3 Things – January 27th, 2012

In keeping up with this weekly column here are three things I’m pondering this week.

    1) Colour additives to spirits.

Believe it or not many of your favourite spirits out there use special colour additives to look the way they do. Even most of the finest single malt whisky’s use colour. Blended whiskey, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey….. The list goes on. American Whiskey (so bourbon) in fact is one of the only real notable exceptions where the production process and regulations specifically exclude the use of colour. To be more specific distillers use a form of caramel coloring to modify the appearance of the spirit to ensure consistently across the product line and to ensure what you are buying looks exactly as you expect it to. Don’t worry though it adds nothing to the flavour of the drink. Once I learned this I was bothered. It seems misleading or borderline unethical. I mean at $140 a bottle do you really need to modify the colour? The spirits are distilled to taste a certain way and should that not be how you evaluate them? The colouring has serious marketing and business benefits and in that way I totally get it. Plus to the untrained palate the colour helps you determine your preferences and guide your buying decisions. It helps determine the difference between an Islay and Speyside scotch, or a amber and dark rum. I’m sorry to be the one to break this news to you if this is coming as a shock, however my recommendation would remain that you don’t let it guide your buying decisions. Also don’t stop bragging or analyzing the beautiful colour of a spirit at your next dinner party, they do look wonderful, plus most people won’t know this anyways.

2) Craft Beer

In case you haven’t noticed Toronto is really becoming quite a hub for craft beer. The market is certainly here as consumers get more and more educated on beer options and as the popularity of beer and food pairings continues to grow. Beer bars are popping up seemingly every week and many of them are excellent. The prices still reflect the market unfortunately but we have to make due. We are now producing quite a few quality beers here at home. Flying Monkeys, Muskoka Cottage Brewing, and Beau’s are all now readily available at the Beer Store so you don’t even have to find one of the craft beer hotspots to get them. So if you continuously drink Bud, Coors, or even Pabst Blue Ribbon you should give some of the micro breweries a shot, you might be surprised. Or the next time your in a beer bar order something you’ve never heard of that is higher in alcohol and comes in a 600ml bottle. The world of beer is huge and just like wine there are many great surprises to be found within it.

3) Product availability at the LCBO and Beer Store

I get asked a lot on twitter about product availability at both the LCBO and the Beer Store. But this is one area where I certainly have to give both companies a lot of credit. If you check out either of their websites you can not only search for product by keyword, or a variety of other terms, but you can even check availability of the product at your local store. Buyer beware however, at the LCBO at least, because any product availability of less than 5 units probably means they actually don’t have it… So call the store before you go.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman



The Toronto Festival of Beer

Perhaps it’s because we are in the midst of the calmest winter in recent memory but I discovered yesterday that despite it not yet being February tickets to the Toronto Festival of Beer are already on sale. Beerfest will run this year from July 27-29 at the Bandshell at Exhibition place. Say what you will about the inflated prices, the line-ups that often extend around the street to get in, or the plethora of 30 something’s acting like college kids, I love Beerfest. I’ll admit I am one of those acting like a college kid… even more so than normal.

Here’s the thing with Beerfest. You need to leave your beer snobbery at the door. Sure I hate Budweiser as much as the next guy, but that’s not the point. Even more so than the wine show Beerfest is not actually about sampling beer to decide what to buy later. So just embrace it. You’re outside with friends with endless beer at your disposal. It’s that much better than being parked in your own backyard with a case or two on ice.

Lets be honest you can’t really have a bad time at Beerfest. There was 2007 when it was boiling hot but gorgeous outside or the following year when it poured rain all day. In fact a game of soaking wet beach volleyball broke out. I think I saw a mud slide that the cops tried to shut down. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a blast.

So let the drunks have their fun… I’ll see you there.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Follow Beerfest: @tobeerfestival

How to properly taste a glass of wine

Before I get into this I better clarify the difference between tasting and drinking wine. Yes that odd process you are picturing in your head is how to taste wine. Yes you swirl it. Yes you smell it with your nose right in the glass. Yes you spit it out. This is not to be confused with drinking the wine where you certainly don’t spit and your out to simply enjoy the wine. First of all let’s get one thing clear. I may partake in my share of tastings, but I will never enjoy anything more then drinking wine for pleasure the way it was meant to be consumed. But if you truly want to understand a wine and get out the flavours and intricacies out of it you should sample some. Plus as much fun as it sounds to drink 20 different glasses of wine in one night you can only properly enjoy them all and evaluate them all evenly if you are spitting the wine out. Plus if that 20th glass is a $100 bottle of Bordeaux you probably want to be able to taste it.

1) Pour yourself and ounce or two of the wine. Technically you should be using a proper ISO certified tasting glass (yes the ones they give you at the wine show). If not you want a glass with a tulip shaped rim so you an effectively smell the wine.
2) Look at the wine. Tilt the glass on an angle and look at the wine again. You want to take notice of the colour of the wine and how intense and deep the colour is. Also when the wine is tilted into the glass you want to take note of the difference in colour between the core of the wine and the wine around the rim that helps determine the depth and richness of colour. Also take note of the legs. Those are the drippings down the side of the glass after you have tilted it. Without getting too technical the intensity of the legs tells you the sugar and alcohol content of the wine.
3) Smell the wine. Don’t be afraid to put your nose right into the glass to get the aromas out. The secret is not to take a huge whiff of the wine but rather take many little whiffs. This helps you get the flavour aromas out without being overpowered by alcohol. Note the flavours. Try to decipher what it is you actually smell. You should swirl the wine around in the glass to release the aromas. This actually works its not just something people do to look like they know what’s they’re talking about.
4) Taste the wine. Take a small sip but no more than necessary to coat the inside of your mouth. Swirl the wine around your entire mouth and take in small amounts of air while you do it. This is the odd slurping sound people often make when tasting wine. Oxygen helps release the flavours of the wine so by taking air in you can taste all the flavours in the glass. The idea is simply to get a bit of air in while you have the wine in your mouth. You don’t necessarily have to make obnoxious sounds while doing it.
5) Spit the wine out. Yes the tough part but necessary to continue to properly taste.
6) Repeat. There is a lot to think about while your trying to taste wine so you can’t do it with just one sip. Repeat the tasting process two or three times more.

The final thing you should consider if you are tasting wine is making notes. Even something as simple as taking a photo of the wine label for your records. The idea of tasting is to understand a wine and to evaluate it for the purposes of buying more or to determine how long it could be cellared for. So you need to keep some sort of record of what your having so you can look back on it later. It is even a good idea to do this if you are just drinking wine for pleasure so you can record which wines you liked and didn’t. At the end of the day this will help with your overall appreciation of wine.

Whether you are drinking or tasting and evaluating… Enjoy.

Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

3 Things

As I posted last week I am going to try to make a weekly ritual of writing this post about 3 things in the world of wine and spirits that I think are interesting, informative, or just plain top of mind for me. This is the second installment of this post and I hope you continue to check back for my review. So without further adieu and in no particular order…

1) Drink Ontario

I have posted a few things declaring my loyalty to the wine we grow here in Ontario but it is more then just pride that creates that loyalty. Sure on the broader scale of wine across the globe Canada as a whole, let alone Ontario, will rarely get any attention from the experts and writers. If not for the notoriety of ice wine, Canada actually wouldn’t even be taught as part of any formal wine education curriculum. But my friends that is all beginning to change. The only way for a region to gain credibility in the world of wine is to produce a quality product. At the end of the day all the greatest wine regions are known as such because they produce the best wine. Ontario in its own right is beginning to become quite well recognized for high quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These grapes tend to perform very well in cool climate regions which we obviously have. Similarly they tend to be the most commonly used in the production of sparkling wine (including most Champagne) so as you can guess we’re starting to make headway with that as well. So the next time you’re thinking of grabbing a bottle of Pinot or Chard, think local. My favourites include Lailey Vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, Thirty Bench in Beamsville, or Coyotes Run in Niagara. However if you want the best we have to offer then fork out the $40 and get the base line wine from Le Clos Jordanne who right now are making the best of both currently produced domestically. If you want even more information on all Ontario has to offer check out my friend @_patriciaGD who is passionate about Ontario’s product and writes a wonderful blog herself. Patricia Dinsmore

