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The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair Wine Competition

Gold Medal winnerThe Royal Agricultural Winter Fair Wine Competition

John Szabo, MS, Head Judge of the Wine Competition, Sadie Darby, Coordinator of the Wine Competition, and The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair are pleased to present the award winning wines and thank our esteemed panel of judges of the 2012 Royal Wine Competition.

Tony Aspler, Post City Magazines, 680 News, Tidings, On The Go magazine and

Linda Bramble, wine writer, broadcaster and educator – Brock Faculty of Business and CCOVI

Astrid Brummer, Ontario wine buyer for LCBO and Vintages

Sara d’Amato, Vines Magazine, Wine Writer’s Circle of Canada, Winner of North American Blind Tasting Challenge and Principal Critic with

Konrad Ejbich, Host, CBC Radio Wine Phone-In; Columnist – Toronto Star StarWeek magazine and CityBites magazine

Steve Gunning, Chair, Wine Judges of Canada

Carolyn Evans Hammond, Site Editor, Winefox, wine critic and sommelier,

David Lawrason, VP of Wine –, wine columnist – Toronto Life and Ottawa Magazine, National Wine Advisor – Gold Medal Plates and Principal Critic with

Gordon Stimmell, wine writer at the Toronto Star and Starweek editor

Margaret Swaine, wine columnist – The National Post Newspaper, spirit columnist and Principal critic –

Jim Warren, President – Ontario Viniculture Association, Executive Director – Fruit Wines of Ontario

The Royal Wine Competition - Best in Show$2000 Winemakers’ Award for Best in Show:

The Grange of Prince Edward
2010 Riesling VQA Prince Edward County

Konzelmann Estate Winery
2010 Cabernet Merlot VQA Niagara Peninsula

Prize money kindly donated by Arron Barberian, Barberian’s Steak House

Congratulations to all of the Medal winners!

RAWF 2012 Wine Competition

RAWF 2012 Wine Competition

RAWF 2012 Wine Competition

RAWF 2012 Wine Competition

RAWF 2012 Wine Competition

RAWF 2012 Wine Competition

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair Wine Competition

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks:Value-priced bottles that will warm you up

These easy-drinking value-priced wines warm the body and the soul as we head into colder weather. Find them

Bottega Rosé Vino dei Poeti
LCBO No. 277202; $12.25

This special-edition (pink ribbon on the bottle) pale rose-coloured sparkler is a blend of pinot nero and raboso grapes from Veneto and Lombardia. A portion of profits is donated to BHI, the Breast Health Institute internationally and in Canada this month to Princess Margaret Breast Cancer Foundation (October is Breast Cancer Awareness month).  Off dry with a festive, easy to drink character, it has a floral bouquet and ripe raspberry/strawberry taste.

Argento Bonarda 2011
LCBO No. 292458; $9.95

Argento’s value-priced wines are well constructed by head winemaker Silvia Corti to deliver above expectations with fruit purity and flavour concentration. This deep purple Mendoza red from 100% bonarda grapes is full bodied and rich on the palate with a rounded, soft finish. Full of ripe raspberry flavours with an overlay of oak, it goes well with a spicy stew.

Volcanes Summit Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2011
LCBO No. 292607; $9.95

In Chile’s Rapel Valley, the Bodegas Volcanes wine-making team searches out grapes influenced by volcanic soil. This blend of largely cabernet sauvignon with 35% merlot is violet-tinged garnet in hue. Medium bodied, it has ripe berry on the nose and palate with some oak overtones. Cedar, spices and herbaceous notes make an appearance as well, especially in the firm dry finish. Have with pepperoni pizza or pasta puttanesca style.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Oct 27th Release

Bordeaux 2009s, California Boutiques, Super Tuscans and Discoveries

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The LCBO’s annual Fine Wine Auction – held last weekend – has become the symbolic kick-off for Vintages fine wine season. From here through mid-December we will be inundated and titillated by big name wines and big vintages, at big prices.

The October 27 release gets it rolling with the 2009 Bordeauxs, California “boutique” wines and some super-Tuscans, which I will take on in due course. But I must warn you at the outset that I am getting pretty cynical about all this. My gripe is that these over-hyped wines are just too expensive and the value is not there.

I also sense that the glory days of collector wines from Bordeaux, California and Tuscany in particular, are just about over. Quality has become so good at lower price points, great wine has become global, and there is a new generation of winemakers who care more about expressing their place in the world, than what price they will fetch at the next auction. At the same time wine consumers are smarter and wiser and ready to make their own decisions; which is why my job is now more about aiding discovery rather than re-enforcing the status quo. And I will get to “discoveries” below.

Vintages’ Bordeaux 2009s Disappoint

Let the hype begin, with this Robert Parker mouthful reprinted by Vintages. “Given the overall style of the 2009s, which combine creamy voluptuous textures and sensational fruit-driven opulence, with remarkable finesse, precision and vibrancy, the best of the little wines will be delicious young, as will many of the classed growths. This is a magical vintage” 

So where is the magic in this Oct 27 spate of “little” chateau wines? I was disappointed on my first taste through. I figured that maybe I was just grumpy that day so I returned to the Vintages lab three weeks later and tasted them all again. They are average 85 to 89 point wines that for the most part are over-priced. Three reach 90 points, none surpass. Some did show that sense of ripeness and fine structure that Monsieur Parkaire extols above, but styles were all over the map. There were overripe wines and green wines; soft wines and lean wines; funky wines and clean wines. This really points out the problem with vintage hype. Climate is only a framework, a barometer of how easy it is, or isn’t, to ripen the grapes. From that point there are hundreds of human-controlled variables that have a more dramatic influence on the final quality and taste.

Château De CruzeauChâteau Sénéjac 2009Château La Gravette Lacombe 2009But if you want to dip your toe into 2009 Bordeaux, here are my picks. Cru Bourgeois Château la Gravette Lacombe from the Médoc, is quite a savoury, smoky young wine in a very modern style, and excellent value at $19.95. Château Sénéjac, Haut-Médoc is a bit more traditional, complex and nicely balanced and fair value at $28.85. My personal favourite of the batch is Château de Cruzeau, Pessac-Léognan, again a modern wine with nicely lifted, well integrated, classic Pessac currant, pine and wood smoke, that is a decent price at $27.95.

California Boutiques

To boutique or not to boutique? That is a good question nowadays. It is such a seventies term. And it carries other freight as well – namely the insinuation that small is beautiful (thus big is not). Actually small, family wineries are often stylistically idiosyncratic and patchy quality-wise, depending on the winemaker’s motivations and experience. Wines from big wineries that have to compete tooth and nail in the big bad world, cannot afford to be idiosyncratic or poor quality. They may be more predictable, and commercial, and have sameness, but they are usually well made.

PB Hein Cabernet SauvignonBeringer Cabernet SauvignonWhich is the theme in this Tale of Two Napa cabs. PB Hein 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($46.95) caught my attention for delivering all kinds of classic if edgy cabernet character. It’s from a small winery opened very recently by Paul Hein, a fifth generation Napan whose forebearers had vines on Mount Veeder. Contrast this to the very well layered, subtle, more corporate Beringer 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($39.95) which is also excellent quality, if in a more familiar and likely more broadly appealing style.

There are several big name California cabernets on the release, notably Dunn Howell Mountain 2005 and Chateau Montelena 2008 that are excellent quality, but disappointing at the price. Which goes back to my gripe with hype. These wines were all the rage and highly coveted in the 1980s and 1990s as newly wealthy boomers latched onto the California wine revolution. They have managed to maintain their inflated prices because they have name recognition, but frankly I, for one, am simply not that interested. And they have a ton of new competition.

The competition was very evident at the eye-opening Rogers and Company consignment portfolio tasting held this month at Brassai. Rogers has always been a leading importer of high end California wines, but the selection unleashed this day was truly impressive. There was one table devoted to triple digit “boutique” mid-90s scoring “super premium” California wines with names I did not recognize: like Tim Mondavi’s Continuum, Kapscandy’s Endre, O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Cab, Tierra Roja, Ovid and Dancing Hares. Another table of more mainstream California reds featured the likes of Caymus Special Selection, Quintessa and Ehlers 1886 Cabernet. I would have loved to spend two days tasting this portfolio, which also spanned Italy, France and Australia. The quality was very high across the board – even among less expensive wines. So if you aren’t on Rogers list of customers and “invitees” you may want to get in touch at

Super-Tuscan Time

Tenuta Sette Ponti CrognoloRocca Delle Macìe Tenuta Sant'alfonso Chianti ClassicoAntinori Solaia 2009The October 27 release also features super-super Tuscan Antinori 2009 Solaia, a ground breaking cabernet launched in the eighties when the notion of cabernet in Italy was still revolutionary. And the 2009 is an excellent 92 point wine, in my books anyway. It has very modern, California influenced, French oak driven “international” styling, and carries it off well atop impressive structure. But the price is a choker at $251.95! I would much rather buy a case of Rocca delle Macìe’s 2009 Tenuta Sant’Alfonso Chianti Classico at $21.95, or nine bottles of Tenuta Sette Ponti 2009 Crognolo at $32.95.  Sette Ponti is a great little property by the way, making very stylish mini-super Tuscans. And there are many more, very fine up-and-coming estates in them thar olive and vine strewn Chianti hills – indeed all over Italy – that are begging for your attention.

And allow me one last be-labouring of my point, based on vertical tasting of Luce that I was invited to this week. Luce was created out of a handshake deal back in 1993 when Napa’s Tim Mondavi went to the Frescobaldi family in Florence in search of a joint venture project. This was in Mondavi’s era of global outreach, also forming partnerships with the Rothschilds of Bordeaux, and Chadwicks (Errazuriz) of Chile. So Luce too was revolutionary – a new wine – combining Tuscany’s sangiovese with upstart merlot, grown in Montalcino, a bastion of Brunello-based tradition. It was newsmaker! And today the 2009 vintage is selling at Vintages for $99.95.

In a previous tasting, I had not reviewed the 2009 Luce Della Vite all that kindly and I tried it yet again to lead off the vertical tasting led by Lamberto Frescobaldi at Trattoria Giancarlo in Toronto’s Little Italy on College West. And again it was very oaky and somehow too loose and hot. The ten vintages preceding it were all of similar international style, but they improved with age as the wine “digested” the obvious oak – a very apt observation by Lamberto. My favourite vintages were the more mature 2006, 2004 and 2001, where the structure and Italianess of the wines shone through, and alcohol levels were a bit lower. And by the way, the Luce partnership dissolved in 2004 when Constellation wines purchased Robert Mondavi. “It’s not that (Constellation) aren’t nice people” said Lamberto, “but the magic was gone” Indeed.


So enough harping on the old order. Time for some value-surfing and discoveries from the October 27 release.

Fess Parker Viognier 2010Jules Taylor Sauvignon Blanc 2011Among whites, three very aromatic, pure and bright wines caught my eye. Fess Parker 2010 Viognier ($24.95) from California’s Santa Barbara County is a tactful model of exotic viognier fruit expression and charm, without being overly heavy. Jules Taylor 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95) from New Zealand’s Marlborough region explodes with complex aromas and delivers on a very racy chassy. Mas des Bressades 2011 Cuvée Tradition Blanc ($14.95) compiles a terrific, juicy and firm blend of four grapes from the south of France – grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne and viognier.

Domaine Cros De Romet Cairanne Côtes Du Rhône VillagesMalivoire Albert's Honour Old Vines FochAmong reds, we start on the home front with Malivoire Albert’s Honour 2010 Old Vines Foch at $24.95. It struck me as I tasted this that very few hybrid red table wines remain on the market in Ontario, but this complex, rogue red proves there is room for well made, old vine editions, and there perhaps should be more of them in a region starved for “big reds”.

From Hawkes Bay New Zealand Alpha Domus 2010 The Barnstormer Syrah ($22.95) is indeed a barnstormer. Not in the sense of being a big, thick, rich Aussie-style shiraz but for its aromatic very Rhonish syrah punch. And still with syrah, Domaine Cros de Romet 2010 Cairanne Côtes du Rhône-Villages is yet another syrah-based star out of the southern Rhone, and a great buy at $21.95. And finally Palacios Remondo 2011 La Vendimia from Rioja, Spain is about as friendly a little sipping red as you are likely to find, and a steal at $14.95.

That’s a wrap for this time. Happy shopping, with WineAlign at your side and in your pocket. I am a recent convert to iPhone by the way, and I love using our WineAlign app while at the LCBO!

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the October 27th, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2010

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , ,

Enjoy Award Winning Wines with guest Padma Lakshmi

On November 2nd, The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and WineAlign present an epicurean wine tasting dinner celebrating the winning wines from the 2012 Royal Wine Competition.

Padma Lakshmi

Special Guest – Padma Lakshmi

Mix & mingle over a glass of wine with Padma Lakshmi and other food & wine aficionados in the Royal Vineyard from 8:00-8:30 pm.

Emmy nominated Padma Lakshmi is known internationally as a food expert, television host, model and award-winning author. Lakshmi can be seen on the Food Network as the host of “Top Chef”.

At 8:30 pm, head to the Royal Court Restaurant, where gourmet cuisine will be paired with winning wines from the competition. Master Sommelier John Szabo – Head Judge of the 2012 Royal Wine Competition – will lead the tasting and speak to the elements of the competition and the wines that came out on top.

These exclusive tickets are priced at $100 for a three course meal including wine pairings.

Our wine dinner events have been consistently and quickly selling out. If you are interested in attending then we advise you to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

First Course

Roasted heirloom beet caprese salad with mozzarella di buffala, pistachio pesto, shaved candy cane beets

Main Course

48 hour braised beef short ribs with cauliflower mash, carrot bundle, pickled honey mushrooms, parmesan frico, port jus

Fish alternative

Grilled steelhead trout, mustard and parsley crushed celery root, bacon wrapped celery bundle and salsa verde


Dark and white chocolate terrina with nutella and toasted hazelnut brittle

Coffee & Tea

Date and Time:
November 2, 2012.
Mix and Mingle – 8:00pm in the Royal Vineyard
Dinner – 8:30 in the Royal Court Restaurant

Heritage Court – Direct Energy Centre – Exhibition Place
100 Princes’ Boulevard, Toronto, Ontario M6K 3C3

The Royal Agricultural Winter FairAbout the Royal:

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF) is a 10-day long event, starting November 2nd, 2012.  “The Royal” began as the largest and most prestigious agricultural exposition in North America.  It has since evolved into a multi-faceted event with four primary focuses, touching Canadian and international communities:  competition, entertainment, commerce and education.  The Royal also maintains a strong focus on “farm to fork” and agricultural sustainability.  More than 300,000 visitors are welcomed annually, and with The Royal celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2012, this year’s Fair will be a massive party reaching all corners of Toronto and Canada. Visit us at

About Padma

Emmy nominated Padma Lakshmi is known internationally as a food expert, award-winning author, television host, model and actor.  Lakshmi can be seen on the Food Network as the host of “Top Chef”.

