I’m “Hot to Trot” on the emerging value of Washington Wines

I often get criticized for not writing more about American wines.  It’s a valid complaint, but truth be told I don’t drink a lot of American wine.  There is a lot of high quality wine coming from the US but for the most part California and Oregon, the two most prominent regions, are very expensive.  So for personal consumption I don’t buy a lot of US wine.  But that could change.  Two regions are beginning to emerge where there is quality wine to be discovered and value to be found.  The Finger Lakes region of New York is up and coming and we are likely to see more of their wine in the not so distant future.  Then there is Washington State emerging as a quality region and emerging quickly, with more and more wine from the area available at the LCBO seemingly daily. Last week I got a glimpse into this future with a release party and tasting for Hot to Trot wine from 14 Hands Vineyards in Washington.  As a result I now get to answer those critics and have the pleasure of writing about American Wine.

I was first introduced to Washington State with a syrah from Dunham Cellars which retails for $35 at the LCBO.  If you can find it, that is a steal and you can find my review of that wine here.  I was excited about Washington then, and I was excited for the opportunity to try more of the up and coming product last week.  My thanks to 14 Hands Vineyards for having me at their “release party” for Hot to Trot wine.  “Release Party” really was the appropriate term for the evening and a party it certainly was.  Hot to Trot is available now in the LCBO with a red blend selling for $15.30 and a white blend selling for $14.65.  These two wines were our hosts for the evening and they were flowing.  The beauty of it was that there were only the two wines.  Within 20 minutes of arriving my reviews on the wines and my tasting notes were complete so like the rest of the guests in attendance I got to enjoy the “party” aspect of the evening, which was a pleasure.  I even took home the door prize, a 24 Carat gold plated horseshoe.  The story goes that the horseshoe is going to bring me good luck.  It didn’t seem to help when I placed a bet on the biggest long shot horse I could find, but perhaps in more reasonable settings in the future I will reap its benefits.

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The red is a blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  In speaking with many of the guests in attendance this was their favourite of the two blends being sampled.  Personally I preferred the white, but the red was approachable and certainly enjoyable.  I found the Merlot shone through most creating a nice overall mouthfeel with ripe flavours of black fruit coming out.  I wouldn’t classify the red as an age worthy, high quality wine, but I would classify it as a wine you could drink a lot of and a great wine to open when hosting company.  As I mentioned the white was my personal preference.  It is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Viognier.  I found it very refreshing and loaded with fruit.  It showed lots of green apple, lemon, peach, and a hint of residual sugar as the Viognier shines through.  A simple, simple, wine that would be great to host with and again great to drink a lot of.

The “wine you can drink a lot of” designation may sound a bit like a cop out, but it is an honest classification for me.  Some wines may be the best in the world and high quality wines, but you would only want a single glass.  The Hot to Trot wines wouldn’t be my definition of the best in the world, but they are good value, good hosting wines, wines that will go over well in most any crowd, and thus wines you could drink a lot of.  Actually those seemed to be some themes from the evening, and I was happy to oblige.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman


Forty Creek – by @500levelfan

On the eve of the 2013 World Series, one of baseball’s biggest fans was working in a different capacity.  It is my pleasure to introduce you to towineman’s newest correspondent  Jeremy Gibson… AKA @500levelfan.  While he is a baseball blogger in his other life he represented towineman.com last night at a special tasting event for Canadian Whisky Forty Creek.  I’ll let him recap the evening for you in his own words.

Whisky.  It is such a simple word yet such a complex spirit, one that carries with it everything from different spellings (whisky in Canada and Scotland, whiskey in Ireland and the United States), to different ingredients (malt, grain, corn, and wheat to name a few), to different names (Scotch, Rye, Bourbon).

I have been drinking whisky for a long time, beginning when I was young and crazy in my university days.  Back then I drank whisky less for its complexities and flavours, and more for its innate ability to render me completely carefree, confident, and happy (AKA drunk).  But with age brings wisdom and respectability, and though I can’t say for certain that I have grown any wiser or more respectable, I can say that I have definitely increased my appreciation and fondness for whisky.

Over the past few years, my single malt scotch collection has slowly but steadily increased, but my taste for Canadian whisky had still been left lacking.  However, last night I had the pleasure to represent TOWineMan at a Forty Creek tasting event at the Spoke Club in Toronto, and let me say this – my appreciation for Canadian whisky has gone up incredibly.

Aside from tasting it a few times at family functions in Grimsby (where the Forty Creek distillery just happens to be located), my knowledge of the brand was limited.  I had never purchased a bottle from the LCBO (and to be honest had no plans to buy one anytime soon).  But after meeting the master distiller himself last night, and hearing his passion for his product (and yes, after sampling quite a few), things have changed.

First a bit of background – Forty Creek Whisky is the brainchild of distiller John K Hall, a wine maker who plies his trade in the aforementioned town of Grimsby, Ontario.  He is the owner of Kittling Ridge Distillery, who after 22 years of making wine decided in 1992 to create a premium Canadian whisky, a decision that has certainly panned out as shown by the list of awards Forty Creek has won in the past few years:

–          Gold Medal at the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago (2010, 2011, 2012)
–          Gold Medal at the 2010 International Whisky Competition
–          2008 Distiller of the Year by Whisky Magazine
–          2007’s Pioneer of the Year Award winner by Malt Advocate Magazine
–          Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition
–          Gold Medal – The World Selection in Belgium

Last night’s even took place at the Spoke Club (600 King St W, Toronto), a private members club located right downtown.  The venue itself was great, offering nice views of the street, with a quaint and intimate set-up. 

But as nice as it was, I was not there for the venue – I was there for the whisky.

The main attraction was none other than John K Hall himself, delivering a private, de-constructed tasting of the award winning whisky to small groups of five people.  Each tasting consisted of three samples of the ingredients that make up Forty Creek, followed by a sample of the finished product itself.  Because, as Mr. Hall explained to us, as most whiskies are made with a single ingredient, he wanted Forty Creek to be full of complex flavours, and decided to therefore combine three ingredients: rye, barley, and corn.  Each of these ingredients are distilled in individual barrels – each barrel containing just the right amount of char for the smoke flavour – and then combined in a sherry cask for six months to allow the flavours to come together.

Each sample of the de-constructed product came directly from Mr. Hall’s barrels, and each on its own could have been bottled and sold.  The rye whisky tasted like a Canadian whisky, such as a Canadian Club.  The barley malt, the main ingredient in single malt scotch, could have passed for a Glenlivet sample.  The third sample was the corn whisky, which, with its sweet finish, could have been bottled and sold as a Kentucky Bourbon – if, of course, we were in the States.  The fourth glass contained the finished product, and after tasting each ingredient in isolation, it is easy to see where Forty Creek gets its signature, complex flavour. 

I also had the opportunity to try the two newest products of the Forty Creek brand.  Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve is a bolder version of the regular whisky, amped up to 43% alcohol.  On the rocks, as I sampled it, was delicious – so delicious that I bought a bottle for myself at the LCBO after the event.  Forty Creek Cream, the second new offering, is marketed as the first Canadian whisky based cream liquor – think Bailey’s, but made right here at home.  It was outstanding on the rocks, but I could only imagine how good it would taste mixed with a morning coffee.

But there was more to the event than just the whisky and the food samplings (5-year old cheddar grilled cheese?  Yes, please.).  There was the chance to meet John K Hall himself.  As one would expect from a man with over 40 years of experience in the industry, he was knowledgeable.  But more than anything, he was entertaining – a great storyteller who spun tales ranging from his desire to name the whisky “Johnnie Hall” (a la Johnnie Walker); to demonstrating the look on his wife’s face when he told her he wanted to create his own whisky.  Priceless.

Overall, the event was a great experience – educational, interesting, and fun all rolled into a few hours.

Special thanks to Jillian at Penelope PR, and Angela at iyellow Wine Club (@iyellowwineclub) for putting on the event, and the esteemed TOWineMan for passing along the invite.  Most of all, thanks to Forty Creek Whisky and Mr. John K Hall (@John_K_Hall) for a wonderful evening.

Many, many thanks to Jeremy for attending the event and for this fantastic guest post.  Follow him on Twitter @500levelfan, and check out www.500levelfan.com

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman


Do it yourself wine. Should you make it? Should you drink it?

If you’re an active reader of this blog you might know that I do take requests for posts.  “Wine Gimmicks” was by request, as was “The Many Colours of Johnnie Walker.” Similarly so to is today’s post on home made wine.  I’m not talking about the old school Italians who are making wine in their garage because those people likely know a thing or two.  I’m talking about the countless facilities across the province that allow people who know nothing about wine making to put their name to a bottle by doing as little as picking out the grape they want.  The result is typically wine in its simplest form for a fraction of the cost of a bottle at the LCBO.

I mentioned this post was on request.  It comes from a very good friend who last weekend hosted his version of a wine and cheese.  The tasting included various versions of extremely well made Gouda from Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg Ontario, which I had the pleasure of visiting the same day. The wine paired with the cheese were 4 bottles of his make-it-yourself wine.  We had a Riesling, a Spatlese Gewürztraminer (I’m serious), a Merlot, and a mixed berry fruit wine.  As you can probably tell this particular friend knows and appreciates his cheese, but lacks the same enthusiasm for wine as say someone like me. But he likes to drink it.  The cheeses were excellent.  If you find yourself in the Kitchener/Waterloo region any time soon pay them a visit, it’s worth it.  They have a little store on premise where you can sample and purchase.  Try the farmstead Gouda, the fiery, or the truffle.  All are very good.

The wine on the other hand is a totally different discussion all together.  Those who know me know that although I write this wine blog and though I understand and appreciate wine, I will still drink anything or at the very least try everything once.  The key to trying home made wine is to go into it with a different mindset.  If you’re invited to a tasting of Bordeaux you’ll likely dress up, focus, drink slowly and methodically, make detailed tasting notes, ask questions, and criticize where necessary.  If you’re invited to taste home brew you do none of those things.  Just drink it.  And here’s the truth.  They’re not high quality wines, but they are not terrible for the most part. These places are in business for the most basic of wine consumer.  They are fruit driven wines in the simplest form.  The are not deep and complex.  They don’t show subtle flavours, and are by no means age worthy. But they are often better than anyone will give them credit for and certainly better than most wine critics will have you believe.  Most importantly to many out there… they are cost effective.

So I am not going to outline detailed tasting notes on these wines, nor am I going to bother comparing them to their counterparts produced by award winning wineries.  I can also tell you that I personally won’t partake in do it yourself wine making.  Overall however this rant is simply to tell you one thing.  Be open minded, you might get surprised every now and then.  At the end of the day even home brew is still wine… and that’s light years better than drinking grape juice.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

A Value-able Tasting – An Evening With Argento Wines

As many of you know I quite often use this blog space to discuss value.  Wines that are not only quality, but come at a price which most can manage.  Well folks after attending a wine pairing dinner on Tuesday night I not only present a wine for you which fits the bill, I present an entire winery.  All of their wines apply here. Not surprisingly that winery comes to us from South America where quality for value reigns king.  From the heart of beautiful Mendoza I present Argento Wines.

I was part of a group assembled to taste and review their upcoming wine line-up most of which should hit the LCBO in mid November.  We tried the 2012 production of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Malbec, as well as the 2011 Bonarda (brand new to this market) and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva.  However even beyond the wines the entire night was great.  The concept of the evening was to transport us all to the heart of Mendoza.  After some typical wine event schmoozing, we started with a 7 minute documentary titled “Cerca del Cielo” (close to the sky) in the private screening room at the hotel, which showed a glimpse into the life of winemaker Silvia Corti.  From her winemaking philosophy to her time in the vineyards, down to her family life and what a typical family dinner in Mendoza is like.  It was a vivid look into a great story.  If you’re interested you can watch it for yourself.

Following the documentary came the heart of the evening the wine tasting and dinner in One Restaurant.  The wines of course were from Mendoza and the menu was Argentinian inspired and overall our hosts succeeded in taking our minds to Mendoza for a few hours.  I personally want to thank them for that because Mendoza holds a very special place in my heart.  Not only is it one of my favourite wine making regions in the world, but it was the site of my honeymoon in 2010, and my wife and I talk constantly about when we are going to make it back.  Many thanks to the Argento staff, including Sylvia Corti herself, the folks at Profile Wine Group, and hendryPR for a wonderful evening.

You have probably seen Argento wines in the LCBO as they are a staple on general list, and if it wasn’t for the 2008/2009 fad known as Fuzion, they may in fact have been able to take a run for highest selling Argentinian wine.  There are two very good reasons for that.  First the baseline wines are all priced at $9.95. No exceptions.  In fact even if you spring for the Reserva, like the 2009 Cab we tried, your price tag still only jumps to $12.95.  However price is not everything as many wines at that price are there for a reason.  But these wines are quality, rounding out the value equation.  They are well balanced and nicely made as winemaker Silvia Corti puts her passion and decades of experience in Mendoza into the wine.  They grow very ripe grapes with high concentrations of flavours opening up many possibilities for winemaking and creating fruit heavy, easy drinking wines.  Okay they might not be the most age worthy malbecs, and the 2011 Bonarda although excellent, wasn’t the best Bonarda I have tried.  But for this market, at $9.95, they are perfect.  They are easy to understand, easy to drink, and extremely easy to recommend at the price.

Surprisingly though I left most impressed with the 2012 Pinot Grigio.  I find many Pinot Grigios to be overly watery, with limited flavours and even less structure.  Sure as a wine style they are not supposed to be over the top and complex, but many show next to nothing.  The Argento version is extremely fresh tasting, with nice acidity and fresh lemon zest flavours.  It would make for an excellent summer sipper on the deck, or an easy pairing with salad courses or light white fish.  You should also keep your eyes out for the 2011 Bonarda.  This is the first Bonada available in Canada as a general list, and the first at under $10.  I have had better Bonardas and some are available in Vintages, but this is still a nice expression of a grape relatively unknown to Canadian palates.  If for no other reason you should try it because in the next 5 years you will be seeing a lot more of it and you’ll be ahead of the game.  Bonarda is going to steal our hearts in the years to come in much the same way as Malbec or Carmenere have done in the past 5 years or so.  As the head Argento sales rep put it “Bonarda is where Malbec was 10 years ago, we’ll get there.”

On my subway ride home on Tuesday night I was reading the Argento sales material and transporting myself back to Mendoza again.  Overall I left extremely satisfied with the wine and food.  One Restaurant, though a bit pretentious for me, cooked a fantastic meal and the service was excellent.  When I got home my wife and I launched back into another discussion on when we are going to go back. I miss it there.  When I go back I will pay the folks at Argento a visit, and I can highly recommend it to any of you who can find the time to get down there.  Like our Argento hosts on Tuesday night, the people there are wonderful.  They like to drink wine, have a good time, and truly relish the moments when they are doing both of those things.  They love their Malbecs, their Bonardas, and their beef.  My new friend Anthony from Profile Wine Group is headed to Mendoza in the new year.  He loves wine, but doesn’t eat beef.  Well one out of two isn’t bad. The people might think your nuts, but they will still love you and treat you to the time of your life.  That’s just how they are.  That’s just how Mendoza is.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

The greatest office pool

With all due respect to March Madness, Fantasy Baseball, and hockey pools everywhere I am going to enlighten you to the greatest office pool of all time.  Ladies and Gentlemen I introduce to you… “The Wine Pool.”

For each of the last two years I have participated in an office wine pool.  A pool which this year consists of 324 participants with the winner taking home an astounding 120 bottles of wine.   I am not at liberty to disclose where this pool takes place (it’s not my office) nor who runs it, but I can share with you the finer details so you too can perhaps start one of your own, making you a hero to your friends and colleagues alike.

Your ticket to entry in the pool is simple, you submit one bottle of wine per person which is valued at $25 or more. Entries are made in teams of 4-6 people so although names are drawn individually in a process of elimination, the team approach increases your chances of winning.  Most teams come to a pre determined agreement that if one person’s name is the last one standing the pot is shared amongst all the teammates. Therefore even if you have a 6 person team, if you collectively take top prize each team member goes home with 20 bottles of wine.  Not a bad haul.

The pool works by a process of elimination.  Names are drawn at random eliminating people from the pool.  The last person drawn becomes the grand prize winner.  With 324 participants this year 30 people are eliminated on day one, and another 14 every single business day for the following 21 days.  Draws are made in the morning and afternoon eliminating contestants.  So twice a day you scroll the e-mail to see if you and your teammates are continuing along to the next draw.  In addition to the grand prize winner, the final 3 people remaining get prizes with 3rd place taking 40 bottles and second place taking 70 bottles.  Finally weekly prizes are also awarded along the way giving some condolences to a few of those being eliminated.

So as you can see it’s a fairly elaborate pool, at least in numbers, but it’s fairly simple in concept.  Which leads me to why it is the best office pool… ever.  First off I’ll admit that if the LCBO offered gambling I would be in, here you are essentially buying a $25 lottery ticket with the chance to win 120 bottles of wine.  Secondly, thanks to the little pop-up box in Microsoft Outlook twice a day I get a little teaser where I click to find out if I or my teammates have been eliminated and if we were eliminated did we take home a prize.  The live elimination aspect creates more excitement and anticipation than I can echo in this post.  Because lets be honest most of us work desk jobs.  We pine for moments that break up our day.  What a better break than an email that outlines your standing in the quest to take home 120 bottles of quality wine.  I can’t think of anything.

This year I was eliminated on day one, but four of my teammates remain.  At both 10:00am this morning and 3:00 this afternoon I will get an email that creates anxiety and then a buddy in the row next to me will say “uh oh, here we go.” This will continue for the next three weeks.  The glory at stake is the opportunity to stock my wine cellar. The greatest office pool ever.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Canadian Wine and Cheese Discussion with Natalie Maclean – Oct 10th

Last Wednesday, October 10th, was a special one for towineman.  I was invited to participate in a very unique wine and cheese pairing discussion which consisted of sampling 9 different Ontario wines, and 6 different cheeses from all across the country.  This post will focus on a summary of that discussion as well as my reviews of the wines including some notes on the pairings with the cheese.  First off however, let’s start with a bit of background on the tasting itself and how it all came together.

