100 kilometre wine for spring

PHOTO: CHRIS KLUS/FOTOLIA.COM

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If you adhere to the 100 km rule, this wine’s for you.

Riesling. Can there be a more versatile white grape? From natural, mineral spring, bone-dry to concentrated, candied sweet, this grape runs the diversity gamut like no other. Riesling’s origins are from Oberrhein (Upper Rhine) Germany and it is the natural offspring of parent varieties Weißem Heunisch, Vitis sylvestris and Traminer. The earliest documentation of the name was in 1435, in Rüsselsheim. Riesling migrated to the Danube in Austria and to Alsace in France near the end of the 15th century but it has recently sunk roots all over the Diaspora. Australia’s Eden Valley, Marlborough in New Zealand and Washington State all produce exceptional examples.

A modern day Riesling narrative takes place less than a 100 kilometres away, along the Niagara Escarpment and above the pictorial towns of Beamsville, Jordan and Vineland. Representing the bench lands along the Niagara Escarpment, west of St. Catharines to Grimsby, this complex region encompasses three sub-appellations: Short Hills BenchTwenty Mile Bench, and Beamsville Bench. ‘The Bench’ is home to a mineral wealth of local Riesling, singular in composition not only by way of a global comparison, but also from plot to plot, soil to soil and vineyard to vineyard. The well moderated micro-climate diversifies away and down to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where Riesling finds and reinvents itself again and again.

As the sun climbs higher into the spring sky and the steady unfurling of buds, patios and backyards begins, what better time can there be to indulge in the fresh and spirited nature that is Niagara Riesling. Here are four examples to seek out and enjoy.

From left: Rosewood Estates Natalie’s Süssreserve Riesling 2010, Château des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2010, Greenlane Estate Riesling 2011, and Thirty Bench Vineyards ‘Steel Post’ Vineyard Riesling 2011.

Rosewood Estates Natalie’s Süssreserve Riesling 2010 (258806, $14.95) is a throwback, where (16%) unfermented juice is added back into the fermented, finished wine. Tang, twang, vim and jump-kick honey-driven sensations sidle up to bursting aromas of tobacco, apricot and Ida Red apples. I’ve heard the makers say the pain in the arse Süss just wants to continue fermenting. Last October I noted, “arresting that and demanding a doffing is key, but when you choose a pioneering path, you get what you pay for.” 88  (From the VINTAGES March 30, 2013 Release)  @RosewoodWine

Château des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2010 (277228, $16.95) from 30 year-old vines on the Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard is big sniffer assertive in flint, struck stone, seltzer and funk. Gold patina visage veers away from the Bench and leans lighter, down to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Darkness prevails and “French cream won’t soften them boots,” thanks to a piercing note on the finish, on the edge of town.  89  (From the VINTAGES March 30, 2013 Release) @MBosc

Greenlane Estate Riesling 2011 (327247, $15.95) streams citrus from the get-go with more juicy, stone fruit than winemaker Dianne Smith’s more serious bottling. Picks up verve and sapor on the palate, sparks the tongue and crashes down the hatch with a hallucinatory beat. Slides away, like a floating baseline, “A Storm in Heaven.”  89  (From the VINTAGES April 13, 2013 Release)  @GreenLaneWinery

Thirty Bench Vineyards ‘Steel Post’ Vineyard Riesling 2011 ($30, winery only) from the Andrew Peller stable leans late-harvest or Spätlese, with 18.5 grams per litre of residual sugar. Clean, crisp, precise and near perfect Beamsville Bench expression. Flinty minerality and fantastic whorl by way of winemaker Emma Garner. Equal to if not more of a bomb than the stellar ’09.  93  @ThirtyBench

Good to go!

The Wine Diaries: Grapes and Peaches

Má Pêche, Momofuku – Duck Two Ways PHOTO: GABRIELE STABILE

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If I had my little way

I’d eat peaches every day

Eat a peach. Listen to the music. Taste wine. Feel like a president. My wine codex is in full, binary cross-cultural mode. These days I can’t help myself singing (in a quiet whisper) Dave Grohl songs – I’m not even such a big fan of his music! Maybe it’s because he seems to be everywhere; in tweets about the SXSW Festival, on the cover of Delta’s in-flight magazine, on satellite radio in the rental car. Recent wine events and food experiences have left me with the distinct impression that “it’s times like these you learn to live again.”

Passionate chefs, exceptional “100km” wines, and a good cause are a triumvirate for success. Also, a city that never sleeps, a superstar chef’s empirical outpost, and sublime food are a second triad for victory. And what do these two scenarios have in common? Grapes and peaches.

BAAH! The Great Lamby Cook-Off, Thursday, March 21st, 2013, Imperial Ballroom, Fairmont Royal York Hotel

BAAHTony Aspler knows more about wine than just about anyone I know. That he has taken his knowledge, his craft and his contacts in the food and wine world to champion a noble cause, well that is something to be admired. The organization he gives time to is called Grapes for Humanity, globally providing much needed relief to those less fortunate. Mr. Aspler organized yet another memorable GFH event, to benefit a child’s education by constructing a needed school in Guatemala. Twelve chefs, 12 lamb dishes, 12 wine pairings. You couldn’t spit without hitting a sommelier or a local oenologist. Chef Michael Pataran took home the top prize for his Goan Lamb Shoulder with a coconut, chili, lime chutney and paddle skewer. The best wine pairing went to the Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Reserve 2010, poured alongside Pataran’s “curry”; a double win. Stock Sommelier Zoltan Szabo directed the room with tireless energy.

Here, my favourite three wines at “BAAH”, plus a gorgeous Gigondas tasted in NYC on Saturday night.

From left: Rosewood Estates Merlot 2010, Tawse Merlot ‘David’s Block’ 2010, Norman Hardie ‘County Unfiltered’ Cabernet Franc 2011, and Domaine du Gour de Chaulé Gigondas 2007

Rosewood Estates Merlot 2010 (211896, $22.00) on this night walked a Niagara Wallendian tightrope of balance between heft and deft, sidling effortlessly up to Barque Smokehouse chefs David Neinstein and Tony Starratt’s ‘Mici‘ and travelling further on up the evolutionary road past “enjoyable if unremarkable.” From my earlier note: “Continues to show a reductive note in the form of vanilla and maple syrup, no honey actually, but all signs point to further excellence. High quality chocolate spiked by cherry, orange and a peppery, nasal tickle open up beautifully and expressively towards the dusty, berry main event. Knock your baby’s socks off with this double-stuffed Oreo and let the night unfold.  89 @Rosewoodwine

Tawse Merlot ‘David’s Block’ 2010 ($49.95) from certified organic and biodynamic estate fruit puts the double ‘L’ back in lush. Endowed of a caressing cashmere. Could act as spokesperson for Niagara Merlot announcing, “there are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who like Merlot, and those who don’t.” Calm, confident and marked by an insouciant nature. Earlier note: “Suffers no stenosis and instead flows as a sanguine and savoury riverine expression. Olives and the smokey whiff of yeasty bread on the grill. Not surprising considering the quality of Pender’s lees so often collected and added back to the next generation’s barrels.”  91  @Tawse_Winery  @Paul_Pender

Norman Hardie ‘County Unfiltered’ Cabernet Franc 2011 ($25) rolls the barrel out from a velvet underground into the Prince Edward County sun, pours singular Foster Vineyard fruit over crushed limestone then infuses the juice with ripe cherries. The warmth of 2010 lingers on in the ’11 CF’s pale blue eyes. Makes “the world as pure and strange as what I see.” Persists as the definitive expression of this grape in The County.  91  @normhardie

Dinner at Momofuku, Má Pêche, 15 w. 56th street, New York City, @momofuku

Má Pêche knows how to treat a lady, the President of the United States, and me. David Chang’s midtown eatery located in the Chambers Hotel opened in April, 2010. The Executive Chef is Paul Carmichael, a Barbados native who transmits Chef’s vision through elegant, restrained and poetic flavours. Carmichael and Chef de Cuisine Johnny Leach compose dishes as colourful canvasses but they are never over-painted nor monochromatic abstractions. Food of distinction and singularly distinct from plate to plate. Vegetables, many of the root kind, are succulent, glossy, al dente, and clearly defined. Service offers no pretense, no hovering, no massaging. Casual and professional. No hipster attitude neither.

Má Pêche AppetizersPhoto: Michael Godel

Má Pêche Oysters
Photo: Michael Godel

Oysters, especially New Brunswick Hurricane and Salt Pond Rhode Island are fresh makers, like spirits moving through the ocean. Washed those suckers down with 21st Amendment “Bitter American” Extra Pale Ale. Spanish Mackerel is a smokey, charred wave of umami with crisp, crunchy romaine and a silken tofu sauce, like citrus-spiked tahini. Barnegat Light Scallops are buttery, whispering, ethereal.

Appetizers

Má Pêche Appetizers

Chatham, MA Cod is foam cloud-enveloped, braised fish and brussel sprout ‘chips’ attenuated by malt vinegar. Jurgielewicz Farm, PA Duck two ways is perfect pink breast accented by candied orange rind and also piquant mici-like sausage, bucked by peppery spice. Provitello Fams, NJ Veal is fall apart, rosy neo-osso bucco, soft, supple and flat out delicious. The only non-wow moment comes from Barnegat Light, NJ Monkfish which shows indifference and a dry, dusty mole that barely mingles with needs to be further-rendered skin.

The wine list is more than thoughtful, embracing many needed food companion varieties, like Sylvaner, Trebbiano, Scheuerebe, Cabernet Franc, Nerello Mascalese and Teroldego. I opted for a southern Rhône Grenache blend imbued with just the perfect amount of age.

Domaine du Gour de Chaulé Gigondas 2007 ($31, Menu: 375 mL $32) of black/crimson mephitic and inky berry blush and lush, full-on sun-drenched fruit has reached full resolve. Licorice, kirsch and stony, meta-anthracite show off in the wine’s perfect window.  Decadent Gigondas.  92

Good to go!

Stratus and Momofuku: Modernity incarnate

Momofuku Daisho

Momofuku Daishō
Photo: Gabriele Stabile

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Consider the winemaker’s style not merely embraced but created by J.L. Groux of Stratus Vineyards. Most wine folks know him as a mad scientist, a mathematician, as Niagara’s ‘Master of Assemblage.’ Groux is a precise counting man, proud to share the barrel fermentation periods of each and every wine in his stable. He reminds me of the Sesame Street guy, the one who shows up in elevators and emerges from swimming pools carrying painted number signs.

J.L. Groux, Winemaker, Stratus VineyardsPhoto: Michael Godel

J.L. Groux, Winemaker, Stratus Vineyards
Photo: Michael Godel

As I found out this past Monday, wine blends may be the maker’s M.O., what he refers to as “a way of life for us,” but Groux is also an artful dodger, proof laid thick by the pouring of nine single varietal wines alongside the art cum science cuisine of Matt Blondin at Momofuku Daishō. I quipped at a hypothetical Groux change of direction but the course will in fact be stayed.

The Stratus portfolio resides in a conspicuous niche, sometimes criticized for over diversifying and noted to employ the most opulent Niagara fruit but who can refute the underlying and unequivocally consistent thematic running through this solo tour.

Stratus Wine Tasting Glasses

Stratus Wine Tasting Glasses

David Chang’s New York Momofuku empire is embraced by those who appreciate the Luxecalme et volupté. The detractors complain and express loathing at a lack of somewhereness and that same bitter pill is sometimes offered up to Mr. Groux. This single varietal tasting shatters the naysayer’s venom as each wine calmly expresses its terroir. Chef Blondin is not unlike J.L. Groux, or Baudelaire. Chef’s plates are clusters of colour, texture and imagery offering an “escape to an imaginary, tranquil refuge.” Groux’s Stratus White and Red iconic blends enter such territory but these grape a capelle are the windows into the winemaker’s forays. The media lunch was a treat of the highest order, also thanks in part to Charles Baker and Suzanne Janke of Stratus, along with Beverage Director Jonathan Gosenhauser and the Momofuku Daishō team.

Stratus Line-Up

Stratus Line-Up

The Wines

Gamay 2010 ($29) from very low yields (2 tonnes/acre) is possessed of a soft mouth feel corrected by tart currants and is a deep, smokey and confounding example of itself. Pushing 15% abv with a concentration of sugars and mature phenolics. Vanilla, black licorice and though not like Pinot at all, you can tell it was treated that way. Naturally, through green harvesting, picked shriveled and “with patience.”  90-91

Syrah 2010 ($48) is picked early as compared to other well-known varieties like the Cabernets and this vintage saw a 25% yield decrease/concentration increase. Pretty, focused and indicative of candied flowers in replay with a note of citrus blossom. A Syrah that clearly speaks of Groux’s infatuation with aromatics. “What I do know, my Syrah is improving overall.”  89-90

Merlot 2010 ($32) was picked early enough (October 25th) so as to avoid a sun-burn and overcooked aromatics. Always a great contributor to assemblage in Ontario, this Merlot from clonal plantings in ’85, ’01 and some unknown old block of (clonal) fruit was picked at a restrained (24.7 brix) number on the sugar scale. Dusty and blessed with juicy, mulberry fruit, this to me is the epitome of the winemaker’s SV style. Delicious Merlot. Damn!  91-92

Malbec 2010 ($48) is imbued with the brightest hue and aromatic tenderness. Wild yielding from vines planted in 2001, a hard-cropped life is the grape’s necessity. From my earlier note: “Made with the help of consulting oenologist Paul Hobbs in an “Alta Vista,” high-altitude style. Cool-climate rendition, a window to the future for the grape in Ontario. Hits a blue note, kind of like Philly soul. Unheard of 10 years ago, this one’s saying “just trust in me like I trust in you.”  90-91

Petit Verdot 2010 ($38) seems the most muted thus far though it has the most acidity and tannin. The two seem to struggle with one another though the warmth of 2010 helps, as Groux notes “I’m not convinced they are not friends.” He also states “I think Petit Verdot makes better wine in Niagara than in Bordeaux.” From my earlier note: “with its bounce is the Happy Jack of the flight. Thick in weight and texture, a steak sandwich in a glass. Remarkable effort for stand alone Petit Verdot in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Has a certain Spanish modernity and is certainly neither “petite” nor “little.” Say what you want about this PV but never “prevent Jack from feeling happy.”  89-90

Chardonnay 2010 ($55) from natural yeast, full batch (bunch) pressing and heeded by Paul’s call to full malolactic fermentation, this fruit was picked on November 15th, a day “you had to go run and pick fast.” Groux is not trying to make California or Burgundy but make the best in Niagara. Clarity and sun drenched hue, tropical fruit dominance, sweetness, malo-butterscotch obviousness. Some tart orchard fruit late but certainly warm vintage wine. Not the most arid Chardonnay but blessed with great length. 90-91

Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($29) is barrel aged (like the Chardonnay) on the lees to offer roundness, not residual sugar. It’s sweetness is related to sugar, but it’s not the real thing. So much cool gooseberry and passion but lacking acidity and there is very little asparagus stink. Perhaps a green pea or two. Groux seeks boxwood and hemlock and there are hints here. “I don’t care for any tropical style,” he says. This one clearly leans more Sancerre than anything else.  89-90

Sémillon 2010 ($32) is very fresh though muted in tone, verve and gumption. But this is Sémillon and I would not expect any sort of true personality indicator for at least three years. Elegant, with a hint of grapefruit and bigger palate developing in the glass. Awaiting the wax, sandalwood, lemon and honey.  88-89

SALSIFY, cured roe, tapioca, grains of paradise

SALSIFY, cured roe, tapioca, grains of paradise

Lunch

LAKE ERIE, ON PICKEREL, brassicas, celeriac, arctic rose

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES, salt cod, pickled walnut, sorrel

SALSIFY, cured roe, tapioca, grains of paradise

Gewürztraminer 2011 ($29.95, 251447) has already improved since tasting it six weeks ago. “I’ve been working 20 years to make Gewürz,” says Groux. Micro oxidation protects the aromatics though they are low-toned, in rose and lychee. Uni-dimensional, not 100% dry, made with a homeopathic approach in mind, always with an eye on the assemblage white.  87-88

BEEF SHORTRIB, beet root, horseradish, caramelized fennel

SWEET POTATO, crème fraîche, amaranth, green onion

TOASTED BUCKWHEAT, pistachio, cured squab, preserved apricot

Stratus Cabernet Franc 2009 ($38) shows a bit of green but not of the inhibiting kind. From fruit picked on December 8th (what???) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a type of gamble that can go very wrong, but Groux is a winemaker who knows his climate. Young at heart, full of smokey, tangy, currant baking aromas. Maternal but blessed with firm, plush tannin. “Some people like cupcakes,” I prefer a muffin man.  “Always a pleasure to grow (Cabernet Franc), if you are patient.  89-90

CARROT, condensed buttermilk, pecan, verjus

CARROT, condensed buttermilk, pecan, verjus

CARROT, condensed buttermilk, pecan, verjus

Mosaic 2010 ($25) is a balanced dessert wine giving equal credit despite the 70-30 Riesling-Gewürztraminer split. All natural sweetness, allowing a focus on the acidity. Only one ever made. Will they make it again? “Perhaps.”  89-90

Good to go!

New wave under $20 wines go kosher for Passover

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Kosher wine for Passover
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There is life beyond Manischewitz. Not all kosher wines are made from cloying, insipid and super-sweet Concord grapes. Conversely, a Jew’s worst,  ’11th plague’ wine nightmare, the nights of suffering through cooked and stewed dry table wines, is (mostly) a thing of the past. I’m not suggesting that the golden age is upon us, but you may want to don the shades. The future is bright for Passover kosher wine.

“Wine does not become kosher by being blessed. It is kosher (Hebrew: pure, proper) when complying with strict rabbinic criteria that render it acceptable for Orthodox Jews.” This statement from the NY Times is unifying and true for Jews worldwide who choose to abide by the traditions of the Passover Seder table ritual. I would highly recommend reading the articles of Eric Azimov to really get a grip on the kosher for Passover wine thing. Also check into Kosher Wine Musings Blog. For a comprehensive guide to Israeli wine, look to the work of the late, great critic, Daniel Rogov. The production of kosher wine is a costly endeavor and not surprisingly, the best products are those in the (upwards of $25) premium category. Two currently available examples are Shiloh Shor Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (182947, $32.95) from the Judean Hills, Israel and Bravado Chardonnay 2011 (305102, $31.95) by Karmei Yosef Winery, Israel.  We ran a story about premium wines last week.

From left: Banero Extra Dry Prosecco KPM, Borgo Reale Sangiovese KPM 2011, Five Stones Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon KPM 2010, and Galil Mountain Shiraz KPM 2010.

All wines labelled “Kosher for Passover” are kosher, but not all kosher wines are kosher for Passover.

All wines labelled “Kosher for Passover” are kosher, but not all kosher wines are kosher for Passover. Kosher for Passover wine must be handled by Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jews and the wine can never come into contact with any leavening (grain, dough, bread) products, including yeast. Chemical additives like Potassium Sorbate and Citric Acid are also no-no’s. Clarifying agents such as Isinglass (gelatin) is forbidden as it comes from non-kosher (no scales) fish. For the most part, Jews purchase only Mevushal wines for PassoverThe Mevushal (cooked or, flash pasteurized) practice is used so that opened kosher wine can be handled by non-Orthodox and non-Jews and then poured to the observant. Many Jews in the diaspora have chosen to abandon the concept. The destructive consequences of “cooking” grape juice somehow continues to remain up for debate. Most Jews who appreciate a glass of good wine with dinner, and especially those who double as wine geeks avoid Mevushal wine at all costs, thought being, consuming heat-damaged wine is no way to go through life. That said, a good deal of the Kosher for Passover wines in our market are Mevushal (KPM) and some are really quite agreeable.

The most interesting practice is that of established vineyards allowing kosher winemakers to use their grapes to make kosher wine. Several Bordeaux châteaux allow for this, including Château Malartic-Lagravière and Château Pontet-Canet and the wine is labelled under the name of the participating Château. Next Monday, Jews around the world will gather at their respective Seder tables. Here are five under $20 current Kosher for Passover releases.

Banero Extra Dry Prosecco KPM (298489, $13.95) hits classic Venetian fizz notes, of peach, orange rind, nougat and baked apple. Quite juicy despite the ED designation. Like a Tora, Tora instrumental, “played with a wind sound effect fading in, followed by a dive bomb on the open E string.” I would consider foregoing the Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay and go two, maybe three cups with this one.  86  @azureau

Borgo Reale Sangiovese KPM 2011 (637793, $13.95) may come off boxy, as if housed in cheap wood but for $14 this is really about the best you will ever hope to find. Seems to be in a bit of a rush, in the spirit of radio, built upon a synthesizer, Sangiovese sound. Still, “all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted.” Red, raspberry fruit is not so Sangio but leather and smoke is. A bit contrived but trendy and copacetic.  87  @ALLIEDIMPORTERS

Five Stones Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon KPM 2010 (108001, $19.95) from Margaret River, Western Australia like many Kosher efforts starts out one way then diverts another. Aromas of dry grass, yellow skin and white fleshed apple give way to a sweet and refreshing zip. A racy, Benzedrine touch of char gets on top of the pastry in “a shirt of violent green.” Strange frequency Kenneth.  87

Galil Mountain Shiraz KP 2010 (141580, $17.95) wears an oak monster’s mask and is Malbec-esque in blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream. Depeche Mode kosher red crying “Tora, Tora, Tora.” I ask the question, “is this a love in disguise or just a form of modern art.” Simple, juicy, slightly confected fruit.
More than acceptable for Seder table brisket and roast lamb.  87

Segal’s Fusion Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon KPM 2011 (157206, $18.95) though muted is quite pleasant, aromatically speaking. Baking spice, woodsmoke, cherry and plum, like satellite St. Emilion. Scarlet colour, as if derived from Tola’At Shani. Dusty and down-grain, no cooked sensation, well-structured.  88

Good to go!

Wine on St. Patrick

Do you have the time to listen to me whine, about nothing and everything all at once

Basket case. Surely you didn’t die your wine green today. If you insisted on drinking something green, I hope you added the food colour to your weak domestic or discount imported beer, but not to anything micro or craft brewed. Better yet, to toast the Roman0-Brit, patron saint of Ireland’s day, a shamrock shake would have done the trick.

What did St. Patrick’s Day mean to Canada in 2013? Marc Weisblott provided the answer.

The most obvious isovolumetric libations to celebrate the anniversary of the  ‘The Apostle of Ireland’s’ passing included Irish Whiskey and beer, like Guinness or better yet, McAuslan St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. But what came to mind first in terms of wine? The cue should likely have been Portugal’s Vinho Verde, meta phrased as “green wine” but it’s freshness and effervescence shares little in common with the cask influence so prevalent in Irish Whiskey and heavy men’s beer.

Unconsciously, I veered in the direction of a Spanish white, built upon a Catalan variety named Viura and aged in new French barrels. Oak along with the verdant, green notes found in the whites of the Iberian peninsula are key. White wine from Rioja reminds me of chilled yet warming Irish tipples and if you know anything about me, wine goes with everything, including St. Paddy’s Day.

Muga Barrel Fermented White 2011

Muga Barrel Fermented White 2011 (958736, $15.95) is creamy like a dark stout’s head or Bailey’s Spanish equivalent, Senaris Crema de Licor. Hazelnutty and piquant, like Tilford Licor Avellana. Suave, steeped coconut, pomello, grapefruit blossom, organoleptic Sangria. Muga’s selfless Blanco defines the winery. Consistent sweet/bitter/acid interplay from a grape that can withstand drought, tough vintages and extreme conditions. Makes you want to wrap yourself up in a sheet, head for a St. Patrick’s Day party chanting, “Muga, Muga.”  88  @bodegasmuga

Good to go!

Wines for the Ides of March

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Good friends, go in and taste some wine with me.

And we, like friends, will straightway go together.
March 15th is not just any old day, that is if you are a Roman. The monthly Ides were sacred to the worshipers of Jupiter, king deity of the Romans. Shakespeare‘s play is more than just a forgotten high school memory. The Ides of March, 44 BCE assassination of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate was a big deal.

Caesar was, however cautious and abstemious some say, known as a wine guy. Can you argue the actuality in utterance of the Bard’s famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” as he offered his (77-years ahead, future reference) Judas a goblet of wine? JC was purportedly known to love indigenous Italian grapes like Mamertino and Brachetto.

Caesar took control of the mint and had money coined to put into the hands of the people. He then built great structures, public works and was followed (jump forward, twenty-one centuries, Twitter equivalent) by many. Was he killed for being a people’s patron of the arts, architecture and culture and did his offing lead to the demise of plentiful money in Rome? Can Caesar really be blamed for the tax increases, corruption and the loss of homes and land? Admittedly, the dictator has been historically accused of killing one million enemy French (Gallic) men and enslaving another million. But he was a wine guy! Would Caesar have jammed in a cork to stop private wine clubs?

Canadians purportedly drink Bloody Caesars to celebrate the anniversary of the soothsayer’s day. Me, not so much. But I can tie the Italian-Canadian thing together. Here I string five Canadians and three Italians, bound by one apropos French connection, a sublime red wine from Bordeaux. Raise a glass and whisper “All hail Caesar.”

From left: Rockway Vineyards Small Lot Reserve Red Assemblage 2010, Stoney Ridge Excellence Chardonnay 2010, Vicchiomaggio Agostino Petri Chianti Classico Riserva 2008, Tenuta Di Ghizzano Veneroso 2009, Paolo Conterno Riva Del Bric Barolo 2008, Château Haut-Bages Liberal 2009.

The Canadians

Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2010 (246579, $15.95) is fresh in chert, posy aromatic and stuffed with an airy, sense of whipped lemon cream. Salinity and white pepper add kick and spice to this Chardonnay cousin only Cave Spring seems to have mastered.  89  @CaveSpring

Malivoire Riesling 2011 (277483, $15.95) of savvy, textured pomade hails Prussian in ideal, with equatorial accents, in coconut, ginger and creamy, fallen tree fruit. A lime’s zest, rind and late harvest condensed orange marmalade buttress this beryl flecked, golden Escarpment Riesling. Tons of nuance.  90  @MalivoireWine

Rockway Vineyards Small Lot Reserve Red Assemblage 2010 (321893, $16.95) coalesces to what so few Niagara Peninsula peers achieve by summation in the heat of 2010. Meritage balance for under $20. Many made great wines in the premium category but many more made bottles of jam at this price. Rockway’s Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend is a tale of two poles. At once pretty, in violets, soft black currants and mild coffee and then bound by an underlying coal tension and furious punk beat. “The sun is out and I want some.”  88   @Rockway Vineyard

Creekside Laura’s White 2010 (121764, $18.95) is peach quintessence in a glass. Niagara Peninsula peaches burst forth, replay to taste and never dissipate. The tree’s blossoms are there two, along with the fruit’s stony pit, with a full-on mouth attack, finishing with a spoonful of peach-infused simple syrup. A white “to let go of it all just for this evening.” Dessert and then goodnight.  88  @CreeksideWine

Stoney Ridge Excellence Chardonnay 2010 (254243, $24.95) hails from the Lincoln Lakeshore and warms in toasted, buttered pecans, Caesar spice and sunny climate fruit. The shore’s metallic, rocky bed adds minerality, “rockin’ up the richter scale” with tang and stabbing notes on the long finish. Goes both ways, ACDC.  89  @stoneyridgewine

The Italians

Vicchiomaggio Agostino Petri Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 (993360, $19.95) in a tighter vintage is not as round, ripe and forgiving so priced to sell but it’s that grit that gives this CCR it’s charm. More Run Through the Jungle than Lodi, this Petri “fills the land with smoke,” in animale and a marbled, granular texture. Thought modern in styling, this Sangiovese is like charred Kobe beef covered in butter polished demi-glace.  90

Tenuta Di Ghizzano Veneroso 2009 (103218, $29.95) bears little resemblence to the IGT you may be used to, especially in a 70/30 Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. This one’s mutton-funky, not quite like the Montetti or Madonna del Piano but still an earthy beast. There is vibrant purple Pisa fruit and a dusty, chalky tannic splash. We’ll see but my thoughts look to a wow future. Gorgeous wine from Ginevra Venerosi Pesciolini.  91  @FrontierWine

Paolo Conterno Riva Del Bric Barolo 2008 (172783, $36.95, SAQ, 10860223, $34) from young vines on this venerable estate’s Ginestra plot is really impressive for under $40. Savoury and perfumed, of Rhododendron and dried roses. Pipe smoke at the mid-point and sweet tannin. Not exactly a big Barolo but more of a Nebbiolista’s bric-a-brac of all the best bits Barolo has to offer 91  @liffordwine

Château Haut-Bages Liberal 2009 (197640, $64.85) of sumptuous, acculturated Paulliac texture is just so pretty. Not unlike the ’07 Brunelli, or the current release ’08 Guado Al Tasso for that matter, there is nary a harsh or biting note. The kicker is the Left Bank mineral, crushed rock thing going on and the wine never wavers from the its velvety feel. Pure, unadulterated red fruit, juicy and forevermore. This liberal lady can “lay across my big brass bed,” anytime.  92

Good to go!

Big wines from California and the Bench

Photo: olly/Fotolia.com

Photo: olly/Fotolia.com

as seen on canada.com

If you can’t make it big in California selling Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, you can’t make it anywhere. Merlot once played a starring role in that ensemble but it currently suffers from a serious lack of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Dreaming outside the box, I would like to see a 1,000 per cent increase in Rhône varietal wines coming out of California but for every Syrah, Grenache and Viognier vine planted, it seems two are ripped out. I would add Tempranillo, Monastrell, Carignan and Sangiovese to the wish list. Some varietal diversity would be nice.

Meanwhile, back at the monopoly, the big four continue to bask in the spotlight. Don’t misunderstand me. I love all wine. A new world Bordeaux, Burgundy and (indigenous Adriatic varietal) recommendations list speaks of the universality of my affection. But I turn your attention to Ontario. The great writer, Grapes of Humanity facilitator and all-around wine sage Tony Aspler recently gave a speech. It’s title, The Ontario Wine Industry: Doing it right and doing it wrong – How to engage consumers at home and abroad. Mr. Aspler emphasized the need to celebrate our land, our terroir. He thinks we are overly diverse and wants us to make terroir-driven wines. “Wines that speak to the soil in which they were grown.” Know this. Aspler would have thought long and hard about this poignant dissertation. He has more than 37 years of reverential and local wine experience. He also noted, “Wine always tastes better in the presence of the winemaker.”

I had the fortunate pleasure last week to put this experiential notion into practice at Hidden Bench Winery up on the Niagara Peninsula’s Beamsville Bench. Harald Thiel, who is and not coincidentally I would add, the recent Promoter-at-Large winner at the VQA Promoters Awards, tutored me through 13 bottles. Would I have been duly impressed in a sterile room without D’yer Maker by my side? Likely not, but the visit left me with the distinct impression that Hidden Bench is one of the local houses of the holy.

Here are five famous Californians and a posse of local Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Bordeaux blends to seek out this week and before they disappear.

From left: Decoy Chardonnay 2011; Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2010; Hidden Bench Vineyard and Winery 'Terroir Caché' Meritage 2008; Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2010; and Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2010.

Big Californians

Decoy Chardonnay 2011 (341555, $24.95) is a melting pot of Sonoma County site agglomeration. A lemon and pear creamsicle, cool(er) climate piping into a barrel-charred cone with a sprinkling of key-lime, chalky soil dust. Cyclotron of gold patina, with a green apple and mineral dees to enrich the big character of this Duckhorn project. Await a time softening of its bitters and everyone will be doing the disco duck.  89  @decoywine

Belle Glos Las Alturas Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (212076, $44.95) and her retroussé nose of sweet, candied currants and a McLaren Vale-like blue jam is striking, if ubiquitous Pinot from everywhere and anywhere. It’s certainly delicious and sports the trademark Belle Glos, SLH smoke, tar and shellac, so in that sense it reminds us of itself.  89  @BelleGlosMeiomi

Ravenswood Big River Single Vineyard Zinfandel 2008 (327205, $44.95) is stylish and sacred juice out of Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Starlet songstress pretty, a bit shy and reserved, not yet giving it all away. Very raspberry and red flower colour/scent and oak already well-integrated. Would not accuse this Zin of any sin nor saying it “sold your dreams for a pocket of change.”  91  @RavenswoodWine

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (222877, $75.95) animates a supply chain management ideal like few other Napicons within the framework of an efficient push-pull package. Marketed for the lover of plush, virile California Cabernet and this ’10 delivers with black raspberry and chocolate balance. There is a sweetness/bitterness interplay that never tugs.  91  @FrankLovesWine

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (296707, $99.95) is a truly iconic and wow example of Napa incumbency. When Cabernet Sauvignon is framed by this level of mineral and French funk and still the layers of dark fruit shine, nothing can be said but “this is a special wine.” The currant sideways grain of chalky chocolate tannin notes that time has yet to define this Howell Mountain gem. More excellence from Dunn, hedonism without petulance.  95  @Smallwinemakers

Hidden Bench Winery, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula

Harald Thiel, Proprietor, @BenchVigneron  @HiddenBench

Estate Chardonnay 2010 ($32, winery only) tends near-Tropicana, integrated nirvana from an 11-month barrel ferment. The wood sidles rather than climbs on top and the fruit shines like a diamond mine. Enthralling Beamsville Bench Chardonnay and “like a drunken fool I never know when to leave.”  90 

Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (276261, $38) is akin to Russian River Valley, allowing the comparison, in platinum, edging to gold and in stony, mineral rigidity. Tends to the orchard in a fell swoop of swelling fruit. Nobody does it better on the Bench. The sec who loves me, “makes me feel sad for the rest.”   91

Tête de Cuvée Chardonnay 2009 ($45, winery only) from HB’s oldest, most highly regarded and meticulously maintained vines shows ravishing and refined restraint in elegance. Warm pineapple and mango coagulation jarred by the vintage’s piercing acidity and immense length. Head of the class, rings the bell, nails the lecture.  93

Bistro Chardonnay 2011 ($20-21, winery only) is the sum total of the collected and filtered run-off from the rich and select HB vineyard pool. The nut brown toast is certainly noticeable but handled with care, accented by a tease of melon, mango and stone fruit.  88

Riesling Estate 2011 ($17-18, winery only) will launch likewise as a “Bistro” offering in May 2013 for a pittance. Laser direct as a citrus, flint and mineral injected Bench iconoclastic white. Gulpable by the spittoon-full.  88

Estate Pinot Noir 2009 (275753, $38), unfined, unfiltered and leavened by indigenous yeasts speaks all estate vineyard vernacular, of night pitch, cherry and smoke but in a liberated, feminine voice. Clarity in my favourite NP Pinot year.  90

Felseck Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($48) is the man, or so he thinks, in the HB relationship. Increased earth and graphite presence, evolved, integrated, social. Tough exterior, teddy bear interior. “Think of me what you will, I got a little space to fill.” You don’t know how it feels. No petty fool, no tom foolery. From low density planted vines.  92

Locust Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($48, winery only) may be the best food companion of the three ’09’s. Whiffing musk and medieval protein powder testosterone. Stretched on the rack, grunts, cries out in pain, then submits. Finds peace within that last century thing its got going on.  91

Estate Pinot Noir 2010 ($38, winery only) is a vintage relative release, a quaffable, generous fruit sui generis. Alights to invite and tempt like an ’05 Burgundy or an ’07 Brunello. Irresistible, if fleeting in beauty.  89

Bistro Pinot Noir 2011 ($22-23, winery only) is as a result of meticulously sorted clean fruit with no varnish or hard edges. Good length.  88

Estate Pinot Noir 2005 was open two days and still fresh as a daisy. Still difficult to assess. NR

‘Terroir Caché’ Meritage 2010 ($35, winery only) has rich, voluptuous Napa Valley written all over it. Sister Merlot dominant, Beamsville Bench sledge monster. Plumbago, mineral, blackberry and coffee in a wine that will be the ringer in a blind tasting 10 years on. Harald may be saying “this is our family jewel.” Mr. Thiel, you make good wine.  92  @HiddenBench

‘Terroir Caché’ Meritage 2008 (505610, $32.95) from a cool and wet vintage defies logic with a beastly corpulence built upon tar, mineral and spice. An off-beat note of cardamom-scented Arabica kaffee. No, really. Tough mudder.  88

Good to go!