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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 30 Release

Sérieux Sauvignons, Promising Malbecs, Niagara Rieslings, Euro Values & Sublime Closers

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

France’s beguiling Languedoc-Roussillon region headlines this release – and I have flagged three terrific 90-point red bargains below. But I will skip the backgrounder because colleague John Szabo has already done a fine job in last week’s exhaustive report. So we leap to another theme that caught my eye – especially as we desperately seek spring. I pry open the other world of sauvignon blancs that exists beyond New Zealand (its turn is coming with the April 13 release).

Très Sérieux Sauvignons Not from NZ

Sauvignon Blanc – lead by New Zealand’s brilliant savvies – has become our most prized warm weather white. Its natural acidity is the key to its refreshment, along with flavour elements like green apple, fresh herbs and limes that evoke summer. And it is not a wine that makes you work too hard to appreciate it. Even lesser quality examples offer their character with ease; and you don’t need to swirl, ponder and discuss in order to enjoy it. Great happy hour fare!

But that is just one side of the coin – the shiny side. Back in its French homeland sauvignon blanc is often more complex and nuanced – and some might argue, perhaps on the dull side. It still has acid-driven refreshment at its core, but in the cool, continental, central Loire Valley appellations of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Menetou-Salon and Quincy it absorbs more minerality from the limestone base of the soils. It is often less fruity and less stridently green as well, conforming to the French penchant for restraint and nuance. The idea here is to match it with food – shellfish, other seafood, anything with chèvre (goat cheese).

Domaine Fouassier Les Grands Groux Sancerre 2010Château Olivier Blanc 2009Domaine Fouassier 2010 Les Grands Groux Sancerre ($24.95) is fine example of this style, boosted by the 2010 vintage which has brought excellent firmness and depth to most of France’s white wines.  It hails from older vines in a biodynamically farmed 5.5 hectare limestone vineyard centred on the hill of Sancerre.

Over in Bordeaux sauvignon blanc undergoes even more dramatic transformation. The climate is a bit warmer which means the acidity is less evident.  So sauvignon is more suitably bolstered and fleshed out by blending semillon, and by subjecting the wine to barrel treatment. This creates a whole new sauvignon flavour landscape that is even more complex. The wines have added weight and gravitas, and are much better able to age.  They are among my favourite whites on the planet.

Château Olivier 2009 Blanc from the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux ($48.85) is a magnificent example. This old estate belongs to the club of  ‘Grand Cru Classe’ of Pessac-Leognan, south of the city of Bordeaux. It makes more red wine than white, but I have always much preferred its whites, from 12 hectares containing 55% semillon, 40% sauvignon blanc and 5% muscadelle. The average vine age is 40 years, with the vines planted at high density to promote greater flavour concentration. The wine is fermented in stainless steel then aged one year in one-third new French oak barrels. By the way, this is classed by VINTAGES as an In-Store Discovery only available in some of the largest/busiest flagship stores.

Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc 2012Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2011Far across the pond in Napa Valley, sauvignon blanc faces warm conditions more similar to Bordeaux than the Loire Valley, so the Bordeaux approach of blending semillon and oak ageing is used by most producers. The style was created by Robert Mondavi long ago when he created a barrel aged wine called Fume Blanc that is still among the best whites in California.

Spottswoode 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($37.95) is one of the most successful and sought after Napa sauvignons. Actually this bottling uses some Sonoma fruit, and a healthy portion of a clone called sauvignon musque that adds aromatic lift. Oak is nicely in the background adding just a touch of spice complexity. This is very classy indeed, although again in limited availability as in In-Store Discovery.

Frog’s Leap 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($26.95) is an organically produced example from Napa that tilts back more toward a fresher, fruitier style that fits somewhere between the Loire and Bordeaux and New Zealand. They dabbled with the addition of semillon at one point but went back to 100% sauvignon grown on their Rutherford property, fermented straight up in stainless steel without oak aging. With a whopping production of over 20,000 cases they have obviously struck a chord.

Promising Argentine Malbecs

Now that we are in the midst of a full-fledged Argentine malbec invasion – and perhaps even in the early stages of a popularity decline – it probably seems odd that I would apply the adjective “promising” to malbec. Here’s why. To me the problem with malbec is its homogeny, especially within the hordes of under $20 examples clogging the shelves at VINTAGES. What’s more, many of these big, fruit-driven, high alcohol wines are simply too young and coarse. I am not sure who’s more to blame here – Argentina for making such wines and shipping them prematurely, or VINTAGES (and other markets too) for demanding a certain price point for malbec which forces producers to go this route. Another problem is that the more expensive malbecs don’t really seem to be worth double the price in terms of showing appreciably more complexity and elegance than their under $20 peers.

Versado Malbec 2010Versado Reserva Malbec 2009So it was refreshing to note three wines in this release offering the promise that change is possible, and even more pleasing that two of them are made by Canadian Ann Sperling, who knows all about finesse and elegance.

Versado 2010 Malbec ($24.95) and Versado 2009 Reserva Malbec ($59.95) are the debut of Argentine wines by Niagara-based partners Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling. Peter has been a key figure in the development of important Niagara properties like Hillebrand (way back when), Stratus and Ravine. Ann who grew up in Kelowna, B.C. and still makes wine there at her family’s Sperling Vineyards, has worked most of her career in Niagara at Malivoire and now Southbrook. Together they purchased a small vineyard in the higher reaches of Lujan de Coyo, the heartland of Argentine malbec. And it is very apparent that they have brought a new sensibility, finesse and complexity to the genre. The Reserva in particular is a revelation.

Angulo Innocenti Malbec 2010Angulo Innocenti 2010 Malbec ($18.95) from the higher altitude La Consulta sub-region of the Uco Valley is another malbec style that I really like, and actually not dissimilar to the Versado wines in terms of textural delicacy, even if in a sweeter, more floral vein. The winery is new – founded in 2004 with a 100 hectare property called Finca Piedras Blancas between 3000 and 3500 metres altitude. And it seems that everything is done with greatest care, from hand harvesting to double sorting to gentle cooler fermentation and a shorter than usual stay in barrels. The secret weapon here, however, may be the 15% cabernet sauvignon in the blend, providing extra aromatic lift and some finesse.

A Fine Pair of Niagara Rieslings

Four Niagara rieslings are featured on this release, and all are very good. But I have selected, and given higher ratings to a pair that really sing, and should really please, perhaps over an Easter ham.

Rosewood Natalie's Süssreserve Riesling 2010Château Des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2010Rosewood 2010 Natalie’s Süssreserve Riesling is great value at $14.95. It is an off-dry version in an easy going style that will work as a sipper, or well chilled with simple Asian cuisine. It has been judiciously sweetened by the addition of unfermented riesling juice before bottling, a process the German’s employ freely and call “sussreserve”. This brand will likely disappear as winemaker Natalie Spytkowski moved on from Rosewood last year, but we hope the style remains under a new name.

Château Des Charmes 2010 Old Vines Riesling is also a great buy at $16.95. Because Château des Charmes riesling vines are not “on the Bench”  like so many good rieslings (Cave Spring, Vineland, Tawse, Thirty Bench, Hidden Bench, Charles Baker, 2027 Cellars etc) – this wine tends to get overlooked, and dare I say, it is even undervalued by the winery itself. I am all for great value, and I appreciate the Bosc family’s generosity, but the almost 40 year old vines from their Four Mile Creek property, are churning out some mighty impressive quality. This wine is richer but no less structured than those from the Bench Bunch.

Bargain Euro Reds

In the past couple of years the tasting of low to mid-priced Euro reds has become one of my favourite exercises at VINTAGES lab. Viticulture and winemaking has improved so much within Spain, Portugal, southern France, southern Italy and Greece – although it’s not evident in all the wines and sorting is required. Likewise, most are also sticking to indigenous grape varieties and authenticity, again with the exception of those seeking to capture “international/New World” favour by adding to much cocoa flavouring. Here are three fine examples, all under $20, that flirt with excellence.

Château Lajarre Cuvée Eléonore 2010Quinta Do Penedo 2009Luigi Righetti Campolieti Ripasso Valpolicella Classico SuperioreLuigi Righetti 2010 Campolieti Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($16.95) presents stunning value. It is not a powerful wine, indeed it seems to be shyly avoiding being cast as an amarone-chasing ripasso extrovert. There is a fine sense of elegance and maturity here, perhaps through the two years of barrel ageing required of a “superiore”. This small family company founded in 1909 has always provided supple finesse at remarkably fair prices. Campolieti means ‘happy fields”.  Indeed!

Quinta Do Penedo 2009 is yet another demonstration that Portugal’s Dao region is on the move. And at 18.95 it’s a steal. The large, hilly, pine forested region in the centre of the country feels both maritime and continental climate effects, and is home to a wide range of soil types and grape varieties. It is said that touriga nacional – Portugal’s most well-known grape (that also makes up 70% of this wine) originated in Dao near the village of Touriga. The region has hundreds of growers but most change is being wrought by the larger companies that are working to upgrade single estates like Quinta do Penedo. The 20 ha property dates back to the 30s, but was purchased in 1998 by Cave Messias, which began re-structuring the vineyards in 2000.

Château Pech Redon L'épervier 2010Château De Treviac 2010Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des CombesChâteau Lajarre 2010 Cuvée Eléonore from the Bordeaux Superieur appellation is a classy intro to basic Bordeaux. It is a blend of 80% merlot with 20% cabernet franc from a 33 hectare property southeast of St. Emilion. There is a bit of mocha-fication but it’s in the background and essentially this delivers a finely balanced, drinkable Bordeaux to enjoy over the next three to five years. Thanks to the 2010 vintage perhaps. All for $15.95!

My Languedoc Picks

Still with Euro values, here are three wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon feature that most impressed me with their quality and value. And I will only add to John Szabo’s comments that I also find this area intriguing. I love the amazing variability in the red wines, and am fascinated by the seemingly infinite permutations wrought by the stable of five grapes – grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault and carignane – planted across several appellations and hundreds of micro-climates.

Château Pech Redon 2010 L’épervier from Côteaux du Languedoc’s sub-region of La Clape ($19.95) is dark, wild and moody. Château De Treviac 2010 Corbières ($15.95) is swarthy, suave and ripe. While Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes 2010 Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun ($17.95) is both refined and well structured, mindful of a fine Gigondas.

Sweet Closers: From the Sublime to the Sublime

Massandra White Muscat 2009Château Guiraud 2009 SauternesLong time readers will know that I often give my highest ratings to sweet and fortified wines. It’s not because they are sweet, or fortified. I don’t have a sweet tooth necessarily and I don’t drink these wines often. No, this is about quality – as measured by complexity, balance and depth – and the world’s best dessert and fortified wines knock most table wines out of the park in this regard. They are often made from high quality, later picked, concentrated fruit and/or aged a long time in barrel and bottle. There are two on this release that rate well over 90; indeed the Chateau Giraud towers at 97 points.

Château Guiraud 2009 Sauternes 1er Cru is staggeringly good, and a superb buy at $44.85 per half bottle. No wonder it polled position #5 in the Wine Spectators Top 100 of 2012. It is a blend of botrytis-affected Semillon (65%) and sauvignon blanc (35%) harvested at less than one ton per acre, in one of the best Sauternes vintages of the past decade.  It is wonderfully opulent yet ethereal.

Massandra 2009 White Muscat from the South Coast (Crimea) region of the Ukraine is a huge value and wide open window to one the great sweet wine styles of antiquity. At $15.95 you can’t afford to miss it. Chill it well and consider opening it some sultry spring summer evening with a selection of creamy, soft ripened, runny cheeses.

So that’s a wrap for this edition. Tune in again for my report on VINTAGES April 13 release, and watch your inbox for a new wave of WineAlign articles, many of which will now include Anthony Gismondi’s pithy prose.

Cheers, David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the March 30, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

County in the City

The Good Food & Drink Festival

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18 Defining California Wineries; Critic Picks

A Playbook for the California Wine Fairs coming to Canada in April

California Wine Fairs will roll through six cities across Canada in April, with over 150 participating wineries at the largest events. WineAlign has decided to profile eighteen wineries that fair-goers should visit this year – an arbitrary number on the one hand, but a somewhat realistic number for any fair-goer to tackle in one evening. And undoubtedly others will grab your attention along the way, as they should.

WineAlign critics Anthony Gismondi, John Szabo and David Lawrason have each chosen six. They had a chance to taste California in-depth during the recent five-day Vancouver International Wine Festival where California was the theme region (so there is no Vancouver fair in April). That exercise – which included several seminars and regional tastings – yielded new discoveries and rekindled some old relationships.

The reasons for their selection are varied – from appreciation of the wine style, to the philosophy and outlook of the wineries, to those who are simply doing things very well. Each has also highlighted a wine or three that can be located through WineAlign. And most will also be poured at the California wine fairs. For a full list of wineries in each city, as well as ticket information use this link to the California Wine Fair 2013 website.

Anthony Gismondi’s Six

Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

Kendall Jackson, Sonoma County

Sommeliers are often a fine source of information regarding unknown obscure producers making fascinating, one-off wines but sometimes they brush off wineries they shouldn’t. Point in question Kendall Jackson. KJ as it’s known to its peeps is a vastly underrated producer of California wine that is often lumped in with large commercial producers who simply are not in the same ballpark. While some wine companies were busy acquiring other wine companies over the last two decades, KJ was busy buying land, as in 10,545 acres of coastal and mountainside vineyards. That allows the family to claim that all the chardonnay grapes used in a bevy of labels are grown on vineyards the family controls. That’s an amazing 2.4 million cases of control from vineyard to bottle. The current structure of Kendall-Jackson’s chardonnay empire (don’t bet against more evolution) begins with the calling card of Vintner’s Reserve 2010 made from individual lots of grapes blended from multiple appellations. Stepping up in intensity and complexity of flavour is the Grand Reserve label. It’s made from a severe selection estate grown grapes blended from one or two appellations, in this case Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties. Its pinnacle chardonnays are labelled Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, wines that showcases specific estate vineyard sites located on “mountains, ridges, hillsides and benchland influenced by the cool coast of California.” Two examples well worth seeking out are the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2010 and the newest food friendly Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2011 (The former is an almost even split of Monterey and Santa Barbara fruit while the Avant is a slimmer juicier style that has impressed us with its early releases, the 2011 is t quite up to those releases but all in all good value.

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay

Joseph Phelps Vineyards (Freestone), Napa Valley, Sonoma Coast

Joseph Phelps Vineyards, founded in 1973 has been around most of my wine drinking life. Founded by Joe Phelps at St. Helena in the Napa Valley, the winery now works with or owns some 375 acres of vines on eight estates in Napa Valley and in 1999 expanded that number with some ultra-cool chardonnay and pinot noir producing vines grown near the town of Freestone on the Sonoma Coast. There is no doubt the fame of Phelps is closely linked to its signature Napa Valley blend, Insignia, but there is little to suggest its Freestone estate on the western Sonoma Coast won’t become equally valued in the decades to come. The family is so pleased with the early wines it has already reworked the original Freestone winery labels adding the Joseph Phelps brand name and highlighting Freestone Vineyards as an estate designation. Joe Phelps was always a fan of the cooler weather that moderates the Sonoma Coast and he was sure that top –flight pinot noir and chardonnay could be made there. He was right. I just love the Freestone wines the electricity in the Joseph Phelps Chardonnay Freestone Vineyards 2010 is crazy good and a benchmark for the future. Similarly the red brother Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir Freestone Vineyards 2010 entices with its sleeker cooler leaner style.

Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir Freestone Vineyards

Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County

Rodney Strong, the dancer turned winemaker is long gone but his spirit and foresight remains evident at his eponymous Sonoma County winery located just outside the picturesque town of Healdsburg. What Strong started, San Francisco businessman Tom Klein seems determined to finish or at least bring to fruition. Klein has built an impressive team of people led by chief winemaker Rick Sayre. Sayre’s first harvest was 1979 and over 30 years later Rodney Strong has become a beacon of the Alexander Valley, a region often said to be too warm to produce high quality reds. Sayre’s team has dismissed that fallacy and more with a trio of excellent hillside, single vineyard reds. The iconic and now revamped Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon, the Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon and the Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon each tell a story of terroir and exposition that would make Rodney the dancer fly through the air.

Sayre is also responsible for establishing the “Winery within the Winery’ at Rodney Strong. The blocks, be they single clones, or grapes grown on a special soil type, are tracked from the minute they enter the winery until they are bottled. Sayre’s sidekick is the youthful Greg Morthole who began working at Rodney Strong in 2005, and has quickly progressed to become the “Winery within a Winery” winemaker and is now responsible for another Klein family acquisition, the boutique Russian River pinot noir and chardonnay winery Davis Bynum. If anyone winery in Sonoma has helped to turn around the image of modern California chardonnay among the masses Rodney Strong is it. There are two labels to look for: the Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill 2010 from white ash soils of the Chalk Hills appellation, and slightly rustic but intense and ageworthy the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.

Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay

Signorello Estate, Napa Valley

Ray Signorello Jr. appears much younger than his years but don’t be fooled by the boyish grin. Signorello has more than 25 Napa Valley vintages to his credit and that makes him more establishment than newcomer in his beloved Napa. Signorello is a student of fine wine, young and old. His experience and observation with great wines from around the globe have shaped his thinking and the steady rise of quality at Signorello Vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon is the largest single grape variety planted on the Signorello hillsides. Signorello cabernet is all about finesse and balance no easy task in a region that wrestles with ripe fruit. His goal is to make complex reds that age gracefully a la the great bottles of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and more.

Signorello has a pair of talented Frenchmen helping him make the wine Pierre Birebent and Luc Morlet and while he says he is not making French wine, quality has its benchmarks and Bordeaux is never far from their minds. I’m a fan of understated Napa cabernet and Signorello makes just that. Padrone is a salute to his father and founding partner is fast becoming wine to reckon with in all of Napa Valley. Signorello Padrone 2009 is all Napa Valley with concentration and intensity but with finesse and restraint youthful tannins on the finish need 3-5 years to soften. Signorello Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is a surprisingly fine wine given the difficult vintage in Napa. With only cabernet franc in the mix now the regular cab is just beginning to hit its stride.

Signorello Padrone Proprietary Red

Schug Carneros Estate, Sonoma County

Walter Schug began his winemaking career as the original winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1973 – think Insignia, Backus and Eisele Vineyards cabernets. His move to Carneros in 1980 signalled a longing for a cooler maritime climate and a focus his true love pinot noir and chardonnay. By 1992 he was making estate chardonnay and pinot noir and the rest is history. In 1995 Sonoma-born winemaker Michael Cox joined Walter and a year later took over the reins. Walter Schug has a clear vision of what his wines should be and it begins with elegance and finesse. Always understated and refined the Schug chardonnay was modern long before the rest of Sonoma caught on. It’s easy to say Schug is European old school until you consider he was working with some 600 independent growers and several thousand acres of prime vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties in 1966. His journey continues with his 50th crush this season and I for one can’t wait to taste his latest chardonnays and pinot noirs because they represent some of the best value, intriguing, food friendly wines in America. Schug Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is exceptional, proving that Walter Schug understands the essence of Sonoma County freshness, minerality and electricity and he has all three running through this bottle. The Schug Pinot Noir Carneros 2010 is a mix of cool Sonoma Coast vineyards: rhubarb, raspberry, carrot top and caraway mark this juicy style pinot with excellent fruit and finesse.

Schug Sauvignon Blanc

Marimar Estate, Sonoma County

You only have to meet Marimar Torres once to understand she has never taken no for an answer when it comes to wine. Fluent in six languages she made her way from Spain to America after first selling the family wines in Europe and then North America. She settled in California in 1975 and by 1986 she was planning her beloved Don Miguel Vineyard situated in the Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley. Today the 81 acre site is planted to 30 acres of chardonnay and 30 acres of pinot noir. She also has another 20 acres of a 180-acre property planted to pinot noir between Freestone and Occidental in cool West Sonoma County. Torres is busy converting her vineyards from organic to biodynamic while technical director Bill Dyer, (Sterling Vineyards, Burrowing Owl, Church and State) is cranking out exceptional chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines are not European but like Schug, Phelps, Kendall Jackson, Rodney Strong and Signorello the wines of Miramar Torres use the California sun in measured amounts and balance that with a daily dose of cool air and fog. The result is wines you will not want to miss. Marimar Estate Pinot Noir Don Miguel Vineyard La Masia 2009 is a very complex wine from the Russian River. It could use a few years in bottle and it’s excellent value. Even more attractive is the Marimar Estate Chardonnay Don Miguel Vineyard Acero Unoaked 2010 also from the Russian River. Expect honey, floral, spicy, baked peach and orange muscat flavours that should appeal to many especially when served with Asian seafood dishes.

Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo’s Six

Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz

Randall Grahm may have started out on his wine journey as an “insufferable wine fanatic” (his words) searching for the “Great American Pinot Noir”, but his path led him instead into a thicket of Rhône and Italian grapes. He purchased land in the quaintly named Bonny Doon area of the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1981, and has since gone on to create nothing short of an amazing array of wines that stretch both the palate and the mind. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the “Rhône Rangers” movement, proving that Mediterranean grapes are shockingly well suited to California, and he was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Rhone Rangers organization. His philosophical musings are legendary in the wine community, and 350,000+ followers surely makes him the Ashton Kutcher of the wine twitterverse (sorry, Randall). Don’t forget to read the labels when you stop by the table to taste. The following will be at the California Wine Fair: 2010 Le Cigare Blanc Roussanne/Grenache Blanc Beeswax Vinyard; 2010 Contra Carignane/Syrah; 2009 Le Pousseur Syrah; and the 2008 Le Cigare Volant Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah/Cinsault. (Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2006)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant

Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Mendocino County

The original vineyards now belonging to Bonterra were once part of Fetzer’s holdings in Mendocino County. Bob Blue, the founding and current head winemaker, crushed his first harvest at Bonterra in 1990. Blue had worked under seminal American organic/biodynamic winemaking figures Paul Dolan and Dennis Martin at Fetzer, and has never looked back. It’s striking that fully one-quarter of Mendocino County’s vineyards are organically farmed, compared to 3% overall in California. Bonterra now farms an astonishing 915 acres of vines both organically and biodynamically. I’ve always appreciated the freshness and balance of Bonterra’s range, as well as the value. (Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010).

Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, Santa Barbara County

I visited Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, in the fall of 2011. The winery is tucked up in the upper hills of Santa Barbara County in what’s known today as the Happy Canyon AVA, where conditions are ideal for Bordeaux varieties. The winery itself is a remarkable structure that would be the envy of many Napa Valley wine temples, and the wines, too, are worth the detour inland. Both the Star Lane and Dierberg labels are made at this facility, equipped with every gadget a winemaker could dream of, but Star Lane is reserved for sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and a red blend called Astral, all grown in Happy Canyon, while Dierberg focuses on a range of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah in the cooler AVAs of Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills. These are intense and highly polished wines. (Dierberg Chardonnay 2008)

Dierberg Chardonnay 2008

Flowers Vineyard & Winery, Sonoma County

In 1989, Joan and Walt Flower purchased 321 acres of land on a ridge top a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean in northern Sonoma. Flowers Vineyards is thus one of the ‘true’ Sonoma Coast AVA properties, and with vineyards that top out at almost 600 meters, winegrowing is extreme. The focus is (almost) exclusively on chardonnay and pinot noir, from both the Camp Meeting ridge and Seaview Ridge estate vineyards, as well as other select sites from the coolest corners of Sonoma. These are finely etched, pure and precise expressions, with more than a slight nod back to the old world. (Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2010)

Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2010

Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich has some history in the business. He was the winemaker of the 1973 Château Montelena chardonnay that shocked the wine world by placing first in the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. Grgich Hills was established shortly after in 1977, and Mike was inducted in the Vintner’s Hall of Fame in 2008. For the last decade, all of Grgich Hills’ wines are made from 100% estate fruit, farmed organically and biodynamically. The complexity derived from wild yeast fermentations and the purity encouraged by gentle oak ageing are the hallmarks of these balanced and elegant Napa wines. Stop by and pass on your best wishes to Mike, who turns 90 on April 1st. (Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2009 and Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008).

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2009

Stags’ Leap Winery, Napa Valley

Stags’ Leap Winery (not to be confused with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), is, unsurprisingly, in the Stag’s Leap district AVA. There’s something special about this appellation: it could be the volcanic-derived soils; it could be the cool air that funnels through in late afternoon from San Pablo Bay. In any case, the wines are distinctive, and this is a reliable producer. The wines have always been very good, but since Frenchmen Christophe Paubert took over as winemaker in late 2009, the quality has risen further. You can still expect the richness and intensity of fruit for which Napa is known, but the wines have a degree of refinement and elegance that makes these more subtle, complex and drinkable than the average. (Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2008Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008).

