Saturday, January 31, 2009

Report from ... Calamus Futures Tasting at Cafe Taste - January 27, 2009

A cold Tuesday night sees me arriving late (I did not know it was a formal sit down event) at Cafe Taste for the Calamus Futures Tasting. First, a little note about the venue: located at 1330 Queen Street West in Toronto, this little hole-in-the-wall bills itself as a European-style wine, cheese and coffee bar that specializes in the local: serving 80% VQA wines (40 by the glass - which includes dessert wines), and over 30 cheeses from both Ontario and Quebec. They also bake their own bread and biscotti … very impressive stuff. While there I tried cheeses, bread and a variety of sliced meats, but failed to get even a nibble off the end of a biscotti - dang. I’ve gotten sidetracked here it’s time to move on to the main event, the new soon-to-be offerings from Calamus.

For those who've never been, Calamus is located near Balls Falls in the Twenty Valley region of Niagara. They used to boast the area's smallest tasting room (maybe in all of Ontario), but they have greatly expanded the room and added an upper level and at deck for use during nice weather (yes we do get some here) … and one should not forget the telescope dome complete with operating telescope.

Winemaker Arthur Harder led a room of about 30+ people through a tasting of six wines (two whites, four reds) from the outstanding 2007 vintage; my top three were as follows:

3) 2007 Vinemount Ridge Riesling, $16.95 - available at the LCBO only Fall 2009 … the second of Calamus’ ‘07 Rieslings, a nose that has whiffs of green apple and citrus; plenty of mineral on the palate with the green apple and citrus carrying over from the nose onto the palate. Good crisp acidity aids in leaving you with a refreshed palate ready for the next sip.

2) 2007 Cabernet Franc, ~$18.00 – release date pending … 300 cases were made of this textbook Franc, minus the telltale green pepper; which goes to show what a hot vintage takes away ... but what it leaves behind more than makes up for it. The nose has smoky blackberry, cassis, chocolate, tobacco and toasted spices. The palate follows in the same vein adding a smoky-toasty-cherry-tobacco and mocha/coffee flavour on the finish. When all is said and done the wine will have spent sixteen to eighteen months in a combination of French and American oak. (Currently still in barrel)

1) 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, ~$23.00 – release pending ... the same specifications can be said for the soon-to-be outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon, and it's well worth a few extra dollars for this red (over the Cab Franc). There is great depth, weight and complexity on both the nose and in the mouth. The nose is going to develop more complex aromas over time - currently you'll get smoky-spicy-bittersweet chocolate tones that'll accost the nose. The palate is wonderful and brings much to the table: black cherry, cassis, vanilla, herbs, spice, smoky notes and silky tannins that don't overpower the tongue ... the finish is long with lots of dark fruit. Only 300 cases were made and if there's any justice in the stars it shan’t last long on the shelf … even at $23.00.

Report from ... Icewine Festival Winery Tour - January 24-25, 2009

This year's Icewine Festival, for all intents and purposes, was another rousing success. The crowds came, despite the below average temperatures both weekends, frequenting both the wineries and the outdoor events. I’m partial to the winery hopping, it's just warmer, I don't like fighting crowds at the best of times and in -16 to -21° that would seem unbearable. But there were plenty who bundled up with mitts, scarves, hats, ear warmers and hot pockets to brave the elements - none braver than those souls from the wineries who poured at the outdoor Icewine bars and lounges all day. So, to keep warm, a-winery-hopping I did go and I am here to report on the best-of-the-best (or at least the best of my twelve visits):

As usual I was on wine duty, while my foodie, Erica, was on “nibbly” detail ...later we compared notes as to the best-of-the-best: top three food, top three wines, the best combination and finally a few other “awards” thrown in for good measure .

Best Food (as selected by Erica) …

1) EastDell took top prize with their spicy chowder … I don't do well with spice so I was offered some butternut squash soup, which I have to admit was delicious. I’m told the chowder was “second bowl worthy.”

2) Reif ... my influence on the foodie came out here with my unrelenting sweet tooth along with a diminishing sense of adventure (I find as I get older I‘m feeling less and less adventurous). Reif sent you out-of-doors to one of their two fire pits where you roasted an Icewine infused marshmallow to make S’mores … Yum-mee.

3) According to foodie Erica, desserts are easy to pair, the more interesting food related pairing were the ones that went for things on the savoury side, “ they show a little more inventiveness and take a little more effort”, I was told. And with that criteria in mind she unveiled a three-way tie: Coyote’s Run’s Curried Pork, Inniskillin’s Truffle Oil Cauliflower Soup and Fielding’s Icewine Infused Mushroom Soup. I guess a cold day just called for soup.

Best Wine (as chosen by Michael) …

The best descriptor for Icewine that I know is that "it tastes like Icewine”, therefore I was looking for uniqueness; something different; something that showed character above and beyond the norm.

1) EastDell outdid themselves with this outstanding 2007 Riesling Icewine (their first ever), delicacy of flavour along with good acidity made this the heads-and-tails winner over the wines tried

2) Dan Aykroyd 2007 Cabernet France Icewine; it would seem the Diamond group knows how to impress with the sweet stuff; this was one of the best red Icewines of our two day adventure, a nice balancing act between fruit, sweetness and acidity.

3) No tie here, Pilitteri’s delicate and delicious 2004 Late Harvest Cabernet is a great example of restrained sweetness.

Best Combination (we put our heads together) …

Erica’s a fan of savoury, I prefer the sweet. She’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll … she liked the combination of EastDell’s spicy chowder with the delicate, calming effect of the Riesling Icewine; I chose the S’mores from Reif which was paired with your every day Vidal Icewine - it just seemed so classic and so Canadian - like a horse and carriage, they went perfect together.

Two Other Awards …

Most Apologetic … the boys at Palatine could not say sorry enough times, because they had run out of their delicious (sounding anyway) specialty cheese topped with almond brittle.

Best Cleared Driveway … it's cold outside, it has snowed quite a bit and the people are coming, time to shovel the parking lot – some were like ice rinks, while others looked haphazard and more than a little hazardous; but the best cleaning job award goes to Wayne Gretzky. Who would've guessed that a guy who spent his professional career on the ice would know how to clean it; forget coaching and the winery business Wayne, time to suit up and man the Zamboni.

Report from ... The Trefethen Dinner - January 18, 2009

I find myself at the Niagara Street Cafe in downtown Toronto where Loren Trefethen (no title, but obviously part of the family) is hosting, along with Nick Hirons of Merchant Vintners, a dinner to introduce many of us to the line of Trefethen wines: a winery that celebrated 40 years of a uninterrupted winemaking in 2008; and a winery whose history is as interesting as their wines.

Loren, who my father would term a "long hair" told those in attendance a brief history of the Napa Valley starting from the first grape plantings in 1850 by Krug, and the first planting on the now Trefethen property in 1856. He took us through the first Napa-boom in 1910, when 104 wineries were located in the valley; the bust period, when a combination of phyloxera, world war, prohibition and depression plunged the once burgeoning and robust Napa landscape into a series of “ghost wineries” - abandoned because there was no money and no market for wine. 1968, when the next great boom in Napa began, when the likes of his grandfather, Eugene (Gene for short), bought land and planted (or re-planted, as the case may be) grapes, starting with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, then moving into Riesling and Cabernet. In 1968, the Trefethen’s had 600-acres under vine, today they have a combination of 437 on the estate and 25 in the hills - the region's largest continuous grape acreage. You may have noticed, if you do the math, a loss of acreage here - that was due to a combination of factors: need for cash to replant the vineyard and a schucking of lands that no longer suited their needs. As winemakers they wanted to focus their attention on quality of grapes and not just mass tonnage; the feeling was that the terroir was more important, along with their positioning in the field (were they grew) in producing the best possible fruit for wine. Ironically, some of the lands they sold have been found to make award-winning Merlots.

Loren also focused our attention on the late seventies, in particular to the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting (when the U.S. bested France in both the Chardonnay and Cabernet categories) and the eventual rematches in both 1979 and 1980. In 1979, France, feeling they had been hoodwinked in ’76, held the World Wine Olympics to prove their wine dominance, approximately 900 wines were entered - mainly from France and Italy with a smattering of U.S. products. Once again the U.S. prevailed, this time it was a Trefethen Chardonnay that took the white award. Crying foul play the Chardonnay judging was replayed in 1980 - again Trefethen won. But Loren was quick to point out that one (’76) could not exist without the other (‘79 and ’80): "without the ‘76 tasting there would be no ’79 and ‘80 face-off; while ‘79 and ’80 validated the ‘76 results."

We tasted through eight wines, of which only two are available in Ontario (pity), and the reason for a dinner, instead of just a structured tasting, was explained to us: "these wines are tied to food," Loren said, "we put them on our table at dinner and that's where they truly shine."

Before getting to the wine, I must send some kudos out to a couple of the food choices: the Pork Hock, Crispy Sweet and Sour course (appetizer) and a cured and hot smoked wild B.C. salmon (second course) - both were off-the-chart good; the panna cotta dessert was also something very special … - as for the wines, here are my top three choices of must try Trefethen wines:

1) 2007 Estate Dry Riesling (~$35.00 - not available in Ontario) … those who believe that Riesling cannot grow in Napa, think again; this one's awesome. The nose is loaded with flavors: poached pear, petrol, mineral and lime nuances. The palate follows the nose with big mineral, petrol and citrus/lime appeal; good crisp acidity on the finish, there’s a hint of botrytisized grapes which add depth of character … one fantastic Riesling, with or without food.

2) 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($69.95 - available at Vintages) … a gold medal winner at the concourse Mondiale 2008, and no wonder … big fruit greets the nose, vibrant, lush and beautiful with spicy/herbal notes that carry the fruit. The palate does not disappoint either, chocolate notes on the mid-palate lead to a big cherry-blackberry finish along with good acidity and fine tannins … oooo mama. is this ever tasty.

3) Finally, the 2003 HaLo (~$254.00 - not available in Ontario) … forget the price for a moment, this wine is big and wild, robust and mouth-filling - with lots of age-ability. The grapes are grown on a 25-acre plot known as the Hillsprings vineyard and named after the children Haley and Loren. Loren actually got all misty-eyed describing the wine and it’s meaning to him. Bottom line, it's big and limited (only 5484 bottles produced - each individually numbered). The nose is incredibly spicy with blackberries, cassis, cinnamon, nutmeg and good oakiness, derived from the 30 months it spends in cask. Taste has herbal notes along with big blackberry, oak and spice with hefty tannins. This one should age exceptionally well over the next 10+ years.

Thanks to the Niagara Street Café for a great dinner, Merchant Vintners for inviting me and especially to that long-haired Loren Trefethen for bringing these incredible wines to our attention, and the table.