Friday, December 26, 2008

Drinking with Dave - Part 1 ... December 26, 2008

Dave is a wine merchant in Michigan (at Champane‘s Wine Cellars in Warren), for the record I do not owe him money, he is not my bookie, he does not own a piece of anything I am involved with nor do I own a piece of his life. We do not owe each other a favour, our daughter’s don’t go to the same school, our wives are not in a bridge club together. His mom does not know my mom, his dad was not in the French Foreign Legion with my pop - nor in any other legion, gang, group or club. We are not related in any way and have no other reason to get together other than the fact that we each have a love for wine; Dave reads my newsletter (and I his email blasts from Champane’s). Over the past year he has invited me down a few times to taste wines with him; this year I was finally down long enough to take advantage of his hospitality.

December 26, 2008 … While most off my fellow countrymen are off taking advantage of Boxing Day deals, I find myself visiting Dave Burzynski at Champane’s Wine Cellars in Michigan (they don’t have Boxing Day down here … odd). I like visiting Dave cause he shows me wines that we can’t get over the border (or don’t get), at prices I know would be half of what we would pay. He greets me warmly and comments, “thanks for forwarding me your newsletters, I like reading your stuff,” he finishes his greeting with a slight lament, “but it’s all Canadian, and we don’t get that much stuff from you guys down here.” I respond with, “if it’s international you’re after check out my Vintages release report or the On the Road with the Grape Guy section - but what I should really do is bring down some Ontario stuff so you know what you’re missing.”

The niceties out of the way Dave leads me around the store like an obedient puppy dog, pointing out his favourite bottles of this and that, a 1999 Merlot ($12.99), 2006 Zinfandels, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Rock & Vine, a Miser-ly red for a mere $7.99 that’s been deemed “fantastic” by many of his regulars and various other treats all for under $15 ... my cart fills fast. After a dozen or so recommendations I pick six or seven to make up the case I will purchase.

It’s time to taste. Dave takes me back to his “office”. “When I got it it was just four walls,” he tells me, “I added a little of this and a little of that along the way and …” he trails off. A tasting bar covers the back half of the room along with proper bottle storage racks. The bar is glass covered and underneath are a plethora of labels. The room is cold, but a good temperature for wine. Today Dave pours us each a glass of Slaley Hunting Family 2003 Pinotage from South Africa that was opened on Wednesday (it is Friday). Dave confirms that when it was opened it did have that typical South Africa smell, but some 2 days later this wine is delicious and spicy with gobs of white pepper on the nose. There is some residual “South Africa stink”, but it is in the background on both the nose and palate; what shows most right now is the blackberries and cassis - and of course the white pepper. Dave confides in me that this bottle isn’t even in the marketplace right now, but he is hopeful of having it on his shelf sometime in the early part of the New Year, and for a very reasonable $12.99.

We’ll be checking back with Dave next week to see what other interesting bottles he has open, if not then we‘ll surely be back later in the year to see what other kinds of finds he can show me.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Report from ... Italian Wine Tasting - November 03, 2008

For lovers of Italian wine the first Monday in November is a sacred day. It's the annual Italian Trade Commission’s tasting of Italian wine, lots and lots of Italian wine. Upon entering Roy Thomson Hall you get your tasting glass and a 252-page booklet listing the wines available to try. Sure the wines are listed on every second page, but that’s still 126-pages worth of wine, and with an average of five wines per page you can see that's a lot of tasting to do.

My recent trip to Italy (Piedmont: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4) allowed me to skip some of the Piedmontese wines, having been immersed in this style for four days. Today I tried to focus on one of my favorite wine style, Valpolicella, namely Ripasso ... but one gets too easily sidetracked at the show and soon you taste whatever is being poured your way. Below is a listing of my favorites (of the wines I was able to try) and some observations on the day.

The show was subtitled: Innovators by Tradition, which of course is the Italian way of wine. Over the years they have been the inventors of some of the most beloved and collected wines: Ripasso (repassing or refermenting wine using the skins of a fuller bodied wine: Amarone); Moscato d’Asti (grapy, fruity, fizzante, low alcohol, light bodied white wine with some sweetness); Barolo, Brunello, Amarone and countless other original wines.

Observation 1 … I love Asti, it's light and fruity with a whole bunch of grapiness and it’s just a pleasure to drink. I must have tried close to a dozen, and each one I tried had the exact same note as the previous one (see above) ... though I did notice that the lower the alcohol the higher the price.

Observation 2 … This is a traveling wine show that hits five cities in ten days ... sometimes certain wines, or certain wineries, were only showing up in certain cities -typically, some of the wines I had highlighted were only available in Calgary or Vancouver - bummer.

Observation 3 … So many wines, so little time. With only a few hours to cover over 500 wines one had to specialize - therefore my focus became Veneto (Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone specifically) and various wines of Puglia (namely Primitivo, Zinfandel’s Italian cousin).

Best of Ripasso …

Gerardo Cesari Valpolicella DOC Mara Superiore Ripasso 2006 ($16.80 – general list) -good value with its smooth black fruit and low-to-know tannins.

Premium Wine Selection Valpolicella DOC Ripasso Le Arche 2006 ($17.95 - vintages December 6) - smooth with its plum, blackberry, vanilla and a touch of cola … tasty.

Best of Amarone …

Marchesi Fumanelli Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC Classico 2004 ($64 – Vintages in 2009) – grapes dried for three-plus months, three years in French barrique, big 15% alcohol, sweet entry to the mouth, nice cherry, plum and chocolate - silky smooth palate with just the nearest hint of tannins on the finish. Favorite of the show.

Roncolato Antonio Amarone Valpolicella DOC Carnero 2005 ($49.95 - private order) -single vineyard grapes taken from highest elevation on property, 40-day fermentation, only 10-to-15,000 bottles produced annually (depending on the vintage) … blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, plum, absolutely delicious - tied for favorite.

The Masi 3 … Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico DOC:
Costasera 2005 ($37.45 – general list) – beautiful dark fruit with good tannin structure.
Riserva di Costasera 2003 ($59.95 – consignment) - which adds up big dose of chocolate to the above.
Serego Alighiere Vaio Amarone 2003 ($77.95 – Vintages, December 6) - single vineyard wine that piles on the plums and rough tannins, age 5 before even thinking of drinking .

Premium Wine Selection Valpolicella DOC Amarone Le Arche 2005 ($44.95 - Vintages January 03, 2009) - sweet red fruit, cinnamon on mid-palate, good dry black fruit and tannins on the finish.

Zonin Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC 2005 ($49.95 – Vintages, December 2008) - this one's fruit driven and very consumable right now.

Best of Primitivo …

Feudi di San Marzone Primitivo di Manduria DOC Sessantanni 2005 ($32.95 – consignment) - outstanding Zin-knock off made from 60 year old vines - rich dark fruit, plums, chocolate, juicy long supple finish loading with cherries.

Casa Girelli Puglia IGT Canaletto Primitivo di Puglia 2005 ($12.95 - general list) - great value an everyday drinkers for Zin-lovers … plum, chocolate with a touch of herbs, spices and a vanilla note.

Best of Other Wines … not on the agenda but still impressive:

Banfi Sant’Antimo DOC Excelsus ($83.95 – 60% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Merlot) -plum, licorice and new leather that's just loaded with spices.

Barbi Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2006 ($18.95 – 100% Sangiovese) - very supple with plenty of red fruit and herbs.

Rocca di Frassinello Maremma Toscana IGT Le Sughere ($56.00 – Vintages – 50% Sangiovese / 25% Cabernet Sauvignon / 25% Merlot) - smooth and fruity, red fruit with a dominant herb quality ... big tannins and good acidity back this one up.

Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria DOC Ben Rye 2007 (100% Zibibbo) – aka Muscat of Alexandria, this wine is made in an Amarone-style, but with white grapes … beautiful dried apricot, peach and an apple finish - nice touch of sweetness ends this one off nicely.

Masottina Colli di Conegliano DOC “Montesco” Rossa ($47.00 – consignment – 47% Cabernet Sauvignon / 30% Merlot / 13% Cabernet Franc / 10% Marzemino) - red and black fruit with spiced mocha undertones.

Michele Satta Bolgheri e Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC 2007 ($32.00 – consignment – 30% Cabernet Sauvignon / 30% Sangiovese / 20% Merlot / 10% Syrah / 10% Teroldego) - fresh fruity and juicy with plums on the finish.

Pinino Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2003 ($65.95 – Vintages - 100% Sangiovese) -nice spice quality with hints of dried black fruit.

Planeta Sicilia IGT Segreta Bianco 2007 ($15.95 – consignment – 50% Grecanico Dorato / 30% Chardonnay / 10% Fiano / 10% Other) - sweet fruit with a pineapple finish.

San Felice Toscana IGT Vigorello 2003 ($60.00 - 45% Sangiovese / 40% Cabernet Sauvignon / 15% Merlot) – herbs and spice with a touch of black fruit and licorice.

Tenimenti Angelini Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Trerose 2005 ($23.95 – Vintages – 90% Prugnolo Gentile / 5% Canaiolo / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon) – plumy, chocolaty and smooth.

Tenuta di Toscana Lucente 2006 Toscana IGT ($34.95 – Vintages – 50% Merlot / 15% Cabernet Sauvignon / 35% Sangiovese) - nice nose, spiced blackberry mid, herbed finish.

Report from ... Cynthia’s Selections & Ex-Cellars Tasting - November 27, 2008

Pooling resources, two small agents took to the fifth floor of the Flatiron Building in downtown Toronto, in a dentist's office of all places, to let some media, restaurant owners and clients sip through their portfolios of hand selected, small lot wines from California, France, Spain and other parts of the winemaking world. In all 32 wines were poured -nineteen from Cynthia, thirteen from Ex-Cellar; below is my proportional top wine lists (six and four respectively).

Cynthia’s Selections …

Handley Cellars 2007 Gewurztraminer ($28.00 - private order) - big rosy, floral nose with a tropical fruit background; the palate screams Gewurzt with its rows and rows of floral notes … you might want to give this one a bit of time to mellow out those flowers.

Graziano Coro Mendocino 2004 Zinfandel ($40.00 - private order) - this one is easy on the palate, but watch out for the 14.5% alcohol – jammy, plumy and loads of cherry.

Vinoce Mt. Veeder 2005 Cabernet Blend ($85.00 - private order) - a blend of 60% Franc, 25% Sauv and 15% Merlot, this wine is pricey but exceptionally good drinking. Nice black fruit, chocolate and pepper notes - the balance in the mouth is very good. Someone described it as "sex in a glass” not totally accurate, but not far off.

Cedarville Vineyard 2005 Zinfandel ($25.00 – consignment) - big black fruit, plumy and jammy with good tannins - the finish doles out cherry and rum and big alcohol at 15.5%.

Wedgetail Estate 2004 Pinot Noir ($35.00 – consignment) - nice red fruit with strawberry and raspberry notes and a silkiness in the mouth.

Cedarville Vineyards 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($38.00 – consignment) – big fruit driven Cali-cab with blackberry, cassis and chocolate with a spicy big exotic finish.

Ex-Cellars … (

Domaine des Quarres 2005 Les Pierres Noires ($23.00) - crisp and light with a predominance of pear fruit ... a beautiful finish ends this one nicely.

Andrew Pirie 2005 Pinot Noir ($39.00) - this beauty from Tasmania has sour cherry, vanilla and cranberry on the nose while earthy red berry and dry cranberry lead the way on the palate.

Domaine de la Charbonniere 2003 Les Hautes Brusquieres ($59.00) a complex Chateauneuf-du-Pape that's peppery and spicy, red fruit dominated with fine tannins, good weight and acidity. This one has elegance and finesse down pat.

O. Fournier 2002 Tempranillo-Malbec-Merlot ($38.00) - full bodied (14.5%) with big fruit (both black and red), vanilla and spice - a lovely sip from Argentina.

Report from ... Lailey Vineyard Pre-Launch / Futures Event - November 27, 2008

A small, intimate venue (Fine Wine Reserve – Toronto) was the scene for the small, intimate Lailey pre-launch and futures event … a chance for the big city friends-of-Lailey, who can't make it down to their annual winter open house in early December - to get a taste, and purchase, upcoming wines. Winemaker Derek Barnett was on hand to present the wines he called "some of the best wines I have ever made" - which is saying a lot, because he's been at it for over fifteen years and has made some pretty outstanding wines in his time, including wine of the year at the Ontario Wine Awards for his (I believe) 1998 Cabernet/Merlot (for Southbrook) – a feat that has yet to be matched (all other times it has been an icewine that has taken that prize).

Today a few oldies warmed up the palate for the newer offerings: 2007 Counterpoint White was on hand, 2007 Sauvignon Blanc and 2007 Niagara River Chardonnay - then it was on to the tank and barrel samples.

2007 Chardonnay Old Vines ($40.00 - release: February 28 – Cuvee weekend) - only four barrels were produced (approximately 95 cases) of this wine, made from vines planted in 1974. A mix of new French barrels (for both fermentation and aging), then moved into one and 2 year old barrels for another four months of seasoning. The nose is vanilla and butterscotch loaded, while the palate shows the fruit off quite well, mainly peach with buttery-vanilla and a titch of butterscotch. A little bottle age should settle this one down nicely and then it’s a keeper for the long haul, 10+ years.

2007 Pinot Noir Old Vines ($45.00 - release: February 28 – Cuvee weekend) - this 100-case offering marks the first time Barnett and Lailey have separated their oldest estate Pinot vines (planted 1994), and equaling less than an acre of fruit. Barrel treatment was in new French, long toast barrels for 15 months (both fermentation and aging). The nose has the typicity of Pinot Noir (minus the earthy aspect), sour cherry, red fruit and a touch of vanilla ... the palate is toasty and woody with cranberry, sour cherries and real big tannins. This is a wine that shows great potential and real finesse, though it'll need time to settle down. 2-3 years of aging minimum.

2007 Cabernet Franc ($30.00 - expected bottling: February/March, 2009) - this wine was fermented in three small batches and carefully basket pressed, then blended and barreled. By the time of its expected bottling it will have spent sixteen to eighteen months in a mix of French (95%) and American (5%) oak. Today, it has a subtle nose of cherry, tobacco, cassis and blackberry … it also has tannins you can smell. The palate is big and bold with rich tannins, tobacco, blackberry and cleansing, yet lingering, acidity. This wine could live comfortably in the cellar for eight to ten years, but you'll want to pull one out every so often to see how it's doing. Only 200 cases will be produced.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($30.00 - expected bottling: February/March, 2009) - this wine is showing its hand a little more than its Franc counterpart. The nose is far from subtle with big black cherry, vanilla and blackberries; while the palate, is already incredibly juicy with great fruit (cherry, blackberry, plum, cassis) and other notes (chocolate) ... rich smooth and delicious with great acidity. Another cellar dweller for sure (8-10 years). 200 cases will be produced ... barrel treatment saw the use of 25% U.S. and 75% French wood.

2007 Meritage Canadian Oak ($40.00 - expected bottling: February/March, 2009) - this is another first for Lailey - the first time they will release a Meritage wine. A blend of Cabernet Franc (66%), Cabernet Sauvignon (17%) and Merlot (17%), it's a wine that Derek himself called "heavier and richer”, while also commenting, "[it] shows nice characteristics and shows the fruit very well.” This wine was aged together from the get go in equal parts new, two and three year old barrels. The nose smells of sour cherry, black cherry and cassis, while the palate shows both juicy fruits and gritty, firm tannins -black cherry takes the lead in the fruit department, while chocolate and tobacco carry the tannin weight. Good punch and drying finish - this is yet another that will age extremely well into the next decade.

For those fans of Derek's Impromptu red blend, expect it’s bottling to be the same as the above Franc, Sauv and Meritage. Currently, it is a very shy and closed off wine but shows real potential for the future. Full review pending release.

Report from ... Gourmet Food and Wine Expo - November 20, 2008

There always seems to be a certain element inside every attendee, or potential attendee, of the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo in Toronto that asks themselves the following question: "should I go again this year, it's the same crap as last year." To those I offer the following answer: it's not the same crap; new year offers new vintages, which offers new possibilities - the crap you didn't like last year maybe today's hottest wine because of the growing season, new winemaker, new owners, or marketing hype. The Gourmet Show is kinda like voting in an election, if you don't go to it you can't bitch about not liking it. This year I heard nothing but good things from patrons walking around, those I knew and from ticket winners through my newsletter. I attended the Thursday VIP night, as I was going to be out of town for the weekend (Taste the Season – NOTL) and here's what I discovered that was of interest.

Chinese wine – swear to the Sun-God ...

Torontonians got their first official look and taste of wines from China, Great Wall Wines, who had a small booth in the middle of the show (so small that if you blinked you would’ve missed it), what‘s more they had wines to try too: 1996, 1999, 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon; 2003 Chardonnay; and 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé. And to answer your question, yes, they grow grapes in China. In fact they make about the 80-million bottles a year, of which only three to four percent are exported. Great Wall also touted the fact that they were the official wine for the Beijing 2008 olympics ... and the wines were made from 100% Chinese grapes – Hello, Vincor … please, please, please - take note of this (Esprit link).

Have some Madeira my dear …

For those who have never tried Madeira it can be quite the exotic experience. These wines are both fortified and heated, so they are high in alcohol and oxidized, but they have such unrivaled flavors and longevity. Casa dos Vinhos Fine Old Madeira - 5 years old ($18.95 - general list) was served with a lemon peel which added flavor and fragrances that were quite appealing. While the Henriques and Henriques 10 Year Old Malmsey ($38.00 – Vintages) had beautiful flavors and aromas reminiscent of almonds and orange peel.

Somethings Sweet ...

From the south of France came Odysseus from Joseph Nadal ($25.00 – Vintages); made from Grenache Noir and Grenache Gris – a bayuls grand cru wine that has a light touch of sweetness to go along with its cherry, almond and orange peel appeal.

Getting away from the orange peel and into something rich and fruity, how about Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage 2003 Port ($18.95) – plumy, black cherry and chocolate, very warming in the belly.

Or the Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Tawny ($68.95) – complex yet delicious with great cherry flavor an incredible smoothness.

Fladgate Fantasies …

Speaking of incredible, where else can you try Taylor Fladgates 30-year-old and 40-year-old Tawnys without plunking down a small fortune, $178 and $225 respectively. The man from Fladgate explained their high prices to me: "there's a 3% evaporation rate of wine every year; which means, for every bottle of 40 year old we make we lose three bottles to the air." The gods really are taking their share of this scrumptious wine and I tasted why. First, there's the 30-Year-Old with orange peel, dried cherries, and almonds on the nose; lush and smooth in the mouth with liqueur soaked cherries, caramel and butterscotch, along with some of the above scents traveling through the mouth. The 40-Year-Old was just beyond description, it was simply incredible, wonderful and palate, as well as nasally, seductive. If you're looking for a special gift this season check out Fladgate’s hundred years of tawny, which has a half bottle of 10 – 20 - 30 and 40 year old tawny for $289 - fantastic port from a house that's been doing it since 1692.

Beers of Note …

Getting away from wine for a moment, don't worry we’ll get back in a minute (or however long it takes you to read or skip this part). Fruit beer can be fun, so check out Friuli, a Belgian strawberry wheat beer ($2.35 each / $14.50 4-pack), made with 30% pure strawberry and has only 4% alcohol; it’s also high in B-complex (the anti-aging vitamin) and besides all that it's very good and has more of a strawberry than a beer taste.

Nickle Brook’s Apple Pilsner from Burlington, Ontario is also a very refreshing beer for fruit lovers, made with 5% green apple juice and partially fermented apples (fermented separately) and a touch of lemon juice. Very appley.

Finally, there was the Great Lakes Brewery (from Mississauga) makers of one of my favorite red beers "Red Leaf", who are making a very tasty Winter Ale that comes in 750ml bottles with 6.2% alcohol, for a mere $6.95 a bottle. Made with a concoction of ginger, cinnamon, dried orange peel and honey. I definitely picked up the cinnamon on the taste - the nose was all that and a bag of chips (as the young once said) ... a very yuletide kinda beer.

A Few Wines of Note ...

There's lots of the same old same old for me here, stuff I have tried through Vintages releases or at country-specific shows; but every so often someone pulls me aside with a "must try" wine, as Robert Ketchin did with this most impressive Ranui 2006 Pinot Noir ($24.95 – Vintages) from Marlborough’s Wairau Valley (New Zealand) made in only 30% new French oak. My first impression was what a fantastic nose this wine had (direct quote: "great nose – holy shit”) - great sour and black cherry along with hints of vanilla; that carries through on the palate along with strawberries and raspberries. Where do I get me some of this? (Vintages I was told).
There was the Santa Alicia Reserva Carmenere ($11.95 - general list) with its raspberry, blueberry, spice and touch of mint - good value at under $12.00

Valdivieso is back in the market, this time they have a full line of wines on display, my favorite was a 2006 Cabernet Franc ($20.00 - private order) cherry, raspberry, and violets – deliciously smooth.

All in all a successful Gourmet Expo with plenty of interesting products to sip, sample and savour.

In Closing - an LCBO Faux Pas

These two photos were taken at this year's Gourmet show and sent to me with the caption "Bait and Switch" on them - the taker was incensed that the LCBO would pull this kind of stunt - but not surprised; after all they put the VQA and "Cellared in Canada" wines together all the time. For those without a keen eye or who need a little nudge - they put Chilean wine in the VQA section - classy, real classy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Report from ... Wrapped Up in the Valley - November 29-30, 2008

I can’t get to them all … honest I can’t; but I had every intention of going to the Wrapped up in the Valley event on the weekend of November 29 and 30. But as luck would have it I was called away to help someone move; in retrospect I would have preferred to go to the winery events … but sometimes you must make sacrifices – especially if you ever want her to talk to you again, plus it was my foodie, Erica, who was moving, and a wine a food event just wouldn’t be the same without someone to bounce opinions off of.

Upon my return I got an email from Fred Couch, a member of the Ontario Wine Society, and in it he wrote: “Did you do any of the Twenty Valley "Wrapped up in the Valley" passport events? This, by far, has to be the best-valued passport event. We visited 9 wineries today with friends and all did a wonderful job. Great food and wine pairing and an edible treat to take home … (slags another festival here) … We still have 3 more wineries to visit tomorrow to finish off the passport. What a treat.”

I emailed back and forth with Fred for several days and finally said to him: “seems like I should have gone, for sure next year, but would you mind giving me a little write-up of your experience”. I have never known Fred to be as talkative as he is in the article below. Thanks Fred.

On the Road with the Grape Guy’s Understudy ... F.G. Couch

Having participated in many wonderful winery passport events in the Finger Lakes, New York, I have usually been disappointed by similar events put on by the Ontario Wineries. However, this year seems to be much different. The Grape Guy has already reported on the “Taste the Season” and said, (it) “remains one of the highlights of the holiday season and, for my money, one of the best events of the year.” Well, “Wrapped Up in the Valley”, put on by the wineries that belong to the Twenty Valley Association, should be right up there as one of the best.

For a reasonable $20, you purchased a passport (good for the last two weekends in November), which allowed the holder to visit all 12 participating wineries for a food and wine pairing. Also, each passport holder was given a tasty Twenty Valley “collectible edible” to help create a gourmet hostess gift. There were three “non-edible” gifts but more about those later!

I was joined by my wife, Sue, who is a food “groupie” if there is such a thing [editor’s note: Fred has just ably given us a definition for “Foodie”], and two friends from Toronto. Unfortunately, our friends waited too long but were able to get the last remaining passport – only 200 sold for the whole event (both weekends). However, most of the wineries were sympathetic to the one without the passport and let her try the food and wine pairings anyway. To our friends’ amazement, we were able to visit 9 wineries on the first day. They commented, “we have never been to so many wineries in one day”. They’ve never toured with us before! [editor’s note: sounds like a lot but this foursome still proves they are lightweights; Erica and I plowed through 14 on our first day of the Taste the Season event]

We started our tour at Flat Rock Cellars where we were given a gift bag to collect all our “goodies”. Rather than review all twelve wineries, in Grape Guy style [editor’s note: of which he has much], I’ll just report on the “highlights” and the one disappointing wine and food pairing. It’s best to get the worst out of the way first. It was unanimous that the worst food of the weekend was served at Eastdell Estates Winery. We were offered a “Homemade parmesan risotto paired with Cuvee Brut Sparkling Wine”. The risotto was undercooked and the cheese gave the dish a sour taste. The sparkling wine was flat. The only redeeming thing about the visit was the large biscotti as our takeaway gift.

Not being a seafood lover, I deferred the rating of what would have been the best food and wine pairing to our Toronto friends. Vineland Estates Winery served “Pinot Blanc Steamed Bluecoat Mussels, Shaved Fennel and Koorneef Cherry Tomatoes paired with Pinot Blanc”. We were seated at a table for four in the upstairs loft with a live jazz band playing quietly in the background. As I said, this should have been the best food and wine pairing but, unfortunately, a few of the mussels had an “iodine” taste, which was off-putting.

Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery went all out and served a tasting plate of pears, prosciutto and a ripe, soft cheese paired with their Ratafia. Our takeaway gift was a large package of cheddar shortbread cookies from the Sprucewood Handmade Cookie Co. and a package of mulling spices to make a holiday batch of mulled cider or wine. For our “chocolate” fix of the day, the winner had to be Cave Spring Cellars. They served three chocolates (white, milk and dark) paired with their Cabernet Franc Select Late Harvest. We all agreed that the dark chocolate was the best match and the white chocolate, (surprisingly) a close second. Our next choice would probably have to go to Harbour Estates Winery for their “Phyllo-wrapped baked brie with HEW Drunken Apple wine jelly paired with Non-Oaked Chardonnay”. This was a tasty treat that made you want a second piece.

The best takeaway “edible gifts” besides the shortbreads from Peninsula Ridge were a piece of Christmas cake from Creekside Estate Winery, walnut cookies from Flat Rock Cellars, fudge from Harbour Estates, pasta (uncooked, of course) from Vineland Estates, popping corn from Mountain Road Wine Company and spiced nuts from Fielding Estates Winery. There were three “non-edible” gifts. At Tawse Winery, we were given a cheese-cutting knife and a discount coupon for the Upper Canada Cheese Company. At Angels Gate Winery they were giving out a clay “Brown Sugar Saver”, courtesy of Le Clos Jordanne Winery, who doesn’t have a winery to visit but wanted to participate in the event. The most expensive “non-edible” gift was from Mountain Road Wine Company. They gave away a boxed set consisting of a stainless steel waiter’s corkscrew and chrome-plated wine stopper.

We came away with two gift bags packed to overflowing with holiday “goodies. This was one of the best passport events we’ve ever attended in Niagara and look forward to seeing how this can be duplicated next year. There was talk about selling 200 passports for each weekend in 2009 but I hope it doesn’t become so busy that it won’t be as enjoyable. Star rating (4 ½ out of 5); value for money (5 out of 5).

Ah Fred, moving really was fun … or so I keep telling myself.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Report from ... Niagara-on-the-Lake Taste the Season - November 22-23, 2008

This year my foodie (Erica) and I decided to visit ALL the wineries taking part in Taste the Season (17 in total) to better judge the event’s offerings. Usually we pick and choose, or miss a couple of wineries along the way, but this year there was going to be no excuses, ALL had to be visited … each wine tasted … each food tried – no matter whether you liked it or not (which meant my mushroom-phobia had to be put on hold for two days). The debating came afterward as we made our lists and inevitably chose our winners. Below, this is how we saw it:

Best Food and Wine Pairing …

Lailey … Turkey en Croute with Spiced Cranberry Compote – paired with 2006 Pinot Noir (Niagara Peninsula). The folks at Lailey managed to encompass an entire turkey dinner in one mouthful. It tasted exactly like turkey dinner with all the fixin’s, including the cranberry sauce and stuffing … and the beat turkey pairing wine washed it all down. Delicious. Normally, I would have taken off points for trying to slip in a mushroom unannounced, but this was far to good for such pettiness.

Best Foods (Top 3 ) …

Number 3 … Coyote’s Run – Smoked Duck Breast with Black Paw Vineyard Cabernet Jelly on Brioche. This was flavourful and light, a mix of sweet and savory, and the light pastry just added to its enjoyment. (As we later found out the pastry or lack thereof can make or break a dish).

Number 2 … Inniskillin – Holiday Scone with Dried Cranberries and White Chocolate. Originally there was suppose to be Niagara Gold cheese and Prosciuotto in this treat and no chocolate; but Inniskillin made a last minute change to the program because they weren’t happy with it (“The change was made to add the white chocolate topping [because] upon second tasting [the filling, when paired] with the wine appeared too salty.”). And good thing they did. It was like a thick Christmas cookie topped with chocolate icing – there was also hints of vanilla that added to its enjoyment.

