Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES November 27th Release

Review of VINTAGES Nov 27th Release: Update from LCBO & Premium Value

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

As David forewarned in the last VINTAGES report, the November 27th release is the biggest of the year, with over 160 wines arriving, or rejoining, LCBO-VINTAGES shelves. And this may well be the last in-store release at such a large scale, at least the last large in-store release spread across the LCBO retail network. In a trade update this past October, the LCBO revealed important changes to their retailing strategy for 2022. The changes will include less frequent in-store VINTAGES releases, and in fewer stores across the province, and with a reduced number of new products each release. At the same time focus on the “VINTAGES Essentials” will be redoubled, the sub-set of products within the VINTAGES program that are available year-round. Online-only releases will be increased to balance the reduction of in-store releases, and the LCBO will also be rolling out a “Virtual Experts” App, live one-on-one personalized shopping experiences with LCBO Product Consultants through App-based video calls. Read on for more details and what these changes might mean for you.

As for the Buyers’ Guide this week, as David also foretold, many of the $100+ “Premium Products” that make up the feature of the November 27th release were not made available to the WineAlign crü for review (with one notable exception: Ornellaia 2018 – see below). But we’ve reviewed over half of the releases and have assembled a broad list – 21 wines in all – that includes a surprising number of excellent value, sub-$30 wines, which make smart options for larger holiday gatherings where $100 bottles are unfitting, as well as great premium gift offerings in the $30-$60 range. Apparently, we all had different parties and gift recipients in mind as there are uncommonly few “alignments” among our picks this week. That makes this an ideal release for you to align with your kindred WineAlign reviewer. As a bonus, because there were so many terrific wines from New Zealand in the release, David has penned a separate feature on the best of them, which is well worth a look as it includes some exceptional bottles. We’ll also be back with more in mid-December to wrap up the year with the best of the December 10th release and the annual, much anticipated Fizz Guide.

LCBO Announces Big Changes to the Retail Landscape for 2022

After a period of corporate self-reflection and introspection, and, of course, number-crunching, the LCBO has identified better and more efficient ways to serve Ontario consumers. You may or may not agree. In a presentation to importers in October, the LCBO shared their key findings and upcoming changes to their retail strategy.

Just as a reminder, and so the following makes sense, the LCBO has multiple sales channels that operate almost as separate businesses under the LCBO umbrella. These include LCBO products (formerly “LCBO general listings”), which covers the products available at all times in all 650+ LCBO stores in the province. Steve Thurlow is our main correspondent for LCBO products and does an excellent job in covering them. This represents the lion’s share of all LCBO sales.

The VINTAGES channel includes the “ESSENTIALS” collection, which are the VINTAGES equivalent of general listings, products always available in all stores that sell VINTAGES products – currently 292 VINTAGES corners within LCBO stores, as well as the “VINTAGES Release Program”, the bi-monthly releases of (mostly) new arrivals, which Sara, David, Michael and I have been endeavouring to  cover since we launched in 2009. “Online Exclusives” also fall under the VINTAGES balance sheet, which are of course wines that never see a shelf. Lastly, there are the VINTAGES “Direct Programs” that regroup Classics, Futures and Special Offers, also available online only.

Among the key findings of the presentation was that consumers are largely satisfied shopping the VINTAGES Essentials products. This sub-channel, which currently includes 208 products, accounts for 58% of total VINTAGES sales. The bi-monthly releases, by contrast, make up just 35% of total sales, even though some 3000 different products are released each year. Ontario consumers, it seems, are particularly brand loyal and not very adventurous.

“Share shift between release to Essentials has been occurring as popularity has grown with customers”, the presentation stated. The LCBO thus plans, logically, to “enhance the role of Essentials within the VINTAGES brand”. This means that in future, Essentials selections will be focused even more on “key subsets and varietals”, which means a small handful of popular grapes and regions, from high volume producers, and at “approachable” prices, which in VINTAGES parlance means largely sub-$20. Don’t expect to find much diversity and excitement in the Essentials collections – these products are not aimed at you.

Another key finding was that, “VINTAGES releases do not perform the same across all stores in our network”. This is not surprising. Other than conspicuously affluent parts of the province, wine enthusiasts are not evenly distributed demographically. The LCBO has deemed it inefficient to ship wines out to stores where they will languish and gather dust as Friday evening shoppers pass them by filling their carts with comforting familiarity.

What this means is that VINTAGES stores whose sales are largely driven by the Essentials Collection and not the ‘releases’ will, on the one hand, be expanding their VINTAGES Essentials assortment (not all stores currently sell all 208 Essentials products, and more might be added), while at the same, be “phased out of the VINTAGES release program”. That is, they will no longer sell the 3000-odd bi-monthly products released yearly. 41 of the “release” outlets in all will be axed next year, reducing the number to 251 province wide.

What’s more, in 2022, the LCBO will begin to reduce the frequency of the remaining in-store VINTAGES retail releases. Between May and August 2022, there will be only one monthly in-store release instead of two. The second release will be available exclusively online. And, “In all other months, the second in-store release of each month will be accompanied by an exclusive online-only release on the Thursday of a release week.” From this I understand that only part of the second release in those other months will be available on shelves, with the rest of the products only online. And, if products sell out online between Thursday and the Saturday in-store release, they’ll never see shelves at all. In December 2022, for the record, there will be an additional VINTAGES retail release to “provide a robust assortment during our busiest season”.

The online exclusives will become the new sales channel for all of the new, odd, misfit wines, the “non-mainstream categories”, as the LCBO refers to them, “focused on sub-sets, price-points and styles not represented in the Retail release or Classics”. The average price will be between $20 and $50 dollars per bottle.

This spells the beginning of the end of in-store browsing for non-mainstream bottles. Wine lovers will now have to browse online to make their discoveries. The main problem I see with this in the sub-optimal LCBO website and especially the search engine, which makes finding products outside of the mainstream that are currently available a frustrating experience. One can only hope this will be revamped and improved. And the search function pre-supposes that you know what you’re looking for – how do you browse in a search bar? I suppose you could scroll through hundreds of pages and thousands of wines until something piques your curiosity. But who will be there to tell you about it? Anyone who remembers browsing the aisles of a Blockbuster Video will lament the loss of that thrill of discovery. Or perhaps the LCBO will profile you and you’re past purchases and use an algorithm to generate suggestions for you, just as all of the video streaming services do today.

The changes also call into question the necessity of employing those well-trained and informed product consultants to circulate the floor. The limited wine selection in most stores will make them obsolete. But here, too, the LCBO has a plan, and at least 14 of them will stay employed. Coming soon is the LCBO “Virtual Expert”, a live one-on-one personalized shopping experience provided by LCBO Product Consultants through App-based video calls. In a pilot that ran from August to October, four product consultants at a time were standing by in a studio at LCBO HQ to be booked for a virtual shopping consultation. 14 consultants in total participated in the program. The App features real-time inventory and check out, and the LCBO reports more than 5x the average “conversion” (sales) compared to regular e-commerce online (you’re being monitored as you search), as well as a spend 1.5x more than the average regular e-commerce order. Salespeople sell, even virtual ones.

What this all means to you depends on your “level of engagement” in wine. Most Ontarians are happy buying from a limited assortment of old favorites and aren’t interested in exploring. The increased efficiencies in the LCBO sales channels should mean greater profitability, which is great for all Ontarians.

It’s the small percentage of wine lovers who will find these changes alarming, or at least disappointing and frustrating. If they live in the wrong postal code and are uncomfortable with e-commerce, pilgrimages to the flagship LCBO-VINTAGES stores will become a necessity. But remember that although looking more and more bleak at the LCBO, there are more ways to purchase wines in Ontario than ever before. Bottle shops, wine clubs, and mixed cases of private imports direct from agents are all new to the landscape and great ways to explore. If you haven’t signed up for the WineAlign Exchange, our curated quarterly wine subscription, it’s well worth considering.

As for us at WineAlign, we’ll continue to offer our top picks and suggestions from all LCBO channels, and every other channel from that matter, including consignment/private imports and of course Canadian wineries. We may not be on hand for virtual consultations (yet?), but we, and our smartest buys, are only ever a few clicks away.

New Zealand

Greystone Riesling 2018

Greystone Riesling 2018, Waipara, New Zealand
$24.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Michael GodelNot necessarily a nod to the Mosel, more like the Rheinhessen per se with a slate feel to the direct and purposed fruit. Regardless there can be no doubt that the limestone bedrock with fossils and sea shells contribute to the effect of this great riesling.
John Szabo –
Gorgeous, textbook riesling nose leads off here with plenty of floral-lime and peach blossom character in a ripe but vibrant expression, loaded with extract. Some residual sweetness is noted but offset by crunchy acids, leading into a long, honeyed and bees wax-inflected finish. Really sharp and delicious all around; drink or hold mid-term.

Muddy Water Chardonnay 2018

Muddy Water Chardonnay 2018, Waipara, New Zealand
$39.95, The Living Vine
Michael Godel –
Hard to find New Zealand chardonnay with as much concentration and substantiality of fruit. Rich and unctuous, luxe and volupté but there is nothing gratuitous about it whatsoever.

Neudorf Rosie's Block Chardonnay 2018

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Chardonnay 2018, Nelson, South Island New Zealand
$29.95, Select Wine Merchants
John Szabo –
From a leading producer on New Zealand’s south island in the Nelson region, the 2018 Rosie’s block chardonnay from Neudorf is a lovely, flinty-smoky, green nut and marzipan, citrus-lime and grapefruit flavoured wine of considerable depth and complexity, and excellent balance. Already drinking really well, though I’d expect continued improvement over the next 2-3 years, or possible extended cellaring late into the decade without concern.

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2020, Marlborough, New Zealand
$28.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Sara d’Amato –
Wet stone and saltiness prevail among the flavours on the palate of this refreshing sauvignon blanc. Zesty and electric, this wine has struck a nervy balance. Pure and unadulterated but clean. A notable inclusion in the canon of Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Greystone Sauvignon Blanc 2019

Greystone Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough, New Zealand
$29.00, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Sara d’Amato –
Oily, mineral and chalky, this distinctively flinty sauvignon blanc is grown anorth Canterbury in the Waipara Valley known for its small, boutique production. The wine is a little richer and more unctuous than your typical Marlborough Sauvignon blanc but still dry. French oak was used and subdues the racier elements of the wine but contributes to complexity and textural intrigue.

Dog Point Pinot Noir 2017

Dog Point Pinot Noir 2017, Marlborough, New Zealand
$49.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Michael Godel –
The ideal drinking window is upon us and my if this does not speak to everything that is real, just and true about Marlborough pinot noir.

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2018

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2018, Waipara, New Zealand
$39.95, The Living Vine
John Szabo –
Made from 25-year-old, own-rooted pinot vines planted in the limestones of Waipara, North Canterbury, and aged in French oak (40% new) for just over a year, this is classy and complete, vibrant wine with terrific stuffing, structure, and depth. I love the tension on the palate, the grainy texture, the energetic acids and overall balance. Yet, it’s perhaps the long finish that really captures attention – this is well made wine from an excellent vineyard site. Drink now-2028 or so.

Trinity Hill The Trinity Red Blend 2018

Trinity Hill The Trinity Red Blend 2018, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
$19.95, Connexion Oenophilia
Sara d’Amato –
A dark, dense Bordelaise style blend from the warmer region of Hawke’s Bay on the North Island. A powerfully tannic red with a hint of youthful bitterness. Dark but not heavy with notes of graphite, cherry skin, blackberry and delicate woodsy spice. Compact and best with more time in bottle.

Other Whites

Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2019

Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2019, Napa Valley, California
$64.95, Mark Anthony Group
David Lawrason –
Here’s a rich, very smooth, opulent yet surprisingly poised chardonnay – a Napa benchmark. Tailored, sophisticated, detailed and showing excellent length. Quite luxurious but not heavy.

Domaine Laporte Le Rochoy Sancerre Blanc 2019

Domaine Laporte Le Rochoy Sancerre Blanc 2019, Loire, France  
$34.95, Rare Earth Wines                
Sara d’Amato – Tender and elegant, this breezy Sancerre is effortlessly drinkable yet exceeds expectations when it comes to complexity. Mineral, honey and hay with lemon zest and appealing brininess linger on the finish of surprising length.

Jean Max Roger Cuvée Genèse Sancerre 2020

Jean Max Roger Cuvée Genèse Sancerre 2020, Loire, France
$32.95, Connexion Oenophilia
John Szabo –
Roger’s 2020 Cuvée Genèse is another arch-classic, firm and stony, citrus fruit-dominated Sancerre, with strong emphasis on the wet stone character so prized in wines from this appellation. Length and depth, too, are exceptional, and this may well be one of the best vintages for this wine to reach our shores. Drink or hold until the end of the decade.

Westcott Estate Chardonnay 2020

Westcott Estate Chardonnay 2020, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$29.95, Westcott Vineyards
Michael Godel – Crisp, friable and crackling ’20 bookended by a soft entry and mellow ending. Balanced throughout, made more complex by white flower and orchard fruit moments, engaging, participatory, spot on.

Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2020

Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2020, Kamptal, Austria         
$19.95, Artisanal Wines      
David Lawrason – My favourite Austrian gruner returns to Ontario after a six-year absence, from a house with an impossible 850 year history in the upper Danube. This “basic” gruner has a firm mineral core with classic yellow plum/apricot fruit and subtle pepper aromas.

Radford Dale Vinum Chenin Blanc 2019

Radford Dale Vinum Chenin Blanc 2019, Stellenbosch, South Africa  
$18.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Michael Godel – Hard to imagine how 11.5 abv can gift this much texture and flavour, but it does so there’s that. In fact this is a step up from most entry-level chenins because it rains complexities then puddles with viscosity and depth.

Other Reds

Ornellaia 2018

Ornellaia 2018, Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany, Italy   
$249.95, Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits
John Szabo – Only you can ultimately decide if the 2018 Ornellaia is worth the money. What I can tell you is that it is an excellent wine, gorgeously perfumed, a real treat aromatically as with so many fine 2018 Tuscan reds proud to display a refreshing herbal component, not green but minty-fresh. This is the first vintage in which merlot has figured so prominently -50% – and it’s a little more amenable and approachable at this stage of evolution than more angular vintages. I find it immediately delicious and drinkable, even if of course not yet at peak, but it won’t be a vintage to wait decades for. I suspect it will start reaching peak within the next 3-5 years. It’s a vintage of pure pleasure more than intellectual effort.

Ferraton Père & Fils Le Parvis Châteauneuf-Du-Pape 2018

Ferraton Père & Fils Le Parvis Châteauneuf-Du-Pape 2018, Rhône, France             
$56.95, FWM Canada    
John Szabo – A rich and dense, spicy Châteauneuf-du-Pape, saturated with superripe red and black fruit flavours, though not baked and dried. The texture is smooth and voluptuous, and length and depth are excellent. Drinking now, but also cellarable another 4-6 years.

Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Dijon Clones Pinot Noir 2017

Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Dijon Clones Pinot Noir 2017, Russian River Valley, California     
$56.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Michael Godel– Highly aromatic pinot noir that cruises from the glass with unquestioned esteem. mpressive is the understatement, hypnotizing the over but not my much. Length is impressive, as is the preciseness of how this gets right to the rounded point.

Turley Juvenile Zinfandel 2019

Turley Juvenile Zinfandel 2019, California
$49.95, The Vine Agency
Sara d’Amato – Admittedly, this is style of uber-ripe jammy, high-alcohol red is not my standard but Turley’s 2019 Juvenile Zinfandel is so compelling that you may also find yourself thinking of it for days. Rich, juicy and jammy, this polished, full-flavoured zinfandel shows only a modicum of restraint. Clean and fleshy with flavours of red cherry, pluot, black currant and graphite. A sponge for oak, this spicy wine is still well balanced and appealing despite warmth on the finish. Warm on the finish. Sip slowly.

Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir 2019

Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir 2019, Niagara Escarpment, Ontario
$45.00, Arterra Wines Canada
David Lawrason – A thoughtful gift for local wine collectors! This is a solid, intense Thomas Bachelder effort from a fine pinot vintage. It is medium weight with a refined satiny mid-palate, firm acidity and good bones, then a youthful tannic finish. Best 2025 to 2030+.

Brancaia Riserva Chianti Classico 2016

Brancaia Riserva Chianti Classico 2016, Tuscany, Italy
$39.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits, Inc.
David Lawrason – Here’s a lovely, maturing, rich yet juicy and accessible riserva that includes a dollop of softening merlot. Archtypical Chianti Classico from a great year with impressive flavour intensity, power and warmth.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2019

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2019, Short Hills Bench, Niagara, Ontario
$34.95, Henry of Pelham
Sara d’Amato Having evolved to peak drinkability, this bright and elegant pinot noir with pleasant, mild bottle aged character is an absolute charmer. Notes of cherry, new leather, exotic spice and forest floor given an almost festive air to this premium range Henry of Pelham release.

Marchand-Tawse Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2019

Marchand-Tawse Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2019, Burgundy France
$33.95, Burgundy Direct
John Szabo – This is a very pretty, elegant and floral Bourgogne from Marchand-Tawse and vineyards in the Côte d’Or. The palate is sleek and refined, with light, gently grippy tannins and succulent acids, and very good depth and length overall. Polished and sophisticated, well-made wine; drink or hold into the mid-’20s.

La Vierge Nymphomane Bordeaux Blend 2017

La Vierge Nymphomane Bordeaux Blend 2017, Walker Bay, South Africa
$29.95, Wine Guru Selection
David LawrasonThe branding is a bit flighty and odd, but this is a very grounded cabernet sauvignon-led, four variety blend. It has a very engaging complex, maturing nose that is quite Bordelais, with classic currant, tobacco, leather and graphite. Solid and quite intense.
John Szabo –
This is really quite a lovely, supple, succulent Bordeaux blend from the cool Memel-en-Aarde rsub-region, better-known for pinot noir and chardonnay, but here clearly more than adequately suitable for these later varieties. I find this clean and supple, sleek and succulent on the palate, with nicely polished tannins and saliva-inducing acids – there’s great tension and verve here, and complexity is very high in the category. Ready to enjoy or hold mid-term.

Shanahans The Old Dog Shiraz 2018

Shanahans The Old Dog Shiraz 2018, Barossa Valley, South Australia
$19.95, L’Excellent Wines
David Lawrason – Barossa shiraz can remind me of cassis or blackberry liqueur, with its fruit richness and creamy, dense consistency. This is just delicious shiraz, and great value. Slightly salty on the finish.

Quinta Do Penedo Reserva 2013

Quinta Do Penedo Reserva 2013, Dão, Portugal             
$19.95, Signature Wines & Spirits Ltd.    
David Lawrason – Great value in peaking, sturdy yet streamlined Dao. Fine, complex blackcurrant, woodsy herbality, fine oak spice and vanillin. Firm with impressive flavour intensity, focus and length.
Sara d’Amato – Aromatically enticing and full of verve, this mouthfilling Dão blend is plenty spicey from fruit and complioknted by oak. Crunchy with freshness and salitniy and velvety, mouthfilling tannins. Much more youthful thatn expected with a hint of stylish reductivity. Good length.

Bodega San Francisco Javier Palacio De Sada Crianza Garnacha Viñas Viejas 2015

Bodega San Francisco Javier Palacio De Sada Crianza Garnacha Viñas Viejas 2015, Navarra, Spain
$17.95, The Dochas Company Inc.
John Szabo – This is a lovely wine for the money, a soft, ripe, and voluptuous old vines garnacha (40+ years old) from Navarra. The flavour profile is classic, featuring strawberry-raspberry pie, black pepper and wild resinous herbs, while tannins are soft and acids modest, lending a smooth and creamy mouthfeel. Length and depth exceed expectations in the price category.

Hollick The Bard Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Hollick The Bard Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Coonawarra, South Australia
$16.95, Rogers & Company
John Szabo – Clean and fragrant, well balanced and lively, fresh cabernet here from Coonawarra, appealingly herbal but not green, with a whiff of peppermint and fresh mulch. Tannins are fine grained and light, and acids full of verve. I find this infinitely drinkable; chill lightly and enjoy over the next 1-2 years. Delicious at the price to be sure.

La Tremenda Monastrell 2018

La Tremenda Monastrell 2018, Alicante, Spain
$16.95, Azureau Wines & Spirits
Michael Godel – Tremendous value, once again, as always, on repeat and with esteem. How Enrique Mendoza does this vintage after vintage defies logic and proportion. Honesty, purity and complete clarity in darkening red fruit with sweet acids and fine, if not overly demanding tannins.

Evel Tinto 2017

Evel Tinto 2017, Douro, Portugal          
$14.95, H.H.D. Imports   
John Szabo – Delightfully fruity and balanced, lively and juicy red from the Douro Valley, overdelivering on pleasure and enjoyment at the price. This would make a good ‘house’ red for the holiday season, sophisticate enough for the punters, easy enough for everyone else, and attractively priced.
Michael Godel – Simple, straightforward, floral and really juicy Douro is exactly this, hitting the spot and for those who want an inexpensive red that expresses purity plus a sense of place. Perfect clarity, no make-up and ripe with the best of them.

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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