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Lawrason’s Take On Vintages Oct 2nd Release – It’s a pleasure tasting some of the world’s best wines

Killer Cabernets from Italy, California & Chile; Dandy Whites from Greece and Slovenia; Classy Chassagne and Fine Spanish Cava

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I love October and November in Vintages tasting lab. The big names, and frankly some of the world’s best wines, get trotted out for tasting.  I’m in.  It’s fun just to taste these wines, but important to taste these bottles in direct shoulder to shoulder comparison with much more pedestrian under $20 fare that has become Vintage’s stock in trade.  It keeps one’s perspective balanced. But I would rather it was a year ‘round exercise. For some reason we are only supposed to get all hot and bothered about great wine in the fall, when we want to throw around all our loose change on icon wines with some thought to drinking them over the holidays.

Ornellaia (Tenuta Dell'ornellaia) 2007There are some great cabernet and merlot based reds on this release, and I’ll start with the only wine that made me swoon and be glad that my occupation would lead my lips to this glass. ORNELLAIA 2007, the legendary cabernet-merlot based blend from Tuscany’s coastal Bolgheri Region  is a tutorial on modern viticulture and winemaking. This is seamless, elegant, heady and rich.  If you are not moved by it your head is not connected to your heart.  I can understand that you may never want to pay $180 for a bottle of wine. That’s a different argument.  But if you might ever be tempted this is it. Nor does Italy’s huge presence on this release  end there.  Look for outstanding 90+ wines from Quintarelli, Paolo Scavino, Pietro Rinaldi and Antinori, in fact the 2006 Pietro Rinaldi is one of the tidiest examples of Barbaresco to come along in a while.

Shafer Vineyards Merlot 2007California delivers some iconic reds as well. I’ll never forget visiting Shafer in Napa many years ago – not on a programmed wine writer’s trip – but showing up for a casual new-release event where I sampled with everyone else then went for a short stroll through their Stags Leap vineyards. It is a magical spot, and the red wines absolutely seduced me.  The SHAFER VINEYARDS 2007 MERLOT is another case, like Ornellaia, of great quality laying waste to Old and New World prejudices. From California I would also pay serious attention to reds on this release from cabernets by Caymus and  Philip Togni.  But as usual I am underwhelmed by some of the under $20 California selections.

Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2008You can buy five bottles of CASA LAPOSTOLLE CUVÉE ALEXANDRE 2008 CABERNET SAUVIGNON from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, for one bottle of Ornellaia, and it is almost as good. This French-owned winery (Marnier Lapostolle family of Gran Marnier fame) tends a large chunk of the now famous Apalta Vineyard, and does so using organic methods. The gravity-flow winery itself, burrowed five levels into a mountainside is one of the modern wonders of the wine world.  And from the top of its range (Clos Apalta was recently a Wine of the Year in Wine Spectator) to its $15 Cuvee series, the Lapostolle wines are impeccably well made and find a hint of French elegance.

And now over to a pair of nifty whites that indicate what strides are being made by thoroughly modern estates in less well known corners of the world like Macedonia and Slovenia.  KTIMA PAVLIDIS 2009 THEMA WHITE from Macedonia is a great value blend of sauvignon blanc and Greece’s assyrtiko.  It’s beautifully balanced and squeaky clean, from a temple-like winery located on 60 hectares of estate-owned vineyard in a narrow valley in the Drama region in northern Greece.  DVERI PAX 2007 TRAMINAC is lovely, fresh dry aromatic white from a renovated winery that only opened in 2007 at the site of a manor house and former monastery that had been making wine in Jarenina (northeastern corner of the country) since 1139. Both are wines that surprise and please your guests, for well under $20.

Ktima Pavlidis Thema White 2009 Dveri Pax Traminer 2007

If you want to go higher end to impress with white wine don’t miss DOMAINE PHILIPPE COLIN 2007 CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET from Burgundy.  Once again this is from a newer property, founded in 2004. It is based 11.5 hectares of chardonnay vines (and a bit of pinot) in the Chassagne area, with a roster of several premier cru labels. This basic “village level” edition is full of delicacy and depth.

 Domaine Philippe Colin Chassagne Montrachet 2007

Freixenet Brut Nature Vintage Reserva Cava 2007And to end on a lighter note, I am often impressed by the great value to be found in Spanish cava, a bubbly category that often gets overlooked. FREIXENET BRUT NATURE 2007 VINTAGE RESERVA CAVA is a great value at $16.95.  Freixenet gets away with this kind of value based on economy of scale. It claims to be the world’s largest producer of bubbly, and I can tell you that it is also among the most well run, a family owned and run enterprise that shows immense pride in what it does. Brut Nature, by the way, is a drier style made with a lower “dosage” or addition of sweetener.

See all my reviews for the October 2nd release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Vintages Preview October 2nd Release – Aussie reds, Italy’s Big Guns and Thanksgiving Wines

Have you been Robbed of Real Thanksgiving? Here’s an Idea.
(Aussie reds, Italy’s Big Guns and Thanksgiving Wines)

John Szabo, MS

The October 2nd release is chalk full of good wines, just in time for Thanksgiving. But remind me again what are we giving thanks for? Ah yes, the harvest. If you’re feeling contemplative, pour a glass of the superb meditation wine from one of the last great iconoclasts, Giuseppe Quintarelli, the 2001 VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO SUPERIORE DOC $84.95, and come along.

 Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2001It would seem this quintessentially North American holiday is a relic of the past for most city dwellers, who, like me, are about as connected to the harvest as they are to the oil wells that ultimately fill their gas tanks. Ah! What it must have been like for early settlers to scrape by throughout the year, living off of meager seasonal offerings or preserves, with no mid-winter Peruvian asparagus, Mexican tomatoes or Argentine pears to see them through until the sun returned. By early summer, the hunger for something fresh, something different, the yearning for another colour to shatter the monochromatic monotony of the day-to day menu must have grown as intense, as urgent as thirst in the desert. And in the old world, no stranger to feast and famine, the nearly empty barrels of wine would by now have turned to a piquant, foul liquid redolent of dead fruit and vinegar. Oh the longing for a glass of fresh and cool nouveau wine!

