Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES April 18, 2020

A Golden Age of Buying Wine in Ontario, Bubbles of Asti, and Wines Worth the Wait In Line

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

This week’s report takes a look at the rapidly changing wine retail landscape in Ontario. There’s a silver lining: when the rest of the world is shuttered down, the wine world is suddenly opening up. We may be at the dawn of a new golden age of wine retailing. And while that further unfolds, knowing there’s a line up at the LCBO,  we’ve compiled a shopping list of the best releases from April 18th to make your lengthy wait in line worthwhile. Just call ahead to set your order aside and make sure everything is in stock. And our bonus worldwide coverage continues: this week Michael takes us on a tour of Piedmont, and specifically the frothy, bubbly world of Asti and its three stylistic pillars: Secco, Dolce, and Moscato d’Asti. His extensive, long-read includes dozens of recommended wines and producers. Closer to home, if you missed my live Instagram video takeover of @winecountryont last week in which I lay out the what, when, where, and how of Ontario wine (the why you can figure out), grab a glass of VQA and catch the replay here: #VQAatHome Live Session.

Boschendal Sommelier Selection Pinotage 2016 

Wine Industry Overdrive

While a good part of the world is shut down, the wine industry carries on. I don’t just mean the seasonal vineyard cycle, though grapes are being harvested and wine is undergoing fermentation south of the equator. And here in the north, vines are awakening and beginning their inexorable cycle towards their raison d’être, to bear fruit and propagate. Vineyard work cannot wait if humans are to intervene and make wine instead.

But other parts of the industry have also been kicked into overdrive. Reports streaming in from all corners of the globe show unprecedented increases in direct-to-consumer sales, or DTCs as they’re called in the trade. This means wineries, importers and subscription wine clubs are selling straight to you more than ever before, by-passing the traditional distribution chain through now mostly closed restaurants (the on-trade) and retail bricks-and-mortar (off-trade) operations that represented the lion’s share of transactions until the world fell apart. Online sales and direct deliveries of course existed before, but at nowhere near the levels we’re seeing now.

Perhaps you’re one of the Ontarians who have recently discovered the thoroughly civilized experience of receiving a case of wine at your doorstep directly from a trusted local winery or importer, at no additional cost, and no signature required (nor driving, parking, standing in line, etc.). “Why didn’t I try this before?”, you ask yourself.

But whereas in other parts of the world the smart brix-and-mortar retailers, not to be left out, have re-tooled their businesses with unparalleled swiftness to join the online frenzy, building, or expanding upon, a base infrastructure for digital transactions, and logistics for packing and shipping DTC, the same is not true in Ontario.

Here, as you know, “brix-and-mortar retailer” is essentially a single entity, the LCBO. I can almost certainly guarantee that the case delivered to your door did not come from the LCBO. This lumbering giant of an importer-wholesaler-retailer has been caught with its proverbial pants around the ankles. An already scant online ordering system in the B.C. era (Before Covid) has since been exposed, thanks to precipitously increasing demand, as so woefully inadequate as to be laughable. Only it’s not funny. For anyone unaware that there are other options to buy alcohol in Ontario other than by standing in line outside an LCBO like a comrade out for a loaf of bread, it would be downright infuriating.

A random wine search on yesterday (in this case I typed in “Chablis”) revealed a screen that looks like this:

Home delivery? Impossible. Transferred, at least, to a store nearer you for pick up? Forget it. No, you’ll have to click on the “Buy In-store +” to learn that you’ll have to drive to Markham, or London, or Gananoque to pick up your bottle. And if you’re looking for three bottles, probably all three stores.

Entering The Golden Age

So where government falls, private industry picks up. Local importing agencies and Ontario wineries have massively stepped up their DTC game. Visit the websites of anyone of several dozen Ontario importers, or 100s of Canadian wineries, and click, click, click. Delivery within the week, if not sooner. Even my mother was able to order a case of wine online from an agent last week, the very first time in her life. It arrived the next day. She’ll never drive to an LCBO again.

(Click for a list of importers and local wineries offering free deliveries in Ontario)

The largest impediment for consumers buying direct from importers (among a forest-full of regulatory hurdles), is the arch-old restriction that these so-called “consignment” wines, not destined for the LCBO shelves, must be sold by the full case. No splitting that 12-pack. Not all people are keen to do this, understandably.

But in yet another development, I’ve recently seen agents offering mixed cases of imported consignment wines for sale. That’s no grey area, that’s simply illegal under the current rules. But those doing it don’t seem to care. It’s as if they’re taunting the LCBO to come after them, saying, “you can do it, so why can’t we? And we’re better at it.” Which they are. And in many cases, they’re also doing it to survive, as most of their customers who buy by the case – restaurants – are out of business. They have no one else to sell to.

The SAQ moved recently to allow importers in Québec to mix and match cases of imported wines. One would expect the LCBO to follow suit. So at least that restriction might be officially dropped. But at time of writing, not yet.

And while Ontario wineries have always been able to ship within Ontario, what of interprovincial shipping restrictions for all Canadian wines? Although the Feds gave the green light some time ago, most provinces are still hanging on to the early 20th century legal rudder of provincial autonomy fastened to their sinking ships and steadfastly refusing to let go.

But now, there’s hardly any BC, or Nova Scotia or Québec winery that won’t ship to your door in Ontario, even though that’s a no-no. What have they got to lose? Nothing, except perhaps their businesses if they don’t. Since cellar doors are closed and restaurant clients gone, DTC is all they’ve got. If you’re Canadian, you can order a case from any Canadian winery, right to your door.

And really, as far as offences go, these are about as petty as they come.

But I highly doubt the LCBO would risk the negative publicity of going after these lawbreakers at this point in time in any case – I mean, their pants are down, their website is broken, and frustrated people are lining up for booze (except on Mondays, when shops are closed). And then they make a move to cut off your supply and levy a fine or strip the licence of an already-struggling small business? That would make for a really great exposé and interview by Matt Galloway on CBC’s The Current.

The main point is that a global pandemic has forced change on virtually every business. Many of those changes have been catastrophically bad. But in a few rare instances, forced change has been good. For wine lovers in Ontario, you’ve discovered another world. You’ve become aware of the quality of locally-produced wines that you might not have considered buying before. You’ve gained access to a vast world of imported wines that have never seen an LCBO shelf. You’ve cultivated a direct, if virtual, relationship with someone who has passionately scoured the globe to find interesting, quirky, idiosyncratic, classic, delicious wines. You’ve joined a subscription service that delivers a surprise curated case of new discoveries with comforting regularity to your home.

[Note: Visit the WineAlign Exchange where you’ll find dozens of mixed cases on offer for home delivery, some curated by the WineAlign critics like the Great Canadian Wine Exchange featuring mixed cases of wines from Niagara, Prince Edward County, BC, and Nova Scotia , and other non-curated offers from multiple agencies.]

While the rest of the world seems to be growing insufferably smaller and smaller, the wine world is suddenly getting bigger. The local wine scene is entering a golden age. And these new buying habits you are acquiring just might linger into the A.C. era. Hopefully nobody gets fined.

VINTAGES Buyers’ Guide April 18thWhite and Rosé

Tornatore 2018 Etna Bianco, Sicily, Italy ($24.95)

John Szabo – Giuseppe Tornatore’s 40+ ha on Mount Etna make the telecommunications businessman’s holdings among the largest in the DOC. His grandparents made wine from these same northern slopes of the volcano, so he comes by the wine business honestly, and today he’s hard to top for value in the appellation. This is arch-classic Etna Bianco, featuring lemon peel and pith, green and yellow-fleshed tree fruit, and a smoky-flinty note typical to the mountain. Acids are properly firm, and length well above the mean in the price category. In sum there’s loads of character here for the money. Drink or hold into the mid-’20s.

Sara d’Amato – A go-to white for me, this classic Etna Bianco featuring carricante delivers spine-tingling zip and a peppery tingle. Mid-weight, effortlessly drinkable with the structure for mid-term ageing and endless food pairing permutations. High elevation, northern facing, volcanic plateau grown with minimal intervention – hard not to yield a beautiful wine!

