Find the right wine at the right price, right now.

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 2nd – Solid Burgundies, South Africa & Comfy Old World Reds

David LawrasonThis will be a slightly abbreviated blog sandwiched among events at the annual Vancouver Playhouse Festival.  There are 176 wineries here this week, pouring 1,650 wines, over seven days for 25,000 people.  Aside from the main trade and public tastings there  are 62 seminars, lunch time grazes and dinner events. The scale of this undertaking – all by volunteers – is breathtaking. I have come to Vancouver often over the years, and during Playhouse I always hear the lament – why can’t Ontario do this?  It’s a long story, but I have stopped asking the question. It is a great  Canadian event that has earned a unique stature for the way it brings winery principals and consumers together in an arena of mutual respect and self-education. I don’t ever recall hearing a cynical word about this festival.  It won’t duplicated and it is accessible to anyone in Ontario who cares about wine. Next year book a week’s holiday and come on out.
Domaine Gille Côtes De Nuits Villages 2008
Burgundy Blooms

Back home wine lovers have a grand opportunity to buy some very fine, generally well chosen white and red Burgundies on April 2.  The over quality level is excellent, with several wines over 90 points, which is where Burgundy should always be when it’s about $40 or more.  The real rarity is finding exciting Burgundy for less, and I am pleased to recommend DOMAINE GILLE 2008 CÔTES DE NUITS-VILLAGES, $24.95, a pinot noir with surprising lift and precision and just a bit of edge. I expect this element of unexpected complexity in Burgundy, and this really delivers. I also enjoy gentler, fruitier pinot, although I might look more to New Zealand for this style, or perhaps California.  But I also found it in some of the first Burgundies from the very ripe 2009 vintage that I encountered at Vintages special event at the Art Gallery of Ontario earlier this month.  There will always be debate as to whether the 2009s are classic or New World in style. I like them both.

South Africa’s Other Wines

South Africa has been stuck in a rut in Ontario, sending us wave after wave of cheap red cabs, merlots, shiraz and sauvignons. Some actually have surprising depth and complexity for the money, and when well made they are very good buys. But often they are too raw and funky.  Meantime, Cape winemakers have been hard at work upping their game by creating some excellent, more refined cab-merlot blends. This release features a dandy called VILAFONTÉ 2006 SERIES M from Paarl, $39.95, a delicious, elegant collaboration by ex-Napa winemaker Zelma Long and Warwick Estate’s Mike Ratcliffe.  But to me this kind of wine is not really the soul of South Africa.  That can be found by going off the cabernet axis and off the beaten track into areas farther from the Paarl-Stellenbosch into regions like Swartland, and into grape compositions/blends involving non-irrigated bush vine-grown varieties like carignan, shiraz, mourvedre and others. There are two notable examples on this release, although one called Serenity I found to be a bit too oxidative.  I was much more enthused by a cheaper blend THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE 2007 BLACK ROCK RED from Swartland, a very good buy at $18.95. If you are fan of Spain’s Priorat and Montsant wines you will notice a tense similarity. By the way, I was very disappointed by three separate bottles of overly mature, tired Lammerschoek 2008 Roulette Blanc; a wine I once loved and purchased by the case in a previous vintage. I suspect some problem in the shipping or handling of this wine.

Vilafonté Series M 2006 The Winery Of Good Hope Black Rock Red 2007
Chateau Musar 2002

Marvellous Musar

One often hears how a particular wine, like a song, will forever evoke a specific memory of a time and place.  I had been fan of Chateau Musar for a long time, doing the occasional vertical tasting of the Middle East’s most famous wine; and amazed at the stoicism of Serge Hochar’s effort to keep every vintage going in the war-torn Bekka Valley of Lebanon. But I had never sat down over dinner with Musar until last summer in Windsor, Ontario at a Lebanese restaurant called Mazaar.  Maybe the name was too close, but the atmosphere, cuisine and passion of the restaurateur was in amazing synch with gregarious, spicy character of the mature Musar we had that night, 1979 I think.  So here is your chance to sample one of the most interesting wines of the Old World, 109413 CHATEAU MUSAR 2002. I can understand reticence to pay $50 without knowing this wine; but now you know.

Comfy Italian Bargains

In very much the same spirit I found two Italian reds on this release that are built for comfort, not speed, and they seem to capture the same ambiance of Musar.  One is LE RAGOSE 2006 RIPASSO VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO SUPERIORE, $18.95, a wine from a great Veneto vintage that is drinking beautifully. Upon reflecting I realized that years ago I had purchased several bottles of Le Ragose, and that it aged very well.  At under $20 it is a great buy, especially in a world of often disappointing ripassos. The other, RIVERA CAPPELLACCIO 2005 RISERVA AGLIANICO, hails from the Castel del Monte appellation of Puglia region of southern Italy. It is also $18.95, and it too has a fine, mature softness and richness; surprisingly so for the aglianico grape that is famous for its sinewy tannin.

Le Ragose Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2006 Rivera Cappellaccio Riserva Aglianico 2005
Freestone Ovation Chardonnay 2007Very Cool Sonoma Chardonnay
It may seem like heresy to be highlighting a California chardonnay with so many good white Burgundies on the April 2nd docket.  And excuse me for taking off on Ontario’s seriously cool chardonnay theme. But I was really taken by FREESTONE VINEYARDS 2007 OVATION CHARDONNAY from the Sonoma Coast, $39.95.  The region has only been seriously and more commercially planted in the last decade, with Joseph Phelps’s Freestone being one of the most successful.  Maybe the biodymanic farming of the site is another the reason the wine is so good. Or perhaps the gravity flow winery. Or the talents of winemaker Theresa Heridia. Whatever the case, if you are chardonnay fan too, don’t miss this.

Read my reviews on over 100 other wines on this release here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 2nd, 2011: Burgundy and South Africa

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In this article: Burgundy Report: vintages 2007-2008-2009; what, for the love of Burgundy, is the difference between a cru, a lieu-dit and a climat? Measuring the label font sizes on a bottle of Burgundy;  90+ point Burgundies from The LCBO and a smattering of recommended private consignment wines;  April 2nd’s Top Ten Smart Buys and a trio of Solid South Africans.

Burgundy WineThe Burgundians are smiling. While the news is not universally positive, the sales of Burgundy wines are finally looking up after the previous gloomy year of double-digit declines in all of the major markets. The health of the Burgundian wine industry is as dependent on exports as it is on sunshine: 1 out of every 2 bottles is exported to one of 150 countries. Of course, global economic recession and unfavorable currency exchanges contributed to the decline in sales; Burgundy is most definitely positioned in the upper tier segment of wine prices, and particularly sensitive as such to dips in purchasing power. Canada has done its part in the recovery, with 2010 growing by nearly 30% by value over 2009.

