3 Things – Feb 25th

1) Scotch (or whiskey) Stones 
I admittedly have never tried these but my sister in law asked for my thoughts on them so I figured why not kick off this week’s 3 things post with a few comments (admittedly with a little research).  For those that don’t know what Scotch Stones are, they are small cubes of soapstone that you freeze.  You then put them into your whiskey where they give you the benefits of a chilled drink without remotely altering the flavour.  The purist whiskey drinker likely prefers to drink the scotch neat which means to add nothing except perhaps a small touch of water.  Others do prefer to have a slightly chilled drink, however when the ice cubes begin to melt they will alter the flavour.  So the scotch stones make sense.  Personally I like my scotch neat with only a touch of water.  But I do like it chilled so I can see myself enjoying these.  Either way there are many gimmicks in the world of beverage alcohol and I can confidently say I don’t think these are one of them.

2) Right Bank and Left Bank Bordeaux
You probably hear the terms Right Bank and Left Bank Bordeaux thrown around quite a bit.  In referring to these small regions of France it’s quite common to simply say “Left Bank” and assume people know what you’re talking about.  However you may not have a clue.  In fact a lot of people probably don’t know.  Outside of knowing that Bordeaux is a great wine region you may not now exactly what Bordeaux means.  So I thought I would clarify.  For starters Bordeaux is a region in the southwest of France.  It is probably the most famous wine region in the world, garnering the highest price points for wine.  The two banks of Bordeaux are separated by the Garonne river.  Not surprisingly to the west of the river is the Left Bank and to the east is the Right Bank.  Outside of geography the key differences lie in the grapes used in red wine production.  Red wines in Bordeaux are blends, always made from Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and to some extent Petit Verdot and Malbec.  The main difference however is that on the left bank the blends tend to be Cab Sauv dominated, whereas on the right bank they tend to be merlot and cab franc dominated.  While red wine is certainly the majority of Bordeaux wine produced they also make a famous sweet white wine.  The city of Sauternes is part of the Bordeaux Region, where they grow Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion for the production of this sweet wine.
Key Left Bank Regions: Margaux, Graves, Medoc
Key Right Bank Regions: Saint-Emilion, Pomerol 
This is a very simple and short definition of a great wine making region.  However the next time it comes up in conversation or the next time you are looking at a Medoc in the LCBO, I hope you’ll have a better understanding of what it actually means.

3) A quick note about Prince Edward County
Playing second fiddle to the Niagara region on the Ontario wine scene can’t be easy for a region trying to make a name for itself.  But Prince Edward County (PEC) is a region you need to take note of.  They have a great culture promoting homegrown viticulture, gastronomy, and tourism.  It’s like a small town everywhere you go.  However more importantly to the wine drinkers out there they have a wonderful cool climate that is conducive to some great wine making.  For many popular grapes (Cab Sauv, Riesling, etc) they remain a bit behind.  However for the production of the classic cool climate grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay they are playing with the big boys and making some beautiful wines.  Only about 2 hours from Toronto it’s worth the trip out there and if you can’t make it buy some from the LCBO next time and give them a shot.
Here are some wineries to check out:
Chadsey Cairns: www.bychadseyscairns.com
Closson Chase: www.clossonchase.com
Karlo Estates: www.karloestates.com
Lacey Estates: www.laceyestates.com 

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 


Wine Term Of The Week

I decided to add a new feature to towineman, the term of the week.  It could be from anywhere, wine, beer or spirits.  The hope is this will be a helpful feature making you all more and more familiar with the wide world of beverage alcohol.  However I will be the first to admit this is not a unique idea.  There are many blogs that have helpful definition sections, plus between apps and websites there are a copious number of ways in which you can get the definition you are seeking.  But you came here.  Plus the hope is I can provide definitions to terms you may not already know or have ever thought about.  I also won’t be simply copying formal definitions from dictionary’s.  I will try to provide descriptions that are helpful and easy to understand well also providing some insightful context.  Enjoy.

February 20th, 2012:
Chablis is a region in the north of France well above the heart of Burgundy and really at the colder limits of wine making.  Still considered part of Burgundy the key to Chablis is that they make Chardonnay.  Plain and simple.  So the next time you are shopping the France section of the LCBO and you see Chablis on the bottle you will know exactly what you are getting.

To take it a step further the typical Chablis is unoaked and full of steely minerality.  It gives a very fresh flavour with ripe citrus fruits.  The wine pairs very well with any fish and is a classic pairing with oysters and lobster.  Of course not all Chablis has all of these characteristics which is why the word “typical” is very important to understand.

The base line Chablis could cost you under $20, but they do go up from there.  Premier Cru  (also shown as 1er Cru) and Grand Cru wines are the pinnacle running about $25 and up from there.

Post Valentines Day Wine Review – Cupcake Red Velvet

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Valentine’s Day.  I don’t really get it.  People go nuts buying flowers, chocolate, wine, cards, dinner, jewelry, and everything else for their sweethearts on February 14th.  I’m all for making your loved ones feel special, but why does it have to be so contrived and expected on one day a year?  Why not try to be a good boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/other everyday of the year?  Companies are banking significant price increases on these romantic gifts.  Why not buy them on the 15th at half the price and surprise your special someone?  Anyways I digress.  This blog is not about my thoughts on Valentine’s Day.  However for many of the reasons I just mentioned I chose to finish this post the day after Valentine’s Day.

This blog is however about wine.  It is another one of those romantic products that I expect would see an increase in sales on Feb 14th.  One in particular I would expect a huge sales spike in is Cupcake Red Velvet wine from California, especially since it is on sale at the LCBO right now for $13.95 (LCBO #260851).  The name alone caters to this day.  However with all due respect, love, and apologies to my good friend Maggie who introduced me to this wine on New Year’s this year… I do not recommend it.  It is made up primarily of Zinfandel, but also includes some Cab Sauv, Merlot and Petite Sirah.  Maybe it’s because I don’t like Zinfandel much, but this wine does not work.  You do get hints of chocolate and black cherry and there is some residual sweetness.  However in trying the 2009 I also find stewed plum and alcohol that is completely unbalanced.  I believe the goal here was to create a wine which tasted like Red Velvet cupcakes and they may have succeeded to some extent… but are those flavours you want in your wine?  Perhaps… but not me.

For those that celebrated I hope you enjoyed yourselves.  For those that enjoyed a nice bottle of wine send over your thoughts and tasting notes.  Feedback and comments are always appreciated.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

3 Things – Feb 12th, 2012

What’s on my mind this week you ask?  Well here you are.

1) Burgundy and Bordeaux
Burgundy and Bordeaux in France are easily the two most famous and prestigious wine regions in the world.  With big and historic producers often commanding hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars a bottle, they are also the most expensive.  Here in Ontario we really don’t even see the best of the best unless you order privately or special order through the Vintages collection and pay the premiums.  There just isn’t an everyday market for it.  What I wonder is if there is really going to be a market for it at all in the future, at least at the current price structure.  The largest purchaser of first growth Bordeaux (1st growth being the 5 so called best chateau’s) is now China, where it is really a strong status symbol among the upper class Chinese.  But around the world these two regions are facing fierce and formidable competition.  In business you always go after the power houses and Bordeaux and Burgundy have been the power houses of the wine world for centuries.  Burgundy being the benchmark for all premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and Bordeaux being the benchmark for all Cab Sauv/Merlot/Cab Franc blends.  All wines are judged against these two regions.  The thing is the rest of the world is catching up.  New world regions like California, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina are all producing top quality wines from the noble French varieties and selling them at a fraction of the cost.  Experts and average consumers alike are starting to recognize this and eventually France will suffer.  The New World really starting making headway in wine sales through strategic marketing. They labelled the bottles with the grape varieties and formed catchy brand names so consumers could relate and understand exactly what they were buying.  It worked and while they are still cunning marketers the quality is present more than ever before and as simultaneously I think the sigma and status of buying Bordeaux and Burgundy is on the decline.  Don’t get me wrong Bordeaux and Burgundy produce exceptional wine.  There is a reason they are the true bench marks of wine production.  But as wine consumers continue to become more knowledgeable I wonder how much longer France will be able to command these ridiculous prices.

2) Coolers
I hate them.  I didn’t even like Mike’s hard lemonade when I drank it in high school.  I am really not a fan of mixed drinks as it is so sugary coolers are certainly not for me.  The only time they seemed to make sense was during the “icing” fad of 2010.  I get it though, they have their market.  They actually sell extremely well around the world.  But I just can’t imagine anybody who actually likes the taste of good alcoholic beverages drinking coolers on a regular basis.  Plus they give you massive headaches the next day because of the sugar content.  I’m not seeing a lot of positives here.  (End soapbox rant.)

3) Carolans Irish Cream Liqueur
Although I often rip on liquers and sweet alcohols I do love Bailey’s in coffee and from time to time on ice.  If you agree you should try Carolans Irish Cream (LCBO #108357).  At $24.95 for a 750ml bottle it is $5 less than Baileys and in my opinion is actually a better flavour.  Essentially the exact same product Carolans is a bit less sugary than Baileys allowing the smoothness of the typical Irish Cream flavour to come through.  Try it.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

White Wine For The Red Wine Drinker

I asked last week for some blog post recommendations and a few good suggestions came in.  Today I decided to respond to @poutinequeen who asked for a few white wine suggestions for the red wine drinker.

It’s actually a great question… hence my decision to use this space to answer it.  Let’s start by debunking a few myths.  First, some people claim if you like red wine you don’t like white wine and vice versa… false.  If you like wine and you really appreciate it you probably like both or at least some varieties and styles within each.  Second people often believe that you start by drinking white wine until you learn to appreciate red wine then you never go back.  Wrong again.  I admit I started on white wine, moved onto red and hesitated to go back.  But only because I didn’t know what to think of white wine and what to try.  I also thought it was the the easier and fruitier style.  I essentially thought white wine was a bit lame which is simply not true.  Finally there is a belief that red wine is always fuller bodied and is the wine for anyone who truly likes wine.  Therefore if you want to be a “wine drinker” you must drink red.  White is for those who really don’t understand wine.  Wow! That all could not be further from the truth.  With all that said I admit that I am primarily a red wine drinker.  But I do appreciate a good white wine from time to time and under the right circumstances.

But answering this question is still tough.  I am going to have to narrow things down by making a few assumptions.  If you exclusively drink red wine I have to assume you like full bodied wine.  I also have to assume you probably eat a lot of rich foods and a lot of meat, and pair your wine appropriately with those dishes.  Finally I have to assume that you probably have determined certain wine varieties and regions you particularly enjoy, otherwise you would not have been able to ascertain that you are in fact a red wine drinker.

So it is with those assumptions that I move on to answer this question.  Here’s what you do.
1) Drink Full Bodied White Wine
Yes you can get very full bodied white wines.  Try a Chardonnay from Carneros in California, anything from the Burgundy region in France, or even a Viognier.  Stay away from the anything off-dry or higher in sweetness as well as your typical light fruity wines (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Torrentes etc.)
2) Pair the wine appropriately with your food
Start drinking white by making the right pairings.  You can’t help but enjoy white wine more than red if you are eating chicken or fish.  So the next time you are making a dish with either of those pair it and see what you think.  It is also very common to pair slightly fruitier wine or wines with a bit of sweetness with spicy food.  The residual sugar, acidity, and fruit help cut the spice in the dish which will help you enjoy the wine more.
3)  Pick a white wine from the same region as the reds you enjoy
It’s common for most famous regions to produce both red and white wines.  It’s also common for the wine making techniques and overall procedures and regulations to be very similar.  So if you like a particular region for your reds try some of the whites from that region.  For example Burgundy is probably the most famous region in the world for premium Pinot Noir but also for premium Chardonnay.  In Piedmont Italy they make huge classic Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s but also make a wonderful white wine called Gavi.  So that’s another nice place to start.  You have to narrow right down to the region though, it’s not enough to assume an Italian white will be good if you like Italian red’s.  Narrow down as far as you can.

Does that answer a few questions out there?  Does that help make the shopping experience easier?  Does that broaden your mind a little bit in the world of wine?  I hope so because those are really the focuses of this blog.  Comments and feedback are very much appreciated.

Enjoy your white wine!!!

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

Superbowl Beverage Of Choice

I posted a tweet earlier this week asking for suggestions on what I should drink during the Superbowl party. While seemingly very simple I consider this a very interesting and very important question.  See I don’t like football.  I go to a Superbowl party every year and rarely do I watch much of the game.  My favorite Superbowl memory is Bruce Springsteen sliding crotch first into the camera in 2009 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOhhEMn-8D8).  So I go to the parties for the social aspect.  I get to hang out with friends, drink, and eat.  The Superbowl simply provides a great excuse.  So what to drink actually becomes a very important question.  @brewersofcanada of course replied with “Canadian Beer”, @mikelillie claimed there is no option but to drink Bud Light (while that is one of my least favorite beers on the planet I can see where he is going with it), @beerhunter4u replied and suggested I pick up some Crazy Canuck and 666 Devils Pale Ale, and finally I caught another post that argued there is no place for wine on the Superbowl menu.

Playing the wine blogger and devils advocate I would argue you can very cleverly pair many wines with your classic chicken wings, chili or nachos (perhaps a riesling, chianti, or a cava).  Really any classic Superbowl munchie could be paired with the right wine.  However the realist in me also doesn’t see wine playing much of a role in the Superbowl festivities.

All of these folks make very interesting comments and in my opinion all are in a way right. If you’re going to go watch the Superbowl just make it a beer.  There is not much more synonymous with American football than beer.  But as much as I would almost always agree with the pro Canadian sentiments of @brewersofcanada I think I have to go American on this one.  But sorry @mikelillie I’m not going Bud Light I will be showing up with something quite a bit more tolerable… Rolling Rock it is.

Enjoy the game and whatever it is you choose to drink.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

3 Things – Feb 4th, 2012

I love writing this weekly column.  3 things that are on my mind right now.  I hope you enjoy.

1) The Best Beer Bars In The City
Craft Beer has never had a stronger following in Toronto than it does right now.  It’s not a fad either folks, it is here to stay.  With places like Flying Monkeys, Mill Street, and Muskoka Brewing being part of the Ontario Craft Brewers association our access to quality beer continues to grow.  As such the bars in Toronto are catching on with mainstream places expanding their beer lists and full scale beer bars opening up all the time.  So with that I thought I would provide my 5 favourite places to get a good pint in the city right now.
5. Stout Irish Pub – 221 Carlton Street Eat. http://www.stoutirishpub.ca/home.html
4. The Monks Kettle – 3073 Bloor Street West. http://www.themonkskettle.com/
3. Bar Volo – 587 Yonge Street. http://barvolo.com/
2. C’est What – 67 Front Street East. http://www.cestwhat.com/
1. The Beer Bistro – 18 King Street East. http://beerbistro.com/ 

2) The iPad
OK I admit it I am hooked.  My wife has changed the classic term “crackberry” into “iCrack”.  I love it.  I spent forever trying to decide whether or not I should get one and I am extremely happy that I did.  However I think the reason I love it so much is I treat it like more than just a toy.  I don’t just go on to search the internet, play games, or use Twitter.  I use it as a tool for learning and working.  I write blog posts while I’m on the subway every morning.  I use apps to research wine and spirits and to keep up on the industry.  I subscribe to the electronic version of Wine Access magazine.  It’s just so much easier and more convenient to be knowledgeable and to learn about your passions with the iPad.  Plus… it’s also just so much more convenient to tweet on it too.

3) Whiskey vs. Whisky
Ever wonder why there are different spelling’s for what seem to be the exact same thing? Well let’s try to clear the air a bit.   Generally speaking Whiskey is the spelling used in Ireland and America.  Whereas Whisky is the spelling used in Canada and Scotland.  But are they the same thing?  Well not at all actually.  Whisky/ey is an overarching term for a spirit produced from fermented grains. But it includes Scotch, Tennessee, Rye, Bourbon, Irish, Canadian….. and yes they are all Whisky/ey’s, and yes they are all quite different.  As with wine it all comes down to where the product is produced, the rules and regulations of that particular region, and what the spirit is made from.  Single Malt Scotch Whisky must be made with malted barley from a single distillery and only made in Scotland. Canadian Whisky on the other hand is often syonymous with the term “rye” as rye was at one point the staple ingredient in production.  Then you have Bourbon which is made exclusively in the US (primarily Kentucky) and is made mostly using corn.  I could go on and on as the rules get my more and more complex as you dig into it, but I will save that for another post all together.  My only hope with this quick rant is to begin the discussion on the differences and as I have mentioned before to try to help make your shopping experience a bit easier.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

A scotch post for Robbie Burns

Well I might be a few days late but every year in honour of Robbie Burns day you see a number of blog posts and write-ups on scotch… I guess it’s an excuse to write about it. Before I got into scotch I certainly had no idea who Robbie Burns was (he’s a Scottish poet who is no longer with us) but like others I took this opportunity to celebrate with a wee dram of single malt and thought I would follow-up with a post on scotch.

So here’s a few tasting notes and recommendations on single malt scotch.

1) The Glenlivet – Nadurra – $81.95, LCBO #89508
This one is a bit tough to find but if you can get your hands on it do it. Basic Glenlivet is your base line single malt and compared to other base line scotches its quite good. But this one is different. Sweet and light, it goes down quite easy. I would almost compare it to a Dalwhinnie (see #4 below).

2) Highland Park 12 yr old – $59.95, LCBO #204560
I have written about this one before and in my opinion there is hardly a better single malt that you can buy at this price point. It’s in a base line single malt price range but you get a good quality scotch. It’s got complexity and flavours that otherwise can’t be found at this price range.

3) Lagavulin 16 yr old – $109.95, LCBO #207126
Alright it’s $110 a bottle but you must try a Lagavulin. The classic Islay scotch, ripe with the classic peat smell you associate and want from that region. Gasoline, paint, and strong, strong alcohol scents are what those around you might find. But for a scotch drinker there is not really a better example of an Islay scotch… at least not in this marketplace.

4) Dalwhinnie 15yr old – $84.95, LCBO #238097
Taking a complete 180 from the Lagavulin the Dalwhinnie comes from the other end of the spectrum. As single malts go I would classify this as light and easy to drink. But do not confuse that with a lack of complexity. The easiness of drinking is a compliment as this scotch is well made and gains its smoothness from the aging process. For those that have never tried a scotch before you would likely enjoy this one as the candy and caramel are on full display.

5) The Edradour 10yr old – $79.95, LCBO #904995
This is the coveted scotch missing in my collection. Made from the smallest distillery in Scotland this is a wonderful scotch. Its been years since I have had it, but I can still confidently recommend it. It was extremely hard to find for awhile but I found it last christmas at the LCBO on Queens Quay. Check the LCBO product inventory before heading out in search of this one.

So let’s all raise a toast to Scotland for giving us golf and Scotch. I think we owe them.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

A wonderful evening at Earls

Last night I spent 3.5 wonderful hours with the staff at Earls who treated me and 7 friends to great food, drinks, service, and an all around great time.  I guess I am moulding into a bit of a wine and food critic so consider this a glaring endorsement to the Earls King Street location.

First let me take a quick step back.  I had been to Earls a few times before and I hadn’t had the greatest experiences.  I was a bit turned off and I had let my thoughts be known via Twitter.  It was tough because I also have a 9-5 job in First Canadian Place so Earls was supposed to become a new local watering hole and after some of the great things I had heard about the locations out West I had high expectations.

I’m not going to get into any of that though because like I said off the top, this is a glaring endorsement.  After some back and forth on Twitter and some exceptional customer service by @earlsrestaurant I was lucky enough to chat with the Ann Topp, the General Manager of the King Street location.  Following that customer service I agreed it would be a miss not to give Earls one more shot.  So last night in the company of 7 of my closest friends we enjoyed what they call a ‘Chefs Table’.  We sampled shared portions of probably close to 20 dishes, multiple cocktails, and 3 different styles of wine (more on the wine in a second).  We got outstanding service led by Casey Nolin, one of the managers, and even received numerous visits from the Chef himself.  He took the time to explain the food to us, the cooking process, the ingredients, and the care Earls puts into it.  Who knew they make all their bread, wontons, curry sauce, pizza dough, pasta sauce, and a plethora of other dishes in house?  I personally would have assumed most of the options on the menu were mass produced, but in fact they are not.  For example, their ‘bread program’ actually includes fresh bread baked daily on location.  I was impressed by the time and care put into their craft.

I didn’t even have to pair the wine.  They had pre determined which wines they were going to serve us with which dishes which was quite a nice surprise.  We tried a chardonnay and a cab/merlot made by Whatchamacallit (yes that is what it’s called) which is a brand produced specifically for Earls.  This is something that Earls likes to do as they also offer the Rhino beer, which is also exclusive to them and happens to be pretty good.  The chardonnay was a bit sour, but had tons of body and fruit and was actually a nice wine.  I enjoyed it most when paired with the Kung Pao chicken dish.  The cab/merlot was pretty good as well.  Although the 14.5% alcohol came through it was nice as a food wine.  Following those two we were actually treated to the Mission Hill Cab Sauv, personally selected by our server to go with the Steak dishes.  I have had that wine before and it’s very good.  The pairing was excellent as the wine was full bodied but still rich with fruit.  I would definitely recommend trying it.

So the next time you go to Earls try the Ribs, the Kung Pao chicken, the Curry, or the Lamb popsicles.  All my favourites from the evening.  They also make a mean Manhattan, the bellini’s looked like they could of been on display, and my pregnant wife even got a virgin Mojito.  What more can you ask for?

So for all who will listen I commend the staff at Earls King Street.  I came away from this experience with a new found respect for the restaurant.  Although Earls is part of a large chain, the location acts very independently with care and attention given where it’s needed.   You’ll probably still find it’s pretty busy in there on a Friday night with the after work crowd, but at least now I totally understand why.

Thanks again to all the staff.  I’ll see you guys soon.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman