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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – Feb 6, 2016

In the Name of Love
By Sara d’Amato with wine notes from David Lawrason and John Szabo MS

Sara's New Pic Med

Sara d’Amato

‘Tis the month of love, loving, perhaps love-ins, whatever your brand of romance, we have a wine for you. From the city of love, Verona, to the escapist power of Hungarian Tokaji to the aromas of the wind-blown, sunny slopes of Provence – we have all of your romantic destinations covered. So save yourself the airfare and instead spend your precious Canadian dollars at home savoring faraway lands.

If daydreaming of lands afar doesn’t satisfy your cravings, be sure to take in our homegrown selections from Ontario and BC where plush, enveloping merlot and fleshy gewürztraminer are sure to tempt. More babies are born in the early fall than any other season reports Stats Canada, surely caused by our local selection of fragrant, fireside reds and spine-tingling whites best for blistering nights.

In the words of Latin America’s outspoken writer and activist Eduardo Galeano: “We are all mortal till the first kiss and the second glass of wine.” So transcend this mortal coil by indulging with those that matter most this Valentine’s week. We at WineAlign will be doing the same with our top picks from this most important release.

Buyer’s Guide to February 6th: Sparkling, White & Sweet

Taittinger Brut Champagne 2008

Lallier Grand Cru Rosé ChampagneLallier Grand Cru Rosé Champagne, Champagne, France ($58.95)
David Lawrason – This would be my pick to express the depth of your affection on Valentine’s Day. It is very classy, generous pink bubbly with all kinds of freshness, fine fruit, taut minerality and excellent length. It is sourced largely from estate-grown fruit in Grand Cru sites in the Champagne region. This small house was founded in 1903, but purchased by Francis Tribaut in 1984.

Taittinger 2008 Brut Champagne, Champagne, France ($97.95)
Sara d’Amato – Impressive wine has emerged from the rocky 2008 vintage in Champagne and this elegant, lightly matured example sets a high bar. This elegant and savory sparkler with a touch of creamy lees on the palate and a great deal of freshness would make for a cherished Valentine’s gift.

Domaine de Bellene 2013 Les Charmes Dessus Santenay, Burgundy, France ($35.95)
John Szabo – This is a lovely Santenay blanc from Nicolas Potel’s estate vineyards in the Les Charmes Dessus lieu-dit, crafted in the classic style. It’s flavourful but lean, very gently wood-inflected, spicy, savoury, and with a strong hit of umami, and tight enough to need another year or two in the cellar to fully express itself. Depth and complexity in the Burgundy category are exceptional for the price. Best 2017-2023.

Tinhorn Creek 2014 Gewürztraminer, VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – It is tough to produce a gewürztraminer with such fine balance and upbeat manner despite the characteristic fatness of the varietal. Compelling aromas of lime, ginger and tender blossom are followed by a lightly sweet, ethereal palate. Don’t underestimate the seductive power of a voluptuous gewürztraminer.
David Lawrason – The Okanagan Valley is rounding into shape as one of the world’s best gewurz regions – not unlike Alsace in aspect with a northerly latitude to preserve acidity, and vineyards that sit in a rain shadow creating plenty of warmth in the growing season. This National Wine Awards gold medalist is very intense and complex with all kinds of spice, lychee, lavender and spearmint. It’s medium-full bodied, off-dry yet very well balanced with great flavour focus. Chill fairly well.

Tiago Cabaço 2014 Premium White, Vinho Regional Alentejano, Portugal ($14.95)
John Szabo – Here’s a tidy little value from southern Portugal, a fruity-floral, engagingly aromatic white blend free from oak, with light-weight palate and crunchy, saliva-inducing acids. This is all about the citrus and nectarine flavours, fresh sweet herbs and yellow flowers. Nicely crafted.

Domaine de Bellene Les Charmes Dessus Santenay 2013 Tinhorn Creek Gewürztraminer 2014 Tiago Cabaço Premium White 2014 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2015 Gróf Degenfeld Tokaji Szamorodni Sweet 2010

Ken Forrester 2015 Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($17.95)
David Lawrason – This is a bargain white – a well balanced, fairly smooth chenin that seems poised to age well. I have had vertical tastings of this wine going back over ten vintages and it becomes very complex. But that’s not to suggest you shouldn’t drink it now. It nicely expresses chenin pear/quince, honey, spicy and waxy aromas and flavours.

Gróf Degenfeld 2010 Tokaji Szamorodni Sweet, Hungary ($18.95)
John Szabo – A sweet but balanced and lively, unusually fresh szamorodni (most are purposely heavily oxidative in style), that would make a great restaurant by-the-glass pour (bottles last several weeks after opening). I enjoyed the pleasant quince, dried apple and pear fruit flavours, and the lingering finish, a fine value all in all. Best 2016-2022.

Buyer’s Guide to February 6th: Reds

Grandes Serres 2012 Rocca Luna, Beaumes de Venise, Rhône, France ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – One whiff of this utterly enchanting Beaumes de Venise from Grandes Serres will transport you to the fragrant, arid, sunny and rocky landscape of the southern Rhône.  Although the appellation of Beaumes de Venise is better known for its sweet muscat, it also produces some top notch reds of good value such as this typical blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre.

Monte del Frá Lena di Mezzo 2013 Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore, Veneto, Italy ($19.95)
John Szabo – I find the entire ripasso category challenging, highly varied in style and quality, but Monte del Frà finds the right approach in my view, in this case a balanced and well crafted expression, without excesses of raisined or volatile fruit character, or obtrusive wood, and genuinely dry. It’s an attractively crisp and crunchy red, just with a little more bottom and back end than the (also very good) straight up Valpolicella from the same producer in this release. Best 2016-2023.

Grandes Serres Rocca Luna Beaumes De Venise 2012 Monte del Frá Lena di Mezzo Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore 2013 Cenyth Red Blend 2010 Boutari Naoussa Xinomavro 2013

Cenyth 2010 Red Blend, Sonoma County, California, USA ($68.95)
Sara d’Amato – Of the Jackson Family of Wines portfolio, Cenyth is the first commercial winemaking project of Hélène Seillan, the daughter of revered Bordelaise winemaker Pierre Seillan. Having studied in France and raised in Bordeaux and Sonoma, her wine feels both traditional and edgy.  There is serious structure here, depth and an abundance of flavours yet to be unveiled. A collector’s find.

Boutari Naoussa 2013 Xinomavro, Naoussa, Greece ($13.95)
John Szabo – Still performing at the top end of the value ladder, I think I’ve recommended virtually every vintage of this reliable bottling from Boutari since I’ve been reporting on wine. The 2013 is another classic, full of dusty, savoury, herbal character, firm but not unyielding texture, and long, dried strawberry-tinged finish. This vintage is reminiscent of good Chianti Classic, for example, and hard to top for value in a flamboyantly old world style red. Best 2016-2023.

Viña Chocalán 2014 Reserva Syrah, Maipo Valley, Chile ($14.95)
David Lawrason – This is the bargain New World red of the release pours very deep black purple syrah colour. Expect lifted, surprising complex syrah pepper, boysenberry, licorice, plus thyme and coffee grounds. It’s full bodied, dense, edgy and concentrated.

Viña Chocalán Reserva Syrah 2014 Quadrus Red 2010 Creekside Merlot 2013 Paul Hobbs Crossbarn Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Quadrus 2010 Red, Douro Valley, Portugal ($21.95)
David Lawrason – So many Douro reds show great value in their classic Euro way. This has a nicely lifted, intense nose of pomegranate-blueberry fruit with peppery, spicy and stony complexity. It’s medium-full bodied with classic Douro tension and granitic minerality. Excellent length. Just starting to mature – should live easily beyond 2020.

Creekside 2013 Merlot, VQA Four Mile Creek, Ontario, Canada ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – The 2013 vintage in Niagara saw growers scrambling to keep up with wild weather patterns and is generally considered a better year for cooler climate varietals such as riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. However, winemaker Rob Power shows his experience by assembling a perfectly ripe merlot with great finesse.

Paul Hobbs 2012 Crossbarn Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, California  ($49.95)
David Lawrason – This collectible/cellarable cabernet has more complexity and precision than I expected – in fact it has excellent structure within the New World genre, and it should age very well. Expect a lifted, quite fragrant floral nose with finely tuned cassis, mocha, meaty notes and a touch of mint. Within the rarefied air of premium California cabernets this one stands out for value.

For those looking to treat themselves to additional selections from the February 6th release, see Michael Godel’s recent piece regarding the changing face of South African wine where you’ll find an abundance of hedonistic options.

Santé,

Sara d’Amato

From VINTAGES February 6, 2016

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
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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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Feb 6, 2016

To Taste or Not To Taste; Beautiful Southern France
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Controversy is currently swirling around Ontario’s own appellation system, regulated by the Vintners Quality Alliance, or the VQA to you and me. A growing number within the industry believe that it’s time to do away with, or at least modify, the sensory – i.e. tasting – evaluation, which all VQA-aspiring wines must pass to earn the VQA designation. Does the VQA’s current definition of “free of faults and defects”, and “character and typicity of the stated wine category or grape variety”, match the reality of the ever-evolving wine world? Is the acceptable style range too narrow, stifling innovation, creativity, and, paradoxically, suppressing the potential quality of locally grown wines? I share some thoughts on the matter, and would love to hear yours.

If you’re more interested in the excellent and surprising wines from Southern France featured in the February 6th VINTAGES release, skip directly to the top smart buys. Next week, the Buyers’ Guide will highlight all of the WineAlign crü’s top picks from February 6th, while Michael Godel will publish a lyrical piece on developments in South Africa (the mini-theme from the release), along with currently available smart buys from this excellent source of value wines.

Op Ed: To Taste, or Not to Taste?

Last month I sat down with Vintners Quality Alliance executive director Laurie MacDonald, winemakers Norman Hardie and Jonas Newman, and wine industry veterans Will Predhomme and Peter Boyd, to discuss the state of the Ontario wine industry, and specifically the role of the Vintners Quality Alliance tasting panel. The VQA is Ontario’s appellation authority, which guarantees provenance, and regulates production, authorized grapes, and labeling. Additionally, all wines hoping for the VQA seal are put through a rigorous blind tasting to evaluate quality and varietal character before earning a pass.

Hardie had called the meeting to raise some concerns about the future of the industry, leveraging recent comments by respected British critic Jancis Robinson, who wrote after a tasting last May in London that, although there were some notable highlights, “several Chardonnays had that slightly formulaic pineapple-chunk quality that I more readily associate with the 1980s and early 1990s than with this century…”

Although Hardie agrees that the tasting panel has played an important role in raising the overall quality of Ontario wines during the past quarter century, protecting their fragile reputation in the beginning, he, along with a growing number of winemakers, contend that the tasting panel is forcing uniformity and standardization on Ontario wines, but not in the positive sense, and preventing innovation and evolution. Although the lows are screened out, so are the highs, which lie outside of the mainstream, a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Hardie’s own 2008 County Chardonnay failed the VQA tasting panel after multiple submissions for a technical fault – excessive sulphides (aka reduction, or flintiness) – despite strong demand from Ontario restaurants, and critical claim at home and abroad. (It was eventually narrowly passed by an appeals panel). Other high-profile failures in the past include Pearl-Morissette’s ‘Black Ball’ Riesling, deemed atypical and oxidized, though it, too, has garnered somewhat of a cultish following in Toronto sommelier circles.

The Benefits of VQA Designation

VQA Logo Leaf B_G BorderNone of this would matter much if obtaining VQA designation weren’t so critical to the financial success of a business. Wines without VQA status (but still 100% grown and produced in Ontario) are forcibly sold at far slimmer margins, under government laws, while VQA-approved wines enjoy significantly enhanced profit margins.

For example, according to a pricing calculator provided by Duncan Gibson, Director of Finance for the Wine Council of Ontario, from a $19.95 bottle of VQA wine sold directly to a restaurant, the winery retains $14.38. The same bottle of wine without VQA designation, sold to the same restaurant at the same price, earns the winery just $9.64, a 33% reduction in profits. Furthermore, non-VQA wines are effectively excluded from the LCBO’s retail distribution network, which leaves only cellar door or licensee-direct sales opportunities. The difference, especially for small wineries, is quite literally the life or death of the business.

As Norm Hardie puts it: “The economic pressure to pass [the VQA tasting panel] is enormous. Winemakers are encouraged to aim inside the box and not to shoot for potential greatness outside of the box, for fear of failure. Without the VQA sticker it is practically impossible for a winery to stay to economically viable.”

Eliminate the margin double standard and the problem is resolved – the panel could carry on maintaining the same standards for VQA wines, while other wineries would be free to pursue their own quality vision for Ontario wines without risking profitability, under some generic appellation designation. The aim of the financial incentive was, logically, to support the nascent Ontario industry, and encourage production of wines that met with VQA approval. But now, it has become a hindrance to further development. As I understand from MacDonald, however, quashing it would require a major government mobilization and take years to push through.

The Panel Process

The VQA hires the LCBO to facilitate the tasting panel process: trained LCBO product consultants taste groups of submitted wines blind at the LCBO laboratory, applying a set of rigid quality standards, established by the VQA. Arbitrary standards are set for acceptable levels, of, for example, volatile acidity, oxidation, sulphides, lack of fruit, and unclean aromas and flavours. And it’s a very tightly run ship. Guidelines, and the results and approval rates, are consistent. That’s not the issue. The real issue is the guidelines themselves.

So the question remains: is the VQA tasting panel’s definition of wine too restrictive? Does upholding minimum quality and style standards come at the expense of stifling experimentation and industry development?

Many, including winemakers and wine buyers, feel that rather than ensure quality, the restrictive mandate of the panel instead now shackles the industry within a very narrow band of acceptable wine styles. Is it time then to eliminate the panel, or at least broaden its definition of acceptable, and allow companies the scope and latitude to follow their own vision of quality?

Such a move would simply recognize the reality that the world wine industry has changed radically in the last decade, and that the thresholds of acceptance of certain aspects of wine, such as volatile acidity, turbidity, oxidation, and brettanomyces, to name just a few, are in constant flux, and change from region to region, country to country, sommelier to sommelier, wine writer to wine writer.