Number 1 … Jackson-Triggs – Pulled Beef Brisket Crostini. J-T saw me coming with this one, my note was simple yet said it all, “mmmm”, nice sauce, tender beef, all soaked in Reserve Merlot and other herbs and spices. This truly was a meat lover’s paradise. One staff member told me that, “it’s so easy to make, but shhh, don’t tell anyone.” Well I am sure that nobody who tried this thought it was complicated so I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag on this one. It’s a simple fireside, crock-pot dish, and sometimes those are the best.

Bubbling Under … the debate continues … Erica and I debated about where to put Chateau des Charmes on the list. We both thought their Cassoulet Tart with beans, pork and duck was delicious, but it should have been served warm, not cold, and that’s what knocked it out of the top three, but it still deserved special mention in the Food category.

Best Wines (Top 3) … The foods and wines seem to overlap, sometimes the food enhanced the wine and sometimes they did not seem to go. You’ll notice that two of the wineries from the Best in Food category get mentioned herein … special mention once again goes to Chateau des Charmes for their 2006 Gewurztraminer; it was just that the following three shone just a little bit brighter on this day.

Number 3 … Inniskillin – 2007 Gamay Noir. This was all cherry in the glass – the cherry nose had lots of cherry backing on the palate … fruity, light, chillable, and very nice. Erica is not a red wine fan but she thought this one was delicious. If you have non-red drinkers in your clan this might be one that just might get them on-board.

Number 2 … Coyote’s Run – 2007 Cabernet. I had this a few months ago when it was just being released and it’s still a beauty in the bottle, and should be ageable for the next 5-8 years (minimum). Smoky, peppery and black fruit oriented, red drinkers should love this wine ... the number of bottles walking out the door on this Sunday afternoon is testament to that.

Number 1 … Palatine – 2007 Fume Blanc Proprietors Reserve. This little honey offered up a piece of summer during the coldness of winter. A nose that’s grassy, pear and grapefruit with the merest hint of peach; while the palate had pear, citrus and grassiness with some barrel elements showing through in the form of spice and smoke, but it was nothing to barrel you over with. In the end it was the smoothness on the palate, elegance in the glass and light refreshing nature of the wine that won us over. Too bad winter is coming cause this is one for poolside.

The Highs … The Lows … and the Somthings In-Between …

They can’t all be gems, so here is a list of the high points, the lowlights and the middling rangers.

Highs …

Marynissen – “great homemade fare”, “comfort food”, “something from grandma’s kitchen”, all terms we used to describe their Macaroni Casserole with Spiced Beef and Tomato Sauce; it warmed the belly and made you feel like going home and making yourself a pot. Another simplistic dish that worked.

Niagara College – talk about a cheesy treat: Goat Cheese Lollipop with Local Pear Chutney; the real star of this taste sensation was the chutney made from local sourced pears. This was an admirable gesture on the part of the College – with local area canning plants closing and farmers limited to where they could sell their produce the College made a conscience decision to help out as much as possible in their restaurant ... by buying as many pears as they could conceivably use.

Strewn – I liked the wine, Erica thought the food was good – and I even nibbled a corner. Neither one of us are mushroom fans (me less than her), but this mushroom based dish (Mushroom Terrine with Roasted Garlic and Herbs) was not overly “mushroomy”, in fact we found it quite pleasant … though I have to fully admit I did not finish mine – afterall it was still mushrooms.

Middlings …

Hillebrand and Konzelmann tied for top middling spot. I quite enjoyed the Fall Fruit Crumble with Chantilly Cream (Hillebrand), while Erica enjoyed the Cheese Quiche with Fresh Herbs Roulade complete with dill and butternut squash (Konzelmann). Though she expected more from Hillebrand – finding the Crumble to be standard fare; while I found the dill in the Roulade overpowered the taste profile of the Quiche – but then again according to some sources I have read, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, so I guess I was never meant to eat it in the first place.

Peller occupies our second place on the middling rungs because of their over-usage of their Ice Cuvee wine – the sparkler with a dosage of icewine. They parade this wine out at every event. Yes it’s good, but Peller makes other great stuff too, why not pour the Ice Cuvee Rosé for instance, now that’s new, unique and tasty. Otherwise the Cured Salmon seemed to match well with the bubbles.

Reif – we were all ready to enjoy the Lamb Fricassee with delicious smells emanating from the pot, but by the time we swallow the mini-tart that held the stew we had lost the meat flavour and were overwhelmed by the sweetness of the pastry. I rarely say this, but the tart should have been a little blander in nature so as to more fully enjoy the taste of the delicious fricassee. Erica was more put-off by the sweetness than I, but then again my sweet tooth is bigger.

Stonechurch – their smoked salmon roll had lots in it: avocado, asiago, alfalfa, artichoke, pine nuts, fish roe – I got it all, well the pine nuts and fish roe anyway, Erica got none of what was promised (except the smoked fish) – plus this roll needed something to rock upon like a cracker or a pastry. Big bonus points to Stonechurch here who finally went all VQA for the event. Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

And The Lows …

After Cattail wowed us during the Wine and Herb Festival in the Spring we were expecting much goodness to come from here; but instead, the Beet Cured Lake Trout proved to be a real let down. Their reasoning for sticking with it was the notion that they did not want to change what had already been printed in the guide, noble to say the least; but in this instance they should have taken a page out of Inniskillin’s book and switched it up a bit, sure you should stick with the trout, but doctor it a bit.

Pillitteri went the rather boring and bland route with a Chicken Terrine with Pear and Riesling Compote. The pairing did not work (even though it was Riesling wine matched with a Riesling based dish) and the chicken had little to no taste. Too bad, this winery usually delivers something of interest to the table; guess you can’t hit a homerun everytime.

Last year Joseph’s led the dessert pack with a cheesecake that was to die for and made you long for seconds (heck I know some folks who would have bought a second passport if it meant another piece); so this year the stakes were high, maybe a little too high; instead of a memorable follow-up to wow the crowd they paraded out a rubbery, barely choke-down-able quiche that left a bad taste in the mouth, no matter how much wine you drank to wash it down.

Finally, low man on this year’s totem pole is Sunnybrook with their Mayan Chocolate Walnuts – they sounded interesting on paper but in truth they offered very little in the was of appealing flavours, textures or enjoyment.

Despite the few lowlights the Taste the Season event remains one of the highlights of the holiday season and, for my money, one of the best event of the year. I have to tell you that I really look forward to touring the wineries every November to taste what is being offered and judging afterward (and during) is a lot of fun. Who knew that a pastry’s sweetness could be the catalyst for a 5-minute debate or that a simple apple and pear crumble could be wolfed down with gusto by one and shunned by another; that chocolate nuts would not be appealing or that a full turkey dinner could be achieved in a single bite. That is the beauty of the Taste the Season event and will continue to be for years to come. Save a weekend in November next year and we’ll see you on the trail.

Report from ... Southbrook Poetica Launch - November 19, 2008

Of late there has been lots written and said about Southbrook, and owner Bill Redelmeier has made it his mission to keep this winery in the spotlight over the past year. But this winery, with all its newfound bluster and new fangled building, also has a past, which we celebrated today while also looking ahead to the future.

For a winery that made little fanfare back when it was located in Maple (north of Toronto), these days you can’t open a wine magazine, newspaper or read a column about Ontario wine without them getting a mention. Today was the launch of Poetica, what many a Southbrook fan once knew, by another name, as their top of the line wines … that old name now has a Lord Voldemort complex about it (a name that should not be mentioned) … but I will use it here as I scan over each shoulder to make sure the Southbrook police aren’t lurking: Triomphus … now that you have read it I think you best bolt the door.

In truth, most of these bottles of the released Poetica wines have been re-labeled from the giant golden “S” that had previously adorned them, along with their seemingly hand-written Masi-esque front label. Now they have a stylized (seemingly hand-written) piece of Canadian poetry on the front label. And, much in the same way that Hillebrand selects its labels for its artist series of wines, so too will Southbrook chose their poetry for labels of Poetica in years to come. This first offering of nine bottles has poetry from the likes of bp Nichol “Blues” (the oldest poem chosen – 1966) to Wendy Morton’s “If I had a name like Rosie Fernandez” (2006 – Wendy was also on hand to read her poem). Other poets included P.K. Page (1997); Gwendolyn MacEwen (1969); Sarah Slean (2004) and Lesley Choyce (1998).

As for the wines we tasted they were the Chardonnays from 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2000 and 1998 – and the Cabernet Merlots from 2006, 2002 and 1998.

Top Chardonnays were the two oldest from the (winemaker) Derek Barnett era of Southbrook’s history; both wines are sold only in magnum (1.5L). The 2000 Chardonnay ($136) was golden in colour with toasty-buttery smells with hints of cinnamon and marmalade. The palate retained a spiciness with good acidity. Marmalade aspects from the nose also follow in the mouth along with nutmeg, cinnamon, butterscotch and vanilla … this was a big, mouth filling wine full of flavour.

The 1998 Chardonnay ($148) was still very nice, but had a bitterness on the back of the tongue (which was its only drawback); the nose was still fruity, buttery, and spicy with vanillaed-orange-flower nuances. There was a movie theatre popcorn taste, a good spiciness, cinnamon and orange marmalade with a brown sugar sprinkle.

Next in line was a toss up between the 2004 and 2006. The 2006 was buttery, big and oaky and tasted older than what it was, while the 2004 had orange marmalade, spiced orange and notes of honey on the nose, with spiced lemon, hints of butterscotch and marmalade on the long finish. So now that I’ve talked it through, I guess my third choice is the 2004 ($56 – 750ml).

As for the reds … I think the 2002 and 1998 Cabernet Merlots showed the best. The 2002 has coffee notes along with smoked green pepper and tobacco – there was also cinnamon, spices and herbs … much better than my bottle performed a few months ago. The 1998 Cabernet-Merlot ($168 – 1.5L) has those pleasant dried fruit characteristics and earthy tones – the wine travels nicely through the mid-palate, but ends with a touch of bitterness; must be something to do with that 1998 vintage.

These wines are all in limited quantity and available only at the winery.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Report from - Piedmont, Italy – Day 4 (Barbaresco Day) … September 30, 2008

It all started at the Charton-Hobbs tasting and ended with me nursing a stuffed nose for two-plus weeks; but I would have to say it was well worth it …

We are picked up by bus and taken to Barbaresco for a tour of this popular area and to taste some of its wines. We meet in a de-sanctified church, which was turned into a wine shop and tourist information center back in 1986 – this could only happen in Italy where wine is a religion ... turns out the town had two churches and that's one too many for a town this size.

Points of interest about Barbaresco …

- There are four areas of Barbaresco (three municipalities and a southern area) –Barbaresco, Neive, Treiso and Saint Rocca.
- Soil Breakdown: Langhe – calcarus, hard clay soil, more compacted, wine produced here has more structure and aging potential. Roero - sandy soil, looser, produces younger, more delicate and soft wines.
- Vines are not cultivated on north side of hills because there's not enough sun.
- Minimum aging requirements: 26 months, calculated from the first of November.
- Grapes of Barbaresco: Dolcetto, Barbera, Moscato (but not in Barbaresco Village), Chardonnay, Arneis, Fraise, Favaritta and of course, Nebbiolo.
- Over the past 40 years there have been eleven 5-star vintages: 71, 78, 82, 89, 90, 96, 99, 01, 04, 06, 07. And there have been ten 4-star vintages: 74, 76, 85, 88, 95, 97, 98, 00, 03, 05.

We then hop a bus to tour the area, we make frequent stops along the way: Faset, Aisili, Martinenga, Rio Sardo, Treiso, Neive, St. Christoforo.

At the highest point in the region we stop to visit with Andrea Sattimano, who takes us on a brief tour around his property ... we climb up this little hill which Andrea tells us is not only the highest point in the area (from which you can see everything) but it is also one of the few internet hotspots in the region; along the way I stop and pluck a few of the plump ripe grapes off the vines … they are juicy and delicious. Andrea and his family have worked this land for generations so he knows the grapes and the wines of the region intimately. He tells us about the flavors in the wine by region (this, of course, is his rule of thumb): Nieve - licorice and balsamic; Barbaresco – fuller, more robust body, big red fruit; Treiso – austere, elegant, finesseful, spicy … he also says that the producer can make all the difference.

Lunch is at a local trattoria where we sample four different wines from the Barbaresco region along with some local foods. Dishes like the Vitella e Tunnato (thinly sliced veal dipped in tuna cheese paste); Tarajin suga di carne (the local pasta, tarajin, egg noodles made with up to 30 eggs per pound of flour) with veal bits, a chicken dish and Bonetta (a thick rich paste-like chocolate cake). The pasta (tarajin) was the most amazing dish - this restaurant makes their own and uses approximately 18 eggs per pound of flour, which makes the noodles very yellowy in color - so yellow in fact that when red tomato sauce is ladled on top and mixed in the concoction turns orange, the color of Kraft Dinner - but the taste is nothing like KD … I had two helpings (I didn't know about the chicken course - but then again you can have chicken anywhere).

After lunch it was the truffle hunt ... we’re too early in the season for truffles (season: September 15 to end of December) - the good truffles don’t emerge until the middle of October. But we meet a fellow that looks as old as parchment paper and has been a truffle hunter for as long as he can remember. In fact, the truffle hunt has been in his family for generations. I also meet two very nice truffle-hunting dogs, who are eager to please but find nothing on this day.

There are a few people with working cell phones on our expedition, and there is a buzz going around the group that the Gagliardo people are looking for Tom … when we return to our lodging there is also a message left for him at the front desk. Tom believes he will be getting his promised helicopter ride. An hour later, a big black car shows up and takes Tom away, just minutes before we are to leave for dinner. I mention this only because we do not see Tom at our final dinner at the Restorante Conti Roero which lasts over three-hours … someone said that Tom had to take an earlier flight (out of a helicopter I joke, nobody finds this funny - maybe I’m hitting a little too close to home ... this is Italy afterall).

Our three day host, Stefano Gagliardo, returns to have a final meal with us … two references are jokingly made about the Tom incident the day before - one early in the evening, one a few hours later . The first one Stefano does not find funny and fails to laugh at, he doesn’t even crack a smile while the rest of the table roars its approval; but the second one he laughs at uproariously – I noticed that a few whispers are pasted into his ear throughout the evening before the second remark is made – and one of the whispers illicits a wide smile and a nod proceeded by “good” ... this is Italy don’t forget.

Dinner is lovely, and culminates in a fantastic last course of pork cheeks that is melt in your mouth delicious. Five of us decide to skip dessert, as it is already late, and we have a two hour ride ahead of us back to Milan where we are flying out the next morning. Before we leave Stefano pours the showstopper wine of the evening, the 1982 Gianni Gagliardo La Serra Barolo - of which, it is admitted, there are only a few bottles left. The nose is dried: raisins, figs, other fruit, and leaves - while the palate is smooth, but also dried (fruit, cherries) with a hint of chocolate cherry liqueur. Two bottles were opened, one was poured for the left side of the table, the other for the right. I was left side table; supposedly the right side’s bottle was still on the fresh side (or fresher) with more jump to the fruit - that's one of the beauties of an old wine: bottle variation.

We say goodbye to our hosts with hearty handshakes and cheek kisses, five of us pile into a small bus (which seats 10) for the trip to Milan ... along the trip we open a local Moscato D’Asti and one of the gift bottles of 2004 Barolo we received from the house of Gagliardo. We do not have proper glassware so we end up sipping the wines out of plastic cups we liberated from the hotel bathroom - and while that may not sound like a very dignified way to end a trip through the Barolo region of Italy, I have absolutely no complaints about it. Wine is always about the people and the place (in other words, the circumstances you drink it under), sitting in that bus with three newfound friends and the guy that got me on that bus in the first place, it just felt right; I also remember that that young Barolo had some really good fruit.

Addendum: a few weeks after my return home I receive an e-mail from Tom ... it was a generic email about how good it was to meet me and about my “fine sense of humor” ... I am convinced it was a cover, if you had been privy to the scene Tom had caused and the demands he made – and generally the way he talked to people that day; I feel Tommy is at the bottom of the Tanaro River (the main river that cuts through the Piedmont region) swimming with the fishes, as they say … he disrespected the family and after all, it was Italy.

Report from - Piedmont, Italy – Day 3 (More About Barolo) … September 29, 2008

It all started at the Charton-Hobbs tasting and ended with me nursing a stuffed nose for two-plus weeks; but I would have to say it was well worth it …

Up Up and Away …

It's our third day in Italy and once again we find ourselves back at Gianni Gagliardo’s winery - some of the press folks are starting to get upset, because they now believe they were brought here under "false pretenses" for a tour of Barolo (which they assumed would be different wineries) and instead find themselves time and again back at Gianni’s place. I, on the other hand, am experiencing being both Europe and Italy for the first time, so looking out over the countryside, albeit the same piece of countryside, is still as enthralling on day three as it was on day one … for the first time since we landed it has finally hit me, "I'm in Italy".

So today it's one of those days that everyone, including the complainers, has been waiting for – the helicopter tour of the Barolo region. First, Stefano gives us a bit of brief history about the area, he even turns the map on its side to give us a better understanding of the area (this way it actually sits North/South on the easel). He tells us of the three hills to look for, that show the recession of the sea in three stages – Serralunga, Barolo/Castiglione, and La Morra - which are oldest to youngest. According to Stefano the best growing area for Nebbiolo (the grape of Barolo) is between 200-300 meters above sea level, 50m in either direction can make all the difference in flavors. We are also told that the Nebbiolo grape does not "travel well" - meaning that it grows best in this region, the region of Barolo, and this region makes the best wines from it - a little hubris on his part, but what do you expect. Finally, we are told about the two regions of the area Langhe and Roero of which Langhe is the oldest and the more traditional grounds for Barolo production because the first families to make Barolo wine were in the town of Barolo, which is located in the Langhe region - makes sense to me.

Before we go helicoptering, and for those who don't know - the name Nebbiolo is derived from the word for fog (Nebbia) because Nebbiolo is harvested during the foggy season.

Helicopter rides lasted about ten minutes and they toured us around the above described regions. We saw little hamlets and towns, plenty of vineyards and some great castle-like buildings (see pictures to left - click to enlarge). Since there were about twenty of us, and we had to go in groups of three, there was a lot of downtime and waiting. We were served a white wine called ‘Fallegra’ as we waited. I found myself staring at a little gecko sunning himself on a wooden slat; everything was so peaceful and serene with a only the comings and goings of a helicopter to interrupt it.

A commotion behind me shook me from my reverie. One of the journalists on the trip named Tom, is making a scene - he didn't get the ‘special’ helicopter ride promised to him ... as a photojournalist he needed to have the front seat or at least the door open so he could snap “proper pictures” ... neither was done for him. He stomped around angrily, spoke in menacing tones to anyone who would listen, and even went as far as speaking in those same harsh tones to Stefano himself. This was a bad and embarrassing scene and went on for a good half hour. Many of us felt bad for the special events coordinator and press handler, as both women were put into an impossible to control situation. In truth, they had told him "we will see what we can do", which he took as the promise of "we'll do it ". Finally, the helicopter left because it was running out of fuel; Tom sulked and stewed and stomped about - and suddenly their was no doubt in your mind about why Europeans hate Americans. Tom demanded another helicopter ride, and was told, "we'll see what we can do." More on this situation on day 4.

With all the excitement and brouhaha finally under control, many were happy to get back the business at hand - tasting wine. We all sat down for a formal five wine tasting of the top wines of Gagliardo, including three Barolos. The clear winner of this tasting was the single vineyard 2004 Cannubi Barolo with its hefty 14.5 percent alcohol and full on flavor profile that kept you coming back to the glass for more. The nose was red berry, spicy and floral; while on the palate there was a delicacy and balance of fruit, wood, acidity and tannins. Red fruit dominated with sour cherry nuances, spices, vanillin … I could go on all day - suffice it to say this was the wine bottle I went back to to fill-up my glass ... when I think of the trip and the wines I tried, this is the one I’ll remember.

Lunch was another magnificent meal, chicken salad, pasta and a Sicilian Canoli.
Seminar instead of sleep ...

We say goodbye to our three days hosts; turns out we are finished with the Gagliardo family (though Stefano will be joining us for our final dinner). We are transported to the Consorzio Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Roero where we are seminared … one of those lectures you detested in high school – where the teacher reads the over head presentation; this was compounded even further because our host didn’t speak any English, so he spoke Italian and then the translator spoke English – but in essence read from the slides that were up on the screen. I speak little to no Italian but I could have done that job.
By the numbers ... points of interest before sleep kicked in :

- 1934 safeguards are set up to protect fine/typical Barolo and Barbaresco wines.
- 1947 area gets recognized as a DOC in Italian wine laws.
- 1980 area gets DOCG status.
- 1994 incorporate all wine denominations of Alba region, not just Barolo and Barbaresco.
- Piedmont makes 2,723,946 hecta-litres of wine (2007 numbers); only 447,593 is simple table wine … of that remaining wine approximately 86% is of DOC status and 14% is DOCG.
- The top five grapes of the area (in order): Barbera, Moscato, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Cortese.
- The Consorzio’s job is to make sure the wine laws of the region are enforced.

We then tried five wines that were labeless, except of the stamp of the Consorzio … these wines were to show the typicity of the wines made from the area grapes only – and not to show off individual producers.

The day ended with a fancy dinner at La Ciau del Tornavento and a tour of their vast cellar (see pictures) I’ll let the pictures write my thousand words of awe here.

Report from - Piedmont, Italy – Day 2 (Barolo Press Conference and Auction) … September 28, 2008

It all started at the Charton-Hobbs tasting and ended with me nursing a stuffed nose for two-plus weeks; but I would have to say it was well worth it …

We started the morning off in an old theatre (teatro) for the Barolo press conference. The press sat in the seats in the main body of the theatre as 3 speakers, from different aspects of the Barolo region, talked about the wines, the vintage and the tourism from the main stage.

Claudio Rosso discussed harvesting, Barolo’s DOCG status, the next Barolo launch to market (the 2005’s will see the light of day in January 2009) and the 2008 grape growing season: fresh spring, below average July and August with a hot summer-like September. His wrap up assessment: “Not an abundant crop but good grapes with excellent flavours and good acidity … these will be good wines for ageing.” He then told us that Barolo is sold in 48 countries – 14% of the wine is sold in the U.S. while another 34% is sold locally and over 10 million bottles are made annually. Claudio then sat down and took a hefty belt from his glass of wine (remember, it’s about 10:45 in the AM – what a great country, or as Konrad put it at the airport, “civilized”.)

N. Argamante addressed all in attendance with tourism facts … many around me nodded off during this part of the proceedings. I, on the other hand, stayed awake by watching them trying to stay awake. Bottom line here is that tourism numbers have doubled in the last few years and restaurants are booming trying to keep up with demand.

F. Curtaz then stood up and delivered his report, which turned out to be a repetition of much of Claudio’s speech, but he did add in a few helpful details about Barolo of his own, like a list of the outstanding Barolo vintages of the past decade (2001, 2003, 2005), that they’ll be making about 5% less Barolo this year then the average and that the 2008’s will be elegant, powerful and long lived. He then concluded with an old grape grower’s saying: “A late vintage is never a bad vintage.”

We then headed downstairs to the basement for a taste of some of the wine to be auctioned off that afternoon – of them the Cerretta 2004 was the best of the lot … lots of mineral component, good structure and a definite earthiness – there was also red currants, cranberry and drying tongue appeal.

A 30-minute break before lunch had me snapping pictures in the town square, and the 30-minutes of free time after lunch brought me to a gelato shop for Pistachio gelato. This was my only free time on the trip.

Barolo Auction …

We arrived at Gianni Gagliardo winery at 2:00pm where I had plenty of time before the 4pm auction to walk the winery, its cellars and into the kitchen. I mention the kitchen because when I wandered into it I stumbled onto what I thought was my own personal piece of heaven (you’ll see a few pictures to your right – might I suggest clicking on them to enlarge them to get the full scope of what I found myself in the middle of) … yes it is a plethora of chocolate. Later on, after the auction, these delicacies were put out on long tables for the post-Barolo Auction party. One table was all chocolate and desserts, the other was nibblies and other finger foods, including a mountain made of Prosciutto (see pictures).

During the auction the 2003 Preve Barolo Reserva was poured (producer: Gianni Gagliardo): plum, sour cherry, cinnamon, wood with good red and black fruit smells; the palate was dry, tannic and ballsy – the wine still needs lots of time.

The party ended at 7:30pm. With our stuffed bellies they piled us into a bus and drove us to a local pizza place for dinner; seriously, Italy really is all about food. This place (to which I never caught the name) had the most wonderful thin crust pizza and served exquisite local beer in 750ml bottles (this is where I picked up a bottle of beer named after my honey, Erika (she spells it Erica), quite apropos, it’s a honey beer. Not sure she got the connection though, I guess when you expect fine Italian jewellery and end up with fine Italian beer instead it’s a little disappointing). The day ended with our collective distended bellies being full of salted, cured meats, chocolate, enough hors d’oeuvres to kill a horse then capped with pizza and beer … the Italians do love to eat – God bless ‘em.

Report from - Piedmont, Italy – Day 1 ... September 27, 2008

It all started at the Charton-Hobbs tasting and ended with me nursing a stuffed nose for two-plus weeks; but I would have to say it was well worth it …

Flying Air Italia at a time when the airline is close to bankruptcy is a scary proposition –the question of, “how the heck will I get home?” kept running through my head. But as someone pointed out to me, at least you'll be stuck in Italy. My road to get there was just as interesting as being there ... the call came in on a Monday to replace a last minute cancellation; I was up in the air 4-days later flying to Italy for my first European "vacation". Dinner on board consisted of a chicken breast and lasagna; breakfast was ham and cheese on egg bread with a danish; I loved the sweet red orange juice served at both meals. Final destination was Milan, which meant having to change planes in Rome. Walking through the airport to get to our connecting flight I noticed that the place looked more like a shopping mall. How surreal - this is an airport? My fellow traveler and wine-writer colleague Konrad Ejbich comments, "this is a civilized airport.”

We arrive in Milan a few minutes before noon (a few minutes earlier than expected), collect our bags and go to exit 4 to meet our ride. We wait, and wait, and wait … at 12:45 Enzo shows up making apologies, but alas he does not speak a lick of English. He leads us to two different levels of the parking garage and down four different aisles on each. Enzo, it would seem, has lost his car. He returns Konrad and I back to the arrivals “lounge” while the intrepid and somewhat inept Enzo goes off in search of his (and our) ride. By 1:15pm he returns for us; he has found his car and we are to follow him. He makes another wrong turn in the parking structure, but does eventually find his car. Enzo makes me very nervous - he drives way too slow, on a road that’s speed limit is set to 120km, Enzo does not break 80 … fatigue takes over and I fall asleep in the back seat, Konrad nods off in the front, neither of us can bear to watch the train wreck that is our greeter and driver.

3:15 PM we arrive in Alba, it's 15° and sunny. We have a little free time to grab some quick groceries (namely water) at a store that is recommended to us, just a few blocks away (La Famiglia). Here I found bottled water in a 1.5L size for .08-Euros ... I buy 6. Back to our accommodations to get ready for a 6:00pm dinner at La Morra and what should be a very busy few days.

Dinner in La Morra Vineyard ...

From the pictures you can see that dinner was actually held in the middle of the vineyard –we literally receive a candle-lit red carpet treatment leading up to where we would eventually eat dinner. At the back, a makeshift kitchen was also set up in the vineyard. Hosted by Gianni Gagliardo winery, who is represented at dinner by the winery’s namesake, and his son/winemaker Stefano, who took us through explanations of the various wines, vintages and the winery itself. I was lucky enough to be sitting at the table with Stefano so I caught many of his bon mots. We were served five wines with dinner, over the course of a few hours – and as the darkness of night drifted in around us the air took on a chill, which helped the wines, but not the people in attendance ... thankfully, and thoughtfully, the winery provided us all with long red polar fleece material scarves. The wines were part of the Batier line (pronounced "Bat-T-Eh" and meaning “Baptised” – wines for special occasions); made from the Nebbiolo grape. The 2006 was far too young for consumption and the 2004 was also still quite tight. The 2005 Batier was robust and powerful yet delicious, with black fruit, cherry and chocolate along with some cinnamon and spice thrown in for good measure. The oldest of the wines was the 2003, which was beginning to come around with dried cherries and herbs on the nose, great flavours of dried red fruit that was smooth and long lasting on the tongue. Dessert was a Moscato wine called “Villa M.” – which tasted like Moscato should and was delicious.

Some of Stefano’s quotes, thoughts and feelings:

On his winemaking style: "I am quite traditional in my approach, I like cork, I am afraid of our older vintages because of the cork, but our newer vintages have the highest quality corks we can find, so they're safe. "

About the Nebbiolo grape: "It is never banal, it brings complexity to the bottle of Barolo, which is one of the most delicate wines in the world, but if you respect Barolo you're in for a great experience, and by respect I mean the right glass, decanting and the right occasion, because above all Barolo is about experience and become …"

Explaining the falling mask logo of the winery: "Because as the night progresses people eat and drink, their mask-persona falls away ... it is my feeling that it is in that way that wine brings people together, they drop their mask."