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Christmas Dinner with a Top Sommelier  (December 7, 2006)

One of the most pervasive stereotypes of the wine world is the haughty sommelier who stands over you at restaurants, a silver tastevin dangling from his neck, nose in the air, disdainful of your choice of wine or smirking at your mispronunciation of Riesling.

In Toronto that image has been shattered by the emergence of a corps of young, highly educated sommeliers who now control the cellars and the wine lists in the city's best restaurants. At this time there are some 70 certified sommeliers in Ontario who have passed the demanding course of studies at George Brown or Niagara College, in conjunction with the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS).

A good sommelier will not only recommend wines that accompany the dish you ordered but will point you in the direction of interesting wines in your price range. (Here's a tip: if you don't want to feel cheap in front of your guests when ordering wine, point to a price on the wine list and say something like, "I was thinking about something like this." A good sommelier will pick up the cue.)

With Christmas coming up, I challenged five of Toronto's top sommeliers to give me their recommendation for the traditional turkey dinner, with their tasting notes.

John Szabo is Canada's first Master Sommelier, earning the title from the internationally recognized Court of Master Sommeliers in 2004. John is in partnership with his colleague Zoltan Szabo (no relation) and teaches wine service at George Brown's School of Hospitality and Niagara College. He also offers courses for consumers and wine enthusiasts through his company, The Centre for Vine Affairs, located at Crush Wine Bar in Toronto. His choice for a red is Rosenblum Zinfandel 2005 (Vintages #284653, 18.95). "A plump, juicy, low-tannin red with an almost sweet impression or a high-acid, low tannin spicy red such as Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Reserve 2004." (LCBO #461699, $24.95)

John's white selection is Château des Charmes Estate Riesling 2004 from the Niagara Peninsula. "A crisp, off-dry, flavourful white." (Vintages #77228, $15.95)

John's business partner in his drinks trade consulting firm is Zoltan Szabo, who works the floor at Il Mulino (1060 Eglinton Avenue West – 416-780-1173). In 2005 Zoltan won the Ontario Wine Awards Sommelier of the Year competition. His choice for a red wine to accompany turkey is Ampelou Gis Red 2003 from Messinia in Greece (LCBO #619593, $13.85). "An interesting (considering origin) blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. Ruby with slight orange edge, high-toned aromas of maraschino cherries, raspberry, cocoa/coffee, flower petals and leather. Medium bodied, ripe, but good acidity to give it a lift on the palate, silky tannins, warm finish. Appealing wine that could be also served slightly chilled."

Zoltan's choice of white is Peninsula Ridge Fumé Blanc 2005 from the winery in Niagara ($30 at the winery, 5600 King Street West, PO Box 550, Beamsville, ON L0R 1B0, 905-563-0900). "Aromas and flavours of citrus, basil, celeriac, honeysuckle and vanilla, medium- to full-bodied with a creamy texture and great acidity, long, lingering finish."

Many of the new breed of sommeliers are women in a field that has, in the past, been predominantly a male preserve. And these young women are routinely out-tasting their male colleagues in competitions.

April Kirkpatrick, who won the "Best Sommelier of Ontario" in 2004, is the Manager/Sommelier at Ruth's Chris Steak House Toronto (145 Richmond Street West, 416-955-1455). April says, "Usually we enjoy a Riesling with our dinner which I love, but this year we are going to try something a little different. For a white wine this year we are pairing the Rabl Grüner Veltliner Spiegel 2004 (Kamptal, Austria). I got this from Thompson Vintage Trade Ltd. It cost $15.50 a bottle. It is crisp and clean with citrus notes and a touch of minerality. A wonderful match for the savory elements. My father-in-law always brings a bottle of Mateus, which he loves, and this is always a good match as well. For a red, I am in love with the Norman Hardie Pinot Noir 2004 from Prince Edward County. I know this has been written about (and is consequently sold out), but I honestly saved 2 bottles for myself and plan to share them with my family this Sunday."

Jennifer Huether, who took the Ontario title in 2006, is the sommelier for the Air Canada Centre. Her recommendation of a red wine is the Lan Gran Reserva 1998 from Rioja, Spain, released in Vintages stores on September 30 (Vintages #928622, $27.95). "A silky wine with a mixed bag of spicy aromas. Mellow tannins, dried fruit flavours and a long finish." Her other choice is an interesting sparkling wine – Henry of Pelham Brut Rosé Cuvée Catherine from Niagara (LCBO #4051, $29.95). "Supple strawberry, raspberry notes with wonderful fizz and a lasting finish. Perfect match to the stuffing, turkey and cranberry sauce!"

Sara d'Amato is the sommelier and assistant manager of Truffles restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Road. Sara's choice of red is Malivoire Gamay 2004 from Niagara (Vintages #591313, $16.00). "Spicy sour cherries, black pepper and smokiness would help add some flair to Thanksgiving fare without adding to the heaviness of the meal. Niagara is doing wonders with Gamay in my opinion – Christmas is a great time to showcase this local gem." Her white selection is Bonny Doon's Ca'Del Solo "Big House White" 2003 from California (Vintages #661355, $18.95). "Because a traditional Christmas dinner has such a wide array of foods, I think it fitting to pair a lovely white blend that is more likely to appeal to a group of people and a variety of foods. I particularly enjoy this blend because it has a nice dose of sultry Viognier – adding a bit of exotic flavour to the otherwise predictable Christmas meal."




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