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Join Award winning Cape winemakers for an Exclusive Dinner, Tasting and Discussion

WineAlign is delighted to present a three-course, eight-wine pairing dinner on Monday, June 9th with four award winning South African wine makers. 

Join WineAlign host David Lawrason and Cape winemakers from Boekenhoutskloof, Fleur du Cap, Ken Forrester and Nederburg, for an exclusive, up close and personal tasting, dinner and discussion that will explore where South African wine has been and where it is headed.

These four award-winning properties and their purveyors are in Toronto for one night only. They bring exciting news from the Cape – the revival of chenin blanc, the ascent of new regions like Swartland, and the enduring success of wines from Stellenbosch. Each winemaker will have the floor for a few minutes and will rotate seating throughout the night to ensure you get time spent with each throughout the three course meal. An informal reception will kick off the event with passed canapés.


Marc Kent – Natasha Williams – Ken Forrester – Pieter Badenhorst

The Winemakers:

Marc Kent – Boekenhoutskloof

Natasha Williams – Nederburg

Ken Forrester – Ken Forrester Wines

Pieter Badenhorst – Fleur du Cap

WOSA LOGO 19.06Click here to Purchase tickets

Event Details:

Date: Monday, June 9th, 2014
Parts & Labour (1566 Queen West)
6:30 – 7:00pm
7:00pm – 10:00pm
$75.00 (includes all fees & taxes)

Please note tickets are limited to 60. Our events sell out quickly so please book early to avoid disappointment.

About Parts & Labour

Established in 2010 to major acclaim as the new cultural hub of Parkdale, this design infused space boasts an haute cuisine restaurant/bar, and a live-music venue on the lower level. The menu is overseen by Executive Chef Matthew (Matty) Matheson, who rose quickly through the culinary ranks in Toronto. He completed chef training and culinary management at Humber College in 2003 and from there took a job at Le Select Bistro. In three short years Matheson made it to junior sous chef, leaving in 2007 to helm La Palette in Kensington Market. Both Le Select and La Palette’s proper French training and Matheson’s own rogue Canadiana cooking skills have garnered an impressive following for Parts & Labour.

Click here to Purchase tickets



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VINTAGES Preview: April 26 Release (Part Two)

Four Fine Spanish Reds, A Smart Cape Cab & Sara’s Spring State of Mind
by David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

You may have sensed in last week’s preview that we found tasting VINTAGES release of “Great Value Bordeaux” to be a bit of a chore. Yes, we were collectively underwhelmed, and I must say there were several other wines on this release, particularly from California, that I found troubling too – or just not worth spending your dollars on. Were we in a bad mood, or perhaps tasting on a “root” day on the biodynamic calendar? It’s hard to say; but for my part some of the lower scores, as well as the higher scores, are part of an effort to battle “creeping scoring condensation” – that tendency to lodge the vast majority wines in a “safe” zone between 86 to 91 points.

The great advantage of the 100-point scale (which is really an 80 to 100 pinot scale) is the wider bandwidth on which to peg a numerical opinion. In my world – and I would argue in the world of WineAlign and 100-point wine scoring globally – an 80-point wine should still be drinkable even if notably compromised. And by the way, an 80-point rating is where the WineAlign “grape bunch” begins to be coloured in, our attempt to provide a quick visual representation of quality. On the flip side, many of the world’s top calibre wines should easily be scoring close to perfection above 95 points. Using the full range of 20 points provides a much clearer barometer of quality, and is thus much more helpful to shoppers.

As for why I pick certain wines to highlight in this report, value within any price range becomes the main criteria. There will be many other wines not mentioned that are also very much worth your consideration – so spend some time browsing the selections by all three of us.

The Stars Align
(wines independently recommended by two or more critics)

Domaine Du Tremblay Cuvée Vin Noble Quincy 2012Pepin Condé Cabernet Sauvignon 2012Pepin Condé 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Region, South Africa ($15.95). John Szabo – Pepin is the entry-level range from respected estate Stark-Condé established by American José Condé in Stellenbosch, named after his grandfather. It offers an authentically herbal, iodine-tinged, spicy range of aromatics on a mid-weight, light tannin and juicy acid frame, nicely balanced, stylish and savoury overall. Great price, too. David Lawrason – Both John and I have recently visited this estate in the fantastic, primordial Jonkershoek Valley, although at different times. I actually visited twice, and I was very impressed by the modern, vibrant wines, and their value. I brought their pinot home to Canada in my luggage. Hands down this beats virtually any cabernet you will find at VINTAGES or the LCBO under $20.

Lawrason’s Take

Domaine Du Tremblay 2012 Cuvée Vin Noble Quincy, Loire Valley, France ($20.95). There are many who find sauvignon blancs boringly similar. And I understand that position. So if you do like sauvignon you have to dig deeper – beyond the green – to the nuances that different terroirs offer. This little known appellation of Quincy in the Loire Valley near Sancerre is one more take, and I like its lighter, compact, shimmering appeal.

Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley 2012Oldenburg Chardonnay 2011Camelback Shiraz 2008Yalumba 2012 Viognier Eden Valley, South Australia ($24.95). On its website Yalumba trumpets that “it is the one of the most influential producers of viognier in the world”. A sweeping but carefully couched statement. And I happen to believe it’s true based on the work committed and the result in the bottle.  This is a difficult grape to grow, and to make into a widely acceptable style. I am not a personal viognier fan and would rarely buy it for myself because it’s either too blowsy or too restrained. This comes right up the middle with poise, complexity and honesty. Like it or leave it, but try this viognier if only to gauge your own tastes.

Oldenburg 2011 Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($22.95). The better wines of South Africa are currently offering huge value based on the weakness of the South African Rand against the Canadian dollar. Plus the fact that modern viticulture and winemaking are now as comfortable in the Cape as anywhere in the world. This bright, sleek, vibrant chardonnay picks up some of the green/herbal character of the local vegetation – called fynbos – making it just a bit different from most chardonnay peers around the world. This is a Flagship Store Exclusive.

Camelback 2008 Shiraz Sunbury, Victoria, Australia ($24.95). I was not expecting to be impressed by this wine – another critter brand on the face of it, even though camels are not indigenous to Australia (they were imported from India in the 19th C). But the combination of its age and origin in this less well-known, cooler region of Victoria (not far from Melbourne’s airport) have delivered a quite savoury, peppery yet full flavoured shiraz with Aussie weight and Euro flavours.

Viña Arana Reserva 2005Elias Mora Crianza 2009Ascheri Pisapola Barolo 2010Ascheri 2010 Pisapola Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($44.95). If you are a Barolo fan you might want to go to Ascheri’s website ( to comprehend the new regime that has led this house to make four different Barolo starting in this 2010 vintage. It’s a reaction to a complex new regulation involving Additional Geographic Designations in Barolo. Pisapola of the Verduno region will be made every vintage. I am sure it all makes some kind of local sense – but more importantly and broadly, this is excellent wine from a very good producer of modern nebbiolos that still respect their origin.

Elias Mora 2009 Crianza Toro, Spain ($22.95). Toro is an almost other-worldly enclave in north central Spain. Perched on a cliff above the Duero River the town was once the seat of Spanish authority to which Christopher Columbus came to seek financing for his voyages to America. Out on the river plain below and into the hills beyond the tempranillo grape (locally called tinta de toro) grows in heavily gravelled and limestone soils. The arid climate builds in serious muscle yet finesse. This crianza has spent 12 months in French and American oak barrels, which just seems to sponge up the fruit without really altering it.

La Rioja Alta 2005 Viña Arana Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($39.95). Spain offers several good wines in this release. There is the Faustino 1 Gran Reserva that someone has rated 97 points, but I was not in agreement that it is that superlative. I have given a higher rating to this mature classic from one of the great traditional houses of Rioja. The 2005 vintage was fantastic, and this has matured beautifully into prime time. This is a Flagship Store Exclusive.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Maison Roche De Bellene 2011 Montagny 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($26.95). Nicolas Potel’s negociant range, what he describes as “haute couture” Burgundy, finds its way regularly into my smart buys, achieving what so few Burgundies can: fine quality at prices well below the average for their respective appellations. The Côte Châlonnaise south of the Côte d’Or has long been a source of value red and white Burgundy (and Crémant), and applied to Potel’s formula, it’s as safe a bet as you can find. I love the green nut and mineral character of this Montagny; lovely stuff, ready to pour.

Ilocki Podrumi 2011 Premium Grasevina, Syrmia, Croatia ($23.95 ). If you like full-bodied aromatic whites in the style of, say, Alsatian pinot gris, (dry) gewürztraminer or viognier, this will fit the bill. It’s a premium-priced Croatian Grasevina (aka Welschriesling), but also very characterful, evidently concentrated, with loads of beguiling acacia and almond blossoms, ripe orchard, pear and orange flavours. Ready to enjoy.

Alvaro Palacios 2011 Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses Priorat, Spain ($46.95). Palacios’ old vines (though entry-level Priorat) has explosive wild violet and rock-rose tinged aromatics reminiscent of great Douro reds, with masses of fruit and superior extract/concentration, yet still retains a sense of proportion and grace. It’s the magic of the ancient schistous terroir of Priorat. Give this another 2-4 years in the cellar, or hold into the mid-twenties and beyond – it’s well worth the money.

Maison Roche De Bellene Montagny 1er Cru 2011Ilocki Podrumi Premium Grasevina 2011Alvaro Palacios Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses 2011Maetierra Dominum Qp 2006Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011

Maetierra 2006 Dominum QP Rioja, Spain ($22.95). The “QP” stands for quatro pagos, or four vineyards, as this is a blend of tempranillo, graciano and garnacha from four different estates in the Rioja appellation. A year and a half in new French oak gives this a spicy, heavily wood-influenced profile, but I appreciate the underlying tart red berry fruit. Ideally I’d revisit this in 3-5 years, at which point I’d expect the wonderfully savoury-herbal and spicy profile of mature Rioja to come out of its shell.

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige Saint-Drézéry, Languedoc, France ($29.95). Fans of serious Rhône Valley reds should venture further west to the Languedoc, where similar conditions and essentially the same grapes, coupled with relative obscurity, often add up to great value. This is intense and concentrated, with impressive depth, and a generous helping of southern French-style scorched earth, garrigue, black fruit and licorice-spice flavours. Try again in 2-4 years to benefit from added complexity and better integration or hold till the early ‘20s.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections

Malivoire Riesling 2012Malivoire Musqué Spritz 2013Poderi Elia Moscato D'asti 2012Poderi Elia 2012 Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy ($15.95). A bouquet of fresh spring flowers is authentically presented in this affable and characteristically sweet Moscato with a great deal of charm. Winemaker Federico Stella’s strict attention to detail, sustainable practices and small lot production often make for head-turning wines.

Malivoire 2013 Musqué Spritz, Beamsville Bench, Ontario ($19.95). In a spring state of mind, I have chosen yet another floral, juicy and engaging selection that is bursting with flavour. There is a certain air of whimsy about this delightfully effervescent gem that will have you feeling carefree in no time.

Malivoire 2012 Riesling, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($15.95). Winemaker Shiraz Mottiar has rocked this riesling – a varietal that has not been the winery’s forte. Despite the untraditional bottle shape, the wine delivers a classic nervy and zesty mouthfeel, loaded with an abundance of mineral and saline.

Dürnberg Rabenstein Grüner Veltliner 2011Cascina Del Pozzo Roero Arneis 2012Dürnberg RabensteManoir Du Carra Fleurie 2010in 2011 Grüner Veltliner, Weinviertel, Austria ($24.95). Produced from 50-year-old vines perched on the high slopes of the village of Falkenstein, this delightful grüner spends a year in large barriques with fine lees gaining extra body and complexity. Traditional and very typical of the varietal with lovely peppery notes along with cool stone and juicy grapefruit. The packaging makes this an attractive host gift or a centerpiece at the table.

Cascina Del Pozzo 2012 Roero Arneis, Piedmont, Italy  ($18.95). With the warm weather finally upon us, I’m delighted to have discovered so many interesting white wines in this release. Arneis, although difficult to cultivate due to its low acid, susceptibility to mildew and its “rascally” nature, can prove a real delight when properly treated and offers notes of wildflower, fresh herbs and pear. This is truly a fresh breath of spring air.

Manoir Du Carra 2010 Fleurie, Beaujolais, France ($24.95). This cru Beaujolais really caught my eye or should I say tongue offering seductive flavours and textures while putting forth a great deal of complexity. Fleurie is often touted as the “Queen of Crus” in Beaujolais and is the most widely exported of the crus. Although this version may be light on the characteristic floral nature of Fleurie, it is certainly chalk full of flavour and energy. Ideal for short-term cellaring or immediate consumption.

Winemaker’s dinner with Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson in Ottawa – May 1st

Bruce Nicholson

Bruce Nicholson

Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson is one of Canada’s most respected and awarded winemakers, lifting Inniskillin into a 5th place finish in the 2013 National Wine Awards ‘Top Wineries’ category. He, along with the Ottawa Citizen’s Rod Phillips, will be hosting a winemaker’s dinner at Graffiti’s Italian Eatery in Kanata on May 1st, exclusively for WineAlign members. Bruce will guide you through a select offering of Inniskillin wines, each paired with a specially prepared dish. He will speak about the unique viticulture and terroir of the Niagara region and talk about the history behind the winery that brought modern Ontario wine to life. (Click here for more details)

And that’s a wrap for this edition. Watch next week as we look at VINTAGES May 10 release feature themes on South America and Germany.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 26, 2014 VINTAGES release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews
April 26 – Part One – Champagne & Bordeaux

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


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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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South African Wine Update by Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

South African wines have made great strides in the last decade but, even though sales in Canada are steadily climbing, they’re not making the impact on the Canadian market that they should. South Africa is still way under the radar of many Canadian wine-lovers.

Why? Older consumers might remember the South African wines that arrived after the racist regime fell in 1994 and international trade sanctions were lifted. South African winemakers had been cut off from much of the wine world since the 1980s, a time when the New World wine was revolutionized. (Think of Ontario, New Zealand, and Chile.) When the long-awaited South African wines started to flow into the LCBO in the mid-1990s, they were generally disappointing and out of touch with international expectations.

But South Africa’s producers caught up amazingly quickly. They sorted out problems in the vineyards, began to plant a bigger range of varieties, opened up new regions and sites, and improved winemaking practices. It has all paid off, and now South African wines are competitive, in quality terms, at all levels. They are more than competitive in price: they are generally undervalued, and there are many very good-to-excellent values, whether you want to spend $10, $20, $30 or more.

Some really exciting wines are now coming out of South Africa. Chenin blanc is the country’s signature white, and I tasted some masterful examples recently. These are quite different from the chenin blancs of the Loire Valley and Ontario. The best South African chenins are often fruit-forward, and sometimes creamy textured, but they don’t surrender any structure and acidity. Among the best are Spice Route, Morgenhof and Ken Forrester.

The country’s signature red variety is pinotage (a pinot noir-cinsaut cross carried out in South Africa in the 1920s) and it’s had a rough ride. Until recently, many had unpleasant burnt rubber flavours, but they’ve figured out the problem (in the vineyards) and most of the new generation of pinotages are clean, fruity and well balanced. Some of the great pinotage producers, like Kanonkop, continue to make stellar wines with long cellaring potential (I tasted a 1998, which is still going strong), and others to look for are Bellingham, Tulbagh, Beyerskloof, and Spier.

But syrah is making a stronger play right now, and syrahs were among the best wines I tasted on my recent trip to South Africa. Growers capture optimal ripeness in the fruit, and plant them in conditions that moderate the summer heat and allow for the development of natural acidity. Producers to look for include Cederberg, Hartenberg, Bellingham and Tamboerskloof.

Let’s not forget the other varieties. There are many excellent wines made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and the red Bordeaux varieties, and there are many winning white and red blends.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin BlancJulien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011Some South African Wines to Try

Julien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011 ($19.95)

This chardonnay is made by an Alsatian winemaker in Elgin, South Africa’s coolest region; a chardonnay from Alsace might taste like this. The fruit is really pure, with broad complexity and a linear texture. The acidity comes through bright and clean, and contributes food-versatile juiciness. It’s a real gem. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Petit Chenin Blanc 2011 ($13.95)

Made by Ken Forrester, this is an entry-level chenin blanc that’s well made and provides a good sense of many South African chenins. The fruit has a sweet core and is persistent from start to finish. It’s harnessed to bright, clean acidity, and makes for a fruit-driven but well-balanced wine.

The Chocolate Block 2010($39.95)

Made by the highly regarded Boekenhoutskloof winery, this is a blend that’s mostly syrah, with varying contributions of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and cinsault, with a dash of viognier – all from a variety of regions. The result is impressive: a fairly big-bodied and full-flavoured red that retains balance, complexity and freshess. The tannins are easy-going, and this is drinking well now and over the next four or five years. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009 ($14.95)

This is a really attractive shiraz (with a dash of viognier). The fruit-sweet flavours are rich and focused, consistent right through the palate, and well defined. They’re supported by fresh acidity and framed with sleek, ripe tannins. The texture of the wine is full and slightly taut. It’s simply a pleasure to drink.

The Wolftrap Syrah/Mourvèdre/Viognier 2009 ($13.95)

This Rhône blend delivers value right across the board. The syrah, which is two-thirds of the blend, is from Swartland, and it provides a solid core of flavour and balance. The texture is quite rich and smooth, and the tannins are drying and easy-going. It’s a versatile red for the table.

The Chocolate Block 2010Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009The Wolftrap Syrah-Mourvèdre-Viognier 2009

South African Regionality

Like many wine-producing countries, South Africa is stressing regionality in wines, to highlight the different styles and varieties produced in different regions. The best-known – like Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek – continue to earn their status, but a few up-and-coming regions are attracting attention.

One that’s creating a real buzz is Swartland, a warm region to the north of Cape Town, where a number of small producers have launched “The Swartland Wine Revolution.” There’s no varietal or stylistic theme, but these wineries (including Lammershoek, which is often in our market) are innovating in blends and varieties. Try anything that comes from Swartland.

Finally, some of the newer southern regions, like Elgin and Walker Bay are also well worth watching. They are cooler and are producing high-toned and structured wines from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir.

But it’s easy to become fixated on innovations. Established producers in the established regions have upped their game, and many turn out terrific wines that represent great value. In short, South Africa has a dynamic wine industry, well attuned to the international market at all price-levels.

Re-calibrate your radar so that you notice these wines when they appear in Vintages releases and elsewhere.


Rod Phillips

Rod’s Wine Reviews

Finding the Value at the LCBO

WineAlign critic, Rod Phillips is the only person to taste right through the LCBO’s permanent inventory of 1600 wines in a short period of time – he does it in five weeks – and this approach gives him a unique take on the wines. Rod’s reviews are then condensed into a selection of the 500 best-values, rated by quality for price.

The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2013The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2013

By Rod Phillips

Rod rates each wine on a five-star, value-for-money scale, and gives a concise, no-nonsense description. There’s also space to add your own notes for each wine. With currently updated information and carefully researched reviews, this book is the most comprehensive LCBO wine guide there is.

The current edition of this best-selling guide is on sale now. Buy it Here

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: South Africa

The LCBO has launched a four-week focus on South African wines, the first on this country in seven years. Find these value-priced picks via

Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2010
$14.95 (88 Points)
Boekenhoutskloof was established in 1776 in the Franschhoek valley. In 1993, new vineyards were planted. Grapes for this wine were sourced exclusively from Malmesbury in the Swartland. This deep purple red is velvety smooth with slightly smoky, black pepper notes along with meaty, ripe berry flavours and subtle oak. Perfect for barbecue meals.

Six Hats Chenin Blanc 2011
$10.95 (86 Points)
From Citrusdal Wines cellar, approximately 170 kilometres from Cape Town. Grapes are sourced from Fairtrade certified vineyards. This is a simple fresh white just perfect for the summer months. Clean and light with a zippy acidity and some tropical notes, it’s good with seafood or as an aperitif.

Durbanville Hills 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
$11.95 (88 Points)
From grapes sourced from Durbanville Hills member farms, some high-altitude vineyards on the slopes of the Hooge Bergs Valley, this is a nice combo of tropical fruit and citrus. Papaya, pineapple and guava flavours are punched up with notes of lime and melon. Nicely concentrated, medium full and textural, it finishes fresh and crisp.

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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

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South Africa Ten Years Later: My Voyage Back to the Future – by Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

I was recently in South Africa, tasting, visiting wineries, as well as drinking a fair bit of wine, after not having been back for a decade. I was fortunate to have spent the better part of my year in 2000, living in South Africa and working for Wines of South Africa (WOSA) in Stellenbosch but had not been back since.

As a result of my time in South Africa, as well as several previous visits, I have always had a strong, inexplicably visceral attachment to all things South African. Even though I’ve been working with the Canadian wine industry since my return to Canada, through judging, reviewing and teaching, I have closely followed the wines and industry progress over the past decade.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to provide an update on several facets of the South African wine scene:  New Wineries and New InvestmentNew Grapes and New Wines, New Regions, New Initiatives for a New Industry, and The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing.

An Overview of the Progress

South Africa Wineland

South Africa’s winelands are widely acknowledged as the most stunning in the world, surrounded by two oceans, crisscrossed by dramatic mountain ranges and valleys and dotted with picturesque, centuries-old wine farms. I was working in the country ten years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and able to have an insider’s look at the players and an industry that had been undergoing profound and rapid changes. This allowed me to become very familiar with many of the great wines and producers that never did, and still never do, make their way to Canada. (Some of those that do are linked to WineAlign reviews below.)

It was fascinating to see how much had changed since I left in late December 2000, from the structure and growth of the industry, to the changes in pricing, style and quality of wines produced. As well, I was able to meet new producers and catch up with familiar faces from the past.  Just before I arrived in 2000, wine exporters had transitioned from a voluntary, membership-based industry association to an inclusive model, which represents all exporters and is funded through a statutory levy on table and sparkling wines exports. Though not without challenges and detractors, this model has been a positive change for the industry and South African wine exports in general, making it possible for all exporters, under the helm of Su Birch, the dynamic CEO of WOSA, to work collaboratively on innovative international initiatives to advance exports in a few key markets over the past decade.

With the end of Apartheid and the international boycott on South African wines in the 1990s, winemakers and the industry were anxious to re-connect with the international arena and catch up after a period of economic isolation. South African wine exports represented 26% of total wine production in 2000 and almost doubled to 48.5% in 2010.  Along with the move back into traditional export markets of the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the new millennium saw the expansion to markets in Japan, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. More recently, South African wines are being sold in new and emerging markets such as Russia, Asia, in particular China, and in other countries within the African continent.

South African wine exports to Canada have increased five-fold since 2000 (1.5 million liters in 2000 compared to 7.5 in 2011), however the selection seems to come in waves, going from periods dominated by high-volume, value-priced wines to times dotted with more listings of lesser-known, higher quality wines from smaller, quality-driven producers.

So what has changed since I was last in South Africa in 2000?

New Wineries, New Investment

There were just under 400 wine farms in 2000 and this number has grown to 573 in 2010. Then as now, the industry has a significant concentration of big wineries, brand owners and cooperatives, which has altered somewhat through a series of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation. The KWV (Cathedral Cellars, Café Culture Pinotage and Roodeberg), the former cooperative that once regulated production quotas and pricing for the industry), no longer holds the power and prominence it once had. However, along with Distell (Obikwa, Drostdy-Hof, Two Oceans, Stellenzicht, Durbanville Hills, Fleur du Cap) and Douglas Green Bellingham (Boschendal, The Beachhouse and others), these companies make up between a quarter and third of all South African wine exports. Smaller producers (60,000 cases or less) remain an important force in the industry and account for approximately 46% of the country’s production.

