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Mon petit sherry !

Hors des sentiers battus
par Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau

On a beau chanter ses louanges sur tous les tons depuis, disons, la nuit des temps, rien à faire : le xérès — ou le sherry, c’est selon — ça ne se vend pas.

Enfin si, la Société des alcools en écoule tout de même une certaine quantité. Sauf que les statistiques ne sont pas reluisantes. Une baisse de 6,3 % pour l’ensemble de la catégorie au cours de la dernière année.

Les seuls à connaître encore du succès au sein de la famille, avec une modeste hausse de 0,5 % des ventes (toujours en dollars), ce sont les finos et les manzanillas – des xérès secs, et même archisecs. Quoique, succès, c’est vite dit, puisqu’il s’en vend tout de même dix fois moins que les autres types de xérès, dont les sucrés : seulement 612 caisses standard de 9 litres l’an passé, alors qu’on parle d’un produit qui coûte en règle générale moins de 20 $ !

La question qui tue, maintenant : pourquoi en parler, de ces vins espagnols si particuliers, si à peu près personne n’en achète ?

Bon point.

La grande raison, je dirais, c’est que le xérès est peut-être, de tous les vins, celui à propos duquel le public et les spécialistes divergent le plus d’opinion. Autrement dit, il s’en vend très peu, mais je n’ai encore jamais rencontré un critique, un sommelier ou un journaliste qui n’aimait pas d’un amour sincère et profond le xérès, nommément le fino et la manzanilla.

la maison Lustau

Image tirée du site Internet de la maison Lustau, et où l’on voit les caves – les fameuses « cathédrales » – où repose le xérès.

Et je ne compte pas, non plus, le nombre de papiers consacrés à ce sujet qui commencent en disant quelque chose comme : « J’adore le xérès, c’est l’un des plus grands vins de la planète et pourtant, il demeure encore aujourd’hui sous-estimé. Permettez donc que je consacre ma chronique de cette semaine à vous convaincre de vous adonner, vous aussi, aux incroyables plaisirs que recèle cette perle de l’Andalousie… »

Bla bla bla.

Je ne me moque pas. C’est juste que je ne sais plus, moi non plus, par quel bout prendre mon consommateur pour l’intéresser à ce grand vin.

Un goût très particulier

Qu’est-ce que ça goûte, pour commencer ? Qu’a-t-il de si spécial pour que personne ne veuille s’en enticher ?

Parlons du xérès sec, de ce fino et de cette manzanilla. La couleur, d’abord : très pâle, au point où on dirait de l’eau. Le nez : ça sent surtout la levure, la poussière et la vieille cave, bourrée de champignons. Enfin en bouche, c’est comme je disais sec et même archisec. Au point où nombreux sont ceux qui font la grimace, quand ils y goûtent pour la première fois. Ouch !

Les Anglais ont une belle expression, pour cela : ils disent que le sherry, it’s an acquired taste.

En d’autres termes, il faut en apprivoiser le goût, les odeurs aussi. Spontanément, vite comme ça, it’s not love at first sight

Par contre, quand on tombe sur une belle bouteille, tous ces attributs en apparence rébarbatifs se conjuguent pour donner un vin fortifié (mais à peine, il ne fait en fin de compte que 15 % d’alcool environ) d’une incroyable pureté de saveurs et doté d’un profil à la fois austère et envoûtant, unique au monde.

Flor, solera, et cetera

Ce caractère distinctif du xérès est en grande partie lié à son procédé de fabrication. Que je ne vais pas vous expliquer ici, vous envoyant plutôt où vous apprendrez l’essentiel à propos de la flor et de la solera, notamment.

Tout de même, cette remarque. On entend souvent dire, un peu partout dans le monde, qu’un grand vin commence dans le vignoble. C’en est même rendu une sorte de cliché. Or, dans le sud de l’Espagne, autour de la ville de Jerez de la Frontera même ou près de Sanlucar de Barrameda (patrie de la manzanilla), les vignobles ont longtemps été délaissés, beaucoup de producteurs — sauf les meilleurs, comme de raison — s’approvisionnant en vin auprès de coopératives, au prétexte que de toute façon, c’est la fortification et surtout la solera qui font le xérès.

Comme quoi même sur ce plan, le fameux vin andalou fait bande à part.

De bons xérès à la SAQ

Il vient d’arriver quelques xérès de la maison Lustau, dans les magasins du monopole. Ça tombe bien, parce que les finos et les manzanillas gagnent à être bus le plus tôt possible. L’idéal serait même de les boire sur place, dans un bar à tapas, tirés directement du fût. Mais bon, contentons-nous de se rendre dans une SAQ près de chez nous…

Pour s’initier au xérès (ou pour prendre ses jambes à son cou — je blague), rien de tel que la manzanilla Papirusa de la maison Lustau, fine et délicate, et avec une odeur évoquant la craie. Plus puissant, et qui sent la noisette ainsi que l’olive verte, le Fino Solera Lustau est à sa façon tout aussi bon.

Emilio Lustau Papirusa Solera Reserva Very Dry Manzanilla Lustau Puerto Fino Solera Reserva Osborne Fino Quinta Sherry (375ml)

Le classique d’entre les classiques, c’est cependant le Tio Pepe, plus corsé encore tout en demeurant bien sec. Bravo, en passant, à la maison Gonzalez-Byass pour avoir inscrit la date d’embouteillage sur la contre-étiquette. Autre bon choix, le Fino Quinta Osborne, épicé et bien vif, et en plus bouché à l’aide d’une capsule dévissable, pour plus de fraîcheur.

Un dernier fino sec, mais pas un xérès à proprement parler puisqu’il provient de la région de Montilla-Moriles, plus au nord : le Fino Capataz Alvear est plus délicatement marqué par la flor et il a une touche sucrée, qui évoque le chocolat blanc.

Enfin, une incursion du côté des xérès doux et aussi un poil plus alcoolisés, à 18 % en moyenne. Par contre, ceux-là sont plus faciles à aimer d’emblée, riches, veloutés et sucrés comme ils le sont.

Alvear Capataz Fino Montilla Moriles Alvear Amontillado Gonzalez Byass Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce Gonzalez Byass Noe Pedro Ximenez Aged 30 Years

Le Medium Dry Alvear (un montilla-moriles et donc un quasi-xérès lui aussi) est sucré et noisetté, ni tout à fait sec ni tout à fait doux.

Le Solera Cream 1847 de Gonzalez-Byass est une sorte de vieux tawny portugais, pas trop liquoreux, délicieux à siroter.

Enfin le Noe Pedro Ximenez 30 ans est quasi brun, très très sirupeux et très très particulier, mais sans pour autant être dénué de complexité.

Santé !

Marc

Note de la rédaction: vous pouvez lire les commentaires de dégustation complets en cliquant sur les noms de vins, les photos de bouteilles ou les liens mis en surbrillance. Les abonnés payants à Chacun son vin ont accès à toutes les critiques dès leur mise en ligne. Les utilisateurs inscrits doivent attendre 30 jours après leur parution pour les lire. L’adhésion a ses privilèges ; parmi ceux-ci, un accès direct à de bons vins!


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES July 5th – Part Two

Spain and the best of the rest
by John Szabo MS with notes from Sara d’Amato and David Lawrason

This week’s report comes a bit later than usual due to a birthday celebration – Canada’s – and a postponed LCBO tasting, but here we wrap up coverage of the July 5th VINTAGES release with some cool chardonnays leading up to the highly anticipated i4c weekend (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration) happening July 18th-20th in Niagara, of which more to come next week. We also have some picks from Spain, a couple of rosés and more to get you through the week.

The main feature of the July 5th release is New Zealand, which was admirably covered last week by David and Sara, and it’s safe to say that we have all aligned on the recommendations already set out. Many of my top producers have been highlighted, and the LCBO has done a fine job in selecting some of the top regional representatives. Spain, on the other hand, the mini feature this week, offers less excitement overall. It seems Ontarians are not yet privy to the best that this ascending country has to offer, though there are a couple worth your attention.

Chardonnay comes up strong with a half-dozen very solid wines from California, South Africa, Niagara and Burgundy, proving once again the adaptability and suitability of the world’s most planted fine white grape, while premium rosé – the real, dry, purpose-grown stuff is represented by the country that does it best: France. A few extras round out the week’s picks.

Spain

Finca Constancia 2011Star Alignment: Peique 2012 Tinto Mencía, Bierzo ($15.95). John Szabo – Another fine, fruity-savoury example of mencía from Bierzo, with balanced, succulent acids and moderate-firm tannins. This delivers all one could want from a $16 wine. Drink now or hold short-term. David Lawrason – There are plenty of pleasant fruity young (joven) reds coming out of Spain nowadays, but I often find them too soft. The mencia grape of Bierzo however has the character to infuse a bit more tension and refreshment. This is a great summer red; not recommended for power or complexity or depth, but for liveliness in the glass.

Finca Constancia 2011 Vino de La Tierra de Castillia ($18.95). This is a modern Spanish blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc, petit verdot and graciano from vineyards near the picturesuque town of Toledo, part of the Gonzalez-Byass family of wines. It offers exuberant, ripe black berry fruit character in a modern-leaning style, though the palate is all old world with its dusty, firm tannic structure and prominent acids. This should continue to age well over the next 2-5 years, offering a more savoury expression.

Cool Chardonnay

Hamilton Russell 2012 Chardonnay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa ($32.95). David already highlighted this wine last week, but I think it’s worth another mention. Walker Bay (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley) pioneers Hamilton Russel have led, and continue to lead the pack in this cooler region of South Africa, well-suited to chardonnay and pinot noir. The 2012 chardonnay is an exceptional bottle in every respect, hitting a pitch-perfect balance between ripeness and freshness, oak and fruit, minerals and savoury spice. A very satisfying wine all around, with excellent depth and length, a wine for fans of classically-styled, balanced, minerally chardonnay.

