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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for December 7, 2013

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John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report covers the last VINTAGES release of 2013 on December 7th, another massive collection of over 170 products including spirits. Fizz is the main theme, but I’ll be publishing a more complete collection of recommended sparkling wines later in December, so I’ve focused instead on a dozen smart buys spanning the spectrum of prices and styles. I also sat last week with Piero Incisa della Rochetta to talk about his project in Patagonia, Bodega Chacra, and taste current releases. Learn more about this extraordinary biodynamically-farmed property with vineyards dating back to 1932, and why you should drop the term “super Tuscan” from your vocabulary.

Bubbly

If you’ve budgeted this year for luxury champagne and sparkling wine ($50++) stay tuned for my full report in mid-December – there will be lots to choose from for year-end celebrations and special gifts.

For more immediate occasions and ones that demand financial restraint without sacrificing much pleasure, consider one of these three options:

Ferrari Brut Metodo ClassicoJuvé Y Camps Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava 2009Brédif Brut Vouvray

Brédif Brut Vouvray ($20.95) is a classic chenin blanc-based traditional method sparkler, complete with honeyed and wet hay nuances over sautéed apple and pear fruit. Incisive acids are softened by well-measured dosage, keeping the balance intact.

2009 Juvé Y Camps Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava ($17.95) is made from the classic cava varieties of the Penedes, maccabeo, parellada and xarel.lo at a centuries-old estate, and delivers superior depth and complexity in the category.

Ferrari Brut Metodo Classico ($25.95) Established by Giulio Ferrari in 1902 with the aim of making wine to rival Champagne, Ferrari remains to this day an exclusively sparkler wine producer. The Brut is a chardonnay-based traditional method wine, discreetly toasty, crisp, dry and with impressive concentration.

Whites

Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling 2011Pierre Sparr Altenbourg Riesling 2010Among smart buys in white, one stands at the top for quality and authenticity:  Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling ($34.00). 2011 was a ‘perfumed’ vintage, according to winemaker Ann Sperling, whose family property near Kelowna in the northern end of the Okanagan Valley has some of the oldest riesling vines in BC. This is indeed open and fragrant, with lovely green apple, citrus-lemon-lime, apple blossom, and a distinctive chalky minerality. The palate is very well-structured, tight but not hard, managing the fine balance between finesse and power. It’s surely one of BC’s best rieslings.

Two whites from Alsace stand out, the 2010 Pierre Sparr Altenbourg Riesling ($16.95) and 2011 Joseph Cattin Gewürztraminer ($17.95).  The Sparr family traces its winegrowing routes back to 1680, and today, although no longer under family control, the company produces a large but solid assortment of wines from purchased fruit and the estate’s 34 hectares of vineyards. Altenbourg is a lieu-dit (a site recognized for its superiority, but not quite grand cru quality, and not to be confused with the Altenberg de Bergheim grand cru) and 2010 was a terrific vintage in Alsace, yielding rieslings with vibrant acids and energy. This is a fine riesling for the money, with ample regional character and stony minerality.Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc 2012Joseph Cattin Gewürztraminer 2011

Cattin is a century-old family business based in Voegtlinshoffen in southern Alsace. Consistent quality is achieved across the range, and the 2011 Gewürztraminer stands out for its unmistakable varietal character. It’s sourced from regional limestone-clay vineyards, hand picked and made into a just-off-dry style.

The stream of value wines from South Africa continues flow, and the 2012 Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc ($14.95) is well worth a look. Pecan Stream is the entry range from Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch, and this is engaging chenin sourced from vineyards across the Western Cape. It’s essentially dry but with a pleasingly round, fleshy profile, delivering all one could want for under $15.

Reds

Quinta Dos Carvalhais Duque De Viseu Red 2009Viña Casablanca El Bosque Carmenère 2010The 2009 Quinta Dos Carvalhais Duque De Viseu Red ($13.95) is among the best value reds to hit LCBO shelves recently. I’ve known this wine for almost two decades (it was the house wine in a Portuguese restaurant I worked in, and required regular “tasting”). I appreciated then, as I do now, its freshness and juicy drinkability, the savoury fruit and floral spice. It’s the sort of wine that mysteriously disappears from the bottle, especially when served with a light chill.

The 2010 Viña Casablanca El Bosque Carmenère Winemaker’s Choice ($15.95)  will please fans of more substantial and full-bodied wines. It’s a complex and engaging, fruity-spicy example of carmenere, ripe, yet still retaining some of the herbal character of the variety. The palate offers sweet, dark fruit with a touch of espresso bean/wood flavour – a solid mouthful for the money.De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2009Tawse David's Block Merlot 2010Château Bertinerie Merlot Cabernet 2009

2009 Château Bertinerie ($18.95) is a lively, lightly herbal, honest and attractive right bank Bordeaux for which expectations are matched by quality in the bottle. But if you’re seeking a distinctive wine of character, consider the 2010 Tawse David’s Block Merlot ($49.95). This is fully ripe, classy, concentrated merlot from the excellent 2010 vintage, one in which the Bordeaux varieties performed well in Niagara. There’s substantial richness and concentration, with the depth and intensity to continue to improve over the next 2-5 years, offering proof positive that Ontario can make excellent merlot when the conditions are suitable.

Sweet

For dessert, cheese, or just to enjoy on its own, 2009 De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon ($31.95) is a compelling offering. This iconic botrytis affected wine is denser, richer, sweeter and more impressive than many Sauternes at the same price, while barrel ageing adds its touch of ginger-spiked, Chinese five-spice flavour. It should improve over the next 3-4 years, and hold easily into the twenties or longer.

Bodega Chacra and Marchese Piero Incisa della Rochetta

Piero Incisa

Piero Incisa

Piero Incisa is a soft-spoken gentleman, elegant and handsome like a well-casted aristocrat for a foreign film. With a slight change of wardrobe, he could be imagined stepping out of a Florentine palace at any period in the last seven hundred years without looking out of place. He speaks thoughtfully and deliberately in a light, lilting Italian accent, with well-timed delivery of carefully chosen words, obviously intelligent and exuding education and world experience. But it’s his understated sense of humor that draws you in, the sly remarks delivered in Italian-accented monotones, the subtle but sharp comments that belie the air of aloofness and remind you that he is fully engaged in the conversation.

After apologizing for the apparently miserly quantities of wine available for our tasting last week at Barberian’s, Incisa asks Ben Hodson from Trialto, the agent who represents Bodega Chacra, what song he, being a DJ, would have played after the carafe of Treinta y Dos pinot noir, Chacra’s top wine at over $100, inexplicably sprung a leak and began to gush its precious contents onto the white linen tablecloth, like blood from an accidental gunshot wound as the gunmen stares in disbelief at his unintended victim (Hodson had a small mishap as he prepared the wines for tasting). It was the sort of enlightening interpretation of a minor tragedy that only a man of means and deep family history, and thus perspective on the past and the future, can make, as though to say, “c’mon, this is only wine, meant to be drunk and enjoyed. Wine is groceries, wine is part of life. There will be more.” “Bridge over troubled water?” a smiling Incisa suggests with a barely a trace of sarcasm before Ben can answer.

The Marchese and his family own four wineries, in part or outright, including the most famous property in Tuscany, the Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri. This is the estate where Sassicaia was created, and which is today the only monopole DOC in Italy for a single wine, officially called Bolgheri-Sassicaia DOC. Sassicaia was also the first “super-Tuscan” wine, a term which Incisa disapproves of with unambiguous finality (don’t bring it up around him). “The term misleads consumers”, he says. “It has no legal meaning or definition. Even many sommeliers and journalists don’t understand it”.

Time to Drop Super Tuscans

He does have a point. “Super Tuscan” is essentially meaningless, a term used these days to vaguely describe virtually any blended red wine from Tuscany that contains, usually but not always, some non-traditional Tuscan varieties like cabernet and merlot. The term was originally coined for Sassicaia alone by a British journalist who had traveled to San Guido to see Piero’s grandfather, Mario Incisa della Rochetta. The journalist had made the journey to Bolgheri to write an article on the Marchese’s famous thoroughbred horses, yet he was so impressed by the “house wine” served to him during the visit that he decided instead to write an article on the wine of San Guido, Sassicaia, a wine barely known at the time outside of the estate.

Since Sassicaia was, and remains, a cabernet sauvignon-based blend, it didn’t conform to any of the traditional appellations of Tuscany and thus could only be labeled legally as a lowly table wine, a wine with no historical pedigree. Yet it was so fine that it deserved some recognition, thought the journalist. But I can’t write that your wine is a mere vino da tavola – a table wine – he said to Mario. British readers, accustomed to the cru classés of Bordeaux, would have thought him a fool reporting on table wine. And so the journalist hit upon the term “super Tuscan” to describe Sassicaia to his readers, a way of unofficially elevating its status to the level it deserved.

Even though “super Tuscan” was coined for Sassicaia alone, and not for a category of wines, the term has since been adopted and applied to almost every Tuscan blend, at widely varying price points, evolving into an undefined, unofficial category along the way. Many were complicit in this misappropriation, including journalists, sommeliers, wine merchants and wine producers who were happy to apply the term liberally to Tuscan blends for a little added value. “I’ve seen wines calling themselves super Tuscans that cost $150 that aren’t worth $20”, laments Piero. Indeed, the consumer can’t rely on the term for virtually anything other than inflated price. Beware the super Tuscan.

But I wasn’t meeting with Piero to talk about San Guido or Sassicaia, nor the Salviano estate in Umbria, nor even the family’s latest joint venture with Santadi in Sardegna, the Azienda Agricola Punica (which is excellent, by the way). Today was about Bodega Chacra, Piero’s 10-year-old venture deep in the southern hemisphere in Patagonia, Argentina.

Chacra: Fine Pinot Noir From the End of the World

How did an Italian winery owner of aristocratic lineage end up in Patagonia making pinot noir? According to Incisa, it happened many years ago that he tasted a pinot noir in New York. It was a wine that struck him, one of those moments when you spot a glimmer of greatness in a most unlikely and obscure place. Out of curiosity, mixed with excitement, he followed his intuition to the source.

Patagonia had once been a promising land for cool climate viticulture, and for sparkling wine in particular. Vineyards were established here in the late 19th century, but the climate proved too hostile, and many had since been abandoned. By the early 2000s when Incisa arrived, the wine renaissance of Patagonia was just getting underway, though it was by no means a sure bet, and it remained a largely rural, tender fruit-growing backwater ten hours by car from Buenos Aires.

Incisa landed at this end of the world in 2003 seeking the vineyards where that fateful pinot noir had originated. He eventually came upon the farmer responsible for the grapes, which he had been selling to the local cooperative. He owned many parcels of old vines, some of which were all but abandoned, including a small 2.2ha parcel of pinot noir planted in 1932.

Piero was intrigued enough by the prospects of this property to make an offer to purchase. “But the owner didn’t want to sell the land to me, for fear that I would go bankrupt” recalls Incisa. “The farmer said that these ancient vines produced only tiny amounts of fruit, that the bunches and berries were very small, that the pinot vines themselves weren’t uniform because they were all massale selection (vines planted or replanted directly from mother vine material) and weren’t planted on American rootstock, (since the area is phylloxera-free)”.

Each argument raised by the farmer against the viability of the vineyard stirred more excitement in Incisa. “My jaw dropped. It was like music to my ears, those were all of the qualities I look for in a vineyard to produce the best quality wine”.

Eventually he convinced the farmer to rent him the vineyard in 2004, and he made his first wines. The following year he managed to purchase the site, now called “Treinta y Dos”, along with another farm that included a vineyard planted in 1955 and one in the mid 1980s. Bodega Chacra was born.

Incisa engaged oenologist Hans Vinding-Diers to lead the project (co-owner/winemaker of nearby Bodegas Noemía and former winemaker of Castello di Argiano in Montalcino, before it was sold to Brazilian interests last year), though Incisa, too, has remained closely involved, and spends more time in Argentina now than in Italy. It was decided to farm both organically and biodynamically from the beginning, considering that the old vineyards had never seen pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Chacra is certified organic and biodynamic by Demeter, though the certifications do not appear on bottles (they’re posted on Chacra’s website). “It’s a racket”, says Incisa. “These associations require you to pay outrageous fees for the right to put the certification on the label.” He believes that associations such as these should be encouraging winegrowers to convert to organic/biodynamic winemaking, not profiteering and discouraging them through fees that can be as high as 10% of the value of the wine being certified. “My great grandfather wrote a book on viticulture outlining many of the same principals used in organic and biodynamic farming. He was happy to freely share his knowledge with anyone who was interested.”

Three pinot noirs are made at Chacra: Barda, Chacra Cincuenta y Cinco and Chacra Treinta y Dos.

Barda, the least expensive wine, was born in Chacra’s inaugural 2004 vintage as a “true second wine”, made from declassified lots of the Chacra Treinta y Dos. Today, Barda is made mainly from the younger vineyard planted on limestone and sand in the 1980s, plus any declassified lots from the Treinta y Dos. It’s fermented, as with all Chacra wines, with wild yeast, made with minimal extraction, and bottled unfined and unfiltered with very low SO2.

The 2012 Barda is notably cloudy and pale garnet coloured, in the style of minimal-intervention reds, delicate and refined, with enticing floral notes, faded roses, and lightly oxidative red fruit. The palate is fine and silky, lingering and elegant. A fine value overall, intended for early consumption.

The Chacra Cincuenta y Cinco is made from a predominantly clay vineyard planted in 1955. A high percentage of whole bunches are often included in the fermentation vat, with a varying percentage of de-stemmed fruit according to the vintage to minimize tannic impact. Fermentation is carried out under 20ºC to retain the more delicate, sought-after floral aromatics of pinot, and the wine is aged in used, 600l tonneau with light toasting for one year.

2012 was an unusually cool and rainy vintage in what is otherwise essentially a dessert, yielding a bright ruby red coloured ’55. It has a marvelous core of succulent and vibrant fruit, with great purity. Although tannins are filigree and very fine, there’s nonetheless solid structure and excellent, perfumed length. It’s surely Argentina’s, if not South America’s, most delicate pinots.

