Archive for the ‘Drink’ Category

New Zealand Wine

09 May

The New Zealand Wine fair blew into town yesterday with a stellar gathering of wine producers showing off their work for trade and media. It was a splendid opportunity to taste beyond the normal availabilities of Vintages and the LCBO, and there were treats galore. Robert Ketchin organizes the event and he started with a walk-about pour-your-own tasting of 16 Pinot Noirs from various parts of the country, designed to showcase regional differences. For me, one wine stood out dramatically from the pack – Ostler Vineyards Caroline’s Pinot Noir 2011. Grown in the Waitaki Valley on the south island, the vineyards sit on limestone – rare in NZ – and the Pinot has an underlying minerality that sits firm beneath the sliding, prismatic illusions of cherries and damsons, liquorice, dark chocolate and smoke. If you want some you’ll have to contact the agent, Mark Cuff at The Living Vine Inc. It costs around $55 a bottle.

Other wines that made a big impression on me? Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is going to be in the Vintages July 7th release ($25.95). It’s made by Erica and Kim Crawford (yes, that Kim Crawford) from grapes grown high in the hills above Marlborough’s Awatere Valley. It’s fragrant, delicate, luminous – not one of those big, pungent New Zealand Sauvignons that jump out of the glass at you.

Then there was the Kings Series from Marisco Vineyards in Marlborough’s Waihopai valley. Owner and winemaker Brent Marris traces his family all the way back to one of the 35 illegitimate children of King Henry I and he calls his Chardonnay The King’s Bastard. His peachy, oak-touched, hint-of-nutmeg Pinot Gris is named The King’s Thorn, for a subsequent member of the family who refused to give up the Isle of Lundy to Henry II. Then there’s A Sticky End, a delectably sweet Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes that grow in a shadowy part of the estate and where botrytis develops every autumn. Named for another ancestor who was hanged, drawn and quartered by Henry III for piracy, it has an amazing aroma of toast and marmalade, tastes of honey and peaches and apricots and has a delicate acidity that keeps the sticky weight and sweetness from feeling too overwhelming. Not sure if we’ll be seeing any of these wines in our liquor store but a quick call to the agent, Peter Sainsbury of Glencairn Wine Merchants, might secure you a case on private order.


Toronto Distillery Co. Batch No. 1

02 Feb

toronto whisky

Just before Christmas, a man came to my door. He had the most splendid, waxed and curled, Dali-esque moustachios I have ever seen, was impeccably dressed, and he handed me a half-bottle (375 mL – 50% abv) of “Ontario organic grain spirit.” It was Batch No. 1 from the newly founded Toronto Distillery Co. and all he asked was that I taste it and, if I saw fit, write about it in my blog. Prominent on the label was the information that this was distilled from pure Ontario wheat. I looked up to ask him about that but he was gone. My porch was empty.

            Now weeks have gone by. I have watched the level of liquid slowly go down in the little jug-shaped bottle. Yes, I have had a hand in that particular process. I’ve been trying to think of what to call this disarming spirit. Nowhere on the label does it mention the word “whisky.” I have heard it referred to as moonshine – or as “gentleman’s hooch” – but I have taken to calling it whisky. What I love most about it is the way it honours the grain from which it was made.

            Often over the years, I have visited important distilleries in Scotland and Ireland and asked about the barley that went into the maltings, hoping for long disquisitions on local farming and particular heritage varieties, only to be frowned at and hear the question dismissed. Perhaps the purpose of that year’s media invitation was to write about oak casks, or peating, or the peculiar shape of the beloved pot still, or the number of times the spirit was distilled – anything but the grain itself. Which always led me to believe that what arrived in those dusty sacks (or in the vast mobile hopper, more likely) was almost incidental. Ditto the water used to make the wort or to dilute the spirit from cask strength to something they could sell more readily in the bottle. Sure, the distillery is in Brigadoon – or in Tir Nan Og itself – but when the bottling is done in a Glasgow suburb and regular Glasgow water is being used to dilute the spirit down to 40%, the whole “pure local highland sun-kissed granite-filtered sporren-blessed water” thing is best left unmentioned. The truth is not going to resonate with denizens of the Romantic Republic of Whisky.

            I don’t mean to sound cynical. Marketing anything is hard work – even something with as vivid a natural back story as whisky. I guess where this is leading is that it’s a treat to come across a product that doesn’t really have a built-in angle. The Toronto Distillery Co.’s first product is what it is – a pure spirit from the first new distillery in the neighbourhood since 1933. Taste it. See what you think. Some will love it; others will hate it. I don’t think shrugging indifference is ever going to be the response to this white wheat whisky: it has far too much character to engender nonchalance.

            Let me say now, I think it’s excellent. I have drunk a great many amateur spirits in my time, from the poteen we bought in milk bottles from a farmer that teenaged summer beside Lough Corib, that we ended up using to light the fire in the chilly morning because we were afraid it would make us blind or dissolve our insides, to some sublime grappas distilled by more careful unlicensed artisans in Venezia Giulia. More recently, I’ve been disappointed by “white whiskies” made in North America, mostly because they are really just so-so, wood-aged whiskies radically filtered to strip out all their colour – a process which also takes out most complexities of aroma and taste.

            Quick refresher: just because a spirit is colourless doesn’t mean it’s characterless. Vodka is so ghostly because it has been distilled umpteen times in a continuous still and then filtered umpteen times more. Gin isn’t like that. Neither is whisky straight from the still, if it’s a cantankerous and inefficient old pot still that hasn’t done a very good job of purifying the alcohol, that has included all sorts of extremely complex aromatic molecules derived from the fermented grain, and sent them through the condenser. Why, friends, that colourless liquid will be as perfumed and as flavoursome as eau de Cologne – and all those aromatics come from the grain in the mash bill and the yeasts that fermented it. But especially the grain.

