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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages November 27th Release: Value Among the Top Guns

Value Among the Top Guns, Pinot Goes Global, $65 Chardonnays,  $13 Pinot Grigio, Great Value Cava, Rioja and Port.
David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The pre-Christmas roll out of big names continues in this huge release of 149 wines (spirits, sakes etc not included in the count).  As I tasted through the selection of “Our Finest” wines in Vintages lab I actually paid little attention to price. This is because price is not factored into my ratings. The most important role of wine reviewing is to help wine drinkers find better for less, and if wines were rated on value as opposed to absolute quality it would be difficult for consumers to make that call. The quality quotient of cheap wines would be blurred, as would the value quotient of very expensive wines.

There can indeed be good value in expensive wines. True, many are priced in triple digits not because they are wines that are shockingly good, but because they are famous and thus in higher demand. That fame may be due to the fact they were pioneering wines like Sassicaia, the first cabernet out of Tuscany’s Bolgheri region, or because they once the topped the charts for a vintage or two like Caymus Special Selection which was long ago a Wine Spectator Wine of the Year.  Both are excellent wines, to be sure, and they may reward those who invest and trade in wine on the auction circuit, but in terms of bang for the buck drinking pleasure many icon wines do under-deliver.  But there are also some priced on merit like the $149.95 PENFOLDS 2006 RWT SHIRAZ, which I have rated 96 points. It stood a head taller than Caymus and Sassicaia and other big wines in the release. It is also half the price but way more than half the wine of big brother Penfolds Grange. The other decent value in this collection is BODEGAS Y VIÑEDOS 2006 ALION from Spain’s Ribera del Duero region, a $73.95 wine that I have rated 94 points. It too is a junior cousin to Spain’s Vega Sicilia, a wine so expensive and rare it is virtually off my radar altogether.

Penfolds Rwt Shiraz 2006 Bodegas Y Viñedos Alion 2006

Fog Dog Freestone Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007Although not broken out in separate “feature” by Vintages, one of the highlights of the release is an intriguing selection of global pinot noirs; most of them rating 89 to 93 points. I would love to swoop in after the release and buy one of each, but then I am particularly afflicted by pinot noir. I love the way it exposes and expresses its sense of place, and I have always loved to travel.  It was hard to pick a favourite among the offerings from Burgundy, Niagara, Sonoma, New Zealand’s Wairapara, Oregon and Chile’s Limari Valley, but I settled on highlighting FOG DOG 2007 FREESTONE VINEYARD PINOT NOIR from California’s Sonoma Coast. It resonated not only because it’s an excellent pinot noir, but because it symbolizes the growing stature of pinot outside of Burgundy, and pinot’s move into the mainstream.  A generation ago few wine lovers or critics or producers believed pinot could be made successfully elsewhere. There were only a handful of pioneering purists in Oregon, California and Australia who were prepared to give it a go.  Nowadays we have wines like Fog Dog, a new label from Joseph Phelps.  For almost 40 years Phelps has symbolized the dominance of Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon, embedding that reputation with the creation of a pioneering “Bordeaux” blend called Insignia.  But Phelps has never stood still, and I remember visiting about five years ago and hearing them talk excitedly about their new project “out on the coast” where they were clearing virgin land almost within site of the Pacific to plant chardonnay and pinot.  And voila here it is their excellent pinot on our shelves and tables.

The selection of chardonnays is almost as impressive and internationally varied, with a number of heavy hitters. I love great chardonnay, and always encourage those who say they don’t like it to move upscale to truly understand what it is about.  Chardonnay has been cheapened and demoted by its own commercial success, turning away legions of wine drinkers in the process. I took the opportunity in the tasting room to do a side by side comparison between two $65 chardonnays, the DOMAINE ALAIN CHAVY 2008 PULIGNY-MONTRACHET LES FOLATIÈRES 1ER CRU from Burgundy and LE CLOS JORDANNE 2008 LE GRAND CLOS CHARDONNAY from Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench. For the record, I scored the Burugndy one point higher, due to its terrific sense of compactness, integration and cool elegance. The top drop from Le Clos Jordanne was not far off that structural mark however, and actually had a bit more flavour depth. I am so tired of hearing Ontarians say that Ontario wine is too expensive without comparing apples to apples.

Domaine Alain Chavy Puligny Montrachet Les Folatières 1er Cru 2008 Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2008

Some of those disenchanted chardonnay drinkers are turning to simpler, unoaked, and pinot grigio from Italy and elsewhere. And at the moment Italian pinot grigio is responding with improved quality and prices that are very reasonable. There are a handful of lovely under $15 Italian whites on this release, none better than MACULAN 2009 PINOT GRIGIO that offers 90pt complexity, depth and polish at only $13.95.  Maculan has long been one of the best white wine producers of Italy.

