Sunday, April 27, 2008

Report from ... Ontario Wine Awards Gala - April 26, 2008

It was the night of a thousand stars … or at least a few dozen, as the Ontario wine world from coast-to-coast (Lake Erie North Shore to Prince Edward County) got together to celebrate Tony Aspler’s 13th Annual Ontario Wine Awards – and it truly was a night to remember. A record number of wineries (69) entered this years competition putting up approximately 463 wines (if I heard the numbers correctly) – all vying for the Gold, Silver and Bronze awards in 25 different wine categories … there here also 5 other categories: Winemaker of the Year, Wine of the Year, Sommelier of the Year, Wine Journalism Award and Label Design Award.

Big winners included Jackson-Triggs with 5 awards (1 Gold, 3 Silver, 1 Bronze), while Chateau des Charmes, Hillebrand and Magnotta all took home 4. Dan Aykroyd’s 2005 Signature Reserve Icewine won Wine of the Year; while Rob Power and Craig McDonald, perennial winners for Creekside, were virtually shut out of the big wine awards, though shared the coveted Winemaker of the Year honours. Congratulations gentlemen – well deserved.

Both Tony Aspler and David Rose (head of Forefront Communication, who help organize and put on the awards) beamed with pride at the end of the ceremony. When asked David said, “It ran so smoothly this year, I loved it.” A few folks at the end of the awards were pleasantly surprised at the array of wineries that won awards; even two newcomers posted 3 golds between them. David Rose also suggested that after 5 years of watching Icewine take the top prize for wine of the year, it’s time to add another award – Table Wine of the Year … from his lips to God’s, or at least Tony’s, ear.

By the numbers:
A total of 75 medals were given out in 25 categories, though not all categories had a gold, silver and bronze winner – and there were also a few ties. 41 different wineries won at least one medal. Below is a list of the gold medal winners … the rest of the awards can be found at The Ontario Wine Awards website.

And the Gold Medal winners are ...
wines highlighted in blue are linked back to where a full review can be found:

Sparkling Wine –
Thirteenth Street Winery 2000 Funk Blanc de Noir

Dry Riesling –
Chateau des Charmes 2006 Estate Bottled Riesling

Off-Dry Riesling –
Cattail Creek Estate 2006 Estate Bottled Off Dry Riesling

Dry White Varietal –
Fielding Estate 2006 Viognier

Gewurztraminer –
Malivoire Wine Company 2006 Estate Bottled Gewurztraminer

Pinot Gris –
Rosewood Estates 2007 Pinot Gris

Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon –
Peninsula Ridge Estates 2006 Fume Blanc
*last year Peninsula Ridge won for their 2005 version of this wine.

Oaked Chardonnay (under $20) -
EastDell Estates 2006 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay

Oaked Chardonnay (over $20) -
Niagara College Teaching Winery 2006 Dean’s List Chardonnay

Unoaked Chardonnay –
Colchester Ridge Estate 2006 Chardonnay

Rosé / Blanc de Noir
Chateau des Charmes 2006 Cuvee D’Andr
ée Rosé

Gamay –
Thirteenth Street Winery 2006 Sandstone Old Vines Gamay Noir

Pinot Noir –
Ridgepoint Wines 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir

Red Hybrid –
Featherstone Estate 2007 Gemstone Baco Noir

Cabernet Franc –
Kacaba Vineyards 2004 Reserve Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Sauvignon –
Magnotta Winery 2006 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Merlot –
Rosewood Estates 2006 Merlot

Syrah/Shiraz –
Jackson-Triggs 2005 Delaine Vineyard Syrah

Meritage and Cabernet/Merlot Blends –
Fielding Estate 2005 Meritage Reserve

Late Harvest –
Legends Estates 2006 Late Harvest Vidal

Select & Special Select Late Harvest –
Lailey Vineyard 2006 Select Late Harvest Riesling

Vidal Icewine –
Dan Aykroyd Winery 2005 Signature Reserve Vidal Icewine

Vinifera Icewine –
Magnotta Winery 2004 Limited Edition Riesling Icewine
*last year Magnotta won in this category with a Cabernet Franc

Blended Red Award –
Mike Weir Estate 2005 Cabernet Shiraz

Blended White Award –
Hillebrand Estates 2006 Trius White

These and many other award winning VQA Ontario wines will be poured during the consumer tasting event (now known as Sip Ontario / Savour Ontario – which will include culinary pairings), held in the Distillery District in downtown Toronto on Tuesday June 17 … tickets are on sale now. To find out more check out The Ontario Wine Awards Website.

Report from ... Fielding’s Ultimate Insider Pre-Tasting – April 26, 2008

An unsettled Saturday was host to the 3rd Annual Fielding pre-tasting: one minute it was sunny, the next a few drops fell from the sky and a call of thunderstorms was being threatened for in the forecast. But that didn’t stop the Fielding folks and fans from enjoying their annual preview event. Seven wines were let out of their tanks and/or barrels to be paraded in front of the followers of Fielding to be judged; there was also an advance chance to take some home before their general release … for current or later enjoyment. Five whites and 2 reds – including a barrel sample of the 2006 Syrah – and at least 2 wines wouldn’t see the inside of the retail store till August of 2008.

Of the wines released today, the must have wine of the summer from Fielding is the 2007 Pinot Gris ($18.00) – this one’s a pure sipper and poolside wine with a hint of sweetness (2) and it’s fruity peach and pear nose gives way to even more pleasing mature peach and mango flavours in the mouth. Sure it has a short finish, but that just gives you more reason to go back to the well (so to speak) for another sip or better yet glassful. Planning anything out of doors this summer, make sure you have plenty to go around.

Over the years Fielding has made their name with Riesling – a dry and a semi-dry, usually both were released simultaneously at this event. This time there was only the pre-releasing of the 2007 Rielsing ($18.00), with a reserve slated for release later this year. After only a few days in bottle this wine’s aromas haven’t recovered from the shock of the move to a smaller home (read: the bottle) because the nose is quite muted; but the flavours were definitely there. Grapefruit cocktail and Granny Smith apple, this one was simple yet light and refreshing – an easy reccommend – but not set for release in the retail store till August 2008.

Fielding has crafted an oddball red that is definitely worth trying: Red Conception 2006 ($18.00) – a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Aglianico … yep, the grape usually found in Italy has made its way to Ontario, aided by some adventurous grower. The nose is peppery, black fruited and red berried. The taste is soft and cedary at first, but develops herbs, cinnamon, white pepper, sour cherry and red currants as it opens up – the finish is lengthy and quite herby. Kudos to Fielding for giving this grape a chance and finding a blend that works.

Then there is the 2006 Syrah, which was “futures priced” for this day only (which means priced for early purchasers at a lesser price then when it gets officially launched to the general public in-store … basically you’re buying on the promise of the wine’s future, not it’s finished-bottled-state) … this wine has great potential to be an early consuming (3-5 years) sleeper – so I picked up a few bottles to monitor it’s development. Currently, the nose is spicy, red berry, red fruit, peppery and smoky. In the mouth, it had a big pepper taste, with smoked meat and toasty notes – there was also a certain amount of tartness to the acidity. Only 12 barrels were made and its predicted for release in late fall or early winter. I’ll keep you posted on this puppy.

I can’t fail to mention the marvelous cheese trays with an abundance of delicious cheese and those great garlic herb chips – could’ve made a meal out of them, but I didn’t, had to at least leave some for others.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Report from - Lichine / Wine Guy Imports Lunch and Tasting ... April 22, 2008

When I mention “rosé” to most people it conjures up sweet, pink wines best consumed ice cold … when you say “rosé” to Sacha Alexis Lichine he thinks of something completely different – and he’d like you to share in his vision.

In 1994, Sacha began looking at a property in Provence (France) that had 70-year-old Grenache vines – it is his belief that serious wine can only be made using serious grapes – and Grenache, of that age, are very serious grapes indeed. In 2006, Sacha opened Chateau D’Esclans in Provence with the intension of making the world’s best rosés – and he just might be on to something here.

This afternoon we tasted the four wines from the inaugural (2006) vintage of these extremely pale pink wines – and when I say pale pink I am not kidding. Imagine putting a drop or two of red wine into a glass of white, think orangey-pink; it’s amazing that the colour of these wines can defy proper description … let’s see what I can do about taste and smell.

First off, the range in price might just blow your mind, from $20 to $99 USD. Now, I hear you saying with some degree of incredulity, “For a rosé?” But trust me, once you’ve tasted them you’d know why. Of the four, three sparked my interest: Whispering Angel ($19 USD) made from Grenache, Vermintino (Rolle), with dashes of Cinseault and Syrah – this is a pool side pleaser, apples and raspberries on the nose with citrus, a touch of apple and great acidity in the mouth – light, refreshing and a lingering finish that hangs out long after the liquid is swallowed. Les Clans ($70 USD) – strawberry juice, sour-spiced apples with some spicy lavender on the nose; tastes were spicy, herby, sour apple with big acidity. Finally, Garrus ($99 USD), here’s the wine serious wine drinkers would fall over themselves for. Blind, there would be no way to tell this rosé wine from a red. Nose: spices, herbs, cinnamon and vanilla. Taste: minerality abounds with spicy-tannins and cinnamon. I loved the smells, especially the strong spiced-vanilla and in the mouth it then lingered with cinnamon, herbs and spice … this is a rosé to lie down another 3-4 years. Extraordinary. Sacha explained that the secret is to keep the berries nice and cool through the entire process to preserve the freshness and fruit quality, this makes for a long fermentation process, but the results are outstanding.

After the rosés Sacha brought some of his value priced Languedoc-Roussillon wines to the table. These wines retail in the US for between 8 and 10 dollars so they’ll easily be $20 at the LiC-BO … but if you do any traveling to our southern neighbour look for these two blends: Le Poule Blanche (2006) a mix of Chardonnay (46%)/Sauvignon Blanc (36%)/ Viognier (18%) – fruity yet oaky: apricot, peach, apple, vanilla – very mainstream, very fresh, good length, a pure quaffer from the Pays D’oc and under screwcap, which Sacha loves. The other wine to look for is Le Coq Rouge (2006) – another 8 – 10 dollar blend; 33% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Syrah / 23% Merlot / 4% Grenache – this wine defies description other than saying spicy red fruit and downright delicious – sippability all BBQ-season long … and another wine under screwcap.

After the formal tasting we headed downstairs for a tasting of another 120 wines that Stephen Belyea (Wine Guy Imports) has on his portfolio. Too many good wines to give you the whole list of what I liked, so here are my top 5 (in no particular order):

Italy: Bixio Ripasso 2004
Beautiful sweet nose that’s all red fruit and plumy – robust in the mouth with big black cherries, plums and chocolate.

France: Andre Jacquart Brut Experience ($49.99)
This bubbly was toasty and tasty – apple, vanilla, peach, cinnamon and spices – and its butterscotch finish really capped this one for me.

France: Domaine Puig-Parahy Georges 2005 ($17.99)
This wine tastes miles above it’s price tag, big rich, jammy, fruity with big thick tannins – this one can be shelved for 5-years +.

France: Domaine Puig-Parahy Vins Doux Naturel
A naturally sweet dessert wine that’s simply heaven on the tongue – great cherry profile.

Australia: Gum Bear Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.95)
Proving that people pleasing wine don’t need to be expensive … this Aussie Sauv is all it should be: rich black fruit with a dabble of chocolate.

Finally, the day started with the most intriguing beverage – Beer made in a Champagne-style, served in a Champagne bottle and aged on lees in French Champagne cellars: Deus Brut des Flanders 2006 (~$30.00) … the great sweet floral and fruity aromas find their way onto your tongue with a pleasing dry finish – a must try.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Report from ... Somewhereness 2008 – April 22, 2008

If you missed it last year you missed your opportunity to try Ontario’s “Big Boys” … big as in expensive, these wines are not cheap, nor are they made cheaply. These five wineries (Flat Rock, Malivoire, Norm Hardie, Tawse, Stratus) banded together once again to bring us Somewhereness – an expression of terroir. This time they congregated in Leslieville at a gallery called Coupe Space – a smaller venue than last year and unfortunately a little more cramped. Even though the wineries were spread out well this space was still a long narrow tube and the more noise that was generated by the crowd the more the noise would filter to the ends of the room; for example, at the back of the room I found it hard to hear what the guru of assemblage winemaking J.L. Groux, of Stratus, was saying to me.

Stratus …
Ironic that the master of Ontario assembled wines should make a single varietal wine that’s just out of this world. Originally, this wine was destined for the white blend, but it seemed to develop so much unique character that when it came time to dump it in with the others they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Good thing too or we’d have all been deprived of the 2006 Gewurztraminer. It spent 12 months in tank on its lees and another 6 months in old French barrels, which gave it great aromatics with spicy and floral notes. The 2005 Red was also a stand out, with its big, red, spicy qualities … the heavy tannins show great potential for ageability … but then again what did you expect from the year or the winery.

Tawse …
We’ll skip over Tawse because every wine on for tasting was touched upon in my Tawse Dinner report, but Pinot and Riesling seem to be stand outs this year – so far.

Norman Hardie …
Norman does Pinot like nobody else. The 2006 Pinot Noir has a stunning nose of black cherry, red fruit, cranberry, black and red raspberry with such subtle hints of oak you wonder if he oaked it at all; that is until the tannins, cinnamon and vanilla begin swirling around with all that fruit in your mouth. Delicious. Norman is also experimenting with Melon de Bourgogne; the 2007 is fruit forward with peach, apricot, vanilla and melon.

Malivoire …
Two summer wines await your tastebuds at Malivoire. The 2007 “Ladybug” Rosé may have the most unfortunate name, but this version is probably the best yet made at Malivoire … 80% Cabernet Franc, 12% Gamay and a hodge-podge of whatever else, this hot vintage wine has produced a delicious red fruit extravaganza with ripe strawberry and raspberry aromas and flavours. Speaking of delicious wine, the 2006 Gewurztraminer is such a beautiful quaffer (too bad it’s $25 a bottle), but the rose petal and spicy aromas come out from the glass and demand you dive in for a taste – easy sipping and enjoyable for all year round.

Flat Rock …
There is no doubt in my mind that their Gravity Pinot Noir is heads and tails above their standard issue Pinot, and that their Nadje’s Vineyard Riesling is so citrus and mineral driven you’d swear it’s the tartest lemonade you’ve ever had; but the wine of the day – for flavour and value – especially for those hot days ahead – is Flat Rock’s 2007 Twisted ($16.95). This perennial favourite is the usual blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer, but it is such a great value white wine that it can be sipped on all summer long – fruity, spicy, florally … the Gewurzt really comes through this year, making it truly memorable.

Point on glassware … with their big-bowled Riedel’s, Somewhereness retains the title for best glassware for any event. You want your wines to show well – use a good glass, period, end of story. Peace-out!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lunch at the ‘Brand – April 16, 2008

A once dear friend of mine and I were talking one day, the conversation was about what we did over Christmas … she told me about her friends that she’d seen, who’s seeing who, who is pregnant and what they’re all up to. I, on the other hand, told her about the few parties I had attended and the wines I’d tried, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember with whom I had talked to, or what so-and-so was doing. I tell you this story to illustrate that my lunch at Hillebrand is not an isolated incident when I tell you that I have little recollection about the food, but I do remember what was in the bottles poured and the glasses sipped. So while I enjoyed my soup, the 2007 Trius Riesling Dry stood out to me a little more, with it’s zippy acidity and lively fruit. My three sliders (small hamburgers made of pork, chicken and beef – each topped with a different cheese) were interesting and tasty, but not as tasty and interesting as the 1997 Showcase Cabernet Franc or the 1999 Trius Red … the 97 seemed just a tad tired, but the 99 Red was a marvel. There was also the single barrel 2006 Showcase Chardonnay (barrel number #5073) that was quite tasty – but I have no idea where it fit into the menu. The food was good, the wines were delicious and all were a matched with the menu and made for a great noon-to-two-thirty lunch “hour”. Salud!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Report from ... Vinexx Spring Tasting – April 17, 2008

I am once again wading out into consignment waters and ordering a case of wine with a good friend of mine (we’ll call him Jason) who works for a large liquor monopoly (to protect him I will not name the company). But seriously the Vinexx tasting is one of those that I look forward to all year (good thing they have it twice a year or the wait would be un-bearable). Good wines, reasonable price-points and much of it available at the local liquor hut. This year’s tasting took place in the Observation Lounge of Spencer’s on the Waterfront in Burlington. 19 degrees outside, a nice breeze blowing in off the water – a fine day to have a glass of wine, or 39 – which is the number of wines that were on display for tasting. Below are some of my value picks and most are easily accessible at the you-know-where.

Starting the day off with bubbly is always a treat, and the Graham Beck 2005 Brut Rosé ($21.95 - #4085) really hit the spot with its fresh fruit and lively flavour – maybe the hint of something sweet on the tongue is what makes this a great starter.

Table 1 … Light and White
Two easy recommends here. The Hugh Hamilton 2007 Jim Jim Chardonnay ($13.95 - #58537) is delightfully fresh and fruity with apple nuances that dance on the tongue and make you think of summer. Same can be said for the Errazuriz Ovalle 2006 Panul Sauvignon Blanc ($14.45 - consignment) – crisp, grassy, green apple, grapefruit with just a titch of sweetness on the mid-palate before it finishes citrusy and dry; great for a hot summer’s day. One other wine caught my attention, the Canyon Oaks 2006 Chardonnay ($13.39 – consignment) … fresh and tropical with mid-weight oak … it’s a typical Cali-Chard without the typical Cali-price.

Table 2 … Aromatic Whites
The Chateau des Charmes 2006 Gewurztraminer ($19.95 – winery) is a real winner with its palate-pleasing taste, but the nose is a little closed. The Sherwood Estate 2007 Riesling ($17.95 - #58636) has the opposite situation – a nose to die for that smells Gewurzt-like with florally-rose petals – the palate comes off a little soft, lacking the biting acidity of long ageable Riesling … but this off-dry New Zealander is perfect for right now patio consumption.

Table 3 … Our First Look at Reds
Two from table three and a tip from Steve. First, the Cline 2006 Syrah ($12.85 - #733758) – great price for this wine that’s good anytime – pepper, black fruit, plumy, smooth and easy going down – and check out that price – drink now or buy a bunch and drink over the next 3-5 years. For a few dollars more you can get a blend of Shiraz (52%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (48%) in the Graham Beck 2006 Dual Varietal ($15.85 - #661835) – this has good red fruit with just a tad of spicy – this one’s BBQ-ready. My tip of the day came from Stevie D.: The E. Guigel Cotes-Du-Rhone 2005 is coming mid-summer and it is “awesome” ($16.60 - #259721) – look for it and I’ll have a review just as soon as I taste it at the September Vinexx showing.

Table 4 … Red Values
Once again the Errazuriz Ovalle Panul Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.45 – consignment) is a bargain red this year. There are a few cases left of the ’05, which is currently the complete package with minty-eucalyptus, black fruit and out of this world smoothness that includes chocolate and blackberries … the ’06 is more black fruit dominated on the nose but the eucalyptus-mint comes through on the palate – give it 6-8 months and it should be showing somewhere around where the ’05 is now … and perfect for winter consuming (did I say that out loud this early in April?). Graham Beck pulls out the trifecta in the room with their third wine I recommend – the 05 and 06 Railroad Red ($12.20 - #665273) both are spicy and peppery, but where you’ll notice the real difference is in the packaging – they’ve gone screwcap in ’06 with a cleaner more mature looking label. Classy. A few months back I recommended the Errazuriz Ovalle 2004 Marchigue Cab Franc / Petit Verdot ($13.85 - #48298) in my Vintages report. I’ll recommend it again here with its raspberry-strawberry and chocolate taste, smooth as silk and interesting in the mouth, tasty to the last drop … for those keeping score, that is the third Errazuriz Ovalle I’ve recommended too.

Table 5 … Classy Reds with Heft and Price
Voyager Estates 2003 Cabernet-Merlot from Australia ($32.95 - #725721) was one of the best over $30 wines in the room (granted there were only 4 in total) – a blend of 85/15 Cab to Merlot that is smooth and rich in the mouth with red and black fruit, chocolate, herbal notes and plenty of polish. For the cellar you could easily lie down the Bodegas Muga 2004 Muga Reserva from Spain ($23.95 - #177345) – plenty of rip-roarin’ tannins here that have black fruit and cedar backing it up – this one could easily be enjoyed up to 10 years later.

My Consignment Purchase …
So back to my story … for the second time I am buying/sharing a case of wines with a buddy from the Vinexx Tasting – my first was the 2005 Panul Cabernet Sauvignon (which I am glad to taste is coming into its own) … this time it’s a wonderful bargain Zinfandel from Canyon Oaks … not the pink stuff people – this one’s made the way a Zin is suppose to be: luscious, plumy, red fruit and yummy to the core; good for burgers, salmon, pizza, ribs – a bar-be-quer’s dream wine. 6 months in oak has added a vanilla layer and 5% of a specific wine style adds a touch of umph! to this baby. All at $13.39 a bottle (taxes, delivery included) - $160.68 a case – this wine will be on my patio table or beside my BBQing tools all summer long. And if you are worried about the heavy alcohols that zins are notorious for, that make you logy and tired, have no fear this one’s a very respectable 13.5%. I can hear the sizzle of the grill now.

See you in the fall.

Report from ... Vineland’s 3rd Annual Ironic Chef – April 16, 2008

Approximately 60 folks joined 6 judges and 4 chefs for an interactive dinner based on the now classic television show The Iron Chef. The twist was that the audience votes for the dishes as well as the judging panel, which consisted of Vineland Winemaker Brian Schmidt, celebrity chefs Michael and Anna Olson, Toronto restaurateur John Maxwell (Allen’s on the Danforth), sommelier Jamie Drummond (Jamie Kennedy Kitchens) and Chef Mark Hand, who played the role of Kaga (host/overseer) as well as Shinichiro Ohta, that guy who breaks in with comments from the kitchen (“Fukui-san, the elk used for this challenge was actually raised by wolves.”)

5 courses were paraded out (1 at a time obviously), created from a menu concocted earlier that afternoon from a selection of “Mystery Ingredients” that was presented to the teams at noon this very day. The two teams who would square off against one another were the old guard, or “Senior Team”: Jan-Willem Stulp (executive chef at Vinelend Restaurant) and Chef Daryl Neamtu versus the young guns, or “Junior Team” of Heather Rhymes and Justin Downes (both sous-chefs). On the line, were not only bragging rights for the year, but a tie breaker, which would give one of these two teams a 2-1 lead. The previous year saw the Senior Team win to tie the overall score at 1-1 … so the pressure was on the Senior Team to repeat. In the two previous years the margin of victory was around 60 points – this year’s victor would end up squeaking out a 32.25-point victory – more on that in a minute.

Of course being held at a winery, the wine also took center stage and with each course a different wine was paired. This created fits for both Gaby McCotter, organizer, and Brian Schmidt as to which wines to pair with the dishes – what goes with both elk and cod? Tonight’s wines selections were the following: 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling (paired with scallops), 2006 Sauvignon Blanc – Wismer Vineyard (duck and cod), 2005 Elevation Cabernet-Merlot (elk and cod), 2005 Cabernet Franc Reserve (elk and duck) and finally, a 2007 Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (paired with dessert – Triple Cream Cheesecake and Parsnip Cupcake).

Each attendee was given one dish to vote on – either the Junior or Senior teams’ creation – though you were invited to share your dish with your partner at the table, so that you had the opportunity to taste both. But according to Gaby McCotter – at whose table I was seated – you were only to vote on the dish in front of you based on six criteria (presentation, creativity, balance, texture, flavour, mystery ingredient) and not in comparison to the other dish. I of course broke that rule, because I felt I needed to know who made the better creation before I could score it – otherwise the dishes were all very good on their own. This philosophy of judging worked well with the dueling scallops for the first course, but when put against the other courses with more randomized dishes like duck vs. cod or elk it become a little more difficult and challenging. Might I suggest, in my humblest opinion, that the chefs make a dish using the same main ingredient per course (i.e.: elk for one, duck for another) – that way the comparison is easier for the judges, and the wine pairing – I would have liked to see how the elk tenderloin did up against the elk corn dog … though as I was told on more than one occasion (with a stern warning) that comparison was not the name of the game. Speaking of the judges, they had to “endure” a full helping of both creations, thus having to compare the dishes against one another.

With all the dishes served and the scores being tabulated the chef teams were brought out to speak to all assembled about what they felt were their best dishes of the night; they did so as they anxiously awaited the results. My scorecard had the Senior’s up 3-1 with a tie in the middle course – but I am just one in a sea of 60+, plus the scores were on a ranking system and not based on who won the dish. The winner, by half the margin of previous years, turned out to be the Senior Team, and chef Jan-Willem was humble in victory, claiming he thought his “ass was thoroughly kicked as [he] looked over at [his] competition’s creations throughout the day.”

The night was a lot of fun, tasty – from both a food and wine perspective – and thoroughly enjoyable … with a few surprises along the way (beet sorbet anyone?). But the real surprise came after the victors had been announced. With his final thoughts on the evening chef Michael Olson threw down the gauntlet: he and his wife Anna would like to take on this year’s winners in next year’s competition … and Vineland’s Stadium Kitchen will soon heat up again – cue The Kaga.

Annual Austrian Tasting – April 15, 2008

There’s much to know about Austria and it’s wines, but here in the Great White North we call Ontario we see very little of them (wines, not Austrians). Visitors to the LCBO will notice that the stores don’t have an Austrian section, is it because the demand just isn’t there? It certainly isn’t because there isn’t enough choice.

Some things you may not have known …
Austria has 16 recognized areas for wine making located in one of 4 major states: Steiermark (in the south-east), Burgenland (eastern border), Niederosterreich (to the north) and Wien (Vienna). There are 35, or so, different grape varieties grown – mostly whites – with Gruner-Veltliner, Zweigelt, Welschriesling and Muller-Thurgau being the top four grape varieties, with only the Zweigelt being red.

The Wines …
At an Austrian event you have to think summer, because many of their wines are made to drink on those balmy days. Today well over 200 wines were on display and being poured – so you can see it’s not due to lack of choice that we Ontarians aren’t seeing many Austrian wines … but maybe that will soon change, as some LCBO buyer’s were spotted lurking about during the event. Let’s see if I can’t help them along with their decisions.

Best Wine …
With so many whites to choose from it’s hard to pick out just one that stands above all the others, or at least I thought that until I tried the Rabl Vinum Optimum Riesling 2007 (#24.95 – private order) – mineral, petrol, peach and apricot were distinct on the nose, while the taste was more fruit driven with great mineral flavours and a fine acidity backbone.

Go for the Gruner …
I started the day trying to get a handle on Gruner – with it being the most widely recognized grape variety Austria-wide and is made by everybody; it wasn’t hard to find one to try. But there are so many different styles that it’s hard to pin-point just what Gruner is. Thus I came to the determination that Gruner is the Chardonnnay of Austria: easily manipulated into what the winemaker wants. By definition Gruner is suppose to be peppery, spicy and predominantly dry … but that’s not always what I found.

On the LCBO’s general list you’ll find the Winzer Krems Gruner for $11, which is light and fruity with a pleasant lime finish. There are also still a few bottles left of the Laurenz V. 2006 Friendly Gruner available at Vintages, I liked that one last year and I like the 2007 version of the same wine again this year. Light and fruity with great tropical nuances and pleasant minerality … a great summer sipper, let’s hope the LCBO has the good sense to bring it in again.

With Gruner making up almost 40% of the grapes grown in Austria there are quite a few wineries that make Gruner in a variety of styles all under one roof; much in the same way that Cave Spring here in Ontario makes 7 Rieslings. I tried two from Weingut Leth – the Klassik with its pineapple fruit smell followed by its sharp clean, crisp tropical taste; and the Brunnthal Reserve, with its fuller body and more minerally taste. Weingut Felsner had three on their table; my favourite was the medium-bodied Moosburgerin with its Riesling-like nose, citrus, bruised apple taste and a great lengthy finish.

One Winery – Three Wines …
Weingut Brundlmayer was rated “Best Austrian Winery of the last 25 years” by Wine & Spirits Magazine and after tasting through the 6 wines they had on display you could taste why. Sure they had simple Gruner, but the 2006 Alte Reben from old vines (retail ~$60) was stunning, lots of peachy-minerality that lingered on the tongue. Three Rieslings were on offer of which the 2006 Zobinger Heiligenstein (sourced from what is widely recognized as one of the best vineyards in Austria) had great acidity, citrus flavour, minerality up the ying-yang and very tasty. Finally, the only red that I truly said “wow” to on this day (but I will fully admit to only trying a handful) was the 2003 Ried Ladner St. Laurent – this was one serious wine: good red and black fruit, good wood flavouring with vanilla nuances.

Other Wines of Choice …
A couple of other wines that made the grade were the Durnberg 2007 WeiBburgunder (Pinot Blanc) Select Klassik ($16) – light tropical fruit this wine had lots of class and taste … with the sun beating down, and 17 degrees outside I wanted to take this one out to the patio. Weinkellerei Lenz Moser made a wine that tasted exactly like the old Trident fruit gum that used to come in the orange package (old school gum chewers will remember), the wine is an apricot sparkling called “Mariandl”, a 6.5% sipper you could enjoy all the time, any time.

Something to Skoff at …
Weingut Walter Skoff is the “Austrian leader” in Sauvignon Blanc, interesting to see this variety in and amongst all the Gruner, Riesling and Zweigelt. Skoff produces 7 different varieties and styles of this grape. Typical that I would pick the blend as my favourite, a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Welschriesling that would have been a perfect match for the weather heating up outside – fresh, crisp, fruity and delicious.

It’s the Pitz …
Willi Opitz that is – what a character. You gotta love a guy who calls a wine “Opitz One”, a delicious dessert wine with great strawberry red fruit flavours … very yummy. Or who called his rosé “Pink Kiss” – a light refreshing wine with tons of berry flavours, especially raspberries and strawberries – the wine is made using Pinot Noir grapes. Look for his wonderful Red Cuvée in the April 26 Vintages release.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Report from ... Made in Italy – a series of events (2 of 4) April 14, 2008

Tonight’s event was a little more publicized, although a little less organized. The theme was “Italian Wine for Sushi”, a seemingly oddball combination for sure. This time the Italian Trade Commission took over InQuattro on Hazelton Avenue in Yorkville, a clothing store housed in an architecturally interesting building; surrounded by plenty of Versace we sipped on wine and nibbled on fresh Sushi made by the staff from Sushi Inn (120 Cumberland).

The folks from Sushi Inn were already there when I arrived, just after 6:30pm (the time the event was called for), hard at work filling large wooden boats with freshly made and hand rolled sushi – a few of these boats were already completed and on tables. The wine was chilling on ice and resting in various little alcoves throughout the gallery, but there were no glasses, nothing could be poured, so people stood around gabbing to each other and gawking at the sushi. 20 minutes later the glasses arrived, corks were popped and the wines started flowing. People also began digging into the food and an already buzzing room began to heat up with the noises of the busy eating throng.

Four wines were once again on display – all from Italy of course: a rosé, a white called “Crabilis” (a wine named after the Roman God of premenstrual women – sorry honey, couldn’t resist), a pretty non-descript Robert Anselme white and then there was the wine of the night – Fondo Antico 2005 Grillo Parlante ($14.85 - #52407). This wine had an interesting smoky flavour, although no oak was used in the making of it … other flavours were tropical dried fruit like papaya and pineapple along with a minerally seam and some good acidic bite all combined in this full bodied, full flavoured, mouthfilling wine. Turns out the wine is made with the Grillo grape – a grape once used in the making of Marsala (still is I assume), but because Marsala has fallen out of fashion (no pun intended), the grape is now used to make some pretty robust table wines. My brother, who accompanied me to the event, was quite taken with the wine. “Tell them I approve,” he said, “and that’s coming from a devout red drinker, I usually don’t drink white at all – they really won me over with this one.” (The next morning I got an email asking me for the name of that wine). We were there for 45 minutes and then it was off to the Raptors/Heat game – Raptors 91 – Heat 75 … Grillo, very good.

All-in-all it was a good event … once the party got rolling.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Report from ... Made in Italy – a series of events starting April 10, 2008

At 5:45pm on Wednesday April 9th, I received an email inviting me to an Italian wine tasting event as a Vespa dealership (in the Eglinton and Laird area), to be held on Thursday April 10 from 6-8pm. On that same day I got another invite – this time by phone – from Sante (Toronto Wine Show) to attend their press conference, to be held on Thursday April 10 in the afternoon. What’s with all this last minute stuff? Anyway, I decided to forego the Sante event and instead checked out Italian event in the evening.

The event was cutely entitled “Italian Wines for Happy Hour”, hosted by Steve Thurlow (of Wine Access Magazine) and set up by the Italian Trade Commission. This is the first in a series of 4 events to raise awareness for, and the image of, Italian wines. Surrounded by scooters and motorcycles, 4 wines were served with an array appetizers, while Steve gave a brief 10-15 minute talk about the wines he had chosen to showcase this evening. I’d have to say that very few folks around me were paying attention to what Steve had to say, instead most filled their plates or talked amongst themselves. The guest list for the evening was comprised of people from the Vespa dealership’s mailing list, cycle-lovers and riders, many of whom had ridden their bikes over for the free food and booze – as witnessed by the few dozen or so bikes parked just outside the front door. None of the wines were particularly memorable, though none were offensive either, and all went with the food being offered. The wines were basic Italian starters wines: Prosecco (sparkling), Pinot Grigio (popular Italian white), Primitivo (Italian’s version of Zinfandel) and a Valpolicella Ripasso (one down from Amarone) – all very food friendly and consumer friendly choices at decent prices (under $20).

I like what the Italian’s are trying to do here, bringing their wines back to the masses. I remember being a huge Italian wine fan at one point in my life – going as far as buying little juice glass to drink the stuff from (a la Italian movies)*. With the massive amount of wines available Italy has to make themselves more visible and viable as an option when you walk into the liquor store. The LCBO has relegated Italy to after-thought status, with many stores putting the Italian section near, or at, the back.

One lady I spoke with said, “we buy the same thing everytime, I’m not very knowledgeable about wine so I stick with what I know.” Events like this should help broaden people’s horizons and give them a chance to try stuff they might never would have. Bring wine back to the people, a novel idea indeed – let’s see how it goes over the next 3 events, and if that doesn’t work the Italians can always resort to the slogan. “Made in Italy – it’s not made in China, so you know it’s good.”

* I still love Italian wine – I just rarely use those glasses.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Report from ... Churchill Cellars Portfolio Tasting – April 7, 2008

The 6th Annual Churchill Cellars portfolio tasting, held at the National Ballet School of Canada building on Jarvis, seemed a little smaller then last year’s version. Sure there were plenty of cookies, sandwiches and cheeses, but it just seemed a little more cramped inside the venue. Of course, that didn’t stop people from enjoying themselves, or hoisting up glasses of general list and Vintages favourites – though again, I remember last year there being a Port table and more private order and consignment wines. This year’s offerings seem geared more towards what is at the LCBO, the good news about that is that the wines tasted were readily available.

Winery of the Tasting …
My vote in this category goes to Hardys. Most tables had one wine of note; Hardys had two and a few that were bubbling under. Best white of the day - a floral, perfumey and peach 2007 Stamp of Australia Riesling Gewurztraminer ($9.60 - #448548) is destined to be my summertime wine of choice – it had class and taste to spare.

The red wine of the tasting goes to the 2005 Bankside Shiraz ($16.65 – Vintages Essential), very impressive with its black pepper and spice – it’s only drawback was the medium-short finish, but still it’s a BBQ-ready red that everyone will love. After the tasting I went out and bought two bottles of each of the above wines, putting my money where my tastebuds are.

More from Australia …
D’Arenberg is a big name at the LCBO, seems like a D’ wine is being put on the shelf every Vintages release. Of the 6 on display today I think the 2005 Footbolt Shiraz ($21.75 – Vintages) is one you’ll remember for a good long while with its red fruit, pepper and black fruit finish.

South African Gem …
The South African co-op Robertson puts out a single vineyard varietal every year to reward one vineyard for an outstanding growing season … Robertson Winery Prospect Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.75 – Vintages) with its rich-jammy-spicy nature, chocolate notes and touch of tannin. Prospect Hill has been the singled-out vineyard before – they really know what they’re doing.

Robert Mondavi strikes gold with Merlot …
I expect very little from the Mondavi “Woodbridge” line – or at least I have over the years. The Sauvignon Blanc is an okay summer sipper (I have a better white recommendation below and above) but the wine that I thought was more than fine was the Woodbridge 2006 Merlot ($13.85 - #494492). On the Private Selection side, the 2005 Merlot ($19.80 - #524769) also reigns supreme … and the best news of all, it’s going down a dollar some time this month (April); I say it’s about time we started seeing some effects of a stronger dollar. Now if only the LCBO would follow suit with the big retailers and offer “US pricing”.

Another Summertime Wine …
Lastly, I’d like to point your attention to what I have always considered to be one of the best unoaked Chardonnays on the market – Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay ($10.85 - #455022) has been a perennial favourite of yours truly for years, delivering consistent fruit driven flavours and excellent quaffability.

Report from ... Toronto Wine And Cheese Show – April 4, 2008

This year’s Wine and Cheese Show (held April 4-6 at the International Centre) was a bizarre mix of big and small, wineries and breweries, agents and importers. New York, New Zealand and South Africa had a large presence, while the usual giants of the show like California, Australia and France had tiny one-man booths that had about 4 wines for tasting at each. There also seemed to be a scattershot mix of exhibitors; some you knew why they were there: Fielding, Black Prince, Mountain Road (wineries), Empire Cheese, Big Rock Brewery; others like Kitchen Aid, Whirlpool and others seemed very out of place. It was as if organizers wanted to be everything to everybody and instead did nobody any favours. Many exhibitors that I talked with, who had been there in the past, said the show had “shrunk” in size and has “lost focus”; others lamented the lack of advertising of the show. I found this most surprising when I thought about it; for a show that was celebrating its 25th Anniversary – you’d think they would have plastered the city with “Guess who’s turning 25” advertisements; but this year there was very little “show” about the show. This writer in particular emailed for details and information about the show 2 months in advance, but my emails went unanswered until a week before the show.

But despite all that there were some major highlights to draw your attention to – seems I have a knack for digging up a few at each show I attend.

New Winery …
By now you’ve heard of Prince Edward County and know it’s Ontario’s newest Designated Viticultural Area – what you may not be aware of is that more and more wineries are opening up in the area. One of those scheduled to open in 2009 is Harwood Estate Vineyards – whose wine is currently sold through Black Prince Winery. This small property grows Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and St. Laurent and is hoping to produce 10,000 cases within 2 years. For now their Gris (~$16-17) is a fabulous melon loaded summer sipper, while their 2007 Gewurztraminer is lychee, floral and perfume with a touch of spiciness – very good for such a young winery – and it’s all made from county fruit.

Product of the Show …
I never would have pegged myself as a Limoncello fan, but the l’Alambicco Limoncello is something altogether different. In these days of all natural ingredients you don’t get much simpler or natural than lemon rinds, sugar and alcohol. This beauty is a great mixer or all on it’s own. Tart lemon nose is followed up with the same in the mouth, although you expect more mouth pucker it somehow keeps it sweet with bite. The secret, says the producer, is “using the rinds instead of lemon juice”. It’s thick and has great mouth presence with no alcohol taste, just pure lemons – great for making spiked lemonade in the summer. The thickness might be derived from the molasses alcohol, which, according to the producer, “is the best quality no taste alcohol” he has found – allowing the lemon’s flavour to shine through. This should retail for about $18 if the LCBO is smart enough to bring it into the market.

Another interesting product was Zabov, a blend of sugar, milk, eggs, Jamaican rum and “secret ingredients” – this thick beverage had the taste of juiced up egg nog and was served up in a dark chocolate cup.

Label of the Show …
I would have expected the Paternoster Giuv organic wine to have come from Argentina by looking at the seductive Latin dancers on the red label, but this pleasant sipper has it’s origins in Italy. The same producer makes Synthesi, a wine made with Aglianico del Vulture (Aglianico grown in the volcanic soil of the region) this wine will be in Vintages at about $20 a bottle – nice cherry in the mouth with a mineral and herb finish which it get from the soil in which it is grown.

More Italian Wine …
Coming soon to Vintages will be the San Filippo Staffato (~$30-35) a blend of 60% Sangiovese/30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot … good red and black fruit, chocolate and a rich tannin punch.

I’ve Been Looking a Long Time …
Each show, for the past 5 years, I have been trying to re-find some Honey Garlic pepperettes that sparked my taste buds many moons ago. I thought I found them a couple of years ago through a Niagara deli, but they seems to have gone belly up (as far as I can tell) … Now comes Imperial Deli in Vaughan Mills, with their delicious version of this tasty treat. Yum.

Chocolate …
Speaking of yum, have you ever been to a chocolate party, complete with a tasting of high quality chocolate? I’m not talking about those fondue fountain thingies – I mean real chocolate. Well Tracey Edelist seems to have stumbled onto an awesome occupation; she holds gourmet chocolate tasting events. Currently she does tastings all over Toronto for both corporate and private clients … her tastings include pure French and Italian real cacao bean chocolate – to find out more visit and don’t forget to invite me to the event, I’m dying to try this one.

Before Leaving …
As I was heading out the door of this year’s show, I ran into the Godfather of New York and New Zealand wine, Robert Ketchin, who took me through a tasting of each region. Raphael, of Long Island, seems to be making some of the best wines in New York State, while I also learned plenty of grape, wine and regional geek stuff that Robert has locked in his head. Then over to New Zealand where a Sauvignon Blanc flight was on the menu … look for the prices of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to be more affordable this summer, with plenty of good ones under $15, including my personal favourite, Brancott, as well as Monkey Bay and Whitehall. Also look for Babich and Villa Maria, which cost a buck more but are well worth it. Remember these wines are made for early enjoyment and summer sipping, so be sure to lock down a deck, dock, patio or boat to really enjoy these wines.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Report from ... Tawse New Releases Dinner - April 1, 2008

On more than one occasion I have been approached at an event and sooner or later the topic turns to Ontario Wineries that I like (who is worth visiting, who’s making the best wine, etc.), those who have read my articles inevitably state, “… but you don’t like Tawse very much do you.” It’s time I clarify my position about Tawse Winery – it is not that I dislike Tawse, in fact I think the owner Moray Tawse is a genuinely affable and gentle gentleman. What I dislike is paying $50 for a bottle of wine, I don’t like the fact that an upstart is asking $40+ for a Chardonnay while some the old guards who paved the way for this upstart to open in the first place, asks $20 (my feeling is you have to build a reputation before you ask for the big dollars), and, on one specific occasion, I don’t like being told I have to buy x-number of bottles of a particular wine. That all said I have never denied Tawse Winery their due when it comes to the taste of their wines – case on point, my glowing review of their 2005 Echos Bistro Red was made quite public in (the LCBO’s) Vintages magazine when the wine was released. I’ve also written highly about their 06 Echos Red, 06 Echos White, 04 Riesling and 06 Chardonnay Musque (even though I wasn’t allowed to buy “just a few bottles”). But I still get, “You don’t like Tawse.”

Well a new day has dawned at Tawse Winery and it shows to me they are going in the right direction; sure you still have wines that range in price from between $20 to $50, but you also have wines below $20 and vintage specific pricing that will fluctuate year-to-year based on the quality of the vintage. I found this out at a dinner hosted by owner, Moray Tawse, and his winemaker, Paul Pender. When I received my invitation to the dinner from winery manager Brad Gowland, and noticed it was being held on April 1st (April Fool’s day of course) I thought it was a joke for all the “Tawse-bashing” I am perceived to do – but as it turns out it was real and was being held at Cru Restaurant in Etobicoke (one of Moray’s favourites). Now I’m not much of a foodie, a conclusion you probably wouldn’t make if you saw my waistline – so for me to tell you about the artic char, yellow fin tuna, lobster tail, duck breast, venison loin and crème brulee, I’m sure I couldn’t do them justice (though they were all good) – but we also tried 6 new Tawse wines set for release between now and June 7, and let me tell you, they are making some excellent hooch down there; some you’ll pay quite dearly for, while others are quite reasonable. We tried 2 Rieslings, a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay Icewine, all were very appealing in their own right. By the end I had three clear cut favourites this night.

But before I go into those, let me tell you about this year’s Pinot Noir. The 2006 Pinot Noir ($32) impressed me because this price had been lowered from last year due to the wet harvest and so-so year – it’s an excellent wine that could very well fetch much more at retail, but this was a decision Moray and his staff made based on the vintage. I applaud that kind of thinking and action. Only the one Pinot was made this year and there is plenty of it – 880 cases.

My Three Favs …

Of the two Rieslings, the eighteen-dollar 2007 Sketches of Niagara is a real beauty. “Sketches” replaces the Echos line, sort of … Echos will go back to being a restaurant exclusive (it’s original raison d’etre), while “Sketches” will give the under $20 crowd a wine of good quality at a more consumer friendly price range. It has taken Tawse a few years to learn that if you can get us with your wines in the lower part of the register, when it’s time for something special we’ll trust you with our high priced purchases. The other Riesling, the $30 Carly’s Block (while good in its own right) is a more mineral driven wine while the “Sketches” is all fruit and acidity, the perfect summer wine … and a great value – lovely.

My second favourite wine of the night was the 2005 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay, this is the first wine that French consultant Pascal Marchand had a hand in making, and it too is an absolute beauty - $48 is a little out of my price range, but if you’ve got the dough, and love Chardonnay this quite possibly is your ticket to Burgundy (so to speak).

My love of Cabernet Franc is no secret and the 2006 Vintners Reserve Cabernet Franc ($38) convinces me even more why I love this grape and why I believe it is Ontario’s to lay claim to.

So, just so we’re clear, and to waylay all those criticisms I get … I like Tawse, I like Moray, Paul, Brad and Brian (assistant winemaker) – they’re all great guys – I just wish their prices were more in my wheelhouse so I could have their wonderful wines on my shelf.

If you’re interested in tasting all of these wines yourself I suggest picking up the phone or sending an email and getting yourself an invite to the 2nd Annual Tawse Open House and Tour (Saturday June 7, 2008), where I have been promised that single bottle sales will be the norm … but get there early just in case.