            The two guys who operate the Toronto Distillery Co., both 31-year-old Toronto lawyers, one called Charles Benoit, the other Jesse Razaqpur, both amateurs in the best sense of the word, understand this. Because they weren’t prepared to wait a decade for their nascent spirit to mature in oak, it was imperative that they found some good honest grain to ferment and distil. They said no to barley and rye and corn, the usual grains for the making of whisky, and instead chose to work with organic local winter wheat, grown by Mike and Bonnie O’Hara on their farm in Schomberg, Ont., less than an hour north of Toronto. The assurance is that Batch No. 2 will be made from a different cereal and so will be vastly different. I fully expect it to be so and I can’t wait to try it.

            But meanwhile we have this one – available at the LCBO, I might add, for $39.50. I’m just pouring the last of the bottle into my glass as I type. By now I know what to expect. I still think it deserves to be called whisky – though moonshine is a more beautiful word. Perhaps someone versant in the languages of the agricultural first peoples of this continent could find a name that means the bountiful personality of the life-giving grain. Though, come to think of it, I don’t believe wheat is native to North America. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

            What does it taste like? I prefer it neat, even at 50%. It smells pungently granular, like a prairie silo after harvest, with touches of ripe, malty sweetness impinging, and a hint of flowers. But the taste!? Wheat has a sharp, bitter edge to it compared with the easy-going, half-wit-smiling sweetness of corn or the spicy, tight-lipped sarcasm of rye or the fruity chuckle of malted barley. Expect pepper and fennel and a whiff of lemon peel. A sudden glimpse of the heart of darkness. But it’s gone in a flash because this is pure spirit and without the sumptuous velvet and silk robes that long aging in oak imparts to the flavour and which linger on the palate, sometimes for hours, the effect of this whisky is momentary. Ariel rather than Caliban. Not so much a spirit as a sprite, naked and off about its business before you can blink.

            And now the jug is empty.



The Wines of Léon Beyer

17 Sep
The charming town of Eguisheim

The charming town of Eguisheim

I love Alsatian wine. In my salad days, drowning in Firbank and the romances of William Morris, whenever the lovers shared a goblet of golden wine, I imagined it must be some silken, perfumed vintage from Alsace. Last Tuesday, that old prejudice was confirmed. Drawn by an invitation from Mark Bruni of RKW Imports, I slid up to Ici, J-P Challet’s pretty little gastronomic bower on Harbord Street, for a lunch with Marc Beyer of the ancient Alsatian house of Léon Beyer.

Much revered in Quebec, his wines have been absent from Ontario’s liquor stores for several years but some will now be returning to the Vintages lists. Hooray, for these are wines of extraordinary elegance and balance that should be savoured. And, as the genial Mr Beyer was quick to point out, they are distinct from the Alsatian regulars on the LCBO’s general list in that they are bone dry, lacking the hefty residual sugar that lurks behind other labels. Which makes Beyer’s wines such useful tools for the sommelier: they work brilliantly with food.

Before we put that theory to the test, however, we tasted a small sample of Léon Beyer’s range, beginning with three Rieslings, each one crisp, clean and sharp as a blade. The youngest – the 2012 Rielsing Reserve, was all about lemons and white flowers. The 2007 “les Ecaillers” had much more going on, with minerality starting to dominate the fruit and hints of petrol invading the nose. The name, incidentally, means “the oyster shuckers” and refers to the fact that, back in 1954, Marc Beyer’s father introduced the first oyster-shucking competition at the gastronomical club he founded, Club Prosper Montagné, and chose this splendid wine as the ideal accompaniment to the thousands of shucked oysters that the club members were then obliged to eat. The third Riesling was the top-of-the-line 2005 Comtes d’Eguisheim, a wine from the Grand Cru Pfersigberg vineyard, now in the glory of its maturity. That minerality and petrol was there in spades but there was still fruit shining through on the long, long finish. Beyer bottles this wine young to retain those primary aromas, then keeps it ageing in the bottle for six years before selling it.

On to the 2011 Gewurztraminer – bone dry and much more delicately floral than the lush, lychee-perfumed wines from other houses. The balance of aromatics and acidity was brilliantly achieved – a great wine for smoked fish or salmon roe canapés. The 2005 Comtes d’Eguisheim Gewurztraminer was on an altogether more exalted level, perfumed, dry, spicy, fresh, extraordinarily elegant. Marc Beyer subtly dropped the names of a couple of white Burgundies into the conversation and with good reason. This wine could stand beside the best.”It’s amazingly good with Lobster à l’Americaine,” he said. I have put the idea on my bucket list.

All this time, J-P Challet and his small brigade had been heads-down in the kitchen and now their offerings began to appear. First came a little plate of three compositions to accompany the fresh, fruity, slightly smoky 2011 Pinot Gris. I was amazed at how well it worked with a delicate, herbal veal tartare: there was an edge of mustard in the recipe and it brought out an unexpected spiciness in the wine. Silky, finely sliced salmon carpaccio was another delightful marriage, as were a tumble of finger-sized, curiously greenish, deep-fried objects that turned out to be fritters of soft, creamy, subtle pike quenelle.

Next, Marc Beyer introduced his only red, a young, fresh 2011 Pinot Noir, served slightly chilled. Léon Beyer uses no oak. This red was all primary fruit aromas and youthful energy – it’s very popular right now in the bistros of Paris and is also the house wine, served by the glass, at the Ritz. Yes, it’s light and relatively simple but it worked very well with our main course of squab (beautifully timed) in a bordelaise sauce with a fried mushroom and truffle crosmequis, potato croquettes and a soft pillow of orange-and-carrot mousse. In Alsace they are quite happy to serve this low-tannin Pinot with fish, just as they like to pair a good Pinot Gris with partridge and poultry.

The pudding wine was a real treat – the 2004 Vendanges Tardives Gewurztraminer, a late-harvest gem of refreshing grace with a subtle sweetness and a complex bouquet of floral and fruity aromas. Again, that spicy undertone was unmistakable. J-P paired it perfectly with a trembling cube of goat cheese cheesecake, a lemon tart with a good inch of tangy lemon curd, light as air, on the merest suggestion of soft pastry, and a crème brûlée that may have been a tad too sweet for the wine but was welcomed warmly anyway by the generous company.

All in all, a lovely way to spend Tuesday lunchtime.


elit by Stolichnaya

04 Jul


elit 002jpe

A bottle of elit by Stolichnaya vodka costs $69.95 at the LCBO. Can any vodka be worth that much?

My dad was a whisky drinker and he taught me from an early age that the answer was no. The point of distilling vodka, he explained, was to remove any trace of personality from the spirit, to purge every last tiny vestige of flavour. Even very good vodka was designed to eliminate the sense of alcohol, to produce a smooth cocktail component, the only real purpose of which was to lift the sense of vermouth and to render the aficionado swiftly and efficiently hammered.

I carried this doctrine into my teenaged years and on into my 20s, choosing gin over the “little water” whenever the choice was offered. There was so much more going on in gin! Even the deluxe vodka brands of the 1990s, which bartenders served so cold that the infinitesimal residual sweetness of the grain was muted to silence, failed to move me. It was only when I started tasting a bunch of different vodkas together, at room temperature (for professional purposes) that I could discern serious nuances of difference between them, mostly based on the original grain or tuber used.

So it was with a dash of cynicism and a twist of doubt that I approached a tutored tasting of elit by Stolichnaya, yesterday, with Ontario’s Stoli Diplomat, Ryan Powell, at his downtown Toronto embassy.

We began with regular Stolichnaya, a fine Moscow-style vodka made with winter wheat, spring wheat and rye grown in the fertile black soil of Tambov in central Russia. Okay, it’s diluted and bottled in Riga, which is now in Latvia not the USSR, but to me this is still echt Russian vodka. It’s a nicely balanced mash bill and Stoli (unlike so many American vodkas) doesn’t distil it into total insipidity. They filter it four times – through quartz sand, charcoal, quartz sand again and then a fine fabric mesh – but you can still catch faint whispers of pepper from the rye and grainy spice from the wheat under ethereal illusions of vanilla marshmallow and citrus rind. The suggestion of bitterness from the alcohol is gone by the time you take a second sip. All very smooth and pleasant.

Then we tasted the elit. It is the identical vodka – Stoli itself – but it has undergone an extra filtration process. Many centuries ago, explained Powell, farmers who lacked a still of their own figured out a way of turning their beer into something stronger by leaving it out of doors in a barrel during the Russian winter. The water in the beer froze, but the alcohol did not, and with great patience and care this could be gathered and drunk to great effect.

Elit has taken this notion of fractional distillation and run with it, bringing the initial filtered Stoli down to minus 18 degrees. Of course it becomes viscous and heavy at that temperature and that allows, said Powell, a further removal of impurities that would still be liquid at normal temperatures. The cleansed spirit is left to lose its chill over several days and what you have then is elit.

It all sounded very convincing yesterday but the proof was in the tasting. Elit has a remarkable texture. You remember how Auric Goldfinger fell in love with gold – “its colour, its divine weight…” Elit has a divine weight, even at room temp. The Stoli character is there – the hint of spicy, lemon, vanilla flavours – but it’s the satin viscosity on the tongue that is so sensually irresistible.

Powell made me a Martini with elit, stirring the spirit with ice then putting it into a chilled glass that had been blessed with orange bitters and then rigorously emptied. He took a slice of lemon zest and twisted and pinched its oils onto the surface of the spirit before dropping it in. The heavy vodka was very cold and so smooth – so alarmingly smooth – that one was barely aware it was booze.

I was forced to admit – no, that’s not fair – I was pleased to admit that elit is indeed special, that all that extra effort Stolichnaya puts into it does make a palpable difference. When my laboriously perfected roulette system finally pays off and money is no longer an object, it will be my vodka of choice – on those dark evenings when I run out of gin.




Goose Island Vintage Ales

21 Apr
Goose Island ales from Chicago are now available at the LCBO

Goose Island ales from Chicago are now available at the LCBO

A couple of beers arrived on my doorstep this week (in a beautiful wooden crate that is now the perfect home for some of our beat-up power tools – but that is another story). The beers are really good – two of the Vintage Ales collection from Chicago’s Goose Island craft brewery (estd 1988), both of them available this spring at the LCBO. Created specifically as versatile food-beers, Sofie and Matilda (Goose Island likes to call its beers by name) are Belgian-style ales with real balance and sophistication rather than the over-hopped bitterness that is currently in fashion down in the States.

Sofie first. It’s a pale golden ale, partly fermented with wild yeasts which give a grassy fruitiness to the brew and then aged in wine barrels with lots of fresh orange peel. In terms of flavour intensity it reminds me most of an aromatic white wine such as a New-World, warm-climate Viognier with a deliciously flavourful middle palate of citrus and vanilla. Goose Island has taken trouble to suggest some precise food matches – oysters or sushi, grilled whitefish, shrimp or lobster, brie or fresh chèvre. I still prefer something sharper or more bitter for the oysters but the other ideas are sound. Then again, there’s more than enough going on in the beer if you taste it all on its own.

Matilda is darker and spicier and less obviously flavoured than Sofie. Different hops are used (Super Styrian, Styrian Golding and Saaz as opposed to Sofie’s Amarillo) but again they provide an unusually subtle seasoning – just enough to balance the rich maltiness and counteract the grain’s natural sweetness. This time the recommended cheese is camembert and if you think the difference between a camembert beer and a brie beer might not be so very great, you are getting the point. The major recommended food match is lobster or crab served with drawn butter rather than off the grill – again, a matter of nuance. Personally, I find the dipping of the pristine, aromatic, steamed or poached flesh of a crab or lobster into clarified butter to be a nauseating treatment – even the stench of the pot of hot liquid butter in a restaurant can make me gag – but I won’t hold that against Matilda. As mentioned before, it’s a very good beer, though Sofie is more to my taste.

