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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – April 30, 2016

Buyers’ Guides for the Pacific Northwest & Rosé, The State of Pinot Noir (and other varieties), and Prince Edward County
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report is overflowing with recommendations and reviews, a reflection of a busy past couple of weeks of tastings and trade seminars. The VINTAGES April 30th release features a lopsided Pacific Northwest selection with some excellent Oregon pinot noir. California is also heavily featured in this report, following on the heels of the hugely successful annual wine fair, that is, if the number of attendees is correlated to success.

Over 1,000 industry insiders not only showed up, but even lined up, to squeeze their way into to the Canadian Room at the Fairmont Royal York to revel and taste in its carnival-like atmosphere. The Wine Bible (revised edition 2015) author Karen MacNeil, also keynote speaker at the luncheon, launched the day with an excellent overview and memorable tasting of pinot noir representing over 800 kilometers of coastal Californian vineyards from the Anderson Valley to Santa Ynez. Click for this week’s feature article on the State of California pinot and reviews of some of the state’s top bottlings. Although the specific wines reviewed are as widely available as white unicorns, all of the producers on the list and their other cuvees are worth tracking down.

For more immediate gratification, see my full list of 18 recommended California wines – the state does more than just pinot noir, you know. These were whittled down from over 60 samples of currently available or incoming wines sent to the Media Room, where I hid for most of the day to avoid the California trade crush.

Small but mighty Austria likewise held a trade fair last week, with a trade seminar focused on the country’s vastly improved red wines, now serious contenders. The addition of local varieties such as Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent to the worldwide roster of worthwhile reds is like discovering a new exotic spice to add to your culinary repertoire. Also on display were the first releases of fresh whites from the superlative 2015 vintage, destined to become a classic. I’ll be highlighting some of the best in a mini Austrian Wine Buyer’s Guide to be posted at a later date.

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County in the City – The calm before the evening storm

The annual County in the City tasting brought the best of Prince Edward County to Toronto on the same day, featuring mostly a mix of the very promising 2015s, and the few drops of the 2014s that survived the yield-crippling (but paradoxically quality-improving) May frost. I was pleased to see that the established names continue to deliver exceptional wines, spurred on in part by increasing competition; a clutch of relative newcomers is knocking at the door. And while chardonnay and pinot noir are still the flagships, pinot gris is clearly another grape to watch in the County. See my mini PEC Buyers’ Guide for some of the best.

VINTAGES Preview

And read on for highlights of the VINTAGES April 30th release, which features a lopsided Pacific Northwest selection, with some excellent Oregon pinot noir, and a largely disappointing, commercial range from Washington State. British Columbia was inexplicably officially left out of the thematic (“Though no agreed boundary exists, a common conception [of the PNW] includes the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia”, according to Wikipedia), though there are two BC wines worth your attention, which I’ve added to my recommendations.

Mount Hood from the Dundee Hills-8781

Mount Hood from the Dundee Hills, Oregon

A range of rosés representing all major wine producing continents is timed perfectly for the long-awaited arrival of spring in Ontario. It’s a perfect illustration of why southern France remains the world hotspot for pink, that is, if you’re after premium dry, delicate but flavourful, purpose-made rosés. I’ve listed three excellent examples.

And since that’s more than enough for one report, I’ll throw the rest of my miscellaneous top picks, including a couple from the “Aussie Whites” mini-feature, into next week’s general Buyers’ Guide along with the rest of the WineAlign crü.

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: Oregon

Willakenzie Estate Gisèle Pinot Noir 2013 Soléna Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir 2012Pinot Noir has been planted in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since 1966, and has been the focus of the rapidly expanding industry ever since. Being at the edge of viable ripening is where pinot likes to be, and the grape’s propensity to magnify even small variations in micro climate and soil chemistry and structure make it perfectly suited to the Willamette’s cool climate and varied soils. Two fine value variations on the marine sedimentary soils known as “Willakenzie” found in the Yamhill-Carlton sub-AVA are on offer April 30th, both unusually refined for the often firmly tannic, black fruit flavoured wines most typical of these soils.

The Soléna 2012 Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir ($35.95) is a particularly classy wine. Very fragrant, pretty, concentrated, delivering verve, depth and fine-grained structure. Soléna is run by Laurent and Danielle Montalieu, who purchased the 80-acre Domaine Danielle Laurent in May of 2000 as their wedding gift to each other, planting six clones of pinot noir shortly after (also wedding gifts to one-another, offering another dimension to the vow ‘till death do us part’). Best 2016-2022.

Even lighter, more fragrant and delicate is the Willakenzie Estate 2013 Gisèle Pinot Noir ($36.95), also from Yamhill-Carlton, the entry-level blend from various estate parcels designed for early enjoyment. It’s crafted in the pale, oxidative style, filled with tart red fruit and beetroot, earth, and pot pourri flavours, while tannins are very light. You might call it a fragile pinot noir, though not in a negative sense, ready to drink now or hold short term at best. I do appreciate the delicate nature of this wine – not all reds need be dark and burly.

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: British Columbia

The Naramata Bench on the east side of Lake Okanagan, north of Penticton, is increasingly recognized as a sweet spot in the valley, improbably capable of delivering everything from fresh whites to serious reds, like the Laughing Stock 2013 Portfolio, BC VQA Okanagan Valley ($54.95). Have to say, I love their tag line: “We wake up every day with the constant motivation of not living up to our name”. You surely won’t be laughing while chewing on this intense, ripe, regionally accurate flagship Bordeaux blend (the full portfolio), complete with sage brush and ripe black fruit, measured but noted oak, and a wide range of spicy aromatics. Ambition is evident. Best 2016-2023.

Osoyoos in the southern Okanagan is the source of the Nk’mip 2013 Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay, BC VQA Okanagan Valley ($24.95). Pronounced kw-em kw-empt in the Osoyoos First Nation’s language (meaning ‘achieving excellence’), Qwam Qwmt is the top range from Nk’Mip. In this case a ripe, rich, resinous and wood-inflected chardonnay, with lots of polish and concentration in a classic west coast style – the kind that often sells for much more a few hundred miles further south.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2013 Nk'mip Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2013Hogue Genesis Meritage 2012 Joel Gott Riesling 2012

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: Washington State

As mentioned in the intro, the selection of Washington wines generally fails to excite, especially considering some of the terrific wines made now by over 800 wineries in the United State’s second largest wine producing state. For an example of the widely appealing, easy-drinking commercial style, try the Hogue 2012 Genesis Meritage, Columbia Valley ($18.95). It’s a modern and ripe, oak-inflected Bordeaux blend, medium-full bodied. It won’t change your life, but nobody will get hurt, either.

Washington does riesling quite well, arguably the state’s most successful white variety. The Joel Gott 2012 Riesling Columbia Valley ($19.95) is a perfectly serviceable example, crunchy and just off-dry, fresh and fragrant in a typical lime zest-inflected varietal idiom. Ready to enjoy.

Buyers’ Guide to Rosé

Côteaux Varois en Provence

Côteaux Varois en Provence – credit to: CIVP F.Millo

Rosé is a challenging category to understand. Different varieties, wildly varying climates and especially winemaking techniques conspire to broaden the stylistic field. You’ll find everything from deeply coloured, sweetened versions to pale and bone dry, all labeled simply as rosé. How are you to know what you’ll get without tasting? Sadly, you can’t. That is, unless you’re seeking the bone dry, serious, pale versions, which I admittedly do. By legal definition, the rosés of Provence (and its various appellations, mainly Côtes de Provence, Côteaux d’Aix en Provence Côteaux Varois) are pale and dry, and as reliable as they come.

Gabriel Meffre Saint Ferréol Tavel Rosé 2015 Château la Tour de L'évêque Rosé 2015 Saint Aix Rosé 2015There are two fine examples arriving on shelves on April 30th: Saint Aix 2015 Rosé, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, France ($22.95) is the finest. A serious, fragrant, flavourful, balanced and bone dry, fresh rosé here that’s dangerously drinkable but also offers a more sophisticated flare, and great length, too. Also excellent is the ever-reliable Château la Tour de l’Évêque 2015 Rosé, Côtes de Provence France ($19.95), a regular fixture on LCBO shelves. The 2015 is another classic Provençal example, though a touch riper and softer than the previous vintage, more advanced and ready to go with heaps of red fruit and herbs. Alcohol is a heady 13.5%, so while it’s infinitely drinkable, it’s no light, afternoon sipper to be sure.

A little further north, the southern Rhône appellation of Tavel is unique in being the only AOC in the Rhône Valley dedicated purely to rosé, also invariably dry. Tavel is famous for it’s powerful style, as evinced in the Gabriel Meffre 2015 Saint Ferréol Tavel Rosé, Rhône Valley ($19.95), replete with inviting liquorice-fennel seed and white pepper to spice up succulent red fruit.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

johnszabosignature

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES April 30, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All April 30th Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay 2012

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California: The State of Pinot Noir

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

“The quality of pinot noir has escalated dramatically in the last ten years”, asserts Karen MacNeil in her introduction to a tasting of thirteen California pinot noirs held last week to kick-off the annual California Wine Fair. The author of best selling The Wine Bible (fully revised in 2015) and chairman and creator of the program at The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, MacNeil is as well qualified as anyone to make the claim. She’s been a keen observer of the California wine industry since the 1970s, and as a native New Yorker, is unfettered by regional chauvinism. The wines she selects for the tasting amply prove the point.

And I couldn’t agree more with MacNeil’s assessment of the state of California pinot noir. The grape has undergone a radical makeover over the last decade, more than any other variety. Chardonnay, too, it can be said, has been given a 21st century facelift, slimmed down, toned up, and applied less makeup to be sure. But pinot’s evolution has been more complete, transforming from garish cabaret dancer to elegant ballerina (just keeping up the mixed metaphors) in under a generation.

Perhaps that’s because pinot noir had so much further to go in order to find a comfortable and natural regional expression, while great California chardonnay has a much longer and more robust history, with many protagonists. Once all but indistinguishable from merlot or even cabernet, California’s finest pinot noirs are now clearly recognizable as pinot noir, while still informed by the generous sun and thick fog that flood coastal vineyards and give rise to the state’s unique style.

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir-4982

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir

There are of course producers who found a confidently Californian expression many years ago – pinot pioneers Josh Jensen of Calera, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Burt Williams and Ed Selyem of Williams-Selyem spring to mind. But the list of people making memorable pinot noir now stretches into the dozens, drawing on vineyards spread over 800 kilometers from the Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Barbara down south. Pinot noir is California’s 5th most planted variety, and it finally has an expression all its own, in all of its infinite nuances. This is fantastic news for devotees of the grape.

