A 2013 Retrospective: WineAlign Looks Back and Ahead

As the curtain falls on 2013 the WineAlign teams looks back on wines and trends that caught their attention and fancy in the past year. All with the perspective of course that they portend the future. We have assembled an eclectic, perceptive and incredibly well-travelled collection of men and women to review wines, so the range of ideas about what is going on out there globally is quite remarkable.

WineAlign’s Big Year

Before each writer takes the podium, a quick look back at WineAlign’s fifth year. It was the year of our great leap forward, crossing the one million mark in unique annual visitors (currently 1.35M and growing), and 55,000 registered users. We expanded from our Ontario base into full-fledged coverage of British Columbia, with linkage of inventories of the BC Liquor Stores and BC VQA Stores. Four highly respected voices from BC also came aboard: Anthony Gismondi and DJ Kearney of Vancouver, Rhys Pender of the Similkameen Valley and Treve Ring of Victoria. We launched two new wine awards – the National Wine Awards of Canada that attracted 1100 entries from five provinces, and the World Wine Awards of Canada, with a focus on international wine under $50, that also attracted 1000 entries. We released the fourth season of our blind tasting video series called “So, You Think You Know Wine?“, morphing into a more entertaining game show format with four teams. And we anchored all this from a new office in Toronto, managed incredibly well by Sarah Goddard who joined Carol Ann Jessiman, Heather Riley and Bryan McCaw as our fourth full-time employee in 2013.

There is still much to do and improve in 2014, and we have no end of engaged readers and staff who have ideas about how to make things better.  WineAlign is a melting pot of ideas, that at times feels like a cauldron. But the big news in 2014 will be the addition of four Quebec writers and the new French version of WineAlign called Chacun Son Vin. You will be glued to the musings of the Montreal Gazette’s Bill Zacharkiw, Nadia Fournier of Le Guide du Vin, plus veteran wine journalists Marc Chapleau of Montreal and Rémy Charest of Quebec City. And for the first time in the history of wine publishing in Canada there will be a truly national database of international and Canadian wine based on the inventories of the country’s three largest liquor boards – with more to come.

But for now, let’s hear what several of our critics had to say about 2013.

Treve Ring, Victoria

Winemaking Looks Back to Move Ahead – As I sit down to reflect on my 2013 in wine, one key theme sprints to the fore. Strikingly clear in my tastings this year is how much synchronicity I’m seeing around the world of wine. Not synchronicity in a mass-produced global commodity wine recipe (we’ve been there and done that), but synchronicity in goals. From travels through Canada to Chile to Oregon to France to Portugal to Germany I experienced a shared striving for authenticity, faithful trust in terroir and a contemplative and collective gaze backward, giving way to a propulsion of exciting winemaking forward.

Fouassier Pere Et Fils Sancerre Les Romains 2011De Martino Viejas Tinajas CinsaultWhether it’s using concrete (Okanagan Crush Pad, BC) or earthenware amphora at De Martino in Chile practicing biodynamic viticulture, (Johan Vineyards, Willamette), employing wild yeast ferments at Domaine Fouassier in Sancerre, or the natural, sans-sulfite wines at Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais, there continues to be a heavy, pensive pendulum swing backwards to winemaking traditions of old. Before pesticides and herbicides, MOX, oak chips and stainless steel were invented, people were (gasp) making wine just fine; monks mapped soils painstakingly over decades, vines were treated with naturally derived preparations and grapes grew according to provenance, not fashion.

As Alberto Antonini, one of the world’s most influential wine consultants, as recently named by The Drinks Business magazine noted in Vancouver last week, “We have to free our minds of everything colonizing wine over the past 40 years” in order to move forward. “Those techniques make conventional wine. We want to operate with a free mind.” He’s excited by the potential in the Okanagan Valley, and working with Okanagan Crush Pad to start from square one, as it were, to make serious wine. “To make a wine with a sense of place is easy. To make it serious, is not easy at all.”

People take great care with what they’re feeding themselves. They ask what their free-run heritage chicken ate for lunch and where their heirloom runner beans were cultivated. But up until recently, I didn’t see consumers asking any questions about where their wines were coming from, how they were processed, or who made them. In 2013, I certainly felt a shift, started entering different discussions and was hearing new questions about origin, source and history. The three wines highlighted above are ones I tasted this year that typify this return to authenticity – stripped down and transparent – and are damn tasty.

John Szabo, Toronto

The Rise of Tempranillo and Iberia – What kind of wine can you expect to see more of in the coming years? Kym Anderson of the Wine Economics Research Centre at the University of Adelaide published an amazingly comprehensive report in December illustrating changes in global vineyard area by variety between 2000 and 2010. According to the report, despite the fact that Spain’s vineyard acreage is shrinking, tempranillo is the world’s fastest expanding grape (so who’s planting it?). And this year in Ontario, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain + Portugal) has been on fire, gaining 19% in sales over the previous years in LCBO-VINTAGES, the highest gains of any country. I would bet on seeing more tempranillo in 2014. And while there’s plenty of fruity, cheerful tempranillo, if you still have doubts that the grape should be considered among the top fine wine varieties of the world try Alion, Ribera Del Duero, for a sense of the potential grandeur. Alion is produced by legendary Bodega Vega Sicilia, and this should see its way through to the ’30s in a good cellar with ease. Great wine by definition should also be able to stand the test of time.

The Leaning of Chardonnay –  It’s been ongoing for several years, but 2013 saw lean, fresh, low oak chardonnays from the new world move from the fringe to the mainstream. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far that I’ve encountered many underripe, underoaked chardonnays, leaving me wanting for a few more days’ ripening on the vine, and longer in wood to add interest to otherwise dull, neutral chardonnay grown in the wrong place. But when the right balance is hit, it’s sublime.

Alion 2009Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Vineyard ChardonnayA representative example is the 2010 Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, California one of a couple dozen fine chardonnays selected by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Bonné for an international media tasting held in Sonoma in late September. Bonné’s choices were largely on the leaner side for California, highlighting the welcome shift to freshness. Sandhi is a venture launched by the Michael Mina Group’s sommelier Rajat Parr and Sasha Morrman, and this wine hails from the Sandford and Benedict vineyard planted in 1971 – one of the first in Santa Barbara. It’s fermented in 500l puncheons, an ever-more popular size, with only partial new wood, and while there’s a denseness and richness to the orchard and light tropical fruit flavours, there’s an equal measure of riveting acids to balance and moderate alcohol. It’s classy stuff if you can find it.

Ontario’s Red Varieties – Pinot noir and cabernet franc are most frequently put forth as Ontario’s best bets. But for pinot, with the exception of perhaps Prince Edward County, I’d say it’s as much wishful thinking as reality. There are of course many very good examples of pinot from Niagara, but in terms of sheer viticultural suitability and reliability, there’s mounting evidence that cabernet franc has the edge, and probably gamay, too, for that matter. But cab franc and gamay sell for far less on average than pinot, leading growers to try their luck with thin-skinned, rot-prone, difficult-to-vinify pinot.

Rhys Pender, Similkameen Valley

Sweet Red Wine – One of the amazing things that has happened in 2013 is the widespread success of Sweet Red Wines, sugared up with concentrated grape must. One can only think back to the days of Germany and riesling and how the dumbing down of the wines to chase the short-term sale resulted in an entire generation who thought riesling could only be sweet and simple. Sweet red wines are now no longer only the domain of California and Australia but starting to appear all over the world. Every marketer has their eyes on the impressive sales figures achieved by the likes of Apothic and Ménage à Trois and new brand launches are starting to come thick and fast. It will be interesting to see what the future for these sweet red wines will hold and if there will be any backlash further down the track confusing the quality of red wines.

Restraint Please – Even though the sweet red wine trend continues apace, a counter movement seems to be happening with a focus on restraint, lower alcohol and less obtrusive oak use. Throughout 2013, virtually every winemaker I talked to (about making red wine) shared these sentiments. It seems that bigger is no longer perceived as better and wines are and should continue to become increasingly drinkable. With the two diverging paths of red wine trends, maybe this would be a good time to have some kind of legislation instituted to give a separate name to those products with concentrated grape must added before bottling (or at least insist it is written on the label) and let wine be wine.

Janet Dorozynski, Ottawa

The Evolution of Grape Varieties – It’s hard to believe that 2013 is almost over and as I look over my tasting note books, with scores of scribbles on wines from across Canada and the globe, there are several things that jump out from the pages. First, it’s encouraging to see some regions or countries focusing on lesser known or fashionable grape varieties, in particular in the case of lighter bodied and juicier red grape varieties. In Argentina, more attention is being paid to Bonarda, which some are calling the country’s hidden gem and next red. Originally of Italian origin, Bonarda is fruit forward and with just enough tannins and acidity to make it highly drinkable but yet substantial enough to stand up to some Argentian beef. In the case of Chile, there is increasing attention to old vine Carignan from the Maule Valley, much of which was planted in the 1940’s and first started to hit the market as single varietal (or dominant) wines in the early 2000s. Although we still don’t see much old vine Carignan from Chile in the Canadian market, a recent tasting of the Canepa Genovino 2009 made me wish we’d see more in our market, as the vibrant fruit intensity and refreshing acidity make it a welcome change from other dominant red varieties.  And then there’s Gamay, much maligned due to its association with Beaujolais Nouveau, but which is also a highly drinkable and lively red, and in terms of some of the Cru Beaujolais, can be as good if not better than many red Burgundies, which cost much a lot more. I just loved the expression of gamay in Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2011. And while Beaujolais may be the heartland of Gamay, there is also great Gamay coming from Canada, California and New Zealand and I’m hoping that this grape will gain more momentum in 2014

Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve Methode Classique 2005Tawse Quarry Road Riesling 2011Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2011Another positive development is the collective fine tuning of regional and country identities in terms of key wine styles or grape varieties. While individual business decisions ultimately determine what a winery will choose to plant and produce, we’ve seen the success and consumer recognition of New Zealand, Oregon and Austria with their respective focus on Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Gruner Veltliner. Similarly, regions like Burgundy, Alsace, the Rheingau and Mosel have highlighted their signature grape varieties for hundreds of years (though some would argue as the result of restrictive appellation laws which stifle experimentation and creativity), which created an identity for the region and understanding among consumers.

Closer to home, we’ve seen a focus on core grape varieties and wine styles in both Wine Country Ontario and Nova Scotia. While many grape varieties are grown in each province, Ontario highlights Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, alongside the internationally known flagship Icewine, with increasing attention to sparkling wine, which also holds great promise in the region. The concerted, collective effort has gained traction and recognition through events such as the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, as well as at tastings throughout Ontario and in London and New York, which have caught the attention of consumers, as well as accolades from the wine trade and media in both Canada and globally. Similarly, Nova Scotia has captured the attention of wine drinkers with its signature regional blend called Tidal Bay, which is a blend of various white grape varieties that is often greater than the sum of its parts. Nova Scotia is also keen to let Canadians and the world know that they are sparkling wine territory with impressive examples produced by Benjamin Bridge, L’Acadie Vineyards and Blomidon Estates. A pair of prime examples of what is great about Canadian wine includes Tawse Quarry Road Riesling 2011 from Niagara’s Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation and Benjamin Bridge Brut Traditional Method 2005 from Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley.

DJ Kearney, Vancouver

Key events in Canada ­– Two noteworthy events happened this summer in Niagara and the Okanagan Valley that will help to draw continued attention to our regions and wines. The first, as Janet mentioned, was I4C (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration) held in Niagara in July, attracting a serious list of producers, top-level dialogue and important cool-climate discussions and comparisons – in spite of the sweltering temperatures. Then in September, the 1st Annual B.C. Pinot Noir Celebration was staged at Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls where selected local pinots were tasted beside global standards. Attended enthusiastically by local winelovers and media, there’s abundant interest and opportunity to turn this event into something important and enduring. Sparking debate and useful comparison, I hope these events grow from strength to strength. (see my reviews of Norman Hardie Prince Edward County Pinot Noir 2011 and Meyer Family McLean Creek Pinot Noir 2011)

Norman Hardie County Unfiltered Pinot Noir 2011Meyer Family Pinot Noir Mclean Creek Road Vineyard 2011Helping shine more light on Canadian wine was Stuart Pigott, well-known and well-loved Riesling crusader who raved yet again about Ontario Rieslings (it’s been 9 years since he first toured Ontario) and visited the BC for the first time (en route to Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle). He admired some of the Okanagan’s completely unique ‘bladerunner’ Rieslings like Tantalus, Syncromesh, CedarCreek, Geringer and Lang. The Wild West of his favourite grape impressed him on his first ever visit to BC.

Diversity and Change – There are two truths that occur to me when I reflect broadly on vinous things (and the New Year encourages reflection): wine’s greatest strength is its diversity; and that the only constant in wine is change. Variety and flux, one dependent upon the other. 2013 has seen a greater choice of natural wines on our shelves, and surely this is just the beginning of a burgeoning interest in wines made with few or no additives. The definition of ‘natural’ is problematic for many, as is the stability of some wines. And while interest and commitment to natural wines will surely evolve throughout 2014 so will the continued success of gigantic commercial brands. It’s paradoxical of course, but all part of wine’s diversity. But more of the natural and less of the industrial please.

