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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 292 (May 30, 2010)

Sunday, May 16: Took an Air France flight last night from Toronto to Paris – a circuitous route to London; in case Heathrow was closed I could take the train from Paris (there is also a threatened British Airways strike. Usually it's the French who are on strike when I travel). Sat next to a professor of electrical and computer engineering from the University of Waterloo, Ravi Mazumdar, who enlightened me about the history of the India-Pakistan conflict. He told me his father owned the Kingfisher Brewery in Bangalore (a beer I always order with Indian food).

Martin Malivoire and Moira Sagansky were on the same flight and we only met up as we went through security in Paris, where I had three corkscrews confiscated. I had emptied my shoulder bag but forgot I had corkscrews in my computer case. The woman told me that if the corkscrews had no blade I could take them on the plane. I was about to say that I could do more damage with a two-inch helix than a one-inch blade but you don't argue with these people.

In London the three of us took the tube into the city. But they are working on the line and we had to get off at Osterley and take an "express bus" to Hammersmith, where we got on the tube again. I am staying at the Groucho Club on Dean Street in Soho. Photographer Steven Elphick is a member of the Spoke Club in Toronto, which has reciprocal arrangements with the Groucho Club. He and Paula are staying there, too, as Steven is shooting the Ontario Chardonnay tasting at Canada House.

Coming back to Dean Street is like revisiting my past. At the age of 14 I was taken by a friend of my father's to dine at Leoni's Quo Vadis Restaurant, where I first tasted their Sole Ste. Michelle – a dish of poached sole with a fish sauce thickened with eggs and pimentos which I would order on every subsequent visit.

Next door to Quo Vadis is a pub on the corner called The Crown and Two Chairmen. I stopped in for lunch: a pint of Sharp's Doom Bar Ale from Cornwall and a plate of calamari and tartar sauce. In the evening a group of us were meeting at Arbutus Restaurant on Frith Street (one over from Dean Street) for dinner. As I was walking over to the restaurant with Steven and Paula we passed a group of young kids in their twenties. One of them with dried yellow hair shouted down the street, "Hey, I need more lesbians and an extra faggot, so hurry up." I knew I was back in Soho. It took us a while to find Arbutus at 67 Frith Street because the even numbers go south and the odd numbers go north.

A discussion with the Italian waitress as to the correct pronunciation of Arbutus. In Canada we call this wild strawberry tree Ar-bew-tus. The waitress told us that a Latin professor informed them it was pronounced Ar-butt-us. Again, very Soho.

The menu was amazing: squid and mackerel burger, braised pig's head and ravioli of caramelized onions, smoked eel, pink fir potato and chorizo salad, among the starters. Highlights of the main courses: pieds et paquets – lamb's tripe parcels and trotters, slow cooked belly of pork, potato gnocchi, swiss chard, St. Georges mushrooms, sea bream, Cornish mussels, chorizo and monk's beard (which turned out to be a type of wispy vegetable).

We were 15 at table altogether: the Elphicks, Martin and Moira, Bill and Marilyn Redelmeier, Sadie Darby (who arrived late and soaked from the rain), Shiraz Mottiar (Malivoire's winemaker) and two friends of Bill's from Arizona. We started with a glass of Henriot Brut Souverain Champagne. I ordered a bottle of Geyerhof Hoher Rain Grüner Veltliner 2009 and Forrest Pinot Noir 2008 from Marlborough. Martin ordered a bottle of Arnaud Gaugal Picpoul de Pinet 2008 from the very eclectic and well chosen wine list. My starter: oxtail tripe gratin, which was served in a copper frying pan (delicious), followed by saddle of rabbit wrapped in Serrano ham, peas, broad beans with rabbit shoulder cottage pie (again delicious). Tasted Marilyn's warm treacle tart and Bill's floating Island, custard and pink pralines dessert. On the walk back to the hotel about 10 pm dropped into the Vintage House to price some malt whiskies. There are 56 narrow stairs up to my room and no lift. A good way to work off dinner.

Monday, May 17: Woke at 1:20 am and again at 5 am and that was it for the night. Prepared my notes for this morning's tasting on Ontario Chardonnays at Canada House. The event called "Ontario Chardonnay: Seriously Cool" was masterminded by Bill Redelmeier to show the British wine press that Ontario produces more than Icewine. The idea sprung from a blind tasting in Montreal in which the local wine writer Marc Chapleau had put a ringer bottle of Thomas Bachelder's Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 into a flight of white Burgundies. It was judged the best wine. Bill had heard a radio interview with Bachelder in which he said any ten Ontario Chardonnays could have produced the same result. So he decided to take some 40 Chardonnays to London which had been pre-tasted blind by a panel of Toronto wine writers.

In preparation for this morning's event I had a full English breakfast in the Groucho Club's dining room – scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, mushroom, tomatoes and blood sausage with brown toast, fresh orange juice and tea. Walked down to Canada House with Steven and Paula for the set-up of the tasting, which began at eleven. The event was a thundering success and the winemakers are very happy. I recorded an interview over the phone for 680 News and filed the following story to the Toronto Star.

British Critics Wowed by Ontario Chardonnays

The British wine press invaded Canada House today. They came in droves to taste and assess Ontario's top Chardonnays.

Billed as "Ontario Chardonnay: Seriously Cool," the event echoed a seminal tasting organized in Paris by Steven Spurrier. As a brash young wine merchant in 1976 he pitted California's best Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against top Burgundy and Bordeaux in a blind tasting. The tasters were all French experts and when the dust settled they had placed California top in both white and red categories.

Hidden Bench's Harald Theil and Steven Spurrier

Spurrier was on hand today to sample the 40 Chardonnays produced by 22 Ontario VQA wineries. But this was not a competition, rather a "coming out" to prove to British critics that Ontario makes more than Icewine.

"I was amazed," Spurrier commented, following his tasting tour of the room. "There was not a single poor wine here. They all have an individual personality. They're all brilliantly well made. I'm very impressed. I didn't know you had all this."

Jancis Robinson tasting

Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of British wine writers, was more qualified in her praise. "There were some really, really nice wines, varied, but not me-too products," she said. "Certainly this variety is well suited to Canada."

The ebullient Oz Clarke was particularly impressed by the Chardonnays of Prince Edward County. His advice to Ontario winemakers: "Be confident about this great world-class grape Chardonnay grown in Ontario. Don't let the populist tabloid press tell you that Chardonnay's no good. We all know that Chardonnay is a fantastic grape whose time will come again."

Oz Clarke, Southbrook's Bill and Marilyn Redelmeier

The wines for this tasting were selected by a panel of Ontario wine writers at a series of blind tastings earlier this year. Many of the winery owners and winemakers made the trip to London to pour their wines at this event.

Bill Redelmeier, proprietor of Southbrook Winery, who organized the tasting was elated by the reaction of the UK critics and members of the trade. "Everyone's got big smiles on their faces. We had a wonderful response from the press and it should do us a world of good as far as putting Ontario on the map."

The general impression of the attending winemakers is that this could be an historic tasting that will change the UK wine trade's perception of Ontario Chardonnay.

Winemaker Deborah Paskus and Sonja Smits

The Canadian contingent outside Canada House

After the tasting we repair to a bar beside Canada House, called the Texas Embassy, for a beer and then Bill Redelmeier and I walk over to the National Gallery for the 50th anniversary dinner of the Circle of Wine Writers. As we stand around chatting we're served Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne out of magnums and double magnums. The menu:

Lightly smoked sea trout, radish and watercress salad with a hazelnut dressing, served with Château Latour Martillac 2007.

Rack of spring lamb with broad bean and Jersey Royal crushed potatoes and a tomato and rosemary jus, with Château Lynch-Bages 1996 (our table's bottle unfortunately corked), Château Branaire Ducru 1998 and Château Canon La Gaffelière 2001 (the best wine of the three).

Dessert: Apple tarte tartin with honey clotted cream, served with Château Guiraud 2002 (a perfect match).

Tuesday, May 18: There is still trouble with the Icelandic ash disrupting air traffic in Europe and I'm concerned about getting to Paris on Thursday as well as the arrival in Paris that day of Deborah and the rest of the Spanish tour group. Martin and Moira, who are part of the tour, have made arrangements for the three of us to take the train to Paris in case our flight is cancelled.

Today is the first day of the London Wine Fair. To get there (at the ExCel in Docklands) you have to take the Jubilee line to Canning Town and change to the DLR to Custom House. Except the Jubilee Line is not working so Steve Elphick and I have to go to Bank and take the DLR from there. It takes us about an hour and 20 minutes to reach the fair site.