Chacra Treinta y Dos (“32” in Spanish) is the flagship wine made from Incisa’s original vineyard planted in 1932. It’s always fully hand de-stemmed, as it’s the most “masculine” wine in the Chacra range, relatively speaking, and needs no encouragement of structure. It’s then fermented in small, round concrete tanks (34-57 hl) specifically designed by Incisa to promote homogenous fermentation, then aged two years in lightly toasted barrels.

Despite its extra year of age, the 2011 ’32 is easily the darkest of the range, and an excellent, age worthy vintage. The nose is intense and powerful, while the palate offers terrific density and extract without any trace of heaviness. It has genuine concentration and fruit extract, not to mention complexity and length, the kind that is usually only possible from really old vines. It’s a pleasure to see such complexity derived from fruit rather than heavy oak treatment or exaggerated extraction. It’s a unique expression of pinot, neither Burgundian nor classically new world in style, but a marvelous and valid expression to be sure.

Considering this quality, it’s not surprising that Chacra has sold out each year since 2004, even at the relatively high prices (at least for Patagonia). The wines are sold in 28 countries, and distribution is largely separate from Tenuta San Guido and Sassicaia, which surprised me. I assumed that Incisa would piggyback on the success of San Guido to help move his rather less high profile Argentinean project. But, as he points out, “Cabernet drinkers are rarely pinot drinkers”. And, “distributors who work with Sassicaia generally sell to different markets, for example to Italian restaurants, where Argentinean pinot wouldn’t move”, says Incisa.

Chacra has made its name on quality, and not a halo effect from a distant, utterly different (if also refined) wine. When I ask Piero what’s next, he says “What do you mean what’s next? My family and I are satisfied. We have everything we want and need. Why would I want to make my life more complicated?”

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the November 23, 2013 Vintages release:

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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!


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Penfolds Grange 2008


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 23, 2013

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John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Invest heavily on November 23rd! That’s my advice after tasting 130+ wines from the upcoming VINTAGES release. It’s one of the most impressive collections I’ve seen, like what you’d expect to taste at the sommelier all-star game.

I’ve highlighted two-dozen smart buys, divided under varietal or regional headings, ranging from $15 to $88. If you can’t find something that fits your taste and budget here, then I’ll turn to tea tasting.

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Riesling

Domäne Wachau Achleiten Smaragd Riesling 2011Kerpen’s Graacher Domprobst 1 Star Riesling Auslese2011 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling SpätleseI promise to keep recommending great German Riesling until you start drinking more of it. There are just too many original, enjoyable, undervalued wines to ignore. Yes, the 2011 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese ($23.95) is off-dry, but it’s balanced by crackling acids and more than fleshed out by ripe, honey slathered peach, apricot, and pear fruit, plus of course great minerality – absolutely textbook down to the generous expression of the Goldtröfchen vineyard. Decant if serving now, or hold a decade or longer.

2010 was a magical vintage for the later harvest styles, and Kerpen’s Graacher Domprobst 1 Star Riesling Auslese ($36.95) is mesmerizing. It’s rich, unctuous, extremely intense but perfectly poised and balanced. This is a wine for the ages – it should continue to improve over the next decade, and I wouldn’t be surprised to be enjoying this in 2030 and beyond.

Riesling is Austria’s best-kept secret – only about 3% of acreage is devoted to it, but the top examples from the Danube Valley are equal to the best in the world. Domäne Wachau’s 2011 Riesling Smaragd Achleiten is brilliant. Smaragd refers to ripeness at harvest– the highest level in the Wachau, while Achleiten is the name of the ridiculously steep, terraced, primary rock vineyard overlooking the Danube. The wine is bone dry, tight, intense and full of verve.

Chardonnay

2010 Santa Carolina Gran Reserva Chardonnay ($14.95) will fit the bill when wide appeal is required, offering enough complexity and interest to keep the punters happy.

Santa Carolina Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2010Domaine Bachey Legros Vieilles Vignes Chassagne Montrachet Morgeot 1er Cru 20102010 Domain Rijckaert Puligny-Montrachet Les Champgains 1er CruBut when granny’s fine chinaware is dusted off, pour some fine white Burgundy (just leave the thick cut-crystal glasses in the cupboard and go with sleek Schott Zweisel stems). 2010 Domaine Bachey-Legros Vieilles Vignes Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1er Cru ($59.95) is an excellent option, a youthful, plump, densely concentrated old vines Chassagne best served at cellar temperature (12ºC), from a decanter.

For a more idiosyncratic but haunting expression, try the 2010 Domain Rijckaert Puligny-Montrachet Les Champgains 1er Cru ($69.95). I can’t call this typical Puligny with its golden-topaz tinge and honeyed, wheat bread, wet hay and walnut aromas and flavours that are more typical in 10-year-old wine, but the flavour intensity and underlying minerality are striking. Without exaggerating too much, this is like Krug champagne without the bubbles.

Other Whites & Blends

2012 Pierre Luneau-Papin Clos Des Allées Muscadet Sévre et Maine ($18.95). Yes, I’m recommending muscadet, again. Like German riesling, the best are among the most regionally distinct wines for the money, anywhere. Luneau-Papin is a reference, just don’t expect soft and fruity – the palate is yet lean and a touch austere – a wine drinker’s wine to be sure. But considering the extract, I’d expect this to flesh out and gain weight over the next couple of years. Decant if serving this year.

Stratus White 2010Domaine Du Petit Métris Clos De La Marche Savennières 2009Pierre Luneau Papin Clos Des Allees Muscadet Sevre Et Maine 2012If flesh and richness are what you’re after, consider the 2009 Domaine Du Petit Métris Clos De La Marche Savennières ($23.95) or the 2010 Stratus White ($44.20). The former is a dry chenin blanc of substantial depth and honeyed, spiced fruit character, ready for luxury shellfish or white meats, while the latter is the most compelling Stratus white to date. Essentially a semillon-sauvignon blend with viognier and a splash of chardonnay, it, too, has late-harvest-like aromatics of dried peaches and apricots, marmalade, guava and melon, and intense violet perfume, with a rich and creamy palate balanced by brisk underlying acids.

Italy

Italy provides three marvelously savoury, traditional-style wines: Jerzu’s 2008 Chuèrra Riserva Cannonau Di Sardegna ($16.95) makes no concessions to polished modern winemaking nor prevailing international tastes, remaining steadfastly Italian with its dried fruit and pot pourri flavours. Similarly, Terredora’s 2010 Aglianico ($16.95) is all dried flowers and dirt, in the finest sense, reminiscent of solid Langhe nebbiolo.

But for the real thing, nebbiolo fans should consider the excellent 2008 Palladino Parafada Barolo ($68.00), a lovely old school Barolo from the excellent Parafada cru in Serralunga, complete with pale garnet red colour, fully evolved, savoury aromatics, tons of umami flavour, and dry, dusty tannins. Palladino’s philosophy that “tradition allows history to live on”, sums it up nicely.

Jerzu Chuèrra Riserva Cannonau Di SardegnaTerredora Aglianico 2010Palladino Parafada Barolo 2008Château Potensac 2009

Bordeaux

Plenty of great 2009 Bordeaux have been hitting the Canadian market recently, but I was particularly struck by Château Potensac ($41.85) arriving November 23. It’s a classy left bank Bordeaux that has managed to retain a large measure of sophistication and structure in the otherwise soft and come-hither 2009 vintage. There’s plenty of fruit here to be sure, along with well-integrated barrel spice, but there’s also freshness, tension, and genuine tannic backbone. Decant if drinking now, or cellar 15+ years.

Pinot Noir

Louis Jadot Clos Des Ursules Beaune 1er Cru 2010Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2011Canada has far more pinot diamonds in the rough than just a handful of years ago, thanks to the favourable 2009 and 2010 vintages. The jury is still largely out on 2011, but Hidden Bench’s Estate Pinot Noir ($32.95) is definitely worth a look. It’s a muscular, powerful and concentrated pinot in the customary house style, where ultra low yields and generous extraction are the norm. I’d leave this aside for another 2-3 years for maximum integration.

Back in the spiritual homeland of pinot, track down a bottle of 2010 Louis Jadot Clos Des Ursules Beaune 1er Cru ($74.95). Although Jadot is a large operation, quality is astonishingly high across the board, and the Clos des Ursules is particularly special. The cru is walled in a portion of the Beaune 1er Cru Vignes Franches purchased in 1826 by Louis Henry Denis Jadot, and has remained a monopole of the Jadot family ever since. The 2010 is a very pretty wine, for fans of arch-classic red Burgundy, in the typically delicate and floral style of Beaune.

Malbec

Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard Malbec 2009Mendel Malbec 2010Salentein Reserve Malbec 2011Malbec sales have been slipping in Canada due mostly to the inevitable nuclear fission of the Fuzion brand, but, like all ends, the result is a new beginning. The future of Argentine malbec is wine of genuine balance and complexity, not simply jam, wood and heavy bottles. For a view of the elegance and complexity achievable, pick your entry price and enter via one of the following three windows:

2011 Salentein Reserve Malbec ($17.95)

2010 Mendel Malbec ($24.95)

2009 Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard Malbec ($87.95)

The secret to all three is elevation. The higher, the cooler, the better for refinement and natural acids. The pricing here reflects a climb in intensity, depth and complexity.

Spain & Portugal

Portugal, and especially Spain, are hot categories in Canada. And it’s about time, too. Our neighbours to the south have been putting back Spanish wines like oxtail after a bullfight for several years now. Modernity has found a place alongside the ultra-traditional, with both coexisting in peace. In the premium range, the 2004 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial ($38.95) represents the old guard in all its glorious traditionalism, complete with an amazing amalgam of toasted coconut, burnt caramel, dried figs and dates, resinous herbs and more, with the telltale heavy influence of American oak ageing. This is the sort of wine that you can sip slowly all evening and keep on discovering new things.

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial 2004Alion 2009Quinta Vale D. Maria Vinho TintoThe 2009 Alion Ribera Del Duero ($84.95) on the other hand, represents modernity at its finest. Bodegas y Viñedos Alión was established in 1992 with the aim of demonstrating that even the well-established Alvarez family of legendary 19thC Bodega Vega Sicilia can produce “wines of the 21stC”. But make no mistake – this is not modernity at its over-extracted, oaky worst – Alión is a wine of remarkable depth, matching fruit concentration with tight tannins and bright acids. Put a note on the bottle not to touch before 2018.

Douro reds continue to gain in stature as more and more effort is focused on them rather than on the fortifieds. Quinta Vale D. Maria is one of my reference producers, and their 2010 Douro ($65.25) is exceptional, displaying an uncommon degree of elegance, freshness and florality allied to dense and compact structure. If I had anything to reproach, it would be the palate warming alcohol (14.5% declared), but there are few wines that can wear this sort of ripeness with as much flair and elegance. This will be best after 2018 or so.

Southern France

Domaine La Roquéte Chåteauneuf Du Pape 20102008 Château d'Anglès Languedoc La ClapeSouthern France, and especially the Languedoc and Roussillon, continue to crank out fantastic values. The 2008 Château d’Anglès La Clape ($20.95) is a prime example, a syrah-dominated blend that delivers abundant smoky, smoked meat, cold cream, black pepper, and cassis fruit notes, with a wicked streak of scorched earth-minerality underlying it all. There’s plenty of personality here for the money.

2010 has proved to be an exceptional vintage in the southern Rhône and especially Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Among many excellent wines, look for 2010 Domaine La Roquète Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($49.95). It offers plenty of old vine (50+ years) sappiness and density, not to mention terrific length. This should continue to gain in interest and complexity over the next 4-6 years, but has already achieved a fine value-for-money ratio even in this premium price range.

Syrah

Creekside Broken Press Syrah 2010M. Chapoutier Les Bécasses Côte Rôtie 2010I don’t rank syrah/shiraz as one of Ontario’s most promising grapes, but in the hands of Rob Power at Creekside, in the right vintages, it does indeed deliver something special. The 2010 Creekside Broken Press Syrah ($39.95) is a seriously smoky, savoury, black pepper-scented wine, which bears more than a passing resemblance to fine Côte Rôtie. As such, it’s a fine value I’d say; best from 2016, or hold until the mid-twenties.

Double down and you’ll get the real thing, but let me know if it’s twice as good (184 points?). The 2010 M. Chapoutier Les Bécasses Côte-Rôtie ($84.00) is an arch-classic Côte-Rôtie crafted from several parcels in the Côte Brune and Côte Blonde sub-areas. Its structure is based on finesse rather than sheer power, as all great northern Rhône syrah should be. This will be best from 2016-2030.

John Szabo, A Master ClassNo plans this evening? Join me for an insider’s tour through the world of wine. I’ve selected an outstanding lineup of up-and-coming grapes, regions, producers and styles – the stuff you wouldn’t likely know about unless you are immersed in the wine trade – that are ripe for discovery. Pick up some tips on how to taste, serve and pair wine and food like a master sommelier along the way. See more details and get your tickets here.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the November 23, 2013 Vintages release:

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All Reviews

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!


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Penfolds Grange 2008


VINTAGES Taste The Classics

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Nov 9, 2013

Gaia Gaja, How to Get The Most out of Your Sommelier and Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

A logistical contretemps at the LCBO warehouse saw samples of the November 23 release arrive at the tasting lab last Tuesday instead of the November 9 samples, so my coverage is less than complete this week. But we’ve marshaled additional regular WineAlign contributors for next week’s tasting to ensure that all new wines are covered. I’ve selected a half-dozen premium smart buys out of the three dozen or so wines I did manage to taste from the November 9 release to consider. A recent sit-down with the engaging Gaia Gaja provided an opportunity to report on changes at this iconic Italian estate and to review the latest releases, and I’ve also shared some insider’s tips on how to get the most out of your sommelier while dining out this season. 

Premium Smart Buys

The average bottle price for LCBO-VINTAGES releases jumps sharply around this time of year to coincide with consumers’ willingness to spend more. In that light, I’ve selected a half-dozen premium selections, between $25 and $60, that are worth the extra spend, and would make for respectable gifts for your wine loving friends (value-seekers can jump straight to the Top 25 Values from the WineAlign World Wine Awards). Click through for the notes and reviews on the wines below.

2010 Norman Hardie Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($39.00)

Norman Hardie Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir 2010

2011 Le Serre Nuove Dell’ornellaia DOC Bolgheri, Italy($59.95)

Le Serre Nuove Dell'Ornellaia 2011

2011 Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos, DO Bierzo, Spain ($24.95)

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2011

2011 The Chocolate Block, WO Franschhoek, South Africa ($39.95)

The Chocolate Block 2011

2008 Ruffino Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG Chianti, Italy($44.95)

Ruffino Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva 2008

2009 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz, South Australia ($44.95)

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

New Releases from Gaja, Pieve Santa Restituta & Ca’Marcanda

The unkempt vines and thick grass between rows in Gaja’s Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards is not a sign that the viticulture applied to some of Italy’s most prized bottles is starting to slip. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. “The warming climate and better understanding of grape growing and fermentation has led us to make some important changes”, reveals Gaia Gaja at a Toronto tasting this week. “Twenty years ago, fertilization was not recommended. It was believed that stress was good for quality. Grapes were definitely ripening earlier than they are now because of stress, but there were problems with the fermentations. There were not enough nutrients in the must. Thermoregulation and other fermentation management techniques were necessary. Now, fertilizing has remedied all of these problems”, she continues.

Gaia GajaOf course, Gaia, the daughter of famed winemaker Angelo Gaja, is not referring to standard industrial fertilizers; everything at Gaja is done at the highest level. In this case, the fertilizer comes from a heard of local cows, whose manure undergoes a lengthy 18 month processing before it’s applied to vineyards. Gaja does not farm biodynamically, but many principles are adapted.

Gaia mentions a few other recent adaptations in viticulture. For example, traditional canopies in Piedmont were always high, around two meters, in order to maximize foliar surface exposed to the sun in this typically cool and foggy region. Maximizing photosynthesis, and thus ripeness, was the principal. But the warming trend over the past decade has led to a new problem for Piedmontese growers: grapes are ripening too quickly, and are unbalanced. There’s too much photosynthesis and thus sugar accumulation in grapes, before flavours have had a chance to fully develop. Gaja has adapted by shortening the canopy to 1.5m or even lower in their top, south facing sites where it’s necessary to slow down ripening. They’ve all but stopped canopy trimming as well, since it encourages new leaf growth, and young leaves are much more efficient at producing sugar, which in turn leads to excessive alcohol in the finished wines.

Grass between vineyards rows, traditionally kept cropped low, is no longer cut but rather folded over by tractor when it gets too long in order to maintain soil moisture and reduce water stress. “The vineyards look messy” says Gaia, “not like they were twenty years ago, perfectly trimmed and neat. But it’s anything but neglect. It’s a different management strategy we’ve adopted to deal with changing conditions”.

Gaja WinesWe tasted wines from Gaja’s 250 acre Piedmont estate (spread across the Barbaresco district in the communes of Treiso and Barbaresco itself, and in Barolo, within the communes of Serralunga and La Morra), as well as the family’s two Tuscan properties, Pieve di Santa Restituta in Montalcino purchased in 1994, and Ca’ Marcanda in Bolgheri on the coast, acquired in 1996.

Anyone familiar with these wines knows that they are among Italy’s most sought after and collectable bottles, with pricing to match. But relatively speaking, within the elite world of wine, Gaja’s bottles remain fairly priced, with undeniable history and pedigree especially for the Piedmontese portfolio. Given the means, I would purchase Gaja’s nebbiolos in particular without buyer’s remorse.

Click below for reviews and scores.

1999 Sperss Langhe Nebbiolo

2009 Barbaresco

2008 Conteisa Langhe Nebbiolo

2008 Barolo Dagromis

2009 Ca’Marcanda Bolgheri

2008 Pieve Santa Restitua Brunello di Montalcino Rennina

2011 Ca’Marcanda Vistamare Igt Tsocana

How to get the most out of your sommelier:

The modern sommelier is on your side, there to make you happy, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice. No one knows more about the food and the wines on the list. Besides, s/he’s probably bored stiff pulling corks and pouring glasses of pinot grigio, so you’ll make someone happy, too. Here are a couple of tips to increase the odds of a successful encounter:

- Don’t shy away from talking price – you’ll both feel more at ease and avoid potential mutual embarrassment

- Give as much information as possible about what you like (if you’re bashful about your descriptive wine vocabulary, just tell the server what brand(s) you usually drink)

- Ask what the sommelier is most excited about – you’ll see her eyes light up, and might be led to a brilliant new discovery

- Ask the sommelier to pair your meal with wine – they’ll often rise to the challenge and over-deliver, and give you a free food and wine pairing clinic

If I could give one piece of advice:

Trust your own taste. Critics may guide you, but you’re still heading up the expedition.

John Szabo, A Master ClassJoin me for an insider’s tour through the world of wine. I’ve selected an outstanding lineup of up-and-coming grapes, regions, producers and styles – the stuff you wouldn’t likely know about unless you are immersed in the wine trade – that are ripe for discovery. Pick up some tips on how to taste, serve and pair wine and food like a master sommelier along the way. See more details and get your tickets here.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the November 9, 2013 Vintages release:

Premium Smart Buys
All Reviews

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!


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Penfold's Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 26, 2013

2013 Ontario, 2010 Bordeaux, Oregon & Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

There are still lots of red grapes hanging in Ontario vineyards, but producers are already talking about the quality of the vintage. I’ve canvassed growers from Niagara and Prince Edward County for a sneak preview of what we can expect from 2013. In the meantime, the annual Taste Ontario event last week provided an opportunity to taste current releases, and I share a handful of my favorites in this week’s report. The VINTAGES October 26th release features 2010 Bordeaux, heralded as a great vintage, and I’ve highlighted the best values, as well as a pair from the Oregon mini-feature and the usual Ten Smart Buys.

Top Ten Smart Buys

This week’s top ten includes a candidate for wine of the vintage in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a gorgeous 2008 Barolo at the premium end of value; a pair of glorious fortified wines for cool weather enjoyment from opposite ends of the price spectrum, as well as brilliant white Burgundy, zesty grüner veltliner and a South Australian roussanne with complexity well above what the price category demands. See them all here.

Oregon

Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2012Evening Land Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2011Oregon is the minor feature of the October 26th release, with a handful of wines hitting the shelves. Of these, two caught my attention: 2011 Evening Land Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, ($33.95) and the 2012 Elk Cove Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($24.95). Canadian-born winemaker Isabelle Meunier makes the wines at Evening Land’s Oregon operation (wine is also made in California and Burgundy) with the consultation of Burgundian guru Dominique Lafon, and the wines feature elegance and finesse across the board. The 2011 is a pretty, red fruit flavoured pinot with supple but dusty tannins, succulent acidity and a marked savoury edge. This is classy stuff, for fans of old world style pinot with minerality and depth without heaviness.

I’ve recommended wines from Elk Cove in the past, one of Oregon’s oldest vineyards planted in 1977. Pinot Gris is the state’s signature white grape, and this 2012 is classically styled (in the Alsatian sense), just off-dry with fine flavour intensity and length. It would make a great match with lightly spiced fare or dishes with a sweet-sour-salty profile (think Chinese sweet-sour sauces).

2013 Ontario: “A long, Cool Season with the Potential For Excellence”

It’s of course premature to make any definitive statements about a vintage that isn’t even finished yet, but if you believe in the adage that great wines are made in the vineyard, then the majority of the work is done, and the initial reports are highly positive. Growers still have their fingers crossed for fine weather to bring the later ripening reds like cabernet sauvignon and syrah to full ripeness, but with much of the harvest already fermenting, there are smiles about.

Niagara Peninsula

“Overall, 2013 resembles 2011 and 2009. It was a bit cooler than ’11 and a bit warmer than ’09”, reports Tom Penachetti from Cave Spring Vineyard. “Riesling is still a work in progress, but appears to have the potential for true excellence, with great balance of sugars and acids and very complete flavour development. And Cabernet Franc is also shaping up beautifully. If all goes well, the wines will be ripe and aromatic, with a good balance of tannin and ripe yet still bright fruit character”, says Penachetti. And even more good news is that there will be plenty of wine to go around: “Yields are larger than average, like in 2011, but the flavours are complex and quality excellent.”

Paul Pender of Tawse is equally enthusiastic: “I am loving what’s coming out of the 2013 vintage. It’s definitely my kind of vintage. The longer, cooler growing season has produced some remarkable flavours in the Pinot, Chards and Rieslings. Acids are great and alcohols moderate”, he says.

Full flavour development alongside moderate alcohol levels, at least for white varieties, seems to be a common thread across the province, a feature that I find particularly exciting about 2013. Rob Power from Creekside Estate confirms: “the whites have great flavour intensity and classic Niagara acidity. This physiological ripeness was not matched by super-high grape sugars, so the wines will have good old-fashioned alcohol levels in the low 12s.” Bruce Nicholson of Inniskillin agrees on the strength of the whites: “Aromatic whites look very good with the help of some nice September sunshine”.

Growers were initially concerned about the late start to the growing season – bud burst came a couple of weeks later than the average – though warm weather in June, and additional warm periods again in August and September allowed grapes to catch up. And while there was a lot of precipitation during the growing season, according to Penachetti, “it came in short bursts and was never followed by hot, humid weather. Instead, it was almost always brisk and sunny after the rain, which minimized disease pressure and allowed for quick drying”.

It remains to be seen how the later reds will fair. “We are enjoying a great fall that has helped us catch up with a cool summer, but patience is still the name of the game this year especially for reds”, cautions J-L Groux of Stratus, well known for harvesting his reds into November even in warm years. “We now have great Chards, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Rieslings in the winery but reds will be a November affair”. Michèle Bosc of Château des Charmes is optimistic: “thus far we have been delighted at the maturity of the fruit, and if the forecast is to be believed we could be equally as delighted with the late reds as we are with the whites/early reds.”

Prince Edward County

In Prince Edward County where virtually all varieties (early ripening grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay) have been picked, Rosehall Run’s Dan Sullivan reports a more challenging growing season. Frequent disease pressure required attentive canopy management, but Sullivan has similar enthusiasm regarding quality, thanks to a late season period of warm, dry weather. “Although the year started late with a bud break 10-14 days later than 2012, the season really picked up speed and the generally glorious weather over the last month has made the vintage” he says. Bruno François of The Old Third describes conditions in September and early October as “absolutely perfect for viticulture”.

The ever optimistic Norm Hardie makes the claim that 2013 is “the best yet”, while Sullivan, although reluctant to make as definitive a prediction, states that “it’s fair to say we expect the 2013 vintage to be very good to excellent. Our Chardonnay and Pinot (667 clone in particular) are some of the best I’ve seen in my 10 crushes at Rosehall Run.”

Stay tuned, and join winemakers in a little prayer for sun.

Taste Ontario

While we’re waiting for our first tastes of the 2013s, here are some recommended current releases available at the LCBO or direct from the winery:

Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc De BlancCharles Baker Riesling Ivan Vineyard 20122012 Charles Baker Wines Charles Baker Ivan Vineyard ($27.00)

Baker has done a fine job with the Ivan Vineyard in 2012, the best from this site to date. He seems to have coaxed an extra dimension of minerality from the vines while maintaining freshness, vibrancy and verve. I like the palpable astringency, from low yielding vines and genuine concentration no doubt, capturing the ripeness of 2012 without any hint of heaviness or sweetness. The finish lingers on admirably. This might just give the generally superior Picone Vineyard bottling a run for the money this year. Best now-2020+.

2008 Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc de Blanc ($44.95)

A fine, tight, bracing, dry bubbly that takes its place alongside the best of the province, but patience required. The 2008 is considerably more tart, lean and austere then the inaugural 2007, accurately reflecting the far cooler vintage conditions, and I suspect this will continue to age, and improve, slowly in the bottle and ultimately outlast the first edition. I’d tuck this in the cellar for another year or two minimum to allow some softening and evolution.

Fielding Estate Cabernet Franc 2011Rosewood Select Series Semillon 20122012 Rosewood Estates Winery Select Series Semillon ($18.00)

The 2012 Semillon from Rosewood steps it up a notch (or two) from the 2011, offering considerably more ripeness and depth, with fruit moving into the tropical spectrum: pineapple, melon, and guava. There’s also a fine blast of fresh lime-citrus to freshen up the ensemble, along with a plush and flavour-rich mid-palate. A top-notch effort from Ontario with this rather rare and difficult grape, but one that proves that it can be done in the right sites with the right handling.

2011 Fielding Estate Winery Cabernet Franc ($21.95)

Fielding delivers a classic cool climate cabernet franc in 2011, complete with fresh cut grass, wet hay, damp earth and roasted green pepper. Wood has been used to good effect to fill in some flavour gaps, adding its smoky, spicy, meaty nuances, while the palate is medium-full, fresh and lively, with firm dusty tannins but more than enough fruit and other flavours to see this through to positive evolution. Best after 2015.

2011 Thomas Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir, St. David’s Bench ($53.95)

Bachelder’s 2011 Lowery Vineyard pinot from one of the oldest pinot sites on the escarpment offers a delightful nose of cinnamon-spiced cherries and cranberry chutney, ably integrating old barrel spice with fine fruit concentration in this challenging vintage. I think he’s nailed this one on the head with the supple, rich texture, yet structured palate, with moderate tannins fully enveloped in fruit extract. The length and flavour depth are also exceptional. Lovely wine, for drinking now, or hold up to a half dozen years or so.

Malivoire M2 Small Lot Gamay 2012Lailey Cabernet Franc 20112011 Lailey Vineyard Wines Cabernet Franc ($25.00)

Here’s a fragrant pure, complex and inviting wine from Derek Barnett that surpasses expectations for the price category. There’s a fine mix of high-toned red and black fruit, floral, fresh tobacco leaf and delicate baking spice nuances that come together nicely. The palate delivers substantial flavour and length on a light to mid-weight frame, with lively acids and fine-grained tannins. Terrific length for the money.

2012 Malivoire Wine Company Small Lot Gamay ($19.75)

An arch-typical, zesty, cold cream and tart red berry-flavoured gamay from specialists Malivoire, whose gamays are, year in and year out, among the best in the country. I love the bright, crunchy currant and pomegranate flavours, the black pepper and the saliva-inducing acids. Fine length, too. Well worth a look for fans of the grape/genre.

Bordeaux 2010

There is much hype surrounding the Bordeaux 2010s, which along with 2009 and 2005 are considered the best vintages of the last decade, if not the last thirty years. For a more comprehensive view, see Sara d’Amato and Julian Hitner’s posting from February of this year.

To sum up, the 2010s are tight, firm and unyielding. Compared to the 2009s, they are downright austere. Indeed, 2010 couldn’t be more different than 2009. Whereas the 2009s are all about plush fruit and supple tannins in an immediately seductive style, 2010 was an extreme, drought-ridden growing season influenced by the El Niño weather pattern. A cool August and September kept acidities high, while water stress resulted in shriveled berries, robust tannins, high alcohol and big concentration overall. In a positive light, these are wines that will age slowly over the long term. But for all but the most basic bottles, forget about them for at least half a dozen years.

There are just under a dozen 2010s to be released on October 26th, all under $30 and mostly from satellite appellations, so it’s not a representative collection of the top stuff. But it’s enough to get a sense of how austere and unfriendly some wines are. Raisined fruit flavours were a frequent feature, along with high alcohols (15% alc Bordeaux?) and the occasional exaggerated use of wood flavour. But to be fair, I’d say that it’s a tough period of evolution in which to be tasting these, and I had the sense that many wines, even at entry price points, were going through a ‘dumb’ (non-expressive) stage. It will be fascinating to follow them as they age.

Here’s a short list of the Château that seemed to have managed the stress well, yielding balanced, albeit well structured wines. Click to read full reviews, and note the recommended drink from and to dates.

2010 Château Rahoul, AC Graves ($29.95)

2010 Château De Maison Neuve, Montagne Saint-Émilion ($19.95)

2009 Château Reynon, AC Premières Côtes de Bordeaux ($23.85)

2010 Château La Couronne, AC Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($24.95)

2010 Château Doms, AC Graves ($17.00)

John Szabo, A Master Class

I hope you can join me at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo for an insider’s tour through the world of wine. I’ve selected an outstanding lineup of up-and-coming grapes, regions, producers and styles – the stuff you wouldn’t likely know about unless you are immersed in the wine trade – that are ripe for discovery. Pick up some tips on how to taste, serve and pair wine and food like a master sommelier along the way. See more details and get your tickets here.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the October 26, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
Bordeaux Selections
All Reviews

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!


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for August 31, 2013

90+ Wines and TIFF Champagne

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s still the time of year for patio/lakeside/poolside lounging, so I’ll cut right to the cork pulling. The August 31st VINTAGES release presents the annual “90 point+” theme, intended to ease the end of summer blues. At certain prices, say above $30, one would expect no less; below that and things get even more interesting. Ten of the new releases hit the mark for me, including three above $30 that are well into the “+” zone, and seven fine values under $27. Any of these wines will add an extra few degrees and minutes of sunlight to your day.

Burgundy delivers three excellent wines – a region familiar to lovers of subtlety, elegance and the taste of rocks (even if not always the source of top values). Maison Champy’s 2010 Pernand-Vergelesses En Caradeux 1er Cru ($49.95), is one of the best wines I’ve had from the house in recent memory. En Caradeux is a fine, cool premier cru, on a perfectly east-facing slope opposite Corton Charlemagne, delivering here in 2010 a wonderfully nutty, leesy, generously oak influenced white Burgundy, still a couple of years away from prime drinking, with considerable concentration and grippy texture, not to mention terrific length, all held together by scintillating acids. This is tidy stuff.

Louis Jadot Beaune Boucherottes 1er Cru 2010Jean Marc Brocard Sainte Claire Vieilles Vignes Chablis 2011Champy Pernand Vergelesses En Caradeux 1er Cru 2010Biodynamic producer Jean-Marc Brocard’s 2011 Chablis Sainte Claire Vieilles Vignes ($24.95) is a terrific village Chablis issued from a south-facing parcel of 60 year-old vines on classic Kimmeridgian limestone. The result is a textbook, lean, crunchy green fruit and chalky-mineral example, with a touch of the cheese rind flavour I associate with classic Chablis (organically farmed, wild fermented, full malolactic). Length and depth are very good to excellent, plus there’s evident concentration and complexity in spades.

Fans of classic red Burgundy should consider the 2010 Louis Jadot Beaune Boucherottes 1er Cru ($52.95). 2010 was made by legendary winemaker Jacques Lardière, who produced 42 vintages for Maison Jadot from 1970 to 2012. It also marks the first vintage for Frédéric Barnier, who is taking over from Lardière as Technical Director of Jadot. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting several times with Lardière over the years, most recently this past July as he passed through Toronto on a final tour at the helm of Maison Jadot.

Jacques Lardière

Jacques Lardière and Lifford’s Arlene Ray

Lardière is unquestionably one of the most unforgettable characters in the world of wine, whose mystical language has both baffled and enthralled several generations of wine professionals. He has often been heard speaking about the “vibrations of the mother rock” and the “demineralization of soil”, “energy spirals” and the “animation of terroir”. And while a precise understanding of his philosophy remains somewhat elusive to me (and many others), what is clear is that the top wines from Louis Jadot are among the best and most consistent in Burgundy. They’re never the most flashy or obvious, but rather suffused with subtlety, originality and, well, vibrational energy.

As he steps down, what Lardière hopes for is that “people will preserve typicité”, and that “they will stop certain techniques that impoverish the many terroir expressions of Burgundy”. “When you name places – and it’s a nominative process –” says Lardière, “you must produce something different from them [the many climats/crus of Burgundy]”. And in characteristic humility, he also hopes that “in future that people won’t say we’re drinking a “Jacques Lardière” wine, but rather a XXXX [fill in the vineyard name].”

Boucherottes is one of my favorite 1er Crus from Beaune, and the 2010 expression from Jadot highlights all of its elegance, class and refinement. It’s still of course quite tightly wound aromatically, and the palate is yet firm and dusty, but there’s no mistaking the energy and verve, delicacy yet intensity, on display. Revisit this wine lovers’ vintage sometime after 2016, and be sure to say you’re enjoying a Boucherottes, and not a pinot noir made by Jacques Lardière.

Pierre Amadieu Romane Machotte Gigondas 2011Zind Humbrecht Turckheim Riesling 2010Rounding out the French selections, the 2010 Zind Humbrecht Turckheim Riesling ($26.95) and 2011 Pierre Amadieu Romane Machotte Gigondas ($24.95) are both classic expressions of their grapes and regions. Zind Humbrecht’s Turckheim Riesling is a rare sub-$30 wine from this premium and storied house, which sacrifices little of the quality of the more expensive bottlings. It’s tight, essentially dry and very minerally, honest and pure, with terrific intensity and stoniness for the money. Amadieu’s Gigondas is a rich, balanced, fresh and lively southern Rhône red from a “lighter” vintage, well measured, with all elements in adequate or even substantial doses.

A pair of smart Californian chardonnays is worth a look this week, albeit from different ends of the price and style spectrum. Those leaning towards more refined expressions will be most impressed by the 2011 Kistler Les Noisetiers Chardonnay ($76.95). Somewhat ironically, considering the cool, wet, troublesome vintage conditions in general, the 2011 is a terrific vintage for Kistler’s Les Noisetiers, a blend of Sonoma Coast vineyards. It manages to balance vibrancy and freshness with density and richness – a tough act to get right. And while there’s notable high quality oak influence, it’s melded into ripe orchard fruit and supported by crackling underlying acidity. A classy, elegant, and concentrated wine all around.

Kistler Les Noisetiers Chardonnay 2011Gallo Family 2009 Laguna Vineyard ChardonnayGallo Family 2009 Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($19.95), on the other hand, is for fans of the more classic Californian style of super ripe, heavily toasty-oaky chardonnay. This shows masses of honeyed caramel and barley sugar on the palate, with creamy texture very good to excellent length and concentration. At $20, it has to be said that this is a terrific buy in the style category.

The southern hemisphere also contributes three excellent reds to this weeks smart buys list:

2011 Achaval Ferrer Malbec ($24.95) is a pure, classy, refined, blue fruit-inflected version of malbec from Mendoza, with well above average class, finesse and elegance. Tannins are tamed and refined, acids are juicy and balanced, and there’s a saltiness on the palate that engenders saliva and encourages additional sips.

Thornbury Pinot Noir 2010Nugan Estate Mclaren Parish Vineyard Shiraz 2010Achaval Ferrer Malbec 20112010 Nugan Estate Mclaren Parish Vineyard Shiraz, McLaren Vale ($24.95) is an intense, eucalyptus-inflected, jammy blue and black fruit-flavoured Aussie Shiraz, with no holds barred. This is thick enough to cut with a knife, with concentration that requires patience – leave this in the cellar for 3-5 years for all of these disparate elements to integrate.

2010 Thornbury Pinot Noir, Central Otago ($24.95) is a dense and dark, savoury, black cherry-scented example of New Zealand Pinot Noir, certainly more Côte de Nuits-like to make an overused analogy, with an intriguing mix of leafy black berry fruit, earth and spice lashed to a fullish, supple yet substantial frame, with good to very good length. It’s a smart buy for pinot lovers of all stripes and styles.

Champagne at TIFF

And finally, August 31st puts a mini-focus on champagnes to guide you on this essential TIFF party-going accessory. All of the red carpet, A-list specials are presented – Dom Pérignon, Cristal, Laurent-Perrier Rosé, and others. If your goal is to impress with luxury brand names, than look no further (and these wines are certainly excellent to be sure). But if your MO favors value and originality, seek out some of the less pricey and often more interesting bottles from small grower houses. One Ontario agent in particular, Groupe Soleil, has made a specialty of these specialty champagnes, currently representing fourteen different houses. You’ll find names like André Clouet, R&L Legras, Bereche & Fils, David Leclapart, Jacquesson & Fils, Guy Charlemagne, Agrapart, and Laherte, among other artisanal, non-household name producers in this well-researched and smartly curated portfolio.

Other agents trading in quality grower champagne include Le Sommelier (Gatinois), Rogers & Co. (Vilmart, Chiquet), Trialto (Pierre Gimonnet), The Living Vine (Fleury), Barrel Select (Veuve Fourny), Le Caviste (Louise Brisson), and The Case for Wine (Château de Bligny). I have tasted from all of these houses and can recommend with confidence. Bring one of theses and you could become known in the “in” crowd as the discoverer of the next greatest (champagne) star. Check availability and pricing directly with the agents.

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links 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 Aug 31, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

Jacques Lardière Photo Credit: Andrew Sainsbury, Lifford Wine & Spirits


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 11, 2013

Rosé; The Doctor Recommends; Highlights From Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report features a handful of rosés that shine above the rest for their quality/value/pleasure. Few producers take rosé production seriously, and finding the good stuff is like panning for gold. My selection includes a shiny range from $13 to $27; all are dry. I’ve nothing against sweet pinks – they’re great for spritzers. I also highlight a naturally low alcohol white made by a medical doctor in New Zealand who believes he’s hit on an innovative method (patent pending) to achieve full flavor at under 10% ABV, saving countless calories, livers and maybe even marriages. And the Top Ten Smart Buys this week include two astonishingly good $50 wines, which, if they hailed from Burgundy, Bordeaux or Napa, would easily cost in the $100s, plus a whole lot more. Read on.

Perilous Rosé

I know that rosé is a perilous category for wine consumers, fraught with the frustrations of trying to find what you’re looking for out of a jumble of radically different styles all lopped under the same loose heading. It’s kind of like tossing all fruits into one bin at the grocery store and letting shoppers muddle through, only they’re blindfolded and each fruit is wrapped in newspaper. Grab and hope. You’re as likely to find a green apple when looking for a juicy peach, or an avocado instead of a mango. So what can you do to navigate these murky waters? Not much I’m afraid, except find somebody you can trust who’s already tasted the wine, or stick to the regions and producers for whom rosé is not an afterthought or by-product of red wine, or worse yet, the dreaded “brand extension”. If you enjoy dry rosé with some authentic regional character, these are for you:

2012 Muga Rosé ($12.95). Garnacha, tempranillo and viura are blended in this well-priced, dry and lively rosé. 2012 was a warm and dry year in Rioja, conditions under which garnacha thrive. Muga’s vineyards in the cooler, higher elevations of the Rioja Alta also contributed to maintaining the impeccable balance here, and while this may be slightly riper than previous vintages, it’s still lean and crisp with low alcohol. Perfect for patios and paellas.

Muga Rosé 2012Château La Tour De L'évêque Rosé 2012Château Léoube Rosé De Léoube 2011No other region in the world is more closely associated with quality rosé than Provence in the south of France, and it’s still the source of the world’s best in my view. Château La Tour De l’Évêque makes regular appearances in Canadian stores and the 2012 Rosé ($18.95) is an arch-classic, dry, savoury, solidly built and concentrated example without sacrificing refreshment.

Taking it up a notch into a rarefied quality level for rosé is the 2011 Château Léoube “Rosé de Léoube” ($26.95); available through the agent The Case For Wine. Léoube is a 550 hectare property of dramatic beauty, nestled within sight of the Mediterranean with 62 hectares of organically farmed vineyards surrounded by forests and wild scrub. The English owners of Léoube launched Daylesford Organic foods in the UK over 25 years ago, so respect for the land runs deep in the house philosophy. Château Léoube’s winemaker is Romain Ott, originally of the highly respected Domaine Ott in Provence, who came to the property after the family estate was purchased by Champagne Roederer. He brings considerable experience to the Léoube project, with the know how to make rosé of the highest order. This classic blend of 40% Grenache, 40% cinsault and 10% each of syrah and mourvèdre is a rosé of considerable depth and class. Pale in colour but deep in flavour, it delivers a marvelous fragrance of white flowers, sweet herbs and fresh strawberry, while the palate offers a harmonious balance of acids and alcohol (13%), just hitting perfect drinking stride now. It’s a compelling example of how some time in bottle can do wonders for classically structured rosé, especially when built on genuine concentration rather than merely clever winemaking. Bottom line: it’s well worth the asking price.

Domaine Allimant Laugner Rosé Crémant d'AlsaceMas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé 2012Next door to Provence on the other side of the Rhône delta is the AOC of Costières de Nîmes, where the Marès family has been making wine for six generations. Mas Des Bressades 2012 Cuvée Tradition Rosé ($14.95) is a reliable blend of Grenache, syrah and cinsault made in a dry style, reminiscent of Tavel with its generous 13.5% alcohol and powerful fruit.

And rounding out these five picks is the Domaine Allimant-Laugner Rosé Crémant d’Alsace ($19.95), from a region admittedly not known for rosé, but very much worth a look nevertheless because the adjectives good, bubbly, pink and under $20 are rarely found in the same sentence. Hubert Laugner is the 10th generation in a succession of winemakers in the Allimant-Laugner family farming twelve hectares spread over three villages. The Crémant rosé is a traditional method bubbly made from pinot noir, designed to be enjoyed young and fruity. It’s bright and fragrant, with red berry, raspberry, cherry and green apple aromatics, balanced palate and very good length, offering lots of pleasure.

The Doctor Recommends

Drs. John and Brigid Forrest operate Forrest winery in Marlborough, New Zealand, and also own prime parcels in the Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay, Bannockburn in Central Otago and the Waitaki Valley. Considering the Forrests’ medical training – John spent eight years at the Salk Institute studying neurology – there’s an extra measure of scientific rigor applied to the wines, along with a great deal of empiricism: learning through experimentation and observation, which has lead to many innovative techniques and new wines. The range is indeed huge and would seem impossible to stay on top of, that is, until you meet this energetic and indefatigable couple, the kind of people that make you feel as though you should’ve accomplished more today.

Dr John Forrest

Dr John Forrest, Forrest winery

John and Brigid launched the Doctors’ range to represent their growing roster of alternative grapes like arneis, gruner veltliner and St. Laurent, and to label the results of innovative winemaking techniques that have led to wines like the 2011 Forrest Estate The Doctors’ Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95). This dry wine clocks in at a featherweight 9.5% alcohol, naturally achieved, without chemical or mechanical de-alcoholization.

My conversation with Dr. Forrest on his methods quickly surpassed my knowledge of plant biology/physiology, touching on concepts such as the splitting and deviations of carbon rings as the plant grows grows – this is clearly a process that Forrest has studied deeply. He has drawn upon work done at the Geisenheim Research in Germany, where Professor Hans Schultz has been investigating methods to maintain the traditionally low alcohol style of German riesling in the face of global warming. According to Dr. Forrest, the initial step is to carefully select sauvignon blanc clones from specific vineyards and microclimates. Then, methods of vine de-vigoration are applied, such as the targeted removal of young basal leaves from vines at critical times, which are far more efficient at photosynthesis, leaving the less efficient older leaves to do all of the ripening work. The result is lower sugar accumulation but longer hang time, allowing full flavour development with less potential alcohol. This, and other “top secret” viticultural techniques, as well as less secretive winemaking techniques such as using low-efficiency yeast strains that pump out less alcohol per gram of sugar, have enabled Forrest to create this dry 9.5% alcohol sauvignon naturally, a first of its kind to my knowledge.

Forrest Estate The Doctors' Sauvignon Blanc 2011Forrest first applied his techniques to riesling with tremendous commercial success before turning his sights on Marlborough’s calling card variety. The 2012 is the third and most successful attempt to date, a wine in which he finally achieved the balance he was looking for.  Forrest needed one last little tweak: the addition of a small portion of slightly overripe/late harvested sauvignon to add a tropical fruit nuance that was missing from the previous trials.

While the Doctors’ sauvignon blanc may not make the angels sigh, I find it remarkably flavourful nonetheless, not to mention regionally and varietally accurate, for such a low alcohol wine – I have to marvel at the ingenuity of its production and the commercial potential. For anyone who enjoys Marlborough sauvignon blanc, or any other zesty-herbal white, and wants a low alcohol alternative with fewer calories and lower alcohol-related health (and moving violation) risks, this is worth trying. Forrest plans to share his research with others later this year.

Highlights From Top Ten Smart Buys

In this week’s top ten I’ve included two wines that are well above the price range normally recommended: 2010 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg ($50.00) and 2007 Manzone Gramolere Barolo ($51.95). The reason is simple: these are great value wines, period.

Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2010Manzone Gramolere Barolo 2007The Schlossberg riesling is made by one of the most respected domaines in Alsace, from the world’s most noble white grape, grown in one of the top vineyard sites for the variety in all of northern Europe, in a classic vintage. $50 is actually a bargain. The 2010 is a pure marvel of the grape with a palpably gritty texture, riveting acids and striking salty minerality – this is all about vineyard expression with a minimum of winemaking interference. Be forewarned that this is not an immediately accessible wine, but rather one for both long ageing in the cellar and for terroir fanatics – a real intellectual challenge in the best sense. But those are precisely the qualities one looks for in premium wines – the fruity fluffy stuff can be made just about anywhere by anyone. (This wine is available in VINTAGES Classics Catalogue from February, so supply may be limited.)

I have a similar pitch for the Barolo: an historic estate making limited quantities of wine from Italy’s most aristocratic red grape grown in the legendary hilltop vineyard Gramolere in Monforte d’Alba, in a top, age-worthy vintage. ‘Nuff said. It’s just starting to open nicely now on the nose, showing its evident class and quality right off the top and textbook floral, red fruit, licorice, tar and violet aromatics. The palate is firm and very well structured, with wave after wave of palate-coating flavour and pleasantly grippy texture. It’s an expansive wine of genuine concentration and authentic complexity that can only derive from a unique combination of suitable conditions, i.e., a terroir wine.

Although $50 is a lofty price to pay for any bottle, I have to say that relative to the equivalent top wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Napa Valley for example, you could argue that these are outright giveaways. I’d say it’s where the smart money goes if you’re into the premium category.

See below for the link to the rest of the top ten. You’ll find more smart white wine values from the Loire and the Mosel, one of my favorites whites from Campania, sturdy reds from Calabria, Spain and the Languedoc, and one of the best values from California I’ve encountered in some time.

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 to find all of John Szabo’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

From the May 11, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Rosé Selection
All Reviews


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 30, 2013: Southern France and Top Ten Smart Buys

This week’s report takes a look at the south of France and some of its key appellations, linked to recommended releases hitting the shelves of the LCBO on March 30th. If you’re planning to have lamb for Easter, the best of these savoury, sturdy French reds are a perfect fit. In fact, from bubbly to crisp whites and full-bodied reds, you could spend your entire Easter dinner in the south of France. The Top Ten Smart Buys this week include the release of Versado, Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble’s elegant interpretation of Argentine malbec, as well as a pair of volcanic and a pair of limestone-derived wines to taste and compare, among others. See them all below.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Touring in the Languedoc Roussillon

The focus of the LCBO’s March 30th release is southern France, and more specifically, the Languedoc-Roussillon. I’ve written much in the past on this swath of the Mediterranean that runs from the western side of the Rhône Valley all the way to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border, south of the Massif Central. It’s an area I know pretty well, having stayed for a summer just outside of Béziers while working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant called Chez Léonce in the tiny village of Florensac. It was the year France won the World Cup – 1998 – and I remember watching Zidane’s Cup winning goals against Brazil in the final on a tiny television we had installed in the kitchen. The restaurant, of course, was empty, save for a German couple on holiday who obviously had no reason to watch the game. The rest of France was glued to the TV – even the French took the night off from fine dining.

South of FranceThroughout the summer, during the staff meals after lunch service, Laurent, the sommelier at Chez Léonce, would bring out a handful of local wines for me to taste, tell me the stories behind the labels, and explain the differences between the various appellations. That’s how I was first introduced to AOCs like Corbières, Saint-Chinian and Picpoul de Pinet, which were little known even in France at the time, let alone in Canada. I thought then that the wines of the region were extraordinary values. Fifteen years later, picpoul has yet to become a household name, and the wines are still great values.

It’s curious that the wines of the neighboring Rhône Valley, which are very similar in style and use largely the same grapes as the Languedoc for whites, reds and rosés, have achieved so much more international recognition. It obviously helps to have a high-profile appellation like Châteauneuf-du-Pape drive the fortunes of an entire region. And Rhône wines also benefit no doubt from the legions of holidaymakers that pass through the region on their way down to the pastel shaded light and lavender perfume of Provence.

The wines of the Languedoc and Roussillon can be every bit as compelling as anything from the Rhône, but without an immediately recognizable appellation, and being generally off the beaten path of tourists, they’ve languished in the shadow of their neighbor in the south. Maybe there’s even some lingering suspicion that the Languedoc is still overrun with heretic Cathares, a Christian sect that was eradicated from Occitania in the Crusades of the 12th century. The name of the region, the Languedoc, after all, is derived from lingua d’Oc, “the country of the Occitan language”.

Heretic or crusader, if you’re seeking good value wines with distinct regional character and strong personality, the Languedoc is a smart place to be. Here are a few appellations to look for on shelves, along with recommended examples from the March 30th LCBO-Vintages release.

AOC/AOP Limoux

Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin BrutThe Limoux appellation lies about 25 km south of the walled medieval city of Carcassonne, nestled in the upper valley of the Aude department. The region is sheltered by the Pyrenees from the extremes of maritime influence, and enjoys a benevolent Mediterranean climate. Yet since vineyards sit at higher elevations than most of the rest of the Languedoc, cooler climate varieties thrive here. Chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and chenin blanc, for example, do better here on the clay-limestone plateaus than virtually anywhere else in the hot south of France.

Limoux’s most famous wine is sparkling, both in the ancestral and traditional methods. Blanquette de Limoux is reputed to be France’s first intentionally effervescent wine, produced a couple hundred years before Dom Pérignon did his pioneering work on how to stop the bubbles from forming in his wine. Sparkling from Limoux comes in three types: Crémant, a traditional method wine from chardonnay and chenin blanc, Blanquette, also a traditional method from at least 90% mauzac, and Blanquette Methode Ancestrale, a 100% mauzac bottled before the primary fermentation has finished, thus the wine retains some bubbles, though it’s less effervescent than the traditional method. It’s also often a little cloudy, slightly sweet and low in alcohol.

One to try: Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Brut Blanquette De Limoux ($16.95). An enjoyable bubbly with the typically appley flavours of the mauzac grape used and pleasant toasty-yeasty notes. Good length; nice value.

AOC/AOP Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet

Jeanjean Ormarine Picpoul De PinetPicpoul de Pinet refers to the picpoul grape, an ancient Mediterranean variety whose name means literally “tongue stinger” thanks to its high natural acid, which grows around the town of Pinet and surrounding communes, a stone’s throw from the sea. It’s considered a cru of the greater AOP Languedoc. Picpoul is the wine we served at Chez Léonce with the raw seafood and shellfish platter, harvested from the nearby Thau basin. It’s a lemony, zesty, crisp and fresh white that many consider the Muscadet of the south.

One to try: 2011 Ormarine Picpoul De Pinet ($12.95)

AOC/AOP Corbières

Château De Treviac 2010Corbières is the Languedoc’s largest appellation, with 13,500ha under vine. It stretches from the gates of Carcassonne to the sea, and from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the base of the Montagne Noire. It’s not surprising that no fewer than eleven distinct terroirs have been identified. The area is wild and sparsely populated, and most of the land is covered either by vines or the highly perfumed Mediterranean scrub brush known as garrigue. Often dominated by carignan, the best of the Corbières reds have an attractively savage and savoury profile, full of garrigue aromas and spicy black fruit. Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault make of the rest of the blend.

One to try: 2010 Château De Treviac Ap Corbières ($15.95)

This is smoky and savoury with lots of fresh-turned earth and garrigue spice, dense and full on the palate, reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and as such, a nice little value. Drink lightly chilled to tone down the alcohol.

AOC/AOP Minervois

Château Agnel Cuvée Philippe MinervoisThe Minervois is another large region that forms an amphitheatre bordered by the Canal du Midi to the south, the Montagne Noire to the north, and bounded to the east and west by the cities of Narbonne Carcassonne. Four rivers, the Clamoux, Argent Double, Ognon and the Cesse all tumble down from the Montagne Noire to join the Aude and, over time, have carved out a series of terraces. Terroirs vary between stones, clays, schist, limestone and clay marls. One ‘cru’ has been officially identified: Minervois La Livinière, but more could soon follow.

I find the wines of the Minervois to be among the more polished of the Languedoc – there’s a critical mass of modern-leaning producers, relying heavily of the ‘cépages améliorateurs’ the grapes such as syrah and mourvèdre, introduced into the Languedoc in order to improve the quality of local wine relative to the product of some of the lesser varieties left over from the days of mass bulk wine production. Rosé, white and sweet wines are produced, but the highlights are most often red.

One to try: 2009 Château Agnel Cuvée Philippe Minervois ($15.95)

This is a delicious, spiced cherry-flavoured, zesty, firm red, reminiscent of Italian/Piedmontese dolcetto with its chunky tannins and saliva-inducing acidity. Try with rustic grilled merguez sausages.

AOC/AOP Saint Chinian

Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des CombesSaint Chinian is northwest of Béziers in the Hérault department, at the foot of the Massif du Caroux. It is in reality at least two separate terroirs divided by the Rivers Orb and the Varnazobres. Limestone is the story in the south, producing, fine, perfumed reds from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. In the north, it’s practically all schist and sandstone with little water retention, stressing the vines and yielding much firmer, more structured and minerally reds. For my money, Saint Chinian from the northern zone, along with neighboring AOP Faugères, are among the south of France’s most terroir-driven and identifiable reds.

One to try: 2010 Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes ($17.95)

The village of Roquebrun, perched on a small plateau in the foothills of the Massif du Caroux, gives its name to an official sub-appellation in the northern zone of St. Chinian. High elevation vineyards with a big diurnal temperature shift yield balanced, finely etched wines with abundant minerality. This example is a syrah-led blend with mourvèdre and Grenache. It’s highly perfumed and smoky-savoury, with marked floral components, zinc oxide, black pepper and other intriguing mineral notes, while the palate is fullish, balanced, with fresh acidity, integrated (14%) alcohol, and firm, fine, sandy tannins. This has style, class and regional character in spades – a terrific value.

For more information on wines from Southern France, visit http://www.sud-de-france.com. If you’re still up for more exploring see my full list of recommended southern French reds from the March 30th release.

Top Ten Smart Buys

Versado Arrives!

Versado Malbec 2010Versado Reserva Malbec 2009Well worth pointing out is the long-awaited release of Versado, the Argentine project of Canadians Ann Sperling (Southbrook, Sperling Family Vineyards), her highly respected consulting husband Peter Gamble, and local guru Roberto de la Mota. Their 2010 Versado Malbec ($24.95) delivers on the promise of refinement and class from high elevation vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo sub-region of Mendoza. This is finely structured, with light wood spice, fine-grained but grippy tannins, lively acids and moderate alcohol (13.8%) and very good length. But more importantly, infinitely drinkable.

A definite step up in both price and quality is their 2009 Versado Reserva Malbec ($59.95). It’s a rare Argentine ‘reserve’ malbec that doesn’t sacrifice drinkability for raw power and excessive ripeness/wood flavour. This is certainly dense, rich and compact, and still some ways from prime drinking, yet it retains a sense of proportion and balance, with sufficient fruit intensity to match the tannic structure, and fresh, natural and integrated acids. It’ll be best after 2015 I’d suspect.

Volcanic Wines

Elsewhere, there’s a fine range of values arriving on March 30th. In the spirit of terroir, here are two smart buys from volcanic soils:

2008 Donato D’angelo Aglianico Del Vulture ($20.95) and 2010 I Campi Campo Vulcano Soave Classico ($18.95).

Donato D'angelo Aglianico Del VultureI Campi Campo Vulcano Soave Classico 2010Domaine Fouassier Les Grands Groux SancerreChavet & Fils La Dame De Jacques Coeur Menetou

Limestone Wines

Compare the volcanic wines with this pair of sauvignons from limestone soils: 2010 Domaine Fouassier Les Grands Groux Sancerre ($24.95) and 2011 Chavet & Fils La Dame De Jacques Coeur Menetou-Salon Blanc ($19.95). What speaks louder: soil, grape, or winemaker?

Also in the top ten smart buys you’ll find an excellent 2009 Bordeaux for the cellar, a pair of Spanish reds that neatly define the old and new schools, a superb value chardonnay from New Zealand, perhaps that country’s most underrated variety, and an old vines local Riesling that consistently over-delivers vintage after vintage. See them all with the links below.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 30, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Southern France Selections
All Reviews


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 2, 2013

New Zealand Industry Strengths & Challenges; California and Southern Italian Discoveries and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud: New Zealand.

Three sunny summer weeks and a few thousand kilometers later and I’ve scratched deeply into the surface of a country that occupies a place of growing importance in the world of fine wine. Over a mere three decades, New Zealand has earned an envious international reputation for its high average quality wine production, now widely exported to all of the world’s major markets. Sauvignon blanc, mainly from Marlborough, remains the country’s calling card. But the real story, of course, runs much deeper. Read below for some observations on the industry.

And since I was in New Zealand during the media tasting for the March 2nd release, I was able to taste only about half of the new wines on offer. The features are California and Central-Southern Italy, and there are some fine discoveries from each, which I’ve folded into the top ten smart buys.

California Discoveries

Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay 2010Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Those familiar with Frog’s Leap won’t consider this a ‘discovery’, but others unaccustomed to Napa cabernet with moderate alcohol, fresh fruit flavours and even a hint of herbal-green flavour might be pleasantly shocked by the 2010 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($56.95). This winery has long espoused a balanced, fresh, lively style (it’s also farmed organically), and this 2010 is indeed fresh and succulent, with genuinely juicy acids and balanced alcohol (13.9%), not to mention terrific length. Most importantly, this wine gives you the desire to come back for another sip.

In a similar fashion, devotees of balanced and crisp, minerally chardonnay will be pleased with the 2010 Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay ($29.95). Chalone is a perennial favorite for its classy, restrained style, and this 2010 is refreshingly crisp with mouth-watering acids and remarkable flavour intensity, lingering on chalky-limestone minerality. It’s enjoyable now, or hold for a half-dozen years or so.

Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010Vina Robles White 4 2010Quality pinot noir from anywhere in the world under $20 is a rarity, making this 2010 Bonterra Pinot Noir from Mendocino County ($19.95) all the more memorable. Don’t expect a life-changing experience, but this organically grown, mid-weight example is pure and inviting and varietally accurate, with lightly dusty tannins and balanced acidity – a perfect mid-week sort of pinot.

Of the discovery wines from the Central Coast area, the 2010 Vina Robles White 4 ($18.95) is worth a look. It’s an original blend of viognier, verdelho, sauvignon blanc and vermentino, surprisingly subtle on the nose, though the palate picks up the flavour intensity. It’s nicely balanced and contained overall, showing generous but balanced alcohol (14.2%), and above average length.

Central and Southern Italy Smart Buys

Terrelíade Nirà Nero d'AvolaSelvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico 2009Choose carefully from the Italian feature. Vintages has unearthed a few authentic, genuine Italian treasures alongside some undistinguished, internationally styled commercial wines aimed, one supposes, at drawing non-Italian wine drinkers into the category. Topping my list for regional character and value is the 2009 Selvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico ($15.95). This is a wine with a real sense of volcanic minerality; you can clearly taste the rusty iron, tar, scorched earth-like soil profile, allied to tart red and black cherry fruit and dried herbs-pot-pourri-faded flowers. Tannins are fierce and grippy, giving this a distinctively rustic, old world structure. It’s categorically not a fruity wine, but a terrific value for fans of unique, terroir-driven wines. Cellar 2-3 years, or serve with hard cheese or grilled lamb.

The 2010 Terrelíade Nirà Nero d’Avola ($18.95) is made in a similar, if less dramatically rustic vein, tailor-made for grilled or braised game meats. It’s intriguingly spicy and herbal, like roasted green pepper, with black licorice, dried leaves and spiced black cherry fruit. The tannins are also tough and rustic, but coated by generous alcohol (14.5%), balancing the palate and adding succulence.

And other March 2 Smart Buys

Te Awa Chardonnay 2010Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe ChardonnayOther smart buys worth pointing out include a pair of cool chardonnays: the 2010 Te Awa Chardonnay ($18.95) and 2011 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay ($21.95). It’s not a stretch to say that the wines from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and those from the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of the Niagara Peninsula share some commonalities. Both areas are slightly warmer than the relative mean, and tend to produce fairly generous and round styles while still respecting the cool climate idiom.

Southbrook has really nailed it on the head with this 2011, moving away from a more oxidative/wood-inflected style to an example that’s axed on ripe orchard fruit flavours, even honeydew melon and pineapple tropical fruit, while still maintaining a sense of cool climate restraint. The palate is pure, flavourful, effortlessly balanced with very good length and little wood influence. Te Awa’s example is likewise a classy, elegant and refined barrel-aged chardonnay at an attractive price, in which citrus, orchard fruit and judicious oak intermingle on a balanced frame of acids and alcohol.

Marqués De Cáceres Gran Reserva 2004And finally I might be accused of hoarding were I not to draw your attention to the 2004 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva Rioja ($29.95). The Spanish tradition of releasing wines at maturity is largely under-appreciated in a world where the younger and fresher, the better it is. Gran reservas by law can’t be released until their 6th year from vintage, and this eight-year-old wine is in brilliant drinking form right now, with no need for further cellaring (though you can certainly hold onto this for another decade without pushing the limits). It’s a refined, complex, elegant wine, but what I most appreciate is the fine balance between old and new school styles – this sits comfortably between the two, and it’s just about perfect as such. (See my full list of Top Ten Smart Buys here).

Pinot 2013

My visit to New Zealand was occasioned by the 5th edition of the Kiwi’s celebrated Pinot Noir NZ conference, a triennial affair that attracts a huge delegation of local and international journalists, importers, sommeliers and winemakers. Such has been the success of the conference that it’s enough to mention “I’m going to Pinot” in wine circles, and the meaning is clear. That’s no small feat for a country that had no pinot noir, nor virtually any other vine planted for that matter, prior to the early 1970s.

Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Opening Ceremony
Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Following are some observations, including some strengths and challenges ahead for the New Zealand wine industry as I see it. I’m in the process of posting over 300 New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign from the tastings over those three weeks (even though I tasted many more wines than that), some from the pinot conference itself, others from prior and subsequent visits to wineries on both the North and South Island. My April 13th report will sketch out the major regions with a focus on pinot noir, along with profiles of recommended producers and their top wines, so stay tuned, and colleague David Lawrason who was also in New Zealand has many more reviews, observations, and regional reports to share. And finally, if you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand. Read it on WineAlign at: On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand.

New Zealand: Industry strengths

New Zealand has experienced unquestionable growth in the last twenty years. In 1991, just 12% of wine production was exported. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 70%, with major markets in the UK, Australia and the US (Canada purchases 3% of NZ’s production). There are now over 700 wineries across the country, farming a total of just over 34,000ha, almost exactly the same size as Champagne, a considerable area. Success has been swift and abundant, and here are some of the explanations why.

Minor variations on a theme of terroir

Winery owners and marketers are quick to play the uniqueness and diversity card, as well they should – it’s a sine qua non these days to sell wine at premium prices. But the reality is that New Zealand is not France or Italy, which can be considered an advantage. By this I mean that despite slight variations in climate and soils, New Zealand wines on the whole occupy a relatively small stylistic sphere, focusing on a select few varieties, unlike France or Italy. New Zealand is much more uniform.

The climate is cool. Even in the warmest regions like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, the temperature rarely breaks 30ºC. It get’s much hotter in Southern Ontario. The secret to a reliable grape crop lies not with heat but with the relatively dry climate, thanks to the rain shadow effect produced by the stretch of mountains that form the backbone of the country from the North to the South Island. All of the country’s vineyards lie on the east side of the ranges where rainfall is moderate – the west side can see as much as eight or nine meters of rain per year. Sunlight is also unusually intense, with high UV due to the thin layer of Ozone over this part of the planet. Thus sunny, dry, cool, conditions prevail in the majority of regions, with long growing seasons.

The net result is stylistic similarity across grapes: the cabernet blends are invariably more Bordeaux than Napa, the syrah more Rhône than Barossa, the pinot and chardonnay more Burgundy than California. This in turn allows New Zealand to present their wines as a collection of variations on a similar theme, rather than a hodge-podge of radically varying styles sharing only a country code. All marketers know the power of a simple and consistent message; it’s much easier to get across than a complex one. What united message could France or Italy possibly put forth to the world, other than that of bewildering diversity?

One need only look to the obvious example of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and its wild success to see the benefits of consistency. Indeed, if anything negative could be said about Marlborough sauvignon it would be that’s been too successful at being consistent, with one brand barely distinguishable from another. (Interestingly, the way forward now in Marlborough is introducing more variation – more on this in an upcoming article).

Of course there are nuances between regions and producers, between the Wairau Valley and the Awatere valley of Marlborough, or limestone soils of North Canterbury and the schists of Central Otago. But initial success is based on consistency across a region.

Collaborative spirit

Winemaker's divebombing into Wellington Harbor

Winemaker’s divebombing into
Wellington Harbor

Another easy lesson of success is that of a collaborative spirit, evident at every turn in New Zealand (or at least internecine strife was well hidden). During Pinot2013, presentations were divided into regional groups. Producers gave the delegates a collective regional overview before the tastings each morning and afternoon, with several winemakers rising to speak for each region. For the most part, there was a real sense of mutual respect and deference between winemakers, and an understanding that the rising tide raises all boats. My hat’s off especially to the crew from Central Otago, who put together an informal, informative presentation delivered by at least a half-dozen (mostly barefoot), winemakers. There was a fun, unpretentious, let’s-get-together-and-show-the-world-what-we-do spirit that is often absent between producers in the same region, who consider themselves in competition with one-another.  The smart ones know that the competition is not with each other, but with the rest of the world. Divided they fall.

Access to market

Another of New Zealand’s strengths appears to be relative freedom from government intervention and open access to market. This is as much a comparative comment on the Ontario wine industry, which has been retarded by antiquated alcohol distribution laws and a quality-incompatible grape growers collective that protects prices, not quality, but the benefits for NZ producers should be outlined.

Like Canada, New Zealand, too, had it’s flirtation with prohibition, in fact a much more serious relationship with it than did Canada. Several NZ counties went fully dry for a period, and some still hold a referendum every three years to gauge the public’s position on the matter. But when the tide changed in the late 1960’s, it was a wholesale turnaround, not a halfway compromise as in Canada. Kiwis have been known for their radical and extreme social experiments on themselves.

Today, NZ wineries are free to distribute in restaurants, private shops, though their cellar door or export. In other words, each producer has equal opportunity access to market, a critical advantage that Canadians especially can appreciate. In order to build a solid export market, it’s critical to have strong following at home. In NZ you can ship a case of wine from the North to the South Island without obscene taxation, or sell in any shop that’s willing to carry your product. That’s something to be thankful for.

Sustainability

Finally, but not lastly, New Zealand as a country also enjoys an enviable international brand image of clean and green, a fact capitalized upon by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association in their key tag line “Pure Discovery”. New Zealand is indeed an environmentally conscious and beautiful country with an understanding of the importance of natural resources, the inescapable consequence of living on a remote Pacific Island. (And this despite early European settlers’ best efforts to chop down as many trees as possible to make way for sheep pasture.)

Stunning Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Stunning Rippon Vineyards
Central Otago

An initiative to encourage sustainable winegrowing was launched in the mid-1990’s, later called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, or SWNZ.  The key areas of focus were biodiversity; soil, water and air; energy; chemicals; byproducts; people; and business practices. The program has been highly successful: “Participation in SWNZ rose to almost 100% between the launch of the policy and the target date of 2012 — an estimated 94% or more of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area (accounting for approximately 90% of the wine produced) is now SWNZ certified. A further 3-5% of vineyard area operates under other certified organic programs.” (Source: www.nzwine.com/sustainability/) That’s pretty impressive.

Furthermore, wines from vintage 2010 on must have been produced under one of the recognized, independently audited, sustainability programs in order to participate in any of the New Zealand Winegrowers’ national and international marketing, promotional and awards events. Most of the growers I spoke with were very positive about the SWNZ program, and had been motivated to improve their business practices because of it. And once certified by SWNZ, the step to organic certification is considerably easier, so it’s expected that organic production will rise to almost 20% of the total by the end of the decade. New Zealand is certainly not the only country that has launched a sustainable scheme, but it is clearly one of the most successful. This is something that seems to resonate ever-more with consumers around the world.

Industry challenges

All industries have challenges, and New Zealand wine has a few obstacles ahead as I see it.

Profitability

In hand with the concept of sustainability is profitability. A winery that is not profitable is not sustainable. It’s more than a little alarming that several of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed producers, as I have been informed, are not turning a profit. Growing top quality wine is expensive anywhere, but particularly so in New Zealand. It’s a shockingly expensive country to live in, as I experienced first hand. How will these growers convince the market that their wines are worth enough to make them sustainable? Or will their top wines remain loss leaders, while lower end, volume wines pick up the tab, as seems to be happening in some Marlborough operations in particular? Again, this challenge is hardly unique to New Zealand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage. It would be a shame to see the industry consolidate around a safe low to middle-ground range of quality and deprive the rest of the world of some pretty amazing wines.

Relatively high production costs and the need to be sustainable lead to high prices. In regards to pinot noir in particular, prices are aggressive. Good quality, inexpensive pinot noir is hard to come by in any country, but the early promise that NZ pinot would fill in the gaping hole in the market left by Burgundy, namely in the $20-$30 price segment, has never been realized. It seems NZ prices went from zero straight to $35, at least for the good stuff, without stopping in between. Yet to sell for any less would most likely be unsustainable, not too mention that if you can sell in the home market for $50 or more from the cellar door, there’s little motivation to drop prices for export. How this will all work out remains to be seen. In any case, these wines will have to compete with the best from around the world.

In Defense of Deference

In reference to the point regarding the strength of wine style similarity, and the one above regarding profitability, it’s perhaps deference, or a combination of more experience, better understanding of terroir, and a healthy dose of deference that could well become the distinguishing factor that preserves the very top end of New Zealand wine. Matt Kramer’s now infamous thought-provoking (and anger-provoking, too, it seems) opening address for pinot2013, the 2+2=5 speech (actually entitled “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir”), brought the discussion of how to make truly great wine to the forefront of many subsequent talks, speeches and private discussions, so it obviously resonated. (See Alder Yarrows admirably accurate transcription of the speech on his website vinography and don’t miss the amusing, occasionally enraged comments of some readers).

While many seem to have missed the point of Kramer’s talk – it has nothing to do with religion, nor is it an anti-science manifesto, and still less any kind of comparison to Burgundy – Kramer essentially argues that complete and obsessive control over the entire winemaking process, from blocks of identical clones picked at uniform ripeness to a host of other possible manipulations to regularize production, can take you to four, that is, a very good wine. But to get 2+2 to equal five, at least with our current understanding of the unfathomably complicated set of inputs and outputs that result in wine, requires a bit of deference to nature, or terroir, or whatever you wish to call it. The factors that comprise greatness are as yet not fully measurable or quantifiable. Winemakers the world over could well produce more interesting results (along with less interesting results occasionally, too) by slacking off on the reins of control, and allowing for potential “imperfections” to actually make more meaningful wines. Beauty is often in the imperfect. Will New Zealand winemakers have the courage and faith in their terroir to ease off and give it a chance to speak? Authenticity and uniqueness have been proven to command high prices in the wine market.

What was also mostly lost in Kramer’s speech and in the bluster that followed, is the importance of the observer, in this case the drinker. The drinker has to be pre-disposed to believe in greatness in order to find it. There’s no inherent greatness, no ‘5”, in a concoction of molecules in a glass. No doubt most of the scientific community will disagree (see Dr. Jamie Goode’s thoughtful reflection on Kramer’s speech at wineanorak), but for many, I’d argue even most wine lovers, a little perceived mysticism makes for more enjoyment. Deference to a natural process is a better story than rigid adherence to a set of numbers. Clever wine salespeople rarely attempt to wow you with clonal numbers, measurements of brix and pH and titratable acidity. Winemakers in New Zealand and elsewhere can raise the bar on perceived quality with a judicious combination of scientifically sound and deference-imbued wines, and charge sustainably for them.

Cultural cringe

Also, it must be said, that New Zealanders suffer at times from cultural cringe, a common complex in post-colonial nations, an admission I heard frequently during my travels. As a Canadian I can relate; we too suffer at times from a feeling that our own culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries, or in this case, that our wines are not as good as theirs. As a backlash against the cringe, by the end of pinot2013, it became virtually taboo to even mention Burgundy in relation to NZ pinot noir. Panelists during the final tasting moderated by Tim Atkin were forewarned that any mention of Burgundy would result in an immediate red card (Atkin actually had a set of football style yellow and red cards with him). Only “the place that begins with a B”, or “the MS” (for Mother Ship), were permissible mentions.

It’s surely tiresome to always compare yourself to something else, but conscious and intentional avoidance of any comparisons whatsoever also invoke a bit of a cringe. In the specific case of New Zealand pinot, many of the wines are tremendous, and should have to neither seek out nor avoid bench-marking against other examples from anywhere else in the world. A diminishing cultural cringe and a growing sense of self-confidence borne by time should pave the way for a new and original method of communicating NZ wines to the world.

On the other hand, the flip side of cultural cringe is excessive back-slapping. Some winemakers expressed concern about the growing sense of complacency within the industry considering the already considerable success to date. Perhaps in this respect a little cringe is a good thing, since blinding yourself to everything else is a sure-fire way to cease learning and improving. Winemaking psychology, like fine wine itself, is a fine balance.

All in all, New Zealand’s strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and the future is bright. And I haven’t even really touched upon the actual quality of the wines. Suffice to search for the top scoring examples on WineAlign and let the wines do the talking. And don’t miss my report for this coming April 13 VINTAGES release, with a focus on New Zealand wines.

Cheers,

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


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Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009


Vancouver International Wine Festival


WineAlign VIP Access - Cuvée Weekend 2013

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Jan 19, 2013

Enigmatic Spain (and discovery picks); Top Ten Smart Buys; Best Bet from B.C.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The January 19 VINTAGES release puts the spotlight on Spain. But commercially speaking, the light has yet to really shine on the Iberian Peninsula, at least not a Canadian light. Spanish wines continue to be an enigma for most Ontario consumers and have failed thus far to perform here as they have elsewhere, notably in countries like the UK, Germany and the US, where they enjoy significantly more notoriety. Spanish wines were conspicuously absent from the LCBO’s latest available product trend report (2010-2011), which highlights the fastest growing wine categories, though a spokesperson at the LCBO revealed that more recently, Spanish wines sales are up in the last 12 months.

Considered globally, Spanish wine amounted to just 2% of the total volume of wine sold in the province through the LCBO in 2010-2011, and 2.7% of the total value. But for the year ending December 31, 2012, Spanish wines were up 3.5% by value over 2010-2011, thanks mainly to stronger red wine sales. According to Linda Hapak, the LCBO’s manager of corporate communications, “Spanish wines are performing extremely well for the LCBO WINES category. Spanish reds represent approximately 3.5 per cent of our business and are up 13.8 per cent over last year. There are plans to add some more premium-priced Spanish wines ($12-$15) in the coming year. In VINTAGES, Spanish reds are about nine per cent of the VINTAGES European wine portfolio and are trending up 7.5 per cent.

Wines from Spain (ICEX Image Bank)That’s certainly a positive sign, though despite the recent growth, the figures are still pretty low. Considering that Spain has the world’s largest acreage devoted to grapevines: 970,000 hectares (in 2011), which represents fully 30% of the European Union’s vineyard area, and nearly 14% of the world’s. (In terms of volume of production, Spain sits just behind France and Italy as the world’s third largest producer since yields per hectare are lower on average than in either France or Italy). By comparison, Italy, the largest foreign supplier of wines in Ontario, accounted for over 17% of Ontario wine sales by value and over 16% by volume in 2010-2011. Spain is proportionately under represented in local sales.

And yet, wine is one of Spain’s star export products. Figures from the Spanish government’s Department of Customs and Special Taxes reveal that wine exports were up 13.5% to the end of the first half of 2012, while in 2011, the wine industry posted impressive increases of 26.3% in volume and 16.7% in value. The country has been grinding through the slow and painful modernization of its wine industry, a process that has been ongoing since at least 1986 when Spain joined the EU. And the fruits of this leap into the 21st century are finally starting to be reaped.

Spain is one of the world’s most dynamic countries, what I’ve referred to in the past as the most ‘new world’ country of the old world, that is, a nation in the process of inventing or in some cases re-inventing itself. The 80s and 90s love affair with international varieties has mostly faded, and today, rediscovering native varieties and reviving ancient vineyards is the latest word. This is music to the modern sommelier’s ears, and Spanish wines are being embraced with enthusiasm in cutting edge wines bars in northern Europe and the US. In short, Spanish wines are hot, just not yet here.

I think several factors account for Canada’s lukewarm embrace of things Spanish compared with other nations’. Consider how many Brits and Germans vacation on the Costa del Sol, just a short, cheap Ryan Air or Easy Jet hop away. Citizens of the UK and Germany have developed a cultural connection through proximity with Spain that most Canadians do not have, and people tend to bring their vacations home with them. There’s nothing like reliving that Spanish sojourn with a bottle of Rioja back home.

And south of the border, nearly half of the population of the United States claim Spanish as their mother tongue. Even many non-Hispanics understand or speak Spanish through sheer exposure. Thus there’s a linguistic familiarity around those ñs and double ls that can otherwise intimidate English speakers. And there’s also more cultural heritage linking US citizens with the Spanish world. In Canada, the percentage of the population of Hispanic origin and familiarity with the language doesn’t compare. The fact that Spanish restaurants are few and far between doesn’t help, either. Spanish cuisine is not so neatly branded and doesn’t export as well as, say, Italian or French cuisine.

Such factors, and many more, have conspired to make Canada a ‘low priority’ country for Spanish export initiatives. When export promotional funds are limited (no need to go into Spain’s economic situation here), they’re usually focused on the markets with the greatest potential for short-term return. Consequently, Canada receives very little promo budget for Spanish wines. No industry-sponsored generic ‘fam’ trips to Spain for wine writers or wine buyers, no trade or consumer tastings of Spanish wines in Ontario. This in turn leads to low consumer awareness of Spanish wines, which leads to fewer listings of Spanish wine in restaurants and on LCBO shelves, which discourages import agents from dealing with Spanish wineries in the first place. And so the vicious circle continues. But if the last year is any indication, perhaps there’s a new era of awareness dawning for Spanish wine. And let’s hope so.

January 19 is your opportunity to discover at least the tip of the iceberg of what Spain has to offer. There are 19 Spanish wines hitting the VINTAGES shelves, several of which I’d consider fine examples of some of the marquee regions and native grapes, at reasonable prices, another one of the country’s strengths. Download a Pedro Almodóvar film (don’t pirate it – the Spanish economy needs support), and conduct your own tour of Spanish wines. Here’s a brief run down on nine Spanish wines to consider:

Jerez-Xerés-Sherry

Almirante Marqués Del Real Tesoro OlorosoEl Maestro Sierra Fino SherryTwo of my top scoring picks and hottest values are from the roughly triangular denominación of Jerez, or Sherry, in the southwest corner of Spain. You can find an excellent primer on Sherry from certified Sherry educator Derek Kranenborg on the WineAlign Cru postings – A Manifesto for Sherry. But before logging in, grab a bottle of the El Maestro Sierra Fino Sherry ($17.95) and the Almirante Marqués Del Real Tesoro Oloroso ($16.95), which will make the reading all the more pleasant.

The first is a somewhat atypical fino, more deeply coloured than the norm, and more oxidative in style – almost into amontillado territory, but in any case, it’s a rich, powerful and complex wine with masses of flavour and terrific finish – really remarkable at the price. I’d serve this with a piece of 12 month aged Manchego cheese for a fine experience.

The second is a more typically nutty and oxidative oloroso, reminiscent of dried hay, toasted walnuts, old coffee grounds, and caramel, with a full, dry palate and amazing umami-laden finish. As is so frequently the case with sherry, this offers astonishing complexity for the money.

Spanish Reds

Get tuned into the rich, substantial reds of the Priorat DOQ with the 2008 Planets De Prior Pons ($22.95). Prior Pons is a small, family operation in the heart of the denominación with vineyards planted in the prized fractured slate soils called locally “licorella”. They make just two wines; Planets is the less expensive, a blend of both young and old vines that’s both generously alcoholic and mouth filling. Fruit is dark and brambly, with slightly raisined/dried/baked character, while spicy wood notes and wild herbs add an extra flavour dimension. It’s a fine introduction to the region at an attractive price.

Planets De Prior Pons 2008Solar De Sael Crianza MencíaAlbret Crianza 2009Fans of the old school style of Rioja will want to pick up the 2004 Don Jacobo Reserva ($17.95). It’s arch-traditional, dripping with American oak-derived flavours of melted butter, cedar, sandalwood and toasted coconut alongside tart red berry/sour cherry fruit, juicy acids, fine-grained tannins and lingering, savoury finish. It’s fully ready to enjoy; Spain is one of the few countries where wines are often cellared at the winery until they’re ready to drink – all the ageing has been done for you.

2005 Legón Reserva do Ribera del Duero ($23.95) offers a more modern interpretation of tempranillo, widely considered Spain’s flagship red grape, even if it’s not the most planted (that distinction belongs to garnacha tinta). This is intensely dark fruited, savoury and earthy at once, well structured, with good to very good length. It’s ready to enjoy or hold short term.

One of my favorite Spanish regions is Bierzo in the cooler, northwest corner of the country often referred to as “Atlantic” or “green” Spain. The 2007 Solar De Sael Crianza Mencía ($15.95) is a decent entry-level, if awkwardly oaky (Spain is still getting over its love affair with oak flavours), example of mencía, the principal grape. Leave this another 6 months to a year in the cellar; there’s sufficient depth and structure to ensure positive evolution, which is rare at this price.

And rounding out the reds, 2009 Albret Crianza ($19.95) is a forward, fruity, nicely structured wine made from a blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the modern style. Navarra has long been on the forefront of innovation in Spanish vineyards thanks to the fact that the country’s most important viticultural research station is located in the region, and experimentation with international varieties has been going on for decades.

Spanish Whites

Cuatro Rayas Viñedos Centenarios VerdejoSeñorio De Rubios Albariño 2011Classy whites are more of a rarity in Spain, but two regions stand out for their unique contributions to the realm: Rias Baixas and Rueda. The former shines with albariño, the latter with verdejo. Try the fine 2011 Señorio De Rubios ($17.95) for an example of the lively and fruity character of albariño, with its lemon-lime, blossom, apricot and pear aromas that reminds one of viognier on the nose, and the taught, tight structure and underlying minerality that brings to mind Riesling on the palate.

Verdejo can often slip into the (unpleasant) Delmonte tropical fruit cocktail spectrum of flavours that’s reminiscent of sauvignon blanc grown in the Sahara, but the 2011 Cuatro Rayas Viñedos Centenarios ($15.95), made from over 100 year-old, pre-phylloxera vines is well worth discovering. Cuatro Rayas is the largest producer in the Rueda DO, accounting for 20% of the total production, proving that big is not necessarily bad. But to be fair this wine is described as a “whim” of winemaker Angel Calleja, made in limited quantities from the company’s most prized parcels. You’ll find intriguing incense and dried spearmint leaf aromas on the nose, with citrus-lemon-grapefruit notes underlying, while the palate delivers considerable flavour impact carried by sharp acids and above average concentration. A fine, pre-phylloxera vines cuvee for under $16? Welcome to Spain.

If you’re enticed to discover more after this tour, visit the Spanish Trade Commission’s website, Winesfromspain. To find more Spanish wines in Ontario contact the following consignment agents who carry a solid range (variable availability):

B&W Wines (Especially the Spain Only One Portfolio)

TWC Imports (including excellent Cava from Agustí Torelló Mata, Bierzo from Finca Losada and Pittacum, Rias Baixas from Terras Gaudas, godello from Bodegas Valdesil, Rioja from Bodegas Tobías)

Recommended Toronto Restaurants with a good selection of Spanish wines:

Cava (Yonge & St. Clair) and Edulis (King St W & Bathurst)

Top Ten Smart Buys

This week’s top ten smart buys include a mesmerizing marsanne from Mendocino, a terrific teroldego blend from Tuscany, a bloody good baga from Portugal, and a pair of impressive local wines. See them all here.

Best Bet from BC

Mission Hill Quatrain 2008

British Columbia is the mini theme of the release, with five wines on offer. Of these, my top pick is the 2008 Mission Hill Quatrain, Okanagan Valley ($41.95). This is a nicely evolved, polished, bold, modern red with better than average class and depth (a blend of merlot, syrah, cab franc and cab sauv).

From the January 19, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Spanish Releases
All Reviews


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 5th 2013

The Importance of Reliable Sources

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

2012 is drawing to a close as I write this, and it’s been a fruitful year. The WineAlign community has grown significantly over four years with now close to 41,000 registered users. And nearly 175,000 different people have visited the site over the last month. This ranks WineAlign behind only the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s website in terms of traffic on wine related websites in Canada. And with full coverage of the wine markets in British Columbia and Québec scheduled for early in the new year, I have no doubt in predicting that by the end of 2013, WineAlign will be by far the largest, most useful and reliable source of independent information and critical opinion on wine in the country. What this means for you, of course, is more wine reviews and reports from a growing roster of Canada’s most authoritative and dependable wine critics, with the added layer of greater regional perspectives.

This success establishes the viability of the model, but this isn’t just about a ‘rah rah’ for WineAlign. It’s about a much larger issue that has been put in the spotlight in 2012: the importance of source. It has become clear this past year that the Internet landscape is changing and that there’s increasing attention being paid to the trustworthiness of information. Simply put, the Internet is maturing, and so are its users.

You Rarely Get What You Don’t Pay For

The last decade has seen endless debate about the future of the web, and among many, many observations, one that strikes me as particularly important is the changing perception towards the reliability of, and accountability for, information posted. Much of the excitement in the early days surrounding free access to all kinds of information that once commanded a price is starting to wane. It has taken some time, but users have come to grasp the basic truth that you generally get what you pay for, or rather, that you rarely get what you don’t pay for. In other words, free, unqualified, non-professional, unvetted sources of information are for the most part, low down on the trustworthy scale.

The reasons for this are obvious. Largely gone are the former protective measures of editors and fact checkers, transparent ethical standards, and the generally high barrier to entry for authors, critics and journalists of all stripes, which used to shield the public from unscrupulous manipulators with hidden agendas or outright charlatans. Today, of course, anyone with a machine and an Internet connection can publish opinion veiled as fact, or fiction masquerading as observation, with virtual impunity.

Gaming The System

Many incidences have come to light of ‘consumers’ posting glowing (or damning) reviews of products, restaurants, resorts, films, wines, and just about every other consumer good or service, who, as it turns out, are related directly or indirectly to the provider of these goods or services. And there are currently few legal measures in place to prevent people from publishing opinions on the web that have been bought (outside of the notoriously Teflon charge of libel for negative views).

Wine is a particularly problematic Internet minefield where knowing your source is crucial. For one, it attracts a lot of people, mostly because it’s such a great business to be in, so there are many in the game. But it’s also an expensive consumer good to review and report on. Outside of the independently wealthy, how many unpaid (or poorly paid) bloggers can afford to cover their own transportation and expenses to visit wine regions, buy samples to review, pay for their meals when dining out with a winemaker or winery principal? Zero is the answer. Thus the potential for conflicts of interest is large. This means that virtually everyone in the wine reviewing business is complicit to some degree in stretching the ethical boundaries that the journalists of a by-gone era were held to.

Wine of course is not the only field prone to conflicts of interest. Publishers send free books to reviewers, travel writers go all expenses paid to write-up destinations and DVDs are sent to film critics, to point out but a few. But that doesn’t mean that the reviews published on these things are fraudulent or even unreliable, however. It just makes knowing your source of information all the more critical. And there are so many more sources to sift through. If you’re after genuine third-party, original and independent views, get to know the critic behind them. It’s not hard to do research these days – we’ve all had to become our own fact checkers and vetters of information. Credible credentials, track record, longevity, positive peer reviews, number of supporters/followers, the cost to access information and other bits come together to establish the level of reliability of the source.

Re-Raising the bar on Ethical Standards

It has also become clear that the tolerance of dodgy practices is crumbling in the Internet world. The questionable things you could get away with until very recently have suddenly become a call to arms, resulting in at worst a witch hunt, at best a righting of wrongdoing, like toppling a malevolent dictator or calling a public figure to reckon.

Shrugs of ‘oh well, that’s the way the Internet works’ have turned instead to moral outrage that inspires action. 2012 saw the outing of several writers mostly at the hands of, at least initially, their own colleagues. Read for example about the spectacular fall from grace of celebrated pop-neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer (whose insights I have drawn on in at least a couple of past WineAlign postings), who was caught back in June plagiarizing himself (i.e. recycling his own work) by another writer (http://nymag.com/news/features/jonah-lehrer-2012-11/). This was only the start of an unraveling that led to the discovery that Lehrer had also borrowed liberally from others, manufactured quotes and manipulated or ignored scientific evidence that did not conform to his pre-determined thesis and which would otherwise get in the way of his story. It was a question of shoddy science, questionable journalism, and possibly theft, and Lehrer got caught.

There’s also of course the case of wine writer Natalie MacLean that went viral in the wine world (http://palatepress.com/2012/12/wine/content-theft/). MacLean’s use of colleagues’ wine reviews without proper attribution or permission for profit, and an alleged pay-to-play wine review scheme (http://palatepress.com/2012/12/wine/pay-for-play-wine-writing/) caused a veritable maelstrom that’s still battering her web-shores today. It was the Internet equivalent of a football pile-on, and many reputable wine writers are still seething.

These examples and others prove that you can’t get away for very long with substandard ethics on the World Wide Web, because sooner or later somebody will catch you. That’s the beauty and the curse of the Internet. It has always behooved us to check into our sources, and more and more of us are doing just that on the Internet today. It’s no longer enough to be “published” on the web to be credible. There’s too much temptation in the shrinking writing market for critics to succumb to conflicts of interest or to profit from the work of others. Transparency is also critical.

See You on the Other Side of the Pay Wall

We’ve reached the point at which the perceived value of the information one gets from the internet is based on the source, as it always has been for print publications, and not simply on the fact that it’s free and available for all. Cries of “why would I pay when I can get similar information for free” are ringing more and more hollow, particularly when it comes to highly specialized news or reviews, such as wine reviews.

I think we’ll also see a shift towards more users paying for reliable information, a natural evolution that allows such information to be unearthed or created and disseminated in the first place. Free to users does not mean it’s free to produce, and there’s only so much cost that advertisers can (or should) cover, especially when it comes to reviews. This past year we’ve seen pay walls erected on the websites of the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and The National Post; The Toronto Star will start charging for certain sections in 2013, as will many more I’m sure. I won’t be surprised when wine writers start charging a fee to the retailers who use their reviews to sell wine; a positive review is effectively an endorsement, which in most other fields cost money (and in the case of wine reviewers, obviates the need for consumers to subscribe to their newsletters or websites, and thus reduces their income). Quality news and information is costly to produce and has value.

We’re glad that so many of you have found WineAlign to be a trustworthy source of information, and we plan in 2013 and beyond to continue to deliver our reviews following the most stringent ethical standards and transparency protocols. And although there are no plans to change our ‘freemium’ model, remember that the premium WineAlign subscription gets you even more of that reliable information – the reviews themselves beyond just the scores – and helps keep your favourite wine writers employed, too.

Top Ten Smart Buys

La Pieve Barolo 2008The first Vintages release of every year is devoted to smart buys, which is what I focus on every report, so it’s back to business as usual. It’ll be Saturday January 5th by the time these wines hit the shelves, an opportune moment to replenish the rack after the holidays with some wines that will get you through to the next special occasion (Sunday afternoon?). All but one of my top ten are under $20.

But that one wine, the 2008 La Pieve Barolo ($28.95) was worth including at the price. There was a time when entry-level Barolo started around $40, so sub-$30 is already skewed to value for the region, and especially so when it gets you a maturing but classically styled example, typically firm and tough, for fans of more reserved, traditional Barolo.

Arnaldo Caprai Rosso MontefalcoLa Sala Chianti Classico RiservaCoppi Peucetico Primitivo 2007At the other end of the price scale, the 2007 Coppi Peucetico Primitivo ($13.95) is an amazingly mouth-filling and satisfying wine reminiscent of Amarone at less-than-basic Valpolicella pricing. And rounding out the values from Italy I’d highlight La Sala Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 and the 2009 Arnaldo Caprai Rosso Montefalco, (but $19.95). The former delivers clear riserva-level quality, with generous, high-quality oak, ripe, concentrated red and black fruit, and a firm and structured, densely packed palate. This should improve over the mid-term. Caprai’s Montefalco (mainly sangiovese and sagrantino) is a perennial favorite, a wine I used to purchase regularly for restaurant clients because of its structure and complexity above the price category. The 2009 is particularly ripe and fruity, with a fine balancing mix of pot pourri and dried flowers, licorice, black and red fruit, though the palate remains steadfastly Italian, with dry, firm, dusty tannins and puckering acidity. Serve this with salty protein, or leave in the cellar 2-4 years.

Rabl St Laurent 2009Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling SpätleseSanto Assyrtiko 2011Fans of bright and zesty ‘charcuterie’ reds should consider the 2009 Rabl St Laurent, Kamptal ($15.95). St. Laurent, once believed to be a distant relative of pinot noir but since proven to have no relation, produces in this case a fresh, bright red and blue fruit-scented wine, with terrific balance and succulent, mouth-watering acids.

Among whites worth your attention I’d signal the archetypical 2007 Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese ($16.95), an astonishing value, as I never tire of pointing out when it comes to top Mosel Riesling. It’s drinking beautifully at the moment, and although it starts off slightly sweet, the underlying acids and terrific minerality dry out the long finish. Also a regular source of fine value, minerally wines, Santorini’s competent cooperative winery gives us the 2011 Santo Assyrtiko ($16.95). It has palpable texture and saline flavours, not to mention solid intensity.

See the full top ten here; also stay tuned Saturday December 29th for a shopping list of a dozen sparkling wines recommended by the WineAlign team, in stock at the LCBO and ready to ring in the new year.

And on that note, Happy New Year and best wishes for all – here’s to more trustworthy information in 2013.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

From the January 5, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


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