Friday, November 20, 2009

Report from ... Taste the Season 2009, Niagara-on-the-Lake – November 14 & 15, 2009

This year’s Taste the Season event in Niagara-on-the-Lake was like all the others: each winery puts forth a food and wine pairing for passport holders; its’a winning formula that has been working for years, so why screw with it. Taste the Season is by far my favourite event, matched only by the Wine & Herb Festival and, the more recently introduced, Days of Wine & Chocolate, also events staged by the wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The wineries within this union now number 21, so there is plenty to keep you busy and an event like this, to be done right, must be spread out over the entire weekend; so I would suggest booking some accommodations. But if you only have one day to take in the wines and foods here is my guide of where you should go and who you can skip – this year, next year, next event, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The Best Pairings …

Taste the Season is all about the wine and food pairing, some wineries brought out some great wines to showcase, others had wonderful food to pair them with, but the winners here were the wineries who’s pairing was more than the sum of its parts:

The Top 3 Pairings Not to Miss …
Palatine Hills Estate Winery took two seemingly incongruous things and made them work, pairing a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine with either a pork or veggie spring roll (it was your choice) topped with plum sauce. Not sure how this one worked together, or who in the organization came up with the idea, but together these two worked wonderfully together; the wine made the pork pop and the veggie zing – proves that thinking outside the box pays off (but not all the time – you’ll see what I mean, keep reading).

Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery; picture a hunk of what they are calling “Decadent Chocolate Brownie” served next to an Iced Cherry wine. Apart these two are just okay, but together they worked quite the surprise effect in the mouth. The wine brought out the chocolate, making it taste more decadent than it was on it’s own … these two need each other, otherwise it’s just not the same experience.

Cattail Creek Estate Winery; after a messy fish dish at the last event Cattail was determined to “redeem itself”, remarked Roselyn (owner). This time they had sausages infused with their new 2008 Gamay Noir, they served it up on a thin slice of special grape skin baguette topped with sautéed wild mushrooms … now the world knows I am not a mushroom fan, so I had to rely on my counterpart and traveling partner Erica on this one. She reported that the combination really brought out the earthiness in the ‘shrooms (I’m told that’s a good thing). I could tell she liked it cause her eyes popped open. They paired it with the most obvious of wines here, the 2008 Gamay Noir.

Other Don’t Miss Wineries (for their food especially) …

Coyote’s Run Estate Winery, a winery known for pulling out all the stops when it comes to their food and wine pairings. They paired a 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay with a sweet roasted pepper, charizo sausage and lobster ragu … nice combianation that was surprising how well it went together. But the ragu was the most memorable … gotta get me that recipe.

Jackson-Triggs paired a 2007 Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon with a delicious Cabernet-Braised Pork Belly Casoulet; Erica said that had they served this with a slice of bread it would have garnered five stars (out of five), but instead she coughed up a rare 4½ star rating, they also provided the recipe. I was impressed with the wine, whilst the $12.75 price tag made it a real bargain (look for my review in an upcoming newsletter). The only drawback here was the surly nature of the staff, nobody seemed to be having a good time. Hope you have better luck when you visit.

Pillitteri Estates Winery: presentation was everything here, a hearty beef stew served in a puff pastry shell, or mini-bowl would have been more like it (“vol au vent”) paired up with a 2007 Cabernet Franc. The smell wafting from the room upstairs (where the tasting took place) was enough to make your tummy gurgle with happiness, the taste did the same thing … the wine also delivered.

More Pairings, in Short …
Chateau des Charmes: 2007 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, PEI lobster and Cognac Bisque with a Shot of Crème Fraiche … served in a shot glass this is a one gulp soup, otherwise the crème fraiche makes the soup taste cold; drink as you would any bar shot. Score: 8 out of 10

Reif Estate Winery: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve paired with a medley of appetizers including Granello cheese, Bresola (cured beef) and dried Niagara tomatoes ... None of the foods truly meshed with the wine, but the antipastos were yummy on their own and so was the wine. Score 8 out of 10.

Lailey Vineyard: The 4 white grape blend 2008 Counterpoint paired with a Chevre and smoked trout pinwheel ... I think the flavours speak for themselves here – in both the wine and the food. Score 7.5 out of 10.

Hillebrand Winery: 2006 Trius Red paired with Trius Pot Pie … Presentation was cute and the pie was quite tasty, but they substituted the lighter bodied 2006 version of the Trius Red in place of the heartier (and advertised) 2007 version … the pie needed something more substantial to make it pop. If you go insist on the more robust 2007 Trius Red and you’ll find it a better combination. Score 7.5 out of 10.

The Group of Seven …
These wineries all get a passing grade of 7, the pairing was good, the wine was good, nothing earth shattering or mind blowing here but you will not be disappointed if you go.

Konzelmann Estate Winery: 2007 Sparkling Riesling paired with a salmon-zucchini twist crowned with ‘Bleu Turtle Salsa” and chive cream cheese on Artisan Corn Bread.
Comment – Corn cake was too dominant which took away from the lively, fresh topping … less corn cake and you have a winner here. Good news, no turtles were harmed in the making of the salsa.

Niagara College Teaching Winery: 2006 Shiraz paired with black currant, pepper and venison medley along with artisan bread.
Comment – This is a stew, a tasty stew, but it needed something to jazz it up.

Southbrook Vineyards: 2008 Triomphe Merlot paired with Mini Beef Burger Sliders.
Comment – The burger was cold and there was little hint of the advertised “apple chutney topping”, the bun proved to be a little gritty; but overall good a effort that’s very fixable … heat up the burger and you’ve got yourself a winner here.

Strewn: 2008 Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon paired with creamy mushroom medley in Puff Pastry.
Comment – There was a lack of presentation here, it was a bowl of mushrooms with a triangle shaped puff pastry – the pastry was in the mushrooms not the other way around. If you like mushrooms you’ll like this.

A Couple of Quick Stops …
If you have the time to experience Stonechurch and Maleta swing by. Maleta has a nice Icewine Sponge Cake, made by assistant winemaker Mike Komar’s mother, paired with a Sparkling Old Vines Riesling (they poured the 2006, though advertised the 2007*). Stonechurch is serving up a 2007 Merlot with “Shrimp Cocktail” not exactly a typical presentation of this appetizer classic (shrimp with a smidge of cocktail sauce on a cream cheese slathered piece of bread, with cocktail sauce in the cream cheese) … both of these pairings are a quick in and out nibbly.

An Unfortunate Special Mention …
Due to a family emergency Marynissen was unable to present their advertised pairing this weekend, instead they substituted their Tapanade … reports say the Satay Beef skewer is amazing (the usual); but the Tapanade did nothing to enhance the wine or the reputation of the winery. Many folks I spoke with on the tour described it as possibly the worst pairing have had all day. I’ll leave this one open to those who tried it and give Marynissen a pass. Next weekend should be better.

Bottom of the "barrel" - so to speak …
These four wineries did not add any thing special to the passport program, pairing-wise, and can be avoided if you are on a tight one-day schedule, if you wanna have your own opinion please stop on by and let me know your thoughts. Presented here in reverse order.

#18 of 21 … Peller Estates: 2007 Private Reserve Chardonnay with St. Honore Cheese an Truffle Mushroom Tart.
Comment – The tart was cold, bland and rubbery … maybe warming it up a bit would help, maybe; this is surprising because Peller has a kitchen on-site..

#19 of 21 … Joseph’s Estate Winery: 2006 Gewurztraminer/Riesling with Almondine Tart and Poached Pear.
Comment – Loved the crunchiness of the tart but where was the pear flavour, two micro-thin slices of pear does not constitute pear flavour – usually Joseph’s does a lovely job when they have a dessert pairing … not this time.

#20 of 21 … Inniskillin: 2006 Olympic Vidal Icewine with French Onion Soup and Niagara Gold Crouton.
Comment – The usually reliable Inniskillin dropped the pot on this one. Remember I told you about the good part of thinking outside the box; well this is the other side of the coin on the passport program this year. It was a nice try to think outside the box here, but this time they didn’t quite hit the mark. Even after I tried to liven up the soup by splashing icewine into it it still didn’t awaken this bland, boring and uninspired combination.

#21 of 21 … The Disappointment of the Day:
Stratus: 2006 Wildass White with Sweet Potato Profiteroles.
Comment – Speaking of bland, boring and uninspired, this was a shocker … After such a brilliant beginning (ranking #1 at the Wine & Herb) we get to see how far the mighty have fallen, on the other hand, maybe it was beginners luck. The food had no taste, it was a sweet potato mousse served in a frozen éclair roll. There was no sweet potato flavour, and the pastry it was served in was also bland and tasteless; as the old saying goes: “two blands don’t make it right”; not even the wine could save this pairing. I chewed, swallowed and it was like I hadn’t put anything in my mouth. Stratus once again served their pairing outside, on the patio overlooking the vineyard, this time I suspect it was a way to distract you from what they were serving … and why would you highlight a wine line (Wildass) you can’t buy or try in the store? Sorry Charlie, J.L. and the rest of the Stratus team, this pairing was a real loser … let’s hope you make a come back at the next event.

*Daniel Pambianchi contacted me and said it was indeed the 2007 Sparkling as they have been sold out of the 2006 for some time - I have to admit I did not check the bottle and just took the employee's word for it being a 2006 vintage wine.

Report from ... Celebrate Argentina – November 10, 2009

Before I kick off this review of the most recent Argentina tasting to be held in Toronto, I thought I would offer a few words of advice to those wineries “seeking representation” here in Ontario: Stop talking to your buddy, get off the phone and pay attention to who’s in front of you. There were 5 wineries from this South American country who were listed as ‘seeking’ and plenty of agents doing some seeking of their own, looking for the next big wine for the Ontario market (or at least something good to add to their portfolio); but more often then not those ‘seeking’ were too busy gabbing with their fellow countrymen to pay attention to those standing in front of them … keep doing that and you’ll be ‘seeking representation’ for quite some time to come. Now, shut up and pour the wine.

Alright, enough advice for wineries trying to crack into Canada’s largest market; time for my advice as to which Argentinean wines you should be looking for next time you make that trek to the liquor store – there are plenty of good Argentine wines at good prices and many of them involve the Malbec grape.

Nothing But Malbec …
The 4½ Star Club (out of 5) – good value, excellent wine:
Chakana Reserva Malbec 2008 ($16.95)
Don Nicanor Malbec 2007 ($17.95)
Los Clop Reserva Malbec 2006 ($16.95)

The 4 Star Club (out of 5) – good value, very good wine:
Nieto Senetiner Malbec Reserva ($11.95)

The Other Grapes …
Navarro Correas Allegoria Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($19.95) – a limited edition grand reserva; big red cherries and other red berried with chocolate, blackberries and hints of leather, through all that it remains very juicy. (****½)

Andeluna Grand Reserve Pasionado 2004 ($45.95) – a blend of Malbec, Merlot and the Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc; sweet aromas that ease onto the palate: vanilla, oak, white pepper, raspberry, very smooth with hints of chocolate on the finish. (****½)

Pascual Toro Merlot 2007 ($12.95) – juicy blackberries, black currants, vanilla and cinnamon – good value. (****)

Xumek Zonda Chardonnay-Viognier ($14.99) – nice fruit flavours tropically nuances with lots of juicy pineapple. (****)

Xumek Syrah 2008 ($24.99) – Syrah is the signature of this winery; leathery black fruit and smoky, also has a nice mineral note. (****)

Familia Schroeder Saurus Patagonia Select Pinot Noir 2007 ($18.95) – earthy, good red and black fruit mix with a nice spiciness, good tannins, delicate use of oak, ripe and delicious; one of the best Pinot Noirs I have had from Argentina, price very attractively for such a good bottle of Pinot Noir. (****½)

Chakana Yaguarete Collection Bonarda 2009 ($13.95) – an absolute steal for this big-on-cherry-with-a-touch-of-floral wine made from Argentina’s other popular grape (there, and hopefully soon here). Clean, tasty, full of fruit and coming to a Vintages near you in March or April of 2010, so keep your eyes and ears open for it … this one is quite the find, and you’ll thank me for it. (****½)

Report from ... Annual Italian Tasting – November 2, 2009

I stare into the abyss that is Roy Thompson Hall, sure the place is beautiful and an architectural wonder (or so the literature says), but I’m also looking at close to 100 Italian producers (someone says its actually ONLY 99) all pouring a minimum of 5 wines; for the mathematically challenged that’s easily 500+ wines they want me to try – hospitalization here I come. Thankfully there is a 10AM seminar to sit through, allowing me to wrap my head around the 212 page bible (listing all the wines and producers beyond the seminar walls) that lies in front of me. But I’ll get to that in a minute or two, first let’s listen in to Mr. Attilio Scienza as he talks to us about the Italian island of Sicily – and to David Lawrason, as he leads us through the wine tasting.

The day began with the numbers about Italian wine as presented by Paolo Ponti, director of the Italian Trade Commission – he provides the same good news every year: Italian wine is on the rise around the world and especially in Canada. I half expect him to pull a little Italian flag out of his pocket and wave it frantically in one hand while saying, “yeah Italy”, but then again if you ever met Mr. Ponti you would find that funny because he is such a serious looking man and he talks in a very serious tone, befitting of his look. Then it was off to Sicily with Attilio. I hear it mentioned that Mr. Scienza is “brilliant” and “really knows his stuff” when it come to the wines of Italy, to him it’s more than just wine, “it’s a science” – not surprising then to learn that the first five letters of his name are the same 5-letters in the word science … co-incidence? I think not. He refers to Sicily as its own “continent” the way it sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, with its good diurnal temperature (nice expanse between day time highs and night time lows), sometimes as much as 10-12 degrees. Harvest in Sicily is the longest of any region in Italy, lasting from the beginning of August to late October or early November – as long as 100 days from beginning to end. 85% of the grapes grown are indigenous, while the other 15% are international varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. 75% of the grapes are white varietals (thus leaving 25% to be of the red persuasion). There are 650 wineries in Sicily.

Sicily is broken down into 3 macro areas : Western (the most important), South Eastern and North Eastern (aka: Etna) and two smaller micro areas, which are actually small islands. The soils of Sicily are African based, especially in the south, and different from all other European soils: “Sicily has it’s own genetic specificity which is unique,” Professor Science tells us; he also says that “Sicilian varietals never work out of this region because of their intimate link with the soils.” Other soils found around Sicily are volcanic soils and “calcarinite” soils (loaded with shells), each giving the grapes a certain flavour (even when made with the same grape), the word ‘Terroir’ should come to mind. Interesting to note: Sicily was the last stop for phyloxera on its march through Europe, thought to be because of the sharp shell make up of the soils – the shells cut the louse thus making it hard for them to take purchase and live in Sicily soils.

Best wines of the Seminar …
We tasted 10 wines, one of my favourite was the Planeta, 2008 Cometa, made from the Fiano grape (white) – a wine first made in 2000. This wine was pretty big in the alcohol department (14.4%) but the booze was barely apparent because of its good balance in the mouth. A nose that was floral, sweet and tropical with hints of tangerine. Great flavours followed with buttery, vanilla and tropical nuances along with hints of mineral – all ending with a great long finish and mouth-watering acidity. My other favourite was from the Etna region, where Europe’s biggest active volcano resides, these grapes are hand-harvested at the beginning of November and grow at an altitude of 750m above sea level. Patria 2006 Etna DOC Rosso, made from the red grapes Nerello Mascalese (80%) and Nerello Cappuccio (20%). Plummy and spiced raspberry on the nose; the palate delivers a spicy, peppery wine with nice red berry fruit, good acidity and is mocha-coffee like on the finish with gentle tannins … nice complexity to this wine. Both of these wines received 4½ stars (out of 5) from me.

The Main Event … (10 wines that were worth tasting)
Vini Farnese 2007 Edizione Cinque Autoctoni ($36.95) – five grape blend: Montepulciano, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera di Brindisi – juicy blackberry and plum, easy on the palate with good tannins and a dry finish. (****)

Feudi Di San Marzano (Farnese’s estate in Puglia): offering three great, and very different, Primitivos …
2008 Primitivo Puglis IGT ($14.95) – rich raspberry pie nose, big raspberry palate, rich and fruity with a touch of plum on the back palate. (****)

2007 Primitivo Di Manduria DOC Sud ($23.00) – this is a vine selection wine; raspberry, blackberry, a touch of plum, lots of juicy fruit flavours, plenty of plum and raspberry in the mouth. (****)

2006 Primitivo Di Manduria DOC Sessantanni ($35.00) – from 60 year old vines; fruit and mineral notes, plummy-mineral flavours, very Zin-like here with dusty raspberry finish. (****½)

FontanaFredda 2005 Barolo Serralunga D’Alba DOCG – single village, estate vineyard selection; clove and spice, pepper and black fruit with big tannins. (****½)

FontanaFredda 2008 Dolcetto Diano D’Alba La Lepre DOC – single village, single vineyard; nice fruit and spice with good acidity, short oaking period helps to retains those fresh fruit flavours. (****)

Leona de Castris 2008 Primitivo Di Manduria DOC Villa Santera – rich, red and jammy, this is almost more Cali-Zin-like than most California Zins are these days; if it had not been for the elevated acidity I would have sworn it was from California. (****)

Monte del Fra 2007 IGT Corvina Del Veronese – all stainless steel; very fresh and fruity with lots of red berry fruit and good acidity. (****)

Cantina Todini 2008 Umbria IGT Relais Rosso – 60% Sangiovese, 40% Petit Verdot; rich and fruity with chocolate aromas and flavours, there’s also reddish fruit with spice and pepper … delicious. (****½)

And Finally, A Reason to Shop for Wine in January …
Casa Vinicola Zonin 2007 Valpolicella DOC Superiore Ripasso ($15.95 – general list January 2010) – nice fruit, cherries and chocolate, this one is ready to drink up and look at that great price point. (****)

Report from ... Halpern Portfolio Tasting – October 29, 2009

It’s time for the Halpern tasting, an every two year affair, from what I am told. Halpern represents a variety of wineries both famous and infamous, from around the world. Their tasting was held in the ex-Automotive Building (now the Allstream Centre) on the Exhibition grounds (otherwise known as The Ex). The most amazing part of the tasting – besides some of the wines – was the elephant (not kidding) at the front door acting as a beacon to visitors … you had to have some sympathy for the guy who had to cart around the wheel barrel and shovel all day … one guy leads the elephant around from the front, the other guy has a the wheel barrel and shovel, sounds like a metaphor for life. But enough about the pachyderm. The reason to be there was to taste all the great wines Halpern brings into Ontario, and there were plenty of them on display, some need no introduction or plug from me, so I’ll try (operative word here is try) to focus my attention on wineries you may not have heard about and wines you’ve just gotta get your mitts (and tongue) on – someway, somehow … maybe by getting a case from Halpern, just a suggestion:

M. Chapoutier (France) 2007 Rasteau Cote du Rhone Village ($17.80) – lots of cherry and red fruit with a subtle spiciness … excellent price for this delicious wine. (****)

Domaine Carneros (USA) 2005 Vintage Brut ($32.70) – this bubbly bites back with tart green apple and lots of acidity. (****)

Faiveley (France) 2007 Mercurey 1er Cru Clos des Myglands ($39.50) – I’m worried about the name of this wine, not sure I’m too enthused about a wine that comes from “My Glands”, but once it hit the palate all my cares just drifted away. This all Pinot Noir wine delivered delicious flavour: lovely cherry with subtle earthiness; try this and you too will be crazy ‘bout a Mercurey. (****½)

Gaja (Italy) 2006 Ca’Marcanda Magari IGT ($76.00) – 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc; big black fruited beauty with bold tannins. (****½)

Hecht & Bannier (France) 2006 Cotes du Rousillon Villages ($22.95) – a Grenache dominated wine; heavy on the black fruit, big on taste with nice tannin structure. (****)

Kalleske (Australia) 2007 Pirathon Shiraz ($36.85) – smooth blackberry, white pepper and spice, big mouth filling wine, at 15% alcohol, with a chocolaty finish. The representative, obviously from Australia, said this is his house wine, I hope when I get to Australia I’m invited to his house. (****½)

Isole e Olena (Italy) 2006 Uvaggio Coste della Sesja Rosso DOC ($43.65) – a blend of Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina; think young fresh fruit: strawberry and raspberry flavour with a touch of stoniness, floral aromas are delicate on the nose and the wine has a good tannins structure and nice acidity which helps to keep it fresh and lively … this was a pleasant and welcome surprise. (****½)

Jermann (Italy) 2007 Were Dreams ($67.15) – made of indigenous Italian grapes though it tastes like a well made Chardonnay: creamy vanilla, butter and a touch of sweet tropical fruit. (****)

L’Aventure Winery (USA) 2007 Estate Cuvee ($102.55) – Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot; crème du cassis, black fruited and boldly peppery. (****)

L’Aventure Winery (USA) 2007 Cote a Cote ($102.55) – owner/winemaker Stefan Asseo hails from Bordeaux, tired of the restrictions put on him in his native land he came to California to make “whatever he wanted”. This beauty, a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah (his take on a Rhone-style blend, California style) was the best wine of the tasting. Loaded with fruit (both red and black), pepper, spice and so much more; the wine had a great complexity on the nose which followed right into the mouth, there was also plenty of alcohol (16.4%) – stunningly good. (*****)

Layer Cake (Italy) 2007 Primitivo ($23.00) – plumy with sweet cherry fruit backing, very Zin-like … bring on the bbqed ribs with extra sauce. (****) … the Layer Cake Malbec (from their Argentinean venture) is also quite good.

Majella (Australia) 2005 Sparkling Shiraz ($34.35) – representative Peter Lynn called this: “red wine with training wheels”, the bubbly is aged 48 months on lees and, as in the traditional method, in bottle; it retains the peperiness and black raspberry of the Shiraz grape, as well as the elevated alcohol (14%); the dosage is premium Aussie Port-style wine, giving it just hint of something sweet … probably one of the best Sparkling Shiraz’s I have ever had. (****)

Vega Sicilia (Spain) 2006 Pintia ($66.15) – 100% Tempranillo from the Toro Region; spicy, bold and black fruited, lots of pepper, it’s a two “L” wine: lively and lovely. (****½)

Report from ... Bordeaux Under One Roof – October 28, 2009

Here I got the chance to try the Bordeaux wines under $25 and most, if not all, available at the LCBO … these were my top 8 that were worth the dollars they’re asking for them … I also noticed that when it comes to Bordeaux under 25 you really do get what you pay for, want more complexity in your wine, you have to pay for it, and it makes a world of difference, though there are quite a few bargains to be had.

Thomas Barton 2006 ($16.95) – 60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; big chocolate and cherry nose which follows in the mouth, very new world in style. (****)

Chateau Canada 2005 ($14.95) – being from the Great White North you have to have a special place in you heart for this one; black fruit, black cherry, spicy, cedery and good tannins. (****)

Chateau Argenteyre 2005 ($24.95) – blackberry, vanilla, black cherry, cinnamon, spices and herbs with a nice black fruited finish. This one has nice complexity for the nose and mouth. (****½)

Chateau des Laurets 2006 ($19.95) – nice sweet blackberry fruit with juicy blackberries in the mouth. (****)

Calvets Reserve 2006 ($13.95) – lots of cherry flavour which follows from the nose into the mouth … pleasant dry red fruit finish. (****)

Chateau St. Germain 2007 ($13.95) – licorice and blackberry on the nose, smooth red fruit in the mouth with delicate flavours, easy drinking at a good price. (****½)

Chateau Pey La Tour Reserve 2006 ($21.95) – black cherry, cassis and sweet fruit palate with a nice tannin backbone. (****½)

Chateau Roquetaillade La Grange Vieilles Vignes 2005 ($21.95) – from 45 year old vines; a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot with 13.5% alcohol. Great colour and concentration, the nose is a little closed off at first pour – so it needs some air to open ‘er up. But when it does: raspberry liqueur fills the olfactories. Palate delivers a complexity of flavour far beyond it’s price point: blackberry, vanilla, sweet fruit, plum, chocolate/mocha, licorice and white pepper … delivers great flavour and great value for under $25 … this one’s a real star, 5 of them actually. (*****)

Report from ... Mazel Wines Tasting – November 11, 2009

There was a time when the words ‘kosher’ and ‘wine’ didn’t mix. Even to this day, to some kosher wine means sweet sacramental wines, while to others, it means wines of an undrinkable nature, especially if you grew up with the stuff. While today there are still some real stinkers out there that’ll make you gag as you choke them down – the most notable fault is that the wine doesn’t taste like wine; on the other hand, there are also some very good wines and wineries that are putting out, not just drinkable kosher wines, but would be considered good wines even if they didn’t have the crutch of a ‘kosher’ label on them (the standard for kosher wine seems to be lower because of its undrinkable reputation – it’s as if kosher wine was invented so that the Jews could punish themselves). Tonight we were here to debunk that myth, a tasting of Mazel Wines wines (kosher wine agent) – a free for all tasting and a sit down portion, where we learned what it is that makes a wine “kosher”, the evening was led by wine writers Sheila and Irv (no last names mentioned to protect the innocent).

Sit Down Tasting …
8 Wines made up this part of the evening: 3 whites, 3 reds and two sweet bubblies. The whites included a Gruner Veltliner (Austria), a Pinot Grigio (Italy) and a Chardonnay (Israel). Hands down it was the Italian Cantina Gabriele 2007 Pinot Grigio ($18.35) that was the best of the white bunch – green apple, grapefruit/citrus, nice acidity and a long finish.

The red wines poured during this segment of the evening were: a Chianti (Italy), a Pinot Noir (Austria) and a Merlot (Israel) … I’m impressed here once again by the Italians, who seem to be doing it right. Cantina Gabriele (once again) 2007 Chianti ($18.35) was fruit forward with black cherry, vanilla, spice and had a lovely cherry finish.

The 2 bubblies were sweet versions, one from Austria, the other from New York State. Another no brainer for the tongue here, the New York wine won, Armon Sparkling – ($13.20) made from the much maligned Concord grape. Sure it’s a sweet wine with grapey flavours, but everyone needs a little sweetness in their lives and this wine really provides it.

Other Highlights …
During the walk around portion I encountered a Hafner Zweigelt ($13.95) that was a light and refreshing red, kinda like Pinot Noir without the earthy quality. Speaking of light, the third wine, from Italian producer Cantina Gabriele, that I tried was a very refreshing Moscato ($16.15) … it tasted like Moscato should, and that’s not some kosher-wine-pass I’m giving it, it was really very good – but you have to like Moscato; I do.

Finally, there was one Teperberg 1870 wine to try, and two representatives from the company on hand – there ought to be a rule in the wine business that states: the number of people from a winery should never out number the wines being poured. This winery had a story to tell and plenty of interesting wines were listed, and even on display (full bottles) but the corks were never pulled, nor were the wines tasted – a shame and a pity. One can assume from the name that Teperberg has been around since 1870 (but don’t quote me on that). The wine I tried was a tepid Late Harvest Riesling ($20.65 – 375ml), that someone forgot to chill, it had great tropical fruit with a sweet vanilla creaminess to it derived from the minimal barrel aging put on the wine (3-4 months of new and used oak); I suspect this wine would have been better chilled because it was quite good at room temperature.

It’ Not That Easy Being Kosher …
Rabbi Tzvi Heber gave a brief talk about Kosher wines and how they should be made … he did mention in his remarks that making wines kosher is a very “sensitive, tedious and difficult process.” But it seems that some wineries are getting the hang of making good wines within the confines of the rules of kashruth. It’s still hit and miss, but I’m glad to see that the hits really are hits and not just wines on a some kind of must-have-kosher-day-pass to the table.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Report from ... Bb33 Errazuriz Winemaker’s Dinner – November 3, 2009

It was another fantastic winemaker’s dinner at Bb33, the restaurant within the Delta Chelsea hotel in downtown Toronto, and executive chef Gino Guercio outdid himself once again (click here to see my previous Bb33 dinner I attended for Bodegas Norton).

The winery this time was the Chilean self described “boutique” Errazuriz, with guest speaker Michel Coutonlenc, regional director, who was brief and to the point with his comments, wanting instead for the wines, and the food pairings, to speak for themselves. So, as per his wish, let’s get right to it.

The Wines …
Errazuriz 2008 Pinot Noir Wild Ferment ($19.95 – Private Order) – an amazing wine that went with everything and got better and better over the course of the evening. It started off soft and fruity with beautiful raspberry and slightly earthy notes, I also found some currants and red fruit. There’s a delicacy and elegance here that continued to improve throughout the two hours we lingered over dinner, by the end there was a delightfully inviting perfumed aroma emanating from the glass – and over this time it had become my favourite wine on the table. (****½)
Paired with the Salmon

Errazuriz 2007 Max Reserva Shiraz ($17.95 – General List LCBO) – this is a big lusciouosly fruited wine made from 100% Shiraz. Michel told us that Errazuriz was the first winery to produce Shiraz in Chile (1986). Aged 12 months in 2nd use, mainly French oak, and fruit sourced from 22-23 year old vines. This wine is dark fruit driven and juicy with hints of vanilla and white pepper … good value at under eighteen bucks a bottle. (****)
Paired with the Rack of Venison

Errazuriz 2005 Don Maximiano ($79.00) – named after the founder of the winery Don Maximiano (1870), this wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which is harvested by hand at night, to preserve the freshness of the fruit, aged 18 months in new French oak, and only 1500 cases are made each year. It started off leathery with blackberry and other black fruits with plenty of spiciness; it went well with the cheese, but with all those tannins and spice it probably would have gone better with that hunk of venison; a delicious wine now but plenty of time to lie it down and improve. (****½)
Paired with the Cheese

The Food …

Applewood smoked Chilean salmon & Muskoka forged mushroom timbale salad

Pistachio and cranberry crusted northern Ontario rack of venison

Quebec artisan cheese board

Warm cinnamon and maple syrup poached Bartlett pear tarte tatin

My thanks to the folks at Bb33 for having me and hosting such a delicious dinner.

Report from ... G7 Wines of Portugal: Wine and Component Tasting – October 20, 2009

At first I was a little confused when invited to a G7 tasting, what did they want with me? But then I found out it was 5 wineries from Portugal representing 7 regions (from the map we were given I count 11 regions, so we were covering more than half). The five wineries were Alianca, Aveleda, Bacalhoa, Jose Maria Fonseca and Messias, each brought along their knowledge and two of their own wines already in the Ontario market, along with a tasting of some of the single varietal components found in many of their wines.

The Components …
We rarely see straight varietal wines from Portugal, like many old world countries they prefer to blend grapes to make the best wines possible, so to try these grapes/wines individually was quite a treat … these were not finished wines and in some cases were tank or barrel samples.

The Whites …
Alvarinho – one of Portugals main white varietals, mainly in the North near the Spanish border. Tropical, citrus, good acidity.

Loureiro – native grape planted mainly in the Vinho Verde region, it is gaining in popularity. Apple, pear and tangerine notes.

Arino – from north of Lisbon. Quite Riesling-like with good acidity.

Fernao Peres – this grape resembles Muscat. Fresh apple aromas with Mac apple flavours and a long finish.

The Reds …
Trincadeiro – not available for tasting, didn’t make it through customs in time.

Aragonez – a.k.a. Tempranillo or Tinta Roriz … everytime I hear this grape’s name I think of Sergio Aragonez from Mad magazine. Tips for growing good Aragonez based wines: one needs low yields and older vines, according to one of our hosts.

Touriga Nacional – a grape found all over Portugal but has different expressions depending where it’s grown: Douro (fruity), Setubal (earthy), Dao (licorice and herbal).

Touriga Franca – a cross between Nacional and Tinta Barrica or Roriz; this is a grape that produces wine no bigger than 13% alcohol and very little is planted throughout Portugal; adds rich dark fruit notes and requires time to develop once bottled (2-3 years before it begins to express itself).

Debunking the Myth of Thousands …
It was revealed that there are approximately 246 grape varieties in Portugal (that is much lower than the thousands they originally thought) that’s because recent DNA testing proved that many of the same varietals had different names regionally.

The Wines (of note) …
Quinta de Aveleda 2008 Vinho Verde ($9.95) – melon and tropical notes on the nose which follow on the palate; fresh and fruity with a long finish and light spritz. (****)

Alianca 2006 Particular ($13.95) – due to a rainy harvest all top end Touriga Nacional went into this wine making it an exceptionally good wine and excellent value. Aged 12 months in French and American oak with 5% done in Russian oak. It’s a blend of Nacional and Tinta Roriz (in previous years a third grape has been added to the blend). Sweet black fruit with licorice, ripe cherry and plum on the nose. Tastes of sweet ripe red fruit, black licorice, vanilla oak and a dry dusty finish – nice short-term ageability here (2-5 years) for under 14 dollars. (****½)

Alianca 2007 Vista TN ($10.95) – black fruit and spicy oak with a smooth finish and good length. (****)

Tinta da Anfora 2006 ($12.95) – a blend of indigenous and international grape varieties aged 12 months in French and U.S. oak. Nice red fruit with a minerally note, some earthy character, cherry, subtle spice and a black olive finish. (****)

Messias 2004 Late Bottled Vintage Port ($16.95) – this LBV proved to be better with time in the glass. A nose of cherry marmalade and tastes of sweet black cherry, chocolate and spices leading off the first few sips – more tawny-like than LBV-ish … with some time the complexity emerged: raisiny, dried cherry and spiced marmalade … the start was smooth with a rough tannin bite on the finish, which surprisingly turned almost creamy at some points – this Port has real character. (****)

The Lunch … (catered by Sotto Sotto)
Special wines from all 5 producers were served with lunch – wines that are not available locally, so they were a real treat. Such as Hexagon 2005 made from Tannat, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Tricadeira, Touriga Franca and Tinto Cao; Follies Alvarinho, a delicate wine that paired well with the seafood mosaic; Dados Douro 2007 Reserve, a big fruited blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional; and the incredibly rare sweet dessert wine, Bacalhoa 1999 Moscatel Roxo, a fortified sweety aged 8 years in barrel from the Moscatel Roxo grape, of which only 18 hectars are planted in Portugal (and potentially world wide). If ever one had the chance to call a wine sexy, this was it. Too good to fully describe. Suffice it to say it danced in the mouth with fruity, nutty and spicy sensations along with wonderful palate cleansing acidity that required a re-taste after each swallow, just to make sure it actually tasted that good. What a stunner.

