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Lawrason’s Take on the May 1st Vintages Release – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

New Zealand – Spring has sprung and it’s clean, green New Zealand’s annual turn in the spotlight, with a feature release at Vintages on Saturday, May 1st.   By the way, three new excCraggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Te Kahu 2007ellent Vintages Shop on Line releases are also reviewed here at WineAlign – Auntsfield Pinot Noir, Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc, and Mt Difficulty Chardonnay (search by name).  I have tasted a whack of NZ wines in the past six weeks, and I remain a big fan. Sometimes the wines seem too bright and cheery (missing some of that reserved and brooding character of Europe), but they are generous and fun to drink.  Vintages rather small May 1st selection strays from the well known, larger producers to smaller, less well known ones, with resulting variation.  There are some very good wines – like luscious, poised Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Te Kahu 2007 and the rich, layered  Millton 2007 Opou Chardonnay, from the southern hemisphere’s oldest biodynamic winery, established in 1984. Now that’s authentic.

Edmeades Zinfandel 2007Zinfandel – The larger feature on May 1st  is centred on California Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo. It’s time we stopped linking these two wines, even though they may have a common ampelographic (study of vine species) root in Croatia.  Like human families that have emigrated and evolved  into different entities on opposite sides of the world, these wines have nothing in common in the glass. California’s zins are sweet, plump and fruity – the best like Edmeades 2007 Zinfandel from Mendocino County best wafting that wonderful floral brambleberry fragrance that makes zin so distinctive. Most others are in the release are muffled by oak or half-hearted winemaking, although  Seghesio 2008 Sonoma Zinfandel impresses with its complex structure, and Sebastiani for its charm and balance.  Italy’s primitivos are in a different flavour universe, so much more leathery, ripe, figgy and well – Italian.   By the way, it crossed my mind that good, floral California zin shares more commonality with Argentine Malbec than Puglian primitivo.

Domaine Puig Parahy Georges 2007Roussillon, France.  It’s break out time for Cotes du Roussillon. Time to stop lumping it within the huge vinous Mediterranean amphitheatre that is southern France.  This small, hot, sea-hugging corner up against Spain’s Catalan frontier is turning out wonderfully luscious, silky, baritone reds at great prices, and it deserves solo recognition. If you haven’t been following try the nifty number called Domaine Puig-Parahy 2007 Georges, for a remarkable $13.95.

PrincClosson Chase 2007 CC Vineyard Chardonnay Unfilterede Edward County, Ontario – My backyard wine region gets an airing at Vintages on May 1 with four selections. Three are made 100% from County fruit, which signals advancement of the County into the mass market. To be viable in the LCBO and Vintages, wineries must be able to offer significant volume.  Until recently most PEC wineriescould not offer volume from 100% County fruit, so they were importing Niagara juice and having to label the wines Ontario (under VQA regulation), as in Rosehall Run’s tidy 2006 Chardonnay.   Many of the new, tiny operations that have opened in the past 12 months (15 by my count) are still too small to dream of Vintages or LCBO listings. The wines offered this month provide a true portrait of the County, and I like the Closson Chase 2007 CC Vineyard Chardonnay Unfiltered in particular. The always controversial Deborah Paskus crafts her chardonnays deep within the pores of the barrel, so non-oak fans may have a hard time. But this chardonnay has distinctive character, County elegance and quite incredible depth.

Pikes 2006 Eastside ShirazClare Valley, Australia.  Two wines on this release confirm my sense (perhaps my bias) that South Australia’s Clare Valley is among the great appellations of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s complex granitic and limestone terra rosa soils seem to deliver an elegance and verve quite different from Barossa or even McLaren Vale. Aromatics soar and textures glide.  See for yourself with and Pikes 2006 Eastside Shiraz,  and Knappstein Enterprise 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are great value.

Warre's 2007 Vintage Port2007 Ports, Portugal.   I admit losing  some interest in vintage port. Not because it’s less good, but increasingly less relevant to the wider swath of readers. Two classics from the 2007 vintage are offered to collectors on this release, and who else but collectors would buy them at these prices, and age them as required. But if you are among the willing, don’t hesitate. They are stellar wines, totally in keeping with their house styles. Warre’s 2007 Vintage Port is massive, dark, sweet and rich with gobs of fruit.  Meanwhile Dow’s 2007 Vintage Port holds true with equal weight and richness but a leaner, more tannic finish typical of Dow’s style.

That’s it for now, I have reviewed 96 wines in this release. Check them out at WineAlign under New Releases.

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of over 100 wines in this release.

Filed under: Wine, , , , ,

Fine Wine and the Hospitality Experience – by John Szabo

On-Premise Wine Trends in the North American Market

John Szabo, MS

The following are my unedited notes referenced for the conference entitled “Fine Wine 2010” held April 28th-30th in Aranda del Duero, Spain, organized by Wine Intelligence. The topic of my panel discussion was on-premise trends in the North American Market. The audience for the conference consisted of approximately 450 individuals representing producers, journalists and restaurateurs from around the world.

Opening Greetings.

Specify: Reference to the “fine wine market”:

Obvious diversity across NA, from Flin Flon Manitoba to Toronto or New York City. I’m talking about major urban markets, 100 km from the ocean or the US border.

What sets North America apart?

The sheer diversity and open-mindedness that accompanies a highly multicultural society

  • A melting pot and mosaic of wine
  • Multiple cultural cues
  • Incredibly varied cuisine
  • Different from Continental Europe, esp. wine producing countries; regional chauvinism is far less pronounced
  • Less encumbered by image, fashion (Asia)
  • Willingness to learn, take advice, defer to perceived experts (e.g. sommeliers)

How is the North American Market Changing?

  • Consumption steadily rising (but still a long way to go; market can easily double, even quadruple, without forcing anyone into alcoholism)
  • Restaurants, even at the corporate level run by accountants, are rapidly realizing that developing a well-thought out beverage program is a necessary means to increase revenue streams (not necessarily an easy one), and more are willing to allocate the resources knowing that returns on investment will follow.
  • New positions: traditional sommelier and F&B, expanded to include executive sommeliers and beverage program directors who oversea purchasing and training for mid-large-sized, multi-outlet operations
  • Directors of education – increasingly prominent in multi-outlet operations
  • Both trade and consumers absorbing information at an incredible rate, witness success of the Court of Master Sommeliers….


– 4          Introductory Sommelier Courses


– 38        Introductory Sommelier Courses (4,028 students)

– 37        Certified Sommelier Exams 1,214 students, + 41%

– 3          Advanced Sommelier Courses & Exams

– 2          Master Sommelier Diploma Exam (108 MSs in NA currently)

  • Rise of Social Media as a way of gathering or sharing information – there is nowhere to hide today and everyone is an expert

Advantages & Disadvantages:

  • Incredible opportunities for wine producers to enter such a diversified market
  • Increasing job market for qualified, educated wine professionals
  • Intense competition, need to differentiate, over-deliver, invest in market
  • Increased knowledge and awareness also leads to “brand promiscuity”; the more you know, the more you want to know – big brands don’t want this, small producers need this to break into the market – trouble is, once established, how to retain? Buyers move on to the next ‘hot’ thing. More on this in a moment.

What are the Effects of the Recent Global Economic Downturn?

(presuming that this was the genesis of this conference)

  • Difference between Canada and the US: Canada’s meltdown far more moderate

Long term:

  • None. No new wisdom. It would be wishful thinking to believe that mankind had learned anything from this bubble bursting. Once corporate expense accounts are flush again, ludicrous, speculative pricing will resume (both ex-cellar and restaurant list). “Bordeaux to top 1000 euros…”
  • But the market will be even more competitive than it was before: consumers have been exposed to many less well-known regions, grapes, and  producers over the last couple of years; and in the wine business as elsewhere, “to know me is to love me”; consumers have a broadened wine experience and will continue to seek out new and unique wines

Short term:

  • Deep discounting throughout the supply chain has created a temporary new pricing structure and altered consumer expectations regarding price/quality/value
  • Increased diversity in restaurant offerings (sommeliers seeking to deliver value)
  • Significant increase in the “value wine market” (varying definitions of value)

What are the Specific trends? (regions, styles, grapes, etc)

Anecdotal and statistical evidence has been gathered; be somewhat weary of journalists and sommeliers who tend to project trends, confusing what they would like to see with what is actually happening…

Canada: Positive Trends (in no particular order): what’s growing

  • Argentina, especially Malbec, Torrontes (restaurant and retail)
  • Spain/Portugal (modern styles)
  • Indigenous (Southern) Italy, 2nd tier regions/grapes based on value
  • More expensive non-traditional wines –  argentinian malbecs, riojas, priorats
  • New Zealand, Oregon & Washington
  • Sustainable, organic/biodynamic wines – piggy-backing on the success of local/organic foods, 100 mile diet, increased awareness of our effect on the planet
  • The Yukon Example!
  • Fair trade wines

Positive Style Trends:

  • Aromatic whites – dry rieslings, albariños, gewurtz, torrontès
  • Rose “even keeping rose on the menu all year round has proven not so painful”
  • Shift towards mineral influenced wines with refreshing acid levels
  • Less oak
  • Balanced alcohol
  • Moderation in style; elegance over brute power, more traditionally ‘serious’ wines, less extracted, concocted wine
  • Big chardonnays are selling again, California and Burgundy

Canada Negative Trends:

  • Australia, esp. reds sales have decreased dramatically, both by the glass & bottle Perhaps because the market has been eroded by cheap critter wines & better values elsewhere
  • Napa and other speculative California wines eagerly vilified for their lop-sided pricing
  • High end “trophy wines” have seen the biggest decrease (recognition of better value elsewhere)

The US: Positive Trends

  • Fruit forward easy drinking wines, round tannin structures, “what I call intelligent wines: more bang for the money”
  • Anything new, (under $20), i.e.:
  • Portugal (Vinho Verde, Alentejo, Estremadura)
  • Spain (Navarra- La Mancha-jumilla, Manchuela, Valdeorras, Toro, Galicia)
  • France, basic Rhone, Languedoc,  Roussillon, Alsace, Generic Burgundy and Bordeaux
  • Italy (Friuli, Veneto, Marche, Umbria, Puglia, Campania)
  • Argentina/Chile
  • New Zealand
  • Pacific northwest: Oregon, Washington, Okanagan
  • Lesser-known California: Mendocino, Lodi, Anderson
  • South Africa

The US: Negative Trends

  • Huge, tannin driven wines
  • Bordeaux First & Second Growths: Forget them!! Just sell them in ASIA!!
  • High end reds from Italy  (Tuscany- Piedmont)
  • Spain, (overpriced Bierzo, Priorat, Ribera del Duero (Pesquera excepted), Rioja; Gran Reservas from Spain are like relics from the past
  • Napa- ay aya!! those 200 dollar Cabs!! (their days are numbered!) Many Napa wineries closing their doors this year
  • High end Australian reds

What are the Price Trends?

