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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for December 8th 2012

Essential Smart Buys by Style; Tips on the Order to Serve Wine; Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

I tasted nearly 140 wines to cover the December 8th VINTAGES release, and I’ve distilled all of that fermented grape juice into the essential smart buys for you. Given the sheer number of options I’ve expanded the usual top ten to include 17 recommended wines, and I’ve categorized them by wine style, so you can focus your shopping and plan your holiday supper wine selections. I lay out the wines in the order in which I’d recommend drinking them over the course of a long dinner (or lunch). And on that note, I also delve into more detail on the smartest order in which to serve wines in general.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift, consider my first ‘magnum opus’, Pairing Food and Wine for Dummies, the result of a lifetime of in-depth, professional research, and a year of laborious writing – it’s pretty much everything I know on the subject.

Pairing Food and Wine for Dummies by John Szabo MS

Food and wine pairing isn’t a matter of life or death. But isn’t life a little better with a good taste in your mouth? Starting with wine you like (and food you enjoy, too) is ground zero. All the other delicious considerations that lead to outstanding moments of tasting pleasure come after. To make your food and wine pairing memorable, start with a versatile wine — one that agrees with a wide range of foods — and things won’t go far wrong. Then consider a handful of taste, texture, and aromatic elements, and you may just find some magic.

Pairing Food & Wine for DummiesPairing Food and Wine For Dummies helps you understand the principles behind matching wine and food. From European to Asian, fine dining to burgers and barbeque, you’ll learn strategies for knowing just what wine to choose with anything you’re having for dinner.

Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies goes beyond offering a simple list of which wines to drink with which food. This helpful guide gives you access to the principles that enable you to make your own informed matches on the fly, whatever wine or food is on the table. It also covers getting the most for your money in restaurants, home entertaining, gift giving, and even what it takes to become a sommelier.

Release date: December 17th 2012; available online and in fine bookshops all over the English-speaking world. Pre-order your copy from

Tips on Serving Wine in the Appropriate Order

(Excerpted from Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies. Copyright (c) 2012 by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.)

A well-designed dinner, like a well-written play, has a flow that keeps you engaged and looking forward to the next scene. When serving multiple wines throughout a meal, the way to keep your guests in a state of expectation is to serve the wines in increasing order of intensity and complexity. Serve wine in this order:

The first wine: You should start with a wine that gets the appetite flowing and builds anticipation for what’s to come. The best choices to start with include high acid wines, such as Champagne or other dry sparkling wine, for example, which get the gastric juices flowing in anticipation of food. Crisp dry, still white wines can also serve the same purpose.

The next wine: Wines should progressively notch up the flavor magnitude and complexity, so that you’re not left wishing you were still drinking the previous wine. Serving a really complex, top-notch wine upfront takes the sizzle out of everything else that follows. Build up to your highlight wine of the night, when the meal reaches its climax.

The last wine: You should finish by gently letting down the diner. A drop of sweet wine is usually appreciated.

Aside from the artistic aspect of wine service order, you also have some practical taste considerations. For instance, serving a really light wine after a full-blown, robust wine makes the light wine seem virtually like water. Or serving a dry wine after a sweet wine makes the dry wine seem even drier, astringent, and more sour, just like serving a dry red wine with a sweet dish usually ends in disaster.

Here are the general rules to follow regarding the order of wine service (though like all rules related to wine, don’t be afraid to break them once in a while, for artistic reasons):

– Light before full-bodied

– Delicate before bold

– Dry before sweet

– Lower alcohol before higher alcohol

– Sparkling before still (except sweet sparkling)

– Younger before older (The older is more complex. Note: serving a young, really robust red before a delicate old red wine can knock the stuffing out of your palate and reduce enjoyment of the older bottle.)

Note that I didn’t say, “White before red”. Although that practice is common, and on the whole red wines are usually better placed after white wines, it’s not always the case. On plenty of occasions serving a serious white after a light red makes more sense, for instance when you have a great bottle of barrel-fermented Chardonnay with a little bottle age for added complexity. It would be a letdown to follow that with a simple, easy-quaffing red like basic gamay, Merlot, or sangiovese.

Smart Buys, and the Order to Serve them in

Sparkling Wine: The Aperitif

Blue Mountain BrutBeaumont Des Crayères Grand PrestigeDry bubbly makes a perfect starting wine. They’re crisp and light-bodied, and cause your mouth to water, which in turn sends a signal to your stomach that food is on the way. Most can easily transition into a light first course if there’s anything left in the bottle. They pair well with raw seafood and shellfish (ceviches, oysters, fish carpaccio), most things fried things from potato chips to calamari, or pretty much anything with lots of acidity.

Blue Mountain Brut Sparkling ($27.95). A fine Okanagan Valley bubbly from one of the most reliable traditional method sparkling wine producers in BC.

Beaumont des Crayères Grand Prestige Brut Champagne ($46.95). A classic wheat bread, biscuit-brioche, wet hay and honey nose gives this above average complexity; the palate is finely balanced with solid flavour intensity and ample, mouth filling volume – a good bet for the money.

First course: Light-Bodied, Crisp, Dry, Unoaked Whites

Dry, lightweight whites are most often from cool climates (think of coniferous or deciduous trees surrounding the vineyards instead of palm trees). They’re made in neutral tanks that don’t impart any flavor, and have fresh but subtle citrus fruit or herbal flavors, mouth-watering acidity, moderate alcohol and light body. The vast majority are best drunk within a year or two of vintage. At the table they’re highly versatile, like a squeeze of lemon on your favorite dish. Serve alongside starter courses: salads, raw foods, lighter seafood or shellfish, crispy-fried items, fresh goat’s cheese, and similar.

2011 Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner ($13.95). Clean, classic grüner nose, with fresh citrus fruit and typical white pepper notes, crisp, succulent, essentially dry palate, and amazing length for the money.

2011 Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Dry Riesling ($19.95). Aromatically shy for now, but this has significant depth and intensity on the palate in a bone-dry style, with more than its fair share of wet rock-granitic minerality.

Second Course: Medium-Full-Bodied Whites; Aromatic or Oak-aged

Bachelder Oregon ChardonnayAlamos Viognier 2011Stepping it up a notch, these whites are richer and more full-bodied, with higher alcohol (13+%), either made from aromatic grapes, or aged in barrels for another dimension of flavour and texture. They’re suited to more intensely flavoured foods as well as foods with more “body”, that is, with higher fat content (dairy fat, animal or vegetable-based oils). These also are among your best bets for bloomy rind cheeses.

2011 Alamos Viognier ($13.95). Nicely perfumed, with ripe orchard and stone fruit flavours, while the palate offers a slightly sweet, soft impression, and generous body.

2006 Kanu KCB Chenin Blanc ($14.95). Quite an amazing value here for fans of mature wines: the nose is nicely evolved, with lightly honeyed, dried orchard fruit – peaches and apricots, and the palate is just off-dry, fullish, lightly caramelized but solidly flavoured.

2010 Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay ($29.95). A wine with real power and depth, ripe but not overripe fruit, fullish texture, well-balanced acid and alcohol, and an invitingly taught, chalky texture.

2009 Vincent Girardin Les Vieilles Vignes Puligny-Montrachet ($52.95). An intense, nicely crafted example of Puligny, with characteristic limestone minerality, taught and tight texture, and excellent acidity considering the warmth of the vintage.

Second Course: Light-Bodied, Zesty Reds

These reds are fresh and lively, with bright acidity, modest tannins and little or no wood influence, the kind of wines you can drink all evening without tiring. Serve with a slight chill to play up freshness and fruit flavors, alongside a wide range of foods from charcuterie to tomato-based dishes, pork and poultry, or meatier fish like tuna or swordfish.

2009 Quinta das Camélias Reserva ($13.95). Lovely, open, fragrant floral nose, exuding wild violets and juicy, crunchy, fresh black fruit. The palate is lively and balanced, soft and fruity, highly drinkable.

2008 Bodegas Del Abad Domaine Bueno Mencía do Bierzo ($15.95). Fresh, fragrant, typical mid-weight mencía profile with its soft black and red fruits and wet clay/cold cream character, and underlying wood notes.

2010 Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico ($21.95). Classic Chianti with a polished, modern twist. Fruit is fully ripe but still fresh, acids brisk but balanced, and depth and complexity well above the mean.

Main Course: Medium-Full Bodied, Structured Reds

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2009Château La Tour Carnet 2009These are the middle and heavyweights of the wine world, more substantial and structured than lightweight reds, but still balanced, without excessive tannin, alcohol or acidity. Many of the world’s best and most age-worthy wines fall into this category. They’re often reserved for the main course, accompanying full flavoured braised dishes, roasted or grilled beef, lamb or game meats, or mature, hard cheeses. If your dinner wine budget is limited, spend it here; decant any of these an hour before serving.

2009 Fontodi Chianti Classico ($29.95). An evidently ripe and extracted wine, with concentrated red and black fruit character, solid, mouth filling impression and significant structure that would compete handily with many Brunellos.

2009 Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($34.95). This is a ripe, fragrant, perfumed and inviting example of Châteauneuf with neither excess nor deficiency of any elements – balanced and harmonious with grace and poise.

2009 Château La Tour Carnet ($51.85). Refined, complex and balanced 2009 Bordeaux that captures the best of the vintage. Tannins are but ripe and fine-grained, acid fresh and balanced, wood an integrated part of the whole, and the finish terrifically long.

Cheese and Dessert: The Sweets

Antolino Brongo Cryomalus Ice CiderPedroncelli Four Grapes Vintage Port 2006Balbi Soprani Brachetto d’Acqui ($16.95). This is a raspberry-strawberry-scented sweet sparkling wine, the red equivalent of moscato d’Asti. The palate is gently sweet and frothy, less effervescent than traditional method sparkling wine, with low (6.5%) alcohol. Try with red berry-inflected desserts.

2006 Pedroncelli Four Grapes Vintage Port ($19.95). An amazing port-style wine from Sonoma made from four native Portuguese varieties, dark, very ripe, sweet and boozy. Try with blue cheeses or dark chocolate-based desserts.

2009 Antolino Brongo Cryomalus Ice Cider ($34.95). Made in Quebec from pressed, frozen apples, this has amazingly intense apple character. Intense sweetness is perfectly balanced by ripping underlying acidity. An excellent example to be enjoyed with any apple-based desserts obviously, but think also savory, along the lines of runny cheese, or foie gras, patés, rillets or sweetbreads.

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

From the December 8, 2012 Vintages release:

Top 17 Smart Buys
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier


Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

Private Wine Shops in Ontario? Let’s Talk About it.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The Wine Council of Ontario has flipped the switch on a web site called that allows citizens to create their own virtual wine shop. It is a very bold and clever marketing/lobbying idea. And it is the first time an industry association has initiated a public campaign aimed at creating private wine stores in the province. Gutsy stuff.

In less than a week it has painted an appetite-whetting tapestry of what privatization might look like in Ontario, complete with store themes, stock selections and locations across the province as designed by its citizens. And it is giving the public a very direct way to lobby their local MPPs for change.

Last week WineAlign colleague John Szabo published a detailed and cogent backgrounder on the LCBO and the wine market in Ontario. It is a must read in terms of laying the groundwork and the reasoning behind the WCO campaign. And it rightly reminds all of us about the Beverage Alcohol System Review, commissioned by the then newly-elected premier Dalton McGuinty, an exhaustive study that recommended privatization in 2005. It was tabled and immediately shelved days before a threatened strike by the LCBO’s unionized workers in July of that year.

Why the Time is Right Now

Something fundamental has changed since then, giving the notion of private wine shops momentum that it has never had before. In a word, quality. Ontario wine has improved dramatically. One indicator is Ontario’s very strong showing at the 2012 Canadian Wine Awards with results just announced by Wine Access at Tawse Estate Winery has clinched Winery of the Year honours for the third year in a row. Nine Ontario wineries have finished in the top 20, and 24 Ontario wines have taken gold medals (scoring over 90 pts).

MyWineShop.caThe quality surge is creating consumer demand that the LCBO, in its role of being a singular government agency with finite shelf space, cannot possibly fulfill. Over half the brands produced in Ontario are not available at the LCBO. It must eventually concede to consumer demand, and at this time of political instability in Ontario, with an election almost certain in 2013, the WCO is sensing an opportunity. This issue affects Ontarians directly and tangibly; and it is winnable. More than 50% of Ontarians would like some form of privatization, as often quoted in major newspaper editorials.

Ontario and Imported Wine

But importantly, and very astutely, the WCO is not just proposing private wine shops for Ontario wine only. It wants private shops that sell international wines as well.

This is smart on several levels. First, it sends a signal that Ontario wine is confident; that it is ready to stand up and compete head to head. Until very recently the Ontario industry’s stance was; ‘we are local, therefore we are special, therefore you owe us your support’. It was the message they took to the public, to the media, and to the LCBO itself. And the general public response was, ‘stop whining, stand in line, and show me”.

MyWineShop.caBut there is also a tactical reason for promoting private shops with both domestic and international wine. The Ontario government remains bound by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and European-based GATT agreements that prohibit the opening of new private shops selling only Ontario wine. At the time in the late ‘80s our foreign trade partners were demanding abolition of the LCBO, creation of an open market and removal of all advantages for domestic wine. Ontario negotiators dug in their heels and presented a compromise that it would not give domestic wine a competitive advantage by allowing more Ontario wine stores (existing licenses for large wineries, i.e. Wine Rack, were grandfathered).

So opening private wine shops that sell both domestic and imported wine neatly removes that objection. In fact it is the only way to legally make it happen.

Reaction to

It is obviously very early days for, and time will tell if it has the legs to make a real difference. The WCO is still in a phase of what it is calling a ‘soft launch’ to its member wineries and wine media. And certainly not all the stakeholders have yet responded. The LCBO and Wine Council are meeting Tuesday, so we may hear official responses from the LCBO and the union in the days ahead. And we will be listening.

MyWineShop.caAs of Monday night, five days after the site went live, over two hundred people had created their own virtual wine shops. Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario, said “I am really pleased with the response. We really didn’t know what to expect, but people are clearly getting the concept and the message. And most of the participants are clicking through to lobby their MPPs.”

Twitter has been alive with the topic, most of it pro-privatization. For example, from Toronto we had: “Other provinces have privately owned wine shops. Why not Ontario? Support the movement”.  From Hamilton: “Have you built your dream wine shop yet? It’s time for change!”  You can follow along with the Twitter tag #mywineshop.

I have also had email responses cross my desk; emails not intended for publication therefore I am not attributing them. But there are two telling themes.

One is that some people within the wine importing community want their trade organization called Drinks Ontario to get publicly on board. Again, this would be a smart move. The domestic and importing communities have not historically worked together, and as the Wine Council of Ontario has already demonstrated, it understands the logic and power of open competition.

The other theme is fear of LCBO retribution. (Talk about “the elephant in the room”). Even our braveheart John Szabo remarked at the end of his piece that “I hope I don’t get put on an (LCBO) interdiction list for writing this”. An importing agent replying to John’s article said he really wanted to talk about the issue ‘off the record’ as he was concerned that being put on an interdiction list would put him out of business.

This fear of the LCBO, whether justified or not, is another compelling reason to re-think the government monopoly. The fear shouldn’t exist within an otherwise free and democratic society; but it does. I have been writing on wine for over 25 years and during that time I have been involved in thousands of conversations with wineries, importers and consumers on shortcomings of the current system. Only once did an individual agree to be quoted.

Visions of a Privatized Landscape

There are as many possible models for privatization as there are vested interests and informed consumers. I can only say that I hope all the vested interests – whether the Wine Council of Ontario, Drinks Ontario, individual manufacturers, regulators, politicians and even the unions – stop to study what consumers want and need – not just what would be good for themselves. And provides, or will provide, a more thorough consumer-generated study manual that has not existed before.

MyWineShop.caThe site provides options to “open” either local shops offering a grab-and-go selection, larger retail shops with a broad selection, or specialty shops with smaller selections of more limited availability wines. Already this seems a natural way to structure a private system, but I would personally add supermarket/grocery wine sales to the mix. Apparently wine is supposed to go with food, the cornerstone of moderate and responsible consumption of alcohol.

The website separately discusses “corner store” wine sales in an FAQ section. The Ontario Convenience Stores Association has been actively promoting corner store sales, and political and media discussion around privatization has disproportionately and myopically focused on this. I personally would not rule out corner store sales, but it cannot be the only avenue.

The Wine Council puts it this way. “Just like you wouldn’t buy tires from a clothing store, your wine shouldn’t come from the same place you get a lottery ticket or a chocolate bar. Wine shops will be dedicated to offering Ontarians a vastly wider selection of wines while still offering greater convenience and responsibility.”

Ah, responsibility! This is the most frequently played card by advocates for keeping government in control of retailing. Another FAQ item asks “Won’t wine shops lead to more underage drinking?” The WCO’s response: “The simple answer is no. Wine shops will follow the same stringent government guidelines as bars and restaurants. Each wine shop will be licenced and inspected on a regular basis by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.”

