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Jingle Fizz: Your Guide to Last Minute New Year’s Sparklers

Dashing down the street  ♪♫♫ In your one horse Hyundai  ♫♪♪♫ 
To the LCBO we go  ♫♫♪♪♫  Honking all the way ♪♪♫ 
Hear the cashiers sing  ♪♫♫ Making their New Year’s bright ♪♫♫ 
Oh what fun it really ain’t  ♫♫♪♪  To buy bubbly for tonight…

John Szabo at  work

John Szabo at work

You have to get to the LCBO yourself, and endure the line-ups. We can’t do much about that (except to dangle the sugar plum of how nice it would be to buy your bubbly at your supermarket instead). We can however help you select wines of good taste and good value, which is right in our wheelhouse. Below four WineAlign critics – John Szabo MS (pictured here), Sara d’Amato, Steve Thurlow and David Lawrason – have assembled their bubbly picks for New Year’s Eve. They are arranged by type/price category and were available at the LCBO on December 28.

Champagne (Over $35)

Champagne can only originate in the Champagne region of France, and generations of wily marketers have made it “the one to buy” when a statement of prosperity underlies the buying decision. So for those toasting to a happy and prosperous New Year, here are four fine ‘champers’:

Taittinger Brut Réserve ChampagneBonnaire Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne 2004Bonnaire Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne 2004
Champagne, France
$59.95 Vintages #721035

Here’s a classy, complex, vintage blanc de blancs grower champagne (Bonnaire owns and farms their own vineyards – they do not purchase any fruit), with notably toasty-caramel-honeyed notes and depth and power well above the mean. The palate is fullish and well balanced, with superior length. Fine champagne all around. Tasted November 2012. John Szabo,

Taittinger Brut
Champagne, France
$59.95  Vintages #814723

This classic, elegant, concise and tightly knit style is often a hit with women and perfect for an elegant soirée. With an aromatic and enveloping nose, the palate boasts notable verve and a playful interplay of savory, sweet and sour. Finish is quite dry with lingering notes of white peach, persimmon and sea salt. Sara d’Amato,

Louis Roederer Brut Premier ChampagneNicolas Feuillatte Brut ChampagneLouis Roederer Brut Premier
Champagne, France
$63.95 Vintages Essentials #268771

A beautiful delicate champagne with fine aromas and flavours. Expect baked apple and pear fruit with toast, ginger, white peach and vanilla notes. It is light on the palate with well integrated soft acidity and excellent length. Fine as an aperitif but also consider with delicately flavoured poultry and fish courses or pastry. This is the sale price until January 6. Steve Thurlow,

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut
Champagne, France
$ 44.55 LCBO #537605

Nicolas Feuillate is one of the great business success stories of Champagne in modern times. In 30 years it has grown from being a small estate to a co-op of over 5,000 growers and the third largest selling Champagne in the world. This “basic” non-vintage Brut spent the minimum three years ageing on the lees, with a fairly simple fruit-driven aroma of pear/apple, with a hint of vanilla and very mild yeasty notes. It’s light bodied, quite crisp, lemony and fresh with good to very good length. Serve well chilled as an all-purpose aperitif and seafood bubbly. Last Tasted November 2012.  David Lawrason,

Ontario Sparkling ($20 to $30)
With cool climate growing conditions similar to Champagne, as well as limestone based soils, Ontario vintners are moving quickly to create excellent sparklers made  from the same grape varieties (chardonnay and pinot noir) in the same ‘methode champenoise’ (second fermentation in the bottle). And the best Ontario bubblies are still cheaper than the cheapest Champagnes.

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay Brut 2010Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs BrutCave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut
Niagara Escarpment, Ontario
$29.95 LCBO #213983

The Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Brut (traditional method) delivers significant depth, complexity and minerality, on top of pure crisp citrus fruit. The palate is supremely well-balanced, crisply acidic, and the finish lovely and lingering. A really lovely local bubbly that enters into the realm of fine non-vintage champagne blanc de blancs. Tasted October 2012. John Szabo,

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay Brut 2010
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$18.95 LCBO #227009

It is difficult to beat the price/quality ratio on this local gem. Produced in the traditional method, this blanc de blancs is surprisingly rich with elegant toasty notes and creamy mousse. Celebrating ten years in the business, Angels Gate continues to create well-priced, honest sparkling wines. Sara d’Amato,

Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine BrutTrius BrutHenry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut
Niagara Peninsula, Canada
$29.95 LCBO #217521

A serious sparkling wine from Ontario with a delicate nose of lightly toasted bread, apple and pear fruit with baked lemon and floral complexity. It comes with a new label and is much improved. After the delicate nose, it is surprisingly rich on the palate with lots of ripe fruit balanced by soft acidity and a mineral layer. Very good length. Try with pastry nibbles or smoked fish. Steve Thurlow,

Trius Brut
$24.95 LCBO #284539

This has been a consistent gold medal performer in national wine shows. It’s pale yellow in colour with a piquant, fresh, well integrated nose of dried apple, hazelnut and lemon. It’s light bodied, dry with very good acid grip, and at last tasting it seemed to have more acid and piquancy, with a firm, lemony, dry and nutty finish. The length is very good to excellent. The underground bubbly storage cellar is among the largest in Canada and an impressive visit. This is also available at Andrew Peller’s Vineyards wine stores. David Lawrason,

Other Countries (up to $20)
Under $20 sparkling wine can be successfully made anywhere in the world, although cool climates that provide natural acidity are generally better. The grapes become more varied and sometimes localized (as in Italy and Spain), and the wines are often ‘bubblized” by re-fermenting in a tank (the charmat method). But some good traditional method champenoise sparklers can also be found at this price.

Ruhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant d'AlsaceBisol Crede Brut Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene SuperioreBisol Crede Brut Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene Superiore
Veneto, Italy
$19.95 Vintages #297242

Always a full step above the mean, Bisol delivers proseccos of superior refinement and class. Although the Crede is one of the “entry level” bubblies from the house, it 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. Terrific length. John Szabo,

Ruhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant d’Alsace
Alsace, France
$19.95 Vintages #297853

As featured in my latest holiday recommendations, this knock-out crémant made by the traditional method champenoise is ever worthy of a festive celebration and won’t break the bank. Bready, toasty, chalky, earthy, creamy flavours prevail on the palate of this richly compelling Alsatian find. Sara d’Amato,

Yellowglen Pink SparklingSegura Viudas Brut Reserva CavaYellowglen Pink Sparkling
$11.95 LCBO #15867

Every time I try this wine I think that it is a pretty amazing everyday bubble! This blend of pinot noir and chardonnay over delivers for the money. An orangey pink with fine bubbles that persist well with ample aromas of cherry, toffee and bread with a hint of stewed strawberry. The palate is fairly rich with an air of elegance and the finish holds focus and lingers for a long time. Don’t over-chill or you will miss the fruit and aromas. Steve Thurlow,

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava
$14.25 LCBO #216960

This Spanish cava made from local grape varieties by the traditional method continues as one of the best buys in sparkling wine – and it has been for years!  It displays classic olive, green pear and lime aromas. It’s light to mid-weight, brisk and lively, with a nervy centre and some softness on the edges. Chill well. David Lawrason,

From all of us at WineAlign, have a safe and happy new year.   ♫♪♪♫ 

The complete list: New Year’s Sparklers 2012

Oggi Pinot Grigio Delle Venezia 2011

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 5th 2013

The Importance of Reliable Sources

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

2012 is drawing to a close as I write this, and it’s been a fruitful year. The WineAlign community has grown significantly over four years with now close to 41,000 registered users. And nearly 175,000 different people have visited the site over the last month. This ranks WineAlign behind only the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s website in terms of traffic on wine related websites in Canada. And with full coverage of the wine markets in British Columbia and Québec scheduled for early in the new year, I have no doubt in predicting that by the end of 2013, WineAlign will be by far the largest, most useful and reliable source of independent information and critical opinion on wine in the country. What this means for you, of course, is more wine reviews and reports from a growing roster of Canada’s most authoritative and dependable wine critics, with the added layer of greater regional perspectives.

This success establishes the viability of the model, but this isn’t just about a ‘rah rah’ for WineAlign. It’s about a much larger issue that has been put in the spotlight in 2012: the importance of source. It has become clear this past year that the Internet landscape is changing and that there’s increasing attention being paid to the trustworthiness of information. Simply put, the Internet is maturing, and so are its users.

You Rarely Get What You Don’t Pay For

The last decade has seen endless debate about the future of the web, and among many, many observations, one that strikes me as particularly important is the changing perception towards the reliability of, and accountability for, information posted. Much of the excitement in the early days surrounding free access to all kinds of information that once commanded a price is starting to wane. It has taken some time, but users have come to grasp the basic truth that you generally get what you pay for, or rather, that you rarely get what you don’t pay for. In other words, free, unqualified, non-professional, unvetted sources of information are for the most part, low down on the trustworthy scale.

The reasons for this are obvious. Largely gone are the former protective measures of editors and fact checkers, transparent ethical standards, and the generally high barrier to entry for authors, critics and journalists of all stripes, which used to shield the public from unscrupulous manipulators with hidden agendas or outright charlatans. Today, of course, anyone with a machine and an Internet connection can publish opinion veiled as fact, or fiction masquerading as observation, with virtual impunity.

Gaming The System

Many incidences have come to light of ‘consumers’ posting glowing (or damning) reviews of products, restaurants, resorts, films, wines, and just about every other consumer good or service, who, as it turns out, are related directly or indirectly to the provider of these goods or services. And there are currently few legal measures in place to prevent people from publishing opinions on the web that have been bought (outside of the notoriously Teflon charge of libel for negative views).