The turning point for pinot noir came sometime around the turn of the millennium, when it was apparently recognized that pinot is in fact not cabernet, and that it needs to be farmed differently, in different areas, and treated with more deference in the winery. During the tasting, MacNeil shared the thoughts of one winemaker who makes both pinot noir and cabernet (a rarity). After spending some time away from the winery, he likened his cabernet to a Labrador retriever that jumps and slathers you in delight on your return, happy, undemanding, unchanged. Pinot noir, other the other hand, is more like the sullen, aloof cat, which eyes you suspiciously and rancorously as you walk in the door, as if to say: “where have you been?” before slinking off moodily into another corner. Compared to pinot noir, cabernet is a breeze to make, another reason why it has taken so long to master.

What Makes for Great California Pinot Noir?

As we taste, MacNeil, a consummate educator, asks us to consider some key points that distinguish great California pinot noir. She speaks of “corruptness”, a twist on a common theme discussed amongst pinot fanatics, where slight imperfections contribute to the appeal of a wine. “Pinot Noir needs a little corruptness, something dark, primordial”, she says. Indeed, beauty often resides in slight asymmetry; technical perfection has all the romance and excitement of differential calculus. MacNeil quickly points out that she’s not referring to outright flaws, just minor deviations.

Also critical to pinot greatness (and the greatness of any wine) is what Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton describes as ‘negative space’. As in visual arts, what isn’t there often helps to define what is, the visual equivalent of deafening silence, or the spaces that hang between the notes in a piece of music. To illustrate, MacNeil taps out a beat – a constant “rhythm” that great pinot should lay down as it washes across the palate, like a trusty metronome, with essential silence between the beats.

Texture is also critical, one of the pinot noir’s greatest assets. California’s pinots are most often softer and gentler – read less tannic – than red Burgundy, a feature, McNeil speculates, which arises from enlightened winemakers’ desires to get as far away as possible from cabernet. There is undoubtedly a suppleness and softness in California pinot that is rare to find elsewhere.

And one last hugely important point: understanding the difference between richness and concentration. These separate attributes are frequently confused, as MacNeil suggests. California wines are rarely short on concentration; that’s easy to achieve in a warm, sunny climate. Harvest your grapes after they start to shrivel into raisins and you’ll get plenty of concentration (and alcohol). But that’s not genuine flavor richness and certainly not complexity. MacNeil quotes famed wine importer Kermit Lynch: “turning up the music loud doesn’t make it any better.” Exaggerated concentration was a common flaw (and still is in some cases), but the best of the new generation have honest richness and depth and breadth of flavour, something that can’t be faked in the winery.

The road to pinot greatness requires of course vineyards in the right areas, a trial-and-error process that takes considerable time. But by now it has become clear where the most suitable pinot noir sites are found in California.

Three Top Regions to Consider

If I were forced to narrow down California’s 137 AVAs to just three essential regions for Pinot Noir, these would be the Sonoma Coast, the Sta. Rita Hills and the Anderson Valley. What all three have in common is their proximity to the Pacific and its heavy cooling effect felt in onshore vineyards. Fog, too, plays a mighty role in moderating climate and slowing ripening in all sites except those located above the fog line.

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Sonoma Coast

The Sonoma Coast is a large, sprawling AVA (the largest in Sonoma County), so to be more specific, I’m referring to what the locals call the “West Sonoma Coast” (or sometimes “far, true, real or extreme Sonoma Coast”), an unofficial distinction that carves out the coolest, westernmost 10% of the AVA. It runs roughly from Jenner, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, north to Annapolis, and from just a couple kilometers inland from the coast to no more than about 20 kilometers, except in the most southerly section where lower coastal hills allow cooling influence to seep a little further, to near Freestone, Occidental, Green Valley and Sebastopol. In short, it’s the coolest, rain and fog-soaked western margin of the county in the coastal hills, often within sight of the Pacific. And the distinction is taken seriously by those eager to distinguish themselves by the more sun-soaked vineyards of inland Sonoma Coast. There is in fact a West Sonoma Coast Vintners (WSCV) Association of some 40 vintners with vineyards in the West Sonoma Coast, or who source grapes from it. Most of the top names in Sonoma pinot make wines from this area.

A little further north in Mendocino County, the Anderson Valley is likewise a cool, heavily Pacific-moderated AVA, about 25 kilometers from end to end. The west end of the Anderson Valley, open directly to the ocean via the Navarro River valley (also known as “the deep end”) and reliably bathed in morning fog, is only a few kilometers from the Pacific. It’s classified as a Region I viticultural area, the coolest still viable for grape growing. Aside from pinot noir, Anderson Valley is also known for its chardonnay, riesling and gewürztraminer, and especially traditional method sparkling wine. Champagne house Roederer set up shop here.

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Hirsch Vineyards

Although nearly 800 kilometers further south, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County is another hot, cool spot for fine pinot. In California, as in Chile, its proximity to the ocean that principally defines climate, not latitude, and here a similar Pacific-exposed geography plays out to create cool, coastal growing conditions. The Sta. Rita Hills AVA could also have been called a valley, indeed one of the most clearly delineated transversal valleys (east-west) on the western coast of the Americas, thanks to tectonic plate movements that spun the coastal hills 90º clockwise, from parallel to perpendicular to the coast (see this brief video of plate motion). The resulting open end to the Pacific draws in cold air and fog with occasional ferocious intensity, and vineyards, especially those at the western end near Lompoc are indeed at the marginal edge of viable viticulture.

If you’re just starting your California pinot road trip, these would be my first three stops.

A Tasting of Cool California Pinots

The following wines were selected by Karen MacNeil to illustrate the current state of California pinot. To avoid repetitiveness in describing production techniques, virtually all wines were made from 10-20 year old vines, including multiple clones of pinot noir, fermented with wild yeasts, punched down by hand in open top fermenters, and aged in barrel but with minimal new oak. You might call it a recipe for the best.

(Ontario Agents are listed where available.)

Foursight Wines 2012 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

A relatively new, small family-run operation. Pale garnet colour. Delicately aromatic, tending towards the oxidative, more floral, faded fruit, leafy end of the spectrum. The palate is mid-weight, very soft and gentle, low tannin, with some baby fat and balanced acids, neither fat nor racy. Good length on light caramel wood notes. A really lovely style, for fans of delicate pinot. 91

Failla Wines 2013 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Eric Jordan has never studied winemaking; his degree is in Art History “Artistic intuition is hard to teach.”) Fruit comes from David Hirsch’s vineyards on the far Sonoma Coast, the pinot pioneer in the region with some parcels planted in the 1970s. This is saturated red-garnet, with pronounced fruity-cherry aromatics, like spiced morello cherry, with little obvious wood. The palate is firm and succulent-juicy, with great tension and sappy red fruit flavor, and very good length on lifted alcohol vapors. Great length – there’s considerable underlying power here. This will develop nicely over the next 2-3 years, and gain in complexity. 92

Talley Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Valley (The Vine Agency)

The Arroyo Grande AVA is about halfway between Mendocino and Los Angeles, historically a big fruit-growing area. Subdued aromatics, slightly dusty and medicinal, showing old wood and slight volatility. The palate is a little sharper, leaner, with less depth and richness of flavor. Simple and straightforward. 88

Sandford Winery 2013 La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills (Terlato International)

Richard Sandford is co-responsible for the first pinot noir plantings in Santa Barbara, the Sanford and Benedict vineyard planted in 1971. La Rinconada abuts the original site on a north-facing slope. This has quite a saturated red colour, pure, holding on to some ruby hints. The nose offers riper, darker fruit within the pinot spectrum, with a measure of dark spice though it’s not obviously woody. The palate is verging on full, firmly textured, with dusty, structure-giving tannins, marked acids, with impressive length on the finish. I find this appealingly salty, savoury in the most positive way. 93

Williams-Selyem 2013 Precious Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Tre Amici)

Fairly dark ruby colour, matched by a core of dark fruit, like spiced black cherry, with cola nut and dried twig-leafy notes, more brooding and introspective. Wood influence is more prominent here. The palate is surprisingly light and lithe, low in tannins, axed more on acids, with lingering, high-toned notes (pleasantly lifted VA), and tightly wound texture. An intriguing wine that hasn’t quite come together – give it another 2-3 years. 90

Laetitia Vineyard & Winey 2013 La Colline Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Vineyard

Made from a selection of ‘Martini clones’. Pure, limpid red with a light ruby rim. Rather simple but pleasant red-fruited pinot noir, lightly candied. The palate offers an impression of sweetness, with an intriguing herbal note that brings to mind mescal and also brings balance to otherwise very ripe fruit. Tannins are lightly grippy. This stays on the right side of balance. 89

Brewer-Clifton 2014 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills (Barrel Select)

From vineyards practically on sand dunes by the coast. Pure ruby-garnet red. Some stem inclusion (whole bunch) is evident from the marvelous aromatics, mixing fresh red and slightly darker fruit character with a measure of fresh earth, twiggy-leafy spice and more, including a touch of funk. The palate is rich and sappy, with fine flavor density and notable salinity, and great length – this has genuine concentration and a broad range of flavours. Fleshy, satisfying and dense, without excesses. Love the seaside saltiness. 94

McIntyre Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands

The warmest AVA on the table and it shows in this simple, medicinal cherry fruit-flavoured example, more power than finesse. The palate offers an impression of sweetness, with sweet oak notes. More of a plundering wine that rolls across the palate, focused on concentration rather than elegance. 89

Wrath Vineyards 2013 Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highland

Another warm(er) climate example, resulting in a broad, very ripe, dark fruit and spice-flavoured pinot, more languid on the palate, even fat, with a vague sweet impression. Sweet baking spice lingers. 89

Kosta Browne 2013 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Halpern)

Closed aromatically, revealing only oak-spiced, mostly red but very ripe fruit, and vanilla extract. The palate is thick and full, structured, more palate grabbing, but also slightly sweet and generous with alcohol. This is certainly less edgy and bright than typical far Sonoma Coast pinot, pushed into a more powerful style. A bit of a bruiser. 90

Radio-Coteau 2013 Savoy Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley (Cru Wine Merchants)

There’s some funk leading off on the nose, though the palate is lovely, lean and vigorous, energetic, focused on fresh red fruit, cran-cherry, neither shrill nor over-wrought. Acids are firm and driving, bolstering light but dusty, structure-giving tannins. Great length. Really like this. Perhaps not the most complex, but alive and tension-filled. 93

Au Bon Climate 2012 Knox Alexander Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

California pinot pioneer, and mentor to so many winemakers on the south-central coast, Jim Clendenen delivers the most old school style wine on the table. This 2012 Knox Alexander, named for his two children, is open and oxidative, earthy, old wood-driven, driven by acids, twiggy, with light but dusty-grippy tannins. A lovely, savoury style, infinitely drinkable, lighter but with serious flavor intensity. 92

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Valley (Authentic Wines & Spirits)

The darkest pinot on the table, with dramatic oak, fruit and intensity to match, a ‘back end’ wine that hits you on the finish. This is a big, ripe, intense, palate-gripping example with notable oak, and marked but ripe, supple tannins, abundant but not obtrusive. Better in 2-3 years in any case. For fans of power over finesse. 90

And just in case pinot is not your thing, here are 18 other recommended California wines from the fair: John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: California Wine Fair Highlights

johnszabosignature

John Szabo MS

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – March 5, 2016

The Napa Locomotive
By David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Another batch of 20 California wines hits the LCBO’s VINTAGES shelves March 5. This makes 78 California labels released by VINTAGES so far this year, feeding the thirsty beast that makes California wine the number one imported wine in Ontario, and most Canadian provinces for that matter, except Quebec where French wine reigns. One could lament that other regions deserve more play, but VINTAGES is only reacting to what sells. You can skip directly to the California picks by Sara d’Amato, Michael Godel and myself, or read on for my thoughts on California, and Napa in particular.

