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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 15th 2014

France in the Spotlight and the Benefits of Doing Nothing

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In order to give our readers more comprehensive coverage of new releases, we’ve tweaked the newsletter format slightly to combine forces. Each month you’ll receive two reports focused on the bi-weekly/monthly themes from both VINTAGES and LCBO listings, with recommendations from several WineAlign critics, as well as two reports highlighting the best of the rest, with multiple critics weighing in. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

France is the theme for this week’s newsletter, focused on the VINTAGES February 15th release and the LCBO February thematic. I’ve selected ten recommended wines in the bubbles, and under and over $25 categories, red and white, from VINTAGES, and David Lawrason has added his list of smart buys from the LCBO. Next week we’ll cover the rest of the release. Read more.

The February 15th release sees a solid collection of wines from across France arriving in Ontario, with a stereotypical north-south price divide. As often seems the case in Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy and France, household income, cost of living and wine prices increase as one travels north. The flip-side is that the best wine values (and weather, and olive oil) are often in the south. The model holds mostly true in this release.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

It was inevitable that quality French wines would come back into fashion after several years of slumping sales, posting positive growth in Ontario last year that looks set to continue. The reason is that all truly great and unique wines will eventually find their market. This is not comforting news to corporations who live and die by their quarterly returns, but for generational family-owned operations it’s a fact of life. As a wine grower in the 21st century, sometimes you just have to stay true to your course and what your terroir can offer, and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

Among the many challenges in the wine business is that while fashions change overnight, wine styles cannot. Producers are usually doomed to failure trying to follow market trends, since by the time they’ve managed to shift their wine style to meet current market demand for what’s “hot” (re-planted or re-grafted vineyards to new varieties or sourced different fruit, re-tooled the cellar with new equipment, barrels, changed grape growing and winemaking protocols, etc.), the market has usually moved on.

A case in point is the aptly named 2010 Château De Gaudou Renaissance Cahors Cuvée Boisée ($22.95). This is a wine, which, from my perspective, has missed the beat on the market. It’s a pure oak infusion, exceedingly boisée, with over ripe fruit that has little or nothing to do with Cahors, or France for that matter, and would be much more at home in a large Mendozan co-op. What’s more, the same style can be had for much less from Argentina, and it’d probably be better, too.

Despite the popularity of malbec, Cahors (which is made from mainly malbec) remains a relatively little-known appellation in southwest France, so I can see the temptation of trying to emulate a commercially popular style. But over oaked, over ripe malbecs from Argentina are already out of their short-lived moment in the spotlight. So why would I want to buy one from France at a premium? I’d be much more interested in an authentically rustic, flavoursome, typically old world style example, the kind that neither Argentina nor any other country can produce. Château de Gaudou has been at it for generations so no doubt they know what traditional Cahors tastes like. Eighteen months in 100% new oak be damned.

But enough about what not to drink. Here are the highlights, the French wines that taste like they come from France.

Bubbles

Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut ChampagneLouis Bouillot Perle D'aurore Brut Rosé Crémant De BourgogneFor inexpensive bubbles, consider the much improved Louis Bouillot Perle d’Aurore Brut Rosé Crémant De Bourgogne ($19.95). Relative to the last shipment, which was tired and oxidized, this bottling (no lot number listed, unfortunately – if only producers would give consumers a clue of what they’re buying) is much fresher and livelier, with a fine mouthful of bright red berry fruit and impressive complexity for the money. Be sure to check with your product consultant that what you’re buying is indeed the latest shipment and not the previous one that’s been sitting on the shelves for months and months.

On the premium side, the number of grower champagnes arriving in the market continues to grow, which is terrific news for drinkers in search of more original cuveés. One to seek out is the attractively priced Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut Champagne ($49.95). Pierre Paillard (not to be confused with Bruno Paillard) is a family operation now in its eighth generation, farming 22 hectares of grand cru vineyards in the village of Bouzy. This is an assemblage of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay from 22 separate plots, aged 3.5 years on the lees, greater than the minimum required for vintage champagne. Just seven grams of dosage puts this on the drier side, while the palate balances power and finesse to great effect.

Whites Under $25

Terres Blanches Muscat Sec 2012 labelPaul Zinck Portrait Gewürztraminer 2011Domaine Gautheron Chablis 2012I challenge you to find a more genuine and authentic Muscat for less than the 2012 Terres Blanches Muscat Sec ($13.95). Made by the Cave des Vignerons de Frontignan from vineyards bordering the Mediterranean, this delivers all of the pungent, floral, grapey aromatics one could hope for from the variety. It would make a fine afternoon aperitif, or base for spritzers.

Another reliable aromatic white is the 2011 Paul Zinck Portrait Gewürztraminer ($19.95 ). “Portrait” is Zinck’s entry-level range, designed to highlight the characteristics of each grape (rather than a specific terroir), and this 2011 does precisely that. Wondering what a textbook, slightly off-dry Alsatian gewürztraminer tastes like? Try this.

Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes Chassagne Montrachet 2011In a similar vein of textbook regionality, Chablis drinkers will find familiarity and comfort in the 2012 Domaine Gautheron Chablis ($24.95). Seven generations in and not much has changed here; this is simply made, solid Chablis.

Whites Over $25

Head to Burgundy for a more premium French white: 2011 Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes Chassagne-Montrachet ($55.95). It’s a little tight and sharp at this stage, a touch leaner than the average for the appellation though true to vintage, but it also has a significant dose of wet chalky minerality and well-measured lees influence, plus a long finish, to indicate a very positive future. Try after 2015.

Spirited Reds Under $25

Domaine Lambrusques Esprit Sauvage 2011Domaine De Grangeneuve Esprit De Grenache Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2011Southern France delivers two attractive red values: 2011 Domaine Lambrusques Esprit Sauvage Pic Saint-Loup ($17.95) and 2011 Domaine De Grangeneuve Esprit De Grenache Côtes Du Rhône Villages ($20.95). Pic St-Loup is one of the top communal crus of the Languedoc in my estimation, and the Esprit Sauvage nicely captures the savage spirit of this craggy, rugged scrubland that sits under the Montagne de l’Hortus and the Pic St. Loup itself. It’s fleshy, ripe and mineral, with the freshness associated with this cooler sub-zone.

The appropriately named Esprit de Grenache is likewise a spirited essence of southern Rhône Grenache, full of warm strawberry pie flavours and the beguilingly soft, voluptuous texture of the grape.

Reds Over $25

Champy Les Champs Pimont Beaune 1er Cru 2010Daniel Rion & Fils Vieilles Vignes Nuits Saint Georges 2011It’s back north to Burgundy for a pair of premium reds: 2011 Daniel Rion & Fils Vieilles Vignes Nuits-Saint-Georges ($53.95) and 2010 Champy Les Champs Pimont Beaune 1er Cru ($58.95). While neither is at the pinnacle of what Burgundy has to offer – you have to pay a lot more than $60 for that – both are representative of their respective appellations. Rion’s Nuits St. Georges has the classic firmness and pleasant rusticity of the appellation and is another 2-4 years away from prime enjoyment, while the continually-improving Maison Champy’s Beaune 1er Cru is a fine and elegant, succulent and firm wine from a classic vintage with all of the finesse one hopes for from the appellation. Earlier maturing, this should be drinking nicely by 2015.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle. Below, David Lawrason highlights more French wines from the LCBO regular listings – consider these attractively priced suggestions when value and satisfaction are the orders of the day.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the February 15, 2014 Vintages release:

John’s Top French Picks
All Reviews

New French Wines on the General List
David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The LCBO’s general list is also turning the spotlight onto French wines this month and has unveiled an impressive 35 new wines in recent weeks and month. Some of them are very good, authentic well-priced examples of the various regions and appellations. Here my six top picks, but all others are now reviewed on WineAlign as well.

L’Arjolle 2012 Sauvignon Blanc-Viognier ($11.95) is a clever and effective blend of sauvignon and viognier. Great value; think ahead to summer.

Jean Geiler Muscat Reserve Particuliere 2012 ($14.00) is a terrific example of Alsace’s most underrated variety. Great value; bring on a plate of mussels.

Chateau de Vaugelas 2011 Le Prieure Corbieres ($13.95) begins to fill a huge LCBO void in affordable, rustic and intriguing estate grown syrah-based blends from the south of France.

Mas des Montagnes Cotes du Roussillon Villages 2010 ($12.95) is very good value in authentic plummy, peppery red from the sunniest corner of France.

Joseph Drouhin Cote De Beaune-Villages 2010 ($23.75) is a light-weight but classic basic Burgundy with added stature and structure thanks to the excellent 2010 vintage.

Chateau Des Arroucats Sainte Croix Du Mont 2010 ($16.95) is a delicious Sauternes-style dessert wine from a neighbouring appellation. At this price you can’t afford not to test drive one of the world’s great wine styles.

L'arjolle Sauvignon Blanc Viognier 2012Jean Geiler Muscat Reserve Particuliere 2012Château De Vaugelas Le Prieuré Corbières 2011Mas De Montagnes 2010Joseph Drouhin Côte De Beaune Villages 2010Château Des Arroucats 2010

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


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Saltram Winemaker's Selection Shiraz Tempranillo 2010


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 1, 2014

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

Hidden Gems & Smart Buys: Reds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Gems & Smart Buys: Whites

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

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

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

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

Aussie Picks

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

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

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

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

Dandelion Lioness Of McLaren Vale Shiraz 2011 ($19.95)

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

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

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

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

Wine on Tap: Here To Stay?

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

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

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

From the February 1, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
John’s Aussie Picks
All Reviews


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Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 18, 2014

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

Hangovers, Overweight Canadians and Shadowy “Dry” Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sampling of popular wines by sweetness

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

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

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

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

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

Spain: A Probable Source of Value

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

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

Iberian Peninsula on Fire

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

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

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

2009 Planets De Prior Pons, Priorat ($24.95)

2009 Ares Crianza, Rioja ($17.95)

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

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

Top Ten Smart Buys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

From the Jan 18, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Best Buys
All Reviews


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Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 4, 2014

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

I admire that you’re already looking forward to 2014 and contemplating which wines to replenish your party-weary, depleted wine collection with, which, if it looks like mine, resembles a yet un-harvested vineyard destined for Icewine in the aftermath of a Hitchcockian visit of hungry starlings. January 4th offers a decent lineup of sub-$20 smart buys, plus a couple of premium options to tuck away until the next cause for celebration, such as making it to next weekend.

Of Oysters and Smart Buys

Admittedly, I often find myself daydreaming of Chablis and oysters. There’s something very Hemingway-esque about the image, as there is with just about any scene involving alcoholic beverages and food for that matter. It’s such a fine example of perfect natural harmony, like two complementary musical frequencies that fill each other’s troughs and cannot be improved upon.

The wine, born in soils created from so many million marine shells (exogyra virgula) crushed and compacted over time, kept pure and pristine, electrifying and transparent, finds its harmonizing counterpart in oysters, left to raise themselves naturally in frigid saline waters. Both are served chilled and unadulterated (I take half a drop of lemon occasionally, but nothing else), and the tastes and flavours of sea salt, iodine, crushed rock and lemon-lime, cucumber and green apple are transformed into the Vienna Boys Choir.

But at $2.50-$4 or so apiece in a decent oyster house, with a half-dozen the bare minimum respectable order (a dozen for two), those little bivalves dig deeply into your pocket. And with a bottle of good village Chablis starting at about $50, your daydream has suddenly set you back the equivalent of a bottle of Grand cru Burgundy.

2011 Hervé Azo BourgogneSo, my band-aid solution this January for when the sea sirens call and the mere thought of the tingle of Chablis on your tongue causes involuntary salivation: dine at home, buy a pound of fresh mussels per person (about the same price as a single oyster), top quality unsalted butter, shallots and garlic and a bottle of 2011 Hervé Azo Bourgogne ($16.95) and you’re just about there.

Azo left his high-powered job in Paris and settled in Chablis in the 1970s and slowly began to acquire prime vineyard land. The domaine, now totaling 15ha, has since transitioned into the hands of Chablisienne winegrower Jean-Marc Brocard, but has been maintained as a separate label. I only learned of this connection while researching this report, but the similarity between Brocard’s and Azo’s wines had always been striking, and now it all makes sense. The vineyards, like all of Brocard’s, are farmed organically, and this Bourgogne Blanc is essentially Brocard’s Chardonnay “Kimmeridgien”, a pure chardonnay from the Kimmeridgian limestone soils of the Chablis AOP, declassified into the generic appellation. Wild yeast fermented and aged in stainless steel, this wine tastes more Chablis than many Chablis, complete with Brocard’s recognizable lactic, lightly buttery style. At $16, you can use a splash to steam your mussels, find lactic harmony with the fresh butter, and add depth to the ensemble with a pinch of chopped shallots, garlic and parsley or tarragon. I think Hemingway would have approved.

The Frenchman Turns Red

13th Street Merlot 201213th Street winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas has been dogged by the reputation of regularly producing top-notch whites (remember, he worked in Chablis before coming to Canada in 2000) but hit-and-miss reds. But the 2012 13th Street Merlot ($17.95) is a sure sign that JP’s still got a trick or two up his sleeve. There was an audible gasp in the LCBO tasting lab when fellow WineAlign critic David Lawrason tasted this wine, followed by a thorough scrutinizing of the label and the question: “did Jean-Pierre really make this?” I too, did a double take upon tasting, taken by the fullish, firm and juicy, even succulent, palate, the masses of fruit and wet clay character typical of merlot, and the exceptional depth for the price category. Whatever happened at 13th Street in 2012 (releases are solid across the board), I hope it keeps happening.

Smart Wintry Reds From Value Hot Spots

Three of my go-to regions for value pop up on January 4th yet again: Sicily, Portugal’s Dão, and Rioja. The 2010 Cusumano Noà ($19.95) is a ripe, dark fruited, substantially flavoured red blend (Nero d’Avola, with 30% each of cabernet sauvignon and merlot), with thick, dense and concentrated palate and more than a little wild Mediterranean herbal character, perfect for winter roasts or braises.

Cusumano Noà 2010Quinta Das Camélias Reserva 2010Rio Madre 2011The Dão region, just south of the Douro Valley, has of late become a crossroads for wines of class, elegance and value. The region sits on a raised plateau of pure granite (just look around and see what all buildings are made of; even vineyard posts are often made of granite) protected on three sides from inclement weather. Touriga Nacional is the flagship variety, which shows through nicely in the 2010 Quinta Das Camélias Reserva ($14.95), blended with jaen (mencía) and alfrocheiro. Wild violets and rockroses mix with succulent black fruits, while structure and length are far above the price category. Slightly excessive wood influence detracts on the finish, but another year or two should see this reach better balance.

2011 Rio Madre Rioja ($14.95) is a rare example made exclusively from graciano, a long way from classic Rioja of any description, but well worth a look at this price. It’s a deeply coloured and intriguingly aromatic wine, with a certain wildness and florality. Fruit is lightly candied, but acids are still firm and tannins tight, giving this a juicy and appealing drinkability and firmness.

Fresh Shiraz Trending

Romate Fino SherryDomaine Tournon Mathilda Shiraz 2011Following in the trend towards fresher shiraz, Domaine Tournon’s 2011 Mathilda Shiraz from Victoria ($19.95), made by the Rhône Valley’s Marc Chapoutier, is a lively, fragrant, clearly cool climate-inspired wine that draws you in with its beguiling peppery, floral, cold cream, and dark berry aromatics, while a modest 13% alcohol makes this all the more fun to enjoy after holiday excesses.

Fine Fino

Sherry is at long last gaining traction in our market, if the turnout for and enthusiasm witnessed during October’s Sherry Fest, the first of its kind in Toronto, is any indication. It’s really just a matter of time before the winds of fashion blow favourably once again over this 3000-year-old wine region. For a sense of the high complexity/dollar ratio that great examples offer, try the Romate Fino Sherry ($15.95). It’s not a fino built on freshness exclusively, but rather incorporates considerable fruit depth and intense yeasty-flor character, leading into a finish with terrific persistence. Goes great with bullfights, tapas and January Sunday afternoons in Canada.

Premium Smart Buys

On the premium ($25+) side of the equation, I’d strongly recommend the 2008 Punset Barbaresco ($52.95), fit for fans of the nebbiolo genre, or for anyone into fine and distinctive wine. The Marcarino family has been farming organically since 1987, and this Barbaresco from the fine and elegant 2008 vintage is crafted in the old school style, replete with engaging rusty-iron, dried red fruit, faded flowers and gritty, salty flavours. It’s lovely, traditional stuff, enjoyable now or hold to 2020.

Punset Barbaresco 2008Domaine Des Baumard Clos De Saint Yves Savennières 2010Château Caronne Ste. Gemme 2009Premium white drinkers shouldn’t miss the 2010 Domaine Des Baumard Clos De Saint Yves Savennières ($31.95). Clos de Saint Yves is a monopole vineyard of Domaine des Baumard, planted on schistous soils streaked with volcanic rock. Like many intensely terroir-driven wines, this is not a wine of fruit or grape varietal character, but rather an expression of place – there’s no mistaking this for Vouvray or any other chenin-based appellation from the Loire Valley. The nose is intense and smoky, honeyed, like a wool sweater soaked with rain drying by the fireplace as you sip an Islay malt whisky. You could this drink now, or hold it a decade or more.

And lastly, Bordeaux drinkers can rejoice at finding more value in the highly touted 2009 vintage with the Château Caronne Ste. Gemme ($25.85). It’s a classy left bank Bordeaux at a nice price, complete with graphite-pencil shavings, dark fruit, and abundant but integrated and well-matched wood spice-vanilla flavours. The tannic structure has just started to loosen its hold, making this enjoyable now but capable of another 4-8 years in the cellar without a stretch. Considering the high price and average quality of 2011, ‘12 and ’13 Bordeaux, fans should buy up as much of the remaining 2009 and 2010 values, wherever they are to be found.

That’s all for this week. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year 2014. 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 4, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


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Penfolds Grange 2008


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 14th 2013

Canadian Wine In the Headlines

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s a big month for Ontario, and Canadian wine. WineAlign has announced the full results of the National Wine Awards of Canada, an essential resource for current and future fans of local wines. The LCBO, and Wine Country Ontario present SHINE {ON}, the largest annual promotion of Ontario wines, and the September 14 VINTAGES release features Ontario wines. New retailing opportunities have led to small lot Canadian wine going on sale online thanks to Foodiepages.ca. And perhaps most importantly, the LCBO has been called next week to the Supreme Court of Ontario to answer a serious Constitutional Question, as well as explain its data-collecting protocols to the Ontario Privacy Commissioner. The landscape of wine retailing in Canada could well change. Read on.

National Wine Awards of Canada

In case you missed it yesterday, the complete results of the National Wine Awards of Canada are now posted on WineAlign. The results include all the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze medal winners in several style and grape variety categories, plus a “performance report” on the Top 20 wineries in the country.

SHINE {ON} & VINTAGES September 14th 2013 Ontario Feature

SHINE {ON}The LCBO, in partnership with Wine Country Ontario, presents SHINE {ON}, its largest annual promotion of Ontario wines running from September 15-October 15. The month-long promotion will feature more than 1,200 opportunities to taste Ontario wines in 200+ LCBO locations. Over 130 Ontario restaurants are also participating in their own SHINE {ON} programs, offering local wine by-the-glass to pair with special local menus. Visit www.lcboourwinecountry.com for all of the details.

The September 14 VINTAGES release features 23 Ontario wines, and I’ve highlighted some new and notable as well as established wineries and their wines below. See also a dozen of my personal ‘gold medals’ in the latest issue of CityBites Magazine hitting shelves this week, as well as tips on touring Niagara and Prince Edward County wine country and how to act like a pro at the tasting bar.

Boutique Canadian Wines Go Online

Canadian wine consumers can look forward to another option for sourcing and purchasing top local wines. Foodiepages.ca, a Toronto-based e-commerce site that connects Canadian food and drink makers with consumers, is launching an online Canadian wine boutique in September. The virtual shop will enable Canadians coast to coast to purchase small lot Canadian wines from any province, expanding access well beyond the often limited selection found on liquor board shelves (you’ll find some of my wine recommendations on the site).

“Interprovincial barriers and stringent requirements make it difficult for small Canadian wineries to achieve the exposure that comes with having their product listed in government liquor stores,” says Shirley-Ann George, president of FreeMyGrapes.ca. John Skinner, owner of Painted Rock Winery in the Okanagan Valley, welcomes the opportunity to connect directly with consumers, believing that “Selling direct is the most effective distribution for those of us producing small lots, and FoodiePages.ca is extending awareness and distribution for the highest quality Canadian estate produced wines”. Visit the site for a list of participating wineries and wines, and expect that list to grow significantly as the word gets out.

LCBO Under Fire

In an indirectly related story, the future landscape of Canadian wine retailing is slated for debate this month. On September 12th, the LCBO will have their day in the Supreme Court of Ontario to answer questions from the Ontario Privacy Commissioner regarding their deemed unnecessary collection of customers’ personal information. But that’s not all. The Board and its team of lawyers will also be facing a Notice of Constitutional Question filed by Warren Porter of the Vin de Garde wine club and his legal counsel, challenging the very constitutionality of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act that could lead to the demise of the government monopoly.

The challenge hinges on Section 121 of the Constitution Act of 1867, which states, rather unambiguously, that “All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.” Wine falls squarely under the definition of “growth, produce and manufacture”, and Porter’s counsel will argue that according to our constitution, you should be able to order wine from any province into any other province with no additional provincial monopoly brokering fees (taxes, of course, still apply, but in the province of manufacture only).

It’s thanks to this section, as well as to the July 2012 federal ruling allowing inter-provincial shipping of wine, that foodiepages.ca and others propose to operate. The Ontario Provincial government has yet to rule on how much wine, if any, can be shipped from out of province for personal use, even if the federal government has made it legal to do so. The BC government has already opened the borders. This challenge could pry all of the doors open to admit wine freely from one province to another, which could eventually spill over into imported wines as well if Canada is to maintain its GATT treaties.

So you see, the stakes are high, and these are interesting times indeed. Tune in regularly to WineAlign for updates. In the interim, there are plenty of available local wines to recommend, either directly from wineries or through the LCBO.

New and Notable Ontario: Kew Vineyards

I’ll start off by highlighting a few new and notable Ontario wineries. Several weeks ago I tasted the first releases from Kew Vineyards, a new label named after Richard Kew, a soldier in the war of 1812 who was granted the land on which the vineyard sits today. Yet although the label is new to the local wine scene, the Young family who now own the property is anything but; the Youngs also own Angels’ Gate Winery, established in 2002. The vines, too, are well seasoned. Kew vineyards is comprised of some sixty acres of vines on the Beamsville Bench, some parcels of which were planted back in 1975. A separate Young family vineyard adjacent to Peninsula Ridge Winery, farmed organically, also supplies grapes to Kew. Angel’s Gate winemaker Philip Dowell is making the Kew wines for the time being at his facility. Production is set to be capped at 5000 cases across several small lot wines, including three sparkling wines yet to be released. A retail shop will open this fall. It’s one of the most consistently impressive, and best value ranges, I’ve tried in some time.

2010 Kew Vineyards Estate Vineyard Old Vine RieslingKew Vineyard Estate Marsanne Viognier 2012Highlights out now include the 2010 Kew Vineyards Estate Vineyard Old Vine Riesling ($18.95). Made from some of the oldest Riesling in Ontario, including some of the original Weiss clone plantings in 1975, the nose has extraordinary intensity: ripe and very mineral, with wet hay and flower blossom honey flavours mixing with apples and green peach/apricot in a classic riesling register. The palate offers a fine balance between acidity and an imperceptible nine grams of residual sugar, finishing dry. Old vine intensity for under $20? Score.

Also well worth a look is the 2012 Kew Vineyards Marsanne-Viognier ($18.95) – the first blend of its kind in Ontario. I question whether the success of this wine can be consistently repeated, but 2012 was clearly a favorable year for these Mediterranean varieties. The nose is amazingly floral and peachy, but also spicy and herbal, with whiffs of basil and sage, apricot skin, honey and pears in syrup, with a full, thick palate, verging on unctuous, further softened by lowish acid and a generous 14.5% alcohol. This also won a gold medal at the NWAC, so the other judges were also clearly aligned behind its quality.

New and Notable Ontario: Domaine Queylus

David Lawrason has already heralded the arrival of Domaine Queylus in his August 3 report, but I’ll second the mention as a welcome addition to the Ontario wine scene. As he points out, Queylus is a new venture owned by Gilles Chevalier of Montreal, but again there is plenty of history and experience behind the project making its debut success less surprising. Wines are made by Thomas Bachelder, ex of Le Clos Jordanne and the man behind the ambitious, eponymous, Bachelder Wines, for which he produces chardonnay and pinot noir from Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy.

Domaine Queylus will be launching with pinot noirs from both 2010 and 2011 in two price tiers – Tradition ($29) and Reserve ($39). Both tiers are blends from a vineyard in Beamsville planted in 2007, and one in Jordan – Le Clos Jordanne’s “La Petite Colline” vineyard, planted in 2002. The Reserve is assembled from specific parcels and barrels. My preference leans towards the 2011s overall, which I found to have greater freshness and vibrancy relative to the more baked flavours of the 2010s, even if both are worth a look. 2011 Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir ‘Tradition’ and 2011 Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir ‘Reserve’.

New and Notable Ontario: Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010Tom O’Brien of Cooper’s Hawk planted his first vines in 2008 on the north shore of Lake Erie. And though I’ve never visited the winery, and can’t speak about the full range of wines on offer, I have to say I was struck by the first reserve release, the 2010 Cooper’s Hawk Cabernet Franc Reserve ($39.95) hitting the shelves on September 14. For a first crop it’s certainly remarkable, although it’s known in the grape growing world that if yields are kept very low, as in this case, and the weather is favorable, as it was in 2010, quality can be striking. (The subsequent harvests often reveal the shortcomings of young vines until maturity is reached, usually after at least 7-8 years or more).

Here it was the intriguing mix of dried herbs and flowers, tart, dried red fruit, licorice and delicate wood spice that did it for me – a wine that would be much more at home in a lineup of old world wines, despite winemaker Rory McCaw’s stated aim for a fruit forward new world style. Canada’s longest sunshine hours and the warming waters of Lake Erie, coupled with sandy soils, appear to favour softer wines that reach maturity relatively early on – like this example. In any case, this is a quite classy, if premium-priced, wine; I look forward to tasting the other offerings from Cooper’s hawk, and following their goals for environmental sustainability.

Established Ontario

Among releases from some of the more established names in Ontario wine, it’s worth seeking out a trio of chardonnays: 2011 Closson Chase South Clos Chardonnay, Prince Edward County ($39.95), 2011 Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay, Niagara Peninsula ($29.95), and 2010 Flat Rock Good Kharma Chardonnay, Niagara Peninsula ($16.95).

Closson Chase Chardonnay South Clos Vineyard 2011Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2011Flat Rock Good Kharma Chardonnay 2010

Three pinot noirs are likewise noteworthy: 2010 Norman Hardie Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir, Niagara Peninsula ($39.95), 2011 Coyote’s Run Red Paw Vineyard Pinot Noir, Niagara Peninsula ($22.95), and 2010 Tawse Growers Blend Pinot Noir, Niagara Peninsula ($26.95).

Norman Hardie County Unfiltered Pinot Noir 2010Coyote's Run Red Paw Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011Tawse Growers Blend Pinot Noir 2010

Click on the links or bottle images for full reviews and availability.

Top Ten Smart Buys

This week’s top ten is fully dominated by Spain – like the last European and World Cup Soccer Championships – with five highly recommended values representing Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat and Costers del Segre. You’ll also find an excellent pair of $20 traditional method sparklers, sumptuous Alsatian style pinot gris from New Zealand, classic Mâcon Blanc, and a lovely Dolcetto d’Alba from one of my favorite Piemontese producers. Click on the Top Smart Buys link below for details.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

From the Sept 14, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
Ontario Highlights
All Reviews


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Beringer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Aug 3, 2013

Are Wine Critics Saving You Money? Five French Country Whites; Smart Syrah/Shiraz; Top Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The National Post’s drinks columnist Adam McDowell recently published a controversial article questioning the motives, reliability and general usefulness of wine critics with the provocative title of “Vintage snobbery: Are wine critics fooling us into buying pricier bottles?” It was yet another in a recent string of similarly-themed articles with plenty of sizzle but little meat, recycling a collection of questionable studies to make his point. Click here for what I have to say in response.

This week’s report features a collection of archetypal French whites and suggestions for a syrah vs. shiraz tasting, all from the VINTAGES August 3 release. You’ll also find more smart buys, as well as a list of past smart buys made even smarter, thanks to an LCBO bin end sale; there are some killer values.

Learning by Concept: Archetypal Whites

It’s tough to beat France for sheer variety and originality when it comes to white wines, and indeed many of the world’s white wine archetypes are born French. Spain has a handful of fine offerings: fragrant albariño and blends from Rias Baixas in Galicia, grassy verdejo from Rueda, stony godello from Valdeorras and the spritzy txacolis of Basque Country come to mind.

Portugal gives the world the invitingly tropical fruit flavoured Antão Vaz and blends from the Alentejo, the crisp, lively blends of Vinho Verde, lighter versions of their neighbors across the Spanish border in Galicia, and of course the occasionally stunning dry white blends of the Douro Valley. Germany is the beating heart of riesling, Austria shares the marvelously multifaceted grüner veltliner, Switzerland claims chasselas, while Greece, Croatia, Hungary each have a handful of regional specialties, the best of which are surely astonishing values, but none of these countries can claim the diversity found in France.

Of all, Italy comes closest to France’s hegemony. There’s been a strong revival in interest in native Italian varieties of late. Distinguished professor of enology Attilio Scienza speculates that there are some 3,500 different red and white varieties in existence, of which only 700 or so currently make distinguished wine, while Jancis Robinson & co.’s latest tome Wine Grapes puts the number of Italian grapes in commercial production at a little over half that. But the number that could rightly be called classic, and turn up, say, on a Master Sommelier examination with a reasonable expectation that the candidate could deduce its identity, is relatively small. Verdicchio? Arneis? Pinot Grigio? Fiano or Greco? Soave? Not so obvious. At least not yet – I’m certain that will change.

Three whites from this week’s Smart Buys list highlight some non-French white archetypes:

Pedro Escudero Fuente Elvira Verdejo 2011San Raffaele Monte Tabor Pinot Grigio 2012Lua Cheia Em Vinhas Velhas 20112011 Pedro Escudero Fuente Elvira Verdejo, Spain ($15.95)

2012 San Raffaele Monte Tabor Pinot Grigio, Italy ($14.95)

2011 Lua Cheia Em Vinhas Velhas, Portugal ($15.95)

But for the time being, France remains the greatest repository of white wine archetypes. Consider the quartet of Alsatian varieties: riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and muscat, all worthy of blind tasting identification. The Loire offers sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and melon de Bourgogne. Burgundy of course created classic chardonnay, and Bordeaux the typical blend of semillon and sauvignon. The Rhône defines viognier, marsanne and roussanne. And those are just the obvious examples. Look a little deeper into the French countryside and there’s plenty more to discover in the lost vineyards of Provence, the Languedoc-Roussillon, the Southwest, Savoie, The Jura and elsewhere.

The August 3 VINTAGES release celebrates French whites, with a smart collection of major and minor classics. It’s a nice opportunity to re-familiarize yourself with the benchmarks, and perhaps discover new friends that add layers of depth to the French offering.

On that latter theme, I was particularly impressed by a couple of sideroad specialties: 2011 Domaine Des Lauriers Prestige Picpoul De Pinet ($13.95) and 2011 Domaine Capmartin Pacherenc Du Vic-Bilh ($15.95).

Domaine Capmartin Pacherenc Du Vic Bilh 2011Domaine Des Lauriers Prestige Picpoul De Pinet 2011The appellation of Picpoul de Pinet, the largest for white wine in the Languedoc, describes some 1400 hectares devoted to the picpoul grape between Montpellier and Béziers around the Thau Basin and the town of Pinet itself. Picpoul is an ancient Mediterranean variety, frequently referred to as the “Muscadet of the south” thanks to its crisp acids, slim body and floral-citrus aromatics. It’s a splendid match for seafood, especially the mussels harvested from the nearby Thau Basin. It’s also a classic with croquettes de brandade, a Languedoc and Provençale specialty of puréed salt cod, potato, and olive oil (see recipe). Domaine des Laurier’s version is a fantastically mineral, almost riesling-like wine with its petrol and lemon-lime-on-wet-granite character. The palate is all about cleansing acids and superb flavour intensity, especially at the price. It’s a wine to enjoy young.

Pacherenc du Vic Bilh AOP takes you far deeper into the Southwestern French countryside. It covers the same zone as AOP Madiran, an appellation for sturdy reds made principally from tannat, while AOP Pacherenc du Vic Bilh is reserved for both dry and sweet white wines made from a collection of rare indigenous grapes: arrufiac, gros and petit manseng and courbu. As for the appellation’s curious name, “Pacherenc refers to the rows of vineyard stakes that covered the landscape before the 19th century phylloxera plague, while Vic-Bilh means “old country” in the local dialect.” (More.)

Capmartin’s Pacherenc, made from 80% gros manseng and 10% each of petit manseng and arrufiac is a few sideroads off the mainstream flavour highway to be sure, but is well worth a look for something completely different. I was drawn in by its clean but lightly oxidative profile, with lightly bruised orchard fruit and cold orange pekoe tea, canned pineapple and pear aromas and flavours. But it’s not just weird; the palate is balanced and flavourful, and it definitely has above average complexity for the money.

Returning to the main highway where you’ll run into more familiar flavours, I have three classics to recommend:

Domaine Chevallier Chablis 2010André Blanck Altenbourg Gewürztraminer 2012Marc Brédif Vouvray 20112010 Domaine Chevallier Chablis ($19.95): Domaine Chevallier is back on full form here with this arch-classic 2010. This delivers textbook crunchy green fruit on a bed of crushed limestone and oyster shell, with riveting but ripe acids and very good length. It has unmistakable regional character – I wish that all unoaked Chablis could taste like this, and be offered at this price.

2012 André Blanck Altenbourg Gewürztraminer ($18.95): Full-on, exuberantly aromatic nose in the typical register of the variety, with lusciously ripe stone fruit and floral components, lychee and rose petal. The palate is medium dry, fat, soft and round, generously proportioned, with significant density and richness, all on a reasonable 12% alcohol frame. Very good to excellent length – a smart buy for gewürzt fans.

2011 Marc Brédif Vouvray ($20.95): A textbook, clean, classic, just off-dry Vouvray, complete with apple, wet hay and honey aromatics. Acids are tight and crisp to balance the gentle sweetness, while 12.7% alcohol is relatively light and refreshing.

Syrah vs. Shiraz

Syrah/shiraz is the other theme of the August 3 release, with a quartet of wines worth highlighting.

Baracchi Smeriglio Syrah 2010Ferraton Père & Fils La Source Saint Joseph 2010For fans of syrah (read: old world style, peppery, smoky, firm-textured) consider the 2010 Ferraton Père & Fils La Source Saint-Joseph ($24.95). With fruit sourced from steep, granite hillsides, this Saint Joseph is still rather closed, but is certainly a firm and structured example, with tight tannins and acidity to match. You can literally taste the hard granite soils in this wine, or at least sense them in the texture. This needs protein on the plate at present to soften, or tuck in the cellar for 2-4 years.

And from the one DOC in Italy that has made a specialty out of syrah, the 2010 Baracchi Smeriglio Syrah, DOC Cortona ($26.95) from Tuscany offers a fine and complex, refined nose of spicy black fruit, medicinal cherry liqueur, and integrated, quality oak spice. The palate is soft, generous, dry, mid-weight, with brisk underlying acids, while intensity, length and depth are well above the mean.

St. Hallett Blackwell Shiraz 2009Swings & Roundabouts Shiraz 2011Fans of the more generous and riper style that’s usually under the shiraz alias should instead pick up the 2009 St. Hallett Blackwell Shiraz Barossa, South Australia ($34.95). It offers a typically deep, inky purple-black colour matched by an equally rich, blueberry and black currant jam-inflected nose, spiced up by both sweet and resinous herbs, and integrated wood influence. The palate is full, rich, fat, succulent and massively fruity, delivering just about everything one might hope for from the region/grape combination. It’s hugely satisfying.

Also from Australia but a little less brazen is the 2011 Swings & Roundabouts Shiraz Margaret River ($21.95). It accurately reflects the cooler maritime conditions of the region with a pleasantly fruity-spicy, firm and peppery flavour profile, and a nice bit of grip and lively acids on the palate. This is fine and balanced, highly drinkable Aussie shiraz all around.

More Smart Buys

In addition to the three whites noted off the top, this week you’ll find an absolutely cracking value chenin blanc from South Africa, a Rioja tinto that perfectly blends the best of old and new schools, a highly impressive super Tuscan blend for under $24, and a very smart value red Bordeaux from the acclaimed 2009 vintage for less than $23. Click below to see them all. And finally, don’t miss out on some terrific bin end sales at the LCBO. I’ve tagged a couple dozen spectacular deals below (about 25% of an average) out of nearly 500 products, many of which were already smart buys from previous releases. (Quantities are very limited, so check your store’s inventory)

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

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

From the Aug 3, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
French Whites
Syrah/shiraz
All Reviews

John’s VINTAGES Bin End Picks


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 13th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Image Makeover: More. Cooler. Australia; Top Ten Smart Buys and a Chilean Trio

In the span of a just few months, Australia’s image in Ontario has received a complete makeover courtesy of the LCBO’s Vintage department. It’s hard to say precisely how and why this occurred. Perhaps it’s owed to strong lobbying from Wine Australia. Or maybe it was a momentary engagement of reason and vision from Head Office. I’d like to think that it was due to the inevitable realization that Ontarian wine drinkers have grown up and want something more than a peanut butter and jam sandwich, at least once in a while. Whatever the reason, the Vintages October 13th release has a handful of absolute gems that will shift your image of Australian wines from PB&Js to haute cuisine.

The Top Ten is back of course, highlighting a quartet of sub-$15, dangerously drinkable bottles, as well as a pair of worthy $35+ wines that deliver high on the typicity scale, and a few more in between. I also recommend a trio of Chilean wines, the mini-feature of the release. Sharpen your corkscrews (or prepare to twist).

More, Cooler, Australia

The makeover started back in the summer, when a large feature covering the wines of Victoria hit the shelves at Vintages. WineAlign covered the release with undisguised enthusiasm, with both David Lawrason and I welcoming the long-awaited introduction of some of the more regionally distinctive and sophisticated wines from this cool state (re-visit my report from July 21st 2012, Australia’s New Cool). Subsequent releases have seen several more fine Australian wines trickle in, with another sizable batch arriving for the August 4th release. And now, the October 13th release features Australia yet again, moving beyond Victoria (although there are some excellent Victorian wines here again) into other regions, notably the Barossa Valley in South Australia, and Margaret River in Western Australia.

This release wasn’t the first time I have come across the wines of Spinifex in the Barossa Valley. That happy moment came courtesy of Wine Australia and educator Mark Davidson, who put on a master class dubbed the “finest shiraz tasting ever assembled outside of Australia” at the Court of Master Sommeliers first annual Conference in Pebble Beach, California in January 2010. The 2006 Spinifex Indigène Shiraz-Mourvèdre was in a line up that included wines from Wendouree, Clonakilla, Giaconda, Craiglee, Mount Langi Ghiran and of course Penfolds’ Grange, among several others, all astoundingly good producers. The point of the tasting was to remind a bunch of jaded master sommeliers that Australia has depth and diversity, not to mention class and elegance and regional diversity, within the repertoire of its flagship grape.

Spinifex PapillonSpinifex Bete NoirSo I was delighted to spot the 2010 Spinifex Bête Noir Shiraz ($49.95) and the 2010 Spinifex Papillon Grenache/Cinsault/Carignan/Shiraz ($29.95), as I walked into the LCBO lab to cover the release back in early September. Spinifex is a decade-old, micro-negociant operation run by husband and wife team Peter Schell and Magali Gely. They source fruit from small growers in the Barossa and Eden Valleys, specializing in Mediterranean varieties (shiraz, mourvèdre, grenache, cinsault, carignan, ugni blanc, grenache gris, marsanne and semillon) – Gely’s family were vignerons in the south of France for generations, and Schell has worked six of the last ten harvests in France, in regions as diverse as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, and the Languedoc. They produce a wide range of varietal and blended wines, all with a guileless purity.

Not surprisingly, there’s a distinctive old world sensibility to Spinifex’s wines, a refinement that comes without sacrificing the generosity and fleshiness that defines Barossa wines. The Bête Noir is an absolutely brilliant Aussie shiraz, with significant depth and grip, smoky-black pepper character, wild herbs and faded violets, along with pure cassis and black berry flavours. The palate offers outstanding poise and balance, tight acids, refined tannins and long finish. The intriguing Papillon blend is very nearly as good, with wonderfully pure and vibrant sweet red berry, strawberry-raspberry fruit, and loads of dusty earth and savoury herb character, not to mention a beguilingly pleasant bitter tinge on the finish. Both are paradigm shifters.

Fraser Gallop in Margaret River, Western Australia, is another decade-old operation whose sights are set at the top level. Site selection with the goal of producing top Bordeaux blends as well as chardonnay commenced in 1998, with the search quickly leading to the upper Wilyabrup district of Margaret River, just 6km from the Indian Ocean. With already established neighbors like Vasse Felix, Moss Wood and Cullen, it seemed clear that this was the ideal spot to realize their goals. In 2006, former Vasse Felix winemaker Clive Otto was brought aboard to lead the winemaking team, and the results are excellent.

Fraser Gallop Cabernet SauvignonAttention to detail is evident in the three Fraser Gallop wines in this release: 2009 Fraser Gallop Cabernet Sauvignon Wilyabrup, ($45.95), 2010 Fraser Gallop Cabernet/Merlot ($29.95) and the 2011 Fraser Gallop Chardonnay ($28.95). But for my money, I’ll save up and pay the extra $15 for the spectacular, arch-Bordeaux-like 2009 Wilyabrup cabernet. Be forewarned that it needs significant air to emerge from its shell – decant for an hour ahead – or cellar for another 2-4 years. But the palate is balanced and composed, succulent and dense without excess weight. All in all, it’s a refined and polished, elegant wine with a terrifically long finish.

Over The Shoulder ChardonnayYabby Lake ChardonnayThere’s also a pair of chardonnays from Victoria well worth drawing your attention to, namely the 2010 Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay ($39.95) and the 2011 Oakridge Over the Shoulder Chardonnay ($24.95). I had the opportunity to meet and taste with Yabby Lake founding vineyard manager Keith Harris this past July during the International Cool Climate Celebration in Niagara. Harris is a viticultural pragmatist, leaving nothing to chance, with as deep an understanding of Mornington Peninsula terroir as anyone. Tom Carson, formerly of Yering Station and Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, was hired in 2006 to transform Harris’ fruit into leading regional wines. The 2010 is a polished, complex, subtle and mineral, distinctly cool climate style chardonnay, with succulent and fleshy yet focused palate and excellent length. It’s worthy of the premium price.

Oakridge was one of the pioneers of the Yarra Valley, opening up shop in 1978. The Over the Shoulder range is the estate’s entry line, aimed at delivering a fresh, vibrant, low alcohol, pure varietal expression. The 2011 Chardonnay does just that; it’s restrained, with no oak detectable, while acids are tight and taught. I love the cut and vibrancy of this, a great ceviche wine.

Highlights from the Top Ten Smart Buys

Fans of superb value, zesty, food-friendly wines should consider adding these four sub-$15 wines to their shopping lists:

2011 Beauvignac Picpoul de Pinet, Coteaux de Languedoc, France $12.95

2010 Terredora Falanghina, Campania, Italy $14.95

2010 Henry of Pelham Gamay, Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula $14.95

2008 Quinta de Baixo Tinto, Bairrada, Portugal $14.95

The Beauvignac picpoul has been coming into Ontario for many years now, but this is easily the best to date. It’s delightfully fruity and fresh, with inviting citrus and just-ripe orchard fruit (pear, nectarine, white peach) flavours. Acids are brisk, and the finish remarkably long. Not at all what you’d expect from the deep south of France – a perfect seafood/shellfish wine at an unbeatable price. Terredora’s falanghina is a remarkably rich and concentrated wine for the money, with a real sense of tight minerality, ripe orchard fruit and generous body. Acids swoop in on the finish to cleanse the palate, leaving you salivating and ready for the next bite or sip.

Henry of Pelham’s 2010 gamay is a fresh and juicy, infinitely drinkable version, with tart red berry fruit and mouth-watering acids, the sort of wine you can drink all day (and night) without tiring. Bairrada’s notoriously grippy grape baga is given a softening touch of touriga nacional in Quinta da Baixo’s example, yielding a lively peppery and fruity red with gritty texture and firm, saliva inducing palate. A tidy little value here. Both wines are designed for the table, best enjoyed with a light chill.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard ChardonnayA dollar more than these gets you another vintage of the cracking 2009 Falernia Reserva Syrah Elquí Valley ($15.95), a wine with an astonishing amount of flavour packed into a $16 bottle, as well as the 2010 Artemis Karamolegos Santorini, Aegean Islands ($15.95), a typically restrained and stony example of assyrtiko from the volcanic Island of Santorini, one of my favorite paces to go shopping for concentrated, minerally whites.

At the premium end of the value scale, Ontario is well represented by the 2009 Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($38.00).

This should be counted among Canada’s top chardonnays in my view, an intense, evidently concentrated wine from Hidden Bench’s Felseck vineyard. It has the intriguing “rancid” character of fine Meursault, with no shortage of chalky minerality to back the resemblance. While on the palate, it offers terrific flavour intensity, with plenty of nutty, hazelnut, green walnut, tart citrus fruit and green apple flavours, and on and on it goes. I’d put this in the cellar for another 1-3 years to allow it to unwind – it’s still taught and barely penetrable.

See the full top ten here, which also includes three Italian classics.

Chilean Trio

And finally, three wines from the Chile mini-theme stand out for their excellent value/quality/typicity, and are well worth a look:

2011 Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley ($24.95)

2011 Leyda Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Ledya Valley ($16.95)

2008 Tres Palacios Family Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon Fundo Santa Eugenia de Cholqui Vineyard, Maipo Valley ($17.95).

Gourmet Food & Wine Show

Don’t miss the annual Szabo vs Szabo no holds barred jiyu kumite (with wine, not swords) at the Gourmet Food and Wine Show on Friday, November 16th, 7:30-9pm.

Cutting Edge Wines
John Szabo MS & Zoltan Szabo
Renowned Sommeliers

$95 | 7:30 – 9:00 Friday November 16th, 2012

The dynamic duo of master tasters returns for what promises to be another sold-out seminar. John and Zoltan both currently work with the famed Trump Hotel in Toronto while they continue to consult, write, judge and travel. As leading sommeliers for over a decade, they are in tune with the most progressive winemakers, interesting grapes and dynamic new wine regions. Learn from Canada’s foremost wine experts as they present eight cutting-edge wines.  Order Tickets here.

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the October 13, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Aussie Wines
All Reviews


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 29th 2012

Switching Your Pleasure Meter From Price to Typicity; Top Ten Smart Buys; Top Ten Tuscan Wines

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report comes live from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the country’s top six wine professionals are competing for the title of Canada’s Best Sommelier. So I’m busy marking papers and putting these wine pros through the wringer of mock restaurant service and blind wine tasting (it’s far easier to be on the judges’ side of the table). The winner and runner-up will move on to represent Canada at the Pan-American sommelier championships in Brazil later next month. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for anyone willing to put their reputations on the line and push themselves to the limit; it’s the only way of discovering your strengths and weaknesses. Those who don’t test themselves never truly know where they stand. Regardless of the final results, each of the candidates will be, well, stronger for it.

Sara d’Amato will be doing a full report on the competition in a forthcoming posting. So I’ll focus on a revolutionary way to get pleasure without necessarily spending a fortune on wine, as well as a quick round-up of my Top Ten Smart Buys from the September 29th Vintages release. I also lay out my top ranked wines from the main thematic of the release, Tuscany.

Pleasure Without the Price

Last week I was in the Loire Valley, traveling from Sancerre to Nantes (Muscadet country) getting reacquainted with the region’s wines. A full report will be published next week, but I wanted to share a thought with you this week that came into focus while talking to a particularly thoughtful vigneron, Claude Papin of Château Pierre Bise in Anjou. In the business we’re forever talking about things like quality and value. And I know that anyone who shops for, and drinks wine, considers those notions, at least from time to time, and maybe even all the time. I wrestle with the subject often – as regular readers know, it’s one of my great preoccupations.

Last week I found myself enjoying dozens of wines, I mean, really enjoying. But it was causing some consternation because the vast majority were inexpensive, and some even downright cheap, the sort of wine that you’d see on a shelf and keep right on walking by, thinking to yourself that wine that cheap couldn’t possibly be any good (I’m talking below $15 on an LCBO shelf). But these inexpensive wines were offering a lot of pleasure. Then I began to realize that the more I travel and taste and learn, the less direct the relationship between price and pleasure becomes. In fact, more often than not, I prefer the less expensive wines in a given winery’s range, or some of the less heralded producers in an expensive, name brand appellation, or even the wines of a totally unknown region.

Claude Papin

Viticulture lesson with Claude Papin

So my terroir hunting colleague Bill Zacharkiw of the Montreal Gazette and I arrived at Papin’s estate late one afternoon just before sunset. We immediately jumped into his station wagon and headed out to the vineyards, the beginning and the end of the story that relates what’s in the glass. In the midst of a thesis level discussion of terroir and viticulture that was admittedly beyond my grasp at times, we got on to the subject of wine, pleasure and value. Then Papin, rather matter of factly and without any hesitation, issued forth a truth so basic and unassailable that it could only have been arrived at after years of thoughtful deliberation. “Well”, he said, “quality is purely subjective, but typicity is objective. You can measure typicity, and it can also give you pleasure”. It took a moment for the profoundness of the simple statement to sink in, but suddenly all was clear. Once you’ve understood and accepted that anyone’s notion of quality is indeed purely subjective – what I like or you like or she likes – and that wines of typicity, that is, wines that reflect a place and grape, can be identified and quantified (as happens in blind tastings), you can free yourself from the shackles of price and re-orient your entire notion of pleasure.

I realized that I have been drawn ever closer to wines of typicity, that my greatest pleasure comes from identifiable wines. It also made clear why I care less and less for many of the world’s most expensive wines, those that are stuffed full of wood and alcohol and unnatural concentration, the ones that score all of the points in most publications, but that you’d be hard pressed to identify in a blind tasting. I quickly felt comfortable again about enjoying inexpensive wines, knowing that typicity can come at all price points. I know I get more pleasure from a $15 wine with sense of place and made with minimal intervention than I do from a $100 bottle chock-full of winemaking techniques that could have been made in any part of the world.

At the same time, I also realized that Papin’s deep insight is discomforting for the majority of wine consumers. Price is easy to understand. Impact impresses. A personal notion of quality is self-evident and takes no expertise. But typicity, on the other hand, has the disadvantage of requiring significant context. You have to know what typicity is to recognize it. And it’s not easy to know what all of the world’s wines are supposed to taste like, unplugged, without a thousand enological adjustments (not to mention that typicity is still being established in many new growing regions). This also explains why top sommeliers and wine geeks are always switched on to wines that most people frankly don’t like, at least not on first sip, because they have the context that we don’t always have. You need to build some context before you can, enjoy, say, a searingly acidic Gros Plant du Pays Nantais that most people would use to clean windows. That is, until you understand that it’s supposed to be that way.

So if you’re tired of needing to spend $30 or $50 or more to really get your kicks, try switching your pleasure mode from price/quality to typicity. Get to know a region, taste as much as you can, and build your context. Familiarity breeds pleasure, not contempt, in the world of aromas, flavours and tastes. Then the next time you come across a wine whose profile matches what you know the region/grape typically produces, you will derive pleasure, guaranteed. You’ll see how a $13 “classic” Muscadet, to give just one example, can make you happier than a $30 non-distinctive, designer bottle of chardonnay from anywhere. It’s fun. And barring significant effort for context development, you can always count on my top picks to deliver high on the typicity scale, at least the way I see it. I’ve got a decent measure of context, and my only goal is to build it up more and more.

Smart Buys with Typicity

In the spirit of typicity, here are a half dozen highlights from the September 29th release. They’re not all cheap wines; some are even expensive by most standards, but they are distinctive.

Elk Cove Pinot NoirLa Crau De Ma Mère Châteauneuf Du PapeLA CRAU DE MA MÈRE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE 2010 $44.95

Richly aromatic, spicy, immediately recognizable southern Rhône character here with full, concentrated, fleshy savory fruit, massive extract and concentration but likewise so much fruit depth to compensate. This wine should last for at least a couple of decade, but is also delicious now – imagine a savory slow-grilled leg of lamb or lamb barbacoa Mexican style and you’ll be happy.

ELK COVE PINOT NOIR 2009 $37.95

A very pretty, classy, elegant example of Willamette Valley pinot noir, a little riper than many (though still in a cool climate idiom). Fruit covers a nice range of tart red berries, fresh black berries, old wood spice and fresh earth. The palate is firm and well structured, while 14.2% alcohol is perfectly integrated. This has the stuffing to age and improve to be sure. Lovely wine.

Jacopo Biondi Santi SassoalloroDei Vino Nobile Di MontepulcianoJACOPO BIONDI SANTI SASSOALLORO 2008 $35.95

Richly aromatic, complex and spicy on the nose, with a fine blend of red and black berry fruit, earth, resinous herbs, licorice and on and on. The palate is succulent and juicy, firm and fresh, deceptively concentrated despite the medium weight impression – this has genuine depth without recourse to excess ripeness or oak. Very fine, in an elegant style.

DEI VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO 2008 $28.95

Here’s a fine, fragrant, elegant style of Vino Nobile, more floral than fruity, with light vanilla and cinnamon spice notes. The palate is medium-bodied, balanced, with fine-grained tannins and vivid acids; very good length. A feminine wine all around, with lots of appeal.

Gilles Blanchet Pouilly FuméHoffmann Simon Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling SpätleseHOFFMANN-SIMON PIESPORTER GOLDTRÖPFCHEN RIESLING SPÄTLESE 2011 $21.95

A classy, perfumed, inviting spätlese from one of the top vineyards in the Mosel. The warmth of this full south-facing precipitously steep site shines through in this example, delivering succulent, fully ripe peach, pear, nectarine and yellow plum flavours underpinned by acids and minerality. Excellent length and depth. Terrific wine, excellent value.

GILLES BLANCHET POUILLY-FUMÉ 2011 $19.95

This is a lively, stony-mineral, yet also fleshy and succulent (quite ripe and concentrated) version of Pouilly-Fumé. There’s an extra measure of depth and ripe fruit flavour on the palate, with evident density and weight, plus excellent length. Fine wine, nice price.

FINCA NUEVA FERMENTADO EN BARRICA BLANCO 2010 $15.95

Never mind the totally nondescript label; This is an intriguing, ripe, creamy but still fresh example of white Rioja, with marked but reasonably well integrated, and good quality, oak. The depth and length are impressive for the money to be sure. Worth a look for fans of barrel-aged wines, especially when serving white meat or rich seafood.

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the September 29, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Ten Tuscan Wines
All Reviews


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 1st 2012

A-List Champagne for the TIFF; Resto Wine Lists: Creative Expression or Esoteric Alienation? Top Ten Smart Buys.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Since you’re probably not even reading this, unless there’s WiFi on the dock or at your campsite, I’ll be brief. In fact, I’m camping, and would rather hear from you instead of writing a lot. If late summer leisure allows extra-curricular thoughts to displace your common concerns, I’d like to know what you think about restaurant wine lists.

There’s a sea of change underway across the city and across North America, and wine lists have never been so diverse and unique. But maybe in some cases they’ve become too esoteric? Do you want comfortable old friends or an introduction to someone new when you dine out? Let me set it up for you to comment below.

I’ve also got a couple of A-list champagnes at B-movie prices (relatively), and the Top Ten End of Summer Smart Buys from the September 1st VINTAGES release. Happy camping.

Smart Buys

Marimar Estate La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard ChardonnayAntica ChardonnaySéguinot Bordet Vaillons ChablisSince we’ve already established that it’s cool again to like chardonnay: here’s a trio of fine examples:

2010 Séguinot-Bordet Vaillons Chablis 1er Cru ($29.95)
2010 Antica Chardonnay Napa Valley ($35.95)
2008 Marimar Estate la Masía don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma County ($25.95)

All three are regional classics, with an extra degree of class and balance at fair prices. But if provenance and recognizability are trumped by extreme value for you, than check out the following:

2010 Château Ka Source Blanche Bekaa Valley, Lebanon ($15.95)
2010 Jean Perrier & Fils Abymes Cuvée Prestige, Savoie, France ($12.95)
2010 Tbilvino Tsinandali Dry White Kakheti, Georgia ($12.95)

Château Ka Source BlancheJean Perrier & Fils Abymes Cuvée PrestigeTbilvino Tsinandali Dry White

These won’t set the world on fire (when’s the last time the world was ablaze from a $13 wine?), but are well worth a look for everyday-delicious wines from not-so-everyday places and grapes.

Also in the top ten you’ll find a solid, neither overly traditional nor modern Rioja (this one’s juuust right), a meaty, savory southern French red, an exceptionally classy pinot blanc for less than $14, and a fine local Riesling made by (labeled under the name of) a Canadian sports hero.

Check them out here.

And How Would You Like That Wine List, Sir?

From the days of house red and white, to comfortable lists with recognizable regions, grapes and brand names, to lists filled with esoteric, limited production wines from obscure places or virtually extinct varieties known only to a small handful of sommeliers, the restaurant wine list has undergone almost as dramatic a revolution as menus have since the bad old seventies. Many voices, pro and con, have weighed in on the subject, particularly in the United States where the likes of Jon Bonné in a recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle and Eric Asimov for the New York Times have examined the development of wine lists in recent years (a change that has been mirrored here in Canada, albeit to a lesser extent thanks to our archaic, diversity-hindering monopolistic system of alcohol distribution), and raised some interesting questions about the direction many wine directors are taking.

In the most recent rounds of thoughtful criticism, both Bonné and Asimov take New York Post writer Steve Cuozzo to task for his controversial rant entitled Sour Grapes, railing against unfamiliar wine lists. Cuozzo begins his discourse: “Wine is one of dining’s, and life’s, great pleasures. Yet it can seem anything but when an esoteric or pretentious list leaves you stumped over what to order. You’re at the mercy of a sommelier determined to teach you a thing or two, when all you want is a nice, affordable Bordeaux to go with chicken and summer greens.”

He continues: “Ordering wine can be a nuisance even in the easiest case. You’re making a pricey decision that will affect everyone’s meal. You poke through the list under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room while thirsty friends beg you to get on with it. Seasoned diners can cope. What’s tougher is when a restaurant sets out to prove a point with its “wine program,” a strategy that results in a list that’s 100-percent inscrutable.”

Cuozzo’s argument amounts essentially to the belief that diversity beyond a handful of well-recognized grapes and brand names, is a hindrance for diners. So the real question is, should all restaurants offer something for everyone, or, are some restaurants smart to stay true to a unique vision, even if the inscrutable vision will likely alienate some guests?

Asimov counters Cuozzo’s argument with: “Restaurants are not intent on annoying people. Even the proudest, most rigid chef wants you to share a vision, not walk away unhappy. I treasure restaurants that do not pander as long as they succeed on their own terms. The same questions apply to wine. Must a restaurant offer bottles that even the most timid diner will recognize? Or can a wine list reflect a restaurant’s best conception of itself, no matter how unconventional? The world is dominated by the ordinary and the mass-market. Most restaurants, even in New York City, conform to a mainstream vision of food and wine. For that reason alone we should celebrate the departures, not feel threatened by them. If a restaurant is so unorthodox that you feel discomfited, plenty of more conventional choices beckon.”

The Wine List PleaseIt’s interesting to note that discussions of mainstream versus innovation and diversity used to be centered on food menus. Most reasonable people seemed ready to accept a chef’s right to remain uncompromisingly true to his or her culinary vision. The ultra successful Terroni Group of Restaurants (including five in Toronto and one, soon to be two, in Los Angeles) is a case in point. Owner Cosimo Mammoliti is infamous for his no modifications, no substitution policy. They wont even cut your pizza for you at Terroni. Why? “We simply want our customers to have the experience of eating those dishes in the same way that they’ve been enjoyed for generations” is the answer. The implication is that if you don’t want to eat what Italians have been eating for generations, there are plenty of other restaurants you can go to. (Incidentally, the wine list is also filled with inscrutable wines you won’t find anywhere else, since Terroni imports dozens of Italian wines exclusively, which doesn’t seem to deter diners from drinking.) Terroni’s success vindicates their no mods policy.

So why should wine directors and sommeliers be accorded any less latitude to express a vision than a chef/owner? If it doesn’t work, they won’t be in business for long in any case.

The Canadian dining landscape is ever more interesting. Young chefs who have trained under our most celebrated culinary artists are opening restaurants at an alarming (comforting) rate, adding culinary multiplicity to the dining scene of myriad neighborhoods. It’s virtually a pre-requisite for survival in the hyper-competitive market. And so many young, and seasoned, sommeliers are seeking to reflect that diversity and distinctiveness with the beverage program.

So, the question is, are you as afraid of unknown wines as you are of unknown ingredients? Or is dining out an adventure in discovery? Let me know what you think.

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Oxymoron: Value Champagne for TIFF

Cristal Brut ChampagneCharles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ChampagneVINTAGES is splashing out (or re-splashing) on champagne for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, which runs from September 6th – 16th. After all, champagne is a virtual sine qua non for the A-list beat. You, too, may have champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but reluctantly live in reality. And for you, I have two “value” options from the release. In lieu of the predictable names on offer, namely Dom Pérignon 2003 (which was not available to taste), and the really very fine 2005 Cristal Brut Champagne (any wine at nearly $300 could scarcely be considered a value), head instead to the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne for $54.95. This has long been one of my favorite non-vintage champagnes with vintage-like quality, and might rightly fall in the value realm. The secret is a significant proportion of reserve (old) wines, which gives the Charles its distinctly toasty, fully mature profile. Add to that a rich, creamy, dry but generous, mouth filling impression packed with peach cobbler and toasted oat flavour, and you’ve got a serious bubbly that could easily pass for one of the pricier labels.

Piper Heidsieck Brut ChampagneVery nearly as good but stylistically contrarian is the 2004 Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($75.95). The same company owns both Heidsiecks, and there’s a purposeful division of style between labels: Piper is the lighter, fresher, more citrusy bubbly, and the 2004 vintage is true to form. I particularly liked the rare combination of power and elegance. And again, considering the price of most vintage champagne, this could almost be considered in the value category. For A-listers, this would be embarrassingly cheap.

From the September 1st, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Champagne Picks

Cheers!

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS


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Top Ten Smart Buys – John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 26th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Consensus on Greatness: Is it Possible? You Bet.  May 26th sees the annual Vintages release focused on 90+ point wines. By most standards in the world of wine ratings, 90 is the magic number, the dividing line between good and very good, between satisfying and special. Where and how that line is drawn depends entirely on the reviewer, yet I never fail to marvel at the consistency of the definition of “very good” from experienced tasters, even if from incredibly diverse backgrounds. As though to hammer the point home, I spent the last week in Hungary judging wines at the 13th annual Pannon Wine Challenge, with panelists from the UK, Poland, US, and Hungary. Though we may have warbled on about acceptable degrees of technical flaws and other granular details, and though each of our scales were calibrated differently, in relative terms, there was remarkable agreement on the wines that stood above the others. The middle ground, however, was much more variable.

Sequillo Cellars RedThis leads me to believe that there is such a thing as great wine. It’s not a single beacon in the sky, but more like a bunch of circles of light that overlap. Where all the circles intersect you’ll find consensus on greatness. Moving out from the center it gets more and more individual; agreement on the fringes is less consistent. And I love that the characterization of excellence in wine remains intangible and elastic, and changes as you change. By most definitions it must incorporate elusive and brackish concepts like “balance”, “terroir expression” or “varietal character”, which become evident only after years of tasting wine. At this point, it’s more of a feeling than a rational explanation of greatness.

Though all of the judges at the Pannon competition have had dramatically different life experiences and exposure to wine, the one point in common between all is significant tasting experience. And this leads to another shaky truth: the more you taste, the more the image of greatness emerges out of the mist and comes into consensual focus. Beauty shouldn’t, nor couldn’t, be pinned down to a standard rational definition. Experience seems to lead us all to a remarkably similar vinous landscape – the converging points of light – beyond the rational.

C.H. Berres Riesling KabinettBest's Great Western Bin No. 1 ShirazOne 90+ point score could thus be an outlier, but when consensus is found among a diverse group of experienced tasters, there has to be something there, a mutually shared feeling, however un-definable and intangible. Here, the greatness is not the sole proprietorship of the experts; even if you don’t taste a thousand wines a month, these mutually commended wines will most likely touch you, too. Outside this convergence, you’re back in the land of personal experience.

It’s a bit like how I imagine it must be for a figure skating judge. I suspect that even for judges with vast experience watching skaters, the feeling of witnessing a great performance arrives first, before the degree of technical prowess comes into focus. That feeling is shared by the audience – when you see a top skater you feel they are great, even without the ability to describe a perfect triple Lutz, or even knowing what a Lutz is, and you expect a top score. The judges can then rationalize the feeling of a great performance through analysis of the skater’s technique and artistry, but the scorecards have already been selected. When the performance is less than great, the audience waits in anticipation; rational analysis has taken over, and it’s not clear to the inexperienced which way it will swing.

Lealtanza ReservaWhen I taste a great wine, I get a little shiver first – I feel that it’s something special. That’s past experience tickling my frontal cortex, saying, hey, this is worth paying attention to. After that I’ll set about trying to describe rationally why it’s great. A tasting note that gushes with worn out superlatives is a start towards sharing that feeling. But when words are inadequate, as they invariably are, I can flash up my scorecard to draw a line in the sand and make my position clear. In the absence of the shiver, the technical analysis starts first, and the results between reviewers are more variable. Paradoxically, it’s a feeling of greatness that leads to the intersecting points of light in the sky. Rational thought leads to greater discrepancy, less consistency and greater variability.

Top Ten Smart Buys (also 90+)

Of the 75 wines I tasted for this release, 21 gave me a little shiver – See the smartest ten buys of those here. I’ve yet to see the reviews of my WineAlign colleagues, but I suspect there will be some convergence, and that’s where you should start. Hopefully you’ll get the same shiver, unless of course, you’re the Russian judge.

For more details on the Pannon Wine competition, see thoughtful American wine blogger Alder Yarrow’s posting at Vinography.com or UK author and blogger Dr. Jamie Goode’s popular wine Wineanorak.com. Results of the competition can be found on the competition’s official website,  Pannon Bormustra. I’ll post a selection of my notes shortly.

From the May 26, 2012 Vintages release:

Cheers,

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier


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