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A 2013 Retrospective: WineAlign Looks Back and Ahead

As the curtain falls on 2013 the WineAlign teams looks back on wines and trends that caught their attention and fancy in the past year. All with the perspective of course that they portend the future. We have assembled an eclectic, perceptive and incredibly well-travelled collection of men and women to review wines, so the range of ideas about what is going on out there globally is quite remarkable.

WineAlign’s Big Year

Before each writer takes the podium, a quick look back at WineAlign’s fifth year. It was the year of our great leap forward, crossing the one million mark in unique annual visitors (currently 1.35M and growing), and 55,000 registered users. We expanded from our Ontario base into full-fledged coverage of British Columbia, with linkage of inventories of the BC Liquor Stores and BC VQA Stores. Four highly respected voices from BC also came aboard: Anthony Gismondi and DJ Kearney of Vancouver, Rhys Pender of the Similkameen Valley and Treve Ring of Victoria. We launched two new wine awards – the National Wine Awards of Canada that attracted 1100 entries from five provinces, and the World Wine Awards of Canada, with a focus on international wine under $50, that also attracted 1000 entries. We released the fourth season of our blind tasting video series called “So, You Think You Know Wine?“, morphing into a more entertaining game show format with four teams. And we anchored all this from a new office in Toronto, managed incredibly well by Sarah Goddard who joined Carol Ann Jessiman, Heather Riley and Bryan McCaw as our fourth full-time employee in 2013.

There is still much to do and improve in 2014, and we have no end of engaged readers and staff who have ideas about how to make things better.  WineAlign is a melting pot of ideas, that at times feels like a cauldron. But the big news in 2014 will be the addition of four Quebec writers and the new French version of WineAlign called Chacun Son Vin. You will be glued to the musings of the Montreal Gazette’s Bill Zacharkiw, Nadia Fournier of Le Guide du Vin, plus veteran wine journalists Marc Chapleau of Montreal and Rémy Charest of Quebec City. And for the first time in the history of wine publishing in Canada there will be a truly national database of international and Canadian wine based on the inventories of the country’s three largest liquor boards – with more to come.

But for now, let’s hear what several of our critics had to say about 2013.

Treve Ring, Victoria

Winemaking Looks Back to Move Ahead – As I sit down to reflect on my 2013 in wine, one key theme sprints to the fore. Strikingly clear in my tastings this year is how much synchronicity I’m seeing around the world of wine. Not synchronicity in a mass-produced global commodity wine recipe (we’ve been there and done that), but synchronicity in goals. From travels through Canada to Chile to Oregon to France to Portugal to Germany I experienced a shared striving for authenticity, faithful trust in terroir and a contemplative and collective gaze backward, giving way to a propulsion of exciting winemaking forward.

Fouassier Pere Et Fils Sancerre Les Romains 2011De Martino Viejas Tinajas CinsaultWhether it’s using concrete (Okanagan Crush Pad, BC) or earthenware amphora at De Martino in Chile practicing biodynamic viticulture, (Johan Vineyards, Willamette), employing wild yeast ferments at Domaine Fouassier in Sancerre, or the natural, sans-sulfite wines at Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais, there continues to be a heavy, pensive pendulum swing backwards to winemaking traditions of old. Before pesticides and herbicides, MOX, oak chips and stainless steel were invented, people were (gasp) making wine just fine; monks mapped soils painstakingly over decades, vines were treated with naturally derived preparations and grapes grew according to provenance, not fashion.

As Alberto Antonini, one of the world’s most influential wine consultants, as recently named by The Drinks Business magazine noted in Vancouver last week, “We have to free our minds of everything colonizing wine over the past 40 years” in order to move forward. “Those techniques make conventional wine. We want to operate with a free mind.” He’s excited by the potential in the Okanagan Valley, and working with Okanagan Crush Pad to start from square one, as it were, to make serious wine. “To make a wine with a sense of place is easy. To make it serious, is not easy at all.”

People take great care with what they’re feeding themselves. They ask what their free-run heritage chicken ate for lunch and where their heirloom runner beans were cultivated. But up until recently, I didn’t see consumers asking any questions about where their wines were coming from, how they were processed, or who made them. In 2013, I certainly felt a shift, started entering different discussions and was hearing new questions about origin, source and history. The three wines highlighted above are ones I tasted this year that typify this return to authenticity – stripped down and transparent – and are damn tasty.

John Szabo, Toronto

The Rise of Tempranillo and Iberia – What kind of wine can you expect to see more of in the coming years? Kym Anderson of the Wine Economics Research Centre at the University of Adelaide published an amazingly comprehensive report in December illustrating changes in global vineyard area by variety between 2000 and 2010. According to the report, despite the fact that Spain’s vineyard acreage is shrinking, tempranillo is the world’s fastest expanding grape (so who’s planting it?). And this year in Ontario, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain + Portugal) has been on fire, gaining 19% in sales over the previous years in LCBO-VINTAGES, the highest gains of any country. I would bet on seeing more tempranillo in 2014. And while there’s plenty of fruity, cheerful tempranillo, if you still have doubts that the grape should be considered among the top fine wine varieties of the world try Alion, Ribera Del Duero, for a sense of the potential grandeur. Alion is produced by legendary Bodega Vega Sicilia, and this should see its way through to the ’30s in a good cellar with ease. Great wine by definition should also be able to stand the test of time.

The Leaning of Chardonnay –  It’s been ongoing for several years, but 2013 saw lean, fresh, low oak chardonnays from the new world move from the fringe to the mainstream. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far that I’ve encountered many underripe, underoaked chardonnays, leaving me wanting for a few more days’ ripening on the vine, and longer in wood to add interest to otherwise dull, neutral chardonnay grown in the wrong place. But when the right balance is hit, it’s sublime.

Alion 2009Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Vineyard ChardonnayA representative example is the 2010 Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, California one of a couple dozen fine chardonnays selected by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Bonné for an international media tasting held in Sonoma in late September. Bonné’s choices were largely on the leaner side for California, highlighting the welcome shift to freshness. Sandhi is a venture launched by the Michael Mina Group’s sommelier Rajat Parr and Sasha Morrman, and this wine hails from the Sandford and Benedict vineyard planted in 1971 – one of the first in Santa Barbara. It’s fermented in 500l puncheons, an ever-more popular size, with only partial new wood, and while there’s a denseness and richness to the orchard and light tropical fruit flavours, there’s an equal measure of riveting acids to balance and moderate alcohol. It’s classy stuff if you can find it.

Ontario’s Red Varieties – Pinot noir and cabernet franc are most frequently put forth as Ontario’s best bets. But for pinot, with the exception of perhaps Prince Edward County, I’d say it’s as much wishful thinking as reality. There are of course many very good examples of pinot from Niagara, but in terms of sheer viticultural suitability and reliability, there’s mounting evidence that cabernet franc has the edge, and probably gamay, too, for that matter. But cab franc and gamay sell for far less on average than pinot, leading growers to try their luck with thin-skinned, rot-prone, difficult-to-vinify pinot.

Rhys Pender, Similkameen Valley

Sweet Red Wine – One of the amazing things that has happened in 2013 is the widespread success of Sweet Red Wines, sugared up with concentrated grape must. One can only think back to the days of Germany and riesling and how the dumbing down of the wines to chase the short-term sale resulted in an entire generation who thought riesling could only be sweet and simple. Sweet red wines are now no longer only the domain of California and Australia but starting to appear all over the world. Every marketer has their eyes on the impressive sales figures achieved by the likes of Apothic and Ménage à Trois and new brand launches are starting to come thick and fast. It will be interesting to see what the future for these sweet red wines will hold and if there will be any backlash further down the track confusing the quality of red wines.

Restraint Please – Even though the sweet red wine trend continues apace, a counter movement seems to be happening with a focus on restraint, lower alcohol and less obtrusive oak use. Throughout 2013, virtually every winemaker I talked to (about making red wine) shared these sentiments. It seems that bigger is no longer perceived as better and wines are and should continue to become increasingly drinkable. With the two diverging paths of red wine trends, maybe this would be a good time to have some kind of legislation instituted to give a separate name to those products with concentrated grape must added before bottling (or at least insist it is written on the label) and let wine be wine.

Janet Dorozynski, Ottawa

The Evolution of Grape Varieties – It’s hard to believe that 2013 is almost over and as I look over my tasting note books, with scores of scribbles on wines from across Canada and the globe, there are several things that jump out from the pages. First, it’s encouraging to see some regions or countries focusing on lesser known or fashionable grape varieties, in particular in the case of lighter bodied and juicier red grape varieties. In Argentina, more attention is being paid to Bonarda, which some are calling the country’s hidden gem and next red. Originally of Italian origin, Bonarda is fruit forward and with just enough tannins and acidity to make it highly drinkable but yet substantial enough to stand up to some Argentian beef. In the case of Chile, there is increasing attention to old vine Carignan from the Maule Valley, much of which was planted in the 1940’s and first started to hit the market as single varietal (or dominant) wines in the early 2000s. Although we still don’t see much old vine Carignan from Chile in the Canadian market, a recent tasting of the Canepa Genovino 2009 made me wish we’d see more in our market, as the vibrant fruit intensity and refreshing acidity make it a welcome change from other dominant red varieties.  And then there’s Gamay, much maligned due to its association with Beaujolais Nouveau, but which is also a highly drinkable and lively red, and in terms of some of the Cru Beaujolais, can be as good if not better than many red Burgundies, which cost much a lot more. I just loved the expression of gamay in Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2011. And while Beaujolais may be the heartland of Gamay, there is also great Gamay coming from Canada, California and New Zealand and I’m hoping that this grape will gain more momentum in 2014

Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve Methode Classique 2005Tawse Quarry Road Riesling 2011Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2011Another positive development is the collective fine tuning of regional and country identities in terms of key wine styles or grape varieties. While individual business decisions ultimately determine what a winery will choose to plant and produce, we’ve seen the success and consumer recognition of New Zealand, Oregon and Austria with their respective focus on Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Gruner Veltliner. Similarly, regions like Burgundy, Alsace, the Rheingau and Mosel have highlighted their signature grape varieties for hundreds of years (though some would argue as the result of restrictive appellation laws which stifle experimentation and creativity), which created an identity for the region and understanding among consumers.