2) The screw cap debate

Once and for all here are my thoughts on the screw cap vs. cork debate. Simply stated what is there to debate? Corks are the old fashioned way of doing things. Other than the slightly greater pleasure we all get from opening the cork they offer nothing more to the wine. In fact the screw cap is better. Although statistics vary slightly, approximately 5% off all the wine you buy will be faulted. Two of the most common faults include cork taint (obvious where that comes from) and oxidization. Both of which you don’t get with screw capped wines. So although the traditionalists may disagree there should really be no debate here which is why screw cap use is constantly on the rise. So get the cork stigma out of your mind. Buy wine because it’s good not because of what the producer chose to close it with.

3) Johnnie Walker Black Label

I will be the first to admit that I love the quality association and reputation of single malt scotch. I love scotch in general but, mentally at least, I love single malt scotch the most. But I also appreciate that there are some exceptional blended scotches out there as there are also exceptional Irish whiskeys, bourbons, etc. I try to keep a basic blended scotch on hand at all times and I strongly recommend the Johnnie Walker Black. Sure it’s a major corporate brand and is mass produced, but it is a tremendous scotch. It’s not overly complex by any means but always enjoyable. For those who just want to try a scotch out it would be a good choice. Or for those who try to keep something on hand for their father in law you will get plenty of respect for what you will spend.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Dear Decanter Magazine

The following is a letter I wrote to the editors of Decanter Magazine last summer after reading their July, 2011 issue touting the most influential people in the world of wine.  For those who haven’t read the magazine it is one of the foremost wine magazines around, if not the absolute best.  This particular issue was their yearly evaluation of the 50 most influential people in wine.  It was actually a great list, but coming from the Ontario market I couldn’t help but notice there were no Canadian inclusions on the list.  As I thought about it more and more I became convinced that a senior member of the LCBO warranted an inclusion on the list of the most powerful and influential people in the world of wine.  Not to slam our system but let’s be honest the LCBO is a powerhouse.  Their control is mind boggling.  So I took it upon myself and wrote the following to the editors of Decanter.  It however was never published.

Dear Decanter Editor,

I just finished catching up on some recent issues of Decanter magazine
and most recently finished reading your July 2011 issue.  Most notably
I enjoyed reading the 2011 Power List.  I was pleased with the
movement from more traditional wine execs to some more liberal
figures.  I liked seeing “The Amateur Wine Blogger” on there as well
as many powerful figures from the New World.  However I was taken
aback by what I consider to be a glaring exclusion from the list.

I appreciate that Canada as a whole is not even in the top 30
countries in the world in wine production.  I also appreciate that
your magazine caters to the connoisseur, the collector, the well
educated, and often the traditionalist.  However as you examine the
Power List and those that made the cut, I strongly feel that a
representative from the LCBO (The Liquor Control Board of Ontario)
absolutely needs to be included.

I may be bias as I am a Toronto resident.  I was born and raised here
and also took all my WSET education here.  I have a soft spot in my
heart for Canadian wine and I am a very proud Canadian.  But aside
from all that, the facts speak for themselves.  In 2010 the LCBO
generated $4.55 Billion in revenue, operating 618 stores and employing
7,533 employees.  They are a strong profit arm of the Ontario
Government, reporting over $1.4 Billion in dividends to the government
in 2010, and reporting directly to the Minister of Finance.  They are
one of the largest wine buyers in the world purchasing from over 77
countries worldwide.  And finally they have virtually full control of
the wine sales in Canada’s largest market (some independent winery
owned shops are licensed to sell their own wine).  Ontario is home to
13 Million people, 39% of Canada’s entire population.  It houses our
nation’s capital (Ottawa) and our largest city (Toronto).

