Buyers Guide to VINTAGES – March 31st, 2018

How to Explore Sonoma in Ontario
by David Lawrason with notes from Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Two weeks ago I was in California working on a project that narrowed my geographic range to Napa Valley. But I would look at the Mayacamas Mountains to the west knowing that Sonoma lay just over the ridge, and I wished I could sneak up and over to taste a few delicious Russian River pinots, rumpled old vine zins from Dry Creek and elegant, shiny chardonnays from Sonoma Coast.

To me, these three varieties define Sonoma. Sure, there are some good value cabernets and merlots tucked in the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley. And there is some fooling around with other varieties as well (which you don’t see as much in Napa because the acreage is just too valuable to devote to experimental grenache or tannat when you can get three-figures for cabernet).

On March 31st, VINTAGES shines the spotlight on Sonoma. But frankly, it is a low wattage spotlight with all the usual suspects – brands released again and again – grouped by the fact they hit that less expensive, commercial price point of $20 to $40. They are all okay and some are indeed very good, as you will see in our picks below. But there is not much exploration going on.

Every time I write about California wine, I feel compelled to state the obvious that California wine is expensive here in Ontario, thanks to high prices at source and unfavourable exchange rates, upon which LCBO heaps multiple taxes (as it does with all countries). So VINTAGES needs to find examples with the lowest possible price that will sell to the majority of its consumers who have a $20-$30 comfort zone.

Thankfully however, VINTAGES releases are no longer the only retail source for California wine. If you are really keen to explore Sonoma wines get thee to the LCBO’s California destination store at Weston Road and 401 in northwest Toronto. The prices aren’t better, but the selection certainly is.

I was aching to try the entire range of Sonoma pinot noirs on the shelf now – brands like Siduri ($51.65), William Knuttel ($56.15), Robin K ($40.20), Luminous ($59.25), Flowers ($69.95) and Crossbarn by Paul Hobbs ($49.25). Among zinfandels I spied Gamba ($70.00), Novy ($39.95), Hobo ($45.75), and Zinfinity ($40.20). And yes, there is even a Hobo Grenache ($49.00) from the Alexander Valley, and Y. Rousseau Tannat from Russian River ($52.85).

California Wine Fair

Of course another avenue of discovery is the up-coming California Wine Fair in Ottawa on April 19 and Toronto on April 23. You could make Sonoma the focus of your three hours in this mammoth venue. But then again I know from experience that plans to focus at this event steer into the ditch after about 30 minutes. There are just too many temptations.

What you should also do at the fair is make the acquaintance of importers/agents who handle large portfolios of California wine. Get on their mailing lists for consignment and private order wines. The top half dozen agents importing California wine are Lifford, Rogers and Co, Profile Wine Group, E&J Gallo, The Vine and Mark Anthony.

Meanwhile, here are some Sonoma picks from the March 31st release, as well as some other New World recommendations from the WineAlign crew (except for John who has been swallowed up by Europe this month).

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES March 31st

Sonoma County Picks

Sonoma-Cutrer 2015 Russian River Ranches Chardonnay, Sonoma County ($24.95 until April 1 then back to $27.95)
David Lawrason – This is a VINTAGES Essentials that is available on an on-going basis. This is a calm, cool and collected chardonnay with fine cohesion and even some elegance. Expect ripe peachy fruit, nicely fitted with lemon, oak toast, vanillin and an underlying sense of evergreen. It is medium weight, slim but sophisticated. 

Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay 2015Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Matanzas Creek 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County ($29.95)
David Lawrason – I am surprised there is not more sauvignon in Sonoma, given its cooler climate. This is actually from the warmer Alexander Valley which brings softness and richness, but it remains fresh and balanced. Expect soft, subtle aromas of snow pea, fresh basil, lemon and some guava.

Rodney Strong 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($59.95)
Michael Godel – The Russian River Valley’s uncanny ability to combine great ripeness with a specific sort of herbal/savoury/verdant balance makes such a Reserve pinot noir so special. The proverbial notes are met; tang, verve, acidity, richesse, vividness and attitude. The vineyard provides an impressive and exciting vintage effort.

Rodney Strong Reserve Pinot Noir 2014La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2015

La Crema 2015, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($34.95)
David Lawrason – This modern, well balanced pinot is a billboard for the Sonoma pinot style – hovering between cool and warm climate character with generous raspberry/cherry fruit interlaced with subtle toast, vanillin, spice and evergreen scents. It is mid-weight, fairly smooth with a warm but not hot, and dry but not austere, finish. Nicely done.
Sara d’Amato – Consistently refined, this bright, peppery pinot noir keenly balances a commercially appealing style with authentic pinot noir character. Featuring crunchy forest floor goodness, silky tannins and a plummy-earthy profile, there is a great deal to appreciate in this eloquent and very complete wine.

Seghesio 2016 Sonoma Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($29.95)
David Lawrason – The Seghesio family specializes in zinfandel, with several old vine single vineyard bottlings. This “Sonoma blend” is pretty, juicy and nicely structured, and thankfully it is not as confected/mochafied as many mainstream California examples. It shows honest brambly berry zin fruit, fresh herbs, moderate oak. It is medium-full bodied, fairly firm and tannic but there is an overall juiciness that is very appealing.
Michael Godel – The most consistent zinfandel of just about any or all from Sonoma continues its run with this excellent ’16. Perhaps with a touch less smokiness and zing as compared to 2015 but also conversely less heat and sting. This is just great red zinfandel fruit, with a hint of dried leather and drying tannin.

Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2016Frei Brothers Reserve Zinfandel 2015Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Frei Brothers 2015 Reserve Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County ($25.95)
David Lawrason – The Frei brothers were important growers in Dry Creek back in the day, with their vineyards now in the hands of E & J Gallo. This lovely, floral, smooth and easy drinking zin flirts with confection but doesn’t commit. Expect appealing aromas of red tulip, blackberry, vanilla and finely integrated oak spice. It is smooth, easy with fine tannin and some alcohol heat.

Rodney Strong 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($25.95)
Michael Godel – A year further in bottle has contributed handsomely to this Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon, namely calm and smoky-fruity integration. Estate experience, winemaking prowess, verdant Sonoma quality and just enough oak to balance out the ripeness with a lovely smoulder. These are all contributions that add up to choosing such a California cabernet over a sea filled with a host of unknowable others.

Other New World Picks

Howard Park 2016 Flint Rock Chardonnay, Mount Barker, Great Southern, Western Australia ($22.95)
David Lawrason – From an isolated corner of southwest Australia comes a light, crisp, lemon-green chardonnay – certainly a leaner, cool climate style than most will expect from Australia. The aromas are a bit reserved, with nicely integrated toast, lemon, vague mint/evergreen and vanillin.
Sara d’Amato – Australia Howard Park is one of Great Southern’s top producers and an advocate for the region that has been long overlooked in favour of the premium neighbouring region of Margaret River. This cooler climate region populated by increasing numbers of small, quality-minded producers is now creating global reverence. The vibrant, nervy, flinty character of this chardonnay is a spot-on illustration of the structure and intensity that can emanate from this growing region.
Michael Godel – From the Great Southern region where fruit is delivered in great big blocks of flesh and spirit. The utter deliciousness and vital energy of such a chardonnay is beautiful and invigorating. It’s cool and full of sunshine in the great dichotomous way of what can happen out of the magic climate of Western Australia.

Howard Park Flint Rock Chardonnay 2016Whitehaven Greg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015Woodside Park Pinot Noir 2016

Whitehaven 2015 Greg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand ($22.95)
David Lawrason – This very bright, pristine sauvignon has the distinct fresh dill greenness of the cooler Awatere Valley – along with white pepper, cucumber and lime. It is medium weight and well balanced with some richness and heat. Very good flavour concentration and depth.

Woodside Park 2016 Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, South Australia ($20.95)
Sara d’Amato – Here is a very curious and engaging pinot noir with mesmeric botanical aromatics that include eucalyptus, menthol, fennel and juniper. Out-of-the-ordinary but transparently reflective of terroir which is pinot noir’s most admired virtue.

Coyote’s Run 2016 Pinot Noir, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Contrary to common belief that Coyote’s Run was sold (again) in late 2017, it is still up and running, and there are some good wines from the transitional team now headed by Taylor Hulley, who has worked in the cellar for six years. This is a bright, tart and juicy pinot noir brimming with cranberry/sour cherry fruit, some acetone underpinning and light oak toast. It has real cut and tartness.

Coyote's Run Pinot Noir 2016Terra Noble Gran Reserva Carignan 2015Painted Wolf Syrah 2013

Terra Noble 2015 Gran Reserva Carignan, Maule Valley, Chile ($18.95)
Michael Godel – Not that every bottle of old, dry-farmed carignan is great but nearly all are of serious interest. This Maule Valley specimen is on the richer, riper, darker fruit side but its unadulterated nature takes precedence over alcohol and wood. Lighter versions may be more appealing but this is certainly worth a detour those wanting to try something different.
Sara d’Amato – This large estate with over 360 hectares of vineyards in Maule, Colchagua and Casablanca focused on single varietal wines that exploit specific terroir.  The Gran Reserva is sourced from 50 years old bush vines in granitic soils that experience a long maceration period in an effort to create firm tannic definition in the wine. Above all, this is an immensely tasty wine, lightly smoky with opulent fruit, ripe tannins and excellent length.

Painted Wolf 2013 Syrah, Swartland, South Africa ($21.95)
Sara d’Amato – Despite the fact that regional characteristics might be difficult to discern in this widely appealing syrah, it is notably well crafted and wonderfully perfumed. This is an easy-drinking wine, lightly peppery with very fine use of wood and a fleshy but not unfirm texture.
Michael Godel – As an example from the Swartland the Painted Wolf is clearly set on the commercially directed, clean and anti-funky side of syrah. It is exactly that absence of some natural, earthy-rubbery complexity that reaches out to grab a larger audience in search of what greatness can come from South Africa’s Western Cape.

And that’s a wrap for this week. Part two comes your way just in time to kick of the first long weekend of spring, which we hope will be warm enough to tempt you into lively whites and rosés.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Sommelier Selections

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

Try & Buy Prince Edward County Wines