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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – April 30, 2016

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

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

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

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

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


County in the City – The calm before the evening storm

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


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

Mount Hood from the Dundee Hills-8781

Mount Hood from the Dundee Hills, Oregon

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

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

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: Oregon

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

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

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

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: British Columbia

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

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

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

Buyers’ Guide to Pacific Northwest: Washington State

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

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

Buyers’ Guide to Rosé

Côteaux Varois en Provence

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

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

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

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

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


John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES April 30, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All April 30th Reviews

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

Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay 2012

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John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: Prince Edward County April 2016

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The annual County in the City tasting brought the best of Prince Edward County to Toronto on April 14th, featuring mostly a mix of the very promising 2015s, that is, the few drops that survived the yield-crippling (but paradoxically quality-improving) May frost, reportedly the coldest May 23 since 1961.  Many excellent 2014s were brought out for the first time, a vintage that looks to have produced the finest wines yet in several growers’ portfolios.

The Vintner’s Quality Alliance now counts 31 registered VQA wineries currently operating in the County (although adherence to the VQA is not obligatory and so the actual number of commercial wineries is higher), up from 26 the previous year. This shows that the PEC wine industry continues to inch onward and upward. In fact, a shortage of grapes is becoming a more familiar refrain, and not just in very low-yielding vintages like 2015.

It’s clear that the region’s unsympathetic climate is a grand challenge for winegrowers – there’s no easy route to financial success, and the top wines are necessarily costly. If you’re thinking it’s time to buy land and plant a vineyard in the County to sell grapes for profit, you’d better check those numbers again, carefully. Yet the results of what makes it to bottle are promising enough, and in many cases are already more than good enough, to justify such a tenuous existence. I can only hope that more people will take up the challenge to exploit one of North America’s best, if least profitable, terroirs. Didn’t somebody say that nothing worthwhile is easy?

During this latest snapshot, by no means comprehensive, of the state of PEC wine, I was happy to see the established names continue to deliver exceptional wines. No doubt they’ve been spurred on in part by increasing competition; a clutch of relative newcomers is now knocking at the door, broadening the range of wines worth tracking down. And while chardonnay and pinot noir remain the flagship grapes, I’d like to throw pinot gris into the ring, clearly another grape to watch in the County. The number of VQA-approved pinot gris’ jumped to 15 labels in 2014, still a relatively small number of wines (just over 100 VQA PEC wines were produced in the same year), but confidence in the grape appears to be growing, and the results are highly encouraging.

Here are some recommended current releases by grape.


2014 This marks the first vintage for which new winemaker Keith Tyers was in full control, and he appears to have dialled back ripeness and barrel influence in the Closson Chase 2014 Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay ($28.95), favouring a more chiselled and tightly wound style, and less of the cream-custard-style of earlier vintages (also abetted by the cool 2014 vintage). This is terrifically lean, tight and stony, and I like the way this comes together on the palate, allying firm acids with citrus and green peach/pear fruit, and just a light delicate touch of caramel wood spice on the finish which will surely fade into the ensemble in short order (this spent just under a year and a half in barrel, of which less than 10% were new). Best after 2017.

Closson Chase

It’s fantastic see Lighthall Vineyards come on so strong in 2014, with a string of great wines across the board at attractive prices. The Lighthall Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay (25.00) is pure, fresh and stony; if ever there were discussion about the Chablis-like expression of chardonnay from the county, this could be cited as evidence. I love the crunchy citrus fruit, the grapefruit flavours. Enjoy now or short term hold.

2014 is likewise a breakout vintage for winemaker Colin Stanners, having rendered his 2014 Chardonnay ($30.00) from estate fruit into a marvellously chalky, reductive, Puligny-like pure expression of limestone, with no holds barred and no concessions to easy commercial appeal. The palate is tight, even with a touch of residual sugar, but it works here in the rivetingly acid milieu. This could use another 6 months to a year in cellar to flesh and round out. Distinctive, and very promising for the future of this site.

Keint-He continues to sharpen it’s range of both PEC and Niagara wines under winemaker Ross Wise, and this first release of the 2014 Greer Road Chardonnay ($30 est.) is a fine and crisp, crunchy and lively, very fresh expression, very transparent. Wood sticks out a little for now on the skinny frame, but cellar for another 6 months for better integration.

Pinot Gris

PEC pinot gris is gaining in popularity, at least in terms of the number of labels, and Lighthall enters the ring for the first time with the Lighthall Vineyards 2014 Pinot Gris ($25), a real cracker, produced from fruit grown at Huff Estates. It’s open, fragrant, lightly honeyed, barely off-dry on the palate, but with a real sense of stoniness and saltiness, a fine addition to the growing County lineup.

2015 was the first County vintage for former Lailey (Niagara) winemaker Derek Barnett, and it’s great to see such a confident hand at the helm at Karlo Estates after the untimely passing of Richard Karlo. The Karlo Estates 2015 County Pinot Gris ($29) is a very strong release, crafted in somewhat of a richer, fuller, Alsatian style relative to other examples. It’s off-dry and apple-flavoured, quite densely packed (though with only 12% alcohol – still generous for PEC). I like the sense of stoniness allied to ripe fruit, the generous proportions, and the solid length.

County Pinot Gris

The most intriguing and experimental version goes hands down to Stanners Vineyard 2014 Pinot Gris Cuivré ($25), a wine crafted in a style that approximates the ancient, ‘farmhouse’ approach regaining popularity in northeastern Italy known as ramato (‘coppered’ in Italian) or cuivré in French. Skins are soaked for 24 hours before pressing and fermentation, just long enough to give this a distinct copper hue. It’s the second vintage in this style for Stanners, and the result is a pleasantly lean and bright wine, with deceptive length that hangs on and on. Don’t expect opulence; this is more about freshness, and the light, tacky, textural experience from tannins extracted during the maceration, more grippy than rosé, and just on this side of a light red. Stainless steel ageing preserves the fruit and spice, and florality of the variety. It’s an intriguing wine worth tracking down; be sure to carafe before serving to give it air (and not too chilled either).

The most patio-sippable version comes from Huff Estates and their 2015 Pinot Gris ($20), a crisp, clean, fresh, citrus-scented version, closer to pinot grigio than pinot gris in style. It’s an easy-drinking, bright and fresh, aperitif style wine. 

Pinot Noir

Norman Hardie rarely misses a beat, and his 2014 County Pinot Noir Unfiltered ($39 est, not yet released) emerges here with supreme grace, with fine-grained, delicate texture, seemingly light but anchored on solid base of impossibly ripe fruit at just 10.9%. I love the length, the absence of any wood flavor, the terrific mineral saltiness. It’s really in a class of its own.

Frédéric Picard at Huff Estates made a very convincing and competitively priced 2014 Pinot Noir ($25) from estate fruit and vineyards in South Bay, easily the best yet from the Huff. It’s clearly genuinely concentrated and ripe (even if still light in the County style), with finely integrated wood influence (fermented and then aged in 3000l oak foudres) and plenty of succulent red fruit and spice. It’s great to see such quality at the price; just hope it can be maintained, even if that’s wishful thinking.

Lighthall Vineyards winemaker Glenn Symons has likewise upped his game with the 2014 Pinot Noir ‘Quatres Anges’ ($30), the fifth reserve pinot produced at the estate, and by all accounts the best. He describes the 2014 growing season as “perfectly balanced with epic, unequalled ripening, allowing the fruit to fully express itself”. My translation of that from the glass is a light, fragrant, leafy County pinot, really well-pitched, with delicate tannins and silky texture. It’s filled with grace and charm and ready to enjoy this summer.

Glenn Symons - Lighthall Winemaker

And establishing the growing consistency of their range, the Stanners 2013 Pinot Noir ($35) is also worth a look. It’s likewise a pinot for fans of pale and delicate reds, yet this slim wine (11.5% alcohol) nonetheless carries a solid freight of flavour, based on faded floral/pot pourri, dried red fruit notes, sour and fresh. Tannins are ultra-fine and soft, while acids are balanced-bright, sufficient to drive saliva. Only resinous wood notes (from less-than-stellar barrels?), lets the expression down somewhat. Drink now with a light chill.

That’s all for this report. 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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California: The State of Pinot Noir

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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

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

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

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

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir

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

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

What Makes for Great California Pinot Noir?

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

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

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

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

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

Three Top Regions to Consider

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

Sonoma Coast-3146

Sonoma Coast

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

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

Hirsch Vineyards-3171

Hirsch Vineyards

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

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

A Tasting of Cool California Pinots

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

(Ontario Agents are listed where available.)

Foursight Wines 2012 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

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

Failla Wines 2013 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McIntyre Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands

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

Wrath Vineyards 2013 Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highland

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

Kosta Browne 2013 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Halpern)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: California Wine Fair Highlights

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

These picks were whittled down from over 60 samples of currently available or incoming wines. The Ontario agents are listed for each wine; prices subject to change. Follow the wine links for complete reviews and to see if these wines are available near you. I’ve posted a separate feature article on the State of California pinot and reviews of some of the state’s top bottlings. Although the specific wines reviewed are as widely available as white unicorns, all of the producers on the list and their other cuvees are worth tracking down.

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($33.95, Airen Imports) – A toasty, yeasty, pleasantly doughy release for this California sparkling stalwart, with pleasant appley fruit and mid-weight, fresh, lively, dry palate. Solid length.

Wente Vineyards 2014 Morning Fog Chardonnay, Livermore Valley ($17.95, Churchill Cellars) – A pleasantly open and aromatic, sweet wood tinged, floral and soft chardonnay with wide appeal. Everything is nicely in place. Drink now.

Grgich Hills Cellar 2012 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($67.95, Rogers & Co.) – A tight and sharp Napa chardonnay in the house style, particularly well chiseled in this warm vintage, still hanging on to tight, reductive, flinty, grapefruit aromatics. There’s terrific tension and genuine length, not to mention complexity, even if this is still 2-3 years away from prime enjoyment. Wood, stones and fruit are seamlessly integrated. Terrific, savoury, highly sapid wine. Tasted in June 2015 and April 2016.

Flowers 2014 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($64.95, Rogers & Co.) – Made from a blend of mostly purchased fruit, predominantly from the far west of Sonoma County (Sonoma Coast) and some declassified estate lots, recently bottled. The 2014 vintage fell during the heart of the drought in northern California, the third consecutive low rain year. Vines started their cycle early, resulting in a long growing season and harvest beginning in early September. “Quality was exceptional,” says winemaker Dave Keatly, yielding an “opulent chardonnay, but with great acids”. 20% new wood is used, though a portion is also aged in stainless. I find this fragrant and very attractive, featuring ripe lemon and lemon blossom aromas/flavours. Wood is not a major factor, though beneath the ripe fruit lies a gentle range of baking spice. There’s plenty of mid-palate richness, and length is very good to excellent. A fine follow-up to the (also excellent) 2013, best after 2017. Tasted January 2016 and April 2016.

Esser Wines 2014 Chardonnay, Monterey County ($19.95, Noble Estates) – A significantly improved wine over the previous vintage, Esser has shifted from vaguely sweet and overripe, to a pleasantly tight, smoky-flinty, fresh and pure expression of chardonnay, of modest depth and length, but pure, easy-drinking and refreshing. A genuine cool climate style, rendered well.

Etude 2012 Pinot Noir Grace Benoist Ranch, Carneros ($49.00 at the SAQ, Treasury Wine Estates) – From Etude’s ranch in the rolling hills of Carneros, this 2012 pinot is a generous and dark fruit-flavoured wine, on the more plush and generous side of the grape’s range of expression, offering both richness and concentration in a full, satisfying style all around. Wood is still noted in the sweet dark spice notes, so I’d give this another 2-3 years to resolve and mellow. Bold and generous all in all.

Schug Carneros Estate 2014 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($45.00, Lifford) – A lighter, leaner, more pale and savoury expression of pinot noir, in the typical house style of Schug, succulent and saliva-inducing. I appreciate the restraint and the firm acid profile of this wine, anchored on light, dusty (stem?) tannins and no small measure of saltiness. Very good to excellent length.

Marimar Estate 2013 Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($36.75, Family Wine Merchants) – A pinot that hails from the warmer, further inland part of the Sonoma Coast AVA, and it shows in this generous but balanced example from the reliable house of Marimar Torres. This is nicely pitched and firm, juicy and ripe without excess, with excellent length. I like the savoury side of this wine, the gentle salinity, and the lengthy finish. Lovely stuff.

Daou Vineyards 2013 Mayote, Adelaida District, Paso Robles ($174.95, The Vine Agency) – 45% Syrah, 43% cabernet sauvignon, 12% petit verdot. A Paso wine of uncommon depth and complexity from steep slopes at 2,200 feet elevation, offering a wide range of savoury herbal notes, ripe but not raisined fruit, especially considering the almost unnoticed 15.2% alcohol. The density, richness and concentration is particularly obvious – a wine of evident ambition, structure, power and complexity, like most California ‘Mountain’ wines. Tuck this in the cellar for 3-5 years minimum – this is not an easy-drinking, fruity California wine.

Duckhorn 2012 Three Palms Merlot, Napa Valley ($99, Rogers & Co.) – The iconic Three Palms Merlot finds an elegant balance of richness and concentration here in 2012, with fine grained tannins, balanced alcohol and acids, and genuine long-lasting finish. This is clearly a wine of class, pedigree and elegance, with a great future ahead even if it’s delicious now. One of the state’s top merlots to be sure.

