Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES October 30th Release

Review of VINTAGES Oct 30th Release: Premium California and Fine Wine for the 1%

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

On California

California wine lovers won’t want to miss reading this excellent new edition “On California, Wine Tales from the Golden State”, published by the late Steven Spurrier’s Académie du Vin Library.The coverage is comprehensive and the list of contributing authors is nothing less than astonishing, a collection of over 30 of the world’s most important voices, from Hugh Johnson and Gerald Asher to Paul Draper, Randall Grahm, Ester Mobley, John Bonné, Elaine Chukan Brown, Adam Lechmere, Kelli White, and Steven Spurrier himself, among so many others (including yours truly – “A Volcanic Tour of California’s North Coast”). Purchase your copy here.

On California

Fine Wine For the 1%

Wine collectors are spending more on wine than ever before. In my inbox this morning was the headline: “Sotheby’s inaugural wine auction in France smashes estimate to achieve €1.3 million”. The sale’s highlight – a Methuselah of Romanée-Conti 2000 (six liters, or eight 75oml bottles) – sold for €350,000 ($589,000 CAD), nearly double its high pre-sale estimate, establishing a new world auction record for any Methuselah of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or any Methselah, period, for that matter. All 25 lots achieved prices above their high estimates.

Across the Channel in Londonthe Liv-ex Fine Wine 100 index, which tracks the price performance of 100 blue chip fine wines on the secondary market, rose 2.2% in October to close at 372.44 – an all-time high. 550 fine wine businesses from around the world buy and sell wine on the Liv-ex platform, making the exchange a reliable indicator of the health of the secondary wine market. Fine wine prices have risen consistently over the last 17 months, the longest bullish period in the fine wine market to date, indicating high investor confidence and a healthy market.


Launched with data from 2001, in its first two decades, the Liv-ex index has increased 272.4%. It has survived three global financial crisis and returned more than the S&P 500. The TSX, incidentally, returned 55% during the 10 years ended May of 2019. (If you’re wishing at this point you had started seriously collecting wines a couple of decades ago, don’t bother. In Canada, the secondary market is all but non-existent, with very few legal options to re-sell.)

“With restaurants and bars closed, holidays out of the question and generous stimulus packages pumping cash into the economy, people have found themselves with extra money to burn and have been treating themselves to luxuries such as fine wine, which can be readily enjoyed at home”, says Rupert Millar, managing editor for Liv-ex.

All this as a backdrop to the lead up to frenzied holiday buying, when the average price of wines in the Vintages releases rise as steeply as a Liv-ex index curve, and many bottles crest comfortably into triple digits. If you planned to splurge $100 or more on a bottle of wine this holiday season, rest assured, you won’t be alone. In fact, that’s a sneeze for many collectors out there.

Ridge Montebello Vineyards

And no doubt California wines will be top of most buyers’s lists, especially prized bottlings of North Coast wines from the likes of Sonoma and especially Napa Valley. The October 30th release features Premium California” as the main thematic. So, if you missed the WineAlign Exchange $1000 six-pack of premium Napa bottles, a limited offering that sold out in an astonishing 25 minutes, or the special Napa release via Vintages Shop Online that ended in October, fear not. There’s still plenty of top end Napa and other California wines floating around, and we’ve picked out a few of the gems for you to consider below. On the list are familiar names like Groth, Grgich, Ridge, and Montelena, all comfortably scoring in the 90s, and all north of $50.

See also my late September article on the “Grands Crus of Napa” along with recommend wines and the agents who import them in Ontario. Contact them directly to see what’s still left. And check back regularly to Vintages online shop, where most of the top kit seems to end up these days.

California: Spend Big or Go Home

And one last piece of advice: when it comes to California, spend big, or go home with something else. It’s advice I almost never give, for obvious reasons. The whole raison d’être of a wine critic is to find top value. But in California, I’d argue, the best values are actually at the upper end of the price spectrum, while the less expensive wines are frequently the worst values.

Sub-$30 California wine is perhaps the most fraught of all categories, a veritable minefield of sugary, oak flavoured concoctions. I’ll submit the 2019 Meiomi Cabernet sauvignon from the generic California AVA from this release (20765 $24.95) as exhibit A. It’s one of the worst offenders, but still representative of what to expect. With 20 grams/liter sugar according to the LCBO laboratory analysis, it’s more than just a little off-dry. It’s downright medium-sweet. Yet it masquerades as a serious dry table wine at a (for most) premium price point. I describe it as a chocolate milkshake, to which it bears uncanny resemblance. Ditto for the extremely popular, and even more expensive, Meiomi pinot noir.

Finding genuinely dry California wine under $25 or $30 is more and more rare. Supporters will point to the huge popularity of some of these brands and their impressive sales figures, and they’d of course be right. Sugar sweetens the deal for the masses. Countless other producers in California (and elsewhere) have sweetened up their wines to cash in on the action. But I doubt you read these pages to find out the lowest common denominators. I heard a great quote recently on the CBC by an opera singer decrying the rise of “pop opera”, describing it as having “the stain of accessibility”. That’s precisely what wines such as Meiomi have, that sugary taste that makes them so accessible, yet which stains them for drinkers who actually like the taste of wine.

California Coast

There’s also the obvious reality that California is an expensive place to grow grapes. Land is pricy, and the cost of living is high. And that it’s such a beautiful place has attracted 39.6 million inhabitants, more than all of Canada, which drives up costs, too. The wine industry’s deep commitment to sustainable production also comes at a price. So don’t expect value at the low end – even the least ambitious wines are expensive to produce (and sugar goes a long way to fill in the gaps).

But it’s also an idyllic place to grow grapes for truly premium wines. The best are counted among the finest in the world. Sometimes, it’s worth paying more. In California, you get what you pay for. Many top wines, even in the $100+ category, can even be considered excellent value on the global fine wine scale. Even the most expensive is still far cheaper than a Methuselah of Romanée Conti.

Look for more upcoming coverage on the wines of California from Michael, who’s penning a piece on the state of the Golden State for next week.

Premium California

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley, California
$84.95, Rogers & Company
David Lawrason – From an iconic Calistoga-based winery that tilts to the Bordeaux school, this is a very fine cabernet. I am surprised by its ripeness of fruit while maintaining great structure and poise. It is full bodied and rich but not heavy. Very even keeled with focus, energy and excellent length.

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Oakville, Napa Valley California
$119.95, The Vine Agency
John Szabo – This is a beautifully perfumed and composed cabernet from Groth, supple and elegant, trading heft for genuine complexity and depth. Make no mistake, however, there’s plenty of depth and concentration, but on a refined and well-balanced frame. Flavours are in the expected black fruit spectrum with a touch of brighter red fruit mixed in with high quality wood spice, integrating nicely at this stage. I love the silky tannins and the perfectly measure acids; length and depth are exceptional. Top notch; Drink or hold another 12-15 years.

Robert Young Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Robert Young Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Sonoma County California
$59.95, Epic Wine & Spirits
John Szabo – This is a deeply-coloured, firmly structured, well-balanced cabernet from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, a prized AVA for the variety with its warmer inland climate and stony, volcanic rock- laced soils. You’ll find more depth and structure here than in similarly-priced cabernets from next door in Napa Valley, also genuine complexity. Black fruit is allied to smoldering wood spice and earth, evergreen and vanilla, even a touch of orange peel to add complexity. Tannins are yet gritty and firm, supported by lively acids. I’s suggest another 2-4 years in the cellar to allow the wine to unwind and relax. Solid stuff.

Pickett Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 2017

Pickett Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 2017, Napa Valley, California
$99.95, Halpern Enterprises
John Szabo – There’s some mystery surrounding this wine from Araujo Estates (renamed Eisele Vineyards in 2016, after the famous single vineyard which surely does not find its way into this bottling). One source says it’s a wine made exclusively for the LCBO, and it’s not listed on the Eisele website, nor are there any international reviews for it, but it’s seems to also be available in a smattering of US shops. Whatever the case, it’s impressive wine, a dark and polished well-balanced, supple but structured cabernet of fine proportions, and long, perfumed finish. The intensity and concentration are genuine, and the pedigree and meticulous care applied evident. Cellar another 2-3 years or hold into the early ’30s. There’s plenty to be enthusiastic about here, mysterious origins and all.

Ridge Three Valleys 2019

Ridge Three Valleys 2019, Sonoma County, California
$49.95, Rogers & Company
John Szabo – Ridge’s classic zinfandel blend with 13% petite sirah, 10% carignane, 3% mataro, 1% alicante bouschet, 2019 is a bright, balanced, firmly structured vintage, with typically well-balanced acids and firm tannins, and very good to excellent length. I find this particularly even-keeled and succulent, a wine that pulses with energy and drives desire for additional sips. Cellar for another 2-3 years, and enjoy into the early ’30s.

Grgich Hills Estate Grown Chardonnay 2017

Grgich Hills Estate Grown Chardonnay 2017, Napa Valley, California
$67.95, Rogers & Company
John Szabo – The distinctive style of Grgich shows through again clearly in this flinty-reductive-sulphide inflected 2017, perhaps off-putting to those unaccustomed to the idiosyncrasies of this wine, but have patience. Once on the palate, the wine impresses with its sheer density and intensity, not happenstance or vintage variation, but rather genuine concentration born of careful farming and very low yields. Indeed, the wine washes over the palate like a torrent of flavour, a landslide of structure, including grit and phenolic grip. Length and depth are exceptional. It’s drinking well now, but will surely age gracefully into the late-’20s-early-’30’s. Outstanding wine.

Rest of the World Whites

J. Moreau & Fils Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume 2018

J. Moreau & Fils Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume 2018, Burgundy, France      
$55.95, Univins And Spirits Canada Inc.               
John Szabo – Evolving beautifully at this stage, this is lovely, ripe, creamy, broad and mouthfilling Chablis 1er cru, full of 2018 warmth and sunshine. The balance is seamless on the palate, with vibrant but ripe and supple acids, and evident depth and low yielding vine concentration, not to mention length. It doesn’t need extended cellaring – indeed it’s thoroughly delicious now, even if there’s no rush.

Larry Cherubino Pedestal Chardonnay 2019

Larry Cherubino Pedestal Chardonnay 2019, Margaret River, Western Australia
$24.95, The Living Vine Inc.
Michael Godel – Plushness and lushness but also a tightly coiled wine still caught up in youth. Long and true, finishing with some botanical tonic and goings on forever.
John Szabo –
Lovely nose here, cool and fresh, flinty-stony in the right way, with limited oak exposure. The palate is all about crunchy acids and vibrant citrus fruit, in perfect harmony, while the finish lingers impressively. Concentration is also genuine. Top notch wine at the price.

Nieto Senetiner Semillon 2019

Nieto Senetiner Semillon 2019, Mendoza, Argentina
$15.95, Sylvestre Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – Lovely, concentrated, coffee crisp nose, smoky and green fig jam-flavoured semillon here from Tupungato in the  Uco Valley, delivering flavour intensity well above the expected in the price category. The palate is awash with salty green olive and green fig, while length and depth are terrific. For $16? Really? This is so very much worth a look.
Michael Godel – Lean, smouldering and will inevitably develop secondary lift-off and umami. Hard to believe this can be had for this price.
Sara d’Amato – I’m particularly impressed by the wealth of flavour exhibited by this young semillon. So inexpensive yet so expressive. Featuring great intensity, scintillating acidity and memorable length

