Sunday, December 23, 2007

Marketers, Critics or Ombudsmen?

During a morning read of the latest tastings and recommendations from the several wine critics I follow I had an epiphany!
I've been under the impression wine critics are the equivalent of other 'critics', just in a different venue, wine instead of theatre, arts, politics, etc. Movie critics have often praised, panned, slashed and burned movies describing faults, the story line and the acting and cinematographic merits. They take no prisoners in their review of moviedoms releases. Crud is crud, gold is gold in their view and they're not hesitant to print it. Similarly, art critics can be highly caustic or complimentary of an artist's passion. Political analysts or parliament watchers report with the only caution they don't cross the line called libel in their presentation of political shenanigans.
The movie, theatre, art and political critics all have one thing in common. They're working for you the reader. They don't represent MGM, Sony, Mirvish Productions, the ROM or AGO, Liberals, PCs, etc. but offer their trained observations so you have considerably more on which to base your own opinion. Whether you agree or not you now have more things to think about.
My epiphany was to suddenly realize wine critics are very much different - at least in some cases or on occasion, perhaps on all occasions. Until it becomes apparent in their words they should be looked at as an extension of the wine industry's Marketing organization. Maybe they are paid by someone else but they are essentially selling product under the assumption of impartiality. Notice how often I've said 'some' or 'on some occasions' and 'some more often than not' because how would anyone know for sure? There is no written 'code of conduct' that I know of - except...
In the US Robert Parker Jr. claims he spends three months of the year tasting in vineyards and nine months tasting sometimes seven days a week and putting his observations in writing. His website lists the conditions for his tasting of wines which, I believe would ensure consistency and independence as a critic. Hopefully I can summarize the salient points of the conditions he claims his Company works under:
  • When possible tastings are of the same type of wines and the producer's names are not known (blind and peer)
  • Neither price nor producer's reputation is a factor
  • He does not take part in wine judgings or trade tastings
  • Tastings are from an entire bottle in appropriate tasting glasses and at the proper wine temperature
  • He determines the amount of time needed for the number of wines to be tasted
  • Wines may be tasted several times with the rating reflecting the overall results
  • He prefers to underestimate than overestimate a wine
  • His rating system, 50 - 100 point scale, is intended to enhance and complement his tasting notes
If these conditions were not adhered to the results could easily be influenced by the winery owner, the distributor, the retailer, ie. those marketing the wine. Robert Parker's conditions puts a buffer between these influences and his clients. And if you subscribe to his tasting results, through his website or a subscription to The Wine Advocate, you should benefit from this impartiality.
I don't claim to certify that these conditions are being followed on all or any occasion but, to me, they have a ring of legitimacy. What I would say is his assessment and reporting on hundreds of wines in many countries has resulted in a very successful business and a worldwide reputation. To a large degree this authenticates the process.
There must be some in Canada having basically a similar ethic. Do you know who they are?
Having followed magazine articles, newpaper columns, wine medal results, etc. I cannot recall when a Canadian wine critic has documented anywhere similar conditions for tastings imposed by himself or the panel on which he/she has sat. As I say, I've had an epiphany. I no longer have the same confidence in published tastings that I've had in the past. Perhaps some day there will be a Wine Critics Guild with a documented 'Conditions for Tasting' and I could be more confident in what is published. (Imagine! A tasters column having WCG after the critic's name to signify his oath of independence.) Until then I have to start with the assumption that local wine critics are Marketers.
I have some 'what ifs' :
  • What if Ontario critics insisted on certain groundrules for their tastings (as above)? Better still... what if NO reviewer showed up at LCBO tastings without these conditions being met?
  • What if, each or collectively, reviewers listed the wines they wanted to taste.... would the LCBO make them available or not?
  • What if critics reviewed more of the plonk sitting unsuspectingly on LCBO shelves? If there were a column, say monthly, of 10 wines with ratings in the 70s readers would know how to avoid bad to mediocre wines whether local or imported. I believe gradually these labels would disappear. The local wine industry would see fewer labels competing with their lower priced brands and the Industry as a whole would be healthier.
  • What if there were a regular list of US (NY State?) versus Ontario wine prices. Recently there was a huge outcry over books, greeting cards and cars, however pricing of liquor products has been inflated so long we accept being gouged. Wine is a drink for family and friends, not just the rich and famous.
With an increasing focus on profit the LCBO isn't doing a good enough job of policing its shelves. Customers need an ombudsman to ensure it's honouring its monopoly status. Wouldn't it be great if Ontario reviewers became our ombudsmen?
My opinion, Ww

Saturday, December 01, 2007

December Whites (12): Australia Chard; Canada Pinot Blanc, Sauv Blanc(2), Ries; Italy Blend; NZ Sauv Blanc(2); Spain Blend(2), Pin Noir; USA Chard

HENRY OF PELHAM PINOT BLANC 2005 VQA, Niagara, Canada, 12.5% XD, #618827 $14.95 (Tasted December 28, 2007)

A Vintages release on May 12, 2007 described as "Pale water white in colour, this refreshing Pinot Blanc is summer in a glass. Leading with ripe pear aromas on the nose, it?s dry and crisp with fresh pear, green apple and tangerine flavours balanced by a racy seam of acidity leading to a spritzy, clean." My notes: A light straw colour with a green cast and aromas of honey and pear, lightly floral. A nice nip with apple and pear flavours with some crabapple showing in the finish and leaving a slight tang on the teeth. As is it's a refreshing sipper, although a slice of lemon or lime may help this in the summer months. Would pair well with whitefish entrees, lobster pieces, shrimp, or creamy pastas dishes. Not for cellaring. 82

Marlborough, NZ, 13.0% D, #129528 $14.95 (Tasted December 24, 2007)

A General listing described as "Pale straw yellow colour; intense aromas of grass, pear, gooseberry, fresh herbs, with notes of passion fruit; dry, light and clean palate with a zesty, fresh, pink grapefruit, lime; mouth-watering finish. Serve with hors d'oeuvres, oysters, goat cheese dishes, or poached salmon topped with steamed asparagus and hollandaise sauce." The website says of the 2006 "Light straw with green highlights. Gooseberry, ripe capsicum and lemongrass with tropical fruit notes. This wine displays real fruit intensity. The gooseberry flavours meld well with fresh capsicum and underlying nectarine and passion fruit flavours. A well-balanced wine showing the lively, crisp acidity associated with this style... Though made to drink while young and vivacious, this wine may be cellared for up to three years to develop further complexity." VH of Winecurrent gave this four and one half (of 5) saying "The '07 wines are receiving incredible accolades... Savoury notes and herbaceous nettle aromas form the pungent nose of the medium-bodied and gorgeously-textured gem. The robust and focused flavours include herbs (dill and lemon grass), pink grapefruit and passion fruit. The finish is clean and refreshing... " My notes: Listed as 'Montana' but bottled under the Brancott brand for some years. A pale golden with full gooseberry nose, a touch of cream with the first sip which carries the gooseberry, grapefruit and slight nettles well. The finish stays nicely tart, full of fruit leaving a pleasing reminder. This has a reserve that blends well with social sips, light chicken or salmon on greens or grilled whitefish dinners. Cellaring for a few years should be OK. A super value for a well balanced NZ sauvignon blanc. 91

Venezie, Italy, 12.0% D, #530451 $9.85 (Tasted December 22, 2007)

A General listing described as "Pale straw colour; Soft pineapple, green apple with a touch of gooseberry in aroma; good acid, nice weight, slight fruit sweetness in finish. Serve as a great backyard wine; apéritif; appetizers." My notes: A clear light blond colour with faint aromas of lanolin, not much else. The flavour carries a light lime and crabapple with some tartness finishing with a dry tartness on the tongue and a fading lemon edge. Either the vineyard is quite young, the grapes not yet fully mature or 2006 was a cold growing season. I didn't find this interesting as a sipper. Pairing with a lemon and mushroom linguine and grilled trout could help this wine, other combinations may as well but it's a stretch in any case. If chilled well it could be served with a slice of lime as a 'backyard wine' however I wouldn't serve to friends or family. 74

RESERVA RAVENTOS BRUT SPARKLING WINE NV (11.5%) & BRUT CAVA PINOT NOIR ROSE NV (12.0%), Penedes, Spain, #006379 (Duo Pack) $29.95 (Tasted December 22, 2007)

A Vintages release for the holiday season described as "... This gift pack includes two premium Cavas: a complex, full-bodied and sophisticated Reserva Raventós, and a gorgeous pink 100% Pinot Noir, that is bursting with the flavours of ripe summer berries." The Rose (#665372 @$16.95) and the Raventos (#521773 @$10.80) were available locally only in the Gift Pack. When Vintages released the Rose it was described as "... delicious rosé fizz.. brimming with luscious cherry and strawberry aromas and flavours. It is easy to like... " and the Raventos, "... Grapefruit, lemon, herbal tea and floral nuances make for an inviting nose. Mostly citrus fruit in the mouth with good acidity and mousse. Nicely proportioned overall with a consistency of citrus fruit from start to finish... 88/100 (Jeff Davis, Wine Access, Nov. 2004)" My notes: The Rose is a light salmon pink with a sharp nose of leasy cherries. The large and small bubbles subside quickly leaving a minor rim, not frothy. Light-bodied with a good sharpness across the palate, there's a faint red cherry-berry and a slight creaminess making this a bright brut sipper. The finish is clean, dry, and citric. With grilled garlic shrimp and lemon pasta this cut the flavours well refreshing the palate with each sip. Also have well chilled with fresh oysters or cheddar cheese nibbles. An OK value. Ww85
The Raventos is a blend of 25% Macabeo, 50% Chardonnay and 25% Xarel·lo. Lots of large to medium size bubbles subsiding quickly to a steady stream and no froth. The nose shows crisp crabapple against a leasy background. A bright golden colour, light-bodied with flavours of grapefruit peel and crabapple, mostly crab, some grassiness and finishing of faint apple with a steely edge, no sweetness and very little cream. A sipper if you expect a dry sparkler... better with hors d'oeuvres, a shrimp ring with sauce, fresh oysters, a cheese tray or shaved italian meats. Have with seafood entrees or cold chicken on greens. 82

Penedes, Spain, 11.5% D, #053660 $20.95 (Tasted December 16, 2007)

A General listing described on the label as a "Blend of Chardonnay(50%), Macabeo(20%), Parellada(20%) and Xarello(10%). Brut, Pale gold with fine, persistent bubbles. Fresh and elegant aromas with floral notes, in the palate is smooth, intense and balanced. Serve 6 - 8C." A product from the Group Codorniu described as "... launched in honour of the Regent Queen María Cristina of Austria who in 1897 granted Codorníu with the title of “Official Provider of the Royal House”. In addition to the traditional blend of the Non Plus Ultra, this cava has a touch of Chardonnay, which gives it a more modern, balanced and sparkling style." My notes: A crisp light golden colour, every size of bubble foams but doesn't froth. The full aroma smacks of grapefruit and fresh green apple, with just a little yeast to sniff. The grape blend provides flavours of green apple, peach and pear with a noticeable creaminess - the more than a 'touch' of chardonnay behaves very well. A dry sipper that leaves a long finish of creamy flavours making this an interesting addition to a party or celebration... and the bell shaped bottle adds more. An excellent aperitif with fresh oysters or with fish fillets, scampi or shrimp, or after dessert refreshener. I'd imagine this could cellar several years mellowing without losing cream or fruit. A value for a brut of a bubbly. 91

Okanagan, Canada, 13.0% D, #593111 $13.50 (Tasted December 16, 2007)

A General listing described as "Very pale straw colour; aromas of grass, herbs and gooseberries; medium bodied with lively acidity and a crisp finish. Serve with fresh seafood or mixed green salad topped with warm chevre." The winemaker claims of this vintage, "Lush passion fruit, grapefruit, and melon on the palate highlighted with fresh cut green grass notes lead to a crisp lingering finish." My notes: A subdued gooseberry and nettles nose, a lanolin note and a blanc blond colour, crisp, clean, a touch of green. The initial taste portrays a commercial texture, a light oiliness, a faint almond against a background of gooseberry tang. For me, too sharp for a sipper, better with saltine crackers and a pate or with a delicate seafood meal, flavourful but not too spicy. The acid went well with grilled telapia but flavours didn't carry. A drink-now and not recommended. 79

VINELAND ESTATES RIESLING DRY 2006 VQA, Niagara, Canada, 10.4% D, #167551 $13.85 (Tasted December 16, 2007)

A General listing described as "Straw yellow colour; peach, melon, citrus and apple/mineral aromas and flavours; dry, medium bodied, crisp with racy acidity and clean, zesty lemon finish. Serve with grilled chicken breast in a mango salsa, poached salmon or shellfish; spinach salad; goat cheese." My notes: A golden straw colour with a green tint with mixed aromas of mango, peach and lemon - has a zingy dryness from the first taste, and finishes with a citrus crabapple flavour, a soft layer under the lemon coating making this somewhat lip-smacking and refreshing. Have with fresh oysters, cold chicken breast slices on greens, mussels in a curry sauce or pork cutlets and herbed rice. Serve as an aperitif or with a meal. An OK value for a dry riesling - a 'get in for friends and family' type of white. 84

BONTERRA CHARDONNAY 2005, Mendocino, USA, 13.5% D, #342436 $16.95 (Tasted December 15, 2007)

A Vintages release on October 13, 2007 described as "Bonterra uses only organically grown grapes in all of their wines. The nose shows attractive aromas of banana, melon and peaches along with hints of vanilla oak. It's dry, vibrant and packed with fruit and is a 'natural' selection for stuffed red peppers or eggplant dishes." The website says: "An initial impression of rich, buttery cream quickly turns to aromas of honey and lightly toasted almonds, followed quickly by tropical aromas of pineapple and citrusy lemon. The wine is refreshing on the palate with a vibrant tartness and lemon zest... " My notes: A Fetzer Vineyards label... there's almost no nose on the first sip, a colour of light nothing and follow-on flavours of bland melon, bright citrus and a touch of almond, nicely rounded with a luscious follow through. The finish develops further into an abundance of melon, citrus and almond, naturally off dry. Serve off chill, 10 - 12C. Combined with a thin crust mushroom, sundried tomatoes and mild cheese pizza the synergy was excellent. I believe this could cellar a few years to introduce some caramel. A drink-now and an OK value for an almost unoaked commercial off dry chard to be served to anyone, anywhere. 86

Niagara, Canada, 11.3% XD, #067553 $16.95 (Tasted December 10, 2007)

A Vintages release on December 8, 2007 described as "John Howard, former owner of Vineland Estates, has opened a new winery, Megalomaniac.... the aromas are classic Savvy, including gooseberry, grass, passion fruit and fresh basil. Dry and crisp and very refreshing, this is an excellent choice for grilled seafood or with an herb-encrusted chicken breast." VH of Winecurrent gives it three and one half (of 5) saying "This opens with the grassy and herbal notes... The flavour profile of this small production white includes those grassy and herbal ones along with a good dollop of citrus in the white grapefruit and lemon zones. Medium bodied with a brief finish, this is a good match with a green salad under light vinaigrette and crumbled goat cheese." My notes: A Fragrant nose of gooseberry, grapefruit and melon and a colour that is crystal clear blond white. Very dry on the first sip, light-bodied with some cream on the edge, flavours almost unnoticeable of gooseberry, citrus and peach and a finish that leaves the lips and palate slightly parched, definitely extra dry - the flavours build with a few sips then fall away quickly. The main characteristic is its acerbity and if you like dry, is a passable sipper. Have with fresh oysters or with dinner, not too spicy or highly flavoured but moderately so... a telapia filet with mildly curried orzo, asian fried rice and chicken balls, sushi and battered shrimp. A drink-now, not for cellaring. 84

South Eastern Australia, 13.0% D, #093401 $11.95 (Tasted December 09, 2007)

A General listing described as "Lemon yellow colour; fragrant aromas of tropical fruit, pineapple, peach and vanilla oak; dry, medium-bodied with soft fruit flavours; citrus and spice on the finish. Serve with grilled chicken, pork chops; shrimp dishes." My notes: A pale blond colour and aromas of faint honey, straw and pineapple developing slowly as the chill goes - must be offchill to be fully appreciated (10 - 14C), definitely chardonnay in character. Medium-bodied, very lightly flavoured lemon and grapefruit and a smoothness that wraps everything in a creamy texture. Finishes dry, a light oil on the lips and a refreshing citrus. Well worth the price as a House chardonnay. Have with anything chicken from barbecued to creamy pasta, or grilled or baked whitefish, scampi or pork cutlet lightly seasoned. A drink-now with a commercial bent but nevertheless a good value. 85

Marlborough, NZ, 13.0% D, #293043 $15.95 (Tasted December 01, 2007)