And then, finally the end of summer would draw near, foretold by the massive, glowing harvest moon, promising the long-awaited time when the fields would finally offer up their sustenance un-begrudgingly: a sudden riot of flavours, textures, nutritional elements. It must have been a time of hard physical labor that seemed like no work at all, as every joyful harvester relished the certainty that each bead of sweat and each tired muscle fiber promised a banquet of unequaled proportions, when the community would gather to celebrate another successful year in the cycle of life and survival. How fine that pumpkin, how sweet that corn, how nourishing that turkey must have tasted!

D'angelo Aglianico Del Vulture 2006In a strange, even selfish way, especially as I sip the dense and brooding, volcanic 2006 D’ANGELO AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE DOC $18.95, I feel robbed of that intense delight, the inimitable pleasure that can derive only from acute privation followed by temporary satisfaction, made all the more sweet by the awareness of yet more privations ahead. The super-abundance of North American society steals away that pleasure from us, at least from me, a guy who spends most of his life eating and drinking. It’s embarrassing. Thanksgiving becomes yet another gathering, another big meal, another glass of great wine, another cause for stress for the calorie and blood-pressure-conscious. There’s arguably equal monotony in excellence as there is in mediocrity; just look at all of those unhappy individuals who want for nothing yet still crave more. Instead of easing hunger and feeding our families the greatest concern becomes finding the ideal wine match for turkey, or cranberry sauce, or whatever you traditionally serve at your Thanksgiving table. What a thought!

So there. I’ve just resolved to forego wine, in order to restore, even if artificially, what good fortune has stripped from me. A day without wine. I can do it. Just one last glass of the fine value, textbook, 2009 ROUX PÈRE & FILS MÂCON-VILLAGES BLANC AC $13.95. Then after a pause I can get back to the serious enjoyment of eating and drinking and giving thanks.

Roux Père & Fils Mâcon Villages Blanc 2009

I’ll look forward to harvest table loaded with a huge range of flavours, textures, condiments and secret family recipes. I won’t stress about which wine, which dish, which guest, which hour. My approach will be to open a bunch of wines, as varied as the spread, and share with my community. But it won’t be just any haphazard collection of wines. This will be a celebration of once-a-year wines. I can’t think of a better time to have something that you don’t have any other time of the year – a real treat. They will be wines that remind me of honest, hard labor, traditional values, of tradition itself, made by hard-working wine growers who’s lively-hood and that of their families depend on the success of a once-a-year harvest event. They will also be wines from unique places, where great wine is made only because nature intended it to be so, not because we’ve figured out how to game the system.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006In other words, my special Thanksgiving offerings won’t include wines from irrigated deserts or made from modified vines imported for industrial production. They won’t be wines that taste like they could come from anywhere, like hydroponic lettuce or January strawberries. They won’t be from multinational, publicly-traded companies who’s eyes are fixed on quarterly profits instead of waxing and waning moons, or wines made by absentee hobbyists-owners who got into the business because they like the lifestyle, or at least the idea of it, without having to actually do any of the work themselves. There will be wines like the 2005 BAROLO $44.95 from hands-on perfectionist PAOLO SCAVINO, or the 2006 WYNNS COONAWARRA ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Coonawarra, South Australia $24.95, with a half century’s worth of fine vintages to prove its worthiness.

The rest of the wines can be saved for the rest of the year when we return to the reality of living the privileged modern life. Thanksgiving for me will be a time to remember the past, to remember how lucky we are, to remember the people both past and present who really do give thanks at harvest, and to be grateful.

Ok, enough flimsy philosophy and on to some solid practical Thanksgiving drinking guidelines:

Quinta Dos Carvalhais Duque De Viseu White 2009Primo: The main consideration for Thanksgiving dinner is drinkability: this means wines that are basically dry, lower in tannins and alcohol, higher in acid, and minimally oaked, if at all.  After all, these are not short, school night-type dinners-on-the-go. You’ll be hanging about in the home’s epicenter, the kitchen, while the hosts (or you) are busily preparing away, sipping on something fresh and crisp. This could last for hours, since it’s virtually impossible to get a large, multi-dish meal on the table on time unless you’re a Cordon Bleu chef. Even Bourdain has to stop for a smoke break once in a while. So you don’t want to bludgeon the palate with saliva-choking tannins and head-spinning alcohol right off the top.  Think 2009 DR. LOOSEN DR. L RIESLING QbA Mosel $13.95 or 2009 QUINTA DOS CARVALHAIS DUQUE DE VISEU WHITE DOC Dão $12.95.

Secondo: Free yourself from the paralyzing distress of finding perfect matches. Loads has been written about the ideal match for Roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, salads, desserts and everything else that is traditionally served at Thanksgiving, giving the spurious impression that such a thing as perfection exists and should be sought. Given this huge range of flavours, what sommelier-genius could possibly find a wine or two that works perfectly across the board? I believe the more versatile the better (see above), and the better the wine, the more thanks you’ll give. Now pass the sweet potatoes and fill my glass.

Terzo: Early evening wines to get chilling include the likes of riesling, un or lightly oaked chardonnay, gruner veltliner, chenin blanc, pinot and gris/grigio from places north of the 40th. If all of your WineAlign followers are coming for dinner then you’ll want to bring out something a little more cutting edge like falanghina or fiano from Campania in Italy, assyrtiko or moscophilero from Greece, albariño from Spain or Portugal, dry furmint from Hungary, or perhaps sparkling wine from Luxembourg, if only to show that you do read our stuff once in a harvest moon.

Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2007Quarto: When it’s time to shift into red, the grapes/regions that come to mind as naturally as sunrise brings the thought of coffee include barbera from northern Italy, traditional-style sangiovese from central Italy, pinot noir from cooler zones (Canada, Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand), vibrant, soft and fruity Spanish reds based on tempranillo, spicy, suave grenache-based southern Rhône reds, herbal and peppery Ontario or Loire Valley cabernet franc, or maybe a plush, sensibly-proportioned malbec from Mendoza. From this release consider: 2008 GEMMA LANGHE ROSSO DOC $13.95, 2007 TRAPICHE BROQUEL CABERNET SAUVIGNON Mendoza $15.95, or the 2008 COLDSTREAM HILLS PINOT NOIR Yarra Valley, South Australia $29.95.

