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 - 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.


Report from - London Wine and Food Show - Jan.20, 2007

26 Jan 2007
Two hours west of Toronto and two hours east of Windsor – and what seems to many to be the middle of nowhere, lies London, Ontario – a place where I spent many of my University, College and a few working years (12 in total), but have not been back to in almost 6 years.  So, while I might have lost touch with this expanding city I still remember it well enough to know I missed its’ charm.  This is where I visited in mid-January, to check out the London Wine and Food Show and also to deliver a little talk on judging wine by the label (if you missed it, well then you missed something special … the talk and the show).  London’s first show, in 2006, was a resounding success, which led to this second show and hopefully many more to come.  Organizers told me that future editions will be bigger and better, and I can believe it.   There is plenty of room to expand into the unused section of the Progress Building and a show of this caliber can only get better with the addition of more local flair.  London’s Show has big city feel on a small town level, given that many of the exhibitors are local vendors, restaurants and artisans.  Many wineries and agents are also present:  a good mix of Niagara and Lake Erie North Shore, along with the local fruit wineries of Elgin county and surrounding area of which there are about 6 making everything from dry fruit wine to luscious sweet ones.  But it is the local flair that really gives this show its’ charm and charisma, everything from tea rooms, meaderies and restaurants to travel arrangers, food and snack sellers and do-it-yourself wine merchants.  For those not totally into wine you’ll be glad to know that the brewers were there too:  Brick, Creemore, Mill Street and Steam Whistle, just to mention a handful.  Many exhibitors I spoke with love the show and will be back again and many visitors felt the same way.  In a brilliant marketing move by Royal Doulton, in conjunction with the show, they gave out “Tapas Plates” to the first 300 patrons through the door each day of the event, making sure that early birds do get the perverbial worm – or plate, in this case.  (a “Tapas Plate” is a plate with an opening on one side in which to rest your tasting glass so you can eat unencumbered).

 
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I bet many of you have not been to the London Show – and that’s a shame because it’s well worth going, and here’s why:  it’s not too big to be overwhelming, the crowd is interested in wine, and the usual drunken clientele that you’ll find late on the Saturday or Friday night of many other big shows is just not present – so the show comes off as a wine show should.  For those of you who attended the Ottawa show you know that it was wall-to-wall people by 8pm (and a much bigger show) … in London the Friday night was full but roomy, while Saturday filled up steadily throughout the day, but at no point did the room feel overcrowded – there was none of the pushing and jostling that would force you to leave early, or spill your drink on someone.  Prices for both the entrance fee and tastings were reasonable.  All said and done, a night at London’s Wine and Food Show won’t set you back a mortgage payment to try a number of good quality wines.  Overall a great show.

 
Show Highlights:
 
First off they had some Grape Guy named Michael Pinkus there speaking about wine – and man was he good … if you ever get a chance to see this guy talk about wine, take it.

 
The Wines:
 
Speaking of wine, let’s start with some wine highlights.  South Africa had a strong presence at the show, and some rather nifty wines on display.  The best wine of the show had to be this incredible Springfield Estate Wine 2003 Wild Yeast Chardonnay (currently available through Lifford Wine Agency only – but the 2004 will be heading into Vintages later this year).  A nose and taste of tropical fruits (pineapple especially) – pear, apple, a spritz of citrus.  There’s good acidity here with some slight sweetness of honey on the finish, (this could suggest the merest hint of Botrytis), there are also toffee and caramel notes after the swallow.  $31.95 seems like a steal for this wonderful bottle – you’ll just have to buy it in quantities of 6 … now that can get a little pricey.  Also from South Africa, and a little more affordable, The False Bay Shiraz (#665307 - $12), good dark fruit (cassis and blackberry) with a crisp tannic backbone … putting some air into it will break it up and smooth it out.  This ones a winner.  Moving up the South African financial ladder a little, the recently released (through Vintages) Goatfather – from the Goats do Roam line of wines (#011072 - $16.95) is a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera and Primitivo – good body with cassis and anise in the flavours … good value for a good proprietors’ blend.

 Flying over to Chile we find Concha Y Toro is at it again with their Trio line, which has been a Vintages staple for the past 4 years and has now been moved to the general list.  At $14.95 these are true bargains in a good quality Chilean wine.  Check the LCBO website for availability (typing “TRIO” into the search box should do the trick).
 
Finally, our trip abroad takes us to Portugal.  I am always in the mood for a late night glass of Port – and as the day progressed I felt the need to search one out.  Dow’s Ruby Port for $13.95 (#649715) did the trick, sweet in the mouth, great jammy red fruit and black cherries; it’s aged in oak, that’s where it picks up those vanilla and dark chocolate notes.  For the price it’s a great everyday end-the-evening-by-the-fire sipper.

Back home, Ontario’s wineries had a good presence, especially those from the Lake Erie North Shore area.  A couple poured me some of their newest additions.  Aleksander had their new one litre bottle of 2004 Cabernet ($18.95), a light bodied wine that was quite fruit forward with red berries and red licorice … I could swear there was a sweet cherry finish on this dry wine.  Edie Mastronardi was more than happy to pour me a full glass of her newest creation, the $18.95 Mastronardi 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, fuller and more structured than the Aleksander, green pepper and red berry notes in the mouth, along with some vanilla and smoke on the nose.  Having spent 18 months in oak this needs a little time to settle down.  Drink the Aleksander’s now while waiting for the Mastronardi to smooth.


Wineries of Note:

A couple of local wineries sparked my interest as they should yours.  Sprucewood Shores, opened in late November 2006, just in time for the Christmas rush.  This is a welcome addition to the already dozen or so wineries open in the Lake Erie North Shore area.  I had heard about, and tasted a few of the proto-types back in August during the New Vintages festival held at Viewpointe, and have been eagerly waiting to try the finished wines.  All were well worth the wait, and the prices are astoundingly reasonable.  Gord Mitchell (owner), took me through the tasting before proudly introducing me to the winemaker, his daughter Tanya, as only a proud father can introduce one’s daughter.  The 2005 Riesling ($10.95) might just be one of the best Riesling bargains in Ontario.  Good acidity and a white peach taste – the nose is a little muted but that could have been due to over-chilling, a short finish keeps you coming back for another sip.  This is not a wine you should pass up.  2004 was good to Pinot Noir in Ontario – many I have tried have been quite nice.  The Sprucewood version is no different, retailing at $13.95 it has a beautiful ruby colour, just this side of rose.  It’s light, having spent some time in 2 year old French oak, and has a cherry-oak nose.  A sweet finish ends the affair, but some cedary-oaky notes linger long after the last swallow.  Good tannin structure could see this one drinking for the next 3 years.  The 2004 Meritage ($14.95) a blend of one-third equal parts Franc, Sauv, and Merlot that has spent 18 months in 2 year old oak barrels, has a very closed up nose, and no amount of aeration seemed able to loosen the grip, though some dark fruit, oak and cedar did squeak through.  Good tannin in the mouth showed a willingness to age, and the dark berry taste accompanied by luscious oak led me to believe this will be a good wine to lay down for a few years before trying it again.  Finally the $14.95 2004 Cabernet Duo is a real winner.  70% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon make for a wonderful sipper – good fruit, good finish, good value – and a yum factor that had me begging for a touch more … and I finished every last drop.
 
At every show there oughta be a little learnin’ – and here’s what I learned: … Mead ages – ages long and ages well – or so say John Bryan of Munro’s Honey and Meadery in Alvinston.  And John should know he’s been making the stuff for quite some time now, and had won medals at the prestigious International Mead Meet (it’s what I have dubbed the international competition he attended and took home silver for his dry mead).  At first I stopped by to check out and buy an array of honeys including chocolate honey, cinnamon honey and apple cinnamon honey.  But while the honeys were delicious for dipping pretzels the mead was delicious on it’s own.  My two favourites were the Cranberry Mead ($13.90 – sugar code 3) with the smell of sweet cranberries and a tart yet sweetened cranberry finish … and the Raspberry Mead ($13.90 – sugar code 4) light raspberry on the nose and a wonderful sweet yet mellow raspberry taste.  John told me he thought the raspberry was still a touch young – “it needs some time to develop, then it’ll be wonderful.”  After I asked how long he said, “maybe another couple of years, but mead ages very well.  Seven plus years before a monk would even think of drinking it - that’s how long they used to wait for it to mature … but the peak could be anytime after that.”  The things you learn.

 
Uniquely London:

I once had a friend who adored tea-rooms, myself not so much – but I am a fan of lasagne.  How they go together you ask?  Well at Heritage Line Herbs and Silver Birch Tea Room you’ll find out.  This booth was located amongst the Elgin County display along with Meadow Lane Winery, Quai de Vin, M.E. Suzies and Shaw’s Ice Cream.  But Heritage Line (www.heritagelineherbs.com) was offering up the greatest herb infusd lasagna I have ever tasted – and by looking at me you’ll know I’ve tasted quite a bit of lasagna in my day.  Made from mom’s super-secret recipe – which is so super-secret not even a bribe will drag it our of her, though I did pick up a little hint, “use the freezer” is all she would say … now I have figure out how to use that information.  The lasagna will be one of the signature dishes once they open in June of 2007 – I see it being a big big hit.

 
What’s Wine Without Cheese:

 Ending our tour of the London Wine and Food Show is an announcement of a cheese shop opening in Toronto.  Stopping by the Stoney Ridge Winery booth I was asked if I wanted my wine paired with cheese?  Never saying no to good cheese I accepted.  I was too busy enjoying the wine and cheese pairing that I missed out on what cheese I had chosen to chew on, but it was a great combination.  This little exercise was performed by employees of Provincial Fine Foods who have been selling cheese commercially and for wholesale for a number of years, but have now decided to open a retail shop at 3467 Yonge Street in the Yonge and Lawrence area – calling it Provincial Fine Foods About Cheese.  Over 300 different artisan cheeses, selected meats, exclusive Prociutto, condiments and cheese related products.  I tried a sheep’s milk cheese with a Cabernet Franc – you can experience the cheese without the wine by going to www.provincialfinefoods.com.
 
Well those are all the plugs I have for you this time out.  Kudos to the organizers and staff of the London Food and Wine Show for a great event; they promise something bigger and better next year, and I have no doubt.  As for that Grape Guy’s talk – definitely a highlight, hope they have him back next year.  Cheers.

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