Maculan Pinot Grigio 2009
Langa Hermanos Reyes De Aragon Brut Reserva Cava 2007Still on the value watch, I would like to direct your attention away from a couple of very expensive and very good Champagnes from Krug and Bollinger, to a lovely, little cava from Spain. 194803 LANGA HERMANOS REYES DE ARAGON 2007 BRUT RESERVA CAVA also clocks in at 90 points for $13.95. Most Spanish cava hails from the Penedes region which grows local grapes like parrelada, macabeo and xarello.  This nifty number is from high altitude, old vineyards in the small DO of Catalayud in the neighbouring province of Aragon. It is a blend of 30% high acid macabeo (also called viura) and 70% chardonnay, made in the traditional method, and offering character way beyond its price.  There are several other interesting, obscure and very good sparklers in the release as well.

Staying with Spain, I also want to highlight a surprising little Rioja that caught my eye. Not because it is a blockbuster in terms of quality or value, but because it is such an engaging wine. CASTILLO DE SAJAZARRA 2004 SOLAR DE LÍBANO RESERVA is already showing some maturity, but the fruit is of such bright timbre, and the acidity and tannin is so well proportioned, that it should live another five to eight years. At just over $20 it is one of those great little discoveries that you will be happy you bought when you pull it out of the cellar.

 Castillo De Sajazarra Solar De Líbano Reserva 2004

And finally, over the border in Portugal there are a handful of good ports being released just in time for winter sipping.  In the same way that I becoming restless with expensive icon table wines, I am losing some interest in vintage port, at least as a drinking proposition. It is great to taste deep, elegant wines like WARRE’S 2007 VINTAGE PORTbut it is $84.95 and a wine that needs to disappear into the cellar for ten years in order to develop the complexity that is already splendidly available in wines like QUINTA DO NOVAL TAWNY PORT at one-quarter the price. For $16.95 you get  90 point quality – a wine that is quite svelte in texture with intriguing black tea, fig and anise flavours hitting excellent length.

Warre's Vintage Port 2007 Quinta Do Noval Tawny Port

That’s a wrap for now; the big December 11 release is next. Due to a combination of travel and shuffling of tasting dates by Vintage I am getting only one crack at tasting it. Will do my best.

See all my reviews for the November 27th release here.

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign



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The Successful Collector – Aging red wines: a few things you should know – By Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

It’s something of a ritual in my line of work: estimating the aging potential of all the red wines I taste. Hardly an easy task, if you consider all the variables, from (among other things) acids, sugars, and flavour components to tannins, structural dimension(s), and oak interaction(s) – rather dull when you think about it, but these are the things we wine professionals have to mull over all the time. After all, the last mistake any of us wants to make is to age a great wine too long, and yet this is a common sin many of us commit, the other being opening up a premium bottle too soon!

As a helpful hint then, if there is one rule that applies to all red wines, it’s this: the higher quality – and more (oftentimes) expensive – the wine, the longer it can potentially be aged. With this in mind, there are still some red wines that really aren’t meant for aging at all, Beaujolais Nouveau being an exemplary example, along with all those other mass-produced wines you’ll find throughout the ‘General List’ section of LCBO stores – see where I’m going with this? However, on the opposite side of the spectrum, there are countless red wines that can be tossed (gently) in the cellar for many years. More on this in a moment.

Cakebread CellarsWhen young, many quality red wines will often possess more fruit- and oak-driven aromas and flavours than anything else, along with the typical assortment of scents that we wine writers can conjure up on the top of our heads! However, as such wines age (the liquid feeds on the minimal oxygen between the liquid and the bottom end of the cork), these features tend to give way to more complex, ‘mature’ characteristics, from fragrant cedar and cigar box notes to dried fruit and flowers. On the palate: one should expect a far more integrated, less imposing mouthfeel in a well-aged wine, boasting softer tannins and greater complexity. In the end, the idea is to enjoy a fine red wine when all its components are in perfect harmony.

SolaiaBut which red wines will age better than others? For this, we turn to the illustrious Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson: “In approximately descending order of potential life in bottle for red wines, to take some obvious candidates for the cellar, are well-made examples of vintage port, Hermitage, class-growth claret [Bordeaux], Bairrada, Aglianico, Madiran, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Côte-Rôtie, fine red burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chianti Classico Riserva, Georgian Saperavi, Ribera del Duero, Dão, Australian Cabernet and Shiraz, California Cabernet, Rioja, Argentine Malbec, Zinfandel, New World Merlot, and New World Pinot Noir.” Add to this list Sagrantino di Montefalco, Amarone della Valpolicella, Super Tuscans, Douro, Toro, Priorato, Penèdes, Bandol, Gigondas, and top reds from Languedoc-Roussillon (just to name a few extras), and you can see clearly that there is no shortage of great reds that will benefit from aging.

Chateau BeaucastelWhile not set in stone, the best reds can easily age for ten years or more, sometimes decades, provided they are cellared in the right conditions, with especial attention paid to temperature, humidity, darkness, and odours (or lack thereof). Such bottles should always be laid down on their sides, so as to ensure the bottom end of the cork is always kept in contact with the liquid. And if you have more than one bottle of the same wine, I’d open one up every three to five years, just to see how the wine is progressing. Once it’s at its peak, drink up! Just a few things all collectors should keep in mind when it comes to aging quality red wines.

