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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Bubblies

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

There are good bubblies available to ring in the New Year whatever your budget.  Find these sparklers via

 Codorniu Brut Classico Trio Pack  $10.95 (86 Points)

This trio of 200mL bottles are all about fun and value. From Spain, made in the traditional ‘champagne’ method, this bubbly is fresh, medium bodied and fairly dry with decent soft fruit flavours. The twist open top is easy to pop off for a swig while dancing. Or use to make individual sparkling cocktails by adding a splash of fruit liqueur to a flute before pouring.

Cuvée Catharine Brut LCBO $29.95 (90 Points)

A medium full bodied blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, this dry sparkler made in the traditional method has spent 30 months aging on the lees. There’s a nice touch of toast throughout and good depth of fruity-citrus flavour with mineral notes. Have with caviar or oysters as a special treat. Or add a dollop of cabernet franc icewine for a pretty and festive all Canadian Blushing Kir.

Piper-Heidsieck Brut  $49.95 (91 Points)

Made in a lively, elegant style this true Champagne brand was first created in 1785. The House style has always been crisp yet approachable with charm and focus. Lightly toasty, medium bodied with a fresh floral and apple bouquet, there’s a good tang of citrus fruit on the palate. The overall impression is delicate, fresh and quite light on the palate with intriguing secondary flavours that keep you returning to the glass.

Filed under: Appetizer, Wine, , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 7th 2012: Thoughts on 2011 and What’s to Come in 2012; Smart Buys and “European World Discoveries”

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

While early January may be a time for reflection on the year to come, there is little to contemplate in this first Vintages release. Out of a rather thin field I’ve listed my smart buys out of the LCBO’s smart buys theme here. Unsurprisingly, many of the top values originate from regions already well-known to value seekers: Casablanca Valley in Chile, South Africa’s Western Cape, and most impressively, the southern Rhône Valley. Just check out the 2009 DOMAINE DU GRAND MONTMIRAIL VACQUEYRAS AC  $24.95  and the 2007 DOMAINE SAINT ANDÉOL SÉDUCTION CAIRANNE CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES AC $17.95 for a look at how satisfying, and warming on a winter’s eve, these Grenache-based wines can be.

Domaine Du Grand Montmirail Vacqueyras 2009  Domaine Saint Andéol Séduction Cairanne Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2007

Most of the wines in the European World Discoveries theme were disappointing and will do little to encourage drinkers out of the tried and true, but for something a little different try the 2010 CHATEAU KSARA BLANC DE L’OBSERVATOIRE Lebanon $15.95, an intriguing white blend with nutty, oxidative but highly stony character. If the comfort of familiarity is the order of the day, the 2009 DOMAINE DU CHARDONNAY CHABLIS AC  $19.95 is a strikingly fine example of minerally, oak-free chardonnay, and fine value, too.

Chateau Ksara Blanc De L'observatoire 2010 Domaine Du Chardonnay Chablis 2009

Looking Back To 2011 And Forward To 2012: Some Observations On The Wine Scene:

Natural Wines

You’ve heard about sustainable, unfiltered, organic and maybe even biodynamic wines. And in 2011 yet another category started to slip into the mainstream: natural wines. Judging by the startling amount of press to date (especially given their microscopic share of the wine market), I’d prepare to hear a lot more about them.

That’s not to say that other wines are somehow ‘unnatural’, as the term implies (vinegar is the only truly ‘natural’ outcome of fermenting fruit), but there are degrees of more and less manipulated wine. Though the fine details vary, most adherents to the natural wine movement can agree on the broad strokes: grapes should be grown without synthetic pesticides or herbicides (like organic or biodynamic wines), and then treated with minimal intervention in the winery. See the charter on the website of the Associations des Vins Naturels for a definition.

While some of the so-called natural wines I’ve tasted are downright faulty, by and large these are intriguing, sometimes extraordinary expressions with a real sense of place. It’s a backlash against, even the antithesis of industrially made, formulaic commercial products. I for one welcome the resurgence in diversity, which can only be good for humanity.

Grower Champagne



Yes, I’ve been on this subject before, and it’s hardly radical, but the buzz on the streets among sommeliers and the agents who represent small family-run champagne estates is reaching fever pitch. Ontario, a rather conservative market for champagne historically, is embracing the individuality, even idiosyncratic character, not to mention the pure value for pleasure & money equation offered by grower champagnes like never before, and stocks are moving fast. When you’re ready to spend again for champagne, look for the letters “RM” in tiny print on the label, meaning “récoltant-manipulant”, i.e. made by someone who grows his own grapes (as opposed to purchasing fruit).

California Central Coast, and the Illusion of Overripe Grapes

David Hopkins

David Hopkins

A trip to California last November revealed America’s largest wine region by far is quite literally bubbling over with excitement and innovation. Spurred on by booming sales (exports to Canada are up significantly), a sub-group of wineries are operating outside the status quo and diversifying the vinous landscape. But it’s not just the small, fringe operators. I visited one winery in Santa Barbara owned by no smaller a giant than Gallo, Bridlewood Estate. I expected the worst (dull, corporate, formula wine), but instead I met David Hopkins, a wonderfully ebullient winemaker defiantly refusing to toe the corporate line (well, he makes a couple of wines for head office). David is testing the limits of his Santa Barbara grapes, experimenting with concrete egg fermenters and harvesting early to make naturally balanced, fresh and elegant wines. This is but one representative example of how the Golden State, and the Central Coast region in particular, is reinventing, or continuing to invent their wine story – all very positive.

On the them of ripeness, this last round of visits, lengthy heated discussions and tastings proved conclusively, at least for me, that the necessity of harvesting grapes at ludicrously high levels of ripeness to achieve so-called “phenolic maturity” is a pure illusion concocted by winemakers chasing scores from a small handful of decreasingly important wine critics. It has nothing to do with global warming (just ask Napa vintners about the 2011 harvest), and everything to do with a stylistic choice.

Harvesting grapes at 17%-18% potential alcohol may develop that beloved (by some) ‘jammy’ character, but then requires significant manipulation (watering down, acidifying, adding powdered tannins, etc.) to actually make a stable wine. This is a caricature in my view. Thankfully, a growing number of producers are moving away from this model, and some, even big Napa names such as Montelena, Heitz, Dunn, Grgich and Corison, and other high profile estates like Ridge, Bonny Doon and Mount Eden in Santa Cruz, and Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and many more never went there in the first place. I think we’ll begin to see greater numbers from California and elsewhere returning to reason, in the name of drinkable wine.

Croatian Wine Label Emerging From The Dark Corners of Europe: Georgia & Croatia, With Others to Follow: Hungary, & Crete?

On the note of World Discovery, a few countries made their first big impression on the Ontario market in 2011, most notably Georgia and Croatia. Judging by the quality I’ve seen so far, they are definitely on my radar for this year. Other obscure, but potential great regions such as Hungary and the giant Island of Crete (Greece) have really yet to hit their commercial stride. Will 2012 be their year to emerge from the shadows?

Nova Scotia – The Rightful Home of Hybrids 

And finally, there’s nothing like a little first-hand experience to kill prejudice. I was an outspoken anti-hybrid grape activist (European vinifera x local variety) until spending some time in Nova Scotia this summer while judging at the Canadian Wine Awards. Aside from warm east coast hospitality, what struck me most is the regional suitability, and quality, of varieties like L’Acadie Blanc, Ortega and Seyval Blanc. A surprising number of Nova Scotian wines were awarded medals, even gold medals. Clearly, it’s working. Note that these are all white grapes; the jury is still out on the red hybrids….

From the January 7th 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Champagne– le vin du diable! by Tyler Philp

Long ago, in an area only 100 km northeast of what is now Paris France, the Romans planted vast vineyards in the thin soil that barely conceals the chalk-based earth.  Gazing from the hilltops today over the freshly furrowed fields, white chalk streaks peer out from beneath the rich brown topsoil.  Fossils and nutrients are all that remain and only hint of the vast ocean that once concealed this land. The Roman people believed that wine was a necessity of life and that it should be available to everyone regardless of class. Centuries later, as knights dominated battlefields defending their Kings andQueens, monks tended to vines in these same vineyards producing wine for the church and coronation of French monarchy.  Throughout history, the French have cherished their wine, but they are also guilty of feverish competition with each other to produce the country’s best bottled desires. The northern region is cold and generally unsuitable for the production of wine.  In fact, Champagne is by far the coldest wine growing region inFrance and at that time, the world. To the southeast of Paris is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some of the greatest wine in the world.  Always competitive, the Champenois endeavored to craft a red wine to better their counterparts in Burgundy but they were also well aware of their own shortcomings.

GossetThe wines of Champagne were originally rose tinted, stained by the dark skins of the Pinot Noir grape.  Another striking difference from the product that we are familiar with today was the absence of bubbles. Effervescence was actually an unwelcome surprise to the French winemakers and the subject of great concern.

In cooler years, the harvest and the cold winter air arrive almost simultaneously in the north of France which restricts the potential for fully ripe fruit.  At the time, the greater unknown was that low resultant temperatures within the cellars also caused the fermentation in the great wooden vats to cease.  Ever determined, the Champenois bottled their light-bodied and pungently acidic wine; a product certainly not worthy of boasting about to their Burgundian neighbours.  But with the arrival of spring, the temperature within the same bottles began to rise and unexpectantly, the fermentation continued.  Sealed beneath the cork, the wine started to bubble and froth.  And while no one understood why, they were also unable to prevent the reaction from occurring.  As the pressure increased, glass containers by the dozen began to explode and corks ejected like projectiles.  Those bottles that remained intact would later detonate in the cellar or worse, at the table – “le vin du diable!” they exclaimed – the Devil’s wine.

Sparkling wine is the product of nature and for the longest time, the source of frustration and embarrassment for the people of Champagne.  Unable to rival their Burgundian counterparts, many felt that quality wine production in the north of France was simply not possible.  Enter historical figures: Dom Perignon and English scientist Christopher Merret. Independently, these men conducted research and experiments on the wines of Champagne, over time gaining insight and understanding.  Eventually, they were able to safely manipulate, and contain the seemingly volatile potion.

“Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” – Dom Perignon

Legend says that Dom Perignon exclaimed these words upon discovering sparkling wine, but contrary to popular belief, Champagnewas not invented by the Benedictine monk alone; that was nature’s accomplishment. Truth be known, it was Dom Perignon’s intention to prevent the bubbles in Champagneand to create a superior still wine the courts would prefer over their famed Burgundy. Irrespective of his intentions, Perignon’s efforts were instrumental in the development of Champagne by blending different grape varieties.  He was also the creator of the collar system used to hold the cork in place.  That system, originally a piece of string is known as a muselet and is still in use today though modern technology has replaced the string with a wire cage.

Christopher Merret’s area of expertise was the second stage of fermentation that occurs after bottling wine in the presence of residual sugar.  As an advocate of the bubbles, he discovered that secondary fermentation increased the degree of alcohol in the wine which counterbalanced the level of acidity and added complexity.  More so, Merret found that the volatility could be controlled by regulating the level of sugar and yeast.

For Perignon and Merret, their efforts were simply to make the wine drinkable, and it would be another 100 years before sparkling wine would reflect what we know and enjoy today. If only these men could have foreseen their magical bubbles becoming the most celebrated of all wines.

DosageThe byproduct of secondary fermentation, as Merret discovered, is a layer of unsightly dead yeast cells which settle at the bottom of the bottle.  Prior to serving, the wine needed decanting but this of course caused the bubbles to go flat, defeating the process entirely.  In 1818, an employee of the widow (veuve) Clicquot discovered that by angling the bottles upside-down and slowly rotating them (called rémuage or riddling), the sediment would settle in the neck against the stopper.  Then, by freezing the neck of the bottle, the block of sediment was easily removed, the bottle topped-up with a small amount of wine and sugar (dosage) to dictate the final sweetness, and the cork inserted and secured.  While less labour intensive methods yielding more rapid results do exist, this traditional process known as méthod champenoise is the technique used to craft all high-quality, crystal clear sparkling wines that we enjoy today.

When serving bubbly this New Year’s Eve (or any other occasion) and contrary to common practice, the cork should be removed with care and without a great froth of bubbles.  Simply put: a great deal of effort went in to putting the bubbles into the wine – they should not be wasted on the ‘pop’.

“Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” – Napolean

Tyler blogs at NorthOf9FineWine, you can find his reviews on WineAlign here.

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ TSO Fine Wine Auction – a collector’s delight ~ Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

The highs and the lows:

On Tuesday 13 October, the 21st annual TSO Fine Wine Auction was held at Waddington’s auction house in downtown Toronto. Organized by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Volunteer Committee (TSVC) to raise money for one of Canada’s most illustrious orchestras, a full house of eager collectors were in attendance to bid on 233 separate lots of (mostly) premium wine.

'75 Château Figeac

So much for the basic information. Chances are, most people are probably just interested in the highlights and lowlights of the evening. Fair enough, but first it should be noted that this wasn’t your typical fine wine auction. Because all money raised was meant for charity, bidders were not required to pay any taxes, such as a buyer’s premium, on their purchases—a direct contrast to other wine auctions, where bidders are usually faced with all sorts of fees when collecting their winnings. A case in point: I attended the Vintages Fine Wine Auction about a week after this one, bringing along a few friends. They successfully bid on an eleven-bottle lot of ’01 Palmer, and it wound up costing them almost a thousand bucks more when the additional fees were tossed in. Makes you think …

‘99 Château Talbot

Now for the highlights of the TSO auction. Come to think of it, there really weren’t that many wines that sold beyond the expected bidding range. Checking my auction catalogue, which I’d retained for purposes of writing this column, the only serious highlights were: a twelve-bottle lot of ‘99 Château Talbot (est. $1,000-1,400) that went for $1,700—ridiculous when considering the mediocrity of the vintage; a two-bottle lot of ’72 and ’75 Château Figeac (est. $150-250) that fetched $400—unbelievable considering how bad a vintage 1972 was; a bottle ’88 Cristal Rosé (est. $300-450) that sold for an astounding $1,100; and a salmanazar (9 litres) of ’88 Pol Roger (est. $400-600) that logged in at an equally steep $1,100.

Cristal Rose

Looks like a few bidders in attendance had their hearts set on these two bottles of dazzling champagne. For my part, I think they paid too much for both.

As for the lowlights, there were too many to count. Either the estimate ranges for most of the lots were greatly exaggerated, or bidders were simply unwilling to write large cheques in this current economic climate. Personally, I am inclined to accept both explanations as plausible: there is no question in my mind that estimates were too high, and with the economy as bad as it is, it should come as no surprise that collectors would be a little less willing to part with larger sums of their (hopefully) hard-earned money.

Chateau Lafite

All the same, I would be negligent in my commentary if I were to omit some of the more shocking lowlights of the auction: 4 bottles of ‘99 Lafite (est. $5,000-7,000) at $3,250; 3 bottles of ’00 Haut-Brion (est. $2,650-3,750) at $2,000; a case of ’82 Léoville-Las Cases (est. $7,500-10,500) at $5,500; a case of ’93 Mouton (est. $7,250-10,500) at $5,000—an extreme example of overestimating; 3 bottles of ’01 Le Pin (est. $6,000-8,500) at $5,000; 6 bottles of ’01 Lafite (est. $7,000-10,000) at $4,500—one of the ultimate steals of the night; 3 bottles of Domaine de la Romaneé-Conti ’86 Grands Échezeaux (est. $2,000-3,000) at $1,400; 2 bottles of Beaulieu ’68 George de Latour Reserve (est. $600-900) at $350; and 5 bottles of Jim Barry ’93 The Armagh (est. $1,100-1,600) at $350. I can name a dozen more if you like.

Still, when adding up the money earned by all 233 lots of wine, the TSVC, one of my favourite volunteer organizations in the city (I always make a point of mentioning this when I write about good volunteer groups), our beloved Toronto Symphony Orchestra should hopefully be well looked after for the next while. Coming up in 2012: Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony (no. 41) at 6:30 p.m. on 11 January; Roy Thomson Hall, of course.

Click here for a few gems

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Last-minute gifts

Grab these wines as a last minute gift – they’ll also be great as part of a turkey dinner celebration. Find them via

 Kir Royale  $16.95 

Kir Royale is a classic bubbly cocktail made by blending sparkling wine with blackcurrant liqueur, invented by Canon Kir mayor of Dijon in the 1940’s. It’s festive, pretty in appearance and tasty. This ready-to-drink version does the mixing for you with just the right amount of blackcurrant added to give terrific berry flavour throughout. Serve in champagne glasses as an aperitif or match with turkey and cranberry sauce.

Tommasi Ripasso Valpolicello 2009 & Pinot Grigio Gift Pack 2010 $37.95 

Tommasi is a terrific producer in the Veneto area of Italy. This red and white offering is a duo of flavour and elegance. The Ripasso is medium-full bodied with cherry-kirsch tastes delivered with class, power and a pleasant tannic uplift. The Pinot Grigio, also medium-full bodied is plump, peachy with balancing acidity and lots of great fruit and personality. Both could be served with turkey that has a fruit riddled stuffing.

Stratus Icewine Duo 2008 Gift Set  $79.90

Wow what a pair. Our icewines are world famous and this red and white duo showcases two distinct styles beautifully. The white, a blend of riesling and semillon is intense, dense and full bodied with apricot jam and tropical fruit flavours balanced by tangy acidity. The red, a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah is ripe with tangy wild strawberry jam flavours in a nice structure. Have with dessert or add to a dessert.

Filed under: Appetizer, Wine, , ,

John Szabo’s Year End Fizz Picks 2011

John Szabo, MS - Hard at work

John Szabo, MS - Hard at work

Although makers of sparkling wines, especially champagne, have been looking to spread consumption over the full calendar year, the holiday period still accounts for roughly one quarter of yearly sales. It’s impossible to contemplate New Year’s Eve without bubbles. So I’ve set out my Top Fizz Picks currently in stock at VINTAGES, as well as some extraordinary, and tremendous value, champagnes available through private importing agents that are not to be missed. Yes, that means you have to purchase by the case – 6-packs – but most will also have the wines delivered to your door so you can avoid the traffic crunch, and, in the unlikely event that there will be any left over after the midnight bell tolls, these are all wines that will also age magnificently. And then there’s Valentine’s Day around the corner, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and Sunday brunches on the horizon…

What, Champagne Values?

Yes, they do exist. I’ve made it my mission to taste as much champagne as possible, and I’ve made some interesting observations along the way. Although “great value” and “champagne” are rarely uttered together, there is indeed value in the champagne world. Considering that champagne grapes are the most expensive in the world at close to 6 euros/kilo at the top (compared to well under one euro/kilo in places like, say, southern Italy or Spain or Central Valley Chile), champagne is expensive to make. And with yearly marketing budgets surpassing 7digits for the largest companies, promoting champagne is high stakes, accounting for a fair slice of the price.

So my simple formula for finding value champagne is 1) avoid the companies who own no vineyards and thus have to buy in all their grapes (about 80% of champagne is made this way), 2) avoid brands with the flashiest marketing campaigns (designer bottles and packaging, major event sponsors, etc.), and finally, 3) seek out producers who farm their own vineyards, known as ‘grower’ champagnes (identified by the tiny letters “RM” on the label, which stands for “récoltant manipulant”) and who have no marketing budget, thus all the effort and expense goes into what’s inside the bottle. It’s important to taste, since not all good growers are also good winemakers, but here’s a running start: five exceptional, privately imported RM champagnes that shouldn’t be missed (click on each for agent details):

2004 Champagne Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésimé,Champagne France $110.00  95pts
NV Champagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru,Champagne, France  $55.00  94pts
NV Champagne Laherte Blanc de Blanc Brut Nature, Champagne, France $55.00  93pts
NV Champagne Jacquesson cuvee 735, Champagne, France $65.00  93pts
NV Champagne Tarlant Brut Zero, Champagne, France  $49.95  93pts

 Champagne Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésimé 2004 Champagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru  Champagne Laherte Blanc De Blanc Brut Nature  Champagne Jacquesson Cuvee 735Tarlant Zero Brut Nature Champagne 2008

Top Fizz in Vintages

But if buying bubbles by the 6-pack direct from agents might result in possible divorce, here are my Top Value Picks in stock at VINTAGES:

Lallier Grand Cru Grande Réserve Champagne, Ac Champagne, France $47.95  92pts
2004 R. DUMONT & FILS BRUT MILLÉSIMÉ CHAMPAGNE AC, France, Récoltants-Manipulant  $54.95  92pts
Marc Hébrart Brut Blanc De Blancs Champagne, Ac, 1er Cru Champagne, France $41.95  91pts
Ayala Majeur Brut Champagne, Ac Aÿ, France Champagne, France $49.95  91pts

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne  Lallier Grand Cru Grande Réserve Champagne  R. Dumont & Fils Brut Millésimé Champagne 2004  Laurent Perrier Brut Millésimé Champagne 2002  Marc Hébrart Brut Blanc De Blancs Champagne  Ayala Majeur Brut Champagne

Click here for a convenient shopping list.

Cheers and Happy Holidays,
John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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The WineAlign Wish List – Gifts We’d Love To Receive

In the run up to Christmas we have provided all sorts of tips and advice on Holiday wines. There was the preview of Vintages December 10th release (the last of the year), various Picks of the Day, Steve’s Top 50 Bargains, and Sara D’Amato’s Holiday Wine Bargains. All are available here for review as you put your last minute list together.

But now it’s time to get personal. It’s time for Sara, Margaret, Steve, John and David to suggest some of their favourite wines as gifts. Or is it really wines they would like to receive? Here is a glimpse into the faves and raves of those who actually taste wine for a living, and still find it immensely enjoyable. (And oh yes, we did check availability at the LCBO as of Monday morning).

Sara d'Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato’s Wish List

I love to be on all ends of Champagne – the giving end, the receiving end and the consuming end – but frankly, my pocket book does not love it the same way. Therefore, I was feeling quite triumphant upon discovering this excellent Champagne at a price that could not be more agreeable: Georges Gardet Brut Cuvée Saint Flavy, Champagne, France 

Burgundy is a weakness of mine and a personal favourite appellation is Volnay which exudes such splendid floral aromatics, a myriad of complex flavors and a sensual mouth feel all within an elegant framework. The connoisseur on your list is sure to be impressed with such an offering: Roche De Bellene 2008 Volnay Les Pitures 1er Cru, Burgundy, France $44.95 .

Icewine is a distinctively Canadian gift but many people end up with a stockpile of this extremely sweet, viscous treat, as they are not sure how and when it should be served. Due to its effervescent freshness, sparkling Icewine is not only a fun novelty but it appeals to a wider audience and is suited to enjoying on its own without food. The bubbles help balance the viscosity and sweetness giving the wine great approachability and plenty of drama. All very festive!  Inniskillin 2010 Sparkling Vidal Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, $69.95 (375 ml in Gift Tube).

Georges Gardet Brut Cuvée Saint Flavy Roche De Bellene Volnay Les Pitures 1er Cru 2008 Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal Icewine 2010

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine’s Spirited List

As much as I love wine when it comes to a gift at Christmas I always ask for spirits or liqueurs. They can give me pleasure for months as I slowly sip and savour them, happily toasting yet another thanks to the gift giver. Calvados is one of my favourites. The LCBO just doesn’t bring in enough selection for me so I’m often buying it in duty free on my travels. Thus I was delighted to see Christian Drouin Coeur de Lion Calvados($37.95) in the December 10 Vintages Release. It’s elegant and stylish with a hint of oak, good depth and a great apple cider flavour throughout. Perfect to settle down a big holiday meal.

Bitters, liqueurs with attitude, are other great digestives all too scarce in Ontario.  Poli Amaro is an Italian bitter just released in Vintages ($33.95) which I found fantastic. Not too sweet or heavy on the palate, it’s full of brown spices, peppermint and menthol flavours that sooth the stomach after too much indulgence. Then there’s always cognac – my treat to myself when I want to celebrate. Hine Rare VSOP ($86.15) a Fine Champagne blend of over 25 cognacs (more than fifty percent from Grande Champagne) is sophisticated, fruity at first and then follows through with perfumed, elegant and delicate flavours like kissing the angels.

Christian Drouin Coeur De Lion Sélection Calvados  Poli Amaro Hine Rare & Delicate Cognac

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason’s Wish List

Château Filhot 2007The best wine I have ever had (my only 100 point score) was a Sauternes – Chateau d’Yquem 1989.  It melted me, as did a comprehensive tasting of 1990 Sauternes in this region of Bordeaux back in 1994. In fact now the heart quickens every time I taste Sauternes, a unique sweet wine made from noble rotted (botrytis-affected) semillon grapes then barrel aged to create an exotic liquid compote of marmalades, toffee, honey, herbs and dried fruits. I have no delusions that d’Yquem will appear under the tree but I would still be very happy to receive a stocking stuffer (half bottles fit nicely) of Chateau Filhot 2007 Sauternes 2eme Cru Sauternes at the incredibly good price of  $22.00/375ml. One wonders why Sauternes has fallen so far from the popular radar; it is such a complex, unique and riveting wine, and with some imagination and research it can be worked into any part of the meal, or sipped solo late into the night.

I am a huge fan of pinot noir, and one of my pre-occupations is watching its development around the globe. I have always liked the idea of giving mixed lots of wine as gifts (as well as receiving them), so I would love to get a three-pack of the following pinot noirs still available at Vintages. It really could be any mix of regions but for the moment New Zealand’s Central Otago, Burgundy in France, and Prince Edward County right here in Ontario are the most intriguing. So, if you please –  from New Zealand Amisfield Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago, $44.95.  From Burgundy I’ll have what Sara is having – Roche De Bellene 2008 Volnay Les Pitures 1er Cru, $44.95. And from Prince Edward County, Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2009, $35.00.

Amisfield Pinot Noir 2008 Roche De Bellene Volnay Les Pitures 1er Cru 2008  Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2009

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow’s Gift Ideas for Her 

LCBO stores have many gift packages at present but few take such a good value wine and package it with such a great gift – especially if you are buying for a young lady in your life. Stlto Merlot Malbec 2010 from Abruzzo, Italy Gift Box $19.95, (already elegantly packaged with killer heels), is now available with a choice of 5 different colour pashmina scarves. It’s an easy drinking red with mild berry aromas with a hint of vanilla and oak spice. It is full bodied and very juicy with a long pure fruit finish with a touch of alcohol heat. Well balanced and structured for easy drinking or a dinner of roast meats.

Stlto Red with matching scarves

French Champagne is often sold like luxury handbags; more for its looks than its content. Fortunately Piper-Heidsieck’s Brut Limited Edition Bodyguard ($49.95) is very glamorous both inside and out.  The bottle is luxuriously sheathed in lipstick red faux crocodile skin which, along with the elegant very toasty aroma gets one off to a good start. There are also lifted notes of apple pie with butter toast and bechamel sauce tones. The dry palate is very delicate with gentle bubbles tickling the tongue. The focus is lost a little in mid palate but it finishes very fresh with excellent length. A good aperitif wine and gift I would be delighted to receive myself.

Piper Heidsieck Brut Limited Edition Bodyguard

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo Accessorizes 

We at WineAlign have already done the work to help you find wine gifts for the holidays – most everything on the LCBO shelves has been reviewed. All that’s left for you to do is decide how much and what type and our search function will deliver the best options. So for my last minute holiday gifts, I’d like to recommend some paraphernalia that will augment the pleasure your recipient will derive from drinking wine:

RAVI Instant Wine RefresherThe RAVI Instant Wine Refresher $39.95. Serving temperature changes the wine drinking experience dramatically. Whites are often too cold, but that’s ok, they’ll warm up. It’s the red, on the other hand, served straight from the counter, closet, or wine rack on top of the fridge that’s already too warm when it hits your glass. Alcohol comes to the form, fruit fades and the refreshment aspect is utterly lost. Enter the RAVI instant wine refresher. It seems a little spaced-aged at first, but a quick lesson will show you how to instantly chill that room temperature red down several degrees (ideally 14º-18ºC), at which point they become marvellously juicy and fresh, inviting additional sips. It’s not inexpensive, but it pays for itself in additional pleasure over and over – I use mine regularly.

Vin-Aire Instant Wine AeratorThe Vin-Aire Instant Wine Aerator, $49.95.  Admittedly I’m not a gadget geek, but this handy little instant aerator is a perfect device to soften the youthful, burly reds that so few of us have the patience, or space, to cellar. My experimentation has shown it to soften texture and enhance aromas in bold reds, just like decanting for an hour or two, only immediately. For the biggest reds, use both the Vin-Aire and a decanter.  Not recommended for light-bodied, delicate reds.

Hugh Johnson’a Wine JournalHugh Johnson’a Wine Journal (Mitchell Beazley, $17.99 CAN/Hardcover/ISBN: 978-1-84533-603-5). A wine lover’s diary is hardly a new gift idea, but this one from Johnson, his first, functions as both a journal and a source of information. In it, one of the world’s legendary wine writers shares plenty of practical advice on enjoying, buying, serving and storing wine, as well as basic wine styles and how to taste. Interspersed throughout are templated pages to fill in your own impressions on the wines you drink, guiding you down the path to greater wine expertise. “Writing notes is how I remember when, where and (very important) with whom I drank my favorite bottles”, writes Johnson, and no bonafide wine lover is ever without his/her notebook.

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A Big Champagne Showdown: Cristal & Dom Pérignon taken on by Le Prestance

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s not the sort of invitation I usually accept: “come taste my wine against the recognized category leaders”. But today I did exactly just that. The invitation came from John Carlo Meli of Natural Vines importing agency to taste the ultra-luxury champagne brand he represents called Le Prestance, by Maison Vendôme, against the latest releases of Môet et Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Roederer’s Crystal in a blind tasting challenge (actually the blind part was my idea). This type of guerilla marketing has been around since the big Paris tasting of 1976 pitting top Bordeaux and Burgundy against the upstarts from California, and probably much longer than that. My issue is that is a rather pointless exercise, at least for the taster. For the marketers, however, it’s golden, since you can’t really loose: coming in second place to the best is still pretty good, and if you win, well, you win.

