Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vinexx Fall Tasting – October 30, 2007

Vinexx is a Hamilton based agency whose claim to fame is a goodly amount of luck with the LCBO. The reason I say that is that of the 36 wines tasted at this event, 32 are, or will be, at some point during the year, on LCBO shelves (either through Vintages (V) or on the General List (GL)), you just have to find that impressive. Last time through the Vinexx line-up in the Spring (see previous report) I was impressed with not only the quality of the wines being poured but the prices as well. Again I find myself in the same boat, tonight there was only one wine listed above $30, while the majority were under $20. This little fact bodes well that Vinexx, will at one point or another, put a bottle of wine in your hands, as many folks still base their wine purchase on price; and the average purchase price for most of us ranges between $10 and $20 (I include myself in here too) … see what I’m saying?

Vinexx isn’t country specific in the wines they’re offering up, they bring us wines from all over the world: France, Italy, Spain, California and Canada (Chateau des Charmes) … their criteria seems to be good wines at good prices and they are constantly on the hunt for them, no matter where they are from. Finally, at this year’s event the big news was announced in their program: Vinexx has “joined forces with Torion” thus expanding their portfolio. That’s why I say again: At some point or another Vinexx will probably put a bottle of wine your hands. So let’s take a sip through and see what you should be rushing out to buy:

We Start Out with Bubbly …

Two sparklers were poured, both from France, and the one from Limoux won out over the one from Alsace. Made from 90% Mausac with a touch of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc added for extra flavours. This bubbly is a toasty, creamy citrus affair that’s usually available in the summertime through Vintages: Les Vignes Vergnes de Martinalles 2005 Blanquette de Limoux Brut ($15.95 - #914473 – V).

Lively and Lovely Whites …

Eleven whites were on display and three caught my palate. Alois Lageder 2005 Chardonnay ($20.95 - #30312 – V) from Italy; lots of stony tree fruit on the nose with apples and pears on the palate, quite fruity and enjoyable. From California comes Calera Wine Company’s 2005 Chardonnay ($22.95 - #713313 – V) much more heavily oaked than it’s Italian counterpart, spending 9 months in French wood, of which 10% is new. This treatment makes it smell like vanilla and butterscotch with flavours that are buttery soft with tree and tropical fruits – do I taste banana? I think I do. Finally, Errazuriz Ovalle, which produced one of my favourite reds at the last tasting, pairs up a white to go with that red (reviewed later) in the form of this 2006 Panul Sauvignon Blanc ($14.58 – consignment only). A nose that’s more tropical fruit (read: pineapple) than the usual citrus found in Savvy B. these days, along with some lush, plush tropical fruit sweetness in the mouth, pineapple with a pink grapefruit finish; quite the Sunday afternoon sipper.

Red Cappers …

Amongst the 22 reds tasted I could easily have picked half (or more) to write up, but I narrowed it down to these 7:

Two consignment wines kick us off; the Sherwood Estates 2005 Pinot Noir from New Zealand ($22.95) spends only 2 months in French oak, so it remains fruit dominant on both the nose and taste. There are some violet notes mingling with the red fruit on the nose, while the mouth has just the faintest touch of earthiness in and amongst all that red fruit with a seemingly sweet fruity finish – smooth, delicious, delicate and lovely.

The other consignment red is the pal of that Chilean Savvy B., Errazuriz Ovalle 2005 Panul Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.98) – pure Chilean here, with menthol, eucalyptus and chocolate on the nose, black and red fruit on the palate with a touch of menthol and good tannins that’ll see this one surviving in the cellar for a couple of years at least.

Spain provided two highlights during this portfolio tasting. The $14.95 Bodega Y Vinedos de Murcia 2004 Dominio de la Peseta (#31526 – V) is light, fruity and ultimately chillable with lots of red fruit on the finish. The other was the one I ran out the next day to buy, the Bodega Matarromera 2003 Emina Crianza ($18.95 - #993220 –V) what a stunner. After spending 12 months in oak, this 100% Tempranillo from Spain has developed a beautiful nose of black and red fruits, spicy cinnamon and a layer of oakyness. But a wine in nothing if it does not deliver on the promise the nose offers up and in the mouth this one does. Herbs and spice wrap that red fruit in a light blanket and caresses it along to a smooth sweet mid-palate before finishing with a touch of tannin. This one has elegance and finesse wrapped up in a tall thin bottle (still 750ml) – and it’s a keeper for at least another 5 years.

Now we get away from finesse to enjoy a little power and fruit forwardness, namely Australia and California. Hugh Hamilton Wines Jim Jim Shiraz was a pick in my October 27th Vintages report ($14.95 - #682005 – V) … this “down under dog” has pepper, red fruit, cherries and chocolate to spare, and what a great value in an Aussie Shiraz these days, which can easily find themselves north of $20, for a good one at least – which this one is … so pick this puppy up and give him a good home.

Vinexx brings in 2 from Californian producer Cline, the general list 2005 Zinfandel ($13.40 - #489278 – GL) another great value with cherries, plums, raisins and a touch of rum and cola on the nose – peppers and herbs fill the mouth along with plums, cola and vanilla flavours. Looking for a Zin with a little oomph!? Check out the Cline 2005 Ancient Vines Zinfandel (another Vintage report pick – Oct. 13) - $18.95 - #719211 – V. Made with 80-to-100 year old vines and spending 10 months in American oak, this baby is plumy and jammy with strawberries as its dominant red fruit … vanilla, caramel and chocolate also get into the act giving it a great sweet-like mid-palate that brings to mind the delicious flavours of mocha … yum.

Thanks to Vinexx (905-525-1113) for a great tasting and 7 Windows restaurant in Hamilton for the food and hosting … see you next time.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Report from: Wines of Spain – October 25, 2007

I have written a few times about my love for Spain and Spanish wines … I have a number of reasons for that. Spain is re-emerging as a wine powerhouse, I’m not saying their wines are gonna take the world by storm (a la Australia), nor will the world compare their wines to those of Spain on a regular basis (a la France); but Spain is, for the most part, a value region where what you get in the bottle far outstrip what you pay.

Spain is also one of the few regions of the world where Reserve (Reserva) actually means something … the word is canonized in their wine laws as to age requirements both in barrel and bottle, before you can put certain words on the label they have to adhere to those laws. For example: Reserva means the wine has been matured 36 months of which a minimum 18 have to be in oak (for red wine) – 24 months/6 months in oak for white; Gran Reserva is 60 months with a minimum 18 in oak (red) – 48 months/4 months in oak (white). Below the Reserva lines are Crianza and Jovan. Jovans are young wines that see little to no oak, are fresh and fruity and are released the year following harvest. Crianza on the label signifies a wine aged 24 months with a minimum 6 months of oak habitation. All these minimums are just that, as you’ll regularly see producers far exceed them: a Crianza that spent 14 months in oak or a Reserva with 2 years oak and 2 years in bottle before release.

You’d also expect to pay mucho pesos for wines with that kind of age on them, but Spanish wine is a bargain with great wines starting at under $10 (see my previous report).

This tasting was described to me by someone in the know (and in attendance) as “the losers showcase” – meaning these are wines/wineries currently seeking representation in Ontario so that you and I will one day see their bottles on LCBO shelves. By the time that happens many of these vintages will be sold out, so to review them would be of little to no use to you because you won’t see them anyway. But, dear reader, if I can leave you with one piece of advice: check out the Spanish wine section, get to know the terms (because here they actually mean something): Crianza, Reserve, Gran and Jovan, learn what you like and then experiment in Spain, it’s well worth both your time and money … a 10 or 12 dollar Spanish “bargain” may be the best wine investment you make.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Select Wines Web Launch – October 24, 2007

Select Wines have a new look. After 25 years on the job of putting good value wines from all over the world in the hands of Canadians – Select Wines launched a more interactive, user friendly, easily updateable website (, by inviting folks down to their office for a launch party, which included a boardroom table of nibblies and a few bottles of wine in each of their offices (I’m sure this is commonplace at a wine agent, though these bottle were open) … the real surprise was the best taste of the day wasn’t a grape wine.

Highlights of the office-roam-about were:

An Italian Nero d’Avola from Montalto (#621151 - $8.95) light, fruity and very chillable with an incredible price to value ratio.

A German Spatlese from Gustav Adolf Schmitt (#262337 - $10.75) a Riesling with a good sweet peach and apple nose and taste that’s not overpoweringly sweet on either nose or palate. Soft and supple in the mouth, almost creamy.

A preview of Delicato’s 2006 Gnarly Head “Old Vines Zinfandel” (#678698 - $17.75) a previous wine of the month at Vintages (at least the 2005 version was); this one’s more plum and red cherry on the nose with plumy, spicy, black cherries in the mouth … a wonderful product year-in and year-out.

Or how about Sebastiani’s Sonoma County Merlot (#3219162 - $20.75) a perennial favourite with hold-ability to spare … with tastes of black fruit throughout.

Select also handles an Australian favourite, St. Hallett’s Blackwell Shiraz (#535104 - $29.75) what a wine … all you’d expect from the Aussies … the new home for Shiraz – wrestling away that mantle from the unsuspecting French. A nose of black fruit, cassis, chocolate and pepper; and a palate that lingers with all those flavours and plenty more.

The taste sensation of the afternoon had nothing to do with grapes though; in fact it also wasn’t from anywhere you’d expect. Instead of coming from a wine powerhouse like California, Australia, Chile, or France it comes from Japan’s Gekkeikan Company. To start, there was the light, easy drinking and refreshing Kirin Ichiban beer (#676627 - $10.35 for 6), meant to be sushi’s palate cleansing partner. Then there was Gekkeikan’s real coup: Zipang sparkling sake (private order only) – the most unique taste sensation I’ve ever experienced. A 7% alcoholic beverage with the typical rice wine smells you attribute to sake, but with a clean, refreshing sparkle in the mouth (fizz made via the tank method); fresh fruity flavours that are most reminiscent of Bosc pear and light lemon syrup. This taste is not cheap, a 250ml bottle will set you back 12 or 13 bucks, but something you should experience at least once.

By the way, the name Zipang, according to my host, comes from the 12th century Chinese name for the “golden country” over the mountains, we now call it Japan.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gourmet Food and Wine Show Media Launch - October 23, 2007

As they used to call their writers in MAD magazine, and as I am apt to say on occasion at a tasting, when asked who else is in attendance, “just the usual gang of idiots”. And they were out at this year’s media launch for the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo taking place in November (15-18) at the usual place, Metro Toronto Convention Centre; but while MAD used it as a joke I use as a term of affection to mean, “the gang’s all here”. This year’s Gourmet launch brought us all together again to show off what is to come at the show this year. This year’s focus is Chile, a country whose rise to wine-stardom has been on an upward trajectory for the past 5 years or more. The launch had the wineries you’d recognize from the Chilean section of the LCBO: Concha Y Toro, Casa Lapostolle, Errazuriz, Cousino-Macul and many others, who will be there flogging and tasting their wares in the heart of a city that loves its Chilean wines … Chile’s wine numbers continue to improve by double digit percentages every year. Then, of course, there are the tutored tastings, a program with wine and food experts giving a 90-minute course on their beloved topic of choice. All the information about this year’s show highlights can be found at

I also have a pair of tickets to giveaway for the first person who emails me at with “I wanna go to the T.O. Gourmet Show” – send me your name, address (with postal code) and phone number; and you too could be joining all the other beloved “idiots” at the show.

A Taste Sensation …

I would have to say that most of the wines at the launch had passed between my lips before and I have written about them in other places; but tucked at the back of this year’s launch venue, Jacob & Company (12 Brant Street in Toronto), were bottles of Fresita … a wine soon to be launched at an LCBO near you (October 16th officially). Described as Chilean sparkling wine made from mainly Chardonnay grapes then infused with a dosage of strawberries from Patagonia … one word describes it: luscious. Flyers given out with this beverage claim that it is aimed primarily at the female market, but I thought it a delicious tasting sparkler for any occasion to be enjoyed by all … where I think it has the leg up for woman it in the beautiful red colour, which just means it’d be perfect for the holiday season ahead. Interested? Look for Fresita ($13.95 – #56697 – 750ml or $14.95 - #56705 – 4x187ml).

Hungarian Renaissance Tasting – October 23, 2007

On Tuesday it was off for lunch and a formal tasting of some Hungarian wine. Hungary is best known for its’ Aszu wines: sweet dessert wines that can range in sugar content from 60 grams per liter all the way to 180 grams per liter; after that it’s Esszencia which can range from 180-800 grams … that’s a lot of sweetness – some Esszencia can be as thick as syrup but the aromas and flavours that come out are outstandingly beautiful. These wines come from a region called Tokaj; you may have even seen Tokaji on a label of those cute 500ml bottles – the “i” just signifies “from the region of” – so Tokaj is the region and ‘i’ is just the indicator. These wines are all made from local grapes, Furmint making up 60% of the grown varieties in the area, with Harslevelu making up another 30 … that leaves only 10% for grapes such as Sarga Muskotaly, Zeta, Koverszolo and others. Very few plantings of more well-known vinefera grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah are planted – and if they are it’s for private home-winemaking use only. Don’t try to tackle those local grapes names on your own, had they not put them up on the overhead at the front of the room I wouldn’t have ever understood them as grape varieties or even as real words, let alone known how to spell them. It was like they were speaking a foreign language (which they were).

Hungary is all about white wines, or it seems that way, I’m sure somebody somewhere in the country is making red, we just didn’t see or taste any on this day. The two main types are dry and really sweet, with some in the middle (like late harvest). Dry comes in the form of Furmint with its mainly apple and peach aromas and tastes; then depending on its exposure to oak it will take on other aromas and flavours. With less oak the fruitiness dominates on the nose and palate with crisp acidity; with oak it can develop a round smoothness with cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg in varying degrees depending on its length of stay in barrel … some producers even pride themselves on using Hungarian oak (which is becoming more popular worldwide).

The second main type of wine, and the one you’ll see most often, are the Tokaji Aszu wines which are sweet dessert style wines that start out with a dry base wine and then small barrels (called puttonyos) of botrytis affected grapes are added to the wine to cause a secondary fermentation … the more puttonyos the sweeter the wine. Aszu wines start at 3 and go up to 6. These wines are extraordinary, with smells ranging from dried apple, peach, apricot and tangerine to toffee, caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla, depending on the amount of sweetness in the wine. The tastes are similar to the smells you get and are creamy and thick in the mouth, they can even develop pepper and woodsy undertones from the barrels they are aged in.

There was also a delicious late harvest Harslevelu wine on display this afternoon, made without the use of oak. The smells were fresh tropical fruits and floral notes with apples, peaches and tropical pineapple in the mouth with a creamy texture and light finish. This was my favourite because it straddled the two extremes (dry vs. sweet).

Speaking of extremes these wines have two very different life cycles. The dries aren’t meant to drink when they are young and fresh, while the sweeties have a lifespan longer than some humans – they’ll age beautifully for decades. Think of them as the poor-man’s Sauterne (meaning, they are much more easily affordable and last just as long).