A few gems for collectors:

Red Wines:

Antinori 2007 Solaia, IGT Toscana, Tuscany, Italy
Antinori 2007 Guado Al Tasso, DOC Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany, Italy
Cakebread Cellars 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Château de Beaucastel 2008, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Stolpman Vineyards 2007 Hilltops Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, California
Duckhorn 2007 Merlot, Napa Valley, California

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 27th – ‘Our Finest Wines’, Guilty Pleasures and Out-of-Body Experiences

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

I’ve learned never to complain publicly about my job. It could, after all, be far worse, like the bad-karma accumulating tasks of handing out parking tickets or rubber stamping mortgage foreclosures. Despite the frequent feeling of absurdity of earning money from tasting wine, there are days when I really like what I do. I mean, really feel more than a little fortunate. These emotional moments usually overcome me in some foreign land, in a castle or country house or celebrated restaurant or secret bistro that only locals know about, or on a boat cruising some important water artery or across a placid, vineyard-lined lake, or at a linen-draped table in the middle of a grapevines, always with fascinating and inspiring people. Those are special times to be sure, and give rise to more than a little guilty pleasure. And yet I had such a moment recently of glad-to-be-doing-what-I’m-doing feeling in the most unlikely of places: the LCBO tasting laboratory.

What’s the lab like? It has no stunning vistas, in fact no vista at all. The lab has no windows; artificial lighting alone chases darkness away and glares back at you from the surface of the wine. It has white washed counters and walls and grey floors, and the only artwork is the official sensory analysis tasting terminology wheel, reminding all within of the words we’re supposed to use. It’s (generally) quiet and clinical, like, well, a laboratory ought to be. ISO tasting glasses and stainless steel spittoons like cocktail shakers take the place of test tubes and beakers. In short, not romantic, not inspiring, not dream-inducing. It’s perfect for impartial, objective analysis.

 Domaine Du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf Du Pape 2007But the trouble is, we’re too clever, too imaginative, too disposed to enjoy. Along comes a wine like the 2007 DOMAINE DU VIEUX TÉLÉGRAPHE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE $76.95, and the lab dissolves and Toronto is transformed . Suddenly the smell of old wine, like the morning after a party with half-filled glasses scattered on the table, is replaced by the smell of the Mediterranean, of wild herbs, lavender, thyme, rosemary and bay growing on scrubby hillsides overlooking the sea, of the salty sea air itself carried on gentle winds. White walls give way to the view of rolling vineyards strewn with large, flat stones that were once carried down out of the Swiss Alps by the mighty Rhône River, and sunshine in the form of lusciously ripe grapes fills your mouth with the promise of that warm fuzzy feeling. Even in the darkness of the white laboratory, the right wine can take you to another place.

During the two sessions provided us to taste the November 27th Vintages release, there were fortunately many such out-of-body experiences. Whoa, what a collection of wines! I supposed it should have been expected, the theme of the release is after all entitled “Our finest”. And many fine wines there were. And to prove I haven’t completely lost my head in romantic transubstantiation, here are some cold stats: of the 113 wines tasted over the two sessions, no fewer than 41 wines edged into the 90 point or above category, the equivalent of a wine competition gold medal. My average score was an astonishing 88.5, with an average price of $37.25. And believe me, this seeming exaggeration wasn’t simply caused by an unrelated euphoric mood. I had just undergone minor knee surgery the day before the first tasting session, and pretty much the last place on earth I wanted to be was sitting on a hard, bar-stool type chair with nowhere to straighten and rest my leg, staring down a formidable row of bottles looking like the emperor’s eerie clay army.

But I was transfixed and transported by many fine offerings, like the terrific 2006 FEUDI DELLA MEDUSA ALBITHIA VERMENTINO DI SARDEGNA DOC $17.95, counted among Sardinia’s best wineries, and whose wines I have purchased in the past for restaurant clients at generally much, much higher prices. There’s extraordinary depth and minerality here for $18, a top smart buy. Then there was the 2005 DEL JALÓN ALTOS LAS PIZARRAS $18.95, an old vines garnacha cuvee from vineyards at over 1000m on slate soils, which, had it not been for a slightly overly-generous oak influence, would have ranked even higher. As it is, it is still an excellent buy.

Feudi Della Medusa Albithia Vermentino Di Sardegna 2006 Del Jalón Altos Las Pizarras 2005

Also in the top ten smart buys this week are three wines from Italy: Maculan’s usually excellent value 2009 MACULAN PINOT GRIGIO $13.95 (warning, this actually has some flavour and pinot grigio character), the pure sangiovese 2008 CASANOVA DI NERI SANT’ANTIMO ROSSO $23.95, a modern and very stylish rendition, and the fine value more rustic, mid-week dinner wine 2007 FATTORIA DEI BARBI BRUSCO DEI BARBI $13.95, dusty, cherry flavoured, firm and authentic. See here for the full top ten, including fine wines from Alsace, the Yarra, Barossa and Rhône valleys, and more from Spain.

Maculan Pinot Grigio 2009 Casanova Di Neri Sant'antimo Rosso 2008 Fattoria Dei Barbi Brusco Dei Barbi 2007

Krug Grande Cuvée Brut ChampagneInspired as I was by so many wines, many of which don’t really belong on a smart buy list unless money is no object, I’ve also created a list of truly outstanding wines to buy for anyone you really, really love (it’s ok to include yourself) or who you want or need to impress in serious fashion (can also include yourself and loved ones). The list includes such absolute stunners as the KRUG GRANDE CUVÉE BRUT CHAMPAGNE. Now, $270 is a lot of money, but just consider the incredible value of this wine relative to the also available Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs 1995 at $4,529.00. Relatively speaking, the multi-vintage cuvee is awesome value. The list also includes relative values from Bollinger, Kistler, Penfolds, Alion, Catena and others, which will make you look like you really know what you are doing. Just be prepared to be invited back again and again to any house to which you bring these treasures…

Click on the following to see my:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Wines for People you Love (or Want to Impress)
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 13th (Part II): The Iberian Peninsula Takes on Tuscany: A Value Battle

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Compare these two wines, preferably blind: 2005 JULIÁN CHIVITE GRAN FEUDO VIÑAS VIEJAS RESERVA $19.95 and 2007 LUCE DELLA VITE LUCE $99.95. The former, an elegant wine, not a blockbuster, but complex, spicy and juicy; the latter, impressively big and woody, even jammy, in an international style that even experienced tasters would have trouble placing in Tuscany. Both rate 90 points in my view, but for different reasons. These wines are worlds apart, though it’s not that far from Northeastern Spain to Tuscany. One’s $20, the other $100. Which delivers more pleasure-per-penny? When the label is obscured, all bets are off.

 Julián Chivite Gran Feudo Viñas Viejas Reserva 2005 Luce Della Vite Luce 2007

I spent some time living and studying in both Tuscany and southern Spain in the mid-nineties, during one of those formative periods of your life where everything seems to matter more, to have more impact. I’m sure I’ll still be able to vividly recall the midnight tapas bar adventures around the Plaza Nueva in Granada, up the Paseo de Los Tristes, with the spot-lighted Alhambra Palace watching over us from the hill above between the ducks into tiny doorways leading into even tinier bars; the glasses of fino and who knows-what-other reds and whites poured by the draught from cask or tap with a mini bocadillo sandwich of succulent jamón Ibérico de bellota; I’ll remember walking one steamy summer afternoon, leaving Siena in the pouring rain, wandering 42 kms across country on rural routes through the Tuscan countryside past olive groves, cypress trees, vineyards and fortified hilltop towns before finally reaching the towers of San Gimignano and that first glass of cool, crisp vernaccia di San Gimignano; I’m sure I’ll still remember those moments long after I’ve forgotten the names of my grandchildren, should I be so lucky.

So, I have a soft spot for both Italy and Spain, it’s true. Who wouldn’t. I’m always delighted to taste wines from that part of the world. But heart rendering nostalgia aside, when the critic’s cap goes on and I’m looking for value, my Tuscan friends are abandoned to their luxury hilltop villas and renaissance art galleries. The Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal, is where I’m holidaying on the cheap and loving it. Tuscany isn’t Italy, and there’s plenty of extreme value to be found all over the Italian Peninsula to be sure, but it’s not generally in Tuscany where one goes treasure hunting. There’s too much money, foreign and Italian. It’s where everyone from the Swiss to the Germans, English, Americans and anybody else who’s made a fortune in some other business goes to buy land to live their own Under The Tuscan Sun dreams, and wine is invariably part of that dream. Land is expensive, wines are highly sought after, and prices are inflated.

Most parts of Spain (with a couple of notable exceptions) are far less well known. Foreigners who fall in love with Spain and buy property there tend to be life-loving bohemians, not industrialists, sort of modern-day members of the red brigade fighting for freedom, in this case not from fascism but from the tyranny of pretentiousness, since the Spanish are anything but pretentious. It also helps that the Spanish economy makes even the Greeks feel not so bad about their troubles, that there’s huge over-production, and that their shoes are not as highly coveted as designer Italians, and hence the country maintains a lower profile. Not even World Cup victory has changed that. Spain, and Portugal, are chalk-a-block with value.

As if to inadvertently highlight this little useful bit of insider’s knowledge, the LCBO has put out a fine range of expensive, in some case very good, but generally poor value Tuscan wines in the November 13th release, alongside a clutch of outstanding wines from Spain (and one from Portugal). I know it’s an unfair comparison, but all’s fair in love, war and wine, especially when it’s my dollar on the line.

I found the 2008 LAS ROCAS GARNACHA $14.95 and the 2007 RAIMAT ABADIA CRIANZA $14.95 to be outstanding values for under $15, though there’s nothing to compare them to because nothing’s under $15 from the Tuscan release. The closest, decent value is the 2008 DOGA DELLE CLAVULE MORELLINO DI SCANSANO $16.95, made by the elegant Elisabetta Gnudi, also owner of Caparzo in Montalcino and Borgo Scopeto in Chianti Classico.

Las Rocas Garnacha 2008 Raimat Abadia Crianza 2007 Doga Delle Clavule Morellino Di Scansano 2008

I did enjoy the 2006 ANTINORI BADIA A PASSIGNANO CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA $43.95, a solid, neither traditional nor modern Chianti, though pound for pound it can’t touch the 2007 QUINTA DE VENTOZELO TOURIGA NACIONAL $18.95, a very rich yet fine example of the Douro’s marquee red grape.

Antinori Badia A Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2006 Quinta De Ventozelo Touriga Nacional 2007

At the higher end, the 2005 MIGUEL TORRES MAS LA PLANA CABERNET SAUVIGNON $44.95, is as reliable as ever, delivering an intriguing style somewhere between Bordeaux, Napa and Provence, which is, well, just about where Spain sits geographically, philosophically and climatically. Also 92 points, but somewhat lesser value, compare the 2007 ANTINORI SOLAIA $249.95. Your call.

Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Antinori Solaia 2007

Click on the following to see my:

Smart Buys From the Iberian Peninsula
Top Tuscans
Top Eight Smart Buys
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages November 13th Release- Super Tuscans & 90 Pointers Galore

90+ Pointers Galore, Super-Duper Tuscans, Purple Angel, Sumptuous Syrahs, Pisa Range Pinot, Stratus White
David Lawrason

David Lawrason

All my highlights in this release are 90-point plus wines.  And they are merely a smattering of the many excellent wines that have reached that 90 point plateau in the November 13th release. Was I feeling all generous and happy as I tasted so many fine wines? Perhaps, but I also found myself over-compensating and looking for weaknesses.  Of late however I do admit feeling a need to move confidently beyond that 90 point barrier. There is a tendency for critics to feel that 90 points is all they need to register enthusiastic approval. There is a tendency to play it safe.  But when so many scores are cosseted between 85 and 90, surely there is lots of room to move up. Indeed so many of the world’s best wines are outstanding and should comfortably sit in the 90 to 95 point zone, and higher.  They are also of course among the world’s more expensive wines, and I would argue that consumers need the guidance of meaningful ratings even more acutely when they are spending $50, $100, $150, or $300.   Would you spend $100 on a 90 point wine?

Antinori Guado Al Tasso 2007So onward, into the quite incredible collection of top tier Tuscans. I don’t remember so many iconic names appearing in one release (although it did cross my mind that we see the same icons every year, perhaps at the expense of new, rising stars that surely exist). The other notion that occurred to me as I tasted these beauties was to question why any wine drinkers would pay $200 or more (way more) for Bordeaux first and second growths, when they could get cabernet-based treasures like ANTINORI 2007 GUADO AL TASSO at $89.95 – the latest in a string of gorgeous cab-merlot blends from Tuscany’s coastal Bolgheri region. At least half a dozen have really turned my head in Vintages releases this fall, so if you are a Bordeaux lover who hasn’t attuned to Bolgheri being a first class cab-merlot region, and thought it was only about Sassicaia and Ornellaia, then do yourself a favour and dig deeper. Elsewhere from Tuscany, I was also excited by more traditionally styled wines like Frescobaldi Castelgicondo 2005 Brunello di Montalcino and a perky little value called Rignana 2007 Chianti Classico. And then there is ANTINORI 2007 SOLAIA (below), yet another Tuscan cab-merlot based blend soars to a nifty 96 points, at $249.95.

Antinori Solaia 2007

Montes Purple Angel 2007Speaking of collector worthy cabernets, nothing from Tuscany or Bordeaux on this release beats MONTES 2007 PURPLE ANGEL from Chile in terms of value.  At $49.95 you can buy five bottles to one Solaia, and I have rated it only one point less at 95.  Purple Angel is essentially carmenere, with 8% petit verdot – both official Bordeaux varieties. It is great to see the carmenere grape strutting some magnificence.  Often maligned for being too green (it ripens late and is often picked too soon) many miss the fact that it also has great structure and depth, especially when cropped at low yields. Aurelio Montes, who has done all kinds of pioneering work to produce top flight reds from his incredible vineyards in Colchagua, has given full reign to carmenere to be the best it can be. The power is very impressive.

Mckinley Springs Syrah 2006There are noteworthy syrahs on this release as well, and they hail from diverse new and old world locals. Great syrah can be such a sensuous an experience. Where cabernet and merlot and carmenere tend to be linear, syrah has this suppleness, richness and this feeling that is slathering the senses. I felt this quite dramatically in three wines on this release, led by MCKINLEY SPRINGS 2006 SYRAH from Horse Heaven Hills in Washington. It’s a big, black, lush, smoky and bacon bits style of syrah from a wonderfully wild and windswept wine region in arid eastern Washington. (When tasting it I was thrown back to a stunning recent tasting of Okanagan syrahs at the Canadian Wine Awards).  Elsewhere, I loved the succulence and poise of Jim Barry 2006 The Mcrae Wood Shiraz from the Clare Valley, South Australia (one of my favourite Aussie regions), and the silky, seductive Stolpman Vineyards 2007 Hilltops Syrah from California’s Santa Ynez Valley.

A number of excellent pinot noirs are also on tap, led by PISA RANGE ESTATE BLACK 2007 POPLAR BLOCK PINOT NOIR from New Zealand’s Central Otago region on the South Island.  Otago differs from other NZ pinot regions in that it has a drier continental climate as opposed to a humid coastal climate. In this it too reminds me of B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, and I recently had the terrific Quails Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir (Hobbs and Co.) that reminded me of Otago pinot with its bold, vibrant cherry and sage character.  Anyway, I love this pinot noir, from a family property founded in 1995 in a warmer sub-region near Lake Dunstan at the foot of the Pisa Range.  It is a classic, modern rendition with great depth and complexity – almost a steal at $44.95. (in the context of pinot noir).

Pisa Range Estate Black Poplar Block Pinot Noir 2007

And finally, I was impressed by four Niagara whites three of which score at least 90 points at under $20: Chateau des Charmes 2008 Chardonnay Musque (the best vintage they have ever produced), the perennial gold medal-winning Flat Rock 2009 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling (a Bench classic), and the refined sauvignon-semillon, barrel aged Jackson-Triggs 2008 Meritage Grand Reserve. But I was thrilled by STRATUS 2007 WHITE, the multi-grape, barrel aged blend that I think is the single best wine at Stratus.  When I visited the winery this summer I remember being blown away by the 2006 as well, a wine of intriguing, exotic, off-beat complexity and a satiny refinement.  The 2007 is just like it and somehow more – very rich, opulent yet streamlined.  For students of obscure whites, the closest comparison I can make is to Jurancon in south-western France.

Stratus White 2007

There are many, many other excellent wines on this release. I urge you to set aside extra time to comb through all my notes on WineAlign, as well as those of my colleagues.

See all my reviews for the November 13th release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 13th – Star Quality & Tuscany

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Apologies first off, as this report covers only about half of the November 13th release. I generally have two cracks at tasting through each Vintages release: one reserved for media which is set 4-5 weeks ahead of the release date, and a second opportunity alongside the LCBO product consultants about a week and a half ahead, both of which fall in time to get the preview report out to you on the Friday preceding the following Saturday’s release (8 days ahead). This is especially useful for those living outside of major centers, far from the well-stocked downtown LCBO stores, who have to order in product to their local outlet a week ahead of the release to guarantee supply. Unfortunately, this time around the product consultant tasting was postponed until next week. The first time around I reviewed 66 wines before calling it a day, contained here. The good news is you will get all of the remaining reviews before the 13th at least, if not a full week before. There were still 8 wines that I considered smart buys out of the first half, which you’ll find here, and as for the Tuscany theme, I’ll report back next week.

Louis Jadot Beaune 1er Cru 1999The fall releases running up to the holidays are much larger than the rest of the year, making it impossible to taste through the entire range (120+ wines on November 13th) in one shot, not to mention that the quality is better than average, which encourages one to linger a little longer over the really compelling wines. This also raises the important question of how many wines can one realistically taste in a single session and still give an accurate and fair assessment? Gently pour yourself a glass of the smartest buy of them all this week, the 1999 LOUIS JADOT BEAUNE 1ER CRU (Pinot Noir) $26.95 (11 year-old Beaune 1er Cru from a reliable producer at what appears to be the half bottle price, yet is listed as a full 750ml? Don’t ask, don’t tell. Let’s just keep it between us.), and consider this important question that most beverage alcohol writers are understandably keen to avoid or dismiss altogether: How many wines can one realistically taste in a single session?

The answer to the question of course varies widely, depending on the person and the circumstances. Logically, it depends to a large measure on what type of wine is being tasted. Consider the difference in impact on your taste buds between lively, light-bodied, low alcohol rieslings, pinot grigios and un-oaked chardonnays versus rich, full-bodied, high alcohol cabernets, amarones, or even tougher, young vintage port. The former dance across the palate with tongue-tingling and saliva inducing acidity, constantly refreshing the mouth like a sip of cool, dry lemonade. With dedicated spitting, an absolute and exception-free necessity when reviewing wines, a seasoned taster can quite conceivably and accurately review 100+ such wines in a day. Indeed, a colleague from the west coast reported that while in Germany recently she tasted through, and recorded reliable notes on, no fewer than 330 rieslings from 8am to 6pm.  (That’s still a long and tough day at the office to be sure.)

But obviously similar quantities of the latter wine types, with 15, 16, up to 20%+ alcohol will reduce even the most serious and dedicated reviewer to a quivering, mumbling muddle. Assiduous spitting won’t save you; vapours and slow but inexorable absorption through soft tissue in the mouth will eventually channel enough alcohol into your bloodstream to discourage the operation of heavy machinery. There’s also a accumulative, additive effect of tannins and extract on the palate that can skew impressions, making wines tasted in the later stages seem exaggeratedly tannic or extracted when in fact they may be well balanced. I wouldn’t want to taste more than 20 or 30 vintage ports in a day, for example.