Yet the statistics are somewhat misleading. In reality, at the top end, there was no decline. The best wines of Burgundy are as recession proof as a hand-made Bugatti sport car: the quantity produced is so tiny that there’ll always be a buyer around. Fluctuations in sales affect the only the bottom tier, mainly the regional appellations and the most branded of all of Burgundy’s regions, basic Chablis. All of the big name domaines, with wines from the most famous villages and vineyards, operate on an allocation basis, invariably unable to supply the quantities required by all of their importers/distributers. And demand looks set to continue to rise. As Yang Lu, sommelier at the Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai, recently pointed out in a press release from the Burgundy Wine Board: “In China, the rarer something is, the more we want it. Watch out for the moment that the people currently buying Château Lafite discover that the production of Romanée-Conti is much smaller…. Even if half of them want to start drinking it the market will go crazy”. Frightening thought.

Ultra rare cult wines aside, there’s really never been a better time to get into Burgundy. According to François Labet, owner of the Château de la Tour at the Clos-Vougeot, the average quality in Burgundy has never been higher, and I’d agree. This past week a tasting of Burgundy in Toronto featuring 35 producers and their wines from the last three vintages (2007-2008-2009) was astonishingly consistent. Out of several dozen wines tasted there were no truly poor wines, only good, very good and excellent ones in many cases.

Track down a bottle of any of the following (all represented in Ontario, though either in consignment or private order, pricing unconfirmed) to see what I mean:
2009 Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaillons Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils (Rouge et Blanc)
2009 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, Domaines des Malandes (Tastevin Selections)
2006 Chalis Grand Cru Preuses, Domaine Marcel Servin (Groupe Soleil)
2006 Nuits-Saint-George 1er Cru Les Cailles, Maison Gilles (United Stars, )
2007 Pommard 1er Cru Les Chaponnières, Domaine Parent (Tastevin Selections)
2008 Mercurey 1er Cru Clos Tonnerre, Domaine Michel Juillot (The Case for Wine)
2007 Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru Clos du Val, Domaine Michel Prunier et Fils (Le Sommelier)
François LabetWhy are things looking up for Burgundy? Several reasons. “Burgundians have always been the best farmers in the world”, says Labet, “but they haven’t always been the best winemakers”. The vineyards of the Côte d’Or have been meticulously farmed for over a thousand years, but much excellent fruit was miss-used in the winery. That’s changing. Despite high demand and a small surface area, Burgundians have had to tidy up their winemaking practices to compete nationally and internationally, or give up winemaking and just sell their grapes to the growing number of micro negociants, often talented, young winemakers looking to break in to Burgundy but who simply can’t afford the nearly impossible prices for vineyard land.

Better wine making was evident across the board at the tasting, especially from the challenging 2007 and 2008 vintages. In the past, tough years would result in poor wines that still demanded high prices, creating the general impression that Burgundy is a minefield of sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible, but always-expensive wines. Consistency was the bane of the consumer, and knowing the producer, not just the reputation of the appellation, village or vineyard, was the only way to guarantee a good bottle. But given the hopelessly fractured landscape with some 100 different appellations in the tiny Côte d’Or alone (the famous 60km strip of east-south-east facing slopes from Dijon to Chagny further divided into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune), 35 communes, 1,394 named vineyards, and thousands of bottling domaines, negociants and co-ops, many of which share the same or very similar family names, this is more than a daunting task.


Today, the wines are incomparably more consistent, and expensive disappointments fewer and further between. Witness the charming, forward 2007s, as evinced by my top wine from the upcoming April 2nd Vintages release, the superb 2007 DOMAINE TAUPENOT-MERME BEL AIR GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN 1ER CRU AC $83.95.
Domaine Taupenot Merme Bel Air Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru 2007

The 2008s, on the other hand, are more firm, more angular or “classic” and ageworthy. Both vintages required not only conscientious farming, but also some masterful handling in the winery. I found the 1998s in particular to be generally excellent: less fleshy, leaner, but very accurate reflections of their typical village or vineyard style, and highly age-worthy in the best appellations. In fact, my number one smart buy this week is the 2008 DOMAINE GILLE CÔTES DE NUITS-VILLAGES AC, Prop.-Récolt. $24.95, which has classic Côte de Nuits character and drinks like a village or even decent premier cru red for a fraction of the price.

Domaine Gille Côtes De Nuits Villages 2008

Then there are the 2009s, which have been hyped up in the press. Lots of sunshine and high temperatures yielded very ripe fruit and it shows in the wines. The reds have super ripe, almost candied red fruit flavour while the whites verge on tropical fruit. Acidity is low and tannins are very soft, meaning that these wines are showing really even now – a perfect vintage with which to get to know Burgundy. It was also a generous year so quantities should be in decent supply at least. Try the 2009 DOMAINE ROUX PÈRE & FILS LES CHAUMES CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET 1ER CRU AC $38.95 for an example of the ripe, almost new world style of the 2009s.

Domaine Roux Père & Fils Les Chaumes Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru 2009

Cru-Lieu-Dit-Climat: Reading the labels

But even if more consistent, the region is still complex, and that’s a good part of the allure of Burgundy for wine lovers. Don’t expect to understand it all. Ever. Au contraire, revel in the mystery and the deliciously puzzling classification of plots of land, so scrupulously delineated over the past thousand years. English author Stephen Gwynn summed it up nicely back in 1934: “Burgundy is not the designation of a wine produced and standardized in immense quantities. It is the general description of a great number of closely related wines, having kindred excellence conforming broadly to one type, but varying infinitely by fine shades, which is the pleasure of connoisseurs to distinguish.”

One of the key concepts to understanding the region is that of the cru, or lieu-dit, or climat, or whatever they call it. Just when I thought I had understood the concept, a little research pulled me deeper into this mystery of Burgundian proportions. But I find it fascinating, with more than a trace of Aristotelian division and sub-division. So here’s how it works, I think:
Wine Map of Burgundy

The appellations of Burgundy function like a set of nesting Russian matryoshka dolls. The largest, outer doll represents the regional appellations: basic Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc, Crémant de Bourgogne, Bourgogne Passe Tout Grains. The fruit for these wines can come from anywhere within the viticultural region of Burgundy; it is all-encompassing. The next doll/set of appellations covers a slightly smaller area: the sub-regional appellations such as Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise, etc., essentially any appellation containing the word “Bourgogne”. The fruit for these can be sourced in relatively broad areas, but not from not from the entire region. The next doll as we crack our way down to the smallest represents appellations such as, Mâcon or Mâcon-villages, Côte de Nuits-Villages, Côte de Beaune-villages. These again are slightly smaller, more specific regions, clearly demarcated. Next step down would be specific village or communal appellations, for vineyards located within the communal boundaries. There are many, but some of the more famous village appellations are Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Meursault, Puligy-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé, for example.