California Value Proposition

Regular readers may be aware I have issues with the price/quality ratio of California wine – a straight value proposition that has nothing to do with style. Well perhaps just a bit when I detect overt residual sugar and mochafication that distracts from varietal character, and makes the wine a beverage rather than a product of place.

What makes California a tough value proposition is that, without question, it has the highest average price of any region on the shelves, and this will only become more dramatic in the months ahead as stock purchased with our weakened loonie begin to hit the shelves. I suspect we will also see shrinkage of selection as California producers shy away from our market, especially at the higher end. Why struggle with high priced wines here when it’s so much easier elsewhere?

Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is the engine of California wine pricing. There are many regions in the Golden State where prices aren’t as high, and other varieties are cheaper as well. But “Napa Cab” has swept America and the globe as the New World’s number one prestige wine, creating a pricing up-thrust of San Andreas fault proportions for California wine in general.  Nor does it hurt of course that the California marketplace is one of the wealthiest on the planet.

Last week I returned to Napa Valley after a long hiatus and got right into the boiler room of the locomotive that drives California wine pricing. I attended the annual Premiere Napa Valley auction, at the invitation of Napa Valley Vintners Association. It was a chance to re-calibrate what is happening in California’s flagship region by at least doing some intensive tasting to better judge if all the fuss is warranted by what’s in the glass.

Napa Auction

The annual Auction is a showcase for the winemakers, each selecting a best barrel or three of this and that. Most of the 226 auction lots were barrels sold as futures from the hot, drought-stricken 2014 vintage, and many of the wines were certainly well concentrated and structured. A surprising number were 100% cabernet sauvignons, a statement that in this climate the king of Napa’s grapes can clearly stand on its own sturdy legs, without needing the Bordeaux-esque tweaking and coddling by blending merlot and cab franc. In fact more muscular malbec and petit verdot were just as likely to be the blending widgets.

The buzz in the spacious and hallowed halls of the Culinary Institute of America (one felt like one was in church) was about who bought what for how much. The lots were from five to twenty cases and by my rough math the average case price was about $1500 (probably higher). The auction raised over $5 million dollars in three hours of live bidding, and a new e-bidding program.

For those who might want some sense of who is “hot” in Napa the following fetched the highest prices:  Memento Mori, Nine Suns, Realm Cellars, Rombauer Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards, TOR Kenward Family, Duckhorn Vineyards, Silver Oak Cellars and ZD Wines.

So who is buying these wines? Well doubtless some very wealthy folk, but with multiple case lots at play it was largely an audience of retailers and restaurateurs more so than individuals. There were only two successful Canadian buyers of which I am aware: Willow Park Wines that has several stores in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and Liquor Stores North America that owns the Liquor Depot and Liquor Barn chains in Alberta.

Out beyond the auction hall I got an even better perspective of Napa in 2016. The first shock was the growth of America’s most famous wine region, the wall-to-wall and up-the-wall vineyards that now encompass 43,000 acres on the valley floor and in five mountain appellations on either side of the valley. By comparison, all of Canada has about 30,000 acres.

There are over 500 members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, with 80% producing fewer than 10,000 cases. And 95% are family owned! Several of the 226 wineries in the auction were producing less than 1,000 cases, some less than 500. I can only assume that with Napa prices so high, many can actually afford to make a go of small volumes – selling direct to mailing lists and key restaurant clients and skipping all the marketing and middleman costs.

Napa’s Recent Vintages

So the critical mass is certainly apparent but what about the actual quality in the bottle? I tasted a number of great wines at the auction but there was so much hubbub it was very hard to focus. I fared much better the previous day at a well-executed blind tasting of the 2013, 2012 and 2011 vintages across 16 Napa wineries. These are the vintages on shelf or soon arriving in Canada, although few of the labels I encountered are available here.

Napa Blind Tasting

Held at the historic Charles Krug Winery on a misty Napa winter morning, I spent three hours cross-checking variation of the three years. And yes vintages do matter in Napa! I was so pleased to see the consistency of the different years vintage to vintage. We also tasted flights of wines from the 2006, 2001 and 1996 vintages and the vast majority were holding and maturing very well, another barometer of quality.

The other overall observation was that the wines had more finesse and structure than I expected – there were very few jammy, soft, sweetish and hottish wines. They were very classy, and the vast majority easily scored over 90 points. So there is qualitative substance, and as for pricing – well that is clearly set by how much and how many people are willing to pay.

I was very taken by the quality of the soon arriving 2013 vintage (one of the first in Ontario being the Frog’s Leap arriving March 5). In most cases I was scoring the 2013s a couple of points higher than 2012 or 2011. Typical of young wines many of the 2013s were aromatically reserved at this point. But they have impressive colour depth, body, concentration and tannin. Indeed it is the tannic structure combined with the fruit depth and purity that portends a long-lived vintage. They do have tension, and brilliance, and fine moderate to warm climate black fruit detailing.

The 2012s tended to be the most plush, fruity and approachable now. There was great hoopla and relief over 2012, the first of three drought year vintages after the greener 2011s. Ripeness had returned. But in tasting through the 2012s last week I kept feeling that they hang a bit heavy, and lack some elan and poise.

The lighter 2011s were engaging on two fronts. First, from a cooler, wetter year several were already starting to show some evolution – good complexity, integration and refinement of the tannin. And second, if you like and are accustomed to some cabernet greenness as I am – from years of tasting Bordeaux and Canadian reds – the 2011s showed more “classic” character. I thoroughly enjoyed many and did not find them “weaker”. They were more linear.

It was out beyond the decanters and tasting halls that the real allure of Napa was to be found, one that has infiltrated me every time I return. The scenery is stunning, from the sweep of the valley floor to the vineyards perched high in the five mountain appellations, which I visited on a gorgeous five hour Sunday drive. If one wants a sense of place in wine, Napa has got it.

Spring Mountain

And the people I met are as pleasant and down to earth as anywhere in the world. Restaurant service is superbly friendly and genuine. And at two Napa restaurants I encountered ‘Bring Your Own’ policies with zero corkage! That alone is testament to the strength of the wine market in the New World’s epicentre. And that alone is enough to endear any Canadian.

Here are some California picks from the March 5 release, which should hold you until the California Wine Fair touches down in Ottawa, Friday April 8 and Toronto, Monday April 11.

Buyers’ Guide to California Whites

Beringer Chardonnay 2014

Macrostie Chardonnay 2013

Kistler Mccrea Vineyard Chardonnay 2013Kistler 2013 McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Mountain ($120.95)
David Lawrason – Few California chardonnays crack the $100 mark, and when it happens one needs to look deep into the glass. What I found here, within the friendly ambiance, was a very generous, complex nose that weaves yellow fruits and flowers, hazelnut, lemongrass/conifer, gentle peat smoke and wet stone. It’s medium weight, very elegant, just a touch sweet on the palate, with a dry, stony finish. The focus and length are outstanding.
Michael Godel – Considered the most Chablis-like in the Kistler range from the eastern flank of Sonoma Mountain out of a rare mix of Sonoma volcanics and limestone. To my mind the McCrea Vineyard is the coolest climate Kistler, of gemstone and tart orchard fruit personality

Macrostie 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, California ($35.95)
Michael Godel – A true melting pot Chardonnay of Sonoma Coast origins. Vineyards involved include Sangiacomo and Champlin Creek (Carneros), Dutton and Martinelli (Russian River Valley) and Wildcat Mountain Vineyard (Petaluma Gap). Really defines then territory.
Sara d’Amato – A chardonnay that stands out in a release that features mostly creamy, full-bodied and oak-driven styles of times past. Although the palate offers creamy coconut and pineapple, there is a pleasant undercurrent of acidity that adds brightness and balance – a relatively fine value too!

Beringer 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($22.95)
David Lawrason – Although a touch sweet and obviously oaked I sensed some purity of fruit and genteel character here. This is generously flavoured yet refined chardonnay at a very acceptable price.

Buyers’ Guide to California Reds

Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Shafer 2013 MerlotShafer Merlot 2013, Napa Valley ($94.95)
David Lawrason – Doug Shafer and his wines hold sway in Napa. Everybody seems to love Shafer, but I think it comes down to a consistent sense of silk and purity in the wines themselves. This is a gorgeous merlot that I would drink nightly if it weren’t almost $100 a bottle. It has a lifted nose of currants, red plums, fresh herbs, lavender and a touch of pepper.
Sara d’Amato – A fine, age-worthy merlot, sleek and sophisticated. Like many of the wines in this feature, the alcohol is high and so it would benefit from a slight chill for best expression of the marvelous fruit and floral aromas.

Joseph Phelps 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($106.95)
David Lawrason – Another legendary Napa house that seems to deliver year and year out. This is beautifully rendered, fruity, elegant and finely-toned cabernet from the ripe 2012 vintage. All the classic cab and Napa elements are nicely layered. So smooth, dense and refined, with youthful tannin.
Sara d’Amato – A lovely vintage of this iconic cabernet sauvignon which is definitively Napa Valley.  Best to wait another 2-3 years for the muscular tannins to mellow and the fruit and oak to coalesce. If you are in no hurry, there is a decade or more of time yet to enjoy this monumental tour de force.

Frog’s Leap 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley ($83.95)
David Lawrason – One of the first 2013 cabs onto the market in Canada shows a deep colour and a fragrant, concentrated nose of red and blackcurrants, among other complexities. It’s medium-full bodied, fairly dense, vibrant, juicy and tannic, with excellent length. Cellar a bit.

Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir 2012

Jonata Todos 2011 RedJonata Todos Red 2011, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County ($79.95)
Sara d’Amato – This small, artisanal winery is the sister property to Napa’s Screaming Eagle and has had no shortage of critical praise. Vineyards are cared for using organic and biodynamic techniques and the resulting wines offer an abundance of character and impressive finesse. The 2011 blend is largely based on syrah with a peppery nose and kirsch-like flavours on the palate.
Michael Godel – Eighty dollars is not exactly pocket change but a scant few California peers compare at the price. Syrah leads a supporting cast of seven total grape varieties for a big, balanced and age-capable wine. Blending never tasted so worthy.

Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($26.95)
Michael Godel – Purposefully ripe, dark and warm Pinot Noir from winemaker Scott Kozel who firmly believes in growing the right grapes in the right places and not messing with the purest expression of those grapes. This is Pinot Noir with commercial appeal and the quality to stand behind the product.

Josh Cellars 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($17.00)
Sara d’Amato – Certainly the best value in this release, this generic California cabernet sauvignon is well balanced, mid-weight and with alcohol nicely in check. Expressive and aromatic with wide appeal.

Sommelier Fun & Fundraising

CAPS Team Canada FundrasierThe Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) Ontario chapter is hosting a fundraising event on Monday, February 29th to celebrate Canadian wine talent. Join Sara d’Amato, John Szabo, Bruce Wallner and other guest sommeliers at Terroni’s new event space on Adelaide. They have a fun event planned with a blind tasting challenge, raffle prizes, great wine and tasty treats. Tickets are only $40 ($30 for CAPS members) – all to support your Canadian wine community. This event is open to the trade and the public. Hope to see you there. (You can find more info here: https://teamcanadacaps2016.eventbrite.ca)

And that’s a wrap for this week. John Szabo returns from Italy next week just in time to discuss the Brunello contingent on this release, along with other picks.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES March 5, 2016

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael Godel’s Picks
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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California Dreamin’

Hors des sentiers battus
par Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau

J’arrive de Californie. Plus précisément, des régions de Napa et de Sonoma. Cela faisait bien trois ou quatre fois que je m’y rendais depuis les années 1990. Premier constat, vite comme ça, sans même compulser mon calepin de notes : Napa toujours aussi impressionnante, aussi prestigieuse, mais ô combien la région juste à l’ouest a le don de faire résonner des cordes sensibles…

Les paysages (souvent vallonnés), l’atmosphère (plus conviviale, moins solennelle) et bien sûr aussi les vins (plus nerveux, plus hop-la-vie), tout fait de ce dernier endroit, Sonoma, une destination de choix — qu’on se rende là-bas ou qu’on doive se contenter de flâner dans les allées de la SAQ.

Le Golden State, comme on appelle aussi cet État plus peuplé que le Canada, ne se limite bien sûr pas à ces deux régions, sur le plan viticole. Mais elles demeurent les plus connues. Surtout Napa.

Marc Chapleau - Rockpile - Sonoma

Dans la sous-région de Rockpile, tout au nord du comté de Sonoma

Napa, c’est la vedette, c’est quatre pour cent de la production de l’État en volume, mais quelque chose comme 25 pour cent en valeur. La faute, pour ainsi dire, à ces cabernets-cultes qui ont propulsé la région au firmament — et au premier chef Château Montelena, récompensé lors du fameux Jugement de Paris, en 1976. Napa c’est bien sûr aussi Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Harlan Estate, Groth, Dominus et tutti quanti.

Le revers de cette renommée, pour le consommateur s’entend, c’est que les prix sont à l’avenant. Les meilleurs vins de la Napa coûtent la peau des fesses. Si on peut se les offrir, ou si on carbure à la contemplation des étiquettes, on n’a pas à chercher longtemps : la qualité est de fait élevée, et les vins, ai-je pu constater lors de mon séjour, sont moins boisés, moins baraqués et moins démesurés que par le passé. (À moins que ce ne soit les autres rouges du monde, ceux de Bordeaux notamment, qui ont pris tellement de coffre (lire : d’alcool) depuis une quinzaine d’années que les méchants Cabs californiens, en comparaison, ne sont plus les éléphants dans le magasin de porcelaine.)

Marc Chapleau - Iron Horse

Iron Horse, dans la sous-région de Green Valley, Sonoma, produit de très bons mousseux.

Pendant ce temps, dans Sonoma…

Sonoma, elle, se chauffe d’un tout autre bois. Au propre comme au figuré. Ses vins, dans l’ensemble, climat souvent plus frais aidant, sont plus nerveux, plus acidulés — et ainsi plus conformes au goût de beaucoup de Québécois, reconnus pour avoir un palais plus français, formaté pour composer avec la vivacité et même l’amertume. (Quoique des bibittes sucrées californiennes comme le Ménage à Trois ou l’Apothic Red cartonnent sur notre marché, plongeant les connaisseurs d’ici dans la plus grande perplexité…)

Le paysage est différent, également, on l’a dit d’entrée de jeu — bien qu’en toute justice, la Napa voisine ne se limite pas au plancher de la vallée, au fameux Valley Floor. Pour preuve, le montagneux et impressionnant secteur de Atlas Peak, où est notamment implantée la maison toscane Antinori avec sa winery Antica.

Sonoma, c’est pour l’essentiel la vaste appellation régionale Sonoma County, qui comprend des sous-régions comme Sonoma Coast, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley et aussi Rockpile, tout au nord, que nous avons découverte à la fin de notre séjour avec les excellents vins de Mauritson, à la fois corsés et rafraîchissants, qui n’ont sauf erreur pas encore fait leur chemin jusqu’au Québec.

Marc Chapleau - Napa

Dans Napa, la ville, des cottages jumelés invitants…

Pour autant, tout ce qui provient de Sonoma n’est pas à acheter les yeux fermés, loin de là. Le bémol le plus fréquent, et cela vaut également pour plusieurs des vins de la Napa que nous avons pu goûter, c’est un usage parfois intempestif du bois, qui se traduit par des notes de caramel, de butterscotch par exemple dans les chardonnays, et par des arômes de vanille doublés de tannins plutôt asséchants, dans les rouges.

Mais encore une fois, comparée à ce que j’ai pu goûter personnellement sur place lors de mes précédents voyages, l’offre californienne se rapproche de plus en plus des exigences de nos palais québécois, on a envie de boire plus qu’un verre, la fraîcheur est souvent au rendez-vous.

Maintenant, il y a bien entendu la question du taux de change et des prix possiblement appelés à monter…

Mais ça, c’est une autre histoire.

Goutte-à-goutte

La vie après le « F’ing Merlot » du protagoniste de Sideways : Si Miles, le personnage en question, avait plutôt raison à l’époque de décrier ce cépage, on trouve de plus en plus d’excellents Merlots en Californie et nommément dans la Napa, pas du tout caricaturaux.

Le cas particulier de Carneros : cette région a un pied dans la Napa et l’autre dans Sonoma. On y produit notamment de bons mousseux et de bons pinots noirs.

Les cuves en forme d’oeuf et la macération préfermentaire à froid : inutiles, selon Daniel Baron, oenologue chez Silver Oaks, dans Napa, après avoir longtemps été avec Dominus. Au sujet de cette dernière opération, l’oenologue prétend en substance que tout ce qu’il y a de bon à extraire des raisins l’est de toute manière à l’étape de la fermentation elle-même, à chaud donc.

Il n’y a pas vraiment de mauvais millésimes en Californie, comme il peut y en avoir, par exemple, en France. Le climat est non seulement relativement chaud, il est aussi plutôt constant. Exemple : de mai à octobre, année après année, il ne tombe pratiquement pas une goutte de pluie. Qui dit mieux ?

Le chardonnay, le cabernet-sauvignon et le merlot demeurent les plus plantés, en Californie. Mais on compte tout de même plus de 100 cépages cultivés. Il y a entre autres ici et là de belles syrahs et de bons viogniers, pas du tout à dédaigner.

Expérience surréaliste chez Raymond Vineyards — Ce domaine de Napa Valley, propriété de la maison française Boisset, est en biodynamie, cependant que ses chais et installations, bizarrement décorés sur le thème de la fête, évoquaient la semaine dernière la licence, voire la luxure. Mannequins coquins, vidéos suggestives, ambiance de maison close : n’eût été les deux consoeurs qui m’accompagnaient et qui ont été bouches bées elles aussi, j’aurais pu croire que c’était encore une fois mon côté prude et low profile qui me jouait un tour…

~

À boire, aubergiste !

Quelques bons vins californiens, d’abord, pour rester dans le ton.

Cabernet Sauvignon Innisfree Napa Valley 2012 — L’exception qui confirme la règle, ce rouge de la Napa se vend « seulement » 42 $… Une belle matière en bouche et un boisé appuyé, mais sans que cela n’engendre de déséquilibre ni n’assèche le vin. Prêt à boire, mais se conservera encore sans problème trois ou quatre ans.

Chardonnay Morning Fog Wente 2014 — Typique chardonnay californien, vanillé et fruité tant au nez qu’en bouche. La fraîcheur est là cependant, ce n’est pas lourd, tout typé Nouveau Monde que ce soit.

Le Cigare Volant Bonny Doon 2010 — De la complexité sur le plan aromatique, et à peine si j’ai agité le verre. La cerise, le poivre, quelque chose qui rappelle la pâtisserie, caractère fondu et à point.

Innisfree Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2014 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2010 Birichino Besson Grenache Vineyard Vigne Centenaire 2013 Raymond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

Grenache Besson Vieilles Vignes Birichino 2013 — Un bon grenache californien, assez corsé, généreux, avec une bonne masse de fruit et une indiscutable fraîcheur. Très réussi ! Et à bon prix.

Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Rutherford 2011 — Pas donné (87 $, exclusivité SAQ Signature), mais très sérieux, à la fois savoureux et nerveux, puissant et tonique. Le boisé est pour l’heure prononcé, et chocolaté, mais la concentration est là, qui contrebalance cette composante. Un très beau cabernet californien.

Puis ce rouge portugais, le Van Zellers Douro 2013, à la fois généreux, d’une belle fraîcheur et plutôt élégant. Du Rhône Nord, le Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2012 comblera tous les amateurs de syrah bien enveloppée, tandis que le Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2011 est à la fois riche et juteux, boisé et bien goûteux.

Van Zellers Douro 2013 E. Guigal Crozes Hermitage 2012 Marqués De Riscal Reserva 2011

Marc

Note de la rédaction: vous pouvez lire les commentaires de dégustation complets en cliquant sur les noms de vins, les photos de bouteilles ou les liens mis en surbrillance. Les abonnés payants à Chacun son vin ont accès à toutes les critiques dès leur mise en ligne. Les utilisateurs inscrits doivent attendre 60 jours après leur parution pour les lire. L’adhésion a ses privilèges ; parmi ceux-ci, un accès direct à de grands vins!