Wine is a particularly problematic Internet minefield where knowing your source is crucial. For one, it attracts a lot of people, mostly because it’s such a great business to be in, so there are many in the game. But it’s also an expensive consumer good to review and report on. Outside of the independently wealthy, how many unpaid (or poorly paid) bloggers can afford to cover their own transportation and expenses to visit wine regions, buy samples to review, pay for their meals when dining out with a winemaker or winery principal? Zero is the answer. Thus the potential for conflicts of interest is large. This means that virtually everyone in the wine reviewing business is complicit to some degree in stretching the ethical boundaries that the journalists of a by-gone era were held to.

Wine of course is not the only field prone to conflicts of interest. Publishers send free books to reviewers, travel writers go all expenses paid to write-up destinations and DVDs are sent to film critics, to point out but a few. But that doesn’t mean that the reviews published on these things are fraudulent or even unreliable, however. It just makes knowing your source of information all the more critical. And there are so many more sources to sift through. If you’re after genuine third-party, original and independent views, get to know the critic behind them. It’s not hard to do research these days – we’ve all had to become our own fact checkers and vetters of information. Credible credentials, track record, longevity, positive peer reviews, number of supporters/followers, the cost to access information and other bits come together to establish the level of reliability of the source.

Re-Raising the bar on Ethical Standards

It has also become clear that the tolerance of dodgy practices is crumbling in the Internet world. The questionable things you could get away with until very recently have suddenly become a call to arms, resulting in at worst a witch hunt, at best a righting of wrongdoing, like toppling a malevolent dictator or calling a public figure to reckon.

Shrugs of ‘oh well, that’s the way the Internet works’ have turned instead to moral outrage that inspires action. 2012 saw the outing of several writers mostly at the hands of, at least initially, their own colleagues. Read for example about the spectacular fall from grace of celebrated pop-neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer (whose insights I have drawn on in at least a couple of past WineAlign postings), who was caught back in June plagiarizing himself (i.e. recycling his own work) by another writer ( This was only the start of an unraveling that led to the discovery that Lehrer had also borrowed liberally from others, manufactured quotes and manipulated or ignored scientific evidence that did not conform to his pre-determined thesis and which would otherwise get in the way of his story. It was a question of shoddy science, questionable journalism, and possibly theft, and Lehrer got caught.

There’s also of course the case of wine writer Natalie MacLean that went viral in the wine world ( MacLean’s use of colleagues’ wine reviews without proper attribution or permission for profit, and an alleged pay-to-play wine review scheme ( caused a veritable maelstrom that’s still battering her web-shores today. It was the Internet equivalent of a football pile-on, and many reputable wine writers are still seething.

These examples and others prove that you can’t get away for very long with substandard ethics on the World Wide Web, because sooner or later somebody will catch you. That’s the beauty and the curse of the Internet. It has always behooved us to check into our sources, and more and more of us are doing just that on the Internet today. It’s no longer enough to be “published” on the web to be credible. There’s too much temptation in the shrinking writing market for critics to succumb to conflicts of interest or to profit from the work of others. Transparency is also critical.

See You on the Other Side of the Pay Wall

We’ve reached the point at which the perceived value of the information one gets from the internet is based on the source, as it always has been for print publications, and not simply on the fact that it’s free and available for all. Cries of “why would I pay when I can get similar information for free” are ringing more and more hollow, particularly when it comes to highly specialized news or reviews, such as wine reviews.

I think we’ll also see a shift towards more users paying for reliable information, a natural evolution that allows such information to be unearthed or created and disseminated in the first place. Free to users does not mean it’s free to produce, and there’s only so much cost that advertisers can (or should) cover, especially when it comes to reviews. This past year we’ve seen pay walls erected on the websites of the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and The National Post; The Toronto Star will start charging for certain sections in 2013, as will many more I’m sure. I won’t be surprised when wine writers start charging a fee to the retailers who use their reviews to sell wine; a positive review is effectively an endorsement, which in most other fields cost money (and in the case of wine reviewers, obviates the need for consumers to subscribe to their newsletters or websites, and thus reduces their income). Quality news and information is costly to produce and has value.

We’re glad that so many of you have found WineAlign to be a trustworthy source of information, and we plan in 2013 and beyond to continue to deliver our reviews following the most stringent ethical standards and transparency protocols. And although there are no plans to change our ‘freemium’ model, remember that the premium WineAlign subscription gets you even more of that reliable information – the reviews themselves beyond just the scores – and helps keep your favourite wine writers employed, too.

Top Ten Smart Buys

La Pieve Barolo 2008The first Vintages release of every year is devoted to smart buys, which is what I focus on every report, so it’s back to business as usual. It’ll be Saturday January 5th by the time these wines hit the shelves, an opportune moment to replenish the rack after the holidays with some wines that will get you through to the next special occasion (Sunday afternoon?). All but one of my top ten are under $20.

But that one wine, the 2008 La Pieve Barolo ($28.95) was worth including at the price. There was a time when entry-level Barolo started around $40, so sub-$30 is already skewed to value for the region, and especially so when it gets you a maturing but classically styled example, typically firm and tough, for fans of more reserved, traditional Barolo.

Arnaldo Caprai Rosso MontefalcoLa Sala Chianti Classico RiservaCoppi Peucetico Primitivo 2007At the other end of the price scale, the 2007 Coppi Peucetico Primitivo ($13.95) is an amazingly mouth-filling and satisfying wine reminiscent of Amarone at less-than-basic Valpolicella pricing. And rounding out the values from Italy I’d highlight La Sala Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 and the 2009 Arnaldo Caprai Rosso Montefalco, (but $19.95). The former delivers clear riserva-level quality, with generous, high-quality oak, ripe, concentrated red and black fruit, and a firm and structured, densely packed palate. This should improve over the mid-term. Caprai’s Montefalco (mainly sangiovese and sagrantino) is a perennial favorite, a wine I used to purchase regularly for restaurant clients because of its structure and complexity above the price category. The 2009 is particularly ripe and fruity, with a fine balancing mix of pot pourri and dried flowers, licorice, black and red fruit, though the palate remains steadfastly Italian, with dry, firm, dusty tannins and puckering acidity. Serve this with salty protein, or leave in the cellar 2-4 years.

Rabl St Laurent 2009Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling SpätleseSanto Assyrtiko 2011Fans of bright and zesty ‘charcuterie’ reds should consider the 2009 Rabl St Laurent, Kamptal ($15.95). St. Laurent, once believed to be a distant relative of pinot noir but since proven to have no relation, produces in this case a fresh, bright red and blue fruit-scented wine, with terrific balance and succulent, mouth-watering acids.

Among whites worth your attention I’d signal the archetypical 2007 Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese ($16.95), an astonishing value, as I never tire of pointing out when it comes to top Mosel Riesling. It’s drinking beautifully at the moment, and although it starts off slightly sweet, the underlying acids and terrific minerality dry out the long finish. Also a regular source of fine value, minerally wines, Santorini’s competent cooperative winery gives us the 2011 Santo Assyrtiko ($16.95). It has palpable texture and saline flavours, not to mention solid intensity.

See the full top ten here; also stay tuned Saturday December 29th for a shopping list of a dozen sparkling wines recommended by the WineAlign team, in stock at the LCBO and ready to ring in the new year.

And on that note, Happy New Year and best wishes for all – here’s to more trustworthy information in 2013.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

From the January 5, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, 53rd Vintage

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

Ten Wines for My Stocking; Sara’s Holiday Picks

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

A bottle of wine fills a stocking to the brim and with that there is no need for any other trivial treats. My top picks for wine stuffers range from bubbly to full-bodied reds so there should be something for just about everyone on your list. Wrap the bottle in a print-out of WineAlign reviews for that wine, as we recommended on Facebook, and you have given your gift an invaluable add-on.

Ruhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant d'AlsaceCuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc De Blanc1. A bottle of crisp, frosty bubbles is sure to bring a smile to just about anyone’s face. My first pick for sparkling wine this season goes to Niagara producer Henry Of Pelham for their Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc De Blanc 2007, Méthode Traditionnelle, at $44.95. With an elegant new packaging and significant ageing, this showstopper of a sparkler will have most Champagne lovers in disbelief.

2. At a slightly more affordable price point, my international sparkling pick is a classy, elegant Alsatian Crémant at just under $20: Ruhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant D’Alsace, France. Utterly compelling and also beautifully packaged, this pinot blanc and auxerrois blend is abundantly flavourful and is sure to spark conversation.

Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2011Caldora Sangiovese 20103 & 4. For those of you who would like an affordable add-on, here are a couple of selections that taste nearly twice the price: Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2011, Austria, $13.95 A stunner at this price, this spicy, classic grüner veltliner is sure fire hit for those adventurous wine lovers on your list. This wine is from a unique and very traditional winery that focuses on the monastic principles of ‘simplicity and strictness’ to create what their owners feel is a wine that is anything but uniform and homogenous. In fact, no modern technology is used at all at this winery, even pumps are disallowed so the barrels (from special locally sourced wood) are fitted with castors and are moved around the cellar when they need to be filled.

Readily available, the Caldora Sangiovese 2010, Abruzzo, Italy, $9.95 is an expressive, undeniably pleasurable sangiovese packed with character and charm. My ancestors hail partly from this rustic, wild and mountainous region of Italy bordered by the Adriatic Sea so I am always on the lookout for exceptional wines from this often undervalued region. There are great treasures to be found in Abruzzo, and over the years many boutique wineries have been established who are producing very polished wines.

BACHELDER NIAGARA CHARDONNAY 2010Bachelder Oregon ChardonnayLouis Jadot Domaine Gagey Clos Du Roi Marsannay5. If you feel the need to splurge, this is a wine that will certainly impress. Having made me swoon, I can certainly recommend this bottle as a present to your sweetie. Great pinot noir can bring you to your knees and this Marsannay from Louis Jadot Domaine Gagey Clos Du Roi 2009, Burgundy, France ($34.95) might just be the ticket for a holiday proposal. Regardless of your motives, this highly recommended bottle hails from an outlying Burgundian appellation on the northern edge of the Cote d’Or. It is exceptionally balanced and offers solid mid-term cellaring potential.

6 & 7. For the more advanced wineaux, offer a pair of wines that beg for a comparative tasting. Thomas Bacheleder, formerly winemaker of Le Clos Jordanne, but also well known for his accomplishments in Oregon and with Boisset in Burgundy, has released a set of chardonnays from carefully chosen cool climate regions. Currently available are his creations from the Willamette Valley in Oregon: Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay 2010, ($29.95) and Niagara Peninsula’s: Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2010, ($29.95). Open these side by side at the table for a result that is sure to provoke great conversation.

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos8. Oozing with sensual power, one of my top international picks at under $25 this year is: Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2010, Bierzo, Spain. Thankfully, there are still enough bottles remaining that you can find a smattering across the GTA as well as across the rest of the province. The wine is made from 100% mencía – a floral, peppery and full-flavoured varietal known for its exceptional old vines plantings in the region of Bierzo, in northwest Spain, thought to have been an import of the French pilgrims during the middle ages. Iconic Spanish winemaker and innovator Alvaro Palacios and his cousin Ricardo named the winery after Alvaro’s inspirational father (and Ricardo’s godfather). Biodynamically produced with a minimal French barrique ageing and no fining or filtration, this assemblage of several villages around Corullón is an exceptional example of the fleshy, generous and approachable nature of the mencía grape.

Stratus Riesling Icewine 2008Encostas De Penalva 20099. The Dão region, located in central Portugal, isolated by granitic mountainous borders to the north, south and east, produces some of the most innovative and exciting wines in the country. Although we do not see a great deal of Dão wines in the province, I keep my eyes peeled and am careful to taste any examples that will grace our Vintages shelves. The Encostas De Penalva 2009, Portugal, ($14.95) is an indigenous blend of touriga nacional, aragonez and jaen that offers considerable depth, grip and enticing aromatics for the price. The spice and floral notes in this wine will complement wintery, festive menus of all sorts.

10. Finally, what holiday list would be complete without a selection of Ontario’s most esteemed export, Icewine. This is perhaps my favourite Icewine in recent memory and I am thrilled that is still available in reasonable quantities at Vintages. Even if you rarely appreciate this style of wine and consider it overwhelmingly sweet, you cannot help but be charmed by this exquisite riesling from Stratus: Stratus Riesling Icewine 2008 (200ml – $29.95). Balance is key to achieve greatness in this category and the best examples realize a dynamic interplay of sugar and acids to produce an exciting tension. Here is a terrific specimen that illustrates this quality quite successfully.

Very Happy Holidays to you and your family. May your stockings be thoughtfully filled!

Until next year,

Sara d’Amato

For a complete list of Sara’s reviews, visit Sara d’Amato on WineAlign

Oggi Pinot Grigio and Primitivo

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , ,

Lift your Holiday Spirits; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Not surprisingly November 11 to January 5 (which represents LCBO periods 9 and 10) are the busiest time of the year in the Ontario liquor outlets. Spirits sell particularly well. Forty per cent of LCBO annual sales in XO Cognac occur during the holiday period and about 45 per cent of total LCBO Whisky Shop sales. Since you are clearly ready to splurge and might want some spirits for cocktails here are some tips on what to buy.

Dark rums are popular perhaps in part due to their use in holiday baking, eggnogs, hot rum toddies and the like. However rum has also become a collectible item and connoisseurs appreciate unique aged rums to expand their collections. El Dorado 12 Year Old rum has a special gift presentation ($39.95) this year with two glasses enclosed with the product. This rich, velvety smooth and complex rum from Guyana delivers unctuous flavours perfect for winter nights.

Appleton Estate 21 Year OldAppleton Estate celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence this year with the release of an Appleton Estate 50 Year Old Rum. The $5,000 price tag is a little rich for most – the Appleton 21 Year Old is a relative bargain at $150. Presented in a redesigned proprietary decanter and canister, it has interesting aromas of slightly mushroomy, old barrels with notes of orange peel, nuts, coffee beans and more.

Newfoundland Screech, a Two Year Old Jamaican amber rum ($25.40) that’s been coming here since the 1700’s (the schooners of Grand Banks supplied salt cod to the Caribbean and brought back rum) is synonymous with Newfoundland and good times. Rock Spirits, a division of Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corporation, now also offers Old Sam, a Two Year Old Demerara rum from Guyana ($25.90.)

Cruzan Spiced Rum #9Bacardi Oakheart Spiced RumSpiced rum continues to trend upward and is now the third fastest growing spirit category in Canada. Bacardi Oakheart (LTO $25.45) has honey, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg in it. Cruzan Spiced Rum #9 contains nine different heirloom spices ($27.95 with a value added free branded glass while supplies last).

This is the time of year to buy high end cognacs as gifts or as a treat for your home. I’m a real fan of Hine Antique XO Grande Champagne Cognac, a 100th anniversary blend of 40 cognacs exclusively from the Grand Champagne area, Cognac’s finest growth. It’s currently on clearance sale for $169.95, a savings of $31.75. Courvoisier is the first of the four major Hine Antique XO Grande Champagne CognacCognac Houses to introduce a product with a declared age (traditionally all cognacs are blends of years) and Courvoisier 12 Year Old Cognac ($89.50) offers bonus rewards miles this holiday season. Remy Martin XO Excellence ($228.) is an opulent blend of 85 per cent Grande Champagne with 15 per cent Petite Champagne. Up to 28 years of vintages and 300 eaux-de-vie are in the mix. De Luze XO Fine Champagne Cognac ($156.85/700mL) is in limited supply but worth searching out for the value. A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie, it’s from a house that dates to 1822. Louis Royer XO Cognac ($230) is impressive and rich in depth.

Bruichladdich 16 Year Old Bourbon Cask The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year OldWhiskies of course are a popular gift item and there are many excellent selections in the stores. Balvenie Distillery is unique in that it still grows its own barley, uses traditional floor malting and keeps both coppersmith and cooperage on site. (Well worth visiting on the whisky trail.) They’ve come out with an interesting Peated Cask 17 Year Old Malt but for this time of year I’d go for the Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old for warmth and lower price ($103.45). Another interesting whisky, Bruichladdich 16 Year Old Bourbon Cask, is on clearance special for $94.95, a discount of S17.70. The Glenrothes Vintage Single Malt Scotch Whisky 1995 is on LTO for $84.95, a discount of five dollars. Johnnie Walker Platinum Label Private Blend 18 Years ($149.95) is a new “colour” that’s a rich blend of single malt and grain whiskies matured for a minimum of 18 years.

Maker's Mark Kentucky Bourbon Wild Turkey 81 Proof Kentucky Straight BourbonThat brings me to bourbon, the fastest growing spirit category in Canada. Jim Beam has come out with Devil’s Cut ($32.95 with a free branded glass until January 5), enhanced with whiskey extracted from barrel wood. Maker’s Mark 46 ($49.95) is barrel finished with wooden seared staves added to the inside of the barrels. I prefer their original Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon ($42.95). Wild Turkey 81 ($28.95) is value priced with a straight on purity of flavour.

And last, but not least by far, premium white spirits are also big sellers at Christmas. A new entry in the tequila market is Tromba. Tromba, founded by an international team including Torontonian Eric Brass and renowned master distiller Marco Cedano (who created Don Julio) has built its reputation by on-premise sales (about 50 per cent of their total). It’s the number two selling deluxe tequila ($39.95 and up) in Ontario after Patron.

Crazy Uncle Blood Orange Rosemary Maple PunchNew in vodkas are the stylish Elit by Stolichnaya ($69.75 with 20 bonus reward miles) and Flyte a premium vodka made in Newmarket that sells for a great bargain $26.95. Absolut Vodka Unique Edition ($26.45) features a one-of-a-kind design. Every bottle among the four million produced have a different design, all individually numbered. Quite a feature of art.

If the holiday period leaves you too pooped to mix drinks, Crazy Uncle Blood Orange Rosemary & Maple Punch ($17.95), a one-pour culinary cocktail blows every other pre-mix drink out of the ice bucket. Developed by renowned mixologist Frankie Solarik of Toronto’s Bar-Chef it transports the high end bar to your home.

No doubt there’s something for everyone on your list and for you too. Happy holidays.

For all of Margaret Swaine’s reviews:

Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits
Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks

Luxardo Amaretto

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Spirits, , , , ,

John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part III

Part III – Chinon-Saumur

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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, here are the links for the background piece, and then Part I and Part II of the travelogue.

Wednesday September 12th

We leave Jasnières and Domaine de Bellivière behind and head southwest back towards the river on winding country roads. To work or sleep is the question; I’m drowsy after the satisfying lunch and the couple of glasses of wine that weren’t spit, but overwhelmed by the dread of being a full week behind on articles and reviews when I get back to Toronto. Dread wins. I pull out the laptop and open my latest WineAlign tasting file and start editing Vintages release tasting notes. But soon, bumpy roads, sharp curves and fatigue take their toll. I shut the laptop and my eyelids.

Chinon Castle

Forteresse Royale de Chinon

When I wake up, I see buildings racing past. Bill tells me we’re just getting into Chinon, an ancient settlement of some 8,000 people on the banks of the Vienne River, about 10km from where the Vienne joins the Loire. I’ve been here a few times before; it’s a quaint town, famous for its largely intact, medieval fortress perched atop the limestone escarpment overlooking the town and the river. But this was no mere military outpost. Chinon’s castle once served as the royal residence for both the kings of France and England. Chinon is also the birthplace of François Rabelais, a major figure in French renaissance literature, who’s most famous work, Gargantua et Pantagruel, a satirical chronicle of father and son giants, gave us the English word “gargantuan”.

But Rabelais is most remembered in wine circles for his comforting quote: “Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais”, meaning: “drink always and you’ll never die”. Rabelais, apparently, had a gargantuan appetite for food and drink. Though the fact that he’s dead now is not so comforting. There’s a large statue of Rabelais at the end of the main square on the bank of the Vienne, a subtle reminder to visitors and citizens that Chinon is also a wine-producing town, known world wide for its cabernet franc-based wines.

