Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES August 13 Release

John Szabo’s Vintage’s Preview August 13: The Dog Days Aren’t Over

By John Szabo, MS with notes from David Lawrason, Michael Godel, and Megha Jandhyala (Sara is on vacation)

The Dog Days Aren’t Over

To the Greeks and Romans, the diēs caniculārēs, or “dog days” of the year occur around the period when Sirius, the dog star, rises alongside the sun. In the northern hemisphere, Sirius is in perfect conjunction with the sun on July 23, so, the dog days of summer are considered to be the 20 days before and 20 days after this alignment, that is, from July 3 to August 11 each year.

Those early astral observers believed that the heat radiated by the two stars aligned together combined to make these days the hottest of the year, a period that could bring fever or even catastrophe. Yet the catastrophic dog days of the 21st century, for winegrowers, seem to cover a much longer period of the growing season. Trouble now routinely starts with ever-earlier bud break from unusually warm springs, which lengthens the period of potential frost damage, and continues straight through to ever-earlier harvests, often in August, when extreme heat waves and lack of water can damage grape clusters and lead to burnt shoot tips and leaves and a decline in vine health, as well as smaller yields from shrivelled, desiccated berries with raisined flavours in the wine to match. The list of winegrowers’ potential woes grows ever longer.

Yet the silver cloud in that sundrenched, smoke-filled sky is that this century’s growing succession of exceedingly hot, dry and smoky summers has mobilized academics, regional associations and winegrowers around the world to collectively work to solve many of the problems caused by extreme weather and related events. What would have been a disastrous vintage a couple of decades ago can now be much more effectively mitigated through a number of vineyard manage techniques and new technologies. All hope is not lost.


Smoke on the Wine

And fire in the sky… Smoke taint in wine has become a hot 21st-century issue. I first came across a wine that smelled and tasted of campfire — an Australian shiraz — at a trade fair in Toronto sometime in the mid-noughts. A heated argument ensued with the winemaker in question about “vintage variation” and “vintage character.” You can of course argue that the flavours that result from a wildfire near a vineyard at the wrong time of year, especially close to harvest when wildfires are likely to occur, are an imprint of the growing season. It’s more challenging to argue that the volatile phenols that cause the smoky flavours are desirable at high levels. As with many so-called wine defects, it’s the dose that matters. A little volatile acidity lift, and little leathery brettanomyces addition, a subtle dash of campfire… all can add complexity and interest. Indeed, many smoke compounds occur naturally in wines made without a fire in sight — barrel-aged wines especially. (NB: Different varieties have varying levels of these compounds, complicating the declaration of “smoke taint” — some wines can be naturally smoky.)

But in my opinion too much of any of these ruins wine, at least homogenizes them to the point where variety and region are all but unreadable. Smoke taint in B.C. cabernet tastes a lot like smoke taint in California merlot or Australian shiraz. And if great wine is supposed to reflect its origins, then this is bad.

It’s thus very bad that wildfires are happening with greater frequency and intensity in winegrowing regions around the world than ever before in recorded history. California, Oregon, Washington State, Australia, South Africa, Greece, France, Italy, and British Columbia, among others, have all experienced harvest-threatening wildfires in this century. The need to understand how smoke affects berries and wines — and what to do about it — is increasingly urgent. Researchers around the world are working at top speed to understand the problem and seek ways to prevent, control and/or mitigate the nefarious effects.

It’s already known, for example, that the “fresher” the smoke, the greater the impact on the vines/fruit/wine. This is because certain smoke compounds oxidize over time and degrade in sunlight, as well, changing their composition. And while there’s no “safe” distance from a fire, the further away it is, the more dilute the smoke compounds will logically be when they reach the vineyard, and the less the impact on grapes and wines.


But what to do if a fresh, pre-harvest fire alights near your vines? Barrier sprays, such as bentonite or kaolin clays, applied to vines prior to expected smoke exposure have been shown to effectively reduce berry uptake of smoky compounds by… creating a barrier. It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive way to reduce smoke damage.