On top of it all, I am naturally repelled by super-expensive, designer wines created to dispossess the wealthy and bask in the glow of famous stars and fashionistas of all stripes (Le Prestance is the official champagne of the Cannes film festival, to give you an idea), so admittedly, I expected the worst. I knew that as the wines were revealed and my reviews examined, there’d be that awkward moment when I’d have to admit that Dom Pérignon and Crystal were much better wines then this parvenue champagne at $350/bottle, and suggest that he return to the world of real wine and stop chasing ephemeral dreams.

Well, there’s nothing like a little dose of blind tasting to crush your cherished pre-conceived notions. Le Prestance was more than good. It was extraordinary, clearly the best wine on the table, in a line up of obviously very good wines. I did my best not to try and guess which was which during the tasting, but I certainly wasn’t pegging wine #2, my clear favorite, as Le Prestance, which is what it turned out to be.

While the 2002 Dom Pérignon was still strong, it was a relative disappointment. I was pleased that my review, and score, posted in May on WineAlign was identical – at least I’m consistent. See both December’s note followed by my earlier review for context. The 2004 Crystal was nothing short of excellent (both original WIneAlign and December’s review below again), but Le Prestance had an extra gear, and extra dimension – a pleasant surprise.

I still dislike the designer hype around the wine, and it can hardly be considered a ‘good value’ (the entire notion of value leaves the arena long before you hit $100 in my view) but it’s a lovely surprise to find out that there’s a whole lot of substance on the inside – gives me a little more faith in the glamour world.

(96) Maison Vendôme NV Champagne  Le Prestance Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs

Maison Vendôme selects the lots and packages this exclusive Blanc de Blancs champagne, produced by Lancelot-Royer. This particular bottling is based on the 2007 vintage (these notes added after the wine was revealed). The nose is quite explosively aromatic, evolved and complex, with a fine range of toasty-yeasty-biscuit, fresh brioche and panettone aromas mixed with hazelnut, toasted almond, green apple and candied lemon-lime-orange. On the palate the wine is superbly intense, rich and dense, powerful, with expansive, mouth-filling flavour and terrific length. Top notch – a complete wine. Tasted December 2011. Available through private order; contact John Carlo Meli

(93) Möet et Chandon 2002 Champagne Dom Pérignon

Original note:

The 2002 Dom Pérignon, a fine champagne vintage, shows a relatively mature flavour profile, with wet hay, toasted almond and grilled peach-type aromas and flavours. Flavour intensity and depth on the palate are impressive enough, though this vintage seems to lack brightness and the streak of acidity needed to lift this in to the top category, not to mention length and degree of complexity. Certainly very good in any case, but for this price, one expects near perfection. Tasted May 2011. (93)

December 2011:

Moderate intensity aromatics, with considerable yeast autolysis, verging on reductuve character; this is a champagne that requires some aeration. Subtle biscuity notes, caramelized citrus-orange, and ginger mingle together, with some hazelnut and white chocolate emerging on the palate. The palate is crisp and dry, with modest flavour intensity, though the finish lingers on impressively. Deceptive power and length-this really hangs on, though lacks some vitality and freshness in the final analysis. Tasted December 2011 (93)

(95) Roederer 2004 Champagne Cristal

Original note:

Roederer’s luxury cuvée, from the top vineyard sites owned by the company, is generally a half and half blend of pinot noir and chardonnay. The 2004 is a wine of outstanding complexity and class, a little more forward and powerful than the typically finessed and elegant Cristal profile, though impeccably balanced. Almond, brioche, meyer lemon, cherry blossom and honeyed orchard fruit weave around a tightly wound core of bright acidity. This is clean, pure, precise and riveting. Tasted May 2011. (95)

December 2011:

A little more subtle and reserved aromatically than the other wines on the table today, with a fine streak of oyster shell/wet stone minerality and delicate floral and biscuit notes. The palate picks up the intensity considerably, revealing a wine that is currently tightly wound, with excellent tension and superb length and intensity. This clearly needs a few more years in the cellar to develop its full potential-even as it sits in the glass it begins to open, and the flavour expands in retro-olfaction. Tasted December 2011. (95)

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Wine Paraphernalia – by Tyler Philp

Tyler Philp

Tyler Philp

Have you taken the time to stroll through the glassware section of your local department store recently?  Located somewhere amidst the sea of crystal decanters and snowflake etched serving trays is undoubtedly a display of the latest in wine paraphernalia.  As we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to address a few of the latest gizmos and gadgets designed to make your wine imbibing experience all the more creative.

Just the other day, a friend asked for my opinion on the use of the Wine Vinturi.  For those unfamiliar, the Vinturi is not only a play on words, but a futuristic looking funnel designed to rapidly aerate the contents of the bottle.  Before I begin, let me also highlight that I unstop a bottle the traditional way – without exception.  In fact, as far as wine service goes, I’d be better off in a society that existed a hundred years ago.  In my opinion, there is an art to opening an old bottle correctly and thus I tend to avoid the use of such technological items of convenience; not that I intend to steer you in any particular direction.  But service goes beyond simply popping the cork and pouring for your guests with an element of good taste, for perhaps you also believe in the magic of the moment.  Not card tricks, top hats, and stereotypical hocus-pocus nonsense, but the transformation from one form to another, and amidst the brief moments of sarcasm, that is where the focus of this article lies.

The Vinturi funnel exists for the simple reason that people wish to expedite the breathing time necessary to enjoy certain bottles of wine.  And that is fine, I guess, but I find myself asking:  why the need to rush the process?  Proper decanting of the bottle will accomplish exactly the same thing and if you cellar the wine for a reasonable length of time, significant aeration is not necessary.  Furthermore, use of venturi type funnels can become habitual and in some cases inappropriate, as with older bottles that require a touch of care.  Think back to the occasions when you placed your thumb on a garden hose:  restricting the cross sectional area of the hose causes the fluid to rapidly accelerate and become turbulent – that is the venturi effect, which works great when you need to reach the Geraniums in the hanging basket on the veranda, but are you sure you really want that same degree of persuasion forced upon your wine?

Clef du Vin

Clef du Vin

I’ll admit that contraptions like the Wine Vinturi do have a place: dinner on a Friday night with minimal time for preparation where decanting a bottle two hours before the meal is simply not possible is one such place.  But what if you actually wanted to age the wine, to taste as though it had aged for say, five years?  How convenient would that be?  Well friends, they’ve got a product for that too.  At first the concept was a small stone-like object placed in the base of the decanter, some sort of mineral that scientifically reacted with the wine to create the illusion of age.  Now that same product looks like a thermometer that you simply dip into the bottle and presto – five seconds equal five years of age – well sort of, it’s a little more complicated than that but the tool, known as a Clef du Vin is quite revolutionary as an indicator of a wine ageing potential.  Though I can’t help but wonder:  by using these products, are we also stripping the wine of its soul?

In Spain’s great Rioja region, winemakers delay the release of their prized gran reservas for a minimum of five years.  During this time, regulation states that two years must be spent aging the wine in oak, though in reality, many Spanish bodegas use these parameters only as a minimum.  Marqués de Murrieta for example encased their 1970 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva in oak casks for an astonishing 26 years prior to bottling.   I enjoyed this wine in 2010 with my wife on her 40th birthday.   As we drew the cork from the bottle the room filled with aromas of dark fruit, soft leather, and an enticing spice – a spectacular wine if you ever have the opportunity.  The wood tames the tannic structure of the wine while adding an array of flavours and aromas to the final product.  This is done so that you, the consumer can enjoy these wines when they are bottled and subsequently released to the public.  The effort necessary to produce, store, and monitor these wines is tremendous and it is this unparalleled effort and dedication that results in such breathtaking characteristics in the wine.  Not that modern technology does not add to the purity of the wine, indeed we must embrace science and modern advancements in wine making but there is no substitute for experience and I dare say the same cannot be accomplished via some technological wiz-bang thingamajig.

Ah So

Ah So

Unstopping the bottle is a matter of personal preference and with the number of corkscrew designs available, surely there is one for everyone’s style and taste.  Some are easier to use than others and we shouldn’t criticise any particular product too heavily, for they are all designed to get you to the wine with the utmost efficiency – except of course the thing that injects gas into the bottle to blow the cork out – not really convinced that it works on the principal of Newton’s Law; it might actually be Murphy’s.   I prefer the ‘waiter’s friend’ for most stoppers for its simple yet elegant principals.  On occasion I will also use the ‘dishonest butler’ – again, a touch old-school but when the cork is in poor condition or the table is in desperate need of a change in conversation, it has yet to fail me.  The story goes that many a butler have used to two pronged extractor to sample wares from the cellar, unbeknownst to the master of the house.  Not only will the two thin prongs remove the cork without damage, but they also make sliding the stopper back into the bottle a seamless exercise – James, you sly dog!

I’ll conclude by stating that in wine, patience is a virtue.  To enjoy the subtle complexity of the contents, your finest bottles should spend a few years by themselves.  Consider starting a collection.  By purchasing via two bottle lots as a minimum, preferable three; quality over quantity, you will amass an assortment of high quality labels to tuck away for enjoyment another day.  Cellaring wine is not only a highly addictive hobby, but an equally fascination learning experience and with a few years left undisturbed, you’ll feel satisfied knowing that you alone have nurtured these bottles to perfection.  I am currently dusting off old bottles that we tucked away well over a decade ago only to find them in perfect drinking condition.  And as we pair these old treasures with friends, great food, and conversation, it is the soul of the wine that gracefully speaks to us from the glass.  You need only listen to hear the voice…

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So, You Think You Know Wine? Holiday Special with Sophie Milman

In this edition we take a short break from our tournament and welcome jazz sensation Sophie Milman to our tasting table.   Sophie brings a special wine for our experts to guess and provides an entertaining story behind the choice of wine.

Click here to see the video and make sure to visit Sophie’s website.

Holiday Special  - Sophie Milman

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008