Category Archives: Blind Tasting

Top 10 Wine Experiences

What makes a wine experience truly remarkable? A recommendation from someone you trust goes a long way, but at least half the fun is in the adventure.  And then there are the surprises, the experiences that leave you breathless. Because I am celebrating a milestone birthday and because I love top 10 lists, here are some of my favourite experiences of my wine journey that started about 15 years ago with a Ripasso and a dear friend named Patrick.

Antinori

      The Chance Encounter:  It all started when studying for wine class while receiving acupuncture from my friend Adrianna who introduced me to Garrett Herman, a Toronto wine collector  who served me my first Super Tuscan, and who had a dinner reservation at the Badia a Passignano Estate in the Chianti region when his friends made a mistake with the date – oh and my husband and I just happened to be in the area…

The tour of the stunning vineyards owned by the Antinori family was a treat in itself.  Afterwards, we were invited to have dinner with the Marchese Piero Antinori, the legendary patriarch of the family which  has been producing wine for 26 generations. We chatted  about family businesses, the future of the industry, and the impact of climate change over  a “humble country meal” of Bistecca alla Fiorentina and a glass of Solaia. It was a dream. The food and wine were remarkable, the conversation even better.  It gave me insight into a world that is dependent on nature but fuelled by passion. The only thing that could possibly have topped it was if Bruce Spingsteen himself ambled up to the table and joined us for a glass.  I have sipped many Antinori wines since that night, and every time, I think about that unforgettable evening under my lucky stars.

Culmina

The Promise: Early on in my wine education, I visited Jackson-Triggs in Niagara-On-The-Lake. Del Rollo, who was director of hospitality at that time, gave me my first tour of a production facility. Talking about the history of the company, Del told me about co-founder, Don Triggs, who was a mentor to him. Don  sold his share and moved west in search of the perfect spot to create the finest Canadian wine. Ten years later, I drove up to the front gates of Culmina in Oliver, B.C. A standard visit turned remarkable when Don Triggs strolled by and said “I’ll take you.” Over the next three hours, we visited each vineyard, learned the evolution of Don’s vision, the trials and errors, how they worked round the clock to save the vineyard from devastating wildfires that raged next door, and how he uses technology to keep his  promise to put quality above all else.  The tour culminated in the tasting of some outstanding wines that challenged convention. Culmina’s Riesling and Chardonnay were nothing I expected. The wines were exceptional and so was Don Triggs, whose  love for his family, the land, and quality shone through. I asked him if he loves what he does. He smiled and said simply “I am here at 6am every morning.” 

Valdipiatta

The Delivery: I found this highly-rated winery online and I sampled too many bottles to count at E Lucevan le Stelle (Translation: And the stars were shining) in Montepulciano,  my favourite wine bar in the world. There I learned Valdipiatta was the family vineyard of Cinzia Caporali, one of the bar owners.

Giulio Caporali Among His Vines

Cinzia booked us a tour with her father Giulio, the most delightful storyteller and insightful tour guide. In a mix of Italian and English, we got a lesson in Etruscan history. We learned about the highest standards of production, how the terroir or soil is everything, and about what it means to follow your dream.

Giulio bought the vineyard in 1990 and turned it into a successful winery with a stellar reputation. Today he and his daughter Miriam, the co-owner,  produce award-winning wines that should not be missed.  I have been back three times, and plan to visit again. I have a bottle of their Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva that will be shared to celebrate my 60th year.

Salcheto

Location, Location, Location:

Ten years ago, we rented a villa with 10 friends to mark another milestone. The group didn’t really know each other. It could have  been a disaster. It turned out to be one of the best vacations of my life. The friends, the food, the music, oh yes, and the wine. Lots and lots of wine. Everything was simply perfect.  The villa owner took us on a tour of surrounding vineyards, some industrial producers, some, like Salcheto,  small and intimate. The winery is nestled  in the hills outside Montepulciano.  Ettore, our host, gave us a quick tour, telling  stories in Italian with a smattering of English words thrown in.

We sampled their Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and bought cases to bring back to the villa.  The wine was so good, each time I returned to the area, I would call Ettore, who would give us a generous tasting even when Salcheto was under construction and operating out of temporary quarters.  He would set up a table laden with the latest releases, exuding pride at the company’s commitment to quality and sustainability. The renovated winery is stunning and a tribute to that commitment. 

Biondi

 The Surprise:  Social media can be overwhelming, addictive, and can be considered the demise of our civilization, but it can also find you a damn good winery. Before a trip to Sicily, I tweeted #SicilyWines any recommendations?  I received a smattering of suggestions, one of them from a winery very close to the village where we were staying. The day before we left Mt Etna, I tweeted back, “any chance for a tasting tomorrow?”. The lucky stars over the volcano were shining in my direction. Ciro Biondi, architect-turned-winemaker gave us a tour of his fields, stopping to pull out a few herbs for that evening’s dinner. He talked of his father’s reaction to giving up architecture for winemaking “You better do a good job, I paid a lot of money for your education.” .

The cantina was an old shack with a refrigerator that had seen better days.  Over glasses of wine, he talked about the history of Sicily, the politics, the poverty and the oppression from the North, where my father was born. It was a perspective I had never heard before. Oh yes, the Biondi wines….the volcanic soil gave them a distinct flavour so delicious that I wanted to take home.  When I asked if he had help from wine experts, he chuckled. “Why pay someone to make mistakes I can make  myself?” he said.  We sampled from bottles yet to be labelled. When we wanted to take some back to the villa, he insisted on labelling the bottles – even though I told him they would not survive the night. The good news: Biondi wines are available in Toronto at Terroni’s, so when I want a taste of Sicily, I know where to go. 
Domaine Queylus

In the Hood:  Our friends Ian and Maria are responsible for some of our best tastings close to home. I love that they scope out the new wineries and wait until we visit so we can experience them together.  Domaine Queylus is literally a four-minute drive from their home. It was our last stop on the way back to their place, less than half a hour before closing time. The tasting room is a log cabin, full of light. Our host Laurie was a former Montrealer who went to the same high school as my husband Steve. Her husband, John Nadeau, the hospitality and marketing director, joined us at the last minute and shared the history of the young vineyard named after a Jesuit priest who brought wine to the region centuries ago.We stayed long past closing. John revealed his goal is to remove the asterisk – create excellent wines, period. Not “great for a Canadian wine.” He and winemaker Thomas Bachelder have succeeded. Their Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and blends  are superb. No asterisk. 

 

Jackson-Triggs

The Eye-Opener: I moved to Toronto in 2004 but it wasn’t until three years later that I discovered the gems that are growing in my backyard. Del Rollo of Jackson-Triggs introduced me to quality wines being produced in the region. He talked about the  challenges and the victories. He made me realize that winemakers are a generous lot. Success is all about sharing knowledge and helping your neighbours.  When one succeeds, they all win.

Del and coworker Stacey Mulholland  also introduced Steve and I  to one of the greatest wine experiences of my life, a concert under the stars, sipping wine and listening to a performance by Jim Cuddy. His music is now one of my favourite pairings on a Friday night with a good glass of red and that eye-opening visit to J-T, started my journey of discovery of local wines.

Stratus

 The Genius Winemaker:  Stratus is where simplicity meets quality. With care and patience, the grapes tell the story.  And what a story. Technology is used to let the grapes and the soil speak for themselves. The winery itself is beautiful. Peaceful. Welcoming. The wine is extraordinary.

Source: Stratus Wines

J-L Groux is the grape whisperer, coaxing rich textures and flavours from the soil. His Cabernet Franc is nothing like you would imagine. This grape has often been described as better in a blend. The Stratus Cabernet Franc stands alone.  When I asked him how, he said “It’s just about doing it right.” Other producers in the region have decoded the mystery as well. It’s  turned Cabernet Franc from one of my least favourite single varietal wines, to one of my favourites. J-L’s red blend rivals some of the best Bordeaux blends I have ever sampled. His Syrah and Sangiovese, which I approached  with skepticism, also over-delivered. I have never tasted a bad Stratus wine – even the Wild Ass is playful and fun.  

