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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 255 (September 8, 2009)

Monday, August 31: Up early this morning to get down to 1 King Street by 8:30 am for the first day of the Canadian Wine Awards, run by Wine Access Magazine. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Tony Gismondi, tells the judges that there are nearly 1,000 wines entered.

We are divided up into panels of three. The flights alternate between white and red and each judge starts at a different point in the flight to negate the "first wine syndrome" (which, as the first wine tasted, is always used as a yardstick). We tasted 10 Pinot Gris, 11 Red Blends, 10 Chardonnay, 10 more Red blends and 11 Rosés. In the afternoon following lunch, 8 Unoaked Chardonnay, 11 Cabernet Franc and 13 Gewurztraminer.

Dinner was held at Far Niente, sponsored by the California Wine Institute. On the patio I tried Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Fog Head Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Rancho Zabaco Sauvignon Blanc 2008 and Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Manatzas Creek was best). At dinner I ordered truffled sunchoke soup with caramelized apple, hazelnut oil and sunchoke chips with a series of Chardonnays – Beringer 2008, Sonoma Cutrer 2008 and La Crema 2007 (Sonoma Cutrer, hands down). Second course: Cali cut beef striploin, grilled corn, chorizo, chili Vidalia onion rings, with Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Irony Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 and Beringer Knights Valley Alluvium 2005 (the latter took my vote). Cut out before dessert, exhausted. Got a great Wheaten greeting from Pinot the Wonder Dog, who has taught me the difference between dogs and cats: a dog will instinctively gravitate towards people who love dogs, whereas a cat will make a beeline for people who hate cats.

Tuesday, September 1: Our panel began the morning with 11 Merlots, followed by 12 Sauvignon Blancs, 10 Pinot Noir, 10 Riesling, 11 Fruit Wines (!). After lunch, 11 Red Hybrids, 11 Sparking All Types, 11 Riesling, 11 Sparkling and 10 Riesling. I cried off dinner as I had a deadline. Difficult to write after sampling all those wines.

Wednesday, September 2: Today the panels are looking at the finalist wines to determine the top entries. For this we are divided into two large panels. In the morning our group tasted 9 Red Single Varietals, 9 Red Icewine, 6 Pinot Grigio, 10 Red Blends, 8 Oaked Chardonnay, 6 Vidal Icewine. After lunch, 6 Merlot, 4 Chardonnay No Oak, 2 Rosé, 7 White Blends and 4 Late Harvest All Varieties.

Dinner this evening is at Oasi restaurant (the old Mildred Pierce), sponsored by Mission Hill. My old friend Ingo Grady is the host along with the winery's press rep, Lori Pike and the winery's new Vice President, Ian Douglas, who used to work for Gallo. Outside they have set up a table with Mission Hill wines for us to taste: Mission Hill Pinot Blanc 2008, Mission Hill Rosé 2008, Mission Hill Pinot Five Vineyards Grigio 2008, Mission Hill Sauvignon/Semillon SLC 2006. Also on the tasting table Mission Hill's Reserve Chardonnay 2007, Five Vineyards Pinot Noir 2007, Five Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2007, Quatrain 2006, Oculus 2006 and a magnum of Oculus 2005. For dinner, watermelon & tomato gazpacho, Coleville Bay oysters, cilantro crème fraîche, with Mission Hill Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2008. Followed by roasted skate wing, rock shrimp, little neck clams in a saffron broth, with Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay 2007. Main course: braised lamb shoulder, tomatoes, cipollini, reggiano polenta, with Mission Hill Select Lot Syrah 2006 and Mission Hill Compendium 2006 (the first tasting of this wine outside the winery – a little brother to Oculus, more in approachable Bordeaux style). Dessert, black plum tart with wild ginger, lemon sour cream gelato, served with Mission Hill Reserve Riesling Icewine 2008. Took a cab home, exhausted.

Thursday, September 3: The last day of judging. We all taste the same wines to determine the medal winners. 2 Hybrids, 5 Sparkling, 10 Pinot Noir, 12 Syrah/Shiraz, 6, Cabernet Franc, 12 Rieslings, 5 Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 White Single Vineyard, 7 Gewurztraminer. After lunch, 9 Best White Overall, 13 Best Red Overall, 4 Best Fruit Wines, 7 Best Sweet Wines Overall.

In mid-afternoon most of the judges joined the VQA tour to Niagara – a bus from the Delta Chelsea down to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The purpose of the trip is to show us the taste profiles of the sub-appellations. In 2005 the Peninsula was divided in two regional appellations, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment. These were further divided into 10 sub-appellations to reflect the climate and soil structures. We will be having various seminars and tastings to illustrate these subtle and not-so-subtle differences.

Half the group is put up at the Shaw Court and the rest, including me, at Harbour House, just behind Queens Landing. Great attention to detail here: the stationery in my room is printed, "The temporary residence of Tony Aspler." We dine at Hillebrand. During the meal, Winemaker Darryl Brooker puts us through a blind tasting of wines to show us the flavour and structure of different sub-apps. We start with two 2008 dry Rieslings made from the same Weiss 21 clone, one from Beamsville Bench, the other from Four Mile Creek. The logical thinking is that the Bench, with its limestone soil, would produce much drier, more minerally-flavoured wines than the plain, with its clay soils. It turned out that the wine from Four Mile Creek (Hillebrand Ghost Creek Vineyard), although it had 28 grams of residual sugar, compared with 11 grams for the Thirty Bench Triangle Vineyard, was much drier and minerally because it had been picked at 17 Brix.

