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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – The new Gran Selezione Category of Chianti Classico

Raising the bar or raising prices?

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Debuting this spring, the new ‘Gran Selezione’ category of Chianti Classico has the entire wine world abuzz. What exactly is this new premium wine category? What are the rules? And when might we expect to begin seeing bottles labelled as Gran Selezione in VINTAGES stores?

Such questions were uppermost on my mind when I attended the official launch of Gran Selezione in Florence last month. Held in the illustrious Throne Room of the Palazzo Vecchio, the excitement of participating producers (some of the best in the region) was palpable. For many, the creation of the Gran Selezione category had been a long time coming. With the widely recognized rise in the quality of Chianti Classico over the past several years, it was only natural that a new ranking be developed at the top level so as to reflect the calibre of the best bottlings. To most in attendance, this was at least the message the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico very much wished to convey.

Chianti LogoThe rules for Gran Selezione are reasonably simple. First and foremost, all grapes must be estate-grown. In other words, producers may not purchase grapes from other growers (such as bulk producers) for the purpose of adding them to the final blend. Second, the wine must be matured for at least 30 months in wood prior to release, including at least 3 months in bottle. Finally, the wine is to be strictly examined by an expert panel of impartial judges before release. As with Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, all Gran Selezione must be produced from 80-100% Sangiovese. In addition to local grapes such as Canaiolo and/or Colorino, grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot may constitute up to 20% of the final blend.

The establishment of this new category has been met with considerable anticipation, though several issues remain. Of these, the most significant is how this new premium ranking will affect other existing categories of Chianti Classico. For instance, will the style of wines bottled as ‘Chianti Classico Riserva’ be changed? According to existing regulations, Riservas must be aged for at least 2 years in wood, including 3 months in bottle. They also do not have to be crafted exclusively from estate-grown fruit. But even already (and this should not come as a surprise), some producers have begun diverting their best estate-grown fruit from wines formerly destined to be labelled as Riserva to bottles destined to be labelled as Gran Selezione. As a whole, does this mean the quality of Chianti Classico Riserva is destined for a nosedive? Only time will tell.

Chianti Pyramid


Another issue is whether Gran Selezione wines (the grapes of which are not even obliged to come from single vineyards) will even be qualitatively superior to Chianti Classico Riserva or ‘standard’ Chianti Classico in the long run. Simply put, is the Gran Selezione category nothing but a price grab in the making? So far, this does not seem to be the case. From what I tasted during my time in Firenze, wines labelled as Gran Selezione almost always represented the finest, most qualitatively appreciable bottlings of any given estate, at least among Chianti Classico offerings. A good omen of things to come? Once again, only time will tell.

Indeed, the quality of initial offerings are truly impressive, with many possessing a much-welcomed extra degree of concentration and complexity that seem to definitively separate them from their ‘standard’ counterparts. But personal preference does play a role, as not everyone might appreciate their Chianti Classicos aged for so long in oak at the expense of fruit freshness and approachability. Hence the contradictorily positive effect(s) of the new Gran Selezione category: an expansion of styles and more diverse levels of quality than ever before.

Availability of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione:

At present, wines labelled as ‘Chianti Classico Gran Selezione’ are set to be released in VINTAGES stores over the next several years. At time of publication, we are uncertain if these wines will be featured in bi-weekly releases or if they will be offered exclusively through the VINTAGES Classics Collection. For now, all wines may only be purchased through the agent listed. They are truly worth seeking out.

My top choices:

Mazzei Castello di Fonterutoli 2010 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($75.00) surpasses a large number of expectations. For both its concentration and refinement, this is definitely one of the most powerful, most delicious versions I have ever tasted from this extraordinary establishment. Decanting is recommended. Available through Trialto Wine Group.

San Felice 2010 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($35.00) is a first-rate outing, representing one of the best buys of this premium new category. In addition to 80% Sangiovese, five other grape varietals made it into the final blend. Decanting is recommended. Available through John Hanna & Sons.

Fontodi 2010 Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($95.00) is the finest version I have tasted thus far, hailing from one of the most accomplished producers in Tuscany. A potential legend in the making, the Manetti family has every reason to take pride in this incredible offering. Decanting is certainly warranted. Available through Rogers & Company.

Il Molino di Grace 2010 Il Margone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($75.00) is built for the very long-term, but may be consumed now with unbridled gusto. For those unfamiliar with this winery (launched in 1999), Frank Grace’s eponymous operation has developed quite a reputation for itself in a very short time. Decanting is recommended. Available through Connexion Oenophilia.

Antinori 2009 Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($60.00) is to be commended on so many levels, not just for its sensational pedigree but also for its obvious superiority to a good number of its predecessors. An immensely rewarding wine. Decanting is recommended. Available through Halpern Enterprises.

Chianti Classico Riservas currently available:

Castello di Bossi 2008 Berardo Chianti Classico Riserva ($29.95) hails from an estate with which I am only just beginning to become familiar. Owned by the Bacci family, human activity appears to have taken place at Castello de Bossi since ancient Roman times. A very fascinating locale for winegrowing. Decanting is recommended.

Fontodi 2009 Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Riserva ($75.00) represents one of the top offerings of its graduating class, and may very well be the last vintage of Vigna del Sorbo to be bottled as ‘Riserva.’ A wine of remarkable disposition and breed, this will keep for up to a dozen years. Decanting is recommended.

Castelgreve 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva ($29.95) provides an extremely solid introduction to wines crafted more in the ‘traditional style.’ This usually means greater emphasis placed on dried fruits and cedarwood, an approach that tends to lend itself well to all sorts of Italian foods. Decanting is recommended.

Castello San Sano 2008 Guarnellotto Chianti Classico Riserva ($19.25) was tasted a year ago and has since been reduced in price. Enjoyable over the medium term, this may not be the most complex wine, though the quality of its ingredients makes for a rather impressive experience. Decanting is recommended but not mandatory.

Click the links below for more Chianti Classico wines and reviews.