A General listing remaining to be described as "Pale straw colour; gooseberry, herbs and a hint of tropical fruit on the nose; dry and medium-bodied with a crisp finish. Serve with smoked salmon, asparagus risotto or herbed chicken." VH of Winecurrent gives it four (of 5) saying "Peach and citrus aromas provide segue to this light- to medium-bodied SB from the famed Marlborough region. You'll enjoy good balance with the flavours of citrus, mineral and white peach perfectly in synch with the moderate weight, hints of melon, and tanginess on the finish. Pair this with mussels steamed in herbs and white wine." My notes: The 2006 was tasted in July this year summarized as '... full NZ flavour and consistency, ... a value for an everyday SB.' The 2007 has a gooseberry nose with a touch of nettles and straw, a pale blond colour and firm nip on the first sip with the tang persisting along side flavours of lemon, gooseberry and lime. The finish is strong on tart, enough to detract from the slight cream and light citrus fruit. Would be great as an aperitif with fresh oysters... or with grilled scallops or garlic prawns... not a sipper by itself. Likely could cellar a year perhaps mellowing the acids, likely not longer. If you like 'sharp' and are having food it's an OK value - although an increase of 70 cents... I preferred previous vintages which had less tart, less nettles and were truly sippable. 82

December Reds (14): Australia Blend(2), Shiraz(7); France Blend; USA Cab Sauv, Merlot, Zin(2)

CAYMUS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 'SPECIAL SELECTION' 2002, California, USA, 14.5% XD, #711663 $159.95 (Tasted December 25, 2007)

A Vintages release October 1, 2005 described as "Quarterly Review of Wines gave this HHHHH in their Summer 2005 issue. Rich yet sleek and concentrated, with tiers of ripe plum, wild berry and black cherry. Shows a touch of spice, sandalwood and nutmeg. The long, detailed aftertaste that keeps introducing new flavors. Best from 2006 through 2014." The Wine Spectator gives it 93/100 points and a Collectible designation: My notes: A subtle but refined aroma of plums, spices and exotic woods. The flavours followed the nose with delicate integration of fruits and spices... an elegant sipper, medium-bodied, smooth and velvety in the mouth developing nuances to continue the interest. The finish although not strong is distinctive lasting awhile entertaining the taste buds further. I'm not used to an opulent wine - this one being a special gift - so can't judge this one.... but certainly wouldn't disagree with a rating of 93/100.

South Australia, 15.0% XD, #685941 $14.95 (Tasted December 27, 2007)

A Vintages release on August 19, 2006 and described as "As this wine is unfined and unfiltered; we recommend you decant before serving. [Pillar Box] boasts luscious black currant fruit intermixed with smoke, herbs, and cedar. Richly fruity, opulent, and medium to full-bodied, it is one of the great wine bargains of the world. Consume it over the next 2-3 years. 90/100 (Robert Parker Jr., Oct. 2005)." VH of Winecurrent rates it four and one half (of 5) saying "This 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Shiraz, 11% Merlot red blend... Opaque and brooding, there are quiet aromas of gamey smoked meat and black plum that waft from the glass. The sweet... fruit... explodes in layers and washes over the palate right through the lengthy finish. A deftly handled oak regimen (hardly a trace in the taste) and delicately balancing acidity make this one of the 'must buys' of this release. Unfined and unfiltered, it will drink well through 2008." My notes: Produced by Henry's Drive in Padthaway, Australia. An opaque ruby with a violet tone and a full toasty oak nose with rich black cherry and plum seam. A velvety tannin flows on the first sip lining the mouth with a slight spice, mint and black cherry flavours. A long warm finish of evenly balanced process and fruit. A sipper for those preferring a heavier red, a round cabernet with the spice of shiraz and welcoming smoothness of merlot. Have with any red beef or lamb, grilled or broiled. Cellaring for up to four years quite possible. 90.

LES TERROIRS de J P CHENET MINERVOIS 2005, Languedoc, France, 13.0% D, #028597 $12.95 (Tasted December 23, 2007)

A General listing distributed by Les Grands Chais De France, one of the largest distributors in France. A blend of Shiraz and Grenache described on the label as 'In the Terroirs these varietals produce an intense, full fruity red wine'. My notes: A wider bell shaped bottle awkward for stacking flat but this wine isn't for cellaring anyway. The colour is a rich ruby and aromas of distant cherries, a slight spice and smoke form the nose - letting air twenty minutes improves first impressions. A bright cherry flavour, nicely balanced and fine tannins makes this a good sipper. Odd at first, perhaps the grenache, the finish leaves a red cherry taste, both dry and smooth with a slight pepper edge. Intense? No. Moderate? Yes. A clean, lightish medium-bodied wine for prime rib, steak tartare, grilled sausage pieces, liver and onions, even mussels and linguine in a marinara sauce. Very suitable for an open house, an open bar or a social with friends or family. A drink-now. 82

Lodi, USA, 14.5% D, #951889 $16.95 (Tasted December 14, 2007)

A Vintages release on December 8, 2007 described as "Ironstone creates a fruit-forward, crowd-pleasing, superb-value Zinfandel that is an excellent partner for foods such as pasta marinara, beef fajitas or sesame pork ribs." Natalie MacLean calls it the Best Value Red of the Release giving it 90/100 and saying "A juicy, fabulously delicious zin, with plush texture and full body. Bursting with brambleberry goodness. Pair with: pasta marinara, beef fajitas, sesame pork ribs." The website says "90% Zin and 10% Petit Syrah... from grapes hand selected from vineyards that are over 45 years old. These “old vine” vineyards produce grapes known for exceptionally concentrated fruit flavors and unprecedented depth... To enhance the rich flavor characteristics, the wine was aged in French oak for 6 months... has a smooth and unpretentious finish." My notes: A deep ruby colour with a pinkish edge and warm scents of black cherry and nutmeg. Medium-bodied, nicely rounded with even touches of peppermint, pepper, red cherry plus a hint of walnut. The finish is long leaving mostly red cherry, savoury, fine tannins ending with a sweet edge and faint nuttiness. This is an interesting sipper, a companion for chorizo sausage slices, mild cheeses, goat cheese on bagel crisps, or pepperoni pizza servings or have with anything beefy, lamby, of ribby. A good value for a drinknow - up to a year. Cellar up to two years - longer? Likely not. 86

South Eastern Australia, 14.0% D, #324574 $14.95 (Tasted December 13, 2007)

A General listing described as "Red garnet colour; aromas of plum with strawberry, raspberry and cedar; dry, soft tannin structure, cherry fruit flavours. Serve with steak with dry rub spices, medium flavoured cheese." The website says "A medium to full bodied wine blended from Cabernet Sauvignon (80%) and Merlot (20%)... displays ripe blackcurrant, cassis, cherry and spice characters. The elegant and sophisticated palate is enhanced by toasty oak. Blackcurrant and smoky, leafy flavours linger on the finish." My notes: A deep ruby with a garnet hue... sombre with long legs. The aroma is warm, full of berries, smoky oak and a slight mint, not strong but persistent. Full-bodied, a nip of fresh blackberries and currants, a soft licorice, chocolate mint and a lengthy finish that has the brightness of freshly squeezed berry juice. Tannins and acid are well balanced never neglecting the fruit - cellaring for a few years should do well. A good value and outstanding choice as a House red - should appeal to anyone. Have with anything meaty from lamb kebobs to pork ribs, from T-bones to chunky beef stew. 86

ARAMIS VINEYARDS SHIRAZ 2004, McLaren Vale, South Australia, 14.5% D, #041202 $20.95 (Tasted December 12, 2007)

A Vintages release December 8, 2007 described as "Deep violet color. Dense blackberry, creme de cassis, cherry preserves, pipe tobacco, vanilla and baking spices on the nose. This has greater elegance than the more expensive Governor, and the fruit speaks more clearly. Sweet dark berry and cherry flavors are lifted by fresh but gentle acids, and the soft tannins harmonize nicely with the fruit. Finishes with an impressively pure blackberry flavor and a tangy, refreshing note of cracked pepper. Sure, there's oak, but it's there as a sweetening element, allowing the bright fruit to shine. A great bargain in newfangled shiraz. 92/100 (Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar, July/Aug. 2006). VH of Winecurrent gives it four (of 5) saying "Quite a fruit bomb, there's a solid core of rich, ripe and concentrated dark berry flavours and a quite a whack of oaky, smoky aromas. Cassis, tar and bramble berry flavours abound with still firm tannins quite apparent. The finish is as full bore fruity as the mid palate with moderating zing and black licorice layered on for good measure. Good to drink now after a three hour aeration/decant—better 2010 to 2015." Natalie MacLean gives it 93/100 saying "Wine with terrific balance, complexity and finish. Gives the drinker aromas of tobacco, spice and plums." My notes: A deep ruby, very sombre in the glass, long legs with aromas of soft plum, black cherry, smoky oak and vanilla highlight - better if aired twenty minutes. The first sip slips smoothly over the taste buds leaving well integrated rich black cherry, ripe berries, cassis, fine tannins and light pepper. A full-bodied sipper with a long finish that is dry, warm, full of cherries, chocolate and tar. Have with T-bone, bbq'd ribs, pepper steak or full flavoured stews and chilis. Drinking well now if you prefer a serious, old world red. Could cellar for several years without missing a step. 92

KATNOOK 'FOUNDERS BLOCK' SPARKLING SHIRAZ 2004, South Australia, 13.0% D, #053330 $19.95 (Tasted December 09, 2007)

A Vintages release on December 8, 2007 described as "Bravo Katnook! Another sparkling red to choose from and a lovely drink it is too... It's full of spicy pepper and blueberry fruit with hints of yeasty vegemite like a barrel of red still going through its first ferment. Dry on the finish... (Fergus McGhie, Canberra Times, Oct. 25, 2006)." The website has this to say "This is the first Sparkling Shiraz produced in the Katnook Founder’s Block range. It is an inviting wine, equally at home at a barbecue, a celebration or the dining table, with generous palate structure, rich fruit and spicy length of flavours. A soft and fresh mouthfeel, mellow rich fruit, lively burst of fine bubbles and a lingering finish. Serve lightly chilled and enjoy now for its vivacious fruit. A perfect match for duck, turkey and pork dishes and a natural for a barbecue." My notes: The colour is a deep ruby and first pour produces lots of varying size bubbles subsiding quickly to a continuous fine froth at the rim. The nose is very light somewhat leasy but mostly light blackberry. The first sip is black cherry and blackberry excited by the full spritz of bubbles. There is a natural berry sweetness, a touch of pepper but mostly dry tannin in the finish. A wonderful difference for a sipper - but keep the SpotShot handy for spills. Would go well with meaty nibbles, eg. meatballs en crockpot, liver pate on toasts or with turkey pieces, portobello burgers. Similar to that released under their Riddoch label a few years back. A value - a full-bodied sparkling shiraz this good doesn't come along that often. 89

South Eastern Australia, 14.5% D, #189415 $16.15 (Tasted December 08, 2007)

A General listing described as "Deep purple colour; spicy fruit bouquet of cassis, black cherry and smoky plum; smoky black fruit flavours with a long, full finish. Serve with pepper steak, lamb or game." My notes: The 2005 vintage, singly boxed on the General shelf (*the vintage is not shown on the box), is the same deep ruby with a soft smoky plum and black cherry nose of the 2004 that came in the Duo Pack (#049692) purchased December 6th. The first sip shows a velvet layering of black cherry, slight mint, milk chocolate, cedar tones and fine tannins - medium-bodied and wonderfully blended. A pepper edge shows itself in the black cherry finish leaving fruit, mint and spice on the palate for a loooong while. A sociable sipper that would please anyone. Have with mild cheeses, tacos and nippy salsa, a shrimp ring with seafood sauce or a beef, lamb or ham steak entree. You can tell I'd have this with anything. A drink-now red with several years cellaring possible. The season may bring a rush for this product since the remaining Duo Packs (#049692) are in/close to large centres. The 2005 is a super value imho. 91

South Australia, 14.5% D, #049692 $35.95 (2x750mL) (Tasted December 06, 2007)

A General release for the Season containing a bottle of WE BIN 555 Shiraz 2004 (#189415, $16.15) and one of WE Show Reserve Shiraz 2003 (not listed). Gord Stimmell says "Be wary of dolled up wine gift packs. In tasting more than 35 this season, one or two bottles in each set were below par... The Wyndham Estate Duo Gift Pack... is thrilling to the tastebuds. The lavishly styled Bin 555 2004 Shiraz has mellow black cherry, blueberry and cedar flavours, rating 90. Its Aussie mate... the Show Reserve 2003 Shiraz, is a blockbuster, with cassis, chocolate, mint and black cherry complexity, rating 91. The Show Reserve alone is worth the price of admission. Drink the Bin 555 now, and hold the Reserve for New Year’s festivities or stash it in the cellar for a future birthday bash... " My notes: I had to try both. The Show Reserve first: A deep ruby with long legs and aromas of black cherries, chocolate and smoky oak leaning more to the fruit. A luscious mouthful of black cherries, chocolate, mint, and white pepper line the tastebuds to make an excellent full-bodied sipper, elegant to say the least. Fumes of ripe fruit linger a long while along with the brightness of peppery spices. A wine to mull over rather than hurrying the next sip. At less than $20 this is a real value - and one you won't want to give away. Ww92
The Bin 555 is very similar in colour but less fruit in the nose evenly shared with a light smoky oak. A smooth first sip with prominent black cherries, fine tannins and slight mint and pepper. Finishes long with remnants of black cherry and mild spices. A lighter full-bodied shiraz and both would pair well with any red meat, pizzas, burgers, lamb or roast pork ribs. Cellaring of either for up to four years (box cover says up to 15 years) but drinking very well now - so why wait? 90

Langhorne Creek, Australia, 14.5% XD, #052993 $19.95 (Tasted December 04, 2007)

A Vintages release on November 24, 2007 described as "From a fabulous vintage in South Australia, Step Rd's 2005 Shiraz Langhorne Creek reveals a full-bodied opulence, wonderfully pure, rich, black fruit flavors, and amazing density, purity, and texture. It should be consumed over the next 4-5 years. Drink 2006-2011. 92/100 (Robert Parker Jr., Oct. 2006)." Natalie MacLean rates it 93/100 saying "Fantastic value for this full-bodied, lip-smacking red. Aromas of black plums and berries." My notes: A dense ruby with violet tones... and aromas just discernible of plum, blackberry and cedar. Long legs on the glass with fine tannins and a pepper edge to blackberry, cedar and soft mint - a lovely integration of flavours. The finish is light of the same flavours and leaving a dry mint layer on the palate. A soft sipper with a finish that grows with each sip. Would be a quiet companion to white or red meats: pork chops or tenderloin, prime rib, lamb or ham steaks. Have for guests at anytime or an open house of friends and family. A drink-now and up to four years cellaring. If you're looking for robust qualities this is not it.... more of an elegant sipper or meal companion. A soft, supple shiraz. 89

Barossa Valley, Australia, 14.5% XD, #054239 $19.95 (Tasted December 03, 2007)

A Vintages release on November 24, 2007 described as "The 2005 Shiraz Hales (includes 6% Mourvedre and 4% Grenache) reveals a deep ruby/purple color as well as uplifted aromatics of toasty oak, blackberries, blueberries, and acacia flowers. This dense, medium to full-bodied, beautifully put together Aussie red should drink well for 5-7 years. 91/100 (Robert Parker Jr., Oct. 2006)." The Winelovers Page says "... contains a splash of Grenache. The nose shows fresh red fruit and red and black currant also emerges on the palate which has good depth and a hint of sweetness. Quite different from the 2004, which was less sweet, more structured, containing a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, and leather notes which I like but which would displease brett haters, including Rolf. Still 2005 is a nice wine in its different style and good [value]. Rated 15/20." Natalie MacLean rates it 90/100 saying "Robust and delicious with notes of black raspberries and currants." My notes: A deep ruby with aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry and plum warmed by toasty oak - dissipates quickly tho'. The flavour rides on a leathery seam full of black currants and minty pepper, fine tannins give a dry quality that adds to the full-bodied textures. The finish is full of black currants, a light pepper, mint, then a tar note. Quite a wonderful sipper for anyone preferring a new world shiraz (me!). Adding this to meal of beef tenderloin, prime rib, T-bone or bbq'd pork back ribs would top the sensory chart. A value to serve guests before and during a meal or to cellar up to four years. 91

FETZER VINEYARDS VALLEY OAKS MERLOT 2005, California, USA, 13.5% D, #314131 $15.25 (Tasted December 01, 2007)

A General listing described as "Deep ruby colour; red currant and dry ripe plum with a hint of cedar and chocolate in finish; light tannins, dry and medium-bodied. Serve with veal chops; pasta dishes." My notes: A deep ruby colour with smoky oak and berry aromas, more smoke than fruit. The initial sip has a touch of sweet berry fruit with a layer of mint, soft tannins and spice. An interesting lightish medium-bodied quaffer, versus sipper, with flavours of soft berry, raspberry I think but it's not discernible, and a chocolate highlight. The finish doesn't stay long and is of berries, some crushed stems and is dry. Also the flavours don't stand up with flavourful meals. Quaff with meaty, cheesy or veggie pizzas, Subway BMT, a BLT sandwich or with a tray of cheesy nachos, even an appetizer of grilled prawns. A commercial drink-now. Not cellarable, not a value. 77

California, USA, 13.5% D, #234617 $15.25 (Tasted December 01, 2007)

A General listing described as "Ruby red colour; aromas and flavours of ripe brambleberry with pepper, spice and vanilla notes; dry, well-balanced balanced with zesty acidity, lively fruit and spicy oak nuances; long finish. Forward flavour goes well with grilled meats; medium cheese." My notes: A ruby colour with aromas of cherries, vanilla and bramble equally balanced. A lightish medium-bodied red, a dry texture on the first swallow with flavours resembling cherries and bramble not well established and finishing blandly except for some fine tannins and mild pepper. Have with burgers or use in a sangria. A commercial sipper that I wouldn't get in for family or friends. A drink-now, cellar up to a year but I don't see anything to develop - not a value. 74

Why Review Pricey Wines?