05:30 pm Check in at All Seasons Hotel, Chinon

We’re running about half an hour late, and there’s barely time to check into the hotel, hit send on emails and wash the French country road dust from my face before our next appointment. It doesn’t help that the hotel we’re supposed to check in to no longer exists, at least not under the name “All Seasons”. It’s been bought out by the large chain of IBIS hotels; Edith is thoroughly perplexed as we roll up to the address indicated on the itinerary only to find another hotel there. Loud sucking noises. She goes in to find out what’s up, and returns triumphantly two minutes later to let us know that we have indeed arrived.

05:45 Domaine Bernard Baudry – Chinon

Matthieu Baudry, Looking up to Coteaux

Matthieu Baudry, Looking up to Coteaux

Fifteen minutes later and we’re back on the road on the north side of the river, heading about five kilometers east to the small commune of Cravant-les-Coteaux, still within the Chinon appellation, to Domaine Bernard Baudry. Prosperity is evident as we cruise along the D21, passing estate after estate, with large, well-maintained buildings blending into the escarpment behind; after all, they’re carved out of the same stone. We pull into the gated courtyard of Domaine Baudry. Matthieu, Bernard’s son, is outside waiting for us in the late afternoon sun, looking casual in a t-shirt emblazoned with the Wine Aroma Wheel. He’s young, or at least my age, with a wide grin that’s just beginning to show the wrinkles that come from time spent working outdoors. We hit it off immediately. Matthieu is guileless and open, and I sense that it’s going to be another great visit.

Matthieu took over from his father ten years ago, though he chuckles as he tells us this since he can hardly call his father retired. There’s the loud, telltale clicking sound of a bottling line emanating from the adjacent building, and in fact, Bernard is in the next building bottling some 2011 wines throughout the time we’re at the domaine. We ask Matthieu for a tour of the vines, which he readily agrees to.

Chinon is an appellation of about 2500 hectares in total, divided into two very distinct areas. You’ll often hear producers refer to the wines from the graviers, the soils in the flatter part of the appellation north and south on the banks of the Vienne. As with the Gironde in Bordeaux or the Rhône in southern France, the current course of the Vienne is not the only one it has had. Over millennia, the river has meandered this way and that; each time the course changed, banks of gravel and sandy-clay alluvial deposits were left behind and exposed. These are the graviers, source of the lighter, more perfumed style of red Chinon. Matthieu shows us his parcel called Les Grézeaux, a vineyard planted in 1945, planted on the graviers. It’s flat and certainly gravelly, and almost within site of the Vienne itself. The adjacent plot of land just to the south closer to the river is grazing pastureland, outside of the AOC; such is the undemocratic nature of the appellation of origin system. There’s no equality when it comes to terroir; it’s a purely aristocratic-hierarchical system.

The vine trunks in Baudry’s Grézeaux parcel are thick and sturdy, and the bunches look healthy and taste ripe, almost ready to harvest, despite the challenging vintage conditions experienced here as in pretty much all of the Loire Valley in 2012. Matthieu credits the vines’ health and maturity to organic farming, the conversion to which he started almost from the day he took over (Baudry will be certified organic by Ecocert next year). Though he’s quick to point out that his father always had a qualitative approach. His work will be to continue to build on what his father had already started – there’s no need for a revolution here – just fine-tuning.

Bill asks Matthieu whether he’s interested in biodynamics. He replies that he is interested, but that he’s not ready yet to make the conversion. He’s still learning about the most effective ways to apply organics and doesn’t understand enough about biodynamics, even if he has a great deal of respect for those who follow the principles. He displays the sort of patience that anyone from North America has difficulty understanding. We want everything, and we want it now, and we rush headlong into projects. The perspective of multigenerational enterprise is largely lost on us. “One day, perhaps”, he says.


Hillside vs Plains

We jump back in the car and head up to another one of Baudry’s parcels called La Croix Boissée, this one located on the second main type of terroir in the appellation, the limestone hillsides. These coteaux vineyards sit above the sandy gravel plains on occasionally quite steep, south-facing slopes. You can see the pieces of fractured limestone mixed in with some clay on the surface, and the limestone bedrock, the one out of which buildings in this part of the Loire are constructed, is only a few dozen centimeters below. This is the origin of the more structured, and ultimately more age worthy versions of Chinon, tough in their youth, but marvelously concentrated and complex, with marked minerality.

There’s also some chenin blanc planted in La Croix Boissée to make the much more rare white version of AOC Chinon. Chenin is far less planted than cabernet franc because for one, it doesn’t yield interesting results on the graviers, and two, because most of the fine coteaux parcels on limestone soils on which it does produce excellent results are reserved for cabernet franc. Yet there’s some renewed interest in white Chinon, and Matthieu has planted several top coteaux parcels within the last decade with chenin.

Bill and I are fanatics of good Loire cabernet franc and he can’t resist asking the burning question, also running through my mind: “what’s the difference between the four main Loire Valley appellations for cabernet franc – Chinon, Bourgeuil, St-Nicholas de Bourgeuil and Saumur Champigny?” Matthieu smiles in that wry French vigneron sort of way and chuckles. Do you want the official answer or my answer? He asks. Yours, of course, we say in unison with no hesitation – it’s the sort of question that needn’t be asked nor answered, but the formalities are done with.

Limestone in Chinon

Limestone in Chinon

“To be honest”, continues Matthieu, there are graviers and limestone coteaux in all of the appellations, so to tell the wines apart is not easy. Bill quips in: “yet in Québec, consumers have the general impression that Saumur Champigny produces the most serious cabernet franc, while the others are a bit lighter”. Matthieu smiles again and says “and if you ask anyone in Paris what they think of Saumur Champigny they’ll tell you it’s the lightest vin de soif of the Loire appellations, served in bistros with a chill”. Ahh, the wonderfully precise world of wine, full of truths and absolutes.

Bill’s, and Quebéc’s impression of sturdy Saumur may well be based on the strength of a couple of producers, namely Château Yvonne, a wine that we’ll taste a little further down the river which is indeed stellar, and the legendary Clos Rougeard (at least in cabernet franc/Loire wine drinking circles). In the end, the differences between wines emerge more from producer and specific terroir than from any somewhat arbitrary appellation boundaries. I’m suddenly transported back to a tasting of the four main red wine appellations of Saumur-Touraine back in Paris in 1997 when I was studying my first wine course. I vividly recall the instructor, Alain Ségelle, saying precisely the same thing – that the producer is easier to identify than the appellation – which I found hard to believe at the time. I was still under the naïve impression that an AOC was an absolute, a guarantee of style, and that the producer was just the person in the middle between me and the dirt.

Matthieu does offer one little personal piece of opinion, which he sheepishly prefaces as such. “I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but in my experience, the wines of St. Nicolas de Bourgeuil are the lightest, softest and earliest maturing of the four AOCs. That’s because they have less limestone there. Most of the vineyards are planted on sandy gravels that give more delicate wines. Bourgeuil, on the other hand, is mostly limestone, so as an appellation it tends to produce the most structured wines on the whole. But, bien sûre, there are exceptions. And as for the rest, good luck”. I’m thankful for that little tidbit of information, feeling that at least now I’ll have something useful to write and teach about when I get back home. It’s so (justifiably) unsatisfying to students or readers to make a statement like: “just get to know your producers”. It always sounds as if you’re trying to dodge the question, even if it is often the truth.

We arrive back at the estate. The clanging of the bottling line can still be heard through the open door of the adjacent cellar. We enter the tasting room, and I spy several glass boxes filled with dirt to one side. It’s always comforting to see containers of dirt in a tasting room. Matthieu sees my interest and points over to the seven rectangular glass cases on one wall, each one a unique mosaic of shades ranging from near white (limestone) to deep brown (clay-earth), with varying proportions of gravel, sand and other chunks of fractured limestone mixed in. On top of each case is a representative bottle of the wine made from these different soil types. The bottles bear names like “Grézeaux”, “La Croix Boissée” or “Le Clos Guillot”. Sometimes, these names refer to the specific vineyard site, as in the latter two, other times it’s a reference to the soil type, as in the former one, “Grézeaux”, referring to Baudry’s parcel in the graviers soils. All of these cuvée names must seem like more mysterious, arcane information for consumers to attempt to grasp in the already overwhelming world of wine, since there’s no universal consistency in naming/labeling practices and much fantasy is involved. But it’s like car models. You just have to learn the difference between a Chevy Nova and a Corvette before you buy.

Matthieu Baudry and his dirt

Matthieu Baudry and his dirt

Displays of dirt are common practice at estates aiming to make wines that reflect their origins. It also draws a closer connection between the taster and the origin of each different cuvée. Obviously looking at a tube filled with stones and earth and sand dug from the vineyard site where the wine comes from doesn’t tell you anything about how it will taste. That is, at least not until you’ve had the opportunity to compare wines from different sites side-by-side. The wine world is nothing if not purely relative, and relativity takes a whole lot of context to establish. Bill and I are in the process of developing context – that’s the purpose of these travels through wine country; after all, I can taste a bunch of wines in my living room. But walking through the vineyards and scratching the dirt, then extending the connection between place and taste with yet more visual reference while tasting with the winemaker is about as deeply into context as you can go without actually making the wines yourself. Slowly but surely you can begin to unravel the mysterious connection between terroir and wine profile. It’s quite amazing.

We start the tasting with a couple of white Chinons made from chenin blanc. The first is the 2011 “domaine” bottling, made from young, eight year-old vines planted in what Matthieu believes is a great terroir. But he doesn’t deem the wine yet worthy of a vineyard designation so for now it will remain a simple estate wine. It’s generous and mouth filling on the palate with an almost sweet impression, but finishes quite short – depth and length often come from more established vines. The second white is from the vineyard we walked through, the coteaux site called La Croix Boissée, with its intensely limestone-rich soils. The vines are 15 years old and starting to come into their own. The wine is much more chalky textured and mineral-flavoured with a riveting stream of acidity. The flavour lingers for much longer than the first wine.

We move on to the reds. The first is Baudry’s basic Chinon called “Les Granges” from 2011, bottled just the day before, always a tough period in which to taste a wine. It’s a little muddled on the nose, but true to origins – graviers soils – with its simple, juicy, easy drinking style. The 2011 “Domaine” Chinon from mostly sandy-limestone soils offers a little more depth and structure, relatively speaking. With the next cuvée, Les Grézeaux, we move back to the 2010 vintage. This is from the 60 year-old vines that we walked through, on graviers soils down by the river. Although arguably not a top terroir, the age of the vines compensate. The wine is pure and elegant, very floral, with ripe dark berry fruit and structured tannins, quite powerful and muscular, again, in a relative way.

We then compare two of the top terroirs: Le Clos Guillot, a limestone-rich clay vineyard near the town of Chinon itself, and La Croix Boissée, both from the 2010 vintage. The first is tight on the nose, but not more obviously structured than the Grézeaux as I expected. Instead, there’s more volume in the mouth; the wine just seems to have an extra dimension that the previous didn’t and it fills every nook and cranny in my mouth, as though someone just turned up the stereo and the room was suddenly filled with music. It’s very Burgundian in fact, where elegance and femininity doesn’t mean light and frivolous.

At this point, Bill, inspired by Matthieu’s descriptions of his own wines and his descent into such controversial tasting terms as “feminine”, starts to relate each cuvée to a different type of woman. He likens Le Clos Guillot to a ballerina, balanced, graceful, and delicate yet strong. Ok, I’m not reporting exactly what Bill said, in fact not remotely, but I’d like to keep this story wine-focused. I’ve never taken to female analogies, but what Bill says actually makes sense, and conjures up some interesting images. Matthieu chuckles and plays along.

Next is La Croix Boissée. It, on the other hand, is effusively aromatic, very floral as great cabernet franc can be, with darker, earthier fruit. I suspect a slightly later harvest contributed to the riper, darker fruit character, but Matthieu explains that La Croix Boissée is in fact usually the first parcel to be harvested. “It’s the site that pushes maturity quickly”, he says. I think back to the perfectly angled, south facing slope and it makes sense. Matthieu quickly follows that up with a declaration of his visceral dislike of surmaturité, the common practice of waiting until grapes are overripe before harvesting, which yields wines with more alcohol, more body, lower acidity and darker, raisined fruit flavours. Bill and I vigorously nod in agreement. I’ll take fresh fruit over baked fruit any day. But in any case, this is the firmest, chalkiest, most mineral wine we taste on the day. Bill describes it as an Argentine tango dancer (female, of course), among other potent visuals.

I leave images of Argentina behind, guessing this wine will age extremely well given the concentrated, grippy mouthfeel. And as if Matthieu had been reading my thoughts on ageability, he offers to bring out some older wines from the cellar. Bill and I feign the demureness of not being worthy of the special treat of tasting old bottles, but we do a terrible job of it. After dismissing our pathetically weak protestation, he disappears into the cellar and returns moments later with three bottles, the labels of which he keeps hidden. We’re entering another round of name that wine and vintage, it seems.

As it turns out, he’s brought a 2007 Clos Guillot, which I mistake for the Grézeaux, a 2005 Grézeaux which I mistake for La Croix Boissée, and the last, a 1999 La Croix Boissée which I manage to figure out, if only by process of elimination. But I’m off by several years on the vintage, thinking it was a few years younger, closer to 2002. Bill, on the other hand, gets the vintage right – he’s having a good day, or he’s just lucky.

This mini tasting highlights one additional complicating factor in the terroir equation: vintage variation. In a marginal climate like the Loire, weather patterns vary considerably from year to year. So without this additional piece of context, it’s tough to put the puzzle together. A cool year like 2007, a sunny and warm year like 2005, or a rainy year like 1999 shifts the expression of a terroir. This is why a great vintage Grézeaux can taste like the usually more powerful and structured Croix Boissée, or a cool vintage Clos Guillot can resemble the elegant, floral side of a Grézeaux. At least that’s my story. Maddening, but fascinating nonetheless. It would be boring to figure everything out.

We’re late again, so we bid adieu to Matthieu, who’s still smiling. We too, are smiling. That was a great tasting. We jump back in the car with Edith who has been patiently waiting in the courtyard as we sipped away. It’s time to meet Philippe Alliet, another well-respected Chinon producer, at least in Québec – his wines are not imported into Ontario and I’ve never tried them, but Bill assures me they’re worth the coup.

08:00 pm Diner at « Au Chapeau rouge » with Philippe Alliet

We’re dropped off in front of the place du Général De Gaulle, the very centre of town, a few hundred meters north of the river. We stroll up to the Au Chapeau Rouge restaurant on the east side of the square, one of the more chic restaurants in Chinon. There’s a man skulking about on his cell phone outside who doesn’t look at us. We enter and are shown to our table; Alliet has not yet arrived, at least not in the restaurant. We’ve never met him and don’t know what he looks like. Usually this is not a problem: a glance, a nod, a feeling that someone is looking for somebody is often enough to make the connection – wine trips are full of encounters with strangers.

Au Chapeau Rouge

Au Chapeau Rouge

There’s nobody in the restaurant who gives off the right vibe. After a few minutes of waiting, we turn to look through the window. The man who was on his phone is still there, sort of loitering in front of the restaurant. Although he didn’t seem intent on finding anyone, we get the feeling this might be Alliet. We walk outside. “Mr. Alliet?” “Ah, oui”, he answers, looking a little embarrassed. “I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet you”. Well, in the restaurant under the reservation made by Interloire would have been my logical first choice. But winegrowers are not always socially inclined. They spend a lot of alone time in their vines, you know.

I also notice that he doesn’t have any bottles with him. Apparently he has arrived to meet two wine journalists from Canada on a tour of the Loire and has nothing to show. His wines are not even listed on the restaurant wine list. Awkward.

“I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring wines to the restaurant” says Alliet. It’s hard to believe this little directive wasn’t communicated to him by Interloire when the schedule was set up. But I also suspect it was so obvious that the point was to meet and taste wines that Interloire may well not have specifically mentioned to Alliet to bring along samples. The effervescent restaurant hostess also seems perplexed when she finds out that he has no wine with him; she’s presided over dozens of such winemaker-journalist dinners, since Au Chapon Rouge is Interloire’s standard go-to restaurant in Chinon.

A little embarrassed now, Alliet half triumphantly, half sheepishly reveals that he does indeed have a bottle in his car, and proposes to go and grab it. “S’il vous plait”, Bill and I say, bemusedly. Yes, that would please us. He’s back shortly and leaves the bottle with the hostess. By now we need something to drink to break the ice, so we order a white Chinon to start, on Alliet’s recommendation.

Alliet is a man of few words. It’s clear he feels well out of his element here. He tells us that such meetings are very rare in fact for him. He spends all of his time in his vineyards and cellar. He rarely travels. Although Québec is one of his biggest export markets, he’s never been. Getting him to speak about his vineyards, wines, or anything for that matter is like trying to get your high school boyfriend to talk about his feelings. Even Bill and I, never short on questions and observations, are stymied by Alliet, as though he’s sucked all of the words out of us. We stare a lot at each other and around the room. Uncomfortable.

The food finally arrives, and by the time we’ve had a glass of his red, the conversation is flowing a little more easily, but it’s no torrent. Yet despite my disappointment at not being able to fully get to know these wines that Bill spoke so highly about, I nevertheless respect Alliet’s shyness and humility. It’s such a change from the aggressive marketing of so many wineries and the relentless commercial onslaught of their export directors. Alliet has no press kit or USB key with label images, no tech sheets listing the precise percentage of new oak used. Here’s a man who just makes wine, without hard commercial aspirations, an increasingly rare creature. He just makes good wine, at least the best he can make. “Here it is”, he says silently, without words. “Take it or leave it”. You get the impression that he would be infinitely happier if he didn’t actually have to sell the stuff. He’d probably just give it away, or trade it for chickens and beef and vegetables and tractor fuel from time to time.

But sustainability requires sales, and the next generation – Alliet’s son – needs something to inherit. He graciously offers to drop a few samples at our hotel in the morning so that we can taste his range later on, an offer we kindly accept. In fact that suits us perfectly, since we know the wine would be doing the talking anyway.

We say good night to M. Alliet, and start walking back to the hotel formerly known as the All Seasons across the river. We pass a bar that’s still open just off the main square, with a handful of die-hard young revelers. I check my watch: 11pm. Still early. Bill and I glance at each other – there’s definitely a twinkle in his eye, as there is in mine. But no. Not tonight. Tonight we’ll be responsible and get some sleep. We skirt the statue of Rabelais on our way back to avoid his disapproving stare.

John and Bill’s Excellent Loire adventure wraps up in Anjou and Muscadet. The final chapter will be posted shortly.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , ,

John and David’s Twenty Important Wines of 2012 (that you can still buy!)

Welcome to our top year-end picks for 2012. Note that these are not necessarily our highest scoring wines of the year (even if all are 90+ points), but rather selected from a long list of candidates based on several criteria. Firstly, all wines had to have been tasted in 2012 and still be currently available, with bottles showing in the LCBO’s inventory at publishing. They also had to represent excellent value in their price segment, and transport us faithfully to their respective regions. And lastly, and most importantly, they had to spark our excitement, capture our imagination, and deliver an extra dimension of pleasure and deliciousness that only special wines can do. We hope you ‘align’ with our choices!

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John’s Reds

Jonata Todos Red 2008, Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Barbara, California, USA  $59.95

Jonata is one of the most interesting and exciting wine projects on the west coast, and has skyrocketed in less than a decade into the top echelon of California winegrowers. Although Santa Barbara is best known for pinot noir and chardonnay, this syrah-based blend proves the region’s suitability for a much wider range of grapes. And this is only Jonata’s “entry level” wine. Imagine what’s yet to come.

Jonata Todos Red 2008Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet SauvignonLe Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf Du PapeCliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Napa Valley, California, USA $74.95

California was of course the big story in Vintages this year, occupying top spot in sales terms by a country mile; Canadian love for the Golden State is deep. Cliff Lede is himself a native Canadian from Edmonton, a soft spoken, engaging, guileless man who’s considerable business success enabled him to purchase a gorgeous property in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa Valley about a decade ago. He favours a decidedly balanced and refined style of Napa cab, along the lines of other great estates in the valley such as Dunn, Montelena, Grgich, Von Strasser, Philip Togni, Corison, Signorello, and Heitz, among others. Lede enjoys a devoted following among local Canadian wine collectors, and his flagship wine, Poetry, is gone before it arrives. It’s nice to see the excellent estate wine more widely available.

Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010
Rhone, France $53.95

Brilliant back-to-back vintages in 2009 and 2010 have put the southern Rhône, and its best known appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape, firmly back on the map. The top wines are not inexpensive, but in the relative world of distinctive regional specialities, these remain bargains. Le Vieux Donjon is a massive and age worthy wine; I’d tuck it way for at least 3-5 years before revisiting, and it should last well into the mid-twenties.

Domaine Terlato & ChapoutierSpinifex Bête Noir Shiraz 2010Spinifex Bête Noir Shiraz 2010, Barossa
South Australia, Australia $49.95

Bet you never thought you’d see a Barossa shiraz on my top year end list. Well, Spinifex’s Bête Noir is a paradigm-shifter. It delivers richness and generosity to be sure, but has a far more intriguing, brooding, savage character that’s so much more compelling that merely jammy fruit. It’s clear proof that Barossa shiraz can’t be boxed up into one narrow style category.

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz 2010, Pyrenees
Victoria, Australia $51.95

Victoria made a big splash this year at the LCBO, featuring heavily in several Vintages releases. The push was the result of Wine Australia’s initiative to expand consumers’ impressions of the country’s stylistic repertoire, and we saw many refined chardonnays and pinot noirs from southern Victoria, unusual varieties like tempranillo, and an eye-opening range of shiraz from less-known corners, like the Pyrenees. It’s unsurprising that this wine gives a nod back to Europe, considering that it’s made in a project led by the Northern Rhône’s Michel Chapoutier. I was struck by the marvelously savoury and smoky-violet-tar flavours, allied to a freshness and balance that’s thankfully becoming more common across the antipodes.

John’s Whites

Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010, Vinemount Ridge
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada $34.95

Tawse won an unprecedented third straight Winery of the Year at the Canadian Wine Awards in 2012, establishing beyond any shadow of doubt that quality is deeply embedded in the estate’s MO. Their chardonnay range is their strongest suit in my opinion, and the biodynamically farmed Quarry Road vineyard always stands out for me.

Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos ChardonnayDomaine Latour Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime MeursaultLe Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2009, Twenty Mile Bench
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada $65.00

Ontario is rapidly establishing a reputation for excellent cool climate chardonnay outside of its borders, thanks in no small measure to initiatives like the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, of which the 3rd annual edition will take place in July 2013. There’s a growing list of admirable chardonnays in the province, and around the top of mine is LCJ’s Le Grand Clos chardonnay, considered the top of their range. It’s not the most powerful or immediately impressive, but it’s the one I find to have the greatest balance and finesse while delivering great depth, complexity and length. Pour this blind for your Burgundy-drinking friends and wait for the superlatives.

Domaine Latour Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime Meursault 2010
Burgundy, France $44.95

Plenty of Burgundies made their way through Vintages this year, offering, as is often the case, a mixed bag of quality and value. Looking back on my notes from the year, one commune – Meursault – appeared to stand out from the others in terms of consistency. Most of my top picks came from this village, the latest of which is Latour-Giraud’s cuvee Charles Maxime from the excellent 2010 vintage. It’s an assemblage of several lieux-dits and premier crus that delivers arch-typical wet limestone minerality and the nuttiness for which Meursault is prized. This will be better in 2-3 years, so cellar if you have the patience.

Rolly Gassmann Stegreben De Rorschwihr GewurztraminerMarkus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling SpätleseMarkus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese 2008
Mosel, Germany $26.95

It’s no secret I think Mosel rieslings are among the world’s greatest and most distinctive whites, and considering their average selling price, one of the greatest bargains on earth. Markus Molitor is a man obsessed with terroir expression, making powerful, intense, amazingly complex wines throughout his range. His ’08 spätlese from Zeltingen’s seriously steep Himmelreich vineyard was one of this year’s best examples. If you think you know riesling, drink again.

Rolly Gassmann Stegreben De Rorschwihr Gewurztraminer 2009
Alsace, France $27.95

I couldn’t resist adding Gassman’s Gewürztraminer to my list this year; it was such an arrestingly pure and heroically concentrated essence of variety matched to place. Pierre Gassman has adhered to biodynamic winegrowing principles since 1997, even if he’s not certified, though to be fair the Gassmann family has been making wine in Rorschwihr since 1676 and the conversion required no major philosophical shift. This is a wine of pure hedonism, perfect for mid-afternoon or late night contemplation over the holidays.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David’s Reds

Domaine Chanson Beaune Clos-Des-Marconnets 1er Cru 2009
Burgundy, France $49.95

We saw many terrific Burgundies filter into Vintages this year, in large part due to the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages. But Domaine Chanson’s offerings stood out, offering pinot noir fruit purity and clarity and a fine sense of modernity and elegance. In May I visited this revitalized smallish winery housed within the ramparts of Beaune, and a few weeks later winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron brought his wares to Toronto as well. Both times I was very impressed – may they keep on coming in 2013

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2010Maysara Pinot NoirDomaine Chanson Beaune Clos Des Marconnets 1er Cru 2009Maysara Estate Cuvee Pinot Noir 2008
Willamette Valley, Oregon $32.80

All the talk of biodynamic wine settled down in 2012, not because there were fewer biodynaminc wines, or because the trend is fading. Winemakers are simply getting busy and making them, with less fanfare now that the market generally understands the concept. And I am rating biodynamic wines higher, often when I am not aware that they are biodynamic. Such was the case when this obscure Oregon pinot wowed me at Vintages. It has all kinds of heart and energy – that extra something that to me spells BioD.

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2010
Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia $49.95

In 2012 wines from the state of Victoria made a big splash at Vintages, none more compelling than the cool climate pinot noirs of the Mornington Peninsula, and Kooyong in particular. This pinot focused, green-minded showpiece winery made a solid debut with four listings, including two high end In Store Discoveries that are still available as well. All are complex, layered and scintillating.

Baron De Ley Gran Reserva Two Hands Bella's Garden Shiraz 2010Baron De Ley Gran Reserva 2001
Rioja, Spain $29.95

There were all kinds of interesting and diverse new wines from Spain in 2012 (and the trend continues with a Spanish release on January 19).  But it was a very classy, old guard Rioja – at very good price – that stole the show. It caused such a stir back in March (amassing 19 WineAlign reviews) that Vintages re-ordered and re-released in November. It reminded all of us, in one fell swoop, how great fully mature red wine can be.

Two Hands Bellas Garden Shiraz 2010
Barossa Valley, South Australia $64.95,

It might just be me, but a lot of big Barossa shiraz are tasting mighty fine these days – like big comfy koalas that wrap you in their arms, and flood your senses. Most impress easily with their girth and richness, but some – like this beauty – are also showing real poise and balance. It’s not that alcohol is necessarily being lowered; I think that more viticultural attention is being paid to achieving perfect ripeness and balance in the fruit.

David’s Whites

Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2011
Rhone Valley, France $33.95

The white wines of the southern Rhone Valley are escalating in terms of quality and popularity, offering chardonnay-like richness but with added exotica thanks to the blend of varieties that can include roussanne, marsanne and viognier. The genre hits its apogee with the grand whites of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but there are some great values from “lesser” appellations, including this terrific wine from the Perrin family that owns Chateau de Beaucastel.

Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2011Pascal Marchand MeursaultCloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012Pascal Marchand Meursault 2010
Burgundy, France $57.95

The extraordinarily polished, poised and elegant white and red Burgundies by Pascal Marchand have been dribbling into Vintages. Marchand is the Quebec-born winemaker who almost single-handedly raised the quality quotient of Ontario chardonnay while working with Le Clos Jordanne and (still) Tawse.  Now at the winemaking helm of a renovating Tawse-partnered winery facility in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Marchand will be soon be in full flight. I tasted an impressive range in Burgundy in May, and can only say – the best is yet to come.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Marlborough, New Zealand $29.95

During the New Zealand sauvignon stampede of the last decade, the iconic brand that caught the world by storm in the 90s has been rather overlooked. There were some vintages that didn’t seem to be particularly exciting, but recently I have been very impressed with Cloudy Bay. There is a sense of restraint and complexity that involves fruit and minerality, elements often diminished by the intensity and straightforward herbaceous and citric brashness of many peers. And thankfully Cloudy Bay remains a Vintages Essential.

Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Riesling 2010Closson Chase ChardonnayClosson Chase Chardonnay 2009
Prince Edward County, Ontario $29.95

The full throttle, rich and idiosyncratic style of Deborah Paskus’ chardonnays is controversial, but there is no question that they are complex, intriguing wines with quite incredible depth of flavour. And in the midst of all that there is still a sense of poise and minerality that defines Prince Edward County.  The County is indeed lucky to have a winery that makes and markets wine with such flair. And a little controversy doesn’t hurt either.

Tawse Sketches of Niagara Riesling 2010
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario $17.95

Yes, Tawse makes “better” more complex, powerful and riveting rieslings from single vineyards like Quarry Road, Carly’s Block and Wismer, but this snappy little number – that brims with brightness and terrific acid-sugar balance – keeps winning at events like the Canadian Wine Awards and Lieutenant Governors Awards.  And it’s so affordable, making a hugely important ambassador for Niagara riesling in general.

Here’s the complete list so that you can check inventory in your favourite store:

John and David’s Twenty Important Wines of 2012

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , ,

Steve’s Go-To Six from the LCBO Top 50 Value Wines – Dec 2012

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Like most wine writers I am often asked “what is your favourite wine?”. Usually I reply that I have many and refer the curious to the thousands of wines I have reviewed on WineAlign. However I do have a few “go-to” wines that I often drink at home. So as a Holiday special I have picked six of my favourites that you too can enjoy in the days and weeks ahead – a pair for your Holiday turkey, another pair of party wines, and finally a duo for those hearty winter meals.

Please also check out all the rest of the wines on my Top 50 Value Wines list, since all offer great value. There are four wines that are new to the list since last month. Read beyond my go-to’s to find more values, and to discover how the Top 50 is systematically selected.

Roast Turkey Dinner

Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserva Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir A red and a white that are both delicious and will be perfect with a roast turkey dinner.

Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2011, Central Valley, Chile $10.95

This wine is consistently one of the best values in inexpensive pinot each vintage. The 2011 is an excellent straight forward pinot noir that does what a pinot noir should do: put a happy smile on your face. It is ruby-red in colour with complex (for this price) aromas of red cherry and raspberry fruit with some spice, smoke and herbal notes. The palate is mid-weight with the fruit supported by acidity and mild tannin. It is fresh, pure, fruity and very yummy. Match with roast turkey, cold roast beef or baked salmon. Very good length.

Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserva 2011, Casablanca Valley, Chile $11.95

A delicious, hardly oaked, chardonnay with a beautiful creamy lively palate. Expect a lifted nose of complex aromas of peach, melon and grapefruit with honey and toffee notes and a hint of oak spice. It is rich and creamy on the palate with lovely soft lemony acidity which keeps it feeling light. It finishes dry with very good to excellent length. Try with white meats, creamy cheeses and seafood. Don’t overchill.

Party Wines

We all need to have wines in stock at this time of the year for when guests drop in for a drink and a nibble, or for planned parties where we need lots of wine to supplement what is brought as gifts. You can never have enough of these two in stock in my opinion.

Trapiche Reserve SyrahCono Sur Bicicleta ViognierTrapiche Reserve Syrah 2010, Mendoza, Argentina $11.95

A soft juicy syrah with aromas of blueberry and blackberry fruit plus dark chocolate and vanilla notes. It is midweight and creamy smooth with the fruit flavours balanced by soft lemony acidity and gentle fine tannin. Good to very good length. A very classy wine at a great price. Sip on its own or try with grilled meats or strongly flavoured cheese. Best 2013 to 2015.

Cono Sur Bicicleta Viognier 2011, Colchagua Valley, Chile $9.95

Lifted tropical fruit aromas give a great start to this wine with orange blossom, baked apple, ginger and nutty complexity. It is medium to full bodied and very rich with the fruit well balanced by vibrant acidity. Very good to excellent length. It’s terrific value. Enjoy on its own lightly chilled with party nibbles or at the table with rich poultry dishes or sautéed seafood.

Stews, Casseroles, Steaks and Roasts

Cousiño Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet SauvignonFarnese Casale Vecchio Montepulciano D'abruzzoAs it gets colder, we tend to eat more hearty red meat dishes; so some reds for the table will be needed over the Holidays.

Farnese Casale Vecchio Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2010, Abruzzo, Italy $9.95

There is a lot going on in this Italian red for under $10. The complex nose shows black berry fruit, toffee, plum jam with mild oak spice, hints of vanilla and a touch of mocha. It is very smooth on the palate with the clean bright fruit well balanced by soft acidity and soft tannin. Very good length. This is stunning value for such a complex and elegant wine. Try with roast game, stewed lamb or beef or roast lamb. Best 2013 top 2016.

Cousiño Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Maipo Valley, Chile $15.95

This small Chilean winery makes some very classy wines at a great price. Rarely do you find such a degree of elegance in such an inexpensive wine. It is youthful with a tightly wound nose of cassis fruit with tobacco, dark chocolate, menthol and sage notes. It is medium to full bodied and sexy smooth with the ample ripe fruit balanced by soft acidity with a little dry tannin giving some grip to the finish. Very good length. Will develop more complexity with a few years in the cellar. For now, decant for an hour and enjoy with a steak, beef casserole or roast beef. Best 2013 to 2018.

December 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

Four wines arrived on the Top 50 this month. I wrote about the Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir above, and here are the other three:

La Posta Cocina Tinto BlendNegroamaro Rosso SalentoLa Posta Cocina Tinto Blend 2010, Mendoza, Argentina $12.85

This red blend of malbec with syrah and bonarda is an opaque purple wine with aromas of blackberry jello, blueberry and prune fruit with herbal and floral tones. It is full bodied, flavourful and well structured with some firm tannin giving grip and acidity for vibrancy. Very good length. Try with a steak. Will gain in complexity with a year or two of bottle age, but fine now. Best 2013 to 2016. The 2011 vintage of the wine below is just as good as the last four vintages so it keeps its place on the Top 50 this month.

Pezoules Cabernet SauvignonMezzomondo Negroamaro 2011, Salento, Puglia, Italy $7.95

This has been one of the best value reds at LCBO for years. It’s less than $8 and you get a lot for the money. The nose is black cherry fruit with some earthy spicy tones and a hint of pine. It is medium bodied, juicy and well balanced with good to very good length and enough tannin for balance. Try with strongly flavoured cheese, pizza or bbq meats. Best 2013 to 2015. The next wine is on sale for a month and so jumps into the Top50 for a while.

Pezoules Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Peloponnese, Greece $10.60

This is great value for a clean lightweight cabernet. Expect mild aromas of cassis fruit with red currant and tobacco tones. It is midweight dry and well balanced with some chewey tannin showing up on the finish. Very good length. Try with bbq meats or creamy Brie cheese. Best 2012 to 2015. ($10.60 until Jan 6th; was $11.60).

How I Choose the Top 50

Steve's Top Value WinesI constantly taste the wines at the LCBO to keep the Top 50 list up to date. You can easily find all of my all Top 50 Value Wines from the WineAlign main menu. Click on Wine =>Top 50 Value Wines to be taken directly to the list. To be included in the Top 50 for value a wine must be inexpensive while also having a high score, indicating high quality. I use a mathematical model to make the Top 50 selections from the wines in our database. Every wine is linked to WineAlign where you can read more, discover pricing discounts, check out inventory and compile lists for shopping at your favourite store. Never again should you be faced with a store full of wine with little idea of what to pick for best value.

Once you have tried a wine, you can use the ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ to agree or disagree with our reviews. Or better yet, you can add your own review and join our growing community of user reviewers. If you find that there is a new wine on the shelf, or a new vintage that we have not reviewed, let us know. 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

Garofoli Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi

Rosehill Wine Cellars

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The Successful Collector, by Julian Hitner; Wine education for us all – understanding Italian labels

Part II: the ABCs of IGTs:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When the Italian DOC/DOCG system was first established in 1963, it didn’t take long for its many flaws to come to the fore. Above else, it failed to anticipate the radical changes Italian wine-making would take in terms of overall quality in the impending decades.

Let’s put it another way: though it may come as a surprise to some, with very few exceptions the wines of Italy in the 1960s weren’t all that impressive. Chianti was a weak, albeit passable concoction made of red and white grapes; Barolo was excessively tannic and unapproachable for the first two decades of its existence; and few people had ever even heard of Brunello di Montalcino or Amarone della Valpolicella. In short, the wines that Italy is most famous for today were not long ago either poorly made or barely known outside of the regions they came from.

Worst of all, the rigid regulations governing the production of such wines as Chianti Classico prevented producers from experimenting with better methods of winegrowing. By law, wines like Chianti Classico were obliged in the 1960s to contain at least 10-30% Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca; permitted yields were a ridiculously high 80 hl/ha; and no percentage of French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot were allowed.

TignanelloCue the Antinori family and the debut of Tignanello of 1970. Though crafted from grapes grown within the Chianti Classico denominazione, the wine could not be labeled as such because it did not follow the traditional varietal formula. The wine was 100% Sangiovese and matured in French oak barrels (Piero Antinori began adding a little Cabernet Sauvignon in 1975). As such, the wine could only be labelled as Vino di Tavola, the lowest possible ranking for Italian wines. But a bottle of Tignanello sold for more than most Italian wines. Overnight, the imperfections of the DOC/DOCG system were clear.

Even worse, it took over twenty years for a partial solution to be reached. In 1992, a new classification was put in place alongside the DOC/DOCG system: the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) system. Though not without its limitations, ‘Super Tuscans’ such as Tignanello were finally no longer obliged to be labeled as Vino di Tavola, but as IGT Toscana.

Oreno Sette PontiFast forward to 2012 and the IGT system has become almost as ubiquitous as its DOC/DOCG counterpart. For wine lovers nowadays, the most important thing to understand about the IGT system is that it is only used for wines that do not adhere to the traditional grape/winegrowing requirements as prescribed under the DOC/DOCG system. But it is not an extra guarantee of quality! Though there are plenty of premium Super Tuscans made by winemakers throughout Tuscany and other parts of Italy, the vast majority of IGT wines are fairly simple and straightforward, relatively inexpensive, and should not be confused with wines like Tignanello and Solaia (Antinori), Oreno (Sette Ponti), or Saffredi (Pupille)—a few personal favourites.

OrnellaiaJust as important, the IGT system should not be confused with wines formerly labelled as Vino di Tavola but now have their own specific DOC/DOCGs. The most significant example of this is Bolgheri DOC, where renowned estates such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Le Macchiole are located. Though Sangiovese is permitted, most of these wines are made entirely from Bordeaux varietals, ranked among the best in Italy.

These points notwithstanding, the IGT system is not very difficult to grasp. Like everything else about winegrowing Italy, all it takes is a little patience, a little studiousness, and a little tasting. The latter is the most rewarding…

Have a look at all of Julian’s Successful Collector Reviews.

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages December 8th Release – Six Fine Pairs, Twelve Great Buys

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The last Vintages release of 2012 is a monster, with many interesting wines to be explored – so make sure you spend time poring over all the wines that I reviewed, not just those featured here.  There is no particular theme to the release so here – to whet your appetite – I simply highlight some of the best wines and best values.  And I have done this in pairs, so that if one is not available you should be able to find the other.

Sparkling Openers

There is a decent slate of bubblies on the Dec 8 release in the run–up to New Year’s Eve.  I am already on record in the soon-to-be-published January issue of Toronto Life that Ontario sparkling wine is all one really needs if quality and value are part of your New Year’s sparkling wine purchases. However, although the two Ontario sparklers on this release are very good they are not quite top wrung values.  Instead, I draw your attention to BLUE MOUNTAIN BRUT from the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia as the single best buy in fizz on this release. Combining equal parts estate grown parts pinot noir and chardonnay, with six per cent pinot gris, it’s a classically made via second fermentation in the bottle, and for only $27.95 it delivers excellent complexity, structure and length. Blue Mountain was one of the very first serious sparkling wine producers in B.C. and the experience shows.

Beaumont Des Crayères Grand Prestige Brut ChampagneRuhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant D'alsaceIf it must be Champagne, BEAUMONT DES CRAYÈRES GRAND PRESTIGE BRUT CHAMPAGNE also offers excellent quality for $46.95, which is in the lower price tier for Champagne. But for the same price you could buy two bottles of RUHLMANN SIGNATURE JEAN-CHARLES BRUT CRÉMANT D’ALSACE ($19.95).  Cremant d’Alsace – which is made in the same method as Champagne – is riding a huge wave of popularity in Europe at the moment, with the best bringing in a new set of flavours thanks to the varied Alsatian grape varieties. In this case pinot blanc, auxerrois and pinot gris create a certain richness that make the wine work well as sipper or with food.  The winery website suggests “gastronomic occasions throughout the meal from foie gras to seafood, poultry to desserts”.  But this is a dry wine in the end. Ruhlmann is 30 hectare family company not often seen here.

Fine 2009 Red Burgundy

Louis Jadot Domaine Gagey Clos Du Roi Marsannay 2009Domaine Chanson Beaune Clos Des Marconnets 1er Cru 2009The 2009s in Burgundy are frowned on by classicists as being too soft, fruity and obvious – due to the heat of the season. Well that may be true in some cases but it would be foolish not to keep tasting for those gems that do stand up – especially if you already enjoy riper pinots from New Zealand, Australia’s Mornington Peninsula and California’s Sonoma Coast. There are two Burgundies on this release that catch great balance and a sense of being very complete. LOUIS JADOT DOMAINE GAGEY CLOS DU ROI 2009 MARSANNAY ($34.95) is one that classicists should actually enjoy too – with a very fine sense of restraint, balance yet some charm. Typical of Marsannay it is not a wine of great depth but I can see it sailing through a meal of equal refinement – whether seafood, poultry or veal.

If you want depth and wow factor look no further than DOMAINE CHANSON 2009 BEAUNE CLOS DES MARCONNETS 1ER CRU at $49.95. This historic company’s purchase by Bollinger in 1999 spawned the re-fitting of its spectacular cellars within the walled ramparts of Beaune, and the arrival of winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron. The result is a brilliant portfolio of whites and reds, the latter dominated by the company’s large holdings in the Beaune AC itself. Marconnets is 3.8ha site high on the hillside with classic southeast exposure.

Classy German Rieslings 

Reichsrat Von Buhl Forster Jesuitengarten Riesling Spätlese 2009St. Urbans Hof Riesling 2011This release offers a two-wine clinic on fine German riesling. It’s astounding to me that such wines are selling so cheaply. Such is the fickle finger of fashion, I guess.  At the risk of sounding too old I remember the days when finding a riesling from the Forster Jesuitengarten was something very special indeed. I recall poring over the incredibly detailed Hugh Johnson’s Atlas of German Wine, trying to sort out all the ‘einzellagen” (vineyards) and ‘grossenlagen’ (vineyard groupings). And Forster was one that always intrigued, perhaps because Johnson himself seemed intrigued by Forst’s unique black basalt laden soils.  Tasting REICHSRAT VON BUHL 2009 FORSTER JESUITENGARTEN RIESLING SPÄTLESE ($24.95) I discovered such a sense of refinement and minerality that when I got home I went back to yee-old Atlas to double check on the basalt connection.  My increasingly spotty memory had served me well.

ST. URBANS-HOF 2011 RIESLING OLD VINES ($16.95) did not require the same level of research and Ontario riesling fans may be aware that St. Urbans-hof has a very strong connection to Niagara. It is the winery that first sent riesling cuttings to Niagara where they were planted in the St. Urbans Vineyard at Vineland Estates in the late 1970s.  It was the Weis clone, named after the family that owns St. Urbanshof, that dominates Niagara riesling today.  Anna Weis emigrated to Canada soon after and married into the Pennachetti family that has done such great work with riesling at Cave Spring. So you can ruminate on this as you try this electrifying riesling, perhaps opened alongside a Niagara off-shoot for the fun of comparison.

Tenuta San Guido Le Difese 2010Fontodi Chianti Classico 2009 Excellent Tuscans Under $30

Vintages continues to offer up a strong Tuscan presence, with some fine wines surfacing in just about every release. There are some Brunellos again this time, but it was a pair of excellent 90 point Tuscans under $30 that caught my attention.  Tuscan sangiovese can and should be mid-weight wine of nerve and charm – much like pinot noir actually. Too often they are overripe or overoaked, or too sour.  FONTODI 2009 CHIANTI CLASSICO ($29.95) finds the handle and delivers a delicious, authentic Chianti experience with confidence and a sense of fun.  TENUTA SAN GUIDO 2010 LE DIFESE ($26.95) does likewise. Given its 70% cabernet sauvignon component, and the lean reputation of its more expensive stable mates like Sassicaia and Guidalberto I expected this to be a rather tough nut, but it is very balanced and complete, with the 30% sangiovese providing just the right amount of Tuscan attitude.

If I could stray from Vintages for a moment I also want to alert you to a terrific buy in Tuscan sangiovese-cabernet blend that is only available by the case on consignment. CARPINETO 2011 DOGAJOLO ($14.95) is simply delicious – juicy, charming, aromatically piquant, fairly complex and easy to drink, with just three months in old oak to soften the edges.  This wine has appeared before at Vintages and done well, but in Quebec it is so popular that it is selling 25,000 cases a year.  At this price, a case would make a great gift for those who have always wanted their own Italian house red.  Contact Mark Bruni at RKW Imports  416-883-3580 or email .

Collector Cabs from Sonoma

Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 2008
Napa cabernets tend to get all the California attention when collectors look to stock their cellars, but there is a concerted effort to make great, age-worthy cabernets and blends in Sonoma as well; particularly from mountain/hillside sites in the warmer areas of the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek.  To my mind the best have even more structure and age-ability than many of the smoothies from Napa’s valley floor.  STONESTREET MONUMENT RIDGE 2007 CABERNET SAUVIGNON from Alexander Mountain Estates  is a classic example at $49.95.  More famous, and more pricy, is  CHATEAU ST. JEAN 2008 CINQ CÉPAGES Sonoma County at $75.95.  Cinq Cepages now has a 20+ year lineage since it was created in 1990 as one of the first California wines to adopt all five Bordeaux varieties. This is a sturdy, quite lean and complex wine that will definitely reward patience in the cellar.

Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2011Lailey Unoaked Chardonnay 2011

$15 Sipping Whites

There are always occasions to have a fine sipping wine ready to go during the holidays, often as an aperitif. As such it is often the first wine of the evening, and it receives more attention than those that come after. Here are two subtle yet fine, dry whites that will attract attention and praise. DOMÆNE GOBELSBURG 2011 GRÜNER VELTLINER ($13.95) from Austria’s Niederösterreich region is just so classy for the money – again no drama but quietly confident and poised.  Gobelsburg is one of my favourite white wine producers in all of Europe. And from much closer to home don’t miss LAILEY 2011 UNOAKED CHARDONNAY at $15.95. We are well used to winemaker Derek Barnett’s work with powerful, barrel-aged wines designed for cellaring, so it is good to see that he can also work very efficiently with unoaked wines, all of which is testament, in the end, to the quality of the fruit at the Lailey farm.

Teaching WSET is My New Endeavour for 2013

For most of the years that I have been writing about wine I have also been teaching – something I find almost more rewarding due to the sharing of the tasting experience and the feedback from students. I have not been teaching as much recently so I have jumped at the chance to join Fine Vintage Ltd that delivers the London-based WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) program.  WSET is the global, English language standard for structured wine education, with clearly defined curriculum, expertly produced materials and stringent exam procedures.  It is the world’s best recognized training ground for those seeking careers in the wine world, or simply wanting a structured education.

Fine Vintage Ltd is just one of several WSET schools around the world, founded in Vancouver by Master of Wine James Cluer, who has now expanded to 13 cities in Canada, the Western USA and recently Tuscany.  Fine Vintage earned the Riedel Trophy for WSET Wine Educator of the Year in 2011. I had the occasion to audit several classes recently and I was convinced that this is indeed a serious, well-constructed program, not least of which is due to the high quality of the wines served.

My role will be to teach weekend programs at the Foundation, Intermediate and eventually the Advanced levels in Toronto. In 2013 I will also help get a school running in Ottawa and teach some English language programs in Montreal.  So if you want to get yourself started in 2013, with a voice that is somewhat familiar, checkout the schedule, fees and requirements at

We will back before Christmas

And so this concludes the Vintage releases for 2012. But don’t go away as we roll through December. The WineAlign team will continue to taste and deliver interesting themed newsletters as we move toward and through the Holidays. And we have some pleasant surprises in store.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the December 8th, 2012 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Rosehill Wine Cellars

Filed under: Wine, , ,

WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008