Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Nov 12th, 2016

Top VINTAGES Buys & Recommendations from the Annual Italian Grande Degustazione
by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The annual Italian trade fair rolled through Toronto this week, featuring over 100 producers and countless wines. It was of course impossible to taste everything, but I’ve included a few highlights from central and southern Italy that are worth tracking down, with Ontario agent and/or LCBO ordering details. The November 12th VINTAGES release proposes the loose theme of “Star Quality”, which I’ve re-interpreted as star quality-pleasure-price. I’ve picked my top three reds in three price categories: under $40, $45-$50, and $90+, along with a quartet of whites, all delicious and under $40. There’s plenty for everyone. November is also one of the busiest months for events; read on for three great tasting opportunities that I’ll be part of.

Upcoming Events

Looking to sharpen your tasting skills, expand your horizons, round out your experience or simply enjoy great wine (and food)? Join me at any or all of these upcoming events; fun, and great wines, personally guaranteed.

November 18th: Gourmet Food and Wine Show Tutored Tasting: Pushing the Limits

Time: 6:30 – 8:00
Location: Metro Toronto Convention Center

Price: $85 Buy tickets now

Host: John Szabo, MS
It’s often said that the finest wines are made from the most desperate vines, those pushed to the edge of survival. This means wines made from vertigo-inducing slopes, from ancient, century-old vines, from the most meager, impoverished soils, from oxygen-thin, extreme ultra-violet radiation-influenced altitudes, from dreadfully marginal climates, and other places that are hell-on-earth for vines, but yield heaven for wine drinkers. Travel with me to remote corners of the planet and taste the divine fruit of desperate vines, sacrificed for our pleasure.

November 22nd: Go Volcanic!

Time: 6:00pm – 8:00pm

Location: George Restaurant – Grand Georgian Room (111C Queen St E, Toronto, M5C 1S2)

Price: $115 (includes a copy of Volcanic Wines, Salt, Grit and Power)

Buy tickets now

Join me to celebrate the release of my latest book: Volcanic Wines, Salt, Grit and Power, at George Restaurant on November 22nd for an explosive taste & buy event of volcanic wines selected from a dozen of the finest private import/consignment portfolios available in Ontario. Explore these unique regions and pick your favourites for your own volcanic wine tasting at home. I’ll of course be on hand to sign your copy and dish on volcanic dirt.

Volcanic Wines

November 28th: The Great Canadian Oyster and Ontario VQA Wine Experience

Time: VQA Wine and Oyster Reception, 5:30 to 7pm, Dinner: 7:30pm
Location: Rodney’s Oyster House, 469 King St., Toronto, Ontario
Price: $190 (includes HST and fees) Buy tickets now

Love oysters and great wine? Join me for this first-of-its-kind event, in partnership with the VQA Wines of Ontario and Rodney’s Oyster House. You’ll be enjoying the finest oysters Canadian waters east and west have to offer, at the peak of the season, matched with Ontario’s incredible homegrown wines. A pre-dinner tasting featuring a dozen top Ontario producers, with plenty of shucking going on, will be followed by a full menu inspired by the sea, paired with Platinum and Gold winning wines from the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.

Hob-knob with Toronto’s top food and wine professionals who will be out in full force; I’ll be emcee-ing the evening along with Rodney Clark himself, who will speak to the ‘merroir’ of each oyster (terroir of the sea). You’ll also taste a trio of oyster and VQA wine pairings pre-selected by a panel of self-declared oyster professionals, and voting on the ultimate pairing, with a chance to win some cool prizes. It will be a night of superlatives, for a very limited number of guests.

