Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES January 20 Release

Bonus: A Hungarian Revolution and Electricity-Generating Niagara Icewine Festival

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

This week’s report features the usual buyer’s guide for the Vintages January 20 release. With just 70 wines joining the shelves, it’s the smallest release I can recall. But that’s not to say there isn’t much to choose from. The WineAlign Crü has many wines to recommend, with many in the sub-$25 range, and with lots of alignment, including both a $17 and a $70 red cum-quadruple-laude.

Michael and I separately report on our adventure to the Hungarian winelands last summer, with many thoughts and impressions, reviews and recommendations from this little-known corner of old Europe, one which I have often described as “one of the last great undiscovered, historically important wine producing nations.” I reflect on the changes I’ve observed over the past 40 years of travelling regularly to Hungary and tasting a parade of brilliant dry and sweet wines, all comfortably scored in the 90s, including a breathtaking and near-perfect 99-point single-vineyard Tokaji Aszú — the highest score I’ve ever given. Michael waxes poetic about the volcanic landscape on the north shores of Lake Balaton and makes an unexpected foray into the notoriously impenetrable Hungarian language before offering his usual detailed reviews and producer profiles. We both urge you to track down some of the local delights that thoroughly excited us both.

Michael also reports on the annual Icewine gala he attended with Sara in Niagara Falls at the very cool Niagara Parks Power Station, and they include a few Icewine picks for useful measure.


Hungarian Uprising – By John Szabo MS

I remember my first trip to Budapest in the late 1970s, travelling with my family to visit my grandparents. Strangely, my memories are etched in black and white. This distant, exotic city behind the iron curtain seemed to me trapped in the past, a remote place that colour television had not yet reached.

In the ensuing forty-odd years since, I’ve been back to Budapest almost as many times, watching it transform, slowly at first, then rapidly, into a gleaming, modern European city. The “Paris of the east,” as it’s often referred to.

Hungary’s neoclassical parliament buildings in Budapest. ©John Szabo

I’ve also observed the Hungarian wine industry evolve with striking parallels.

Now a generation into the renaissance and progress made — but with international awareness lagging — Hungary can be considered one of the last undiscovered yet historically important wine producing nations.

Young winemakers are pushing the boundaries of organic, biodynamic and natural wines, as well as reinventing classics. The full potential of native varieties like whites furmint, hárslevelü and olaszrizling, and reds kékfrankos and kadarka, is being explored and exploited. Excitement within the industry is a palpable as the energy in a Budapest nightclub.

Read on to learn more about this Hungarian revolution and a buyer’s guide to some exciting bottles to track down and taste.

Visceral, Volcanic Hungary – By Michael Godel

From almost any vantage point up on the Szent György-Hegy one can’t help but begin to smile in a really subtle way. There’s a Hungarian word for that: elmosolyodik. Mosoly is the word for smile, but to elmosolyodni is something less obvious, usually reserved for something you don’t do right away, meaning you realize something is funny or heartwarming and so, in the end, you find yourself smiling. Taking the liberty here to make use of the abstruse word because, no matter the moment, who could not smile when surrounded by these landscapes?

Sunset on the North shore of Lake Balaton and its volcanic landscape ©John Szabo
Sunset on the North shore of Lake Balaton and its volcanic landscape ©John Szabo

For four days at the end of July 2023 a small group of wine writers traveled across Slovenia, originating in Collio and arriving at the Szent György-Hegy in the dead of night. Magyarórszág csapat, aka Team Hungary, took to the volcanoes around Lake Balaton like ducks to water and dove headfirst into the wines from Balatoni, Badacsony, Szent György-Hegy, Csobánc, Káli Basin and Somló. Mostly volcanic, all so very real, of grape varieties endemic to, suitable for and native to these verdant hills.

Read on for Michael’s report and tasting notes.

Niagara Icewine Festival – By Michael Godel

WineAlign partner Sara d’Amato and I took yet another deep dive into the diversity of VQA Ontario Icewine at Niagara’s Icewine Festival over the weekend of January 12. Along with other Ontario journalists, we joined Magdalena Kaiser, director of public relations for the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario, in Niagara Falls for the shindig. First it was a hands-on pasta tutorial at Casa Mia Ristorante in Niagara Falls with three generations of Mollica family chefs, including la leggenda “Nonna” Luciana. Icewine cocktails were paired with small canapés and our perfectly shaped ravioli, filled with potato and white chocolate, were happily consumed alongside eight Icewine pours of riesling, vidal, gewürztraminer, dornfelder and cabernet sauvignon.

Godello and Magdalena Kaiser making pastaat the Icewine Festival

The Niagara Icewine Festival is a uniquely Canadian experience, with many events occurring over three weekends in January. It kicked off with the “Cool as Ice Gala” held at the Niagara Parks Power Station, the first major power plant on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. It now houses a museum and event space with immersive exhibits and restored artifacts. Sara and I made the 55-metre descent in a glass-panelled elevator to explore the 670-metre tunnel leading to an observation deck beneath the Horseshoe Falls at the Niagara River’s edge.

Inside the Power Station an impressive dozen-strong orchestra played ironic musical twists on pop hits while acrobats hung and contorted from huge suspended rings. The Icewine Cocktail Bar was presented by Bar Barista at Niagara Fallsview Resort and the VIP Reception by Niagara College. A staggering quantity of grab-and-go food stations filled up 1,200 guests dressed in formal attire. Bites were provided by Bolete, Dispatch, Moksha Indian Bistro, Niagara Parks, Tide and Vine Oyster House, Fireside Drive, Pharmacii and Bar Bea. 

Niagara Icewine Festival Discovery Pass holders can explore the heart of wine country on an unforgettable self-guided journey this weekend (January 26–28). Passes include either three or six unique VQA Icewine and food pairing tasting experiences from a list of more than 30 wineries along Wine Country Ontario’s Wine Route. For more information go to

Buyer’s Guide January 6: Whites

Fazi Battaglia Passerina 2022, Marche, Italy
$16.95, Mark Anthony Group    
Michael Godel –  As if vermentino and viognier had a love child. Worth a try, especially if curiosity leans towards off-the-beaten-path Italian whites.
John Szabo – Fazi Battaglia may be famous for its Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi from Le Marche, but with this passerina, the venerable producer shows its competence with other local grapes. It delivers a fine mix of citrus and white-fleshed orchard fruit, oak free, and a splash of bees wax, sweet herbs and lemongrass. A wine to chill and enjoy over the next year or two.
Megha Jandhyala– Here is a chance to try an indigenous variety from the Marche region in Central Italy. This passerina is light, refreshing, and easy to enjoy, with bright citrus and crunchy orchard fruit flavours. It should work well as an aperitif at dinner parties.

Sheild Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Nelson, New Zealand
$18.95, Vintage Trade Wine        
David Lawrason – From the cooler coastal Nelson region on the northwestern tip of the South Island, this displays plenty of green — fresh dill, capers, lime, fresh cut hay and a certain brine. Not a lot of fruit, but vaguely peach/nectarine. It is light to medium bodied, almost delicate with a hint of sweetness softening the spry acidity. Ultra-refreshing.
Megha Jandhyala – This sauvignon blanc from Nelson is flavourful without being pungent. I really like how zesty, lively and energetic it is, with delicious tropical and juicy citrus fruit flavours. Given its gentle sweetness and bright, tart palate, I would serve it with spicy, flavourful cuisines like Thai and South Asian dishes.

Domaine Du Margalleau Vouvray Sec 2022, Loire, France
$20.95, Wine Guru Selection
David Lawrason – This is very classy and complete for $21, showing tenderness, finesse and lovely fruit character and definition. It has chenin blanc yellow pear, fine herbs and waxiness. Quite mellow but not soft, and just a touch sweet despite the sec designation. The focus and length are excellent. Oh, Vouvray!
John Szabo – Lovely to see a classic example of Vouvray reaching our shores, a category all-too-rarely represented at the LCBO. It’s unexpectedly rich, almost late-harvest–like in concentration, complete with the merest impression of sweetness (7 grams/liter residual sugar according to in a textbook expression. Drink or hold 2–4 years for a fully mature expression.
Sara d’Amato – A sapid, apéro-ready chenin blanc, fine to sip on its own or try with cheeses such as taleggio or a fresh goat’s milk gouda. A relatively dry style of Vouvray with a pillowy texture and an inviting honeyed character with notes of quince and apple that are juxtaposed by the presence of minerality, saltiness and a delicately chalky texture.

The Fledge & Co Vagabond White Blend 2021, Western Cape, South Africa
$21.95, LUSOCAPE         
David Lawrason – This swarthy Cape blend has no less than ten varieties, all the usual suspects in South Africa plus outliers such as viura and bukettrabe. More importantly, it is barrel fermented and aged. It is a full bodied, fleshy, hot and rich white with a waxy ambiance. Expect ripe tropical fruit with modest oak spice.

Domaine Le Verger Chablis 2021, Burgundy, France
$31.95, EX-Cellars Wine Services
Michael Godel – A “Villages” example of Chablis which carries great meaning for wines that almost always represent the greater sense of place. It’s like a glass full of oyster liqueur, nervy and full of minerals.
Megha Jandhyala – This is a firm, focussed, and intensely stony, even subtly saline, Chablis. Classic, compelling and ready to drink, it will pair well with oysters or delicate, mildly flavoured white fish.

