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County Catch-up
Sara d’Amato shares some highlights from Prince Edward County

A spring getaway to Prince Edward County proved to be exceptionally eye-opening. It had been several years since my last visit and I was pleasantly surprised by the incredible changes in terms of quality and selection. My interest had been piqued prior to my departure, when my colleague David Lawrason turned up with several bottles of County Pinot Noir from wineries I had barely heard of before. I was expecting them to be interesting, especially coming from him, but I was stunned by their exquisite quality. If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have believed they were from anywhere but Burgundy.

This weekend, however, was planned many moons ago by a group of friends of mine who are big fans of Norman Hardie’s wines and had purchased a luncheon for eight at his winery in Hillier at a charity auction. Being a close follower and a fan of his for many years, I was delighted to visit him and taste through his current portfolio, including the long-awaited 2009 L Pinot Noir.

There were many highlights on this County tour, but these wines in particular merit greater attention. Most of these are available only at the winery or online.


The Old Third is run by two very focused and ambitious gentlemen, with such a passion for Pinot that they have devoted their entire endeavor to this one grape. Bruno Francois and Jens Korberg are partners in this serious, courageous and admirable endeavor. They have converted a large, historic barn into a lofty, airy and modern space that is sure to impress any visitor.


The Old Third 2009 Pinot Noir
Prince Edward County $35
Intense and very expressive floral nose with dried herbal and boysenberry notes. Rich and serious but also tangy with great elegance. Dried herbal notes throughout as well as older, integrated wood. Very good length.


The Old Third 2009 Pinot Noir Pourriture Noble (Vin Gris)
Prince Edward Country 375 mL/$35
This botrytis-affected Pinot Noir exhibits a sweet and inviting nose of peach nectar, white flower, beeswax and bright acidity. Palate is medium-sweet with elderflower, white cranberry and cherry blossom. Very elegant minerality is present on the long, lingering finish. Excellent with creamy blue cheeses.


Dan Sullivan, winemaker and proprietor of Rosehall Run Vineyards, has a larger than life personality that guarantees a good time to be had by all. At the time of our visit he was touring with and entertaining several other guests, but made time to chat and taste through some of his favourites of his portfolio.


Rosehall Run Vineyards 2008 Pinot Noir Rosehall Run Vineyard
Prince Edward County $34.95
Elegant and aromatic style with a nose of cherry, boysenberry and bramble. On the palate dried and cool herbal notes are woven among cherry and flavours of red plum. Medium-bodied with rounded acids along with cedar and orange zest on the finish.


Rosehall Run Vineyards 2007 Rosehall Run Cabernet Franc Cold Creek,
Prince Edward Country $29.95
Aromatic nose of violets and wildberries along with muted notes of bell pepper. Graphite and blueberries with a creamy mid-palate. Medium-bodied with very good length. A solid, friendly and approachable take on this varietal.


Rosehall Run Vineyards 2008 Estate Riesling
Prince Edward Country $17.95
Aromatic with gentle earthy aromas and notes of peppermint. Palate is quite concentrated, medium-sweet with clay, pineapple and orchard apples. Very bright and vibrant with good tension and length.


Norman Hardie’s passion for wine, the County and the industry is evident in everything he does — and is extremely contagious. It is obvious to anyone who meets Norm that he makes wine for the pure joy of it. He is everywhere too, stopping by to talk to the patrons of local bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants and seems to make appearances all over Toronto to talk not only about his wine, but about all great wine to those interested.


Norman Hardie Vineyards & Winery 2009 Cuvée L Pinot Noir
Ontario $69
The L Series Pinot is made only in the vintages, which Hardie deems to be exceptional. The 2009 vintage is made up of 60 percent Niagara fruit and 40 percent County fruit. The feminine and enticing nose brings forth aromas of cherry skin, boysenberry, raspberry, lavender and bramble. The wine is reminiscent of wines from Chambolle-Musigny silky smooth tannins and notes suggesting choke cherry, dried herbs, pepper and subtle notes of cinnamon bark. Bright and abundantly flavourful yet vibrant and elegant. A well-structured and exceptionally well-balanced wine with seamlessly woven flavours and an incredibly long finish. 260 cases.


Norman Hardie Vineyards & Winery 2009 County Chardonnay
Prince Edward County $35
A touch closed at this point in its evolution but still quite aromatic with gun powder, flinty minerality and fresh apple and pear. The palate is mineral driven with high quality, well-integrated oak. A stylish wine with great finesse.


Norman Hardie Vineyards & Winery 2010 Riesling
Ontario $21
Elegant, delicate aromatics of honey dew melon, lime, white flowers and soft mineral notes.  Palate exhibits an unyielding core of minerality throughout giving this wine great length and tension. Plenty of fresh squeezed, fleshy lime on the palate with crunchy green apple and cracked sea salt.


Electric Company
Sara d’Amato on the joys of an iPad wine list

In their day-to-day dealings, sommeliers can be called upon to assume a multitude of roles in order to perform their jobs, such as psychologist, mind reader, travel agent, counselor and performer. With such a complex job description, one thing that a good sommelier is not, is easily replaceable.

So, when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in Toronto asked me to help put together an iPad wine list for their new restaurant, E11even, I jumped at the opportunity. As a sommelier, I was confident that this project would not only be of huge benefit to the customer but also a great tool for servers. What I quickly discovered was an iPad wine list would generate incredible buzz and start countless conversations about its role in wine service.

Jennifer Huether, head sommelier for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Canada’s first female Master Sommelier, led the charge to bring these into Toronto’s dining scene.

Certain restaurants using iPads are programming their own apps, if they have the ability to do so. However, E11even went with the New York-based company, Insentient, who was one of the first to create a wine list application for the iPad and was doing so for other tablet-based computers before its existence.

An iPad wine list has numerous benefits for restaurants. Whereas a traditional wine list can only provide minimal facts about the wine and where it is from, on an iPad you can provide virtually unlimited information. A guest can learn everything from the details of an appellation, where it is located, information about the grape varietals and/or the blend as well as a profile of the producer. That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most of us have had the experience of ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant only to have the server come back and explain that it is sold out. An electronic based system is tied into a restaurant’s inventory database. As soon as the last bottle is sold, the wine list has the ability to remove it, in real time, from all the lists in the restaurant.

Not to be overlooked, the device’s backlit display comes in pretty handy in dimly lit restaurants.

For those who believe that such a tool is a replacement for the sommelier, think again. The wine professional now has another opportunity to approach the guest, if it not for simply showing them the features of the gadget they have just been given.

In my experience, guests spend twice as long looking through the list and twice as long discussing the selections. The iPad is a tool that empowers the sommelier and helps them manage a busy dining room by being able to share their knowledge whether they can make it to the table or not. In essence, the tablet becomes an extension of the sommelier’s reach and ability to convey their knowledge.

Because of these factors, sales are most definitely affected. Not only do customers benefit from the trusted advice of the sommelier, but they can reassure themselves by the overabundance of information about their selection and expert reviews available to them. Guests are often also interested in going back for another bottle or glass once they are wooed by the sleek functionality of the iPad.

In addition, the iPad puts my own reviews, notes and other pertinent details about a producer, label or details of a vineyard site at my finger tips. It is both empowering and liberating.

But before I begin to sound like an overzealous cheerleader, due to the newness of this technology a lot of work was required to make this project realized. New features and ideas take time to be built and there are few databases available to get even pieces of information necessary. In addition, the application and rental equipment does not come cheap. Currently, this is only a feasible project for either well-established businesses or those whose credit can stomach the investment.

Because iPad wine lists are still really in their infancy, especially in Canada, most restaurants require considerable time and effort to build their databases. Gathering information, reviews and creating a photo gallery is a daunting task, but one that sommeliers are taking on with zeal. Once the iPad list becomes more commonplace, there will likely be greater data sharing among them and restaurants and diners alike will surely benefit from this collective network.

In addition to E11even and the Platinum Club, Earl’s Restaurant and 7 Numbers Restaurants have launched their own iPad wine list programs. In the near future, you will also see this gadget in top hotels and fine restaurants throughout the country — it will be virtually unavoidable — and overwhelmingly helpful to the sommeliers working there.

 


Real Character
What makes wine great: Tradition or Technology?

These days, wine is a globalized passion. As far as its production and consumption are concerned, every continent is part of the club. New ideas, cutting-edge theories and state-of-the-art technologies abound. At the same time, a yearning for tradition and a desired connection to the earth are increasingly motivating consumer choice. “Organic” is now proudly displayed on a multitude of labels while “Biodynamic” is becoming a commonplace term. Technological manipulations, meanwhile, don’t enjoy anywhere near the same kind of public display. To the contrary, they often fall into the “dirty little secrets” category that wineries would prefer no one discovered.

During the harvest of 2004, I was fortunate to spend time working alongside dynamic young winemakers in Bordeaux and Bergerac. The experience was greatly enriching and quickly changed my perspective of the Old World winemaking. Their ready acceptance of modern technological methods to make “better” wine surprised me.

Of course, classic winemaking techniques are thoroughly studied and are in no way at risk of disappearing. However, the restrictions placed on winemakers are in part responsible for forging interest in how wine can be manipulated without breaking any rules. After all, the great châteaux of Bordeaux sell their wines for a pretty penny largely due to their name and reputation, not because of any cutting-edge technology that they might be applying.

Yet the proof is in the pudding to a large degree.

Most would acknowledge that the stylistic difference you would notice comparing a 30-year old Bordeaux and a modern vintage is staggering. The newer wines are much richer, riper and fuller than ever before. Some producers blame global warming. Others readily admit that they are intentionally making their wines more like this for commercial reasons.


Scenes from a rustic cellar at a domaine in Burgundy showcase the essence of a hands-off, traditional winemaking regime.

Part of the problem with new-fangled methods is purely due to perception. They are not traditional and are therefore bad.

This begs the question, why is technology necessary in a pursuit that derives its value from a sense of place and natural ingredients? Are these technology-driven producers pandering to a mass market? Or are they striving to make a better quality wine?

Making a better wine, in my opinion, is not entirely subjective. Critics do try to retain some objectivity when reviewing wines despite an evident individual leaning. Due to his widespread appeal and influence, American critic Robert Parker bears the brunt of criticism when it comes to defining what currently makes a “great” wine and thus causing a deliberate shift in winemaking styles worldwide. In an increasingly competitive business, it is no wonder producers appeal to critics in order to stay afloat.

What do these technological advantages mean then for the future of wine? Cynics would suggest the result is the homogenization of wine. For example, the qualities of the highly revered wines made in Pomerol, may encourage the use technological advances and modern techniques to produce wines of a similar style elsewhere. Wine lovers prize regional or appellation wines because of their uniqueness. Does enjoying a style of wine inspired by a far away region take away from the uniqueness? The questions raised by the growing dichotomy of the world of wine are fascinating and worth debate. So, rage on!

 


Southern Exposure
Catching up with the wines of Brazil


What would you say if you were invited to a tasting of wines from Brazil? Would you think someone was playing a joke on you? Few would suspect that Brazil produces an incredible amount of wine, in the neighborhood of 3.5 million hectoliters.
  
The reason that most of us have not heard about it is because only two percent of the production is exported. The rest is consumed within the country. Good for Brazilians, I think — imagine if Canadians had such national pride in our great wines!
  
Although many Portuguese varietals are planted throughout the growing regions of Brazil, as you might expect given the historical connection between the two countries, many modern winemakers are actually Italian immigrants. Some Italian grapes are currently planted and others are being experimented with.
  
The wine growing regions of Brazil are clustered in the southern tip of the country where the cooler temperatures allow for vinifera to thrive. Almost 90 percent of the production comes from one region, Serra Gaucha. The region, like most of the country’s grape growing areas, is influenced by the ocean that creates a maritime climate.
  
With so much to learn about Brazilian wine, there is unfortunately so little to taste in our market. Currently, the LCBO only carries one product through its Vintages portfolio, a Pinot Noir from Vinicola Miolo. Reports suggest wines from Brazil are stocked in greater supply in Quebec.
  
As for the quality of wines produced, it is difficult to generalize based on an afternoon’s sampling. But it is worth mentioning that the wines showed marked improvement compared to those in a similar showcase held several years ago in Toronto.
  

A couple of sparkling wines stood out for me. Samples from Cave Geisse, in Serra Gaucha, could rival many Champagnes. Also, a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tannat made by Lidio Carraro Elos, impressed with its wonderfully intriguing nose and soft, supple texture. Finally, a wine from the aforementioned Miolo, a blend of Portuguese varietals that included Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro, showed a stylish nose of bergamot and violet, with black cherry on the palate, chewy tannins, great density and power without being aggressive.
  
There is no doubt that Brazil has great potential for fine wine. As vintners continue to experiment and gain better understanding of the region’s unique characteristic, we can expect to see exciting developments and products. Stay tuned…



Beaucastel Beckons
Sara d’Amato’s pilgrimage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The drive from Avignon to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône Valley is a wonderfully surreal experience that is reminiscent of the paintings of Salvador Dali. The parched landscape is covered in smooth white stones that glimmer and reflect the fierce sunlight.

The destination on this day was a rare invitation to Château de Beaucastel. A visit here is an endless source of inspiration for any wine lover for a number of reasons.



The château owns the single largest vineyard in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, containing 100 uninterrupted hectares (roughly 240 acres) including 70 acres used to produce the Beaucastel red.



In 1994, Beaucastel was the first estate to produce organically within the appellation and it has been sensitive to biodynamic principles since 1909. They are also the only producer using all 13 grape varietals permitted (both red and white) in its exquisitely complex red Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend.



The winery employs a unique vinification technique involving the use of a specially designed flash heating device that heats grapes to 80º upon arrival. This has two purposes: it destroys the compounds responsible for the oxidation of the must, thereby enabling the use of less sulphur dioxide, and improves extraction. This innovative technique pioneered by Jacques Perrin has been in practice since 1964, when it must have raised more than a few eyebrows.

An extensive tasting offered by my English guide Kirsty Manahan, including a preview of the 2008 vintage Coudoulet Côtes du Rhône, awaited us after a tour of the château’s meticulous winery which housed a “pampered” white barrel cellar reminiscent of a nursery where highly revered whites such as the Beaucastel Blanc and the Roussanne Vielles Vignes are put to rest.

The 2008 vintage, despite its lack of Mistral, the tempestuous winds which sweep the valley clearing it of mildew, and above average rainfall is quite impressive — a testament to careful sorting and skilled winemaking. The currently available 2007 Beaucastel Red is a tribute to an ideal vintage showing sweet cherry, pomegranate and wild raspberry aromas followed by a pepper-spiced, cinnamon bark and charcoal layers with the added dimension of potent black and red currant, a mineral core and brooding intensity. In contrast, a 1998 Beaucastel Red was peaking and beginning to show characteristic truffle and inviting earthy aromas.
  
Our tasting ended with a graceful note in the form of an otherworldly Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, produced from 80-90 year old vines. This amazing white showed restrained elegance, apricot cream notes and a syrupy texture that was vinous in nature with loads of characteristic minerality. It’s a remarkable and unique wine that stresses the prodigious quality of this special family winery.




Portugal’s Promise

My recent wine adventure in Portugal couldn’t be restrained to the most recent issue of VINES, it was so chalk full of delicious exploits, I simply had to impart a few more details online.

The first leg of the trip left us well versed with the Baga grape in all its splendor as well as its esoteric and often misunderstood nature. With the Bairrada region behind us, our trip to Portugal took a different turn both literally and figuratively.

Arriving at the Dão, creeping closer to Spain, the temperature was notably warmer as the harsh wind died down, the drizzle turned to sunny skies and the soil type is much more sandy and granitic.

The wines of the Dão vary greatly in style as winemakers have vastly different opinions on grape varieties and growing techniques. Several ambitious young winemakers voiced the opinion that their forefathers did not know how to grow these indigenous varieties properly. They explained their commitment to fully understanding their nature.
The red wines that are not produced purely from Touriga Nacional are blends that include Aragonez (also known as Tinta Roriz or Tempranillo) and the smooth, perfumed varieties Jaen and Alfrocheiro that contribute balance, colour and a ripe strawberry flavour to the blend.

The whites to look for are Encruzado, my personal favourite, a white with great aging potential and a tendency to give delicate, elegant, floral aromatics and show impressive minerality, the fleshy Bical, the floral Malvasia Fina and Sercial (otherwise known as the “dog choker” for its abrasive acidity).

The Dão Sul group of wineries boasts an impressive portfolio from the region and we were treated to a number of wines that are likely to enter the Canadian market soon.
Particularly noteworthy was the delicious Touriga-dominant 2006 Cabriz Reserve (one of the oldest estates in the Dão) and the strikingly complex and elegant 2006 Casa de Santar Reserva.

The stunner of the group was the sultry Cabriz Four C (currently available in Ontario for a whopping $173) that blends four grapes from four estates in four regions: Tinto Cão from the Douro, Touriga Nacional from Dão, Baga from Bairrada and Touriga Roriz from Alentejo.

As for great whites, although I hate to gush over a Chardonnay given Portugal’s diversity of grape varieties, the Paco dos Cunhas de Santar 2008 Vinha do Contador White left me speechless with its divine, Chablis-like elegance and its flinty minerality.


Other wineries to watch for in the Dão are Marinho Alves whose wines will are set to arrive in the west, and FTP Vinhos, a project established in 2001 that immediately swept local competitions with their sophisticated portfolio. In fact, the best Encruzados encountered on the trip were from FTP, including the acacia-scented, mouthwatering the Piços do Couto. 


Our visit to central Portugal ended on a high note with a quick stop in the sub-appellation of Beira Interior, which borders on Spain. It is regrettable that we did not spend more time in this highly noteworthy region as it is in the midst of great change.    

Traditionally a region dominated by large cooperatives, just as Dão was, many small growers are beginning to produce their own, high-quality, boutique-style wine. Most of these producers are so new and small that they lack representation in North America but they are eager to make their debut as soon as possible.

The diversity of the region is one of its most compelling features. Most wines here are blends and both whites and reds seem equally represented. The reds are a great mélange of Trinchadera, Rufete, Bastardo, Touriga Roriz, Jaen, Cabernet and Syrah, and the whites of Arinto, Fonte Cal and Siria (which is, in my opinion, the white star of the Beira Interior). A highlight of my tastings was Quinta dos Currais 2008, produced from 100 percent Siria and reminiscent of the Greek Assyrtiko with its razor sharp acid, great purity and a mineral-driven core.

The Beira Interior is full of up-and-coming small producers and almost endless possible combinations of red and white blends. What was common, however, was a contagiously positive attitude and the universal desire to produce great wine with respect for tradition.

If only in attempt to chip away at the fear of the unknown, at least when it comes to wine, I encourage you to seek out these lesser understood regions and discover for yourself their new flavours, diverse personalities and food-friendly natures. Awaiting your palate is an immense wealth of indigenous varietals that are unique and exceedingly varied, produced from both modern inspiration and traditional values.

For further insight about my adventures in Portugal, be sure to pick up your copy of the June/July issue of VINES.



Gold Standard

The best and the brightest of Ontario wine came to Niagara Falls February 19 to be decorated at the annual Cuvée Awards, the so-called “Oscars” of the local grape and wine industry. The crowd was certainly decked out in Oscar-worthy garb and was eager to celebrate the province’s finest selection of winners to date.
A dizzying and impressive selection of local restaurants were gathered to showcase their most innovative and delicious creations to accompany the wide array of varietals and styles of wine.

What makes these awards so unique is that they are judged from the perspective of winemakers who truly understand potential and what it takes to produce an outstanding wine in Ontario. The Cuvée press release reports that 45 winemakers tasted more than 400 wines this year.

Here are a few of my highlights — all of these are gold medal winners, meaning that they have achieved “international standards for excellence in quality.”

Rosewood Estates 2008 Gewürztraminer A dry version with elegant floral aromatics, pear, bergamot and a sensual mouthfeel. Nothing overdone and perfectly balanced. rosewoodwine.com

Cave Spring Cellars 2006 Dolomite Brut Impressive new addition to their sparkling lineup. Crisp and ethereal, with fine notes of magnolia and citrus. 100 percent Chardonnay. cavespring.ca

Creekside Estate Winery 2008 Reserve Viognier Rich mouthfeel with a pretty orange blossom nose, peaches and cream palate with a long, honeyed finish. creeksidewine.com

Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery 2007 Reserve Chardonnay Old world nose of apple, toast and minerality, honey, almond and nutmeg grace the palate with a ripe stone fruit finish — delicious! peninsularidge.com

Thirty Bench Wine Makers 2007 Small Lot Benchmark Red Thirty Bench pulled out all the stops for this: limited production, three weeks maceration in open top wood fermenters, 24 months aging in French oak, meticulous barrel selection for assemblage. Full-bodied but not monstrous, ripe plums and currant with earthy undertones, exotic spice and a slightly smoky finish. Great winter stew pairing potential! thirtybench.com

Many of these wines are quick to sell out after the weekend as Cuvée tends to generate lots of buzz, but some are still available at the winery and at winerytohome.com so get them while you still can.

There were so many varietals and styles represented at Cuvée again this year that it was difficult to discern any regional style that one might hope to see emerge. However, the following day’s Experts Tasting hosted by Brock University shed some very interesting light on our emerging terroir and distinctive Niagara appeal – stay tuned for more!



Taste Test

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the awards ceremony for the 2009 Wine Tasting Challenge. This is challenge has both professional and amateur categories and is open to anyone with a desire to test their palates. With the exception of the winners, all results are confidential so no one has to bruise their pride in the pursuit of glory. As in past years, the Tasting Challenge was hosted at the Four Seasons Hotel (my old stomping ground) in November. The competition’s founding sponsors include Via Allegro Restaurant, Toronto Life, Spiegelau, and B&W Wines and is put together by the talented and well-organized group at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, Brock University.

The Bosc family of Château des Charmes graciously hosted this year’s award luncheon, which was expertly and flamboyantly catered by Via Allegro. The menu included: Italian Stallion (porcini and horse tartare), whole roasted Tuscan rabbit, roasted pig head, and icy waters arctic char.

Congratulations to this year’s Grand Award Winner Zoltan Szabo, who has been a tireless supporter of the competition. It would be difficult not to know of Zoltan if you are in this business as he is involved in almost all aspects of the trade — including being a frequent contributor to VINES and a judge of the InterVin International Wine Awards — and has a wonderfully exuberant personality. Congratulations also to the second and third place winners in the professional category, Eric Gennaro, formerly of Crush Wine Bar, and William Predhomme, wine director at Canoe, respectively.

Kudos as well to Rene Van Ede of Tawse Winery who won the VQA Challenge with a score of 100 percent — the best result ever achieved. The lovely and talented Lesley Provost from The Fifth Grill tied with flair bartender Martin Zikmund in the Sprit category and are splitting some incredible prizes and travel.  

The afternoon was a wonderful show of the industry giving back to its most talented stars and newcomers. I cannot overstate how important a competition of this nature is to promoting our industry and forcing us to continue to better ourselves. It remains the largest (in terms of prize purse) wine tasting competition in the world and is completely non-profit. For more info and to register for next year’s competition: http://www.winetastingchallenge.com/

 


Cases for a Cause

Lifford Wine Agency, the Ontario wine, food and hospitality communities came together last Monday to raise awareness and much-needed cash for the victims of the last month’s earthquake in Haiti. The event, Eat, Drink, Give, was put together in less than two weeks, and drew hundreds of affluent Torontonians who came to support the cause.


I was able to lend a hand and was impressed by the copious donations by wine agents and Vintages to the silent and live auctions which included a couple of 1982 First Growth Bordeaux, a series of Opus One vintages, some outstanding Burgundies, a magnum of Mitolo Savitar Shiraz to name a few. Doctors Without Borders was the recipient charity whose work has been paramount in the relief efforts.
Wine is very often used as a means to raise charitable funds and is a very successful one. In Toronto alone, the Ontario chapter of Grapes for Humanity associated with wine guru Tony Aspler raises considerable money for child victims of land mine accidents and people with disabilities in impoverished regions through events like its yearly wine auction.


Currently Aspler, Lindsay Groves and photographer Steven Elphick have put together the 2010 Women in Wine calendar to support of Grapes for Humanity.


Other noteworthy wine and charity partnerships include Grand Cru, the brainchild of Halpern Wine and the Toronto General and Western Hospitals, which has raised more than 5.5 million dollars to support cardiac programs.


Lifford also organizes its annual Ladies’ Night and Boys’ Night Out events that raise money in support of lupus research and prostate cancer research respectively.


Wine makes a perfect charitable motivator as its value is not intrinsic and collectors are happy to spend more than its current (albeit fluctuating) value for the chance to own its rarity. Alternatively, these charitable auctions provide unique opportunities, firstly to purchase these rare bottles that have been donated, but also to secure them at a reasonable price.
For more information or to get involved, visit:


Eat, Drink and Give: http://eatdrinkandgive.com/
Grand Cru: http://www.tgwhf.ca/sites/grandcru/
Lifford Wine Agency: http://www.liffordwine.com/special_events
Grapes for Humanity http://www.grapesforhumanity.com/
Women in Wine Calendar, contact Lindsay Groves: lindsaygroves@hotmail.com




Yes Virginia

Over the holidays, good friends, Jordan and Jenn Harris, who now live in Virginia paid a visit and brought with them some tasty treats from the “presidential state.” Formerly assistant winemaker for Niagara College and winemaker at Niagara Vintners, Jordan is now winemaker at Tarara Winery, which focuses on Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah and Viognier. I, no doubt like many of you, have never tasted wine from this region, was very pleasantly surprised.

With the exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii, all US states produce wine from grapes, much of which you will never see in Canada. Virginia is known for its hot but humid growing season, which can undoubtedly prove to be a challenge in certain years. Although many Bordelais reds are grown as well as Chardonnay and some French hybrids, the regional proficiency for the Rhône varietals, Syrah and Viognier is undeniable.

The 2008 Viognier showed generous stone and hint of tropical fruit on the palate. It a beautiful honeyed and floral nose and had a sensual texture that was sensibly balanced by a base of scintillating acidity.
Meanwhile, the 2007 Syrah demonstrated a spicy bouquet of clove, pepper and floral aromatics. Opulent, fleshy plum and blackberry cream danced on the palate with a big, bold, full-bodied mouthfeel – yet, with an elegant, Old World-inspired finish.

Although Virginia has been producing wine for hundreds of years, its relatively new fine wine-producing region is most definitely worth discovering. Jordan cautions that it is still a small region (although 8th largest in the US) and much progress has to be made in terms of defining and understanding distinct viticultural areas. However, the excitement he has for the up-and-coming region is contagious and the wines certainly fuel enthusiasm.


Baby on Board

When I learned I was pregnant, any conflict with my job as a sommelier was the last thing on my mind. Joy, exuberance and relief far outweighed the concern that my alcohol intake would come to an abrupt halt. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there were some wonderful advantages to my career that I had yet to discover.
   
Many people associate pregnancy with an alcohol-free period in one’s life and this is perhaps why they appear shocked to find out that their sommelier is pregnant. In North America, the official medical stance — generally stated as “there’s no evidence proving a safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy” — is popularly implemented as total abstinence. As controversial as this may sound, instant teetotalism for expectant mothers is not necessarily applied elsewhere in the world.
   
Upon my first visit to my doctor, these concerns were completely brushed aside. She mentioned that North American standards were particularly rigid (an opinion seconded by my OB) and as long as wine consumption was kept to a couple of glasses a week, I would be fine. But because it is true that no amount of alcohol is considered safe for the baby, it is common practice in North America to recommend abstinence for expectant mothers. Recently a British study by the University London College (ULC) concluded that mothers who drank moderately throughout their pregnancy were more likely to have children who were better adjusted and more socially skilled. Of course, those mothers who drank heavily had many serious problems and experienced important misfortunes.
   
To many, it would seem problematic to taste wine for a living while expecting but it is not standard practice for the wine trade to consume alcohol at tastings, competitions or evaluations. Professionally speaking, little to no alcohol consumption is required in order to taste a wine. We all spit every day, as vulgar as it sounds. Therefore, career-wise, no significant compromise is required.
   
As for advantages, it was Jancis Robinson, in her book Tasting Pleasure who declared that the reason she passed her Masters of Wine tasting exam on her first attempt was due to her heightened sense of smell during pregnancy. Of course, I hoped to be equally brilliant, win competitions, and pass exams without study! Indeed, this super Spidey sense of smell was most noticeable, even early on, and was quite beneficial to me. Unfortunately, the counter effects of fatigue and congestion, balanced out my super sensitivity on many days.
   
As my pregnancy continued, the difficulty I faced from the perceptions of others far outweighed any physical discomfort. People, often customers and acquaintances, seemed visibly concerned that I would be giving them advice on wine, that I might not be able to “make it” throughout the night and even that I may not have the strength to open their bottles. Though the manifestations varied from person to person, the common threat was that there was something unsettling about the picture of a pregnant woman serving wine.
   
As my awareness to people’s apprehension became more acute, my fearless nature was subdued. I ended up trying to be as sensitive as possible to others so as not to make them feel uncomfortable. Luckily, my time at work was soon to be over and, I think, to the relief of many. As I sit here completing this column, I was very happy to receive a call from a colleague with a wine-pairing dilemma they thought only I could resolve. It is nice to be missed especially when one feels nostalgically removed from active duty.
   
The wine community’s reaction has been, generally, the reverse of that of the public. On several occasions, colleagues in the industry have mentioned, upon noticing my over-reliance on the spittoon that there is “no need to worry.” I’m told that their wives drank a few glasses of wine here and there while they were pregnant and their children suffered no harm. However, I am by no means the only female sommelier of childbearing age in Toronto nor am I the first to have a baby while employed in the industry. Many of these pioneering women have very similar stories to tell and are incredibly compassionate.
   
Generally, however, I have noticed that when pregnant, people are more ready to regard your well being as their personal concern, or as the responsibility of the public. Advice is dolled out freely along with suggestive and even instructive remarks. Your body is no longer your responsibility alone, but the responsibility of the collective community. It’s a strange situation to get used to!
   
What is perhaps the most disturbing is the stranger-belly-rubbing phenomenon — whether the person be a wine rep, a customer or a new acquaintance, people have an unusual comfort level with touching your body. This can be especially unnerving when in the midst of giving advice or uncorking a bottle of Champagne! But, it is important to remember that excitement and good intentions are the motivation for such demonstrations of affection.
   
As my due date is now a mere day away, I am comforted by the knowledge that I had a very easy pregnancy and that before long, I’ll be celebrating with a great bottle of Champagne (yes, the hospital does allow you to bring one in – I would recommend bringing your own bucket and flutes though). Which brings me to the question I’ve been asked a plethora of times, what will I be drinking to celebrate? I have been pining for the 1990 bottle of Krug that is currently eyeing me as I pass my wine rack every day. It will surely not last long.
   
For those of you who are in, or are considering entering, a similar state in the near future, I wish you the best. It is a wonderful experience and armed with a heightened nose, greater confidence and an enhanced need to show the world it can be done, one can only become a better sommelier.



California Wine Fairing

The California Wine Fair made its way to Toronto once again for the benefit of hundreds of trades people and many more keen hobbyists and collectors. This year’s show featured close to 200 producers showcasing wines that are available to private order hopefuls. The show travels the country from east to west stopping in major urban centres such as Calgary, Halifax, Winnipeg and Montreal.  It is massive, and for many industry folk, a difficult challenge to brave. Nevertheless, if you can make it through the many distractions, there are some rewarding jewels to be discoverd.
   
Some thoughts after the April 6 tasting: If you were hoping that the recession would drive down the price of your favourite wines, you’ll likely be disappointed. Despite a few great bargains on hand, the California inflation was still apparent.
   
There was also a noticeable trend towards wines featuring more elegance, length, refinement and subtly. I was happy to see Trefethen (more to come on them), Bonny Doon (always a hoot) Cartlidge & Browne as well as Flowers represented.

Some hightlights included:

Great Value
Mountain View Vintner 2007 Pinot Noir, Central Coast, around $27 from Wine Guy Imports (416.Wine.Guy) Intensely smoky nose, stone and nettle, underbrush, full of rusticity backed by loads of juicy fruit. Heafty but sublime.

Cellar Keeper
Merryvale 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, around $62 from Profile Wine Group (416.598.0033) Highly structured, ripe, round, big and serious. Tight and taught with coffee, some toffee notes, ripe currants and earthy undertones. Masculine and vigorous.

Hot Pinot Buy
Artesa Winery 2007 Pinot Noir, Carneros, around $36 from Woodman Wines and Spirits (416.767.5114) Beautifully distinctive Carneros nose – delicate and refined. Palate shows powerful fruit balanced by a wonderful acidic structure.

Zinlicious
Peter Franus 2006 Bandlin Vineyard Zinfandel, Mount Veeder, around $52 from Profile Wine Group (416.598.0033) Zinfandel blended with Mourvedre and Petiti Verdot from 85-year-old vines. Plush and opulent mouthfeel with some restrained fruit and silky, ripe tannins. Versatile with food.




A Solution for Cork Taint?

While judging wines in British Columbia this past year, some colleagues were talking about a peculiar technique to remove cork taint. It turns out that I was one of the only wine geeks assembled that hadn’t heard of this. However, in case this has not yet been brought to your attention, I thought I’d pass along this strange trick.

If you uncork a bottle and discover it to be musty or moldy, in other words, spoiled by the presence of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) in the wine. Try the following and see if you can save yourself some heartache. Place a crumpled ball of plastic wrap into a water pitcher and pour the offending wine over top. Use a stir stick and swirl the balled up plastic wrap around in the wine for a several minutes. Remove the plastic and taste the wine. You’ll be astonished that the polyethylene plastic has absorbed some or all of the taint. Once the corkiness has been sufficiently removed, pour the wine into a decanter and voila – your guests may never know the difference! Some have noticed that this technique works best on bottles that have milder cork taint, and may have to be repeated if the taint is particularly bad.

Although dunking plastic wrap in wine does not seem like an acceptable thing to do given the concern surrounding plastic bottles and disposable plastic containers, there is no heat involved in this process and it can be quite quick therefore any negative affects should be minimal. However, use at your own risk. Hopefully this little trick can bring relief to you at some point in the future.



My Lunch with Dom

At a recent decadent luncheon at Nota Bene in Toronto, I was able to sample the latest Dom Pérignon vintage along with a number of back vintages for comparison. Vertical tastings of Champagne houses are especially interesting because they help solidify the style of a particular house and are hopefully representative of consistency of character.

A particular treat at this tasting was the attendance of current Cellar Master of Moet et Chandon, Dr. Richard Geoffroy, who carefully attends to every cuvee of Dom Pérignon. A frank and open speaker, he was able to provide most insightful information into the house style and philosophy. Geoffroy made it clear that Champagne was about adventure and that Dom Pérignon is the embodiment of that spirit.

The vision for the house style is to achieve intensity, not from force or power but from precision and relevance. Geoffroy has an interesting philosophy of intensity having to with both duality and ambivalence, which gives Champagne’s weight a lifted and ethereal character
 
In the creation of Dom Pérignon, discovering the wine’s precise balance is achieved by taste rather than numbers — it’s not about a consistent percentage in a blend but rather about achieving consistency based on taste. The tactile dimension is key and as a result Dom Pérignon exudes elegance and refinement. This luxury cuvee is about long-term complexity and integration.

Near the end of the luncheon, Geoffroy explained that one must rise to the occasion of drinking Dom Pérignon and that the experience should not be casual. This is a particularly interesting statement as many Champagne houses have, as of late, been promoting the idea of Champagne as an everyday drink as opposed to something celebratory. Of course, few can afford to consume Dom Pérignon in this way and therefore it is difficult mistake this beverage for anything other than ultimate decadence.

Distinctive Dom:
Dom Pérignon 2000
Champagne, France $219.95 (280461)
Delicate, subtle and elegant nose with a core of soft, plush, almost creamy fruit. A lifted progression of flavours, classic and sophisticated mouthfeel, notes of minerality, smoke some gentle toast with a fresh and an incredibly pure finish.

Dom Pérignon 1993
Leesy, slightly toast nose, some brine and dry fruit. A savory element on palate, riper than the nose would suggest, elegant, scintillating acidity that finishes softly like a decrescendo, stony acidity is well balanced by a rich almost oily texture in the mouth.

Dom Pérignon 1996

Soft, algae-like nose, rose petals, very subtle character. Unripe strawberry, pomegranate, bergamote with a fatness mid-palate, extremely well balanced, both refined and cheerful. Outstanding.



Adventures with Egyptian Wine



This summer I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in the heat of the Egyptian sun sheltered by several of the new Four Seasons Hotels in the country. Although honeymooning was the focus of my trip, I couldn’t help but become intrigued by the various local wine offerings. Most residents do not consume alcohol (somewhere between 75-85 percent of the population) and therefore, most people we encountered were not able to provide us with much information. So, I waited until I got home to do most of the digging and was surprised with how little I could find out about these wines to supplement my tasting notes.

There are two major producers in Egypt, which we encountered, that include: Gianaclis (which produces many different lines including Omar Kayham and Obelisk) and Chateau des Reves. The best bets were the rosés from Chateau Grand Marquis, Obelisk and the Omar Kayham, all produced by Gianaclis. They were quite refreshing especially when relaxing on the banks of the Red Sea at Sharm el Sheikh. The Omar Kayham was the lightest both in colour and intensity. It was soft, delicate and reminiscent of some average to good quality Provencal rosés. The Obelisk rose was full fresh summer berries, was as dark as the colour of wild strawberry.

We did remember to keep an open mind and dismissed any notions that even though Egypt was a very early producer of wine, they have been building on their experience since the time of the pharaohs.

Our tastings elicited mixed results. Even though Gianaclis claims that Egypt has similar soil types to Champagne, I was unconvinced by Egypt’s first sparkling wine, Aida, a joint venture with the French Ginestet group. This style didn’t seem to be suited to the climate in any way. Alcoholic, sharp and some funky characters overwhelmed the freshness and delicate character of the bubbly.

Chateau des Reves produced a decent Cabernet Sauvignon, however, the label makes it clear that the grapes are imported from Lebanon. The wine is apparently produced in Egypt. This made me wonder about the logistics of transporting grapes, in what must be incredible heat, between these two countries. Regardless, it was one of the best reds we had tasted. The Chateau Grand Marquis Cabernet Sauvignon, which had good body and fruit intensity despite being a little disjointed, was a close rival.

A major cause for this Egyptian experimentation, besides incredible curiosity, was cost. Alcohol in Egypt is extremely expensive and unless you are will to fork out more than $100 CND for a bottle of Yellow Tail Chardonnay (not to mention the cost of a good Burgundy), it is best to stick with the local offerings, which as with any travel is always part of the great adventure.




Celebrating Carménère

The story of Carménère has now been recounted many times, but to this day, even in Chile; the grape has a mysterious quality that has yet to be solved. When growers still believed that Carménère was Merlot (not too long ago), they were clever enough to understand that some of their Merlot ripened very early, whereas other Merlot ripened very late in the year, giving Carménère the nickname Merlot 2. Once it had become known that Merlot 2 was in fact another grape altogether, growers began to treat it as such, but because no experienced Carménère growers were available, a process of experimentation had begun. Carménère was grown for a long time on the more fertile valley floors, not an ideal spot for a grape that requires heat, stress and good drainage to develop properly. Recently, in the hot hillsides of Aconcagua, this grape is finally being grown and ripened properly.

There has been a noticeable reluctance on the part of Chilean winegrowers to adopt Carménère as their country’s flagship grape. It is not surprising, however, given that they feel that this grape is still misunderstood and they haven’t yet quite got the knack of it. In addition, this is a grape that was known by many for its underripe and perhaps undesirable green characteristic; it is difficult for a group to associate itself with the class misfit. However, now that Carménère is experiencing a make-over and exhibiting ripe, sophisticated flavours, there is a more general ease that seems to be sweeping the land and is now adopting this foreign, misunderstood grape as its own.

Some of the hottest Carménères tasted:
• Anakena’s Single Vineyard Series from Rapel Valley which had incredibly well integrated herbal qualities and oak tucked under the covers of plush black fruit — what a deal at $12.95 (Vintages)
• Undurraga’s Founder’s Carménère (about $36 private order through azureau.com) from Colchagua, whose sweet red fruit, soy, and smoky spice make it an unforgettable sensual experience.
• Ventisquero’s Queulat series delicious Carménère, a product of patient and sensitive winemaking, though sadly not yet available in the Ontario market.
• Valdivieso’s wacky Bordeaux + Carménère called Caballo Loco (crazy horse) produced using a Solera-like system had such depth and complexity that it is most definitely a wine to seek out.




The Sipping News

On the eve of the 2007 Wine Tasting Challenge, I was unable to get any restful shut-eye, so I arrived early at the Toronto Four Seasons, where I work as sommelier and assistant manager. I was scheduled to compete first thing at 10 a.m. Although the opportunity to “defend my title” was running through the back of my mind, I was powerless to focus on anything but the logistical challenges the day was to bring.

More than 5,000 wine glasses had to be washed in the course of the day; every hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thirty-five new competitors would arrive to test their wine tasting skills with three double-blind poured flights of wine and spirits; chefs and cooks would refresh the hot and cold food buffet for every new group of people; eight wineries would offer their latest and greatest to all the competitors; and behind closed doors and tightly shut curtains a group of volunteers would be carefully pouring thousands of glasses of wine in a precise sequence. Even they had no idea of the identity of the wines being poured.

These distractions, however, proved quite helpful in curbing the nervousness and second-guessing which might otherwise have consumed me.

Competitors began arriving at 9:30 a.m., milling about nervously while waiting for their chance to taste their way to the $100,000 in prizes. The competition is the largest of its kind (in terms of prize purse) in North America and rivals the most generous contests in the world. This year the competition continued to increase in prestige, not only in terms of prizes but also in competitors. Sommeliers and wine experts from Canada, and as far away as Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the west and New York in the east, came to test their taste buds.

The media was also present to a larger extent than ever before. CBC came to film the entire day for a segment in an exciting new wine documentary targeted at ordinary Canadians who want to feel more comfortable around wine. Major newspapers, radio, and print magazines, such as Toronto Life, were all there to observe and to extract morsels of insight from the competitors.

Among the competitors were representatives of the best palates from Toronto. All of the heavy hitters from the most talked about establishments of the city were present in a spirit of friendly competition. A strong sense of community made for a congenial and high-spirited day.

All this bonding and revelry vindicated my impression that we have a vibrant, exciting and important wine community in Toronto. We are fortunate to have such a group of oenophiles in this city who so fervently support and promote one another with such respect and confidence. In fact, whenever and wherever I travel, I cannot but speak with pride about the camaraderie and professionalism of my colleagues in Toronto. Their goodwill and openness is not typical of like communities elsewhere.

As my tasting time grew near, and cameras focused on my checking in at the front desk, I wondered what it would be like to win again. A most improbable result! Still, in keeping with the dream of every other competitor, I could not but hope, no matter how guiltily. This year, the purse for the Grand Award winner in the Professional Category had nearly doubled to $60,000 and included a trip to Australia.

To return to this year’s competition, as I entered the room, followed by the documentary crew, I was sat next to Toronto’s most recognizable wine personality and a good friend, Zoltan Szabo. Once the room was full, our team of servers crammed the tables with trays and glasses. The competition was on and the furious swirling, sniffing, and spitting commenced.


Discussion Closed


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