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Roger That - May 22, 2013

The time-honoured traditions of Pol Roger

By Decree: The Royal Warrant is emblazoned on every bottle of Pol Roger Brut Champagne

As I plunge 33 feet deep into the historical cellars of Pol Roger in Epernay, France, my heart skips a beat for the adventure ahead and the opportunity to drink in the history of this legendary Champagne house.

The doors open and a beam from a hand-held flashlight cuts into the darkness to reveal a tunnel which seems to go on forever. The light reflects against walls, which are chalky and damp almost to the point that they appear to be crying. I giddily follow behind the clicking heels of a stylish French woman who seems to be guiding me into the abyss.

When my eyes adjust to the setting, I realize I’m surrounded by row upon row of bottles. They aren’t upright ready for purchase or laying on their sides aging. No, these bottles are experiencing the dying art of hand riddling.

Manual Labour: Old style riddling racks are part of the traditional process at Pol Roger

The time-consuming process requires the bottles to be positioned on an angle and to be turned twice a day for about two months in order to coax the deposit within the liquid (left from the fermentation process) to rest on the neck of the bottle. Afterwards, the neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap removed and the frozen plug of sediment is forced out by the pressure of the sparkling wine. The volume is corrected with a dosage (a secret blend of sweetened wine) and the bottle is sealed with a cork and is ready to be consumed in several years’ time.

Such manual labour has been replaced at most Champagne houses. A device called a gyropalette has mechanized the riddling process. But Pol Roger insists on maintaining its traditions. And their methods seem to be working, as their Champagne maintains the royal warrant on the neck of the bottle and was served at the royal wedding of Prince William and the Duchess. But their approval doesn’t stop with royalty. Politicians and celebrities also adore Pol Roger. Sir Winston Churchill was such a backer of the producer that the Champagne house named their prestige vintage label after the late Prime Minister of England.

Iconic Brand: Pol Roger labels lay in wait

You certainly don’t need to be a politician or royalty to enjoy a glass of Pol Roger ($60.85, 217158), though. You just need to have a reason to open a bottle. As far as I’m concerned, any reason at all is a good reason.

Mix Master - January 30, 2013

The art of blending brandy

The different tools needed for the art of blending.

When enjoying a bottle of Metaxa Brandy, whether served straight up or in a warming cocktail, we don’t consider the painstaking process required to create something so delightful, delectable and delicious. Having seen the time-honoured method of making the spirit in Athens, Greece, I have a new-found respect for those responsible, especially Constantinos Raptis, the Metaxa Master.

Raptis’ responsibilities include selecting the grapes, creating the best base wines, producing a refined distillate and choosing the right herbs and roses needed to assemble the signature spirit. And after all of this, the finished product needs to be blended with just the right balance to ensure consistency, sophistication and elegance.

Raptis has worked as the Metaxa Master for 27 years, a position he assumed after the many years of training required for the position, including becoming a certified oenologist. But background and dedication alone aren’t enough. After all, the hardest trades to master are those which cannot be taught or learned, but must be instinctive. Although one can observe how to taste and smell, an accurate nose and palate are essential tools and come from experience for some natural talent for others.

French Limousine oak casks are used to mature the wine distillates for future bottles of Metaxa.

Despite his grandiose title, Raptis’ genuine smile and humble nature are not characteristics you might expect from such an accomplished man. And when he speaks of his beloved Metaxa, you admire the passion and dedication he has for his craft even more.

Taste the efforts of Raptis’ vocation and mix up a cocktail such as a Suntonic with Metaxa 5 Star Brandy ($24.95, 374749), tonic and a slice of orange juice, or sip and savour the warm vanilla, ripe peach and prune characteristics of a Metaxa 7 Star Brandy ($29.95, 116038) by itself fireside or as an aperitif.

Island Life - January 4, 2013

The welcoming embrace of Samos

A view through the olive trees towards vines and the glassy blue water Aegean Sea

I arrived on the Greek island of Samos ready to be charmed. I envisioned myself dancing across the rocks like Amanda Seyfried had in Mama Mia, with glassy blue water to my left and luscious vineyards to my right. I quickly realized I was setting the bar low if that was all that I was expecting.

Despite Samos’s small land mass, it’s celebrated for its ability to grow the noble Muscat grape.  These grapes are responsible for creating both the beautiful, aromatic local wines as well as the elegant smoothness of the local spirit Metaxa. It is a blend of distillates, rose petals, Mediterranean herbs and, of course, Muscat wine and the locals take pride that they are able to contribute to an internationally known brand which reaches people beyond their tiny island in the Aegean Sea.

The salty air was hot and the wind was cool when I loaded into a Jeep and set forth on the back country’s winding roads with cliffs on one side and vineyards on the other. When the Jeep came to a full stop I was delighted to meet those responsible for growing the precious grape and quickly discovered they were just as charismatic as the island itself.

After touring his vineyards, our host welcomed us into his home for bountiful feast of locally produced dishes

The locals grow up learning the art of grape growing from their parents, whom had been taught by their parents before them. As soon as you can walk, you help out at harvest time and the entire community partakes as each farmer has a full-time job in addition to being vineyard managers.

The sense of family and pride became more apparent when I was welcomed into one of the grower’s homes to share recently picked olives, nuts and figs, honey from his local hive, homemade wine and freshly baked bread. Maybe it was the company, the view or the bountiful fare, but after a meal like this, you start contemplating whether you want to be a Greek grape grower, too.

Judgement Days - July 12, 2012

How do you determine excellence in Ontario wine?

Last week, I had the honour of being a judge at the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines hosted by Niagara College.  Working with 13 other adjudicators, as the Lieutenant Governor’s office referred to the judging panel, we were presented with the task of deciding which wines represented excellence and would receive the prestigious award. Over the course of two days, we worked diligently to narrow a field of 278 entries, representing the endeavour of four wine regions and one great province, to 11 compelling finalists.

Judges were divided into three panels and organized volunteers rolled out trolleys filled with glasses of different shades of red, white and pink, depending on the samples being evaluated. Other than variety or wine style and vintage, we had no knowledge of the wines being presented.

We scored the wines in our own time and then convened and deliberated, which would continue on to the next round as if they were all contestants on your favourite reality television show. Some samples were spectacular and received unanimous votes as a potential candidate. Others brought more conversation, in some cases controversy, as judges spoke up to identify and attest to its outstanding qualities or not. After the first day, only 58 wines of all shades and styles continued on.

On the second day, the three distinct panels melded into one to revisit the top selections. After retasting tasting, the number in contention was quickly narrowed to 17. The standouts were obvious.

Things became more challenging from here on. Those around the table knew we could only pick between eight and 12 wines, and each of us was determined to fight for our favourites. Panellists presented arguments and attempted to sway votes, but, in these circumstances, the only thing you can trust is your own senses. It’s easy to become intoxicated by another’s opinions.  Although there were no fatalities (except the wines which didn’t make the cut), we emerged smiling and confident with 11 outstanding wines selected. We eagerly await the results along with the rest of you.

Follow up: The results were recently revealed. Congratulations to the wineries who won!

• Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Brut NV (Cave Spring Cellars)

•  Ravine Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Franc Picone Vineyard 2010 (Ravine Vineyard)

•  Stoney Ridge Estate Winery Excellence Chardonnay 2010 (Stoney Ridge Estate Winery)

•  Riverview Cellars Salvatore’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2010 (Riverview Cellars Estate Winery)

•  Flat Rock Cellars Sparkling Brut VQA Twenty Mile Bench 2007 (Flat Rock Cellars)

•  Malivoire Courtney Gamay 2010 (Malivoire Wine Company Ltd.)

•  Kacaba Vineyards Reserve Meritage 2007 (Kacaba Vineyards)

•  Tawse Sketches Riesling 2010 (Tawse Winery)

•  Konzelmann Estate Vidal Icewine 2010 (Konzelmann Estate Winery)

•  Thirty Bench Riesling 2011 (Thirty Bench Wine Makers)

•  Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2008 (Inniskillin)

Great Expo-sure - June 15, 2012

How to make the most of your tasting opportunities

During last month’s Niagara Food and Wine Expo, I found myself shuffling into the Scotiabank Convention Centre faced with a difficult question: Where do I begin? With such an overwhelming bounty of things to sample and savour over the course of the three-day event, a plan of attack was necessary to make the most of the opportunity.

Upon arrival, I had strategized talking with winemakers, chefs or employees to gain insight and I was excited for all the treats I was about to devour. With so many producers at hand, it is an ideal time to ask questions. Sometimes these conversations can make the difference between loving and hating a product.

After all, when we select something to eat or drink, we have certain expectations of it. A good example of this would be when I dropped off a beautiful bottle of Niagara Pinot Noir for my parents. A couple days later I received a phone call stating that there was something wrong with the bottle. It was then that I realized my parents, big fans of Australian Shiraz, were expecting a jammy, luscious red and received earth, leaves and sour cherry in a glass. It’s like biting into a hamburger and tasting a hot dog. It wasn’t their fault that they weren’t fans of the wine, they just didn’t appreciate the vision behind it. The next trip home, I arrived with a similar bottle in tow to taste with them and explain why it tasted the way it did. In the end, I had officially converted them into two Pinotphiles.

With such an extreme array of food and wines available, the Niagara Food and Wine Expo (and its older sibling, the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo) gives you the unique opportunity to mix and match creative pairings, ask questions, learn to like the products you weren’t crazy about and love the products you previously liked. It is these sorts of discoveries that might upgrade your tasting experiences from digital cable to HD. Be sure to treat your taste buds.

California Crush - June 13, 2012

Meet a genuine winemaker who makes authentic wines

The sun was creeping through the clouds as an elite Napa Valley Cabernet tasting approached at Sassafraz, the posh Toronto restaurant. Winemakers from Beringer Vineyards, Etude Wines and Stags’ Leap Winery arrived in style, having just flown in on separate planes from Montreal like contestants on The Amazing Race. They graciously greeted those attending and began to discuss their wines. With only 18 hours in Toronto, they were trying to make all of them count. A few stragglers arrived and I settled into my chair ready to enjoy the experience. After all, it’s not every day you get to taste world-class wines with the artists responsible.

After the impressive tasting of 11 wines, I sat back in a state of euphoria. My thoughts were brought back down to earth as Jon Priest, the winemaker from Etude, commented that he liked my Banksy notebook. His presence was warm and calming and he had this rare quality of being honest and genuine.

During lunch I struck up a conversation with Priest about travelling, extreme sports and his undying love for Pinot Noir. He was clearly enjoying himself, but to those paying close attention he was tired. He casually joked that it was nothing compared to a rough harvest. Having worked a harvest last year in Niagara, I agreed.

Priest mentioned he was almost finished putting together this autumn’s harvest team. His thoughts on the value of having women as part of the crush stood out for me. Usually, as a female, you have to prove to winemakers that you are ready to work and are just as useful as any stronger and taller male whose application is right next to yours. Priest, on the other hand, stated a preference for having women on the team as they keep it clean and fun, and the dynamic interesting. By the end of the conversation I was wishing I was able to work another harvest, just so I could get to know him better. When he mentioned that he liked to ride his horses through the vineyard, in my mind we instantly became friends.