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VINTAGES Preview: April 26 Release (Part Two)

Four Fine Spanish Reds, A Smart Cape Cab & Sara’s Spring State of Mind
by David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

You may have sensed in last week’s preview that we found tasting VINTAGES release of “Great Value Bordeaux” to be a bit of a chore. Yes, we were collectively underwhelmed, and I must say there were several other wines on this release, particularly from California, that I found troubling too – or just not worth spending your dollars on. Were we in a bad mood, or perhaps tasting on a “root” day on the biodynamic calendar? It’s hard to say; but for my part some of the lower scores, as well as the higher scores, are part of an effort to battle “creeping scoring condensation” – that tendency to lodge the vast majority wines in a “safe” zone between 86 to 91 points.

The great advantage of the 100-point scale (which is really an 80 to 100 pinot scale) is the wider bandwidth on which to peg a numerical opinion. In my world – and I would argue in the world of WineAlign and 100-point wine scoring globally – an 80-point wine should still be drinkable even if notably compromised. And by the way, an 80-point rating is where the WineAlign “grape bunch” begins to be coloured in, our attempt to provide a quick visual representation of quality. On the flip side, many of the world’s top calibre wines should easily be scoring close to perfection above 95 points. Using the full range of 20 points provides a much clearer barometer of quality, and is thus much more helpful to shoppers.

As for why I pick certain wines to highlight in this report, value within any price range becomes the main criteria. There will be many other wines not mentioned that are also very much worth your consideration – so spend some time browsing the selections by all three of us.

The Stars Align
(wines independently recommended by two or more critics)

Domaine Du Tremblay Cuvée Vin Noble Quincy 2012Pepin Condé Cabernet Sauvignon 2012Pepin Condé 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Region, South Africa ($15.95). John Szabo – Pepin is the entry-level range from respected estate Stark-Condé established by American José Condé in Stellenbosch, named after his grandfather. It offers an authentically herbal, iodine-tinged, spicy range of aromatics on a mid-weight, light tannin and juicy acid frame, nicely balanced, stylish and savoury overall. Great price, too. David Lawrason – Both John and I have recently visited this estate in the fantastic, primordial Jonkershoek Valley, although at different times. I actually visited twice, and I was very impressed by the modern, vibrant wines, and their value. I brought their pinot home to Canada in my luggage. Hands down this beats virtually any cabernet you will find at VINTAGES or the LCBO under $20.

Lawrason’s Take

Domaine Du Tremblay 2012 Cuvée Vin Noble Quincy, Loire Valley, France ($20.95). There are many who find sauvignon blancs boringly similar. And I understand that position. So if you do like sauvignon you have to dig deeper – beyond the green – to the nuances that different terroirs offer. This little known appellation of Quincy in the Loire Valley near Sancerre is one more take, and I like its lighter, compact, shimmering appeal.

Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley 2012Oldenburg Chardonnay 2011Camelback Shiraz 2008Yalumba 2012 Viognier Eden Valley, South Australia ($24.95). On its website Yalumba trumpets that “it is the one of the most influential producers of viognier in the world”. A sweeping but carefully couched statement. And I happen to believe it’s true based on the work committed and the result in the bottle.  This is a difficult grape to grow, and to make into a widely acceptable style. I am not a personal viognier fan and would rarely buy it for myself because it’s either too blowsy or too restrained. This comes right up the middle with poise, complexity and honesty. Like it or leave it, but try this viognier if only to gauge your own tastes.

Oldenburg 2011 Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($22.95). The better wines of South Africa are currently offering huge value based on the weakness of the South African Rand against the Canadian dollar. Plus the fact that modern viticulture and winemaking are now as comfortable in the Cape as anywhere in the world. This bright, sleek, vibrant chardonnay picks up some of the green/herbal character of the local vegetation – called fynbos – making it just a bit different from most chardonnay peers around the world. This is a Flagship Store Exclusive.

Camelback 2008 Shiraz Sunbury, Victoria, Australia ($24.95). I was not expecting to be impressed by this wine – another critter brand on the face of it, even though camels are not indigenous to Australia (they were imported from India in the 19th C). But the combination of its age and origin in this less well-known, cooler region of Victoria (not far from Melbourne’s airport) have delivered a quite savoury, peppery yet full flavoured shiraz with Aussie weight and Euro flavours.

Viña Arana Reserva 2005Elias Mora Crianza 2009Ascheri Pisapola Barolo 2010Ascheri 2010 Pisapola Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($44.95). If you are a Barolo fan you might want to go to Ascheri’s website ( to comprehend the new regime that has led this house to make four different Barolo starting in this 2010 vintage. It’s a reaction to a complex new regulation involving Additional Geographic Designations in Barolo. Pisapola of the Verduno region will be made every vintage. I am sure it all makes some kind of local sense – but more importantly and broadly, this is excellent wine from a very good producer of modern nebbiolos that still respect their origin.

Elias Mora 2009 Crianza Toro, Spain ($22.95). Toro is an almost other-worldly enclave in north central Spain. Perched on a cliff above the Duero River the town was once the seat of Spanish authority to which Christopher Columbus came to seek financing for his voyages to America. Out on the river plain below and into the hills beyond the tempranillo grape (locally called tinta de toro) grows in heavily gravelled and limestone soils. The arid climate builds in serious muscle yet finesse. This crianza has spent 12 months in French and American oak barrels, which just seems to sponge up the fruit without really altering it.

La Rioja Alta 2005 Viña Arana Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($39.95). Spain offers several good wines in this release. There is the Faustino 1 Gran Reserva that someone has rated 97 points, but I was not in agreement that it is that superlative. I have given a higher rating to this mature classic from one of the great traditional houses of Rioja. The 2005 vintage was fantastic, and this has matured beautifully into prime time. This is a Flagship Store Exclusive.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Maison Roche De Bellene 2011 Montagny 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($26.95). Nicolas Potel’s negociant range, what he describes as “haute couture” Burgundy, finds its way regularly into my smart buys, achieving what so few Burgundies can: fine quality at prices well below the average for their respective appellations. The Côte Châlonnaise south of the Côte d’Or has long been a source of value red and white Burgundy (and Crémant), and applied to Potel’s formula, it’s as safe a bet as you can find. I love the green nut and mineral character of this Montagny; lovely stuff, ready to pour.

Ilocki Podrumi 2011 Premium Grasevina, Syrmia, Croatia ($23.95 ). If you like full-bodied aromatic whites in the style of, say, Alsatian pinot gris, (dry) gewürztraminer or viognier, this will fit the bill. It’s a premium-priced Croatian Grasevina (aka Welschriesling), but also very characterful, evidently concentrated, with loads of beguiling acacia and almond blossoms, ripe orchard, pear and orange flavours. Ready to enjoy.

Alvaro Palacios 2011 Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses Priorat, Spain ($46.95). Palacios’ old vines (though entry-level Priorat) has explosive wild violet and rock-rose tinged aromatics reminiscent of great Douro reds, with masses of fruit and superior extract/concentration, yet still retains a sense of proportion and grace. It’s the magic of the ancient schistous terroir of Priorat. Give this another 2-4 years in the cellar, or hold into the mid-twenties and beyond – it’s well worth the money.

Maison Roche De Bellene Montagny 1er Cru 2011Ilocki Podrumi Premium Grasevina 2011Alvaro Palacios Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses 2011Maetierra Dominum Qp 2006Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011

Maetierra 2006 Dominum QP Rioja, Spain ($22.95). The “QP” stands for quatro pagos, or four vineyards, as this is a blend of tempranillo, graciano and garnacha from four different estates in the Rioja appellation. A year and a half in new French oak gives this a spicy, heavily wood-influenced profile, but I appreciate the underlying tart red berry fruit. Ideally I’d revisit this in 3-5 years, at which point I’d expect the wonderfully savoury-herbal and spicy profile of mature Rioja to come out of its shell.

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige Saint-Drézéry, Languedoc, France ($29.95). Fans of serious Rhône Valley reds should venture further west to the Languedoc, where similar conditions and essentially the same grapes, coupled with relative obscurity, often add up to great value. This is intense and concentrated, with impressive depth, and a generous helping of southern French-style scorched earth, garrigue, black fruit and licorice-spice flavours. Try again in 2-4 years to benefit from added complexity and better integration or hold till the early ‘20s.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections

Malivoire Riesling 2012Malivoire Musqué Spritz 2013Poderi Elia Moscato D'asti 2012Poderi Elia 2012 Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy ($15.95). A bouquet of fresh spring flowers is authentically presented in this affable and characteristically sweet Moscato with a great deal of charm. Winemaker Federico Stella’s strict attention to detail, sustainable practices and small lot production often make for head-turning wines.

Malivoire 2013 Musqué Spritz, Beamsville Bench, Ontario ($19.95). In a spring state of mind, I have chosen yet another floral, juicy and engaging selection that is bursting with flavour. There is a certain air of whimsy about this delightfully effervescent gem that will have you feeling carefree in no time.

Malivoire 2012 Riesling, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($15.95). Winemaker Shiraz Mottiar has rocked this riesling – a varietal that has not been the winery’s forte. Despite the untraditional bottle shape, the wine delivers a classic nervy and zesty mouthfeel, loaded with an abundance of mineral and saline.

Dürnberg Rabenstein Grüner Veltliner 2011Cascina Del Pozzo Roero Arneis 2012Dürnberg RabensteManoir Du Carra Fleurie 2010in 2011 Grüner Veltliner, Weinviertel, Austria ($24.95). Produced from 50-year-old vines perched on the high slopes of the village of Falkenstein, this delightful grüner spends a year in large barriques with fine lees gaining extra body and complexity. Traditional and very typical of the varietal with lovely peppery notes along with cool stone and juicy grapefruit. The packaging makes this an attractive host gift or a centerpiece at the table.

Cascina Del Pozzo 2012 Roero Arneis, Piedmont, Italy  ($18.95). With the warm weather finally upon us, I’m delighted to have discovered so many interesting white wines in this release. Arneis, although difficult to cultivate due to its low acid, susceptibility to mildew and its “rascally” nature, can prove a real delight when properly treated and offers notes of wildflower, fresh herbs and pear. This is truly a fresh breath of spring air.

Manoir Du Carra 2010 Fleurie, Beaujolais, France ($24.95). This cru Beaujolais really caught my eye or should I say tongue offering seductive flavours and textures while putting forth a great deal of complexity. Fleurie is often touted as the “Queen of Crus” in Beaujolais and is the most widely exported of the crus. Although this version may be light on the characteristic floral nature of Fleurie, it is certainly chalk full of flavour and energy. Ideal for short-term cellaring or immediate consumption.

Winemaker’s dinner with Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson in Ottawa – May 1st

Bruce Nicholson

Bruce Nicholson

Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson is one of Canada’s most respected and awarded winemakers, lifting Inniskillin into a 5th place finish in the 2013 National Wine Awards ‘Top Wineries’ category. He, along with the Ottawa Citizen’s Rod Phillips, will be hosting a winemaker’s dinner at Graffiti’s Italian Eatery in Kanata on May 1st, exclusively for WineAlign members. Bruce will guide you through a select offering of Inniskillin wines, each paired with a specially prepared dish. He will speak about the unique viticulture and terroir of the Niagara region and talk about the history behind the winery that brought modern Ontario wine to life. (Click here for more details)

And that’s a wrap for this edition. Watch next week as we look at VINTAGES May 10 release feature themes on South America and Germany.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 26, 2014 VINTAGES release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews
April 26 – Part One – Champagne & Bordeaux

Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Vintages Preview April 12 Release (Part Two)

Wines on the Cusp of Spring, California and Boisset
by David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato and John Szabo

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Easter is late this year, which is entirely fitting because spring has been late too. It is trying to break through, and yes we are in a rush, but there is still cool weather ahead, particularly in the evenings. Not much lolling about on the deck for dinner even though the sun is not setting until almost 8pm. This week’s VINTAGES release provides a fitting selection of wines for the cusp, from springy rieslings to mellow chardonnays and pinots, to a few warm and cuddly reds. Last week John Szabo and Sara d’Amato featured Veneto’s rich smooth ripassos and amarones, and I would add two thumbs up to Monte Del Fra 2010 Lena Di Mezzo Ripasso Valpolicella And Zenato 2009 Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico in particular. But there are many more good buys out there, and I had to do some serious editing of all the wines I wanted to mention. Thankfully John and Sara have included some of them.

Before launching in however, a word on the California Wine Fair in Toronto which saw yet another year of jam-packed trade and consumer portions. There is always such buzz at this event – but from all accounts the trade portion was uncomfortably crowded. But it does explain why California wine has become the leader at VINTAGES and is moving up in the ranks on the LCBO general list as well. There was lots of back slapping and congratulating going on as the Californians and the LCBO brass took turns at the podium at the annual Toast to California lunch – and indeed the sales numbers are something to celebrate. The only negative word was by the LCBO’s Nancy Cardinal who warned, gently, that California be cautious on pricing and value in the face of hot competition. To be more blunt, I think California owns the worst price quality ratio at the LCBO today. And I might have also added a warning to dial back on the creeping sweetness in their lower end red wines in particular. I love California as much as anybody else in that room, but what I was thinking, and what others were saying in the hallways, needs to be said aloud as well.

The dashing Jean Charles Boisset dashed through Toronto as part of the California Wine Fair – where he addressed the luncheon and explained why it is that a Frenchman is so infatuated with California, and how he is tuning California’s exuberant fruit to a more elegant French sensibility at the wineries he now owns – De Loach, Raymond and Buena Vista. Before the fair he gathered local scribes to taste through some of his California and Burgundy wines under the JCB label, and they were really very fine, polished and exacting. I particularly loved a new pinot noir called Maritus that is comprised of 47% Burgundy-grown pinot shipped to California where it was blended with 53% Sonoma pinot. Very, very fine indeed! About 20 cases will be offered in Ontario in the months ahead at $123.00.

The Stars Align
(Wines independently highlighted by two or more critics)

13th Street 2011 June’s Vineyard Riesling, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95). John Szabo – 13th Street’s June Vineyard, planted in 1999 to the less common Riesling clone 49 from Alsace is particularly rich in decomposed yellow limestone, which one supposes contributes the wet rock/limestone minerality to complement a nice mix of citrus and orchard fruit. The overall impression is less of fruit and more of savoury-earthy flavours, while the off-dry palate lingers impressively. Fine concentration and depth overall – one of the finer June’s rieslings in recent memory. David Lawrason – Of a wide international selection of rieslings on this release, the “June” is the most intriguing. Sourced from a single, limestone strewn vineyard it offers lift, complexity and structure and a particular spice I am finding more often now as Niagara’s riesling sites mature.

Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay 2011 Rolf Binder Highness Riesling 2012 13th Street June's Vineyard Riesling 2012Rolf Binder 2012 Highness Riesling, Eden Valley, South Australia ($18.95). David Lawrason –This is a pretty, complete and bright wine. It was made by Christa Deans, daughter of founder Rolf Binder senior. She has worked in Champagne and is now focused solely on white wine making, bringing a soft touch (without resorting to exaggerated sweetness) to a genre more often displaying hard edged virility.  Sara d’Amato – The softer, more floral style of Australian riesling, in this case primarily sourced from the Eden Valley, is delightfully represented here. Certainly approachable but not a pushover, the wine delivers an abundance of nervy tension and excitement. Formerly known as “Veritus”, this well-respected house, steeped in history is now run by a dynamic duo of siblings and focuses on producing premium Barossa wines.

Bachelder 2011 Oregon Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($29.95). David Lawrason – As much as Oregonians like to see their wines as cooler and more Burgundian than California, many Oregon chards and pinots are still a bit blowsy in my books. It has taken a Canadian who has worked in Burgundy to create a wine that has some real leanness and tension. Nicely done Mr. Bachelder. Sara d’Amato – Bachelder’s Oregon chardonnay lacks immediate appeal – in fact, it is a bit of a head scratcher at first. It requires patience and an adventurous spirit to fully reap the rewards of this complex and slowly unveiling beauty. There is something quite reminiscent of Chablis in the wine’s verve and tautness along with its chalky and slightly lactic character. Be sure to sip this over the course of the evening as not to miss a moment of its quiet evolution.

Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2012Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 2011Newton Johnson 2012 Pinot Noir, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, South Africa ($26.95). David Lawrason – Excellent value here in an authentic cool climate, pale and almost lean pinot that will intrigue Burgundy fans. In March I spent two days in this serene “Heaven and Earth” Valley near Hermanus; a breeding ground for terrific, cool climate pinots and chardonnays, and I too am now convinced that the area down the coast southeast from Cape Town – and I include Elgin and Elim – is a bona fide pinot region. John Szabo – Newton Johnson crafts elegant and refined pinot noir from the light granitic-sandy soils of the upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, and this is a fine example of the house style. Don’t be deceived by the pale colour, however, as this packs in great length and depth for the price. The region clearly has another serious player to join the ranks of pioneers like Hamilton-Russell. Best now-2018.

Domaine Drouhin 2011 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($39.95). Sara D’Amato – Everything about this bottle looks French and one could easily both purchase and consume this wine without being the wiser. Inside and out it is elegant and refined and offers a highly complex palate. Long established for over a century in Burgundy, the house of Joseph Drouhin has become a critics’ darling. Its roots in Oregon go back to the mid-80s when current winemaker Veronique Drouhin (daughter of Robert Drouhin) touched down in the state after receiving her Masters in enology. Feeling a real sense of connectedness and appreciation of place, she and her brother Philippe (viticulturalist) manage this impressive US property. John Szabo – Drouhin’s 2011 Dundee Hills pinot is a pleasantly earthy, rustic, savoury and spicy wine in the classic old world style, complete with grippy, dusty tannins and saliva-inducing acidity and minerality. Length and depth are superior. In the end, this comes off as a very well made, woodsy, old world-inflected pinot, and should appeal to pinot noir lovers from both sides of the pond. Best after 2016.

Lawrason’s Take

JCB N° 21 Brut Crémant De Bourgogne ($27.95). The JCB brand involves both California and Burgundy wines. This excellent cremant could pass for Champagne, such is its tight core and generous, complex flavours. Jean Charles Boisset said they worked on finding the right balance for eight years before finally putting this wine on the market last year.

Aquinas Philospher's Blend 2009Perrin & Fils Réserve Côtes Du Rhône Blanc 2012J C B N° 21 Brut Crémant De BourgognePerrin & Fils Réserve 2012 Côtes Du Rhône Blanc ($14.95). Since tasting Perrin’s stunning white Châteauneuf-du-Pape a couple of years ago, then subsequently the white Coudelet and even the diminutive La Vieille Ferme blanc, it has become obvious this family is turning out some of the best whites of the Rhône. No exception here – great polish, fruit and balance. At a super price!

Aquinas 2009 Philospher’s Blend, Napa Valley, California ($32.95). I approach moderately priced Napa wines with skepticism. Often they are inferior wines trading up on the Napa name. This is an example of one that delivers quality on target – very much the philosophy of this winery. Winemaker Greg Kitchens has compiled a quite elegant, complex red based 79% on cabernet with merlot and 6% petit sirah that fills in the corners.

Dominio Del Plata 2012 Crios Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($13.95). It’s not hard to find inexpensive fruit-packed malbec nowadays but it is hard to find examples with some elegance, flair and fun drinkability. Susanna Balboa has found the secret in this straightforward, well priced “Crios” brand.

Crios De Susana Balbo Malbec 2012Concha Y Toro Marques De Casa Concha Carmenère 2008Jim Barry The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Concha Y Toro 2008 Marques De Casa Concha Carmenère Peumo, Rapel Valley, Chile ($19.95). Carmenère, the late ripening cabernet-like grape that Chile has adopted as a speciality, is undervalued up and down the price spectrum. It is capable of wines of great structure, complexity and depth when it ripens well. And Peumo has turned out to be prime terroir. This wine borders on the majestic – very impressive indeed and almost sinfully cheap for the quality it delivers.

Jim Barry 2010 The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, South Australia ($26.95). Jim Barry is based in the Clare Valley but the family purchased 14 acres of old cricket pitch within the Coonawarra appellation and planted it to cabernet. Under third generation winemaker Tom Barry the wines are showing great lustre and depth and this cabernet sourced both from Coonawarra and Clare is fine example at a very fair price.

Sara’s Sommelier Picks

Fielding Estate 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Beamsville Bench, Ontario, ($18.95). An even-keeled sauvignon blanc that is just perfectly ripe without the green, overtly grassy character often associated with the varietal yet it still boasts a juicy, vibrant palate. Fielding has really struck a wonderful balance with this sauvignon blanc making it one of the best I have tasted from Niagara in recent memory (and at a price almost anyone can swallow).

Ulisse Unico 2012 Pecorino, Terre Di Chieti, Abruzzo, Italy ($19.95). Here is a wine that scores highly on everything from complexity to approachability and exhibits terrific energy and purity of fruit. Open, expressive and easy on the wallet. A romantic detail: “pecora” in Italian means “sheep” and the name of this varietal is attributed to the contribution of the sheep grazing the mountainsides where this varietal produces its most enticing berries.

Tawse 2011 Sketches Of Niagara Cabernet/Merlot, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada ($20.95). Classically styled but undeniably approachable, this Bordeaux blend from the careful hands of Tawse winery is a terrific value. The 2011 growing season in Niagara was a bit of a mixed bag with cool, rainy months followed by a hot and dry period and then a rainy harvest, which produced an unpredictable vintage of sorts. Tawse certainly seems to have managed well with this charming, harmonious and polished blend.

Fielding Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2013  Ulisse Unico Pecorino 2012  Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Cabernet Merlot 2011  Trivento Amado Sur Malbec Bonarda Syrah 2012  Château La Croix De Gay 2010

Trivento 2012 Amado Sur Malbec/Bonarda/Syrah, Mendoza, Argentina ($16.95). A fresh, modern wine that blends three red varieties that have found solid roots in Argentina. A memorable wine with wide appeal and plenty of grip and spunk – one of the top red values in this release.

Château La Croix De Gay 2010, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France ($47.00). Not to be missed – a stunner of a Pomerol that features impressive depth and complexity, even for the price. The wine is gracefully ageing and really beginning to reveal itself at this stage so can be consumed now or, happily, over the next 5 years. As is the right bank tradition, this is primarily a merlot based red with a relatively small dose of cabernet franc. Surprisingly, this is one of only two French reds in this release.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

L'Ecole No. 41 Red Wine 2011Godelia 2009 Red BierzoGodelia Red 2009, Spain ($20.95). In the last half decade, Bierzo has emerged as one of my favorite red wine appellations in Spain. Old vines, reasonable prices and a singular freshness rarely found in other parts of Spain contribute to the appeal. This is another fine, fragrant example of mencía, replete with dark berry fruit and violets, succulent and mouth filling palate with undeniable density and genuine old vine concentration (40-80 years old). It’s the sort of wine that makes you wonder why you would ever spend $20 for a basic commercial wine with barely half as much character. Best now-2021.

L’Ecole N° 41 2011 Red Wine, Columbia Valley ($29.95). This “Red Wine” (blend), sourced from several Columbia Valley vineyards as well as the press fractions of the L’Ecole Nº41’s estate fruit, is a maturing, evidently very rich and ripe red from this Washington State pioneer. The palate is dense and compact, firmly structured, and certainly as concentrated and deep as many Californian wines at twice the price. It will definitely appeal to fans of full bodied and powerful red wines. Best now-2023.

Julicher 99 Rows Pinot Noir 2010Cuvée Benkovac 2010Julicher 99 Rows 2010 Pinot Noir Te Muna Road, Martinborough, North Island ($24.95). This is a savoury, concentrated, generously extracted but balanced Martinborough pinot noir from a vineyard on the celebrated Te Muna Road Terrace and its alluvial gravel soils, purchased by Wim Julicher in 1996. I find this captures the savoury essence and wild fruit nature of the region accurately; this won’t be mistaken for Burgundy, but so much the better for its authentic regional character. Depth and concentration are well above the mean, and this should be taken seriously by pinot noir fans of all stripes. Best now-2020.

Cuvée Benkovac 2010 Croatia ($15.95). What an intriguing value this blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, grown in the coastal Dalmatian vineyards of northern Croatia is: savoury, spicy, resinous and potpourri scented, with a touch of leathery brettanomyces and volatile acidity to be sure, yet it seems to works well in the ensemble. Tannins are light and dusty, by now more or less fully integrated, while savoury dried fruit lingers. Well worth a look for fans of savoury, traditional old world wines done well.  Best now-2019.

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

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 12, 2014 VINTAGES release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Château St. Jean Fumé Blanc 2011

Fortessa Canada Inc

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Vintages Preview March 29 Release (Part Two)

The Stars Align over Perez Cruz Carmenere, California Fume, Loire Sauvignon, Constantia Chardonnay & Santorini Assyrtiko
by David Lawrason, with Sara d’Amato and John Szabo

We apologize for the delay in delivering this edition – the first instance I can recall since WineAlign began previewing VINTAGES releases in 2008.  The last tasting opportunity at VINTAGES normally occurs on the Tuesday prior to the release, but was  postponed until Thursday, giving our jet-lagged team less than 24 hours to taste, prepare this report and add all the reviews to the database. Sara d’Amato kicked things off last week with her look at VINTAGES entire operation, and some highlights from this release.  This week all three of us pick apart the rest of what is an “average” release in many respects, except for a couple of excellent chardonnays and a clutch of 2010 Bordeaux In Store Discoveries. There are always some gems however, and we have come together on five wines where “The Stars Align”.

WineAlign Ontario Critic Team

The Stars Align
(Wines independently highlighted by two or more WineAlign critics)

Pérez Cruz 2012 Limited Edition Carmenère, Maipo Valley, Chile ($19.95). A rare triple play as three critics put this wine in the spotlight. David Lawrason – This small estate quite high in the Andean foothills has a rock strewn terroir that imparts more compactness and tighter structure than many others, and here it nicely tones and tames the often overly exuberant nature of carmenere. Sara d’Amato – This progressive carmenere specialist rarely disappoints. This limited edition bottling features a distinctive, dark, dense and compelling carménère with notes of mocha, bright wild berries and blue fruit. Moody, brooding and potentially addictive.  John Szabo – The Pérez Cruz cabernet sauvignon has been a fixture on the LCBO list for years, but it’s a pleasure to see this dense, flavourful, very ripe but fresh example of carmenere as well. It manages plenty of concentration and depth without sacrificing balance or varietal character; solid stuff to be sure, a go-to BBQ wine.

Château St. Jean 2011 Fumé Blanc,  Sonoma County, California  ($19.95).  Sara d’Amato – Another charming California selection at a very fair price.By the way, the “Jean” is pronounced in an Anglicized way, like the pants, not our former Prime Minister Chretien. Fume Blanc is one of my favourite style/varietals produced in California. Not only is it often relatively inexpensive, it delivers oodles of complex, pleasurable, challenging enjoyment. And despite its namesake harking back to the old-world, Pouilly-Fume sauvignons of the Loire Valley, these California styles are distinct in their flavour profile offering juicy intensity and a taste of the exotic intermeshed with the smoky and flinty. David Lawrason – Ditto. Wood aged Fume Blanc is California’s best take on sauvignon and Chateau St. Jean has a long track record of success. This is stylish without being heavy.

Cave Du Haut-Poitou 2012 Vallée Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Haut-Poitou, France ($16.95). David Lawrason – This large co-op is been a go-to source for bright, great value sauvignons for as long as I can remember. Super modern, super value.  Sara d’Amato – Perhaps it is a hope for spring but I’m certainly in sauvignon blanc state of mind these days. Here is an oh-so lovely example that takes the best of the old and new worlds and melds them into a tidy but inviting package. Modern and appealing but there is nothing over-extracted or extreme here. Lovely floral aromatics of acacia and white flower are exotically enticing. Don’t miss out – I predict this to be a fast-mover!

Pérez Cruz Reserva Limited Edition Carmenère 2012Château St. Jean Fumé Blanc 2011Cave Du Haut Poitou Vallée Loire Sauvignon Blanc 2012Bayton Chardonnay 2012Estate Argyros Assyrtiko 2011


Bayten 2012 Chardonnay, Constantia, South Africa ($17.95).  David Lawrason – The verdant Constantia Valley is now a wealthy suburb of Cape Town, with prized vineyards facing urban sprawl. The region was first planted in the 1670s, making it –arguably – the first wine region of the New World. And Bayten, formerly called Buitenverwachting, was part of the original estate. This ultra-modern, mineral tinged chardonnay from non-irrigated decomposed granite soils shows depth well beyond its price – a constant refrain of South Africa, from which both John and I have just returned. John Szabo – This lovely, ripe, soft and gentle chardonnay from the historic region of Constantia that could easily pass for a much more expensive example from the new world, and the length and depth are indeed excellent for the price category.

Estate Argyros 2011 Santorini, Greece ($22.95). John Szabo – Argyros is one of the leading producers on the island of Santorini, with an amazing collection of old vineyards, which, in some cases, are older than anyone really knows. This 2011 offers the typical, and unusual, subtle aromatics of assyrtiko grown on these desperately poor volcanic soils, though the palate tells a more straightforward tale of marvelous intensity and depth, length and structure, with palpable dry extract and fiercely salty character. An impeccable value, with the potential to age well into the next decade, this wine should not be missed by fans of minerally, characterful white wines. Sara d’Amato – Love at first sip? It is possible that you’ll experience some fatal attraction here so beware. It sounds like high praise but it is all true and besides, if you haven’t tried the product of old assyrtiko vines planted in the volcanic soils of one of the most beautiful islands on earth, Santorini, then here is your moment. A wow-worthy offering for your next soirée.

Lawrason’s Take

Château Fleur De Jean Gué 2010, Lalande-de-Pomerol, France ($24.95). This is the best value in a spate of excellent 2010 Bordeaux on this release. We have much to look forward to the 2010s roll through Vintages in the weeks ahead. I’ve highly rated in Store Discoveries Chateau Giscours, Calon-Segur and Les Haut de Pontet Canet, but they are triple digit wines for collectors. To peek inside the vintage at a much more affordable price try this deft merlot (85%) and cabernet franc from a “satellite” appellation of the famed Pomerol AOC. (Sara d’Amato also recommended this wine last week)

Maison Roche De Bellene 2011 Vieilles Vignes Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France ($49.95).  I was tasting along the row of pretty good chardonnays, and two shone way above the pack, scoring low-mid nineties. There was the more expensive Freestone also highlighted by Sara below, and this less expensive classic, modern, mouth-watering Chassagne with minerality, pure fruit and judicious oak.  Maison Roche de Bellene was established in 2005 by the highly respected Nicolas Potel who sources solely from parcels of old vine, biodynamically farmed sites. If you wouldn’t normally spend $50 on chardonnay, here is one place to consider a splurge.

Evans & Tate 2010 Metricup Road Shiraz Margaret River, Western Australia  ($22.95). The shiraz of Margaret River are always a bit more ‘cool climate’ than those of South Australia, and this example from a single vineyard within a few kilometres of the Indian Ocean, shows it perfectly, with a sleeker, slightly more tense feel. Still lots of fruit however and classic shiraz pepper.


Château Fleur De Jean Gué 2010Maison Roche De Bellene Vieilles Vignes Chassagne Montrachet 2011Evans & Tate Metricup Road Shiraz 2010Le Clos Jordanne Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011Gemma Giblin Riserva Barolo 2006

Le Clos Jordanne 2011 Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Pinot Noir, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($45.00) With the departure of winemaker Thomas Bachelder, the bowing out of financial and founding partner Jean-Charles Boisset from Burgundy, and the abandonment of biodynamic/organic farming principles since 2011, Le Clos Jordanne has changed since the glory days of the mid-2000s when I wrote about it in Toronto Life as the project that would put Niagara pinot on the map.  But there is a very serious, focused young French winemaker named Sébastien Jacquey now at the helm, and given all he has had to deal with, including a tough vintage in 2011, he has done a great job with this wine. It is a bit rough around the edges but it is complex and deeply flavoured and very Burgundian.

Gemma 2006 Giblin Riserva Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($40.95). This old warhorse rises up on its hind legs and almost breathes fire – in the form of some acetone and almost cringe-worthy sourness. However, the fruit centre is very much intact and it has all kinds of power, intensity and complexity. It demands strong, rustic culinary companions.  It’s an imperfect but compelling nebbiolo from a great vintage, from a small house in Serralunga d’Alba that only began producing its range of Piemontese wines in 1978 – a babe in this neck of the woods.

Sara’s Sommelier Picks

Joseph Phelps Freestone Chardonnay 2011Joseph Phelps Freestone 2011 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California ($73.95). Such obvious care has been lavished on this chardonnay! Such remarkable depth and structure! Pre-dawn grape picking ensures that that the grapes are cool when pressed and retain maximum acidity. In addition, other quality enhancing techniques have been used such as whole cluster pressing straight to barrel in which it underwent a natural ferment (using “wild yeast”). Although the wine was aged for 14 months in wood, mostly older or larger barrels were used to ensure that the spicy wood flavours were nicely restrained. Certainly no cost was spared in the production of this wine and such a price gets passed along to the consumer. In this strong vintage in Sonoma, best described by the terms long and moderate and “moderate” best describes the 2012 growing season in Sonoma which produced whites of impressive elegance such as this fine example. Lovers of Burgundian and Californian styles will find merit alike.

Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico SuperioreAndretta Brunello Di Montalcino 2007Casal Di Serra 2011 Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi Classico Superiore, Marche, Italy ($17.95). The soils of the Marche in Central Italy are home to the expressive and endearing verdicchio varietal whose vibrancy, freshness and salinity come to focus in this high-quality example. Produced from 100% verdicchio (the appellation requires a minimum of 85%) and fermented with natural yeasts. Over the past 30 years Casal di Serra has focused on enhancing the quality and recognition of verdicchio in the Marche and has a uniquely keen appreciation of the varietal.

Andretta 2007 Brunello Di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy, ($53.95). A great Brunello can prove an almost out-of-body experience featuring a touch of escapism and a soupçon of the ethereal. For those looking to add to their cellar collection, there is still another 4-5 years of enjoyment here.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Château Lafon Rochet 2010Contraste White 2012Contraste 2012 White, Douro, Portugual ($18.95). Conceito is a relatively new producer in the historic Douro Valley, but the wines, made by Rita Ferreira, show the class and elegance of much more established houses. This is a fun, fragrant, juicy and well-balanced white, an instance of the whole (the blend) being greater than the parts (the grapes). Serve now, nicely chilled with salads, fresh seafood/shellfish and similar.

Château Lafon-Rochet 2010, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux ($84.85). A small cache of top-level Bordeaux reds will hit the shelves on the 29th – the remnants of the 2010 futures campaign that went unclaimed – good news for collectors who missed out on the first tranche. My pick of the lot, for both quality and value goes, to Lafon-Rochet, a classy, well-balanced and elegant wine, though still highly structured and ageworthy. I’d tuck this in the cellar for another 3-5 years minimum before revisiting, but this should also reach 20-25 years of age without too many wrinkles. Best 2018-2030+

Montirius Terre Des Aînés Gigondas 2007Quinta Dos Carvalhais 2010Domaine Montirius 2007 Terre Des Aînés Gigondas, Rhone Valley, France ($24.95). A leading organic/biodynamic property in the southern Rhône, Montirius has been a personal favorite over many vintages. It’s a treat to see their mature ’07 Gigondas released now, having moved into a beautiful stage of evolution. The impressive range of flavours on offer is also proof positive that terrific, complex wine can be made without the use of oak for flavouring.

Quinta Dos Carvalhais 2010 Colheita, Dão, Portugal. ($17.95).  The Dão continues to impress with its stylish, fragrant and floral-fruity expressions of touriga nacional (and blends), with prices that remain in the 20thC. Carvalhais is a consistent over-deliverer of value in my estimation, as this 2010 ably demonstrates (try also the Duque de Viseu bottling from the same producer, released in December at just $13.95). This is just hitting a perfect zone of drinkability. Best 2014-2018.

The 2011 Ports On Sale Now

Vintages Shop on Line opened its ordering March 27 for the much vaunted 2011 Ports. The gates close April 17. Last fall WineAlign critics tasted a range of 2011s and our reviews can be found on the WineAlign database. And yes  – it is true – most are excellent to outstanding quality (93-98 point range), and so agreeable in their youth that you may be tempted to try them now. So go ahead; but do lay some away as well. You can order on line or by phone.

WineAlign Hosts a Jackson-Triggs dinner at Epic

It’s not easy being big. Jackson-Triggs is perhaps the most familiar name in Canadian wine, a very large company indeed with wines of all price points and styles readily available in the LCBO and the company’s own Wine Rack stores. But the story less obvious is the improvement in the quality since Italian winemaker Marco Picoli took over its VQA brands, especially in the range of harder-to-find Reserve wines.  On April 10 join me to explore the Reserves at a fine five-course tasting dinner at the Fairmont Hotels Epic Restaurant. Register here.

And that’s a wrap for this week. We’ll be back next week with our first look at the April 12 release that features wines from Italy’s Veneto (amarone fans can rev their engines).

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the Mar 29, 2014 Vintages release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Château St. Jean Fumé Blanc 2011

California Wine Fair

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

Vintages Preview March 15 Release (Part Two)

The Highlight Reel and Beyond

Last week we brought you our highlights among the California wines in VINTAGES March 15 release, and they were, as usual, very tasty but very pricy. Our critics (David Lawrason, John Szabo and Sara d’Amato) combine this week to present a much wider, more eclectic and better value range of wines from around the globe. And we remind you that the wines below may be highlights, but they are not at all the whole story. Please, please spend some time searching out those wines that might be scoring 87 points at $15, or 91 points at $50 that have not quite made this value-oriented highlight reel.

WineAlign Ontario Critic Team

The Stars Align
(Wines independently highlighted by two or more critics.)

Château Le Vieux Serestin 2009Borges Reserva 2009Borges 2009 Reserva, Douro Valley, Portugal ($21.95). SD – For those who are looking to add to your cellar but are trying to stick to a budget, here is a wine that would do very well on its side for another 2-3 years. Alternatively, decanting for an hour or so would certainly be beneficial. The blend is mainly tinta roriz (tempranillo in Spain) and touriga nacional with a modern feel. Its award-winning streak is testament to its wide appeal. DL – There is not another region of Europe better poised to steal the reputation of Bordeaux for elegant, nuanced reds than Portugal’s Douro Valley. The transition from great sweet, port wines is, after all, only a change in processing. The terroir remains the same. And the arid, steep slope, granitic vineyards of the Douro are among the most important in the world.

Château Le Vieux Serestin 2009 Médoc, Bordeaux ($17.95). SD – One of the first Chateaux in Bordeaux to qualify for the new Cru Artisan qualification was re-introduced in 2006. Never heard of this classification? Not surprising – it dates back over 150 years and was forgotten until producers lobbied for EU recognition in 2004. A group of about 50 producers find themselves in this category, which is just below the classification of Cru Bourgeois and requires re-certification every 10 years. Le Vieux Serestin has been producing some exciting, eco-friendly and carefully managed wines under the direction of its current owners since the early 80s. This very good value blend is drinking at its peak now and shows both power and elegance. DL – I was completely surprised by the Bordeaux authenticity, appealing drinkability and complexity achieved under $20. Most Bordeaux of this quality are at least twice the price.

Rustenberg RM Nicholson 2010Clos La Coutale Cahors 2011Rustenberg 2010 R M Nicholson, Stellenbosch , South Africa ($19.95). JSz Here’s a fine, complex, distinctly South African cabernet sauvignon blended with shiraz, merlot and cabernet franc, named after former owner-winemaker Reg Merriman Nicholson, who lived and worked on the Rustenberg farm for 30 years. Its profile encompasses the unique earthy-medicinal flavours that will appeal to drinkers of old school, savoury wines. DL – Stellenbosch is among the most unique terroirs for cabernet in the world, a hot Mediterranean latitude air-conditioned by mountain slope altitudes and winds from False Bay on the Indian Ocean. The pre-historic granitic/sandstone soils impart a sense of iodine-like minerality that single malt lovers might appreciate. Gutsy stuff and not afraid to strut its origin.

Clos La Coutale 2011 Cahors, Southwest, France ($17.95). SD – A southwestern French treat, Cahors is made almost entirely from malbec (sometimes with a little merlot and tannat thrown in) and although stylistically very different from that of Argentina, it can be wonderfully compelling. This example is nicely representative but also quite approachable and friendly. JSz – Often a little too hard and angular for all but the most seasoned wine drinkers, this version of Cahors is rather ripe and polished, inviting and friendly, benefitting from the softening effects of 20% merlot blended with malbec. It’s a nice introduction to the region, easing outsiders (or Argentine malbec drinkers) into the structured world of Southwest France.

Lawrason’s Take

Domaine De Vaugondy Brut Vouvray Méthode Traditionnelle, Loire Valley, France ($15.95). Among  a strong selection of non-Champagne bubblies on this release, this stands out for its honest, chenin blanc authenticity delivered for a shockingly good price. The amount of bubbly produced in the Loire rivals Champagne. The production method is the same. Only the grapes are different, and yes, the price.

Zenato 2011 Sergio Zenato Lugana Riserva, Italy ($28.95). If you are a fan of rich, creamy whites but want to go sideways from chardonnay consider this bright, shiny opulent white from the trebbiano grape grown in the Lugana region at the foot of Lago di Garda. It’s a regular at VINTAGES, and deservedly so.

Domaine Masson-Blondelet 2012 Pouilly Fumé, Loire Valley, France ($26.95). In the rapidly improving New Zealand led world of sauvignon blanc this small appellation on the right bank of the Loire in central France – along with Sancerre on the opposite shore – remains the beating heart of the variety. It catches some New World brightness but doesn’t lose its sense of compactness, complexity and minerality.

Domaine De Vaugondy Brut VouvrayZenato Sergio Zenato Lugana Riserva 2011Domaine Masson Blondelet Pouilly Fumé 2012Domaine Richard Rottiers Moulin À Vent 2011Albert Morot Beaune Toussaints 1er Cru 2009

Domaine Richard Rottiers 2011 Moulin-à-Vent, Beaujolais ($24.95). The parade of delicious gamays from the ten ‘cru’ villages of Beaujolais continues. If the price seems a tad higher than others it’s because Moulin-à-Vent is considered the most “serious” of the village wines, and most ageworthy. If you want to test that proposition buy at least three, drink one bottle now then stash the remainder for up to five years. Mature Moulin begins to resemble pinot noir.

Albert Morot 2009 Beaune Toussaints 1er Cru ($59.95). Burgundy purists may regard the warm 2009 vintage as just a bit too easy going and fruity (god forbid there be fruit). This is a very well made and balanced 2009, a classic strawberry-cherry centred Beaune, from an excellent producer. And there is no shortage of complexity as it begins to sail in the waters of maturity. All with great presence.

Ridge Lytton Springs 2011Giogantinu Nastarrè 2012Giogantinu 2012 Nastarrè Isola dei Nuraghi, Sardinia ($18.95). This is the find of the release for adventurers – a rustic, classic Euro red made from local varieties like Pascale di Cagliari, Malaga and Monica Cagnulari blended with some Nebbiolo (finally a grape I know). The company’s website (Giogantinu is a large co-operative) advises drinking it young “to preserve its vivacious taste”. Vivacious is exactly right.

Ridge 2011 Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County ($48.95). Last week my colleagues mentioned this lovely wine in passing – to me it is the best buy in the California feature, especially if – like me – you are a disenchanted zinfandel fan. So many lesser examples are being mocha-fied and sweetened that I was thrilled to find one that was not only authentic, but dazzling. Lytton Springs does not name zinfandel on the label because it is a “field blend” that contains portions of other varieties that may add up to more than 25%. USA regs dictate a varietal name can only be used if it has 75%.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections

Moulin Camus Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2012, Loire, France ($16.95). Produced from the melon de Bourgogne varietal, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is generally a light, fresh wine with an abundance of mineral. This version has a little more sass and depth than is the norm. One of the best examples I can recall tasting that has come through the shelves of VINTAGES. Don’t miss out, especially at this price.

Jermann 2012 Pinot Grigio, Venezia Giulia, Friuli, Italy ($32.95). It is a pricy pinot grigio but also not your typical pinot grigio. In fact, it is more akin to the rich, textured, layered examples of Alsace. With tremendous depth and length, this vibrant, rich and substantial white is sure to turn heads.

Santa Carolina 2010 Reserva De Familia Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile ($18.95). Here is a cabernet that will make it easy to please just about any guest. Nicely representative of the aromatic Maipo style and with just the right amount of complexity to maintain intrigue. As one of Chile’s oldest vineyards and high up on the list of the country’s most profitable wineries, there is great value to be found here.

Moulin Camus Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine Sur Lie 2012Jermann Pinot Grigio 2012Santa Carolina Reserva De Familia Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Patrick Lesec Cuvée Suzon Beaumes De Venise Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2011Tenuta Stefano Farina Le Brume 2009

Patrick Lesec 2011 Cuvée Suzon Beaumes De Venise, Côtes Du Rhône Villages,  France ($19.95). Beaumes de Venise makes most people familiar with the appellation think of the sweet Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. However, the region is more recently known for their dry, red blends of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. The grapes are grown on the slopes of the foothills of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains to the north of Avignon in the Vaucluse region. Their AOC designation was awarded relatively recently in 2005 and we certainly don’t see much of this red on our shelves in Ontario. Pleasantly surprising and a terrific example of the elegance that can come from these higher elevation plantings.

Aljibes Cabernet Franc 2007Rocca Delle Macìe Tenuta Sant'alfonso Chianti Classico 2011Tenuta Stefano Farina Le Brume 2009, Langhe, Piedmont ($17.95). Deliciously faulted with terrific depth and complexity for the price. Artisanally produced with sincerity and careful attention to detail. This is the product of great love and respect. For the romantics. A blend of barbera, nebbiolo and merlot.

Rocca Delle Macìe Tenuta Sant’alfonso 2011 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($22.95). A solid Chianti Classico that will have wide appeal due to its bold flavours and complex structure. Wafting with Tuscan sunshine, this hearty, spicy sangiovese is best enjoyed with smoked sausage or corned beef.

Aljibes Cabernet Franc 2007, Vino De La Tierra De Castilla, Spain ($24.95). Spanish cabernet franc: if you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out! And if you haven’t tried it, you’re in the majority. The variety is not particularly common in Spain and plantings are mostly found in the region of Catalonia. If you are not familiar with the term Vino de la Tierra, it is a step below the DO designated wines, with looser restrictions. Wines from Tierra de Castilla tend to be modern and progressive and this lovely example certainly fits the bill.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Henry of Pelham 2012 Estate Chardonnay Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95).  Short Hills Bench pioneers Henry of Pelham often fly just under the radar in discussions of quality and value, but the reality is that the range is as solid and reliable as they come in Niagara, and more than occasionally a wine stands out for well over-delivering. The 2012 Estate chardonnay is such a wine, reflecting the warm, even growing conditions of the 2012 season and offering a mouth filling amalgam of fruit and spice.

Cave Spring 2012  Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué Cave Spring Vineyard, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($15.95). Another local white makes the smart buy grade this week, in this case Cave Spring’s latest version of the particularly aromatic variant of chardonnay called “musqué” (although it’s unrelated to Muscat). It’s forward, intense, and aromatically engaging, while an impression of sweetness adds to the immediate appeal. Drink now with lightly spiced Thai green curries.

Henry Of Pelham Estate Chardonnay 2012Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2012Domaine Michel Juillot Clos Tonnerre Mercurey 1er Cru 2010Castello Di Ama Chianti Classico Riserva 2009

Domaine Michel Juillot 2010 Clos Tonnerre Mercurey 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($32.95). Domaine Juillot has been a leading name in the Côte Châlonnaise for many years, and I’m pleased to see that quality in this 2010 more than lives up to reputation. This shows superior density and extract, all on a paradoxically light and svelte frame, delivering depth and complexity in the way that only red burgundy seems to be able to. At the price it should be taken seriously by fans of classic Burgundy to be sure.

Castello Di Ama 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($35.95). Fans of top-drawer sangiovese should consider this powerful, ripe, intense example from Castello di Ama, which is just starting to come into a nice drinking window. Tertiary spice, earth and resinous herbs mingle with sweet-tart red berry fruit in a classic regional expression.

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

From the Mar 15, 2014 Vintages release:

Classic California
Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

California Wine Fair

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

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 28th 2011: Chenin Blanc steals the spotlight; not so premium local rosés; avoiding Alsace, and top notch and top dollar California

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In this article: Chenin Blanc Steals the Smart Buy Spotlight; Top Ten Smart Buys; Features Report: Where’s the Real Pink? Avoiding Alsace and Cali Confidential + Top Ten Wines from the California Feature (90+ points)

The May 28th Vintages release has a great collection of smart buys, but not one of the wines from the featured regions came close to making the list. The unlikely hero stealing the spotlight this week instead is Chenin Blanc from South Africa: 3 wines in three different styles, all valid and all superb, and though we’re all growing sick of the word, yes, they’re good value, too.

Not long ago, Chenin Blanc was maligned by South African winemakers as the ubiquitous local grape, best reserved for brandy production. It has so often been the case that natives don’t recognize the potential beauty or worldwide importance of what comes out of their own backyard precisely because it has always been there. A sort of inferiority complex sets in, and the belief that the old, the familiar and local must necessarily be inferior to something new, exciting and above all foreign. Canada, after all, certainly has no monopoly on inferiority, imagined or actual, (though I’m still quite sure that no one, inside or out of Ontario, will ever recognize Baco Noir as a world beater).

Like so many winemakers from Portugal to Italy to Greece to Hungary and elsewhere, South African winemakers disdained local grapes in favor of foreign, purportedly superior (mostly French) varieties, and chenin was all but forgotten (chenin too, is foreign, but it’s been in South Africa for so long – it was likely one of the first grapes introduced in the Cape by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1655 – and is so widely planted – still #1 with 18% of SA’s vineyard area – that I’m taking the liberty of considering it a local specialty). It certainly didn’t help that South Africans lived in relative commercial isolation until just a couple of decades ago, being effectively cut off from the exploration that would have eventually led them back home. Pretty much anything other than chenin blanc would sell on domestic markets for much higher prices, and since exports were, well, illegal, there was obviously no incentive to attempt to show the world the potential brilliance of South African chenin blanc.

Fortunately, times have changed. Today there’s a self-help group devoted to the grape with 69 members: The Chenin Blanc Association . The intro on their home page states: “It’s a little known fact, but a fact all the same, that South African Chenin Blanc wines are among the world’s finest”  Well, we are listening now. With a treasure trove of gnarly old vines, planted on some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world that impart a unique stony-minerality, and a world that is eagerly searching for some unique, distinctive regional specialties, times are indeed exciting for both chenin producers and wine drinkers.

A tremendous value not to be missed is the 2009 THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE BUSH VINE CHENIN BLANC WO Stellenbosch $11.95. Remember: these are not intended to be loud, in-your-face wines. This one is all about grace and integration, and remarkable texture and depth. And hey, it’s 12 bucks! Can you really go wrong?

If you want a more amped-up version with power and punch, pull out an extra Sir Wilfred Laurier from your pocketbook and pick up the 2009 GRAHAM BECK BOWED HEAD CHENIN BLANC WO Paarl $17.95. This has plenty of ripe but fresh tropical fruit flavours with a stunning whack of chalky-minerality. Not a wine for your mother-in-law, in other words.

Midway in style between the intensity of the Graham Beck and the refinement of the Winery of Good Hope is perhaps the most outstanding of the three: 2009 KEN FORRESTER CHENIN BLANC WO Stellenbosch $17.95. After a start in the hotel industry, Forrester and his wife and young family purchased an old farm in Stellenbosch with a derelict Cape Dutch homestead and nearly abandoned vineyards. Most of the farm was planted to old chenin blanc vines, and rather than replant, Forrester set out instead on a quest to produce a chenin that could compete with any white wine in the world. As a founding member of the Chenin Blanc Association and a tireless international advocate for the grape, Forrester is in a sense, Mr. Chenin Blanc.
The Winery Of Good Hope Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2009 Graham Beck Bowed Head Chenin Blanc 2009  Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 2009
Click here for the rest of the Top Ten Smart Buys, including a lovely Douro red from the excellent 2007 vintage. A brilliant traditional method bubbly for under $16, and a fantastically (and dangerously) drinkable German riesling for under $14

Features Report
As for the features this week, Cali Confidential, Alsace Alliance and Premium Ontario Rosés, here’s what you need to know:

Emiliana Adobe Reserva Rosé Syrah 2010Where’s the Real Pink?
Premium Ontario rosés? Forget it, they’re not in this release, unless a mini parade of sugary pink drinks is the new premium standard. It seems most Ontario producers are clearly focused on everything but rosé, bottling it as an afterthought, or at least engineering a medium-dry style to service the bus loads of blue haired tourists who travel annually to Ontario wine country. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling wine, of course, though I do find it problematic to list this motley collection of white zin look-alikes under such a lofty banner. It could give folks the wrong idea. For the record, the best of the rosés in this release was in my view a wine from Chile: 2010 EMILIANA ADOBE RESERVA ROSÉ SYRAH Rapel Valley $11.95. Note that it’s also the cheapest.

Avoiding Alsace
“One of the world’s most distinctive wine regions, Alsace has a unique identity….” Says the LCBO catalogue. Agreed to be sure, it’s just that Alsace’s most unique wines will emphatically not be release on May 28th. I suppose the uncommonly challenging task of triangulating producer willingness, availability, price, agent competence and timing has eliminated all but a handful of rather mediocre Alsatian wines, the best of which is easily the 2008 TRIMBACH RÉSERVE RIESLING AC Alsace $25.95, even if it is not likely to set the world on fire. Nobody said it was easy to buy for 10 million people, and there’s no question consumers are suffering because of it.
Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2008

Cali Confidential
California, and especially the hyper-inflated luxury regions led by Napa Valley, is rarely accused of over-delivering on the quality/value scale. There’s no question that the quality is high, in fact in my books no fewer than ten wines in this release are outstanding (90+ points), from Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties. But then again, the average price in the Top Ten Wines from the California Feature is almost $46, so value remains in the eye of the beholder. Among the wines that I would consider buying is the2006 VILLA MT. EDEN GRAND RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $24.95. It’s an understated, balanced and refined version of Napa cabernet, in the style that anyone who has compared notes with me will recognize as the kind of wine that I’m drawn too. And at $25, it’s also more than fairly priced.

A little higher up the price ladder, but also a step or two up in concentration and complexity without sacrificing elegance, is the 2007 STAGS’ LEAP WINE CELLARS ARTEMIS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $49.95. I like the stylistic direction in which Stags’ Leap is heading, and now under the restrained hand of French winemaker Christophe Paubert, the wines look set to get even better. The ’07 Artemis is a cabernet of considerable refinement, not short on Napa richness to be sure, but balancing the power with a nice dose of juiciness and succulence, firm but honest and balanced tannins, and terrific length.

Devotees of syrah will want to consider the 2007 FESS PARKER RODNEY’S VINEYARD SYRAH Santa Barbara County $39.95. This is the wine’s VINTAGES debut, and it struck me with its floral, spicy, smoky and savoury character, complete with black pepper and fresh road tar in the way syrah fans love. It’s certainly rich and full but not heavy, with firm, grippy tannins, adequate acidity, and great length.
Villa Mt. Eden Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006  Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Fess Parker Rodney's Vineyard Syrah 2007

From the May 28th Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Picks from California
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Sept 4th Vintages Preview – Nostradamus predicts: Astonishingly good 2007s from the Southern Rhône!!

John Szabo, MS

It’s hard to describe the sensation of traveling south from Lyons down through the Rhône Valley, whether you’re on the water or the autoroute that shadows the mighty river. In the span of a few short hours one descends from the edge of the Massif Central, like the relentless and maddening Mistral wind itself, out of the north’s tightly chiseled granite gorge, to emerge on the heaving plains of the south where scattered tracks of polished stones reveal the secret of the River’s earlier meanderings. The northern Rhône and the southern Rhône are linked only in name, connected by the thread of the River as isolated continents are linked by undersea cables. The two regions are as different as apples and oranges, or more appropriately, syrah and grenache.

In the northern Rhône, one looks up, up to the steep, craggy slopes that rise abruptly from the river’s edge, leaving only a thin sliver of land between slope and water where man has erected villages and highways. The vines of Côte Rôtie and the hill of Hermitage cling desperately to the rocky outcrops and look set to tumble down into the river at the very next souffle of the wind. The wines of the northern Rhône reflect this more severe landscape; they’re tighter and more austere, bound in on themselves as the inhabitants of the north are bound by the River and the hills.

But the south has a palpably different feel, one that overcomes you, tenderly though unmistakably, as you cross the threshold out of the narrow part of the valley into the open and undulating expanse of the south, spread out before you like a giant tablecloth at a picnic. The harsher northern climate gives way to gentle breezes, generous warmth and the ever present scent of garrigue, a heady mixture of wild scrubby herbs: rosemary, thyme, and lavender among others. The proper French of the Lyonnais slowly shifts into the oozing patois of Provence, marked by a friendly twang and words that lazily roll into one another as effortlessly as a bottle of pastis runs dry during a late afternoon round of boules. Even the quality of light seems to change, as though the sun itself feels less inclined to work hard to define the spectrum of colours and allows one shade to bleed into another in a dazzling range of soft pastels that has attracted artists for centuries.

Unsurprisingly, the wines of the southern Rhône, too, are a reflection of their landscape. Grenache is the dominant grape of over a dozen possible varieties, most often blended with meaty mourvèdre and peppery syrah. Grown in the broad plains, on gravelly mounds and gentle slopes grenache & co. deliver wines with soft edges and generous character, filling your mouth with a liberal dollop of sundrenched fruit and the perfume of the garrigue. They’re as easy-going and good-natured as the people of the southern Rhône, and as fun as a band of troubadours at a medieval party. This is, after all, a land saturated in poetry and philosophy, the land of Michel de Nostredame, nicknamed Nostradamus, whose very name, Latin for “we give what is ours”, reflects the generous spirit of the south.

And speaking of, had Nostradamus focused his eerily accurate foretelling of the future on grape growing, he would surely have presaged the confluence of factors that has made 2007 one of the most memorable vintages since he was born in 1503. Record sunshine hours (in a region that’s hardly ever short), low rainfall (but just enough) and heat without excess (consistently warm, but rarely above the temperature at which vines and workers decide to pack it in and take a siesta, delaying ripeness and road works) combined to give wines of extraordinary ripeness, intensity and depth. Even at the basic Côte du Rhône level, these wines are very good. In fact, when I was putting together the top ten smart buys it was looking like an all-Rhône show, so I opted to pull them out and create a top ten 2007 southern Rhône list, and save some space to highlight some other smart buys from the release.

Les Hauts Du Castellas Vacqueyras 2007Only a handful of the Rhône releases were substandard in my view; the rest are definitely worth a look. I’d like to point out the excellent 2007 PEYRE BLANCHE CAIRANNE CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES $17.95 from the ever-reliable Perrin family of Beaucastel fame, as well as this release’s benchmark wine (the LCBO got it right here), 2007 LES HAUTS DU CASTELLAS VACQUEYRAS $18.95. It’s solid and concentrated and certainly age-worthy.

For Sheer value it’s tough to beat the both 2007 CHÂTEAU SAINT MAURICE LES GRÈS LAUDUN CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES $14.95 and the 2007 RÉSERVE DES ARMOIRIES CÔTES DU RHÔNE $12.95. Both are great representations of the southern Rhône at very fair prices. All in all, this was a very good feature release.

Valentín Bianchi Famiglia Malbec 2007If you still have some disposable income after you’ve pillaged the Rhône Valley Greco-Roman style, there are a few other releases worth pointing out. Unstoppable Argentine malbec, Canada’s latest love affair, has a great representative coming out on September 4th in the 2007 VALENTÍN BIANCHI FAMIGLIA MALBEC $14.95 . I enjoyed this wine, as it was neither cynically commercial with gobs of oak and jam, nor a $10 wine masquerading as a $15 wine. It’s just pure, honest, elegant wine that’s delicious and delightful to drink. If you do like it big, then step up to the 2008 THORN-CLARKE TERRA BAROSSA SHIRAZ South Australia $15.95, a full on Barossa shiraz experience that’s equal to many at twice the price.

Huff Estates South Bay Chardonnay 2007Eastern Europe provides a couple of fine values, namely the 2008 BÉRES HÁRSLEVELU LATE HARVEST TOKAJI 88 $12.95 *** from the world’s first region to produce botrytis affected wine, and the exotic, at least in name, 2009 FIREBIRD LEGEND PINOT GRIGIO Vulcaneshti 87 $9.95 ***. It has a kitschy label and looks very cheap, and it is, but it tastes good for under a tenner. For more special occasions try the superb 2007 HUFF ESTATES SOUTH BAY CHARDONNAYVQA Prince Edward County $29.95, rapidly becoming one of the country’s best chardonnays in my view from French winemaker Frédéric Picard (we don’t hold it against him). And for lovers of Barolo like me you’ll want to grab a bottle or three of the 2005 MARZIANO ABBONA TERLO RAVERA BAROLO DOCG $36.95. Those in the know know that most good Barolo starts around $50, so to find a cru (single vineyard) wine for under $40 is a treat (thanks to Greece and the collapsing Euro). Both the 2005 vintage and the Ravera cru, located in the commune of Verduno, lend themselves to a more elegant, refined style of nebbiolo that’s just about ready to enjoy or hold mid-term.

And finally, of the mini-theme this week, Beautiful British Columbia, my top pick is the seductive2007 CEDARCREEK ESTATE CABERNET/MERLOT VQA Okanagan Valley $23.95 .

Cedarcreek Estate Cabernet/Merlot 2007

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Ten 2007 Southern Rhône Wines
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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August 21st Vintages Preview – ‘Signature Wines’ & Germany – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

As this week’s Vintages Release preview hits the web, a crew of judges will be en route to Penticton in BC’s Okanagan Valley for the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards. We won’t be admiring the splendid sunsets as the last rays slip off the Naramata Bench, nor whiling away the afternoons sailing on Lake Okanagan, oh no. Over the course of 5 days we’ll be bunkered in a convention centre tasting our way through 1000+ wines grown exclusively in this country. It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 10th edition of what has become Canada’s most respected and trusted measure of 100% locally grown wines. All of the results will be on newsstands by late fall, just in time to help with holiday party wines and gift-giving decisions for the growing number of you tuned into how solid our industry is. I’m certainly eagerly anticipating the tasting, and uncovering this year’s best wines. It gets better every year.

Of course, you may question that it’s Canadians judging Canadian wines, and presume that a national prejudice favourably colours the results. It’s true. Canadians like their own wines better than anyone else, though that could be said of any winemaking nation. But what, you ask, does the rest of the world think of Canadian wines? Apparently quite a lot. This past week over the Decanter newswire it was announced that an astonishing three out of four Canadian wines entered into the Decanter World Wine Awards finished with a medal. That’s an impressive rate of success. Since the wines in Decanter’s awards are judged by an international panel, not just Canadians, we can infer that knowledgeable folks from around the world also find these wines worthy of serious consideration. Compare this striking result to what other areas achieved, like, say, poor old Bordeaux, which barely managed a 25% success rate, one out of four wines, in the medal hunt.

Although it’s hardly surprising to anyone that has been following the Canadian wine industry, it seems that the quality of Canadian wines have finally debunked the myth that everything here is frozen and aged in igloos. I’m not bringing this up to pull on that tired old psychological thread that ties Canadian self-respect to outside validation (an observable fact, by the way, in virtually every wine growing region in the world – no one is cursed with such self confidence that a little praise and interest from a foreigner doesn’t warm the heart). It’s only to say that A) Canadian winemakers are serious; B) Canadian winemakers are taken seriously, and C) let’s get on with it.

Graf Von Schönborn Silvaner Kabinett Trocken 2008
The mini spotlight this week is on a middling collection of German wines, of which the 2008 GRAF von SCHÖNBORN SILVANER KABINETT TROCKEN QmP $18.95 is easily the class of the lot. This Silvaner from the Franken region, the grape’s spiritual homeland, does come in that awkwardly-shaped bocksbeutel bottle allegedly modeled after a goat’s scrotum, but the wine inside is delicious, tinged with a late-harvest botrytis-like quality and evident minerality. For German classicists, my pick of the rieslings is the 2008 ALLENDORF TERROIR RIESLING KABINETT QmP $16.95 , a fine, delicate example from the Rheingau.

The principal feature in the August 21st release is on the theme of ‘signature wines’, which I take to mean wines that are nicely representative of their respective regions. But since expression of place is the sine qua non of any wine that I would consider seriously, anything else being nothing more than fermented grape juice to be drunk and not contemplated, let’s move straight on to the smart buys. These are, by my own definition, all signature wines.

Charles Heidsieck Réserve Champagne Brut
The top pick this week also goes to the wine with the highest price tag on my list: NV CHARLES HEIDSIECK RÉSERVE BRUT CHAMPAGNE AC $54.95 . This should be proof positive that there’s value up and down the price scale. After all, some things aren’t expensive, they just cost a lot. This champagne far outclasses so many others in the same price category, offering a splendidly complex, mature profile based on a high percentage of reserve wines. It’s more of a food champagne rather than an aperitif style, though I’d be caught drinking it anytime.

Local talent is well represented by the 2008 FLAT ROCK CELLARS THE RUSTY SHED CHARDONNAY VQA $24.95 . The 2008 is an excellent follow up to the superb 2007, which leads me to believe that the vines that surround the rusty shed in Flatrock’s vineyard on the Niagara Escarpment in Jordan just might be pretty special.

Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2008

There is an unusually rich collection of fine value, rustic European reds on the smart buys shopping list this week, perfect for those end of summer BBQs and backyard get-togethers. Back again is the excellent 2007 ÈTIM SELECCIÓN $15.00 from Spain’s northeast near Barcelona, made from a robust blend of Grenache, carignan and syrah. Also from Spain, the 2008 JUAN GIL HONORO VERA MONASTRELL $11.95 is chalk full of character and savage flavour, if not elegance, making it a classic for braises, stews and roast meats.

France puts in a good show with four good value reds, including a fine southern Rhône from the ever-reliable Perrin brothers (of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape): 2007 PERRIN & FILS L’ANDÉOL RASTEAU $19.95, and a classy Bordeaux: 2006 CHÂTEAU ROQUETAILLADE VIEILLES VIGNES LA GRANGE AC Graves $21.95.

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Wines from Germany at a Glance
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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Lawrason’s Take On Vintages Aug 7th Release – Dog Days, Solid Southern Italy, California Reprieve, Slovenian Rieslings

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Historically the dog days, mid-summer Vintages releases have been a ragtag collection of not very expensive or otherwise notable wines, and often the quality has been sub-par, even at the lower price points.  One theory holds that this is the time to sneak them onto the shelves while everyone is away. This year is no different, except that Vintages price points have dropped so much in recent months that this release actually doesn’t look any different on paper from all the rest.  But in the glass it does hold to the traditional summer pattern. I don’t remember scoring such a high percentage of wines under 85 in recent times. They are not all bad, but it is a bit of a minefield, making our WineAlign reviews all the more useful.

The feature theme on Central and Southern Italy is by and large solid in quality and value; which is on track with my contention that this huge region chock full of foreign appellation and grape names is one of the world leaders as a source of value, certainly the most important in Europe.  The collection of regions on the boot of Italy include Molise, Abruzzi, Puglia, Campania, Calabria and of course sunny Sicily (the California of Italian wine).  Vintages release provides a small, efficient regional cross-section of well chosen wines, none more than $17, with several scores in the 87 to 89 range.

Apollonio Copertino Rosso 2004I would like to focus your attention, to a lovely tropical yet restrained Sicilian white CARUSO & MININI TERRE DI GIUMARA 2009 INZOLIA, from a grape variety (inzolia) that sits somewhere between viognier, roussanne and cheni n blanc.  There are a handful of intriguing reds, including exotic spicy numbers from the slopes of Mt. Etna and the shores of Sardinia, but I would like to highlight  APOLLONIO 2004 COPERTINO ROSSO from Puglia, as illustrative of the modern winemaking applied to the classic grapes and very ripe style of the south.  Apollonio is a leader in the region in my books.  If you are a fan of rich New World reds but don’t mind some rustic Old World flavours, give take this maturing wine a spin.

The other official theme within the August 7th release is Summer Sippers, a marketing department umbrella for a broad and random and largely un-notable selection, although I did not get to taste some of the whites. The second theme should really have been California Reprieve.  For mid-summer there are a surprising number of more expensive, high quality whites and reds from the Golden State. And I haven’t been as encouraged by the price quality ratios in quite some time, partially because the prices are softening in the wake of the recession.

Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay 2008
The good times begin with three chardonnays scoring 90 or better. While the rest of the New World seems to be doing a mad dash away from oaked chardonnay, California continues to embrace a style it does very well. The best are finding terrific fruit-oak balance and elegance, none better than CHATEAU ST. JEAN 2008 CHARDONNAY from Sonoma County. Chardonnay has been a specialty at St. Jean since the heyday when it bottled one of the first single vineyard chardonnays from the Robert Young Vineyard. This is very good indeed for under $20 and a perfect example of Sonoma’s slightly cooler, leaner style.  Chardonnays from Beringer and Chappellet are also very much worth exploring.

Stolpman Estate Syrah 2007
The reds offer an array of $20 to $40 cabs, zins, pinots and syrahs that are priced reasonably well given their quality. There are two very expensive Napa cabernets,  and I was so impressed by the SHAFER 2006 ONE POINT FIVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON that I might actually consider spending $85.  The bottle of Cakebread 2006 Cabernet however was so disappointing  at $100 that I am delaying my rating and review until I can re-taste.  The most impressive of the lot however is STOLPMAN ESTATE 2007 SYRAH from the Santa Ynez Valley on the south central coast, a black, smoky monster with northern Rhone aromatics. I aIso really enjoyed the TANDEM 2007 AUCTION BLOCK PINOT NOIR from the  Sonoma Coast, a classy and classic modern Sonoma pinot. Nor should you overlook the 2007 RAVENSWOOD PETITE SIRAH.

Other notables among the less expensive, international offerings include a lovely, smooth, summer drinking  MONTES LIMITED EDITION 2009 PINOT NOIR from the Casablanca Valley in Chile, and one of the first very good, and very good value whites from Slovenia, a county on the move. Slip a bottle of DVERI-PAX LASKI RIZLING among a tasting of riesling aficionados.

Dveri Pax Laski Rizling 2008
See all my reviews for the August 7th release here.


– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of over 100 wines in this release

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Vintages Preview July 24th Release – Southern France and Aussie Whites – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

I spent the summer of 1998 in the Languedoc working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant in the small village of Florensac, somewhere between Montpellier and Béziers. The sea was a manageable bike ride away through the wild herb-scented Mediterranean breeze. The nearby Etang de Thau provided and endless array of seafood and shellfish delivered daily to the restaurant, and fresh lamb came from the high mountain pastures of the Pyrenees no more than an hour’s drive away in a Citröen 4L. Days started at 8 or 9am and finished around midnight six days a week, unless there was a catering event on Sunday. It was hard work and I was paid next to nothing, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Restaurant2:30-4:30 was a sacred time, when everyone in the house, front or back, would pause for lunch. There were always at least 4-5 open bottles of local wine on the table to taste, brought over by the sommelier Laurence. And so I began a serious exploration of the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon, then as now the largest officially designated wine-growing region in the world. It was also at about this time that the Languedoc started to gain a lot of international recognition for the quality and value of its wines, shedding the image of a vast, poor quality bulk wine region as it had been considered for at least the last century. Suddenly there were small, artisanal producers popping up in the most promising sub-regions and micro terroirs from the Pyrenees to the borders of the southern Rhône appellation making great wine from the local grapes and a few imports.
Languedoc Wine I spent my rare days off that summer driving around in a borrowed car and visiting many of these up and coming producers, guided by Laurence’s recommendation and my own research. I discovered a wealth of dedicated winemakers eager to explore and express the maximum potential of Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and old vines carignan, mostly in blends, as well as more rare but fascinating whites from grapes like maccabeu, bourboulenc and clairette and the more familiar marsanne and roussanne. I was thrilled at the discovery of characterful and flavourful wines at more than reasonable prices, made by passionate young individuals. The new generation of quality-oriented producers were quickly joined by big name and big money outsiders eager to get a piece of this terroir while it was still relatively unknown and the prices attractive. Regions like Minervois, Corbières, St Chinian, Faugères and the Côteaux du Languedoc were virtually unknown outside of France, and probably to most Parisians as well. It was this experience in fact that led me to leave the kitchen and get into the wine business, at first working with Vinifera, an importer of French wines. My motivation was at first selfish – I simply wanted to be able to drink these wines back home in Toronto.

In the intervening years, the Languedoc enjoyed a mini boom time in Ontario thanks in part to the LCBO’s buyer for the Classics Catalogue, Lloyd Evans, who had a soft spot for the wines. But the market never really took off has it did in, say, Québec, where not surprisingly all of the top wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon were, and still are, highly sought after and coveted by collectors and sommeliers alike. In some cases the prices have exceeded the value category to rival top crus from the Rhône Valley, but in general I still look to the Languedoc-Roussillon for excellent pleasure-price ratio.

Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah 2007There are some fine examples in the July 24th release at Vintages. My top smart buy this week is the 2007 DOMAINE LES YEUSES LES ÉPICES SYRAH $12.95.  Here’s a pure syrah from the south with as much character and typicity as many northern Rhône versions at twice the price. Number two on my top ten list is the 2009 CHÂTEAU SAINT-ROCH VIEILLES VIGNES GRENACHE BLANC/MARSANNE $13.95, a highly flavourful and typically sweet herb-scented old vines white blend. Both of these are wines to buy by the case for everyday enjoyment and entertaining out back.

Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Blanquette De Limoux BrutI also recommend two other southern French wines in the smart buys category: 2006 CHÂTEAU DE PENA $13.95, a black fruit and savoury herb scented red from the wild hills of the Roussillon, and a bubbly, DOMAINE J. LAURENS LE MOULIN BLANQUETTE DE LIMOUX BRUT $16.95 from what is claimed to be the oldest sparkling wine region in the world in the upper, cooler reaches of the Languedoc near the town of Limoux. Sparkling wine is said to have been purposely-made (i.e. they wanted the bubbles), in the region of Limoux since the early 16th century, nearly two centuries before the monk Dom Pérignon was still grappling with the problem of out how to keep the bubbles out of champagne, or at least keep the bottles from exploding. This example has the typical appley character of the dominant mauzac grape, alongside a marked yeasty-biscuity note from its traditional method production.

The Languedoc-Roussilon is not free of radical opinions nor styles. This is after all, the base of the ultra-radical guerilla wine faction called CRAV, the Comité Regional d’Action Viticole. CRAV has claimed responsibility for a number of acts of vandalism or wine terrorism if you prefer, such as emptying out 100’s of thousands of liters of wine in the middle of the night at producers who source wine outside of the region or outside of France, and other similar acts, in a not so muffled cry to the government to intervene and support local industry.

This release too, has its radical element. Surely most controversial wine in my view is the 2007 DOMAINE DES AIRES HAUTES MINERVOIS LA LIVINIÈRE $19.95. This will undoubtedly be a polarizing wine, with many swooning over its full-bodied ripeness and others, probably far fewer, wondering what just hit them over the head. You’ll see in the Vintages catalogue that Robert Parker rates this wine a 90-91, while I was considerably less enthusiastic at just 86. I found the fruit fully baked and raisined and the alcohol, at an exaggerated 15.5% (on the label), well, exaggerated. No balance, no finesse, no poetry, just sheer mass. Any long time First-in-Line or WineAlign readers will likely have already figured out which wines ‘align’ with my tastes so this won’t be surprising. I know Minervois is a hot region. I lived next door to it and traveled through it during the hot summer of 1998. I’ve visited Domaine des Aires Hautes and tasted 16-17+% alcohol barrel samples and found them excessive then too. I know that properly managed vineyards can produce fully ripe fruit at less vertiginous alcohol levels, as plenty of other producers in the area manage to do, so I’m left wondering why it’s necessary. I suppose it’s because lots of people including well-known and respected critics like the style. I can’t help thinking that if I wanted to drink amarone or fortified wine, then I would probably buy amarone or fortified wine. In any case, I encourage you to pick up a bottle and see for yourself – it will at least be warming on a cold winter’s night.

Henschke Tilly's Vineyard 2008

As for the other feature of the July 24th release, Aussie whites, there is a collection of solid if not extraordinary wines, led by my top pick, the 2008 HENSCHKE TILLY’S VINEYARD $19.95 .

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Wines from Southern France at a Glance
Top Aussie Whites at a Glance
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages June 26th Release – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

My Gee20 Ontario Wineries, Exotics from Southern Italy, Craggy Strikes Again and Seriously Pink

Last weekend I was invited to present an evening with Prince Edward County wines at a small conference at Queens University in Kingston. It  brought together some distinguished folks of arts and letters from across Canada.  Most had no idea that nearby Prince Edward County made wine, as its small production is yet to radiate far from the shores of Lake Ontario.  But this wine friendly crowd was aware that Ontario wine in general is “finally turning the corner to respectability”.   I was engaged by a bright, loquacious woman – a leader in Canada’s “culture” industry – who professed great pride in Ontario wines and asked which wineries I thought were doing the best work – a really important question.  I gave her my picks; but she hadn’t heard of any of them.

So in honour of Canada Day I would like to contribute to the learning on Ontario wines by naming names of those leading the way – something we are loathe to do as Canadians in fear of offending those not named.    These are picked solely on dedication to quality – with history, size, clout, value and style be-damned.  They make wines that that challenge me, excite me or at least make me stand up straight and pay attention.  They make wines I want to own, even in occasional imperfection.  They are wineries that are leading by example and entirely capable of putting Ontario on the global stage.  Call them my Gee20!

They are, in alphabetical order:   Cave Spring, Closson Chase, Creekside, Daniel Lenko, Fielding, Flat Rock, Henry of Pelham , Hidden Bench,  Huff Estate,  Le Clos Jordanne,  Long Dog,  Malivoire,  Norman Hardie,  Ravine,  Rosehall Run,  Southbrook,  Stratus, Tawse,  Thirty Bench and Vineland Estates.  There are another ten or so that are knocking at the door, most of them very new, or just in transition toward a top quality focus – so maybe next year.  I am sure I will hear about others who feel they should be on the list.

Vintages June 26 “Happy Canada Day” release contains some wines from some of these Gee 20 wineries.  Do try the terrific Tawse 2009 Sketches of Niagara Riesling, which is a double steal at $17.95, as well as the Daniel Lenko 2007 Unoaked Chardonnay and Flat Rock 2009 Rosé.

Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Riesling 2009

Di Majo Norante Contado Aglianico 2007I would like to move on to a mini-theme within the release that was probably not intended, and certainly not promoted. There is an intriguing batch of inexpensive whites and reds from indigenous varieties in southern Italy.  That country is just chock-full of virtually unknown, local grapes, many rooted in antiquity and some of them quite exotic.  TakeDi Majo Norante 2007 Aglianico from the Adriatic region of Molise. This progressive winery is taming and framing a grape variety that can be very complex and intriguing, but also ruggedly tannic and sinewy. This one finds a great balance.  Then there is a fine white, the Vesevo 2008  Falanghina  from a new appellation in Campania called Sannio, located in the Apennine Mountains inland from Naples, Vesuvius and the Amalfi Coast.  The distinctive falanghina grape is rightfully becoming a fave of sommeliers who seek out the new and the inexpensive.  And still in southern Italy don’t miss the great value Illuminati Riparosso 2008 Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, again from a very good winery.  The producer is always the pivotal piece in defining quality.

 Capçanes Costers Del Gravet 2006Still in Europe, I return again to the Priorat and neighbouring Montsant regions of Spain as being one of the most exciting new/old terroirs in the world.  Capçanes 2006 Costers Del Gravet from  Montsant  captures the unique balance of nerve, finesse and complexity consistently  being delivered in this rugged, mountainous region by blending of several varieties like carignan, grenache, syrah, merlot and cabernet.  The outcome is something like a cross between pinot noir and nebbiolo with an extra energy and virulence.

Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Merlot 2007Not long ago I waxed on about the wines of Craggy Range in New Zealand, and there is reason to do so again with the arrival of theCraggy Range 2007 Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Merlot from Hawkes Bay. I can’t think of anyone in New Zealand doing a better job of highlighting varietal and regional exactness while delivering wines that are both poised and powerful. If you have strayed away from merlot, this is a great way to get re-focused on what it should be like.

A  tip of the hat to Vintages for its on-going barrage of new rosés.  There are all shades of pink and price and quality out there on the shelves this season – lots to choose from.  But occasionally one comes along that is more about being a fine wine than a pink wine.  Some may balk at paying over $20 for a rosé but  La Bastide Blanche 2009 Bandol Rosé from the south of France is a must buy; a wine of deceptive paleness, subtlety and mildness that finishes with a firmness and minerality of any terroir-driven thorougbred.

 La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé 2009

And finally, I want to thank all those who turned out to Wednesday evening’s Up Close and Personal Event with Wolf Blass winemaker Chris Hatcher.  It is always refreshing and enlightening to get the goods from someone who is so experienced and practical and straightforward. And it was truly touching to see so many long time friends from the original Wine Access and First in Line days, and to meet those who are following our efforts on WineAlign. Some of you had gentle advice for me that I have taken to heart.


See all my reviews for the June 26th release here.

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008