Body weight, physical fitness and, believe it or not, practice, can all affect your ability to taste. Evidently larger body mass means slower absorption and lower blood-alcohol levels relative to someone lighter, as anyone who has been smart serve-certified (a mandatory certification for anyone who dispenses alcohol in the hospitality industry), which includes being able to recognize the signs of intoxication and the approximate amounts and rates of consumption that will put an individual over the legal limit. Women, it is known, metabolize alcohol at a slower rate than men, so despite their generally superior sensory apparatus, they can’t churn through quite as many wines in a day, all else being equal. And the genetics of certain ethnic groups can be a determining factor, as certain segments of the population lack an enzyme that leads to an alcohol flush reaction: the reddening of the face, increased mental confusion and blurred vision that occurs after alcohol consumption, or “Asian flush” as it is called colloquially due to its prevalence in the Asian community, which, it would seem, would make reviewing multiple wine samples a tough gig.

Anecdotally, most people known that there is a certain amount of tolerance to alcohol that can be built up over time and exposure, so that one exhibits fewer effects of intoxication even at the same blood-alcohol levels, and can even function quite normally. It surely sounds strange, but one can ‘train’ to taste more wines in a day, by building up a tolerance to the mind-numbing effects of alcohol. “Recovery time” can also be improved, as I have seen on several occasion with friends after, say, a wine-soaked dinner party. The less seasoned in the group tend to suffer more acutely the following day. This is hardly an encouragement to “train” yourself to consume more; on the contrary be thankful that you have a built-in warning system – suffice to recall the physical results of the last soirée of excess – and reach for the water glass.

After having tasted regularly at the LCBO vintages releases for about half a decade now, I know the limits of what I can get through with reasonable accuracy. Without necessarily counting reviews, my 185lbs and I instinctively pack it in somewhere between 70-80 wines in an average release, with a mix of wines of all categories from sparkling to fortified. Knowing your limits is important in this business!

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2006So, out of the mere 66 wines that I was reviewing to the best of my ability and experience this past October, a few are worth pointing out as smart buys. Generally this list is reserved for the really interesting wines at what most consider reasonable prices: under $20 or $25. But just to underscore the fact that value and smart buys can be found at just about all price points, check out the 2006 CHATEAU MONTELENA CABERNET SAUVIGNON $51.95. Now, $52 is not cheap, but in the context of Napa Valley, not renowned as a place for value seekers, this wine is great value. I’ve always appreciated Montelena’s understated style, combining elegance with depth and power in a way that few others do, without recourse to gobs of hedonistic fruit and masses of mocha-flavoured oak to impress.

The organically grown 2007 HECHT & BANNIER SAINT CHINIAN $22.95, is certainly a fine value. It’s a great expression of the schistous soils of St. Chinian in the Languedoc, so look for smoky-mineral and licorice-garrigue flavours; serious wine at a fair price from the successful 2007 vintage in southern France. In the same category is the 2007 CHÂTEAU SIGNAC COMBE D’ENFER CUVÉE CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES CHUSCLAN $18.95.Hecht & Bannier Saint Chinian 2007 Château Signac Combe D'enfer Cuvée Côtes Du Rhône Villages Chusclan 2007

On the white side there were two stand-outs: the fragrant and inviting 2008 CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES CHARDONNAY MUSQUÉ VQA, Niagara-On-The-Lake $16.95 for fans of un-oaked whites. Slightly more serious and minerally is the 2007 KUMEU RIVER ESTATE CHARDONNAY North Island $33.95, one of the better New Zealand chardonnays that I’ve come across in some time.

Château Des Charmes Chardonnay Musqué 2008 Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2007

That’s all for now. I’ll report back on the Tuscan theme next week, and hopefully find a few more smart buys coming out on November 13th.

Click on the following to see my:
Top Eight Smart Buys
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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The Successful Collector – Malbec: the darling grape of (not just) Argentina – by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

A grape we all know and love:

For modern enthusiasts, to learn that Malbec didn’t originate in Argentina might be surprising.  After all, when one thinks of this grape, the first words that come to mind are “Mendoza” and “Argentina.” And we can all be forgiven for thinking this, considering how much Argentinean Malbec (sourced from Mendoza) can be found on LCBO shelves.

Malbec Grapes

Malbec Grapes

However, to set the record straight, the Malbec varietal did not originate in Argentina, or anywhere else in South America for that matter. It simply found its way there from France (where else?) a long time ago, just like Carmenère did in Chile.

But let’s leave that aside for a moment and talk about the type of Malbec we find in Argentina, the country that brought it to international fame. First planted there in 1852, the original cuttings came from Bordeaux. Ask a viticulturalist, and they’ll tell you that the grape does best at an altitude of around 1000 metres or more, which allows for hot days and cool nights, bringing out those lovely ‘dark perfumes’ and full-bodied features (plus extra acidity) that seem to permeate the varietal.

Pascual Toso Malbec 2009Deep purple- (or ruby-) coloured in youth, Argentinean Malbec tends to offer up scents of currants, blueberries, violets, flowers, and a host of different spices. Taking very well to oak (old and new), the usual mocha, toastiness, and vanilla extract will also be present (depending on the quality of the wine). On the palate, expect a certain degree of smoothness and fruit-forwardness of structure, though some Argentinean Malbecs can be remarkably tannic; and many will age remarkably well. Either way, wine drinkers can’t seem to get enough of this stuff, with or without a healthy cut of beef!

Back in France on the other hand, Malbec these days seems to have a more challenging time distinguishing itself. In centuries past, it was one of the most important ingredients in Bordeaux, a role that has been supplanted by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, though many producers will still include a very small proportion of Malbec in their final blends.

Chateau LagrezetteIn Cahors though, an appellation in Southwest France, Malbec continues to thrive. Here, it is also called “Auxerrois” and must constitute at least 70 percent of the blend; other common grapes are Merlot and Tannat. Regrettably, compared to its counterparts in Argentina, many enthusiasts find Cahors a bit more of a challenge. The reason? When young, Cahors can be extraordinarily tannic – historically, it was even referred the ‘black wine of Cahors,’ because it was so dark-coloured and impenetrable when young.

Nowadays, Cahors is often much more accessible, still fairly tannic, yet offering more ‘dusty’ black currants, tobacco leaf, and floral scents – in other words, the aromatics are far more inviting and fresh at a young age than what they once were. At its best, Cahors can even taste decisively Bordelaise on the palate and finish. More importantly, Cahors can age outstandingly well, becoming increasingly open and elegant with the passage of time.

Outside of Cahors (and Bordeaux), Malbec can be found in other parts of France as well, though it really shines in only a limited number of places. Either way, when everything is all said and done, Malbec is certainly a worthy grape for international attention, not just in Argentina but in its original home back in Southwest France, particularly in the pathetically undervalued appellation of Cahors.

From extensive travels to countless tastings, Julian Hitner represents an exciting new generation of dynamic, accomplished wine writers in Canada. A member of both CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers) and the WWCC (Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada), Julian Hitner is currently an instructor at Liaison College and is a founding member of the Royal Canadian Wine Society, one of the most prestigious wine organizations in Canada.

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Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO – November 2010

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

There are  many changes this month to the Top 50 as a result of recently tasted wines, new editions to the LCBO’s selection and new vintages of existing listings. In this report we feature the wines commonly referred to as General List and Vintages Essentials. We do not cover the bi-weekly Vintages releases here. I constantly tastes the wines at the LCBO to keep this report up to date.

New Drop Down MenuWe’ve added a new menu item to WineAlign to make easier to find my Top 50 Value Wines between reports. Click on Wines => Top 50 Value Wines to be taken directly to the list.

To be included in the Top 50 for value a wine must have a high score, indicating high quality, while being inexpensive. We use a mathematical model to make the Top 50 selections from the wines in our database. This month we adjusted the model slightly to better recognize value in the $12-15 price range and as a consequence the average price of the Top 50 is now $10.35.

Every wine is linked to WineAlign where you can read more, discover pricing discounts, check out inventory and compile lists for shopping at your favourite store. Never again should you be faced with a store full of wine with little idea of what to pick for best value.

New this month

Two new wines from Chile have recently arrived in stores and have joined the Top 50.  Xplorador Carmenere 2009 is a vibrant fresh and ripe red from the carmenere grape which is rapidly becoming Chile’s signature variety. Cono Sur Riesling 2009 extends the range of value wines from this major producer. It comes from the cooler Bio Bio Valley to the south of Chile.

Xplorador Carmenere 2009 Cono Sur Riesling 2009

Six wines are new editions this month to the Top 50. Three are from Chile: Montgras Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2008Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserva 2009 and Casillero Del Diablo Shiraz 2008.
Montgras Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2008 Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserva 2009 Casillero Del Diablo Shiraz 2008

They are joined by a great value pink sparkling wine from Australia Yellowglen Pink Sparkling, a shiraz from the coolish Durbanville Hills northeast of Cape Town South Africa Durbanville Hills Shiraz 2007 and an elegant stylish malbec from Argentina Trapiche Malbec Reserve 2008.

 Yellowglen Pink Sparkling Durbanville Hills Shiraz 2007 Trapiche Malbec Reserve 2008

The new vintages of two favourites from Chile are both improvements over previous years which gets them into the Top 50 for the first time. Errazuriz Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010 and Montgras Carmenere Reserva 2009.

 Errazuriz Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Montgras Carmenere Reserva 2009

I recently re-tasted Montes Classic Series Sauvignon Blanc 2009 and its improved score also led to its inclusion on the list.

Montes Classic Series Sauvignon Blanc 2009

Limited Time Offers (LTO)

Every month 100 or so products at LCBO go on sale for four weeks. As a consequence of the current LTO, two VQA wines from Ontario make it on to the list. The price of Jackson Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve Chardonnay 2008 is reduced from $10.95 to $9.95 and Inniskillin Varietal Series Pinot Noir 2009 is reduced to $13.95 from $14.95.  A wine from Chile Errazuriz Estate Merlot 2008 is also reduced from $13.00 to $11.00, again putting it into the list. You have until November 7th to take advantage of these sale prices.

Jackson Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve Chardonnay 2008 Inniskillin Varietal Series Pinot Noir 2009 Errazuriz Estate Merlot 2008

As result of all these new wines joining the Top 50 some have slipped off since last month, maybe to reappear in the future due to a price reduction, or an improved vintage or maybe an LTO. Click here for a complete list of the Top 50 Value Wines at WineAlign. This list will show you all of the Top 50 Value Wines currently available at your local LCBO(s).


Steve Thurlow

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008