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The Successful Collector – Taylor’s Tawnies

Julian Hitner reports on the greatest tawny port lineup ever presented in WineAlign’s newly refurbished tasting room, courtesy of Stephen Marentette of Sylvestre Wines & Spirits. Several of these wines (including an astonishing bottling from 1863!) have already been released through VINTAGES, with one or two on the way (click on the links below for exact dates).

The Art of Tawny Port
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

In port circles, few establishments are as universally revered as Taylor Fladgate, its roots dating back more than three hundred years. Quality is an obsession here, from the choicest bottle-aged (vintage) versions to those kept in wood (such as Late Bottled Vintage) for only a short period of time. But what of those aged in barrel for ten years or longer, those ‘tawnies’ one hears so much about? Back in 1973, when the Instituto dos Vinho do Porto (IVP) created new rules permitting producers to state the age of older tawny ports on the label, Taylor’s found itself in an enviable position. Having spent decades developing stocks of fortified wines aged for many years in wood, it became the first major house to launch a full range of tawnies in increments of 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. Over forty years later, these versions have emerged as some of the most enticing, most consistent wines of their kind in the Douro.

Needless to say, their ‘ruby’ counterparts are entirely different. Aside from much fiercer tannins, deeper colours and totally dissimilar flavours, the finest rubies are largely crafted with bottle aging in mind. Vintage versions are at the top of the pyramid, crafted from the best grapes and only aged for roughly two years in wood and subsequently sold to private buyers for decades of further maturation. Other types, such as Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), are kept in barrel for around four to six years to make them approachable on release. Wines labelled simply as ‘Ruby’ are the cheapest, crafted from the lowest quality grapes and aged very minimally. There are several other types of ruby port, each worthy of exploration.

Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port Taylor Fladgate 30 Year Old Tawny Port Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny PortTaylor Fladgate Single Harvest 1964

By comparison, tawny ports are aged for much longer periods in wood for a much lighter colour (one can easily guess which one) and more nut- and fruitcake-oriented flavours. Wines simply labelled as ‘Tawny’ are the most plebeian, and do not state any period of barrel aging on the label. Taylor’s Fine Tawny (not tasted) is just such a wine. Continuing with Fladgate, this is followed by the 10 Year Old, usually the freshest and most approachable of the above-mentioned quartet. In contrast, the aristocratic 20 Year Old is a much more serious offering, possessing deeper flavours and more concentration. This seems to be the premium tawny of choice for the widest number of connoisseurs. However, for those with very deep pockets, the princely 30 Year Old is a singular favourite, likely on account of its inherent richness, prodigious complexity and overall sense of completeness. The imperial 40 Year Old, on the other hand, is almost an entirely different proposition, produced in very small quantities and possessing unparalleled concentration, luxuriousness and exoticism. Tasted side-by-side, the 30 Year Old appears much fresher and mellower, while its senior, ritzier counterpart seems a weighty titan, basking in immortal opulence and pedigree. Each of these tawnies are among the greatest in Portugal, blended from multiple vintages with the youngest being the stated age on the label.

A short time ago, the ante for such wines was upped even further with Taylor’s introduction of its 1964 Single Harvest Port. Bottled this year, fifty-year-old tawnies from a specific vintage are beyond rare, though younger single-vintage versions known as ‘Colheita’ are produced at many houses. Such wines are usually extremely well made and delicious, particularly those up to twenty years of age. Yet Taylor’s half-century-old bottling (priced at $299.95 in VINTAGES), which it plans on producing every year from now on, is something truly unique, slightly Madeira-like and a good deal sweeter. It is certainly the greatest Colheita (though this term is not used on the label) I have tasted to date.

Taylor Fladgate 1863 Single Harvest Port (Courtesy Taylor Fladgate)At least from the twentieth century. Leave it to Taylor’s to lay its hands on a few casks of mid-nineteenth-century fortified wine from a single vintage and then bottle it. Indeed, the firm’s 1863 Single Harvest Port is likely to be celebrated as one of most spellbinding, most miraculous tawnies in modern times. Divvied out into 1,600 gorgeous crystal decanters placed in luxury boxes of maple burl veneer (fetching $3,995 in VINTAGES), it almost reminds one of a super-premium Cognac, at the same time extraordinarily spice-oriented and mouth-filling. Crafted from pre-phylloxera grapes, it is unquestionably the most unique port wine, ruby or tawny, I have ever been privileged to examine. At the house of Fladgate, only the best seems to do.

The tawny ports of Taylor Fladgate:

Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port may generally be considered the gold standard for tawnies of this age group, crafted with obvious care and attention to detail. The freshest and most fruit-driven of the range yet by no means simplistic, this may be enjoyed with almost carefree abandon.

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port has always been a favourite of mine, and recent batches have never been better. Compared to the 10 Year Old, this is a more serious wine, possessing outstanding body, harmony and style. It certainly merits all the laurels it consistently receives.

Taylor Fladgate 30 Year Old Tawny Port has always seemed the most ‘complete’ of the age-stated quartet, delivering substantial concentration, purity and harmony. More than double the cost of the 20 Year Old, collectors have every right to expect great things from such a wine. I have never once been disappointed.

Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny Port is easily the most decadent, most enticing wine of this genre. Like its counterparts, it is a blend of multiple vintages, the youngest being the stated age on the label. This means some extremely old vintages were blended into this, with stupendous results.

Taylor Fladgate 1964 Single Harvest Port delivers unbelievable character, style and harmony. Hailing from a single vintage, it has very little in common with even the 40 Year Old, possessing remarkable Madeira-like characteristics and sweeter flavours on the palate. A true original in more ways than one.

Taylor Fladgate 1863 Single Harvest Port is in a class of its own, possessing more in common with a fine Cognac (particularly on the nose) than with a fortified wine. Featuring astounding intensity, harmony, structure, elegance and length, this is one of the true originals of the winegrowing world. Pity that so few persons will ever have an opportunity to taste it.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Click here for Julian’s list of recommended port wines

Editors Note: You can find our critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


 

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The Successful Collector – Wachau Riesling

Austria’s greatest white wines?
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Conversing with colleague — and my former instructor — John Szabo MS several months back, I was shocked to learn that riesling accounts for less than 5 per cent of total plantings in Austria. 4.1 per cent, to be precise. How can this be? Would someone explain why Austria, home to the wondrous Wachau, one of the greatest and most beautiful winegrowing regions in the world, produces such minuscule quantities of this magnificent grape?

As a partial explanation, it is only relatively recently that the potential for riesling in the Wachau and nearby regions has been meaningfully set to purpose by more than just a handful of producers. Unfortunately, this means that overall plantings have had to play an unwinnable game of catch-up with grüner veltliner, Austria’s most famous grape, red or white, for popular recognition. Not that this has discouraged producers from expanding their holdings throughout this glorious 20-km stretch of the river. Based mainly on extremely steep terraces overlooking the water, the best riesling parcels are usually found on the upper slopes, where soils consist mainly of granite, gneiss, and mica-schist.

Wachau Map (Courtesy Domäne Wachau)

For the most part, great Wachau riesling is often low-keyed in youth, routinely consisting of steely green fruits intermixed with lemon citrus, herbs, and an abundance of minerals. Yet with just a smidgen of bottle age (depending on the wine), more honeyed, kerosene, and nut-driven impressions seem to take over. Cellaring capability is extremely high, the best examples potentially lasting for at least a few decades. The richest and longest lived are those labeled ‘Smaragd’ (named after a local lizard), with alcohol levels at 12.5 per cent or higher. Wines labeled ‘Federspiel’ (11.5 – 12.5 per cent) are usually drier and less pronounced, while those labeled ‘Steinfeder’ (up to 11.5 per cent) are the lightest.

At this year’s VieVinum in Vienna, I discovered a great deal about the Wachau’s greatest vineyards. Out of 900-odd Rieden (or sites), about a dozen stand above the rest for riesling. Furthest west, along the Spitzer Graben tributary, Bruck is situated on an extremely high hillside, with terraced rows so narrow that tractors cannot even pass through — a common theme throughout many of the best sites. These are extremely minerally, citrus-laden wines. Further east, the Offenberg and Setzberg vineyards are also of similar configuration and quality, though perhaps more fruit-driven in youth. In these cooler parts of the Wachau, soils are mainly derived from mica schists, resulting in wines of considerable elegance and vitality.

