Sunday, December 2, 2007

Lailey Comes to Toronto - November 29, 2007

Let’s pop in quickly to the Lailey Toronto Open House which they moved from the winery, deep in the bowels of Niagara-on-the-Lake, to the Fine Wine Reserve, deep in the heart of downtown Toronto … essentially bringing the wines to their T.O. clients instead of having them to schlep their way down there when the weather might not be all that inviting. Have no fear Niagara based fans, Lailey’s regular open house at the winery will take place in early December (Saturday the 1st); this was just Lailey’s way of thanking their big city based clientele – and what a nice gesture it was.

Winemaker, Derek Barnett, enjoyed being in the warm confines of the Fine Wine Reserve … “I love the great underground atmosphere of the place, we’re actually under street level. It’s a perfect place to hold a tasting – I love it.” Though Barnett couldn’t get over the Toronto weather, “I left Niagara in short sleeves, it was seven degrees; I drive an hour and a half up the road, get out of the car and it’s bloody cold.” (For the record Toronto was at minus 4).

Tonight Lailey
showcased 15 of their spectacular wines, both whites and reds. Barnett’s reds always need time to mellow (5-7 years) or a good decanting to allow some air into them when they are young … and lately I am learning the limitations of an ISO glass – especially during the Cabernet Franc Challenge I am currently in the midst of (but more on that during the Cab Franc write-up). Tonight it’s all about Lailey. Now I won’t delve too much into their wines or the winery, as a full OntarioWineReview article is currently in the pipeline for the new year, but here are a few reviews you can look up from the wines I tried this evening and was mightily impressed by: 2006 Gewurztraminer ($19.95), 2005 Cabernet ($19.95), 2006 Syrah – Canadian Oak ($34.95).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Foster's Tasting ... November 28, 2007

The Distillery District was the home to the Foster’s tasting on this cold Thursday night … you might know Foster’s as the beer of Australia, Paul Hogan claiming it’s “Ripper Stuff” (during his Crocodile Dundee fame days) … since then the company has grown to include many Australian as well as U.S.-based wineries under their umbrella. Well known Australian names like Penfold’s, Wolf Blass, Rosemount are found alongside U.S. icon brands like Beringer, Stags’ Leap, Etude and St. Clement … and don’t forget the crossovers like Greg Norman, who has wineries on both continents. All-in-all 77 wines were available for tasting on this night, many of which are available at the LCBO. There was also a tasting of some back vintages by well known producers, a 1998 Grange, a 1957 Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet, a 1993 Wynns Cab Sauv and 1990 Wynns John Riddoch Cab Sauv, right alongside the Beringer Private Reserve from both 1999 and 2001 … anyone who thinks Australians only make drink now wines better thing again, as some of this old timers proved they still had the muscle, while the American wines also possessed plenty of staying power. Here is a list of 11 wines that you should be looking for and enjoying – either now or in the future.

Party Ready …

This is nothing too taxing, but it will go over well at your next get together: Beringer 2006 White Zinfandel ($9.95 - #239756), I like my Zins big, red and plumy, but this pink version is how many casual wine drinkers know Zinfandel – strawberry and raspberry on the nose with a strawberry bubble gum taste, this ones not for lying down, it’s for drinking – getting all tipsy and giggly and such. Rosemount makes wines on a party level and on a serious level … for partying their Diamond Label Shiraz ($15.95 - #302349) fits the bill quite nicely; all fruit forward and peppery with cherry and raspberry thrown in for good measure. Looking for a white to join your party pink and red? Let Wolf Blass help with its Red Label Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc ($14.15 - #323063) served chilled this one’s got great citrus (read: grapefruit) smells and peachy-citrusiness in the mouth. It’s easy going and party ready … and as always, the name Wolf Blass is not only recognizable it adds class to any gathering.

Every Day Reds and Whites …

As we inch up the price scale these are the wines you’ll wanna sit down and dine with. Beringer 2005 Founder’s Estate Merlot ($19.95 - #534255) the nose is black fruit with a predominance of black cherry – in the mouth you’ll find cherries and chocolate all over. The beauty of Blass is that up and down the line they bring value to every price point; for lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon check out the 2004 Premium Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.95 - #321927 – black and white label), spicy, peppery, chocolaty and minty all greet the nose – pepper and black fruit dominate on the palate … there’s still a fair bit of tannin bite here so decant or save for a few years (there’ll always be more dinners). Shiraz-fans should spend a few extra dollars to get the 2004 Gold Label Shiraz ($29.95 - #590273) – lots of chocolate, cherry and plum on the nose and all follows on the palate with an abundance of spice and black fruit mixed in. Penfold’s is also a good name to bring to the table, and their Bin 128 2004 Coonawarra Shiraz ($29.95 – 509919) is a fine addition: cherry, vanilla and black licorice present themselves on the nose, black fruit, pepper, spice and some tannins make up the mouth – another candidate for the decanter or the cellar. Lovers of Chardonnay should be prepared to shell out $29.95 for the 2005 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay – this rich and ballsy white has butter, vanilla and oak upfront on the nose, further sniffs will reveal buttered popcorn and toffee. The mouth shows lots of buttery oaky flavours – a rich front palate and mellow finish.

Special Occasion Wines …

For those special occasions when you just have to pour something nice to impress, be prepared to ante up money-wise and palate-wise. Beringer 2005 Knight’s Valley Cabernet Sauvigon ($39.95 - #352583) is red fruit sprinkled with vanilla and cinnamon – a red fruit bomb explosion in the mouth with a lingering finish that leaves no doubt that this is a California Cab. California also brings a Pinot Noir for non-Pinot drinkers. Gone is the earthy-mustiness, say hello to sweet fruit on both the nose and palate: Etude 2004 Carneros Pinot Noir ($69.95 - #655555) cherries and strawberries are your dominant flavours and smells. Speaking of fruit the 2004 Devil’s Lair Margaret River Chardonnay ($39.95) from Australia, is not only a dead ringer for pineapples and banana on the nose, but the tropical party continues in the mouth (complete with fruit hatted lady) … and I just love the name: Devil’s Lair – bring that to the table and tell people (or your solo guest) it’s your “house wine” – see who laughs and who gasps - (insert maniacal laugh here).

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sherry Tasting ... November 28, 2007

Ah Sherry … that misunderstood wine from Spain. I have known a few Sherries in my day (Cherie, Sherry, Shari …) and like the wine they have proven themselves to be just as mysterious and perplexing. The making of Sherry (the wine) is long and complicated; the making of Sherry (the person) does not have to be so – in fact many have been created by using the wham-bam-thank you-ma’am method. Sherry (the wine) comes in a variety of styles – the same can be said for the person. And Sherry (the wine) can be aged a long time and contains dozens of different influences from a variety of vintages – Sherry (the person), only if she is open to that type of lifestyle … and then ewww.

Now let’s get serious for a moment … Sherry comes from the Sherry Triangle in Spain. Like Champagne, Sherry is a regional designation and true Sherry comes from this triangular region – all others are imposters and should be designated as ‘Traditional method’ or ‘Sherry-method’ as would be the case with all other sparkling wines not made in the Champagne region of France. The Sherry Triangle consists of Jerez (pronounced “Hereth”) – the most inland, and Sanlucar and El Puerto – the coastal towns. This region boasts over 300 days of sunshine annually with mild winters (4 degrees) and very hot summers (40 degrees) with an annual rainfall of no more than 620 litres. Sherry is made using three authorized grapes only: Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel … these are white wine grapes and thus Sherry is considered to be a white wine, no matter how dark the final product is.

The making of Sherry is a long complicated process having to do with oxidation, living organisms, barrel ageing (minimum 3 years), a step down system or “solera” system, testing, re-testing and many many years … but suffice it to say the final product is great value considering the time, money and effort wrapped up in making it.

