1/2 Day in Napa

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Being in such close proximity to the highway leading into Napa and Sonoma my friends and I agreed to take a trip into Napa for an afternoon. This marks my first trip to the wine county of Napa and seeing the vineyards all lined up down the highway. This was also my first drive through San Francisco and over any of the bridges.

I spent my time looking out the car windows as we wound our way down the highway looking at the city and out to the bays. We met up with the bridge white beans reaching up to meet at a peak reminiscent of a sail and the white boughs of the ship reaching across the bay to connect the two lands.  It was a beautiful drive and provided an overview of the expanse of the city. Across the bay we connected to the highways that take you up to Napa and Sonoma. Our first stop – Domaine Chandon.

What better way to start a tour of Napa then with some bubbly? Domaine Chandon is the champagne house of Napa, producing many bottle of sparkling wine year after year in a number of styles and lengths of aging. This was our first stop, with many reasons to be good. Heading into the members section of the tasting room the three of us selected which tasting profile we each wanted. Two of us selected the “Reserve Tasting” while the third of our party had the “Prestige Tasting”. The Reserve tasting consists of the Reserve Blancs de Blancs, Reserve Brut and the Reserve Pinot Noir Rose. The Prestige tasting consisted of the étoile Brut and étoile Rosé. Each half glass of this special elixir provided a new experience to fill the senses. Continue reading

Night on the Town

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My second night in California my friends suggested taking a tour into San Francisco. Take some time to do some minor touring and hitting some culinary and wine hot spots they had stumbled across. Of course this sounded like a fantastic idea to me and I jumped all over it! On the CalTrain (train system that travels around the Bay of San Fran connecting the outer cities and regions of the Bay) and Bart (subway system injecting the neighbourhoods of San Fran) we went to get from San Carlos to Powell station in San Francisco.

imageOnce here we met up with another friend of theirs staying in the area for the weekend. The spot to hit first Mikkeller Bar. This is a pub that specializes in poring craft beer and also produces a number of beers as well. Lucky for me there was this fantastic gluten free beer from Belgium available (Green’s Tripel Blonde Ale). Something that offered notes of candied apple and apricot and peach. It was hoppy but very approachable and smooth, one of the best gluten free beers I have tried! This was paired perfectly with the pub fair offered in house, of which I ordered the “Texas Ranger Sausage” which comes with onions, jalapeños and green peppers and a chipotle ranch sauce – delish! Continue reading

California Vacation – The Outline

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Spontaneity is the spice of life, so the saying goes. And for the next two weeks I will be breathing in and enjoying the full spice collection of life (though some minimal planning has been necessary). I decided in the middle of the summer to book a trip to sunny California for two weeks with the intention of doing as much wine tasting as possible. Over the six months I had to plan this trip of mine, I did very little then notify my friends and family in the area of my pending visit – and this has suited me just fine! Now I am here, sitting at a cafe in sunny (but a little chilly) San Carlos lining up my days with as much wine, food, friends, and family as I possibly can.

Now, the scale of Napa and Sonoma is quite expansive, and not necessarily equal to the time I have to travel them. Several day trips into the regions have been lined up, which will provide decent coverage of the regions and wineries there. Starting on Sunday the 28th of December will be the first coverage of Napa. Travelling with my friends in the San Carlos area, we will visit some of their favourites and whatever suits us along the way. The 29th and 30th will bring trips into Sonoma and back again to Napa. The next planned excursion is not necessarily wine focused (though I am certain I will find some wine along the way) but rather a trip down the 101 highway to stop in Santa Barbara and continue through to Norco county to spend the weekend with my extended family. Then I will be heading back into Sonoma (at least) for another day trip to experience even more!

Tonight will be my first taste of San Francisco. I’ll be taking a little tour of the city and finding a delicious restaurant along the way. Not much more you can ask for than good food and good wine! So I will be saying cheers to spontaneity and articling my journeys and experiences along the way! Here I come California!

 

The Surprise

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The other day I purchased a case of Conundrum half bottles for the restaurant I’m working at. There was no detail as to whether it was white or red, just my assumption on it being the red. A week later, the wine showed up. I took downstairs and began to open the box and put the wine away. It was then I realized the wine was white. Now, I had tried the Conundrum red blend before, but never the white, until yesterday.

Rogers & Company is the wine distribution company in Ontario for Conundrum. Yesterday, they hosted their thank you profile tasting. I attended, and was able to re-taste the wines I had previously tasted, and taste new members of their profile. It was a fantastic event!

The Wagner Family was represented there, which gave me the opportunity to taste the Conundrum White Blend. Now, I had been there for a good 40 minutes and tasted some white and some red, and some pretty heavy reds by this point. I made my way over to try the White. Wow, what a blend! The nose is so beautifully floral, vibrant and fresh. Purfumated like Gewürztraminer, tropical like Alsatian Riesling, classic minerality of Muscat and Semillion. The nose so tempting and vibrant I took my first sip. What a refreshing and vibrant wine! Just as a traditional Gewürztraminer with such a sweet nose yet super high acidity. It definitely awoke the senses! Flavours of white peach, apricot, lilac, honey, and lemon. So much happening, and yet so crisp and refreshing. Due to its blend – which is kept secret – it is a very versatile wine. It would pair perfectly with seafood, but also compliment desserts.

It was a wonderful day to taste wine, and to be surprised by different wines. Cheers!

Pairing Food and Wine

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I have been thinking back on the wine course I took at University that introduced me to the world of wine, and gave me a glimpse as to what I want my career to be involved around. Over the years I have worked very closely with wine and food. The past several years I’ve spent in the upper casual and fine dining world, where every aspect of the meal reflects the quality of the meal. A big part of this is service as well, but that is a different conversation. My thoughts have been focused on (maybe in part to do with the fact I am reading the 100 Foot Journey at the moment) what makes the meal stand out, and what those elements are. I have also been thinking about how important the proper pairing of alcohol is to the overall meal, be this wine, beer or spirit. Through these thinkings I have remembered a comment made by my professor that has really stuck with me: in Europe, the grapes grown and the wines made match perfectly the food of that region. I have not had the privilege to travel throughout Europe to experience first hand this co-incidence, but conversations I have had with others has opened my eyes to their experiences and thoughts on this.

Let’s take France for example. They have a select amount of grape varietals that are grown throughout the country. Each region has its own characteristic that presents itself in the wine. For example, the gorgeous minerality of Chablis, the crisp acidity and white fruit of Sancerre, the full-body and robust tannins of left-bank Bordeaux. When you look at food produced specific to these regions you can see how magically the wines match the food. I am forgetting specific food and wine matches – one of which I have tried – but in that one experience I had, I can see how balanced everything works in your mouth.

Another excellent example is Italy. With over 2000 regional wine varieties, plus wines produced that when tasted are mostly noted as being excellent food wines, there is no doubt Italy fits this category. For example, the classic Chianti with pasta and tomato sauce. Both classic to Italy, both classic to each other, both create a pairing worth having. Valpolicella and antipasto belong together. Everywhere you turn, there is a wine that is meant to be paired with that Italian dish from that Italian region. It is a beautiful thing!

There are so many examples, most of which I do not know, but that can be provided. My trouble has become – what of Ontario, California, New Zealand, Australia? How many people can say that a wine in one of these regions has been made to perfectly match a classic dish from this area? I have not, as of yet, heard of any examples and this is my reasoning (mostly for Ontario – where I have grown up and am only really able to talk about): we are influenced by so many different flavours and textures that we do not have one dish that is simple referred to as an Ontario classic. We also spend our efforts on growing grape varietals that will best grow in our climate. Though we dabble in varietals that may also not be the best selection for our climate, their flavour profiles from our regions don’t necessarily match food from here either. I could easily argue that our wine and our food here in Ontario provide separate entities of our lives. Then there is California. Here they have a system in place that determines which varietal will be grown in which region based on sunlight and heat factor. This system does not take into consideration food of the region and best pairings, it simple considers – based on this scale factor – which grapes grow best where.

To me there is more than just distance and time that separate the “Old World” and “New World” regions of the wine world. There is also the way in which we perceive wine and how we make our decisions to grow the wine. Great wine is grown all over the world, but one of the truly great things I have come to respect very much is the way in which we take these great things – food and drink – and pair them together to bring people together and to share joy. It is one of the reasons why I love the service industry very much.

Alsatian Pinot Gris

A couple of days ago I was browsing through the LCBO vintages section, as I like to do, and came across this Alsatian Pino Gris. I have heard much about Alsacian wines, their crisp clarity of flavour and precision of quality – this is of course often mentioned of most French wines. So I decided to pick this wine up and give it a taste at dinner. I had been given the menu of BBQ’d pork chops, grilled pineapple, coleslaw and BBQ’d potatoes. I wasn’t entirely sure if it would pair correctly, but it was worth a shot.

The wine I chose was Domaine Zind-Humbrecht biodynamic Pinot Gris, 2011 vintage. I enjoy trying out biodynamic or organic wines, always looking for a difference in flavour or vibrancy. This wine definitely didn’t disappoint.

I got home for a visit with my family put the wine in the fridge and jumped in the pool. We got dinner ready and prepared everything to eat outside. It was such a gorgeous day! We pulled out the Pinot Gris for a taste with dinner.

I did my little taste test before I took a bite of the meal (this is my favourite meal, so it was an act of patience to wait). The nose was fragrant and showed a vibrancy of fruit that I had hoped. Notes of cantaloupe, ripe peach, some tropical fruits, honey, slight petrol quality, and limestone minerality were the most notable. The first sip offered up great acidity, with a slightly creamy mouth feel – hinting at malolactic fermentation – with full, almost robust, flavours filling the mouth. The peach and cantaloupe were front and centre, tropical notes more in the mid-palate, with the minerality finishing the palate off with all of that bright acidity and honeyed notes. What shocked me the most was how high in alcohol the wine was – 14.5%! It was such a well-made wine, however, that the alcohol didn’t even have a burn, it was just part of the make-up. 

After making an analysis of the wine I dived into dinner. And all of the flavours of the wine complimented the flavours happening on the plate. It was one of those moments where your mouth does a happy dance (hopefully some of you know what that feels like!). I would suggest this be on your must try list, and give it a shot and perfect for the lighter fare summer BBQ foods. 

Beaux Freres

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At my work, I am privileged to be able to taste wine that is not normally found in the LCBO or Ontario wine market. This Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has quickly become a favourite of mine. The Beaux Frères ‘Les Cousins’ Pinot Noir has an interesting story. Robert Parker Jr. is the brother-in-law of winemaker Michael Etzer, and part owner in the vineyard. With a philosophy and farming technique that really caters to the grapes, the varietal and the habitat in which they form and develop, there is no question why this wine is as good as it is!

I was first sold on this wine when the Ontario distributing company approach the club and we were looking for an Oregon Pinot to fill a void we had in our cellar. I was automatically sold on the story of the wine and the promises it held. As the salesman did not bring tastings, I purchased the wine purely based on the storyline, looking forward to tasting the wine. After opening that first bottle, I have not been disappointed! It is a wine that is complex and provides layers of experiences as it opens in the glass. The colour is pure, clean and clear of garnet colour. When first sipped once the bottle has just been opened, the notes are of red cherry, fresh raspberry, ripe strawberry and a little cherry tobacco. The palate is mostly closed off, but the cherry and strawberry shine through, with the cherry tobacco smoky-ness shining through on the finish. As the wine opens up those flavours expand and more oak becomes present with notes of vanilla on the nose and through the palate. After it being opened in a decanter for several hours, the nose still displays fresh and young with notes of raspberry, red current, strawberry, slight grassy hint, and vanilla; the cherry having lessened significantly.  On the palate, the oak is a little stronger, showing through with flavour, texture and tannin. The flavours of strawberry, raspberry and red current are still present through the palate, laced with a smoky-ness and tobacco quality with hints of vanilla and cherry. Good acidity to pair well with food, but not overpowering so the wine may be enjoyed on its own. Rounded tannins to help fill the mouth.