The power is almost absurd.  Every single resident of legal drinking
age is getting their wine from one of the 618 stores.  Whether you
want a new world Argentinean or an old World Barolo or Medoc you shop
in the same place (although a first, second or third growth would be
virtually impossible to find).  The issue also extends to the control
over what is sold in the country.  As the single largest retailer they
control buying, distribution, pricing, and thus consumption.  I was
speaking to a small wine maker when I was in Chile last year and he
informed me that his product, which was outstanding, was rarely
available in Ontario because the order fulfillment minimums imposed
by the retail giant were too high for anyone to meet.  The only way to
meet those requirements generally came through their low end, bulk
produced wine, which somewhat explains what we find in our stores
(admittedly that last part is a large generalization).

So take your pick.  Nancy Cardinal (VP, Sales and Consumer Insights),
Bob Downey (VP, Sales and Marketing), or Tom Wilson (VP, Vintages).
But I would suggest Bob Peter, President and CEO.

Please don’t read this as a bitter attack on our liquor governing
system as it most certainly is not.  As I consistently read about the
world’s most influential people in wine, I can’t help but feel the
most influential and powerful in our country deserve some recognition.

Mark Britton 

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

3 Things…

Well  I am going to attempt to make this a weekly column but I make no promises at this point.  However check back every week and hopefully you will enjoy what you read as from time to time I may use this blog as a sounding board.  Please don’t mistake this for ranting or trying to pass my personal tastes or biases onto you.  What I want this blog to do is to help you try to open your mind to the broader world of wine and spirits and to get people to branch out of their comfort zones and try some new things.  However I know you probably don’t want to just try anything so from time to time I will try to provide some reasons and logic to help you explore and maybe make the wine shopping experience easier or more enjoyable.

So as a wine drinker you probably have your favourites.  You may be a white wine lover or a red wine lover.  You may even be so precise as to have narrowed down a grape variety or region you prefer.  It’s pretty safe to say however that for the average drinker your preferences are none of the below options, so I encourage you to try these three areas of wine and let your tastes branch out a bit.

1.Sparkling wines as regular consumption wine
Poor sparkling wines (yes Champagne included) have gotten a bad rap always being associated with parties and celebrations and often wasted by being sprayed all over.  But these are high quality wines.  In fact many experts will call sparkling wines their favourite category of wine… period.  Many winemakers at very prestigious wineries expend tremendous effort into the making of their sparkling wines and many garner very high prices.  In fact right here at home Ontario is gaining worldwide recognition for the production of high quality sparkling wine in the Champagne method, using a primarily a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both grapes gaining notoriety in their own right in Ontario.  So go pick up a bottle of sparkling, pour it into a proper flute glass, sip and enjoy it.  Taste it.  Sparkling wine typically pairs very well with oysters and other seafood

2. Rose Wine
Ok I admit this one is a bit of a soapbox rant but Rose wine is completely misunderstood.  Especially for those of you who already enjoy both red and white wine, there is no reason you shouldn’t give Rose wine its chance.  For clarity it is not just a mixture of red and white wine that makes it pink in colour.  No in fact it is probably closer to a red wine and typically made with the same red wine grapes.  To get technical a red wine gets is colour from the skins of the grapes.  The longer a winemaker leaves the skins involved in the winemaking process the deeper in colour the red wine will be.  When they make Rose wine they remove the effect of the skins much earlier in the process therefore the colour is weaker.  But really that is all.  Yes the process has an impact on flavour but you have to try it first before you can judge the merits of that.  Try something from France, Spain or right here in Ontario.  Stay away from “Blush” wines or Pink Zinfandel and you may be surprised by what you discover.

3. Try Sweet Wines – Beyond just Ice Wine
The great sweet wines of the world are also very much under appreciated.  Again people often associate good wine with body, tannin or alcohol which is not much more than false advertising.  In fact many of the world’s finest and rarest wines are sweet.  Ontario as we know is world renowned for the production of Ice Wine and we do a very good job of that, but don’t let that be your sole benchmark for what a sweet wine is.  They can be lusciously sweet as ice wine often is, or even semi-sweet.  But many are extremely high quality.  The key to sweet wine is the circumstance in which you consume the wine.  Much like a fine scotch you have to be in the mood and in the right situation to fully enjoy it.  The first key is not to drink too much of it and that is why they are typically sold in half bottles (375ml).  It is meant to be shared among friends with dessert.  The second key is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert for the pairing to match properly and for the full enjoyment to be recognized.  So expand beyond ice wine.  Try something from Sauternes in France, Tokaji in Turkey, or a Trockenbeerenauslese from Austria (the copycat sister of the very expensive German wine of the same name).  You will not be disappointed.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

My 5 favourite wines right now

As we embark on 2012 I wanted to write a post to mark a moment in time.  Today is January 3rd and as of today I wanted to share my 5 favourite wines as we head into the New Year.  No doubt these are bound to change, probably endlessly as the year goes on.

However these are not just the 5 wines I think are the best.  It would be easy to suggest some of the more expensive wines I have tried or some that are more renowned.  It would also be easy to suggest some of the wines you can only get at the winery or some that are extremely rare.  But in deciding my 5 favourites right now I have tried to consider everything from taste to availability and value for your dollar.  So I hope you consider a few of these the next time your are having a tough time in the LCBO.  These are in no particular order.

1. Mud House Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand – LCBO #190462 – $17.95
I first tried this at the 2011 Gourmet Food and Wine show in Toronto and it recently became a general list at the LCBO.  New Zealand has been gaining worldwide prominence for their Sauvignon Blanc’s from Marlborough, but more and more you can expect to be hearing about the Pinot’s from Central Otago.  This particular Pinot has elegance well beyond it’s price point but is still very fruit forward allowing you to enjoy it right now or even let it cellar for a couple years.  It’s well balanced with good acidity and as with the best Pinot’s out there you can pair it with a wide variety of foods.

2. 2009 Acacia Chardonnay, Carneros, California – LCBO Vintage #80556 – $27.95
At $27.95 this is the most expensive wine on my list and even beyond what I would spend on wine regularly.  But I confess I recently sprung for two bottles after sampling this in my WSET advanced course.  This wine is worth the price and could hold up to some of the best chardonnays out there.  However this is not Chablis and you better like oaked chard’s otherwise proceed to #3.  The oak is infused extremely well however and is balanced by a variety of fruit.  Carneros has become extremely well known as California’s premier region for chardonnay and this particular wine is at the top of it’s class.

3. Castillo de Monseran, Garnacha, Spain – LCBO #73395 – $8.95
I have tweeted pretty excessively about this wine as it is the best value you are going to get at the LCBO in my opinion.  Wine under $10 in Ontario is a steal, hence the recent popularity of the Fuzion wines from Argentina.  The difference is this wine is great.  You will see “Garnacha” on the label but that is nothing more than Grenache in Spain.  This wine is all fruit with ripe cherry and strawberry standing out.  Take this to your next party or get together or to impress your friends and they will never guess you paid so little for it.

4. Catena Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina – LCBO Vintages #478727 – $19.95
Malbec is my favourite grape variety right now and thus one had to make the list.  The Mendoza region in Argentina produces the finest Malbec’s in the world and the Catena producer is one of the best in all of Argentina.  While most of Catena’s wines are high priced (see Vintages #’s 982355, 132340, 170035 – $49.95, $79.00, & $98.00 respectively) this is their base wine but is still a great representation of the Malbec grape.  After visiting Argentina I have never quite understood why Cabernet Sauvignon has become the classic pairing of wine and steak.  Though it is good, you must pour a Malbec the next time you grill a beautiful steak as they go perfectly together.  In Mendoza they do three things extremely well.  Malbec, Steak and Leather.  Those three things they do as well or better than anywhere else in the world so they know what they’re doing.

5. Perrin Reserve, Cotes Du Rhone, Rhone Valley, France – LCBO Vintages #363457 – $14.95
This should become a go to for everybody at $14.95.  The Rhone valley offers some of the best value in all of France and this is no exception.   Though Perrin and Fils is a gigantic producer of all types of wine this remains a great choice.  Primarily a blend of Syrah and Grenache this is a big wine but is extremely smooth with black cherry fruit well showcased.  Another wine you can use to impress at your next dinner party which will pair well with most any meat.

I appreciate that wine is extremely subjective so comments and feedback are strongly encouraged.  I would also love to hear about and try your favourites as I am sure there are many I have left off the list or even forgotten about all together.  But these wines jump to the top of my mind as of today so the next time you are struggling to find a wine to try I hope this helps you narrow it down.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

How to taste Single Malt Scotch

I like to say that ever since I was a little boy I have been groomed to like and drink single malt scotch.  Yes it’s expensive.  Yes it is considered a connoisseurs drink.  But if enjoyed properly there is nothing like it.

While I was growing up my dad loved single malt scotch.  He was quick to keep me in line by telling me “Scotch can only be named as such if it is distilled in Scotland.” Of course I was merely a boy so I didn’t care.  Then I turned 19 and it was legal for me to drink in Ontario.  But I hated Scotch.  It tasted like alcohol and I wanted to mix it with something.    It was a trip to Deerhurst resort when I was 24 that took me over the hump.  I was parked in a huge leather chair, the piano was playing at the bar and I decided now was the time.  I went to the bar and asked the bartender for a recommendation.  Naturally he recommended the most expensive scotch on the menu and said it was his favourite.  So after ordering two glasses of The Macallan 18 yr old ($189.99 at the LCBO) my bill was way more than I had anticipated… but I was a scotch drinker.

So for those who didn’t grow up in a Scotch household or didn’t have the Deerhurst Resort experience above, here are a few tasting notes on how to enjoy single malts.

  1. Get the right Scotch.  Single Malt Scotch of any kind will do.  Be prepared to spend $50 – $60 a bottle.  If enjoyed properly however, it will last.
  2. Get the right glass.  Tulip glasses are preferred as are bottom heavy tumblers or bottom heavy snifters.  All will do as they allow you to swirl the drink in the bottom sending the aroma’s out the top.
  3. Pour yourself a glass.  1 – 3 ounces only.  No more.
  4. Add a touch of water.  Preferably not tap water.  Note that you are not mixing with water so when I say add a touch I mean a touch.  Use an eye dropper if you have to.  If you think about the smallest amount you can add… add less.  The water helps to release the aromas of the drink.  It add’s nothing to the flavour.
  5. Take a good look at the scotch noting it colour and characteristics.  All scotches will be slightly different in appearance, smell and taste so take a second to notice them all.
  6. Smell the scotch.  However unlike wine there is no need to swirl the scotch in the         glass excessively to release the aromas.  Scotch aromas are powerful and if you swirl it and get your nose right in there the alcohol can sometimes overpower the wonderful scents.  But do smell it.  Butterscotch, caramel, yeast, peat, barley, vanilla, and nut flavours are very common.
  7. Take your sip.  This is not a gulp but do take enough to have it hit and coat your entire tongue.
  8. Take the time to take in the flavours before you swallow.  After swallowing let the flavours settle by breathing in a few times through your nose.  You will taste the different flavours on different touch points of your tongue depending on the distillery, age and region you are tasting.  The same flavour characteristics I mentioned you might find when you smell are also common to taste.
  9. Repeat and enjoy.


– Scotch is only named as such if it is distilled in Scotland, otherwise it is simply called whisky or whiskey
– You do not mix single malt scotch with anything except water
-Take your time, taking moderate sips.  A small 1 – 3oz glass should last you about half an hour, if not more.
-You are not drinking scotch to get drunk.  If you are pre-drinking to go out for the night Mike’s Hard Lemonade or Coors Light is much cheaper.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman