Sunday, June 29, 2008

Report from ... New Vintages Passport Program and Grille – June 21-22, 2008

Time to tour around the wineries of Niagara again – this time it’s the New Vintages Festival – a festival devoted to what’s new in wine from Beamsville to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This time out the passport program’s winery experiences expanded from 5 to 6 – a mild seemingly mild improvement, but one that ratchets up the value, now each winery costs you $5 for the experience, if you have a passport (though it still costs you $10 individually), this makes the passport a better value and worth purchasing. Last time out (Icewine Festival 2008), 4 of the ten wineries visited delivered equal or less value for the cost of their ticket ($6), I ranked wineries on a 1-10 scale (6 being the break-even point). This time, because the wineries ended up on a relative equal scale for value – meaning I didn’t feel ripped off by anybody (remember $5 was the cut-off value); instead I am giving out some “Best” awards: Best Wine, Best Food, Best Pairing, Best Cheese, Best Wine Serving Only, Best Value … plus a few others.

Once again my foodie (Erica) accompanied me on the journey of a dozen wineries and together we went through the list of 30 participating wineries and picked out our preferred twelve – we tried for a m
ix of wineries we have gone to in the past and ones we have not been to in awhile. They were: Fielding, Legends, Magnotta, Creekside, Caroline Cellars, Coyote’s Run, Inniskillin, Palatine Hills, Peller, Pillitteri, Reif and Vineland.

And the winners are:

Best Wine – Pilliteri squeaked this one out with their 2007 Pinot Gris, beating the Inniskillin 2006 Cabernet Franc Icewine based on it’s vibrant fruit and refreshing
palate – a perfect summer wine (full review will appear in an upcoming newsletter).

Best Food – Three wineries placed in this category with Palatine and Pillitteri taking second and third. But the best taste sensation of the day was Reif, who provided a
n array of sushi that was just oh-so good.

Best Pairing – This award takes into account the food and the wine and how it went together … Pillitteri served
both a red and white (see above) with a combination of shrimp and beef – tasty indeed. But the winner in this category are the folks at Palatine, who pulled off a salmon tartar with unoaked Chardonnay … we definitely wanted more.

Best Cheese
– Of the 12 wineries we chose 2 had cheese as their incentive to visit. Coyote’s Run was nice but Caroline Cellars had the addition of the Cheese Guy – Gurth Pretty – who knows his cheese like John Szabo knows his wine (if you don’t know John he is Canada’s only Master Sommelier). They paired a red (Merlot) and white (Sauvignon Blanc) with four different cheeses, selected by Gurth, and he was also there to explain them. Hands down presentation wins on this occasion.

Best Wine Serving Only – Again, of the 12 wineries 2 were just doing a flight of wines. Creekside took you through their new ’07 line-up, so far (Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Pinot Noir Rosé) along with two bonus wines: 07 Reserve Chardonnay and 2006 Broken Press Shiraz (or was that Reserve Shiraz – the pourer was not 100% sure). Vineland did their Riesling comparison – 4 Rieslings in different styles or from different vineyards. Hard to give an award here for best because of their uniqueness … so both wineries can share this one.

Best Value - This was an easy decision. While Legends could easily take the award for best spread with their dips and dunks and spreads, Magnotta takes best value hands down – serving up 3 wines with three very different salads.

Best Homemade Effort – Can’t fail to mention Fielding here, who strong-armed an employee into making some of the best “Savoury Cookies” I have ever tasted – you could keep the strawberry accompaniment and just pass over those cookies. Yum.

Finally, the Trying to Hard Award goes to Peller – who paired up their Ice Cuvee Rosé sparkling and Meritage Private Reserve Rosé with a stuffed button mushroom and marinated quail … it was just a disappointing and sorry sight to see on the plate – all we ended up doing is feeling sorry for the little birdie – and neither one of us is anywhere close to a vegetarian.

The Grille – Saturday June 21, 2008 – Niagara College

This year’s Grilles was once again held at Niagara College but in a different configuration than last year; partly due to the threat of inclement weather. Last year it was a multi-tented affair with the main stage set up in the open air on the lawn. This year, with Anna Olson taping for her Food Network show “Fresh” and rain forecasted, much of the event was held in the College hallway and greenhouses, with tents attached for extra space.

As it turned out the rains did not come, and the biggest complaint of the evening was “after awhile those greenhouses get hot”, so much so that people had to step outside to cool down (it was still about 20 degrees outside in the evening). Seems like a minor problem to have. But greenhouses are suppose to be hot, that’s why they are also known as “Hot Houses”, and with people having to move outside, that meant that there was never too big a throng milling about inside. That kind of flow allowed people to move through the areas easily, get their wine and food and move on.

I would personally like to see them move this event around to a different winery every year, like they do in the Lake Erie North Shore with their New Vintages Festival (August 10 at Mastronardi Winery), that way not only do we get a change of venue each year, but a different winery gets to sell their wines to the masses assembled – due to our arcane wine laws only the host winery can sell their wares (don’t ask).

Some Wines of Notes at the Grille:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Meeting Clark Smith - June 16, 2008

A lot has been written about Clark Smith, from what I could gather from the press pack I was given about this man and his wines. Usually, you get one or two brief articles about a winery or winemaker; in this pack there were four extensive pieces about this guy, his theories, philosophies and ideas about winemaking. If you’re interested look him up, he’s quite a polarizing figure who speaks his mind and speaks from the heart. Some might even say he lacks a “social filter” (the one that stops you from saying whatever comes to mind at any given time); but as one who has also been known to suffer from this “ailment”, I found him refreshing and fun. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I am talking about.

He told us (all assembled) that he does not sell his wines in California, “because California is an ignorant wine market.” Instead he prefers to sell his wines in New York, a “hipper” market. He says it’s because California is “always looking for the next impact wine.” He equated it to the difference between being ‘hip’ and being ‘cool’. New York being hip; California thinking it is cool. This kind of talk doesn’t make him popular in his home state; hence I can see why he doesn’t sell much of his wine there.

He casually called most California Chardonnays (the ones he referred to as “typical”) “oaky-toasty-butter bombs”, (and truthfully he isn’t wrong) – he said this as he was introducing us to his “Faux Chablis”, a mineral driven sipper with good fruit and hay-earthy notes, mainly on the nose, it also had a great long finish.

A believer in aging Rosé till they hit perfection, Clark found it hard to sell his few-year-old pink wines: “they need a few years to develop that great colour,” he said. The public believes that pink has to be fresh vinted (within a year or so of the date on the bottle) – he referred to vintage dates as “expiry dates to the wine buyer”. He got around his dilemma by non-vintage dating his Skinflint Dry Rosé, a blend of the Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc). It had typical strawberry and raspberry notes, along with some of those minerals and hay notes found in the Chardonnay/Chablis.

While I enjoyed the above two wines, I really took a shine to the “Miser” Meritage and Winesmith Cabernet Sauvignon; both had very inviting noses. The Meritage was black fruit, herbal and pencil shaving-ish; while the Cabernet Sauvignon was a red and black fruit mix. In the mouth, the Meritage proved to be more complex, while the Cab Sauv was a simple sipper. But both were excellent and seemingly well priced (approximate retail value: Meritage $15 and Cab Sauv $23); let’s hope we see some of these wines on this side of the border.

Clark finished his talk with a music demonstration – discussing how music can make certain wines taste better. I didn’t agree with his choices. He contended that a specific piece of music makes a particular wine taste better. Now in truth I do believe environment affects your enjoyment of a wine, be it the movie you are watching, music you are listening to, company you keep, mood you are in, where you are … environment and situation can make the worst wine taste better and the best wine taste like vinegar. But whether the Doors “People are Strange” (as Clark suggests) makes a Cabernet Franc taste better than a Cabernet Sauvignon – I’ll leave that up to you. Might I suggest just inviting good friends over and popping the cork on whatever you so desire … I’m sure the mood will take care of your appreciation.

Report from ... Made in Italy - a series of events (4 of 4) – June 12, 2008

See previous write-ups: part 1part 2part 3

Once again the Italians took over a Toronto locale, and once again it was in the Yorkville district. This time it was Studio Snaidero at 33 Hazelton Avenue, and from what I gathered a kitchen decorating and appliance store: all from Italy, as were all the wines – 4 in total again.

So far, it has been the trend on these evenings to have one wine that is a true standout amongst all the others, but this time all four seemed to have something to offer wine lovers.

Sparkling wine was represented by Val d’Oca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 2007 ($16.80 - #340570) light and fruity, easy drinking with apple and lemon drop flavours.

Whites winos could enjoy the Masi 2007 Masianico ($14.95 - #620773) with its pleasant nose loaded with tropical fruit like pineapple and kiwi; on the palate you get a full bodied wine with bruised fruit nuances and pineapple core flavours.

There were also two reds to choose from. The lighter side of red was represented by Cantina Parroco 2006 San Michele Langhe Nebbiolo ($18.50 – Brunello Imports), plum and black fruit with a touch of herbs and spice – very nice, a wine to drink now or wait 2-3 years for. The heavier red came from Serego Alighieri 2005 Poleri del Bello Ovile ($18.95 - #73106) – this was my personal favourite of the evening. It’s a new wine at the LCBO, added May 2008. Made from Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Ciliegiolo this Tuscan red blew me away with its big fruit, plums cherries and good structure; smooth tannins in the mouth, yet with still a few years to go, if you wanted to lie it down.

These were the best set of wines the Italians brought out, over the span of these 4 events; too bad this was (supposedly) the last of these tastings, I think they were finally hitting their stride with these offerings.

Report from ... Discover Australia "A World of Difference" – June 11, 2008

I have to admit that some of these events I go into knowing full well that none of the wines I recommend will be available at your local liquor store (especially not the LCBO – maybe in other parts of the world but not here). That’s because the winery is agentless and even if they find representation at this show it’ll be awhile before you’ll see their wines on our shelves, or through consignment or private order. That also means that the 2005 Shiraz I recommend today will turn into the 2007 Shiraz when it’s finally available here in Ontario. I know, it’s incredibly frustrating – trust me, I feel your pain – I’m the one trying them and even if I wanna get them, I can’t … you’re just reading about how good it is – I actually know. Knowledge might be power, but power sucks when you can’t do anything with it. So until we get another system to bring booze into our province we’re stuck with the short end of the distribution stick.

Today 15 unrepresented wineries from Down Under invaded the Royal York’s Imperial Room in the hopes of scoring themselves an agent, and the opportunity to sell wines in Ontario. I know for a fact that a couple were successful now it’s up t the LCBO to say “yes”. Below is a list of my favourites with a few of their wines that turned me favourably in their direction – let’s hope they were able to turn an agent’s head in the process, so that you too can experience some of these stellar wines.

Beelgara (New South Wales) – good value wines up and down the line from The Vines Shiraz/Cabernet/Merlot to the Winemakers Black Shiraz and the Regional Cabernet Sauvignon.

Linfield Road Wines (South Australia) – they poured both their 2004 and 2005 wines; my favourites were from the 2005 line-up: The Stubborn Patriarch Shiraz, Black Hammer Cabernet Sauvignon and Slab Hut Merlot/Shiraz/Cabernet … all very good single vineyard wines.

Chateau Mildura (Victoria) – they have a European-style label on these new world wines. Real winners included the Psyche Reserve Shiraz and the Psyche Smuggler Petit Verdot.

Galli Estate (Victoria) – they have a Heathcote Shiraz Viognier that proved quite lovely and their Heathcote Block Two Shiraz was also very appealing. They also have a Sunbury line of wines, but I found the Heathcote wines more my speed especially for what I’m looking for in an Aussie wine. The Sunbury is more of a maritime climate while Heathcote is all heat – these really are two very distinct wines from the same winery, even if the grapes read the same on the label. I am told you should look for wines from Galli in the spring of 2009.

Gentle Annie (Victoria) – if there is any justice in the world Annie has found herself an Ontario mate. What can you say about a winery that both barrel ages and bottle ages their wines. The current vintage is the 2003 and both the straight Cabernet Sauvignon and 60/40 Shiraz/Cabernet blend are truly outstanding … these ones would be worth picking-up if only they were here. Here’s hoping that happens soon.

Giant Steps / Innocent Bystander (Victoria) – a tasty pink Moscato proved enticing to the palate, as well as a wild ferment Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay.

Vin 888 (Victoria) – showed off some of the best sweet stuff at the show, and a few dry babies too. A Verdelho, an Autumn Harvest Muscat Blanc, Autumn Harvest Riesling, and a Big Fella Cabernet-Merlot. Of all the dessert wines, the 10-year-old Tokay proved dessert-worthy all on its own, while the Muscat Blanc would have paired well with lighter desserts.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Report from ... Niagara Wine Weekend & Auction – June 13-15, 2008

What other event starts with Peller Ice Cuvee Rosé and ends with the Temptations singing “My Girl” to you at 12:45 in the morning? What other event starts with a look at the future and ends with a blast from the past? And is there another event that starts with Canadian savvy and ends with Motown classics? This is the way the Niagara Wine Auction Weekend was played out.

