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 - 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.

Report from - 20 Valley Weekend – Nov. 25, 2006

03 Jan 2007
The weather is getting colder and harvest is pretty much complete for another season. It’s the best time to visit the wineries because they want you to come down and celebrate with them; they also have the time to spend with you. The wines are fermenting, resting, oaking and other usual wine stuff that wine does, so now it’s time to throw a little shindig, and that’s exactly what the 20 Valley Wine Association want you to do … buy a passport ($20), come visit the wineries, and let them show you a good time, during the "Wrapped up in the Valley" weekend. There is a slight problem though, some wineries aren’t used to having a Holiday Open House, and it shows. This being the first year of the program and all, some of the wineries, on this 14 winery program, had no idea what to do with you once you walked through their door. Sure they have some good wines to sample, and they make excellent gifts for the wine-lover on your list (along with other paraphernalia that goes along with it: from glassware to corkscrews, and everything in between). But unlike Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Taste the Season (completing it’s 6th year), which pairs wine with food at all 17 of the participating wineries; the 20 Valley wineries are a little more sporadic in their offerings. Some offer a wonderful spread of foods, while others get you to wander around aimlessly wondering what to do. But I’m willing to cut them some slack for 2 reasons: 1) It’s their first year working together and the bugs still need to be ironed out. Some of the wineries have been doing their own open house around this time of year since they opened their doors, while others were caught flat-footed and just wanted to be part of the program that their association was putting on. Here’s hoping they get the holiday spirit for next year’s offering. 2) The giveaway was so worth it, and so much more practical than their counterparts to the east in NOTL. I’m talking about the stone coasters, with their logos emblazoned on the top, that each winery was giving away – now how cool is that? One wine maker from Niagara-on-the-Lake sounded off some sour-grapes when talking about the 20 Valley, “they’re always trying to copy what we’re doing.” But in this respect the Valley outshone the Lake. Sure the Taste the Season gift is a beautiful handblown glass/crystal tree ornament, but I’ve always wondered what those who have no tree to hang it on do with their ornament – guess it is just one less gift to buy. 20 Valley’s gift was cool, unique to the wineries themselves and above all practical … coasters to use for the season, and year round. A gift for yourself while you shop around for others on your list. So while I give kudos to NOTL for having their act together, after 6 years of pairing wine and food they should … I give a thumbs up to the Valley for their more useful giveaway. Now let’s see how these two events match up 6 years down the road? I hope to see you all in the Valley next year.

Best Spread:

This was a toss up between Harbour Estates and Featherstone … then again it depends on whether you wanted sweet or savoury. Harbour Estates went for the sweet tooth in all of us by offering shortbread cookies, sugar cookies with a dollop of icewine jelly, chocolate chip caramel squares, cashew-chocolate toffee brittle and a fabulous phyllo wrapped brie with Riesling icewine jelly melted in the middle – all homemade by their 23 year old daughter. While across town, Featherstone went the more savoury food and wine pairing route. Now maybe they have a bit of an unfair advantage because a) they hold an open house at this time of year annually and b) owner Louise Engel used to own a gourmet food store in Guelph (see where I am going with this) – and no offense to Louise, but you do have a few more years at it than the 23 year old … not by much. She served Orange-Curry Chicken on a deep fried wonton; Roast-Beef with Dijon-horseradish mayo; Blue Cheese Shortbread topped with a roasted walnut; fruit with mango yogurt dip, marinated olives; and baked brie in puff pastry with walnuts cranberries and pepper berry blast (is your mouth watering yet?) – all concocted and homemade by Louise, and her staff, and paired with a variety of Featherstone wines. Thankfully I skipped lunch, but my problem was I stopped at Harbour Estates first – next year I’ll reverse the order and save some room for dessert.

Runner Up:

Stoney Ridge got into the holiday spirit by pairing up wines with various dips, crackers, breads and fondue from their downstairs in-house cheese shop … quite nice. While Flat Rock served icewine laced hot chocolate – tasty and good for a cold day … but maybe a nibbly would have been in order to pair with it, a shortbread would have been ideal.

Seasonal Smeasonal:

Creekside brought you down into their barrel cellar for a sampling of a wine in progress … a great idea, but not exactly what you’re looking for this time of year at a holiday “open house”. Angels Gate tasted their just released robust Angels III Meritage blend with a piece of dark chocolate … again a good start, but for the season you’d expect more. It’s a good start and definitely something to build on for next year.

Better Luck Next Year:

4 wineries proved very disappointing during their “open house”: Fielding, Birchwood, Lakeview and Mountain Road … all four offered nothing of any substance to visitors walking through the door. Mulled wine and discounts on stemware are not really what the season’s about, is it? Though in fairness to Mountain Road they were getting ready for their 4th Anniversary celebration on the Sunday, I guess you can’t party every day no matter what Kiss says.

Speaking of Next Year:

Now I fully admit I did not get to every winery this year – the four I missed were: EastDell, Legends, Vineland (closed for a private function), and Willow Heights. I’ll be there next year to check you guys out – hopefully you now know what to do.

All-in-all an interesting if uneven event … but once they find their feet this will be another great party weekend in Wine Country. Hold it again next year 20 Valley – because if you build it, they will come.

If you went I would love to hear your comments. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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