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 – Stoney Ridge Winemaker’s Dinner and Sneak Peak 01/27/2007

08 Feb 2007
When I recommend going to an event it’s usually an annual affair, wine show or recurring seminar – rarely do I recommend a conceptual idea without being specific; but winemaker’s dinners are different.  Each dinner is unique and can never be duplicated for a number of reasons.  The food is never the same, the wine is never the same and the ambiance of the locale is never the same.  A winemaker’s dinner is a unique experience unto itself, which is why I whole-heartedly recommend you treat yourself to one at least once in your life.  I say that because I know if you go once you’re sure to go again.  What makes these dinners truly unique is the pairing of wine and food, something you might strive for at home and on occasion may get close to a good pairing.  At one of these dinners you have two professionals:  the winemaker, in the case of my dinner Liubomir Popovici, chief winemaker of Stoney Ridge, and Rob Trout, head chef of Peninsula Ridge … teaming up to bring you wine and food pairings that will not only compliment each other, but in most cases, blow you away as to how well it can be done.

Starting off with the hors d’oeuvres of pineapple ginger satay chicken and tomatoes & goat cheese tarts with basil while sipping on the first 2006 wine released in the marketplace by an Ontario winery … the 2006 Beamsville Bench Reserve Riesling – crisp acidity with white peach, hints of citrus and minerality on the nose, the sweetness level is a 2 and tastes like white peach with a touch of honey in the mouth.

We moved into the newly renovated barrel cellar for the first course of the evening, which saw the 10 year old 1997 Old Vines Reserve Chardonnay paired up with a pear and fennel soup with blue cheese and walnut oil drizzle – the combination was sublime; a sweetish soup paired with an older chardonnay that had apple, pear, almond, hazelnut and asparagus on the nose – following through with the same on the taste and a longggggg finish.  There are precious few of these bottles remaining – so if you’re a fan of older Chardonnay, now’s the time to be opening this one (or begging Stoney Ridge to sell you one).  The wine and soup paired like nothing I have had before, and worst of all, nobody would give me the recipe.

Moving onto the pork tenderloin with bacon mustard cream, which was served alongside the 2004 Reserve Merlot.  Now Ontario Merlots are a difficult pairing, especially when young – because Ontario Merlot takes a good 5 years to truly mature into a suitable drinking wine … but this one is coming around nicely – a spicy character with blue and black berries and some cassis, cedar and vanilla on the nose.  The taste was black raspberry, vanilla and a cedary finish.  The pairing worked …hats off to Liubomir for this risky move that paid off … or should I be thanking chef Rob Trout for the excellent food that probably would have gone well with an over-the-hill Pinot Grigio served in an old boot (thankfully we had the benefit of Stoney Ridge’s excellent wines served in etched stemware instead).

Ending our meal was the 2005 Igloo – a late harvest Cabernet Franc that has been barrel fermented and aged.  Candied strawberry nose with a little tartness on the taste; it went well with the Strawberry mousse in brandy snaps with strawberry and thyme compote.  Not an inventive or earth shattering pairing strawberry with strawberry, but sometimes simplicity makes sense, especially after the first two wines went so well – no sense risking the possibility of a busted dessert pairing.  Stoney Ridge, and Liubomir, proved once again the longevity of their wines and the knack they have for pairing them with good food.

Winemaker’s dinners are an experience, and when they work – like this one did – the food and wine pairings are ones you will talk about for a lifetime … that soup and Chard will always be at the top of my list.  Who do I have to bribe for the recipe and a bottle?

Special Sneak Peak …

Before dinner Liubomir took all in attendance down to the production area and gave us a sneak peak, or is that taste, of 4 soon-to-be-released (late February) 2005 line-up.

Starting with the 2005 Reserve Chardonnay … made with a shot of Chardonnay Musque for added complexity.  18 months in oak has treated this wine well with vanilla and pineapple on the nose along with other tropical fruit nuances … soft in the mouth, this wine really tastes wonderful now but has the potential to age a further 5-plus years.  If it has the legs of the 1997, in ten years dinner guests will be blown away by its majesty.  The medium-long finish really stays with you both in the mouth and in your memory.

Next up, the 2005 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir was truly something to experience.  Not often do you get this kind of deep colour in Pinot, but ruby red was the colour of the day for this one.  A red fruit nose and taste with hints of oak and dusty cocoa like tannins.  This is a limited soon-to-be-released wine that was made using one (yes I said ONE), French oak barrel – that’s it … we’re talking 25 cases of this superb wine is available … and the ageing potential on this one’ll be 10 years-plus easy, and considering the speed last year’s version sold out, you’d be wise to place your order for a bottle or two now.

The piece-de-résistance (my attempt at French on my Anglophone keyboard) will retail for around $39.95 but has a pre-released price of $34.95; so I would recommend you call or get yourself down to Stoney Ridge to order yours cause only 270 cases have been made of this precious liquid … I’m talking here about the Fox Vineyard 2005 Reserve Cabernet Franc, c’est magnifique (more French).  I have long said Franc is Ontario’s grape and with an example like this I am proven right again.  The grapes came in at an unheard of 26 brix (incredible sugar levels for Ontario red grapes – we usually struggle for sugar levels and are lucky to see 22 or 23 – but 2005 is proving to be a very good year for red wine).  A dark fruit nose and chocolate taste all wrapped up in a dark fruit blanket … a sweet mid-palate, wonderfully smooth tannins and good acidity makes this a winner with a capital “W”.  Finish that off with a medium-long finale and 14% alcohol and you have another ten plus year wine to enjoy for years to come.  Serve it along side the 2005 Reserve Chardonnay at the 2017 dinner (may we all live long enough to enjoy it) … Yooza!  If I could afford it, I’d have a case upended in my cellar and make it a yearly ritual to open this one.

Stoney Ridge also made an ’05 icewine made of Franc, which was drinking like strawberry jam out of your glass – sweet, thick, very nice.  Franc icewine is truly one of my favourites.  Liubomir also let slip that a 2006 Chenin Blanc icewine is in store for next year’s release – should be very interesting.

This sneak peak was a wonderful addition to the night’s festivities and I highly recommend pre-ordering these highly anticipated and soon-to-be-quickly-sold-out wines.  Let me put it to you this way … last year the Pinot Noir sold out in 3 months and they had 10 times the amount they have this year.  Capisce?  And that 270 cases of Cabernet Franc won’t last long either … I can’t seem to praise that wine enough now, so imagine what I will be saying in ten years from now – wouldn’t you like to have a bottle on your shelf when that review comes out?

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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