If you have time this month, you can also drop into Nota Bene on Queen Street West where chef David Lee has devised some dishes of his own to go with these beers. He is a past master at creating menus to flatter specific wines so I’m sure the trip will be well worth your while.


Moses McIntee cocktails at Paese

12 Apr


The Inspirato Dal Maestro in all its glory

The Inspirato Dal Maestro in all its glory

Fellow restaurant geeks and industry cv nerds, this paragraph is for you. Everyone else, skip to para 2. Ame > Toronto Temperance Society > The Ritz Carlton > Lucid > The Museum Tavern > and now the L-eat group of properties featuring Paese and L-Eat Express… ace bartender and mixologist Moses McIntee gets around. Which is good because it has dragged me out of the house, following him hither and yon over the years. At Lucid, he was heavily into molecular mixology – lots of flasks and frozen gases. At The Museum Tavern it was more about barrel-aged cocktails (O M G – that aged Negroni!). Then, a couple of weeks ago, he left to join the group of businesses operated by Tony Loschiavo, an influential and excellent group including Paese (almost 25 years old, up on Bathurst), the new Paese on King Street West, L-eat Catering and L-eat Express. Tony himself handles all the wine stuff for his establishments – he is a brilliant sommelier, avid collector, dedicated vertical-vintage fan of such immortal luminaries as Quintarelli, Tignanello, etc, and also one of the very good guys in this tricksy hospitality business. Moses is his new Bar Director – and therein lies the meat of this posting.

As a sort of announcement of his latest position, Moses has made public (“shared” as we say in the merry, bustling world of social media) a flipbook of new, original, seasonal cocktails that he has created for Paese on King Street West. If you click here,, the book, with all its fascinating recipes and plangent background anecdotes, will miraculously appear! Meanwhile, let me offer some pictures of the Inspirato Dal Maestro cocktail (gin, Campari, orange juice, prosecco granita) manifesting itself before your very eyes. The finished version stands proudly at the top; the necessary steps below. I’ll leave you to imagine the swirling flavours you would experience if you made your way to Paese and ordered the cocktail from Moses himself… Consider it a commandment.

Step one

Step one

Step 2

Step 2






Make Wine Not War – the Massey College wine grazing 2013

27 Feb


One of the signal privileges of being a member of the Quadrangle Society at Massey College is that I get to help with the College Wine Committee’s annual Grazing. It’s always a delightful occasion with about 100 guests (half of them junior fellows of the College, half of them senior fellows and Quadranglers) moving from food station to food station in the Junior Common Room and Upper Library, tasting the precisely devised dishes prepared as perfect matches for the wines. The wines themselves are selected by the Wine Committee with a theme in mind and this year we attempted to show some of the different things that can happen to a grape when it’s grown in Ontario and in California. Jonathan Bright, who heads the Committee, came up with the title for the event, a cunning reference to the War of 1812 and the peace movement of the 1960s: Make Wine Not War.

I had discovered in previous years, much to my amazement, that some of our guests were unfamiliar with Ontario wines – old prejudices formed 30 years ago still nudging them away from the local shelves at the LCBO, the local pages of a restaurant wine list. They had passed from the last century into the present one in a state of ignorance, their lives immeasurably deprived of Ontario’s shimmering, racy Rieslings, our sleek Bordeaux blends, our Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and profound late-harvest elixirs.

So there was an element of evangelical zeal in my introductory comments to the evening’s wines. I attempted to explain that, here in Ontario, we really don’t have to struggle to make wines of true elegance and that it isn’t all that hard to showcase the crisp acidity or the aromatic intensity that comes from interesting soils and a long hang time on the vine – especially now that our vineyards – and our winemakers – are reaching the glory of maturity. And, dare I say it, our summers do seem to be warm and fruitful more often than they used to be.

For California, the problems were always the other way around. All that heat and sunshine – the macho show-those-grapes-who’s-master winemaking taught at U.C. Davis – the early taste for over-oaked, overly potent Chardonnays and inky, over-extracted Cabernets… The one thing they seemed to lack in those old days was any whisper of finesse. But all that is changing too. Today’s winemakers are seeking out cooler areas where altitude or fog and wind from the Pacific mitigates the heat and where grapes ripen more slowly, developing more interesting aromas and keeping some notion of acidity. So our theme wasn’t quite such a cool-warm divide as it might have been 10 or 15 years ago.

We began with a delicious bubbly from Prince Edward County, the 2008 Grange of Prince Edward Sparkling, a méthode Champenoise blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a pinky, beigy, papyrus colour – one of those elusive nacreous half-tones you see in a dawn sky or near the edge of an opal. It had an intriguing nose with plenty of yeast on top – like bread or biscuit dough overlaid upon notes of ripe red apple and a hint of pear. Tasting it, the apple was much sharper – like a Granny Smith – and there was some citrus there and a definite minerality as if one were sucking a cold, clean pebble from the bed of a stream – a trademark of a Prince Edward County wine.

I wish I could tell you where to find the 2008 but I think we drank the last of the vintage. It was very generously donated by Caroline Granger who founded and owns the winery. Her father had bought the property when she was a girl and she spent her summers there before growing up and becoming a fashion model and actress in Paris and New York, then a schoolteacher then a forensic accountant. In 1997, she and her three small children returned to Prince Edward County and the family property where she conceived the idea of growing vines. She planted the first 10 acres by hand – literally, when her tractor broke down – all the while studying chemistry and biology at Loyalist College. 2003 was her first harvest and, as an accountant, she couldn’t resist crunching the numbers from her investment. She calculated she would have to sell each bottle for $7,000 to break even on her costs to date. Today she has 60 acres under vine and a great success on her hands.

We had tasted the bubbly in November, together with Massey’s brilliant culinary director, Darlene Naranjo, and with Greg Cerson, the College steward and the man who makes our Grazing possible in every logistical way. Darlene came up with a perfect canapé to pair with the wine – a warm scone topped with a quince and green apple compote and a hint of fresh ginger. Scrumptious.

After that little appetizer we moved to the Upper Library for the first real pairing. We’d wanted to show that both Niagara and California are capable of perfumed, exotic wines beyond the usual pale. I had also thought it might be interesting to show off a Muscat from California, partly to justify the extraordinary and unprecedented infatuation that state is currently showing for the grape and also to show that not all Californian Muscats are sweet, one-dimensional, deeply tiresome wines that taste more soapy than floral and appeal mostly to people who like drinking Blush Zinfandel or are slaves to the Dark Master, Coca Cola. We found something much nicer. Uvaggio’s 2010 Moscato is dry, lightweight and has a true Moscato aroma like grapes, ripe canteloupe and gardenias.

Next to this we opened a 2010 Gewurztraminer from Cave Spring Cellars, grown on the Beamsville bench in Niagara on the sloping hillsides right under the escarpment. Cave Spring’s winemaker, Angelo Pavan, lets the grapes hang quite late into the harvest to build up sugar and aromatic complexity but picks while the necessary balancing acidity is still intact. It has none of the voluptuous weight of an Alsatian Gewurz but it’s still decidedly seductive with aromas of elderflowers and dried rose petals. There’s a little sweetness when you taste it and flavours of spiced pears and bubble gum but a lovely tangy acidity that keeps the wine honest. It opened up quite dramatically in our glasses and there were oohs and ahs all around the room, especially when I mentioned that Cave Spring had generously donated the wine for the evening.

We wanted something decadent and delicate to pair with these two wines and we came up with a milky infant of a ricotta cheese cradled in a bitter leaf, sweetened with floral-infused honey, a touch of anise and a final kiss from a rose petal – as if some wayward aunt had waved her perfumed hanky over the innocent ricotta as a blessing.

On to the Chardonnay station. When we were in the very early stages of thinking about this evening I had contacted Martin Malivoire, proprietor of Malivoire Wines on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, to seek his advice and suggestions. He was supportive from the outset and proposed that his 2009 Moira Chardonnay might be just the wine to show how dazzling Niagara Chardonnay can be. He only makes 100 cases from the vineyard he and his partner, Moira Saganski, planted in 1995 and I was thrilled to pour it. This wine was praised by Jancis Robinson in terms that made many a Burgundian producer green with envy when she tasted it in London a couple of years ago. It’s made in a cool, clean Burgundian style with some of the juice fermented in French oak barrels made for Martin by a Burgundian cooper and some aged in steel. The oak is part of the choir, not the solo performer, harmonizing with refreshing acidity and minerality and  rather a yummy nose of honeysuckle, pear and lemon zest. En bouche, you find – if I may plagiarize Martin’s web site – flavours of “pineapple, pear, honey and custard cream with a zesty mineral finish.”

We felt this wine needed a dish of its own. Martin has since emailed me that he had opened a bottle of it for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and cooked up a perfect pairing – butter-poached lobster on linguine with a lobster and tomato reduced cream sauce with roasted fennel and oven-dried tomatoes. We came up with something fairly similar – shrimp cooked in butter with tarragon and just a hint of saffron to bring out the oak.

Alongside this gem, we served the 2009 Mer Soleil, grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County by the Wagner family. This is a perfect example of what Californian Chardonnay makers are after these days – a site that is naturally cooled by Pacific air and ocean fog being sucked into the valley. But there’s plenty of wind to keep the vines healthy and dry and a great deal of sunshine. Even 15 years ago, Californian Chardonnistas used to use so much French oak to ferment and age their wines that it ended up tasting like pineapple juice sucked through a straw from an old leather boot. The Australians were doing the same. Most of them have moved on. And yet this wine seemed undeniably oaky after the chic and taut Malivoire, full of spicy vanilla aromas along with hay and honey – and Mr Wagner also finds Meyer lemon on the nose but that may be the power of suggestion since his vineyards are surrounded by lemon groves. The oak is certainly there when you taste but, in the mouth, the wine is surprisingly delicate and not full-bodied at all – just a delightful and easy-going Chardonnay with an adorable smile… Darlene found a terrific match with a gratin of potatoes with molten Emmenthal cheese and lemon thyme cream.

Our third station was devoted to Pinot Noir, indubitably Ontario’s most promising red. There are some thoroughbred beauties strutting out of Prince Edward County, where the soil is almost identical to the Cote d’Or, and now that the vines there are reaching maturity, the Pinots are getting more interesting every year. But there are also some spectacular versions from Niagara’s benchlands and our Pinot Noir was from Tawse – voted the Canadian Winery of the Year by Wine Access magazine for an astonishing three years in a row – 2010, 2011 and 2012! Moray Tawse makes several Pinots from various vineyards. We tasted the Growers Blend from the long, hot 2010 vintage – a year which gave delicious concentration and complexity to the wine. From the vast spectrum of potential aromas Pinot Noir offers we found ripe cherries and blackberries with a hint of violets and some earthy, truffly, mushroomy forest floor background.

Our Californian Pinot came from Kenwood (the 2010) and was a good one, typical of what can be achieved down there now that winemakers have stopped manhandling the fruit as if it were Cabernet Sauvignon. So many Californian Pinots basically taste like raspberry juice with streaks of spice added by ageing in oak. This one was much better integrated and more interesting, grown in the Russian River valley of Sonoma – relatively cool and close to the ocean – and the winemaker decided to add 1% Syrah to the mix to add complexity and body and probably a bit of extra colour. Is that cheating? Not if it improves the wine. We found the nose to be a bowl of fruit – raspberries and strawberry jam, Ocean Spray cranberry cocktail – even a hint of Ribena. The taste was more complex – refreshing, suprisingly tannic in the way cranberries are and though there wasn’t any sense of a barnyard or those forest floor mushrooms there was a pleasant background of cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. I urged our guests to go back and forth between the two, looking for the difference that climate can make – especially to the intensity of the aromatics and the underlying acidic structure. The Californian is cheerful, likeable wine – very easy to spend an hour with – but if you want long involved conversation deep into the night, the Tawse was the Pinot to choose. And to eat? Darlene prepared a splendid dish to go with both wines – slow-roasted pork topped with a mushroom brunoise in a dried cherry and pomegranate marinade.

I suppose the area where the biggest difference between Ontario and California can be seen is in the category of Big Red Wines – especially Cabernets. We can get some really good colour and intensity from C Franc in a long, hot year – but perhaps we should be looking for supple strength rather than brute force. For our Ontario red we left the benchlands and moved down to the plain – the Niagara Lakeshore appellation that lies around the road from St. Catharine’s to Niagara on the Lake. Like Malivoire and Tawse, Stratus is a brilliantly conceived winery, utterly eco-friendly, gravity-driven, so the wines aren’t constantly being pumped around and stressed. The vineyards there were planted with the deliberate knowledge that the principal wines made were going to be blends – the speciality of winemaker J-L Groux, a man of professorial intellect and a thorough individualist. We tasted the 2007 Stratus Red which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – all three mainstays of Bordeaux of course – with a little Burgundian Gamay added – something you would most decidedly not find in a Bordeaux. 2007 was another of those long, hot summers in Ontario when Cabernet Sauvignon was able to ripen properly – which is not always the case here in cool years. J-L gave the components 644 days ageing in French oak barrels – 88% of them new ones. Then he chose the barrels he liked best (the rest went into Stratus’s second wine, called Wildass). The ’07 Stratus Red was finally released in 2010 and it proved to be a super, elegant wine that deserves the most concentrated appreciation. It’s so smooth and well-integrated that it’s actually quite hard to analyze! There’s a lovely juicy, round acidity and all sorts of rich, ripe, sleek black-fruit flavours right in the centre of the palate. And though it’s more than five years old now, it still tastes marvellously vibrant and young.

Our Californian Big Red was the 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The name is a tad misleading as it’s also a blend, containing 23% Merlot to soften and humanize the dark, disapproving, rather austere frown of the Cabernet. These vineyards were planted in the 1960s and their roots grow deep, which adds all sorts of nuances to the wine. 2009 was also a summer of heat waves in California – one after the other – and we could taste the ripeness of the fruit. The Ridge is just reaching its peak now and it met with universal approval – not too extracted or jammy but huge, full-bodied and powerful. The tannins were smoothing out but there was plenty of acidity tucked away behind the tell-tale Cab Sauv blackcurrant and the aromas of black tea, fennel, brambles and cigar boxes.

We paired both reds with a cassoulet prepared with double-smoked bacon lardons and wild boar sausages made for us especially by Peter Sanagan at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market – (my local and therefore my nomination for Toronto’s best butcher’s shop). My favourite cassoulet wine is an inky black Fitou from Roussillon, tasting of charcoal and liquorice and sinful mid-afternoons. I once drank such a wine with a magnificent cassoulet made by the wives of the vineyard workers of Carcasonne and it was a humbling experience. I made the mistake of asking for seconds and my Oliver Twist-like presumptuousness ruined me for the rest of the week. At Massey, no such Armageddon occurred – but I think the Ridge worked better with the cassoulet than the Stratus. Darlene also served some mimolette cheese, gouged à la minute. I am on record as saying this is my favourite cheese in the world.

And so to our finale. We had thought about presenting an Ontario Icewine but we figured everyone already knew what they’re like. So, to bring symmetry to an evening that began with a lone Ontario bubbly we ended with a lone Californian sticky, another Muscat but made from a different kind of Muscat than the dry Moscato we tried earlier. This particular grape is called Orange Muscat and its aroma is like apricots and the orange flower water that barefooted street-children sell you in Marakesh. As far as I know only one producer makes it – a couple called Andrew and Laurel Quady who live in Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. They had experimented with making their own port during the 1970s – they rather cleverly called it Starboard – but in 1980 they came up with the fortified  Orange Muscat they call Essensia and it became an instant cult hit among dessert wine lovers. They have continued to experiment and these days Essensia also contains a few percentage points of Muscat Canelli which enhances the citrus character of the wine and a tiny bit of Malvasia Bianca which boosts and complicates the floral aroma. This is really one of those wines that takes the place of dessert but the idea of pairing it with a final treat was irresistible – some crystallized orange peel dipped in dark chocolate.

And that was our evening. It was certainly a wonderful occasion for me because my son is currently a Junior Fellow at the College and he came to the Grazing as my guest. Although Massey is one of the planet’s most enlightened and stimulating educational environments, that night we were not really there to learn. Our sole purpose was more simple and more profound – the clear-eyed, utterly single-minded quest for shameless hedonistic pleasure.



David Lawrason’s CCC wine report

14 Feb

David Lawrason made a dramatic entrance at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna last week, flying in directly from a three-week sojourn in New Zealand and looking remarkably fit and spry. I never see enough of him during the CCC since we are both very busy with our separate vinous and culinary worlds. Only when those worlds collide – at the actual events – do we have a moment to share notes so I welcome this post-facto report even more than usual.

The Canadian Culinary Championships Wine Report

By David Lawrason, National Wine Advisor

The 2013 Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna featured an astounding 40 different wines, spread over three events. Except for the wines that were paired with ten competing chefs, the vast majority were donated by the wineries of Kelowna.  Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna was instrumental in organizing the donations and the tastings.

I had the great pleasure of tasting and judging them for the Best of Show Wine Award with two good friends and excellent palates to help me with the judging – two local boys known to all wine folk in the Valley.

Harry McWatters was the Honorary Chair of this Event, but I think he derived his real pleasure from joining us on our tasting rounds.  Harry was the founder of Sumac Ridge Estate winery in 1980, among the very first small new, quality focused wineries in the Valley.  He had the vision and courage to plant what he wanted, where he wanted, and to speak out for what he felt was right for such a tender industry. He was truly the architect of the incredible growth of Okanagan wine has enjoyed since.  And he is still out there creating, and mentoring with his McWatters Collection, and new brand is in the wings called Time.

Rhys Pender is younger, but very much a Harry.  Living in the Similkameen Valley Rhys has made his mark as a passionate wine educator, writer and show judge. He is one of only three people in BC and four in Canada to have earned his Master of Wine.  He too is vitally interested in and vocal about BC wine, and he has not been afraid to dig in and plant grapes and make wine of his own.

Chef’s Reception at Tantalus Vineyards

This year Tantalus Vineyards played a major hosting role for the Canadian Culinary Championships, offering their winery for the Chef’s receptions and introductions, and helping organize neighbouring wineries of the Lakeshore Wine Route that poured at the Mystery Wine Night.  The interior of the winery looked like a movie set for a classy futuristic culinary thriller, with stainless steel gleaming in white light, culinary students from Okanagan College all in their whites, food stations, and of course the stellar Tantalus wines.  They poured the terrific 2010 Riesling this night as well as 2010 Pinot Noir, which could frankly use a couple of years. Winemaker David Paterson led some of the judges through a tank sampling of the very promising 2012 Riesling, and we dabbled with a 2007 Old Vines Riesling that is now evolved to perfect fruit, honey and mineral complexity while maintaining electric acidity.  It was astonishingly good with oysters from the Outlandish Oyster Company of Quadra Island

The Mystery Wine Competition
The El Dorado Hotel

This is my favourite of the three Canadian Culinary Championship competitions, and not just because I am involved in selecting the Mystery Wine.  We all like to talk the talk of food-and-wine matching, but this night  we got to walk the walk – the chefs, the judges and 400 guests who packed into the wonderful, retro summer lodge-like El Dorado Hotel on the shore of Lake Okanagan.  It was all about exploring the interaction of flavours – the essence of gastronomy. Simply, each chef had to create one dish to match specifically to the wine.

The El Dorado is the culinary hub of the Lakeshore Wine Route, so it was only fitting that four wineries who belong to this association provided other wines in vinous support to the Mystery Wine.  Tantalus, St. Hubertus, CedarCreek and Summerhill Pyramid Winery each poured two or three wines at stations on the main and second floor. And the evening kicked off with a very generous pour of Distraction, a funky, pink sparkler by The View.

The room was full of conjecture and guesses about the identity of the Mystery Wine. Most people correctly assessed it as pinot noir, but few confidently picked its origin.  The wine showed exceedingly well according to most opinion, with terrific fragrance, fresh acidity, excellent fruit depth and silky tannin. It was a wine that easily drank through the evening, and provided the chefs a broad flavour canvass.

And the Wine?  Norman Hardie 2010 County Pinot Noir, from Prince Edward County, Ontario.

If you are unfamiliar, Prince Edward County is located two hours east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario.  It is an amazing chunk of limestone bedrock rapidly gaining acclaim for pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling wine.  The first winery opened in 2001 and there are now almost 40.   Norman Hardie is the great ambassador for the region – a Toronto-raised pinot noir fanatic who has made wine in Burgundy, South Africa and California.

Norm Hardie took the podium and graciously acknowledged our Olympic athletes, tying their pursuit of excellence to the pursuit underway in the vineyards of Canada.

The Grand Finale at The Delta Grand

About 25 wines were poured during the festivities in the Delta Grand’s Ballroom on the final leg of the competition.  The chefs from each city had invited their winning winery to pour again in Kelowna and all took up the offer, with three wineries accompanying their chefs to the podium. In bronze medal position, paired with Regina chef Milton Rebello was the taut, complex See Ya Later Ranch 2010 Pinot Noir.  Ottawa silver medalist Jamie Stunt brought along Ashton Brewery’s la belle terre, a brew flavoured with ginger and green tea. And the Gold Medal podium was shared by Toronto chef Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier and the delicate Peller Estates Ice Cuvee from Niagara.

Aside from the chef wines, guests at the VIP reception were treated to a pair of lovely wines from Black Hills Estate – the 2010 Syrah and 2011 Alibi, a cracking good white blend.  After the competition, as guests were treated to entertainment and athlete interview, several wineries from the Kelowna area poured a wide selection at the tables. Participating wineries included Andrew Peller (BC), Calona Wines, Sandhill, Ex Nihilo, Mt. Boucherie, Sperling Vineyards, Quail’s Gate and Camelot Vineyards.

At the end of the evening it was left to the three wine judges to select the Best Wine of Show, from all those entered over the two days of competition. And here’s what happened. With remarkable consistency five wines showed up on all the score cards.  Malivoire 2011 Gamay from Niagara placed fifth.  There was a tie for third between Gray Monk 2011 Gewurztraminer and CedarCreek 2009 Platinum Merlot, both from the Okanagan.  In second place, only a couple of points out of first place, was the superb, complex Tantalus 2010 Chardonnay.  And finally with two first place votes and one second came the compact, elegant and powerful Black Hills 2010 Syrah.  Black Hills will receive A Best of Show Wine Award, along with all other Best of Show winners in cities across Canada.

But even with this announcement the evening was not over. This year, for the first time, Gold Medal Plates entered all the donating wineries, breweries and distillers into a draw. The winner, as drawn by Rhys Pender, was Laughing Stock Vineyards of the Okanagan.  The prize?  A villa holiday at the Relais and Chateau Borgo San Felice in Tuscany, the new international HQ for Gold Medal Plates fundraising trips.

It was a terrific weekend, and on behalf of the athletes I want to thank all the winemakers, brewers and distillers across Canada for the best campaign to date.

Here’s looking forward to next season.





Lapostolle and Grand Marnier

16 Jan

My enthusiasm for the wines of Chile continues to grow, a long-smoldering ember fanned into flames by my trip there last fall, generously organized by Wines of Chile. These days our house wines are from Cono Sur and Conch Y Toro with a bottle of Montes Purple Angel for very special occasions. And my education was further expanded on Monday when I met with Javier Santos at Crush Wine Bar for a private tasting of some of the wines of Lapostolle, framed by other treasures produced by the Marnier-Lapostolle family.