Long Meadow Ranch 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($85.00, Profile Wine Group) – Here’s a fine, firm, gritty and honest Napa cabernet, with succulent acids and tight but still fruity and fleshy texture. I like the savoury depth and the dark, swarthy character – a wine with great personality and depth. Drink now, but better in 3-5 years to be sure.

Raymond Family Classic (Boisset) 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast ($19.95, Charton-Hobbs) – This is a nicely forward, ripe dark fruit flavoured cabernet from areas north of San Francisco, bold, fruity, plush and easy-drinking yet with a bit of grip and substance. A solid value in the California constellation, without being overtly commercial, and ready to drink.

Stags’ Leap Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($49.95, Treasury Wine Estates) – Firm, tight and gritty, this wine is not for the fans of plush and cuddly cabernet, but it has all of the savoriness and the tight, dusty texture that makes this grape so well suited to salted protein dishes, not to say T-Bone on the grill. Very good length. A very solid vintage for Stags’ Leap.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2013 Stag’s Leap Vineyard (SLV) Cabernet Sauvignon, 40th Anniversary Vintage, Napa Valley ($125, Profile Wine Group) – The iconic SLV vineyard delivers a gritty, firm, densely packed and savoury, succulent 2013 cabernet, with ample flesh and dark fruit on the palate, a broad range of cacao-infected wood spice and long, saliva-inducing finish. This is a commanding, ripe but balanced, nicely anchored wine, one of the best from SLV in recent memory.

Kenwood Vineyards 2012 Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($39.95, Corby) – This is a very fine vintage for the Jack London Cabernet, balanced, savoury- succulent, with that extra dimension, depth and length of the very best wine. Wood has been well managed and the concentration and complexity are genuine. Top stuff.

Archimedes (Francis Ford Coppola) 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($77.95, Noble Estates) – A dense and rich, concentrated, gritty and firm cabernet, one of the most juicy and savoury in the Coppola range. I like the tight-knit tannins, the succulent acids, and the very good to excellent length. Nice stuff.

Silver Oak Cellars 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($125.95, Halpern) – I have to say that the 2011 Silver Oak Alexander Valley stood out from a long range of California cabernets tasted alongside. It has such genuine acids, balance, and succulent, savoury character. Yes of course the new American oak stands out in the profile even at this developing stage (100% American oak, and new), but there’s no doubt it will integrate as time wears on, and wears down its blunt force. There’s no contesting the length and richness of flavor – obtained without recourse to raisined/overripe fruit, just low yielding, carefully cultivated grapes. I love the lingering, salty finish. Best after 2021. Tasted April 2016.

Heitz Wine Cellars 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley ($192.00, Lifford) – Dense, ripe, ultra dark-fruit scented and tinged with eucalyptus in the classic Martha’s Vineyard style, the 2005 has already shed a great deal of its tannic cloak, evident in the copious sediment observed in the glass. Flavours have shifted into the sotolone category, which is to say, maple syrup and sweet caramel, like great old fortified wine burnished by time. Excellent length and depth – a wine of obvious history, pedigree and complexity. Ready to drink, or wait another decade if you wish.

That’s all for this report. 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 – April 16, 2016

Signature Europe Feature
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s preview focuses on ‘signature’ European wines, the feature of the VINTAGES April 16th release. I’ve selected half a dozen classic wines – useful textbook expressions for anyone studying wine, which can be held up as regional models (helpful for benchmarking in blind tastings). I’ve also unearthed a half-dozen, under $20 wines covering a range of novel European regions (well, ancient regions less traveled, but worth re-discovering), and paradigm-shifting wines from established areas that offer an appealing new direction. France, Italy, Spain and Greece are represented, as well as an Istrian red, a fine entry point into the increasingly exciting world of Croatian wine.

Buyers’ Guide: Regional Classics

Fans of classic Loire Valley sauvignon will be comfortably familiar with the F. Tinel-Blondelet 2014 L’Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly-Fumé ($24.95). L’Arrêt Buffatte is one of the estate’s single vineyard bottlings, an amphitheatre exposed to the southwest with nearly 50 year-old-vines on Kimmeridgian marls. The name is a reference to the past, when Roman legionnaires used to stop at the site for rest and repast – did they set up a buffet? This offers plenty of quivering, stony minerals and acids on the palate, and long, reverberating finish; tart green apple flavours lead over lime and lemon notes. Best 2016-2022.

Old vines at Argyros Estate, Santorini-0184

Old vines at Argyros Estate, Santorini

I hesitated whether to include the Argyros 2015 Assyrtiko, Santorini, Greece ($22.95) in the classic or novelty section; wine has been made on Santorini since pre-eruption times (3700+ years), though the style offered here is closer to just a quarter century old, coinciding with the arrival of the Boutari company on the island in 1989. The introduction of stainless steel and cool ferments made possible the rivetingly fresh, dry, stony wines we know today. Call it a modern classic. This is another excellent Santorini from Argyros, and a terrific bargain, worthy of up to a decade in the cellar – indeed it’s still a year or two from prime drinking – rich with extract and even palpably tannic. Best 2018-2025.

F. Tinel Blondelet L'arrêt Buffatte Pouilly Fumé 2014 Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko 2015 Santa Duc Roaix Les Crottes 2010 Cune Reserva 2011

The southern Rhône is faithfully represented by Gigondas-based Santa Duc and their 2010 Roaix Les Crottes , Côtes du Rhône-Villages, France ($19.95). It’s nicely mature now, with a high degree of complexity, in the realm of Châteauneuf for a fraction of the price. Organically-farmed old grenache vines (80%) meet young vines syrah in large ancient foudres, wild fermented, bottled unfiltered. Best 2016-2020.

Rioja is a region in full ferment, offering a huge range of styles ranging from slick, modern, French wood-inflected ‘vinos de autor’ (winemaker’s wines) to the ultra-traditional, American oak-infused styles that would have been familiar to late 19th century drinkers. CVNE sits closer the latter end, and their Cune 2011 Rioja Reserva, Spain ($24.95) is a classy and stylish, succulent and flavourful wine, with noted but integrated wood component and vibrant, fresh dark fruit character. I love the juicy acids and the fine-grained tannins, and the perfumed, lingering finish. Best 2016-2026.

San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 Il Grigio Da San Felice Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2011 La Lecciaia Brunello Di Montalcino 2010

Signature Tuscan-style sangiovese is delivered by a couple of producers in this release: for pure value seek out the San Felice 2011 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva, Italy ($27.95), an authentically savoury and dusty, crunchy red fruit flavoured wine from the heart of the Classico zone near Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is only a small step down from the outstanding but pricier 2011 Il Grigio da San Felice Gran Selezione Chianti Classico, Italy ($46.95). The top Tuscan expression comes from a little further south in the form of La Lecciaia’s superb 2010 Brunello Di Montalcino ($57.95). This is a delicious baroque symphony of spice and earth, with cascades of herbal-tinged red fruit on a dense, ripe and powerful frame, product of the great 2010 vintage. It also helps that La Lecciaia’s vineyards lie just south of town, in prime Brunello territory. Best 2016-2025.

Buyers’ Guide: Novelties, Paradigm Shifters and Future Classics

In the oft-polarized world of sauvignon blanc, pegged as either Loire or New Zealand style, there’s a third, very attractive, lesser-known expression: southern Austria/northern Italy. I find that Sauvignons from Styria, Alto Adige and Friuli find a comfortable middle ground between the laser-sharp stoniness of the Loire and the effusive and pungently green flavours of New Zealand. The Cantina Andriano 2014 Floreado Sauvignon Blanc, Südtirol/Alto Adige, Italy ($19.95) is a terrific example and fine value, too, offering an intriguing mix of citrus fruit, herb, and spice, liquorice and tarragon, wet stone and honey – in other words complexity in spades.

The majority of the tiny wine production from alpine France slakes the thirst of visiting skiers and hikers, but a few cases of Jean Perrier & Fils’ 2014 Apremont Cuvée Gastronomie, Savoie, France ($18.95) have found their way to VINTAGES, as I wish more would do. This is as fresh and breezy as a spring day, with a brisk dose of apply acids and engaging cherry blossom perfume that involuntarily conjure up an Alpine vista. Perhaps a bottle of this will actually conjure up a real Toronto spring. It’s a fine sipping wine, or as the label implies, accompaniment at the table when salads, fish terrines, shellfish or seafood are the order of the day.

Cantina Andriano Floreado Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Jean Perrier & Fils Cuvée Gastronomie 2014 Clos Troteligotte K Or Malbec 2014Tormaresca Torcicoda Primitivo 2013

The historically hard and impenetrable wines of Cahors in southwest France have sadly kept many consumers away from one of the world’s finest terroirs for malbec. But the Clos Troteligotte 2014 K-Or Malbec, Cahors ($18.95) is just the ticket to shift your paradigm of the area. It checks all of the right boxes: vineyards on the prized upper, iron-rich limestone terraces of the region favouring finesse over mammoth tannic structure, organic viticulture (converting to Biodynamics), simple winemaking, and ageing in cement vats to preserve the lovely leafy, floral, liquorice seed flavours inherent in the grape. I love the honest, succulent palate, the saliva-inducing acids, the pure drinkability of this wine.

I often find primitivo from Puglia to be overly raisined, sweet and soupy, like a poor country cousin of Amarone, but Antinori’s Apulian outpost Tormaresca reinvents the model; try the 2013 Tormaresca Torcicoda Primitivo, Salento, Italy ($20.95) for proof. Old bush vine primitivo from the Masseria Maime in upper Salento yield a big, meaty, solidly structured wine to be sure, but rendered in a modern style, clean, plush, generously proportioned but genuinely dry, with excellent length and depth, and measured barrel influence – an excellent expression. Best 2016-2023.

The smoking volcanic craters of Salinas. Photo courtesy of Hauner Wines.-4

The smoking volcanic craters of Salinas. Photo courtesy of Hauner Wines


I’m willing to bet you haven’t had too many wines from the Aeolian Islands, a highly active volcanic island arc in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, which includes the island of Vulcano itself, the origin of the word volcano.

Vina Laguna Terra Rossa 2013 Hauner Salina Rosso 2013

Lovers of easy-drinking, soft and fruity wines need not apply here, however. The Hauner 2013 Salina Rosso, Sicily ($19.95) is a decidedly smoky, earthy, slightly tarry red from local grapes nero d’Avola and nerello mascalese, with crunchy-fresh acids and notable salinity, scoring high in the distinctive category, an essence of volcanic soils. This would be best served with a light chill, for BBQs of fatty cuts of meat, sausages, lamb and the like. Go on, don’t be afraid and give it a try. It’s far less dangerous than tasting it in situ.

Croatian wines have slowly been edging their way into the consciousness of sommeliers south of the border, approaching the sort of hip and cool status that Greek wines had a decade ago. You can get ahead of the curve with a bottle of the Vina Laguna 2013 Terra Rossa Istria, Croatia ($15.95). The cooler, red-soiled coastal vineyards of the Istrian Peninsula, opposite Venice at the northern end of the Adriatic, are the source of this unusual blend of local teran, with merlot and ‘Burgundy’ [sic] (pinot noir presumably). It’s the entry range from Vina Laguna, designed for immediate appeal, which it has, in a fruity, relatively soft, lightly wood-flavoured style. At the price, this more than delivers pleasure for drinkers seeking new horizons.

That’s all for this week. If you are in Toronto on April 14th, the Austrian Wine Fair is hosting a great tasting evening from 4:30 to 6:30 at the St. James Cathedral Centre. I’ve often said that Austria has a terrific wine culture. Now here’s your chance to taste over 160 wines from 30 prominent winemakers, without having to pay the airfare. See you over the next bottle of Grüner?


John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES April 16, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All April 16th 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!

Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay 2012

Austrian Wine Fair

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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – April 2, 2016

2012 Anteprima Amarone and 2014 Valpolicella, and Top Smart Buys at VINTAGES
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report offers the fourth and final look at new releases from Italy, the 2016 edition of Anteprima Amarone focusing on the excellent 2012 vintage, which produced wines of great power, balance and longevity. I sifted through close to 80 wines to find a top dozen worth tracking down. I’m also hugely enthusiastic about straight-up Valpolicella, which is for me (and many producers) the most authentic expression of wine from the slender hills north of Verona (heresy!). I list my top picks from the 2014 vintage, which put terroir and production skills under a magnifying glass. (We’ve posted the Italy feature on its own page for easier reference)

David and I also collaborate on the April 2nd VINTAGES release, picking our top smart buys, following on last week’s Buyers’ Guide compiled by Sara and Michael. We’ve aligned on a terrific Left Bank Bordeaux and an excellent Niagara Riesling, before going down our own wine paths, as you are encouraged to do.

Buyers’ Guide: Smart Buys in White

Duquesa de Valladolid 2014 Verdejo, Rueda, Spain ($13.95)
John Szabo – Consider this your perfect summer house wine, unoaked, versatile, widely appealing, and attractively priced. Fresh tropical fruit flavours lead the way in sauvignon-esque style; enjoy nicely chilled.