I might add that there are already dozens of private shops operated by Ontario wineries that already existed before NAFTA. There are dozens of LCBO agency stores operated within grocery environments by private citizens. There are hundreds of make-your-own wine operations. Private wine shops as proposed here are not at all a radical or less safe idea.


This is a very welcome initiative and it just might have the legs. There has never been stronger public mood, or interest in wine. A Bank of Montreal report on the wine industry in Canada published Monday by Canadian Press said that consumers bought an average of 22 bottles of wine in 2011, up from 13 in 1995. And one third of the wine consumed is from domestic wineries.

But we need to be patient, thoughtful, calm and persistent. I have been advocating privatization since I began writing about wine in Ontario, first in Wine Tidings magazine almost 30 years ago, then in the Globe and Mail, then Wine Access. In the early 80s I predicted the LCBO would fall before the Berlin Wall. And yet here we are with the LCBO still firmly in place. Many in the trade foresee no change at all.

Over the years the LCBO has made many improvements designed to serve us well; and the level of dedication and wine “ability” of many of the LCBOs product consultants, buyers and senior administrators is now unquestioned.

But the LCBO remains morally out of place as a government instrument to regulate the sale of a legal substance. I am all for tight regulation and licensing, severe penalties and stringent product safety testing and controls. That is government’s role. But alcohol is legal, and so the citizens have every right to sell it themselves, and certainly to select which brands are available, and to shop for it when and where they chose.

Stay tuned.

Filed under: News, Wine, , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview Nov 24th 2012 – Private Wine Shops in Ontario?

Private Wine Shops in Ontario? Top Ten Smart Buys; Premium Wine Gifts

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

“What if you could build your dream wine shop in your neighborhood? Now’s your chance to envision an Ontario with greater consumer choice.”  This is the message that the Wine Council of Ontario is sending to citizens across the province. The recently launched initiative, detailed at, aims to drum up consumer support for private wine shops in Ontario, following in the steps of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, where privately owned wine shops have been allowed in recent years. Read on to find out what Ontario could be like for wine drinkers. I’ve also got my Top Ten Smart Buys that I promised from last week as well as a list of premium wine gifts that you’ll want to share with someone special this holiday season, all from the November 24th Vintages release.

Putting the “Control” in the Liquor Control Board of Ontario

Government control of alcohol distribution in Canada dates back to the 1920s. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario was created in 1927 by Lieutenant Governor William Donald Ross on the advice of then Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson. In that first year, 86 stores, three mail order departments and four warehouses were opened [1]. It was a major step forward for the province’s alcohol consuming citizens at the time. Sales of liquor, wine and beer had been banned outright since 1916 during Canada’s own, if slightly less strict, version of prohibition, referred to as the “temperance movement”. Why, in the middle of the most brutal war the world had ever seen you’d want to ban alcohol is hard to comprehend, but apparently the citizens of Ontario were in support of it, and the support lingered on.

Believe it or not, in a 1924 plebiscite, Ontarians voted narrowly in favour of retaining the Ontario Temperance Act. But part of Ferguson’s campaign platform in the provincial election of 1926 was to introduce government controlled sales of alcohol, a stand that helped him to win the election. Ferguson saw it as a compromise between the complete ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages demanded by the hard liners, and fully unregulated alcohol sales.

Premier Ferguson stated that the Liquor Control Act was “… to allow people to exercise a God-given freedom under reasonable restrictions”. Ferguson was further quoted as saying the purpose of the LCBO was to, “promote temperance sobriety, personal liberty and, above all, to restore respect for the law.” To achieve these goals, the LCBO was mandated by Ferguson’s Government to employ an oversight mechanism in order to know “exactly who is buying and how much, and what disposition is being made of it.” [2]

Big Brother

If you were an alcohol-consuming citizen in Ontario between 1927 and 1962, you would have been required by the government of Ontario to apply for a license to purchase alcohol, in the same way that restaurants are required to apply for a permit to sell alcohol today.

Individual Liquor PermitImagine having to carry around a passport-like document that contained your personal information, along with a complete history of your alcohol purchases: what, when, how much. I can only imagine how often I’d have had to renew my passport, no doubt even more frequently than my Canadian passport that gets filled up with too many entry and exit stamps.

When buying booze at the LCBO, you would have filled in a purchase order with your name, address and permit number along with the type and quantity of liquor you wished to purchase.  An LCBO employee would verify the information on the purchase order and was directed to “examine [the purchaser’s] permit and see to what extent the purchaser has been buying liquor. If purchaser has exceeded a reasonable quantity per week, note permit number and address and refer to vendor.” A store employee could deny a sale to a customer if “his intended purchases may be considered too large for one person to reasonably consume.” [3] I wonder what was considered reasonable to consume.

What’s more, the Board could arbitrarily add your name to an “interdiction list” if they discovered you had an over-fondness for the bottle. A team of LCBO investigators could visit your home or workplace, and speak to neighbors or friends in the quest to uncover your weaknesses. Those on the list were banned entirely from purchasing alcohol, the proverbial photo on the LCBO wall.

But control didn’t stop at private consumption. Restrictions on the consumption of alcoholic beverages extended to public houses, too, as they still do today. Among the more amusing control measures of the era put in place by the Board (from today’s perspective) included a limitation on singing, a restriction on the number of friends who could sit together, and the complete segregation of females from unmarried male drinkers. Imagine that.

Why Private Wine Shops

I think you’ll agree that consuming alcohol is a little less restrictive today, and that the LCBO has come along way since 1927. But the idea of private wine shops is attractive for several reasons. Most importantly, wine selection would increase dramatically. Although I believe that the LCBO buyers generally do a good job in selecting wines, shelf space is limited, and there are only so many new products that can be brought through the system. And although many of the principal buyers have finely tuned palates, like Igor Ryjenkov, the Master of Wine who manages the Vintages European category (except Iberia, for the record) and Paul Farrell, product manager for new world wines (except Canada), the idea that a handful of individuals dictate the wine purchasing options for 10 million Ontarians seems more than a little Orwellian.

My Wine ShopThe world of wine is nothing if not diverse, which is what makes it so fascinating. Imagine a specialty wine shop where an owner with a penchant for the unusual would have free rein to import whichever products they were passionate about. Imagine a store specializing in the wines of a specific country or region, say, or of a certain style, where you could select from an in-depth offering that can only be hinted at in the LCBO, where limited shelf space must necessarily be shared by the entire world. A massive operation like the LCBO can’t possibly cater to all of the odd whims of consumers and cover all the corners of the planet.

Local wineries would likewise have infinitely more options to distribute their wines. As it stands, it’s via the LCBO, the winery door or through restaurants only; there are no other retail options, which is a major obstacle to the expansion of the local wine industry. You may point out the Wine Rack and Vineyards Estates stores as examples of privately owned shops, but these are owned by wineries that sell only their own products (including their non-VQA foreign blended wines) and are thus not options for either foreign or other domestic producers.

The LCBO runs a remarkably efficient supply chain considering the scope of the operation, and their buying power allows them to keep prices relatively low (Ontario is one of the least expensive provinces in which to buy wine, thanks mainly to a lower provincial tax). The 600+ stores service the majority of Ontarians, a feat that would be near impossible for a private chain to achieve, since many of the far-flung stores wouldn’t be profitable enough to run without a government mandate to keep them open. As such, it makes sense to keep the LCBO’s distribution intact. Private wine stores would simply complement and expand the availability of wines in the province, as the private shops in BC, Manitoba and Nova Scotia do. It all comes down to selection and servicing the needs of the people of Ontario. Some shops would thrive, others would fail, but that’s what free enterprise is about.

Other frequently raised concerns over privatization of any kind, such as loss of provincial revenues derived from the sale of alcohol, over-consumption, under-aged drinking, and drinking and driving have been soundly proved by several reports to be non-issues. The most comprehensive independent study to date, entitled the Beverage Alcohol System Review was completed in July of 2005 by a panel of experts chaired by John Lacey. The report was unambiguous in its findings. In the introduction letter to then finance minister Greg Sorbara the report states: “The beverage alcohol system consists of a dynamic retail sector operating within a rigid legal framework largely inherited from the end of the Prohibition era. A government monopoly and a handful of private interests dominate the market. The system is inflexible and there are many anomalies and inequities. If we could go back to the drawing board, no one would design an ideal system this way…. The challenge you put to us was to determine if the beverage alcohol system is delivering the maximum benefits to the people of Ontario. It is not.”

If you believe that privately-owned wine shops, operating within a regulated framework alongside the LCBO would be of benefit to the people of Ontario, go to and let your MPP know. WineAlign colleague David Lawrason will follow this up next week with a more in depth look at private wine stores in Ontario, and share his own thoughtful views on what the wine buying landscape in this province might look like one day. Stay tuned. I hope I don’t get put on an interdiction list for writing this.

Top Ten Smart Buys

Maison Roche De Bellene Cuvée Réserve BourgogneDescendientes De J. Palacios PétalosAnd now, on to the important business of what is good at the LCBO. The Top Ten Smart Buys for the November 24th release include a re-release of the outstanding Descendientes de J. Palacios Pétalos do Bierzo ($23.95). This is a consistently excellent wine, made from mencía sourced from four villages in the valley of Bierzo. 2010 was a glorious vintage, resulting in a wonderfully floral version, while the palate is mid-weight, suave though surprisingly structured, indeed one of the most structured Petalos’ in my experience. The length and depth are excellent, especially for the money.

Burgundy drinkers can rejoice with the 2010 Maison Roche de Bellene Cuvée Réserve Bourgogne ($16.95). This is really an astonishingly low price for solid Bourgogne rouge. The vintage character is well-marked, with lighter, leaner, tart red berry fruit leading the way over sharp, mouth-watering acids and firm, dusty tannins. The structure of this wine would repay another year or two in the cellar no doubt, though with a little steak tartare (not too spicy) this would be a fine glass to enjoy now.

Ktima Voyatzi 2007 VelvendoRuffino Serelle Vin Santo Del Chianti And drinkers of firm and juicy old world reds should also take a trip to the little-known region of Velvendos in northwestern Greece and try the 2007 Ktima Voyatzi PGI Velvendo ($18.95). This is the family project of Yiannis Voyatzis, chief enologist by day for the Boutari group of wineries. There are few alive who know as much about the native xinomavro grape as does Voyatzis, and here he blends it with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wine offers the intriguingly spicy-herbal-leathery side of the Greek variety, coupled with the darker fruit and softer texture offered by the international grapes. Acids are succulent and juicy, and the firm texture is reminiscent of classic Tuscan sangiovese blends; a wine well worth discovering.

And as thoughts of a little sweet tipple after the meal or a civilized mid-afternoon break re-enter streams of consciousness, consider the 2008 Ruffino Serelle Vin Santo del Chianti ($24.95). It’s a rich, nutty, caramel and treacle-flavoured vin santo, with plenty of raisined fruit character. It’s sweet but far from cloying, well-balanced and full of dried orange and candied ginger flavours – really quite a ride for the money.

See all the top ten smart buys here.

Premium Gifts

Château De Beaucastel Châteauneuf Du PapeMasi Campolongo Di Torbe AmaroneDunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet SauvignonFollowing up on my November 10th report that offered suggestions on premium gift wines, here are a few more to consider:

2008 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($99.95). This is another terrific bottle from Dunn Vineyards, consistently one of the top producers in the Napa Valley in my view, and all things considered, fairly priced. It’s pure and honest, with a dazzling array of flavours, framed by significant but very ripe and grippy tannins, lively acidity and excellent length. It will be at its best from about 2015-2025.

2004 Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($99.95). Of the two single vineyard Amarones from Masi being released this week, I’ve a slight preference for this one. There’s an extra degree of lift and florality, freshness and balance, and extraordinary length. I’d count this among the best Amarones of the vintage.

2010 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape ($89.95). Aside from name brand recognition, a major plus when giving premium wine gifts, I really appreciate the savoury, saline quality of the 2010 Beaucastel − it has all the depth and richness of the 2009, yet is seemingly lighter on its feet and more supple. The finish lingers on terrifically, with mouth-salivating minerality and balanced alcohol. It’s a classy and aristocratic wine, and surely a top vintage for the estate. This should drink well until the end of the 2020s.

2007 Ascheri Pisapola BaroloCliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon2007 Ascheri Pisapola Barolo ($42.95). From Ascheri’s vineyard in Rivalta in the commune of La Morra-Verduno, the Pisapola is generally a lighter and more feminine style of Barolo, as this 2007 clearly shows. There’s still significant density and extract to be sure, but the balance here is impeccable: firm and juicy, dusty and fruity. The finish is deceptively long, too, finishing on beguiling floral notes and potpourri – a really lovely wine all around.

2009 Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($74.95). Native Edmontonian Cliff Lede’s Stag’s Leap is a classic Napa cabernet in the finest sense, made from mostly estate fruit, with some of famed vineyard manager David Abreu’s personal vineyard fruit included in the mix. Although labeled as cabernet, all of the traditional Bordeaux grapes come into the blend to deliver this densely packed, evidently concentrated and structured wine. I appreciate the firmness and balance; this is in fact quite elegant and restrained, with a real sense of minerality underpinning the ensemble. Loads of integrity here, and terrific length. Best 2014-2024.

Link back to my Pre-Preview highlighting a trio of top chardonnays, including two from Ontario.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

From the November 24, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Premium Holiday Gifts
All Reviews

Article References:



[3]: – cite_ref-18″LCBO Circular 497 page 1″. 1928. “LCBO Circular 497 page 2”. 1928. “LCBO Circular 497 page 3”. 1928.

Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Nov. 24th Release

Wines that Keep on Giving

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The flood of holiday releases crests this week with dozens of big names, and many very good,  less well-known wines. There are no specific regional or varietal themes – it’s all about impressing and being impressed. So this newsletter is a straightforward gift list, presented by price. No matter what your budget I want you to feel comfortable that you are actually giving wines that will please, and even over-deliver, rather than just impress on price and reputation alone.

Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet SauvignonFar Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Best over $100

It’s very hard to find value at this price point, but I sure do want to be very impressed by quality. In my books any wine over $100 should be rating 95 points +, but very often they don’t. They are merely excellent. There are a couple of beauties here however that I would be very tempted to buy.  Far Niente Estate 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley clocks in at a cool $139.95, but I have rated it 95 points for its sense of power and structure. Many Napa cabs shoot for seamless refinement and suppleness, which sometimes I interpret as laziness, but this stands up and says it is proud to be cabernet.

And so does Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon at $99.95. In fact, this is almost too manly – a brooding, deep, gruff wine that will take years of TLC in the cellar before it shows any emotion. But you can tell it does have layers of character. Hey ladies, want to send a message to anyone on your list?

And finally, although I am not actually recommending Ornellaia 2009 at $189.95, I do want to point out its very impressive, seductive textural presence – the richest honking merlot I think I have ever experienced, even if the ripeness of the vintage makes it taste more like an amarone (but hey, it’s at least Italian). Any collector would love this, especially without having to pay for it.

Elderton Command Single Vineyard ShirazChâteau De Beaucastel Châteauneuf Du PapeBest over $80

Elderton Command 2008 Single Vineyard Shiraz from the Barossa in South Australia is among my top scoring wines of the release, and fair value at $89.95. I was not expecting to be as impressed, but the sense of marbling and its endless length caught my attention. It keeps on giving indeed! It also offers immediate pleasure so put it on your list for the person who just loves to rip open their presents.

Château de Beaucastel 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape ($89.95) is another wine collectors love to own, but give this to those who have the patience and perspicacity to appreciate a work of art in progress. It is so finely tuned and effortless and reserved that it would be easy to overlook its flirtation with perfection, especially in terms of its ripeness.

Kilikanoon Green's Vineyard Shiraz 2009Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet SauvignonBest over $60

Philippe Colin 2008 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chaumées 1er Cru ($69.95) is a masterful chardonnay of terrific complexity and tension that will age a very long time, if you can keep your hands off it. Founded only in 2004, with about 27 acres focused in Chassagne, Philippe Colin’s mineral-driven wines have rapidly risen through the ranks. So give it to a white Burgundy fan who will appreciate something new.

Cliff Lede 2009 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley ($74.95) is a sturdy yet refined and dense cabernet for the cellar, more impressive than most of the pricier, big-gun California cabs on this release. This would make an ideal gift for the corporate titan who dreams of chucking it all to become a vintner, and goodness knows there are many of them around. Canadian Cliff Lede has made a great success of himself by doing just that.

And for the Australian red fan on your list also consider the voluminous, powerful but young Kilikanoon 2009 Green’s Vineyard Shiraz ($74.95) from the Barossa Valley.  James Halliday, the most pro-Aussie writer in Australia has named Kilikanoon his Winery of the Year in 2013, and even if I find Halliday almost too generous as a critic, I have to admit that Kilikanoon keeps on delivering for me too. I especially like that there is a semblance of finesse amid all the power of this old-vine single-vineyard wine from the heart of Barossa.

Best over $40

Stratus White 2009Dow's Quinta Do Bomfim Vintage PortHere the field becomes a bit more crowded, the choices more difficult, and the value quotient higher. You can start to think about buying multiple bottles in this price range, if the budgetary shoe fits. Stratus White ($44.20) from Niagara-on-the-Lake remains one of the most intriguing whites grown in Canada, a barrel blend dominated by semillon and sauvignon blanc in this cool, terrific 2009 white wine vintage.

Among reds I was very intrigued by the unique flavour profile and energy level of Massena 2006 The Eleventh Hour Shiraz ($48.95) again from the Barossa Valley. From Italy, Brigaldara 2008 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($49.95) is a riveting piece of work with amazing ripeness, sweetness, silk and sensuality. Your giftee may want to try this right away, and then another bottle too. Consider bundling a three-pack if your budget allows.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim 1999 Vintage Port ($54.95) is a great opportunity to introduce the new wine lover on your list to a mature port at a very affordable price. Lovely harmonies here.

Best Over $20

Villa Ponciago La Réserve FleurieVolpaia Chianti Classico 2009At this price you might want to consider a mixed case of these terrific Euro reds. Descendientes de J. Palacios 2010 Pétalos is way underpriced at $23.95. Regular readers may remember our WineAlign event with winemaker Alvaro Palacios last spring and my general gushing over his elegant, nuanced and powerful reds made from the native mencia grape in the remote Bierzo region of northwestern Spain. His next vintage of Petalos does not disappoint, but I would age this a couple of years.

Still in Europe Volpaia 2009 Chianti Classico ($23.95) is a wonderfully sensual sangiovese from a classic estate perched in a medieval hilltop village. Give this to the romantic on your list, especially if you include two tickets to Tuscany in the stocking as well. And still in Italy, I was shocked by the fragrance, charm and complexity of Socré 2008 Barbaresco, a great buy at $34.95.

And from France, Villa Ponciago 2011 La Réserve Fleurie ($21.95) is the perfect gift for your favourite wine writer. I have always been a huge fan of Fleurie, the most charming gamay of all the cru villages of Beaujolais, and this serious new “haut-couture” plot-by-plot effort to re-establish the lustre, elegance and terroir of gamay is spot-on.

Best under $20

Musella Vigne Nuove Valpolicella SuperioreChâteau Tour Saint Vincent 2009And finally there are some stocking stuffers that will make a real impression. Musella Vigne Nuove 2009 Valpolicella Superiore is surprising complex, smooth and long on the finish. An utterly charming, and classic, Valpolicella for a mere $15.95.

Château Tour Saint-Vincent 2009 Médoc is delicious and great value at $19.95, a testament to how a great vintage can uplift an unknown property.

And from Chile don’t miss Santa Carolina 2009 Specialties Dry Farming Carignan from the Cauquenes Valley – a quite profound and energetic wine for $15.95 that may signal an exciting new direction for Chilean viticulture.

And that is it for this time – more to come just prior to the huge last release of the year on December 8. See all my featured wines and all the November 24 release reviews below.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the November 24th, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , ,

Nouveau Wines & Steve’s Top 50 Values from the LCBO – Nov 2012

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

On the third Thursday of November every year the Beaujolais Nouveau wines arrive in stores all over the world. This year only three wines from Beaujolais in France were part of the LCBO’s special 2012 Nouveau release. Seven wines from Italy, France and Ontario also arrived at the same time and one of these joins the Top 50 Value List. There is a review of the Nouveau wines below, which will be in stores for the next few weeks until stocks run out.

There are five wines that are new to the list since last month. Read past the Nouveau wines to find more bargains and to discover how the Top 50 is systematically selected. Check out all the wines on my Top 50 Value Wines list, since all offer great value.

Nouveau (French) and Novello (Italian) Wines

These are the first wines of the 2012 harvest to reach us. They are made in a special way that speeds up the winemaking and maturation process to get them to customers quickly. They are very fruity, lively reds that are not designed to last more than a few months while we wait for the rest of the vintage’s more age worthy reds to appear. Often dismissed by serious wine drinkers, the batch this year was one of the best I can remember and one wine actually made it onto the  Top 50 Value Wines list. Here are my best four in order of value.

Giocale Novello Rosso 2012, Terre Di Chieti Abruzzo Italy $8.95

New to the Top 50, this Novello from the south of Italy with 75% montepulciano  is quite different from the rest of the release with its nose of prune and blackberry fruit with olde English toffee notes and a hint of coffee. It is very fruity and almost full bodied but is well balanced by fresh acidity. Youthfully exuberant. Very good length. It finishes dry. Enjoy on its own, lightly chilled or with burgers or pizza.

Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages Nouveau 2012Primeur Catalan Syrah Merlot 2012Primeur Catalan Syrah Merlot 2012, Pays d’Oc, France $9.95

I like this wine a lot. It captured the spirit of new wine and it’s well priced, though not in the Top 50 for Value. Expect aromas of black cherry with cassis to grab your attention. They are fresh pure aromas that encourage you to taste the wine which is fairly rich for a nouveau with nice mouthfeel. The fruit is well balanced by vibrant acidity and there is good to very good length. Try with grilled sausages.

Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages Nouveau 2012, Burgundy, France $14.95

This is a very good Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s aromatic with herbal tones to the cherry blossom, raspberry fruit aromas. It is well balanced with some complexity and good concentration. It is medium-bodied with a degree of elegance but it is quite expensive compared to others in this Nouveau release. Try with roast turkey with cranberry sauce

Negrar Novello Del Veneto 2012, Valpolicella, Italy $9.95

This is a lightweight simple fruity red which does not have a great depth of flavour. Expect a nose of dry cherry and cranberry fruit, with bubble gum notes, to lead to a gentle dry palate with enough acidity and tannin for balance. Good length. Try with mildly flavoured cheese pizza.

Use this link to see all ten Nouveau 2012 wines 

November 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

Masi Tupungato Passo Doble Malbec Corvina 2010Oggi Primitivo 2011Five wines arrived on the Top 50 this month, including the Giocale Novello Rosso that I wrote about above.

Oggi Primitivo 2011, Puglia, Italy $8.95

The 2011 vintage of this wine is a step up from the 2010 such that it joins the Top 50 this month. A new label and a name change accompanies a quality upgrade. It’s a medium to full bodied red with a lot of aroma and depth of flavour for such an inexpensive wine. Great value. The nose shows red cherry fruit with cranberry jelly, tobacco, smoke and chocolate notes. The palate is juicy with the fruit well balanced by acidity. Good to very good length. Try with pizza or meaty pasta sauces.

Masi Tupungato Passo Doble Malbec Corvina 2010, Mendoza, Argentina $11.95 until Dec 2 was $13.95.

This wine is on sale for a month and so jumps into the Top50 for a while. A malbec from Argentina with Italian styling from the Verona house of Masi. Its vibrant acidity and structure are not typical of Argentine malbec at this price; so don’t expect gobs of soft jammy fruit. It is midweight with velvety fruit and mild tannin. Expect aromas of blackberry and prune fruit with cedar, smoke, grapefruit and mushroom notes. It is juicy with a solid structure from firm yet smooth tannin. Good to very good length. Best 2012 to 2015. Needs food so try with roast beef or strongly flavoured mature cheese.

The Insider White By KnappsteinBarwick White Label Pinot Noir 2010Both the wines below join the Top 50 because they have been discontinued at the LCBO. Clearance prices should move them out quickly but there are today many bottles of each remaining but don’t delay.

The Insider White By Knappstein 2010, Clare Valley, South Australia $8.95, was $11.95

A fresh dry white with lemon mineral aromas plus some spicy apple and a floral hint. It is light to mid weight with the minerally fruit well balanced by some firm acidity. It is a bit austere on the finish but there is very good length. This wine is built to last; it’s fine now but could be cellared for a year or two. Try with salty shellfish.

Barwick White Label Pinot Noir 2010, Pemberton, Western Australia $11.95, was $15.95

This is a fruity vibrant pale red pinot from Western Australia with aromas of cherry, raspberry and plum fruit plus some earthy tones and a hint of tobacco. It is midweight, well balanced with a solid yet gentle acid and tannin structure. It finishes well with the focus well maintained. Very good length. Best 2012 to 2015. Try with roast beef or seared tuna.

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


Thorn Clarke Terra Barossa Merlot 2010

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 24th 2012

A Pre-Preview; Winter Whites and a Trio of Chardonnays

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

November 24th is a massive release of fine wine, spirits and gifts for the holidays. So big is the release, that the LCBO had to spread the trade tastings over several sessions with the final one scheduled for November 20th.

Rather than have you wait until next week, here’s a little Pre-Preview highlighting the Vintages white wines which have already been tasted. (I will post a follow-up piece on Nov 23rd.)

Take a look at this trio of top chardonnays, including two from Ontario.

Le Clos Jordanne 2009 Le Grand Clos Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Twenty Mile Bench

The 2009 Grand Clos is evolving beautifully, still holding on to youthful citrus and lemon custard notes while the wheat, wet hay, honey and wet limestone notes are beginning to take the lead. The palate is mid-weight, balanced on a pin-point between crunchy acidity, moderate alcohol and significant flavour depth. Excellent length. Very classy to be sure.

Philippe Colin 2008 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chaumées 1er Cru, Burgundy, France

Here’s a classy, textbook white Burgundy of a very high level, with tremendous complexity and depth. The intense minerality is more reminiscent of Puligny than Chassagne, pronounced and intense, as opposed to the often rounder fruitier style of typical Chassagne, but I’m hardly complaining. Terrific length; top notch and enjoyable now, but this has the structure and acidity to carry forth to the end of the decade and beyond.

Malivoire 2009 Moira Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Beamsville Bench

Here’s an elegant, refined, minerally example, with a terrifically broad palate and notable chalky mineral taste and texture. Wood is well integrated and forms a subtle backdrop to citrus and tree fruit, though it’s really the limestone that dominates – a very good thing. Excellent length. Drink now or hold mid-term – this has the structure to improve. One of Malivoire’s strongest chardonnays to date.

Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2009Philippe Colin Chassagne Montrachet Les Chaumées 1er CruMalivoire Moira Chardonnay 2009

All of the wines from the November 24th release, including these white wine reviews, are posted on our site as usual. However, you will have to wait until next week to see the red wine reviews and the Top Ten Smart Buys.

Come down to the Gourmet Wine & Food Expo and do some pre-release tasting for yourself.  We would love to meet you at the WineAlign booth #222.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

All November 24th Reviews


Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: Wine, , ,

Battle of the Corkscrews: By Sara d’Amato

Canada’s Top Sommeliers Vie for the National Title

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

On Sept 17th & 18th in Halifax, some of the country’s top Sommeliers willingly arrived to be evaluated by their peers and by the public in the hopes of securing the title of Canada’s Best Sommelier. The competition, hosted by the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (“CAPS”) and sponsored by Inniskillin Wine welcomed the past competition winners of all three chapters: Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Journalists from across the country were invited to cover this landmark event that was judged by an impressive panel of esteemed Sommeliers such as WineAlign’s John Szabo, M.S., Jennifer Huether, M.S., and the CAPS provincial chapter presidents.

As a board member of CAPS helping to organize the competition, I was afforded a front row seat to the two-day affair that took place at the Delta Halifax. Taking place at the same time, just outside of Halifax in Grand Pre, was the annual Chef’s Congress. Nova Scotia was thus home to many of the country’s top palates that weekend, all of whom were warmly welcomed.

Will Predhomme

Will Predhomme

On to the competitors . . . six illustrious sommeliers qualified to compete in their respective provinces which included Robert Noel of deja BU! In New Brunswick, representing the Atlantic, Will Predhomme of Toronto’s Canoe Restaurant, and Bruce Wallner MS of Toronto’s Mideastro, representing Ontario, Elyse Lambert at Montreal’s Le Local, Veronique Rivest, wine columnist for Radio-Canada and Journal Le Droit, and Bertrand Eichel of Montreal’s Le 357c representing Quebec. However, only three finalists resulted from the first day’s written competition:  Will Predhomme, Elyse Lambert and Veronique Rivest. The high level of expertise made for a tight race to the finals. None of the competitors were aware of their standings until noon the next day, immediately prior to performing their final skill testing hurdle before a live audience.

To give you an idea of some of the questions the sommeliers were faced with, I’ve included a few examples below. Test yourself to see where you stand . . . answers can be found at the end of the article.

1. Who established the Hospices de Beaune and in which year?

2. List the 9 vintages of Chateau d’Yquem that were NOT produced in the 20th century (1900-1999):

3. Put the following Chilean D.O.’s in order from North to South

Aconcagua – Bio Bio – Curico – Itata – Limari – Maipo – Maule – Rapel

Don’t feel bad if you’re 0/0 – These are anxiety-inducing for most professionals as well.

The finalists had one hour each to perform tasks such as decanting, sparkling wine service, oral blind tasting, pouring feats, food and wine recommendations and wine list correction, all in a restaurant-staged setting complete with a maître d’hôtel and several waiting tables. The time went fast and the competitors were obviously sweating. The competition was streamed live on where we bumped the feed of the ever popular lobster  trap cam and gave it a run for its money in terms of viewership. Over a thousand people tuned in to see the finalists face off.

There was enormous support from across the country as words of encouragement and performance comments from viewers lit up the Twitter-sphere. Being the national qualifying round of the sommelier Olympics, the event did indeed feel like a competitive sport accompanied by all the sweat, tears and drama that you may expect.

Elyse Lambert

Elyse Lambert

As a spectator and a professional in this business, it is absolutely nail-biting to watch these courageous sommeliers put their reputations on the line and be judged by their peers and community. It is so incredibly important that they do so as it inspires a whole new potential group of competitors and strengthens our profession and our professional identity in this country and the world. It is simple to make a mistake, especially when a sweaty palm caused by nerves can lead you to lose grip on a cork or spill a glass of wine. An equally suspenseful situation arises from on-the-spot questions pitted at the competitors in service as  there are no restrictions on what can be asked. If the answer is not known than it is up to the sommelier to answer as gracefully as possible without letting it affect their performance. If that isn’t pressure enough, being afforded a set amount of limiting time for each feat certainly had these sommeliers sweating. Just to crank it up a notch higher, the competitors were required to compete in a language other than their own. Finalists Elyse and Veronique were able to compete with ease in English and had both worked in this language prior but Will chose to compete in Spanish, with which he was more at ease than in French but had never worked in this language before.

The rewards, however, are great and included $10,000 cash + $5,000 in wines offered by the SAQ, a weekend in Toronto/Niagara for a full training program with John Szabo (MS) & Jennifer Huether (MS) Offered by Inniskillin, a trip to Italy offered by By the Glass & Tenuta Caparzo, a Stressless Corkscrew Offered by Trudeau, a Decantus Offered by Vinearus, a Magnum of Treana Offered by Hope Family Wines, Trudeau accessories and an engraved Riedel decanter from The Wine Establishment. But the most important prize is no doubt the haute prestige and right to compete in both the competition of the Americas in Brazil as well to represent Canada in the World’s Best Sommelier Competition taking place next year in Japan was the most coveted of prizes.

Véronique Rivest pictured here between judge Del Rollo and Jessica Harnois

The finalists’ performances were quite tight and I found it difficult to call the winner. After careful deliberation, the substantial team of judges, who had all angles covered, determined Veronique Rivest’s winning status. Del Rollo of Inniskillin and also a judge in the competition bestowed the title upon Veronique at a gala dinner the same evening over an Inniskillin Icewine toast. This veneration is not new to Veronique as she has won this competition in the past and was a competitor in the 2006 world sommelier competition. By all accounts, she delivered an exceptional performance. I look forward to reporting on the upcoming World Sommelier Competition, taking place in Japan in 2013. It is unlikely I will be fortunate enough to travel to the trenches in person as I did for the Canadian Competition, but I will ensure to provide as close to a play-by-play as possible of our national team.

There was no rest for the winners as the Pan American competition took place last week in Bento Gonçalves, Brazil on October 24th, 2012. Rivest and Predhomme both qualified to compete and the best Sommelier of 19 competitors went to our homegrown Veronique Rivest. She ranked first in front of Ian Caube from the U.S.A. and Thiago Locatelli of Brazil in the grand finale. Therefore, Veronique Rivest will be representing the Americas while Will Prehomme will be representing Canada in next year’s World Sommelier Competition in Japan.

Wishing these brave ambassadors the best of luck!


Question 1: Nicolas Rolin. 1443; Question 2: 1910/1915/1930/1951/1952/1964/1972/1974/1992; Question 3: North: Limari/Aconcagua/Maipo/Rapel/Curico/Maule/Itata/Bio Bio

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, ,

The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner; Wine education for us all – Chardonnay; November 10th, 2012

Wooded vs. Unwooded

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

The world’s most famous white grape, Chardonnay is crafted in two major styles, with many shades of grey in between. The first includes Chardonnay where wood, usually oak, is used at some point during the winemaking process. The other is where no oak is used at all.

For winegrowers, the decision to use oak, typically French, is a very personal one, dictated principally by precedent, growing conditions, and winemaking inclinations. In Burgundy, the contrasts between Chardonnay containing oak and ones that do not could not be more transparent. On the one hand, you have the famous white Burgundies of the Côte de Beaune, where whites from the best vineyards such as Domaine LeflaiveLe Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne fetch some of the highest prices in the world. In virtually all cases, such wines are both fermented and matured in French oak barrels. On the other, you have the most prized vineyards of Chablis, where no oak is usually the norm, although some producers are now using small amounts for their best wines. Here, most wines are fermented and matured in stainless steel casks or ‘neutral’ oak barrels.

Chardonnay GrapesAnd therein lays the most fundamental difference between wooded and unwooded Chardonnay: the use of oak for fermentation and/or maturation. While generalizations are hard to establish, most Chardonnays containing oak are usually more concentrated and complex than their counterparts (the main exception being Chablis). At their finest, such wines usually contain a vast array of entrancing aromas, including subtle butterscotch/caramel, pears, green apples, apricots, quince, orange zest, hazelnuts, white flowers, lemon, and mineral nuances.

For winegrowers, the key thing is to ensure that the oak component in Chardonnay does not overwhelm the other components in the wine. This has been a cause for considerable concern among wine lovers and evaluators for well over a decade now—that too much emphasis is being placed on the use of oak in the winemaking process, resulting in Chardonnay tasting too buttery and one-dimensional, not to mention overtly oaky and (oftentimes) excessively tropical.

Leeuwin Estate ChardonnayThis is why many winegrowers have over the past several years decided to use less oak and concentrate on developing better fruit aromas instead. Some have even opted to use no oak in Chardonnay at all. While often much more simplistic than wines having been fermented and/or matured in oak barrels, such wines are nonetheless capable of delighting an eager audience in search of unoaked versions.

But a little oak influence can go a long way in this most malleable of grapes. As such, many producers have decided to adopt a ‘partial oak’ stance in their wines, fermenting their Chardonnay in stainless steel casks and then maturing it in oak barrels for only short periods of time. While such wines will often contain many of the same flavour characteristics as fuller-oaked bottlings, the undesirable butteriness, oakiness, and excessive tropical flavours are kept healthily in check. The best advice: taste every single Chardonnay in the world before deciding on a favourite. Alternatively, stick only with my recommendations and those of my fellow publishers…

Click here for a few gems from the November 10th Vintages Release

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Nov. 10th Release

Piedmont Shining, Blockbuster Syrahs, Three at 93 and Fine French under $20

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

In the last newsletter I took a swipe at the hype-inflated, $100+ icon wines of a previous generation. This time, as Vintages continues to roll out more expensive “Festive Finds for the Holidays”, I am happier to report that there are many excellent, exciting wines – some from a new generation – that don’t cost over $60. But first a look at featured Piedmont, that oh-so earnest region tucked in the Langhe hills of northwest Italy.

Piedmont Shining

It was a short but sweet tasting – a mere seven wines, from a region that staunch Euro enthusiasts revere. Piedmont is rightly compared to Burgundy, which lies not far away across the Alps. Both are coolish, landlocked and resting their reputation on a difficult grape variety that pours pale but packs a sensorial symphony when they get it right. In Burgundy the grape is pinot noir, in Piedmont it is nebbiolo, a variety that ripens late, often in mid-October when fog – after which it is named – shrouds the dramatically hilly landscapes of Barolo and Barbaresco.  It’s starchy, gritty and bitter tannin is infamous, historically requiring long bottle age to soften, while the wine morphs into an orange glow.

Renato Ratti Marcenasco BaroloGiacosa Basarin Vigna Gianmaté BarbarescoTwo wines brilliantly catch the nebbiolo phenomenon, one representing a modern approach to the winemaking that attempts to mollify the tannin while the wine is young, the other being more traditional. They are both from the 2007 vintage, which is somewhat less concentrated and perhaps evolving a bit more quickly, which is a good thing.  Giacosa Basarin Vigna Gianmaté Barbaresco is a classic, indeed almost rustic style, complete with that volatile edge so often encountered in old school Italian reds. But it has terrific, uplifting woodsy aromatics and a very affordable tuition at $38.95. Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo is more expensive at $49.95, but a decent price for top Barolo. Renato Ratti gained fame in the 80s and 90s for making breakaway, modern but still very finely appointed nebbiolos that were just a bit easier to navigate than many of the more crusty wines of his peers.

Unlike Burgundy, Piedmont offers other local grapes that deliver the region’s firm, acid-tannin driven style, at lower prices. High acid barbera can be shrill and sour, and sometimes plain dull, but it can rise to aromatic heights that rival nebbiolo. Vintages has found a great example in Giacomo Borgogno 2010 Barbera d’Alba Superiore, a classic at only $19.95.

Giacomo Borgogno Barbera D'alba SuperioreAbbona Papà Celso 2010Regali La Lus AlbarossaAnd another grape that Piedmont calls its own is dolcetto, much more deeply coloured than barbera or nebbiolo and offering more fruit plumpness, but rarely equal depth or complexity.  Abbona Papà Celso 2010 Dogliani ($21.95) is one of the best I have encountered in recent times. Dogliani is the first Piemontese appellation created specifically for dolcetto, so the grape name itself disappears from the label – a conversely odd bestowal of status.

And finally, a new grape called albarossa appears on this release. (Alba is name of the main town in the region). It is a crossing of nebbiolo and barbera that is being taken to heart by a small group of winemakers. Regali la Lus Albarossa 2008 Monferrato Rosso ($24.95) is a thoroughly modern and stylish example, but it is a bit difficult to fix the grape’s character amid the gloss.

Blockbuster New World Syrah/Shiraz

It happens almost every time I taste at Vintages – some great dark syrah leaps out of the shadows of some far-flung New world wine region, grabs me by the throat and gives my head a shake. It could be labelled shiraz or syrah – shiraz if it’s from Australia and embodies a rich, ripe style, syrah if it’s more attuned to French Rhône styling. But that doesn’t really matter. What’s impressive is the richness, firmness and raw power this grape can deliver in so many locations. I think it really is a better “global” variety than cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Its climatic bandwidth is wider, liking sun (which most new world regions easily afford), while prospering in regions moderated by altitude or coastal cooling that deliver structure.

Hartenberg Shiraz 2007Jonata Todos Red 2008Domaine Terlato & ChapoutierThe wine of the release for me is Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier 2010 from the Pyrenees region of Victoria, Australia. I have rated it 95 points, and if you are a syrah fan it is a must-buy at $51.95. Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier is joint venture between Napa-based wine merchant Bill Terlato and Michel Chapoutier of Rhône fame. The latter has become one of the world’s leading biodynamic winemakers, bringing his methods to a 40 acre patch of intensely low yield vineyards in Victoria’s Pyrenees Mountains. A 17 acre block within called lieu dit Malakoff has spawned this remarkable syrah.

From the Pacific-cooled Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, California, comes another $50 thriller. Jonata Todos Red 2008 ($59.95) is a very intentional blend that includes syrah.  Young Matt Dies has parcelled his 80 acre vineyard into a jigsaw of varietals and rootstocks precisely to yield multiple components to be blended into non-varietal wines. But there is no mistaking the syrah base of this wine; I can smell its peppery presence and feel its brooding power.

And from a South African estate first planted to vines in 1692 comes yet another massive syrah. The Cape is a classic example of a region settled by European, including British, émigrés who thought Bordeaux was the best wine in the world, thus planted cabernet sauvignon. When in reality the sunny but coastal climate is better suited to syrah. Hartenberg 2007 Shiraz, from the stony slopes of Stellenbosch ($34.95) is indeed blockbuster – a ham-fisted yet well proportioned, very dense red with great length.

Three at 93

Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf Du PapeDomaine Latour Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime MeursaultInglenook Cask Cabernet SauvignonThe parade of excellent and affordable (if not cheap) wines for holiday drinking or gift giving continues with three wines I have rated 93 points. Still hovering around the syrah theme Le Vieux Donjon 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($53.95) in the southern Rhône Valley of France, is youthful and introverted at the moment, but it has a lovely sense of style, confidence and focus, from a smallish family domain that keeps things simple by making just one red and one white wine.

From farther north in Burgundy, comes a terrific chardonnay. Domaine Latour-Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime 2010 Meursault ($44.95) is a case study of the transformation of Burgundy – i.e. new generation winemaker (Jean-Pierre Latour) upgrades faded old house with organic, low yield viticulture in some prime sites, and brings a new barrel regimen. This is a big, solid, classy and cellar worthy Meursault.

And from California, Inglenook Cask 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($89.95) is a highly collectible red, both for its quality and story. This is the first vintage under the new Inglenook label since the trademark was acquired by film producer Francis Ford Coppola, the latest chapter in a long saga of changing ownership that began way back with a Finish sea captain in 1789. There are more characters and plot twists than in a season of Downton Abbey. What’s more important than who owns it is the quality of the prime Rutherford vineyard. This is terrific Napa cabernet.

