Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Report from: ASAP Meeting - June 20, 2007

The Toronto chapter of ASAP (Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals) invited Richard Johnson (owner of By Chadsey’s Cairn Winery) to speak at their June 20th meeting; yours truly also attended, wanting to hear what one of the driving forces behind the budding Prince Edward County wine industry had to say. The talk was suppose to be about Strategic Alliances and how they benefit business, in this particular case with regard to the wine industry … instead Richard spent most of his time giving the history of The County, both past and present – which I have to admit was incredibly fascinating.

Let me stress that Richard is not a born-and-bred County-boy, but his knowledge of the area was amazing, he sure did do his research before moving there. He knew about the missionaries that settle the towns and villages back in the 1600’s; how barley was the mainstay crop in the 1850’s and 60’s and fed the beer industry of the United States with its main ingredient right up until the trade wars of the time, which ceased the usefulness of growing barley for the area. In the 1940’s and 50’s The County was the heart of the canning industry for all of Canada, canning both fruits and veggies; but than in the 60’s the economy stagnated; a mass exodus from Prince Edward County began and land prices plummeted. Around the same time the artistic community was growing tired of Toronto and the rising cost of living; looking for something a little more rural and serene they made their way to The County snapping up PEC land for a song. Also migrating to The County were wealthy Torontonians looking for lakefront property to settle into their quiet retirement lifestyle. The gentleman who thanked Richard after his talk made mention of how “woefully low” his personal knowledge of that area of the province was and that Richard truly did enlighten many as to the highs and lows the area had faced.

Sporadically Richard peppered his discourse with talk of the alliances that were formed; I got the feeling that although they were instrumental in what PEC has accomplished he isn’t used to talking directly about them – instead the focus is on what they accomplished not who accomplished it. He spoke highly about the 8 start-up grape growers and how they banded together in 1998-1999 as they were all contemplating sticking vines into the ground. How they learned by looking to Niagara as a model for both the right way and wrong way of building a wine industry. The history of PEC grape growing was also touched upon … he told the brief story of 3 who had tried back in the 70’s, which proved to be a dismal failure, mostly because they looked at it as competing with one another instead of trying to learn together. By aligning themselves together the 8 growers learned what worked best in these harsh conditions known for Eastern Ontario winters. As example, just this past winter PEC averaged 8 degrees colder than Niagara, and don’t get Richard started about the wind.

Today those 8 have turned into 40, and in 8 short years have turned the “crazy notion” of producing wine in Prince Edward County into a viable working wine industry and who’s most recent accomplishment was becoming Ontario’s newest DVA (Designated Viticultural Area). How they did it is the amazing story. From the beginning they decided that their standards had to be higher if they were to make it work. They did soil tests (there are 15 different types in The County); divided The County into sub-appellations (currently not in use on their bottles, but could be when the time is right) and most importantly raised the standard for Prince Edward County labeled wine – it had to be 100% PEC fruit in the bottle (current regulations state that VQA wines, while always 100% Ontario grapes, can have 15% of their fruit from somewhere else in Ontario). They also had to learn, by trial and error, how to grow grapes, not hybrids, which flourish in these conditions, but the more temperamental vinifera … one of the keys was to bury the vines to protect them from the elements in the dead of winter – this was not learned until year three.

The County also has many of the parts in place to lure tourism, with more on the way as they continue to blossom into a full fledge get away destination. Restaurants (with well known chefs), local farmers (to provide the ingredients), wineries (to provide the pairing for food) and cheese manufacturers (to provide … the obvious) all working together in a strategic symbiosis and using their alliances to strengthen not just their own individual industries, but the area as a whole – making it better for everyone involved. From a financial standpoint the effects of all this working together has become quite apparent: Richard bought his land for $800 an acre in 1995, just this past year his neighbour sold off some of his land for $16,000 an acre … all because the infrastructure has been built up that makes PEC a place to live, thrive and survive.

In closing Richard said that he finds it amazing what can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time if you cultivate the right alliances. 8 short years to DVA status … three of those years with no crop at all, due to those harsh winters. This year PEC will hit the million-bottle mark for the first time as a region. Lots to be proud of … lots of hard work … and lots of the right-minded and like-minded people. I also picked up on the “theory of 8” that seem to run through the story of Prince Edward County’s new renaissance … 8 growers started; 8 degrees colder; 8 years to DVA status – I wonder, and look forward to, what the next 8 years will bring and what the next “8” will be within their realm of accomplishments.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Report from: New Vintages Grille - June 16, 2007

The New Vintages Grille was an opportunity for 27 wineries to open and pour two of their new wines. Some of these same wineries were taking part in the Discovery Pass program, while others used this as their only opportunity to meet and greet the wine buying public. Colio came all the way from the Lake Erie North Shore to pour their newest, while 20 Bees took this opportunity to showcase a couple of theirs, mainly due to the lack of a facility to do so on their property at this time. One winery in particular took the bull by the horns and brought only one wine to the party - and spun liquid gold with it – and it turned out to be the Highlight-Wine-of-the-Night; more on that in a bit.

