Monday, November 14, 2011

Report from ... Niagara-on-the-Lake Taste the Season 2011 - November 5-6, 2011

The Ice House introduced us to Dornfelder Icewine - just one of the Delcacies at this year's Taste the Season

It's been a week since my compadres and I toured the Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries for this year's Taste the Season extravaganza of food and wine.  I have spoken with each one to see who liked what and why, and it would seem there is quite a diversity about our favourites - which is a good thing.  For those of you who still aren't aware of what Taste the Season in Niagara-on-the Lake is all about I'll encapsulate it for you:  Each weekend in November the 26 wineries of this group (yes, now 26) pair a wine and food to celebrate the upcoming holiday season ... it's like their gift to you - or your palate to be more specific.  The real star of the show is the food, we already know these guys can make great wines, some take the opportunity to bring out a new vintage or a back dated bottles.  Since it is the food that makes this so interesting I'll just quickly give you a run down of my favourite wines of the day before diving into the foods and pairings on offer.
Reif's 2009 Reserve Chardonnay was quite a mouthful

Top 3 Wines (click through for full review) ...
Pillitteri 2007 Cabernet Franc
Reif 2009 Reserve Chardonnay
The Ice House 2009 Signature Series Dornfelder/Cabernet Sauvingon Icewine

The Food ...

There were some really good comments from my party of three this year that consisted of my wife, Erica, her friend Sarah (from New York - we now import our tasters ... and from what I've heard we may be getting more for next time) and myself.  We agreed that there were more good pairings than bad and that the meat dishes (which there were quite a few) were substantial and filling ... there was no need (or want) to stop for lunch.  And while we could not come to a consensus on an ultimate favourite we seemed to almost universally agree on our least favourites (that's not to talk you out of trying them, you have to make your own decision) - feel free to comment ...

Below a list of the favourites, and why, least favourites, and why, and some special shout outs to those who were memorable.

Favourites ...

With three of us on tour we ended up with quite the diverse list of favourites, in fact between the three top three lists there were eight wineries, with only Colaneri getting two second place votes.

Top wineries include: Chateau des Charmes (Erica) for their roasted mushroom salad crostini paired with the robust 2007 Estate Pinot Noir ... "layers of flavour.  The aioli and crostini just melded so well together with the salad and the wine capped it all off nicely." 

Inniskillin nails it with icewine
Pillitteri (Sarah) for the Vegetarian Chili paired with the '07 Cabernet Franc ... "it was just an excellent pairing, I enjoyed every mouthful ... I want the recipe."

And I am happy to announce that Inniskillin has finally raised their game back to previous levels as they took a risk that really paid off with their pairing of 2007 Vidal Icewine and Icewine sausage with caramelized onion mustard - an innovative way to use icewine, with of all things, meat.  Bravo.

"Spezzatino" at Colenari
The girls agreed that the "Spezzatino" served at Colaneri was not only delicious ("a bowl full of yummy made with love"), but also the winery had the perfect setting in their open atrium-like room with full floor to ceiling bay windows ("they nailed the warm environment").  I, on the other hand, decided that Ravine's Lamb Confit with caramelized mushroom and shropshire blue took second place.  It was served on a fresh bun, made in-house, and while there may have been too much bread for the amount of meat, if you opted to go with an open-faced sandwich you would enjoy every bite - plus you'd have a sauced soaked chaser (the other half).

"A refreshing twist on pizza"
The awarding of the Bronze medal saw three more wineries on the podium, but all had something in common: freshness.  Sarah opted for the Strewn offering of Winter Green Salad with Icewine vinaigrette: "fresh, lively and different"; we chalked it up to her being a health-nut and a long distance runner, but it seems we were all bitten by the health bug in third place.  Erica loved Reif's Mutsu apple, bacon, cold pack cheddar and walnut sage pesto pizza, calling it "a refreshing twist on pizza"; while I loved what the Ice House did.  Using a pear slice as the base they piled on pancetta, goat cheese and Riesling Icewine reduction ... the innovation was the pear base (instead of the usual cracker or bread) that really livened up the bite of food; but what really popped was the vegetarian option: same base, same icewine reduction, the middle was fresh strawberries which sang on the palate with that Dornfelder red Icewine to match ... talk about fresh and wow.
Salad as pairing?  Why not ... and it worked

The Not So's ...

There was more agreement here than with the favs ... I guess poor execution is just poor execution no matter what you wrap it in.

