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The (Not So New) Wines of Greece

Text and photos by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Earlier this month the WineAlign crü sat down to taste a couple dozen currently available wines sent by Wines of Greece. This buyers’ guide lists our favorites. Whether you’re already familiar with Greek wines and would like to explore further, or you’ve yet to experience Greece in your glass, this is a great list to get you going. There’s really never been a better time to drink Greek wine. And for the very keen, read on for some thoughts on how the recent tough times in Greece have had unexpected benefits for North American wine drinkers.

The Benefits of Crisis

The mood in Athens was buoyant and lively. The streets were packed with people strolling with leisurely purpose in the warm sun. Restaurants spilled outdoors onto sprawling terraces occupying the sidewalks, chairs filled, tables laden with family-style platters of typical Greek foods and glasses filled with wine. Traditional bouzouki players plucked their instruments, wandering like minstrels through the crowds. There was no particular holiday or festival happening, just weekend business as usual in the nation’s capital.

What’s perhaps surprising is that this is not the retelling of a scene played out years ago, before the current financial wobbles that have plagued the Greek economy since about 2009, or the well-publicized austerity measures that were first introduced in 2010. This is the scene I observed, unexpectedly, just last month on my latest visit to the country. Had I just crawled out of a cave where I’d spent the last half dozen years and landed directly in Athens, I might have believed that Greece was booming, as though they’d just discovered a whole chain of marble mountains ready to be carved into expensive kitchen countertops and sold around the world. It’s of course not the case. But when it comes to eating and drinking, spending time with friends and just celebrating another day, the plucky Greeks seem impervious to doom-and-gloom headlines.

Busy Monastiraki neighborhood under the Acropolis, Athens-5358

Busy Monastiraki neighborhood under the Acropolis, Athens

I suppose this philosophical outlook is born of the understanding that things will eventually improve, as they have after every other crisis that has befallen Greece over the last few thousand years. However the party-like atmosphere does obscure the reality that high-end restaurants and premium wines are struggling. Unemployment, increased taxation, and capital controls, such as restricted daily bank withdrawals, mean less money in Greek pockets. And while nothing will stop them from taking to the streets for a good time, the average spend is down. That wine filling all those glasses? You can be sure it’s not the country’s finest; although a reported 98% of all wine consumed in Greece is of Greek origin, it’s not the top stuff. Strong tourism may keep the economy of hospitality rolling for some time, but can only take it so far.

But the Greek debt crisis has had an unexpected silver lining for wine consumers around the world. The faltering domestic market has forced Greece’s top producers to look outside the country, and focus more effort on export markets, much like Argentinian producers had to do when the peso was de-pegged from the dollar after the turn of the century. “Greek winemakers have started being more extrovert, and most importantly, have started working together. All these new developments are paving the way to [export] success”, writes Stellios Boutari of Kir-Yianni Winery in Naoussa.

And timing, strangely enough, couldn’t have been better. Had the crisis occurred a decade earlier, most attempts to break into foreign markets would have been ahead of their time, the wines totally foreign, the grapes unknown, the flavours too far from the mainstream. But as most overnight successes are years in the making, so too had the groundwork for export success, especially into North America, been laid.

Century-old xinomavro at Alpha Estate, Amyndeon, Macedonia-5290

Century-old xinomavro at Alpha Estate, Amyndeon, Macedonia

The organization formerly known as The New Wines of Greece has, for over a decade now, been educating North American trade and media through countless tastings, workshops, winery roadshows and in-country visits. Utterly foreign, formerly unpronounceable grapes like moschophilero [moss-koh-FEE-le-roh], assyrtiko [ah-SEER-tee-koh], agiorgitiko [ay-your-YEE-tee-koh] and xinomavro [k-see-NO-ma-vroh] have become, well, a little less unpronounceable and certainly more familiar in flavor. They turn up regularly on restaurant wine lists and in recommendations in the press. What must have surely looked like a herculean task in the early 2000s has paid dividends. In recognition of this, the trade organization recently dropped the “New”. Now they are simply “Wines of Greece”, back to being ancient and respected.

Exports to North America have risen sharply. According to data released by EDOAO, the national inter-professional organization of vine and wine, Greek wine exports to the United States and Canada in the last five years have increased by 39% and 55%, respectively. [Source: Greek USA Reporter, Ioanna Zikakou]

Old basket vines at Argyros Estate, Santorini-5408

Old basket vines at Argyros Estate, Santorini

These figures are expected to rise even higher in 2016. “We export 60% of our products abroad. “The demand is so great”, said enologist Erifyli Parparoussis in the northern Peloponnese. The growth of the wine industry has been one of the most positive stories to emerge from Greece since the national soccer team won the European Cup in 2004, which seemed only slightly more unlikely. “There are now few North American sommeliers who do not know about Greek wines and who do not include at least one label on their list. Their popularity has surpassed all expectations”, says Sofia Perpera, director of the Greek Wine Bureau in North America, who, along with partner George Athanas, has worked tirelessly over the last dozen years and has been instrumental in raising the international awareness of Greek wines.

Canada, and especially Ontario and Québec, have been particularly receptive markets, with sales showing impressive gains over the last half decade. “Greek wines have shown strong growth”, confirms LCBO Media Relations Coordinator Genevieve Tomney. Sales at LCBO and VINTAGES combined are up over 20% since 2012-2013, increasing from 3.4m to 4.1m in 2015-2016.

Part of the increase in Ontario can be attributed to the launch of the LCBO “Destination Greece – Products of the World” specialty store in Toronto’s Greektown on Danforth Ave. The program is designed to offer the broadest selection available from a given country, drawing not only on regular LCBO and VINTAGES listings, but also wines from the consignment program, previously only available directly from the importing agent and sold by the case. Greece was the first Products of the World specialty store, officially opened a year ago in August 2015. “We’ve seen sales of Greek products at that store increase by 140 per cent over last year”, continues Tomney.

Winemaker Angelos Iatridis of Alpha Estate in Northern Greece-5276

Winemaker Angelos Iatridis of Alpha Estate in Northern Greece

Steve Kriaris of the Kolonaki Group, the largest importer of Greek wines and spirits in the province, has also seen significant benefits: “The Greek specialty store has been a blessing for us. It has helped our consignment volume go through the roof. We are finally able to expose far more consumers to premium Greek wines and spirits. We’re now selling great quantities of bottles in the $30 to $50+ range, wines that previously were only available by the full case. And this is only the beginning. I expect total sales volume to double in the next 10 years”, he says enthusiastically.

The Products of the World program was the initiative of former VP, now President of the LCBO, Dr. George Soleas. Soleas was recently honoured with the 2016 Greek Wine Industry Award in Athens in March, an award given to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the Greek wine industry. “As a Canadian of Greek-Cypriot origin, I have always believed in the potential of Greek wines to measure among the best on the world stage. And now they do,” said Soleas in a subsequent press release. “The Greek wine industry has evolved significantly over the past 25-years and I could not be prouder of all it has accomplished.”

So what’s all the fuss about? It’s clearly not just marketing savvy and “fam trips” for sommeliers. To gain long-term traction in the market, wine quality must also match expectations. And to a large degree, it does. One of the main strengths is the wealth of indigenous grapes – some three hundred or so – which over centuries have survived a Darwinian selection process. These are the varieties that proved adaptable to radically diverse growing conditions across the country, yielding naturally balanced wines that require little adjustment in the winery. And unique flavours and minimally processed wines happen to match the current zeitgeist – this is precisely what many wine drinkers are seeking.

Mountains of Achaia, Northern Peloponnese, source of excellent Roditis-5368

Mountains of Achaia, Northern Peloponnese, source of excellent Roditis

Earlier this month the WineAlign crü sat down to taste a couple dozen currently available wines sent by Wines of Greece. Here are our favorites; whether you’re already familiar with Greek wines and would like to explore further, or you’ve yet to experience Greece in your glass, this is a great list to get you going. There’s really never been a better time to drink Greek wine.

Greek Wine Buyers’ Guide: White

Greek Wine Cellars 2015 ‘Apelia’ Moschofilero 2015 (1000ml – $10.60)

David Lawrason – Can’t think of a better summertime value. It’s a bit light and short, but clean as a whistle, refreshing and almost biting, with pretty lemon blossom, vaguely minty green notes and a touch of resin. Move over pinot grigio.

Skouras 2014 Moschofilero, PGI Peloponnese ($15.25)

John Szabo – Moschophilero is a lovely, fresh, intensely aromatic white variety, and this is a great example. It’s just beginning to shift into wildflower honey aromatics, alongside a bowl-full of fresh tropical fruit, nectarine, mango, honeydew melon and more. Acids are bright and crisp, alcohol a refreshingly moderate 12% declared, and the length is certainly impressive in the price category. Infinitely sippable.

Apelia Moschofilero 2015Skouras Moschofilero 2014 Troupis Fteri Moschofilero 2015

Troupis 2015 Fteri Moschofilero, Arcadia IGP, Peloponnese ($15.60)

David Lawrason – Good value here in a very clean white with subtle floral notes plus fennel, lemongrass and some yellow fruit. It’s light bodied, slightly spritzed and very refreshing. Need a break from sauvignon blanc?

Troupis 2015 Mantinia Moschofilero, PDO Mantinia ($16.95)

Michael Godel – Mantinia is a special place for moschofilero and this ripping example from Troupis should not be missed. At this price ($17), the value quotient is simply crazy good bordering on ridiculous. Whole grilled Branzino or Porgies with lemon and olive oil would make for a perfect foil.
Sara d’Amato – A zesty, dynamic and very pretty moschofilero from the cool growing region of Mantinia located in the high Arcadian plateau in the Peloponnese.  Characteristically aromatic with exotic fruit spice, dry and with racy acidity, the wine is undeniably refreshing. Given the price, I would stock up on this go-to summer white before word gets out.

Troupis Mantinia Moschofilero 2015 Santo Assyrtiko 2015 Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko 2015

Santo 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko, Santorini ($14.95)

John Szabo – Move quickly to buy this if you’re a fan of structured, powerful whites – this price can’t be sustained. The cost of grapes on the island of Santorini have more or less tripled in the last year, demand is up sharply, and supplies are scarce. The Santo cooperative is the largest producer on the island, producing about half of the appellation’s output from some 300 member-growers, but even still this wine must be at or even below cost, thanks to stern LCBO pricing negotiations to get this on to the general list. But it’s not just that – the wine is excellent, too, a typically subtle assyrtiko, more stony than fruity, with crackling acids – it needs another year in bottle at least to show its best.  You’re getting a lot of wine here for $15 to be sure. Decant if serving now; will also age into the early ‘20s.
David Lawrason – This is a medium weight, fleshy, bright assyrtiko with intriguing complexity. Immediately refreshing but more than that, with aromas of guava, lemon peel, white pepper and candle wax.
Michael Godel – Assyrtiko in 2015 from Santo just seems to evoke and spew a slow lava flow of a narrative, to tell a story that is pure Santorini. At $15 this is a steal. Neither price nor any sort of quantity in hand will last very long.

Argyros 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko, PDO Santorini ($22.95)

John Szabo – Argyros Estate draws on a marvellous collection of old vines to produce this bottling, although in this case, the vines are ‘only’ about fifty years old. It’s an archetype for the island, saline, firm, powerful, still tightly wound. It’ll be spectacular in a year or two. 
Michael Godel – This essential Argyros always offers the pleasure to bathe in its saline, sunlit waters and drink of its energy. Never failing Assyrtiko. Can you not imagine the stone crag, the whitewashed mineral cliff, the late afternoon sunshine gazing into the shimmering Aegean from an Oia perch?

Greek Wine Buyers’ Guide: Red

Idaia Winery 2010 Kotsifali/Mandilaria, Crete ($14.75)

John Szabo – Kotsifali and mandilaria are Crete’s two star red varieties, often sensibly blended. The former adds colour, flesh and fruit, the latter acids, tannins and savoury flavour. Idaia makes a pleasantly rustic, dusty-earthy, version, a little firm and tight, but balanced and food friendly. Best served at the table with some grilled meat or other salty, umami-rich foods; a tidy value overall.
David Lawrason – Great value here! Better structure and complexity than expected. It’s fairly elegant yet dense with a nose of very ripe blackcurrant/blackberry jam, vanillin, brambly notes and some earthiness. And there is a lead pencil character mindful of Bordeaux.

Alpha Estate Turtles Vineyard Syrah, PGI Florina, Macedonia ($21.95)

Michael Godel – The area of Petron Lake at Alpha Estate was an ancient nesting place for the local species of Chelonii on the Amyndeon plateau in northwestern Greek Macedonia. Some syrah in parts of Australia smell just like this; smoky, meaty, peppery and just plain strong. That it comes from Greece shakes the foundations of thought and adds Amyndeon into the syrah front page discussion.

Idaia Kotsifali Mandilari 2010 Alpha Estate Turtles Vineyard Syrah 2011 Alpha Estate Axia Red Blend 2012

Alpha Estate 2012 Axia Red Blend, PGI Florina, Macedonia ($17.95)

John Szabo – This is a stylish, succulent, fine-grained syrah-xinomavro blend, elegant and inviting. I love the mix of violets (syrah) and sundried tomatoes and olives (xinomavro – northern Greece’s finest red variety, reminiscent of nebbiolo), and the kirsch fruit and fresh black berry. Tannins are light but firm, bolstered by lively acids. Lovely stuff.
David Lawrason – I like that both the syrah 50% syrah and 50% xinomavro, step up to offer their strengths. Ripe cherry and smoked meat character of syrah dominate the nose; xinomavro kicks in just enough acidity to maintain ballast and some freshness. A quite rich and warming red, with fine tannin.

Domaine Glinavos 2007 Dryades, PGI Epirus ($22.95)

John Szabo – Well, here’s an intriguingly spicy and complex red blend from a regional leader, including the rare indigenous Vlahiko and Bekari grapes of northwestern Greece, along with cabernet and merlot. It’s fully mature and savoury, offering an aromatic experience that’s like walking through a North African spice market, with old leather, dry earth, dark spice, and so much more. This is surely not for everyone (even the WineAlign cru was divided) but I find it fascinating. There’s no questioning the amazing range of flavours, even if it’s outside most drinkers’ comfort zone, nor the fine depth and length on the palate. Give this a chance, perhaps with a Moroccan spice lamb tagine or similar.
David Lawrason – This is an impressive, complex, savoury and mature red with old school but well managed leather, sandalwood and spicy aromas and flavours. The fruit is very ripe, almost pruny and there are dried herbs in there as well. It’s medium-full bodied, quite dense but even keeled.  Try it with lamb.

Domaine Glinavos Dryades 2007 Katogi Averoff 2012 Boutari Agiorgitiko 2015

Katogi Averoff 2012, Metsovo ($16.95)

Sara d’Amato – A very traditional and distinctive blend of agioritiko and cabernet sauvignon from the mountainous Metsovo in northern Greece. Crunchy acids and saline with impactful flavour and very little oak influence make for a compelling and expressive red. Be sure to decant well or hold for another 2-3 years.

Boutari 2015 Nemea Agiorgitiko, Peloponnese ($13.10)

John Szabo – This is a fine, friendly, smooth and spicy Greek red, highly versatile at the table with distinctive old world styling. Agiorgitiko provides a nice range of tart and baked red fruit flavours, suave tannins, resinous herbs and Mediterranean scrub, putting this somewhere between the southern Rhône, Chianti and Rioja in style. Enjoy with a light chill.
Sara d’Amato – A super value, everyday table red that is fleshy, appealing and has gusto. Peppery and musky with rich fruit in an easy to appreciate package. There is nothing particularly complex or challenging, which is sometimes just what you want to unwind.


John Szabo MS

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

Caldera view, Santorini-8215

Caldera view, Santorini

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If I could buy only one – July 23rd, 2016 VINTAGES Release

As part of our VINTAGES recap, we asked our critics this question:

If you could buy only one wine from this release – which one would it be and why?

Here’s what they had to say. You can find their complete reviews, scores and store inventory by clicking the highlighted wine name or bottle image below.

David Lawrason – My highest scoring wine of the release is the gorgeous Flowers 2014 Chardonnay combining depth and finesse. It shows classic and complex aromas of pear, almond, gentle toast, vanilla, lemon custard and spice. My score may raise eyebrows and expectations, but that rating is based above all on its impeccable detailing and balance – not some onrush of power. I have always been a chardonnay fan but will not spend on cheaper versions that don’t rise to this grape’s potential. This is expensive but I would buy it, so it’s a good thing I am only allowed to buy one wine.

Flowers Chardonnay 2014


Sara d’Amato – A rosé that feels effortlessly beautiful – Hecht & Bannier Bandol Rosé 2015 – a French stereotype. I was swept away by this beauty before I had left for the heart of Provence. I find it genuine with a natural feel, subtle yet unrestrained. There is colour here, but not too much, and a fluidity on the palate that will bring calm to your summer nights.

Hecht & Bannier Bandol Rosé 2015


And, you might need to buy two bottles of this wine!

John Szabo – It’s perhaps a little more expensive than the typical house pour (I guess it depends on the house), but there are several reasons to stock up on the William Fèvre 2014 Champs Royaux Chablis. For one, 2014 is an absolute cracker of a vintage in Chablis, for many producers the best in recent memory, and Fèvre has found another gear for the generally excellent entry level bottling. It has an extra measure of depth and especially stony-mineral character, and I love the sharp acids and the perfectly chiseled citrus/apple fruit, as well as the very fine length. If you love classic Chablis, this is it. And secondly, considering that the region has lost over two-thirds of the 2016 harvest to dramatically bad weather (so far; the seasons is only half over), prices will inevitably rise, so stock up while you can. This will also handily age until the early twenties, so there’s no rush to drink, although it is delicious now to be sure.

Michael Godel – Having just returned from a week in Chablis and now spending four days in Niagara at #i4c16, the Burgundian outpost and chardonnay are front and centre and in my thoughts. It’s been a catastrophic spring there; hail, snow, rain, hail, frost and mildew. Fèvre’s winemaker Didier Seguier makes many great wines and his entry-level Champs Royaux is the perfect lead into the estate’s oeuvre and the crux of Chablis. It is a generalized but oh too important expression from kimmeridgian soil, hedged and qualified from all over the area’s hills, valleys and les clos. It is textbook Chablis, a guarantee of quality, especially out of the cracker 2014 vintage. Lets give Chablis some love.

William Fèvre Champs Royaux Chablis 2014

From VINTAGES July 23rd, 2016

Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview
Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES
John Szabo’s Smart Buys
Michael’s Mix
Lawrason’s Take
All July 23rd 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!


Filed under: News, Wine, , , , , , , , ,

Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – July 23, 2016

Spanish Cante Jondo, and the non-linear price-quality relationship of sauvignon blanc
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In flamenco music there’s a style known as cante jondo (aspirate that ‘j’), which means literally “deep song”. It’s said to be the purest form of flamenco, unchanged over centuries (watch this short clip). On a parallel plane, this week’s report takes us deep into Spanish wine, exploring the country’s wealth of ancient vines, handed down to us by generations of growers, and less well-travelled regions, seemingly untouched for centuries. This is Spanish wine in its purest form. I’ve highlighted my top picks from the Spanish-themed VINTAGES July 23rd release, as well as some excellent wines from a new Spanish specialist in Ontario, Cosecha Imports. These are some of the most exciting Spanish wines to reach our market in the last decade, available by private order, but well worth the effort.

I also have a look at the curious price-quality relationship of sauvignon blanc. It’s a wine that appears to be priced based entirely on origin rather than quality, which means that some inside information is needed to find the best values in this minefield. I pick a quartet of smart buys to illustrate the point. Read on for the details.

Buyer’s Guide: Spanish Cante Jondo

Alejandro Fernandez, the founder of the Grupo Pesquera, is the man largely credited with putting Ribera del Duero on the map, starting in 1972. Tinto Pesquera is still one of the appellation’s top wines. Fernandez added three other bodegas over the years – Condado de Haza (Ribera del Duero), El Vínculo (La Mancha), and Dehesa la Granja (Castilla y Léon) – and it was wine from this last estate that caught my attention in this release, the 2008 Dehesa La Granja, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León ($22.95). The vineyards around Zamora deep in old Castille are not particularly well known for top quality wine, but this is exceptional tempranillo, unabashedly spicy and wood-inflected, exotic and complex, full of cedar and sandalwood scents in the traditional Spanish style. It’s the best Dehesa I can remember tasting, and superb value at that. Beware the heavy sediment; you’ll want to stand this up for a day and decant. Best 2016-2028.

The roots of the Merayo family run deep in the region of Bierzo (northwest Spain), and they have always owned vineyards, and occasionally made wine. But in 2010, a definitive step was taken to establish a commercial winery. On July 23rd you’ll see the 2014 Merayo Las Tres Filas Mencia, DO Bierzo, Spain ($19.95) reach LCBO shelves, a bright, ripe, red and black cherry flavoured red drawing on the wealth of 80+ year-old mencía vines in the family holdings. I like the rustic, deeply honest country styling; tannins are a little rough and tumble, but in time – 2-3 years – this should soften up nicely. Acids provide necessary energy and tension, and the length is excellent. Best 2018-2024.

Alejandro Fernández Dehesa La Granja 2008Merayo Las Tres Filas Mencia 2014 Almansa Laya 2014

Almansa is hardly a region that flows off the tongue in general wine conversations, even amongst professionals. But this backwater in the country’s deep southeast corner (province of Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha) has plenty to offer, including high elevations to temper heat, ranging from 700m up to 1000m above sea level, and just enough water-conserving limestone in the soils to keep vines alive. The ambitious Gil family, who also bring us excellent values from Jumilla D.O. under Bodegas Juan Gil, are behind Bodegas Atalaya, and the 2014 Laya, DOP Almansa, Spain ($15.95) is another terrific bargain for fans of bold, ripe, oak-influenced wines. A blend of garnacha tintorera and monastrell gives rise to this modern style, full-bodied red, generously endowed with spicy, vanilla-tinged oak flavour, smoky, like well-peated Scotch, and wild resinous herb notes to round out complexity. Best 2016-2022.

Cosecha Imports – Some Producers to Track Down

In May I sat down with Philip George of Cosecha Imports, a new player in the field focusing exclusively on Spanish wines. The company has managed to scoop a handful of “New Spain’s” most exciting producers, exploiting little-known, ancient regions and old vines, and applying post-modern techniques – earlier harvests, old wood, whole bunch indigenous fermentations and a host of other hip practices – that yield, when done correctly, beautifully perfumed and balanced wines, and above all, infinitely drinkable. This is vino jondo.

Rafael PalaciosRafael Palacios is among the portfolio headliners. A scion of the famous Rioja winemaking family, he struck out on his own in 2004, settling on the northern region of Valdeorras in Galicia to make his mark. He works exclusively with the native white godello, making some of Spain’s most exciting white wines today. Bolo (c. $20) is the excellent, stainless steel fermented entry level version; vine age, complexity and ageability are ratcheted up in Louro, which includes a splash of native treixadura and is fermented in old 3000l cask, in my view the best value in the lineup, while the top in the portfolio, As Sortes ($70), made from vines approaching a century old and fermented in demi-muid, is a wine of astonishing depth. These are all worth seeking out.

Commando GCommando G is another cultish producer turning heads around the world. It’s the project of Daniel Landi and Fernando Garcia, who selected the remote Sierra de Gredos area about an hour’s drive outside of Madrid as their regional canvas, already painted with garnacha reaching up to 80 years old. Farming is organic/biodynamic in these small parcels, necessarily without machinery, which rise up over 1200m above sea level. If you think garnacha is heavy and alcoholic, you must try these wines, suffused with elegance, freshness and finesse. The prices of the ultra-limited cuvees rise steeply, but I loved the entry point 2014 Bruja de Rozas (c. $30), a vino de pueblo (village blend) of wonderfully silky and spicy garnacha, fresh and mid-weight, very Burgundian in feel.

Other excellent producers to look for in the Cosecha portfolio include Joan D’Anguera in Montsant D.O. and Pardas in the Penedès. It’s so great to see the Spanish wine offering expanding in the province.

On the Curious Relationship between Sauvignon Blanc and Price

The price of sauvignon blanc in LCBO VINTAGES is curiously predictable. It seems to be based on origins, rather than any notion of quality, however slippery that is to define. Chilean and South African sauvignon is invariably in the mid-teens. So too is basic Touraine or Bordeaux, while Aussie sauv seems able to fetch a dollar or two more. New Zealand hovers around $18, occasionally just over $20, alongside Friulian sauvignon, while Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé will set you back somewhere in the mid-twenties. Napa is in a neighbourhood of its own, in which $40 seems to be the standard point of entry.

Are these prices tied to how delicious the wines are? Hardly. It would be an eye-opening exercise to buy a range of sauvignons from $12 to $40 and taste them together, blind, with origins concealed. The results will surprise you. You’ll find that the cost appears much more directly linked to the wine’s home address than any other aspect of enjoyment. You might then buy 3 or 4 wines from the same region at the same price and repeat the exercise, observing how quality diverges at identical cost.

Now, wine pricing is a complex calculation to be sure. It’s based in part on hard production costs, including real estate and labour, currency exchange, and no small measure of regional and winery brand recognition, with a dash of speculation thrown in. Most regions are constrained to offer their wines in a more or less fixed range of prices, as the cost structure, and market tolerance, is similar for all (minus the individual brand recognition and speculation factor). But for sauvignon blanc, the price range is amazingly consistent, and narrow, from region to region, more so than for any other variety. It’s as though the producers get together to set a standard price for all. Even pinot grigio comes in greater price variation, based to some degree on quality. Why is that? Is it because sauvignon blanc is more a commodity than it is wine? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In any case, as a buyer, it’s frustrating knowing that a wine fetches a price based on birthright, not merit. But then again, as a smart buyer, I know that when looking for a typical sauvignon blanc experience, I needn’t overpay, either, just for the smart neighbourhood (unless I’m drinking the label). I can get a similar experience in an underprivileged neighbourhood for far less. It’s something to be aware of.

Below is a quartet of sauvignons that can be considered the nicest houses on their respective blocks. You only need choose what neighbourhood you want to live in.

Buyers’ Guide: Sauvignon Blanc

Roger & Didier Raimbault 2014 Sancerre AC, Loire Valley, France ($26.95) A Sancerre archetype: more stony than fruity, more citrus than tropical, more herbal than vegetal. The length, too, is excellent. Textbook. Best 2016-2024.

Domaine de la Commanderie 2014 Quincy AC, Loire Valley, France ($19.95) The so-called Sancerre satellite appellations (i.e. Reuilly, Quincy, Menetou Salon) are usually about 20 percent cheaper than Sancerre, but can offer a similar, lean and brisk profile in the classic Loire style. This is a fine example, a nicely tart, lemony and lightly stony sauvignon, brimming with green herbs and citrus. It’s perfectly satisfying; a classic oyster wine.

Roger & Didier Raimbault Sancerre 2014 Domaine De La Commanderie Quincy 2014 Boya Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Sutherland Sauvignon Blanc 2014

Boya 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley, Chile ($15.95) Chile just may offer the best value sauvignon on the planet, especially if you prefer the pungent and smoky, vegetal/green pepper/pyrazine-driven style. Cool coastal regions like the Leyda do it best, and the Garcés Silva family (of Amayna) do it as well as anyone. Boya is the fine ‘entry range’, and this youthful 2015 offers great acids and a nicely acidulated, citrus fruit finish. There’s a lot of energy and life in this bottle for the price.

Sutherland 2014 Sauvignon Blanc WO Elgin, South Africa ($14.95) South Africa also vies for a spot at the top of the southern hemisphere sauvignon heap of value, again drawing from cooler areas, like southerly Elgin, to produce pungent gently smoky and green pepper-inflected wines. Sutherland is well-established Thelema Mountain Vineyards’ newish project in Elgin, and this 2014 is a compelling, if slightly unusual sauvignon. Fruit shifts into the orchard spectrum, like nectarine and green peach, while the palate is quite broad and deeply flavoured, with earthy-medicinal character alongside the ripe-tart fruit and smoky-leesy character. It’s a wine of strong personality. 

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


John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES July 9th, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All July 9th 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!

Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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If I could buy only one – July 9th, 2016 Release

As part of our VINTAGES recap, we asked our critics this question:

If you could buy only one wine from this release – which one would it be and why?

Here’s what they had to say. You can find their complete reviews, scores and store inventory by clicking the highlighted wine name or bottle image below.


John Szabo – At this time of year I find myself searching the cellar for light summer reds, the kind you can chill and sip alongside just about everything, both refreshing and satisfying. These wines disappear more quickly than any others, and I’m always short. So this release I’ll be buying a few bottles of the Hubert Brochard 2014 Les Carisannes Pinot Noir, a wine that fits the bill perfectly. From a small, 5-hectares family estate just outside the Sancerre appellation yet still on prized-flinty-limestone soils, it’s an absolutely delicious, highly drinkable Loire pinot, with lovely, light, high-toned aromatics, all fresh-tart red berries, strawberry-raspberry, and some attractive leafy flavours. Don’t forget to serve lightly chilled.

Hubert Brochard Les Carisannes Pinot Noir 2014


Michael Godel – In a word, Riesling. Charles Baker is one of the torch bearing varietal leaders in Ontario and it is his Ivan Vineyard 2015 that you can approach with regularity beginning this summer. From rich limestone and sandstone beneath clay, the 1.1 acre (also known as) Misek vineyard sits on a southerly ledge up from Highway 8 and an easterly hill down from Cherry Avenue. In 2015 Ivan delivers the labour of ripe, concentrated fruit, by lower yield, alcohol and spine. I can think of 100 reasons to drink this repeatedly now and over the next three years while the more structured Ivans (and Picone Vineyard) ’13 and ’14’s continue to mature. Three good reasons would be breakfast, lunch and dinner, from scones, through croques and into fresh, piquant and herbed shrimp rolls.

Charles Baker Riesling Ivan Vineyard 2015


Sara d’Amato – If you’re unfamiliar with müller-thurgau, start with one of the best from a historic property that specializes in this varietal grown on precipitous, high-elevation slopes. In the Abbazia di Novella 2014 Müller-Thurgau the grape achieves a unique expression in this terroir whereas elsewhere in the world it can be quite bland. The fruit in this example is lush and aromatic and the palate is crunchy with sea salt and lemon giving the palate pep and refreshment. This may just be the perfect summer sipper and at under $20 I’m stocking up!

Abbazia di Novacella Müller Thurgau 2014


From VINTAGES July 9th, 2016

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Michael’s Mix
Szabo’s I4C Preview
Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES
All July 9th 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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VINTAGES Essentials: Fertile Ground for Value

Top New Vintages Essentials, July 2016
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The so-called “VINTAGES Essentials” is a collection of some 130-odd wines that is, essentially, a fancy extension of the LCBO’s regular listings. You already know that most of the wines sold in the VINTAGES section are purchased in discreet quantities and released every fortnight – these are the wines that WineAlign spends so much time reporting on, here today, gone tomorrow. When stock runs out, another listing takes its place.

But the Essentials are deemed, well, essential, and thus available on shelves year round, just like all of those familiar brands you see in the ‘regular’ sections of the LCBO. Really, the only difference is that they’re tucked away in the VINTAGES corner of your LCBO in all of its intimidating, wood-paneled glory, basking in the premium halo of the more rare, transient and expensive selections, and deliciously close to those locked glass armoires that harbour the really rare and expensive stuff.

The Essentials program is where the world’s premium wine brands want to be: always available (maximum sales potential, just for being there), yet without the déclassé stigma of being mixed with the hoi polloi on the ‘regular’ shelves, where discount drinkers go to fill their carts with boxed wine, vodka coolers and mickeys of Southern Comfort. Savvy wine companies, and their importing agents, know this, and often take a hit to shave down their pricing so it fits the Essentials matrix – it’s a coveted and therefore highly competitive space. And if you don’t meet minimum sales quotas, you’re booted to free up space for a potentially better-performing wine, ratcheting up the pressure (just as it is for the regular listings). Dropping your price by 10% or even 20% to move from a one-off VINTAGES purchase (with no guarantee of a re-order) into the Essentials category just might make financial sense.

And knowing this, the savvy shopper spots on opportunity: premium wines offered at artificially thin margins. The Essentials are fertile ground for value. But of course not all are killer – it still takes a little effort to sort out the good from the really good. And of course the vintages of these essential listings are constantly changing (that is, the year in which the grapes were grown), which occasions ups and downs in quality and style from year to year.

In June, the LCBO provided an opportunity to taste through the current crop of Essentials. Below are four whites and four reds that came knocking on my door of opportunity. (Be sure to check the vintage on the label – stores are likely to have multiple vintages on the shelves.)


Various factors, including a strong American dollar, high production costs and high cost of living make California an unlikely place to find real value. So it was all the more exciting to see one of my perennial favourites not only excel in the latest vintage, but also come down $3: Sonoma-Cutrer 2014 Russian River Ranches Chardonnay ($24.95). This is easily the classiest California chardonnay in the VINTAGES Essentials program, and the ‘14 is particularly well-balanced, crisp, fresh, minimally oaked, focused more on white-fleshed fruit – pear in particular – and citrus. Length and depth are impressive, and you can drink or hold this into the early ‘20s.

As I’ve recently reported, I believe chardonnay is Ontario’s most reliable and consistent grape, so it’s not surprising to find one on the Essentials list. The price, however, is surprising – surprisingly low, especially considering Ontario’s own elevated production costs and variable climate. I know Malivoire has had to stretch to get their 2013 Chardonnay ($19.95) just under the $20 wire, and it’s a fine value. It’s made in the bright, tight, minimally-oaked style, full of lively apple, pear and citrus fruit, and very light leesy-white chocolate flavours. Acids are sharp and crunchy in the best way, and the finish lingers nicely, making it a widely appealing, food-friendly style.

Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay 2014Malivoire Chardonnay 2013 Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2013 Flat Rock Twisted White 2014

Riesling would be my other pick for Ontario flagship white, excelling for value especially in the sub-$20 category. Cave Spring has been at it for over 35 years, helping to establish what has now evolved into the classic regional style, and the essential 2013 Estate Riesling ($17.95) is a benchmark. It features plenty of pear flavour and bright acids on a vibrant, off-dry frame, so very drinkable.

Blended whites is a more challenging category, often the dumping ground for leftover wine it seems, or a pure commercial play. But Flat Rock shows that they can be serious wines, too. The 2014 Twisted White ($16.95) is another fine and fragrant, just off-dry, joyfully aromatic mix of riesling, gewürztraminer and chardonnay, hitting a nice balance between fruit, floral, and ginger spice, and acids and sugar (with c. 17 grams of residual sugar, it’s slightly drier than Apothic red). This should be your go-to wine for those takeout Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese nights.


Spain has shown itself to be a vast source of serious value in the last few years, and Essentials brings us two fantastic wines from the most historic red appellation, Rioja. On the more premium end, the Muga 2012 Reserva Rioja ($23.95) is a regular and consistent favourite. The 2012 is yet another engaging, fragrant, fruity-spicy edition that hits all of the right notes, perfectly pitched, mid-weight, lightly dusty, with vibrant acids and moderate wood influence in the modern style. Best 2016-2024.

Not as complex but a sheer joy to drink at a nice price is the Lan 2011 Crianza, Rioja ($15.95). It’s also on the more modern side, fruity, juicy and easy drinking with minimal wood influence. It would make a fine party/house/back yard BBQ wine.

Muga Reserva 2012 Lan Crianza 2011 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône 2012 Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore 2012

In a similar vein, the E. Guigal 2012 Côtes du Rhône ($16.95) is a regionally faithful example, appealingly dark and savoury. It delivers typical tar-like notes alongside dried flowers, resinous herbs, and liqueur-like red and black berry fruit, matching the textbook description of Southern Rhône red blends. Drink or hold short term, to about 2019.

Valpolicella ripasso is a challenging wine to get right in my view, but Zenato’s 2012 Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore Veneto, Italy ($24.95) is among the more reliable and consistently successful versions available at the LCBO. I like the bright acids, refined tannins and very good length, as well as the Mexican chocolate and cinnamon spice over lightly dried red fruit. It’s made using the classic ripasso method – soaking the skins leftover from Amarone pressings in straight Valpolicella to give it a boost – but the potentially confusing “Ripassa” name was born during the period when the Masi company owned the trademark for “Ripasso”, a term which they have since made available to all. Zenato’s brand, however, was already established, so they kept the name.

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


John Szabo MS

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

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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – July 9, 2016

International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration Preview, & Killer, Almost-Chardo Whites
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s July, which means it’s that time again for some of the world’s top chardonnay producers to join their counterparts in Canada for the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) in Niagara, July 22-24. Since 2011, over 174 wineries from planet wine have poured their coolest chardonnays in Ontario, and this year, the 6th edition, another 30 visiting vintners will show their wares alongside 30 Ontario oenologues, well over 100 wines altogether, with many extra-curricular options. The program this year is as jam-packed as a winery tasting room on a long summer weekend, full of fun, covertly educational events, including the main event, the Cool Chardonnay World Tour Tasting & Dinner on Saturday night. See the schedule and get your tickets. I’ll see you there.

The LCBO joins the celebration with an i4c preview for the July 9th VINTAGES release. By design or diplomatic faux pas, the Ontario selections largely outshine the foreign ones, all from the watershed 2013 vintage, arguably the best yet for Ontario chardonnay. Read on for the best of the lot in the release, plus a few others great chardonnays I’ve swallowed lately. And for those of you who love chardonnay, but would enjoy a little dalliance, I’ve got three irresistible whites, which in a dark glass at the end of the night could pass for a delicious chardo, with an exotic twist.

Chardonnay: You Are The One

It’s never the special bottlings or experimental lots that define a wine region, no matter how impressive they are. It’s the baseline and the top end, and everything in between, which proclaim a region’s signature grape status. What’s the most consistent and reliable variety, at all price points, capable of displaying a range of styles yet still regionally recognizable?

By these criteria, Ontario has a clear champion: chardonnay. Riesling, it’s true, performs superbly and dependably well, and easily anchors the best value category. But it hits a glass ceiling of price and, more contentiously, quality. I know of no Ontario riesling that sells over $40, which would be hard to justify in any case in my view, and most are under $20, right where they should be, with notable exceptions.

Chardonnay, on the other hand, while weaker at the bottom end, can nonetheless peak interest under $20, and ramp up all the way to $50-$60+ with plenty of points of interest along the way. And at the ultra-premium end, the top wines handily equal, and often best, similarly priced wines from around the world. It’s rare that a young wine region hit upon a signature variety within the first generation, but with barely forty years of serious commercial winegrowing, Ontario has found a successful vector with chardonnay.

“We focus so much on Chardonnay as we believe it’s the first white grape of Ontario in terms of consistency, quality, and also its expression of terroir”, declares Daniel Speck of Henry of Pelham, one of the original Niagara wineries, echoing the sentiments of many others. You can bet that if I were planting a vineyard in Ontario, there would be a healthy percentage of chardonnay in the mix. As further evidence, last week at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada judging in Penticton, BC, there were no fewer than three flights of chardonnay, the largest group, along with pinot noir, that made it to the final rounds. This clearly shows that the bulk of entries was very strong (including wines from elsewhere in Canada, but many from Ontario) – it was a sheer pleasure to taste through them all. But it was also bloody tough to pick a top wine. (You and I will have to wait a few more weeks to discover the overall top wines.)

NWAC16 Chardonnay_SZ

And The Original

In a move of supreme foresight, or sheer luck, chardonnay was the first vinifera planted in Ontario in the late 1950s by Bill Lenko. The local Horticultural Research Institute had cautioned Lenko that European grapes wouldn’t survive; how fortunate that he defied those warnings. Today, chardonnay is the most important grape by number of varietal bottlings in the province. It’s also the protagonist of Ontario’s biggest and most important event, the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, or colloquially “i4c”. Ontario vintners are proud to put their wares on display alongside chardonnays from all of the world’s coolest regions.

Summer School at i4c

So, if you’re still not convinced spend some time over the i4c weekend getting to know the top drops in your backyard. And for the particularly keen, take some summer school courses. I’m chuffed to be back as moderator for the weekend opening “Summer School of Cool” day of seminars on Friday, July 22nd. This year’s three riveting topics are Harvest Timing and Implications – for me the most important decision a winemaker makes every year, which dramatically impacts what’s in the glass. It’s a move you can never take a mulligan on. As the great Chablis producer Bernard Raveneau once told me, “twenty years ago only the most audacious producers had the courage to wait and harvest late. Now, only the courageous harvest early”. It’s a make or break call.

The second seminar explores the age-worthiness of Cool Climate Chardonnay, and the factors that most directly affect it, an FAQ if I ever heard one (plus we’ll be tasting some tidy old vintages – always a treat). And lastly, we’ll get into a deep topic of increasing relevance and bring it out of the winemaking shadows: Skins & Stems: Whole Cluster Winemaking (or Not): Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I know I know, it sounds geeky. But considering the increasing prominence of whites made with skin contact, it will be stimulating to examine chardonnay under this light. And as a first, red wine – in this case pinot noir – has been allowed into the celebration, opening the door to a discussion on the use of stems during vinification. If you’ve ever wondered why this pinot is more deeply coloured and exuberantly fruity, while that one is pale, floral, spicy and earthy, you may want to check this tasting out.

In the meantime, warm up your chardonnay palate with the following excellent examples.

Buyers’ Guide: Cool Chardonnay

Jay Johnson must have been possessed. Or maybe he reached enlightenment, or solved the mystery of the universe. Whatever happened, it conspired to make the Flat Rock 2013 The Rusty Shed Chardonnay, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($24.95) the best yet from this chardonnay-pinot specialist. It hits pitch perfect balance between fruit and wood, acids and alcohol-richness, while offering a fine array of still youthful citrus and pear/apple/orchard fruit. This is a head-turning wine.

Another ‘best yet’ in 2013 comes from Pearl Morissette and the 2013 Cuvée Dix-Neuvième Chardonnay, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($38.20). It’s the most ‘chardonnay-like’ chardonnay to emerge from the Pearl Morissette cellar to date, fermented in assorted, mostly old oak casks, then left unmolested without racking until bottling save for a partial short passage in Georgian clay qvevri which, according to Morissette, snapped the wine back into shape after a period of ‘laziness’. It really excels on the palate – this is all about the texture, unctuous and luscious – and palpable salinity that acts like the fulcrum in tandem with acids to rein in and balance the billowing, lightly oxidative orchard fruit. You’ll get a good ways through War and Peace before the finish dissipates.

Flat Rock The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2013Pearl Morissette Cuvée Dix Neuvieme Chardonnay 2013 Henry Of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2013 Hidden Bench Chardonnay 2014 Tabali Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2013

The Speck boys found a terrific groove in 2013 as well, offering us the conspicuously excellent Henry of Pelham 2013 Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay, VQA Short Hills Bench ($29.95). It’s delightful to see this top tier wine from Henry of Pelham crafted with such restraint and delicacy – I suppose it’s the confidence that comes with 30 years in the business that you can let your old vines and vineyard speak more loudly than your barrel supplier or winemaking savvy. This is a wine of genuine presence and depth.

Also at the top of their game, Hidden Bench’s 2013 Estate Chardonnay, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara ($28.75), is another Niagara classic with every bit the complexity, flavour, savouriness and seamlessly integrated wood of the best. And this is just the ‘entry level’, a blend of HB’s three estate vineyards designed for earlier enjoyment. But it delivers marvellous density and intensity on a lithe and vibrant frame. And it’s a steal for the price. Buy a few bottles to enjoy while you’re waiting for the trippy 2013 Felseck vineyard chardonnay to be released later this year.

And lest our guests feel slighted, here’s the top value non-Canadian selection from the July 9th release: Tabalí 2013 Reserva Especial Chardonnay, Limarí Valley, Chile ($18.95). The Limarì valley and its high active limestone and cool coastal influence is in my view Chile’s most suitable chardonnay region, at least of those in commercial exploitation. This is a complex, well-balanced wine to be sure, but what excites me most is the palpable saltiness, the crunchy acids, the well-integrated oak (9 months in barrel), and the lingering, lightly creamy finish. A fine value in premium chardonnay, at a sub-premium price.

Buyers’ Guide: Killer, Almost Chardonnay-like Whites

I’ve enthused about Soave’s Pieropan before, so you won’t be surprised to see the Pieropan La Rocca 2013 Soave Classico DOC Soave, Veneto, Italy ($37.95) on this list. It’s one of the great single vineyard wines of Soave, and indeed of Italy, from a limestone-based site that delivers an exceptionally rich and creamy wine here in 2013. The texture is absolutely gorgeous, creamy and layered, ample and mouthfilling, while crackling acids aided by palpable saltiness reel in the richness and retain balance. Best 2016-2025.

Admittedly I find the wines of Paso Roble in California’s Central Coast area often overblown, but one of the mighty exceptions is the great estate of Tablas Creek, a joint venture between the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, and American importer Robert Haas. The 2013 Côtes de Tablas Blanc, Paso Robles, California ($33.95) is a superb white blend of viognier, grenache blanc, marsanne and roussanne, inspired of course by the Rhône, and grown from cuttings brought directly from Beauscatel. The vineyards sit on the west side of Paso on cooler, limestone soils, which, coupled with the old world winemaking philosophy, result in exceptionally well balanced wine, ripe and rich but equally fresh, with neither excess nor deficiency of any elements. The creamy, orange peel-laced finish lingers on and on. Very classy and collected; best 2016-2024.

Pieropan La Rocca Soave Classico 2013 Tablas Creek Côtes De Tablas Blanc 2013 Palacios Remondo Plácet 2012

Palacios and quality are virtual synonyms, so don’t miss the Palacios Remondo 2012 Placet Valtomelloso, DOCa Rioja, Spain ($29.95), a pure viura grown at nearly 600m one of the highest vineyards in Rioja, just hitting perfect drinking stride now. It can be considered a more modern style, which is to say absent the obvious oxidative and coconut/sandalwood flavours of long American oak-aged, traditional examples, but it has an impressive range of flavours of its own. I like the gently creamy but balanced palate and the long finish, all white flowers and soft fruit. Really lovely; best 2016 2022.

That’s all for this week. Happy Canada Day!


John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES July 9th, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
All July 9th 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!

Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Jun 25, 2016

Canada’s Day is coming
by John Szabo, MS with notes from David Lawrason and Michael Godel

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

WineAlign critics and invited judges are currently sifting through over 1500 entries at the annual WineAlign Canadian Wine Awards in Penticton, BC, a record number. This will be the most comprehensive look at Canadian wine ever held to date, and I know we are all keen to get the latest reading on our growing industry, and uncover the very best. Stay tuned for complete results in the coming weeks.

We are also aware that Canadian wine is gaining significant traction internationally. Listings are more and more common in top US wine bars, while in the UK, the number of wineries with distribution has grown from two or three a half decade ago to nearly a dozen and a half wineries, and growing. Cracking hyper-competitive markets like London and New York is a massive coup, and confidence builder, to be sure.

But before you say that it’s terribly Canadian for vintners to need outside validation in order to feel secure about the quality of their wines, I can tell you that the sentiment is hardly uniquely Canadian. Everywhere I travel, even in the most well-established, historic wine regions, producers are desperately seeking recognition and validation of their work. It’s inherent in the nature of anyone making a non-essential, luxury, hedonistic good. So, Canadian winemakers, don’t feel insecure about being insecure. You’re not alone. And be proud of the massive strides you’ve taken in a short period of time.

For more news, read Dr. Jamie Goode’s recent WineAlign article on the tasting held at Canada House in London last month, in which Emma Finn of the Canadian High Commission reported that ‘You can tell by the buzz in the air and the record number of guests at this Canada House tasting that it’s an exciting time for Canadian producers.’ Yes it is.

Canada House - photo by Janet Dorosynski

Celebration-worthy Ontario Wines

So, to celebrate Canada’s birthday this year, as well as the terrific rise in quality engineered in a single generation, here are some premium local wines for the occasion.

Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine BrutBubbly is a logical point of departure, and while competition has stiffened considerably in the last decade, nobody has been doing it for longer or better than Henry of Pelham, since 1999. The standard Cuvée Catherine is a reference bottling for Ontario sparkling, but step up to the top-of-the-line Carte Blanche Blanc de Blancs, VQA Short Hills Bench ($44.95). Since the introduction of this premium, pure chardonnay cuvée in 2008, it has been in the very top echelon, made from the best 30 year-old estate vineyards in the Short Hills Bench where heavier clay naturally restricts yield and berry size. Part of the finest free-run juice is fermented in old 500l barrels before secondary bottle fermentation and aging about 54 months en tirage. The 2010 vintage 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.

Riesling has become a Niagara calling card, and the June 25th release features the excellent Hidden Bench 2014 Estate Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($23.95). It’s organically-grown and classically styled, which is to say properly balanced by bright, crunchy-fresh acids that cancel out a pinch of residual sugar, resulting in an essentially dry expression. Typical pear and citrus flavours lead, with a backbeat of florality. I’d be sipping this all afternoon.

Chardonnay remains the most bottled single variety white in Ontario (300,000+ cases in 2015) and a Niagara signature (don’t miss the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration this July in Niagara). So there are plenty of excellent wines to choose from, but year after year I find myself captivated by the Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2012, VQA Vinemount Ridge ($35.95, winery). I love tasting the Tawse chardonnay range blind, and I’m comforted to have picked out the Quarry Road again from the line-up of 2012s. It may not be the most immediately appealing; indeed it’s a little more reticent at this stage than the Estate or the Robyn’s Block, and with perhaps less mid-palate flesh, but has the most crackling seam of acids, and the tightest fruit expression (very subtle, light citrus), and the greatest range of non-fruit (read: mineral) flavours that keep me coming back for more. I also love that the price has remained the lowest within the premium range.

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2014Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2012 Pearl Morissette Cuvée Métis 2014 Stratus Red 2012

When it’s time to shift into red, consider the Pearl Morissette 2014 Cuvée Métis Cabernet Franc, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($30.00, winery). Former sommelier-turned-Burgundy-trained-winemaker François Morissette has quietly been crafting some of Niagara’s most intriguing experimental wines, not without controversy, since 2007. But in 2013-2014 he appears to have hit full stride, having made an uncontestably cracking range across the board. This 2014 is a dead ringer for cultish Loire Valley cabernet franc (think Pierre & Catherine Breton), a wine of fully engaging floral perfume, perfectly ripe fruit, and the herbal twang beloved by cab franc drinkers. Enjoy with a slight chill for maximum effect.

Full-bodied red drinkers will revel in the Stratus Red 2012, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake ($44.00), the premium bottling from one of Niagara’s most experienced winemakers, the indefatigable JL Groux with 35+ vintages under his belt. The 2012 is the best yet from Stratus in my view, an impressive Bordeaux style blend that would be equally at home in Tuscany with its high-toned, floral and dusty-herbal red and black fruit, thanks in part to long hang time, and long ageing in wood to develop complexity. The style is unique, and concentration, length and range of flavour are all excellent, with genuine depth and density on the palate. Decant this before serving.

Buyers’ Guide to June 25 Ontario & VINTAGES Essentials:

Wildass Rosé 2015, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($17.95)
Michael Godel – Aromatically off the charts for Niagara Peninsula Rosé, like strawberry mingling with marl. Wildass strikes ruby in 2015.
David Lawrason – I continue to find the Wildass branding rather silly, and beneath the quality of the wine and winery. This is a bright, fresh and gentle rose with complex florality, cinnamon spice and fresh currant/strawberry fruit. Some sense of sweetness, but nicely bright as well. Exotic and perfumed, with very good length.

Thirty Bench 2014 Riesling, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula, ($18.95)
David Lawrason – Available as a VINTAGES Essentials. This is a riveting riesling! It sports very lifted aromas of petrol, green pear, lime and fine balsam notes. It’s light bodied (10.8% alch), off-dry taut and juicy.  Another riesling that should age very nicely.

Wildass Rosé 2015 Thirty Bench Riesling 2014 Tawse Quarry Road Riesling 2014Tawse Sketches Chardonnay 2013

Tawse Quarry Road 2014 Organic Riesling, VQA Vinemount Ridge ($23.95)
David Lawrason – From a cool site up on Vinemount Ridge, this is a slender, juicy riesling with mouth-watering acidity. Classic lime, fresh herbs, pine and green apple on the nose; the latter really following through on the palate. There is wisp of nicely balanced sweetness. A VINTAGES Essentials.

Tawse Sketches of Niagara 2013 Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Now replacing the 2012 in the VINTAGES Essentials portfolio, the is a fine, well balanced, sipping chardonnay with fresh pear, lemon, vague vanillin and spice from a short time in barrel. Very good value.

Tawse Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2012, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore ($31.95)
Michael Godel – Paul Pender has indicated that this may be the last of the Laundry Vineyard mohicans. You could absolutely drink this now and also watch it slowly turn over 10 years time. Might it have been the last?

Tawse Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2012 Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2013 Norman Hardie Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir 2012

Hidden Bench 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, VQA Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
David Lawrason – I have tasted this VINTAGES Essentials often over the last six months, choosing it to represent Niagara pinot in the Canadian Wine Scholar course being held across Canada.  It’s still two years away from prime, with some tannic grit, but the structure is solid, the cran-cherry fruit and oak are nicely harmonized.

Norman Hardie 2014 Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($39.00)
David Lawrason – Although not from PEC where Norm Hardie is located this elegant, tart-edged pinot shows the styling and intensity making his wines famous. It’s sleek, sour, bright with lifted cran-cherry fruit, toast, smoke and some spice. A VINTAGES Essentials.

Szabo’s Smart Buys from elsewhere in the release

Domaine Bott-Geyl 2012 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru Riesling, Alsace, France ($50.95)
John Szabo – This may be more than you’re used to paying for Alsatian riesling, or riesling of any kind, but it is truly an exceptional wine. Bott-Geyl is a young organic/biodynamic producer aiming at the top level in the region, and Schoenenbourg is an exceptional riesling site, a steep south-southeast-facing vineyard on shaley-marl and dolomite soils. This shows maturity, but also amazing perfume and complexity, offering caramelized citrus and candied floral notes, honey spice and ginger. The palate is fullish and fleshy, bone dry, intensely flavoured, with memorable length and depth – a real powerhouse that demands attention and commands respect. Drink or hold another decade.

St. Urbans-Hof 2014 Old Vines Riesling, Mosel, Germany ($21.95)
John Szabo – Germany continues to turn out top value riesling, and this is a terrific old vines Mosel from Nic Weis, perfectly pitched, succulent and juicy, genuinely flavourful in the classic register. St. Urbans-Hof is also coincidentally the origin of much of Ontario’s riesling vine material, brought over to Vineland Estates in the late 1970s. Best 2016-2024.

Domaine Bott Geyl Schoenenbourg Grand Cru Riesling 2012 St. Urbans Hof Old Vines Riesling 2014 Domaine Roux Père & Fils Bourgogne Chardonnay 2014 Parker Coonawarra Estate Chardonnay 2014

Domaine Roux Père & Fils 2014 Bourgogne Chardonnay AC France ($20.95)
John Szabo – The 2014 vintage in Burgundy made for more riveting wines, with less fat than the mean, but all the livelier for it. Roux’s version is nicely stony, minimally oaked, properly tight and chiselled, a classic cool climate chardonnay with an extra measure of depth and complexity all in all, and solid value at that. Best 2016-2020.

Parker Coonawarra Estate 2014 Chardonnay South Australia ($19.95)
John Szabo – John and Faye Parker established Parker Coonawarra Estate in 1985 with an ambitious plan for quality, which has not wavered since. This is a pleasantly lifted and perfumed, fresh and deftly wooded chardonnay from cool Coonawarra, with lovely acids and a fine streak of flinty reduction that runs through the long finish. For the money, this is superb wines – I love the limey flavours and acids with a touch of fresh cream.

Domaine Michel Juillot Mercurey Les Champs Martin 1er Cru 2012

Podere La Cappella Querciolo Chianti Classico Riserva 2011Podere La Cappella Querciolo 2011 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($38.95)
John Szabo – Established in 1979 in the southern part of Chianti Classico by Bruno Rossini, though bottling only since 1995, La Capella is now run by daughter Natascia and quality is exceptional. Organically-farmed sangiovese is rendered in a nicely evolved, elegant, old school style, crafted with authenticity and complexity in the crosshairs. It offers lovely length and depth, not on a big frame, but rather a perfectly pitched, mid-weight, elegant frame designed for wine lovers sitting around the table. Drink or hold into the early-mid-’20s.

Domaine Michel Juillot 2012 Mercurey Les Champs Martin 1er Cru AC, Burgundy France ($45.95)
John Szabo – Based in Mercurey, Laurent Juillot is one of the regional leaders in the Côte Châlonnaise (southern Burgundy). The domaine’s parcel of Les Champs Martins was planted in 1973 with high-density, 10,000 vines/hectare, and generally yields wines for medium to long term cellaring. The 2012 is classically styled, fine red fruit and spice-scented, with no evident wood influence save for the gentle oxidation and textural development that develops best in barrel. I like the lightly stemmy-herbal character that lifts and freshens the palate; tannins are medium-fine grained, lightly dusty and grippy but sufficiently coasted by fleshy fruit, and length is excellent. All things considered, this is fine value for fans of traditional red Burgundy. Best 2018-2024.

That’s all for this week. Happy birthday, Canada.


John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES June 25, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Sara’s South of France feature
All June 25 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!

Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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Savour Australia’s Evolution

Wine Australia: A Lesson in Evolution
By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Change is a constant in the wine business, even if the opportunity for a major shift happens only once a year. Even the most established wine producing regions reinvent themselves from time to time – witness Chianti Classico, or Soave, or even most of Germany over the last half dozen years. So, although it can be said that all countries experience some degree of evolution and upheaval, I’d argue that Australia has had the deepest re-think of its entire industry, and the most impressive evolution, of any country worldwide in the last decade.

The reasons are several. For one, they had to. After spectacular success that surprised no one more than the Australians themselves in the 1990s, achieving the industry-established export goals decades before anyone thought it possible, came an almost equally spectacular commercial crash. The world had moved on, Australia had not. But the Aussie wine industry is also particularly resilient. They’ve experienced, and survived, crashes before – the collapse of the sweet/fortified market on which the original, mid-19th century industry was founded, for example.

And they’re also particularly well-organized and cohesive, operating on a national level with awe-inspiring efficiency, rather than, as most established wine producing countries do, on a divisive regional, or even sub-regional or individual basis. This makes wholesale change possible, and much more rapid than, say a country in which it’s every winemaker for himself. That’s not to say that Aussies don’t have individual character, as anyone who’s met more than a stereotyped Crocodile Dundee understands. But they also seem to get the sensible notion that the rising tide lifts all boats.

So when things started to go south in the early 2000s, the industry collectively rolled up its sleeves and set about fixing the problems. The national marketing message was quickly re-tooled to match the modern Zeitgeist of drinkers. It shifted away from celebrating reliable sunshine in a bottle, fun but not serious, to instead focusing on unique regional expressions, positing the potential of the myriad terroirs of a country into which, after all, all of Europe comfortably fits with plenty of acreage left to spare.

For this reality to be reflected in the bottle of course took more time; radical stylistic changes require at least a few vintages to get right. But don’t forget that the Aussie industry is one of the most technologically savvy and advanced, and the understanding of how to achieve a more authentic regional expression (or avoid homogenized ones) was hardly lacking. A little canopy management alteration, different (often fewer) interventions in the winery, and voilà, regional Australia was (re-)born.

Mark Davidson, Global Education Manager

Mark Davidson presenting a Masterclass in Singapore

“The last 10 years have seen a dramatic shift in attitude and approach”, confirms Mark Davidson, Global Education Manager for the trade association Wine Australia, which represents the industry worldwide. Davidson has been on the front line for years re-shaping Australia’s story, and has witnessed all of the changes up close and personal. “Chardonnay and pinot noir have never looked better and regional differentiation is more transparent than ever before. Shiraz is grown in virtually every region in Australia and recognition of that geographic diversity is being expressed more clearly. There is also an increased interest in new varieties and styles which is not being led by fad and fashion but by environmental suitability,” he continues, listing just some of the most obvious changes.

Whereas once you might have been able to get away with saying “Aussie Shiraz”, as though they were all made from the same vat, now the blanket moniker is all but meaningless. Instead you talk about Clare Valley, or Barossa, or Heathcoat or Hunter Valley shiraz, to call out but a few. And now you talk about the relative merits of fiano or vermentino or aglianico or nero d’Avola, and not just chardonnay and shiraz.

So what does this mean for the consumer? The landscape of Australian wine has never looked more diverse and exciting. The evolution has been nothing short of spectacular.

Here are a few currently available wines that neatly encapsulate the Australian revolution.

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2014, Margaret River, Western Australia

Chardonnay in Australia has undergone perhaps the biggest makeover in the last ten year. From reliably thick, soupy, tropical and wood infused, to fresh, flinty and balanced, the transformation has been remarkable. The first winery to plant in the Margaret River, in 1967, Vasse Felix has always been on the more elegant, cool-leaning side abetted by the maritime-influenced climate of Margaret River, but recent vintages have really tuned chardonnay to a fine quiver. Filius is the excellent “entry level”, open and refreshing. For the maximum expression try top-of-the-line Heytesbury Chardonnay, a strikingly flinty, tightly wound expression.

Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2014, Adelaide Hills

Yes, from the extremely successful man who is more than partly responsible for putting Australia on the world wine map since the early eighties, the radical turn-around for Wolf Blass’ chardonnay is perhaps the most emblematic, high profile evidence of change. Once fashionably oaky and jammed with tropical fruit, made from chardonnay sourced throughout Southeastern Australia, the Gold Label (and even more so the step-up White Label) has been transformed into a model of balance and refinement. It’s now sourced entirely from the relatively cool Adelaide Hills, the fruit is crunchier, wood dialed back, and pleasure ramped up. It doesn’t shy away from the sunshine of South Australia, it’s just painted in a more early morning/late afternoon portrait.

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2014 Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2014 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Coonawarra

Wynns is another classic producer that has always marched to a delicate beat, so no radical evolution was required to bring this into line with modern tastes. It’s just that much more appreciated now. The classic Black Label is a brilliant (and brilliant value) representation of Coonawarra and its special little patch of red terra rossa soil, and capable of ageing magnificently.

Josef Chromy Sparkling 2010, Tasmania

Tasmania has been a big part of the Evolution Australia story, charging onto the scene with terrific sparkling wines as well as stylishly lean chardonnay and pinot noir. Much fruit is now sourced from the cool island to blend into some of Australia’s most iconic chardonnays, for example, unheard of in the ‘90s. Czech immigrant Joseph Chromy’s tale is a heartwarming rags to riches sort of story, now as reliable a producer as they come. Winemaker Jeremy Dineen crafts one of the finer, more consistent Tassie bubblies.

Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2013, Clare Valley

Jim Barry is one of the old guard who has managed to adapt to the times – not that radical change was needed here either, but this latest expression of shiraz is particularly fragrant and well-chiseled. It’s not the most edgy new wave style, finding a lovely balance between ripe dark fruit and, more frequently these days, a fine, lifted medicinal-spicy-peppery note. Wood is as comfortably part of the ensemble as a pro surfer is at one with his board.

Josef Chromy Sparkling 2010 Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2013 Alpha Box & Dice Xola Aglianico 2011

Alpha Box & Dice 2011 Xola Aglianico, McLaren Vale

Although not currently available, I thought this delicious wine worth a mention in the context of evolution Australia. It demonstrates the outside-of-the-commercial marketing-box thinking that is redefining the country. Aglianico is hardly a household name, but its region of greatest expression, southern Italy, is not dissimilar in climate to South Australia. So why not give it a try? Brothers Justin and Dylan Fairweather did just that, though found that a cash flow-punishing 4 years in old wood were necessary to tame the ferocious tannic nature of this first effort. But the results are so very promising indeed, their version leaning towards the more elegant and savoury versions from Mount Vulture in Basilicata. How’s that for an obscure reference. Check it out, along with the rest of the fine range (montepulciano, barbera, grenache, etc.), from these passionate young vintners. (

John Szabo, MS


The History, Evolution & Revolution of Australian Wine

This article is one of a three-part series taking a look at the history, evolution and revolution of Australian wine on the page and in the glass. Please link to the other two articles below:

Where have all the critters gone? by Anthony Gismondi

Where have all the critters gone? by Anthony Gismondi

The Fire of Revolution, by Bradley Royale

The Fire of Revolution, by Bradley Royale



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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – May 28, 2016

Veneto, German Royalty and Smart Buys
Text and photos by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week I’ll have a look at the Veneto feature of the May 28th VINTAGES release, with some thoughts on the region and a quartet of top picks that cover some of the essential styles. A selection of miscellaneous smart buys follows, and includes a pair each of superb whites from the Niagara Escarpment and Stellenbosch, and a duo of old world reds straight from the textbook.

The annual German Wine Fair featured last week in Toronto, a country going from strength to strength and generating plenty of excitement, at least among the trade judging by the enthusiasm in the room. I’ve posted a separate Germany report including an interview with Josefine Schlumberger, current German Wine Queen, as well as top drops currently available, and ones I hope will soon be (calling all importers!!!).

Italian Giant: The Veneto

The Veneto in northeastern Italy is one of the country’s most prolific wine-producing regions. With large and famous appellations like Prosecco, Soave and Valpolicella, not to mention an ocean of pinot grigio “Delle Venezie IGT”, the quantity of wine produced, and exported, is staggering. Soave, for example, is the area with the most intense concentration of viticulture in all of Italy. The principal communes of Monteforte d’Alpone and Soave itself devote more than 90% of their agricultural area to vineyards.

Misty autumn morning, Valpolicella-3697

Misty autumn morning, Valpolicella

With some notable exceptions, the selection made available to us on LCBO shelves is underwhelming to be sure, favouring the largest mass-market brands with advertising dollars to spare. The region of course has much more to offer in the quality spectrum. See my January report from Verona listing the top releases from the 2016 edition of the Anteprima Amarone with bonus picks from the Valpolicella and Ripasso categories.

Vineyards of Filippi in Castelcerino, Soave-5231

Vineyards of Filippi in Castelcerino, Soave

The offerings debuting on May 28th are mixed, though I’ve found four wines that nicely represent their respective regions.

Pieropan 2014 Soave Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy ($17.95): The dual geological nature of the Soave zone, from black and red soils of volcanic origin to white or yellow terrain of calcareous (limestone) origins, is a hot current topic of discussion between producers. This arch-classic Soave is blended from both soil types but, like the region itself, is dominated by its volcanic side, yielding a lovely, floral-flinty, classically structured wine, with ample depth and smoky complexity, and I love the crackling acids of the 2014s in general. It’s terrific to see this come in at such an attractive price ($2 less than the 2013). I’d give it another year or two in bottle to reveal its more mineral side, but the range of flavours is already impressive. Best 2016-2024.

Monte del Frá 2014 Bardolino DOC, Veneto, Italy ($14.95): Here’s a totally delightful, fresh strawberry-raspberry-cherry scented red from the eastern shores of Lake Garda, the kind that just begs to be chilled and cracked, like the best wines of Valpolicella next door. I love the lack of pretension and the confidence to make an honest, simple but dangerously drinkable red without recourse to artificial wood flavouring or exaggerated ripeness. This is just fun.

Pieropan Soave Classico 2014Monte Del Frá Bardolino 2014 Masi Serego Alighieri 650 Anniversario Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2011 Giuseppe Campagnola Ripasso Della Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014

Masi 2011 Serego Alighieri 650 Anniversario Monte Piazzo, Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC, Veneto, Italy ($21.95): If you are in the mood for a more serious red, this Masi wine from the historic estate that still belongs to the descendants of the poet Dante Alighieri is a fine option. It’s an ambitious, mature, very savoury example of Valpolicella, with notable wood influence but an equally abundant measure of dried porcini/leather/barley risotto-type flavours to balance. There’s definite old world styling here, complete with firm-dusty tannins. Best 2016-2021.

Traditional grape drying room at the Serego Alighieri Estate-9965

Traditional grape drying room at the Serego Alighieri Estate

Giuseppe Campagnola 2014 Ripasso della Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC Veneto, Italy ($19.95): I find ripasso style Valpolicella a hard wine to get right – it’s neither pure and fruity-vibrant like straight up Valpolicella, nor rich, dense and heady like Amarone, but rather lost in between with varying degrees of unbalanced and overly raisined fruit flavour, or worse, excessive wood flavour, to which the delicate grapes of the region – mainly corvina/corvinone and rondinella – seem particularly susceptible. Campagnola dials it down nicely here, evidently a more serious, polished wine, heavier and more concentrated than the mean while retaining balance, with ripe, soft tannins and plush texture. Fruit remains faithful to the red berry spectrum, and the length is very good, and wood influence is marked but not exaggerated. Best 2016-2022.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Escarpment Whites

Flat Rock Unplugged Chardonnay 2014 Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2013Supporters of local riesling, and indeed lovers of riesling from anywhere will want to tuck a few bottles of the Cave Spring 2013 CSV Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench ($29.95) into the cellar. 2013 is a fine vintage for this Niagara classic, from some of the oldest riesling vines in the province. Balance is impeccable, with taught, quivering acids taming a light pinch of residual sugar. Length and depth impress, as does the range of spicy citrus, ginger and floral flavours. Drink or hold a decade – there’s a big window of enjoyment, judging by past great vintages.

And some insider information: the 2015 CSV riesling, made with wild ferment for the first time, is reportedly the estate’s best yet. But we’ll have to wait another couple of years to see it.

Flat Rock takes a page from the Chablis playbook in the 2014 Unplugged Chardonnay VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($16.95), a clean, lively, vibrant and very fresh unoaked chardonnay. I like the crunchy acids, lightly tacky texture, moderate alcohol, and vaguely lactic (yoghurt, fresh cheese) flavours that will remind you of northern France, in a very good way.

Stellenbosch Whites

With the already weak Rand in further free fall of late, we can only expect more great values from South Africa.

For the moment, Rustenberg delivers another overachieving value with their 2014 Chardonnay ($19.95). It’s a nicely pitched, gently oaked, well-structured and complex chardonnay that could hold its own in a much higher price category. Length and depth, as well as complexity are impressive. Best 2016-2022.

South African chenin blanc is likewise one of the best values on planet wine, that is if you like assertive, characterful whites with occasional brute smoky-mineral force. Oldenburg Vineyards 2014 Chenin Blanc ($20.95) is such a wine, melding ripe sautéed pineapple and candied tangerine fruit flavours on a full-bodied, concentrated frame, with the merest hint of wood influence. I like the expansive, wide-ranging palate, and the lingering finish – this is a substantial white wine, ready for full-on BBQed chicken or veal, or similar high-intensity foods.

Rustenberg Chardonnay 2014Oldenburg Chenin Blanc 2014Château Pegau Cuvée Maclura Côtes Du Rhône 2013Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva 2010

Textbook Euro Reds

I’ve been following the wines of Laurence Ferraud for a decade and a half, and watched her expand from her original family Domaine du Pégau in Châteauneuf and purchase Château Pegau just a few kilometers south of the appellation, with similar terroir including mounds of stones, next to the Rhône.

The 2013 Cuvée Maclura Côtes du Rhône ($19.95) is a fine, savoury-spicy, floral and cinnamon-tinged, quite well structured grenache-led GSM. This may run a little to the dry and dusty side for some, but I love the range of flavours on offer, covering all of the spectrums from dusty red fruit to lavender to black liquorice-pepper spice. Best 2016-2023.

Fans of classic sangiovese (with 10% canaiolo) will love the Carpineto 2010 Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano Riserva DOCG Tuscany, Italy ($29.95). 2010 was one of those perfect vintages, and this is showing beautifully now, a lovely floral, black pepper, pot pourri-savoury expression. The palate is expansive and terrifically complex, polished and softened by two years in wood, and having reached a silky, refined texture with excellent length and depth overall. Drink or hold mid-term (2016-2025). 

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


John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES May 28, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All May 28 Reviews

Buyers’ Guide to May 28th – Judgment of Paris Edition

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!

Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

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Szabo’s Highlights from the German Wine Fair

I Chat with a Queen
by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The annual German Wine Fair featured last week in Toronto, a country going from strength to strength and generating plenty of excitement, at least among the trade judging by the enthusiasm in the room. Read on for my highlights and watch an interview with Josefine Schlumberger, current German Wine Queen, on what it takes to become a Queen (hint: it’s an election, not a birthright, nor a beauty pageant), as well as top drops currently available, and ones I hope will soon be (calling all importers!!!).

On German Wine & Asian Food

The annual German Wine Fair kicked off with a trade lunch + tasting focused on Asian cuisine paired with a dozen wines, hosted by the reigning German Wine Queen, Josefine Schlumberger, and yours truly. Dishes inspired by Thailand, Japan, China and India were designed by the culinary team at the Arcadian Court at 401 Bay Street to challenge and highlight the versatility of German wines from sparkling to spätburgunder (pinot noir), while a German chocolatier supplied hand-crafted chocolates specifically designed to match with German riesling eiswein.

The lunch tasting proved once again what sommeliers have long known: the pure, lively, sweet-tart balance of German whites, with varying degrees of ripeness and flavor intensity, provide an excellent foil for the baseline taste sensations on which southeast Asian cuisine is often built: sweet, sour and piquant. For example, Thai-inspired Citrus Infused Humbold Squid, Nam Prik, Fancy rice, Cucumber, Cilantro, Mango found seamless harmony with Weingut Rudolf May’s excellent 2012 ‘RECIS’ Silvaner Dry, from the Franken (even if half the room thought the superb Weingut Rappenhof 2014 Pettenthal Riesling GG Dry from the Rheinhessen was the top match; it all hinged on how much sweet mango purée you included in the bite).

New Perfect Pairings

Older wines develop the savoury-umami taste that is echoed in just about every Asian dish, a requisite for true harmony. Witness the impossibly good combination of China inspired Crispy sweet & sour pork, Fermented Bok Choy, Long bean & Pineapple, Sesame oil & Chili with perhaps the wine of the luncheon, the mesmerizing Weingut Leitz 2004 Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Spätlese from the Rheingau. The pairing was a symphony of sweet-sour-umami; it would be hard to imagine a better match for this pork dish. Perhaps most surprising was the compatibility of Lime scented Lamb Sirloin, Spiced Tomato & Potato, Wilted Mustard Greens, Kaffir Lime, Cilantro, & Clove with a marvellously evolved but still youthful Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt 1999 Josephshöfer Riesling Auslese, Mosel, a sweet but balanced wine than handled the heavy Indian spicing and gamey lamb with relative ease.

Next time you’re eating Asian, consider Germany for the glass.

I Chat with a Queen

Watch this video with German Wine Queen Josefine Schlumberger on what it takes to be a Queen, and on what we can expect to see in the future from German wines.

Buyer’s Guide: Highlights from the German Wine Fair

Dönnhoff, Nahe

I was overjoyed to see the wines of Dönnhoff finally available in Ontario, shown for the first time at the German Wine Fair by importer Groupe Soleil. I’ve been following the estate for many years now, always happy to drink the wines in Montreal, Calgary or abroad, wherever I came across them. Helmut, and since 2007 his son Cornelius Dönnhoff, craft wines worthy of a long list of superlatives from a handful of exceptional vineyards in the heart of the Nahe region. There’s really no magic or dogmatism at play here, just hard work and great sites. Sensible farming practices are followed, but not hardline organic or biodynamic. Fermentations are often spontaneous, but Dönnhoff will inoculate with a strain of locally isolated neutral yeast if things are not going “fast and clean enough”. The 2014 Estate Riesling ($29.95) is the entry point into the range currently available, a tight, dry, classically lean blend of vineyard sites with crackling acids. The Kreuznacher Kahlenberg (2014 Riesling Trocken, $41.95) and its heavier loamy-quartzite soils yields a generally richer, more immediately open style of Riesling, even if the cool 2014 vintage favoured tightly wound wines in general.

Cornelius Dönnhoff

The slate soils of the Norheimer Kirschheck (2014 Riesling Spätlese, $51.95) vineyard yields particularly fragrant and floral – cherry blossom-scented riesling with pitch perfect balance, while the slate mixed with volcanic rocks of the Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle (2014 Riesling Spätlese, $75.95), the Nahe’s most famous vineyard, delivers riesling of astonishing delicacy and power, finesse and complexity, with a finish that reverberates for minutes. Available by private order only is Dönnhoff’s greatest pure volcanic site, the Felsenberg, which in 2014 has an almost brutal quality, edgy and untamed, particularly smoky and salty and aromatically closed up for now. “Felsenberg is not always charming in its youth”, Cornelius offers. “It needs time to open.” All of Dönnhoff’s wines are worth a look. – Agent: Groupe Soleil, Stephen Cohen,

Thörle, Rheinhessen

Christophe ThörleI met Christoph Thörle for the first time at last year’s German Wine Fair and I was impressed then; this year was no different. From his various vineyards around Saulheim in the limestone-rich northern part of the Rheinhessen just south of the Rhein River and within site of the Rheingau, he makes a cracking range of Rieslings (and an impressive pinot noir) from wild ferments. Top of the range is the 2014 Riesling dry Saulheimer Schlossberg, a wine of terrific tension and finesse from half-century old vines at the highest point in the village, on iron oxide-rich soils. Give this at least another 2-3 years in the cellar. The top value in the portfolio, however, is surely the 2015 Riesling Feinherb (August 2016 VINTAGES release, $18.95). It’s an off-dry but beautifully balanced blend composed of the barrels of riesling that didn’t completely finish their natural fermentations, carrying 17 grams of barely noticeable residual sugar. The secret is that it includes wines from Thörle’s top vineyards – only fully dry wines are bottled as single vineyards (and sold for much more) – a reflection of the current German obsession for totally dry wines. – Agent: Univins and Spirits, Robert Walcot,

Weingut Heitlinger, Baden

Heitlinger is a well-funded operation in Baden, with a brand new winery featuring all of the current cutting edge wine producing technology. It shows in the precision spot-on profile of the wines, as in the 2013 Pinot Noir, Baden ($21), a light, pleasantly spicy-stemmy wine with perfectly polished, light tannins and bright red fruit. The top white available in consignment is the 2013 Riesling dry Husarenkappe GG ($58) from a predominantly limestone site with depth, crackling acids and excellent length. – Agent: Halpern Enterprises, Elizabeth Sinclair,

Königschaffhausen Cooperative, Baden

For sheer value it’s tough to beat the finely-tuned Königschaffhausen co-op located in the southern Baden region. On LCBO shelves now is the 2016 Vulkanfelsen Grauer Burgunder (pinot gris) (VINTAGES $16.95), an aromatically subdued and delicate wine, elegant and notably salty-saliva-inducing, with fine, lingering finish, versatile at the table.

Dr. Loosen, Mosel, Pfalz

The best value red wine at the fair was hands down the delicious and dangerously drinkable 2014 Villa Wolf Pinot Noir (LCBO general list, $12.95) from Ernst Loosen’s estate in the Pfalz. It’s a pinot in the pale, light, fruity, easy-drinking style best with a light chill, but, by God, it tastes like pinot noir. And at $12.95, that’s a rarity indeed. When you can’t decide on white, red or rosé, choose this.

Wish List Germany: Calling Ontario Importers!

Weingut May, Franconia

Benedikt MayAmong the unrepresented wineries showing their wares at the wine fair, there was plenty of excitement around the table of Weingut May (rimes with “eye”), a family operation launched in 1998 but with 300 years of grape growing history and plenty of old vines in the Franken region. May joined the highly respected VDP in 2014, an association of some 200 of Germany’s top producers that is as close as it comes to a genuine seal of quality in the wine world – it’s a clear indication that the estate is entering the big leagues. The family farms without insecticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, and ferments are carried out with wild yeasts. In the Franken silvaner is king, and occupies nearly 2/3rds of May’s 13.5ha of vineyards, including many old parcels, on predominantly muschelkalk soils (shell limestone). From the lovely, fun and fruity 2015 Silvaner Orstwein (“village” wine) in the classic flagon-shaped bocksbeutel (reportedly modelled after a goat’s scrotum – yes you read that right) to the superb 2013 Silvaner dry Rothlauf, from a VDP-designated grosses gewächs or grand cru vineyard with substantial weight and striking flinty minerality, the range is excellent. Pricing is attractive, too. Contact Rudolf May,

Weingut Frey, Rheinhessen

Young Christopher Frey was in Toronto for the first time to present the wines produced by him and his brother Philipp in the equally limestone-rich southern part of the Rheinhessen near the Pfalz border. 2014 was the first vintage under the Frey label, a new name for an old family grapegrowing/winemaking affair. The house style leads toward very rich and ripe wines, all harvested at spätlese level but vinified dry with wild ferments. Reds are still a work in progress, but rieslings are a strength. The entry-level 2015 Riesling Dry is a classy, firm but giving and succulent example (approximately 3.5 euros ex-cellar). 2014 Hangen-Weisheim Riesling ‘village’ steps up the concentration, shifting into the riper peach spectrum, while top-shelf 2014 Sommerwende Riesling from the estate’s oldest vines (30 years) strikes the palate with sharp flinty-stoniness, aged for the most part in large, 80 year-old wooden casks. Contact: Christopher Frey,


John Szabo MS


Josefine Schlumberger and her home region Canada-Germany

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008