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So, You Think You Know Wine? Episode #2.7 Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011

The round robin is over and it’s time semi-final time.   In the semi-finals two participants are eliminated and only the winner advances to the final.

During the six rounds of the round-robin each critic participated in three tastings to determine their ranking.

Ranking After Six Rounds

As a result of finishing first, John Szabo will playoff against Jennifer and Sara in the first semi-final.  The next semi-final will feature David, Zoltan and Steve.

Semi-Final Line Ups

The scoring remains the same as does our lovely host Amil Niazi.

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)

To see who survives and goes on to the final click here or on the image below.

So, You Think You Know Wine - Episode #2-7

This episode features the Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011 .

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South Africa Ten Years Later: My Voyage Back to the Future – by Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

I was recently in South Africa, tasting, visiting wineries, as well as drinking a fair bit of wine, after not having been back for a decade. I was fortunate to have spent the better part of my year in 2000, living in South Africa and working for Wines of South Africa (WOSA) in Stellenbosch but had not been back since.

As a result of my time in South Africa, as well as several previous visits, I have always had a strong, inexplicably visceral attachment to all things South African. Even though I’ve been working with the Canadian wine industry since my return to Canada, through judging, reviewing and teaching, I have closely followed the wines and industry progress over the past decade.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to provide an update on several facets of the South African wine scene:  New Wineries and New InvestmentNew Grapes and New Wines, New Regions, New Initiatives for a New Industry, and The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing.

An Overview of the Progress

South Africa Wineland

South Africa’s winelands are widely acknowledged as the most stunning in the world, surrounded by two oceans, crisscrossed by dramatic mountain ranges and valleys and dotted with picturesque, centuries-old wine farms. I was working in the country ten years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and able to have an insider’s look at the players and an industry that had been undergoing profound and rapid changes. This allowed me to become very familiar with many of the great wines and producers that never did, and still never do, make their way to Canada. (Some of those that do are linked to WineAlign reviews below.)

It was fascinating to see how much had changed since I left in late December 2000, from the structure and growth of the industry, to the changes in pricing, style and quality of wines produced. As well, I was able to meet new producers and catch up with familiar faces from the past.  Just before I arrived in 2000, wine exporters had transitioned from a voluntary, membership-based industry association to an inclusive model, which represents all exporters and is funded through a statutory levy on table and sparkling wines exports. Though not without challenges and detractors, this model has been a positive change for the industry and South African wine exports in general, making it possible for all exporters, under the helm of Su Birch, the dynamic CEO of WOSA, to work collaboratively on innovative international initiatives to advance exports in a few key markets over the past decade.

With the end of Apartheid and the international boycott on South African wines in the 1990s, winemakers and the industry were anxious to re-connect with the international arena and catch up after a period of economic isolation. South African wine exports represented 26% of total wine production in 2000 and almost doubled to 48.5% in 2010.  Along with the move back into traditional export markets of the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the new millennium saw the expansion to markets in Japan, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. More recently, South African wines are being sold in new and emerging markets such as Russia, Asia, in particular China, and in other countries within the African continent.

South African wine exports to Canada have increased five-fold since 2000 (1.5 million liters in 2000 compared to 7.5 in 2011), however the selection seems to come in waves, going from periods dominated by high-volume, value-priced wines to times dotted with more listings of lesser-known, higher quality wines from smaller, quality-driven producers.

So what has changed since I was last in South Africa in 2000?

New Wineries, New Investment

There were just under 400 wine farms in 2000 and this number has grown to 573 in 2010. Then as now, the industry has a significant concentration of big wineries, brand owners and cooperatives, which has altered somewhat through a series of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation. The KWV (Cathedral Cellars, Café Culture Pinotage and Roodeberg), the former cooperative that once regulated production quotas and pricing for the industry), no longer holds the power and prominence it once had. However, along with Distell (Obikwa, Drostdy-Hof, Two Oceans, Stellenzicht, Durbanville Hills, Fleur du Cap) and Douglas Green Bellingham (Boschendal, The Beachhouse and others), these companies make up between a quarter and third of all South African wine exports. Smaller producers (60,000 cases or less) remain an important force in the industry and account for approximately 46% of the country’s production.

Looking back at some of the wineries I visited recently, Tokara had just finished construction in late 2000 but had yet to produce any wine, Waterkloof did not even exist and Delaire Graff was simply Delaire, producing some good wine under Bruwer Ratts (who now produces under his own label) in a spectacular location.

Delaire Graff

Following a forty million pound renovation by English diamond magnet Laurence Graff, Delaire Graff is a must see and stay destination for wine tourists who crave luxury and pampering.  The Estate has two top restaurants, a clothing boutique and Graff diamond shop on the premises, as well as well-appointed guest cottages and a spa, which were listed by Conde Nast Traveller and Travel and Leisure Magazine as among the best new hotels in the world.  The focus is on Bordeaux  varieties with winemaker Morne Very making a powerful yet elegant Bordeaux  Blend with Shiraz called Botmaskop (the nearby mountain peak which he has climbed), as well as rich Chardonnay, minerally Sauvignon Blanc and a layered, complex Cape Vintage fortified wine from traditional Portuguese grape varieties.


Tokara Estate is the neighbor to well-known Thelema  and located on the crest of the dramatic Helshoogte pass between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.  A state of the art wine making facility, olive farm and restaurant, winemaking is overseen by Miles Mossop, who was just starting out in 2000 and one of South Africa’s new generation of winemakers. Although the wine production facility was completed at the end of the 2000, the premium range Tokara labels were not released until 2006. The fruit is sourced from vineyards on the estate, as well as properties owned in cooler Hemel-en-Arde and Elgin.

The Tokara Director’s Reserve White is among the Cape’s finest white blends, the 2010 being an exquisite blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc (unoaked) and 30% Sémillon (aged in French oak) that is stylistically similar to a fine white Bordeaux. There is also an impressive Director’s Reserve Red that blends ripe, New World fruit with Old World structure and elegance.   I also tasted the 2009 Shiraz, containing 12% Mourvedre and well put together, which could benefit from a few years in the cellar. See here for notes on the 2007 Zondernamm Shiraz and Tokara 2007 White.

Waterkloof Wines

One of the newest wineries to open in the Cape is Waterkloof Wines, situated in the Helderberg sub-region of the Stellenbosch District. The winery and vineyards are mere kilometers from False Bay, which is one of South Africa’s cooler growing areas. UK wine importer Paul Boutinot is the owner, or custodian as he calls himself, who has invested in South Africa with a commitment to produce sustainable, fine wines. Werner Engelbrecht is the accomplished viticulturalist and winemaker, who practices sustainable and biodynamic farming practices. The winery building is modern and simple, perched high atop Schapenberg Hill, with spectacular views of False Bay from the tasting room and restaurant.

Waterkloof is represented by Family Wine Merchants in Ontario and the winery produces several tiers of wine. The False Bay series contains very good value and well-made red, white and rose while the Waterkloof range includes the Circle of Life 2010 White, a complex, textured  blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 35% Chenin Blanc and 5% Semillon to be released in July 2012. Other outstanding wines include the racy and concentrated Waterkloof 2009 Sauvignon Blanc as well as the Circle of Life 2009 Red, a full-bodied, refined blend of Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Like well-made South African red blends, it combines purity and richness of fruit, fine-grained tannins and real finesse.

Other South African wineries that were barely in existence in 2000, but worth seeking out, include Sadie Family Wines, Ataraxia, Mullineux  and Badenhorst, some of whose wines we see in Canada.

New Grapes, New Wines

Over the past decade, the industry has latched on to fads and gone through phases, similar to all New World regions in search of renovation or reinvention.  South Africa wineries have experimented with critter labels, focused on Sauvignon Blanc for whites, and most recently, with Pinotage (a native South African crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) as “coffee” wine, which seems to have captured the imagination of Canadians, and those in other export markets, in a way that Pinotage alone was never able to.

The fascination with single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines was starting to wind down a decade ago, while the interest for all things Shiraz/ Syrah was heating up. Very good producers include Boekenhoutskloof, Mullineux and Spice Route. Plantings of Shiraz/Syrah have increased from 6% to 10% of total vineyard area in the last ten years, although Cabernet Sauvignon also increased from to 9% to 12%. Both are currently the top red grapes and while you still see a fair amount of single varietal wines, there has been the shift to blends – Rhone blends, more Bordeaux blends, Syrah blended with Cabernet, or into Cape Blends, South Africa’s red blend containing a significant proportion of Pinotage.  Some budget-priced red blends worth trying are Thelema Mountain Red, Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap Red, and Post House Blueish Black.

While the share of white grape production had dropped from 64% to 56% by 2010, the whites I tasted were extremely impressive, perhaps overall better than the reds. Chenin Blanc and Columbar (used mainly for bulk or boxed wines) are the main grapes for white wines, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  Recommended whites include: Ataraxia Chardonnay, Iona Chardonnay and Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap White.

Chenin Blanc, known as Steen in South Africa, is believed to be one of the original grape varieties brought to the Cape colony in 1655 and is incredibly versatile for dry, sweet and sparkling wines and ages very well. Producers like Ken Forrester FMC and Petit Chenin have shown that South African Chenin is capable of producing luscious, crisp and concentrated wines that can rival the best of the Loire any day. Sadly, and despite the efforts of groups like the Chenin Blanc Association to increase the profile and instances of quality South African Chenin Blanc, plantings of Chenin have gone down the past decade, the slack being taken over by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

New Regions

Just as Shiraz was beginning to make a name for itself a decade ago, the Swartland district was just starting to generate the buzz that is much louder today. This region reportedly clocks in some of the country’s hottest day time temperatures and is among South Africa’s driest growing area, with cool evenings and cooling breezes from the frigid Atlantic Ocean, making for ideal growing conditions.  Historically home to Chenin Blanc and other commercially unfashionable grape varieties (i.e. not a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc here), the “Swartland Revolution” was a movement afoot over the past decade, led by Eden Sadie, among others, who “rediscovered” the region while making wine at Spice Route Wines in Malmesbury.

The exodus of winemakers like Sadie and Adi Badenhorst from Stellenbosch to Swartland was accompanied by an influx of newcomers like Mullineux and Lammershoek who share a commitment to winemaking and viticultural practices that respect and celebrate low yields, old bush vine vineyards, dry land farming, manipulation free wine making and a lighter use of oak.  The Swartland Revolution, part manifesto and part marketing, is also an annual celebration that has taken place over the past two years, with the next event set for November 9-10, 2012.  For more information of the event, the Revolution and winemakers check out The Swartland Revolution.

The search for cooler growing areas has also resulted in the creation of new regions and districts under the Wine of Origin (appellation) scheme.  Elgin had started to be recognized as a cool growing area (literally and figuratively) and is home to Sauvignon Blanc producer Oak Bay. Other new areas that came into existence that we see from time to time on bottles include Bot River, Elin and Cape Point, home to the highly rated white blend (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon) Islied from Cape Point Vineyards.

New Initiatives for a New Industry:

Wine has been made in South Africa for centuries (the first harvest dates back to 1659) and it is surely the world’s oldest New World wine region. The South African wine industry has also been inextricably linked to colonialism and apartheid, as well as the resulting socio-political conditions and their impact on some of the people who have worked in the industry.  Although much of the abuse and poor working conditions historically existed on grape farms as opposed to wine estates, the aftermath on the rural communities of the Cape has been far reaching and long lasting on South Africa’s black workers.

While no other wine industry has had to account for its labour practices or living conditions of its workers, not to mention the distribution of land-ownership, wealth or power within their wine industries, the South African wine industry has acknowledged the history and risen to the challenge to redress past wrongs by investing in a series of comprehensive initiatives for black workers.

South Africa Wineland

Stemming from a government country-wide initiative called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), designed to promote economic growth, develop skills and create greater equality and opportunities for disadvantaged communities, the wine industry adopted a Wine Industry Transformation Charter in 2007.  This plan, complete with scorecard and broad-based measures, recognizes the need for and implements increased training and education opportunities, ethical trading practices, preferential procurement, and the transition to ownership and management control, among others.

Still a work in progress with challenges ahead, the past fifteen years have resulted in noticeable changes in the number of black winemakers, black-owned wine ventures, a myriad of joint ventures, along with so named Black-owned Brands.  Tukulu is an early venture between Distell, a group of black entrepreneurs and a community trust whose workers work and live on the farm.  Many of these wines often find their way to export markets since it is easy to find shelf space and funding for export activities.

Other initiatives which came into existence over the past decade include programs and measures focused biodiversity and sustainability (mandated for all products exported). Sustainability measures had already been underway when I arrived in 2000, with independent sustainability certification for producers who minimize chemical use, protect biodiversity, clean up waste water and ensure people, as well as environmentally friendly practices.  By 2011, 85% of wine labels will sport the Sustainability seal. Similarly, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative is partnership between the wine industry and conservation sector to protect threatened wildlife habitat and contribute to sustainable wine production, so as to preserve the floral splendor of the Cape winelands.

The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing

Overall, I would say that one of the biggest changes I saw was the improvement in the quality of the wines. The upgrading of vineyards, improvements in viticulture techniques, investment and retooling of wineries and the education of a new generation of winemakers, who travel and work outside the country, has begun to pay off in spades.  Plant diseases, like leaf roll virus, which some say are responsible for off, burnt flavours in red wines, are now kept in check through elimination of water stress on the vines and earlier picking, as Boschendel winemaker Lizelle Gerber explained. Todays red wines are cleaner, more balanced and have less oak treatment than in the past.

South Africa Wineland

The most notable change in quality was in the white wines, with Chenin Blanc from Beaumont, the aromatic white blends from producers like Mullineux and Sauvignon Blanc from Waterkloof standing out, with fresh acidity and pure flavours and concentration, as more as more producers seek out cooler growing areas, higher elevation vineyards and learning more about optimal picking times. In essence, what has really been happening in South Africa over the past decade or two has been the shift from grape farming to wine growing, which has had a tremendous impact on quality and bodes well for the future.

We still don’t see many of the really interesting South African wines in Canada, with current offerings not reflective of the breadth and quality of wines produced in South Africa today. This is partly because producers have focused their efforts on the UK, a challenging market which nonetheless accounts for 30% of total exports, or on markets like the US, the Holy Grail for many South African producers.  I recall hearing from a South African producer who had travelled to Canada in the fall of 2000 and remarked that there was “greater demand and interest in South African wines than the industry realized and a distinct level of boredom in the wines that were available and offered to buyers”. To some extent, this might explain what is still at work today and why South African wines have yet reach their potential in our market.

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Flavourful and fruity

These flavourful Vintages wines speak to their origins with solid fruit and structure. Find these picks via

 John’s  Blend Margarete’s No. 13 Shiraz 2007  $39.95 

From Australian wine legend John Glaetzer, this Langhorne Creek shiraz has spent 28 months in oak. Intense and full bodied it’s packed with lush black fruits, dark chocolate mint and spiced vanilla oak flavours. Rich and ripe, it has the structure and length to make it a classic to cellar or enjoy now with braised meats.

Tabalí Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011   $14.95 

This white comes from Chile’s Limari Valley, arguably the country’s best spot for sauvignon blanc. In the bouquet there’s gooseberry, grapefruit and notes of passion fruit. The tangy, crisp palate is expressive with lemon-lime, minerals, green fruits and some tropicals. Medium bodied and elegant, match with oysters and fish.

Chateau Chevalier Cabernet Sauvignon 2006  $34.95 

A cool climate style Napa red, this hails from Spring Mountain District, part of the Mayacamas mountain range. Grapes ripen slowly giving an intrigue of herbal underbrush to the ripe cassis flavours. Medium full bodied, dry and nicely structured with textured tannins and cedar notes, it calls for steak or lamb.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 3rd 2012: A Tour de France’s signature varieties, Carmenère & Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

There is much to cover this week, including a Tour de France of not only signature varieties, but tidy values as well; fully half of this week’s top ten smart buys are French. Plus I’ll speculate on the origins of French domination – grapes and wine style – of the modern wine world. Then there’s carmenère, the occasionally maligned, often misunderstood grape that is immediately associated today with Chile despite its Bordelais origins; there are some terrific examples being released on March 3rd. And finally, check for part two of my sideways Central Coast tour of California, with a look at Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains, in an upcoming blog posting.

On the Origins of French Domination
To speak of France’s signature varieties, the theme of the Vintages March 3rd release, is to speak of the world’s signature varieties. France has more successfully exported her grapes and wines styles, reaching virtually every corner of the wine-producing globe, than any other nation. Why? The Portuguese and Spaniards, both rich in native varieties, were much more successful colonizers then the French (neither Saharan Africa, Polynesia nor Lower Canada could have looked very promising for vineyards). One wonders why the New World is not replete with Iberian grapes instead of French. And what of Italy, a beacon of art, culture and fashion since the Renaissance? Why has it taken so long for Italian grapes to reach foreign soils en masse? Pizza and shoes are more successful Italian exports than grapes, all things considered.

Terrior De FranceI can’t really say for sure, but I speculate that among the many and varied reasons for French domination of the wine world, essentially it comes down to having been more advanced and organized than any other nation at the start of the wine boom of the modern era, the beginning of the 19th century. And this advanced status stems from the very fibers of French culture: the French are nothing if not masters of classifications and hierarchies, of codification and rationalization. Who, after all, gave us René Descartes, that champion of method and analysis, or Auguste Escoffier, father of systematic haute cuisine and the prix fixe menu? Even today, ask for Béarnaise sauce in 100 French restaurants and you’ll get 100 identical sauces. In Italy, good luck finding any preparation that reappears outside of the valley in which it originated.

By 1855 the French were already classifying their most expensive and sought after bottles, while at the time, Montalcino was a tiny Tuscan backwater, Barolo was semi-sweet and sold in demi johns, and Riojanos were busy selling their wines to Bordeaux château. In France, ampelography (identification and classification of grapevines) was a science, offering the world such seminal works as Victor Rendu’s Ampélographie française of 1857, at a time when winegrowers in the Douro Valley had mixed plantings of dozens of unnamed/unknown grapes. So, as a would-be winegrower from Chile, Argentina, Australia or South Africa at the end of the 19thC, where would you look for inspiration?

A Tour De France of Smart Buys
La Chablisienne Montmains Chablis 1er CruThis week I found inspiration from both classic French wines and some less-well-known corners of vinous Gaul. I’d like to draw your attention to a tremendous Chablis, that is, chardonnay, from the world’s best patch of chalk on which to grow it: 2009 La Chablisienne Montmains Chablis 1er Cru AC ($24.95). La Chablisienne is a well-run cooperative formed in 1923, now consisting of over 300 growers. Each year the co-op produces 30 different wines, including six of the seven grands crus and fifteen premiers crus. Montmains is a top premier cru site on the left (west) bank of the Serein River, looking across to the grand crus. Damien Leclerc, MD of La Chablisienne, observes: “on the left bank, the minerality is more pebbly, chalky and austere tastes from the soil” in the company’s 11-page minerality manifesto on their website. In Chablis, minerality’s existence is not questioned. It’s considered a birthright, even though the term remains frustratingly slippery to define and suspiciously, increasingly, common around the world. But sucking on stones or not, premier cru Chablis at under $25 is what they call a no-brainer.

Turckheim Hengst GewurztraminerFrom Chablis you can head northeast to Alsace to experience the archetypical 2007 Turckheim Hengst Gewürztraminer AC Alsace Grand Cru ($24.95). Hengst is a steep, southeast facing cru officially in the commune of Wintzenheim, where the particularly warm and relatively dry conditions are perfectly suited to rich and powerful gewürztraminer. Turckheim’s version is marvelously smoky, mineral and earthy, medium-dry in style, with exceptional density and flavour impact. It could almost be put into the vendanges tardives (late harvest) category, and would suit all manner of intense, spicy, intensely flavoured foods.

Delas Frères Les Launes Crozes HermitageIf red is your colour, then head south instead to the northern Rhône appellation of Crozes-Hermitage and the classically styled 2009 Delas Frères les Launes Crozes-Hermitage AC ($20.95). Since taking over this storied négociant house, established in 1835, Fabrice Rosset has set Delas Frères on a steady upward rise in quality. From 1997 onwards investments have been ongoing: stainless steel was replaced by newly fashionable concrete vats, and gravity was engaged to eliminate harsh pumping. The barrel chai was completely refurbished, and dodgy old foudres were replaced with 225l François Frères barrels (a chic brand). Les Launes, a vineyard blend from the varying soils of the appellation, is aged 1/3 in wood and the rest in vat to preserve the textbook northern Rhône characteristics of black pepper, smoked hickory, fresh tar, black fruit and scorched rock notes. The palate is fresh and lively, with juicy acidity, firm tannins and lingering finish, and should improve over the next 2-3 years.

Château La Brie Prestige
Top value seekers should cycle cross country to the little-known appellation of Bergerac and the astonishingly good 2009 Château La Brie Prestige AC Bergerac ($13.95). There’s little I can tell you about this wine – the château, reassuringly, has no useful web presence – other than that it is a Bordeaux-type blend and it is delicious. I can only imagine that in centuries past, when all of the geographically unfortunate wine producers inland and up river from the main shipping port of Bordeaux, like Bergerac, were heavily taxed in order to protect Bordeaux’s market position, wine of this quality must have commanded 3-4 times the price.

Domaine Thunevin Calvet Cuvée ConstanceWrap up your Tour in the deep south near the Spanish border in the currently red-hot Roussillon. 2008 Domaine Thunevin-Calvet Cuvée Constance AC Côtes du Roussillon-Villages ($18.95) is a smart buy born of the 2001 partnership of super star Bordeaux garagiste Jean-Luc Thunevin (of Château Valandraud fame, one of those wines you can’t find, nor could you afford it if you could) and local Maury garçon Jean-Roger Calvet. Cuvée Constance is a 50-50 blend of grenache and carignan grown on typically stony, schistous soils, and aged in concrete and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The result is full, dense and rich, a satisfying mouthful to be sure, with big, plush, ripe tannins and juicy acidity. 15% alcohol sneaks by unnoticed until the finish heats up, like warm cherry pie. In any case, this is an exceptionally satisfying wine for the money, waiting for roast and grilled meats. It’s hard to beat this intensity and character for under $20. Vive la France!

Of Carmenère and Garden Salads
Carmenère: Chile’s flagship grape, or making the most of what you’ve got? Opinions are divided, but most agree that carmenère is both distinctive and good, the two prerequisites for flagship status, and I agree. Carmenère is an old Bordeaux variety that made it’s way to Chile in the mid 19thC, where it was promptly mistaken for merlot for almost a century and a half until French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot identified it in 1994. It’s a troublesome grape, in that it’s a late season variety with tendency to produce vegetal wines, likened by some to the smell and taste of a garden salad when not fully ripe, the reason why it was most likely abandoned in Bordeaux post-phylloxera.

Until it was identified in Chile as carmenère, it was usually harvested early along with merlot, although it ripens up to two months later, resulting in, well, green, garden salad wines. But Chile’s generously warm and dry climate is far more suitable than Bordeaux’s for the grape, and along with winemaking experimentation and pinpointing of the most suitable warm but not hot sites over the past 15 years, carmenère can now surely be counted among the most distinctive and high quality varieties of Chile. While it is likely still too early to say definitively, the epicenters for top carmenère appear to be the Colchagua and Cachapoal (Rapel) valleys south of Santiago.

Generally, the grape is deep purple, rich in dark berry fruit (cassis, blackberry, black cherry) and particularly spicy, with tobacco, tar, leather, black pepper and bell pepper notes. On the whole, it is less tannic than cabernet but more grippy than merlot. Practically, there are of course many styles, and here are the ones to look for in the March 3rd release to get a handle of what it has to offer.

Montes Purple AngelConcha Y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 CarmenèreMisiones De Rengo Gran Reserva Cuvée CarmenèreCasa Silva Reserva Carmenère

The leader of the pack is the iconic 2009 Montes Purple Angel Colchagua Valley ($56.95), easily the densest and richest of the lot, but with abundant wood influence that will need 2-4 years minimum to settle down.

The best value of the lot, even at $30, is the 2008 Concha y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 Carmenère Peumo Vineyard, Peumo, Cachapoal Valley ($29.95). Peumo is like Shangri-La for carmenère, based on tastings of this wine and it’s more expensive sibling, the excellent Carmìn del Peumo from Concha y Toro. While the latter is indeed extraordinary, it’s also $100+. The Terrunyo, which comes from the same zone, is very nearly as great for a less than a third the price.

The best of the sub-$20 examples on offer is the 2010 Misiones de Rengo Gran Reserva Cuvée Carmenère Rapel Valley ($19.95). It starts to highlight the quality potential of the variety, with just-ripe fruit, well-integrated wood, and intriguing fresh, sweet green herbal spice, dark black berry fruit character, and juicy-lively acidity – a well-balanced, vibrant wine that should age well over the mid-term.

The greatest crowd appeal/price ratio goes to the 2009 Casa Silva Reserva Carmenère Colchagua Valley ($15.00). It’s quite oaky for the moment, round and plush, but quite a tour of flavour and intensity for the money.

From the March 3, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Hot Carmenère
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Getting our Hands on B.C.’s New, Big Reds – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I recently spent four days in Kelowna, B.C. during the Canadian Culinary Championships, then another subsequent two days at home in Toronto, tasting B.C. reds.  There are many intriguing and excellent new labels on the market. (See picks below linked to WineAlign reviews). The vast majority however are not available on the shelves of the LCBO’s Vintages stores; and the prices of some that are available for order via local agents are bloated by 50% to 100% over retail in B.C., thanks to LCBO mark-ups.

The Crack in the Wall

Before you say ‘so what’s the point’ and click away, hear my tale.  Their availability may improve dramatically before this year is out, and you may be able to access them at something closer to B.C. prices.  Our archaic interprovincial wine shipping system is seeing its first official crack.

In the Air Canada departure lounge at Kelowna Airport I spent a few minutes talking to Ron Canaan, MP for Kelowna-Lake Country. He, along with MP Dan Albas of Okanagan-Coquihalla, have been championing a private members bill (C-311) that would make it legal for individuals to carry or import wines across provincial borders (which has been technically illegal since Prohibition almost 90 years ago). A website called has the full story.

The bill passed Second Reading in the House of Commons in the last session, and Mr. Canaan is “confident” it will pass third reading and become law this year. He is hoping in early summer.

Bill C-311 is an amendment to current legislation that would allow  “… the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for re-sale or other commercial use”

Loose interpretation – consumers will be able to bring back, ship back, or order on line, as many cases as local liquor authorities says is allowable.  In Ontario, the limit of this “personal exemption” is still in the hands of the LCBO, and we all wait with bated breath to hear how much wine Father McGuinty and his flock think should be allowed to import before we might considered ‘traffickers’.  But hey, even a single case minimum would be a help.

The other all-consuming question that remains outstanding is how this will affect the pricing of B.C. wines coming through existing LCBO channels, i.e. Vintages, the Consignment program and private order?  I wouldn’t mind prices that fairly reflect the cost of shipping and local agents’ commissions, but let them be sold here at prices that are competitive and reasonable.  Once this happens agents and restaurateurs will offer a wider range of B.C. wines through official channels too.

Great New B.C. Reds

So what is the fascination with B.C. reds here in Ontario?  Perhaps it has to do with the notion that we don’t see that many, and that we want, as Canadians, to be part of a “big red” scene that Ontario doesn’t really deliver.

Born in hot, arid growing seasons that boost fruit ripeness and alcohol, yet tempered by nighttime, desert-like coolness that maintains acidity, B.C. reds have the potential to be dense, ripe and well structured at the same time.  Finding the balance is a struggle however, and many B.C. reds are hot and clumsy. But the proportion of more elegant reds is increasing every vintage. The 2009s tasted recently have upped the game.

