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Lawrason’s Take Vintages March 2 Release

California’s Paso Robles, Italian Rarities, Handsome 2009 Bordeaux, Spanish Bargains

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Vintages rolls out an exciting – if too small – collection of “cutting edge” California wines on March 2, timed for the launch of an LCBO-wide California promotion. It’s actually a nationwide promotion marked by California’s 62 winery presence at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (where several of us from WineAlign are hanging out this week).  I was also very intrigued to find four rare grape varieties in the feature on southern Italy, plus some handsome Bordeaux 2009 reds, and two tasty cheap bargains from Spain.

Paso Robles, California’s Rhone

If Napa Valley is the Bordeaux of California (with all those structured cabernets), and if coastal Sonoma is the Burgundy (with its pinot noirs and chardonnays), then it surely follows that Paso Robles is the Rhone Valley of California. It is inland and warmer on the Central Coast, and more Mediterranean in feel.  It has adopted syrah as its centrepiece variety, with some producers also doing grenache blends, as well as Rhone style whites with viognier, grenache blanc and roussanne. There is also a spirit of adventure and mold-breaking in Paso Robles that I find very refreshing.

For all is “new worldliness” California remains a very conservative wine region, like France. The wine establishment in San Francisco and the North Coast wine regions still consider Paso Robles to be somewhat marginal; just as the Bordelaise and Burgundians still consider the Rhone to be just a bit rustic.  The good news is that being marginal and rustic results is cheaper wine, with no less quality. So welcome to some terrific buys from Paso Robles.

Justin Syrah 2010Justin Vineyards Isosceles 2009Two of them are from a pioneering Paso winery called Justin, which was founded by a former international banker named Justin Baldwin in 1981. That was very early days – indeed even pre-Rhone varietal days – for Paso Robles, when Mr. Baldwin was living out a Bordeaux first-growth fantasy. Fortunately he found some spectacular higher elevation sites (up to 1700 feet) within the coastal range that cuts Paso proper off from the Pacific (raising its temperature). His cooler site is terrific for the Bordeaux varieties. His Justin Vineyards Isosceles 2009 – 94% cabernet sauvignon – is a masterpiece approaching “first growth” quality. If you normally spend over $100 for collector cabernets, its price of $78.95 is a steal. As is the gorgeous Rhone-inspired Justin 2010 Syrah at $36.95,

Burly Gary Eberle, a former footballer, was another Paso pioneer, and a founding member of the Paso Robles Winery Association in 1980. As early as 1973 he was involved in his family’s winery called Estrella River, which he re-built and re-branded as Eberle in 1983. At only 25,000 cases it is actually one of the larger Paso wineries (there are now 180 wineries and over 26,000 acres of vineyard). Eberle makes a wide range but when I visited a year ago I was most struck by the excellent viognier, an aromatic white grape with Rhone roots as well. Eberle Mill Road Vineyard 2011 Viognier ($29.95) is one of the classics in the genre, managing some elegance without giving up any power or depth.  One third was aged in tank, one third in neutral oak on its lees, the final third was aged in neutral oak without lees – an apparently very successful formula.

Eberle Mill Road Vineyard Viognier 2011Vina Robles White 4 2010And there is another white that speaks loudly to the spirit of adventure in Paso Robles. Vina Robles 2010 White 4 ($18.95) is a very effective blend of the aforementioned viognier with vermentino, verdelho and sauvignon blanc, creating an off-beat, exotic and quite rich white that also has some nerve. The varieties were separately fermented and aged in neutral oak, like Eberle’s viognier above.  Vina Robles was founded by Swiss partners Hans Nef and R. Michel who, like many Europeans making wine abroad, feel that they are combining “European inspiration with California character”. Such sentiments are all very nice but usually not much evident in the glass. There is however something textural in this white that is a bit more Euro.  In any case it offers a refreshing change of pace among California whites.

Rarities Under $20 from Central/South Italy

With headlines like “a Jaunt through Central and Southern Italy” and “Local Heroes” Vintages copywriters miss a theme I suspect that the buyers very much had in mind while assembling this interesting selection of very well priced wines. Four of the eleven selections are from grapes I would truly consider “rarities” – varieties that for most wine followers would be once or twice in a lifetime experiences.  And that’s one of things I love most about Italy – there is so much wine in Enotria that one can continue to discover new grapes, and the Italians are currently in a frame of mind to be restoring and promoting these antique varieties

Fina Taif Zibibbo 2011Statti Mantonico Bianco 2010Statti 2010 Mantonico Bianco ($18.95) is a revelation! Who knew that Calabria even made white wine, let alone grew a grape (mantonico) that could render such an interesting rich, dry and complex wine. Maybe I didn’t know because previously most mantonico was dried to make a sweet passito style white – very much a traditional approach with white grapes in the Mediterranean basin. In any event Statti, and a larger Calabrian firm called Librandi, are shepherding this old variety into new stylistic territory.

The same thinking is behind Fina Taif 2011 Zibibbo from Sicily – another steal at $16.95. Zibbibo is not a new or re-discovered grape however. It is actually the southern Italian name for Muscat of Alexandria, and is also widely used in Sicily (and the island of Pantelleria) to make sweet, passito wine.  The wonderful name zibbibo comes from the Arabic word zabib, meaning dried grape. This dry, table wine version is all fireworks, a very lifted exotic wine to consider with mid-eastern or Asian cuisine.

Lucchetti Lacrima Di Morro d'Alba 2011Caruso & Minini Sachia Perricone 2010Two rare red varieties are also in this release. Lucchetti Lacrima Di Morro d’Alba 2011 ($17.95) features an ebulliently fruity red grape from the Marche region on central Italy’s Adriatic coast. It is one of these situations common in Italy where the name of a grape (lacrima) and a town (Morro di Alba) combine for the official DOC appellation name. Lacrima means “tears”.  I did not get all weepy over this wine but the sweetish ambiance, roundness and fragrant floral aromas  make for a very appealing, easy drinking style of red.

And from Sicily once again, try the Caruso & Minini Sachia 2010 Perricone ($13.95). Perricone (also known as Pignatello) planted throughout the island. I didn’t pick up any truly distinguishing character, which may be one reason it is often blended with other varieties, but it is again a decent value in everyday Italian red. Apparently some “riserva” level wines are made from this grape.

Handsome 90 Pt Bordeaux

Bordeaux from the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages are now making their way into Vintages regular releases, and I am pleased. Frankly it has been a bit of a slog through the “minor or petits chateaux” 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages over the past couple of years – very hit and miss. On March 2 there are three fairly priced 2009 Bordeaux under $40 that I have rated 90 pts or better. This was a ripe year in Bordeux bringing packing just a bit more fruit and flesh into these cabernet/merlot blends.

Château La Vieille Cure 2009Château Beaumont 2009Château La Tour De Mons 2009Château La Tour De Mons 2009 Margaux ($39.95) is the most expensive, but still decent value. It’s rare to find any Margaux AOC wines under $40 and this is a perfectly fine and authentic example from a 50 ha limestone and gravel vineyard on the Gironde Estuary. Technical director Christel Spinner says the 2009 “is one of our great successes”, and I would agree.  They are serious here, right down to individual berry sorting tables.

Château Beaumont 2009 Haut-Médoc is huge value at $22.85, a wine to enjoy now or cellar for another five years. If I was beginning to collect Bordeaux on a limited budget I wouldn’t hesitate to add a half dozen bottles of Beaumont. It’s consistently good!   It’s from 53 % cabernet sauvignon, 40% merlot, 4% cabernet franc and 3% petit verdot, from a vineyard between Margaux and St. Julien. Current ownership is shared by Groupes Castel et Suntory of Japan.

Château La Vieille Cure 2009 Fronsac ($36.85) is a merlot dominated wine from a single 20 hectare, south-east oriented site on the right bank. Since being purchased by American partners in 1986 it has been partially replanted (some very old vines were left intact); the winery has been refurbished and concerted marketing has made it one of the best known, most widely available Fronsac wines.

Two Everyday Bargains from Spain

Piñol Ludovicus Tinto 2010Tarima Monastrell 2010When tasting along the row of over 100 wines at Vintages one encounters a wide array of styles and quality levels in random and rapid succession. So it’s no surprise that sometimes the little guys get lost along the way.  It’s easy to skip full scrutiny of $12 wines; so they must reach out and demand attention. Which actually happened twice on this release with a pair of reds from Spain.  Neither are “excellent” or “over-delivering” wines. But they are correct, balanced and eminently drinkable wines that you can afford on Tuesday night (or three bottles on Friday night for you and your drop in friends, neighbours and family).