  • Hot Zone pricing on restaurant wine lists: Canada: between $45 and $85 (approximately $18 and $35 wholesale respectively based on a wine cost of 39%); US: $30 to $65.
  • Down from $65 to $100 pre 2008
  • Luxury wines move, but only when the prices have come down; If one is listing high end wines they must be prepared to take much much lower margins, i.e. Joseph Phelps Insignia vertical at Cilantro stood still at $400 per bottle, however, with a price decrease to $255 all but 6 of the original 18 were sold within 12 months
  • People with money are beginning to murmur that the LCBO’s demolishing of the high-end bracket gives them nothing to purchase for their cellars.
  • Small amounts of high-end American wine appearing at deep discounts

What are the opportunities and the innovations for buyers and suppliers?

  • “Customized Wine making/wine selling”: Listening to what is being requested, know your target market & offer the service required (good purchasers should be guiding their suppliers as to their needs)
  • Opportunities in the bulk wine market (good juice available at give-away prices). Allows suppliers to talk to their buyers and custom suit their needs; development of private or market-specific labels an interesting option
  • “One off’s” can be very successful and make quick ROI – market is obsessed with what’s new anyway and this a good time to feed on this market while it lasts
  • For buyers this means knowing your suppliers well to ensure you get the best juice and that customers know that this is one-time, so drink up!

What is the recipe for success for quality wine producers trying to break into the market?

(reference to conference in Chile: target wines to specific segments of the on-trade)

  • Don’t under-estimate consumers’ level of knowledge and involvement in their wine purchases
  • Increased consumer knowledge and awareness also leads to “brand promiscuity”; the more you know, the more you want to know – big brands don’t want this, small producers need this to break into the market – trouble is, once established, how to retain share? Buyers move on to the next ‘hot’ thing.
  • Solution:  excellent quality wine with attractive packaging:
  • That is, consistent quality, consistent over-delivery of value, a consistent story that isn’t the wine-making equivalent of a 3 note pop song or sensationalist TV show based on ephemeral zeitgeist
  • With an omnipresent wine press, and so many amateur bloggers and twitterers offering their frequently un-educated opinions, producers must make sure their products overachieve at every level (There are too many people paying attention to slip in sub-standard wines)
  • And/or fulfill the needs of a very particular niche or new trend
  • Packaging matters: must feel comfortable to hold have sensible color patterns and direct communication as to what they are buying  – back label is the most important piece of real estate on the bottle – convey your story/philosophy in 20 words or less!
  • Promote indigenous grapes; put them on the front label
  • Market is clamoring for information – invest in your website, keep it up to date
  • Get in direct communication with your customer base – social media provides that platform
  • Approach markets with competitive prices and reasonable quantity (don’t over-saturate the market, err on the lower side)
  • Expect to start slow and be prepared to grow
  • Focus & persistence. The use of all channels, beginning with private ordering if necessary
  • Select a motivated & effective agency or representative
  • Do your homework on the market
  • Educate consumers on your small production, niche wines (for big brands it’s quite the opposite)
  • Establish partnerships with target restaurants: guarantee supply and offer training
  • Canada: government monopoly stores a detriment to on-premise penetration of unique brands: doesn’t stay on the shelf long enough to keep demand going and build the brand, becomes over-exposed, easy price reference, loses cache

What is the future of the ‘fine wine’ market for the on-trade?

  • In sum: very bright. Never been a better time to be working in the wine business
  • Record year for some restaurants; 30% above last year
  • Guests are spending again on quality wine
  • Hopefully less high-end speculation and greed by both consumers and producers
  • Wine experience to be delivered by an ever-better educated wine trade
  • An audience more willing to try new things – and esp. new styles. “After all, it’s called ‘disposable’ or ‘discretionary income’, people! Roll the dice once in a while”.
  • Fine wine will inevitably recapture some of the market, slowly
  • Taking a lesson from other luxury categories, understand that it takes decades to build a brand, and it can disappear overnight. This is a generational business. As soon as multinationals and shareholders expecting quarterly returns understand this, the better and stronger, and more stable the fine wine market will be.
  • Restaurant wine mark-ups need to stabilize at reasonable levels – consumers are too clever and too aware to attempt to get away with scandalous pricing strategies
  • Consumers are willing to pay a lot for wine, but it still has to represent value
  • 2009 saw some re-pricing structures take place with success:  smaller markups more rapid turnover of product and better guest experience and greater exposure to fine wines
    • (Another example here would be Harlan.  Selling Harlan at $900 was disappointing, with very little movement.  With a wholesale of $450, this 50% costs looked reasonable.  However, with the only people ordering Harlan being Harlan collectors, we saw much better sales when the wine was priced at $600….they ordered it because it was much more fair.)
  • Producers must be realistic when pricing wine for the North American market – you have to know the context if you expect to export

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BioVino 2010: The Results – by John Szabo

BioVino 2010: The Results

Sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines are hot. But just how hot? Is it marketing propaganda, or do earth-friendly techniques also make for better quality wines? On April 23rd, a panel of sharp palates gathered to judge the wines presented at this year’s Better Living Show by 31 wineries from Ontario to Australia. The judges: John Szabo (head Judge/organizer/WineAlign); panelist: David Lawrason (WineAlign/Toronto Life), George Soleas (Senior VP, LCBO), Sara d’Amato (Vines), Zoltan Szabo (Somm, Ruby Watchco), Jamie Drummond (Good Food Rev), Will Predhomme (Somm, O&B), Jennifer Vranjes (Somm, ACC), Ken Burford (Ontario Wines Society).

