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On the Road with the Grape Guy

On the Road with the Grape Guy is a on-going feature that follows me from event to event ... I post my thoughts, feelings and reviews of what happened and what I tasted ... basically it is here that I review the events I attend and the things that thrilled me.

Report from - Taste!, Prince Edward County - Oct. 7, 2006

03 Jan 2007
On a beautiful fall afternoon, we traveled to Picton to check out the 5th Annual Taste! (a celebration of regional cuisine) Event. Prince Edward County has come a long way in the last few years. It has suffered some debilitating set backs, with freezing cold winters (-30 C) that killed many of their young vines resulting in many years of short crops. But persistence and patience has paid off and a majority of the wines shown at the event this year were a far cry from the wines I personally tried, and despised, just 2 years ago … those wines were barely passable, and some barely drinkable. 2 years ago I learned to spit wine properly in Prince Edward County. This year there was no spitting, just pure enjoyment, as “The County” finally begins to emerge from the shadows and begins to show that wonderful potential everyone was hyping about a few years ago.

This event is held at the Picton Fairgrounds at the east end of town. Spread out over the fairgrounds and inside the “Crystal Palace” pavilion. This year, 44 booths set up throughout the venue, with a variety of local foods, beers, wines and other things you’d expect to see at these events being showcased. The restaurants and boozeries paired foods with complementary drinks, and competitions were held to see who’s pairings worked best. A live band played in the main pavilion, adding atmosphere to the joint. I was told by Bob Tompkins, owner of Carmela Estates, that this year the weather finally co-operated, “in past years we’ve had nothing but rain and cold weather.” This year, 16 degrees, clear blue sky, and the sun shining down greeted the visitors to Taste! The weather pretty much encapsulates the way growers and owners are seeing the future of Prince Edward County; a new found vigor and hope – with the ’06 crop looking very good. Are the wine-Gods finally smiling down on them? As David Lawrason, of Wine Access Magazine, stated during his awards presentation, “after some harsh winters, the future looks bright for this bountiful harvest year.” Here’s looking forward to more great wines from Prince Edward County.

Below you’ll find a short list of some of my selections from the day.

Red Wine of the Day: Bella Vignes 2005 Leon Millot-Zweigelt.
From a winery barely in existence, Bella Vigne is from Del-Gatto Estates, and is sold through Black Prince Winery in Picton. Bella Vignes is run by Pat Del-Gatto, a third generation winemaker, who has been making wine “since I was 9, I started by helping my father.” Made from a French hybrid grape, Leon Millot, which is considered by Pat to “be the best of it’s three siblings” (Marechal Foch and Lucy Kuhlman); and Zweigelt. This particular blend won’t be seen, from this particular winery, for at least a few years, because after the vintage Pat pulled the Zweigelt out of his vineyard – but he is planning to plant more. This year he reports that his crop of Leon Millot “is looking very good”. 60 cases of the ‘05 were made and it has a beautiful nose and taste of red ripe cherries. The winery itself is currently under construction and should be ready in about 2 years, though the history of the Del-Gatto’s in the area goes deeper than that. For the past 5 years Del-Gatto and his wife have settled down in the County and been growing vines, after having shopped the world looking for the right place to plant roots. “We just fell in love with the area and the soil,” Pat told me, “we’re happy to be here.”

White Wine of the Day: Carmela Estates 2005 Terroir Twist.
“Norm Hardie will always be my winemaker,” Bob Tompkins told me, as I tried this Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling blend. Turns out the 2005 short vintage was even worse down in the county, so their winemakers had to get more inventive with their wines. Because there wasn’t enough grapes to make individual varieties of these wines – Norm blended them all together to make this unique wine. “We didn’t want to buy grapes” (besides in that vintage who was selling), “so we had to make due with what we had. And we wanted something all county.” Delicious and fruity with just a hint of sweetness – and if you pay careful attention you can pick out the influence of each individual grape.

Other wines of note from the day:
Domaine Calcaire Hillier Pinot Noirs were impressive, especially the 2004 Closson Pinot with notes of strawberry and earth on the nose and earth and fruit on the palate … “it’s not ready for release yet,” owner Dan Taylor told me, “because it’s still way too tannic.” But once you get through those chewy tannins you really see where this one is going. I know I’ll wait with baited breath on this one.

Norman Hardie 2005 County Cabernet Franc … a wonderful edition to Norm’s repertoire … keep your eyes open for my review in the newsletter.

Rosehall Run has a trifecta of great wines out right now. Their 2004 Top Barrique Chardonnay, made from 24 year-old vines grown in Niagara is dreamy, elegant, fully oak integrated and has wonderful flavours – look for a full review in the upcoming months. Their 2004 Buckthorn Red is 100% Zweigelt, grown in the county and is a light easy drinking affair. And the 2005 Sullyzwicker, this time 75% Riesling and 25% Ehrenfelser, all county grown, is even better than last years version.

Finally, two other wines that made the hit list … Sandbanks 2005 Cabernet Franc still shines (see newsletter # 3Cool and Huff Estates now sold out First Frost, their take on a late harvest Vidal is, or should I say, was, wonderful. Let’s hope we see it again next year.

The Irish Rovers said it best: “Wasn’t that a Party?” and yes the county had themselves one heck of a party, for good reason … and it’s about time. I am not quite yet ready to throw the mantle that has been bandied about for a few years now, lauding PEC as “the next big thing” – but I do think they are getting ready to take it. I for one am not on the bandwagon, but I won’t let it pass me by either. See you next year, same weekend, same place.

Report from - Stoney Ridge Winemakers Dinner and Pre-Release - Oct. 25, 2006

03 Jan 2007
At a recent dinner held by Stoney Ridge at Truffles Restaurant in Yorkville, they launched and previewed some new wines, showcased some older wines and talked frankly about what’s upcoming for Stoney Ridge. Now I would tell you about the great food served and the pairings with the wines, but I did not get the recipes, nor, I am sure, is Lora Kirk (chef at Truffles Restaurant) prepared to divulge her secrets about the succulent short ribs or delicious cauliflower soup. Suffice it to say the food was delicious. What I can tell you about are the wines.

We started the evening off with the 2003 Charlottes Chardonnnay (named after winery founder Jim Warren’s wife – both Jim and Charlotte were in attendance at the event). This is a magnificent unoaked wine (which is the way I seem to enjoy most of my Chardonnays, with some exceptions of course). Wonderful fruit flavours and a fruit driven nose that reminded me of a dry Riesling. At $24.95 it really is a bargain.

Moving right along, I’d like to start by praising the 2004 Founder’s Signature Collection Pinot Noir. Winemaker Liubomir Popovici told us that 2004 was not a particularly great year for Pinot, yet this one turned out beautiful and can only get better with a few more years in bottle. The nose showed typical Pinot characteristics: strawberry, earth, raspberry, truffle, black licorice, sour cherry and plum; with tastes that followed suit on a medium long finish and some great acidity giving the wine some length and backbone - making this wine the highlight of the night. Then Art Cole stood up and broke our hearts … “the problem with this wine,” he said, “is this is it, there isn’t anymore, we’re sold out.” If you were lucky enough to buy a bottle (or more) you can drink it now or hold onto it – but you have yourself an absolute beauty of a wine. If you’re like me and have none, this description is all we have left. Though the 2005 Founder’s Signature Collection Pinot Noir is on it’s way, in the spring of 2007, and Liubomir says 2005 was a great year for reds … more on that later.

Speaking of not much left, for dessert we were served a 1999 (barrel aged and fermented) Gewurztraminer Icewine. I’ve tried an aged Gewurztraminer Icewine before (a 1999 for that matter) and found that it had not aged well. The Stoney Ridge version has been aged in oak and has surprising staying power (which was the big difference from the one I tried from a different winery) … the wood seems to have made all the difference. Rusty in colour, mainly from the barrels, but I am sure the age also has something to do with it. There were notes of butterscotch, apricots and rusty apple on the nose; caramel apple the predominant taste, and with full mouth-feel and lasting finish this wine was an elegant end to the evening. 100 or so cases are heading overseas, so it you want some now’s the time to pick some up. After trying it, $59.95 didn’t seem like such a steep price for an aged icewine of this quality.

Switching gears; this year marks the first time Stoney Ridge tries their hand at making sparkling wine done in the Methode Champagnoise. 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, bottled in January 2006 and set for release in March of 2007 (just missing that precious Valentine’s Day mark). A fruity, yeasty, nutty nose is followed by good acidity, wonderful fruit and tiny playful bubbles that dance on the tongue. Fresh and delicious, a decidedly good first effort.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the 2005 Reserve Chardonnay. Now granted this is a pre-tasting and it will still be sitting in the barrel for another 6 months (for a total of a year and a half), but right now it’s closed with green and grassy notes along with a hint of oak on the nose. Everything just seemed muted and no matter how much air I tried to give it in the glass it did not want to open up. On the taste there is some typical oak and butter notes, but right now it is showing poorly. We’ll check back on this one in 6 to 8 months, after bottling and release. Here’s hoping Liubomir can finesse something out of this one.

Finally, let’s end on a high note. The 2004 Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Franc is stellar. Aged in French oak for 2 years, the wine shows incredible complexity on the nose: vanilla, cinnamon, cassis, oak and cherry, all wrapped up in a sweet, yet tannic oak blanket. The taste is a little tight but still shows signs of blackberry, cherry, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, oak and plenty of tannin with a medium finish. A little pricey at $59.95, but it’s a wine that’ll age a minimum 5 years (Liubomir claims ten). Only 42 cases were made of this wine and it will sell out quickly, even at that price. As Liubomir said, 2004 was not a great year for reds in Ontario, and yet he has made this wonderful wine. I can’t wait to try the 2005 version.

So what’s in store for Stoney Ridge in the coming months. Liubomir told me that the 2005 reds in Ontario, and especially from Stoney Ridge, are developing beautifully and will be some of the best in recent memory. He also informed me that the 2006 harvest is nearly complete, and while we had a great spring and summer the rains and cold weather that have accompanied this crazy fall season have played some havoc. The whites are clean and looking good, the early ripening reds like Pinot Noir and Merlot are gonna be okay, and the late bloomers like Cabernet Franc and Shiraz are wait and see. That’s right, you did read correctly, Stoney Ridge, and Shiraz fans alike will be thrilled to find out that, Luibomir and Stoney Ridge will be trying their hand at making their first Shiraz from the 2006 vintage … if they show the same adeptness for Shiraz that they show for their other wines it is sure to turn out wonderfully.

Keep your eyes peeled for other new release that will begin to appear on their wine store shelves this spring … and rest assured there are some great wines on the horizon.

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