Maison Roche de Bellene 2016 Vieilles Vignes Saint Véran, Burgundy, France ($27.95)

John Szabo – The reliable Nicholas Potel’s négociant activity never seems to fail to unearth sharp values from growers throughout Burgundy, from Chablis to Beaujolais. This, from the Mâconnais village of St. Véran, strikes a fine balance between freshness and creamy-leesy-lactic flavours, like crème fraîche, and citrus/white-fleshed tree fruit and flinty-stony character. A solid white Bourgogne for the money.

David Lawrason – St. Veran is the southernmost of the Macon villages and always seems to produce riper and richer styles. This 2016 re-release at Vintages is drinking very nicely now, maintaining freshness and primary fruit. It is medium-full bodied with a fine seam of acidity and minerality.

Tornatore 2018 Etna Bianco Maison Roche de Bellene 2016 Vieilles Vignes Saint Véran Invivo Graham Norton's Own 2018 Sauvignon Blanc

Invivo Graham Norton’s Own 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($17.95)

David Lawrason – This is a modern NZ sauvignon that pieces together classic elements of green pepper and white pepper, passion fruit, mandarin and fresh herbs. In an era when may commercial NZ Sauvignons tend to sweetness this remains dry and edgy.

Rapaura Springs 2018 Rohe Sauvignon Blanc, Certified Sustainable, Blind River, Marlborough ($25.95)

Sara d’Amato – Despite originating from a cool, lesser-known sub-appellation of Blind Springs, the ripeness and weight are significant in this sauvignon blanc. A-typical but decadent and compelling with great intensity of flavours. To get to the palate, you must pass by the flinty, ashy and peppery nose of reductive character that is oh-so stylish.

Stemmari 2018 Grillo, Sustainably Farmed, DOC Sicilia, Italy ($14.95)

David Lawrason – Great little value in a very pretty, almost exotic white from warm Sicily, but not at all hot or overripe or overwrought. The nose is rich yet soft with dried, almost candied starfruit, lemon and fresh mint or thyme. Lively.

Rapaura Springs 2018 Rohe Sauvignon Blanc Stemmari 2018 Grillo Cusumano 2018 Insolia

Cusumano 2018 Insolia, IGT Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy ($12.95)

John Szabo – Sharp little value from Cusumano in Sicily, a clean, bright, lemon-citrus and green peach/apricot-flavoured inzolia free from oak influence. For $13 I’m satisfied. Chill and crack.

A Coroa 2018 Godello, Valdeorras, Spain ($24.95)

David Lawrason – Godello is white from northwest Spain making global inroad. This is bright, detailed example with melon friit. It is medium-full bodied, dry, bright and firmer on the palate than I expected. Solid alternative white.

Michael Godel – From Valdeorras a magic will occur, spontaneously and without warning, as here, with a varietal wine that speaks fluent varietal vernacular. The fruit makes a crunching sound when bitten into and when wine affords that textural ability leading to audible sensation than you know something is up. And on. This godello’s length goes on and on. And on.

Chateau De Beaucastel 2018 Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc, Cotes du Rhone, France ($34.95)

David Lawrason – Coudelet de Beaucastel is a property lying just outside the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, making very similar, elegant, rich whites from native varieties. This barrel fermented version shows lovely florals, fruit and spice in a very smooth, elegant, so French style.

Sara d’Amato – For all intents and purposes, this is a Châteauneuf in the skin of Côtes du Rhône as the grapes originate from across the road from the Beaucastel estate. Still youthful with gusto but not force. Ripe peach, pear, rose and lavender permeate the palate with oak that will surely integrate with another year or two in bottle.

A Coroa 2018 Godello Chateau De Beaucastel 2018 Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc Henry of Pelham 2018 Estate Riesling

Henry of Pelham 2018 Estate Riesling, VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Escarpment, Ontario ($19.95)

Michael Godel – The crisp, clear and crunchiest of riesling vintages is this ’18 from the Speck bros, inimitable for its Short Hills Bench refreshment and bold as F. As in love, a gift from a generational place that knows intimately what riesling can be.

Stemmari 2019 Rosé, IGT Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy ($13.95)

Michael Godel – Stemmari as part of Mezzacorona wines makes use of nero d’avola grown in sandy soils located in Ragusa province. Theirs is lithe, salty and so very crushable. Sapid and crisp, bloody fresh and hard not to finish a bottle without a care in the world. Immense value.

