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!

OKANAGAN WINERIES PACK A PUNCH

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Time. Much like wine, it is something I can’t seem to get enough of. And something I run out of. Hence the absence of my blog for the last few months. Any extra time I had, I spent drinking wine, not writing about it.

So to kick myself into high gear, I took a couple of days off  from my new job and headed to BC wine country for some inspiration.

I picked a few places I had never been to before. Places with great stories. And great stories in the Okanagan are not hard to find. There are new wineries popping up here all the time.

There are anywhere from 120 – 250 wineries here depending who you ask, and whether they’ve been drinking.  And they are making some spectacular wines that we never see on the other side of the country.

I picked by grape. I know I love big reds, so I headed south to Oliver and  Osoyoos – home of some wondrous Bordeaux blends.  I also learned that if you mention you’re going to the Okanagan,  inevitably someone  sighs like they are remembering a visit to paradise and shows you a picture of that little winery that turned into a big experience.

Three days,  seven wineries and here are  a few highlights.

  1. Invictus by Perseus
    Invictus by Perseus

    Perseus – I sampled a bottle of Perseus wine a year ago and I have been dreaming about it ever since.  The winery opened in 2011 in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.  It has already picked up a number of awards for Invictus, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The winery is named after the constellation  which hangs above the Okanagan during harvest time. Had to take one home.IMG_1683

  2. Poplar GroveI visited this place  for the wine and the company.   Cindy, Cathy,
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    Poplar Grove Winery

    Wendy and Sue have been friends since high school. Today they invited us join them  to  sample the best this stunning winery had to offer. One more for the suitcase. Imagine waking up to this treasure every morning?

 

Culmina Winery
Culmina Winery

3. Culmina Winery – This was one of the reasons I came back to  the Okanagan, Rumour had it the wine was among the best in the Valley – and it did not disappoint. Don Triggs (of Jackson-Triggs fame) and his daughter Sara have blended old-fashioned knowledge with high tech tools to create wines to remember, including wines that shouldn’t really be growing in that climate. The approach is inspirational and will be the subject of a separate story in its own. Stay tuned.  OK… we bought a case.

 

4.  Moon Curser This winery has a one-of-a-kind distinction for me. I actually had to risk arrest and  break-in to get a taste. My friend Lisa and I were staying in Osoyoos and decided to clock our 10,000 steps by walking to the winery (how cool is that)?

Let nothing stand between Me and My Wine
Let nothing stand between Me and My Wine

Google Maps directed us to a walking path along the cherry trees and vines. However, about 100 metres from our destination we were met by a locked gate, not that that was going to stop us. We got down on all fours and slipped under the fence. It was definitely worth the effort. Moon Curser – formerly Twisted Tree – is named after the smugglers who used to work in “them thar hills with veins of gold.” They cursed the light of the moon when trying to sneak across the border.

Moon Curser features  some old and new world varietals that are attracting attention. Owner and winemaker Chris Tolley, a former Montrealer, and his wife Beata, honed their craft in New Zealand. Their Tannant , Malbec, Sangiovese, Syrah,

Moon Curser Winery
Moon Curser Winery

Carmenere,  along with the Afraid of the Dark white and red blends, are all  worth a taste.  Yup, Moon Curser got the last spot in my suitcase.

Big Sky over the Okanagan Valley
Big Sky over the Okanagan Valley

Go to the Okanagan!  Demand more BC wines in your local wine store!  These are national treasures that stand up to Old World excellence. Thanks for the inspiration!

Cheers!

 

 

Wine Bars for the Bucket List

 

A Wall of Wonder
A Wall of Wonder

Rome is to wine bars what Montreal is to hot dog joints and Toronto is to Tim Horton’s. Business people negotiate deals over a glass or two, students study will sipping, and friends get together and savour. Where in North America you head to Starbucks, Italians go to the wine bar.