Little Farm RoséJulia Kemper Dao BrancoQuinta Do Ameal Escolha White 2011Portugese White and Similkameen Pinks – Speaking of diversity, there’s been a happy leap in dry wines from Portugal available in Canada, particularly white. From the astonishing Vinho Verde spectrum, to characterful sparklers and producers who celebrate high calibre grapes like Arinto and Encruzado, there is so much to discover, like my favourite of the year, Julia Kemper Dao Branco.

We drank more rosé in BC than ever before, and my crystal ball (which looks strangely like a huge Burgundy glass) suggests that 2014 will see us drinking more pink – year round. Rosé consumption is predicted to grow by 45% worldwide over the next 2 years, and by 7.5% in Canada.

The Similkameen Valley with its stone-y, bone-y soils and persistent winds is a region to watch for top rosé. Orofino, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Little Farm, are some of the best. Drink pink – fresh, local, ideal with food and on-trend.

Sara d’Amato, Toronto

Change in the Wind – 2013 proved to be a tumultuous year with a great deal of consumer activism and outspokenness. With several editorials in the wine and mass media, and the “mywineshop.ca” initiative spearheaded by the Wine Council of Ontario, there was a great deal of momentum towards the need for more individual control for how and where we purchase our wine. The prospect of private wine retailers is now more tangible than it has been for some time in Ontario and the campaign for this fundamental paradigm shift will certainly see continued momentum in the New Year. Although this is still but a campaign, albeit one with a great deal of thrust, purchasing wine through a private agent is currently an outlet that consumers have in order to find wines that do not have places on the limited LCBO shelves. One of my top picks of the year: Musar Jeune White 2012, Bekaa Valley, Lebannon – represented in Ontario by 30 50 Imports.

Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard Meritage 2010Domaine Chante Cigale Tradition Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010Musar Jeune White 2012Wine’s Widening Appeal – For me, 2013 saw yet another addition to our family and made me further contemplate the elusive work-life balance. Often moving from very adult settings to more PG scenarios, I’ve been struck by the realization that wine is a topic of interest to a whole array of people who traditional shy away from discussing alcohol. Surprisingly, from mommy groups to post natal exercise settings to conversing with teachers, educators and bus drivers, conversations about wine abound. Folks are looking for ways to fit wine into their changing lives in a responsible manner, whether it be a post-workout mimosa, a play group wine tasting event or advice on wines to give birth by (most maternity wards now list “wine” on their items to bring to the hospital for post-delivery). Even the contentious topic of what is acceptable consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is making headlines like never before. So, for all the mommies and daddies out there who have worked so hard this year and deserve a break – here is an indulgent pick for you with the type of balance, that we as parents, aspire to:  Domaine Chante Cigale Tradition Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010.

The Great Canadian Wine Challenge – And finally, a shout out to our WineAlign Cru Member – Shawn McCormick (Uncork Ontario) who is one of the jump starters of The Great Canadian Wine Challenge which has experienced a response of unprecedented popularity. Canadian Wine Day was not enough for McCormick and counterpart Calvin Hanselmann and as a result of a Twitter discussion, the challenge, asking joiners to only open or purchase Canadian wine for one full year, was born. For more information visit:  The Great Canadian Wine Challenge or follow on Twitter @TGCWC. My contribution – a 100-mile recommendation that particularly turned my crank this year: Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard Meritage 2010, Niagara Lakeshore, Ontario.

Steve Thurlow, Toronto

My Best Value Wine – Throughout the year I write about Top Values at the LCBO, so my radar is set on quality/price ratio. This year I can’t think of a better value than The Wolftrap White 2012, Western Cape, South Africa. This wine is an elegant partner to the popular red of the same name. It is an intriguing blend of viognier with chenin blanc and grenache blanc. The nose is very stately with apple pie plus a hint of caramel, with baked peach, honeysuckle and nutmeg tones. The palate is rich with loads of flavour with the fruit sweetness nicely balanced by lemony acidity. Excellent length. Try with a mild curry or tandoori chicken.  Available in seven provinces across Canada.

Trapiche Terroir Series Malbec Finca Ambrosia 2010Ornellaia 2001The Wolftrap White 2012My Best Wine of 2013Ornellaia 2001, Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany, Italy. 2013 was the 25th year in which this winery on the Tuscan coast has been making wine. To celebrate I was invited to dinner in Toronto on Nov 26th when I tasted many of the vintages of those 25 years. The 2001 was my favourite and, though several of the more recent years may well improve, on that day it was the 2001 Ornellaia that best showed the class of this estate. It was a deep ruby with little sign of age with a complex nose of black and red cherry with chocolate, interwoven with forest floor accents, vanilla, and oak spice. The palate had layers of the same flavours was midweight with soft acidity and firm tannin with a finish that seemed to last for ever. It is elegant, pure and amazingly youthful indicating that though this wine is ready to drink now it will hold for another decade or more.

Malbec from Argentina – Argentina makes a lot of very ordinary malbec. Few wineries have shown the same passion for excellence with this grape as has Trapiche. They have access to over 90 vineyards in different areas of Mendoza which are used each year for the production of their range of malbec wines. Since 2003 Daniel Pi and his team have chosen out of this collection the three best malbec wines from each harvest, produced separately in the winery, following the same wine-making process for their Single Vineyard Series. This project aims to convey the extraordinary potential of the vast array of Argentina’s terroirs for the production of malbec and to demonstrate that this variety can make truly great wine. I have been tasting these wines since the inception of this project. This year my favourite comes from a new vineyard to the program, Finca Ambrosia. Trapiche Terroir Series Malbec Finca Ambrosia 2010, Single Vineyard. This is an elegant complex malbec which is opaque purple-red with a very pure nose of ripe cassis and blackberry fruit, with chocolate, mild oak spice and soft minerality. It’s full bodied but has a lightness from soft acidity, very smooth and rich, with soft tannin. It is blessed with layers of fruit flavour and dark chocolate with perfect balance.

David Lawrason, Toronto

Biodynamics – Other writers have touched on this topic, but to me 2013 was the year that biodynamic wines firmly gained critical acceptance, at least among writers and wine enthusiasts. It is based on the simple fact that biodynamics makes better wine! Yes I still hear skeptics sneer at the burying of cow horns. It is actually quite practical for its purpose, but it has become a disproportionately powerful logo for a movement that has much more important things to say about good agriculture. The bottom line is that healthy soils build healthy plants that less frequently need feeding and curing through synthetics. After spending a week in Germany in August for an in-depth look at what’s happening there, with stats gathered from around the world, there is no doubt it is becoming a force, and an essential decision for producers and consumers who value quality, authenticity as well as environmentalism. This was one of my favourite and most affordable and succinct biodynamic wines tasted in 2013: Volpaia Chianti Classico 2010, Tuscany.

Blue Mountain Gamay NoirVilla Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009Volpaia Chianti Classico 2010New Zealand Pinot Noir – At the very beginning of 2013 I spent three weeks in New Zealand, focused on pinot noir. I attended the four-day 2013 Pinot Noir NZ conference in Wellington, and travelled and tasted through every pinot producing region.  Of course there were some great wines, and some not so great wines. But in retrospect, I am now aware that I had been participating in something much bigger and perhaps more historic – a key moment the evolution of a new Burgundy. I am not going to draw all the parallels at this point except to say that I think NZ has same sense of terroir depth and quality potential. The evolution is at an early stage. There is a youthful rawness to the wines and the people – no end of passion, debate, inquisitiveness, and experimentation, which is all good and necessary.  But they are also insecure, afraid to demarcate and label appellations that are already showing in the glass. My cursory list revealed 22 possible pinot appellations. And the marketing types in NZ need to get out of the way and let winemakers and consumers follow the always intricate path that pinot is laying out for them. In more practical terms, if they are going to charge $50 or more for pinot (which is just fine by me when quality is commensurate) they need to tell people that its origin is guaranteed, no matter how microscopic. Here’s is a fine example: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009

Canadians Grow Impatient – In terms of the slow, grinding evolution of wine culture in Canada, 2013 reminded me of the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the cracks began to appear. It is of course the liquor boards – propped up by over 80 years of self-sustaining managerial bureaucracy and its unions – that are impeding progress. For most of that time public sentiment (fear) kept them in place. But the public is changing its mind, wanting more choice, price freedom and convenience, and they are increasingly aware this can be achieved without dire social cost. Many politicians are now also in favour. So pressure mounts against the monopolies, and there are longer and deeper cracks in our wall.  BC is reviewing its whole structure; Ontario’s Wine Council is lobbying for private stores that also sell imports; both the BC and Ontario gov’ts have now authorized wine sales in farmers markets; even Saskatchewan is poised to take another run at private stores in 2014 having recovered from a flawed previous attempt. For those who are counting Canada in 2014 will have five provinces selling a blend of Canadian and imported fine wines in private stores. Here’s a Canadian wine that should be sold, unfettered, from coast to coast. Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2012.

All of us at WineAlign hope that you have enjoyed our work over the last twelve months, and we promise a whole lot more in what will be a very exciting year ahead. Thank you for your support, and we send our very best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Penfolds Grange 2008