Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES April 15 Release

California Cab Struggles with Value

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

We head into spring buoyed by our recent week of fabulous weather. And spring in Ontario’s wine community always includes the California Wine Fair, now called “Eureka! The California Wine Discovery” in Toronto coming Monday, May 8, 2023, at the Beanfield Centre, after a three-year pandemic hiatus. Below we dissect the complex world of California cabernet price/quality ratio, and then present our picks from this release, including some very engaging whites.

But first a note that we are also almost simultaneously publishing Michael Godel’s comprehensive report on Nebbiolo Prima Previews: Barolo DOCG 2019, Barolo Riserva DOCG 2017 and Retrospectives — following a huge tasting in Piedmont earlier this year. He is beyond thorough in his assessments. And I am so jealous because I love tasting enigmatic nebbiolo!

The theme of this VINTAGES release is “California Cab from Napa, Sonoma and Beyond.” Cabernet sauvignon has become the poster child — a firefighter’s calendar — of red wines in California. I could trot out the usual stats on acreage, volumes and consumption, and declare, as they say in the Napa Auto Parts commercial now airing in Ontario — it’s true. The production and market remains very, very strong for California’s Numero Uno. Which means many folks love these wines — or want to love the idea of these wines. They have cachet.

My opinion however is that California cabernet sauvignon has raced to the bottom of the value charts of internationally produced cabernets, at all price points. Part of the reason for Canadians, as always, is the value of the Canuckbuck v. the Greenback, but there are issues of economics, supply and demand and varying quality before foreign exchange rates and Ontario taxation rates get applied.

The story starts at the top with the super-premium Napa Valley cabernets — small-batch, designer wines with a few historical classics in the mix. They have made “NapaCab” a global superstar. These collector wines have up-drafted pricing of all California cabernet grapes. Most are superb, but in my mind no wine selling for hundreds of dollars is good value in terms of price/quality ratio. And that’s not why people buy them; they are status and financial investments.

At the next tier — around the $100 mark — one expects perhaps more traditional Napa cabernets from established, quality wineries. There may be a few from other regions like Alexander Valley or Paso Robles, but not many. These are solid, correct, reliable wines with definitive cabernet character, but likely lacking some depth, complexity and wow factor compared the category above. Still, they are honest if pricy wines.

Below $100 down toward the $50 mark quality become less reliable. And we begin to see the emergence of “branded” cabernets with names that have everything to do with marketing and very little to do with where the wines are from. Some may still have a Napa appellation, but more and more are from other less expensive regions of California. I never trust quality when marketing becomes more important than place. And in this category, we begin to experience wines with perceptible sweetness, hopefully deftly applied in the name of nuanced balance.

Sweetness signals the descent into quality chaos rampant under $50 — which is VINTAGES pricing zone. Thus, the theme of this release “Napa, Sonoma and Beyond.” Napa all but disappears as a source, with other regions taking precedence, and we begin to see wines simply labeled California (especially under $25). Branded wines become the norm and so does notable residual sugar. But now the sweetness is clearly being used as a mask or Band-Aid. Cheap California cabernet sauvignon from high-yielding vineyards is not fun to drink — often green, hollow and tannic — so sugar is used like Polyfilla to plug the gaps.  That said, there are still values available in this zone if you look to reliable producers who put their name and place on the label, as in Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma on the release.

With the upcoming California Wine Fair there will be plenty of opportunity to sample your way up and down the line. And the real benefit is that you will be able to compare quality and prices on the level price playing field established by the price of admission. And find exceptions, which there always are. Enjoy.

In this VINTAGES release there are few California wines to recommend on value, and as you will see below our critics’ picks are largely elsewhere.


Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2019

Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2019, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment, Ontario
$31.95, The Vine Agency  
John Szabo – 2019 has proven to be a cracking riesling vintage, especially from these almost 50 year-old vines in the Cave Spring Vineyard. Acids are very limey and citric as per the cool year, with an essentially dry palate – only about 4 grams of RS in this vintage. Everything points to a classic, one with a long life ahead – hold into the 2030’s without a stretch.
David Lawrason – A beautifully complex, layered, waxy, serious and dry riesling from the oldest vines on the Beamsville property. Nuances honey, beeswax, wildflower and ripe pear on the nose and palate. It is medium weight, firm yet not austere trailing excellent minerality.
Michael Godel – From the first 2019 CSV holds the intangible riesling cards and feels well-ripened, despite the vintage not being one of the warmer ones up on the Niagara Escarpment. CSV 2019 just feels like healthy drinking.
Megha Jandhyala – This is an exceptional rendition of Ontario riesling. Essentially dry, with a firm but graceful, even statuesque structure, it is intriguingly nuanced, mineral, and ever so delicately floral, with petrol-adjacent aromas, and notes of ripe orchard, stone, and citrus fruit.
Sara d’Amato – Cave Spring’s iconic CSV Riesling has become a collector’s item among those in the know. This riveting, salty, and intense wine is just coming into its own but with many years of enjoyment yet as it continues to develop honeyed and nutty complexity in the bottle.

Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc 2022

Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Hemel en Aarde, South Africa      
$23.95, Trialto Wines  OnLine Flagship Exclusive
Michael Godel – When I tasted this in South Africa last October I was not privy to what price it would land in VINTAGES. It’s $24. Are you freaking kidding me?  A track record as solid as any of its ilk to deliver an intensity of flavour and that freshness overload, together thick as thieves, drinking at peak, right now
David Lawrason – A great value from South Africa, a country with a history of exemplary sauvignons from coastal regions. Expect lifted, complex lemongrass, basil/tarragon, grapefruit and diced yellow pepper. It is medium weight with flesh and heat, but solid acidity keeps it on beam. Amped Sancerre!.

Studert-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2019

Studert-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2019, Mosel, Germany
$28.95, Vinexx OnLine Flagship Exclusive
John Szabo – About as textbook as it comes, this spätlese is ripe, fresh, off-dry, light-bodied but substantially flavoured riesling considering just 8.5% alcohol – the magic of the Mosel. A grand cru at under $30. Drink or hold a decade or longer.
Megha Jandhyala – This is a well-priced, concentrated Spätlese from the celebrated, steep, slate-covered vineyard of Wehlener-Sonnenuhr. Look past its sweetness to the poise and grace it embodies. A focussed, smooth beam of acidity runs through its center, around which notes of honeysuckle, gunflint, and orchard and stone fruit swirl and spin.
Sara d’Amato – Sweet succulent, acid and sweetness wow, a bit of a palate overload but most definitely in the realm of Spatlese, excellent concentration. Notes of rosebud, saffron and grape jelly.  Chill well and serve with ripe gooey cheeses

Pieropan Soave Classico 2020

Pieropan Soave Classico 2020, Veneto, Italy
$21.95, Vonterra Wines
John Szabo – Hard to fathom how a wine of this quality, history and pedigree still sells for under $22. Drink or hold late into the decade – I think you’ll be surprised how well this ages.
Michael Godel – Arch proper Soave, to no surprise, exulting volcanic and limestone raised garganega to its rightful place atop the Veneto whites. Pieropan just gets it and does everything by the book, correct and right.
Megha Jandhyala – Here is a focussed, balanced, and compelling example of an often under-appreciated and under-valued appellation. I like its fleshy, vibrant palate and long, engaging finish, infused with citrus zest and botanicals.

Alpha Estate Turtles Single Vineyard Malagouzia 2022

Alpha Estate Turtles Single Vineyard Malagouzia 2022,  Florina, Macedonia,  Greece
$19.95, The Kolonaki Group       
David Lawrason – Malagouzia is a great white variety of Greece, rich and aromatic but not as pungent as gewurz or muscat. This captures tropical melon, lily florality, waxiness and white pepper – exotic and intriguing.  Full bodied, smooth and creamy with medium acidity. Classy!
Michael Godel – There are times when malagouzia is downplayed, stripped of its character but this by Alpha Estate is not one of those times. A chorus of harmony here, in synch, layered and ideal to sip alongside sapid snacks outside on a warm afternoon.
Megha Jandhyala – Here is an opportunity to try a single-vineyard expression of a lesser-known Greek variety. I really like its rich, glossy texture, subtle floral perfume, concentrated notes of citrus and orchard fruit, and unrestrained, unaffected charm.
Sara d’Amato – The near-extinct grape malagouzia has experienced a revival over the past couple of decades. Still largely unknown, wines from this variety range from sweet to dry in style, can make for extraordinary food matches and should not be overlooked. Here in an enlivening example that is dry, salty and bright with plenty of fragrant intrigue.

Mega Spileo Assyrtiko 2021

Mega Spileo Assyrtiko 2021, Peloponnese, Greece
$19.95, Kolonaki Group
Sara d’Amato – A step above your simple, light, easy-breezy, refreshing assyrtiko, this wine pulls a complex dimension from lees aging and high-quality fruit. Springtime-ready and a notable value in this release.

Jean-Max Roger Cuvée Genèse Sancerre 2021

Jean-Max Roger Cuvée Genèse Sancerre 2021, Loire, France
$34.95 Connexion Oenophilia
John Szabo – Properly restrained, aromatically withdrawn Sancerre, this is first class wine, a trip back to the Loire of old before hot vintages were the norm.

Jean Max Roger Cuvée Les Caillottes Sancerre 2020

Jean Max Roger Cuvée Les Caillottes Sancerre 2020, Loire, France
$35.95, Connexion Oenophelia
Megha Jandhyala – This is an elegant, complex Sancerre, encased in vibrant acidity, appealingly saline, savoury, and mineral, with delicate grassy tones and notes of ripe citrus fruit and zest.

Vidussi Ribolla Gialla 2021

Vidussi Ribolla Gialla 2021, Collio, Friuli, Italy     
$18.95, Trialto Wines    
David Lawrason – Ribolla is an aromatic local variety in Italy’s northeast. The nose is fairly lifted but gentle with yellow plum (mirabel), tarragon, lemon blossom, lily and spice. It is light to medium weight, soft but not sweet with a slightly waxy texture. Good flavour intensity, sense of volume and presence for the money. A great garden white.

Alvi's Drift Private Cellar Signature Range Viognier 2021

Alvi’s Drift Private Cellar Signature Range Viognier 2021, Western Cape, South Africa
$13.95, Churchill Cellars Ltd.
David Lawrason – This wine was not submitted for review. I purchased it because who couldn’t resist $13.95 and I remembered Alvi’s  fine chenin. A mid-weight, fresh, solid viognier – not too tropical, not too lean – with apricot, green tea, subtle clove and vanilla bean flavours. A terrific summer value for that Thai mango salad.

Red Wines

Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2020

Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2020, Amyndeon, Macedonia, Greece
$26.95, The Kolonaki Group
John Szabo – Lovely, perfumed, floral and spicy, red fruit dominated old vine xinomavro here from Alpha Estate, a leading producer in Amyndeon, northern Greece. Think Langhe nebbiolo and you’re in the right style spectrum. Drink or hold 3-5 years.    
David Lawrason – This pale xinomavro has a lifted and pretty nose of blueberry, pomegranate, lilac and a touch of pepper. It is light to medium bodied, firm, juicy and quite mineral with very fine herbal/coniferous streak joining the palate.
Michael Godel – Xinomavro with more than a twist or two to wake you up and keep you on your toes. Beautiful clean, high toned and finessed in xinomavro of the must try kind. On several occasions.
Megha Jandhyala – This single-vineyard xinomavro from Amyndeon is full of character, with a sense of purity and authenticity. I like the heightened aromas of fleshy red fruit and subtle floral and spicy notes.

