Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES November 9th

Premium California

By John Szabo, MS with notes from Michael Godel, David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato

The Vintages bi-weekly release themes are of course planned many months in advance, so there would be no way of knowing this “Premium California” focus would correspond with yet another round of devastating wildfires in the state, especially in northern California. The so-called Kincade Fire, the largest fire yet recorded in Sonoma County, started Oct. 23 northeast of Geyserville at John Kincade Road and (prophetically-named) Burned Mountain Road. It has consumed some 80,000 acres, including over 400 destroyed or damaged structures. By the time this report goes to press, the California fire officials expect to have the blaze fully contained.

But the story could have been much worse. The main damage was sustained in a non-residential, rural area of northeastern Sonoma County, comprised mainly of grass and brushland. According to the California Wine Institute, “the vast majority of Sonoma County vineyards and wineries are intact. Vineyards are serving as firebreaks due to their high moisture content, helping to save structures and homes, although there have been some individual losses.”

Furthermore, the 2019 winegrape harvest will be largely unaffected. “Wineries in the North Coast and around the state are finished or were in the homestretch of the harvest prior to the fires. The 2019 California growing season presented vintners with wine grapes of high quality and a large harvest just slightly smaller than 2018.”

But damage was done, and the best way to contribute to recovery is to pump some money back into California. And the smart, win-win way for wine lovers is to buy California wine. The November 9th release offers plenty of opportunity to do just that, with a parade of top notch, premium-priced wines on offer. The range is one of the best I can remember; little shelf space was reserved for more speculative mid-priced wines. You’ll find trusted, classic names like Kistler, Shafer, Dominus, Mondavi and Cliff Lede, among others, who all performed superbly with their efforts from the string of vintages from ’14 to ’17 represented in this release. And when contemplating the hefty price tags, remember the wildfire relief efforts. It’s a good cause.

For others seeking less thrillingly-priced wines, we’ve also picked out some smart buys from around the world featuring, unintentionally, the southern hemisphere, with a nod to Ontario and the South of France. Oh, and there’s one really sharp value California cabernet as well.

Spanish Masterclass-in-a-Box 

Buyers Guide November 9th: Premium California White

Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2017, Sonoma County USA ($114.95)
John Szabo – Kistler’s latest Sonoma Mountain chardonnay is a lovely, ripe, seamless wine, of a very high degree of sophistication. Enjoy now or hold until 2027+.
Michael Godel Kistler’s Sonoma Mountain is just about as deep and brooding as it gets for chardonnay which indicates a high level chain of extract and tannin. Thankfully the fully ripened and extracted fruit can withstand the onslaught of intensity. As might we, were we find the right food to match the tension. Rich seafood is so obvious but clearly the right way to go. 

Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard 2015, Napa Valley, USA ($59.95)
John Szabo – From Mondavi’s flagship vineyard and a plot of old vines, among the oldest sauvignon in Napa Valley, and the winery that invented the Fumé Blanc name and pioneered the style, this 2015 Reserve is an excellent wine. It’s also built to last, and indeed I’d cellar this at least another 3-4 years for a more complete expression, or hold into the late ’20s and beyond.
Michael GodelAt the peak for larger quantity Mondavi whites sits this fumé blanc, produced all the way going back to 1966. This is as generous as it gets so expect all you could want in Napa Valley sauvignon blanc and more. That includes age-ability and longevity in energy. Comes in waves and never relents.

Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2016, Carneros, Napa Valley USA ($84.95)
John Szabo – Not known for subtlety, Shafer’s latest Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay is thick enough to cut with a knife, yet also surprisingly lithe and lively, and should satisfy many, on many levels. I’d drink or hold only short term – it’s all about the lush fruit, so enjoy it while it’s around.

Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2017, Napa Valley, California $64.95)
David Lawrason – This is for fans of what is now the traditional style of Napa chardonnay. Big, bold and complex – letting it all hang out with ripe fruit, generous oak, richness and viscosity. Not cheap, but not simple or short either.  Lots going on!

Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2017   Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard 2015  Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2016  Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2017

Buyer’s Guide November 9th: Premium California Red

Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Napa Valley, USA ($119.95)
John Szabo Canadian Cliff Lede has really nailed this 2016 Cabernet from estate vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District. Densely coloured and densely concentrated, pure, driving, honest, it’s about as good as it gets. And while drinking now, it is surely capable of a decade or two’s sojourn in the cellar. Really fine stuff, and relatively sharp value in the Napa cab universe. Best 2020-2036.
Michael Godel This from Lede is exactly what we have come to look for and expect in Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon as far as Stags Leap District is concerned. The fruit is at optimum lush and luxe accumulation. The acids are thick and pointed, generous and supportive. The tannins surround and encapsulate it all, with no prisoners taken. “Hey Lede, you’ve got the love I need.” Is that enough? As for here, yes.

Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley USA ($99.95)
John Szabo Not a typically plush and fruit-forward Napa cabernet, but all the more interesting for it, this is consistent with the Grgich house style. I like the genuine acids on offer, the fine but firm tannins, and the excellent length. Best 2022-2030.
Michael Godel Highly aromatic, sensuously perfumed, notably high-toned and at this point, just beginning to develop a liqueur of berries and their original tang, kept intact and swimming upstream. Such a spicy mix of florals and tobacco, age rendered secondary complexities and all the forest floor one could conjure up within the parameters of a 750ml bottle.

Dominus Napanook 2015, Napa Valley, USA ($134.95)
John Szabo – Well-balanced and even-keeled, nicely composed wine here, hitting a near-perfect balance and hinging on drinkability. Best 2020-2030.

Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2016  Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014  Dominus Napanook 2015

Talbott Vineyards Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County ($54.95)
David Lawrason – California pinot through and through – rich, smooth and quite hot with all kinds of sour cherry pie, spice and oak.  Delicious in its way but not for cool climate pinot fans.

Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Sonoma County ($32.95)
David Lawrason – The Alexander Valley of inland warmer Sonoma – one of the harder hit fire areas – is the best buy region for California cab, in my view. This has a pretty, jammy and complex nose. It is full bodied, quite soft, warm and well-knit in that California way.
Michael Godel Who else but Rodney Strong should be crowned to elevate and explain the possibilities from out of Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley? Long gone are the days of ripening questions because this 2016 carries all the attributes of optimum luxe and lush abilities. All you could ask for actually. Big cabernet from a just max vintage.

District 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Monterey County, Central Coast USA ($17.00)
John Szabo And for value, notwithstanding David’s accurate claim that Alexander Valley is a prime source of top premium California cabernet value, the Central Coast region, and this wine in particular, is this is your best bet for pure value. It’s a surprisingly complex and complete cabernet, delivering far more than the mean at this price level. For one, it’s dry, not pandering to the masses with heaps of residual sugar, and tannins are genuinely ripe and well managed. Length and depth are equally impressive. Well worth a look. Best 2020-2024.
Sara d’Amato – This rich and abundantly flavourful cabernet is a well-made crowd-pleaser but with authentic character and notable mouthfeel. Offering excellent concentration on the palate that is brimming with black fruit and firm tannins yet steers clear from sweetness and over-ripeness.

Talbott Vineyards Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County  Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016  District 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Buyer’s Guide November 9th: Smart Buys White & Rosé

Château Léoube Rosé De Léoube 2018, AC Côtes de Provence France ($30.95)
John Szabo – Another sophisticated and classy vintage for Léoube’s rosé in the estate’s mid-range, one that will remind you that rosé can be serious, too. No rush to drink, but delicious now.

Henry Of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Riesling 2018, VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Escarpment Canada ($24.95)
John Szabo – Extremely youthful, this is barely out of the gates but shows plenty of promise. Give it at least 2-3 years in bottle to flesh out and develop complexity. Should be a cracker. Best 2022-2030.

Benito Ferrara 2017 Terra D’uva Greco di Tufo, Campania, Italy ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – A crunchy, aromatic greco with more character than expected from this often delicate white from Campania. Brimming with flavour, dry and lightly salty with a discreet but balanced degree of acidity.

D’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne 2017, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($17.95)
John Szabo – There’s considerable wine here for the money, with impressive complexity and depth – one of the best ‘Hermit Crabs’ in memory. Should turn appealingly honeyed over the next year or two. Sharp value.

Château Léoube Rosé De Léoube 2018  Henry Of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Riesling 2018  Benito Ferrara Terra D'uva Greco Di Tufo 2017  D'Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne 2017

Roche de Bellene 2015 Mâcon La Roche Vineuse, Burgundy, France ($20.95)
Sara d’Amato – The Mâcon appellation may include one of several quality commune designations one the label, one of which is the varied terrain of La Roche Vineuse. The region is capable of making both easy drinking styles of chardonnay along with more complex versions that emphasize richness and ripeness. This seductive white falls into the latter category and is a bargain at this price with intrigue far above the norm.