The following three wines were Meritage 200613th Street (Creek Shores), Jackson-Triggs (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Lailey Vineyards (Niagara Peninsula). The consensus is that it's very difficult to pick out terroir differences when the wine is a blend of different grapes and winemakers use a variety of oak treatments.

The next comparison was Flat Rock Cellars Riesling 2006 (Twenty Mile Bench) with 13th Street Riesling 2006 (Creek Shores). The Flat Rock showed marked petrol notes on the nose and Darryl (who used to be Flat Rock's winemaker) remarked that the wine was under scewcap and he has found that Riesling under screwcap develops petrol notes much sooner than Riesling under cork. The final pairing was Château des Charmes 2005 Equuleus Cabernet Merlot 2005 (St. David's Bench) and Thirty Bench Benchmark Red 2005 (Beamsville Bench). The wines were both picked at the same Brix level (23.2) but the Thirty Bench had more perceptible acidity and less than half the residual sugar. I asked Darryl if winemakers had to acidify in 2005 (a very hot year). He said no. As an Australian he's used to acidifying reds ("When you carry a 22 lb bag [of tartaric acid] up stairs you begin to hate acidity," he replied). Again, there was no way that sub-appellation differences could be judged by the blends.

The menu prepared by Chef Frank Dodd: seasonally inspired salad with wild honey comb; Cro Farm quail, smoked bacon, blood sausage ravioli with wild blueberry jam; Victory Farm heirloom tomato tasting – pressed, raw and soup (I had this dish at Hillebrand's jazz festival on July 11); Lakeland Farm venison, back vintage Niagara cherry pie, White Meadows maple red cabbage. Again I skipped dessert and Icewine.

Friday, September 4: Breakfast at Harbour House. Indulged in bread pudding with maple syrup. The bus takes us to Phil Tregunno's vineyard on Niagara Parkway, 150 acres in the old river bed, "like a quarry with rocks straight down," remarked Phil. The microclimate here allows for Bordeaux varieties to ripen, yet he buries some of his vines for the winter. In Phil's pool house a tasting had been set out of five Chardonnays. J.L. Groulx, Stratus' winemaker, leads us through them.  

  • Strewn Chardonnay Terroir Barrel Fermented 2006 (Niagara Lakeshore)
  • Lailey Vineyards Chardonnay 2006 (Niagara River)
  • Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Chardonnay 2006 (Niagara River)
  • Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Chardonnay 2006 (Four Mile Creek)
  • Southbrook Vineyards Chardonnay Poetica 2006 (Niagara-on-the-Lake)

J.L. says that tasting the juice rather than the finished wine is a more reliable marker of appellation differences. He went on to say that it took the French 200 years to settle on what grape varieties should be planted where, adding, "I don't think we'll be finished in 200 years anyway." Picking dates are important too, he contended. The farther you get from the lake the warmer the temperature, although elevation is also a factor; but in general terms the diurnal temperatures (the difference between day and night readings) is much higher on the Bench than on the plain.

Our next stop is Château des Charmes, where the Paul Boscs, father and son, walked us through the vineyard on the other side of the road from the winery where Paul Sr.'s house (and stable for the Arabian horses he raises) is located. They tell us that the vines are 10 days behind in the season and they are hoping for a spell of hot weather to ripen the grapes; many of the bunches have green berries still. They also show us some of the 600 crossings they have made, such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – this particular marriage of black varieties produces 100% white grapes! These experiments, predicts, Paul Jnr. "are the future of the Canadian wine industry."

Before a tasting and lunch at Le Clos Jordanne's Grand Clos Vineyard, we are driven to the lake to experience the cool temperature to be contrasted with that on the Bench. In a tent in the Clos Jordanne vineyard, the Minister of Consumer Services Ted McMeekin gives us a short speech and mispronounces Winemaker Thomas Bachelder's name. Thomas conducts a blind tasting of seven 2007 Pinot Noir: Cave Spring (Beamsville Bench), Hidden Bench (Beamsville Bench), Thirty Bench (Beamsville Bench, Rosewood Estate Reserve (Twenty Mile Bench), Flat Rock Gravity (Twenty Mile Bench), Le Clos Jordanne La Petite Colline (Twenty Mile Bench) and Henry of Pelham Family Reserve (Short Hills Bench). My favourites are Hidden Bench and Le Clos Jordanne. But, again, to my palate there was not discernible terroir variation. It was a question of ripeness, yields and treatment in the cellar. But then again, it might be because I have a cold and my palate is suffering. We enjoy a picnic lunch prepared by The Good Earth before taking the bus back to Toronto.

For dinner, Deborah and I have pasta and, by way of a change from the wines tasted and consumed all week, a bottle of Cabutto Tenuta La Volta Barolo 2003. Perfect with the dish.




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