Three Fine French Under $20

It is not all $50 wines on this release. I found three French gems for under $20 that are great value with 90-91 scores.

We start back in the Rhône with Pierre Amadieu la Grangelière 2010 Vacqueyras, at $19.95. This sun-baked, southern exposed appellation with its best sites on gravelly terraces is making some big, hearty and rustic wines that feel like Chateauneuf-du-Pape at half the price. And this is a good example from a large house that makes authentic wines from virtually all of the appellations of the southern Rhône.

Pierre Amadieu La Grangelière Vacqueyras

It is almost shocking to see an Alsace Grand Cru at $17.95, so if you are an Alsace fan don’t miss Dopff & Irion 2009 Vorbourg Pinot Gris. The Vorbourg is a 72 ha site at the very southern end of Alsace, in one of the driest, warmest sub-regions, with limestone soils. Factor in the ripeness of the 2009 vintage, plus some age, and the result is a remarkable pinot gris with both richness and finesse.

Dopff & Irion Vorbourg Pinot Gris 2009

And still in Alsace, Vieil Armand 2010 Médaille Gewürztraminer is yet another steal at $17.95. Regular readers will know I am a big fan of 2010 Alsatian whites since encountering them en masse during a week-long visit this spring. Cave Vieil Armand is a good, if not highly noted co-op with 125 grower members. If it can make such excellent gewurz at this price, think of what some of the top guns will be making.

Vieil Armand Médaille Gewurztraminer

WineAlign Welcomes Rosehill Wine Cellars

This newsletter is now sponsored in part by Rosehill Wine Cellars, a Toronto-based supplier of custom built wine cellars, wine cabinets, glassware, decanters and other wine accessories. I am particularly delighted by this because Gary LaRose has been a good friend since I first met him over twenty years ago. He showed up at my front door as a general contractor hired to do a modest kitchen renovation. He was fascinated by my wine collection, and it was here that he got the notion of building wine cellars. He offered to build one for me as a test case, in return for some ad space in my Rosehill Wine Cellarsfledgling Wine Access newsletter. He also became a frequent student of my wine courses, coming back again and again until he got it right. And the rest is history. We have both evolved and grown and undertaken bigger and better things, but we remain grounded in our love wine, and trying to do things well. So thanks Gary and Sue, for having the faith in WineAlign, the next evolution.

Ottawa Bound

This weekend (Nov 8-11) I am in Ottawa for the triple purpose of announcing the big winners of the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards with good friend and co-head judge Anthony Gismondi from Vancouver; leading two seminars at the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival; and promoting WineAlign at same. If you are one of our many subscribers in Ottawa you already know all about this event – the biggest on the capital’s wine calendar. Please drop by our booth and say hello. If you are not from Ottawa and find yourself with a free weekend, hop on a flight, the train, or into your car and head to the great new convention centre on the banks of the Rideau Canal. The whole program can be studied at

Until next time,

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the November 10th, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz

Rosehill Wine Cellars

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South African Wine Update by Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

South African wines have made great strides in the last decade but, even though sales in Canada are steadily climbing, they’re not making the impact on the Canadian market that they should. South Africa is still way under the radar of many Canadian wine-lovers.

Why? Older consumers might remember the South African wines that arrived after the racist regime fell in 1994 and international trade sanctions were lifted. South African winemakers had been cut off from much of the wine world since the 1980s, a time when the New World wine was revolutionized. (Think of Ontario, New Zealand, and Chile.) When the long-awaited South African wines started to flow into the LCBO in the mid-1990s, they were generally disappointing and out of touch with international expectations.

But South Africa’s producers caught up amazingly quickly. They sorted out problems in the vineyards, began to plant a bigger range of varieties, opened up new regions and sites, and improved winemaking practices. It has all paid off, and now South African wines are competitive, in quality terms, at all levels. They are more than competitive in price: they are generally undervalued, and there are many very good-to-excellent values, whether you want to spend $10, $20, $30 or more.

Some really exciting wines are now coming out of South Africa. Chenin blanc is the country’s signature white, and I tasted some masterful examples recently. These are quite different from the chenin blancs of the Loire Valley and Ontario. The best South African chenins are often fruit-forward, and sometimes creamy textured, but they don’t surrender any structure and acidity. Among the best are Spice Route, Morgenhof and Ken Forrester.

The country’s signature red variety is pinotage (a pinot noir-cinsaut cross carried out in South Africa in the 1920s) and it’s had a rough ride. Until recently, many had unpleasant burnt rubber flavours, but they’ve figured out the problem (in the vineyards) and most of the new generation of pinotages are clean, fruity and well balanced. Some of the great pinotage producers, like Kanonkop, continue to make stellar wines with long cellaring potential (I tasted a 1998, which is still going strong), and others to look for are Bellingham, Tulbagh, Beyerskloof, and Spier.

But syrah is making a stronger play right now, and syrahs were among the best wines I tasted on my recent trip to South Africa. Growers capture optimal ripeness in the fruit, and plant them in conditions that moderate the summer heat and allow for the development of natural acidity. Producers to look for include Cederberg, Hartenberg, Bellingham and Tamboerskloof.

Let’s not forget the other varieties. There are many excellent wines made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and the red Bordeaux varieties, and there are many winning white and red blends.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin BlancJulien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011Some South African Wines to Try

Julien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011 ($19.95)

This chardonnay is made by an Alsatian winemaker in Elgin, South Africa’s coolest region; a chardonnay from Alsace might taste like this. The fruit is really pure, with broad complexity and a linear texture. The acidity comes through bright and clean, and contributes food-versatile juiciness. It’s a real gem. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Petit Chenin Blanc 2011 ($13.95)

Made by Ken Forrester, this is an entry-level chenin blanc that’s well made and provides a good sense of many South African chenins. The fruit has a sweet core and is persistent from start to finish. It’s harnessed to bright, clean acidity, and makes for a fruit-driven but well-balanced wine.

The Chocolate Block 2010($39.95)

Made by the highly regarded Boekenhoutskloof winery, this is a blend that’s mostly syrah, with varying contributions of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and cinsault, with a dash of viognier – all from a variety of regions. The result is impressive: a fairly big-bodied and full-flavoured red that retains balance, complexity and freshess. The tannins are easy-going, and this is drinking well now and over the next four or five years. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009 ($14.95)

This is a really attractive shiraz (with a dash of viognier). The fruit-sweet flavours are rich and focused, consistent right through the palate, and well defined. They’re supported by fresh acidity and framed with sleek, ripe tannins. The texture of the wine is full and slightly taut. It’s simply a pleasure to drink.

The Wolftrap Syrah/Mourvèdre/Viognier 2009 ($13.95)

This Rhône blend delivers value right across the board. The syrah, which is two-thirds of the blend, is from Swartland, and it provides a solid core of flavour and balance. The texture is quite rich and smooth, and the tannins are drying and easy-going. It’s a versatile red for the table.

The Chocolate Block 2010Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009The Wolftrap Syrah-Mourvèdre-Viognier 2009

South African Regionality

Like many wine-producing countries, South Africa is stressing regionality in wines, to highlight the different styles and varieties produced in different regions. The best-known – like Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek – continue to earn their status, but a few up-and-coming regions are attracting attention.

One that’s creating a real buzz is Swartland, a warm region to the north of Cape Town, where a number of small producers have launched “The Swartland Wine Revolution.” There’s no varietal or stylistic theme, but these wineries (including Lammershoek, which is often in our market) are innovating in blends and varieties. Try anything that comes from Swartland.

Finally, some of the newer southern regions, like Elgin and Walker Bay are also well worth watching. They are cooler and are producing high-toned and structured wines from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir.

But it’s easy to become fixated on innovations. Established producers in the established regions have upped their game, and many turn out terrific wines that represent great value. In short, South Africa has a dynamic wine industry, well attuned to the international market at all price-levels.

Re-calibrate your radar so that you notice these wines when they appear in Vintages releases and elsewhere.


Rod Phillips

Rod’s Wine Reviews

Finding the Value at the LCBO

WineAlign critic, Rod Phillips is the only person to taste right through the LCBO’s permanent inventory of 1600 wines in a short period of time – he does it in five weeks – and this approach gives him a unique take on the wines. Rod’s reviews are then condensed into a selection of the 500 best-values, rated by quality for price.

The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2013The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2013

By Rod Phillips

Rod rates each wine on a five-star, value-for-money scale, and gives a concise, no-nonsense description. There’s also space to add your own notes for each wine. With currently updated information and carefully researched reviews, this book is the most comprehensive LCBO wine guide there is.

The current edition of this best-selling guide is on sale now. Buy it Here

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008