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Vintages Preview October 2nd Release – Aussie reds, Italy’s Big Guns and Thanksgiving Wines

Have you been Robbed of Real Thanksgiving? Here’s an Idea.
(Aussie reds, Italy’s Big Guns and Thanksgiving Wines)

John Szabo, MS

The October 2nd release is chalk full of good wines, just in time for Thanksgiving. But remind me again what are we giving thanks for? Ah yes, the harvest. If you’re feeling contemplative, pour a glass of the superb meditation wine from one of the last great iconoclasts, Giuseppe Quintarelli, the 2001 VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO SUPERIORE DOC $84.95, and come along.

 Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2001It would seem this quintessentially North American holiday is a relic of the past for most city dwellers, who, like me, are about as connected to the harvest as they are to the oil wells that ultimately fill their gas tanks. Ah! What it must have been like for early settlers to scrape by throughout the year, living off of meager seasonal offerings or preserves, with no mid-winter Peruvian asparagus, Mexican tomatoes or Argentine pears to see them through until the sun returned. By early summer, the hunger for something fresh, something different, the yearning for another colour to shatter the monochromatic monotony of the day-to day menu must have grown as intense, as urgent as thirst in the desert. And in the old world, no stranger to feast and famine, the nearly empty barrels of wine would by now have turned to a piquant, foul liquid redolent of dead fruit and vinegar. Oh the longing for a glass of fresh and cool nouveau wine!

And then, finally the end of summer would draw near, foretold by the massive, glowing harvest moon, promising the long-awaited time when the fields would finally offer up their sustenance un-begrudgingly: a sudden riot of flavours, textures, nutritional elements. It must have been a time of hard physical labor that seemed like no work at all, as every joyful harvester relished the certainty that each bead of sweat and each tired muscle fiber promised a banquet of unequaled proportions, when the community would gather to celebrate another successful year in the cycle of life and survival. How fine that pumpkin, how sweet that corn, how nourishing that turkey must have tasted!

D'angelo Aglianico Del Vulture 2006In a strange, even selfish way, especially as I sip the dense and brooding, volcanic 2006 D’ANGELO AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE DOC $18.95, I feel robbed of that intense delight, the inimitable pleasure that can derive only from acute privation followed by temporary satisfaction, made all the more sweet by the awareness of yet more privations ahead. The super-abundance of North American society steals away that pleasure from us, at least from me, a guy who spends most of his life eating and drinking. It’s embarrassing. Thanksgiving becomes yet another gathering, another big meal, another glass of great wine, another cause for stress for the calorie and blood-pressure-conscious. There’s arguably equal monotony in excellence as there is in mediocrity; just look at all of those unhappy individuals who want for nothing yet still crave more. Instead of easing hunger and feeding our families the greatest concern becomes finding the ideal wine match for turkey, or cranberry sauce, or whatever you traditionally serve at your Thanksgiving table. What a thought!

So there. I’ve just resolved to forego wine, in order to restore, even if artificially, what good fortune has stripped from me. A day without wine. I can do it. Just one last glass of the fine value, textbook, 2009 ROUX PÈRE & FILS MÂCON-VILLAGES BLANC AC $13.95. Then after a pause I can get back to the serious enjoyment of eating and drinking and giving thanks.

Roux Père & Fils Mâcon Villages Blanc 2009

I’ll look forward to harvest table loaded with a huge range of flavours, textures, condiments and secret family recipes. I won’t stress about which wine, which dish, which guest, which hour. My approach will be to open a bunch of wines, as varied as the spread, and share with my community. But it won’t be just any haphazard collection of wines. This will be a celebration of once-a-year wines. I can’t think of a better time to have something that you don’t have any other time of the year – a real treat. They will be wines that remind me of honest, hard labor, traditional values, of tradition itself, made by hard-working wine growers who’s lively-hood and that of their families depend on the success of a once-a-year harvest event. They will also be wines from unique places, where great wine is made only because nature intended it to be so, not because we’ve figured out how to game the system.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006In other words, my special Thanksgiving offerings won’t include wines from irrigated deserts or made from modified vines imported for industrial production. They won’t be wines that taste like they could come from anywhere, like hydroponic lettuce or January strawberries. They won’t be from multinational, publicly-traded companies who’s eyes are fixed on quarterly profits instead of waxing and waning moons, or wines made by absentee hobbyists-owners who got into the business because they like the lifestyle, or at least the idea of it, without having to actually do any of the work themselves. There will be wines like the 2005 BAROLO $44.95 from hands-on perfectionist PAOLO SCAVINO, or the 2006 WYNNS COONAWARRA ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Coonawarra, South Australia $24.95, with a half century’s worth of fine vintages to prove its worthiness.

The rest of the wines can be saved for the rest of the year when we return to the reality of living the privileged modern life. Thanksgiving for me will be a time to remember the past, to remember how lucky we are, to remember the people both past and present who really do give thanks at harvest, and to be grateful.

Ok, enough flimsy philosophy and on to some solid practical Thanksgiving drinking guidelines:

Quinta Dos Carvalhais Duque De Viseu White 2009Primo: The main consideration for Thanksgiving dinner is drinkability: this means wines that are basically dry, lower in tannins and alcohol, higher in acid, and minimally oaked, if at all.  After all, these are not short, school night-type dinners-on-the-go. You’ll be hanging about in the home’s epicenter, the kitchen, while the hosts (or you) are busily preparing away, sipping on something fresh and crisp. This could last for hours, since it’s virtually impossible to get a large, multi-dish meal on the table on time unless you’re a Cordon Bleu chef. Even Bourdain has to stop for a smoke break once in a while. So you don’t want to bludgeon the palate with saliva-choking tannins and head-spinning alcohol right off the top.  Think 2009 DR. LOOSEN DR. L RIESLING QbA Mosel $13.95 or 2009 QUINTA DOS CARVALHAIS DUQUE DE VISEU WHITE DOC Dão $12.95.

Secondo: Free yourself from the paralyzing distress of finding perfect matches. Loads has been written about the ideal match for Roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, salads, desserts and everything else that is traditionally served at Thanksgiving, giving the spurious impression that such a thing as perfection exists and should be sought. Given this huge range of flavours, what sommelier-genius could possibly find a wine or two that works perfectly across the board? I believe the more versatile the better (see above), and the better the wine, the more thanks you’ll give. Now pass the sweet potatoes and fill my glass.

Terzo: Early evening wines to get chilling include the likes of riesling, un or lightly oaked chardonnay, gruner veltliner, chenin blanc, pinot and gris/grigio from places north of the 40th. If all of your WineAlign followers are coming for dinner then you’ll want to bring out something a little more cutting edge like falanghina or fiano from Campania in Italy, assyrtiko or moscophilero from Greece, albariño from Spain or Portugal, dry furmint from Hungary, or perhaps sparkling wine from Luxembourg, if only to show that you do read our stuff once in a harvest moon.

Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2007Quarto: When it’s time to shift into red, the grapes/regions that come to mind as naturally as sunrise brings the thought of coffee include barbera from northern Italy, traditional-style sangiovese from central Italy, pinot noir from cooler zones (Canada, Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand), vibrant, soft and fruity Spanish reds based on tempranillo, spicy, suave grenache-based southern Rhône reds, herbal and peppery Ontario or Loire Valley cabernet franc, or maybe a plush, sensibly-proportioned malbec from Mendoza. From this release consider: 2008 GEMMA LANGHE ROSSO DOC $13.95, 2007 TRAPICHE BROQUEL CABERNET SAUVIGNON Mendoza $15.95, or the 2008 COLDSTREAM HILLS PINOT NOIR Yarra Valley, South Australia $29.95.

Insider’s wines to consider include reds from Mt. Etna, Sicily, or nebbiolo from the Valtellina north of Milan, elegant versions of blaufränkisch from central Europe, Dâo reds from central Portugal and mencia-based reds from Bierzo, northern Spain. More structured wines with several year’s time in the cellar can be a real treat, too. All of these wines share a common theme of juicy acid or mellow tannins, and spicy berry flavours that are sort of like cranberry sauce being passed around the table. Give these a slight chill, and you can sip, in moderation, all night long, while gratitude is expressed and the conversation flows.

There is a long list of top scoring wines in the October 2nd release, from the twin themes of Aussie Reds and Italy’s Big Guns, as well as in the Top Ten Smart Buys. At the top of the heap is the astonishingly good 2007 ORNELLAIA DOC Bolgheri Superiore $179.95. But if you don’t want to give quite that much thanks, pick a few favorite grapes/regions/producers, and search our database for the best wines that you can afford for your Thanksgiving celebration.

Ornellaia 2007, Doc Bolgheri Superiore

Click on the following to see my:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Australian Reds
Italy’s Big Guns
All Reviews


John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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June 12th Vintages Preview – South Africa’s Staggering Beauty

John Szabo, MS

There is lots of excitement building around South Africa and the FIFA World Cup, when the eyes of the world will be on the Cape. For the record, according to the leading odds-makers, Spain is favoured to win, followed by Brazil, England, Argentina and the Netherlands. South Africa is ranked 22nd at 150-1.  So while South Africa is not a safe bet to win the cup, when it comes to finding value, the odds are in your favour. Four of the top ten smart buys in the June 12th release are from SA. It’s definitely a golden opportunity for the country to showcase the advancements that have occurred in winemaking over the last 20 or so years since the end of Apartheid.

Readers’ Sommelier World Cup Contest: Win South African Wine!

WOSA World Cup of SommeliersThis past May, sommeliers from 12 countries, including 30 from Canada, participated in the first Sommelier World Cup sponsored by Wines of South Africa (WOSA). The event consisted of a series of questions and blind tastings with initial and final rounds. The top sommeliers from each country will be heading to South Africa this fall to compete in the world finals, and Canada will be represented by the incomparable Véronique Rivest from Ottawa-Gatineau.  Any readers wishing to pit their knowledge against the world’s best are invited to tackle the 20-question multiple choice exam that the sommeliers had in the first round.  The top scorer will receive two bottles of South African wine (sorry, no trip to South Africa, after all, the sommeliers weren’t able to use Google for their answers…) Ties will be decided by a draw.

A South Africian Wine Primer

Table MountainFirst time visitors to the winelands of the Cape will be struck by the staggering beauty of the area, among the most picturesque winegrowing regions on the planet. You’ll see rugged granite-capped mountains sitting atop ancient crumbled shales and sandstones, rising up to over 1000m from the shores of False Bay just 20 kms to the south. Across the western horizon stands the unmistakable landmark of Table Mountain, with its near-permanent wisps of cloud covering the leveled summit like a 1960’s Beatles mop-top. Inland you’ll see vine-covered slopes and lush green valleys covered with strange, beautiful and infinitely varied native flowers. The Cape Floral Kingdom is, after all, the smallest yet richest of the six floral kingdoms in the world. The Cape alone contains more biodiversity than the entire northern hemisphere, some 9,600 unique species. This incredible natural richness is being protected through an innovative “biodiversity and wine” initiative  (, whereby for each hectare of (diversity-destroying monoculture) vineyard, 1.1 hectares are set aside as conservation land to preserve the fynbos and renosterveld (indigenous vegetation) unique to the Cape.

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company set up a provisioning outpost at the Cape of Good Hope. The purpose was to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to passing ships on their way between Europe and the East, and Cape wine would soon be one of the eagerly sought-after local products. The Cape celebrated 351 years of winemaking this past February 2nd. It was on this day in 1659 that under Jan van Riebeeck, representative of the Dutch East India Company, the first wine grapes grown in the Company Gardens in Cape Town were pressed. The sweet wines of Constantia were among the most famous and sought after in the world in the 18th-19thC. So a fair bit of history to drawn on.

Wine MapNo doubt you have been seeing and hearing more about South African wines in recent years, as exports have increased from 20% of total production to over 40% in the decade 1997-2007. Of course, prior to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, virtually no wine was exported at all. The majority of what is shipped to Ontario falls into the category of cheap and often cheerful, establishing South Africa as a good source of value wine, but overshadowing the fact that it also produces top notch kit, too.

A few points of interest: In the last 15 years there has been a dramatic change in the make-up of South African vineyards, moving from predominantly white wine production (much of it destined for distillation into brandy) with as much as 80% of vineyards planted to white varieties, to today’s shift to red, now accounting for 45% of all plantings.

Old World vs. New World: The wines of South Africa are often described as being somewhere between old world and new world in style, combining the generous ripe fruit of warm, new world regions with the distinctly earthy-minerally character more common in the old world. This still holds true. South Africa can boast of some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world, in some cases over 500 millions years old, in addition to a truly staggering array of flora and fauna, which no doubt contribute to this unique flavour profile.

Morgenhof Estate Chenin BlancSome of the most exiting wines include the white blends based on the wealth of old-vines Chenin Blanc found in many regions, mixed with intriguing, more recently-introduced Rhône varieties such as Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette, as well as the useful partners Semillon and Sauvignon. These have the potential to truly captivate a world audience. Varietal Chenin Blanc, still the most planted grape in SA, remains an outrageous value for the most part. Prices are still suffering from the grape’s earlier reputation as being suitable only for bulk wine or brandy. Old bush vines planted in the right soils and microclimates display a fabulous range of styles from steely-wooly Loire valley-like, to lush, tropical fruit salad-flavoured versions. Try the 2008 MORGENHOF ESTATE CHENIN BLANC to get the picture.

Morgenhof Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2008Sauvignon Blanc is the variety on which many producers are pinning their export hopes. From cool, coastal areas like Walker Bay and Elgin, to warmer inland vineyards in Stellenbosch and Franshhoek, the grape can range from the popular, pungently green/herbal/ canned asparagus style, to riper, more passion fruit and guava-scented versions. I liked the 2008 MORGENHOF ESTATE SAUVIGNON BLANCfrom this release, another great value from this producer.

