Thursday, February 23, 2006

California wines

This evening I thought I'd pen a few words about California wines in general. Now, as does most every growing region, California produces a wide variety of wines - both in terms of price point and style/varietal. Many wine writers and other afficionados would say that California provides less variety in terms of style that other regions - most notably France.

I'll agree with that - yes California wines has a more consistent in style - but they are more consistent in quality as well. This is indeed the main point I'm raising in this post:

If one wishes to purchase a high quality wine, and one can afford a wine that is say - CAD $18 and up at the LCBO - then you should strongly consider wines from the California section of the wine shop.

The main reason is that California wines are more of a sure fire bet than those from other regions. Expensive French and Italians wines can be wonderful - but they can also be disappointing. Australian wines can be great - but they lack to polish that I find in California wines.

Here are some specific wines to be on the look out for - which are generally available:

Cline Syrah - There is a Carneros version of Cline's Syrah - for about $26. This is an excellent wine - but the better deal is the Cline "California" Syrah (usually about $17.)

Zinfandels starting with 'R' - try Rosenblum, Renwood, Ridge (more $$), Rabbit Ridge, Ravenswood.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

In the wine business - tough may not be enough

Wine writing is 99% about the grapes, the wine, the romance - the other 1% is about the wine-making business. Here's a fairly good article chronicling the financial challenges faced by small, start-up wineries in Niagara.

Globe & Mail - The tough business of winemaking

This having been said, lets put a few things in perspective.

First, a winery is first and foremost a farm, and, by-and-large, farms in Ontario are losing money.

Second, while it's true that a number of smaller wineries have succumbed to finanical pressures and been sold to large, deeper-pocketed interests, this happens in many fragmented industries. It's especially true when the industry as a whole hits a few bumps. It's no surprise that the harsh winters and laybug problems have caused a shakeout in the Niagara industry. In somes ways, those exiting the Niagara wine business are lucky - they have found buyers and will at least get some equity out. (OK - so maybe not what they put in.) The vines in the ground represent equity - because older vines are more valuable. There is also value in the brand awareness.

So what advice might I give someone going into the wine business. Well - if you ask me:

1. Look for an opportunity to buy an established vineyard that produces reasonable quality grapes.
2. Plan to make some wines from purchased grapes - and some estate wines.
3. Avoid overinvesting in the physical plant. If you are just building a hobby business, be my guest. However, remember that it NEVER gets that busy in the Niagara tasting rooms.
4. Aim to distribute a good portion of your wines by mail order or from the cellar door - you'll need that to capture margin.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Caymus not a Conundrum

I've had a bottle of Caymus Vineyards' white blend called Conundrum hanging about for a while. This is one of those in between wines that not so easy to match with food - being off-dry. Well - at least for me, as I've come to realize that I generally prefer very dry white wines.

This evening I thought I'd open this wine (vintage 1999, purchased at about $40 likely three+ years ago) and sip it while typing and chatting on the phone. I must report that it's a delicious wine. It has an abundant bouquet - with some oak in evidence, but not too much so. The wine is not as sweet as I expected. I was bracing myself for a more upscale version of the Malvasia Bianca wine from Bonny Doon - a sweet floral wine that I found hard to get through.

Not so this effort from Caymus. Although I'll not likely rush out and acquire more, I'll certainly enjoy the rest of this bottle.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Winery Visit - Davis Bynum

If you are wondering where in the heck Davis Bynum Winery is in Niagara, stop! Davis Bynum is in Sonoma County, California.

Well, to be more oenologically precise, Davis Bynum is in the Russian River Valley A.V.A. (A.V.A. = American Viticultural Area.) If you've never been to Northern California and/or are not that familiar with Sonoma County wines, this is probably a boring minutia. However, it's worth beginning to learn about the different AVA's within Sonoma because it does make a difference.

The most important AVAs in Sonoma are the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and the Alexander Valley. I love Sonoma wines, but I'll have to say wines from RRV are my favourite. (I've visited Northern California three times in the last five years. )

Well - enough background. Davis Bynum is one of three wineries on the West Side Road (i.e. west of the river) which pioneered the growth and vinification of Pinot Noir in the region. (The others are Rochioli and Gary Farrell)

On my previous Sonoma visit, I had picked up a bottle of the 2001 RRV Pinot Noir. This was most enjoyable consumed late last fall. On this past visit, I was more in a Zinfandel mood. I especially enoyed the:

Clopton Vineyard Zinfandel - 2002 (US $30 - 198 Cases made)

and acquired a bottle to haul home on the plane. Davis Bynum does make some wines in larger volumes. However, it's more fun when visiting a far away (or nerrby for that matter!) winery to focus on the special wines. This was one of those wines.

If you find yourself in Sonoma, don't miss the wineries on the West Side Road. You won't find this exact wine ( it's sold out), but you will not go away empty-handed.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Winery Visit - Daniel Lenko Estate

I've probably been in the Lenkos' kitchen - which serves as the tasting room - about eight or nine times. I was lucky enough to discover Daniel Lenko Estate a little bit earlier than most. I was driving along King St one day - hmm, was it five years ago now - and saw the sign.

Well - Daniel Lenko has made his simple "tasting room" setup work all these years. When you buy a Lenko wine - you're not paying for a fancy wine-making facility. Nor are you paying for a marble tasting bar, nor for the Riedel stemware I sipped from at Tawse later that afternoon. However, I don't think about those things when I taste Lenko wines.

This past Saturday, Daniel was not around - but his winemaker was sitting at the wooden kitchen table with a whole whack of bottles. This was only the second weekend that he'd been open since the fall. I was a little worried that I'd be jockeying my way through a huge crowd. However, things were way more manageable than on my previous visit. (Perhaps the hordes had been and gone the weekend before. )

The relative quiet allowed me an opportunity to chat with the winemaker. Interestingly enough, he assured me that, for the most, the reds are made 'in the vineyard' - rather than by winemaking trickery. The whites, he claimed conversely, require actual winemaking.

On this day, I concentrated on the Lenko whites.

First up was the 2004 Reserve Riesling. This was dry, sleek, and classy. One reviewer has deemed it as 'elegant' - and I'd have to agree. Riesling has really grown on me over the last couple of years. It probably started with the Quail's Gate Riesling I hauled back from BC. This past year, I enjoyed the very economical Caroline Cellar's 2003 Riesling, as well as the fine Nadia's Vineyard Riesling from Flat Rock Cellars.

This year I'll be enjoying the Lenko Riesling - as I seem to have acquired an entire case!

Next were the various Lenko Chardonnays:

On this occasion, the American Oak Chard stood out. The unoaked Chard was as enjoyable as usual. The French Oak was a little more muted in the nose than I remember in the past. There is now a Signature Series Chardonnay - nice, but twice the price of the American Oak bottling.

Cab Franc wise, the excellent, accessible 2003 is now sold out. The bigger, more age-worthy 2002 is starting to come into its own. I was able to taste the 1999 Cab Franc - which the 2002 shoudl resemble in few years. It has softened out a bit - but not too much. Ideal for drinking now - but I wasn't prepared to pay $50 for the library wine - and I have a good supply of Niagara Cab Francs to work through.

I anticipate returning to this winery - likely in July or August - once new releases become available.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Winery visit - Tawse Winery

Tawse Winery is a relatively new addition to the Niagara scene. I had a few minutes to spare on Saturday - and decided to use these to visit for the first time.

The winery is fairly easy to find. There are signs along the QEW (look for the stylized 'T') and along King St (the main drag of the Wine Route.) The winery is about a 1/2 mile up from King.

As it's a new, more "boutiquey" winery, I expected a modest, perhaps rustic building. On the contrary, it's a large, multi-level winery with a state-of-the-art gravity fed system. The wines available for tasting are the first produced in the new facility. However, the winery has been producing for several years at an off-site facility. (Don't ask me where these wines went - because I've never seen them.)

Well - it's evident that there is good funding behnd this winery. No luxury has been spared. This is the first time I've tasted from Riedel stems. The owner and winemaker (veteran Deborah Paskus) have chosen specific stemware for each wine they have available for tasting.

Anyway - to the wines:

Officially available were:

Chardonnay - Beamsville Bench Reserve - 2002

This was the better of the two. It's very classy with a fine aroma. The oak is there, but not overdone. (The winery uses equal parts new, one year old, and two year old French oak barrels.)

Chardonnay - Robin's Block Estate Chardonnay - 2002

This was excellent as well - although I gave the Beamsville the edge.

I also tasted two unlabelled reds (the labels hadn't yet arrived):

Cabernet Franc
Pinot Noir

Both were a little too chilled. I was in a hurry and didn't have time to let the liquid warm up slightly. Both were fruity, complex and medium-bodied. I'd certainly like to go back later in the year.

A couple of cavets:

- check the tasting hours - Tawse is open Saturday but not on Sunday
- there is a $2.50 / sample tasting fee (waved if you purchase wine) - the pour is a good size.

These are premium wines - so don't go to Tawse for a quick sniff, swirl and sip - be sure to have have enough time to savour.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wine touring - the where question

A week or so ago, I penned my thoughts on the advantages and pleasure of going wine tasting.

Now let's look at the where to go.

I'm not going to discuss specific wineries today - but I will touch on the regions and areas that will be of interest.

First I should mention that most wineries have available a reasonably good map of Ontario's basic wine regions - these being:

- The Niagara Peninsula
- Lake Erie North Shore
- Prince Edward County

There are a spattering of wineries in other spots - including a couple in the GTA - but the above are the main areas for touring. Of these, Niagara is by far the largest, most diverse and the most interesting in terms of wine. However, you can't cover the whole of Niagara in a day - it's best to pick one 'section'.

I divide the Niagara into four basic sections for touring. These are - from closest to Toronto to furthest:

The Beamsville area
Vineland and environs
In between country - Jordan and between St. Catherines and the Escarpment

I'd suggest starting with either Beamsville - or at NOTL. If you are interested in some of the larger wineries whose wines you've had through the LCBO, and would like to get a formal tour - head to NOTL. If I had to suggest a plan, you might consider:

- Hillebrand (for an well organized tasting and tour)
- Lailey's (for higher-end wines)
- Caroline Cellars (for a small, family winery with great value wines and not an ounce of pretense)
- + one or two wineries that strike your fancy.

If you are more curious about the smaller ("boutique") wineries whose wines rarely make it to the LCBO, start around Beamsville. A suggested sample itenerary here would include:

- Angel's Gate
- Eastdell
- De Sousa
+ Daniel Lenko if you get the chance

In general, don't try to cram in too many wineries. It's tempting - but remember that you're supposed to be relaxing and savouring.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Some sure fire LCBO winners

I don't purchase as much wine from the LCBO as I used to. In the past year, about 60% of my purchases have been at the cellar door. Nonetheless, the LCBO has some excellent values. A couple of wines that always seem to please are:


This is a Vintage Essentials pick - so it is available year round at most LCBO location that have any type of Vintages department. "Cannonau" is actually the Grenache grape - as named in Sardinia. A medium+ bodied, full-flavoured wine - perfect to accompany winter dishes. Normally around $14-$15


This wine is released every so often. At $9.95 this is can't miss wine for weekday drinking. Full flavoured blend of Grenache/Syrah/Carignane.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Consider WA - Western Australia that is

A year a so ago, a member of an online wine board launched into a discussion of the WA wines. He didn't initially explain that he was interested in the wines, not of Washington State, but of Western Australia. Now, Washington State produces some wonderful wines - but the fact is that that I haven't been sipping on a WAshington State wine over the past few evenings, I've been sipping on a wine from Western Australia.

I know of a number of people (including yours truly) whose interest in wine began with the discovery of big, fruity Australian wines - most notably of the varietal grape Syrah (or Shiraz) as it's almost labelled in Australian and South African wines. And yes, I, as do many other with interests in wine, find that their tastes move gradually towards less intense, but more complex wines. Some afficionados entirely lose interest the big Aussie and other New World wines. I believe that they are losing out. For me, the key to enjoying quality wines is to match the wine with the occasion and more especially the food.

Nonetheless, the big Shiraz wines from Coonawara and McLaren Vale are not going to be for everyone. For those, I recommend being on the lookout for wines from Western Australia.

This evening, I'm enjoying the remnants of a bottle of Galafrey Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 (from the Mount Barker 'appelation' in Western AustraliaI.)

This wine is a mere 12.5% ABV - whereas a typical Cab from Australia will be in the 14+% range. What the Galafrey lacks in power, it makes up for in finesse, having a noticeable and attractive nose, good fruit and a slightly silky mouth feel. This wine has been sitting in the cellar for about three years - and is pretty well the same as I remember. Perhaps it will improve with age, but since I possess no further bottles, I'll never know.

There seems no good reason not to drink this wine now, and those wine drinkers looking for Australia's wine alter ago would do well to try some wines from W.A..