Insider’s wines to consider include reds from Mt. Etna, Sicily, or nebbiolo from the Valtellina north of Milan, elegant versions of blaufränkisch from central Europe, Dâo reds from central Portugal and mencia-based reds from Bierzo, northern Spain. More structured wines with several year’s time in the cellar can be a real treat, too. All of these wines share a common theme of juicy acid or mellow tannins, and spicy berry flavours that are sort of like cranberry sauce being passed around the table. Give these a slight chill, and you can sip, in moderation, all night long, while gratitude is expressed and the conversation flows.

There is a long list of top scoring wines in the October 2nd release, from the twin themes of Aussie Reds and Italy’s Big Guns, as well as in the Top Ten Smart Buys. At the top of the heap is the astonishingly good 2007 ORNELLAIA DOC Bolgheri Superiore $179.95. But if you don’t want to give quite that much thanks, pick a few favorite grapes/regions/producers, and search our database for the best wines that you can afford for your Thanksgiving celebration.

Ornellaia 2007, Doc Bolgheri Superiore

Click on the following to see my:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Australian Reds
Italy’s Big Guns
All Reviews


John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Steve’s Top Wine Values at LCBO – Focus on Ontario Wines

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

WineAlign launched a new monthly report on September 1st: Top 50 Value wines from LCBO. We were delighted with the feedback we received; it seems everyone appreciates high quality wines at a low price. However we did hear from many Ontario wine lovers who wanted to know why local wines did not feature more prominently.

Ed Madronich Since this month the LCBO is sponsoring the campaign Go Local, I thought I would search our database of reviews to find the best wine values from Ontario wineries. On launching Go Local, Wine Council of Ontario Chair Ed Madronich said “Ontario wines are really taking hold with consumers, thanks to LCBO’s support, the quality products being produced by our winemakers and more shoppers taking pride in supporting local producers,” he continues, “It’s great to see our wines front and centre at LCBO stores, including many wines from 2007, probably the best vintage ever for Ontario wines.”

There are many reasons for supporting local companies; they employ our friends and neighbours, contribute many dollars to our economy and drive a valuable tourism industry along with Ontario hotels and restaurants. Over the last ten years as a regular judge at the Canadian Wine Awards I have witnessed an unprecedented and rapid improvement to the quality of Ontario wines. This year at this competition there were many excellent wines vying to be the best  in every category and choices were more difficult than ever. Whereas five years ago there was usually a clear winner, this year many panels were spoilt for choice and opinions divided as to which was the best. This is so encouraging and Ontario wineries are rightly proud to have made this transformation.

The Ontario wine industry is, and will probably always be, tiny when compared to giants like France, Italy and Argentina, where economies of scale mean production costs are low.  So little of our country is suitable for grape growing, though global warming is increasing that area. As a result of advanced logistics, like containerisation, a packaged product such as wine can be shipped very inexpensively and efficiently from the other side of the world; today transportation costs form a small part of the price of a bottle in the LCBO’s stores.

Moreover wineries and grape growers in Ontario have to buy land at high prices since they compete with golf courses and real estate for the use of that land, plus they have to pay high labour costs to attract the best employees. As a result of these factors among others, it is a fact that wine production is a high cost business in Ontario and it is and will probably always be difficult to produce inexpensive wine that will compete with other low cost countries.

However there is value at all price points and Ontario is doing well at the higher quality levels. Our assessment of value is based on the ratio of quality, as measured by our subjective scores and the cost of the wine. We have a sophisticated mathematical model that compares the thousand or so wines at the LCBO and finds the best values. Our first report detailed 50 wines of average price around $9.50, a tough price point challenge for VQA wines.

Here are some value picks from Ontario wineries at LCBO: Wayne Gretzky Estates made some very good wines in the bumper 2007 vintage which are now in the stores, among these Wayne Gretzky Estates No 99 Cabernet Merlot 2007 VQA $15.95 is great wine at a good price with its lush red and black fruit, structure and length.  The Malivoire White 2008 VQA $13.95  is on sale at LCBO as a limited time offer (LTO) until October 10th and so is better value than usual. The Vineland Estates Dry Riesling 2008 VQA $13.95 is consistently, vintage to vintage, one of the best value rieslings from Ontario and the 2008 is especially good. A fourth good value wine Inniskillin Cabernet Merlot Varietal Series 2007 VQA $12.95, is also on LTO until Oct. 10th adding to its value appeal.

Wayne Gretzky Estates No. 99 Cabernet Melot 2007 Malivoire White 2008 Vineland Estates Dry Riesling 2008 Inniskillin Cabernet Merlot Varietal Series 2007

Given its high cost nature several Ontario wineries have developed a method for producing inexpensive wine. They import wine in bulk from low production cost countries and blend this with a proportion of locally made wine. These wines are designated Cellared in Canada (CIC) since they are indeed cellared here but usually have 70% foreign content, whereas VQA wines are 100% from locally grown grapes. The LCBO’s shelves are full of these products, now clearly separated from VQA wines and they form an important part of LCBO and ON winery revenue. So if you want cheap wine but also want to support local industry to an extent, this is a category to consider.

Here are a couple of CIC wines that are worth seeking, both are on LTO until Oct. 10th adding to their appeal. Pelee Island Shiraz 2009 CIC $8.95 comes to us from one of Ontario’s largest wineries. It is pure, fruity with good varietal character and is well structured with surprising length for such an inexpensive wine. Andrew Peller, the largest Canadian owned winery, is responsible for XOXO Shiraz Cabernet CIC $8.95  which is a fullbodied strongly flavoured red well extracted with very good length.

Pelee Island Shiraz 2009 Xoxo Shiraz Cabernet

Look out for our monthly update to Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO on Monday October 4th. Recently listed wines, new vintages, price changes and LTOs all combine such that the Top 50 is always changing.

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Lawrason’s Take On Vintages Sept 18th Release – Ontario’s Moment

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Ontario’s Moment, Classy Chardonnay, Douro Reds, Tuscan Coastal Treasures, South American Reds, a Great Australian blend, plus Personal Highlights and 90-Pointers from Niagara touring

The LCBO carves its calendar into promotional cycles – with each country equitably allotted its chunk of face time via in-store posters, banners and sometimes even throaty radio commercials. Each year at this time, fittingly as the harvest gets underway, Ontario gets its moment in the spotlight. And the marketing machinery is really starting to hum. The kick off this week was a Wines Ontario grape stomp at the CN Tower.  On Tuesday, Sept 21 Vintages teams up to present Taste Ontario at the Art Gallery of Ontario. And lest we forget, the annual Niagara Wine Festival runs Sept 17th through 25th.

Vintages theme is entitled Ontario’s Signature Style: the Buzz on What We Do Best.  This notion is very appropriate.  There are styles Ontario does better than others (both qualitatively and commercially), and we do need to focus within our tiny patchwork of vineyard along the Great Lakes in order to compete successfully with the big world out there. The five styles selected are chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, sparkling and icewine – and I would not quibble at all that given our cool climate these will be the styles that will give us good wine, at least eight years out of ten.  Sure we can make some good cabernet based reds some years (perhaps even most years along Lake Erie), and there will be spot successes with sauvignon blanc, syrah, merlot etc, but some of these are not really winter hardy varieties.  Our growers need to focus on perfecting a core group and not be encouraged to chase off after the next trendy grape, like malbec that doesn’t fit our climate.

Vineland Estates St. Urban Riesling 2008It is fitting that my pick as the best quality Ontario wine of this release is VINELAND ESTATES 2008 ST. URBAN RIESLING, a great buy at $19.95. If we can turn out wines like this at $20 we are made in the shade, both at home and abroad.  St. Urban Vineyard at Vineland is historic as well, the first Niagara Bench site planted to riesling, thanks to a federal government initiative in the mid 70s that help Herman Weiss of Germany’s Mosel Valley import and plant his Weiss clone.  Son Nick Weiss of Weingut St. Urbanshof often visits Toronto, most recently to promote is very good $14.95 Urban 2008 Rieslingrecently arrived on the LCBO general list.  But Vineland’s St. Urban Riesling is superior, a quintessentially Niagara riesling that’s juicy, steely and very long on the palate. There are many other very good Ontario wines to look at, including the newly minted, crown-capped Riddled sparkler from Flat Rock, Norman Hardie’s elegant 2008 County Pinot Noir, Lailey’s sturdy 2008 Pinot Noir and a clutch of chardonnays, with Tawse 2008 Sketches carving out the best value.

I want to add a few words about recent experiences in Niagara, but I’ll save that for the end and move along with Vintages Sept 18 release.

Antinori Castello Della Sala Bramito Del Cervo Chardonnay 2009Elsewhere I found some lovely non-Ontario chardonnays as well.  I think we are finally seeing the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement weeding out those cheap over-oaked, unbalanced, artificial tasting chardonnays; clearing the field for the really good stuff that needs to be priced at $25, $40 or $60 dollars to show just what this versatile grape, good barrels and talented winemakers can achieve.  California chardonnay, which has never really given up on the richer style it makes so naturally, delivers a trio of very good chardonnays from Laird, Stag’s Leap and the always opulent Landmark Overlook.  There is an excellent Pouilly-Fuissé from Burgundy as well. But the most fetching and surprising of the bunch is ANTINORI CASTELLO DELLA SALA 2006 BRAMITO DEL CERVO CHARDONNAY from high altitude limestone/clay soils in Umbria.  Cervaro della Sala has long been one of the great non-Burgundy chardonnays of Europe, and now comes this lighter, less expensive and equally classy and charming Bramito.

Quinta Do Crasto Old Vines Reserva 2007The mini-feature in the Sept 18 release is “Red-Hot Douro”.  The Douro Valley of Portugal is certainly one of the hottest wine regions on the planet in mid-summer, and its port wines are legendary. But this release is focused on its emerging “dry” reds, which I don’t think are yet commercially “hot” or even top of mind among the international wine press and trade, despite some good exposure.  Made from local varieties, in great conditions and often by talented winemakers, many are actually excellent quality and very good value. But there is a sturdiness and youthful tightness to the style that probably detracts in our age of instant gratification. And try as Portugal might, it is still not as sexy as even Spain next door, let alone Tuscany, the Rhone or Bordeaux (whose wines Douro reds most resemble in my books).  Vintages selection is well chosen, led by the progressive winemaking and great depth in QUINTA DO CRASTO OLD VINES RESERVA,  a deep, savoury, complex red from a field blend of several inter-mixed old vine varieties.  Most Douro reds do need to go into the cellar a bit.

Montepeloso Eneo 2006For the second time in as many months I am very impressed with Vintages generous selection of Tuscan reds, especially two notable examples from the coast south of Livorno. The lower slopes and benches of ancient hills that descend toward the warm Tyrrhenian Sea have proven fertile ground for cabernet sauvignon and merlot based reds, the most famous being Ornellaia (the 2007 coming Oct 2 is awesome) and Sassicaia, both from the Bolgheri region.  The much less expensive San Fabiano Calcinaia Cabernet Sauvignon is a great value, but I was most impressed by MONTEPELOSO 2006 ENEO from the Suvereto region about 30 kms south of Bolgheri.  This esteemed house does make cabernet and merlot based reds but this terrific red actually blends equal parts sangiovese and montepulciano with a small amount of other varieties.  There are also some very good Chianti’s in this release.

