Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES May 29th, 2021

Spain and Australia

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

The Vintages May 29th release puts Spain and Australia in the spotlight. Neither selection is especially riveting. The Spanish feature in particular fails to capture the current mood and stylistic line permeating the Spanish wine scene, which is one of youthful dynamism, exploration and tradition-bending wines. Instead, we’re left, for the most part, with an anachronistic collection of “old school Spain” – mostly traditionally-styled, heavily oak-influenced mature wines (read: Rioja), that would have been stylistically comfortable in a released in 2011, or 2001, or 1991 for that matter. It’s a far cry from the New Spain, if at least familiar, and in some cases good, but don’t take this range as representative of what’s happening on the ground today. Read on for the few exceptions, including a mini-profile on Pepe Mendoza, who has redefined monastrell from Alicante and has two excellent wines in this release. Also noteworthy are two releases from the Fernandez-Rivera Family, established by Ribera del Duero producer Alejandro Fernandez of iconic Pesquera fame. Grab a bottle of 2016 Condado De Haza Crianza ($27.95) and the 2015 Dehesa La Granja ($21.95), and join David Lawrason and I live this Saturday, June 5th on Zoom at 5pm for a tempranillo happy hour featuring these two wines (and Tinto Pesquera, now sold out) as we discuss these important Spanish wines and Spain’s most planted red grape.


The Australia feature fares somewhat better with a handful of progressive wines from outside the ‘classic’ zones and styles that made Australia’s popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s. But the industry has of course, moved on since to embrace much more regionalism and fresher, breezier wines than those generic sunny chardonnays or classic bold Barossa Shirazes. I was also recently reminded of the brilliance of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon during a global comparative seminar put on by Wine Australia in May. Although shiraz usually springs to top of mind for Australian reds, cabernet, too, reaches world class heights in a surprisingly wide range of styles linked to diverse origins. Click here for some thoughts on Coonawarra, Margaret River and the Yarra Valley and a replay of the seminar, or scroll through for all of our top picks from Spain, Australia, and the best of the rest.

Pepe Mendoza: The Spanish Exception Redefining Monastrell

Pepe Mendoza of Bodegas Enrique Mendoza, has redefined the potential for monastrell (aka mourvèdre) in the region of Alicante, formerly known for, and still associated with rustic, alcoholic reds. “We are not Rioja, Ribera [del Duero], or Bordeaux” says Pepe. “There was a stigma attached to the region and we were considered crazy men from Alicante making millions of liters of poor quality, over ripe monastrell”, Mendoza describes, referring to the uphill battle of associating Alicante and fine wine

Pepe Mendoza pouring wines in the Estrecho vineyard

The secret? Mendoza’s vineyards are impeccably-farmed, and he’s proven that it’s possible, through diligent work, to harvest monastrell at perfect ripeness to achieve concentrated wines that are also balanced and naturally fresh, with little intervention needed in the winery. The trade-off is volume: “I get one kilo per plant rather than three”, he reveals, though the results are worth the effort. In addition to the impressive entry-level ‘La Tremenda” bottling in the release, Mendoza produces two single vineyard wines from ancient bush vines grown on different soil types. La Quebrada from limestone is the more dense and powerful wine (also in this release), while Estrecho, from a higher elevation site with nearly 100 year-old vines on pure sand is the more floral and fragrant, pot-pourri scented version, revelations in the genre.

Pepe Mendoza in Las Quebradas vineyard

Vintages Buyer’s Guide May 29th:


Condado de Haza Crianza 2016, Ribera del Duero, Spain
$27.95, Trialto Wine Group Ltd.

John Szabo – Condado de Haza is the Fernandez family’s higher elevation Ribera del Duero property (compared to the original Pesquera estate acquired in the early 1970s by Alejandro Fernandez). The nose is classic Spanish tempranillo through and through, complete with notable American oak influence in the form of toasted coconut and melted butter. A big and satisfying wine, well-priced and satisfying to be sure, with more than a measure of finesse and refinement.

Las Quebradas Monastrell  2018, Alicante, Spain
$49.95, Azureau Wine Agency

John Szabo – A single-vineyard, old vine (80+ years) expression of monastrell from sandy-limestone soils, maestro of the variety Pepe Mendoza manages to coax uncommon freshness, balance and class out of the grape. It’s surely one of the most expensive versions of monastrell from Alicante, but you’ll be challenged to find anything better – this stands tall.
Michael Godel – A hefty monastrell from Alicante off of 70 year-old vines of profound power and  delicacy. This is so young. Let it rest for two years minimum.

La Tremenda Monastrell  2017, Alicante, Spain
$17.95, Azureau Wine Agency

John Szabo – Another terrific vintage for Enrique Mendoza’s ‘entry-level’ monastrell, always a step or two up from the mean while remaining great value. I love the freshness of fruit mingled with the savoury-herbal character of monastrell, as well as an uncommon floral aspect. The palate is all about balance and freshness, a rarity in this part of the world, with juicy acids and high drinkability. Lovely stuff.
David Lawrason – This is a go-to-school example of monastrell from southeast Spain. It is from low-yielding, high altitude vines, delivering fine blackberry/mulberry fruit and violet fragrance with subtle pepper on the nose. It is full bodied, quite warm (14.5%alcohol) yet nicely firm and almost mineral as well. 