I hear you saying, “but Sherry is an old persons drink, my grandma drank Sherry.” Your grandma had good taste to realize Sherry really is good value, but that bitterly dry Sherry grandma used to drink is not the only Sherry available. To ask someone if they like Sherry is like asking someone if they like television shows – because Sherry comes in so many different varieties and styles you would have to be more specific with your question. There are the bone-dry finos (usually 5-7 years ageing), a slightly nutty Palo Cortados (12 years), nutty and sweet Olorosos (17+ years), blended sweet Sherries (using all three grapes to enhance sweetness and body), and really sweet Pedro Ximenez Sherries (the colour of caramel and taste to match); of course there are many other styles in between. My recommendation is to try a variety to see where your niche is … I am not a fan of the bone dry varieties, but I am drawn, like a moth to a flame to the sweet versions. Below is a list of recommended, gotta-try Sherries I samples at the tasting; if you get a sip of as many of these as you can then you will be able to answer the question: Do you like Sherry? And be able to say which kind. It is my hope that you’ll find at least one you like, or will be will to experiment to find the one the suits your palate; thus kicking the notion of Sherry be an old-timers drink to the curb.

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino Muy Seco Palomino ($15.95 – #242669) – nose of vanilla, lemon and cream, very dry with a lemon drop pucker – delicate, crisp and palate cleansing.

Emilio Lustau Palo Cortado Peninsula ($15.95 - #745554 – 375ml) – nose of hazelnuts and dried apricots … tastes like liquid hazelnuts, dry and high acid, short finish. Goes well with roasted nuts. This is an extremely rare wine, as only 1% of total production becomes Palo Cortado Sherry.

Grupo Estevez RT Oloroso Jerez Seco ($17.95 - #720482 – March 1, 2008 Vintages) – nose is loaded with caramel, figs and mixed nuts … the taste is finesseful and elegant, slightly caramel flavoured mixed in with dried fruit – very enjoyable.

Gonzalez Byass Nutty Solera ($12.95 - #35204) – a great value with lots of sweet nuances. A nose of fruits and nuts, almost compote-like … the palate is reminiscent of honey- or brown sugar-coated nuts with a touch of nutmeg and cinnamon, starts off dry but gains sweetness mid-palate to finish.

Bodegas Williams & Humbert Walnut Brown ($11.95 - #437467) – a sweet moscato grapey nose with a fruity-raisiny quality, all wrapped in the scent of walnuts … the taste is friendly and sweet with caramel and toffee wrapping those walnuts up … like turtles if made with walnuts (minus the chocolate – get it?)

Gonzalez Byass Noe Pedro Ximinez ($25.95 - #721159) – 375ml) – this super sweet Sherry smells like: burnt caramel, raisin pie, or apple-caramel-spice (take your pick) … very thick and coats the inside of the glass when swirled … tastes of raisin pie or pecan caramel pie and many other things that will rot your teeth right out of your head … but oh how decadent and lovely this one is to sip on, thick and rich in the mouth.

As an alternative (if you miss getting Noe) check out the Osbourne Pedro Ximenez 1827 Sweet Sherry being released in Vintages December 8 ($17.95 - #47944) … almost as decadent with a lower price tag and bigger bottle (more to enjoy).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Taste the Season - Niagara-on-the-Lake ... November 24 - 25, 2007

Another ‘Taste the Season’ in Niagara-on-the-Lake has passed, successfully I might add. Another adventure in food and wine pairings that proved nobody does it better than the wineries of NOTL for a passport event. This year the price of the passport was a up $10 ($40 from $30) – but as it was explained to me, the wineries get a little of the proceeds of passport sales to off-set the cost of their pairing … and I for one had absolutely no problem with that because the foods being offered this year were a far cry from some the bread and wine pairings I saw during the last NOTL passport event. Of the 17 wineries on the program I visited 15 (missing only Marynissen and Strewn) … and either the food, the wine or both were not only of interest, but were delicious. Once again I present the Taste of the Season Awards – there are plenty of cheers and very few jeers this year:

Best Pairing …

There are thre
e winners in this category … Palatine Hills Estate Winery paired their 2006 Riesling Traminer ($19.00) with Haagen Daaz Mango Sorbet in a dark chocolate cup … the lemon and peach with a slightly sweet flavour (1) of the wine enhanced the sorbet (or vice versa) bringing out more of that peachiness on the tongue. Lailey Vineyard pulled out all the stops by presenting an Apricot Cheesecake paired with their 2006 Vidal Select Late Harvest ($19.95) … this delectable apricot topped cheesecake was brought in from a café called The Pie Plate, located in Virgil. The apple, pear and floral notes on the nose were followed in the mouth by soft apple and a slight lemonyness, and a was-it-the-cake-or-was-it-the-wine apricot enhancement. The cheesecake neither overwhelmed not fought with the wine, in fact they both smoothly and seamlessly moved through your mouth – while your buds screamed for another taste long before you finished chewing and swallowing. Finally, Stonechurch went simple yet classy with their pairing: fruit and icewine. The write up in the passport read “Icewine Drizzled Berries and Cream” – but there was no cream and no drizzle; instead they presented their 2004 Vidal Icewine in a dark chocolate cup, a few raspberries and blueberries and a toothpick. The idea was to skewer your fruit and dip them into the icewine. While the blueberries got coated with the sweet wine, the raspberries proved themselves to be a little more fun for this dipping adventure. If you skewered them the right way they acted as a small cup, trapping a drop of icewine inside providing a sweet and sour effect in the mouth.

Best Wine (on its own) …
Plenty of good wine was poured on the weekend, some were over shadowed by their food items while others stood above them … this was the case with the following four wines, which add
ed little to the pairing but on their own were wonderful.

First place … NCT Winery 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.95) – a wine so nice I had to try it twice (once on Saturday and then again on Sunday) – before deciding to walk away with 2 bottles. The nose was spicy black pepper and red fruit, while the taste hung around on a lengthy finish all the while delivering pepper, strawberry and other red fruits onto the palate – I found this one to be elegant and very nice indeed … kudos to those who fashioned this one at the Teaching Winery.

Second place
Goes to Hillebrand … they brought out the old standby 2005 Trius Red ($19.95), which is truly wonderful. It’s a wine I have already reviewed and has been poured at at least one previous event; therefore I had to take points off. What I was really dying to taste was the 2005 Trius Cabernet Franc, which has yet to be released in the store, but I am told is amazing – and is the only single varietal Trius made in the short cropped ’05 season.

Third place … We have a tie, between a red and a white; one a little gimmicky, the other more straight forward in both labeling and presentation – both very tasty indeed. Capitalizing on the popularity o
f animals on the label, Konzelmann trotted out the 2006 Red Moose ($14.95) a Reserve Zweigelt. Raspberry and cranberry on the nose, while raspberry, strawberry and cherry dominate the palate. It’s a little tannic straight from the bottle, which is why Konzelmann staff decided to decant it to make it more palatably smooth and approachable now. This wine should do well in the cellar for another 3-4 years. A little more on the traditional side in their approach to labeling is Pillitteri, the closest thing they come to an animal is the cart which adorns their label – maybe one day they’ll put a horse on the label, thus putting the cart before the horse (sorry couldn’t resist). They served a fresh and fruity 2004 Unoaked Chardonnay ($14.00) – plenty of tree fruit in the mouth with a touch of citrus on the finish.

Best Dual Purpose Wine …
Sunnybrook Farm, though their pairing did not come off well, it is their Spiced Apple Wine ($17.30) that was a taste treat sensation. Made with nutmeg, clove and cinnamon this wine can be served hot or cold and is a great way to flavour not only your palate, but scent your house this season with festive and holiday aromas.

Best Food (on its own) …
Had you visited the following four places you could have had yourself a nice four-course meal. Their food outshone the wine; not saying the wine was bad, just not as memorable as the food they accompanied.
Starting at Inniskillin who served up a Cinnamon Scented Squash Soup (paired with the 2004 Montague Pinot Noir). The soup left a yummy warm sensation in the mouth and tummy – and the cinnamon didn’t only give off a scent but was part of the taste as well. Moving on to Jackson-Triggs, where they served your appetizer: Braised Beef Short Rib Stew (with 2005 J-T Proprietors’ Reserve Merlot) served in a tiny pastry boat, one bite and you were done, so getting the flavours of the pairing was hard, but it certainly was a tasty one bite. Your main was served at Coyote’s Run Estate Winery, where you got a snow cone container filled with Bison Steak Frites (along with 2006 Cabernet) – a small shaving of bison (steak) along with super thin potatoes (frites) … no way you could go back for seconds (pity), but it certainly was good. For dessert there was the mandatory stop at Joseph’s Estate Wines for the Peanut Butter Toblerone Cheesecake from Willow Pastries in Niagara-on-the-Lake (matched with a 2002 Cabernet Merlot, or more aptly stated, mismatched). … this treat was too good, and made in bite sized chunks especially for Joseph’s event. Between Joseph’s and Lailey, there was a rush on cheesecake this weekend in Niagara.

Disappointments …

I’m sad to say that the one that stands out most in this category is Peller Estates, serving up a Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with a Smoked Salmon Swizzle. First, they milked another pairing out of their Ice Cuvee (icewine dosaged sparkling wine), which they seem to do at every event … and speaking of milk, the soup tasted milky and bland, while the Ice Cuvee seems to be losing its charm, especially when paired with such an uninspiring food/soup. The smoked salmon was wrapped around a homemade bread stick (swizzle), and one member of my party mentioned, “The best part of the visit was the bread stick”. Pretty much sums it up.

A Final Word …

I failed to mention Chateau des Charmes and Reif whose pairings were good but not award winning. This festival continues to improve each and every year, the wineries get more inventive with their pairings and they seem willing to top themselves year-in and year-out. This year there were more wineries I wanted to visit then ever before, because the food matches were interesting … in previous years I would have selected 7 or 8 wineries to visit, this year saw 15 get a check marks as a must try. And where I used to do the tour in a day, I found this year I required the full weekend to truly enjoy the event and the experience. Kudos to the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake for turning Taste the Season into the go to event of the season, they really are leading the charge for inventive and innovative events. Next up is their Wine and Herb Festival in the spring, here’s hoping they keep the momentum moving forward.

Featherstone X-mas Open House - Nov. 25, 2007

Is it me, or does Louise Engel, one half of the ownership of Featherstone Estate Winery, put on quite possibly the best open house spread of any open house this time of year. Annually I find myself there and each time I am impressed with the array of delicacies she provides. This year was no different, though I did hear from both patrons and fans alike that they believed there were less nibblies than in previous years … yet it was all still wonderful … and really, how can one find time to complain when they’re stuffing Walnut Cranberry Stuffed Brie laced with Pepper Berry Blast into their face; or munching on pieces of Prosciutto red peppr pizza topped with roasted red onions (in thyme and verjus). Louise, the former owner of a gourmet shop outside of Niagara, knows all the great recipes to help make the ordinary extraordinary … take for example a bag of mixed nuts, add rosemary, cayenne, brown sugar, sea salt and butter – and voila, Festive Seasoned Nuts. Or how about something more interesting like Orange Curry Chicken on Deep Fried Wonton. The only thing missing this year was the blue cheese shortbread cookies, but they were replaced admirably by the Rosemary Shortbread … and again who can complain when you have your mouth stuffed with homemade shortbread cookies that taste this delicious.

After putting on such a spread, Louise and Featherstone shutter their store (mid- December) for a well deserved winter’s nap – their wines are still available on-line through their website ( - where you’ll also find some of those recipes. They re-open in April when the new whites begin to flood their shelves. Next year I am looking forward to tasting what David Johnson (winemaker and co-owner) learned from last winter’s jaunt down to New Zealand – the Sauvignon Blanc should be something to write home about. Enjoy your hibernation Louise and David, again you’ve earned it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Toronto Gourmet Food and Wine Show - Nov. 15, 2007

This year’s Gourmet Show saw a cast of regulars rubbing shoulders with a cast of newcomers and hopefuls. New York had their usual big booth showcasing at least two dozen of their wines; both France and California also had their usual large displays. Chile (the feature country) had a nice exhibit, but the narrow pathways made it hard to circumnavigate between the booths. Agents were spread throughout the show and that means that many countries were also spread throughout the room – so you were likely to bump into y9our favourite country or favourite type of wine anywhere within the room. The LCBO had their selling shop, but there seemed to have less consignment and pre-release bottles this time around.

The Gourmet Show is great for getting all kinds of countries together into one room along with interesting foods (I had a 44th Street roast beef sandwich to die for – best of all its available at the grocery store in the refrigerator section) and paraphernalia sellers (Wine Establishment, Vinoverso, etc.) all there in the hopes of improving your gastronomical pleasures. Myself I was looking for something special, a few things to write about (like that beef sandwich) instead of a shopping list of wines to enter into my lexicon … I’m looking for stuff you can buy now or hopefully soon – something to look forward to once I leave the show and something I can put on my table. Here are a few of my finds:

Argentina is vying to be the new Chile …

Argentina is throwing together interesting blends and single varietals at incredibly good prices – and yet they have achieved enough of a reputation that they can also ask for the big bucks. Graffigna Centenario Cabernet Sauvignon ($14) is really smooth with milk chocolate, cherries, plums and vanilla; the Grand Reserve Malbec ($18 – Vintages July 2008) has chocolate mint, dark fruit and cherries – throw some age on it and it’ll be even better – this was a “wow-wine” for sure. Two other wows from Argentina were from Luigi Bosca, Gala 1 (Malbec – Petit Verdot – Tannat) and Gala 2 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc and Merlot) both $40. 1 was opulent with cherries and chocolate throughout … smooth and delicious. 2 was more interesting with its full on tannins and black fruit. Here’s hoping we see these wines in Ontario soon.

Chile is still Chile …

As much as everyone is trying to find the new Chile, no other country can deliver such good wines at great values. Check out the Errazuriz Max reserve line for proof. The Merlot ($18.15 - #16170) is soft, plumy and smooth delivering velvety milk chocolate in the mouth. The Cabernet Sauvignon 9$17.95 - #335174) delivers even more … lush nose of cherry, plum, eucalyptus and plum while providing smoothness and suppleness on the palate with acidity and tannins to spare … 3-5 years and this’ll still be a good wine. Montes also delivers plenty of value; like the 2005 Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon (322586) coming this February (2008) to Vintages for a mere $22.95 … lots of blackberry, cocoa and dark berry fruit – a cellar candidate for 10 years of more. But the real Chilean deal had to be the Montes “Limited Selection” Cabernet (70%) Carmenere (30%) – (#16071) – coming this March (2008) to Vintages for the Are-You-Kidding-Me price of $14.95. A 7-year cellaring recommendation comes on the handout, and I believe it, but that does little to tell you about what the wine is like now. Soft easy drinking with chocolate, plum, black fruit, black cherry and a long smooth finish – what a wonderful wine … and it’s still considered young – the guy pouring it said “in 6 months it’ll be even better” … that’s good, cause in 6 months I’ll be buying it … and so can you.

Good South Africa means Big Bucks …

I’ve touted this winery before and I’ll do it again, David John Bates of B.C. moved to South Africa to form Leopard Frog Vineyards, a small boutique winery that marries old world and new world winemaking styles and techniques. All wines made there are blends, none better then the 2004 Tantra ($43) … made of Franc (44%), Sauv (32%) and Petit Verdot (24%) this wine shows what can be done in South Africa when care is taken to make a great wine. If you get a chance to try it I recommend it highly – it’ll raise the bar by which all South African wines are measured.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Bubbles and Sweets – just in time for the holidays ... November 16, 2007

Over the holidays two kinds of wine will reign supreme; the first is obviously Champagne / Sparkling Wine, we’re less than a month and a half away from the biggest staggered party on the planet, where corks shoot into the air and bubbles fill the many wine glasses of revelers. The other wine is not so much a party wine as a relaxation one … a mellow out in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night – I speak of course about Port, that (sometimes) thick, sweet liquid that makes everything seem alright (might be the 20% alcohol) – but rarely is it the wine you’ll get drunk on, like Champagne, or bring to the party. Port is one small glass you’ll nurse for hours. So without further ado here’s what I did … I plowed my way through numerous sparklers and a variety of ports (all available now or soon at your local LCBO) so that 1) you didn’t have to; and 2) so you could bring the right wine to the party … I am so self-sacrificing that way.

Best Value …

I’m all about bang for the buck – or in this case, pop for your pennies … one of the best value bubblies is Remy Pannier Sparking Brut ($10.95 - #341669) very dry but with lots of citrus, apple and lemony flavours, can’t go wrong for $10.95.

Something Unique …

There are people in this world who claim they don’t like sparkling wine, my father once referred to it as “ginger ale in a dirty beer glass”. So for those who don‘t like fizz maybe the Chileans have found an answer, Fresita ($13.95 -#56697 … also available in 4 x 187ml size). This sparkler is made of Muscat, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but what really gives it that special kick is strawberries … they infuse fresh strawberries into the wine giving it a playful tart strawberry nose with a refreshing light strawberry flavour through the mouth; thus no ginger ale or beer tastes. And what’s more, that festive red colour is as inviting as the nose … party on!

Pick a Freixenet …

Having once worked for the LCBO over the holiday season I heard many pronunciations and mispronunciations of this Spanish Cava’s name, many I can’t even spell out phonetically if I wanted to. But with three to chose from the question was always which one to get. My favourite is the Freixenet Carta Nevada ($11.95 - #352369) – this fresh, lively bubbly is loaded with toasted apple and citrus, and as the bubbles subside peach seems to arrive to the party in your mouth. Plus it has a reference to Vegas in the name (Nevada) and you know the old saying: “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” – might be very apropos if you end up drinking to much over the holidays and you wake up with your underwear on your head in someone else’s bed.

Kickin’ it with Cava …

Cava, as mentioned above, is Spanish sparkling wine made in the traditional method (fermented in bottle like Champagne). Cordorniu has two that it brings to market, and one of these little piggies should be brought home. I quite enjoyed the Brut Classico ($11.15 - #006262) with its apple taste, slightly sweet palate and lemon finish – all at a price that might make you squeal “wee, wee, wee” all the way home.

Insisting on the Authentic …

Real Champagne (French sparkling made in the Champagne region using the ‘traditional method’) is expensive, period the end … but if you insist on showing up at the party, or showing off by pulling out a bottle of the “good stuff”, you can’t go wrong popping the cork on a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut ($67.95 - #384529) with its lovely apple and pear notes throughout.

Blass from the Past …

Wolfie is a recognizable name in Australian wine (I speak of course of Wolf Blass) – it’s one you can bring to any party and people will instantly know you not only have something from Oz, but something of quality too. This Sparkling Brut ($16.95 - #649996) is all that you’d expect from Wolf Blass. Good bubbles, apple, lemon (I thought I also picked up some vanilla in here) and a good clean finish. Something to sip on all night long, for any occasion.

Another Wonder from Down Under …

I’m sure you’ve heard of Banrock Station, they are the makers of one of my favourite Unoaked Chardonnays … they also use those Chardonnay grapes to make a pleasant fizz: Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay ($12.80 - #534974). Typical apple and citrus goodness that you’d expect from this all Chardonnay sparkler – a tad on the sweet tasting side, but not too much, enough to make it a palatable alternative to those who don’t like the extra-bruts (really dry) stuff.

Speaking of Sweeties …

This is the time of year where you are bound to pass a gaggle of girls talking about someone being a “sweetie”. Usually they’re not talking about sparkling wine, but they could be, especially if you give them a glass of one of the three below. From Italy there’s the Neirano Brachetto D’Acqui ($15.95 - #047225) – this one drinks like a red Asti (sweet sparkler made from Moscato grapes) – the fruit is cherries and strawberries and has a sweetness that has the potential to be really sticky in the mouth, but those bubbles help it glide through without getting bogged down and gooey. Another from Italy has been a favourite of mine for years. It’s about a 6 on the sugar code, but the light bubbles keep it from being sickeningly sweet, and many who I have poured it for have though it was much less sweet … and also lovely, in fact they have helped finish off the whole bottle without much prodding. I’m talking here about the Bottega Petalo Il Vino dell Amore Moscato ($12.35 - #58878) a low (6.5) alcohol sparkler with a distinguishable rose petal on the front label; this foreshadows the smells and flavours in the bottle. Floral and peach on the nose and rose-petal- gewürztraminer-like flavours – like Lucky Charms this one’s magically delicious. Finally, the French take a page out of the Italian’s book of sweet-fizzies … Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Demi-Sec ($66 - #38307) wants you to have a sweet occasion when you pop the top on this one. Still carries the Champagne price and the stature of the Veuve name, but this little sweetie delivers a peachy nose and apple peach flavours – it too gives off a little rose petal both in smell and flavouring, but much less so than the Italian.

Sparkle U.S.A. …

Yes Timmy, America does make sparkling wine, few were at the tasting and even fewer impressed, but this Chandon Brut Classico NV ($24.15 - #94946) did the trick. A closed off nose that gave off a thin wisp of citrus and was better on the buds with lemonade flavours, equal parts tart and sweet – interesting and fun … it’s dry, clean, finish won out over the other U.S. entries.

Port for Now …

Now, after all the revelers have gone home, after all the partying of the night before, or after that long, hard day, nothing beats that long slow sip on a glass of your favourite port (fire not included – but very welcome). Taylor Fladgate makes a range of ports to suit anybody’s style. The First Estate ($15.75 - #309401) is a long standing favourite of mine: rich dark chocolate and a boatload of cherries makes up its flavour profile. The 2001 Late Bottled Vintage ($17.95 - #46946) has softer red fruit and dark cocoa … a little less intense than the First Estate, but more tannins and acidity. Their 10 Year Old Tawny ($33.95 - #121749) has some chocolate on the nose but relies more on marmalade, orange peel and nuttiness for its flavours; while the 20 Year Old Tawny ($67.95 - #149047) is a warming blend of caramel, nuts and dried black cherries … everything in the Fladgate line is top notch, worth the price and great to linger over.

Not to be Outdone …

Fonseca has a range of ports at the LCBO too … their Bin 27 Finest Reserve ($16.95 - #156877) is loaded with ripe red cherries and chocolate flavours to rival the TF First Estate or LBV … and the price sits nicely in the middle of both.

Worth Mentioning it Again …

In my Port and Douro report I mentioned a Ruby Port that should be available in the new year and to hopefully look for … well it seems the LCBO agreed, and it will be available March 29, 2008 through Vintages: Infantado Ruby Port ($15.95 - #979898) is an absolute steal at that price for this sweet delicious red fruit, chocolate, strawberry nectar of the Portuguese Gods … I know I’ll be lining up first thing in the AM for a few bottles of this baby – it’s marked on my calendar, make sure to put it on yours … this one is not to be missed.

Have a safe and happy holiday.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Caliber – Cantina Tollo Tasting … November 13, 2007

Sometimes you go to a tasting and you’re overwhelmed by the amount of wines available (see Italian Tasting) and you think, “this bed is too hard”. Others you go to and you realize there isn’t enough good wine in the room to write about (this bed is too soft). Then there are those that are just right – like this Caliber tasting that featured about a dozen wines and enough interesting ones to make a review worthwhile, and best of all, many are available right now on the general list.

Starting off there’s the Cantina Tollo Rocca Ventosa Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($7.15 - #430249) – this soft peachy white has apple and citrus notes that make this seem like sweet peach nectar. The price is right for taking this easy-going sipper to any party – winter, spring, summer or fall.

Then there are the two wines you can’t pick up by the bottle, but if Caliber Fine Wines and Spirits get their way you’ll be able to sometime next summer. The Rocca Ventosa Chardonnay ($7.85) is a pineapple-vanilla flavoured number that brings back memories of summers past and future. A Vintage candidate might be the Aldiano Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($13.70) with its vibrant citrus aromas, fresh fruity peachiness and it’s apple and soft citrus finish.

A few reds also made the grade at this Cantina Tollo tasting; one is an absolute steal-of-a-bargain that I must bring to your attention. But first, there’s the rosé: Rocca Ventosa Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo 2006 ($7.85 – coming soon) raspberry and cherry aromas, touch of sweetness on the palate with a dry finish of red fruit. The matching (in price anyway) Sangiovese Colline Teatine ($7.85) had red and black fruit on the nose with black fruit, cedar and a touch of anise in the mouth. And there’s also the Aldiano Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2004 ($16.30 - #51706 – Vintages Nov. 24, 2007) that has strawberry, blackberries and cassis, with a smooth mouthfeel and touch of dryness; quite enjoyable.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – the one wine you should rush out right now and buy. I’ll start with the description: cedar, anise, cassis and blackberry greet the nose, whilst oak/cedar, black fruit, vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa slosh playfully on the tongue. 24 months in “Slavonian” oak, good structure, well balanced, drying mouthfeel, but not too overwhelming on the palate with tannins. So what is this incredible bargain? Colle Secco Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2004, available now at the LCBO (#195826) and at a whopping $8.40 – a wine this good with those flavours at that price, and the ability to hold for another 5 years … you can finish reading this report when you get back from the liquor store … in fact forget the rest, I’m on my way now – see you there.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Italian Wines and Grappa – November 5, 2007 ... Roy Thompson Hall

So I find myself at Roy Thompson Hall for the 12th Annual Italian Wine and Grappa Show. Holy cow! I knew Italy likes their wine (and make some very good stuff at that), but not like I saw on this day. Only those who have been to Roy Thompson will understand this: the entire lobby around the auditorium was full. Hundreds of producers/agents vying for your palate’s affection – a sea of mostly reds and proseccos (sparkling wines) were available for the tasting. How does one taste then all? (You don’t). And where does one begin? (Anywhere). From my limited amount of tastings (maybe 10-20% of all there) here is what I found of interest.

All told, and from my count of the producers listed in the bible-sized booklet handed to me at the front door, 91 producers were in attendance bringing with them, on average, 5 wines apiece … that’s 455 wines – and of those I tried 50 to 100. You can see how selective you have to be, and how hit and miss finding a good one can get. If you walk up to any table and say “Pour me your best” you’re asking for trouble, because they’ll start you low end and work you up to the big guns – and if you say the wrong thing you could end up offending a whole region, not just a single producer. So you learn the fine art of pick-and-point, and sadly, sometimes it’s the most attractive label that wins out.

Producers like Ampeleia were welcome additions, they brought only their best: Maremma Toscana IGT Ampeleia 2004 a blend of Cab Franc (50%), Sangiovese (20%), Mouvrede (30%) along with splashes of other regional grapes. This one had a nose of floral and cherry blossom with a soft elegant mouthfeel that had good fruit, namely cherry, with a touch of pomegranate. (Kylix Wines)

Caldora had 2 wines that interested my palate: the 100% Pecorina (white) that is incredibly aromatic (melon and peach) with a bit of sweetness: Terra di Chieti IGT Percorina Colle Dei Venti 2006 (private order $15) and their red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Yume 2004 ($25) with its dark fruit elegance on the nose, fresh lively fruity flavours and cherry-wood finish. (Appelation Wines)

I tried something from Castell’in Villa, a Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 1986 made from 100% Sangiovese – it was browning along the outside rim (as an old wine is apt to do) but still had some good dried fruit characteristics and an almost sweet taste … very interesting and still quite tasty after all these years.

If you like Sangiovese wines there’s one about to depart the LCBO shelves that you should stock up before the axe falls. Luigi Cecchi & Figli Maremma Toscana IGT Sangiovese Bonizio 2005 ($11.95 - #613299) has wonderful red and black fruit on both the nose and taste, and is well worth the few bucks you’ll spend.

A little more weight and finesse can be found in the Farnese Edizione 7 Cinque Autoctoni … 5 grapes make up this blend (Montepulciano, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Negroamaro and Malvasia) that is given an “Edizione” (edition) name as oppose to a vintage year designation. Smooth dark fruit, lush chocolate and dark cherries make up both its nose and flavour profile. (Barrique Wine Imports)

Prosecco is Italian Champagne and there was plenty to be had on this day – finding the flees amongst the fur (as one might say) was more difficult, but Le Tenuta di Genagricola had a beauty: Spumante Tenuta S. Anna which was very fruity and refreshing on the palate with citrus, pears and peaches all fighting for supremacy in the mouth. ($15.95 – Regazzi Wines & Spirits Selection)

Another Prosecco, this time from Masottina, Spumante di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene Extra Dry 2006, a great citrus lift to the nose right alongside the apples … it foams up upon entering the mouth, but once there it mellows into a toasty, yeasty appley enjoyment. (TWC Imports)

Pinino Capston Italia has a very nice 59 dollar Brunello di Montalcino 2003 … dark fruit and black cherry are followed by cranberry and a sweet fruit-like mid palate – good acid and tannin showcase a longevity that could easily see it sitting on your cellar shelf for another 10 years or more. (Ruby Wines)

Being in Toronto it only seemed fitting to try a wine with Spadina in the name – Nero d’Avola Spadina Uma Rosa 2002 … this very nice fruit forward red not only had chewy black fruit, but the chocolate-mocha notes added to the enjoyment … the tannins and acidity which adds to its shelf life. (Regazzi Wines and Spirits)

Proving that the Italians can also have fun with wine, Ugo Chiola brings this delicious rosé called Amour 2006 – a blend of Dolcetto d’Alba, Freisa, and Malvasia … is totally red fruit dominated: strawberry, cherry and raspberry with a touch of sweetness, along with the cutest throbbing heart in the middle of the bottle – a perfect Valentine’s day addition … if the LCBO decides to pick it up. Sure it’s a little gimmicky but the wine inside is nice enough to deserve a try, and gimmicks is what Valentine’s Day gifts are all about.

A light and fruity Nebbiolo d’Alba 2005 from Veglio Michelino and Figlio also deserves some representation here in the province – its red licorice flavour was a delight in a sea of black fruit.

Odd Meeting of the Day …

Grape Guy meets Wine Guy (Stephen Belyea of Wine Guy Imports) – just for the name I had to try the whole line, of which all were pleasant and worthy of shelf space, if not at the LCBO then on yours. From Istituto Enologico Italiano comes the vanilla tinge Soave Bassanella 2004; or better yet the Soave Capital Al Pigno 2006 ($18.19) – it has fruity pineapple and peach nose and finish with a touch of floral to boot. Reds included a dark fruit and black cherry Valpolicella Ripasso Bixio 2004 ($21.99); a 100% merlot Riserva Desmonta 2003, with an earthy leathery pot pourri like nose, and dark fruit smoothness in the mouth (no earthy-leatheryness on the tongue) - $23.99. And finally the Amarone Bixio 2004 with rich chocolate, black fruit (black cherry) good mouthfeel with ageworthy acidity and tannins. They decanted this one just so it would show better with a little air … and it was worth it.

The great thing about most Italian wine is that it can sit and age – there’s no rush to drink this stuff … and that’s a good thing, especially if you’re slightly absent minded and forget a bottle here and there on your racks for a few years.

I found myself missing a whole lot that I will probably be able to try next year, because at the Italian Show there were so many wines yet so little time … I’m out.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vinexx Fall Tasting – October 30, 2007

Vinexx is a Hamilton based agency whose claim to fame is a goodly amount of luck with the LCBO. The reason I say that is that of the 36 wines tasted at this event, 32 are, or will be, at some point during the year, on LCBO shelves (either through Vintages (V) or on the General List (GL)), you just have to find that impressive. Last time through the Vinexx line-up in the Spring (see previous report) I was impressed with not only the quality of the wines being poured but the prices as well. Again I find myself in the same boat, tonight there was only one wine listed above $30, while the majority were under $20. This little fact bodes well that Vinexx, will at one point or another, put a bottle of wine in your hands, as many folks still base their wine purchase on price; and the average purchase price for most of us ranges between $10 and $20 (I include myself in here too) … see what I’m saying?

Vinexx isn’t country specific in the wines they’re offering up, they bring us wines from all over the world: France, Italy, Spain, California and Canada (Chateau des Charmes) … their criteria seems to be good wines at good prices and they are constantly on the hunt for them, no matter where they are from. Finally, at this year’s event the big news was announced in their program: Vinexx has “joined forces with Torion” thus expanding their portfolio. That’s why I say again: At some point or another Vinexx will probably put a bottle of wine your hands. So let’s take a sip through and see what you should be rushing out to buy:

We Start Out with Bubbly …

Two sparklers were poured, both from France, and the one from Limoux won out over the one from Alsace. Made from 90% Mausac with a touch of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc added for extra flavours. This bubbly is a toasty, creamy citrus affair that’s usually available in the summertime through Vintages: Les Vignes Vergnes de Martinalles 2005 Blanquette de Limoux Brut ($15.95 - #914473 – V).

Lively and Lovely Whites …

Eleven whites were on display and three caught my palate. Alois Lageder 2005 Chardonnay ($20.95 - #30312 – V) from Italy; lots of stony tree fruit on the nose with apples and pears on the palate, quite fruity and enjoyable. From California comes Calera Wine Company’s 2005 Chardonnay ($22.95 - #713313 – V) much more heavily oaked than it’s Italian counterpart, spending 9 months in French wood, of which 10% is new. This treatment makes it smell like vanilla and butterscotch with flavours that are buttery soft with tree and tropical fruits – do I taste banana? I think I do. Finally, Errazuriz Ovalle, which produced one of my favourite reds at the last tasting, pairs up a white to go with that red (reviewed later) in the form of this 2006 Panul Sauvignon Blanc ($14.58 – consignment only). A nose that’s more tropical fruit (read: pineapple) than the usual citrus found in Savvy B. these days, along with some lush, plush tropical fruit sweetness in the mouth, pineapple with a pink grapefruit finish; quite the Sunday afternoon sipper.

Red Cappers …

Amongst the 22 reds tasted I could easily have picked half (or more) to write up, but I narrowed it down to these 7:

Two consignment wines kick us off; the Sherwood Estates 2005 Pinot Noir from New Zealand ($22.95) spends only 2 months in French oak, so it remains fruit dominant on both the nose and taste. There are some violet notes mingling with the red fruit on the nose, while the mouth has just the faintest touch of earthiness in and amongst all that red fruit with a seemingly sweet fruity finish – smooth, delicious, delicate and lovely.

The other consignment red is the pal of that Chilean Savvy B., Errazuriz Ovalle 2005 Panul Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.98) – pure Chilean here, with menthol, eucalyptus and chocolate on the nose, black and red fruit on the palate with a touch of menthol and good tannins that’ll see this one surviving in the cellar for a couple of years at least.

Spain provided two highlights during this portfolio tasting. The $14.95 Bodega Y Vinedos de Murcia 2004 Dominio de la Peseta (#31526 – V) is light, fruity and ultimately chillable with lots of red fruit on the finish. The other was the one I ran out the next day to buy, the Bodega Matarromera 2003 Emina Crianza ($18.95 - #993220 –V) what a stunner. After spending 12 months in oak, this 100% Tempranillo from Spain has developed a beautiful nose of black and red fruits, spicy cinnamon and a layer of oakyness. But a wine in nothing if it does not deliver on the promise the nose offers up and in the mouth this one does. Herbs and spice wrap that red fruit in a light blanket and caresses it along to a smooth sweet mid-palate before finishing with a touch of tannin. This one has elegance and finesse wrapped up in a tall thin bottle (still 750ml) – and it’s a keeper for at least another 5 years.

Now we get away from finesse to enjoy a little power and fruit forwardness, namely Australia and California. Hugh Hamilton Wines Jim Jim Shiraz was a pick in my October 27th Vintages report ($14.95 - #682005 – V) … this “down under dog” has pepper, red fruit, cherries and chocolate to spare, and what a great value in an Aussie Shiraz these days, which can easily find themselves north of $20, for a good one at least – which this one is … so pick this puppy up and give him a good home.

Vinexx brings in 2 from Californian producer Cline, the general list 2005 Zinfandel ($13.40 - #489278 – GL) another great value with cherries, plums, raisins and a touch of rum and cola on the nose – peppers and herbs fill the mouth along with plums, cola and vanilla flavours. Looking for a Zin with a little oomph!? Check out the Cline 2005 Ancient Vines Zinfandel (another Vintage report pick – Oct. 13) - $18.95 - #719211 – V. Made with 80-to-100 year old vines and spending 10 months in American oak, this baby is plumy and jammy with strawberries as its dominant red fruit … vanilla, caramel and chocolate also get into the act giving it a great sweet-like mid-palate that brings to mind the delicious flavours of mocha … yum.

Thanks to Vinexx (905-525-1113) for a great tasting and 7 Windows restaurant in Hamilton for the food and hosting … see you next time.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Report from: Wines of Spain – October 25, 2007

I have written a few times about my love for Spain and Spanish wines … I have a number of reasons for that. Spain is re-emerging as a wine powerhouse, I’m not saying their wines are gonna take the world by storm (a la Australia), nor will the world compare their wines to those of Spain on a regular basis (a la France); but Spain is, for the most part, a value region where what you get in the bottle far outstrip what you pay.

Spain is also one of the few regions of the world where Reserve (Reserva) actually means something … the word is canonized in their wine laws as to age requirements both in barrel and bottle, before you can put certain words on the label they have to adhere to those laws. For example: Reserva means the wine has been matured 36 months of which a minimum 18 have to be in oak (for red wine) – 24 months/6 months in oak for white; Gran Reserva is 60 months with a minimum 18 in oak (red) – 48 months/4 months in oak (white). Below the Reserva lines are Crianza and Jovan. Jovans are young wines that see little to no oak, are fresh and fruity and are released the year following harvest. Crianza on the label signifies a wine aged 24 months with a minimum 6 months of oak habitation. All these minimums are just that, as you’ll regularly see producers far exceed them: a Crianza that spent 14 months in oak or a Reserva with 2 years oak and 2 years in bottle before release.

You’d also expect to pay mucho pesos for wines with that kind of age on them, but Spanish wine is a bargain with great wines starting at under $10 (see my previous report).

This tasting was described to me by someone in the know (and in attendance) as “the losers showcase” – meaning these are wines/wineries currently seeking representation in Ontario so that you and I will one day see their bottles on LCBO shelves. By the time that happens many of these vintages will be sold out, so to review them would be of little to no use to you because you won’t see them anyway. But, dear reader, if I can leave you with one piece of advice: check out the Spanish wine section, get to know the terms (because here they actually mean something): Crianza, Reserve, Gran and Jovan, learn what you like and then experiment in Spain, it’s well worth both your time and money … a 10 or 12 dollar Spanish “bargain” may be the best wine investment you make.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Select Wines Web Launch – October 24, 2007

Select Wines have a new look. After 25 years on the job of putting good value wines from all over the world in the hands of Canadians – Select Wines launched a more interactive, user friendly, easily updateable website (, by inviting folks down to their office for a launch party, which included a boardroom table of nibblies and a few bottles of wine in each of their offices (I’m sure this is commonplace at a wine agent, though these bottle were open) … the real surprise was the best taste of the day wasn’t a grape wine.

Highlights of the office-roam-about were:

An Italian Nero d’Avola from Montalto (#621151 - $8.95) light, fruity and very chillable with an incredible price to value ratio.

A German Spatlese from Gustav Adolf Schmitt (#262337 - $10.75) a Riesling with a good sweet peach and apple nose and taste that’s not overpoweringly sweet on either nose or palate. Soft and supple in the mouth, almost creamy.

A preview of Delicato’s 2006 Gnarly Head “Old Vines Zinfandel” (#678698 - $17.75) a previous wine of the month at Vintages (at least the 2005 version was); this one’s more plum and red cherry on the nose with plumy, spicy, black cherries in the mouth … a wonderful product year-in and year-out.

Or how about Sebastiani’s Sonoma County Merlot (#3219162 - $20.75) a perennial favourite with hold-ability to spare … with tastes of black fruit throughout.