Held at the Niagara Culinary Institute, part of Niagara College, the event was mostly held outdoors with an indoor component, which included a silent auction and dessert table (don't want that stuff getting ruined in the heat). Two large tents, split into two sections each, in U-shapes, (for a total of four sections between the two tents) held the participants and followed a wine-food-wine-food-wine-food order. Each table in the U was home to two wineries, while food stations had their own separate tables and were occupied by area restaurants and chefs. The band played center stage with a huge open area in front of them and between the 2 tents (at both ends). The open area had chairs and tables scattered about upon which you could rest your food selections and yourself as people chatted with old friends and new acquaintances. The fourth pillar (2 tents plus center stage being the other three) was the inside component, which a few wineries called home for the evening and desserts were served.

It took awhile for people to figure out that they did not have to line up in front of table number one at the beginning a tent’s U. Each tent housed a minimum of six wineries (3 wine tables/stations) and three food stations - the idea was to just walk up to your table of choice get your food and/or drink and walk away. This interesting dilemma was solved by 6:30 on the left side and by 7:00 on the right – at which point the crowd flowed freely to wherever their stomachs and palates led them.

The band was entertaining and the grilling demonstration by the Food Network’s Rob Rainford proved to be educational and fun ... it also drew the crowds away from the tents for a while so they became less crowded and more accessible.

So what were the highlights in the food and wine categories?


The Stone Road Grill had these mini-grilled cheese sandwiches, which were quite tasty and made with a Perron-Swiss cheese from Quebec. These two-bites sized sandwiches were a great appetizer.

Pow Wow served up a house smoked salmon on saffron glass noodles and fresh herbs salad drizzled with chardonnay raspberry reduction - it's a lot to say but very tasty; actually took the chef longer to explain it to me then it did to eat it - so I had seconds.

Riverbend Inn proved to have the highlight food of the night - that was not a desert. Niagara Gold cheese and sweet potato agnolotti (fancy-Italian name for perogee), which were an absolutely fantastic taste sensation. They topped them with Vidalia onion chutney ... I only had two of these, but could I could have filled my belly with a dozen more.

Niagara Culinary Institute - two excellent selections: a baked Brie and a garlic marinated flank steak ... both quite tasty.

Olson Foods and Bakery ... not sure what to highlight here, it was all good, from the Niagara salad bowl with gingered pork and asparagus to the white chocolate brownie with rhubarb ice cream - I left this area immediately in fear of having a second, third or fourth helping; especially when it came to the lemon meringue cupcakes.


Being that it’s summer, and white wines get the spotlight this time of year, it's time to introduce you to the Highlight-Wine-of-the-Night ... Legends Estate Winery 2006 Semillon ... this wine is no laughing matter and no simple summer sipper either. It's beautiful. With grassy, grapefruit, and lemony aromas; the taste is refreshing with plenty of citrus notes and grapefruit tones and a subtle hint of bell pepper in the background. It has to be tasted to truly savour the experience. Many, including myself, were coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths and full glass helpings. At $16.95 I don't think Legends will have this summery pleaser around for a long ... release date pending labels’ arrival, around July 1. This is the wine every winemaker in the place wished they had made.

Other whites of note ...

Flat Rock Cellars 2006 twisted ... is a deliciously playful wine for a hot summer's day or evening. Vineland’s run with Riesling continues with yet another fine offering, this time it's their 2006 Riesling Semi-Dry ... another smooth sipper. Pleasing the palate of Chardonnay drinkers is the first offering from Willow Heights, made by the winemaking team at Creekside ... the Willow Heights 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay puts this winery back on the road to respectability.

A rosé is a rosé is a rosé ...

It would seem that you can do anything with Cabernet Franc, including making a fine rosé. Jackson-Triggs has done it again this year with their delightful summertime in a glass 2006 Cabernet Franc Rosé.

A rosé by any other name would be a red ...

Some reds are light and chillable - good for an afternoon spent on the patio just as much as a cooling white. While this is not a rosé it is light and all red-fruit backed by some peppery goodness. Vinelands 2006 Gamay Noir is a perfect summertime red wine to be chilled and enjoyed by diehard red drinkers who refuse a glass of white. Chill this one and the red fruit pops out of the glass; leave it at room temperature and the peppery notes come through – your choice.

Red as in rare and meaty ...

To me summer is not only about white wine, it's also about barbecues and wonderful red wines to pair with those grilled meats ... here are three that will do the trick. Chateau des Charmes declassified their top tier wine (Equuleus) barrels and opted instead to make more of the 2004 Estate Bottled Cabernet-Merlot - a barbecuers dream wine. Coyote's Run also produces a fine Meritage blend that is perfect for those evenings with friends and fire-charred beef, look for the 2005 Meritage. Finally Fielding - sounds like a movie title, but their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is a wonderful addition to grilling nights. All three of these reds will go well with anything you grill-up this season, or ones that you’ll have five years from now … so buy a few and enjoy them over time.

It seems only fitting that I end my review of “The Grille” with wine to use for grilling. This year's event was much more informal than the one held last year at the St. Catharines golf course. There were more shorts and t-shirts and less suits, formal shirts and ties ... It’d be a good idea to have these cookouts every year to celebrate the New Vintages Festival because afterall, it is about fun and summer at this time of year. Even better would be to see The Grille roam from winery to winery giving others the chance to host it - say on Creekside’s patio and backyard, on Hernder’s veranda, or Hillebrand’s property, Featherstone and Ridgepoint might also have the space ... Hmmm maybe I'm on to something here, if they use this idea I hope I get a little credit.

Report from: New Vintages Festival Passport Tour - June 16 –17, 2007

Ah ... the Niagara new vintages festival, probably the lesser known of the big three Niagara Festivals, which are (in order of importance) the Wine (September) and Icewine (January) festivals, and encompass the whole of the Niagara region and its wineries. Participating wineries are featured in the guidebook and have an array of new wines (mainly whites) for you to try. Some have pairings of food; others do comparative flights of wine from back vintages, while others offer tours of the winery. 29 wineries in total participated in this year's passport (Discovery Pass) offerings, below you'll find highlights of the one’s I attended.

First, let me explain this year's passport program. In years past the "discovery pass" has been one set price ($30.00) and has allowed you access to all the participating wineries and their weekend programs ... some wineries have required you to pay a little extra on top of the pass because their offering was a little more complicated or special (i.e.: a lunch and tour), but at the same time offered a discount to passport holders. Without the passport you had to pay full price. This year the passport was called the “Discovery Pass” and contained five vouchers which acted like tickets granting you access to take part in the "Winery Experience" ... without the pass each winery had a fixed price of $10.00 for their experience. So your choice was pay $30.00 for $50.00 worth of "experiences" or pay-as-you-go. The best way I found to do the passport was to share - instead of using one ticket per person per winery, use one ticket between two and share; that way the passports got you into ten wineries instead of five … that way you could take part in more "experiences". The list below highlights the winery's I attended and whether it would have been worth your $10.00 to attend ... I use a $10 rating scale based on value for the money you would have spent.

Worth Every Penny …

Fielding Estate Winery outdid themselves. Their offering was boxed treats - served in a box - paired with their new Riesling sparkling wine (due for released July 1 – my review will appear in the Weekly Wine Note section and Podcast July 3). In the box was an elongated slice of French bread with cream cheese and smoked salmon; two strawberry halves topped with marscarpone cheese and crushed pistachios; and a cup of gourmet potato chips with a sweet curry Mayo - you were also given the choice of eating inside, outside on the deck or take a blanket to hunker down on the grass hill at the side of the winery. Value: $10.00 / 10.

Talk of the Town ...

Believe it or not, Legends, a winery you rarely hear from, was the talk of the Discovery Pass circuit. People you met, who were doing the Pass component, would talk amongst themselves and ask, "where have you been?" With a limited number of tickets you had to make sure you took full advantage of the best offerings. Fielding got the ooo’s and ahh’s, but next on most people's list was Legends; "they're doing it right", one person told me. They took you through the winery, to their new banquet facility called the Polonaise Room, poured a 2006 Semillon (an amazing wine and will be my Summer Selection wine in the July 5 newsletter) and matched it up with an array of nibblies which were crackers and pita you could dip into an artichoke-asiago, spinach-and-sun-dried-tomato, or roasted-red-pepper dip (heck all three were worth trying); and for dessert: chocolate covered strawberries. Value: $9.00 / 10.

Something Cool ...

With temperatures hovering somewhere in the high twenties or low thirties throughout the day, Creekside took us all down into their barrel cellar (which is a really cool place to visit - both temp-wise and sight-wise) to try five new wines: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling, finishing the whole experience off with an icewine ... and all paired with a variety of cheeses and bread. Value: $8.00 / 10.

We Have a Tie ...

Three wineries ended with the same value score: EastDell; Lakeview; and Maleta, due to a variety of reasons and what they were offering. EastDell invited you out to their patio (a specially sectioned off part) which over looks their vineyard; sampled three of their new 2006’s (Unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling) paired up with some complicatedly named appetizers like: smoked salmon cucumber rap with dill cream cheese and flying fish roe; quail and duck wrapped in bacon; and grilled pineapple topped with prosciutto and spicy aioli. Value: $7.00 / 10.

Lakeview’s offering was more wine oriented ... Riesling, and involved a little cellar-diving for the staff. A flight of Rieslings going back over ten years: the new 2006, the ‘97 and the ’92 (or was that ’94?). It was interesting to see how Ontario Rieslings evolve. After your tasting you were presented with a "special edition corkscrew" - gold in color and embossed with the Lakeview name and logo, the corkscrew memento was a nice touch and raised their score by three points, proving that you don’t always have to feed people, giving away a little trinket is just as nice. Value: $7.00 / 10.

Finally, Maleta hosted you in their cramped tasting room and anteroom to try a trio of new whites: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling ... and finished off with a taste of their award winning Icewine called First Frost. The foodstuffs included a smoked-salmon-cream-cheese on a Tostitos; an elaborate crab salad served on a cracker and the piece-de-résistance a cup of icewine drizzled/soaked strawberries. Value: $7.00 / 10.

More Cellar Diving ...

Gewurztraminer fans would have been impressed at Palatine Hills Estate Winery, where 3 gewurzts were being sampled: the new 2006, the 2004 and the Ontario Wine Awards gold medal winning 2003. This structured tasting was led by a member of the winery staff and was thoroughly enjoyable. Jack, our staff member, was affable and friendly - always good for a quick joke or more serious wine talk - and any question he could not answer he looked up. A good-sized piece of cheese ravioli was served as an appetizer. Palatine was also releasing nine other wines on this day and all were open for tasting, including a BBQ ready Zweigelt. All in all a good visit. Value: $6.00 / 10.

A little aside...

Here's where the scoring gets a little dicey. Keep in mind that each event or "Winery Experience" had a minimum $10.00 price tag applied to it ... if you were a Discovery Pass holder you got five experiences for $30.00, which works out to $6.00 each. So for anything above this “aside” you definitely got your money's worth, anything below this paragraph, you would have felt cheated. Also remember, that with two passports you could only do a maximum of ten events (out of a possible 29), if you shared the experiences - so you really had to pick and choose based on the guides description. Unfortunately, the following three wineries did not make the grade with their offering.

This one's touchy ...

I have a slight problem with downgrading this winery because their winery experience as a whole is usually impeccable ... but remember as a regular Joe off the street you would have shelled out (in this case) $15.00 for this "experience"; or you would have used up a Discovery Pass ticket (worth $6.00). Vineland was pouring their 2006 Chenin Blanc and Gamay Noir and, as a special treat, their Verona Grand Italy award winner 2002 Meritage ... all fine wines indeed, but worth the money you would have paid, no. After that the bar was flung open to try whatever else you desired - and the array of different glassware pulled out to highlight each individual wine was impressive, it literally flashes and glistened before your very eyes, it’s a veritable show or as Robert De Niro says in the movie Wag the Dog “It’s a pageant”. There were other 2006's on the list including two Riesling, a Cabernet Franc, and a Chardonnay, plus other reds, whites and roses from past years ... and all open for tasting and served in the appropriate stemware. Vineland’s New Vintage value score $3.00 / 10 - but their overall experience score $8.00 / 10. But the way, they have another winner on their hands with that 2006 Cabernet Franc ($12.95) – outstanding value.

I paid how much! For this?

Inniskillin wowed the crowd with their tasting during the Wind and Herb Festival back in May, but this time it was not to be. They paired their new 2006 Pinot Grigio with a lemon caper shrimp ... nice delicate wine, good pairing, but you would have had to pay $10.00 for the opportunity to try it, and for the experience of sitting in their new demonstration kitchen ... is this how they are paying for this new room? Value: $4.00 / 10.

Sorry Stonechurch, I don't mean to keep picking on you, but this experience proved no better than the Wine and Herb weekend ... well, hold on, maybe it fared a little better. First, it's a Riesling comparative tasting between the dry and off dry - thankfully both the VQA - and both very nice wines under the winemaking hand of new winemaker Arthur Harder ... but where were the "scrumptious selection of tasty treats"? As we entered there was a menu for the patio grill ranging in price from $4 to $7 - were these the treats? And was this on top of the already $10.00 I would have paid without the Discovery Pass – even with the passport I paid $6.00 to try two Rieslings, really … 6 bucks? Both wines were scored a good value in my book, at $14.95 each. New Vintages score: $3.00 / 10. To end this on a high note – Stonechurch will be releasing close to 14 new wines in the next couple of months.

Final thoughts ...

I am still undecided about the new format of the New Vintages passport ... if more wineries were like Fielding, Legends, EastDell and Maleta then the limited number of visits makes sense – they actually do have “experiences”. And while Lakeview’s experience was more about age they did give away a little memento, and that is always worthwhile (if it is something that you can use). But if all you're doing is pouring your new wines and pocketing the cash without offering something special, then what's the point. Some participants I met along my voyage through Niagara steered me away from some wineries I had anticipated going to, because they said it wasn't worth the ticket, and when asked why the list was long and justified. Those wineries will remain nameless here, because I did not experience them firsthand, but you know who you are. You know when you're offering, and not offering, value to your (potential) customers. Keep this in mind - these festival “experiences” should not be used as moneymaking opportunities (except of course to sell the wine), but instead as customer building opportunities. The amount of people who'll return to Fielding and Legends will far outweigh the few bucks they shelled out to "do it right". Let's see how this plays out next year.

Report from: Sip Ontario - Tuesday June 12, 2007

29 wineries and, what seemed like, an equal amount of chefs, joined in for Sip Ontario, held at the Fermenting Celler in the distillery district of Toronto. Sip Ontario is the end result of the Ontario Wine Awards, which were handed out earlier this year in Niagara-on-the-Lake. These awards celebrate the best of the Ontario wine industry and on this night the best were out in full force to showcase their winning wines to the public. There were of course some notable absentees: Tawse (winner for their Chardonnay Musque - now sold out); Peninsula Ridge (winner of two medals for white wine); Pointer’s Hill (a new winery in Niagara, with an as yet an unnamed place to call home, who also won for two whites) and Maleta (winner of the wine of the year). Aside from those absent the night went off without a hitch.

Wines were poured from Niagara, Lake Erie and Prince Edward County and the food matches were impeccably well suited to the wines they accompanied. This year's big difference was where those food stations were placed. In past years, the food stations were smack-dab in the middle of the room and servers would wonder over and replace the trays as needed. This year the middle was cleared-out for better roam-ability of the guests, and the food was being freshly prepared at preparation-stations, which were situated in-amongst the wineries, mostly around the outside of the room (there was a wine and food station in the middle of the largest part of the room). Chefs at these stations matched their food sample to go with one of their neighbours wines. Some of the highlights: cheesecake sandwiched between pastry and topped with the Vidal icewine soaked sautéed onions, paired with a Reif Estate Chenin Blanc; a baked salmon on a crostini topped with strawberry-rhubarb chutney and the melt in your mouth pork shoulder with some kind of herbed topping ... I hate to admit that don't remember the wine it was supposed to be paired with, but it went with many.