Lakshmi established herself as a food expert early on in her career, having hosted two successful cooking shows and writing a best-selling cookbook Easy Exotic, for which she won the International Versailles Event for best cookbook by a first time writer.  Lakshmi followed this success with the publication of her second cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, released by Weinstein Books which has over 150 recipes from around the world alongside intriguing personal memoirs. In addition to her food writing, she has contributed to such magazines as American Vogue, Gourmet and British and American Harper’s Bazaar.  Visit: www.Padma

Filed under: Events, News, Wine, ,

Margaret Swaine’s Wine Pick: Aussie artisan wines

I highly recommend these acclaimed Aussie artisan wines from last Saturday’s Vintages release. Full of personality and taste find them via

Paxton AAA Shiraz Grenache 2010, $19.95

This McLaren Vale red from South Australia gives you a warm feeling in body and soul. Biodynamically farmed and part of an organization that donates 1% of sales to environmental causes, the wine has nice warmth to its smooth ripe berry flavours. Supple and full on the palate with notes of smoke, mocha and oak, it’s value priced and perfect for fall days.

Spinifex Papillon 2010, $29.95

Barossa Valley’s Spinifex is known for achieving Old World elegance in their New World wines. Winemaker Peter Schell has worked many vintages in France and his French born wife comes from a long line of vignerons. This blend of grenache, cinsault, carignan and shiraz has cool climate, Rhone-like flavours full of bright red berry, gamey and savoury garrigue notes. Medium bodied with supple tannins, it’s balanced and food friendly.

Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, $39.95

Mornington Peninsula in Victoria is blessed with the cooling effect of the Indian Ocean and ideal soils for cool climate viticulture. This Yabby Lake chardonnay from there may be costly but it’s worth every penny. Intense, poised with Meursault-like smoky, toasty flavours, it has length and focus. Citrus and mineral notes add freshness and precision. Crack open with fine company.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 27th 2012

Bordeaux 2009; Top Ten Smart Buys; A Trio for Collectors 

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

’09 Bordeaux: The Real and True Vintage of the Century

As early as Spring 2010, the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux was being heralded as yet another “vintage of the century”, after the same was said previously of 2000 and 2005 (and later of 2010) – it’s been quite a century so far. Within the wine trade, such Bordelaïc hyperbole (my invented word) has become an old and overused joke. But more alarmingly, it has required wine writers to resort to the thesaurus in search of new words to describe the ever-greater grandeur (splendor, magnificence, majesty…) of the real and true vintage of the century. It’s sort of like the problem one runs into after scoring a wine a perfect 100 points, only to come across an even better wine later on, an inconvenience that can only be resolved by arbitrarily raising the bar to 110 points. Perhaps in another 20 years we will all be scoring on James Halliday’s 200 point scale.

Read on for more industry commentary on the 2009 vintage, and my best bets of the 20-odd Bordeaux in the October 27th Vintages release. You’ll also find some cracking values in the Top Ten Smart Buys, and a trio of highly collectible reds for the cellar.

In Praise of 2009

You, and everyone else, can be forgiven for the largesse of praise heaped on 2009 Bordeaux. With comments such as the following from respected industry leader Paul Pontallier, speaking of his 2009 Château Margaux: “2009 combines qualities that I have never scene: power and concentration. Our ‘09 is the most powerful wine we have ever made, including the legendary 1961 and 1947. These are undoubtedly the best young reds in the Médoc ever tasted”

It would be hard not to get excited. Other towering figures from the Bordeaux wine scene like Christian Moueix, of Pétrus, among other châteaux, joined the rally with “I have never seen anything like it in my career”, while Thomas Dô-Chi-Nam, winemaker at Pichon-Lalande, one of my personal favorite châteaux, said more matter-of-factly: “It is my best harvest ever”. [The last two quotes lifted from the Wine Spectator’s 2009 harvest report; Pontallier’s quotes are from my interview with him in May of 2010].

So is 2009 all that special after all, or just a very good vintage that needed a little marketing hype to help inflate prices after the softening of 2007 and 2008?

This would be tempting to believe, were it not for an equal measure of outsider excitement. 2009 was rather unique in that the main wine critics on both sides of the Atlantic were unanimous in their praise of the vintage and seemed to agree on the top wines. This is in contrast to many previous vintages in which the wines were more polarizing, underscoring “Euro” and “American” palate differences. But Robert Parker, the only man who really matters on the subject, had this to say: “[2009] may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.”  Not unequivocal words, but not particularly ambiguous, either. He was excited.

Scraping the Barrel for Value

Vintages Bordeaux Futures 2009One thing is certain: the 2009s are expensive. The prices of the top wines are well beyond the LCBO-Vintages price range, and mine too (for which I don’t blame the châteaux entirely; Bordeaux pricing is the most convoluted in the world of wine, and in some cases, a wine may pass through four hands or more from château to consumer). Even the futures [pre-release] prices were staggering; the first growths all hovered around $1300 per bottle (see the original Vintages Futures offer here)

So with your financial well being at heart, Vintages has selected a middling range of moderately priced 2nd labels, or second or third tier châteaux from appellations beyond the marquee names, to fill out the October 27th release. About twenty 2009 Bordeaux will be hitting the LCBO Vintages shelves, giving you a chance to decide for yourself whether the vintage really is all that. Though keep in mind that it’s not a full view of 2009; the top kit is most definitely not here. Yet in such great vintages, even the unheralded wines are supposed to shine, aren’t they? Admittedly, I saw little evidence of that in this release.

Closing Down

To give some benefit of the doubt, I’ll say that in general, despite the apparent immediate deliciousness of the 2009s out of barrel when all of the above comments were made, many wines seemed to have closed down, and are currently going through the ‘dumb phase’ that you often read about. But it’s not mere double talk to excuse poor wines; no one can adequately explain why, but certain wines unquestionably go through a period when they are less expressive and less pleasant to drink. In late September 2012, most of the 2009s offered little aromatic intensity or complexity, just an awkward amalgam of fruit and oak. Palates were often hard, tight and unyielding. It was not an enjoyable tasting. The best of even these relatively inexpensive wines need half a dozen years or more to fully knit together; I can only imagine the top wines are even more unruly at the moment. I suspect that tasting this same range in 2018 would yield much more pleasurable results (and probably higher scores, too).

Californian Bordeaux

But on the other hand, looking back at my notes, I’ve written time and again “a-typical Bordeaux” and “outside the box”. In fact, strip away the names of the wines and read only the tasting notes, and I could easily convince myself that I had been tasting a flight of California cabernet blends: “ultra ripe fruit”; “plum jam”; “raisined fruit”; “hot and harsh”; “thick, mouth-coating tannins”, and similar, turns of phrase rarely applied to “classic” Bordeaux. Or maybe I’m just behind the times, and this is what 21st century Bordeaux is all about. Whatever the case, I think it’s a shame. If I wanted California-style flavours and intensity, I’d rather buy California, since they do it better and more consistently. Where once California did everything possible to emulate Bordeaux (and failed, thankfully), now the reverse appears to be happening, and doomed to the same failure. Bring on the 2006 and 2008 Bordeaux, those were fun wines.

The Best Bets of the Lot

Château De Cruzeau BlancLa Dame De MalescotThere are nonetheless a few ‘09s in this release worth buying, if only to later prove myself wrong. Funnily enough one of my favorite wines of the release was a white, the Château de Cruzeau Blanc, Pessac-Léognan ($27.95). Cruzeau is a familiar label for LCBO customers, a wine from the Lurton stable that has been in the province for years. I loved the marvelously perfumed nose, a textbook example of the region, with its basil and tarragon-inflected lemon/citrus fruit, bees’ wax and soft pear and nectarine notes. A classy wine all around, for fans of classic Bordeaux blanc.

At the upper end of the price scale, my pick goes to the La Dame de Malescot, Margaux ($49.95), the 2nd Wine of Château Malescot St-Exupéry. There’s little to go by on the nose – all wood and black cherry notes for now – but the palate is obviously densely packed with flavour, abundant tannins and balanced acidity and alcohol. It has the stuffing to improve significantly over the next 3-5 years and beyond, though will likely never attain the finesse for which Margaux is known I suspect.

Christian Moueix PomerolChâteau Larose TrintaudonBetter value overall is the Château Larose Trintaudon, Haut-Médoc ($24.95), a rare ’09 Bordeaux with a little more freshness and refinement than many, without excessive oak or concentration. Tannins and acid work in harmony on the palate to create a pleasant, grippy but appealing texture; a refined, stylish wine all around, better in 2-4 years.

And very nearly as good value is the Christian Moueix Pomerol ($29.95). This wine has rarely excited in the past; it’s always solid but never remarkable. But in this obviously high-potential vintage it seems the Moueix family was too busy trying to stuff as much as possible into their other more expensive wines, and simply left this moderately priced Pomerol to do its thing. Fruit is ripe to be sure, but stays on the right side of the ripeness continuum, while wood supports rather than dominates – a prime example of how a wine aimed at a modest end of the market can over-deliver in a vintage such as 2009. Drink now or hold for a decade – such is the nature of well-balanced wines. (See the rest of the Best Bets from 2009 Bordeaux here.)

Top Ten Smart Buys: Highlights


Tarlant Zero Brut Nature ChampagneBisol Crede Brut Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene SuperioreFans of bone-dry, slightly idiosyncratic champagne will want to pick up some of the Tarlant Zéro Brut Nature Champagne ($44.95). It has a terrific nose chalk full of minerality with a well-measured mix of citrus, floral, wet hay, honey, and nutty-almond character. Zéro means no dosage (no sugar added) and the palate is indeed bone dry as advertised, though the wine is anything but lean and shrill. There’s a fine, vinous quality, with sufficient richness and flavour intensity to soften the edges while retaining the riveting tightness of the un-dosed style. A wine lover’s champagne, at a great price for the quality on offer.

Prosecco drinkers will rejoice with the Bisol Crede Brut Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore ($19.95). Bisol is always a step above the mean, and this, their “entry level”, has marvelous perfume, classic for the variety, full of fragrant pear and green apple, lemon blossom and fresh, sweet green herbs. The palate is fullish, creamy yet fresh, with excellent intensity and vinosity. This is certainly priced in the premium range for the category, but well worth it in my view; when I was purchasing this on consignment for restaurant clients it was several dollars more; it appears the LCBO effectively squeezed the producer and agent.

New Zealand Reds

New Zealand delivers are pair of fine values: 2010 Alpha Domus The Barnstormer Syrah, Hawkes Bay, ($22.95) and 2010 Hunter’s Pinot Noir, Wairau Valley ($21.95). The former is classic cool climate syrah with smoky character, and no small measure of black pepper, cassis and fresh black berry fruit flavours, while the latter is a clearly ripe and substantial example, meaty and succulent, though with recognizable kiwi pinot noir character.

Old World Duo

There are two fine, mid-week priced reds to watch out for: the soft, fruity, highly pleasant, easy-drinking modern Rioja from Palacios Remondo 2011 La Vendimia, ($14.95), and the wild, savoury, southern France 2010 Domaine Puig-Parahy Cuvee Georges, Côtes du Roussillon ($15.95), quite a ride for $16. Think fall/winter braised dishes. (See the full Top Ten here.)

Alpha Domus The Barnstormer SyrahHunter's Pinot NoirPalacios Remondo La VendimiaDomaine Puig Parahy Cuvee Georges

For the Cellar

And finally, collectors with some disposable income should consider these three highly cellar-worthy reds (with my estimated prime drinking window):

2008 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($144.95, drink 2018-2030)
2009 Antinori Solaia, Tuscany ($251.95, drink 2018-2034)
2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (375ml $39.95, drink 2015-2025)

Gourmet Food & Wine Show

Don’t miss the annual Szabo vs Szabo no holds barred jiyu kumite (with wine, not swords) at the Gourmet Food and Wine Show on Friday, November 16th, 7:30-9pm.

Cutting Edge Wines
John Szabo MS & Zoltan Szabo
Renowned Sommeliers

$95 | 7:30 – 9:00 Friday November 16th, 2012

The dynamic duo of master tasters returns for what promises to be another sold-out seminar. John and Zoltan both currently work with the famed Trump Hotel in Toronto while they continue to consult, write, judge and travel. As leading sommeliers for over a decade, they are in tune with the most progressive winemakers, interesting grapes and dynamic new wine regions. Learn from Canada’s foremost wine experts as they present eight cutting-edge wines.  Order Tickets here.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the October 27, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Best Bet Bordeaux
All Reviews

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2010

Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

Steve’s Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO – October 2012

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Three great reds from Chile and Six new wines to my Top 50 

Carmenère is probably the most improved red grape in the last 5 years. Until recently, this grape mostly made green tasting wines with strange aromas that even armfuls of oak chips could not cover up. However Chile’s talented grape growers and winemakers have now discovered how to make great wine from it; in some cases these days it’s the best wine of the winery.

Carmenère originates in Bordeaux, but since it is so late ripening, it has virtually disappeared from its home, where it never made good wine I am told. Plants mostly arrived in Chile labelled as merlot and many vineyards were planted with a mix of the two, which was disastrous for the wines sold as merlot. Today the two varieties have largely been separated in the vineyards, making the merlots better and often great carmenerès.

The French pronounce the grape car-men-ur but recently I have heard some Chileans pronounce it car-men-er-ay. They say it’s now their grape so we should say it the Chilean way and write it without the French accent. Take your pick.

There are three Carmenères on the Top 50 List. If you like cabernet sauvignon or merlot then you should like these. But check out the other 47 wines on my Top 50 Value Wines list, since all offer great value.

There are six wines that are new to the list since last month. Read past the next three wines to find more bargains and to discover how the Top 50 is systematically selected.

Carmen Carmenère Reserva 2011, Colchagua Valley, Chile $10.95

Carmen Carmenere Reserva 2011

A fruity aromatic wine with pure blackberry and black currant fruit aromas and flavours. It is great value with a degree of elegance not common for such an inexpensive wine. There is some complexity to the fruit with cedar, tobacco and white pepper spice in the mix. Well balanced and juicy with good to very good length. Best 2012 to 2015. Try with grilled meats.

P K N T Carmenère 2010, Central Valley, Chile $10.95

P K N T Carmenere 2010

This is a vibrant well balanced red with good varietal character. Expect earthy black cherry fruit with some warm spicy and tobacco notes. The palate is super smooth and full bodied with supple juicy fruit not at all spicy as might be suggested by the label. It is clean and fresh with very good length. Best 2012 to 2014. Try with mildly spicy bbq meats

Casillero Del Diablo Carmenère 2010, Chile $12.95

Casillero Del Diablo Carmenere

Carmenère is consistently the best value among the many Casillero reds. It is quite complex for a wine at this price point. The nose is very harmonious with red cherry, plum and raspberry fruit plus well integrated oak spice with dark chocolate, cranberry jelly and mocha notes. The palate is well balanced midweight and quite elegant with good focus and very good length. Try with roast lamb or beef. Best 2012 to 2014.

October Top 50 Values List

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

New to the Top 50

Six new wines arrived on the Top 50 list this month, including the Carmen Carmenère Reserva that I mentioned above.