Techniques to remove compounds that have already made their way into must/wine have become more sophisticated in recent years. There are currently several methods in use, and one very promising technique that has not yet been approved for the wine industry. This last is a treatment called Molecular Imprinted Polymers. The process involves adding MIPs to wine. They essentially attract and bind the unwanted target smoke molecules, reducing them to very low levels. It’s like baby ducklings (the smoke) and their mother (the MIP): the newborn animals form a bond with their caregiver. Although these polymers have been used in the food, medical and pharmaceutical industries for years, MIPs still need the green light from wine authorities. Early studies show this to be the most effective technique.

Reverse osmosis is probably the most widely used removal technique. RO involves breaking wine down into essential components, then removing the ones you don’t want, then putting the rest back together again. It’s been used to reduce alcohol, for example, for many years now. The downside is the cost — the machine is expensive, though there are companies you can hire to come and take care of your RO needs. The more serious downside for wine lovers is that it beats up the wine pretty badly and can lead to premature ageing. Filtering a wine with activated carbon is also an effective way to get rid of smoke taint, though its impact on wine quality is even more severe, stripping out good with bad.

In the end, the good news is that the understanding of smoke taint, how to analyze for it, how it gets into berries, and which factors exacerbate or mitigate its impact, is deepening daily. Short of finding a way to prevent wildfires, these latest techniques are our best hope of smoke-taint free wines.

Dealing with Heat

The negative effects of more frequent heatwaves, for example, can be lessened through several strategies. The first and most obvious is to plant the right, heat-resistant varieties in the first place, those that have evolved and adapted over millennia to such conditions. There are many southern Mediterranean varieties that fit the bill. But replanting a vineyard is expensive, as is waiting several years to get a crop, and then convincing consumers that a Californian aglianico or an Australian nero d’Avola is worth buying instead of cabernet sauvignon.

More immediate and less expensive strategies include applying shade cloths over the fruiting zone during the hottest times of the year, which can drastically reduce sunburn damage. Changing vine-row orientation to get more shade is also effective; northeast-southwest row orientation has been shown to more evenly disperse light throughout the day and reduce temperatures under grapevine canopies (but that’s expensive again).

Irrigation systems help. Small adjustments in the volume and timing of water application, and especially supplemental irrigation during the most extreme periods, helps vines weather the extremes. While irrigation is still officially forbidden in most Old World appellations, more frequent “emergency irrigation” dispensations have been given, as has been the case in many parts of Italy this summer.

Cover crops can also help reduce the temperature in the vine canopy by increasing soil surface reflectivity, as well as keep the soils themselves cooler than when exposed to direct sunlight. And most simply, maintaining more leaves in the fruit zone will shade clusters effectively, instead of doing the oft-practiced technique of stripping leaves, done in the past to maximize sun exposure on berries and ripeness in the days before extreme dog days.

Other effective and easily implemented techniques include pruning as late as possible in the spring, which has the double benefit of delaying bud break to after the period of greatest frost risk, as well as delaying the critical ripening period to after summer heatwaves have passed when grapes are at their most sensitive.

Changing trellis systems to encourage more shaded fruit works well. The vine pergolas seen across northern Italy and northwestern Spain and Portugal, for example, once derided as high-yielding and old fashioned (and un-mechanizable), are coming back into fashion. Just picture all those grape bunches hanging safely in the shade under a roof of leaves. Eliminating the trellis altogether as with bush vines has worked in southern Europe since time immemorial, though simply changing the pruning systems to achieve similar shady results (e.g. the California or Australian “sprawl”) are yet more effective strategies. It’s important to note that there’s a downside to all of these ideas that need to be weighed by individual growers, but at least there are many things that can be done to mitigate heat and drought.