Buyer’s Guide January 20: Reds

Saint Roch Vieilles Vignes Syrah/Grenache 2021, Languedoc, France
$16.95, Glencairn Wine Merchants
Michael Godel – Crunchy red fruit, taut acidity, feign of sweet peppery heat and simplicity that really works. Can’t go wrong here at $17.
John Szabo – Another mad value from the Lafage Family, a deeply-coloured syrah-grenache blend from the Roussillon with plenty of ripe black fruit and scorched earth, typical of old vines from the dark schist soils of the region. Best now to 2028.
Sara d’Amato – My recommendation for a comforting red under $20 this week goes to Lafage’s Saint-Roch Côtes du Roussillon blend from syrah and grenache vines that average 50 years of age. With flavours of hoisin and blackcurrant fruit, it might seem weighty were it not for the underlying tang, crunchy red fruit, salinity and savoury notes offering a compelling balance. A real textural delight with lots of aromatic potency.
Megha Jandhyala – Brimming with cheerful supple red and dark fruit, garrigue and pepper, this blend of syrah and grenache draws one in immediately. Simple, authentic and delicious, it represents excellent value and should make for a comforting accompaniment to an assortment of cheeses on a cold, wintery afternoon.

Alkoomi Grazing Collection Shiraz 2021, Western Australia, Australia
$17.95, Terra Firma Brands
Michael Godel – Juicy and lifted shiraz, not weighed down by extraction, pressing or jam. Alkoomi does this style so very well.
John Szabo – A clean, cool, sleek shiraz from Western Australia in an attractive and highly drinkable style — nothing jammy or oaky to report. The 14.5 percent alcohol is remarkably well integrated. Best over the short mid-term, 2–4 years or so.

Königschaffhauser Steingrüble Trocken Pinot Noir 2019, Baden, Germany
$18.95, Family Wine Merchants
Sara d’Amato – For a pinot noir that may be outside of your frame of reference, this coop produced red hails from Germany’s southernmost wine region with a sunny, dry climate perfectly suited to the production of this Burgundian variety. Furthermore, the source vineyard is located on Kaisersthul, an extinct volcano near the Swiss border and Alsace resulting in low yields and a wealth of fruit-derived spice in the glass. A stylish and satisfying expression of pinot that should prove widely appealing.

Grosset Création Cairanne Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2020, Rhône, France
$18.95, Mark Anthony Group
Sara d’Amato – One of the more recent of the southern Rhône crus to receive its designation, Cairanne is named after the rocky hilltop village just east of Orange, on the banks of the Aigues River just before it joins the Rhône. The wine is named after Alain Grosset, owner Laurent Brotte’s father-in-law, who has been actively involved in the promotion of Cairanne to cru status. An undeniable deal, this chest-warming but well-balanced blend of syrah, mourvèdre and grenache delivers a plethora of fruit without the influence of heavy oak. Ready to drink.

Sister’s Run Bethlehem Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2021, South Australia, Australia
$19.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc. 
David Lawrason – Great value in delicious, energetic and complex cabernet. The concentration, especially for the price, is remarkable. It is charged with lifted blackcurrant, blueberry, menthol/eucalyptus and peppery spice. It is full bodied, fairly dense, a bit sweet and warm, finishing very long with iodine and fresh herbs.

Handpicked Regional Selections Shiraz 2018, South Australia, Australia
$18.95, AMV-Whiz Trading Ltd.
David Lawrason – Despite the weird winery name — it actually diminished my expectation — this is great value in a maturing, complex, very textural Barossa shiraz. The nose wafts cranberry/currant fruit, maybe blueberry jam as well, with peppermint, clove, cedar and leather. Love the nose. It is full-bodied, smooth, dense and sweet-edged and drenched with fruit. The length is excellent to outstanding.

Mosquita Muerta Pispi Red Blend 2018, Mendoza, Argentina
$23.95, DB Wine & Spirits 
David Lawrason – This is a five-grape, three-region blend with malbec at 40 percent, plus petit verdot, cabernet franc, merlot and bonarda. I do like the complexity and bones this construct delivers. It is solid, lively and almost crunchy with raspberry cherry fruit, thyme/sage herbs and background oak spice. The length is very good to excellent.
John Szabo – A cross regional blend from Mendoza, this is a forwardly fruity-juicy red, with fine succulence and inviting sapidity. I like the post-modern styling, the savoury-fruity and oak-backwards nature, and the overall drinkability. Best now to 2027 or so.
Megha Jandhyala – I like the streamlined, minimalist styling of this wine, built around tender fruit and savoury herbs, without distraction from oak flavours. Its subtle floral perfume is appealing too. At under $25, I would buy a few bottles of this easy-drinking wine to serve at parties — it is sure to please widely.

Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Blend Red 2020, Ontario, Canada
$26.95, Andrew Peller Limited
David Lawrason – The 2020 vintage in Niagara was one of the best in recent times for the Bordeaux varieties.  It is still not California or South America, and shows Niagara’s herbal red-fruit edge. It is bright and detailed, medium bodied, juicy yet firm. Age two or three years.
John Szabo – A flat-out delicious and classy red blend from a great Niagara vintage, balanced and succulent with above-average depth and complexity, and above all, drinkability. Thirty Bench has got it all right here. Best now to 2028 or so. It’s worth buying a few bottles to follow its evolution over several years.
Sara d’Amato – From an excellent vintage in Niagara, this cabernet sauvignon dominant blend, with cabernet franc and merlot in the mix, has a serious, traditional Bordelaise demeanor. Graphite and plum mark the palate, along with taught acids, time-loosened tannins, and very gentle oak spice. Drink now with salty protein.

Enrico Serafino Sanavento Barbaresco 2020, Piedmont, Italy
$36.95, Majestic Wine Cellars
Michael Godel – A visionary producer in the Langhe, famous for its Alta Langa sparkling wines and a producer with bottling rights to Barbaresco. A balanced and top vintage for a “Villages” example.

R. López De Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva 2011, Rioja, Spain
$70.95, John Hanna & Sons
Michael Godel – A blend of endemic grapes — tempranillo, garnacha, graciano and mazuelo — succinctly and contiguously organized for seamless Rioja behaviour. Talk about calm, tranquil and mellow. This is the epitome of these things in Spanish red wine.
John Szabo – The latest release from Lopez de Heredia, from the hot and dry 2011 vintage, is drinking beautifully at the moment, the heat contributing to a softer acid profile and plenty of fruit, though alcohol was kept nicely in check at just 13 percent declared. While this may not be a Viña Tondonia for the ages, it will surely provide immense pleasure over the next decade. Lovely, engaging, succulent, well-balanced and complex red wine.
Sara d’Amato – A premium Rioja with the price to match, this reserva-level tempranillo-led blend was aged close to six years in oak barrels, and features notable grace and balance despite a warm, dry vintage. This splurge-worthy find delivers excellent concentration with flavours of black cherry, raspberry, fig, plum, graphite, tobacco, balsamic and hints of worn cedar. Its muscularity has mellowed, and acids have been gently curbed making this full-bodied Rioja ready to enjoy.
Megha Jandhyala – I would not pass up the opportunity to taste this exquisite reserva from 2011, especially at this price. Classically styled, displaying impeccable poise and grace, alongside vitality and vibrancy, it showcases the beauty and appeal of not only mature wines but also American oak.

Buyer’s Guide: VQA Icewine

Cave Spring Riesling Icewine 2019, Ontario, Canada
Michael Godel – Acids through the roof with thanks to a November 14 harvest, earliest on record by what has to be a long shot. As unctuous and fell-throttle expressive an Icewine from riesling that could ever be. Kudos to the vintage and to the makers for capturing all parts at peak. Top performer without a doubt. 
Sara d’Amato – I’m a fan of these early harvested riesling Icewines from the 2019 vintage, which deliver concise acid-driven purity. The fruit runs the spectrum from pear to pineapple with fresh squeezed lime dominating the palate. Drink or keep a decade or more.

Chateau Des Charmes Vidal Icewine 2018, Ontario, Canada
$28.95, Château des Charmes
Michael Godel –  Concentrated fruit sweetness to define the style and quality of this vidal. Pineapple and apricot namely, lemon drop and a tisane finish. Quite tannic, unexpectedly so.

Redstone Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2019, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake
$36.05, Redstone Winery
Michael Godel – This wine really does taste like cabernet sauvignon but what really stands out is the candied red apple skin character. A petrol note, as well, however subtle, and always that truth in red fruit, of currant, pomegranate and cherry character. Quality Icewine from less than classic varietal origins.

Malivoire Riesling Icewine 2019, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara, Ontario, Canada (200 ml)
$35 Malivoire Wine Company
Sara d’Amato – Its intense sweetness is trumped by the nervy acidity on the palate of this tense and dynamic riesling Icewine. Luckily for the Icewine industry, 2019 had an early cold snap resulting in this clean and zesty riesling being harvested on the 18th of December when the temperature dipped to -10°C. Expect fresh green apple, salted caramel and a touch of almond on this gracefully maturing Icewine. 

Reif Estate Grand Reserve Vidal Icewine 2019, Niagara River, Ontario, Canada (375 ml)
$80.10  Reif Estate
Sara d’Amato – Sourced from a 1981 planting that has repeatedly braved the freezing cold triumphantly, this exceptionally well-concentrated Icewine is almost broody in demeanor with dark caramel, bruléed peach and honey. A decadent, slow sipper.

That’s all for this report, see round 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.

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

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