Concha Y Toro Marques De Casa Concha Carménere 2007The red wine wave continues with a handful of excellent, well-priced wines from Argentina and Chile. Is it just me, or is anyone else getting really bored with the full bodied but simple and often monotonous  simple plummy and earthy $13 malbecs from Argentina?  Perhaps I am being too harsh, because there are some I like, but I would much rather spend an extra $3 or $8 to get better quality, like the BenMarco 2008 at $17.95, or the exciting new blend called Lindaflor Petite Fleur out of the French owned Clos de Los Siete project.  But the best buy from South America this week is CONCHA Y TORO MARQUES DE CASA CONCHA 2007 CARMÉNERE. Since visiting Chile earlier this year I am very impressed with the strides being made with the late-ripening thus often under-ripe, green carmenere grape. This  svelte, deep beauty speaks volumes to the structure and depth it can render when allowed to ripen properly. The excellent 2007 vintage may have helped as well.

Burge Family Olive Hill 2006And finally to Australia with a wonderful savoury, deep red from the Barossa Valley BURGE FAMILY 206 OLIVE HILL SHIRAZ/GRENACHE/MOURVEDRE .  This is the kind of red Australia needs to be heartily promote to counter the impression that all Australia makes is soupy, hot, fruit bombs (of which there are a couple on this release).  This blend is indeed big at 15.8% alcohol, but it is packed with complex, intriguing flavours and has a stern, serious streak that speaks of real class as well.  One forgets about alcohol in such wines.  Ironically last week I attended a trade tasting with Grant Burge – different company – which also produces authentic Barossa, old vine reds like The Holy Trinity, a grenache-shiraz-mourvedre blend on the Vintages docket for October 30.  Watch for it, and more on Grant Burge at that point.

Back to Niagara for a moment.  I escorted back to back weekend tours to Niagara at the end of August, and was completely blown away by the quality of the food and wine experiences we enjoyed at some of wine country’s best destinations.  Rather than go into to delicious detail, which will be readily available should you make the voyage, I want to simply name names as to where you should go if travelling to Niagara this autumn.  In terms of accommodation the Harbour House Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of the finest small hotels in recent memory.   In terms of dining, Treadwell’s in Port Dalhousie is on top of its game and a great wine-dining local-only establishment. Hillebrand’s restaurant continues to shine with very creative chef Frank Dodd at the helm.  The Good Earth Cooking School, with small winery added this year, is a great lunch spot hidden away in orchards and vineyards near Beamsville. Ravine Vineyard’s food service, recently taken over by a set of young hot shot chefs under Stalander-trained  Paul Harder is excellent as well.

As for wineries: here is the list of those blazing the quality trail. And no, the wines are not always cheap, but I’ll put them up against wines of the same price from other countries, any day of the week.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake region:  Hillebrand (nifty new Trius Brut Rose and great 2007 Showcase Cabernet Sauvignon);  Southbrook, for excellent Whimsy 2007 reds and 2008 Chardonnay; Ravine Vineyard, for its 2007 Cab Franc and other Bordeaux reds.  On the Niagara Bench side:  Hidden Bench with great 2008 Chardonnay, 2008 Pinot Noir and winery- only 2008 Fume Blanche;  Tawse with its outstanding Robyn’s Block 2008 Chardonnay and upcoming 2008 Laurizten Pinot Noir;  Malivoire with its nifty 2009 Gamay Small Lot and any older Moira Chardonnay you can find; and Flat Rock Cellars for its 2007 Reserve Chardonnay and 2009 Nadja’s Riesling.  All are 90 point wines in my books.


See all my reviews for the September 18th release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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WineAlign featured in the National Post

Bryan McCaw - Picture by Della Rollins for National Post

Picture by Della Rollins for National Post

We were delighted to be featured in the National Post.

Mary Teresa Bitti, Financial Post · Friday, Sept. 10, 2010

Bryan McCaw is a serial entrepreneur. He has built and sold two software companies and is two years into his third technology-based company, WineAlign.  The idea for his latest venture came on the day he sold his second software company. “The day I got my cheque, I bought a bottle of Shiraz to celebrate,” Mr. McCaw says. “It was recommended by the clerk and I was very disappointed. It was awful.”  Click here to go to full article .

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A Courvoisier Profile: The Canadian Launch of L’Essence de Courvoisier – by John Szabo

Got $3200.00 disposable and looking for a good time?

A Courvoisier Profile: The Canadian Launch of L’Essence de Courvoisier

John Szabo, MS

The first day of September was greeted in style at the Air Canada Centre’s Platinum Club, the scene of the first tasting in Canada of an ultra exclusive new addition to the Courvoisier range of cognacs, L’Essence de Courvoisier. 50 bottles are available in the country at the $3,200.00 per Baccarat crystal bottle, but this brandy is not yet another example simply style over substance, it’s actually bloody good.

Emmanuel Courvoisier started his cognac business at the end of the 18th Century, setting up in the Entrepôts de Bercy then outside of Paris, now a suburb. It was a favorite of Napoleon, who visited the warehouses, a fact still proudly touted by the house (I often wonder whether there’s a correlation between one’s degree of fame and one’s good taste – would Napoleon, or Beethoven, Goethe, Hemingway, Jay-Z or any other high profile guzzlers have made reliable critics on WineAlign?). But Napoleon or not, Courvoisier has risen to be the number one cognac in Canada and also in the UK.

The house currently works with about 400 growers across four regions in Cognac – Grande and Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and Borderies – usually on 3 year contracts. Each grower harvests and makes their own wine, made from Ugni Blanc, which lends itself perfectly for distilliation, making high acid, low alcohol wines that are little fun to drink until they are distilled and aged for long periods.

L’Essence de Courvoisier

L’Essence de Courvoisier

All of the wines from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies are distilled on the lees (mostly spend yeast cells and very fine grape particles left over after fermentation), which deliver many of the sought after aromatics in the finished distillate and add complexity. Each batch is double distilled in small copper alembics of 2500l. The first distillate, called the ‘brouilly’ comes out at about 28-30% alc. This is then distilled a second time, taking the ‘bonne chauffe’, cutting out the unwanted heads and the tails (the first and last drops that come out of the still) at about 70% alc.

All of the cognacs are then aged in 400l wood barrels (slightly larger than the traditional 350l barrels used in Cognac), selected mainly from forests in Alsace, Tronçais and Jupy, which yield more tightly-grained woods then the more common barrels of the Limousin forest.

Blending is the most complicated step. The goal is to keep the house style of Courvoisier, and of each brand within the range; consistency is very important. Courvoisier has huge reserve stocks to work with to achieve this, about 100,000 barrels, (equivalent of 80m bottles – that’s a lot of inventory). And consider that 3-4% of the cognac is lost to evaporation each year – a shrinkage rate that would make any accountant or sommelier wince. The differences between each brand are accounted for by the inclusion of differing crus in varying proportions, and the age of the brandies used in each blend. Courvoisier regularly exceeds the minimum age of brandies prescribed by appellation laws for each category. For example, the VS category calls for the youngest brandy in the blend to be not less than 2.5 years old, whereas Courvoisier’s VS contains brandies 4-7 years old.

Once the blend has been assembled then comes “le marriage”, the period between blending and bottling where the various component cognacs come together in conjugal bliss. Some blends, like that for the XO, spend 3 years together before bottling.

According to Pierre Szersnovicz, Director of Spirits Quality Control for Courvoisier, a tulip-shaped glass is best for enjoying fine cognac, at room temperature. No candles please! “Thermal shock is not good for the brandy.” If you are drinking old cognac, be sure to respect “la minute mystic”: let the cognac sit for a minute in the glass after pouring to recover from the shock of sudden exposure to oxygen, much as you would do with fine old wine. When tasting several cognacs, it’s always recommended to go from youngest to oldest, of course.

Aside from the introduction to the range from Courvoisier, the tasting also proved that cognac is useful for more than just sipping. It has become a standard ingredient in several cocktails (i.e. Sidecar), and can be intriguing to pair with food. Try seared diver scallops in passion fruit and vanilla glaze with your VSOP, hazelnut-crusted sweetbreads with your XO, and after you’ve picked up your bottle of L’Essence de Courvoisier, try a tulip with mocha-espresso crème brulée.

Tasting notes:


Though the blend minimum 2.5 years, Courvoisier uses 4-7 year old cognac. Majority from Fins Bois with a touch of Petite Champagne. There is lots of fruit here on the nose, dried apricot, raisins, dried green figs, youthful oak (vanilla), spirituous. Fiery on the palate, moderate intensity and length. $55


(“Versez sans oublier personne…”). Fine Champagne, 7-10 year old cognacs. The complexity is noticeably greater in the VSOP. There is remarkable nuttiness and subtle dried fruit, more floral (“muguet, iris, summer flowers”). Really quite pretty. The palate is round, smooth, very elegant, with just a gentle fiery bite. Long finish. Very nice.

Exclusif $65

Created from 4 crus: Grande & Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and Borderies, up to 12 years of age, designed to be used in cocktails. More complex, wider range of flavours. “Plum jam, coffee beans, ginger bread”). Dark chocolate. Fuller, richer than the VSOP, less fine, refined; packs more of a punch. High intensity – keeps its character even when diluted with other mixing ingredients.


Grande & Petite Champagne up to 20 years, Borderies up to 35 years old. Really refined and elegant on the nose, very floral, evolved, pleasantly nutty, crème brulée less fruity, rancio; doesn’t aggress the nose. Light, delicate, quite refined, with an implicitly sweet profile from the silky texture, virtually no alcoholic burn. Long finish.

L’Essence de Courvoisier $3200,00

More than 100 cognacs from the last two centuries, up to the 1970s and 1980s when the company innovated with gas-heated stills and wood from the Jupy forest, a virgin source of wood to the north of Lemans. Bottled at natural strength: 42%. This is supremely delicate on the nose; the fruit seems to have returned, fresh, intense, complex and delicate. The palate is expansive and intense, exploding and filling the mouth with perfumed light rancio character, Sandalwood, dried fruit, Anjou pear, walnuts, toasted pine nuts, caramelized orange peel. Extremely fresh for the age, and remarkably not overwhelmed by wood, as old precious cognac can often be. Really a very remarkable beverage.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview – Sept 18th release – Ontario’s Signature Styles & Douro Reds

John Szabo, MS

I’ve written recently here on WineAlign about the Canadian Wine Awards and what I think are the signature styles emerging in Canada, and Ontario in particular, and, well, this Vintages release gets it spot on. Out of 18 Ontario wines on offer here, there are 4 rieslings, 4 chardonnays, 4 pinot noirs, 4 Icewines and 2 sparkling wines. While I may not agree with all of the particulars, I have to say that if LCBO head office had called me to plan an Ontario release (it has yet to snow in the underworld) and gave me 18 spots to fill I would likely have come up with the same plan-o-gram. These are the styles in which Ontario excels, which I buy, and which I drink with pleasure. Obviously there are many excellent wines in other categories, but if you’re talking signature, these are the categories to start with.

That Ontario is a world leader in Icewine there is no doubt. My personal view, however (not necessarily reflected by other WineAlign critics), is that the industry is too reliant on Icewine. There is too much produced, too much of dubious quality, and the market simply isn’t there. True, it’s our only significant export product and the international emblem of the Canadian wine industry, and when it sells the profit margins are extremely attractive, but I wonder how dumping poor quality Icewine in Asia and elsewhere will affect the industry long term. The rest of the world just doesn’t drink much of it; folks love it at the winery tasting bars when it’s free or very cheap, but I wager that the majority that’s actually purchased is destined to be a gift for someone else, or sits in the cellar waiting for that special day that hasn’t come yet. How many glasses of Icewine have you consumed in the last year? (please do comment on this posting and let me know. Maybe I’m dead wrong). At least in the restaurant market, I see sweet wine sales reports and they are not encouraging. Most is given away as a “comp” (not in the restaurants where I have a hand in the beverage program, ‘cause that’s illegal), or sales are tied in to desserts or tasting menus. Otherwise Icewine bottles collect dust.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that Icewine is and should be a signature style for Ontario. There are some glorious examples. But that’s the point. I’d love to see less of it made, more of it of top quality, and tighter controls on which bottles get the VQA seal of approval from the tasting panel. Make it truly the exclusive, prestigious, signature product it has always wanted to be.