Closer to home, we’ve seen a focus on core grape varieties and wine styles in both Wine Country Ontario and Nova Scotia. While many grape varieties are grown in each province, Ontario highlights Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, alongside the internationally known flagship Icewine, with increasing attention to sparkling wine, which also holds great promise in the region. The concerted, collective effort has gained traction and recognition through events such as the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, as well as at tastings throughout Ontario and in London and New York, which have caught the attention of consumers, as well as accolades from the wine trade and media in both Canada and globally. Similarly, Nova Scotia has captured the attention of wine drinkers with its signature regional blend called Tidal Bay, which is a blend of various white grape varieties that is often greater than the sum of its parts. Nova Scotia is also keen to let Canadians and the world know that they are sparkling wine territory with impressive examples produced by Benjamin Bridge, L’Acadie Vineyards and Blomidon Estates. A pair of prime examples of what is great about Canadian wine includes Tawse Quarry Road Riesling 2011 from Niagara’s Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation and Benjamin Bridge Brut Traditional Method 2005 from Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley.

DJ Kearney, Vancouver

Key events in Canada ­– Two noteworthy events happened this summer in Niagara and the Okanagan Valley that will help to draw continued attention to our regions and wines. The first, as Janet mentioned, was I4C (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration) held in Niagara in July, attracting a serious list of producers, top-level dialogue and important cool-climate discussions and comparisons – in spite of the sweltering temperatures. Then in September, the 1st Annual B.C. Pinot Noir Celebration was staged at Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls where selected local pinots were tasted beside global standards. Attended enthusiastically by local winelovers and media, there’s abundant interest and opportunity to turn this event into something important and enduring. Sparking debate and useful comparison, I hope these events grow from strength to strength. (see my reviews of Norman Hardie Prince Edward County Pinot Noir 2011 and Meyer Family McLean Creek Pinot Noir 2011)

Norman Hardie County Unfiltered Pinot Noir 2011Meyer Family Pinot Noir Mclean Creek Road Vineyard 2011Helping shine more light on Canadian wine was Stuart Pigott, well-known and well-loved Riesling crusader who raved yet again about Ontario Rieslings (it’s been 9 years since he first toured Ontario) and visited the BC for the first time (en route to Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle). He admired some of the Okanagan’s completely unique ‘bladerunner’ Rieslings like Tantalus, Syncromesh, CedarCreek, Geringer and Lang. The Wild West of his favourite grape impressed him on his first ever visit to BC.

Diversity and Change – There are two truths that occur to me when I reflect broadly on vinous things (and the New Year encourages reflection): wine’s greatest strength is its diversity; and that the only constant in wine is change. Variety and flux, one dependent upon the other. 2013 has seen a greater choice of natural wines on our shelves, and surely this is just the beginning of a burgeoning interest in wines made with few or no additives. The definition of ‘natural’ is problematic for many, as is the stability of some wines. And while interest and commitment to natural wines will surely evolve throughout 2014 so will the continued success of gigantic commercial brands. It’s paradoxical of course, but all part of wine’s diversity. But more of the natural and less of the industrial please.

Little Farm RoséJulia Kemper Dao BrancoQuinta Do Ameal Escolha White 2011Portugese White and Similkameen Pinks – Speaking of diversity, there’s been a happy leap in dry wines from Portugal available in Canada, particularly white. From the astonishing Vinho Verde spectrum, to characterful sparklers and producers who celebrate high calibre grapes like Arinto and Encruzado, there is so much to discover, like my favourite of the year, Julia Kemper Dao Branco.

We drank more rosé in BC than ever before, and my crystal ball (which looks strangely like a huge Burgundy glass) suggests that 2014 will see us drinking more pink – year round. Rosé consumption is predicted to grow by 45% worldwide over the next 2 years, and by 7.5% in Canada.

The Similkameen Valley with its stone-y, bone-y soils and persistent winds is a region to watch for top rosé. Orofino, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Little Farm, are some of the best. Drink pink – fresh, local, ideal with food and on-trend.

Sara d’Amato, Toronto

Change in the Wind – 2013 proved to be a tumultuous year with a great deal of consumer activism and outspokenness. With several editorials in the wine and mass media, and the “” initiative spearheaded by the Wine Council of Ontario, there was a great deal of momentum towards the need for more individual control for how and where we purchase our wine. The prospect of private wine retailers is now more tangible than it has been for some time in Ontario and the campaign for this fundamental paradigm shift will certainly see continued momentum in the New Year. Although this is still but a campaign, albeit one with a great deal of thrust, purchasing wine through a private agent is currently an outlet that consumers have in order to find wines that do not have places on the limited LCBO shelves. One of my top picks of the year: Musar Jeune White 2012, Bekaa Valley, Lebannon – represented in Ontario by 30 50 Imports.

Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard Meritage 2010Domaine Chante Cigale Tradition Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010Musar Jeune White 2012Wine’s Widening Appeal – For me, 2013 saw yet another addition to our family and made me further contemplate the elusive work-life balance. Often moving from very adult settings to more PG scenarios, I’ve been struck by the realization that wine is a topic of interest to a whole array of people who traditional shy away from discussing alcohol. Surprisingly, from mommy groups to post natal exercise settings to conversing with teachers, educators and bus drivers, conversations about wine abound. Folks are looking for ways to fit wine into their changing lives in a responsible manner, whether it be a post-workout mimosa, a play group wine tasting event or advice on wines to give birth by (most maternity wards now list “wine” on their items to bring to the hospital for post-delivery). Even the contentious topic of what is acceptable consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is making headlines like never before. So, for all the mommies and daddies out there who have worked so hard this year and deserve a break – here is an indulgent pick for you with the type of balance, that we as parents, aspire to:  Domaine Chante Cigale Tradition Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010.

The Great Canadian Wine Challenge – And finally, a shout out to our WineAlign Cru Member – Shawn McCormick (Uncork Ontario) who is one of the jump starters of The Great Canadian Wine Challenge which has experienced a response of unprecedented popularity. Canadian Wine Day was not enough for McCormick and counterpart Calvin Hanselmann and as a result of a Twitter discussion, the challenge, asking joiners to only open or purchase Canadian wine for one full year, was born. For more information visit:  The Great Canadian Wine Challenge or follow on Twitter @TGCWC. My contribution – a 100-mile recommendation that particularly turned my crank this year: Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard Meritage 2010, Niagara Lakeshore, Ontario.

Steve Thurlow, Toronto

My Best Value Wine – Throughout the year I write about Top Values at the LCBO, so my radar is set on quality/price ratio. This year I can’t think of a better value than The Wolftrap White 2012, Western Cape, South Africa. This wine is an elegant partner to the popular red of the same name. It is an intriguing blend of viognier with chenin blanc and grenache blanc. The nose is very stately with apple pie plus a hint of caramel, with baked peach, honeysuckle and nutmeg tones. The palate is rich with loads of flavour with the fruit sweetness nicely balanced by lemony acidity. Excellent length. Try with a mild curry or tandoori chicken.  Available in seven provinces across Canada.

Trapiche Terroir Series Malbec Finca Ambrosia 2010Ornellaia 2001The Wolftrap White 2012My Best Wine of 2013Ornellaia 2001, Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany, Italy. 2013 was the 25th year in which this winery on the Tuscan coast has been making wine. To celebrate I was invited to dinner in Toronto on Nov 26th when I tasted many of the vintages of those 25 years. The 2001 was my favourite and, though several of the more recent years may well improve, on that day it was the 2001 Ornellaia that best showed the class of this estate. It was a deep ruby with little sign of age with a complex nose of black and red cherry with chocolate, interwoven with forest floor accents, vanilla, and oak spice. The palate had layers of the same flavours was midweight with soft acidity and firm tannin with a finish that seemed to last for ever. It is elegant, pure and amazingly youthful indicating that though this wine is ready to drink now it will hold for another decade or more.

Malbec from Argentina – Argentina makes a lot of very ordinary malbec. Few wineries have shown the same passion for excellence with this grape as has Trapiche. They have access to over 90 vineyards in different areas of Mendoza which are used each year for the production of their range of malbec wines. Since 2003 Daniel Pi and his team have chosen out of this collection the three best malbec wines from each harvest, produced separately in the winery, following the same wine-making process for their Single Vineyard Series. This project aims to convey the extraordinary potential of the vast array of Argentina’s terroirs for the production of malbec and to demonstrate that this variety can make truly great wine. I have been tasting these wines since the inception of this project. This year my favourite comes from a new vineyard to the program, Finca Ambrosia. Trapiche Terroir Series Malbec Finca Ambrosia 2010, Single Vineyard. This is an elegant complex malbec which is opaque purple-red with a very pure nose of ripe cassis and blackberry fruit, with chocolate, mild oak spice and soft minerality. It’s full bodied but has a lightness from soft acidity, very smooth and rich, with soft tannin. It is blessed with layers of fruit flavour and dark chocolate with perfect balance.

David Lawrason, Toronto

Biodynamics – Other writers have touched on this topic, but to me 2013 was the year that biodynamic wines firmly gained critical acceptance, at least among writers and wine enthusiasts. It is based on the simple fact that biodynamics makes better wine! Yes I still hear skeptics sneer at the burying of cow horns. It is actually quite practical for its purpose, but it has become a disproportionately powerful logo for a movement that has much more important things to say about good agriculture. The bottom line is that healthy soils build healthy plants that less frequently need feeding and curing through synthetics. After spending a week in Germany in August for an in-depth look at what’s happening there, with stats gathered from around the world, there is no doubt it is becoming a force, and an essential decision for producers and consumers who value quality, authenticity as well as environmentalism. This was one of my favourite and most affordable and succinct biodynamic wines tasted in 2013: Volpaia Chianti Classico 2010, Tuscany.

Blue Mountain Gamay NoirVilla Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009Volpaia Chianti Classico 2010New Zealand Pinot Noir – At the very beginning of 2013 I spent three weeks in New Zealand, focused on pinot noir. I attended the four-day 2013 Pinot Noir NZ conference in Wellington, and travelled and tasted through every pinot producing region.  Of course there were some great wines, and some not so great wines. But in retrospect, I am now aware that I had been participating in something much bigger and perhaps more historic – a key moment the evolution of a new Burgundy. I am not going to draw all the parallels at this point except to say that I think NZ has same sense of terroir depth and quality potential. The evolution is at an early stage. There is a youthful rawness to the wines and the people – no end of passion, debate, inquisitiveness, and experimentation, which is all good and necessary.  But they are also insecure, afraid to demarcate and label appellations that are already showing in the glass. My cursory list revealed 22 possible pinot appellations. And the marketing types in NZ need to get out of the way and let winemakers and consumers follow the always intricate path that pinot is laying out for them. In more practical terms, if they are going to charge $50 or more for pinot (which is just fine by me when quality is commensurate) they need to tell people that its origin is guaranteed, no matter how microscopic. Here’s is a fine example: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009

Canadians Grow Impatient – In terms of the slow, grinding evolution of wine culture in Canada, 2013 reminded me of the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the cracks began to appear. It is of course the liquor boards – propped up by over 80 years of self-sustaining managerial bureaucracy and its unions – that are impeding progress. For most of that time public sentiment (fear) kept them in place. But the public is changing its mind, wanting more choice, price freedom and convenience, and they are increasingly aware this can be achieved without dire social cost. Many politicians are now also in favour. So pressure mounts against the monopolies, and there are longer and deeper cracks in our wall.  BC is reviewing its whole structure; Ontario’s Wine Council is lobbying for private stores that also sell imports; both the BC and Ontario gov’ts have now authorized wine sales in farmers markets; even Saskatchewan is poised to take another run at private stores in 2014 having recovered from a flawed previous attempt. For those who are counting Canada in 2014 will have five provinces selling a blend of Canadian and imported fine wines in private stores. Here’s a Canadian wine that should be sold, unfettered, from coast to coast. Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2012.

All of us at WineAlign hope that you have enjoyed our work over the last twelve months, and we promise a whole lot more in what will be a very exciting year ahead. Thank you for your support, and we send our very best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Penfolds Grange 2008

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A Sparkling Countdown to New Year’s Eve (Part 3)

If you have not already bought your bubbly for New Year’s Eve take a look at this list of affordable sparklers that WineAlign critics have picked out for you. We know that 90% of the bottles will be popped in the 30 seconds before or after midnight, and that you will be more engaged in a heartfelt Auld Lang Syne than appreciating the nuances of these wines. But you can take our word for it that they offer great value. Our selections were in inventory in the Ontario, Quebec and/or BC liquor stores as of Dec 27, and many are in other provinces as well, with the vast majority under $30. For a rundown of luxury Champagnes see JohnSzabo’s article Luxe Bubbles for 2013 or explore the world of ‘growers Champagne’ with Treve Ring at Farmer Fizz.

Last Minute Affordable Sparklers

Canadian Sparklers

We lead off with Canadian bubbly, because – in case you have not been following along – it is emerging as a great ‘coast to coast’ wine style with fine examples from B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Rosé BrutBlue Mountain BrutBlue Mountain Brut Gold Label, British Columbia

This elegant, lean, beautifully structured sparkling wine from a fine terroir and a pioneering wine family is worth seeking out. It’s reminiscent of good Champagne with a leesy/toasty, lemony nose, but shows its BC origins with pure apple and pear plus a hint of herbs. Vigorous limey acidity leads the palate charge, with zingy green apple and peach flavours, coated in lees and minerals. The bubble structure is small and persistent, and nicely shows off a long and layered nervy finish. (DJ Kearney – BC, ON, QC) 

Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catherine Brut Rose, Ontario

A lovely salmon pink colour, this bubble shows medium intense red berry, floral and citrus notes on the nose which follow through on the dry but fruity palate. Medium-bodied with fine mousse, this is a well balanced sparkler with vibrant acidity and a long red berry and pink grapefruit finish. This pinot noir based pink is one of the great bubblies being produced in Canada, pink or otherwise. (Janet Dorozynski – ON)

Gray Monk Odyssey White Brut 2010Trius BrutCave Spring Blanc De Blancs BrutGray Monk Odyssey 2010 White Brut, British Columbia

Locally there are plenty of accolades for Blue Mountain and they are well deserved but this year a wine that caught my attention with its reserved styling and persistence of flavours comes from Gray Monk, a BC VQA pioneer and family run operation. Impressive wine that would be perfect with most before dinner appetizers. Serve with some tasty BC smoked salmon. (Anthony Gismondi – BC)

Trius Brut, Ontario

This silver medalist at the National Wine Awards of Canada is an excellent value sparkling wine with a lot of class that will appeal to lovers of Champagne. It has a fine mousse with the tiny bubbles that persist well and give a creaminess to the palate. The nose is delicate with nice toasty notes to the apple lemon fruit. Best as an aperitif. (Steve Thurlow – ON)

Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Brut, Ontario

I poured this razor sharp chardonnay bubbly for a swish pre-Christmas corporate party and the guests loved it. Clearly sparkling has a big future in Ontario. (David Lawrason – ON)

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay Brut 2010Haywire The Bub Sparkling 2011Haywire 2011 The Bub, British Columbia

This is the first vintage of traditional method bubbles from the progressive team at Okanagan Crush Pad – and part of the small movement towards terroir-driven sparkling wine in the Okanagan. It pours a foamy flute of apple, stone, pear skin, and light eraser rubbings on the nose, along with tart white peach and crisp lemon in the mouth. Baked apple notes seal the finish and a crown cap seals in the freshness. (Treve Ring – BC)

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay Brut 2010, Ontario

A very classy, classic, elegant style here with a real Old World feel – for traditionalists – and a silver medalist in the sparkling category at this year’s National Wine Awards of Canada to boot! The Archangel name is a throwback to the property’s original ownership – the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of Christian Charity. (Sara d’Amato – ON)

Spanish Cava

Spain is one of the world’s largest producers of sparkling wines. Applying traditional method (second fermentation in bottle) production to native varieties like Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel.lo results in wines with complexity and structure and unbelievably good prices.

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut CavaParés Baltà Cava BrutJaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava, Spain

You always need a couple of bottles of bubbly on hand for when you get those surprise visitors over the holidays, or any time of year for that matter. This is great value Cava. It is dry, fresh and crisp with a soft mousse and aromas of lees, lemon, peach and ripe golden apple with green apple and some salty, mineral notes on the medium length finish. (Rhys Pender – BC)

Parés Baltà Cava Brut, Spain

What could be better than organically grown fruit, a family operation and a great price. Pares Baltà B over delivers on all accounts and proves price doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to sparkling wine. I’m fond of saying the annual tasting of ‘b” never disappoints although this year the tasting was in Pacs in the heart of the Penedès region that is home to Pares Baltà. The blend is a mix of organically certified (and more recently bio-dynamically grown from several sites spanning 230 to 615 metres. Good value and food friendly and the perfect wedding sparkler to boot. (Anthony Gismondi – BC, QC)

Langa Real de Aragon CavaSegura ViudasSegura Viudas Brut Reserva, Spain

This Spanish cava made from local grape varieties continues is a perennial best buy in sparkling wine, especially in the $15 range. Such complexity, poise and length for the money. Great with hors d’ouevres. (David Lawrason – ON, BC, QC)

Langa Real de Aragon Cava, Spain

Just having this pretty bottle around makes people merry. Wait until they drink it! Tremendous value for this serious, well-crafted Cava – perfect for brunch, small plates and celebrations. (Treve Ring – BC)

Other European Sparklers

Champagne is the most famous French sparkler, but other regions of Europe have been perfecting local styles for generations as well, and most are at least half the price of Champagne. Very much worth exploring; whether a fine French cremant from Bourgogne, Alsace or the Loire; or an airy prosecco from Italy.

De Chanceny Excellence Brut Vouvray 2010Vitteaut Alberti Blanc Brut Crémant De BourgogneIl ProseccoDe Chanceny Excellence Brut, France

I’m a sucker for sparkling Chenin Blanc, so I couldn’t resist this gem from Vouvray in France’s Loire Valley. It highlights the versatility of Chenin Blanc and excellent value of French sparkling wine from outside of Champagne. (Janet Dorozynski – ON)

Vitteaut Alberti Blanc Brut Crémant De Bourgogne, France

Oh-so-charming with incredible complexity for the price. Here is a wine that is sure to impress, as fine Champagne would do. Made from chardonnay, pinot noir and aligoté (for some kick), with a fullness and richness that is sure to satisfy on special occasions. (Sara d’Amato – ON)

Il Prosecco, Italy

Wearing a spiffy looking crown cap and bowling pin shaped bottle this light prosecco has a clean, fresh and simple aroma poached pears and icing sugar. It’s medium bodied, fairly soft, sweet and only lightly effervescent. (David Lawrason – ON, BC)

Other New World Countries

Around the world sparkling wine is enjoying a renaissance in quality and popularity. Here are some reasons why.

Barefoot Bubbly Pinot GrigioYellowglen Pink SparklingYellowglen Pink Sparkling, Australia

Every time I try this wine I think that these are pretty amazing everyday bubbles! This blend of pinot noir and chardonnay over delivers for the money. An orangey pink with fine bubbles that persist well with ample aromas of cherry, toffee and bread with a hint of stewed strawberry. Don’t over-chill or you will miss the fruit and aromas. (Steve Thurlow – ON, BC)

Barefoot Bubbly Pinot Grigio, California

A clean refreshing bubbly at a good price. The nose shows fresh lemon with floral jasmine and bread aromas with some mineral notes. It is quite rich and creamy and well balanced without a lot of complexity. Try as an aperitif with pastry nibbles. (Steve Thurlow – ON, BC)

Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut, California

This is a long standing personal favorite and good example of what happens when you combine Old World traditional method wine making with the New World know-how of California. (Janet Dorozynski – ON, QC)

Domaine Chandon Étoile BrutJansz Premium CuvéeTerra Andina Sparkling MoscatoJansz Premium Cuvée, Australia

One of the best value bubblies from the exciting Tasmania that is taking Australia by storm for not just bubbly but some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The nose is quite rich and autolytic with lots of bread, hazelnut and lees with golden apple and lemon. The finish is long. Great value and now available in BC Liquor Stores. (Rhys Pender – BC, QC)

Terra Andina Sparkling Moscato, Brazil

It’s full of fruit, tasty and it’s from Brazil! – three good reasons to try this value-priced sparkler. Overflowing with Latin exuberance and joie de vivre, it reminds me of how Brazil plays soccer – with passion, righteousness and unbridled devotion to the beautiful game. From muscat grapes grown in the north of the country in the Vale de Sao Francisco, it has energetic grapey, floral and peachy aromas and flavours with a broad and foamy palate. Though quite sweet, it’s balanced enough with fruity acidity. Give it a severe chill and pour for the brunch crowd or make a fizzy Sangria with frozen peach slices. (DJ Kearney – BC)

A Sparkling Countdown Part 1: Farmer Fizz
A Sparkling Countdown Part 2: Luxe Bubbles 2013
Complete list of recommended wines: Sparkling Countdown 2013

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne

Vancouver Wine Festival - Feb 27 - Mar 1

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 4, 2014

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

I admire that you’re already looking forward to 2014 and contemplating which wines to replenish your party-weary, depleted wine collection with, which, if it looks like mine, resembles a yet un-harvested vineyard destined for Icewine in the aftermath of a Hitchcockian visit of hungry starlings. January 4th offers a decent lineup of sub-$20 smart buys, plus a couple of premium options to tuck away until the next cause for celebration, such as making it to next weekend.

Of Oysters and Smart Buys

Admittedly, I often find myself daydreaming of Chablis and oysters. There’s something very Hemingway-esque about the image, as there is with just about any scene involving alcoholic beverages and food for that matter. It’s such a fine example of perfect natural harmony, like two complementary musical frequencies that fill each other’s troughs and cannot be improved upon.

The wine, born in soils created from so many million marine shells (exogyra virgula) crushed and compacted over time, kept pure and pristine, electrifying and transparent, finds its harmonizing counterpart in oysters, left to raise themselves naturally in frigid saline waters. Both are served chilled and unadulterated (I take half a drop of lemon occasionally, but nothing else), and the tastes and flavours of sea salt, iodine, crushed rock and lemon-lime, cucumber and green apple are transformed into the Vienna Boys Choir.

But at $2.50-$4 or so apiece in a decent oyster house, with a half-dozen the bare minimum respectable order (a dozen for two), those little bivalves dig deeply into your pocket. And with a bottle of good village Chablis starting at about $50, your daydream has suddenly set you back the equivalent of a bottle of Grand cru Burgundy.

2011 Hervé Azo BourgogneSo, my band-aid solution this January for when the sea sirens call and the mere thought of the tingle of Chablis on your tongue causes involuntary salivation: dine at home, buy a pound of fresh mussels per person (about the same price as a single oyster), top quality unsalted butter, shallots and garlic and a bottle of 2011 Hervé Azo Bourgogne ($16.95) and you’re just about there.

Azo left his high-powered job in Paris and settled in Chablis in the 1970s and slowly began to acquire prime vineyard land. The domaine, now totaling 15ha, has since transitioned into the hands of Chablisienne winegrower Jean-Marc Brocard, but has been maintained as a separate label. I only learned of this connection while researching this report, but the similarity between Brocard’s and Azo’s wines had always been striking, and now it all makes sense. The vineyards, like all of Brocard’s, are farmed organically, and this Bourgogne Blanc is essentially Brocard’s Chardonnay “Kimmeridgien”, a pure chardonnay from the Kimmeridgian limestone soils of the Chablis AOP, declassified into the generic appellation. Wild yeast fermented and aged in stainless steel, this wine tastes more Chablis than many Chablis, complete with Brocard’s recognizable lactic, lightly buttery style. At $16, you can use a splash to steam your mussels, find lactic harmony with the fresh butter, and add depth to the ensemble with a pinch of chopped shallots, garlic and parsley or tarragon. I think Hemingway would have approved.

The Frenchman Turns Red

13th Street Merlot 201213th Street winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas has been dogged by the reputation of regularly producing top-notch whites (remember, he worked in Chablis before coming to Canada in 2000) but hit-and-miss reds. But the 2012 13th Street Merlot ($17.95) is a sure sign that JP’s still got a trick or two up his sleeve. There was an audible gasp in the LCBO tasting lab when fellow WineAlign critic David Lawrason tasted this wine, followed by a thorough scrutinizing of the label and the question: “did Jean-Pierre really make this?” I too, did a double take upon tasting, taken by the fullish, firm and juicy, even succulent, palate, the masses of fruit and wet clay character typical of merlot, and the exceptional depth for the price category. Whatever happened at 13th Street in 2012 (releases are solid across the board), I hope it keeps happening.

Smart Wintry Reds From Value Hot Spots

Three of my go-to regions for value pop up on January 4th yet again: Sicily, Portugal’s Dão, and Rioja. The 2010 Cusumano Noà ($19.95) is a ripe, dark fruited, substantially flavoured red blend (Nero d’Avola, with 30% each of cabernet sauvignon and merlot), with thick, dense and concentrated palate and more than a little wild Mediterranean herbal character, perfect for winter roasts or braises.

Cusumano Noà 2010Quinta Das Camélias Reserva 2010Rio Madre 2011The Dão region, just south of the Douro Valley, has of late become a crossroads for wines of class, elegance and value. The region sits on a raised plateau of pure granite (just look around and see what all buildings are made of; even vineyard posts are often made of granite) protected on three sides from inclement weather. Touriga Nacional is the flagship variety, which shows through nicely in the 2010 Quinta Das Camélias Reserva ($14.95), blended with jaen (mencía) and alfrocheiro. Wild violets and rockroses mix with succulent black fruits, while structure and length are far above the price category. Slightly excessive wood influence detracts on the finish, but another year or two should see this reach better balance.

2011 Rio Madre Rioja ($14.95) is a rare example made exclusively from graciano, a long way from classic Rioja of any description, but well worth a look at this price. It’s a deeply coloured and intriguingly aromatic wine, with a certain wildness and florality. Fruit is lightly candied, but acids are still firm and tannins tight, giving this a juicy and appealing drinkability and firmness.

Fresh Shiraz Trending

Romate Fino SherryDomaine Tournon Mathilda Shiraz 2011Following in the trend towards fresher shiraz, Domaine Tournon’s 2011 Mathilda Shiraz from Victoria ($19.95), made by the Rhône Valley’s Marc Chapoutier, is a lively, fragrant, clearly cool climate-inspired wine that draws you in with its beguiling peppery, floral, cold cream, and dark berry aromatics, while a modest 13% alcohol makes this all the more fun to enjoy after holiday excesses.

Fine Fino

Sherry is at long last gaining traction in our market, if the turnout for and enthusiasm witnessed during October’s Sherry Fest, the first of its kind in Toronto, is any indication. It’s really just a matter of time before the winds of fashion blow favourably once again over this 3000-year-old wine region. For a sense of the high complexity/dollar ratio that great examples offer, try the Romate Fino Sherry ($15.95). It’s not a fino built on freshness exclusively, but rather incorporates considerable fruit depth and intense yeasty-flor character, leading into a finish with terrific persistence. Goes great with bullfights, tapas and January Sunday afternoons in Canada.

Premium Smart Buys

On the premium ($25+) side of the equation, I’d strongly recommend the 2008 Punset Barbaresco ($52.95), fit for fans of the nebbiolo genre, or for anyone into fine and distinctive wine. The Marcarino family has been farming organically since 1987, and this Barbaresco from the fine and elegant 2008 vintage is crafted in the old school style, replete with engaging rusty-iron, dried red fruit, faded flowers and gritty, salty flavours. It’s lovely, traditional stuff, enjoyable now or hold to 2020.

Punset Barbaresco 2008Domaine Des Baumard Clos De Saint Yves Savennières 2010Château Caronne Ste. Gemme 2009Premium white drinkers shouldn’t miss the 2010 Domaine Des Baumard Clos De Saint Yves Savennières ($31.95). Clos de Saint Yves is a monopole vineyard of Domaine des Baumard, planted on schistous soils streaked with volcanic rock. Like many intensely terroir-driven wines, this is not a wine of fruit or grape varietal character, but rather an expression of place – there’s no mistaking this for Vouvray or any other chenin-based appellation from the Loire Valley. The nose is intense and smoky, honeyed, like a wool sweater soaked with rain drying by the fireplace as you sip an Islay malt whisky. You could this drink now, or hold it a decade or more.

And lastly, Bordeaux drinkers can rejoice at finding more value in the highly touted 2009 vintage with the Château Caronne Ste. Gemme ($25.85). It’s a classy left bank Bordeaux at a nice price, complete with graphite-pencil shavings, dark fruit, and abundant but integrated and well-matched wood spice-vanilla flavours. The tannic structure has just started to loosen its hold, making this enjoyable now but capable of another 4-8 years in the cellar without a stretch. Considering the high price and average quality of 2011, ‘12 and ’13 Bordeaux, fans should buy up as much of the remaining 2009 and 2010 values, wherever they are to be found.

That’s all for this week. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year 2014. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

From the Jan 4, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

Penfolds Grange 2008

Vancouver International Wine Festival - Feb 27, 28 and Mar 1

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Season 4, Round 5: “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

Chenin or Riesling…Riesling or Chenin…?

Season 4 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?” is a departure from the previous critic-against-critic challenge of past episodes. This time the competition has a game show/family feud feel with tasters battling against each other in teams, rather than individually. As always, the competitors have the daunting challenge of identifying the wine with only their nose, eyes, and palate – no other clues are given.

Click here to watch Round #5, or read on for highlights from the last round and a look at today’s teams.

Highlights and Score from Round #4

Last time on SYTYKW, Raiders of the Lost AOC initially started on the right track with South American malbec but slowly talked themselves into a grenache dominant blend from Southern Rhone. The Good, The Bad, and The Blind also went with a grenache dominant blend from Southern Rhone, but dug a little deeper and came up with Vacqueyras as a more specific appellation. In the end, neither team guessed correctly in this, the lowest scoring episode so far; however, both teams agreed that Finca Decero Malbec 2010 is a very good wine. David Lawrason stated that the elegant style of the wine led them to France, and the Raiders of the Lost AOC declared after the reveal, “Trust your first instinct!

The teams debate the characteristics of each wine to come to a consensus as to what they think the wine is and their conclusions are submitted to Amil in writing. Each team then announces their decision and the wine is revealed. The scoring on each wine remains similar to past episodes, with points for Variety, Country, Region, Appellation and Vintage, and a little less emphasis on Price this season. Here’s how the teams stand after 4 rounds:

So, You Think You Know Wine? Scorecard 4.4

Round #5

The teams are now starting to really gel and become more comfortable with each other, but does this help or hinder in this competition? Do they have too much respect for each other to challenge a teammate’s opinion? Watch the competition progress as The Good, The Bad, and The Blind (aka Mom, Dad, and Little Brad) take on Whole Bunch Press in this nail-biting episode.

Pour yourself a glass of wine and Watch Round #5 here.

The Good, The Bad and The Blind

David Lawrason, DJ Kearney, and Brad Royale of The Good, The Bad and The Blind, with referee Amil

So, You Think You Know Wine?

Anthony Gismondi, Janet Dorozynski, and Rhys Pender of Whole Bunch Press

We hope that you find this new format entertaining and that you have as much fun watching as we did filming. As usual, please send your comments to and feel free to share this video with your friends and family.

So, You Think You Know Wine?

Special thanks to our glassware sponsor, Schott Zwiesel, for their beautiful glasses and carafes used during filming.

Previously on “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

Espisode 4.1: California Square Russian River Chardonnay

Episode 4.2: Louis M Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Episode 4.3:  Travaglini Gattinara

Episode 4.4: Finca Decero Malbec


Penfolds Grange 2008

Fortessa Canada Inc. Glassware sponsor to SYTYKW

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VQA Wines to be sold at Farmer’s Markets

A small step towards loosening the tight regulatory environment…

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The Ontario Government announced this week that it will begin to allow sales of VQA Ontario wines at farmers’ markets across the province. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Premier and Minister of Agriculture and Food, has been the impetus behind the move. “I’m committed to supporting this innovative industry and I encourage consumers to choose Ontario wines first. They’re local, they’re good for our economy, and they support good jobs”, says Wynne.

While the details of when and exactly how wine sales will be integrated into markets have yet to be determined, “anything that expands distribution is good” says Wine Council of Ontario president Hilary Dawson in a phone interview. “We don’t know the details yet”, said Dawson, “but this is happening. The Wine Council has received an official letter from the government to attend a meeting in January with responsibility stakeholders like the Attorney General’s Office and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario”.

Essentially, what is being proposed is an add-on endorsement to an existing winery license. Wineries are permitted to sell their wines from their own premises, and in some cases from satellite outlets. The endorsement would simply expand a winery’s retail channels to include farmers’ markets. Any concerns that this move may lead to illegal trading are thus largely unfounded. As Dawson points out, “I think most wineries will be diligent in following the rules since their full winery license is at stake.”

Most local wineries have welcomed the news. “We’re farmers after all”, says winemaker Norman Hardie. “Having local wines sold alongside local foods will only serve to reinforce the connection to our land. Besides, it makes perfect economic sense. The sale of local wines puts many times more money back into the local economy relative to the sale of imports”.

Michele Bosc, Director of Marketing for Château des Charmes agrees: “Any opportunity to have our wines more readily available to consumers is a good thing. We are especially keen on linking local food to local wine and farmers’ markets are an ideal setting to do so. The local food movement has become mainstream so now we have to work to have VQA wines also to be mainstream in the minds of Ontario consumers.”

Doug Whitty, owner of both a private farm market and 13th Street winery, has some experience in the matter and has likewise greeted the news positively. “At our own winery and farm market, we experience many more customers, especially young people, who seek to make this connection as they include Ontario VQA wines and local food as part of a lifestyle that is fun, healthy, educational and promotes sustainability”, says Whitty.

Other local wineries are more skeptical, however. “In my humble opinion this is a bone being thrown to small wineries who are having difficulty getting shelf space in the LCBO/Vintages stores and to appease the LCBO privatization lobby”, writes Harald Thiel, owner of Hidden Bench, via email.

Thiel would like to see a more significant change to the VQA retailing landscape, suggesting instead to reserve shelf space in the LCBO for “100% Ontario wines”, and restricting the sales of all non-VQA Cellared in Canada wines (or “CICs”, wines made from a blend of local and imported wines), “to only the dedicated channels of those wineries that benefit from that license [to produce import blends]”, a reference to winery-owned stores such as The Wine Rack, owned by Constellation Brands. “That was the original plan under the 1993 free trade agreement. 2003 was to be last year when both channels were to be available to CIC wineries”, reminds Thiel.

Even those who support the Wynne government’s announcement question the viability of selling their wines at farmers’ markets. “It’s hard to say if this is a good opportunity or not as there is so much regulatory work that needs to be worked out by the government. And we are such a highly regulated industry it is never a straight line,” says Paul Speck, President of Henry of Pelham Winery.

Doug Whitty agrees that it will be logistically challenging and echoes Thiel’s concerns: “there are significant costs to selling at farmers markets and these costs, coupled with limited days and hours available for retail operations within them, may limit participation. This announcement is welcome but it certainly does not address the continuing need for increased retail market access for Ontario VQA producers in the province.”

Among the many questions to be answered include which farmers’ markets will be eligible. “Obviously the government wants to avoid someone throwing up a fruit stand at the end of their driveway in order to sell wine”, Dawson tells me. There’s also the question of how space will be allocated at highly coveted markets like St. Lawrence, the Brickworks, or St Jacobs, which are already at capacity in any case.

Another hurdle is the fact that most markets open long before alcohol can legally be sold or sampled in Ontario. Will wine sales be prohibited until after 10am, and sampling until after 11am?

And even if sampling is permitted, Thiel for one doubts that farmers’ markets provide any real opportunity for premium wines, considering the sampling costs in relation to projected sales. There’s also a high risk of “depremiumization” of a brand. Most winery principals agree that offering samples of premium Ontario wine in plastic or other disposable cup on a hot, busy summer outdoor market day, for example, is far from ideal. And serving in proper glassware brings a new range of logistical challenges such as transporting, storing, and washing the glasses. “Can you imagine premium brands like Roumier, Pierre Yves Colin, Ponzi or Anthill selling at a farmers markets?” questions Thiel.

Additional considerations include whether a winery stall will be required to have hard walls, or other restrictions on the physical space imposed in order to control access to alcohol, whether wineries will be permitted to group together save on costs or gain access to markets, how wine will be shipped and warehoused, and whether a winery principal will be required to be on hand to sell (as opposed to a winery representative or hired worker), as some markets demand from their food farmers.

But, “let’s not make this too complicated,” urges Dawson. “Too many conditions will limit participation”.

Although this is viewed as a minor victory for VQA Ontario wine, it can be also viewed as a small step towards loosening the tight regulatory environment surrounding the sale of alcohol in the province. As Dawson points out: “if the government can feel comfortable doing this, than other changes are possible”.

Stay tuned for more details on this story in January 2014.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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A Sparkling Countdown to New Year’s Eve (Part 2)

John Szabo’s report on luxe Champagnes is part two of WineAlign’s series on bubblies for the holidays. Just before New Year’s Eve, part three will provide a shopping list of more affordable sparklers. All recommendations below are currently available somewhere in Canada. Readers in B.C. and Ontario can check out nearest store inventories through WineAlign, or you can contact the importing agent. A feature on Maison Krug follows John’s report – in which Olivier Krug reveals the vision of his great-great-great grandfather and the not-so-secret secret of the champagne house’s success, as well as his (grandmother’s) recipe for killer ratatouille.

Luxe Bubbles for 2013
plus a profile on Maison Krug
by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Champagne, by virtually any definition, is a luxury product. But there’s an awful lot of poor quality champagne, made from some of the highest yielding vineyards in the world (relative to average selling price) with questionable attention to detail, and defects neatly, and legally, masked by a generous dollop of sugar (“dosage”) at bottling. And uniformly high pricing based on the weight of the collective “brand champagne” makes shopping by price a roll of the dice.

But as Treve Ring explored in her article last week entitled Farmer Fizz, real champagne is a wine, not a brand. As such, quality and style are as diverse as the 275,000 or so vineyard parcels in the region, the 19,000 registered growers who farm them, and the several thousand enterprises that produce and sell champagne. So here’s a short list of the best wines I’ve tasted recently that deserve the luxe tag, divided into a couple of unofficial style categories that I find useful. Unlike cheap fizz, I’d suggest serving these luxe champagnes in large white wine glasses rather than straitjacket-like flutes in order to enjoy their full aromatic complexity and layered texture.

Toute En Finesse et Fraîcheur

These are champagnes focused on delicacy and elegance rather than sheer power, perfect for sipping or serving alongside luxury shellfish for a classy pairing.

Henriot Souverain Brut ChampagneRuinart R De Ruinart Brut ChampagneLouis Roederer Cristal Brut Champagne 2005Cristal Brut Champagne 2005 (ON $287.95)

Made from select parcels of vineyards owned by Maison Roederer, the 2005 Cristal is a surprisingly delicate and floral wine despite the power of the vintage and 20% barrel fermented base wine. It offers ethereal notes of ripe, toasted citrus-lemon-bergamot, fresh sweet herbs and striking wet-chalk minerality. There’s plenty of action on the palate, with immediate mouth-filling impact focused by laser sharp definition. Flavours reverberate and expand beautifully.

Ruinart R De Ruinart Brut Champagne (ON $77.95)

A classy, elegant and very refined example, replete with almond, hazelnut, white chocolate and fresh baked croissant-type aromas and flavours. Excellent length and depth; crisp and dry.

Henriot Souverain Brut Champagne (ON $59.95)

A classy, heavily autolytic (biscuity, yeasty) champers with terrific complexity and more than an average measure of finesse. Delicate citrus and white fleshed fruit linger with blanched almond and fresh hazelnut.

Piper Heidsieck BrutGosset Brut ExcellencePiper Heidsieck Brut (ON $54.95)

Piper is the fresher, leaner and crisper bottling relative to stable-mate Charles Heidsieck. Considerable flavour intensity is wrapped around lightly caramelized citrus-lemon-orange peel flavours, and autolysis character is modest. It’s lip-smackingly dry, crisp and precise on the palate, making for a fine aperitif, or oyster accompaniment.

Gosset Brut Excellence (ON $53.00)

Gosset lays claim to being the oldest house in Champagne, dating back to 1584. Despite recent reports by several authorities that the wines have grown too oxidative in style (a big discussion point in Champagne these days), I find this latest release of the Brut Excellence to be neither overtly fruity, nor markedly mature or oxidative, but rather quite right. This presents itself as properly lean, tight and lively, on the drier side of brut.

Rich, Mature and Toasty

These are powerful and intense champagnes, often made with a high proportion of reserve wines (older vintages used for blending), with extra long ageing on the lees, or mature vintage champagnes.

Jacquesson Cuvée 736 Extra Brut Champagne 2008Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne 2004Krug Grande Cuvee Brut ChampagneKrug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne (ON $271.95)

The latest release of the Grande Cuvée falls squarely within the Krug house style of intensely autolytic and mature wine, with its pronounced honeyed, toasted wheat bread, roasted almond and hazelnut profile; massively complex. The palate is generous, densely concentrated and compact, powerful yet finessed. Certainly an outstanding Grande Cuvée. See the article below for more details on Krug.

2004 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne (ON $83.95)

Moët’s ’04 vintage displays immediate class, even if the palate is tightly wound and a bit shier than expected. Yet there’s more than sufficient density and extract to evolve further over the next few years. This is very nearly as good as the Dom Pérignon prestige cuvée, at 1/3 the price.