In case you are not already familiar with Natalie Maclean, let’s start there.  Natalie is one of Canada’s top wine writers.  In fact she is one of the world’s top wine writers, being named the “Best Wine Writer” at the World Food Media Awards held in Australia.  Based in our nations capital, Natalie runs a very successful wine blog, participates in countless online discussions and videos, has an encyclopedia of wine and food recommendations on her site, and also is the author of Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines and Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine Soaked Journey From Grape to Glass.

In partnership with many Ontario wineries and some of the best cheese manufacturers in the country, Natalie managed to pull together 11 bloggers from the wine and food community to participate in a live online discussion on pairing wine and cheese.  The discussion was broadcast live on Google+, a fascinating tool that allows live discussion as well as live streaming.  Each writer, respected in their own right, brought a different perspective and unique opinion to the discussion making for a very robust and entertaining ‘virtual’ round table.

Each of the 11 assembled writers was equipped with 9 Ontario wines, 6 Canadian cheeses, our notepads, and live video.  The result was a discussion that was not only a joy to participate in, but also a helpful tool for the everyday consumer with tips and key facts on all the products we tasted. Here is the video for your viewing pleasure.

From left to right you’ll find: Allie HughesCourtney FloodCorinna Horton; Dan TrckaJason SolankiGaby Israel; Me; Natalie MacLeanNina SyasSara Connelly and Travis Oke

As a participant one of the highlights of this discussion was just how well prepared and knowledgeable everyone was with the products.  Personally I spent about 2 hours prior to the event tasting and evaluating each and every wine and cheese on it’s own, as well as my featured pairing the St. Albert Onion Cheese, with the Jackson Triggs Sauvignon Blanc  (skip to minute 18 in the video).  But that was just my preparation strategy and I was not alone.  Each and every person you find in the video was extremely well prepared.  I encourage you to check out all of their blog sites as each and every one of them will likely enhance your experience with wine and food.

Also to answer a very important question.  NO! True to form I did not waste any wine.  I did have to open all 9 bottles for the tasting and no, I did not get through them all alone.  But with the help of some very willing friends I hosted a private wine and cheese party on Friday night as a follow-up to this more formal one.  Though there is no video evidence and there will not be a follow-up post from that panel discussion.

Here are my thoughts on the each and every wine, including some notes below on pairing the wines with the cheese.
Jackson Triggs Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – 2011 
This is what you should expect from an Ontario Sauvignon Blanc.  Fresh with lively acidity, this wine shows vegetal notes with asparagus and grass, plus some nice stone fruit coming through.  There isn’t a ton going on here, but a very refreshing and drinkable sauvignon blanc.
Score: 86, Price: $13.95

Jackson Triggs Reserve Series Riesling – 2011 
A pretty simple Riesling this wine shows nice apple flavours paired with good acidity and even a slight mineral undertone.  There is some noticeable effervescence in the glass which aids the pairing with rich fish or cheese.
Score: 86, Price: $11.45

Open Chardonnay – 2011 
If I am searching I notice there is some creaminess, some apple, and even some minerality on the nose, but my appreciation for this wine pretty much ends there. It’s a bit watery on the palate and the acidity is less than I would expect.
Score: 82, Price: $11.95

Jackson Triggs Reserve Chardonnay – 2011 
This chardonnay has obviously seen some time in oak as the creaminess and the vanilla come through prominently on the nose.  Almost to the point of smelling like an aged whiskey with less alcohol.  However the vanilla is very over the top and out of balance and after letting the wine sit it was all I could smell and taste.
Score: 83, Price: $10.95

Le Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Chardonnay – 2009
Here we have a 2009 Chardonnay that is easily balanced and complex enough to sit for another 2-3 years in your cellar.  This wine has a ton going on. Oak, minerality, butter, nuts, and even lemon on the nose and palate.  The acidity is fresh and the finishing taste seems to linger in your mouth for awhile.  Pair with fresh fish, rich cheese, pasta, chicken, turkey……
Score: 91, Price: $30.00

Inniskillin Pinot Noir – 2011 
This Pinot smells as though it has been aged a bit even though it has not.  Fruit comes through with cherry and even some olive notes, then some earthiness as it sits a bit.  The tannins are juicy and the wine is easy drinking.  I don’t get enough of the Pinot Noir silkyness or a long enough finish to rate this wine too high, but a nice easy drinking wine for sure.
Score: 87, Price: $13.95

Open Cab2/Merlot – 2011
I call this a “try hard” wine as it appears to be overtly seeking the traditional flavours known with cab/merlot blends. So much so that is actually lacks in many areas.  I get some blackcurrant and smoke on the nose but it ends there.  The wine is out of balance and there is literally no lingering finish to the wine in your mouth.  Some of the initial flavour you get is long gone in mere seconds.
Score: 80, Price: $10.95

Jackson Triggs Reserve Series Merlot – 2010 
This is a very nice wine a nice buy at $13.95.  Nice ripe cherry on the nose, partnered with some smoke and earthiness even typically associated with a more aged wine.  There is immediate cherry on the palate, then a nice lingering, smokey finish that is beautiful.
Score: 89, Price: $13.95

Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal Icewine – 2011
Though a half bottle is $70, I publicly declared that this is one of the best dessert wines I have ever tried. This wine has the rare ability to make you stop what your doing and tell everyone around you to be quiet so you can enjoy the moment.  The sparkling nature is perfectly balanced with the icewine while not being over the top sweet.  Just magical.
Score: 94, Price: $69.95 (375ml)

The Cheeses: (Click in the link to learn more about each cheese)

La Fromagerie du PresbytèreBleu d’Élizabeth (no website)
Upper Canada Cheese Co – Comfort Cream
Kootenay Alpine Cheese Co – Alpindon
Laiterie Charlevoix – 1608
Bothwell – Madagascar Green Peppercorn
St. Albert Cheese Co. – Onion Cheddar

The cheeses were all outstanding and I continue to be impressed with the quality of product we have access to domestically.  Within this list of cheese there was representation from right across the country with products from Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and BC.  In my opinion the top pairing was hands down the Inniskillin Ice Wine with the blue cheese.  The rich sweet ice wine was the perfect complement to the heavy blue cheese, with enough acidity to cut through the fat.  It was glorious and I think my sentiments were echoed by most on the panel.  The other general theme that you’ll notice in the video is that the Le Clos Jordanne Chardonnay got rave reviews as a quality wine, but also an excellent pairing with most of the cheeses offered.  A few other pairings to try include the Jackson Triggs Sauvignon Blanc with the onion cheese or the Jackson Triggs Riesling with either the blue cheese or the Kootenay Alpindon.  Or… just try all the cheeses on their own and I assure you that you won’t be disappointed.

Final thoughts:
Here is a good time to provide some clarity.  You’ll notice in my wine ratings that there were a few I didn’t like and thus received negative reviews from me.  I am a writer and a critic and I aim to remain unbiased in my views.  From time to time I am not going to like something and I consider it part of my job to let you all know.  I also try to review wines based on quality and not just personal opinion, hence the positive review for the Sauvignon Blanc despite not personally liking the wine.  At the end of the day though you might still like any of the wines above and you are free to agree or disagree with me.  That’s the beauty of it all.  At least you know I am being honest.

Many, many, thanks to Natalie Maclean, all the panelists, and the participating wineries and cheese makers.  It was my pleasure to be a part of this panel and I look forward to the next discussion.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Wine Gimmicks – The good, the bad, and the downright useless

Wine is a bit like golf.  On the surface they both appear to be quite simple, they both have many gimmicks designed to enhance your experience, and at the high end they are enjoyed only by those very skilled or those with a lot of money.  For the purposes of today’s post I am going to focus on the second point of comparison.  Wine gimmicks and paraphernalia.  What’s good? What’s bad? And what is just downright useless?

I am a big golfer.  I am passionate about the game and though my interest has wavered slightly in recent years (a direct correlation to the time I can commit to the sport) I still love the game.  But I am not as into it as some people. These folks will head to golf town every weekend to browse and window shop.  The are eager to see the technology behind the latest driver or putter, and what golf ball Tiger Woods is using.  These are the golf obsessed.  The same people who will get sucked into buying golf gimmicks like those shown below.

Glove Keeper – $3.49







Cigar Minder – $13.99







Mesh Beverage Holder – $14.99







Alignment Sticks – $34.99







Now golf is probably the worst example for gimmicks that I can think of, but wine isn’t without it’s share too. Sure the right decanter can enhance the right bottle of wine.  Sure everyone is going to have there preference of one corkscrew versus another.  And yes the right glass, perfectly paired with the right wine will enhance the aromatics and the appreciation among the most knowledgeable drinker.  But within the framework of wine there are definitely gimmicks to watch out for.