It started on the Friday evening on the back patio of Peller Estates, where the first glass of wine served to you was the Peller Ice Cuvee Rosé bubbly, while you sipped on that and signed in for the weekend, a bible-sized book was presented to you. The book described the events, wines, auction items, food and wineries, etc. that were to make up this weekend event. A VIP tag was also hung around your neck – proving that you belong and can come and go to events as you please. The “VIP” acronym proved to be very apropos, because it was the kind of treatment you were in store for. Tonight, for three hours, you mixed and mingled, ate finger foods, and sipped on the best pink wines Niagara has to offer (there were also some whites and reds on hand for those adverse to strolling around drinking pink, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Afterward, many went off to winemaker’s dinners at a variety of locales throughout the Niagara region … myself, I retired to a couple of bars to sip on some suds and get my fill of some greasy pub fare, namely Friday night Fish ‘n’ Chips, before the wine really began to flow on Saturday and the decadent foods were served.

“You really have no time to sober up,” my buddy said to me as we prepared for the “Garden Party” the next day. He had left his 18-month old daughter and pregnant wife in the care of his mother-in-law for an opportunity to experience this amazing weekend. The Garden Party was held in the Commons (a large open field in Niagara-on-the-Lake, on John Street, where the gala dinner was also held). 30 restaurants joined 30 wineries for guest to sip and taste the best of what Niagara wine and cuisine were all about … and, of course, there was a barrel auction, silent and live auction – all to raise money for the Hospital for Sick Kids (Toronto) and St. Catharines General Hospital (St. Catharines). The heat of the afternoon did not deter anyone from having a good time or being generous with their donations/bids. The garden party ended mid-afternoon, allowing us 3 hours to rest and freshen up before the big night. As an aside, the barrels of note from the barrel auction were: Chateau des Charmes 2007 Equuleus, EastDell 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve, Jackson-Triggs 2007 Delaine Vineyard Syrah and Thirty Bench 2007 Benchmark Red.

The red carpet was rolled out and cameras clicked and flashed as we entered the Gala Dinner. Tuxes, suits and evening gowns were de rigueur, but then so was a guy in jeans and his very tattooed lady friend – at least he was wearing Lacoste runners to complete the ensemble. The room was aglitter with the beauty of the fairer sex and the twinkle of wine shimmering in the glasses. Ken Shaw from CTV MC’ed, Jann Arden, in her usual flippantly funny and sometimes off-colour off-kilter way, hosted. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jan, I saw her many years ago at the London Convention Centre when she opened for a band called Moxy Fruvous – the next day I went out and bought her first CD and have been a “Jann Fann” ever since – to meet her would have capped the weekend for me, but alas she flew off to Lethbridge to help raise funds to get new uniforms for the workers of the local Tim Horton’s (or so she claimed). Her $100,000 donation to Sick Kids was a touching moment for many; it was followed quickly with typical Jann wit as she promised to borrow “a couple hun from mom and dad” when she got back to Calgary and by the joking-threat of a “$100,000 sexual harassment suit against Ken Shaw” for touching her “inappropriately” on stage. The lady proved to be very quick witted and funny; who else would joke about her new IUD causing feedback in the microphone when chatting up John Peller about the event.

But I have gotten ahead of the festivities to give you the-best-of-Jann, so let’s head back to the party. After the meal, but before dessert, is when the live auction continued, this time with even bigger and better packages than the ones offered in the afternoon. Many included wine and golf with celebrities like Mike Weir, Dan Aykroyd and Wayne Gretzky.

Organizers, Committee and Board members were very pleased with the money raised, “more than last year and we couldn’t be happier,” board member Bruce Walker, of Vincor, told me. Del Rollo, also of Vincor (Committee member), was relieved, “last year there were a lot of last minute phone calls about things we forgot, like potable water, this year I was worried because the phone didn’t ring with those kind of requests. We obviously learned a lot.” And Mark Torrance of the Peller Group and Committee member was also thrilled, “we did better than last year and it’ll get better with every year.” From my perspective there were no missteps, no flaws in execution and the two days ran very smoothly from start to finish. Despite the heat, everyone was able to find their comfort level outside or inside the tented area and the free flowing wine added to the enjoyment.

