John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 7th 2012: Thoughts on 2011 and What’s to Come in 2012; Smart Buys and “European World Discoveries”

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

While early January may be a time for reflection on the year to come, there is little to contemplate in this first Vintages release. Out of a rather thin field I’ve listed my smart buys out of the LCBO’s smart buys theme here. Unsurprisingly, many of the top values originate from regions already well-known to value seekers: Casablanca Valley in Chile, South Africa’s Western Cape, and most impressively, the southern Rhône Valley. Just check out the 2009 DOMAINE DU GRAND MONTMIRAIL VACQUEYRAS AC  $24.95  and the 2007 DOMAINE SAINT ANDÉOL SÉDUCTION CAIRANNE CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES AC $17.95 for a look at how satisfying, and warming on a winter’s eve, these Grenache-based wines can be.

Domaine Du Grand Montmirail Vacqueyras 2009  Domaine Saint Andéol Séduction Cairanne Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2007

Most of the wines in the European World Discoveries theme were disappointing and will do little to encourage drinkers out of the tried and true, but for something a little different try the 2010 CHATEAU KSARA BLANC DE L’OBSERVATOIRE Lebanon $15.95, an intriguing white blend with nutty, oxidative but highly stony character. If the comfort of familiarity is the order of the day, the 2009 DOMAINE DU CHARDONNAY CHABLIS AC  $19.95 is a strikingly fine example of minerally, oak-free chardonnay, and fine value, too.

Chateau Ksara Blanc De L'observatoire 2010 Domaine Du Chardonnay Chablis 2009

Looking Back To 2011 And Forward To 2012: Some Observations On The Wine Scene:

Natural Wines

You’ve heard about sustainable, unfiltered, organic and maybe even biodynamic wines. And in 2011 yet another category started to slip into the mainstream: natural wines. Judging by the startling amount of press to date (especially given their microscopic share of the wine market), I’d prepare to hear a lot more about them.

That’s not to say that other wines are somehow ‘unnatural’, as the term implies (vinegar is the only truly ‘natural’ outcome of fermenting fruit), but there are degrees of more and less manipulated wine. Though the fine details vary, most adherents to the natural wine movement can agree on the broad strokes: grapes should be grown without synthetic pesticides or herbicides (like organic or biodynamic wines), and then treated with minimal intervention in the winery. See the charter on the website of the Associations des Vins Naturels for a definition.

While some of the so-called natural wines I’ve tasted are downright faulty, by and large these are intriguing, sometimes extraordinary expressions with a real sense of place. It’s a backlash against, even the antithesis of industrially made, formulaic commercial products. I for one welcome the resurgence in diversity, which can only be good for humanity.

Grower Champagne



Yes, I’ve been on this subject before, and it’s hardly radical, but the buzz on the streets among sommeliers and the agents who represent small family-run champagne estates is reaching fever pitch. Ontario, a rather conservative market for champagne historically, is embracing the individuality, even idiosyncratic character, not to mention the pure value for pleasure & money equation offered by grower champagnes like never before, and stocks are moving fast. When you’re ready to spend again for champagne, look for the letters “RM” in tiny print on the label, meaning “récoltant-manipulant”, i.e. made by someone who grows his own grapes (as opposed to purchasing fruit).

California Central Coast, and the Illusion of Overripe Grapes

David Hopkins

David Hopkins

A trip to California last November revealed America’s largest wine region by far is quite literally bubbling over with excitement and innovation. Spurred on by booming sales (exports to Canada are up significantly), a sub-group of wineries are operating outside the status quo and diversifying the vinous landscape. But it’s not just the small, fringe operators. I visited one winery in Santa Barbara owned by no smaller a giant than Gallo, Bridlewood Estate. I expected the worst (dull, corporate, formula wine), but instead I met David Hopkins, a wonderfully ebullient winemaker defiantly refusing to toe the corporate line (well, he makes a couple of wines for head office). David is testing the limits of his Santa Barbara grapes, experimenting with concrete egg fermenters and harvesting early to make naturally balanced, fresh and elegant wines. This is but one representative example of how the Golden State, and the Central Coast region in particular, is reinventing, or continuing to invent their wine story – all very positive.

On the them of ripeness, this last round of visits, lengthy heated discussions and tastings proved conclusively, at least for me, that the necessity of harvesting grapes at ludicrously high levels of ripeness to achieve so-called “phenolic maturity” is a pure illusion concocted by winemakers chasing scores from a small handful of decreasingly important wine critics. It has nothing to do with global warming (just ask Napa vintners about the 2011 harvest), and everything to do with a stylistic choice.

Harvesting grapes at 17%-18% potential alcohol may develop that beloved (by some) ‘jammy’ character, but then requires significant manipulation (watering down, acidifying, adding powdered tannins, etc.) to actually make a stable wine. This is a caricature in my view. Thankfully, a growing number of producers are moving away from this model, and some, even big Napa names such as Montelena, Heitz, Dunn, Grgich and Corison, and other high profile estates like Ridge, Bonny Doon and Mount Eden in Santa Cruz, and Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and many more never went there in the first place. I think we’ll begin to see greater numbers from California and elsewhere returning to reason, in the name of drinkable wine.

Croatian Wine LabelEmerging From The Dark Corners of Europe: Georgia & Croatia, With Others to Follow: Hungary, & Crete?

On the note of World Discovery, a few countries made their first big impression on the Ontario market in 2011, most notably Georgia and Croatia. Judging by the quality I’ve seen so far, they are definitely on my radar for this year. Other obscure, but potential great regions such as Hungary and the giant Island of Crete (Greece) have really yet to hit their commercial stride. Will 2012 be their year to emerge from the shadows?

Nova Scotia – The Rightful Home of Hybrids 

And finally, there’s nothing like a little first-hand experience to kill prejudice. I was an outspoken anti-hybrid grape activist (European vinifera x local variety) until spending some time in Nova Scotia this summer while judging at the Canadian Wine Awards. Aside from warm east coast hospitality, what struck me most is the regional suitability, and quality, of varieties like L’Acadie Blanc, Ortega and Seyval Blanc. A surprising number of Nova Scotian wines were awarded medals, even gold medals. Clearly, it’s working. Note that these are all white grapes; the jury is still out on the red hybrids….

From the January 7th 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier