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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Easy to drink bottles

These easy-to-drink wines are ultra friendly and affordable.  Find them via

Grooner Grüner Veltliner 2009
LCBO No. 168625; $13.35 (87 Points)
Despite its kitschy label, what’s in the bottle is pleasing, cheerful and easy to enjoy. From the Lower Austria wine region (Niederösterreich), this white is fresh, fruity and medium-light bodied with crisp apple and hints of white peppercorn typical of the varietal. It’s versatile: have as an aperitif, with salads, vegetarian dishes, light meats or fish.

Fairview Goats do Roam Red 2011
LCBO No. 718940; $12.95 (87 Points)
Winery owner Charles Back claims the Goats do Roam blend (syrah, cinsault, mourvèdre, carignan and grenache) represents their goats’ favourite vineyard picks when his son let them out one day. It’s a smooth, slightly spiced Rhone-style red with a medium body, berry fruit and some oak notes (gained from inner staves). Value priced with spot-on commercial appeal.

Apothic Red 2009
LCBO No. 234369; $15.95 (86 Points)
Apothic Red, which launched nationally across Canada in 2011, has reinvigorated the California “red blend” category. A bold blend of syrah, zinfandel and merlot, it fills the mouth with tastes of sweet raisiny fruits, dark chocolate, brown sugar and mocha. Rich, plush and off-dry with soft tannins, it can accompany hearty braised dishes, Asian spiced meats or even chocolate desserts.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 4th 2012: A Greek Symposium; Hot & Cold California; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

February 4th brings a ray of sunshine to Ontario, in the form of the sun-drenched wines of California and Greece. Yet despite the perceived similarity in climate, the wines of these two places are worlds apart for reasons explored below in my mini Greek Wine Symposium. Two distinct style streams of California wines are neatly exposed in this thematic, with a thick line drawn in the sand between the just ripe and overripe styles, which I’ll examine briefly here. For those looking for a quick fix, jump straight to the top ten smart buys.

A Greek Symposium

A symposium in ancient Athens was quite unlike the modern version we’re used to. Contrast the image of an auditorium, a panel of speakers with their bottled water and a quiet audience with pen and notebook in hand, with that of the sumptuous interior of a wealthy Athenian’s villa, gentlemen lounging in togas vigorously discussing matters of importance, a lavish banquet feast spread before them, and a large amphora of wine generously ladled into chalices with regularity until the moon set. Symposium derives from the Greek verb “to drink together”; these were drinking parties, during which men of society would discuss important matters of philosophy, politics and war. One wonders if international politics and economics wouldn’t be just a little better off today if our forums, summits and symposiums were conducted in the ancient Greek style (but with far more women involved).

The ancient Greeks were nothing if not wine connoisseurs. The world’s first appellations of origin for wine evolved within its borders, and trade in wine throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean was big business. Yet despite nearly 7000 years of wine history, Greece today is as young and developing as any new world country in the modern business of fine wine. The image of rustic, pine-scented wine served in rough-hewn copper pitchers in a seaside taverna still lingers, and bottled wine is a relative novelty. But for wine lovers seeking to broaden their range of familiar flavours and lengthen their lists of food-friendly, regional specialties, Greece is well worth some investigatory drinking.

New Wines of GreeceFebruary 4th sees Greece in the spotlight at Vintages for the first time, with a well-chosen selection of some of the country’s strongest export-ready grapes and regions. I will be charged with a bias towards Greek wines, having done considerable trade education on the subject on behalf of the Greek government (I’ve even been part of a film on Greek wines), so of course it’s true. I’m always drawn to distinctive wines with unique flavour profiles, and am happy to share these discoveries. I was intrigued by Greek wines from the very first moment I tasted a glass of Santorini less than a decade ago, captivated by the fascinating mix ancient and modern, distinctiveness, and sheer deliciousness. Out of 300 or so indigenous grapes, this release highlights four of the most established. Here’s the order in which I suggest you serve wines at your own symposium:

1. 2010 TSELEPOS MOSCHOFILERO MANTINIA PDO $16.95  Moschofilero is the grape, a pinkish-skinned, fragrant, floral variety vaguely reminiscent of Muscat on the nose. Mantinia is the region, essentially a plateau located in the central Peloponnese at an average of 650m elevation. Believe it or not, grapes struggle to ripen regularly here. Typically Mantinia is a crisp, light-bodied white (or slightly pink-tinged) with crisp acid, low alcohol, 11-12% and bright citrus, sweet herb and floral aromas. It’s just about the stylistic opposite of what one would expect from a Mediterranean country. Fans of pinot grigio, dry riesling, albariño, lighter sauvignon blanc and really any dry crisp whites will feel at home with moschofilero.

Tselepos Moschofilero Mantinia 2010

2. 2007 PAPAIOANNOU SINGLE VINEYARD AGIORGITIKO AOQS Nemea $19.95  Nemea is Greece’s largest red wine appellation, a hilly zone in the northwestern Peloponnese near the town of ancient Nemea. Agiorgitiko, or “St. George” is the only permitted grape. It’s what the Greeks would call a polydynamic variety, capable of being rendered into any style from crisp rose at higher elevations (up to 900m abs.) to sweet styles from raisined grapes grown on the valley floor. It reminds me a little of merlot or tempranillo, fairly round and plush, with soft tannins and sumptuous mouth feel. But Papaionannou’s version, with its fresh strawberry and raspberry fruit is more like pinot noir or light grenache – ’07 is one of his best vintages to date.

Papaioannou Single Vineyard Agiorgitiko 2007

3. 2010 SIGALAS ASSYRTIKO SANTORINI AOQS $21.95  Now that you’re a little more comfortable with Greece and haven’t run screaming to the nearest bottle of chardonnay or merlot, it’s time to go a little further. Santorini is the appellation, a volcanic island in the Cyclades – you know the postcard image of Greece, with the white washed houses, pale blue domes and deep blue sea beyond? That’s Santorini. Assyrtiko is the grape, widely acknowledged to be not just one of Greece’s, but one of the Mediterranean’s most distinctive white varieties. It’s far from easy going, more like a sommelier’s pet grape: powerful, stony, both relatively high in alcohol and acidity, with vaguely fruity-grapefruit aromas. It can smell like a matchstick, after all, it grows in volcanic pumice. If you like top Alsatian or German Riesling, gruner veltliner from the Wachau, premier or grand cru Chablis, and other similar, singular, minerally wines, give this a try.

Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini 2010

4. 2008 KIR-YIANNI RAMNISTA XINOMAVRO AOQS Naoussa $19.95  Xinomavro is the red equivalent to assyrtiko: a decidedly tough, non-cuddly grape, with fierce tannins, juicy acids and complex range of generally non-fruity aromas. It grows in several appellations in northern Greece, but Naoussa is easily the best known. There is a striking parallel between xinomavro (which means literally “acid-black”) and northern Italy’s nebbiolo. Both are pale garnet-coloured, with high acid and firm tannins, fruit in the sweet red berry spectrum augmented by a range of savoury, floral, licorice, resinous herb and pot-pourri-like aromas. Kir-Yianni’s is a more concentrated, ripe and modern version, while the 2004 BOUTARI GRANDE RESERVE AOQS Naoussa $16.95 , obviously more mature, is also more old school in style. Both are delicious and well priced, especially if you are used to paying for Barolo and Barbaresco. But before you try either of these, a nice segue into the category is the 2007 TSANTALI RESERVE RAPSANI PDO $15.95 . Rapsani is further south on the western slopes of Mt. Olympus, and xinomavro is blended with equal parts krassato and stavroto (1/3 each). The latter two varieties used essentially soften the texture and deepen the colour of xinomavro. Tsantali’s example is delicate and strawberry-scented, with light, dusty tannins and bright acidity, resulting a juicy, food-friendly wine. Serve with a light chill for maximum enjoyment.

Kir Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro 2008  Boutari Grande Reserve 2004Tsantali Reserve Rapsani 2007

If you’re interested in learning more, visit: .

The Two Faces of California

California is the main theme of the February 4th release, which will certainly build further on their current domination of Vintages sales. But far from complacent, as one might expect given their success, my most recent trip to California last December revealed a region in a fervent state of evolution. I observed a growing experimental, counter-culture side to the California wine industry, driven, I believe, in large measure by the growing divide over the issue of ripeness. To anyone on the outside of the industry, timing the harvest to pick ripe grapes would seem a straightforward decision. But the precise timing of the harvest, and an individual producer’s definition of ‘ripe’ has a dramatic impact on wine style, to the point where regional, or even varietal character, can be overridden.

I spoke with many Californian sommeliers who expressed a similar weariness towards the style that has dominated the market for the last 15 years: super ripe, raisined, big, thick, highly extracted and lavishly oaked reds from the bigger-is-better school. Many winemakers, too, bemoan the late harvest style that has become entrenched at the upper end of the market, which require a significant amount of manipulation in the winery in order to render them stable. It became clear from talking and tasting that the increased alcohol levels of California wines in the last two decades (and of many other regions around the world) is purely a cultural and stylistic decision, removed from any discussion of global warming. In other words, it is a conscious choice to make raisin and fig-flavored wine. One need only point to the many excellent California wines harvested at a less extreme degree of ripeness to make the point. Yet there’s still evidently a place for raisined wines in the market, as the sales keep churning and the prices reach consistently into triple digits. Plenty of consumers, and wine critics, like these wines.

And that’s fine – diversity is what makes wine more interesting than soft drinks – I’m just reporting on that diversity (peppered with my uncontainable personal opinion). And so I was delighted to discover the emergence of a small but growing number of tiny wineries purchasing top quality fruit and transforming it, often in old warehouses, industrial parks and other makeshift facilities, into wonderfully individual, eccentric wines. I tasted a wild range ‘indie’ wines such as long skin contact white (orange) wines, crisp and vibrant reds from old vines and unpopular varieties like carignan and mataro, sulphur-free wines sold only locally in re-useable Kleen Kanteens, even a cabernet franc that was a dead ringer for a cool vintage Chinon from the Loire Valley. Yes, the spirit of innovation is alive and well in the Golden State. And I suspect that these small operations, tuned into the sub-currents of wine culture, will exert increasing influence on the industry as a whole, given their direct and simpatico connection with the gatekeepers of wine sales: sommeliers and wine shop owners. At the very least, they make the California landscape vastly more interesting.

Whether your preference is big or balanced, there are wines to satisfy both style streams in this release. My three favorite California wines are the exceptional 2007 DUNN VINEYARDS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $87.95, an arch-classical estate, the 2007 BEAULIEU VINEYARD GEORGES DE LATOUR PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $89.95, a wine with a long pedigree of quality and ageability, and the organically/biodynamically farmed 2009 FROG’S LEAP CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley 90 $58.95 *1/2. All three are naturally well-balanced, delicious wines.

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Beaulieu Vineyard Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

If big flavour impact is what you’re after, then you’ll be more drawn to the 2007 ROBERT MONDAVI RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $139.95, or the 2009 CAYMUS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $69.95. Just don’t ask me to have a glass, even if you’re buying.  But it’s only fair to illuminate both faces of California wine.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
From the February 4th, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Great Greek Wines
Top Californians
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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So, You Think You Know Wine? Episode #2.5 – Castelmonte Cent’are Nero D’avola 2009

Welcome to episode five of “So, You Think You Know Wine? – The Tournament”.  Join our critics as they rise to a blind tasting challenge to identify the grape, country, region, year and price of the mystery wine.

Season two is in a tournament format, with six preliminary rounds and two elimination semi-finals leading to a championship round.Host Amil Niazi guides David Lawrason, John Szabo MS, Steve Thurlow, Sara d’Amato, Jennifer Huether and Zoltan Szabo through the blind tastings.

There are four parameters the critics are scored on for up to 10 points per wine :
• Varietal = up to 3 points for varietal or style
• Location = up to 3 points (2pts for Country and 1pt for Region)
• Vintage = up to 2 points (2pts for exact year, 1pt for +/- 1 year)
• Price = up to 2 points (2pts for +/- 2.5% of price, 1pt for +/- 10% of price)

Scores After Four Rounds

After four rounds, John’s lead has shrunk with David now close behind.  David has a chance to take the overall lead in this round.  To see how Sara, David and Zoltan do in round five of “The Tournament” click here. This episode features the Castelmonte Cent’are Nero D’avola 2009, Nero d’Avola (“The Black Grape of Avola”) is sometimes described as Sicily’s syrah.

So, You Think You Know Wine - Episode #2-5

Click on the above image or here to watch Episode 2-5.

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A Wee Peaty Dram for Burns Day By Margaret Swaine

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

On January 25th lovers of scotch and Scotland around the globe hold Burns Day festivities to celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s most famous poet Rabbie Burns. Whether the party goes whole hog or should I say sheep with the Address to a Haggis and pipers a piping or everyone just raises a few drams to their lips it’s all seeped in good spirit thanks to the lovely amber whiskies of Scotland. I think peaty scotches go best with haggis and strong Scottish dishes like blood pudding. Here are some ideas of where and what to toast in spirit or in reality.

Nicknamed the “whiskey coast”, Scotland’s west coast is tailor made for a malt whisky adventure tour. History is everywhere on this windswept, isolated part of the UK with castles dotted about and sheep grazing some of the oldest golf courses in the world. There are several misty islands where scotch is distilled here but Islay (which means Island in Gaelic) boasts the most distilleries and the peat-smokiest drams of the lot. It’s a two and a half hour boat ride from the mainland on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry that’s most comfortable with a cafeteria and spirit bar well stocked with scotch.

Bowmore Distillery

All of Islay’s eight distilleries offer tours and several such as Bowmore have a premium tour option. The charming little seaside town of Bowmore is the capital of this small island with the sweet historic Harbour Inn and Bowmore Distillery Cottages for accommodation. With a resident population of only 3,600, Islay can be sleepy quiet at times. The Machrie, its classic links golf course circa 1891, stays open year round thanks to the warming golf stream but the distilleries don’t see much action from late fall until the last week of May. That’s when the Fèis Ile Festival of malt and music happens. For a week the distilleries hold open houses with special activities while ceilidhs, dances, recitals and children’s workshops are held elsewhere on the island.

Laphroaig Distillery

Laphroaig has been making whisky for over 200 years – illegally at first and then legally. They offer a “Friends of Laphroaig” program where people can own a square foot of the nearby land. Just put on the size 12 wellingtons available in the visitor’s centre, walk out to the Friends field and stake your claim with a flag. Prince Charles owns plot number one. Sean Connery is another fan and friends member. Vintages offers four versions of this peaty, smoky, briny malt: Ten-Year-Old, 18-Year-Old and 25-Year-Old as well as a bargain priced Quarter Cask for $69.95.


Ardbeg Distillery

Ardbeg Distillery serves tasty traditional Scottish dishes such as leek and potato soup and smoked mackerel at their attractive Old Kiln Café and some of the smokiest, most peaty scotch in Scotland. Ardbeg 10-Year Old ($99.95) delivers that omnipresent peat with a vanilla, butterscotch edge. Bruichladdich Distillery is special for the fact that it is Scottish owned (most are owned by large multinationals) and employee owned. They have a whole range of interesting scotches aged in former French wine barrels (Petrus $99.95, Latour 16-Year-Old $114.95 and Latour 16-Year-Old $114.45 available in Ontario) and the Octomore which takes your breath away with its peat levels – the highest in the world.

The Bowmore Craftsman’s Tour which was lead by head distiller David Turner when I visited is an unforgettable experience. Bowmore, established in 1779 is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. Turner let me touch and taste everything in the place. I stood on the malt floor my feet deep in germinating barley and turned the grain with wood shovels used since the birth of scotch. I smelled the sweet scent of the malt as it underwent the conversion of starch in the grain to sugar. I walked about the kiln room, ankle deep in malted barley that was being smoked by a peat fire below and tasted the crunchy nutty smoked taste of the grain. I stoked the fire with chunks of dried peat.

Then Turner took me outside to taste the cold soft fresh water from the River Laggan that passes through seven miles of peaty, mossy ground on its way to supply Bowmore with water for whisky. I sipped the sugary juice that’s hot water and crushed barley called wort and sipped again after it had fermented into a beer-like beverage around 8 per cent alcohol called wash. After it had been distilled into “new make” spirit I sniffed that rubbing it into my hands as Turner showed me to get the malty sweet aromas. Finally I sampled a selection of aged Bowmore scotches in the tasting room including an awe inspiring 25-Year-Old ($395 in Ontario). Bowmore’s full bodied, smooth and peaty 12 –Year-Old is available until January 29th for $48.55 (Limited Time Offer).  The complex, rich, toffee and brine 18-Year-Old ($116.35) is being discontinued so buy up now. If you have lots of dough and like old drams, there’s still a bottle or two of Bowmore 40-Year-Old for $14,895. Cheers! Or in Scottish Gaelic “Slàinte Mhath!” (good health).

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Napa Sub-Appellations II – case studies in respect for terroir ~ Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Wineries with a track record:

Back in October, I published a column on all fifteen sub-appellations of the Napa Valley, from ones as famous as Oakville and Rutherford to the lesser-known ones of the Oak Knoll District and Chiles Valley. The point of this exercise? To introduce wine collectors and enthusiasts to the idea that the notion of terroir—i.e. soil, geography, climate, and human intervention—does, indeed, have a place amongst the mindsets of Napa Valley winegrowers; that growing attention is nowadays being heeded to the well-proven concept that far better wine can be produced from specific regions, even single vineyards, than those crafted from anonymous Central Valley sources.

Diamond Hill Vineyards

And so, for the second part of my series on Napa Valley sub-appellations, I thought it worthwhile to examine three prestigious Napa-based wineries that seem to endorse the ideal(s) of terroir on a greater level than their peers, specifically within the framework of the existing sub-appellation system. The first one on my list? Diamond Creek Vineyards. Established by Al Brounstein (d. 2006) in 1968, the winery is effectively made up of four separate vineyards based out of the Diamond Mountain AVA. They are Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow, and Lake. The speciality for each is Cabernet Sauvignon, accompanied by dollops of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. What I like most about these wines is how different they taste from another, with soil content playing a pivotal role in reflecting the remarkable diversity of terroir to be found in just a single sub-appellation. In fact, they are so different that it is virtually impossible to come up with generalizations when referring to them, other than that they are all powerful, well balanced, characterful, and insanely delicious. At the same time, they also seem to perform according to their origins; in the case of Spring Mountain, which seems to possess remarkably varied soils (volcanic in predominance), this means inescapable differences in texture, structure, and flavour profiles. FYI: Diamond Creek is currently represented in the Ontario market by Lifford Wine Agency, and the latest vintage of 2007 is nothing short of fabulous. True collectors’ wines, each bottle fetches $250 per bottle, but will reward proper cellaring like few other Napa bottlings.

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

The next winery is Dunn Vineyards. Founded by Randy and Lori Dunn in 1979, only two wines are made at this modest establishment. For our purposes, the one of note is the Cabernet Sauvignon-blend crafted entirely from Howell Mountain AVA grapes. Consistently one of the greatest wines produced in the Napa Valley year after year, it is unmistakably Bordelaise: elegant, moderate in alcohol, and sophisticated yet ‘upright’ in both breed and stature. Truly, to produce such a wine, one might be considered compelled to have respect for terroir, which, in the case of Howell Mountain, means taking advantage of the cooler conditions to allow for better balance and acidity—both hallmarks of Dunn wines. In Ontario, Dunn Vineyards is represented by The Small Winemakers, with the ’07 fetching $96.95. A wine that almost seems underpriced when considering the quality.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23

Finally, the last Napa-based winery I wish to discuss is none other than Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of the most well-known premium wineries in Napa. Founded in 1970 by former political science professor-turned sage winemaker Warren Winiarski (who sold in 2007), there are few other wineries in Napa whose bottlings reflect the terroir of their sub-appellation so adroitly: silky, powerful, with wonderfully fragrant aromas. In large part, the wines are crafted from two vineyards within the Stags Leap District AVA, arguably the most elegant valley-floor sub-region in Napa: the S.L.V. and Fay Vineyards (both have their own bottlings), with the flagship Cask 23, a profoundly refined, powerful Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-blend, constituting the best grapes from both. In Ontario, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is represented by Profile Wine Group, with an asking price of $275 for the 2005 Cask 23—costly, though a stunning collector’s wine no matter which way you look at it.

Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon

Of course, there are many other premium-oriented Napa wineries embodying a firm commitment to, though perhaps in various degrees, the ideals of terroir, ones that have continuously and successfully crafted collectors’ wines worth seeking out. Why, just off the top of one’s head, one can think of a few: Araujo, Dominus, Harlan, Heitz, Opus One, Pride Mountain, Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Spottswoode, and Viader. Granted, each of these wineries will have their own take on exploiting terroir, yet all of them have consistently demonstrated a knack for creating wines emblematic of their origins, of their place in the Napa Valley.

Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

The question remains, however, is have such wineries yet to outnumber their counterparts, wineries that pay only ‘token heed’ to terroir. In my opinion, the answer is no; the wineries mentioned here are still in the minority. But things are changing fast. And what with climate change, combined with the desire for ever-more powerful, concentrated wines, such change cannot come soon enough. After all, even a über-concentrated, mighty Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, tastes better with hints of its Oakville origins (91% To Kalon Vineyard)—quite happily, the ’06 tastes precisely that!

Click here for a few gems from the 21 January 2012 Vintages Release along with several others

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages January 21st Release: Australia’s GSMs de Pâpe, Mature Reds Unearthed, Palacios of Spain, Yabby Lake and Great Whites

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

There are many interesting wines on this release, certainly more than in the previous batch on January 7th.  Some of them are grouped in the “Australian Open” feature in Vintages magazine. The theme implies that Australia has opened up to produce more than hot and heavy shiraz, and this is true. Last year I travelled to Australia then wrote in this space about the push to regionalism, new grapes and cooler styles.  It is manifested in the very good selection offered on January 21st.  But rather than repeat what Vintages is saying, and what I have said before, I want to put some of the Australian wines in the context of broader themes encountered in my three tasting sessions. (I was able to cover the whole release this time and spend plenty of time with the wines, which is not always possible given fixed tasting dates at the LCBO and a self-imposed restriction to not attempt more than 50 wines at a time)

GSM de Pâpe

The Aussie-coined acronym GSM has become part of the global wine vernacular – for better or for worse. Do we need more “insider” lingo? (Well yes, because the need to explain such lingo does help keep we wine writers employed).  GSMs are red blends of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre, the fulcrum varieties in the blends of the appellations of the southern Rhone Valley in France. The most famous of these is Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, which actually allows up to 13 different red and white varieties. In creating GSM blends the Australians were doing two things – logically using varieties that grow well in hot, dry Australia to make a very good wine, and trying to cash in on a popular French wine/concept.  But no shame there; New World has been built on attempts (sometimes mis-guided) to replicate, or at the very least trade off, the wines of the Old.

This release contains several GSM blends from Australia, France and even South Africa, and it is immediately obvious that the Australian examples are bigger, bolder, juicier and in many ways more fun and appealing than the French, which strive for more restraint.  As an aside, I am very frequently let down by Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe in particular, as was the case on this release as well. It’s fame and price assured, it seems that many producers in overcrowded Châteauneuf are just not trying very hard, with more effort perhaps going toward elevating their other, much less expensive Rhone wines like Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

The overall style of Aussie GSMs is full bodied, broad, juicy and very complex – great winter wines – but the variations and fine tuning are as endless as the permutations of grape proportion, region of origin and vintage.  For a classic, structured and age-worthy style that has some restraint reminiscent of Châteauneuf du Pape, don’t miss PENFOLDS 2009 BIN 138 GRENACHE/SHIRAZ/MOURVÈDRE from the Barossa Valley ($34.95).  For the next evolution of the Australian GSM look to HEWITSON 2009 MISS HARRY, also from Barossa Valley, and good value at $23.95.  It contains not just the big three southern Rhone grapes, but carignan and cinsault as well. These are less aromatically distinctive varieties but they have very good acidity and a certain toughness that big, jammy hot Aussie reds can use to good effect. (I predict we will see much more carigan in Australia).  And finally, for the most typical, fleshy, warm, jammy and cuddly style try the well-priced ($19.95) TURKEY FLAT 2009 BUTCHER’S BLOCK SHIRAZ/GRENACHE/MOURVÈDRE, again from Barossa. It’s only negative – which can be applied to the genre as whole – is excessive alcohol heat.  I actually recommend chilling Aussie GSMs a bit before serving to make them just a bit cooler and more linear, and yes French.

Penfolds Bin 138 Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2009  Hewitson Miss Harry 2009   Turkey Flat Butcher's Block Shiraz/Grenache/Mourvèdre 2009

Fine Mature Reds Unearthed

An unexpected strength of the January 21st selection are three excellent, matured-to-prime reds that allow you to go to school on older wines without paying heavy tuition fees.  Vintages regularly buys affordable mature wines for those without the wherewithal in terms of cash and space to age their own wines. This is very welcome, but sometimes the mature wines are not so great.  And it’s becoming a tougher call because our palates are becoming so attuned to the fruit laden aromatics of young reds. Leather, mushroom and dried fruit may not be on everyone’s greatest sniffs list. Nor mine, but I am seeking mature wines with nuances of all those old (or tertiary in wine parlance) flavours as well as vital fruit. They still need to be alive! No excessive oxidation please, or staleness, or volatility.

Three wines rise to occasion this week, two from regions where graceful old age is de rigeur, and one from a surprising source.  BERONIA 2001 GRAN RESERVA from Rioja, Spain ($32.95) is textbook Rioja from an excellent vintage. Nowhere in winedom is maturity so central to the culture of a place. Rioja regulations stipulate a minimum of two years in oak (and three in bottle) for Gran Reserva’s, and some wineries add even more time. The silken texture and complexity of this wine are all the proof one needs that the theory is sound.

Beronia Gran Reserva 2001

Back in the 19th Century Rioja took its cue from Bordeaux on matters of wine ageing (these two world famous, Atlantic influenced regions are actually quite near each other – about four hours by autoroute). In Bordeaux age-worthy structure is intrinsic to the notion of quality, but I have noted that some modern Bordeaux are not ageing well, including a couple of other 2006s on this release. However, CHÂTEAU LE CASTELOT 2006 St-Émilion Grand Cru ($34.95) is a shining example of mid-weight merlot that is hanging in beautifully because the winemaking got the balance and proportions right in the first place – not under-ripe, not over-ripe, not too tannic, not too soft.  Moderation always wins out, even in wines without the pedigree of a classified growth.

Château Le Castelot 2006

And finally, check out ROSS ESTATE 2006 LYNEDOCH ($28.95). This Bordeaux blend is estate grown on a 100 acre property near the village of Lyndoch in the southern edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australia. There is a rustic sensibility to the flavour profile that is partially due to age, and partially due to winemaking philosophy. In any event, this is deep, complex and even – and very good value.

Ross Estate Lynedoch 2006

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2009 Palacios of Spain: Best Buy of the Release

DESCENDIENTES DE J. PALACIOS 2009 PÉTALOS from the Bierzo region of Spain stands as the single best buy of the release in my books ($21.95). Such class, charm and effortlessly woven, deep fruit!  I visited last fall and was blown away by the wines being crafted by winemaker Ricardo Perez, nephew of Spanish wunderkind Alvaro Palacios.  Like many next generation Spanish winemakers it is Palacio’s vision to elevate unsung, local varieties and regions in Spain. In the northwestern enclave of Bierzo there is a dark-skinned, high acid red grape called mencia that is luring dozens of winemakers (there are now about 60 wineries) into the region’s verdant hills and vales in search of the next “great one”. Actually, Palacios may already have created it in biodynamically grown sensations like Los Lamas, Moncerbal, Corullon and the exceedingly rare, ethereal La Faraona (three barrels made) that I have rated 97.  Petalos is the entry level bottling, but very fine in its own right – just a little earlier to mature and less deep.  I had the 2006 Petalos with dinner over the holidays and it was in great condition.

Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2007 Yabby Lake of Mornington

One of the signature culinary delicacies of Australia is the yabby, a small freshwater crayfish similar to those found in Ontario’s northern lakes. But Yabby Lake is no critter wine.  Given the deep attachment to the land and passion for food of founders Robert and Mem Kirby, it was a great name for a new winery that strove for recognition when they helped pioneer the Mornington Peninsula in the early 1990s. Now, I place Mornington as one of the southern hemisphere’s great pinot noir regions. When I drove into the impressive Red Hills on this finger of land jutting in to the sea south of Melbourne a year ago I was bowled over the quality of the pinots being made there. Winemaker, renowned show judge and pinotphile Tom Carson saw the potential too, elevating Yabby Lake to the top wrung of producers in the area.YABBY LAKE 2007 PINOT NOIR ($49.95) catches the taste of Mornington perfectly, almost defining the place with fruit character that wafts back and forth among cool climate cran-rhubarb and warmer raspberry-strawberry. And the oak touch is just perfect too.

Great Whites, Big Deals

It’s becoming a tradition to end this report with a miscellany of exciting, inexpensive white wines. For the record I love white wine, and often find more reason to drink it than red. Many red wine drinkers find white too light and/or simple, but I don’t find either. The best are actually very complex, the aromatics are often intriguing and exotic, and even if light in stature they are very generous in terms of fruit depth. Here are some great examples, for so little money.

HENRY OF PELHAM 2009 RESERVE OFF-DRY RIESLING from the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula is a great buy at $15.95, and another example of Ontario’s increasing prowess with riesling as many vineyards reach full maturity. This site was planted in the late 80s. I love the apricot/honey fruit definition here, where so many Niagara’s lean heavily on greener apple and citrus.  It is better than any other riesling in this release, from anywhere.

Henry Of Pelham Reserve Off Dry Riesling 2009

SPICE ROUTE 2009 CHENIN BLANC is from the Swartland region of South Africa, a more isolated region northwest of Paarl/Stellenbosch known for its old, non-irrigated bush vines. Spice Route is now a label in the portfolio of Charles Back (Fairview and Goats du Roam). He was one of four partners when the brand was created in the mid-nineties in effort to create modern, intense wines from old vine fruit in this area. Well this, big, golden barrel fermented chenin certainly fits the mould, a real mouthful at  $17.95.  Those who prize more elegant, non-oaked Loire-styled chenins may not like this, but it is a bona fide and popular style in the Cape, co-existing peacefully with the non-oaked versions.

Spice Route Chenin Blanc 2009

MICHEL TORINO 2010 CUMA ORGANIC TORRONTÉS from Argentina’s Cafayate Valley is a steal at $12.95. The signature, highly aromatic white torrontes grape is gaining momentum in Argentina and abroad, with most producers now making at least one version. The high altitude Cafayate Valley in the northern province of Salta is the favoured fount of torrontes – usually making a very racy, citric and herbal style. But other warmer regions are now offering softer, richer versions for situations and palates that might require something less shrill.

Michel Torino Cuma Organic Torrontés 2010

And that’s it for now. I am off to catch part of Niagara’s Icewine festivities this weekend (see our WineAlign feature on Icewine Revelations), then moving on to California next week for a long, long overdue re-visit of Paso Robles, Livermore, Napa and Sonoma, ending up at the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates) tasting in San Francisco. Whither zinfandel? Has it succumbed entirely to bland commerciality, or are there pockets of resistance?  Stay tuned.

Check out reviews on over 100 wines from the January 21st release here.


David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Icewine Revelations

Niagara on the Lakes Icewine Street Festival

With the Niagara Icewine Festival in full swing in Niagara through Sunday, January 29, three WineAlign critics shed light on the uses of Ontario’s great under-appreciated treasure.  Some will surprise you! 

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Savour this! More than Dessert Wine

By John Szabo MS

If your main use for icewine is as an impressive gift for visiting relatives, or to fill the bottom, dust-filled rungs of your wine cellar until that ‘special occasion’ arises, here’s a thought: try it with dinner tonight. Even if you don’t normally have dessert. In fact, especially if you don’t normally have dessert. I’m talking about serving it with the savory courses, not the sweet.

I’m not crazy; most of us have just forgotten how and when to enjoy sweet wines; they’re not just for dessert, you know. Visit a top châteaux in Bordeaux’s famed Sauternes region, or Tokaj or Germany, and you’ll be served sweet, golden wines alongside everything from fresh oysters to roast chicken to pork tenderloin to blue cheese to, of course, desserts.

The general reticence to pull out sweet wines for anything other than the sweet course, if at all, means we’re losing out on an array of simply amazing food and wine pairing experiences. Sweet wines can be marvelous matches for an astonishing array of dishes, the residual sugar a perfect foil for many savory and spicy elements, especially when purposefully crafted by the chef to work.

Ontario's Iced Treasure

The Wine Council of Ontario recently set out to re-prove just that, showcasing Icewine and the talents of Jason Parsons, the highly experienced executive chef of Peller Estates. The starting point for success, according to Parsons, is to consider the Icewine as a complementary element: “Don’t try to balance the dish in the kitchen – let the wine add the finishing touch.” In other words, let the wine will take the place of the glaze, the garnish, the vinaigrette, whatever that final element that would bring everything on the plate together. “It’s about balance, balance, balance”, he says.

Nine tapas-sized courses were served over lunch with multiple wines and the illuminating combinations were numerous. The mixed endive salad with blue cheese crumble and frisée salad with candied salmon and French beans with bacon and almond dressing were both studies in bitter-sweet, literally. The distinctively bitter tinge of both frisée and endive works brilliantly with sweet wine, which takes the place of the customary sweet vinaigrette served with such salads.

Blue cheese and sweet is another classic match: intense, salty flavours tamed by the sweet and acid taste of the wine. Also intriguing was the way in which the candied salmon seemed less sweet after a sip of wine, the two counterbalancing each other and allowing the intrinsic flavours of both to shine.

Other winning combinations revolved around spice. As addicts know, the only way to tame the heat of capsaicin – the active piquant component of innumerable types of chili peppers – is with sweetness. So, duck confit with curried squash purée and mostarda, slow cooked Iberico pork cheek with chili-apple braised radish and spiced apple-celery salad, and seared scallop with chili butter honey glaze provided perfect canvasses for Icewine. Not only did sweetness take the sting out of the chilies, but also allowed the flavours of the spices to come to the fore. Cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, 5-spice, star anise, clove, peppercorn and all the nuances of the various types of peppers themselves emerged on the palate with greater clarity and precision.

Rich, fatty cuts of beef, sweet and sour dishes (think Chinese-style sweet and sour chicken/pork), implicitly sweet scallops and lobster, liver patés and foie gras… the savory food possiblities with icewine are broader than you might think.

And while admittedly a full menu served entirely with sweet wine is a little over the top, try experimenting with just one savoury dish-Icewine pairing on your next menu, and I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

John’s Picks:

Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery 2007 Riesling Icewine $50/375ml

Jackson-Triggs 2007 Grand Reserve Gewürztraminer Icewine $39.95/375ml

Château des Charmes 2009 Riesling Icewine Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard St. David’s Bench $65/375ml

Vineland Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Icewine, Niagara Escarpment,  $41.90/375ml

2008 Strewn Cabernet Franc Icewine, Niagara-on-the-Lake $59.95 /375ml (with gift box)

Sara d'Amato

Sara d'Amato

Icewine with Dessert? No Piece of Cake

By Sara D’Amato

Admittedly, I am an Icewine hoarder. I don’t mean to be but I cannot help myself. Over the years I have received numerous gifts of Icewine as well as amassed some myself after many a persuasive tasting in our local wine country. This is not such a terrible to position to be in and a very first world type of problem, I know. However, like many of you with bottles of this delectable treat to spare, it is hard to fit it in to your daily life. With such a luxurious repute, opening a bottle seems almost unconscionable unless a celebration is at hand. Consider it a New Year’s resolution, therefore, that Icewine need not be stashed away, forgotten, for a rainy day, as its relationship with food is incredibly versatile.

At the Wine Country Ontario tasting, we were all treated to a seemingly decadent pairing which focused on three possible avenues of food matching with Icewine: Savory, Spicy and Sweet. As John had mentioned, the most surprising matches were those contrasting savory and spicy courses. Contrasting food and wine matches are easily the most challenging ones to perform but are undeniably the most rewarding. Next time you are at your favorite restaurant, I dare you to ask the sommelier to pair your meal with Icewine. The sommelier will no doubt be thrilled for the challenge and you will certainly be rewarded for your intrepidity.

As I have discovered over the years, in the hands of many a well-intentioned professional and novice alike, Icewine tends to find its way to the end of a meal. This gravitation is due to a simple and transparent connection between sweet and the conclusion of a meal. Sweet wine with sweet food is natural and easily comprehended, at least, much more so than the synergy of spicy and sweet which is more difficult to get your head around. Counter-intuitively, however, sweet with sweet can be very difficult to get right. The sweet of the dish competes with, and can take away from, the natural sweetness of the Icewine. The result can yield surprisingly jarring matches.

I recall very vividly an incident where an irreproachable pastry Chef decided to add a garnish of candied mint to a dessert I had paired with Icewine; that single sweet flourish was so unfortunately destructive to the wine pairing that we were forced to pick every sugary piece off the plates as they were whisked into the dining room. After several such failed matches, I have tended to stay away from the Icewine and dessert combinations and rather focused on the more rewarding, savory option.

To my great delight, however, the Chef De Cuisine of Sopra Derek VonRaesfeld took the sweet-on-sweet challenge head-on, and laid out three perfectly matched desserts for our Icewine flight: German Apple Cake with Salted Icewine Caramel, French Toast style Panettone with Vanilla Roasted Pineapple and Crème Fraiche and Icewine poached Pear with Dulce de Latte & Mascarpone. These most surprising matches cured me of my sweet-on-sweet trepidations and re-focused my attention on such possibilities.

A few tips to take away from this experience: firstly, the addition of savory notes such as salted caramel in a dessert can not only balance the dish better but also give the pairing with Icewine a much-needed element of tension.  Secondly, the addition of a fatty, creamy element such as Mascarpone or Crème Fraiche gives the Icewine further grip on the dish and mercifully tempers the sweetness of combination. Finally, roasted or otherwise cooked fruit such as the poached pear and roasted pineapple caramelize the sweetness in the fruit and seems to enhance the sensuality of the Icewine and creates a delectable mouthfeel.

Sara’s Picks

Mountain Road Wine Company 1999 Vidal Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, $39.95/375ml

Tawse Riesling 2009 Icewine, Niagara Peninsula  $34.95/375ml

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Sipping Icewine Solo
by David Lawrason

I was as impressed and surprised as John and Sara by the icewine food pairings carried off at the Wine Council event at Sopra.  Over three flights of three wines and three dishes we had the opportunity to try 27 different pairings!  And that was after another nine icewines without food.

It was this part of the tasting that most captivated me – the amazing diversity in the glass; the sheer elegance of the majority of the wines, and the accompanying commentary by winemaker Sue-Ann Staff. When she introduced herself as the Ice Queen we knew we were in for an interesting time. She now makes her own icewine at Sue Anne Staff winery, but as the winemaker who put Pillitteri on the map in the 90s as the world’s largest family owned icewine producer she has had considerable experience in this sticky field.

The first revelation of the tasting was that I quickly forgot all about the sweetness. Other elements like balance, complexity and depth of flavour grabbed my intention and drew me deep into glass after glass. As with any wine style, it is these more measurable elements that define quality. Ontario icewine, when well rendered, is very high quality wine folks; and very often deserving of those 90+ scores that you see. In fact, I think that many local critics under-score Ontario icewine because they don’t want to appear to be biased in its favour.  I left this tasting thrilled by the tasting experience.

Sue-Ann Staff rolls out the barrel at icewine festivities

I also carried away a new appreciation of the difficulty of producing icewine. Without repeating the entire winemaking process, it was intriguing to hear Sue-Ann discuss problems of harvesting and pressing in a continuous process (the grapes can’t be allowed to thaw, and the pressure to render juice from the frozen grapes is three times the pressure in a car tire). Then there is the difficulty of the very long fermentation averaging three to six months, and as long as nine months.  You can imagine those gucked up filter pads after straining a fluid that is about 30% sugar.  And how about those tall, skinny bottles that tip over and domino on the bottling line? (By the way, I think it’s time Ontario considered a standardized, modernized icewine bottle that becomes a logo for the entire industry, and is much easier to handle and store).

I leave you with a reminder that Ontario is the world’s largest producer of icewine, and that it is much more widely appreciated abroad than it is at home.  We have, in a way only spoiled Canadians can, become blasé about a national treasure. So whether sitting down to a winter meal, unwrapping some wonderful, characterful cheese, creating a fine dessert, or simply sipping by the fire – it’s January, and time to give icewine another try.

David’s Picks

Stratus 2010 Red Icewine,  Niagara Peninsula  $39.95/200ml

Cave Spring 2008 Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula  $49.95/375ml

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 21st 2012: Grapes vs. Places: How do You Identify Wine? Discovery grapes; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In addition to the usual Top Ten Smart Buys, this week’s report picks out the best “discovery grapes”, one of the themes for the Vintages release on January 21st. And speaking of grapes, I’ll also take a brief historical look at how we have come to identify wines by both grape and place together, the most useful way of considering wines in my view.

Grapes vs. Places: How Do You Identify Wine?

When you’re immersed in the world of wine, it’s easy to lose perspective. There’s always the risk that one forget that for most consumers, wine is a functional beverage, not a way of life. For most of wine’s 7,000 or so years of history, that’s the way it always has been. Food was prepared and wine, if there were any, was served. It likely came from yours or your neighbor’s or Uncle’s vineyards. Nobody fussed about farming practices, rootstocks, provenance of oak barrels or wild vs. cultured yeast fermentations. The only discussion might have been about where the wine came from, as some wines were of course better than others, some more highly prized and more expensive, hailing from regions that had achieved a reputation for their special qualities. But by and large, wine was simply wine, a safe beverage to accompany your meal and induce a pleasant mood.

Which Grape Variety?

grapesGrape varieties and “varietal character” are likewise recent topics of discussion. Until reliable and widespread methods of studying and classifying grape cultivars came about in the middle of the 19th century, most vignerons likely didn’t even know what was growing in their vineyards. Frequently it was a field blend of several, perhaps even dozens of different grapes growing in the same plot of land, and new vineyards were planted or old ones re-propagated with whatever local grapes had always been around. There were no vine nurseries with their catalogues of cultivars and characteristics from which to order. Certainly monastic institutions like the Cistercians and Benedictines studied grape growing and did their part to spread some of the more productive, tastier or disease-resistant grapes among their communities in Europe, and even share some winemaking secrets, but beyond that, wine was always referred to, if at all, by its origins, never by its grape composition. There was no other way. European nomenclature for wine appellations is still geographically rooted to this day.

Changing Ways of Identifying Wine

But two things conspired to change the way we identify wine. First was phylloxera’s debut in Europe in the mid-1800s, that insidious little root-sucking aphid from America that destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards within a generation. As vineyards were replanted en masse, for the first time in history, considerable attention was paid to exactly what was going to be replanted. Not all vitis vinifera (the European vine species from which almost all the world’s fine wine is made) took well to the anti-phylloxera solution of grafting onto native American vine rootstock, and thus couldn’t be replanted. Not all native varieties had been particularly successful in the first place. Attention was paid to terroir suitability, productivity and wine style, and grapes were consciously selected for re-establishing vineyards, rather than following the former habit of taking whatever happened to be growing nearby. Estimates vary as to how many indigenous grapes were lost during this period, but it’s safe to say that many hundreds of grapes disappeared from cultivation, never to return. It’s at this stage in wine’s history that specific grapes became associated with certain regions. Wine would continue to be called by it’s place of origin, but the insiders now knew which grapes were responsible for that regional profile.

The second big development in the shift towards varietal awareness occurred during the opening up of viticulture and winemaking in the New World. Huge tracks of land from Chile to Canada, Argentina to Australia were planted to grapes. But which grapes? Again, in the absence of native species of grapevines, a conscious decision had to be made as to which types of cultivars would be planted. Promising grapes were brought by European traders and immigrants; perhaps those from their native regions, perhaps those available at the port from which they set sail. In any case, the varieties’ link with their native region of cultivation had been severed. From this point on, grapes would have their own identity, beyond that of where they were grown. It would be still be several centuries before the names of grapes would become the primary form of identification and marketing of New World wines (witness “California Chablis” or South African or Australian “Port”), but the die had been cast.

How Best to Identify Wine?

So this begs the question: which is the more useful way of identifying wines, by grape composition or by region of origin? The answer, of course, is both, at least in my view. The principal purpose of labeling is to provide the consumer with some information on what the wine will taste like. There should be naming consistency, much in the way that a brand image is built up. I.e. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, once you’ve had it, conjures up a flavour profile. Chardonnay from Chablis does not taste like chardonnay from Sonoma County, so grape alone is not sufficient to provide useful and consistent information for consumers. But neither would Chablis taste like Chablis if it were made from riesling or chenin blanc or sauvignon, so region on it’s own doesn’t give the full picture.

labelThe ideal labeling scenario is thus the combination of grape(s) and place, with some production guidelines to ensure that even when multiple wineries operate within a region, there will be some consistency, even family resemblance, between wines under the same appellation name. The Old World evidently has a head start in this process, though the New World is working hard to develop its own classic regional combinations of grape and place. Given the technology and techniques of analysis available today, it will surely take less time then it did in Europe. Things are happening fast. New World regions are understandably reluctant to officially hamstring producers into growing specified varieties and using particular production techniques just yet, but everything is currently pointing in that direction. It’s just a matter of time; in fact it has already happened, unofficially, in some areas.

Within another generation or two, all a consumer will need do is taste and explore the many successful combinations of grapes and places around the world and remember which appellations they prefer. The rest is just shades of difference. Glad I could clear up the obvious. Now we can get back to fussing about those delicious little nuances.

Yours To Discover

In the spirit of both grape and place, here are some combinations worth looking for:

Place: Castilla y Léon in Northern Spain, on the border with Galicia. The Bierzo DO is situated in topographical bowl, protected by mountains on all sides. The climate is cool by Spanish standards, and soils range from slate on the hillsides to richer alluvial soils on the valley floor.
Grape: mencía. Native to northeastern Spain and Portugal (where it’s called jaen)
Style: Bright, fresh, floral and minerally reds, with soft tannins, bright natural acidity and plenty of immediate appeal.
This Wine: suave, delicate, fresh and vibrant black berry/raspberry flavours, with a notable dose of slate/schistous minerality and firm, fresh acids. Lingering finish, with barely detectable wood influence. All class and finesse.

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2009

Place: Cafayate Valley in Northern Argentina. High elevation is the key here to maximizing the fresh aromatics of the grape.
Grape: torrontés. A crossing of muscat of Alexandria and criolla chica.
Style: as the relation to Muscat would imply, this is a highly floral, aromatic grape
This Wine: a fun wine with gorgeous aromas of orange blossom, tropical fruit, pineapple, mango and honey. The palate is medium-full, still firm, slightly salty (which enhances the fruit), with a fine, lingering finish.

Michel Torino Cuma Organic Torrontés 2010

2010 PUKLUS PINCÉSZET TOKAJI YELLOW MUSCAT Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary $14.95
Place: Tokaj-Hegyálja (Tokaj at the foot of the hill”), a relatively cool, humid, volcanic soil-based region in northeastern Hungary. The region is most famous for the sweet botrytis-affected wine tokaji aszú, though significant quantities of dry white wines are produced each year.
Grape: sárgamuskotály, aka yellow muscat, muscat blanc à petits grains. One of the world’s oldest grapes.
Style: extremely aromatic with intense floral aromas.
This Wine: Open and fragrant in the typical muscat style, with honey, orchard fruit and wildflowers dominating. The palate is off-dry, quite bright and crisp, with characteristic minerality emerging on the lingering finish. This punches above its price category in terms of complexity and depth.

Puklus Pincészet Tokaji Yellow Muscat 2010

2010 MORGENHOF ESTATE CHENIN BLANC WO Simonsberg-Stellenbosch $16.95
Place: Stellenbosch, South Africa. A warm growing region just inland from Cape Town, better known for red wine production.
Grape: chenin blanc. A native of the Loire Valley but widely planted in South Africa, where it was frequently used for brandy production. The country has a wealth of old chenin vineyards, whose potential for dry whites is really only now starting to be exploited wide scale.
Style: chenin is known for it’s brisk acid and aromatics of honey, lanolin, wet hay and binned apples.
This wine: A superbly flavourful and intense example of South African chenin from 40+-year-old vines with notable but well-integrated barrel influence. The palate is dense, rich, almost creamy, yet with the characteristic fresh acidity of the variety.

Morgenhof Estate Chenin Blanc 2010

Place: Vienna. The only major European capital city to have any appreciable vineyard plantings, nearly 700ha. Vineyards overlook the Danube and the city centre.
Grape: grüner veltliner. The most widely planted grape in Austria, representing nearly 1/3 of all vineyard acreage.
Style: ranges from light, crisp and frivolous to full bodied, dense and age worthy, with a characteristic turnip root, lentil and white pepper aroma.
This wine: a light, fragrant, lightly peppery and citrus-flavoured example well suited as an aperitif or sipping wine.

Weingut Zahel Riedencuvée Grüner Veltliner 2010

From the January 21st, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO – January 2011 – Winter Warming Red Values

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Now that the holidays are over, our wine buying shifts to winter warming reds and, with budgets tight, inexpensive wines are in vogue. Not to worry, there are many inexpensive wines on the shelves that offer good quality, thus great value.  So follow my advice and you will save a few bucks per bottle and get just what you need.

If you continue reading past my wine picks, I share one of my best moments in 2011 and some wishes for 2012.
The three reds below really over-deliver, but all the wines on my Top 50 Value Wines list are safe bets.

Castillo De Monseran Garnacha 2010, Carinena, Spain $7.95

A delicious un-oaked, simple yet exuberantly fruity red with aromas of plum and raspberry fruit plus a hint of white pepper and cranberry jelly. The palate is full and juicy with some sweetness and soft tannin, which is most noticeable on the dry finish. Chill lightly and enjoy with burgers, sausages and ribs. Very good length. It is on sale until Jan. 29 so stock up for the coming months. It has been on the Top 50 list for months but is even better value right now.

Castillo De Monseran Garnacha 2010

Alvar 2008 Cabernet Merlot 2008, Ontario VQA $12.45

This is a delicious, flavourful, structured wine made from 60% cabernet franc, 30% merlot, 10% zweigelt. The nose shows delicate aromas of red berry fruit with a hint of tobacco and some beet notes. The mid-weight palate is velvety smooth and very fruity with crab-apple jelly and raspberry tea flavours and nice balancing acidity and grippy tannins and a notion of elegance. Very good length. Try with roast or grilled red meat. It is also on sale until Jan 29 so save $1.50 and buy some now.

Alvar 2008 Cabernet Merlot 2008

Ogier Heritages 2009 Cotes Du Rhone, France $12.95

The price has just been permanently reduced on this wine by $2, making it even better value since there are many $30+ Chateaneuf-du-Pape that this will best. It is mid-weight juicy, fresh and fruity. Expect aromas of red cherry with some floral and nutty complexity and a touch of white pepper. Soft fruity palate with enough tannin and acidity for structure and some nice white pepper spice for excitement. Very good to excellent length. Try with roast pork or poultry.
Ogier Heritages Cotes Du Rhone 2009

January Top 50 Values List

There are about 1,500 wines listed at the LCBO that are always available, plus another 100 or so Vintages’ Essentials. At WineAlign I maintain a list of the Top 50 LCBO and Vintages Essentials wines selected by price and value – in other words, the best least expensive wines. The selection process is explained in more detail below, but I review the list every month to include newly listed wines and monitor the value of those put on sale for a limited time. There are six new wines on my Top 50 list this month. I describe three above. Here are the other three.

Pelee Island Cabernet Franc 2009, VQA Ontario $10.45

An excellent well priced Ontario cabernet franc, mid-weight and lively with the bright fruit well balanced by mature tannin and lemony acidity. The nose shows some delicate raspberry and cherry fruit aromas with some earthy and jammy tones. It is very vibrant on the palate; it almost has an Italian feel, with the berry fruit persisting well on the finish. Try with rack of lamb or juicy sausages. Very good length. Sale price lasts until Jan. 29.

Pelee Island Cabernet Franc 2009

Montgras Carmenere Reserva 2010, Colchagua Valley, Chile $10.95

This is a full bodied juicy red wine with ripe fruit aromas of blackberry with blackcurrant, dark chocolate and fresh spearmint tones. There is excellent lemony acidity to keep it light with soft tannin evident on the finish, which is quite minty. Very good length. Best 2012 to 2015. Try with grilled red meats or hard mature cheese. On sale until Jan 29.

Montgras Carmenere Reserva 2010

La Puerta Syrah 2010, Famatina Valley, Argentina $7.90

This is fresh lively and juicy red with the fruit well balanced by soft tannin and good acidity. The nose shows aromas of black cherry fruit with smoke and black pepper spice. It is full bodied but not heavy with the ripe fruit toned by some earthy character. Try with bbq meats. Best 2012 to 2014. It has unfortunately been discontinued at LCBO hence the price reduction. As I write, about 1000 bottles remain, so don’t hesitate on picking up a few before it’s all  gone.

La Puerta Syrah 2010

Great moments in 2011 and wishes for 2012
Best wine related experience in 2011

Graham Beck WineryI am often asked to name my favourite wine. That’s an impossible question to answer since I have so many favourites, however when asked recently by friends what my best wine experience was in 2011, I was able to think of one.

I travelled frequently last year to many parts of the wine world, so selecting just one experience was difficult. However one evening in November was especially memorable when I visited the Graham Beck Estate in South Africa with 24 Canadian friends.

Beck Game ReserveWe started the evening at the winery with a structured tasting of their wines, led by cellar master Peter Ferreira, that included their Cap Classique sparkling wines plus several whites and reds. After this somewhat formal event, we departed the winery in 4X4 vehicles to traverse the Graham Beck Game Reserve, glimpsing zebra and antelope through the twilight, on our way to the next venue. This was a hut deep on the reserve, close-by a small lake, where we were to enjoy an open-pit fire braii (barbecue) under the stars accompanied by more wine.

As the oil lamps flickered, it was easy to imagine how people in the Cape in centuries past, had enjoyed simple well prepared food and wine, without electricity, in the outdoors. We were miles from the nearest road so the night sky was brilliantly lit by more stars than many had seen in a long time. Conversation was animated and you could tell that everyone there was enjoying an unforgettable evening.

The wines served would all sell for less than $20 in Canada, if they were available here, yet they were perfect for the food, the mood of the group and the venue. None could be described as awesome, but the evening was not about evaluation and worshipping the wine, it was about the simple pleasure of enjoying wine in great company with good food. Every one of the Graham Beck Game Reserve range of wines served that night was enjoyable.

I will return to South Africa in November 2012 with some more Canadian friends and am already dreaming of another unforgettable experience. Maybe some of you would like to come along? Go to for info.

My wine wish for 2012

I have been hoping for a long time that Ontario’s antiquated alcohol retail system will change. The current government knows that the LCBO is not the best financial model for the people of Ontario; it could collect more money from alcohol sales without the LCBO. However I don’t think much is likely to happen in 2012 because there is no will to take on the public sector unions and I am told that few votes hang on the issue; but we might see some tiny moves toward privatization, who knows. So here is a more realistic wish.

I wish in 2012 that the wines of South Africa will become more popular in Ontario. There will be an increasing selection of wines in the $12-$20 price range available from the Cape at the LCBO; so let’s hope that wine lovers buy these, thus encouraging the LCBO to offer a greater selection in the future. South Africa produces very good shiraz and sauvignon blanc with cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in support. What you can get for $15 is frequently better than similarly priced wines from the northern hemisphere. Watch the reviews at for guidance and experiment a little. You will not be disappointed.

How I Chose the Top 50

I constantly taste the wines at the LCBO to keep the Top 50 list up to date. You can easily find my all 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. I 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.

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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So, You Think You Know Wine? – The Tournament – Episode #2.4 – Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Welcome to episode four of “So, You Think You Know Wine? – The Tournament”.  Join our critics as they rise to a blind tasting challenge to identify the grape, country, region, year and price of the mystery wine.

Season two is in a tournament format, with six preliminary rounds and two elimination semi-finals leading to a championship round.Host Amil Niazi guides David Lawrason, John Szabo MS, Steve Thurlow, Sara d’Amato, Jennifer Huether and Zoltan Szabo through the blind tastings.

There are four parameters the critics are scored on for up to 10 points per wine :
• Varietal = up to 3 points for varietal or style
• Location = up to 3 points (2pts for Country and 1pt for Region)
• Vintage = up to 2 points (2pts for exact year, 1pt for +/- 1 year)
• Price = up to 2 points (2pts for +/- 2.5% of price, 1pt for +/- 10% of price)

Scores After Three Rounds

After three rounds played John is in the lead. To see how Sara, Steve and John do in round four of “The Tournament” click here. This episode features the Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from a variety of regions in California.

So, You Think You Know Wine - Episode #2-4

Click on the above image or here to watch Episode 2-4.

We hope you enjoy the videos as much as we did making them and encourage you to share them with your friends:

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008