Not all decanters are created equal.  In fact this is one area where the wine industry has banked with fancy designs and beautifully crafted pieces in recent years.  A decanter has but one purpose, to allow the right wine to breath.  This means exposing the wine to oxygen for a period of time to bring out more subtle flavours, soften tannins, and enhance the drinking experience.  To properly expose a wine to oxygen requires the maximum surface area of the wine to receive oxygen contact. Therefore a true decanter allows air to come in, then exposes a large surface area of wine to that air.
Like this: 

Unlike these examples: 

Now if you’re buying a decanter as a vase, a piece of art, or to impress your friends the above might make a ton of sense. Don’t get me wrong they are beautiful. But from a true functionality standpoint they border on useless.

Oh you know those things that look like miniature versions of a certain piece of smoking paraphernalia.   So apparently science has proven that all you need to do is put this little contraption in the top of a wine bottle, then as the wine comes through it oxidizes itself enough to effectively eliminate the decanter.  Call me a purist but I’m not sold. I have tried it of course, and I admit that taste wise it may work.  But drinking wine is an experience, so what’s the rush? If you open a bottle of wine worthy enough of proper decanting, then leave yourself enough time and use a proper decanter.  Plus the decanter itself makes it appear like you really know what you’re doing.

This is a tough one because you can now technically buy glasses for just about every major type of wine out there.  They have different glasses for Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling wine, dessert wine, and just about everything in between.  I get it, every wine has its own unique characteristics and this glassware is specially designed to promote those characteristics in both aroma and flavour.  Plus it looks cool to serve a Riesling in a Riesling glass because how many people do that? But here is my issue.  How many people would you normally host for? At least 6? Maybe 8? There is no way you need to buy (8X7) 56 different glasses nor should you have enough space to store them all. Verdict? Buy a really nice set of red wine glasses (big wide glass, big bowl) and a really nice set of white wine glasses (smaller and narrower through the top) and that should be sufficient.  Then I would add a special set of glasses should you have a wine that you love and drink constantly.  This could be sparkling, dessert wine, or any of the other choices.  This we you still have the luxury of serving your “go to” wine in its own special glass.

This one is simple. Use whatever you prefer and allows you to open a bottle of wine seamlessly and without butchering the cork.  It could be any of the many versions available, whatever you want and you’re comfortable with.

Just for clarification, if you are the wine obsessed then go ahead and buy any of the above.  One thing is for sure, just like golf, if it is going to enhance your experience and your appreciation for wine, then I am all for it. Just don’t assume you always need the latest and greatest, because your old decanter and corkscrew may be the best ones out there.  I have a friend who is using golf irons from the 1980’s, and despite constant lobbying from his group of friends he refuses to upgrade them.  However when we set out on the links he can’t be beat. Good for him.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

A Few Thanksgiving Recommendations

I was in Muskoka last weekend and it finally sunk it what a wonderful time of year this is.  The colours on the leaves in Muskoka were breathtaking and I just love the cool mornings and evenings with very comfortable temperatures during the day.  I have declared on many occasions that Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday of the year and I stand by that.  The food, the drinks, and all the time with family.  All without the chaos and gift giving associated with Christmas.  It’s glorious.

Yesterday I sat in on a quick online chat on Canada.com where some of Canada’s top wine and food writers contributed their thoughts and recommendations for Thanksgiving dinner.  I managed to chime in a few times with my thoughts and I thought I would share those with you.

Here are my top Thanksgiving drink recommendations:

Wine: Late Harvest Riesling – Not typically as sweet as an icewine, this wine is excellent to serve with traditional Thanksgiving desserts like Pumpkin or Apple Pie.  Try the recent releases from Chateau de Charmes or Cave Springs.  Plus as I said yesterday in the discussion, doesn’t the name just scream Thanksgiving?
Beer: Muskoka Brewery Harvest Ale – Just released a few weeks ago, Muskoka Cottage Brewing has their Harvest Ale available now.  It’s a big beer at 7% but is loaded with flavour.  A bit spicy with a long bitter finish and some fresh carbonation, this beer will hold up to the many different dishes typically served with Thanksgiving dinner, including a great match with stuffing or squash.
General Serving Tip – The burning Thanksgiving question is always what wine do I serve with turkey, white or red? It came up in the discussion yesterday and many perspectives were given.  Turkey is versatile and as such you can confidently serve a red or white and the best advice is to try to pair the wine to the sauce you serve with your turkey as it is typically a dominant flavour.  Classic Thanksgiving pairings include a full bodied Chardonnay or a fresh Ontario Pinot Noir.  However my best advice is to include both a red and white wine on the table because Turkey dinner truly is versatile and so will be the pairing preferences of your guests.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman


Costa D’Amalfi – a review of a trip to Campania

When you think of wine regions in Italy I can tell you one that likely doesn’t come to mind right away… Campania. However that is the region where I was lucky enough to spend the past two weeks.  Campania is essentially South/West Italy, south of Rome, but North of Sicily. The shin of the boot, as some like to call it.  It’s likely the least known of all Italian wine regions as most famous wines we know and love come from the central regions and north from there.  In Campania they don’t make Barolo, Brunello, Amarone, Chianti, or… you get the point. But don’t hold the popularity against them some nice wines are coming out of the region and it is an absolutely remarkable place to visit.

I spent my days on the Amalfi Coast which is one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been too.  In all honesty my trip wasn’t based on wine.  I spent two weeks with my family, relaxing, eating, drinking, and having a great time.  We had an apartment right on the mediterranean sea with scenery and landscapes that could take your breath away.  This was all probably a good thing because there isn’t much of a tourist industry for wineries down there.  You can’t really visit many so tours and tastings are near impossible to come by.  The one winery I set out to visit (Monteventrano) took 1:15 to get to and was closed when we finally arrived.  However as a wine writer I did find it an interesting experience and set out to try and explore as many wines as I could.  We know a lot about the famous Italian regions further north, but wines from the south are nearly impossible to come by in this marketplace.  So to visit the region and explore the wines, was a great experience for me.

While interesting is one way to describe it, my overall thoughts are not completely positive.  For the most part the wines are very one dimensional, fruit forward and not overly complex.  They are simple wines created mostly to be easy drinking and very food friendly.  In that respect they succeed as they pair very well with the seafood, pasta and pizza’s that the region is known for.  The simple, easy drinking, nature of these wines however comes at a cost – a very low cost.  Our “go to” wine for the family was a 1L regional table wine, which retailed for a whopping €1.5 (approx $1.95 CAN).  While far from complex it was a decent table wine and the equivalent of something that would cost you more like $9 or $10 here.  That really was a theme throughout.  The house wine in restaurants was pretty good for the most part and cost between €8 and €12 per litre.  Peroni beer was €1.15 in the store for a 660ml bottle a price which jumped to €3.50 should you buy it at the bar and carry it down to the beach with you.  So without a doubt you could certainly enjoy yourself on a budget.

However I’d done my homework and I knew that the region had more to offer me.  The wines were sitting very well with my family but I needed to see what else could be discovered.  In week 2 I decided to expand my horizons.  I tried the wines the region is known for going out and buying myself a Taurasi, a Greco di Tufo, a Falanghina, and a reserve Costa D’Amafi.  While I found the Greco a bit underwhelming I had finally discovered a few wines I can recommend if you manage to see them at the LCBO or can get your hands on them.

Taurasi – This is one of the only DOCG wines from the region and probably the most popular and respected wine emerging from Southern Italy.  Some call it the “Barolo of the South.”  It is made with 100% aglianico grapes and is a big, full bodied red wine, which as I mentioned above seemed a bit tough to come by.  These were typically the most expensive on restaurant menu’s, but I tried one bottle at €15 which was actually a poor expression of this wine and still great.  I ended up purchasing a 2004 for my cellar which I didn’t try but expect big things from when I open it 5-10 years from now.
Falanghina – These are easy drinking white wines but with a bit more complexity.  Some of the best seafood pairing wines I have tried.  Loaded with green apple and lemon they also had very nice and refreshing acidity helping balance the amazingly fresh seafood you could get anywhere.
Costa D’Amafi Reserve – Costa D’Amalfi is a broad DOC region covering a lot of ground.  However I got my hands on a €20, 2008 reserve, which was a blend of aglianico and piedrosso and I ended up bringing a bottle back for the cellar.  A big red wine with structure and balance.  Blackberry, olives, smoke, and earth show right through.  After being decanted for an hour it was a great pairing with pizza but could also hold up to many red meats or game we might make here at home.

Overall my wallet was very satisfied with the wine experience.  So was my curiosity and my need to understand what one of the least known wine regions, in one of the best known wine countries, could offer.  At the end of it all I came away with a great understanding and appreciation.  As I write this I am on my flight home. A flight which was delayed 3.5 hours due first to a computer malfunction on board, and then by two late passengers who caused not only a further 20 minute delay but also single handedly caused us to lose our takeoff spot thus creating further delays. True story. Once we landed a new spot to fly out we then found ourselves right in the middle of an air traffic control strike somewhere over France and since we were scheduled to fly right through France on route home a further 1 hour delay was caused.  But… I am sipping on a tiny little airline bottle of The Whistling Thorn, a Cabernet/Merlot from South Africa. It’s not amazing but it’s decent, and it’s good enough to ease the pain of leaving Italy and bridge the gap back to Ontario.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter @towineman