Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 1st, 2021

Our Favourites and the Wine Thieves in New Zealand

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

This week’s report features a bevy of good wines from the Vintages May 1st release. The main theme is “customer favourites”, and here we bring you our favourites of your favourites, with a wide-ranging group including a well-structured “volcanic” pinot noir, creamy, loess-based grüner veltliner, sophisticated aglianico, biodynamic Bordeaux, and a killer-value California North Coast cabernet.

The other theme of the release is New Zealand. Known as Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” in Maori, New Zealand continues to impress on a number of levels, from the industry’s commitment to sustainability to the level of purity and freshness in the wines. Sara d’Amato and I dedicated five recent episodes of our Wine Thieves podcast to exploring various New Zealand themes; read on for the show notes containing useful tidbits of information, or better yet download the series and listen to our conversations with some of NZ’s top producers, including Felton Road, Bell Hill, Hans Herzog, Trinity Hill, Dog Point, Loveblock (Erica Crawford), and Villa Maria, among others. Aromatic whites, pinot noir and chardonnay, and cool climate Bordeaux blends, and especially syrah are strengths, represented nicely in this release and our recommended buys.


Then there’s sauvignon blanc, of course, the country’s flagship. In our latest episode to be published today (May 7th), we explore its rise to prominence from the first plantings in the 1970s to bursting onto the international scene in the 1990s, and to the current scene in which the ‘third wave’ of producers are leading the country in new stylistic directions. Today, May 7th, also coincides not coincidentally with international sauvignon blanc day, so be sure to raise a glass of NZ sauvignon and listen in.

New Zealand Podcast Series: Show Notes

Ep 24: The Cost of a Mile: New Zealand’s Green Journey

The Wine Thieves begin a new virtual adventure to Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud”, more commonly known as New Zealand. In this first episode, John and Sara get a handle on what sustainability means to Kiwi grape growers, 96% of which are certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, or SWNZ.

Along with their special guest, Dr. Ed Massey, General Manager Sustainability at Wines of New Zealand, they get to the bottom of the concept of Food (or Wine) Miles. The country is very far from just about everywhere in the world, so how can drinking NZ wine be “sustainable” if it has to be shipped half-way around the world to you? Tune in to find out the answer. Walk 700 miles across New Zealand’s wine regions in the shoes of the Wine Thieves (1,100 km for the civilized folks) as they embark upon this 5-part adventure investigating alternative grape varieties, the low alcohol wine trend, the rise of syrah, and of course, pinot noir, chardonnay, and unstoppable sauvignon blanc.

Ep 26: Playing the Long Game: New Zealand Syrah

Syrah might not offer a quick return on investment in New Zealand, but it may just be another grape that puts New Zealand on the world wine map in the future. In this episode, the Wine Thieves are in conversation with Kate Radburnd of Radburnd Cellars and Warren Gibson of Trinity Hill, two of New Zealand’s top syrah producers, as they attempt to unlock the secret of this dynamic grape variety that is anything but sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Syrah is grown throughout the country from Waiheke Island to Central Otago but its homeland is firmly in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s oldest growing region and second-largest after Marlborough. This red grape territory features several subregions, including the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle, which are emerging as hotspots for distinctive syrah.

The Thieves investigate Busby, mass selection and Hermitage clones, and growing and winemaking practices that are helping to shape a singular New Zealand style. Sara gets a little sidetracked by Hawke’s Bay’s potent rotundone but John brings her back with facts and figures related to syrah’s commercial viability. Join us on the ancient path of the Ngaruroro river, glass of syrah in hand.

Ep. 28: New Zealand’s unexpected varieties

The New Zealand wine industry may be focused on just a handful of grapes, but in this episode, the Wine Thieves go hors-piste in search of the unexpected. New Zealand enjoys a surprisingly wide range of climate zones – more than you might think – making the country suitable for far more than just those headlining grapes, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and chardonnay. Last week, we looked at syrah, a small but quality player on the NZ wine scene, and this week we explore more diversity, going even further into uncharted vines.

Inevitably, our search would lead us to Therese and Hans Herzog of Herzog Estate in Marlborough. This expat Swiss couple farm no fewer than 28 (!) grape varieties on their modest 11 hectares in the Wairau sub-zone on mounds of gravel and sandy-clays. From arneis to veltliner, sankt laurent to saperavi, the Herzogs are unmatched in NZ (the World?) for their unbridled experimentation, and they share their story with the Thieves. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the wines are good, proving the point of NZ’s potential varietal diversity (and the Herzog’s farming and winemaking skills). Join us in the in the largely cool but usefully sunny deep South Pacific as we gain a more profound understanding of New Zealand’s varied terroir, before we return next week to explore tried-and-true sauvignon from a new angle.

Ep. 29: New Zealand Chardonnay and pinot noir

The world clearly loves New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but some industry insiders believe that pinot noir and chardonnay just might be the country’s best expressions. In this episode, the Wine Thieves speak to two of New Zealand’s legendary producers, also counted among the world’s best pinot and chard artists: Sherwyn Veldhuizen of Bell Hill in North Canterbury, and Blair Walter of Felton Road in Central Otago.

Did you know that Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s most widely planted red grape, accounting for 73% of plantings? Chardonnay is also the second most planted white grape, and while it can be found in just about every region from north of Auckland to the deep south, pinot is most at home in Wairarapa/Martinborough, Marlborough, Canterbury, and of course Central Otago where it takes up 80% of vineyards. We explore these regions in detail before delving further into everything you need to know about Kiwi pinot and chard, including a discussion about the special Kiwi pinot clone referred to as variably as the Able clone, the gumboot clone or sometimes the Ata Rangi clone, with a colourful backstory retold by Sara.

John tries to get to the bottom of why more chardonnay isn’t planted in Central Otago and then goes hunting for limestone further north. We find out why New Zealand pinot noir has risen to fame in such a short time, and where to look for distinctive chardonnay, as well as why these two categories are worth watching closely. Join John and Sara as they trek across the islands, glass in hand, searching for free-draining soils, high diurnal shifts and heritage clones.

Ep. 32: Celebrating Sauvignon Blanc Day in New Zealand

May 7th is Sauvignon Blanc day but we’ll be celebrating all week! Join the Wine Thieves at ground zero for new world sauvignon blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand. John and Sara explore its rise to prominence from the first plantings in the 1970s, through to its explosion on the international scene in the 1990s, and now to the current ‘third wave’ (a good third wave, that is) of producers that are breaking rules and leading the country in new stylistic directions.

Joining the discussion is James Healy, co-founder with Ivan Sutherland, of Dog Point wines in Marlborough. James was chief winemaker at Cloudy Bay in the 1990s before striking out on his own, and thus really was at ground zero of the New Zealand and Marlborough sauvignon blanc international explosion. He tells us what the secret of success was, and about a new initiative called Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW) and its importance and gaining prominence.

We’re also joined by Matt Deller, Master of Wine and Chief Global Sales & Marketing Officer for the Villa Maria group founded by Sir George Fistonich in the middle of last century in Auckland. ‘Villa’, as it’s known, has grown to be one of the larger and most admired players in the industry, and Matt discusses the company’s commitment to organics and sub-appellations.
In the final segment of the show, the Thieves welcome Erica Crawford of Loveblock winery and the co-creator, with husband Kim, of the hugely successful Kim Crawford brand, which they sold a decade and a half ago to Constellation Brands. Erica falls in love with sauvignon all over again making wines in the style she loves to drink, shares insight into the rapid commercial success of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, praises Lord of the Rings, and reveals how high grade tea powder might just change winemaking for the better. Grab a well chilled glass of crunchy sauvignon and settle in to a great discussion.


Vintages Buyer’s Guide May 1st:
New Zealand

The Hunting Lodge Expressions Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough, New Zealand
$19.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines
David Lawrason – This is a nicely even, fresh and balanced young sauvignon with classic aromas of grapefruit, fresh herbs, kiwi and lime. It is medium weight, just off-dry. Balance, focus and freshness are key.

Te Awanga Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Hawke’s Bay, North Island, New Zealand
$23.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines
Michael Godel – A wine that truly speaks to a coastal climate, marine air, ocean vegetation, saltiness and a desire to drink alongside poached and buttery, briny and sweet fleshy sea creatures. 

Leftfield Gisborne Albariño 2019, North Island
$19.95, Philippe Dandurand Wines
John Szabo – New Zealand does aromatic grapes well, so no surprise that Galicia’s albariño should find a comfortable new home in this southern hemisphere maritime climate. It’s quite richly fruity-herbal character on the palate, a real terpenic mix of aromatics in the varietal style, engaging and long-lasting. The overall effect is excellent.

Muddy Water Skin Ferment 2019, Waipara, South Island
$29.95, The Living Vine
Michael Godel – A month long skin ferment makes up this comeuppance contact clashing of gewürztraminer, riesling, st. laurent and grüner veltliner, truly a turbid wine of water sediment, a.k.a muddy water. Texturally and righteously repetitive, receptive to both the Blues and the lifting of spirits.
Sara d’Amato – A curious blend of skin fermented gewürztraminer, riesling, st. laurent and grüner veltliner. A very clean version of an orange wine with floral notes but not an exaggeratedly perfumed nose. Clean, crisp and well balanced. Don’t over-chill to best appreciate the texture and flavours.

Esk Valley Syrah 2018, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
$24.95, Hobbs & Company
John Szabo – A classically white pepper-inflected, scorched earth and dark-fruited, cold cream, and black and blue fruit-flavoured syrah here from coolish climate Hawkes Bay (warm for New Zealand). Fans of Northern Rhône syrah should be all over this at the price. Drink or hold 2-4 years.

Luna Estate Pinot Noir 2016, Martinborough, New Zealand
$26.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – Maturing nicely at this stage, this estate blend pinot from Luna Estate’s two vineyards with diverse geologies in Martinborough is a terrific wine for the price. It captures the windswept, low-yielding nature of the region nicely in the concentrated palate and savoury fruit and resinous herbal flavours.. Drink or continue to hold 2-4 years for a fully savoury experience. Good length.
Sara d’Amato – Sourced from the southern part of the North Island, this very gently matured, clean and elegantly structured pinot noir is drinking beautifully now with the complexity one would expect at a premium price. Perfectly ripened with seamlessly integrated oak.
Michael Godel – Nothing but knowable, classic varietal depth and optimum ripenesses fitted with fine, crunchy and crackling acidity. A three-chord pop pinot with more than enough punk angst to keep spirits high and fun food alive.

Our Favourite Whites and Rosé

Tawse Limestone Ridge-North Riesling 2018, Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario
$21.95, Tawse Winery
David Lawrason – Here’s a gorgeous, ripe yet steely riesling with a very lifted nose of apricot jam, honey, linden and a spice I get from old vine rieslings from the Niagara Escarpment. It is medium weight with only 10.5% alcohol, brittle, stony acids but some rounding residual sweetness. Very intense flavours.

Tesch Karthäuser Riesling Trocken 2018, Qualitätswein, Nahe, Germany
$34.95, Heritage Cellars
Sara d’Amato – A dry riesling sourced from the warmer region of the Nahe planted on weathered, south-facing red sandstone soils. Expressive with a nervy vein, the wine is beginning to show delicious evolution with flavours of ripe pear, buckwheat honey, lime zest and olive oil. Riesling lovers take note!