2007 POST HOUSE PENNY BLACK On the red side, it is the blends again that generate the most excitement for me, in which Bordeaux and Rhône varieties together yield more complex, complete wines together than on their own. The solid and firm 2007 POST HOUSE PENNY BLACK is a good starting point; it’s a blend of shiraz, merlot, cabernet, petit verdot and chenin blanc. But single grape wines like the 2007 FLAGSTONE DARK HORSE SHIRAZ also impress for their value.

Spier Vintage Selection Pinotage 2006And finally Pinotage, you’ll be pleased to learn, does not simply smell and taste like rusty nails in burnt rubber boots. Top quality examples have depth, richness, ripe dark fruit character and an uncanny ability to age. The 2006 SPIER VINTAGE SELECTION PINOTAGE certainly has some meaty, smoky character, but it a compelling way.

For more info on the Wines of South Africa, visit:

Smart Buys

Beyond South Africa, The world’s soccer powers put in a good showing on the top ten smart wine buys. Italy gives the strongest performance, taking the two top spots with the excellent2006 TAURINO SALICE SALENTINO RISERVA, a wine full of character and complexity for under $16, and the 2004 FRATELLI TOCCHI SAGRANTINO DI MONTEFALCO, a cellar candidate to be sure. Sagrantino is by nature a tannic grape, so even at 6 years old, this dense wine is still abundantly chewy and firm. I was shocked by the $18.95 price, as most sagrantino from around the Umbrian town of Montefalco start at about $30. As Spain edge their way to the World Cup final, sip a super-value 2005 TORRES GRAN SANGRE DE TORO RESERVA. Or if dark horse Portugal look to upset, there’s a fine, infinitely drinkable (especially at $11.95) 2009 ANSELMO MENDES MUROS ANTIGOS ESCOLHA DOC Vinho Verde with which to celebrate.

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Feature Wines at a Glance: South Africa
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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Vintages Preview May 1st Release – A Volcanic Wine, a Greywacke, a Groovey Grüner and a Cal-Ital Duo by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

Any traveler who has set foot on the Aegean Island of Santorini senses immediately that it’s a special place. Gazing out across the vast expanse of deep azure water that fills the Caldera, the collapsed summit of the volcano that is Santorini, has a way of re-calibrating your sense of size. You feel infinitely small before the clear, wide space stretching to the infinitely blue horizon, yet at the same time you feel part of the landscape, it absorbs you, draws you in. Sunsets here are among the most mesmerizing on earth. This is the Greek postcard you’ve already seen, dreamed about: the white-washed dwellings clinging to the cliff side on the edge of the crater, turned golden by the disappearing sun, the bright blue, freshly painted domes of orthodox churches, the trio of bells, the pack mules carrying building material through the narrow alleys where no cars can venture. Were it not for the hordes of tourist who disembark daily and trek up to Oia to clog those same minuscule streets and haggle with weary locals over junky trinkets, Santorini could well be a paradise on earth.

Travel to the other side of the island on flatter east coast, and the scene is unrecognizable, rarely photographed. Its splendor is hidden to all but those able to see through to the inner beauty of what lies before you. It’s an otherworldly landscape of bushes scattered across completely barren, rocky soil like splashes of green on a natural canvas. One wonders how anything at all manages to grow in this poorest of poor soils. Closer inspection reveals that this is no purposeless vegetation; these are grapevines. But these are like no other grapevines I’ve seen. There are no posts, no wires, no trellises, no neat rows of orderly canes and leaves, made to submit by the hand of man. These vines sprawl along the ground, the stalks obscured by decades worth of woven shoots that makes them look like gnarled, old wicker baskets discarded in an empty waste yard on the backside of a middle eastern bazaar. You could easily drive past these fields and remain gleefully ignorant that you are in wine country. How strange to see, or not see. If I hadn’t seen, and tasted, I may not believe that some of the world’s most original wines are made in these vineyards on the island of Santorini.

The grape is called assyrtico, an ancient, indigenous variety that achieves its greatest expression in the poor volcanic soils of the island. Really, Santorini is nothing more than a piece of exploded volcanic mountaintop protruding from the sea, with little vegetation and no fresh water. Before its eerie beauty was discovered by outsiders and the age of tourism began, this was among the poorest of Greek Islands, the inhabitants scratching out a meager existence from the unyielding terrain.

The queer method of growing grapes is explained by Santorini’s extreme climate. The vines are left to creep along the ground to remain sheltered from the fierce winds that constantly buffet the island. Otherwise, tender shoots and flowers would be blasted off the vines and further reduce the nearly uneconomic yields that these vineyards produce. The new shoots of each year are carefully woven into a basket shape, purpose-crafted to allow the grape bunches to grow within, protect from the wind, as well as shaded from the ever-present blazing sun above by a canopy of leaves that functions like a 19th century parasol. The vineyards are not picturesque, but I reckon that after 2,500-odd years of grape-growing, local vignerons have got it figured out. From these grotesque vines come some of the most astonishingly mineral wines I have ever tasted.

The whites of Santorini are not fruity, not easy, not immediately friendly. They are intense, demanding, almost salty, like a freshly-squeezed chunk of volcanic pumice that drips slowly into your glass. There is also the tell-tale whiff of sulphur, like being several miles downwind from a natural hot spring, not obvious, not pungent, but certainly there. This unusual smell is not from added SO2, as I have asked and repeatedly been told by the island’s winemakers. True enough, the alcohol and acidity levels are remarkably high, they’re bone dry, and the dry extract is off the charts, lending a palpably astringent character. That makes these wines extremely stable and ageworthy. Free sulphur is needed only in very limited amounts. No, that smell comes from the soil.

2008 SIGALAS SANTORINIThe Sigalas 2008 Santorini is one of the island’s best. Paris Sigalas is a perfectionist, a poet. It’s unique, extraordinary, complex, complete, like Grand Cru Alsatian Riesling or Chablis, or top notch Wachau gruner veltliner. So why is it only $21.95 a bottle? Good question. I guess it’s because so few people know about it. I’m torn: on the one hand I’m happy to keep it that way, selfishly hoarding these hidden diamonds in the literal rough. On the other, the pressure of urbanization from the relentless tourist trade threatens to make these vineyards disappear altogether. Slinging drinks sure beats back breaking field work for limited gain. That would be a modern Greek tragedy. So this is my pitch to save one of the great world patrimonies for wine lovers. Buy and drink this!

2009 GREYWACKE VINEYARDS SAUVIGNON BLANCOther wines worth a detour this week include the Greywacke Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. New Zealand is the focus of the May 1st LCBO-Vintages release, and this is the top smart buy from the lot. I have become somewhat ambivalent towards NZ sauvignon, a little tired of the predictability and terminal sameness that ironically made this genre the triumph that it is, but that also threatens its future success. But here’s a NZ sauvignon that stands out for it distinctive personality. There’s no pungent cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush, no one-dimensional grassy refrain like a pop hit that lasts two weeks on the charts. This is restrained, elegant wine, full of stony-minerality and framed by bracing acidity, in short the way it was meant to be.

2009 SALOMON UNDHOF SAL'MON GROOVEY GRÜNER VELTLINERThe Salomon Undhof Groovey Grüner Veltliner is a wine to add to your spring-summer house wine program. Infinitely sippable, this is the bottle you want to reach for when you get home from work and kick back on the terrace or patio. It’s a perfect cooking wine, too, that is, a wine to sip as you cook with your friends mingling around the kitchen. It’ll also move comfortably into the first course of seafood or shellfish – be sure to use liberal doses of sweet aromatics like basil, mint, coriander and parsley to enhance the complementary flavours.

2007 PICHIERRI TRADIZIONE DEL NONNO PRIMITIVO DI MANDURIAZinfandel/Primitivo is the other feature of the release. Genetically determined to be closely related (but not exactly the same grape), both are descendents of the Croatian mouthful crljenak kastelanski. These two vines share a love for heat and a propensity to produce violently fruity and alcoholic wines, and California and Puglia in southern Italy provide the ideal habitat to express their characteristics to the fullest. From Italy, my top pick goes to the non-too-subtle Pichierri Tradizione del Nonno Primitivo, “grandpa’s tradition”. This is indeed a wine the way grandpa used to make: raisined, ultra-ripe fruit is tuned into a fiery, old farmhouse-style wine of 16% alcohol and chocolate-Christmas cake flavours that would make most Amarone blush with envy. Make sure you are sitting down when drinking this and the car is permanently parked for the night.

2008 SEGHESIO SONOMA ZINFANDELFrom California, my greatest excitement was reserved for the Seghesio Sonona Zinfandel, appreciated more for it classy, elegant styling; a stark contrast to the Italian stallion. This example manages to strike a fine balance, avoiding the excesses of alcohol and the common feature of cheap zinfandel that sees underripe and overripe fruit juxtaposed together. Zin is a tricky variety to grow. The grapes within a single bunch ripen at differing rates and intervals, and make the timing of the harvest a compromise one way or another. More moderate sites and old vines tend to smooth out the ripening curve and reduce the disparity, making wines of better flavour balance and greater elegance without needing the monstrous alcohol that is inevitable when half the grapes have turned to raisins. Seghesio’s is a good example what’s possible with this grape.

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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April 17th Vintages Preview – The Veneto is about Venice by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

The Veneto is about Venice. It’s a wonder of the world, and one wonders who would have dreamed up the idea of building a city in a lagoon. A model of medieval engineering, the city stands as both witness and tribute to the extravagant grandeur of the Dukes of Venice, rulers of one of the world’s great maritime City States, wealthy beyond imagination from centuries of trade throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Richly ornate, rococo palaces bejeweled with exotic treasures from the east sink slowly into the silty shallows of the Adriatic, like sand castles on the beach as the tide rolls in. Somber black-lacquered gondolas ply the waters of the canals in silent but stark contradiction with the colourful tiles that decorate with sumptuous decadence the buildings on either side. But beneath the glamorous exteriors lie crumbling foundations and centuries’ old construction, groaning and creaking under the weight of lavishness, worn by the ravages of a watery existence and awaiting the inexorable end. Venice is a grand old lady, defying the rush of years with a liberal application of make-up, echoed by the masks worn by citizens and visitors alike during the carnival in Venice.

Yet nobody seems to notice, or care. For in the Piazza San Marco, Europe’s greatest outdoor drawing room, a constant parade of people gather with the innumerable pigeons to sip expensive cappuccino and toast decaying beauty with a glass or two of prosecco, contented to be in the moment. After all, where else would you care to be?

The Veneto is also about rice, risotto more precisely, condimented with everything from seafood to gorgonzola, or perhaps most famously, amarone wine. It’s about horse-meat, advertised on every menu in Verona, air-dried and cured as sfilaci di cavallo, or braised or stewed or grilled over a wood-burning fire. And of course the Veneto is about wine, frequently the region in Italy with the largest output in terms of sheer volume. It’s best known wines are household names anywhere around the world where Italian wine is available in meaning volume and variety: soave, valpolicella, amarone, prosecco.

As with Venice, one needs to know where to go to avoid getting pick-pocketed. Venetian wine is filled with blind and dark alleys, overpriced rooms and dodgy restaurants, and savoury gondoliers, eager to take you for a ride and separate you from your money. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, indeed almost impossible not to. But when you finally find your way, all of the expensive disappointments fade from memory for a few glorious moments until it’s time again to search for another treasure. The April 17th release with a feature on wines of the Veneto is as murky as a Venetian canal. There are some extraordinary wines, and there are some wines to avoid as urgently as a slick-haired, neck scarf-clad gondolier offering you a romantic ride down a dimly lit waterway.

Many of the wines were so basic and disappointing that even at sub-$15 price points they seemed overpriced, the type of wine you’d expect to find by the carafe in a cheap side alley trattoria. If you’re unlucky enough to fall on one of these, you’ll feel cheated, ripped-off, and you’ll curse the old lady. But there is also value to be found, too.  Look for a deliciously drinkable red from Bardolino for $12.95 and a very solid Valpolicella Ripasso from the fanatically devoted grower Marinella Camerani and her Adalia range at $14.95. Or pick up a bottle of the excellent value Monte del Frà Bianco di Custoza Superiore white and imagine yourself of the shores of the Lago di Garda with a frito misto di pesce, mixed fresh tiny lake fish fried up crisp and served piping hot in a newspaper. You’ll fall in love with the grand old lady all over again.

The top wines in the release are, unsurprisingly, the massively complex, dried grape wines known as Amarone della Valpolicella, produced from grapes grown in the Valpolicella hills north of Verona. Amaro means ‘bitter’ in Italian, and amarone means “big, bitter”, that is, bitter in the sense of not sweet and big in the sense of full-bodied and generously alcoholic. These are among the most sought-after wines in Italy. Three high-end  wines from the well-known house of Masi were in my view the class of the lot: Campolongo di Torbe, Mazzano (both single vineyard crus) and the Vaio Armaron from the historic estate of the Alighieri family, of Dante and La Divina Comedia  fame. These wines are not inexpensive to be sure, but they are fabulous and extremely age worthy.

Outside of the Veneto, there are a couple of Greek wines to single out as worth a detour: the highly fragrant moschofilero from Tselepos, one of Mantinia’s top producers (a wine region in the heart of the Peloponnese), with the fragrance of gewürztraminer and the structure of dry Riesling, a perfect match with shellfish, basil pesto and green Thai curries among many other possibilities. Fans of fortified muscats should seek out the Muscat of Limnos, pure essence of fresh Muscat in a 750ml bottle for just $11.95. Additionally, Mendocino County, Chianti, Casablanca Valley and McLaren Vale all produced smart buys in this release.

To see all of my reviews click here.


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April 3rd Vintages Preview – ¡España! Spain’s rise to prominence – John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

Anyone following developments in the wine world can’t have failed to notice the incredible rise to prominence that Spain has experienced in the last decade. I’d say that the US and the UK markets are way ahead of Ontario in their acceptance of Spanish wines, but this feature release at Vintages is a clear sign that España is being taken more seriously here, too. I lived and studied in Spain from 1994-1995 and spent a wee bit of time exploring the local wines (albeit with a different focus than my approach today), and recall remarking on the stunning value on offer. $3-$5 would buy you a very respectable Rioja or Ribera del Duero; the most I ever spent on a wine was $18 for a bottle of Tinta Valbuena from Vega Sicilia, these days closer to $150. I drank the wine with a friend, over a picnic, straight from the bottle. It was one of my first great wine drinking experiences.

15 years and 5000 kms away, the entry price point has more than tripled, but Spain is still a great source of good value, characterful reds, and increasingly whites, too. Out of 23 wines from Spain in this release including two sherries, only one is more than $20, and that’s for a 2001 Gran Reserva Rioja (Lealtanza), so more than justifiable. Rioja still dominates the list of regions on offer, certainly Spain’s best known internationally, but we are finally starting to see more wines from less well-know areas like Montsant, Rias Baixas, Bierzo and Jumilla to name but a handful. The list of varieties used is not as long as say, what Portugal or Greece can offer the world, but there’s the commercial advantage of familiarity. Many drinkers already know about grenache and mourvedre, both originally Spanish grapes, and it doesn’t take too long to learn their Spanish names (garnacha and monastrell). Add cariñena (carignan), tempranillo and mencía, and you’ve got most of the native reds in this release covered. Albariño grown in the northwest in Galicia, in denominations of origin like Rias Baixas, and verdejo from Rueda are considered Spain’s best whites.

Clearly there are many regional differences to consider, but the reality is that at in this price category, producer technique is a more significant style factor. Many of the wines in this release share a resemblance of abundantly ripe and/or raisined fruit, and soft, plush tannins, making for wines with broad commercial appeal. Indeed if there’s anything to complain about, it’s the similarity of styles available. This can be explained partly because the same LCBO tasters are responsible for selecting all of the wines (a major defect in our monopoly system), and partly because that’s what Spain is producing in commercial abundance.

I’ve said it before, but in my view, Spain is still well behind many old world, and even quite a few new world wine producing countries on the maturity curve. Remember that “fine wine” is a relatively recent phenomenon in most regions outside of Rioja and Jerez, and producers are still grappling with the establishment of distinct regional styles, not to mention containing the enthusiasm of discovering that there are markets for their wines beyond regional and national frontiers. In this sense, Spain is where California or Australia was in the early 1990s, when the general over-exuberance resulted in exaggerated styles of overly oaky fruit concoctions. The least interesting wines in the release were those that taste like they could have come from anywhere: simple, jammy fruit, soft texture and an impression of sweetness on the palate – basic supermarket wines. Everybody needs to pay the bills. The best were well made to be sure, but have more individuality and personality, a fundamental difference between commodity wine and an authentic expression of a place.

The pendulum will continue its inexorable oscillation back to the middle, as it already has in many other countries. I am sure that the soul searching already underway in Spain will steer the country toward a place of prominence on store shelves, restaurant lists and in private cellars the world over. While not widely recognized or even represented in Ontario, Spain’s top wines are up there with the best. Ultimately these representative icons need to find their way here in order to cast a spell of quality on the rest of Spain’s offering, just as Chile, Australia and South Africa, among others, are working to get out of the ‘good value ghetto’, or at least build another more chic and exclusive neighborhood around the ghetto to bring up the average real estate prices.

My top ten wines from Spain are listed in our newsletter. The wines that topped the list for me were universally appealing, with neither excess of oak nor exaggeratedly ripe or raisined fruit. Some favour fruity flavours, while others are more traditionally savoury and earthy, but all are representative of the New Spain.  As though to hammer the value point home, four Spanish wines can also be found in the top ten smart buys.

Outside of the Iberian Peninsula, southern France continues to impress with a second straight number one top buy, this time the excellent St. Chinian from the Cooperative of Roquebrun in the Languedoc. Spring is in the air with a pair of vibrant whites from Austria and Germany, New Zealand delivers a delicious pinot noir for under $20, and one of the top scoring wines in the entire release was grown in the Okanagan Valley.

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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March 20th Vintages Preview – Celebrating Easter with Food and Wine – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

The March 20th release looks at wines for your Easter feast. The Vintages catalogue has neatly categorized the releases into style categories, each matched to a range of traditional foods. To pick up on this useful theme, I’ve listed my top scoring wine and top value for each of the categories. If you want to head straight to the top ten smart buys, those are listed below. Bon apétit!

Powerhouse Reds, to be served with herbed rack of lamb, rare roast beef, grilled steaks:
Top: 2007 CHÂTEAU ROUQUETTE SUR MER CUVÉE AMARANTE AC Côteaux du Languedoc La Clape 91pts $17.95 ***
Value: 2007 TELIANI VALLEY SAPERAVI Georgia 88pts $13.95 ***

Ripe, fruity reds, round, plush, bursting with fruit, to pair with glazed ham, veal tenderloin with berry chutney, turkey with cranberry sauce:
Value:  2007 ALTA VISTA PREMIUM MALBEC Mendoza 87pts $13.95 ***

Elegant reds, subtle, refined, with exquisite finesse to pair with beef stew with mushrooms, roast duck, salmon steaks, ratatouille:
Top: 2007 CALERA PINOT NOIR California 90pts $31.95 **

Vivacious rosés, fresh, pretty, wonderfully versatile, to pair with seasoned broiled fish, roast quail, vegetable couscous, garden salads:
Best of a weak release (no top wines here): 2009 MAS DES BRESSADES CUVÉE TRADITION ROSÉ AC Costières de Nîmes 85pts $13.95

Bold Whites, big, full bodied, excitingly robust, to be paired with turkey with gravy, poached salmon, lobster with garlic butter:
Value:  2007 HESS SELECT CHARDONNAY Monterey County 89pts $18.95 **1/2

Soft, fruity whites, smooth, vibrant, very satisfying, to pair with apricot-braised pork, stuffed peppers, cabbage rolls:
Top & Value: 2009 WITS END FREE SETTLER & THE CONVICT CHARDONNAY/VIOGNIER South Australia 88pts $13.95 ***
Also worth considering: 2008 DOMAINE ALLIMANT-LAUGNER MUSCAT AC Alsace 88pts $17.95 **1/2

Refreshing whites, delicate, crisp, delightfully pure, to pair with turkey breast, roast chicken, pasta with olive oil and herbs, white fish and seafood:
Top: 2008 HIGHFIELD ESTATE SAUVIGNON BLANC Marlborough, South Island 90pts $19.95 ***
and  2006 MAISON KERLANN CHABLIS AC  90pts $21.95 ***
Value: 2008 HENRI BOURGEOIS PETIT BOURGEOIS SAUVIGNON BLANC Vin de Pays du Val du Loire 88pts $14.95 ***