The wine is constantly opening and teasing the senses. Providing different layers and facets of flavours to experience and enjoy. It truly is a remarkable wine, and provides a wine experience as you enjoy a glass or a bottle!

VQA

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This past Sunday in the Toronto Star there was an article about the Vintners Quality Alliance of Ontario (VQAO) standards and their standardized testing for certifying Ontario Wines. As part of their certification testing there is a taste test that approves the wines. Part of the taste test is to determine typicity of the wine. This is apparently a qualifying factor of a wine becoming certified.

There is a lawsuit under-way against a winery, Royal DiMaria, that the VQA has charged with falsely advertising his wines as VQAO certified after the VQA did not pass a wine of his and stripped Royal DiMaria of its VQA status. The VQA had agents undercover go to his winery and charged him for selling wines on his vineyard with the illegal use of key VQAO terms, including “icewine,” “VQA,” and “Niagara Peninsula.” These wines that he was selling on his vineyard had passed this taste test and were certified VQA, but the Association is stating that by revoking a status on a wine means that all precedent wines are banned from using the certification. This case will, itself, set precedent for vineyards all over Ontario.

One point made in the article by Norman Hardie, who happens to be a former board member for the VQAO, is that these taste tests entrusted to certify Ontario wines rule out any irregularity based on natural occurring effects of terroir. According to Hardie, this goes against what the VQA directly states their role is and how they say they support Ontario’s wines, and in fact promotes middle-of-the-road conformity.

Now, over the years that I have really started to taste, learn and appreciated wine more I have had my ups and downs with Ontario wine. There are Ontario wines out there that I think are absolutely fabulous! They are like finding hidden gems, as you very often HAVE to go to the winery to find them. They are not readily available in the LCBO, though the LCBO does strongly promote local wine. The wines they promote, however, are those wines that conform with the VQA and, sorry to say this, middle-of-the-road typicity. Most Ontario wines that you can easily purchase all have the same sort of flavour profile of each other, which I think is a large part to do with this test. Every Reisling should not taste the same, every Chardonnay shouldn’t taste the same, every Ontario Cabernet Franc should not taste of mushrooms and green bell pepper, but they very often do. It can be largely disappointing, until you go to a vineyard and find their true pieces of art.

This is something that both Hardie and DiMaria argue in this article, that the VQA has limited artistic ability, expression, and terroir and appellation variances in their approved and certified wines. For DiMaria, some of his wines that were not accepted by the VQA won medals and awards all over the world. So which certification has higher value on the wine? All that really matters to be able to sell your wine at the price that it deserves is the ability to call it “icewine” which means it needs to be certified by the VQA, so though these wines may win medals and be placed as the wine of the year in Wine Spectator (which happened to Norman Hardie’s 2008 Chardonnay), you need to be on the good side with the Alliance.

I believe that the VQA does a lot to regulate and certify wines of Ontario. Just like other governing bodies of wines all over the world do for their regions. I don’t feel, however, that such a taste test should be used that promotes the same flavour profiles in all wines, and discounts a wine for its originality, expression of terroir, or experience beyond what is “typical”. If the VQA requires a taste test to continue, perhaps they should review and make necessary amendments to the test. It is not the test that is the issue, its the requirements the test promotes.

Chianti

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I went to the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione tasting this past Monday in Toronto. There were a number of vendors there displaying their best bottled Chianti’s from the recently approved standard of Chianti Classico – Gran Selezione or single vineyard.

Chianti is a well known and appreciated classic Italian wine. People love it for its ability to pair with meaty, fatty, and acidic foods and regional cheeses. There is a certain taste profile people find with Chianti, the most common being red cherry, sometimes olive oil or olive leaf, then tobacco or slight licorice. These are flavours and smells that consumers look for when they buy Chianti, and typically what’s found on the common shelves of the LCBO. In the Vintages section with the Riserva’s there can be more complexity in flavours and profiles of the wine, but the same underlining characteristics are still there.

