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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Napa Sub-Appellations ~ Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Terroir in Napa? Part I – Amazing how things change with the passage of time. For instance, who would have thought Napa winegrowers would become so interested in terroir, the reciprocal notion that soil, geography, climate, and human intervention played such a vital role in the production of unique, world-class wine? But here we are, in the autumn of 2011, with most serious Napa growers speaking of nothing but terroir, and how the sub-appellations of the valley have come to be recognized as a crucial, if not limited, aspect to the development of less generic, better crafted wine.

Appellation Map

Now, as a crucial part to understanding how terroir is interpreted in the Napa Valley, an ideal place to start is by looking at the fifteen sub-appellations that comprise the region as a whole. Oftentimes demarcated more as a matter of climatic convenience than outright physical geography, the sub-appellations of Napa serve as a very useful tool in grasping the fundamentals of this surprisingly varied—particularly in terms of soil—winegrowing region.


Let’s start with Carneros AVA, located in the southernmost part of the valley and shared with Sonoma County to the west. This is the coolest sub-appellation in Napa, heavily exposed to the cool winds coming off the San Pablo Bay and thus home to superb examples of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as some of the finest sparkling wines in California. Indeed, Carneros is often considered the most significant exception to the rule that Napa is incapable of producing world-class Pinot Noir and cool-climate Chardonnay. Shallow clay-loam soils dominate the area—much less fertile than the Napa Valley floor.

Northeast of Carneros, we come to the Oak Knoll District AVA. Established as an official sub-appellation only relatively recently, here lies an additional cool-climate area of incredible potential. At present, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay have each performed splendidly, though virtually every other major varietal seems happy here. Soil contents vary from volcanic deposits in the northwest to varying traces of gravel-clay loam in the south and east.

West of here is Mount Veeder AVA, a superb sub-appellation located in the Mayacamas mountain range separating Napa and Sonoma. With elevations reaching as high as 650m (important for day-night-time temperature variation), the speciality of Mount Veeder is flavourful, well-structured Cabernet Sauvignon-blends, often capable of significant aging. Soil contents are quite high in acidity and boast heavy volcanic deposits; most are also textured by sandy-loam traces.

Heading back down to the valley floor, we now arrive at Yountville AVA (located just north of the Oak Knoll District). This is Cabernet Sauvignon and (particularly) Merlot territory, the latter greatly benefiting from the clay-rich alluvial deposits to be found throughout the AVA. While the sub-appellation extends right up into the hills, directly bordering Mount Veeder, most vines are found on the valley floor. I rarely encounter wines made exclusively from Yountville grapes.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23

Directly east, however, I have often happened upon some superlative bottlings from the much-heralded Stags Leap District AVA. This is where some of the most elegant Cabernets in the entire Napa Valley are produced, despite elevations only reaching 123m. Moderated by marine breezes from the San Pablo Bay, wines from Stags Leap are usually very supple, oftentimes bordering on silky, displaying dark black cherries and capable of aging for decades. Soils are reasonably fertile, containing volcanic gravel-loams that allow for particularly good drainage on the hillsides.

North of Stags Leap District, we arrive at what some would designate the heartland of Napa Cabernet-blends: Oakville AVA. This is where some of the most powerful examples of this noble grape can be found, where Robert Mondavi began his quest of producing world-class wines more than fifty years ago.

Opus One Napa Valley

Though some marine influence can still be felt from the San Pablo Bay, ripening is fairly simple to achieve on the valley floor; temperatures here are among the hottest in the entire valley. Head to the western (Mayacamas) hills, however, and conditions provide for good drainage and lower fertility—this is where the iconic Harlan Estate is located. For the most part, alluvial fans dominate in the western vineyards, while the eastern portions tend to feature heavier soils intermixed with volcanic deposits—the latter is where Screaming Eagle is located, (arguably) the most sought-after wine, in terms of price, outside of Europe.

Caymus Vineyards Special Selection

North of Oakville, we come to Rutherford AVA, probably the most famous of the Napa sub-appellations. Some would argue that Rutherford represents the epitome of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: powerful, ageworthy, and extremely ripe. Rutherford is also where Cabernet has been grown the longest, some operations having been established more than seventy years prior. With exception, the best vineyards are found in the west, on the so-called ‘Rutherford Bench,’ with slightly higher elevations and soils comprising gravel-sand deposits and alluvial fans. Over the years, tasters have often detected mineral traces in wine from the bench, referred to as ‘Rutherford dust.’ On the east side, gravel deposits can also be found, though they will often be intermixed with volcanic soils of greater fertility. Like Oakville and Stags Leap, Rutherford wines have no difficulty aging.

Retracing our steps just for a moment, if we head to the hills east of the Stags Leap District, we come to Atlas Peak AVA. By most accounts, the creation of this particular, and peculiar, AVA is the result of one man and his quest to perfect Sangiovese in the Napa Valley: Marchesi Pierro Antinori and his founding of Atlas Peak Vineyards. Unfortunately, results for Sangiovese quickly proved a non-starter for this otherwise legendary individual; but the area has shown reasonable promise as a reliable location for sturdy, sprightly Cabernet Sauvignon. With elevations reaching as high as 792m, soils are largely volcanic in origin and very thin. Breezes from the San Pablo Bay are able to reach here with virtual ease.

Northeast of here lies yet another lesser-known area: the Chiles Valley District AVA. Another outpost for would-be vignerons, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel have both shown particular promise in this reasonably warm yet cooler winegrowing region. On the valley floor, alluvial soils and clay deposits predominate, while the hillsides show more clay-loam and stony-clay compositions.

By comparison, the Howell Mountain AVA, north and parallel to the Chiles Valley, is much more famous. Historically recognized for its Zinfandel, this isolated sub-appellation is nowadays best known for some of the most elegant Cabernet Sauvignon-blends in all the hills of the valley, particularly the offerings of Dunn Vineyards. Reasonably free of fog at elevations reaching up to 675m, the Howell Mountain benefits from superb day/night-time temperature variations and infertile, well-drained soils, much of which is volcanic and shallow in composition.

Returning to the valley floor, north of Rutherford is the St Helena AVA. A sub-appellation of contrasts, while St Helena is home to some of the largest wine businesses in Napa, the area also boasts a fair number of cult operations. Warmer than Rutherford and the largest of Napa Valley’s towns, Cabernet Sauvignon predominates; yet other grapes such as Merlot and Zinfandel have also fared well. Soils in the south and west are largely based on gravel and clay, while northern soils are more volcanic in origin.

Diamond Creek Gravelly

West of here is the Spring Mountain District AVA. Boasting a similar climate to that of Mount Veeder, the sub-appellation benefits from both altitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. With elevations reaching as high as 675m, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the main trump cards of the region. Soil deposits are composed primarily of weathered sandstone and shale.

Head north and we arrive at the Diamond Mountain AVA, one of the northernmost outposts of Napa. With elevations reaching up to 530m, the best growers in this remote area, such as Diamond Creek Vineyards, have been those best able to exploit the remarkable diversity of volcanic-based soils to be found throughout this reasonably cool sub-appellation. For my part, I have often thought Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon to be among the most elegant in this part of California. Good Chardonnay, too.

Finally, we arrive at Calistoga AVA, one of the most recently designated sub-appellations. Encircling Diamond Mountain and serving as the northern continuance of St Helena, this part of the valley benefits from both cool ocean breezes and being almost entirely surrounded by mountains. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay are all found in abundance. Soils are almost entirely volcanic in origin.

So there you have it: the sub-appellations of the Napa Valley in their entirety, a positive sign that Napa winemakers do, in fact, have some interest in the notion of terroir. Of course, in reality the sub-appellations of Napa are nothing like their counterparts in the Médoc, where restrictions of vine densities, yields, grape varietals, and minimum natural alcohol levels are clearly defined. Even in Napa sub-appellations, vintners have a free hand in most of their doings—hell, only 85% of the actual grapes have to come from any specific sub-appellation in order for it (i.e. the sub-appellation) to be included on the label. But at least a sub-appellation like Carneros (cool-climate) or Oakville (hot climate) or Diamond Mountain (elevation) will provide some indication as to how the wine will probably taste. For Americans, greedily laissez-faire as they are, this can be deemed an excellent start.

Click here for a few gems from the 29 October 2011 Vintages Release and other items

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages October 29th Release: Sonoma’s Patchwork, Spain’s No Bull Toro and Torres, Coudelet de Beaucastel, Bargains Under $20, Ottawa Calling

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Vintages’ treasure laden autumn releases continue on Oct 29th with California’s Sonoma County in the spotlight.  Due to family and travel commitments I was not able to taste all the wines on Vintages tasting dates, but colleagues John Szabo and Sara d’Amato have filled in admirably, and I hope to taste more of the selections after they hit the shelves. Yes I do buy wines to taste as well.

Sonoma’s Patchwork

Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Freestone Chardonnay 2008

At first I found the selection of Sonoma wines oddly tilted to big cabs and zins, whereas I have come to think of Sonoma as more of a pinot noir and chardonnay enclave. But this view misses the key point about Sonoma, and its point of comparison to next door Napa. (Sonoma is always compared to Napa – no getting around it).  Sonoma is diverse above all – with at least six distinct sub-regions. Those farther inland – Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and to some extent Sonoma Valley – are bastions for big reds, while those closer to the Pacific Ocean – Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Carneros – are better for pinot noir and chardonnay. Within a small selection Vintages magazine has made this point well.

The other important point of comparison with Napa is price. The selection is not cheap, but If any of these big reds had a Napa label the price would be at least double. I draw your attention in particular to KENWOOD JACK LONDON VINEYARD 2007 CABERNET SAUVIGNON at $34.95, a sturdy yet fine cabernet that could age a decade or more, grown on Sonoma Mountain where iconic American novelist Jack London penned his greatest works.  FREESTONE 2008 CHARDONNAY is certainly among Sonoma’s most expensive wines at $69.95, but this offering from the new coastal vineyards of Napa-based Joseph Phelps is one of the best chardonnays I have tasted this year. And in Napa it would be over $100 for this quality.

Spain’s Toro and Torres, No Bull Here

Having spent last week in Spain’s northwest Castilla Y Leon region, I can provide better background on the Toro wine featured on the 29th.  Toro is one of several increasingly important appellations (or DOs, denominacion d;origen) in this massive Castilla region. It is led by well established Ribera del Duero whose top properties like Pesquera, Emilio Moro and Aalto are achieving big prices with lush, often elegant, modern reds. But my trip focused on  Rueda, Toro, Cigales and Bierzo – appellations that are bursting from obscurity onto the international stage. A decade ago each of these appellations had only a dozen or so bodegas and co-operatives, but now each have over 50. Most are sourcing their wines from old bush vines planted 50 to 100 years ago to supply local co-op and family production, a motherlode that has attracted a new generation of internationally trained or travelled Spanish and French winemakers. The result is generally a very high level of wine quality, at relatively low prices.  I was continually shocked at the value I encountered.

Sabor Real Viñas Centenarias Tempranillo 2007 Miguel Torres Mas Borràs Pinot Noir 2008 Westward down the Duoro River, only 100 kms from the Portuguese border and port country – lies Toro.  The ancient capital is dramatically perched on a red clay cliff that overlooks the river and vineyards. This is a hot region producing big reds that routinely break the 15% alcohol mark. And they can be very tannic as the skins of the Tinto do Toro grape (a clone of tempranillo) thicken up to shield the heat. Toro has historically been known as the most “rustic” red of Spain, which is a bit unfair given the fine work now being done by the new generation. I love the beautifully ripe blackberry, floral scents of many Toro wines, and many were packed with so much old vine concentration that the alcohol was held in abeyance. SABOR REAL VIÑAS CENTENNARIAS 2007 TEMPRANILLO, is very good example at a very good price ($15.00), but I look forward to the day when more Toro wines from producers like Numanthia, San Roman, Farina, Bendito and Rejadorada come through Vintages.

Over on the east coast of Spain, high in the Penedes hills overlooking the Mediterranean, Miguel Torres (one of Spain’s most well known modern producers) is making Spain’s best pinot noir. High altitude vineyards are very important and a point of pride in Spain where grapes mature more slowly and evenly, spared some of the sun and heat so common here.  MIGUEL TORRES 2008 MAS BORRAS PINOT NOIR ($29.95) is a single vineyard pinot showing excellent complexity and poise, and although not every vintage is this good, the 2008 (from a cooler season) belongs among the best pinots now being made internationally.

Cuddly Coudelet de Beaucastel

A glass of 2010 Coudelet Blanc was first thrust in my hand at a reception prior to a winemaker’s dinner hosted by Thomas Perrin of Chateau de Beaucastel.  ‘Wow, great start, what is it?” I asked the young woman in the black cocktail dress who was passing the tray. And she pronounced Coudelet without missing a beat. The dinner was held at the new Earl’s restaurant at University and King in downtown Toronto; a massive, boisterous, casual but classy Bay St eatery that must have its high rent neighbours wondering why they ever built their temple cellars. One doesn’t expect a top notch wine program from a chain, but the very successful Vancouver-born Earl’s pays extraordinary attention to wine, offering good quality selections that are well priced with many served by the glass.  A place to drink wine, not worship it.

Château Beaucastel Coudoulet De Beaucastel 2009 Château De Beaucastel Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2010 Earl’s is a great fit for the wines of the southern Rhone Valley’s Perrin family, owners of the legendary Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is a polished, comfy, even cuddly ambiance to the large Perrin range that includes most of the villages in the southern Rhone. Many are currently in Vintages (and easily searchable on WineAlign) with Coudelet Blanc and Rouge being released October 29th.  Coudelet is a vineyard adjacent to the famed Chateau de Beaucastel, but lying just on the other side of the freeway and outside the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation boundary in the Cotes du Rhone AOC.  For about one-third the price of Beaucastel, CHÂTEAU BEAUCASTEL 2009 COUDOULET DE BEAUCASTEL ($29.95) delivers far more than one-third the quality, having only slightly less depth.  CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL 2010 COUDOULET DE BEAUCASTEL BLANC($33.95) is a bit more expensive than the red because production is far smaller. But as mentioned before is a very good wine – bright, complex, refreshing yet sturdy. Serve it is a classy opener for a holiday gathering.

Bargains Under $20

And now some quick hits on three wines that score in the 89+ range for under $20. The kind of wine you just want to rush home and open on a Friday night after a long week.

Tawse Winery of Niagara continues to go from strength to strength, taking Winery of the Year honours at the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards for the second consecutive year. The bright, impeccably balanced TAWSE SKETCHES OF NIAGARA 2010 RIESLING  ($17.95) is a great example of the level of surehandedness at this modern, organic/biodynamically farmed Beamsville property.

I was also very impressed by MAS DES BRESSADES 2009 CUVÉE TRADITION BLANCfrom the Costières de Nîmes appellation in the southern Rhone Valley.  The rather non-descript label offers no hint of the exotic, spicy, semi-tropical white inside. I was immediately thinking of Asian cuisine. The price is a mere $14.95!

And I was charmed by SALCHETO 2008 ROSSO DI MONTEPULCIANO at only $17.95. Modern winemaking is filtering down to Tuscany’s lower price tiers, and this Rosso offers a lot of the complexity if not the structure or depth of big brother Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Riesling 2010   Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Blanc 2010    Salcheto Rosso Di Montepulciano 2008

Ottawa Calling

I am off to Ottawa to spend a few wine soaked days in Canada’s capital. From November 9th to 13th it will be Ontario’s wine capital, as the rejuvenated and expanded Ottawa Wine and Food Festival launches in the spectacular new Ottawa Convention Centre on the banks of the Rideau Canal.  New owner Joan Culliton is out to create the Ontario version of the Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival (an ambition unfulfilled in Toronto) with over 40 events spread across five days.

I will be at the WineAlign booth for the duration, so please drop by. I will also be leading three Ontario wine tasting/seminars – Chardonnay on Friday Nov 11th, Pinot Noir on Saturday and Cabernet Franc on Sunday.  And on the evening on Thursday Nov 10th I will join Anthony Gismondi of Wine Access to present the winners of the Canadian Wine Awards, followed by a unique Meet Your Winemaker Match program that will give individuals one on one face time with gold medal winning winemakers.  Go to for schedules and ticket sales.

Then on November 14th I will be on hand for the Ottawa Gold Medal Plates chef completion, one of nine city qualifying rounds for the Canadian Culinary Championships – all raising funds for Canada’s Olympic athletes. See all the details at

Meanwhile, view all my reviews for the October 29th release here, and I’ll be back again for Vintages November 12th release.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Classic vintages

The new vintages of these long-standing favourites in the LCBO are more appealing than ever. Find these classics to stock up on via

Oyster Bay Chardonnay 2010
LCBO No. 326728; $18.95
This expressive white from New Zealand has an attractive toasty oak bouquet from seasoned French barriques. On the palate, the oak is balanced nicely with tangy fruit and just the right amount of acidity. Medium bodied and fruit forward with a creamy texture, it’s distinctive and elegant — good with poultry, cheesy pastas, black cod.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2011
LCBO No. 304469; $29.95
This iconic sauvignon blanc was sourced from four sub-regions of the Wairau Valley in New Zealand. Medium-full bodied, it’s a connoisseur’s style of white with layers, complexity and subtleties. There’s a refreshing acidity, lots of ripe peach and other stone fruit character. Lush, succulent but not over the top, it intrigues to the last drop.

Negrar Amarone della Valpollicella Classico 2007
LCBO No. 44784; $29.95
This Italian red from Veneto suffered a setback when some crook sold poor knock-offs of the previous vintage. You can buy the authentic, always delicious version at a $5 reduction until Nov. 5. Robust, velvety, quite full bodied, it’s a solid, well made, hearty and satisfying wine. Perfect for meats, braised dishes and strong cheeses.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 29th 2011: How Unknown Unknowns Are Robbing Your Wine Enjoyment; Top Ten Smart, less well-known Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Are Unknown Unknowns Robbing Your Wine Enjoyment? Or Skip to the Smart Buys if you are enjoying wine just fine, thank you.

This week’s release themes are Sonoma and “Party” wines. The latter is pretty much the underlying theme every release as far as I’m concerned (never drink a wine that you wouldn’t bring to a party), while the former, Sonoma, sees a range of wines that are solid but not outstanding. So I’ve opted instead to delve a little into the world of unknown unknowns and focus on some less common wines worth seeking out.

Donald Rumsfled Video

Donald Rumsfled

NATO HQ, Brussels, June 6, 2002, Press Conference by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns.  These are the things we do not know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld took a lot of flack for that seemingly absurd response to a journalist’s question regarding terrorism and WMDs. But maybe he is smarter than we think. Or at least maybe he accidentally hit on one of the great truths that shape our lives: ignorance. I’m talking about ignorance in the true sense of the word, that is, not knowing, or unawareness. How limited are we in our world experience, in our wine enjoyment by what we don’t know?

There’s a scientific-sounding name for the impact of unknown unknowns: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, after David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology and his graduate student Justin Kruger. One day in 1996 Dunning had a flash of insight while reading the account of would-be bank robber McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler, apparently, believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would render him unrecognizable on security cameras. So he walked into two Pittsburg banks in broad daylight wielding a gun and demanded money from the teller. At 5’6” and 270 pounds, he was not a tough character to pick out of a line up; he was arrested less than an hour after the surveillance photos of him were posted on the 11 o’clock news. Is it possible to be that stupid?

Dunning began to wonder if maybe some people might be too stupid to even know how stupid they are. So along with his graduate student they designed some experiments to test the hypothesis, and in 1999 published their results in the paper entitled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments”. [1] The capacity of our incompetence to mask our ability to recognize our incompetence is now known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I see this all too frequently in the wine world: a nighttime wine course at a community college and you’ve got it all figured out. The folks who really do have a grasp on wine are the first to tell you how little they know.

