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You like WineAlign, but you love your iPhone…

Now see what they can do together!  If you haven’t already done so, download the new WineAlign App to your iPhone and start carrying the power of WineAlign around with you.  Here are just a few of the cool features that you can access on the go:

Wine SearchesSearch by Wine, Region or Price

Like our main site, you can search for wine by Type, Region or Price.  You can set up your favourite stores, or let the App find the LCBO that is closest to you at anytime.  The search option allows you to find all wines at the LCBO, or take a short-cut to your favourite critics top picks.

Scan the Bar Code:

Scan a Bar Code - Find the WineUsing the Look Up button, you can search by using the LCBO product number, or a keyword from the product name.

If you happen to have the bottle in front of you, a quick scan of the bar code will also do the trick.

View the Wine Results

Wine Info

Once you find the wine you seek, don’t stop there! You can access all the Ratings and Reviews, add wine to your Favourites List or Cellar, or Share your wine findings with friends.

And, of course, at the touch of the Locate button, you can see which LCBO stores near you have inventory. (What you save on gas driving around can go towards a nice bottle!)

The WineAlign App offers the same Free community based service for reviewing, sharing and discovering wine and you logon using the same email and password that you use to access our main site. As with our site, our paid subscribers know the additional benefits of access to professional wine critics’ detailed reviews and tasting notes as well as advance notice of Vintages releases and other cool events.

Here’s what users are saying:

I don’t go into the LCBO without it.”

It’s simple, streamlined and very easy to use. Searching is a breeze.”

Up to date inventory of LCBO wine at my fingers while I am on the go

The WineAlign iPhone App is available at the iTunes store for only $4.99. No, it’s not a free app (we asked our team to develop this for free but surprisingly they refused).

Please note that if you are already a paid WineAlign subscriber and purchase the App, you can send us an email ( with your receipt and we will credit your account with one month free premium service (a $3.33 value).

Note that we’ve some monkey business to contend with, with a few of the early reviewers.  Please read past those to actual users of the application (see Apple agrees with us and removes suspicious reviews).

Filed under: News,

An exclusive tutored tasting and reception with Wynns winemaker Sue Hodder in Ottawa & Toronto

Wynns' Sue Hodder

Wynns’ Sue Hodder

WineAlign is delighted to offer its members an exclusive tutored tasting and reception with Wynns winemaker, Sue Hodder, in Ottawa on June 19th and Toronto on June 20th.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate is Coonawarra’s pre-eminent wine producer and largest single vineyard holder with the longest-established vineyards in the region. The international reputation of Australia’s Coonawarra region is derived from the regionally specific terra rossa soil and like many great wine regions of the world, a marginal climate which ensures a long ripening period. Over the past 15 years, the Wynns Coonawarra Estate vineyards have been meticulously rejuvenated resulting in wines of greater refinement to capture the true essence of Coonawarra – varietal character with finesse.

Under the guidance of Chief Winemaker Sue Hodder, Wynns wines are regarded as benchmarks for the district, lauded for their consistent quality and depth of flavour.  One of Australia’s best-known winemakers, Sue Hodder moved to Wynns Coonawarra Estate in 1993 following work in Margaret River, California and Bordeaux and has just finished her twentieth vintage. Sue believes that commencing her career as a viticulturalist – assessing vines, analyzing mature fruit and tasting finished wines – has provided invaluable insight into the importance of the vineyard in quality wine production.

In Ottawa the sit-down tutored tasting will be held at the Empire Grill in Ottawa co-hosted by WineAlign’s Rod Phillips.  In Toronto, it will be held at the Arcadian Lofts co-hosted by WineAlign’s David Lawrason.

Buy Ottawa tickets.

Buy Toronto tickets.


WynnsWynns Coonawarra Estate Riesling (reception)

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Chardonnay

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Shiraz Merlot

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Wynns Coonawarra Estate V&A Lane Selected Vineyards Cabernet Shiraz

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz

Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon

IMPORTANT:  Our winemaker events have been consistently selling out.  If you are interested in attending then we advise you to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.


Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Our first Ottawa event will be a sit-down tutored tasting held at the Empire Grill in Ottawa co-hosted by Rod Phillips.  Here’s what Rod had to say about Sue:  “Wynns winemaker Sue Hodder’s knowledge of the Coonawarra region is as deep as the roots of the vines that produce her marvellous wines. This is a rare opportunity to learn from Sue as you taste the impressive line-up she’s presenting.”


Tuesday June 19th

6pm-6:45pm – Reception w/appetizers

6:45 – 8pm – Seated Tutored Tasting

8pm-9pm – Tapas to enjoy with remaining wines.


Empire Grill – Manhattan Room

47 Clarence Street,  Ottawa

Click to buy tickets to the Ottawa event


David Lawrason

The sit-down tutored tasting will be held at the Arcadian Lofts co-hosted by David Lawrason.  Here’s what David had to say about Sue: “Sue Hodder is making excellent wines. She has re-written the style of Coonawarra’s legendary winery without losing sight of the region’s unique personality within Australia.”


Wednesday June 20th

6pm-6:45pm – Reception w/appetizers

6:45 – 8pm – Seated Tutored Tasting

8pm-9pm – Tapas to enjoy with remaining wines.


Arcadian Lofts

401 Bay Street, Simpson Tower, 8th Floor, Toronto

Click to buy tickets to the Toronto event

Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

Best Ontario Sommelier Challenge – By Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

It is nearly impossible to come across someone in the field of wine, whether a winemaker a wine critic, educator or a sommelier, who is not passionate about their job. Indeed, it is a terrific business, chalk full of individuals who have a love of great food, travel, exceptional drink and the best of company. And like any other group of people with a set of skills they love to show off, wine professionals can occasionally get competitive. Recently, CAPS (the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers) held a competition to crown the province’s Best Sommelier. The competition, most of which was open to the public, highlighted the skill and knowledge required by this illustrious profession but also the grueling nature of service along with guest and cellar management. What follows are highlights of this enlightening competition. . .

The stage was set, as were the tables; the overfilled audience was hushed; the Maître d’Hôtel, Jennifer Huether, M.S., was making her final rounds; and the judges, anxiously awaiting their first contender, were reviewing their roles impersonating demanding restaurant customers. The mood was tense and spectators were filled with nerves for those about to walk into the fictional restaurant setting to be judged by some of the country’s top dining experts in front of a live audience of peers and fans.

BOSC finalists Corey, Steve, Lucie and Bruce

Bruce Wallner chose the short straw and was thus first to step onto the scene to meet the unknown challenges that lay ahead in a scene that was specifically designed to test his years of experience and training in restaurants. A Master Sommelier, he had put a great deal on the line entering this year’s Best Ontario Sommelier Challenge and was determined to prove himself, among a sea of bright, young, savvy stars.

In addition to Bruce, three other candidates made it to the finals, from an original group of sixteen, to write a grueling exam testing both the theoretical knowledge and their palates. (What are the two main red grape varieties of the Ahr? Explain the solution for controlling nematode populations in the vineyards. – to give you a few examples of the kinds of questions they faced).

Steve Robinson in action

Impressively, two of the four finalists hailed from Ottawa, and from the same restaurant at that. L’Atelier is a critically acclaimed, franco-Canadian inspired restaurant renowned for its experimental cuisine in the Capital, and owned by Chef Marc Lepine. Lepine is a certified Sommelier himself and evidently fosters a love of wine among his staff. Head Sommelier Steve Robinson and Sommelier Lucie Trepanier beat out a very talented group of primarily Toronto Sommeliers. And this was not 25 year-old Steve Robinson’s first experience in the top four – two years ago he took on some of the best Sommeliers of the province when he rose to the top for the first time.

Corey Ladouceur in service exam

The fourth finalist, Corey Ladouceur, was no novice and proved a contender to be reckoned with.  With many years of experience at Toronto’s most exclusive, premiere sports club and fine dining establishment, the Granite Club, he now turns his trade at the elite Hockley Valley Resort. His cool-headed performance was indicative of his seasoned proficiency.

Wallner ultimately took the title, barely missing a beat in the competition. In fact, his confidence and humor was enough to make the audience to either overlook or forgive any answers to questions he may have missed. Yorkville’s Mideastro Sommelier says he aims to provide guests with life altering, immensely pleasurable experiences with wine. He believes that he can do this by listening and truly understanding what guests are saying, and developing a strong feeling for what people desire.

Bruce Wallner with glass

Wallner will go on to attend the national competition in Halifax on September 17th and 18th where he will compete with the country’s best to earn the title of Canada’s Best Sommelier. Previous Ontario winner Will Predhomme will also attend the national competition this year (CAPS rules provide that any previous provincial winner can compete in any subsequent national competition). The regulations of the ASI (Association de la Sommelierie Internationale), of which CAPS is a member, allow for the winner of Canada’s national competition to hit the world stage and compete for the title of World’s Best Sommelier – an honour that a Canadian has not yet held.

BOSC Judges Gilberto, Veronique and John

Head judge at the competition, Veronique Rivest, was perhaps the Canadian representative who has come closest to ever winning the World’s Best competition. By her side on the head judges table were WineAlign’s very own John Szabo along with Gilberto Bojaca, CAPS’ founding member. They had the difficult task of reconciling all the table judges’ scores (those table judges included the likes of Chef Jamie Kennedy, Scaramouche Sommelier Peter Boyd and Educator/Sommelier Peter Bodnar Rod) with their own scores to determine a winner.

One of the most challenging components of the exam for the candidates was the verbal blind tasting portion. The finalists were given two wines and one spirit to taste and identify in front of the crowd. With the clock ticking, there was little room for error and the tension was thick in the air. If you would like to challenge your friends with this daunting task, treat them to a blind tasting of what the finalists were up against:

Trefethen Estate Chardonnay 2009, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, California, USA, 95760, $39.95 and Marcarini Barolo La Serra 2006, Docg, Piedmont, Italy, 7807, $49.00

As a member of the Board of the CAPS, I will be reporting from the national competition in Halifax, joining our Ontario candidates at the exam. Interestingly, although the candidates will be presented with questions in their native language (in both cases English), they must answer both the written and verbal components in a language other than there own – either French or Spanish. Therefore, their tongues will be working overtime in order to prepare.

As a Sommelier myself, I can attest the fact that sommeliers share a love for competition but realize the difficulty of putting your reputation on the line. From hobbyist to trade, the wine community turned up in unprecedented numbers to support the efforts of these fearless, valiant sommeliers. After a full day of competition (including the morning written component), the revelry began with a gala dinner at The Fifth Grill and Terrace where the winner was announced.

Best of luck to those finalists and stay tuned for the report on Canada’s Best Sommelier!

Photos by Shannon Hamilton

Filed under: Wine, , ,

Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: 90-plus point bottles

This Saturday’s Vintages release focuses on wines that have achieved 90-plus in the 100-point scoring system. Find these high scorers via

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2010
$20.95 (92 Points)
From Margaret River in Western Australia, barrel fermented with wild yeast and matured in French oak, this has a toasty fruit nose. An elegant white, it’s medium bodied with a firm structure, great acid balance and a long finish. Quite intense with flavours of crisp fresh apple and toast, this will match myriad different dishes.

Vicchiomaggio Agostino Petri Chianti Classico Riserva 2008
$19.95 (91 Points)
Vicchiomaggio owner and winemaker John Matta can be depended upon to make well-priced, polished Tuscan reds. Full bodied and structured, this red has lots of ripe berry flavours with cedar and spice overtones. Aged six months in French barrique then in large oak barrels, tannins are supple yet firm in the finish.

Lealtanza Riserva 2005
$19.95 (91 Points)
From Bodegas Altanza, this is a traditional Spanish Rioja at its best. It displays an open, cedary, toasty nose with hints of lavender. Silky smooth on the palate, it has spiced oak complexities and layers of intriguing savoury flavours. It drinks elegantly now — just perfect for lamb chops on the grill.

Filed under: Wine,

The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part II (Rhône and Champagne) ~ Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Collectors and top regions of France: For most French wine collectors, the most prestigious winegrowing regions of France are Bordeaux and Burgundy. What follows is more open to debate. Some would say the Rhône Valley takes the bronze medal, others Champagne.

Of the two, which is better is difficult to say, the wines of each region are so different stylistically. The Rhône, divided between north and south, plays host to some of the greatest full-bodied red wines of France, complimented by an increasing smattering of fine whites. Champagne, on the other hand, while coming across as a one-trick pony, is anything but. The world’s undisputed mecca for premium sparklers and one of the most addictive types of wine in existence, to understand and appreciate the many nuances between one great champagne and another is one of life’s noble pleasures.