I am just back from two weeks in Sicily and was again impressed by the white wines; pity there are so few on the LCBO shelves. Ideal ripening conditions produce bold yet fresh white wines with oak rarely necessary.

Montalto Pinot Grigio 2011, Sicily $8.95

Montalto Pinot Grigio 2011

A ripe fruity rich pinot grigio from sunny Sicilian vineyards. It is awesome value when compared to other more expensive dull examples on the LCBO shelves. Expect simple fruity aromas of ripe apple and melon with some floral and mineral tones. The palate is medium bodied and dry with decent length. Try with creamy pasta dishes or bbq chicken.

It seems only a few months ago I was heralding the arrival of the next wine so I was dismayed to see that it is already been discontinued. It is tough to survive on the LCBO shelves but the sale price gives a great buying opportunity while stocks last. There are around 2800 bottles at present.

Parducci Sustainable Red 2006, Mendocino County, California $11.95 was $15.45

Parducci Sustainable Red 2006

An easy drinking red blend of zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and carignan from grapes that are grown using sustainable farming practices. The nose is nicely lifted and harmonious with ripe red cherry and strawberry fruit plus some gentle oak spice and a hint of lavender. It is midweight juicy with a degree of elegance. Finely balanced with very good length. Best 2011 to 2014. Try with roast or grilled meats.

The next wine is another recent listing that has also been discontinued. Nelson is next door to Marlborough at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. It is getting a reputation for riesling and this one is especially good. It’s now at a great price and there are over 1300 bottles in stock.

Trout Valley Riesling 2009, Nelson, New Zealand $9.95 was $11.95

Trout Valley Riesling 2009

Expect aromas of ripe pear and melon fruit with some mild spice and lemon citrus plus a hint of petrol quite common in riesling. It is off-dry midweight to full bodied with the fruit well balanced by acidity. Very good length. It finishes dry. Try with grilled shrimps.

Western Australia is known for producing fresh, cool climate, lightly oaked wines and again it is disappointing to this relatively recent new listing below also be discontinued. It was a great buy at $14.95 so grab a few at this price. Around 1800 bottles are in stock.

Xanadu Next Of Kin Chardonnay 2009, Margaret River, Western Australia $10.95 was $14.95

Xanadu Next Of Kin Chardonnay

A cool climate oaked chardonnay that delivers a lot for the money. The nose shows baked apple with butterscotch peach and oak spice. The palate is quite heavy with the oak becoming very evident on the finish. Very good length. Try with deep fried tempura.

My last highlight is a brand new listing at a great price that I sincerely hope will survive at the LCBO. Argentina is not renowned for chardonnay but there are a few special high altitude sites in the Uco Valley to the south of Mendoza that are well suited.

Finca El Origen Chardonnay 2010, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina $10.95

Finca El Origen Chardonnay 2010

An elegant gently oaked chardonnay that is one of the best values on the LCBO shelves. It is refined with mineral tones to the simple nose and palate aromas and flavours of melon and apple fruit. It is very smooth with the lightweight palate well balanced by vibrant acidity. Good length. Try with roast pork or mildly flavoured chicken dishes.

Steve's Top Value WinesTop 50 Value Wines at LCBO

Before value wine shopping remember to consult the Top50, since it is always changing. If you find that there is a new wine on the shelf or a new vintage that we have not reviewed, let us know. Moreover if you disagree with our reviews, tell us please why we got it wrong and if you think our reviews are accurate, send us some feedback since it’s good to hear that you agree with us.

It is very easy to do this. Click on Suggestions & Feedback or send an email to We look forward to hearing from you.

The Top 50 changes all the time, so remember to check before shopping. I will be back next month with more news on value arrivals to Essentials and the LCBO.


Steve Thurlow

Louis Jadot Bourgogne Pinot Noir

Filed under: News, Wine, , ,

John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part II

Part II – Vouvray-Jasnières-Coteaux du Loir

In this series, follow John Szabo and his terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw on an excellent adventure through the Loire Valley. If you are just tuning in, you can read the background piece here, and then Part I of the travelogue here.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Tuesday September 11th

A Tour of Tours

6:00 pm: We arrive at the “Grand Hotel” in downtown Tours, a stone’s throw from the Train Station. It’s loud and bustling, a big change from the rural tranquility of Sancerre. I’m almost run over by a city bus as we’re pulling our gear out of the back of the van. We’ll be staying in Tours just for the night to meet with René-Louis David of InterLoire for dinner in a local seafood restaurant, but for travelers to the region, the city makes a great base camp for wine touring. Vouvray, Montlouis, Chinon and Bourgeuil are all within easy striking distance, not to mention many of the Loire’s famous chateaux: Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Ussé, among others.

“La Chope” 25 bis, Avenue de Grammont, Tours

8:00 pm: René-Louis picks us up at the hotel and drives us the short distance to our dinner restaurant. Bill, Ian and I are all famished, and the sight of lobsters, oysters and crayfish are enough to make one faint. We sit and the menus and wine list are passed about. I spot a couple of interesting bottles, including a very fine dry Montlouis from Jacky Blot’s Domaine de la Taille aux Loup that I once imported into Ontario with Vinifera. We agree, and the bottle is ordered.

Train Station in Tours

Train Station in Tours – my hotel view

The discussion with René-Louis soon turns to exports and commercial strategy – he is, after all, head of InterLoire. He brings up Sam Harrop, a British master of wine who had been engaged by InterLoire to help “fix” the more generic sauvignons of Touraine and create more export traction. I had heard of this project before, and my initial reaction to it, as towards the idea of flying winemakers in general, was one of horror. No doubt that the overall basic quality level can be raised by the applications of more rigorous standardized winemaking techniques, with fewer outright disasters. But the flipside of standardized techniques is standardized wine. At a time of hyper-competitive wine markets worldwide, when everyone is fleeing sameness in order to find their “unique selling proposition”, it seemed a bad idea to turn the Loire’s sauvignons into one homogenous mass of squeaky-clean, techno wines with no stories to tell other than what type of yeast had been selected to ferment the must. I ask René-Louis how the project was going. “Pas très bien”, was the response.

After dinner we stroll down to the Old Quarter of town, a medieval square lined with timbered buildings that now house pubs and restaurants, to finish the night with a glass of eau-de-vie. The local university students are out in numbers and we’re treated to several choruses of French drinking songs and a rugby scrum or two. Tours is considered the epicenter of the French language, where students from all over the world come to study and learn French without any accent. It’s nonsense, of course, as everyone has an accent, but we don’t argue. It’s 1:30 am by the time we get back to the hotel and it’s time for bed.

Wednesday September 12th

9:00 am: After a half hour’s drive from Tours, heading back east along the north bank of the Loire, we arrive in the town of Vouvray. Along the way I spot dozens of caves carved right into the sides of the steep tufa stone escarpment that follows the river. These are the famous troglodyte caves; the ancient homes of cave dwellers found throughout the region. Today, some have been converted into stylish modern homes, others into hotels or restaurants. Some sit empty, reminders of a different time. The soft, chalky tufa-limestone is easy to excavate, in fact, most of the other buildings in the region are made from the white stones carved from the caves. The caves also make for excellent wine cellars as they stay a constant 12ºC year round, with high humidity that’s perfect for barrel ageing – higher humidity means less evaporation, and less of a share for the angels (though a little less comfortable for living).

Domaine Huet, Vouvray

Our driver Edith, who’s from Saumur further downriver, is not familiar with either Vouvray or Domaine Huet so in short order we’re lost, and decide to use the force to find our way. Of course, there are no signs. After driving through town, up the escarpment and back down, I spot a sign for Le Haut Lieu, a name I recognize from Domaine Huet labels. We follow the road up to the plateau above the river; there are vines all around and an old farmhouse, but no Huet. At a fork in the road, Edith finally gives up and calls the estate. The trouble is, she can’t explain where we are (“…ah, next to the vineyards and the stone building…”). I can just make out the voice on the other end of the line, which is becoming increasingly frustrated (…mais il y a des vines partout…”). There’s lots of air sucking sounds; more signs of annoyance. We’re eventually re-directed back down through town, and told to take the 2nd left from the main road, past the supermarket, another left beyond the school, up a stone wall-lined road. For the love of wine, let’s invest in some signage. Bill is typing away on his laptop in the back and doesn’t care; I’m getting annoyed. It’s already 9:15 and I haven’t tasted any wine yet today. Fifteen minutes later we finally find Domaine Huet, which, as it turns out, is only about 200 yards away from the place we had stopped to call for directions. Reminder to self: get the data plan next time and use iPhone GPS.

Domaine Huet

Arrival at Domaine Huet!

We’re greeted a little coldly at first by winemaker Benjamin Joliveau, who has recently taken over as head winemaker from Nöel Pinguet, the original Gaston Huet’s nephew and well-respected winemaker for the three decades prior. But Ben had worked several vintages with Pinguet, and the same viticulturalist, also chez Huet for the last three decades, is still in charge of the vineyards, so no major changes are expected. Benjamin warms up as he realizes we’re not a couple of old, red nosed wine hacks. He had planned a cellar tour and tasting, which we quickly modify to a vineyard tour and tasting. It’s into the pick-up truck and we head back up to Le Haut Lieu to get a handle on the appellation.

The Vouvray AOC sits on a more or less flat plateau with some gentle slopes a few hundred feet above the Loire River on the north bank. The bedrock is obviously the chalky limestone tufa that we had seen during the drive along the river, along with some silex mixed in some spots, with a clay-based topsoil. The further away from the river you travel, heading north along the plateau, the deeper the clay topsoil becomes, and the less interesting the wines, explains Benjamin. There’s about a 1km strip of high quality potential vineyard land between the escarpment edge and where the vines give way to cereal crops; the heavier clays beyond cause too much vigorous vegetative growth in grapevines. This fact was already known and understood as early as the 4th century, when St. Martin de Tours established a monastery in nearby Marmoutier and planted the region’s first vineyards. St. Martin remains one of the most important patron saints of winemakers around the world today.

We’re at the point along the Loire where you start to feel the Atlantic influence; the fully continental climate of the Centre Loire gives way to a semi-continental-maritime mix that’s just about right for the late ripening Chenin Blanc, a grape which is harvested on average a couple of weeks later than the sauvignon of Sancerre. I pick a few grapes off the vines in Huet’s Clos du Bourg vineyard, our first stop, and they’re indeed still shrill and green, at least 3 weeks away from optimum ripeness.

From our vantage point we look across the river to the south shore and the appellation of Montlouis, which used to be considered part of Vouvray in the 19th century, though split in the early 20th C to gain its own appellation in 1938. Montlouis is snuggled between the River Cher and the Loire itself, which means more humidity, rain, and harder frosts than in Vouvray. Though also based exclusively on Chenin Blanc and stylistically similar, there’s often a little more botrytis in Montlouis, which results in off-dry wines. There are some superb examples, like Jacky Blot’s and François Chidaine’s, but Montlouis has never achieved the same degree of fame as Vouvray.

There are some 2,200 hectares of vines planted in Vouvray, of which 70% is dedicated to sparkling wine, a much higher percentage than I imagined. Benjamin laments that the majority is of moderate quality or worse, destined for sale in one of France’s many hypermarchés in the “value” category. There are nonetheless still a handful of quality-focused producers, such as Domaine du Clos Naudin (Philiipe Foreau), Domaine des Aubuisières, Château Gaudrelle, Domaine Champalou and Domaine Huet.

Aside from sparkling, Vouvray comes in still versions ranging from sec (dry), through sec-tendre (barely-off dry), to demi-sec and moelleux. The best expression depends naturally on what you like best, but I find that the sec-tendre or even demi-sec versions offer the best balance, similar to top Mosel rieslings that invariably show better when there’s a pinch of residual sugar to balance the searing acids frequently encountered.

Chenin, especially when the secondary malolactic fermentation doesn’t happen (it has been traditionally suppressed in Vouvray even if many producers now allow it to happen), can have a biting green, harsh acidic edge that benefits from the softening of a touch of residual sugar. The moelleux wines, harvested late when the grapes have shriveled, or in some years (though certainly not all) been affected by noble rot, can be glorious; honeyed, mysterious orchard fruit-scented, with waxy, wet hay and bruised apple flavours. The top examples are timeless and can live on for decades. It’s usually nearly impossible to identify the vintage when tasted blind. A favorite trick of sommeliers is to pull out a 30 year-old bottle of Vouvray moelleux, then watch and snicker as the tasters all guess closer to ten years of age.

Benjamin Joliveau

Benjamin Joliveau in Le Haut Lieu

We leave the attractive walled-in Clos du Bourg vineyard and travel a short distance to Le Haut Lieu and Le Mont, two adjacent vineyards, though dramatically different in terms of soil composition. Le Haut Lieu lies on heavier clays, while Le Mont has a considerable proportion of silex mixed into the clay. The difference in the glass, as we soon find out, is equally dramatic.

The vines look battered; it’s been a bloody tough vintage all throughout the Loire, with excessive rain and lots of disease pressure followed by drought. The life of the vigneron is fraught with events well beyond one’s control. Domaine Huet has been farmed biodynamically for over a decade now, perhaps the first Vouvray estate to do so, but the cost of biodynamics in a year like 2012 is plain to see: yields are down significantly; there’s little fruit left hanging on the vines.

We arrive back at the domaine and take a quick walk through the cellars. In the end, they’re certainly worth a look: dark, humid, black mold-covered caves with high humidity and a distinctive smell that I liken to the scent of fresh white button mushrooms: clean yet earthy and deep. I’m struck by how much these cellars remind me of the cellars in Tokaj, Hungary, and then further struck by the resemblance between chenin blanc and Tokaj’s great white grape, furmint, which also comes in a range of styles from sparkling, to dry still wines, and all the way up to lusciously sweet, botrytis affected elixirs. It’s no wonder that Domaine Huet’s current owner, US-based financier Anthony Hwang, was drawn to both Vouvray and Tokaj (Hwang also owns the highly regarded Királyudvar estate in Tokaj), they are kindred spirits.

We start the tasting with Huet’s excellent 2007 pétillant. It’s not fully sparkling like champagne, but rather gently effervescent. It’s made in the ancestral method, meaning that the still-fermenting wine is bottled and sealed when there’s still about a couple dozen grams of sugar left. Yeasts continue working in the bottle and the carbon dioxide produced remains trapped inside, resulting in a wine that has about half (3 bars) the pressure of fully sparkling wine. Huet’s pétillant spent another 4 years in bottle before the dead yeast cells were expelled in the standard way, called disgorging. The wine is delicate, slightly salty/mineral, refined. There’s that characteristic chenin blanc bitterness on the finish, too, though a very pleasant bitterness, like sucking the skin of an apple or a nectarine. What a great breakfast wine. I’m dreaming of a piece of chalky goat’s cheese.

Benjamin then lines up the three dry cuvées from 2011, which I ask to taste side by side: Le Haut Lieu, Clos du Bourg, and Le Mont. They’re all 100% chenin blanc, made in the same, non-interventionalist fashion, with wild yeast ferment, and aged in neutral 500l demi-muid barrels. Le Haut lieu is quite open and fruity, the fruitiest of the three – this is from the heavier clay soils. Minerality is not the main feature, and the finish is short. Although the wine is still very good to be sure, it’s clear that this site will never produce the domaine’s top wines.

