John and David’s Twenty Important Wines of 2012 (that you can still buy!)

Welcome to our top year-end picks for 2012. Note that these are not necessarily our highest scoring wines of the year (even if all are 90+ points), but rather selected from a long list of candidates based on several criteria. Firstly, all wines had to have been tasted in 2012 and still be currently available, with bottles showing in the LCBO’s inventory at publishing. They also had to represent excellent value in their price segment, and transport us faithfully to their respective regions. And lastly, and most importantly, they had to spark our excitement, capture our imagination, and deliver an extra dimension of pleasure and deliciousness that only special wines can do. We hope you ‘align’ with our choices!

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John’s Reds

Jonata Todos Red 2008, Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Barbara, California, USA  $59.95

Jonata is one of the most interesting and exciting wine projects on the west coast, and has skyrocketed in less than a decade into the top echelon of California winegrowers. Although Santa Barbara is best known for pinot noir and chardonnay, this syrah-based blend proves the region’s suitability for a much wider range of grapes. And this is only Jonata’s “entry level” wine. Imagine what’s yet to come.

Jonata Todos Red 2008Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet SauvignonLe Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf Du PapeCliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Napa Valley, California, USA $74.95

California was of course the big story in Vintages this year, occupying top spot in sales terms by a country mile; Canadian love for the Golden State is deep. Cliff Lede is himself a native Canadian from Edmonton, a soft spoken, engaging, guileless man who’s considerable business success enabled him to purchase a gorgeous property in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa Valley about a decade ago. He favours a decidedly balanced and refined style of Napa cab, along the lines of other great estates in the valley such as Dunn, Montelena, Grgich, Von Strasser, Philip Togni, Corison, Signorello, and Heitz, among others. Lede enjoys a devoted following among local Canadian wine collectors, and his flagship wine, Poetry, is gone before it arrives. It’s nice to see the excellent estate wine more widely available.

Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010
Rhone, France $53.95

Brilliant back-to-back vintages in 2009 and 2010 have put the southern Rhône, and its best known appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape, firmly back on the map. The top wines are not inexpensive, but in the relative world of distinctive regional specialities, these remain bargains. Le Vieux Donjon is a massive and age worthy wine; I’d tuck it way for at least 3-5 years before revisiting, and it should last well into the mid-twenties.

Domaine Terlato & ChapoutierSpinifex Bête Noir Shiraz 2010Spinifex Bête Noir Shiraz 2010, Barossa
South Australia, Australia $49.95

Bet you never thought you’d see a Barossa shiraz on my top year end list. Well, Spinifex’s Bête Noir is a paradigm-shifter. It delivers richness and generosity to be sure, but has a far more intriguing, brooding, savage character that’s so much more compelling that merely jammy fruit. It’s clear proof that Barossa shiraz can’t be boxed up into one narrow style category.

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz 2010, Pyrenees
Victoria, Australia $51.95

Victoria made a big splash this year at the LCBO, featuring heavily in several Vintages releases. The push was the result of Wine Australia’s initiative to expand consumers’ impressions of the country’s stylistic repertoire, and we saw many refined chardonnays and pinot noirs from southern Victoria, unusual varieties like tempranillo, and an eye-opening range of shiraz from less-known corners, like the Pyrenees. It’s unsurprising that this wine gives a nod back to Europe, considering that it’s made in a project led by the Northern Rhône’s Michel Chapoutier. I was struck by the marvelously savoury and smoky-violet-tar flavours, allied to a freshness and balance that’s thankfully becoming more common across the antipodes.

John’s Whites

Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010, Vinemount Ridge
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada $34.95

Tawse won an unprecedented third straight Winery of the Year at the Canadian Wine Awards in 2012, establishing beyond any shadow of doubt that quality is deeply embedded in the estate’s MO. Their chardonnay range is their strongest suit in my opinion, and the biodynamically farmed Quarry Road vineyard always stands out for me.

Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos ChardonnayDomaine Latour Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime MeursaultLe Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2009, Twenty Mile Bench
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada $65.00

Ontario is rapidly establishing a reputation for excellent cool climate chardonnay outside of its borders, thanks in no small measure to initiatives like the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, of which the 3rd annual edition will take place in July 2013. There’s a growing list of admirable chardonnays in the province, and around the top of mine is LCJ’s Le Grand Clos chardonnay, considered the top of their range. It’s not the most powerful or immediately impressive, but it’s the one I find to have the greatest balance and finesse while delivering great depth, complexity and length. Pour this blind for your Burgundy-drinking friends and wait for the superlatives.

Domaine Latour Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime Meursault 2010
Burgundy, France $44.95

Plenty of Burgundies made their way through Vintages this year, offering, as is often the case, a mixed bag of quality and value. Looking back on my notes from the year, one commune – Meursault – appeared to stand out from the others in terms of consistency. Most of my top picks came from this village, the latest of which is Latour-Giraud’s cuvee Charles Maxime from the excellent 2010 vintage. It’s an assemblage of several lieux-dits and premier crus that delivers arch-typical wet limestone minerality and the nuttiness for which Meursault is prized. This will be better in 2-3 years, so cellar if you have the patience.

Rolly Gassmann Stegreben De Rorschwihr GewurztraminerMarkus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling SpätleseMarkus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese 2008
Mosel, Germany $26.95

It’s no secret I think Mosel rieslings are among the world’s greatest and most distinctive whites, and considering their average selling price, one of the greatest bargains on earth. Markus Molitor is a man obsessed with terroir expression, making powerful, intense, amazingly complex wines throughout his range. His ’08 spätlese from Zeltingen’s seriously steep Himmelreich vineyard was one of this year’s best examples. If you think you know riesling, drink again.

