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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: French vintages

Well priced with a touch of Gallic class, these three released in Vintages today are good choices for a brunch to herald in spring.  Find this French trio via

Château de Trinquevedel Tavel Rosé 2011  $17.95 (90 Points)

At the edge of Tavel, an area renowned for its rosé’s in the south of France, Château de Trinquevedel is an 18th-century country home with 32 hectares of vineyards. This pale orangey pink wine is dry yet generous with good length. Classy, its small red berry flavors have a savoury mineral edge. This refreshing style would be great at a brunch or light lunch.

Vincent Raimbault Brut Vouvray  $17.95 (89 Points)

From the Loire Valley, this 100 per cent chenin blanc varietal bubbly from family vineyards near the town of Chançay, is made according to the traditional method. Medium bodied and aromatic it’s fresh, dry and clean with bright apple and grapefruit flavors. Add orange juice to make a mimosa cocktail or just enjoy as is.

Domaine Grosset Cairanne Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2009  $17.95 (90 Points)

This lovely Rhône red is 50 per cent old vine grenache and the rest a split between syrah and mourvèdre. Intense with a ripe fruity, meaty flavour, its bouquet is fragrant with spices and red berries. Fairly full bodied with savoury garrigue and peppery undertones with elegant tannins it’s ready to drink yet could easily cellar a few years. A match for a veggie and meat shish kebab.

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part I (Bordeaux and Burgundy) ~ Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Collectors and top regions of France:  Not all wine buyers are the same.

In the Information Age, where everything and everyone is divided—and then subdivided—into unique demographics and groups, there isn’t one type of wine buyer, but many. However, to list them all here would be impossible, not to mention superfluous. For the purpose of this column, our subject is wine collectors and, with special emphasis, top regions and estates to buy from.

Speaking of which, what are collectors? And how do their wine buying habits most significantly differ from others?

At its simplest, a wine collector is a buyer that seeks out fine wine, usually to cellar for the long term. Types of wines purchased? While not a prerequisite(!), usually ones with higher prices and top critics’ scores, sourced from very specific regions in countries throughout the world.

But what are these countries and regions? And is there one country whose regions stand out above the rest?

For most collectors, this would be France. The reasons for this are complex. Some have attributed it to France’s having identified and categorized its best winegrowing regions and most famous wines so early on—a by-product of French culture, whose standards in gastronomy remain in essence unmatched. Others have pointed to the remarkable types of terroir found throughout France, as if the French were meant to lead the world in fine winegrowing since time immemorial.

Whatever the case, collectors are the beneficiaries.

Of regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy vie for top spot. On the Left Bank of the Gironde, the Cabernet-blends of Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe are most lauded. On the Right Bank, the best Merlot-dominant wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol are eagerly sought out. In Pessac-Léognan, the finest Cabernet-dominant reds and Sauvignon-centric whites are increasingly the talk of the wine world. And let’s not forget Sauternes and Barsac, where collectable stickies crafted predominantly from Sémillon are the order of the day.

With just a few exceptions, the most esteemed wines, or estates, in the Médoc are part of the 1855 Classification. In Margaux, the eponymous First Growth Château Margaux leads the way, closely followed by Château Palmer. Other must-haves are Châteaux Rauzan-Ségla, Brane-Cantenac, Kirwan, Giscours, d’Issan, Malescot-St-Exupéry, and Cantenac-Brown. In St-Julien, the greatest estate, and First Growth pretender, is Léoville-Las Cases, followed by Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville Barton, Gruaud Larose, Léoville-Poyferré, Branaire-Ducru, Langoa Barton, Talbot, St-Pierre, and Beychevelle.

Châteaux Latour & Lafite Rothschild

In Pauillac, the three First Growths of Châteaux Latour, Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild are among the most fought-over wines at auctions and en primeur campaigns every year. These are closely followed by the likes of Pichon-Comtesse and Pichon-Baron, Lynch-Bages, and Pontet-Canet; which, in turn, are closely matched by Châteaux Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Duhart-Milon, and Clerc Milon. Also stockpiled by collectors are wines from Châteaux d’Armailhac, Haut-Batailley, Batailley, and Haut-Bages Libéral, to name but several of the best estates in most collectors’ opinion.

In St-Estèphe, Château Cos d’Estournel nowadays heads up the company, with Montrose consistently hot on its heels. Other estates collectors routinely watch out for are Calon-Ségur, Lafon-Rochet, and Cos Labory.

Then, there are the Médoc estates not included in the 1855 Classification. In St-Estèphe, the most esteemed names are Châteaux Haut-Marbuzet, Phélan Ségur, and Les Ormes de Pez. In Pauillac, these are Pibran and Fonbadet. In St-Julien, Château Gloria stands out. In Margaux, Châteaux Siran, Clos des Quatre Vents, and Marojallia each have their own followers.

Châteaux Sociando-Mallet

As if this wasn’t enough, a few estates outside these four appellations, in both the Médoc and Haut-Médoc, are also greatly acclaimed. In the former, top châteaux are Sociando-Mallet and Potensac. In the latter, Poujeaux and Chasse-Spleen, both based out of Moulis, are seldom overlooked.

Châteaux Ausone

On the Right Bank in Merlot-dominant St-Emilion, choices are almost as prolific. At the very top of the St-Emilion Classification (last revised in 2006), Châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, the only two estates granted Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) status, are both universally revered. Next in line are those of Premier Grand Cru Classé (B) status, of which Châteaux Angélus, Pavie, and Figeac routinely rank highest in terms of veneration and price. Other collectibles of equal official status include Beau-Séjour Bécot, La Gaffelière, Magdelaine, Pavie-Macquin, Troplong Mondot, and Bélair-Monange (formerly Bélair). Rounding out the ‘B’ category are Châteaux Canon, Clos Fourtet, Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarrosse), and Trottevieille.

However, some of these names are often outshone by wines of Grand Cru Classé ranking or lower. La Mondotte, a single-vineyard wine owned by Stephan von Neipperg, along with Grand Cru Classés Canon-la-Gaffelière, Tertre-Rôteboeuf, Pavie Decesse, and Monbousquet; plus garagiste operations Valandraud, La Gomerie, and Le Dôme are just such examples. Other St-Emilions of similar, slightly less expensive disposition are Grand Cru Classés Larcis Ducasse, L’Arrosée, Destieux, and La Couspaude; as well as Grand Cru estates Bellevue-Mondotte, Gracia, Rol Valentin, and Moulin St-Georges. There are at least a dozen others.

Châteaux Petrus

Over in Pomerol, where there is no official ranking, collectors also have their hands full. More talked about than drunk, Château Petrus is widely considered the Holy Grail of claret collectibles, matched/surpassed in price by Château Le Pin. Then, there are all the other estates Pomerol is famous for. From a standpoint of quality and price, the most sought-after are Châteaux Lafleur (almost as expensive as Petrus), Trotanoy, Vieux Château Certan, L’Eglise-Clinet, L’Evangile, and La Conseillante. Other star estates of considerable acclaim include La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna  (formerly Certan-Giraud), Clinet, Latour à Pomerol, Clos L’Église, Certan de May, Le Gay, Le Bon Pasteur, and Gazin. Not to be left out, La Providence, La Clémence, Petit Village, Beauregard, Rouget, Nenin, and Bourgneuf all command serious prices. All of these, plus several others, are arguably considered the greatest collectibles in Pomerol.

Châteaux Haut Brion

In Pessac-Léognan, where the best whites, crafted from Sauvignon Blanc (usually predominant) and Sémillon, are as highly valued as the best reds (crafted largely along Médoc Lines), certain favourites emerge. Sparring for top honours annually, First Growth Château Haut Brion and leading Graves Cru Classé La Mission Haut-Brion lead the way—both the red and white versions are treasures. Pricewise, these two estates are followed by the reds and whites of Cru Classés Pape Clément, Haut-Bailly (red only), Smith Haut Lafitte, and Domaine de Chevalier. Other red/white estates routinely on collectors’ circuits are Châteaux Malartic-Lagravière, Carbonnieux, and de Fieuzal. In the Graves AOC, Château Branon is very expensive.

Châteaux d'Yquem

Next come the stickies of Sauternes and Barsac, of which the legendary Premier Cru Supérieur Château d’Yquem is considered unbeatable. After this are the best of the Premier Crus, usually Châteaux Climens (second only to d’Yquem), Rieussec, Suduiraut, Coutet, and Lafaurie-Peyraguey; Château de Fargues and Raymond-Lafon, both non-classified, are also considered gems. Other Premier Crus of high regard are Châteaux Guiraud, Sigalas Rabaud, and La Tour Blanche. Of the Deuxièmes Crus, Doisy-Daëne and Doisy-Védrines are must-haves.

Indeed, the choices of collectable clarets seem endless. However, when collecting Bordeaux, quality and price at time of purchase, while both paramount, are not the only factors at play. Nowadays, collectors have an extra reason for laying their hands on the best bottles: investment.

A relatively new trend, many collectors seek out specific clarets from great vintages that, having been scored highly—usually by very specific critics—will likely increase in value over the long term. Such wines are often bought be the case, to be sold down the road. As blue chip investments, some analysts have referred to such wines as ‘alternative investments,’ much like jewellery or works of art.

To a lesser extent, the same goes for Burgundy, where the world’s greatest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are produced. Here, however, collectors already have their hands full in just trying to memorise the best vineyards and domaines.

For white Burgundy fanatics, the most highly prized are the Grand Crus and best Premier Crus of Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault (only Premier Crus), Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton (Corton-Charlemagne), and Chablis. There are a few others, but these are the standouts.

Joseph Drouhin Montrachet

In Chassagne-Montrachet, the Premier Crus of Caillerets, Ruchottes, and Morgeot are usually considered best. In contrast, shared between Chassagne- and Puligny-Montrachet, the Grand Cru of Le Montrachet has long been considered immortal, closely followed by Chevalier-Montrachet and the more variable Bâtard-Montrachet; the seldom-seen Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and Les Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet are also both potentially stunning. In Puligny-Montrachet, Premier Crus Les Pucelles, Les Caillerets, Les Folatières, Les Combettes, Les Perrières, and Clavoillon are all considered superb. In Meursault, Les Perrières and Les Genevrières lead the way, closely followed by the upper parts of Les Charmes; Les Poruzots and Les Gouttes d’Or are also superb. In Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, the finest examples of Corton-Charlemagne are often lauded as some of the greatest of white Burgundies. Finally, in Chablis the Grand Crus of Les Clos, Les Preuses, and Vaudésir, to name but three favourites, all have an earnestly loyal following.

For red Burgundy connoisseurs, the choices are even more varied. By price, the best Grand Crus and Premier Crus of the Côte de Nuits, located between Beaune and Dijon, tend to attract the most serious collectors. From south to north, the most lauded Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are located in the villages of Nuits-St-Georges (Premier Crus only), Vougeot, Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St-Denis, and Gevrey-Chambertin. Within Beaune and throughout the rest of the Côtes de Beaune, the finest Premier Crus in Pommard, Volnay, Meursault (listed as Volnay-Santenots), and Chassagne-Montrachet are also much in demand.

Grand Crus La Romanée-Conti

In Nuits-St-Georges, the Premier Cru of Les St-Georges is ranked highest, followed by Les Vaucrains, Les Cailles, Les Porrets, and Aux Boudots. In Vosne-Romanée, both Grand Crus La Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, both solely owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are among the most expensive wines in the world; while the best examples of Le Richebourg and Romanée-St-Vivant often outstrip demand. Not to be outdone, the Grand Crus of La Romanée and La Grande Rue, respective monopolies of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair and Lamarche, are nowadays prohibitive in claim. On a much more variable level, the same can be said of the best wines of Grand Crus Les Grands Echézeaux and the even more variable Les Echézeaux. Finally, the Premier Crus of Aux Malconsorts, Les Suchots, Les Beaux Monts, Cros Parantoux, and Aux Brûlées routinely sell for small fortunes when denoted by case.

Comte de Vogue Musigny

Heading northward to the next commune, in Vougeot the Grand Cru of Clos de Vougeot is world famous; though collectors are well advised to stick with only the best, most reliable producers. In Chambolle-Musigny, the Grand Cru of Musigny, a top collectable, is widely considered the most seductive of red Burgundies; in the same village, the Grand Cru Les Bonnes Mares is also remarkably extolled, while Premier Crus Les Amoureuses, Les Charmes, Les Fuées, and Les Cras are all greatly admired. In Morey-St-Denis, wines from the Grand Cru of Clos de la Roche take top honours, followed by Les Bonnes Mares (a tiny part), Clos de Tart, Clos des Lambrays (a virtual monopoly of Domaine des Lambrays), and Clos St-Denis. The Premier Crus of Clos de la Bussière, Les Charmes, and Monts Luisants also possess collectable attributes.

Armand Rousseau Chambertin

In Gevrey-Chambertin, wines from the legendary Grand Cru Chambertin vie with La Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, and the finest Musignys for consideration as the most omnipotent of all red Burgundies. On occasion, those of neighbouring Chambertin Clos de Bèze also merit the same adulation. Then there are the remaining seven Grand Crus of the commune. Though subject to debate, most view Mazis-Chambertin, Griotte-Chambertin, and Ruchottes-Chambertin as the next best three, followed by Charmes-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Chapelle-Chambertin, and Mazoyères-Chambertin. Of Premier Crus, Clos St-Jacques is in a league of its own, while Les Cazetiers, Lavaut St-Jacques, and Les Varoilles are all ranked highly.

Lafarge Volnay Clos de Chenes

South in the Côte de Beaune, there remains a bevy of lighter-styled selections for which this particular part of Burgundy is famed. In Beaune, top Premier Crus collectors routinely watch out for are Les Grèves, Clos de Mouches (lower slopes for Pinot Noir), Les Fèves, Les Teurons, Les Marconnets, and Clos du Roi. In Pommard, the best parcels of Premier Crus Les Epenots and Les Rugiens are hugely adored. In Volnay, Premier Crus Clos des Chênes and Les Caillerets are infallibly seductive. In Meursault, the Premier Cru reds, on occasion excellent, are labelled as Volnay-Santenots. Skipping Puligny-Montrachet (no reds allowed), in Chassagne-Montrachet the most collectable reds generally hail from La Boudriotte, Morgeot (also known for great whites), and Clos St-Jean. As with all other communes, there are invariably too many vineyards to list.

La Tache

Yet surprisingly, once getting past all the top vineyards to memorize, there are far fewer famous domaines and négociants to account for when compared to Bordeaux, as virtually all winegrowers have plots in multiple vineyards. Still, to help readers out, many labels of the crème de la crème have been included in this column possible.

And yet, Bordeaux and Burgundy are but the tip of the iceberg. For many collectors, no cellar would be complete without a proper selection of wines from the Rhône and Champagne, not to mention all the other regions that make France the greatest winegrowing nation in the world. But such regions, I am afraid, would take up far more than the one sentence I have left—which I shall simply conclude by raising my own glass, filled with claret, to the two titan regions of the French winegrowing world; without you, there’d be no point.

Click here for a few gems from the 31 March 2012 Vintages Release along with several others

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 31st Release: A Magical Mystery Tour Under $25

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Vintages main theme this release is Easter wines. I will probably offend some by giving this topic the pass over, but this is such a wildly diverse selection of wines that it is either highly calculated to minister to every possible Easter dining scenario, or it has no relevance to Easter at all. But the theme of diversity is actually where this release is most interesting. It’s not deep in great, high scoring wines – the vast majority are scoring 85 to 88. But it does have some very interesting wines from surprising sources, and it is often the off-beat places and grapes that deliver the best value. So join our ten-wine Magical Mystery Tour, from the lowest to highest priced wines, all scoring 88 points or higher, for under $25.

Muralhas De Monção Vinho VerdeVelenosi Querci'antica Lacrima Di Morro D'albaVelenosi Querci’Antica Lacrima di Morro d’Alba 2010
Marche, Italy $13.95

The tour begins in the rolling hills of Marche on Italy’s Adriatic coast. I was in this scenic, pastoral region several years ago and remember being aghast at the value and diversity being delivered by its famous white wine called Verdicchio. It is stunning how little Verdicchio is ordered by the LCBO to this day. Anyway, on that trip I remember being lifted out of my chair by a very fragrant, smooth and charming red called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. Lacrima is the grape variety. The appellation, which was bestowed in 2005, is not so much governing the region of origin as it is the variety itself and method of production that calls for the addition of unsweetened must/juice before the end of the year of vintage. The result is a fruity, sweetish, entirely gulpable red that deserves a place on your deck this summer. A pure delight.

Muralhas de Monção Vinho Verde 2010

Minho, Portugal $14.95

The next stop is the damp, briny west coast of northern Portugal where forested hillsides and misty, mossy valleys would seem to indicate a climate too humid and grey to ripen grapes. Some shrill red wine is grown in the Minho, but a selection of early ripening white grape varieties like loureiro, alvarhino and trajadura are cultivated to make a wine called Vinho Verde. This “green wine” is not a stranger to those who like crisp, light, slightly fizzy wines for a plate of oysters, but less appreciated are the more stately, complex versions from single estates or vineyards. Based largely on the fragrant, spicy alvarinho grape (called albarino over the Spanish border in Galicia) this edition is made by the local co-operative in a sub-region called Monção. I wouldn’t hesitate to insert it into a fine seafood dinner where you might otherwise serve a classic Muscadet or Chablis.

Taurino Salice Salentino RiservaTaurino Riserva Salice Salentino 2008
Puglia, Italy $14.95

Back to Italy now (and we will return yet again) to the same Adriatic coast, but farther south along the heel of the boot, and inland a little, to one of the best appellations that I have ever visited. Salice Salentino has been an appellation since 1976, and has impressed me almost as long. A deeply held wine trade establishment bias against the hotter, richer reds of Italy’s deep south has kept prices suppressed and value quotient high. The grape here is predominantly negroamaro, or “the black bitter one” (with about 20% of the fragrant malvasia nera). Negroamaro has risen to the fore because it easily absorbs the heat of the area to create ripe, rich wines, but also has the tannic structure and acidity to give the wines structure and age-worthiness in barrel and bottle. There are bound to be a couple more stew and roast days before you abandon the stove for the grill, or simply stash a few bottles away for next fall. This is a great buy.

Falernia Reserva CarmenèreFalernia Reserva Carmenère 2007
Elqui Valley, Chile $16.95

We now zap to one of the most mystical places on the planet – the remote Elqui Valley, Chile’s most northerly wine region. With little rainfall and pure desert nights Elqui is one of the best vantage points in the world for stargazers. Indeed huge internationally funded observatories are nearby, and I spent a night there in a hotel called Domos, where we slept in domed tents with a zip-open ceiling to allow sky-watching from bed. And by the way, Elqui’s pristine, somnolent ambiance and luminosity also attracts its share of backpacking soul searchers and space cadets. With precious little arable land in the narrow valley wine production will never be huge, but Falernia, which was only founded in 1998, is making some amazingly concentrated yet elegant wines out of this stony terroir. And they are knocking down gold medals on the international show circuit like nobody’s business – so get in while the wines remain priced far below their intrinsic value.

Château La Bourrée 2008
Côtes de Castillon, Bordeaux, France $17.95

Bordeaux is hardly a far-flung corner of the wine world, but the appellations upstream and inland from the famed regions like St. Emilion, Medoc and Graves might as well be on the moon in terms of international recognition. Which again is a positive in terms of value. The Castillon appellation was only created in 1989. It lies upstream along the Dordogne River, where it is a bit warmer, imbuing a bit more ripeness. I did a midday hike in this region several years ago and vividly remember the warmth and tranquility of the rolling landscape of forests, meadows and vineyards, and stopping at farm houses to replenish water bottles from their wells. Made predominantly from merlot the wines seem to have that same rather lazy but pure ambiance, compared to the highly structured, precisely constructed wines of St. Emilion. Chateau la Bourrée is a ten hectare property owned by M. Jean Francois Meynard, who believes in low-yields and sorting tables to keep quality high. Don’t overlook this big buy in little Bordeaux!

Château La Bourrée

Tasca d’Almerita Lamùri Nero d’Avola 2009
Sicilia, Italy $17.95

There is nothing like standing on heights to grasp a sense of place, and I will never forget standing on a hill at the Regaliali estate of Tasca d’Almerita and viewing, it seemed, all of Sicily spread out below. Sicily is a hot, hot place to make wine – they call it the California of Italy. But up here in the central hills the air was fresh and cooler, and so are the wines from one of the largest wine estates in Europe. Harvested from vineyards at up to 750 metres, fermented in stainless steel and aged in older, almost neutral barrels, you will never find a nero d’avola with this kind of freshness and fragrance. Tasca d’Almerita has been making wine here for seven generations and continues to vigorously experiment with new grape varieties and techniques.

Tasca D'almerita Lamùri Nero D'avola

Achaval Ferrer MalbecAchaval Ferrer Malbec 2010
Mendoza, Argentina $23.95

Just last November I was in Mendoza where I tasted dozens upon dozens of malbecs in four days. The routine was to spend about two hours, twice a day, doing a kind of speed dating tasting with groups of up to ten producers – so about 10 minutes per station. At times I felt like I was in a malbec-induced trance. Until I came to the table of Achaval Ferrer, and I tasted this very wine. Suddenly there was a sense of restraint, and elegance and power, all very neatly tied together. Founded in 1998 by a group of five friends, the goal is to create top quality wine from its high altitude 14 acre site in the La Consulta sub-region of the Uco Valley. This “basic” malbec bottling however is from three sites in La Consulta, Lujan de Cuyo and Medrano. Still, yields are kept low, picking and sorting processes are rigorous, and talented young Italian winemaker and partner Roberto Cipresso chooses to bottle even this less expensive version without fining or filtration. Take this rare opportunity to try a “higher expression” of Argentina’s every day grape.

Megalomaniac Eccentric SavagninMegalomaniac Eccentric Savagnin 2010
Oliveira Vineyard, Niagara Peninsula, $24.95

Over in eastern France in the sub-alpine region of Jura they make an intriguing, spicy and intense white wine from a grape called savagnin. It is a classically muddled central European variety in terms of its origins, although traminer from sub-alpine Italy seems to be at least a cousin if not a slightly different clone. More interesting however is the fact that it is grown in very few other regions, and now one of them happens to be Niagara, where the latitude and climate is not all that different from Jura. John Howard (of Megalomaniac) is not the first in Ontario to make savagnin. Chateau des Charmes made a stunning savagnin icewine a few years ago. But this is the first dry version I have tasted from Niagara and it is a very good example, and an intriguing white wine. It is sold out at the winery, so this is your last chance.

Yalumba ViognierYalumba Viognier 2010
Eden Valley, South Australia $24.95

On my first trip to Australia in 1995, we were driven from the almost flat Barossa Valley floor up into the hills on the eastern side of Barossa and into an adjacent, cooler and rocky-soiled region called Eden Valley – which is not actually a valley. There was a certain reverence in the air, about this being a rather magical, cooler place capable of producing some very refined, higher acid shiraz and riesling. The fact that the legendary Henschke winery is located here has helped. Yalumba, Australia’s largest producer of viognier and also a pioneer of Eden, thinks it is special for viognier too, and they have created Eden Viognier as a mid-priced “fruit forward” expression. It was 60% aged in old barrels, but the wood is not at all obvious. I love the classic viognier spice, apricot and overall sense of power, delivered with a sense of restraint and refinement.

Sorelli Vinsanto Del Chianti ClassicoSorelli Vinsanto del Chianti Classico 2003
Tuscany, Italy $25.95

And finally we return to Italy yet again, to Tuscany’s famous Vin Santo – a style of wine that has always intrigued me. Like many other classic European oxidative dessert wines (marsala, madeira, oloroso sherry, tawny port) the style is fading from favour in an era where we want everything bright, shiny and easy to interpret. This too means that prices drop and value rises, especially given the complexity attained in the elaborate winemaking process.

Vin Santo is made from malvasia and trebbiano grapes dried after harvest, usually on straw mats. If sweet must was added during fermentation to produce a higher alcohol fortified style it is called “liquoroso”. It is aged at least three years in barrel (the type of wood can differ from producer to producer) where it takes on the amber colour and oxidative nutty flavours. It is a very compelling wine, but not as heavy as you might think. A wine to consider lightly chilled, as light fades on the deck.

And so ends the tour. Back to reality. I will return after Easter for the April 14th release, but in the meantime I want you to mark some wine lovers dates on your calendar – The Austria Uncorked event at the Trump Hotel on April 16th; and the Malbec World Day Argentina Event on April 17th. I will be hosting the trade portion of that event in the afternoon.


David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign

Check out reviews on over 100 wines from the March 31st release here.

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New Ontario Wineries 2012 – By David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The opening of new wineries in Ontario has slowed compared to the deluge in the late, pre-recession 2000s, but there are new ventures in all three established regions – Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County.

The number of wineries in the province always seems to be a moving target, depending on who is offering the stats. VQA Ontario, for example, will only include wineries that subscribe to VQA, which is most, but not all – excluding all fruit wineries and new wineries using grapes in regions that don’t make enough wine to qualify for VQA status.  Wine Country Ontario (formerly the Wine Council of Ontario) will only count its members – which exclude a group of large producers that also make wine from offshore fruit. Both organizations also have membership fees and regulations that make some folks pause to assess whether they want to belong.

So I have always deferred to the non-partisan Canadian Wine Annual, published by Wine Access magazine. Until this year I authored the Ontario section and did my best to include wineries of every stripe. In 2011 there were 147 listings, including every fruit winery and virtual winery I could find. This year, I estimate the addition of another half dozen.

Here is a quick survey of four new wineries. Of course, they are all too new to have earned a spot at the LCBO, but that should not hinder those who know how the system works. Most Ontario wine is not at the LCBO anyway, so thank goodness that Ontario’s wine country is within a few hours proximity to most Ontarians. Years ago I remember envying Europeans who could drive to Burgundy for the weekend and load up on great pinot and chardonnay. Well that is now available here in Ontario too; or you can order on line and they will drive the wine to you.

I have only personally visited the first winery on the list, and I look forward to seeing the others on my rounds this spring.

Rennie Estate Winery – Beamsville Bench

Rennie Estate Winery is a new label born in a joint venture between Angel’s Gate Winery and grower Graham Rennie, who owns Heron Pond Benchland Vineyard east of Beamsville.  Planted in 1998 this maturing fifty acre site is focused on classic bench varieties like chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc, with some merlot and cabernet sauvignon as well.

“I knew the vineyard could produce classic chardonnay and pinot” says Rennie, “but I also wanted to do something different. I was actually visiting Masi in Verona, Italy, in October 2009 when I decided to try to make ‘appassimento’ reds from dried grapes in Niagara”. This is a growing practice in Ontario, which has conditions not dissimilar to northeast Italy. Rennie joins A Foreign Affair, Cave Spring, Colaneri, Burning Kiln, Organized Crime and Reif in this pursuit. Indeed, a VQA technical committee is discussing how to “regulate” the process.

Essentially, the drying or raisining of the grapes after harvest concentrates the sugar, colour and flavour compounds; with the potential of creating wines with higher alcohol and richer texture. Grapes can be fully dried as in Italy’s amarones, or partially dried, creating “ripasso” styled wines. The drying is done indoors where temperature and humidity can be controlled. The latter is crucial in preventing mould that would spoil the berries. So far different techniques are being studied in Ontario, and there is controversy whether rushed drying in tobacco drying kilns is as good for wine quality as longer drying at lower temperature.

Rennie’s joint venture with Angel’s Gate brought aboard winemaker Phillip Dowell, an Australian-trained winemaker with plenty of experience with big reds, as well as pinot noir (at Yarra Valley’s Coldstream Hills). Dowell has worked over a decade in Niagara as well, first at Inniskillin from 1998 to 2004, then at Angel’s Gate since 2006. He says he was initially against the idea of making appassimento style reds in Ontario, but he has changed his mind given the results he has encountered, and the option it provides to winemakers who are dealing with late ripening red varieties in Niagara’s short and variable growing season.

The first two appassimento reds from Rennie Estate are an intriguing, spicy, partially dried 2010 Cabernet Franc called Scarpa that will sell for $50, and a fully dried, very rich, creamy 2010 Merlot called Gaia that will fetch $75. I tasted them as barrel samples and will not review them until release. Futures orders are being taken for these wines (cases of six) now.

The sleek, elegant $30 2010 Chardonnay called Cristine (named after Rennie’s wife) is my personal favourite in the portfolio, while the taut, tannic and savoury 2010 Pinot Noir called Paradox, is a wine needing a year or two in the cellar. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir go on sale at Angel’s Gate on April 1st.

Art Reimer

Art Reimer

Reimer Vineyards – Niagara on the Lake

Opening Reimer Vineyards has been a 25 year evolution for engineer and agriculturalist Art Reimer and his wife Sue (a local history buff). Beginning as hobbyist, then a commercial grape grower, then joining the ranks of Niagara amateur winemakers, Art began converting the vineyard to organic production in 2000 (certifying in 2008). The Reimers opened their small winery near Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2010. I have only tasted the powerful (if oxidative) 2010 Riesling. They also make a Chardonnay, with red varieties being used in blends called Galahad (pinot noir, gamay) and Peace and Harmony (cab franc, cabernet sauvignon and hybrid chambourin).

Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards – Lake Erie North Shore
Situated on 67 acres between Kingsville and Harrow, Cooper’s Hawk is named for a species of hawk that thrives in a region teeming with insect, bird and animal wildlife. Katy and Tom O’Brien have created an experience that is part vineyard and part nature preserve, where with glass in hand visitors can stroll the ponds, wetlands and park areas. Winemaking is focused on a tight range of well-known varietal wines led quality wise by a full flavoured, ripe 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay. The Riesling 2010 is similarly big, petrol-driven but coarse. An age-worthy 2008 Cabernet-Merlot shows some promise for future vintages; the 2010 rosé made from estate cabernet franc is, frankly speaking, a mistake.

Devil’s Wishbone – Prince Edward County

Paul Gallagher has been scratching grapes from his gravel strewn, high density, low yield vineyard. The century old farm is nicely positioned on the tourism circuit east of the mysterious Lake on the Mountain above the Glenora Ferry. Last summer he took the leap and opened his winery. Some of his wines – chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir – are made from estate grapes, but his merlot and cabernet (like others in the County) are from Niagara fruit. I would say why bother, although the 2009 merlot is his best wine to date. The current PEC wines show impressive flavour depth, tension and density but the winemaking/flavours needs to improve as does the balance to handle the intensity the vineyards seem to possess. Early days, and I will be following.

Filed under: News, Wine, ,

Cool Spring Whites – By Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d'Amato

If I had a mere quarter for all the times I have been asked about my favourite wine, I’d have that vineyard in Tuscany by now. Unfortunately, I can never give a satisfying answer. A “favourite wine” is a point-in-time snapshot, dependent on context and so many constantly changing variables: the weather, the food, the mood, and even, yes, the season.

Of all of the times of year, spring seems to get me in the mood for a particular kind of wine like no other time. Whether it be the smell of the crocuses already in bloom or the excitement of the fresh, local produce about to find its way to my table, I can think of no better way to enjoy the coming of the warm weather than with a crisp, seductive white. At the brink of the season, we are certainly in luck as a slew of sophisticated and appealing whites have made their way into our wine shops.

Las Perdices Torrontés

Las Perdices Torrontés 2010, Luján De Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina $12.95

On the lighter side, this pretty, floral Torrontés is extremely approachable and undeniably delicious. A perfect addition to an afternoon tea on the veranda or lunching with the ladies. This is one of those wines that is best appreciated by those who are capable of recognizing the importance of delicacy and subtle charm.

Bründlmayer Kamptaler Terrassen Grüner Veltliner

Bründlmayer Kamptaler Terrassen Grüner Veltliner 2010, Kamptal, Austria $19.95

Spring cleaning is infinitely more pleasant with this clean, stylish and distinctive Grüner in my hand. Spring cleaning aside, the experience of a great Grüner with plenty of white pepper, verve and spice is unforgettable and will sure to have you coming back for more.

Flat Rock The Rusty Shed Chardonnay

Flat Rock The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2010, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula $24.95

If you feel it is time to get out the gardening gear to start turning the soil, the Rusty Shed Chardonnay might just be able to get you in the mood, thematically, at least. Satisfying with a good dose of quality oak, tropical fruit and substantial alcohol – a great reward for hard work.

The Ned Pinot Gris

The Ned Pinot Gris 2011, Waihopal River, Marlborough, New Zealand $14.95

Rich, lush and seductive, this may just have you hoping that the groundhog didn’t see his shadow so that you can continue to hibernate just a little bit. Comforting, alluring and sensual, hits my most longed for marks when it comes to a great bottle.

May the warm weather and beautiful aromas inspire your choices this season.

Filed under: News, Wine,

Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Savoury reds

These smooth, savoury reds over deliver for their price. Find this trio via

Corte Giara Ripasso Valpolicella 2009
$16.95 (90 Points)
This northern Italian red is deliberately made in an approachable ready-to-drink style. Robust and quite full bodied with an aromatic bouquet, it’s generous with supple tannins. There’s a tangy dried cherry flavour with spiced savoury notes. Delicious with quail, grilled meats or braised dishes.

Tin Barn Vineyards Cabernet Blend 2007
$37.95 (93 Points)
This organically farmed Napa Valley Meritage blend of mainly cabernet sauvignon with some merlot and cabernet franc was aged partially in new French oak. It’s velvety smooth with deep, savoury spice and berry flavors. Full bodied, complex and touched by toasty oak, it’s perfect with a juicy rare steak.

Mas D’Auzierès les Éclats 2009
$16.95 (89 Points)
From southern France, this syrah-based red with grenache and mourvèdre is smooth and flavourful with savoury rustic notes, ripe fruit and hints of dark chocolate. There’s a stone and minerals uplift from its site where the soil has shards (“les Éclats”) of quartzite and iron-laced limestone. Have with pork sausages, burgers or souvlaki.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 31st 2012: Easter; Startling discovery: learning about & drinking wine encourages new brain cells; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report features wines in the March 31st release, for which the main theme is Easter. I considered highlighting wines that really come alive about three days after opening, but having thought better, decided to focus on ten super buys from this rich release. I’ll then go on to provide comforting scientific proof that your passion for wine will make you smarter, sharper and improve overall cognitive function, as discovered in a recent upheaval of long-held but erroneous scientific dogma.

Muralhas De Monção Vinho VerdeTop Ten Smart Buys

It’s beautifully sunny and 17ºC in mid-march as I write this, with the fever of spring conjuring mirages of fragrant flowers, green grass and the smell of spring rains on warm asphalt. Or, maybe I’m just reliving the experience brought on by the 2010 Muralhas de Monção Vinho Verde ($14.95). While this vibrant, crisp white won’t topple you over with complexity, it has the irresistible smell of spring itself, and my mouth waters and I dream of grilled sardines and fresh oysters as I recall the experience.

Studert Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr RieslingThere were near-universal gasps of approval at the LCBO lab, a rare occurrence in the subjective world of wine, as writer after writer sniffed and sipped the 2007 Studert-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling. This is the second time this same wine has been released, the first being in July of 2009. But curiously, the price has dropped from $24.95 to $17.95, and it appears to be a different wine altogether, or at least a different bottling run, as the AP number, the unique code handed out by German wine authorities for all approved quality wines, is different. (This information is thanks to the indefatigable Michael Vaughn, Canada’s most organized wine writer.) Whatever the case, now, and even more than before, this is an astonishing value not to be missed by fans of German riesling or even by detractors, as this could be the wine that changes your life. I’ve long contended that Mosel riesling in kabinett and spätlese-level ripeness offers the world’s greatest expression of terroir, even ontological proof of its existence, for the least amount of dough.

Amayna ChardonnayCave Spring Estate Bottled Gewürztraminer
Even more floral and more unctuous is the 2010 Cave Spring Estate Bottled Gewürztraminer ($17.95). It’s an archetype of the grape, with rose petal and lychee perfume, off-dry but balanced palate and great length. And to round out the smart buy whites, try the2008 Amayna Estate Bottled Chardonnay ($25.95). You can just about see the Pacific from Garcés Silva’s vineyards in the cool Leyda Valley, although this chardonnay delivers substantial weight, alongside a fine mix of ripe orchard fruit and measured barrel influence.

Reds worth discovering and serving with your Easter lamb include the wonderfully pure, biodynamically grown 2010 Achaval Ferrer Malbec ($23.95). The balance and freshness are impeccable here, with the added dimension of wild violets to round out the flavour profile.

Achaval Ferrer Malbec

The parade of values from the south of France continues with Hecht & Bannier’s 2008 Côtes du Roussillon-Villages ($22.95). It is the very essence of the region with its deep, spicy dark fruit and garrigue flavours, easily as good as many châteauneuf-du-papes at twice the price. Very nearly as good but terrific value for money is the 2009 Gérard Bertrand Minervois Syrah/Grenache ($15.95), likewise full of spicy, minerally character and super length and class.

Hecht & Bannier Côtes Du Roussillon VillagesGérard Bertrand Minervois Syrah/Grenache

And finally, three more recommended wines to round out your Easter dinner options: the structured 2009 Flagstone Music Room Cabernet Sauvignon ($17.95), the refined 2008 Quita De La Rosa Tinto ($19.95) and the ultra-savoury 2008 Taurino Riserva Salice Salentino ($14.95). Hope fully this short list has you covered.

Flagstone Music Room Cabernet Sauvignon Quinta da la Rosa Tinto Taurino Salice Salentino Riserva

A Startling Discovery: Learning About, and Drinking, Wine Encourages New Brain Cells 

About 20 years ago, around the same time as the French paradox caused a dramatic rise in North American wine consumption, a century-old scientific belief, as self-evident as gravity and as immutable as the speed of light, was unintentionally proved false by the song of a bird.

Over the course of the 20th century, neuroscientists came to believe that humans are born with a complete set of brain cells, and that once infancy was over, the brain stopped changing, evolving, and growing. A neuron lost was never replaced, resulting in a dwindling network of neural pathways that degenerated over the course of our lifetime; the waves of years slowly but inescapably eroding our minds, washing away our capacity to think and remember. How depressing.

That is, until Fernando Nottebohm, working at Rockefeller University in New York City, made his startling discovery. In an elegant study of birdbrains, not remotely aimed at disproving our fated neuro-degeneration but rather at unlocking the secrets of birds’ remarkable capacity to learn new songs, Nottebohm observed neurogenesis. He saw that new neurons were born regularly in parts of a mature bird’s brain, and that these new neurons were essential to the song learning process. His amazing results were at first marginalized by the scientific community, since avian brains were seen as irrelevant to mammalian brains, but the door was opened to an entirely new field of inquiry. Old papers from the ‘60s hinting at the fact were dusted off and re-read, and further studies on mammals were conducted. In time, the crushing weight of evidence would overturn the long-held dogma that the brain doesn’t regenerate, and an unavoidable conclusion was drawn: mammals, including humans, grow new brain cells with comforting regularity.

Others before Nottebohm had searched for evidence of neurogenesis, though most experiments ended in failure. What Nottebohm had unwittingly done differently was to study birds in their natural environment, as opposed to a laboratory, as others has attempted. Earlier studies on mice and monkeys trapped in cages in dreary labs surrounded by white coat-clad scientists showed no signs of birthing new neurons. Neurogenesis, it turns out, is highly dependent on your surroundings. Unnatural, uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant environments cause stress, which is now understood as an even more insidious and effective killer than previously thought. Stress inhibits neurogenesis. Sleep deprivation, too, has also been shown to curb the number of newborn neurons. Yet more reasons to avoid stress and sleep more, as though you needed a reminder.

The flip side, and here’s where I’ll get around to my tenuous tie-in to wine, is that anti-stress activities increase neurogenesis. Though alcohol is known to unwind the body, resulting at least in neurons transmitting electrical signals in the same alpha waves-pattern as is observed when the body is relaxed, I won’t suggest for a moment that drinking wine increases the birth of neurons (in the same way that it increases other types of birth). In fact, I’m sure that just the opposite is true. No, I’m referring to other anti-stress activities. Enriching your environment, talking a walk in the woods (or the park) does wonders for the mind. Regular exercise is a proven new neuron stimulator. And yet another effective stimulator, as Nottebohm stumbled across, is learning. Acquiring new knowledge not only increases neurogenesis, it also makes newly born neurons live longer (most new brain cells die young) and integrate better into existing brain structures, effectively putting them into use.

So, why not do your neurons a favour while engaging in something you enjoy? The field of wine is vast and full of learning opportunities. And the homework is not at all stressful. There is also a further benefit to delving deeper into an enjoyable field, a type of virtuous circle or positive feedback loop: learning about wine not only stimulates the birth of neurons, it also directly increases your capacity to enjoy it, which in turn will encourage you to learn more about it, and on and on.

A further fact about neurogenesis makes the case for delving into wine even stronger: neurons only grow in the parts of the brain that happen to be most titillated by conscious wine tasting. Studies so far have shown that the greatest regions of neurogenesis are the hippocampus, the memory and learning center, and the olfactory bulb, where all aromas are processed. It appears that new olfactory bulb neurons are critically involved in odor discrimination and improved odor memory. At the same time, differentiating between smells, as wine drinkers are constantly doing as they swirl and sniff, actually increases the survival rate of newborn olfactory neurons.

In other words, repeated smelling and tasting of wine, coupled with ongoing learning about grapes, regions, places, producers and everything else related, plus travel to beautiful wine country under relaxed conditions, could very well increase your brain regeneration capacity. And you’ll inevitably end up enjoying wine a little bit more, too.

Well, that was a whole lot of scientific mumbo jumbo to reach a starkly obvious conclusion. But at least now you have rock solid, scientific evidence that your passion for wine is not only enjoyable, it’s good for your brain, too.

From the March 31, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier


Filed under: News, Wine, , , , ,

Spain’s Alvaro Palacios Wows WineAligners, plus Bierzo’s Secrets to Success

By David Lawrason and John Szabo, MS

Spain’s Alvaro Palacios Wows WineAligners  – by David Lawrason

On Monday evening star Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios sat down with forty WineAlign subscribers to taste through recent vintages of wines from three regions – Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo. The shocking summer weather made it feel like he had brought Spain right into the Spoke Club on King St West’s restaurant row in downtown Toronto. The tasting was sponsored by importer Woodman Wines & Spirits and offered exclusively to WineAlign members, selling out in less than six hours.

Alvaro Palacios

Alvaro Palacios

The wines were a hit, but Palacios himself stole the show, conducting a tasting that not only charmed and informed, but displayed a captivating passion and reverence for his country and his craft. Anyone who might have wondered, ‘why on earth do people get so fussed about wine?’ would have finally understood.

Many other winemakers express the same connection to country and the land, but Palacios’ is somewhat unique in that his passion for Spain and the potential of its wine regions has been transformed into a kind of activism by having made wine in France (notably at Château Petrus) and having travelled the world. And he has learned to speak up and let his sincerity, humour and intelligence do the convincing. Not to mention the sophistication of his wines. They do indeed capture a new taste of Spain.

As moderator of the tasting I began to get a bit concerned when Palacios delved back into Spanish wine history to explain the relevance of what he is doing now, but it was indeed essential to understand that Spain’s vinous history runs as deep as any place in Europe, and that through the troubled 20th Century its wine industry suffered a post-Civil War industrialization. The guiding economic principles of quantity and uniformity became the foundation of its regulation (Denominacion d’Origen or DO) system, which created only very broad regional appellations and promoted the idea that quality stemmed from wine age (i.e. Reserva and Gran Reserva), rather than specific location.

“France is still making the world’s greatest wines because France has understood the importance of specific vineyard sites, or crus, for decades, even centuries”, Palacios explained. “Spain has many sites that have this potential but it may take decades to fully develop them. But I am impatient so I have searched for existing old vineyards so I don’t have to wait as long”.

The vineyards of L'Ermita estate

The vineyards of L'Ermita estate

He has done so in three regions, and created three tiers of wine within each region. This formed the structure of the WineAlign tasting. The first tier were regional wines; the second tier village wines, the third tier single vineyard wines. As one tasted from broad to specific – and from less expensive to more expensive – the transition to greater depth, complexity and individuality was obvious. And the words reserva or gran reserva are nowhere to be seen on his labels or heard in his dialogue.

Individual reviews and ratings for the wines below can be found on WineAlign. These newer vintages are not yet in Vintages or the Classics Catalogue, but they can be ordered directly from Woodman Wines & Spirits at 416-767-9008. (Private orders require a deposit and must be purchased by the case.)

The Rioja range from the Palacios Remondo winery located in Rioja Baja began with an elegant, bright white wine from the Viura grape called Placet ($32). The first red, 2009 Montessa ($21), was a garnacha-dominated blend from younger vines. The second Rioja red was 2008 Propiedad ($39) was also a garnacha-based blend, this time from very old, estate vines. In both cases the vineyards are organically tended, and the wine is aged in French oak barrels.
Álvaro Palacios Finca Dofí

The second group of wines were from Priorat, an arid, luminous region with impossibly steep vineyards located south of Barcelona and about 20kms inland. As a young man of 25, Alvaro was one of the pioneers of the region’s renaissance when he arrived in 1989. The first two wines were regional wines, with 2010 Camins del Priorat ($26) coming from younger vines, and 2010 Les Terrasses ($45) being from 75 year or older sites. The 2008 Gratallops ($68) is a single vineyard site with old garnacha and carignan vines plus a bit of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. The 2009 Finca Dofi ($90), from a vineyard Palacios purchased in 1990, is again based on garnacha, but this time without carignan and including a higher proportion of cabernet and syrah.

Palacios explained that there is currently no maximum or minimum amount of cabernet or syrah stipulated in DO regulation for Priorat, and he projected that use of these French varieties will gradually decrease in the region in favour of native garnacha, carignan and cinsault.

The third series of wines were from Bierzo in northwestern) Spain, where Alvaro has teamed up with nephew Ricardo Perez to form a company called Descendientes de J. Palacios that makes red wines from the indigenous, dark skinned mencia grape. The 2010 Pétalos del Bierzo ($26) is from younger, lower altitude sites around the region.  The 2008 Villa de Corullón ($49) is created from several old vine sites near the hillside village of Corullón, while the 2009 Las Lamas ($119) is from a spectacular, old vine site high in the hills.

El Bierzo – The Secrets of Success  – By John Szabo MS

From near total obscurity just a couple of decades ago to one of the Spain’s hottest regions, Bierzo’s rise can be chalked up to a series of unrelated events and lucky circumstances.


Bierzo has been producing wine since Roman times, but until recently the majority was consumed locally or shipped across into neighboring Galicia, where the severe maritime climate makes red production challenging. With guaranteed markets, there was little motivation for quality. “My father wouldn’t even drink his own wine it was so bad”, muses Alejandro Luna-Beberide of Bodegas Luna-Beberide, referring to the coop-based production from the 70s and early 80s. But the market was changing rapidly, and fortunately, a shift to quality was possible.

The region is shaped like a bowl, surrounded by protective mountains. The air is perfumed by fragrant honeysuckle, lavender, rockrose and oregano, and apple, cherry, chestnut and pear orchards share land with hectare after hectare of gnarly old vines that look more like a vast collection of bonsai trees than modern vineyards. In the west, radically steep hills of nearly pure slate, coloured blood red by iron, stretch up to over 900m.

The climate of Bierzo is ideally suave, midway between the maritime conditions of Galicia and the hot, dry conditions on the plains of Castile: winter temperatures hover around a manageable 4ºC, while summer highs average a moderate 24ºC. Rainfall provides adequate but not excessive water. Vines seem to like it here so much they refuse to die.

Lucky Arrival

Ricardo Perez

Ricardo Perez

To realize potential takes a visionary, and in the case of Bierzo it was a couple of outsiders: Alvaro Palacios (Rioja, Priorat) and his nephew Ricardo Pérez. It happened that Ricardo, under the wing of his famous uncle, was on his way back from a wedding in Galicia when he stopped into Bierzo on a whim. The wine, then virtually unknown outside of this small corner of Spain astonished him.

In 1999 the pair established Descendientes de J. Palacios in Bierzo, an homage to Alvaro’s father José. They had a strong feeling that these hills along the mystical pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campostella could yield something extraordinary. “The presence of monastic orders brings grape growing to a spiritual level”, says Palacios. “The wines become impregnated with the mystery of the region.”

Beyond mysticism, Palacios and Pérez had recognized in Bierzo the rare confluence of factors that lead to great wine: suitable climate, proven history, great terroir, a unique local variety, mencía, and tons of old vineyards, not to mention obscurity and therefore reasonable prices.

Laws of Circumstance

Old vines are key to Bierzo. Many regions in the world boast parcels of old vines, but in Bierzo one can scarcely find a single young vine. Of 7000 ha of vineyards, around 90% are old (60+years), traditionally bush trained vines – it’s like a Jurassic park. The reason is another one of those unplanned circumstances: incredibly fragmented land ownership.

The Spanish region of Bierzo

The Spanish region of Bierzo

Thanks to an extension of Napoleonic code, each individual parcel, not the estate as a whole, was equally divided among all heirs. The result is thousands of parcels, some barely a couple of rows of vines, beyond even Burgundy’s fragmentation. J. Palacios contracts grapes from some 30 hectares, divided into 200 micro-parcels farmed by over 60 growers, for example, while Bodegas Peique contracts 20 ha in 100 parcels and Bodegas Pittacum 40 ha from 200 parcels.

This fragmentation makes acquiring large contiguous parcels near impossible; growers here are too attached to their postage stamp-sized parcels of land to sell. This in turn has discouraged the big players from moving in, who might otherwise have replanted large tracks to make mechanization possible. As it stands, Bierzo’s tiny plots are farmed mostly by hand, and the old vines, which yield better wine, have been left largely untouched.

Temporal Coincidence

One big name can draw attention, but to really gain traction takes critical mass. One thing Palacios and Pérez may not have seen was the coincidental coming-of-age in the late 1990s of a new generation of twenty-something local winemakers who would join the quality revolution: Jorge Peique, Amancio Fernandez (Dominio de Tares), Alejandro Luna-Beberide, Raúl Pérez (Castro Ventoso), Isidro Fernández Bello (Casar de Burbia) and Alfredo Marqués (Pittacum) to name a few. Young, trained and ambitious, this group took the reins from the previous generation and helped put Bierzo on the map.

Results: The Wine

Bierzo is almost exclusively red made from mencía (there are scattered plantings of white godello and other local grapes). Mencía is described by winemakers as amable, literally ‘lovable’ and makes some of Spain’s most elegant reds. It reaches full maturity at moderate alcohol levels, while the tannins are soft and plush. The wines grown on the steep, high elevation slate-covered hillsides near the village of Corullón are leaner, supremely elegant, more mouth-watering and decidedly more mineral and floral; those from the lower, clay-rich gentle slopes between Villafranca, Valtuille and Cacabelos have a broader, softer profile with a voluptuous, velvety texture, deep dark fruit and soothing power.

Las LamasPalacios and Pérez follow a Burgundian model with their range: Pétalos is the equivalent of a regional wine, blended from grapes purchased throughout the region and intended to be an introduction to Bierzo. Villa de Corullón is the village wine, blended from vineyards within Corullón in the steep western part of the appellation. And finally, at the top of the quality pyramid are the single vineyards within the village: Moncerbal, La Faraona, and the powerful, south facing Las Llamas, the broadest and most generously proportioned of the three.

In less than a decade, the wines of Bierzo have earned a place on top tables around the world. “When Alvaro arrived I knew the whole world would soon recognize Bierzo” recalls Jorge Peique of Bodegas Peique. And so it has.

Filed under: Events, News, Wine, , , , , ,

Margaret Swaine’s wine picks: Spanish sippers

The diversity of styles offered by the signature grapes of Spain is well illustrated in this Saturday’s Vintages release. Find these picks via

Leira Albariño 2010  $16.95 (90 Points)
Spain’s albariño grape hails mostly from the verdant, cool climate Rias Baixas area of the northwest. This stylish version has a terrific forward bouquet. Medium bodied with a nice grip it has good minerality and refreshing acidity. Flavours of pear, nettles and lime come through with verve. One of my favorite varietals for fish and oysters.

Baron de Ley Gran Reserva 2001  $29.95 (91 Points)
This gold medal winner from the Rioja region is 90 per cent tempranillo. It has a fascinating earthy, oak and barnyard nose. Aged for over two years in new French and American barrels, it has good structure, interesting complexity and silky tannins. Notes of incense, spices and lingering savoury, fruity flavours grace the palate. Classic traditional old style Rioja.

Taja Reserva 2006   $14.95 (88 Points)
Half monastrell (aka mourvèdre in France), the third most widely planted grape in Spain, this value priced red from the southern Jumilla Denominación de Origen is easy to enjoy. Aged a year in oak it’s smooth and quite rich. Fairly intense, it has flavours of blueberry pie and sun baked cherries with hints of savoury game. Have with pizza, burgers or chili.

Filed under: Wine,

The Smooth Allure of Irish Whiskey: St. Patrick’s Day treats from Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Forget the green coloured beer and toast Saint Patrick’s Day with a fine smooth Irish whiskey. Irish whiskeys were once the most popular in the world – notably in North America due to the large number of Irish expats. Prohibition forced the spirit underground and many badly made bootlegged pale imitators replaced the real McCoy.

When prohibition ended scotch and American bourbon took over in prominence. This caused problems back in the home country which was already suffering from other economic difficulties. By 1970 the number of Irish distillers had fallen from over 100 in 1886 to just two: Bushmills and Midleton which was a merger of Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillery.

Further mergers, shuffling, re-openings and the creation of a new distillery have led to the current situation. At this point the distilleries operating in Ireland are: New Midleton Distillery (the Irish Distillers Group main distillery: Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and others), Old Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills, Black Bush, 1608, Bushmills 10-, 12- and 16- and 21-year-old single malts), Cooley Distillery (Connemara, Tyrconnell, and others) and the reopened Kilbeggan Distillery, which began distilling again in 2007.

Irish Distillers’ Midleton distillery has been part of the Pernod Ricard conglomerate since 1988. Bushmills was part of the Irish Distillers group from 1972 until 2005 when it was sold to Diageo. Cooley, which also owns Kilbeggan, signed an agreement in December 2011 to be acquired by Beam Inc.

The acquisition of Cooley, the industry’s only independent Irish whiskey distillery, marks Beam’s entrance into one of the spirits industry’s fastest-growing categories. (The Irish whiskey category grew 11.5% in 2010 to 4.86 million cases according to Impact Databank.)

Cooley is the distillery that shook up the market in 1987. Founded by John Telling with the goal of reintroducing the North American market to quality Irish whiskey, Cooley departed from the accepted definition of Irish whiskey as being triple distilled and un-peated. Teeling revived several historic brands such as Tyrconnell and created a family of Connemara double distilled peated single malts.

Today with both grain and malt distilleries, Cooley produces a complete range of Irish whiskey styles. The company’s Kilbeggan Distillery, first opened in 1757, produces Cooley’s flagship blended Irish whiskey. Cooley’s many accolades include being named European Spirits Producer of the Year for an unprecedented four consecutive years by the International Wine & Spirit Competition (2008-2011).

Connemara 12 Years Old Peated Single MaltCooley’s jewel in the crown is the Connemara pure pot still peated single malt Irish whiskey. Connemara 12 Years Old Peated Single Malt ($138.95) a small batch bottling of some of the first distillates of Connemara peated single malt shows a lovely nutty old barrel maturity. Mellow with flavours of smoke, vanilla and toasted almond, it’s refined with subdued peaty notes. Best enjoy it in a snifter or tulip shaped whiskey glass with no more than a dash of water to bring out its aged character.

Kilbeggan Our Finest BlendThe Tyrconnell Single MaltThe Tyrconnell Single Malt ($47.70) is a spirited beauty. Named after a famous Irish race horse that won at odds of 100 to 1 in the Irish Derby it’s distilled in the traditional pot still using barley and spring water.  The bouquet is aromatic with minerals, citrus rind, cedar and vanilla. Quite racy and fruity on the palate, it starts off delicate and silky and ends with a slight bite.

Kilbeggan Our Finest Blend ($34.95) is grain and malt whiskeys blended together to make a distinctive sweet tasting whiskey with a lovely malty finish. Sweet toffee on the nose carries through on the palate which is ultra smooth with good fruit and hints of spice. Perfect for making Irish Coffee or a hot whiskey.

I visited Bushmills last year in the quaint town of Bushmills, Northern Ireland. Bushmills takes its name from the River Bush and all the mills that used to be on it. It is deservedly a popular tourist destination attracting over 100,000 visitors a year. The royal license to distill in the district of Bushmills was granted in 1608 and that is the date printed on the labels of all Bushmills’ brand whisky. Bushmills can with fair authority claim to be the oldest distillery in the world.

Just two miles from the spectacular Giant’s Causeway the distillery lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Their guided tour unravels some of their trade secrets, from the special water from St. Columb’s Rill, the use of the finest malted barley, to the art of triple-distillation in copper stills and aging in oak casks. At the end of the tour is a sampling of the famous whiskeys – for an up charge of ₤12 you can have a tasting of five different ones including 21 Year Old Blackmills.

If you go, be sure to spend the night at the Bushmills Inn Hotel. It’s an old Coaching Inn whose oldest parts could possibly date back to the time of 1608. It was however in the 1820’s that the main hotel was built. In recent years it has been restored and renovated with the addition of new rooms. With open peat fires, gas lights and stripped pine floors in the public rooms, it’s cozy – you’ll want to snuggle away next to the fire and sip some old Bushmills malt. The restaurant offers classical and new Irish cuisine such as pan fried peppered filet of beef flamed in Bushmills.

To mark its 400th anniversary in 2008 Bushmills came out with an innovative brand called 1608.  This fine, rich and deep whiskey is made using a special process that toasts barley into crystal malt (so named for its crystal shape). The barley malt takes on a dark chocolate brown colour and imparts a chocolate toffee flavour to the whiskey.

Bushmills Malt 10 Year OldBushmills Black Bush WhiskeyBushmills 16 Year Old Irish WhiskeyBushmills 10 Year Old ($39.95) matured for a minimum of 10 years mainly in bourbon seasoned barrels has aromas of sweet smoky honey, vanilla and milk chocolate that carry through on the creamy palate. Bushmills Black Bush ($37.00) with a high proportion of malt whiskey matured in oloroso sherry casks has more nutty, caramel and fruity sherry tastes. Bushmills 16 Year Old ($79.95) is distinctive for its aging in bourbon and oloroso sherry casks followed by several months in port wine barrels.  It’s the most popular whisky among the staff at the distillery. Layered and multi-flavored there are juicy fruity notes with a wine punch at the finish.

Jameson Rarest Vintage ReserveAnother refined Irish whiskey is Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve ($302.35). Notes of bourbon can be found in this mellow, sweet and silky whiskey as some of the spirit is aged in second fill bourbon casks. The bourbon cask whiskey along with old grain whiskies are married with rare pot still whiskey and aged in port pipes that impart a fruity pruney richness to the whiskey. The result is a creamy smooth spirit with nice fruit and dark chocolate complexities.

A mysterious new whiskey appeared in recent years called Writers Tears, from the previously unknown Writers Tears Whiskey Company. Its pedigree can be traced to The Irishman whiskey line-up.

The Irishman whiskeys are the creations of Bernard Walsh who enjoys special access to the warehouses of certain Irish distillers. He selects the casks that are vatted together to produce his whiskeys. He came up with a new type of whiskey: a blend of malt and pure pot still whiskeys. This is a “pot still blend”, since both malt and pure pot still are distilled in the traditional pot still. All other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey still.

Writers Tears Pot Still BlendThe Irishman Single MaltWriters Tears Pot Still Blend ($47.95) evokes the type enjoyed at the time of Yeats and Joyce a century ago in Dublin. A blend of pot still malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled and matured in American bourbon casks, it`s velvety smooth with bourbon notes on a bed of malt. It slips down with ease leaving a honeyed vanilla tinged fruit and kick of ginger to linger hauntingly.

The Irishman Single Malt ($59.95) is triple distilled and matured a decade in bourbon and sherry casks. A limited batch produced whiskey it is rich and full with great depth. Uplifting floral honey notes grace the bouquet. Creamy textured with yummy flavours of honeyed almonds, toasted malt and fruit, it lingers happily for a long time on the palate.

Today it can be said that Irish distillers are exploring all the subtleties that the wonderful combination of barley and water can produce. The silky smooth dance of Ireland’s whiskeys on your palate will have you believing in fairies in no time.


Margaret Swaine

Find a shopping list of St. Patrick’s Day treats here.

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