Diary of a Wine-Tasting Addict
Tasting Megalomaniac wines with owner John Howard recently at Chef Mark Piccone’s Culinary Studio in Niagara was the best. These boys really know how to amuse a bouche. The chef’s smoked salmon appetizer was the edible equivalent of what I imagine George Clooney kissing my nape would feel like.
Be it food or wine, I taste therefore I am.
Over the years, people have asked me what it’s like to be a wine critic.
“It’s not work really, is it? I mean, how can you call spending a morning or afternoon tasting wine ‘work’?”
Well, let me tell you. It’s not easy to taste upwards of 100 wines. I spit, but it’s still a bit of a go.
“One hundred wines?”
Yes. That’s what I’m up against at a professional tasting, be it the LCBO’s new release tastings Fridays downtown — sorry, wine press only — or those put on by regional trade bodies or importers. Then there is the steady stream of winemaker dinners, lunches, and samples on my doorstep each week. Frankly, it would be easier if most bottles didn’t disappoint on some level, but they do. I just don’t write about those ones.
I’m not blasé about tasting. It’s more than my job; it’s my passion. I still get that great tension in the presence of a flight of wine. The prospect of bringing what may be an exciting sip to my lips always intrigues. But I’ve been doing this long enough to go into each vinous introduction with my eyes wide open. Critics kiss a lot of vinous frogs. And sometimes, no matter how repulsive the wine, we’ve got to fake it.
I’m about to let you in on a little secret. A code, of sorts, among wine critics. At professional tastings, when asked by the bubbly PR/slick marketing guy/zealous winemaker what we think of an unimpressive bottle, we use certain words or phrases to hedge honesty. Call them the double entendres of wine criticism, if you like. (See the sidebar below). And, when we’re left utterly speechless, we draw on the studious but silent frown, nod, and frantic notebook scribbling to hide the disbelief, or in my case, fit of giggles that might ensue if I looked directly at the person pouring the wine.
It actually happened once. I was at the tail end of a long day of winery hopping — known in the trade as a “fam trip” — swirling and sipping samples with a winemaker and fellow critic. One of the wines was vile. Wretched. We were dumbfounded. My colleague dove into his notebook with the telltale frown. And I, having tasted too many wines to hide the hilarity of it, dissolved into fits, wine spraying from my pursed lips. My colleague tried to save me with a limp joke, but it was no use. Time to call it a day, bowing out as gracefully as possible. That’s another trick of the trade: knowing your tasting limit.
Another question I’m asked a lot is whether wine is just a matter of personal taste. Yes and no. When I taste, professionally, I look for technical correctness more than anything, which is the conduit for pleasure. Balance, fruit purity, appropriate structure, and typicity matter. Without these elements, the wine won’t taste good to me. Or you. And these things are absolutely discernable in a single sip and spit. Complexity, concentration and value for money: two sips maybe.
Winemakers critical of critics argue the sip and spit test is a lousy trial. A bottle needs to spend the evening with the taster, the argument goes. Enjoyed in all its phases from first pour to final glass. Um, no. Although that romantic notion has merit with the pinnacle of the market — think Petrus, vintage Salon, and the like—it is simply not necessary with yet another vintage of Jacob’s Creek Riesling. Or any wine that is under about $25 bucks per bottle, which accounts for the vast majority of the wines produced.
But being a wine critic is fun. My job is to give you the short, sweet critical information on what bottles are best so you can keep on uncorking, or screwing off, without having to contend with vinous disappointment. My job is to keep your drinking in fine form. Which brings me to the point of this story.
For this Canadian issue, I leafed through my notebooks from my recent trip to Niagara and gathered tasting notes for the most compelling Ontario wines.
Canada’s best-kept secret, I think, is Vignoble Rancourt, a small, barely-known winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Jean-Pierre Colas, who also makes wine at 13th Street Winery, recently took over winemaking duties there and is making incredible juice. Of course, Monsieur Colas is no newbie. He was head winemaker at the renowned Chablis house, Domaine Laroche, for 10 years. And it shows.
I loved the tank sample of Vignoble Rancourt’s 2007 Merlot, brimming with classic cherry-chocolate charm, and the barrel sample of the 2009 Syrah, which had a heady and hedonistic allure most closely associated with the northern Rhône. Think spicy fruit laced with savoury notes of grilled meat and underbrush. Both reds were bottled this past spring and are available through the winery for a snip, about $20 each.
At 13th Street, M. Colas crafts a superb 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, called Essence, with cunning minerality ($35). Other best bottles tasted in Niagara were as follows.
Megalomaniac Homegrown Riesling 2006, Niagara ($13)
What’s the secret to this off-dry thriller? A dose of 3.5% Icewine — but you won’t find it on the label. The result is an aromatic, off-dry wine teeming with chin-drip peach, lemon-lime, and a hint of Clementine. Light and lush.
Angels Gate Chardonnay 2007, Mountainview Series, Niagara ($19)
From the extraordinary 2007 vintage, this wine offers silky viscosity, perfect balance, and a warm hazelnut-butterscotch topcoat over a tight citrus core.
Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Gris 2009, Niagara ($30)
Struck matchstick aromas lead to rich stone fruit underpinned by charcoal, cinnamon and nutmeg. Smooth, fleshy, and complex.
13th Street Chardonnay 2009, Sandstone Vineyard, Niagara ($30)
Toffee layered with orange and crème brûlée, finishing with bitter orange zest. Gorgeous, refined wine with Meursault-like richness.
Le Clos Jordanne Talon Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Niagara ($37)
Rich and creamy Chardonnay with roasted hazelnuts and restrained notes of pineapple. Elegant, sleek and seamless. I wasn’t fond of the 2006, but this vintage is stellar.
Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche 2008, Niagara ($40)
This Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend from 22-year-old vines sells out every year. Quite seductive, it’s all about bitter lime zest, dry flint and subtle smoke on the nose and palate with a waxy, appealing texture. Quite serious and long.
Megalomaniac 2007 Bravado Cabernet Sauvignon, Niagara ($25)
Bravado indeed! Gorgeous blueberry and cassis-packed wine that’s long and stylish. The tasting note on the website reads: “Defiant, gutsy, and self-assured to the max. This is a very proud Cab Sauvignon indeed.” Can’t argue there; it drinks like a $50 bottle.
Inniskillin Winemaker’s Series Shiraz/Cabernet Franc 2008, Niagara ($25)
Starting with a whiff of white pepper on the nose, this blend of 75% Shiraz and 25% Cabernet Franc brims with vibrant flavours of red meat, red and black berries, melting chocolate and white pepper.
Pillitteri “Exclamation” Merlot 2007, Niagara ($30)
Cherry and chocolate, spice and violet flavours swirl around in this captivating thriller.
Jackson Triggs Delaine Vineyard Syrah 2007, Niagara ($33)
White pepper and berry aromas lead to oodles of plum and berry fruit on the palate seasoned with black and white pepper. Bonfire finish.
13th Street “Essence” Pinot Noir 2009, Niagara ($45)
Tasting a tank sample, this wine showed nicely with elegant, refined fruit, good typicity, and a power and finesse fairly atypical of Ontario reds. A bit pricey, but still good value; it is, after all, Pinot.
Angels Gate Snow Angels Cabernet Franc Icewine 2008, Niagara ($50)
This barrel-fermented wine shows vibrant red berries layered with lots of interesting complexity from the oak — smoke, chocolate, and coffee stand out.
Jackson Triggs 2007 Proprietor’s Reserve Vidal Icewine, Niagara ($40)
Rich and complex with firm acidity. Peaches, beeswax, marmalade, and sea salt.
As a wine critic, I would like to be balanced and also tell you about what not to drink, but I just ran out of space.
double entendres of wine criticism
Interesting: Can mean complex. Or tainted with too much of that controversial yeast Brettanomyces. Or otherwise unclean, or anything else that defies favourable descriptors.
Crowd-pleaser: Can mean great value. Or too much residual, obviously there to pump up the mid-palate and hide the absence of character — i.e., made to appeal to the soda pop set.
Accessible: Can mean balanced and honest wine. Or single-note and uninteresting.
Smooth: Can mean finely grained tannins. Or lacks structure.
Refreshing: Can mean well balanced. Or simply searingly high in acidity.
Easy drinking: Can mean affable and delicious. Or made in an overtly commercial style.
Restrained: Can mean elegant and subtle. Or boring and neutral.