Memorable Wineries & Wines from the Italian Trade Show

Winery: Alois, Campania

During my extensive volcanic wine research, I was remiss to have missed visiting the small, recent DOC Casavecchia di Pontelatone and the overlapping IGP Terre del Volturno, lying on the expelled ashes of the now-extinct Roccamonfina volcano in the northern province of Caserta in the region of Campania. Massimo Alois is turning out some impressively salty and gritty wines from his eponymous estate, focused on rare indigenous grapes. Particularly delicious is the 2015 IGP Terre del Volturno ‘Caiatì’ ($27), a pure pallagrello bianco (that’s the grape) grown at relatively high elevation on limestone dusted with volcanic ash. It’s crunchy, highly mineral and smoky-firm. Also excellent pure falanghina 2015 Campania IGP ‘Caulino’ ($22) grown in pure black volcanic ash. Novelty seekers will also want to try the ultra rare 2012 Casvecchia Rosso Terre del Volturno ‘Trebulanum’. Casavecchia is the grape, which typically yields deep colour, dark fruit and notably balsamic flavours on a frame rich in tannins, like this example. I’d cellar it for another 3-4 years for maximum expression. Available in Ontario through Brand New Day Wines & Spirits.

Winery: Planeta, Sicily

Planeta hardly needs introducing to anyone who has been following the Sicilian, or even Italian wine scene, over the last 20 years; Alessio Planeta runs one of the island’s most successful operations with 5 wineries spread across various appellations. But rather than coast on past achievement, the company is going from strength to strength. Planeta expanded to Etna last decade, recently finishing a new cantina on the north side in the Contrada Feudi di Mezzo. The wines have been steadily improving since day one, as a recent tasting of the 2014 Etna Rosso (c. $30) showed, the best yet from the estate. It delivers all of the perfume and finesse one hopes for from nerello mascalese grown in these exceptionally volcanic soils. Also excellent 2014 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (c. $30), a fragrant and spicy, wild strawberry scented nero d’Avola-frappato blend from the Dorilli estate in Vittoria, and a robust, full-bodied 2100 Noto DOC ‘Santa Cecilia’ ($45.95), pure nero d’Avola from near the birthplace of the variety in southeast Sicily at the appropriately-named Buonivini estate. Available through Noble Estates Wine & Spirits.

Winery: Valle dell’Acate, Sicily

Another top Sicilian producer in the Southeast corner of the island near Ragusa, Valle dell’Acate excels in the production of minimally-handled, light and delicate, highly fragrant frappato, as in the 2015 Vittoria DOC Il Frappato ($27), fine and spicy with crunchy acids. Slightly deeper and spicier 2013 Cerasuolo di Vittoria ($30) is also excellent, while 2015 ‘Zagra’ Sicilia DOC ($21) is a prototype of modern, aromatic grillo, wildly fruity and herbal. Available through Halpern Enterprise.

Winery: Badia a Coltibuono, Tuscany

I’ve been an admirer of Coltibuono for many years now, a top producer in Gaiole in Chianti, so I was not surprised by the quality of their various Chiantis on offer at the tasting. What was a revelation, however, was the first release of a new project to plumb the potential quality of a large handful of minor local varieties. The 2011 Montebello Toscana IGT is composed of roughly equal parts mammolo, ciliegiolo, pugnitello, colorino, sanforte, malvasia nera, canaiolo, fogliatonda and of course sangiovese, the result of years of experimentation and recovery of lost/forgotten varieties that were once widely planted in the Chianti region. Each variety was vinified separately in 500l casks (wild yeasts) and aged for a year before blending and returning to wood for another year. The result is exceptional, refined, aromatically complex and beautifully textured. Only 3600 bottles were made, so act fast to get yours. Available through Halpern Enterprises.

Also highly recommended:

  • Romano Clelia 2014 Colli di Lapio Fiano di Avellino DOCG, Campania ($30.95)
  • Benito Ferrara 2014 Greco Di Tufo Vigna Cicogna DOCG, Campania ($38.95), in consignment via Groupe Soleil
  • Mastroberardino 2006 Taurasi Radici Riserva DOCG, Campania ($56.95), in consignment via Profile Wine Group
  • Tenute Delle Terre Nere 2014 Etna Rosso DOC, Sicily ($32.95), in consignment via Groupe Soleil
  • COS 2013 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Sicily ($49.95), in consignment via The Living Vine

Top Picks from the November 12th VINTAGES release:

Top Reds Under $40

2012 was a stellar Niagara vintage, especially for reds, the best of which are now hitting the market. Like most of the top wines, the Hidden Bench 2012 Terroir Caché Meritage, VQA Beamsville Bench ($38.00) will need some additional time in the cellar to reach its best. This is a big, ripe, polished, substantial cabernet blend, with abundant, gravelly tannins, heavily extracted in the house style, serious, succulent, balanced and long, best sometime after 2018.

Hidden Bench Terroir Caché Meritage 2012 Rivera Il Falcone Riserva Castel Del Monte 2009 Thymiopoulos Young Vines Xinomavro 2013

Fans of savoury, firm, old world reds have a couple of excellent options to choose from on November 12th. From northern Puglia, the Rivera 2009 Il Falcone Riserva Castel del Monte ($23.95) is a lovely, high-toned, floral, ripe and spicy blend of 70% Uva di Troia and montepulciano, a superb value, 7 year-old red. I love the peppery red and black fruit, the nicely resolved tannins and the wonderfully evolved floral-potpourri type flavours, ready to enjoy.

In a similar vein, the Thymiopoulos 2013 Young Vines Xinomavro from Naoussa, northern Greece ($17.95) is a somewhat fresher yet still savoury, herbal-tinged, red fruit-flavoured wine, juicy and succulent, infinitely drinkable, from the region’s top young producer. It hits all of the right notes in the price category, over-delivering in fact, and on quality par with (generally more expensive) Langhe Nebbiolo or Chianti Classico. Best 2016-2021.

Top Reds $45-$50

November 12th offers three terrific reds in the mid-$40 range, nicely situated in the premium gift or special occasion category. Arch-classic La Rioja Alta 2007 Viña Ardanza Reserva ($44.95) is classically spicy-woody, immediately recognizable Rioja here from 19th century Bodega La Rioja Alta, with particularly ripe, dried red fruit, leather and sandalwood, cedar and coconut, and dried resinous herb flavours, excellent intensity, and exceptional length. Drink or hold almost indefinitely, at least until the end of the ’20s without a stretch – a timeless wine.

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2007 Antinori Badia A Passignano Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2010 Bethel Heights Estate Pinot Noir 2012

Admittedly I find the new Chianti Classico Gran Selezione designation a step in the wrong direction, awarding wines aged for the longest period in the cellar the highest quality status, rather than wines from the region’s best vineyards. Yet at the same time, most of the examples I’ve tasted have been suitably impressive, showing that producers are embracing the spirit of the law, not just following the letter. Such is the case with Antinori’s 2010 Badia A Passignano Gran Selezione Chianti Classico ($44.95), an excellent wine from a prime estate in the heart of the region, dense and firmly packed, with genuine concentration, and fully ripe but not overripe fruit, married with high quality wood spice. I love the supple-firm tannic structure and the excellent length. Best 2016-2025.

Pinot Noir lovers will appreciate the ruggedly beautiful Bethel Heights 2012 Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($46.95). Established in the first wave of Oregon producers in 1977, Bethel Heights takes full advantage of the thin, volcanic Nekia soils of the Eola-Amity Hills, as well as the blasting wind that funnels through the so-called Van Duzer corridor, a nearby gap in the coastal hills that allows cool Pacific winds to stream into the Willamette, yielding an estate pinot (from all three of Bethel Heights’ nearly contiguous estate vineyards ranging from 4 to almost 40 years old) that is at once sweet and dark-fruited and highly spicy, like black cherry dusted with fennel seed, cinnamon and freshly cracked twigs. Tannins are grippy and acids are bright on this solid, substantial frame, and the length is exceptional. I like the sappy, sapidity and the genuine concentration. Rugged and boldly flavoured all around, best from 2016-2024.

