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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 8th, 2011 – Smart Buys: 15 under $15

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

After the parade of high-priced wines from December, the first release of the year will as usual focus on ‘smart buys’. Since at WineAlign that’s what we specialize in, we needn’t tweak anything in our approach or on the site to deliver you the information. The average price in this release is under $19/bottle, but as most marketing companies agree that $15 is a more realistic cut-off point for personal wine purchases, I’ve put together my list of top 15 wines under $15 to help navigate through the raft of inexpensive wines on offer. It’s in this price range that I believe the most expertise, exposure and context is needed to de-niche the really interesting wines from the merely inexpensive. There are some outstanding value selections on offer, right alongside mediocre ones at exactly the same price.  Buyer beware. Here are a few that stand out:
Dominio Del Plata Crios De Susana Balbo Torrontés 20092009 DOMINIO DEL PLATA CRIOS DE SUSANA BALBO TORRONTÉS Cafayate, Calchaquies Valley $11.95. Hailing from Mendoza, Balbo is a 30 year veteran of the Argentine wine industry, though it wasn’t easy getting started. Balbo was the first female oenologist in a country known for its macho ways, and after graduation she was unable to get a job in Mendoza. She turned to Salta in the north and to torrontés, a grape that nobody treated with respect and was made mostly into cheap bulk wine. Being thus of little consequence, it was OK for a woman to be in charge of it. Taking up the challenge and opportunity, Balbo applied her skills to turning torrontés into a wine worthy of international markets. She spent her first 10 years working in Salta to define the style of torrontés, developing new techniques in the vineyard and winery to make the fresh, fragrant, floral style of white wine for which Argentina is now famous. It’s not a wine of tremendous complexity, but rather a fun wine for sipping or serving with spicy foods – think green curries, ceviches or spicy fish empanadas.
2009 THIRTEENTH STREET WHITE PALETTE VQA Niagara Peninsula $14.95 13th Street makes a fine entry into the growing category of blended Ontario whites with this stylish 2009 made by recently appointed winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas (formerly of Peninsula Ridge). It must be said that the entire range from 13th Street has improved greatly under his guidance, as a tasting of new wines recently proved. This is a terrifically aromatic mix of 7 white grapes, with intriguingly complex flavours of fruit and flowers and bright, zesty acid.
Thirteenth Street White Palette 2009
2009 3 STONES SAUVIGNON BLANC Marlborough, South Island $12.95 . This superb value sauvignon blanc from New Zealand makes one wonder why it’s necessary to spend $5-$6 more for the same quality sauvignons from dozens of places around the world, including Marlborough. If you love the zesty, fresh NZ style, this all the appeal and drinkability, not too mention character and flavour, as anything at this price.
3 Stones Sauvignon Blanc 2009
2008 CHÂTEAU LA FLEUR TERRIEN AC Lussac-Saint-Émilion $15.00. It’s worth noting this example from Bordeaux on the smart buys list, a region so often denigrated for it’s ludicrously priced wines. In reality, the high-cost, oft-traded cru classés of Bordeaux represent less than 2% of the region’s production, while thousands of petit château toil away in relative obscurity. Here’s a relatively
soft, pleasant, spicy, rather traditional style right-bank Bordeaux, with juicy acidity, ripe but firm tannins and solid length. All in all, a juicy, food-friendly example at a fair price.
Château La Fleur Terrien 2008
Aficionados of firm and juicy Italian reds will be interested in the 2008 MONTARIBALDI TRE STELLE LANGHE ROSSO DOC $14.95 and the 2008 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO Y NERO D’AVOLA IGT Sicilia $14.95 . Despite being from opposite ends of the peninsula, both of these wines offer the same bright acid – low oak combination that makes Italian reds such great partners at the table. Traditional styling makes these authentic regional expressions, too, a welcome addition to the world of increasingly homogenized flavours.
Montaribaldi Tre Stelle Langhe Rosso 2008 Baglio Di Pianetto Y Nero D'avola 2008
And finally, while were on the subject of food-friendly, second-sip-inviting reds, I’d like to make mention of the 2009 DOMAINE ANDRÉ COLOGNE & FILS BEAUJOLAIS-VILLAGES AC $13.95 . Beaujolais may not be known for wines of riveting depth and complexity (though they do exist), but their charm lies precisely in their easy-drinking appeal, the sort of wine you would want to drink slightly chilled in large, thirst-quenching draughts. This is the antidote to over-oaked, over-extracted, overly-ripe reds that seem to be all the rage these days. I, for one, believe in the bearable lightness of being. This is a classic, inviting, simple pleasure-delivering Beaujolais with length and depth to more than match the price tag. Delicious.

Domaine André Cologne & Fils Beaujolais Villages 2009

All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , ,

Lawrason’s Take: Highlights and Discoveries of 2010, and New Year’s Bubbles

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The year is ending on an incredible high for WineAlign, with December shattering the single month record for new users and usage.  The month to month increases have actually been dramatic since August.  We celebrated with a four-hour Christmas lunch at Adega Restaurant, opening several good bottles en route.  We toasted our success, but spent most of the time brainstorming about what we can do better, getting increasingly creative as the wine flowed. A more grounded meeting comes early in 2011 to work out details, but I can assure you that WineAlign will continue to evolve to its full potential as the best place for Ontarians to discover and enjoy wine and its community.

WineAlign Monthly Growth

WineAlign Monthly Growth

I have been reviewing wine for 25 years, but in 2010 I was re-energized by WineAlign’s growth and its amazing capacity to store and search for wine information.  It became my personal wine review database. I tasted about 5,000 wines in the last year, and a majority of those tasting notes are now residing on WineAlign.  From the beginning in December 2008 I have been uploading my Vintages release reviews.  In mid 2010 I also began uploading reviews from the LCBO selections, augmenting the massive infusion of LCBO reviews by Steve Thurlow that began in July.  Soon after, my notes from WineryToHome joined the mix; then, by November, I had also begun to upload notes on wines available directly from importers and Ontario wineries, using the wines from Hobbs & Co as a test case.  Finally in December I also began to upload notes available through Vintages Shop On-Line website, this thanks to an offering of 2006 and 2007 Bordeaux made available by Vintages for tasting by the media (I hope this is a trend.)

So as 2011 dawns the potential exists for WineAlign to be the essential reference for the almost 20,000 wines sold annually in Ontario (almost 65% of which are not available at the LCBO or Vintages). My New Year’s resolution is to capture as many of those as I can, providing context, comparison and any other information that might help you get the most of the bottles you purchase. The best way to keep track of all new postings is to follow WineAlign on Twitter (@WineAlign or @WineAlignReview).  My personal favourites will also be Re-Tweeted at @DavidLawrason.

Let me begin my 2010 wine highlights with New Year’s Eve sparkling wine selections.  In 2010 I tasted and enjoyed more sparkling wine than in any year I can remember, from modest proseccos to grand Champagnes like Cristal. My new interest in bubbly is directly related to the giant strides being made right here in Ontario.  Prince Edward County wineries like Hinterland, Grange and Huff Estate really began to show the County’s limestone-laced potential for light but deep and elegant sparklers. Niagara moved forward as well, with Trius, Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham and 13th Street upping their game. So do not hesitate to pop some Ontario bubbly as the clock strikes 2011.  My local pick is Cave Spring Brut Blanc de Blancs, a new general listing that captures classic, slim Ontario sensibility.  But sparkling wine improvements were not just here at home, with Spanish cava offering great value.  WineAlign can help you track the few scattered bottles of the incredibly good Langa Hermanos Reyes de Aragon, or you can simply walk into your closest LCBO and grab the always reliableSegura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava.  If only French Champagne will do, make it Ruinart “R” de Ruinart, a classy sparkler from a small house claiming to be the oldest in Champagne. From California don’t miss the full bodied Roederer Estate Brut from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, or the toasty Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut.

 Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut Langa Hermanos Reyes De Aragon Brut Reserva Cava 2007 Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava Ruinart "R" De Ruinart Roederer Estate Brut Sparkling Wine Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut Sparkling Wine

Montes Purple Angel 2007One of my personal highlights of 2010 was a trip to Chile last winter, two weeks before a massive earthquake tipped and ruptured wine vats and spilled about 15% of the country’s wine reserves.  In the aftermath of that disaster the world learned about the resilience of the Chileans themselves, proven again months later during the incredible mine rescue. I have been to the long, thin land four times and have sensed that same quiet resilience and pride among the nation’s wine makers.  Already blessed with the worlds’ best climate for fruit growing, they are bettering their wines in leaps and bounds – finding the best sites for certain grapes and styles, opening up new territories and going green everywhere. On this last trip I loved discovering the shiny new Casablanca and Leyda sauvignon blancs, the dark, brooding syrah’s of Limari and Elqui, and marvelling at the great quality and value found in cabernet sauvignons from Maipo.  But it was the carmenere grape that captured by heart – the ugly duckling grape variety that is morphing into a deep, poised and well structured reds that brim with fruit. At the Chilean fair in Toronto in October I tasted a stunning row of carmeneres.  Montes 2007 Purple Angel is perhaps the most profound carmenere yet made and great value at $50 when rightfully positioned amid in the New World superstars.  A carmenere search on WineAlign reveals many, many worthy buys at less –sometimes far less – than $20. I really can’t pick just one.

Chateau Clos De Sarpe Grand Cru 2007My other overseas adventure in 2010 was a sojourn in Bordeaux as host of  a group of Canadians who had purchased an exclusive chateaux tour while raising funds for Canada’s Olympic athletes through the Gold Medal Plates culinary competition.  I had not been to Bordeaux for almost ten years, so it was interesting to return and get a sense of where Bordeaux stands in a world of wine that now competes head-to-head on many levels.  Does Bordeaux still have an edge?  It does have its illustrious history and those impressive chateaux. And nowadays even the petit-est of the petit chateaux like Pomerol’s Chateau Petit-Village are outfitted with most impressive equipment.  Tangibles aside I think Bordeaux still does have an edge in the glass. It has something to do with compact elegance and finesse, which I sensed it even in the “lesser” years like 2006 and 2007.  In fact I was charmed by the supple, fruity 2007s in particular, the “current vintage” that is just beginning to show up at Vintages.  As the year closed I was delighted to taste several now available through Vintages Shop on Line, especially Chateau Clos de Sarpe 2007 Grand Cru Saint-Emilion. Watch for many more well-priced 2007s in the year ahead, a calm before the storm when the vaunted, very expensive 2009s arrive.  By the way, our group was able to barrel taste 2009 Chateau Cheval Blanc last May, and this massive wine will be awesome indeed.

British Columbia
Le Vieux Pin Epoque Merlot 2006My only other wine trip of 2010 was to B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, both in my capacity as National Wine Advisor to Gold Medal Plates and as Chief Judge for the Canadian Wine Awards.  There is so much great wine now being made in B.C., with a storm of small premium wineries now vying for attention – wineries like Painted Rock, Laughing Stock, JoieFarm, Road 13, La Stella and Le Vieux Pin.  Yet the “Establishment “ is not giving up any ground either with Mission Hill, Quails’ Gate, CedarCreek, Nk’Mip, Blue Mountain, Tinhorn Creek, Sandhill  and Burrowing Owl making some outstanding wines.  Only Sumac Ridge seems to have slipped of late. The selection in Ontario is still a pittance compared what’s available in the West, but Vintages did pick up the pace in the fall of 2010 with a sprinkling of marqué wines like Le Vieux Pin 2006 Epoque Merlot.  And watch in the weeks ahead as we taste the portfolio of a new importing agency calledTerroir Wine + Spirits that is specializing in the wines from small wineries from across B.C. (Okanagan, Similkameen, Vancouver Island, Lower Mainland) that would almost certainly never otherwise be seen here.

Stratus White 2007Some of the B.C. wineries listed above joined wineries from Niagara, Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore for the first annual Kingston Grand Festival of Canadian Wine in October.  It was designed as a compact showcase for top wines and new releases, with invitations going to just 25 wineries. It was hard to pick and choose from Ontario because the wine is improving so dramatically, and quickly. Some Niagara wineries are hitting excellence across the board – Tawse, Hidden Bench, Flat Rock, Le Clos Jordanne, Stratus, Southbrook and Ravine to name the cream of the crop.  Just as important, some of the pioneering wineries like Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham and Vineland Estates are now maturing at 25 years, without missing a beat.  (An exhaustive tasting of Cave Spring’s current portfolio at year end was a revelation).  From Prince Edward County, Closson Chase, Norm Hardie, Rosehall Run and the Grange are really hitting stride, and during a three-day tour of Lake Erie North Shore in August I was impressed by Muscsdere and Sprucewood Shores.  Many other wineries are achieving excellence with specific wines and styles, making Ontario a fascinating and entertaining study.  And there are new wines emerging that may yet define what Ontario will be – especially white blends involving barrel aged sauvignon blanc. In the 2009 vintage I have had several excellent sauvignons, fume blancs or blends from Peninsula Ridge, Creekside, Palatine Hills, Organized Crime and the new Colaneri – a showpiece still under construction on the St. Davids Bench.  To pick one wine that epitomizes Ontario in 2010 is very difficult, but I point you to Stratus 2007 White, a wonderfully opulent, creamy and elegant wine indeed.

Pinot Noir
Schubert Wines Pinot Noir Marion's Vineyard 2008Despite new admiration for sparkling wine and sauvignon blanc in 2010, pinot noir remained my favourite wine to taste, study, and ultimately, drink.  It seems to me that this was the year that pinot went global, with excellence now being possible, and almost routine, in several locales. The notion that only Burgundy can make great pinot is surely extinct; or even that Oregon or New Zealand have some exclusivity and bragging rights as being  “the next best it spots” for this fickle grape.  Ontario, B.C., Russian River and Sonoma coast, Santa Barbara, Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Pemberton, Bio Bio Valley, San Antonio, Patagonia, Walker Bay and other New World regions are making some great pinots; and there seemed to be more and more passing our way through Vintages.  But if I had to stop at one place that has me most excited these days it would be New Zealand; not so much among the pretty but homogenous pinots of Marlborough, but with the characterful, richly fruited yet complex pinots of Otago and Martinborough (I can’t decide which region I like better).  I finally caved in and bought a six –pack of a wonderful  Schubert 2008 Marion’s Vineyard Pinot fromHobbs & Co. Absolutely delicious, smooth, ripe and rich with structure to age as well.

A Great New Wine Book
I must admit that my on-line focus through WineAlign in the past two years has diverted my attention away from wine books. I used to buy virtually every wine book that came along (and now possess a massive, out-of- date library). The internet is indeed a great tool for wine reviewing and study, but somehow it still can’t capture the grandeur and substantive feel of a well done book, especially those involving maps, photos and/or graphics. In that spirit I point you to a fascinating new book titled: “The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels” by Toronto-based graphic designer Tanya Scholes.  It is a very handsome hardcover published by Santa Monica Press (currently $31.35 at It is a fascinating flip-and-read about state of the art wine labels, and somehow in its entirety manages to convey the wonderful sense of creativity, innovation, modernity, youth and even humour that is now rampant in the global wine industry.  And even though I have been at this for a long time, and take my profession and seriously, this is the world of wine I want to live in.  I remain impressed and humbled by history, durability and tradition, but I also remain curious about, and fuelled by, what wine will bring next.

Here’s to discovering much more together in 2011.

You can see all my year end picks here.
David Lawrason
VP of Wine, WineAlign

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

John Szabo’s Year End 2010 Wine Picks

(aka Grand But Non-Exhaustive Theory of Wine Relativity)
John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Feeling rather contemplative and lively after my first total Lunar Eclipse in some years, I’ve been struck by a new theory of relativity. (I actually set the alarm for 2:30am when the eclipse was nearing totality and stood outside, bare legged, watching the spectacle at -10ºC, and thinking how terrifying the sight must have been to a winemaker in the 3rd century AD.) My theory is related to wine, of course, and it’s relative to quality and value, so if it sounds interesting (no calculus or astrophysics background required), then read on. It may be useful for the next week, the next year, or until the next lunar eclipse.

I’ve also just returned from the end of the world, Argentina, where I caught a glimpse of the future of the South American giant. Red-hot in Canada and the US, Argentine wine has in a very short time moved from fringe to mainstream. But where will Argentina go after malbec and Mendoza? Does the country have the depth and diversity to hold the attention of our fickle wine market long term? I needed to do a little research and fact checking, so in late November, along with respected colleague Bill Zacharkiw of the Montreal Gazette, I boarded the AC overnight flight to Buenos Aires to get the scoop. From Salta in the north to Patagonia 2000km to the south, this is the next chapter in the story of Argentine wine. Read more here.