Never has this been more clear than in the last half-dozen years, which have witnessed the rise of ‘counter-culture’ or ‘natural’ wines. A growing cadre of winemakers around the world have begun to reject the limiting definition of ‘quality wine’ that was spawned by numerous wine making schools around the world, obsessed with uniform, standard, technical perfection. They’ve embarked on new trails of experimentation, which in many instances have been the re-discovery of old, pre-industrial trails. And sommeliers, critics and consumers are demanding such wines, viewed as unique and artisanal, reflective of their origins, not a recipe. Who’s to say what’s truly good or bad, authentic or contrived? Everyone has an opinion, but no one has an answer. That’s because there is no single answer.

Skin macerated white wines are a good case in point. Although “orange” wines have become exceedingly popular in bellwether markets like London, New York, Tokyo and San Francisco, such wines currently fall outside of VQA tasting norms and would not be approved. A dossier is currently being drawn up to define skin-macerated white wines in VQA-acceptable terms – I was part of a recent tasting with Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble and a large gathering of professionals to attempt to assess just what the taste/style parameters should be for skin contact whites. But the discussion struck me as doomed from the beginning. Any effort to define necessarily excludes, and I wouldn’t want to be shouldered with the responsibility of defining an entire wine category. Yet that is exactly what the VQA, and the tasting panel it oversees, is expected to do: grapple with the slippery notion of typicity, and box in the notoriously flexible edges of faults and defects.

Ontario would not be alone in implementing change. Australia has eliminated the tasting panel requirement for export approval, faced with the embarrassing reality that certain wines, for which importers were clamoring around the world, had been denied an export certificate based on an arbitrary definition of what’s good. South Africa, too, has overhauled its tastings, adding categories that wholly embrace natural wines. Other countries like the United States never established tasting panels in the first place, opting instead to control origin and labeling only, and let the market decide what is good, as should be the case in any free market economy.

(It’s worth noting, as a side bar, that there is a growing number of imported wines that fail the LCBO or SAQ laboratory tests due to high levels of Volatile Acidity, for example, as determined by arbitrary limits. With enough insistence, however, agents have been able to secure the release of these wines, pre-sold in many cases to an eagerly awaiting market, with the caveat that returns will not be accepted. The point is that there is a market for ‘alternative’ wines. Ontario wineries have no recourse for such a release, if they want the VQA seal of approval and financial benefits.)

The role of the VQA should be first and foremost, like all appellation bodies, to regulate origin and to ensure that wines are safe for public consumption – a mandatory chemical analysis is already provided by the excellent LCBO laboratory for all wines sold in Ontario. Beyond that, in a young region, growing dozens of permitted grape varieties, and with no traditional, established winemaking techniques, how is it possible to determine varietal typicity and intrinsic quality?

Even in Europe, with its long-established history of wine production and traditional wine styles, the regional appellation model is cracking at the seams – many of the rules that were put in place originally often enshrined substandard practices, and top producers are struggling to get out.

It’s true that abolishing the tasting panel would open the door for ‘poor quality’ wines to reach the market under the VQA seal. But the reality is that this is already happening. The rejection rate is extremely low – (on average around 3% of submissions, according to the VQA; the panelists are aware of the economic impact of a rejection). The question is, how many more great wines would be made, how many more ground-breaking wines, how many more successful experimental wines would emerge if winemakers weren’t burdened with the knowledge that a wine must fit into a tidy little box in order to gain VQA approval. I think the risks are worth it. As Hardie states: “An ocean of one-dimensional wines is more damaging than one filled with exciting wines of character, mixed with a few oddball wines on the sidelines.”

And in the end, determining good from bad should be entirely up to you, the consumer. I’d love to hear your comments on the matter – please drop us a line in the comments section below.

Smart Buys from Southern France 

VINTAGES surprises with the February 6th feature on southern France, listing a range of decidedly edgy, out of the box, and notably premium-priced selections. This is anything but a ‘safe’ selection of predictable but dull, widely appealing, commercial wines. Rather, the lineup includes a number of bold and intense, characterful wines, the kind that may polarize the room, but at least force you to take notice. It was refreshing to taste through the releases.

My top value for money is the Cave de Roquebrun 2013 La Grange Des Combes, Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun ($18.95). What a distinctive blend of 50% syrah, with grenache and mourvèdre! It’s rare to find sub-$20 wines with this much character, class and complexity, balance and concentration, grown on the poor schist soils of Roquebrun in northern St. Chinian (Langedoc). This is all cold cream, black pepper, smoke and tar, dried garrigue and much more, over dense dark fruit, aged in stainless steel. Chapeau bas, I’d say, best 2016-2025.

Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes 2013 Château Pech Redon L'épervier La Clape 2012 Domaine Houchart 2013

Slightly more edgy and bold is the Château Pech-Redon 2012 L’épervier La Clape, Coteaux du Languedoc ($24.95), a stylish, modern, very ripe and wood-inflected red blend (syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and carignan), flirting with volatility (acetic and acetone), and with dense and firm tannic structure. This has impressive depth of flavour and complexity, not to mention length. Palate-warming alcohol (14.5% declared) drives the finish home on wintry nights. Best 2016-2022.

Although Provençal wine production, and exports, are overwhelmingly pink, the region is home to supremely savoury red wines, like the fine value Domaine Houchart 2013 Red, Côtes de Provence ($16.95). This is a typical blend of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, carignan and syrah from near Aix-en-Provence, but somewhere between Bordeaux and the southern Rhône in style. Garrigue and fresh black fruit flavours mingle comfortably, offering above-average complexity, and lively, food-friendly acids. I’d serve this with a chill alongside pâtés, charcuterie and tomato-based sauces. Best 2016-2021.

But if rosé it must be (and it should be enjoyed outside the summer months), pick up former rugby star Gérard Bertand’s 2014 Côte des Roses Rosé, Languedoc ($18.95). It’s a lovely, classic southern French rosé blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah crafted in the Provençal style, which is to say, pale, delicate, fruity and bone dry, a sheer pleasure to sip and showing beautifully right now. The stylish package will make an impression on Valentine’s Day, too.

Gérard Bertrand Côte Des Roses Rosé 2014 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf Du Pape 2012 Beauvignac Picpoul de Pinet 2014

Although not technically part of the thematic but grown in southern France just the same, the top red in the genre is hands-down the exceptional Château La Nerthe 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($49.95). 2012 provided for a rich and heady, ripe but balanced vintage, made from nearly equal parts Grenache and Syrah, with 14% Mourvèdre and 5% Cinsault, aged two-thirds in barrel and one-third in foudre. It hits a pitch-perfect marriage of fruit, earth, and spice, as well as acid, tannin and alcohol, meaning that this should age exceedingly well, even if it’s already a joy to drink right now. Consider this an archetype from the modern end of the spectrum, best 2018-2028.

And finally, if you want to run the southern French theme all evening, start off with the fresh and engaging Beauvignac 2014 Picpoul de Pinet AP ($14.95). Picpoul from around the seaside town Pinet is considered the Muscadet of the Languedoc, and this is indeed a fruity and crunchy, aperitif-style white, or perfect accompaniment with the fish/seafood course.

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

John Szabo, MS

From VINTAGES February 6, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys: Southern France
All February 6th 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 – Jan 23, 2016

From Macedonia to the Snake River in Idaho
By John Szabo MS with wine notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Last week I covered the two main features of the January 23rd release, Portugal and South America, with some thoughts on where you’ll likely find the best wine values in 2016. This week, the whole WineAlign crü weighs in with their top smart buys from all regions, covering a wide swath of the world from Macedonia to the Snake River in Idaho, with a little California sunshine thrown in for good measure.

Buyer’s Guide to January 23rd Whites: 

Porcupine Ridge 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa ($13.95)
John Szabo – A subtle and smoky, fairly rich and concentrated sauvignon blanc, especially in this price category. This has ample complexity and depth to satisfy, not to mention fine length.

Domaine de la Janasse 2014 Côtes du Rhône Blanc, Rhône, France ($21.95)
John Szabo – Every time I taste great Rhône whites like this, I wonder why I don’t drink them more often, especially in these cooler months. This is a really lovely, rich, salty, fruity, and complex white, balanced and flavourful, with genuine flavour concentration. I love the white flowers, marzipan and cherry blossom flavours added to the symphony of white fleshed orchard fruit. Best 2016-2022.
Sara d’Amato – A brother and sister duo leads the winemaking team at the innovative Domaine of La Janasse in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Proficient winemakers are exactly what were required in the cool and rainy year of 2014 to manage and compensate for this unusual vintage. This refreshingly zesty blend dominated by grenache blanc is packed with peachy, citrus flavour and a mouthfilling texture. Highly memorable.

Marchand-Tawse 2011 Saint Romain, Burgundy, France ($31.95)
John Szabo – This is fine, old school white Burgundy with great complexity and plenty of chalky texture and flavour from Pascal Marchand and partner Moray Tawse (owner of Tawse and Redstone wineries in Niagara). It’s bright and sharp, still lightly reductive, flinty, with inviting lemon custard and green nut flavours. Drink or hold this into the twenties without concern – the acids will hold this together for some time yet. Best 2016-2021.
Sara d’Amato – A Burgundian-Canadian collaborative negociant project that has proved immensely successful, consistently delivering top examples of a range of appellations throughout Burgundy. Saint-Romain’s characteristic notes of white flower, dried herbs and mineral are nicely expressed on the palate of this fresh and focused chardonnay.

Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Domaine de La Janasse Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2014 Marchand Tawse Saint Romain 2011 Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2014Domaine Chevallier Chablis 2014Martin Ray Chardonnay 2013

Blue Mountain 2014 Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, BC  ($24.95)
David Lawrason – The Mavety family purchased their stunning property in 1971 and have created Canada’s finest 100% estate winery, farmed organically from the beginning. The result – up and down their portfolio – are wines of real structure and depth. This subtle barely oaked chardonnay shows a lovely, generous aromas of ripe apple nicely framed by vanillin, subtle herbs/fennel and spice. It’s medium-full bodied, fairly intense with great grip. I would age it a year or two.

Domaine Chevallier 2014 Chablis, Burgunday, France ($23.95)
Sara d’Amato – A dependable favourite of VINTAGES, this new vintage is a superb value delivering an authentic, traditional  Chablis at an impressive depth. A terrific match for moules marinières.

Martin Ray 2013 Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($28.95)
David Lawrason – Martin Ray was a pioneer of boutique California winemaking. He was based in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The winery that now bears his name is centred in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County. This suave, rich chardonnay has fine bones, showing welcome restraint for California chardonnay with lovely subtle aromas of yellow/Japanese pear, gentle wood spice, dried herbs. Very focused, poised and complete with excellent length.

Russian River Valley Vineyards ©John Szabo, MS

Russian River Valley Vineyards ©John Szabo, MS

Buyer’s Guide to January 23rd Reds: 

Tormaresca 2012 Trentangeli, Castel del Monte, Puglia, Italy ($19.95)
John Szabo – Antinori’s establishment of the 100 hectare Boca di Lupo estate, certified organic and within view of the Vulture volcano next door in Basilicata, was a real shot in the arm for Puglia, historically a bulk wine producing region. Fans of plush and dense reds will love this blend of aglianico with cabernet and syrah, delivering massive fruit extract – the sort of modern style southern Italian red wine that turns heads in North America. Best 2016-2022.

Vincent Girardin 2013 Vieilles Vignes Santenay, Burgundy, France ($37.95)
John Szabo – Genuine values in Burgundy are few and far between, so it’s tempting to snap them up when they appear. Vincent Girardin has been a reliable name in the negociant world of Burgundy for as long as I remember, and this is a particularly compelling red from the southernmost commune in the Côte d’Or, best left for another 2-4 years in the cellar. It’s more structured and vibrant than the mean; I like the juiciness and vibrancy, and the tanginess on offer. Best 2018-2025.

Popov Versnik 2011 Merlot Tikves, Republic of Macedonia ($13.95)
John Szabo – Go on, get out of your comfort zone and try this exceptional fine value from Macedonia. You’ll be surprised, as I was, by the complexity delivered here, as well as firm structure and spicy fruit flavours. This would not be out of place in a tasting of premium Right Bank Bordeaux.

Tormaresca Trentangeli 2012 Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes Santenay 2013 Popov Versnik Merlot 2011Château des Demoiselles 2010

Château Des Demoiselles 2010 Castillon – Côtes de Bordeaux, France ($17.95)
David Lawrason – There is a fine little tranche of 2010 Bordeaux on this release, and this is a great value example – a delish yet structured merlot from the region neighbouring St. Emilion up-river.  It nicely combines ripe berry fruit, cream, oak spice and some gentle earthiness. There is some green tannin and heat, and it has very good fruit and depth at the price.

Carpineto 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy  ($29.95)
David Lawrason – From a leading Tuscan family, here’s an estate Chianti Classico from an excellent vintage. It is showing great lift, presence and maturing complexity. The nose is nicely spiked with meaty and herbal bits, but also with classic sangiovese currants, vanillin and smoke. It’s mid-weight, firm and tart edged, and the length is excellent. Still could use a year or two.

Terrazas de los Andes 2013 Reserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($18.95)
David Lawrason – The challenge with inexpensive, young malbec is how to balance such a big-boned, flavourful and often tannic wine – without resorting to sweetness and trickery.  Not sure of the secret here but it is a very complete, natural and detailed malbec with ripe blackberry, subtle herbs, licorice and oak. So well stitched and effortless. One of my favourite Argentine producers year after year.

Carpineto Chianti Classico Riserva 2010 Terrazas de Los Andes Reserva Malbec 2013 Ste. Chapelle Gem State Red 2012 Mocali Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Ste. Chapelle 2012 Gem State Red, Snake River Valley, Idaho, USA ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Idaho is known as the “Gem State” due to its abundance of natural resources and its substantial rare mineral deposits. Although this is not the first release in VINTAGES of a wine from Idaho, such an offering easily qualifies as a seldom seen, curio selection. The Snake River valley is a shared appellation that also runs into the state of Oregon and produces fresh and elegant reds nicely portrayed in this value-priced example from Ste. Chapelle.

Mocali 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rosso Toscano, Tuscany, Italy ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – In a “Super Tuscan” style, this inexpensive IGT delivers impressive power and structure for the price.  It’s bold and satisfying, and may just cure the chills, though a touch tannic, so be sure to decant and pair with a salty protein.

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

From VINTAGES January 23rd, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
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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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Jan 23, 2016

Playing the Currency Markets; Portugal and South America
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The Canadian dollar took a beating last year, and continues to languish against most currencies. While this is good news for exporters, it’s nothing but strife for importers, who must continually wrangle with their suppliers and distributors over whose belt gets tightened to maintain steady prices.

In the Ontario wine world, however, there’s no wrangling with the retailer. The LCBO doesn’t cut margins to keep shelf prices of import wines steady. The onus is instead on the supplier, or the supplier’s Ontario agent, to cut profits, or see shelf prices rise. And even a $1 or $2 increase in the most vulnerable sub-$20 category can have a direct and dramatic effect on sales.

Last week, the Canadian dollar reached a 10-year low vis-à-vis the US dollar, dropping nearly 20% over the course of the past year. And the trend is predicted to continue. The full effects of that significant bottoming out have yet to be felt. The LCBO buying cycle is very long, often more than 6 months, so most of what is currently on the shelves was purchased at a more favourable exchange. And large companies can buffer currency fluctuations with foreign exchange reserves – for a while – but not forever. So you can expect to see the prices of all your favourite Californian wines inch inexorably upward in 2016, and real values will be ever more elusive.

The Euro on the other hand, gained a relatively modest 6% against our dollar in 2015, which, to be fair was already very strong in previous years, but is predicted to trend sideways or even lose against the dollar in 2016. The Australian dollar remained steady last year, and the Argentine peso actually dropped 4% against the dollar. The Chilean peso was almost steady, but the sputtering South African Rand has been on a downward spiral for several years, losing around half of its value in the last five years against our loonie.

So, what does this mean? In terms of pure currency exchange, for my money, the bargains to be found in 2016 will come from Europe’s already depressed economies, namely Spain and Portugal, and South America, while Australia will continue to regain the market share it lost in the first decade of the millennium. South Africa has been one of the best bargains of all in recent memory, and will continue to impress at every level.

Now factoring production costs into the equation, my predictions are similar. Wine is cheaper to produce in all of the above-named countries compared to the US or northern Europe. This same group of countries will be the ones to watch when seeking the biggest bang for your buck.

Portugal and South America – Playing the Markets

And as if to drive home the point, by luck or coincidence, or improbable foresight, the January 23rd VINTAGES release features a fine range of values from both Portugal and South America.

Portugal in particular is producing wines of exceptional quality at prices that hardly seem sustainable. For Europhiles looking for their fix of savoury, dusty, firm reds under $20, Portugal should be the first stop.

The Barão de Vilar 2012 Proeza, DOC Dão ($13.95) is a case in point, made by a port house belonging to the Van Zeller family. Proeza is a collection of wines from “meaningful” Portuguese regions, and this Dão is indeed a tidy little value, not fabulously complex or life changing, and a touch sweet, but at least as good as many similar wines at twice the price.

Similarly, the Flor de Maio 2012 Mayflower, Vinho Regional Alentejano ($13.95) is fine and spicy-floral, savoury red blend (Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Trincadeira, Aragonez, Cabernet Sauvignon) aged in stainless steel, juicy and firm, perfectly serviceable for the money, made by a partnership of three enologists under the company Magnum Vinhos. In fact, the complexity is quite high and the balance very good for the sub-$15 category.

Barão De Vilar Proeza 2012 Flor De Maio Mayflower 2012 Vale Do Bomfim 2013 Pomares Tinto 2011

It’s clear that the low prices for Douro table wines cannot be maintained. Once considered an afterthought, and subsidized by grapes destined for port wine production, the high production costs of dry Douro reds – made essentially from the same steep, low yielding vineyards as port – are not currently reflected in their price. Enjoy the likes of the Vale do Bomfim 2013 ($15.95) and the Pomares 2011 Tinto ($16.95) while you can. Both are representative of the region, on soft and supple frames. The former is attractively dark-fruited, the latter plush and supple, spicy and licorice-tinged. Each offers plenty of pleasure, and drinkability for the money.

South America

South America, on the other hand, is a value haven for fans of new world style, generously proportioned fruit forward wines. Chile is particularly dynamic. A country in the midst of a comprehensive renovation from monochromatic cabernet and chardonnay, to a multi-coloured display of depth and diversity. One of the most exciting developments is the re-discovery of a wealth of old vines of once-unfashionable varieties, mainly in the deep south, and their revalorization.

The 2011 Santa Carolina Specialties Dry Farming Carignan, Cauquenes Valley, Chile ($17.95) is a prime example, made from 80 year-old vines dry-farmed in the Maule Valley. Santa Carolina’s Specialties range is where you’ll find the company’s most exciting wines, and this is an attractively herbal, succulent and juicy, yet still fruity, very ripe, almost liqueur-like carignan. 15% alcohol is high, but think of this in, say, a southern Rhône context and you’ll see that it fits into the world of fine value, with a savoury edge. Try with braised meat dishes.

But Chile also still does classic cabernet as well as anyone, as in the Cono Sur 2014 Single Vineyard El Recurso Block 18 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.95). It’s a high-toned but varietally accurate Maipo Valley red from the company’s top vineyard, which finds a balance between succulent and juicy fruit, neither over nor under ripe. Modest wood influence adds another layer, rather than dominates, the flavour profile. Decant and serve with salty protein.

Chile has long been a source of particularly good value sauvignon blanc, and Casa Silva’s 2014 Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($16.95) from the far out Paredones sub-region of the Colchagua Valley captures the cool pacific influence nicely in its lean, bright, sharp, and tangy and profile, as the name promises.

Santa Carolina Specialties Dry Farming Carignan 2011 Cono Sur Single Vineyard El Recurso Block 18 Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Viña Cobos Felino Chardonnay 2014 Trapiche Broquel Bonarda 2013

Over in Argentina, the market is still overwhelmingly dominated by malbec, but fans of rich and creamy west coast style chardonnay will love the Viña Cobos 2014 Felino Chardonnay, Mendoza ($19.95) by peripatetic winemaker Paul Hobbs. It delivers multiple layers and terrific texture, seamless, with excellent length, a fail-safe option to bring to any gathering.

For something other than malbec from Mendoza, check out the Trapiche Broquel 2013 Bonarda ($14.95) Made from a grape I’d like to see more of, this is a juicy, dark, succulent red with a touch of coffee liqueur on the finish from toasted wood, but still a fine mouthful of wine for the price.

That’s it for my VINTAGES Preview, but we’ll be back next week with our complete BUYERS’ Guide for the January 23rd release, with David and Sara’s picks as well.

See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

From VINTAGES January 23, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys: Portugal and South America
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 – Jan 9, 2016

Finding Value in the VINTAGES section
By John Szabo MS with wine notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Dear WineAligners,

Top of the New Year to you! December was a record-breaking month for us. Nearly 250,000 of you read close to million pages of wine reviews and news. We’re thrilled that you came to us for advice and suggestions, and we sincerely hope you found what you were looking for. 2016 looks to be even bigger and better. We’ll be rolling out our newly redesigned, mobile-friendly website in the first quarter, with additional features, new columnists, more comprehensive coverage, and more reviews than ever. If you’re passionate about drink and food, WineAlign will be your top bookmarked page in 2016.

In this report we cover the January 9th VINTAGES release, with the annual focus on value. I’ve covered the top European value releases, while David covers the new world, and Sara spots her top picks from all worlds. If your cellar was depleted, like mine was over the holidays, it’s time to restock. Wines from seven countries make the list this week, all under $25.

Buyers Guide For January 9th: Best Buys under $25

White and Sparkling

Pupillo 2010 Cyane Moscato, Sicilia, Italy ($18.95)
John Szabo – It’s curious to see this released now – a dry, five year-old muscat from Sicily. But it’s far from past prime; it offers an arrestingly complex mix of dried, yellow-fleshed orchard fruit, mango and melon, bees-wax, honey, and baking spice, while the palate delivers genuine depth and concentration, and a lovely creamy texture. It’s idiosyncratic to be sure, but well worth discovering; try it at the table with herbed pork roast or veal scaloppini.
Sara d’Amato – Pupillo devotes most of their energy to the production of wines of the moscato variety and they are passionately devoted to the cause of reviving Sicily’s most ancient DOC, that of Moscato di Siracusa. This curious, dry, going on six-year old IGT moscato is wildly complex and thought-provoking. A touch oxidative but drinking beautifully now and offers an impressive range of flavours.

Donnachiara 2013 Irpinia Coda di Volpe, Campania, Italy ($16.95)
John Szabo – There’s lots of character for the money in this native Campania white made by the charismatic Ilaria Pettito, aromatically subdued, but intriguingly earthy and herbal. The palate is mid-weight with fine drive and length; I like the cooked lemon and wet clay-like character. Ready to enjoy.

Pupillo Cyane Moscato 2010 Donnachiara Irpinia Coda di Volpe 2013 Fred Loimer Lois Grüner Veltliner 2013

Fred Loimer 2013 Lois Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal, Austria ($17.95)
John Szabo – Although this is Fred Loimer’s entry-level Grüner, and not certified biodynamic like the rest of the range, the Lois 2013 is drinking marvellously at the moment and is well worth the money. It functions in both the aperitif slot, as well as with substantial dishes: fish, white meat, for example.
Sara d’Amato – A textbook grüner with spine-tingling vibrancy, focus and great purity. Tangy lime, bitter almond and cool stone dominate the mid-weight palate. Pair with raw oysters or sashimi.

Mulderbosch 2015 Chenin Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa ($14.95)
David Lawrason – This is very good buy in SA chenin – one of the leading value white wine categories in the world right now. It has complexity well beyond its price, offering mid-winter warmth, almost non-oaked tropical fruit richness. Roast pork or ham could work very nicely.

Alamos 2015 Torrontés, Salta, Argentina ($14.95)
David Lawrason – Sourced from the higher elevation Salta region where torrontes thrives; this is very bright – ringing with classic, lavender/Easter lily florality, lemongrass and lime. Very nicely balanced, with just right acid-sugar level and dryness. Great with Asian meals, but save a few bottles for spring sipping.

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2015 Alamos Torrontés 2015 Château d'Argadens Blanc 2014 Familia Zuccardi Cuvée Especial Blanc de Blancs

Château d’Argadens 2014 Blanc, Bordeaux, France ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – In the shadow of glorious reds, dry white Bordeaux often gets overlooked on this side of the pond. Styles of this sauvignon blanc/semillon blend can vary between smoky-oaky to more floral, fruit-forward, aromatic examples such as this compelling offering. Try with soft, ripe cheeses or fish and chips.

Familia Zuccardi Cuvée Especial Blanc de Blancs, Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Mendoza’s high elevation sites make for some pretty special sparkling wine, often produced in a Traditional Method style. Immensely popular in South America, these well-priced bubbles rarely make it to Ontario. This non-vintage chardonnay cuvée balances mineral and razor-sharp freshness with comforting notes of warm bread on its ample palate.

Red

Domaine Dupré 2012 Vignes de 1935 Morgon, Beaujolais, France ($19.95)
John Szabo – As the cuvée name implies, this wine hails from a small parcel planted in 1935 called Les Cras, on the hill of Morgon, origin of most of Beaujolais’s sturdiest crus. The nose is textbook – all stone-tinged tart red berry fruit – while the palate offers lively acids, light tannins but with a firm grip, and lingering, juicy finish. Delicious wine, best 2016-2020.

Thunevin-Calvet 2012 Cuvée Constance, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, France ($18.95)
John Szabo – Those looking for a satisfying winter wine under $20 will find comfort and shelter here in this deeply coloured, deeply fruity, plush, dark and immediately appealing red from Bordeaux bad boy Jean-Luc Thunevin (of Chateau Valandraud in Saint Emilion) and his southern partner Jean-Roger Calvet. Evolving from a garagiste operation to a modern domaine with 60 hectares, I’d guess this was made with all of the technological advancements currently available; it’s designed to impress upon release, which it does. 15% alcohol declared gives this a warm and mouth filling impression, but it’s backed by a whack of ripe and concentrated fruit and an impression of sweetness. Best 2016-2020.

Domaine Dupré Vignes de 1935 Morgon 2012 Thunevin Calvet Cuvée Constance 2012 Aydie l'Origine Madiran 2012

Aydie 2012 l’Origine Madiran, Southwest, France ($14.95)
John Szabo – Fans of classic old world reds will appreciate this structured, earthy-spicy blend (70% tannat with 30% cabernets – sauvignon and franc), firm but not hard or unyielding.  This would even benefit from another year or three in the cellar – an attractive value for the money. Best 2016-2022.

Honoro Vera 2013 Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain ($15.95)
John Szabo – This is a fine, generous and juicy, savoury and fruity old vine garnacha from northern Spain, at a very attractive price. Tannins are soft but the palate maintains some tension and freshness, while wet concrete and resinous herb flavours add complexity. Serve with a light chill. Best 2016-2019.

Indomita 2013 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile ($15.95)
David Lawrason – Indomita has splashy modern winery in Casablanca but goes to its Alto Maipo estate for cabernet. No profound depth here, but it is well structured, dry and classic without resorting to undue sweetness and oak influence. A cab lover’s cab with a hint of greenness but also classic currant fruit, and a touch of graphite.
Sara d’Amato – A generous cabernet sauvignon with an old world feel from Chile’s most historically steeped wine region. There is a seductive darkness and density to this aromatic red with very fine oak. Tastes twice the price.

Honoro Vera Garnacha 2013 Indomita Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Nieto Senetiner Don Nicanor 2012 Montes Limited Selection Carménere 2012

Nieto Senetiner 2012 Don Nicanor Cabernet/Malbec/Merlot, Mendoza, Argentina ($16.95)
David Lawrason – This traditional house has more Euro, textural approach to winemaking that nicely buffs the edges of often brash young Argentine reds. Sourcing from 40 year old vines helps. This is quite classy, and the one South American red on this release that I would pick off the shelf for a classic mid-winter prime rib, with mashed potatoes and gravy all in.

Montes Limited 2012 Selection Carmenère, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($14.95)
David Lawrason – Montes has always been a go-to Chilean producer but of late I am sensing an extra degree of purity (varietal acuity) and depth in its less expensive wines. So if you like your carmenere with lifted currants, greenness and cedar this one is textbook and ultra-Chilean. Roast lamb.

Sister’s Run 2012 Bethlehem Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($15.95)
David Lawrason – This is a very stylish, great value 100% Barossa-grown, 100% cabernet by winemaker Elena Brooks, one of the said sisters. This has an intense, very ripe, chocolate mint, blackcurrant and graphite nose. I really like the energy and mid-palate balance (reminded me of Coonawarra).

Sister's Run Bethlehem Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Château des Aladères Sélection Vieilles Vignes 2012 Michel Gassier Nostre Païs 2012

Château des Aladères 2012 Sélection Vieilles Vignes, Corbières, Languedoc-Roussillon, France ($14.95)
Sara d’Amato – Corbières produces an abundance of lavish, spicy reds of excellent value and here is a fine example. A blend of syrah, carignan and grenache made entirely in stainless steel vats allowing the fruit to expresses itself fully and generously. A punchy and powerful red with wide appeal.

Michel Gassier 2012 Nostre Païs, Costières de Nîmes, Languedoc-Roussillon, France ($22.95)
Sara d’Amato – Soft, supple and enveloping, this low-yielding, hand-picked, organically farmed red blends local varieties: grenache, syrah, carignan and mourvèdre. Balanced, inviting and comforting in a full-flavoured, unfiltered style.

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

From VINTAGES January 9th, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
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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John Szabo’s Annual Fizz Report

A look at the Best Bubbles in Ontario
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

As the year is winding down and celebrations are ramping up, it’s time for the annual look at the best bubbles available in Ontario. Read on to find the top buys in all categories, from inexpensive everyday, to stroke of midnight extravagance, from LCBO shelves to top agents’ consignment portfolios. Also featured in this report are some thoughts on the expanding universe of grower champagne and a spotlight on several leading producers and available champagnes. And since oyster season is in full delicious swing, I’ve posted a separate article – a special panel review of all-time favourite wine and oysters pairings. To do so, I enlisted a crack squad of oyster-loving experts from various fields to re-test the benchmark matches, and experiment with some improbable outliers, with a classic selection of oysters at Rodney’s oyster paradise in downtown Toronto. Serious oyster lovers will not want to skip this. Happy Holidays.

Special Report: Grower Champagne

Broadening the Appellation’s Horizons

If you’re a champagne lover, chances are you heard about the rise of “grower champagne” over the last decade. These are champagnes made by producers who own their own vineyards and grow all of their own grapes, and can be identified by the tiny letters “RM” on the label, which stand for Récoltant-Manipulant or essentially “harvester-producer”. Such wines are often contrasted with those made by large houses, who purchase most of their grape and/or wine requirements, denoted by the letters “NM”, or Négociant-Manipulant, or “buyer-producer”.

While grape growers and purchasers co-exist in most of the world’s regions, the distinction is especially important in Champagne since, rather uniquely for France, the overwhelming majority of wines from the region are produced by companies who own few, if any vineyards, and purchase all, or at least some, of their grape needs from among the region’s 16,000 or so growers.

The reasons for this are both practical and historical. For one, traditional method sparkling wine production is both capital and knowledge-intensive. To produce top quality champagne requires significant technical expertise – it is, after all, a highly processed type of wine that hinges on many small steps. Equipment is also expensive; the type of press, for example, is central to quality outcome. Time is also a major cost. Even basic champagne must be cellared for at least 15 months before it can be legally sold, while vintage-dated champagne requires 36 months, minimums which all of the best producers regularly exceed. This means that while all of those nouveau producers are rolling in cash mere weeks after harvest, champagne producers are footing a frightening inventory bill, and digging ever-deeper caves to store all of those bottles.

Considering that even today very few Champenois farmers have either the knowledge or the cash flow to fund production, the logical outcome is for a few large houses to buy the grapes, and to produce and distribute the wines. The situation is similar to Burgundy a generation ago, when grape growing was in the hands of farmers with fractured, tiny holdings, and production and distribution were managed by large negociants. The rise of domaine-bottled Burgundy has been the biggest change in that region in the last half century. And now Champagne seems headed in the same direction. This is excellent news for consumers.

Now, this is not an anti-grandes marques manifesto. The success, financial and otherwise, of the region’s growing cadre of RMs is due in no small measure to the centuries of work and investment in the region of the big houses – Champagne Charlie (Heidsieck), the Veuve Clicquot, Louise Pommery and many other great past figures of the Champagne industry are singularly responsible for the region’s technical advancements, its worldwide reputation, its intimate association with prestige and celebration, its luxury prices. Without the grandes marques and their significant investment in the region’s image, champagne would be utterly different.

Nor are large brands necessarily inferior. In an ironic twist, growing competition from small producers has raised the quality bar for everyone, forcing all of the major houses to pull up their socks (much like what has occurred in Burgundy). Many large houses now own at least some vineyards of their own, drawing on these holdings to produce their prestige cuvées, as is the case for Roederer’s exceptional Cristal, for example.

But the reality is that most of the big brands are predicated on consistency, regularity and volume, aspects that are incompatible with the very French notion of the uniqueness of terroir. Buy a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in Paris or Singapore or Toronto, at any time, and it will taste the same. In the world of brands, consistency is king. For many, this is comforting.

But consistency and quantity necessitate a vast blending operation to smooth out unwanted variation: multiple grapes, multiple vintages and hundreds of vineyard parcels are pieced together like a puzzle to create a consistent image, one that matches a house philosophy, not a vineyard expression. Along the way, of course, you obliterate the finer nuances of terroir, aside from the general character of the Champagne region itself.

Indeed it’s striking that there is just one single appellation that covers the entire Champagne region and its 34,000 hectares of vines, especially in such a terroir-obsessed country. To put things in perspective, Burgundy, which has about 6,000 fewer hectares of vines from Chablis to Mâcon, has well over 600 appellations, counting all of the premier crus of the Côte d’Or. In a region as large as Champagne, there are naturally dramatic differences within; no one would reasonably claim that Champagne as a whole shares a similar terroir.

To give just one example, as any wine student will tell you, champagne grows on chalk – a critical piece of the terroir puzzle. But in reality, the entire Aube/Côte des Bar region in southern Champagne, which accounts for a whopping 20% of production, is not on chalk at all but rather Kimmeridgian marl, much more similar to Chablis or Sancerre than the vineyards of Epernay. The articulation of such a marked difference, which in other parts of France would surely have merited an entirely separate appellation, is blended away into voluminous cuvées of pre-determined character.

What grower champagnes are providing, and what makes them of great interest to consumers who value nuanced expression and individuality, is a more detailed and diverse reflection of the region and all of its glorious variations. The aim is most often singular character, not homogeneous blend. Drawing from small, isolated holdings in specific sub-regions within Champagne, such wines are almost necessarily idiosyncratic. In short, grower champagnes are bridging the gap between industrial and artisanal, making the region more closely resemble every other great wine region in the world, giving voice to individual terroirs, enriching the landscape. “It’s an industrialized region which could benefit greatly from real artisanal work,” says Olivier Collin of Champagne Ulysses Collin, a young grower producing compelling, if controversial, wines.

There are some more technical reasons to consider grower champagnes, related to quality. For one, grape growers are motivated to pick early, at higher yields and with risk less, harvesting up to the maximum permitted limit. It’s rarely discussed, but if the maximum limit is set at, say, 14,000 kilos/hectare, you may end up growing 18,000kg to hedge your bets. In the end you can only harvest 14,000 kilos, and leave the rest for the birds. Over production goes unrecorded, which of course defeats the purpose of restricting yields in the first place. Since the grower is only concerned with the price he/she receives per kilo, and needn’t worry about selling the wine produced from the grapes, there’s a big disconnect in the production chain. And few growers make their living exclusively from grapes, and thus vineyards are often tended to like a hobby, if and when possible.

Growers who intend to produce and then sell their wines necessarily approach the vineyard with a completely different philosophy, with an eye on the end, not just the means. As Jean-Hervé Chiquet from Jacquesson points out, “we couldn’t be the largest, nor could we be the cheapest. Our only option was to aim to be the best.” It’s a philosophy that prevails amongst all of the best RMs, or rather a sine qua non in the hyper-competitive champagne market. Lacking the seemingly limitless promotional budgets of the big houses, these wines have to fight on quality. You can be sure that a far greater percentage of the dollars you spend on a bottle of grower champagne goes toward production cost – riper grapes at reduced yields, smaller press fractions, small batch fermentations, etc. Value is one of the RMs’ strongest selling points.

Yet RM on a label is no more a guarantee of quality than any other independent vigneron’s name. There are distinct disadvantages to being an exclusive grower operation in a marginal climate like Champagne’s. Should your vineyards fail to produce quality grapes in a given vintage, there’s no recourse to purchase grapes from elsewhere. Small growers often lack the resources to obtain top equipment, or hold on to reserves of old wines for blending in non-vintage cuvées to add layers of complexity, for example. And if it isn’t obvious by now, good grape growers are not necessarily good winemakers. There are plenty of quirky, idiosyncratic or downright poor bottles of grower champagne on the market.

But the success rate is climbing. “20 years ago, the grandes marques were pretty much the only ones making top wines”, says Chiquet. “But that is changing very quickly.” Chiquet is quick to point out that there aren’t necessarily more growers bottling their own champagne today – some 4,500 growers out of 16,000, or just over a quarter, also produce wine, albeit very often in tiny quantities for family use or local distribution. “But there are many more who are making better wine”, he continues. “20 years ago there were maybe 5 or 6 good growers, now there are at least ten times that.”

The bottom line for consumers is that Champagne’s landscape is now far richer and more varied, with quality and diversity growing apace. There will always be a place for the celebrated prestige cuvées from household names to be sure, for the comfort of a consistent and reliable product. But there is a growing pool of more personal expressions of champagne from which to choose, if you can filter out all the bling and concentrate on the wine. 

Special Buyer’s Guide Feature: Grower Champagne

Gatinois NV Champagne Grand Cru de Aÿ Réserve Brut ($74.52, 6/case)

Jacquesson Cuvée 738 Extra Brut Champagne 2010 Fleury Blanc De Noirs Brut Champagne Gatinois Nv Champagne Grand Cru De Aÿ Réserve BrutGatinois is a small, seven-hectare family operation now into the 12th generation, centered on the grand cru village of Aÿ in the Montagne de Reims. Bottles are still hand-riddled and hand-disgorged. The Reserve Brut (85% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay) includes 30% of reserve wines, the oldest in the house, and is given 36 months on the lees, followed by a year in bottle before release. The current bottling, based on the 2010 vintage and the first for the young Louis Cheval, is the best I’ve tasted yet from Gatinois, powerful, balanced, and complex, on the drier side of brut, with superb length. Availability: consignment via Le Sommelier.

Fleury NV Champagne Blanc de Noirs Brut ($54.95)

Fleury was established in 1895, and became Champagne’s first fully biodynamic producer in1989. This pure pinot noir cuvée from the estate’s vineyards in the Côte des Bar Champagne (Fleury also purchases a small quantity of biodynamically grown grapes from various partners) is crafted in a powerful, mature style, gently oxidative, fully toasty. Dosage comes in at a modest eight grams, putting this on the drier side of the balance. Excellent length. Availability: consignment via The Living Vine.

Jacquesson NV Cuvée 738 Extra Brut Champagne, France ($88.00)

Jacquesson is technically an “NM”, though since taking over from their father in 1988, Jean-Hervé and his brother Laurent have increased family holdings and eliminated all but the best vineyards under contract, all in their home village of Dizy where they can closely monitor quality. And quality across the range is impeccable. Cuvée 738 is a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier based on the 2010 harvest, with about 1/3 reserve wines included in the blend. It’s not a vintage champagne, but the house policy at Jacquesson is to create the best possible wine each year, so there’s considerable difference from year to year, hence the cuvée number to allow consumers to distinguish different bottlings. “Equalizing works both ways, sometimes you have to lower the quality to equalize”, says Chiquet, criticizing he standard NV policy. 2010 was a tough year in champagne, especially for the pinots, hence the high percentage of chardonnay here – just over 60 %. The quality nonetheless is remarkable: pure and driving, finessed and immensely elegant and fresh, virtually bone dry but genuinely ripe. I love the pure white chocolate and hazelnut, and citrus and floral notes. Lees autolysis is subtle but rounds out the texture nicely; dosage is low. Top class champagne. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Agrapart NV Champagne Complantée Extra Brut ($98.00)

Ulysse Collin Champagne Blanc De Blancs Les Perrièrs Extra Brut Gimonnet Champagne Special Club Terre De Chardonnay 2006 Agrapart Champagne Complantee Extra Brut4th generation growers Pascal and Fabrice Agrapart are among the leading figures in the realm of grower champagnes, with family production stretching back to the late 19th century. 12 hectares in the Côte des Blancs (in the grand crus villages of Avize, Oger, Cramant, and Oiry) are divided into 50 parcels with an average age of 40 years, some over 65 years old. The complantée is a fascinating wine composed of all seven permitted grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, pinot blanc, arbane and petite meslier, from 2010 and 2011, grown in a tiny 0.2ha parcel in Avize. The base wine is wild-fermented in 600l cask, given full malolactic and long lees ageing in barrel, followed by 4 year on lees in the bottle. Dosage is kept to 5 grams. This drinks as much like a Blanc de Blancs as any, with superb freshness and delicacy, racy acids and brilliant complexity. A wine of grand finesse and class, which seems to confirm Agrapart’s assumption that terroir trumps variety. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Gimonnet 2006 Champagne Special Club Terre de Chardonnay ($100)

Olivier & Didier Gimonnet have an impressive 28 hectares of Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs, in the premiers crus villages of Cuis et Vertus, and grand crus Cramant, Chouilly and Oger. Of note here is the high average vine age, with some vines planted in 1911 and 1913 still producing; only massale selection is used to replace individual vines. The vintage Special Club is the top offering, a pure chardonnay from mostly the old vines of Cramant, and the 2006 shows archetypal Blanc de Blancs freshness and tension, pitched perfectly between the fresh brioche flavours from lees contact and subtle, succulent lemon curd and, hazelnut and white chocolate complexity. A wine of tremendous length and elegance; drink or hold a decade without concern. Availability: consignment via Trialto.

Ulysse Collin NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Les Perrieres ($95)

Olivier Collin may be a relative newcomer – 2004 was his first vintage after successfully wining back family vineyards under contract to a large house – but in that short period he has catapulted into the top echelon. His wines are certainly memorable, like this single vineyard Les Perrieres of 1.2ha planted to 40+ year-old chardonnay in the little-known Sézanne sub-region southwest of the Côte des Blancs. There are no Grand or 1er Crus in this part of Champagne, a fact which only underscores the imperfections of the village classification system. This bottling is made exclusively from 2009 fruit (not declared as a vintage), harvested at unusually high ripeness, and base wine is fermented and aged in at least one year in old barriques before secondary fermentation. Like respected contemporary Cédric Bouchard, Collin’s aim is to make great still wine first and foremost; the bubbles are incorporated merely for lift and liveliness, and his wines are bottled without fining or filtration at lower pressure than the champagne mean. Les Perrieres tastes like Meursault with bubbles, an utterly individual expression of champagne. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

R.H. Coutier NV Champagne Rose Brut ($65.00)

Cédric Bouchard Nv Roses De Jeanne Cote De Bechalin (2007) Blanc De Noirs Brut Nature Legras & Haas Champagne Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs 2008 R.H. Coutier Champagne Rose BrutThe Coutier family has been in the village of Ambonnay on the Montagne de Reims since 1619, and, unusually for this pinot country, have 1/3 of vineyards planted to chardonnay –René Coutier’s father was the first vigneron in Ambonnay to plant the variety in 1946 on a prime south-facing site. Also uncommon is that generally only half of the base wines are put through malolactic to maintain a fresh, steely edge. This rosé, is composed of over half pinot noir with the balance from old vine chardonnay, resulting in a rosé that exceeds expectations on both complexity and depth in the oft-overpriced rosé category, and delivers more toasty autolysis character than the mean alongside delicate red berry fruit. At 6 grams dosage, it comes across as crisp and dry. Also exceptional is the Brut Grand Vintages currently on offer, based on the excellent 2008 vintage and drinking beautifully now. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Legras et Haas 2008 Champagne Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru ($91.95)

The Legras at Haas family owns vineyards in the Aube district, as well as the Côte des Blancs, where this fine Blancs de Blancs originates. It’s sinewy, lithe and extremely elegant, resting on a seam of acids and replete with the arch-classic citrus, brioche hazelnut and white chocolate flavours of chardonnay-based champagne. Availability: consignment via Mellecey Wine Group.

Cédric Bouchard NV Roses de Jeanne Cote de Bechalin Blanc de Noirs ($135.00)

One of the most sought after grower-producers, Cedric Bouchard established his Champagne House, Roses de Jeanne, in 2000 in the Aube district of southern Champagne (aka Côtes des Bars) on predominantly Kimmeridgian marls. In the counter-culture RM spirit, Bouchard bottles only single vineyard, single variety, single vintage champagnes, from parcels farmed according to biodynamic principles. Only first pressings are used (the cuvée), and all is fermented with wild yeasts, and secondary fermentations are uncommonly long, slow and cool resulting in finer bubbles. Wines are bottled without dosage at lower pressure than the mean. This wine is pure pinot noir from the 1.5 hectare lieu-dit of Côte de Bachelin and the 2007 vintage, and spends three years on the lees, the longest aging of all his cuvées, and is bottled unfined, unfiltered. It’s a wine of exceptional density and richness, with the vinosity and complexity of top red Burgundy and superb length. It would fit in happily at the table with game birds or even well aged rib-eye, though I’d like to watch this unravel in meditative fashion all on its own. 150 cases produced. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Buyer’s Guide: Sparkling Wine 

Showcase 5 Blanc de Noirs 2009, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada ($55.00)

The first release of the Trius “Showcase 5” is a pale pink-grey-colour and the nose is highly yeasty-autolytic, as you would expect from a wine left for five years on the lees before disgorging, highly complex to be sure. The palate is full and toasty, with plenty of barley, cracked wheat, dried citrus and red berry fruit flavours, and the finish has excellent length. Not a wine for sipping, mind you, this should be a centerpiece at the table. Very classy, and fine value in the context.

Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine ‘Carte Blanche’ Estate Blanc de Blanc 2010, VQA Short Hills Bench, Ontario, Canada ($44.95)

Henry of Pelham’s premium bottling of sparkling wine, a pure chardonnay, is a clear step up from the already excellent Cuvée Catherine “regular”, sitting comfortably in the top class of Canadian sparkling and making many champagne producers uneasy. In the 2010 vintage it finds a very elegant expression, building layers of citrus and green apple fruit, delicate brioche and puff pastry-yeasty notes, on a firm acid frame. Concentration is evident, though this is all about finesse, delicacy and refinement. Although infinitely enjoyable now, I’d love to see it in 2-3 years when additional toasty complexity will have developed.

Josef Chromy Pepik Sekt, Tasmania, Australia ($26.95)

A fine, fresh and appley, nicely perfumed and balanced bubbly here from Joseph Chromy, with real class and poise for the category. Citrus-green apple fruit dominates and lingers, with just a touch of toasty-biscuity character to add interest. This would make a fine Sunday morning Brunch wine, not overly complex but refreshing and enlivening.

Showcase 5 Blanc De Noirs 2009 Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine, Carte Blanche Josef Chromy Pepik Sekt Adami Dei Casel Extra Dry Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene Superiore Fidora Tenuta Civranetta Juvé Y Camps Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava 2011

Adami Dei Casel Extra Dry Prosecco di Valddobbiadene Superiore, Italy ($24.95)

A superior extra dry (read: off-dry) prosecco here from regional leader Adami in the steep hills of Valddobbiadene, with genuine depth, length and complexity, attributes infrequently associated with prosecco. The acid-sweetness balance is near perfect, and this has real presence on the palate. A classy option when more fresh fruit rather than biscuit flavours is the order of the day.

Fidora Tenuta Civranetta, Prosecco Extra Dry, Veneto, Italy ($18.95)

A very fine and flavourful prosecco from Fidora, a producer with over 40 years of organic production in vineyards in Valddobbiadene. This has all of the hallmark pear and apple aromatics of the variety, with an appealing cinnamon twist, in a just off-dry style. I like the succulent, saliva inducing acids. A superior example. Availability: consignment via The Living Vine.

Juvé Y Camps 2011 Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava, Catalunya, Spain ($18.95)

A pleasantly mature and appley, dried pear and apricot-scented bubbly, on the richer side of the cava scale in terms of weight, with a long, barley sugar finish. A substantial wine for the table, more than aperitif-sipping, of fine length and complexity overall.

Buyer’s Guide: Other Champagne 

Pol Roger 2006 Vintage Extra Cuvée de Reserve Brut Rosé Champagne, France ($105.95)

A fine and biscuity, balanced and highly flavourful rosé from Pol Roger. This 2006 shows very fine depth and complexity, not to mention length. Very classy and refined all around. Fine wine, still youthful and with at least another decade of life ahead.

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

This bottle, disgorged in 2014, follows in the house style of wonderfully mature and toasty, heavily autolytic, with great depth and length. As usual this is a forceful and masculine wine, yet not without balance, and its own measure of finesse. A very consistent champagne, and one of the best NVs on the market.

Pol Roger Vintage Extra Cuvee De Reserve Brut Rosé Champagne 2006 Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne Duval Leroy Reserve Brut Champagne Perrier Jouët Grand Brut Champagne

Duval Leroy Reserve Brut Champagne, Ac, France ($55.95)

Mostly Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims and Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, this is classically toasty and biscuity, in a fine stage of evolution while still holding on to significant fruit. The palate pierces the taste buds with laser sharp acids, finessed and elegant, really harmonious and long. Lovely champagne.

Perrier Jouët Grand Brut Champagne, France ($68.95)

Quality here is on par with previous releases of P-J’s Grand Brut, a wine of finesse and balance, elegance and complexity in the classic champagne register. I appreciate the crisp acids buffered by smoky-creamy yeast autolysis flavours (brioche, croissant), and the excellent length. Notable dosage gives this a vague sweet edge, though balance remains intact. (Lot#3091429264)

That’s all for this report. See you over the next (fizzy) bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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 Connawara Black Label Cabernet

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It’s Oyster Time: Revisiting the Classics and Finding Some Outliers

Text and photographs by John Szabo, MS
December 18, 2015

It’s December, and oysters are at their plump and flavourful best. Both east and west coast varieties are outstanding. If you are an oyster fan, this is your favorite time of year.

A recent chance conversation on the current deliciousness of bivalve mollusks with Julius Chapple, Front of House manager at Rodney’s Oyster House, led to a brilliant idea: assemble a group of savvy tasters, pull together a wide range of wines, and shuck a bunch of oysters. The ostensible plan was to revisit classic wines – the ones traditionally served with oysters – and confirm their supremacy, while at the same time throwing a few outliers into the mix to see if we might find some future classic matches. Although it’s hardly ground breaking work, it is nevertheless instructive from time to time to test assumptions, and, well, attempt to break new ground. I know, I know. Somebody has to do it.

The results? Often comforting, occasionally shocking, rarely disappointing. It’s true that the best matches for oysters fall into a fairly narrow band of wine style: crisp, dry white wine, with or without bubbles. But the nuances between different oyster species and the subtleties of each grape within that narrow band proved fascinating. And then there was the surprise red wine, and just off-dry whites… If you’re looking for the perfect wine and oyster pairing, read on.

The Venue: Rodney’s Oyster House, 469 King St. West, Toronto

Rodney's Oyster House-3930

Rodney’s Oyster House

Rodney Clark is the original Toronto Oysterman. His father asked him to deliver his first box of oysters in the late 1970s. And then, “I took it a little overboard”, says Rodney. His eponymous oyster house on King West has become a Toronto institution, responsible in no small measure for spawning Toronto’s great oyster culture over the last twenty years. Julius Chapple is the affable Front of House Manager, in charge of the tight but well-chosen wine list. Treat yourself to an afternoon/evening of oysters soon at this oyster paradise.

The Panelists:

Jamie Drummond, Director of Programs/Senior Editor at Good Food Media. Jamie is one of Toronto’s best-known faces in the wine world, and best-known accents (he’s from Edinburgh, Scotland). Before co-launching the weekly online publication Good Food Revolution in 2010, Drummond’s CV includes Wine Director at the posh Granite Club, and later, for Jamie Kennedy’s restaurant empire, including the legendary JK Wine Bar, now sorely missed. Those who know him well, both love, and fear, his sense of humour as well as his propensity for delivering TMI.

Charles Baker, Director of Sales, Stratus Wines (and much more). Born on the wrong side of the vineyard, CB has scrapped his way from the damp tourist bistros of Quebec City, ripe with the stench of pisse-dru, to find himself peddling wine to the freshly tattoed sommeliers of Toronto. He attempts to empty the warehouse that Stratus fills every vintage with the fruit of its Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard, forages lost riesling from the Niagara Escarpment for the Charles Baker Wines project, and scours the planet to bring home wines made from grapes no one can pronounce for Cru Wine Merchants. In his spare time, he dreams of the wines of the Roussillon through a fledgling project, picks up Lego, and taste-tests scones for Baker and Scone.

Jamie Drummond-3967 Charles Baker-3975

Magdalena Kaiser, Director of PR, Wine Marketing Association of Ontario. Daughter of Inniskillin co-founder Karl Kaiser, a Canadian wine pioneer, Magdalena was literally born into the wine industry. At the age of five she was dragged into child labour to bottle wine, before achieving a paying position at Inniskillin as a young teen. Today, MK proudly showcases Ontario wine to top wine media and trade from home and abroad for WMAO (“wham-oh”!). Still apparently longing for hardship, she is currently enrolled in the Masters of Wine program.

Chris McDonald, Author, Consulting Chef. Chef McDonald is one of Toronto’s most respected, and sharpest knives in the kitchen. He established himself as a Toronto culinary pillar at Avalon in the 1990s, a top 5 Toronto establishment, until Hooters moved in across the street and ruined the neighborhood. Chef then moved on to beloved Cava Restaurant, the city’s most authentic Spanish restaurant (and more). McDonald is currently writing a highly anticipated book on sous-vide cooking techniques and recipes, while dreaming up his next restaurant venture. On the side, he has a disproportionate love for tafelspitz and Austrian wines.

Magdalena Kaiser-3970 Chris McDonald

Dr. Ian Martin, Ph.D., ex-university professor, sports dome operator, future restaurateur. Dr. Martin (full disclosure: my former University of Toronto Italian professor) is a lifelong culinary researcher, accomplished home chef, and well-travelled, discerning wine lover. Based in Ottawa, Martin spends his time collecting money from sports teams playing in his facility, the Ottawa Coliseum, and teaching friend and Top Chef Canada winner Rene Rodriguez how to make a proper spaghetti carbonara. Dr. Martin is also regularly spotted in wine cellars across Europe, his bicycle parked outside. Stay tuned for his restaurant venture, coming soon to Ottawa.

Stephen Cohen, owner, Groupe Soleil Imports. Over the last decade, Stephen has slowly, quietly but assuredly, amassed Canada’s most impressive collection of grower champagnes in his import portfolio, representing highly sought after names like Cedric Bouchard and Pascal Agrapart, among many others, as well as other top names from around the wine world with particular strengths in Italy and France. He is clearly a man of taste. Also an avid cyclist, Stephen enjoys the challenge of the notoriously steep and twisty roads of the Langhe hills in Piedmont.

Ian Martin-3963 Stephen Cohen-3972

John Szabo, Master Sommelier and Principal Critic, WineAlign. You didn’t think I’d just watch, did you?

Guest Panelist and chief shucker: Julius Chapple, Front of House Management, Rodney’s Oyster House

John Szabo, MSJulius Chapple, FOH

The Wines:

The selection was based on acknowledged classics of the oyster genre, made by benchmark producers. There are, of course, dozens of others that would have fit the bill, but the list was purposely capped at a baker’s dozen (not a Charles Baker) to make the exercise manageable. Jamie Drummond was overheard lamenting, “I wish I had grabbed some Vouvray, Vinho Verde, Cartizze Prosecco, or Picpoul to bring along…” We’ll save those for oyster pairing 2.0. Below is the final list of wines, collectively selected by the panelists out of about 20 initial options brought on the day, minus one tragically corked bottle of champagne.

Bubbles

Henry of Pelham 2008 Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche, Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($44.95)

Whites

Charles Baker 2014 Riesling, Ivan Vineyard, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($27.00)

Raventos I Blanc 2014 Silencis Xarel-lo, Conca del Riu Anoia, Catalonia ($24.95)

Servin 2012 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre, Burgundy, France ($39.95)

Ken Forrester 2014 Chenin Blanc Old Vines, Stellenbosch, South Africa (17.95)

Domäne Wachau 2012 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Kellerberg, Wachau, Austria

Domaine de L’Ecu 2013 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine ‘Orthogneiss’, Loire Valley, France ($25)

Pascal Cotat 2014 Sancerre Les Monts Damnés, Loire Valley, France ($66)

Gaia 2014 Thalassitis Santorini Assyrtiko, Greece ($23.95)

Rodney’s “Sea Legs” White, Niagara Peninsula (a proprietor’s blend made by Cave Spring, available only at Rodney’s)

Loimer 2007 Riesling Langenlois Steinmassel, Kamptal

Reds

Arianna 2013 Occhipinti Frappato IGT Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy ($36.95)

Malivoire 2014 Gamay “Le Coeur”, Niagara Escarpment, Canada (Approx. $20)

The top lineup of wines-3977

The Plan

Each panelist was assigned one type of oyster, and tasked with finding the top three pairings from the wines available. The panel then sat collectively to taste through each oyster/wine combinations and vote on the ultimate match.

The Oysters, And Top Matches

1 – Onset Bay (Crassostrea Virginica), Bourne, Massachussetts

A plump and meaty east coast oyster with pronounced salinity, beige-coloured belly and pale green, deeply frilled gills.

Cotat 2014 Sancerre
Charles Baker 2014 Riesling Ivan Vineyard

“I love the herbaceousness and the complexity the oyster brings to the fore in the wine”, said Chris Macdonald of the Sancerre, which beat out the Riesling by the narrowest of margins, thanks to Baker voting against his own wine. “The fruit was enhanced (by the salinity of the oyster), but lowered the perception of complexity”, said Baker of his Riesling.

2 – Pemaquid Select (Crassostrea Virginica), Damariscotta River Estuary, Maine

A particularly tender oyster, with a large, sweet-buttery adductor muscle, balanced saltiness

Cotat 2014 Sancerre
Occhipinti 2013 Frappato

This was another very close call. The more moderate salinity of the Pemaquid opened the door to a red wine pairing, and indeed the Frappato was several panelists’ top choice. In the end, the Sancerre edged into top place again, proving that it is one of the wine world’s gifts to oysters and a very safe bet.

3 – Totten E.C. (Crassostrea Virginica), Totten Inlet, Puget Sound, Washington State

Very plump meat with large adductor muscle delivering pronounced cucumber and melon rind flavours, minerally-copper notes, and a sweet-creamy alkaline finish.

Ken Forrester 2014 Old Vines Chenin Blanc
Domaine de L’Écu 2012 Muscadet

These were both excellent matches, and a close call. The richness and minerality of the oyster played beautifully with the maturing, stony and unusually dense muscadet. But the old vines vinosity of the Forrester, coupled with a vague impression of sweetness from ripe fruit on the palate won the day. The majority of panelists were enthused by the exceptional length and creamy mouthfeel produced by the oyster-wine combination on the palate.

Sand Dunes-39504 – Sand Dune (Crassostrea Virginica), Souris, Prince Edward Island

A very large, plump and meaty oyster (which could technically be called a Malpeque, but the Rolls Royce version) with mild salinity and sweet, pleasantly grassy flavor.

Charles Baker 2014 Riesling, Ivan Vineyard
Henry of Pelham 2008 Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche

The majority favoured the CB Riesling for the combination of residual sugar, high acid and youthful citrus fruit in the wine, which harmonized magnificently with the plump, mildly saline Sand Dune. Fruit and herbs washed over the palate in balance, the oyster fattening up the wine, the wine slicing through the meatiness of the oyster. The bubbly Carte Blanche was, for similar reasons, a very close second (I personally preferred it, finding the effervescence to lift he oyster to another dimension).

5 – Mystic (Crassostrea Virginica), Mystic River, Long Island Sound, Connecticut

A small sized, deep-cupped oyster, with pronounced earthy-truffle flavor, high salinity, and toothsome texture.

Occhipinti 2013 Frappato
Loimer 2007 Riesling Steinmassel

This was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tasting. The Frappato was a clear winner, a lighter Sicilian red to be sure, but one with solid, fine-grained tannic structure. Contrary to urban legend, the red didn’t turn into a tinny, bitter mess, but rather, the brininess of the oyster both softened its texture and exposed the wonderful sweet cherry fruit. The finish lined up the savoury-earthy flavours of both the wine and the oyster for perfect harmony. The excellent Loimer Riesling, with its mature flavours, candied citrus and pinch of sweetness, performed admirably against the tough competition, however.

Marina's Top Drawer-39486 – Marina’s Top Drawer (Crassostrea Gigas), Cortes Islands, British Columbia

A classic west coast oyster, intensely flavoured with cucumber and melon rind, and a strong copper-mineral finish.

Servin 2012 Chablis 1er Cru
Domäne Wachau 2012 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Kellerberg

Another close call, though in the end it was not surprising that the Chablis took this classic match – Gigas is the most common species grown in France, and they’ve been serving Chablis with their oysters there for centuries. It was a perfect match of texture and weight, harmonized mineral tastes, with the lean and stony wine gaining fruit, and the crunchy oyster gaining flesh and creaminess.

7 – Kumomoto (Crassostrea Sikamea), Netart’s Bay, Oregon, and Puget Sound, Washington State

Very small but notoriously intensely flavoured and complex oysters, often ascribed everything from honeydew to cucumber and avocado, and even nutty flavours. “I often avoid ordering them”, confessed Jamie Drummond, referring to the challenge of finding a successful wine match.

Cotat 2014 Sancerre
Forrester 2014 Chenin Blanc

Here the brilliance of this excellent Sancerre really shone through, for me (but not all), the finest Sancerre-oyster combination on the day. Complexity begs for complexity, and each met their match with this combination. Martin commented: “the sequence between the flavor profiles was seamless. It was a complete match”. Forrester’s chenin stood up well, though the kumomoto subdued all but its tropical fruit flavours, turning it into a pleasant but simple white.

Summary and Conclusions

Oysters and crisp white wines are happy partners in general – there were very few disappointing pairings. But the complex nuances of both invite more precision if you’re after a truly memorable experience. The variable texture, salinity and subtleties of flavor that arise in different species of oysters grown in varying conditions (and harvested in different seasons), has a marked impact.

Higher salinity oysters, for example, bring out more fruit in the wine, so pair with a stony, low fruit wine; already very fruity wines lose all nuance. There are many that fit this bill, like a classic muscadet, or champagne/traditional method sparkling.

Herbal-cucumber and mineral flavours (iron, copper, zinc), common in many oysters, find harmony with similar flavours in wine, hence the success of sauvignon blanc and Sancerre in particular, the wine that garnered the most votes overall.

A pinch of residual sugar in wine also works well with particularly briny-saline oysters, as with the ripe Grüner or off-dry Riesling. Indeed, the original oyster and champagne pairing came about when all champagne was made sweet.

Red wines can quickly turn bitter and rusty when up against an oyster, which is why they are traditionally avoided. But as we discovered, certain high acid, fine tannin styles can find a place. The oyster’s salinity can soften tannins (as salt in any food can), while also enhancing fruit. The Frappato in this case sought out similar earthy nuances in the oyster to positive effect. Gamay, light pinot noir, trousseau, etc.. there are several options worth investigating. Low tannins, slightly sweet new world reds would be my next line of investigation.

In the end, of course, the most fun is had by experimenting. So what are you waiting for?

That’s it for this oyster. See you over the next bottle and bivalve.

John Szabo, MS


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A Wine for All Seasons: Rosé de Provence

Szabo’s Free Run – The Provençal AdvantageDecember 17, 2015

Text and photographs by John Szabo, MS with Bill Zacharkiw

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

Even in November, tender sunlight casts a warm, honeyed-pastel glow on the limestone-hewn houses liberally sprinkled on the craggy hills that tumble from Haute Provence down to the Côte d’Azur. The magic hour for painters and photographers stretches well past sunrise and sunset; the clarity and angle of light is nearly always perfect. Temperatures hover in the comforting early 20s, while soft breezes dance down from Alpine highlands or waft inland from the Mediterranean, floating scents of wild mint, lavender, pine needles and mimosas. It’s not hard to imagine what has attracted everyone from early Greeks and Romans to Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Brigitte Bardot and Brangelina. Only sporadic torrential downpours dampen Provence’s perfect year-round climate, channeled by the region’s success – measured in concrete and asphalt – into occasionally deadly flows.

From the beginning of recorded history, the southeast corner of France nestled between the Alps, the Mediterranean and the Rhône River, know to the Romans as Provincia Romana, has produced wine, which is among the only crops, along with olives and aromatic plants for perfumes, which thrive in these arid, rocky soils. And rosé wine in particular, it is argued, was a staple from the beginning, although the same is likely true of most of the ancient world’s wines, made from field blends of grapes of all hues. But that Provence today has staked its reputation on pale, shimmering, ethereal pink wine is beyond question; nearly 90% of regional output, and 95% of exports, is labeled rosé. There is no other region in the world so devoted to it.

View from Bormes-les-Mimosas

View from Bormes-les-Mimosas

The modern Provençal obsession with rosé is traced, perhaps apocryphally, to film star Brigitte Bardot, who put Saint Tropez on the map in the 1960s. The Hollywood bombshell and party girl apparently had a distaste for astringent wines, and local vignerons vying for her attention made every effort to craft the lightest, most delicate wines possible. White wine would have been most logical, but considering there was only a tiny percentage of white grapes planted in the region (and still today less than 10%), the only option was to use red grapes. They had to be treated very gently, without maceration (which extracts both colour and tannins that lead to astringency). And voilà, light-bodied, very pale rosé was born. Bardot was pleased; her glamorous star power made success immediate.

Domaine du Deffends

Domaine du Deffends

From the 1960s on, the production of rosé de Provence steadily increased. Bardot’s personal preferences aside, it makes sense to be sipping light, dry, chilled rosé in a warm climate with classic dishes from the Mediterranean repertoire, heavily axed on seafood and fresh vegetables. Tourism also increased exponentially – just try to find a parking spot on the banks of the vast river of cars and people streaming into Saint Tropez on a July or August day – and the majority of wineries enjoyed a near-inexhaustible local market. There was little incentive to push the boundaries of quality or seek export markets. Rosé de Provence soon became synonymous with seaside summer holidays, frivolous and easy-drinking, more fun than serious, released for Valentine’s Day and best drunk before the autumn equinox.

The message couldn’t have been more simple, and more effective – there was nothing to “get” with rosé, no reason to apologize for not understanding nuances of terroir or technique.

It was just a wine to drink and enjoy, and a great deal of profit was made from this image. There is nearly twice as much rosé consumed in France today as white wine, 30% vs. 17% of total wine consumption.

But advantages can quickly turn into challenges, and the easy marketing dream of Provençal rosé would eventually also clip its wings, limiting its potential to be taken seriously. Prejudices in the wine world die hard.

And at the same time it wouldn’t take long for other regions, within France and beyond, to muscle in on Provence’s success, offering less expensive alternatives to consumers hoping to relive those seaside memories in the south of France.

According to the latest statistics provided by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence (CIVP), worldwide consumption of rosé is up 11% in the last 8 years. Only 5.6% of world rosé production comes from Provence, which is still significant, but competition is increasing. More than half of worldwide rosé production is now modeled after the Provençal style: pale and dry (technically with less than 4 grams of residual sugar). It’s a direct attack.

Natalie Pouzalgues, Centre du Rosé

Natalie Pouzalgues

So with the specter of declining overall consumption in France, and ever-more competitive export markets, action was required. It was time to start making more serious rosé. And to the region’s credit, they’ve done just that. “Quality has risen significantly in the last decade”, Chef de Projet Natalie Pouzalgues of the Centre du Rosé tells me. And the technical improvements have much to do with Pouzalgues and the Centre du Rosé, a research institute created in 1999, conceived and supported by the CIVP, as well as the Chamber of Agriculture and L’Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), with the express goal of improving the general quality and typicity of Provence’s rosés.

Ongoing research has been aimed at providing winegrowers with the means to produce top quality, age-worthy rosé, which can comfortably sit at the table at any time of year and accompany a broad range of cuisines. The impact has been seen at all levels, with most of the bottom end now at the very least respectable, and the top end highly admirable.

But ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to quality production remains the market perception of rosé, especially that it must be drunk as young as possible. On this recent visit, many wineries related their woes regarding their importers, who want the wines to arrive by February after harvest. That means bottling in early January at the very latest, more often in December. “It’s impossible to make stable wine that quickly”, Laurence Berlemont, a top consultant for several wineries with the Cabinet d’Agromnomie Provençal, tells me, “without stripping the heart out of it”. Heavy fining, cold stabilization and sterile filtration are regular practices to drive wine into bottle before its due time. All quality wine, rosé included, requires patience to naturally stabilize and develop.

Most winegrowers in the quality game insist that their wines don’t begin to reach peak until at least June or July, or later. An illuminating vertical rosé tasting at Saint André de Figuière, reaching back to 2003 (out of magnum, to be fair), revealed that carefully made rosé can not only survive, but even improve after several years of bottle age.

But it will take a massive cultural shift to convince consumers that drinking a 2014 rosé on Valentine’s Day 2016 is the smarter thing to do.

Do I believe that all rosé producers should concentrate on making only expensive, age-worthy wines? Of course not. There’s something infinitely attractive about a breezy glass of rosé on a summer terrace. But just as there are both frivolous and serious whites and reds, rosé shouldn’t be relegated exclusively to the frivolous category. And I’d be very wary about any wine that reaches the market before it is six months old.

The Provençal Advantage

When it comes to quality rosé production, Provence retains one significant advantage over the rest of the world.

Bill at work at Les Valentines

Bill at work at Les Valentines

The entire region, and all its tangle of appellation regulations in the bureaucratic Gallic style, has one principal focus: making rosé. Very good red and white are of course produced, but the vast majority of vineyards are conceived, planted and managed, harvest dates are timed, and production methods are tuned exclusively to making a singular style of rosé. This stands in sharp contrast to the vast majority of rosés produced elsewhere, which are, by and large, an afterthought of red wine production, made using a method called saignée.

Saignée-style rosé is made from grapes grown and harvested with the aim of making red wine. Grapes are crushed and put into tanks, and a short while later, a small percentage of the juice is siphoned off (or bled off, hence saignée, meaning “bleeding”). Short skin contact gives this juice a light red or rosé colour, and fermentation continues on as for white wine. The rest of the tank continues on the red wine production track, with the added advantage that the increased skin-to-juice ratio results in greater concentration and structure. The downside is that the bled off rosé is often out of balance, soupy, overripe, alcoholic (or sweet). The ideal ripeness for reds and rosés is never the same, especially if your aim is to make a delicate, elegant pink. To make great rosé is technically demanding. As one winegrower put it, “making good rosé is like watching a Chinese acrobat: it looks very easy to do, but in reality it’s very tough.”

The Classic Style

Provence rosés are blends, based for the most part on grenache for body and fruit, and cinsault for freshness, delicacy and low alcohol, which together usually represent at least half the mix. Syrah (perfume, colour), and carignan, mourvèdre and cabernet sauvignon (acid, structure) complement in varying proportions, depending on vineyard location and house style, and up to 20% of white rolle (aka vermentino) can be co-fermented.

Bill strolling at La Courtade, Porquerolles

Bill strolling at La Courtade, Porquerolles

By definition, under the AOPs Côtes de Provence, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and Coteaux Varois, wines are dry (any rosés with more than 4 grams of sugar fall under generic regional designations), and are invariably pale, delicate and perfumed, with fresh but gentle acids. Alcohol rarely exceeds 13%. And while technical advancements may have been adopted too enthusiastically in the early days (carbon filtering to strip colour, obsessive exclusion of oxygen and use of aromatic yeasts to produce candied bonbon Anglais or grapefruity, sauvignon-like aromas), the best Provençal rosés are transparent expressions of place and grapes, produced carefully, but without artifice.

The Regional Nuances

Montagne Sainte Victoire

Montagne Sainte Victoire

With their distinctive regional character, rosés from all over Provence stand out from those made outside the region. But investigate a little more deeply within the AOPs of Provence itself, and nuanced differences between them begin to emerge. Vineyards in Haute Provence, for example, experience much sharper temperature swings compared to those near the coast, effectively cut off from the moderating effects of the sea by a series of mountain ridges like the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the Massif des Maures. The climate is far more continental and harvest begins up to three weeks later. Mourvèdre struggles to ripen inland, while syrah bakes on the coast.

Provence also straddles Europe and Africa, tectonically speaking, with a clear fault line separating limestone-based France, on the Eurasian tectonic plate, from the metamorphic-igneous-volcanic geologies of the African plate. Mimosas and cork oaks proliferate in the coastal area based on schist and volcanic soils, but do not grow at all in the calcareous interior. The Centre du Rosé has undertaken to understand the real impact of such dramatic terroir differences on wine style, with much more to do. The point is that even within the seemingly homogenous family of rosé de Provence, there are measurable differences, whose nuances a growing number of sub-appellations attempt to reflect. Will wine writers and sommeliers one day be enthusiastically speaking about rosés de terroir, the way they dissect Burgundy and Bordeaux?

Bormes-les-Mimosas

Bormes-les-Mimosas

Purpose-grown rosé from a great site, rendered authentically, is great wine. It’s amazingly versatile at the table (try it with your roasted turkey), can be enjoyed relatively young and can develop intriguing character with a few years in the cellar. It should be taken seriously. And if it happens to conjure up happy holiday memories, images of azur seas and honey-coloured houses in the fading light of a summer’s eve, then so much the better.

Buyers’ Guide: Rosé de Provence

Château La Lieue 2014 Rosé Tradition, Coteaux Varois en Provence

La Lieue is a reliable, fine value name in the region, with Julien, the 5th generation in place at the chateau. Vineyards are in one of the coolest areas in the Var départment, where harvest can stretch into November. The top parcels are extraordinarily stony, pure limestone. The Tradition rosé, composed of cinsault and grenache, is relatively pale in colour, gentle, and brightly fruity, ready for drinking on release.

Château Léoube 2014 Rosé, Côtes de Provence

Château Léoube is one of the most spectacular properties in Provence, with 65 certified organic hectares of vines set on 560 hectares of protected Mediterranean scrubland and olive groves virtually right on the coast, in the La Londe sub-appellation. Wines are made by Romain Ott, originally of the widely admired Domaine Ott, before it was bought from his family. This is the mid-tier rosé of the winery made with grenache and cinsault with a complement of syrah and mourvèdre. Uniquely, this is not designed for maximum aromatics: it’s fermented at “normal” temperatures (not ultra cold like many), with some oxygen contact, and put through full malolactic. The result is a rosé with uncommon succulence and depth, fully dry but focused on abundant and pure fruit. It’s the sort of wine that invites sip after sip with its saline edge and crisp acids – a genuine hit of umami. Available in Ontario from The Living Vine.

Château Léoube Vineyards

Château Léoube Vineyards

Domaine du Deffends Rosé d’une Nuit 2014, Coteaux Varois en Provence

A fine property first planted in 1967, originally a hunting reserve, with slightly warmer climate than is typical in the Coteaux Varois in an area referred to locally as “Le petit Nice”. 15 hectares of vines are certified organic. This equal parts grenache and cinsault rosé is fine and succulent, firm and fresh, notably salty, stylish and pure.

Château La Tour de l’Evêque Pétale de Rose 2014, Côtes de Provence

Régine Soumeire is one of Provence’s Grandes Dames, from the 3rd generation to run this property acquired in the 1930s (she also owns the excellent Château Barbeyrolles). 64 hectares are farmed organically in the Pierrefeu sub-appellation in haute Provence, with an average vine age of 25 years. Pétale de rosé is the top cuvée of the estate, from schist and clay-limestone soils, hand harvested, and whole bunch pressed in a champagne press. It’s composed of eight grapes, driven by grenache and cinsault, and crafted in the typical very pale Provençal style, but with uncommon depth and intensity, as well as length, with great palate presence. A classic, classy rosé, with very good to excellent length.

Château La Lieue Coteaux Varois En Provence 2014Château Léoube Rosé De Léoube 2014Domaine du Deffends Rosé d'une Nuit 2014Château La Tour de l'Evêque Pétale De Rose Rosé 2014

Other Highly Recommended Producers:

Château Revelette

Owner-winemaker Peter Fischer is one of Provence’s great, iconoclastic winemakers, farming 24 hectares in the upper Coteaux d’Aix en Provence organically (and with biodynamic principles) since 1990. The climate is as extreme as the approach, and yields are very low. An exceptional range in white, pink and red includes unsulphured, natural “PUR” (Produit Uniquement de Raisins – “made exclusively from grapes”, that is, with no additions) grenache and carignan; whites are fermented in concrete egg. Le Grand Rouge is one of the region’s finest reds.

Domaine les Béates

40 hectares of organic, isolated vineyards in the Coteaux d’Aix appellation yield a tidy range of white, red and rosé. Entry-level Les Béatines rosé fits the Provençal model, while the estate rosé, an unusual pure syrah, is deeper, almost like a pale red, well-structured, designed for enjoying after a year or two in bottle at least.

Château les Valentines

Very fine and elegant wines from the La Londe sub-appellation, certified organic. Estate rosé is arch-classic; Cuvée #8 rosé offers an additional dimension and terrific complexity. Reds are also a house specialty, based on finesse and freshness, including excellent Bagnard cuvée, equal measures of syrah, cabernet and mourvèdre.

Les Valentines

Les Valentines

Domaine Saint André de Figuière

A family estate led by Francois Combard, whose father worked with Michel Laroche in Chablis until 1992 when he purchased this property in La Londe, already certified organic since 1978. The terroir is very poor, almost pure high acid schists, and the house style is unsurprisingly very Chablisienne, which is to say focused on freshness in a reductive style, with impressively ageworthy rosé, well-structured and dense.

Domaines Ott (Château de Selle and Clos Mireille)

Domaines Ott consists of three separate and exceptional estates, Château de Selle for reds and rosés in Haute Provence, Clos Mireille for whites in La Londe, and Château Romassan for reds and rosés in Bandol, now owned by Champagne Roederer. Rosés are in the very top echelon of quality.

Domaine du Clos de La Procure (Négociant Dupéré-Barrera)

A quality-focused micro-négociant operation with a small property in Côtes de Provence, the Clos de La Procure. The large range is highly competent across the board, made in a minimalist style, with low sulphur, vibrant acids and fresh fruit flavours, more textural than aromatic. Intriguing “Nowat” cuvée is produced without the use of electricity.

Château d’Esclans

Esclans is Bordelais Sasha Lichine’s extreme property in the Fréjus sub-appellation of Côtes de Provence, employing the most impressive technology in southern France including optical sorting machine and individual temperature control for every barrel. Barrel-fermented Garrus is Provence’s most expensive rosé, concentrated, very ripe (14% alcohol is normal), with a high percentage of rolle blended with grenache, designed to impress. Whispering Angel is the highly successful “entry-level” rosé.

Platanes

Platanes

Domaine de Rimauresq

A 60 hectare domaine near Pignans in the Var, making dynamic wines of great vibrancy in the tight and reductive style.

Domaine du Jas d’Esclans

Wines from an exceptional terroir in the Esclans Valley and its volcanic soils, near Fréjus. Certified organic.

Château de Brégançon

An elegant château by the sea in Bormes-Les-Mimosas, in the La Londe sub-appellation, with wines to match.

Château Sainte Marguerite

Fine wines from La Londe with the extra dimension of the top level.

That’s all for this Free Run. See you over the next (old) bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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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The Douro Boys

By John Szabo MS

The Douro Boys

The Douro Boys – photo Pedro Lobo

Among the countless unofficial winery associations worldwide, the group of five estates from the Douro Valley in Portugal – Quinta do Vallado, Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale D. Maria and Quinta do Vale Meão – known as the Douro Boys, have had disproportionate success. Since forming in 2003, they’ve succeeded in raising not only their own profiles internationally, but also the image of the entire Douro Valley.

The group holds regular joint tastings, seminars and presentations around the world, like the one in Toronto in October, aimed at celebrating the Douro Valley along with their own unique histories. Although each produces port wines, the goal is above all to raise the profile of dry wines, and the collective quality of their portfolios, among the best in the Douro, gives their message strength and credence to be sure.

Dirk Niepoort

Dirk Niepoort

But what makes this group particularly compelling is how unlikely an association they are. Five more distinctive personalities would be hard to script. And the wine styles that result from their fiercely independence natures and individual ideas about how best to interpret the Douro’s great terroir clearly reflect that. It’s as though they gather around the table to discuss how to be different, rather than the typical association approach of trying to harmonize styles and messages. As a result, the Douro Boys’ story is a complex one, with multiple endings, like a choose-your-own-adventure.

On the one extreme lies Dirk Niepoort and his wines of uncommon delicacy and finesse, produced from a collection of high elevation sites, some north facing, harvested a good deal earlier than the mean. Of all the Douro boys, Niepoort is perhaps the greatest outlier, content to operate in his own space, confident enough to push extremes. His influence on the rest of the valley, and Portugal, cannot be under-estimated.

On the other extreme lies the Roquette family’s Quinta do Crasto in the Douro Superiore, an estate favouring density, ripeness and power, abetted by the terroir, and unapologetically generous use of toasty new wood in the modern style. Crasto’s wines have been highly successful abroad, especially in Canada and the US.

The Meandering Douro Valley

The Meandering Douro Valley

Cristiano Van Zeller’s Quinta Vale Dona Maria plays a little in both spectrums, producing powerhouses like the Estate Douro red on the one hand, and the exceptionally perfumed and refined single vineyard Vinha da Francisca Douro red on the other. The way forward for Van Zeller, he tells me on a visit last fall, is a return to co-planting field blends of multiple varieties, which was standard practice before the mid-twentieth century. I eagerly await the results.

João and Francisco Ferreira’s Quinta do Vallado follows a similar pattern, variously expressing a wide palette of vineyards, with old and young vines. Vallado crafts some unusual specialties like a pure souzão, zesty and bright, as well as a pure touriga nacional, open, honest and very natural. A stay at the Quinta’s hotel with its mesmerizing view over the Douro River is highly recommended.

Morning in the Douro

Morning in the Douro

Francisco Olazabal’s Quinta Vale Do Meão (he also makes the wine at Vallado; the Ferreiras are cousins), one of the great historic properties of the Douro where the first great dry Douro red was born, Barca Velha, finds a comfortable via di mezzo. His wines perform a balancing act of depth and power without exaggeration, offering ripe but fresh fruit and carefully measured wood influence. Uniquely for the Douro, the quinta straddles a fault line, on the one side of which is strikingly pure granite bedrock, and on the other, more typical schist. Olazabal puts the granite on display in the Monte Meão red, pure touriga from the granites, charmingly rustic, grippy, tight and high-toned. When combined with grapes from the schists as in the estate Red, the quinta’s maximum expression shines.

That, at least, is how I see it. But if there’s one thing these producers do have in common, it’s a fierce desire to safeguard Douro traditions and grape varieties, a very worthy mission.

Below are my top picks from each portfolio, out of the wines presented in October. Check WineAlign for availability.

Foot stomping in traditional lagars Quinta Vale Dona Maria

Foot stomping in a traditional lagar at Quinta Vale Dona Maria

Buyer’s Guide: Douro Boys

Quinta do Vale Meão (Available in Ontario via Trialto)

Quinta do Vale Meão 2014 Meandro White, Douro Valley ($20.00)

2014 was just the second vintage for this new white addition to the Vale Meão portfolio, and it’s terrific. Made from high elevation vineyards and (acid-retaining) arinto and rabigato, this is crisp and highly perfumed, lovely and fresh, succulent and savoury, with mesmerizing herbal notes, sage and lemongrass. Fruit runs in the bright citrus range, while cleverly measured lees influence adds a touch of flintiness. Wood is not a factor – this is all about the fruit, floral and herbal perfume, and at the price, makes for an attractive buy to be sure.

Quinta do Vale Meão 2013 Meandro, Douro Valley ($25.00)

Made from about 30% each touriga nacional, franca, tinta roriz, plus 10% other grapes. 2013 was an elegant year in the Douro, with a little more acidity than the mean, yielding a fresh and pure example. This is a great vintage for the Meandro. In 5 years this will be spectacular. Best 2018-2024.

Quinta Do Vale Meão Meandro White 2014Meandro Do Vale Meão 2013Quinta Do Vale Meão Estate Wine 2012

Quinta do Vale Meão 2012 Estate Wine, Douro Valley ($110.00)

From the oldest vineyards of mainly touriga nacional and touriga franca, this is a substantial, ripe, perfumed, fullish and succulent Douro red, with lovely mid-palate pitch and generous but reeled in fruit. It offers balance and freshness, modest wood influence, plenty of floral perfume, bright citrus and terrific length. Over several vintages, the estate red appears to have evolved into a wine of greater finesse and politeness. The Quinta has been gradually replanted from the 1960s onwards. Best 2018- 2035+

Niepoort (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)

Niepoort 2014 Redoma Branco, Douro Valley ($35.50)

Classically refined in the Niepoort house style, with terrific texture and great palate presence. I love the silky-suave mouthfeel, genuine depth and concentration, and sleek, elegant styling. Terrific length. Top stuff and a great value in the context. Best 2015-2022.

Niepoort 2013 Coche Branco, Douro Valley ($124.00)

Made from a typical Douro field blend, the oldest vines in the Niepoort collection, over 100 years old, on the edge of the Douro zone where the percentage of granite is higher than in the rest of the region. Inspired by Burgundy legend Jean-François Coche-Dury, The Niepoort “Coche” offers notable sulphides in the fashionably reductive style, and is allowed to go through full malolactic. The palate is superb, with multiple layers and beguiling texture, tremendous depth and length. Wood is magically integrated. This should be revisited in another 2-3 years I suspect for the best expression of this exceptional wine, or decant before serving. This is a new Douro white wine paradigm. Best 2017-2025.

Niepoort 2001 Colheita Port, (bottled in 2014), Douro Valley ($74.00)

An unusually long-aged Colheita (only 7 years are required by law, this saw double that), with supremely elegant texture, fine-grained and filigree, mouth filling and pure, with a sort of savoury-saltiness that draws you in for another sip, or more. In the context of great wines, and complex wines, this is very comfortably in the top value category – this is precisely what you want to have on hand for those elegant and sophisticated finishes to a great meal. Best served lightly chilled to enhance the elegance further.

Niepoort Redoma Branco 2014Niepoort Coche Branco 2013Niepoort 2001 Colheita PortNiepoort Batuta 2012Niepoort Charme 2013

Niepoort 2012 Batuta, Douro Valley ($118.00)

Batuta, Dirk Niepoort’s more structured and robust red wine, is made with virtually no stem inclusion, and using very little extraction, though is left for several weeks on skins. The source of its typically more structured profile is the vineyard, according to Niepoort. Unusually for this house, it’s aged in barriques, including a small percentage of new wood, 20-30%, even if the wood influence remains very modest. The 2012 is relatively closed on the nose at the moment; the palate is mid-weight but full-flavoured, with plenty of dark fruit character. Tannins are abundant but relatively fine-grained, giving this solid architecture, yet in a more refined style than is typical from the Douro. So, although this is Niepoort’s more firm and bold expression, in the larger world context, it remains an elegant, sagely ripened red with plenty of finesse. Best 2018-2030.

Niepoort 2013 Charme Red, Douro Valley ($118.00)

Charme, Niepoort’s most elegant, refined red, is made with 100% stems, and a short extraction period. The 2013 is magical, already open and elegant on the nose, perfumed, all finesse and refinement. This is an absolutely beautiful wine, a monument of grace and sleek styling, so savoury and fine, fabulously silky, and with terrific length. In my view this is the finest Charme yet, which regularly tops my list of favourite Douro reds, albeit in an atypical, almost Burgundian style. It may disappoint those seeking a bolder Douro expression focused on power and extract, but for fans of finesse, the buck stops here. Best 2015-2030.

Quinta do Crasto (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)

Quinta do Crasto 2012 Reserva Old Vines, Douro Valley ($45.50)

Quinta do Crasto’s old vines reserve is a reliably fine wine, hitting the right balance between power and elegance. It’s more reserved and less obviously woody than the ‘regular’ Crasto estate red, and even more refined than previous vintages, heading it seems into a realm of more elegance, relatively speaking, with clearly very ripe fruit, but ultimately balanced. As usual, this delivers tremendous impact and depth for the money, the equal of many wines in the same genre at far higher prices. Best 2017-2027.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)

Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2012 Rufo Red, Douro Valley ($20.00)

A terrific ‘entry-level’ red from the Douro Valley, fresh, lightly reductive, juicy, ripe and satisfying, with decent grip and depth. I like the succulent acids and the balance. Serve with a light chill for maximum effect – an infinitely drinkable style. Best 2016-2020.

Quinta Do Crasto Old Vines Reserva 2012Quinta Vale Dona Maria Rufo Red 2012Quinta Vale Dona Maria Vinha Da Francisca 2012Quinta Do Vallado Touriga Nacional 2012

Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2012 Vinha da Francisca, Douro Valley ($139.00)

A perfumed and edgy Douro red, the most elegant in the Dona Maria range in my view, still slightly reductive and a touch stemmy, with firm, tight tannins to match. Acids are likewise firm and the texture tight and palate gripping. I like the genre-bending aspect of this wine, but it will need at least another 4-6 years to start shifting into the lovely savoury-leathery range of flavours that make aged wine so engaging. Superb stuff in any case. Best 2020-2035.

Quinta do Vallado (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)

Quinta do Vallado 2012 Touriga Nacional, Douro Valley ($42.00)

A wild and fruity, honest and open, natural smelling wine with a light oxidative (attractive) quality. The palate is fullish, pure, and fruity with a fine touch of earth and herbal character, and decent length. A fine, honest, balanced red wine, neither over nor under wrought. Wood is not a significant factor. Best 2015-2024.

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 Dec 12, Part Two

Holiday Value Selections
by John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason & Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

After last week’s preview of the best buys over $25, this week we look at the best selections under $25 included in the December 12th release. Also stay tuned for my annual fizz report coming out on the 18th just in time for the holidays, which will be full of premium sparkling wines available both at the LCBO and in consignment, for gifting, celebrating and collecting, a special feature on grower champagnes, as well as a revised look at an old favourite pastime, matching oysters and wine.

White And Sparkling Wines

Zenato 2014 San Benedetto Lugana, Veneto, Italy ($16.95)

Sara d’Amato – A great holiday white for a low price especially if you enjoy fresher, unoaked whites. Lugana is made primarily from verdicchio and this example shows well the variety’s generous fruity character and nervy nature.
David Lawrason – This is one of Italy’s great underrated whites based on the trebbiano grape grown in northern Italy. It sports a very generous nose of lemon, apple custard, vague almond and subtropical star fruit. It’s medium weight fleshy, very bright and fresh. For fans of viognier and the exotic.

Wynns Coonawarra 2014 Estate Chardonnay, Coonawarra, South Australia ($17.95)

John Szabo – A lovely, brisk, fresh, minimally-oaked chardonnay from the ever-reliable Wynns of Coonawarra, and terrific value at that.

Cave Spring 2013 Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Cave Spring Vineyard, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($18.95)

David Lawrason – Ontario winemakers and pundits are pegging 2013 as a great white wine vintage in Ontario (and please abide my opinion that great white wine vintages are more important than great red wine vintages here in the homeland). This is a tender yet ripe and quite elegant chardonnay. Lighter and fresher than many but has some textural weight and creaminess at the same time.

Zenato San Benedetto Lugana 2014Wynns Coonawarra Estate Chardonnay 2014Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2013Tawse Spark Limestone Ridge Sparkling Riesling 2013Mountadam Estate Chardonnay 2013

Tawse 2013 Spark Limestone Ridge Sparkling Riesling, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95)

David Lawrason – Tawse’s cleverly named and varied Spark sparklers have been hit and miss in my view, but this is solid and great value – a quite fine, complex, tightly woven riesling with a compact and complex nose of dried green pear, petrol and chalky stoniness. And it’s priced for generous pours over the holidays.

Mountadam Estate 2013 Chardonnay High Eden, Eden Valley, South Australia ($23.95)

John Szabo – The cool Eden Valley above the Barossa in South Australia is the origin of this pleasant, fragrant and lifted chardonnay with plentiful white-fleshed ripe orchard fruit. Concentration aligns with balance, and length and depth are also exceptional for the category. Best 2015-2021.
Sara d’Amato – Anything but a rich oaky chardonnay, this high elevation Aussie version is perfumed and elegant with impressive harmony and refinement. A classy addition to your holiday table that makes an easy match for a wide array of cuisine.

Red Wines

Pinacle De Fakra 2010, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon ($14.95)

John Szabo – And now for something different … this cabernet-syrah-cinsault blend from Lebanon delivers a mouthful of savoury, dusty, succulent red fruit, full of wild herbs. Tannins are light and fine grained, acids are balanced and the overall length and depth are terrific for the price. A charmingly rustic, old world style wine, best 2015-2020.
Sara d’Amato – A curio selection with wide appeal, this blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and cinsault from the heavily French-influenced, super high elevation Bekaa Valley, offers softened tannins and a ready-to-drink nature. Mid-weight and loaded with fruit, it is one of the better values in this release.

Emiliana 2013 Novas Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Maipo Valley, Chile ($15.95)

David Lawrason – Wow, let Chile’s leading organic producer take a bow. This is an even-handed, quite delicious cab-merlot blend with complex notes of cassis, chocolate, graphite and mint. Well proportioned, even, fairly extracted but slender. May not have the density and depth of most wines that score 90, but impeccable balance trumps depth.

Pierre Laplace 2012 Madiran, Southwest France ($16.95)

David Lawrason – Here’s a textbook example of one of the world’s toughest-to-love reds. Madiran is a tannat-based red from the southwest of France, its name derived from the ferocity of its tannins. This example brings order to the house. The nose is a bit shy but appealing with blackberry, a touch of evergreen and vaguely iron-like minerality. It is medium-full bodied, quite firm and taut, but not overly aggressive.

Pinacle De Fakra 2010Emiliana Novas Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013Pierre Laplace Madiran 2012Cabriz Reserva 2012

Cabriz 2012 Reserva, Dão, Portugal ($17.95)

David Lawrason – Great value here! The landlocked, moderate climate, complex-soiled hill Dão region in central Portugal has huge potential, but is currently constricted by its mid-price range. Lovely lifted floral, plummy, blackberry and violet aromatics on display. It’s medium-full bodied, surprisingly gentle, soft and fruity with just enough drying tannin.

Salentein 2013 Reserve Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina ($17.95)

Sara d’Amato – Rich and inviting with notes of cocoa and black currant, this comforting red is best for curling up by the fireplace. It’s not all guilty pleasure though offering surprising dimension for the price. Peppered with notes of anise and juniper that linger on the marathon of a finish.

Poderi Angelini 2010 Primitivo Di Manduria, Puglia, Italy ($18.95)

John Szabo – Lovers of full-bodied, big, intensely flavoured wines in the style of Amarone will appreciate this similarly styled primitivo from Puglia. But it’s more than just raisined fruit; Poderi Angelini provides an example with excellent complexity, mature and earthy, pleasantly rustic and decidedly old school. This radically over-delivers on the price – I’d put this up against $40+ Amarone any day. Best 2015-2025.

Salentein Reserve Malbec 2013Poderi Angelini Primitivo Di Manduria 2010Ernie Els Big Easy 2013Murua Reserva 2007

Ernie Els 2013 Big Easy, Western Cape, South Africa ($19.95)

John Szabo – This entry-level wine from Els shows the high level at which the estate is currently performing. Mainly shiraz-cabernet, with some grenache, mourvèdre, cinsault and viognier, this is superb value, appealingly complex, savoury-earthy and herbal, well-structured, dense and polished. Lots of joy and pleasure here, best 2015-2021.

Murua 2007 Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($21.95)

Sara d’Amato – A solid, old school Rioja at the peak of maturity. Pairs well with everything from nuts and hard cheeses to roast bird and beef tenderloin.

Château Pierre De Montignac 2009, Médoc, Bordeaux, France ($23.95)

Sara d’Amato – With equal parts cabernet sauvignon and merlot, this juicy Médoc is fresh, friendly and easy to appreciate. From the highly lauded, riper 2009 vintage, this is a safe bet for holiday offering.

Château Pierre De Montignac 2009Mazzei Ser Lapo Riserva Chianti Classico 2011Wakefield Jaraman Shiraz 2013Domaine Karydas Naoussa 2010

Mazzei 2011 Ser Lapo Riserva Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($23.95)

John Szabo – Tuscan stalwart Mazzei, family owners of the Castello di Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico since 1435, deliver an open, very pretty, silky and perfumed wine in the 2011 vintage, with sangiovese softened by a splash of merlot. Although tempting now, this should continue to improve over the next 2-4 years, developing appealing savoury character along the way. Best 2017-2023.

Wakefield 2013 Jaraman Shiraz, Clare Valley/McLaren Vale, South Australia ($24.95)

David Lawrason – The Clare Valley is admired in Oz, but overlooked here as just another Aussie region. Its wines can offer impressive structure and depth – to wit this elegant red packed with generous currants, herbs, pepper, vanilla bean and cedar shaving. It’s full bodied, fairly dense and warm yet mineral.

Domaine Karydas 2010 Xinomavro, Naoussa, Greece ($25.95)

John Szabo – Ok, this is marginally above $25, but I believe it’s worth including, especially for lovers of light, dusty reds in the style of pinot noir, nebbiolo or sangiovese. Xynomavro is the Greek variation on this theme, a native variety to Macedonia and specifically the Naoussa region. Expect dried and candied red berry fruit, Turkish delight and leather, and firm but not aggressive tannins and acids. Decant for maximum enjoyment or hold through to the mid-’20s.

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

From VINTAGES December 12th, 2015

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All Reviews
Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Dec 12, Part One – Holiday Gifting and Gathering

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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