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.

 

 

 

 

Weekend Wine Picks and Award-winning Wines

mission hill winery Mission Hill Family Estate Winery  in  BC’s Okanagan Valley received  top honours this week. Wine Align, the online wine rating service awarded it  Winery of the Year, snatching it from Ontario’s Tawse, which  has won for the past three years.

The award of distinction is based on five of its wines that received gold and platinum medals at this year’s National Wine Awards.  They are:

Mission Hill Riesling Reserve 2011 – Platinum 100% Riesling – This was the first wine in the flight of award winners. This wine would turn me into a regular Riesling drinker. The nose sent me to a peach and honey heaven.  It was perfectly balanced, with a deliciously long finish.

Mission Hill  Chardonnay Reserve 2011  100% Chardonnay . Citrus meets a hint of coconut. Aged in oak for eight months, it is very subtle.

Mission Hill Perpetua Osooyos Vinyard Estate 2010 Chardonnay    100% Chardonnay This is part of the winery’s  Legacy series of Premium wines.

Mission Hill   Compendium  2009 – Platinum – This is a Bordeaux-inspired blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot. Also part of the Legacy Series, it is wine-making at its finest. Complex, full-bodied and elegant.

Mission Hill  Riesling Icewine 2011 – Admission – I know it is very unpatriotic to say I am not a fan of icewine because we produce some of the best in the world……but there are no absolutes. This was simply outstanding. Exceptionally balanced so the sweetness was perfect and not overwhelming, which is why they are often not my favourites. If you get the chance, try this one.

Sadly not all of these wines are available across the country unless by special order. Why we can’t order our own wines directly from the winery as they do in the US continues to be a mystery.  But here are a few wine picks that are available for your sampling this weekend.

cave springCave Spring 2011 Riesling Estate VQA Beamsville Bench ($17.95) There  was a cornucopia of Ontario releases at the LCBO this week. I am on a mission to get reacquainted with Riesling especially because there are such fine examples from BC and ON. If you like citrus with a touch of honey and pear – you will like this wine. It is fresh and appealing. Perfect with Sushi.

 

riojaDomeco de Jarauta Lar de Sotomayor Vendemia Rioja 2010 ($17.95) Spanish wines are often overlooked in the showy presence of their neighbouring spotlight hoggers in Italy and France. This Rioja has some punch to it. It is full-bodied with notes of black and red fruit. 90% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano grapes. Great value.

 

mcmanis syrah 2011McManis Syrah 2011 ($19.95) Speaking of big and luscious, this Californian delivers in every way. This wine will keep you warm sitting on a patio with a blanket because you are not ready to move indoors just yet. Red fruit jammy with a touch of pepper. I highly recommend it.

 

 

Enjoy your wine-shopping this weekend. The women of wine are heading to the Big Apple and some highly recommended wine bars and we will report back next week.

Cheers!

The Ratings System

Top Scoring WinesThis week’s edition of Vintages is dedicated to 90+ wines. The ones that someone, who has made a living off wine, considered outstanding enough to grant the equivalent of an A.  Do you pay attention to wine ratings? Whether it is the nod of approval from  Wine Spectator, Natalie MacLean, or Jancis Robinson to name a few, the numbers certainly make a difference to  sales.

Then there is the influence of Uber-critic Robert Parker who started The Wine Advocate.  His seal of approval in the form of a 90+ rating,  can mean as much as $5 million dollars in additional world sales.

Parker of the Wine Advocate  bases his ratings on a   100-point scale graded like this:

  • 96-100 being extraordinary
  • 90-95 considered outstanding
  • 80-89 very good to above average
  • 70-79 average

And really, if you rate below 70 – you aren’t flaunting it. Many others followed Parker’s lead, including Wine Spectator and Canadian Natalie MacLean.  British wine writer Jancis Robinson opted for  a 20-point scale because she believes it is more precise..

Ratings MatterThe debate over whether ratings actually matter will never end. It’s been called pretentious manipulation aimed at getting people to pay more for wine.  But there is no question that they  have an influence.

With that much at stake, many wineries go to great lengths to get a good rating. The Parkerization of wine refers to wineries that tailor their techniques to Parker’s preferred style of wine. Then there are the legendary stories (or gross exaggerations – one involving two Chateau owners who allegedly (that’s my news lingo for unsubstantiated claims) offered up their daughters  in exchange for a better review. The best story involves the manager of a French winery who was so incensed with the less than glowing review, he invited Parker back to re-test the wine.  When Parker arrived he was attacked by the manager’s dog. Bleeding, Parker asked for a bandage.The manager handed over a copy of the newsletter featuring the bad review..

90 Rating under $20
90 Rating under $20

I have taken a few wine courses, which have only confirmed to me how much I do NOT know, and while I am starting to recognize a few favourite producers, and a few favourite regions, I admit, the ratings do make a difference to me when it is a wine I have not tried before. Though I am not so precious as to refuse a wine under 90 points.As I mentioned, there are some great affordable wines that score in the 80’s.

The ideal way to choose your wine is to try before you buy. The tasting rooms in some LCBOs and SAQs are the perfect places to do that. Samples cost anywhere between 50 cents – $2.00  – the only problem – there aren’t nearly enough tasting rooms.

The Salcheto Vineyard
The Salcheto Vineyard

They are much more common in  Italy.  Even better,  the tastings there  are often free. You can also go into a wine bar (like the most spectacular wine bar  in Montepulciano, Tuscany –  E Lucevan le Stella,  which means the stars were shining brightly) and often taste before you buy a bottle.  That’s why you never see a sticker crowing about an award, or a label on the shelf that boasts  the number of stars or ratings in Italy, unless it caters to tourists, of course.

Antinori Superstar
Antinori Superstar

Piero Antinori, the patriarch of a family that has been producing wines for 27 generations, said picking a good wine is a badge of honour for an Italian. They would never drink a wine strictly based on a rating. So I asked Lucia, the young woman who took us on a tour of Tenuta Valdipiatta how she picks her wines. Word of mouth, a friend’s recommendation, but most important, try before you buy. How civilized.

rockawayIt’s another of the many reasons to visit Niagara-On-The-Lake. While VQA wines may not always be my first stop at the LCBO, every single time I have visited the wineries, I have come home with a special find which has sent me out to find it again.   And I have often been pleasantly surprised by the sample – usually very affordable, offered in many LCBO’s and SAQ’s on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon.

The tasting principle works at Costco and it sure works in Italy. Is it good business? How often do you seen people leaving empty handed?.

Still, I am not at all embarrassed that I do pay attention to the ratings. It’s not the only way I  make my picks – you would be losing out on so many opportunities if you only bought based on  ratings. It is no guarantee of greatness, perhaps more of an indication of quality or simply an idea that plants the perception of greatness on your taste buds. Maybe one day I won’t feel the need to pay attention to the ratings at all. But for now, a little advice and a little knowledge does go  a long way.

Salute!