La Chablisienne Grande Cuvée Chablis 1er Cru 2018, Burgundy, France
$34.95, Vinexx
John Szabo – A blend of premier cru sites on both the right and left banks of the Serein River from the ever-reliable Chablisienne cooperative, one could say it’s a representative assemblage of the vintage: powerful, broad, full-bodied, with high extract. I can see enjoying this now, but also cellaring for a solid half dozen years for a more evolved expression.

Türk Ried Obere Kremser Sandgrube Reserve Grüner Veltliner 2017, Kremstal, Austria
$34.95, Heritage Cellars
John Szabo – Here’s a really lovely and classic Grüner from the deep loess soils of the Kremstal, typically broad and voluptuous, creamy and round, with great acids and great length. This is simply excellent wine.

Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2020, Colchagua Valley, Chile
$22.95, The Case For Wine
John Szabo – This is cracking, smart, crunchy, green fruited, quite lively sauvignon here from the far out coastal Paredones sub-region of the Colchagua Valley, where the variety takes on uncommon intensity of fruit and flavour. Length and depth are also excellent.

Pasqua 11 Minutes Rosé 2020, IGT Rosé Trevenezie, Veneto, Italy
$19.95, Charton Hobbs
Sara d’Amato – Provencal in style although a touch less austere and with a lower price, this racy and compelling dry rosé has plenty of salt and crunch. Brimming with red fruit and rosebud chiming in to add to the complexity.

Our Favourite Reds

Brittan Vineyards Basalt Block Pinot Noir 2015, Mcminnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
$41.95, The Living Vine
John Szabo – Robert Brittan’s Basalt block in the McMinnville AVA, on a much more ancient geology than the rest of the basalt-derived soils more inland in the Willamette Valley, tends to yield a highly structured and more stemmy-leafy herbal pinot (also thanks to the proximity of the windy Van Duzer corridor that funnels cool pacific air into the valley). This 2015 displays all of that and more: a dark and swarthy, dark fruited and tannin-rich example, with impressive density and concentration, and a seam of rusty-iron flavour that runs through the ensemble. It’s as close in style to, say, Northern Rhône syrah as one gets with pinot noir from Oregon.
Michael Godel – The “Basalt Block” as in volcanic terroir so proudly displayed on the label and worn upon its varietal sleeve. Grip, structure and age-ability spoken through a McMinnville pinot noir of deepest red fruit that will likely make one swoon.

Shannon Home Ranch Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Lake County, California
$29.95, Chief Beverage Imports
John Szabo – As rich, dark and structured as many cabernets from further south in Napa Valley, indeed more structured than most, with real mountain fruit density and tight-knit tannins and acids. It should be considered a real bargain for north coast cabernet lovers, and Lake County remains one of its hidden gems, especially for cabernet.

Château Le Puy Emilien 2017, Bordeaux, France
$31.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits
John Szabo – Here’s a richly complex and aromatic, open and inviting Bordeaux red (merlot-based), labelled simply “vin de France”, but from vineyards on the same limestone plateau as those of Saint Emilion and Pomerol. It’s thoroughly delicious and inviting, succulent, alive, juicy, raw, with real energy and intensity, not to mention complexity and length. If only all ‘natural’ wines could be this clean and delicious.
David Lawrason – From an intense, biodynamically farmed estate, this has great tension, drive and intensity. It certainly leans into the greener spectrum of Bordeaux, so not a soft, plush and rounded red. But the focus, complexity and length outstanding.

Finca La Escuela La Grava Malbec 2017, Mendoza, Argentina
$24.95, Du Chasse Wines & Spirits
John Szabo – Fine, fresh and ripe, dark and juicy malbec here, with a wild and natural, ‘sauvage’ feel in the best way. I love the openness and forthright quality; there’s an ease and natural balance on offer that comes from careful farming and a good site, in this case classic gravelly soils that lends a particularly refined and floral note to the wine. Delicious.
David Lawrason – This more elegant, nimble and refined than many Argentine malbecs. The nose shows ripe mulberry/blackberry, damson plum, lilac florality and very well integrated. It is medium bodied, almost silky smooth with fine tannin.
Michael Godel – Fruit is taken from Paraje Altamira at 1,300m of elevation in Mendoza’s Uco Valley and so yes this is a malbec heavily influenced by Andes Mountain heights and the magnifying effects of high solar radiation. Malbec perched at a peak of fruit concentration in submission to retentive acid domination.

Piano del Cerro 2017, Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata, Italy
$29.95, Profile Wine Group
Sara d’Amato – Dark and seductive, this aglianico pours a luminescent violet hue. Youthful even after a significant time in bottle with tannins that are on the path to becoming supple but at present leave an appealing silty texture.

Paternoster Synthesi 2017, Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata, Italy
$19.95, Univins and Spirits
John Szabo – This is a really lovely, fragrant, floral, pot pourri-inflected aglianico from Vulture in the classic style and very well priced to be sure. For fans of old world style, complex and sophisticated wines, this is an easy purchase decision. Drink or hold mid-term.

Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet Nouvelère Crozes-Hermitage 2015, Rhône, France
$37.95, Marchands des Ameriques
John Szabo – Philippe Jaboulet and his son, Vincent founded their domaine in 2006 following the sale of Maison Paul Jaboulet Ainé, where Philippe managed the family’s vineyards. He and Vincent retained about 12 hectares of the original holdings, including most notably a parcel of the original Thalabert vineyard, which yielded one of that domaine’s most notable Crozes Hermitage bottlings. The parcel was renamed Nouvelère, commemorating the ‘new era’. This bottling is from Thalabert/Nouvelère’s oldest vines, up to 80 years old, in a classically-styled, white pepper and dried tobacco, dried wild mushrooms and hot tar-inflected expression that will appeal to fans of the genuine, angular Northern Rhône style of syrah, best after 2022.

Avondale Jonty’s Ducks Pekin Red 2016, Paarl, South Africa
$16.95, Rare Earth Wines
John Szabo – Another delightfully fresh and alive wine from biodynamically-run Avondale, a perennial sharp value in both red and white. This 2016 red is drinking beautifully, and more like a wine at typically twice the price from somewhere like southern France (which it resembles immensely). Untouchable at the price.
Michael Godel – From the biodynamic world of Johnathan Grieve and his many ducks, they being the acting snail consumers and vine protectors. Drought leads to concentration, concentration begets intensity and the über tight winding of this rich and ripe wine defines a varietal set, a special place and time.

Montgras Antu Grenache/Syrah/Carignan 2018, Colchagua Valley, Chile
$18.95, Epic Wines And Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – This is an appealingly deep and rich red blend (grenache-syrah-carignan) with fine balance and complexity in the price category. For the punters, there’s even a notable, non-fruity, stony-saline-oyster shell-like profile that intrigues and draws you in for more. Chile should be doing more of wines like these, from varieties often better suited to the country’s soils/climate than the over-planted Bordeaux grapes, in my view.

Wits End Luna Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Maclaren Vale, South Australia
$19.95, Azureau Wine Agency
David Lawrason – Here’s a good value rich, smooth and ripe cabernet, so typical of Australia, with the textural elegance I associate with McLaren Vale. Expect a very ripe  cassis, black cherry, menthol and brown baking spice – all nicely integrated.

J. Denuzière Crozes-Hermitage 2018, Rhone Valley, France
$29.95, Dbino Inc
David Lawrason – From a small, traditional family domain this 100% syrah shows a very ripe nose kirsch, plum jam, licorice, earth and toasted wood spice. It is full bodied, fairly dense yet refined, and very focused. Love the acid and mineral integration here.

Blue Mountain Reserve Cuvée Pinot Noir 2017, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
$48.95, Rogers & Co
David Lawrason  – This is an impressive, very natural pinot that effortlessly combines ripe strawberry/cherry jam, evergreen, sage and a slightly tarry, mineral note. It is light to medium weight, fresh and engaging, with impressive fruit intensity, focus and depth.

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.

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

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