Piñol Ludovicus 2010 Tinto ($13.95) is from a small appellation called Terra Alta in southern Catalonia. It is not too far from Priorat and Montsant and in this case uses a very similar blend of five grapes, led by grenache. From farther south along the Mediterranean coast Tarima 2010 Monastrell ($12.95) from the Alicante DO offers up all kinds of ripe, plummy blackberry mourvedre fruit, very much with an Australian ambiance if less creamy and warming. Both could stand a light chill and be served without fanfare, but with pleasure every day.

And that’s a wrap for this edition. See all my reviews below.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

WineAlign VIP Access - Cuvée Weekend 2013


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Vancouver This Week Is All About Wine, by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The most important wine event in Canada splashes across Vancouver this week. Wine fans and festival organizers in other cities may take issue with that claim, but for the 35th straight year the Vancouver International Wine Festival will uncork and uncap some of the most important wines in the world, being poured by the men and women who made them. There are 175 winemakers coming from 15 countries.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights there will be iconic bottles poured alongside new bargains among the 600+ wines on the floor of the International Festival Tasting, with the trade wheeling and dealing during afternoon sessions. There will seminars and workshops, galas and grazes, lunches, brunches and dinners galore – 56 events in all. (Just try booking a table at Vancouver’s top restaurants this week). There will be pre-parties and after parties in the hospitality suites of jammed downtown hotels.

I liken this event to great film festivals like Cannes or Toronto, or great music gatherings like South by SouthWest in Austin, Texas. It is also viewed as such by winemakers around the world.

And I am pleased to say that WineAlign will be there announcing its arrival in British Columbia to help consumers land the best buys at their local British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch store. It will also be the WineAlign coming out for Anthony Gismondi, wine columnist with the Vancouver Sun who joins WineAlign as a principal critic and partner. Mr. Gismondi has for many years been a huge volunteer supporter, ideas man and event host for the Vancouver Festival. (For more info: WineAlign Launches in British Columbia)

The theme region this year is California, the region that started it all in 1979 when Michael Mondavi flew up from Napa to lead a tasting called “In Praise of Wine”. This week there are 62 California wineries in town, hosting twenty events. And chardonnay fans will get their fill as well, with the world’s most popular white grape named the theme varietal this year.

At press time there were tickets remaining for the grand public tastings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, as well as some of the seminars and other events. You can check out all events and purchase tickets at

Artezin Zinfandel 2010Firestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010For those who can’t make it to Vancouver this year, here are links to some nicely affordable and good value reds from California. As you open that good bottle contemplate taking a week off next year at this time to get yourself to Vancouver. 

Firestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

This region is better known for coastal pinot, syrah and chardonnay since this region starred in the movie Sideways. But inland regions of Santa Ynez do cabernet well too. This full-bodied cabernet has a classic nose of blackcurrant, roasted red peppers, dill and oak mocha. It’s svelte, dense and warm well-knit, firm tannin. Cohesive, impressive cabernet to enjoy over the next three to five years. Score: 90 (David Lawrason,, Jul 2012)

Artezin Zinfandel 2010

Lovely authentic zin here. It has a nicely lifted, fragrant nose of classic blackberry fruit with mint, pine and oak cocoa scents. A nice woodsy character but it’s not hillbilly. It’s a full, soft, jammy and rich with classic dark berry fruit powering across the palate. Tannins are fairly soft. It’s from sustainably grown old family vineyards (without specifying which ones). It certainly has that kind of character. Excellent length. Score: 91 (David Lawrason,, Sep 2012)

Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

This organically grown cabernet steps neatly outside the normal, glossy California cabernet comfort zone. Yet is has very complete, authentic cab character. Expect a quite fine nose with well a blackberry fruit, mocha, pepper, herbs, and pencil eraser. It’s medium-full bodied and solid with some sweetness but it has girth and density. Very focused fruit, herbs and light oak on the finish, with excellent length. Best over the next five to seven years. Score: 90 (David Lawrason,, May 2012)

Buena Vista Pinot Noir 2009

This recent arrival upgrades the LCBO general list pinot selection. It has a fragrant complex nose combining classic Carneros strawberry/cherry jam fruit, with gentle toast, clove and cinnamon, plus some cedar from new French oak. It’s medium weight, warm, fairy rich and jammy with a nicely bitter, herbal finish. The length is very good to excellent. An appealing California pinot to enjoy over the next two years. Score: 89 (David Lawrason,, Dec 2012)

Langtry Guenoc Petite Sirah 2011Buena Vista Pinot Noir 2009Langtry Guenoc Petite Sirah 2011

The remote and rather enchanting Guenoc Valley in Lake County (next stop north of Napa) has old plantings of petite sirah. It is named for 19th century British actress Lilly Langtry who made the valley her home. This has a ripe fragrant nose of cassis, clove, pepper and mincemeat. Plus lots of smoky oak. It’s medium-full bodied, fairly dense, juicy with high acid and firm grippy tannin. The spice tumbles on the finish; the length is excellent. Very good value here. Try it now, but cellar a few for about three years. Also reminds me of the new generation of reds from Portugal’s Dao region. Score: 90 (David Lawrason,, Jan 2013)

I’ll be back with my take on the March 2 VINTAGES Release.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine


Vancouver International Wine Festival

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WineAlign Launches in British Columbia

TORONTO/VANCOUVER – February 27, 2013 – Vancouver International Wine Festival – WineAlign, Canada’s largest and most popular online wine site, today announced its launch in British Columbia. WineAlign is making its debut in B.C. with more than 4,500 wines from the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) being amalgamated into the WineAlign database.

WineAlign answers the question shoppers ask themselves every time they go to the wine store: “What is the best wine in my price range that I can buy in this store right now?” WineAlign will provide B.C.-based wine consumers with ratings and multiple critic reviews on wines available at their local BC Liquor Stores. It will also provide inventory levels at their nearest BCLDB store. 

WineAlign was founded four years ago by Toronto web entrepreneur and wine lover Bryan McCaw, with the aim of providing immediate, objective and comprehensive advice to shoppers at Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores. In 2012 WineAlign attracted over 967,000 different people, making it one of the busiest wine sites in Canada.

Anthony GismondiWineAlign is pleased to announce that Vancouver’s Anthony Gismondi is now a partner and will be the lead critic in British Columbia. Well known and respected in B.C. as wine columnist for the Vancouver Sun and co-host of the Best of Food and Wine with Kasey Wilson on AM650, Anthony is also a national and international voice in the wine world, and brings a wealth of experience and his ‘consumer-first’ perspective to WineAlign.

“I have a great deal of respect for the WineAlign team already in place and am excited to be joining them as a principal critic and partner in a purely wine-focused role,” says Gismondi. “I also look forward to assisting with taking WineAlign to a new level nationally as plans are put in place to roll it out across the country.”

Other B.C. based critics will be announced shortly, joining a national team that includes partners David Lawrason (Toronto Life, Ottawa Magazine), Master Sommelier John Szabo, Margaret Swaine of the National Post, Wine for Life educator Steve Thurlow, Rod Phillips of the Ottawa Citizen, wine writer Janet Dorozynski of Ottawa, and sommelier Sara d’Amato of Toronto. The team is set to become even larger as WineAlign prepares to launch in Quebec in the months ahead.

Each critic provides their own reviews, giving consumers a spectrum of opinions with which they can “align”.  The pro’s reviews are complemented by thousands of consumer reviews. The highly engaged community can offer their opinions and use WineAlign as their personal shopping list and wine cellar inventory system.

Following its debut in B.C., WineAlign will be exploring partnerships with private wine retailers in an effort to provide an even wider service to B.C.-based consumers.

Visit WineAlign at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival to meet the team and see a demonstration.

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WineAlign launches Season 3 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

Canada’s top wine experts challenged to prove their stuff in a blind taste challenge Video Series

TORONTO – February 26, 2013 – WineAlign, Canada’s largest and most popular online wine site, has launched the third season of “So, You Think You Know Wine?” – the wine industry’s first blind tasting video series. Season 3 features nine top wine critics in tournament play, where – without any clues beyond tasting the wine – critics compete to correctly identify the grape, country, region, year and price of the wine. The videos can be found at

Season 3 showcases some of Canada’s most widely recognized, award-winning sommeliers and wine critics, including David Lawrason (Toronto Life), Master Sommelier John Szabo, Steve Thurlow, Sara d’Amato, Master Sommelier Jennifer Huether, Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner, Zoltan Szabo (Sommelier at Trump Tower), William Predhomme (Sommelier at Canoe) and Bill Zacharkiw (Montreal Gazette).

In addition to competing with their peers in blind tasting challenges, Season 3 also features the experts sharing tips and insights on their own techniques for identifying wines. The series also includes additional interviews, outtakes, and talkbacks.

“For a wine critic, a blind taste test is the ultimate challenge,” explains Bryan McCaw, the Toronto-based entrepreneur behind WineAlign. “The feedback we received from the first two series has been fantastic, and we are thrilled to be bringing together an even larger group of Canada’s top wine palates to compete in Season 3. Viewers are provided information on each wine, and can marvel in the critic’s incredible skill and talent as they use their nose, eyes and palette to identify the flavours, aromas and general characteristics of a wine to correctly determine five elements about the wine.”

About WineAlign

WineAlign is a free community-based service for reviewing, sharing and discovering wine. It was launched in December 2008 in collaboration with several top wine critics to create a resource for consumers to find the best wines at the LCBO. WineAlign, which is growing rapidly with close to 1M unique annual visitors, answers the question: What wine do I buy? It combines reviews from top-critics and community members to create an objective resource to help users find great wine. For wine lovers outside of Ontario, Canada, WineAlign provides the most comprehensive wine resource, including reviews of the latest wines and vintages from some of the country’s top sommeliers and wine critics. You can also follow us on Facebook at or on Twitter @WineAlign.

So, You Think You Know Wine?

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WineAlign Announces Two New Wine Awards in Canada

WineAlign Launches Two New Wine Competitions in Canada

TORONTO/VANCOUVER – February 25, 2013 – WineAlign, Canada’s largest and most popular online wine site, today announced the launch of two new wine competitions. To recognize the best in Canadian wine, WineAlign will host the National Wine Awards of Canada “The Nationals” and invite Canadian wine producers to compete annually to determine who is making the best wine in the country. To complement the domestic awards, the World Wine Awards of Canada “The Worlds” competition will be open to wines sold in Canada, with emphasis placed on wines offering outstanding value.

The “Nationals” will be held from June 16 – 22, 2013 in Niagara, Ontario and will open for entries on April 1, 2013. The “Worlds” will be judged from September 8 – 14, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario and will open for entries on July 1, 2013. Results of the “Nationals” and the “Worlds” will be released on, which had close to one million unique visitors in 2012. With upcoming expansions to British Columbia and Quebec, the WineAlign audience is expected to grow significantly in the months ahead.

“We’re thrilled to be moving forward with the competitions,” says WineAlign founder Bryan McCaw. “Our goal is to make this the definitive Canadian perspective on wine, to both domestic and international audiences. We plan to shape both competitions into a modern, highly-responsive look at wine in Canada.”

Wines will be tasted blind by a team of top wine critics from across the country, including head judge Anthony Gismondi (WineAlign, Vancouver Sun), David Lawrason (WineAlign, Toronto Life), John Szabo Master Sommelier (WineAlign), Margaret Swaine (WineAlign, National Post), Rod Phillips (WineAlign, Ottawa Citizen), Bill Zacharkiw (Montreal Gazette), Steve Thurlow (WineAlign), Sara d’Amato (WineAlign), Janet Dorozynski (WineAlign), Nadia Fournier (Le Guide du Vin Montreal), Rémy Charest (wine journalist in Quebec City), Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson (Winnipeg Free Press), Craig Pinhey (New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, The Coast), DJ Kearney (wine educator in Vancouver), Treve Ring (wine journalist in Victoria), Rhys Pender (Master of Wine, B.C.) and Gurvinder Bhatia (Edmonton Journal).

For more information on the awards or entries please contact

About WineAlign

WineAlign is a free community-based service for reviewing, sharing and discovering wine. It was launched in December 2008 in collaboration with several top wine critics to create a resource for consumers to find the best wines at the LCBO. WineAlign, which is growing rapidly with close to 1M unique annual visitors, answers the question: What wine do I buy? It combines reviews from top-critics and community members to create an objective resource to help users find great wine. For wine lovers outside of Ontario, Canada, WineAlign provides the most comprehensive wine resource, including reviews of the latest wines and vintages from some of the country’s top sommeliers and wine critics. You can also follow us on Facebook at www.Facebook/WineAlign or on Twitter @WineAlign.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 2, 2013

New Zealand Industry Strengths & Challenges; California and Southern Italian Discoveries and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud: New Zealand.

Three sunny summer weeks and a few thousand kilometers later and I’ve scratched deeply into the surface of a country that occupies a place of growing importance in the world of fine wine. Over a mere three decades, New Zealand has earned an envious international reputation for its high average quality wine production, now widely exported to all of the world’s major markets. Sauvignon blanc, mainly from Marlborough, remains the country’s calling card. But the real story, of course, runs much deeper. Read below for some observations on the industry.

And since I was in New Zealand during the media tasting for the March 2nd release, I was able to taste only about half of the new wines on offer. The features are California and Central-Southern Italy, and there are some fine discoveries from each, which I’ve folded into the top ten smart buys.

California Discoveries

Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay 2010Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Those familiar with Frog’s Leap won’t consider this a ‘discovery’, but others unaccustomed to Napa cabernet with moderate alcohol, fresh fruit flavours and even a hint of herbal-green flavour might be pleasantly shocked by the 2010 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($56.95). This winery has long espoused a balanced, fresh, lively style (it’s also farmed organically), and this 2010 is indeed fresh and succulent, with genuinely juicy acids and balanced alcohol (13.9%), not to mention terrific length. Most importantly, this wine gives you the desire to come back for another sip.

In a similar fashion, devotees of balanced and crisp, minerally chardonnay will be pleased with the 2010 Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay ($29.95). Chalone is a perennial favorite for its classy, restrained style, and this 2010 is refreshingly crisp with mouth-watering acids and remarkable flavour intensity, lingering on chalky-limestone minerality. It’s enjoyable now, or hold for a half-dozen years or so.

Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010Vina Robles White 4 2010Quality pinot noir from anywhere in the world under $20 is a rarity, making this 2010 Bonterra Pinot Noir from Mendocino County ($19.95) all the more memorable. Don’t expect a life-changing experience, but this organically grown, mid-weight example is pure and inviting and varietally accurate, with lightly dusty tannins and balanced acidity – a perfect mid-week sort of pinot.

Of the discovery wines from the Central Coast area, the 2010 Vina Robles White 4 ($18.95) is worth a look. It’s an original blend of viognier, verdelho, sauvignon blanc and vermentino, surprisingly subtle on the nose, though the palate picks up the flavour intensity. It’s nicely balanced and contained overall, showing generous but balanced alcohol (14.2%), and above average length.

Central and Southern Italy Smart Buys

Terrelíade Nirà Nero d'AvolaSelvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico 2009Choose carefully from the Italian feature. Vintages has unearthed a few authentic, genuine Italian treasures alongside some undistinguished, internationally styled commercial wines aimed, one supposes, at drawing non-Italian wine drinkers into the category. Topping my list for regional character and value is the 2009 Selvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico ($15.95). This is a wine with a real sense of volcanic minerality; you can clearly taste the rusty iron, tar, scorched earth-like soil profile, allied to tart red and black cherry fruit and dried herbs-pot-pourri-faded flowers. Tannins are fierce and grippy, giving this a distinctively rustic, old world structure. It’s categorically not a fruity wine, but a terrific value for fans of unique, terroir-driven wines. Cellar 2-3 years, or serve with hard cheese or grilled lamb.

The 2010 Terrelíade Nirà Nero d’Avola ($18.95) is made in a similar, if less dramatically rustic vein, tailor-made for grilled or braised game meats. It’s intriguingly spicy and herbal, like roasted green pepper, with black licorice, dried leaves and spiced black cherry fruit. The tannins are also tough and rustic, but coated by generous alcohol (14.5%), balancing the palate and adding succulence.

And other March 2 Smart Buys

Te Awa Chardonnay 2010Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe ChardonnayOther smart buys worth pointing out include a pair of cool chardonnays: the 2010 Te Awa Chardonnay ($18.95) and 2011 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay ($21.95). It’s not a stretch to say that the wines from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and those from the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of the Niagara Peninsula share some commonalities. Both areas are slightly warmer than the relative mean, and tend to produce fairly generous and round styles while still respecting the cool climate idiom.

Southbrook has really nailed it on the head with this 2011, moving away from a more oxidative/wood-inflected style to an example that’s axed on ripe orchard fruit flavours, even honeydew melon and pineapple tropical fruit, while still maintaining a sense of cool climate restraint. The palate is pure, flavourful, effortlessly balanced with very good length and little wood influence. Te Awa’s example is likewise a classy, elegant and refined barrel-aged chardonnay at an attractive price, in which citrus, orchard fruit and judicious oak intermingle on a balanced frame of acids and alcohol.

Marqués De Cáceres Gran Reserva 2004And finally I might be accused of hoarding were I not to draw your attention to the 2004 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva Rioja ($29.95). The Spanish tradition of releasing wines at maturity is largely under-appreciated in a world where the younger and fresher, the better it is. Gran reservas by law can’t be released until their 6th year from vintage, and this eight-year-old wine is in brilliant drinking form right now, with no need for further cellaring (though you can certainly hold onto this for another decade without pushing the limits). It’s a refined, complex, elegant wine, but what I most appreciate is the fine balance between old and new school styles – this sits comfortably between the two, and it’s just about perfect as such. (See my full list of Top Ten Smart Buys here).