Garage Wine Co. Lot 112 Old Bush-Head Vines Cabernet Franc 2019

Garage Wine Co. Lot 112 Old Bush-Head Vines Cabernet Franc 2019, Maule Valley, Chile  
$46.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc, OnLine Flagship Exclusive     
David Lawrason –
From old organically grown vines, this is cabernet franc at a boosted and effective level. There is very little franc herbal/tobacco on the nose, but it does arrive on the finish, ‘though not notably green. It is quite full bodied, plush with considerable tannic grip and warmth. I would age it a couple of years.
Michael Godel – Old vineyards, bush-head vines and without their own recorded history. Cabernet franc with both generosity and backbone. Given enough time this wine’s franc-ness will assuredly emerge.

Héritiers Cheron-Misset La Grand Comtadine Gigondas 2019

Héritiers Cheron-Misset La Grand Comtadine Gigondas 2019, Rhône, France       
$39.95, PV Wine & Spirits Agency
David Lawrason A fine, elegant and rich blend of old vine grenache 60%, syrah 30% and mourvedre from the top southern Rhone village after Châteauneuf.
John Szabo – Big, bold and beautiful, satisfying southern Rhône red, broad and creamy, packed with flavour, hugely pleasing. Drink or hold 3-5 years.
Sara d’Amato – Made by Yves Cheron, a first generation Rhône native with Burgundian ancestry who has passed on the winemaking torch to his daughter Elisa. Expect a notably well-proportioned wine brimming with flavours of plum, cherry and pomegranate with voluminous and velvety tannins.

Clos Bel Air 2016

Clos Bel Air 2016, Montagne Saint émilion
$23.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Megha Jandhyala – If you are looking for a Right-Bank Bordeaux for under $25, this maturing, merlot-led blend from a satellite appellation of Saint-Émilion is a good choice. I like the flavours of sweet, supple red and dark fruit, finely-integrated barrel spice, and plush, velveteen texture.

Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Sonoma County, California   
$27.95, Corby Spirit And Wine Limited  
David Lawrason – Benziger was among the first California wineries to embrace sustainable farming methods in the 1980s. There is some sweetness endemic in less expensive California cabernets but this has good overall balance, structure and fruit depth with very good length.

Southbrook Triomphe Gamay 2021

Southbrook Triomphe Gamay 2021, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario  
$28.95, Vinexx  
Sara d’Amato – An organically certified gamay full of pep, pleasantly reductive and rotundone-rich. Light but not insubstantial with more depth of flavour than the norm. Chill and crack.

Herdade Peso Trinca Bolotas Tinto 2020

Herdade Peso Trinca Bolotas Tinto 2020, Alentejo, Portugal 
$16.95, Charton Hobbs
Sara d’Amato – This well-priced Alentejo blend features alicante bouschet, touriga nacional and aragonez from the solid 2020 vintage. Honestly made with a pleasant zestiness that lifts the richness of fruit. Drink-up, no need to wait.

Fortified Wines

Lustau Manzanilla Papirusa Solera Familiar Very Dry Manzanilla Sherry

Lustau Manzanilla Papirusa Solera Familiar Very Dry Manzanilla Sherry, Sanlúcar De Barrameda (375ml)
$16.95, John Hanna & Sons, OnLine Flagship Exclusive
Megha Jandhyala – This is a sherry of notable intensity, complexity, and length, representing excellent value. I really like its integrated, balanced flavour profile of sourdough bread, toasted almonds, dried lemons, and citrus peel. It is rich, dry, mellifluous, and warm, with an intricate lattice of salinity and acidity supporting it.

And that’s a wrap for this edition. Join us April 29 for the next instalment of Think You Know Wine. Stay tuned for more information coming this week. And watch your inbox later this month for a Canadian Wine Insider column that sorts out whose new in Niagara following the large Taste Ontario trade event held last week in Toronto.

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.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Selections
Megha’s Picks

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