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Castello Di Gabbiano Riserva Chianti Classico 2012

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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Sept 5, Part One

Fudging Sweetness: Notes from the New World
By David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Without VINTAGES having a specific theme for the Sept 5 catalogue, we have decided to create our own themes for this release.  I make some New World recommendations this week, while John will lead off with European wines next week. That sounded like a straightforward assignment until I came to actually search for my best buy values. While I found some excellent whites, I discovered that there was only one New World red that makes the cut – the good ole’ Faithful Hound from South Africa. The dearth of value picks is partially explained by the fact there are no Australian reds being released, which is very odd. As well, there are only a handful of South American and South African reds. But the real reason for the absence of New World red values rests squarely on the strong core of American wines.

There are 15 American reds on the release – from California, Oregon and Washington. And there are some excellent wines, which Sara has pointed out. But none make my value cut because their prices are high (perhaps thanks to the weak Canadian dollar) and in many cases their quality suffers because of excessive sweetness.

Sweetness in lower priced/commercial American reds is nothing new. Most California reds on the LCBO’s general list have some perceptible sweetness. But I am discouraged that it is creeping into more expensive wines, and moving from California into Washington, in particular, and even into Oregon’s pinot noirs. Let alone into other countries.

It is obvious that American consumers, and many Canadian consumers for that matter, like sweet reds. They sell very well. I have always believed in the idea that ‘there is no wrong or right about what wines you like’; but as a critic who is supposed to be providing an objectively derived opinion on quality, it’s clear to me that excessive sweetness lowers quality – just as excessive alcohol, acidity or tannin lowers quality. It is a question of imbalance, of sweetness making the wines too thick, soft and soupy. They miss that key element of refreshment that underlies all great table wines and makes any wine “drinkable” through more than a few sips. It can also dumb down or mask varietal and regional expression.

It really is a matter of how sweet is sweet on a wine by wine basis. I am in the lucky position of being able to examine this wine by wine, but most consumers are not. There is usually no label indication that there is sweetness/sugar in red wines; one has to read into code words on back labels like ‘smooth’, ‘velvety’ and ‘fruity”. Why isn’t the industry brave and honest enough to call them what they are – sweet reds? Because the industry knows people like sweetness but would rather be perceived to be drinking dry (perhaps because we know a balanced dry wine is better?).

Eleven of the 15 American wines in VINTAGES catalogue are categorized on the LCBO’s official Perceived Sweetness Scale as D or Dry. The other four are categorized as Extra Dry. Which I guess means that Dry doesn’t really mean dry. In any event, in 13 of the 15 reds – including those labeled as Extra Dry – I perceived some sweetness – from the egregious sweetness of Conundrum, to more subtle sweetness in a wine like the very good Hess Select Cabernet (at $24.95 the only one to come close to being recommended on value). The two wines that taste clearly dry are the great Ridge 2012 Montebello ($190) and Grgich Hills 2012 Zinfandel ($49.95), but neither are good value. The LCBO often lists the actual grams of sugar per litre on their shelf tags and on their website, if you want to dig a little deeper.

Here are our picks:

California and New World Reds

Chateau Montelena 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, ($70.95)
Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 2012 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2012Sara d’Amato – Although this traditional beauty has seen a considerable increase in price over the past year, it has not faltered in its characteristic refinement and elegance. This very old world style evokes the delicacy of the wines of Margaux on Bordeaux’s left bank. If you’re thinking along this vein then the price might seem just right.

Ridge Vineyards 2012 Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, California, ($190.95)
Sara d’Amato – There is no great value here but Ridge’s Monte Bello site, located in the upper elevations of the Santa Cruz Mountains, consistently produces stunning results. Its cooler site gives the wine unusual elegance, a distinctly mineral component and a savory tartness that provides both energy to the palate and great potential longevity.

Hess Select 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino/Lake/Napa Counties, California, ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – This the best value of the Californians in this VINTAGES release and a consumer favourite. I especially appreciated the honesty, generosity and the dry, un-manipulated feel of this solid find.

The Hilt 2012 The Vanguard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, California, ($64.95)
Swartland Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound 2012 The Hilt The Vanguard Pinot Noir 2012Sara d’Amato – Santa Rita Hills is a very special place for cool climate varietals, in particular, pinot noir. The vineyards are in relative close proximity to the ocean that blows in cool breezes and sweeping fog. This climatic influence gives the grapes of this southerly region freshness and delicacy. Dried leaf, musk and peppery spice enhance the juicy cherry fruit on the palate of this old world inspired but distinctly southern Californian pinot noir.

Mulderbosch 2012 Faithful Hound, Western Cape, South Africa ($20.95)
David Lawrason – This is a very impressive, dense and complex blend of six Bordeaux varieties with cab sauv and franc adding up to 50%. It is certainly ripe but it has impressive tension, complexity and depth at this price; with some Cape granitic minerality and herbaceousness. A classic example of the Old World-New World yin & yang of many South African reds.

Swartland Winery 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, South Africa($12.95)
Sara d’Amato – Who doesn’t love the combination of cheap and delicious? I can’t imagine that this will last long on the shelves so be sure to pick up in multiples this clean, natural feeling, and well-made Bordeaux blend from a winery known for their extensive bush vine plantings.

Ontario & New World Whites

Cave Spring 2013 Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($15.95)

Flat Rock 2013 Riesling

Hidden Bench Chardonnay 2013 Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2013David Lawrason – This is a fine vintage of one of Niagara’s best on-going examples of this distinctively aromatic chardonnay clone. Expect fairly generous floral, lemongrass, lychee-melon and anise on the nose. It’s medium bodied, well-balanced, warm and quite powerful – a great choice for a late summer garden dinner.
Sara d’Amato – Chardonnay musqué is a clone that gives a unique flavour profile to the resulting wine of flowery muscat. This light and fresh example delivers lovely tension from vibrant acids and an elegant mineral component. Drink up – this might just make summer last a little longer!

Hidden Bench 2013 Chardonnay, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($28.95)
David Lawrason – For the past seven vintages Hidden Bench’s “basic non-single vineyard chardonnay” has achieved a 90-point WineAlign rating. This could be the best yet, from a great white wine vintage in Niagara. It is textbook premium Niagara chardonnay – very refined, solid and complex with the ability to age. It has become too easy perhaps to call chardonnay like this Burgundian; but it truly does have a core and elegance mindful of a fine example from the key villages of the Cote de Beaune.

Flat Rock 2014 Riesling, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($16.95)
David Lawrason – A stunning riesling and a heck of a good deal – this tense, nervy, mid-weight style delivers tingling vibrancy to the palate which balances its just off-dry character. One of my favourite vintages yet of this consistently good quality find.

Henry Of Pelham 2013 Estate Chardonnay, Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95)
KWV The Mentors Chenin Blanc 2014 Te Whare Ra Toru 2014 Henry of Pelham Estate Chardonnay 2013David Lawrason – Yet another lovely and nicely priced 2013 Niagara chardonnay! It is silky yet poised with well integrated, subtle and complex flavours of ripe yellow pear, butter, almond, toast and vanilla cream. It will equally comfortable as a sipping style, or with grilled white meat dished.

Te Whare Ra 2014 Toru, Marlborough, New Zealand ($24.95)
David Lawrason – I am not a big fan of aromatic blended whites. Most of them are toss offs to use up spare batches of cheaper wine. So you might at first glance think this rather expensive for a blend. But there is a difference here. It is an organically grown, single vineyard blend of three varieties – gewürztraminer, riesling and pinot gris – that have been co-fermented (not combined after the fact). So not only is it fragrant and well balanced, it has a real sense of integration and completeness.

KWV 2014 The Mentors Chenin Blanc, Paarl, South Africa ($29.95)
David Lawrason – The Mentor’s series are the top wines in the KWV range – changing from year to year, but always sourced from the best older vine sites in this large company’s portfolio of vineyards. This oaked chenin shows great power, depth and exotic, very spicy flavours, right down to a sense of minerality on the finish.
That’s a wrap for this week. If you are reading this over the weekend of August 29 to 31 think of us as at the World Wine Awards of Canada where we tasting through an international selection of wines available somewhere in the country. All to keep you abreast of what’s new and what’s good in more affordable wines.

Cheers
David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES Sept 5, 2015
Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Squealing Pig Sauvignon Blanc 2014

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Season 5, Table 14 – The Grand Finale of “So, You Think you Know Wine?”

Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
(aka “Surf’s up on Meat Beach”)

Welcome to Table 14, the Grande Finale of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”

After weeks of battling for position and points, everything comes down to the final wine. Finalists John Szabo MS, Sara d’Amato and William Predhomme face-off for all the glory with their own compelling arguments as to what’s in the glass. Tune in to see who gets it right and, as host Seán Cullen would say, who gets it more right.

Watch the Finale

Table 14 – The Finalists

Sara d’Amato

Sara is a Toronto-based wine consultant, sommelier, wine critic and principal partner with WineAlign. She has worked in cellars both in Niagara and in France, as Sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel and at the Platinum Club of the Air Canada Centre. She is also a contributor to Chatelaine magazine. Sara is the first and only woman to have won the Grand Award at the prestigious Wine Tasting Challenge.

Sara d'Amato

John Szabo, MS

John is Canada’s first Master Sommelier. He’s a partner and principal critic for WineAlign and authors the bi-monthly Vintages Buyer’s Guide. John is wine editor for Toronto’s CityBites Magazine and is the author of Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies. John also designs wine programs, teaches, speaks, judges and travels around the world, and to round out his experience and get closer to the land, he also owns a small vineyard in Eger, Hungary, the J&J Eger Wine Co. These days you’ll find him climbing volcanoes.

John 1

Will Predhomme

Will Predhomme is a prominent Canadian Professional Sommelier, beverage business development specialist, and industry liaison. Will’s experience reflects a career based in the beverage alcohol, hospitality, education, government and private sectors. For several years, he was the Senior Sommelier at Canoe Restaurant. Now he teaches WSET courses, is o-producer of Ontario and Oregon-made wines, host of The Globe & Mail Wine Basics videos, and is Managing Director of Predhomme Market Insights. He is an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and in 2010 he won the title of Best Ontario Sommelier.

will

Watch the Finale

The Scoring

The scoring on each wine remains similar to past seasons with points for Variety, Country, Region, Appellation, Vintage and Price.

Variety:  3 points
Country, Region, Appellation:  up to 4 points
Vintage:  up to 2 points
Price (within 10% on either side): 1 point

Score Card:

Click on the score card below to see how the semi finalist and finalist were selected.

The Scorecard

 

Thank you for watching this fifth season of “So, You Think You Know Wine?” We hope that you found this new series entertaining and that you had as much fun watching as we did filming. As usual, please send your comments to feedback@winealign.com and feel free to share this video with your friends and family.