Top Reds $90+

Looking for impressive, top end new world cabernet? I’d recommend the inky-deep purple, ripe and expressive Stags’ Leap 2012 ‘The Leap’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($89.95), a fine example of Stags’ Leap District cabernet, the top parcel and barrel selection of the estate, in an excellent vintage. It’s full, thick, concentrated, with exceptional depth and length, still a long way from prime enjoyment, with ample scope to develop. It’s sold out on the winery website (where it’s listed for $100 USD), so this may be your only chance. Best 2020-2030.

Stags' Leap The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Stonestreet Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Sonoma lies in the proverbial, man-made shadow of Napa, but the cabernet on this side of the Mayacamas Range can be every bit as impressive, as evinced by the Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon ($124.95). Stonestreet’s Alexander Mountain Estate lies high in the volcanic soils of the upper Alexander Valley, and this bottling comes from a particularly, stony site, the youngest, least-developed soils composed of fractured basalts from an outcrop above that fell into place. It displays the evident density and gravitas conferred by struggling vines: savage and resinous, dark and dense, highly mineral and graphite-tinged. I love the roasted vegetal notes, the inky black fruit, the firm, authoritative tannins (without being dictatorial) and the balanced-fresh acids. Drink or hold mid-term, even until the late ’20s without a stretch.

Top Buys White

I doubt I’ll ever tire of drinking Chablis, especially from classic vintages like 2014. This release I’ll be adding a few bottles of the Louis Moreau 2014 Vaulignot Chablis 1er Cru ($36.95) to my shopping cart, a textbook firm and steely, highly stony, elegant and refined Chablis from the reliable house of L. Moreau. In recent years, Moreau has been harvesting his top parcels earlier than his basic Chablis to preserve the region’s razor-sharp edge, and fermenting longer, and cooler with more lees to maximize the character of each cru. I love the balanced, ripe acids and elegance provided by left bank cru Vaulignot, a cooler, southeast facing parcel. Although this could be enjoyed now, I’d wait another couple of years for a complete expression, or hold until the mid-twenties.

Louis Moreau Chablis Vaulignot Premier Cru 2014 Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2014 Valdespino Inocente Single Vineyard Fino Dry Sherry Château Vignol Blanc 2015

It’s abundantly clear that riesling has found a welcoming home in Niagara’s Dolomitic limestone soils, especially under the Escarpment in the ‘Bench’ sub-appellations. Cave Spring helped to define the style, and the 2014 CSV Riesling (Cave Spring Vineyard), VQA Beamsville Bench ($29.95) is emerging as a rather classic vintage for this benchmark, pure, fragrant, an essence of the Beamsville Bench from some of the oldest riesling vines in the province. There’s a touch more noticeable residual sugar here, left to balance the fierce acid a structure (a positive thing), and the finish lingers on and on. Best after 2018.

Sherry has been steadily regaining market interest, especially among trade/sommeliers, delivering some of the most complex drinking experiences and the lowest price on planet wine. A case in point is the exceptional Valdespino Fino Inocente Sherry ($28.95), consistently one of the finest and most complex of all finos. Valdespinos’ single vineyard Macharnudo Alto bottling is one of the last in the region to be barrel fermented (as opposed to tank fermented and then put into barrel) with wild yeast. Some freshness is traded for complexity, but in any case this is an amazingly complex beverage, bone dry, with terrific length. Salty, briny, green olive and fennel flavours mingle with almonds, fresh bread dough and so much more.

And finally, if you’re seeking a fun and friendly, lively and oak-free sipping wine with wide appeal for parties/receptions/family gatherings, try the Château Vignol 2015 Blanc AC Entre-Deux-Mers, Bordeaux ($14.95). It’s a suitably fresh and zippy, herbal and fruity blend of mostly sauvignon blanc with sauvignon gris, semillon and muscadelle.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.






John Szabo, MS

From VINTAGES November 12th, 2016



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