The Menu – wines from Portugal meet food from Italy …

Tris di Mare: Seafood mosaic composed of seared scallop, seared tuna and garlic shrimp

Ravioli di Zucca: Butternut squash ravioi in a brown butter sage sauce

Osso Bucco Stinco de Vitello: veal shank with soft polenta

And for dessert, Cannoli de Ricotta all’Arancia: traditional Italian pastry with orange ricotta filling (sorry no picture, was too wrapped up in the delicious sweet wine, see above).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Report from ... Taste Napa Valley – October 26, 2009

The Napa Valley vintners came to town on the afternoon of the 26th, 43 producers pouring many Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnays – the grapes that made Napa famous. I, for one, wanted to try something different than the usual; I guess I was in an ABC mood (Anything But Chardonnay / Cabernet), so I went on a one man crusade to locate anything other than ‘the usual’ … here’s what I found:

Clos du Val 2007 Zinfandel ($21.95) – sweet plum, floral notes with a great raspberry-plum finish … pretty hearty alcohol here, 14.5%. (****)

Cuvaison 2007 Pinot Noir, Los Carneros – pretty cherry nose leads to a very cherry palate with hints of graphite and pencil shavings. (****)

Frias Family Vineyard 2006 Syrah, Oak Knoll District – only 150 cases of this winner are made every year, so calling it a limited supply wine is a bit of an understatement: there’s nice spice and pepper wrapped in a blanket of red fruit. (****½)

John Anthony 2006 Syrah – a very pretty nose full of rhubarb, white pepper and cherry; the palate is silky smooth with violet notes, bright cherry fruit and a touch of white pepper. I also learned there’s 5% Viognier in here, not surprising especially with those floral notes layered in. (****½)

Laird Family Estate 2007 Jillian’s Blend – the blend in question here is 60% Cabernet, 30% Syrah and 10% Merlot; the taste is chocolate, pepper and black fruit while the finish is very black peppery. (****)

Pahlmeyer 2006 Merlot – creamy smooth with blackberries and chocolate; hey, it’s Merlot. (****)

Peju 2008 Sauvignon Blanc – a triple harvested wine done so to obtain different characteristics the winery likes to see in its Sauv Blanc. First pass is for the grassy character, while later harvests are for getting the tropical nuances into the wine, and yes they succeed: melon, tropical and good acidity lead the way with this one … there’s a little barrel aging to add further complexity, but it’s only 7% of the wine, the rest is done through lees contact. (****)

Peju 2005 Syrah, Persephone Vineyard ($46.95) – smoky, red berry and vanilla; nice acidity, white pepper and red berry notes on the palate. (****)

Shafer Vineyards 2006 Relentless Syrah – this one seems to have an abundance of delicious chocolate and pepper on the palate; and it has a pretty relentless finish that grabs the tongue and holds on for dear life. (****½)

Blackbird Vineyards 2006 Contarian – named so because the winery is set up as a Right Bank Bordeaux-style producer (Merlot dominant), but this one leads with 38% Cabernet Franc, 34% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Sauvingon; the wine is nicely cherried with good tannic grip in the mouth and a really long pleasant finish. (****½)

The 5 Star Wines …
As much as I tried I could not stop these two wines from stealing the show as the most memorable, and they are exactly what you think they are:

Pine Ridge Vineyard 2007 Dijon Clones Chardonnay – lovely buttery caramel note on the nose, follows through on the palate with caramel apple; this wine didn’t go through the softening process called malolactic fermentation (changing “harsh” malic acid in “softer” lactic acid) so it keeps lively acidity on the palate with great balance. (****)

Silverado Vineyards 2005 Solo Cabernet Sauvignon – made from the youngest of three Cabernet heritage clones* of California, as classified by UC Davis (UCD 30 Silverado Heritage Clone). This is a nice smooth Cab loaded with good fruit, nice mineral content, tannin grip and a lingering finish; none of my sips found their way into the spit bucket, it was just that good. (*****)

*other heritage clones are found at Mondavi and Rubicon vineyards.

Report from ... Masi, Tasting Under the Stars – October 27, 2009

If you haven’t heard the name Masi, when it comes to Italian wine, then you’ve either led a very sheltered life, been living under a rock or have never wandered the aisles of you local liquor store. The name Masi and Italian wine go together like a horse and carriage. Tonight, a small gathering of folks got together at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (though surprisingly not in the Planetarium, which would have made sense for this event) to listen to Dr. Sandro Boscaini (president of Masi Agricola) talk about Masi’s first 5-star rated vintage since 1997, and only the seventh such rated vintage since 1942 … we also got a chance to taste the aging potential of these wine as the 1995, 1997 and 2006 Campofiorin (Ripasso) and Amarone were paraded out (all of these were 5-star rated vintage wines) as well as the 1990 Amarone – another of the only 7 five-star vintages. The other 5-stars were given out in 1988, 1983 and 1964.

To get a 5-star rating (a system Masi brought into existence of their own accord in 1942), everything has to be perfect, said Dr. Sandro, from the growing season, the drying season, the evolution of the grapes, all the conditions have to be just right, “which is why we’ve only given out 7 in 67 years.” The rating can be found above the year on the label (just in case you’re looking for it).

The Wines …
My favourite of the old Campofiorins was the 1997 with its raspberry, strawberry notes in the mouth, it had a smoothness along with its complexity and a great enjoyability. This all bodes well for the 2006, which is now on store shelves with a $17.45 price tag. To pull a wine out of your the cellar that’s 12 years old, knowing you paid less than $20 on it, does seem like quite a deal – but it does require a little patience on your part. Good luck.

My Amarone of choice was the 1990 vintage dated wine, what an incredible piece of 19-year-old history this is. It still retains great acidity and fabulous fruit, both fresh and dried; tannins proved to be still quite robust and then there was the nice long finish that left the tongue wanting more … just to prove to myself the wine was as good as I originally thought I had two more samplings. After tasting the wine there is no doubt in my mind on the ageability of the ’06 (also on shelves now for $37.35).

Now, about that rock you’ve been living under …

Report from ... Profile Wine Group Tasting – October 6, 2009

With over 335 wines to taste and a room the size of a football field to taste them in this seemed a daunting task. Profile represents wines from around the world, places such as Argentina, Australia, France, Chile, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and the United States which all make up the Profile Wine Group portfolio; the big question here was, where do I begin? While it would have been nice to try all the wines I decided to focus on a couple of regions we rarely see on the shelves of the LCBO: Washington and Oregon: Amity and Cristom Vineyards (Oregon), Columbia Crest, Gordon Bros., L’ecole #41, and Ste. Michelle Wines (Washington). I tried most if not all the wines at their tables and bring you my thoughts on the best of the bunch.

Amity (Oregon) – 3 wines to taste …
2007 Pinot Blanc ($25.95) – nice floral, kiwi nose with grapefruit flavours.

Columbia Crest (Washington) – 12 wines to taste …
Here I found two interesting versions of Shiraz / Syrah. The 2006 Grand Estate Shiraz ($20.95) was all chocolate, white pepper and very tasty; but between the two I really enjoyed the 2006 Reserve Syrah ($32.95) a wine made in limited quantities, less than 1000 cases a year. This wine was smooth with big fruit and floral aromas, probably from the touch of Viognier added to the wine. There’s also peppery notes along with a floral/violet presence; delicate and delicious. There was also the 2005 Walter Clore Red ($43.95) that utilizes all 5 Bordeaux varietals (Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc) this wine is named for the grandfather of Washington wine, Walter Clore, and has lovely big fruit with licorice and chocolate, I am sure Walter would be proud to have his name on the label.

Cristom Vineyard (Oregon) – 5 wines to taste …
Cristom is a Pinot Noir house from Oregon, here they make 6 different Pinot Noirs: 2 Cuvees and 4 Single Vineyard versions … the style of making the wine is all the same: whole cluster pressed, natural ferments, lightly fined and filtered; what was described to me as “old school style”. 3 of the single vineyard wines I tried were very impressive: 2006 Jessica Vineyard ($59.95) was all creamy raspberries; 2006 Sommer’s Reserve ($47.95) had really good red fruit notes and the 2006 Majorie Vineyard ($59.95), from the plot planted in 1982, had nice cherry, lots of acidity, good minerality and plenty of fine grit from the tannins.

Gordon Bros. (Washington) – 6 wines to taste …
I started with the 2008 Chardonnay ($31.95), which was a very subtle version of the world’s most popular white: creamy, peachy with nice vanilla notes. The 2007 Merlot ($32.95) also didn’t disappoint as an easy sipper with a smooth chocolate character. And finally, the 2006 Syrah ($31.95) really showed the signs of this properly named wine: this one was peppery, smooth with smoked meat nuances, nice tannins and delicious across the tongue.

L’ecole #41 (Washington) – 5 wines to taste …
The 2007 Recess Red ($30.95) is a mixed-bag-of-everything blend which had nice fruit and gritty tannins. The real winner at this table was the 2006 Merlot CV ($42.95) with its nice use of oak and luscious blackberry flavours … this wine is hand-picked with gentle handling throughout its lifespan and that kinda care really shows in the glass.

Ste. Michelle Wines (Washington) – 7 wines to taste …
Seems that Michelle is working with a lot of famous folks with fabulous results. Dr. Loosen helps with the Eroica Riesling ($33.95), which can be mistakenly read off the label as Erotica, so it is not surprising that this wine is both exotic and erotic, in the right moment. I tried the 2008 version, which was stunningly fruity: tropical, pineapple, nice acidity, and a long dry finish … wow – I went back for seconds and thirds. Speaking of famous help, how about the 2005 Col Solare ($96.95), a co-project with Antinori, the 2005 was leathery and chocolaty with nice dark fruit – this is the wine where Washington meets Italy. On their own Michelle makes this delicious 2006 Merlot ($21.95), smooth blackberry, dark chocolate and a lovely smooth finish.

Anything Else to Report? …
There were 9 wineries from California on hand, yet only one had a Zinfandel … Peter Franus 2006 Brandlin Vineyard Zinfandel ($47.95), made with 92% Zin and the rest being a mix of Carignan, Mourvedre and Charbono. The vines for the fruit date back to the 1920’s so its not surprising to find a high concentration of fruit flavour and a seam of minerality, also in there you’ll plum, chocolate and vanilla; a lovely fruit driven wine and very tasty version of my favourite California grape.

Can’t Fail to Mention …
Not one to linger at the food stations but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dahso Chocolate et Café (15 St. Clair West) who provided an array of wrapped truffles that had me wishing I had brought a bigger bag and / or had more pockets for take home enjoyment.