Urbina Gran Reserva 2004, Rioja, Spain
$55.95, Regazzi Wines & Spirits Selection

Michael Godel – Highly alluring and seductive aromatics engage several senses from this 17 year-old Urbina Reserva. Earthy savour and mushroom-umami tendencies make one think and feel. Still with a pulse of energy and drive.
David Lawrason – This antique is real beauty – so slim, balanced and refined. The nose is very vibrant and complex with dried cran-raspberry fruit, pine forest floor, thyme, caraway, mushroom and earth. It is medium bodied, elegant and still showing dusty tannin. The length is excellent. Such a reasonable priced ticket to the grand past of traditional Rioja.

Valdespino Inocente Single Vineyard Fino Dry Sherry, Andalusia, Spain
$29.95, Azureau Wine Agency

John Szabo – Valdespino is the largest landowner in Jerez with some 800ha, divided in 18 vineyards. Their excellent Innocente is spontaneously fermented in cask, the last Sherry Bodega to do so, and brandy of palomino is used for fortification – also unique. Wines in the final blend run an average of 10 years old, 100% from Macharnudo vineyard, indeed from the highest elevation section of this excellent cru, with 40+ year old vines. It’s a more mature style of fino to be sure, aged considerably longer than the mean, with strong flor influence and just the beginnings of more oxidative maturation. A unique and delicious style.

Tuerce Botas Garnacha 2016, Rioja, Spain
$24.95   H.H.D. Imports 

David Lawrason – Most Rioja is based on tempranillo, but garnacha is also an authorized variety, here taking the lead role, and stepping up with classic strawberry-cherry jam, vague sage like herbs, soft earth and spice. Acid is a bit low, alcohol a bit high but there is an impressive sense of volume and fruit intensity.
Sara d’Amato – An unusual 100% garnacha-composed Rioja that is both modern yet with definitive Spanish character. Salty with plentiful red fruit, licorice and violets. A pure and unadulterated red (or very little given its Crianza designation) that would prove even more delightful with a slight chill. A wine that screams “I’m ready for summer, are you?!”

Hola! Organic Brut Cava 2018, Penedès, Spain
$17.95, Wine Lovers Agency

Sara d’Amato – More complex that the party-ready packaging belies. This certified organic, traditional-method sparkler has spent 18 months on its lees (worth noting that this is well above the requirement for non-vintage Champagne). This Cava is bright, flavourful and brimming with botanical aromas as well as white pepper, rosebud and grapefruit zest. Dry, well-priced and a notably sophisticated poolside sipper.

Heredad de Baroja Gran Reserva 2009, Rioja, Spain
$34.95 H.H.D. Imports

Sara d’Amato – Despite a warm vintage, here is an elegant Gran Reserva, perfectly matured in ideal conditions and drinking beautifully now. Notes of leather and dried red berries, fresh cherries fig, coconut, and a lightly savory element. Complex and terminating with a long, salty finish.


Omrah Crossings Chardonnay 2019, Great Southern, Western Australia
$18.95, Airen Imports

John Szabo – This is a nicely aromatic, almost floral example of chardonnay from Great Southern in Western Australia, a compelling wine in a riper, softer but fresh style, ready to enjoy.

Turkey Flat Barossa Valley White 2017, Barossa Valley, South Australia
$17.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.

Michael Godel – The triad of viognier, marsanne and roussanne works in flinty, tropical and mysterious ways. All in for $17 and along with Yalumba I’m not sure anyone else can gift this much fun, complexity and white wine value.

Altus Rise Wildlight Shiraz 2018, Margaret River, Western Australia
$19.95, John Gibson Agencies

John Szabo – Here’s a lovely, fresh and fragrant, bright and fruity-herbal syrah from Margaret River, a bit of a rarity out there, but showing the terrific potential of the variety in the region. Wood influence is kept to a minimum background hum, especially when served (properly) with a light chill.
Sara d’Amato – The harvest sunset-hued colours on the label are evocative of the progressive and undulating layering of flavours on the palate of this expressive shiraz. The wine exudes an almost escapist sensation with a true stamp of place yet it is grounded but lively acidity and spirited peppery notes. Recommended.

Bleasdale Mulberry Tree Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Langhorne Creek, South Australia
19.95, Azureau Wine Agency

John Szabo – Maritime-influenced Langhorne Creek yields a notably more herbal-leafy style of cabernet, in the vein of Margaret River, exemplified here in the Potts family’s Mulberry Tree example. The nose is also full of fresh black fruit alongside the herbal notes, while tannins are fine and supple, acids balanced and the overall experience pleasant.

Best of the Rest

Michele Chiarlo Tortoniano Barolo 2015, Piedmont, Italy
$42.95,Univins and Spirits Canada Inc.

Michele Chiarlo Tortoniano Barolo 2015

John Szabo – A classically proportioned and fragrant Barolo, which ticks all of the boxes: juicy acids, firm but fine tannins in the varietal register, lovely perfume of fresh red and black fruit and violets and roses, old wood spice and more. I find the palate so seamless and effortless, a joy to drink, and the pleasure/price ratio is very strong indeed. Drinkable now, but cellar into the latter part of the decade without issue. Textbook stuff.
Michael Godel – Takes dead aim at what’s below their feet, by naming their Barolo “Tortoniano.” Tortonian, as opposed to the other soil epoch, that being Serravalian. Think about drinking a Barolo like this while waiting for so many others (like Cerequio) to settle.

Lui Reserva Malbec Single Vineyard 2018, Uco Valley, Argentina
$19.95, Majestic Wine Cellars

Michael Godel – This pushes some boundaries for Mendozan malbec but also looks to keep freshness as the key character. Success all around.

Matchbook Estate Bottled Red Gravel Cabernet Sauvignon Dunnigan Hills 2019, California, USA
$19.95 Perugini Fine Wines

Sara d’Amato – Where is Dunnigan Hills? It has a relatively high-quality producing reputation in the vast Central Valley just outside of Sacramento (close to UC Davis) due to its hilly, well-drained soils. Expectedly ripe with velvety tannins balanced by juicy plum, integrated wood spice and delicate bottle aged flavours. More complex than expected and a stand-out value in this release that may very well go unnoticed.

Cape Point Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Western Cape, South Africa
$24.95, PV Wine & Spirits Agency

John Szabo – Maturing nicely at this stage, Cape Point’s 2018 sauvignon is crafted in a rich and ripe style with some barrel influence adding creamy, gently spiced flavours to citrus, green fig and green pepper. The wine manages an uncommon tightrope walk between zesty-green, and a riper, more fumé blanc-like expression. The overall effect is impressive and pleasing. I’d say drink, or continue to hold up to 3-5 years for a fully toasty experience – there’s genuine stuffing here.
Michael Godel – Crunchy and spicy, laden with white pepper almost in a grüner veltliner way and really quite a juicy effort. Lots of verve, motion, creativity and joy. No real varietal comparisons and truthfully none are needed.

Domaine Le Verger Chablis 2018, Burgundy, France
$27.95, Ex-Cellars Wine Services

John Szabo – Arch-classic Chablis, well-priced, and available – the latter two points are increasing rarities, especially considering the disastrous frost and later hail experienced this spring in the region, which will further reduce availability. Buy now.
David Lawrason – This a notably rich for basic Chablis, but it keeps its poise with fine acidity, classic minerality and that Chablis nose of apple, a hint of chive, wet stone and white aged hard white cheese. It is quite fleshy yet well balanced with very good to excellent length.

Invivo Michelle’s Pinot Gris 2017, Central Otago, New Zealand
$29.95 Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.

John Szabo – The impressive inaugural pinot gris from Invivo, Central Otago’s most planted white variety, is rendered here in a ripe, decidedly more Alsatian style, with almost late harvest-like character, honeyed peach and apricot, tangerine and blood orange, ginger spice and poached pear, fragrant and inviting. The palate is quite lush, just off-dry, with lovely, creamy texture, supple and round, even opulent. Enjoy over the next 2-4 years – I think this stands to gain interest in the cellar.

Fabrègues Selection Picpoul de Pinet 2020, Languedoc, France
$16.95, Heritage Cellars

John Szabo – Crisp, fresh, aromatic, this is representative picpoul from the south of France, with citrus-lemon fruit and gentle herbal character. Designed for immediate enjoyment, it certainly delivers on its nickname of the “muscadet of the Languedoc”.
David Lawrason – This has more body and riper fruit than expected, with fragrant almost tropical pineapple, lemon blossom and spearmint. It is light to medium bodied, elegant, fresh and refined. Great value summer white.
Sara d’Amato – If I had to choose just one summer white, I would be perfectly happy to sip on this upbeat, immensely flavourful and not insubstantial picpoul de pinet for the duration. Reminiscent of a good quality Galician albarino with peach, melon, green apple and sea salt lingering memorably on the finish.

Domaine de Fabrègues Le Mas, Pézenas 2016, Languedoc, France
$18.95, Heritage Cellars

Sara d’Amato – A neighbour of the Picpoul de Pinet in this release, this Pézenas is a rich and enticing blend of grenache, syrah, carignan and cinsault that offers a great deal more depth and complexity than expected at under $19. Youthful and brimming with fresh fruit, black pepper and floral notes. The tannins are ripe and only mildly gripping and there is a good deal of freshness on the palate to contrast the substantial alcohol.

Leeuwenkuil Reserve Red 2019, Swartland, South Africa
$19.95, Univins

David Lawrason – Leeuwenkuil (lion’s den in Afikaans) is estate in the hot, dry Swartland interior, where Rhone varieties are widely planted. This unspecified blend includes complex pepper with dried herbs, licorice, ink and ripe plummy fruit. It is full bodied, rugged and gritty, just like the place it comes from.

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

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

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