Famille Perrin Réserve Côtes Du Rhône Blanc 2020

Famille Perrin Réserve Côtes Du Rhône Blanc 2020, Rhône, France
$15.95, Charton Hobbs Inc.
John Szabo – Another ripe and gentle, well-made, classically styled southern Rhône white from the Perrin Family, with white-fleshed orchard fruit, Golden Delicious apple and white peach, fresh fennel and apricot. I must say, I really enjoy this style of wine, a fleshy, medium-full bodied white without oak that has so many applications at the table. And for $16, you just can’t beat it. 2020 is a particularly successful vintage.
Sara d’Amato – Salty and mineral and comfortably warm, the 2020 blanc is dominated by grenache blanc with supporting roles from Marsanne, roussanne and viognier. This generous vintage also exhibits a touch more freshness than 2019 contributing notable balance to the blend. Expect flavours of fleshy ripe peach, pear and lemon zest. Overdelivers for the price

Orestiadi Grillo 2019

Orestiadi Grillo 2019, Sicilia, Italy
$17.95, Rogers & Company
David Lawrason – Grillo is an intriguing variety native to Sicilian, and this is a very fine example with exotic aromas of citrus, mustard seed, fresh herbs and florals. It is medium weight, feeling a bit thin but with very good flavour intensity and energy. Worth exploring.

Pierre Sparr Mambourg Gewurztraminer 2018

Pierre Sparr Mambourg Gewurztraminer 2018, Alsace Grand Cru, France             
$28.95, Du Chasse Wines
David Lawrason – This blasts a sensational nose that is full-on!  Where lychee, roses, lemon/orange marmalade, almost peppery spice, ginger and evergreen converge in a perfect gewurz storm. It is full bodied, thick, medium sweet and drenched in flavour.
John Szabo –
A very rich, ripe, classic gewürztraminer here from the reliable house of Sparr, with arch-textbook rose petal and lychee, jasmine and lemongrass flavours. The palate is off-dry, sumptuous and rich, creamy, fluffy, with refreshing bitters on the long finish. This is an exceptional GW all in all, ticking all the boxes, a wine student’s dream on a blind tasting exam.

Forrest Albarino 2019

Forrest Albarino 2019, Marlborough, New Zealand
$21.95, Abcon International Wine Merchants Inc.
Michael Godel – Salty-slaty number is a far cry from Minho but what it misses in Spanish flair it most surely makes up for in Kiwi magic. Low alcohol as per all the Forrest wines and so bloody dry.

Divino Silvaner Trocken 2018

Divino Silvaner Trocken 2018, Qualitätswein, Germany
$16.95, Rare Earth Wines
Sara d’Amato – The bottle has shapely curves, a more modern interpretation of the bocksbeutel bottle that traditionally houses Franken wines. Gingery spice on the nose is met with citrus and tropical fruit on the palate with a voluminous contribution from lees. Approachable and widely appealing.

Rest of the World Reds

Mazzei Castello Fonterutoli Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2016

Mazzei Castello Fonterutoli Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2016, Tuscany, Italy
$59.95, Du Chasse Wines & Spirits
John Szabo – This is an impressively perfumed and complex, deep and satisfying Gran Selezione from Castello Fonterutoli, still fresh and youthful, evolving at a snail’s pace. There’s plenty of darker fruit on offer allied to subtle wood spice, but it’s the texture on the palate that really beguiles: silky-firm, like raw silk, with terrific, energetic acids, succulent and juicy, and the expansive, perfumed finish that hangs on and on. It’s enjoyable now (decant ahead), or cellar comfortably into the ’30s.
Sara d’Amato – Perfectly poised, this fresh and elegantly structured Chianti Classico of Gran Selezione status from Mazzei is the picture of refinement. Acidity balances the warmth and adds backbone to the wealth of red fruit and dried wildflower on the palate. Despite its youth, drinking very well now or hold 3-5 years for a more supple expression

Lan Gran Reserva 2012

Lan Gran Reserva 2012, Rioja, Spain   
$33.95, Vin Vino Wine Merchants Inc.               
John Szabo – Another arch-classic, textbook Rioja Gran Reserva from Lan, complete with a dusting of toasted coconut and a drizzle of melted butter, classically high acids, and appealingly tart red fruit flavours. Tannins are ultra-fine, and, in sync with historical precedence, this wine is evolving slowly but surely. It’s the sort of red you can enjoy now, or cellar another dozen years without missing opportunities for pleasure. Complexity and length are exceptional in the price category, as are history and pedigree.

Firriato Quater 4 Rosso 2014

Firriato Quater 4 Rosso 2014, Terre Siciliane, Italy
$23.95, Vin Vino
David Lawrason – This blend of four Sicilian is very expressive with almost wild woodsy nose that included pomegranate, currants, thyme and evergreen, along with some maturing leather. It is open knit, hot edged and not very tannic with great flavour intensity.
Sara d’Amato – Four indigenous Sicilian varieties of nero d’avola, perricone, frappato and nerello cappuccino are bottled in eye-catching packaging. Captivating salinity, and pepper with mixed with botanicals greets on the nose. Impressively youthful given the time spent in bottle but not need to wait any longer, enjoy now.

Beyerskloof Pinotage 2019

Beyerskloof Pinotage 2019, Western Cape, South Africa
$16.95, The Case for Wine
David Lawrason – This is very pretty pinotage done in a lighter style that gives honest expression to its parent grapes (pinot noir and cinsault). The nose is nicely lifted with strawberry/cherry jam, a hint of pepper, cinnamon and Cape tar. It is medium bodied, nicely balanced, fleshy with very good length.

Pesquié Édition 1912m Ventoux 2019

Pesquié Édition 1912m Ventoux 2019, Rhône, France
$17.95, The Vine Agency
Michael Godel Can one really ever get enough of high elevation red blends at the base of great Mt. Ventoux? Brambly fruit with sweet to racy acidity in a value-based wine that’s really quite special.
Sara d’Amato – Grenache is complimented by peppery syrah in this blend sourced from the foothills of the imposing Mont Ventoux, home to one of the most strenuous legs of the Tour de France. Full-bodied with a very well managed degree of alcohol and free of the influence of oak. Generously aromatic with supple tannins and great length.

Château Hauchat Fronsac 2018

Château Hauchat Fronsac 2018, Bordeaux, France
$17.95, Connexion Oenophilia
David Lawrason This a superb value in a merlot-based Fronsac from a strong, ripe vintage. It is deeply coloured, fragrant, very well balanced, warm, solidly built and firmly tannic. A great little cellar starter that I would open in three to five years.

Rocche Costamagna Rocche Dell'annunziata Barolo 2016

Rocche Costamagna Rocche Dell’annunziata Barolo DOCG 2016, Piedmont, Italy
$59.95, Glencairn Wine Merchants
Michael Godel – For my money one of the great values in pinpointed and directly defined Barolo. The edginess mixed with that fineness of tannin is almost ready to explode. Two more years and the after the fireworks calm will present a truly great expression of Barolo.

Tawse Growers Blend Cabernet Franc 2019

Tawse Growers Blend Cabernet Franc 2019, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$28.95, Tawse Winery
Michael Godel – For Tawse it is 2019 that really speaks to cabernet franc, of great clarity and modesty. Those who know will appreciate the herbaceous, crisp and crunchy flavours of this handsome wine.
John Szabo –
A lovely, perfumed, resinous and properly herbal, cool climate expression of cabernet franc from this cool Niagara vintage, one that lent itself well to perfumed and finessed varieties like cabernet franc and pinot noir. The palate is juicy, with saliva-inducing acids and very fine-grained  tannins; a touch of caramel-wood flavour is still on display, but should integrate over the next year or so when it will approach prime drinking. Really lovely and composed all in all.

Château Le Temple 2015

Château Le Temple 2015, Médoc, Bordeaux, France
$28.95, Rare Earth Wines
Sara d’Amato
A fine vintage that is holding up notably well for Château Le Temple and is composed of 60% cabernet sauvignon with 35% merlot and 5% petit verdot aged 12 months in barrel. The palate features feathery tannins that are no barrier to entry, with a clean, upbeat profile and terrific balance. Great value.

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 Selections
Michael’s Mix

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