Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 30, 2020

Awe-stralia, International Finds and How to Buy Wine

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

We are finally hitting our stride at WineAlign, tasting through and posting as many reviews as possible from the most recent VINTAGES releases in our database. We appreciate your patience as the usual channel through which reviewers taste wines in advance of LCBO releases has been closed to us as a COVID-19 precaution. We are purchasing wines as quickly as possible after their release in stores, reviewing the wines at a sanitized, off-site location in physically-distanced pairs and then publishing our results within a couple of days. On the upside, we are no longer beholden to the LCBO to determine what we taste but, on the downside, the reviews are not available to you immediately upon the wine’s release in stores.

It is becoming widely understood by now that the LCBO is not the only channel for purchasing wine in Ontario. Those of us who have not been willing to wait in line or for long shipping times, have been looking elsewhere. Now that the LCBO’s same-day pickup option is viable, some of you may be returning to the stores as your regular source of wine. Others may be sticking with delivery from agents, take-out from restaurants (that have become wine shops in their own right due to recent public ordinance) or rediscovering local wines through online ordering direct from wineries. This business has been booming as of late and I can’t help but wonder if these new purchasing habits will have permanence. We have had tremendous response to our “agency cases” and our restaurant relief case, both of which are not curated by WineAlign critics, but rather by the agents and restaurants themselves. In addition, our subscription-based Exchange program, that is meticulously curated by WineAlign critics, has experienced such a surge of interested that we have decided to offer more curated options in order to try to keep up with demand. Be sure to view our Passport series cases that are WineAlign-curated cases from important wine regions from around the world. First up, Chianti Classico, on offer now. These Passport to Chianti Classico mixed cases celebrate the three levels of the region’s appellations. Case #1 explores the youthful freshness of sangiovese and the subtle differences found in the eight communes and their soils. Case #2 brings together bolder, fuller-bodied, more structured and cellar worthy Chianti Classico.

Finally, if you would rather drink local, a series of three local cases, curated by our critics in partnership with the 13 Ontario wineries that make up Somewhereness, are now available.


With a slow and steady re-opening of Canadian businesses, wineries are preparing to reopen as well. Although curbside pick-up or delivery is still your only option when buying local, this is likely to change over the summer but will be a vastly different experience from what you remember. BC wineries are beginning to open already, and we in Ontario will surely learn from their attempts. Ahead of the game is Australia which also happens to be the featured country in this week’s VINTAGES release. According to Winetitles Media, South Australian wineries are now permitted to reopen to the public with specific guidelines. A cap of up to 80 visitors will be permitted should the space allow for social distancing and both food and wine may be served. Tasting at a wine bar is a thing of the past now in South Australia as guests have to be seated and sharing plates of food are a no-go. Guests will have to reserve specific time slots in advance and regular sanitizing between appointments will be necessary.

Australia has been hit hard with crippling environmental disasters in the form of devastating forest fires followed by the global onslaught of COVID-19 over the past year, but their wine industry has proven resilient. By January 2020, 12.35 million acres of Australian forest and bushland were consumed by the fires according to BIE (Beverage Industry Enthusiast). Fires that had been raging since the end of September 2019 forced evacuation and were the cause of a significant amount of loss of wildlife. Fortunately for the wine industry, vineyards are a natural fire barrier, especially when irrigated. At a Wine Australia trade tasting in Toronto earlier this year, educator Mark Davidson reported that only about 1,500 hectares out of the 146,000 hectares of planted vineyard in Australia had been hit (about 1%). If you think this number suggests that wineries made out swimmingly, you’d be in the wrong. Economic devastation aside, smoke taint and loss of yield due to reduced sunlight exposure and drought has affected wineries disproportionately and the true impact of the fires is yet to be determined. Most impacted was the Adelaide Hills region in South Austria where up to 30% loss of production has been reported. Areas such as New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have also experienced a more important loss of vineyard. While the Australian industry rebounds from the fires, COVID-19’s impact on both local and export sales has been tangible. Expect to see little wine from the Hunter Valley or Adelaide Hills region in 2020.

Brokenwood’s Graveyard Vineyard

Yet, the discussion of Australian wine need not be overshadowed with stories of fire as we have been fortunate to see a wide range of styles available to us in Canada over the past three years. This is in part due to an Australian government spending initiative that has invested $50 million from 2017-2020 largely in order to promote Australia’s export growth. Australia is now the 5th largest wine exporter in the world and the University of Adelaide reports that Australian wine is a 40.2-billion-dollar business. It is notably difficult to slow down a machine of that magnitude.

Innovation has long been a cornerstone of Australian wine, being one of the first countries to almost entirely adopt the screw-cap closure and to develop of cutting-edge measures to produce cleaner wine. Australia has been quick to innovate in response to climate change as well as to react to changing consumer demand. Increasing drought and rising temperatures due to increasing levels of CO2 has led to more efficient irrigation practices, a move to cooler and higher elevation plantings, increased plantings on south-facing slopes and earlier harvest dates. This change has largely led to the rise of the Tasmanian wine industry, a region that has been identified as an oasis of cool that is capable of producing fresh, high-quality wines. Despite the challenges, the Australian wine industry is no longer plagued by an excess of high-alcohol, sweet, oak-driven wines. Those wines of old are still there if you look for them but a range of progressive, stylish, fresher wine abounds.

Kangaroo in Brokenwood’s Graveyard Vineyard

This VINTAGES offering focuses on key grape varieties for Australia: chardonnay, semillon, syrah, grenache as well as better known Aussie blends such as GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvedre) and cabernet-shiraz. At the top of my list for summer are, of course, whites: chardonnay & semillon. If you can’t see past the yellow-labelled, sawdust-infused styles of Australian chardonnay than it is time for a second look. I have had several key moments of embarrassment over the past few years where blind tastings took me to Burgundy, even Chablis when tasting Australian chardonnay.  As for semillon, there is no place in the world like the Hunter Valley for this grape variety. It is easy to mistake this region as too hot to produce quality wine, or to dismiss the young semillon as too simple, but there is so much more to these wines than meets the eye. High quality semillon has become synonymous with Hunter Valley but these lemon-hued gems deserve time in bottle. Patience from you will be rewarded with an outstanding experience after 4-10 years in bottle. Save for a few exceptions, open these wines too soon and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.

Without further ado, here are our top choices from Australia and beyond. Take note of the many double alignments and our star-crossed, quadruple alignment pick:

Australia Picks

Montalto 2018 Pennon Hill Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia ($27.95)
David Lawrason – From the seaside Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne comes a fine, firm chardonnay with generous, complex and exotic aromas. It is firm and grippy with surprising intensity and veracity. The length is excellent to outstanding.
Michael Godel – Gotta love the reductive bite of a Mornington Peninsula wine when made to preserve a pace of freshness and a marine proximate sense of place. Crisp, crunchy, tart, bitten and intense. Intriguing, inspiring and very curious.
Sara d’Amato – A fine chardonnay whose quality absolutely matches the price. The nose is somewhat closed and broody at present so be sure not to overchill.  A flavourful expansion on the palate gives way to impressive length.