Stags' Leap Winery Viognier 2011

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason’s Six

Etude Wines, Sonoma County

“The state of pinot in California is strong; it’s on fire as a matter of fact. The availability of quality-based Dijon clones and matching them to micro-climates and terroirs is making all the difference. The growing range is also expanding, and it’s become so popular. It’s becoming a better wine overall”. So said Etude winemaker Jon Priest at a pinot noir seminar in Vancouver. Priest is very much at the forefront of California’s pinot revolution. With owner Tony Soter and viticulturalist Franci Ashton, he oversees a small, unique volcanic soiled vineyard in the northwest corner of the Carneros appellation. Over 20 pinot clones, including ten that he describes as ‘heirloom’ clones are planted. The pinots are big and profound yet nuanced and sensitive, and in my books, modern treasures – I have rated the 2010 Heirloom not yet available in Canada at 94 points. Etude also makes Napa cabernet, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot. (Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros)

Etude Pinot Noir

Seghesio Family Vineyards, Sonoma County

Peter Seghesio is the outspoken, almost irascible winemaker of Seghesio, a family enterprise with roots in Sonoma dating back to 1895. He is also in charge of over 300 acres of vineyard in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley – most of it zinfandel, most of it old vines. In Vancouver he compared zin to pinot noir saying “both are thin skinned, expressive of their site, have red fruit flavours, and they are high maintenance”. It was so refreshing to hear someone speak with reverence and almost fond annoyance about zin – whereas so many nowadays make cheap zin as a candy bar wine and talk about its worth in SKUs. What’s more Seghesio makes zinfandels that try so hard to transpose this grape into the glass, while sculpting them to a balanced modern style. In Vancouver I swooned over the small production single vineyard zins like the burly, granitic 2010 Rockpile grown above the fog-line in the Alexander Valley appellation, and the elegant rich and seductive 2010 Cortina Vineyard from the Dry Creek Valley. (Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel 2009)

Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010

Heitz Cellars, Napa Valley

I have always been a big fan of Heitz, just like everyone else who cares about fine wine. Joe Heitz was a true Napa pioneer, starting into the business when Napa had only eleven wineries. He made his first vintage in 1966, from grapes purchased – to this day – from the 35 acre Oakville vineyard of Tom and Martha May. It was a later ripening site, and Joe noticed the distinctive style and quality of the cabernet that was to become Napa’s first vineyard designated wine – Martha’s Vineyard. (I tasted the silken 2001 Martha’s in Vancouver and it had barely begun its life’s journey). If they are not pouring Martha’s Vineyard freely at the Wine Fairs cut them some slack, as it’s a $215+ wine. But you should look for their Trailside and Fay Vineyard wines as well. And don’t miss the surprisingly stylish, complex and deep 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, a variety they only began to producer in 2006. I loved this sauvignon, and it put Heitz back on my radar. No currently available Heitz wines are reviewed on WineAlign, a situation we hope changes as a result of Heitz’s return to Canada through the Wine Fairs. (Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2001)

Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County

The intriguing thing about Chateau St. Jean is its historic attachment to chardonnay. Yes, I like its pinot noirs, and I understand what makes its red Bordeaux blend called Cinq Cepages a collectors favourite, even though it has never thrilled me. But this is a house – actually a very elegant chateau in Sonoma Valley – that chardonnay built. It made its reputation on single vineyard chardonnays from growers like Robert Young as far back as the early 1970s. Today they still make three vineyard designate wines – Robert Young, Belle Terre and Durell Vineyards. What I admire throughout the range, even in the widely available Sonoma County Chardonnay – that proved a challenge in Episode 3.2 of WineAlign’s blind tasting video called “So, You Think you Know Wine” is the wonderfully balanced, rich yet delicate winemaking of Margo Van Staaveren, who has made Chateau St. Jean wines for over 30 years. To me they define Sonoma chardonnay. (Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay 2011)

Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay

Justin Vineyards, Paso Robles

It has taken me a long time to “get” Justin. I found the wines odd, somehow idiosyncratic and over-marketed and over-hyped. But I have been captivated by recent releases, including the flagship 2009 Isoceles, and the “regular” 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2010 Syrah. Justin was founded in 1981 by an international banker named Justin Baldwin who at the time wanted to replicate Bordeaux in California (he was not alone in this mindset). Whether through shrewdness or dumb luck I think he may have actually ended up planting his Bordeaux varieties in an ideal site at higher, cooler elevation on the western flank of the Paso Robles appellation. Elsewhere in Paso Robles syrah and Rhone varieties are important, but syrah is only a minor part of his portfolio. Iscoceles is a “left-bank” Bordeaux inspired blend based heavily on cabernet sauvignon and it impressed me with richness, uniqueness and poise. And I almost hate to say this, but at $80 it is a very good value compared to some iconic, triple digit Napa cabs.

Justin Vineyards Isosceles

Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley

A year ago I would not have included Robert Mondavi on a list like this. It’s a winery I know well and have visited and tasted often from 1978 onward, with an especially memorable pinot tasting with Tim Mondavi in 1984, then some of Napa’s first “sub-appellation tastings with Michael Mondavi during the 90s. When the ambitious, adventurous and much beloved Robert Mondavi sold to Constellation brands a few years ago, I too let go, and frankly thought the wines floundered thereafter. But after re-visiting in January 2011, then tasting Mondavi again in Vancouver in some depth, I realized I really liked at least five of the company’s wines. The flagship 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is outstanding, and so is the stunning 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve. And the Fume Blanc Reserve remains one of California’s great white wines. Then, when I gave excellent ratings to the basic 2010 Chardonnay and 2010 Pinot Noir, I realized that Mondavi, and the work of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, was actually very much worth noting.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

County in the City

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“So, You Think You Know Wine?” Episode 3.2

WineAlign is pleased to present Episode 3.2 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

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

Our critics have to rely on 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. For a wine critic, a blind taste test is the ultimate challenge.

Welcome Division “B”

The new episode is posted and ready to go, so pour yourself a glass of wine and tune in here: Episode 3.2

In this second espisode, we welcome Division ‘B’. Sara d’Amato is a familiar face on WineAlign and she returns this season to face off against Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner and Montreal Gazette wine writer Bill Zacharkiw. So how will this turn out? Will it be men vs. women or Ontario vs. Quebec?

Episode 3.2

Recap and Scorecard

In Episode 3.1, Division ‘A’ contestants John, Steve and Will got off to a great start by correctly identifying grape variety, country and vintage of the 2009 Quails Gate Chardonnay. No one pegged it to be from British Columbia however, so maximum points were left on the table. In the end, the deciding factor came down to price, with Steve picking up the most points in that category.

Here’s how the score sits after Episode 3.1:


There’s more to come

Additional episodes of “So, You Think You Know Wine?” will be posted on WineAlign over the coming weeks. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did making them and encourage you to share them with your friends.

Past Episodes are always available under Videos within the Discuss tab on the WineAlign Home page.

Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 30, 2013: Southern France and Top Ten Smart Buys

This week’s report takes a look at the south of France and some of its key appellations, linked to recommended releases hitting the shelves of the LCBO on March 30th. If you’re planning to have lamb for Easter, the best of these savoury, sturdy French reds are a perfect fit. In fact, from bubbly to crisp whites and full-bodied reds, you could spend your entire Easter dinner in the south of France. The Top Ten Smart Buys this week include the release of Versado, Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble’s elegant interpretation of Argentine malbec, as well as a pair of volcanic and a pair of limestone-derived wines to taste and compare, among others. See them all below.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Touring in the Languedoc Roussillon

The focus of the LCBO’s March 30th release is southern France, and more specifically, the Languedoc-Roussillon. I’ve written much in the past on this swath of the Mediterranean that runs from the western side of the Rhône Valley all the way to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border, south of the Massif Central. It’s an area I know pretty well, having stayed for a summer just outside of Béziers while working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant called Chez Léonce in the tiny village of Florensac. It was the year France won the World Cup – 1998 – and I remember watching Zidane’s Cup winning goals against Brazil in the final on a tiny television we had installed in the kitchen. The restaurant, of course, was empty, save for a German couple on holiday who obviously had no reason to watch the game. The rest of France was glued to the TV – even the French took the night off from fine dining.

South of FranceThroughout the summer, during the staff meals after lunch service, Laurent, the sommelier at Chez Léonce, would bring out a handful of local wines for me to taste, tell me the stories behind the labels, and explain the differences between the various appellations. That’s how I was first introduced to AOCs like Corbières, Saint-Chinian and Picpoul de Pinet, which were little known even in France at the time, let alone in Canada. I thought then that the wines of the region were extraordinary values. Fifteen years later, picpoul has yet to become a household name, and the wines are still great values.

It’s curious that the wines of the neighboring Rhône Valley, which are very similar in style and use largely the same grapes as the Languedoc for whites, reds and rosés, have achieved so much more international recognition. It obviously helps to have a high-profile appellation like Châteauneuf-du-Pape drive the fortunes of an entire region. And Rhône wines also benefit no doubt from the legions of holidaymakers that pass through the region on their way down to the pastel shaded light and lavender perfume of Provence.

The wines of the Languedoc and Roussillon can be every bit as compelling as anything from the Rhône, but without an immediately recognizable appellation, and being generally off the beaten path of tourists, they’ve languished in the shadow of their neighbor in the south. Maybe there’s even some lingering suspicion that the Languedoc is still overrun with heretic Cathares, a Christian sect that was eradicated from Occitania in the Crusades of the 12th century. The name of the region, the Languedoc, after all, is derived from lingua d’Oc, “the country of the Occitan language”.

Heretic or crusader, if you’re seeking good value wines with distinct regional character and strong personality, the Languedoc is a smart place to be. Here are a few appellations to look for on shelves, along with recommended examples from the March 30th LCBO-Vintages release.

AOC/AOP Limoux

Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin BrutThe Limoux appellation lies about 25 km south of the walled medieval city of Carcassonne, nestled in the upper valley of the Aude department. The region is sheltered by the Pyrenees from the extremes of maritime influence, and enjoys a benevolent Mediterranean climate. Yet since vineyards sit at higher elevations than most of the rest of the Languedoc, cooler climate varieties thrive here. Chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and chenin blanc, for example, do better here on the clay-limestone plateaus than virtually anywhere else in the hot south of France.

Limoux’s most famous wine is sparkling, both in the ancestral and traditional methods. Blanquette de Limoux is reputed to be France’s first intentionally effervescent wine, produced a couple hundred years before Dom Pérignon did his pioneering work on how to stop the bubbles from forming in his wine. Sparkling from Limoux comes in three types: Crémant, a traditional method wine from chardonnay and chenin blanc, Blanquette, also a traditional method from at least 90% mauzac, and Blanquette Methode Ancestrale, a 100% mauzac bottled before the primary fermentation has finished, thus the wine retains some bubbles, though it’s less effervescent than the traditional method. It’s also often a little cloudy, slightly sweet and low in alcohol.

One to try: Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Brut Blanquette De Limoux ($16.95). An enjoyable bubbly with the typically appley flavours of the mauzac grape used and pleasant toasty-yeasty notes. Good length; nice value.

AOC/AOP Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet

Jeanjean Ormarine Picpoul De PinetPicpoul de Pinet refers to the picpoul grape, an ancient Mediterranean variety whose name means literally “tongue stinger” thanks to its high natural acid, which grows around the town of Pinet and surrounding communes, a stone’s throw from the sea. It’s considered a cru of the greater AOP Languedoc. Picpoul is the wine we served at Chez Léonce with the raw seafood and shellfish platter, harvested from the nearby Thau basin. It’s a lemony, zesty, crisp and fresh white that many consider the Muscadet of the south.

One to try: 2011 Ormarine Picpoul De Pinet ($12.95)

AOC/AOP Corbières

Château De Treviac 2010Corbières is the Languedoc’s largest appellation, with 13,500ha under vine. It stretches from the gates of Carcassonne to the sea, and from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the base of the Montagne Noire. It’s not surprising that no fewer than eleven distinct terroirs have been identified. The area is wild and sparsely populated, and most of the land is covered either by vines or the highly perfumed Mediterranean scrub brush known as garrigue. Often dominated by carignan, the best of the Corbières reds have an attractively savage and savoury profile, full of garrigue aromas and spicy black fruit. Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault make of the rest of the blend.

One to try: 2010 Château De Treviac Ap Corbières ($15.95)

This is smoky and savoury with lots of fresh-turned earth and garrigue spice, dense and full on the palate, reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and as such, a nice little value. Drink lightly chilled to tone down the alcohol.

AOC/AOP Minervois

Château Agnel Cuvée Philippe MinervoisThe Minervois is another large region that forms an amphitheatre bordered by the Canal du Midi to the south, the Montagne Noire to the north, and bounded to the east and west by the cities of Narbonne Carcassonne. Four rivers, the Clamoux, Argent Double, Ognon and the Cesse all tumble down from the Montagne Noire to join the Aude and, over time, have carved out a series of terraces. Terroirs vary between stones, clays, schist, limestone and clay marls. One ‘cru’ has been officially identified: Minervois La Livinière, but more could soon follow.

I find the wines of the Minervois to be among the more polished of the Languedoc – there’s a critical mass of modern-leaning producers, relying heavily of the ‘cépages améliorateurs’ the grapes such as syrah and mourvèdre, introduced into the Languedoc in order to improve the quality of local wine relative to the product of some of the lesser varieties left over from the days of mass bulk wine production. Rosé, white and sweet wines are produced, but the highlights are most often red.

One to try: 2009 Château Agnel Cuvée Philippe Minervois ($15.95)

This is a delicious, spiced cherry-flavoured, zesty, firm red, reminiscent of Italian/Piedmontese dolcetto with its chunky tannins and saliva-inducing acidity. Try with rustic grilled merguez sausages.

AOC/AOP Saint Chinian

Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des CombesSaint Chinian is northwest of Béziers in the Hérault department, at the foot of the Massif du Caroux. It is in reality at least two separate terroirs divided by the Rivers Orb and the Varnazobres. Limestone is the story in the south, producing, fine, perfumed reds from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. In the north, it’s practically all schist and sandstone with little water retention, stressing the vines and yielding much firmer, more structured and minerally reds. For my money, Saint Chinian from the northern zone, along with neighboring AOP Faugères, are among the south of France’s most terroir-driven and identifiable reds.

One to try: 2010 Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes ($17.95)

The village of Roquebrun, perched on a small plateau in the foothills of the Massif du Caroux, gives its name to an official sub-appellation in the northern zone of St. Chinian. High elevation vineyards with a big diurnal temperature shift yield balanced, finely etched wines with abundant minerality. This example is a syrah-led blend with mourvèdre and Grenache. It’s highly perfumed and smoky-savoury, with marked floral components, zinc oxide, black pepper and other intriguing mineral notes, while the palate is fullish, balanced, with fresh acidity, integrated (14%) alcohol, and firm, fine, sandy tannins. This has style, class and regional character in spades – a terrific value.

For more information on wines from Southern France, visit If you’re still up for more exploring see my full list of recommended southern French reds from the March 30th release.

Top Ten Smart Buys

Versado Arrives!

Versado Malbec 2010Versado Reserva Malbec 2009Well worth pointing out is the long-awaited release of Versado, the Argentine project of Canadians Ann Sperling (Southbrook, Sperling Family Vineyards), her highly respected consulting husband Peter Gamble, and local guru Roberto de la Mota. Their 2010 Versado Malbec ($24.95) delivers on the promise of refinement and class from high elevation vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo sub-region of Mendoza. This is finely structured, with light wood spice, fine-grained but grippy tannins, lively acids and moderate alcohol (13.8%) and very good length. But more importantly, infinitely drinkable.

A definite step up in both price and quality is their 2009 Versado Reserva Malbec ($59.95). It’s a rare Argentine ‘reserve’ malbec that doesn’t sacrifice drinkability for raw power and excessive ripeness/wood flavour. This is certainly dense, rich and compact, and still some ways from prime drinking, yet it retains a sense of proportion and balance, with sufficient fruit intensity to match the tannic structure, and fresh, natural and integrated acids. It’ll be best after 2015 I’d suspect.

Volcanic Wines

Elsewhere, there’s a fine range of values arriving on March 30th. In the spirit of terroir, here are two smart buys from volcanic soils:

2008 Donato D’angelo Aglianico Del Vulture ($20.95) and 2010 I Campi Campo Vulcano Soave Classico ($18.95).

Donato D'angelo Aglianico Del VultureI Campi Campo Vulcano Soave Classico 2010Domaine Fouassier Les Grands Groux SancerreChavet & Fils La Dame De Jacques Coeur Menetou

Limestone Wines

Compare the volcanic wines with this pair of sauvignons from limestone soils: 2010 Domaine Fouassier Les Grands Groux Sancerre ($24.95) and 2011 Chavet & Fils La Dame De Jacques Coeur Menetou-Salon Blanc ($19.95). What speaks louder: soil, grape, or winemaker?

Also in the top ten smart buys you’ll find an excellent 2009 Bordeaux for the cellar, a pair of Spanish reds that neatly define the old and new schools, a superb value chardonnay from New Zealand, perhaps that country’s most underrated variety, and an old vines local Riesling that consistently over-delivers vintage after vintage. See them all with the links below.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 30, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Southern France Selections
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

The Good Food & Drink Festival

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Ten New Wines To Put Spring in Your Step; by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

It’s been on a long trudge through winter for most Canadians, but spring is officially here, and you may be in the mood for some lighter fare at the table. Even better if the wines are moderately priced when it comes to entertaining larger groups of family and friends for Easter festivities.  

While Steve Thurlow continues a respite from his monthly column on Top 50 Values, and begins working on organizing WineAlign’s new National Wine Awards, I would like to present some interesting new brands and new vintages on the LCBO’s general list. Some are also available where indicated in B.C. Liquor Stores.

There is a tilt to California as we are in the midst of a nationwide promotion that sees new wines arriving and some prices temporarily reduced in Ontario, until April 1. Any little summery boost is welcome. For ratings and other comments click on the links to reviews in

The Whites

Robert Mondavi Chardonnay 2010Lucky Penny White 2011Lucky Penny 2011 White from Southeast Australia (ON $16.95) is a new brand by John Casella of Yellowtail. It’s a fresh, smooth, sweetish white that blends several varieties, offering quite pure, clean apricot-peach fruit, honey aromas and flavours, set in a sleek texture. A great sipper that will also work with Easter ham. Chill well.

Robert Mondavi 2010 Chardonnay from California’s Napa Valley (BC $29.99, ON $23.95) brings some class to the LCBO’s California section. It packs in virtually every element you might want in Napa chardonnay, in a very measured way. If you want ripe stone fruit (peach/apricot) fruit – check. Gentle smoky oak, caramel complexity – check. Spice and tobacco – check.  And they are all wrapped in a fairly full, creamy yet still refreshing palate with fine acidity. A bit warm on the finish, but there is enough fruit, complexity and even a hint of minerality. Check.

Santa Barbara Collection Chardonnay 2010Hess Select Chardonnay Monterey 2010Santa Barbara 2010 Collection Chardonnay (ON $16.95) delivers the lush, semi-tropical and good acid balance I look for from the Santa Barbara region. This shows ripe peach, honey, nougat and butterscotch aromas, as well as generous oak smoke.  It’s medium-full bodied, polished smooth, a touch sweet and a bit coarse and hot. But it delivers some California opulence at a fair price.

Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012Hess 2010 Select Chardonnay (BC $19.99, ON $16.00) from Monterey County south of San Francisco has a cooler feel.  It is a smooth, shiny chardonnay with apple fruit, vanillin, coconut and a touch of interesting lemongrass on the nose. It’s mid-weight, a notably sweeter than some, with some lemony acidity, warmth and coarseness on the finish. Chill well.

Matua Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc (BC $16.99, ON $15.95). Hails from warmer Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand, not cooler Marlborough. So it is a bit riper than NZ savvy fans might expect, with peach/apricot yellow fruit plus the typical nettle and peppery notes. A bit floral as well. It’s medium-weight with some creamy viscosity and sweetness, then a nicely bitter lemon-grapefruit finish. Quite spicy as well. The length is very good. Keep it well chilled.

The Reds

Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir 2011Chateau St. Jean 2011 Pinot Noir (On $17.95) is a new California appellation pinot from this Sonoma-based winery. In other words, the grapes come from more than one region within California. It’s supple, smooth and slightly soft with a generous nose of smoke, chocolate, cran-raspberry fruit and dried herbs. It’s a bit warm (13.8% abv) but not too hot; the tannins are supple; the length is very good with more pinot tension, woodsy and earthy character on the finish than on the nose. Good to very good length. Best over the next two years.

Clos Du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Beringer Founders' Estate Zinfandel 2010Beringer Founders Estate 2011 Zinfandel ($15.95) is a great choice for all round easy sipping of a lighter, fruit red. It is a floral, plummy, berry scented zinfandel – a bit confected but catching decent fruit essence without resorting to over-oaking and turning it into a Starbucks red like so many cheap zin peers. It’s medium weight, fresh and well balanced with very fine tannin, and a pleasantly dry, vaguely earthy finish.

Clos Du Bois 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.95) from California’s broad North Coast appellation is very good value in a well-made, mid-weight California cabernet. There is a touch of mocha confection but cabernet’s blackcurrant fruit and slightly minty/herbaceous notes shine through. It’s medium weight, fresh, fairly supple and well balanced with good acidity, slightly gritty cabernet tannin and currant fruit streaming nicely on the finish. Easter leg of lamb?

Jean Philippe Janoueix L'evidence 2011L’Evidence 2011 Bordeaux ($16.95) is surprisingly smooth, fairly dense and well composed young Bordeaux dominated by merlot. Oak is well in the background allowing floral, plummy/berry fruit and vague tobacco and a touch of wet woodsy character to show through. It’s medium weight, quite supple with slightly green tannin that is acceptable given it is such a young Bordeaux. You could enjoy it now while the fruit is in full bloom, or age it a year to soften it even more. Very good length.

Cave De Rasteau 2010 Les Peyrieres from Cotes du Rhone-Villages in the south of France offers good character and complexity for $12.60.  Although labelled Cotes du Rhone-Villages the grenache, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault fruit is from vineyards near the village of Rasteau. Hailing from an excellent vintage this offers good heft and structure with ripe plum, black olive, peppery and woodsy aromas and flavours. It is however rather coarse and tannic and gritty on the finish, so not a wine to offer for easy sipping. Give it a year, or decant, let breathe and serve with rich meals.

Watch this space next week for our picks of some of the best wineries pouring at the upcoming California Wine Fairs. And looking past Easter weekend and into the real days of spring, join WineAlign at the Good Food & Drink Festival April 5 to 7 at the Direct Energy Centre.

David Lawrason, VP of Wine

 Ironstone Obsession Symphony 2011

The Good Food & Drink Festival

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2011 Burgundy: A snapshot via the Wines of Bouchard Père and Fils and William Fèvre

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

On March 12th, Woodman Wine & Spirits hosted their annual Bouchard/Fèvre new Burgundy release tasting at the RCYC clubhouse in Toronto. Considering the wide range of wines offered, from village to grand cru, this always provides a nice snapshot of the vintage. All of my reviews are now posted on WineAlign (see below for links).

Following are some general observations on the vintage as gleaned from the tasting, and from a brief interview with Luc Bouchard, on hand as usual to present the wines.

According to Bouchard, 2011 is a “very approachable vintage, producing wines with nice fruit balance, more open and not as tight as the 2010s at the same stage. But this doesn’t mean that they won’t age”. I believe they will age, but will show best through the mid-term, until the end of the decade for most cuvees.

Vintage Conditions

Budburst was several weeks earlier than the norm, but poor weather during flowering led to uneven crop loads. In some vineyards, leaf plucking was essential to open up canopies to promote ripeness and reduce disease pressure; other sites required green harvests to drop excess fruit, while some parcels had been already naturally reduced. Despite a relatively cool growing season, harvest got underway on the 29th of August, the second earliest start after the notoriously hot vintage of 2003. Bouchard’s aim was to preserve acidity and freshness, a feature that reappeared throughout the tasting.

Côte d’Or White Wines

While the 2010s are considered ‘classic’, very tight and focused, and the 2009s considerably fatter, softer and riper, 2011 falls somewhere in between. Wines displayed more acid than the 2009s, yet are more open and aromatic at this stage than the locked up 2010s. Aromatics are fresh and particularly floral, with great energy and tension, as well as minerality in the top sites. These are good restaurant wines, and for collectors who don’t want to have to wait ten or more years to enjoy.

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand CruI found that most from top village level and up are still 1-3 years away from their optimum drinking window, but are not in any case wines for long term cellaring. Bouchard says they remind him of the 1992s, “because of the generosity and transparency”. I found that the top wines showed deceptive power and length – the frame seems light and lean, but flavours have remarkable staying power on the palate.

Top Pick: Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru ($383)

Smart Buy: Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Puligny-Montrachet Villages ($70)

Côte d’Or Red Wines

In general, reds from the Côte d’Or are light, relatively lean, fine-grained wines with classic structure and elegant styling all around, for mid-term cellaring. They lack the flesh and depth of the really top vintages, but I think these will show considerably better within a couple of years and enjoy thereafter a relatively short window of prime enjoyment before the fruit fades. They have more fruit and richness than the 2007s, and a structure similar to the 2010s, but again, like the whites, are more open-knit and enjoyable even at this early stage.

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Beaune Greves Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus 1er CruReds from the Côte de Beaune, especially Beaune itself and Volnay, appeared to be particularly successful. The traditionally more rustic appellations like Nuits, Corton and Pommard are rather burly and angular, and will take a few more years to settle out, but again will remain on the firmer side, absent cushioning flesh.

Top Pick: Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Beaune Greves Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus 1er Cru ($130)

Smart Buy: Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Chambolle-Musigny Villages ($67)


2011 is a lean, tight vintage for Chablis, with significant acidity and pronounced mineral character from the top sites. It’s certainly not a full and fleshy year like 2009 or even 2006, but the wines have excellent tension and energy, and like the Côte de Beaune whites, an underlying driving mineral seam that lingers unexpectedly long on the palate. An unusual green/pyrazine character marks a few of the cuvees, but is well managed chez Fèvre.

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Les Clos Grand CruVillage wines are open and more or less ready to enjoy, while 1er crus will benefit from another 1-2 years of integration, and the top kit, 2-4 years. Mid-term cellaring, to the end of the decade is recommended, with only the very best (Les Clos, Preuses) worth keeping beyond that.

Top Pick: Domaine William Fevre 2011 Les Clos Grand Cru ($117)

Smart Buy: Domaine William Fevre 2011 Vaillons 1er Cru ($52)

All Wines Reviewed:

Côte de Beaune red

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru ($248)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Le Corton Grand Cru ($149)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Beaune Marconnets 1er Cru ($62)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Beaune Greves Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus 1er Cru ($130)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Nuits St. Georges Les Cailles 1er Cru ($127)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Pommard Rugiens 1er Cru ($105)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Savigny les Beaune les Lavieres 1er Cru ($55)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Volnay Caillerets Ancienne Cuvee Carnot 1er Cru ($97)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Chambolle-Musigny Villages ($67)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Gevrey-Chambertin Villages ($58)

Côte de Beaune White

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru ($383)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru ($211)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Beaune Clos Saint-Landry 1er Cru ($69)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Meursault Genevrieres 1er Cru ($103)

Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Puligny-Montrachet Villages ($70)


Domaine William Fevre 2011 Bougros Grand Cru ($85)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Bougros Cote Bougerots Grand Cru ($103)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Les Preuses Grand Cru ($103)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Les Clos Grand Cru ($117)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Beauroy 1er Cru ($52)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Vaillons 1er Cru ($52)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Les Lys 1er Cru ($52)

Domaine William Fevre 2011 Vaulorent 1er Cru ($76)

All in all, 2011 Burgundy is for fans of ‘classic’ vintages. For more information about the availability of these wines, please contact : Woodman Wine & Spirits


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, , ,

Lawrason’s Take Vintages March 16 Release

The California Blitz, Bargain Euros, ISDs and Ruminations on a 100-Point Tasting

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

If you have perhaps given up wine for Lent and stayed away from the LCBO in recent days, you may be excused for not being aware that we are in the midst of a California wine promotion blitz. In fact it’s a nationwide blitz, which makes sense because Canada is the largest export market for California wine. We bought $307 million dollars worth of California wine last year.

The flood gates opened at the Vancouver International Wine Festival on February 26, and the tide will continue to wash right across the country through to the last of six California Wine Fairs in Halifax on May 2. In Ontario, the fair dates are April 5 for Ottawa and April 8 for Toronto. But the fairs are not the only opportunities to be swept up in the current. On March 21, over 30 wineries will be pouring at an LCBO sponsored event at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto called Legends of California. Or you can check out 35 new wines released by VINTAGES on March 16 and March 2; or some new general listings (watch this space next week). California wine, by the way, leads all other regions in sales through VINTAGES ($74 million) and the volume is growing!

What’s most interesting to me is that California wine does so well at the generally high prices it commands. It seems that in almost every other category we love to find bargains, but when it comes to California we open our wallets wide. Why? I think we are simply very comfortable with California wine. We like its smooth, ripe, fruit-rich ambiance. Many of us have travelled to its wine regions. There is no strange-ness around language, grapes and labels. And we trust the overall quality, which, in my view is actually improving of late as California settles into middle-age maturity. There is still a yawning “value gap” between the price and quality of some of the most expensive wines – particularly in Napa – but having tasted a lot of excellent wines in recent days I can say that the gap is closing, and that if you look beyond the most iconic names there are actually some decent values out there.

Here are my California value picks from the March 16 release:

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2009Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2009Inglenook 2009 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel ($54.95) is zin the way I like it – lush yet poised with that unmistakable brambleberry, woodsy character I first fell in love with as I tracked down old vine zins during rambling travels to California in the 80’s. The vines on Inglenook’s site date back decades but this is a new label and presentation. Delicious, and you will feel better if you can’t afford the $239 Inglenook Cabernet being released at the same time.

Ravenswood 2009 Dickerson Zinfandel ($39.95) is one of several old-vine single vineyard zins in the Ravenswood portfolio. Normally I find Ravenswood renderings too oaky (including the Ravenswood Big River also being released), but this one sings with fruit and its terroir. Dickerson sits, appropriately, on Zinfandel Lane in Napa. It’s a dry farmed site with most of its vines over or nearing the century mark. Wow!

Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2010Calera 2009 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49.95) is one of two single vineyard pinots being released and both are excellent. Both hail from sites on Mt. Harlan, a unique limestone based outcropping in San Benito County, which some might say is almost the birthplace of top quality California pinot noir, thanks to pioneering efforts by Josh Jensen, chronicled in the book called “The Heartbreak Grape”.

Chateau Montelena 2010 Chardonnay ($57.95) offers all kinds of complexity and energy; easily on par with top chardonnays from Burgundy and yes, Ontario. I think it has everything to do with being bio-dynamically farmed. This is not a glossy market-driven chardonnay; it’s quite crisp, more lean and mineral driven.

Euro Bargains under $20

For true bargains I invite you, once again, to wander paths less well travelled – in this case through Europe.

Takler Pince Kékfrankos 2009Menguante Selección Garnacha 2007Monte Del Frá Bardolino 2011Monte Del Frá 2011 Bardolino ($13.95) is one of my favourite simple summer reds. Bardolino neighbours more famous Valpolicella on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy, and like Valpolicella this made from corvina and rondinella with a splash of sangiovese. No oak here, just juicy sour red fruit from a very conscientious producer.

Menguante 2007 Selección Garnacha from the Carinena region of Spain is a great buy at $16.95.  Well priced, old vine grenache from the arid steppes of northern Spain is no longer a rarity, but some can be too jammy and heavy. This is very generous but finishes with a firm, more mineral driven feel. Lo and behold, it turns out to be bio-dynamically farmed as well. The bodega (winery) was founded in the 18th century.

Takler Pince 2009 Kékfrankos ($13.95) from Hungary’s Szekszárd region is a great little buy that pinot and gamay lovers will fancy. The grape is the same as blaufrankisch or lemberger that you may be more familiar with as an important variety in neighbouring Austria. It is actually widely found in central and eastern Europe, where some refer to it as “the pinot of the east”.

Domaine De Papolle Gros Manseng 2011Muga Barrel Fermented White 2011Domaine De Papolle 2011 Gros Manseng from the Côtes de Gascogne in southwest France is a most intriguing white wine ($19.95) from a producer of Armangnac that has a growing reputation for still wines. The gros manseng grape offers one of the most unique spicy aromas in winedom. And once you get past that nose you will find yourself in an equally intriguing landscape of sweetness and acidity.

Muga 2011 Barrel Fermented White from Rioja, is a marvelously balanced, genteel white from the viura grape, and a great buy at $15.95. You will rarely get an oaked chardonnay with this kind of poise and depth for $16. I am not going to suggest that you should age this for a long time, but grand traditionally made white Rioja’s are capable of incredible longevity.

Rolling out the ISDs

For several years VINTAGES has been releasing small lots of wines into a few selected stores and calling them “In Store Discoveries”, or affectionately, ISDs. They were never put out for media tastings, and often Product Consultants didn’t get to preview them. The idea was that keen-eyed shoppers would be delighted to “discover” them in-store all by themselves. Well I guess that idea is not translating too well into sales, because ISDs are now appearing in release catalogues and we scribes are being invited to pre-taste them too. And I am happy to do so, as small lots often offer interesting explorations. Now if only they could find a way to get all those Shop On-Line and Classics Catalogue wines out on the shelves too. Anyway, here are a couple of noteworthy ISDs that you will only find at the following “flagship” stores: Toronto – Summerhill, Queens Quay, Bayview Village; Oakville – Trafalger & Cornwall Drive; Ottawa – Rideau & King Edward. And by the way, as ISDs are no longer factually ISDs, they need a new name. Should we run a contest?

First Drop Pintor TempranilloSan Felice Arkeos CampogiovanniSan Felice 2008 Arkeos Campogiovanni ($42.95) is a unique blend of a pugnitello and sangiovese from Tuscany. Pugnitello is an ancient variety that has literally been rescued from extinction by San Felice, a winery that has contributed a great deal to modern agriculture research. This is an intriguing wine that attempts to combine the rugged power of pugnitello with the vivacity of sangiovese, and it works well.

First Drop 2010 Pintor Tempranillo ($37.00) from the Barossa Valley of South Australia is more of a curio than a must-buy. But at the same time First Drop’s “ode to the great wines of Rioja” is also a tasty drop, that is very much Australian in the flavour department, but less hefty and dense than most Barossa shiraz or cabernets. Spanish? Not really, but why should it be? By the way, the fun-loving lads at First Drop are really into twitchy You-Tube videos

Ruminations on a 100 Point Tasting

Rob Groh of The Vine, a Toronto-based wine importer ( recently invited the city’s top sommeliers to a tasting of eleven wines scored 100 points by Robert Parker with the stated goal of generating discussion about scoring wine on the 100 point scale. It’s an age-old and rather tiresome debate, but the anti-scoring forces are gathering as the population becomes more wine savvy and perhaps less in need of professional guidance.

Here are some observations about The Vine tasting, in an effort to share in and widen the debate. First, no one turned down the invitation to attend – which alone illustrated the power of the allure of tasting “perfection”. And none of the very expensive wines are actually available, which also speaks to the power of a 100 point score.

Second, most of the commentary about scoring by numbers was negative. There was appropriate philosophical angst expressed about assigning a number to a work of art like wine. There were cautionary comments that one must always consider the source. And there were protestations that taste is so individual and fleeting that it defies being ascribed a numeric value. Very few of the sommeliers said they would sell a wine by number on their wine list. But when I asked who would like to see scores abolished as a tool of wine criticism, only half a dozen of about 40 sommeliers raised their hands.

Said one who voted in favour of scoring: “It’s almost like scores are the law; chaos would ensue if we got rid of them”. This re-enforced a critical point made by WineAlign’s John Szabo who moderated the discussion. To paraphrase, scores – like’em or not – are in fact a natural and necessary tool to distinguish among so many wines. And as much as we would love to spend the time to analyse and expound on all the detail of each and every wine, that is just not possible. There needs to be a fairly succinct way to sort and communicate our impressions.

The third general observation was that none of the eleven wines poured generated anything like the kind of awe, reverence or passion one might expect at a 100 point tasting.  Audience scores were tabulated and averaged and no wine scored more than 94 by the group. All the wines were American cabernet-based reds that Robert Parker deemed “perfect”. They included six wines from Verite of Sonoma, and two from Loyota of Napa, two from Washington’s Quilceda Creek and one vintage of Napa’s Cardinale.

All were technically excellent, but only three, in my numerical opinion, ranged above 95 points, into that territory that delivered the head spinning, jaw dropping emotional impact that I expect of great wines. They were Loyota 2001 Mount Veeder Cabernet; 2005 Verite La Joie and 2007 Verite La Muse. But I have had dozens upon dozens of other wines in my career that were more wondrous and moving.

So is wine judging emotional? Yes – great wines can move you to tears or put a lump in your throat – like music or art or some spellbinding natural vista. But there are measurable factors like purity, balance, complexity and depth that “add up” to create that emotional effect. So the score becomes a way to try to communicate that emotional opinion or attachment, and valid scores need to address those building blocks.

Experts taste more, and hopefully have a greater frame of reference and understanding of how perfection is created, which should result in more objectivity. I have respect for Robert Parker’s deeper knowledge of American cabernets than I have, and his willingness to call some perfect. For that reason too I was drawn to this tasting. I really wanted to taste these wines. And I learned more about the subject, which may never have happened if Parker had not scored them so highly.

And that is the real reason that scores matter. They put more great wine in front of more people, who might not otherwise consider buying that bottle. What you get out of that is up to you, and there is no right or wrong.

So that’s it for this edition. There were many very interesting wines on this release, so open a bottle, pour a glass and enjoy.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the March 16, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

The Good Food & Drink Festival

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St. Patrick’s Day Libations; by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

We’re all Irish at least for a day in March when St. Patrick’s Day rolls along. St Patrick, a missionary who worked in Ireland converting inhabitants to Christianity, died on March 17 in the fifth century. His day has been seized upon as the greatest excuse for a party ever. It’s a public holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador on the nearest Monday to March 17. The rest of us can be content with wearing green and eating and drinking Irish.

Cook up an Irish stew, some colcannon (mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale) and Irish bacon or get creative. On a trip to Northern Ireland, I found lots of delicious twists on tradition Irish dishes. Yes there were often five or more versions of beloved potatoes on the menus but those were sides to the exciting main dishes.

Irish Cheeses

A Selection of Irish Cheeses

There was fresh fish, oysters and mussels plucked from clear Atlantic waters. Tender lamb and 28 day dry aged beef came from animals raised on the green grasses of the countryside’s rolling hills. Scones hot from the oven served with rich thick whipped cream and local jams were far too prevalent a temptation. Irish farmhouse cheeses numbered over 80 selections from blues to cheddars to creamy camembert-types.

The menu in the Oak Restaurant at the Slieve Donard Resort boasted Lissara Farm free range chicken, sirloin steak from John Killen’s Farm and rack of County Antrim pedigree Dorset lamb. Desserts included a light and airy lemon carrageen moss pudding (a type of local seaweed). At Balloo House, voted pub of the year in 2009, the delicious chowder was thick with chunks of smoked haddock. Finnebrogue venison shepherd’s pie with celeriac mash was comfort food knocked up several notches of sophistication.

The thick, triple cooked chips (fries) which showed up on many menus are reason alone to visit Northern Ireland.  You’d ditch your diet for them as you would for the champ (mashed potato with chives), colcannon, buttery mash, sautéed potatoes with leeks and potato bread.

At Mourne’s Seafood restaurant in Belfast I dined on a fresh, gently cooked seabass with bacon and clam velouté. Tiny scallops were translucent and tender while monkfish was punched up in flavour with Sicilian peppers.

Preparing the Pigeon

Preparing the Pigeon

Ardtara Country House is a member of Ireland’s Blue Book, an association of unique manor houses, historic hotels and restaurants. These independently owned properties often supply a superb meal along with accommodation and Ardtara lived up to that promise well. The dishes were inventive, beautifully presented and featured local farm produce. Carpaccio was a slender slice of dry aged fillet of Comber beef with peppery wild watercress and warm brioche. Lamb was done two ways – the loin and a shank pie presented together. Homemade Irish whiskey ice cream with coffee panacotta capped the meal with panache.

The icing on this cake of good eating was Belle Isle near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. This country estate on its own island has a top cookery school which offers day, weekend and four week diploma courses. Master Chef Liz Moore started my lesson with a wood pigeon, feathers and all, laid out on a cutting board. “Belle Isle’s a shooting estate,” she announced. “We do a lot of game here.” Whereupon she cut the breast meat out of the pigeon in one deft move without having to pluck it. This is a place where students can learn how to Shoot, Pluck and Cook. Now that’s farm to table.

Irish Whiskey Selection

A Selection of Irish Whiskey

As for libations…what could be better than an Irish whiskey. I wrote at length in WineAlign last year about the state of Irish whiskies in the current market. Here’s a recap of a few pertinent details. The distilleries operating in Ireland are: Midleton Distillery (the Irish Distillers Group main distillery: Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and others), Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills, Black Bush, 1608, Bushmills 10-, 12- and 16- and 21-year-old single malts) and Cooley Distillery (brands such as Connemara, Tyrconnell, Locke’s, as well as Kilbeggan Distillery which reopened in 2007). There are also a growing number of the independent Irish bottlings such as The Irishman, Teeling Whiskey Company and Feckin Whiskey.

Cooley (now owned by Beam Inc.) is the distillery that shook up the market in 1987.  Founded by John Telling with the goal of reintroducing the North American market to quality Irish whiskey, Cooley departed from the accepted definition of Irish whiskey as being triple distilled and unpeated. He revived historic brands such as Tyrconnell and created a family of Connemara double distilled peated single malts.

Inishowen Peated Blend Irish WhiskeyLocke's 8 Years Old Pure Pot Still Single Malt Irish WhiskeyCooley’s Inishowen Peated Blend is blended from peated and unpeated malts and grain whisky. The brand originates from the A.A. Watt distillery in Derry, in the late 1800’s. It’s named after the Inishowen peninsula on the northern tip of Ireland, which was well known as prime for the illicit production of “poteen”. (By 1822 there were as many as 800 illicit stills in operation.) This is gently peated with sweet fruity elements and a vein of malty sweetness throughout. It finishes with a slightly spiced bite. Value priced, it’s a nice balance of malt and grain with whiffs of peat.

Also from Cooley Distillery and an excellent value is Locke’s 8 Year Old Pure Pot Still Single Malt. Double distilled in traditional pot stills, it’s made from whiskies aged between eight and ten years. Smooth, medium-bodied with lots of pot still character, it’s nicely rounded with sweet, malty, fruity notes and spicy oak. Vanilla and a touch of peat (ten per cent of the malt used was peated) make it very tasty indeed.

Bushmills Black Bush WhiskeyBushmills Malt 10 Year OldBushmills can with fair authority claim to be the oldest distillery in the world. The royal licence to distil in the district of Bushmills was granted in 1608. Situated in the quaint town of Bushmills, Northern Ireland, it takes its name from the River Bush and all the mills that used to be on it. A popular tourist destination it attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. To mark its 400th anniversary in 2008 Bushmills came out with an innovative brand called 1608.  This fine, rich and deep whiskey is made using a special process that toasts barley into crystal malt (so named for its crystal shape). The barley malt takes on a dark chocolate brown colour and imparts a chocolate toffee flavour to the whiskey. (Alas not available at present in our market.)

Bushmills 10 Year Old matured for a minimum of 10 years mainly in bourbon seasoned barrels has aromas of sweet smoky honey, vanilla and milk chocolate that carry through on the creamy palate. Bushmills Black Bush with a high proportion of malt whiskey matured in oloroso sherry casks has nutty, caramel and fruity sherry tastes.

Jameson Gold Reserve Irish WhiskeyWriters Tears Pot Still BlendFrom Midleton Distillery, Jameson Gold Reserve is an opulent and complex whiskey. A blend of selected casks of triple distilled Jameson whiskey, up to 20 years old, it features some whiskey aged in “virgin” (i.e. first use) American oak casks, others in former bourbon barrels and sherry casks. Creamy textured with a rich, sherry, caramel bouquet, it’s full-bodied and layered. Sweet honey, toasted oak, notes of spice and pepper come though in the ultra smooth taste.  It’s quite the stunner.

A new whiskey which appeared in recent years, Writers Tears, comes from The Irishman whiskey line-up. The Irishman whiskeys are the creations of Bernard Walsh who enjoys special access to the warehouses of certain Irish distillers. He selects the casks that are vatted together to produce his whiskeys. He came up with a new type of whiskey: a blend of malt and pure pot still whiskeys. This is a “pot still blend”, since both malt and pure pot still are distilled in the traditional pot still. Other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey still.

Raise a glass and toast the Irish on this year of The Gathering Ireland 2013, the country’s invitation to the world to come home and enjoy Ireland’s colourful history, culture and people. To celebrate, about 8,000 people around the world have been invited to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. It will be some party – the city’s copious pubs just might be drained dry.


Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s whisky reviews click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Penderyn Portwood 41

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 16, 2013: California Icons and Top Smart Buys

California Icons; Can California Cabs age? Top Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s been a deluge of California. This week’s report features Top California Icons, the main feature for the March 16th release. I’ll also take a deep look at the age-ability of wine, specifically, can California Cabernets stand the test of time, and more generally, how modern winemaking philosophies and techniques have tinkered with the shelf life of those expensive bottles. I’ve got reviews from a dozen Iconic California cabernets heading back to 1991 to illustrate the point. And if you’re looking outside of California, I’ve picked a half-dozen Top Smart Buys from the release to replenish your day-to-day stocks.

And there’s more: check WineAlign over the next week for several dozen new BC reviews and more top California reviews recorded at the 35th annual Vancouver International Wine Festival, on last week in a cool, grey and wet Vancouver. All of the WineAlign principal critics were out to sip, spit and report on the scene, not to mention announce the official launch of WineAlign in British Columbia. I’ll also be posting a couple dozen reviews from the LCBO’s recent Grandi Marchi event, featuring several of Italy’s top estates. If you were wondering what wine to buy, I’ve got something here for you; read on to find out.

A Half-Dozen Smart Buys

Disznókó Tokaji Dry Furmint 2011Loimer Grüner Veltliner 2011Loimer Grüner Veltliner, Austria ($19.95). 2011 is a terrific vintage for Loimer’s grüner, with a real driving purity and honest range of flavours, dry and crisp, lean but not austere. Apple and wet stone flavours dominate in an old world, minerally style. Very good to excellent length.

2011 Disznókó Tokaji Dry Furmint, Hungary ($14.95). Clean and very minerally on the nose, with green apple, apple skin, sage oil, wet clay and a white mushroom note that may remind one of TCA taint, but it’s not – that’s tokaji (and it’s closed with screw cap). The palate is both lean and fleshy at once, with tart green apple-malic acid yet solid fruit weight to balance, along with perhaps a gram or two of residual sugar, though this comes across as dry. Very good to excellent length, especially at this price. Superb value for fans of distinctive old world wines with earthy character.

Cantine Riondo Vinea Garganega 2011Vergenoegd Estate Shiraz 20032011 Cantine Riondo Vinea Garganega, Italy ($13.95). A late harvest but dry version of the Veneto’s great garganega grape, with considerable flesh, glycerol and extract. Partial wood ageing imparts a slightly creamy-leesy texture; the palate offers plenty of pithy fruit and spiced pear-apple flavours and a pleasantly bitter grapefruit pith finish. Fine value for money, and an intriguing by-the-glass pour for restaurants.

2003 Vergenoegd Estate Shiraz, Stellenbosch ($22.95). Lovely to see a mature South African shiraz in the line up in the release. This is a prime example of a wine at its prime, fully mature, just at the setting sun of fruit and the rise of earthy, tea and tobacco leaf flavours. It was surely never a blockbuster to begin with, but the alcohol-acid-tannin balance must have been in place from the start to achieve this harmony ten years on. Quite decent length and fine perfume all around – well worth a look for fans of mature wines at a fair price.

Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Xinomavro 2007F. Tinel Blondelet l'Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly FuméF. Tinel-Blondelet l’Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly-Fumé, France ($22.95). L’Arrêt Buffatte is my preferred parcel from Tinel Blondelet, giving rise to the most minerally Pouilly in their fine range. The 2010 is drinking beautifully now, an archetypical Central Loire sauvignon that mixes wet chalk with citrus-green apple flavours. The palate is just starting to flesh out, though retains the lean, firm texture that one looks for in these wines. Very good to excellent length. Don’t miss this with a piece of chalky goat’s cheese for a regional classic match.

2007 Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Xinomavro, Greece ($17.95). A clean, mature, ripe and savoury example of xinomavro from Katogi-Strofilia, as is the house style, with earthy, sun-dried tomato, black olive tapenade and leathery fruit – all very inviting and engaging. The palate is mid-weight, firmly structured but not austere, with dusty tannins and crunchy acids, but quite fine length and depth overall. For fans of Italian-style, dusty reds, excellent with grilled proteins.

A Half Dozen California Icons

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon 20092006 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($99.95). This is another superior wine from Dunn Vineyards, grown in the high elevation, volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Fruit is succulent and juicy, vibrant and just beginning to evolve into the dried spectrum, while tannins and acids remain firm and impart solid structure. There’s a beguiling floral perfume that wafts out of the glass, as sultry, smoky minerality emerges. Classic, and more importantly, infinitely drinkable.

2009 Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley ($239.95). Unquestionably a deep, dense, rich, massively structured and concentrated red from the newly-renamed Inglenook estate, formerly Niebaum-Coppola. Flavours are fixed in the dark fruit/black berry world, with layers of high quality oak expressed as sweet baking spice and tobacco leaf, almost port-like ripeness and good to very good length. The acidity is, amazingly enough, sufficient to balance this massive ensemble, and I’d suspect this needs another 3-6 years to enter into a more mature, interesting drinking range. Impressive in any case.

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 20092009 Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir Mt. Harlan, Central Coast ($49.95). The March 16th LCBO release provided an interesting opportunity to taste Calera’s ’09 Ryan side-by-side with the Villiers vineyard bottling, and they’re radically different. In the end, I prefer the Ryan. It’s a lighter and less obviously ripe wine, with firmer, more mineral flavour profile, dusty, earthy, savoury fruit and very good length. This brings together the best of California with an old world restraint and class. Ultimately more age worthy, too.

2009 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga, Napa Valley ($58.95). The ’09 Montelena is a clean, fragrant, lively, certainly ripe but still fresh cabernet, with fruit in the black berry, verging on blueberry, range. Acids are firm and succulent, tannins ripe but also firm and grippy, and the length very good to excellent; alcohol is balanced at 13.8%. This is another Montelena with class and elegance, with fine ageing potential ahead. It’s enjoyable now, but will develop that extra range of savoury nuances over the next 6-8 years and continue to hold into the 2020s without stretching.

Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2009Duckhorn Merlot 20102009 Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford, Napa Valley ($54.95). This is an intense version of zinfandel, with gobs of oak to be sure but lots of intriguingly spicy, smoky, inviting dark fruit flavours. The palate is full, but firm, succulent but structured and generous, with significant extract and length. A fine, classic California zin with more stuffing and complexity than the usual, even at this price.

2010 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley ($56.95). Duckhorn’s ’10 merlot is a fully ripe, plummy, jammy version of  merlot, with still-abundant wood influence with coffee grounds and bitter chocolate. The palate is med-full bodied, with significant extract, firm tannins and generous, mouth filling alcohol (14.5% declared). Long finish on palate-warming alcohol vapors. All in all, a big, bold ripe style though well-structured to be sure.

Ageing Well: Can California Cabernet Stand the Test of time?

In addition to the general trade show at the 35th annual Vancouver Festival, I attended several excellent sit down seminars put on by the California Wine Institute, with titles such as “California Titans”, “Sonoma Face-off: Pinot vs. Zin” and “Napa Valley Rocks”. But the most interesting of the series was a master class entitled “Ageing Well: California Cabs”. Moderate by educator/writer DJ Kearney, with twelve winery principals in attendance, this was a rare opportunity to taste and compare a dozen cabernets (and blends) stretching back over 20 years to 1991, the oldest vintage on the table. And when it comes to scooping the un-fined, unfiltered story, there’s really no substitute for speaking directly with the creator of a wine (my apologies to sales agents and marketing directors).

California Wines

DJ Kearney, with twelve winery principals

The session allowed for not only a long deep think on the age-ability of California cabernet, but also some reflection on the myriad changes in winemaking philosophy, know-how and techniques, that have joined the mainstream in the last two decades, to which you could arguably add climate change, and how they have impacted the age-ability of wine on a general level. As goes California, so goes the world, you could say; the Golden State is a world leader, and what happens in vineyards and wineries here, especially in Napa and Sonoma, is sooner or later adopted in other parts of the world.

Defining Ageing Well

But before getting to the question of whether California cabernets age, and how evolving philosophies from the early 1990s to today have affected longevity of wine, a couple of precisions: when I refer to wines that age well, I mean of course wines that improve with age, not just get old. Obviously you can leave any wine in your cupboard for a decade and it will change, but not necessarily for the better.

And by improving I mean a wine that develops additional aromatic and flavour complexity, that is, a greater range of flavours than it previously had. The initial, and almost exclusive fruit and oak flavour should evolve and expand to include additional savoury nuances like dried mushrooms, tea, forest floor, pot pourri, essentially earthy-woodsy nuances. The fruit should never disappear altogether; it too, will evolve into the dried/baked spectrum, but once it’s fully gone I consider the wine gone as well. Obvious oak should also fade: the brash coffee/vanilla/clove/caramel flavours of young oaky wines should merge into the spicy-earthy ensemble so that it’s no longer recognizable as the taste of toasted oak tree.

A wine’s texture will also evolve. Astringent tannins should dissolve, turning from raw wool into silk; wines that remain hard and puckering after the fruit has already started to fade will likely never come into balance and it’s time to cut the losses and drink up. Finally, the basic components of a wine have to be in balance from the start of its life in order to age gracefully. There’s no magic that happens in the bottle. Nothing is created or destroyed in a bottle, no tannins appear, no increase or decrease in acidity; sugar and alcohol levels remain, for all intents and purposes, stable. Although compounds combine to create different aromas and flavours and tannins link up and drop out as sediment, the essential balance remains the same, so everything better be in line the day the wine is bottled.

Considering these criteria, there are surprisingly few wines that actually improve with age. But broadly speaking, wines with an abundance of tannin, acid, and concentration of flavour, and sugar in sweet wines, are the most likely candidates for the cellar. Alcohol, too, is a preservative, but more on that in a moment.

Cutting to the Chase

So the simple answer to the question of whether California cabernets can age is unsurprisingly yes. That much was abundantly clear during the tasting, with many of the wines including the nearly 20 year-old examples still deeply-coloured, full of fruit and vibrancy. Wines at the level included for the Vancouver master class clearly had the stuffing and structure to last and improve in the bottle over a couple of decades, which is about as long as you should expect from any wine with the rarest of exceptions. See below for my more-detailed-than-usual tasting notes on each of the twelve wines.


But, and here’s the big but, the question that follows is: will the more recent vintages of the wines put on display age as well as those vintages from an earlier, very different era? And generally, how have modern philosophies and new techniques changed the cellaring game?

Those questions are harder to answer, and any attempt will necessarily be based more on speculation than fact. But here are a few observations:

Ripeness Level and The Loss of Tannin and Acid

One of the biggest differences between wines of the current era and wines from the early nineties is the dramatic difference in the level of ripeness at which grapes are typically harvested. In North America, grape sugar levels, an important indicator of ripeness, are measured in degrees brix. The acceptable range varies, but 19º brix is considered barely ripe by most standards, giving a finished, dry wine with about 10.5-11% alcohol (under ripe for most) up to somewhere in the range of 35-40º brix for extremely sugar-rich juice such as Icewine or botrytis affected wines (finished alcohol depends on how much sugar is not converted and remains in the wine). Historically, most dry red wines have fallen between 21º-25º (12.5%-14%). Today, at least in some parts of the world, the numbers are much higher.

Several panelists at the master class such as Scott Kozel, winemaker at E&J Gallo, and Tracey Mason from Clos du Val both noted that they are picking their cabernet at several degrees brix higher now than they were in the 1990s. The 1991 E&J Gallo was picked at 23.1º brix (around 13% abv), whereas today anything less than 26º brix is considered unripe (giving you anywhere from about 14.5% to 15.5%+, depending on how efficient your yeasts are, among other factors).

High alcohol alone is not a measure of imbalance or indication of age-ability. As was pointed out many times during the seminar, balance can come at any number. And high alcohol wines such as port (19-22% alcohol) are notoriously age-worthy.

Consequences of High Ripeness

The issue is that to achieve such high levels ripeness/ºbrix, grapes are left out to hang until late in the season, effectively raisining as water evaporates. Aside from stressing the vine and reducing its lifespan, late harvesting means that acid levels drop, and that grape tannins begin to “soften” on the vine, what the scientist describe as polymerization. Polymerization is the process that traditionally has happened as wine ages in the cellar or the bottle, and is what accounts or the smoothing out of a young red’s rough texture. In any case, super ripe grapes translate to low acid/high pH, soft tannin and high alcohol wines.

Tannins or Acids?

I put the intentionally naïve question to the panel whether it is believed that tannin or acidity is the more important factor contributing to a wine’s age-ability. Not surprisingly, there was some discussion, and more or less an even split, each side citing reasonable arguments and examples to support one or the other cause. One, panelist, Steve Spadarotto, VP of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, put forth the idea of the golden ratio, a mathematical theorem of balance in triangles and rectangles. Basically, he posited that the amount of tannin, acid, alcohol or anything else doesn’t really matter, as long as each component falls within a ‘golden ratio’, i.e. balance, with everything else. I like this theory; wines can be balanced at any number, and it’s true.

But whatever you believe will make a wine with the potential to evolve favorably – tannins, acids, the golden ration – it appears that late harvesting is the wrong way to go. It only makes sense for wines that are meant to be drunk young.

Frequently the late harvest technique requires a winemaker to adjust the balance of the wine in the cellar. Adding in acid becomes critical to lower the pH, which, when it hovers close to 4, and sometimes even higher for the ultra extreme, makes the wine a bacterial time bomb. Natural tannins are often insufficient to support the wine, making powdered tannins additions also necessary for stabilization. (Although higher levels of natural tannin can be also be pulled from the grapes by more aggressive extraction techniques, or by raising the temperature of the ferment, as several on the panel revealed. Kozel, for example, used to ferment cabernet at 78ºF (25ºC), now the norm is 92ºF (33ºC). There’s no fear of extracting the harsh green tannins of less ripe grapes, he says.)

The sugar level of super ripe grapes often has to be reduced, too, otherwise the wine won’t ferment fully dry. The simplest, if illegal way of doing this is adding water to reduce the sugar concentration in the juice. Excessive alcohol perceived as out of balance (the hot, burning sensation it causes) in finished wine can also be adjusted down using modern techniques such as spinning cone and reverse osmosis. But a wine with contrived balance of components, added acid, tannins or manipulated alcohol – will never age as well as one with those components in natural balance, one that begins with the golden ratio.

But Who Cares. We Want Wines ready to Drink on Release

But maybe that’s not the point. It was clear that many of the panelists are aiming to produce a wine today that’s more or less ready to drink on release. Peter Lindenlaub of Caymus told the audience about owner Chuck Wagner’s own realization: “Chuck decided to stop chasing Bordeaux,” he said. “Ripeness is no longer hidden. What we’re looking for now is big California fruit, lower acidity so that the tannins don’t peal the enamel off of your teeth, and tannins that are absolutely integrated on the finish. We know that wines are often consumed within hours, and we want the consumers to be able to pull the cork straight away and enjoy.” Wagner himself prefers his own wines at around 5-7 years of age.

It’s a familiar refrain that I’ve also heard from winemakers around the world: we need to make wines that are approachable on release. Yet many also believe that this style of wine will also age well. They’re equally well balanced, just on a bigger frame then the old wines of the under ripe years. Tracey Masson says that Clos du Val is looking for wines that have “deliciousness on release and yet are still age-able”. I wonder if those two goals are fully compatible.

Ultimately, whether the ultra-ripe wines will age as well as the versions picked earlier with higher acid, lower sugar and firmer tannins remains to be seen. There aren’t decades of back vintages yet of the style to go back to check in. My gut feeling is that they won’t, based on the experiences I’ve had with wines of this style with only a handful of years in the cellar. And if that’s the case, there will have to be a good PR campaign put in place to convince consumers that ageability is not a sine qua non attribute of fine (and expensive) wine, has it has been for centuries.

There are many wineries in California that have never chased after the ripeness and jammy flavours that characterize many styles today – Montelena, Corison, Dunn – spring to mind. Others, like Stag’s Leap Cellars, whose 1995 is still magic, concede that wine is subject to the whim of fashion. The press, sommeliers and consumers began demanding the big wines, and the wineries delivered. But now that the tide has shifted and the general trade (and to a lesser extent consumer) opinion has swung back towards lower alcohol and natural balance, wineries will inevitably shift back to lower ripeness levels.

So back to the original question, can California cabernets age, the long answer is that, well, it depends.

The Wines, with some Current Vintages for Comparison

1991 Gallo of Sonoma Estate, Sonoma Valley

Gallo of Sonoma Estate1991 was only the second vintage of the estate cabernet sauvignon, born of E&J Gallo’s decision to bottle the best wine out of Sonoma County each year. And this is the last wine that Giulio Gallo blended himself, from grapes grown on AXR1 rootstock in the Frei Ranch in the Dry Creek Valley, blended with 10% cabernet franc and 8% merlot. It was picked at 23.1 brix, very low ripeness by today’s standards in California; now Gallo regularly picks their cabernet at 26º brix and higher. It was a cool vintage generally with the occasional heat spike, and a warm, dry September. The wine as you’d expect is fully mature and driven by savoury-umami character: forest floor, dried black fruit, mission fig, faded violets, and more. The palate offers a really fine silky texture, with fully integrated tannins and balancing natural acidity. This is in terrific shape admittedly, drinking beautifully – perhaps the biggest surprise of this tasting.