And yet, it’s probably a safe bet that most French collectors have far more Rhône wine in their cellars than champagne, especially when considering the heightened price of a standard bottle of bubbly. Sheer selection is another factor. There are far more Rhône wines of different type than those in Champagne. On this score, the Rhône even has vague similarities to Bordeaux.

Guigal La TurqueIn the Northern Rhône, where Syrah is the only permitted red grape, there are four appellations of critical worth. Closest to Lyon are the steep slopes of the celebrated Côte-Rôtie, where Syrah may be blended with up to 20% Viognier—in reality most producers use much less. Combining ruggedness with finesse and long-term aging potential, the most lauded examples tend to hail from the Côte Blonde and Côte Brune, of which the three single-vineyard labels of Marcel Guigal are must-haves: La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. Aside from Guigal, other outstanding domaines/négociants include Gerin, René Rostaing, Chapoutier, Joseph Jamet, and Bernard Burgaud. Other respected operations include Ogier, Jean-Michel Stephan, Clusel-Roch, Château de St-Cosme (Gigondas-based), Tardieu-Laurent, and Gilles Barge.

Georges Vernay CondrieuSouth of Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu. On the verge of extinction fifty years ago, the speciality here is Viognier, a grape which has practically exploded in popularity over the past fifteen years. Though nowadays planted in just about every major winegrowing nation on Earth, few would dispute that those of Condrieu are best, particularly those sourced from single vineyards. Top producers, many of which also make excellent wines from neighbouring Côte-Rôtie, are Georges Vernay, Guigal, René Rostaing, Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, and François Villard. There are at least several others, along with Château Grillet, a single-estate AOC located within Condrieu.

Chave HermitageFurther south, skipping St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for the moment, we come to Hermitage. Crafted to 100% Syrah, for both collectors and enthusiasts red Hermitage is one of the most esteemed wines in France. Covering a mere 134ha and comprising just over 12 different vineyards (or climats), Hermitage is to Syrah what Chambertin is to Pinot Noir: the Old World-wide benchmark for practically every other wine of similarity. With more depth, concentration, structure, vitality, and durability than most other wines, great Hermitage is a force to be reckoned with.

Even the whites are monumental. Crafted from Roussanne and Marsanne, the best examples can keep just as long as the reds, in some cases longer. Top producers of red and white versions include Jean-Louis Chave, Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Marc Sorrel, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, and Ferraton. Other producers worth noting are Domaine du Colombier, Caves de Tain-l’Hermitage, plus a few others.

Similar to Hermitage are the reds of Cornas. Connected to the southernmost boundaries of St-Joseph on the left bank of the Rhône, only red wines crafted to 100% Syrah are produced here. Like Hermitage, these are powerful, immensely ageworthy wines, crafted from steep slopes and differentiated primarily by their heightened ruggedness and slightly less sophisticated disposition. Oftentimes reasonably priced, top names, many with plots in other appellations, include Thierry Allemand, Auguste Clape, Jean-Luc Colombo, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Tardieu-Laurent, Vincent Paris (formerly Robert Michel), and Courbis.

While these are the Northern Rhône’s four most prestigious appellations, the best of Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph should not be overlooked. In both cases, Syrah is the only permitted red grape, though a small percentage of Marsanne and/or Roussanne may be added. A small amount of white wine from these two grapes is also made. In all, the best examples make for sturdy, increasingly exceptional wines. Once again, top producers/négociants often have plots in other appellations: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, François Villard, Domaine Combier, Courbis, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Chapoutier, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, Gilles Robin, and Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon.

Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques PerrinCompared to the Northern Rhône, the Southern Rhône is far larger, more diverse, and offers just as many collectables. Here, Châteauneuf-du-Pape leads the way, where thirteen grape varietals are permitted: Grenache (plus Grenache Blanc), Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Roussanne, Picpoul (plus Picpoul Blanc), Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Picardin. For the most part however, the classic blend is Grenache (predominant), Syrah, and Mourvèdre.

Chateau La NertheAlong with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf is the most lauded appellation in the Rhône Valley, its top reds among the most absorbing, most powerful offerings in France. Even the whites can be excellent. Top producers, some with holdings in other appellations, include Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel, Château Rayas, Château de la Nerthe, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Henri Bonneau, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Grand Veneur, and Domaine Bois de Boursan. Others to watch out for are Chapoutier, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos du Mont Olivet, Domaine Chante-Cigale, Domaine Clos du Caillou, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine de Sénéchaux, and a whole host of others.

Domaine Santa Duc Prestige des Hautes GarriguesAfter Châteauneuf, Gigondas has spent the last forty years carving out a remarkable reputation for itself. Like its more illustrious neighbour, the blend is a classic combination of Grenache (max. 80%) accompanied by a minimum of 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre, plus other grapes. Indeed, the best wines nowadays give top Châteauneufs a run for their money. The list for top producers, many with plots in other appellations, is growing: Domaine de Santa Duc, Château de St-Cosme, Domaine Raspail-Ay, Domaine du Cayron, and Domaine St-Gayan. Other producers/négociants of note include Perrin & Fils (Château Beaucastel), Tardieu-Laurent, Domaine du Pesquier, Guigal, and Domaine Brusset.

Rounding out the trio of top Southern Rhône appellations is Vacqueyras. Granted AOC status in 1990, Vacqueyras has become something of a hotbed for both collectors and general enthusiasts in search of great value wines with very good concentration and aging potential. The blend is similar to Gigondas: Grenache (predominant) paired with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and sometimes Cinsault. Several producers, both local and from other communes, to look up are Perrin & Fils, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos des Cazaux, and Domaine de la Monadière.

Domaine Gourt de MoutensAfter these appellations, premium choices for collectors become sparser; yet there are several other appellations on the rise with increasing numbers of serious producers. In most places, the GSM-blend is largely the same. In Rasteau (granted full AOC status in 2010), producers like Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Château La Soumade, and Domaine des Escaravailles are turning heads. The appellation is also known for its excellent Vin Doux Naturels, fortified wines crafted entirely from Grenache. Other appellations collectors may want to explore are Vinsobres, Beaumes de Venise (most famously known for its Muscat-based fortifieds), and the best Côtes du Rhône-Villages, such as Cairanne (also known for great Vin Doux Naturels), Plan de Dieu, and Massif d’Uchaux.

But then there’s Champagne, unique among French winegrowing regions in that there is but one speciality: sparkling wine. Were it to end there, Champagne would probably be lost in a sea of more diverse regions in other parts of France.

Dom PerignonBut Champagne is special. The wine is special, and the reason relates to overall quality. While many other places in France and around the world make sparkling wine, the yardstick for effervescent supremacy is set by the best bottlings of champagne. Combined with its status as the drink of choice for celebration, there is simply no other sparkling wine that enjoys the same pre-eminence and esteem.

Louis RoedererAt the top of the pyramid, champagnes known as ‘vintage cuvée prestige’ are the priciest. Aged for at least 36 months on the lees (oftentimes many times longer), these are the top bottlings produced by the best houses, the most famous versions synonymous with luxury, indulgence, and affluence. The most renowned of these include Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon), Cristal (Louis Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin), Sir Winston Churchill (Pol Roger), Belle Epoque (Perrier-Jouët), and Comte de Champagne (Taittinger). Other equally esteemed, sometimes pricier, items include Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay (Krug), RD and Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Dom Ruinart (Ruinart), Grand Siècle (Laurent-Perrier), Blanc de Millénaire (Charles Heidsieck), Cuvée William Deutz (Deutz), and Cuvée Paradis (Alfred Gratien). While there are others, these are widely considered the crème de la crème, capable of lasting at least several decades, sometimes much longer.

Yet vintage champagne often represents better value for money. Produced by the same houses with the same minimum time on the lees (again typically a great deal longer), there is a growing tendency to overlook vintage champagne in favour of either ‘house’ wines (more on this in a moment) and vintage cuvée prestige. Personally, I can think of no greater sacrilege, as the best vintage champagnes are often just as compelling as their pricier, more illustrious counterparts. In addition to those already mentioned, great houses to seek out are Jacquesson, Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse, Gosset, Drappier, Henriot, Joseph Perrier, Bruno Paillard, and Lanson. And let’s not forget Salon (owned by Laurent-Perrier), one of the most luxurious, priciest champagnes of them all. Not surprisingly, wines of this calibre can keep for at least a decade, sometimes two or three times as long.

Jacques Selosse InitialeThen come the ‘house’ wines, non-vintage bottlings that represent the vast majority of all champagne produced, aged at least 15 months on the lees. Normally popped open shortly after purchase, the choice of producers is enormous. With a growing number of small growers nowadays bottling their own wine instead of selling their grapes to the large houses, selection has never been greater, not just non-vintage versions but single-year wines and even vintage cuvée prestige labels. In addition to the major houses, alternate operations and smaller-scale growers to seek out are Ayala, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Philipponnat, Egly-Ouriet, Alain Thiénot, Serge Mathieu, Vilmart, and Tarlant. There are many hundreds of others.

Pol Roger Blanc de BlancsBut the choices hardly end here. Not to be discounted are the styles found within the three categories, two of which pertain to the type(s) of grapes used. One of these is Blanc de Blancs, champagne made only from Chardonnay. Sourced mainly from the Côte de Blancs south of Épernay, this is my favourite type of champagne—stylish, refined, and texturally brilliant. Another type is Blanc de Noirs, made only from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Krug Brut Blanc de NoirsSourced at its very best from grapes grown throughout the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne, Blanc de Noirs are usually rounder and fruitier, the best examples just as extraordinary as their counterparts. Then there is rosé champagne, made one of two ways. One is to craft a blend of still white wine (predominant) with a small quantity of still red wine. The other way is the saignée method, whereby the clear juice of red grapes is left to macerate on its skins for a short time—this is more expensive and difficult to correctly accomplish. Either way, rosé champagne is oftentimes more expensive than the white versions, and on occasion just as magnificent. However, most champagne is crafted from both red grapes and white grapes, via varying proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Veuve Clicquot Demi-SecWithin these categories are levels of sweetness, the amount of sweetening agent, or liqueur d’expédition, added during the dosage stage of production—this occurs right before the wine is corked and ready for release. Most champagne is crafted in the brut style, or to near-full dryness (3-15g/l of sugar). However, over the past dozen years there has been a growing demand for champagne crafted with no liqueur d’expédition in it whatsoever. Such wines may contain one of five names on the label: brut zero, brut nature, brut sauvage, ultra brut, or extra brut (the very latter may contain 0-6g/l of sugar). Another popular style in certain parts of the world is demi-sec, champagne containing up to 8% sugar (or 33-50g/l). Though there are other levels of sweetness, these three are nowadays the most prevalent.

Such are the most important qualitative levels and stylistic differences to understand in Champagne, plus the best producers to seek out. Which brings us back to our original question: for collectors, what is the most prestigious winegrowing region of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy? Is it the Rhône Valley or Champagne?

Indeed, the Rhône offers more types of wine. However, from a position of quality, an average bottle of NV champagne is much more expensive than a standard bottle of Côtes du Rhône (though the former is much more expensive to produce). Even so, most would agree that overall quality in Champagne is higher than in the Rhône. But as collectors, we’re not dealing with average bottles, are we? We’re dealing with benchmarks, not with benchwarmers.

And in so doing, a stalemate is reached. For who would contend that a bottle of Salon is any less grand than a bottle of Guigal La Turque? Not I, and certainly not any self-respecting French wine collector.

 Click here for a few gems from the 26 May 2012 Vintages Release along with several others.


Filed under: News, Wine, , , , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages May 26th Release

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Bargain Portuguese Reds, Fine Pinots, Great Whites and Bordeaux VSOs

Vintages has assembled yet another collection of 90 point wines for this release; with 90 points being the magical tipping point for guaranteed sales success. Frankly, 90 points is no longer a big deal – I am routinely awarding 90 point “excellence”. Ten years ago this was the realm of the world’s most iconic wines; now we have 90 pointers everywhere. One reason is that wine quality continues to increase around the globe, and across wine styles. So I am going to ignore the 90 point theme this time and skip right to some bargains, at any price or rating.

Bargain Reds Under $20

Portugal has always been a place to search for bargains and although there are no truly profound wines or 90 point examples in this Portugal “mini-thematic”, there are some very good wines for not much money. This has always been the case with Portugal – and it is having a very tough time breaking through into the limelight and being “cool”. With stalwart reliance on native grapes that mean nothing to most Canadians, Portugal plods stoically along. But take a moment on this release to acquaint yourself with the three basic styles of Portuguese reds – from Douro in the north, Dao in the centre and Alentejo in the south. As always, wine styles make climatic sense.

Monte Vilar ReservaCunha Martins ReservaPorca De Murça Reserva TintoPorca de Murça 2008 Reserva Tinto is a fine example of Douro red for $16.95. I always look for a Bordeaux-like sense of refinement in Douro reds, if with a bit more density that most Bordeaux. This delivers very nicely. From the green, mountainous Dão region in the centre I look for more forest and earthy complexity and nerve (dare I say a bit more like Burgundy) and Cunha Martins 2008 Reserva is a very good example at only $14.95, if just a bit commercialized with some cocoa/clove flavouring. The hot arid Alentejo in the south produces dense, soft very ripe reds and Monte Vilar 2008 Reserva at $15.95 catches the spirit very nicely while fencing with raisiny over-ripeness common in this zone.

Pierre Henri Morel Signargues Côtes Du Rhône VillagesDi Majo Norante RamitelloBefore leaving well priced, under $20 European reds, there two others that you should try. One of my weeks in France was spent in the southern Rhône and Provence, and I just loved the quality of many of the local wines, especially from the 2009 vintage. And we have had our share come through Vintages in recent months. Here’s another, for drinking early and often. Pierre Henri Morel Signargues 2009 Côtes du Rhône-Villages is simply delicious, if not profound, at $15.95. And from Italy, one of my favourites year after year is Di Majo Norante 2009 Ramitello Biferno Rosso. Hailing from the Adriatic province of Italy’s calf, Molise is a transition point between central Italian sangiovese-based reds and southern montepulciano-based reds, and a quintessentially Italian glass for all occasions at $15.95

Fine Pinot Noirs

La Crema Pinot NoirDomaine Des Tilleuls Clos Village Gevrey ChambertinAfter spending last week in Burgundy – pinot’s homeland – I came away even more of a pinot fan, if that is possible. This is ground zero of the grape that cabernet and syrah fans hate to love, and love to hate. I was personally blown away by the overall quality of red Burgundy, from the larger companies like Bouchard Père et Fils, Chanson and Champy, to the smaller producers like Domaine Maume and Pascal Marchand (more another time on the Tawse/Ontario connection to these wines), Dominique Laurent, Joseph Roty and Bruno Clair. The overall level of winemaking in Burgundy is better than I remember from visits in the 80s and 90s.

Boedecker Athena Pinot NoirIf you want to taste it for yourself, try Domaine des Tilleuls 2009 Clos Village Gevrey-Chambertin. It is not cheap at $49.95 but it is a terrific example of Gevrey, of which I tasted several samples last week. The Gevrey pinots here have a certain tension, minerality, grit and power, all built around fruit that resembles black currant, more than say cherry. It’s a cooler climate feel which – as an Ontario pinot fan – I was picking up on right away. If you want, broader, richer pinots look to the west coast of the USA. La Crema 2010 Pinot Noir ($29.95) from the Sonoma Coast is an old favourite that returns to form in this vintage with a certain brightness. And from Oregon’s Willamette Valley Boedecker Athena 2008 Pinot Noir ($36) is my first encounter with wines from Stewart and Athena Boedecker, and it is very impressive. That’s the thing about pinot; it keeps luring so many interesting and passionate people into the field. The Boedeckers are focused on making handcrafted, sustainably grown pinots from French clones in French barrels. But unlike the French they close their pinots with screwcaps.

White Highlights

Adega Deu La Deu Alvarinho Vinho VerdeI have not tasted every wine on this release but there are three whites that I found particularly interesting – not necessarily as bargains. Portugal’s Adega Deu la Deu Alvarinho 2010 Vinho Verde expresses surprising complexity and structure for a wine style usually defined as being a summery spritzer. Part of the reason is the alvarinho grape variety, perhaps better known over the Spanish border as albariño where it can deliver quite rich, aromatic wines. One might shy away from spending $19.95 on a Vinho Verde but it is a very classy wine.

Trimbach RieslingRobert Mondavi To Kalon Estate Reserve Fumé BlancAnd so is Trimbach 2009 Riesling from Alsace at $18.95. From a classic producer staunchly proud of its dry styling, this riesling shows great poise, fruit and nerve, which is especially interesting given it is from the ripe 2009 vintage. I have not been all that enthused with Vintages Alsatian purchases recently, even more so now that I have spent five days tasting in Alsace I know what great quality and value abounds. The 2010s in particular are scintillating and the prices seem reasonable. How about a special release of biodynamic Alsatian 2010s?

The third notable and excellent white is Robert Mondavi To Kalon Estate Reserve Fumé Blanc 2009 from Napa Valley. It may surprise many to see a California sauvignon blanc priced at $44.96 but this is one of California’s great whites – an old vine, low yield, barreled blend of sauvignon and semillon that roughly emulates white Bordeaux. Robert Mondavi himself was a fan of the genre, parcelling a fairly large chunk of his best cabernet vineyard to make Fumé back in the 60s. Indeed he coined the name Fumé Blanc – a double entendre referencing the smokiness of barrel ageing and the Fumé in the Loire Valley’s famous sauvignon called Pouilly-Fumé.

Bordeaux VSOs

Once a month or so I get a chance to taste new releases through Vintages Shop Online stream – wines available for purchase Online with delivery to your local LCBO store. The selection ranges across the world but Bordeaux seems to have the lion’s share. That, plus a special recent media tasting of Bordeaux still “available in stores and warehouse” indicates that Vintages is in thick with mid-level Bordeaux, especially from three middling vintages – 2006, 2007 and 2008 – and that they are trying to move them out to make room for the oncoming, well hyped 2009s. Anyway, there are some good buys among these wines, so check out my recent reviews of Château Larcis Ducasse 2008, Château Gazin 2008, and Château Belle-Vue 2008. I have also recently tasted Château Troplong Mondot 2007 and Château Langoa-Barton 2006. I have not tasted all the wines on the May 26 release but will attempt to catch up with some in the days ahead.

Cheese Please

On the weekend of June 1- 3 I will be in Picton helping with the wine program at the Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Several Prince Edward County wineries will be pouring on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as well as at the Cooks and Curds Gala on Saturday night that features eight chefs from across Canada. I attended the inaugural event last year and enjoyed it so much I wanted to get involved. I’ll be leading a seminar on matching cheese and wine on Saturday afternoon, and after three weeks in France with a daily diet of cheese and wine I am feeling particularly primed for the task. Other seminars focus on cheeses of Quebec, B.C. and cheddars from across the country. Check it out by clicking on the ad below.

From the May 26th, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

David Lawrason

VP of Wine

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

Terrior - a County Celebration

The Wine Establishment

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Bubblies

Bubblies bring a sense of frivolity and fun to any occasion. Find these sparklers via

Astoria Prosecco 2011
$12.95 (87 Points)
This attractively packaged Prosecco (a.k.a. the glera varietal) is produced in the Polegato family’s vineyard on 50 hectares in Italy’s Veneto region. An excellent quality for value, this is a pleasant and lightly fruity sparkler. Pale straw in colour with delicate small bubbles, it finishes refreshing on the palate, making it a lovely aperitif.

Cidery St-Nicolas Rosé
$19.95 (88 Points)
St-Nicolas Cidery is just 20 minutes west of Québec City, on the St. Lawrence River. This salmon-hued medium-dry rosé is made by macerating strawberries and raspberries with the cider. It has fine abundant bubbles, a bouquet of sweet apples and strawberries, medium-full body and a delicious tangy finish. A perfect brunch bubbly with fairly low (7%) alcohol.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rosé
$78.80 (91 Points)
The famous Champagne house reliably produces the finest quality Champagnes in a substantial and complex style. This deep salmon rosé is based on Brut Yellow Label’s blend (about 50% pinot noir with the rest pinot meunier and chardonnay) with the addition of red wine. It has a fruity, yeasty brioche bouquet and is full bodied, creamy textured and full of red berry flavours.

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New Zealand Wine Fairs Showcases Latest Trends – by Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

The New Zealand Wine Fair recently made its way across Canada, touching down in Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto. As Ottawa is often overlooked for these types of events, I was delighted to take part in the trade tasting and a winemaker’s dinner, which was part of the Visa Infinite Dinner Series.

This year’s Wine Fair has certainly reinforced that New Zealand as a wine region is at the top of its game, and that its best wines are yet to be discovered. While exports to Canada continue to grow at a steady pace, it is obvious that Kiwi winemakers are not resting on the laurels of their success with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but have ambitiously embraced innovation and are looking towards a future that will include other impressive whites and red grape varieties.

Astrolabe Voyage Sauvignon BlancChurton Sauvignon Blanc 2010The main trade tasting featured wine from 23 producers and was, not surprisingly, dominated by New Zealand’s current flagship white and red, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The standout Sauvignon Blancs included the (almost over the top) Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (to be released in Vintages in June), Churton Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (in Vintages this July) and Waimea Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from Nelson, available through Churchill Cellars. In addition to the crisp unwooded Sauvignons, with characteristic gooseberry and tropical notes, there were a number made in the Fume Blanc style (i.e. partially or fully oaked). Some, like The Brothers Sauvignon Blanc 2010 from Giesen Estate (Michael Andrews Brands), with a modest five percent of the blend matured in older French oak, were intriguing and had a creamy richness. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if there had to be a better way to diversify or invigorate the Sauvignon Blanc category, rather than subjecting this aromatic and crisp cool climate white to varying degrees of butter and toast.

Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2009The reds I tasted were mostly Pinot Noir, both from well-known Central Otago, as well as from lesser-known (for Pinot), but equally appealing, Marlborough. The Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir 2010, available through the Small Winemakers Collection for $43.75, and the TeMara Estate Mount Pisa Pinot Noir 2009, both from Central Otago, were particularly enjoyable, with the vibrant fruit and complexity one has come to love in Central Otago Pinots. The Rock Ferry Pinot Noir Bendigo 2009, also from Central Otago, and in fact most of the wines from this small winery looking to make inroads into the Canadian marketplace, also stood out and are worth keeping an eye out for (

The success and focus of the New Zealand wine industry, along with the overall quality of the wines, has been nothing short of remarkable over the past decade or two. We can see however, the desire to branch out and become known for more than just Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. It was in this vein that the self-pour format wine seminar for the trade highlighted some of the country’s up and coming aromatic white varieties – Pinot Gris (and thankfully not Grigio), Riesling and Gewürztraminer, along with Syrah, whose plantings and interest from winemakers has been dramatically outpacing that of other white and red varieties over the past decade. The well-priced Waipara Hills Pinot Gris 2011 ( and Waimea Nelson Dry Riesling 2006 ( stood out for me among the aromatic whites, with a good buzz among the trade.

As for the Syrah from Hawkes Bay and Waiheke Island, the stunning Trinity Hill 2009 Homage Syrah from Gimblett Gravels ( and John Forrest Collection 2007 Syrah (, also from Gimblett Gravels, both showed a “Northern Rhone” finesse and elegance, along with bright and spicy fruit flavors, which the Waiheke Island Syrah didn’t have.

Babich Sauvignon BlancVilla Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009The multi-course dinner was held at SideDoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar, with Executive Chef Jonathan Korecki at the top of his game. We began dinner with a glass of Oyster Bay Cuvee Rose NV “methode”, which is what New Zealanders call sparkling wine. We also tasted wines from well-known producers Villa Maria, Babich and Coopers Creek, alongside the new kid on the block (for Canada anyway), Marlborough-based Rock Ferry. The torched Albacore tuna sashimi was a perfect companion for the fresh and lively Babich Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from Marlborough, which offers great value at $14.95. With the delicious roasted New Zealand lamb rack, we tried the Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009, also from Marlborough and coming to Vintages, which drove home the point that Central Otago is not the only place where good Pinot Noir can be made in New Zealand

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Top Ten Smart Buys – John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 26th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Consensus on Greatness: Is it Possible? You Bet.  May 26th sees the annual Vintages release focused on 90+ point wines. By most standards in the world of wine ratings, 90 is the magic number, the dividing line between good and very good, between satisfying and special. Where and how that line is drawn depends entirely on the reviewer, yet I never fail to marvel at the consistency of the definition of “very good” from experienced tasters, even if from incredibly diverse backgrounds. As though to hammer the point home, I spent the last week in Hungary judging wines at the 13th annual Pannon Wine Challenge, with panelists from the UK, Poland, US, and Hungary. Though we may have warbled on about acceptable degrees of technical flaws and other granular details, and though each of our scales were calibrated differently, in relative terms, there was remarkable agreement on the wines that stood above the others. The middle ground, however, was much more variable.

Sequillo Cellars RedThis leads me to believe that there is such a thing as great wine. It’s not a single beacon in the sky, but more like a bunch of circles of light that overlap. Where all the circles intersect you’ll find consensus on greatness. Moving out from the center it gets more and more individual; agreement on the fringes is less consistent. And I love that the characterization of excellence in wine remains intangible and elastic, and changes as you change. By most definitions it must incorporate elusive and brackish concepts like “balance”, “terroir expression” or “varietal character”, which become evident only after years of tasting wine. At this point, it’s more of a feeling than a rational explanation of greatness.

Though all of the judges at the Pannon competition have had dramatically different life experiences and exposure to wine, the one point in common between all is significant tasting experience. And this leads to another shaky truth: the more you taste, the more the image of greatness emerges out of the mist and comes into consensual focus. Beauty shouldn’t, nor couldn’t, be pinned down to a standard rational definition. Experience seems to lead us all to a remarkably similar vinous landscape – the converging points of light – beyond the rational.

C.H. Berres Riesling KabinettBest's Great Western Bin No. 1 ShirazOne 90+ point score could thus be an outlier, but when consensus is found among a diverse group of experienced tasters, there has to be something there, a mutually shared feeling, however un-definable and intangible. Here, the greatness is not the sole proprietorship of the experts; even if you don’t taste a thousand wines a month, these mutually commended wines will most likely touch you, too. Outside this convergence, you’re back in the land of personal experience.

It’s a bit like how I imagine it must be for a figure skating judge. I suspect that even for judges with vast experience watching skaters, the feeling of witnessing a great performance arrives first, before the degree of technical prowess comes into focus. That feeling is shared by the audience – when you see a top skater you feel they are great, even without the ability to describe a perfect triple Lutz, or even knowing what a Lutz is, and you expect a top score. The judges can then rationalize the feeling of a great performance through analysis of the skater’s technique and artistry, but the scorecards have already been selected. When the performance is less than great, the audience waits in anticipation; rational analysis has taken over, and it’s not clear to the inexperienced which way it will swing.

Lealtanza ReservaWhen I taste a great wine, I get a little shiver first – I feel that it’s something special. That’s past experience tickling my frontal cortex, saying, hey, this is worth paying attention to. After that I’ll set about trying to describe rationally why it’s great. A tasting note that gushes with worn out superlatives is a start towards sharing that feeling. But when words are inadequate, as they invariably are, I can flash up my scorecard to draw a line in the sand and make my position clear. In the absence of the shiver, the technical analysis starts first, and the results between reviewers are more variable. Paradoxically, it’s a feeling of greatness that leads to the intersecting points of light in the sky. Rational thought leads to greater discrepancy, less consistency and greater variability.

Top Ten Smart Buys (also 90+)

Of the 75 wines I tasted for this release, 21 gave me a little shiver – See the smartest ten buys of those here. I’ve yet to see the reviews of my WineAlign colleagues, but I suspect there will be some convergence, and that’s where you should start. Hopefully you’ll get the same shiver, unless of course, you’re the Russian judge.

For more details on the Pannon Wine competition, see thoughtful American wine blogger Alder Yarrow’s posting at or UK author and blogger Dr. Jamie Goode’s popular wine Results of the competition can be found on the competition’s official website,  Pannon Bormustra. I’ll post a selection of my notes shortly.

From the May 26, 2012 Vintages release:


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

Terrior - a County Celebration

The Wine Establishment - Stealth Cork Screw

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Profile on the Douro – John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 26th 2012

Portugal is the other theme of the May 26th Vintages release, with a selection of wines from four different regions. I take an in depth look at the Douro Valley below and I’ve included a link to some Smart Portugal Buys from both the LCBO release and private import channels.

The Douro Valley

The Douro Valley is easily the most recognized wine region in Portugal. Its fame was of course established as the source of one of the world’s great fortified wines, Porto. The strong, sweet red and white wines of DOC Porto are still, three centuries after their creation, considered among the world’s best and immediately associated with the country that makes them. It was the early commercial success of port and the resulting need to protect its reputation that led to the Douro’s demarcation in 1756, making it one of the oldest appellations in the world.

The fame and reputation of port lives on, but early into the 21st century, it’s the dry white and especially red table wines (in the sense of unfortified) that are making headlines. No less than half of the region’s grapes are destined for table wines today, and increasingly they are sourced from some of the region’s finest vineyards and oldest vines, too, which in the past were reserved exclusively for port. In the short span of 30 years since the DOC for table wines was granted in 1979, Douro wines have become the most admired in Portugal, and increasingly respected around the world.

Picturesque Douro River

The region itself takes the ideal image of picturesque vineyard landscapes to a new level of jaw-dropping beauty. No visitor can fail to marvel at the ingenuity, or perhaps madness of man to have endeavored and succeeded to tame the rugged, tortuously twisted course of the river into a viable agricultural landscape. From its source in Spain, the Río Duero takes a name change to the Douro as it comes crashing over the border on its 200km journey through Portugal down to the Atlantic Ocean. On either bank, hundreds of kilometers of carefully contoured, walled terraced vineyards rise up to 700m, some on seemingly impossibly steep slopes dynamited into submission straight out of the bedrock. The surface is littered with fractured pieces of stone, creating a dazzling yet blinding shimmer of reflected sunlight. Handsome but rugged manor houses made of the grey stone dot the sides and crests of hills, commanding impressive views over the river and its vine-covered banks. So unique is the region that UNESCO declared the Douro a World Heritage Site in 2001, describing it as a “cultural, evolving live landscape” worthy of protection.

The river, and later the train track that follows its course were once the only way to access this remote region, and the further up river one travelled, the more remote and wild the surroundings became. A nearly completed four-lane highway makes visiting the Douro much easier these days. Yet as wild as the Douro Valley still appears today, the region’s climate is perhaps even less hospitable.

Often characterized as ‘severe’ by vine growers in the resigned way that only a lifetime’s worth of agriculture can validate, the temperatures inland towards the Spanish border regularly reach 50ºC in the dead of summer. Rainfall is scant here too, and one wonders how the vine even survives at all.

Steep slopes of the Douro Valley

The secret lies in a curious geological phenomenon: at some distant period in the past, a thick layer of underlying pre-Cambrian schistous rock was upended vertically, breaking through the upper layers of granite that otherwise dominate in this part of the world. As viewed from above, the Douro Valley looks much like a sort of schist sandwich with thick slices of granite bread surrounding it, and indeed the irregular boundaries of the Port and Douro DOCs follow almost precisely this queer rocky outcropping. Laid horizontally, schist is one of the most impenetrable geological formations for even the most persistent vine roots. Vertically, however, the strata of rock are more like tiles stacked side-by-side, with fissures between each that encourage roots to penetrate tens of metres into the ground where coolness, nutrients and moisture can be found. Thus not only do vines survive, they also thrive, as attested to by the significant number of ancient vineyards in the region, some dating from as far back as the late 19th century.

Quinta Do Portal Grande ReservaThe part of the Douro Valley relevant to wine growers stretches 100 kilometres from the Spanish border to near the town of Mesão Frio, in the eastern foothills of the Serra do Marão. This range of hills offers protection from the Atlantic, but nonetheless this part of the valley, referred to as Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo), receives the most rainfall and experiences the coolest temperatures. Wines, too, tend to be less dramatic, a little softer and fresher. The central part of the valley, or Cima Corgo (Upper Corgo), runs from Régua, taking in the unofficial capital of Douro wine country, Pinhão, perched on a hillside at what looks from a distance like the end of the river until you see it take a sharp turn to the southeast. This is the heartland of the appellation where many of the Douro’s finest vineyards are situated. Then, further eastward from Numão to the Spanish border is the area known as the Douro Superior (Upper Douro), with its bitterly cold winters, blistering summers and low rainfall. Once extremely remote and inhospitable, vineyards are much more recent here. With modern vineyard management techniques to cope with the extremes, and more gentle gradients that make mechanization possible in some places, the area is fairly exploding with development.

Portugal is well known for its wide array of grape varieties, but nowhere is the diversity more dazzling than in the Douro. In the not-too-distant past, here, as elsewhere in the country, grapes were co-planted in the same parcels following folk wisdom and empirical knowledge handed down through generations. It is still common today to find old vineyards planted with 40, 50 or even more varieties all jumbled and harvested together. The frenzy of vineyard industrialization and rationalization into neat rows of single varieties that gripped the rest of post-war Europe seems to have spared this part of the continent.

According to DOC rules, no less than 54 white grape varieties and some 77 red grapes are authorized for Douro wine production. Yet for all but the prized wines from old vine parcels, in practice, the number of grapes in common use has been significantly reduced over the last 30 years and the first monovarietal vineyards were planted in 1981.

Quinta Do Infantado RedThe most promising grapes singled out were Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão. Of this elite group, most producers consider the first three to be the Douro’s marquee red grapes. Admittedly, it would be a great shame to lose the diversity that makes the Douro’s wines so unique. And fortunately, there are several producers committed to maintaining variety in the face of fashion. While the VR Duriense appellation covers over 45,000 hectares, the land entitled to the DOC Douro is just over 38,000 hectares, and that for port, is more restricted still, at 32,000 hectares. The individual vineyard sites of the Douro have been carefully classified over time, in a system that dates back to mid-17th century, when measures were put in place to protect the reputation of port wine. The rating of each vineyard is based on physical attributes such as altitude, aspect, elevation, varieties planted, planting density, vine age, and soil type. They are rated from A (excellent) to G (unsuitable), with significant potential quality differences between each level. As in Champagne, the better the rating, the higher the prices paid for grapes, and the more port wine they are permitted to produce. Officially the system relates only to port wine production, but a vineyard’s real estate value and the price commanded for its grapes remains nonetheless valid for whatever style of wine will be produced.

On the production side, the romantic vision of stone lagares, the ancient shallow troughs used to crush grapes by foot power since Roman times, is not as distant a memory as one might believe. Many producers in the Douro proudly describe their wines, port or table, as “foot trodden,” claiming that modern technology has yet to devise a better system of extraction. The original adherence to this method was based on simple pragmatism: unlike most red table wine, port wine spends little time in contact with the skins (two to three days), given the need to fortify and press to separate skins and partially fermented juice early on in the process (or risk extracting really harsh tannins in such a high alcohol milieu). Yet in order to last a half-century or more in barrel or bottle, the wine needs to be richly extracted. So how to achieve that extraction in such a short period? Continual treading by foot is the answer, in a shallow vessel with high skin-to-juice contact ratio. The foot is gentle enough to avoid splitting grape seeds and releasing harsh green tannin, all the while maximizing the colour, tannin and flavour extraction.

Porca De Murça ReservaThe traditional technique has spilled over into Douro table wine production, resulting in wines with uncommonly deep purple colour and intense extraction, capable of significant aging. Naturally, modern vinification facilities with stainless steel tanks using pump-over or punch down extraction methods are found throughout the region, as are more modern versions of the lagar, made from stainless steel and equipped with temperature control and robotic pistons designed to reproduce the effects of the human foot. Yet it’s hard to shake the quixotic image of a band of harvesters rinsing their dusty feet at the end of the day and plunging, thigh deep, into a pulpy purple mass of juice and skins, linking arms and dancing to the sound of an accordion in between occasional swigs of stamina-inducing bagaceira (Portuguese grappa) until the wee hours.

Aging takes places either entirely in stainless steel for the immediately fruity reds designed for early consumption, or in wood (often 225 litre barrels these days, but the larger 550 litre pipes and other sizes are in common use). The term reserva on a label guarantees a minimum of one year in wood. In addition, the wine must receive a higher score on the blind tastings conducted by the Port and Douro Wine Institute (IVDP) during the appellation approval process. Notably, the overall rejection rate for Douro wines by the IVDP is on average 17%, one of the highest in Europe.

That’s the background detail, but the proof is in the wines. Here’s a list of smart Portugal buys, currently available, to make sense of it all.

Smart Portugal Buys


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008