Paradise in a Piazza
Paradise in a Piazza

 

 

First of all, you can get a decent glass of wine for the price of a Grande Caramel Latte. There is no awkwardness about going into a bar by yourself. And there is no pressure to hurry up and clear the table.  How civilized.

 

 

 

The Hangout of Taste
The Hangout of Taste

Il Ritrovo del Gusto (The  Hangout of Taste) Via dei Coronari 30, Rome

I discovered a lovely wine bar next door to our apartment around the corner from Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most beautiful historical squares. A couple of priests sat in the back sipping on a beer. Five Polish women were laughing in the corner – enjoying the special day after coming here with one million other pilgrims for the Canonization of two popes by two living popes.

 

 

A Papal Procession
A Papal Procession

I sat back, by myself, and enjoyed  the show.   While it was sheer coincidence that I came to Rome the same day as the pilgrims,  I was moved by what was going on outside – the songs, the masses, the celebration of groups from all over the world. They joined the Old Nonno (Italian for grandfather) with a new pair of shoes, the young men who emerged from the shadows with armfuls of ponchos and umbrellas at the slightest drop of rain. This is the Rome I love.

 

 

And I am sheltered from the rain inside this little wine bar that treated each customer as though they were royalty.

steve's pics 312When I was not enthusiastic about  the wine-by-the glass choices on the board, the bartender brought me new choices;  a Cerasuola from Sicily and a  Primitivo from Puglia. The bartender lamented that tourists come in asking for Chianti, Chianti, Chianti – or if they feel adventurous Amarone, Barolo. “These wines need food to be properly enjoyed,” he says. As he tells me and my friends about the wine we are drinking, he offers us a plate of bruschetta to sample some of the local specialties. No charge.

Cul de Sac, Piazza Pasquino, 73, Roma

Cul-de-Sac
Cul-de-Sac

 

A five minute walk away in a neighbouring piazza, a different experience. Cul-de-Sac prides itself in having a great selection of wine. No kidding! There is a short one page menu for food and 3-inch  binder with wine picks. Fourteen hundred choices to be exact, 55 by the glass.

 

A Montrachet outside My Budget
A Montrachet outside My Budget

 

 

From best of local to exclusive bottles such as this 2000 euros (3000 dollars CDN) Montrachet that I passed on. They have something for every palate.

 

 

They have an interesting menu with such offerings as pasta with hare ragu to lasagna and a killer Tiramisu (My husband Steve should know, he has ordered it in every             restaurant in Italy.)  Everything is homemade.

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We were surrounded by business people who work in the area – it is always a solid endorsement when the majority at the tables are local. The beauty of it is you can sit and watch the world go by, or you can catch up with the world with their free WIFI – which is offered at most places now.

 

 

Slowly after a two weeks in this country, I am losing my automatic skepticism that everyone is out to cheat the tourist. Because despite my proud but broken Italian, and my Euro-sneakers, they can spot that I am a tourist in a millisecond.  Offering that extra service is  good business.

Because…I went back the next day – and now I am telling my friends.

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The Wines of Sicily: Le Vigne Biondi

april 2014 381Some of the best surprises come from a little random research. Looking for a winery recommendation,  I searched #Sicilanwine, using my new favourite travel tool Twitter. Stephanie and Ciro Biondi of Le Vigne Biondi tweeted me back instantly inviting me to drop by.  It turned out to be one of the best tasting experiences I have ever had.