So, while the dog days of the year grow longer, the wine industry is actively engaged in dealing with them. And it’s also deeply obsessed with lessening climate change in the first place and increasing its sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint. There’s still a long way to go, but at least there’s a silver cloud on the horizon.

Vintages Buyer’s Guide August 13: White & Rosé & Sparkling

Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2021

Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand
$25.95, Connexion Oenophelia
David Lawrason – A classy garden sipper! This is a very flavourful, balanced and almost rich sauvignon blanc from Kevin Judd, a local legend as the first winemaker at Cloudy Bay. Expect aromas of guava, cucumber, lemon, tarragon and evergreen. Excellent focus and length.
Megha Jandhyala – Kevin Judd’s bright, balanced, and focused sauvignon blanc is at once ripe and lush, taut and firm. Generous notes of lemons, melons, pineapples, and grass, and subtle notes of white flowers and fresh fennel bulbs are followed by a long and delicately bitter, zesty finish.

Martin Codax Mara Martin Godello 2020

Martin Codax Mara Martin Godello 2020, Monterrei, Spain
$17.95, M.C.O.
John Szabo – A venture out of Rias Baixas and into the neighbouring inland Monterrei denomination, the Martín Codax cooperative has crafted a fresh and engaging godello. This is the sort of wine you’ll want to chill well and sip this summer, or next. Most of what comes out of this winery is worth a look, always solid.

Maria Papoila Loureiro/Alvarinho 2021

Maria Papoila Loureiro/Alvarinho 2021, Vinho Verde, Portugal
$17.95, The Vine Agency
Megha Jandhyala Charmingly floral and mineral, with expressive notes of lime-zest, lemons, apples, and peaches this is a fresh, elegant, and flavourful vinho verde. It is gently rounded and succulent on the palate with a pleasant memory of the seaside preceding the grapefruit-inflected, subtly textured finish. There is much joy, flavour, vibrance, and pleasure here.

Iconic Feteasca Alba 2020, Prahova Valley, Muntenia, Romania
$12.95, Carto Enterprise
John Szabo – Don’t be misled by the price – this is perfectly respectable, well-made, clean and balanced white wine made from the central European variety Feteasca alba (aka léanyka), which, from a better-known region/variety, would surely command closer to $20. It’s oak-free, citrus and orchard fruit-flavoured, with a touch of the exotic, creamy yet still fresh with 10 grams of residual sugar per liter (less than many commercial red wines). Chill and enjoy over the short term. 

Domaine Jean Pierre Sève Terroir Pouilly Fuissé 2020

Domaine Jean Pierre Sève Terroir Pouilly Fuissé 2020, Burgundy, France
$32.95, The Case for Wine
Megha Jandhyala – Mineral and focused, with notes of limes, pears, and peaches, this is a wine of clarity and harmony. Balancing ripeness with vibrance, it flows like liquid silk on the palate, driven by acidity. Oak use is measured and judicious adding dimension without distraction.

Alois Lageder Chardonnay 2020, Südtirol, Alto Adige, Italy
$19.95, Mark Anthony Group
David Lawrason – From one of the most respected producers of Italy’s Sudtirol comes a ripe yet slender unoaked chardonnay with yellow plum, peach and honeysuckle florality. It is medium bodied, fleshy and well balanced with the right amount of chardonnay gravitas.
Megha Jandhyala – This is a balanced and delightful chardonnay, biodynamically grown and untouched by oak. I like the generous and melodious flavours of apples, peaches, and ripe grapefruit. The palate is lively and fresh, with a succulent, slightly rounded texture.

Curatolo Arini Grillo 2019, Sicilia, Italy
$14.95, The Case For Wine
Michael Godel – Bright, cheery and airy grillo, capturing the charm and vim of the grape with admirable purity. Serve this chilled down to six-ish degrees celsius then fry up some small fishes, calamari and fiori di zucca for best results.
John Szabo – Clean, well-made, fresh and round, lightly spritzy and tonic, orange peel-flavoured grillo here from western Sicily, perfectly serviceable and attractively price. It’s the kind of wine you’d be happy to sip under almost any circumstance, though ideally al fresco with a water view (swimming pools included). Sharp value.