Is it just me or have you noticed too? Most wine reviews focus on higher priced wines?
There are likely several reasons why this is so - I offer two:
  • Which would you choose if given the opportunity to taste: either '$30 or below' or 'above $30' wines, where the likelihood of an exceptional wine is higher and so is a more gratifying tasting experience? The value may not be there but then you're not evaluating, you're rating the liquid in the bottle. There's some real plusses when tastings of pricey wines are convened. There's the opportunity to rub shoulders with winery owners or their marketing staff both of whom appreciate good PR. They treat you 'special'. Marketing people have their clients in continuous focus... and the reviewer is certainly a client of highest interest... especially those having a weekly column.
  • But what if you aren't given the option. After all, it's not your dime. It's the retailer's. From his point of view if reviewers push the pricey stuff in their columns, especially at seasonal highs, there's a higher likelihood that's the stuff that'll sell. Leave the cheap stuff for conventional advertising, high volume glossies and newspaper ads. Advertising for the masses - that's directed at me! So you convene tastings of predominantly expensive wines. It could be said, the reviewers are being manipulated.
Does a review of pricey wines benefit me? If I assume that pricey wines on a percentage basis end up being rated higher than $30 or below wines, why spend time on them? There's no challenge. Just sip, smile, ask for another... swirl, slurp and spit if that's your style. Give it four stars (who knows what that means?) or in some cases no rating just words and go to the next. However, if you are the target customer for these wines, someone that can afford the $100 bottle, you haven't earned your living by being conned by a slurper and spitter - neither are you convinced by fifty words or less in tasting notes. Increasingly I find myself looking at the bottle price given in each review and skipping the 'over $30's. That critic hasn't been meaningful to me nor, I suspect, to most LCBO customers. The critics whose target audience include folk like me and who are letting themselves be manipulated by retailers should go play golf! Write a book! Get a life!

The recent issue of Wine Access, December/January, lists the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards and the year's TOP 101 Wine Picks. Both domestic and imported wines are therefore covered. A marvelous feat by tiers of panels of some very noted reviewers and well worth the read. The prices of more than 80 of the 101 are above $30, most are well above and one lone Canadian (BC) ice wine makes the cut. For the Canadian Wine Awards the prices are more encouraging being $30 or below with only a few exceptions - when I exclude specialty wines: ice wines, late harvests and fruit wines.

Of the 20 top Canadian wineries 13 are in BC and have negligible representation in Ontario. Of the 413 medals (see note below*) awarded in the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards 165 went to Ontario wines. The two $30 or under (of 5) Ontario Gold medalists were: Hidden Bench Beamsville Bench Riesling 2005 and Creekside Cabernet Sauvignon St. David's Bench 2004. Obviously neither was on LCBO shelves at the time my issue was received. Another 26 Silver and 76 Bronze medals were awarded, a total of 104 Medals or a quarter of all medals were awarded to Ontario wines $30 or below.

The conclusions I'd like you to draw:
  • Ontario wines can hold their own in competition with other Canadian wines - some would say 'barely'.
  • Every Ontario critic should do a self assessment. Who is their audience? Is he/she driving wine reviews to match this audience or is the retailer leading them along their Marketing path?
I would like to see local reviewers do more reviews of Niagara wines that are on LCBO shelves ($30 or below) - not only those released by Vintages but the General list as well, VQA and 'Cellared in Canada'. The reviews should be timely and they should be regular.

That's my opinion, Ww

*Silver Medalists are included on the Wines of the Year pages (pp43-47) under the GOLD MEDALS heading. I have assumed the Medal Report (pp49-75) to be correct.

Whineries or Wineries?

Mackinac bridge '65
In his column November 17, 2007, Beppi Crosariol broached the subject of signature wine(s) for the Niagara wine area. A signature wine is made from grapes for which the regions growing conditions are not just accommodating but complementary in everyway, perhaps not every but certainly most years. Mentioned on the fringe in my previous articles but not specifically I have questioned phrases such as 'cool climate varietals' asking if you have to 'jump through flaming hoops' why grow them?. 'Cool' in this phrase doesn't mean a Canadian 'cool' that's downright freezing flipping cold - a yearly weather cycle that makes for intolerably short growing seasons most years for some notable varietals. More to the point, as Beppi has intimated, signature grape(s) suit the soil makeup and the climate leading to the best wine(s) the region can produce. Some Ontario wineries grow or contract every varietal under the sun. Either they can't decide what will sell or they desparately try to recreate the varietals that do sell: a USA Cab Sauv or Zin, an Australian Shiraz, a NZ Pinot Noir and Sauv Blanc, an Argentinian Malbec, or Chilean Syrah, etc. However, the Niagara climate in many cases doesn't allow competing with offshore varieties. The question that's inferred is 'Why not replant with signature grapes?' - obviously not to the exclusion of others that do well in Ontario and produce more than hobby wines.

What came first - the chicken or the egg? Or, put in context... Do Ontarians choose wines because they are from foreign shores? or Do they choose wines based on flavours and/or value? Rhetorical questions since the obvious answer is 'the latter'. And for 'Ontarians' I don't mean the sometimes wine drinker that picks up a bottle of vino at the supermarket boutique. Have you noticed how many wine drinkers browse, in your local LCBO, the shelves for imported wines bypassing the multiple aisles of local product? Have you noticed how few shelves are allocated in the Vintages corner for Canadian products? Have you noticed the prominence given to Auz, Chilean and Argentinian vintages in weekly wine reviews and mags? The LCBO has bent over backward giving shelf space as well as pricing imports (Ref1, Ref2) (see Ref3 for LCBO's response) to allow Niagara products a significant advantage but they still don't sell on par with foreign wines. It's a conundrum.... I've tasted lots of excellent Niagara wines.

I think I know what the problem is and how to fix it.

As I say, there are many excellent Niagara wines - you just have to find them. Vineland produces successful rieslings, and other whites, vintage after vintage. As do Henry of Pelham, Flat Rock, Niagara College, Mountain Road, Konzelmann, Pillitteri, etc., etc. Jim Warren's classic chardonnays have won awards year after year. But somehow the message has been missed by Ontario consumers. I believe the main problem is the overwhelming amount of plain plonk on shelves for Niagara wines. Rather than be stung, the consumer goes for the recipe wines: the Yellowtails, the Santa Carolinas, the Eaglehawks, etc. These wines will always have the advantage of being based on grapes, perhaps the bottom of the barrel ones, grown in an optimal climate.

IF local critics published honest ratings for entry level domestic and imported wines - instead of ignoring them... and/or IF the LCBO eliminated the ones that didn't sell from their shelves... the plonk would eventually not be there. But that's not gonna happen. Alternatively, if Ontario wineries could avoid washed-out mediocre lookalikes and concentrate instead on wines from grapes that mother nature naturally provides the growing conditions for, much of the domestic plonk would take care of itself - it just wouldn't be there.

I've harped about additives before so won't spend much time here except to say... 'Additives' advocates have convinced some wineries that adding a flavouring here, a nutrient there, etc. to undernourished and undeveloped grapes can compete with those grown in ideal weather and soil conditions. Talk about hiding your head in a wine barrel. Adding stuff to a fermentation is a home winemaker's mindset and should be - no, must be avoided. Adding vanilla and black currant extracts to the dry cranberry and crushed stemminess of a Niagara Cabernet Sauvignon gives a wine that smells of artificial blackcurrant with metallic flavours and finish of dry cranberry and crushed stems - and one that doesn't cellar well. 1. Keep home brewing at home. These techniques are just not good enough for a 'wine industry'!

Correct me if I'm wrong but... isn't the whole Cellared in Canada category due to planting grapes that failed to grow in Niagara climate extremes? To 'save the industry' the solution was to import juices from offshore to support an otherwise failing vintage year. How much longer is this category going to be around? Isn't 2007 suppose to be a bumper vintage? 2. Get rid of the 'Cellared in Canada' shelves. Instead, highlight the main Niagara viticulture areas on LCBO shelves in a similar way (not quite) to how French and Italian regions are identified.

There's never a vacuum for long. Seldom it's filled with the right solution. One solution receiving more attention is for a winery to offshoot egocentric wines. First, batches of quality grapes are set aside. Then a brand is personalized with an obscure name and, lastly, the wine is priced at a premium. These entrepreneurs market to the dollared consumer who naively imagine they can purchase wines exemplary of the finest European whites and reds. Perhaps premium labels need to be one facet of Ontario wines... I don't think they should be or need be the direction for Niagara wineries. But if regular Niagara products are deprived of quality grapes then eventually there will be more not less plonk.

Another practice that exacerbates a Winery's efforts is referring to their whites as 'Chablis-like' or 'Meursault-style'. On first blush this appears to be a complement... a real achievement... similar to saying my son takes after me. I'm telling you he wouldn't be impressed. He's his own personality and his successes are his own. 'Name dropping' such as this is a form of self-grandisement ... demonstrating that the reviewer is intimately aware of these stuck-in-an-era 'ideals'. Such comparisons could actually encourage Niagara winemakers to alter the indigenous characteristics of their wine to the 'preferred' model. The peach and crisp apple of a Beamsville Bench riesling could be changed to a honey, pear and wildflower of an Alsatian, but in a noticeably artificial way. I'm not criticizing reviewers who use european benchmarks among colleagues. 3. just don't pigeon-hole Niagara wines using these same benchmarks. Personally I find references based on wines from cities in France irrelevent to my flavour pursuits in wines from Jordan or Grimsby.

On the other hand, referencing a wine's style to Niagara microclimates such as the 'Beamsville Bench', 'Twenty Mile Bench', 'St David', or 'Lincoln Lakeshore' could be the basis for developing a name and reputation, first locally then on the world market. VQA regulations require Niagara icewines to have a 'viticultural area' on their label. These wines have already established the merit of local identities and subsequently gained recognition in a world market. Other Niagara varieties can earn their recognition but it won't occur without regulation. Label nomenclature identifying vineyard locations within the viticulture areas would give wines an identity and allow brand tiering. The shirazes of Australia are not called syrahs and their Cabs are not Burgundian... they are Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley, etc., etc. 4. A challenge to reviewers - discover the terroirs of the Niagara region and include these in your reviews.

The Wines of Ontario website lists four Ontario wine growing regions: Pelee Island, Lake Erie North Shore, Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County. The VQA website lists the same and the Canadian Vintners website calls these regions 'viticulture areas'. There are no areas demarcated equivalent to Appellations. (There! I've done it!... depending on european nomenclature) 5. Will someone (VQA?) please formalize the Niagara microclimates so the wineries can get on with giving their wines identities. Let's face it! 'Niagara Peninsula' nomenclature is meaningless if not a negative when I search for a 'good' wine.

Everyone needs to do their part to change Niagara Wineries into world competitors, to change the thinking that is trapping this region in a perpetual amateur hour. Put quality, integrity and skill into everything, literally from the ground up, and Ontarians will put their money where the effort shows up - in the bottle. Ontario may be a small market but the world market is the goal.

Just my opinion, Ww