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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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Lawrason’s Take on the May 1st Vintages Release – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

New Zealand – Spring has sprung and it’s clean, green New Zealand’s annual turn in the spotlight, with a feature release at Vintages on Saturday, May 1st.   By the way, three new excCraggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Te Kahu 2007ellent Vintages Shop on Line releases are also reviewed here at WineAlign – Auntsfield Pinot Noir, Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc, and Mt Difficulty Chardonnay (search by name).  I have tasted a whack of NZ wines in the past six weeks, and I remain a big fan. Sometimes the wines seem too bright and cheery (missing some of that reserved and brooding character of Europe), but they are generous and fun to drink.  Vintages rather small May 1st selection strays from the well known, larger producers to smaller, less well known ones, with resulting variation.  There are some very good wines – like luscious, poised Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Te Kahu 2007 and the rich, layered  Millton 2007 Opou Chardonnay, from the southern hemisphere’s oldest biodynamic winery, established in 1984. Now that’s authentic.

Edmeades Zinfandel 2007Zinfandel – The larger feature on May 1st  is centred on California Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo. It’s time we stopped linking these two wines, even though they may have a common ampelographic (study of vine species) root in Croatia.  Like human families that have emigrated and evolved  into different entities on opposite sides of the world, these wines have nothing in common in the glass. California’s zins are sweet, plump and fruity – the best like Edmeades 2007 Zinfandel from Mendocino County best wafting that wonderful floral brambleberry fragrance that makes zin so distinctive. Most others are in the release are muffled by oak or half-hearted winemaking, although  Seghesio 2008 Sonoma Zinfandel impresses with its complex structure, and Sebastiani for its charm and balance.  Italy’s primitivos are in a different flavour universe, so much more leathery, ripe, figgy and well – Italian.   By the way, it crossed my mind that good, floral California zin shares more commonality with Argentine Malbec than Puglian primitivo.

Domaine Puig Parahy Georges 2007Roussillon, France.  It’s break out time for Cotes du Roussillon. Time to stop lumping it within the huge vinous Mediterranean amphitheatre that is southern France.  This small, hot, sea-hugging corner up against Spain’s Catalan frontier is turning out wonderfully luscious, silky, baritone reds at great prices, and it deserves solo recognition. If you haven’t been following try the nifty number called Domaine Puig-Parahy 2007 Georges, for a remarkable $13.95.

PrincClosson Chase 2007 CC Vineyard Chardonnay Unfilterede Edward County, Ontario – My backyard wine region gets an airing at Vintages on May 1 with four selections. Three are made 100% from County fruit, which signals advancement of the County into the mass market. To be viable in the LCBO and Vintages, wineries must be able to offer significant volume.  Until recently most PEC wineriescould not offer volume from 100% County fruit, so they were importing Niagara juice and having to label the wines Ontario (under VQA regulation), as in Rosehall Run’s tidy 2006 Chardonnay.   Many of the new, tiny operations that have opened in the past 12 months (15 by my count) are still too small to dream of Vintages or LCBO listings. The wines offered this month provide a true portrait of the County, and I like the Closson Chase 2007 CC Vineyard Chardonnay Unfiltered in particular. The always controversial Deborah Paskus crafts her chardonnays deep within the pores of the barrel, so non-oak fans may have a hard time. But this chardonnay has distinctive character, County elegance and quite incredible depth.

Pikes 2006 Eastside ShirazClare Valley, Australia.  Two wines on this release confirm my sense (perhaps my bias) that South Australia’s Clare Valley is among the great appellations of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s complex granitic and limestone terra rosa soils seem to deliver an elegance and verve quite different from Barossa or even McLaren Vale. Aromatics soar and textures glide.  See for yourself with and Pikes 2006 Eastside Shiraz,  and Knappstein Enterprise 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are great value.

Warre's 2007 Vintage Port2007 Ports, Portugal.   I admit losing  some interest in vintage port. Not because it’s less good, but increasingly less relevant to the wider swath of readers. Two classics from the 2007 vintage are offered to collectors on this release, and who else but collectors would buy them at these prices, and age them as required. But if you are among the willing, don’t hesitate. They are stellar wines, totally in keeping with their house styles. Warre’s 2007 Vintage Port is massive, dark, sweet and rich with gobs of fruit.  Meanwhile Dow’s 2007 Vintage Port holds true with equal weight and richness but a leaner, more tannic finish typical of Dow’s style.

That’s it for now, I have reviewed 96 wines in this release. Check them out at WineAlign under New Releases.

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

John Szabo, MS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To see all of my reviews click here.


John Szabo, MS

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April 17th Vintages Release – David Lawrason’s Take

David LawrasonWine ratings and reviews are my stock in trade, and I have delivered another ninety-plus tasting notes for Vintages April 17 release at WineAlign to help you make your buying decisions based on objective evaluation of quality and description of the style, flavours and feel of each wine. They are there for your perusal by clicking on New Releases under the Wine tab, then searching the release by style, region and price.  Or if you want to plug in quickly to find a specific wine use its LCBO number or name in the Search field.


I enjoy tasting all these wines but it can be a repetitive task. And my personal interest as a wine writer is to look at the stories and trends lodged deeper in the various selections. So rather than highlight the best buys in a somewhat arbitrary and never-long-enough list of Dave’s Fave’s, I would rather use this space to direct you to wines that are interesting or important for reasons beyond being “best buys”.

So welcome to a random series of observations and comments…

Tenuta Sant'antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi 2006 Amarone Della ValpolicellaThe ripasso and amarone s from Italy’s Veneto region featured in this release are by and large boring. The mid-priced ripassos are too much the same; while most of the amarone’s under-deliver for their price. And it’s getting hard to tell where the boundary between the two styles lies.  I further sense that the popularity of the region and genre is taking a toll on quality and value and focus – as wineries scramble to expand and differentiate their appassimento portfolios (appassimento refers to using air-dried “raisined” grapes).  The great challenge in this process is avoiding volatile acidity that results in an acetone character, as well as sourness on palate.  Several selections are bothered by these characteristics.  I much preferred the basic, less expensive charming non-appassimento Valpolicella and Bardolino selections like Monte Del Frá 2008 Valpolicella Classico.  And aside from the always impressive trilogy of expensive Masi amarones from the less vaunted 2004 vintage, I also was very taken by the quality and value of Tenuta Sant’antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi 2006 Amarone Della Valpolicella.

Alvento 2006 AriaI love improbable, romantic tales and none better in this release than the story behind Alvento 2006 Aria (nebbiolo). Bruno and Elayne Moos owned a winery in Tuscany for many years before putting down roots in Niagara, which they felt might be a good region for nebbiolo given latitudinal and climatic similarity to Piedmont, where nebbiolo creates famed Barolo. They struggled through tough Niagara winters in 2003 to 2005, but finally made their first Aria in 2006 – something so unique and controversial you must try it for yourself. On May 6 it will be poured alongside Barolos from Pio Cesare and Gaja at a fundraiser for Provindence Healthcare Foundation.  And by the way the 2007 still in barrels (to be releases in 2011) is even better.

Josef Chromy 2008 RieslingI’ve never visited Tasmania but the selection of four wines by Josef Chromy capture a character that is easy to imagine as being very typical of this cool climate, heavily forested, island state. The wines are light, racy and juicy with very lifted aromas and coniferous nuances, especially the riveting Josef Chromy 2008 Riesling.  Chromy is a Czech who escaped communist rule in 1950 and found his way to Tasmania.  With a 61 hectare vineyard and new showpiece winery near Launceston, he is considered one of the pioneers of the Tasmanian industry.

The organic selection in this release is so mainstream and conventional it would be impossible to distinguish them in blind tastings from non-organic wines. And for the organic movement that’s a very good thing. There was only one overly earthy, rustic and generally unbalanced wine that speaks of natural methods run amok Domaine Des Carabiniers 2007 Côtes Du Rhône.

Penmara 2008 Reserve ChardonnayFranciscan 2007 ChardonnayAustralia and California chardonnays are rarely models of elegant restraint but two very pleasant surprises show up this week from unexpected sources. From high altitude vineyards in the region of Orange in New South Wales Penmara 2008 Reserve Chardonnay; and from Napa ValleyFranciscan 2007 Chardonnay, a winery that doesn’t have a habit of standing out.

Saltram 2006 Mamre Brook Shiraz
Amid the raft of Australia reds in this release, most treading in good to very good range, comes a clear stand-out from a winery too seldom seen in Canada.  Saltram is a tiny player, comparatively speaking, in the huge Foster’s portfolio. It is one of Australia’s oldest wineries first producing wine in 1862 and remaining the hands of two different families until acquired by Foster’s in 2007.  When I tried the Saltram range at the recent Fosters portfolio tasting I was impressed by the depth, elegance and structure of the entire range.  And yes by the price as well.  Make a bee line to the $24, 92pts Saltram 2006 Mamre Brook Shiraz.
Fontodi  2007 Chianti Classico
I have always been a fan of Tuscany’s Fontodi.  So many wineries preach the blending of new world techniques and old world heritage, but I can’ think of anyone in Chianti doing it more demonstrably in the glass, and they have been doing it for over a decade.  There is a richness and ripeness toFontodi  2007 Chianti Classico that will satisfy New World red drinkers, yet there is well defined sangiovese character as well, including that famous Italian acidity that makes Chianti so good with food. I’ll never forget dining with a bottle of the 2004 in a four star restaurant in Radda – loving every sip long into the summer night.

– 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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Apr 3rd Vintages Release – Getting to Know Spain is not Easy – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Having a hard time grasping Spanish wine?  Me too.  I have travelled there five times in my career. I love eating and drinking in Spain.  I love the gentle, conservative nature of Spaniards.  But I can’t come to grips with what defines Spanish wine.  That’s because it is so varied in its make-up, as shown by Vintages Spanish feature on the April 3rd release.   The unfortunate result of this is that many of us just let Spain slide off and we look elsewhere. Too much effort is required, which is a shame because so much interesting new wine is emerging, like a white Godello from Bierzo, a new one on me.

It was once easier to define Spanish wine because historically Spanish culture preferred mature, table-ready long oak aged reds.  Twenty years ago there were more barrels in Rioja than any region in the world.  But modern, New world influences are hard at work, bringing brighter focus to the myriad indigenous grapes and terroirs.  And so it is high time to drill down and begin talking about Spanish regions, not just Spain.  We are never required to consider France as a whole, only its regions, and Spain is just as varied, if not more so.

Vintages release presents a great opportunity to roll up your glasses and  begin learning. The selection is broad and the prices are reasonable – perhaps too reasonable  as Vintages strives to hit its post-recesionnary  ‘comfort zone’ between $15 and  $20. Frankly, many of the wines are average-good; just managing to show their origin, but not with much confidence or pride.  There are some good Rioja’s and as often happens, the vibrant, nimble and complex reds of Priorat and Montsant seem to soar above the pack. These dominate Dave’s Faves this time, if two selections can be called dominant.  But I am also a big fan of the CVNE Monopole White from Spain.  Bordeaux – not far to the north – weighs in with a terrific white and red one-two punch, and never to be forgotten – Australia is making some great cabernets as well.

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

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March 20th Vintages Release – Niagara Upstages the Easter Pageant – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The huge March 20 release at Vintages stores has a broad international selection pegged as Easter wines. So I was going to write about Easter wines, but with trepidation because I have never really been sure what makes a wine an Easter wine.  Then when I sat down to write and noticed that there is a strong contingent of Niagara wines as well, I knew I had could hatch an Easter escape.  I’d much rather write about that the quality that Niagara is showing more routinely these days.

I have rated four of the ten Niagara releases over 90 points, and another three 88 or better.  This is an impressive body of work.  Two wineries lead the charge of what Vintages is calling “The New Guard”.  I have written before about Le Clos Jordanne, and all the steps winemaker Thomas Bachelder and his team are taking to deliver such impressive quality. My favourite pinot of the lot, the deep, elegant  Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard  2007arrives Saturday, as does the powerful Claystone Terrace 2007 Chardonnay, both rating 91 points.

The top scoring wine is Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard 2007 Fume Blanc which I have rated 93 points.  This is from the same vineyard and grape varieties as the Nuits Blanches 2005 that was voted Canada’s White Wine of the Year at the 2008 Canadian Wine Awards, with an identical score. The Fume is intense, exotic , beautifully balanced and downright intriguing.  The 91 point Hidden Bench 2007 Locust Lane Riesling is yet another powerful, dry and layered riesling, a cousin again to the 2007 Rosomel Riesling that took gold at last year’s Canadian Wine Awards.  Hidden Bench is on a real roll, so it will be most interesting to see how new winemaker Marlize Beyers rides the wave.  The young South African was hired last week after spending  recent vintages making fine rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs at Flat Rock Cellars.

Three other Niagara wines deserve mention. Saturday brings one of the first Vintages appearances for the new Ravine Vineyard with lovely, elegant 2008 Chardonnay 89 pts, that would have hit 90 points with a bit more depth.  The Reserve wines both white and red from this property, overseen by veteran winemaker Peter Gamble, would have easily joined the 90+ club.  And finally, there is the strong showing by a pair of 88 pt sparkling  wines. The 13th Street Cuvee Roséis a crisp, dry mineral driven pinot-based bubbly, while Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Methode Classique 2004 Brut shows good poise and depth, if not the great tension of the 2003 vintage.

Elsewhere, the best wines and best buys are spread across the globe, including five of my six faves which hail from Switzerland, France, California and Italy.  One interesting subtext is the pair of mourvedres – one from Bandol in France the Cline Ancient Vines from California that would make a fascinating direct comparison.  Enjoy!

–  David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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

Dave’s Faves

Beamsville Bench, Niagara $30.20  93pts

La Côte Switzerland
$18.95  91pts

France  $14.95  89pts

$17.95  90pts

Provence, France
$24.95  91 pts

Tuscany, Italy
$15.00  90pts

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008