, skipping St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for the moment, we come to Hermitage. Crafted to 100% Syrah, for both collectors and enthusiasts red Hermitage is one of the most esteemed wines in France. Covering a mere 134ha and comprising just over 12 different vineyards (or climats), Hermitage is to Syrah what Chambertin is to Pinot Noir: the Old World-wide benchmark for practically every other wine of similarity. With more depth, concentration, structure, vitality, and durability than most other wines, great Hermitage is a force to be reckoned with.

Even the whites are monumental. Crafted from Roussanne and Marsanne, the best examples can keep just as long as the reds, in some cases longer. Top producers of red and white versions include Jean-Louis Chave, Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Marc Sorrel, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, and Ferraton. Other producers worth noting are Domaine du Colombier, Caves de Tain-l’Hermitage, plus a few others.

Similar to Hermitage are the reds of Cornas. Connected to the southernmost boundaries of St-Joseph on the left bank of the Rhône, only red wines crafted to 100% Syrah are produced here. Like Hermitage, these are powerful, immensely ageworthy wines, crafted from steep slopes and differentiated primarily by their heightened ruggedness and slightly less sophisticated disposition. Oftentimes reasonably priced, top names, many with plots in other appellations, include Thierry Allemand, Auguste Clape, Jean-Luc Colombo, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Tardieu-Laurent, Vincent Paris (formerly Robert Michel), and Courbis.

While these are the Northern Rhône’s four most prestigious appellations, the best of Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph should not be overlooked. In both cases, Syrah is the only permitted red grape, though a small percentage of Marsanne and/or Roussanne may be added. A small amount of white wine from these two grapes is also made. In all, the best examples make for sturdy, increasingly exceptional wines. Once again, top producers/négociants often have plots in other appellations: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, François Villard, Domaine Combier, Courbis, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Chapoutier, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, Gilles Robin, and Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon.

Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques PerrinCompared to the Northern Rhône, the Southern Rhône is far larger, more diverse, and offers just as many collectables. Here, Châteauneuf-du-Pape leads the way, where thirteen grape varietals are permitted: Grenache (plus Grenache Blanc), Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Roussanne, Picpoul (plus Picpoul Blanc), Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Picardin. For the most part however, the classic blend is Grenache (predominant), Syrah, and Mourvèdre.

Chateau La NertheAlong with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf is the most lauded appellation in the Rhône Valley, its top reds among the most absorbing, most powerful offerings in France. Even the whites can be excellent. Top producers, some with holdings in other appellations, include Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel, Château Rayas, Château de la Nerthe, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Henri Bonneau, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Grand Veneur, and Domaine Bois de Boursan. Others to watch out for are Chapoutier, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos du Mont Olivet, Domaine Chante-Cigale, Domaine Clos du Caillou, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine de Sénéchaux, and a whole host of others.

Domaine Santa Duc Prestige des Hautes GarriguesAfter Châteauneuf, Gigondas has spent the last forty years carving out a remarkable reputation for itself. Like its more illustrious neighbour, the blend is a classic combination of Grenache (max. 80%) accompanied by a minimum of 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre, plus other grapes. Indeed, the best wines nowadays give top Châteauneufs a run for their money. The list for top producers, many with plots in other appellations, is growing: Domaine de Santa Duc, Château de St-Cosme, Domaine Raspail-Ay, Domaine du Cayron, and Domaine St-Gayan. Other producers/négociants of note include Perrin & Fils (Château Beaucastel), Tardieu-Laurent, Domaine du Pesquier, Guigal, and Domaine Brusset.

Rounding out the trio of top Southern Rhône appellations is Vacqueyras. Granted AOC status in 1990, Vacqueyras has become something of a hotbed for both collectors and general enthusiasts in search of great value wines with very good concentration and aging potential. The blend is similar to Gigondas: Grenache (predominant) paired with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and sometimes Cinsault. Several producers, both local and from other communes, to look up are Perrin & Fils, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos des Cazaux, and Domaine de la Monadière.

Domaine Gourt de MoutensAfter these appellations, premium choices for collectors become sparser; yet there are several other appellations on the rise with increasing numbers of serious producers. In most places, the GSM-blend is largely the same. In Rasteau (granted full AOC status in 2010), producers like Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Château La Soumade, and Domaine des Escaravailles are turning heads. The appellation is also known for its excellent Vin Doux Naturels, fortified wines crafted entirely from Grenache. Other appellations collectors may want to explore are Vinsobres, Beaumes de Venise (most famously known for its Muscat-based fortifieds), and the best Côtes du Rhône-Villages, such as Cairanne (also known for great Vin Doux Naturels), Plan de Dieu, and Massif d’Uchaux.

But then there’s Champagne, unique among French winegrowing regions in that there is but one speciality: sparkling wine. Were it to end there, Champagne would probably be lost in a sea of more diverse regions in other parts of France.

Dom PerignonBut Champagne is special. The wine is special, and the reason relates to overall quality. While many other places in France and around the world make sparkling wine, the yardstick for effervescent supremacy is set by the best bottlings of champagne. Combined with its status as the drink of choice for celebration, there is simply no other sparkling wine that enjoys the same pre-eminence and esteem.

Louis RoedererAt the top of the pyramid, champagnes known as ‘vintage cuvée prestige’ are the priciest. Aged for at least 36 months on the lees (oftentimes many times longer), these are the top bottlings produced by the best houses, the most famous versions synonymous with luxury, indulgence, and affluence. The most renowned of these include Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon), Cristal (Louis Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin), Sir Winston Churchill (Pol Roger), Belle Epoque (Perrier-Jouët), and Comte de Champagne (Taittinger). Other equally esteemed, sometimes pricier, items include Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay (Krug), RD and Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Dom Ruinart (Ruinart), Grand Siècle (Laurent-Perrier), Blanc de Millénaire (Charles Heidsieck), Cuvée William Deutz (Deutz), and Cuvée Paradis (Alfred Gratien). While there are others, these are widely considered the crème de la crème, capable of lasting at least several decades, sometimes much longer.

Yet vintage champagne often represents better value for money. Produced by the same houses with the same minimum time on the lees (again typically a great deal longer), there is a growing tendency to overlook vintage champagne in favour of either ‘house’ wines (more on this in a moment) and vintage cuvée prestige. Personally, I can think of no greater sacrilege, as the best vintage champagnes are often just as compelling as their pricier, more illustrious counterparts. In addition to those already mentioned, great houses to seek out are Jacquesson, Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse, Gosset, Drappier, Henriot, Joseph Perrier, Bruno Paillard, and Lanson. And let’s not forget Salon (owned by Laurent-Perrier), one of the most luxurious, priciest champagnes of them all. Not surprisingly, wines of this calibre can keep for at least a decade, sometimes two or three times as long.

Jacques Selosse InitialeThen come the ‘house’ wines, non-vintage bottlings that represent the vast majority of all champagne produced, aged at least 15 months on the lees. Normally popped open shortly after purchase, the choice of producers is enormous. With a growing number of small growers nowadays bottling their own wine instead of selling their grapes to the large houses, selection has never been greater, not just non-vintage versions but single-year wines and even vintage cuvée prestige labels. In addition to the major houses, alternate operations and smaller-scale growers to seek out are Ayala, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Philipponnat, Egly-Ouriet, Alain Thiénot, Serge Mathieu, Vilmart, and Tarlant. There are many hundreds of others.

Pol Roger Blanc de BlancsBut the choices hardly end here. Not to be discounted are the styles found within the three categories, two of which pertain to the type(s) of grapes used. One of these is Blanc de Blancs, champagne made only from Chardonnay. Sourced mainly from the Côte de Blancs south of Épernay, this is my favourite type of champagne—stylish, refined, and texturally brilliant. Another type is Blanc de Noirs, made only from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Krug Brut Blanc de NoirsSourced at its very best from grapes grown throughout the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne, Blanc de Noirs are usually rounder and fruitier, the best examples just as extraordinary as their counterparts. Then there is rosé champagne, made one of two ways. One is to craft a blend of still white wine (predominant) with a small quantity of still red wine. The other way is the saignée method, whereby the clear juice of red grapes is left to macerate on its skins for a short time—this is more expensive and difficult to correctly accomplish. Either way, rosé champagne is oftentimes more expensive than the white versions, and on occasion just as magnificent. However, most champagne is crafted from both red grapes and white grapes, via varying proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Veuve Clicquot Demi-SecWithin these categories are levels of sweetness, the amount of sweetening agent, or liqueur d’expédition, added during the dosage stage of production—this occurs right before the wine is corked and ready for release. Most champagne is crafted in the brut style, or to near-full dryness (3-15g/l of sugar). However, over the past dozen years there has been a growing demand for champagne crafted with no liqueur d’expédition in it whatsoever. Such wines may contain one of five names on the label: brut zero, brut nature, brut sauvage, ultra brut, or extra brut (the very latter may contain 0-6g/l of sugar). Another popular style in certain parts of the world is demi-sec, champagne containing up to 8% sugar (or 33-50g/l). Though there are other levels of sweetness, these three are nowadays the most prevalent.

Such are the most important qualitative levels and stylistic differences to understand in Champagne, plus the best producers to seek out. Which brings us back to our original question: for collectors, what is the most prestigious winegrowing region of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy? Is it the Rhône Valley or Champagne?

Indeed, the Rhône offers more types of wine. However, from a position of quality, an average bottle of NV champagne is much more expensive than a standard bottle of Côtes du Rhône (though the former is much more expensive to produce). Even so, most would agree that overall quality in Champagne is higher than in the Rhône. But as collectors, we’re not dealing with average bottles, are we? We’re dealing with benchmarks, not with benchwarmers.

And in so doing, a stalemate is reached. For who would contend that a bottle of Salon is any less grand than a bottle of Guigal La Turque? Not I, and certainly not any self-respecting French wine collector.

 Click here for a few gems from the 26 May 2012 Vintages Release along with several others.


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 17th 2012: Spanish Styles; Fine Value from the Rhône and South Africa; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The week’s report focuses on Spain, the main wine theme of the March 17th Vintages release, highlights two pairs of fine value wines from the Rhône and South Africa, and delivers the Top Ten Smart Buys.

España- Buy on the Label

Spain continues to be an enigmatic country for wine lovers, a developing nation with wild variations in style even within the same appellations. The fifteen selections included in the March 17th release offer a view on the good and the bad, the old and the new.

On the one hand there are the traditional styles, at the other extreme, plenty of polished, modern renditions. This is not news, of course, to anyone who has been following Spain – the rumblings of political and stylistic revolution began not long after the death of Generalisimo Franco in the mid-seventies – and are part of a necessary and inevitable evolution. This generational conflict is playing out across the country in all of the traditional appellations, as Spain remains in search of a 21st century identity. So how is one to know which style to expect – traditional or modern – without having tasted the wine (or consulting WineAlign)?

Vega Sauco Adoremus Tinta De ToroBaron De Ley Gran ReservaThe answer, though it may be heretical for a wine critic to say, is to go on the label. Hey, you have to start somewhere. It’s not a perfect solution, of course, but Spain’s distinctive labels remain surprisingly faithful to the wine style therein.  Consider these two very good reds:2004 Vega Sauco Adoremus Tinta de Toro DO Toro $19.95 and 2001 Baron de Ley Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja $29.95. Both are top notch in my books, though the Adoremus Toro, as evinced by the modernist label, has an appealing international leaning. I describe it as a: “Super value with wide appeal, if not distinctive regional style.” The Baron de Ley Rioja with the classicists’ label (some of their wines still come clad in wire mesh, an old measure to protect against fraud) on the other hand, is described thus: “Old school to say the least… but lots else going on as well…. A fine pick for traditionalists.” The latter is immediately identifiable, recognizable, unmistakable – a welcome sniff on a sommelier’s blind tasting test, while the former, although very good, would be less easy to identify as Spanish. With nothing else to go on, start with the style of the label as a guide to wine style.

Another fine old style white Rioja is the 2009 Señorio de P. Peciña Chobeo de Peciña DOCa Rioja $17.95. It’s still a bit gangly and awkward for the moment, but cocoon it in the cellar for a half-decade or longer and you’ll be shocked by the butterfly that emerges. Such wines, with vivid acid and marked oak character take time to integrate, but develop into wonderfully complex, earthy, mushroom, saltwater taffy and dried fruit flavoured treats, with a lightness and ethereal quality that would be hard to believe if you’ve never experienced it. Naturally, if you prefer fresh, fruity wines, this is not for you, either now or later.
Chobeo De Peciña

A Spanish Love Affair with Wood

Excellent traditional style wines aside, the reason why Spanish wine has lost territory in today’s international markets is, in my view, because of the country’s torrid, centuries-old love affair with wood. Though the above-mentioned Chobeo de Peciña is oaky to be sure, it’s balanced, with sufficient stuffing to see it through. Other arch-traditionalists Rioja estates like Lopéz de Heredia or La Rioja Alta also make wines that are markedly oaky in youth, yet have an amazing capacity to be transformed into wondrous wines over time. In fact, both of these estates wait years, sometimes decades before releasing their wines, well beyond the minimum cellaring time required by law – one of the advantages of many traditional Spanish wines for those without the space, or patience, to age the wines themselves. And check out those marvelous labels straight out of the 19thC.

But oak alone does not make age worthy wines. It requires depth and concentration born in the vineyard and a deft, minimal-interventionist hand in the cellar. Spain’s enthusiastic use of American oak dates literally to the Conquista and the access to vast virgin tracks of American white oak stands that the new territories afforded. Yet today, so many of these unbalanced and oaky wines seem desperately anachronistic, relics of the past, as though they were clad in a conquistador’s suit of heavy armor:  the heavy Bodega Del Abad Dom Buenometal protection as useful today as the dripping caramel, butterscotch and treacly oak flavours are fashionable (while the fruit suffers the same fate as the Incas and the Aztecs). For an example of this style of Spanish wine, taste the 2001 Señorio del Águila Gran Reserva DO Cariñena $19.95. It’s not mature, just old and dried out, the vestiges of excessive oak remaining like the ghostly burnt out hull of an ancient Spanish Galleon run aground in the storm.

There are a handful of Spanish regions that have never known the ghosts of the past, principally because they weren’t on the map a couple of decades ago. Relatively new DOs like Bierzo and Rías Baixas, stepped from oblivion straight into the current era of modern wine. An excellent example of the former, and in fact my top value choice this week is the 2001 Bodega del Abad Dom Bueno Crianza DO Bierzo $14.95. I could scarcely believe the range of flavours and depth in this wine, what must be the very first release from this bodega whose doors didn’t open until 2003. If you enjoy the umami-driven flavours of perfectly mature wine, do not miss this extraordinary value.

A Pair from The Rhône

Outside of Spain but not too far away, I’d draw your attention to another pair of fine value 2009 southern Rhône reds, delivering on the promise of this excellent vintage: 2009 Jean-Marie Arnoux Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras AC $21.95 and 2009 Foncalieu la Réserve du Crouzau St. Gervais Côtes du Rhône-Villages AC $14.95.  The Vacqueyras is a typical blend dominated by Grenache, from some of the oldest vines on the Arnoux property. It’s marked by minerality and scorched earth, with intriguing cherry blossom and orange peel aromas. The CDR-Villages is dense and ripe and characterful, delivering all that one could hope for at this price.
Jean Marie Arnoux Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras La Réserve Du Crouzau St. Gervais

A Pair from South Africa

And finally, worthy of mention are two excellent wines from South Africa: 2009 Spice Route Shiraz WO Swartland $24.95 and NV Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine WO Western Cape, South Africa, Méthode Cap Classique $18.95. Spice Route is a label produced by the irrepressible Charles Back, creator of the highly successful Goats do Roam range, who visited Toronto for the first time in January of this year. Made from dry-farmed vines in Swartland, this is a thick, dense, intense shiraz with generous black pepper and ripe black fruit flavours.
Spice Route ShirazGraham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine

Graham Beck is a leader of Method Cap Classique (traditional method) sparkling wines. Fruit is grown in the Breed River Valley in Robertson, quite far inland from the Cape. The climate here is warm and dry, in fact quite the opposite of what one would intuitively seek out for quality sparkling wine, but the secret is the fossil-rich limestone soils that are imminently well suited to chardonnay and pinot noir. Proper farming delivers ripe but mineral and acid-rich grapes to the cellar, where they are transformed into full flavoured, toasty bubbly after 24 months on the lees. The Brut NV is superb value at $18.95.

From the March 17, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Picks
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Filed under: Wine, , , , , , , ,

The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Châteauneuf-du-Pape – The Pride of the Southern Rhône ~ Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Grenache (most often blended) at its finest:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

The most prestigious appellation in the southern Rhône, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC unquestionably ranks as one of the most evocative appellations in all of France – a sun-soaked area of incredible admiration and renown. Comprising 3,150 hectares and located around 40 kilometres north of the marvellous, formally papal city of Avignon on the cusp of Provence, it goes without saying that winegrowing has been taking place in this part of France for many hundreds of years. Of more modern times, forward-looking Baron Le Roy of Château Fortia (1890-1967) first conceived of the actual appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1923; and since then, the area seems to have gone from strength to strength in a fashion one cannot help but admire.

To the casual observer, what separates Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the surrounding area is its famously round, heat-absorbing stones, proudly referred to (in the plural) as the galet by writers, sommeliers, and wine drinkers, everywhere. While these stones, in reality, only comprise just a small part of the entire winegrowing area in the appellation, the galet are able to able to obtain heat from the sun during the day and retain this same heat during the night, thus keeping the temperature of the vines at a more comfortable level of warmth. Concerning the actual soils, themselves, deposits tend to vary in high proportions of (often red) clay and sand, while others may tend to have a greater mixture of loam and pebbles.

Of statistics, a total of thirteen different varietals (plus two other in white versions) are permitted to be cultivated in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, though only three of them are most commonly used in the blend. Of these, Grenache Noir (henceforth Grenache) holds top spot, followed by Syrah and Mourvèdre. As for the others, some may be familiar to wine lovers, others the exact opposite: Cinsault, Counoise, Vaccarèse, Picardin, Terret Noir, Picpoul Noir (and Blanc), Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Muscardin. Each year, the appellation churns out an astonishing 13 million bottles.

But what makes the taste of a fine bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape so special? Why is it that collectors are always so eager to lay their hands on the latest vintages, with or without a high score from a famous wine critic? In large part, the answer lays in the fact that wine lovers have come to expect power, and at the same time finesse, from Châteauneuf more than anything else. With an unusually high legal minimum for alcohol at 12.5%, the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – which often log in at no less than 14.5% – are most often characterized by their almost singular ability to combine richness with a type of delicacy that most other warm-climate winegrowing regions fail to achieve. In the end, what could be more pleasing?

Click here for a few gems for collectors from the May 14th, 2011 Vintages release .

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008