Everyone agreed that Konzelman's cranberry, pear gorgonzola and walnut strudel roll was not as advertised and not very good.  Strudel roll indicates a cake base, but this was in a soggy, limp mini-phyllo cup.  And this year the placement of the tasting was in the foyer instead of the usual back room ... we felt rushed like they wanted us to get-in and get-out.

There was also agreement that Southbrook's attempted Prosciutto and pear crostada with smoked comfort cream was a flop.  They went to warm it up keeping us waiting and lingering about with our wine, enthusiastic about what we would be receiving (something warm), but when they finally served it the cheese remained unmelted and all they had managed to do was turn what was once crisp into a chewy and stale bite of blandness ... "if I could have spit it out I would have," said Sarah, "I just couldn't figure it out where. I just wanted it out of my mouth so badly."

Three other wineries under-delivered on their promise of goodness in the mouth:  Hillebrand's Truffle Mushroom Broth was "too salty".  Stonechurch's Smoked Salmon Mousse, mousse implies some lightness but this was more like a mouthful of fishy cream cheese (without the enjoyment and without the bagel).  And Marynissen's Prosciutto slathered with fig spread served on ... name your cracker base here ... was anything but slathered and the vegetarian option was an under cooked, doughy phyllo wrapped something.

Special Mentions ... the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Coq au Vin at Lailey: "Help Mommy they're coming to get me"
Starting with the ugly, Lailey had a tasty little Coq au Vin offering, but when the lid of the chaffing dish was lifted it looked like something out of a Halloween horror show.

Very disappointing was Stratus' badly executed pulled lamb shoulder; it had great flavour, or would have, had it been warm and freshly served and not pre-prepared and left sitting out to get all dried out ... the crock pot was sitting right there, make 'em fresh, don't get lazy.  Treadwell's went to a lot of trouble to make it tasty don't fail them on the very last step - serving it.

Cattail Creek pulled off their homemade gingerbread sandwich cookies with lemon crème.  You know they're fresh and handmade because of the girl sitting out front assembling the sandwiches with a Tupperware container full of cookies and a bowl of fresh lemon cream beside her (ask for extra cream).

Other special mentions go out to some of our favourites previously mentioned:  Inniskillin, while not making Sarah's list of favourite did get a shout out for "outside the box thinking.  I don't like icewine because of the sweetness, but somehow this pairing did not taste sweet in any way - it was just plain tasty."  And finally, The Ice House got an extra nod from Erica because "both options were delicious".

Being a meat eater and fiercely proud of it (following the theory of: there's room for all God's creatures ... right next to the mashed potatoes), I was impress to see wineries offering up a vegetarian option for those who would require or wanted it.

Final words ...
Another successful Taste the Season event that provided many more ups than it did downs ... and that's a great thing to see.  Look forward to next year's tour to see who rose to the top and who crashes and burns at the bottom.  As always, good, bad or ugly an outstanding effort by everyone involved.  Happy tour and tasting everybody.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Report form ... 6th Annual Stem Wine Group Tasting - September 20, 2011

I know the name "Stem" is suppose to invoke grapes hanging on the vine, but after a few drinks you begin to wonder what else the principles of this agency were thinking about ... but that's neither here nor ... the important part of this tasting is the 100+ wines, beers and spirits that are being poured.  Surely too many to be consumed in one sitting, but Stem offers a wonderful array from California, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, Argentina and especially Italy.  I would guess that over half of the Stem portfolio has an Italian slant, which is why it should come as no surprise that when Stem decided to create their own wine it would be one of Italian origin.  That was the big news at this year's event: "a joint venture with Boroli (Piedmont) and 47 Anno Domini Vineyards Vinicola Tombaco (Veneto) to create Matto".  Plus six new wineries (2 Italian, 2 French. a New Zealand and a US) have been added to Stems extensive offerings, just giving them more breadth to offer clients, and one of these new wineries made my list of favourites.

New Stuff ...
I tried the Matto 2007 Barolo and was impressed with the cranberry, strawberry and spice emanating from the glass on both the aromas and flavours; quite elegant and a decidedly good first effort. (*** 1/2+)

The Daniel Chotard winery from the Loire Valley has entered the Stem Family and the 2010 Sancerre is lovely, crisp with mineral notes and nice clean citrus on the finish. (*** 1/2+)

The U.S. winery that joined in this year was Husic Vineyards - three wines were brought into the portfolio, none better than the 2005 Husic Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa - a dark fruited, black cherry dominated cocoa infused Cab that plays nicely with the tannins on the tongue. (****+)

Most of all I really feel for the New Zealand winery that was added: Marisco Vineyards out of Marlborough ... the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc was quite New Zealand-esque (*** 1/2), while the 2010 King's Bastard Chardonnay was fruit forward with oak backing that didn't overwhelm all that lovely fruit (****) and the piece-de-résistance was the 2010 King's Wrath Pinot Noir, which came a close second as my favourite wine of the day (held by Rockbare out of Australia).  This 400 case production Pinot spent 12 months in 40% new oak.  Lovely aromas and flavours that straddle the line between California's fruit driven style and Burgundy's earthiness: great fruit to spice ratio with strawberry and raspberry leading the charge (**** 1/2).  The booklet had all wines listed at $19.95, but this may have been priced in error and might hit our shelves at double that amount - but still very much worth it.  Rumour was that if you ordered at the event you'd get the misprinted price.  Check out the Marisco website to get the story behind these wines ... quite eerie yet very intriguing.

The Best of the Rest ... (by country)
Italy -
Boroli 2004 Barolo Villero (*** 1/2+) - $89.99
Ca'Del Baio 2009 Langhe Nebbiolo Bric del Baio (****) - 21.99
Cantina Produttori Colterenzio 2010 Pinot Bianco (*** 1/2+) - 19.99
Azienda Agricola Forchir 2010 Pinot Grigio 'Lamis' (*** 1/2) - 15.99
Zyme 2004 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico (****) - $135.99
Vinicola Tombacco 2009 Ca'del Doge Primitivo (****) - $11.99 - great value
Delibori Vigneti e Cantine 2000 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 'Fracastoro' (****+) - $100.00
Feudi di San Gregorio 2007 Serpico Aglianico (****+) - $84.99 - 185 year old vines

France -
Henri Abele NV Brut Champagne (****+) - $54.99 - company established in 1757

Australia -
Rockbare 2010 Mojo Shiraz (**** 1/2+) - $19.99 - favourite wine of the event
Rockbare 2009 Rockbare Shiraz (****) - $22.99

Michael Sullberg 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (****+) - $16.99
Michael Sullberg 2009 Merlot (****) - $16.99 - great value Merlot, juicy and fruity
Hart & McGarry 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay (****) - $24.99
Jax Vineyards 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (****) - $54.99
Merry Edwards 2009 Pinot Noir RRV, Georganne Methode a l'Ancienne (**** 1/2) - $89.99
Merry Edwards 2010 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc (****+) - $51.99
Merry Edwards 2008 'Klopp Ranch' RRV Pinot Noir (****+) - $89.99

Argentina -
Andeluna Cellars 2005 Grand Reserve Pasionado (****+) - $44.99
Andeluna Cellars 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (****) - $15.49 - great value

Report from ... Montes Dinner at Splendido - September 26, 2011

It struck me on the way home, sitting on a bench at Union Station (downtown Toronto), that Aurelio Montes is making wines in the three most advantageous places in the world of wine: California, Argentina and Chile, all he needs to make the quad-fecta is a winery operation in Australia and he's working all 4 hip hot climates.  What I'd like to see is how he'd fare in one of the world's cool climate regions: Bordeaux, New Zealand, Oregon, Ontario, just to see if he could spin his usual gold there.  But I don't think these regions are on his radar for the future, sure he admits Europe seems a great place to conquer, but I suspect that depends where.  All these thoughts run through my hazy noggin as I am returning from the Splendido Montes tasting on this Monday evening, where we tasted 8 Montes wines in a structured tasting (4 Alpha M's and 4 Folly) as well as another 8 with dinner plus 2 extras for the reception (sparkling and Chardonnay) - all told 18 wines were sampled.

Aurelio ...
Mr. Montes proved to be a really eloquent and enthusiastic speaker.  After apologizing for his "rudimentary" English (having been born and raised in Chile) he went on to speak (in English) for a good half-hour about wines, his history, etc. with nary a linguistic mistake - now granted he doesn't have a proper British accent but with his Chilean-patter he did exceptionally well.

We learned that Montes wines are sold in 110 countries and that their wines are the only Chilean wines on 20 Bordeaux restaurants wine lists.  That Montes was started as a "retirement project" that has become more full time than most full time jobs he has had.

Started in 1987, Montes was the brainchild of Aurelio Montes and Douglas Murray, who wanted to set a new standard "of excellence for Chilean wine".  From there the Montes name has expanded into Argentina (2001) under the brand Kaiken and now as a Californian Angel (2006) with wines being made with both Napa and Paso Robles fruit; "I was just looking for a new challenge," Aurelio admitted in his talk.