East of the village of Spitz, the Danube plays an even greater role in most of the top riesling vineyards, particularly in terms of temperature moderation. Singerriedel is just such a Ried, well-protected from wind and privy to the warm autumn sun late in the evening. Wines of excellent concentration and class are produced here, along with those of Hochrain to the south. Much more famous, however, is the Ried of Achleiten, situated just to the north of the village of Weissenkirchen. Composed of slate and gneiss, it produces riesling of unmistakable minerality and finesse. Those of neighbouring Klaus are also of significant regard.

Singerriedel (Courtesy Domäne Wachau)

In what might be considered the heart of the Wachau, the villages of Dürnstein and the Loibens (Unter- and Ober-) possess some of the most renowned riesling vineyards in Austria. Of these, Kellerberg is traditionally ranked at the top, though grüner veltliner also comprises a large minority of plantings here. Mixed vineyards are very common in the Wachau. Enjoying ample sunlight, broad day-/night-time temperatures, and complex soils consisting mostly of granitic gneiss, Kellerberg riesling is both marvellously fulsome and long-lived. Other nearby vineyards of great repute are Loibenberg, Schütt, and Höhereck, each with their own distinctive personality and eminence. Last but not least, great riesling is produced south of the river around the village of Mautern. The top producer here is indisputably Nikolaihof, a boutique winery whose greatest offerings from Steiner Hund (located across the border in Kremstal), Vom Stein, and Im Weingebirge are widely in demand.

Indeed, small producers throughout the Wachau are routinely among the finest riesling cultivators. Unfortunately, availability in VINTAGES is profoundly lacking, with only one or two wines currently in the system. As something of a small mercy, however, some of the top producers possess agency representation in Ontario, several of which presently carry Wachau rieslings on consignment (immediate delivery) or are able to handle orders directly from the winery. As usual, such wines must be ordered in twelve- or six-bottle cases, though delivery usually takes several months.

Granted, ordering such wines from private agencies might be a nuisance—not because of poor service but because of the necessity of buying by the case—but the rewards are truly beyond measure. When it comes to top-notch Wachau riesling and the best sites from which they are sourced, all one has to do is be in the know.

Top estates in the Wachau

F.X. Pichler – The wines of F.X. Pichler are generally regarded as the most stunning in the Wachau, at times equalled by several other estates, yet never surpassed. With parcels in some of the greatest vineyards around the village of Dürnstein and the Loibens (Unter- and Ober-), every bottling is a testament to the originality and quality of each individual terroir. Ontario Representative: Le Sommelier

F.X. Picher 2013 Dürnsteiner Kellerberg Riesling Smaragd is perhaps the most sensational, most in-depth dry white I have ever tasted (at least to date) from the Wachau. From what is widely considered the most prized vineyard in the region, this sensational offering will keep for up to two decades in the right conditions.

Franz Hirtzberger – Based out of the village of Spitz in a more westerly sector of the Wachau, few wines are as singularly delicious as those of Franz Hirtzberger. Much of the region’s modern-day successes may be traced to Franz’s tireless efforts in spearheading the Vinea Wachau (an association of winegrowers) and promoting perfectionist winegrowing techniques. Not represented in Canada

Franz Hirtzberger 2013 Hochrain Riesling Smaragd is both remarkably intense and stylish. Located just below the famed Singerriedel vineyard, Hochrain routinely yields wines of this design, oftentimes with astonishing aging potential. This particular example may be kept for up to fifteen years or more.

Emmerich Knoll – With 15 ha of vineyards, Emmerich and Monika Knoll (along with their son) are among the most committed, most dynamic winegrowers in the Wachau. Based out of the village of Unterloiben, the style here is one of luminosity and breed. Normally tight in youth, these are wines of phenomenal elegance and ageability. Québec representative: Les Vins Alain Bélanger

Emmerich Knoll 2013 Ried Loibenberg Riesling Smaragd is one of several spellbinding wines produced at this estate. Possessing incredible sophistication and character, it will probably require a vigorous decanting if consumed young, and will likely keep for nearly two decades if cellared correctly.

Mature Nikolaihof RieslingNikolaihof: – Perhaps the most celebrated Biodynamic producer in the Wachau, the Saah family’s approach to winemaking is unique. From a mindboggling number of bottlings to an innate understanding of individuality, the wines of Nikolaihof are as mouth-watering as they are unique. Based out of Mautern, to taste from here is a special experience. Ontario representative: The Living Vine

Nikolaihof 2013 Vom Stein Riesling Federspiel is only barely alluding to its potential at such a young age, though it should open up if given a coaxing. Invigorating and balanced (to mention resoundingly dry), this will likely benefit from a thorough decanting if enjoyed young. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more.

Alzinger – One of the most up-and-coming estates in the Wachau, the wines of Leo Alzinger (now produced with his son) merit profuse exploration. Based out of Unterloiben, this gifted family of winegrowers possess parcels in some of the best vineyards of the region, each with their own personality and charm. Québec Representative: Vinealis

Alzinger 2013 Höhereck Riesling Smaragd is a wine of remarkable purity and harmony. Situated just under the famed Kellerberg vineyard, Höhereck is an especially brilliant site, resulting in wines of incredible vitality and elegance. Drink now or enjoy over the next dozen years or more.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

Link to Julian’s complete list of Austrian white wines
Link to John Szabo’s Austria Report

Editors Note: You can find our critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


Kellerberg (Courtesy Domäne Wachau)

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The Successful Collector – Old World Riesling

The most undervalued white grape?
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Placed in the hands of even the most lacklustre of attorneys, a compelling court case could be made for convincing wine jurists that riesling is the greatest, most versatile white grape in Europe. The fact that other types of wine fetch higher prices at the premium end is neither here nor there. Granted, the best dry white Burgundy and Bordeaux may cost a great deal more, but one could easily argue this is more a result of rarity and present consumer trends than a reflection of comparative worth. Not that the quality of top Burgundy or Bordeaux has been exaggerated, more that prices for top riesling in many parts of the Old World are at present comparatively low, almost to the point of unreasonableness. As a result, there are more bargains for exemplary riesling than virtually any other type of white wine.

In the twenty-first century, few would deny that Alsace, Austria, and the most acclaimed winegrowing regions of Germany represent a sort of vinous triumvirate of unique places where riesling is able to thrive. At the premium level, the types produced in each area are at their greatest distinctiveness.

Alsace

Rows of vines in Alsace

Rows of vines in Alsace

In Alsace, the greatest rieslings usually hail from single-vineyard Grand Cru sites on steep hillsides, oftentimes (though not exclusively) consisting of sand and clay. Site variation in this part of the winegrowing world is extreme, with increasing numbers of producers vinifying and bottling specific parcels within their vineyards as separate wines. Relative dryness and higher alcohol (usually 12.5 per cent or more) remain essential hallmarks, though many top wines will often possess considerable richness, extra body, and some residual sugar. While flavour profiles are hard to generalize, the finest Alsatian rieslings tend to possess a resounding concentration of citrus-infused orchard fruits (such as peaches and pears), taking on more honeyed and kerosene-like tendencies as they age. The greatest bottlings may be easily kept for up to two decades or more. Current prices in VINTAGES for the best bottlings tend to range from $55-85, though many extremely good wines may be found for less than thirty bucks.

Austria

In Austria, the emerging style in the most famous regions for riesling (such as Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal) is one of astonishing minerality and heightened gradations of dryness. In most cases, the greatest wines derive from single vineyards, oftentimes bottled as single-parcel cuvées, grown on incredibly steep slopes facing the Danube.

Riesling vines along the Danube

Riesling vines along the Danube

Unlike Alsace or Germany, these vineyards are not officially ranked, though the best sites, usually based on granite, gneiss, and mica-schist, have long enjoyed widespread recognition over their less exalted counterparts. Alcohol levels are even higher than in Alsace (and much higher than in Germany), sometimes reaching up to 15 per cent. Compared to Alsace or Germany, the flavour of fine Austrian riesling is often much more low-keyed in youth, usually consisting of steely green fruits intermixed with lemon citrus, herbs, and an abundance of minerals. With age, more honeyed, kerosene, and nut-driven impressions seem to take over. Cellaring capability for the finest wines easily match those of Alsatian or Germanic extraction. Current availability of Austrian riesling in VINTAGES is profoundly lacking, with prices ranging from around $15-35.

Germany

For many, Germany is where riesling finds its greatest expression. As with Alsace and Austria, the best wines are those of single-vineyard persuasion, from the slate-dominant sites of the Mosel to the more clay-based areas of the Mittelhaart of the Pflaz. Styles are traditionally measured according to sweetness via the QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) system. From driest to sweetest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. The best wines of the Mosel and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer tend to reflect this system more concisely than most, while producers throughout the Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz are increasingly crafting their best single-vineyard wines in drier styles. Such wines are often labelled as ‘Grosses Gewächs,’ and invariably contain higher levels of alcohol at the expense of residual sugar. This said, the QmP system is just as useful for understanding different styles throughout most riesling-dominant regions. On the label, a stated vineyard is usually preceded by the village with which it is affiliated.

Riesling vines along the Mosel

Riesling vines along the Mosel

To this day, consumers continue to have difficulty comprehending the meaning behind different types of German wine labels. But this should not prove a barrier to obtaining some of the most underappreciated, undervalued types of riesling in Europe. Currently in VINTAGES, extremely fine, ageworthy examples logging in as low as 8 per cent alcohol (depending on the region) may be found for as little as $20, with top bottlings fetching up to $70. The sweetest versions such as Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, not to mention Eiswein, are prodigiously more expensive, and are not exactly meant for everyday drinking.

Of more off-dry examples such as Kabinett and (to a lesser extent) Spätlese, flavours often include an addictive cornucopia of white peaches, green fruits, lemon citrus, and traces of kerosene, the latter becoming more pronounced and honeyed as time wears on. As white wines go, the capacity of German riesling to age is incredible, though Kabinett versions are at their best around the vicinity of ten years. Great Auslese, on the other hand, whose special nature places it more in the medium-sweet camp, may keep for decades and decades in the right conditions. Tragically, these types of wines are not nearly as popular as they once were. This may largely be attributed to both lax and unintelligible German wine laws, along with the plain fact that many enthusiasts continue to believe that all German wine, regardless of what is stated on the label, tastes excessively sweet.

A Comeback is Coming

In some respects, this would suggest that German riesling is long overdue for a comeback, particularly as examples in Alsace and Austria continue to enjoy an increasing number of successes. The quality is there, the ageability substantial, the prices even for moderately premium versions beyond modest. What’s more, with legions of ‘wine civilians’ being dutifully summoned every day as serious enthusiasts, it is only a matter of time before this collective jury of palates renders a verdict in riesling’s favour. Impatient as some wine commentators might be, it is only a matter of time.

My top choices:

Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling has been recommended more than once this past year, for there are still a reasonable number of bottles remaining in LCBO outlets. From one of the greatest white wine producers in Alsace, this is exactly what great Old World Riesling is all about. Drink now or hold for five years or more. 

Léon Beyer 2005 Cuvée des Comtes de d’Eguisheim Riesling is the top label (in dry format) from this particular Alsace-based establishment. Though nearing ten years of age, it is still endowed with an abundant sense of liveliness, intensity, and harmony. Only just over two dozen bottles remain in LCBO outlets. Drink now or hold for up to nine years or more. 

Zilliken 2011 Saarburg Rausch Riesling Kabinett logs in at a miniscule 8% alcohol, at the same time possessing outstanding roundness, harmony, and weight. Somewhat off-dry, few wines of the Saar (a tributary of the Mosel in Germany) manage to combine such gracefulness with such ferocity of character. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years. 

Schloss 2008 Schönborn Macrobrunn Riesling Kabinett is a premium type of German (Rheingau) Riesling at a remarkably reasonable price. Crafted in an off-dry style, wines like this were all the rage throughout much of the twentieth century and preceding eras. There is no reason why they should not be again. Drink now or hold for up to eight years.

Domäne Wachau 2011 Achleiten Riesling Smaragd hails from the Wachau, easily the most prestigious winegrowing region (at least for whites) in Austria. Retaining remarkable vibrancy and balance, this invigorating example is precisely why premium Austrian Riesling, alongside Grüner Veltliner, is becoming so popular. Drink now or hold for seven years or more.

Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2010Léon Beyer Cuvée Des Comtes D'eguisheim Riesling 2005Zilliken Saarburg Rausch Riesling Kabinett 2011Schloss Schönborn Macrobrunn Riesling Kabinett 2008Domäne Wachau Achleiten Smaragd Riesling 2011

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES and the SAQ that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores. All price ranges have been researched so as to reflect current availability.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

P.S. Stay tuned next month for my exciting summary of top riesling vineyards of the Wachau, Austria’s most prestigious white winegrowing region.

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

All Julian Hitner Reviews


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The Successful Collector – The Haut-Médoc

Stomping grounds for value
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

If there’s one problem Bordeaux has yet to overcome, it’s convincing enthusiasts that great claret need not break the bank. Yet many less-esteemed appellations throughout one of France’s most celebrated winegrowing areas are nowadays consistently able to combine both quality and ageability with youthful scrumptiousness and value. Of these, the Haut-Médoc is arguably at the forefront.

The largest appellation on the Left Bank of the Gironde, the Haut-Médoc surrounds the far more renowned appellations (excluded like a jigsaw puzzle from the map shown right) of Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe, each home to the lion’s share of the most famous estates in Bordeaux. The others are situated further upriver, just south of the city of Bordeaux, in the appellation of Pessac-Léognan. As a result, the finest estates of the Haut-Médoc are routinely overlooked.

But this has begun changing for some time, particularly in parts of the Haut-Médoc most blessed with higher gravel mounds on which to plant vines. As with the finest sections in the more celebrated appellations mentioned above, these gravel mounds represent one of the most significant characteristics of the greatest terroirs on the Left Bank. While regrettable, estates with vines sourced from lower-level locations simply cannot make the same wines.

The boundaries of the Haut-Médoc are extensive. Extending only several kilometres into the hinterland, the appellation begins just northeast of the city of Bordeaux along the Left Bank of the Gironde. It concludes several kilometres north of St-Estèphe, where the gravel mounds finally give way to lower-lying vineyards located in an appellation known simply as Médoc. Merlot tends to play a much greater role in the blends at this point along the river, with Cabernet Sauvignon habitually used in much smaller amounts.

Throughout much of the Haut-Médoc, Cabernet Sauvignon is used in fairly generous proportions, reinforced by Merlot and small percentages of Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot may be found from time to time, while Malbec may turn up in extremely small sums here and there. While the most illustrious estates may employ hand pickers at harvest time, many estates will often bring in their grapes via mechanical harvesters. Unlike the most famous estates of Margaux or Pauillac, many establishments in the Haut-Médoc are unable to afford such a luxury. The use of new French oak barriques will also vary according to financial constraints and/or quality of the grapes.

Of rankings, the Haut-Médoc contains only five estates belonging to the famous yet contentious 1855 Classification, each varying in quality and typically ranging in VINTAGES and the SAQ from $45-100. In terms of overall value, better examples may be found among the numerous estates ranked as Cru Bourgeois, the chief ranking category of the appellation. With the odd exception, prices in this category usually range from $20-40.

In the past, the majority of such wines were excessively lean and required years of cellaring in order to blossom. Not anymore. As a result of better winegrowing techniques and changes in climatic conditions (think global warming), the best Cru Bourgeois wines nowadays routinely offer immediate, concentrated appeal, and may be kept for up to ten years or more in the cellar. What’s more, their prices are strikingly reasonable, unlike their counterparts in St-Julien or St-Estèphe, where estates included in the 1855 Classification have all but been cordoned off except to the most well-heeled of buyers.

In the twenty-first century, never before has the winegrowing region of Bordeaux made such sizeable quantities of excellent wine. Yet the consequences of celebrity have grown all too apparent in appellations like Margaux or Pauillac, where wines once considered reasonable have become anything but. For diehard claret lovers, therefore, the fast-improving Haut-Médoc could not be more of a lifesaver.

My top choices:

Château Peyrabon 2010 Haut-Médoc is situated in the commune of St-Sauveur (just to the east of Pauillac) and represents terrific value for money. Although a rather oak-driven affair, all the component parts of this sumptuous claret are in marvellous alignment. Drink now or hold for up to ten years or more. Decanting is recommended. 

Château Sénéjac 2009 Haut-Médoc is situated in the commune of St-Pian (located in the southern part of the appellation) and is easily the most serious vintage I’ve tasted from this estate to date. Regrettably, only a handful of bottles are left in VINTAGES at time of publication. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more. Decanting is recommended. 

Château Peyrabon 2010Château Senejac 2009Château Larose Trintaudon 2010Château Moulin De Blanchon 2009Château De Gironville 2009

Château Larose-Trintaudon 2010 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Laurent (just to the east of St-Julien) and is the largest estate on the Left Bank. Though quality has been limited for many years, recent vintages such as the ’10 have been excellent. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Château Moulin de Blanchon 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Seurin (just to the north of St-Estèphe) and represents a sincerely beautiful outing. From a part of the Haut-Médoc with some extremely fine wineries, it’s wines like these that typify the future of the appellation. Drink now or hold for up to six years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château de Gironville 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of Macau (just to the south of Margaux) and is a truly delicious affair. Containing 10% Petit Verdot (unusual for a Haut-Médoc), there are only a handful of bottles left in VINTAGES at time of publication. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château La Lagune 2010Château Belgrave 2009Château Belgrave 2009 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of St-Laurent (just to the east of St-Julien) and is ranked as a Fifth Growth in the 1855 Classification. Though twice the cost of a standard Cru Bourgeois, the ’09 really is an outstanding claret. Drink now or hold for up to fourteen years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Château La Lagune 2010 Haut-Médoc is based out of the commune of Ludon (located in the southern part of the appellation) and is ranked as a Third Growth in the 1855 Classification. This is widely regarded as one of the finest wines of the Haut-Médoc, and is highly recommended for serious collectors. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES and the SAQ that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

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

All Julian Hitner Reviews


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The Successful Collector – Value at the premium end in France

Where to Find Value in Top French wines
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When venturing into the potentially prohibitive arena of premium French wine buying in VINTAGES, enthusiasts may have to dodge a few landmines to score the best finds. Even then, what is ‘premium’ by French standards? Subliminally speaking, $40-50 is often the starting point, which is still quite a lot of money to spend on any single bottle of wine, to say nothing of those costing a great deal more. What vinous liquids from the world’s most illustrious winegrowing nation could possibly be worth the extra cash?

The answer is largely subjective, though commentators and sommeliers over the years have reached some form of consensus. In each case, overall quality and aging potential are among the two most important factors.

Logo UGCC JEPGFor whites, Grand Cru Chablis is routinely at the top of the list, with prices ranging between $50-100. Compare this to a single bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, which usually fetches at least $200. In the words of UK-based expert Hugh Johnson: “Parity would be closer to justice.” Regrettably, the same cannot be said of most other white Burgundies.

Further north, outlays for the best dry whites of Alsace have long remained remarkably reasonable. Of special interest are the finest examples of riesling and gewürztraminer, usually hailing from specific parcels within the region’s many Grand Cru vineyards. In VINTAGES, the best examples typically fetch around $30-85. Such wines are not only intensely flavoured and downright delectable, but are usually just as ageworthy as their counterparts in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Why the best dry whites of Alsace continue to fetch such comparatively low prices is beyond me.

On the red side of the spectrum, there are an even larger number of choices. The only catch is that Bordeaux and Burgundy really aren’t the best places to be looking for them. Instead, buyers should arguably be on the lookout for the greatest offerings of the Rhône (particularly the southern appellations) and Midi, where both overall quality and ageability have skyrocketed over the past fifteen years.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in picturesque Gigondas, where wines mainly consist of grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. About a half-hour’s drive northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the most famous appellation in the region), the greatest producers nowadays manage to coax astounding concentration, character, and ageing potential out of their wines. On VINTAGES shelves, most Gigondas costs between $30-70, the best representing astounding value for money when compared to the costliest Châteauneufs, the latter easily surpassing $125. Southwest of here, the finest wines of Vacqueyras are also turning heads.

Gigondas

Picturesque Gigondas

The same can also be said of the Midi (Languedoc-Roussillon), the crescent-shaped portion of Mediterranean France that was mostly recognized for its bulk wine in the past. Not anymore. Nowhere in the country has quality leapt so high in such a short period of time as this gorgeously rugged set of winegrowing areas. In most places, the same grapes as the Southern Rhône dominate the best bottlings, though old-vine carignan is also highly prized. While specific appellations are too varied to list, prices in VINTAGES often begin as low as $30 for some truly exemplary offerings, rising to $60 or more on a few occasions. Compared, once again, to Bordeaux or Burgundy, such wines are a proverbial steal.

Switching to sparklings, every French wine lover understands that Champagne is the most celebrated of its type in the world, though value at the premium end is oftentimes viewed as a contradiction in terms. After all, even the most basic, non-vintage offerings begin at $40 or more in Ontario. As a result, many enthusiasts tend to overlook the more costly vintage-stated versions. But these are precisely the wines to watch out for, especially those from $60-100. Though admittedly not of the same quality as a super-extravagant cuvée like Cristal (nearly $300), such wines are nonetheless almost always profoundly superior to their non-vintage counterparts, capable of cellaring for at least several years.

Then there are the innumerable sweet wines of France. Believe it or not, this is where Bordeaux shines brighter than most of its counterparts, for the likes of Sauternes and Barsac are among the most truly inimitable types of botrytis-affected dessert wines around. Despite the amount of skilled labour and material costs involved, wondrous examples may be had in the range of $40-75, most in 375-mL bottles. Though much cheaper versions are available elsewhere, the quality is oftentimes simply not the same. Hence, along with the fantastic chenin blanc-based dessert wines of the Loire (these simply cannot be omitted), this is arguably the one instance where the most famous examples truly represent the best buys.

Of course, there are many other premium wines throughout France that have not been listed here. From the most prized reds of Madiran and Cahors in the Southwest to the spellbinding Vouvrays (plus a few from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) in the Loire, the number of choices at the luxury level are unimaginable. But this is a column about the truly best of the best, combining both colossal quality and long-term ageability (hence my need to append a few names just a moment ago, along with mourvèdre-based Bandol in Provence and top single-cru Beaujolais). In the end, there will always be an astounding number of tolerably priced premium French wines to choose from, as well as plenty that, in true draconian style, will have to be left out.

My top choices:

Domaine William Fèvre 2011 Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru ($90.00) is sourced from a 2.11-ha parcel of old vines at the foot of the vineyard. Showcasing fantastic harmony, character, and charm, it’s wines like these that get me so excited about Grand Cru Chablis. Drink now or hold for six years or more.

Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru ($65.00) is a perfect illustration of how underpriced Grand Cru Chablis currently stands. For the record: I wrote up this wine in glowing terms in a previous column, yet there are still a few bottles left. Such elegance and harmony! Not to be missed. Drink now or hold for up to nine years.

Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling ($27.95) has been selected not just because of its price (nor because pickings at the moment in VINTAGES are rather slim), but mainly on account of its remarkable quality. From one of the greatest producers in Alsace, this has all the elements of a premium wine, minus the cost. Drink now or hold for five years or more.

E. Guigal 2009 Gigondas ($31.95) is a wine of great power, focus, and clarity of fruit. From one of the most famous producers in the Rhône, this surpasses a whole horde of basic Châteauneufs we wine commentators routinely examine every year. Drink now or hold for ten years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Montirius 2011 Les Clos Vacqueyras ($32.00) delivers both excellent freshness and focus for a wine of its type. As a whole, this producer has consistently delivered both high quality and value over the past several years, making for some very worthy recommendations. Drink now or hold for five years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru 2011Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru 2011Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2010 E. Guigal Gigondas 2009Montirius Le Clos Vacqueyras 2011

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige St-Drézéery ($29.95) encapsulates virtually everything I’ve said about the remarkable value of Midi-based wines, particularly from a standpoint of both quality and ageability. From an especially well-regarded establishment, I have yet to taste a non-overachiever from here. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Moët & Chandon 2004 Grand Vintage Brut Champagne ($83.95) is well less than half the price of Dom Pérignon and yet of truly wonderful quality. Retaining tremendous precision and harmony (not to mention exemplary fruit expression and style), sparkling lovers will not want to miss out on this exemplary vintage champagne. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years.

Larmandier-Bernier 2007 Terres de Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne ($75.00) packs a great deal of firepower for such a young vintage. Boasting considerable intensity and harmony, I’m amazed VINTAGES hasn’t made greater efforts to source more champagnes from this particular house. Drink now or hold for up to ten years.

Château de Myrat 2009 Barsac ($28.00) is not just ridiculously underpriced, but is also likely the best wine ever produced at this estate. Combining resolute harmony with acute deliciousness, this 375-mL bottle serves as a liquid testament to how undervalued great Barsac (along with Sauternes) continues to be. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years.

Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne 2004Larmandier Bernier Terres De Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne 2007Château De Myrat 2009

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores. All price ranges have been researched so as to reflect current availability.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

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

All Julian Hitner Reviews


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VINTAGES Preview for March 29th 2014 (Part One)

Welcome to VINTAGES!

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

As my jet-setting colleagues are currently re-discovering South Africa, I remain on solid ground and am happy to keep you grounded as well with the best picks from the upcoming VINTAGES release feature.

So, “Welcome to VINTAGES”!  That is the title of the upcoming VINTAGES release. If you’re asking yourself what this feature title is all about, you’re not alone – I was equally confused. I jumped to the conclusion that this was a collection of wines new to the VINTAGES category that were being “welcomed” in. It turns out, though, that the theme behind this month’s release is to showcase wines that represent what VINTAGES is “all about.” Some of these wines are big names; others more obscure, and the remaining represent popular styles. If these three categories define what we see in VINTAGES, this might provide some insight into what we should expect to see in the near future.

VINTAGES March 29 Release CoverIt also offers a good opportunity to provide some background about the sometimes mysterious VINTAGES collection. What is VINTAGES? Most people think of it as the rear portion of their LCBO shop with finer shelving and more intimidating pricing. Basically, VINTAGES tries to entice those who are willing to spend a little more on higher quality and better names, and encourage them to discover something new. Whether they achieve this is perhaps an interesting academic question, if also somewhat beside the point, since there is no other outlet for such a selection of international wines in the province.

To break it down:

- VINTAGES is the premium category of spirits and wine at the LCBO, to be contrasted with the regular LCBO shelves that are known as the “general list”. Over 5,000 new products are introduced through VINTAGES every year and these are delivered to consumers through over 600 LCBO stores across Ontario.

- There are about one hundred “VINTAGES Essentials” that are continuously available but the vast majority of VINTAGES’ selections are one-shot purchases that will not re-appear for months, or years, if ever.

- Between 100-150 wines are released every two weeks through VINTAGES. It is the most dynamic and, arguably, rewarding category at the LCBO, and as you may know, we at WineAlign endeavor to taste all these wines and bring you the best of VINTAGES’ releases in newsletters every two weeks.

- VINTAGES Shop On Line is a virtual retail outlet for smaller lots of often more rare wines. You place orders on-line and wines are delivered to your store. This program now includes frequent releases of VINTAGES Classics Collection catalogue wines, as well as themed collections such as Bordeaux Futures. WineAlign also reviews these wines when we can gain access to tastings (See Bordeaux 2011 from earlier this year).

With the possible exception of a few of the big LCBO “flagship” stores the selection will always vary from store to store – which makes WineAlign’s “favourite store” feature very useful. Those of you who shop the VINTAGES already know that the quantities in each store will vary and that some wines sell out quickly. Product consultants at each individual VINTAGES store manage their inventory and choose the majority of wines they will receive from each release. (They also have authority to put slow-moving wines from previous releases on sale)

This is why making friends with your product consultant can come in handy, especially when you are hoping to see something chosen for your local store.

Let them know your preferences and what you’d like to see on the shelves. And of course, bring along your WineAlign previews to help guide you through the best of what’s available in your local shop.

Now, let me explore some upcoming VINTAGES trends emerging from this month’s “Welcome to VINTAGES” feature:

Sustainability

Rutherford Ranch Chardonnay 2012Social and environmental concerns are a mandate that LCBO has been promoting as of late. One example is the Lightweight Glass Wine Standard that requires wineries to conform to a 420 gram weight limit or else incur an additional per-bottle fee. This practice started in January 2013 for bottles under $15 (which is LCBO shorthand for high-volume wines). In addition, the LCBO has made a deliberate effort in the past few years to bring more organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines into their fold. VINTAGES catalogues will feature an organic symbol next to certified organic wines and product consultants have been briefed to field questions about such wines and guide customers. Expect to see more of these sustainably produced wines in the year to come.  (WineAlign uses an Organic/Biodynamic tag well to help you search.)

Rutherford Ranch Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley, California ($20.95). Sustainability is at the core of wines at Rutherford Ranch, which impressively boasts 100% sustainably produced products. Some of their initiatives include the encouragement of predator mites and birds to rid the vines of potential, unfavorable outbreaks along with water reclamation/reuse and the encouragement of biodiversity. Although not a showstopper, this elegant Chardonnay is also indicative of the new trend of more progressive, less oaky, showy and sweet style chardonnays that focus more on the purity of the fruit and balance of the components. This wine, therefore, fits nicely into two new trends I have observed and described below.

goLocal

This is an LCBO mandate focusing on increasing the visibility and availability of Ontario wines. An environmental initiative rather than one of national pride, its emphasis is on lowering energy consumption by shipping more wine from closer locations. And although the following wine does not quite fit the mold, given its cross—country provenance, the national spirit is inspiring. The second selection in this category is not inclusive in this feature but is one in this release that is certainly worthy of proving the point that we need not go further than our doorstep for satisfying wines:

Gray Monk Pinot Noir 2011Tawse Gamay Noir 2012Gray Monk Pinot Noir 2011, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($19.75). Pinot noir in Ontario is so inspiring to me that I often poo-poo examples from our western neighbors who tend to bowl me over with their syrah. Well, here is an example impossible to overlook and well worth the relatively modest price. Old world inspired, gnarly, lovely and aromatic here is a classic pinot noir that will provide a great deal of satisfaction for Burgundy lovers. Gray Monk’s name comes from one of the first grape varieties that they produced – Pinot Gris. 
In Austria and Hungary, this grape is called ‘Grauar Mönch’ hence the translation to ‘Gray Monk’. 
Don’t miss out!

Tawse Gamay Noir 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($18.95). Tucked into this release but not part of the “Welcome to Vintages” feature, Tawse really hits the mark with this stellar gamay that makes one wonder why we ever venture outside of the province for our wine. This gamay, with its wide appeal and regional distinctiveness fits the bill of what VINTAGES “is all about”.

French Frenzy

France is back in a big way, and better than ever. Bordeaux under $30 can often be a drag but this example will change your perspective. I have been decidedly impressed over the past few months by examples from this most distinguished region of France in the $25 and under category. Although there may have been a lull, this category is experiencing a recent resurgence – France is up in market share by in VINTAGES and threatens to rival the ever-climbing California share. All this to say, don’t be surprised to see great value on the French front and more to come!

Domaine La Guintrandy Vieilles Vignes Cairanne 2009Château Fleur De Jean Gué 2010Château Fleur De Jean Gué 2010, Lalande De Pomerol, Bordeaux, France ($24.95). A nice example of the value we will hopefully, increasingly see in the VINTAGES portfolio. This merlot-based, right-bank blend delivers both intensity and elegance for, dare I say, a bargain. The vineyards are located on the very outskirts of the Pomerol appellation and impart similar characteristics of dried wild berries and licorice.

Domaine La Guintrandy Vieilles Vignes Cairanne 2009, Côtes Du Rhone Villages, Rhône, France ($19.95). This village appellation located in the Vaucluse region of the southern Rhône, just north of Orange is known for its rugged climate producing wines of great fortitude, sometimes rustic and certainly age worthy. At under $20, this delightful example is infused with all of the gnarly garrigue that one would hope to see in such a charming wine.

Stay tuned for our collective column on the ‘best of the rest’ from the March 29th release. Until next week, Santé!

Sara d’Amato

From the Mar 29, 2014 Vintages release:

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

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


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Château St. Jean Fumé Blanc 2011

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Vintages Preview February 15th with David Lawrason, John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

New Format, Same Great Picks and Values + The Stars Align

We are re-tooling the editorial plan at WineAlign in the days ahead to make better use of our vast array of talent, and bring you more timely, comprehensive and authoritative reviews and articles. This is partially due to the imminent addition of four top wine critics from Quebec, who join our four writers in B.C. and six in Ontario. You will see a wider range of topics and viewpoints – some geared specifically to helping you shop wisely with WineAlign, others to bring you the wide world of education and perspective.

Our coverage of VINTAGES twice-monthly releases in Ontario will be changing but not diminishing. Before each release there will still be two separate previews with combined contributions from David Lawrason, John Szabo and Sara d’Amato.

David Lawrason, John Szabo & Sara d'Amato

The first preview, published eight days ahead of the release, will go into depth on the theme that VINTAGES sets out, providing alternative, more objective coverage than found in their magazine. It will be authored by one critic, with review inputs from the team. It may also include wines on the same theme that are available through the LCBO general list, VINTAGES new Shop Online platform (see below) or on consignment. See the first edition on French wines by John Szabo published last week.

The second preview will present non-themed picks from the VINTAGES release from all three critics – David, John and Sara. And where we independently converge on a specific wine it will be singled out in a section called “The Stars Align”. Today marks the first edition of this preview.

Where The Stars Align
(Wines independently highlighted by two or more WineAlign critics)

Thorn Clarke William Randell Shiraz 2010Castorani Amorino Montepulciano D'abruzzo 2007Fleur De California Pinot Noir 2011Fleur De California Pinot Noir 2011 ($19.95) gets two thumbs up from David and Sara. One of the prettiest versions of this cooler climate pinot noir in recent memory and one that hasn’t increased in price from 2008 – also refreshing. Light, fragrant but with surprising complexity – certainly worth a go at this price (SD). Nice crossover of cool and warm climate styles – eminently drinkable, good value pinot from a Carneros expert (DL).

Castorani Amorino 2007 Montepulciano D’abruzzo  Casuria ($27.95) was scored 90+ by both John and David. A fully mature, flavourful, complex example of montepulciano, which brings to mind very good level Brunello di Montalcino with its similar range of savoury, ripe, dusty red berry-cherry aromatics and wild herbal notes (JSz). Certainly more sophistication and complexity than most wines from Abruzzi (DL).

2010 Thorn-Clarke William Randell Shiraz Barossa ($43.95). A hugely satisfying shiraz in the old Barossa style: full-blown, ripe, jammy, buttery and generously proportioned. This makes no concessions to the modern wave of leaner, tighter Australian wines, yet a sense of proportion is nonetheless maintained (JSz). The best wine I have ever tasted from this flavour-forward house – this is Barossa on steroids (DL).

Lawrason’s Take

Whites

Wente Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc 2011Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Riesling 2012Burning Kiln Stick Shaker Savagnin 2012Burning Kiln 2012 Stick Shaker Savagnin, Ontario ($24.95) is something you just must try. Savagnin, the great white grape of Jura, is rare in Ontario, and in the hands of boundary pushing winemaker Andrejz Lipinski (also Big Head, Cornerstone) it hits amazing heights. Burning Kiln is the new, smart winery on Lake Erie near Port Dover.

Tawse 2012 Sketches Of Niagara Riesling, Niagara Peninsula ($17.95) is the new vintage of one of the winningest little rieslings in Ontario’s history. While Tawse makes single vineyard, older vine rieslings that have more complexity and minerality, this simpler version lights up with pitch-perfect acid-sugar balance and purity.

Wente 2011 Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc, Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay ($17.95). You may be surprised to see a California sauvignon in this list, because it is not a strong variety in the Golden State. This hails however from some of the oldest SB vines in the state, in a forgotten area that has been turning out solid white Bordeaux – styles wines for almost 40 years. A steal given the complexity it packs.

Reds

Montefino Tinto Reserva 2005Tasca D'almerita Cygnus Nero D'avola Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir 2011Mission Hill 2011 Reserve Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($24.95). Mission Hill stunned the world last year when its Martin Lane’s single vineyard pinot from a site near the winery in Westbank captured a Decanter trophy for best pinot under £15. Given the vitality, nerve and complexity of this less expensive Reserve from the same vintage, I am no longer surprised. Nor, in this context, am I surprised by Mission Hill’s recent acquisition of CedarCreek, which owns plenty of good pinot noir vineyard across the lake.

Tasca d’Almerita 2009 Cygnus Nero d’Avola/Cabernet Sauvignon, Sicily, Italy ($19.95) is a huge value and an intoxicating wine, in the best way. Great wine carries a sense of place and the ebullient fragrance of this blend transported me instantly to the cool, hilltop site of one of the best wineries in all of Italy. It’s unusual so don’t load up until you try it for yourself; but it is a savoury red to be reckoned with.

Montefino 2005 Tinto Reserva , Alentejano, Portugal ($17.95) is a must buy for any fans of mature Euro reds. It is so fragrant, complex and seamlessly built. I just can’t believe the price given its quality and age! Portugal has long suffered from under-valuation, but that is our gain as consumers if you are willing to buy off the grid.

John Szabo’s Smart Buys

Whites

Quinta Das Marias Encruzado 2011Boutari Santorini 2012Colomé Torrontés 2012Waterkloof Circle Of Life 2011

Quinta Das Marias 2011 Encruzado Dão ($16.95). A complex and flavourful encruzado, one of the star indigenous grapes in a country with over two hundred. It’s reminiscent of viognier with its unctuous, glycerous texture and very ripe orchard and tropical fruit flavours, well suited to full flavoured dishes, cream sauces and white meats, even lightly spiced coconut curries.

Boutari 2012 Santorini ($17.95). Characteristically shy on the nose, but the palate delivers significant weight and flesh, density and the particular salty flavour derived from the volcanic soils of the island. Grapefruit and lemon rind notes linger.

Colomé 2012 Torrontés Calchaquí Valley, Salta, Argentina ($13.95). A smart value in a simple, pungent, highly aromatic white wine, with genuine acids and cut. Complexity may be modest, but the flavour impact and length are satisfying at the price.

Waterkloof 2011 Circle Of Life ($24.95). Not especially aromatic, but the palate delivers impressive concentration and a wide range of flavours, not least of which is a scorching streak of minerality. Despite richness and alcoholic warmth, there’s sufficient underlying acidity to prop up the ensemble and keep it balanced if not exactly fresh, but in any case this is a wine of texture and depth, not freshness.

Pier Rio Sordo Barbaresco 2009Saltram Limited Release Winemaker's Selection Shiraz Tempranillo 2010Reds

Saltram 2010 Limited Release Winemaker’s Selection Shiraz Tempranillo Barossa Valley, Australia ($44.95). This is like a warm sweater on a cool winter’s night, enveloping, comforting, satisfying. Plush, intense dark fruit combines with generous but balanced alcohol and great length. Drinking well now, though will hold until the end of the decade and easily beyond.  An innovative blend.

Pier Rio Sordo 2009 Barbaresco ($28.95). This is a long way from prime drinking, but the palate shows excellent promise, with very good structure and depth, not to mention length. I’d revisit this in 2-4 years – it has classic firmness and pleasant rusticity.

Sara’s Sommelier Picks

White and the Reds

Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay 2012 Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($22.95). A medalist at the National Wine Awards this year, the Southbrook Whimsy chardonnay earned top scores among critics. The Triomphe is Southbrook’s more reasonably priced ranged aimed at everyday entertaining. Carefully produced from organically grown grapes, this chardonnay delivers exceptional balance and class for a fair price. Not to be missed.

Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay 2012Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2011Malivoire Gamay 2012Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2011 Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($24.95). No doubt about it – Jackson Triggs knows its way around this grape varietal that has proven a bit of a gamble in Niagara. However, this cool climate style is quite riveting and is a testament that Niagara’s perseverance can result in show stopping results. This traditional Rhone varietal can actually thrive in slightly cooler climates and expresses itself in a peppery and enticing aromatic way.

Malivoire Gamay 2012 Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($17.95). #GoGamayGo – fans of Niagara wines have been touting the greatness of this varietal in Niagara for several years now. Personally, I hope to see much more of this “Cru style” on the shelves of the LCBO in years to come as it is such an exciting, food friendly and locally expressive varietal. Besides, Malivoire’s winemaker has one of the best names in the business: Shiraz Mottiar!

Artezin Zinfandel 2011, Mendocino County, California ($21.95). As the name suggest, Artezin has focused on this one varietal but has recently branched out to petit sirah as well. In fact, this zin contains a small dose of the aforementioned, robust varietal. Nevertheless, the wine remains true to varietal character with zesty raspberry is medium-bodied and boasts a plethora of authentic berry fruit flavours. The oak is spicy rather than sweet making this both commercially appealing but also a bit a challenging. The producer works closely with sustainable and family-owned growers across California. Great value.

Kilikanoon Killerman's Run Shiraz Grenache 2011Hess Collection 19 Block Cuvée 2009Artezin Zinfandel 2011Hess Collection 19 Block Cuvée 2009 Napa Valley, California ($47.95). Mount Veeder’s slopes are home to some of the most sought after wines in Napa. With the lowest yields of the region and a rugged terrain featuring volcanic soils that require careful hand harvesting and little to no mechanization, you can bet there is a price tag to match. This is certain to make any collector quite happy.

Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2011 ($19.95). Australia has been a major focus of the LCBO as of late and it is delightful to see a greater range of these lighter, fresher and more reserved, “new age” wines hit the shelves. I was fortunate to sit down with Kilikanoon’s proprietor, and renowned storyteller, Nathan Waks, who has long been a fan of this pared down style. Although this amount of delectable pepper is a product of the cool 2011 vintage in Clare Valley, the vibrancy, succulent mouthfeel and balance is quite characteristic. Will delight both fans of the Old World and New.

VINTAGES ReLaunches Online Sales Platform

WineAlign is not the only website on the move it seems. VINTAGES has just re-launched its Shop Online purchasing platform to consolidate its entire web-based business. VintagesShopOnline.com makes good sense to us, and we look forward to easier use of it ourselves and hopefully providing more and more reviews of the wines that appear on the Shop Online site. Ordering for a new slate of Classic Catalogue items begins February 20.

And that is a wrap for this edition. We look forward to your feedback. And watch WineAlign in the days ahead as we head into the home stretch before the Vancouver International Wine Festival. If you have never been, you might want to seriously consider booking a spur of the moment weeks holiday, or long weekend getaway.

From the February 15, 2014 Vintages release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews

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


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 Saltram Winemaker's Selection Shiraz Tempranillo 2010


Cuvée Weekend 2014 – WineAlign VIP Access

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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – VSO wines and biodynamic winegrowing

VSO Wines – A Friendly Reminder:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

For those unfamiliar with the Vintages Shop Online (or VSO) programme, several years ago the LCBO began offering wines exclusively over the internet, with all payments to be made directly online. As mentioned previously, the programme has not been all that successful, due in no small part to the fact that so few wine aficionados are even aware of its existence. An additional problem is that all purchases must be picked up at local LCBO outlets of customers’ choice, for there is currently no home delivery. Finally, it was only a year or two ago that the LCBO even began permitting members of the press to taste VSO wines in the lab at Queens Quay on a regular basis.

Last month, we at WineAlign were privy to examine a neat selection of VSO wines at reduced prices. In contrast, recommendations for this month are a bit more pricy (at least in some cases), but no less worthy of purchase. Curious buyers – not to mention those willing to go through the drudgeries of creating a VSO account (a prerequisite for participating in the programme) – will be sufficiently rewarded.

Shop On-lineCritic reviews for many of the VINTAGES Shop Online wines can be found on WineAlign. The wines can be identified by this shopping bag symbol. Clicking on the symbol will take you directly to the VINTAGES website where you confirm availability and place your order.

Great Wines of all Types

Gabriel Meffre Laurus Gigondas 2010Baigorri Reserva 2005Gabriel Meffre 2010 Laurus Gigondas ($30.00) comes from one of the finest appellations in the Southern Rhône, from a producer that has shown steady improvement over the past several vintages. A blend of Grenache and Syrah (percentages unknown), a vigourous decanting is well advised if consumed young.

Baigorri 2005 Reserva Rioja ($38.00) is crafted from 100% Tempranillo and represents a growing trend in Rioja toward placing greater emphasis on freshness and body instead of excessive maturation in oak barrels. Of considerable quality, many of the best reds nowadays are derived from much better fruit and will probably keep much longer in the cellar than many of their more ‘traditional’ counterparts. From the best vintage of the mid-2000s (along with 2004 for those who are interested), decanting is highly advisable.

Jean Fannière Grand Cru Extra Brut ChampagneDomaine Du Grand Tinel Cuvée Alexis Establet Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010Domaine du Grand Tinel 2010 Cuvée Alexis Establet Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($54.00) is crafted from 100% Grenache and hails from one of the most celebrated appellations in France. For cravers of full-bodied red wines, a great Châteauneuf-du-Pape is hard to beat, and will often perform brilliantly even in youth. Just be sure to enjoy at the proper temperature (around 17°C or perhaps slightly lower), otherwise the alcohol may seem a tad overwhelming. Decanting is almost always recommended.

Jean Fannière NV Origine Grand Cru Extra Brut Champagne ($62.00) has got to be tasted to believed. Based out of Avize in the Côte des Blancs, I have only examined a handful of champagnes from this small-scale producer, yet they have all been of exceptional quality. Crafted from 100% Chardonnay, what really stands out is the frothiness. I hope to taste more from Fannière sooner rather than later, as well as add a few bottles to my personal collection.

Biodynamic winegrowing

For those unfamiliar with the subject, Biodynamic winegrowing is best described as an extreme form of organic wine production, replete with environmentally friendly initiatives and (more controversially) a wide range of holistic practices. These days, an increasing number of quality-minded producers are embracing Biodynamic principles in order to improve the quality of their vineyards and make better wines.

Demeter InternationalThe principles of Biodynamic winegrowing were first promulgated by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in the mid-1920s. Nowadays, in order for an estate to be certified as Biodynamic, they must apply to one of several institutions, the most common being Demeter, an organization formed in 1928. Though it may come as a surprise to some, official government regulation of “Biodynamic” (a registered trademark of Demeter) practices is essentially minimal in most jurisdictions, with France being a major exception.

So what are some of those quirky rules we’ve all heard about in order for an estate to earn their Biodynamic certification? As pointed out by Caroline Gilby MW, perhaps the most seemingly bizarre of these is the practice of inserting specially treated cow manure into a horn (also of a cow) and burying it in the ground. The reason: to stimulate root growth and humus formation. However, at roughly one horn per hectare, more than a handful of individuals have claimed this to be an entirely bogus procedure. Another questionable practice? The spraying of specially prepared (or ‘dynamised’) herbal teas onto compost in order to make nutrients more available to the vines. According to Demeter: “The preparations develop a strong yet subtle power whose effect may be compared to that of homeopathic remedies.” Take from this what you will. For my part, I have absolutely no idea what this means, nor do I exactly comprehend the reason for which the use of teas and cow components are only administered at certain times of the year, according to “life forces” dictated by the phases of the moon.

These reservations notwithstanding, there is absolutely no question that Biodynamic practices have resulted in an incredible improvement in quality at many estates. I just don’t attribute these to cow horns or teas (the jury that comprises my brain cells is still out on the moon stuff). Instead, the vast improvements in winegrowing at estates fully or partially engaged in Biodynamic procedures may be largely attributed to a colossal leap in what many of us in the business would simply call “conscientious winegrowing.” This involves placing far less emphasis on the need for aggressive fertilizers, pesticides, and unnecessary machinery. Instead, winegrowers seek to utilize more natural means of crafting better wines, from managing pests by intentionally introducing predatory insects to using horse-drawn ploughs in lieu of tractors to deal with the soil.

(Two Biodynamic examples worth a look: Château Maris Las Combes Minervois Cru La Livinière 2009 and Domaine Zind Humbrecht Calcaire Gewürztraminer 2009)

The moral of the story? While Biodynamic certification might look good on a winery’s résumé, many of the holistic practices are perhaps better omitted than included. At very least, they merit a more scientific, less “dynamised” examination.
Cheers,

Julian Hitner

P.S. “Dynamisation” is the practice of rapidly stirring mixtures in one direction to create a vortex and then quickly reversing the direction. This is carried out for roughly one hour, the purpose of which is to “energize” the mixture.

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Time to Revisit VINTAGES Shop Online

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

For those unfamiliar with the VINTAGES Shop Online (or VSO) programme, several years back the LCBO began offering wines exclusively over the web, with all payments to be made directly online. As mentioned in a previous column, the programme has only enjoyed mixed success, due mainly to the fact that so few wine lovers know about its existence. An additional problem is that all purchases must be picked up at local LCBO outlets of customers’ choice. There is no home delivery.

On a positive note, the VSO programme often features vast quantities of bin ends on sale, wines that never reach LCBO shelves for one reason or another. On average, price reductions range from 15-25% per bottle, which in some cases represent fabulous deals. At time of publication, there are 95 bin ends available for ordering on the VSO website. Here are a few favourites:

Great Value Whites:

Dunham Cellars Shirley Mays Chardonnay 2009Alkoomi Wandoo Semillon 2005Alkoomi 2005 Wandoo Semillon ($24.75) has been reduced from $32.95 and is a marvellous choice. Though the Hunter Valley in New South Wales is much more famous for its own versions of immaculate dry Semillon, the grape seems to do extremely well in many other parts of Australia, from the Barossa Valley in South Australia to Frankland River in Western Australia. The ’05 Wandoo is finely aged and full of vitality and flavour.

Dunham Cellars 2009 Shirley Mays Chardonnay ($20.05) has been reduced from $24.00 and is a neat, refreshing offering. On the whole, my familiarity with Washington State whites is somewhat minimal, as this particular part of the Pacific Northwest really is more famous for its reds. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this matter in the future. In the meantime, the ’09 Shirley Mays should find favour with many fellow wine lovers.

Top Choice Reds:

Fall Line Cabernet SauvignonChâteau Des Erles Fitou 2004Fall Line 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.00) has been reduced from $27.00 and represents incredible value for money. Sourced from the Yakima Valley, it seems remarkably youthful for a wine already six years old, at least when examined in the LCBO tasting lab. At 15% alcohol, it demands appreciable quantities of food. Decanting is also merited.

Château des Erles 2004 Fitou ($31.45) has been reduced from $51.00 and is a brilliant example of a properly aged Roussillon. A blend of Grenache, Carignan, and Syrah (percentages unknown), it hails from an appellation worth getting to know. Located just south of Corbières not excessively far from the border with Spain, Fitou was granted appellation status as early as 1948. Decanting is highly recommended.

Coriole Lloyd Reserve ShirazCoriole 2007 Lloyd Reserve Shiraz ($37.90) has been reduced from $49.00 and has a very long life ahead of it. The Flagship label of Coriole, I have tasted many vintages of this wine over the past several years. Immensely pleasurable now, the ‘07 will easily keep for another ten years, provided it is cellared in the proper conditions. Decanting is definitely advisable.

Upcoming Postings:

For the past two years, I have been painstakingly preparing notes of my favourite wines for publication on WineAlign. It has been a very slow process, as most of my notes cover a vast premium spectrum of fine wine production. However, a few months ago I finally began visualizing a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Long story short: there are great quantities of notes on the way!

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

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

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VINTAGES Shop OnlineCritic reviews for many of the VINTAGES Shop Online wines can be found on WineAlign. The wines can be identified by this shopping bag symbol. Clicking on the symbol will take you directly to the VINTAGES website where you confirm availability and place your order.

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The Successful Collector, by Julian Hitner: Wine education for us all – Visiting Vinho Verde

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Having experienced my fill of wine travels over the past several months, it is with an acute sense of relief that summer has arrived. Like many of my fellow Ontarians, I adore this time of year: business matters mostly come to a halt, many of my more boisterous neighbours go on extended vacations, and wine discussions with my associates tend to take on more relaxed, less caustic overtones. If I had anything in the way of long hair, I would let it down — please see column photo.

Early in June, I ended off my springtime travels on a high note with a visit to the Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) of Vinho Verde in northern Portugal. Famous for its dry, oftentimes slightly effervescent, whites, the wines of Vinho Verde popularly conjure up images of refreshing, inexpensive wares to enjoy in warmer weather, usually with seafood.

Vinho VerdeThough I am mostly of this opinion, it is now clear to me that the region’s finer bottlings merit closer examination, particularly ones crafted from 100% Alvarinho. Better known by its Spanish name of Albariño (the grape is grown to great success in Galicia across the border), the best wines crafted from this promising, intensely mineral-laden varietal seem to reflect a growing sense of confidence among the region’s many producers, most of which have only very recently begun to craft wine of any serious worth. After all, few people outside of Portugal had ever even heard of Vinho Verde as recently as fifteen years ago, never mind all the other recommended white grapes used to make the wine — Loureiro, Trajadura, Avesso, Azal Branco, and Padernã.

But things are changing very quickly. Sales of Vinho Verde are soaring, vineyards and winemaking facilities are being revamped, and increasingly better wines are being produced at all price levels. Granted, there is immense room for improvement, especially at the lower end, where quality is anything but uniform. Yet if there’s one thing I learned about the winegrowers in this part of Portugal, it’s that they recognize the need for pressing forward. If only all the world’s winegrowing regions embraced this virtue in equal measure.

One more remark:

At the present time, the LCBO carries only a handful of Vinho Verde wines. Of those available, wines from Aveleda are generally respectable (if not a tad rudimentary), though the finer Portuguese restaurants in our city will likely have far more interesting offerings. After a quick search online, the best place appears to be Salt Wine Bar (225 Ossington Ave.), which even includes the Soalheiro 2011 Alvarinho — not to be missed.

VINTAGES Shop Online 

For several years now, WineAlign critics have reviewed wines available via the VINTAGES Shop Online portfolio whenever possible. For those unfamiliar with the programme, a couple of years ago the LCBO (or VINTAGES) began offering select wines exclusively over the internet, on a separate website, to be picked up at a local store of customers’ choosing.

Taken as a whole, the programme has enjoyed mixed success. While many of the wines are of impeccable quality (with prices ranging from around $25 to $200), consumers have yet to embrace the on-line purchasing platform. In my opinion, this is due in no small part to the fact that the wines are not available for home delivery, but must be picked up at a local outlet.

This aside, WineAlign is pleased to announce that its critics — spearheaded by me in this case — will be reviewing wines from the VINTAGES Shop Online programme on a much more regular basis, as more of these wines are being put forward for critics to taste in the LCBO lab. This initiative also applies to the VINTAGES In-Store Discovery programme, of which critics are now permitted to taste, as well.

Here are a few gems currently available on VINTAGES Shop Online:

Dr. Bürklin Wolf Hohenmorgen G.C. Riesling TrockenDomaine La Garrigue La Cantarelle VacqueryasDr. Bürklin Wolf Hohenmorgen G.C. Riesling Trocken 2007 : Sourced from the famed Hohenmorgen vineyard (based out of Deidesheim), the 2007 Riesling Trocken GC delivers wonderful character, style, finesse, and harmony. Light lime in colour with a trace of yellow (extremely faint), it reveals tremendously elegant, enticing scents of lemon citrus, lime cordial, dried white peaches, minerals, and plenty of spice. Complex, with exceptional Alsatian-like fruit, balanced acidity, and a soothing yet vibrant hint of lemon citrus and minerals on the finish. Outstanding performance, a wine of this calibre may be kept for the next ten years or more. Now-2023++.

Domaine La Garrigue La Cantarelle Vacqueryas: Likely the most powerful Vacqueyras I’ve ever examined (logging in at 15.5% alcohol), the 2010 La Cantarelle is both well-structured and decadent. Opaque ruby in colour, it delivers alluring, powerful aromas of seaweed-infused blackberry compote, plums, dried cherries, pencil lead, forest floor, vanilla, and spice. Very complex, with concentrated fruit, very firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a forceful, lasting hint of blackberry compote, garrigue, and seaweed-like characteristics on the finish. Massively outlined, this beauty represents excellent value for money. 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah. Now-2025.

Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009La Roquète L'Accent de la RoquèteAustin Hope Family Vineyard Syrah 2010Austin Hope Family Vineyard Syrah 2010: My only note from this winery, the 2010 Hope Family Vineyard Syrah is sourced entirely from a site located within the Templeton Gap region (just west of the Paso Robles AVA). Opaque ruby in colour, the wine is finely toasted, with inviting aromas of blackberries, plums, incense, tobacco, forest floor, vanilla, and spice. Complex, boasting delicious forward fruit, fairly supple tannins, mild acidity, and a long, satisfying hint of blackberries, incense, and tobacco on the finish. Bold, lengthy, and balanced (despite 15% alcohol). Now-2017++.

La Roquète l’Accent De La Roquète: Top wine of the domaine, the 2009 L’Accent de La Roquète is crafted from vines roughly sixty years of age. Dark ruby in colour, the ’09 presents appetizing aromas of dark raspberries, currants, and figs; switching to dried cherries, underbrush, and a hint of savoury herbs and spice. Complex, boasting delicious, ‘deceptively midweight’ fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a terrific hint of dried red fruits/figs, raspberries, and underbrush on the finish. Great character, balance, and structure. According to their website: mainly Grenache, plus roughly 10% Mourvèdre. Now-2020++.

Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos: Nicolas Joly’s obsession with biodynamic/holistic winegrowing is well known, for which the weird and wonderful 2009 Les Vieux Clos serves as testament. Light-medium yellow-lime in colour (plus a little haze), it reveals entirely idiosyncratic scents of baked Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples (both in pie format); switching to cinnamon, apple cider/strudel, smoke, and alternate bruised fruits. Very complex, with beautiful fruit, balanced acidity, and a wholly original, endearing hint of baked apples (in cider- and pie-like format) on the finish. Excellent job, the planets must have really been in sync when this wine was produced. Now-2016++.

At WineAlign, the choices for subscribers keeps on expanding. Cheers!

For more reviews visit our Critics profile page: Julian Hitner

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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008