Previously on Season 5 of “So, You Think You Know Wine?”:

Table 1 – Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2013
Table 2 – Creekside Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Table 3 – Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Table 4 – The Grinder Pinotage 2013
Table 5 – Faustino VII Tempranillo 2012
Table 6 – Gnarly Head Pinot Noir 2012
Table 7 – Laroche Chablis St. Martin 2012
Table 8 – Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva 2010
Table 9 – Root: 1 Carmenère 2012
Table 10 – Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2012
Table 11 – Ogier Héritages Côtes Du Rhône 2012
Table 12 – [Semi Final #1] Sterling Chardonnay 2012
Table 13 – [Semi Final #2] Fontanafredda Barolo Nebbiolo 2010

For those of you new to our video series, “So, You Think You Know Wine?”, you can watch all previous seasons under the Videos tab.

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


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES March 21st – Part One

Icon Wines Demystified
By David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

“Icon comes from the Greek word eikenai, meaning ‘to seem or to be like.’ In certain religions, statues of religious figures are referred to as icons – because they are prayed to as if they were the thing they represent.” So goes one definition plumbed from the web.

So what do icon wines represent? We assume they are wines – often made in the image of Bordeaux from cabernet, merlot and their disciples – that have reached some awe-inspiring, mystic, spiritual pinnacle of perfection and grace. But often icon wines are simply the most expensive wines that a producer can get away with stuffing into an overly heavy bottle, in the hope that the consumer will be so besotted by the gravitas of it all that they won’t notice that the wine itself is only very good, not great.

South Americans, Americans and yes some Canadians are particularly fond of the term, and it’s all about hype. Which is certainly the case of the California wines that VINTAGES has chosen to call icons in its March 21st release, that leads up to the 36th annual California Wine Fairs in Ottawa April 10th and Toronto April 13. And the fact that some soar past $100 adds to their sense of gravitas. I am not saying most are not excellent wines; I have scored several 90+ (my threshold of excellence). But at $100 or more they should be jaw-droppingly outstanding at 95 points +, which they are not.

For many, my protest will not matter a fig. These wines will sell quickly because there are enough buyers with enough money who choose to pay more to assure they will get quality. And that reason is just fine. I only want to temper the expectations of those who might venture a pile of money on an icon and expect the moon, only to find out they are looking into the glare of a streetlight – hardly a celestial, spiritual or unique experience.

Below we focus on the California “icons” that actually come closest to delivering somewhere near greatness, 92 or 93 points. At the same time we put forward some Bordeaux on the same release that also deliver quality very nicely. Some are just as expensive as the Californians (but Bordeaux wines ironically are rarely called icon wines). And then we scatter in some true values as well for those who just want an honest bottle.

Just before we get there, I have another observation from this tasting that relates to vintage variation. The Californians include 2011s and 2012s, and there is quite a difference between the two years. The 2011s are less ripe, with more Bordeaux-like leanness and greenness but they do have terrific energy. The 2012s are riper, softer and frankly a bit understated and lacking some energy. They may open and rev up with more bottle age, but they fail to ignite at the moment. Over on the Bordeaux side, the 2011s are also of lighter stock. Not green necessarily but lacking some depth of flavour (length) for their price tag. While beside them, a clutch of minor, less expensive, good value 2010s show the class and structure of that great vintage.

California “Icons”

Cade 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($112.95)

Dominus 2011

Dominus Napanook 2011

Cade Cabernet Sauvignon 2011David Lawrason – Cade is a recent arrival on the slopes of Howell Mountain, an off-shoot of the famous Plumpjack Winery created in part by former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. The winemaker is Danielle Cyrot, a woman of French descent who has managed to bring considerable elegance and a complex weave to Howell Mountain fruit more commonly known to make blockbuster, masculine cabs. This contains non-estate fruit; the Cade Estate cab rings up at $300US at the winery.
John Szabo – If you’re going to spend big in Napa, spend it on a “mountain” wine like this one. The 21-acre Cade estate was established in 2005 high on Howell Mountain, and vines are farmed organically. The 2011 is a grand success for the vintage, no doubt in part to the vineyard being above the fog line and thus maximizing the benefits of the scarce sunlight. It’s a densely packed wine, as savoury as it is fruity, with the expected grip and firm dusty texture of hillside Napa wines, in need of another 4-6 years in the cellar. Best 2020-2030.
Sara d’Amato – Power and refinement are distinctive features of the volcanic, higher elevation plantings of cabernet on breezy Howell Mountain. The cooler 2011 vintage is surely responsible for the wine’s terrific acid structure, fine tannins and lovely purity of fruit – a real standout for collectors.

Dominus 2011, Napa Valley ($176.95)

David Lawrason – If fame is the foundation of icon-hood, storied Dominus is perhaps most deserving of icon status. I have often found Dominus rather simple and almost boring for the price it garners, but something in this vintage turned my expectations on their head. I immediately thought of a fine, traditionally made Bordeaux, perhaps because the cooler 2011 vintage has imparted some tension. Very nicely constructed and focused, with excellent to outstanding length.
Sara d’Amato – It is no surprise that some of the best wines in this feature come with a hefty price tag but here is one worthy of attention. This old world, cabernet-focused blend from the Bordelaise Moueix dynasty offers immediate appeal, huge structure and a wide breadth of flavours.

Dominus 2011 Napanook, Napa Valley, USA ($76.95)

John Szabo – Admittedly I loved the 2011 Dominus (above), but for pure value Napanook, the second wine of the estate, is the one to buy. It’s very nearly as good with its lovely and savoury, earthy and complex profile, firmly in the old world stylistic camp as Dominus has been from the start. Best 2015-2026

Ridge Three Valleys 2012

Ridge 2011 Estate Cabernet SauvignonRidge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Monte Bello Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($61.95)

John Szabo – Just about everything from Ridge is worth a look, and in the context of top California cabernet, this is an outright bargain. Forget what you’ve heard about the 2011 vintage – top producers like Ridge made some of the most compelling, balanced wines in the last two decades. This is all class, firm, succulent, zesty and ripe, still tightly wound and closed up, but this unquestionably has the balance and stuffing to evolve beautifully over the next 2-5 years. Best 2018-2030.
David Lawrason – Ridge is perched high on the crest of a mountain south of San Francisco – the Silicon Valley in view to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west. The wines have never lacked structure. In this cooler vintage you will indeed detect some greenness and firmness, but it is a cabernet-lovers cabernet. Excellent length.

Ridge 2012 Three Valleys, Sonoma County ($35.95)

Sara d’Amato – Only a warm California vintage can perfect fruit ripening like in this Sonoma zinfandel and carignan dominant blend. Ripe red fruit abounds on the palate featuring peppery spice along with refreshing notes of pine and menthol. Clean and succulent with a very authentic, un-manipulated feel.
John Szabo – A fine vintage for the Three Valleys, Ridge’s Zinfandel-led blend, with firm and honest, woolly tannins, a nice mix of ripe and sour fruit, red and black, along with a range of savoury wild herbs. Best 2015-2027.

Clos Pegase 2012 Mitsuko’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa Valley, ($29.95)

Calera Chardonnay Mt. Harlan 2013 Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay 2012Sara D’Amato – There is a real traditional California feel to this well-balanced and beautifully integrated chardonnay featuring a great deal of presence, ripened tree fruit, oily viscosity and creamy malolactic texture. Mitsuko’s Vineyard is a large, 365-acre site in the cooler climate of Los Carneros named after proprietor Jan Shrem’s wife. The site’s varying degrees of slope, of elevation and soil types create great diversity in the grapes harvested often resulting in rather complex and compelling wines.
John Szabo – Mitsuko’s Vineyard is a sprawling 365 acre parcel on the Napa side of the Los Carneros AVA with diverse soils and aspects, all of which builds complexity. This substantial chardonnay doesn’t sacrifice freshness despite ample richness, and while oak influence is abundant, there’s also impressive fruit extract to compensate. To be cellared another 2-3 years; best 2017-2022.

Calera 2013 Chardonnay Mt. Harlan, Central Coast, USA ($49.95)

John Szabo – This is a serious bottle of wine. The Mt. Harlan Chardonnay Vineyard was planted in 1984 on own roots (un-grafted) using cuttings from errant vines found among the pinot noir of Josh Jensen’s original vineyards. The site is naturally low yielding, which shows in this generously proportioned wine. There’s a real sense of chalky-minerality, and while wood is very marked for the moment, this will surely knit together beautifully in time. Best 2018-2025

Bordeaux

Château Pontet-Canet 2011, Pauillac 5eme Cru ($150.00)

David Lawrason – Riding a Parker 100pt rating the previous 2010 vintage of Pontet-Canet sold at VINTAGES last month for $300. So it’s decent of them to have cut the price by half for this less good vintage. (You won’t see Napa doing this). The 2011 remains a firm, reserved and well-built young Pauillac, but it does not have the depth or wow you may expect if this is your first brush with one of the most talked about properties of Bordeaux.
John Szabo – Pontet-Canet is perhaps the most progressive Château in Bordeaux. Alfred Tesseron converted to organic/biodynamic farming some years ago, and vineyards are worked by horse. Clay amphorae were introduced in 2012 in an effort to decrease wood influence – all things that would have seemed impossible a decade ago. The efforts have been worth it, for although ’11 was a challenging vintage, this wine is a marvel: explosive and concentrated, full, dense and rich – a real honest and solid mouthful of wine. Cellar at least 4-6 before opening, or hold a couple of decades. Best 2020-2035.

Château Malescot St. Exupéry 2011, Margaux, 3eme Cru ($89.85)

David Lawrason – This is a lovely blend very much in the Margaux vein; which to me is all about charm and refinement. The blend here is 50% cabernet sauvignon, 35% merlot, 10% cabernet franc and 5% petit verdot. A very fine effort in a lesser vintage.

Château Clerc Milon 2011, Pauillac, 5eme Cru ($89.85)

John Szabo – 2011 is a nicely polished, full but firm, succulent and vibrant vintage for Clerc Milon, perfect for enjoying while waiting for the 2009s and 2010s to come around. But don’t drink it right away – give it another 3-4 years to fully knit. This is classy wine, full stop. Best 2018-2031.

Château Pontet Canet 2011 Château Malescot St. Exupéry 2011 Château Clerc Milon 2011 Château Bel Air 2010 Les Charmes De Magnol 2010

Château Bel-Air 2010, Haut-Médoc ($28.95)

David Lawrason – For one bottle of Chateau Pontet-Canet you could buy five bottles of this firm, well structured mid-weight Medoc cabernet-based red – that I rated the same as Pontet-Canet in terms of quality. What a difference a vintage can make? And with five bottles you could open one to test drive then stick the rest into the cellar, for another ten years. It’s textbook Bordeaux.

Les Charmes De Magnol 2010, Médoc ($18.95)

David Lawrason – This is very good value – a nicely balanced, ripe and decently structured Bordeaux for under $20. It is a second label from the grand (and also large) Château Magnol, a showpiece property and hospitality centre just north of Bordeaux’s city limits.

Other Bordeaux-Styled Reds

Pondview Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2012

Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Chakana Estate Selection Red Blend 2012Chakana 2012 Estate Selection Red Blend, Mendoza, Argentina ($29.95)

David Lawrason – This is a fairly new winery based in Lujan de Cuyo, but focused on wines grown in stonier alluvial soils whether in Agrelo or in Altamira in the southern Uco Valley. Increasingly revered Chilean viticulturalist Pedro Parra has helped Chakana map its vineyards. The winemaking consultant is Italian Alberto Antonini, who also works his minimalist, terroir-first magic at Altos Los Hormigos. This compiles 60% malbec, 20% cabernet sauvignon and 20% syrah into a quite fragrant, savoury young red. It’s quite dense, elegant and refined.

Tahbilk 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria, Australia ($22.95)

David Lawrason – This is not a cabernet with gravitas, but it does have complexity, vitality and pretty good depth. It’s a bit more cool, curranty and spare than many Aussie reds, and I could drink a bottle with ease; especially around rack of lamb.

Pondview 2012 Cabernet Merlot Reserve, VQA Niagara Peninsula Canada ($18.95)

John Szabo – This is an enjoyable wine from Pondview, an honest and juicy, Bordeaux blend with sweet-tinged fruit and decent depth and structure. This should please fans of cool climate cabernet at the price. Best 2015-2022.

And that is a wrap for this edition. John leads off next week with the wines of Southwest France and other sundry picks from the March 21st release. Meantime also look forward as John and Sara d’Amato both report on this year’s Cuvée event for the Ontario Wine Report. I will be on holiday and travelling for the rest of March and will not be covering any of the April 4th release; but we have asked Michael Godel to offer some of his recommendations. Michael’s often lyrical reviews are fascinating, and he is in there tasting constantly – which to me is the pre-requisite to being a successful, objective critic.

Cheers,

David

From VINTAGES March 21, 2015:

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
John Szabo’s Smart Buys
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES February 21st – Part One

A Great Australian Vintage
by David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The most interesting aspect of VINTAGES feature on Australian wines on the February 21 release is that it is focused around a single vintage – 2012. This is a very welcome development because rarely in the past has VINTAGES talked about vintages in regions outside of Europe.

There is a deeply held view – perhaps even a cultural bias – within the Euro-centric wine establishment (in which, until now, I would have lumped the LCBO) that vintages don’t matter in the New World. Europe has been steeped for so long in the annual vintage assessment of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and perhaps Barolo, Tuscany and Rioja, that denial of vintage variation anywhere else is an off-handed way of saying that those wines cannot be as good or pedigreed, because, well, vintages don’t vary. That’s nonsense. Vintage variation occurs everywhere – no two years are ever the same. And this could be even more true now as erratic climate change sponsored events settle in. So it is high time that New World producers and pundits made much more of this variation so that we can all get the most out of experiencing their wines. Good on VINTAGES for swinging the bat this time out.

The cover of the VINTAGES magazine calls Australia’s 2012 “The Best Vintage in 20 Years”, but doesn’t quote any specific local sources. The claim does however line up with my experience in Australia in Jan 2014, where producers were falling over themselves in excitement. Part of this may have been a bit of a rebound reaction due to the fact that 2011 had been the wettest, coolest vintage in their lifetimes, with many wines showing some greenness. (Interestingly 2011 also produced many under-ripe reds in Chile, Argentina and California as well). But yes, as the magazine spells out on page 4, 2012 did indeed bring ideal conditions to Australia, a good balance of moisture and sunshine with moderated temperatures and no searing heat waves (whew!). Long and slow and even ripening is always the best formula for ripe and balanced wines, and if yields are also lower those wines should have better concentration. This was the case when a late spring frost lowered the yield in some areas.

The irony is that some of the wines in this release fail to make the case for the excellence of 2012. Mainly because the average $20 price point of wine landed in Canada is not going to deliver balance and depth as easily. Some are marketing driven brands attempting to adhere to a style rather than show the variation of place or vintage, and they are very ripe, high in alcohol and tending to confection. The examples I have highlighted below are essentially single-site wines that do begin to show the evenness and balance of this vintage. Above all Australia’s reds need tension and structure – that is the on-going struggle for quality in one of the world’s hottest regions.

Just before getting to my picks (which include some good buys from California), a note that Australia will be all the buzz later this month as the theme country of the Vancouver International Wine Festival which runs the week of February 20. Our B.C. Editor and recently appointed National Managing Editor Treve Ring has already published a two part perspective on Australia Today, that includes some of her picks from the hundreds that will be poured at the Festival, as well as wines she encountered in Australia recently that she “Wishes They Were Here”. She has also just edited and published a Valentine Day compendium of romantic picks from WineAligners in three provinces in Canada – all the while being in Argentina.

Australia

Heartland Directors' Cut Shiraz 2012

Yangarra 2012 ShirazYangarra Shiraz 2012, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($32.95)
David Lawrason – Once again a biodynamically grown wine tops my charts, its bio-ness being unbeknownst to me when I tasted it. This shiraz was grown at fairly high, cooler altitude near the South Lofty Ranges, which combined with balance of the vintage and healthy viticulture has given it real class.  The focus and length are excellent. Supple and balanced enough to drink now; should hold three years at least.

Heartland 2012 Directors’ Cut Shiraz, Langhorne Creek, South Australia ($35.95)
David Lawrason – Heartland is a project by highly regarded winemaker Ben Glaetzer and his team (which includes John Glaetzer who was the man behind the success of Wolf Blass in its formative years). Director’s Cut is 100% Langhorne Creek fruit – the same region that supplied the backbone of Wolf Blass’ award winning wines. There is a fair bit of oak showing here, but in the end this big shiraz pivots on good acidity and firm tannin. Impressive!

Bleasdale 2012 Mulberry Tree Cabernet Sauvignon, Langhorne Creek, South Australia ($17.95).
David Lawrason –  Cabernet Sauvignon is the staple variety of this small cooler, maritime region on Lake Alexandria a stone’s throw from the Southern Ocean. Bleasdale was founded in the 19th C but a new viticultural regime introduced late last decade has resulted in wines with good tension and structure. Not huge depth here, but just fine for the price. And it’s unmistakably cab.

Dutschke 2012 80 Block St. Jakobi Vineyard Merlot, Lyndoch, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($23.95)
David Lawrason – Varietally labelled merlot is rare in Australia, but this comes from one of the oldest plantings in Barossa. It struck me as particularly well composed and balanced merlot; all rather understated but quite delicious. As good merlot should be.

Penny’s Hill 2012 Cracking Black Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($22.95)
Sara d’Amato No, ‘cracking black’ does not, in fact, refer to shiraz’s distinctive notes of cracked black pepper but rather to the infertile, cracking, grey-black soil of the Bay of Biscay where this hand-picked shiraz is planted. This crackling soil severs the surplus root structure of the vines, lessening vigor and enhancing grape quality. As dynamic as the soil in which it is grown, this aromatic and compelling shiraz deserves attention.

Bleasdale Mulberry Tree Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Dutschke 80 Block St. Jakobi Vineyard Merlot 2012 Penny's Hill Cracking Black Shiraz 2012 Schild Estate GMS Fowles Stone Dwellers Shiraz 2012

Schild Estate 2012 Grenache Mourvèdre Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – The grenache in this “GMS” is delightfully dominant giving the wine a crunchy saline texture, beautiful floral notes and plump red plum. Inspired by the blends of the Southern Rhone, this old-world-meets-new style is highly engaging. A Category Champion at WineAlign’s 2014 World Wine Awards of Canada.

Fowles 2012 Stone Dwellers Shiraz, Strathbogie Ranges, Victoria ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Cooler climate Australia is home to some dynamite shiraz that is exuberantly peppery and shows plenty of restraint, most notably in the alcohol department. If you normally stay far away from Aussie shiraz, give this one a try.

California Reds

 

Hartley-Ostini 2013 Hitching Post Hometown Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($28.95)
David Lawrason – I have always been a fan of well-made California pinot for its sheer drinkability. The problem of course is that high alcohol, sweetness and oak too often overwhelm the fruit. This nifty example from the company that starred in the Academy Award nominated wine flick “Sideways” manages to stay in fruit first focus.  A delightful, heart on its sleeve pinot – kinda like the movie.

Melville Estate 2012 Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County ($49.95)
David Lawrason – And from the same region is southern California comes yet another intriguing pinot that goes for elegance and structure. Melville is a small estate-fruit only operation specializing in pinot. They have gone to the trouble of planting 16 different clones in an effort to build up complexity, and it works so well. Wonderful aromatics and silky texture.

Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Hometown Pinot Noir 2013 Melville Estate Pinot Noir 2012 Kunde Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Volker Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

 

Kunde Family 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley ($26.95)
David Lawrason – This does not have the depth and structure to hit 90 points, but it is an honest, fairly priced cabernet with typical blackcurrant fruit and just enough firmness to announce its cab-ness. Kunde is based on a large sustainably farmed property in the hills above the Valley of the Moon. I have been liking their recent offerings, and the value is peaking these days.

Volker Eisele 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($68.95)
David Lawrason – Collectors of California cabernet may want to make some room in the cellar for this powerful, complex well attenuated blend of cabernet and merlot (14%) grown in the Chiles Valley up in the eastern hills above Napa Valley. The Volker Eisele family has farmed the site organically for over 40 years. Aged 24 months in French oak, it has plenty of fruit support, cabernet complexity and excellent length.

And that’s it for this edition. Tune in next week as John Szabo leads off on the rest of this release with a look at Euro reds and a selection of whites.

Cheers,

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES Feb 21st release:

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

 

 

 

 

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Gourmet Games – October 2

Special Offer for WineAlign Members:  $15 Off the Ticket Price (Promo Code: WineAlign)

Join Azureau Wine Agency on Thursday, October 2, at the 2nd Gourmet Games to sample over 60 wines from 14 award-winning wineries from around the world.  Guest chefs from some of Toronto’s best restaurants will also conduct high concept cooking demonstrations as top sommeliers engage in a food/wine pairing competition designed to educate consumers on how wine professionals recommend enjoying wine.2014-09-11_14-00-50

“We invented the Gourmet Games as a fun way for consumers to get into the minds of top chefs and sommeliers and learn to think as they do,” says Dan Rabinovitch, President of Azureau Wine Agency. “No one is going to tell you a pairing is wrong, but our guests may learn something new about the magic that can occur when two sets of flavours and textures are combined. Of course, simply walking around and discovering new wines is also welcome at the Games.”

The Gourmet Games features world-class food & wine talent including Master of Ceremonies Bob Blumer of the Food Network, WineAlign’s Sara d’Amato (who will be moderating the Premium Experiences), Sommelier Zoltan Szabo, and chefs from perennial top Toronto restaurants Cava, George on Queen, and newcomer Cluny Bistro. Wineries from Spain, Italy, Argentina, California, Australia, South Africa, and Chile will be pouring wines that are available for order at the show or purchase at the LCBO.

Sara's New Pic_Sm

Sara d’Amato

Premium Experiences (moderated by Sommelier and WineAlign critic Sara d’Amato):

World Wine Bubbles, Exploring Non-Traditional Sparkling Wines 7-7:45 pm

The Winemaker Series by Alpha Crucis  8-8:45 pm

Vino & Smoke, Cigar and Wine Pairing with Mombacho Cigars  9-9:45 pm

Event Details:

Thursday, October 2, 2014
Location: Berkeley Church – 315 Queen St. East
Time:  6:30 to 10 pm
Tickets: $80 for General Admission/$25 for each Premium Experience

WineAlign Members receive $15.00 off ticket price – Use Promo Code: WineAlign

 Purchase Your Tickets Here

2014-09-11_14-12-26

Participating wineries include:

Bodegas Salentein/Callia – Argentina
Chalk Hill/Alpha Crucis – McLaren Vale, Australia
Armas de Guerra – Bierzo, Spain
Vega Sindoa – Navarra, Spain
Rioja Vega – Rioja, Spain
Casas del Bosque – Casablanca, Chile
Erste + Neue – Alto Adige, Italy
Antica Fratta – Franciacorta, Italy
Winery Exchange – California, USA
Bodega Rejadorada – Toro, Spain
Paca & Lola – Rias Baixas, Spain
Simonsig – Stellenbosch, South Africa

Click here for more information on the wineries and the wines they will be pouring.

About Berkeley Church:

berkeley-st-church1Built in 1871, The Berkeley Church has been transformed into Toronto’s most original event venue. Nowhere else will you find such a beautiful blend of traditional ambiance and modern decor. Details such as the original 17-foot stained glass windows, hard wood floors and Victorian Inspired bar makes the Berkeley Church a stunning escape from the ordinary. This location is accessible by TTC, taxi and Green P parking is available on all surrounding streets for responsible designated drivers.

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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 2nd – Part One

Pure California: 100+ Reviews of the Best of “New” California; The Icons of Napa Cabernet, and Sandhi, A Name to Know.
by John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The theme of the report this week is pure California, the focus of the VINTAGES August 2nd release, and David Lawrason and I list our top picks (with significant alignment). Next week David will lead coverage of Alsace, the Loire Valley, Greece, and the best of the rest along with my picks (Sara d’Amato is in the south of France conducting serious research). I’ve also included a couple of outstanding Santa Barbara chardonnays tasted at the i4c last week, and I’ve finally managed to publish close to 100 reviews from landmark California tastings held last October in San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma. Find the best pinot, chardonnay, Rhône blends and so much more on WineAlign; fans of California wine, and I know there are many of you, will want to track these down. But wait, there’s more – check out this report on the very best of the best Napa Cabernets. Read on for all the gold.

A California Wine Summit

Before we get into the top picks from the VINTAGES August 2nd release, those deeply into California wines may want to consider searching further afield. I’ve published nearly 100 of my top picks (mostly current releases) from an extraordinary set of tastings held last October in California. The “California Wine Summit” was organized and hosted by the Wine Institute of California for a select group of international journalists (WineAlign’s Anthony Gismondi also attended), with the aim of sharing the radical changes and developments that have occurred within the California wine industry over the last decade or so.

These extraordinary tastings were compiled and led by some of California’s most respected critics, authors and winemakers, including Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and his top chardonnays, Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, and her favorite Pinot Noirs, Patrick J. Comiskey, critic for Wine & Spirits magazine and terrific California blends, and a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of iconic Napa Valley cabernets led by master sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp. And those were just some of the formal tastings.

The New California Wine

Jon Bonné and his top Chardonnays, with Gerard Basset MS, MW, OBE

Jon Bonné and his top Chardonnays, with Gerard Basset MS, MW, OBE

Perhaps Jon Bonné has best captured the zeitgeist in his recently published book The New California Wine, which is “the untold story of the California wine industry: the young, innovative producers who are rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking; their quest to express the uniqueness of California terroir; and the continuing battle to move the state away from the overly technocratic, reactionary practices of its recent past.” Fans of California wine are well advised to grab a copy of this book – it’s an accurate synopsis of what’s going down in the Golden State.

No stones were left unturned during the summit as we tasted through every notable grape variety and wine style that the state has to offer over the course of a week, with detailed information, expert comparative analysis and historical perspective provided along the way by the folks who know it best. Only one tasting failed to shine: “California does value”, the one area where even the best of the new California often falls short. Value is of course relative, though with few exceptions, compelling sub-$20 (CAD) wines are few are far between in my view. The majority of entry-priced brands, at least those we find on shelves in Canada, prey on the human weakness for sugar. But once again, sales figures are in diametric opposition with me, so what do I know.

Dollars aside, the new California (as well as the California that’s so old it’s new again, and the California that never followed fashions of any kind) has an extraordinary offering of wines on shelves now. If you’ve turned away from California for whatever reason, I’d suggest you give Ontario’s most important foreign wine supplier another look.

Set your WineAlign search parameters to “California” and pick your favourite grape/style to see what’s on top. Be sure to check “show wines with zero inventory” for the full list, as some wines have yet to reach our shelves.

The Best of the Best of Napa Cabernet

I’ve also posted a blow-by-blow report of a tasting of iconic Napa cabernets, including all of the rarities – it was the sort of tasting one hardly ever reads about, let alone participates in. The notes were edited only for spelling, making it a more intimate and unadulterated view of the moment, including some impressions that surprised even me.

Buyer’s Guide for Vintages August 2nd 2014: California

White

Hahn S L H Estate Chardonnay 2012Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2012Alignment: Robert Mondavi 2012 Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley ($23.95)
John Szabo – One of the most reliable and consistent Fumé Blancs, not to mention the original, from California, Mondavi (and winemaker Geneviève Janssens) still leads the way and delivers wide pleasure at the right price. I like the balanced between tropical and orchard-citrus fruit, in an approachable, round and soft style. Best 2014-2018.
David Lawrason – In California’s Mediterranean climate it is difficult to make snappy, acid-driven sauvignon blanc. Robert Mondavi engineered a great alternative years ago by adding semillon and barrel ageing, and calling it Fume Blanc. It has been one of my favourite California whites ever since – uniquely spicy with intriguing green olive an evergreen notes.

Hahn 2012 S-L-H Estate Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County ($32.95). David Lawrason – Hahn has emerged as dominant player in Monterey with huge vineyards and polished fruit driven style of wines. This is unabashedly big, generous and fruit driven – as so many chards are in California – yet it retains a sense of composure

Red

AlignmentNapa Angel 2008 Aurelio’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($62.95)
John Szabo – Chilean vintner Aurelio Montes’ Napa project is a particularly dense and full cabernet sauvignon, with tightly knit dark fruit and chocolate flavours, unsurprisingly, similar in style to his top wines from Chile. This is mature and drinking well now. Best 2014-2022.
David Lawrason – If you detect a certain Chilean bloom and piquancy in this delicious, sensuous Napa cab it is due to the fact that it is made by Chilean Aurelio Montes (who makes some of grandest reds of Chile’s Colchagua Valley, including Purple Angel).  This is excellent, collectible an drinkable cabernet – complete, profound and deep.

Grgich Hills 2010 Estate Grown Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($48.95). John Szabo – Biodynamic estate Grgich Hills rarely disappoints with any of their wines, which remain, relatively speaking, fairly priced within the Napa Valley context. This is an unusually aristocratic version of zinfandel, with fruit so very lively and vibrant – a difficult thing to achieve with zin in the Napa Valley. Best 2014-2020.

Beringer 2007 Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Bancroft Ranch Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($79.95). John Szabo – The Bancroft Ranch wines are often among my favorites from the vast Beringer portfolio, which for me has more distinctive character than the (more expensive) Private Reserve, of which this cabernet is often a notable component. This 2007 has evolved nicely into a dusty-grippy, savoury and dark fruit flavoured wine with a nice streak of scorched earth and minerality from the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Best 2014-2020.

Seghesio 2012 Zinfandel Sonoma County, California ($29.95). David Lawrason – I am not at all happy about the sweetening and mocha-fication of California’s commercially priced zins. To rise above the soup you need to raise your price ceiling and focus on classic producers like Seghesio – a family with zin its veins for generations.

Montes Napa Angel Aurelio's Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Grgich Hills Estate Grown Zinfandel 2010 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Seghesio Zinfandel 2012

Sandhi: The California Wines You Want to Get to Know

It wasn’t my first exposure to the wines of Sandhi in Santa Barbara County – one, the Sandford and Benedict Vineyard bottling, had been selected by Jon Bonné for his tasting of top Chardonnays during the California Wine Summit. But it was a pleasure to sit and taste a few more wines with co-owner Rajat Parr during the i4c weekend in Niagara. Sandhi, which mean “collaboration” in Sanskrit, is a joint venture established in 2010 between Parr, then, and still, wine director of the Michael Mina restaurant group, partner in San Francisco’s landmark RN74 and one of the US’s most recognizable wine figures, Charles Bank, the former owner of Jonata and Screaming Eagle, and winemaker Sashi Mormann. The winery is focused on small lots of chardonnay and pinot noir from select vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County, particularly the cooler stretches of the AVA a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

I was delighted but not surprised to find that Parr, an outspoken advocate for balanced, moderate alcohol wines in his buying role for Mina, has upheld his position for his own production. The Sandhi wines are all about finesse and freshness, structure and balance, well articulated without attempting to replicate European wines- the fruit is still Californian, as it should be. Sandhi wines are available through the Trialto Wine Group across Canada, as are Parr’s other joint ventures, Domaine de La Côte, also in Santa Barbara (check out the excellent syrah), and Maison l’Orée in Burgundy.

Two to Try:

Sandhi 2012 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, California ($48.00). A vibrant, moderate alcohol, terroir-driven chardonnay. Flavours are in the ripe orchard and even lightly tropical spectrum, though this is all about the zesty acids and firm structure, including a pleasantly chalky, tacky mineral texture.

Sandhi 2011 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County, California ($78.00). A wine of serious depth and complexity off the charts; the balance is pitch-perfect, on the upper end of the intensity scale, with terrific length. Really top-notch stuff for current enjoyment or mid-term hold. Tasted July 2014.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES Aug 2nd:

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All Reviews

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