Gaja

Paradise Found:  I am half Italian. My father was from Torino, the place he described as a centre of the universe. I have visited relatives there many times. How is it that it took more than 50 years for me to learn that a mere 30-minute drive south of his birthplace lies the Langhe, one of the greatest wine-producing regions in the world? The discovery came by accident. A wine sampling at my local LCBO, led to an email to the winery, to some research, to WOW!  Our tour guide  was Sonya Franca, assistant to the legendary Angelo Gaja, who is credited for helping turn Barolo and Barbaresco into Italian wine royalty. She spent two hours with us telling us about the rich history of the Langhe while tasting their wines, I had never tasted anything like this before. There was Gaia and Rey Chardonnay, a white so full-bodied, had I been blindfolded, I might have mistaken it for a red. Sonya also recommended a visit to the wine museum in nearby Barolo. My husband took a nap, something I tease him about endlessly.  The museum tour ended in a tasting room where the new vintage of Barolos had just been released. “How much for a tasting?” I asked. “15 Euros,” they answered. “For how many?” I asked, the polite Canadian looking thirstily over 140 bottles on display for self-tasting. “All of them.” Sweeter words were never heard. I made it to 35.

Going Blind In Tuscany

My Lucky Day: Whenever I have the privilege of visiting Tuscany, if the world is behaving as it should, there is time for a glass of wine or two at E Lucevan le Stelle,  the wine bar at  Locanda San Francesco in Montepulciano. I put away the smart phone, disconnect and watch the world go by. We were on our way south to Sicily but wanted to take a couple of days in our favourite part of Italy.  This visit was extra special –  my husband had been recovering from a brain injury and this would be his first glass of wine in 18 months.

We were well-received by Christian.  It turned out the day we were supposed to leave, the wine bar was hosting a blind-tasting with 10 producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Some itineraries are meant to be adjusted.

The evening was a blend of stories, new people, new wines. And I learned some important lessons: 

  • Wine people look at least 10 years younger than they really are. 
  • Wine producers are living their dream – despite the challenges
  • My favourite wine quote from Brazilian newlyweds – “You don’t make friends drinking milk.”

Aristotle was right. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I will never know enough about wine.  I think I got two out of 10 wines right in the blind-tasting that night. But what I did get, was an experience of a life time.

There are so many experiences deserving of honourable mentions. Too many to mention. They all speak of family and friendship, of generosity, of following your dreams and sharing the spoils.  So in this milestone year, I will make some new wine memories, savour the ones from the past, and mostly I will be thanking my lucky stars… again.

Vineland Estates Cabernet Franc Tops Amarone in U.S. Wine Competition

Judgement at Fortunes Rocks

Each year, a select group of committed wine drinkers gathers on the eastern Maine coast to swirl, sniff, slurp and savour at the Judgement at Fortunes Rocks. 

Ready, Set, Drink

The table is set. The teams are picked. The rules are simple. Each of us brings a bottle from a different country or region. This year offerings came from Italy, France, Portugal, California, and of course Canada.

The blind-tasting has evolved over the years. We  started off with wildly different wines, to give us a fighting chance.  We had the year when we got cocky and  featured all Cabernet Sauvignon ranging in price from $10 – $50 to find out if price really does matter. It did, sort of. We all identified the least expensive wine, but our favourite was the $30 special – which all of us needed to “sample” again… just to be sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is probably the one time of the week we all take seriously – well semi- seriously, during a beach week of fine wine, fine music and fine food.  The Judgement at Fortunes Rocks  is like taking the big exam after practicing a whole lot. There is even a trophy.

But this year, the Judgement at Fortunes Rocks 4.0 will be remembered as the year of Canada -Take that Mr. Trump.

 

 

 

Most of the teams nailed the Pinot Noir, a confidence builder because of its lighter colour.

Two teams identified wine #2  from Medoc. Bottle #3 – EVERY SINGLE TEAM – deemed it an obvious Amarone. This group should know – they have sampled many many bottles  together – and even toured and tasted at the Zenato winery north of Verona last year. 

And every single team got it wrong.

The best wine of the bunch was the Cabernet Franc from Vineland Estates. 

 

Vineland Estates Scores Big

Now wine snobs can sneer and call us a bunch of amateurs – we are. But the fact that all of us committed wine drinkers selected the Vineland Grand Reserve over Amarone under any circumstance is worth noting.

OK, this may not be quite on the level of the 1976 Judgement of Paris when a panel of the creme de la creme of French wine judges awarded two California wines – a  red and a white – top spots in a blind-tasting. The competition sent shock waves through the wine industry, opened the door to globalization,  and even inspired the film “Bottleshock”.   

VQA wines have come into their own.  It’s never been a better time to buy local. Our wines have lost the asterisk, that old descriptor of “that’s really good for a Canadian wine.”

Wine makers in the Niagara region are making outstanding wines worth savouring. Period.

And for the winner and the losers of the Judgement at Fortunes Rocks 4.0 …. we’ll just keep practicing.

Cheers!

A Woman of Wine

 

My journey of wine discovery has involved  many tastings. From massive producers to boutique variety to wine bars,  I have been graced to meet  many remarkable and generous people.  Sicilian winemaker Ciro Biondi gave us a tour and tasting with a heaping side of Italian history and the struggles between the north and south.

Morning Glory in Montepulciano

Irene Lesti of Montemercurio fed our love of Tuscan wine with stories of the valley, the people all, of course, over generous pours of their wines.  I’ve toured the spectacular Culmina vineyard in Oliver, BC with Don Triggs.  Thanks to Canadian wine collector Garrett Herman and crossed schedules with his close friends, we had the good fortune to be stand-ins at a  dinner with Marchese Piero Antinori, the head of one of the eldest winemaking families in Italy over a glass of Solaia.

My journey has been a very lucky one. I came to the conclusion that wine people love to share stories, a glass, a meal.  They all look at least 10 years younger.  They are the kind of people who despite the many challenges of the wine business, they are living their dream.

Cinzia Caporali was one of those people. We met her  at E Lucian Le Stelle, my favourite wine bar inside Locanda San Francesco – a stunning B & B in Montepulciano. The first time we shared a joke.  The second time, I brought 8 friends and we drank them out of Valdipiatta, her family’s wines.

Organizer Cinzia in Action

The third time she invited Steve and I to join a blind tasting of the new release of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with a dozen winemakers. My dream come true. That night I heard one of my favourite lines that I have used many times since.  “You don’t make friends drinking milk.”

The Contenders

When friends Matt and Crystal  were going on a honeymoon, I contacted Cinzia to ask her to have a bottle of Valdipiatta waiting for them in their room along with a gift and a card. Cinzia made it an extra special vintage to mark their  very special day.

Steve’s First Glass
at E Lucevan Le Stelle

And when my husband Steve had a terrible accident, she sent her best wishes. When he had his first glass of wine in 19 months at her wine bar, she said she was honoured and would not let us pay.

Guilio Caporali Among His Vines

Cinzia also organized what was undoubtedly our best wine tasting experience at Tenuta Valdipiatta with Guilio, her father. He talked about his love of opera, his love of wine and how proud he was of his daughters.

Over these visits, I learned Cinzia  was a mechanical engineer, she had a great sense of humour and she certainly knew how to bring people together and make them feel welcome.

We talked about getting together in Rome. Steve and I thought how incredible  it would be to explore the city with her. 

Just two days ago I sent a tweet with a photo of Steve and I sharing our last bottle of Valdipiatta, very excited to see her again in three weeks when we will be in Montepulciano.  I received a letter today telling me that Cinzia passed away last month. I have no idea how old she was because  wine people always look so much younger.   All I know is she was far too young.

E Lucevan le Stelle means  the stars are shining brightly, a line from Tosca, one of Puccini’s most famous operas.  Indeed, Cinzia made the lives of all she met a little brighter. I count myself  so very lucky that she became part of mine,

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