Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES July 25th, 2020

Our VINTAGES Release Coverage Amid COVID

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

We continue to receive inquiries from readers as to why many VINTAGES releases are not being reviewed by WineAlign. We have tried to keep everyone informed on the situation pre-Covid and during Covid, but obviously it is time to do so again. So please read on to find out what has happened and how we would like more of the wine trade in Ontario to get involved. Or you can skip right to our picks for this week below. Please note four-critic alignment on a great value South African sparkler from Anthonij Rupert L’Ormarins and three “aligns” for Perrin’s 2019 Tavel Rose.

First of all, let me be very clear that we are reviewing wines for the benefit of consumers, not the wineries, their agents or the LCBO. This focus dictates that our ratings and comments be objective, which is actually dead easy to do when it’s just you and the bottle in front of you. I don’t want to get into the scoring debate, which we have done in the past, but I will say that compared to many major wine publications, and some local columnists, our scores tend to be lower, and our reviews more critical (which means positive, negative and fair). But this has implications for us in obtaining samples for review, and indeed, on our advertising revenues.

But back to the beginning, so that you can clearly see what has happened. It is actually an interesting side story about media and government relations, that is unique to Ontario because of the monopoly landscape.


The Pre-Covid Era

Up until the beginning of 2019, we were able to preview taste almost all the VINTAGES releases at LCBO headquarters. I had been tasting VINTAGES releases at the LCBO for over 30 years under this arrangement. So, I understand how many longtime followers may not have even been aware of the changes.

I considered this access to be not only a privilege, but a journalistic right. As a state-run monopoly retailer of imported wines, the purchasing decisions of the LCBO need to be held to some kind of public scrutiny. Consumers obviously have the last word to buy, not buy, or re-buy, but as experienced and well travelled tasters the wine media also has a role to play in guiding consumers to the best value and quality wines, and educating along the way. I always very much appreciated that the LCBO understood our role and made all the wines available to us, both during a media tasting day, and by allowing us to taste with their product consultants.

In late 2018 the LCBO’s vision changed, setting out new ground rules that indicated to me that local wine media were no longer respected, and that we were not only going to be “managed” henceforth, but put to work for the LCBO’s purposes. The LCBO more than halved the number of wines we could taste, and they pre-selected which wines we could taste, without explanation of their selection. There was some effort to have us taste wines new to the LCBO, and wines that were slotted into themes in each Vintages magazine, which was helpful. But still, our ability to review all the wines and pick the best buys on your behalf was gone.

The LCBO engineered this reduction by no longer allowing us to taste alongside their staff product consultants. Given that there are over 100 wines per release it is not feasible or safe to taste all in one day, so joining the PCs on their tasing days allowed us to cover all the wines. I really miss that opportunity, as I got to know many of the LCBOs best wine people and I enjoyed tasting and talking with them.

You may also have noticed that the LCBO is now heavily promoting its own staff as experts and only uses external media to promote products if the ratings are through the roof and the reviews are gushing praise. Some LCBO PCs are indeed passionate and expert, but they are employees as well, thus hardly reliably objective. In fact, the LCBO radio ads using the voices of their experts are pathetically shallow and obviously promotions paid for by participating wineries.

Again, all of this against the backdrop that the LCBO, an agency of the Ontario government, remains the sole retailer of imported wines in Ontario, with even grocers having to buy from LCBO stocks.

The Covid Era

When Covid hit in early March there was no choice but to shut down tastings within the LCBO out of safety concerns. There was no safe way to be dealing with handling dozens of bottles, use of spittoons and physical distancing. And no can one smell or taste through a mask. The media and the product consultant tastings were shelved, temporarily at first.  But as the months roll by it is obvious media will not be returning to the LCBO tasting lab anytime soon.

So, at WineAlign we scrambled to get samples directly from the importing agents. Some responded, many didn’t. There was discussion with Drinks Ontario, the importing agents trade association, about organising safe tastings for the wine media, or at least getting behind the procurement of samples. That didn’t happen either. Rounding up samples is not as easy as it sounds because the LCBO does not allow agents to have many samples kicking around their offices, and many agents are working from home.  And if samples are available there are decisions about which media to send them to, and the cost of delivery.

So, in mid-April we proposed a plan to go out and purchase samples on behalf of the agents, when their wines were released into stores. A blanket WineAlign “call for samples” email goes out to agents before each release.  I then look through the LCBO’s releases and send agents a personal email asking for permission to buy their wine then later submit an invoice for reimbursement.  WineAlign goes shopping on the release Saturday, buys the wines, combines them with other samples that arrive at the office, then we taste them the following Tuesday. This is the reason this newsletter has been delayed one week and become a “Review”, not a “Preview”.

The positive about this new “buy on release” protocol is that we get to select the wines we think will be of most interest to our readers. The negative is that we are still not tasting all the wines as in days of yore. The many agents who have taken us up on this offer tend to be the most pro-active agents in Ontario, with the most interesting portfolios. Some agents have declined to participate for reasons of cost; others because they fear our scores and reviews will not be positive. There are also some who just seem to be not at all engaged.

The Road Ahead

We at WineAlign would love to be able to taste all the wines as we once did.  One solution would be for us to simply buy all the wines on each release, and as a journalist I love that idea for the complete independence it affords. But we can’t afford that. The expense is simply beyond our financial capability with the price tag of each release being about $4000, and higher in the premium fall period. We would have to significantly increase subscription rates for those who get this newsletter, and doubt at this time subscribers will want to shell out more money. Would you pay more?

So, I really don’t see much changing regarding Covid-era tasting in the months ahead. We will continue to work with agents and wineries and try to expand the number of samples being received. Recently we have worked with regional industry associations like New Zealand and Australia to reimburse us for samples when their wines are featured. For the upcoming August 8 release Wines of Argentina has gathered together all the wines and sent them to us in advance.  Others need to be proactive in this way.

I will continue to approach agents who have not participated, and if there are any agencies reading this who want to get on board please email me personally at [email protected].  And as a thank you to agents who are working with us, and to steer readers toward the agents who are more proactive, we are now acknowledging the agent in each of the picks in our newsletter recommendations.

We really do appreciate that so many of our readers care about our picks, reviews and ratings. Some care so much that they sit down to send an email. Which in turn has prompted this explanation.

Here are our picks from the July 25 release. On Tuesday we tasted about 40 of the 120 wines offered, and with previous tasting of another 30 or so, we have almost 60% of this release covered. We continue to aim higher. The old normal is unfortunately erased but we hope you will stick around.

Sparkling & Whites

Anthonij Rupert L’Ormarins 2013 Blanc De Blancs, Western Cape, South Africa
$24.95, John Hanna & Sons
John Szabo- It never ceases to amaze me how superb South African bubbly can be, against all odds of climate, one would assume. But the top level, like this example from Anthonij Rupert’s L’Ormarins, it really is very good, and superb value at that. This Traditional Method, pure chardonnay blanc de blancs delivers all of the expected citrus, lemon and lime zest, white flower and almond-type flavours of the category, with fine mousse, balanced acids, minimal dosage and very good to excellent length.
Michael Godel – A whole lotta lees aging has come to this extreme set of creamy, dreamy and extenuating Franschhoek circumstances. Notable as not being part of the Cap Classique club.
David Lawrason – This discreet yet firm traditional method delivers considerable class for $25. It is not at all showy, but it has clear, clean and lively lines with a generous quite complex aromas of dried apple, lemon, vague mushroom and honeyed, barley sugar candy.
Sara d’Amato
– An unbelievable value, this generous, more ample than the norm Blanc de Blancs offers the quality of Champagne at half the price. Highly aromatic, lightly toasty and with just the right balance and verve.

Douloufakis Enotria  2018 White, Crete, Greece
$13.95, Kolonaki Group Inc. 
John Szabo-
Local variety vilana headlines in this blend with sauvignon blanc and muscat from the hills of the cooler, northern side of Crete, made by one of the island’s leading producers, Nikos Douloufakis. And I must say for $14 this is a terrific little bottle of white, fleshy round and ripe, featuring both grapey-floral muscat notes with tropical passion fruit and guava from sauvignon, and a little extra depth and flesh from the vilana component. Tidy value.
David Lawrason – Here’s a pretty, summery, value white from the isle of Crete made from the local vilana grape blended with sauvignon blanc and muscat – the latter giving off its telltale orange blossom scent. Then there is the lemongrass of sauvignon and ripe more tropical melon/cantaloupe fruit as well. There is some heft with an almost oily texture but there is refreshing acidity and sappy, evergreen bitterness to close the deal.

Ferzo 2019 Pecorino Superiore, Abruzzo, Italy
$17.95, Authentic Wine & Spirits Merchants
Michael Godel – Ferzo’s pecorino gifts an equal amount of ripe fruit and saltiness that combine for full varietal effect. Crunchy and doused with plenty of lime to enliven, even spark up the character. Quality stuff here and a terrific introduction to a grape just recently gaining and earning its stripes.

Westcott Lillias 2019 Chardonnay, Niagara Escarpment, Ontario
$24.95, Westcott Vineyards
David Lawrason – Here’s a very bright, tight and almost glowing young, unoaked Chablis-esque chardonnay. The clean apple, lime blossom nose shows a touch of breadiness from six months on the lees. It is midweight (12.9%) with mouth-watering acidity and excellent length.

Leyda Garuma Single Vineyard 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, Chile
$16.95, Phillipe Dandurand Wines
David Lawrason – This is a very direct, intense and green sauvignon from a relatively new coastal, cool region in Chile.  The aromatics are intense with vegetal tomato leaf, celery and green pepper. It is medium bodied and fairly rich and intense with high acidity.


Famille Perrin 2019 Tavel, Rhone Valley,France
$19.95, Charton Hobbs Inc.
David Lawrason – In a rose universe awash with pale Provencal roses and wannabes it is a treat to find an excellent classic Tavel, the biggest rose in all of France. This textbook example has deep colour, richness and weight yet is well executed and balanced. A meal in a glass yet has the structure to work with any manner of herbed pork, poultry and perhaps even a steak when it is too hot for a big red.
Michael Godel – Classic Tavel from a vintage as rich as can be, brought into balance by attention to detail and tradition. A savoury candy apple, Tavel specific spice and a lively finish. Unwavering and casts a spell.
Sara d’Amato – A very mineral, paler than usual but luminescent Tavel. The 2019 incarnation offers a high dose of deliciously ripe strawberry along with tender rose petal and candied violet. A highly satisfying find for anyone with a craving for pink.

St Hallett 2019 Dry Rose, Barossa Valley, South Australia
$19.95, Glazer’s Canada
John Szabo –
A tight and dry, reductive style rosé here from stalwarts St. Hallett in the Barossa, properly spicy and peppery. Acids defy the warm climate, while fruit remains fully fresh, red, even tart, with succulent, salty finish. A very classy dry Aussie rosé all in all.

Gassier Sables D’Azur 2019 Rosé, Cote de Provence, France
$18.95, Select Wine Merchants Inc.
David Lawrason. This is a typically ultra-pale Provencal rose with a soft ambiance all round. The nose shows vague cherry blossom, pink grapefruit and fennel. It is medium weight, smooth and almost creamy with alcohol warmth and some bitterness providing ballast. Good value.


Elk Cove 2013 Pinot Noir Oregon USA
$37.95, Breakthru Beverage Canada Inc.
David Lawrason – Interesting to have a 2013 Oregon pinot being released now, and it works. This maintains pleasant and bright red cherry/strawberry fruit, with gentle fresh herbs and tidy oak spice. Well integrated and balanced overall.
Sara d’Amato – A very intense pinot noir but not overripe or sweet and offering a pleasant nerviness from acid and a firm tannic structure. Concentrated, clean and with a very elegant dose of wood spice. Surprisingly youthful. Drink up with plate of grilled sausages and peppers.

Montes Limited Selection 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere, Colchagua Valley, Chile
$15.95, Vin Vino Wine Merchants
Michael Godel – On a visit to Mondavi in Napa Valley at the age of 15 Aurelio Montes Jr. said “Dad I think we should only make quality wine, we should aim high.” The bar is high, the blend delivers ripest fruit, richest possibility within the price parameter and unquestioned commercial appeal. So there’s that
David Lawrason – This shows generous well-defined Chilean cabernet character with lifted black currant, juniper, even black pepper. It is medium-full bodied, fairly dense, warm with slightly green, firm tannin. Overall, the balance is very good, and so is the length. A nice slice of Chile at a very reasonable price.

Colab And Bloom 2017 Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia
$19.95, Nicolas Pearce Wines
Michael Godel – Fruit up front, at the back and everywhere in between. No need to sleep or wait on this, not to hide it away. This drinks with immediate purpose so just literally pop and pour.
David Lawrason – This has a lovely, complex and compact nose of ripe black cherry, pepper, toast and vanillin, with that lichen-like/hot earth Barossa garrigue. I really like the tension here, and the fine tannin, and excellent length. With a light chill this will work nicely as an outdoor BBQ red.

Monasterio De Las Vinas Reserva 2014 Garnacha/Tempranillo/Carinena, Spain
$14.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo-
Another impressive value from Monasterio de Las Viñas, hard to match in terms of fruit density and depth, and complexity, with its wildly savoury-herbal, lavender and rosemary-soaked profile, a rather unique offering to be sure. This is type of wine to pour blind to your guests at the cottage or on the back patio and watch them guess which more famous Mediterranean region this might be from.
Sara d’Amato – A rich and zesty wine, naturally spicy with a hint of well-integrated oak. Barbecue ready with a slight chill or not. A blend of garnacha tempranillo and carinena aged 12 months in barrel. Great value!

El Enemigo 2016 Bonarda, Mendoza, Argentina
$24.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo- Here’s a fresh and fruity, lively but also rich and sunny red from Argentina, from the under sung bonarda variety. Tannins are relatively light and while wood flavour is a bit too prevalent for the time being, another year or two should see this integrate well. It should please both punters and casual drinkers alike.

Chateau Magnol 2016 Cru Bourgeois, Haut Mèdoc, Bordeaux, France
$27.95, Charton-Hobbs Inc.
Michael Godel – Terrific Haut-Mèdoc work here with the juiciest and liveliest 2016 you could want or hope for in Left Bank affordability. Les Hautes are important and need to be addressed more and more. Great table wine for steaks, duck breast and beef ribs.

Lionel Osmin & Cie 2016 Malbec, Cahors, Southwest France
$20.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc
John Szabo-
A wine at once both savoury and leathery, dried fruit and wood spice-inflected, there’s a mix of ambition and commercial-mindedness off the top. But this is purely good wine, mid-weight, balanced with tannic structure but not astringency, and very good length and depth. Genuine depth and concentration are on offer, a wine worth seeking, to drink, or hold mid-term. Sharply priced, too.

Mazzei Fonterutoli 2017 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy
$24.95, Du Chasse Wines
David Lawrason This a modern classic, about as suave an interpretation of sangiovese as possible, although there is some merlot here perhaps softening  the way. It is medium bodied, fairly smooth and warm with considerable tannic grip, and a dry mineral finish. Age it two to five years.

And that’s a wrap for this release. Enjoy your long weekend, if those even exist any more among our elastic time spans, and join us two weeks from today for a review of Vintages August 8 release.

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.

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

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


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