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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.


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


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

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

 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.” (

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. 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, 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


Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012

Fortessa Canada Inc.

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

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

Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008

Rosehill Wine Cellars

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

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.


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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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 17 Release: A Spanish Dalliance, Sparkling Fizzle and Sizzle, Classic Maipo Cab, Value White Burgundy, More Under $20 Whites, and LCBO Goes Italian

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The Spanish Flavour Fiesta Feature

One of the great joys of touring Spain’s wine regions is eating Spain’s food – much of it very natural, boldly flavoured and simply prepared. I had several wonderful and not always elaborate meals when I visited Rueda,Toro and Bierzo last autumn, and on previous trips to other regions as well. And I regularly receive a very fine, very expensively produced, free Spanish gastronomic magazine called Gourmetour. So Vintages latest magazine feature called “Flavour Fiesta: Spanish Wines & Their Perfect Pairings” seems very appropriate, at least thematically and in terms of its timeliness. The world is awakening to Spain.

But something bugs me about this particular exercise by Vintages. The article on food pairings is expanding Vintages boundaries beyond wine, where it lacks authority. I know, it’s done in Food and Drink magazine too – with the rationale that writing about food and wine is promoting the culture of responsible consumption of alcohol. But Food and Drink at least bylines its article. Who exactly has decided that viura and mushrooms are perfect pairings? (Although in the case of the very woody, earthy viura offered it’s probably true). It’s time that Vintages magazine – as it wanders farther away from home and from promotion into education, and even peers into the chasm of journalism – started using bylines, or telling us their sources. Or at least whether there is a Test Kitchen somewhere in the bowels of the HQ?

Baron De Ley Gran ReservaOlivares Altos De La Hoya MonastrellBut back to Spain, with continuing grumpiness. I am also not all that pleased with the selection of Spanish wines in this release. It does cover off the regions and grape varieties that make Spain so interesting, but the selection is shallow – one or two brands per place. And within that general cap of $20, they have not really come up a very interesting selection of what Spain can really do. The exceptions are one wine that beautifully captures the Spain of yore, and one that nods neatly to modern times. Baron de Ley 2001 Gran Reserva from Rioja is a magnificently scented, very refined and elegant wine that is a steal at $29.95. On the other hand Olivares Altos de la Hoya 2009 Monastrellfrom Jumilla is a juicy example of the new exuberance and value ($13.95) to be found in the sunny south. I was not able to taste three or four of others, especially from Bierzo but I will do so once they are released.

Sparklers: Sizzle and Fizzle

Sparkling wine is featured on this release as well and, as with the Spanish selection, this group is rather skimpy in terms of the number of brands offered. No Spanish cava, no Italian prosecco, and only a single, not very dramatic Champagne which is also incongruous in the sense that all the others are under $30. But I am tired of nit picking so I want to point you to a great little buy in pink or rosé sparkling wine. One of my little annoyances with most pink sparkling wine is that I find the aromatics too mild – just little teases of raspberry here or strawberry there. Even with top rosé Champagne I often find myself wanting more aroma and flavour. Well along comes a dandy little number from Burgundy that delivers that extra bit of fruit. Lefèvre Rémondet Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé is an absolute steal at $15.95, with just a bit more pinot noir cran-raspberry than you normally get in the genre, and certainly more than in the very overly subtle almost dull Mumm Napa Rosé that is twice the price.

Lefèvre Rémondet Crémant De Bourgogne Brut RoséSee Ya Later Ranch Brut

The other sparkler that caught my eye is from British Columbia See Ya Later Ranch Brut ($20.95) from the Okanagan Valley. It’s not fancy but it is solid and has a certain riveting, stony appeal that reminds me of the winery’s steep mountainside location overlooking the town of Okanagan Falls. The winery was formerly known as Hawthorne Mountain Ranch, one of several properties purchased by Vincor Canada, which changed its name to the more whimsical See Ya Later. This was the gist of a departure note apparently left by the founder’s new bride after a few weeks in the pioneer paradise of B.C.’s interior.

Is Maipo the Bordeaux of the New World?

Two weeks ago at the Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival, where Chile was the theme country, I had the chance to taste several iconic Maipo Valley cabernets within the space of a couple of days, including multiple vintages of Santa Rita Casa Real, Vinedo Chadwick, De Martino Reserva de Familia and Concha Y Toro Don Melchor. And I had a revelation of sorts, one that escaped me even when I was last in Maipo about two years ago, and at least twice before that. The revelation is not that this region makes very good cabernets. Instead, it was the revelation that its cabernets are classic cabernets in every sense, and very much in the vein of the Medoc in Bordeaux, if with more weight. Concha Y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet SauvignonThe Maipo cabs have very similar flavour profile – blackcurrant/cassis, graphite (lead pencil) and savoury herbaceous elements. They have the same sense of structural firmness, and above all, the ability to age long and very gracefully. Bottles from the nineties are holding very well at these top levels. Even the relatively diminutive, estate-grown Perez Cruz 2010 Cabernet that sells for $13.95 as a Vintages Essential has held well over six years, as have back vintages of the Cousiño Macul Antiguas Reserva Cabernet($15.45) that I tasted about three years ago.

The reason is of course based in climate and soils. One tends to forget that Chile is somewhat maritime, with that big body of cold Pacific Ocean not far away, and in terms of soil there is all kinds of rock and gravel strewn about, either in the foothills or along the meandering course of the Maipo River as it cuts through the flatter Central Valley floor. Concha y Toro 2007 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley sub-appellation of Puente Alto (650 M above sea level) is your best chance to test drive the theory if you have not seriously investigated Maipo cabernets until now. It’s not cheap at $79.95 but it is very well structured and surprisingly nuanced once you make your way deep into its heart. This is the 20th vintage of Don Melchor, one of the first “icon” wines of Chile.

Great Value White Burgundy

Domaine Rodet Château De Mercey MercureyDomaine Christophe Camu ChablisValue and Burgundy rarely appear in the same sentence. But on this release there are two very solid, well priced chardonnays from Burgundy regions other than the Cote d’Or – don’t miss them!Domaine Rodet Château de Mercey 2009 Mercurey ($22.95) is from a small village in the Chalonnaise that has surprised me before with the quality of its white wines. This has the flavour profile of a Meursault albeit without the same girth – which is just fine for lighter meal situations. It is from a 48 hectare estate and now also the site of a new Rodet tasting centre. The other winner is from Chablis, the un-oaked Domaine Christophe Camu 2009 Chablis, for a great price of $18.95. Again, there is great balance and fruit without tipping into heaviness and over-ripeness in this warm year. This is a small sixth generation enterprise with eight hectares spread over several appellations. The winery website mentions several awards in the last year, and I am not surprised. Ontario winemakers who make un-oaked chardonnay should go to school on this one.

More Bargain Whites Under $20

Vega Murillo VerdejoBründlmayer Kamptaler Terrassen Grüner VeltlinerAlkoomi RieslingWith spring roaring back into our lives this week it’s an appropriate time to consider enjoying pristine, bright white wines – and I don’t know about you, but I am finding the global quality of white wines is improving dramatically. Varietal character is more often spot on, the wines are usually pure and the textural weight and balance has really come into line. And all the while prices are holding fast. You can experience all this with three text book examples in Saturday’s release. Alkoomi 2009 Riesling from Western Australia’s cool Frankland River is serious and excellent quality at $16.95. Bründlmayer 2010 Kamptaler Terrassen Grüner Veltliner from Austria ($19.95) is a bit youthfully reserved but very tidy and one to consider for short term cellaring. And for the third pick we go back to Spain and the quite exciting, very well made Vega Murillo 2010 Verdejo that offers sauvignon-like flavours with a richer texture, all for $15.95.

“My Italy” in Ontario

Well none of us actually own Italy of course, and I am not sure that owning Italy would be a financially sound investment these days, but that doesn’t stop the promoters at the LCBO from trying to entitle our fantasies of eating and drinking our way through Italy. There is an Italian promotion called My Italy under way in LCBO stores this month (wrapping up March 31) that for once has some teeth to it in terms of some new wines recently and permanently added to the general list, as well as joint Vintages/LCBO public event coming up Wednesday, March 21st that will give the public an opportunity to taste them. The $70 event, which will be held at Andrew Richards Design studio in downtown Toronto (see the LCBO Website for ticket info) also features a personal appearance and book giveaway by celebrity chef David Rocco. It sounds like it could be a nifty evening out, but whether or not you go, do try some of the new Italian offerings. I really like very fruit focused Allegrini Corte Giara Ripasso Valpolicella at only $16.95, plus the fine little every day sipper from Abruzzo called Illuminati Riparosso Montepulciano.

Allegrini Corte Giara Ripasso Valpolicella 2009 Illuminati Riparosso Montepulciano D'abruzzo 2009

Not exactly co-incident with the My Italy promotion comes the release of a new four-hour, three-part LCBO produced video series called Discover Italy, that is ostensibly a staff product knowledge tool. It took a crew 31 days and over 6000 kms of travel within Italy to shoot this opus – and although it is richly produced and of network quality – the educational material therein seems to me to be rather basic and soft and nothing one couldn’t get elsewhere. Hosted by the LCBO’s Michael Fagan it is available for viewing on DVD or as a podcast on the LCBO website under Learn. It was presented to the media this week at a tasting event hosted by “trade partner” Grande Marchi: Istituto del Vino Italiano de Qualita, an organisation of traditional big name wineries which helped fund the series. The tasting was poorly executed (and thus did not show the range of marquee wines to their best advantage) but then I have come to expect a certain amount of dysfunction at Italian tastings. It seems to be part of Italy’s charm, and perhaps part of the reason it would not be a good thing to actually own the place.

As I sign off, a reminder that we would be delighted to spend time meeting and getting to know our WineAlign readers at the Toronto Wine & Cheese Show this weekend at the International Centre in Mississauga. It’s a great place to give us your feedback on what and how we are doing. And to enjoy some wine together at the same time. Maybe you would like to feed me endless malbecs until I finally understand the difference between malbec and syrah. (See the latest episode of “So You Think You Know Wine” and you’ll see what I mean.)


David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign

Check out reviews on over 100 wines from the March 17th release here.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

España- Buy on the Label

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

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

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

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

A Spanish Love Affair with Wood

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

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

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

A Pair from The Rhône

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

A Pair from South Africa

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

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

From the March 17, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Picks
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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An Exclusive Event with Spain’s Most Exciting Winemaker – Alvaro Palacios

Alvaro Palacios

Alvaro Palacios

“Alvaro Palacios is making some of Spain’s most exciting wine.” – David Lawrason

WineAlign (in partnership with Woodman Wine & Spirits Inc.) is delighted to offer its members an exclusive tutored tasting and reception with Alvaro Palacios, an icon in the world of wine.  Alvaro’s legend has been built on the stunning wines he has crafted from the farthest reaches of Spain, from Priorat to Rioja and now Bierzo.

After studying enology in Bordeaux, and training under Jean-Pierre Moueix at the renowned Chateau Petrus, Alvaro returned to Spain and helped revolutionize Spanish wine.  He credits his experience in Bordeaux for much of his winemaking philosophy.  It showed him the “importance of great wines” and provided him with a key reference point for his own endeavours.  His wines have won him cult status and are highly respected by the wine press.  The Wine Spectator has called Alvaro “Spain’s Most Exciting Winemaker”, in 2003 Wine & Spirits Magazine named him their “Winemaker-of-the-Year” Decanter has called him “Spain’s most talked about winemaker”.

The vineyards of L'Ermita estate

The vineyards of L'Ermita estate

The sit down tutored tasting co-hosted by David Lawrason will include wines from each of Alvaro’s three properties:

  • The iconic Alvaro Palacios winery in Priorat.
  • His historic family estate, Palacios Remondo, in Rioja.
  • Descendientes de J. Palacios in Bierzo

Alvaro Palacios winery in Priorat Palacios Remondo, in Rioja Descendientes de J. Palacios in Bierzo

Alvaro Palacios

Alvaro Palacios

“I am hugely impressed by the wines of Alvaro Palacios. They have a certain sensitivity that embraces modern styling while preserving the flavours from traditional grape varieties in regions like Rioja, Priorat and most recently Bierzo.  My visit to the latter region last fall to taste the top crus of Descendentes de Jose Palacios was a one of those great moments of revelation. I am looking forward immensely to hosting Alvaro and sharing his entire range with friends of WineAlign.” – David Lawrason

Purchase tickets here.

Note that this is an exclusive event for WineAlign members.

Event Details

Date:  Monday March 19, 2012

The Spoke Club
600 King Street West, 4th Floor
Toronto, Canada
M5V 1M3
T. 416.368.8448

Format:  Seated tutored tasting followed by a reception with hors d’oeuvres.

Tasting 6:30pm – 7:30pm
Reception: 7:30pm – 8:00pm

Ticket Price: $65

Attendance: 40 people maximum

Purchase tickets here.

Wines for tasting (10 wines from three properties):

Alvaro Palacios, Priorat Vintage  Price Accolades
Camins del Priorat 2010 $26.00  NYR
Les Terrasses ‘Velles Vinyes’ 2010 $45.00  NYR
Vi de la Vila’ Gratallops 2008 $66.00 RP: 93
Finca Dofí 2009 $90.00 RP: (94-97)
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo
Petalos del Bierzo 2010 $26.00  NYR
Villa de Corullón 2008 $49.00 RP: 91
Las Lamas 2009 $116.00 RP: 93
Palacios Remondo, Rioja
Plácet 2009 $32.00  NYR
La Montesa 2009 $21.00  NYR
Propiedad 2008 $39.00 RP: 90


This event is a joint production between Woodman Wine & Spirits Inc. and WineAlign.

Woodman Wines & Spirits

Filed under: Events, News, Wine, , ,

The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Priorato – the best Garnacha in Spain ~ Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Home to some of the best wineries in Spain:

Listing Spanish winegrowing regions by fame, few would deny that Rioja, continuing to reinvent itself, retains top spot. Next on the list? Probably Ribera del Duero, home to two of the most prestigious wineries in the country, Vega Sicilia and Pingus. In both cases, the star grape is Tempranillo, the most famous, noblest red grape of Spain.


And then, there’s Priorat. Granted DOCa status in 2003, Priorat, or ‘Priorato’ as it is correctly spelled, arguably ranks third, some would even say second, on any list of Spanish winegrowing regions by fame. Located around 150 kilometres from Barcelona in the sun-scorched Mediterranean region of Catalonia (correctly spelled ‘Catalunya’), the speciality of Priorato is powerful, no-holds-barred Garnacha.

Priorat Slopes

Like most other up-and-coming, or rediscovered, winegrowing regions, though vines have been planted in Priorato for well over eight hundred years, it is only relatively recently that great wine began to be made here. This occurred about twenty years ago, when René Barbier convinced a group of fellow winemakers in 1989 to produce five different ‘Clos,’ sourcing their grapes from only the finest, in some cases abandoned, sites surrounding the village of Gratallops, making their wine on the same premises in the village. The results were wines of unbelievable concentration, personality, and quality; and it was not before long that each winemaker set off on his own to start up his own individual bodega. The rest, as we say, is history.

Now for the specifics. Virtually surrounded by the Montsant DO, there are nowadays almost 1,800 hectares under vine (a far cry from its pre-phylloxera hectarage of 5,000), with approximately 70 bodegas in operation. The finest vines are planted are terraces between altitudes of roughly 100 to 800 metres—a key feature in producing the finest grapes possible. By sheer numbers, Cariñena (Carignan) still outnumbers Garnacha by far, though the best bottlings almost always feature the latter. These are usually planted on cooler, later ripening sites.


Of soil deposits, one of the most distinctive features of Priorat soils is the inclusion of a dark stripes of brown slate intermixed with quartzite, which glitters black and gold in the sun; in Catalan, this is called llicorella. As one would expect in such a hot, sunny climate, rainfall is minimal, but because Priorato’s soils are unusually cool and damp, vine roots usually dig deeper to absorb water and nutrients—another key component in the crafting of more complex, high quality wine.

Alvaro Palacios’ L’Ermita

For collectors, then, Priorato is nowadays home to some of the greatest wineries in Spain. The most costly is Alvaro Palacios’ L’Ermita, a single-vineyard wine of the same name, made predominantly from Garnacha (usually 80%) with a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cariñena, crafted from vines ranging from 60 to 100 years of age; it was first released in 1993.

Clos Mogador Priorat

Other gems? Think Mas Doix, Mas Martinent, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Cal Grau, and Cims de Porrera. Just so you know, not all of these are crafted primarily from Garnacha; many will be made from (very) old-vine Cariñena, and are not to be missed on any account.

So how should such wines taste? While I have encountered a few wines here and there that have tasted like richer versions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the best examples from Priorato ought to have this intense figgy, ripe black fruit aromas and flavours about them, boasting slightly ‘roasted’ or ‘tarry’ Provençal notes, which continue on the palate and finish. Accompanying scents and flavours will invariably include leather, ‘thick’ black raspberries, kirsch, and spice—among other things. Moreover, the best wines, robust and textured to a point beyond flattery, will almost always possess extremely high levels of alcohol, reaching as high as 16.5% on occasion. Such blockbusters have the potential of keeping for several decades, sometimes more. Such are the hallmarks of great Priorato.

Click here for a few gems from the 4 February 2012 Vintages Release along with several others

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008