Saturday, November 25, 2006

Report from: 20 Valley Weekend – Nov. 25, 2006

The weather is getting colder and harvest is pretty much complete for another season. It’s the best time to visit the wineries because they want you to come down and celebrate with them; they also have the time to spend with you. The wines are fermenting, resting, oaking and other usual wine stuff that wine does, so now it’s time to throw a little shindig, and that’s exactly what the 20 Valley Wine Association want you to do … buy a passport ($20), come visit the wineries, and let them show you a good time. There is a slight problem though, some wineries aren’t used to having a Holiday Open House, and it shows. This being the first year of the program and all, some of the wineries, on this 14 winery program, had no idea what to do with you once you walked through their door. Sure they have some good wines to sample, and they make excellent gifts for the wine-lover on your list (along with other paraphernalia that goes along with it: from glassware to corkscrews, and everything in between). But unlike Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Taste the Season (completing it’s 6th year), which pairs wine with food at all 17 of the participating wineries; the 20 Valley wineries are a little more sporadic in their offerings. Some offer a wonderful spread of foods, while others get you to wander around aimlessly wondering what to do. But I’m willing to cut them some slack for 2 reasons: 1) It’s their first year working together and the bugs still need to be ironed out. Some of the wineries have been doing their own open house around this time of year since they opened their doors, while others were caught flat-footed and just wanted to be part of the program that their association was putting on. Here’s hoping they get the holiday spirit for next year’s offering. 2) The giveaway was so worth it, and so much more practical than their counterparts to the east in NOTL. I’m talking about the stone coasters, with their logos emblazoned on the top, that each winery was giving away – now how cool is that? One wine maker from Niagara-on-the-Lake sounded off some sour-grapes when talking about the 20 Valley, “they’re always trying to copy what we’re doing.” But in this respect the Valley outshone the Lake. Sure the Taste the Season gift is a beautiful handblown glass/crystal tree ornament, but I’ve always wondered what those who have no tree to hang it on do with their ornament – guess it is just one less gift to buy. 20 Valley’s gift was cool, unique to the wineries themselves and above all practical … coasters to use for the season, and year round. A gift for yourself while you shop around for others on your list. So while I give kudos to NOTL for having their act together, after 6 years of pairing wine and food they should … I give a thumbs up to the Valley for their more useful giveaway. Now let’s see how these two events match up 6 years down the road? I hope to see you all in the Valley next year.

Best Spread:

This was a toss up between Harbour Estates and Featherstone … then again it depends on whether you wanted sweet or savoury. Harbour Estates went for the sweet tooth in all of us by offering shortbread cookies, sugar cookies with a dollop of icewine jelly, chocolate chip caramel squares, cashew-chocolate toffee brittle and a fabulous phyllo wrapped brie with Riesling icewine jelly melted in the middle – all homemade by their 23 year old daughter. While across town, Featherstone went the more savoury food and wine pairing route. Now maybe they have a bit of an unfair advantage because a) they hold an open house at this time of year annually and b) owner Louise Engel used to own a gourmet food store in Guelph (see where I am going with this) – and no offense to Louise, but you do have a few more years at it than the 23 year old … not by much. She served Orange-Curry Chicken on a deep fried wonton; Roast-Beef with Dijon-horseradish mayo; Blue Cheese Shortbread topped with a roasted walnut; fruit with mango yogurt dip, marinated olives; and baked brie in puff pastry with walnuts cranberries and pepper berry blast (is your mouth watering yet?) – all concocted and homemade by Louise, and her staff, and paired with a variety of Featherstone wines. Thankfully I skipped lunch, but my problem was I stopped at Harbour Estates first – next year I’ll reverse the order and save some room for dessert.

Runner Up:

Stoney Ridge got into the holiday spirit by pairing up wines with various dips, crackers, breads and fondue from their downstairs in-house cheese shop … quite nice. While Flat Rock served icewine laced hot chocolate – tasty and good for a cold day … but maybe a nibbly would have been in order to pair with it, a shortbread would have been ideal.

Seasonal Smeasonal:

Creekside brought you down into their barrel cellar for a sampling of a wine in progress … a great idea, but not exactly what you’re looking for this time of year at a holiday “open house”. Angels Gate tasted their just released robust Angels III Meritage blend with a piece of dark chocolate … again a good start, but for the season you’d expect more. It’s a good start and definitely something to build on for next year.

Better Luck Next Year:

4 wineries proved very disappointing during their “open house”: Fielding, Birchwood, Lakeview and Mountain Road … all four offered nothing of any substance to visitors walking through the door. Mulled wine and discounts on stemware are not really what the season’s about, is it? Though in fairness to Mountain Road they were getting ready for their 4th Anniversary celebration on the Sunday, I guess you can’t party every day no matter what Kiss says.

Speaking of Next Year:

Now I fully admit I did not get to every winery this year – the four I missed were: EastDell, Legends, Vineland (closed for a private function), and Willow Heights. I’ll be there next year to check you guys out – hopefully you now know what to do.

All-in-all an interesting if uneven event … but once they find their feet this will be another great party weekend in Wine Country. Hold it again next year 20 Valley – because if you build it, they will come.
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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Report from: Gourmet Food and Wine Expo - Nov. 23, 2006

Another year and another Toronto Gourmet Food and Wine Expo is in the books. Held at the Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto, it showcases wines from around the world with a theme region taking center stage. The question that is asked so often is does Toronto have too many wine shows? My answer is more of a question than a downright answer: is there such a thing? But seriously, Toronto seems to have a wine show for every region, locale, distributor and importer and yet the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo brings them all together under one roof for a weekend of good food, good wine and a playful atmosphere. Sure there were a few problems that were glaring: like why the featured wine region, “Best of Niagara”, was buried so far at the back of the hall? And why was it decked out like some backwater-hicksville display with white picket fencing and lamp posts; when compared to the high-techness of Chile, chic-uniformity of France and cool-classiness of California? Finally, why were the Wines of Australia notably missing from all but the VIP night on Thursday? Does Australia feel they have Ontario all locked up and don’t need to show off there wares at one of the biggest shows of the year? Quite the act of hubris if I do say so myself. But all-in-all the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo proved to be another successful showcase for some of the best wines out there currently and ones that are coming to an LCBO/Vintages store near you. Without the Aussies there it allowed other regions to shine.

Currently Available:

Let’s start by looking at some wines from South Africa that have a story to tell. Robertson Winery is actually a co-op with many different growers under their umbrella. Every year they hold a competition to determine who is making the best single vineyard expression of a specific varietal. The winner gets their wine made as a premium offering, single vineyard designated, under the Robertson Winery label. The rest of the wines go into a final blend, or house style wine. The three available this year through Vintages are stunning examples of good quality and fair priced wine. The 2003 Prospect Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (#687814 - $18.95) is delicious and juicy, made in an old-world style, that could use some more time in the bottle to soften it up a bit. The 2004 Wolfkloof Shiraz (#626341 - $19.95) is full, lush and ready to drink now. But the best value is the Retreat Sauvignon Blanc (#933085 - $14.95) with grapefruit and grassy notes, a true expression of the grape and great flavours in the mouth … this one is a winner from start to finish. The whole line of wines are ones to be searched out and purchased immediately.

Looking elsewhere in Vintages: Vina La Rosa’s La Capitana Merlot, from Chile, is a delicious version for those who like their merlot on the fuller richer side with just a hint of oak flavouring (#655209 - $14.95). And just released this past Saturday (Nov. 25) – the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Select (#947887 - $21.95) has great chocolate notes that make you come back to the glass for another taste again and again – best of all the smell is there too – it’s one of those wines you’re afraid to drink because it smells so good but the taste might let you down – this one delivers on both counts. Yummy.

General List Gem:

Also from Chile comes this Carmenere gem from Santa Alicia, a juicy, ripe and delicious expression of the grape at a great price $10.45 (#309302). Make sure it’s the 2004 vintage, and you won’t go wrong putting this on your table or even giving it as a unique gift this holiday season (who else gives Carmenere?). Back to South Africa, the general list Shiraz from Robertson Winery ($12.20 - #610949) is great value for an every day sipper.


Delicato’s 2005 Gnarly Head Old Vines Zinfandel ($19.95) is coming back to Vintages this spring. It’s delicious sweet berry flavours make this wine another winner from this award winning California winery.


There were lots of wine available through consignment only methods (which means they are not in the LCBO and must be purchased from their agents, and you usually have to order a minimum of a case), but none seemed as worthwhile as this bargain from Chile. Vina La Rosa winery (again) – has a lighter every day drinker called La Palma at $12.99 for both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a great value. The merlot was simple, easy drinking, with wonderful black fruit flavours. No oak is used in the making of this wine so the berry flavours really show through – and it’s micro-oxigenated (simply put – they add oxygen to the wine to make it ready to drink now instead of having to shelve it a few years). The Cabernet Sauvignon undergoes the same treatment but it’s a little more complex on the palate and proves to have a bit of a bitter finish, a few more months in bottle should take care of that. Buy both – drink the merlot first and wait for the Sauv to come around.

The Hostess with the Mostess:

Finally a big thank you to Kimberly, who made attending the show easy for a few of our readers and myself. She was the one who provided us with the tickets we gave away and the information updates that kept us abreast of what was happening this year at the show. Thank you to Kimberly, your staff your staff and all those who helped to make this years’ Gourmet Food and Wine Expo another rousing success.
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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Report from: Taste the Season – Nov. 18, 2006

Hitting 10 wineries in one day may seem like a lot, but in actual fact it’s probably just enough when it comes to this event. “Taste the Season” is not about drinking to excess, it’s about pairing food with wine and collecting recipes for those upcoming holiday get-togethers. Truthfully you probably could hit all 17 wineries on the passport program, but that would cause you to rush through the wineries and then tasting becomes more of a chore than an experience. 10 allows you a leisurely pace, if you start at about 11 in the morning; if you have time at the end you can throw in a few extra for good measure. Keep in mind that if you rush through and only do the tastings prescribed you might miss some excellent finds along the way. I hear you asking, Grape Guy what are you talking about? Let me highlight a few of the day’s pairings, wines and finds.

Best Food Pairings:

Hats off to Marynissen for pairing a lovely 2002 Cabernet Merlot alongside Pappardelle with Shredded Beef Brisket – seemed like a simple dish and those serving it had no trouble admitting it. “We wanted something you could make quickly and easily and not have to go and search out your ingredients.” Plus soaking the brisket in the paired wine was inspired marketing, because if you liked the recipe you were more apt to buy the wine.

Second place goes to Stonechurch pairing their newly released 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon with Beef Carpaccio Marinated in Cabernet Sauvignon on a Toasted Crostini … the two married well together – in the same way that the Marynissen did, because of the wine and food working harmoniously in the recipe and in the glass. I’m sad to say the Cab Sauv was of mostly foreign grapes … though truly delicious. Congrats to Terence van Rooyen for a wonderful wine – I look forward to seeing what he does with the domestic grapes.

Not so good Pairing – but thanks for the food:

This is a toss up between Hillebrand and Joseph’s Estate … both of them decided to go the sweet route with the food and dry route with the wine – with the potential disastrous results. Hillebrand had some wonderful Bittersweet Truffle Cups with Cinnamon, a taste sensation for the mouth, I could have gone back again and again to sample more – but the 2003 Trius Cabernet Franc (a good wine on it’s own); was no match for these fine desserts. On the other hand Joseph’s served an incredible Brie Baked Cheesecake with Cranberries (from Willow Bakery in NOTL) … the Cheesecake was lovely, sweet, soft and scrumptious – the Cabernet Franc did little to lift the flavours of the food. Though I am not knocking the wine, it too was quite nice on it’s own, but together they did not marry up well.

On the other Hand:

The only winery that did right by the sweet stuff was Lailey – pairing their 2005 Select Late Harvest Vidal with a wonderful Apple Strudel (from the Pie Plate in Virgil). Both complimenting the other in this harmonious marriage of taste and sinful pleasure – it is up to you to decide which is which.

Forget the Food – the wine stands alone:

At two wineries I can’t even tell you what the food was that they paired the wine with (thank goodness for the list) - that’s because the wine was a stand-alone sensation. Both Reif Estates and Jackson-Triggs paired their wines with a meat themed dish – Roasted Beef Tenderloin en Croute with Olive Tapenade and Prosciutto & Roasted Plum Panini respectively, but I remember not the taste of the food. Reif’s 2002 Meritage though I remember distinctly. A relatively balanced Meritage when it comes to grape distribution with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30% each for the Merlot and Cab Franc. Time in the bottle has smoothed out this wine, but not to a point where it has lost all flavours – in fact it still could rest for a few more years and develop further complexity. There is some spice, vegetal notes and tannin that linger in the palate and don’t forget to pay close attention to the sweet cherry mid-palate. Delicious; definitely worthy of it’s $26.95 price tag.

Jackson-Triggs also served up a Meritage, their 2004 Proprietor’s Reserve, which is heavy on the Merlot side (45%) followed by Sauv (40%) and Franc (15%) … but it was the steal of the day at $13.99. Great black fruit and spice taste with a little bit of tannin – but it’s ready to drink right now. As was pointed out during the tasting: “this is a great every day wine, especially for the price.” No argument here.

We came for the food and wine pairing – but were thrilled with something else:

After the Meritage at Jackson-Triggs we were compelled to go downstairs and try a few more wines. The only 2002 they had left was a Proprietor’s Grand Reserve Merlot – which drank well now but has many good years left in it, $24.95. And their newly released VQA 2004 Shiraz (Ontario grown) – is wonderful taste-wise – the nose has yet to find it’s way but the taste is awesome. This coming from the winery who brought you the wine of the year with it’s B.C. Shiraz (VQA), keep your eye on what is coming from JT and Shiraz – they know something and we’ll all benefit.

Chateau des Charmes continues to put out some great wine – their 2002 Estate Bottled Cabernet Merlot is wonderful (look for a full review in an upcoming newsletter); and their Paul Bosc and St. David’s Bench 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon also continue to turn heads. The have unearthed a few more bottles of the St. David’s Bench version (they are in limited re-release on the shelf) – otherwise that wine is completely sold out – so call the winery if you are looking for that one. Their newly released 2005 Gamay Noir ($11.95) is also quite lovely – good fruit flavours that you’d expect from this Beaujolais grape with some slight heft and good tannins, even without benefit of oak ageing. Finally, the 2005 Estate Bottled Riesling is wonderful … a special review is already on the website.

Reif also impressed with a 2004 Reserve Merlot ($23.95) that showed strong characteristics of Cabernet Franc, green pepper nose and taste, though a few hours of opening dissipated the powerful pepper on both the nose and taste to a dull roar. The mid-palate became sweet with hints of cherry and cloves … I think they have a winner with this one – though for the time being decanting is a must.

Pillitteri and icewine are becoming synonymous … their 2004 Sparkling Vidal ($60) comes in a half-sized “champagne” bottle and it tastes like icewine that tickles the tongue (with fizz) – and because of that it seems to dissipate the sweetness a little; which would seem hard to do with a wine that clocks in at 20 on the sweetness scale. Great golden colour, fine little bubbles, a light taste that lacks the kind of cloyingness you get from icewine and a great honey and apple finish. I am told that the Riesling version is even better – maybe next time.

Finally, Lailey Vineyard’s 2005 Riesling is wonderful, good apple and citrus. Winemaker Derek Barnett continues to impress with his dry Rieslings that will age a good 5 to 7 years. Though I tried one of his Southbroook 1994 Semi-Dry Rieslings (in 2006) and was blown away by its’ staying power – the fruit flavours were still there and so vibrant in the mouth, even a day after opening, and that 12 year old Riesling had no signs of going flabby any time soon. So I think Mr. Barnett may be a little conservative in his estimate for ageability.

Summing up the Season:

Well that does it again for another year at “Taste the Season” (which runs through to Nov. 25-26, tickets still available) – some great food, some great wine and a really fun day … if you don’t get a chance this year, take advantage of it next year, it really is worth the day – or the weekend if you want to do all the wineries. Thanks to the organizers and to Second Harvest, the charitable partner of this event, they help organize and sell the tickets and benefit from the wineries generosity. So if you’re not in it for the food and wine, remember it’s for a good cause – and that, if nothing else, will make you feel good about the day ... but I’ll bet the food and wine gets you too.

If you attended taste the season – and have a favourite food and wine pairing, a favourite wine, or just a really good story … let’s hear it. Log On … Log In … and Share.
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Saturday, November 4, 2006

Report from: Ottawa Wine and Food Show - Saturday Afternoon, Nov. 4, 2006

For a different perspective of the show I decided to attend in the afternoon (2:00pm) … the throng was gone, there was more elbow room, the moving around was easier, and exhibitors had more time to talk about their wares. Many who had been there before informed me that this is the calm before the storm, “by 5 o’clock it’ll be crazier than last night; this show is amazing.” I was also informed that they had sold out on Friday night and were turning people away at the door – not surprising considering the lineup I saw the night before – and Saturday should be no different. When I left the show for the day two hours later, the lineup was already forming – it was gonna be another busy, but fun, night.

So what kinda finds were found on day two of the Ottawa Wine and Food Show. On Saturday afternoon I decided to focus in on the “Cellars of the World 2006 – International Wine Competition” winners and medallists (a full list of which can be found at Canada placed extremely well in these competitions, let’s look at a few of the deserving winners.

Starting with the Gold Medal (outside of Canada) winner in the ‘Off-Dry White Wine (8.50-11.99)’ category, a delicious 2004 Mosseland Divinum Riesling ($11.95) with green apple aromas and citrus and apple on the taste … this wine ranks about a two-or-three on ye olde sugar code and is lovely. I tasted an array of Mosel and other regional German Riesling, but this one truly did stand out.

Back to Canada for the Gold medal winner in the ‘Off-Dry White Wine ($12 and over)’ category. Flat Rock Cellars continues to impress me and their 2005 Riesling ($16.95) is no exception. This wine is so true to Rieslings from Germany it’s amazing – wonderful exotic fruit nose with apple citrus tastes that linger in the mouth far longer than their German counterparts (which I had just tasted) – wonderful. I am told that their $19.95 Nadia Vineyards Riesling is even better; I’ll be off to the winery to try that one real soon and will report back to you on it.

Speaking of German wines and winemakers, Konzelmann (from Canada) told me a funny story about a lady who informed them she hated “that Canadian crap” but loved German wines – especially theirs. The sales rep proudly informed her that although their winemaker is German, the winery itself and the grapes they use are definitely Canadian – she slunk away quietly. But Konzelmann was not just sticking up for Canada at the show or “putting ignorant wine snobs in their place”, they took home a few awards themselves, the most impressive of which was their Gold for their 2004 Select Late Harvest Vidal ($22.95). Wonderful apricot, honey and pear on the nose with honey, pear, apple and cinnamon as it passes over your tongue – pure sweet enjoyment. A little pricey for a Late Harvest but very enjoyable – pick up a bottle for the holidays and enjoy it in front of the fire with friends.

Staying with the sweeties, a little place called La Face Cache out of Quebec was showcasing a wine they called “Neige” (snow). It’s an apple wine that they make in an icewine-style from Macintosh and Spartans. In a nutshell, the apples are picked in October and the juice is brought outside when it gets cold enough to freeze … thus crystallizing the water and leaving the pure sweet apple juice and sugars behind, which they then make the wine from. They have three varieties: stainless steel, oaked and December harvested (true to icewine standards) – made from special apples designed to hang longer on the tree. It is this (Frimas) that won best fruit wine in Canada at the recent Canadian Wine Awards from Wine Access Magazine and announced last month. Sounds like a must try (only the stainless steel Neige was available for sampling). They export their nectars to 16 countries – alas Ontario is not one of them (of course this is a play on words – being in Ottawa I thought it proper to make a political joke about Quebec wanting to be it’s own country). The LCBO has rejected them 3 times – I’d like to know why; this stuff is delicious.

Moving right along to the Silver Medallist of the ‘Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc ($12-19.99)’ category, Ironstone Vineyards 2003 Cabernet Franc ($16.95 – Vintages December 9, 2006) was much fruitier than expected, with good punch in the tannins department. Not your typical Niagara Franc, the green pepper is gone, replaced with red fruit, spiciness, nutmeg, cinnamon and oak flavours. This one is a must pick-up upon its release in December.

Time to move away from the medal winners to finds of the day. The wildly popular Perez Cruz winery out of Chile – who made a splash at the LCBO last year with their Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (now a Vintages Essential) is releasing 3 Reserva Limited Editions in late November through vintages … namely a Carmenere, Cot (Malbec), and Syrah – each retailing at $24.95. I tried the Syrah ($24.95 - #589812 – Nov. 25 Vintages) and it was wonderful. Blackberries, cassis and smoke on the nose, with dark fruit, chocolate and pepper on the plate.

But the real find of the day was the new winery venture from Paul Boutinot – a Frenchman who now lives in England who got tired of the same old same old from France. In his opinion French wines were “old, tired and boring” and needed not only a facelift on the bottle, but a tastelift inside. And to boot, good dollar value for decent quality wine (in his opinion there was nothing between the Piat D’or and the hundred dollar bottles that spoke to any kind of quality). Mr. Boutinot now owns 6 wineries around the globe and has so far been able to place approximately 10 wines on the LCBO general list … all at very reasonable prices, all of good quality and taste. Here are a few of those stars that you can pick up today: Bin 233 Merlot (#21162) and Bin 15a Shiraz (#21154) both $10.95 and bottled with Stelvin Screwcap. While I stood at the booth sampling these wines, two ladies came along and asked “When did the French get into the Bin Business with their wines?” It was explained that after years of being poked at by the Aussies, Kiwis, and South Africans, France has poked back. The Bin on the labels are pictures of trash receptacles in Manchester, England with numbers painted on them … a subtle(?) slap at the Aussies quality? But the wine in the bottle is far from garbage. The Merlot has a bit of bite, but goes down smooth and easy, while the Shiraz is fruity and peppery with some spice mingled in – and there is also age potential for both – maybe 2-3 years. Chat-En-Oeuf (#21113 - $12.95) – picturing a cat sitting on an egg, with its tail hanging down (making the egg look cracked) – is of course a play on words and a jab at the French themselves. This Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault blend has good tannin structure with some delicious fruit and spices … making this one a real winner, that can be shelved for another 3-4 years; and is the only wine in the line under cork. The Bishop’s Selection Cotes-du-Rhone Villages (#665596 - $10.95) is also quite delicious with pepper and red fruit, made in a light quaffing style. Finally, my favourite of the bunch (for taste and label) was the $12.95 Lazy Lizard Shiraz (#21188) – this is a seriously fun wine … even the Lazy Lizard pictured on the front label is wearing sunglasses. The lizard is also in reference to the vineyards’ little residents who run around eating the harmful bugs that would otherwise destroy the grapes – thus reducing reliance on pesticides. This light, refreshing, smooth wine has the merest hint of perceived sweetness, although it is ranked at a zero, it tastes like a one – and at that price it’s a steal. As the hours ticked by the crowds began to return and the time I could take with representatives of the wineries got shorter – so I high tailed it out of there before the jostling began.

All in all I would say the Ottawa Wine and Food Show was a rousing success for visitors, exhibitors and organizers. With sell out crowds both nights, great wines and the enthusiasm showed by everyone involved, makes this show a must go for wine and food fans alike – maybe next year I’ll remember to partake in the food aspect of it.
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Friday, November 3, 2006

Report from: Ottawa Wine and Food Show - Friday Night, Nov. 3, 2006

So here I am, first time in Ottawa … ever. Some people come to see the parliament buildings, tour around, marvel at the centre of power in Canada, seek their fortunes or try their hand at becoming politically inclined. Some come to call their ex a dog, while others come to line their pockets through sponsorship scandals … me, I came for the wine.

What? Wine, in Ottawa? You bet. The 21st Annual Ottawa Wine and Food Show draws thousands of people and it’s getting bigger and better every year. “I love this show,” Ian Hanna, of John Hanna and Sons Ltd. told me. “The people, the atmosphere, it’s just great.” On the other side of the coin I heard, “Not the best show for selling our wine – it’s more pour and go, especially as you get later in the day … Toronto is better because it’s less busy … but it gets our name out there and I love this city, so I really have no complaints.”

So, you ask, Grape Guy, how was the show? In one word, busy. I arrived Friday night about 6pm and already the line-up outside was around the corner and into the parking garage. Inside the cacophony of people at times was deafening, the throng – bigger than I have ever seen at any wine show, even in Toronto. Is that because Toronto rents out a bigger venue? In fact, I think the 2 rooms at the Congress Centre make for a bigger space than the one room that held the last major Toronto show I was at; and the booth sizes range from the massive (Yellow Tail) to the very small (Vina MontGras). But all the big names are there: Ironstone; Gallo; Inniskillin; Perrin & Fils, Mott’s Clamato; the little names are there: Caroline Cellars; Lailey Vineyards; Featherstone; La Face Cachee; and all the countries are represented: France, the U.S., Chile, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Canada, etc. And apart from the ringing in my ears from the mass of people, the slow shuffle to get where you’re going, and the array of choice that’s enough to boggle the mind – everyone, and I do mean everyone, has a smile on their face and a glass in their hand (all except the Policeman who confirmed that this is not his favourite gig – understandably).

Let’s move on to the finds of the first night and tomorrow we’ll sample some of the winners from the competition held in mid-October. The first night was about soaking in the atmosphere and trying some of the interesting wines and finds.

Lately I find myself on a Zinfandel kick, so I made my way over to California, home of those massive fruit, massive alcohol Zins. It was once not unusual to find 15 or 16% Zins that ripped at the throat and needed steak to help cut them down to size; but today we find California’s winemakers have scaled back their Zinful ways and are now making lighter, more palatable and lower (14%) Zin. Like Gallo’s $9.90 general list Zinfandel; Rancho Zabaco’s Dancing Bull Zinfandel (general list $15.95); or Fetzer’s (general list $9.95). All fruit forward affairs that drink well on their own, but will suit more simple pasta and pizza dinners quite nicely. But when it comes to Zin some of my favourites are of the ‘old vines’ variety – less fruit per vine, more concentrated flavours per berry … and there were a few that caught my eye and sang on my tongue. The Reserve Rancho Zabaco ($19.95) soon to be in Vintages (maybe January ’07); Delicato’s ‘Gnarly Head’ 2005 Old Vines Zinfandel ($19.75) which will find it’s way to Vintages store shelves around April. The ‘Gnarly Head’ is crafted from 35-80 year old vines and has a cute little story about its name on the back label of the bottle. Both of these Zins are as you’d expect, fruit forward with a little more oak punch then their less expensive counterparts – especially the robust and oaky Zabaco, which will need a few years on its side to settle down. My favourite Zin of the night was from Ironstone Vineyards – this $16.75 2005 ‘Old Vines’ Zinfandel (Vintages – Nov. 11) goes beyond description, but if you’re a red Zinfandel fan, or plan to be one, this one will do it for you. And just in case you can’t put you hands on this limited release Zin, and are still looking for something special in a Zin, check out the Ravenwood Zinfandel ($19.95 – Vintages essential) – it’s always available and always very good.

Worried that I would spend my whole night in California I decided to move on and check out a few other parts of the world in search of different tastes. Like the new taste combo from Brick Brewing Company and Mott’s Clamato called “Red Eye”. A combination of specially brewed lager and Mott’s Original Clamato juice … quite unique and very interesting.

My final stop of the evening, as the room was getting busier and busier as the night wore on, was to Creekside, where I got my first taste of their new Laura’s Blend White (49% Sauvignon Blanc, 48% Chardonnay, 3% Viognier) … the Laura’s Blend red is consistently one of my favourites so the white had some big shoes to follow in. This first time wine, and interesting blend (not seen often outside of Australia), is delicious, with great notes of grapefruit from the Sauv Blanc, fruitiness from the Chardonnay, with the Viognier adding that extra brightness to the fruity finish. I also tried a couple of young wines that will show well in a few years, like the 2004 Reserve Pinot Noir ($30) – which needs a little more time in bottle, and the 2004 Reserve Shiraz ($29.95) from the St. David’s Bench area … great guts from the 50% new oak, and set for release in January of 2007 … but definitely not ready for prime-time, not yet anyway. This is also one that should be laid down for a while. Final wine of the evening was the 2004 Broken Press Shiraz (95% Shiraz, 5% Viognier - $32) – complete with interesting story. If not for the addition of the Viognier this one would also be tight, but the Viognier freshens the blend and makes it an interesting and welcome addition to the Creekside line of wines.

After all that tasting I went and had dinner at one of the local restaurants, and wouldn’t you know it – I left my souvenir glass on the table … guess I am going to have to go back tomorrow – shucks darn. Tomorrow we’ll taste some of those competition winners and see if they truly are worthy of their medals - until then goodnight.
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