Burgundy Wine LabelYet another layer down, it starts to get really exciting. You see, since the Burgundians have had a couple thousand years to get to know their terroir really well, they have given individual parcels of land within each village’s borders their own specific names. These are called lieu-dit, or literally “place called”. The names, established from regular usage since the middle ages or even Gallo-Roman times, derive most often from some historic connection or physical feature. The origins of some names are simply mysterious, while others more obvious, such as the type of vegetation found in the parcel: Les Charmes, Les Genevrières; the soil type: Les Perrières, Les Grèves, Les Cras, Les Caillerets; the location of the parcel: la Pièce-sous-le-Bois (“the parcel under the woods”), Derrière le Four (“Behind the [ancient coal] oven”), La Romanée (next to an ancient Roman road); former proprietors: le Chambertin (le champ de Bertin, or, “Bertin’s Field”), Le Clos du Roi (‘the King’s Clos”), etc. One can only imagine how the lieu-dit Les Amoureuses (“the Lovers”) in the village of Chambolle-Musigny got its name.

If a wine is grown exclusively in one of the lieux-dits, then it is entitled to put the name of the parcel on the label, along with the name of the village in which it’s located. But hold on: it’s not that simple. Just because the parcel is named doesn’t mean that it’s equal to all others. Burgundy is all about hierarchies of potential quality. Over the centuries, certain lieux-dits developed a better reputation for their wines than others. Early on, these superior parcels were refered to as hauts lieux, that is, higher [better] parcels. Later on, under the official AOC regulations introduced in France in 1935, these superior vineyard parcels became enshrined as premier cru vineyards, and in just 33 out of 1394 cases, grand cru-classified, for the really special parcels that have proven their worth over centuries.

The term cru derives from the past participle of the French verb crôitre, to grow, and is usually translated into “growth” as in “1st growth” or ‘great growth”, or is just left in the original French. But in inner Burgundian circles, amongst the connoisseurs, you’ll more often hear the ancient term “climat” used instead of cru to refer to the top vineyards. ‘Climate’ refers to the unique conditions of a micro piece of land – soil, aspect, drainage, orientation, elevation, etc. Simple enough, right? Well in the 1986 Nouvel Atlas des Grand Vins de Bourgogne by Pitiot and Poupon (revised in 1999), the definition of climat and it’s variations in meaning stretch on for over 3 pages. It seems lieu-dit and climat were once used interchangeably, and then later on, for unknown reasons, the meanings diverged. I’ll spare you the historical details of this philosophical meandering, and skip to the definition that Pitiot and Poupon propose, and that one that is most widely accepted today (my translation): “The term climat is applied above all to those territories classified in the AOCs premiers crus and grands crus… One must then know that the notion of climat can be either restrictive or encompassing with respect to that of the lieu-dit”.

And here’s where it gets more fun. As it turns out, a climat can be just a small part of a larger lieu-dit, for example: Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru “Porrets Saint Georges”, where Porret Saint Georges is just a small portion of the lieu-dit “Les Poirets”. In other cases, a climat can contain certain parts of several lieux-dits, i.e. Pommard Premier Cru “Clos des Epeneaux”, where the Clos des Epeneaux is actually composed of part of the lieu-dit “Les Grands Epenots” and part of “Les Petits Epenots” (note the different spelling of Epenots vs. Epeneaux). It follows logically, of course, that a climat could contain within it’s boundaries the entirety of one or more lieux-dits, as in Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru “Les Pucelles”, which encompasses the whole of the lieux-dits “Les Pucelles” and “Clos des Meix”, or that it could include the entirety of some lieux-dits and only parts of others, as in the “Clos des Lambrays Gran Cru”, where the Clos des Lambrays lieu-dit incorporates the lieu-dit “Les Larrets ou Clos des Lambrays” in its entirety, the lieu-dit “Les Bouchots” in totality and just a part of the lieu-dit “Meix Rentier”. I shouldn’t neglect to mention that a climat can actually be referred to under the nickname of an existing lieu-dit, as in Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru “Lavaux Saint-Jacques”, even if one might not naturally realizes that Lavaux Saint-Jacques is the nickname for the lieu-dit “Lavaut”!

Isn’t it marvelous! Such fantastic complexity! Only in Burgundy, say the Burgundians. I suppose if you lived in very close proximity to your neighbors for a thousand years and cared so deeply for the land that every piece of it was given a unique name for identification, your neighborhood might have a complex web of intermixed whimsical names as well.

The Appellation authorities have fortunately devised a system to make the differences between the good, very good and the best named-sites readily apparent on the label. First of all, any vineyards classified as premier or grand cru will state as much on the label, as in: Vosne-Romanée (the name of the village) “Les Beaux Monts” (name of climat) Premier Cru (classification of the climat); or Chambertin Grand Cru (Climat, classification). Further more, if the wine comes from a lieu-dit within a village that is not rated premier or grand cru, the name of the parcel can still appear on the label but only in a font size half of that of the village font size, as in MEURSAULT CLOS DU MAZERAY (Meursault is the village and Clos du mazeray is the name of the unclassified lieu-dit; but: PULIGNY-MONTRACHET LES COMBETTES, where the name of the village and the name of the premier cru-classified climat appear in the same font size.

So that should straighten things out I hope….The real point is that the notion of lieux-dits and crus and climats all intend to evoque the spirit of the winegrowers who have worked this land for so long, and have come to know and understand the most minute variations in soil, slope, altitude, orientation and surroundings that consistently give wines of a certain character. Once you’ve grasped that, then you are on your way to understanding burgundy. The rest is just the enjoyable homework of reading, traveling and tasting. Or to make life even easier, check out these 90+ point Burgundies, each guaranteed to fairly represent their village and vineyard.

From the April 2nd, Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
90+ point Burgundies
Solid South Africans
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

WineAlign reaches 17,000 Users

On March 22nd, we had our 17,000th user register for WineAlign.  Our growth seems to be accelerating lately as more people discover and share the site with friends.   Below is graph tracking our progress since our launch way back in December of 2008.

WineAlign Growth Graph

WineAlign Growth

Filed under: News

The Successful Collector ~ Portuguese wines: regional grapes make the grade ~ Vintages March 19th – By Julian Hitner

Who needs Cabernet when you’ve got Touriga Nacional?

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

In the past, the most people knew about winegrowing in Portugal was that this endearing little Iberian nation produced, by and large, the most celebrated fortified wines in the world, as well as a popular sweet-styled rosé wine called Mateus (the bottle – at least judging by my parents – often used for candlesticks when emptied). Then, around the mid-1990s, everything changed: Portugal began producing and exporting one exemplary table wine (particularly red ones) after another. These wines were often (and still are) very reasonably priced, fully flavoured, and crafted almost exclusively from regional grapes – in other words, wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah weren’t being made (such as in Italy or Spain) in the same dramatic abundance.

Prats + Symington ChryseiaFast-forward to 2011, and such wines keep getting better and better, with such regions as those of the Douro and Dão almost irrefutably leading the way. Indeed, the former – the mighty Douro DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) – can now lay serious claim to being the top region for the production of quality red table wines in all of Portugal, not to mention one of the most stupendously gorgeous winegrowing regions in the world. The grapes used? Most commonly: Touriga Nacional (unquestionably the star grape of Portugal), Tinta Roriz (the same grape as Tempranillo in Spain, also referred to as ‘Aragonês’ in the southern part of the country), Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão; for the most part, however, the three very former grapes are the ones most often used to make excellent red table wines. At their best, these wines are often quite full-bodied, fully flavoured and firm, and can easily age for up to a decade or more (sometimes much more).

Quinta Do Crasto Old Vines Reserva 2007Head south into the Dão DOC and quality, while perhaps not as uniform as the Douro, is still decisively high. In this area, many of the same grapes are used (along with Alfrocheiro Preto), with the best (bottled) examples tasting very much like their more northerly counterparts, though perhaps just a shade less firm and complex (excluding the finest examples). Heading west of the Dão, however, we come to a region with a most interesting red grape: the Baga varietal. Quite arguably the most tannic grape in existence (along with Tannat in Southwest France), the finest examples are found in the Bairrada DOC, located only a short distance inland from the Atlantic coast. Enticing yet elusive in youth, wines made from Baga often need to be aged at least several years (oftentimes much more) in order for both the tannins to soften and the full varietal flavours to be brought forth. Indeed, collectors with suitable wine cellars should not be without a case or two of Bairrada-based wines as part of their inventories – the rewards of aging such wines are seldom short of unremarkable.

Finally, proceeding south yet again (readers really ought to have their wine atlas at hand), the last serious region – that is, to be mentioned here (time seems to allow for only so much discussion) – for the production of fine red table wine is (arguably) the Alentejo DOC, a very large region of rolling hills and acutely hot temperatures. Over the past several years, quality has decidedly taken a turn for the better, with such grape varietals as Aragonês (Tempranillo) and Trincadeira (a local speciality) remaining the most prized. At the same time, the Alentejo DOC is also home to an abundance of majestic cork trees that supply most of the world’s best (and worst) bottle stoppers. Quite an accomplished little winegrowing nation, isn’t it?

Click here for a few gems for collectors from the March 19th, 2011 Vintages release.

Filed under: News, , , , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 19th – California’s Fading Icons, Iberia, Mission Hill , Penfolds & a Bargain Rhone

An Iberian Education, California’s Fading Icons & Bright New Lights, Mission Hill’s State of Grace, Classy Kalimna from Penfolds, A Tiny Perfect Rhone and Classical Amarone.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

An Iberian Education

If there is one region of the world to challenge even the most studied wine enthusiast nowadays it is Spain and Portugal, collectively known as Iberia. As Europe’s southern peninsula gets it act together in the modern age countless new and old grape varieties and regions are coming to the fore. There is no other region on the planet more diverse and difficult to comprehend. But none are as compelling either. Iberia is exploding with great wine and value.  Vintages makes Iberia a feature on this release, and puts together an eclectic collection in the name of education, fairness and mass market price point. There is nothing super expensive or super exciting or great value.

But you can begin your exploration of obscure regions like Toro that are experiencing an awakening in the international market. In this hot, arid region on the central plateau northwest of Madrid they use tempranillo – Spain’s everywhere grape variety – to make big black reds with historically high alcohol.  But wine’s like ETERNUM 2008 VITI ($18.95) are bringing some style to the equation as well.  And over the border in Portugal the story is very similar with modern winemaking being applied to native varieties and blends in a series of regions from the north to the south.  To me the Douro Valley – home of port wine – is the most distinctive and exciting for table wines. The best producers are making very modern wines with real depth and elegance, taking advantage of all that sun-ripened fruit.  CISTUS 207 RESERVA($18.95) is a fine example.

Eternum Viti 2008 Cistus Reserva 2007

California’s Fading Icons and Emerging Bright Lights

Ojai Bien Nacido Syrah 2005 This release features a who’s who of California’ icon reds – circa 1995 –Opus, Caymus Special Selection, Dominus et al.  I leave it to you to contemplate who is actually farthest behind the curve – California itself for continuing to ride the coattails of these vastly overpriced Napa labels, or the people who keep buying them wines.  Most of are technically excellent, scoring 90 points or slightly better, but my goodness, the scores should be much higher at these prices. I am almost furious at Opus One. Really, it has become so glib, sweet and commercialized that it comes across as facile, almost infantile. I have rated in 90 points, mostly on its flavour depth, but where is the tension, complexity, the wow factor that people have a right to expect when they spend $339? They have every right to great expectations too. When I buy Chateau Margaux (which I don’t) I know I am getting one the best wines on the planet. Opus One is clearly not in this league. The other Napa icons are more interesting and less outrageously priced, but still fall below expectation.

Smart California wine buyers are looking way beyond these fading Napa icons, perhaps beyond Napa as a region as a whole.  I am looking in particular at the syrahs and pinot noirs coming out of the Central Coast and I direct your attention to two wines that are really quite exciting and far better value.  OJAI 2005 BIEN NACIDO SYRAH from Santa Barbara ($47.95) is from a 30 year pioneer in the region who has kept his winery and profile small but has obviously mastered his craft. While JONATA 2005 EL CORAZÓN DE JONATA of the Santa Ynez Valley ($59.95) brings some dazzle with a creative blend of several not often seen red and white grapes.

Overall, the price and value quotient of California wine is improving, and Ontarians are proving their loyalty to, and fascination with, wines of the Golden State. I know California better than almost any other wineries outside of Canada. I am heartened that it now claims to be re-gaining status as one of the top international regions at the LCBO in terms of sales. And every year we return en masse to the California Wine Fair, scheduled April 4th at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, and on April 6th at the Westin in Ottawa. You too may be drawn by an opportunity to taste the iconic names, but with only two or three hours in a crowded room I urge you to go off the beaten path to explore less well known regions and producers. Tickets are still available at

Mission Hill’s State of Grace

Mission Hill Quatrain 2006I had tasted through the top California icon reds (above) in Vintages lab then I moved down the line to MISSION HILL 2006 QUATRAIN Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($44.95)  and it not only stood its ground, it aced some of California’s top names. Quatrain has power and tension – this sense of internal combustion built on the taut interplay of acidity, alcohol and tannin  – that can rarely be found in warm climates; but comes naturally to France, and yes folks, Canada. Three days later I tasted a preview sample of Mission Hill’s 2007 Oculus. Same story – great wine, layered and tense.

If you find Mission Hill to be a conundrum, I understand. The brand plays awkwardly in a complex corporate arena; being a commercial winery of the masses with three or four price tiers and brands, yet set in a magnificent, ecclesiastical premise on a BC hilltop that would lure Dionysus himself out of godly retirement. I have been there at least a dozen times. It’s breathtaking every time. I know the owner Anthony Von Mandl and key senior staff, including the resolute winemaker John Simes. But I have always had this arms length relationship with their wines – in the sense that they have not always reached in and grabbed me.  Until recently that is with the release of Quatrain and Compendium, and subsequently with the new 2007 vintage of Oculus, which at $80 BC price, is indeed the best BC can do so far with the Bordeaux varieties. (I still think syrah is a more natural variety here). The big problem with big BC red in general is their bigness, and lack of grace. Oculus 2007 captures a state of grace.

Oculus is not yet available at the LCBO. Your best bet is to go on line to order it, although its release is so recent that the website is not yet showing it (the 2006 is still there). And by the way, Mission Hill is playing it very smart to offer their wines in Ontario. To circumvent stupid regulations that Canadian wineries cannot take and deliver interprovincial web-based orders, Mission Hill, through its importing arm Mark Anthony Group, offers an Ontario-based website for the ordering of any of its wines. And while you are browsing there don’t overlook the judiciously oak aged 2009 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.

Penfolds 2007 Kalimna Shiraz
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2007

Amid all the star power of California, the handful of Australian reds being offered seemed rather mundane. But an old standby – PENFOLDS 2007 BIN 28 KALIMNA SHIRAZ ($34.95) – leapt out of the pack.  It has incredible richness, ripeness and composure. I did sense that it was perhaps a bit sweeter than in years past but even if it actually does have more residual sugar it is not at all out of balance.  It still has that firm, solid core and gorgeous plummy/mulberry fruit that is a signature of all Penfolds’ reds. In short it is a textural masterpiece that you can drink now or age for a decade. But there are so many good reds from Penfolds it becomes a problem as to which wines to buy. I was at the winery earlier this year and have tasted through the entire 2008 range that will be en-route to the LCBO in the months ahead. The vintage is being hailed as one the greats of recent years, and I can vouch that you will indeed have a hard time making your decisions.

Cave De Monterail Côtes Du Rhône Villages Séguret 2009A Tiny Perfect Rhone

One of the greatest pleasure of pre-tasting all (or most) of the Vintages releases is stumbling across unheralded great little buys.CAVE DE MONTERAIL 2009 CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES SÉGURET($13.95) is the kind of wine I would easily take home by the case, for those downtime moments when I am just kicking around with a casual meal. I have written before about the excellent, ripe 2009 vintage in the Rhone Valley, and this is apparently just one more example of how good it is.  I have also written that Vintages should not really be trading in cheaper wines under $15; that this is really the purview of LCBO stores. But until the LCBO can find its way clear to regularly launch new, even speculative, smaller lots of wines like this, I urge Vintages buyers to keep bringing us the best they can find under $15.

A Classic Amarone

Farina Le Pezze Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2006And finally, a breath of classic brilliance from the increasingly befuddled and crowded realm of Veneto ripassos and amarones.  Seriously, is anyone else generally disappointed with this range of wines of late?  So many are either less rich than expected, volatile and/or slightly soapy.  And it is getting really difficult to know just what to expect as the appassimento technique of fermenting dried grapes is being applied to different appellations, brands and grape varieties by countless producers.  I know that Sandro Boscaini of Masi, who essentially pioneered the technique, is very concerned about the profusion and resultant muddying of style and quality that he unwittingly unleashed. I bet in one way he wishes he had never let that little genie out of the bottle. Anyway, there are still some great wines being made. FARINA LE PEZZE 2006 AMARONE DELLA VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO ($32.95) is a classic, supple, rich and complex wine from a great amarone vintage, and it is now drinking beautifully. I have often been stopped in my tracks by Farina, largely because they consistently offer well priced wines, and a very drinkable, classic style.

Enjoy, and see all my reviews for this release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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

A Wine for Every Mood – by Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d'Amato

We all know that pairing wine with food can yield delectable results and can often enhance the wine or the culinary experience. Wine with food is a completely organic duo but it is not the only way you can intensify a wine experience. As a Sommelier, it is also important to know something about the occasion a couple or group is celebrating, the type of interests they have and even their mood when recommending a wine. Pairing wine with a mood, feeling or emotion can be just as satisfying as pairing it with a great dish. In fact, when traveling, tasters often come back with glowing reviews about a particular wine they enjoyed while relaxing on vacation and are subsequently disappointed in the wine when they return as their memories are saturated with a glorious experience or feeling associated with the time and place the wine was tasted. Here are several emotional states which we find ourselves in (sometimes all on a daily basis) that can be quelled or fueled by just the right vino.

Pillar Box


Pillar Box Reserve Shiraz, Padthaway, South Australia, 2008, $19.95, #90324

This completely seductive and enveloping Shiraz is ideal for that bath-time romance novel or a sexy surprise dinner for the spouse as it is sure to get you in the mood with its mouth-filling texture and voluptuous body.

The Sopranos Chianti


The Sopranos Chianti, Tuscany, Italy, 2007, $14.95 #207183

No one savous revenge like mobsters and this Tuscan red with the Sopranos namesake is infused with fervor and edgy flavours – perfect for plotting revenge.

Cave Spring GewurtUpset

Cave Spring Estate Bottled Gewurztraminer, Beamsville Bench, Niagara, Canada, 2009, $16.95, #302059

Perfect for those tear-jerker movies or unexplained emotional bouts. This wine is far from sappy but it is sweet, supple and hits the spot.

Mas des Bressades


Mas Des Bressades Cuvee Tradition, Costieres de Nimes, Rhone, France, 2009, $14.95, #143099

Think sunshine, fresh air, the smell of lavender and beautiful fields of sunflower. This wine comes from the land of all these blissful colours and makes a perfect accompaniment to a relaxing afternoon.


La Crema Pinot NoirLa Crema Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California, USA, $29.95

Pinot Noir is chalk full of complexity, contrast and layering of flavours making it perfect for those times of heady introspection. Think of it as the Mozart of wine – it might not make you smarter but you will likely learn something from the experience.


Jansz Premium CuveeJansz Premium Cuvee, Tasmania, Australia, NV, $24.95

Night in with the girlfriends, celebrating a promotion, birthday or just simply in the mood to revel in your wonderful life with your man about town – a sparkling wine is sure to  add magic to your evening. These bubbles come from the southern Island of Tasmania off the coast of Australia, perfectly cool enough to suit varietals that make up this bright and lively wine.

Vaeni NaoussaAdventurous

Vaeni Naoussa Xinomavro Damaskinos 2004, Greece, $13.95, #60731

For those of you who marvel at the far-off Grecian lands or those who are the jet setting type and are experienced Mediterranean travelers, this wine is chock-full of intrigue and old-world mystique. Xinomavro is an indigenous varietal that delivers a good dose of intensity as well as bright acids and exotic fragrances.

Click here for a shopping list of these wines available at your local LCBO.

