Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Report from: Wine & Herb Festival - May26/27, 2007

Twice a year, spring and fall, the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake (17 of them) band together to showcase the region and the wines. In the fall they have “Taste the Season” a pairing of wines with seasonal food and treats. In the spring they have the “Wine and Herb Festival”, where wineries are assigned an herb to pair up with one of their wines. Now I heard three or four different versions of how the wineries get their herb designation: one, is that they are randomly selected out of a hat; another had them submitting wines to a selection committee, who then doled out the herbs based on what goes with what; another said, “someone up there hates us, that’s why we got stuck with …”. My favourite of all the ways was the one I heard from a winery owner who said, “I have no clue, my wife deals with that.” But however they come about, each winery still has to come up with a matching food for their wine. This year – unlike previous years – the passport was only printed with the pairing herb, instead of the complete description of the food being offered up. A good marketing ploy, because now instead of skipping over unwanted food items (grilled portobellos with fennel anyone?), as I had done in the past, I pretty much had to walk through the door to find out what was being served; though I do understand the pairings were available on the web closer to the start of the event. In past years I had avoided anything with mushrooms and crazy meats – but this year I walked into every winery wondering what was on the menu based solely on the herb and wine (e.g.: Niagara College 205 Unoaked Chardonnay and lemon balm) … which thankfully lead me to try a wild mushroom dish; more on that later. So without further ado here is my list of the best and, unfortunately, disappointing aspects of this year’s Wine and Herb Festival.

Best Wine:

This year many of the wineries focused on their 2004 wines (9 - 2004; 5 - 2005; 1 – 2006) but this winery pulled something out from way back in the stellar 2002 vintage – which is cheating a bit I guess, but hey, you gotta be memorable. Marynissen’s 2002 Cabernet-Merlot ($14.95) is a great easy drinking experience, with mellow tannins, good red fruit and strawberry flavours and 5 more years of cellaring potential.

Best Food:

Coyote’s Run put a little thought into their food, not the most creative (everyone knows that lox and cream cheese goes together) but it worked remarkably well. Their herb was thyme and they served smoked salmon and cream cheese on a pizza-sized slice of thyme roasted flatbread. Lailey Vineyard offered up a crostini topped with aged cheddar and a homemade basil pesto – the combination was divine. And finally, Jackson-Triggs offered up a small, yet tasty shortbread cookie with 3-year-old cheddar drizzled with lavender infused honey. Note to wineries: cheese seems to work well, in whatever form it takes.

Best Pairing:

There were only a few wineries where the pairing transcended the ordinary: you sip the wine, taste the food, sip again and the taste truly exploded in your mouth leading to shock, awe and surprise – the kind of moment where you say “ooh, that’s nice.” Inniskillin pulled it off with a wild mushroom soup with coriander paired with their earthy Pinot Noir 2004 from the Montague Estate Vineyard ($24.95). The wine was earthy with strawberry and rhubarb tones, and it just sang on the palate when matched up with the soup … this review is coming from a guy who hates the ‘shroom, maybe I’ll have to reconsider my food choices, or just puree my ‘shrooms. Konzelmann inspired the tongue with their summery combination of Salmon Gravlox (fresh dill marinated salmon with a dollop of cream fresh) and their 2005 Pinot Blanc (best value wine of the day at $9.95). This wine had light apple and orange blossom flavours that meshed well with the tasty salmon treat. Hillebrand wowed the crowd, and their tastebuds, by pairing a Parmesan-Oregano oat cookie with your choice of two wines (the only winery to offer that kind of choice): a 2005 Gamay Noir – which brought out the oregano flavours; or a 2006 Muscat – which highlighted the sweetness of the cookie (both wines $11.95). And now I wanna know how to bake those cookies.

Most Disappointing:

Two of the three wineries in this category took the lazy way out to produce a pairing. Sunnybrook served “Parsley Focasia Bread” with their Ironwood Hard Cider. Their herb was parsley – heck parsley’s a garnish for anything and everything; they could have made something more inviting and sprinkle parsley on it. This cube of bread was nothing to write home about and a huge disappointment especially for such an easy herb. Same can be said for Marynissen – sure they served up the best wine of the weekend, but they dumbed it down with “Rosemary Bread” cubes, though they did offer three different olive oils to dip it in – but why give me the “hairy eyeball” when I take a second cube. The whole loaf would have cost them no more than $3.29, and the size of the cube made it worth maybe .5 of a cent; factor in the dip of oil and my whole tasting cost maybe 2 cents … the garlic dip was good though, which is why I took a third piece when no one was looking. Finally, Reif served a rolled crepe with goat cheese, chive and apricot. Good try, but the chive flavour did not translate through the crepe and neither did the apricot … even more disappointing, the 2004 Barrel-Aged Vidal was spoiled (sherry nose and sour taste). When I pointed this out the girl behind the barrels she smiled and nodded, waited a few seconds, then gave me the tasting notes she had been given to memorize for the day. Worst of all, this white wine was served warm, I expected much more from this pairing, and this winery – especially with all the accolades of late for their First Growth wines.

What’s With The …:

Some wineries just made me scratch my heads in wonderment, “what were they thinking” -wise. Starting with Peller Estates, the wine was good – a 2005 Dry Riesling – but the marjoram chicken rilette (poached and pureed chicken) in a tartlet was more tartlet than chicken. The doughy taste of the tart overwhelmed the mouth and the herb did not come through. I do give them marks for presentation though; it looked really appetizing. Stonechurch served a Beouf Bourgogne with bay leaf and red wine sauce – quite tasty – and paired it with a 2004 Shiraz Reserve … not a bad pairing. But the wine was non-VQA. During a festival to showcase the wines of Niagara-on-the-Lake should you not serve a VQA wine with your pairing? I was told it was because 2005 was a short crop and wiped out much of their grapes, but this was a 2004 wine, was there not a 2006 white you could have released? There was, in fact, a 2004 Cabernet Franc with VQA designation available to them. Bad decision on the winery’s part. I suspect the Beouf Bourgogne could have been made with dashes of Franc instead of the splash of Shiraz without effecting too much. Finally, Strewn got the big “X” of the day for their pairing of Terrayo Polenta Canape with black bean salsa and their 2004 Cabernet Franc. The wine had a wonderful nose of pepper, cedar and vanilla, while in the mouth cinnamon, vanilla with red and black fruit … but when mixed with the gritty polenta created a funky feel in the mouth and the wine turned from lush to pencil shaving bitter (think the graphite part) with a sour aftertaste. Buy the wine for $11.95 and pair it with a burger.

And that’s my run down of the highs and lows of this year’s Wine and Herb Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I look forward to November’s Taste the Season event, where wineries once again put their thinking caps on and try to impress the judges (you and me) with their pairing prowess.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Report from: Terroir, Prince Edward County - May 19, 2007

“Terroir”, is the French word that describes that “je ne sais quoi” aspect in a wine that is imparted to it by the soil in which it is grown. Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator magazine, an American publication, took the French term and gave it an English equivalent definition “somewhereness”. Of late the term “Terroir” has been used by the folks out in Prince Edward County (PEC), namely those foolhearty growers who brave the vine-killing minus 30 degree winters, to explain why they carry on their practices in such a harsh winter climate; a climate that forces them to bury their vines in November and burn bales of hay in May to avoid frost and winter damage. Their “Terroir” is something the PEC winemakers and growers are fiercely proud of, in fact, in the new PEC winery touring map, the Terroir is something that is highlighted and explained in some degree of detail for each vineyard and winery, complete with colour coded legend. So it is not surprising that the new vintages festival in PEC is called “Terroir” – a celebration of the region’s wines paired up with foods of the county. The soil is so highly regarded and revered here that a painting was on display, at the entrance to the event, depicting 15 different soil types from 15 different vineyards around the county.

10 of the 12 PEC wineries participated in this year’s event, though the 2 missing are notable in their absence because they are the fiercest of all advocates of the Prince Edward County Terroir: Rosehall Run and Long Dog Winery.

The day itself began, and ended, with another of the proud advocates of terroir: Norm Hardie, who is not only one of the growers and winemakers of the county, but one of the driving forces behind this year’s event. He even made reference to the event’s missing winemakers: “I would have loved to have Dan (Sullivan, winemaker of Rosehall Run) and James (Lotti, winemaker of Long Dog) here, but there’s always a bit of politics, even at these events.” It’s because of Norm’s love and passion for winemaking that he is such a good representative for county wines and the new breed of winemaker setting up shop here. So upon my arrival at Terroir, the Norman Hardie Winery booth was my first stop.

Norm was pouring his two signature wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both from the ’05 vintage. I find it funny that a guy who promotes the terroir of PEC uses mostly Niagara fruit in his wines; but at this point it’s a waiting game for Norm. His vines aren’t mature enough to produce the kinds of wines he wants to make, so to make them he has to go outside the county for his fruit while he waits for his own vines to come of age. Though he will never give up his Niagara fruit, “the weather is just to unpredictable”. On the plus side, he is making county Cab Franc, Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay. Norm’s a well traveled man, having worked harvests in New Zealand, South Africa, France amongst other places, and now Prince Edward County – seems a world of difference, but Norm’s happy here and he’s making standout wines. The ’05 Pinot Noir ($39) is made from Vineland Bench fruit and has notes of strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb and beet root on the nose; earthy-rhubarb and red fruit in the mouth, with a good tannin seam running persistently through it.

Moving away from Norm I visited Huff Estates. Now I don’t want to give away too much here because I am preparing an article for my newsletter about this winery … let’s just suffice it to say that Huff Estates is one of those wineries that is going to help put PEC on the map. Consistently, over the past few years, they have delivered quality wine at good prices. The wines on display today were the ’05 Gamay ($14.95), the ’06 Unoaked Chardonnay sur lie ($15.95), the ’04 Merlot Reserve ($24.95) and the ’06 off-dry Riesling ($14.95). The real standout for many visitors to the festival – and from my vantage point, the most talked about wine – the 2006 South Bay Rose ($14.95). This blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, spends 3-5 hours on its skins before being pressed. The fruity nose comes off like a Sauvignon Blanc, though there are some hints of raspberry and strawberry as well; but the citrus and grassy notes on the tongue are uncanny and that seam of acidity – wow! Looking for a rose to pass the summer away – this is it.

Another winery that is doing wonders for the county’s reputation is The Grange. Their winemaker, Jeff Innes, shuttles between PEC and Niagara (making wine for Rockway Glen), so he has experience in two of the three Ontario wine regions (now all he needs is a job out in the Lake Erie North Shore area and he’ll have all the bases covered). The Grange wines are consistently getting better and better, testament to that is the fact that they were the first PEC winery to have their wines on LCBO shelves (the 2004 Cabernet-Merlot). The Grange focuses on good wines at a variety of different price points, starting from the reasonable ($13.95) to Reserve ($29.95+). Today it was mostly about whites, as both the 2006 Pinot Gris ($16.95) and the ’06 Sauvignon Blanc ($16.95) were poured. The Gris, which comes from 5-7 year old vines, has good apple and pear on the nose with hints of citrus; the mouth retains the apple flavours, but the pear drops off, giving way to peach, orange blossom and melon with a nice lengthy finish. The Sauvignon Blanc comes from younger vines in the Niagara area (though the Grange has planted some of their own just recently): citrus, gooseberry and lime get up in the nose, while citrus, lime and grapey gooseberry greet the palate with a good lasting finish. A decidedly good first effort with this grape for The Grange.

Finally, one of the newest kids on the PEC block is making some real standout wine, with some unpredictable grapes. I’m talking about Catherine Langlois of Sandbanks Estate Winery (see Newsletter #38). Today she had quite an array of wines at her table, the usuals: Riesling and Vidal, and the unusual: 2 Bacos and a Foch. Her 2005 Reserve Baco ($24.95) had the distinction of placing second during the OntarioWineReview Baco Reserve Challenge, and is truly a standout. A more restrained Baco, made in an easy drinking-style with less of the usual leatheryness of most Bacos: cherry, cinnamon, white pepper and truffle greet the nose; while sour cherry mixed with good spiciness and oaky flavours define the palate. During the challenge we poured a barrel sample and I see the finished product is even better than I remember … kudos to Catherine for making a very accessible and tasty Baco. If she keeps this up she just might rival Henry of Pelham for “Ontario’s best” status.

Two other Sandbanks wines were of note this aftrenoon, her 2006 Riesling ($15.95) with it’s apple, pear and peachy nose, followed up by the same on the palate with a zingy lime finish … a pleasant dry Riesling. Also her well-priced 2005 Winter Harvest Vidal ($14.95 – 375ml) – this wine was hardly the sweetie you’d expect, ranking only a 4 on the sugar code, but plenty of sweet fruit both on the nose and in the mouth, it makes for a delicious, light dessert wine.

As mentioned the day began and ended with Norm Hardie … after Terroir a BBQ was held back at Norm’s winery for all the staff, helpers and workers who made Terroir a rousing success. Norm beamed with pride as he delivered his thank you speech to all in attendance. As the evening wore on, and the wine and beer flowed, Norm Hardie visually relaxed (you could see the tension dissipate from this shoulders). Later, as he stood behind his tasting bar, cracking open another of his fabulous Pinots he looked at the four of us huddled around him, and before pouring, with bottle in one hand and screwcap in the other, he said, “If you’ll allow me to pontificate for 45 seconds,” no one interrupted and he continued, “you know what the secret to a really good Pinot is?” We all looked on listening intently, while he paused dramatically. “Good fruit,” he finally said, “good fruit, good wood, good balance and fine tannins … its all about the tannins.” And with that he poured us each a glass from the bottle he held in his hand, and we toasted the successful conclusion of Terroir, with good fruit, good wood and fine tannins.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Report from: New Zealand Wine Fair - May 17, 2007

So here I am at the New Zealand Wine Fair, ready to see what’s new on the other side of the world. You’ll recall that New Zealand is one of the first country’s to really specialize; they came in with the Aussies and they were the perfect party pair: the Aussies brought the red (shiraz) and the Kiwi’s brought the white (sauvignon blanc). They took the wine-world by storm with their one-two punch, specializing in just one grape variety. And while the Aussies have now got the world on a string, the Kiwis seem to have stalled with Sauvignon Blanc and last year’s show off variety, Pinot Noir, a cool climate loving grape that enjoyed the New Zealand climate … now it’s time to branch out. This year it’s a whole new ballgame as they try to show the world they aren’t just a one, or two, trick pony. This year’s New Zealand show, while still top heavy with sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs also saw grape varieties that you don’t associate with New Zealand, like riesling, gew├╝rztraminer, pinot gris, syrah, cab sauvs and francs, and some merlot. They’re not out in full force like the sauv blancs and the pinot noirs but they’re out there, waiting to be discovered. So instead of focusing on what we already know New Zealand can do, let’s look at those other varietals and taste where New Zealand is headed.

First stop today was the aromatic white seminar, which focused it’s attention on three grapes New Zealand is auditioning for their next world domination of, namely: Riesling, gew├╝rztraminer and pinot gris. The gris was underwhelming with the best being from Mount Riley, a consistently good white producer, and their 2006 Pinot Gris (~$18.95), but, in my opinion, this is not New Zealand’s next grape (not yet anyway) – although the percentage increase of plantings tell a different story. Gris is up 3,548% from ten years ago, compared to Riesling (215%) and Gewurztraminer (202%) over the same period. Gewurztraminer was also not my choice for New Zealand’s next wave, the three showcased at the seminar were varietally correct, but none truly floored me; though the Vinoptima 2004 Gewurztraminer ($49.50) was the talk of the show – turns out they are the first winery in the world to specialize in Gewurztraminer, that’s all they do, period the end … the wine wasn’t bad either. On the other hand, New Zealand has the perfect climate conditions to make some pretty awesome Riesling … the three on display were of excellent quality. From a consumer friendly, fruit forward 2006 Allen Scott ($17.95); an aged, petrol infused 2002 Forrest Estate Dry ($21.00) and an impressively fruity semi-sweet Pegasus Bay ($29.95), which seemed to have a touch of botrytis. If New Zealand is about the take the world of white again, it’s going to be with this grape – though they face some stiff competition as the Germans, as well as we Ontarians, are making some pretty fine Rieslings of our own, at half the price. But as I was remarking on price a local winemaker pointed out to me, “what do you expect from something coming halfway across the world.”

Now let’s head downstairs to the wine fair floor and see what else we can find of interest coming out of New Zealand. Below I am going to focus on wines not normally associated with the Zealand; sure we know they make world class Sauvignon Blanc, but what else are those Kiwis up to …

The aforementioned Mount Riley is focusing its attention on some pretty good whites, of which their Riesling is a definite highlight. Now currently on the general list at the LCBO for $17.95, the 2006 Mount Riley Riesling is fresh and lovely with soft peach and citrus, some hidden petrol nuances on the palate and a clean orange peel finish. I know I promised not to mention Savvy B. but a must try comes out this Saturday (May 26) as their Sparkling Savee ($22.95) is set for release. Two to three months lees contact and then quick to market keeps this wine lively and fresh, retaining the best aspects of Sauv Blanc … with bubbles. I also picked it as one of my selections in the May 26 LCBO Vintages Release.

I’m sure when you think New Zealand you rarely think Bordeaux-style reds, well shame on you, cause there are some good ones being made down there. If you get the opportunity check out Alpha Domus, who are making some of the best Bordeaux blend reds coming out of New Zealand. Using merlot, malbec, cab sauv and franc their line (Alpha Domus - $20; The Navigator - $25; and The Aviator - $60) are loaded with the black and red fruits you’d expect, with oak and ageability to spare.

I hate to come back to it, but Brancott Vineyards still makes one of the best general list Savvy B’s on the market, at $14.15 it delivers all you’d expect and more … and all at a reasonable price. Joining Brancott this year is the surprising animal-labeled Monkey Bay … $14.50 and also quite impressive. Here’s another New Zealand sauv blanc joining the general list under $15, and delivering on what you’d expect from a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

How about Syrah? Yes New Zealand is making it and it can be made well, just ask the folks at Gunn Estates Wines. Their 2005 Silistria Syrah ($29.95 – vintages pending) is black fruit and pepper dominated, and begging to be served with a steak.

People were talking about the Spy Valley 2006 Gewurztaminer ($22.00) with it’s in your face rose petal and floral characteristics (I’m talking nose-in-the-glass neck-snapping back aromas here); but I liked the toned down Seifried Estate version better ($22.25) … still with the rose petal nose but not so much with the head-snapping up-frontness. I found the Seifried much friendlier. The Spy was like walking in a fridge-full of roses at your local florist and sucking on the petals, while the Siefried just had a small case in the same room. The Siefried 2006 Riesling ($19.50 – Vintages) was also impressive – this winery knows how to make good white wines.

On July 7, in Vintages, look for the Soljans Estate Winery Fusion Sparkling Muscat ($16.95) … good value in a sweet sparkler – fruity, peachy and lychee – should be a big hit with the ladies and for evenings on the patio – heck, great for mimosas or morning glories too.

Back to Spy Valley – while their Gewurzt was too in-my-face, their Riesling was pulled back and light … at $17.95 I thought it showed good typicity in a Riesling and made for a light summer sipper.

Torlesse Wines also had a 2004 Riesling ($17.50 – Vintages) that had good length with its peach and lime notes. With each passing table and each sip of another good Riesling, it just proved to me more and more that the next best thing out of New Zealand is going to be their Rieslings.

Finally, last year’s next best thing was Pinot Noir and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one from this year’s batch. This winery’s Pinots were just heads and tails above the rest (and there were plenty to choose from, but I could still taste these ones 2 days later). Waitiri Creek seems to have a handle on how to make great Pinot Noir. First one up, their second label “Drummer”, a fruitier version of Pinot; 6 months in stainless steel with some light oaking ($30). But hold on to your hats as the Waitiri Creek Pinot Noir 2005 crosses the threshold from good to incredible. 11 months in French oak, 35% of it new, it has the usual red fruit and the earthiness of Pinot, along with some vanillas and cinnamons to round it off. This one was spectacular … a little pricey at $43 … but what can you expect from a wine that comes halfway round the world.

For more wine reviews and related articles go to www.ontariowinereview.com,
while there sign up for Michael's free bi-weekly newsletter.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Report from: Sante, International Tasting - May10, 2007

Sante is self-described as “Toronto’s International Wine Celebration”, at which over 90 wineries form all over the world participate. The festival ran May 8-12 and encompassed a large portion of the Bloor-Yorkville area from retailers to restaurants and everything in between, and beyond. The International Tasting, at which all the wineries participate, was held at the Carlu – which is itself an impressive venue for just such an occasion. The Carlu is a majestic old music hall perched 7 floors above Yonge and College, where the likes of Sinatra and Fitzgerald sang; it has now been painstakingly restored to its former glory. I had opportunity to see David Gray there a year or so ago and have to say that the venue, while beautiful, did not lend itself to the over-amplified electric guitars, bass and drums … but I could envision Sinatra swinging in front of a much gentler orchestra; but I digress for the moment, back to Sante. This year’s event focused much of its attention on South Africa, with well over 25 of the attending wineries being from that country. A seminar held before the tasting shed some light on the wine practices of this country and introduced those in attendance to some of their best and unique wines and winemakers. Standouts from this tasting were the Diemersdal “Single Vineyard” Chardonnay ($23.95 – consignment); Graham Beck The Ridge Syrah 2002 ($27.95 – Vintages #607812), and the Leopard Frog Tantra Limited Release 2004 ($43.00 – consignment), which wowed the crowd both on taste and price. A couple of others that were noteworthy: Bellingham Maverick Chenin Blanc 2005 ($20.95 – Vintages #12724) and Lammershoek Pinotage 2005 ($18.15 – Vintages #954594 or consignment). And now on with the rest of the show.

And speaking of the show, why not start with a wine with just that name “The Show” (coming soon to an LCBO near you - $19.95). This wine falls under the Trinchero Family umbrella, has three distinct yet similarly designed labels (for the same wine) and is a fruity number that is ripe for the picking, up I mean: think chocolate and black fruit with a raspberry finish.

Heading back South Africa-way another Bellingham Maverick wine that is really something is the SMV 2003 ($37.75 – coming to Vintages fall 2007 #39412); good fruit, hints of floral and a spicy in the mouth finish. How about one more from the Dark Continent? Something a little different perhaps? Delheim Wines was showcasing a 2006 Gewurztraminer ($17.00 – consignment). Only about 5 wineries in all of South Africa make wine from this varietal, and I can’t imagine anyone making it better. With a floral and lime nose and great peachy flavours; this one is an exquisite surprise.

Three British Columbia wineries came out for the festivities and showed why they are Canada’s most talked about wine region. Burrowing Owl Estate Winery had a 2004 Merlot and 2005 Pinot Gris that showed great fruit characteristics; and their jaw-dropping brochure, with pictures of both their guesthouse and Sonora Room restaurant, give you even more reasons to visit. While at Quail’s Gate they were pouring a Chenin Blanc 2005 ($19) that tasted very Sauvignon Blanc-ish (as it turned out there was 14% S.B. in the blend) and rival any from South Africa I had tried that afternoon. They also poured a 2005 Family Reserve Pinot Noir ($39.99) that was all red fruit with a touch of barely perceptible sweetness through the palate, all ending with an earthy finish. They too provided a brochure with stunning pictures of the estate that simply demanded you visit to truly experience the area. Of course, for years now we have all been inundated with pictures of the newly redesigned Mission Hill Family Estate; maybe you’ve even tasted their wine? (He says sarcastically) On this day, their SLC (Select Lot Collection) wines were on display – these represent the top 5% of their grapes – specially selected to make this line of wine. The SLC Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2004 ($30) had a nose of pure pineapple and taste of freshly canned peaches – lovely; while the SLC 2003 Merlot ($40) showed why B.C. is making a name for themselves with this grape (amongst others): succulent red fruit with chocolate, good tannins and a clean finish – delicious and age-worthy.

From the Great White North we move in a southerly direction until we bump smack dab into Chile, where Concha Y Toro adds another feather into their cap with their Terrunyo series of wine. These wines are made from grapes sourced from one single block from one single vineyard – the 2004 Carmenere ($29.95 – Vinatges #562892) is smooth with good fruit, but the better is the 2004 Syrah ($30.15 – Vintages #18523), which is full-on spicy red fruit with an elegant and refined finish.

California, never a place to take a backseat to anyone when it comes to wine, was not overly represented at Sante, but there were the few and the proud on hand. The Gallo Family showed up touting new wines and old favourites. The Rancho Zabaco (also known as Dancing Bull) line of wines had the Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95 – January 2008) on display, sweet fruit with an interesting bit of spiciness. The Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($16.95 – general list) was sporting a new label on the outside, with the same great taste inside: red fruit bombiness and enjoyably so. Finally they poured a wine you’ll have to cross the border to put your hands on, The Frei Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (retail ~ $34-$39) it sports a gold label and single vineyard designation and is a real winner in a California Cab, and I’m sure wherever you are in the U.S. you’d probably find it at a pretty good price. R.H. Phillps was also there, you might recognize their Toasted Head line, the Shiraz is delicious and at $19.95 a good deal to boot, smooth and peppery with red fruit laced all the way through … it spends 8-12 months in barrel, so you’ll find some woodsy-cedary tones in there too. Rounding out the U.S. contingent, Rutherford Hill, who’s $40 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon can be found in Vintages (or so I am told). Combining the goodness of red and black fruit along with some barrel spice, the wine has good heft for the BBQ … and the bottle can be used as a weapon later on if need be – it has some good heft to it too (then again maybe I’m just watching too much CSI).

Ready for dessert, I have two that might be of interest. One will “never be picked up by the LCBO” said the rep, the other isn’t available either, but they are worth searching out when you’re out of the country or ordered through respective agents. The “never” wine is a Domaine Sigalas S.A. 2003 Vinsanto from Santorini in Greece, a sweet dessert wine that parallels Canadian icewine in flavours, but is actually made from dried grapes. This $30 bottle can be bought through the Kolonaki Group. Wonderful peach, toffee and dried-apricot in the mouth, the smells are sweet and delicious, there’s even a twinge of cinnamon in there. The Pineau de Laborie 2003 (Laborie) is $15.95 and can be privately ordered through Maxxium Canada, it’s made from Pinotage grapes and is fortified (Port-like) with cherry, strawberry and toffee flavours – think of a lighter style port, not so syrupy or sticky – but just as delicious. Reminded me of one of my new favourite dessert wines, Mavrodaphne, from Greece, for lightness and sweetness.

Sante once again proves itself to be a wine lovers paradise on an international scale; bringing it the world or wine together right in the heart of Toronto.

For more wine reviews and related articles go to www.ontariowinereview.com,
while there sign up for Michael's free bi-weekly newsletter.

Report from: The Lifford Grand Tasting - May 9, 2007

It was once said to me about the Lifford Grand Tasting, “there are more better wines here then there are at some other shows all year.” That statement, said to me by a noted wine expert, was my introduction to this tasting; held at the Eglinton Grand Theatre. The venue was elegant: the wide staircases that took you from one level to another, the large open foyer, the balcony (where the silent auction and oyster bar were held), the main level (where a huge groaning board of cheese was on display, courtesy of Alex Farms Cheeses), everything just screamed elegance. You also had the who’s who of the wine world in attendance to sample some of the finest wines that enter the Ontario market. Writers, agents, winemakers, winery owners, restauranteurs from the finest to the newest – all to see what Lifford’s is bringing in: what’s new and what’s hot. Then of course, there’s the wine …

There were approximately 250 wines out for tasting on this Tuesday afternoon. With so many wines I must admit that I did not get around to taste them all; below is but a smattering of those I found worth mentioning, and some that were mentioned to me.

Argentina has shown great promise over the past decade and that promise is coming to fruition. First, they are making their name with a signature grape “Malbec: (much in the same way New Zealand has signatured Sauvignon Blanc as their own). Second, the winemaking practices have become more modern and the styles more consumer friendly. Lifford represents Humberto Canale wine here in Ontario, and sometimes you can find the wines through vintages. Of course, the two most interesting and appealing are private order only: the nicely spiced and black fruited Gran Reserve Malbec 2005 ($65) which had quite the lengthy tannin-rich finish; and the finesse-full 2005 Gran Reserve Pinot Noir ($65). You would not expect the cool climate loving Pinot to thrive in the hot climate of Argentina, but if the Chileans can do it, so can the Argentineans. Red fruit nose with a lovely tannin structure and mouthfeel – not the usual jammy, over-ripe fruit bombs you’d find in Pinots from this type of climate.

Speaking of jammy, hot climate and South American countries, Lifford carries two well-known names from Chile. The real-up-and-comer is Vina La Rosa from the Central Valley – these wines are occasionally available thru Vintages at a very reasonable $12.99 and represent good value, as many Chilean wines do. The 2006 Merlot is full of yummy red fruit while the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon is all black fruit and licorice with a cedary finish. For the record, the other name is Echeverria.

New Zealand’s Craggy Range showed more than just the usual Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir that the Kiwi’s have become famous for. Their 2005 Sophia ($69.95) is a meritage blend of merlot (62%), cab franc (34%) and cab sauv (4%) – a full-on black fruit flavour with chocolate undertones. Their Te Kaho is a blend that contains an extra element found in the traditional-Bordeaux blend, namely Malbec. The high merlot content (77%) in the wine is supported by sauv (11%), franc (6%) and the aforementioned malbec (6%) … darker fruit and cedar characteristics with a nice tannin seam which is not too heavy on the palate, more time in bottle will do this one some good.

Another country that is really emerging as a wine powerhouse to be reckoned with is South Africa. After years of inconsistency we are seeing a resurgence and vigour in wine making. Two wineries that showed that were Hidden Valley and La Motte. Hidden Valley poured a good value 2006 Agenda Chenin Blanc ($14.99 – Vintages #15446) with floral, citrus and pear on the nose and good crisp acidity. Their 2004 Pinotage ($19.95 – Vintages #655639) was quite nice for a grape that gets very little respect outside of South Africa; a great start with dark fruits and spicy licorice, the finish is somewhat tarry but still quite lovely.

From another part of South Africa, Franschhoek, La Motte had some amazing wines. This multi-award winning winery has a pure Bordeaux blend (cab sauv – 54%, merlot – 30%, petit verdot, malbec, cab franc) with a minimum 10 year ageing potential; great fruit, mainly cherry, some chocolate, hints of tobacco and seasonings, a good layer of tannin and acidity finished it off. This wine was the best value of the show, $24.95, and could very well be selling for double the price … available through consignment only. Their 2004 Shiraz ($22.95 – Vintages #652685) is still available in a few LCBO’s; it’s a spicy, peppery value worth picking up.

My final two wines are from the U.S. of A … Marietta Cellars has a Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, Carignane blend that is quite appealing, and so is the price, $22.95. Sweet fruit, tobacco, cherry and some rum (a hallmark of zin) aromas. They call it Old Vine Red; it’s a non-vintage wine that is assigned a lot number every year. This version was Lot 42 (the next version will be Lot 43) and is a different blend every year.

Finally, that apocalyptic director Francis Ford Coppola has made more than a few classic wines in his day, as well as films … his Rubicon Estate CASK Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 is lovely and velvety in the mouth, cherry fruit filled with touches of vanilla and incredibly smooth … it’s a beauty … and for only $110 a bottle can be yours. The Rubicon Estate 2002 Rubicon at $175 a bottle adds the extra dimension of chocolate to the mix.

Lifford can be contacted through their website at www.liffordwineagency.com.

For more wine reviews and related articles go to www.ontariowinereview.com,

Friday, May 4, 2007

Report from: Somewhereness - April 30, 2007

Somewhereness seems an odd title for a wine event, but it does actually have a foundation: it is a direct reference to Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer’s attempt to define, in layman’s terms, the French concept of “Terroir” – which refers to the indescribable character wine takes on from the soil the grapes were grown. The five wineries that participated in Somewhereness decided they needed to be ‘somewhere-else’ instead of the usual wine festivals and events where many of their potential customers did not attend. As one winery employee bluntly remarked to me, “our wines weren’t mean to be consumed at a drunken piss-up.” The reason for that is that these five wineries (Flat Rock, Tawse, Norman Hardie, Malivoire, Stratus) represent the upper-echelons of Ontario wineries, and by that I don’t necessarily mean they are making better wine than anyone else in Ontario, they’re just selling it at higher prices; therefore their clientele is not your usual under $20 bottle seekers and your average wine-routers. That all said I did try each one of the 22 wines poured at this event and have to say that these wineries make it very difficult to spit, each one seemed better than the last. As anyone who has attended a wine show will tell you, there are certain wines you can’t wait to get out of your mouth – be it by spit or swallow; but each of the wines served during Somewhereness was swallow-worthy, it was the price of some of these bottles that would make you gag. Though, truth is, if price were no object many of these wines would be in my cellar right now. Below is a list of the best bottle from each winery – and trust me when I tell you, this was a tough list to cull down.

Flat Rock Cellars …

I have on occasion mentioned Flat Rock Cellars and how much I enjoyed both their Rusty Shed Chardonnay and Gravity Pinot Noir. They have also seen success with their 2005 Riesling which took best white wine honours at the last Canadian Wine Awards back in the fall. This year I feel they have a shot at the same award with their vineyard specific 2006 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling ($19.95) – which has a delicious nose and taste, while managing to be dry and crisp at the same time. An apple, citrus and mineral quality in the nose, which best showcases the Terroir in which the grapes are grown. The palate is citrus and tart, mainly lemony at this time (some time in bottle should cut this down); the minerality also shows through in the mouth, the high acid cuts through like a butter-knife and makes this wine very food friendly – that said I like my Rieslings on the drier side, which is why sipping this one on its own will be a highlight to my summer … make it one of yours too.

Malivoire …

The unfortunate logo of this winery has not deterred them one bit from being one of Ontario’s quality wine producers. When Malivoire started operations back in 1997, who knew their ladybug logo would foreshadow one of the biggest blunders in the Ontario wine industry when Asian ladybugs single-handedly tainted most of the 2001 vintage in Niagara. Malivoire soldiered on and has kept the logo of the ladybug on its bottles (despite the implication), going as far as naming one of their wines after the little critter: The Ladybug Rose, tempting fate or an ironic twist, you decide.

Malivoire brought along four wines to showcase and my favourite turned out to be the most affordable wine in the room. The 2005 Gamay ($16) spent 8 months in neutral oak barrels and was bottled in August of 2006. While this wine hasn’t been officially released by the winery (it’s release has seen little fanfare to date) it is drinking quite well right now and probably will for the next couple of years. The nose is red fruit and strawberries with some earthy quality to it. It’s a light tasting wine with mainly red fruit flavours – a definite chiller of a red that’ll make a fine patio sipper on its own or indulge with light summertime fare.

Norman Hardie …

One of the best up-and-coming wineries in Ontario is located in Prince Edward County. Norman Hardie Winery is making small lot, small batch wines from specially selected fruit, be it from Niagara or the County. Norman is very particular about the fruit he selects and even the grapes grown in Niagara get his special attention and watchful eye. He spends much of his summer traveling between PEC (where he makes his home, owns a winery and tends his own vineyard) and Niagara, checking in on his chosen fruit. His 2005 Chardonnay ($29.00) was my pick of his crop on this afternoon. Made entirely from Niagara grapes that come from 7 to 25 year old vines, this wine is still a little green but has such great potential for the future. The nose shows some soft apple and citrus tones, but it’s the taste that’s the most interesting, with kiwi, apple, quince and the softness of pears. Drink now or give it some time in the cellar to come around.

Stratus …

Of all the wineries in attendance, Stratus took full advantage of this limited showcase of wineries to show off their production. They brought along the most of any winery, 8: four from their main label (Stratus) and four from their second label “Wildass” (restaurant and on-line only). The Wildass wines are affordable and quaffable, ranging in price from $17 to $19, but their limited availability makes them hard to recommend – though if you find yourself in a restaurant with ‘Wildass’ on the wine list, do yourself a favour and order one, all are quite delicious. On the other hand, ‘Stratus’ wines are all available at the winery located on Highway 55 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and all will set you back a pretty-penny ($35-$38); but the one most worth that price tag is the assemblage (blend) 2004 Stratus Red ($38). Seven grapes find their way into the ’04 … in years to come winemaker J.L. Groux will have upward of 12 varieties to play with … but for now its Cab Sauv, Franc, Gamay, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Malbec that go into the blend. It’s a veritable fruit salad for the nose and taste: red and black berries on the nose with hints of cinnamon and vanilla thrown in for good measure. The taste screams of chocolate drizzled fruit, most notably strawberry and pomegranate.

Tawse …

In the past I criticized Tawse for being out of touch with the mainstream wine buyer with regards to their pricing, so much so that I received an email from owner Moray Tawse himself explaining the reasoning for his prices (hand harvested, low yield, choice fruit, etc.). But still a $42 bottle of Chardonnay seems a little high to most people no matter how you try and justify it. And maybe, just maybe, Moray finally sees the light, as they have now launched a more affordable line of wines called Echos (because they directly echo their top tier wines). These wines come from the same grapes and go through the same process as the final product of their top tier wines, but Echos is made from the declassified barrels. To further explain: they receive the same ageing, come from the same vineyards, and get the same treatment as the upper wines, but when it comes time to make the final blend these barrels didn’t make the cut (classification of the barrels happens after aging but before blending). So you are getting good quality wine at half the price. The 2004 Echos White is 19 month aged Chardonnay for $22, while the 2005 Echos Red ($25) spent 14 months in barrel and is a blend of 70% Cab Franc and 30% Merlot (these blends will change from year-to-year)… but it was the red I am most impressed with, just beating out the white by a nose. Starting with the nose, the red is lush with red fruit, vanilla and an earthiness quality that should dissipate with some time in the bottle. This wine will easily last five-plus years in your cellar. Currently the taste shows great potential for the future, it’s fresh and lovely (if I can use that term to describe a wine of this caliber), lots of red fruit and berries with noticeable raspberries and red licorice on the palate. These wine will be available only through Vintages come November. Kudos go out to Tawse for heeding the call and bringing out wine of this quality at more down to earth prices; bringing them down to the range of Somewhereness we could all afford.