Szabo’s Theory of Relativity: The Convergence of Availability, Consistency, Value, Quality and Cheap-ness in the Wine Buying Continuum (Revised and Expanded from the Original Article in CityBites Magazine December 2010 Issue)

It doesn’t take Einstein to understand that everything in the world is relative, including value. So let’s get a handle on what value is. Value doesn’t mean inexpensive. Value exists at all price levels. Krug Grande Cuvée ($254.15) is far better value than Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs 1995 ($4529.00), just as Château Margaux 2006 ($799.00) is better value than 2006 Pétrus ($2000.00). None of these wines is, however, inexpensive. So what? you say. I agree, so what. While philosophically accurate, this isn’t terribly helpful, unless you’re seeking value in the $100s range per bottle. So here’s my crack at a useful list of wines; it’s not a value list, but rather a list that triangulates a whole bunch of relative criteria and pinpoints a group of wines that I’d be happy to have in my glass. So, to qualify, a wine must be:

1. Available (i.e. you can find and buy without passing through security at Pearson)
2. So consistent from year to year that it can be recommended regardless of vintage
3. A relative value (compared to other wines from the same region, or similar styles)
4. Enthusiastically recommended for the pleasure it delivers
5. Inexpensive (Tuesday night sort of prices, except for the bubblies)
6. Has a track record of at least 10 years

So, in no particular order, here’s my Grand But Non-Exhaustive Theory of Wine Relativity, List One (all wines in list can be found here):

Charles Heidsieck Réserve Champagne Brut, Ac Champagne, France  $54.95
I have always been a fan of the Charles Heidsieck brut reserve. There’s a significant amount of reserve wine used and this shows clearly in the flavour profile; this is a very fine champagne for those who prefer a more mature, biscuity style.
Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Sparkling Brut, VQA Niagara Peninsula  $29.95
Since 1992, the Speck family has been working to perfect their traditional method sparkling wine, one of the most reliable in the country. Wish I had a bottle for every time I’ve heard a sommelier at the neighboring table pitching it has “champagne at half the price”. That would be some party.
A unanimous critics’ value bubbly favorite that seems to have been around forever, but never strays from the path of consistency and delivery of pleasure when the occasion calls for sober-minded spending on your celebration.

Charles Heidsieck Réserve Champagne BrutHenry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Sparkling Brut Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava

Cono Sur Pinot Noir 2009, Casablanca Valley Chile  $10.95
Virtually everything put out by Chile’s Cono Sur is worth a look, especially the pinot noir, which over-delivers on quality year after year at an untouchable price that makes most other pinot producers around the world pale garnet red with envy.
Trapiche Broquel Malbec 2007, Mendoza, Argentina  $13.65
Among the vast sea of malbec exported by Argentina today, Trapiche maintains an edge in sheer quality, consistency and value for money.
Popular international star meets local hero: Montalto’s Cabernet-Nero d’Avola is a wine of surprising depth and complexity for the price, not to mention age-worthy, as a 7 year-old accidental experiment recently proved.
Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux Rouge 2008, Rhône Valley, France $11.95
The southern Rhône is an excellent source of fine value-for-money wines, and La Vieille Ferme has been delivering on the promise for decades. The currently available 2009 is a sheer delight of red berry freshness. It won’t overwhelm with depth or complexity, but then again it won’t matter since the bottle will be empty b the time to get around to realizing it.
The #1 wine in the category, and also Torres’ fastest growing brand in Canada, the Gran Coronas is a juicy, spicy, highly food friendly wine. It epitomizes the over-delivery and excellent value found pretty much across the full range of Torres wines.
McWilliams Hanwood Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, South Eastern Australia  $12.95
Blending wines from a vast area has it advantages: a determined style and quality can be consistently achieved year after year, and historic McWilliams hits the mark.

Cono Sur Pinot Noir 2009 Trapiche Broquel Malbec 2007 Montalto Nero D'avola Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 La Vieille Ferme Côtes Du Ventoux 2008 Torres Gran Coronas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (V) 2005Mcwilliam's Hanwood Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

A wine as reliable as the sunshine and warmth of southern Spain, Castaño’s Hécula monastrel is a perennial favorite of experts and casual drinker alike.
Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2009, Sicily, Italy  $10.00
One of the leading producers in Sicily’s recent quality revolution, Cusumano’s authentic expression of Nero d’Avola is a best buy year after year. Used to be priced at $14.95 when sold in consignment – good job on negotiating, LCBO buyers!
A region that deserves more international attention, the Dão turns out some characterful and flavourful wines at very fair prices. The Duque de Viseu line from Quinta dos Carvalhais (both red and white) are always fine value.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet 2008, South Eastern Australia $16.45
Penfolds may be a large company, but they are surely among the most consistent producers on a continent that prides itself on consistent style/quality wines. The Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet has been a standard classic since its launch in 1976.
One of Australia’s most reliably consistent and ageworthy Cabernets from the famed patch of Terra Rossa soil in the South Australian region of Coonawarra.
Neither the most nor least expensive range from Concha y Toro, the Marqués de Casa Concha line hits the sweet spot of quality/value/pleasure year after year.

Bodegas Castaño Hécula Monastrell 2008 Cusumano Nero D'avola 2009 Quinta Dos Carvalhais Duque De Viseu Red (V) 2007 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2008 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Concha Y Toro Marques De Casa Concha Merlot 2007

Vineland Estates St. Urban Riesling 2008, VQA Niagara Escarpment  $19.95
From some of the oldest Riesling vines in the country, Vineland crafts a consistently great Germanic style of riesling: tight, lean, barely off-dry, highly age-worthy.
Château Des Charmes, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, VQA St. David’s Bench, Niagara  $19.95
One of the most characterful chardonnays for the money year after year from the old vines surrounding Paul Bosc Sr.’s estates, classically styled.
Boutari Moschofilero 2009, Mantinia, Peloponnese, Greece  $11.95
Not terribly well-known around the world, yet, Mantinia is a relatively cool region in the heart of the Peloponnese where the moschofilero grape yields low alcohol, highly crisp and aromatic white wines; Boutari’s is a sure bet year after year.
A go-to wine year after year when seeking a gentle, mildly aromatic white with the unique sweet herbal and honeyed-hay flavours of the southern Rhône
Louis Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay 2008, Burgundy, France $18.95
Since completing the new vinification facility for the generic Bourgogne range, Jadot’s Bourgogne Chardonnay has grown even more consistent in quality. It may not taste precicely the same each year, but it is always an accurate reflection of the vintage and the terroir of Burgundy.

Vineland Estates St. Urban Riesling 2008 Château Des Charmes, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 Boutari Moschofilero 2009 Perrin & Fils Réserve Côtes Du Rhône Blanc 2009 Louis Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay 2008

Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, VQA Niagara Peninsula (375ml) Icewine 
It pays to be ahead of the crowd. Since 1986, Canada’s original, commercially available Icewine’s continues to set the standard for the vidal category, and sells in several dozen countries around the world.
Non-vintage sherry is by definition consistent quality, and the vast reserves stored in the soleras of giant Gonzalez Byass make the Nutty Oloroso a sure bet. Plus, the level of intensity and complexity for the price can scarcely be matched by any wine, anywhere.
Inniskillin Vidal Icewine (V) 2007 Nutty Solera Oloroso (Gonzales Byass)

You can all my year end picks here.

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , ,

Argentina: The next chapter – By John Szabo

John Szabo - Vineyards at Andeluna, Uco Valley

My year-end post comes from the end of the world, at least from our perspective: Argentina. Red hot in Canada and the US, Argentine wine has in a very short time moved from fringe to mainstream. But where will Argentina go after malbec and Mendoza? Does the country have the depth and diversity to hold the attention of our fickle wine market long term? I needed to do a little research and fact checking, so in late November, along with respected colleague Bill Zacharkiw of the Montreal Gazette, I boarded the AC overnight flight to Buenos Aires to get the scoop. From Salta in the north to Patagonia 2000km to the south, this is the next chapter in the story of Argentine wine.

But first, a little perspective on ‘La Argentina’: the name conjures up so many images in the minds of most Canadians. I had my own preconceived notions, and I expected this journey to either galvanize or dispel them. There’s nothing like a little knowledge to kill prejudice, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Prior to leaving, through a little reading and exposure to Argentineans in Toronto and elsewhere, I had the following pre-conceived notions:

1. Argentina is a remote but exotic destination, where the population survives almost exclusively on lean, grass-fed beef, cooked on a wood fired grill under open skies, served with lots of red wine and Fernet Branca mixed with coke.

2. The sultry accordion notes of Carlos Gardel’s tango music continually dance out onto the busy streets of Buenos Aires from every bar and restaurant, and couples spontaneously embrace in the provocative steps of the dance. Even the accent of Argentine Spanish seems to sway and flow to a tango beat, lilting, dropping, then swinging up again with a smooth, suave glide.

3. Argentina is the Europe of South America, with the legendary beauty of its people offering more than a passing resemblance to the citizens of Ancient Rome as depicted in images and on coins.

4. Argentines are fun, outgoing people, embodying the sort of culture where friendship is taken seriously and regularly re-established over long lunches that begin at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon and commonly stretch on well past the North American dinner hour, ebbing and flowing on the euphoria induced by Rabelaisian quantities of strong red wine, and later, Fernet Branca and Coca-Cola.

5. Gauchos, part outlaws, part cult heroes, still ride the plains of the Pampas and lead the life of rugged adventurers that many dream of.