Cave Spring Csv Cave Spring Vineyard Riesling 2008All of this is really just my week attempt to justify the fact that I didn’t make it to taste the Icewines in this release. There was simply too much other good wine on which to focus. My top three Ontario picks are unsurprisingly all rieslings, led off by the outstanding 2008 CAVE SPRING CSV RIESLING VQA, Beamsville Bench, $29.95. Always a classic, this old vines wine achieves signature expression in 2008. Château des Charmes delivers the best value Ontario wine, with the killer 2007 CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES OLD VINES RIESLING VQA, Niagara-on-the-Lake, $16.95. This is one of the most compelling 2007 rieslings out there, mature but not tiring as many of the 07s are, delivering beautiful minerality and depth for under $17. Also superb but needing some time in the cellar is yet another ‘old vine’ Riesling,2008 VINELAND ESTATES ST. URBAN RIESLING VQA, Niagara Escarpment, $19.95.

Chardonnay, Ontario’s other signature white variety, puts in a good showing, filling up the next two spots in the top ten Ontario list. The really top stuff is missing from the release, likely due to questions of price or availability or both, but I definitely enjoyed the 2009 FLAT ROCK CELLARS UNPLUGGED CHARDONNAY VQA,Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula, $15.95, a fresh, crisp, Chablis-esque example that goes down real easy, unplugged, unoaked and no batteries required. If you do prefer a little plugging into barrels, then you’ll enjoy the 2008 TAWSE SKETCHES OF NIAGARA CHARDONNAY VQA, Niagara Peninsula, $19.95. Le Clos Jordanne’s 2008 TALON RIDGE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY VQA, Niagara Peninsula, Vinemount Ridge $37.00 is the most ‘serious’ example, which needs another 2-3 years in the cellar to reach peak, I’d estimate.

The disappointment from the release is the selection of pinot noirs. There are some real beauties in Ontario as I have written earlier, but they’re not here, perhaps because of that price/availability thing again. The only one in the top ten is the 2008 NORMAN HARDIE COUNTY PINOT NOIR VQA, Prince Edward County, $35.20, which is a light, delicate, finessed style that’s highly drinkable overall, but lean and leafy at the end of the day. As most know I’m not a bigger-is-better drinker, but for $35 I expect a little more depth and complexity. I know that Hardie’s not pocketing fat margins at our expense – it’s costly to grow grapes in the County – the vines just need to grow older and the sun needs to shine a little more.

Montepeloso Eneo 2006Have a perusal of the non-Ontario wines in the top ten smart buys list. I’ve included some higher-than-usual priced wines, but they still represent value. In particular, fans of Tuscan wines  can’t miss the astonishingly good 2006 MONTEPELOSO ENEO IGT, Toscana $44.95. This was my first encounter with Montepeloso (where have I been all these years?), and just when you rekon that the last thing the world needs is yet another expensive super Tuscan made by some well-heeled foreigner looking to live the Under-the-Tuscan-Sun dream (Montepeloso was purchased from Willi and Doris Neukom in 1998 by the quality-obsessed Swiss-Italian historian Fabio Chiarelotto), along comes this stunner. After a taste of this, I was struck as if by the Ebola virus, immediately and irremediably (although in a better way), and suddenly, I was dreaming of owning a Tuscan property with vines and writing a book. The Montepeloso estate is situated on what some consider to be one of the finest terroirs in Italy, on a gentle, chalky, gravel-clay hillside just above Tua Rita (another famed property) in Suvereto near the Tuscan coast. Eneo is not the top cuvee of the estate, but this montepulciano and sangiovese-dominated blend aged in 2nd and 3rd year barrels is a fantastically pure expression that oozes class at a mini-Tuscan price.

The other mini-theme of the release is Red Hot Douro reds, which merits a section of its own. There are so many outstanding table (dry) wines being produced in the Douro these days that it’s hard to keep track. In some cases the prices have crept above the $100 mark, but the selection here is definitely still in the value category. Even my top pick, the 2007 QUINTA DO CRASTO OLD VINES RESERVA DOC, Douro at $34.95 can be considered extraordinary value, considering the mixed ancient vines parcels on ultra-steep slate slopes where this hails, not too mention the quality of the wine itself. Look for my full article on the wines of the Douro to be posted shortly on WineAlign, originally written for the Sommelier’s Guide to Portuguese wines commissioned by ViniPortugal.

Quinta Do Crasto Old Vines Reserva 2007

Click on the following to see my:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Ten Ontario Wines
Top Douro Reds
All Reviews


John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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David Lawrason’s Take On Vintages Sept 4th Release – The most interesting release in months

Southern Rhône Horizontal, Bountiful B.C., Huff of PEC, Pretty Pinots, Classy Italians and Forgotten Corners of the Old World and Lake Erie North Shore

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Vintages September 4th release is the most interesting since sometime pre-summer 2010.  There is certainly a seasonal pulse to the wine business, and in September as the grapes ripen, everything gets all serious again. And the overall quality at Vintages improves.  I do wonder why summer should be less focused on quality, but so be it.  I was delighted to encounter several 90+ wines in this release, although I must also say that there are several disappointments and ho-hum entries, particularly among New World reds that hover in Vintages favourite $15 to $18 price range.

The special Southern Rhone feature is by and large very strong; and presents an opportunity for a great learning experience.  It’s range includes several different appellations, price levels and styles – all from the same, excellent 2007 vintage.  If it is at all affordable I would buy one of each and re-construct this horizontal tasting I was able to do twice at the LCBO. (Vintages was kind enough to provide one very early look at the wines in time to write a column in Toronto Life appearing in the next few days). It is a fascinating frozen-in-the-moment glimpse at the evolution of French wine region; wherein some stick to the old ways, some head into international territory and others try to blend the two ideas. It is also provides a look at the emergence of smaller, less well known village appellations to challenge the old guard. The best values are certainly among these challengers, while the established regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas cling to supremacy through sheer size and depth of flavour.  Individually there are many good buys, so spend some time by searching WineAlign by Southern Rhone.  For the wine that best shows the character, depth and the certain rustic majesty I like in the region, tryVignerons De Gigondas La Font Des Grières 2007 Gigondas.