Henry Of Pelham Estate Riesling 2020

Henry Of Pelham Estate Riesling 2020, Short Hills Bench, Ontario
$19.95, Family Wine Merchants
Michael Godel – Niagara tone and also charm on full display. Then there is this palate inspiring crunch and textural capture to bring it all back home. Just what riesling might recall and reward.
David Lawrason – Such good value! A very fine, juicy yet firm riesling with a classic peach, lemon, petrol and honeysuckle. It is light to medium bodied (only 11.5% alch) with zesty acidity, a teasing drop of sweetness and a slightly bitter finish.

Thierry Delaunay Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Loire Valley, France
$16.95, M.C.O. Wines
David Lawrason – Very zesty! This has a lifted nose of green apple, lime, kiwi and, green pepper. It is light to medium bodied, with mouth-watering acidity and just right sweetness. It has a sleek and glossy feel.

Quadrus White 2021, Douro, Portugal
$19.95, Halpern Enterprises
David Lawrason – This is a blend of several local Douro grapes aged a short time in oak, delivering a wisp of spice and toast around ripe yellow apple/pear fruit, with lemon wax and subtle herbal complexity. It is mid-weight, firm and solid without being austere. Douro minerality is on full display.

Vintages Buyer’s Guide August 13: Red

San Giorgio Ugolforte Brunello Di Montalcino 2016, Tuscany, Italy
$59.95, Charton Hobbs
Megha Jandhyala
– Ruby red, with a pale garnet aura, this Brunello seems to captivate all the senses. Notes of dried cherries, tilled earth, leather, cloves, vanilla, and the perfume of dried violets, come together in a crescendo of flavour, then wane, leaving a cherry note to fade gradually and gracefully. The palate displays complexity, strength, and elegance, with refined tannins, tart acidity, and a hint of salinity. Ready to enjoy now, it can also be cellared until the close of this decade.
Michael Godel – Still rising and and nearing fruition there is ample drink-ability now with even more pleasure ahead. The honesty in this fine Brunello is noted and consumers should not miss this opportunity, especially at this price.

Domaine Du Grapillon D’or 1806 Gigondas 2018, Rhône Valley, France
$36.95, Terroir Wine Imports
John Szabo – Grapillon d’Or’s 2018 Gigondas is a superripe, almost liqueur-like example made from 80% grenache with the balance in syrah, declared at 15.5% alcohol. At that degree of ripeness, one dispenses with any notion of levity or freshness, and focuses instead on the balance of fruit extract, massive here, alongside the compensating sapidity and succulence that draws saliva and replaces acidity, here low as expected. Depth and complexity are exceptional, and, all in all, this wine manages a marvellous dance between components tacked on a huge frame. Enjoy slowly, in moderation, preferably on a cool night with hearty, protein-based fare at the table. Drink or hold into the early ’30s.

Terrazas De Los Andes Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Mendoza, Argentina
$19.95, Charton Hobbs Inc.
David Lawrason – Right down cabernet main street, with lifted aromas of blackcurrant, fresh rosemary, cedar and oak vanillin. It is medium-full bodied, fairly firm, warming and rich, with starchy tannins. You’ll want to give this a couple of years.

Pirramimma White Label Shiraz 2019, McLaren Vale, South Australia
$29.95, Trialto Wine Group Ltd.  
David Lawrason – This is a classic rich yet poised shiraz, with very lifted, exacting aromas of blackberry jam, mint, pepper, toasty oak and a touch of chocolate. It is full bodied, fairly dense but not heavy or thick, with fresh acidity. The length is excellent.