The wisdom of knowing you haven’t really figured it all out is not exactly groundbreaking stuff; after all, Socrates recognized 2500 years ago that the only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing. But it did get me thinking about how ignorance also shapes consumer habits in general, and wine drinking in particular. How much does what you don’t know about wine inform your wine buying choices? Known things are comfortable, unknown things are risky, even scary. People invariably gravitate to what they know out of fear and uncertainty.

Among the billions of things I don’t know, like the exact distance to the moon or why you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway, there are at least multiple thousands of things I don’t know about the world of wine. What are the 2008 Barolos like? How did Mendoza fair in 2011? Who are the leading producers in Brazil and Uruguay? What is the best match for deep-fried crickets? (I could make an educated guess.) These are known unknowns, and knowing gives me at least the possibility of finding the answers, it’s just a matter of ‘research’. But what about the things in the world of wine that I don’t even know that I don’t know? How different would my wine enjoyment be if I knew more about the unknown unknowns?

Do you reach for the same brand each time you step into the LCBO? Do you stick mainly to the grapes and places with which you are familiar? Did you know that excellent wine is made in Georgia and Japan, and not so excellent wine in Belgium and the Netherlands? How about the black grape variety called mavrotragano from Santorini: did you know that you don’t know how tasty it can be?

As Dunning wrote in correspondence with Errol Morris of the New York Times in an article entitled: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is [2] “Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of.  In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life.  And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.”

Yes, I had to look up anosognosic as well. It means “a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability”. [3] Even if not neurologically, we’re all psychologically anosognomatic in one way or another. But knowing that is half the battle, and this little bit of surface research inspired by the NYT article just reminded me of how much there is I know that I don’t know, and how much there is that I don’t know that I don’t know.

I was further inspired to delve deeper into the world of unknown wine while reading Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer’s recent piece on why he no longer buys expensive wines. For Kramer, as for me and countless other wine lovers, a good part of the enjoyment comes from the thrill of surprise. With stratospherically priced wines, there is little surprise left – most are boringly predictable: “The majority of the world’s most interesting wines now come from ‘unknown’, or at least unheralded, locales.”. It’s true: while the classic regions remain classic for good reason, there’s more excitement and surprise to be found in the unknown.

So I may buy Volvo after Volvo for the reassurance of known qualities and lack of surprise, but wine buying, at least some of the time, should fall in the category of “acceptably risky” and promiscuous consumer behavior. Otherwise you’ll never know what you’re missing.

Inama Vin Soave Classico 2009 Less-Known Smart Buys

In the spirit of discovery and narrowing the field of unknowns, this week’s smart buys are mostly less-known grapes, regions, producers or unusual wine styles. One of the latter is the 2009 INAMA VIN SOAVE CLASSICO DOC $17.95. This is an idiosyncratic example of Soave, a wine with tons of character and depth including palpable salty-minerality, but some slightly oxidative and other-than-fruit notes might send some drinkers running to the nearest industrial chardonnay. I love the quirky side of this wine, made with pure, honest intentions by an artisan, Stefano Inama. Working with old vines and top sites is the key to top garganega, according to Inama, along with low yields, and minimalist winemaking. This is all of that, and more. Nature is not perfect and symmetrical, so why should wine, a product of nature, be any different?

Boyar Estates Blueridge Xr Chardonnay 2009 Speaking of chardonnay, if you’re running that way, might as well save yourself a few dollars and pick up the shockingly good value 2009 BOYAR ESTATES BLUERIDGE XR CHARDONNAY, Bulgaria $11.95. Now, this may not set the world on fire, but it’s surely as good as a boatload of $15-$20 chardonnay, delivering easy-drinking pleasure with an extra measure of class for a very fair, unknown region type of price.
Château Hauchat 2009

If Bordeaux’s your passion but you’re tired of the over-inflated prices of the name-brand appellations, take refuge in the value afforded by the region’s less-celebrated backwaters. The 2009 CHÂTEAU HAUCHAT AC Fronsac $14.95 has a fine mix of red and black berry fruit, integrated wood, sappy, fleshy fruit extract, excellent complexity, balance, depth and long finish, especially at this price.

If full-bodied, heady, amarone-style wines make your taste buds tingle, look to spend about half the money for similar depth in the 2004 CESCA VICENT LO PIOT DOCa Priorat $25.95 . It’s an over the top though not atypical Priorat (in Catalonia’s hinterland), with a whopping 15% alcohol and flavours firmly in the baked/raisined/dried berry (i.e. amarone) spectrum. Yet striking minerality born from the region’s schistous soils emerges on the finish, making this a wine with it’s own unique sense of place.

Also off the beaten path but worth a look for fans of new world-style cabernet seeking new horizons is the 2006 LENTO LAMEZIA RISERVA DOC $19.95. Calabria rarely figures on anyone’s fine wine map for a myriad of reasons, least of which is the capacity to produce interesting, and even excellent wines, as one stumbles across from time to time. This is made from a southern Italian stew of magliocco, greco nero and nerello calabrese (did you know these grapes even existed?), delivering a compellingly spicy, earthy, savoury, ripe black fruit flavoured wine, reminiscent of warm climate cabernet sauvignon.

Cesca Vicent Lo Piot 2004   Lento Lamezia Riserva 2006

See all of this week’s unknown smart buys here, and happy discoveries!

From the October 29th Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Article References:
1. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.

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

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

There are five new wines on the Top 50 this month as a result of recently tasted wines, price changes, new additions to the LCBO’s selection and new vintages of existing listings. The Top 50 list features 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. You can easily find my Top 50 Value Wines from the WineAlign main menu. Click on Wine => Top 50 Value Wines to be taken directly to the list.

To be included in the Top 50 for value a wine must be inexpensive while also having a high score, indicating high quality. 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.In addition to the great value wines below, please check out the preview for season two of our video series.  We’ll be releasing new episodes from season two: “The Tournament” through-out the fall.

Additions to My Top 50

I have recently tasted some new vintages of wines which resulted in four wines joining my Top 50 list. Most of the wines on this list come from just a few regions of the world that are today supplying the stores in Ontario with the best value wines.
Vila Regia 2009Portugal  is the origin of three of the Top 50 wines. Known for centuries as the source of fortified sweet red wines known as Port, it also produces many excellent dry red wines from the same blend of grapes that are used for port.Vila Regia 2009, Douro Valley $7.95 is a pure well structured red with a nose of blueberry and black cherry fruit. It is midweight with bright berry fruit and fresh acidity with a smooth texture leading to a finish where some firm tannin shows through, though the fruit persists well. Very good length. Try with a steak.

Callia Alta Malbec 2010Ten of the wines on the list come from Argentina, which is a major world producer of wines, mainly red, and is renowned for the malbec grape. Most of Argentina’s wines come from the Mendoza region which is the other side of the Andes from the vineyards in Chile and around 1000km from the Atlantic Ocean and the capital Buenos Aires. The Argentine vineyards are established in a desert area in the Andean foothills and depend upon irrigation water from the Andes. San Juan is about 2 hours drive across the desert north of Mendoza. Another new entrant to the list comes from here.

Callia Alta Malbec 2010, San Juan $9.95 is a very drinkable malbec that is finely balanced with ample ripe fruit and is thankfully not as jammy as are many in the genre. Expect aromas of blackberry, with subtle oak spice plus some herbal and dark chocolate notes. Mid-weight smooth and juicy with spicy fruit and good length. Try with grilled meats.

Though best known for malbec, Argentina is also producing excellent wines from cabernet sauvignon and syrah, like the third new entrant to the list. Trivento Tribu Syrah 2010, Mendoza $7.60 has a lot of flavour for a wine at this price. It shows ripe fruit yet is balanced by soft tannin and juicy acidity and has very good length with the fruit persisting well. The nose is a bit slender with some blackberry fruit with tobacco notes. Try with meaty pasta sauces, pizza or roast meats. This wine has unfortunately been discontinued at LCBO hence its excellent price. Over 4000 bottles remain, so take advantage while inventory lasts.

Trivento Tribu Syrah 2010

Farnese Daunia Sangiovese 2010Southern Italy is the source of 11 wines in the Top 50. They come from three regions Sicily, Puglia and Abruzzo. Five of them, including the fourth entrant to the list come from one winery, Farnese; a remarkable achievement for this producer from Abruzzo.

Farnese Daunia Sangiovese 2010, Abruzzo $7.40 is very similar to previous vintages. It is fruity, clean and is a great buy to enjoy with everyday meals. The nose shows mild black and red berry fruit with a spicy note and some earthy complexity. It is medium to full bodied and fairly simple on the palate with the balanced ripe fruit flowing though to the finish. Very good length with a dry finish.

Limited Time Offers (LTO)

Every month about 100 products at the LCBO go on sale for four weeks. As a consequence of this temporary price reduction, one wine has joined the Top 50.

Fuzion Alta Malbec Reserva 2009, Mendoza $8.95 is made 100% from malbec. It is a  structured, tannin balanced wine with a good depth of flavour at a great price. Expect blackberry fruit with dark chocolate notes mild oak spice and a hint of prune. Medium-full bodied with good length.  You have until November 6, 2011 to take advantage of this price reduction, though at $9.95 it will still be a good deal.

Fuzion Alta Malbec Reserva 2009

Please click here for a complete list of the Top 50 Value Wines 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

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Ghoulish Grapes – Halloween wines by Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d'Amato

Spooky is not an adjective commonly associated with wine; in fact, I would be concerned if it was used as a descriptor. However, with the spookiest day of the year quickly approaching, which is just as amusing for many adults as it is for children, ghoulish wines cannot be overlooked.  Unless you’re anxious to do tricks, it is only fair that we have our “treats” too! So whether you’re planning a thematic gathering or just in for a good time, here are some wines to pair with this unearthly night . . .