B.C. is moving toward 200 wineries, most of them relatively new sub-10,000 case properties that are championing estate-grown, or at least regionally-grown fruit in so-far-unofficial Okanagan sub-appellations like Naramata, Osoyoos, East Kelowna; as well as the burgeoning Similkameen Valley. Although their production is small the retail market within B.C. is very competitive, and many would welcome shipping directly outside their province.

The Similkameen Wineries Association hosted the Grand Finale Event of the Canadian Culinary Championships (see a full report on this event at GoldMedalPlates) so I was able to taste from its eight member wineries in some depth.  Similkameen is 30 minutes west of Osoyoos in a warmer, dry, organic-minded lake-less valley. Its 600 acres of vineyard are largely situated on bench lands composed of very diverse soils. I was very impressed by the structure and age-worthiness of many of the reds from this region.  So let’s begin our new winery role call here.

Orofino Vineyards is the leading Similkameen producer with their tiny, already sold out production of Orofino Syrah 2009 being named Best of Show at the CCC Event.  But John Weber is doing great work throughout his range, whether in a Bordeaux blend called Beleza 2008, or with riesling. His maturing 2007 is terrific and his 2009 Riesling won the Gold Medal Plates competition in Saskatchewan, Weber’s home province. Fortunately there is some access in Ontario already through Terroir Wines and Spirits. Other very promising Similkameen wineries include Seven Stones, Cerelia, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Robin Ridge and a top notch fruit winery called Rustic Roots.

Painted Rock is the new star of B.C., the top finisher from B.C. in the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards (won this year by Tawse of Niagara).  John Skinner, with the help of a top Bordeaux viticulturalist has done a masterful job with his new vineyard on a bluff above Skaha Lake.  His just released 2009s, from an excellent vintage in B.C., are stunningly good.  The Painted Rock Red Icon 2009, is one of the best Canadian reds I have ever tasted, and his Merlot 2009 and Syrah 2009 aren’t far behind. They are represented in Ontario by Lifford Agencies .

La Stella

Le Vieux Pin and twin-owned La Stella from Osoyoos have really turned on their A-game as well in the last two or three vintages.  Originally conceived by owner Sean Salem as a France-inspired winery Le Vieux Pin is following a natural path into Bordeaux and Rhone-inspired wines (they bade pinot ‘adieu’). The Le Vieux Pin Equinoixe Syrah 2009 is absolutely exquisite, not a term I would use easily for B.C’s often rough and tumble reds.  The not-yet-released Retouche Cabernet Syrah 2009 is a great beacon for a blend that B.C. needs to be taking very seriously.  Meanwhile, La Stella Fortissimo 2009 is a spirited tribute to Tuscany, with sangiovese blended with merlot and cabernet to take this wine into an engaging old world direction. Le Vieux Pin and La Stella are represented in Ontario by

Meyer Family Vineyards, based on 19 acres spread farther north in Okanagan Falls, Naramata and Kelowna has turned its sites on small lots of Burgundy-focused pinot noir and chardonnay. Canadian winemaker Chris Carson spent eight years in New Zealand, Burgundy and with Calera in California, before returning to this project.  The results are very impressive indeed. Meyer Family Pinot Noir Reimer Vineyard 2010 is a knock out, a modern B.C. classic. Meyer Family is also represented in Ontario by Terroir Wines and Spirits.

Haywire is perhaps the hippest new label in the Okanagan – a virtual label made at a new rental facility called the Okanagan Crush Pad.  The deep talent pool includes local hero Michael Bartier (ex-Road 13), former B.C. liquor board fine wine buyer David Scholefield, and Italian consultant Alberto Antonini. Haywire Pinot Noir 2010 is a fine effort that captures the essential vibrancy and sour red fruit of B.C. pinot. Famous Vancouver chef Rob Feenie selected it to match to his silver medal winning dish at the Canadian Culinary Championships.  Both labels are represented in Ontario by Trialto Wine Group .

Moon Curser is a funky new label from Osoyoos, very near the U.S. border. It has adopted a rather goofy ‘smuggling-under-the-cover-of-darkness’ motif in its marketing, but the wines are very good. I was impressed by a blend called Border Vines 2009 that incorporates six Bordeaux varieties.  It is available in Ontario via Terroir Wines and Spirits, but is sold out at the winery. Unfortunately Ontario won’t see any  Tempranillo 2009, a very promising, sold out, experiment with Spain’s signature grape.

Ex Nihilo – which means ‘out of nothing’- was founded by art and music aficionados Jeff and Decoa Harder, on the Lake County Scenic Sip Trail north of Kelowna (near Gray Monk). Their most public claim to fame was creating an icewine for the Rolling Stones, and riesling twice honoured at the Riesling de Monde in Europe. I was impressed by the reds sourced from a new estate-owned vineyard south near Okanagan Falls, and I draw your attention to Ex Nihilo Merlot 2008 in particular.

The list of interesting new wineries goes on and on. Terroir Wines and Spirits focuses exclusively on B.C. and you will find new WineAlign reviews from their portfolio when you search by Stoneboat, Desert Sage, Four Aces, Mt Boucherie and Lulu Island.  In Kelowna I also tasted the exciting portfolio of Spierhead by famous Okanagan photographer Brian Sprout, which will be posted to WineAlign soon.

Next week I return to B.C. for the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, where I may uncover even more.  Meanwhile check out the  following fine B.C. reds now at Vintages, the very good  Mission-Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009, the spicy Township 7 Syrah 2007, the well-structured Nkmip Qwam Qwmt Meritage 2008 and the iconic Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2007 (yes the 2008 is now arriving and I will taste it shortly).

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Gallic flavours

These three French wines in today’s Vintages release deliver classic Gallic flavours at bargain prices. Find them via

Domaine des Richards Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2010  
$16.95  (90 points)
This lightly fortified dessert wine from the Rhone Valley is made from muscat grapes. The bouquet is fragrant with blossoms, grape and orange peel, which carries through on the palate. Medium-full bodied with orange marmalade flavours balanced by good acidity, this is great on the rocks as an aperitif or chilled for after a meal.
$18.95 (90 points)
From Côtes du Roussillon-Villages in southern France, this is the fourth release of this popular red. Grenache noir based with 30% syrah and 5% carignan, it’s ultra smooth with ripe, rich berry flavours. It sees no wood but has some spiced, savoury notes from its terroir. Perfect for venison or duck breast.

Chateau de Fontenelles Cuvée Notre Dame 2008
$15.95 (89 points)
A gold-medal-winning blend of syrah (55%), grenache, carignan and mourvèdre from Corbières, this dark purplish garnet wine is medium-full bodied with lots of fruit concentration. Smooth with velvety tannins and good depth, it has flavours of ripe berry, savoury spices and cedar. With its firm, dry, earthy finish, it goes well with red meats.

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Cabernet Franc ~ Saturday, February 18th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

More important than meets the blend:

It’s hard being taken for granted, whether you’re a letter carrier, a sanitation employee, or in this case a noble red grape. Like its two human counterparts, we just expect them to do their job and be done with it. It’s when they’re missing that we notice their absence. And such, in a nutshell, is the current lot of Cabernet Franc, a grape that is expected to do its job in the Bordeaux blend with little in the way of collectors’ acknowledgment. Take it away, however, and most premium claret would not be nearly as good, and then we’d get just as upset as when our birthday cards don’t arrive and/or two weeks’ worth of refuse remains uncollected.

Cabernet Franc Grapes

And make no mistake: the presence of Cabernet Franc is seldom nothing short of critical when crafting Bordeaux. Ripening earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc has historically been utilized as a type of ‘insurance grape’ against cooler growing seasons—nowadays much less of an issue as a result of climate change. On both the Left and Right Banks, its key contribution is fragrance, adding perfume to the blend in such a manner that cannot be accomplished by Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot on their own.

Chateau Cheval Blanc

On the Right Bank, in particular, where Cabernet Sauvignon has great difficulty fully ripening, Cabernet Franc is considered invaluable in this respect, with even a few estates using up to or more than 50% of it on occasion. Notable examples include Ausone (possessing 55% in 2009), Cheval Blanc (containing 56% in 2010), Lafleur (boasting 57% in 2009), and Angelus (carrying 40% in 2009). Other high(er) users of Cabernet Franc are Figeac and Canon-la-Gaffelière, both of which used 35% in 2010, Beauregard (25% in 2010), Canon (25% in 2009), Le Gay and Pavie (both used 20% in 2010), and La Conseillante (19% in 2009).

Chateau d'Armailhac

On the Left Bank, Cabernet Franc nowadays ranks third in importance, with Merlot assuming a much greater role than ever before. Still, there are a few estates that continue to use slightly more Cabernet Franc than others, including: d’Armailhac and du Tertre (both used 15% in 2010), Kirwan (13% in 2009), Montrose and Léoville-Las Cases (both 9% in 2009), Malescot-St-Exupéry (8% in 2009), and Brane-Cantenac (8% in 2010). For each of these châteaux, by the way, there is a slightly greater percentage of Cabernet Franc in their vineyards.

So much for Bordeaux, but what about the rest of France, or the rest of the world for that matter? For most enthusiasts, Cabernet Franc reaches its greatest individualistic expression in certain parts of the Loire, in particular Chinon and Bourgueil, plus St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Here, when full ripeness occurs, the grape seems to thrive, taking on wonderful silky overtones and aromas of fragrant black currants and raspberry traces. Such wines are typically lighter-bodied, the best medium, and will keep for up to ten years when conditions permit.

Henry of Pelham Cabernet Franc Icewine

In other places, Cabernet Franc often has trouble standing up on its own. While a few examples in California and Australia sometimes have the potential of making heads turn, the grape simply doesn’t seem to inspire on its own. Places were Cabernet Franc might hold greater potential? New Zealand will always be a contender, but with Kiwis’ becoming better and better at mastering Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it’s increasingly likely that Cabernet Franc will become less significant over time. Surprisingly, the grape just may have a bright future in Canada, where early ripeners are precisely the ticket in so cold a climate. For now, however, it seems the most desirable Cabernet Franc in Ontario is made into late harvest and icewine; though there are a few excellent dry table wine versions available. The reason? My guess: the wine would probably not be all that drinkable in any other state. Not that the sweet versions taste bad. On the contrary, the best examples are often quite superb, though they shall always remain something of an novelesque oddity.

Thus, we arrive back at Cabernet Franc’s most purposeful raison d’être, its primary reason for being: to serve as an invaluable component in the Bordeaux blend. May it continue to serve in this noble capacity for centuries to come, never deviating, never disappointing, and always there when we need it.

Click here for a few gems from the 18 February 2012 Vintages Release along with several others

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A Fistful of Fine Bargains – Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Feb 18th release

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The Bachelder Chardonnays, 90pt Ontario Whites, The Sunny South of France, New World Values, plus Muscat Musings & Sweet Endings.

The February 18 release is a large and rambling affair with little focus or newsworthiness.  The main theme is Customer Favourites, which is a welcome return engagement for wines that have done well in the past.  The wine industry continually laments how hard it is to build brands via Vintages single purchase modus operandi, and consumers likewise lament how hard it is to re-purchase the wines they like.  So hopefully this bunch will spread some joy.

But news?  Well, when I was tasting at the downtown HQ lab this week there was no running water to rinse our glasses and spittoons. They better get the plumbing fixed before hanging the “For Sale” sign on that old building, as premier Dalton McGuinty intends to do as part of his new austerity measures.  Interestingly, as pointed out by some newspaper types this week, he is not talking at all about selling the entire LCBO.  Now that would make a real dent in the deficit.

The Bachelder Chardonnays

Thomas BachelderWait; there is something newsworthy this week – the simultaneous release of three chardonnays by rambling Canadian winemaker Thomas Bachelder.  Thomas was the first winemaker at Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne, the earnest Burgundy-modelled joint venture between Vincor Canada and Boisset of Burgundy.  Boisset has since pulled out, and soon after so did Bachelder, who has always been a gypsy spirit. He started in wine as a Montreal-based wine writer for Tidings magazine in the 80s, then disappeared into cellars around the world to actually make the stuff.  His pre-Jordanne journeys took him to Burgundy and Oregon. So it comes as no surprise that his latest project is to make individual chardonnays from the three places he knows best – Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy.

Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2009I highly recommend spending just over $100 to buy one each of these bottles, open them together and go to school on terroir and regionality. Together they are a tour de force of modern chardonnay, and an educational opportunity that rarely if ever comes along. There was discussion among we pundits over which one was best, but actually all three are excellent. The level of winemaking skill is readily apparent, not only in the sense of purity and polish, but the way the fruit shines in all three amid the intricate barrel complexities, and the way the three origins express themselves.  The Bachelder 2009 Bourgogne Chardonnay($34.95) was the lightest, narrowest and most poised.  Bachelder 2009 Oregon Chardonnay, Willamette Valley ($36.95) was the broadest and most rich. The Bachelder 2009 Chardonnay from the Niagara Peninsula ($31.95) version was the most powerful and structured.

Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Chardonnay 2009
90 Point Ontario Whites

The debate over where Ontario should focus – white or red – is never far from the surface in Niagara. There is enough vintage and site variation that one can argue for virtually any style and variety then name wines to back that position.  But in the end the marketplace will decide which wines Ontario can sell most consistently, with price and competition in the equation. From that perspective three wines being released on Saturday make a strong argument that Ontario needs to be focusing on white wines. All are under $20 and I have rated the three at 90 points, while the reds on offer are forgettable.

I am not the only one to be wowed by Tawse Sketches of Niagara 2009 Chardonnay from Niagara, especially at $19.95.  Among 86 chardonnays entered in the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards it was one of only six gold medalists, and all its Ontario peers were over $30. It may not have the depth of a great modern white Burgundy but it fooled and wowed 16 of Canada’s top palates. Mike Weir 2008 Riesling from Niagara-on-the-Lake is a great find for riesling friends at $14.95. Of note, it was made at Château des Charmes whose 2008 Old Vines Riesling was White Wine of the Year at the 2011 Ontario Wine Awards.  And finally we have 90 point excellence in another genre altogether.  I find most inexpensive white blends from Niagara rather boring, but Creekside 2009 Laura’s White at $18.95 is a terrific and creative, complex blend of sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay, viognier and muscat.
Mike Weir Riesling 2008Creekside Laura's White 2009

Behold the Sunny South of France

The bounty from the south of France spills onto this release as well, with a slate of 2009s from the Rhone and neighbouring Languedoc. Seriously, if you have not started to put some funds towards this vintage and region, you need to re-consider your priorities. Think of how many bottles of delicious Gigondas, Corbières, Minervois or Roussillon you could buy instead of one case of 2009 Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, or a case of high scoring Napa Cabernet.  I know that quantity is not necessarily the end game for folks who collect the world’s most famous wines, but you could be philanthropic and spread those cases of highly drinkable, sunny southern French reds around to your friends.

Chateau De Fontenelles Cuvee Notre Dame
Chateau Saint Roch Chimeres 2009

The Rhone selections are by and large solid, except for the Kosher version. (Most of the Kosher selections are quite good actually). I want to focus you however on Château Saint-Roch Chimères 2009 from Côtes du Roussillon-Villages. At $18.95 this Wine of the Month is a sock’em 90 point buy and I would not be at all surprised to see some peers score even higher for this dark, rich engaging blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan.  I am very enamoured of this tiny corner of France against the Spanish border, where old vines hug steep, rugged hillsides within the glint of the Mediterranean.  The wines have a wonderful sense of ripeness that will tug at New World heartstrings, yet there is enough minerality and structure to please Euro fans as well.  And for a real terroir experience don’t miss the wonderfully fragrant Château de Fontenelles 2008 Cuvée Notre Dame from neighbouring Corbières, a steal at $15.95.  Be prepared for a distinctive, high toned rosemary herbal scent that frequently leaps from bottles in Languedoc.

90 Point New World Reds Under $25

Araucano Syrah 2009  Ridge 2007 Santa Cruz MountainThere is a great array of well-made New World reds on this release. There are of course some top end entries from California and Australia, but I was most intrigued by good buys under $25. The parade is led by the excellent Araucano 2009 Syrah from the Lolol Valley, Chile at a stunning $14.95. This wine is made by world travelling Bordeaux-based Francois Lurton, who set up Hacienda Araucano in the Lolol Valley, a sub-region of the Colchagua Valley that lies closer to the Pacific. The region routinely experiences fog that reduces sunlight hours and heightens acidity.

There are a number of California reds on the release, and most are overpriced for quality delivered. The exceptions are the excellent Ridge 2007 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon at $49.95, and the well-priced Clos du Val 2009 Zinfandel Napa Valley at $23.95.  I have always liked the genteel styling, layered and nuanced styling of Clos du Val. When I set into the group of big Aussie reds I was most impressed by d’Arenberg 2009 The Footbolt Shiraz from McLaren Vale at $22.95. There is inbred poise and complexity that many jammier Aussie reds lack. I expect it will age very nicely for a decade if you so desire.

Bargain Whites

The chardonnay theme continues with two great Southern Hemisphere buys. Xumek 2010 Chardonnay from the Zonda Valley in the province of San Juan, Argentina, is a very fine effort at $15.95. Zonda is a highland region and this chardonnay expresses impressive finesse and brightness – perhaps also due to the hand of wine consultant Paul Hobbs, yet another roving oenologist who actually specializes in chardonnay (I did not like the Xumek reds). Backsberg 2011 Chardonnay from Paarl, South Africa ($17.95) is a Kosher wine with complexity, depth and Burgundian character that outstrips its price. And I am pleased to feature the return of an old favourite. Mount Riley 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand continues to one of New Zealand’s coolest customers, for all those who find much Kiwi sauvignon to be too edgy.  Also a steal at $15.95.

Xumek Chardonnay 2010 Backsberg Chardonnay 2011 Mount Riley Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Muscat Musings and Sweet Endings

And finally, this release presents a three-wine clinic on the muscat grape. I have always been a fan of its over-the-top perfumy essence. And when well made in either its fizzy moscato style, dry Alsatian style, medium sweet dessert style or fully fortified style I tend to score it well.  Some hate this grape, so be warned.

François Schwach Muscat 2008Massandra Muscat 2008François Schwach 2008 Muscat from Alsace, France is a shining example of a dry muscat with great purity, poise and freshness. Circling back to the Rhone Valley and upping the sweetness and alcohol level, I was also pleased as punch with the purity of expression in Domaine des Richards 2010 Muscat Beaumes de Venise, a Vin Doux Naturel at $16.95 per half bottle. Get a load of all that orange and anise! And saving the best for last, both in terms of quality and value, treat yourself to Massandra 2008 Muscat from Crimea in The Ukraine. Unbelievable 94 point quality for $15.95! But so it goes in the vastly under-appreciated world of fortified wines. The Massandra cellar near the Black Sea town of Yalta has been a treasure trove of great fortifieds for over 100 years, and at one point its Massandra Collection of over one million bottles was named the largest in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. This wine itself tastes like it has been steeped in history, for decades. Don’t miss it.

That’s all for this week! Watch for more picks from Vintages March 3 release. Meanwhile I am off to the Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival February 26 to March 3, and may have some insights and finds to tell you about at the same time. Watch next week for a feature on B.C. wines. I have just returned from the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna where I did a great tasting of Similkameen Valley wines, plus tastings of wineries like Ex Nihilo, Spierhead, Bartier & Scholefield, Le Vieux Pin, Nichol Vineyard and Moon Cruiser.

Check out my picks here and reviews on over 100 wines from the February 18th release here.


David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO – February 2012 – Four New Reds that Over-Deliver

Steve Thurlow Attention bargain hunters! Four new red wines recently arrived on the LCBO shelves have caught my attention and jumped straight into my Top 50 Value Wines list. Overall there are 17 wines that are new to the Top 50 list since last month. Read beyond these four great buys to find even more bargains, and then discover how these wines are systematically selected.

Vidal Fleury 2009
, Cotes Du Rhone, France $14.95
An elegant soft Cotes du Rhone with a very appealing nose of blackberry fruit with tobacco, fig and floral complexity. It is midweight and very smooth with some finely divided tannin giving nice mouthfeel. Well balanced with very good length. Will develop more complexity with a year or two in the cellar. Best 2013 to 2016. Try with roast meats or brie cheese.
Vidal Fleury 2009

Veedha Red 2008, Douro, Portugal $12.95
This is an elegant, fresh, clean red from the Douro Valley in Portugal made with the same grapes used to make Port. The nose is very fragrant with ripe blackberry fruit, vanilla, honeysuckle and dark chocolate aromas. It is medium bodied, well balanced and quite charming with very good length. Try with roast meats or hard mature cheese. Best 2012 to 2015.
Veedha Red 2008

Caldora Sangiovese 2010, Terre Di Chieti, Abruzzo, Italy $9.95
A fruity, very pleasant sangiovese from the south of Italy. It shows correct aromas of raspberry fruit, with some spice and earthy tones. It is midweight juicy and very fresh with good to very good length. Best 2012 to 2015. Will work with a wide range of meats and cheeses.
Caldora Sangiovese 2010

Curious Fruit Carignan Grenache 2009, Vin De France $9.95
A nice well balanced red made from Carignan and Grenache, grapes that are the basis for many wines from the south of France. Expect mild aromas of blackcurrant jello with some oak spice tones. It is midweight with good depth of flavour. Well balanced with fine tannin and nice vibrant acidity. Very good length. Try with grilled lamb cutlets. Best 2012 to 2016.
Curious Fruit Carignan Grenache 2009

February 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. An unprecedented 17 wines joined my Top 50 list this month.   Go herefor all the reviews and a searchable list.

Less than $9

Pasqua Sangiovese 2010, Puglia, Italy (1500ml) $12.85
For less than $6.45 for a bottle (750ml) this is a fine Italian red that will work well with tomato based sauces. The nose shows cherry fruit with some herbal and spice tones. It is very juicy with a lot of flavour for such an inexpensive wine. It is fairly simple but is well balanced with good length. Best 2011 to 2014.
Pasqua Sangiovese 2010

Obikwa Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
, South Africa $8.95
A youthful bright cherry red with delicate berry aromas and lots of flavour. Expect mild aromas of earthy black cherry with jam and leathery tones. The palate is juicy with soft red fruit and fine tannin and there is good length. It finishes dry and needs a juicy hamburger or maybe some sausages. Best 2012 to 2014.
Obikwa Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

Finca Flichman Misterio Malbec 2011, Mendoza, Argentina $8.25
This is a simple, fruity wine which with a slight chill is quite drinkable. Expect prune and blackberry fruit with spicy and jammy nuances, there is not much tannin and its a bit flabby so that is why it will benefit from modest chilling before serving. It is clean pure and quite quaffable with decent length considering the price. Best 2012. Try with pizza or a ham and cheese sandwich.
Finca Flichman Misterio Malbec 2011

Less than $16

Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough, New Zealand $15.95
This is consistently the best value in sauvignon blanc from Marlborough at LCBO. It is classic Marlborough sauvignon and delivers on many levels for a wine at this price. Aromas of lemon and ripe green apple, with some dry hay, ginger and mint notes are very appealing. The palate is elegant with lively mouthwatering grapefruit acidity and midweight richness. It finishes as it starts, fresh and clean with very good to excellent length.

Sterling Vintner’s Collection Merlot 2009, Central Coast, California, $15.00
A vibrant juicy merlot with very subtle oak treatment that’s a step up from the 2007. It is fresh and pure with aromas of blackberry and blueberry fruit with chocolate and floral hints. It is medium to full bodied and well balanced with lively acidity and just enough firm tannin to give some grip to the finish. Very good length and focus. Try with a steak.
Best 2012 to 2015.
Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2011Sterling Vintner's Collection Merlot 2009

Less than $18

Lenswood Hills Pinot Noir 2010, Adelaide Hills, South Australia $17.35
A fruity juicy pinot with a degree of elegance not often seen at this price point. Expect aromas of red cherry with raspberry plus some subtle oak spice and a touch of pine. It is midweight and very fruity with the ripe fruit well balanced by acid and tannin. It finishes with a little spicy heat so would be best served slightly chilled. Very good length. Try with smoky duck breast. Best 2012 to 2015.

Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer 2009, Alsace, France $17.00
Another excellent vintage for this classic gewurz from Alasce. Expect aromas of lychee and orange blossom with a sage herbal tone plus lemon marmalade with floral complexity. The palate is rich with the fruit well balanced by firm acidity. Very good to excellent length. Try with mildly spicy Asian cuisine.
Lenswood Hills Pinot Noir 2010Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer 2009

Why does the Top 50 change so often?

The LCBO is constantly renewing the list of wines available in their stores. Often as many as five new wines arrive each week and as a consequence as many as five are discontinued. They have become much better in the last couple of years at this task of bringing in better new wines and retiring lesser quality ones. So that is one reason why so many wines keep getting added to my Top 50.

Another reason for changes to the Top 50 is that new vintages of existing listings arrive refreshing the stock of wines on the shelf. Since so much wine gets sold in November and December, it is at this time of the year that many new vintages appear. In some cases there is little change when the 2010 replaces the 2009, especially with wines from warmer climates where vintage variation is less noticeable. Wines from cooler regions like northern France, Ontario and northern Italy are much more susceptible.

When a new version of a wine arrives that is better the wine may join the Top 50. The reverse is also true. So when the new vintage or batch that arrives is not as good a wine can fall out the Top 50.

This is a trait that the buyers at the LCBO and LCBO customers are well aware of, since it applies to many products and services. A winery may have an exceptionally good vintage or decide to put higher quality wine into a particular batch. They are delighted when that wine is bought by the LCBO and launched as a new product. Furthermore when reviewers like me praise the wine and customers buy it enthusiastically they are very content. However the next vintage may not be as good or subsequent batches when blended do not receive so much of the best wine leading to a decline in quality. Sales should be affected, my new review should not be as favourable and the LCBO buyers and quality assurance team should notice and take action; but all this takes time. Meanwhile lots of the inferior wine is bought.

So I encourage you to pay attention to the vintage you are buying and consult the Top 50 since it is always changing. If you find that there is a new wine on the shelf or a new vintage that we have not reviewed, let us know. Moreover if you disagree with our reviews tell us please why we got it wrong and also if you think our reviews are accurate, send us some feedback since we all like to hear when we are doing a good job.

There’s an easy way to do this at the bottom of any WineAlign page:

Suggestions and Feedback

Click on Suggestions & Feedback or send an email to .

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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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Stylish Californians

Woo your Valentine with California wines — reliably ripe, fruity, friendly and stylish.  Find these picks via

Roederer Estate Rosé   
LCBO No. 479758; $35.95 (91 Points)
This traditional-method bubbly from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County sports a pale salmon colour. Medium bodied, the bouquet is toasty and fruity with notes of wild strawberry, raspberry and brown spices that carry through to the palate. Elegant, textural and crisp, it’s sure to get the evening off to a great start.

Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2008
LCBO No. 356519; $45.95 (92 Points)
This Sonoma County selection is from the best lots of the year. This vintage, a blend from the Sangiacomo Vineyards in Carneros and Flocchini Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation, has spent more than a year in French oak. Toasty oaked, full bodied, rich and ripe with tropical fruit, it’s plump with good acid to balance and a nice grip.

Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
LCBO No. 80218; $89.95 (94 Points)
Worth the splurge, this is a terrific vintage of Beaulieu’s Private Reserve, a Napa Valley benchmark cabernet widely collected by connoisseurs. Opulent and textured with well-integrated oak, it has superb balance. Nicely complex, it has layers of flavour — berry, cassis, graphite and spiced oak with notes of herbs and menthol.

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008