Rolly Gassmann Stegreben De Rorschwihr Gewurztraminer 2009
Alsace, France $27.95

I couldn’t resist adding Gassman’s Gewürztraminer to my list this year; it was such an arrestingly pure and heroically concentrated essence of variety matched to place. Pierre Gassman has adhered to biodynamic winegrowing principles since 1997, even if he’s not certified, though to be fair the Gassmann family has been making wine in Rorschwihr since 1676 and the conversion required no major philosophical shift. This is a wine of pure hedonism, perfect for mid-afternoon or late night contemplation over the holidays.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David’s Reds

Domaine Chanson Beaune Clos-Des-Marconnets 1er Cru 2009
Burgundy, France $49.95

We saw many terrific Burgundies filter into Vintages this year, in large part due to the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages. But Domaine Chanson’s offerings stood out, offering pinot noir fruit purity and clarity and a fine sense of modernity and elegance. In May I visited this revitalized smallish winery housed within the ramparts of Beaune, and a few weeks later winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron brought his wares to Toronto as well. Both times I was very impressed – may they keep on coming in 2013

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2010Maysara Pinot NoirDomaine Chanson Beaune Clos Des Marconnets 1er Cru 2009Maysara Estate Cuvee Pinot Noir 2008
Willamette Valley, Oregon $32.80

All the talk of biodynamic wine settled down in 2012, not because there were fewer biodynaminc wines, or because the trend is fading. Winemakers are simply getting busy and making them, with less fanfare now that the market generally understands the concept. And I am rating biodynamic wines higher, often when I am not aware that they are biodynamic. Such was the case when this obscure Oregon pinot wowed me at Vintages. It has all kinds of heart and energy – that extra something that to me spells BioD.

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2010
Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia $49.95

In 2012 wines from the state of Victoria made a big splash at Vintages, none more compelling than the cool climate pinot noirs of the Mornington Peninsula, and Kooyong in particular. This pinot focused, green-minded showpiece winery made a solid debut with four listings, including two high end In Store Discoveries that are still available as well. All are complex, layered and scintillating.

Baron De Ley Gran Reserva Two Hands Bella's Garden Shiraz 2010Baron De Ley Gran Reserva 2001
Rioja, Spain $29.95

There were all kinds of interesting and diverse new wines from Spain in 2012 (and the trend continues with a Spanish release on January 19).  But it was a very classy, old guard Rioja – at very good price – that stole the show. It caused such a stir back in March (amassing 19 WineAlign reviews) that Vintages re-ordered and re-released in November. It reminded all of us, in one fell swoop, how great fully mature red wine can be.

Two Hands Bellas Garden Shiraz 2010
Barossa Valley, South Australia $64.95,

It might just be me, but a lot of big Barossa shiraz are tasting mighty fine these days – like big comfy koalas that wrap you in their arms, and flood your senses. Most impress easily with their girth and richness, but some – like this beauty – are also showing real poise and balance. It’s not that alcohol is necessarily being lowered; I think that more viticultural attention is being paid to achieving perfect ripeness and balance in the fruit.

David’s Whites

Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2011
Rhone Valley, France $33.95

The white wines of the southern Rhone Valley are escalating in terms of quality and popularity, offering chardonnay-like richness but with added exotica thanks to the blend of varieties that can include roussanne, marsanne and viognier. The genre hits its apogee with the grand whites of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but there are some great values from “lesser” appellations, including this terrific wine from the Perrin family that owns Chateau de Beaucastel.

Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2011Pascal Marchand MeursaultCloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012Pascal Marchand Meursault 2010
Burgundy, France $57.95

The extraordinarily polished, poised and elegant white and red Burgundies by Pascal Marchand have been dribbling into Vintages. Marchand is the Quebec-born winemaker who almost single-handedly raised the quality quotient of Ontario chardonnay while working with Le Clos Jordanne and (still) Tawse.  Now at the winemaking helm of a renovating Tawse-partnered winery facility in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Marchand will be soon be in full flight. I tasted an impressive range in Burgundy in May, and can only say – the best is yet to come.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Marlborough, New Zealand $29.95

During the New Zealand sauvignon stampede of the last decade, the iconic brand that caught the world by storm in the 90s has been rather overlooked. There were some vintages that didn’t seem to be particularly exciting, but recently I have been very impressed with Cloudy Bay. There is a sense of restraint and complexity that involves fruit and minerality, elements often diminished by the intensity and straightforward herbaceous and citric brashness of many peers. And thankfully Cloudy Bay remains a Vintages Essential.

Tawse Sketches Of Niagara Riesling 2010Closson Chase ChardonnayClosson Chase Chardonnay 2009
Prince Edward County, Ontario $29.95

The full throttle, rich and idiosyncratic style of Deborah Paskus’ chardonnays is controversial, but there is no question that they are complex, intriguing wines with quite incredible depth of flavour. And in the midst of all that there is still a sense of poise and minerality that defines Prince Edward County.  The County is indeed lucky to have a winery that makes and markets wine with such flair. And a little controversy doesn’t hurt either.

Tawse Sketches of Niagara Riesling 2010
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario $17.95

Yes, Tawse makes “better” more complex, powerful and riveting rieslings from single vineyards like Quarry Road, Carly’s Block and Wismer, but this snappy little number – that brims with brightness and terrific acid-sugar balance – keeps winning at events like the Canadian Wine Awards and Lieutenant Governors Awards.  And it’s so affordable, making a hugely important ambassador for Niagara riesling in general.

Here’s the complete list so that you can check inventory in your favourite store:

John and David’s Twenty Important Wines of 2012

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Rosehill Wine Cellars