On the Road with the Grape Guy

Report from - Ontario vs. Bordeaux Tasting Sette Mezzo Toronto 01/23/2007

30 Jan 2007
The setting:  Sette Mezzo Restaurant Toronto.  The task:  34 wines in one sitting and to judge which were from Ontario and which from Bordeaux … rating them on a hundred point scale.  This was another in a series of the Ontario vs. Bordeaux tastings put on by “The Little Fat Wino” Larry Paterson along with some help from Zoltan Szabo and Sadie Darby; a daunting task to say the least, but this time there was to be no doubt when the verdict came down.  I sat down with 12 other wine experts, each one of us with a different set of 34 – oh, the wines were all the same, but the order was different.  My number one was different than my neighbour’s number one and different from anybody else’s number one … my number 2 was different than anybody else’s number 2 and so on, all the way up to number 34.  A computer program had generated this element of randomness so that each taster was on his own and could not compare notes – or wines – with his fellow taster.  It was like being back at school taking a multiple choice test, but my worst fears had been realized, the guy sitting next to me was not taking the same test – yikes!

Tasting like this one were started back in 1976 when Steven Spurrier (an American living and working in Paris) decided to promote a “stunt” where the best of France went blind tasted head to head with the best, of then burgeoning, American wines (read: California).  It was assumed the French, being the wine superpower they were at that time, would wine handily.  The “stunt” was devised just to bring attention to American wine and show that it had come a long way since those early days of foxy hybrids and sweet sippers.  Nobody, not even the American winemakers themselves, expected the Californians to win.  But the rest, as they say, is history … the Americans bested the French in their own backyard at their own game – in both the red and the white category.  The French were aghast and cried foul play, the Americans were ecstatic, and could not believe their good fortune.  The whole event is detailed in a wonderful book by George M. Taber called Judgment at Paris.   At the time, Taber was the journalist in Paris for Time Magazine, and the only journalist to attend the “non-event”.  His account is the only true first hand, neutral third party account of the event.  It was at this event that the wine world was first, and irreversibly, turned on its head … France’s decline, Californian rise, and the French have been feeling the heat ever since.  America, Australia, Italy, Chile and many other countries have all vied for the worldwide wine domination mantle.

Turning our attention back to modern day Canada, we haven’t been trying to wrestle away any mantle, what we are trying to do is get some recognition that we are making wines as good as, or better than, our French counterparts, who are still seen, to this day, as the pinnacle of winemaking excellence.  Time and time again, since the early 90’s, Ontario’s wines have consistently ranked right up there alongside, and at times better than, our French winemaking brethren.  Ta this tasting there were 34 wines – 17 from France, 17 from Canada and all wines were of great quality and ready to drink.  One of the major complaints leveled against these tastings is that the French wines were not yet ready to drink, as they need time to mature to truly show their flavours, truth is, so do many of Ontario’s best.  This tasting took that factor out by researching independent sources for the drinking status of the French wines (to see these sources click here) – some of the wines included were:  2001 Chateau Margaux (1st growth); 2001 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (1st growth); 1998 Chateau Leoville-Barton (2nd growth) and 1999 Chateau Durfort-Vivens (2nd growth).  The final scores you can see at www.littlefatwino.com under Tastings: Canada vs. Bordeaux here you will find the top 30 bottles - four of the wines were considered as back-up, just in case their happened to be a corked or off-bottle (of which one was found to be, so the other 3 backup were eliminated).

The winner:  Southbrook Winery’s 2002 Triomphus Cabernet-Merlot … a best of the best wine – best barrels, best grapes, from the best vintage in Ontario of the last decade … all for $50 a bottle; beating out the $339 Margaux; the $349 Lafite and 27 others.  The price tag seems like a deal in itself.

So how did yours truly do?  Well, I ranked the Southbrook wine as my number one choice (giving it my highest mark along with 2 other Ontario wines who received the same mark).  As for the guessing game of whether it was an Ontario or Bordeaux wine – I nailed the Southbrook as being from Ontario and got a respectable 71% right on the rest.  Now if only my multiple choice tests in school had been that good … maybe if I had stopped copying from my neighbour they would have been.

About the Winning Wine:

In the spirit of 1976 the Southbrook 2002 Triomphus Cabernet Merlot follows in the footsteps of Warren Winiarski (maker of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, which beat the French in 1976) and Mike Grgich (maker of the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, which did the same result in ’76).  Both winemakers had truly storied pasts, but shared a love and passion for quality artisan wine making.

The ’02 was made by head winemaker Colin Campbell (now with Durham Regional Police) and his assistant Steve Byfield (now assistant winemaker with Ridgepoint Wines and Calamus Estates) … in a discussion with Steve Byfield I asked him his recollections about making the wine.

“The fruit was beautiful that year, clean and abundant.  I remember we got good extraction.  We used the best barrels from that year to make the wine.  One Merlot, one Cab Franc and one Cab Sauv.  The Merlot and the Franc were from Watson Vineyard, while the Sauv was sourced from Donna and David [Lailey Vineyard].  We picked what we felt were the best barrels from the Triomphe [reserve] line and let them sit for about 19-20 months [instead of the usual 14 months for Triomphe].  The mix of barrels was 2 French and 1 American, and ranged from new to 2 year old oak barrels.  The final blend was done in a thousand liter stainless steel tank, bottled unfiltered right on the property by hand.  Most of our bottling is done off-site, but the Triomphus is all labeled and bottled by hand to avoid too much handling.  That way we can keep a good watchful eye on the wine; a true artisan approach to winemaking.  I remember it being an absolutely stunning wine before we bottled it and as it aged in bottle it got even better.  Last time I can remember trying it was at the release in October of 2005 … it is one wine I am very proud to have had a hand in making – not bad for two guys making wine in a barn with fairly rustic equipment.”  It’s the spirit of 1976 all over again.

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