The hall is vast. I started off by tasting Saurdet-Diot Champagnes, then move to the New Zealand booth for some Montana Sauvignon Blanc (the Brancott Sauvignon 2009 is lovely). Then over to the India booth, where I tasted a fascinating Four Seasons Viognier 2008, York Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 and Tiger Hill White Zinfandel 2008. Found my old friend Brent Marris at the New Zealand stand and tasted a range of his The Ned wines, which are beautifully balanced. Next the Ridgeview sparkling wines from Sussex (a great Blanc de Noirs 2006). At the Domaine de Gianaclis I tasted Ayam Syrah 2007. I visited this vineyard in 1965 when it was still the United Arab Republic under Nasser. Stopped by the Croatian booth, where I saw Ivona Grogan, who toured me around Croatia last year. Tasted through the range of Krauthaker, who makes delicious Grasvina and Merlot. Then tasted the range of Roxanich wines – big and powerful. He makes what he calls SuperIstrian Cuvée – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a local red variety, aged for 36 month in large old vats. Next tasted through the portfolio of one of my favourite Austrian producers, Rabl. Beautifully made Grüner Veltliner, ending with an Eiswein. Then a range of Sauvignon Blancs by Walter Skoff, another fine Austrian producer. His Royal Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (a blend of two vineyards, Hochschutz and Obegg) tastes like a fine white Bordeaux. Finally ended up at the stand of David Gleave MW, who owns Liberty Wines. He has an amazing list. Jean-Charles Boisset was there and I tasted some of his Jean-Claude Boisset wines as well as a DeLoach. Finished the afternoon tasting John Duval wines. John used to be the winemaker at Grange and is now on his own making very refined Shiraz in the Barossa Valley.

Took the train back to hotel and decided not to join a party going to the River Café. Caught up on emails and then dined alone at Gopal's of Soho, an Indian restaurant a block away from the hotel.

Wednesday, May 19: Had a breakfast of grilled kippers before making my way over to the Millennium Hotel to meet Martin Malivoire. The question is whether to take the train to Paris or fly. Heathrow was partially shut down yesterday. Also where I should sleep tonight. We decided not to book into the airport hotel in case we had to take the train. Tried to book into the Millennium but they had no rooms so I had to settle for the more expensive Marriott across Grosvenor Square from the Millennium.

Made my way out to the London Wine Fair again, running into Tim Atkins on the tube. Tasted Man o' War Syrah 2008 from Waiheke Island and also their Dreadnought 2008 (both lovely wines). Then Man o' War Ironclad 2008, a Bordeaux blend with all five varieties. Ran into Jean-Charles Boisset and tasted with him Louis Bouillot Les Trois Saints 2007, a Crémant de Bourgogne made from Chardonnay from three villages – St. Aubin, Saint Véran and St. Romain. (a lovely sparkler). Also tried Louis Bouillot Rosé Brut. At 11 am there was a sit-down tasting of Chateau Musar wines in a private room. Serge Hochar ask me if I would speak about them, giving my notes. Not the easiest situation in front of a room full of wine professionals and MWs.

Château Musar Jeune Blanc 2009 (Chardonnay, Viognier, Vermentino): pale lime colour; minerally, citrus, floral nose; great energy with citrus and nutty finish.

Château Musar Jeune Rosé 2009 (Cinsault): orange pink; minerally, wild strawberry; just a hint of residual sugar; finishes dry and firm.

Château Musar Jeune Rouge 2008 (Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon): youthful purple colour; minerally, earthy, blackberry; fruity, mulberry flavour but good structure. Very gulpable.

Château Musar Hochar 2003: tawny ruby; inky, a touch of V.A. that lifts the nose; raspberry, pencil lead – lovely mouth feel, sweet fruit, great integration of oak.

Château Musar 2003: much deeper in colour; medicinal note on the nose with a sweetness of fruit and cocoa powder tannins; very elegant, a seamless wine with soft tannins.

Château Musar 1997: not showing much age but a drier wine, like an old claret, great structure with a cedar note.

Château Musar 1980: tawny ruby; showing tertiary notes on the nose of an old wine – inky, minerally, sweet soy and leather; mature flavour but a firm tannin structure still.

Château Musar 1977: tawny ruby; a sweet core, beautifully balanced with a firm structure. Still going strong

Château Musar Blanc 2003: medium straw colour; dry, butterscotch

Château Musar Blanc 1990: deeply coloured, bronze; rich, honey, spicy apple, apricot, toast and lanolin on the nose; reminiscent of a Roussanne/Marsanne blend, great length.

Lindsay Groves and Bartholomew Broadbent at the London Wine Fair

Linked up with Lindsay Groves to taste a bunch of wines from Turkey, Virginia, Uruguay and finally some Broadbent Madeiras. Bartholomew Broadbent was on the stand so I got caught up with his news. Back to the Marriott Hotel before meeting Martin and Moira at the Millennium for a Bloody Mary before dinner at Chor Bizare, an Indian restaurant on Albermarle Street (the second Indian meal in two days). To bed early as I have to be up to get to Heathrow for 6 am. News is we'll be able to fly.




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