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 19th, 2011 – California & the Iberian Peninsula

Californian hurricane rips through France & Italy, smiling barrel salesmen in the Iberian Peninsula & smart buys

John Szabo, MSIn this article: a Californian hurricane rips through France and Italy, leaving many unopened and unsold bottles in its wake; south of the Pyrenees it’s hit and miss in the Iberian peninsula, though barrel salesmen are smiling. Also at a glance: Top Ten Smart BuysTop Californian, wines not to miss at the annual California Wine Fair and Top Iberian Wines.

California Devastates the Establishment
A recent press release announced the big news that US wines have overtaken those of both France and Italy to become the number one category in LCBO-Vintages. In the past year, net sales of US wines, which means of course Californian wines, were up 21.5% to almost $71m, which equals just over 1/5 of Vintages total turnover. The American juggernaut has edged out long-time leaders France, with 19.6% market share, and Italy at 18.8%.
“There has been an unprecedented demand for California wines in VINTAGES,” says Tom Wilson, Vice President, VINTAGES, which accounts for over 96% of US wines sales. “California wines offer superb quality and value at all price points and more and more customers are buying premium and super-premium wines, priced from $35 to $150 a bottle.”
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut ChampagneValue at $150 you say? Certainly at the super-premium end of the scale we can talk quality, but value remains a more contentious issue in my view, up and down the scale. Not that I don’t understand relative value. It doesn’t take long to realize that everything in the world is relative, including value. 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).
But this relative argument only holds true if you define value purely in terms of elemental wine quality, that is, the pleasure derived exclusively from the liquid, stripped of the warm fuzzy cognitive pleasure you get from drinking something that no one else can find or afford. Knowing that this is almost never the case, that most of the wine drinking public (and some pro wine reviewers, too) get at least some percentage of pleasure from the label or scarcity or back story or some other positive association with the country/region/grape/producer/etc. beyond the liquid, Mr. Wilson’s comment makes more sense. If exclusivity rocks your world, Pétrus or Clos d’Ambonnay is the way to go. I believe that the perceived value in California wine is, in some cases, tied to some image of the Sunshine State and not the juice in the bottle.
You see, Ontarian’s are generally giddy at the thought of California. First it was the reliably warm and sunny weather, then it was gold, and then it was the weather again that attracted people. The western world’s entertainment capital, Hollywood is here, and it’s full of famous and glamorous people. You can find beaches, deserts, forests, grassy plains, valleys and snowy mountains, and go surfing, snorkeling, camping, skiing and snowboarding pretty much all in the same day. The eat-local craze started there in the 1970s, as did flower power. Its citizens are confident (or scared) enough to vote a super action hero into their highest office. And if that’s not enough to alight those butterflies in your stomach, there’s even a life-sized Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Who doesn’t want the California lifestyle?
SlomkaRick Slomka (left), Canadian Director for California Wines, one step ahead as usual, nailed it: “California vintners have always prided themselves on staying true to their west coast roots by creating world-class wines that add enjoyment to life. It’s thrilling to see how VINTAGES customers have embraced that one-of-a kind California lifestyle and brought it into their homes.”
To be sure, there’s no guilty pleasure in enjoying a bottle for reasons beyond the wine. Indeed, we all do it and it’s part of the human condition. It almost can’t be otherwise, unless you live in a bubble and have a benevolent friend or neighbor who’s willing to buy all of your wines and serve them to you in a paper bag so that all you can hope to enjoy is the liquid.
But if it’s really the liquid you’re interested in more than the lifestyle, here’s my position on the March 19th Vintages release and the wines to avoid and those that excite beyond a warm remebrance of Mickey Mouse:
Wines of genuine excitement:
2007 DOMINUS Napa Valley $119.95
2005 OJAI BIEN NACIDO SYRAH Santa Barbara $47.95
Dominus 2007 Ojai Bien Nacido Syrah 2005 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Merlot 2005
Wines of questionable value:
2007 OPUS ONE Napa Valley $339.95
Full list of Top Californian wines in the release here.
California Wine FairIf you’re heading to the annual California Wine Fair on Monday April 4th at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, or Wednesday April 6 at The Westin Ottawa ($70 for 400+ wines; click here for tickets), here’s a sneak preview of the wines that should be on your list to taste:
• 2007 Vineyard 7 & 8 Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 93  NA
• 2006 Peju Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92  $65.00
• 2005 Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 92  $78.95
• 2005 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92  $220.00
• 2006 St. Michelle Wine Estates Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92 NA
• 2002 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 91  $33.95
• 2006 Oakville Ranch Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 91  $45.00
• 2007 E&J Gallo Frei Ranch Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County 90  $34.95
• 2007 Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder Napa Valley 90  $85.95
• 2007 Chimmey Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 90 NA
And if you care what the rest of Ontario is drinking in the California category, here are the stats. Not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon is the top seller, +27% this year, followed by Chardonnay (+33% – ABC movement? Yah right), and Zinfandel (+40%).
Top performing brands in sales growth in the VINTAGES Essentials Program over the last year (clearly not related to WineAlign’s influence) were: Riverstone Chardonnay from J. Lohr, +88% ($18.95, 2009 vintage not rated by WineAlign), Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon from J. Lohr, +29% ($21.95, 87 points Steve Thurlow), Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Beringer, +15% and Toasted Head Chardonnay from R.H. Phillips, at +8% (2009 not rated).Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon remains a consistent top seller ($18.95, 2008 vintage 86 points John Szabo).
Happy Barrel Salesman in the Iberian Peninsula
The other theme to the March 19th Vintages release is the Iberian Peninsula, namely Spain and Portugal. Long time readers know that I’m a fan of Iberian wines, though I can’t help pointing out that both of these countries are in many respects lagging behind the rest of Europe, and many parts of the new world, in terms of their winemaking maturity. In the initial stages of establishing a modern wine industry (forget the 3000 years of ancient wine history), there’s a tendency to be overly enthusiastic in order to capture that craved international attention. Many feel that have to scream the loudest to be heard.
In wine terms, screaming means more: more ripeness, more wood, more extract, more alcohol. Australia and California, for example, have largely been there and done that, but have since matured to the point where they are confident in their terroir, their grapes and their abilities to let the wines speak in a more ‘indoor’ voice. Having checked out for most of the 20th century for political reasons, Spain and Portugal have much catching up to do, and are still working out what they can do best and what the world wants – it’s a painful process.
When they get it right, however, the Iberian Peninsula is a source of extreme value. This release highlights both sides, the confident and the insecure. Several of the wines were hard, hot, harsh, and overly woody and raisined – I half wish I were a barrel salesman working the Iberian territory as I suspect I’d be doing pretty well. Others wines were balanced and integrated, quietly self-assured. If you prefer the latter, try this pair of fine values from the same corner of the peninsula: 2009 VARANDA DO CONDE ALVARINHO/TRAJADURA VINHO VERDE DOC, Sub-Região Monção e Melgaço $13.95 and 2009 PEIQUE TINTO MENCÍA DOCBierzo $13.95. Click here for the full list of recommended wines from Spain and Portugal.
Varanda Do Conde Alvarinho/Trajadura Vinho Verde 2009 Peique Tinto Mencía 2009
From the March 19th Vintages release:

Top Sunshine State Wines

Top Iberian Wines

All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO – March 2011

Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO
February 2011

Steve ThurlowSeveral new wines join the Top 50 this month 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.  I constantly taste the wines at the LCBO to keep this report up to date. I write this report from New Zealand where I am currently leading a wine tour. Though the wines here are excellent, none make it this month into my Top50.

New Drop Down MenuYou can easily find my Top 50 Value Wines from the WineAlign main menu. 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

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, five wines joined the list and two, already on the list, are even better value for a limited period.
The Graffigna winery is in San Juan, Argentina a few hours drive north of Mendoza. TheGraffigna Centenario Pinot Grigio Reserve 2010 and Graffigna Centenario Shiraz Reserve 2008 are both produced from high altitude vineyards which are bathed with warm sunlight during the day and are chilled at night by cool mountain air, so that both wines are brimming with flavour and are vibrant with acidity. They are both discounted this month.
Graffigna Centenario Pinot Grigio Reserve 2010 Graffigna Centenario Shiraz Reserve 2008
Two malbecs from Argentina also join the Top 50 as a result of discounts. Trapiche Malbec Reserve 2008 is an elegant fruity structured wine that is designed for fine dining with robust roast meats. Fuzion Alta Malbec Reserva 2009 is not to be confused with its very popular Fuzion cousin. This wine is made 100% from malbec and delivers more structure, tannins and depth of flavour for a few dollars more.
Trapiche Malbec Reserve 2008 Fuzion Alta Malbec Reserva 2009
Two wines made from Chile’s signature red grape, carmenere, are also discounted such that they are in the Top 50 for a while. Xplorador Carmenere 2010 is a juicy fruity structured red  that should match well to mildly spicy bbq meats. Caliterra Bio Sur Reserva Especial Carmenere 2008 is a midweight fruity red with some lean tannin showing up more on the finish, but the fruit does persist well so try with a juicy cut of meat or hard mature cheese.
Xplorador Carmenere 2010 Caliterra Bio Sur Reserva Especial Carmenere 2008
Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2010 is a beautiful wine with passion fruit, gooseberry and hay aromas and flavours and loads of mouthwatering acidity, and will appeal to lovers of New Zealand sauvignon. It would make the Top 50 at its regular price of $11.95 so it is super value at $10.95.
Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2010

You have until March 27, 2011 to take advantage of these price offers.

Delisted (no, relisted!)
I reported in January that Passion Of Portugal Rose 2009 has been delisted which was a pity since it is a well made fully flavoured dry rose. However a few weeks ago I noticed that another large quantity has arrived and there are over 7000 bottles in the system (as I write this) at $6.00 each. I strongly suggest grabbing a few of these since it will be just fine for enjoying as summer approaches.
Passion Of Portugal Rose 2009
Abruzzo Reds
The Abbruzo region of Italy is known for producing inexpensive wines from the black grapes Montepulciano and Sangiovese. There are five on the list that I recommend.
This grape excels in the warm dry climate of Abruzzo producing deeply coloured fragrant juicy red wines that are great for casual drinking with bbq meats, meaty pasta sauces or pizza.
Eclipse Montepulciano D’ Abruzzo 2008 is probably the best value Italian red at the LCBO. It is well balanced and fruity with a degree of complexity not often found in wines at this price. It is a good food wine for red meat dishes and hard mature cheese. Farnese Montepulciano D’abruzzo 2009 is a deep purple red colour that is almost opaque. Its full bodied, round and dense with lots of fruit with some elegance. Try with roast meats. Lastly Farnese Casale Vecchio Montepulciano D’abruzzo 2009 is a step up in quality from the previous wine and is a very classy Italian red. Ripasso lovers should be shopping here since it is stately with some fine tannin for structure and very good length. Try with meaty pasta sauces or a steak.
Eclipse Montepulciano D' Abruzzo 2008 Farnese Montepulciano D'abruzzo 2009 Farnese Casale Vecchio Montepulciano D'abruzzo 2009
Sangiovese is best known as the basis for many great Tuscan wines. It is however grown in every region of Italy and in Abruzzo it produces ripe vibrant reds that marry well with tomato sauces and fatty meats like sausages or bbq chicken.
Farnese Daunia Sangiovese 2009 is a great buy for everyday drinking. It is full bodied with ripe fruit though the finish is quite dry. Casal Thaulero Sangiovese 2009 has an enticing lifted nose. It’s medium bodied quite juicy with vibrant fruit.
Farnese Daunia Sangiovese 2009 Casal Thaulero Sangiovese 2009
Please 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. The Top 50 changes all the time, so remember to check before shopping. I will be back next month with more news on value arrivals to Essentials and the LCBO.
Steve Thurlow

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

The Successful Collector – Chilean wines: so many choices ~ by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

A great nation for winegrowing:

Rightly or wrongly, the subject has by now been beaten to death: over the past twenty years, winegrowing in Chile has never been better. More importantly, there appears to be no end in sight, with the best Chilean wines getting finer and finer with each passing vintage. A far cry from the late-eighties, when most Chilean wines were meant for everyday drinking; and with most of it sold domestically to a largely undemanding audience, who would have thought the reputation of premium Chilean wines would ever reach world class status?

And yet, here we are, twenty years later, and very much in agreement about both the present and potential quality of the Chilean winegrowing industry. Definitely a long time coming, if you ask me, as Chile has actually been producing wine for over four hundred years, the first vines being planted by Fray Francisco de Carabantes around 1550. Little did the first settlers realize that they were planting in such an awesome viticultural oasis, a part of the ‘New World’ where the dreaded phylloxera louse has never appeared, where sunlight is just as reliable as a newborn crying, where daylight-nightlight temperatures are unusually wide (great for clarity of fruit flavours), and where irrigation is amply provided for by the magnificent, primordially overhanging Andes Mountains.

Hence, there is virtually no excuse for bad winemaking in Chile, though this hasn’t stopped underripeness and monotony from being a problem for many of the ‘entry range’ brands, such as those found throughout the General Listings section of LCBO stores. More often than not (and I’m sure we’ve all experienced this), these wines (especially those crafted from Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère) tend to give off way too much cassis and currants for their own good – a sure sign of excessive yields and probable underripeness. While such wines are still certainly agreeable and flavourful to drink, offering really solid fruit intensity, structural soundness, and balance, the result is a very great reluctance on the part of producers to improve overall quality and lessen the monotony of their ‘entry range’ offerings.

Thankfully, for the more premium bottlings on offer, this problem seldom exists; and when it does, you can be sure some self-aggrandizing wine commentator (as opposed to yours truly) will be harking on and on about it. Indeed, when examining the finer Chilean wines produced nowadays, one is seldom left unamazed at the level of quality that so many winegrowers have achieved, particularly with regard to full-bodied red wines. Often uniquely (and fully) flavoured, well structured and layered, and carrying all sorts of deliciously ‘dark’ aromatics, such wines are unquestionably worth seeking out.

For collectors, the choices over the past several years have spiralled from just a handful of offerings to dozens upon dozens of exceptional bottlings. In large part, the reds (as hinted at previously) are the ones most typically worth purchasing, particularly top-end Bordeaux blends (with Carmenère usually only playing a partial role – though there are exceptions) as well as Syrah. At present, the best Chilean wines (I would argue) come from a handful of excellent (and expanding) winegrowing regions, most notably the Maipo Valley (particularly for premium Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordelais blends), the Colchagua Valley (especially the stupendous Apalta subzone, home to some of the greatest wines in the country – not to mention one of the most important hotspots for gastronomic appreciaton and tourism), and the Aconcagua Valley (the original source for some of the best Syrahs in the nation).

Ultimately, however, what is mentioned here represents only a minor, fractional handful of premium winegrowing regions in Chile. Indeed, there are plenty others now home to some really superlative wines, from the cool-climate, more coastal region of Casablanca (great for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc) to the fast-growing, high-latitude Valle de Limarí in the north (surprisingly well-suited for all sorts of different varietals). Indeed, the choices for premium collectors (as well as casual wine lovers) are fast becoming inestimable.

To see a few gems for collectors from the 5th March release click here .

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 5th Release – Stunning Whites from Northern Italy & Next Generation South American Appellations

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Stunning Northern Italy Whites
What is the world’s most overlooked, great white wine region?  Northern Italy to be sure – the appellations (DOCs) of Collio, Friuli, Alto Adige, Lomabrdy and Liguria to be specific.  Most Canadians will have not heard about these regions, or at least have been desensitized by the industrial, bland $10-$15 pinot grigio’s of the past. Even those are improving of late, but the real excitement is in the next price tier up – still very affordable $15 to $20 wines. And we don’t even see the top estate wines at $30 or more.  I’ll never forget being blown away by a Collio appellation tasting at VinItaly – in about 1994. This month Vintages features a handful of delicious northern Italian whites. They are bright, elegant, fresh and classy. What else do you want in white wine, especially as thoughts of spring begin to stir?

Vintages has dug deep into the nooks and crannies of Italy’s north to assemble a great little collection of five wines, of which I have rated three at 90 points or better. And all are less than $20. They are led by S. CRISTINA MASSONI 2009 LUGANA ($17.95) a brilliant, muscat-like white from a very aromatic clone of the trebbiano grape grown in the sub-alpine Lombardy region.  Then there is ALOIS LAGEDER 2009 PINOT GRIGIO ($18.95) from Alto Adige, a wine singing with purity and delicacy from one the best white wine producers in northern Italy. And then there is TERENZUOLA 2009 VERMENTINO ($17.95) from the very seldom seen Colli di Luni appellation in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. Vermentino is a, aromatic, late ripening variety with great acidity that prospers in the sunny Mediterranean coastal areas, including Sardinia . It is also being looked at in Australia these days.

S. Cristina Massoni Lugana 2009 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio 2009 Terenzuola Vermentino 2009

Pushing South America’s Limits

The wines of Chile and Argentina are popping up more frequently it seems in Vintages/LCBO promotions; deservedly so for the quality and value they offer. South America is perhaps the “hottest” place in the New World at the moment, and we haven’t even begun to see the wines of Brazil yet. (No kidding, there are 100s of wineries in the southern highlands). Anyway, the group in this release is similarly focused on appellations beyond the norm.  In Argentina that means areas other than Mendoza, and in Chile northern regions other than Maipo and Colchagua. They represent the next generation of South American wines.

Concha Y Toro Maycas Del Limari Reserva Syrah 2009I have not visited Patagonia in Argentina’s cooler south, or the upper reaches of Cafayate, but I have been to Chile’s northern Limari Valley; the source of two very fine wines in Vintages’ grouping.  The Elqui Valley is even farther north, a spectacular, rocky mountain valley blanketed in steep, terraced hillsides. The Limari is a broader valley that opens right onto the Pacific Ocean which funnels cooling wind and even the occasional fog over undulating vineyards. And unlike any other place in Chile (to my knowledge) there is limestone component in the soils. Which has drawn winemakers like a magnet, to plant chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. One of the first and most successful Limari immigrants was the giant Concha Y Toro, which established the Mayacas Winery.  The Chardonnay on this release is very good, right in the modern mainstream. But it is CONCHA Y TORO 2009 MAYCAS DE LIMARI 2009 RESERVA SYRAH $14.95 that needs your immediate attention – a sleek, finely tuned, stunning value at $14.95, with a peppery/gunflint nose mindful of the new generation of syrahs in southern France.

Virtual Ontario Riesling

Twenty Twenty Seven Cellars Featherstone Vineyard Riesling 2009On the homefront, this release features three wines from what are called “virtual’ wineries in Niagara. Virtual is an apt but odd word.  It refers to a label or entity that actual rents production space at another winery.  There is something itinerantly intriguing and edgy about the idea and the winemakers who go this route; which must real bug established wineries  who have sunk all that money into real bricks and mortars, and considered established and boring. In Ontario the first “virtual” is Charles Baker, the marketing director at Stratus who makes only one wine – riesling – at Stratus. Then comes Steve Byfield who owns the Narayai brand out of Calamus. And then there is Kevin Panagapka who has assisted at Featherstone, and makes riesling and pinot noir under the Twenty Twenty Seven label (the registration number of his winemaking license). TWENTY TWENTY-SEVEN CELLARS 2009 FEATHERSTONE VINEYARD RIESLING $24.95 is a thrill a second. The vintage in general features lifted, pure fruit aromatics and racy lip smacking acidity, which this wine captures effortlessly. But I also like the subtlety and composure. Only 160 cases were made, so you will not likely find it anywhere else beyond this release except on the Ontario wine lists of the most avant garde restaurants. I suspect this wine will age very well for about ten years.

Pinot of the Week

Pinot Noir fans will likely know that Calera is one of the pilgrims of the variety in California; the winery founded by Josh Jensen on a remote, limestone based Mt Harlan in the Central Coast.  The variety actually earned its name as “The Heartbreak Grape” in a book written about Calera. I was a fan of Calera wines but the best single block bottlings were always expensive and rare. So when it launched a more affordable Central Coast label I was very curious, but I found the wines a bit rugged and sour, a lacking the grace and depth of the best.  I lost interest.  So along comes CALERA 2008 PINOT NOIR $32.95 – the most elegant rendition of Calera’s Central Coast edition that I can remember.  There is new sense of joy and fun in a wine that took itself a bit too seriously.

Calera Pinot Noir 2008

See my notes on all the wines in the March 5th release here, and enjoy shopping.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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

WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008