Di Majo Norante Ramitello 2016

Di Majo Norante Ramitello 2016, Biferno Rosso, Molise, Italy
$25.95, Majestic Wine Cellars
David Lawrason –
This blend of 80% montepulciano and 20% aglianico shows a certain rugged vitality I really like. It is savoury, herbal and spicy with blackcurrant fruit, olive and some tarry oak. Full bodied, dense yet juicy with tannic grit and a hint of minerality on the finish.
John Szabo – Leading Molise producer Di Majo Norante’s Ramitello is a swarthy, tonic but not rustic southern Italian red drinking well now but no rush, a blend of 80% montepulciano and 20% aglianico from the vineyard of the same name, aged partly in steel and barriques. The nose delivers an attractive mix of dried wildflowers and pot pourri, dried red cherry and plum, resinous herbs and more, while the palate is expectedly firm with both dusty tannins and firm acids providing resistance, and the length is excellent in the category finishing on pleasantly bitter-refreshing notes.

Warwick Professor Black Pitch Black 2017, Stellenbosch, South Africa
$19.95, NAVBEV Inc.
Megha Jandhyala
– This nuanced and balanced blend of five Bordeaux varieties and cinsault (13%) will be ready to enjoy with a year or two of cellaring. I like the vivid aromas of black pepper, violets, plums, ripe blackberries, dried herbs, and well-integrated oak spice, alongside a subtle meaty note. The palate is dense, warm, and smooth, with juicy acidity and firm tannins.
John Szabo – Smart wine, even smarter value from Warwick in Stellenbosch, in fancy packaging, heavy bottle and wax cap for premium presentation. The wine inside deserves dressing up to be sure, displaying a wide and satisfying range of black berry fruit, evergreen and resinous herbs, good quality oak and sweet baking spice. Substance on the palate is impressive, as is length. Best 2024-2032.

Bardet Dirty South Lil’ Wine 2016, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France
$46.95, Joseph Cipelli Wines & Spirits
John Szabo – Not your typical, traditional Bordeaux label, though the wine inside would be comfortable on the table with classics. The palate is plump and richly flavoured, clearly concentrated from low yields, also balanced in the 2016 idiom. I’d say it’s evolving at a leisurely pace, only just beginning the shift into more mature, earthy, truffley flavours. Superior wine, and well-priced in context. To be enjoyed from now until the late-’20s.
Megha Jandhyala – The label, inspired by southern hip hop album labels from the 90s, and unusual in the context of a Grand Cru Saint-Emilion, mirrors the power and assertiveness of this evolving blend. This “Lil’ Wine” is a profusion of flavours, including plums, dried blackberries, anise, leather, dried leaves, earth, and nutmeg. The palate is robust and warm, with firm acidity, sinewy tannins, and a long finish.
Michael Godel – Pretty racy and in your face label here from Maison Bardet, nevertheless what’s in the bottle is all that matters and that happens to be big bones and fleshy musculature. Wait one more year and a bit before taking full Right Bank advantage.

Heartland Stickleback Red 2019, Langhorne Creek, South Australia
$15.95, The Vine Agency
Michael Godel – Ample for sure, a red that delivers plenty of smack for the buck. Always worthy of the class level and intendment created. Give it a slight chill.

13th Street Expression Cabernet Merlot 2020, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$17.95, 13th Street Winery
John Szabo – Here’s a pleasantly ripe but still properly leafy and spicy cabernet-merlot blend (franc and sauvignon), the way Bordeaux used to be (and occasionally still is), with balanced-fresh acids, succulent and saliva-inducing. It’s A classic, ‘gastronomic’ wine, best at the table with some salty protein – I really like what’s going on here, especially the pleasure-for-money. Drink or hold to 2026.
Michael Godel – Gastronomy in a glass, low and slow cooked, resting and consolidating the juices and flavours. Start slicing sometime in late Winter or early Spring.

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
Megha’s List
Michael’s Mix

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