With the auction over and desert served, Jann said goodnight by introducing the Pointer Sisters who played hits like “jump”, “Neutron Dance”, “So Excited” and a personal favourite “Fire”. Then history took the stage as the Temptation Motowned us the rest of the way home with classics like Just My Imagination, Ball of Confusion, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, and ended their performance with “My Girl” … it was like a night at the Apollo – right here in Niagara … how they’ll top this next year we’ll just have to wait and see, but I have no doubt they will. Wine, food and music – with a big dose of generosity; that pretty much encapsulates the weekend … and one you should annually make room for on your calendar for many years to come. Niagara’s, and for that matter, Ontario’s, wine scene is destined for even greater things to come. This weekend we opened the door to the past with music, but also glimpsed at the future through a glass of wine.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Report from ... A Toast to Dionysus at Mastronardi Winery – June 7, 2008

Dionysus: the Greek God of wine and inspirer of madness. That about sums up A Toast to Dionysus at Mastronardi, now in its third year, an event that features wine, music and a cause – the Irish Rovers put it best when they sang: “wasn’t that a party”, and while no cats were talked to or car chases with police happened – it was a wild time.

The day started with some winery touring of the area (those stops will appear in the newsletter over the months ahead). Then to a specially created dinner at a restaurant in Kingsville called Mephisto’s Grill and Lounge (15 Main Street West) where an awesome “small portion” meal was available. Guests of Dionysus were invited to take part in this $25 a head dinner menu that featured salmon, chicken or beef. I had the chicken medallions, my partner in crime had the beef tenderloin, both came with plenty of fixin’s like potatoes and veggies and both were excellent … I know because we shared. I mentioned the “small portions” part because the waitress told us that usually there’s more food on the plate, but they were requested to scale down because of the hors d’oeuvres being served during the party. The size of the meal was ample as it was and we couldn’t imagine being served more. Now let’s go meet the God of Wine’s disciples.

Might as well get this out of the way right away: the only glitch I heard about, and witnessed, was the confusion over the start time. Clearly printed on the ticket was “6:30PM”, but early arrivals were not allowed entry and were asked to wait in the wine store. Now for those of you who have been you’ll know that Mastronardi’s wine store is not that big, and with over a dozen people the place because cramped and crowded (or so I was told). I opted to wait in the car, with the windows down, and took a brief catnap that my lazy feline would have been jealous of.

Once the doors opened all was forgiven … there was a complementary glass of wine offered upon entry, hors d’oeuvres were served at your table, and wine, water, pop and Sangria were available for purchase (sausages were made available later in the evening for a pay-what-you-want donation charge). The Sangria to which I referred is a Mastronardi exclusive. For $5 a glass you got this fruity concoction made with their Zweigelt-Baco blend (sold by the pail to restaurants and available at events Mastronardi attends or holds) – awesome, thirst quenching and definitely worth the price. Eadie Mastronardi refused to share the recipe with me, beyond the wine used – maybe if you get a few into her she’ll share, but not tonight.

It’s important to remember that Dionysus is a fundraising effort for Batten Disease ( a neurological disease that affects, primarily, children. Our hosts for the evening, Eadie and Tony Mastronardi’s daughter, Brittany, succumbed to the disease at the age of 11, and they have been working tirelessly to promote and raise both awareness of the disease and funds for a cure. The very first bottle of wine made and sold at Mastronardi Winery was called “Brianje” (Brittany Angel) and was, and still is, a Riesling whose proceeds go towards Batten’s. Talk about turning tragedy into a celebration: that is what Dionysus is all about.

I’ve described the booze, the reason for the event, and the 450 people under the big top tent complete with chandeliers (okay – so this is my first mention – see picture on left). But now it’s time to talk about the entertainment. First the bad news … the comedy duo, the Doo Wops, who were suppose to perform, dropped out last minute due to laryngitis – not a good thing for a performer, especially one who talks for a living. A local comedian named Leo Dufour replaced them – he was excellent, but stayed on a little too long, he had lost half the crowd about halfway through his allotted time. Not surprising really, people were there to see Pavlo, who put on an excellent performance – full of life and exotic music, as well as popular favourites. He played “Little Green Bag” with a Mediterranean flair, this proved to be a real highlight of his opening set and he dedicated the song to Eadie Mastronardi.