Stemmari 2019 RoséMas des Bressades 2019 Cuvée Tradition Rosé

Mas des Bressades 2019 Cuvée Tradition Rosé, Costières de Nîmes, Rhône, France ($16.95)

Sara d’Amato – A cool oasis in the southern Rhône, the effusively aromatic character of this blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault is characteristically Costières de Nîmes – the heartland of Provence. A dry, rosé made with saignée style maceration that gives more colour than your typical Provençal œil-de-perdrix pink.

VINTAGES Buyers’ Guide April 18th: Red

Vina Tondonia 2007 Rioja Reserva, Rioja Alta, Spain ($59.95, John Hanna & Sons)

John Szabo – Lopez de Heredia’s Reserva spends six years in barrique, followed by racking into large casks and then a further three years in bottle, at least, before release. The 2007 is an understated, elegant vintage for this arch-classic, still a little raw around the edges texturally. Fruit is still present, though of course it’s more about the savoury side of the flavour spectrum. I’d suggest holding it a bit longer (2-4 years at least) to sand down the briary edges – historically Tondonia evolves very slowly – or at least be sure to decant an hour or two in advance to properly oxygenate. It’s a stately, decidedly un-flashy wine that needs your full attention to  fully grasp.

Culmina R & D 2016 Red Blend, Golden Mile, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($26.95)

David Lawrason – From estate fruit on the benches of the Golden Mile sub-appellation of the south Okanagan, R & D is a rich, floral and generously oak merlot-based ‘big red” Quite fairly dense and rich and almost suave with some green tannin. Good value, drink now with aeration or hold up to three years.

Vina Tondonia 2007 Rioja Reserva Culmina R & D 2016 Red Blend Casablanca Nimbus 2016 Pinot Noir

Casablanca Nimbus 2016 Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($24.95)

David Lawrason – This single vineyard pinot from the coastal Casablanca Valley shows classic fruit drenched Chilean blackcurrant, evergreen and toast. It is not a wine of great nuance and complexity but it is delicious, with fine tannin and a certain lushness.

Sara d’Amato – Fresh and elegant, this single vineyard pinot noir also has a satisfying quality of roundness and ripeness without being over the top. A fuller example of Casablanca but one that is well made and very well-balanced with notable complexity.

Roco Marsh 2015 Estate Pinot Noir, Yamhill Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($48.95)

David Lawrason – This evolving 2015 scores on balance, integration and texture. It is medium weight, almost plush but not at all heavy, with fine tannin and some alcohol warmth. Not a dramatic wine, but very appealing, and very Oregon.

Michael Godel – Roco’s very small production pinot noir from proprietors Doug and Pat Marsh is also the work of well-known Oregon winemaker Rollin Soles. Remarkably light for a wine on a 14.5 per cent alcohol frame, fruit sweet as ripe can be and acids just as fine. It needs saying that this intimates high quality Beaune as well as any on the west coast.

Château de Montfaucon 2016 Côtes Du Rhône, AP Rhône, France ($18.95)

Michael Godel – Rodolphe de Pins is the proprietor of Château De Montfaucon, neighbour to Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and former winemaker at both Vieux-Telégraphe and Henschke in Barossa, Australia. His entry-level CdR is impulsively implosive and one of those classic Rhône red blends that travel up and down the sides of the mouth with tenacity and purpose. Impunity nearly, a vivid construct of aromas, acids and wild red berry fruit. All for $19.

Sara d’Amato – Owner and winemaker Rodolphe de Pins is a traditionalist and a realist which is reflective in his engagingly transparent wines. This incarnation has been held back to a harmonious point with softened tannins and an elegant profile. Ripe figs, plum, cherry and pomegranate with a little pepper on the end add charm to the palate.

Roco Marsh 2015 Estate Pinot Noir Château de Montfaucon 2016 Côtes Du Rhône Castello di Gabbiano 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva

Castello di Gabbiano 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva, DOCG Tuscany, Italy ($18.95)

Michael Godel – The consistency of the Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva continues in 2015 and it is becoming increasingly impossible to find matchable quality at this price level. TTasted in 2017 it was frankly a bit hot right now but I noted “that too will relax.” And it has. With each passing year another rung is ascended up the CCR ladder forged by the winemaker Federico Cerelli.

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

John Szabo, MS

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