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Ciro Biondi met us in the tiny town of Trecastagni.  We followed him to his first vineyard, Chianta
( meaning “to plant”) which was a feast for the eyes.    The vines grow in perfect symmetry up the steep hills surrounded by the spent craters of Mt. Etna..
These vines have been in his family for generations.
april 2014 385As a boy, Ciro played here with his sisters. His grandfather tended the grapes. So did his father until he decided that life was not for him.  Ciro also chose a different path, studying architecture in Florence. But he could not stay away. In 1999, Ciro and wife Stephanie brought the vines back to life.  His father’s reaction, “Your education cost me a fortune. Don’t screw it up.”.
 While talking about the importance of respecting nature, Ciro  leans into a  flowering fennel, sniffs the fronds and picks just enough to make that evening’s dinner. He believes you must allow the earth  to express itself in the wine without manipulation. 
april 2014 388“You don’t own the land, you lease it,” says Ciro.
Located on the eastern slope of Mount Etna, the earth is black from volcanic soil. The quality of the specific terroir has been recognized with the appellation ETNA D.O.C. , responsible for creating rich reds and elegant whites.
Our tasting took place in a modest building in the heart of his Cisterna Fuori  vineyard nearby. A retro fridge last seen on “Leave It to Beaver”, a simple table and four complex wines.
Over a discussion of Sicily, its history, its strengths and its troubles, photos of his children, and his father’s pride when he first tasted Ciro and Stephanie’s wine.  We sampled two whites and two reds, all blends of Sicily’s traditional grapes.

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There is a humbleness when talking about the success of their wines. When I asked him whether he has a winemaker – he says why pay someone to make mistakes when he can make them himself. He doesn’t seem to be making that many.
Biondi is one of the wineries featured in “Palmento: a Sicilan Wine Odessey” by Wine Spectator contributor Robert Camuto. The two became friends, and when he asked to bring a group to the winery including the American wine importer, producer and influencer Kermit Lynch, Ciro naturally agreed.   The group arrived, They tasted. They discussed techniques, terroir, exchanged philosophies. Some time into the afternoon, Ciro learned the group included Aubert de Villaine of Domaine Romanee-Conti – only the most prized and expensive burgundy in the world. romanee contiBoth share the highest regard for terroir. When de Villaine extended a invitation to visit Burgundy, Ciro and Stephanie jumped at the chance. “I was afraid to ask questions after one of the people in the group asked the head winemaker at Romanee-Conti about the PH level of their grapes. ” The winemaker snapped back  “Do you ask a beautiful woman what her cholesterol level is?”
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The Wines We Sampled:
Outis Etna Bianco
Outis Etna Bianco

Outis (Nessuno) Etna D.O.C. Bianco 2013 – straw-coloured, vibrant and delicious. 

 
Chianta Etna D.O.C. Bianco 2012 the blend of Carricante, Cataratte, Minello grapes looks like spun gold, with a flavour that is rich but not overly oaked.
And then there were the reds – oh, I wanted to take a case of each of these reds home.  
They are the pride of Etna:

 

Cisterne Fuori Etna  D.O.C. Rosso 2011: a blend of Nerello Mascalese and  Nerello Cappuccio grapes.  This is why Homer braved the wrath of Cyclops to travel to this part of the world. 
 
San Nicolo' Etna D.O.C. Rosso
San Nicolo’ Etna D.O.C. Rosso 2012 
St Nicolo Etna D.O.C.Rosso 2012 – the single vineyard blend was simply spectacular. We bought four bottles to take home to Canada. They didn’t make it that far.
Sadly the wines of Le Vigne Biondi  are not available at the LCBO or SAQ, but they are available at Terroni’s, the chain of Italian restaurants in Toronto. SO, I will just have to go back, to Terroni’s or better yet, Mt. Etna.

 

 

Amazing Amalfi

The Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi coast defies gravity.
It is proof that what needs to be done,  can be done.
No excuses.
Just sheer will.
amalfi cornerWith less workable land than a city park, the Amalfitani  built terraces on cliffs that kiss the sky, plant lemon trees that grow year round, and climb steep hills each day to tend to them.
It’s not the Mediterranean Diet that keeps them healthy. It’s all that exercise with the Nonnas and Nonnos (Grannies and Grampas) putting you to shame.

Times are tough in Italy. In some regions, the unemployment rate among young people is over 50%. There is bitterness when you ask about the government. Still,  there is an undeniable pride in this country that gets life done despite the challenges – just like the lemon tree overflowing with fruit.