6. Argentines all play soccer, and young children wear the baby blue and white striped jersey of the Argentine national soccer team, thrice World Cup Champions and arch-rivals of the world’s top soccer nations.

7. Everybody takes food seriously in Argentina as they do in Italy, with the best dishes of course being those that are prepared by your mamma or nonna (abuela). Everyone has an opinion on who makes the best dulce de leche, the national sweet, a condensed caramelized form of milk that’s used in everything from ice cream to cookie fillings.

8. Energy is palpable in the streets, especially Buenos Aires. There’s the ever-present sense of controlled chaos, of the silently tolerated transgression of arbitrary laws that might interfere with proper living, or Fernet Branca and coke.

9. Salaries are low, inflation is high, mortgages are virtually unattainable and another economic meltdown such as that experienced in 2001 seems all but inevitable, and yet there is no doom and gloom. Argentinean people are endearingly optimistic, with an unshakeable faith in the positive outcome of matters utterly beyond their control. Yet at the same time, they don’t trust anyone (there is reportedly more Argentine money held in offshore bank accounts and tied up in foreign investments than within the country itself, so I guess there’s no reason not to smile even as the country collapses around you). Nevertheless, they’ll deliver offerings at the many roadside shrines dedicated to Gauchito Gil (a legendary gaucho, Robin Hood hero, outlaw) with the matter-of-fact conviction their prayers will be answered as assuredly as their bank statement will reflect a recent deposit, or that Argentina will win the next world cup. Things just seem to have a way of working themselves out on their own in Argentina.

10. Argentina produces a lot of malbec, generally soft, oaky and fruity, and a fair bit of aromatic muscat-like Torrontés in desert-like conditions in the foothills of the Andes where hail the size of baseballs regularly pummels the vines. And they drink a lot of Fernet and coke.

Fernet, unofficial national beverage

Fernet, unofficial national beverage

So, were these notions accurate? Yes of course. And of course not. Argentina offers much more than meets the eye, especially in the world of wine.

Argentina’s positive cultural image has helped propel wine exports, a product intimately related to culture, to record highs. Bottled wine exports have surged up nearly 19% by value and 10% by volume in the last year overall. In Canada, Argentina’s second largest market after the USA, value is up 18.3% and average price per case has soared almost 22%, even while total volume slipped by 2.8%. This is likely explained due to the ‘Fuzion’ bubble bursting.

You may recall somewhere around 2008, Fuzion, a brand produced by Zuccardi in Mendoza, became Ontario’s single most successful product ever, across all categories, outselling everything including beer, spirits and ready-to-drink products. The frenzy to buy a case, like a Walmart-special-in-aisle-4-caused rush of humanity has all but subsided now, and there bottles sit on LCBO shelves where once they were gone before even hitting them. Like the wine or not, it put Argentina on the map and into the mainstream consciousness of wine drinkers in Canada.

It wasn’t so long ago, only a little over a decade or so, that Argentina didn’t need to export wine. Despite being the world’s 5th largest wine producer (after Italy, France, Spain and the US), Argentines consumed a prodigious amount of their own supply, to the liver-quivering tune of 90l per capita. That number has since dropped to 30l, creating a huge surplus in the home market. Solution: export. And timing couldn’t have been better. The Argentine peso, formerly pegged to the US$, was devalued by 2/3 overnight in the crash of 2001, making Argentine products cheap. Around the same period, world wine markets were coming of age, especially in North America, where consumers had become comfortable including wine in their lifestyle, had become familiar with many of the world’s classic wine regions, and had developed the confidence and curiosity to go out and discover what else was out there in the vast and mesmerizing world of wine.

Patagonia Chacra Pinots

Patagonia Chacra Pinots

Enter Argentina, an exotic country with a generally positive national ‘brand’ image. The country had good supply of inexpensive wine made predominantly from a relatively obscure but not totally unknown grape variety, malbec, of which they now have the world’s largest plantings. Malbec was something new and exciting to most, and it also happens to be a grape that delivers the type of wine of greatest popularity these days: red, deeply coloured, richly fruity, full bodied, structured but not too tannic, with an affinity for the flavours of new oak.

So there you have it: good, cheap wine in the style-du-jour from a new and exotic country and grape. The perfect storm. Then throw in one more significant weather event, a world-wide economic meltdown that made ‘good value’ the zeitgeist on every drinker’s lips, and voilà Argentina moves from fringe to mainstream and Fuzion goes fission, exploding with that much more power.

Stardate 2011: Argentina stands at the proverbial crossroads, basking in the success of the last few years, yet also in the anxiety of how to stay on top and ahead of the game. There’s the imminent danger that the country will lose its luster, it’s exotic, spicy edge, and that consumers will grow bored with the same old cookie-cutter style, interchangeable $14.95 malbecs. For with all of this success comes the inevitable pressure on supply and the subsequent temptation to cut corners. Quality in some cases is certainly on the rise, but not uniformly; some wines are slipping in quality from over-stretched production and expanded vineyard sources. It’s reminiscent of the Yellow Tail phenomenon, where at one point demand was so high that grapes and wine were sourced from anywhere and everywhere and manufactured at Beaujolais Nouveau-like speed with the aim to simply meet orders.

Given the popularity of malbec today and looking back, it’s ironic that a significant part of the country’s original old vine malbec vineyards planted by Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were ripped out in the 60s and 70s. Nobody wanted the grape. It yielded less than the more productive bonarda (Argentina’s second most planted red grape), and much much less than the depressing, lowly criolla, both of which replaced malbec when the undemanding internal market was guzzling prodigious quantities.

El Flaco, experienced vineyard worker

El Flaco, experienced vineyard worker

It wasn’t until the 90s that producers started to replant malbec as demand began to rise. There are still plenty of 80-90+ year old malbec vines, the source of some of Argentina’s greatest wines, but there are a lot of young vines as well, not yet in the prime of their quality-oriented life. The good news is that many of the newest vineyards have been established in areas previously thought unsuitable for viticulture: at high elevations in the foothills of the Andes, high above the flat, hot and fertile alluvial plains to the east, and in cooler regions like Patagonia.

These vineyards will write the next chapter in Argentina’s wine history, and the sequel to the now-familiar malbec story. These new developments were the real impetus for my Argentine adventure: to find out whether the country has the sufficient depth to keep hold of the world’s attention, and enough quality wines to ensure that they aren’t relegated exclusively to the ‘value wine’ ghetto like several countries before them.

The report is cautiously optimistic. On the one hand there’s risk of increased homogenization of styles and flavours through the well-intended efforts of international consultants such as Frenchmen Michel Rolland, Italian Alberto Antonini and American Paul Hobbs, all of whom consult for numerous properties throughout Argentina. Terroir or not, international consultants have their own philosophy of quality that transcends the walls of a winery and the boundaries of a vineyard, and tend to guide the fruit from various sources into the same style box. The style may be very successful, but the point is that diversity of style is utterly lost at precisely the time when it should be the ultimate aim in a maturing wine world that demands ever-more variety in tastes, textures and flavours.

I found it surprising that so many talented and highly trained Argentine winemakers employed outside consultants to guide them in their production. Most cited the fact that they simply don’t have any experience with international wines – there are virtually no foreign wines on the market in Argentina – and that foreign consultants help them keep in touch with what’s happening around the world. But that outside influence is a double-edged sword: the espoused styles may be popular internationally, but they are not necessarily recognizable as Argentinean. Such wines therefore lose the value-added edge of uniqueness, of originality, of distinction. Imagine if the monks of Burgundy had hired Bordeaux negociants to make their wine in the 17th century – I wonder what Burgundy would be like today. It is telling, however, that the three flying winemakers cited above each have their own properties in Argentina, in addition to consulting contracts, proving beyond a doubt that they, too, believe in the terroir of Argentina.

The other notable observation is the relative immaturity of the wine industry. Yes, wine has been made in Argentina since Spanish missionaries brought vines with them over the Andes from Peru and Chile. But the industry, and the internal wine market, have been completely isolated from the world until only about a decade or so ago. Little wine made it in or out of the country, and the only people exposed to quality foreign wines were the ones who could afford to travel.

The market, both producers and consumers, are still in the growth and development stage, much like California was been in the 1970s and 1980s, or Australia or even Chile in the 90s. Much of the winemaking points to a lack of confidence, that is, a lack of confidence in their own terroirs and grapes. There is still a prevalent belief that fine, expensive wine is made by doubling up: more ripeness, more alcohol, more extract, more wood. So often the ‘icon’ wines offered had no special story to tell other than the outmoded tale of more is better. To be sure, it will take some time for the regions/vineyards of greatest distinction to become clear, where concentration does not come at the expense of balance and real complexity is born in the vineyard not the cooperage.

Argentina's Wine Regions

Argentina's Wine Regions

The positive, optimistic side of this story comes from the discovery, or at least confirmation, that Argentina is home to diverse terroirs capable of producing distinctive wine styles, if not trumped by heavy-handed winemaking. Here are a few observations, facts and figures on Argentina’s main growing regions :


Beginning with Argentina’s largest and most famous region, Mendoza (70% of national production), the most notable discovery is the tremendous amount of diversity within this huge area. In fact, to put “Mendoza” alone on a label is about as useful as putting “Bordeaux”, with no further specification. Commercially, obviously, the names are highly recognized and will get the door open. But once you’re in, you must have something more to say. And there is more to say, much more. Like Bordeaux, the wines of the geographically diverse region of Mendoza can taste vastly different. There is easily as great a difference between the wines of the Uco Valley (south western Mendoza) and Rivadavia (eastern Mendoza) as there is between Pomerol and Pauillac. To capitalize on this distinctiveness requires winemakers first of all to reflect it, then wineries and their representatives to teach the trade and public about them. Not an overnight task.

Considering that the soils in Mendoza all share a similar alluvial composition of organic matter-poor sand, pebbles and clay (in varying proportions), and that rainfall varies little throughout the region (this is high desert country, and all vineyards here are irrigated with run-off from the Andes), the principal differences in style are due to the myriad micro-climates created by elevation. For example, sub regions like Rivadavia and San Rafael to the south and east of Mendoza City sit around 600-700m above sea level, and the harvest often occurs a full month ahead of some of the cooler, higher elevation zones. The flavours of malbec tend to be more cooked/baked/compoted red fruit, with softer tannins and more immediate appeal.

Hail nets, Mendoza's greatest threat

Hail nets, Mendoza's greatest threat

Vineyards in the Uco Valley, on the other hand, at up to 1500m in the foothills of the Andes produce more fresh black fruit flavours and highlight the floral-violet side of malbec. Day-night temperature shift during the growing season can top 20ºC, dropping at night to the point at which sugar accumulation and acid degradation virtually stop. This allows for full flavour development while retaining much higher levels of natural acidity and firmer tannins, making the wines of the Uco Valley suitable for long ageing.

The most historic vineyards in the close proximity to the River Mendoza in sub-regions like Luján de Cuyo and Maipù lie somewhere between these two extremes in style. The next step for wines from Argentina, in particular malbec from Mendoza, will be to begin to label wines by specific origin (under the umbrella of Mendoza) and to articulate these unique points of difference.


Insignificant in terms of volume of production – about 2% of the country’s wine production – Patagonia will have much greater impact on the quality wine scene in the near future.  The two main regions, Neuqén and Río Negro, are a full 800kms to the south of Mendoza at 42ºS, about the southern latitude equivalent to Toronto. This is not quite the Patagonia of penguins and glaciers (it’s another 2400km from Neuquén to Tierra del Fuego), but temperatures are markedly cooler than most other parts of the country. Aside from grapes, cool climate-loving tender fruits are a vital crop (cherries, apples, peaches). In the past this was an area focused on bulk table wines, with over 100 wineries in Rio Negro in the early-mid 20thC. All but one, Humberto Canale, were forced out of business in the 1960s and 1970s as they were unable to compete with the higher-yielding, lower production cost vineyards of Mendoza. Patagonia was and remains an expensive area to grow grapes, but with demand for top quality wines surging, the future looks bright. Bodega del Fin del Mundo pioneered the redevelopment of the region in the late 1990s, and there are now 15 wineries.

Patagonian Sky

Patagonian Sky

Frost is an issue, but the principal viticulture hazard in Patagonia is the fierce, near constant wind that can shred young shoots and wreak havoc at flower set, keeping yields naturally low. Vineyards are planted with buffering rows of poplar and willow trees to break the wind. The principal grapes grown are sauvignon blanc (an unexpected surprise), pinot noir, merlot and malbec. Cooler conditions yield wines with high natural acidity, vibrant, fresh fruit flavours and marked minerality; these are among the most refined and elegant wines in Argentina.


Salta is Argentina’s most northerly growing region at 22ºS, and it is only extreme elevation that makes quality viticulture possible. The world’s highest vineyards are located here, up to nearly 3000m. Viticulture dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest, but expect to hear more about Salta and its principal growing region, the Cafayate Valley, in the near future. Salta’s most emblematic grape, the fragrant-floral white torrontés variety (muscat x criolla) has become Argentina’s flagship white wine. The greatest challenge here is to protect the grapes from intense sunlight. For this reason the ancient pergola vine training system called parral is often still employed, even in new vineyards. It allows for a canopy of foliage to protect the grape bunches that grow beneath. The extreme day-night temperature shift also permits full ripeness at reasonable sugar levels (and thus moderate alcohol).

La Rioja

La Rioja’s best-known growing area is the wide, very arid Famatima Valley, flanked on two sides by the Velazco and Famatima mountains ranges at about 1000m elevation. It’s warmer than Mendoza on average, and produced mostly bulk wine until 15 years ago when the government backed a large project to shift the region into quality production. Vines are trained on the parral system to protect grapes from the sun and deal with the extreme climate. Torrontés Riojano, the most aromatic of the torrontés sub-varieties, and Bonarda (recently DNA finger-printed to be charbonneau, an ancient Savoie variety which has nothing to do with the bonarda of northern Italy) are the two flagship grapes.

San Juan

With close to 50,000 ha of grapes, (85% of which is for wine), San Juan is Argentina’s second largest wine producing province. The Tulum Valley is the most important growing area, representing close to 90% of San Juan’s production. But the quest to find cooler terroirs is pushing new vineyard development higher up into zones like the Zonda & Ullum Valleys at 900m, the Pedernal Valley at 1,300m and more recently the Calingasta Valley at about 2000m where a large diurnal temperature shift produces grapes with high extract and flavour intensity. The difference between these areas is pronounced, as a tasting of single vineyard Syrahs from Tulum, Zonda and Pedernal amply proved. Syrah has been established as the most important grape in San Juan.

The future is in the hands of Argentina’s wine producers and promoters. The potential exists to become a serious player in the world with everything from great value, entry-level to truly ultra premium wines (let’s drop the ‘icon’ designation). I look forward to following the story.

Some Key figures on Argentina in the world:

–          5th largest wine producer (1.375m liters produced in 2010, 1,341 wineries)

–          7th largest wine exporter: 230.667 hectoliters in 2010

–          8th largest wine consumer: 8 gallons consumption per capita in 2009 (775,180.20 hectoliters in total)

–          9th in Cultivated Surface: 228,575 ha

Source: Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura

For more information on Argentina go to

Filed under: Featured Articles, News, ,

The Successful Collector – Christmas wines: Premium picks for the holiday – By Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Top choices for your favourite Christmas treats:

Dispensing with the usual (introductory) festive holiday platitudes, let’s not waste precious time and dive right into some superb gastronomic pairings for the upcoming Christmas season. Starting off with turkey, what to pair with this favourite, larger-sized of ornithological specimens? For most sommeliers, the nod usually goes to red Burgundy, New World Pinot Noir, or Cru Beaujolais (even Nouveau). However, for enthusiasts willing to think more outside of the box, then aged traditional-style Barolo or Barbaresco, not to mention Chianti Classico Riserva, can all make wondrous pairings, going well not only with turkey but also with stuffing, roasted potatoes, seasoned vegetables, and (even) the all-too-important cranberry sauce, the very latter of which typically requires a wine that can handle higher acidity and sweetness.

Backtracking to appetizers, nothing gets a Christmas get-together going, in my opinion, like a tall glass of champagne (house, vintage, or cuvée prestige) paired with a moderate helping of Atlantic smoked salmon or oysters. And for more western ocean-goers, Pacific salmon, while definitely carrying more of a ‘wild’ flavour component, can also be excellent. Or for those who simply prefer a little still wine to go with their starters, top suggestions also include white Rhône or Bordeaux, Grand Cru Chablis, Riesling Kabinett, or Austrian Grüner Veltliner. And if smoked salmon isn’t enough, a couple of walnuts or roasted chestnuts with tawny port or Sauternes (even claret) can go a long way to preparing the palate for a beautiful, bountiful Christmas feast.

Ending off with desserts, a festive Christmas evening (hopefully with only one or two unwelcome family members) is never complete without a suitable helping of homemade pudding and/or chocolate cake, traditionally paired with nothing less than aged vintage port or Banyuls. And if you still have an appetite, nothing beats a little ginger- or shortbread with a modest helping of Niagara (or Okanagan) icewine, German Beerenauslese, or high-end Tokaji. Alternatively, if fine cheeses are more to your liking, then an equally civilized way to end off the evening would be a platter of roquefort and brie with a healthy dose of Madeira, Rutherglen Muscat, or Beaumes de Venise. Merry Christmas, everyone!

A few gems for collectors:

White Wine:
Remoissenet Père & Fils 2008 Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Morgeot, Burgundy

Red Wines:

Beringer 2005 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 2007, Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC, Rhône, France

Antinori 2006 Badia a Passignano, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy

Beronia 2001 Gran Reserva, Rioja DOCa, Spain

Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2003, Pauillac AOC, Bordeaux, France

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Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO – December 2010 by Steve Thurlow

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 taste 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.

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

I have spent many hours over the last couple of weeks in LCBO stores checking that we have the current vintage in our system. Looking on the shelves is the only way to tell what is the current vintage since the LCBO does not track this important variable. Many wines this month left the list because the new vintage was not as good as the last and several joined since there was a noticeable improvement. For example the 2010 vintage of Errazuriz Estate Sauvignon Blanc is much improved as is the 2008 vintage of Graffigna Centenario Shiraz Reserva.

Errazuriz Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010  Graffigna Centenario Shiraz Reserve 2008

These wines have recently been tasted and join the Top 50: Navarro Correas Alegoria Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva (V) 2007, is an elegant flavourful and well balanced cabernet from Argentina with soft tannin and very good length. Pasqua Villa Borghetti Passimento Rosso 2008, is a ripasso style wine from the Veneto region, soft fruity and very drinkable.  Passion Of Argentina Malbec 2009 is a very inexpensive yet correct malbec from Argentina; why pay more? And finally the Cavallina Grillo Pinot Grigio 2009 is a good Italian food white better than many that are dollars more. 

Navarro Correas Alegoria Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva (V) 2007  Pasqua Villa Borghetti Passimento Rosso 2008 Passion Of Argentina Malbec 2009 Cavallina Grillo Pinot Grigio 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 Caliterra Bio Sur Reserva Especial Carmenere 2008 joined the Top 50 this month. It is a good attempt at taming some of the extremes of carmenere while allowing its genuineness to be enjoyed.

Caliterra Bio Sur Reserva Especial Carmenere 2008

Bottom Shelf Values
During my time in LCBO stores I noticed three Top 50 wines that seem to be always on the bottom shelf where they are unlikely to be an impulse buy. Can I suggest you bend down and try these three whites. They are all very inexpensive would be great party wines and all are much better than you would expect: Casal Thaulero Pinot Grigio Osco 2009Rocca Ventosa Trebbiano 2009 and Hardys Stamp Series Riesling/Gewurztraminer 2009

Casal Thaulero Pinot Grigio Osco 2009 Rocca Ventosa Trebbiano 2009 Hardys Stamp Series Riesling/Gewurztraminer 2009

Best Value Essentials
Vintages Essentials comprise 93 wines that are always available from Vintages since they are permanent listings. Four of them this month feature in the Top 50.  Two make it there as a result of the current LTO, so you have until Jan 2, 2011 to benefit from reduced prices on these two.  Quinta do Crasto Vinho Tinto 2008 is a beautiful dry red wine from the port region of Portugal and Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2009 is an excellent red from South Africa which is incidentally is making some great Syrah/Shiraz.
Crasto Vinho Tinto (V) 2008 Porcupine Ridge Syrah (V) 2009

The other two are such great value that Vintages seems to having trouble keeping them in stock since I often see empty shelves. E.Guigal has been famous for Rhone wines for decades making some of the finest wines from that area. The E.Guigal 2006 Cotes-du-Rhone is extremely good value.  Bodegas Castano Hecula Monastrell 2008 is from the south west of Spain made from monastrell (a.k.a. mourvedre). It is a well structured fruity wine with elegant aromas and flavours.

 E. Guigal Cotes Du Rhone (V) 2006 Bodegas Castaño Hécula Monastrell 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.

Holiday Gift Ideas
The average price of the Top 50 wines is $10.38. Sometimes one is looking for something a little more special as a gift. I would like to suggest two wines in the LCBO part of the store that, though they cost more than 3 times the Top 50 average, are both very good and would make an excellent gift. I would be delighted to get either of these from Santa, if anyone has influence with the great gift giver: Wolf Blass Grey Label 2007 Shiraz from McLaren Vale is a great example of Shiraz from that region and the Masi 2006 Amarone Costasera is a great Amarone for a very good price.

Wolf Blass Grey Label Shiraz 2007 Masi Costasera Amarone 2006

Best wishes to you all for the Holiday Season. The Top 50 changes all the time, so remember to check before shopping. I will be back in the New Year with more news on value arrivals to Essentials and the LCBO.

Steve Thurlow

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , ,

Happy Birthday to Us – Two Years Today!

It’s been two years since we launched way back on Dec 10th, 2008.

WineAlign has been an exciting project and we continue to grow, rapidly.  In fact, only two days ago we got our 13,000th registered user.   For the last year we’ve been growing at an average rate of 7% per month.   The number of unique visitors to our site is up a whopping 235% over the same period last year.

Visitor Growth per Month

Visitor Growth per Month

Some interesting statistics at the two year mark:
Registered Users: 13,078
WineAlign Logins:  116,274
Bottles in ‘our’ cellar:  11,445
Users from Ontario: 95%
In the last 30 days we have had over 30,000 different people visit our site.

Google Analytics - last 30 days

Google Analytics: 9Nov2010 - 9Dec2010

In the last year we continued to improve the quality of the user experience.   We underwent an independent usability study and implemented the majority of the suggestions.   We’ve added Twitter and Facebook and the ability to build and share wine lists.  In 2010 we were also honoured to be recognized as one of the 50 best designed websites in Canada.  We also added several more top critics to our roster with John Szabo and Steve Thurlow becoming team members and regular contributors.

As always, we continue to be amazed at the passion our users have for wine and for WineAlign.   Acting on your suggestions and ensuring that WineAlign meets your needs is our highest priority.   In 2011 you’ll see a push into mobile technology, an enhanced ability to find wines not at the LCBO and our expansion into another province or two.

In closing I want to thank our users, critics, bloggers, developers and advertisers for helping to make WineAlign a success.

Tonight I’m going to celebrate with a glass (who am I fooling… a bottle) of great wine!

Bryan McCaw


Bryan McCaw, President

UnCork Solutions Inc.


Filed under: Events, News, , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages December 11th Release – California Bubbles and Big Reds

California’s Best Bubbles, California Big Reds,  B.C. is Back,  Argentina Over and Under Delivers, Coriole of Australia, Remoissenet of Burgundy, Cliff Lede Sauvignon.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The only release this month at Vintages is a whopper, the last re-fueling with expensive and excellent quality wines before the Christmas onslaught. The roll call of 90 pointers is endless – too many intriguing wines to mention.  Enjoy the ho-ho-ho while it lasts. I have already seen the list of what’s to come in January to re-populate the denuded shelves and the vast majority of the wines are under $20. We will be back to ho-hum.

Uncorking with sparkling wine, I am a bit surprised there is not a larger tranche of Champagne on this release in prep for New Year’s Eve.  There are a few very good “champers”, but surely this would be the moment to infuse a couple of dozen.  That said, there are some very good non-Champagnes on the list, including the A-list of California sparklers.  I must state a bias that California sparkling wine has historically bored me, partially because the wines tend to sit a little heavier on the palate than those from cooler climates, and partially because most are not very original wines. They are New World wines made by the sparkling giants of Europe like Moet, Mumm, Roederer and Freixnet (all represented on this release) who jumped aboard the California gravy train during the 90s, whether the climate made sense for bubbly or not.  If California were really that great a terroir for sparkling wine we would have seen many more small, obsessive entrepreneurial types like S. Anderson in the game early on.  But there is something to be said for experience and clout because the big Euro-owned brands are actually showing well albeit in a softer style. The best is ROEDERER ESTATE 2002 L’ERMITAGE ($49.95) from the Anderson Valley Estate, a top blend – or tête de cuvée as they are called in France – made only in certain vintages. It has real class to go along with its complexity and weight, and at $50 it comes in at somewhere near the floor price of French Champagne. I am also a fan of the GLORIA FERRER SONOMA BRUT($23.95), which provides very good value in a toastier, nuttier, full flavoured style.

Roederer Estate L'ermitage 2002 Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut

Mount Eden Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006This release is also heavy on big, iconic California reds, with the likes of Dunn, Grigich Hills and Beringer Private Reserve.  All three are big names from the 1980s – the heady heyday when California led the New World charge to respectability. Back then I would have fallen all over myself to land these wines, but now that they are pushing $100 or more, I am less enthusiastic. Not to say they are not excellent, but they are not that much more excellent than some of the less expensive wines. If you want to taste something their equal, with an equal amount of story, at half the price, look no further than MOUNT EDEN ESTATE 2006 CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($52.95) from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Because the Santa Cruz region is not “north coast” its wines have never fetched the same price or notoriety, but Mount Eden was a pioneer in this rugged region of redwoods and rocks, and there is something in this tough cabernet that reflects that origin to a tee.  Mount Eden, by the way, is known as California’s original boutique winery, founded in 1945 by iconoclast Martin Ray.  The property has passed into other hands, but since 1981 winemaker Jeffrey Patterson has maintained a focus on vineyard-driven wines, many from the shale-soiled site high in the hills.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2007The march of the big reds continues from British Columbia. My column in the current (December) issue of Toronto Life talks about the recent influx of some top wines from B.C.  Notice I didn’t say tidal wave, but Vintages has perked up recently and showcased more good B.C. reds than previously. That movement is also reflected in the Consignment sector with the formation of a new Toronto-based agency called Terroir that is specializing in over a dozen tiny wineries from the Okanagan and coastal B.C.  (I plan to taste and report on these in January, for now check out Among established agencies Lifford is leading the way with good selections of Blue Mountain, Painted Rock, JoieFarm and Laughing Stock.  On the Dec 11 release, LAUGHING STOCK 2007 PORTFOLIO ($55) is a hefty, ripe Bordeaux blend by David and Cynthia Ems. The Vancouver stock broker (Laughing Stock, get it)  and his wife have set up shop on the Naramata Bench, but draw fruit for their big reds from the south. They also make one of B.C.s best chardonnays.  By the way, Ron Cannan, the MP for Kelowna-Lake Country in B.C. wine country, is putting forward a motion to kill Canada’s archaic, embarrassing inter-provincial wine taxation and shipping regulations. Might the end be in sight?  Make some noise about it where you can.

Trapiche Fausto Orellana De Escobar Single Vineyard Malbec 2007The next big red for your consideration is a bit of a surprise. The house of Trapiche in Argentina does not rush to the forefront of conversation about the latest and greatest from Mendoza. I was initially surprised by the very strong performance of  TRAPICHE 2007 FAUSTO ORELLANA DE ESCOBAR SINGLE VINEYARD MALBEC ($39.95) grown high in the Uco Valley. With over 1000 hectares of its own vineyard and countless grower contracts and product lines Trapiche is a huge operation. But when I stopped to recall the quality and value from Trapiche’s basic varietals and their Astica line uncovered during LCBO tastings this summer, this more expensive but very fair value red made sense. I wish I could say that of all Argentine wines these days. There are some on this release and previous releases that disappoint, largely due to lack of balance. Argentina seems awash in cheap malbec, and even some more expensive malbecs, that offer impressively deep colour and gobs of sweet fruit but very little joy thanks to the blunting effect of high alcohol and dusty tannin. Part of the issue may be releasing these wines too soon, and/or simply cranking them out to feed world demand; but Argentina faces the same challenge of sameness and consumer boredom that Australia has been suffering through of late.

And yes there are some boring Aussie’s on this release too. Then again there is a killer value from a small winery called Coriole in McLaren Vale that has been over-delivering for years. CORIOLE 2007 REDSTONE SHIRAZ ($17.95) proves that abundant rich, sweet fruit in itself is not Australia’s problem. This one is packed, and there is some alcohol as well.  But that fruit is just so clear and pure, and the balance of the wine is so seductive!  What is the secret?  Probably a combination of old vines and considerable winemaking experience. The first vineyards were planted after World War One, and the Lloyd clan has made wine here since 1970.

 Coriole Redstone Shiraz 2007

Remoissenet Père & Fils Chassagne Montrachet Morgeot 1er Cru 2008And now to white wines. Keen-eyed Burgundy fans may have noticed a recent influx of wines from Remoissenet, some even wearing a new label.  The reason is close to home.  The venerable house founded in 1877 had become famous – or infamous – as a repository and merchant of old wines that had not kept up with the improvements of the recent generation. Upon the retirement of Roland Remoissenet it was purchased in 2005 by a North American group that includes Todd Halpern, of Halpern enterprises in Toronto. Ex-Jadot winemaker Bérnard Repolt was brought in to begin steering the ship in a new direction, and the results are now showing. If there is one bottle in this release I would be most thrilled to find under my tree it is the REMOISSENET PÈRE & FILS 2008 CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET MORGEOT 1ER CRU ($79.95), as fine as chardonnay as I have tasted all year – a year flush with great chardonnays by the way.  This has every nuance I would expect from one of the world’s very best chardonnay sites, and there is incredible elegance and depth to boot. Outstanding!

Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc 2009Let’s end on another Canadian connection, with the story alighting back on California, sparkling wine and Halpern Enterprises. Edmonton-born, Bordeaux-loving businessman Cliff Lede moved to Napa and opened his own winery on the former premises of S. Anderson (one of the few, small California sparkling wine houses) in 2005.  His lofty goal was to immediately join the ranks of the top Bordeaux-inspired Napa reds, which he has done successfully with an elegant cabernet called Poetry that is also on this release at $126.95. But I was more intrigued by the winemaking and success of his white wine.  CLIFF LEDE 2009 SAUVIGNON BLANC ($29.95) made, again, in a Bordeaux style  – sort of.  There is not obvious oak here, nor any semillon component. It is a slyly rich and nuanced through the use of partial barrel fermentation and the inclusion of the sauvignon musqué clone.  It’s a lovely holiday white that might add some real class to a Christmas or New Year’s dinner.  And yes, Cliff Lede is represented in Ontario by Halpern Enterprises.

So that’s a peak at this huge release. I did not have the chance to taste through it in its entirety due to shifting travel and tasting dates in November. But my colleague John Szabo has it covered, and we are working two of Toronto’s best, brightest and younger palates into the rotation this month. Julian Hitner was a star taster and student in my George Brown sommelier course a couple of years ago, and is now diligently tasting in Vintages lab every release.  Sara d’Amato is as well. She has earned great reputation as a sommelier and taster in Toronto over the past decade.  I was so impressed with her palate and poise and prose a few years ago that I invited her to judge at the Canadian Wine Awards, for which she may have never forgiven me.

Before New Years I plan one more blog wrapping up the fabulous Year of Wine 2010, with some of my favourites and the trends that were and are.  Wishing you great wine and great memories this season!

See all my reviews for the December 11th release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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The Successful Collector – Gigondas: great wines from the Southern Rhône – By Julian Hitner

Gigondas – An appellation we should all get to know better:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When you think of all the famous appellations of the Rhône Valley, the top three that probably come to mind are Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. From the first two hail some of the finest Syrahs in the world (though Côte-Rôtie will often contain a little Viognier); from the very latter come some of the best Grenache-based wines on the planet. However, if high quality and great value is what you’re after, than the appellation of Gigondas is seriously worth exploring, despite the fact that not all three other types of wine cost (figuratively) an arm and a leg!


Gigondas Region

In terms of location, Gigondas AOC (created in 1971) can be found in the Southern Rhône, located northeast from the long-coveted appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and situated next to the exquisite Dentelles de Montmirail. With around 1,250 hectares under vine and only red wine produced, quality is decisively high – maximum yields are only 36 hectolitres per hectare. For the most part, Grenache dominates the blends, commonly paired up with Syrah and Mourvèdre.

E. Guigal Gigondas 2006

E. Guigal Gigondas 2006

Indeed, the finest examples of Gigondas seem to have a lot in common with their counterparts in Châteauneuf: powerfully built, full-bodied, and unceasingly complex. Common features tend to be dark leathery fruit (sometimes baked), with Provencal herbs, black raspberries, roasted meat, kirsch, tar, and spice.

With regards to cellaring potential, the best wines of Gigondas can be aged for well over a decade, provided they are stored in the right conditions; while many wines of notable quality can be easily kept for up to six years or more. What’s more, recent vintages have been excellent, so there are certainly lots of different wines to chose from.

Depending on personal preference, Gigondas should almost always be decanted (especially young vintages), if for no other reason than to shake loose those sometimes-elusive aromatics and flavours. Another personal choice: temperature. For Gigondas, like other fine Rhônes, between sixteen and eighteen degrees Celsius is probably your best bet, though the last thing you’ll want to do is drink it too warm – this will accentuate the alcohol, and Gigondas isn’t shy when it comes to surpassing 14.5%. What to serve with it? Suffice it say, there are plenty of options, from wild game and braised beef to aged cheese and fresh berries. Like all other things in the world of wine, the choices are endless.

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The Autumn of Old Wines Part 3 of 3 – by John Szabo

The Autumn of Old Wines Part Three:

A Century of Port: A Tasting of 12 Vintages Moderated by Rupert Symington

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Vintage port is one of the world’s most long living wines, protected by high alcohol, sugar and tannins. The point didn’t need to be proved again, so it was out of sheer curiosity and excitement that I attended a tasting of ports back to 1927 moderated by Rupert Symington of the Symington Family-owned group of Port Houses including Taylor, Croft, Graham and Delaforce.

Rupert is one of five Symington family members currently in the port business; they’ve been in Portugal since 1882, so Rupert grew up in the port trade. He shared a few snippets of the past, present and future of port as we tasted our way through this extraordinary lineup of wines in a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Here are a few of Symington’s observations:

Rupert Symington

Rupert Symington

On declaring vintage ports: “it became a convention of the merchant shippers. They would buy wines in the Douro valley, bring them down to Vila Nova de Gaia for ageing and would assess them over time. Every so often they would come across some lots for which they could say “this wine is a wine that can stand the test of time, that can last 30-40 years or more, and it was kept apart from the rest. Declarations were made totally independently.”

On ageing: “Ageing port became common with the widespread use of cylindrical bottles that could be laid down. Previous to this, with the odd shaped bulbous bottles available that couldn’t lay down, the corks would eventually dry out and fall in. Early vintage port was not bottled in Portugal. That came much later in the 1960s and after, with one exception, the 1945, which was bottled in sherry bottles in Portugal. The UK was in no position to bottle anything in 1945.”

On buying old vintage port: “There is lots of bottle variation in older vintage port, depending on who bottled in [i.e. which English merchant]. Potential bacterial spoilage was not monitored in the early years, so each wine can be great or finished. Old vintage port is a bit of a lottery.”

On the past: “Port was a rudimentary industry. Farmers made wine by treading grapes in shallow stone troughs; the brandy for fortification was brought up to the Douro by mules. There was no electricity, maybe oil lamps perhaps, right up until fairly recently. Wine was transported in pipes down to Vila Nova de Gaia by flat-bottomed boats, barcos rabelos. The last of these sailed the Douro in the 1920s. Then the train arrived and drew an end to that chapter. The train was nicknamed the Paciencia (Patience), as it was never on time. A gentleman was shocked to see the train arrive one minute early one day. He asked the conductor how this could be. The conductor replied, “no sir, that’s yesterday’s train”.

Ports Decanting

Ports Decanting

On the current industry: “Now the Port trade has shrunk in value if not volume. A company that could support 100 employees in the early years can employ about 4-5 employees today. Technology like robotic treading, and truckers transporting wine down to Oporto have reduced the number of jobs available. But the Douro farmer can’t be replaced.”

On drinking port: “20 years in bottle does iron out many of the rough edges. And a splash of younger wine to season the glass flatters old vintage port.”

An unlikely saviour for the port industry: “The Port trade was dealt a body blow by WWII. That period also brought changing tastes, and the social class system of which vintage port was a symbol broke down. There were fewer and fewer consumers of port. By the mid-50s, the port trade was on its knees. But then the French started drinking port with a passion. They began to buy absurd quantities of young tawny and ruby port. The Symington family rebuilt their business with the funds that flowed in from the French.”

The Tasting (prices indicated are the approximate auction prices fro which these wines were acquired):

1927 Croft Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

Croft is one of the oldest port shippers, founded in 1672, now owned by Taylor. The Croft ’27 was one of the legendary vintages of the 20th Century, launched right into the Wall Street crash. Shipped in cask to London. The colour is pale amber garnet. The wine seems to be fading aromatically in the glass, yet it’s still fiery on the palate with a pure silken texture, almost spirity. Flavours are very savoury, umami-laden, with super spicy, bitter chocolate, dried herbs, “Spanish root” and menthol among dozens of others. Intense and long on the palate with cinnamon bark, dried licorice, plum pudding, dried fig. Really quite extraordinary. Loving this. $1100. Tasted November 2010.

1934 Sandeman Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

Sandeman was founded by a young Scotsman, who became a true legend of the port trade. It has always been one of the most powerful port houses, and the largest shipper by far in the 19th century, now owned by Sogrape. In a moment of lucid foresight in the late 19th century, Sandeman purchased large stocks of port from Dona Antonia Ferreira, who had smartly squirreled away wines before phylloxera devastated the region’s vineyards and brought production to a screeching halt. As a result, Sandeman was one of the only houses to have any significant stocks to sell during the crisis, from which they benefitted greatly. The 1934 was not quite as legendary as the 1935. Sadly our bottle is TCA tainted, but it’s nonetheless a rich, intense, concentrated port. $750. Tasted November 2010.

1935 Sandeman Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

1935 was pretty much universally declared by port shippers. The Sandeman’s ’35 has much more colour than the ’34, which even still shows a red tinge amongst the amber/terra cotta tones.  The nose is unbelievably fresh and even fruity, alongside light caramel and old wood spice. The palate really steals the show, however: outstandingly rich, concentrated, deeply fruity, extremely long, endless really. This is better than top notch. $1000. Tasted November 2010.

1948 Graham Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

Graham’s was founded around 1820. Placing the 1948 in history, consider that it was shipped into a pretty grim post WWII English market. Ironically it is considered one of the greatest Grahams ever produced made by Max Graham himself. The appearance is pale amber red, while the nose is intense, highly spicy, minty. The palate is lighter and less fiery than the older wines. A little lighter, more delicate, very refined style overall; yet still terrific length. Tasted November 2010.

1955 Taylor Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

“The ’55 needs no introduction” says Rupert Symington, “a phenomenal vintage, with perfect conditions during the growing season”. It was also the period during which the first real signs of recovery after the war were felt. A large percentage of fruit for this wine came from the famed Vargellas Estate. Whoa! What a beautiful blend of mature aromas and still youthful fruit. This is an absolutely outstanding port:, full, firm, fiery, incredibly intense. Quite sweet for a Taylor, but perfectly balanced. Long, long, long finish. Graceful and still very lively. I am grateful to taste this. Tasted November 2010.

1963 Delaforce Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

The 1963 was made by John Delaforce; the company is owned today by Royal Oporto. Delaforce has always been know for its earthy style, and here there are interesting, funky, spicy, earthy, slightly maderized aromas to be sure. Still lively and sweet on the palate, quite spiritous, fiery, savoury, with some toasted sourdough bread. One of my least preferred on the day, but intriguing nonetheless. Tasted November 2010.

1966 Croft Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

The 1966 Croft offers sweet, cherries in eau-de-vie and dark chocolate aromas, quite youthful and familiar, a feminine, commercial style, very clean. It’s noticeably sweeter than the most of the others in this tasting, not unusual for later vintages of Croft, with lots of spirit flavour still present. The palate delivers more chocolate covered cherries flavours on the long finish. All in all, less complex and compelling than others on the table, but certainly widely appealing. Tasted November 2010.

1970 Graham Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

This is the first wine that Symington made at Grahams, still considered one of the greatest wines ever made under the Graham label along with the ‘48. An historical anomaly, the 1970 wasn’t supposed to be such an intense wine. It was a sort of accidental late harvest that yielded this most intense example. Still very deep red-garnet. Stunning, incredibly powerful. Monument to the test of time. A dense, rich, intense ’70, with youthful colour and youthful aromas/flavours.  A bloody good wine. Tasted November 2010.

1977 Warre Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

The year 1977 was a defining moment for the port industry in North America. A young James Suckling writing for the nascent Wine Spectator Magazine went mad over the 1977s, which as a result became the reference vintage of the 1970s. They were the first of the ‘newer’ style vintage ports, made using such novelties as autovinificators and temperature control. The colour has dropped out of many 1977s, like this wine, but colour isn’t everything. It was a very hot vintage, yielding typical dried wild Mediterranean herbs, roasted fruit and dark chocolate flavours. This has a long, long finish. Great density, length. Drinking beautifully now, though no particular rush either.  Tasted November 2010.

1983 Cockburn Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

Cockburn was bought by Allied Domecq, which was taken over in turn by Pernod Ricard, then Beam, before it was purchased by the Symington family. This has a very youthful appearance. Quite funky, with some acetone (as well as a touch of TCA in this sample). In any case, it’s earthy, concentrated, tannic, a bit pinched on the finish, with remarkably bright acidity. Certainly intensely packed, even slightly bitter. This still needs many more years to be sure, like many of the notoriously age worthy ’83s. Tasted November 2010.

1994 Dow Vintage Port Douro Valley, Portugal

Dow makes a typically a drier style of port, as evinced here. The first truly modern rendition of port here in 1994, when perfectly ripened grapes grown in individual, monovarietal vineyard blocks (as opposed to the traditional, multivarietal field blends) were harvested under ideal conditions. This is ripe and clean in a decidedly modern style, beautifully fruity, richly concentrated, finely balanced. A top example to be sure. Also noticeable is the high quality spirit used for fortification: refined, elegant but powerful, though less fiery than that used in the older wines it seems. Endless finish. An outstanding wine. The initial aggressiveness of young vintage port has been shed, but I’d still wait at least 10 years before revisiting this. Tasted November 2010.

The Autumn of Old Wines – Part 1 of 3

The Autumn of Old Wines – Part 2 of 3

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008