Select also handles an Australian favourite, St. Hallett’s Blackwell Shiraz (#535104 - $29.75) what a wine … all you’d expect from the Aussies … the new home for Shiraz – wrestling away that mantle from the unsuspecting French. A nose of black fruit, cassis, chocolate and pepper; and a palate that lingers with all those flavours and plenty more.

The taste sensation of the afternoon had nothing to do with grapes though; in fact it also wasn’t from anywhere you’d expect. Instead of coming from a wine powerhouse like California, Australia, Chile, or France it comes from Japan’s Gekkeikan Company. To start, there was the light, easy drinking and refreshing Kirin Ichiban beer (#676627 - $10.35 for 6), meant to be sushi’s palate cleansing partner. Then there was Gekkeikan’s real coup: Zipang sparkling sake (private order only) – the most unique taste sensation I’ve ever experienced. A 7% alcoholic beverage with the typical rice wine smells you attribute to sake, but with a clean, refreshing sparkle in the mouth (fizz made via the tank method); fresh fruity flavours that are most reminiscent of Bosc pear and light lemon syrup. This taste is not cheap, a 250ml bottle will set you back 12 or 13 bucks, but something you should experience at least once.

By the way, the name Zipang, according to my host, comes from the 12th century Chinese name for the “golden country” over the mountains, we now call it Japan.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gourmet Food and Wine Show Media Launch - October 23, 2007

As they used to call their writers in MAD magazine, and as I am apt to say on occasion at a tasting, when asked who else is in attendance, “just the usual gang of idiots”. And they were out at this year’s media launch for the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo taking place in November (15-18) at the usual place, Metro Toronto Convention Centre; but while MAD used it as a joke I use as a term of affection to mean, “the gang’s all here”. This year’s Gourmet launch brought us all together again to show off what is to come at the show this year. This year’s focus is Chile, a country whose rise to wine-stardom has been on an upward trajectory for the past 5 years or more. The launch had the wineries you’d recognize from the Chilean section of the LCBO: Concha Y Toro, Casa Lapostolle, Errazuriz, Cousino-Macul and many others, who will be there flogging and tasting their wares in the heart of a city that loves its Chilean wines … Chile’s wine numbers continue to improve by double digit percentages every year. Then, of course, there are the tutored tastings, a program with wine and food experts giving a 90-minute course on their beloved topic of choice. All the information about this year’s show highlights can be found at

I also have a pair of tickets to giveaway for the first person who emails me at with “I wanna go to the T.O. Gourmet Show” – send me your name, address (with postal code) and phone number; and you too could be joining all the other beloved “idiots” at the show.

A Taste Sensation …

I would have to say that most of the wines at the launch had passed between my lips before and I have written about them in other places; but tucked at the back of this year’s launch venue, Jacob & Company (12 Brant Street in Toronto), were bottles of Fresita … a wine soon to be launched at an LCBO near you (October 16th officially). Described as Chilean sparkling wine made from mainly Chardonnay grapes then infused with a dosage of strawberries from Patagonia … one word describes it: luscious. Flyers given out with this beverage claim that it is aimed primarily at the female market, but I thought it a delicious tasting sparkler for any occasion to be enjoyed by all … where I think it has the leg up for woman it in the beautiful red colour, which just means it’d be perfect for the holiday season ahead. Interested? Look for Fresita ($13.95 – #56697 – 750ml or $14.95 - #56705 – 4x187ml).

Hungarian Renaissance Tasting – October 23, 2007

On Tuesday it was off for lunch and a formal tasting of some Hungarian wine. Hungary is best known for its’ Aszu wines: sweet dessert wines that can range in sugar content from 60 grams per liter all the way to 180 grams per liter; after that it’s Esszencia which can range from 180-800 grams … that’s a lot of sweetness – some Esszencia can be as thick as syrup but the aromas and flavours that come out are outstandingly beautiful. These wines come from a region called Tokaj; you may have even seen Tokaji on a label of those cute 500ml bottles – the “i” just signifies “from the region of” – so Tokaj is the region and ‘i’ is just the indicator. These wines are all made from local grapes, Furmint making up 60% of the grown varieties in the area, with Harslevelu making up another 30 … that leaves only 10% for grapes such as Sarga Muskotaly, Zeta, Koverszolo and others. Very few plantings of more well-known vinefera grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah are planted – and if they are it’s for private home-winemaking use only. Don’t try to tackle those local grapes names on your own, had they not put them up on the overhead at the front of the room I wouldn’t have ever understood them as grape varieties or even as real words, let alone known how to spell them. It was like they were speaking a foreign language (which they were).

Hungary is all about white wines, or it seems that way, I’m sure somebody somewhere in the country is making red, we just didn’t see or taste any on this day. The two main types are dry and really sweet, with some in the middle (like late harvest). Dry comes in the form of Furmint with its mainly apple and peach aromas and tastes; then depending on its exposure to oak it will take on other aromas and flavours. With less oak the fruitiness dominates on the nose and palate with crisp acidity; with oak it can develop a round smoothness with cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg in varying degrees depending on its length of stay in barrel … some producers even pride themselves on using Hungarian oak (which is becoming more popular worldwide).

The second main type of wine, and the one you’ll see most often, are the Tokaji Aszu wines which are sweet dessert style wines that start out with a dry base wine and then small barrels (called puttonyos) of botrytis affected grapes are added to the wine to cause a secondary fermentation … the more puttonyos the sweeter the wine. Aszu wines start at 3 and go up to 6. These wines are extraordinary, with smells ranging from dried apple, peach, apricot and tangerine to toffee, caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla, depending on the amount of sweetness in the wine. The tastes are similar to the smells you get and are creamy and thick in the mouth, they can even develop pepper and woodsy undertones from the barrels they are aged in.

There was also a delicious late harvest Harslevelu wine on display this afternoon, made without the use of oak. The smells were fresh tropical fruits and floral notes with apples, peaches and tropical pineapple in the mouth with a creamy texture and light finish. This was my favourite because it straddled the two extremes (dry vs. sweet).

Speaking of extremes these wines have two very different life cycles. The dries aren’t meant to drink when they are young and fresh, while the sweeties have a lifespan longer than some humans – they’ll age beautifully for decades. Think of them as the poor-man’s Sauterne (meaning, they are much more easily affordable and last just as long).

Hungary is making some excellent sweeties (always has) and with an influx of cash, modernization and know-how into the country, there truly is a renaissance and revitalization in their wines and this area. So look for them on the shelves in Vintages at the LCBO and take one for a test tonguing – you’re sure to enjoy it. As for the dry wines, look for a good value white and take it for a spin, it’s always worth a new experience in the world of wine.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stem Wine Group Tasting – October 22, 2007

I stopped into the Stem tasting after the Port tasting (earlier that day) even though I was pretty Old World wined out (that and some bad blue cheese that was just not sitting right). Stem’s portfolio is about ¾ Old World (Europe) with 90% of that coming from Italy with a little Spain and Greece thrown in for variety. The other quarter is split fairly evenly between Australia and the U.S. (California). Also much of the Stem list is well above my usual “like to purchase” mark of $20. During my brief tasting I found a few wines as good buys, a few pricey-tasties and a wine for $22.95 that over-delivered compared with its price.

Good Buys …

From Puglia (Italy) comes this Ca’del Duge 2006 Primitivo IGT ($11.95) with monstrous fruit and biting tannins: this one needs some time to settle down and will last comfortably for 5 years plus – and even though you’ll have to buy 12 you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy them.

From Greece comes two good buys, one red, one white, both from Ktima Lantides. The 2005 Icon Riditis ($14.95) is a fruit driven white with lots of melon and a hint of spritz on the tongue, while the 2005 Icon Agiorgitiko ($14.95) its red companion, boasts candied red fruit with a little bite on the tongue … and what an awesomely delicious nose. [All three above wines available in 12 packs]

Pricey-Tasties …

How’s about a $95 Barolo from 1997, the ‘Villero’ DOCG has a rich fruit and licorice nose with touches of nutmeg and spice. A palate ripe with black fruit, herbs and spices … a 10 year old wine that’s still going strong and will for years to come.

Another wine that’ll stand the test of time is the 2004 ‘Dromos’ IGT ($74.95); big bold and spicy red fruit kick start this one in the front palate, while chocolate notes persist in the back. There’s good oak integration in here and plenty of tannins making it an ideal candidate for some aging or a decanter, if indulging now.

Australia has their share of pricey reds and this David Franz Lehmann 2002 ‘Alexander’s Reward’ – Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon ($54.95) is one that’s good for the price. Franz makes both a stand-alone Shiraz and Sauv, both at the same price, but the combination of these two is more than the sum of its parts. Black fruit, hickory, chocolate and pepper hit the nose; there’s a lush start in the mouth as it integrates all those aromas into flavours then as it pushes through it finishes with a peppery-spiciness … delicious. Needs time to smooth out further, but this one’s quite tasty now. [The above three wines are available in 6 packs].

For $22.95 this is a Steal …

It’s from California, incorporates Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo and is “Rock Solid” in taste. Bishop’s Peak 2004 Rock Solid Red is just what you should be looking for in a California blend … interesting grapes and interesting flavours at a price you can afford. This one has rich red fruits, like cherries, along with some mocha that riddles the nose. In the mouth it’s smooth and easy drinking with enough tannins and acidity to give it some longevity, and the pepper and candied red fruit make it interesting going in, through and down … this was my pick of the night in the value to taste ratio category. [Above wine available in 12 packs].

Contact Stem Wine Group for ordering details,

Tasting of Port and Douro Wines - October 22, 2007

Port … to wine lovers it has nothing to do with fish, boats or huddled masses seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. It’s about sweet, supple wines with 20% alcohol. Words like Tawny, Vintage, Ruby, 10-, 20- and 30-years old adorn the labels. Names like Fladgate, Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s and Sandeman get palates salivating for dark chocolate, almonds and blue cheese. Flavours of cherries, plums, tangerine, hazelnuts and countless others fill both the nose and the mouth. And, of course, real Port means Portugal – like Champagne, Sherry, Tokay and Sauternes, Port has a particular region of the world to call home … and that’s where they make those potent, delicious and intoxicating elixirs. But Portugal is not just about Port wines, as the Port and Douro tasting proved – though some of the most memorable moments are of sipping the sweet red and amber nectars.

Portugal is not only about red wines they do make whites wine too, but when 85% of your show is stained red, those are the wines you concentrate on. We’ll kick off this look at Port and Douro wines with the still table wines then move onto the Ports themselves. Finally, I will tell you my best of show winner … a table that was a must visit.

Kicking it off in the Red …
You will notice the flavours and smells of Portuguese red wines have some similarities to Port, that’s because they use some of the same grapes they make port with to make their red table wines, and you can find some very good reds coming out of this part of the world at very reasonable prices.

There’s the Jose Viseu Carvalho & Filhos 2003 CSE Reserva ($19.00 – Alivin Inc.) with its smooth cherry, chocolate, plum and spice notes. There’s also one of my favourites that’s still kicking around the LCBO (in Vintages), Sogrape’s Callabriga 2003 Red ($18.95) – spicy plum, black cherry, pepper with a creamy smooth mouth-appeal along with some earth and spice notes that hang out an extra long time. The same wine made in the Reserva style ($34.95) brings more anise and pepper into the mix with some oaky-cedaryness and mucho ageability. (Charlton & Hobbs Inc.)

I tried a Quinta do Crasto Reserva ($30 – Vintages March 1, 2008) that was heads and tails above its non-reserve counterpart. The fruit comes from 70 year old vines and spends 18 months in French and American oak giving it smoke, black fruit and cinnamon flavours and aromas. Best value red of the show was the Vinhos Romanz VQPRD 2005 Red ($9.65 – Golden Anchor Imports Inc.) – strawberry, cherry and licorice on the nose, with an enjoyable in-mouth feel of smoothness and lots of red fruit, herbs and spice … all for under $10 – it’s a bargain.

Of course there are also high priced reds and the VT’05 ($56) was tight and young, but stunning (sounds like Britney Spears in her “Baby One More Time” days). Each vintage of this wine spends 18 months in new French oak and it’s the only wine this winery makes, so you have to know their heart and soul goes into each and every bottle. Black fruit and cocoa were the only aromas I could pick up, but the mouth had cassis, blackberries, cedar, and good acidity with balanced tannins. Another 5-plus years of aging will do it some good for opening up … and in a decade it will still be going strong.

Interesting and Different …
Favaios (currently seeking an agent) has four interesting sweet “Moscatels”, 3 of which were very enjoyable – the fourth tasted similar to the first. A fruity, apricot and pear dominated Aperitif ($21), a 10-year-old version ($52.50) which was an interesting combination of fresh fruit with sherry-like nuances, and a vintage 1989 ($63) tasted like a sweet sherry.

On to the Port …
Port is the mainstay of this show and it’s what brings most of the people out. Its those sweet succulent cherry flavours, nutty almond nuances and those in-your-face dried fruits that lure us through the door; and every producer in the room knows it, because everyone makes one. One person turned to me at the show and said, “once you’ve tasted one Port you’ve pretty much tasted them all … problem is, they’re all good.” I would agree to some extent … but it’s also why the stunners really stick out.

I tasted two from Sandeman, which were lovely – first, the Sandeman Ruby Port ($15.45 – LCBO) a sweet, easy drinker with cherries, plum and cinnamon all wrapped up in a smooth delivery. More interesting is the Sandeman Vau Vintage 2000 ($51.95 – LCBO) – a vintage port made to drink sooner. Fresh and fruity with the tannic bite of Vintage Port, but to a lesser degree. Let’s call this one an over-dressed teenage Port, it’s meant to seem older than it is.

How about the gold medal winner at the Austrian show, Vinhos Romariz Reserva Latina ($18.95 – Golden Anchor Imports Inc.) is loaded with nutty-dried peach (and other dried fruits) almonds and a little smokiness thrown in for good measure.

A perennial favourite is Fonseca Bin 27 Reserve Port ($16.95 - #156877) always enjoyable with its smooth, rich and delicious flavours of sweet red fruit; it’s one of those ones you swear you’ve tasted a hundred times before … but it’s worth every penny.

Symington Family Estates, bringers of Silva & Cosens, Smith Woodhouse, Graham’s and Warre’s have two on my list that are worth your drinking dimes. Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port ($28.15 – LCBO) has nutty apricot aromas that follow-up in the mouth along with almonds, hazelnuts and orange peel. Then there’s everybody’s Christmas favourite (I say that because during the holidays it seems to be more prominently displayed at the LCBO), Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny ($22.95 - #566174 – 500ml). Sweet, lush, nutty, orange peel, apricots, dried fruits – everything you’d expect from a good 10-year-old Tawny and then some.

Another on the general list is Quinta do Portal LBV 2001 ($22.60 – LCBO) with its lush black fruit, dark cherry, sweet chocolate and light tannins that blanket the tongue in succulence.

Stole the Show …
I mentioned to someone that they should end at this booth (Table 17) because, “once you’re tried this stuff the show is pretty much over for you.” Quinta do Infantado is an A list vineyard in Portugal (the highest rating a vineyard can have) and everything I tried was of exceptional quality, and the shocker was the price: all very reasonable, especially for what was in the bottle. Starting with the 2005 Douro Red ($21.95 - #681486 – private order) – elegant and smooth with black fruit, cherries and cinnamon on the nose; cherry, plum and red fruit dominated with an elegance and finesse unparalleled in the room on this day … wow! The late bottled vintage, LBV 2004 ($28.95 - #680223 – private order) was smooth as silk with a lush dark fruit finish and tons of black cherry. Finally, the real show stopper – Infantado Ruby Port ($15.95 - #979898 – private order) is an absolute steal at that price ($15.95) for this quality Ruby: sweet cherries and milk chocolate, fresh clean crisp acidity that flows through the mouth with sip-appeal which keeps you craving more … dark chocolate is the perfect match for this one. If you’re looking for any of these three wines contact MCO … Interesting Wines and Spirits (905-562-1392) or petition the LCBO to put them on their shelves … I know I’d be buying them.

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