Henry Of Pelham 2012 Estate Riesling, VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($17.95)
John Szabo – Even in so-called warm vintages like 2012, riesling shines in Ontario (perhaps, counter-intuitively, even better than classic ‘cool’ vintages). Henry of Pelham’s estate riesling has hit a lovely drinking window, developing some fine, limey and petrol-like notes. The palate is just off-dry but balanced by bright acids, and the finish lingers impressively.
David Lawrason – We have been oft told that riesling is a great grape in Niagara, but as vines mature it is becoming more than just hear-say, as more very fine rieslings are emerging. This is bold, complex and structured with classic petrol, pear, and citrus aromas that stay nicely focused. And huge value!

Duquesa De Valladolid Verdejo 2014 Henry Of Pelham Estate Riesling 2012 Dr. Hermann From The Slate Riesling 2013 D'arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne 2014

Dr. Hermann 2013 From The Slate Riesling, Mosel, Germany ($17.95)
John Szabo – Here’s a wine to have on hand for all types of summer gatherings, for morning, afternoon or late night sipping. It’s clean, bright, sharp, fragrant and just off-dry, the sort of riesling you never tire of, lifted by a light CO2 prickle.

d’Arenberg 2014 The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($17.95)
John Szabo – An aromatically intense white blend, ideal for outdoor enjoyment. Oak-free ageing allows the attractively fragrant, floral-fruity character, full of violets, ripe nectarine and peach fruit, to take the fore, while hay and herbal notes add interest.

Loimer 2014 Langenlois Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal, Austria ($21.95)
John Szabo – Bright, clean, open and complex, this is a fine and energetic grüner from biodynamic producer Fred Loimer. I love the mid-palate richness framed by sharp acids, and the layers of citrus, white-fleshed orchard fruit and honeyed-waxy, earthy flavours. Best 2016-2020.

Momo 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, New Zealand ($19.95)
John Szabo – The immediately recognizable (and memorable) house style of Seresin is present in spades in the 2014 Momo, the estate’s ‘second’ wine, full of attractively flinty-reductive character, sharp but ripe acids, and palpably salty palate. This causes salivation in the most positive way. Fine length, too.

Loimer Grüner Veltliner 2014 Momo Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Roland Tissier & Fils Sancerre 2014 Clos Du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay 2013

Roland Tissier & Fils 2014 Sancerre, Loire Valley, France ($27.95)
David Lawrason – After sifting through several sauvignons on this release, out popped the winner, with all its fragrant finery and spry, compact palate. Unless you are regular buyer of Sancerre you might feel that it’s too expensive for sauvignon, but this style is an easy transition from New Zealand and worth every penny. It’s light bodied, super fresh and delicious with firm, mouth-watering acidity.

Clos du Bois 2013 Calcaire Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($29.95)
David Lawrason – It’s fashionable to dismiss opulently fruity California chardonnays in favour of leaner mineral driven Burgundy inspired models, but this quintessential Sonoma chardonnay should not be missed. It has plush vanilla cream, brulee, peach pie, hazelnut aromas and flavours. I expected it to be richer and heavier, but it actually sits on the palate with considerable poise and tenderness.

Buyers’ Guide: Smart Buys in Red

Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2013

Château Beau-Site 2009Château Beau Site 2009, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux ($47.95)
David Lawrason – Well here’s a grand surprise! From a hot vintage in Bordeaux this packs in all kinds of fruit and class! It has very lifted cedary, roasted, savoury and meaty nose with underlying currants and herbs. This is a significant wine, rich, dense, balanced and showing excellent length. Dare I say even excellent value at almost $50. Collectors alert!
John Szabo – Ditto what David said: this is a classic, albeit very ripe, left Bank Bordeaux showing really well at the moment, fullish, firm, succulent, savoury, really well balanced and slightly forward, given the nature of the vintage. Although it’s drinking well now, it will easily hold into the mid-twenties and beyond. Best 2016-2029.

Jim Barry 2013 The Lodge Hill Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia ($24.95)
John Szabo – Barry has crafted a fine 2013 Lodge Hill Shiraz, pleasantly high-toned, floral and fruity, blue and black fruit scented without excessive oak influence. Acids are a bit hard for the moment, but another 2-3 years should see this through to attractive balance. Best 2017-2023.

Château Lamartine 2011 Cuvée Particulière, Cahors, France ($26.95)
John Szabo – Made from over 50 year old vines, aged in 2nd and 3rd fill barrels, I’ve been a fan of this wine for many years. It’s a malbec of class and character, depth and substance, that manages to seamlessly blend the old world rusticity of Cahors with the new world fruitiness of Argentinian versions for a compelling and complex expression overall. Tannins are abundant but polished, but it’s the extra dimension of the palate that sets this apart. Many Bordeaux would kill for the depth and complexity at the price. Best 2016-2026.

The Chocolate Block 2013, Western Cape, South Africa ($39.95)
David Lawrason – Created by Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, this is a hugely successful ‘modern’ South African red. Despite the name, the syrah-based Chocolate Block is not sweet. It is heavily toasted and smoky yes, with all kinds of cedar/pine, coffee, cured meats and peppery/clove spice. It is lush, rich and dense, with considerable power.

Château Lamartine Cuvée Particulière 2011 The Chocolate Block 2013 Dauvergne Ranvier Grand Vin Cotes Du Rhône Villages 2013 Torres Salmos 2012

Dauvergne Ranvier 2013 Grand Vin Cotes du Rhône-Villages, France ($18.95)
David Lawrason – This is a nicely ripe, balanced and juicy young Rhone with typical plummy fruit, licorice, meaty and peppery character. The kind of red you will enjoy immensely with casual mid-week meals, or with a charcuterie board.

Torres 2012 Salmos, Priorat, Spain ($30.95)
David Lawrason – Within the realm of powerful Priorats, Torres Salmos is among the prettiest and lightest examples. I love the nose – very lifted with new oak, vanilla finery, ripe blackcurrant/blackberry fruit, and some sense of Priorat tar and stoniness. It has firm acidity, energy and minerality, but nothing too intense or brawny or hot. A good intro to the genre, and affordable.

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

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES April 2, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
All April 2nd Reviews

Italy Report: 2012 Anteprima Amarone & 2014 Valpolicella

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!

Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay 2012

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New releases from Italy: 2012 Anteprima Amarone and 2014 Valpolicella

Text, Reviews and Photos by John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

This report offers the fourth and final look at new releases from Italy, the 2016 edition of Anteprima Amarone focusing on the excellent 2012 vintage. 2012 produced wines of great power, balance and longevity; I tasted through close to 80 wines in late January in Verona to sift out a top dozen worth tracking down, all destined for marathon ageing in the cellar. Did you have a child, or get married in 2012? These will make for great anniversary wines. And for more immediate gratification, I’ve pulled out a quartet of top Amarone currently in the market.

I’m also hugely enthusiastic about straight-up Valpolicella, which is for me (and many producers) the most authentic expression of wine from the slender hills north of Verona (heresy!). While big, powerful slightly raisined wines can be made in dozens of places around the world, there are far fewer regions that can naturally produce such delicate, vibrant, joyfully fruity reds as Valpolicella, from a collection of unique grapes. I list my top picks from the 2014 vintage, which put terroir and production skills under a magnifying glass.

Anteprima Amarone

The precise genesis of Amarone is a cause of contention. Some point to Bertani as the first producer to make dry wine from partially dried grapes, sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. Others tell the tale of a local cooperative in the early 1920s, where a vat of Recioto della Valpolicella, the sweet red wine produced from dried grapes with a 1500 year history at least in the Veneto, accidentally fermented all the way to dryness, much to the embarrassment of the cellarmaster.

Whatever story you choose to believe, one thing is clear: Amarone was essentially born as an accident, like so many of the world’s great ‘discoveries’. Until the second half of the 20th century, dried grapes were exclusively destined to produce sweet recioto wine. But as the market for sweet wines, especially sweet red wines, began to erode like a sand bar in a stormy sea of dry wines, the discovery that powerful dry reds wines could also result from the appassimento process turned out to be a very shiny silver lining indeed.


And as it turns out, the grapes used to produce Amarone – corvina, corvinone, rondinella, and to a lesser extent molinara – are particularly well suited to drying. Especially the first two, which account for over 2/3rds of a typical blend if not more. These grapes are relatively thick-skinned, and resist mould and rot in properly ventilated drying chambers over the three or four month appassimento period. They’re also absent the vegetal pyrazine character that makes other varieties, notably from the Bordeaux family, less suited to appassimento, since everything, green flavours included, is concentrated in the process. High natural acidity abetted by Valpolicella’s relatively cool climate, also concentrated in the drying process, promotes balance and freshness, no mean feat in a wine that typically contains 16% alcohol or more. These factors contribute to the uniqueness of Amarone, and the difficulty in replicating the process elsewhere.

High alcohol, high acidity and abundant tannins conspire to make Amarone particularly ageworthy; ten years is a good starting point for any top example. And 2012 is a fine vintage for the cellar.

Amarone in Canada

Canada has been identified by the Valpolicella Consorzio as a key target market, as the large contingent of Canadian wine writers discovered during the opening presentations of the Anteprima. Sales were up a modest 3% over the last five years, representing 13% of all Amarone exports, but are predicted to grow by a much more impressive 17% over the next five, outpaced only by China. And the bulk of those imports – nearly 50% – will find their way to shelves in Ontario and Quebec.

Why do Canadians swoon at a sip of Amarone? Is it our cold winters, when a soul-warming bottle is the order of the day? Our highly educated population? (One interesting statistic revealed is that over 30% of Amarone drinkers have a post-graduate degree.) Our love of all things Italian? The huge Italian community living in Canada? The Italian restaurant seemingly on every corner? It’s a little of all that I suspect.

The 2012 Vintage

Appassimento-36952012 was a hot year in the Veneto, drawing early comparisons to scorching 2003. But there were a few critical differences that made 2012 much better balanced and ageworthy than 2003. A rainy spring charged soils with sufficient moisture to weather the extreme heat and dryness of June, July and August, though the drought was not relentless; there were rain events at opportune times throughout the summer. And even more critically, September was relatively cool, slowing ripening and thus promoting more even, thorough maturation of grapes. Sugar levels fell into a normal range alongside ideal phenolic ripening (ripe tannins), and flavours were neither green and vegetal nor raisined and baked. Bunches were also loose, favouring an easy, rot-free appassimento. The net result on the whole is ripe but well-balanced, concentrated wines, and although the most polished and supple versions are surprisingly almost enjoyable now, the majority of the top cuvees will benefit from a decade at least in the cellar.

Amarone styles across the region still vary considerably, in no small measure because of the significant impact that producer decisions have on the final product. Harvest time, and especially the length of the drying period and the location (more or less humid/ventilated/average temperature) are critical style factors. So too is subsequent ageing, with sharp divisions still drawn between the faction favouring large old casks with little impact of wood flavour vs. producers seeking the more flashy, polished style rendered by new oak barrels. There are successes in both camps, where balance is ultimately achieved.

A Top Dozen from the 2012 Vintage, plus Top Current Releases

2012 Corte Sant’Alda Amarone della Valpolicella

A savoury, succulent, juicy example of Amarone here. Firm, tight, well-chiseled, with excellent length and depth, high-toned but not excessively volatile. Complex and savoury, with fine-grained tannins. I love the vibrancy and freshness here – there’s genuine tension, energy and life, so often lacking in the appassimento style. A fine wine overall, and a reference for the region, from the biodynamic vineyards of Marinella Camerani. Tasted January 2016. Score 95

Marinella Camerani, Corte Sant'Alda-3721

Marinella Camerani, Corte Sant’Alda

2012 Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella

Tasted from a barrel sample, so take this review/score as provisional, but this is top quality Amarone. There are masses of fleshy dark fruit character and solid, real fruit tannins, succulent acids, and terrific length. A wine of genuine concentration and length. This is quality wine, which won’t reach full maturity for at least another 8-10 years. Tasted January 2016. Score 94 (via Trialto)

2012 Ca’ La Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella

A maturing, old school style Amarone in the best sense, sappy and resinous, savoury and complex. I love the earthy fruit, the dried herbs and tertiary oxidative notes creeping in, rendered in the traditional fashion and aged in large old wood. Exceptional length and genuine depth and complexity. Score 94 (via Le Sommelier)

2012 Fratelli Degani La Rosta Amarone della Valpolicella

This offers great aromatics, blending fruit, spice, herbs and wood in a harmonious ensemble, in a more forward and modern style, the top bottling at Degani. The palate is rich and dense, with exceptional extract and terrific length. Fine wine from the modern camp. Score 93

2012 Vigneti di Ettore Amarone della Valpolicella

A very densely fruity and spicy example, with sweet paprika and blue fruit, concentrated, dark, and fleshy. Wood is not a major influence, while length and depth are exceptional. Really fine example. Score 93

2012 Ca’ Rugate Amarone della Valpolicella Punta Tolotti

A shift to a more elegant style of Amarone has occurred at Ca’ Rugate over the years. This 2012 is not excessively ripe, nor overwrought, nor woody nor green, hitting a comfortable middle ground of intensity and balance. There’s a fine range of dark fruit flavours and suave tannins, and the length is very good to excellent. Relatively light at 15% alcohol. Score 92

Mezzane Valley from Corte Sant'Alda-3708

2012  Cà Botta Amarone della Valpolicella

Bright, saturated red colour. Explosively aromatic, notably oak-infused but with plenty of red and some black fruit in support. This has plenty of sap on the palate, rich, dense, showing very youthfully at the moment, and surely a decade away from prime enjoyment. Exceptional length. Fine, modern-style wine. Score 92

2012 Fratelli Degani Amarone della Valpolicella

The more traditional style Amarone in the Degani range, this is nicely balanced, succulent and savoury, firm and well structured yet supple, with palate warming alcohol. Very good length. Fine wine. Score 92

2012 Fidora Amarone della Valpolicella

Sweet, natural fruit-scented, lightly oxidative (tasted from a barrel sample), but with great succulence and juiciness on the palate, a real and genuine mouthful of wine, made from ripe fruit from the start, nicely concentrated. This should evolve very favourably. Score 92 (via the Living Vine)

2012 Bennanti Amarone della Valpolicella

Heavy, coconut-inflected wood aromatics lead off, though the palate shows a better balance of fruit and oak on a mid-weight, firm and nicely chiselled frame. This appears to have the stuffing and the acidity to age gracefully, while length and depth are impressive. Best after 2020. Score 91

2012 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella

A savoury and traditionally-styled Amarone, with intriguing resinous-herbal notes and nicely focused, daintily dried fruit character. The palate is well-balanced, firm but not hard, saliva-inducing and pleasantly saline. Excellent length. A fine, classically styled wine from one of the region’s historic producers. Score 91

2012 Gamba Amarone della Valpolicella

A rich and modern, densely extracted, chewy yet supple and voluptuous style here from Gamba. Alcohol is high, palate warming, but fits surprisingly well into the ensemble. A generous and widely appealing Amarone all in all. Score 91


A Top Quartet of Amarone In the Market

(Click on the links for reviews and availability)

Prà 2010 Amarone della Valpolicella

Masi 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Campolongo di Torbe

Musella 2010 Amarone della Valpolicella

Masi Mazzano 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico

Prà Morandina Valpolicella 2014 Masi Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico Campolongo Di Torbe 2009 Musella Amarone Della Valpolicella 2010 Masi Mazzano Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2009 

For the Love of Straight-Up Valpolicella: 2014

2014 was a very cool wet vintage in the Veneto, posing many challenges for winegrowers, and the margin of error was ultra slim. As often occurs under such conditions, the best sites, farmed with attention and care, offered the most memorable results. It was a perfect vintage to get a grasp on the best terroirs and the best winegrowers.

A Top Half-Dozen 2014 Valpolicella

2014 Cà La Bionda Valpolicella Classico 

Ninety percent corvina and corvinone. Open, fresh, aromatic, very lively and dainty, floral, pleasantly herbal. The palate is really fine and delicate, with beautiful strawberry-cherry flavours, and very crunchy acids. This is ultra-delicate and fine. Burgundy in Valpolicella. Score 91 (via Le Sommelier)

2014 Cà La Bionda Valpolicella Classico Casal Vegri

The cru Valpolicella from Alessandro Castellani, all guyot-trained vines aged 20 years on average, grown on limestone. Corvina 70%, corvinona 20%. Eighteen months in 3000l oak cask, bottled a month ago. Needs another year at least – the wood is noted in the perfume and taste, but this is still fine grained and elegant. Really fine and bright. Try again in 1-2 years. Score 91 (via Le Sommelier)

Alessando Castellani, Ca' La Bionda-4179

Alessando Castellani, Ca’ La Bionda

2014 Prà Morandina Valpolicella

This is a terrific Valpolicella from one of the most reliable, if relatively new, names in the region. The challenging 2014 vintage provided an opportunity to really shine with this ‘entry-level’ bottling, the sort of detailed and confident wine that can only be born from attentive viticulture and a deft hand in the cellar, rendered in a style for which Valpolicella should be better known, and a model to follow. This is all crunchy red fruit, mid-weight, fresh and lively, buoyed by fine, ripe acids and unhindered by either oak or excessive extraction – a pure pleasure to drink, especially with a light chill. This will bring to mind fine cru Beaujolais or Loire cabernet franc, for example, fruity but also gently leafy and lightly reductive. Score 90 (via The Vine Agency)

2014 Corte Sant’Alda Ca Fiui Valpolicella 

Ca’ Fiui is the name of the property, probably from Casa dei Fiumi (House of Rivers), after all of the small rivers that form on this hilltop when it rains. 5% molinara. Pale colour, bright, very floral perfume, pleasantly grassy and lively, herbal, very gamay like, wild cherry, tart and bright, with a pleasant bitter almond note and saltiness on the lingering finish. Impressive complexity and depth for such a light (12%) wine. Everything that Valpolicella should be. Score 90

2014 Ca’ Rugate Valpolicella Campo Lavei

Mostly corvina with rondinella and molinara, of which 40% are given a short period of appassimento. This works nicely, ripe and satisfying, fullish, dark fruit, generous but ripe tannins, long finish. Fine stuff. Score 90

2014 Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico

Crisp and crunchy, lightly herbal, lightly reductive. Lively acids, well-structured. Natural grape tannins. Plenty of tart red fruit and light pepper spice. Genuine density and weight, albeit on a classic, light Valpolicella frame. Bone dry.  6 months each in concrete and large wood. Great stuff. Structured. From Fumane. Score 90

Marco Speri, of Secondo Marco-4168

Marco Speri, of Secondo Marco

2014 Novaia Valpolicella Classico

Intriguingly spicy, bright red fruit-scented, with firm acids, and light but grippy tannins. This needs another 6 months to a year for prime drinking, but it’s a succulent, transparent expression, sapid, salty and mineral. Score 88 (via B&W Wines)

2014 Marco Mosconi Valpolicella Montecurto

Pure corvina, no wood. Pleasant, light, crunchy red fruit, bright acids, solid length. I would happily drink this all night, even if it’s not the most complex or ageworthy example. Score 88

2014 Monte Del Frá Lena di Mezzo Valpolicella Classico

A bright, tart, crisp and highly drinkable expression of Valpolicella, the way it was meant to be. I love the fresh strawberry and red currant flavours, the absence of oak influence, and the bright, saliva-inducing acids. Lots of pleasure here. Drink lightly chilled. Score 88

If you missed my earlier reports on the new releases from Italy, you can find them here:

The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 1 Montalcino
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 2 Montefalco
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 3 Montepulciano

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

If you are the Canadian Agent for any of the wines mentioned, please send us a note to with availability and pricing and we’ll gladly update our site.

Vineyards, Valentina Cubi, Fumane Valley-3642

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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Mar 19, 2016

Highlights from March 19th, Taste Ontario and Cuvée
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report shines a spotlight on local wines in the wake of two big Ontario wine tastings last week. There was palpable energy at the ROM for Taste Ontario, where an impressively large contingent of sommeliers, media and wine buyers had gathered to take the pulse on the latest Ontario vintages releases. I share some of my top new picks here. The 28th edition of Cuvée also rolled out in Niagara Falls last weekend, and Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel each select three of their most memorable wines from the gala tasting.

The March 19th VINTAGES release features yet more Italian wines. And at the risk of over saturating you with vino, I’ve picked out two irresistible bargains, a red and a white both under $20. Also included is a trilogy of smart buys from South Africa that has your dinner covered from bubbles to main course, and a pair of outrageous $13.95 values from the Iberian peninsula.

Taste Ontario Highlights: 2013s and 2014s 

This year’s Taste Ontario event featured mostly wines from the 2014 and 2013 vintages, with the rare early release 2015 thrown in. After the warm 2012 vintage, 2013 saw a return to more ‘normal’ temperatures on average, although with highly variable weather, with occasional disruptions caused by inopportune rains especially towards the end of the growing season.

Earlier ripening varieties fared best, and it has turned out to be an excellent year for the grapes Ontario does well most consistently, namely riesling and chardonnay, as well as other aromatic white varieties. For reds the top pinots are spectacular, refined and fragrant wines, while cabernet franc returned to its appropriate cool climate style, certainly a local strength. The harvest was the largest on record, so there will be plenty of wine to go around.

Many of you will recall the brutal polar vortexes of winter in 2014 – I recall some 20 days in February with temperatures below -10ºC, and many days well below -20ºC. It seemed like the winter that would never end (how much nicer has this winter been?) Grapes, of course, suffered, and it was a stark reminder to growers that Ontario’s climate is not suitable to the ludicrously wide variety of grapes grown here. Tender grapes like syrah, semillon, sauvignon blanc and merlot were reduced to next to zero crop in many vineyards, if not killed outright by the repeated pummelling of glacial polar air masses. Quantities, needless to say, were down sharply. The positive side is that there’s now a better appreciation of matching site to variety. Vineyards that required re-planting will presumably feature varieties more suitable to the site.

Bizarre, challenging, cool weather continued through the summer and harvest was later than normal, again favouring early ripening grapes – Bordeaux varieties, with perhaps the exception of cabernet franc, were tough to get fully ripe. Yet despite all the cruel inclemency of Mother Nature, many winegrowers managed to pull out some exceptional wines, especially whites (most of the ‘reserve’ reds have yet to be released), and to them, chapeau bas.

One thing was clear from Taste Ontario: the number of wineries producing excellent wines is clearly on the rise. Each time I turn around there’s another player with a great new addition to the Ontario wine scene, while established producers continue to maintain high quality standards.

Below are some 2013-2014 highlights:

Thomas Bachelder/Queylus

Domaine Queylus Cabernet Franc Tradition 2013 Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013Thomas Bachelder seems to have gotten it all right in 2013, crafting some of his best wines yet under his own label, as well as Domaine Queylus, the up-and-coming project for which he is régisseur – head winemaker and estate manager. His 2013 Bachelder Lowrey Pinot Noir, St. David’s Bench ($44.95) from a choice parcel of the well-tended and sought-after Lowrey vineyard is a gorgeous wine. After the more burly and structured 2012, 2013 conspired to yield wines of paler colour, silkier texture and more haunting perfume – this is just how I imagine Bachelder would like his pinot noir to be (or at least how I’d like them to be). This is toute en finesse, filigree and lacy, with unexpected but genuine depth and length, for fans of finessed pinot. Bravo. Best 2016-2023.

Over at Domaine Queylus, Bachelder’s Signature Pinot Noir ($29.95) is a similar though slightly more saturated garnet red, with appealing, candied red fruit flavours leading. There’s no wood influence outside of Bachelder’s trademark oxidative styling, and light tannins and moderate acids make this a wine for short to mid term ageing, best 2016-2020. The 2013 Domaine Queylus Cabernet Franc ‘Tradition’ ($24.95) is likewise the best yet under this label, a lovely, floral, fragrant, lightly herbal expression well within the classic varietal idiom, attractively priced. Serve this with a light chill. Best 2016-2023.


Still in the pinotsphere, the 2013 Rosewood Estates Winery Select Series Pinot Noir Niagara Escarpment ($21.95) is a rare sub-$25 value in this rarefied category. Varietally authentic pinot at this price is hard to come by, so don’t hesitate to buy several bottles of this high-toned, floral, pot-pourri-inflected example, crafted in an appealing, gently oxidative style for immediate enjoyment. Drink with a light chill over the next 2-3 years.

Rosewood Select Series Pinot Noir 2013 Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2013 Cave Spring Estate Cabernet Franc 2013

Cave Spring

Venerable Cave Spring Cellars quietly continues to make some of Niagara’s most reliable wines, and have been particularly en form in the last few vintages. Long time fans will not be surprised to see the 2014 Cave Spring Cellars Riesling CSV Beamsville Bench ($29.95) recommended here, the latest release of one of Canada’s most consistent and best, made from the estate’s oldest vines, the oldest of which have already celebrated their 40th birthday. It’s tightly wound and still a long way from prime drinking, but this shows classic styling, more stony than fruity, mid-weight but authoritative and palate gripping, with palpable chalky texture and great length. Revisit in 2-3 years, or leave in the cellar for a decade or more.

Also impressive from Cave Springs is the 2013 Cabernet Franc Estate ($29.95), a fine and floral, ripe and lightly cacao-inflected expression with delicate structure, lively but balanced acids and very pretty styling all around. In 1-2 years this will have fully digested its oak component, leaving a perfumed and silky wine in its place. Best 2017-2023.

2027 Cellars

2013 Wismer Vineyard - Fox Croft Block Chardonnay 2027 Cellars Aberdeen Road Vineyard 2013Winemaker Kevin Panagapka has slowly been expanding the range of wines under his virtual 2027 Cellars label (made at Featherstone Winery). Single vineyard chardonnay and riesling are his strongest suits in my view, and 2013 in particular seems to have lent itself to his typically tightly wound, ageworthy style. The first edition that I’ve tasted of the Aberdeen Road Vineyard Chardonnay Beamsville Bench ($30.00), is just such a wine, aromatically reticent despite 18 months in wood, with loads of palpable extract and sheer density evident – a genuine, solid mouthful of wine. It has power and depth in spades, and needs another 2-3 years at least to unfurl. Best 2018-2023. For more instant gratification, track down Panagapka’s 2013 Wismer Vineyard – Fox Croft Block Chardonnay Niagara Escarpment ($22.95), a more open and notably toasty Niagara chardonnay with verve and energy. It’s a terrific value for cool climate, oak-aged chardonnay fans.


I don’t generally consider pinot gris to be a great white hope for Ontario, but the Malivoire Wine Company makes a convincing argument with the barely bottled 2015 Pinot Gris Niagara Escarpment ($19.95). It’s still a touch sulphury at this early stage, but shows excellent promise for near-term development. The palate is lively, vibrant, succulent and appealingly saline, with great acids and excellent drive through the long finish. Let it sit for another few months and crack for mid-end summer enjoyment, or into autumn.

Rosehall Run

Rosehall Run Ceremony Blanc De Blanc Brut Malivoire Pinot Gris 2015And finally, over in Prince Edward County, Rosehall Run enters the increasingly crowded local sparkling wine market with a strong release, CEREMONY Blanc de Blanc Brut ($34.95), made from pure County fruit. It’s a well-balanced, rich and flavourful sparkling chardonnay, made from evidently fully ripe grapes with high flavour intensity, yet vibrant acids and fine tension and energy. Length and depth are superb, and dosage is well measured.

Cuvée Highlights

The 28th edition of Cuvée rolled out in Niagara Falls last weekend, organized by Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). For the past few editions, the Cuvée gala tasting has featured a ‘winemakers choice’ – a wine from the portfolio of each of 48 participating VQA wineries, deemed special by the winemaker him/herself. Wines were paired with signature dishes from 12 celebrated local chefs at live cooking stations.

It’s more than just a drinking-and-grazing industry party, however. Proceeds from the event go to the Cuvée Legacy Fund, which awards academic scholarships and contributes towards industry-driven research projects. “Not only does Cuvée showcase the finest VQA wines to consumers, it helps the industry continue to grow by funding valuable research and scholarships,” says CCOVI director Debbie Inglis. That’s a reasonably good cause to wine and dine, a sort of virtuous circle of investment.

Beautiful Niagara Falls

Beautiful Niagara Falls

Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel select three of their most memorable wines below.

Cattail Creek 2014 Small Lot Series Old Vines Riesling, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake ($21.95)
Michael Godel – Cattail Creek’s 1976 planted riesling is one of Ontario’s oldest blocks. In 2014 Roselyn Dyck and consulting winemaker Steve Byfield let the vintage and the old vines speak for themselves. The result is nothing short of impossible, or remarkable.
Sara d’Amato – Produced from some of the oldest, if not the oldest riesling vines in Niagara planted in 1975 and ’76. With a steely, mineral character and a subtle and slow build of flavour on the palate, the wine offers exceptional elegance at a steal of a price. Bone dry, tart but not austere, this is classic Niagara riesling.

Fielding Viognier 2014, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($25.95)
Michael Godel – In a Niagara Peninsula discussion of what grape varieties to plant and where, winemaker Richie Roberts has more than a vested interest in viognier. If the 2013 from Fielding Estate helped decipher the code of the how, where and why, this follow up 2014 speaks at the symposium.

Cattail Creek Small Lot Series Old Vines Riesling 2014 Fielding Viognier 2014 Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir Réserve 2013 Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Noir 2013 Rockway Vineyards Small Lot Block 12 140 Syrah 2012

Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir Réserve 2013, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($44.95)
Michael Godel – It’s a tale of two vineyards, the Grand Cru of Neudorf and the upstart Queylus. Two inexorable blocks, running west to east, spoken through the lens of Pinot Noir. The middle sibling in the three that are made at Queylus is blessed with wisdom and a tale of future memories created in the here and now. So very young, it is the strongest reminder that reconciliation takes time.

Thirty Bench 2013 Small Lot Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench $35.00 (Winery Only)
Sara d’Amato – Grapes for the Small Lot Pinot Noir were planted in 2000 and have started to produce outstanding wines. Modern, peppery and floral, this is a pinot with a great deal of charm and character. Emma Garner really shows her prowess in this impressive vintage.

Rockway Vineyards 2012 Small Lot Syrah Block 12-140, Twenty Mile Bench, $29.95 (Winery Only)
Sara d’Amato – Of the many skillfully produced syrahs that were showcased at Cuvée, Rockway’s Small Lot Block 12-140 had the perfect blend of cool climate expression and modern, fruity appeal. Sophisticated and beautifully balanced with a punch of acidity brightening the rich, spicy palate.

Buyers’ Guide to March 19th: More Italian Wine and other Smart Buys 

Jerzu Chuèrra Riserva Cannonau Di Sardegna 2011 Terredora Di Paolo Loggia Della Serra Greco Di Tufo 2014Fans of distinctive wines should make a b-line to the ‘Other Italy’ section of VINTAGES and grab a bottle or two of the Terredora di Paolo 2014 Loggia Della Serra Greco di Tufo DOCG, Campania, Italy ($19.95). It’s an intense and characterful white, one of the best in the Terredora portfolio, and consistently one of Campania’s most impressive whites. This is all lemon oil and fresh and dried herbs, wet volcanic rock and fresh earth – distinctive to be sure, perhaps too much so to be truly widely appealing, a wine lover’s wine to be sure.

Sardinia’s version of garnacha finds a fantastic expression in the Antichi Poderi Jerzu 2011 Chuèrra Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, Sardinia, Italy ($17.95), one of the most characterful reds in the March 19th release. Revel in the spicy-earthy complexity with a whack of ripe, dark berry fruit, laced with Mediterranean scrub. A very tasty wine for the money, over-delivering in the category.

South Africa comes up big in the quality/value category, starting with the refined and toasty traditional method Graham Beck 2010 Premier Cuvée Brut Blanc De Blancs, WO Robertson, South Africa ($23.95), from one of South Africa’s sparkling specialists. It’s on the richer side of the scale, nicely mature now, with excellent length.

With the next course pull out the Vinum Africa 2013 Chenin Blanc, WO Stellenbosch, South Africa ($15.95), a wine made with care but following a more natural, non-interventionalist approach. Wild yeast, and no temperature control during fermentation shift this out of the simple and fruity category (and there’s a touch of acetic acid, but well within bounds) into a wine focused on texture, depth and extract. I’d decant this and serve at cellar temperature in large glasses alongside poultry/veal or pork – something substantial in any case.

Shifting to red, the Rustenberg Buzzard Kloof 2011 Syrah, WO Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, South Africa ($24.95) is a classy and quite elegant, mid-weight, succulent and juicy syrah from arch-classicist Rustenberg. Tannins are firm and fine, acids lively, and the overall length and depth, and especially complexity, in the price category are impressive. It’s drinking well now, but will surely be better in 2-3 years.

Graham Beck Premier Cuvée Brut Blanc De Blancs 2010 Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2013 Rustenberg Buzzard Kloof Syrah 2011 Mondeco Red 2010 Olivares Altos De La Hoya Monastrell 2013

And over to the Iberian Peninsula for two outrageous values from opposite ends of the style spectrum. Fans of lighter and zestier reds need look no further that the 2010 Mondeco Red, DO Dão Portugal ($13.95). This is high-pitched and floral, elegantly-styled Dão, with light tannins, designed to be enjoyed now with a light chill. But if you’re searching for a more substantial red, than the Olivares Altos De La Hoya 2013 Monastrell, DO Jumilla Spain ($13.95) is for you. This has all of the masses of bold and dark, jammy fruit and abundant oak spice that are normally found in wines at considerably higher prices. Best 2016-2021.

Attention Trade – Taste Ontario! is coming to Ottawa

For members of the trade in the Ottawa area, you will have your opportunity to explore the latest Ontario vintages releases on Wednesday, March 30th at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. Please note that this event is reserved for hospitality trade and media and is not open to the general public. Register or find out more here:

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


John Szabo MS


From VINTAGES March 19, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All March 19th 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!

Pepperjack Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

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Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Mar 5, 2016

“TreMonti” Italian Anteprime, 2010 Brunello, and More.
By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Each year, wine regions throughout Italy organize tastings to showcase the latest vintage released to market, called anteprime, the Italian equivalent of Bordeaux’s en primeur tasting, with the one difference being that in many, but not all cases, wines are already finished and in bottle. In this week’s report I cover the best new releases from the “TreMonti”, the trilogy of central Italian hill top towns of Montalcino for 2011 Brunello (by law, Brunello must be cellared five years before release), 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and 2012 Sagrantino from Montefalco in Umbria.

The VINTAGES March 5th release features California, already covered last week by David, as well as mini-feature of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, rated a five star vintage by the Consorzio di Brunello. The collection on offer is modest, though includes one superlative wine. I’ve also picked out five smart buys from the rest of the release, with some great wines on offer from Spain, France, and Oregon. Read on for all of the details.

Benvenuto Brunello 2016

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Brunello do Montalcino DOC in 1966 (DOCG as of 1980), and it would be hard to overstate the meteoric rise of Brunello in the ensuing years. From one of Siena province’s poorest communes at the beginning of the 19th century – a rural backwater of woods, mixed agriculture, honey production and wine sold by the liter in demijohns – Montalcino has become one of the wealthiest. And the success has been built almost entirely on wine and the gastro-tourism it encourages. In 2015, 1.2 million tourists clambered up to the charming hilltop town (population: 5,272) and surrounding hamlets, lured in large measure by the allure of Brunello di Montalcino, now one of Italy’s most famous wines. Read more …

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Like Montalcino, Montepulciano lives on wine. The industry drives 70% of the local economy. Some 2200 hectares under vine are farmed by over 250 growers (1300 registered for Vino Nobile), and bottled by 90 companies. Average production per estate is higher than in Montalcino, with 7 million bottles of Vino Nobile reaching the market in 2015. But exports are higher, representing 80% of turnover, of which a modest 2% is sent to Canada. Vino Nobile also celebrates its 50th year as an appellation in 2016, first official defined as a wine with “ruby red colour, dry, slightly tannic taste, a scent of violets, and alcohol content of not less than 12 degrees” (now 12.5%).

Vino Nobile had the toughest gig among the various anteprime this year, presenting the challenging 2013 vintage. Read more… 

Montefalco Sagrantino

Around the turn of the millenium, Umbria’s flagship native grape variety sagrantino was very likely not on your radar, nor even most Italians’ radar. I know it wasn’t on mine. Despite it’s 500+ year history in the region around the town of Montefalco in the region of Umbria (“The green heart of Italy”), by the 1960s the grape had all but disappeared. But Umbria, and Montefalco, are on the move. Tourism is up significantly. The number of producer-bottlers has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades, now numbering over 60. If a glass of Montefalco Sagrantino has yet to pass your lips, chances are that will change very soon. Read more…

Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES March 5th: Brunello & More Smart Buys

Click on the link above to get the jump on the latest releases of Brunello from the variable 2011 vintage. A handful of 2010s are offered in the March 5th VINTAGES release, of which the Ciacci Piccolomini D’aragona 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy ($72.95) is easily the finest, and most expensive. It’s a classy and complex Brunello from the southern sector of the appellation near Castelnuovo dell’Abate, aged in large old cask. Despite apparent light and elegant styling up front, this has power in reserve, building layers of complexity on the palate and continually expanding. Tannins are ripe and silky but present in abundance, and the length is terrific. Aromas and flavours are faithful to traditional sangiovese, all bright red fruit and flowers, gentle spice and earth. Very fine wine, best after 2018 or hold until the end of the ’20s.

Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2010 Domaine Lafage Cuvée Centenaire 2014 Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2013

Among the miscellaneous whites in the March 5th release, the Domaine Lafage 2014 Cuvée Centenaire, Côtes du Roussillon ($19.95) is well worth a look. I rated the 2011 very highly, the last vintage to be released back in 2013, and the vines have only gotten older. As before this is a blend of Lafage’s oldest grenache gris and blanc, and roussanne, including some centenary vines (with an average of 90 years overall). It’s a lovely, perfumed, floral, fresh but fleshy wine, still a year or two away from prime enjoyment. I like the peach and peach blossom florality, the balanced alcohol and acids, and the fine, lingering finish. There’s lots of character here for the money. Best 2017-2022.

Spain delivers two fine values this week, the first, a perennial favourite and consistent value champion, the ever-delicious Descendientes De J. Palacios 2013 Pétalos, Bierzo, Spain ($24.95). 2013 is another fine vintage, and I’m also very happy to see the price holding steady over so many years when the past success of this wine might have demanded an increase. It’s just such a lovely and floral, succulent and appealingly dark fruit flavoured wine that it’s hard to resist. A streak of stoniness will engage the punters, while everyone else simply enjoys this fruity-savoury, saliva-inducing beauty. Best 2016-2023.

The other side of northern Spain is the origin for another old vine value, the Jardín de Lúculo 2012, Navarra Spain ($23.95). The wine may be young, born in 2004, but the vines are old, among the oldest garnacha bush vines in Navarra, pre-soaked and wild fermented, followed by half a year in mostly old barrels. I love the firm but fresh, structured palate and the spicy, liquorice and orang peel-tinged flavours. Tuck this away for another 2-3 years for maximum aromatic development. Best 2017-2025.

Jardín De Lúculo 2012 Faiveley Mercurey 2014 Scott Paul La Paulée Pinot Noir 2011

Pinot noir drinkers have at least a couple of wines to track down, starting with Faiveley’s 2014 Mercurey, Burgundy, France ($29.95), a wine that effortlessly captures the joyful, forward fruit character of the Côte Châlonnaise, offering lots of pleasure at a reasonable (Burgundian) price. It’s perfectly in line with the Burgundian style but with more approachable and up front red berry character. Best 2016-2022.

Scott Paul 2011 La Paulée Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Oregon USA ($50.95) is a gentle transition to the new world, a wine with definite old world sensibilities. La Paulée is a blend of vineyards in the Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge and Chehalem Mountains, from three different soil types, made by the delicate hands of winemaker Kelley Fox. It’s a wine of considerable finesse and elegance, balance and restraint. There’s nary an overt sign of oak, while acids and alcohol seamlessly integrate and the finish lingers impressively. A lovely, silky, beguiling Oregon pinot all in all, and considering that Paul has sold the business to long time frined, and Fox is no longer the winemaker, I’d snap this up while it’s still around. Best 2016-2023.

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

John Szabo, MS

From VINTAGES March 5, 2016

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All February 20th 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!

Pepperjack Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

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The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 1 Montalcino

Montalcino, Montefalco and Montepulciano
Text, Reviews and Photos by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Each year, wine regions throughout Italy organize tastings to showcase the latest vintage released to market, called anteprime, the Italian equivalent of Bordeaux’s en primeur tasting, with the one difference being that in many, but not all cases, wines are already finished and in bottle. This year I report on the anteprime from Montalcino for 2011 Brunello (by law, Brunello must be cellared five years before release), 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino, and 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The articles are posted in three parts for easier access.

Part 1: Benvenuto Brunello 2016

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Brunello do Montalcino DOC in 1966 (DOCG as of 1980), and it would be hard to overstate the meteoric rise of Brunello in the ensuing years. From one of Siena province’s poorest communes at the beginning of the 19th century – a rural backwater of woods, mixed agriculture, honey production and wine sold by the liter in demijohns – Montalcino has become one of the wealthiest. And the success has been built almost entirely on wine and the gastro-tourism it encourages. In 2015, 1.2 million tourists clambered up to the charming hilltop town (population: 5,272) and surrounding hamlets, lured in large measure by the allure of Brunello di Montalcino, now one of Italy’s most famous wines.

Brunello's 50th anniversary of the DOC (Credit_Brunello Consorzio)

Brunello’s 50th anniversary of the DOC (Credit_Brunello Consorzio)

There were only about a dozen dedicated commercial bottlers in the 1960s. Today, that number has ballooned to 208, farming over 3,500 hectares (of which 2100 are registered to Brunello). Wineries are run by a mixture of farmers-turned-winemakers and wealthy Italian and foreign industrialists looking to cash in on the region’s growing fame. The explosion in production and popularity of Brunello is one of the wine world’s greatest success stories. And production is on the rise once again, with an astonishing 9,800,000 bottles of Brunello released for sale in 2015, up 17% over the previous year.

And the world is clamoring for it. 70% of the total production is exported (+2.5%), with 30% finding its way to US cellars alone. As one producer, who makes wine in Montefalco, Montepulciano and Montalcino put it: “we can’t make enough Brunello. Despite being the most expensive in our portfolio, it it’s the easiest to sell and always sells out first.”

Per capita, howver, Canada is the most thirsty for Brunello, absorbing an impressive 12% of exports, or some 823,000 bottles. This year the LCBO was awarded the consorzio’s prize for the best retail assortment of Brunello di Montalcino outside of Italy, underscoring the deep love between Ontarians and Brunello.

LCBO buyer Colby Norrington receives the award for best foreign Brunello retail assortment (Credit_Brunello Consorzio)

LCBO buyer Colby Norrington receives the award for best foreign Brunello retail assortment (Credit_Brunello Consorzio)

But such growth obviously comes with a cost. Consistent quality can’t be guaranteed in such large volumes, and the extension of the territory permitted for the production of Brunello di Montalcino, particularly in the 1990s, has come to included parts of the commune that the Consorzio’s founding fathers would never even have considered for quality grape growing.

The zone of Montalcino, some 40 km from the coast, has a varied geological history, reflected in the enormous variability of soils, not all of which are suitable for quality grapes. Various mixtures of clay, limestone, schists, marls and sands have their say on Sangiovese’s vineyard sensitive nature. But perhaps even important is slope orientation and especially elevation, ranging from barely 100 meters above sea level to over 600. This is especially important given the weather extremes, the alternation of relentless heat, drought stress and excessive rains experienced in different vintages, which are the new normal in the context of global climate change. When the DOC boundaries were drawn up, for example, areas above 600 meters were excluded, as sangiovese simply wouldn’t ripen that high up. That restriction was recently eliminated, a recognition that change is real and temperatures are increasing.

The original zone around Montalcino itself, ranging from about 350-450+ meters where most of the top historic producers have vineyards, is notably cooler than areas further south and lower down, near the towns of Sant’Aneglo in Colle and Sant’Angelo Scalo, a critical advantage in the increasingly ‘normal’ hot vintages. Another unofficial subzone around Castelnuovo dell’Abate, also in the south, however, is moderated by cool air descending from the ancient volcano Monte Amiata and includes a clutch of top vineyards. The heavy clays around Torrenieri to the northeast were thought so unsuitable by Brunello’s founding fathers that they didn’t even bother officially excluding them. Today dozens of hectares are planted there. It’s complicated. The creation of subzones has been discussed for years, but efforts have so far been thwarted by the sheer complexity of the situation – divide by soil? Elevation? Vineyard site? And the stakes are now too high.

Vineyards at Pieve Santa Restituta, south of Montalcino-4209

Vineyards at Pieve Santa Restituta, south of Montalcino

Vintage 2011: 4 Stars

The 2011 vintage highlights the variability of the denominazione, and the 4 star rating (out of 5) it was awarded by the Consorzio simply splits the difference between truly excellent and mediocre. Amidst the excitement over the 2015 harvest (about which respected oenologist Vittorio Fiore says: “I have seen over 50 vintages during my career, of which at least 40 at Montalcino and I do not remember any other vintage with such great balance and so productive for long-ageing wines like Brunello”), 2011 was a year of variability and extremes, where vineyard site trumped all efforts in the cellar to make great wine. Simply put, 2011 is the year of the vineyard.

This makes it a tricky vintage for all but the most savvy consumers who happen to know who has vineyards where. Triage is necessary. But the best wines are exceptional, perhaps ultimately not as ageworthy as the almost universally superb and powerful 2010s, but hauntingly beautiful wines nonetheless that will offer immense pleasure for the next 10-15 years. One of the main challenges was intense summer heat, and especially hot, grape shrivelling winds from the south. According to Gaia Gaja, “spring was normal – neither hot nor cold – but summer heat was problematic, especially two weeks in August with constant hot Scirocco winds drying grapes. There was little hydric [water] stress, but the upper parts suffered”.

Some wines taste hard, tannic and baked, as though they were made from raisins, which they probably were. Cooler sites protected from the winds, with higher daytime-nighttime temperature shifts, preserved life-giving acidity and freshness, resulting in beautifully perfumed and fragrant, fine, silky textured wines.

One positive general observation on the current Brunello scene was the evident shift away from excessive extraction, ripeness and obvious new wood that was far more commonplace in previous editions of Benvenuto. There seems to be a more universal effort to protect the delicate, perfumed nature of sangiovese, a grape that quickly turns to Ribena juice when overripe, becomes ungracious and hard when overworked, and is easily overwhelmed by oak. There are happily more pale garnet, fragrant wines with firm but delicate structure, the way sangiovese is meant to be.

Looking south to the Monte Amiata from Below Montalcino-4226

Looking south to the Monte Amiata from Below Montalcino

Below are my top picks from the 2011 vintage, out of 100+ wines tasted. Note that not every producer submits their wines for Benvenuto, and several notable estates were not available for review.

Top 10 2011 Brunello di Montalcino: 94+ points

2011 Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino

This is perhaps the wine of the vintage. Giulio Salvioni’s vineyards southeast of Montalcino sit at some 420 meters, with particularly rocky, friable marly soils. Brunello is fermented with natural yeast, aged in large botti (there are no barriques in sight) and are bottled unfiltered. The 2011 is spectacularly perfumed in the traditional style, while the palate is exceptionally elegant, concentrated, delicate, yet so deep and complex, with amazing depth and staying power, and outstanding length. It’s hard to imagine it getting any better, but sadly, prices have come to reflect this. Best from 2018. (98 points.)

2011 Le Ragnaie Brunello di Montalcino 

Le Ragnaie has turned out an exceptional range of 2011s from their organic vineyards south of Montalcino, just below the region’s highest point at 662 meters. Fermentation in cement is followed by ageing in both 2500l cask and barriques for three to four years. My top pick is the straight estate blend, at least for now, very peppery and still on the reductive side, but wonderfully silky and delicate on the palate, fully ripe without excess, with terrific concentration and energy. This is on another level, with evident viticultural care applied to a great site. Best after 2020 (95 points). Le Ragnaie’s single vineyard Brunello di Montalcino ‘Fornace’, and the Vigna Vecchia Brunello di Montalcino are barely half a step behind, however. The former, from a site in Castelnuovo dall’Abate, is a polished and elegant expression, bearing substantial, ripe cherry fruit with superb staying power on the palate and supple but structured tannins and acids to shore up the ensemble. (94 points.) The latter old vine selection from the estate pours with the deepest colour and is notably hazy (unfiltered), but the nose is pure fruit in a lightly oxidative, open style, and the palate is explosively concentrated with palpable, chewy extracted. It has an extra measure of umami over the rest of the excellent range, though not as tightly chiselled or well defined overall. (94 points.)

2011 Mastrojanni Vigna Loreto Brunello di Montalcino

Gabriele Mastrojanni was a pioneer in the area of Castelnuovo dell’Abate when he bought his ridge top property in 1975, now one of the top unofficial subzones in the DOCG. The estate was sold to Grupo Illy (of coffee fame) in 2008, though quality is as good as ever. The Vigna Loreto is a real step up in depth and concentration from the basic annata, fullish, sappy, succulent and dense with exceptional length and depth. Tannins are firm and well structured and need a few years to relax, but this has more than enough fruit extract to see it through to perfect balance in time. Terrifically complex. Outstanding wine, best after 2020 (95 points). Imported in Ontario by The Profile Wine Group.

2011 Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino

6th generation winegrower Andrea Costanti’s historic Colli al Matrichese estate, with roots back to the 19th century, covers 12ha of vineyards between 310 and 400 meters planted on limestone-rich galestro. No single vineyards are made; all grapes go into the annata and occasionally a Riserva, aged first in tonneaux, then large cask. A perennial favourite, the 2011 is exceptional. It offers a very fine nose, complex, evolved, and complete, while the palate delivers exceptional extract and length, with explosive flavours beginning from a point, than expanding into infinity. The quality of tannins is brilliant – fully ripe, polished but structured. (95 points.)

2011 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino

Vineyards of this venerable estate, established in 1962 by Primo Pacenti, are some of Montalcino’s best-situated, one parcel on the highest point of Canalicchio (320+m east exposure) and another on the famed Montosoli (southeast-facing), both northeast of Montalcino. The house (vineyard) style is one of finesse and refinement, and the 2011 shows tremendous elegance and fragrance, and beguiling suave and silky texture. Terrific tension and length hold this together perfectly, with haunting length – a beautiful expression. (95 points.)

2011 Caparzo La Casa Brunello di Montalcino

Established in the 1960s, and later purchased by Elisabetta Gnudi Angelini in 1988, this exceptional property lies north of Montalcino. La Casa Caparzo’s single vineyard cru on the marley Montosoli Hill takes a fine direction in 2011, with supremely fine-grained tannins in an ultra-elegant profile. Fruit is perfectly ripe, still fresh, with exceptional length on the palate. (95 points.) Imported in Ontario by The Case for Wine.

2011 Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino

Piero Palmucci’s established his cult estate in 1989, but it was recently sold to former telecommunications engineer Claudia Tipa in 2011, so it’s too early to say if he will maintain the decidedly Burgundian style Brunello for which Poggio di Sotto is so revered. After several years of searching for the ideal site for sangiovese grosso, Palmucci planted 12 hectares of vineyards on relatively, high 200-400m, steep, south facing slopes with a view to Monte Amiata above the Orcia River, south of Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Palmucci researched, with the assistance of the University of Milan, clonal selection and planting density to maximize quality; vineyards have been organically farmed from the start. The 2011 is already quite open, high-toned, even lightly acetic, a wine of supreme finesse and elegance, but a polarizing style to be sure. This is as much like natural pinot noir as Brunello, with it’s ultra-fine grained tannins, light but firm, pitch-perfect balance, and excellent length. This is all savoury- umami happiness, with terrific persistence based on genuine concentration. I wouldn’t say this is one for long-term cellaring, so drink over the next 5-8 years or so. (94 points.)

2011 Tenuta Croce di Mezzo Brunello di Montalcino

The 4.5 vineyard hectares of Barbara and Roberto Nannetti are just off the road from Montalcino to Sant’Antimo. Wines aged in large cask and are crafted in old school style, perfumed and savoury/pot-pourri-inflected, in the finest way. The 2011 is lithe, elegant, delicate, a lovely refined wine, with terrific perfume and length (94 points).

2011 Ucceliera Brunello di Montalcino

Born in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Andrea Cortonese, jumped at the chance to buy part of the nearby Ciacci Piccolomini estate, called Ucceliera, in 1986. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, just as Brunello’s wave was starting to crest. The style here is sumptuous and deep, powerful and concentrated, what could be described as more modern, yet one that doesn’t sacrifice sangiovese’s grace and savoury character. The 2011 is indeed very ripe, with wood and extract in the fore, but stays on the right side of balance, with excellent length and depth. There’s no doubting the care and ambition applied here in this expansive wine. (94 points.)

2011 Caprilli Brunello di Montalcino

Founded in 1965, Caprili’s vineyards belong to he former Villa Santa Restituta estate near Tavernelle, south of Montalcino, in the neighbourhood of Soldera’s Case Basse and Gaja’s Pieve Santa Restituta. The style blends the inherent power of Brunellos from this zone with an appealing traditionalism; fermentations are wild, and only large casks are used for ageing. The 2011 is ripe, dark and concentrated, fullish and rich, generously proportioned and with great flavour density and extract, not to mention exceptional length. (94 points.)

Also outstanding (93 points):

2011 La Rasina Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Franco Pacenti Canalichio Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Sesta di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Sesti Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Le Potazzine

2011 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Fonterenza Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Terre Nere Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Villa Poggio Salvi ‘Pomona’ Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Agostina Pieri Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Az. Agr. Martoccia – Brunelli Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Col di Lamo Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Fornacella Brunello di Montalcino

92 Points

2011 San Lorenzo Brunello di Montalcino

2011 La Manella Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Le Chiuse Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Le Macioche Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Piancornello Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Pinino Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Renieri Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Talenti Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Collemattoni Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Tenuta San Giorgio Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Villa Poggio Salvi Brunello di Montalcino

2011 Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Like Montalcino, Montepulciano lives on wine. The industry drives 70% of the local economy. Some 2200 hectares under vine are farmed by over 250 growers (1300 registered for Vino Nobile), and bottled by 90 companies. Average production per estate is higher than in Montalcino, with 7 million bottles of Vino Nobile reaching the market in 2015. But exports are higher, representing 80% of turnover, of which a modest 2% is sent to Canada. Vino Nobile also celebrates its 50th year as an appellation in 2016, first official defined as a wine with “ruby red colour, dry, slightly tannic taste, a scent of violets, and alcohol content of not less than 12 degrees” (now 12.5%).

Vino Nobile had the toughest gig among the various anteprime this year, presenting the challenging 2013 vintage. The contrast was especially stark since my last visit to the Fortress of Montepulciano in 2013 when the excellent 2010 vintage was on offer, atasting provided some of the most memorable wines of the year and some of the best surprises, particularly when value is factored in (Vino Nobile sells for about half the price of Brunello).

But cool and rainy 2013 is another story, despite the 4 star rating awarded by the consorzio. In the words of one producer, the wines are “crudo”, literally raw, in other words, lean, sinewy and sometimes downright sour and sharp, short on flesh and charm. Yet as always, producers with the best sites and the most attentive viticulture produce consistently admirable wines even under challenging conditions.

Styles are highly variable in Vino Nobile, given the legal addition of up to 30% of grapes other than prugnolo gentile, the local biotype of sangiovese. And the list of recommended or authorized red grapes in Tuscany is long. Some wines are marked by the telltale colour and aromas of the cabernet family of grapes, while others hew much closer to the classic pale garnet, savoury-earthy character of sangiovese. It’s a question of knowing your producer. Yet one of the most appealing and pervasive features of Vino Nobile in general is their notable salinity, more common than in either Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino.

Below are my top, finished and bottled picks out of the 44 wineries who presented at the anteprima; the top barrel samples are listed separately, followed by the top 2012 riservas, also presented this year.

Buyer’s Guide: Top 2013 Vino Nobile di Montpulciano and 2012 Riservas

2013 Tenuta Vallocaia Bindella “I Quadri” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

From the southern sector of the appellation, this parcel selection including 15% colorino, canaiolo and mammolo aged in tonneaux, is a nicely rustic, succulent, blood-iron driven wine with marked salinity on the palate. Tannins and acids work in tandem to create firmness on the palate; length and depth are better than the mean. Solid. (90 points.)

2013 Le Bèrne Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

The hillside vineyards of Le Bernè (from the Etruscan term verna, or ‘hillock) yield a subtle but classy pure sangiovese with old wood (large cask and 40% barrique) bright red fruit, and light cinnamon spice aromatics leading, while the palate shows real depth and elegance. Tannins are fine but firm, acids succulent, juicy, and balanced, and length and depth are genuine. This should be very fine in 2-3 years, and hold at least another half dozen after that. (90 points.)

2013 Palazzo Vecchio “Maestro” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

The wine from the majestic hilltop property of Palazzo Vecchio in the eastern part of the zone wine shows more ripeness and depth than the average in 2013, sappy and fruity, but also savoury, with a genuinely salty taste on the palate. Superiore length and complexity, too. I like the range of savoury, earthy-resinous notes. Quite distinctively salty. Sangiovese with 10% cannaiolo, 5% mammolo. Best after 2019. (90 points.)

2013 Antico Colle Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Evident wood spice and herbal-cabernet family aromatics lead off, despite just 5% merlot blended in– such is the delicate nature of sangiovese – but it works nicely nonetheless. The palate is mid-weight, juicy, with solid depth, length and ultimately complexity. This is juicy and pleasant, less aggressive than many of the 2013s. (89 points.)

2013 Gattavecchi “Parceto” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Gattavecchi is one of the historic names in Montepulciano, and the cellars in the center of town date back the Etruscan period, but the style is thoroughly modern. The Parceto selection is a riper, more forward and darker fruit-scented than the standard range from Gattavecchi, still in a more modern style, but with solid flesh and fruit extract to match firm acids and tannins. Length and depth are good to very good. Give this a year or two for toasty wood notes to better integrate. (89 points.)

2013 Lunadoro “Pagliaretto” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

This is fine and fleshy, relatively soft (but still very sangiovese-esque), with succulent acids and a nice volatile lift on the finish. I like the fruit character here, the fleshy morello cherry flavours; a touch of acetic acid adds complexity and lift. (89 points.)

2013 Boscarelli Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Boscarelli is a relatively small, 14.5ha estate established in 1962 on the celebrated Cervognano hill in the southern sectore of the appellation. The 2013 is a pretty, bright, red fruit-led expression, with fleshy, better-than-average depth on the palate. Tannins are still firm and puckering, but riper than the mean for the vintage. Classic sangiovese character (plus 15% canaiolo, colorino and mammolo), with solid length. Best after 2019. (88 points.)

2013 Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

The Gracciano hills north of Montepulciano are one of the area’s historic crus, and the estate’s history stretches back to the early 19th century. In 2011 Marco, Vannozza and Galdina della Seta acquired the property from their grandmother and have embarked on conversion to organics and a low-intervention approach in the winery the results of which are already noted. The 2013 is attractive and bright, with tart red fruit, succulent acids and good to very good length and complexity overall. A firm, honest, balanced wine, if not expansive or overly complex. (88 points.)

Promising 2013 cask samples

2013 Fattoria della Talosa Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

This was one of the properties that most impressed me on my last visit to Montepulciano, and happily quality is still among the top in the appellation. Talosa was indeed among the first wineries to focus on quality, established in 1972 by Angelo Jacorossi, with historic Etruscan cellars right under the town’s main square. Attentive farming, simple winemaking and ageing in large old cask express the region faithfully. The 2013 is certainly quality wine, succulent, balanced, fresh and spicy, unusually fleshy for the vintage with very good length. (90-91 points.) There’s also an excellent 2012 Riserva in the pipelines from Talosa, still in cask.

2013 Tenuta Valdipiatta “Vigna ‘d’Alfiero’ Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Fullish, fleshy, concentrated and quite ripe, with abundant, still rough and sandy tannins that should integrate in time. Fruit slips seamlessly between red and black, and wood is not a significant flavour influence. Long finish. Tidy wine. (91-92 points.)

2013 Montemercurio “Messagero” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Another promising sample, fleshy and fruity, like a fresh morello cherry, black cherry, succulent and juicy, Alcohol spikes a touch but the fruit holds on. Tannins are slightly drying, but I think there’s enough fruit extract to hold it together. (90+ points.)

2013 Salchetto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

A promising result here in 2013 from Salchetto, firm in the vintage style, but not hard or shrill. There’s fine, fleshy fruit, mostly red, and limited barrel influence – this is all about the savoury red berry character. (90-91 points)

2013 Fattoria del Cerro “Antica Chiusina” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

A heavily toasted barrel-influenced version, crafted in a modern, forward, coffee-inflected style. Fruit is ripe and verging on jammy/candied, and the palate is thick. Concentrated to be sure, but certainly not excessively overdone, In a forward style nonetheless. This will appeal widely no doubt. (89-90 points.)

Top 2012 Riservas

2012 Avignonesi “Grande Annata” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Avignonesi is the biggest player on the DOCG with over 200 hectares, all the more impressive that owner Virginie Saverys has undertaken biodynamic faming since acquiring the property in 2009. Although the 2013 did not particularly impress, the 2012 riserva is a terrific wine, ripe, classy, complex, succulent and silky yet finely woven and taught. I love the firmness, the juicy acids, the savoury fruit character, the excellent length. Best after 2018. (92 points.)

2012 Lunadoro “Quercione” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva

Resinous and closed off the top, but the palate is fleshy, succulent and deep, with expansive flavours and very good length. This is fine wine, best in another 3-4 years no doubt. (91 points.)

2012 Fattoria La Braccesca “Santa Pia” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva

Antinori’s Montepulciano outpost, La Braccesca’s large, 330ha vineyard borders Umbria in the east sector of the DOCG. The Santa Pia Riseverva is generous and ripe, fruity and toasty example, modern in style but full of pleasure, with ripe tannins and marked but balanced acids. Wood could still use a couple of years to fully integrate, but this shows lots of promise for those seeking a more immediate and generous style. (90 points.)

2012 Il Conventino Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva

I’ve been following Il Conventino for many years now, always a reliable name in the region, organically farming 25 prime hectares in the southern sector. The 2012 riserva is still somewhat closed on the nose, but the palate is nicely weighted, juicy, firm, without obvious wood influence, and mostly tart red and dark berry fruit and good to very good length. Solid. (90 points.)

2012 Le Bernè Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva

A markedly woody wine on the nose, resinous, with little fruit currently on display, but the palate picks it up with considerable salinity and juicy acids. This comes across as a Rioja-like wine, woody, but light on its feet. Length, depth and complexity are indeed quite good. (90 points.)

2012 Tenuta Gracciano della Seta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva

A fleshy, mid-weight, succulent and juicy Riserva here, with old world styling, firm and crunchy acids, and very good to excellent length. This is a solid mouthful, authentically rendered, with solid complexity and expansiveness. (90 points.)

Montefalco Sagrantino

Around the turn of the millenium, Umbria’s flagship native grape variety sagrantino was very likely not on your radar, nor even most Italians’ radar. I know it wasn’t on mine. Despite it’s 500+ year history in the region around the town of Montefalco in the region of Umbria (“The green heart of Italy”), by the 1960s the grape had all but disappeared. But Umbria, and Montefalco, are on the move. Tourism is up significantly. The number of producer-bottlers has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades, now numbering over 60. If a glass of Montefalco Sagrantino has yet to pass your lips, chance are that will change very soon.

For most of its existence, sagrantino was used to produce sacramental wine, the favourite of local clergy for its propensity to produce powerful, sweet, long-lasting wines from partially dried grapes in the style of recioto in Valpolicella. The original name of the grape, as you may have guessed already, derives from sacrament, and until fairly recently was still called sacrantino.

But sweet passito styles had fallen out of fashion, and producing a palatable dry version of sagrantino proved to be a considerable challenge. The grape is most famous for being the most extract-rich variety known, by which I mean deeply coloured, but also especially tannic. Young sagrantino can be downright beastly, mouth-stripping, sucking every last once of moisture out of your desperately parched mouth.

It didn’t help that vineyards were set up all wrong to make dry wines, planted at low densities, and trellised to maximize production. The already late-ripening sagrantino never really stood a fair chance of reaching full maturity, and temper those fierce tannins. Yet when partially dried and fermented to leave some residual sugar, producers could balance the tannic excess and create intriguing bitter-sweet sacramental wines. But fermented dry, the wines were all but undrinkable.

Things started to change in the 1970s. Although not the first – Adanti and Antonelli were already bottling wines in the 1970s – Arnaldo Caprai is the man generally credited with reviving the fortunes of sagrantino. He purchased his property in 1971 and revived commercial production, shifting away from the sweet versions, virtually the only ones known in the period. But it was his son Marco who would raise quality and bring sagrantino to the world under the Caprai name after taking over the family operation in 1989. Marco set about revolutionizing production, undertaking multiple experiments with the help of the University of Milan with the goal of producing quality dry red wine.

The starting point was the vineyards. Caprai experimented with various trellising to determine the best way to reach higher and more consistent levels of ripeness (finally landing on cordon spur training), and higher densities, between 5000 and 7000 vines per hectare. Different vinification techniques were then explored. Counter-intuitively, Caprai found that longer macerations, 3-4 weeks or longer, actually had the effect of softening tannins.

As Filippo Antonelli later explains, “the highest percentage of tannins in sagrantino come from the skins and are released in the first 3-4 days of fermentation. So shortening the fermentation, as was done, say, in Barolo to soften nebbiolo, doesn’t work with sagrantino”. Caprai, Antonelli and others learned that extending the maceration after fermentation allowed the skins to re-absorb some tannins and colour, resulting in a relatively more supple expression. It’s also speculated that the skins eventually start to release proteins, which further soften the texture by adding supple mass.

Most producers today also agree that eliminate a percentage of the seeds during fermentation – source of the most astringent tannins – in a process called délestage, or rack and return is a critical step in production. Fermenting must is drained out of tank through a fine screen that catches the seeds, which are them removed before the wine is returned to the vat.

Barrel ageing remains somewhat contentious. Some producers like Caprai believe that small barrels, new French wood in particular with at least medium toast is key to softening sagrantino’s texture. His top cuvée, Montefalco Sagrantino ‘25 Anni’ is given the 200% new wood treatment, racked after a year or so from new barrels to another set of new barrels. It’s a wine that takes years, however, to come around in bottle.

Yet others firmly believe that large casks and time are key to softening and polishing the grape’s firm character. Newcomer Milanese Peter Heilbrun uses only large, 5000+ liter Slavonian oak casks for long ageing to great effect, his first vintages showing tremendous refinement and a perfumed, ethereal, almost nebbiolo-like character, a wine he loves and models his sagrantino after. Tenuta Castelbuono, owned by the Lunelli family of Trentino (owners of the successful Cantina Ferrari, producers of sparkling Trento DOC) also uses large casks exclusively for ageing sagrantino, yielding wines of impressive elegance; experiments with clay vessels are also underway, the aim being to allow critical oxygenation to soften tannins without the unwanted addition of oak flavour. Adanti uses both tonneaux and large cask to similar, excellent effect, as does Antonelli, whose experimentation has extended to both clay and ceramic vessels for ageing.

All in all, the wine scene in Montefalco is vibrant and developing rapidly. Riper grapes and better winemaking have radically altered character of sagrantino, launching it into the modern wine world. But make no mistake; these are still big, structured, highly ageworthy wines. Sipping sagrantino on the terrace is not counseled. Given the necessity of full ripeness, and the grape’s efficiency in producing sugar thanks to its large canopy and propensity to grow new, photosynthesis-effective young leaves, sagrantino under 14% alcohol is impossible to find. 15%+ is more common. As one producer put it: “drinking sagrantino without food would be unthinkable, preferably with roast lamb, wild boar or other game meat. Sagrantino is a veriety that leaves a strong impression.”

Most of the region’s 2000 hectares of vineyards (of which about 700 are sagrantino) are planted on predominantly heavy clay soils, with some more stony, limestone-influenced sites, others with more sand. Yet the relationship between sagrantino and vineyard site is not well understood. The next step for the region is to gain a better understanding of vineyards, and their influence on style. “The interaction between sagrantino and vineyard is not well known”, relates Antonelli, curiously, since his family has had vineyards in the region since the late 19th century. “In Montefalco, vineyards were never shared here as they were in, say Piedmont where grape traders understood what each site gives. Here, the hand of the producer is more prevalent. House style really drives the wine style. As for vineyard expression, it’s ground zero”, he continues. But with sufficient producers now producing and bottling quality wine, it’s a just matter of time.

Montefalco Rosso and Trebbiano Spoletino

A good entry point into the wines of the region is through Montefalco Rosso and Rosso Riserva, earlier maturing, easier drinking wines made predominantly from sangiovese (60-70%) with the addition of sagrantino up to 15%, and other permitted grapes up to 15%. House styles of course vary, but in general these are lively, savoury wines ideally suited for the table.

A special mention is due here to Trebbiano Spoletino, in my view the most interesting white variety in Umbria, and indeed the most illustrious grape within the large and undistinguished trebbiano family of grapes. There’s speculation that the Spoletino biotype is related to the Greco of Campania, and indeed there’s a steely, minerally edge coupled with impressive extract, making it uncommonly ageworthy among Italian whites as several older vintages have shown. With age, trebbiano spoletino acquires an unusual white and black truffle scent (dimethyl sulphide), and a kerosene like note reminiscent of aged Riesling (or Greco). Along with verdicchio, tebbiano spoletino is arguably central Italy’s best white wine. For top examples try Tabarrini’s ‘Adarmando’, made from vines over a century old, still trained up trees in the style that’s been around since Etruscan times. Examples from Perticaia, Antonelli, Le Cimate and the first release from Brocatelli-Galli are also excellent.

Vintage 2012

2012 is considered an excellent vintage for sagrantino. Yields were naturally reduced thanks to late frosts in April and May, which turned out to be a blessing over the long, hot, very dry summer. Lower crops reduced water stress, despite hot winds lasting into September. October rains rebalanced the vines, completing maturity without excessively raisined flavours, and harvest continued into early November. On the whole the wines are generously proportioned, fully ripe, full-bodied, with excellent ageing potential.

Montefalco Sagrantino: A Top Dozen 2012s

2012 Tenuta Bellafonte Montefalco Sagrantino

Milanese entrepreneur Peter Heilbrun makes an uncommonly elegant sagrantino, this 2012 cask sample showing sweet-fruited perfumed with no evident wood character, all red fruit and candied-floral aromatics, supple, ripe tannins and balanced acids. There’s a great deal of succulent fruit extract and the length is excellent. Sappy and fleshy, with genuine concentration and expansiveness, what you could call a Piedmont-inspired expression. (94 points.)

2012 Fattoria Colleallodole Milziade Antano Montefalco Sagrantino Colleallodole

Ultra-traditionalist Milziade Antano makes big and bold wines, though his 2012 old vine selection ‘Colleadole’ selection appears lighter and slightly less rustic style then previous vintages. It’s still dense and full of concentrated ripe red fruit to be sure, but lifted by orange peel and floral notes. The palate is supple, ripe and wholly satisfying, and notably clean without wood flavours, and while alcohol is definitely high, it’s integrated in the ensemble. This could even be called elegant. (94 points.) The “regular” 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino is just a step behind equally deeply coloured and ultra-ripe, lightly volatile (acetic), but well within acceptable bounds, brimming with concentrated fruit and without obvious oak flavour. This should age very nicely. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.

2012 Moretti Omero Montefalco Sagrantino Vignalunga

Moretti Omero is a fine discovery, an organic farm producing refined sagrantino since the early 1990s. The vineyard selection Vignalunga is an elegant, stylish, uncommonly supple sagrantino, immediately inviting and attractive, polished and modern, but alive, with high quality wood spice (aged two years in French tonneaux) (93 points). The ‘regular’ selection is very nearly as good, with a beautiful fruit expression accented with light wood spice, and perfectly pitched tannins. (92 points.)

2012 Adanti Montefalco Sagrantino Il Domenico

One of the original Montefalco producers bottling since 1979, Adanti’s lovely 2012 Sagrantino (cask sampl) is pale garnet, open, high-toned, and floral, with a touch of acetone but correct, and vibrant red fruit, like dried strawberry, with no evident oak (aged in cask and tonneaux). The palate is balanced and juicy, lively, firm to be sure but ripe, with attractive fruit and supple texture. (93 points.)

2012 Tenuta Castelbuono – Tenute Lunelli Montefalco Sagrantino Carapace

Aside from the stunning winery designed in the shape of a shell (‘Carapace’) by celebrated artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, the wines of Tenuta Castelbuono, certified organic from 2014, show a similar artistic touch, light, unmanipulated, focused on elegance, produced under the guidance of respected Tuscan consultant Luca d’Attoma. Sagrantino sees only large cask, and in 2012 the result is fine and fragrant, spicy and complex without exaggerated ripeness. This sports some intriguing herbal-resinous-peppery spice, alongside ripe, lightly dried mostly red fruit. The palate is med-full and well balanced, with relatively fine-grained tannins and long-perfumed finish. 2015 experiments with clay amphora and small tunconic wooden fermenters are very promising. (93 points.)

2012 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo delle Cerqua

Fifth generation winemaker Gianpaolo Tabarrini is Montefalco’s iconoclast, an energetic, outspoken winemaker with a contagious affection for the region and its native varieties. He was the first in his family to begin bottling in the mid-1990s. The full range is exceptional, and of the two single vineyard expressions of sagrantino, Campo delle Cerqua is the more elegant, crafted in a lifted, high-toned, floral style with fine-grained tannins all in all, and relatively higher acids. It’s one of the top 2012s to be sure, still heavily extracted, dense, dark concentrated, massive, in need of many years in bottle. (93 points.) Colle alle Macchie, a warmer site, is an unapologetically massive and bruising wine, but remarkable all the same. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto Wine Group.

2012 Romanelli Montefalco Sagrantino Medeo

Devis Romanelli is a young, ambitious producer, who’s first bottled vintage was 2008. The aim from the start was to produce rich, supple, very ripe sagrantino in a more polished and modern style. He farms organically but has not sought certification (his olive groves are certified organic), Medeo is a vineyard selection from his 8 hectares, a parcel which, according Romanelli, shows more balanced and consistent maturity, first bottled in 2011. The 2012 is a great leap forward, however, offering better fruit quality and less obvious wood (the 2011 was all new wood; the 2012 includes a percentage of old wood), and dense and rich, powerful and concentrated palate. Tannins are ultra-abundant but fully ripe, palate coating, bolstered by succulent acids. Excellent length. The top in Romanelli’s range. (93 points.)

2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino ’25 Anni’

The top sagrantino selection from Marco Caprai, 25 Anni is generally produced from the same plot each year, but not systematically a vineyard selection. Since this wine was first made in 1993 (when celebrating 25 years of winemaking), Caprai’s vineyards have expanded considerably, now c. 140 hectares; the oldest of which were planted in 1989. It’s given the 200% wood treatment, moving to a second set of new barriques for half of the 28 month elevage. There’s sweet wood/cacao noted off the top – this is still extremely young – and dark fruit leads, with roasted spice and toasted wood to match. The palate is structured to be sure, but again the tannins are relatively refined, surrounded by abundant, fleshy/plummy fruit. Very good to excellent length. Sagrantino is surely one of the only varieties in the world that can handle this much new oak, for so long, without becoming overwhelmed, even if it’s not necessary in my view. Patience required; best after 2022. (92 points.) Imported into Ontario by the Stem Wine Group.

2012 Colsanto Montefalco Sagrantino

Colsanto’s lovely 2012 is deeply coloured with lightly baked/raisined/oxidative fruit, like red berry jam, with full, supple, texture, evidently high in extract, concentration and alcohol, and generously proportioned; a satisfying mouthful. Wood is not a significant factor. Pleasantly bitter on the finish (barrel sample, 92 points.)

2012 Terre della Custodia Montefalco Sagrantino

A clean and technically spot-on sagrantino, fragrant, spicy, red fruit-inflected, attractively complex, without obvious oak aromatics. The palate is balanced-mid-weight, with fine, black pepper spice, firm but fine-grained tannins, abundant but neither overly plush nor hard, rather refined all in all. A fine wine, hitting the right place between regional/traditional, and widely appealing. (Barrel sample, 92 points.)

2012 Fratelli Pardi Montefalco Sagrantino

This is intriguingly spiced, like an incense-infused church interior, with a light black pepper note and abundant ripe but fresh dark fruit. The palate is relatively suave and fleshy, with no apparent barrique influence (although aged for 18 months in barrel), just plenty of succulent red and black fruit character. Fine, supple tannins, relatively, concentrated and fully ripe, are in balance, albeit on a massive frame. (91 points.)

2012 Il Colle di Saragnano Montefalco Sagrantino

This is a refined and elegant, fullish, supple, concentrated and clean sagrantino, with no apparent oak flavours, or at least very well integrated into the ensemble. High alcohol accompanies ripe tannins and slightly jammy flavours, and overall this works very nicely. (91 points.)

Top Current Releases/Older Vintages

2006 Antonelli Sagrantino Montefalco Chiusa di Pannone

Antonelli is a reference for the region, crafting uncommonly delicate and refined wines across the board, from the former property of the Archbishop of Spoleto, in the family since the late 19th century. Chiusa di Pannone is Antonelli’s excellent single vineyard expression of sagrantino, from the highest elevation vines on the property at 400m, facing southeast, the first high-density planting on the property in the early 1990s. It’s given more time in wood and bottle before release. This is downright succulent and elegant; tannins are really fine and tightly knit. Excellent length. Perfumed, classy. A top example.  (94 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.

2010 Antonelli Sagrantino Montefalco

Open, perfumed and elegant on the nose, pleasantly peppery and spicy, with wood a minor influence. The palate is balanced and elegant, with firm but not hard tannins, and lingering finish. Really refined and fabulously elegant, also unique and distinctive. 15% alcohol is perfectly integrated. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.

2008 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo delle Cerqua

In the exceptional Tabarrini range, the Campo delle Cerqua is the more elegant expression of sagrantino, crafted in a more lifted, high-toned, floral style with fine-grained tannins all in all, and relatively higher acids. This verges on elegances within the massive and concentrated range of Montefalco, with outstanding length. This is superb wine. (94 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto.

2007 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Colle alle Machie

A warm site in a warm vintage, the Colle alle Macchie is an impenetrably deep, dark red colour, with a rich, prune jam like expression on the nose and palate, and massive extract and ultra intense concentration. This is a take no prisoners wine, with massive tannins coated in extreme fruit extract – a classic wine for the region, no apologies for its bruising character but remarkable all the same. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto.

2008 Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino

A marvelously rich and full-bodied, firm but not unyielding sagrantino, in the Pambuffetti family sine the mid 20th century. This is dense and concentrated yet neither heavy nor pasty, and while it may not have the flash and new wood styling of some of the more modern sagrantinos emerging from Umbria, this has ample regional and varietal character in an uncompromising style. Don’t expect soft and cuddly – this is authoritative and palate grabbing, with flavours that are slipping into the dried fruit spectrum, and loads of earth and wet forest floor notes. Very good length. A wine to warm the body on a cold winter’s night.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 2 Montefalco
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 3 Montepulciano

Italy New Vintage Report Part 4: 2012 Amarone and 2014 Valpolicella

If you are the Canadian Agent for any of the wines mentioned, please send us a note to with availability and pricing and we’ll gladly update our site.

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