Pencarrow Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Martinborough, North Island, New Zealand ($18.95)
John Szabo – The entry-level range from Palliser Estate in Martinborough (North Island), this offers well above-average flavour intensity in the category, thanks in part to the notoriously low yields of this windy region. Acids are crunchy and fruit firmly in the tart citrus spectrum, with notable green-herbal character.

Kim Crawford Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Marlborough, NZ ($24.95)
David Lawrason – This is a very fine sauvignon, carefully layered to provide complexity and almost crystalline balance. It is medium weight, rich yet crisp and keyed so well on acidity with some minerality on the finish.

Roche De Bellene Mâcon La Roche Vineuse 2015   Pencarrow Sauvignon Blanc 2017  Kim Crawford Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Buyer’s Guide November 9th: Smart Buys Red

Château de Beaucastel 2017 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France ($93.95)
Sara d’Amato – An excellent vintage for Beaucastel that feels more light-handed in winemaking than previous incarnations. Offering terrific purity of fruit and despite the volume on the palate, the nose is quite ethereal, lifted, generous and floral. Well-balanced with fine tannic structure adding grip and texture. Complex, distinctive, still quite young.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, South Australia ($39.95)
John Szabo – Although the price keeps creeping up (used to be $24.95 not so long ago), this is still one of my favorite Coonawarra cabernets, crafted reliably in an elegant and refined style. I love the detailed tannins, the succulent, ripe acids, and above all the excellent length in this 2014. Damned. It can still be considered a top value even at almost twice the price. Drink or hold another two decades, given the excellent track record of ageability of this wine spanning back to the 1950s.
Michael Godel Who manages to overwhelm with this grape and from this place without fail, consistently and with the slightest perpetual ability of improvement, vintage through and after vintage? Wynns that is who. It’s one of the world’s great three-way relationships; place, grape and wine. All together for all the right reasons, number one being quality, driven and variegated by its constituent parts.

De Morgenzon Maestro Blue 2015, WO Stellenbosch, South Africa ($29.95)
John Szabo – A blend of 44% grenache noir, 29% mourvèdre, 21% syrah and 6% petite sirah, this is stylish, lively, peppery and smoky red wine, refined yet firm, lightly dusty and grippy. Very gastronomic. Best 2021-2025.
Michael Godel Maestro is essentially a Rhône styled blend, led by grenache and one of the top wines in the De Morgenzon stable. There’s more fruit than should lawfully be allowed to be packed into one blend and quite frankly a very clean and pure disposition. Quite a revelation and an accomplishment in South African wine within this class and category.

Château De Beaucastel Châteauneuf Du Pape 2017   Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2014  De Morgenzon Maestro Blue 2015

Best’s Bin No. 1 Shiraz 2016 Great Western, Victoria, Australia ($21.95)
David Lawrason – This district produces a somewhat cooler climate style of shiraz, showing up here in the lighter, fresher feel and the pepperiness of the aromatics. It is medium weight, fairly with just enough firming tannin.

Vina Tondonia 2006 Red Reserva, Rioja Alta, Rioja, Spain ($58.95)
Sara d’Amato – A lightly cedary, toasty and bright Rioja that gives more youthful pleasure than one would expect. The aromas are hedonistic, and the palate seduces with its authentic, complex and candid charm. Sourced from the russet soils of western Rioja at significant altitude that is known for producing wines of elegance and freshness.

Mazzei Ser Lapo Riserva Chianti Classico 2016, Tuscany, Italy ($24.95)
David Lawrason –This is 95% sangiovese aged 12 months in French oak – so a modern take from a ripe, warm vintage. It has a soft, almost overripe nose. It is medium to full bodied, fairly dark and deep and satisfying.

Luce 2016, Tuscany, Italy, ($119.95)
David Lawrason – Obviously not a value pick but it is one my higher scoring wines of the year, and certainly a collectible or gifting choice. It has a gorgeous, rich, perfectly ripened nose. It is full bodied, dense and quite firm but a model of poise with excellent to outstanding length. Best 2025 to 2040.

Best's Bin No. 1 Shiraz 2016  Vina Tondonia Red Reserva 2006  Mazzei Ser Lapo Riserva Chianti Classico 2016  Luce 2016

I hope these selections prove comforting as the bite of autumn enters the picture. We will be back with more recommendations next week from beyond VINTAGES.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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.
John’s Top Picks
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Sommeliers Selections

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