Intermission was the time for the door prize draw, played out to the theme of Deal or No Deal – with twelve suitcases and models of all shapes, sizes and sexes … though I did notice that the female suitcases were picked first. Pavlo returned to play a rousing rendition of “Bésame Mucho”, with jazz trumpeter Brownman Ali leading the way. He closed with a tune call “Cumbersome” (or that’s what we heard him introduce it as) and promised us all he’d return next year – to much approval of the boisterous wine soaked crowd.

I wish I could report the goings on of the
final act: The Fabulous Soul Shakers, but the combination of an early train the next morning and a previous late night of Adam Sandler films (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry & Reign Over Me) forced me to leave early … though I am told these guys “rock”, especially from a couple of self admitted Soul Shaker Groupies, who claimed they were there more for them than Pavlo (a rarity in this crowd) … maybe next year I’ll have a better understanding of the Bacchanalia I’m getting involved in and catch the right amount of zzz’s the night before.

And with that my night was over, but as I left I scanned the crowd one more time. Eadie was aglow with the excitement of the evening – the planning was over, the enjoy
ment time was here you could see the weight lifted from her shoulders. The crowd was still abuzz from the electrifying performance of Pavlo and it hit me: that as much as this night is about raising money for the charity and awareness for the disease – and is dedicated to the memory of a forever young eleven year old girl – spirits were also raised on this night, both to our lips and in our collective hearts.

Report from ... Portugal Tasting – June 3, 2008

My job, as I see it anyway, is to point you in the direction of two things: 1) good wine and 2) great values on good wine. Portugal offers plenty of those. Sure Portugal’s number one known wine is Port, but there are lots of great Portuguese wines you can drink before or during dinner and without the need for blue cheese or a stinky stogie to puff on.

As aperitif try the Adega Luis Pato 2007 Espumante Maria Gomes (private order $17.00) – a sparkler with a dry palate but plenty of pear and apple as part of its sweet smell.

Esporao Wines has a tasty 2005 4 Castas (~$27.50 – private order) made from the best grapes of the vintage … smooth red and black fruit with a good spiciness. Their $50 Private Selection is their “Rolls Royce” of all their wines – big bite of tannins here with lots of black fruit and good ageing potential.

J. Portugal Ramos Vinhos puts out a line of wines called “Tagus Creek”, which blends an international grape variety with something indigenous; these make for some great introductory wines. Sold widely across the U.K., in places like Tesco, these are tasty and approachable wines that will, hopefully, hit our shores in the coming year or so; and at a very reasonable 12 to 18 dollars a bottle.

Alves de Sousa used to be a Port House, well they still are, but they wanted to expand into wines for dinner too – not just the ones for after. From their 100-year old low yielding vines comes their Vinha de Lordelo 205 ($61.99 – consignment). A beautiful nose of spicy red fruit, smooth and delicious.

I’ve told you about a few wines you can’t buy readily, so let me bring your attention to one that’s at Vintages right now: Quinta da Cortezia 2005 Touriga Nacional ($18.95) – smooth, big red fruit and plummy with a touch of creamy oak and dark chocolate-caramel.

Back to consignment wines: there are three from Casa Agricola Joao E Antonio Pombo … three Herdade Do Meio wines. The 2004 basic Meio (~$34.95) sweet and spicy on the palate. The 2004 Homenagem (~$50) a two grape blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that’s spicier than its predecessor. Then there’s the amazing 2003 Garrafeira (~$50) all indigenous grapes are used in this 4 grape blend, wonderful nose of herbs, spice and red fruit with a sweet mid-palate … this one’s smooth with heat. Best tasting wine of the day.

Finally, I’m gonna be taking advantage of this Deal-of-the-Day, if the folks at Carriage Trade Wines and Spirits in Orangeville will get back to me. A $12 bottle of Quinta da Alorna 2007, a blend of 3 indigenous grapes and Syrah. Chocolate-cherry on the nose and taste with a great mid-palate and smooth finish with really lush tannins. I’m awaiting my call back to order a case – I suggest you call now to get on-board with this one, it’s private ordered directly from the winery and delivery takes 6-8 weeks.

Tasting Chateau Musar – May 25, 2008

A cool spring Sunday evening in Toronto turned into a really cool Sunday evening in Toronto when I got the opportunity to meet and break bread with a real “philosopher of the wine business”, none other than Decanter Magazine’s first ever Man of the Year (1984), Serge Hochar of the Lebanese winery Chateau Musar.

Many of you might not realize that Lebanon (and other wineries in the Middle East – i.e.: Israel) make up the Very Old World wine category (Biblical even). Serge’s father, Gaston Hochar, founded Musar in 1930, he was a banker and businessman who grew leery and tired of the banking business after the First World War, “many people didn’t pay back the money” Serge said. In 1958 Serge took over from his father “with no knowledge of nothing”. His first vintage was the 1959, which he claims is still his best, though by no means does that mean the rest of the vintages he has made have been dogs. Serge is just on of those few parents that can make a choice between his children.

Musar’s red wines contain three grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault, but contain a different percentage of the grapes each year and go through a combination of oak, tank and bottle ageing for 8 years before release (case in point: the current vintage released a few weeks ago at the LCBO is the 2000). The wines have very few winemakers’ manipulation tricks done to them, no chapitilization (addition of sugar), no acidification, no fining or filtering. Serge’s philosophy: “When you’re a winemaker you have the luck to work with something that is alive and you should never kill it.”

On this night I got the opportunity to taste 5 vintages of the Chateau Musar reds: 2000, 1999, 1998, 1991 and 1981 with an average alcohol between 14 and 14.5% and all are being presented to the LCBO for consideration. Two of these wines really stood out to me. The 1998 showed a great smooth almost sweet palate with muted raspberry and cherry elegance. But the real find on the table was the 1981. Serge said, “as Musar gets older it grows younger” – very Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he’s talking about the evolution of the tannins in the bottle. This wine seemed younger on both the nose and palate, than the 1991 and showed more finesse than any other on the table. Darker than the ‘ 91, and seemingly much fresher, great fruitiness, drier sweetness (if that’s at all possible as a descriptor) than the 1998 and ever changing with each sip. There were sweet herbs, soft fruit and tertiary flavours from the barrel. I asked for 3 refills and got 3 mouthfuls – the wine was in limited supply but big demand from all assembled. All wines retail from $54.95.

A week or so later I had another Musar opportunity when fellow wine writer Konrad Ejbich invited me to his home to taste one of his favourite wines, the 1978 Musar, which he bought in 1986 for $16.95 a bottle. A sublime and exquisite experience in wine tasting, so many different flavours and smells, enough to almost overwhelm the senses; if not for my natural human nature to be inquisitive, I felt the need to try and define exactly what we were tasting and smelling. Like two geeks pouring over the latest video game, Konrad and I spent a good half-hour throwing out descriptors and relishing this 30-year-old bottle. After we proclaimed its brilliance Konrad asked, “you know what’s even better?” there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “the 1977. I’d share it with you but it’s my anniversary wine (the year he and the missus were married) and my wife and I open one every year to celebrate.” What a great tradition and what a great wine to have it with … proving these wines from Musar – like a good marriage, truly can stand the test of time.

Foster’s California Winemakers on Tour – May 28, 2008

California has been coming to town a lot lately … it’s part of the on-going push to get California back on top of the new world wine heap. This time the Foster’s Wine Group organized their Winemakers on Tour program: 9 wineries, including Beringer, Etude, Stag’s Leap, Greg Norman and Cellar No. 8 along with their winemakers, took time out to pour, taste and talk about their wines. A California Cabernet seminar preceded the tasting, but my invitation got lost in the mail, so I will be reporting only on the wines I tasted.

Cab rules California, so you’ll find tons at any tasting where California wines are the focus. I start any California tasting believing that most will taste the same, so it is up to the winery/winemaker to prove they truly have done something really different and interesting with this grape. The folks at Beringer were otherwise occupied, so I decide to run the gamut of their Cabs to see if I could taste the difference between the $23.75 Third Century Cab 2004 (#47704), the $29.95 Napa Valley Cab 2004 (#552851), the $39.75 Knights Valley Cab 2005 (#352583) or the Private Reserve 2002 ($119.95 - #552851). The real difference was in the tannins. The further up in price, the smoother the tannins, the sweeter the fruit, until I hit the ’02 Private Reserve, where those tannins became downright silky. Then there was the elegance of the 1998 Private reserve, poured from a 3L bottle (double magnum); it was in a league all by itself. Speaking of classy, the 2006 Alluvium Blanc ($29.95) – a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier is surly one to search out; best white on the floor today – each grape brought something to the blend - floral, melon, pear with a citrus finish and good acidity that proves itself to be quite crisp, until the very end where it flattens out. Delicious.

On the subject of blends, I was glad to get away from straight Cabs to try St. Clement’s “Oroppas”. Labeled as a “Cabernet Sauvignon”, but with elements of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in the blend … the 2001 had 15% and 4% respectively while the 2002 added 4% Petit Verdot to its 15% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. The 2002 “Oroppas” was the nicest red I tried this afternoon: plenty of spice and floral on the nose, delicious black fruit especially black cherry, with smooth, supple tannins. Could sip on this one all night with or without food.

Stag’s Leap Winery brought more “others” than Cabs and their 2005 Ne Cede Malis ($89.95) Petit Syrah was rich, chocolaty and black fruit oriented – this is a limited quantity wine, especially the Canadian allotment (which is something like 10 cases) so search this one out carefully, and if you find it snap it up.

I’ll end with a wine that has been extremely popular since Miles and Jack put it back in our collective consciousness. Etude 2005 Carneros Pinot Noir ($69.95) – lots of red fruit and berries, including strawberries and punchy tannins. Quite lovely.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Report from ... Archibald’s 9th Annual Fruit Wine and Food Festival – Saturday May 31, 2008

For those who haven’t been to Archibald’s lately, you’re missing out on an extraordinary place. The main store seems to have expanded and there’s now a golf course on the property. It has been a few years since I have attended their fruit wine festival, and the last time I did I discovered one of the more unique wineries in all of Ontario – Moon Shadows Estate Winery – the first maple syrup based winery – and potentially still the only.

Today, nine wineries from as far a field as Haliburton, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Buckhorn – to as close as W
hitby and Stouffville converged on Archibald’s (located in Bowmanville) to pitch their wares under the greenhouse roof. There were also 15 different eateries/producers/specialty shops with a variety of foods: from the sweet - pastry and mousse, the savoury - beef-pesto and spicy chicken skewers, and the downright delicious - beef Wellington and mini-buffalo burgers. All while lounge act Simon Maxwell (complete with winks and points out to the crowd) gave perfect renditions of jazz standards. Then the rains came, in buckets and in waves, but thankfully there was enough cover that the greenhouse didn’t get over-crowded and nobody ran screaming for cover – there was plenty of room for people to sit, eat and drink while waiting for the inevitable return of the sunshine.

The Food …
With all the foods to choose from there were two tempters that really tickled
the tummy. Chef John McKinnon’s pulled pork was scrumptious and warmed the inside through the teaming rains; while the Oshawa Golf & Country Club’s smoked chicken wrap with grapefruit mayo was perfectly light fare for when the sun was out. If you put on in each hand you were ready for whatever Mother Nature would bring.

The Wines …

I learned that Southbrook’s Framboise is now under screwcap, to lock in that raspberry fre
shness. This new batch was produced at the new Niagara winery – a little heavier than in previous years, with very intense raspberry flavour – almost Port-like in consistency.

But the
real winners in the beverage department turned out to be Moon Shadows and Applewood. Matt Passafiume (Applewood) has concocted an amazing new Sparkling MacMeade cider ($12.95) that combines wildflower honey with MacIntosh apples. It has a wonderful floral nose, with a touch of honey and apples … the palate is light and refreshing and at only 7% alcohol it’s an all day type of drink. But don’t just take my word for it, this wine/mead concoction won Double Gold at the All Canadian Wine Championships 2008 – deservedly so. Another amazing and innovative product from the mind behind Applewood, who also brought to life Hard 8 Raspberry Cider, another fantastic summer beverage.

Moon Shadows (from Haliburton) also have themselves a winner, but no hardware, yet … and actually by my count he has two here. There’s the 8.5% Cranberry Ice ($22.95/375ml) – it’s a 22 on the sugar code, but it maintains all the tart and tang of Cranberry juice, your mouth actually
puckers. I don’t throw the word amazing around too often, but it can definitely be used for their new Iced Peach ($18.95/375ml), higher alcohol (14%) than the cranberry and less sugar content (18). Now before you get hung up on the sugar numbers I will tell you that there is no way you could tell either of these wines were that sweet from the taste – they are to be tried to be believed. The peaches, for this wine, are sourced from Niagara and their aromas simply radiate from the glass. The wine is sweetened with maple syrup, but there is no maple flavour – just pure peaches (with no sickeningly sweet cocktail sauce). I can’t describe the beauty of this wine to you – it is something you just have to taste to believe, it really is/was the must try of the afternoon, and worth the trip up to Haliburton … forget amazing, “awesome” just might be a better descriptor.