Julian Hitner

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

Julian’s Chianti Classico Reviews
All Julian Hitner Reviews

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Spring Spirits

Bring on the White Spirits of Spring

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Spring launched with snow still on the ground in much of Canada (stop gloating Vancouver) but maybe finally it’s time to pop open the white spirits to herald in our late much desired true spring. Across Canada new distilleries are popping up like crocuses and globally new tequilas, vodkas and gins are making their debut.

Gin can be simply defined as botanically flavoured vodka. By law, juniper berries must be the chief botanical, but many others are added such as angelica, cassia bark, citrus peels and caraway. Modern gin makers have upped the ante with more and more interesting botanicals such as cucumber, rose petals, elderflower, lavender, cilantro and pepper.

Ungava, a fantastic tasting Canadian premium gin made by Domaine Pinnacle in Quebec is flavoured with indigenous Canadian botanicals of our far north such as Nordic juniper, Labrador tea leaf, crowberry, cloudberry and wild rose hips. It’s the most intriguing gin I’ve tasted and I recommend it be sipped simply chilled or on the rocks. Dillon’s in Beamsville, Ontario, makes their Gin 22, by passing vapour through 22 botanicals. It’s gentle, rounded and smooth. Perfect to make an easy going G&T. Victoria Gin, hand produced in small batches on Vancouver Island, is distilled from ten botanicals (natural and wild gathered).  Packed with personality, citrus peels come through on the nose as well as gentle juniper along with floral notes from rose petals.

Ungava Canadian Premium Gin   Dillon's Unfiltered Gin 22   Victoria Gin

Further afield, from London, Beefeater 24 in a bottle inspired by an early 20th century flask, is flavoured with 12 botanicals (including grapefruit peel, Seville orange and Japanese sencha tea) infused in grain spirit for 24 hours prior to distillation. The London #1 Gin also from 12 botanicals is a light turquoise colour derived in part from gardenia flowers and a final infusion of bergamot oil. No.3 London Dry Gin made in Holland but unmistakably traditional London Dry Gin has juniper at its heart to lend a characteristic pine and lavender overtone that I for one, absolutely love. Plymouth Gin has a higher proportion of roots such as orris and angelica in its recipe which gives it a smooth sweetness and a long finish. It’s flavourful with an array of bright distinctive lingering botanical aromas and robust power.

BEEFEATER 24  The London No. 1 Gin  No 3 London Dry  Plymouth English Gin

The original James Bond martini was based on gin and so was the first martini ever made. That being the case, a classic martini should use a gin where the juniper shines brightly such as Plymouth, Beefeater 24, or No. 3 London Dry. And easy on the vermouth. As Churchill once said “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini, leaving as much room for the gin as possible, naturally.” Chill a martini glass by putting ice in the glass. Add 2.5 oz gin and 0.5 oz (or just a few drops) dry vermouth to cocktail mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for 15 to 30 seconds to your desired dilution. Strain into cooled, empty martini glass. Garnish with lemon zest or olive speared with a toothpick.

Tromba Reposado Tequila Tromba Añejo TequilaAgave spirits have graduated in our markets from Jimmy Buffet songs and college parties to seriously delicious tipples. Tequila, produced primarily in the Mexican state of Jalisco is made from the Blue Agave plant. Blanco is unaged (but can be aged up to two months), reposado is two months to less than a year and añejo must be aged for at least a year but fewer than three.

Tromba Tequila (all 100% agave), founded by Canadian Eric Bass, Mexican master distiller Marco Cedano and others has recently got listings for their reposado and añejo in Canada. Tromba Reposado spent six months aging in Jack Daniel’s barrels and is silky smooth. Tromba Añejo was aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels for two years to give it a mellowed, honeyed agave character.

Dulce Vida Tequila is organic, 100% agave tequila that’s strong (50% alcohol) and powerful. Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Blanco is intense and bright with peppery power. Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Reposado is single barrel aged in American bourbon barrels for up to 11 months. Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Anejo isaged for 18 to 24 months in American bourbon barrels.

Vodka, the world’s second most popular spirit continues to evolve with new flavours and artisanal production. Canada’s Iceberg Vodka, made using harvested icebergs now has a cold sensitive label that reveals a Canadian Maple Leaf when chilled down.  A new recently introduced flavour is Iceberg Chocolate Mint. Prepared to find it too syrupy, I was surprised at how good it was – like a liquid spirited after dinner mint. I’m now keen to try their other flavours namely Cucumber, and Crème Brulée which are available only in Alberta and Newfoundland so far.

Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Blanco  Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila ReposadoDulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Anejo Iceberg Chocolate Mint Flavoured Vodka Russian Standard Platinum Vodka

Russia may not be in our good books but so far Russian vodka still is. Russian Standard Platinum Vodka passed through an exclusive silver filtration system is ultra creamy and silky. Well chilled it makes a smooth sipping vodka martini. Let’s raise a glass to spring.

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the 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 spirits!


County in the City

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The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – Ribera del Duero

One exciting winegrowing region

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

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

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

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

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

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

Ribera del Duero

A typical vineyard in Ribera del Duero

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

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

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

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

Top estates in Ribera del Duero:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wines currently available in Vintages:

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

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

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


Julian Hitner

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

Julian’s Ribera del Duero Reviews
All Julian Hitner Reviews

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Mar 2014

St. Patrick’s Day Libations 2014

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Good news for Ontario residents this upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, Writers Tears has obtained general listing and will be available year round. This Pot Still Blend Irish Whiskey recently won “Best Blend in Ireland” at the Irish Whiskey Awards.

Evocative of the style of whiskey enjoyed during the time of Yeats and Joyce a century ago in Dublin, it’s a blend of pot still malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled and matured in American ex-bourbon casks. Velvety smooth, yet bold in flavour, with malt and bourbon notes, it has nuances of ginger, treacle and apple.

Writers Tears Pot Still Blend (700ml)It’s produced by an independent Irish company, owned by the Walsh family, who also produce The Irishman brands. The Irishman whiskeys are the creations of Bernard Walsh who enjoys special access to the warehouses of certain Irish distillers. He came up with the idea for the Pot Still blend. All other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey/Column still.

Whiskey was first distilled in Ireland (not Scotland as may be common belief), around the 7th century. By 1802 Irish whiskey represented 90% of the entire world’s whiskey and Ireland boasted over 200 distilleries. Taxes, famines, the War of Independence, Prohibition and other factors lead to the demise of most of the distillers. However in recent years Irish whiskey has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity; historic brands have been revived, some mothballed distilleries reopened and the number of independent Irish bottlings has grown.

Kilbeggan Irish WhiskeyConnemara Peated Single Malt Irish WhiskyThe Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish WhiskeyCooley (now owned by Beam Inc.) is the distillery that shook up the market in 1987.  Founded by John Telling with the goal of reintroducing the North American market to quality Irish whiskey, Cooley departed from the accepted definition of Irish whiskey as being triple distilled and unpeated. He revived historic brands such as Tyrconnell and created a family of Connemara double distilled peated single malts. Part of the Cooley brands, Kilbeggan Distillery reopened in 2007. Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey has a sweet toffee nose and malty finish.

Bushmills can with fair authority claim to be the oldest distillery in the world. The royal licence to distil in the district of Bushmills was granted in 1608. Situated in the quaint town of Bushmills, Northern Ireland, it takes its name from the River Bush and all the mills that used to be on it. Bushmills 10 Year Old matured for a minimum of 10 years mainly in bourbon seasoned barrels has aromas of sweet smoky honey, vanilla and milk chocolate. Bushmills Black Bush has a high proportion of malt whiskey matured in oloroso sherry casks.

Midleton Very Rare Whiskey (one of the Irish Distillers brands which include Jameson, Powers, Paddy and Redbreast) is an expensive treat at $179.95 but worth the money.

Bushmills Malt 10 Year OldBushmills Black Bush WhiskeyMidleton Very Rare Irish WhiskeyThose who want to delve further into the link between Irish writers and drink might well visit Ireland and go on The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Irish pubs are much more than a place to get a drink. Part of the fabric of everyday life they are steeped in history, referenced in literature and full of lore. Dublin has 800 of them.

It’s fitting that in the “City of Words” the best pub crawl is a literary one. Actor and author Colm Quilligan started the Dublin pub tour in 1988 and figures about 300,000 people have taken it so far. Performance is part of the tour which is led by professional actors. The tour I took began at The Duke with a song by Colm and his partner for this night, Derek Reid. Those of us on the tour were encouraged to sing the fitting chorus, “I’ll have a pint with you.”

Then the two men launched into a (well-acted) piece from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. The evening was filled with prose, drama and song as we followed the footsteps of literary greats into four of their favourite haunts. We learned juicy details about the lives of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Brendan Behan as we enjoyed a few good pints ending the evening at Davy Byrnes pub.

Davy Byrnes was the setting James Joyce chose for the Lestrygonians episode of his famous novel Ulysses. Cecil Salkeld, Brendan Behan’s father-in-law was commissioned to paint the murals on the right-hand side of the main bar. Colm filled us in on Behan’s excesses quoting him as saying “I’m a drinker with a writer problem.” The Irish have such a way with words.


Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the 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 spirits!

Hayman's Sloe Gin

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An evening of claret: Looking at Bordeaux 2011s

by Julian Hitner and Sara d’Amato

On the evening of Thursday 16 January 2014, the LCBO played host at the Royal Ontario Museum to over 90 estates belonging to the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) as châteaux representatives poured wines from the 2011 vintage.

For those still interested in placing orders, Vintages will be selling futures of the 2011 vintage until March 6, 2014. To place your order call helloLCBO at 416-365-5900 or toll-free at 1-800-668-5226 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am-6pm, Saturday 9am-6pm). There is no minimum order size and quantities are limited. The 2011s are expected to arrive between Spring 2014 to Winter 2015. For more information, visit:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

But is the 2011 vintage even worth buying? If so, what wines are the best? Year in and year out, these are the two most significant questions facing Ontario’s ever-increasing ranks of Bordeaux aficionados. But fear not, for we WineAlign commentators were on hand to taste as many different wines as time would permit. Between Sara d’Amato and myself, we were resoundingly thorough, though we do apologize in advance for any wines we may have overlooked. There were over a 110 wines to review and therefore I took on the enormity of the task of covering the Left Bank wines while Sara focused on the Right Bank and Sauternes.

Are the prices worth it?

Beyond all other concerns, the most pressing matter for Bordeaux buyers is whether or not the 2011 vintage is worth patronizing. For my part, I am inclined to respond with a provisional yes. Taken as a whole, some surprisingly fine wines were made in what has largely been deemed an average year. Caution is key. Many estates and ‘négociants’ – the latter commonly serving as intermediaries between châteaux and retailers – were far too ambitious in their pricing strategy. As a result, many 2011s have been absurdly overpriced and should be avoided at all costs. This said, there are luckily a very reasonable number of wines meriting the prices at which they’ve been pegged. Such are the offerings Sara and I are delighted to recommend in this column.

The Left Bank and Pessac-Léognan

Home to some of the most iconic estates in Bordeaux, the Left Bank (otherwise known as the ‘Médoc’) produced some surprisingly beautiful, bountiful wines in 2011. In Pauillac, accessibility of fruit seems to be a primary characteristic, reinforced by decent tannic backbone and overall ripeness. The same would seem to apply to an even greater extent in St-Julien, where some of the best wines of the vintage were produced. Things were more subdued in Margaux, though the more diligent estates were nonetheless successful in producing some extremely fine clarets of exemplary fragrance and body. Of St-Estèphe, there were too few estates at the event to formulate any generalizations. As for the Haut-Médoc (I was unable to taste any wines from the Médoc AOC), quality at the finest estates does not appear to have been much of problem, though prices were arguably too ambitious on the part of most wineries involved.

In Pessac-Léognan, I regret to report that I had only enough time to taste a handful of wines, though those I was able to examine were, along with St-Julien, some of the most notable examples of the evening: finely structured, full-bodied, and reasonably priced. The same could probably be said of the whites (at least judging from what I’ve heard through the grapevine). If only I had enough time to taste any of them—the LCBO really ought to make these events longer!

Julian’s Top Picks from the Left Bank
Domaine de Chevalier 2011Château Léoville Barton 2011Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2011Château Grand Puy Ducasse 2011Château Langoa Barton

Domaine de Chevalier 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($69.00) is easily one of my top choices of the vintage, representing incredible value for money. Though historically known for its wondrous white wine, the estate’s red version in recent years has emerged as one of the most undervalued premium clarets in Bordeaux. Not to be missed.

Château Léoville Barton 2011 St-Julien ($97.00) is very much in keeping with the owner’s long-standing policy of never overcharging on his wines, despite the fact that Léoville Barton has long been considered one of the top estates in St-Julien. Surprisingly concentrated when considering the limitations of the vintage, this beauty comes very highly recommended.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($99.00) is a truly substantial effort on the part of this extraordinary estate. A classic example of conscientious winegrowing in the face of challenging conditions, this along with Domaine de Chevalier represents one of the best outings in Pessac-Léognan.

Château Grand-Puy Ducasse 2011 Pauillac ($69.00) exceeds a plethora expectations. Surpassing even the ’10 (no mean achievement), this is easily the finest wine I have tasted from this estate to date. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Grand-Puy Ducasse would emerge as one of my top suggestions.

Château Langoa Barton 2011 St-Julien ($75.00) is an exceptional Third Growth under the same ownership as Château Léoville Barton (the latter is actually produced at the same estate as the former). Over the past several years, Langoa has taken a giant leap forward in quality, with the ’11 defying expectations in more ways than one.
Château Saint Pierre 2011Château Labégorce 2011Château Gloria 2011Château Carbonnieux 2011Château Maucaillou 2011

Château Saint-Pierre 2011 St-Julien ($75.00) hails from the smallest Classed Growth in St-Julien, which means that its wines don’t always get the recognition they deserve. The ’11 is a classic example: full-bodied, excellently structured, and capable of long-term cellaring. For my part, I wish I had more wines from Saint-Pierre in my collection.

Château Labégorce 2011 Margaux ($39.00) is not only one of finest wines ever produced at this estate, it also represents one of the best bargains of the vintage. Surprisingly full-bodied and flavourful, a case of this may very well find its way into my own wine cellar before the ordering deadline passes.

Château Gloria 2011 St-Julien ($51.00) is widely recognized as the top non-Classed Growth of St-Julien, under the same ownership as Château Saint-Pierre. Tasted alongside, the two wines in ‘11 have much in common: outstanding concentration, balance, and style. If the 1855 Classification were ever revised, you can bet the likes of Château Gloria would be included.

Château Carbonnieux 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($49.00) might not have the same name recognition as some of its peers, which is all the more reason to buy it. Like many estates throughout Pessac-Léognan, it used to be the much-improved whites that hogged the spotlight; but now that the reds have caught up, the latter represent some of the best values around.

Château Maucaillou 2011 Moulis-en-Médoc ($35.00) is one of the most reasonably priced wines in its neck of the woods. A very beautiful outing, wines like this will undoubtedly become increasingly popular as the Classed Growths become all but unaffordable for most claret connoisseurs in the years to come.

Navigating the Tumultuous 2011 Vintage
Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Once again, Julian Hitner and I have joined forces to cover this year’s UGC de Bordeaux Tasting (Union des Grands Crus) hosted by Vintages. On the heels of two praise-worthy and very pricy vintages, the 2011 crop of Bordeaux proved highly variable and certainly lacking the consistency of the two exceptional vintages it supersedes. Therefore a little extra caution is recommended this year in making purchasing decisions. Although the prices are down, they are not down enough. Certain producers refuse to drop their prices accordingly for fear of devaluing their brand or creating a fight to increase the price later. Others, however, respect the lesser quality and take the hit. At the end of the day, it is the market that will ultimately influence further pricing and this is a critical year.

Having spoken to several former colleagues over the course of the growing season, I had the impression that they were quite baffled by the season and could not predict what sort of outcome they would have. The growing season was oddly reversed with a scorching hot spring and then a very cool and rainy summer. What saved the wines was a rather long Indian summer that evened out the vintage and allowed the producers a break from the erratic to come to gradual and calculated courses of action.  Careful winemaking was paramount in such a vintage as muscular tannins required a gentle hand to manage.

Just as the season was erratic, so are the offerings. There are some very fine, dare I say, values amidst some unimpressive offerings lacking depth. All in all, I suspect that the right bank fared slightly better than the left as merlot and cabernet franc proved somewhat hardier in the dense clay soils which may have allowed for a more steady pace of ripening in the face of these turbulent conditions. This being said, there are some terrific wines in this group that are certainly worthy of your attention.

Sara’s Top Picks from the Right Bank and Sauternes

Saint-Emilion and Pomerol

Château Pavie Macquin 2011Château Troplong Mondot 2011Château Trotte Vieille 2011Chateau Trotte Vielle 2011, Saint-Emilion ($225.00). A fascinating estate with a remarkable, small and rare plot of pre-phylloxera vines. Known for careful, small-batch production and keen winemaking, it is no wonder this Chateau faired exceptionally well in this vintage. The level of complexity and thunderous intensity is nothing short of brilliant.

Chateau Troplong-Mondot 2011, Saint-Emilion ($119.00). For centuries, Troplong-Mondot has been producing praise-worthy wines, considered one of the top estates of Saint-Emilion. Today it is run by Christine and Xavier Pariente – a couple who proudly continue this great tradition. This compelling 2011 exhibits a presence impossible to overlook.

Chateau Pavie-Macquin 2011 Saint-Emilion, 1er Grand Cru Classe ($89.00). Known for its impactful, dense and powerful wine, the founder of Pavie-Macquin, Albert Macquin, was responsible for helping save Saint-Emilion from phylloxera during turn of the century by introducing the process of grafting root-stocks to the region. Balanced, generous and revealing, this carefully crafted offering has serious technical merit.

Château Villemaurine 2011Château La Couspaude 2011Château Le Bon Pasteur 2011Chateau Villemaurine 2011 Saint-Emilion ($59.00). Made purely of merlot (80%) and cabernet franc (20%), this offering is an example of how these varietals have proved shinning stars this vintage.  Feminine, floral, poised and elegant but also generous and affable.

Chateau La Couspaude 2011, Saint-Emilion ($79.00). Vanessa Aubert puts on many hats at Chateau including that of winemaker, having inherited the property along with her two siblings from generations of men in her family since 1908. After studying enology at the University of Bordeaux, has devoted herself to continuing the illustrious tradition of the property. The Aubert family also owns eight other left bank properties. Not to be missed – this is a complex, carefully crafted and sublimely enjoyable offering.

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur 2011, Pomerol ($95.00). Le Bon Pasteur benefits from both an interesting location, at the junction of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion known as the “Maillet sector”, and by the current managers, descendents of the original owners, Jean-Daniel and Michel Rolland (yes, The Michel Rolland). Once again, meticulous winemaking wins the day in this age worthy offering with classic structure.


Château La Tour Blanche 2010Château De Fargues 2011Chateau de Fargues 2011, Sauternes ($179.00). Chateau de Fargues never ceases to impress me with concentration and complexity that is far superior to any of the greats I taste from this region. Owned by the Lur Saluces family for over five centuries, this sought-after nectar is worth the premium price.

Chateau La Tour Blanche 2011, Sauternes ($95.00). Known for its history giving back to the industry in helping establish a tuition-free viticulture school in the region, Chateau La Tour Blanche is also known for its modern methods and progressive attitude. It has certainly adapted to this vintage remarkably well.

Our Featured 2011 Bordeaux
Julian’s complete list of 2011 Bordeaux reviews
To order 2011 Boardeaux, visit:

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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Sara’s Sommelier Selections – Feb 1, 2014

Amorous Reds for Valentine’s Day

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

It’s never too soon to start planning for that special day that means more to most partners then they are willing to admit.

My advice: treat your lovely to a blind tasting of some of the most exotic reds of this release. Or, plan a menu around these wines with aphrodisiac pairings.

And you’ve guessed it – all of the pairings this week have titillating appeal and are meant to result in an evening best spent at home.

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011
Mclaren Vale, South Australia ($26.95)

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011

A completely seductive and compelling offer from the old bush vines of Australia’s founding wine region – McLaren Vale. Bush vines are generally older vines that were never trellised (put on wires) and grow almost wild in bush like formations. Although the wine may be named after the 19th century chapel turned parish school that now houses the winery and gallery, it is anything but pious – offering a sinful blend of exotic spice and rich fruit.

Food match: Pulled pork with mole sauce

Schild Estate Old Bush Vine Grenache/Mourvèdre/Shiraz 2011
Barossa, South Australia ($19.95)

Schild Estate Old Bush Vine Grenache Mourvedre Shiraz 2011

Since I’m in a bush vine state of mind, here is another lovely example that can make for an interesting comparative tasting with the last. Although largely made up of juicy grenache, it is blended with shiraz and mourvedre, a traditional southern Rhône combination that is known in Australia as a GSM. Here is a terrific value for just under $20 that wowed me at first sip.

Food match: Beef tenderloin with vanilla-soy sauce

Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir 2012
Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Australia ($23.95)

Devil's Corner Pinot Noir 2012

This release features an impressive selection on Oceanic wines and this devilish pinot noir offers a wickedly delectable from cherry to pepper with just right amount of restraint. The cool-climate island of Tasmania features an ideal climate for the picky pinot noir, delivering some surprising examples.

Food Match: Seared tuna with blood orange

Syrousse 2011 Côtes Du Roussillon Villages
Southwest, France ($16.95)

Syrousse 2011

Romance fills the air with perfume and hot sunny days in the south of France and this lovely, traditional blend of syrah, grenache and carignan made in a ‘naked’ style (i.e. without the use of oak). “Rousse” refers to the colour of the iron rich soils of Rousillon but the word also means “redhead” and suggests the colour red – the colour of love, certainly fit for a valentine’s setting.

Food match: Chicken curry with basil

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010
Naoussa, Naoussa, Greece ($19.95)

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010

The Greeks love completely, as Plato once wrote: “The madness of love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings”. It is tough to find a sexier grape than that of xinomavro – it has all the intrigue of pinot noir and the intensity of nebbiolo rife with exotic spice and crushed black fruit. This progressive producer from the northern and ancient winemaking region of Macedonia strikes a fine balance in this sumptuous red that is certain to prove an intriguing new discovery.

Food match: Roasted duck breast stuffed with figs and almonds

Wishing you happy entertaining!

Sara d’Amato

From the Feb 1, 2013 Vintages release:

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find Sara d’Amato’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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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Jan 2014

Winter Warmers & Romantic Drinks

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

A number of great new whiskies appeared on Canadian liquor board shelves in time for Robbie Burns Day celebrations last weekend. Coming up in anticipation of Valentine’s Day are products with a romantic bent. Think red coloured, chocolate flavoured, bubbly or special “sexy” editions. Here are the best of the latest winter spirits bounty.

This year marked the first Burns Day that Canadians could enjoy the new Macallan 1824 series of single malts built on the strength of their natural colours: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. The whole series, all aged in seasoned sherry casks, is dangerously smooth and seductive. So good and so sweetly gentle on the palate, this series is a velvet hammer that could have you polish off a bottle in one joyous night without thinking of the consequences. Better lock these out of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s reach.

All Macallan whiskies take 100 per cent of their colour from natural wood. This is what defines and drives the Macallan 1824 series. Whisky maker Bob Dalgarno searches the range of casks in the warehouse to select the different ones, all former sherry casks from Jerez Spain (filled with aged sherries and left to mature before receiving the new make whisky), to make each style in the series.

Macallan SiennaMacallan AmberThe Macallan GoldThe Macallan Gold is naturally golden in hue, and sweet in its approach. Aromas of honeycomb, sponge toffee and vanilla waft forth with a hint of flamed orange zest. The bronzed amber coloured, The Macallan Amber is mellow and smooth with an uplifting cinnamon, ginger and wood appeal. The Macallan Sienna, a reddish yellow brown i.e. sienna colour, is spiced, full bodied, deep and brooding. Alas I didn’t get to try The Macallan Ruby (it’s the most expensive at $299.95) but given the enjoyment factor of the other three, I’m sure it’s worth every penny. It’s the oldest and darkest of the lot.

Hart Brothers Finest Collection Clynelish 14 Years Old Single Malt 1998 is a lovely example of maritime influences and old cask notes. From France, de Montal Armagnac XO is velvety smooth on the palate yet with dramatic flourish.

Jack Daniel’s Sinatra SelectBuffalo Trace Kentucky Straight BourbonFrom the other side of the pond, comes Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select. This classic bold, smooth whiskey is crafted to honour Frank Sinatra’s friendship with Jack Daniels. The legend goes that from the moment Jackie Gleason introduced Sinatra to JD, for the next 50 years the seductive crooner always had a stash of Jack Daniel’s in the hold of his private plane and at home. Sinatra’s drinking ritual became as famed as his detail in dress and his pre-concert catnap. His cocktail was always poured from a bottle whose seal was unbroken: always three or four ice cubes in a traditional rocks glass with two fingers of Jack and then water.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon’s robust nature makes it a perfect base for a hot toddy or to shine through in a strongly flavoured cocktail.

CampariRegarding romantic cocktails for this coming Valentine’s Day, there are several ways to a sexy drink. Red lingerie, red lips and red drinks are sensuous partners. Campari’s bright red-orange colour makes is a bartender’s favourite choice for Valentine’s drinks. To make a Campari Orange Passion place two slices of orange and 1 teaspoon of brown sugar into a tall glass. Crush to a pulp. Add crushed ice and one part Campari to two parts orange juice and gently stir. Garnish with a red cherry. Have for breakfast the morning after with your hot date.

Cupid’s Elixir, created by bartender Thomas Faux of Azure Restaurant in Toronto, gets its colour from raspberry. Pour one ounce each of Hendrick’s Gin and raspberry liqueur and 1 ½ ounces of pineapple juice into a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Hendrick's GinChocolate bonbons, chocolate body paint and chocolate drinks are another way to passion. Iceberg Vodka offers up this cocktail for Valentine’s: Take two ounces of Iceberg Vodka, add one ounce each of coffee liqueur (e.g. Kahlua), nut liqueur (e.g. Frangelico) and chocolate liqueur (say the new Criollo Chocolate Raspberry) and combine in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into two cocktail glasses and top with chocolate shavings.

Iceberg VodkaLejay Cassis Creme De Cassis De DijonA bubbly, Champagne if you can afford it, is the third way to sex-up an evening. The bubbles are not only attractive to look at but they help the alcohol enter the bloodstream faster for a quicker high. Champagne cocktails abound and the very best for romance combine the fizz with red. My favourite classic is the Kir Royale which combines champagne with an ounce or so of cassis liqueur (recommend Lejay Cassis). The Pink Champagne Cocktail served at the Hotel de Cap during the Cannes Film Festival combines one teaspoon of brandy, one teaspoon of Grand Marnier and five ounces of pink Champagne poured over an angostura-soaked sugar cube.

Cheers to romantic days and drinks that heat up the soul.

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the 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 spirits!


Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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Sara’s Sommelier Selections – Jan 18, 2014

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Curious Finds

Up for adventure? So am I at this time of year. Whether it is because of the weather that puts me in an escapist mindset or because of an idealist New Year buzz, I’m open to new experiences. So, for those of us who are stranded at this time, I’ve put together a list of exciting gems in this recent release that will hopefully satisfy the adventurer in you. Besides, a sommelier has an important responsibility to introduce unfamiliar, unusual and memorable new wines to their guests. So, have your Tilley hats at the ready along with your finest crystal and let’s brave the unheralded finds of this wintry Vintages release.

Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Blanc 2012
Costières De Nîmes, Rhone, France

L.A. Cetto Cabernet Sauvignon 2011Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Blanc 2012We begin our world tour on familiar ground – the south of France. We start the selections off somewhat comfortably with a traditional white blend from the southern Rhone. Deliciously exotic, versatile, often crowd-pleasing and certainly outside of the norm at the dinner table. These are the wines that sommeliers love to pour for you in order to widen your experience without taking you out of your comfort zone.

Food Match: Crab cakes

L.A. Cetto Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Guadalupe Valley, Baja California, Mexico

That’s right, Mexico! In order to grow grapes in this hot climate, the place must be chosen carefully. Baja California is a coastal, peninsular state located just south of California across the Mexican border. Most of the agriculture, including grape growing for the purposes of wine is limited to particular, narrow, mineral-rich valleys whose altitudes allow for enough moisture and moderate enough temperatures for growth. Surprisingly, this wine is far from sun-baked or over-ripe. Rather, there is a real elegance and vibrancy here and certainly with more complexity than one would expect given the price.

Food Match: Cassoulet with sausage

Clos Teddi Patrimonio Tradition 2011
Corsica, France

Clos Teddi Patrimonio Tradition 2011Corsican wine is certainly something you don’t see on the shelves every day and I was therefore thrilled that this one was also a terrific example. Produced from nielluccio – the most widely planted grape of Corsica that must make up a great majority of the blends of the northern coastal region of Patrimonio. Some believe this varietal to be a clone of sangiovese and others regard it as native to the region. Certainly, there are some notable similarities to sangiovese but the aromatic profile of sandalwood, anise, wild herbs and kirsch is certainly unique. In addition, the heat seeking grenache is blended in for added juiciness and softness. Neither varietals are particular dark in colour but nor are they short on flavours.

Food Match: Roast duck

Boutari Grande Reserve 2007
Naoussa, Greece

The wines of Naoussa are planted with the xinomavro grape variety – huge on complexity and best appreciated after at least 3-5 years of age. If you have a penchant for aged northern Italian wines, this captivating Greek wine at a small price will wow you. Avoid pairing with foods that are too rich and spicy.

Food Match: Coq au vin

Planets De Prior Pons 2009
Priorat, Spain

Planets De Prior Pons 2009Boutari Grande Reserve 2007Finally a wine well-suited to mid-term cellaring from the progressive Catalonian region of Priorat in northeastern Spain, not far from Barcelona. You can expect wines emerging from this area, rife with quality-driven producers, dominated by grenache and carignan, to prove surprisingly modern and richly flavoured. A unique mineral character is often distinguishable due to the region’s hilly terrain featuring intriguing black slate soils. This version is produced from a blend of old vine grenache and carignan with the balance made up of 40% cabernet sauvignon. It is both intriguing and crowd-pleasing with substance and charm.

Food Match: Osso Buco

Santé et Bon Voyage!


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

From the Jan 18, 2014 VINTAGES release:

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , , , , ,

Australia ReVisited by David Lawrason

Celebrating Australia Day 2014

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I am off to Australia next week, hired by Fine Vintage Ltd, to co-lead a group of Canadians on a tour to some of the best classic and new wineries of the world’s oldest continent. Believe it or not I have mixed feelings about trading -15C temps for 35+C summer temps Down Under; but I am almost giddy with anticipation for tasting and dining in regions like the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Eden and Barossa. Australia is one of the most exciting wine nations in the world these days, striking off in many directions in terms of production techniques, styles, grape varieties and regions.

Many visitors to Australia put iconic bucket-list destinations like the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour and Ayer’s Rock near Alice Springs at the top of their itineraries. We are going straight to wine country. Indeed Australia’s wine lands, with their burgeoning restaurant and hospitality scenes, are now drawing almost as many tourists as the icon destinations. The cuisine of Australia is an often eclectic fusion of Asian and Euro sensibilities, with far more very fresh seafood than one might expect, freshwater yabbies (crayfish) plus scads of grilled lamb, beef and of course, ‘roo.

Ontarians staying home can bask in the Aussie vibe through a major mid-winter promotion now in progress. It takes the form of twenty Australian brands being featured at six different LCBO in-store Food and Wine Tastings, fifteen new wines being released in VINTAGES on February 1, and a wine trade show called “Australia Today” at the Art Gallery of Ontario on February 6, complete with a seminar led by WineAlign’s John Szabo, Master Sommelier. Ontario residents will even get the chance to win a trip to Australia. (Details here.)

In a purely practical, wine-drinking sense the mid-winter timing is ideal. In the dead of Canadian winter we actually love to drink richer, fuller, warmer wine.

In a marketing sense, the timing of this promotion is crucial. Since 2008 Australian wine has taken it on the chin in the marketplace and it is now re-tooling its wine and its message to regain its poise. The blow was a confluence of consumer fatigue with big brands whose story was shallow, and rising prices for its better wines just as recession set in. I think Aussie winemakers also faced considerable and sometimes unfair stylistic-based criticism among critics, sommeliers and other “influencers” who were tilting to lighter Euro reds.

I love Beaujolais, Barbera, Bardolino and Burgundy too, but I never stopped admiring the best of Australia’s rich reds, as long as the alcohol levels weren’t performing like booster rockets. And I have found recently that many are now keeping that in check, or at least showing better, balancing acidity and fruit depth, due to better viticultural practices. The big Aussie red section of my cellar is growing again.

The Red Wines

Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 2010Château Tanunda Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2011Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Shiraz is of course the best known Australian red variety, but I would like to open this tour of grape varieties and regions represented on the Feb 1 release with the most under-rated great red wine of Australia – cabernet sauvignon. The thick-skinned, late ripening variety of Bordeaux’s left bank ripens better in Oz than in France, resulting in richer, better centred and balanced reds that don’t really need in-filling with merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. The moderate climate of Coonawarra is the heartland of great Aussie cabernet, with Katnook Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.95) being a fine example indeed – excellent structure for the money. Château Tanunda 2011 Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon ($19.95) is a glimpse into the more rugged style of Barossa cabernet, although from a lighter vintage.

Shiraz – with dark ripe cherry fruit, signature pepperiness and suave tannin – remains the backbone of Australia’s brand, and the best also show both heartwarming richness and head engaging finesse. In the VINTAGES February 1 release don’t miss Penfolds Bin 128 from Coonawarra ($34.95), a wine for the cellar. For a smoother and easier drinking style that catches some of the elan of McLaren Vale, try Dandelion Lioness of McLaren Vale 2011 Shiraz ($19.95)

Dandelion Lioness Of Mclaren Vale Shiraz 2011Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011Schild Estate Old Bush Vine GMSGrenache is a peppery sister to shiraz that is very much worth exploring. It’s a heat-seeking grape that ripens to high sugar levels (thus high alcohol) and very soft texture with seductive flavours of strawberry and cherry jam flecked with herbs. When made from old ‘head pruned’ bush vines the low-acid structure is firmed up and the wines are quite concentrated, as in Chapel Hill 2011 Bush Vine Grenache from McLaren Vale ($26.95)

Shiraz and grenache are also often blended with the firmer mourvèdre grape that brings its firm tannin to the equation. These “GSMs” or grenache-shiraz-mourvèdre blends have a long track record in the reds of the south of France (like Chateauneuf-du-Pape). Many are spice bombs, a bit paler in colour but very complex, peppery and even herbal. The Schild Estate 2011 Old Bush Vine GMS from Barossa ($19.95) is a classic with all kinds of lifted rosemary, sage character that would be great with lamb.

Devil's Corner Pinot Noir 2012Robert Oatley Signature Series Pinot Noir 2012Heartland Stickleback Red 2010In fact, blended reds are now a major focus in Australia at all price points. Cabernet and shiraz are often combined therein, as well as a whole range of new (for Australia) Italian grapes like sangiovese, Spanish grapes like tempranillo and Portuguese grapes like touriga nacional. Heartland 2010 Stickleback Red is predominantly cabernet sauvignon and shiraz with a splash of Italian dolcetto and lagrein. Lots of character for $13.95.

For the past five years I have been paying serious attention to Australian pinot noir, my favourite grape variety. Once considered too hot for fine pinot, Australia is finding more critical success centred on the maritime regions of the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley within an hour’s drive of Melbourne. The Robert Oatley 2012 Signature Series Pinot Noir ($18.95) is a full flavoured, less expensive exploration of Yarra’s style, while Tamar’s Ridge Devil’s Corner 2012 Pinot Noir ($23.95) is a surprisingly refined and almost delicate, fruity style from Tasmania, the forest-clad island state off the south coast that provides Australia’s coolest grape-growing climate.

The White Wines

Mountadam Estate Chardonnay 2009Ad Lib Hen & Chicken Oaked Chardonnay 2010Among white grape varieties, Australia is pushing for freshness and vivacity at all costs. Gone are most of the golden, overripe, over-oaked chardonnays, being replaced with leaner wines based on higher acids attained at higher altitudes or nearer the coasts – ideally both. Mountadam Estate 2009 Chardonnay ($24.95) from the High Eden realm within Eden Valley is a terrific example of the genre. Aussies love odd names for their wine, none odder than Ad Lib Hen & Chicken Oaked Chardonnay ($19.95). This chardonnay from the cool and remote Pemberton region of Western Australia shows the region’s acidity well, although this re-released item is showing some age.

Mcwilliam's Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2006Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling 2012Riesling has always been a strong suit of Australia, particularly from the German-settled regions of Barossa, Eden and Clare near Adelaide. Australian riesling is bone-dry, powerful with a lashing of lime-like acidity and considerable riesling ‘petrol’. Western Australia is now paying attention as well and Robert Oatley 2012 Signature Series Riesling ($17.95) from Great Southern – in the same area as Pemberton – is a fine, more delicate example.

The great, perpetually unsung white variety of Australia is Semillon, an unusual variety originating in Bordeaux where it is often blended with sauvignon blanc. The Australians blend it as well, but in certain regions like Barossa and the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant 2006 Elizabeth Semillon $19.95 is a textbook example of why most critics around the world name Hunter Semillon as one of the world’s best aged whites. It has riveting acidity and depth, and is perhaps the greatest ‘discovery’ of all in Ontario’s promotion. Make that a rediscovery. Semillon, like so many of Australia’s wines, has always been there. But nowadays Australian winemakers and marketers are redesigning and even replanting the garden to let the lesser known wines bloom.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Australian Wine Promotion Featured Wines

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

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Sara’s Sommelier Selections – Jan 4, 2014

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

There was a lot to love about the January 4th VINTAGES release, which features a real smorgasbord of wines without a great deal of focus. Now that the holiday craze has come to a close, I think it is safe to say that we’re all lacking a bit of focus ourselves. Since we could all use a little healthy redirection, this week I’m featuring wholesome food pairings to inspire us to get back on track.

Flat Rock Riesling 2012
VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario ($16.95)

Cline Viognier 2012Flat Rock Riesling 2012Flat Rock’s new winemaker and a former classmate of mine, Jay Johnson, is really showing his prowess with this tension-filled, delightfully nervy riesling at a price that is difficult to beat. Riesling is thought of, in the wine world, as having certain “cleansing” properties due to its ability to sweep any cumulative flavour or textural buildup from the palate while refreshing it with crisp acids. Here is an example that is sure to sharpen your senses.

Food pairing: Vietnamese Pho Soup

Cline Viognier 2012
North Coast, California ($17.95)

This indulgent treat is far less detrimental than most holiday desserts but has a similar generosity in flavour and mouthfeel. I love the sultry, feminine character of this wine and its voluptuous body, which gives it a comforting sensation. Cline has become known as California’s Rhone varietal specialist and this viognier lives up to its reputation.

Food Pairing: Gingered carrots with slivered almonds

Rabl Kittmansberg Grüner Veltliner 2011
Kamptal, Austria ($14.95)

Clifford Bay Pinot Noir 2011Rabl Kittmansberg Grüner Veltliner 2011Light, fresh, clean and perky – this is the way we hope to feel in the New Year as all the crash dieting and exercise begins and self-indulgence comes to a halt. This grüner is filled with all the distinctive pep and spice that makes this varietal easily food friendly and uniquely thought provoking.

Food Pairing: Roasted Halibut with braised fennel

Clifford Bay Pinot Noir 2011
Marlborough, New Zealand ($19.95)

Here is a stylish, nicely balanced but potently flavourful pinot noir exhibiting the freshness of Marlborough. Will not leave you feeling full but is certainly complex and compelling. With low tannins, few sulfites, moderate alcohol and a dry palate – you’ll ensure a more pleasant morning-after.

Food Pairing: Tuna and Tofu salad

Quinta Das Camélias Reserva 2010
Dão, Portugal ($13.95)

J. L. Chave Selection Offerus St Joseph 2011Quinta Das Camélias Reserva 2010One of my favourite aspects of the holidays are the aromas and I’m always sad to say goodbye to that fragrant pine tree, eat the last of the spiced cookies and burn the final bayberry candle (romantic to the core). Here’s a wine that will help curb the longing for the fragrance of the holidays – wines of the Dao have a unique aroma profile that combines notes of pepper and clove along with violets and red berries. This example is sure to satiate (with fewer calories).

Food Pairing: Black rice and beet risotto

J. L. Chave Selection Offerus St Joseph 2011
Rhône, France ($33.95)

Finally, the reds of the Northern Rhône, produced entirely of syrah, can often exhibit terrific focus, length and heady appeal. If you’re looking to sharpen your senses and challenge your palate (trying to regain some sanity after the holidays) then here is a good bet. This traditionalist family is known for producing soulful wines of great complexity that are worth the premium price.

Food pairing: Tabouleh salad with spiced, shredded beef

Happy recovery!


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

From the Jan 4, 2014 VINTAGES release:

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , , , , ,


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