Memorable Quotes ...
"In the beginning things were planted everywhere and anywhere, watermelons were beside Cabernet Sauvignon and carrots were beside Pinot Noir, in the same piece of land."

"People ask me about the music I play in the barrel rooms, they say: "what does music do for the wines?"  I have no idea, but I love it."  Said with a sly smile.

Kaiken means wild goose in local language of Argentina, "I'm just like the wild goose," Aurelio explains, "flying over the Andes, except I am not trying to propagate or feed, I'm just trying to make good wine." 

And on this night we tried a boat load, along with some tasty food whipped up by Victor Barry, executive chef at Splendido.

Structured Tasting ...
Four vintages of Alpha M, named for the partners of Montes: Montes and Murray, Aurelio also joked it stood for money - referring to what the pair was hoping to make.  Wines started at $89.00 and rose to $129.00 - so maybe not as jokey as originally believed.  We tried the 1997, 2003, 2005 and 2007.  "You'll notice you're having all odd vintages," Aurelio pointed out, "that's because the odd vintages just seem to be better than the even ones."

Alpha M is the Montes version of a Bordeaux-style blend with Cabernet Sauvignon being the dominant grape (left bank style) to the tune of 80%, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which Aurelio calls his "wild partner" because it's the wild card of the blend - some years taking up to 5% while in others being only 2-3.

There was something interesting about each year's wine but the 2005 Alpha M ($99.00) just had everything going for it.  Nicely balanced with great fruit, chocolate, black cherry and soft, silky tannins.  This was a lush, plush sexy and smooth wine. (**** 1/2)

Montes Alpha M 1997 (***+)
Montes Alpha M 2003 (*** 1/2+)
Montes Alpha M 2007 (*** 1/2+)

The Folly Syrah is a different story: 100% Syrah from cuttings taken from the Rhone Valley in France.  Folly is a silly wine with serious undercurrents, but this silliness has to do with how it came into being.  We tried Folly from 4 vintages: 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2006.

While the Folly 2005 was layered with aromas: mint, blackberry and chocolate; and flavours: mint, cherry, white pepper, sweet fruit with a touch of smoked meat (**** 1/2) and was my highest scoring Syrah - there was a little something to the Folly 2006, which showed a degree of finesse and elegance not found in the '05.  So really it was a tough call dependent on what kind of Syrah you are looking for (****+).  Aurelio called the '05 masculine and the '06 more feminine.  Which stands to reason, since he had to work harder on the '06 than the '05 (his comment not mine).

Montes Folly 2001 (****)
Montes Folly 2003 (****)

Reception ...
Kaiken Brut - ****
The inaugural Canadian tasting of the Kaiken Brut (Argentina, $19.95) a 70/30 Pinot Noir to Chardonnay sparkler that has lovely toastiness, baked apple with a touch of pear, especially on the palate ... there's a slightly sweet note to the palate and a long luxurious finish that makes this quite a steal for $19.95 (****+).  When they ran out of bubbles they poured the Montes 2009 Alpha Chardonnay ($19.95 - Vintages Now), which had vanilla, almond and a hint of coconut (****).

Dinner ...
Four courses, 8 wines ... below are the best of each pairing

Chile ...
Montes Purple Angel 2007 ($49.95) - blackberry and cherry with an elegance and structure that's goes far beyond its 50 dollar price tag - a palate of blueberry, cassis and mocha; juicy front leads to a peppery finish. (**** 1/2)
Other wine:  Montes Alpha 2009 Carmenere ($19.95 - ****)

Argentine ...
Kaiken 2009 Ultra Malbec ($19.95) - same star score for each but price wins out here.  Juicy red and black fruit with pepper, spice and really good structure for 5 years worth of ageing. (****)
Other wine: Kaiken 2007 Mai Malbec ($89.95 - ****)

California - Napa ...
Napa Angel 2007 Aurelio's Selection ($89.00) - a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and picked from the best grapes / best parcels of the 15-18 year vines where they buy their grapes from.  Red licorice, cherry, vanilla with juicy red fruit, chocolate-strawberries and a dusty finish. (*** 1/2+)
Other wine: Napa Angel 2007 ($49.00 - *** 1/2)

California - Paso Robles ...
Star Angel 2008 Aurelio Selection ($59.00) - a mainly Syrah based blend with mere hints of Grenache and Mourvedre added for additional structure.  This wine was full of both red and black fruit. (****)
Other wine: Star Angel 2008 ($29.00 - *** 1/2)

Thanks to Stephen Marentette for inviting me to the event.