1992 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection, Napa Valley
(Compare with recent release:  2010 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon)

Caymus Winery opened in 1972, although the farm had been in the Wagner family since 1948. 1975 was the first vintage of the Caymus Special Selection, which has been made in every year since, except ’77, ’93 and ’96. Wagner admits to having attempted to emulate Bordeaux in the early years before an epiphany around 2000 caused him to re-think the style and celebrate instead the richness and ripeness that the Napa Valley is capable of achieving. The ’92, still in the period of a more restrained style, is made exclusively from the Rutherford Ranch, another point of difference from modern versions (which are blends), and this has just 13% alcohol. It was a long, even ripening vintage. This 100% cabernet spent 30 months in barrel, and amazingly enough, is still marked by wood. The colour is deep and the tannins still fierce, bolstered by quite high acidity. The flavours are confined to the black fruit spectrum. Bitter finish and slightly woody tannins, with the palate drying out and the fruit beginning to fade. All in all, I’d say the modern style of Caymus – more ripeness, wood, alcohol – seems to be a more comfortable style for the house; this is neither a good imitation of Bordeaux nor forward Napa cab. Drink now.

1993 Clos Du Val, Napa Valley

Most of Clos du Val’s old cabernet vineyards had already been ripped out by 1993 to replant vines on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, but this bottling was made from the small parcel that had yet to be pulled. It’s a blend that includes 11% cabernet franc and 3% merlot, and has just 13% alcohol. 1993 was a very long season with long hang time, resulting in a really fine, savoury, dried herb and exotically perfumed wine. There’s still a vestige of wood flavour noticeable, slightly sappy and green, though the palate is quite refined and elegant, with remarkable acidity such as you rarely find in Napa cabernet today. The texture is fine and filigree, still firm and dusty, with tart red fruit flavour hanging on. This is showing very nicely all in all, held together over the years by both tannin and acidity.

1994 Hess Collection Mount Veeder, Napa Valley

Mt Veeder is one of the cooler Cabernet AVAs, given it’s the exposure to the south and the cool winds off of San Pablo Bay. Elevation, with most vineyards above the fog line at about 350 meters, up to over 600m, also contributes a cooling effect. Eastern exposition means mostly morning sun with most vineyards avoiding the much hotter afternoon sun, though the combined result of these factors means that getting cabernet ripe here is not always guaranteed, and Hess has had to replant some of the coolest sites with earlier ripening varieties like malbec. 1994 was considered a pretty average vintage, but this is holding on to an amazingly deep colour, and still crunchy black fruit, still fresh and pure, with genuine cassis flavours and even roasted vegetal notes. The acids and tannins are still strongly felt on the palate, giving fine structure; terrific length. It’s interesting to note how well this has aged considering cooler, less ripe vintage, yet another indication that acidity plays a critical role in the ageing process of wines.

1995 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
(Compare with current release: 2008 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon )

1995 was one of the coolest, longest growing seasons in the winery’s records, harvested over two weeks later than the norm up until that time (now late harvesting is far more frequent to achieve high degrees of ripeness). Veraison came very late, but dry weather through the fall allowed grapes to hang long enough to achieve a decent level of ripeness.  All of the fruit for this wine came from the To Kalon vineyard, with its free-draining, alluvial – gravel soils. Winery representative Mark De Vere MW notes that this was fined with 6 egg whites per barrel and racked 5-6 times before bottling, practices that the winery no longer follows – so how did such oxidative treatment affect the ageability of the wine? The colour is deep but decidedly garnet-brick, showing more age than even some of the older examples on the table. And this is also slightly funky off the top, too, with leathery, dusty and earthy character mingling with a distinctive vegetal note; red fruit flavours also confirm a lower-than-normal degree of ripeness. The palate is medium bodied, with fine, quite light and refined tannins and zesty acids, although interestingly enough this has the highest pH of all the Mondavi cabernets from the 1990s. Just goes to show that the numbers don’t always add up to the taste profile. Beautiful, lingering finish. Certainly not a robust style, more axed on sandy, gritty acid-tannin balance and modestly ripe fruit, but really quite lovely all in all, fully ready to drink.

1995 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV, Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.VThis is one of the highlights of the tasting to be sure, showing beautifully; the Stag’s Leap AVA is a special place to grow grapes without question. The zone has a combination of a radical diurnal shift, moving from very hot to very cool quite quickly towards 5 or 6pm each afternoon as the cool air rushes up the Valley from San Pablo Bay, locking in acids and preserving fresh dark berry flavour, while soil of volcanic origin contributes a high degree of savoury minerality. The SLV cabernet from a volcanic vineyard under the Stag’s Leap palisades is the most youthful in appearance of the lot so far on the table. It has a terrific nose, loaded with savoury, smoky, dark, brambly fruit and heaps of black berry and black berry pie, and cassis jam aromas – high intensity to be sure. The palate is succulent, juicy, with a yet another whack of dark fruit flavour cosseted by firm, dusty tannins. There’s pleasantly reverberating alcoholic warmth and marvelously lingering finish. A very fine wine, ready to drink or capable of evolving further to the end of the decade I’d wager – genuine density, acidity and structure make for ageworthy-ness.

1997 Signorello Estate Winery Padrone, Napa Valley

Poured from magnum. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 9% cabernet franc ’97 was Signorello’s first vintage for Padrone, named for Ray Signorello’s father.  It’s a savoury, slightly rasined, earthy and dusty, rather Italian style wine that reminds me of traditional Brunello, complete with leathery, incense nuances. The palate is likewise firm and dusty, with excellent length to be sure. I’d like to drink this now – I don’t feel there’s a great deal of improvement left, and it’s drinking nicely.

1998 Joseph Phelps Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Winery principal Mike McEvoy admitted that this was the toughest wine of the flight to comment on, considering how widely panned the 1998 vintage was by the wine press. It was a cool, wet, el niño year with troublesome weather throughout. It flipped between to hot and too cold, with buckets of rains to add to the challenges, and vines struggled to ripen. Most of the fruit used in this wine would not have quality for today’s Josephs Phelps cabernet, as the selection criteria have become much stricter. A good percentage of fruit came from contract growers, a solid proportion of which was from the region known today as Coombsville AVA, an already cool growing region south of the town of Napa ripeness was a real issue. The challenges of the year are evident in the wine, as this is decidedly green-tinged. The palate is likewise vegetal and slightly weedy, with moderate structure, more dilute flavours than the average, and more obvious wood (or less obvious fruit to balance the presents of oak). The length, too, is merely average. This was evidently neither the vintage nor the wine to cellar long term, even if I’d suspect that this was quite pleasant early on in its life, especially if you don’t mind, as I don’t, lightly vegetal/herbal character in your cabernet. But this makes it clear that density and concentration have a role to play in age ability.

1999 Paul Hobbs Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

The 1999 Hobbs cabernet contains 10% merlot, only because it performed very well in the vintage, though there’s no fixed rule on blending for this wine. The fruit was sourced from the To Kalon, Stagecoach and Hyde (Carneros) vineyards. I’d speculate that this is going through a bit of a dumb phase for the moment, with less pop and vibrancy to the fruit, slightly raisined and flat, and curiously short and slightly bitter on the palate. Smoky oak is still present (43% new wood only), and has yet to fully integrate – one wonders whether it ever will. IN any case, revisit this in 2-3 years.

2001 Heitz Cellar ‘Martha’s Vineyard’, Napa Valley

Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard1966 was the first vintage for Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard cabernet, a vineyard which incidentally never been owned by the Heitz family; it belongs by Tom and Martha May. Regardless, it’s the oldest labeled single vineyard cabernet from the Napa Valley. It’s in Oakville on the valley floor, moving up to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, situated on alluvial loamy-gravelly fans, a later ripening site. The vines were replanted in 1992 on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, and were just 9 years old when this wine was made; it’s 100% cabernet sauvignon and spent 3.5 years in oak, of which the first year is large, neutral oak, before being racked into French Limousin oak (a rare thin in the wine world, most Limousin barrels are used for Brandy production). Wines are held at the winery until the fifth year. The nose is still shockingly youthful, with fine, deep violet and fresh herbal-eucalyptus notes (there are a few eucalyptus trees surrounding the vineyard, though the winery believes the minty notes come from the particular, proprietary clone of cabernet planted in the vineyard. And when visiting, if you describe the wine as smelling like eucalypt, you’re liable to be thrown out of the tasting room). The palate is firm without massive structure, with a fine amalgam of red and black fruit, cassis. Tannins are sandy and dusty, neither chewy nor hard, but structure-giving. Some dark chocolate/wood-derived notes mark the finish. This still needs another half decade I’d say to really enter prime drinking.

2003 Silver Oak Cellars Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley

Silver Oak is the renegade winery in this tasting, using 100% American oak for ageing its wines rather than more popular and traditional French wood. And oak is indeed a major style feature of Silver Oak cabernets as it always has been from the first vintage in 1972, a decision made by co-founder and winemaker Justin Meyer after some blind trials using different cooperages. The focus has likewise been on cabernet from the start, and both the Napa Valley and Alexander Valley bottlings from Silver Oak are 100% cabernet. The 2003 spent two years in 50% new, 50% one-wine barrels, and sits around 13% alcohol. This is still heavily marked by the vanilla, melted butter and coconut character of American oak, along with tart, dried red fruit, making this taste like chocolate-covered cranberries. The palate here is remarkably fine and juicy however, with the most acid I’ve seen in a wine from this estate. The flavour profile is a matter of personal taste – to me it tastes like hot-buttered popcorn with a drizzle of caramel – but it’s quite juicy and surprisingly svelte and compact, avoiding some of the excesses of ripeness and pruney flavours that plague other popular, cultish Napa cabernets.

2004 Girard Winery Napa Valley Artistry Blend, Napa Valley

It’s tough for the youngest wine in a flight of more mature wines to stand out on the table, but the 2004 Girard Artistry red blend is in any case a wine of modest complexity and depth. It’s sourced from almost 30 different growers across the Valley, each parcel vinified and aged separately before the blending takes place. In the end, the 2004 was composed of 69% cabernet, 13% petit verdot, 9% malbec, and 3% cabernet franc. It offers simple, slightly raisined fruit notes, currant jam and other dried fruits in a fairly one-dimensional expression. The palate is fleshy, fruity, but likewise modestly structured. Average length; pleasant enough, though I would hold onto this more than a handful of years.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 16, 2013 Vintages release:

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Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009

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“So, You Think You Know Wine?” Episode 3.1

WineAlign is pleased to present Episode 3.1 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

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 this season. (Episode 3.1)

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

Our critics have to rely on 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. For a wine critic, a blind taste test is the ultimate challenge.

So You Think You Know Wine, Episode 3.1

How the Game is Played

The competition is run in tournament style where our critics compete to correctly identify the grape, country, region, year and price of the wine. This season we’ve divided the nine critics into three divisions, the winner of each division goes onto the final and the three second place finishers play off in a wildcard round with the winner joining the first place finishers in the final round.

Division ‘A’  – William Predhomme, Steve Thurlow, John Szabo MS

Division ‘B’ – Sara d’Amato, Bruce Wallner MS, Bill Zacharkiw

Division ‘C’ – Jennifer Huether MS, David Lawrason, Zoltan Szabo

What hasn’t changed since last season is our very engaging host, Amil Niazi, and our scoring methodology.

The Scoring

There are several parameters that the critics are scored on for up to 10 points per wine :

• Varietal = up to 3 points for varietal or style

• Location = up to 3 points (2 points for Country and 1 point for Region)

• Vintage = up to 2 points (2 points for exact year, 1 point for +/- 1 year)

• Price = up to 2 points (2 points for +/- 2.5% of price, 1 point for +/- 10% of price)

So, You Think You Know Wine?Episode 3.1 is ready to go!

Pour yourself a glass of wine and pull up a chair and enjoy round one which features our critics from Division ‘A’. Our returning champion John Szabo faces off against Steve Thurlow and a newcomer to the series, Will Predhomme. Will may be new to the series, but you’ll soon see that he’s definitely not new to wine. In this episode our critics get very close. Well, within 2,000 miles anyway!

This new Episode is posted and ready to go: Episode 3.1

Additional episodes of “So, You Think You Know Wine?” will be posted on WineAlign over the coming weeks. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did making them and encourage you to share them with your friends.

Chateau Joinin 2009

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008