Brokenwood 2018 Hunter Valley Sémillon, New South Wales, Australia ($27.95)
Michael Godel – There is no varietal wine that opens like sémillon and when drawn from the wisdom of vineyards in the Hunter Valley the expression is priceless. This from Brokenwood is a leader as a basic one, the 101, the entry and gateway sémillon. The vintage adds richness and so more of the population will join in to relish in the charms of this amazing grape.
David Lawrason – This shows the classic Hunter semillon nose, one of the wine world’s most intriguing and off-beat fragrances. I strive to describe it in my review. But it earns it accolade with firm, lively structure, finishing with great lime-grapefruit and serious minerality.
John Szabo – Iain Riggs and the Brokenwood team craft one of the best semillons in Australia, as my experience stretching back now a couple of decades has shown. These wines, while shy in the early stages, develop beautifully in bottle; a decade is about right to start drinking. For those less patient, you can also enjoy the first flush of youth before the wine shuts down- that means about now, or forget it in the cellar until the mid-late ’20s to start enjoying again, with holding potential of a couple of decades no doubt. Brilliant stuff.
Sara d’Amato – It is not every year that LCBO receives an allocation of this masterfully produced semillon from Brokenwood but when we do, I consider it a lucky year. Patience will be rewarded here so tuck this away for another 2-3 years at least to appreciate its notably complex development.

Tahbilk 2017 Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria  ($22.95)
David Lawrason – This is a complex and very well balanced Rhone-inspired GSM blend. I like the generous black and red fruit (blackberry and cranberry), pepper, cedar and gentle herbality but it is the poise and purity of expression that impresses most.
Michael Godel – Should not and will not hesitate to employ the word classic for this Tahbilk G-S-M because in terms of the Rhône-ish trilogy in Central Victorian rags that is precisely the charm. The grenache sets the juicy and extreme red fruit tone while shiraz and especially mourvèdre turn on the lights, then provide the backbone so essential to length. Drinkable and ready to gift five plus years of dinner music, company and life.

John’s Blend 2015 Margarete’s Shiraz, Langhorne Creek, South Australia ($39.95)
David Lawrason – As the former winemaker for Wolf Blass John Glaetzer helped put tiny Langhorne Creek on the map by sourcing fruit there for some of his chart-topping wines. This is a dark, smooth, fulsome and rich and very complex shiraz in a maturing, more traditional style, but it shows refinement within its bigness and ripeness. Great length.

De Bortoli 2018 G. S Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia ($19.95)
John Szabo – Another sharp value here from De Bortoli, a juicy, light, fresh and friendly pinot with genuine balance and surprising concentration. Tannins are fine and dusty, and the sapidity factor is high. Ready to enjoy.
Sara d’Amato – Worthy of note is this compelling, pinot noir of impressive intensity at under $20. Dark and moody but not heavy with fine tannins an enticing balanced of fruity and savory.

Shanahans 2016 The Old Dog Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia, Australia ($19.95)
Michael Godel – Shanahan’s is quite handsome shiraz with a touch of Barossa Valley brood and yet it really is quite balanced and pure. At optimum ripeness without even thinking about going over this can be seen as that prime example of new Australia from which restraint and perfect vanishing point perspective are in view, regardless of vantage point.
John Szabo – A solid value for anyone seeking a bold and rich Aussie shiraz in the classic style under $20.

Shingleback 2016 Davey Estate Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, South Australia ($23.95)
Michael Godel – This single-vineyard shiraz from the Davey Estate is a juicy one with full-on supportive acidity and surprisingly lifted tannins. Every tone is set high despite the dark fruit or rather to assist in carrying the weight. Goes blue, red and black in simultaneous and also in consecutive ways for the full McLaren Vale effect. A bit of a throwback, really far back, with a decade laying ahead out of the pocket in a $23 shiraz.

Yalumba 2018 Samuel’s Collection Bush Vine Grenache, Barossa, South Australia Australia ($24.95)
John Szabo – This is such a pleasant and joyful wine, with all of the silkiness and perfume of perfectly ripe grenache. It’s a stark exposé of the benefits of dry-farmed, old vines when it comes to natural balance.

Nugan Estate 2016 Alcira Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, Australia $29.95
Sara d’Amato – A commercially pleasing style of cabernet sauvignon done very well, this satisfying red offers a fine tannic presence, a delicate smokiness and just shy of jammy black fruit. Notably present are the floral and savory aromatics along with a distinct ferrous quality that is distinctly Coonawarra.

Beyond Oz

Gruet Brut Sparkling Rosé, New Mexico, USA ($26.95)
David Lawrason – Who knew that New Mexico was making good sparkling wine?  Not the greatest ever made but well made and very good value, with a story. This property, owned by Gilbert Gruet, whose family makes Champagne in France, has been going strong with traditional method, high altitude grown sparklers since 1984. It has surprisingly complexity with firm acidity, some pastry sweetness and excellent length.

La Cave Du Coudray 2018 Réserve du Chiron Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine, Sur Lie, AC Loire, France ($15.95)
Michael Godel – As far as Muscadet is concerned this is at first quite unctuous and fruit forward though there too is the salty core, marine confluence and enough lees to carry the weight. No one could accuse this Chiron of residing on the lean side of the melon de bourgogne tracks. Not a chance. Not just a bivalve white but also for molluscs and mushrooms of the oyster kind.

William Fèvre 2018 Champs Royaux Chablis, Bourgogne, France ($29.95)
Michael Godel – Champs Royaux is the workhorse of the Fèvre portfolio, the result of mastering vineyard picks and masterly blending. The 2018 vintage delivers materials every cellar master should hope to work with. Near zero fruit variability, abundance and the sentiment of what Chablis truly is.

Erste & Neue 2018 Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige, Italy (19.95)
Sara d’Amato – This skin-contact, pink-tinged pinot grigio could pass for a pale rosé and can certainly provide a similarly satisfying refreshment. A more intense, but dry, style of pinot grigio from one of Italy’s most northernly growing regions. Offering Alpine note of pine needle as well as mineral and salt with ample but not showy fruit.

Il Poggio 2018 Taburno Sannio Coda di Volpe, Campania, Italy ($17.95)
David Lawrason – Purchased personally out of curiosity I was totally taken with this wine.  Such a great find – a rich almost pastry-like yet tensile white from the Sannio DOC in southern Campania, made from the local coda di volpe grape. There is a sense of sweetness but it is not at all sugary – it is a bath of fruit and lees with fine acidity at the core. Loved it with fish tacos.

Schug 2017 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, USA ($34.95)
John Szabo – The ever-reliable house of Schug delivers another appealing west coast style pinot with some old world sensibility. California’s sunshine shines through in the ripe currant and raspberry fruit, but coolish climate acids keep flavours on track.

Gérard Bertrand 2016 Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre, AP Corbières, France ($17.95)
John Szabo – Lovely, succulent, chewy and appealingly rustic, lightly salty Corbières here from Bertrand, which captures the wild and savoury nature of the territory nicely.
Sara d’Amato – You can almost feel the wind blow the salty air to your lips and the lifted aromas of lavender, anise and wild thyme. The wildness of Corbières is enticingly captured in this esteemed southern blend.

Castaño Hécula 2017 Monastrell, DO Yecla, Spain ($14.95)
John Szabo – Always a satisfying, chewy, richly ripe fruit-flavoured wine with extract above the mean for the price – it’s hard to top Bodegas Castaño for sheer value in the bold red category, and 2017 is a particularly nice vintage.

Pedra Cancela 2016 Winemaker Selection Red, Dão, Portugal ($13.95)
Sara d’Amato – A stylish, sophisticated blend that distinctly captures a sense of place – notable  for a wine under $15! Vibrant with a sensual aromatic profile of black pepper, anise, a touch of sandalwood and blackberry bud.
John Szabo – A fully respectable Dão red made from touriga nacional blended with alfrocheiro and tinta roriz (tempranillo), indeed sharp value. I appreciate the drinkability, the liveliness and freshness, and the fine-grained tannins. A wine to buy a case of and have around the house for all occasions.

That’s it for this week. Please do comment below on what you’ve tasted and your preferred
method of wine buying to date!


Sara d’Amato

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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.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix

New Release and VINTAGES Preview