Ridge Vineyards 2012 Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California ($59.95). I can’t seem to get enough of Ridge’s top wines – these are peerless in the Golden State for their authentic and regional character. The Santa Cruz Mountains are clearly a special place to grow grapes, and one trip up the narrow, winding mountain road to the estate leave an indelible impression. Failing that, have a taste of this pristine, evidently classy chardonnay which shines even more brightly in the excellent 2012 vintage. 14.5% alcohol is held in check by fresh acids and ample fruit extract, and the texture is nothing short of beguiling. This will need at least another 2-3 years to enter its prime drinking window, and should also age into the mid-twenties without a stretch.

Cave Spring Estate 2012 Chardonnay, Cave Spring Vineyard, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($18.95). Angelo Pavan has done an admirable job in reeling in the generous fruit of the 2012 vintage here; I like the crisp acids that counterbalance the ripe fruit, while wood is an accent rather than feature. Fine wine at a nice price.

Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2012Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2012Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay 2012Kali Hart Chardonnay 2012Caves Des Vignerons De Buxy Montagny Les Chaniots 1er Cru 2010

Kali Hart 2012 Chardonnay, Monterey County, California ($23.95). This wine from the reliable house of Talbott is a bit of a conundrum off the top admittedly, with a bit of an awkward sweet-sour tension upfront. But there’s plenty of flavour intensity and very good length to be sure, above the regional average in the price category. Ultimately this has merit, and should be revisited in 1-2 years by which time it will have knit together nicely.

Caves Des Vignerons De Buxy 2010 Montagny Les Chaniots 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($24.95). The Côte Chalonnaise, south of the Côte d’Or is one of Burgundy’s hot spots for value, and the cooperative at Buxy is a great place to start shopping. This 2010 premier cru delivers a fine dose of chalky-limestone minerality on a taught and tightly wound frame, with little interference from wood. I appreciate the vibrancy and forthrightness of this wine, made simply and honestly. Solid length, too; a fine ‘starter’ wine for those getting into white Burgundy, or for those who love it but don’t always have $40-$50 to dispose on a bottle.

Château Des Charmes Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2012Melville Verna’s 2011 Estate ChardonnayMelville Verna's Estate Chardonnay 2011, Santa Barbara County ($16.95). Here’s an open, honest, characterful California chardonnay at an unusually low price. This has plenty of chalky minerality, tart acids (in the good sense), and sensible, low oak influence. This has everything but the high price tag; if I had a restaurant, I’d be pouring this by the glass.

Star Alignment: Château Des Charmes Estate Bottled 2012 Chardonnay Musqué, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($16.95). John Szabo – The aromatic musqué clone of chardonnay shines here from Chateau des Charmes in 2012, capturing the essence of the vintage nicely. Fruit is round and ripe in the orchard/tree fruit spectrum, while generous but balanced alcohol carries the finish. A pleasant, round, easy-sipping example all in all, for current enjoyment. David Lawrason – The musque clone of the chardonnay grape is a peek-a-boo performer in Niagara and seems to like the warmer vintages that coax out its more opulent characteristics. At least that’s what I like about musque. No point it tasting taut and lean like riesling, of which we have plenty of good examples. This is textbook musque.

Rosé and More

Château De Lancyre 2013 Pic Saint-Loup Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc ($17.95). A rosé made in the Provençal style from about half grenache and syrah (with a splash of cinsault), offering genuine concentration and depth, not to mention length, while complexity stretches the rosé genre further than its used to going. A rosé for serious wine drinkers from one of the Languedoc’s most interesting appellations in my view.

Domaine De l’Hermitage 2013 l’Oratoire Bandol Rosé ($24.95). $25 may seem like a lot to pay for rosé, and it’s certainly well above the average, though then again so is the quality of the mourvèdre-based rosés from this small appellation overlooking the Côte d’Azure. This pale, delicate wine offers a fine mix of savoury herbs and bright red fruit flavours, with very good complexity and length. This is the sort of rosé I could drink all summer, and all winter long.

Château De Lancyre Pic Saint Loup Rosé 2013Domaine De L'Hermitage L'Oratoire Bandol Rosé 2013Terredora Fiano Di Avellino 2012Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Riesling 2013

Terre Dora 2012 Fiano Di Avellino ($21.95). Regional leader Terre Dora’s 2012 Fiano is a sultry, smoky, mineral-driven white wine with subtle grapefruit-citrus and savoury herbal notes, though this is not a fruity wine by any stretch. The palate offers plenty of palpable texture and grip, salty-saline-mineral flavours and excellent length and depth. As with many wines from volcanic terroirs, this is not a soft and easy-sipping style, but rather one that demands some attention and desire to explore the more regionally distinct variations of the wine world. Drink or hold this a half-dozen years or longer I suspect, without sacrificing any quality, on the contrary, enhancing the honeyed-stony side.

Tawse Sketches Of Niagara 2013 Riesling, Niagara Peninsula ($17.95). Here’s another fine example of Tawse’s “entry level” riesling, which has consistently performed above its price category. The 2013 is crisp, bright and green apple flavoured, in a perfectly balanced, barely off-dry style. Impressive length, too. Drink or hold short term.

Lawrason’s Take

Osborne Bailen Dry Oloroso Sherry, Jerez, Spain $16.95 – I have a habit of being mightily impressed by sherries when I taste them after a long day of working through whites and reds in Vintages lab. No exception here for this browning old chestnut. Make that a walnut. This is high strung, powerful yet refined and the complex tapestry of dried fruit, citrus, barrels and nuts flavours drift on forever.

Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva 2009Osborne Bailen Dry Oloroso SherryBordeaux 2010s: The Hits Keep on Coming

Between regular releases and some In Store Discoveries there are four very worthy 2010 Bordeaux on this release. Sure, most are pricey, but we are not talking $100s for top echelon wines here. If you are collector, or a fan, or wanting to explore the allure of Bordeaux here are four, from least to most expensive, to consider. And they cover four main regions. Check out the full reviews by clicking on the link, beginning with an under $20 merlot that over delivers:

Château Gachon 2010 Cuvée Les Petits Rangas, Montagne Saint-Émilion ($18.95)

Château Tour Maillet 2010, Pomerol ($49.00)

Château Sociando-Mallet 2010, Haut-Médoc ($57.00)

Château De Fieuzal 2010, Pessac-Léognan ($64.00)

Star Alignment: Villa Cafaggio 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($26.95). David Lawrason – This is 100% sangiovese (whereas many Chiantis can now contain a small percentage of cabernet, merlot, even syrah). This is perhaps why I find this such an authentic expression of Tuscan red, with fruit bolstered by the warm 2009 vintage, then softened and given some grace by an extra year of ageing in barrel and bottle. Drinking very nicely right now. Sara d’Amato – A charming, classic example of Chianti from elevated plantings. The wine has a very natural, traditional feel and impressive length.

Sara’s Sommelier Selection

Lealtanza 2012 White, Rioja, Spain ($15.95). Fresh, zesty, pure and appealing, this unoaked viura based white offers clean refreshment at a very fair price. Lealtanza means “loyal”, i.e. loyal to tradition as the producer has an inclination to take a classic approach to their wines such as using only indigenous varietals.

Edge Wines 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast, California ($29.95). Nothing to do with U2, Edge is actually produced by Signorello wines – the high-end Napa producer with a Vancouver connection. Here is a wine that used to be a restaurant gem, unavailable to the general public. In the past 5 years, it has increased in price, but not declined in quality, and is now widely available. Despite its commercially focused appeal, the wine boasts really great structure, concentration and is perfectly dry.

Malma 2010 Reserva Malbec, Neuquén, Patagonia, Argentina ($17.95). From the cooler, southern reaches of Patagonia, Malma is a stunning malbec at a highly palatable price. This isn’t a big, boastful style of malbec but rather a stylish, sophisticated and well-balanced example that is sure to make an impression.

Lealtanza White 2012Edge Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2011Malma Reserva Malbec 2010Ortas L'estellan Gigondas 2011Roux Père & Fils L'ebaupin Saint Aubin 2010

Ortas l’Estellan 2011 Gigondas, Rhône, France ($24.95). A gracefully maturing Gigondas with ample southern charm, garrigue and impressive complexity. Despite its high alcohol, the wine feels in no way heavy, sweet or unbalanced. Well-priced and drinking beautifully now.

Roux Père & Fils 2010 l’Ebaupin Saint Aubin, Burgundy, France ($28.95). An uncommon find, and a lovely one at that – Saint Aubin is nestled among some of the finest white Burgdundy sites, close to Montrachet. Red is also produced in this region and this beautifully perfumed version, lean in body but with impressive complexity is a splendid example of the elegant nature of this appellation.

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

From VINTAGES July 5th release:

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Selections
All Reviews
July 5th Part One – New Zealand’s Core Strengths

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


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 24 – Part Two

Spring Pinks and Great Red Values from France, Spain, Portugal
by David Lawrason with John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The finest whites of VINTAGES May 24 offering were unveiled last week in Part One of our ongoing double-barreled reports on each and every VINTAGES release. You can also check out the best of the southern Rhônes, which I felt was a strong group value-wise overall, even if a couple of higher end 2011 Châteauneufs were disappointing. But as always happens, the Rhône overshadows the wines of the neighbouring appellations in Languedoc-Roussillon, two of which make my highlight reel this week along with a lovely pinkie from the inlandish (not outlandish) Fronton appellation. Big reds from Spain and Portugal also figure very strongly on the menu between John Szabo and I, including an exhilarating, ridiculously inexpensive Madeira. Sara’s selections range farther and wider, with whites, pinks and somewhat lighter reds, including a pleasant home-grown surprise.

The Stars Align

Les YeusesQuinta Do Vale Meao 2011 Meandro Do ValeMeandro Do Vale Meão 2011, Douro, Portugal ($24.95). Although this label does not have a long history, its excellent vineyards do – at one point contributing to Portugal’s legendary red called Barca Velha. There are several indigenous grape varieties involved, as well as soil types within the vineyard. The fruit complexity and concentration are front and centre in the cellar-worthy red. David Lawrason.  This has been a regular feature on my best buys list, and the 2011 vintage was outstanding in the region to be sure. I suspect that perhaps the best grapes from Vale Meão were mostly directed to make vintage port (understandably), or their top dry Douro red cuvée; but in any case the 2nd wine “Meandro” shows a nice measure of freshness and vibrancy, balanced tannins and decent length and depth – an infinitely drinkable wine with solid regional character and class. John Szabo

Domaine Les Yeuses 2011 Les Épices Syrah, IGP Pays d’Oc, Languedoc, France ($14.95). Here’s another fine value syrah from Les Yeuses, which has been on my best buys lists every time it has been released. Although the price has crept up slightly, this delivers pure syrah character in the form of cold cream, black pepper, wood smoke, espresso bean and more. How that much flavour is stuffed into a $15 bottle is a happy mystery. John Szabo.  I have hit on this great syrah value before. Can’t believe the price/quality ratio! It’s old vine syrah grown on 70 hectares of calcareous soils very near the Mediterranean. Very good weight, density, a real garrigue based Mediterranean red. (Keen eyed label gazers will note this now uses the new EuroUnion IGP designation instead of the former French term IGT.)  David Lawrason.

Lawrason’s Take

Château Bellevue La Forêt 2013 Rosé, Fronton, Southwest France ($14.95). I continue to be impressed by the value emanating from this 112 ha estate that lies west of Toulouse, midway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Several varieties grow well in this middle zone, with this rosé being composed of negrette (a deeply coloured red thought to be the same as mavro from Crete), gamay and cabernet franc. The combo creates an intriguing aromatic collage, nicely delivered in a very fresh style. Since 2008 this property has been owned by Philip Grant, a businessman who earned his WSET diploma while flitting around the globe.

Domaine De Bila-Haut 2011 Occultum Lapidem, Côtes de Roussillon-Villages ($25.95). Michel Chapoutier is the world’s leading producer of organic reds made from syrah, grenache and carignan, with vineyards in the Australia, the Rhône Valley and Roussillon, a hot corner of southern France famous for its tough, terraced terrain. This is a behemoth – very powerful, highly structured and complex. Not advised for summer sipping. If you want to dial down a notch try little brother M. Chapoutier Les Vignes De Bila-Haut Côtes Du Roussillon Villages that is also on this release. Or buy both and compare.

Bodega San Roque De Le Encina 2010 Monte Pinadillo, Crianza, Ribera del Duero, Spain ($19.95). I am generally not a huge fan of heavily oaked reds. There needs to be enough fruit stuffing and richness to carry the load, which this 100% tempranillo provides. I was surprised by the depth actually especially at the price, and even more surprised to discover later that it is from a co-operative winery that claims to be one of the first in what is now one of the “hottest” regions of Spain. This could work around the BBQ this summer, later in the evening.

Château Bellevue La Forêt Rosé 2013 Domaine De Bila Haut Occultum Lapidem 2011  Monte Pinadillo Crianza 2010Altocedro Año Cero Malbec 2011Broadbent Rainwater Medium Dry Madeira

Altocedro 2011 Año Cero Malbec La Consulta, Mendoza, Argentina ($21.95). Founded by an Argentine family in 1989, this single vineyard estate in the higher La Consulta region, with its cool nights and rocky soils has caught my attention before. They use an artisan, vineyard driven approach which delivers bushels of fruit within a quite streamlined framework. Many Argentine malbecs can be powerful, but coarse. This has some poise.  There were other good value Argentine and Chilean wines on this release as well.

Broadbent Rainwater Medium-Dry Madeira, Portugal ($20.95). Madeira is considered by some to be one of the planet’s great wines, although in this day and age it is considered an antique. I can only suggest that if you are a lover of flavour rather than style that you give Madeira a try before it becomes extinct. The famous British wine writing Broadbent family have made it their mission to preserve this natural treasure. This is scintillating and delicious with outstanding length. And the price is ridiculously cheap.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Telmo Rodriguez Lz 2012Castro Ventosa 2010 El Castro De ValtuilleCastro Ventosa El Castro De Valtuille 2010, Bierzo, Spain ($27.95). Regular readers will already know of my fondness for the wines of Bierzo. The predominance of old bush-trained vines, the moderate, fresh climate, and the quality of the mencía variety itself are all contributing factors; then add in one of the regions top winegrowers, Raúl Pérez of Castro Ventosa to the mix, and the results are irresistible. I was first introduced to the wines of this estate by the sommelier from El Bulli during a conference in Spain a few years ago, and have sought out them out ever since. This is a really cracking value, for fans of finesse and elegance with genuine substance and depth. Best 2014-2022.

Telmo Rodriguez 2012 LZ, Rioja, Spain ($15.95). What a fine and delicious value from Telmo Rodriguez, lively and juicy, balanced and fresh, not to mention infinitely drinkable, especially with a gentle chill. (Psst, I like it too – DL)

Sara’s Selections

Bernard Massard Cuvée De l’Écusson Brut Rosé, Luxembourg ($21.95). Bernard Massard is the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wines in Luxemburg and exports a great deal of their wine to Canada, most notably to Quebec. The winery and vineyards are located along the banks of the Moselle river that forms part of the German-Luxembourg border. The soil is made up of limestone in the north of the valley which is ideal for sparkling wine production. This is not the first time I’ve recommended a bubbly from this Luxemburg house that seems to consistently over-deliver. Pleasant, succulent and boasts above average quality for the price.

Mission Hill Family Estate 2012 Reserve Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, ($14.75). Here is yet another selection that I find consistently appealing and of terrific value. The style is dry and weighty, reminiscent of Alsace but the palate is clean, neat and rather generous giving the wine a unique B.C. character.

St. Supéry 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California ($22.95). The patriarch of the Skalli family, owner of St. Supéry, come from a long line of Southern French wine producers. He fell in love with Napa in the 1970s around the time of the legendary “Judgement of Paris” – the catalyst for the rise of US wine. The winery now owns an astounding 1,500 acres of which they primarily focus on cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. This example is uniquely expressive of Napa’s propensity to produce sauvignon of great depth and character, especially when planted in cooler, more elevated areas.

Bernard Massard Cuvée De L'écusson Brut RoséMission Hill Family Reserve Pinot Gris 2012St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2012Henry Of Pelham Family Tree Red 2012Château Saransot Dupré Cru Bourgeois 2010

Henry Of Pelham 2012 Family Tree Red, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($18.95). The 2012 Family Tree Red is half Rhône and half Bordeaux (48% syrah and the rest traditional Bordelaise varietals). What caught me off-guard was the wonderfully wild and complex nose of dried herbs, pepper, earth and dark fruit. It is very approachable, and intentionally so, but offers a little unexpected challenge that will please the more discerning wine drinker of the house.

Château Saransot Dupré 2010, Listrac, Bordeaux, France ($28.95). It is worth taking note of this wonderfully distinctive and harmonious Bordeaux. The blend offers great concentration with a solid core of fruit and expertly ripened tannins. Wood is seamlessly integrated in a fashion mastered by the Bordelaise and the wine is full of pepper, black fruit and musk. A touch of carmenere may go unnoticed but it surely adds to the complexity of the whole.

Château D'aquéria Tavel Rosé 2013Château Camp De La Hire 2010Château Camp De La Hire 2010, Castillon Côtes De Bordeaux, France ($16.95). This malbec dominant Bordeaux from the lesser-known right bank appellation of Castillon is both classic and compelling but still quite tightly wound. If you’re looking for an affordable addition to your cellar that will come to maturity in the next 3-4 years, look no further – but be sure to decant if immediate enjoyment is your goal.

Château d’Aquéria 2013 Tavel Rosé, Rhône Valley, France ($21.95). A perennial favourite, Château D’Aquéria’s 2013 is a classic example of the dry, powerful, complex and nervy roses that can only come from Tavel. Despite the increase in price, the wine delivers both the charming garrigue of the Southern Rhône and the touch of austerity that are distinctive of the house.

And that is a wrap for this edition. If you have not yet done so please check out Steve Thurlow’s new report on new releases and promotions from the LCBOs General List, and stay tuned next week for John Szabo’s look at VINTAGES’ Australian feature in the June 7 release. At that time I will also be publishing a WineAlign feature on Ten New Perceptions of Australia following a visit earlier this year. Until then: They say “money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy wine, and that’s pretty much the same thing”.

Until next time,

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES May 24 Release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Selections
All Reviews
May 24 – Part 1

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


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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 (www.ascherivini.it) 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.

Cheers,

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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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – Ribera del Duero

One exciting winegrowing region

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Without question, Ribera del Duero is a land of extremes. How else to describe a region where summer day-/night-time temperatures vary by double digits and soil compositions are too numerable to relate. Such is the crux of Ribera, nowadays lauded as one of the most prosperous and popular names on the Spanish winegrowing scene.

An hour’s drive north of Madrid, the last twenty years have witnessed an unfathomable transformation in this 115-km stretch of the Duero River, which eventually flows into Portugal (passing the port vineyards) and empties into the Atlantic. From just a handful of bodegas in 1990 to over 200 today, vineyards continue to be planted at a breathtaking pace. While this has not been without controversy on account of too many vines being planted in overly productive sites, the result has been a growing appreciation of just how glorious Tinto Fino can be.

Ribera del DueroOtherwise known as Tinta del País (another local name for this particular strain of Tempranillo), much of Ribera’s success may be attributed to the ways in which the region’s finest growers have brought out the best qualities of this marvellous grape. Of these, lush strawberry-driven flavours (often rather fragrant), full-bodiedness, and structural acuity are particular hallmarks. Though other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec are also permitted, the best examples usually consist of 100% Tinto Fino, sourced from extremely old vines ranging from 35 to over 100 years. Styles tend to range from the more floral and sensual to the more blatantly oak-driven and saturated.

As always, personal preference plays a role. Some may prefer a less powerful, more fruit-forward ‘Crianza’ (aged for a minimum of one year in wood and one in bottle). A wine labelled as ‘Joven’ will have had no wood ageing at all, while one marked as ‘Roble’ will have been aged in wood for well under a year. Others may opt for a more poignant, tighter structured ‘Reserva’ (aged for a minimum of one year in wood and two in bottle); while some may enjoy a full-bodied, especially complex ‘Gran Reserva’ (aged for a minimum of two years in wood and three in bottle). Finally, there are those who may prefer the increasingly celebrated single-vineyard bottlings for which many of the finest winegrowing establishments are famous. These are usually aged along more Bordelaise-style lines in French and/or American oak barrels for roughly 18 to 24 months or more.

Such wines owe as much to Tinto Fino as to the conditions in which this star grape has been able to thrive. As mentioned in the beginning, soil compositions are fretfully varied, though clay-based sands over alternating layers and limestone and marl (sometimes chalk) are generally the norm. Tinto Fino seems to do remarkably well when planted in such conditions.

Ribera del Duero

A typical vineyard in Ribera del Duero

Climate would seem to play an even more significant role. Located on the great northern plateau of the Iberian Peninsula, elevations are unusually high in this part of the country, between 750 to over 850 metres. In the summer months, this means extremely hot days (up to 36 degrees) and very cool nights (as low as 8 degrees). The result is a slow, prolonged ripening cycle, accentuating the potential flavour of the grapes without any loss of acidity. Few other places in the winegrowing world enjoy such variations in temperature. Rainfall is also notably low, usually taking place in the winter months.

All of this has lead to an incredible leap in both the overall quality and popularity of the region’s wines, not to mention a colossal proliferation of bodegas throughout the D.O. Many of these are family-owned and are supplied by estate-grown or purchased grapes. The difference between the two is a source of great pride for most winegrowers, as the former are usually considered preferable over the latter (though some growers may opt to lease vineyards via a long-term agreement).

Also not to be discounted is wine tourism, which is likely to play an increasingly prominent role in the coming years. Not surprisingly, many bodegas both old and new have invested heavily over the past decade in renovating and expanding their buildings. Though many owners are quick to point out that their primary aim is to improve quality, there is little mistaking the effect an architecturally attractive building can have on the eye. At the end of the day, the name of the game is to impress.

The excitement at the moment is certainly palpable. In just a short period of time, Ribera del Duero has gone from comparative anonymity to one of the most successful winegrowing regions in Spain, showing few signs of slowing down. How long this will last is anyone’s guess, though wine lovers everywhere stand the most grateful beneficiaries.

Top estates in Ribera del Duero:

Vega Sicilia: The most famous estate in the region, the wines of Vega Sicilia are synonymous with individuality and luxury. Under the skillful, philosophical hand of director Xavier Ausas, the estate has gone from strength to strength since its inception in the mid-19th century, having inaugurated an entirely new winemaking facility just a few years ago. Each parcel in the vineyards is now vinified separately, Ausas likening this arrangement to a painter utilizing every colour and infinite number of shades on the palate. Three wines are produced from mostly old-vine Tinto Fino: Valbuena, Único, and Único Especial (a blend of various vintages). Most estates would do well to produce wine half as fine as those crafted at Vega Sicilia.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5 Cosecha 2009Aalto PS 2011Vega Sicilia 2009 Valbuena 5 Cosecha ($185.00) is generally regarded as the ‘second wine’ of the bodega, boasting incredible concentration and charm. Though the flagship Único is unaffordable for most persons, the ’09 Valbuena 5 Cosecha is highly recommendable any day of the week. Decanting is highly advisable. Available through Halpern Enterprises.

Aalto: Co-owned by former Vega Sicilia winemaker Mariano Garcia and former director of the Consejo Regulador Javier Zaccagnini, Aalto has only been in existence for only fifteen years and is already widely considered one of the top bodegas in Ribera del Duero. The partnership between these two brilliant gentlemen has been a roaring success, their unsurpassed wealth of expertise bringing to bear two wines of sensational quality: Aalto and the flagship label Aalto PS. Both are crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, sourced from extremely old vines from some of the finest plots in the region. Quality is unimpeachable.

Aalto PS 2011 ($135.00) is one of my most insistent recommendations. The flagship label of the bodega, this magnificent creature (crafted from 100% Tinto Fino) delivers unparalleled concentration, structure, and flavour. I’ve even ordered a case for my own cellar. Decanting is obligatory. Available through Trialto Wine Group.

Dominio de Pingus: The boutique winery of Danish owner/winemaker Peter Sisseck, Dominio de Pingus has enjoyed cult status for some time now. The wines are crafted from 100% Tinto Fino and are worth every laurel they almost always receive: Pingus and ‘second wine’ Flor de Pingus. The philosophy at this super-small establishment is Burgundian in inclination and holistic in orientation. Grapes are sourced from extremely old vines planted in some of the best soil conditions in the region. In the mid-1990s, Sisseck made the unusual decision of selling all of his wine en primeur (i.e. before they are bottled), freeing his team up so that they may concentrate exclusively on quality. The results speak for themselves.

Dominio De Pingus Flor De Pingus 2012Dominio de Pingus 2012 Flor de Pingus ($125.00) is the ‘second wine’ of this cult operation. Though not yet bottled at time of examination, it augurs a phenomenal future. Crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, every Spanish wine lover ought to do their utmost to get their hands on this magnificent wine. Decanting is advisable. Available through Profile Wine Group.

Viña Sastre: An impeccable source for some of the most powerful examples in the region, Viña Sastre enjoys a considerable reputation these days. With access to extremely old vines (mostly Tinto Fino), the aim of co-owner/winemaker Juan Manuel is to craft wines of extraordinary concentration and depth. New oak (both French and American) is employed in abundance; and while the style might not be for everyone, the quality of the range is remarkably high. Five wines are produced: Roble, Crianza, Pago de Santa Cruz, Regina Vides, and Pesus. The oak regimens on the last three are especially marked, demanding long-term cellaring.

Bodega Rodero: Owner/winemaker Carmelo Rodero is something of a maverick when it comes to winemaking, employing a radical system of rotating vats and bins lifted by pulleys so as to avoid the use of pumps during fermentation. The results are very impressive: powerful, chewy wines crafted from old-vine Tinto Fino and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. A resplendent new winery and welcome centre (including a banquet room for large functions) was completed several years ago. These are wines worth getting excited about.

Pago de Carraovejas: Owned by the Ruiz family, Pago de Carraovejas is a highly estimable operation, particularly when considering its size. Quality is generally excellent, though the better balanced examples are those where the use of new oak is less apparent. Four red wines are produced from mostly Tinto Fino: Crianza, Reserva, Cuesta de las Liebres, and El Anejón. The three whites (each 100% Verdejo) are also of high quality: Quintaluna (based out of Rueda), Ossian, and Ossian Capitel (sourced from 160-year-old vines). Because whites may not be labelled as Ribera del Duero, Ossian and Ossian Capitel are marketed as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Léon. Other large-sized establishments could learn a great deal from this producer.

Wines currently available in Vintages:

Cepa 21 Hito 2010Resalte De Peñafiel Peña Roble Reserva 2004Bodegas Vizcarra JC Vizcarra 2010Bodegas Vizcarra 2010 JC Vizcarra ($28.95) delivers a decisively beautiful amalgam of aromatic and textural characteristics, making for an outstandingly delicious offering. Having now tasted several wines from this impeccable bodega, my advice to Spanish lovers would be to stock up whenever (and wherever) possible. Decanting is advisable.

Resalte de Peñafiel 2004 Peña Roble Reserva ($31.95) is performing superbly at ten years of age, though it will keep for some time yet. Sourced from vines over twenty-five years of age, it’s wines like these that serve only to highlight the successes of Ribera del Duero as a whole. A gentle decanting for sediment is worthwhile.

Cepa 21 2010 Hito ($17.95) is an ideal recommendation for everyday drinking, though it will mellow further for those with a proper cellar. Crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, its most prominent feature is its appropriate accessibility of fruit—an often overlooked attribute for wines of this type. Decanting is likely unnecessary.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find our critics reviews by clicking on any of the links. 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 reviews.

Julian’s Ribera del Duero Reviews
All Julian Hitner Reviews


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 1, 2014

Hidden Gems; Australia in the spotlight; Local VQA Wine On Tap…?

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The February 1st VINTAGES release features an intriguing collection of sub-$20 wines from various corners of the world, both known and obscure. Some may take you out of your comfort zone, but then again, there’s no better way to expand your drinking horizons, and the risks are low. I’ve selected ten wines from six countries (5 red, 5 white) for you to consider, with analogies to better-known wines where useful. Australia is also featured, and I’ve highlighted my top five. And lastly, consider local wine on tap in restaurants: will it gain momentum in 2014? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Hidden Gems & Smart Buys: Reds

The old world comes up strong in this release, delivering a range of wines with ample regional character, structure and complexity at highly attractive prices.

Topping the list of values is the 2010 Tilenus Envejecido En Roble Mencía ($18.95). Regular readers of this report will already be familiar with Bierzo in Northwestern Spain, which has, over the last decade or so, become established as a source of some of “New Spain’s” best reds. Its success has a lot to do with an unusually high percentage of old vines and the quality of the local red grape mencía, not to mention a consumer shift to fresher, livelier reds, as undeniable by now as global warming.

Bodegas Estefanía’s rise to prominence mirrors the region’s, established in 1999 with the aim to exploit the vast wealth of quality old vineyards, and has moved from strength to strength ever since. The vines for this cuvee are between 40 and 60 years old, and a short 8 months in wood allows the concentrated, fresh black fruit character to shine.

Tilenus Envejecido En Roble Mencía 2010Nicosia Fondo Filara Etna Rosso 2010Fans of old world pinot noir will also find pleasure in the 2010 Nicosia Fondo Filara Etna Rosso ($19.95). After nearly a century of obscurity, the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna have been exploding lately (figuratively, and literally), attracting serious attention with an ever-increasing offer of quality whites but especially reds from the indigenous nerello mascalese and cappuccio varieties. It’s striking to consider that when Nicosia was founded in 1898, the Etna region counted an astonishing 50,000 hectares of vines (1.5 times the current area of champagne), the produce of which went largely to northern Italy and France in bulk to bolster lighter wines with its marked volcanic minerality and firm structure.

Today there are far fewer vines, but the focus is on pure Etna. These are deceptively pale in colour but deeply flavoured, with a distinctive salty minerality, savoury red fruit and well-chiseled structure.

And from the slopes of Etna to Macedonia in northern Greece is but a stylistic half-step. The xinomavro-based wines of the Naoussa appellation are often compared to the great nebbiolos of Piedmont, or, as an Athens-based sommelier friend once put it, “it’s like pinot noir in jeans”. The 2010 Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro ($19.95) is well worth a look, representing a more modern expression of the region and grape with its forward ripeness and relatively rich texture. But make no mistake; this is still tightly wound, made as it is from a grape whose name translates as “acid black”. Give it another 2-4 years in the cellar and then pour it blind for your Italian wine-loving friends and wait for the guesses of Barbaresco or Barolo to roll in.

2011 Tom De Baton Casal De LoivosCave De Roquebrun La Grange Des CombesThymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010The south of France continues to over-deliver quality and character, for prices that must make the owners of new, posh operations planted on expensive real estate cringe with envy. $16 will get you a wine of distinctive personality, as in the 2011 Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes ($15.95). This syrah-based blend grown on the schistous soils of Saint Chinian delivers a whack of scorched earth minerality and smoky character, rustic to be sure, but serve it with an herb-encrusted roast leg of lamb and marvel at its range of flavours and succulent texture.

Portugal’s Douro Valley is slowly re-tooling its reputation as the source of port to the country’s top region for quality dry table wine, with over half of the harvest these days destined to remain unfortified. Quality and style still vary widely, but the combination of vertiginous slopes of pure schist, the richness of old vineyards, and the collection of quality grapes like touriga nacional makes the Douro a prime source for savvy drinkers.

The 2011 Tom De Baton Casal De Loivos ($14.95) is a fine intro to the Douro, an unoaked, inexpensive but characterful wine. Part of the blend comes from old terraced vineyards with mixed plantings of traditional varieties, with the balance from newer plantings of touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta barroca. It has a pleasantly spicy and floral nose focused more in the red fruit spectrum, relatively fresh and engaging, with a mid-weight palate and fine-grained, dusty but ripe tannins.

Hidden Gems & Smart Buys: Whites

La Haute Févrie Le Fils Des Gras Moutons Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine Sur Lie 2012Jean Marc Brocard Domaine Sainte Claire Chablis 2011Cantine Sant' Isidoro Pausula 2012Italy remains an unparalleled source of obscure varieties, some worth remaining so. But once in a while you’ll come across a grape that captures a place and delivers an expression that makes the search worthwhile. Enter the: 2012 Cantine San’Isidoro Pausula ($15.95), admittedly my first taste of the maceratino grape (aka ribona), which grows exclusively along Italy’s Adriatic coast, especially in Le Marche. There’s some speculation that it’s related to greco or verdicchio, but nothing has been confirmed yet. In any case, this has flavour intensity and complexity well above the mean for the price category. Crisp acids, well-integrated and very modest oak influence, and a fine range of ripe tree fruit flavours impress on the palate. Here, as in Le Marche, you can perfectly imagine this alongside grilled, herb-inflected fish with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil.

France offers a pair of tidy wines from regions and grapes that are certainly better known: 2011 Jean-Marc Brocard Domaine Sainte Claire Chablis ($19.95) and 2012 La Haute Févrie Le Fils Des Gras Moutons Muscadet Sèvre-Et-Maine Sur Lie ($14.95). Brocard’s Chablis is a classic old school example complete with that unique cheese rind flavour I frequently encounter in the region, while the muscadet delivers all one could want in crisp, dry, minerally white for the money.

Pazo Pondal Leira Albariño 2012Flat Rock Nadja's Vineyard Riesling 2012Albariño is by now quite well established, at least in sommelier circles, as a go-to food-friendly white with wide appeal. For me, it often smells like viognier but tastes more like riesling, as in the 2012 Pazo Pondal Leira Albariño, Rias Baixas ($16.95). It’s hard not to like the engaging, succulent lemon and orange flavours washed over wet stones.

And it’s no secret that riesling performs consistently well in Niagara, with at least a dozen wineries with a decade+ track record of success to make the point. Flat Rock Cellars was founded in 1999 with the express purpose of making premium chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling, and year after year, the 2012 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($19.95) is one of the region’s best. Nadja’s is Flat Rock’s southern-most and highest altitude vineyard, a 2.5-acre block of riesling sitting on top of the Niagara Escarpment on a solid bed of limestone. The 2012 nicely balances the ripeness and warmth of the vintage with the vibrancy of this cool site.

Aussie Picks

David Lawrason has already covered the upcoming Australian promotion at the LCBO with a comprehensive round-up of what’s to come and what’s already in progress, which you can read here. But in the spirit of WineAlign, here are my top five picks from the February 1st release for you to compare. I know I’ll be picking up a bottle or two, if only so that I can live vicariously through David, who’s currently basking in +30ºC temperatures down under as we surrender to another polar vortex.

2009 Mountadam Estate Chardonnay High Eden, Eden Valley ($24.95)

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011, McLaren Vale ($24.95)

McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2006, Hunter Valley ($19.95)

Dandelion Lioness Of McLaren Vale Shiraz 2011 ($19.95)

Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz 2011, Padthaway, South Australia ($16.95)

Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling 2012, Western Australia ($17.95)

Mountadam Estate Chardonnay 2009Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2006Dandelion Lioness Of Mclaren Vale Shiraz 2011Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz 2011Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling 2012

(We’ve tagged all of the Australian promotions wines for you here: Australian Wine Promotion 2014)

Wine on Tap: Here To Stay?

In the restaurant sector, 2013 has seen the emergence of wine on tap as a legitimate delivery system for premium local wines. WOT is already well established in BC and Québec, but its development in Ontario was made possible by a change in VQA rules in July of 2012, when it became legal to package Ontario VQA wine in 19.5l kegs. Having been personally involved in an operation pouring VQA wine on tap, I’ve seen an increasing number of local winemakers willing to sell wine in kegs (and in some cases convinced them). It seems a proverbial no-brainer, provided the right tap system is in place. It’s a triple win: better quality wine, at a lower price thanks to savings on the expensive packaging, with lower environmental impact. What’s not to love? As long as restaurateurs and wineries focus on quality wine, gaining the confidence of restaurant customers, it seems sensible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you’ve experienced wine on tap, what has worked and what hasn’t, and if you’d like to see more restaurants pouring quality local wines. Drop us a line.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, 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!

From the February 1, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
John’s Aussie Picks
All Reviews


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Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012


Fortessa Canada Inc.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages January 18 Release

The Class of Spain, Plus Hand-Picked French and New World Reds

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

We are still dealing with a VINTAGES tasting schedule bumped off the rails by the holidays, so this shortened report covers just over half of the January 18 Release. I will taste and post notes on the remainder in the days ahead, including all the white wines; but as we dig deeper into winter there can’t be enough good, well-priced red. The Jan 18 selection overall is patchy – particularly among New World reds it seems (I am getting so annoyed at candied California zins like the Predator), but I have dug up some gems. And I highly recommend a serious look at the Spanish reds.

Classy Spanish Reds

Spanish wine is often represented as a haphazard quilt of quaint, comfy, sun-soaked reds that are overripe, over-oaked and under exposed. So I was pleasantly surprised to find such a solid collection of focused, refined and even scholarly reds on this release. Someone chose well; but they did so by focusing on the three most important fine wine regions of Spain – Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat (not necessarily in that order). I was particularly impressed by the selection from Priorat, and the low prices that have been wrung from this cult-ified region. It gained its notoriety in the 90s when a band of young turks launched small batch wines priced among the most expensive in the land; but I sense that commercial reality is now in play in Priorat. In fact this whole group is very fairly priced for the quality that is delivered, and even though I have not highlighted any Riojas below there are some good buys. And then there are the more generous, less cerebral wines of Ribera, which offer warm-hearted values.

Clos Gebrat CG+ 2010Planets De Prior Pons 2009Clos Gebrat 2010 Priorat CG+  ($20.95). This is from Cooperative Vinícola del Priorat, 125 member co-op sourcing from over 300 vineyards based on the region’s slate soils that give Priorat is tautness and refinement. That it is a co-op wine explains its lower price, but it is well made and excellent value.

Planets De Prior Pons 2009 Priorat ($24.95). Prior Pons is a small, family owned winery of about 10 hectares growing the typical trio of grenache, carignan and cabernet, with some of the carignan planted in 1946. The winery is an old stone priory building in the village of La Vilella Alta (pop 141)

Grifoll Declara Tossals 2006Ébano Crianza 2008Ébano 2008 Crianza Ribera del Duero ($21.95). This is a very fine, quite supple tempranillo (called tinta fina in Ribera) from the modern Bodegas Ebano with 43 hectares, much of it being old bush wines. Winemaker Christina Mantilla is one of the pioneering and most awarded women winemakers in Spain, also making white wine at a sister property in Rias Baixas.

Grifoll Declara 2006 Tossals Montsant ($28.95) is from an appellation that neighbours Priorat, sharing its hot climate if not the same slate soil structure. This is a fully mature, traditional and quite particular style for fans of traditional Euro wines. Great depth here!

French Reds

Château Gazin 2010  Pomerol, Bordeaux ($129.85). At this price it is not mentioned here because it is a bargain; but it is a great wine from a very strong vintage, and we alert you that 2010 heavy hitters from Bordeaux are arriving. Gazin is a 26 hectare property in prime territory on Pomerol’s famed plateau.

Clos Teddi 2011 Patrimonio Tradition, Corsica ($23.95). My personal ‘discovery’ of the release is a fine, fragrant, lightweight red from an obscure appellation in Corsica. Marie-Brigitte Poli’s father Joseph founded the property in 1970 in granite based soils. The grapes here are obscure too – a blend of aromatic, native niellucciu and workhorse hot climate grenache. Yields are kept low, always a good sign that quality is top of mind.

Château Gazin 2010Clos Teddi Patrimonio Tradition 2011Château Trillol Grenache Syrah 2008Dentelles De Camille Cairanne 2010

Château Trillol 2008 Grenach/Syrah Corbières, Languedoc ($17.95) is great value in a traditional syrah, grenache, carignan blend from a property that sits at high altitude in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  There is a certain elegant touch here that may stem from the fact that the property is in the hands of the Sichel family that also owns famed Chateau Palmer and Angludet in the Margaux region of Bordeaux.

Dentelles De Camille Cairanne 2010, Côtes Du Rhône Villages ($24.95). We may be seeing the last of the 2010 Rhônes in VINTAGES, so don’t miss this beauty from Cairanne, an appellation overshadowed by Gigondas and Vacqueyras but sharing a position against the landmark Dentelles rock formations.

New World Reds

Norton Reserva Malbec 2010Rosewood Merlot 2011Rosewood 2011 Merlot, Niagara Escarpment ($22.00). If Bench vineyards in a cooler vintage like 2011 can yield this kind of ripeness, merlot may be here to stay in Niagara. This is certainly on the lighter side, yet nicely made and quite elegant. I should also mention it will soon be available for home delivery, in less than case quantities, through www.winerytohome.com.

Norton 2010 Reserva Malbec, Mendoza ($17.95). I was most impressed by the authentic Argentine feel of this malbec, which I understood better when I met winemaker Jorge Riccitelli last fall. He is a big hearty, friendly man who also exudes some sophistication. This wine doesn’t try to dress up too much in floral, fruity finery like so many of the “new wave” malbecs – one still senses some down-to-earthiness at its core.

J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah 2011Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012J. Lohr 2011 South Ridge Syrah, Paso Robles, California ($19.95).  J. Lohr is much better known for its hugely popular Seven Oaks Cabernet, but it’s worth remembering the winery is actually located in Paso Robles, the best-known syrah land in California, and South Ridge is a specific sloping limestone and gravel site. It is rich and very ripe syrah with classic peppery, smoked meat character.

Wynns 2012 Coonawarra Estate Shiraz Coonawarra, South Australia ($22.95) is a very rich, polished effort by the very talented Sue Hodder, who has joined many other winemakers in praising the 2012 vintage in Australia through the roof. The fruit displayed here is astounding!

And that is a wrap for this time. Please tune into WineAlign to check out my newly arriving reviews on other wines in the January release. We are in the midst of a publishing flurry with my special report on Icewine, plus an in-depth look at Alsace by John Szabo, coming very soon. BC members are now reading our four BC critics’ picks of some of their favourite post-Holiday value wines.

Villa Maria Winemaker EventThose in the Toronto area may want to act quickly to get a seat at an upcoming WineAlign tasting and four course dinner at Rosewater with winemaker Josh Hammond from New Zealand’s Villa Maria. In my mind this is one of the most overlooked larger wineries in the country, making wines of fine poise and sensibility.

Until next time,

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Editors Note: You can find David Lawrason’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!

From the January 18, 2014 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


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 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012


Vancouver International Wine Festival - Feb 27, 28 and Mar 1

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 18, 2014

Hangovers, Overweight Canadians and Shadowy “Dry” Wines; Statistical Value from Spain and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Wondering why you woke up with a hangover, even though you didn’t drink that much, or why you can’t lose that extra inch around the waist? This week I take a close look at the shadowy world of sweet wines masquerading as dry wines and pull the wool off the proverbial eyes. If, on the other hand, you believe that what you don’t know won’t kill you, then jump straight to featured Spain, where, according to probability logic, values should be found, and indeed I found five smart buys from the January 18th release. I’ve also picked Top Ten Smart Buys from the rest of the release.

Hangovers, Overweight Canadians and Shadowy “Dry” Wines

According to a CBC Radio report, 59% of Canadians, and growing, are fat. Why? The fact that we consume 200 more calories a day on average than a mere generation ago has a lot to do with it (though our southern neighbors have added a whopping 700 calories). And the main culprit is, you guessed it, sugar. Pure refined added sugar, and everything with an ‘ose’ ending (sucrose, glucose, fructose, etc.), or any one of sugar’s half-masked henchmen like molasses, corn or cane syrup, are found in virtually every processed food – just read any ingredient label.

Experts also point to sugary drinks – soft drinks, energy drinks and all manner of other fruit-based (or simulated fruit flavour-based) drinks, as a major source of unnecessary sugar, and thus calories, in our diets. Such drinks were virtually non-existent, or very limited, in the not too distant past. Now it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry.

The fact is, we like sweet tastes, which is nothing new. Human beings are biologically programmed to be drawn to sweet tastes, which represent calories and therefore survival, and to reject bitter tastes, since most poisonous substances in nature have a bitter profile.

SugarThe trouble is, we are not subsistent hunters and gatherers any longer, and we need far fewer calories to survive than we take in on average. And most of us aren’t aware of just how many calories we are consuming every day. You have to read an awful lot of small print and break out the calculator to keep track. And even when you attempt to consciously control your sugar intake, empty sucrose calories show up in the most unexpected places, in foods and drinks you would never think to find them.

And there’s now a new and rising source of unexpected sugars in our lives: wine.

No, I’m not talking about sweet or “dessert” wines. Sweet wines are of course nothing new. Although the popularity of late-harvested, sun-dried, botrytis-affected, frozen grape and sweet fortified wines has waned significantly in our generation, ironically enough, they were at one point the most sought after wines in the world. Those were the days when calories were scarcer and consumers weren’t overloaded with sugar at every meal, in every bite and every sip. Today, sweet wine sales are struggling.

But I’m not talking about these wines, the ones that openly, proudly, un-shamefully declare themselves sweet. They make no attempt to hide their sweetness – it’s all there for anyone to read on the label. I am admittedly a confirmed fanatic of great off-dry and sweet wines – give me large draughts of magical Mosel riesling, transcendental tokaji aszú, shimmering sec-tendre chenin blanc, or give me death. But I know exactly what I’m getting, and I can intelligently dose my sugar intake.

What I am referring to is the growing number of sugar-laden wines, especially reds, masquerading as dry wines and hiding in plain sight alongside truly dry wines in every section of your local wine shop. Off-dry reds are no longer exclusive to Georgia and Eastern Europe. An increasing number of wines, as it turns out, contain measurable amounts of sugar without telling anybody, and these are among the best-selling wines in the world.

We haven’t lost our collective sweet tooth, obviously. Correlating sugar levels with wine sales, I too, would be tempted to drop a few cubes into the vats. In fact, only one of the top 10 best-selling new and old world wines on the LCBO list contains less than 6 grams of sugar per litre – Oggi Pinot Grigio, Italy ($8.95) – with a modest 5 grams of sugar per litre. The rest contain more, much more, in some cases four or five times.

But savvy marketers also know that most people don’t want to know that they’re consuming sugar, since at the same time as sugar levels in all foods are rising, we are also increasingly exposed to the message that sugar is bad for you, and that obesity is on the rise in the Western world. So it’s smarter marketing to hide or obscure the fact that your product is sugar-rich.

What do you suppose would happen to Coca-Cola sales if the company changed their marketing slogan to “Drink Sweet Coca-Cola, 10 Sugar Cubes in Every Can”? Coke, is over 10% pure sugar (108 grams per litre). (And you can forget diet sodas as a healthier alternative, by the way. They’ve been shown to actually cause weight gain).

Or how about “Its Copious Sugar Gives You Wings” for Red Bull’s next campaign? It too contains over 10% sugar. Or perhaps: “Juice-Up on Snapple’s Super Sweet Lemon Iced Tea” (8% sugar). I can see sales crashing like a kid after a sugar high.

Again, there’s nothing new here. Wine marketers of the last half-century have often played down sweetness in what were supposed to be serious “dry” wines. Remember that Hochtaler slogan from the 1970s and ‘80s: “dry, without the edge”? Hochtaler was, and is, anything but dry. It’s the sugar that takes off the “edge”, but nobody wants to hear that. It’s willful deception.

The sugary self-delusion is also familiar on the consumer side. Sommeliers and merchants know that people, too, often like to talk dry, but prefer to drink sweet. It’s rare for a restaurant patron to request an off-dry or sweet wine before dessert. They’ll call it “smooth” or “fruity” or “not too edgy” instead, all code words, conscious or not, for wines with a bit of sugar. Try to sell them on that “lovely, sweet red wine” and it’ll be dismissed like a bowl of fried crickets.

But let me stress again that this is not an anti-sweet wine rant. A smart sommelier or wine merchant will connect the customer with the wine he or she really wants. People like sweet tastes. They shouldn’t be chased out of the wine market by militant sommeliers, wine writers and merchants who want to foist their bone-dry, bitter, austere pet wines on them. Recommend your latest favorite tannic nebbiolo to a customer who wanted jammy zinfandel, and watch them run.

But what I do object to is finding sugar in places it shouldn’t be expected, without fair warning. It’s about transparency on the label. Consumers should be able to make informed decisions on their sugar and caloric intake.

And there’s more to it than weight gain or tooth decay, as anyone who has overindulged in sweet cocktails, or sweet wines, can attest. Sugar magnifies the effects of alcohol, leaving you feeling even worse the next day. (Read about sugar hangovers and the nefarious effects of excessive sugar on the body – sounds like a bad hangover to me.) And what’s more, wines containing sugar also contain higher levels of added sulphites, necessary to prevent unwanted re-fermentation, which is of course bad news to sulphur-sensitive drinkers. And for the flavour purists, sweet wines are almost invariably sterile-filtered, again to eliminate the risks of spoilage organisms that feed on sugar, which also strips wine flavour at the same time.

I won’t even get into the more serious medical issues like immune system suppression, Candida or eczema, or worse, diabetes.

The deceptive wines that I’m referring to here don’t contain anywhere near the sugar levels of Coke or Snapple, but they do contain sugar.

For the record, according to the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), a wine is considered dry when “the wine contains a maximum of either 4 g/L sugar or 9 g/L when the level of total acidity is no more than 2 g/L less than the sugar content.” (http://www.oiv.int/oiv/info/endefinitionproduit)

Which is to say that a wine is still considered dry with up to 9 grams of sugar per litre, provided it also contains at least 7 grams per litre of tartaric acid. The LCBO’s sweetness descriptors are based on a clever similar system. Here’s how Dorina Brasoveanu, Manager of Quality Assurance at the LCBO describes it:

Our approach towards informing consumers about the sweetness of a wine is based on two pieces of information:
– A sweetness descriptor that describes the correlation between the perceived sweetness of the wine and its sugar & acidity content
– The actual sugar content found in the wine, expressed in g/L.

LCBO.com Sweetness Descriptor & Sugar CodesWhile the first tool, the sweetness descriptor, gives a measure of the sweetness perception expressed as: extra dry (XD), dry (D), medium (M), medium-sweet (MS) and sweet (S); the actual sugar content would assist those consumers who for example need to monitor their sugar intake.

Our sweetness descriptors system is based on a mathematical algorithm that correlates the perceived sweetness of the wine to the sugar & acidity content. This model was determined by analyzing the sweetness perception as determined sensorially, against the actual sugar and acidity content.

High levels of (natural) acidity are encountered frequently in white wines from cool regions like, say, Ontario, Alsace, or Germany (which is why a pinch of residual sugar is needed to balance, and in the end the wines taste virtually dry). Here the sugar makes perfect sense, and in fact I would expect to find some sugar in certain high acid, cool climate whites. It’s not there to seduce you, but to balance the wine and make it less like battery acid.

But wines (especially reds) from warmer climates, which is where the majority of these deceptive wines come from, aren’t acidic. Indeed many need to have acid added to render the wine more stable. Any residual sugar is thus pure commercial pomade, designed to tap into your primeval instinct for survival. It’s quite brilliant, really, almost irresistible.

Sweetness is most often added before bottling as unfermented, or concentrated grape must, though in some cases grapes are allowed to over ripen to the point where they contain so much sugar that even when fermented out to a normal 13-14% alcohol, there’s residual sugar left, as in a late harvest wine without a late-harvest designation. A bag of sugar would be the last resort.

Read this description for Apothic red from California, one of the top-selling wines in Canada:

“Apothic Red reveals intense fruit aromas and flavors of rhubarb and black cherry, complemented by hints of mocha, chocolate, brown spice and vanilla. The plush, velvety mouthfeel and the smooth finish round out this intriguing, full-bodied red blend.”

Would you expect this wine to contain 19 grams of sugar per litre? According to the LCBO website, it does. That’s the equivalent of about four teaspoons, or four sugar cubes, in every bottle. That’s sweet by any measure.

Or check out the website description for Sandbank Winery’s top-five selling VQA Baco Noir:

“A full-bodied red wine with intense plum and wild cherry flavours. Notes of toasted oak provide a lingering finish. Our signature wine.”

Sounds inviting, only they fail to mention it’s also medium-sweet, thanks to a whopping 26 grams of sugar, or five teaspoons of sugar per bottle.

Trained tasters can reliably detect sugar in wine anywhere above about four grams (acidity notwithstanding), and can thus catch the ruse. But most consumers are not trained tasters, and for them the wine just tastes pleasantly round and plush. They won’t be conscious that they’re drinking lots of sugar. Would they enjoy the wine as much if they knew how much sugar it contains?

I have to applaud the LCBO’s recent decision to list the residual sugar for all wines on their website, www.lcbo.com. It’s of course not as good as requiring wineries to include sugar content on the label, (like all other foods and beverages sold in North America, incidentally), but it’s a step.

If you care about your sugar intake and are in doubt about a wine, which you’ll always be, search for it on the LCBO website (you don’t have to be an Ontario resident) and you’ll see exactly how much sugar it contains.

In the meantime, here’s a tiny random sampling of popular wines that contain more sugar than you probably would have thought – nine grams or more. California is a top source of both reds and whites with residual sugar – be wary in particular of the recent rash of Californian red blends. But you can be sure that many popular, inexpensive brands from anywhere in the world contain significant sugar.

Sampling of popular wines by sweetness

Generally speaking, cheap European wines tend to be drier than cheap new world wines, but again, look them up to be sure. New world rosés almost invariably contain sugar; for dry versions look to traditional areas like Provence and the Rhône Valley, and then double-check.

Among whites, aromatic varieties like riesling, gewürztraminer and muscat/moscato tend to be sweeter more often than not (but not all are sweet!). New world chardonnay can also have more sugar than expected.

There are also some surprisingly sweet wines at the high-end of the supposedly dry wine market, so premium price alone doesn’t guarantee bona fide dryness. Also recall that all champagne and traditional method sparkling wine except those labeled brut zero, brut nature, non-dosé or similar contain sugar. Sparkling wine/champagne labeled brut alone can legally contain up to 15 grams/litre, though most have around 8-12 g/L (which is usually welcome considering the high acid).

For still wines, the sweet spot, pun intended, also looks to be around 8-12 grams/litre for maximum commercial impact – enough to give a wine that plush, velvety mouth-feel without being obviously dessert-wine sweet.

For the calorie counters, 1 gram of sugar contains four calories, and there are roughly 4 grams of sugar in one teaspoon and in one standard sugar cube. For the actual number of grams of sugar in a standard glass of wine (5oz /150ml), divide the number of grams per litre by 6 for a close approximation.

Spain: A Probable Source of Value

According to the amazingly comprehensive report published by Kym Anderson of the Wine Economics Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, the countries that gained the most in the global share of acreage between 2000 and 2010 include France, Italy, The United States, Australia and New Zealand (Canada gained slightly). Spain, at the other end of the scale, was the biggest looser.

Yet Spain remains world nº1 in terms of acreage, with nearly one-quarter of the world’s grapevine area. Students of probability will then note that Spain represents only 12% of world wine production by volume (low yields per hectare), and a mere 6% by value (that low yielding juice, often from old vines, sells for next to nothing relative to world scales). It’s a clear statistical probability then, considering the sheer volume of inexpensive, low-yielding, concentrated juice, that there should be many smart buys to be found in Spain. And indeed there are.

Iberian Peninsula on Fire

This inevitability has not been overlooked in Ontario. Spain (and Portugal) are on fire, and collectively, the Iberian Peninsula is up 19% in VINTAGES, the largest increase for any country in the last reporting period. The January 18th VINTAGES release features Spain, with a particularly rich collection from the trendy region of Priorat along with modern and traditional examples from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Here are my top five picks from the release.

2006 La Perla Del Priorat Clos Les Fites, Priorat ($30.95)

2005 Hacienda Lopez De Haro Reserva, Rioja ($17.95)

2009 Planets De Prior Pons, Priorat ($24.95)

2009 Ares Crianza, Rioja ($17.95)

2010 Cepa 21 Hito, Ribera Del Duero ($17.95)

La Perla Del Priorat Clos Les Fites 2006Hacienda Lopez De Haro Reserva 2005Planets De Prior Pons 2009Ares Crianza 2009Cepa 21 Hito 2010

Top Ten Smart Buys

And in the smart buys category this week, there’s a fine range to choose from among no fewer than eight countries. I’ve listed the residual sugar for each as per the LCBO laboratory measurements, so you can make the call on whether it’s right for you:

2009 Obsidian Cabernet/Merlot
Waiheke Island, New Zealand ($29.95, 4 g/L)

2011 Mönchhof Robert Eymael Riesling
Mosel, Germany ($16.95, 74 g/L)

2012 Fouassier Pere & Fils Pouilly-Fumé
Loire, France ($19.95, 5 g/L)

2012 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz Coonawarra
South Australia ($22.95, 4 g/L)

2011 Castello Di Querceto Chianti Classico
Tuscany, Itlay ($22.95, 5 g/L)

Obsidian Cabernet Merlot 2009Mönchhof Robert Eymael Riesling 2011Fouassier Pere & Fils Pouilly Fumé 2012Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012Castello Di Querceto Chianti Classico 2011

2010 Santa Ema Barrel Select 60/40 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot
Maipo Valley, Chile ($13.95, 6 g/L)

2008 Valle Andino Reserva Especial Syrah
Colchagua Valley, Chile ($13.95, 5 g/L)

2007 Boutari Grande Reserve
Greece ($16.95, 5 g/L)

2012 De Morgenzon DMZ Chardonnay
Western Cape, South Africa ($14.95, 4 g/L)

2011 Château Jolys Ac Jurançon Sec
($16.95, 6 g/L)

Santa Ema Barrel Select 60-40Valle Andino Reserva Especial Syrah 2008Boutari Grande Reserve 2007De Morgenzon Dmz Chardonnay 2012Château Jolys 2011

That’s all for this week. Stay dry and see you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, 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!

From the Jan 18, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Best Buys
All Reviews


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Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012


Fortessa Canada Inc.

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

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

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

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

Spain’s Priorat and Montsant

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

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

B.C.’s Range

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

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

Three White Highlights

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

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

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

Four Red Values

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

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

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

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

Postcards from New Zealand & A Tasting of Villa Maria

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

Auckland Winery

Villa Maria Winemaker – Alastair Maling
Auckland Winery

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

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

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

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine

From the January 19, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


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Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008


Rosehill Wine Cellars

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Spain’s Alvaro Palacios Wows WineAligners, plus Bierzo’s Secrets to Success

By David Lawrason and John Szabo, MS

Spain’s Alvaro Palacios Wows WineAligners  – by David Lawrason

On Monday evening star Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios sat down with forty WineAlign subscribers to taste through recent vintages of wines from three regions – Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo. The shocking summer weather made it feel like he had brought Spain right into the Spoke Club on King St West’s restaurant row in downtown Toronto. The tasting was sponsored by importer Woodman Wines & Spirits and offered exclusively to WineAlign members, selling out in less than six hours.

Alvaro Palacios

Alvaro Palacios

The wines were a hit, but Palacios himself stole the show, conducting a tasting that not only charmed and informed, but displayed a captivating passion and reverence for his country and his craft. Anyone who might have wondered, ‘why on earth do people get so fussed about wine?’ would have finally understood.

Many other winemakers express the same connection to country and the land, but Palacios’ is somewhat unique in that his passion for Spain and the potential of its wine regions has been transformed into a kind of activism by having made wine in France (notably at Château Petrus) and having travelled the world. And he has learned to speak up and let his sincerity, humour and intelligence do the convincing. Not to mention the sophistication of his wines. They do indeed capture a new taste of Spain.

As moderator of the tasting I began to get a bit concerned when Palacios delved back into Spanish wine history to explain the relevance of what he is doing now, but it was indeed essential to understand that Spain’s vinous history runs as deep as any place in Europe, and that through the troubled 20th Century its wine industry suffered a post-Civil War industrialization. The guiding economic principles of quantity and uniformity became the foundation of its regulation (Denominacion d’Origen or DO) system, which created only very broad regional appellations and promoted the idea that quality stemmed from wine age (i.e. Reserva and Gran Reserva), rather than specific location.

“France is still making the world’s greatest wines because France has understood the importance of specific vineyard sites, or crus, for decades, even centuries”, Palacios explained. “Spain has many sites that have this potential but it may take decades to fully develop them. But I am impatient so I have searched for existing old vineyards so I don’t have to wait as long”.

The vineyards of L'Ermita estate

The vineyards of L'Ermita estate

He has done so in three regions, and created three tiers of wine within each region. This formed the structure of the WineAlign tasting. The first tier were regional wines; the second tier village wines, the third tier single vineyard wines. As one tasted from broad to specific – and from less expensive to more expensive – the transition to greater depth, complexity and individuality was obvious. And the words reserva or gran reserva are nowhere to be seen on his labels or heard in his dialogue.

Individual reviews and ratings for the wines below can be found on WineAlign. These newer vintages are not yet in Vintages or the Classics Catalogue, but they can be ordered directly from Woodman Wines & Spirits at 416-767-9008. (Private orders require a deposit and must be purchased by the case.)

The Rioja range from the Palacios Remondo winery located in Rioja Baja began with an elegant, bright white wine from the Viura grape called Placet ($32). The first red, 2009 Montessa ($21), was a garnacha-dominated blend from younger vines. The second Rioja red was 2008 Propiedad ($39) was also a garnacha-based blend, this time from very old, estate vines. In both cases the vineyards are organically tended, and the wine is aged in French oak barrels.
Álvaro Palacios Finca Dofí

The second group of wines were from Priorat, an arid, luminous region with impossibly steep vineyards located south of Barcelona and about 20kms inland. As a young man of 25, Alvaro was one of the pioneers of the region’s renaissance when he arrived in 1989. The first two wines were regional wines, with 2010 Camins del Priorat ($26) coming from younger vines, and 2010 Les Terrasses ($45) being from 75 year or older sites. The 2008 Gratallops ($68) is a single vineyard site with old garnacha and carignan vines plus a bit of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. The 2009 Finca Dofi ($90), from a vineyard Palacios purchased in 1990, is again based on garnacha, but this time without carignan and including a higher proportion of cabernet and syrah.

Palacios explained that there is currently no maximum or minimum amount of cabernet or syrah stipulated in DO regulation for Priorat, and he projected that use of these French varieties will gradually decrease in the region in favour of native garnacha, carignan and cinsault.

The third series of wines were from Bierzo in northwestern) Spain, where Alvaro has teamed up with nephew Ricardo Perez to form a company called Descendientes de J. Palacios that makes red wines from the indigenous, dark skinned mencia grape. The 2010 Pétalos del Bierzo ($26) is from younger, lower altitude sites around the region.  The 2008 Villa de Corullón ($49) is created from several old vine sites near the hillside village of Corullón, while the 2009 Las Lamas ($119) is from a spectacular, old vine site high in the hills.

El Bierzo – The Secrets of Success  – By John Szabo MS

From near total obscurity just a couple of decades ago to one of the Spain’s hottest regions, Bierzo’s rise can be chalked up to a series of unrelated events and lucky circumstances.

Vocation

Bierzo has been producing wine since Roman times, but until recently the majority was consumed locally or shipped across into neighboring Galicia, where the severe maritime climate makes red production challenging. With guaranteed markets, there was little motivation for quality. “My father wouldn’t even drink his own wine it was so bad”, muses Alejandro Luna-Beberide of Bodegas Luna-Beberide, referring to the coop-based production from the 70s and early 80s. But the market was changing rapidly, and fortunately, a shift to quality was possible.

The region is shaped like a bowl, surrounded by protective mountains. The air is perfumed by fragrant honeysuckle, lavender, rockrose and oregano, and apple, cherry, chestnut and pear orchards share land with hectare after hectare of gnarly old vines that look more like a vast collection of bonsai trees than modern vineyards. In the west, radically steep hills of nearly pure slate, coloured blood red by iron, stretch up to over 900m.

The climate of Bierzo is ideally suave, midway between the maritime conditions of Galicia and the hot, dry conditions on the plains of Castile: winter temperatures hover around a manageable 4ºC, while summer highs average a moderate 24ºC. Rainfall provides adequate but not excessive water. Vines seem to like it here so much they refuse to die.

Lucky Arrival

Ricardo Perez

Ricardo Perez

To realize potential takes a visionary, and in the case of Bierzo it was a couple of outsiders: Alvaro Palacios (Rioja, Priorat) and his nephew Ricardo Pérez. It happened that Ricardo, under the wing of his famous uncle, was on his way back from a wedding in Galicia when he stopped into Bierzo on a whim. The wine, then virtually unknown outside of this small corner of Spain astonished him.

In 1999 the pair established Descendientes de J. Palacios in Bierzo, an homage to Alvaro’s father José. They had a strong feeling that these hills along the mystical pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campostella could yield something extraordinary. “The presence of monastic orders brings grape growing to a spiritual level”, says Palacios. “The wines become impregnated with the mystery of the region.”

Beyond mysticism, Palacios and Pérez had recognized in Bierzo the rare confluence of factors that lead to great wine: suitable climate, proven history, great terroir, a unique local variety, mencía, and tons of old vineyards, not to mention obscurity and therefore reasonable prices.

Laws of Circumstance

Old vines are key to Bierzo. Many regions in the world boast parcels of old vines, but in Bierzo one can scarcely find a single young vine. Of 7000 ha of vineyards, around 90% are old (60+years), traditionally bush trained vines – it’s like a Jurassic park. The reason is another one of those unplanned circumstances: incredibly fragmented land ownership.

The Spanish region of Bierzo

The Spanish region of Bierzo

Thanks to an extension of Napoleonic code, each individual parcel, not the estate as a whole, was equally divided among all heirs. The result is thousands of parcels, some barely a couple of rows of vines, beyond even Burgundy’s fragmentation. J. Palacios contracts grapes from some 30 hectares, divided into 200 micro-parcels farmed by over 60 growers, for example, while Bodegas Peique contracts 20 ha in 100 parcels and Bodegas Pittacum 40 ha from 200 parcels.

This fragmentation makes acquiring large contiguous parcels near impossible; growers here are too attached to their postage stamp-sized parcels of land to sell. This in turn has discouraged the big players from moving in, who might otherwise have replanted large tracks to make mechanization possible. As it stands, Bierzo’s tiny plots are farmed mostly by hand, and the old vines, which yield better wine, have been left largely untouched.

Temporal Coincidence

One big name can draw attention, but to really gain traction takes critical mass. One thing Palacios and Pérez may not have seen was the coincidental coming-of-age in the late 1990s of a new generation of twenty-something local winemakers who would join the quality revolution: Jorge Peique, Amancio Fernandez (Dominio de Tares), Alejandro Luna-Beberide, Raúl Pérez (Castro Ventoso), Isidro Fernández Bello (Casar de Burbia) and Alfredo Marqués (Pittacum) to name a few. Young, trained and ambitious, this group took the reins from the previous generation and helped put Bierzo on the map.

Results: The Wine

Bierzo is almost exclusively red made from mencía (there are scattered plantings of white godello and other local grapes). Mencía is described by winemakers as amable, literally ‘lovable’ and makes some of Spain’s most elegant reds. It reaches full maturity at moderate alcohol levels, while the tannins are soft and plush. The wines grown on the steep, high elevation slate-covered hillsides near the village of Corullón are leaner, supremely elegant, more mouth-watering and decidedly more mineral and floral; those from the lower, clay-rich gentle slopes between Villafranca, Valtuille and Cacabelos have a broader, softer profile with a voluptuous, velvety texture, deep dark fruit and soothing power.

Las LamasPalacios and Pérez follow a Burgundian model with their range: Pétalos is the equivalent of a regional wine, blended from grapes purchased throughout the region and intended to be an introduction to Bierzo. Villa de Corullón is the village wine, blended from vineyards within Corullón in the steep western part of the appellation. And finally, at the top of the quality pyramid are the single vineyards within the village: Moncerbal, La Faraona, and the powerful, south facing Las Llamas, the broadest and most generously proportioned of the three.

In less than a decade, the wines of Bierzo have earned a place on top tables around the world. “When Alvaro arrived I knew the whole world would soon recognize Bierzo” recalls Jorge Peique of Bodegas Peique. And so it has.


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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008