Festive Sparklers, bubbly, effervescent, elevates the occasion, to pair with duck breast, stuffed mushrooms, smoked salmon, or simply with the occasion:
Top & Value: 2006 13TH STREET CUVEE 13 ROSÉ VQA Niagara Peninsula, Traditional Method 89pts $24.95 **1/2
Also worth considering: 2004 JACKSON-TRIGGS PROPRIETORS’ GRAND RESERVE MÉTHODE CLASSIQUE BRUT VQA Niagara Peninsula, Méthode Classique 88pts $22.95 **

Top Ten Smart Buys:
1.    2007 CHÂTEAU ROUQUETTE SUR MER CUVÉE AMARANTE AC Côteaux du Languedoc La Clape 91pts $17.95 ***
3.    2008 HIGHFIELD ESTATE SAUVIGNON BLANC Marlborough, South Island 90pts $19.95 ***
5.    NV QUINTA DO INFANTADO RUBY PORT 89pts $15.95 ***
6.    2009 WITS END FREE SETTLER & THE CONVICT CHARDONNAY/VIOGNIER South Australia 88pts $13.95 ***
7.    2007 TELIANI VALLEY SAPERAVI Georgia 88pts $13.95 ***
8.    2007 CHÂTEAU TRINIAC AC Côtes de Roussillon-Villages Latour de France 88pts $14.95 ***
9.    2008 HENRI BOURGEOIS PETIT BOURGEOIS SAUVIGNON BLANC Vin de Pays du Val du Loire 88pts $14.95 ***
10.  2008 PETER LEHMANN SEMILLON Barossa Valley, South Australia 88pts $14.95 ***

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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March 6th Vintages Preview – ¡Viva Chile! – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

A short while ago in this space I wrote about my most recent experience in Chile. It was January, and I was in a sunny and 30ºC+ Santiago in the height of summer enjoying the opportunity to judge at the country’s 7th annual wine awards. When the competition wrapped up, a group of tired but happy judges spent several more days diligently uncovering yet more of Chile’s secrets.  Like a group of astronomers scanning the night sky to spot the next supernova, we used our allotted time to scour a few wine regions for more values and heart-stoppers. Some regions I was visiting for the first time, while others I was revisiting to track the changes and developments in this-fast paced industry. Suffice to say that Chile is a dynamic country. The world of wine is spinning and changing ever-faster it’s true, but there is a real sense of momentum and purpose in this South American industry. And it’s hard to keep up with all of the developments. Chile is one of the fortunate few countries to have recorded an increase in export sales volume in 2009, in what was otherwise a mostly disastrous year for sales. So the Chileans must be doing something right.

The hazy morning after the wrap-up gala we leave Santiago and make the hour or so drive to the Casablanca Valley. This is certainly one of the most internationally recognized regions in Chile, having made a solid reputation for itself in the nearly thirty years since Pablo Morandé pioneered plantings of cool climate-loving varieties in the valley. Casablanca is windy and 4-5º cooler than Santiago on average, with the climate moderated by cool breezes and the fog that rolls in from the Pacific as reliably as a Swiss train. The morning we arrive at Veramonte winery is sunny and warm, but not hot. Gently moving air rustles the leaves of the vines and cools the skin. Yet not all zones of the valley are equally cool. The areas further in land from the coast, nestled at the foot of the hills that separate Casablanca from Santiago, are measurably warmer than the vineyards out by the sea. We drive to the east, away from the coast, through Veramonte’s extensive vineyards to a spot tucked at the end of the valley. We can go no further. It’s noticeably warmer here. But it’s still considered a good growing site off the frost-prone valley floor and on well-drained, low vigor hillsides.

Distinguished chardonnay and pinot noir among others are produced in the Casablanca Valley, but it is the sauvignon blanc that gets me excited. The feeling was strengthened throughout a well-organized and informative tasting of sauvignon blanc from several Casablanca estates held afterwards in Veramonte’s tasting room. If it’s even cooler climate style wine you’re after, than pass through Casablanca and head to the Leyda Valley, with some vineyards situated just a few kilometers from the cold Pacific coast. This is one of the most suitable regions in Chile to produce riveting, zesty whites and lean, firm elegant reds. Seek these out if you haven’t tried any yet. There are 3 Casablanca wines in this Vintages release, all white, including an innovative and very satisfying (and organically-grown) blend of chardonnay, viognier and marsanne from Novas.

After lunch and some engaging conversation about the relative merits of satellite imagery, the Humboldt Current and drip irrigation, we leave Casablanca by small plane (we load our own wine as there are no flight attendants on hand) and fly north to the Elquí and Limarí Valleys. Right on the edge of the Atacama Desert, these two areas have been growing grapes for many decades though almost exclusively to make Chile’s national spirit, pisco. Only in the last decade have they been identified as high quality potential wine regions. Like Leyda and Casablanca, the secret to quality winegrowing is the moderating effect of the Pacific and in some cases, the elevation of the vineyards. The Limarí Valley is gaining a lot of attention for the marked minerally profile of its wines, both red and white. This is an area of high Limestone content and high salinity in the soil. Irrigation serves two purposes here: one, to keep the vines alive and photosynthesizing and to reduce the water stress induced by inadequate rainfall, and two, to reduce the salinity of the soils.

Our tastings of the wines of Limarí show that this is a special place to make wine to be sure. It’s even windier here than in Casablanca, and the tablecloth, covering the makeshift vineyard table that supports our welcoming glasses of refreshing rose, very nearly alights on the wind. I look towards the coast and the low-rise hills separating us from the ocean, which seem to reach up and grab the drifting clouds out of the air and hold them fast to their crests. Hours later we emerge from the winery and there they are, immovable, constant, like clumps of cotton sitting on the hills. Our arrival by plane to Limarí had been delayed by the Camanchaca, the thick soupy fog that moves in from the sea, here as elsewhere in coastal Chile. It’s a fog that delivers moisture to the vines, cools the air temperature, disperses sunlight rays and delays air traffic with reliable consistency.
The release features 3 wines from Tabalí winery in Limarí, one of the leading producers in the region. Out of these, the hands-down outstanding value is the 06 Tabalí Merlot Reserva, a wine of super depth and intensity for under $15. Be sure to explore the diverse regions of this thin sliver of South America through the glass and get a sense of why Chile has earned itself a place on world markets and a reputation of making great value wines.

Outside of the feature, March 6th is a particularly rich day for bargain Hunters. For the first time in quite a few releases, all of the top ten smart buys are under $20. Some of my personal favorites include the savoury Rapsani from Tsantali in Greece, a wine lover’s wine crying out for some simply grilled lamb chops or kebabs, the wonderfully elegant, traditional style Dão Portuguese red from Quinta da Fata, and the classy Vignalta Rosso Riserva from the Veneto in Italy. If you’re looking for whites, it’s hard to beat the cool and crisp 08 Sileni Cellar Selection chardonnay from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, a very tidy and restrained wine for $14.95. Or for a memorable taste of wet rocks slathered with wildflower honey and peach purée, try the 07 Bürgerspital Silvaner from Germany’s Franken region in the unmistakable bocksbeutel, the flagon-shaped bottle rumored to have been modeled after a goat’s scrotum.