Speaking about the wines of the evening, some wineries took advantage of the night to not only showcase award winners but also to pour some new wines that will be in their boutiques and/or on LCBO shelves soon (if they are not already there). Most notable: Creekside’s zingy 2006 Sauvignon Blanc and peachy 2006 Butler's Grant Riesling; Huff Estates 2006 First Frost, with its medium sweet pears, apples and apricots; Vineland’s awesome red fruit-driven and extremely chillable for summer 2006 Gamay (a real deal at $14.95) and Peller Estates’ Private Reserve Gamay Noir 2005, that cranked red fruit up to the next level throwing in some peppery notes, which comes from the 50/50 blend of new and used French and American oak barrels.

Sip Ontario is all about award winning wines, and thankfully it also provided us with some award winning chefs who prepared great foods to complement these wines – making for wonderful food and wine combinations. But Sip Ontario is also about potential - potential for next year. 104 wines were poured, and not all of them award winners, but who knows, from what I was tasting, next year, some of them could very well see the podium.

Sip Ontario was created to complement the Ontario Wine Awards and is really about showcasing an industry at its best, and year-after-year Ontario proves that it is a province making world class wines. Furthermore, it provides yet another reason to shake off consumer complacency about the Ontario wine industry. It’s high time to get off the couch and go visit one of the major wine regions of this great province (Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore, Prince Edward County) and find out what all this much-deserved hype is about.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Report from: Malivoire Wine Company Open House - June 2, 2007

Once a year Malivoire throws open its doors and invites the public inside to take a look. The invited guests are anyone who has purchased a bottle of Malivoire wine in the past and has given them their email address in the process. Every year I always had something else planned, so never did the tour - this year I made sure to get myself on the list for a walk around. Interesting to note, the tour is free, but it is such an in demand event that to book you have to leave a credit card number to hold your space. If you fail to show up the fee is $10.00, but if you show it's gratis.

The tour starts on a mini-school bus that rides you to the top of the winery ... the winery is gravity flow and thus slants downhill. As we learned on the tour there is little to no pumping that happens at Malivoire, their wine flows from one place to another as naturally as possible, there was only one mention of pumps being used. We started out in the vineyard were shoots were growing at 2 inches per day - the vineyard manager was practically dancing between the rows of grapes. Then Martin Malivoire arrived to take us inside, where he described how things were designed and the winery's theory and practice of winemaking. A food and wine pairing that was truly magnificent was served: the 2004 Moira Chardonnay ($36) paired with grilled halibut over mango salsa and veal strip loin over thyme sweet potato mash ... delicious. Martin also made the bold statement that Ontario is making better Gamay than anywhere else in the world ... pretty bold - but he just might be right (see wine reviews below).

From there it's to the sorting and pressing area ... then to the tank room and another pairing - this time 2004 Pinot Noir ($28) with three different kinds of cheese, each bringing out a different aspect of the wine. The tour ends down the stairs and into the wine store about 45 minutes after in began. All the principals were there, owner Martin Malivoire, who’s an engaging and enjoyable speaker, to winemaker Shiraz (swear to God that's his real name), who has a quiet charm in the way he addresses the crowd. Of course, I left out many details because I think it's a tour worth taking and one you should definitely investigate doing next year (or in the years to come) - and if I told you all the details there would be no need for you to visit. Take my advice, sign up for the tour.

Wines Tasted …

In the wine store I tasted a number of good to excellent wines; here are the highlights:

2006 Pinot Gris ($18) - great pineapple and citrus on the nose - the mouth was all lime, grapefruit and green apple tartness - clean and refreshing.

2006 Chardonnay Musque ($18) - the label says “Spritz”, and there definitely is one, but it's not overly noticeable as in a sparkling wine kinda way - it's there then it's gone, leaving apple, melon (cantaloupe) and palate cleansing sweetness (4) - but it does not taste as sweet as its code suggests (must be the spritz). Nine percent alcohol makes this a true summer afternoon delight.

2004 Moira Vineyard Chardonnay ($36) - butterscotch and fruity nose gives way to apricot, apple, mango, oak and some supple vanilla in the mouth. A pleasantly long finish makes this a palate pleasing wine. Could also stand a few years in the cellar – depending how you like your Chardonnay.

2004 Gamay ($16) and 2005 Courtney Gamay ($29) - Martin proclaimed Gamay as Ontario's grape to own, and the way he's making Gamay I can see why. The ’04 is red fruit dominated with red licorice and cherry on the nose. The palate is earthy red fruit and finishes with strawberries - this is a chillable red for sure. I am told the 2005 Gamay is something to behold and should be released in the next few months. The 2005 Courtney is a keeper (five to six years at that), only 130 cases were made and it’s selling briskly and I can taste why. The nose is cinnamon, vanilla and red fruit, while the palate follows through with some earthy qualities and tart strawberries wrapped up in a thin coat of cedar and oak; must be from the twelve months in new and one year old French and American oak barrels. The limited quantity of this wine is due to the selection process - only the top five barrels from this vineyard’s output goes into making this wine.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Report from: Tawse Winery Open House - June 2, 2007

I will fully admit that I have had a few cutting words to say about Tawse Winery over the years, majoring mainly in their wine prices - and minoring in the grounds; but on Saturday, June 02, 2007, I attended Tawse’s first ever public open house and was determined to walk in with and open-mind and no prejudged thoughts. I will tell you that I was super-impressed with the operation - which we all got to see, literally, from top to bottom. The tour, the facilities, the barrel cellar, the food matching were all top notch ... and I had nothing but positive things to say right up until the end, that's where the T. T. E. (Typical Tawse Effect) kicked in. But more on that later, here's a quick overview of the tour and wines tasted.

We all started at what could best be described as the loading dock at the top of the winery where the picked grapes are weighed and loaded into the winery; in Tawse terminology it's called the "crushing pad". This is where the picked grapes get sorted by hand to weed out the bad ones. Here their new 2006 Chardonnay Musque ($18.00) was served, complimented by a poached pear stuffed with foie and duck liver mousse (prepared by About Thyme Bistro - a hot new restaurant in the area). The Musque was fabulous, probably one of the best I've ever tasted and my review can be found on my website (just click the above link).

Moving inside, we found ourselves on Level 5, where the juice gets its start into winedom. Serving up their 2006 Carly’s Block Riesling ($25.00) paired with a whitefish cerviche (topped with coriander, pepper, chives and cilantro, with a dash of a lime and lemon juice) - a tasty little morsel thought up by Treadwell’s (another restaurant with a great reputation in the Niagara area). The grapes to make this wine come from 31 year old vines, and the wine has a subdued wildflower honey nose while being vibrant in the mouth with peachy goodness and yellow grapefruit tartness, followed by a good seam of acidity and minerality ... a crazy long finish that stuck around till we got to Level 4.

On Level 4, we found ourselves surrounded by tanks and were served the 2004 Beamsville Bench Chardonnay ($42.00). They paired this wine with a creation from the Vineland Winery restaurant - rich chowder of forest mushrooms with truffle pearls ... another perfect pairing. The wine showed smoky-oaky-grassyness on the nose, but in the mouth it came alive with vanilla, butterscotch, asparagus and some earthy tones ... the length was also long lived. This wine is still young and should find a hiding place in your cellar for some time.

Then it was off to the barrel cellar for our final stop. The temperature outside was a hot 31° - but here in the cellar it was cool and damp. Tawse does not cool their cellar in any conventional way; instead they trap the coolness from the winter and protect it through the summer months. The plea went through the crowd as we entered the cellar "last one in close the door." Here there were lessons on cooling techniques, barrel filling, barrel aging, costs, etc. Then finally we made our why to the back of the cellar, where The Stone Road Grill had prepared a Confit Duck a la “Bourguignon” with crispy shallots and Pinot Noir Jus to pair with the rarely poured 2005 99/1 Pinot Noir ($58.00). This is a first cru French Burgundy brought into the winery to mix with some Ontario pinot noir during the laxed restrictions of the 2005 vintage (where 1% Ontario fruit could be mixed with 99% foreign fruit to make “Cellared in Ontario” wine - not VQA, which is always 100% Ontario fruit). Moray Tawse went over to France and convinced one of the 1iere cru houses to sell him 99 barrels of pinot noir. Their pinot usually sells, in our market, for well over $100.00 a bottle, so at $58.00 it's a steal for Pinot drinkers. Tawse then added the one Ontario barrel making it the 99 – 1 blend. Tawse is a fierce supporter of Ontario viti and vini culture, but decided to take advantage of lax laws to bring attention to this one-percent absurdity. The wine had a supple nose of strawberries, raspberries and earth ... the palate followed through with beetroot and rhubarb flavours thrown into the mix along with the tartness of good tannin structure.

The tour ended with the guide telling us that we could pick up a flyer with the wines and pairings spelled out for us; all bottles were available for individual sale in the wine store along with any other wines we wished to taste, and finally there were some pre-made mixed packs of six bottles on display if you cared to take advantage of those. And voila the tour ended. At this point, you were free to wander through the winery and into the wine store. I had brought my mom along for this adventure because she’ll usually eat the mushroom laden foods that I seem to shun away from, and she's also good company (just in case you all thought it was for her mushroom eating prowess). I mention this because she took the opportunity to visit the ladies room and came back with a glowing report about the marble interior and the helpful washroom attendant. We were suitably impressed by our visit.

We then made our way to the wine store. Along the way, we discussed the purchase of the Chardonnay Musque, which in truth was by far one of the best wines served - unique, tasty, delicious and reasonably priced at $18.00 a bottle. Knowing that it was selling quickly, and that it would be perfect for summer, we each decided on two bottles.

The wine store was packed with wall-to-wall people; some at the tasting bar, some wondering around, and then we noticed a snaky line making its way from the checkout counter. Only one cash register was available, although there were three people behind the counter helping customers. We joined the line. We discussed the tour, the food, and the wines and came to a consensus that it truly was an interesting winery, unique concept (only winery to use wild yeast exclusively), and a fun little place to see in operation. I even decided that the way they do things does justify some of their higher prices for wine, though I did also mention I was happy to see wines in the $18 to $25 range; wines that were good as well as affordable. I also made mention of their new Echos line that will be available in restaurants and the LCBO in the fall, something I learned during Somewhereness. Twenty minutes passed as we waited in line ... then we got to the counter where we were to place our wine order. "Four bottles of the Musque please.” The answer I got was, "We aren't selling them individually anymore, only in six packs, because we don't want to open any more cases." (Tawse wines are sold in six packs regularly instead of twelves). Here’s where I begin my rant, skip the next paragraph and go down to the last if you want to walk away with the sweet smell of a successful event in your nostrils.