Pinot 2013

My visit to New Zealand was occasioned by the 5th edition of the Kiwi’s celebrated Pinot Noir NZ conference, a triennial affair that attracts a huge delegation of local and international journalists, importers, sommeliers and winemakers. Such has been the success of the conference that it’s enough to mention “I’m going to Pinot” in wine circles, and the meaning is clear. That’s no small feat for a country that had no pinot noir, nor virtually any other vine planted for that matter, prior to the early 1970s.

Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Opening Ceremony
Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Following are some observations, including some strengths and challenges ahead for the New Zealand wine industry as I see it. I’m in the process of posting over 300 New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign from the tastings over those three weeks (even though I tasted many more wines than that), some from the pinot conference itself, others from prior and subsequent visits to wineries on both the North and South Island. My April 13th report will sketch out the major regions with a focus on pinot noir, along with profiles of recommended producers and their top wines, so stay tuned, and colleague David Lawrason who was also in New Zealand has many more reviews, observations, and regional reports to share. And finally, if you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand. Read it on WineAlign at: On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand.

New Zealand: Industry strengths

New Zealand has experienced unquestionable growth in the last twenty years. In 1991, just 12% of wine production was exported. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 70%, with major markets in the UK, Australia and the US (Canada purchases 3% of NZ’s production). There are now over 700 wineries across the country, farming a total of just over 34,000ha, almost exactly the same size as Champagne, a considerable area. Success has been swift and abundant, and here are some of the explanations why.

Minor variations on a theme of terroir

Winery owners and marketers are quick to play the uniqueness and diversity card, as well they should – it’s a sine qua non these days to sell wine at premium prices. But the reality is that New Zealand is not France or Italy, which can be considered an advantage. By this I mean that despite slight variations in climate and soils, New Zealand wines on the whole occupy a relatively small stylistic sphere, focusing on a select few varieties, unlike France or Italy. New Zealand is much more uniform.

The climate is cool. Even in the warmest regions like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, the temperature rarely breaks 30ºC. It get’s much hotter in Southern Ontario. The secret to a reliable grape crop lies not with heat but with the relatively dry climate, thanks to the rain shadow effect produced by the stretch of mountains that form the backbone of the country from the North to the South Island. All of the country’s vineyards lie on the east side of the ranges where rainfall is moderate – the west side can see as much as eight or nine meters of rain per year. Sunlight is also unusually intense, with high UV due to the thin layer of Ozone over this part of the planet. Thus sunny, dry, cool, conditions prevail in the majority of regions, with long growing seasons.

The net result is stylistic similarity across grapes: the cabernet blends are invariably more Bordeaux than Napa, the syrah more Rhône than Barossa, the pinot and chardonnay more Burgundy than California. This in turn allows New Zealand to present their wines as a collection of variations on a similar theme, rather than a hodge-podge of radically varying styles sharing only a country code. All marketers know the power of a simple and consistent message; it’s much easier to get across than a complex one. What united message could France or Italy possibly put forth to the world, other than that of bewildering diversity?

One need only look to the obvious example of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and its wild success to see the benefits of consistency. Indeed, if anything negative could be said about Marlborough sauvignon it would be that’s been too successful at being consistent, with one brand barely distinguishable from another. (Interestingly, the way forward now in Marlborough is introducing more variation – more on this in an upcoming article).

Of course there are nuances between regions and producers, between the Wairau Valley and the Awatere valley of Marlborough, or limestone soils of North Canterbury and the schists of Central Otago. But initial success is based on consistency across a region.

Collaborative spirit

Winemaker's divebombing into Wellington Harbor

Winemaker’s divebombing into
Wellington Harbor

Another easy lesson of success is that of a collaborative spirit, evident at every turn in New Zealand (or at least internecine strife was well hidden). During Pinot2013, presentations were divided into regional groups. Producers gave the delegates a collective regional overview before the tastings each morning and afternoon, with several winemakers rising to speak for each region. For the most part, there was a real sense of mutual respect and deference between winemakers, and an understanding that the rising tide raises all boats. My hat’s off especially to the crew from Central Otago, who put together an informal, informative presentation delivered by at least a half-dozen (mostly barefoot), winemakers. There was a fun, unpretentious, let’s-get-together-and-show-the-world-what-we-do spirit that is often absent between producers in the same region, who consider themselves in competition with one-another.  The smart ones know that the competition is not with each other, but with the rest of the world. Divided they fall.

Access to market

Another of New Zealand’s strengths appears to be relative freedom from government intervention and open access to market. This is as much a comparative comment on the Ontario wine industry, which has been retarded by antiquated alcohol distribution laws and a quality-incompatible grape growers collective that protects prices, not quality, but the benefits for NZ producers should be outlined.

Like Canada, New Zealand, too, had it’s flirtation with prohibition, in fact a much more serious relationship with it than did Canada. Several NZ counties went fully dry for a period, and some still hold a referendum every three years to gauge the public’s position on the matter. But when the tide changed in the late 1960’s, it was a wholesale turnaround, not a halfway compromise as in Canada. Kiwis have been known for their radical and extreme social experiments on themselves.

Today, NZ wineries are free to distribute in restaurants, private shops, though their cellar door or export. In other words, each producer has equal opportunity access to market, a critical advantage that Canadians especially can appreciate. In order to build a solid export market, it’s critical to have strong following at home. In NZ you can ship a case of wine from the North to the South Island without obscene taxation, or sell in any shop that’s willing to carry your product. That’s something to be thankful for.


Finally, but not lastly, New Zealand as a country also enjoys an enviable international brand image of clean and green, a fact capitalized upon by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association in their key tag line “Pure Discovery”. New Zealand is indeed an environmentally conscious and beautiful country with an understanding of the importance of natural resources, the inescapable consequence of living on a remote Pacific Island. (And this despite early European settlers’ best efforts to chop down as many trees as possible to make way for sheep pasture.)

Stunning Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Stunning Rippon Vineyards
Central Otago

An initiative to encourage sustainable winegrowing was launched in the mid-1990’s, later called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, or SWNZ.  The key areas of focus were biodiversity; soil, water and air; energy; chemicals; byproducts; people; and business practices. The program has been highly successful: “Participation in SWNZ rose to almost 100% between the launch of the policy and the target date of 2012 — an estimated 94% or more of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area (accounting for approximately 90% of the wine produced) is now SWNZ certified. A further 3-5% of vineyard area operates under other certified organic programs.” (Source: That’s pretty impressive.

Furthermore, wines from vintage 2010 on must have been produced under one of the recognized, independently audited, sustainability programs in order to participate in any of the New Zealand Winegrowers’ national and international marketing, promotional and awards events. Most of the growers I spoke with were very positive about the SWNZ program, and had been motivated to improve their business practices because of it. And once certified by SWNZ, the step to organic certification is considerably easier, so it’s expected that organic production will rise to almost 20% of the total by the end of the decade. New Zealand is certainly not the only country that has launched a sustainable scheme, but it is clearly one of the most successful. This is something that seems to resonate ever-more with consumers around the world.

Industry challenges

All industries have challenges, and New Zealand wine has a few obstacles ahead as I see it.


In hand with the concept of sustainability is profitability. A winery that is not profitable is not sustainable. It’s more than a little alarming that several of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed producers, as I have been informed, are not turning a profit. Growing top quality wine is expensive anywhere, but particularly so in New Zealand. It’s a shockingly expensive country to live in, as I experienced first hand. How will these growers convince the market that their wines are worth enough to make them sustainable? Or will their top wines remain loss leaders, while lower end, volume wines pick up the tab, as seems to be happening in some Marlborough operations in particular? Again, this challenge is hardly unique to New Zealand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage. It would be a shame to see the industry consolidate around a safe low to middle-ground range of quality and deprive the rest of the world of some pretty amazing wines.

Relatively high production costs and the need to be sustainable lead to high prices. In regards to pinot noir in particular, prices are aggressive. Good quality, inexpensive pinot noir is hard to come by in any country, but the early promise that NZ pinot would fill in the gaping hole in the market left by Burgundy, namely in the $20-$30 price segment, has never been realized. It seems NZ prices went from zero straight to $35, at least for the good stuff, without stopping in between. Yet to sell for any less would most likely be unsustainable, not too mention that if you can sell in the home market for $50 or more from the cellar door, there’s little motivation to drop prices for export. How this will all work out remains to be seen. In any case, these wines will have to compete with the best from around the world.

In Defense of Deference

In reference to the point regarding the strength of wine style similarity, and the one above regarding profitability, it’s perhaps deference, or a combination of more experience, better understanding of terroir, and a healthy dose of deference that could well become the distinguishing factor that preserves the very top end of New Zealand wine. Matt Kramer’s now infamous thought-provoking (and anger-provoking, too, it seems) opening address for pinot2013, the 2+2=5 speech (actually entitled “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir”), brought the discussion of how to make truly great wine to the forefront of many subsequent talks, speeches and private discussions, so it obviously resonated. (See Alder Yarrows admirably accurate transcription of the speech on his website vinography and don’t miss the amusing, occasionally enraged comments of some readers).

While many seem to have missed the point of Kramer’s talk – it has nothing to do with religion, nor is it an anti-science manifesto, and still less any kind of comparison to Burgundy – Kramer essentially argues that complete and obsessive control over the entire winemaking process, from blocks of identical clones picked at uniform ripeness to a host of other possible manipulations to regularize production, can take you to four, that is, a very good wine. But to get 2+2 to equal five, at least with our current understanding of the unfathomably complicated set of inputs and outputs that result in wine, requires a bit of deference to nature, or terroir, or whatever you wish to call it. The factors that comprise greatness are as yet not fully measurable or quantifiable. Winemakers the world over could well produce more interesting results (along with less interesting results occasionally, too) by slacking off on the reins of control, and allowing for potential “imperfections” to actually make more meaningful wines. Beauty is often in the imperfect. Will New Zealand winemakers have the courage and faith in their terroir to ease off and give it a chance to speak? Authenticity and uniqueness have been proven to command high prices in the wine market.

What was also mostly lost in Kramer’s speech and in the bluster that followed, is the importance of the observer, in this case the drinker. The drinker has to be pre-disposed to believe in greatness in order to find it. There’s no inherent greatness, no ‘5”, in a concoction of molecules in a glass. No doubt most of the scientific community will disagree (see Dr. Jamie Goode’s thoughtful reflection on Kramer’s speech at wineanorak), but for many, I’d argue even most wine lovers, a little perceived mysticism makes for more enjoyment. Deference to a natural process is a better story than rigid adherence to a set of numbers. Clever wine salespeople rarely attempt to wow you with clonal numbers, measurements of brix and pH and titratable acidity. Winemakers in New Zealand and elsewhere can raise the bar on perceived quality with a judicious combination of scientifically sound and deference-imbued wines, and charge sustainably for them.

Cultural cringe

Also, it must be said, that New Zealanders suffer at times from cultural cringe, a common complex in post-colonial nations, an admission I heard frequently during my travels. As a Canadian I can relate; we too suffer at times from a feeling that our own culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries, or in this case, that our wines are not as good as theirs. As a backlash against the cringe, by the end of pinot2013, it became virtually taboo to even mention Burgundy in relation to NZ pinot noir. Panelists during the final tasting moderated by Tim Atkin were forewarned that any mention of Burgundy would result in an immediate red card (Atkin actually had a set of football style yellow and red cards with him). Only “the place that begins with a B”, or “the MS” (for Mother Ship), were permissible mentions.

It’s surely tiresome to always compare yourself to something else, but conscious and intentional avoidance of any comparisons whatsoever also invoke a bit of a cringe. In the specific case of New Zealand pinot, many of the wines are tremendous, and should have to neither seek out nor avoid bench-marking against other examples from anywhere else in the world. A diminishing cultural cringe and a growing sense of self-confidence borne by time should pave the way for a new and original method of communicating NZ wines to the world.

On the other hand, the flip side of cultural cringe is excessive back-slapping. Some winemakers expressed concern about the growing sense of complacency within the industry considering the already considerable success to date. Perhaps in this respect a little cringe is a good thing, since blinding yourself to everything else is a sure-fire way to cease learning and improving. Winemaking psychology, like fine wine itself, is a fine balance.

All in all, New Zealand’s strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and the future is bright. And I haven’t even really touched upon the actual quality of the wines. Suffice to search for the top scoring examples on WineAlign and let the wines do the talking. And don’t miss my report for this coming April 13 VINTAGES release, with a focus on New Zealand wines.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

Vancouver International Wine Festival

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Sunny New LCBO Arrivals in the Dead of Winter, by David Lawrason

A Winter Search for New LCBO Wines

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

February is a very slow month for new arrivals on the LCBO’s General List, but there is a smattering of new blends from warmer climes in California, Spain and the south of France that deserve a look. Normally our intrepid Steve Thurlow would be handling the comings and goings through his monthly Top 50 overview but he is on leave after travels in Western Australia and New Zealand.

In his place, I took a lonely walk through the Queens Quay store on a very quiet Tuesday morning to look for new wines. I only met two other people – both wine agents checking out the shelf positioning of their brands. The new listings are usually identified with a bright lime green shelf card. A couple I thought were new just because I hadn’t seen them before.

The California section showed the most new faces, perhaps because it is getting juiced up for a big California promotion set to unleash on March 3. A total of 52 California wines are set to be reduced in price from $1 to $2. I don’t know about you, but these are rather piddling price cuts. The LCBO really needs to re-think their idea of “sales and promotions”. Where are case discounts, buy six for the price of five, new limited time only brands? They did a great job introducing a spate of new Australian wines over a year ago. Why not keep that idea going? There is more to promotion than posters and press releases.

Laurent Miquel l'Artisan LanguedocLaurence Feraud Plan PegauI will return to California, but it was a pair of new reds from the south of France that really caught my eye. Laurence Feraud 2010 Plan Pegau $14.75, is a bold new initiative from a respected producer in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Grenache is the basis of her Domaine Pegau and she has used some declassified grapes from Pegau vineyards, plus some from Costieres de Nimes.  Think of it as a very good Cotes du Rhone with both charm and decent structure. Likewise, Laurent Miquel L’Artisan Languedoc 2010 ($13.20) offers very good value in a well-made syrah-grenache blend that captures the essential ripe dark fruit and tarry character of southern France.  Laurent Miquel is a bright new name on the horizon for good value French wines.

Back in California, cheap red blends are running amok with smarty-pants concept labels. Names like Kitchen Sink, Red Revolution, Cardinal Zin and Cupcake may provide moments of mirth, but is anyone going to cling to these wines for long? (Cardinal Zin might hang around until a new Pope is sworn in).

The Dreaming Tree Crush Red Blend 2010Ghost Pines Winemaker's Blend Chardonnay 2010There is another name however that is equally detached from wine, but the wine is actually quite good. And if you are fan of musician Dave Matthews you won’t be able to resist The Dreaming Tree 2010 from North Coast fruit ($16.75).  This is actually a nicely composed, earnest wine – which I would expect of the erudite, cool and layered Mr. Matthews. (PS, the other California wines mentioned above are a pass, although Red Revolution is not bad for a party red).

Also from California, Ghost Pines Winemaker’s Blend Chardonnay 2010 makes debut on the general list after success as an occasional listing at Vintage. Ghost Pines is a mid-priced line by E & J Gallo. I find the wines have a certain traditional, full flavoured honesty to them, without trying to be too slick or subtle.  This chardonnay is rather full blown, a touch sweet, and very complex.

Fifth Leg Old Dog New Tricks Shiraz 2011Bodegas Portia Ebeia Roble 2010Faustino VII Tempranillo 2010So what else is new?  From Spain, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and stuffing of Faustino VII Tempranillo 2010 from Rioja, Spain.  At $12.65 it offers considerable flavour depth and authentic, warm hearted if rather coarse Spanish character. It is interesting that it spends ten months in oak barrels, and can still be delivered to our shores offering good character at under $13.  From the Ribera del Duero region, Bodegas Portia Ebeia Roble 2010 is a new, quite soft and chocolaty 100% tempranillo owned by the same Groupe Faustino. Both are head and shoulders better than a sweet, soupy, dull Spanish red called China Shop “Like a Bull” at $12.95. This wine is ill conceived in every way and deserves to fail.

From Australia, Fifth Leg Old Dog New Tricks Shiraz 2011 is not exactly brand spanking new, but it is at least re-packaged and re-issued, from a vintage that was among the best ever on Australia’s far left coast. It’s a more refreshing, slimmer take on Aussie shiraz, but nor does it wimp out.

Noval Fine Tawny PortSandeman Vau Vintage Port 1997And finally to get you through those long cold February nights there a couple of new ports. Noval Fine Tawny Port offers all kinds of cuddly warmth and complexity in a very smooth, spicy style.

And if you want to dip your toe into the world of aged vintage port without selling the farm, try Sandeman Vau 1997 Vintage Port, available is 375mL at only $11.90. It’s a bit of a barn burner in the alcohol department but the flavours are excellent and long.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Steve Thurlow will be back next month with new additions and substitutions to the Top 50 Value Picks at the LCBO. In the meantime, remember to check this link before you go value shopping: Top 50 Value Picks at the LCBO

Amalaya Torrontes Riesling 2011

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On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand

If you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand.

On The Road: A Snapshot of What it’s Like to Travel in New Zealand

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

When I arrive at the Gisborne airport to collect my rental car, I’m met by a friendly woman, who knows my name before I give it to her. She leads me to the small parking lot outside of the diminutive, low-slung building, which also doubles as the baggage pick-up area. Convenient. She politely opens the right side door of the car, and I start to throw my knapsack down onto the passenger seat as I always do. Then I realize it’s not the passenger’s side. It’s the driver’s side. Oh yeah, this is a former British colony and they drive on the other side of the road. Time to pay attention. Words of advice: when crossing the road, remember: look right.

More sheep pastures

More sheep pastures

New Zealand is a sparsely populated country, with famously more sheep than people. This is no exaggeration. Sheep outnumber citizens by 7-1 (although the ratio is down from the 1982 high of 22 sheep for every citizen). It’s possible to travel for miles on back roads without crossing a single soul, and one gets the impression that time has spun a little more slowly here. In fact, New Zealand feels as though it were several decades, and in a few places, several centuries behind the rest of the hyper-developed world.

Phone numbers here still have seven digits and license plates just 6 characters. Apparently it’s OK to park in the bus stop zone during certain hours, as long as you leave enough room for the bus. You’re as likely to pick up magnetic resonance as cell phone reception outside of city and town centers. New Zealand is emphatically not underdeveloped; there’s electricity and running water and amenities of all kinds, even organic produce, espresso coffee and concept restaurants. It’s just that the water is still clean – there are lakes and streams that you can drink from without Maori revenge.

Picton Habour, South Island

Picton Habour, South Island

And there’s a small town feel to the entire country. An anecdote to illustrate: I left my hat at the Inter Islander Ferry Terminal in Picton on the south Island after the trip over from Wellington. When I realized it, I track down the number for the terminal to inquire, though I had little hope of ever recovering it. Leave something, say, at Pearson Airport, or even the Toronto Bus Terminal and just try to get a live person on the phone who can help you. And even if you manage to reach someone, you can almost hear the sarcastic laughter.

But when I ring up the Ferry terminal, a living, breathing woman answers straight away, without having to press zero or pound or some cryptic code of characters. Panicked by having to interact with a real person, I stutteringly ask for the lost and found department, managing to spit out that I may have left my hat in one of the men’s washrooms. She responds, most shockingly, that she has the hat, even though I hadn’t even gotten around to describing it. She then even offers to send it by post to wherever I was staying. “Brilliant, I say in disbelief tinged with bewilderment, “but how can I get the money to you to cover the cost?” There was a brief silence, a silence of puzzlement, as though my question were a little queer. Finally she responds that “we” would take care of it. Well, whoever you are, I thank you. And yes, I got my hat back.

St Leonard's Woolshed

St Leonards Vineyard Cottages
The Woolshed

Another anecdote illustrative of the small town, frontier spirit evident throughout the country: Paul and Daphne, the owners of St. Leonards Vineyard Cottages in Marlborough where I stay (in a rustic but fully refurbished, airy and comfortable former sheep-shearing shed) inquire on the day of my departure if I might happen to be heading to Kaikoura on the coast. I think it an extraordinary coincidence that I am indeed heading past Kaikoura, on my way down to North Canterbury (extraordinary, that is, until I later realize that there was pretty much no other direction to go in other than back from where I had come). When I say that I am, they ask me, very politely, if I would mind, and I quote, “delivering a bag of lemons to the store in Kekerengu on the way?” I’m a little puzzled at first, not knowing of course where Kekerengu was, or even the name of the store, or how I would enter the address in my GPS. The details are more than vague, even if the request is not untoward.

I make a non-committal agreement to run the errand, happy to help out, though admittedly somewhat wearily considering the long drive I have ahead on unknown roads, wondering how far out-of-the-way I might have to go to, and how easy it would be to find this store to deliver a bag of lemons. I wait expectantly for more information; Daphne doesn’t seem to understand my hesitation. After a slightly awkward silence, I press for details. “So where is the store exactly and what’s it called? I ask.

The Store, Kekerengu

The Store, Kekerengu

She smiles, finally understanding my confusion. “Well, it’s actually called “The Store”, she says. “Oh, I see”, say I, “is it easy enough to find in Kekerengu”?

She laughed again and replies that The Store is all there is in Kekerengu. Kekerengu is not so much of a town as it is an outpost with a single building called The Store. “You’ll come out of the hills, over a rise, then as the road veers left towards the coast you’ll see The Store. You can’t miss it.”

So much for the GPS. It’s rarely needed in New Zealand and besides, it doesn’t know where The Store is anyway.

Loaded with fragrant Meyer lemons, we embark on the drive out of Marlborough over the Kaikoura Mountain range (more like hills, really) down into the Awatere Valley, past yet more vineyards that are part of the Marlborough region, sheep-dotted pastures and grazing lands and on down to the Pacific coast.

After a stop at “The Store” in Kekerengu to deliver the Meyer lemons, precisely where Daphne said it would be, and another hour’s drive further south along the coast between hills, the railway and the ocean beyond, we turn inland from highway One and climb high into the real mountains. I get my first taste of backcountry driving in New Zealand.

One-lane bridges

One-lane bridges

This is the land of the two-lane highway; four lanes are far more rare than black sheep. We cross about a dozen nearly dry rivers, each spanned by a one-lane bridge. Luckily the roads are virtually empty and we don’t have to wait to cross a single one. Indeed we pass no more than half a dozen cars over the course of the 100 kilometer journey from Kaikoura to our next stop at the accurately named Hurunui River Retreat, a truly remote retreat in the most unlikely of places. It’s to be found just off the loosest of gravel roads some five kilometers off the main road, with no signs. Strike two for the GPS, which declares that we have arrived at our destination in front of an open shed filled with bails of hay. Not promising.

You have arrived at your destination

“You have arrived at your destination”

It turns out that the real Retreat is another two kilometers down this most improbable of access roads from the GPS’s declared location. Fortunately the cell phone miraculously crackles to life and we reach the owner of the retreat. She gives us the courage to keep grinding along the gravel until we see the two small cottages that comprise the Hurunui River Retreat. She’s standing at the top of the drive just to be sure we don’t drive on past at the speed of the city.

Huruniu River Retreat

Huruniu River Retreat

In addition to innumerable sheep I see along the way, I also spot that rarest of breeds, the hitchhiker. I see them all over the roads, sometimes alone, occasionally in pairs, and even in larger packs. And they seem happy and hopeful and carefree, not like a hitchhiker in Europe or North America, if they still exist. There they look forlorn, desperate. There’d be no other reason to put your life at risk other than some catastrophic circumstance. In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a plausible way to get around. On more than one occasion, the winemakers who were touring me around made apologetic gestures to these itinerant travelers as we drove past, as though to say they would have gladly picked them up were it not for the foreign journalist in the passenger’s seat, who might think it strange. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone hitchhiking in Toronto.

Nature's works of art

Nature’s works of art

New Zealand is also the land of the camper van, a sensible form of transportation/lodging, considering the scarcity of accommodation options once you’re outside the last village or town. If you want to go back-country exploring, it’s probably the only way to go, and most townships invite you to the “free camping zone” – meaning you can park your campervan just about anywhere without hassle from local authorities. The coasts are largely undeveloped, much as I imagine California’s coastal Highway 1 might have been a hundred years ago, or BC’s Sea to Sky highway in the 1950s.

New Zealand is a land of considerable natural beauty. It’s also the land of the long white cloud, or Aotearoa in Māori. If you enjoy open space, a natural gallery of nature-hewn works of art with few people to share them with, excellent lamb and some pretty fine wines, you’ll enjoy traveling in New Zealand.

Watch WineAlign for over 300 New Zealand wine reviews which will be posted in the days ahead.

John Szabo, MS

Letter from Gisborne; John Szabo’s New Zealand
Letter from Hawke’s Bay; John Szabo’s New Zealand

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The Successful Collector, by Julian Hitner: Wine education for us all – Bordeaux prices explained

As mentioned in our previous posting entitled: Bordeaux 2010: Yet Another Vintage of the Century?in this subsequent article Julian goes a little further to explore Bordeaux pricing. 

Justifying costs:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

As the cost of premium claret continues to skyrocket, many collectors are asking why once-affordable estates are nowadays habitually so prohibitive. Is it unprecedented demand? Increasing costs of production? Or is it simply good old-fashioned extortion at work?

Whatever the reason, the need to justify such exorbitant prices has never been greater. On the part of the Classed Growths and even non-classified estates, voracity is but one excuse. For those in the business, few would deny that the cost of crafting a bottle of Fourth Growth Branaire-Ducru would be higher than a bottle of Cru Bourgeois Larose-Trintaudon. From the number of employed workers and the procurement of the finest equipment to harvesting at much lower yields and engaging in far stricter gape/parcel selection, Classed Growths will almost always be more dependent on higher revenues to live up to their reputations than their less eminent counterparts. But how much is enough to cover costs and make a reasonable profit? What is the fine line between Branaire-Ducru owner Patrick Maroteau’s overheads and a respectable return?

Chateau Branaire-DucruOn the other hand, there are those who would argue that Maroteau’s prices are merely a reflection of what the market will bear. Take away the romance and the glamour, and estates like Branaire-Ducru (a favourite of mine) are essentially glorified businesses, operated with the sole aim of exacting as much money from the purchasing public as possible. What fault of it is Maroteau’s if wine lovers are willing to pay over one hundred dollars for his stunning ’10? So long as people are willing to pay, owners might as well set their prices as high as they choose.

And why not? There are nowadays more willing customers than ever. For the past several years, new markets, particularly in Asia, have fomented greater demand for top-end Bordeaux than pundits could have ever predicted. With each passing year, buyers in Hong Kong and elsewhere along the Pacific Rim have been increasingly on the lookout for the best estates/finest vintages wherever possible; and estate owners have responded with unheralded prices.

Rauzan-SéglaBut wine lovers should remember that they have more power than they think—and more astute estate owners should know this. Should prices rise too swiftly, or remain high for particularly mediocre vintages (such as in 2011 and 2012), many claret collectors will simply stop buying. This even includes markets in Asia, where local merchants began experiencing backlash shortly after initial release prices of the 2010s were deemed too excessive. Estates such as Second Growths Châteaux Lascombes and Rauzan-Ségla learned this the hard way, and have since lowered their costs to more palatable levels. At least in principle, serious collectors and casual wine enthusiasts should always have the last word.

Here are a few gems for collectors from the 2010 Bordeaux collection:

Château Figeac 2010Château Figeac 2010, St-Emilion, AOC Premier Grand Cru Classé, $425.00

When the most recent revisions to the St-Emilion Classification (now more controversial than ever) were announced in September 2012, it was something of shock that Angélus and Pavie both got the nod to ‘A’ rank while Eric d’Aramon’s beloved Château Figeac did not. Consider the near-perfect ’10 vintage. Opaque ruby in colour, the wine exhibits exhilarating, masterful aromas of dark mocha, currants, crème de cassis, dark cherries, kirsch liqueur, slightly sinewy black fruits, spring flowers, crushed rocks, vanilla, and spice. Extremely complex, dispensing multilayered, fantastical fruit, very firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a finesse-filled, wondrous hint of concentrated black fruits, dark mocha, and charcoal on the finish. Astonishing pedigree, balance, harmony, and breed; why this estate wasn’t promoted shall forever confound me. 35% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30% Merlot. Now-2050++. Score 98 (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, November 2012)

Château La Conseillante 2010Château La Conseillante 2010, Pomerol, $379.00

Along with the near-perfect ’09, the 2010 Château La Conseillante is a legend in the making—harmonious, supple, and unbelievably addictive. Extremely dense black-ruby in colour, this magnificent claret delivers dazzling, entirely unencumbered aromas of espresso, crème de cassis, plummy currants, dark mocha, asphalt/charcoal, licorice, cherry and blackberry compote (non-excessive), vanilla, and spice. Incredibly complex, wielding prodigiously elegant, full-bodied chewy fruit, very firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a fabulous, gorgeously interwoven hint of espresso, blackberry treacle/plummy currants, and minerals traces on the finish. With abundant energy, pedigree, and finesse, this is one bottling every serious collector must somehow obtain in profusion. According to one source: 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. Now-2050++. Score 97 (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, November 2012)

Château Léoville Barton 2010Château Léoville Barton 2010, St-Julien, $169.00

While I have yet to taste the Ducru-Beaucaillou or Léoville-Las Cases, for the moment at least the 2010 Château Léoville Barton ranks as the greatest St-Julien produced from this fabulous vintage—not to mention one of the finest wines the Barton family has ever created. Opaque ruby in colour, it discloses substantially elegant, enticing aromas of currants, blackberries, dried blueberries, licorice, spring flowers, delicate espresso, forest floor, minerals, vanilla wafers, and spice. Extremely complex, featuring robust, seamlessly attuned fruit, very firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a magnificent hint of currants, blackberries, and mineral elements on the finish. Luminous, characterful, and totally harmonious; a wine like this one reminds me of why I got into this business in the first place. 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. Now-2046+. Score 96++ (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, November 2012)

Château Lynch Bages 2010Château Lynch Bages 2010, Pauillac, $229.00

Though the wines of Lynch Bages have always been stellar (even in average vintages), the 2010 may very well gone down in the estate’s history as the unbeatable outing, surpassing even the colossal ’09, the resplendent ’05, and the already-legendary ’00. Opaque ruby in colour, it demonstrates wondrous aromas of crème de cassis and alternate black fruits; making way for dark cherries, kirsch, Oreo Cookies®, mocha, licorice, spring flowers, graphite, charcoal, vanilla, and spice. Incredibly complex, delivering well-structured, near-perfect fruit, very firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a classic, impactful hint of black cherried currants, spring flowers, and crushed rocks on the finish. Magnificently textured, conveying incredible finesse, dimension, and harmony; easily a thirty-year proposition. 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot. Now-2045++. Score 96 ++ (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, November 2012)

Château Rauzan Ségla 2010Château Rauzan-Ségla 2010, Margaux, $215.00

A new plain of excellence for this fast-improving estate, the 2010 Rauzan-Ségla is not just the greatest wine this estate has ever produced; it is also one of the finest wines of the vintage for the Margaux appellation. Opaque ruby in colour, this intoxicating claret displays exemplary aromas of fragrant raspberries, currants, and black fruits; making way for blackberries, violets, licorice, forest floor, wild game elements, minerals, vanilla, and spice. Extremely complex, delivering incredibly refined, gorgeously concentrated fruit, very firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a poignant, eternally graceful hint of black currants, raspberries, and mineral deposits on the finish. So delicious, generous, and elegant; this will likely keep much longer than any vintage preceding it. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 3.5% Petit Verdot, and 1.5% Cabernet Franc. Now-2045+. Score 96 (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, November 2012)

For more reviews: 2010 Bordeaux

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Tuscany Unleashed; Lawrason’s Take on Vintages February 16 Release

Tuscany Unleashed & Gems from the Rhône, Oz, Ontario and Otago

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Tuscany is the backbone of Vintages February 16 release, with most wines hovering around 90 point excellence in a collection that nicely showcases the major regions and styles. But I also found some other nuggets from the Rhône (it just keeps on delivering), Australia, Ontario, and a dandy pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago. I am just back from my long, eight region sojourn to Middle Earth, with almost 1000 tasting notes and several themes for the weeks and months ahead. There is nothing like travel to keep perspectives changing. But the early days of 2013 are bringing change in other ways too, as we say goodbye to Wine Access magazine which folded last week – 21 years after I founded it as a newsletter in 1991. At the same time we say hello to exciting new initiatives here at WineAlign to be revealed shortly, including Season 3 of “You Think You Know Wine“. I also return to the classroom delivering WSET programs in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal (see below).

Tuscany Unleashed

This is an excellent Tuscan release! But don’t go looking for bargains. Tuscany has joined the elite wine regions of the world (with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa etc) and in this position it commands a decent buck. I would argue however that if you remove the overpriced collector wines like Tignanello, Solaia, Sassicaia and Masseto (I recently had a head-spinning 1996), Tuscany is easily the best value region among the elites. And if you are a wine drinker who likes reds with tension, complexity and finesse (if you are pinot fan) you will also like Tuscan reds. I really enjoyed tasting through this collection. I took my time, as the wines themselves demanded.

Campigli Vallone 'Terre Nere' Brunello Di MontalcinoCastello Di Querceto Chianti Classico RiservaCastello Di Ama Chianti Classico RiservaCastello Di Ama 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva ($34.95) defines Tuscany all by itself. Chianti Classico Riserva has always represented, to me, the essence of Tuscany – a sangiovese based blend grown at higher altitude in the Classico zone, selected from the best sites and aged a year longer. And Castello di Ama has worked its reputation up to the pinnacle of the genre. The property is ancient but the winery only opened in 1972, and did not begin to make its mark until the 90s after a young viticulturist named Marco Pallanti had re-planted 23 hectares of vineyard – after exhaustive research – with a strategy to highlight the best parcels for sangiovese. The result here is wine of wonderful precision, elegance and length, in a narrower style that is all about the traditional flavours of Tuscany.

Castello Di Querceto  2008 Chianti Classico Riserva ($27.95) is perhaps more hedonistically engaging, slightly richer but still very authentic.  This estate has  been around much longer, indeed it was a founding member of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico in 1924, a quality focused association with the famous black rooster as its emblem. It also went through a very similar process of vineyard parsing and replanting in the 1980s under the direction of Allesandro Francois, who has also developed Querceto as an ‘agritourismo’ property.

Terre Nere 2006 Brunello Di Montalcino ($34.95) is a terrific, mature Brunello from a great vintage. There are two other very good 2007 Brunellos on the release (the current release of this long-aged wine), but neither have quite the depth and structure of this wine. It is very much a traditional Brunello, lacking the manicure of modern wines but unleashing flavours that flood the senses and warm the heart. And it is absolutely ready to roll out for a February roast or stew, after an hour in a decanter.

Et tu, Rhône 2010?

The wave of delicious, well-structured 2009 Rhône reds that swept through Vintages last year was one of the top wine stories of 2012. Could the wave of 2010s – a great vintage in France – plus some lingering 2009s, continue to dominate this year? This seems to be the case, as four out of five Rhônes on this release are very much worth buying, with three hitting 90 points.

Domaine De Fontavin Terre d'Ancêtres Châteauneuf Du PapeDelas Frères Les Launes Crozes HermitageDomaine Saint Pierre VacqueyrasDomaine De Fontavin 2010 Terre d’Ancêtres Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($37.95) makes its debut in Ontario, as far as I can gather. And it is an auspicious debut – a finely constructed if not yet very showy wine that epitomizes the 2010 vintage. I have been disappointed with about 50% of the Chateauneufs of late, especially in terms of value, but this is a solid purchase, and a wine to cellar for about three years as it uncoils. It’s from a relatively new estate founded in the eighties that is expanding toward 45 hectares within eight villages in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The latest endeavour by Martine et Michel Chouvet is conversion to organic viticulture, a long process given the size and scattering of the holdings.  The 2011 is the first organic vintage.

Delas Frères 2010 Les Launes Crozes-Hermitage ($20.95) is a fine young syrah that sets the tone for the vintage with classic smoked meat flavours, tension and stoniness. Do expect the 2010s to have more nerve than the softer 2009s. Delas is an old name in the Rhône that went through a massive facelift after being purchased by Roederer of Champagne in the nineties. It makes a very wide range, but its portfolio is focused on the northern Rhône. Les Launes is a compilation of the many soil types and aspects found in Crozes-Hermitage, an apron of vineyards that flows out from the side and back of the majestic hill of Hermitage.

Domaine Saint-Pierre 2009 Vacqueyras ($24.95) is remarkable for the youth it still possesses and its sturdy nature which will reward even further ageing.  It is from a well-established domain based near Vacqueyras but owning almost 50 hectares of sustainably farmed vineyards throughout the southern Rhône. This Vacqueyras is very typically comprised of 60% grenache and 40% syrah harvested at fairly low yields.  In recent years, since I began visiting the region annually with a Gold Medal Plates group, I have developed a keen understanding and appreciation of Vacqueyras’ powerful, masculine style.

An Excellent Aussie Pair

Majella Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009Penfolds 2009 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz from South Australia ($44.95) has always been my favourite of the mid-priced “Bin Series” wines.  While moving through a fairly typical and average selection of Australian reds on Vintages tasting bench, this draped across my palate like a royal purple robe. It’s amazing how Penfolds manages to pack such depth, richness, precision and luminosity into its wines. What more can I say, except that I sense the special attributes of Bin 389 are due to the very successful melding of cabernet and shiraz.

Majella 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36.95) hails from one of the oldest family wineries in Coonawarra, with four generations of the Lynn family, that originated as shopkeepers in the local town of Penola. This is a wonderfully rich, evenly sculpted wine, bursting with energetic cassis and eucalypt flavours yet contained, dense and very long.  With such a wine it is not difficult to understand why Coonawarra, with its terra rosa soils and moderated, coolish climate is one of the world’s truly great spots for cabernet – so good that they dare go with 100 cabernet sauvignon in this bottling.

Ontario Notables

Rosewood Estates Merlot 2010Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard ChardonnayRosewood Estates 2010 Merlot from the Niagara Escarpment  ($22.00) is fine little gem – everything you could want from a cool climate merlot – and very good value from the warm 2010 vintage. It is sourced from two vineyards – Wismer and Renencau – that were fermented and aged in barrel separately before blending.  Having also recently reviewed an excellent Rosewood pinot noir, I would suggest that Rosewood is moving into the top ranks of Niagara wines. It took 16 medals in the Canadian Wine Awards and ranked 14th in the country. But all this comes with an asterisk since winemaker Natalie Spytkowsky’s departure last year. Her protégé Luke Orwinksi has is now involved as is Ross Wise, formerly of Flat Rock Cellars. It’s wait and see.

Palatine Hills 2010 Neufeld Vineyard Chardonnay from the Niagara Lakeshore ($22.95) is also a very good buy. It is a bit soft and warm as a result of the hot growing season, but there is fine complexity and nuance in and around the peachy fruit – a character I find often in Lakeshore wines. Palatine Hills is another label on the move with the arrival in 2011 of winemaker Jeff Innes who had honed his skills at the Grange of Prince Edward in PEC. He is selecting grapes from a very large vineyard acreage of maturing vines owned by winery owners John and Barbara Neufeld.

A Fine Otago Pinot

Loveblock 2011 Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand ($28.95) is first and foremost a quite delicious, fragrant and sturdy biodynamically-grown pinot noir. But the back story is also of interest.  The label is a new endeavour by Erica and Kim Crawford, the NZ power-couple that launched Kim Crawford wines which was taken over by Vincor, then Constellation Brands a few years back. Kim Crawford remains one of the most recognized NZ exports and it sauvignon blanc is a best seller at the LCBO – but the Crawfords have nothing to do with it.  Imagine your surname becoming a brand over which you have no control?

Loveblock Pinot Noir 2011The other back story is how this wine represents the current situation in Central Otago, where I spent five days last month, tasting over 220 wines from virtually every producer.  I will write more about Otago in future – specifically its diversity of terroirs that desperately need to be sorted out via sub-appellation labelling. For the moment however suffice to say Otago is in transition from frontier outpost of people with purple passion for pinot, into a much more commercial region wrestling with price point issues and distribution.

The 2008 recession forced the high-faluting prices to moderate, which meant developing more vineyards and economies of scale.  The barefooted, renegade pioneers were forced to introduce lower tiers, and the rush was on as outsiders – like Erica and Kim Crawford –  came in to establish brands for wider distribution, often making their wines elsewhere.  The result is that I did encounter some ho-um Otago pinots, but in this case, the Crawfords have done a very good job of bringing in a reasonably priced, high quality wine that captures Otago authenticity.

Back to the Classroom – WSET

Throughout my career I have enjoyed teaching about wine as much as I have writing about it. I often run into “students” who remember my private tastings in the 90s and early 2000s in the cellars of Movenpick, Vines and Crush, and others who attended my CAPS New World courses at George Brown College during the mid-2000s. There has been a bit of a chalkboard lull since 2008, when WineAlign started up and life got extremely busy. But now an opportunity has come along that nicely puts me back at the lecturn.

Starting next month I will be conducting Level 1 (Foundation) and Level 2 (Intermediate) WSET courses in Toronto, in conjunction with Fine Vintage Ltd. WSET is the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, the world’s largest and globally recognized four-level program that ultimately leads to a Masters of Wine, for those hardy palates who can go the distance. There are very few MWs in Canada, and one of them is James Cluer, who runs Fine Vintage Ltd. I audited courses he ran in Toronto last fall, and will do so again this weekend, and I was struck by the level of professionalism and organisation, the quality of the materials, the rigour of the examination process and, importantly, the wine quality/budget he brings to this exercise. Even in the Foundation courses we let the wines do the teaching by focusing on very high quality regional wines. Fine Vintage was honoured as the WSET 2011 International Educator of the Year.

On a personal level, I also really like the location at the hotel/residences of One King West, steps from the subway, and the weekends-only schedule that allows students quick progression through the various levels (and works with my busy schedule as well). The one-day Foundation Course on Saturday, March 9 is already full. The three day Intermediate Course March 16, 17, 23 has space remaining. I will also be conducting courses in Montreal and Ottawa this spring, so please visit to check out all the details and upcoming schedules programs. Other WSET Courses are offered in Toronto through the Independent Wine Education Guild at

Cuvee Coming Up

The 25th edition of Ontario’s Cuvée is coming up on the weekend of Mar 1-3, offering a great opportunity to taste deep and put on the ritz. It opens Friday evening with a Grand Tasting Gala evening at the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, with those who purchased VIP tickets through WineAlign getting early access (5:30pm) to the over 40 producers who are pouring their best. On Saturday morning there is the always excellent invitation-only experts tasting at Brock University, while other guests begin two-days of Cuvée En Route passport tastings at the wineries. For full details and ticket information, read our blog posting or click on the advertisement below.

I’ll be back for the March 2 release, meanwhile see all my reviews below.


David Lawrason VP of Wine

From the February 16, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

WineAlign VIP Access - Cuvée Weekend 2013

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008