Le Clos du Bourg, a 6 hectare plot sitting almost directly on the limestone tufa, delivers a softer, fleshier, more voluptuous style of chenin. It has what Benjamin describes as sucrosité, an implicit sweetness even though it contains virtually the same level of residual sugar as Le Haut Lieu (8 vs 7 grams/liter; anything under 9 grams is considered “sec” under appellation regulations). Then I inhale deeply over the glass of Le Mont. A chalky minerality subtly emerges. I jot down “the most mineral aromatics” in my notebook. The palate is likewise flinty and stony, with terrific tension and an almost saline finish. There’s that silex again, delivering the same wicked minerality we observed in Sancerre and Pouilly.

We repeat the site-specific tastings up the scale from demi-sec to moelleux, then moelleux première trie, the first selection made in the vineyards to harvest the best, most concentrated bunches. I’m stuck by the differences imparted by the vineyards, and by the variation from year to year; this is truly a region where vintage matters. Benjamin has Bill and I guessing residual sugar levels in the sweet wines, another favorite game of winemakers and wine tasters. On the first one, we’re way off, guessing mid-twenties for a wine with over 50 grams of sugar. That’s the beauty of great sweet wine – chenin, riesling, tokaji – they’re sweet without tasting too sweet or cloying. Acids swoop in on the finish to clean things up and leave your mouth cringing with saliva, so that the wines almost taste dry.

On the second round, not to be fooled again, I guess twice as much sugar as I was actually thinking, figuring at least I’d go over this time. Wrong again. I’m still at only half the actual level. Maddening. Bill, who had disappeared into the washroom, comes back and guesses exactly what I had guessed. We’re both humbled.

Time’s slipping away and we’re quickly sliding into our usual routine of being half an hour behind, so we say au revoir to Benjamin and climb into the van with Edith for another back-country driving adventure. We’re heading north overland to the obscure, tiny appellations of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir, and more chenin blanc.

Domaine de Bellivière, Jasnières, Coteaux du Loir

12:00 pm: We’ve driven through the French countryside for an hour and a half, for a journey that was supposed to take under an hour. We pass fields of wheat and corn, drooping sunflowers that have lost their shine and look dejectedly toward the ground awaiting the coming winter, small villages, and rows of poplars and plane trees. Strangely, no vines. This is now northern France according to most textbooks; once you’re north of the Loire, away from its moderating influence, vineyards vanish and other crops take their place. Just a bit further north still and you’re in apple country, which to a sommelier means cider and calvados.

Coteaux du Loir vineyard

Coteaux du Loir vineyard

Edith is lost again. She’s sweet, but ill prepared to ferry two terroir hunters to the furthest reaches within the Loire’s viticultural embrace. Down what seems like a semi-abandoned cart path we finally spot an old wooden sign with an arrow pointing up the hill to Domaine de Bellivière, our destination. We follow the narrow road up and over the crest of a hill and across a field of wheat, and then down the other side to a hamlet of about 6 houses. There’s a fork in the road. No signs. Sucking noises from Edith. We turn right and follow a twisting road into the next village. No vines, no tanks, no old barrels used for planters lining the street. Not looking promising. We turn around and travel back to our only point of hope and certainty, the Bellivière sign at the bottom of the hill. Edith throws up her arms, sucks some more air in noisily, and pulls out her cell phone to call the domaine. There’s more difficulty describing our location (“…by a fork in the road at the bottom of a hill…”).

When she finally gets her bearings, she turns the van around with a little more self-assurance and heads back up the hill and across the field of wheat again. This time at the fork we turn left.Domaine de Bellivière does have a tiny sign at the end of their driveway, leading into the courtyard of what appears to be the largest house in this modest hamlet. We’ve arrived, though a little more than half an hour late. We’re greeted by Madame Nicolas who informs us that her husband and son are out working in the vines – there’s been little down time this vintage, one of the most difficult in recent memory.

Eric Nicolas is the man behind Domaine de Bellivière, a former oil industry executive who traded in his comfortable but unsatisfying life to study winemaking in Montpellier. Nicolas, after all, is a poet and a thinker at heart, and was suffering in the world of big oil. After completing the course, he and his wife began to look for a property to purchase in Provence. They scoured the region but found nothing suitable. The prices were impossibly high, driven more by property speculation than winegrowing potential. And besides, the vibe wasn’t right. “We didn’t like the frenetic energy of the area”, recalls Nicolas.

Then some friends shared a bottle of Jasnières, a tiny, chenin blanc-based appellation in the northern Loire that’s obscure even for locals. But the Nicolas’ were intrigued by the wine: it was crisp, stony, firm, authentic. They investigated. Since Eric was born in northern France, Jasnières seemed a little closer to home. The style of the region’s wines also appealed, and land was affordable. The Nicolas’ purchased their estate and moved in. The year was 1995.

By the following year they already had wine to sell – in fact I just drank my last bottle of 1996 Bellivière Jasnière “Les Rosiers” this past summer, a bottle that had been sitting in my cellar for nearly a decade and a half. It was beautiful. It seemed surreal to meet the man who had made this mysterious wine, purchased in the very early days of my wine career, so many years later.

It didn’t happen overnight, but Nicolas slowly began converting the vineyards to organic and then biodynamic farming. It was a reasoned process, driven by constant questioning and searching for answers. Nicolas recalls the fiercely hot 2003 vintage in France. Malolactic fermentations went through spontaneously for the first time, unexpectedly, and left the wines unbalanced, with too little acid. But as a natural winemaker at heart, Nicolas didn’t want to have to play around with chemical adjustments. So the following year he set about finding a way to build acid structure in the vineyards, in the grapes, so that if malolactic fermentation were to happen again, the wines would remain balanced. He hit upon biodynamic viticulture as the solution to producing grapes with an ideal natural balance of components, and hasn’t looked back since.

Madame Nicolas and Bill

Madame Nicolas and Bill

We arrive up in an estate parcel of Coteaux du Loir vineyards and park under a large old oak tree. There’s a beautiful view of the vineyards and valley below where the Loir River runs; that’s Loir without the “e”, a tributary of the larger Loire, which gives its name to Jasnière’s sister appellation, the Coteaux du Loir. Both AOCs consist of about 120 hectares planted to vines, though likely no more than half of the annual production actually gets bottled under either appellation. Many families here still farm vineyards and make wine for home consumption; there’s no need to involve the appellation authorities in their business, even if the vineyard sites and grapes would qualify them for AOC designation. It’s interesting to note that before phylloxera there were closer to 3000ha in the Coteaux du Loir; the zone never fully recovered.

I spot Eric’s son first rolling up a row of vines on a tractor at the far end of the slope. He’s a solid boy in his mid-teens with a ruddy, outdoors sort of complexion. His father Eric then comes into view behind, tall, blue-eyed, with wild, white hair that makes him look more a mad scientist than typical French vigneron. He’s quiet but not at all awkward, just confident and content, with the almost fatalistic nature that any farmer must develop in order to survive.

Talk quickly turns to soils, of which there are 17 different types across both appellations. Like other parts of the Loire, it’s mainly variations on the theme of clay, with more or less chalk and silex.

The son parks the tractor under the tree and we all pile into Madame Nicolas’ blue station wagon and head back down to the farmhouse. They’ve planned a classic French country lunch of charcuterie followed by a rustic blanquette de veau, all of which sounds magical to my rumbling stomach. The farmhouse itself is straight out of French Country Living magazine. It must be ancient, since nobody today builds such spacious and airy rooms with high ceilings held in place by massively thick wooden beams. The fireplace would be large enough to roast Bill, a thought that fleets across my mind. I get an immediately comfortable and welcoming feeling, as though we were old friends invited over for Sunday lunch. And as though cued by my thought, Nicolas’ young daughter comes into the living-dining room and kisses Bill and I both on the cheeks, like uncles she might have seen just last week.

Bill - Nicolas' farmhouse

Nicolas’ farmhouse fireplace

Before the food is brought to the table Nicolas steps into the room carrying a metal basket holding a half dozen bottles, some opened with the corks stuck in halfway, others that have yet to be uncorked. We sit down at the heavy wooden table in front of the fireplace to taste through the bottles, beginning with the cuvee made from the youngest vines, the 2011 Jasnières Les Rosiers.

Nicolas separates his parcels according to vine age. To him, “old vines” means vineyards planted before 1945; there was little planting between the post-war period up until the 1970s, the dark days of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir. Yet there has been renewed interest in the region since the end of the 1990s, and plantings are once again on the rise. Nicolas himself has planted several new parcels since moving into the region, and since 1999, all plantings have been made the old fashioned way, by selection massale, selecting bud wood from old vineyards and propagating it, rather than purchasing clones from nurseries, a labour-intensive process that he believes will ultimately confer more disease resistance (since the mother vines are fully accustomed to local conditions), as well as greater complexity from the genetic diversity passed on from old vines. He’s also experimented with super high-density plantings, up to 11,200 vines per acre, as well as own-rooted vines, without the American rootstocks that have been customary since the end of the 19th century to combat phylloxera. His latest experiment will be to grow vines directly from seed. “The results, however”, he says with his customary, comfortable resignation, “will take some time to observe”.

The Rosiers is austere and mineral, seemingly bone dry (it’s the cuvée that I had in my cellar, so I can attest to it’s age-worthiness). Next up is the 2011 Coteaux du Loir “L’Effraie”, made from 35 year old vines grown on silex soils. It has a pinch of residual sugar, but it’s noticeable only in the riper, rounder, fleshier texture. The grapes seem to be riper, and the finish lingers on beautifully. Then comes the 2009 Coteaux du Loir Vieilles Vignes Eparse, made from 70-90 year old vines also grown in predominantly silex soils. This is gorgeous on the nose: very ripe, subtly but unmistakably mineral, with an intriguing hint of anise. The palate is densely packed with well-knit flavours of white flowers and honey, fresh quince and more sweet green herbs.

The next wine, 2009 Jasnières Calligramme, is named for the visual poetry of Apollinaire written for his sweetheart in the trenches of the Great War, another nod to Nicolas’ poetic leanings. This is also from the old vines, now beginning to show a touch of bottle maturity: waxy, honeyed, floral, with the characteristic chenin blanc touch of bitterness on the finish.

By now the food has arrived. The blanquette hits the table in a heavy cast iron casserole and the steaming vapors fill the room with savoury, earthy smells. We eat and talk and drink some more. We taste the 2010 versions of Calligramme and Vieilles Vignes Eparse side by side. The former is tight and unyielding, the latter, looser, more open, but chalk-full of mineral silex flavour on the finish. Bill uses some inappropriate analogies to describe the difference between the two wines, which draws some nervous laughter from the family.

We finish the meal with a rare light red made from Pineau d’Aunis, once a popular variety in the Loire that originates from around the town of Saumur further west. It’s light and peppery and tart red fruit-flavoured, in other words, delicious. I look over at Bill and he’s smiling too. Reluctantly we check the time and realize that we’re half an hour behind schedule. After some warm good-byes, we’re back in the van with crazy Edith, en route to Rabelais’ hometown and source of some of the world’s best cabernet franc, Chinon.

Stay tuned. Part III of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure will be published soon. In the meantime, you can access the earlier blogs and a list of recommended Loire Valley wines below.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

John’s Loire Valley Picks
John Szabo’s Loire Valley Adventure – Intro
John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part I

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Customer favourites from Vintages

These well-priced customer favourites from Vintages have solid appeal. View these and all of Margaret’s Wine Picks at

Prà Soave Classico 2011, $19.95

With good reason this soave is back in Vintages. From old vine, low-yielding garganega grapes, it sets the benchmark for the varietal. Gently floral and fruity on the bouquet, it’s lively on the palate with flavours of fresh soft tree fruits with hints of minerals and almonds in the lingering finish. Medium bodied with a good grip, it’s versatile enough to suit many dishes.

Gladiator Primitivo di Manduria 2010, $16.95

This is the seventh consecutive Vintages release for this Puglia primitivo (a.k.a. zinfandel), and it’s as forward as ever, with sweet, jammy flavours. Velvety smooth, medium-full bodied with a rich texture and a spiced finish, it’s a good wine for cool fall nights. Match with game or meats braised in red wine.

Grant Burge Shiraz 2010, $17.95

Now is the time to buy this Barossa red — price is a dollar off until Nov. 11. Dark purple-edged garnet with a brambleberry pie and vanilla bouquet, it’s medium-full bodied with juicy, sweet berry flavours. Savoury spice notes and a fine acidity liven up the palate. Pair with beef tagine with dried fruits or bobotie, South Africa’s curried meat dish.

Filed under: Appetizer, News, Wine, ,

The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner; Wine education for us all – understanding Italian labels; October 13th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

The ABCs of DOCs:

In order to understand Italian wine labels, a basic grasp of the DOC system is essential. Created in 1963, wines designated as ‘DOC’ (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) were established to ensure the authenticity of specific types of Italian wine. And while this system has experienced several important changes since its inception nearly fifty years ago, its basic principles have not.

So how does one go about deciphering the most important pieces of information? For beginners, the first thing to determine is whether or not the wine actually falls under the DOC umbrella. If it does, this means the wine must adhere to a specific set of rules relating to its production, including, but not limited to, geographical boundaries, permitted grape varieties, vineyard management, winemaking techniques, and aging requirements.

Fontodi Vigna del SorboTake Chianti Classico DOCG, for instance—created in 1980, ‘DOCG’ stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita, an extra guarantee of quality reserved for some of Italy’s most exclusive wines. If you see ‘Chianti Classico’ on the label, this means the wine hails from Tuscany; the wine must contain 85-100% Sangiovese; it must be aged for at least 7 months in oak; and may not be released to the public until at least 1 October the year following the vintage. These are several of the most important pieces of information we can gather from such a label.

TignanelloHaving determined that the wine falls under the DOC/DOCG system, now is the time to verify the producer. Many Italian wine lovers find this difficult, as labels often include the name of the producer and a title for that specific wine. But how do you determine which is which? The trick is to figure out which estate/winery is bottling the wine, which may be written on the back of the label (but not always). If not stated in English, look for the words ‘imbottigialto,’ which will be followed by the name of the producer. By process of elimination, you will now be able to determine the title—many Italian winegrowers love giving each of their wines specific titles. Do not be discouraged if this seems confusing at first. Over time, it will become second nature.

Another descriptor that might be included on an Italian label is ‘Riserva’ and/or ‘Classico.’ The former simply means the wine has been aged, usually in oak, for a longer period of time; though this does not necessarily mean it will be superior to a non-Riserva. If ‘Classico’ appears on the label, this means the grapes have been sourced from the original heartland of the region it comes from. Chianti Classico is a perfect example of this, its original growing area being between Florence and Siena.

So much for DOC/DOCG info. In a few months, we’ll cover IGTs…

Click here for a few gems from the October 13, 2012 Vintages Release

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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008