Dark as the Night

Montes Limited Selection Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenère 2010, Apalta Vineyard, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $14.95

Carmenere is a deeply coloured, blood-red tinged wine that most definitely has spook value especially if you are playing the part of the blood sucking vampire. Traditionally, Carmenere was used as a blending grape in Bordeaux and would add beautiful dark hues to the wine, not to mention an elegant savory character. Nowadays, it is primarily planted and grown in Chile where it was previously mistaken for Merlot and now takes center stage in a solo role.  This more traditional blend is supple, enticing and undeniably approachable — be wary of its mysterious powers of intoxication!

Something Sweet

While the kiddos are busy canvasing for sweets, don’t we deserve to be rewarded too for all of our efforts at keeping up house and home? For all those who have sweet teeth rivaling those of the younger generation, try this tense, eerily off-dry, homegrown brew from Henry Of Pelham Reserve Off Dry Riesling 2008, VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada, $15.95. The ghostly white and transparent colour of this wine proves even more sinister on the palate with tense, nervy, and one might say ‘spine-tingling’ flavours and texture. An intensely high acid varietal, this version is balanced by just the right amount of sweetness to give it that pleasurable, absolutely delicious, goose bump-inducing character. And not to worry, the acidity will take care of the cavity-engendering sweetness.

A Horrifyingly Good Pinot

Amity Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA, $20.95

Although not produced anywhere near the scene of the gruesome and highly disputed Amityville horror house, the Amity Hills Pinot Noir is terrifyingly good juice. The Pinot Noir varietal, known as the “heartbreak grape,” with its troublesome and unwieldy character, has plagued winemakers for centuries – one might refer to it as having a “possessed” nature, as it refuses to be managed and is susceptible to all sorts of spooky-looking, gnarly rots and mold.  Being able to produce a great Pinot Noir depends just as much on the quality of the vineyard as it does on the winemaker’s prowess, resulting in some of the world’s most hauntingly expressive and complex wines.

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What women want — at the bar, at least


My wife is an intelligent woman, despite having arranged to host a stagette party at our place — twice. The most recent, which took place last Saturday, found me handily provisioned with two new products that appear to be geared to female drinkers. I offered them up to the goddesses of night and got the hell out of there, intending to ask about the reaction later. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bonnie Stern: Make a fest of this wurst

It is hard to go very far in Berlin without seeing a street stall selling currywurst, the German capital’s favourite fast food. (The city even got the world’s only Currywurst Museum back in 2009.)  Though there are many variations, it’s basically fried sausage covered with a sweet curried tomato sauce served with french fries and mayonnaise. As unlikely as it sounds, it is actually delicious. On a recent trip to Berlin, we had really good currywurst at the well-regarded Curry36. It’s easy to make yourself and the perfect way to celebrate Oktoberfest, that time of year when sausages are king.

Currywurst originated just after the Second World War and caught on as it was a reasonably priced comfort food with an exotic twist. Sixty years later, it is the most popular fast food in Germany. In my version, I roast the sausages and potatoes to make them a little less decadent.
– 2 lbs bratwurst or other sausages you like
– 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
– 1  onion, chopped
– 2 tbsp curry paste or powder (I use Patak’s Madras curry paste available at supermarkets)
– 1 28 oz./796 mL tin plum tomatoes
– ¼ cup ketchup
– 2 tbsp sugar or honey
– 1 tbsp cider vinegar
– 1 tsp kosher salt or more to taste
1. Place sausages on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pierce in one or two places with a tip of a knife. Roast in a preheated 375F oven for 30 to 45 minutes, turning every 10 or 15 minutes until browned and cooked through.
2. For curry sauce cook onions in olive oil until tender and beginning to brown a bit. Add curry paste and cook 20 to 30 seconds on medium heat. Add tomatoes and juices and break them up with a wooden spoon. Add ketchup, sugar, vinegar and salt. Cook gently about 20 minutes or until thick. Leave chunky or purée.
3. To serve, slice sausages in 1-inch pieces. Drizzle sauce on top. Serve with oven-roasted fries with mayonnaise on the side. Makes 6 servings

Although I love to eat really good fries when I’m out, I rarely deep-fry  at home and love oven-fried potatoes, too.
– 2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
– 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
– 1 tsp kosher salt, divided
– ¼ tsp curry powder
– ¼ cup mayonnaise (or more)
1. Cut potatoes into french fry sticks, toss with olive oil and a little salt. Spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes until browned and crisp.
2. Combine curry powder and remaining salt and toss with fries when they come out of the oven.