This is what I've come to call the T.T.E. [Typical Tawse Effect) – where they reach into your wallet for more. We were told during our tour that all the wines were sold individually ... then suddenly at the counter we are told "only in six's" - but that only applied to the Musque ... the only wine priced under $20. First off, that's an extra $36 we weren’t prepared to spend. It may not sound like a lot, but if you walk into five wineries in a day and each one wanted an extra $36 from you that adds up to some serious coin for most of us ($180 for those doing the math). Two, it's a bad customer relations practice to tell your visitors one thing during a tour (i.e.: you can buy everything singly), then after they stand in line for 20 minutes tell them the policy has changed and now that wine is only available in multiples of six. Put up a sign they can see before joining the line – tell them at the tasting bar or during the tour even, but don’t let your potential customers waste 20 minutes standing in line for something they’re not prepared to purchase; or at least give them time to think about it, don’t spring it on them at the check-out. And finally, the term you’re looking for here is called “bait-and-switch” ... technically it's an item advertised at a lower price and when you get to the store they don't have the item but they will substitute it with a similar, more expensive item. They baited us on the Crush Pad, told us we could buy as many as we liked, then at the counter we are told “nope” you have to buy this amount, same product, different quantity ... bait-and-switch. No pun intended here, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth - and to me, it seems like a cash grab. Sure they're going to sell all the wine anyway, but this way it goes faster. The reason for this sudden policy change, I was told, was because they didn't want to crack open any more cases because "they were so busy they didn't have time to load the shelves with individual bottles." What stopped them from selling the bottles at the till and then sending you around to the pickup spot (which you had to pass to get your car) to pick up your bottles (with proof of purchase of course – i.e.: a receipt) is beyond me. I hate to say it but Tawse once again dropped the ball with this on-the-spot policy, and I left feeling under-appreciated as a customer, or potential customer, and empty handed. So instead of getting their wine into as many hands as possible and spreading good cheer and positive word-of-mouth, they got their wine into the fewest hands with deeper pockets ... and left me with another reason to tell people not to go (back). I was once told that Moray lives in a different snack-bracket than many of us, a bracket where my $36.00 dilemma would seem a trifle, so I am not sure he would see it my way - and if that's the clientele they want more power to them - but you also never know who's going to end up in your bracket one day down the road and your snub today could turn into their snub tomorrow. I guess Moray, and Tawse Winery, live in the Robert Herrick school of thought (“Gather ye rosebuds while you may”) with no thought about tomorrow.

I promised to leave those who skipped the above paragraph with a good sense of my Tawse adventure, and here it is: Tawse remains one of the marvels on the Ontario wine landscape, their winemaking practices are unique, and their wines are a testament to these practices. The open house was a good way to get people through the door and give them a good look around to see what makes Tawse truly unique. And the pairings, while not to everyone's taste, showed a real attempt to compliment the wines properly. If you wanna know the “but” read above ... otherwise it was a very good day at Tawse.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Report from: 13th Street Winery Open House - June 2, 2007

13th Street Winery is an Ontario version of a cult winery ... it's one of those wineries that's whispered about in wine circles, and when their name is mentioned the most often heard phrase is "I've heard of them but I've never been there.” They keep cult-like hours (open primarily on weekends); have a cult-like store (small little building that looks more like a storage place than winemaking facility), and have a cult-like following - during their open houses (held twice a year of June and December) people come out of the woodwork like termites, the real followers are there at the crack of dawn, wanting to be first in line to try and buy.

Today nine wines saw the light of day for the very first time (at least to the general public), wines that were bottled about a month prior, in the hopes the bottle shock would wear off before their big day. Here I look at five of those nine offerings, which seem to rise above the others, and a sixth wine that just seemed to be bubbling under.

Starting with the whites, there's the 2006 Funk Vineyard Riesling ($24) with its perfumey, peach, orange blossom and sweet lilac nose … they called it masculine in their tasting notes, but with all the floral I'm not so sure I'd go that far. But this 1 (on the sugar code) has great complexity in the mouth, with biting acidity that causes the mouth to water and yet refreshes at the same time; and don't forget to notice that steady stream of minerals that also plays along the tongue. This one has good length and staying power for the next few years.

13th Street jumps on the Musque bandwagon with a 2006 Chardonnay Musque ($19), but instead of following everybody else and leaving some sweetness in the wine, the boys on the street held their own parade and left this one dry (zero on the sugar code). But don't worry, this Musque is so fruit forward and aromatic you’ll swear it's at least a one - apple, peach and floral are the hallmarks of this wine; it's like summer in a glass.

With all the talk about blending and assemblage in the area 13th Street decided to take it upon themselves to try their hand at it with both a red and a white. The 2006 Et Cetera White ($22) is a fruit salad of flavors and smells: peach, lime, pineapple, apples and floral notes all make this one stand up on your taste buds with vibrant complex flavors. The makeup is dominated by Pinot Gris (30%) with Sauvignon Blanc (20%) and Muscat (20%) also throwing their weight around. Playing backup are Riesling, Semillon and Chardonnay all taking a piece of the last 30%. The 2005 Et Cetera Red ($22) is my bubbling under wine (I have tasted better blends from the Street, but this one is still quite good); it's a blend of Merlot, Gamay, Sauv and Franc, with the latter two taking the most weight. 12 months in French oak gives it some smoky and anise notes along with dark fruit, raspberry, cinnamon and vanilla. There are some tannins swimming around in there too. This wine has a medium length finish and mid-weight heft ... it's ready to drink now and over the course of the summer.

Looking for heft to last a few years? Then you want the 2005 Meritage ($30). Having spent 12 months in French oak this Bordeaux blend, comprised primarily of Merlot (60%), has Cab Sauv (30%) and Franc (10%) playing second and third fiddle respectively. This one's rich in red and dark fruits, lots of cedar oaky goodness and some licorice - both red and black. You could drink it now; but see that at least one bottle makes its way into your cellar; this one could go ten years or more.

Finally, the cornerstone of 13th Street’s winemaking over the years has been Gamay and the 2005 Gamay Sandstone Reserve ($26) is one serious Gamay (and a gold medal winner at the 2007 Ontario Wine Awards). This one screams red from the get-go: red fruit, red currant, red licorice; while the finish is earthy and "brooding" (not my word, Ken Douglas - part owner - used it and I just like the way it sounded, so I appropriated it). If you like, this wine could see a half hour in the fridge before drinking.

Once again 13th Street wowed the crowd with their new offerings, and once again their taste in food was second to none - nothing fancy really, just chicken thighs with cucumber relish on a mini-bun and spicy beef sausage Lebanese-style on flat bread; but I expect nothing less from the boys who, a few years back, served up some of the best pulled-pork I have ever tried; they know that nothing goes better with good wine than the backyard barbecue; especially at this time of year.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Report from: Lailey Vineyard Open House - May 26, 2007

During this year’s Wine and Herb Festival, I took some time out to pop into Lailey Vineyard, who were having their open house and new release weekend. On this particular weekend they were releasing nine new wines to the public, and I got a sneak peek at some up-and-comers over the next few months. With nine wines there is no way to describe them fully in the space I have, so for now let's look at a short description of each. My advice is to go to Lailey and try the ones that interest you ... and there’s bound to be at least one or two on this list.

Starting off with the 2005 Chardonnay Niagara Peninsula ($19.95), with its buttery and oaky nose and taste, typical of oak aged Chardonnay, but quite tasty and cellarable for five-plus years.

For summer parties on the patio, the 2005 Cabernet Franc Rose ($15.95) is a beauty; with its strawberry, raspberry and citrus nose and cherry-lemonade flavors. The 2005 Cabernet ($19.95) is classic Barnett, (winemaker Derek Barnett) ... this 50/50 blend of Franc and Sauv is aged fourteen months in French (90%) and American (10%) oak; it's plum and pepper driven with some smoky cedar undertones. There's a whiff of green pepper here, but it blows off after a few minutes leaving behind blackberries and cassis.

The steal of the afternoon had to be the 2006 Riesling ($13.95) with its peachy and petrolly nose and flavours - there's also a wee hint of botrytis in there and that makes it all the better. The Riesling that Derek Barnett is most excited about won't see shelves till Christmas; but with a sneak sniff and taste I can tell you in all honesty, to save some of your holiday budget for the upcoming Riesling Dry ($19.95). Made with 25% botrytis affected grapes, the wine currently shows light peach tones in both nose and taste, and botrytis fans will know what I mean when I say "typical botrytis scents" … if you don't, you owe it to yourself to find out. A good, crisp, clean seam of acidity also drives this wine across the palate.

Lailey is also releasing two Sauvignon Blancs ... one now, one later. The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Niagara River ($19.95) spent three months in used oak and has the three G’s of Sauvignon Blanc: grassy, gooseberry and grapefruit - chilled it's a perfect summertime sipper. Wait a few months and you'll be able to experience the Fume Blanc ($24.95) ... seven months in one year old French oak barrels, this wine has developed light citrus tones amongst the grassy gooseberryness and has also smoothed out the rougher tart edges; this one’ll go great with anything you serve during the holidays.

The new additions to the portfolio also included three more reds and a white. Derek Barnett got his start making Chardonnay for a north-end Toronto winery called Southbrook, so Chardonnay is something he is intimately comfortable with, and truthfully it's hard not to recommend any of his. At the ‘Brook he made plenty of oaky, ageable Chards, many are still drinking well now. But some of us aren't into the heavy Chards, that's why the 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay ($15.95) is a welcome treat: fresh and fruity with a long finish and some fun spicy qualities. I picked up a bit of buttery flavours in this wine too - Derek said that's from the three months lees contact.

Finally, we have the big reds: the 2004 Canadian Oak Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.95), with 17 months in Canadian wood; it has developed complex flavours and smells of cherry, plum and cassis (as the fruit), green pepper (as its young vegetal note), and a creamy toffee like finish (as its current swan song in your mouth) ... this one could see the cellar for five-plus years. The other big red is the 2004 Canadian Oak Cabernet Franc ($34.95) - Barnett may not buy into the wave of screwcap closures sweeping the region, but he's big into the Canadian oak experiment. Plum, blackberry and sour cherries are keynotes to this wine. Another seventeen month sitter between Canuck staves, this wine goes into the bottle unfiltered for better aging potential, and will most likely throw sediment, so decanting is a good idea. It’ll sit on its side for seven-plus years and still taste great.

The last bottle not talked about was the 2005 Zweigelt, which has been picked for inclusion in the Weekly Wine Notes section and will appear June 12th. Also look for Lailey’s 2006 Impromptu (approximately $24.95) a blend of which 60% Syrah makes up the bulk of it, with Cab Sauv (20%), Malbec (10%) and Petit Verdot (10%) making up the rest. Currently this wine shows a tightness that will subside with a few months in bottle. Behind the cloak of greenness it opens up with red fruit, namely cherries and raspberries, and some herb and spice flavours ... the wait is on to see when this little piggy goes to market (planned for fall 2007).