Jacquesson Champagne Cuvée 736 Extra Brut (ON $67.95)

Jacquesson’s Cuvée nº 736 is based on the fine 2008 vintage with 1/3 of reserve wines, made from just over half chardonnay. It’s mature and developed, with flavours shifting into the caramelized, honeyed, candied citrus zest and sautéed apple-pear-peach spectrum. The palate is gentle and relatively soft, with enough dosage to buffer acids. Wonderful balance and length all around.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ChampagneFleury Champagne Blanc De Noirs BrutChâteau De Bligny Champagne Blanc De Blancs BrutCharles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne (ON $59.95)

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve – lot number 3006442 – is another fine example offering an enticing juxtaposition of freshness and elegance with maturity and complexity. Precise, tart citrus fruit flavours mingle with plenty of toasty-biscuity notes from reserve wines and considerable time on the lees. Outstanding complexity.

Fleury Champagne Blanc De Noirs Brut (ON $56.95)

A biodynamically-grown grower’s champagne. Notably deep golden colour, and intensely rich and toasty aromatics to match, wonderfully mature, focused on toasted almonds and hazelnuts, dried fruit, and plenty of toasted wheat bread with honey and apple turnover. The palate is very dry, braced by riveting acids with excellent length. Best served at table, with, say, a hazelnut-encrusted sea bass.

Château De Bligny Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut (ON $43.95)
Here’s a classy, vinous, evidently concentrated and superb value grower champagne. It displays uncommon richness and flavour intensity for a non-vintage offering at this price, and drinks more like a table wine than a sparkling wine. I’d confidently serve this alongside veal scaloppini or poached fish in beurre blanc, or white truffled pasta or risotto.

Brut Non-Dosé (or so it seems)

Champagnes made with low, or no added sugar after disgorging, bracingly dry and crisp, perfect to start off the evening (or afternoon).

José Dhondt Blanc De Blancs Brut ChampagneChampagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru ChampagneChampagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru (Lot From May 2010, Disgorged February 2013, ON $68.95)

The latest release of Agrapart’s Terroir Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut is a particularly dry and firm bottling, and flavourful to be sure, with mainly sour citrus and green apple fruit. I found that aeration made a profound improvement in both flavour and texture, so in this rare instance I’d recommend decanting for now, albeit gently to avoid losing too much effervescence.

José Dhondt Blanc De Blancs Brut Champagne (ON $53.95)

A somewhat rustic, if authentic, grower’s champagne, with a range of aromatics far outside the traditional profile of commercial champagne brands, that draws you inexorably in. Very mineral and lightly vegetal, with discreet fruit, and very dry and crisp yet balanced on the palate, with genuine concentration and complexity. Well worth a look for intrepid consumers.

Tarlant Champagne Brut ReserveAndré Clouet Silver Brut Nature ChampagneTarlant Champagne Brut Reserve (ON $40.85)

Tarlant’s Brut Reserve is very dry and crisp in keeping with the house style, very close to the brut zéro for which the house is best known (6 grams/liter residual sugar here). You’ll find plenty of toasted wheat bread, almond, buckwheat, and sautéed lemon flavours, while the palate is lean, rivetingly tart and seemingly bone dry.

André Clouet Silver Brut Nature Champagne (ON $57.95)

There’s a good reason why this became my ‘house champagne’ a couple of years ago – it’s simply outstanding value. This latest release from the dedicated grower André Clouet is a complex, toasty, yeasty, vinous and concentrated wine, with a broad and appealing range of aromas and flavours, full, intense and marvellously apportioned, which drinks the equal of many vintage cuvées at double or more the price. Ready to savour now, preferably at the table alongside fish or poultry in cream sauce.


Rare and frequently over priced, this is one of the toughest categories to find quality and price matched up. Here area couple that make the cut.

Legras & Haas Brut Rosé ChampagneDevaux Cuvée Rosée Brut ChampagneDevaux Cuvée Rosée Brut Champagne (ON $59.95)

The terra cotta-tinged appearance foreshadows a highly evolved aromatic profile, leading off with toasted walnuts and caramel, followed by ripe cherry and pomegranate fruit. Acids are sharp and bright and length very good  this has some rustic appeal and solid flavour intensity all around.

Legras & Haas Brut Rosé Champagne (ON $64.99)

A refined and elegant rosé, pale pink, fully focused on delicate red fruit, strawberry, cherry, raspberry and fresh pomegranate, alongside floral-rose petal tones. This is a champagne of delicacy and finesse, with very fine and gentle mousse, and very classy indeed. Note that this is available through private order only so you won’t be drinking it this New Year’s Eve, but it was too fine not to include.

Profile: Maison Krug – A Vision Revealed

After nearly 170 years, Olivier Krug, the 6th successive generation of Krugs to run the famous Champagne house, finally understood the essence of his family’s business. He did so after discovering some writings in the family archives a couple of years ago written by his great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Krug. The letters reveal the origins of Krug’s somewhat unique position in the champagne world in that they present the Grande Cuvée, a multi-vintage champagne, as the company’s flagship wine, rather than the vintage-dated prestige cuvée of the majority of other champagne houses. “The day I read Joseph’s words was the day I understood Krug” relates Olivier.

Joseph Krug founded his eponymous champagne business on November 7, 1843. He was born in Mainz, then part of France, and grew up in a French school before moving to Paris to live large. After meeting the agent for Champagne Jacquesson, the largest company in Champagne at the time, he got his start in the champagne business in 1833 working for, and eventually co-managing Champagne Jaquesson along with M. Jaquesson himself.

Olivier continues the story: “five years after Joseph joined Jaquesson, he sent a memo to his boss, which we recovered, stating quite simply that “we should aim to offer the best every year”. “And by definition you cannot offer the best possible champagne every year from a single vintage.” Joseph wished to make a more consistent, and original, house style of champagne.

But Jacquesson was not interested in changing his company’s policies, so Joseph started working with a negociant on the side to discover the best parcels of land in the region. He wanted to go beyond the “three colours” of champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and look more closely at the different expressions of these grapes in different terroirs. “Since every terroir is going to give something different, expressing something of each parcel could be enriching, and could be the base for an even better, even sharper selection”, explains Olivier.

The Birth of Champagne Krug

So when Krug left Jaquesson to start his own company, very much against his wife’s wishes who was happy with their already comfortable life, “he knew exactly what he had to do and how to go about creating a champagne that would offer not only the best possible quality every year, but also go beyond vintage, which is only a single expression of a single year”.

At the age of 48 in 1848 Joseph Krug wrote a note in his diary to his six-year-old son, saying that “there are times that you might be tempted to use some grapes of a lesser, or even mediocre quality, and you might even succeed. But these are cases on which you should never rely otherwise you may lose your reputation.”

Joseph continues in his writings: “A good [champagne] house should aim to produce two cuvées of the same composition and quality: number one is the Grande Cuvée – this should be the focus, to offer everything that champagne can offer every year, whose quality should be unquestionable every year, a champagne that goes beyond vintage. Cuvée nº2 depends on the circumstances of the vintage and the climate, as good as the first cuvée, but which is only the product of one year, the result of the climate, the story of a single year”.

Olivier Krug, Maison Krug

Olivier Krug, Maison Krug

This was a radical notion at the time since then, as is still true today, the hierarchy in champagne is reversed: non-vintage is subordinate to vintage wines. But this philosophy was not clever marketing or promotional material for the fledgling House of Krug, but a private note to his son and eventual successor, written in a diary. The same uncompromising standards have been upheld at Krug ever since, and has made of Krug champagne an icon of the industry and the champagne of choice for those who can afford it whenever the moment calls for celebration and pleasure. “Joseph understood that champagne is about pleasure. Whenever you open a bottle of champagne it’s for pleasure”, says Olivier.

Olivier had spent over twenty years trying to describe the vision of Maison Krug, struggling to explain to customers that Krug Grande Cuvée is not a “non-vintage” champagne, nor is it a “vintage” champagne, but rather that it’s a unique wine assembled from a vast and ever-changing puzzle that includes the different pieces provided by the authorized grapes, the 275,000+ potential parcels of vineyards, as well as the variations imposed on both terroir and grape by the yearly climatic conditions. Reading the words of Joseph outlining his vision for great champagne put everything into perspective for Olivier, as though everything he had always believed but had had difficulty expressing suddenly became clearer, as though he had been handed the company’s original mission statement and a justification for its continued implementation.

The Secret: Plot-Based Contracts

In addition to the grapes supplied by the company’s own vineyards, one of the secrets to Krug’s success is their unique contractual arrangements with growers. Most grape contracts are volume-based (in fact, contracts are based on the number of hectares agreed upon for sale, but since yields and pressings are fixed across the region each year by the authorities, it amounts to a volume-based contract), which is to say that a grower will sell the equivalent amount of must produced from a given number of hectares, even though the specific physical plots of origin are not specified. But Krug ties its contracts to specific parcels within the holdings of any individual grower, in effect both a volume and terroir-based contract, plot-by-plot.

“Take a single grower in Bouzy, with five hectares” begins Olivier. “Even such a small holding is divided into fifteen different plots, and not all are equal. The grower might agree to sell one-fifth of her total production each year (the equivalent from one hectare of vineyards) to five different houses, including Krug. But we will go to that grower and ask her to identify the best, say 3-4, parcels that total one hectare, those which she thinks will meet the standards and expectations of Krug. The growers often look at us with big eyes and say, “you mean I can choose grapes for you?” For most people, grapes are grapes. Not for us.”

The system works because Krug vinifies all the individual plots of their growers separately – in 2013, for example, Krug vinified 300 separate lots. The precision often goes as far as vinifying the three legally permitted pressings of each lot of grapes separately. Krug then invites the growers back later in the year to taste the result of their work in the vineyard. “We’ve seen vignerons shed tears when they taste how beautiful their wine turned out” says Olivier. The pride of the growers drives them to reserve their best plots of grapes for Krug, knowing that they won’t disappear anonymously into a huge tank.

Champagne Ratatouille

Olivier draws a cooking analogy to explain the small lot production philosophy. “Take ratatouille. To make a quick dish, you start with all of the vegetables, put them into a big steam cooker, cook them for 40 minutes, add some salt and pepper and voilà you have ratatouille, and it’s very good because you started with good ingredients. And then you have ratatouille like my grandmother used to make. She would take the tomatoes one by one and peel off the skin, and reduce them slowly on their own for two hours. And then she would take the onions separately and sauté them, and then she would take the eggplant and… Only at the end would she assemble everything. Both ratatouilles are made with essentially the same ingredients, with the same percentages of each vegetable. But you taste them and they are totally different. This was the philosophy that Joseph had in 1843.”

The Krug ID System

But even with the incredible mosaïque of material to work with, Grande Cuvée displays variation from bottling to bottling. “Grande the cuvée is not the same every year. It always delivers the same house expression, but tasted side by side there are differences” Olivier reveals. To address this issue, one that continually plagues me as I wonder which specific bottling of a particular champagne I’m drinking and when it was disgorged, Krug introduced a unique ID system in 2011 that allows you to look up details on specific bottlings at The current release of Krug Grande Cuvée, in the LCBO as of the November 23rd, 2013 release, bears I.D.# 411045, which according to the website “left the Krug cellars to receive its cork in autumn 2011. This is the last step after more than six years of ageing in the cellars to acquire finesse and elegance. This bottle is an extraordinary blend of 134 wines from 12 different vintages, the oldest from 1990 and the youngest from 2005.”

A “Rich and Generous Expression of Champagne”

As though to underscore the primacy of Grande Cuvée within the house’s range, we taste the 2000 vintage Krug first, the opposite of the customary champagne tasting which begins invariably with the non-vintage cuvée. It is of course excellent wine, but when we move on to the current release of the Grande Cuvée, the wine has an extra dimension absent in the vintage cuvee. It falls squarely within the immediately recognizable Krug house style of intensely autolytic and mature wine, “rich and generous” as Krug describes it, with its pronounced honeyed, toasted wheat bread, roasted almond and hazelnut profile offering amazing complexity. There are few wines in the world I’m prepared to pay such a princely sum for, but if you derive pleasure from Krug, it really is quite unique.

Pairing Food & Wine for DummiesNeed a last minute gift? Consider Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies by John Szabo MS, published by John Wiley & Sons Canada. It’s the go-to guide for getting it right every time  food and wine are involved, including getting the most for your money in restaurants, home entertaining, gift giving, and even what it takes to become a sommelier. And if you don’t believe me, read what respected drinks critic Stephen Beaumont (Books, Books, Books. What to buy for whom;  Coffee table eye candy edition) had to say about it. It’s available online and in fine bookshops all over the English-speaking world.

That’s all for this week. I wish you a safe, happy holiday and a new year full of fine bubbles.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

A Sparkling Countdown Part 1: Farmer Fizz
Complete list of recommended wines: Sparkling Countdown 2013

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne

Vancouver Wine Festival - Feb 27 - Mar 1

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Steve’s Top 50 at LCBO – Dec 2013

Value Wines for Holiday Entertaining

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

This is the busiest time of the year in every wine store. When the stores are so crowded, I have found that it’s best to shop with a prepared list. So to ease your wine-buying stress I have selected eight wines, all less than $15, from my Top 50 list that could be all you need to take to parties, stuff into stockings or have on hand at home over the next three weeks. These are all great inexpensive wines that will surely please. There simply is no reason to drink poor wines when there are so many good wines you can easily buy. Use WineAlign to search your local store and print your list from the Top 50. With your shopping list in hand, you’ll be equipped with lots of good wine, while saving some dollars.

Thanks to WineAlign’s inventory tracking, I can assure you that there were decent stocks available as of all the wines below. (By registering with your postal code, you can find the inventory at your closest LCBO store). Here’s a list of eight great value bottles to put on your personal WineAlign shopping list.

The Reds

Inexpensive good pinot noir is a pretty rare find. Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2012, Central Valley, Chile ($10.95) combines good varietal character with a good depth of flavour. It is well structured and is a match for a wide variety of mildly flavoured dishes. Fresh, pure, fruity and very drinkable it must surely be the best value pinot at the LCBO.

Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2012Santa Julia Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011Bodegas Castaño Hécula Monastrell 2009If you looking for something more full-bodied then Santa Julia Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mendoza, Argentina ($13.00) is good value for an elegant red with a complex nose of cassis and blackberry fruit with some earthy tones, subtle oak spice and sweet basil notes. The palate is finely poised with the fruit supported by some finely grained tannin which give nice grip to the finish. It will be best appreciated with some red meat. Try it with a fine cut of roast lamb or beef.

Probably the best value red at the LCBO comes from southern Spain Bodegas Castaño Hécula Monastrell 2009, Yecla, Spain ($11.80). The monastrell grape makes many delicious juicy dark, full-bodied reds like this one. It is wonderfully smooth with vibrant acidity that gives it a degree of elegance that would cost you over $20 normally. Expect aromas of blackberry with fragrant lavender, vanilla and cocoa plus some raspberry jam notes. The palate is rich yet not heavy and it finishes dry with some meaty notes and fine tannin for grip. Very good length. Try with strongly flavoured mature hard cheese, like cheddar or parmigiana.

Montalto Nero d'Avola Cabernet Sauvignon 2012Santa Carolina Merlot 2011I don’t usually have much time for single varietal merlot. This grape is often so much better when blended with others, but there are exceptions and for value and its bright beautiful fruit you can’t beat Santa Carolina Merlot 2011, Chile ($8.95). It abounds with pure aromas of raspberry and red cherry fruit with some jammy tones and herbal hints. The midweight palate is brimming with lively vibrant fruit with enough tannin for balance and good to very good length. Enjoy on its own lightly chilled or with a wide range of meat and cheese dishes.

Finally for a more full-bodied red at less than $10, I can recommend Montalto Nero d’Avola Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Sicily, Italy ($8.95). It is very fruity and well-structured with soft tannins and vibrant acidity. Very good length. Well balanced, it’s ideal with pizza and meaty pasta sauces or hard mature cheese.

The Whites

Poultry and most cheese and pastry nibbles go best with white wines, so try one or all of these three.

Chateau des Charmes Barrel Fermented 2011 Chardonnay, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake ($13.95) is a juicy well-made chardonnay with just enough oak maturation to add complexity and structure without adding too much unnecessary flavour. It shows how good Niagara chardonnay is these days and at less than $14 it’s great value.

Château Des Charmes Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2011Trapiche Broquel Chardonnay 2010Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2012My next pick has unfortunately been delisted and is now on sale. Trapiche Broquel 2010 Chardonnay, Mendoza, Argentina was $11.40 is now $8.45. It has soft creamy texture with lots of flavour plus aromas of melon and pear fruit with just a little oak. Over 2200 bottles are still in stock so you should be able to find it, if not at your store, at one close by.

My final white pick is a classic sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that is $2 off until Jan 5. Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Marlborough, New Zealand was $16.45 is now $14.45. It is a very bright, juicy wine with a fine nose of passion fruit, nettle and lemon. It’s fresh and well-balanced with a hint of sweetness and a dry lemony finish.

There are another 42 wines on the Top50 list so if you did not find all you need above for your holiday needs dip into the Top 50 LCBO and Vintages Essentials wines. There will surely be something inexpensive that suits your taste.

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

How I Choose the Top 50

I constantly taste the wines at the LCBO to keep the Top 50 list up to date. You can easily find all of my all Top 50 Value Wines from the WineAlign main menu. Click on Wine =>Top 50 Value Wines to be taken directly to the list.

Steve's Top Value WinesTo be included in the Top 50 for value a wine must be inexpensive while also having a high score, indicating high quality. I use a mathematical model to make the Top 50 selections from the wines in our database. Every wine is linked to WineAlign where you can read more, discover pricing discounts, check out inventory and compile lists for shopping at your favourite store. Never again should you be faced with a store full of wine with little idea of what to pick for best value.

Once you have tried a wine, you can use the ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ to agree or disagree with our reviews. Or better yet, you can add your own review and join our growing community of user reviewers. If you find that there is a new wine on the shelf, or a new vintage that we have not reviewed, let us know. It is very easy to do this. Click on Update This Wine or send an email to We look forward to hearing from you.

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


Steve Thurlow

Editors Note: You can find Steve Thurlow’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great value wines!

Top 50 LCBO and Vintages Essentials Wines


Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne

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DJ Kearney’s Holiday Wine Picks 2013

DJ Kearney

DJ Kearney

A bottle of wine is about as ideal as gift-giving gets. Easy, always received with delight, and actually fun to choose if you get into the spirit. And the holidays are here, so the spirit part should be easy. (Note: Not all wines are available in all provinces, but BC should be well covered!)

Best Buy Wines for a Party

So it’s the neighbourhood street party, or your zumba or soccer team holiday shindig and you’re on wine detail. You want to take lots because a) you’re a generous person and b) as an insurance policy against having to drink your goalie’s home-made plonk when the bottle you brought is emptied. The brief: delicious and appetizing wine that’s a great deal, priced so a full case won’t break you. Up-front fruit for broad appeal is a good idea, without too much thick oak or sugary sweetness. You’ll look good if you think a little outside the box and try one of these colossal values. Must go with easy, convenient party food like a supermarket shrimp ring, zesty chicken wings or molten brie in pastry. And these affordable gems make great gift bottles for lucky people: dog walker, barber, butcher, mechanic etc.

Natalie Bonhomme ‘El Petit Bonhomme’ 2012 ($13.99)

Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Clásico 2012 ($15.99)

Boekenhoutskloof  Wolftrap White ($14.99)

Castello de Monseran Garnacha 2012 ($9.99)

El Petit Bonhomme Blanco 2012Altos Las Hormigas Malbec 2012The Wolftrap White 2012Castillo De Monseran Garnacha 2012

Local Heroes:

It feels good to support our local bounty. Ontario and BC each produce minuscule amounts of wine in the context of world production. BC bottles 1.5 million cases of VQA wine per year from about 10,000 acres of vineyards, and Ontario manages a million more from 15,000 acres of land devoted to wine grapes. Very little production of either province is exported, so wine locavores have fantastic access to the best of the best.

Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2011 ($40.00)

Wild Goose Stoney Slope Riesling 2011 ($20.00)

Burning Kiln Gewurztraminer 2012 ($24.95)

Blue Mountian Pinot Blanc ($17.95)

Stag’s Hollow Grenache ($29.99)

Meyer Family Pinot Noir Mclean Creek Road Vineyard 2011Wild Goose Riesling Dry Stoney SlopeBurning Kiln Table Gang Gewurztraminer 2012Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2012Stag's Hollow Grenache 2012

Special Pressie wines:

Hors Classe  – meaning wondrously outside-the-box gems  –  wines for the esoteric wine lover or adventure-drinker. There are times when you need an ‘out there’ wine, for the wine smarty pants in your office, or to wean a friend off their usual plonk with the taste of something diverting. These wines brim with character, singularity, and stories galore. They’re also sensational dinner wines, and if we all buy, drink and love them regularly, we can do a lot to encourage everything that is authentic and precious in the world of wine.

Jean Bourdy Cremant de Jura N/V ($35.99)

Quinta do Ameal Escolha White 2011 ($34.99)

Agicola Azienda COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico 2010 ($40.95)

Jean Bourdy Cremant de JuraQuinta Do Ameal Escolha White 2011Azienda Agricola Cos Cerasuolo Di Vittoria Classico 2010

Wines for the Big Dinner OR Pressies to Impress:

The Holiday Dinner needs wines that can embrace an expansive range of flavours from oysters on the half shell; meaty roast (turkey, goose, duck, beef, pork); pungent vegetables like Brussels sprouts; luscious richness like roast or scalloped potatoes, sausage stuffing; and sweet-tart cranberry sauce. And all of this liberally anointed with the tastiest gravy known to mankind. Rich reds with a deft balance of fruit and structure work well, and whites need a broad palate with ample fruit, spice and body. Don’t forget rosé and sparkling wines which can bridge multiple flavours and solve all your wine pairing dilemmas. Each of these splendid wines make perfect pressies: they look swanky, have great pedigrees and you’ll look as good as the wine tastes.

Mas la Plana 2008 ($56.99)

Domaine Du Gros Noré Bandol Rosé 2012  ($32.50)

Ridge Three Valleys 2010 ($34.99)

Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino di Sardinia 2012 ($19.99)

Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut ($54.99)

Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon 2008Bandol Rose Domaine Du Gros Nore 2012Ridge Three Valleys 2011Argiolas Costamolino 2012Le Mesnil Blanc De Blancs Brut Champagne

Editors Note: You can find DJ Kearney’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

WineAlign Gift Certificates

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Give Cheer 2013; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

It’s that season again for gift giving and celebrations. For those who appreciate spirited gifts, liquor stores across Canada have stocked their shelves with gift packs and festive spirits. Canada’s newly minted small batch distilleries also have offerings ready wrapped. So here goes with some recommendations for those loved ones and friends with a taste for fine bottled pleasure.

In Ontario the LCBO’s Give Cheer promotion offers across the province a vast array of items including 180 gift packs. Their interactive gift finder is a useful tool for ideas. The BC Liquor Stores have 185 spirits on a limited time offer discount until December 28. Those in Quebec can check out the SAQ’s Cocktail page to add punch and pop to holiday celebrations.

Hine Homage Grand Cru Fine Champagne CognacWhiskies, brandy (especially Cognac) and liqueurs are some of the most seasonal products and for example experience in Ontario about 23 per cent of sales during the holiday period. Some categories show even more seasonality such as XO Cognac with 40 per cent of annual sales in November and December in Ontario. In this category I highly recommend Hine Homage Grand Cru, Rémy Martin XO and De Luze XO. Less pricey but equally impressive on the palate are Armagnacs such as Larressingle XO and De Montal 20 Year Old Vintage.

Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy some of the seasonal liqueurs released this Christmas. Kahlúa Gingerbread is a mix of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla with rum and coffee liqueur that gives winter flavours to a martini. Kahlúa Peppermint Mocha makes a hot chocolate or evening coffee a very festive affair.

Criollo Chocolate Raspberry TruffleCriollo Chocolate Sea Salted Caramel360 Double ChocolateCriollo, a premium chocolate liqueur made from the rare Criollo cocoa bean, was conceived of in Canada by two women managers at Corby Distillers to appeal to the younger female palate. Criollo Chocolate Raspberry Truffle is indeed reminiscent of a cocoa dusted raspberry flavoured truffle. Criollo Chocolate Sea Salted Caramel is sweet and syrupy at first and then the salt and buttery caramel kick in followed by a subtle chocolate finish.

For chocoholics, 360 Double Chocolate delivers the taste of milk and dark chocolate in a smooth, creamy vodka base.

Jack Daniel Distillery has launched a seasonal punch, Winter Jack, that’s whisky mixed with apple, cinnamon and clove. At just 15 percent alcohol its quite sweet and easy delivery is more for the non-whisky drinker’s pleasure.

Those with a taste for strong spirits with personality will surely enjoy the line up offered by Distell Spirits via agent PMA. Three Ships Whisky has an unusual provenance from South Africa and a robust nature. Master distiller Ian MacMillan delivers elegance and power with Deanston Virgin Oak Malt Whisky.

Aberlour A’bunadhDeanston Virgin Oak Highland Single Malt WhiskyAlso created by Ian MacMillan, peat enthusiasts will love Ledaig 10 Year Old Single Malt from Scotland’s Isle of Mull. His Tobermory 10 Year Old from the Isle of Mull has depth and delicacy. For scotch lovers with a he-man or cave woman bent, Aberlour A’bunadh matured only in sherry butts and bottled at cask strength (around 60%) is bold enough to put hairs on their chests. Favourites of mine for value and flavour are Highland Park 10 Year Old and Bowmore 12 Year Old. A recommended splurge in blended scotch is Johnnie Walker Platinum Label Private Blend 18 Years.

A terrific value at $39.95 is the El Dorado gift pack of El Dorado 12 Year Old Rum packaged with two rum snifters. The rich, full, toffee, molasses flavours of this rum are perfect for sipping by the fireplace, matched with Christmas cake or cookies.

Pisco SoldeicaUngava Canadian Premium GinIn the white spirits Pisco Soldeica from Peru is a distillation of fresh fermented quebranta grape juice that’s delicate and refined. Crystal Head has a special Rolling Stones Gift Pack for $99.95.

For those who want to give a Canada inspired gift, Ungava Canadian Premium Gin made by Domaine Pinnacle from indigenous Canadian botanicals of the arctic is amazing. Proof Luxury spirits packaged in a unique 500mL bottle are made using pristine Canadian Rocky mountain spring water and bottled at 42% for that extra edge. The Proof Whisky made from rye and wheat is intriguingly spiced. Liberty Distillery which opened its doors on Granville Island this November has launched with Truth Vodka and Railspur No. 1 White (unaged whisky). Their gin and aged whisky are coming soon. For the moment you’ll have to go to the distillery’s on-site retail store on Granville Island to buy.

Cheers and Happy Holidays to all.

Margaret Swaine

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

Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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WineAlign Gift Guide – BC Edition

20 Great Bottles 

Every month the BC critics at WineAlign share with you our favourite Best Bets – wines that ring up under $20 or so, are widely available and overly delicious. We take great delight in finding these value gems to drink ourselves, and share with you. But December fa-la-la’s signal celebratory holiday parties, festive galas, and seeking out that very special bottle for that very special person on your list. It’s true that special bottles aren’t always synonymous with expensive prices. However, this month we’ve thrown budget out the window in selecting our wines – ones that we would all be very happy to find under our tree. (hint hint Santa)

And if you want to embellish that gift for the wine lover on your list, limited advance tickets (at a discounted price) are on sale now for the 2014 Vancouver International Wine Festival. Canada’s premier wine show will mark its 36th anniversary of pairing wine, food and the performing arts from February 24 to March 2, 2014. It features 178 wineries from 14 countries pouring 1,750 wines at 54 events to a projected 23,000 attendees. Next year’s theme region is France, and the global focus is sparkling wine. For more information, visit hint again Santa – stocking stuffer)

The following wines are currently available in BC recommended and recently reviewed by our BC team, Rhys Pender (RP),DJ Kearney (DJK), Treve Ring (TR), and Anthony Gismondi (AG).  Here’s link to all 20 Great Bottles.  Follow the link to the full review and check out how many bottles are in stock at your nearest store.   For our Ontario friends, here’s the WineAlign Gift Guide – Ontario Edition .

WineAlign BC Critic Team

The Bubbles

Dom Pérignon By Jeff Koons 2004

Dom Pérignon 2004 ($231.88) (AG, TR)
Champagne, France
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ($69.95) (RP)
Champagne, France

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut ($169.99) (TR)
Champagne, France

Le Mesnil Blanc De Blancs Brut Champagne

Le Mesnil Blanc De Blancs Brut ($54.99) (DJK)
Champagne, France

The Whites

Meyer Family Vineyards Chardonnay Micro Cuvée Old Main Road Vineyard 2011

Meyer Family Vineyards Chardonnay Micro Cuvée Old Main Road Vineyard 2011 ($54.99) (AG)
Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

M. Chapoutier Chante Alouette Hermitage Blanc 2011

M. Chapoutier Chante Alouette Hermitage Blanc 2011 ($75.99) (TR)
Northern Rhone, France

Mission Hill Perpetua

Mission Hill Perpetua Osoyoos Vineyard Estate 2010 ($34.99) (DJK)
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada


The Reds

Penfolds Grange 2008

Penfolds Grange 2008 ($599.99) (RP)
South Australia, Australia

Altesino Brunello Di Montalcino 2008

Altesino Brunello Di Montalcino 2008 ($59.99) (AG)
Tuscany, Italy

Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses 2011

Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses 2011($54.99) (AG)
Priorat, Spain

Emiliana Coyam 2011

Emiliana Coyam 2011($29.99) (RP)
Colchagua, Chile

Ridge Three Valleys 2011

Ridge Three Valleys 2011 ($34.99) (DJK)
Sonoma County, California, U.S.A.

Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 2009

Ridge Monte Bello 2009($169.99) (RP)
Santa Cruz Mountains, California, U.S.A.

Rioja Reserva Vina Tondonia 2001

Bodegas R. López de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rioja Reserva 2001 ($49.99) (TR)
Rioja, Spain

Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($59.99) (DJK)
Penedes, Spain


The Fortifieds

Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 2011

Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 2011 ($134.99) (AG)
Douro Valley, Portugal

Nutty Solera Oloroso

Gonzales Byass N/V Nutty Solera Oloroso Sherry  ($17.99) (RP)
Jerez, Spain

Gonzalez Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Viejo

Gonzales Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Viejo 30 Year Old ($34.99) (TR)
Jerez, Spain

Graham's Twenty Year Old Tawny Port

Graham’s Twenty Year Old Tawny Port ($36.99) (DJK)
Douro Valley, Portugal


The Spirit

Hennessy Paradis Imperial

Hennessy Paradis Imperial ($2752.88) (TR)
Cognac, France

Here’s link to all 20 Great Bottles.

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