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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 15 (December 27, 2004)

Monday, December 20: Didn't think I was going to get home last night. The limo from the airport broke down on the 401 in the middle lane. The car just stopped. The driver kept trying the gas but nothing happened. Then he got out and lifted the hood, flashers on. He fiddled inside as cars whizzed by him and eventually fifteen minutes later got it going. He pulled off at the Avenue Road exit and just as he reached Wilson the engine cut out again. But he managed to restart it and we limped down to my street. It was 15° Celsius when I left Madrid. The temperature in Toronto was minus 19. I thought they'd probably start picking Icewine, and sure enough, when I opened my emails there was a press release from both Henry of Pelham and Inniskillin. Also a request from for a story about the harvest. This is what I sent:

If there was ever any doubt that Canada has supplanted German as the Icewine centre of the world, you need only consult the thermometer. Today in Toronto. with the wind chill factor, it is minus 35 degrees Centigrade. Yesterday at 1 pm, when intrepid pickers went into the vineyards to begin the harvest at Henry of Pelham Estate Winery in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula, the mercury had dropped below the legislated mark of minus 8 degrees Centigrade. This is the temperature at which grapes left to hang on the vine will freeze as hard as marbles. Donald Ziraldo, co-founder of Inniskillin, reported that the temperature in his vineyard adjacent to Niagara Falls was minus 12 degrees at noon and by 6 pm it had dropped to minus 14 degrees.

"By our records," says Laurie MacDonald, executive director of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), the organisation that sanctions and monitors Ontario-grown wines, "this is the largest Icewine harvest in history." Paul Speck, president of Henry of Pelham, says it's the biggest Icewine crop of Vidal and Riesling his winery has ever produced. "After a small harvest in 2003 we're trying to recoup the losses from last year so we left more grapes on the vine. The quality looks fantastic and it is rare to be able to do the harvest during the day," he commented. "Usually we don't hit these temperatures in Niagara until the evening." Harvesting in daylight in polar conditions makes it much easier than under floodlights, although the biting cold made life uncomfortable for the harvesters, especially with the wind off Lake Ontario.

Canada has the most stringent regulations governing the sugar levels for Icewine. To bear the name of the label, the grapes have to have a minimum Brix level of 35 degrees, but usually the juice comes in at levels of 42 degrees.

By contrast, in Germany, Balthasar Ress started their Eiswein harvest on Saturday, December 11th, for their Hattenheimer Engelmannsberg in the Rheingau at a temperature of minus 4 degrees Centigrade. The juice had a must weight of 140 degrees Oechsle (32.2 Brix). The minimum sweetness level for Rheingau Eiswein required by German law is 125 degrees, or 29.2 Brix.

Spent the day answering emails and opening Christmas cards. In the evening I opened a bottle of a wine that is not yet on the market, Stratus White 2002. The note from winemaker J-L Groulx (late of Hillebrand) says it's a blend of Chardonnay and aromatic varieties. Sounds and tastes like Canada's answer to Cayumus Conundrum. If I hadn't known its provenance I would have sworn it was an Alsace Pinot Gris in Zind-Humbrecht style. Straw colour with an aromatic nose of vanilla, ripe peach and apricot, full-bodied with spicy peachy-apricot fruit, sweetish with a solid, spicy finish.

Tuesday, December 21: First day of exercise for two weeks. Awoke at 5 am. The body clock has not kicked in to Toronto time yet. One of those days when you try to clear the decks but the waves keep washing over them. In the evening I tasted the 2004 vintage of Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay and Bin 95 Sauvignon Blanc. Curiously, the Sauvignon Blanc is under screwcap whereas the Chardonnay is not. The Chardonnay Bin 65, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is Canada's best-selling white and I can understand why. For $10.45 in Ontario you get a fresh, easy drinking wine with a sweet apple flavour and a hint of pine needle. It's a gulpable wine, no chess problem here, nothing to make you stop in the middle of a conversation, stare at your glass and say, "Strike me pink, Bruce, what the hell have we got here!" For my palate I prefer the Sauvignon Blanc Bin 95 at the same price for its true varietal character – grassy, herby nose, dry passion fruit and gooseberry flavour and crisp finish.

Wednesday: December 22: Frank, the guy who will make my high speed connection work, is coming today. Let's see how fast this Fisher Price computer of mine can go. Frank is here for three hours and I take the opportunity to learn how to burn CDs and good stuff like that. Thanks to him my new laptop is now able to connect to the internet anywhere in the house. That's so cool. I can now watch television while I'm inputting wine reviews, which is a boring chore... Deborah's sister Suzanne is in from Paris. We dine on roast chicken and the remains of the Lindemans Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Thursday, December 23: Freezing rain today, really wretched driving conditions, so I decide to walk to my dentist about 3 kilometers away. Dumb move. The sidewalks are a foot deep in snow and walking in the street gets you splashed by passing cars. My dentist, a fastidious man, makes his own grape juice. I tell him he should go the whole hog and make wine. Why go to all that trouble when Welch's is pretty reliable... Today is our annual Saintsbury Society lunch, this year at Grano. Tony Hirons, Irvin Wolkoff and I bring our own wines – I brought my second bottle of Stratus White 2002 and Philip Holzberg's Domaine de Clevell Côte de Beaune 1999. Philip has the smallest vineyard in Burgundy, I think. We start with a Prosecco that Tony imports, then my wines and... I can't remember what we had after that since we don't take notes at these events. I think it was a Barolo, something from the Rhône and two different ports that Tony wanted us to try. Came home and slept for an hour. Deborah had baked her Christmas tourtière, which we had for dinner with a bottle of Stoney Ridge Pinot Noir 2002. Watched half of Shrek II on our new DVD, an early Christmas gift from my son Guy (who has never been able to resist giving his gifts early).

Friday, December 24: A brilliant sunny day, making up for yesterday's horror. By the time I got back from working out the sky was blue and the sun shining. Helped a neighbour down the street with his car. I hadn't met him before. He was spinning his wheels halfway out of his driveway. It took us a while to get him out. He asked me to wait a minute and dashed inside his house and returned with a bottle of Rosemount Shiraz 2002 and insisted I have it... Had a message on my machine from a neighbour who was looking after the house of mutual friends who were vacationing for two weeks in the Caribbean. A pipe had burst in their basement, flooding their wine cellar. Would I come over and take a look. They have a terrific cellar with about 3,000 bottles. Very eclectic selection. The place was drenched and many labels were soaked through. The pipe had burst in the ceiling and water had poured down the walls flooding to about four inches. We opened some of the wood cases to allow the air to dry the labels and put a fan inside the cellar. Since there was nothing that could be done we decided not to call the couple and spoil their holiday... Christmas Eve and we're invited to Arlene & Michael Willis for their annual party. They have a Jewish pianist named Bernie who is there every year and plays carols beautifully. We all sing from songbooks. Traditionally we do "The First Day of Christmas" – and we sing it till we get it right, which usually takes three times. This year we did it in two, which allowed me to get back to the Nicolas Feuillatte champagne. When everyone had left, Michael opened a bottle of Drouhin's Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998. Delicious.




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