The results were unsurprising. To quote seasoned judge David Lawrason: “This is the most fun I’ve had at a tasting in a long time.”, serious words for a man who spends his life at tastings. “Illuminating” said d’Amato, “rewarding” said Drummond. Yes, the judges were unanimous. Organic wines have moved from the fringe into the mainstream: these are wines to be taken seriously not just for the feel-good factor of supporting sustainable farming practices, but also because they are bloody good. Here’s are all of the medal winners:

Colour Coding:

Gold (90+)

Silver (88-89)

Bronze (86-87)


NV Champagne Fleury Fleur de L’Europe sparkling Champagne France $56.95 89

NV Champagne Fleury Carte Rouge Brut sparkling Champagne France $56.95 89

NV Champagne Fleury Rose sparkling Champagne France $79.95 89

NV DogRidge Winery The Pup Sparkling Chardonnay McLaren Vale South Australia $20.95 87


2005 Nikolaihof Wachau Riesling Riesling Wachau Austria  88

2009 Cono Sur  Riesling  Chile $9.95 86

2007 Domaine Ostertag V’dE Riesling Alsace France $27.95 86

Pinots & Gewurztraminer

2007 Domaine Barmes Buecher Rosenberg Gewurztraminer Alsace France $30.95 91 TOP WHITE WINE

2007 Domaine Ostertag Gewurztraminer Alsace France $29.95 91

2006 Domaine Barmes Buecher Herrenwegg Pinot Gris Alsace France $23.95 88

2008 Meinklang  Pinot Gris Burgenland Austria $19.95 88

2007 Domaine Ostertag Barriques Pinot Blanc Alsace France $25.95 86

White Blends

2008 The Sadie Family Palladius White Blend Swartland South Africa $79.95 89

2009 Southbrook Vineyards Fresh White White Blend Ontario Canada $16.95 86


2007 Tawse Robyn’s Block Chardonnay Ontario Canada $42.00 90

2005 Clos de Jordanne Le Clos Vineyard Chardonnay Ontario Canada $34.80 90

2008 Paxton Vineyards Chardonnay McLaren Vale South Australia $24.95 88

2009 Enoomah Bore Wine Co. Chardonnay/Semillon Riverland South Australia $15.95 88

2008 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay Ontario Canada $21.95 88

2008 Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay Ontario Canada $35.00 87

2005 Clos de Jordanne Village Reserve Chardonnay Ontario Canada $24.80 87

2007 The Milton Vineyard Clos de Ste Anne Chardonnay Gisborne New Zealand $42.95 87

NV French Rabbit & Green Rabbit Wines French Rabbit Chardonnnay  South France $12.85 87

Mixed Single White Variety

2007 The Milton Vineyard Te Arai Chenin Blanc Gisborne New Zealand $21.95 91

2009 Meinklang Gruner Veltliner Burgenland Austria $16.95 90

2008 Organic Vignerons Australia Viognier  South Australia/Victoria $17.95 89

2007 Nikolaihof Smaragd im Weingebirge Gruner Veltliner Wachau Austria $59.95 89

2008 The Milton Vineyard Riverpoint Viognier Gisborne New Zealand $22.95 89

2009 Cono Sur  Viognier  Chile $9.95 89

2008 Collefrisio Zero Trebiano Abruzzo Italy $14.50 88

2008 Nicolas Joly Savennieres “Clos de la Bergerie” Chenin Blanc Savennieres – Loire France $68.95 88

2008 Nicolas Joly Coulee De Serrant Chenin Blanc Savennieres – Loire France $109.95 88

2008 Nicolas Joly Savennieres “Les Vieux Clos” Chenin Blanc Savennieres – Loire France $44.95 87

2009 Richmond Plains Richmond Plains Sauvignon Blanc Nelson  New Zealand $16.95 87

2008 Nikolaihof Hefeabzug Gruner Veltliner Wachau Austria $28.95 87

Pinot Noir

2007 The Milton Vineyard Clos de Ste Anne Pinot Noir Gisborne New Zealand $42.95 90

2009 Cono Sur  Pinot Noir  Chile $10.95 89

2008 Richmond Plains Richmond Plains Pinot Noir Nelson  New Zealand $19.95 88

2007 Clos de Jordanne La Petite Colline Pinot Noir Ontario Canada $39.80 88

2008 Meinklang Pinot Noir Burgenland Austria $21.95 88

NV French Rabbit & Green Rabbit Wines French Rabbit Pinot Noir  South France $12.85 87

2007 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Vandal Vineyard Pinot Noir Napa Valley California – USA $59.95 86

Cabernet & Blends

2005 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Vandal Vineyard Cabernet Napa Valley California – USA $39.95 90

2004 Temple Bruer Vineyards Cabernets/Petit Verdot Langhorne Creek Australia $25.95 89

2006 DogRidge Winery Square Cut Cabernets McLaren Vale South Australia $38.89 89

2008 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon Ontario Canada $23.95 88

2008 Frog Pond Farm Cabernets/Merlot Ontario Canada $20.00 87

2007 Southbrook Vineyards Poetica Cabernets/Merlot Ontario Canada $60.00 86

2007 Frog Pond Farm Cabernet Franc Ontario Canada $17.00 86

2006 Temple Bruer Vineyards Cabernets/Merlot Langhorne Creek Australia $19.95 86


2007 Tawse David’s Block Merlot Ontario Canada $42.00 89

2005 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Carneros Merlot Napa Valley California – USA $36.95 87

2006 Ceago Vinegarden Del Lago Merlot Lake County California – USA $28.95 87

NV Cono Sur  Merlot  Chile $9.95 87


2008 OVA Rose Rose Australia Australia  86

Red Blend

2006 Azienda Agricola Sangervasio A Siro Red Blend Tuscany Italy $46.95 90 TOP RED WINE

2007 The Sadie Family Columella Red Blend Swartland South Africa $99.95 90

2005 Ceago Vinegarden Wine Makers Blend Red Blend Lake County California – USA $46.95 88

2008 Chateau Monty Monty’s French Red Red Blend Roussillon South France $19.95 86

2005 Bodegas Navarrsotillo Magister Bibendi Riserva Red Blend Rioja/Navarra Spain $24.95 86

Mixed Italian Single Red Variety

2007 Collefrisio “Uno” Montepulciano Abruzzo Italy $26.95 90

2008 Collefrisio zero Montepulciano Abruzzo Italy $18.95 89

2006 Tres Sabores Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley California – USA $39.95 89

2007 Antica Enotria Nero de Troia Puglia Italy $27.95 87

2008 Azienda Agricola Sangervasio Rosso Sangiovese Tuscany Italy $21.95 87

2007 Tres Sabores Porque No?  Zinfandel Blend Napa Valley California – USA $29.95 87

2008 Azienda Agricola Sangervasio Chianti Sangiovese Tuscany Italy $21.95 86

Shiraz & Shiraz Blends

2006 DogRidge Winery ShirtFront Shiraz McLaren Vale South Australia $38.89 90

2008 Paxton Vineyards MV Shiraz McLaren Vale South Australia $19.95 90

2008 Paxton Vineyards Quandong Shiraz McLaren Vale South Australia $26.95 87

2007 Temple Bruer Vineyards Grenache/Shiraz/Viognier Langhorne Creek Australia $19.95 87

2009 Cono Sur  Shiraz  Chile $9.95 87

2008 Paxton Vineyards AAA Shiraz/Grenache McLaren Vale South Australia $19.95 86

2007 Temple Bruer Vineyards Preservative Free  Shiraz/Malbec Langhorne Creek Australia $22.95 86

2008 Organic Vignerons Australia Mataro/Shiraz/Grenache South Australia/Victoria $19.95 86

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Vintages Preview May 1st Release – A Volcanic Wine, a Greywacke, a Groovey Grüner and a Cal-Ital Duo by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

Any traveler who has set foot on the Aegean Island of Santorini senses immediately that it’s a special place. Gazing out across the vast expanse of deep azure water that fills the Caldera, the collapsed summit of the volcano that is Santorini, has a way of re-calibrating your sense of size. You feel infinitely small before the clear, wide space stretching to the infinitely blue horizon, yet at the same time you feel part of the landscape, it absorbs you, draws you in. Sunsets here are among the most mesmerizing on earth. This is the Greek postcard you’ve already seen, dreamed about: the white-washed dwellings clinging to the cliff side on the edge of the crater, turned golden by the disappearing sun, the bright blue, freshly painted domes of orthodox churches, the trio of bells, the pack mules carrying building material through the narrow alleys where no cars can venture. Were it not for the hordes of tourist who disembark daily and trek up to Oia to clog those same minuscule streets and haggle with weary locals over junky trinkets, Santorini could well be a paradise on earth.

Travel to the other side of the island on flatter east coast, and the scene is unrecognizable, rarely photographed. Its splendor is hidden to all but those able to see through to the inner beauty of what lies before you. It’s an otherworldly landscape of bushes scattered across completely barren, rocky soil like splashes of green on a natural canvas. One wonders how anything at all manages to grow in this poorest of poor soils. Closer inspection reveals that this is no purposeless vegetation; these are grapevines. But these are like no other grapevines I’ve seen. There are no posts, no wires, no trellises, no neat rows of orderly canes and leaves, made to submit by the hand of man. These vines sprawl along the ground, the stalks obscured by decades worth of woven shoots that makes them look like gnarled, old wicker baskets discarded in an empty waste yard on the backside of a middle eastern bazaar. You could easily drive past these fields and remain gleefully ignorant that you are in wine country. How strange to see, or not see. If I hadn’t seen, and tasted, I may not believe that some of the world’s most original wines are made in these vineyards on the island of Santorini.

The grape is called assyrtico, an ancient, indigenous variety that achieves its greatest expression in the poor volcanic soils of the island. Really, Santorini is nothing more than a piece of exploded volcanic mountaintop protruding from the sea, with little vegetation and no fresh water. Before its eerie beauty was discovered by outsiders and the age of tourism began, this was among the poorest of Greek Islands, the inhabitants scratching out a meager existence from the unyielding terrain.

The queer method of growing grapes is explained by Santorini’s extreme climate. The vines are left to creep along the ground to remain sheltered from the fierce winds that constantly buffet the island. Otherwise, tender shoots and flowers would be blasted off the vines and further reduce the nearly uneconomic yields that these vineyards produce. The new shoots of each year are carefully woven into a basket shape, purpose-crafted to allow the grape bunches to grow within, protect from the wind, as well as shaded from the ever-present blazing sun above by a canopy of leaves that functions like a 19th century parasol. The vineyards are not picturesque, but I reckon that after 2,500-odd years of grape-growing, local vignerons have got it figured out. From these grotesque vines come some of the most astonishingly mineral wines I have ever tasted.

The whites of Santorini are not fruity, not easy, not immediately friendly. They are intense, demanding, almost salty, like a freshly-squeezed chunk of volcanic pumice that drips slowly into your glass. There is also the tell-tale whiff of sulphur, like being several miles downwind from a natural hot spring, not obvious, not pungent, but certainly there. This unusual smell is not from added SO2, as I have asked and repeatedly been told by the island’s winemakers. True enough, the alcohol and acidity levels are remarkably high, they’re bone dry, and the dry extract is off the charts, lending a palpably astringent character. That makes these wines extremely stable and ageworthy. Free sulphur is needed only in very limited amounts. No, that smell comes from the soil.

2008 SIGALAS SANTORINIThe Sigalas 2008 Santorini is one of the island’s best. Paris Sigalas is a perfectionist, a poet. It’s unique, extraordinary, complex, complete, like Grand Cru Alsatian Riesling or Chablis, or top notch Wachau gruner veltliner. So why is it only $21.95 a bottle? Good question. I guess it’s because so few people know about it. I’m torn: on the one hand I’m happy to keep it that way, selfishly hoarding these hidden diamonds in the literal rough. On the other, the pressure of urbanization from the relentless tourist trade threatens to make these vineyards disappear altogether. Slinging drinks sure beats back breaking field work for limited gain. That would be a modern Greek tragedy. So this is my pitch to save one of the great world patrimonies for wine lovers. Buy and drink this!

2009 GREYWACKE VINEYARDS SAUVIGNON BLANCOther wines worth a detour this week include the Greywacke Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. New Zealand is the focus of the May 1st LCBO-Vintages release, and this is the top smart buy from the lot. I have become somewhat ambivalent towards NZ sauvignon, a little tired of the predictability and terminal sameness that ironically made this genre the triumph that it is, but that also threatens its future success. But here’s a NZ sauvignon that stands out for it distinctive personality. There’s no pungent cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush, no one-dimensional grassy refrain like a pop hit that lasts two weeks on the charts. This is restrained, elegant wine, full of stony-minerality and framed by bracing acidity, in short the way it was meant to be.

2009 SALOMON UNDHOF SAL'MON GROOVEY GRÜNER VELTLINERThe Salomon Undhof Groovey Grüner Veltliner is a wine to add to your spring-summer house wine program. Infinitely sippable, this is the bottle you want to reach for when you get home from work and kick back on the terrace or patio. It’s a perfect cooking wine, too, that is, a wine to sip as you cook with your friends mingling around the kitchen. It’ll also move comfortably into the first course of seafood or shellfish – be sure to use liberal doses of sweet aromatics like basil, mint, coriander and parsley to enhance the complementary flavours.

2007 PICHIERRI TRADIZIONE DEL NONNO PRIMITIVO DI MANDURIAZinfandel/Primitivo is the other feature of the release. Genetically determined to be closely related (but not exactly the same grape), both are descendents of the Croatian mouthful crljenak kastelanski. These two vines share a love for heat and a propensity to produce violently fruity and alcoholic wines, and California and Puglia in southern Italy provide the ideal habitat to express their characteristics to the fullest. From Italy, my top pick goes to the non-too-subtle Pichierri Tradizione del Nonno Primitivo, “grandpa’s tradition”. This is indeed a wine the way grandpa used to make: raisined, ultra-ripe fruit is tuned into a fiery, old farmhouse-style wine of 16% alcohol and chocolate-Christmas cake flavours that would make most Amarone blush with envy. Make sure you are sitting down when drinking this and the car is permanently parked for the night.

2008 SEGHESIO SONOMA ZINFANDELFrom California, my greatest excitement was reserved for the Seghesio Sonona Zinfandel, appreciated more for it classy, elegant styling; a stark contrast to the Italian stallion. This example manages to strike a fine balance, avoiding the excesses of alcohol and the common feature of cheap zinfandel that sees underripe and overripe fruit juxtaposed together. Zin is a tricky variety to grow. The grapes within a single bunch ripen at differing rates and intervals, and make the timing of the harvest a compromise one way or another. More moderate sites and old vines tend to smooth out the ripening curve and reduce the disparity, making wines of better flavour balance and greater elegance without needing the monstrous alcohol that is inevitable when half the grapes have turned to raisins. Seghesio’s is a good example what’s possible with this grape.

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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April 17th Vintages Release – David Lawrason’s Take

David LawrasonWine ratings and reviews are my stock in trade, and I have delivered another ninety-plus tasting notes for Vintages April 17 release at WineAlign to help you make your buying decisions based on objective evaluation of quality and description of the style, flavours and feel of each wine. They are there for your perusal by clicking on New Releases under the Wine tab, then searching the release by style, region and price.  Or if you want to plug in quickly to find a specific wine use its LCBO number or name in the Search field.


I enjoy tasting all these wines but it can be a repetitive task. And my personal interest as a wine writer is to look at the stories and trends lodged deeper in the various selections. So rather than highlight the best buys in a somewhat arbitrary and never-long-enough list of Dave’s Fave’s, I would rather use this space to direct you to wines that are interesting or important for reasons beyond being “best buys”.

So welcome to a random series of observations and comments…

Tenuta Sant'antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi 2006 Amarone Della ValpolicellaThe ripasso and amarone s from Italy’s Veneto region featured in this release are by and large boring. The mid-priced ripassos are too much the same; while most of the amarone’s under-deliver for their price. And it’s getting hard to tell where the boundary between the two styles lies.  I further sense that the popularity of the region and genre is taking a toll on quality and value and focus – as wineries scramble to expand and differentiate their appassimento portfolios (appassimento refers to using air-dried “raisined” grapes).  The great challenge in this process is avoiding volatile acidity that results in an acetone character, as well as sourness on palate.  Several selections are bothered by these characteristics.  I much preferred the basic, less expensive charming non-appassimento Valpolicella and Bardolino selections like Monte Del Frá 2008 Valpolicella Classico.  And aside from the always impressive trilogy of expensive Masi amarones from the less vaunted 2004 vintage, I also was very taken by the quality and value of Tenuta Sant’antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi 2006 Amarone Della Valpolicella.

Alvento 2006 AriaI love improbable, romantic tales and none better in this release than the story behind Alvento 2006 Aria (nebbiolo). Bruno and Elayne Moos owned a winery in Tuscany for many years before putting down roots in Niagara, which they felt might be a good region for nebbiolo given latitudinal and climatic similarity to Piedmont, where nebbiolo creates famed Barolo. They struggled through tough Niagara winters in 2003 to 2005, but finally made their first Aria in 2006 – something so unique and controversial you must try it for yourself. On May 6 it will be poured alongside Barolos from Pio Cesare and Gaja at a fundraiser for Provindence Healthcare Foundation.  And by the way the 2007 still in barrels (to be releases in 2011) is even better.

Josef Chromy 2008 RieslingI’ve never visited Tasmania but the selection of four wines by Josef Chromy capture a character that is easy to imagine as being very typical of this cool climate, heavily forested, island state. The wines are light, racy and juicy with very lifted aromas and coniferous nuances, especially the riveting Josef Chromy 2008 Riesling.  Chromy is a Czech who escaped communist rule in 1950 and found his way to Tasmania.  With a 61 hectare vineyard and new showpiece winery near Launceston, he is considered one of the pioneers of the Tasmanian industry.

The organic selection in this release is so mainstream and conventional it would be impossible to distinguish them in blind tastings from non-organic wines. And for the organic movement that’s a very good thing. There was only one overly earthy, rustic and generally unbalanced wine that speaks of natural methods run amok Domaine Des Carabiniers 2007 Côtes Du Rhône.

Penmara 2008 Reserve ChardonnayFranciscan 2007 ChardonnayAustralia and California chardonnays are rarely models of elegant restraint but two very pleasant surprises show up this week from unexpected sources. From high altitude vineyards in the region of Orange in New South Wales Penmara 2008 Reserve Chardonnay; and from Napa ValleyFranciscan 2007 Chardonnay, a winery that doesn’t have a habit of standing out.

Saltram 2006 Mamre Brook Shiraz
Amid the raft of Australia reds in this release, most treading in good to very good range, comes a clear stand-out from a winery too seldom seen in Canada.  Saltram is a tiny player, comparatively speaking, in the huge Foster’s portfolio. It is one of Australia’s oldest wineries first producing wine in 1862 and remaining the hands of two different families until acquired by Foster’s in 2007.  When I tried the Saltram range at the recent Fosters portfolio tasting I was impressed by the depth, elegance and structure of the entire range.  And yes by the price as well.  Make a bee line to the $24, 92pts Saltram 2006 Mamre Brook Shiraz.
Fontodi  2007 Chianti Classico
I have always been a fan of Tuscany’s Fontodi.  So many wineries preach the blending of new world techniques and old world heritage, but I can’ think of anyone in Chianti doing it more demonstrably in the glass, and they have been doing it for over a decade.  There is a richness and ripeness toFontodi  2007 Chianti Classico that will satisfy New World red drinkers, yet there is well defined sangiovese character as well, including that famous Italian acidity that makes Chianti so good with food. I’ll never forget dining with a bottle of the 2004 in a four star restaurant in Radda – loving every sip long into the summer night.

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of over 100 wines in this release.

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April 17th Vintages Preview – The Veneto is about Venice by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

The Veneto is about Venice. It’s a wonder of the world, and one wonders who would have dreamed up the idea of building a city in a lagoon. A model of medieval engineering, the city stands as both witness and tribute to the extravagant grandeur of the Dukes of Venice, rulers of one of the world’s great maritime City States, wealthy beyond imagination from centuries of trade throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Richly ornate, rococo palaces bejeweled with exotic treasures from the east sink slowly into the silty shallows of the Adriatic, like sand castles on the beach as the tide rolls in. Somber black-lacquered gondolas ply the waters of the canals in silent but stark contradiction with the colourful tiles that decorate with sumptuous decadence the buildings on either side. But beneath the glamorous exteriors lie crumbling foundations and centuries’ old construction, groaning and creaking under the weight of lavishness, worn by the ravages of a watery existence and awaiting the inexorable end. Venice is a grand old lady, defying the rush of years with a liberal application of make-up, echoed by the masks worn by citizens and visitors alike during the carnival in Venice.

Yet nobody seems to notice, or care. For in the Piazza San Marco, Europe’s greatest outdoor drawing room, a constant parade of people gather with the innumerable pigeons to sip expensive cappuccino and toast decaying beauty with a glass or two of prosecco, contented to be in the moment. After all, where else would you care to be?

The Veneto is also about rice, risotto more precisely, condimented with everything from seafood to gorgonzola, or perhaps most famously, amarone wine. It’s about horse-meat, advertised on every menu in Verona, air-dried and cured as sfilaci di cavallo, or braised or stewed or grilled over a wood-burning fire. And of course the Veneto is about wine, frequently the region in Italy with the largest output in terms of sheer volume. It’s best known wines are household names anywhere around the world where Italian wine is available in meaning volume and variety: soave, valpolicella, amarone, prosecco.

As with Venice, one needs to know where to go to avoid getting pick-pocketed. Venetian wine is filled with blind and dark alleys, overpriced rooms and dodgy restaurants, and savoury gondoliers, eager to take you for a ride and separate you from your money. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, indeed almost impossible not to. But when you finally find your way, all of the expensive disappointments fade from memory for a few glorious moments until it’s time again to search for another treasure. The April 17th release with a feature on wines of the Veneto is as murky as a Venetian canal. There are some extraordinary wines, and there are some wines to avoid as urgently as a slick-haired, neck scarf-clad gondolier offering you a romantic ride down a dimly lit waterway.

Many of the wines were so basic and disappointing that even at sub-$15 price points they seemed overpriced, the type of wine you’d expect to find by the carafe in a cheap side alley trattoria. If you’re unlucky enough to fall on one of these, you’ll feel cheated, ripped-off, and you’ll curse the old lady. But there is also value to be found, too.  Look for a deliciously drinkable red from Bardolino for $12.95 and a very solid Valpolicella Ripasso from the fanatically devoted grower Marinella Camerani and her Adalia range at $14.95. Or pick up a bottle of the excellent value Monte del Frà Bianco di Custoza Superiore white and imagine yourself of the shores of the Lago di Garda with a frito misto di pesce, mixed fresh tiny lake fish fried up crisp and served piping hot in a newspaper. You’ll fall in love with the grand old lady all over again.

The top wines in the release are, unsurprisingly, the massively complex, dried grape wines known as Amarone della Valpolicella, produced from grapes grown in the Valpolicella hills north of Verona. Amaro means ‘bitter’ in Italian, and amarone means “big, bitter”, that is, bitter in the sense of not sweet and big in the sense of full-bodied and generously alcoholic. These are among the most sought-after wines in Italy. Three high-end  wines from the well-known house of Masi were in my view the class of the lot: Campolongo di Torbe, Mazzano (both single vineyard crus) and the Vaio Armaron from the historic estate of the Alighieri family, of Dante and La Divina Comedia  fame. These wines are not inexpensive to be sure, but they are fabulous and extremely age worthy.

Outside of the Veneto, there are a couple of Greek wines to single out as worth a detour: the highly fragrant moschofilero from Tselepos, one of Mantinia’s top producers (a wine region in the heart of the Peloponnese), with the fragrance of gewürztraminer and the structure of dry Riesling, a perfect match with shellfish, basil pesto and green Thai curries among many other possibilities. Fans of fortified muscats should seek out the Muscat of Limnos, pure essence of fresh Muscat in a 750ml bottle for just $11.95. Additionally, Mendocino County, Chianti, Casablanca Valley and McLaren Vale all produced smart buys in this release.

To see all of my reviews click here.


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Hobbs & Co. Annual Portfolio Tasting – Great Wines for a Great Cause

Our good friends at Hobbs & Co. are having their annual portfolio tasting the evening of April 13th at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto.   This is a great opportunity to taste new wines not carried by the LCBO.

The evening is in support of a great cause: Charity Water.  One in six people on the planet do not have access to clean drinking water.  Charity Water is a non profit organization providing clean, safe drinking water to people in areas of greatest need. Just $20 provides one person in a developing nation with clean water for 20 years.


Mark your calendar on Tuesday April 13th for the Hobbs & Co. Annual Portfolio Tasting

5:00 to 8:00 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre, 27 Front Street East.

Come to taste award-winning wines including new products never before available in Ontario.
Come to meet winery representatives from around the world.
Come to sample Black River award-winning Ontario cheddar cheese.
Tickets $20 in advance; $30 at the door.
Purchase tickets at here or call 416.366.7723

Featured Wines:

Herve Lichtle – Domaine Francois Lichtle

The winery has been owned and operated by the Lichtle family since 1897. Herve, the present wine maker will be pouring four outstanding newly released wines.

Aurélien Fiardet – Terroirs Originels

Terriors Originels is a collective of small wine makers from the Beaujolais and Macconais regions. This collective aims to boost their distribution for independent wine makers of the region by enabling them to offer an extensive range and quality service.

Nuno Franco – Herdade Sao Miguel

Based in the Alentejo region, the wine making team at Herdade Sao Miguel believes that the success of a wine comes from grape quality. Their team has been hard at work with ISA in developing technology that allows a better understanding of terroir in order to best support the complex life of the vine.

Hazel Murphy – Clairault Wines Margaret River

Situated less than four kilometres inland from the Indian Ocean and 120 metres above sea level with an average of 300 sunshine days per year, Clairault is one of the predominant wineries of the Margaret River Wine Region of Australia. The 200 Clairault Cabernet Sauvignon has been awarded the Gold Medal (Best in Class) at the 2009 International Wine & Spirit Competition

Hobbs & Co.

Filed under: Events, Wine,

Apr 3rd Vintages Release – Getting to Know Spain is not Easy – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Having a hard time grasping Spanish wine?  Me too.  I have travelled there five times in my career. I love eating and drinking in Spain.  I love the gentle, conservative nature of Spaniards.  But I can’t come to grips with what defines Spanish wine.  That’s because it is so varied in its make-up, as shown by Vintages Spanish feature on the April 3rd release.   The unfortunate result of this is that many of us just let Spain slide off and we look elsewhere. Too much effort is required, which is a shame because so much interesting new wine is emerging, like a white Godello from Bierzo, a new one on me.

It was once easier to define Spanish wine because historically Spanish culture preferred mature, table-ready long oak aged reds.  Twenty years ago there were more barrels in Rioja than any region in the world.  But modern, New world influences are hard at work, bringing brighter focus to the myriad indigenous grapes and terroirs.  And so it is high time to drill down and begin talking about Spanish regions, not just Spain.  We are never required to consider France as a whole, only its regions, and Spain is just as varied, if not more so.

Vintages release presents a great opportunity to roll up your glasses and  begin learning. The selection is broad and the prices are reasonable – perhaps too reasonable  as Vintages strives to hit its post-recesionnary  ‘comfort zone’ between $15 and  $20. Frankly, many of the wines are average-good; just managing to show their origin, but not with much confidence or pride.  There are some good Rioja’s and as often happens, the vibrant, nimble and complex reds of Priorat and Montsant seem to soar above the pack. These dominate Dave’s Faves this time, if two selections can be called dominant.  But I am also a big fan of the CVNE Monopole White from Spain.  Bordeaux – not far to the north – weighs in with a terrific white and red one-two punch, and never to be forgotten – Australia is making some great cabernets as well.

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of over 100 wines in this release.

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008