Cedarcreek Estate Cabernet/Merlot 2007I spent almost three weeks in British Columbia in August – ten days in Okanagan and Similkameen wine country, including five days at the Canadian Wine Awards in Penticton where I tasted hundreds of B.C. wines. And by the way, I think the overall quality is up in B.C., even since my last visit in 2008.  The wines are showing better balance with less alcohol.  The great lament in Ontario is that we can’t get more B.C. wine, and the reasons are classically Canadian. There is not that much B.C. wine to go around and those folks who look up and see mountains every day are drinking most of it – and who can blame them.  Then there are our ridiculous inter-provincial laws that treat B.C. wines as imports in Ontario, with all the requisite listing hoops.  Frankly many B.C. producers can’t muster much enthusiasm to jump through them when they are selling so well at home and in Alberta.  So we must rely on spot listings at Vintages and a few regulars at the LCBO.  Although the Sept 4 mini-feature is dominated by the powerful wines from Sandhill – The Canadian Wine Awards Winery of the Year in 2009 – I would like to steer you to Cedarcreek Estate  2007 Cabernet/Merlot as an example of the new elegance being crafted in the Okanagan. By the way, Darryl Brooker, formerly of Hillebrand and Flat Rock in Niagara, has taken over at Cedar Creek this year from talented California-raised winemaker Tom DiBello.

Huff Estates South Bay Chardonnay 2007Huff Estates 2007 South Bay Chardonnay is the most decorated wine yet made in Prince Edward County. To crib from my upcoming article in County Grapevine Magazine:  “The first inkling of stardom was a gold medal at the Royal Winter Fair in November 2009, followed quickly by a gold medal when  it accompanied the winning recipe from Montreal’s Kitchen Galèrie at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Vancouver.  It was named top chardonnay and Wine of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards judged in April, then two days it was also voted Best White at the 2010 Artevino Wine Awards for Prince Edward County wines.  At the same time, way over the pond in London, England it appeared on the fave lists of top British wine writers like Jancis Robinson during a showcase of Ontario chardonnays called Seriously Cool.”   You must try this wine if for nothing else except the way it best expresses County soils. And this release is your last chance. It sold out at the winery weeks ago after the avalanche of accolades.

Steve Bird Big Barrel Pinot Noir 2008Every time I taste wines at Vintages I like to start my reds with pinot noir, hopping around the tasting bench among the regions where it excels – Burgundy, New Zealand, Canada, California etc – to compare them side by side. There is always just an extra sense of intrigue and fragrance that no other reds deliver. They can be so pretty and engaging. I found several pretty pinot on this release and none were outrageously priced given the quality delivered, included the two solid Burgundies. But it was Steve Bird Big Barrel 2008 Pinot Noir from the Marlborough region of New Zealand that struck me as the prettiest and best value at under $25.  But pinot is always perplexing too and this time I worked very hard to come up with a rating for the Gallo 2007 Sonoma County Pinot which showed collapsed flavours when it endured long air exposure, while a fresh bottle was actually quite good.

Tenimenti Angelini TreRose Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 2006The surprise of the release were a handful of very classy Italian reds from all three main regions – Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto.  There are four 90 or better scores among six wines, and again none are outrageously priced, nor are they from well established, iconic producers. To see this level of quality from different regions, grapes and winemakers speaks very much to the observation by many people that Italy is perhaps the most dynamic and interesting wine country in the world today. The better wines capture complexity, balance, depth and a certain sophistication that is very appealing. For example, try Tenimenti Angelini Tre Rose 2006 Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, a wine returning to Vintages after first release last September, and still drinking with everything you might want in a maturing Tuscan sangiovese.

Chateau Ksara Prieuré 2007
And for some reason this release has assembled a clutch of wines from some forgotten corners of the Old World – countries like Croatia, Morocco, Lebanon, Georgia, and Moldova.  It is very nice, and very Canadian, of the LCBO to offer a window to these wines, but the shotgun approach and reticense to import anything of serious quality and price, is perhaps not the right course of action. Quality is frankly a crap shoot at this price level. There are a couple of good buys this release including 178095 Chateau 2007 Ksara Prieuré from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, but the wines from Croatia and Moldova are flawed enough to make me ask why they were purchased in the first place, and ask “who is this helping?”  I would much rather see more serious effort by Vintages to assemble a grouping from say Lebanon or Slovenia, offer them all at once, and see what sticks long enough to build a bit of a market.  By the way, I had a Chateau Musar 1999 from Lebanon last week in a Windsor restaurant called Mazaar, and I was blown away by the wine as is warmed and breathed in the glass. When we left there was one bottle left in stock.

I was in Windsor during a three day visit to the wineries of Lake Erie North Shore, which is itself something of a forgotten corner because its wines are virtually unknown from the GTA eastward. The LCBO is loaded with wines from the two largest producers: Pelee Island and Colio, but bereft of listings from new comers like Sprucewood Shores, Mastronardi, Muscedere, Colchester Ridge, Viewpointe and Smith & Wilson. Yes they do have wines in the LCBOs Go To Market program in stores from London to Windsor, but again very few are available elsewhere unless you order direct from the wineries themselves. I spent three days in LENS (as the locals call it) and can confidently predict that they will not remain forgotten for long.  There are now 14 wineries in the region and a palpable local pride way down south at the 42nd parallel.  I was especially impressed by the cabernet and merlot-based reds from Muscedere and Sprucewood, plus higher end wines from Pelee Island (delicious Cabernet/Petit Verdot) and Colio’s CEV line. There were also a couple of very good local syrahs. Most interesting is the fact that 2008 was actually a better red vintage in Ontario’s banana belt than 2007.

That’s it for now; happy shopping.

See all my reviews for the September 4th release here.


David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008