Hungary is making some excellent sweeties (always has) and with an influx of cash, modernization and know-how into the country, there truly is a renaissance and revitalization in their wines and this area. So look for them on the shelves in Vintages at the LCBO and take one for a test tonguing – you’re sure to enjoy it. As for the dry wines, look for a good value white and take it for a spin, it’s always worth a new experience in the world of wine.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stem Wine Group Tasting – October 22, 2007

I stopped into the Stem tasting after the Port tasting (earlier that day) even though I was pretty Old World wined out (that and some bad blue cheese that was just not sitting right). Stem’s portfolio is about ¾ Old World (Europe) with 90% of that coming from Italy with a little Spain and Greece thrown in for variety. The other quarter is split fairly evenly between Australia and the U.S. (California). Also much of the Stem list is well above my usual “like to purchase” mark of $20. During my brief tasting I found a few wines as good buys, a few pricey-tasties and a wine for $22.95 that over-delivered compared with its price.

Good Buys …

From Puglia (Italy) comes this Ca’del Duge 2006 Primitivo IGT ($11.95) with monstrous fruit and biting tannins: this one needs some time to settle down and will last comfortably for 5 years plus – and even though you’ll have to buy 12 you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy them.

From Greece comes two good buys, one red, one white, both from Ktima Lantides. The 2005 Icon Riditis ($14.95) is a fruit driven white with lots of melon and a hint of spritz on the tongue, while the 2005 Icon Agiorgitiko ($14.95) its red companion, boasts candied red fruit with a little bite on the tongue … and what an awesomely delicious nose. [All three above wines available in 12 packs]

Pricey-Tasties …

How’s about a $95 Barolo from 1997, the ‘Villero’ DOCG has a rich fruit and licorice nose with touches of nutmeg and spice. A palate ripe with black fruit, herbs and spices … a 10 year old wine that’s still going strong and will for years to come.

Another wine that’ll stand the test of time is the 2004 ‘Dromos’ IGT ($74.95); big bold and spicy red fruit kick start this one in the front palate, while chocolate notes persist in the back. There’s good oak integration in here and plenty of tannins making it an ideal candidate for some aging or a decanter, if indulging now.

Australia has their share of pricey reds and this David Franz Lehmann 2002 ‘Alexander’s Reward’ – Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon ($54.95) is one that’s good for the price. Franz makes both a stand-alone Shiraz and Sauv, both at the same price, but the combination of these two is more than the sum of its parts. Black fruit, hickory, chocolate and pepper hit the nose; there’s a lush start in the mouth as it integrates all those aromas into flavours then as it pushes through it finishes with a peppery-spiciness … delicious. Needs time to smooth out further, but this one’s quite tasty now. [The above three wines are available in 6 packs].

For $22.95 this is a Steal …

It’s from California, incorporates Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo and is “Rock Solid” in taste. Bishop’s Peak 2004 Rock Solid Red is just what you should be looking for in a California blend … interesting grapes and interesting flavours at a price you can afford. This one has rich red fruits, like cherries, along with some mocha that riddles the nose. In the mouth it’s smooth and easy drinking with enough tannins and acidity to give it some longevity, and the pepper and candied red fruit make it interesting going in, through and down … this was my pick of the night in the value to taste ratio category. [Above wine available in 12 packs].

Contact Stem Wine Group for ordering details,

Tasting of Port and Douro Wines - October 22, 2007

Port … to wine lovers it has nothing to do with fish, boats or huddled masses seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. It’s about sweet, supple wines with 20% alcohol. Words like Tawny, Vintage, Ruby, 10-, 20- and 30-years old adorn the labels. Names like Fladgate, Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s and Sandeman get palates salivating for dark chocolate, almonds and blue cheese. Flavours of cherries, plums, tangerine, hazelnuts and countless others fill both the nose and the mouth. And, of course, real Port means Portugal – like Champagne, Sherry, Tokay and Sauternes, Port has a particular region of the world to call home … and that’s where they make those potent, delicious and intoxicating elixirs. But Portugal is not just about Port wines, as the Port and Douro tasting proved – though some of the most memorable moments are of sipping the sweet red and amber nectars.

Portugal is not only about red wines they do make whites wine too, but when 85% of your show is stained red, those are the wines you concentrate on. We’ll kick off this look at Port and Douro wines with the still table wines then move onto the Ports themselves. Finally, I will tell you my best of show winner … a table that was a must visit.

Kicking it off in the Red …
You will notice the flavours and smells of Portuguese red wines have some similarities to Port, that’s because they use some of the same grapes they make port with to make their red table wines, and you can find some very good reds coming out of this part of the world at very reasonable prices.

There’s the Jose Viseu Carvalho & Filhos 2003 CSE Reserva ($19.00 – Alivin Inc.) with its smooth cherry, chocolate, plum and spice notes. There’s also one of my favourites that’s still kicking around the LCBO (in Vintages), Sogrape’s Callabriga 2003 Red ($18.95) – spicy plum, black cherry, pepper with a creamy smooth mouth-appeal along with some earth and spice notes that hang out an extra long time. The same wine made in the Reserva style ($34.95) brings more anise and pepper into the mix with some oaky-cedaryness and mucho ageability. (Charlton & Hobbs Inc.)

I tried a Quinta do Crasto Reserva ($30 – Vintages March 1, 2008) that was heads and tails above its non-reserve counterpart. The fruit comes from 70 year old vines and spends 18 months in French and American oak giving it smoke, black fruit and cinnamon flavours and aromas. Best value red of the show was the Vinhos Romanz VQPRD 2005 Red ($9.65 – Golden Anchor Imports Inc.) – strawberry, cherry and licorice on the nose, with an enjoyable in-mouth feel of smoothness and lots of red fruit, herbs and spice … all for under $10 – it’s a bargain.

Of course there are also high priced reds and the VT’05 ($56) was tight and young, but stunning (sounds like Britney Spears in her “Baby One More Time” days). Each vintage of this wine spends 18 months in new French oak and it’s the only wine this winery makes, so you have to know their heart and soul goes into each and every bottle. Black fruit and cocoa were the only aromas I could pick up, but the mouth had cassis, blackberries, cedar, and good acidity with balanced tannins. Another 5-plus years of aging will do it some good for opening up … and in a decade it will still be going strong.

Interesting and Different …
Favaios (currently seeking an agent) has four interesting sweet “Moscatels”, 3 of which were very enjoyable – the fourth tasted similar to the first. A fruity, apricot and pear dominated Aperitif ($21), a 10-year-old version ($52.50) which was an interesting combination of fresh fruit with sherry-like nuances, and a vintage 1989 ($63) tasted like a sweet sherry.

On to the Port …
Port is the mainstay of this show and it’s what brings most of the people out. Its those sweet succulent cherry flavours, nutty almond nuances and those in-your-face dried fruits that lure us through the door; and every producer in the room knows it, because everyone makes one. One person turned to me at the show and said, “once you’ve tasted one Port you’ve pretty much tasted them all … problem is, they’re all good.” I would agree to some extent … but it’s also why the stunners really stick out.

I tasted two from Sandeman, which were lovely – first, the Sandeman Ruby Port ($15.45 – LCBO) a sweet, easy drinker with cherries, plum and cinnamon all wrapped up in a smooth delivery. More interesting is the Sandeman Vau Vintage 2000 ($51.95 – LCBO) – a vintage port made to drink sooner. Fresh and fruity with the tannic bite of Vintage Port, but to a lesser degree. Let’s call this one an over-dressed teenage Port, it’s meant to seem older than it is.

How about the gold medal winner at the Austrian show, Vinhos Romariz Reserva Latina ($18.95 – Golden Anchor Imports Inc.) is loaded with nutty-dried peach (and other dried fruits) almonds and a little smokiness thrown in for good measure.

A perennial favourite is Fonseca Bin 27 Reserve Port ($16.95 - #156877) always enjoyable with its smooth, rich and delicious flavours of sweet red fruit; it’s one of those ones you swear you’ve tasted a hundred times before … but it’s worth every penny.

Symington Family Estates, bringers of Silva & Cosens, Smith Woodhouse, Graham’s and Warre’s have two on my list that are worth your drinking dimes. Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port ($28.15 – LCBO) has nutty apricot aromas that follow-up in the mouth along with almonds, hazelnuts and orange peel. Then there’s everybody’s Christmas favourite (I say that because during the holidays it seems to be more prominently displayed at the LCBO), Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny ($22.95 - #566174 – 500ml). Sweet, lush, nutty, orange peel, apricots, dried fruits – everything you’d expect from a good 10-year-old Tawny and then some.

Another on the general list is Quinta do Portal LBV 2001 ($22.60 – LCBO) with its lush black fruit, dark cherry, sweet chocolate and light tannins that blanket the tongue in succulence.

Stole the Show …
I mentioned to someone that they should end at this booth (Table 17) because, “once you’re tried this stuff the show is pretty much over for you.” Quinta do Infantado is an A list vineyard in Portugal (the highest rating a vineyard can have) and everything I tried was of exceptional quality, and the shocker was the price: all very reasonable, especially for what was in the bottle. Starting with the 2005 Douro Red ($21.95 - #681486 – private order) – elegant and smooth with black fruit, cherries and cinnamon on the nose; cherry, plum and red fruit dominated with an elegance and finesse unparalleled in the room on this day … wow! The late bottled vintage, LBV 2004 ($28.95 - #680223 – private order) was smooth as silk with a lush dark fruit finish and tons of black cherry. Finally, the real show stopper – Infantado Ruby Port ($15.95 - #979898 – private order) is an absolute steal at that price ($15.95) for this quality Ruby: sweet cherries and milk chocolate, fresh clean crisp acidity that flows through the mouth with sip-appeal which keeps you craving more … dark chocolate is the perfect match for this one. If you’re looking for any of these three wines contact MCO … Interesting Wines and Spirits (905-562-1392) or petition the LCBO to put them on their shelves … I know I’d be buying them.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Report from: Taste! The County – October 6, 2007

On a rainy, muggy Saturday afternoon 47 different vendors, restaurants, wineries, breweries, et al got together for Taste! in Picton. Billed as “a celebration of regional cuisine” Taste! has come a long way from a 6 winery / 6 restaurant show. Now the wineries (9 were in attendance) are far outnumbered by the restaurants, chocolatiers, mustard and dip makers and a variety of other vendors selling and showcasing their wares. This is the show where the whole of Prince Edward County gets to shine. You can sample foods like ravioli, pulled pork, apple fritters, Italian fish and chips, County-style fish and chips, mini-burgers, cheeses and countless other delicacies all made fresh on the spot, or within the County, and focusing on local: local produce and local products. It’s at this event that the wine has really taken a backseat to all the other draws of the County: although they still have throwback awards for the best wine and food pairings.

The event is held on the grounds of, and inside, Picton’s Crystal Palace, which is a beautiful venue, but on this rainy afternoon the venue, as it is set up now, showed its limitations. People were packed in like sardines and there was little room to move inside; as the mugginess outside increased the Palace became like a steam bath and with all the hussle-and-bussle from the food preparation I’m surprised that some of the folks inside didn’t pass-out. Also with such a throng of people I know I didn’t get to see all the vendors and booths I wanted to. As the rain cleared out so did the building, as people ventured outside, but with the threat of more rain looming people stayed close to shelter, instead of spreading out around the grounds.

While last year’s event was drenched in sunshine, this year’s event got drenched with rain, but this year was a celebration of how far The County has come in such a short period of time. This year’s event was bigger (more vendors/booths) and was much better attended, but The Crystal Palace, although beautiful, could not accommodate the crowds once the rain hit. The booths seemed squashed so close together, they had the look of being right on top of one another; some got missed entirely.

My opinions are varied about the venue … the event is always a treat and worth the drive; but I think it should be spread out over a couple of days and more tented areas should be placed around the grounds – giving vendors more space to operate and giving people more access to them and more walking room to enjoy their sample. That said Prince Edward County is a place truly to be experienced and one only touches the tip of the iceberg at Taste! … there is so much more to discover and experience throughout the region and one day just doesn’t do it justice. With The County scene expanding by leaps and bounds so too should their venue for this event. Get people to make a weekend of it, so that they can experience more.

Honourable Food Mentions …

With so much to see and do, and such a crush of people, it became difficult to experience things with any kind of real pleasure without someone pushing through, bumping you or just genuinely ruining your Zen moment. But sometimes something came along that broke through the barrier and even within a crowd it allowed you to be in your own little world, if just for a few moments, be it food, wine or whatever that moment allowed … these two places cut through the throng:

The Funky Carp II – waterfront restaurant and patio in Picton (35 Bridge Street) – something so simple yet so delicious: Italian Fish and Chips. Basically, in layman’s terms, it boiled down to this: a potato chip topped with cream cheese and breaded perch – they of course gave each piece a different name (i.e.: potato chip became potato crisp) but the taste combination was amazing.

Milford Bistro in Milford (3048 County Road 10) – Chocoholics like myself would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven when they tasted Milford’s Double Chocolate Fudge … so exquisite it’s hard to put it into words, but let’s just say all who tried it had to lick the paper it was presented on, and their fingers, clean. Chocolate Nirvana would have been a more appropriate name for this little piece of heaven.

Report from: Niagara Wine Festival (passport program) – September 29-30, 2007

Last Niagara Festival (New Vintages Festival) I rated the wineries based on their value for offering with respect to the new-style passport program. Before I continue let me explain the new way versus the old way. The old way you bought a passport and could visit as many wineries as you wished taking advantage of what they had on offer for the program (food pairing, new vintage wine tasting, tour, etc.). The new way is called a “winery experience” – you buy your passport and only have 5 tear-off tickets, which you surrender to each winery you visit when you take advantage of what they are offering. The new way forces you to be more selective with the wineries you visit, thus you want to make sure you are getting bang-for-your-buck (afterall you can only visit 5). The old way you paid $30 and had free reign to visit whomever you wished … the new way you pay $30 and can visit 5 wineries, and, if you do the math, they had better be doling out something worth a minimum of a $6 experience. The flipside of the new way is that those without passports pay $10 for the “experience” – so the passport becomes the more economical way. The old way, the passport you bought was only good for 1 of the 2 weekends of the festival; the new way your passport is good throughout the length of the festival.

Now, for what I am about to write I might just lose my ticket privileges for any upcoming festival (Icewine, New Vintages) but someone has to say it … the new way really stinks; and the folks in the Grape and Wine Festival hierarchy better find a newer way to deal with the passport program or get rid of it entirely, because it just isn’t working right and its turning people off. This time round I am not going to rate the wineries on their value of their “experience”, because many are working with an antiquated way of thinking when it comes to these events, they are thinking ‘old way’, when they should be thinking “experience”; or better yet, they should be asking themselves, “what would I pay $10 for, or at least six?” And now I ask, was the new way thrust upon them or did they all buy into it from the beginning – no one has told me either way, but let’s delve into this thing a little deeper, shall we?

Last time I gave out value awards based on whether the “experience” was worth your 10 or 6 dollars, depending on whether our not you were holding a passport ($6) or walking in fresh off the street (min. $10). This time very few I visited would have received a passing grade. So I looked instead at the system they are working within. Each winery had to develop something worth $10 and call it an “experience”; basically it had to be something the public would be willing to shell out $10 for. Some fell so far short I’m ashamed to name them: Magnotta (prosciutto on a crostini paired with a splash of three wines); Stoney Ridge (try 2 of 4 pre-release wines for free); Hernder (bread dipper, 6 half pieces of French bread, with a glass of Riesling) – these were nowhere near $6 values, let alone $10, or as in the case of Hernder they would have charged you $15 if you just walked off the street. 15 dollars for what? The privilege of sitting on their patio?

Wineries like Flat Rock (4 cheese with 4 wine pairing); Maleta (nibbly platter and three new wines); Inniskillin (potato and rosemary pizza and glass of Merlot) and Riverview (taste the raw grapes that the wines came from) at least came close to equaling the minimum $6 standard and/or provided an “experience”; whether I would have paid $10 for any of them is another story.

Then we have those that tried to deliver, but got caught up in the bureaucracy or logistics of what they were trying to do. Peller had a vineyard tour, which sounded great, “exploring the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes [while touring through the vineyard]”, but the logistics happened to be a 45 minute tour at either 1pm and 3pm, and if you were off those hours then they had nothing else for you – plus if they filled up, you got bupkis. Speaking of filling up, Hillebrand had an Artisan Cheese and Wine Tasting seminar … they had expanded the schedule from the published 1:30 and 4:30 time slots to include more classes, but when I arrived at 12:30 they were booking for 3:00 … I had no idea where I was going to be at 3:00, nor would I hang around for 2 and a half hours and wait – plus the girls behind the desk were a bit flustered and frustrated as to how to accept tickets for the event and how many.

I dropped by Pillitteri and learned that their trolley tour was scheduled every hour on the hour, reservations required, but drop-ins were welcome. Charles Pillitteri informed me that they could run them every 15 minutes, if necessary, “if we get that busy we just put on another trolley; we don’t want to disappoint anybody.” After their tour of the vineyard they go upstairs for a tasting, finished off with icewine. You heard it here folks, every 15 minutes if necessary, now that makes sense, that cuts down on the wait time, and who can’t stick around for 15 minutes to wait for the next train – sure beats the 2 and a half hours I would have waited at Hillebrand or 2 at Peller.

One winery told me, “It’s a logistical nightmare, I have to stagger shift my staff for the park because we’re there for upwards of 12 hours; as well as having to over-staff the winery. Then I have to come up with something creative for passport holders. We’re busier this year than last, and we participated in the program last year; but this year I don’t have the stock or need the staffing hassle.”

I have also talked with a number of people who have taken part in the old passport program and the new “winery experience” program – and trust me when I tell you, each one, to a person, enjoyed the old way better. The new way there is more of a chance of feeling ripped off (“I gave up one of my tickets for that?!?” / “I paid $10 for that?!?”). I understand the need to improve and move forward with the program, but there just has to be a better way or the wineries have to think outside the old box. For $10 the old standby of a simple food and wine pairing just doesn’t fly – it has to be more exotic. The tours are nice, but people aren’t gonna stick around for hours to take them … you have to have other options for them if they don’t. Some wineries were offering $10 off a dinner/meal as an option … not sure how well that goes over as I didn’t take anyone up on it … though I’m sure the dinners were spectacular, most barrel/winemaker’s dinners are, but is that really something for the passport program?

Now admittedly, I didn’t get to every winery – heck with two passports I could only hit 10, and that was only if the winery allowed me to share the experience with a friend, otherwise I forked over two tickets per. I call on the Grape and Wine Festival to look over their passport program, re-evaluate the changes, talk to their members and participating wineries, get their feedback; as well as that of the public, those who have experience both ways, as to their likes and dislikes. As mentioned, I know many loyal Ontario winery fans and wine drinkers who are put off by the new structure and will not be participating if it continues the way it is; some have already dropped out with more doing it next time. Will they be listened to? Will I? Time will tell … I truly hope they do, because it’s a shame to see such a wonderful idea (passport program) and lively group of festivals get a blemish like this.

Report from: Australia Regional Heroes Wine Tasting – September 27, 2007

This year the Australian Tasting held in Toronto wanted to highlight the regions of Australia as well as the wine – putting the focus on where the wine comes from and showing the distinct differences the wine of certain regions have. Australia breaks itself in 63 wine regions within their 7 territories: Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Tasmania. Only the Northern Territory has no definable wine regions (or wineries) and Queensland had no representation at the show; while South Australia, with its 17 regions, had the most representation (35). Surprisingly, Victoria, with its 21 regions, had only 8 wineries to represent it. Not surprising is that most of my selections come from South Australia (11) with one each from Victoria and Western Australia; proving that if you send the most, you get the most.

Western Australia …

Hamelin Bay (Margaret River) had a delicious blend called Rampant Red ($22.95 – consignment: Thompson Vintage Trade Ltd.) a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon (64%), Shiraz (21%) and Merlot (15%) that had a smooth red fruit base with some spicy black fruit characteristics – very enjoyable.

Victoria …

De Bortoli (Yarra Valley) has what might be one of the most delicious dessert wines ever to come out of Oz. Black Noble Botrytised Semillon ($38.95 - #677104). Semillon is a white grape, but after being matured in small oak barrels for 8 years, the wine has become dark in colour, has a tawny port-like look, sweetness and taste, with a long nutty almond finish. Simply scrumptious. Release: April 12, 2008 thru Vintages.

South Australia …

This coming spring (2008) keep your eyes peeled for Gemtree Vineyards (McLaren Vale) 2006 Uncut Shiraz ($26.50 - #627844). This marvelous wines stands out in the crowded world of Australian Shiraz. The Uncut stands for unfined, unfiltered, untouched, and basket pressing of the best grapes. Gemtree uses state of the art technology to choose the grapes for this wine, flying over their 360 acres of vineyard (with its 28 soil types to get special aerial photographs of the grapes to show them the ripeness of each vine. This allows them to pick only the best grapes: the best row, the best plant, right down to the best bunch to make this outstanding wine. 15 months spent in new oak (80% French – 20% American), and the flavours just pop both on the nose and in the mouth: vanilla, cinnamon, black fruit, anise, black pepper, white pepper, and other spices. This one should see stores in 2008 (spring). Like more of a fruit bomb in your Shiraz then check out Gemtree’s other offering, Bloodstone ($17.95 - #22111) lots of candied fruit with a hint of pepper.

I was ready to write Kangarilla Road’s (McLaren Vale) 2005 Shiraz ($22.00 – Rogers & Company) off as typical when I put the glass to my nose, but then I took a sip – sweet cherry fruit and pepper makes this one exciting in the mouth.

I’m sad to report that the LCBO has made a huge error in judgment; one of my favourite Australian producers, Nepenthe (Adelaide Hills), will not be seeing their shelves this year. I guess the wines sold too quickly, people liked them too much, or the quality was just too good. Whatever their reasoning you won’t be seeing The Rogue ($19.95) blend of Cab, Shiraz and Merlot that has become so popular; or Tryst ($15.95), a spectacular blend of Cabernet, Tempranillo and Zinfandel that had black cherry, plum and chocolate nuances in the nose with good white pepper, cola, vanilla and cherry in the mouth. It also represented good value at $15.95 – check with the Merchant Vintner if you want some of either, they’ll be happy to sell it to you instead.

I didn’t find a great deal of Merlot to recommend, but the Parker Coonawarra Estate (Coonawarra) 2004 Terra Rossa Merlot ($36.95 - #678581) stood out from those I did try with its chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon nose; peppery-cinnamon taste … quite lush in the mouth.

Paxton Vineyards (McLaren Vale) 2005 AAA Shiraz Grenache ($24.95 – Diamond Estates Wine & Spirits) was a bit pricey for my taste, but my taste also liked the smooth yet spicy black fruit, easy drinking style and rich feel in the mouth.

Not many white wines on display, I would say the ratio red to white was somewhere in the range of 3 or 4 to 1. Pike Wines (Clare Valley) was an anomaly showing off 3 whites and only 1 red. Their 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($16.95 – Authentic Wine & Spirits) had a nice ripe melon and grapefruit nose, in the mouth the grapefruit continued but lacked the bracing acidity you’d expect; its finish was quite dry though. Their 2006 Riesling ($16.95 – Authentic Wine & Spirits) was a pleasant surprise. Fresh peach upfront with a light lime zing of refreshment in the mouth – also with a very dry finish.

If you’re looking for unpretentious and delicious, Shingleback (McLaren Vale) 2005 Red Knot Shiraz ($18.90 - #619395) could very well be your ticket: light, easy drinking, smooth with lots of plum and chocolate. Make no mistake about it, this is the kind of Shiraz everyone at the party will love.

I’ve been seeing Skillogalee’s (Clare Valley) label a lot lately … maybe it’s my mind playing tricks on me, but I think I’m seeing it everywhere. If I’m not I should be, because there wines are very impressive. The Non-Vintage Sparkling Riesling ($25.95) is made in the traditional method and spent 20 months on the lees in bottle – it has kept that fruity Riesling taste with all the fizz you could ask for. The still Riesling 2006 ($22.95) has lots of peach and other stone fruit on the nose, along with white peach and a lick of sweetness on the tongue. My favourite wine Skillogalee had on offer today had to be the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc Malbec blend ($24.95). This 75/20/5 mix of the three grapes mentioned, delivers raspberry, strawberry, red fruit and plum on the nose; while sending cola, rum, spicy pepper, good red fruit, plum and eucalyptus to the tongue; I found it very Zin like and really enjoyable. Skillogalee wines are available thru WorldWide Cellar; though keep a look out for them in the LCBO, I’m sure I’ve seen them there on occasion too.

One of the new touchstone wines of Australia is the Shiraz-Viognier blend. A touch of Viognier (fragrant white wine), usually not more that 5%, is added to the Shiraz to cut a bit of the spiciness and add some floral notes to the aromas of the wine – this is yet another wine type stolen from the French. Tatachilla (McLaren Vale) 2004 Keystone Shiraz-Viognier has all the right markings: pepper, plum, cinnamon and floral on the nose; while the mouth follows through on the promise of the nose with some extra spiciness; tasty and sippable. It should see Vintages shelves sometime in June 2008.

Finally, two wines from Thorn Clark Wines (Barossa Valley) – first the 2005 Shotfire Quartage ($19.95 – Saverio Schiralli Agencies Ltd.), the name might suggest 4 grapes, but winemaker Derek Fitzgerald told me he added a fifth when he took over the wine making reigns, “just to add some depth and complexity.” Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot (55/10/20/10/5) spend 18-20 months in 70% French oak. The finished wine is delightful – berries and chocolate, spices and herbs, yum. The 2005 Shotfire Shiraz ($24.40 – will see LCBO shelves in November) spends 16 months in 70% American oak, 20% of which is new. Crop thinning for this grape is the norm, bringing in only the best fruit. Combined (oak and fruit) to give the wine good longevity in bottle. Pepper, black and red fruit, rich and mouthfilling. Look for this as a November purchase at Vintages for sure.