Looking back at some of the wineries I visited recently, Tokara had just finished construction in late 2000 but had yet to produce any wine, Waterkloof did not even exist and Delaire Graff was simply Delaire, producing some good wine under Bruwer Ratts (who now produces under his own label) in a spectacular location.

Delaire Graff

Following a forty million pound renovation by English diamond magnet Laurence Graff, Delaire Graff is a must see and stay destination for wine tourists who crave luxury and pampering.  The Estate has two top restaurants, a clothing boutique and Graff diamond shop on the premises, as well as well-appointed guest cottages and a spa, which were listed by Conde Nast Traveller and Travel and Leisure Magazine as among the best new hotels in the world.  The focus is on Bordeaux  varieties with winemaker Morne Very making a powerful yet elegant Bordeaux  Blend with Shiraz called Botmaskop (the nearby mountain peak which he has climbed), as well as rich Chardonnay, minerally Sauvignon Blanc and a layered, complex Cape Vintage fortified wine from traditional Portuguese grape varieties.


Tokara Estate is the neighbor to well-known Thelema  and located on the crest of the dramatic Helshoogte pass between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.  A state of the art wine making facility, olive farm and restaurant, winemaking is overseen by Miles Mossop, who was just starting out in 2000 and one of South Africa’s new generation of winemakers. Although the wine production facility was completed at the end of the 2000, the premium range Tokara labels were not released until 2006. The fruit is sourced from vineyards on the estate, as well as properties owned in cooler Hemel-en-Arde and Elgin.

The Tokara Director’s Reserve White is among the Cape’s finest white blends, the 2010 being an exquisite blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc (unoaked) and 30% Sémillon (aged in French oak) that is stylistically similar to a fine white Bordeaux. There is also an impressive Director’s Reserve Red that blends ripe, New World fruit with Old World structure and elegance.   I also tasted the 2009 Shiraz, containing 12% Mourvedre and well put together, which could benefit from a few years in the cellar. See here for notes on the 2007 Zondernamm Shiraz and Tokara 2007 White.

Waterkloof Wines

One of the newest wineries to open in the Cape is Waterkloof Wines, situated in the Helderberg sub-region of the Stellenbosch District. The winery and vineyards are mere kilometers from False Bay, which is one of South Africa’s cooler growing areas. UK wine importer Paul Boutinot is the owner, or custodian as he calls himself, who has invested in South Africa with a commitment to produce sustainable, fine wines. Werner Engelbrecht is the accomplished viticulturalist and winemaker, who practices sustainable and biodynamic farming practices. The winery building is modern and simple, perched high atop Schapenberg Hill, with spectacular views of False Bay from the tasting room and restaurant.

Waterkloof is represented by Family Wine Merchants in Ontario and the winery produces several tiers of wine. The False Bay series contains very good value and well-made red, white and rose while the Waterkloof range includes the Circle of Life 2010 White, a complex, textured  blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 35% Chenin Blanc and 5% Semillon to be released in July 2012. Other outstanding wines include the racy and concentrated Waterkloof 2009 Sauvignon Blanc as well as the Circle of Life 2009 Red, a full-bodied, refined blend of Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Like well-made South African red blends, it combines purity and richness of fruit, fine-grained tannins and real finesse.

Other South African wineries that were barely in existence in 2000, but worth seeking out, include Sadie Family Wines, Ataraxia, Mullineux  and Badenhorst, some of whose wines we see in Canada.

New Grapes, New Wines

Over the past decade, the industry has latched on to fads and gone through phases, similar to all New World regions in search of renovation or reinvention.  South Africa wineries have experimented with critter labels, focused on Sauvignon Blanc for whites, and most recently, with Pinotage (a native South African crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) as “coffee” wine, which seems to have captured the imagination of Canadians, and those in other export markets, in a way that Pinotage alone was never able to.

The fascination with single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines was starting to wind down a decade ago, while the interest for all things Shiraz/ Syrah was heating up. Very good producers include Boekenhoutskloof, Mullineux and Spice Route. Plantings of Shiraz/Syrah have increased from 6% to 10% of total vineyard area in the last ten years, although Cabernet Sauvignon also increased from to 9% to 12%. Both are currently the top red grapes and while you still see a fair amount of single varietal wines, there has been the shift to blends – Rhone blends, more Bordeaux blends, Syrah blended with Cabernet, or into Cape Blends, South Africa’s red blend containing a significant proportion of Pinotage.  Some budget-priced red blends worth trying are Thelema Mountain Red, Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap Red, and Post House Blueish Black.

While the share of white grape production had dropped from 64% to 56% by 2010, the whites I tasted were extremely impressive, perhaps overall better than the reds. Chenin Blanc and Columbar (used mainly for bulk or boxed wines) are the main grapes for white wines, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  Recommended whites include: Ataraxia Chardonnay, Iona Chardonnay and Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap White.

Chenin Blanc, known as Steen in South Africa, is believed to be one of the original grape varieties brought to the Cape colony in 1655 and is incredibly versatile for dry, sweet and sparkling wines and ages very well. Producers like Ken Forrester FMC and Petit Chenin have shown that South African Chenin is capable of producing luscious, crisp and concentrated wines that can rival the best of the Loire any day. Sadly, and despite the efforts of groups like the Chenin Blanc Association to increase the profile and instances of quality South African Chenin Blanc, plantings of Chenin have gone down the past decade, the slack being taken over by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

New Regions

Just as Shiraz was beginning to make a name for itself a decade ago, the Swartland district was just starting to generate the buzz that is much louder today. This region reportedly clocks in some of the country’s hottest day time temperatures and is among South Africa’s driest growing area, with cool evenings and cooling breezes from the frigid Atlantic Ocean, making for ideal growing conditions.  Historically home to Chenin Blanc and other commercially unfashionable grape varieties (i.e. not a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc here), the “Swartland Revolution” was a movement afoot over the past decade, led by Eden Sadie, among others, who “rediscovered” the region while making wine at Spice Route Wines in Malmesbury.

The exodus of winemakers like Sadie and Adi Badenhorst from Stellenbosch to Swartland was accompanied by an influx of newcomers like Mullineux and Lammershoek who share a commitment to winemaking and viticultural practices that respect and celebrate low yields, old bush vine vineyards, dry land farming, manipulation free wine making and a lighter use of oak.  The Swartland Revolution, part manifesto and part marketing, is also an annual celebration that has taken place over the past two years, with the next event set for November 9-10, 2012.  For more information of the event, the Revolution and winemakers check out The Swartland Revolution.

The search for cooler growing areas has also resulted in the creation of new regions and districts under the Wine of Origin (appellation) scheme.  Elgin had started to be recognized as a cool growing area (literally and figuratively) and is home to Sauvignon Blanc producer Oak Bay. Other new areas that came into existence that we see from time to time on bottles include Bot River, Elin and Cape Point, home to the highly rated white blend (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon) Islied from Cape Point Vineyards.

New Initiatives for a New Industry:

Wine has been made in South Africa for centuries (the first harvest dates back to 1659) and it is surely the world’s oldest New World wine region. The South African wine industry has also been inextricably linked to colonialism and apartheid, as well as the resulting socio-political conditions and their impact on some of the people who have worked in the industry.  Although much of the abuse and poor working conditions historically existed on grape farms as opposed to wine estates, the aftermath on the rural communities of the Cape has been far reaching and long lasting on South Africa’s black workers.

While no other wine industry has had to account for its labour practices or living conditions of its workers, not to mention the distribution of land-ownership, wealth or power within their wine industries, the South African wine industry has acknowledged the history and risen to the challenge to redress past wrongs by investing in a series of comprehensive initiatives for black workers.

South Africa Wineland

Stemming from a government country-wide initiative called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), designed to promote economic growth, develop skills and create greater equality and opportunities for disadvantaged communities, the wine industry adopted a Wine Industry Transformation Charter in 2007.  This plan, complete with scorecard and broad-based measures, recognizes the need for and implements increased training and education opportunities, ethical trading practices, preferential procurement, and the transition to ownership and management control, among others.

Still a work in progress with challenges ahead, the past fifteen years have resulted in noticeable changes in the number of black winemakers, black-owned wine ventures, a myriad of joint ventures, along with so named Black-owned Brands.  Tukulu is an early venture between Distell, a group of black entrepreneurs and a community trust whose workers work and live on the farm.  Many of these wines often find their way to export markets since it is easy to find shelf space and funding for export activities.

Other initiatives which came into existence over the past decade include programs and measures focused biodiversity and sustainability (mandated for all products exported). Sustainability measures had already been underway when I arrived in 2000, with independent sustainability certification for producers who minimize chemical use, protect biodiversity, clean up waste water and ensure people, as well as environmentally friendly practices.  By 2011, 85% of wine labels will sport the Sustainability seal. Similarly, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative is partnership between the wine industry and conservation sector to protect threatened wildlife habitat and contribute to sustainable wine production, so as to preserve the floral splendor of the Cape winelands.

The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing

Overall, I would say that one of the biggest changes I saw was the improvement in the quality of the wines. The upgrading of vineyards, improvements in viticulture techniques, investment and retooling of wineries and the education of a new generation of winemakers, who travel and work outside the country, has begun to pay off in spades.  Plant diseases, like leaf roll virus, which some say are responsible for off, burnt flavours in red wines, are now kept in check through elimination of water stress on the vines and earlier picking, as Boschendel winemaker Lizelle Gerber explained. Todays red wines are cleaner, more balanced and have less oak treatment than in the past.

South Africa Wineland

The most notable change in quality was in the white wines, with Chenin Blanc from Beaumont, the aromatic white blends from producers like Mullineux and Sauvignon Blanc from Waterkloof standing out, with fresh acidity and pure flavours and concentration, as more as more producers seek out cooler growing areas, higher elevation vineyards and learning more about optimal picking times. In essence, what has really been happening in South Africa over the past decade or two has been the shift from grape farming to wine growing, which has had a tremendous impact on quality and bodes well for the future.

We still don’t see many of the really interesting South African wines in Canada, with current offerings not reflective of the breadth and quality of wines produced in South Africa today. This is partly because producers have focused their efforts on the UK, a challenging market which nonetheless accounts for 30% of total exports, or on markets like the US, the Holy Grail for many South African producers.  I recall hearing from a South African producer who had travelled to Canada in the fall of 2000 and remarked that there was “greater demand and interest in South African wines than the industry realized and a distinct level of boredom in the wines that were available and offered to buyers”. To some extent, this might explain what is still at work today and why South African wines have yet reach their potential in our market.

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Lawrason & Szabo on Vintages September 3rd Release: Henry of Pelham 90s, Great Napa Cab, Hand-crafted wines from South Africa, John’s Top Ten Smart Buys and Killer Value VSOs.

Summer holidays – bless them – interfered with our tasting schedule for Vintages September 3rd Labour Day weekend release, leaving David and John one small, last minute window to taste as much as possible on August 30 alongside Vintages products consultants. So for this report they present a joint effort – each picking their own highlights. Sara d’Amato did a great job covering most of the wines and presented her picks and reviews last week (link). And to make matters even more confusing watch for a report next week on the Vintages Sept 10th special release of Ontario wines.

We’ll start with David’s take on the release with John’s following (or click here).

David Lawrason
David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Double 90s for Henry of Pelham Reds – It’s fitting to whet your appetite for next week’s special Ontario release with a pair of 90-point Ontario reds from Henry of Pelham. About ten years ago a very accomplished palate and Niagara industry leader told me that no 90-point Niagara reds had been made to that point. Well all that has changed, with top reds routinely hitting that mark as new high end, quality focused wineries explode onto the Ontario landscape. What is even more significant about the pair of 90s from Henry of Pelham is that they are $20 and $25 wines, not $50 wines. And it is also significant that they come from an original family winery that has been toiling for almost 25 years, consistently maintaining very good quality and commanding respect from consumers and pundits alike. One of the chief reasons is the red winemaking prowess of Ron Giesbrecht, who long ago turned the fortunes of baco noir around by taming this ribald hybrid with the patience of a father – lowering yield to make it work harder and ageing in good wood for many months as a reward. The HENRY OF PELHAM 2009 RESERVE BACO NOIR ($24.95 ) is a delicious, robust autumn red, and very likely to age as well as the lush 2007 and several earlier vintages still showing well. The other 90 pointer is HENRY OF PELHAM 2007 RESERVE CABERNET/MERLOT, a great buy at $20.55. Patience is once again a virtue, with this 2007 (an excellent vintage) now rounding into fine shape with a real sense of class and balance. And I suspect it will live another five years with the greatest of ease.
Henry Of Pelham Reserve Baco Noir 2009  Henry Of Pelham Reserve Cabernet/Merlot 2007

Great Napa Mountain Cabernet
Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon 2007The September 3 release is strong in California cabernets, specifically some higher ticket Napa labels. This is not remarkable as Napa cabernet continues to be a marquee brand, an easy sell, and prices have been coming down! What I found interesting about the selection is that there are new labels, or at least wines I have not seen before at Vintages. The most exciting is BRANDLIN 2007 CABERNET SAUVIGNON – not cheap at $84.95, but qualitatively right on the zone for wines pushing $100, and is one that collectors should seriously consider. It hails from old vines planted by the Brandlin family atop Mount Veeder in 1926 (the family actually first arrived and grew grapes in the area in the 1870s – New World huh?). In 1998 the property was purchased by Cuvaison, with cash and 30 years experience in Napa working to upgrade the vineyard and winemaking. But Chester Brandlin still lives on the property. To quote from the website “Respectfully maintaining the integrity of the estate, only a fraction of the land has been planted to vineyards carefully designed to honour the integral beauty of the property. Glens of old oak trees and sustainable viticultural practices support natural biodiversity and abundant wildlife”. This great 2007 mountain red is 92% cabernet spiced with small parcels of cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec.

Killer Value VSO French Reds
On August 25 a handful of new wines were released at Vintages Shop on Line (the LCBOs on-line ordering program). See “Just Released”. I tasted all of them (except Atalon) the next day and the reviews are now posted on WineAlign.

Montirius Vacqueyras Le Clos 2006I would like to direct your attention to a pair of great value French reds.MONTIRIUS 2006 LE CLOS VACQUEYRAS is nothing short of breathtaking, and a steal at $28.00. I read about this estate when I visited the southern Rhone in the spring, but after tasting this astonishingly rich, svelte and compelling southern Rhone blend I had to dig deeper, and I discovered it has been knocking the socks off other pundits as well. The estate is farmed by a very earnest couple named Christine and Eric Saurel, who began converting the rather non-descript looking vineyard to biodynamic viticulture ten years ago. They credit their complex soil layers for the quality – about two metres of pebbly ‘garrigue’ soil atop blue clay, atop a sandstone clay. I was further intrigued to discover they do not age their wines in oak barrels, so what you get is all fruit and terroir driven – and it is riveting stuff.
Domaine Mouton Les Grands Prétans Givry 1er Cru 2009
The other very good value is for pinot lovers – a lovely, sensuous if not very profound DOMAINE MOUTON 2009 LES GRANDS PRETANS 1ER CRU ($29) from the village of Givry, and often overlooked (thus less expensive) appellation the Chalonnaise. This is very pretty wine that is finely enough textured to approach now (decant an hour) or hold for three to five years in the cellar. Those 2009 Burgundies continue to charm..

See all my reviews from September 3rd here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

- David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

John Szabo
John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

No time for shoe shines this week; let’s get right to it. My top ten smart buys for September 3rd covers a Technicolor array of grapes, styles and places. Highlights of the highlights include a Burgundy lovers’ Burgundy at Beaujolais prices, $33 Tuscan red very nearly as delicious as its $99 stable mate, sub-$15 aglianico from a volcano that’ll have you dreaming of Barolo, and a bona fide Barbaresco at aglianico prices. See them all here.

Hand-Crafted South African Wines
Though the mini-theme of this release is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, initiated by Giuseppe Garibaldi and his band of one thousand merry men in redshirts who landed in Marsala, Sicily, on May 11th 1860, my personal mini-theme takes us to a country already 200 years into viticulture by the time Italy became Italy: South Africa. Indeed, the first wine grapes were pressed in South Africa on February 2nd, 1659.

First time visitors to the winelands of the Cape will be initially struck by the staggering beauty of the area, among the most picturesque winegrowing regions in the world. You’ll see rugged granite-capped mountains, vine-covered slopes and lush green valleys covered with strange, beautiful and infinitely varied native flowers. The Cape Floral Kingdom is, after all, the smallest yet richest of the six recognized floral kingdoms; the Cape alone contains more biodiversity than the entire northern hemisphere, with some 9,600 unique species.

There are four excellent South Africa wines in this release, two from the country’s best known region, Stellenbosch, as well as a pair from a region you’ll be hearing a great deal more about in the future: Swartland. All share the characteristics of small-production and minimal intervention in the winery, natural expressions of SA’s ancient soils.
Mullineux Syrah 2008First up is the 2008 MULLINEUX SYRAH WO Swartland $28.95 . Mullineux is a small family winery surrounded by savage, rolling hills and the outcrops of rock that form the Paardeberg, Riebeek Kasteel and Piketberg Mountains. I rarely quote producer websites, but Mullineux’s is particularly well-written: “It is not an easy place to establish vines, and is a region that has as much of an influence on the vineyards and people who farm there as the people have on the land itself. This brings to mind what film director David von Ancken has to say about the old American West: “The primal, universal power of the landscape strips away everything but the truth of men’s souls.” In much the same way, we feel the Swartland landscape bares the souls of grape vines, and in those varieties that can take the ruggedness, true personality of site is revealed.”

This syrah bears more than a passing resemblance to northern Rhône syrah, with smoke, bacon fat, and ample black pepper coupled with generous and succulent fruit flavours. The minerality from vines planted on shale, schist, decomposed granite and iron-rich soils is palpable, and preserved by no fining or filtration.
Lammershoek Roulette 2006

Also from Swartland is the 2006 LAMMERSHOEK ROULETTE WO Swartland $25.95, another family-run operation. Legend has it that Lammershoek, (“lamb’s corner”), was so-named for the ewes and their young lambs that sought shelter in the surrounding forests when threatened by the Black Eagle – “Lammervanger” in Cape Dutch. Never one to miss a Hungarian connection, in the 1970s the Lammershoek farm was visited by Hungarian aristocrat and winemaker Desiderius Pongrácz, who encouraged the owner to plant such “exotic” varieties as harslévelü, tinta barocca, carignan and grenache. Some of that old vine carignan and grenache now makes its way into the Roulette blend, along with syrah and mourvèdre. The result is a ripe and modern wine, with sweet ripe cassis, evident but not exaggerated wood, and a distinctive herbal-garrigue profile, what the South African’s would call “fynbos”. This will appeal widely to both traditional and modern drinkers alike.

Rust En Vrede Estate 2007De Toren Z 2008Two classic Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch also arrested my taste buds: 2007 RUST EN VREDE ESTATE WO Stellenbosch $37.95 and 2008 DE TOREN Z WO Stellenbosch $32.95 . The 315 year-old estate of Rust en Vrede, established by the Governor of the Cape, Willem Adrian van der Stel, for whom the town of Stellenbosch is named, is, as you might expect, a traditional operation. The 2007 Estate red offers a typically South African balance between old and new world styles: the nose is all herbs, garrigue and savoury fruit, while the palate reveals plush, generous texture and ample structure. The result is harmonious and impressive, with length and depth to spare.

De Toren, on the other hand, spares no expense in the technology department. They’ve dug and analyzed 80 soil holes over a 5.4 hectare property allowing for more accurate matching of cultivars, rootstocks and clones to soil types, and make extensive use of Infrared Aerial Imaging to identify areas of different vine vigour. The merlot-based “Z” blend reflects the modern approach, delivering a rich, ripe, generously oaked example with plenty of high-quality oak flavours (coffee, chocolate) and firm, tight, acid-driven palate. This should improve over 1-3 years.

From the September 3rd Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
South African Features
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 2nd – Solid Burgundies, South Africa & Comfy Old World Reds

David LawrasonThis will be a slightly abbreviated blog sandwiched among events at the annual Vancouver Playhouse Festival.  There are 176 wineries here this week, pouring 1,650 wines, over seven days for 25,000 people.  Aside from the main trade and public tastings there  are 62 seminars, lunch time grazes and dinner events. The scale of this undertaking – all by volunteers – is breathtaking. I have come to Vancouver often over the years, and during Playhouse I always hear the lament – why can’t Ontario do this?  It’s a long story, but I have stopped asking the question. It is a great  Canadian event that has earned a unique stature for the way it brings winery principals and consumers together in an arena of mutual respect and self-education. I don’t ever recall hearing a cynical word about this festival.  It won’t duplicated and it is accessible to anyone in Ontario who cares about wine. Next year book a week’s holiday and come on out.
Domaine Gille Côtes De Nuits Villages 2008
Burgundy Blooms

Back home wine lovers have a grand opportunity to buy some very fine, generally well chosen white and red Burgundies on April 2.  The over quality level is excellent, with several wines over 90 points, which is where Burgundy should always be when it’s about $40 or more.  The real rarity is finding exciting Burgundy for less, and I am pleased to recommend DOMAINE GILLE 2008 CÔTES DE NUITS-VILLAGES, $24.95, a pinot noir with surprising lift and precision and just a bit of edge. I expect this element of unexpected complexity in Burgundy, and this really delivers. I also enjoy gentler, fruitier pinot, although I might look more to New Zealand for this style, or perhaps California.  But I also found it in some of the first Burgundies from the very ripe 2009 vintage that I encountered at Vintages special event at the Art Gallery of Ontario earlier this month.  There will always be debate as to whether the 2009s are classic or New World in style. I like them both.

South Africa’s Other Wines

South Africa has been stuck in a rut in Ontario, sending us wave after wave of cheap red cabs, merlots, shiraz and sauvignons. Some actually have surprising depth and complexity for the money, and when well made they are very good buys. But often they are too raw and funky.  Meantime, Cape winemakers have been hard at work upping their game by creating some excellent, more refined cab-merlot blends. This release features a dandy called VILAFONTÉ 2006 SERIES M from Paarl, $39.95, a delicious, elegant collaboration by ex-Napa winemaker Zelma Long and Warwick Estate’s Mike Ratcliffe.  But to me this kind of wine is not really the soul of South Africa.  That can be found by going off the cabernet axis and off the beaten track into areas farther from the Paarl-Stellenbosch into regions like Swartland, and into grape compositions/blends involving non-irrigated bush vine-grown varieties like carignan, shiraz, mourvedre and others. There are two notable examples on this release, although one called Serenity I found to be a bit too oxidative.  I was much more enthused by a cheaper blend THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE 2007 BLACK ROCK RED from Swartland, a very good buy at $18.95. If you are fan of Spain’s Priorat and Montsant wines you will notice a tense similarity. By the way, I was very disappointed by three separate bottles of overly mature, tired Lammerschoek 2008 Roulette Blanc; a wine I once loved and purchased by the case in a previous vintage. I suspect some problem in the shipping or handling of this wine.

Vilafonté Series M 2006 The Winery Of Good Hope Black Rock Red 2007
Chateau Musar 2002

Marvellous Musar

One often hears how a particular wine, like a song, will forever evoke a specific memory of a time and place.  I had been fan of Chateau Musar for a long time, doing the occasional vertical tasting of the Middle East’s most famous wine; and amazed at the stoicism of Serge Hochar’s effort to keep every vintage going in the war-torn Bekka Valley of Lebanon. But I had never sat down over dinner with Musar until last summer in Windsor, Ontario at a Lebanese restaurant called Mazaar.  Maybe the name was too close, but the atmosphere, cuisine and passion of the restaurateur was in amazing synch with gregarious, spicy character of the mature Musar we had that night, 1979 I think.  So here is your chance to sample one of the most interesting wines of the Old World, 109413 CHATEAU MUSAR 2002. I can understand reticence to pay $50 without knowing this wine; but now you know.

Comfy Italian Bargains

In very much the same spirit I found two Italian reds on this release that are built for comfort, not speed, and they seem to capture the same ambiance of Musar.  One is LE RAGOSE 2006 RIPASSO VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO SUPERIORE, $18.95, a wine from a great Veneto vintage that is drinking beautifully. Upon reflecting I realized that years ago I had purchased several bottles of Le Ragose, and that it aged very well.  At under $20 it is a great buy, especially in a world of often disappointing ripassos. The other, RIVERA CAPPELLACCIO 2005 RISERVA AGLIANICO, hails from the Castel del Monte appellation of Puglia region of southern Italy. It is also $18.95, and it too has a fine, mature softness and richness; surprisingly so for the aglianico grape that is famous for its sinewy tannin.

Le Ragose Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2006 Rivera Cappellaccio Riserva Aglianico 2005
Freestone Ovation Chardonnay 2007Very Cool Sonoma Chardonnay
It may seem like heresy to be highlighting a California chardonnay with so many good white Burgundies on the April 2nd docket.  And excuse me for taking off on Ontario’s seriously cool chardonnay theme. But I was really taken by FREESTONE VINEYARDS 2007 OVATION CHARDONNAY from the Sonoma Coast, $39.95.  The region has only been seriously and more commercially planted in the last decade, with Joseph Phelps’s Freestone being one of the most successful.  Maybe the biodymanic farming of the site is another the reason the wine is so good. Or perhaps the gravity flow winery. Or the talents of winemaker Theresa Heridia. Whatever the case, if you are chardonnay fan too, don’t miss this.

Read my reviews on over 100 other wines on this release here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

- David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 2nd, 2011: Burgundy and South Africa

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In this article: Burgundy Report: vintages 2007-2008-2009; what, for the love of Burgundy, is the difference between a cru, a lieu-dit and a climat? Measuring the label font sizes on a bottle of Burgundy;  90+ point Burgundies from The LCBO and a smattering of recommended private consignment wines;  April 2nd’s Top Ten Smart Buys and a trio of Solid South Africans.

Burgundy WineThe Burgundians are smiling. While the news is not universally positive, the sales of Burgundy wines are finally looking up after the previous gloomy year of double-digit declines in all of the major markets. The health of the Burgundian wine industry is as dependent on exports as it is on sunshine: 1 out of every 2 bottles is exported to one of 150 countries. Of course, global economic recession and unfavorable currency exchanges contributed to the decline in sales; Burgundy is most definitely positioned in the upper tier segment of wine prices, and particularly sensitive as such to dips in purchasing power. Canada has done its part in the recovery, with 2010 growing by nearly 30% by value over 2009.

Yet the statistics are somewhat misleading. In reality, at the top end, there was no decline. The best wines of Burgundy are as recession proof as a hand-made Bugatti sport car: the quantity produced is so tiny that there’ll always be a buyer around. Fluctuations in sales affect the only the bottom tier, mainly the regional appellations and the most branded of all of Burgundy’s regions, basic Chablis. All of the big name domaines, with wines from the most famous villages and vineyards, operate on an allocation basis, invariably unable to supply the quantities required by all of their importers/distributers. And demand looks set to continue to rise. As Yang Lu, sommelier at the Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai, recently pointed out in a press release from the Burgundy Wine Board: “In China, the rarer something is, the more we want it. Watch out for the moment that the people currently buying Château Lafite discover that the production of Romanée-Conti is much smaller…. Even if half of them want to start drinking it the market will go crazy”. Frightening thought.

Ultra rare cult wines aside, there’s really never been a better time to get into Burgundy. According to François Labet, owner of the Château de la Tour at the Clos-Vougeot, the average quality in Burgundy has never been higher, and I’d agree. This past week a tasting of Burgundy in Toronto featuring 35 producers and their wines from the last three vintages (2007-2008-2009) was astonishingly consistent. Out of several dozen wines tasted there were no truly poor wines, only good, very good and excellent ones in many cases.

Track down a bottle of any of the following (all represented in Ontario, though either in consignment or private order, pricing unconfirmed) to see what I mean:
2009 Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaillons Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils (Rouge et Blanc)
2009 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, Domaines des Malandes (Tastevin Selections)
2006 Chalis Grand Cru Preuses, Domaine Marcel Servin (Groupe Soleil)
2006 Nuits-Saint-George 1er Cru Les Cailles, Maison Gilles (United Stars, )
2007 Pommard 1er Cru Les Chaponnières, Domaine Parent (Tastevin Selections)
2008 Mercurey 1er Cru Clos Tonnerre, Domaine Michel Juillot (The Case for Wine)
2007 Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru Clos du Val, Domaine Michel Prunier et Fils (Le Sommelier)
François LabetWhy are things looking up for Burgundy? Several reasons. “Burgundians have always been the best farmers in the world”, says Labet, “but they haven’t always been the best winemakers”. The vineyards of the Côte d’Or have been meticulously farmed for over a thousand years, but much excellent fruit was miss-used in the winery. That’s changing. Despite high demand and a small surface area, Burgundians have had to tidy up their winemaking practices to compete nationally and internationally, or give up winemaking and just sell their grapes to the growing number of micro negociants, often talented, young winemakers looking to break in to Burgundy but who simply can’t afford the nearly impossible prices for vineyard land.

Better wine making was evident across the board at the tasting, especially from the challenging 2007 and 2008 vintages. In the past, tough years would result in poor wines that still demanded high prices, creating the general impression that Burgundy is a minefield of sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible, but always-expensive wines. Consistency was the bane of the consumer, and knowing the producer, not just the reputation of the appellation, village or vineyard, was the only way to guarantee a good bottle. But given the hopelessly fractured landscape with some 100 different appellations in the tiny Côte d’Or alone (the famous 60km strip of east-south-east facing slopes from Dijon to Chagny further divided into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune), 35 communes, 1,394 named vineyards, and thousands of bottling domaines, negociants and co-ops, many of which share the same or very similar family names, this is more than a daunting task.


Today, the wines are incomparably more consistent, and expensive disappointments fewer and further between. Witness the charming, forward 2007s, as evinced by my top wine from the upcoming April 2nd Vintages release, the superb 2007 DOMAINE TAUPENOT-MERME BEL AIR GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN 1ER CRU AC $83.95.
Domaine Taupenot Merme Bel Air Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru 2007

The 2008s, on the other hand, are more firm, more angular or “classic” and ageworthy. Both vintages required not only conscientious farming, but also some masterful handling in the winery. I found the 1998s in particular to be generally excellent: less fleshy, leaner, but very accurate reflections of their typical village or vineyard style, and highly age-worthy in the best appellations. In fact, my number one smart buy this week is the 2008 DOMAINE GILLE CÔTES DE NUITS-VILLAGES AC, Prop.-Récolt. $24.95, which has classic Côte de Nuits character and drinks like a village or even decent premier cru red for a fraction of the price.

Domaine Gille Côtes De Nuits Villages 2008

Then there are the 2009s, which have been hyped up in the press. Lots of sunshine and high temperatures yielded very ripe fruit and it shows in the wines. The reds have super ripe, almost candied red fruit flavour while the whites verge on tropical fruit. Acidity is low and tannins are very soft, meaning that these wines are showing really even now – a perfect vintage with which to get to know Burgundy. It was also a generous year so quantities should be in decent supply at least. Try the 2009 DOMAINE ROUX PÈRE & FILS LES CHAUMES CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET 1ER CRU AC $38.95 for an example of the ripe, almost new world style of the 2009s.

Domaine Roux Père & Fils Les Chaumes Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru 2009

Cru-Lieu-Dit-Climat: Reading the labels

But even if more consistent, the region is still complex, and that’s a good part of the allure of Burgundy for wine lovers. Don’t expect to understand it all. Ever. Au contraire, revel in the mystery and the deliciously puzzling classification of plots of land, so scrupulously delineated over the past thousand years. English author Stephen Gwynn summed it up nicely back in 1934: “Burgundy is not the designation of a wine produced and standardized in immense quantities. It is the general description of a great number of closely related wines, having kindred excellence conforming broadly to one type, but varying infinitely by fine shades, which is the pleasure of connoisseurs to distinguish.”

One of the key concepts to understanding the region is that of the cru, or lieu-dit, or climat, or whatever they call it. Just when I thought I had understood the concept, a little research pulled me deeper into this mystery of Burgundian proportions. But I find it fascinating, with more than a trace of Aristotelian division and sub-division. So here’s how it works, I think:
Wine Map of Burgundy

The appellations of Burgundy function like a set of nesting Russian matryoshka dolls. The largest, outer doll represents the regional appellations: basic Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc, Crémant de Bourgogne, Bourgogne Passe Tout Grains. The fruit for these wines can come from anywhere within the viticultural region of Burgundy; it is all-encompassing. The next doll/set of appellations covers a slightly smaller area: the sub-regional appellations such as Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise, etc., essentially any appellation containing the word “Bourgogne”. The fruit for these can be sourced in relatively broad areas, but not from not from the entire region. The next doll as we crack our way down to the smallest represents appellations such as, Mâcon or Mâcon-villages, Côte de Nuits-Villages, Côte de Beaune-villages. These again are slightly smaller, more specific regions, clearly demarcated. Next step down would be specific village or communal appellations, for vineyards located within the communal boundaries. There are many, but some of the more famous village appellations are Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Meursault, Puligy-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé, for example.

Burgundy Wine LabelYet another layer down, it starts to get really exciting. You see, since the Burgundians have had a couple thousand years to get to know their terroir really well, they have given individual parcels of land within each village’s borders their own specific names. These are called lieu-dit, or literally “place called”. The names, established from regular usage since the middle ages or even Gallo-Roman times, derive most often from some historic connection or physical feature. The origins of some names are simply mysterious, while others more obvious, such as the type of vegetation found in the parcel: Les Charmes, Les Genevrières; the soil type: Les Perrières, Les Grèves, Les Cras, Les Caillerets; the location of the parcel: la Pièce-sous-le-Bois (“the parcel under the woods”), Derrière le Four (“Behind the [ancient coal] oven”), La Romanée (next to an ancient Roman road); former proprietors: le Chambertin (le champ de Bertin, or, “Bertin’s Field”), Le Clos du Roi (‘the King’s Clos”), etc. One can only imagine how the lieu-dit Les Amoureuses (“the Lovers”) in the village of Chambolle-Musigny got its name.

If a wine is grown exclusively in one of the lieux-dits, then it is entitled to put the name of the parcel on the label, along with the name of the village in which it’s located. But hold on: it’s not that simple. Just because the parcel is named doesn’t mean that it’s equal to all others. Burgundy is all about hierarchies of potential quality. Over the centuries, certain lieux-dits developed a better reputation for their wines than others. Early on, these superior parcels were refered to as hauts lieux, that is, higher [better] parcels. Later on, under the official AOC regulations introduced in France in 1935, these superior vineyard parcels became enshrined as premier cru vineyards, and in just 33 out of 1394 cases, grand cru-classified, for the really special parcels that have proven their worth over centuries.

The term cru derives from the past participle of the French verb crôitre, to grow, and is usually translated into “growth” as in “1st growth” or ‘great growth”, or is just left in the original French. But in inner Burgundian circles, amongst the connoisseurs, you’ll more often hear the ancient term “climat” used instead of cru to refer to the top vineyards. ‘Climate’ refers to the unique conditions of a micro piece of land – soil, aspect, drainage, orientation, elevation, etc. Simple enough, right? Well in the 1986 Nouvel Atlas des Grand Vins de Bourgogne by Pitiot and Poupon (revised in 1999), the definition of climat and it’s variations in meaning stretch on for over 3 pages. It seems lieu-dit and climat were once used interchangeably, and then later on, for unknown reasons, the meanings diverged. I’ll spare you the historical details of this philosophical meandering, and skip to the definition that Pitiot and Poupon propose, and that one that is most widely accepted today (my translation): “The term climat is applied above all to those territories classified in the AOCs premiers crus and grands crus… One must then know that the notion of climat can be either restrictive or encompassing with respect to that of the lieu-dit”.

And here’s where it gets more fun. As it turns out, a climat can be just a small part of a larger lieu-dit, for example: Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru “Porrets Saint Georges”, where Porret Saint Georges is just a small portion of the lieu-dit “Les Poirets”. In other cases, a climat can contain certain parts of several lieux-dits, i.e. Pommard Premier Cru “Clos des Epeneaux”, where the Clos des Epeneaux is actually composed of part of the lieu-dit “Les Grands Epenots” and part of “Les Petits Epenots” (note the different spelling of Epenots vs. Epeneaux). It follows logically, of course, that a climat could contain within it’s boundaries the entirety of one or more lieux-dits, as in Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru “Les Pucelles”, which encompasses the whole of the lieux-dits “Les Pucelles” and “Clos des Meix”, or that it could include the entirety of some lieux-dits and only parts of others, as in the “Clos des Lambrays Gran Cru”, where the Clos des Lambrays lieu-dit incorporates the lieu-dit “Les Larrets ou Clos des Lambrays” in its entirety, the lieu-dit “Les Bouchots” in totality and just a part of the lieu-dit “Meix Rentier”. I shouldn’t neglect to mention that a climat can actually be referred to under the nickname of an existing lieu-dit, as in Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru “Lavaux Saint-Jacques”, even if one might not naturally realizes that Lavaux Saint-Jacques is the nickname for the lieu-dit “Lavaut”!

Isn’t it marvelous! Such fantastic complexity! Only in Burgundy, say the Burgundians. I suppose if you lived in very close proximity to your neighbors for a thousand years and cared so deeply for the land that every piece of it was given a unique name for identification, your neighborhood might have a complex web of intermixed whimsical names as well.

The Appellation authorities have fortunately devised a system to make the differences between the good, very good and the best named-sites readily apparent on the label. First of all, any vineyards classified as premier or grand cru will state as much on the label, as in: Vosne-Romanée (the name of the village) “Les Beaux Monts” (name of climat) Premier Cru (classification of the climat); or Chambertin Grand Cru (Climat, classification). Further more, if the wine comes from a lieu-dit within a village that is not rated premier or grand cru, the name of the parcel can still appear on the label but only in a font size half of that of the village font size, as in MEURSAULT CLOS DU MAZERAY (Meursault is the village and Clos du mazeray is the name of the unclassified lieu-dit; but: PULIGNY-MONTRACHET LES COMBETTES, where the name of the village and the name of the premier cru-classified climat appear in the same font size.

So that should straighten things out I hope….The real point is that the notion of lieux-dits and crus and climats all intend to evoque the spirit of the winegrowers who have worked this land for so long, and have come to know and understand the most minute variations in soil, slope, altitude, orientation and surroundings that consistently give wines of a certain character. Once you’ve grasped that, then you are on your way to understanding burgundy. The rest is just the enjoyable homework of reading, traveling and tasting. Or to make life even easier, check out these 90+ point Burgundies, each guaranteed to fairly represent their village and vineyard.

From the April 2nd, Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
90+ point Burgundies
Solid South Africans
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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


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