John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 26th 2011 – My Finest Dozen; People and Wine Matching; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The theme for the November 26th release is the annual “Our Finest”, VINTAGES’ opportunity to bring out the year’s most expensive collection of big names and big wines. Out of 100+ wines tasted on two occasions, I found the quality to be by no means universally high, even if prices are. I also found marked stylistic differences in the top tier price category, which will make for intriguing comparative analysis between WineAlign critics and offer an opportunity for members to more clearly ‘align’. I’ve set out my personal Finest Dozen wines for quick reference, along with the usual Top Ten Smart Buys, and a list of additional wines for gifting this holiday, matched with the right people.

My Finest Dozen

Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2007Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon 2008Out of a range of sometimes overdone wines, one of the finest in my view is the exceptional 2007 DUNN VINEYARDS HOWELL MOUNTAIN CABERNET SAUVIGNON Howell Mountain, Napa Valley 95pts $96.95 ***. Randy and Lori Dunn have been Cabernet specialists since founding the property in 1978, and this 2007 is made from 100% ‘mountain’ fruit’ grown in the Howell Mountain AVA. Napa insiders often discuss the differences between fruit grown on the valley floor and on the hillsides flanking either side: the former generally softer and more approachable, the latter, firmer, tighter, more concentrated and age worthy. This is an extraordinary effort from the hills, dense and rich and hugely concentrated, yet with a scarcely believable [moderate] 13.9% alcohol and remarkable freshness. It’s a model of class and complexity, and at under $100 in a world of triple-digit prices, can even be considered fine value for collectors – this should age nicely for a couple of decades or longer.

Also among my finest selections is another Napa Cabernet born on a mountainside:2008 PHILIP TOGNI CABERNET SAUVIGNON Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 93pts $123.95 **. This too is a Fine fragrant and elegant wine, with an excellent range of aromas, marked mineral flavours and expansive finish, which will appeal to both classicists and modernists alike.

People and Wine Matching: Giving Wine as a Gift

The FAQ most often put to wine experts at this time of year is which wine to buy as a gift. It’s a simple and innocent enough question, but the answer is anything but. You see, wine is a personal thing, so it’s sort of like asking someone to set up a blind date for somebody they’ve never met. Does your friend like tall, short, thin, intellectual, or sporting types? Do they have a preference for men or women? The would-be wine recommender needs to know not only about the characteristics of the wine, but also a little about the eventual drinker, in order to make a successful match.

So to help avoid mutual embarrassment, I’ve outlined a variety of foolproof wine/people combinations that should cover most of the characters on your wine gift list. The recommended wines are all in the November 26th release.

Young Sophisticates

For the casual imbiber recently graduated from beer or ready-to-drink coolers looking to appear more sophisticated…

Castellani Poggio Al Casone La Cattura 2009Concha Y Toro Winemaker's Lot 115 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Red is your best bet here, as it is perceived as more sophisticated than white. Avoid those austere, traditional, old world style wines that are built on tannins and acids. Generous fruit and alcohol are key, giving the wines a plush and sweet, mouth-filling impression: “Now that is serious wine!” Look to warm climates in the new world, and new world-style wines from the old, such as Chile’s Maipo Valley, Argentina’s Mendoza, Barossa or McLaren Vale in South Australia, most parts of California, southern Spain, Italy (esp. Tuscany) and France. Widely recognized producers, regions and grapes are also considered a positive. Recommended spend: $10-$20.

Try these:
2008 CONCHA Y TORO WINEMAKER’S LOT 115 CABERNET SAUVIGNON Palo Santo Vineyard, Rapel Valley 86pts $17.95 *1/2


For thirty-something Queen West-type hipsters who are familiar with Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay and are ready to delve deeper…

Duca Di Salaparuta Passo Delle Mule Nero D'avola 2008 Palacio De Sada Crianza 2006 This can be a tricky category, as it covers a vast swath of newly minted wine drinkers with varying preferences. In general, they are open minded, but not quite ready for the tightly wound, austere, subtle or delicate wines that are difficult to “get.” Safe bets include boldly flavoured “fringe classics,” which will be familiar but not necessarily tasted before. Malbec from Argentina, Carmenère from Chile, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano from Italy, Tempranillo from Spain, and Touriga Nacional from Portugal fit the bill. Quality matters more than obscurity, so familiar grapes grown in “new classic” places can also work, like Cabernet from Tuscany or Pinot Noir from California’s Russian River valley. Recommended spend: $15-$30.

Try these:
2006 PALACIO DE SADA CRIANZA DO Navarra 89pts $14.95 ***

The (Wo)Man Who Has Everything

For the man or woman with lots of money but little time to research their preferences, the kind who would hire a personal shopper or concierge to do their gift buying…

Château De Beaucastel Châteauneuf Du Pape 2009 Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2009 This type is the easiest to buy for, but also the most expensive (avoid having too many of them in your life). Perceived scarcity, rarity and reputation impress most. Size matters: bigger is better. Name-brand appellations and producers are also key. Go straight to the Vintages section or the locked cabinets. Look for classified Bordeaux, super-Tuscans, expensive Napa Cab and cult Australian Shiraz. Cite Robert Parker, Wine Spectator or WineAlign scores with a knowing wink as you deliver. Recommended spend: $50-$100.

Try these:
2009 KISTLER SONOMA MOUNTAIN CHARDONNAY Sonoma Mountain 92pts $72.95 **
2005 HENSCHKE MOUNT EDELSTONE VINEYARD SHIRAZKeyneton, Eden Valley, South Australia 92pts $99.95 *1/2
Henschke Mount Edelstone Vineyard Shiraz 2005

Wine Geeks

For the wine geek in your life, who subscribes to magazines, has taken a few evening wine courses and vacations in wine country; attends wine tastings, throws around terms like mid-palate, tannicity, bouquet, and malolactic fermentation at dinner parties, and generally fancies him/herself a wee bit of a con-WAH-sir…

These are challenging recipients, as a little bit of knowledge is always dangerous. It is virtually impossible to impress them, as they already know everything. Avoid easy targets for their wrath such as big commercial brands, labels with critters on them, Merlot from anywhere (unless it’s Pomerol), new world Pinot Noir and off-dry wines. This type will appreciate wines from classic growing regions, or future classic regions that they might have read about.  Recommended spend: $25-$45.

Try these:
2007 PESQUERA TINTO RESERVA DO Ribera del Duero 91pts $41.95 **1/2
2006 Ascheri Barolo Pisapola DOC Barolo 91pts $43.95 **1/2

Pesquera Tinto Reserva 2007  Ascheri Barolo Pisapola 2006

The Professor

For the quiet, humble, truly well informed wine expert who has dazzled you by correctly identifying that Volnay 1er Cru Taillepieds (“too perfumed and delicate for a Côtes de Nuits”) or the 2009er Ürziger Würztgarten Riesling Spätlese  (riper than the 2008s and too spicy to be a Wehlener Sonnenuhr…”)…

Not as tough to impress as you think. They will be pleased by any thoughtful gift, so do some research. Seek out something unusual; you’ll score huge bonus points if you find a grape variety they’ve never heard of, or a little-known but up-and-coming region/producer. Colour doesn’t matter, as long as the wine smells and tastes of the place it was grown. Value matters, as does subtlety, delicacy and balance. Don’t bother with most wines that you would buy for The Rich. If there are no unusual specialties available, go for foolproof “wine lover’s wines” like top German Riesling, respectable Burgundy, Barolo/Barbaresco, Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau, or anything else that smells and tastes of rocks. Old vintages are appreciated. Champagne never fails, especially grower champagne rather than big brand. Recommended spend: $20-$50.

Try these:
2009 ATA RANGI PETRIE CHARDONNAY Wairarapa, North Island 93pts $33.95 ***
EMILIO LUSTAU EAST INDIA SOLERA SHERRY DO Jerez (375ml) 91pts $16.95 ***

Ata Rangi Petrie Chardonnay 2009  Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Emilio Lustau East India Solera Sherry  Grotta Del Sole Falanghina Dei Campi Flegrei 2009  Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes Saint Chinian Roquebrun 2009

From the November 26th Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
John’s Finest Dozen
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier