Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Report from ... Fiesta Buckhorn - July 18, 2009

The morning threat of rain actually turned into a nice day, 20° partly cloudy with enough sun and breeze to make it comfortable. "This place is usually blisteringly hot this time of year," one patron said to me, "but because and this lousy summer …” his sentence trailed off as he took a sip of wine, “… delicious” he concluded. I suspect he wasn't talking about the summer. On the other hand, it was a delicious day full of wine, food, beer and a variety of other distractions at this year's 14th annual Fiesta Buckhorn. "I found the crowd to be lighter than last year," said one winemaker; while another winery owner said he thought they had the same traffic as in previous years. Just to break the tie I checked in with another winery principal who said, "I wasn't here last year and truth is I can't remember; seems about the same - but people come in waves ... here comes one now." She said walking to the center of her booth to greet a gaggle of glass toting folks (a gaggle is more than five but less than twelve).

I started my day off right, with a pulled pork sandwich at noon, from Archibald Estate Winery and a glass of their hard cider (apple). I asked Fred Archibald if he makes it himself and he told me it was with the help of a place called Buster Rhino’s in Whitby - a southern barbecue restaurant whose menu looks very tasty, especially for all those pork lovers.

There was a couple of new wineries on hand, Ridge Road from Niagara, who will be opening in a couple of weeks, were pouring four wines, or which the best was the 2007 Vineridge Blend ($12.95), a Traminette, Guissenheim, Vidal Riesling blend which was quite the peachy-appley summer sipper with a nice pear finish (***), followed closely by the 2007 Riesling. The other newbie at the show was Nyarai Cellars, a venture started by winemaker Steve Byfield. He was pouring his four wine line-up. I have previously reviewed his Sauvignon Blanc (flagship wine) and Cabernet-Merlot - today I got a taste of his Syrah and 2007 Chardonnay ($16.00). The Syrah was a late in the day sip and by that time my palate had been overwhelmed by everything else, but the Chardonnay was earlier in the day and proved to be a great buy at only sixteen bucks.

Steve's winemaking partner (at Calamus), Arthur Harder, showed he’s still the master of Riesling with the 2008 Ridgepoint Dry Riesling ($15.25), a simply gorgeous wine on a hot day.

Heavy red of the day goes to Marynissen’s 2007 Solstice ($22.00), a wine with plenty of bite and tannic punch that, on its own, overwhelmed but would pair nicely with many of the grilled meats and savory dishes being served in Buckhorn today.

Vineland is up to their old tricks again, producing a delightful Cabernet Franc at an “I can't believe the price" of $12.95 … this was my first taste of the 2008 Cabernet Franc and once again Brian Schmidt is doing wonders with this wine at this price point. Also be on the look out for the new label and bottle design.

Shame on Buckhorn

Speaking of old tricks, and this one I'm not kidding about, it would seem that Vincor was up to some of their old ones. I was about to compliment them for having an all VQA table featuring Inniskillin wines and their new “Open” line for tasting; but right beside it was Naked Grape wine and spritzers. They also had their incredibly misleading “go local” sign that shows a bottle of Cellared in Canada, white label Jackson-Triggs wine. So why is this a black eye for Buckhorn? Because at an all Canadian wine event, meaning that every winery is pouring either a VQA or 100% product of Ontario wines, to allow one company to bring in foreign product (namely Cellared in Canada – that has only a minimum of 30% Ontario wine and the rest foreign juice) is downright shameful, and so is that sign. This is an all Ontario event and there is no room for that kind of deception. It was also pointed out to me that Corona beer should not have been there either (the beer is made in Mexico), amongst all the 100% Ontario based breweries ... Buckhorn, get your act together!

Ending on a high note

I don't like leaving on a downer so here are two things to be proud of: the Ontario Viticulture Association (OVA) was in attendance with a slew of their members wines -they also had a table devoted to the facts about the Ontario wine industry in the hopes of educating the assembled and interested public. "I think we're starting to get through to people," an OVA representative said to me, "it will take some time but there’s a groundswell building." He too was offended by the Naked Grape in attendance. The OVA was also pushing for of petition to celebrate the bi-centennial of the Ontario wine industry – their sign read: “Did You Know? In 1811 Ontario’s first commercial winery was established in Cocksville. This year, OVA will be petitioning the Ontario Legislature to declare 2011 as the bi-centennial of the Ontario wine industry.” 200 years of Ontario winemaking … while not always the most impressive wines that kind of history is impressive. It would be nice to do something positive for this ailing industry … to focus on the positive. This recognition is a step in the right direction; but it seems that as the wine improves government support dwindles - figure that out.

Finally … Wine of the Day

The honor goes to Thirteenth Street Winery for their 2007 Gamay Noir … which I gave the full 5 stars to in my most recent newsletter (Newsletter #113 - online July 23, 2009).

Report from ... Matt Dusk at Chateau des Charmes - July 12, 2009

It was quite the jazz filled weekend … first it was the Jazz Festival at Hillebrand, then Sunday to Chateau des Charmes for a double bill of Cates-Fomin and headliner Matt Dusk in support of the St. Catharines General Hospital Foundation. Where Hillebrand’s jazz was more free form in nature and with a much larger crowd; the Chateau was a more intimate (210 people) old school smooth jazz affair under the tent. Stephen Treadwell catered the delectable lunch of beef short rib and risotto, before Cate-Fomin took the stage for a 30 minute two man show that had the crowd grooving to their kind of soulful jazz. Matt Dusk appeared in a cream colored pinstriped suit to lay tunes upon us like Back in Town, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off and my personal favorite (and request) Miracle. All culminated in the grand finale of the Paul Anka-penned, Frank-Sinatra-famous “My Way” encore, which Matt said he would do only if the crowd came up onto the dance floor. It truly was a magical, fun filled afternoon - and what a place to hold it, staring out at the beauty of the vineyards, in the shadow of the escarpment, and sipping on Gamay Noir ‘Droit’, Estate Chardonnay and a plethora of other Chateau des Charmes wines.

Report from ... Hillebrand Jazz Festival - July 11, 2009

For the second year in a row, after eighteen years without, Hillebrand was looking down the barrel of a rainstorm on jazz day. The morning arrived with cloudy skies, which opened wide at about 9:00 AM and dumped the wet stuff on Niagara for more than an hour; even worse, the forecast called for it to continue all day. Contingency plans were made and even the idea of what to do if they had to (God forbid) cancel, was floated as a last resort, mostly because there was lightning in the forecast, and nobody wants to be onstage attached to an electrical instrument when the lightning strikes. Thankfully none of that came to fruition because the skies cleared, for the most part (there was still a few sprinkles interspersed during the show) and the festival went on without a hitch.

Up in the winemakers tower sixteen folks including myself, my fiancĂ© Erica, Darryl Brooker (winemaker), his wife, the godfather of Canadian wine writing Tony Aspler, his wife, Master Sommelier John Szabo plus wife and child, Rod Phillips from Ottawa and others, all sat and enjoyed a lovely lunch prepared by chef Frank Dodd and his staff while listening to the sounds of (amongst others) Joe Sealy and the Shuffle Demons (who brought even us in the tower to our feet as they stole the show). Highlights of the lunch were "Wellington" County beef rib eye, wild salmon and herbs, Ted's Arctic char and a chilled sweet pea soup with smoked bacon ice cream (I couldn’t have made that one up even if I had tried). It was truly a lovely afternoon. Of course, no afternoon spent at a winery is complete without wine, and many were poured, not just with lunch, but also as aperitif and sneak peak at the new wines coming out from Hillebrand. My top five are below (some of which I have reviewed before):

1 - 2008 Showcase Ghost Creek Vineyard Riesling - $25.00 (*****)
2 - 2007 Trius Red - $21.95 (*****)
3 - 2008 Artists Series Limited Edition Sauvignon Blanc - $16.95 (****½)
4 - 2008 Trius Unoaked Chardonnay - $14.25 (****½)
5 – 2008 Trius Cabernet Franc - $15.25 (****)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Report from ... 10 Years of Treana with Austin Hope - June 4, 2009

What does Treana, Austin Hope, Liberty School and Candor Wines all have in common? They all fall under the purview of Hope Family Wines, a winery started in 1978 as one of the first wineries in Paso Robles (halfway between San Francisco and L.A.). Back then there were 4 wineries and only 1000 acres of grapes planted, today there are 180 wineries in the region and 30,000 acres of grapes; if you consider that the Paso appellation is about 600,000 acres all told, that means that 5% of the land within the appellation is planted to grapes. The Paso appellation also has some 10-12 microclimates within it and the diurnal temperature (high to low) in a 24-hour period can range, some 40-50 degrees. But back to Hope Family …

In the beginning the winery saw themselves as mainly a Cabernet house and planted the majority of their vineyards to this grape. In 1996, they began making their signature blend Treana, a mainly Cabernet blend with other grapes they grew thrown in for added complexity. As we learned from this 10-year retrospective tasting, Treana has always been a work in progress (see notes below).

Hope Family’s other big name wine label is Liberty School, a brand started in the 70’s by Caymus, but then it was set adrift when Caymus decided to focus their attention on their own signature wine. The Liberty School brand was finally rescued, from certain death (and sure ridicule), by Hope in 1995, turning it into a value priced, quality brand.

Finally, the newest member of the Hope Family of wines is Candor. Currently, only two non-vintage wines are made under the label: Merlot and Zinfandel, two varietals that winemaker Austin (Hope) loves to make wine from. The hope (no pun intended) is to make “reasonably priced good wine” in the line. Instead of vintage dated they will be lot numbered and use grapes from a variety of vintages, their alcohol level will be around 14%. The desire with these wines is to be “honest with people” about how they are made (Candor), as Austin put it “Truth Defined”.

Today’s tasting consisted of 10 red Treana wines (1996-2006) and the current releases of Liberty School (3 wines) – here’s how the best shake out:

Liberty School
2007 Chardonnay - $16.95
A nose of lemon, apple, peach and vanilla – full lees contact throughout its barrel (American / French) life cycle of 7 to 9 months … palate is very tasty with vanilla, pineapple and tropical fruit. (3 ½ stars)

2005 Syrah - $17.95
Very lovely Syrah with aromas of raspberry, strawberry and white pepper – on the palate its even better with lots of red fruit, white pepper, a touch of tannins and some cherry chocolate on the finish. (4 stars)

10 Years of TREANA – Signature Reds
All wines were aged in French wood, because of the way it imparts elegance and finesse over time … Austin calls American oak “an instant gratification barrel” and too fast for his purposes.

Treana 1996
Their very first year producing this wine, it was made with 5 grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Merlot and Sangiovese. There’s a hint of oxidation here and it didn’t stand up for the hour long tasting, but when first poured it smelled of dried red fruit, licorice, spice and cinnamon – flavours were dried fruit, leaves with mocha-cinnamon notes and some perceptible alcohol heat.

Of Interest … how Treana changed:
1998 – Sangiovese replaced by Mourvedre
1999 – Mourvedre dropped, now a blend of 4 grapes
2000 – blend now down to three grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot
2002 – deemed not worth releasing, sold to Air Canada “for a song”

Treana 2003
Very inviting nose. Flavours are complex and tasty: good fruit, plum, cherry, black licorice, chocolate and gritty tannins.

Treana 2004
Now a two grape blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Nose of mint, black fruit, a little pepper and strawberry jam – well balanced and pleasant palate, sweet entry – black fruit, jammy, herbal and very enjoyable … good acidity makes the balance just right.

Treana 2005
Very Aussie in style, with big fruit, soft tannins, lots of black and red fruit throughout.

Treana 2006
First year to use a longer, colder fermentation (40-60 days on skins) – in 1996-2005 it was 7-10 days. Big ripe fruit, vanilla, cherry on the nose, palate has black fruit, coffee, mocha, lots of mouth presence, with nice tannins, acidity and fuzzy tingly tannins.

Top 3 wines: 2003 – 2004 and 2006

Special Mention -
Treana 2007 White (53% Viognier – 47% Marsanne)
Nose is pineapple, tropical and orange peel – there’s a slight sweetness to the mid-palate but the finish is dry with good acid. Austin says it ages very well and they are currently drinking the 1997 version at home.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Report from ... 42 wines, 21 wineries, 1 unforgettable place - May 28, 2009

The iyellow wine club had an interesting idea: why not bring the 21 wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto for a tasting. You know, those wineries that put on such events as Taste the Season, Wine and Herb and Wine and Chocolate. Well Ange and Pax (the folks behind the iyellow club) arranged for those 21 wineries to come to Toronto to present 2 wines each, hence 42 wines from 21 wineries. The event was held at the Toronto Board of Trade in downtown Toronto and was perfect for bringing the beauty of Niagara wines to the heart of the city. Now you can read some of my reviews of such wines as Hillebrand’s 2008 Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling; Palatine’s 2007 Gewurztraminer and Marynissen’s 2007 Bottoms Up blend, that were at the show and all featured in a newsletter at some point in the past few months. You’ll also see in the coming weeks reviews for such wines as the Cattail Creek 2007 Cabernet Franc, Maleta 2005 Cabernets and Peller’s 2008 Private Reserve Pinot Gris … keep checking the wine reviews section of the website or sign up for the newsletter to stay updated. But there is one winery from these 21 that I would like to single out for some special mention and a plea or sorts. I met up with winemaker Jamie Evans, of Stonechurch, who was pouring barrel samples of the Ontario Wine Awards Gold medal winning, 2007 Syrah Reserve and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, both are stunning wines from the equally stunning vintage of 2007: “the best red vintage ever in Ontario”. Problem is, the winery went into receivership a few months ago, Jaime was trying to drum up interest in these wines so they will hopefully see the light of day under the Stonechurch label (meaning: get bottled for consumer purchase). If there is any justice in the world, financing will find a way into place to that these wines will indeed be labeled and sold under the Stonecurch name and Jaime will get the credit he so richly deserves for creating these beauties. I will now step off my soapbox.

As for the 42-21-1 event, both wineries and consumers agreed that this was an excellent showcase for the wines, the venue worked well, the food was delicious and the attendees were interested in the wines being poured; but most of all, that the event should be repeated again next year … and I am in full agreement there.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Report from ... Twilight in the Vineyard with Chantal Kreviazuk - Saturday June 27, 2009

A fairly lazy day turned into a very lazy, and music filled, night - and as the old saying goes, a day without music is like a day without sunshine, and trust me, this day had plenty of that too.

Our day in Niagara began with a mid-afternoon trip to Lailey Vineyard to try a couple of 2008 whites (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc - not yet released), 2007 Chardonnay (set for bottling in July) and a peak at a couple of Pinot Noirs (2007 – awesome – & 2008 – coming along nicely). In the late afternoon we found ourselves at Cattail Creek, where we sampled the 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay, Serendipity RosĂ©, Gewurztraminer and got a sneak peak at the soon to be released Select Late Harvest Meritage (a real winner in my books).

But the piece-de-resistance (as they say), and our reason for being in Niagara in the first place, the opening of the 9th Annual Twilight in the Vineyard concert series at Jackson-Triggs, starring Chantal Kreviazuk. Now, for those who have read my previous Jackson-Triggs Twilight write ups, you’ll know that I seem to be a jinx for the caterers’ performance. One year the caterer ran out of food, the following year the caterer was late; this year I decided to give the concert a fighting chance of getting a good review, and not even bother with signing up for the dinner. As I walked into Jackson-Triggs and was presented with my tickets I was told, “The Vineyard Grill is going wonderfully well”, not once, not twice, but at least three times by three different people. And it was true. Smiles were on the faces of those sitting or standing with plates and there was no griping. I wandered over to the food tent to get a glimpse of what was on the menu, there seemed to be plenty of food to choose from and many stations you could wander up to to fill your plate. A J-T staff member (Stacey) offered me a sampling of the night’s fare, as I stood in line for water and wine. I’ll never say “no” to a light bite. What she put together for me was a small plate with a bean and pea salad, grilled veggies, roasted mini potatoes, salmon and pork loin – all delicious, and served at just the right temperature. I wandered back into the food tent to get some pictures and bumped into the man behind tonight’s delicacies, chef Michael Olson. We spoke for a bit about the food and the evening. Michael told me he had done his homework, “there are two things you never do in the catering business,” he said in his usual jovial tone, “arrive late or run out of food. You can get drunk, start a fight, set fire to a table - but never arrive late or run out of food.” He gave out a jovial laugh as he finished reciting his rules of catering and with that we shook hands and he was off to tend to one of the food stations, to talk with his staff. I caught up with him about 5-minutes later doing some hands on work with the pork loin (see picture at left). I should also mention the delicious desserts, of which the mini-strawberry shortcake was a personal favourite. Now it was time to wait for the night’s main event.

Finally, the wait was over, Del Rollo appeared on stage, as he does every year, to welcome us all and hype the night, and the upcoming season. With a cheer Del turned and was hugged by the emerging Chantal K, who took her seat at the piano, pulled the mike in close, and tinkled the first few bars of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’, which was greeted with an appreciative roar from the crowd; she began singing just as a single-engine jobbies flew over-head. Music and banter filled the amphitheatre, wine flowed and people sang along with the songs they knew (and head-bobbed to those they didn’t - including a sampling of some new material from her upcoming album). It was the perfect end to a perfect lazy day in Niagara. Chantal called the Jackson-Triggs venue her favourite “and I get to play Massey Hall,” she said. “With the crowd, the wine, the beautiful Niagara location in the vineyard, what more could you ask for?” What more indeed. I now find myself looking forward to the 10th Annual Twilight series.

If you’ll permit me to voice my wishlist for the 10th season … My two cents would start with the boys from Great Big Sea who I think would bring a perfect celebratory atmosphere to such an auspicious anniversary occasion - and I’m sure there brand of down-home East Coast ‘kitchen party’ is just was the celebration calls for. A comedy festival would be a welcome 10th anniversary present for the audience, or how about a one-day concert event to commemorate the occasion. Of course I am just spit balling here, but what the heck. But that’s a whole summer away, still to come this year is Bruce Cockburn, David Usher and two other acts that don’t immediately come to mind.