This new classification of Gran Selezione has raised the quality level of Chianti by creating stricter specifications for the quality of grape used. By wine made from a single vineyard or a selection of an estates best grapes increases the quality level produced. It also showcases the different characteristics of each vineyard and region. Walking around the tasting and trying the different samples available gave full examples of the differences that can be highlighted by such a category.

I tried three 100% Sangiovese Chianti’s each of them providing such a different quality and flavour characteristic of the grape varietal. One, Castello di Gabbiano Bellezza 2011, was full-bodied with a rich meaty quality and heavy tobacco like a Cuban cigar. There was fruit there, but not the bright red cherry one normally expects from the Sangiovese grape, but more of a cherry tobacco flavour. It was surprising to the senses, but wonderfully delicious! Then there was a 100% Sangiovese that was the exact definition of Old World Italy – cherry syrup and pure oxidation like a medicine cabinet. It is one of the things I truly love about Italian wine, how oxidation can be so natural and amazing on the nose, then the palate is always out of this world! This wine didn’t disappoint. The Enrico Baj Macario VI° Filare 2010 was a true beauty, fairly full-bodied, smooth, rounded tannins, wonderfully balanced with flavours of tart cherry and green olive.

Then, as most Chianti’s are a blend, those were presented as well. Most were blended with either Merlot of Cabernet Sauvignon, which each present their own characteristic to the wine. Merlot often softening the tartness and sharpness of the Sangiovese varietal, mellowing the wine; Cabernet Sauvignon can sometimes overpowering the Sangiovese and lending more heavy, rich and full-bodied qualities. Then there are those that are a blend of Sangiovese and other regional varietals.

One wine in particular was a 80% Sangiovese and 20% blended of 5 other grape varietals – Abrusco, Pugnitello, Malvasia Nero, Ciligiolo, Mazzese. What stood out the most of this blend was the nose. The colour was relatively the same, not as dark as blends with Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose on this Il Grigio da San Felice 2010 was of blood orange, orange rind and oak, slightly oxidative in nature but very inviting. The palate was a little overwhelmed with oak, but the fruit shone through, and would be better once aged a little longer.

Vignole Créspine 2009 is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine was full-bodied, rich and smooth with just enough Cabernet Sauvignon to add new dimension to the Chianti, but not enough to take away from the Sangiovese. It was true to the classic form of Chianti, with bright cherry fruit and hint of blackberry, vanilla from the oak and the classic olive in the background. A fantastic wine!

There was a unique Sangiovese (85%) and Merlot (15%) blended wine that presented a different nose and palate then most. Luiano Ottantuno 2010 had a unique nose – one of meat pie, date and fig. There was a hint of cherry, but it was more like a cherry demi-glaze served with a leg of lamb (which would probably be a great food pairing for this particular wine!). The palate, however, presented more of a fruit forward sensation of cherry and fruit – like a berry cocktail. It was soft on the palate and smooth, not as rich and heavy, but very balanced. Of all the wines tasted I could picture the meal I would eat with this wine.

I could go on forever about all of the other equally unique and amazing wines I tasted, but I will leave off with this last one – Vigna del Capannino Bibbiano 2010. 100% Sangiovese Grosso (a clone of the Sangiovese varietal) this wine was as rich and balanced as they come. A great nose of crushed berries and cherry tart and a palate that followed through. Great mouth-feel with high acidity and fresh tannins. This wine was made for antipasto, and could easily hold up to a solid meal. It was probably my favourite of the day.

Well, I definitely had fun exploring a small portion of Italy. I hope to explore some other regions soon, and see what I can learn!

Aside

Great Canadian Wine Challenge – BBQ Edition

Great Canadian Wine Challenge – BBQ Edition

I have recently been writing wine reviews for Natalie MacLean’s website. She has this competition in support of Canadian Wines called the Great Canadian Wine Challenge BBQ Edition. Many who follow Natalie MacLean on Twitter and other forms of social media know of this challenge. There are 6 great categories to vote for, so get voting!!