An Amalfi Treasure
An Amalfi Treasure

Trattoria da Ciccio  is poised on the edge of a cliff in Amalfi.  It looks like any place – though the recommendation “qui si mangia bene” (here you will eat well) is the highest praise from a fellow Italian. They take their food very seriously.

A sea of waiters welcomed us and broke the ice by  asking us a few questions.  It was like they wanted to know our mood, our taste, our comfort level with risk-taking before making any suggestions. All local  – beginning with the wine.

 

 

A Refreshing White
A Refreshing White

The white: Costa d’Amalfi Tramonti Tenuta San Francesco  2012 DOC
The Falanghina, Biancolella, and Pepella grapes come specifically from the village of Tramonti – one of three villages in the southern Italian province of Campania that is recognized for particularly fine wine.  The estate’s vines that  grow on steep parcels of land are more than 100 years old. The result, a crisp medium-bodied wine with notes of the famous Amalfi lemons and a long finish.

 

A Full-bodied Aglianico
A Full-bodied Aglianico

 

The red: Colli di Lapio Campi Taurasini Irpinia DOC  2010
Taurasi wines have been called some of the most under-rated wines in Italy.    It’s a showcase for the Aglianico grape – the most important red varietal in the Campania province. Irpinia is one of top regions because of its high altitude, soil and lengthy growing season.  This wine was full-bodied and a real palate-pleaser.

 

 

From the signature dishes of flying squid – to spaghetti in a bag – yes, I said spaghetti in a bag – with fresh clams, olives and garlic – to the  improvised birthday cake for Rob the birthday boy of the night. The most perfect evening in Amalfi topped off, of course,  with a glass of Limoncello. All those lemons have to go somewhere.

Yes, “Qui si mangia bene” without a doubt. But when I remember this place it will be the warmth (and the wine) that accompanied our delicious meal  that will share centre stage in this breathtaking region.

 

Tuscan Blind Tasting with Eyes Wide Open

Two Glasses Half Full
Two Glasses Half Full

When life takes a turn…

A bit of a personal story before I share a wine adventure that I wish upon every lover of great wine.
Fifteen months ago, my husband and favourite travelling companion had a terrible accident. He fell down cement stairs head first landing him in intensive care with a brain injury,unable to walk and barely able to talk. Life changed in an instant. The love of my life, partner in wine, in travel, in all those mundane day-to-day things you take for granted, was not there.  And no one could tell me what the future would look like, or whether he would ever be back. Those were dark days.

Miraculously,within a relatively short time, he fought his way back. Different in some ways, and wonderfully familiar in others. Better. ( He actually tells people he is smarter.) But because of the type of  brain injury, he could not drink for a year.

The relevance to this entry, is because we got to share our first glass of wine together since the accident in our favourite place in the world.

Steve's First Glass  at E Lucevan Le Stelle
Steve’s First Glass
at E Lucevan Le Stelle

And maybe Bacchus the God of Grapes  took pity on a wine lover being forced to abstain for that long,  because that evening, we were invited to a blind tasting by 10 wine producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG at E Lucevan Le Stelle Wine Bar.

Vino Nobile, along with Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, are the  three celebrated gems of  the Sangiovese grape. In 1980, Vino Nobile  became the first to receive the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation. It must be aged for two years before release and is characteristically full-bodied with firm tannins.

This evening we were testing the new releases of the 2011.

The Contenders
The Contenders

Ten numbered bottles at the bar, a score sheet and a room full of producers and wine lovers.  There was nothing formal about this tasting – it was a chance to talk with the producers and for people like Cinzia, who owns the bar, she gets to know what kinds of wine appeal the most.

Organizer Cinzia in Action
Organizer Cinzia in Action

Oh what a night!   I was completely intimidated until Cinzia  told me that only one in  ten producers can identify their own wine, let alone all 10.   Vittorio Bagnasco, who produces Lamberto,  blamed the fact he had a cold. Great excuse, I told him.

They all come with stories.

 

 

Vittorio of LambertoVittorio has been producing wines at Lamberto for 10 years. Before that he was a documentary cameraman and Director of Photography for feature films when he decided to take his love of wine one brave step further.

 

Il Conventino Ready for Sampling
Il Conventino
Ready for Sampling

 

Dr. Alberto Brini of Il Conventino Wines – had just that day made a bid to the LCBO to get his organic wines into their stores.   He looked about 25 and like all of the producers, utterly charming. His wine was ready before the label.

 

 

And Cinzia, the event organizer – I found out that night, was a marine engineer before she toasted a new career and opened up the wine bar and B & B.

All the wines were rated for colour, nose and taste. We ranked them and tried to guess the producer.  The wines ranged from elegant and silky to tannins that packed a serious punch.

Tasting Blind
Tasting Blind

Of course, whenever I ambled my way to the bar for a refill, I peeked at some of the marks.  The producers tended to be quite generous with their marks, while some of the wine lovers were, in my opinion, much too tough.

Valdipiatta  Took Top Marks
Valdipiatta
Took Top Marks

Valdipiatta, a small winery making a significant mark, came in first place. The 2007 Riserva is available at Vintages. It  was my third pick ( and my husband’s first pick – I told you he says he is smarter now).

Il Conventino ranked second – and producer Brini was one of the few who correctly identified his own wine.

 

Montemercurio Messaggero
Montemercurio Messaggero

Montemercurio Messaggero came third. I loved this wine – the colour and nose were quite subtle, but exploded on the palate.

 

 

 

And while I  only managed to match one wine with its proper label –  it was the chance to preview some of excellent wines that will hopefully one day soon be available in Canada.

 

 

 

 

Discovering Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

ListoesThe turning twisting roads of Montepulciano, Italy feel like home to me. It’s the same feeling when I ran through the doors after grade school, or came home for the weekend from University. It is a feeling that all is right with the world.

The difference is today this home is where the wine is.

This Italian hill town in southern Tuscany has charm in and out of the glass. The people are warm and welcoming. They give you a reason to come back.

twoglassesWhile my husband took a nap, I started my wine adventure at La Dolce Vita (where else?).

Like the tasting area at the SAQ and LCBO, they had a self-serve wine tasting contraption filled with regional choices. The owners give you a credit card and you start pouring.The wine of choice here is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – a lighter version of its big brother, Brunello from neighbouring Montalcino.  It is rich, fruity and as with all wines, the quality is all over the map ranging in price from 3 euros a bottle to 50 or more depending on the vintage.

salcoI started with 2007 Salco from Salcheto a producer I visited the last time I came here. Then I went with their recommendations – a 2009 Felsina Chianti Riserva and a 2009 Caprili Brunello di Montalcino. I bought two of them to savour later.

 

HaikuThere are the curiosities – such as Haiku by Castello di Amo which comes complete with…a haiku of course.

“Hazy Moon

Becoming tipsy, I’ve turned the colour of grapes”

by Toshiiki Bojo

Any notion of wine snobbery goes out the window here. People live and breathe wine, they’re all very knowledgeable and they love to share.

the squareIn the main square, which doubled as Volterra for fans of the Twilight series, is a cavern run by the Consortium of Vino Nobile Producers. You can sample any of the regions current releases,  and get suggestions if you’re looking to visit a winery for a tasting.

 

soilDaina, a sommelier by trade,  explained the different soils in the region – in the south the soil has more minerals, the middle – clay and the northern area sandy soil giving each distinct flavours.  She talked about how hard it is to be objective when you know the producers and they all work SO hard. And  she remarked on the growing number of women at the helm of wineries big and small. All while taking me through a tasting of three wines of my choosing for only six euros.

My wine adventure has begun with the best kinds of lessons that come in a glass.

And this is only day one 🙂

Where will your wine adventure take you?