Poppy seeds are very popular in German and Austrian desserts. Grinding them cracks the seed and releases the flavour. They can be ground in a blender but I like to use a small coffee/spice grinder. Serve with whipped cream. This recipe was adapted from Kaffeehaus by Rick Rodgers.
– ½ cup poppy seeds
– 2 cups cake flour, sifted (or 1 7⁄8 cups all-purpose flour)
– 2 tsp baking powder
– ¼ tsp kosher salt
– 1 cup butter
– 1 ½ cups icing sugar, sifted
– 4 eggs
– 1 tbsp grated lemon peel
– 1 tsp pure vanilla
– ½ tsp pure almond extract
– ½ cup milk
– 2 tbsp rum (preferably dark)
1. Grind poppy seeds, about 1⁄4 cup at a time, in a small electric coffee/spice grinder for about 30 seconds a batch.
2. Sift and then whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk in ground poppy seeds to distribute them thoroughly. Reserve.
3. In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer cream butter about 1 minute until light. Beat in sifted icing sugar and beat 2 to 3 minutes until very pale. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Do not worry if batter looks curdled! Beat in lemon peel, vanilla and almond extract.
4. Combine milk and rum. Add flour to batter alternately with milk starting and ending with flour in three additions. Beat just until each addition is blended.
5. Spoon batter into a greased 9-inch bundt or tube pan and bake in a preheated 350F oven for 45 to 55 minutes or until done (a meat thermometer should read 185F). Cool 10 minutes, turn cake out and dust with icing sugar. Makes one 9-inch tube cake

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Chianti Classico – The classic wine of Tuscany ~ Saturday, October 15th, 2011

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Constant improvement:  Outside of Brunello di Montalcino and (perhaps) Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the Chianti Classico zone is nowadays home to some of the greatest Sangiovese-based wines in the world. Awarded its own DOC between Florence and Siena in 1966 (promoted to DOCG status in 1984), the finest examples of Chianti Classico have undergone nothing short of a colossal leap in quality over the past dozen or so years, becoming an increasingly viable source for even the most discriminating of collectors.

Fontodi Chianti Classico - DOCG Tuscany, Italy

Indeed, the advancements have been incredible. Compared to fifteen years ago, today’s Chianti Classicos are far better suited to the modern palate: fresher, rounder, and oftentimes just as complex, with better clones of Sangiovese being planted to full advantage on the famous galestro soils (schist-based, or shaly clay) and alberese (limestone-based) deposits found throughout much of Tuscany. Together with state-of-the-art winemaking facilities and an impassioned drive to craft the best wines possible, the finest bottlings of Chianti Classico have emerged, quite legitimately, as some of the greatest, most terroir-driven wines of Italy.

Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2004

The blend for Chianti Classico is fairly simple. Producers are permitted to use 80-100% Sangiovese (80% being the proscribed minimum), along with up to 20% international varietals, with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot being the most common. Even so, some producers still prefer using permitted local varietals in lieu of French ones: Canaiolo or Colorino. Yields in the vineyard may not exceed 52.5 hl/ha, though the best producers will often harvest far lower than this. The wine must be aged for at least 7 months in oak and may not be released to the public before at least 1 October the year following the vintage.

Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico 2004

Chianti Classico Riserva, on the other hand, requires longer aging: 2 years in oak and at least 3 months in bottle. The type of oak used is decided by the producer, with some preferring Slavonian oak for a more ‘traditional’ style, while others may opt for French oak for a more modern, fuller, and slightly less austere type of wine.

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva

Still, serious collectors should remember that not all Chianti Classicos are created equal. Despite enormous improvements in quality over the past fifteen or so years, there are still plenty of wines that simply do not measure up to the standards set by the finest estates, such as the labels shown in this column. At their best, a first-rate Chianti Classico ought to revel in beautiful, slightly rustic aromas of dark wild cherries and plums, cedar, undergrowth, light herbs, and spice; with more modern examples boasting additional scents of subtle black cherries, vanillin, and mild (never dominant) toasted oak.

Just as important, the best Chianti Classicos should have little trouble aging for well over ten years; though it is generally advisable to drink up between four and six years, especially when the wine hails from only a moderate vintage—as of late, I have begun drinking ’06 with absolute pleasure. Once again, it goes without saying that collectors should stick with the best producers. And yet, at the rate that overall quality keeps on improving, we can all trust to have many more choices over the next several years.

Click here for a few gems from the 15 October 2011 Vintages Release and other items

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Reds for fall drinking

This Saturday’s Vintages release features some big, bold, nicely aged reds for fall-weather drinking. Find these via

Viniterra Select Malbec 2005
LCBO No. 177964; $21.95
Argentina’s premium reds go beyond flavoursome, bringing structure and balance to the table, as with this Malbec. Ripe blackberry is enhanced with notes of vanilla and spice from a year of aging in new French and American oak. Smooth with supple tannins and hints of cocoa, its style is a crowd-pleaser.

Poggio Verrano Chance 2005
LCBO No. 239707; $33.95
The Bolla family, whose winemaking tradition dates to 1883, launched Chance to celebrate 150 years of Italy. This Tuscan blend impresses with its serious demeanour. Almost New World in its ripeness, it’s balanced with savoury notes of cedar, menthol, underbrush and spices. Velvety tannins make it ready to drink, though it definitely can age further.

D’Arenberg The Galvo Garage 2007
LCBO No. 907584; $29.95
This Cabernet Sauvignon dominant red has 25% Merlot and a surprising 21% Petit Verdot, as well as a small amount of Cabernet Franc in the blend. Grapes come from South Australia. Whiffs of cedar and berry come forth in the bouquet. Medium, full-bodied with good complexity, its oak is nicely integrated into its layers of fruit.

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008