Top Ten Smart Buys:

1.    2005 VIGNALTA ROSSO RISERVA DOC Colli Euganei $19.95 91pts ***
2.    2007 QUINTA DA FATA DO Dão $16.95 90pts ***
3.    2007 ALKOOMI CABERNET SAUVIGNON Frankland River, Western Australia $19.95 90pts ***
5.    2008 ANDRÉ BLANCK ET SES FILS CLOS SCHWENDI PINOT GRIS AC Alsace, $19.95 90pts ***
6.    2007 FERNGROVE SHIRAZ Frankland River, Western Australia $19.95 90pts ***
7.    2006 TORREVENTO TORRE DEL FALCO IGT Puglia $15.95 89pts ***
8.    2008 SILENI CELLAR SELECTION CHARDONNAY Hawkes Bay, North Island $15.95 89pts ***
9.    2006 TSANTALIS RAPSANI Rapsani, Greece $12.95 88pts ***
10.  2005 ENCOSTAS DE ESTREMOZ QUINTA DA ESPERANÇA Vinho Regional Alentejano $14.95 88pts **1/2

Featured Chilean Wines at a Glance:

1.    2006 TABALÍ RESERVA MERLOT Limarí Valley $14.95 89pts ***
4.    2008 TABALÍ RESERVA ESPECIAL PINOT NOIR Limarí Valley $19.95 89pts **1/2
5.    2007 MONTES ALPHA PINOT NOIR Leyda Valley $19.95 88pts **
6.    2008 CASA LAPOSTOLLE CHARDONNAY Casablanca Valley $14.95 87pts **
7.    2008 ERRÁZURIZ SINGLE VINEYARD SAUVIGNON BLANC Casablanca Valley $14.95 87pts **1/2
8.    2008 CASA LAPOSTOLLE MERLOT Rapel Valley $16.95 87pts **
9.    2008 CASA LAPOSTOLLE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Rapel Valley $16.95 87pts **
10.    2007 MONTES ALPHA CARMENÈRE Colchagua Valley $19.95 86pts *1/2
11.    2007 TABALÍ RESERVA CARMENÈRE Limarí Valley $14.95 85pts *1/2
12.    2008 MONTES LIMITED SELECTION CABERNET SAUVIGNON/CARMENÈREColchagua Valley, Apalta Vineyard $14.95 85pts *1/2

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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Feb 20th Vintages Preview (First-In-Line eReport) – by John Szabo

John Szabo

John Szabo

The Southern Rhône Valley & Kosher Wines

The main feature this week is the Southern Rhône Valley, that region of France that conjures up images of old stone farmhouses and stands of Mediterranean pines and slow-moving locals in berets. The near-constant blowing of the Mistral picks up the scent of wild Mediterranean herbs like lavender, thyme, bay and rosemary, and perfumes the air like an inner sanctuary of a five-star spa. The landscape is bathed in a pure and intense sunlight that no matter the time of day, seems to casts off a glow of pastel shades of ocher, soft blue and moss green. Hillocks roll gently down to the sea and vines grow amongst scattered round stones that were once carried by the meanderings of the mighty Rhône River. The Popes of Avignon made their summer home here and drank the local wine, and the Papal seal, two keys to the gates of St. Peter’s crossed, still adorns the bottles from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The southern Rhône has long been considered a source of great value country wines from France, and this is still largely true despite the more elevated prices of a handful of more famous appellations. The general style is for soft, open knit, generously proportioned wines with ripe and even baked red fruit flavours derived from Grenache, usually the dominant grape variety.

Yet I noted an alarming trend in this release towards overripe and overly alcoholic monsters, with a number of wines tipping the scales at 15%+. It’s always been hot in the Rhône Valley and ripeness has rarely been an issue, so I don’t think the style trend can be dismissed as a side effect of global warming. Much more likely is that a new belief has been instilled in producers that there’s more perceived value in harvesting later and making wines of gargantuan proportions. And the belief is not misguided, it seems, judging by the big scores from influential critics around the world included in the Vintages release magazine for some of these wines. That’s not to say that they’re all disproportioned. My top-rated wines showed plenty of ripeness to be sure, but balanced by acidity and tannins, not just alcohol and wood. Read the tasting notes to get the full picture of each wine’s style.

The top buys includes a couple of well-priced examples from the southern Rhône, and there’s also good representation from Spain and Italy as well as a stunning Riesling from Germany and an inexpensive but very tasty merlot from Mendoza.

Kosher wine is other theme of this release. Huge strides have been made in recent years in this category, and there are thankfully many good examples made around the world to choose from. It’s not all Manischewitz, of course. I likely don’t need to point out that neither is all kosher wine from Israel nor all Israeli wine kosher. The other important distinction is between straight kosher and mevushal kosher; the former follows strict rabbinical production procedures that exceed the scope of this intro, while the latter takes it a step further and involves pasteurization. With modern techniques of super-rapid, flash heating, not all mevushal wines come across as totally baked. Just read David Lawrason’s review of the Backsberg Chardonnay from South Africa for proof of this. I’ve listed two 90 point wines below that represent simply excellent wine, and they also happen to be kosher.

Top Ten Smart Buys:

1. 2007 DOMDECHANT WERNER’SCHES RIESLING KABINETT Hochheimer Hölle 91pts $19.95 ***
2. 2006 DOMAINE SAINT-PIERRE VACQUEYRAS AC 91pts $25.95 **1/2
3. 2007 CELLER PIÑOL SENORA DEL PORTAL ROBLE DO Terra Alta 90pts $20.95
5. 2007 BANFI CENTINE IGT Toscana 89pts $16.95 ***
6. 2008 AGNUSDEI ALBARIÑO DO Rías Baixas 89pts $17.95 ***
7. 2008 MASSERIA ALTEMURA FIANO IGT Fiano Salento 88pts $13.95 ***
9. 2007 LA PIEVE CHIANTI DOCG 88pts $15.95 ***
10. 2007 CRISTOBAL 1492 OAK RESERVE MERLOT Mendoza 87pts $12.95 ***

Top Kosher Wines:

1. 2009 BACKSBERG CHARDONNAY WO Paarl, Mevushal 90pts $16.95

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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Vintages Preview for Feb 6th Release (First-In-Line eReport) – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

The feature this week is “north of 90”, wines that have scored 90 points or better somewhere in the world. There are many cynics out there who’ll say that if you submit your wines to enough reviewers, sooner or later you’ll hit the magic number (or get a gold medal at a competition somewhere). And the truth of the matter is, they’re probably right. So how much value can you place on these scores? The answer is, ça depend.

Reviewers taste wines in a hundred and one situations: alone, in groups, blind, open, in silence or with discussion, with the winemaker standing and watching over expectantly, with food or without, in one sip or many over the course of an evening, in a hotel room or a dining room, in summer on a patio or in winter by the fireplace. Most of the time, you don’t know the context and conditions under which the wine was reviewed and scored. This makes the apparent accuracy implied by a precise numerical score a little spurious to say the least. Some tasters are more prone to shifting judgment, while many experienced tasters do a pretty good job at filtering out all of the outside influences. The better and more consistent the reviewer, the more reliable the reviews.

The point to take away is that is pays to get to know the reviewer. By following someone for a even a short while, you’ll quickly learn who is consistent and who is less so, and most importantly, with which reviewers you tend to agree the majority of the time.  That is the brilliance of the WineAlign concept. With a few cross comparisons of reviews, you can easily find the reviewer who’s tastes line up with yours. I was recently approached by a couple of long time FIL subscribers who said to me “we are completely in step on virtually all wines, but we disagree on one major point: the use of wood”. Fair enough I say. I don’t like woody wines, this couple did. We can still be friends. They can now also interpret my ratings based on this knowledge, so that if I score a wine lower because of excessive wood (in my opinion), they can likely bank on enjoying it. In the same way, I’ll almost always enjoy a Parker 88 point wine over the 92, because I’ve done the comparisons. All you need do is pick up a couple of bottles from each release, taste them, then compare what Rod Phillips, David Lawrason or I or anyone else from WineAlign had to say. Whose impressions most closely matched with yours? After several comparisons it’ll become more and more clear with whom you ‘align’, and you can set up your account preferences (Palate Profiler) to reflect this rating preferential, and filter on the wines most relevant to you.

On consistency, nearly all, and occasionally 100% of the wines reviewed for the Vintages releases are evaluated in the exact same context, at least I can speak for WineAlign’s reviews. It’s not very romantic in the LCBO laboratory. It’s white, it’s brightly lit; there’s an almost clinical, antiseptic atmosphere. No soft lighting, comfortable chairs, background sultry jazz, amiable conversation or scents of savoury goodies emanating from the kitchen. Wines are lined up side by side like convicts awaiting their turn in front of firing squad. Each taster goes through (mostly complete silence) making his or her notes and ratings, at their own pace. Discussion is strongly discouraged. Glassware is all the same (the LCBO provides ISO glasses). The only thing missing is the lab coat. It’s about as far from the average setting in which wine is enjoyed as you can get. But that’s the point. Believe me, we are not there for laughs, but to work, in concentrated silence to find the best. Every wine gets the same treatment. Let’s call it communist wine tasting (in it’s pure, theoretical form): no favoritism or influence, other than the personal history and experience that each reviewer brings to the room. Under these conditions, any wine that edges into the highly recommended, gold medal, 90+ category deserves a look. Even more so if a majority of reviewers draw the same conclusion independently.

Last week while in Chile, David Lawrason approached me after a tasting at a winery in the beautiful Elquí Valley and said: “I can’t help when tasting but to think about how these wines would fair in the context of the LCBO lab at a vintages release”. Strangely enough, I was thinking the exact same thing at that moment. Even in these stunning surroundings, with an affable winemaker passionately sharing his production techniques, as soon as the nose hits the glass, you’re transported back to that bleak whitewashed laboratory. Bloody hell, that’s a curse not a gift. We concluded that our results would not be much, if different at all. So much for the romance of the Elquí Valley.  David’s been doing this for considerably longer than I have and I consider him to be one of the most consistent tasters around. So no surprise that the standard context in which he does much of his reviewing would impose itself in as far flung a setting as northern Chile on the edge of a dessert. It’s becomes second nature, much like the ‘zone’ that a professional athlete gets into, able to exclude the screaming opposition fans at an away game. That’s what I mean by experience leading to greater consistency, and hence reliability of reviews. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, and anyone who can count to one hundred can rate a wine. But reliability is the key that I would look for in a reviewer.

All in all, in this release I found 24 wines in the 90+ range, that’s close to ¼ of the release which is an unusually high percentage. And no, I was not in a particularly buoyant mood. There are some fine wines here. But of course, it’s up to you to decide whether you agree or not. And I’m sure you can figure out what best to pour for your own Valentine’s sweetie.

Top Ten Smart Buys:
Coonawarra, South Australia 92pts $24.95 ***
WO Swartland 91pts $18.95 ***
Casablanca Valley 89pts $12.95 ***
AC Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, Midi 91pts $19.95 ***
WO Elgin 91pts $19.95 ***
Mendoza 91pts $19.95 ***
Marlborough, South Island 90pts $17.95 ***
DO Jumilla 90pts $21.95 ***
Campania 89pts $19.95 ***
AC 88pts  $14.95 ***

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

PS: advanced apologies for the February 20th Vintages release.  Due to a conflict with the media tasting day at the LCBO, reviews will not be posted until February 18th instead of the usual full week’s advance. Sorry for the inconvenience.

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Vintages Preview for Jan 23rd Release (First-In-Line eReport) – by John Szabo

John Szabo

The feature of the January 23rd Vintages release is Argentina, though unfortunately many of the wines were not made available to media for pre-tasting. Nor were many of the 2006 Bordeaux scheduled for release for that matter. But nonetheless I came across a solid range of sub-$20 wines to recommend in the top ten smart buys. Topping the list is an extraordinarily good chardonnay from Hungary, of all places, made in a delicately oaked, old world, food friendly version that will have your friends guessing excellent Mâcon or similar. At just $10.95, you really can’t go wrong (and this has nothing to do with the fact that my last name is about as Hungarian as they come, promise).
The Iberian peninsula makes another strong showing on the value scale, with a lovely Douro red from the elegant 2007 vintage, a rich and fruity red from further south in the Alentejo, and a solidly structured red from Spain’s Montsant DO in Catalonia. Greece, Italy and France are also represented, as is California with a reserved and mature Cabernet from the Alexander Valley. For the record the two top buys from Argentina out of those tasted were:

2008 SANTA JULIA RESERVA CHARDONNAY Mendoza $13.95 *** (88 pts)
2007 KAIKEN CABERNET SAUVIGNON Mendoza $14.95 *** (88 pts)

Top Ten Smart Buys:
10. 2007 ÈTIM NEGRE DO Montsant $14.95 **1/2 (87 pts)
9. 2008 SÃO MIGUEL DAS MISSÕES RESERVA Vinho Regional Alentejano $15.95 **1/2 (88 pts)
7. 2008 SANTA JULIA RESERVA CHARDONNAY Mendoza $13.95 ***  (88 pts)
6. 2008 CHAVET MENETOU-SALON BLANC AOC $18.95 ***  (89 pts)
5. 2004 GEYSER PEAK CABERNET SAUVIGNON Alexander Valley, Sonoma County $17.95 *** (89 pts)
4. 2008 SURANI PIETRARICCIA IGT Fiano Salento $16.95 *** (89 pts)
3. 2008 NASIAKOS MANTINIA AOC $15.95 *** (89 pts)
2. 2007 QUINTA DO INFANTADO RED DOC Douro  $23.95 **1/2 (90 pts)
1. 2007 LAKE VELENCE OAK AGED CHARDONNAY Etyek-Budai Borvidék, Hungary $10.95 ***  (89 pts)

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008