The winery was founded in Chile’s Conchagua valley in 1996 by Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, sixth-generation descendant of the original creator of Grand Marnier. It seems to be a family tradition to add something important and original to the clan’s portfolio. Alexandra’s great-grandfather bought property in the Loire and founded Château Sancerre in 1910; her son, Charles de Bourné, now has a project of his own, making pisco in Chile’s luminous Elke valley, a pisco he calls Kappa, after the brightest star in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

We started the tasting with the 2011 Château Sancerre, a graceful, subtle, perfectly balanced wine. There was fresh lime and lemon zest on the nose, hovering over a distinctive minerality. The flavours echoed the bouquet, a swirl of complexity beneath the obvious elegance, reflecting the nine months the wine spent on its lees and the ripeness of a lovely vintage. The length showed the wine’s breeding and I was delighted to learn that it will be returning to the LCBO in the summer, priced very reasonably at around $25.

The next white was from Chile’s cool Casablanca valley, Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre 2011 Chardonnay, made with organic grapes from the Atalayas vineyard. It’s another wine with a bouquet to make any oenophile’s nostrils flare in admiration. Half oak- and half steel-fermented, half oak-aged, no malo, it’s intense, rich, spicy but perfectly formed – a Olympian Chardonnay with oaky caramel braided around peach and pear aromas.

We tasted two red wines, both spectacularly aromatic, an effect enhanced by the splendid stemware Crush found for the occasion. Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandra 2008 Carmenere is splendid, the dominant varietal educated and smoothed with about 15% Merlot. The nose is redolent of plums and black fruits with smoky spice and a hint of dark chocolate. Tasting it, I was struck by the smoothness of the tannins and the ripe black fruit that didn’t seem to have faded at all with the passing years. Young Carmenere often has a hint of something ferous and bloody, the taste you experience when you cut your finger and suck the wound. I didn’t get that here, which may be due to the wine’s maturity.

Then we tasted Lapostolle’s unique Borobo 2009, a blend of Carmenere, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot that changes with the vintage, in terms of ratio. I tasted the 2005 a couple of years ago and loved the dark, liquorice spiciness behind the ripe black fruit. There was a sense of drying tannins behind the scenes, however, that had not managed to integrate themselves thoroughly. Not with the 2009 – a black velvet cloak to wrap around your palate.

So far, so very good, and now we moved on into the spirit world, enjoying a small snifter of Cognac Marnier VSOP as an introit into the Grand Marnier range. If you’ve noticed a change in your Grand Marnier over the last couple of years it’s because they have lowered the level of sweetness by a welcome and significant 20 percent, a decision that has helped bring Red Label Grand Marnier into the modern age. Now Javier Santos caused cocktails to be made to emphasize this refreshing, contemporary side to the old liqueur. The Grand Ginger was my favourite, a simple mix of 1 oz grand Marnier, 3 oz ginger ale and the juice of a ¼ of a lime stirred in a glass full of ice. The ginger ale brought out the flavour of the very rare, bitter, greenish-yellow type of oranges (Citrus bigaradia) that go into Grand Marnier, grown in the family’s groves in Haiti.

The next step up from the Red Label is the Grand Marnier Louis-Alexandre – my favourite level – which is smoother, more sophisticated and offers a greater ratio of Cognac to orange eau de vie in the blend, a virtue reflected in its price. We skipped the next two rungs of the ladder, the Cuvée de Centenaire and the Cuvée de Cent Cinquantenaire, created to mark the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the elixir. Instead we leaped right to the Quintessence, blended from double-distilled orange eau de vie and a selection of cognacs up to 100 years old that were discovered in the Marnier Paradis. This is the ultimate Grand Marnier experience. Can a smell be intense but also ethereal? Almost an incense of orange and oak and very old brandy. Texturally, it’s so smooth it is almost a syrup and the length is unparalelled. Remarkable. But dare I admit it – privately, and for your ear alone – I still prefer the Louis-Alexandre.



Crazy Uncle cocktails

24 Nov

Crazy Uncle culinary cocktails – Frankie Solarik made them

It came as a shock this week to hear Frosty the Snowman playing at my local LCBO store. The gorgeous weather we’ve been having has kept thoughts of winter away from downtown Toronto, giving us an eternal autumn, as if we lived in Imladris. But apparently Christmas is coming anyway, so thoughts turn, naturally, to festive alcoholic iterations. I am not a huge aficionado of ready-mixed cocktails – I much prefer them freshly made – but every rule has its exceptions. Two Toronto brothers, Bruno and David Codispoti, have decided to raise the bar on the genre by commissioning no less a mixologist than Frankie Solarik of Barchef to create a trio of drinks of unusual verve and depth of flavour.

The brand is called Crazy Uncle and the first of the three is already available at the LCBO in a litre-sized hooch jug for a bargain $17.95. It’s rather delicious – a sort of vodka punch infused with the sweet-tart aroma of blood orange juice, deeply spiced up with nutmeg, clove and cardamom and sweetened with a dash of maple syrup. Hanging around the bottleneck is a sachet of powdered cinnamon and rosemary sugar with which to rim the glass. The only thing you need to add is a great big two-inch cube of ice (easily made if you have a King Cube ice tray (call 888-225-7378 for retailers near you)).

Promised for early next year are two more flavours – a Basil & Lime Daiquiri and a Cola Bitter & Mint Julep, one tart and herbal, the other sweeter and pleasantly minty. Thank you, fratelli Codispoti! Thank you too, Frankie! These are cocktails that will carry one right past Christmas and into the real winter if it ever comes. Meanwhile I have been toasting the great victory over the mega-quarry speculators with my blood-orange Crazy Uncle – while the last leaves fall in the blessed sunshine.