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Vintages Preview Aug 7th Release – Great value wines from south & central Italy – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

I think it’s fair to say I have a reasonable familiarity with central and southern Italian wines. As wine director for Terroni restaurants in Toronto, it’s my mission to leave no stones unturned when it comes to Italian wines, especially wines from the south, in order to fill the wine list with the best and best value wines available. And I couldn’t be luckier. Southern Italy is one of the most fertile hunting grounds for wines of real character and sense of place, as well as international appeal, at very reasonable prices. It seems I discover something new and interesting almost daily, as apparently there’s a never-ending list of regions, grapes and producers to explore.

Understanding Italy is one of the most daunting tasks faced by students in sommelier courses, up there with Germany and Burgundy in terms of sheer size, scope and complexity. But it’s precisely this diversity that makes the country so fascinating. On two visits to Italy within the last year I came across historic regions being reinvented by new and ambitious producers, and new regions getting established by multi-generational winegrowing families. The list of grapes seems endless, and so many growers are thankfully keen to revive antique grapes on the verge of extinction. Just last month an agent came by to see me and poured six excellent wines made from six ancient, indigenous grapes from Friuli that I had never heard of before. That’s as exciting for me it as would be for a classical musician to come across some unpublished Mozart composition in a dusty Salzburg attic: a window on the past, something beautiful for the future, and more pleasure for humankind.

Enotria VineyardsDubbed Enotria, land of vines, by the ancient Greeks when they landed in what is now southern Italy nearly 3,000 years ago, the landscape must have already been rich with grapevines. It’s speculated that the Greeks also imported a few of their own: it’s too tempting for ampelographers and linguists alike to not consider some Greek connection to grapes that are now considered indigenous like aglianico, a corruption of ‘elleniko’ (or ‘Hellenic, Greek for ‘Greek’), negroamaro (a corruption of nero-mavro, ‘black-black’, nero being the Italian word for black and mavro being the Greek equivalent), or more obviously, greco or grecanico. Whatever the case, there are plenty of fascinating, high quality varieties with singular flavour profiles.

The combination of well-adapted grapes, envious climate, and importantly, large estates with economies of scale (compared to the often tiny, fractured land ownership of regions like Piedmont, Friuli or the Veneto) spells out great potential value in the world of wine. So prepare yourself for an intriguing Italian wine Odyssey.

Apollonio Copertino Rosso 2004A nice starting point without frightening anyone with exceedingly strange flavours is the 2004 APOLLONIO COPERTINO ROSSO $16.95, a negroamaro-malvasia blend from southern Puglia that’s crafted in an approachable, modern style with plenty of concentration and polish, while still retaining some regional character. The next step would be to a slightly more traditional expression from the same region, like the 2007 RIVERA SALICE SALENTINO $13.95. It’s the same blend more or less, and from a similar terroir, but more traditional and rustic in style yet full of flavour.

Giusti Piergiovanni Lacrima Di Morro D'alba 2008When you’ve become acclimatized to the hot winds and sunny skies of the mezzogiorno (it always seems like the sun is right over your head as at midday, like the Midi of France), then you’ll be ready to explore some more unusual and idiosyncratic wines. The 2008 GIUSTI PIERGIOVANNI LACRIMA DI MORRO D’ALBA$17.95 is made from the rare Lacrima di Morro d’Alba grape grown around the town of Morro d’Alba in Le Marche on the Adriatic coast, which has nothing to do with Alba in Piedmont. Lacrima means tears, and the grape is so-called as the skins have a tendency to burst when fully ripe, causing little drops of juice to run out that resemble tears. Lacrima is a highly aromatic grape, with beguiling floral aromas that will keep you swirling and sniffing all night. And if firm acid and tannins don’t phase you, and you don’t mind a little salty minerality in your glass, then you’ll want to check out the 2007 BISCEGLIA TERRE DI VULCANO AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE $14.95 and the 2008 MURGO ETNA ROSSO $13.95 both hailing from the slopes of volcanoes (Vulture in Basilicata and Etna in Sicily respectively).

Despite the impression that all of southern Italy is hot and relentlessly sunny, there are nonetheless a few pockets and several grapes that are capable of producing fresh, crisp, seafood friendly whites, some of real class and character. My two top value picks in this release are the 2008 MARCHETTI VERDICCHIO DEI CASTELLI DI JESI CLASSICO 12.95 and the 2009 PALA CRABILIS I FIORI VERMENTINO DI SARDEGNA $13.95.

Tandem Peloton 2007Beyond Central and Southern Italy, I’d like to point out the welcome addition of Tandem wines to the Vintages Portfolio, represented in Ontario by Kylix Wines. This is my first experience with Tandem, and I was seriously impressed with the releases from this Sonoma Coast-based winery. Indeed, all three were all in my top ten smart buys this week: 2007 TANDEM SANGIACOMO CHARDONNAY $24.95, 2007 TANDEM PELOTON $19.95 and 2007 TANDEM AUCTION BLOCK PINOT NOIR $29.95. Reasonably priced and full of class, character and pleasure, these wines shouldn’t be missed by fans of more elegant styles of wine from the sunshine state.

Finally, anyone who enjoys the flavours of mature wine should try the 2002 LEGENDS ESTATES RESERVE CABERNET/MERLOT VQA Niagara Peninsula $17.95. I’ve tried this wine many times over the past half decade or so and I’d say that it’s drinking beautifully now and certainly not past the best before date.

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Wines from Central & Southern Italy at a Glance
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages July 24th Release: Amazing Southern French Values; Aussies Bright Whites and other Under Appreciated Wines

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Vintages July 24 release features two of my favourite genres, and both are vastly under-appreciated. I know this because there prices remain shockingly low for the quality they deliver.  If they were more in demand their prices would be higher.  For many it seems they are simply a step too far off the beaten path.

Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah 2007The reds of the sprawling region of southern France called Languedoc-Roussillon are perhaps among the most exciting of any in the world these days – at any price. This release is chock full of winners a unbelievably good prices. There seems to be a new energy in the sunny south, as a younger generation with international focus and experience plumbs the vast region’s intricate appellations and mix of authorized grape varieties to produce fine and distinctive estate wines from grapes formerly shipped off to the co-ops. And there are plenty of old vineyards around waiting to be scooped up by bright-eyed idealists like one Olivier Bernstein who worked in Burgundy but couldn’t afford land there so he purchased a small farm (locally called a Mas) in Roussillon to produce the much praised as Mas De La Devèze 2007 66.  But the out and out best value of the release at only $12.95 is the Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices 2007 Syrah that snagged a top award in a local competition for wines of the Vin de Pays d’Oc (the umbrella appellation for varietal wines).

Henschke Tilly's Vineyard 2008The other feature mini-feature showcases very tasty, bright Australian whites. We too quickly think of Australia as a red wine region, but the same combo of science and sunny clime that brought its reds to the world’s attention has been at play with the whites. The climate easily provides fruit with tropical, exotic aromas. The challenge has been to bring some zest and poise to those wines, mostly through cooler climate site selection, and the crop at Vintages this week demonstrates it’s successful across a wide range of grapes and regions.  But two varieties are particularly exciting in Australia, and both have a very long history there. One is semillon which I have been pegging as one of the world’s great white wine values for years.  Don’t miss Henschke 2008 Tilly’s Vineyard in which semillon plays a supporting role. The other is riesling, first planted by German immigrants in the Barossa decades ago, with D’arenberg 2008 The Dry Dam Riesling from McLaren Vale, showing great style and value.

And speaking of under-appreciated wines, there is a always a little cluster of sweet and fortified wines at the end of the bench when the media and Vintages staff taste the new releases at the LCBO. Sometimes I admit, after ploughing through 50 or more other whites and reds, I just don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to tackle the ports, sherries and various sweeties from obscure, usually Mediterranean, regions. Does anyone really care about them?  I ask.  They are falling out of favour because our drinking culture is changing.  We are avoiding wines high is sugar and alcohol for dietary reasons, and we are tending to drink less at the end of the meal and later in the evening, especially when we have to travel at night.  So port and sherry are victims of our Age of Responsibility, and when I taste wines as wonderful and historic as Gonzalez Byass Oloroso Dulce Solera 1847 I actually feel sadness for the producers and the whole magnificent culture around sherry that still flourishes in the storied town of Jerez on Spain’s south coast. With marsala virtually extinct as a fine wine, and madeira becoming more rare every year, can sherry be far behind?

Stellenrust Cabernet Sauvignon 2007Two of the best red New World wine values on the Sept 4 are from South Africa, and they are profoundly different in style, reflecting a real dilemma for Cape winemakers. Which way to turn?  My preference is for the Stellenrust 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a bargain $13.95 example of a traditional style that the Cape does very well.  In a blind tasting of mature Bordeaux from a warmer vintage few would guess it was not Bordeaux. And there is the even cheaper Winery of Good Hope 2008 Shiraz at $11.95, a black wine of incredible power and depth charged with all kinds of smoky, coffee character/confection that is becoming increasingly prevalent in South Africa.  I am sure that each style has it fans, and it would be a great exercise and premise for a lively debate to buy both (so affordable) and do a side-by side tasting poll with a friend or three.  Then in the end stop to consider the real story that in both cases the Cape is delivering staggering depth, complexity and power for so little money.

On the local scene this release features a clutch of pretty good Ontario whites, particularly Flat Rock’s 2007 Chardonnay, which is drinking very well at three years (we always drink chardonnay too young). But the stand out is Tawse 2008 Growers Blend Pinot Noir. You may actually be tired of hearing me talk about Tawse, and if they would just stop making such good wines I would indeed be quiet. But here again is another wine that demonstrates the depth of what Paul Pender and gang are doing. Consider first that it is from purchased grapes that may or not be grown with the same rigour as estate grapes. Consider second that it is from the more difficult 2008 vintage, with a soggy September that gave pinot growers fits.  Yet here we have an almost perfectly ripe and balanced expression of Niagara pinot noir. Well done indeed!

Tawse Growers Blend Pinot Noir 2008

And finally, speaking of Tawse and Niagara, if you don’t yet have plans for Labour Day Weekend, and you would like a great new way to experience the best of Niagara, I am co-hosting a three day gastronomic tour with food writer James Chatto. Not only are we visiting some excellent wineries (Tawse, Malivoire, Stratus and Ravine), we are dining very well at Treadwell, Good Earth Cooking School and Peller.  And we are sailing to Niagara and back on 40-foot Hunter yachts. It’s a great adventure and a lot of fun. If you are interested please contact Sandy Molnar:

See all my reviews for the July 24th release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Vintages Preview July 24th Release – Southern France and Aussie Whites – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

I spent the summer of 1998 in the Languedoc working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant in the small village of Florensac, somewhere between Montpellier and Béziers. The sea was a manageable bike ride away through the wild herb-scented Mediterranean breeze. The nearby Etang de Thau provided and endless array of seafood and shellfish delivered daily to the restaurant, and fresh lamb came from the high mountain pastures of the Pyrenees no more than an hour’s drive away in a Citröen 4L. Days started at 8 or 9am and finished around midnight six days a week, unless there was a catering event on Sunday. It was hard work and I was paid next to nothing, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Restaurant2:30-4:30 was a sacred time, when everyone in the house, front or back, would pause for lunch. There were always at least 4-5 open bottles of local wine on the table to taste, brought over by the sommelier Laurence. And so I began a serious exploration of the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon, then as now the largest officially designated wine-growing region in the world. It was also at about this time that the Languedoc started to gain a lot of international recognition for the quality and value of its wines, shedding the image of a vast, poor quality bulk wine region as it had been considered for at least the last century. Suddenly there were small, artisanal producers popping up in the most promising sub-regions and micro terroirs from the Pyrenees to the borders of the southern Rhône appellation making great wine from the local grapes and a few imports.
Languedoc Wine I spent my rare days off that summer driving around in a borrowed car and visiting many of these up and coming producers, guided by Laurence’s recommendation and my own research. I discovered a wealth of dedicated winemakers eager to explore and express the maximum potential of Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and old vines carignan, mostly in blends, as well as more rare but fascinating whites from grapes like maccabeu, bourboulenc and clairette and the more familiar marsanne and roussanne. I was thrilled at the discovery of characterful and flavourful wines at more than reasonable prices, made by passionate young individuals. The new generation of quality-oriented producers were quickly joined by big name and big money outsiders eager to get a piece of this terroir while it was still relatively unknown and the prices attractive. Regions like Minervois, Corbières, St Chinian, Faugères and the Côteaux du Languedoc were virtually unknown outside of France, and probably to most Parisians as well. It was this experience in fact that led me to leave the kitchen and get into the wine business, at first working with Vinifera, an importer of French wines. My motivation was at first selfish – I simply wanted to be able to drink these wines back home in Toronto.

In the intervening years, the Languedoc enjoyed a mini boom time in Ontario thanks in part to the LCBO’s buyer for the Classics Catalogue, Lloyd Evans, who had a soft spot for the wines. But the market never really took off has it did in, say, Québec, where not surprisingly all of the top wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon were, and still are, highly sought after and coveted by collectors and sommeliers alike. In some cases the prices have exceeded the value category to rival top crus from the Rhône Valley, but in general I still look to the Languedoc-Roussillon for excellent pleasure-price ratio.

Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah 2007There are some fine examples in the July 24th release at Vintages. My top smart buy this week is the 2007 DOMAINE LES YEUSES LES ÉPICES SYRAH $12.95.  Here’s a pure syrah from the south with as much character and typicity as many northern Rhône versions at twice the price. Number two on my top ten list is the 2009 CHÂTEAU SAINT-ROCH VIEILLES VIGNES GRENACHE BLANC/MARSANNE $13.95, a highly flavourful and typically sweet herb-scented old vines white blend. Both of these are wines to buy by the case for everyday enjoyment and entertaining out back.

Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Blanquette De Limoux BrutI also recommend two other southern French wines in the smart buys category: 2006 CHÂTEAU DE PENA $13.95, a black fruit and savoury herb scented red from the wild hills of the Roussillon, and a bubbly, DOMAINE J. LAURENS LE MOULIN BLANQUETTE DE LIMOUX BRUT $16.95 from what is claimed to be the oldest sparkling wine region in the world in the upper, cooler reaches of the Languedoc near the town of Limoux. Sparkling wine is said to have been purposely-made (i.e. they wanted the bubbles), in the region of Limoux since the early 16th century, nearly two centuries before the monk Dom Pérignon was still grappling with the problem of out how to keep the bubbles out of champagne, or at least keep the bottles from exploding. This example has the typical appley character of the dominant mauzac grape, alongside a marked yeasty-biscuity note from its traditional method production.

The Languedoc-Roussilon is not free of radical opinions nor styles. This is after all, the base of the ultra-radical guerilla wine faction called CRAV, the Comité Regional d’Action Viticole. CRAV has claimed responsibility for a number of acts of vandalism or wine terrorism if you prefer, such as emptying out 100’s of thousands of liters of wine in the middle of the night at producers who source wine outside of the region or outside of France, and other similar acts, in a not so muffled cry to the government to intervene and support local industry.

This release too, has its radical element. Surely most controversial wine in my view is the 2007 DOMAINE DES AIRES HAUTES MINERVOIS LA LIVINIÈRE $19.95. This will undoubtedly be a polarizing wine, with many swooning over its full-bodied ripeness and others, probably far fewer, wondering what just hit them over the head. You’ll see in the Vintages catalogue that Robert Parker rates this wine a 90-91, while I was considerably less enthusiastic at just 86. I found the fruit fully baked and raisined and the alcohol, at an exaggerated 15.5% (on the label), well, exaggerated. No balance, no finesse, no poetry, just sheer mass. Any long time First-in-Line or WineAlign readers will likely have already figured out which wines ‘align’ with my tastes so this won’t be surprising. I know Minervois is a hot region. I lived next door to it and traveled through it during the hot summer of 1998. I’ve visited Domaine des Aires Hautes and tasted 16-17+% alcohol barrel samples and found them excessive then too. I know that properly managed vineyards can produce fully ripe fruit at less vertiginous alcohol levels, as plenty of other producers in the area manage to do, so I’m left wondering why it’s necessary. I suppose it’s because lots of people including well-known and respected critics like the style. I can’t help thinking that if I wanted to drink amarone or fortified wine, then I would probably buy amarone or fortified wine. In any case, I encourage you to pick up a bottle and see for yourself – it will at least be warming on a cold winter’s night.

Henschke Tilly's Vineyard 2008

As for the other feature of the July 24th release, Aussie whites, there is a collection of solid if not extraordinary wines, led by my top pick, the 2008 HENSCHKE TILLY’S VINEYARD $19.95 .

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Wines from Southern France at a Glance
Top Aussie Whites at a Glance
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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Some Thoughts from Château Margaux Managing Director Paul Pontalier – by John Szabo

Some Thoughts from Château Margaux Managing Director Paul Pontalier

Paul Pontalier

Paul Pontalier

Paul Pontallier, Directeur Général of Château Margaux, along with Aurélien Valance senior VP Commercial Directeur and Georges Haushalter, Directeur Général of the Compagnie Médocaine des Grands Crus, represented in Ontario by Lifford Wine Agency, were in town in May for a presentation and tasting of Château Margaux. The wines, of course, were exceptional, but the conversation was even more interesting (well, at least as interesting). Following are some excerpts, taken on the fly with my poor shorthand typing skills, so my apologies in advance for any misrepresentation of words spoken.

On the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux:

The quantity has been decreasing steadily over the last decade, and total production is now down to about 800-900 in 2009 (micro quantities relative to most Bordeaux cru classé production). The reason for the decrease is purely qualitative, as the selection is stricter and stricter. The 2008 Pavillon Blanc, for example represents only 40% of the total crop of white grapes, and the 2009 just 32%. But the severe approach is paying off, at least in terms of quality if not financially, Pontallier believes. “The 2009 is possibly the best vintage of Pavillon Blanc ever, but it’s also frustrating to sell off the remaining wine that doesn’t make the selection at regular Bordeaux blanc prices.” This is especially true since Pavillon Blanc “requires 10 times more effort to achieve this quality than it does to make the red. It requires an almost berry-by-berry selection. Every single step is more complicated”, says Pontallier.

Confusion over the naming of Pavillon Blanc:

To anyone unfamiliar with Château Margaux but at least somewhat familiar with the usual wine-naming strategy in Bordeaux, “Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux” sounds like the second tier white of the property, as the Pavillon Rouge is the second red wine, or “deuxième vin”. But Pavillon Blanc was created in 1920, at a time when there really weren’t any second wines and no one had envisioned any problem of confusion. The wine was in fact called “Château Margaux Vin Blanc” in the 19th century. But today there are legal issues to consider before attempting to change the name back and eliminate confusion. Margaux is a château as well as an appellation, and the AOC is exclusively for red wine, so a “margaux Blanc” is currently impossible.

The plot where white grapes are grown has belonged to the château for centuries, and was at one point planted with red varieties and included in the Margaux Grand Vin blend. The particular parcel is frost-prone, and as a result was not initially replanted after the phylloxera crisis. It was therefore excluded from the Margaux appellation when it was officially demarcated in 1955. Since it could not be used for Château Margaux, the parcel was planted to semillon and sauvignon in 1973-1974 and another part in 1979-80. In the intervening years, half of the parcel was subsequently incorporated within the Margaux appellation, and Pontallier is considering the possibility of replanting one hectare with red varieties on an experimental basis. With modern viticultural techniques and more advanced frost protection mothods, he believes the parcel could produce excellent wine. After all, it was part of the blend in the 19th century.

Details on the Pavillon Blanc:

Pavillon Blanc has evolved into a 100% sauvignon blanc-based wine. Historically this has not been the case, though it was not a conscious decision to exclude Semillon. Pontallier prefers the results of sauvignon exclusively, even though in blind tastings he regularly mistakes his own wine for a classic sauvignon-semillon blend. Grapes are harvested quite late to lose the vegetal character. The 2008 doesn’t have the depth and complexity of 2006 and 2009 for example, but has great freshness and crispness. Across all of the wines, there is a distinct oyster shell-like minerality, alongside ripe citrus, pear, and mild stone fruit. The mains markets for Pavillon Blanc: #1 Japan, #2 Russia. It sells for about $400 retail.

On the 2009 Vintage for Red Bordeaux:

“Undoubtedly the best young reds in the Médoc ever tasted”, enthuses Pontallier, though he can’t necessarily compare it to the wines of a different generation. “The backbone, the genetics are the same, but our grandfathers looked different, wore different clothes. We have progressed tremendously in the last 20 years”. The dry weather arrived at precisely the right moment, around the 10-12th of July, when the growth of the vines needs to slow down. The near-total drought continued through to harvest and prevented growing cycles from starting again, yet there was just enough rain to prevent water stress.

“2009 combines qualities that I have never scene: power and concentration. Our 09 is the most powerful wine we have ever made, including the legendary 1961 and 1947. It’s comparable to 2005 in that sense, but the 2005 has a very different tannic structure. You can feel the tannins. In 2009, the tannins seem to have lost their astringency. There is so much concentration in the wine, but the tannins are barely noticeable. That makes it unique. 1990 was much less concentrated. Honestly, there has not been a single vintage since the 1930s in which I have found these qualities. Does that make it better? I don’t know. At this level it doesn’t really matter.”

On Oak Usage an the Fashion for Ever-more:

“200% new oak is insane. If your wine has no virtue, than you have to build it. You have to add something that the wine doesn’t have. We have to protect, preserve or enhance what we have been given. We should not manipulate but we have. We must be careful.”

On the Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux: not a second wine either

“Consider that Margaux is made from the best possible elements from the property. Everything is kept separately. We try to achieve the most perfect wine possible for each vintage. Then we are left with the rest. In the old days, it all went into Pavillon. But for the last decade we have had a 3rd wine. When we make Pavillon Rouge, we want to make a very good wine. In 2009, 23% of the crop ended up in the 3rd wine, even though we could have made it all into very good Pavillon. We no longer like to call it the second wine, since it is really a selection as well.”

On Alcohol levels:

There is growing concern, or at least discussion in the trade regarding upwardly spiraling alcohol levels in Bordeaux, so we question Pontallier. The reality points to Margaux’s search for elegance and finesse over sheer alcoholic power. “Alcohol Levels? In 2009, Margaux is 13.2%, Pavillon Rouge is  13.5%, and our 3rd wine is 14%. We are not looking for overipeness or alcohol in our Grand Vin. Our clay soil yields wines with higher alcohol, these are usually the parcels that end up in the 3rd wine or possibly Pavillon. But our top gravelly soils yield grapes with 1-2% lower alcohol, and they are usually the best.”

The Problem with Bordeaux en Primeur:

Each year around the end of March, buyers and critics from all over the world descend on Bordeaux to taste their way through the previous year’s wines. Reviews will be published and buying strategies determined. The system is far from ideal, however, according to Pontallier. “The blends are made in January and are done by February, so that the wines can be tasted in March. Parcels are not usually tasted blind. When we have doubts, we’ll taste blind, we do both, but we find it doesn’t help really. The problem is that late March or early April is too soon to taste the wines, to properly evaluate them. Especially in great vintages, the wines take time to open. Late April early or May would be better. But we would not necessarily change the timing of the blend”.

On the differences between North American critics’ and European critics’ scores:

2009 was rather unique in that the main critics on both sides of the Atlantic were unanimous in their praise of the vintage in general and seemed to agree on the top wines. This is in contrast to some previous vintages in which the wines were more polarizing, most famously perhaps the on-line spat between British writer Jancis Robinson and American Robert Parker over one particular St. Emilion. Parker praised its power and concentration while Robinson decried it’s new world-like ripeness and alcohol and exaggerated use of oak. Pontallier: “I welcome the differences in scoring, when people disagree it’s a great thing. I would be very disturbed should all the critics agree. That would mean that all the great wines are so simple that everyone can agree.”

Château Margaux

On The Evolution of Château Margaux:

“Wines have gained in purity from where they were before. Since 1995, all the vintages have been good. There has not been a single bad wine since 1994. Bordeaux wines have gained in concentration and are much softer. We make wines now that are not only easier to drink when young, but will also age even better because of the concentration and greater abundance of tannins, though ripe tannins.”

On the Changing Marketplace:

One of the biggest changes that Pontallier has noted has been the increasing connection with the market, with the consumers of his wines. “25 years ago we were disconnected from the market. Today we want to know who drinks, for what reason, and at what price it’s sold. We need that information. If someone is willing to pay that much for our wine, it has to be perfect. We will do everything it takes to make perfect wines. In 1982, only 2/3 of our crop when into the first wine. People thought we were crazy. In 2009, only ¼ of the harvest went to the first wine.”

On Bordeaux Pricing:

There is a tendency in the trade and amongst consumers to accuse the top Bordelais château of excessive greed in their pricing strategies. The reality, however, is far more complicated then simple price hikes at the cellar door to take advantage of a market desperate for top name Bordeaux. Bordeaux pricing is certainly the most convoluted and complicated in the world of wine, stemming from the unique distribution system set up by the Place de Bordeaux. “La Place” is a virtual marketplace established by dozens of merchants who have been trading the top château wines for a couple of centuries in some instances.

Historically, château owners occupied themselves with making fine wine and left the selling and distribution responsibilities to independent négociants. These negociants make arrangements with château to purchase a certain number of cases (or barrels in the past, before the days of mise en bouteille au château), which they will then turn around and offer to their clients around the world. Buyers/importers in national and foreign markets take their position on each wine, and in turn offer it to their customers (distributors, retail shops, restaurants, etc.) In some cases, a wine may pass through at least 4 hands from château to drinker before it is finally consumed: Château-negociant-importer-distributor-retail shop/restaurant-end consumer. Add to this the additional complication that the wine is sold as a “future” i.e. you put your money down up to 2 years before you’ll actually receive possession of the wine, and there is multiple opportunity for speculation and price “corrections” along the way. What an end consumer will in fact pay for a bottle is not always directly related to the price at which a château releases a wine to the world. Says Pontallier: “With certain vintages, if we decide to set prices below the market, then we know that down the supply chain the price will be increased to meet demand.  It’s a free market, not in our hands, and often not in our pockets. The market will always correct the pricing miscalculations of the chateau.”

It’s regretful:

Who can afford premier grand cru classé Bordeaux these days? There’s none in my cellar. Even Pontallier understands the unfortunate reality, given their spectacular prices, that most of the top Bordeaux wines end up in the hand of collectors, speculators, businessmen with more money than sense or taste, or are just traded like pork bellies or crude oil or any other commodity. Rarely do they end up in the glasses of people who passionately love great wine. “We regret that our wines are out of the hands of the people who really appreciate them. We have mixed feelings. We are extremely happy to set those high prices. Higher profits allow us to work in the way that before we could only dream of, and the wines are better as a result. But on the other hand, most of those who have an appreciation and a culture of wine can’t afford to buy them.” Too bad indeed.


John Szabo, MS

George Restaurant, Toronto, May 2010

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages July 10th Release: Is Beaujolais a Bust? Are New World Pinots the Answer? Flashy Italian Whites and Steadfast Aussie Reds

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

My report comes a few days earlier this time, bridging a gap in coverage due to the travel schedule of my very busy WineAlign colleague John Szabo.  With fixed, but sometimes changing, tasting schedules at Vintages, it happens that one of us misses all or part of a release; but so far we have been able to spell each other off. Which is fine by me, as I am planning two weeks of real holidays in August  which means I may come up short on a September release. Real holidays means no tasting or writing, only enjoying wine with the evening meal after golfing or hiking.

Louis Bouillot Perle D'aurore Brut Rosé Crémant De BourgogneIt’s officially summertime in Ontario – early July – a fabulous very long Canada Day weekend is in the books. We look forward to two more months of exactly the same.  Is there one wine from Vintages July 10 release that I would stock by the case to see me through this summer if I was on a desert island in the Kawarthas this summer?  Thought you’d never ask.  It is a very spiffy, elegant and fine pink sparkler from Burgundy Louis Bouillot Perle D’aurore Brut Rosé Crémant De Bourgogne at a mere  $18.95.  It perfectly captures pinot noir based freshness, grip and Champagne joie de vivre. Dare you to buy three bottles for $60 compared to one bottle of Rosé Champagne.

Jean Paul Brun Moulin à Vent 2008Speaking of Burgundy, Vintages has rightfully featured  lighter bodied reds in this summer release, with Beaujolais as a feature.  That is a nod to classic thinking that gamay-based Beaujolais in southern Burgundy is still the standard in light reds. But I often find Beaujolais nowadays rather constricted and terse – hardly the carefree summer red I would serve at most backyard functions. The selection in Vintages is more mindful of serious pinot noirs than flowery, enchanting gamay. Vintages selections are light, dry, earthy and herbal,  but as a pinot-like wine I do admire the complex, age-worthy Jean Paul Brun Moulin à Vent 2008 .  And for fans of Niagara gamay  Malivoire’s 2008 Gamay returns to service at Vintages, in fact it is earmarked to be an always-available Vintages Essential in the weeks ahead.

Red Hill Estate Pinot Noir 2007The un-featured story in Vintages July 10 catalogue is how inexpensive, charming New World pinot noirs are taking over Beaujolais’ role.  First, a short story from the recent Wine Access International Value Wine Awards in Calgary. After a flight of New World pinots chief judge Anthony Gismondireamed out the low scoring judges by asking the very important question: “does every pinot have to taste like Burgundy to you guys?” in other words, why should Argentine or Aussie pinot have to conform to a Burgundy style standard?  We are well past that with cabernet, syrah and chardonnay.  Maybe its time to democratize pinot the same way – just let it be itself.  In that spirit there are two I would like you to try from this release:  Red Hill Estate Pinot Noir 2007 from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula at under $20 , andAlfredo Roca Pinot Noir 2008 from Argentina  at only $12.95.

Di Majo Norante Sangiovese 2008And still with the general theme of lighter reds, not every wine in this style needs to be gamay or pinot. I was surprised to discover a grape variety from Italy called gropello that out-Beaujolaised Beaujolais in terms of fruit charm, although it is not necessarily a quality pick. The wine is Selva Capuzza Garda Classico 2008 San Biagio Groppello  from Emilia-Romagna.  Also from Italy, don’tmiss the delicious, great value Di Majo Norante Sangiovese 2008 Terra Degli Osci  at only  $12.95. Di Majo Norante, based in the little known Molise region on the southern Adriatic is making terrific wines that combine modern suppleness and charm with classic flavours. This basic sangiovese has oodles of fruit, is supple and well balanced.  Italy also shows well in this release in the white wine department. Improved winemaking and viticultural practices have unleashed great juice from several indigenous varieties of Italy. There is so much fruit and vibrancy in these wines, from ubiquitous pinot grigios to exotic insolia. There are actually four on this release that you should consider, but I would highlight Cusumano Insolia 2009 from Sicily at $11.95. So exotic, bright and delicious!.

And we finish off with a great Australian red. There are some soupy, hot  Australian reds in this release, as usual, but Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz 2008 from Barossa is not to be missed at  $19.95.  It is incredibly rich, smooth and complex from a quality conscious producer.

Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz 2008

Speaking of excellent Aussie wines, a group of 50 WineAlign enthusiasts had more than their share last month attending our event at Canoe with Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker with Wolf Blass. We tasted through the upper tiers of the Wolf Blass range, right up to Platinum Shiraz, a fascinating exercise especially when the thinking behind each label could be so readily explained by the winemaker. Watch this week as we post a video that captures some of the moments and guest reactions.  And come September watch for more WineAlign Community Events.

And that community grew significantly this weekend after I did a series of radio interviews on Saturday in Toronto on CBC’s Fresh Air,  CFRB’s Lynne Russell Show, and AM740’s Frank Proctor Show. On Friday I also taped with Stephanie Sabourin on Uncorked on Niagara’s CKTB.  We are waiting to see if and when clips will be posted on the station’s websites.

See all my reviews for the July 10th release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Chris Hatcher of Wolf Blass video. WineAlign’s first community event.

On 23 June, 2010 WineAlign members were invited to an exclusive Wolf Blass premium wine tasting with winemaker Chris Hatcher at Canoe restaurant in Toronto.

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Austria’s Best Whites – The Latest Report From Central Europe – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

The Austrians know how to put on a good show. The biannual VieVinum event took place this year from May 28-31 in the majestic court palace rooms of the Wiener Hofburg in downtown Vienna. Over 850 international journalists, importers, agents and sommeliers were invited to Vienna to taste as assess the recent vintages and get an up-to-date picture on the Austrian wine scene. In total, over 14,000 wine enthusiasts from all over Austria took the opportunity to taste the new vintages from Austrian wine producers during the three-day event.

From nearly zero in the mid-eighties, Austrian vintners have enjoyed a near-constant increase in exports over the last 25 years. Exceeding all expectations, even in the last troublesome couple of years exports of bottled wine (87% of total exports) have continued to grow, particularly in value, up 4.4% from last year. Germany is still the most import market by a large margin at nearly 60% of all exports.

Sadly, Canada does not even figure in the top ten list of export destination countries, a pity given the extraordinary quality of the recent releases. One can’t even blame the LCBO for lack of availability, as a quick scan of available Austrian wines reveals an impressive collection of some of the most sought after names currently on sale in Ontario. I can only surmise that it is simply lack of awareness about the beauty of these extremely versatile and food-friendly wines that relegates them to the dark corners of the Vintages Shop Online program and the occasional dialed in agent who’s ahead of the learning curve. Why aren’t Canadians buying more Austrian Wines?

Grüner Veltliner GrapesAustrian wine production is dominated by white wine, with white grape varieties representing over 68% of total vineyard plantings (latest stats from 2007). Of these Grüner Veltliner (or “grooner, or ‘gru-vee”) is easily the flagship grape, accounting for nearly 1/3 of all grapes planted. (Riesling, though represented on only 3.6% of vineyard acreage, qualifies for me as Austria’s second most important white grape in sheer qualitative terms.) Grüner is an amazingly flexible grape that comes in a range of styles from light, bright and peppery to rich, lush and full bodied. Most are aged without recourse to oak, allowing purity of fruit and mineral flavours to shine through. I’ve done considerable experimentation matching grüner with food, and I find it to be one of the most friendly and flexible wines out there. From classic European-style fish and seafood preparations to sushi and sashimi, Thai, Chinese dim-sum and lightly spiced Indian curries, grüner seems to handle it all with aplomb. Just ask Vikram Vij of the celebrated Indian restaurant Vij’s in Vancouver (a certified sommelier). “We prefer fresh, crisp whites without too much oak”. Enter grüner (and a fine collection of German white, too). My experience consulting on the list for the Aman Patel of the Indian Rice Factory in Toronto led to much the same conclusions.

To find the top kit, look to the trio of appellations bordering the Danube to the west of Vienna, north of the River: Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal. With variations in elevation, aspect and most importantly soil type, the grüners from these areas can be astonishingly mineral-flavoured or succulently juicy with lively citrus and stone fruit (green peach, apricot). The signature of the grape, however, is a totally unique herbal-spicy-vegetal nuance that many liken to white pepper, though I’m most often reminded of turnip, parsnip or even fresh lentil flavours as well as sweet green herbs like tarragon or basil. Whatever the case, these are some of the most original wines in the world.

Terraced Vineyards WachauThe historic vineyards of Austria share a philosophical link with Burgundy and Germany, in that over the course of centuries, specific vineyards with marked individual character have been identified, named, vinified and bottled separately in order to highlight the terroir. It’s not surprising given that Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries have been established in the Danube River Valley for nearly a thousand years. Monks, with their envious spare time, affinity for contemplation and singular purpose of exalting God through their work, were well positioned to dissect the land and champion each vineyard’s individual character. And grüner veltliner, like pinot noir and riesling, is a perfect vector for articulating the land. Some of these monasteries have been making wine continuously for centuries, such as the Stift Göttweig (11thC) and Schloss Gobelsburg (12thC).

The result for modern drinkers is a sometimes-bewildering array of names on labels that takes more than a bit of knowledge to untangle, but it’s well worth the effort. For more information on Austrian wines, visit It is an excellent, well organized resource. In the meantime, here is a brief lexicon of Austrian wine terms to aid in deciphering the labels of the recommended wines below:

Trocken: dry

Trockenbeerenauslese: “dried out selected grapes”, ie. Botrytis affected, resulting, confusingly, in very sweet wine.

Ried: “single Vineyard”. The name following the term ried refers to the name of the vineyard, as in “Ried Lamm”, where Lamm is the name of the site in which the grapes are grown.

Steinfeder, federspiel, smaragd: three terms exclusive to the Wachau region, referring to increasing levels of ripeness. Steinfeder describes the lightest style, usually with about 11.5% alcohol, moving up the scale to smaragd, the most full bodied wines often tipping in at over 14% alcohol, with corresponding intensity of flavour, body, etc.

Terrassen: “terraces”. The steepest parts of the Danube Valley have been carved into terraces in order to make winegrowing possible. Terraces help to reduce erosion and make vineyard management a little easier.

Berg: “hill”. Often used in conjunction with a vineyard name, as in Käferberg or Loibner Berg. These steep sites offer excellent drainage and sun exposure, yielding excellent quality wines. In order to be labeled as bergwein, the site must have a slope of at least 26º (subject to verification).

Weingut: winery; the producer’s name

Recommended Wines from LCBO, Vintages and Vintages Shop Online:

Grooner Grüner Veltliner 2009GROONER GRUNER VELTLINER 2009 $12.95










F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Loibner Klostersatz 2007F.X. PICHLER GRÜNER VELTLINER FEDERSPIEL LOIBNER KLOSTERSATZ 2007$35.00








Salomon Undhof Pfaffenberg Riesling 2007SALOMON UNDHOF PFAFFENBERG RIESLING 2007 $24.00







John Szabo, MS

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008