Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES April 3rd, 2021

It’s California Wine Month

By David Lawrason, with “Picks” from Michael, Sara and John

For over 40 years, April for wine lovers in Ontario and across Canada has meant the California Wine Fair, a steamy, jam-packed and oh-so intense and engaging social event at grand hotels in Toronto and Ottawa. This year’s virtual efforts (below) are, of course, not the same, but we are getting used to webinars and Zooms, and as a gatherer of information and writer of tasting notes, I am finding them more useful, efficient and less time-consuming. But, I miss everyone too.

The April 3rd VINTAGES release features California, and we have tasted most of the wines, with a couple missing in action (Daou Chardonnay and Long Meadows Cabernet) when we went to purchase the lot on Saturday. Late delivery to stores was the reason given, so we will keep our eyes open for them. VINTAGES is also offering seven new wines as an Online Exclusive, public notification of which I received late on April 3 by email. We are purchasing those for review as well and hope to have tasted them in time for the April 17th newsletter that John will be penning. You can also learn more about California wines by reading the recently published special feature “A Golden State of Mind” by Sara and Michael. Don’t forget to register for their California Cocktail Hour on Saturday, April 24th on Zoom!


Instead of the fairs, Wines of California Canada is running a series of webinars this month. The first I attended by invitation Wednesday, with taste-along of ten wines, was a broad look at California “Then and Now”. Three others on succeeding Wednesday afternoons are more specific: “Classics of Chardonnay” on April 13, “Regional Expressions of Pinot Noir” on April 20, and “Napa Valley’s King of Grapes Cabernet Sauvignon” on April 27. You can check them out and register at

And you should check them out. The series is hosted by highly awarded wine writer and speaker Elaine Chukan Brown, born and raised in an indigenous family of Alaskan salmon fishers. She was post secondary educated at Dartmouth College in Nova Scotia and McGill University in Montreal. A few years ago she judged with us at the National Wine Awards of Canada in British Columbia. She is the kind of speaker you could listen to for hours – genuine, not at all intimidating and incredibly knowledgeable and logical. At one point there was a Zoom moment when, as she was talking about the importance of wind currents through the Petaluma Gap in Sonoma County, her pet bird started to cheep away in the background. “She always starts up when I talk about wind,” Elaine deadpanned.

I won’t go deep here on her presentation, but it was excellent and the ten wines well chosen (if not available in Ontario at the moment, of course) to illustrate the “Then and Now” theme. They were presented in pairs, the first being an example of a classic, historical California wine type, the second being a more current rendition based on new regions or grape varieties.

The underlying message is that California has achieved a state of historical success and confidence that has freed winemakers to go forth and innovate with new, less well-known regions, grapes and styles. That idea shows up somewhat in the VINTAGES April 3 selection, including the Online Exclusives, but VINTAGES has chosen to lamely theme the selection as “Gold Rush”.

That said, here we go with our picks, first from California, then the world stage, and of note some great buys in Italian whites and Rhone reds.

California Sparkling & White

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut Sparkling, Sonoma County, California
$34.95, Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits
David Lawrason – Gloria Ferrer is Freixnet’s company in California, so they know a thing or two about making sparkling wine. This is a very tidy, tender yet serious traditional method sparkler. It is light to mid-weight, crisp, essentially dry but not the least austere, with a lemony, toasty finish. 

Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay 2019, Carneros, California
$63.95, Family Wine Merchants
David Lawrason – Rombauer Chardonnay has been an icon for almost 40 years and it has held to that traditional sense of full-blown, ripe and generously oaked chardonnay. Intense pineapple, lactic notes and all kinds of spice and toast aromas and flavours are very intense, but the cool Carneros acidity evens the keel and lets flavours sail along.
Sara d’Amato – Bursting with flavour, this stalwart classic California chardonnay is ripe, with the unmistakable presence of good quality oak, but also with some restraint and brightness to keep it from feeling sweet. Rich tropical and peach flavours, honey and a dusting of cinnamon dominate the palate while the fresh, saltiness of Carneros is apparent. Complex and finely crafted.

McManis Family Vineyards Viognier 2019, River Junction, California
$19.95, The Vine Agency
David Lawrason – From a warmer Central Valley zone where Mediterranean varieties like viognier thrive, this is a very good example with lifted, exotic  and very complex aromas of guava, orange custard, clove, licorice, honey and spearmint. It is full bodied, fleshy, warm and sweet-edged. Bushels of flavour.

California Reds

Caterwaul Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley, California
$84.95, Le Sommelier Wines
Michael Godel – St. Helena is the primary source for Caterwaul, rich is the understatement, precious is the overstatement because that it surely is not. Carries and delivers all the necessary Napa values, from fruit substance through structure, all by way of acumen and experience. This is the real deal and all things considered, not all that expensive.
David Lawrason – This is a very impressive, quite intense Napa cab that brings cabernet’s fruit to the fore – cassis primarily – and fits it with intricate aromas of fine Asian spice, cedar, hints of black olive and vanillin. It is full bodied, fairly dense and warm with firm but fine tannins.
Sara d’Amato An enveloping, voluptuous stunner of a cabernet sauvignon offering sublime textural pleasure. The fruit is sourced primarily from St. Helena and is a collaborative project between Napa’s most prolific winemaker consultant, Thomas Rivers Brown, and 6th generation Napa Valley farmer, Matt Hardin. Still youthful and only beginning to reveal its colours.
John Szabo – This is a dense, rich, very ripe and supple, concentrated and satisfying bottle of wine, with evident ambition and skill on display, made by Thomas Rivers Brown, author of many of Napa’s great wines. This is indeed a designer blend, not a vineyard expression, assembled from 100 barrels purchased from all over the valley encompassing 12 separate sub AVAs, intended to be a representation of 2018 in Napa. It’s sumptuous and plush to be sure, but also balanced and succulent, albeit on a very large frame with masses of fruit extract. Length, too, is excellent. Drink or hold mid-term.

Dry Creek Heritage Zinfandel 2018, Sonoma County, California
$36.95, Wine Lovers Agency Inc.
Michael Godel – Though the Heritage Old Vine zinfandel is a wine that has crept up in price over the past five years, you need remember those gnarly trees are that much older and making sure to gift the concentration and complexity this label deserves. This may be the best vintage of the last five, heady and serious here, succulent and full of tension. This is what zinfandel needs and what you want it to be.

Avalon Appellation Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley, California
$34.95, Classique Imports
Sara d’Amato – The Avalon Appellation Cabernet is entry priced for Napa cabernet but is not sweet nor overdosed with oak. Rather elegant, unfussy and showcasing both varietal and regional character. Well-structured and a touch austere at present so give it time in decanter or another year in bottle for best expression.
John Szabo – At this price from Napa Valley, you won’t find much better. It’s honest and dry, without obtrusive oak flavourings, nicely composed. Good, solid stuff for drinking now or short-term hold in the cellar (4-6 years).

Freemark Abbey Merlot 2017, Napa Valley, California
$54.95, Breakthru Beverage Canada Inc.
David Lawrason – Here’s a serious, rich and maturing merlot with deep colour and a great, dense yet satiny texture. The nose displays very ripe plummy fruit with very fine oak spice and violet florality. It is full bodied, almost velvet in texture with fine tannin. The 14.5% alcohol brings some heat to the finish. The length is excellent.

Other Whites

Studert Prüm Maxiominhof Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2017, Mosel, Germany
$24.95, Vinexx
Michael Godel – From one of the Mosel’s most prestigious vineyards and a vintage that excels at ripeness, richness and most broad appeal. So much fruit in fact not sure if I can recall this amount in a Wehlener Sonnenuhr bottle. Acids are lush, classic and so supportive in a riesling that is the entire package. As for Kabinett value, it does not get much better than this, if at all.
David Lawrason – From one of the best sites of the Mosel, this is a very fine, delicate, off dry riesling. It is all about minerality and energy on the palate – light bodied (9%), off dry and built on seamless acidity and minerality. Excellent length and veracity.

Studert-Prüm Maximinhof Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 2018, Mosel, Germany
$24.95, Vinexx
John Szabo – Oh my, what a strikingly stony, wild-fermented riesling here off the top from ultra-reliable Studert-Prüm, with a nose that riesling lovers will find absolutely thrilling. If the descriptor “minerality” still leaves you perplexed, well then, sample this – it’s an essence of wet rocks and wet wool, well beyond simple fruit descriptors. Absurd value. Drink or hold a decade.

Vesevo Beneventano Falanghina 2019, Beneventano, Campania, Italy
$16.95, Profile Wine Group
Sara d’Amato – Bright, juicy and lightly tropical with fleshy white pear buoyant on the palate, this is spring in a glass. Notably falanghina with its light weight and vivacious spirit along with a zesty, saltiness on the lingering finish.
Michael Godel – So much fruit here, in fact as much or more than many falanghina in Campania. A factor part Beneventano and part vintage. Pear and lemon, pomello and lime, a perfumed wine and also one to enjoy any time of day. Lovely, succulent and really quite fine. Terrific value with just enough mineral at the end to bring you back for more.
David Lawrason – Ditto, great value!

Château Vitallis Pouilly-Fuissé Les Perrières 2017, Burgundy, France
$38.95, Atlas Trading
John Szabo – Well, this is quality wine straight up. The vineyard pedigree is evident from the first sip, with the tension and minerality associated with stony sites on full display – Les Perrières means essentially “the quarry”, as in limestone quarry, a place-name repeated throughout Burgundy, also a climat in Pouilly-Fuissé, but confusingly, this is a cuvée of several different plots that borrows the name of the famous climat. It helps that 2017 was a fine white wine vintage. Drink or hold mid-term.

Pierre Sparr Sol Calcaire Pinot Gris 2016, Alsace, France
$19.95, Profile Wine Group
David Lawrason – This is delicious off-dry pinot gris that is holding very well at five years. It is certainly a softer version but there is a core of minerality and poise related to the calcaire or limestone soils. It is medium-full bodied, almost creamy and warm on the palate, but again quite elegant.

Alois Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2018, Südtirol-Alto Adige, Italy
$34.95, Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits
John Szabo – Here’s a pinot grigio of substance and depth beyond the mean, also priced accordingly, but worth the premium, from a terrific producer. Fine stuff, drink or hold mid-term.

Other Reds

Domaine du Murinais Les Amandiers Crozes Hermitage 2019, Rhône Valley, France
$29.95, H.H.D. Imports
Michael Godel – Can it really ever be repeated too many times how Crozes-Hermitage at under $30 is one of the greatest buys inching upwards to the premium European categories? This tells a vintage story, one that shows beautifully up front while sneaking around the back to allow for some mid-term aging probability.
David Lawrason – This an impressively powerful deep, dark, quite rich and ripe Northern Rhone syrah. The nose is drenched with ripe black raspberry fruit, licorice, fresh herbs, pepper and generous oak. Very smooth and almost creamy in texture, firming up on the very peppery finish.
John Szabo – An arch-classic Northern Rhône syrah here with its gamey, salami, cracked pepper and meaty notes, even if fruit is quite dark and voluptuous, thickly coating the palate. This makes for a good entry point into the category, filling a gap between the more full-on jamminess of many new world examples, and the leaner, iron and iodine-flavoured, more severe old world. N. Rhône style.

Château Mont Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2017, Rhône, France
$56.95, Family Wine Merchants
Sara d’Amato – The largest player in Châteauneuf, Château Mont Redon owns a 100-hectares planted to vine in the appellation and is also one of the oldest estates in the region. The 2017 is terroir defined Châteauneuf-du-Pape with plenty of richness from sunshine and made in a low-intervention style that adds authentic appeal. Notes of saline, mineral, tilled earth, iron and red licorice.

Marchesi di Barolo Maraia Barbera del Monferrato 2017, Piedmont, Italy
$19.95, Majestic Wine Cellars
John Szabo – This is a ripe, perfectly mature, juicy barbera with customarily light tannins, bright acids, and plenty of red and black cherry and cherry stone flavours, simple but immediately gratifying. Serve with a light chill for maximum pleasure.

Cape of Good Hope Western Slopes Red 2015, Swartland, South Africa
$24.95, Vinexx
Michael Godel – A four-poster red blend that manages syrah, durif (petit sirah), grenache and carignan. Carries all the necessary attributes for pleasure and potential, in a crunchy, all-around purposeful and delicious wine. Has aged really well and plenty of time remains.
John Szabo – This blend of shiraz, durif, grenache and carignan from Anthonij Rupert’s stable is well worth a look at this price, especially for Rhône wine fans. The ensemble comes across as zesty and balanced, highly drinkable, with character. Enjoy now or hold short term.
David Lawrason – This has a very pretty nose of blueberry jam, pomegranate, fresh and dried herbs, pepper and dried earth. It is medium-full bodied, firm and well balanced carrying an ambiance of the dust and stones of the region.

Planeta Frappato Vittoria 2018, Sicily, Italy
$24.95, Noble Estates
Sara d’Amato – There is no question as to the origins of this peppery, lightly reductive, pleasantly crunchy red. Frappato’s characteristic notes of red apple skin, sweet cherry, licorice and white pepper are wildly expressed in this consumer favourite from Planeta. Grown in the red sands by the sea around Vittoria, the salty sea breeze is perfectly captured on the nose and the palate of this lighter red that should prove delightfully refreshing with a slight chill.

Rémy Ferbras Plan de Dieu Côtes du Rhône Villages 2017, Rhone Valley, France
$16.95, Dbino Wines
John Szabo – With both a classy, traditional package, and classically styled southern Rhône red wine inside, this is a smashing value that you can proudly bring to the dinner party with insider’s pride. A tasty wine for $16 to be sure. Drink now.
David Lawrason – An utterly charming and well-defined southern Rhone blend from a producer based in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It almost feels like Chateauneuf – medium-full bodied, loose and smooth and hitting all the right notes of warmed plum jam, lilac florality, pepper and herbs.

And that’s a wrap for this round. Stay tuned for the April 17 Release newsletter on April 8. Tune in that same day for the next embarrassing but so much fun round of “Think You Know Wine?”.

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
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Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix

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