Tag Archives: Wine

Barrel Tasting In Burgundy

Côte de Beaune, Burgundy
To fully appreciate the diversity of the terroir of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy one must see it with the naked eye. To feel the soils under your feet, and to appreciate the varying degrees of sun exposure along the Côte, I highly recommend a vineyard walk or run as an excellent way to further understand the intricacies of these famous slopes.

Then there’s the romantic and picturesque town of Beaune. Start one’s day at one of the many town squares with a perfectly crafted pain au chocolat and a café or two, as you witness the town wake up. Breakfast is followed by strolling through the narrow cobblestone roads, picking fresh cheeses, baguettes and local produce for your afternoon picnic, and eventually settling into a cozy chair outside one of the many wine bars to taste wines by the glass as you watch the Beaune world go by. Beaune, FranceIn the evening, descend into one of the dozens of ‘cellar’ restaurants that could double as barrel rooms to undoubtedly enjoy fine wines and gourmet food from the region: foie gras, escargots, coq au vin and boeuf bourgignon cooked a la bourgignonne in Burgundian wine.

Maison Louis Jadot:

Louis Jadot, BurgundyVisiting Louis Jadot was a fantastic experience. We received a very warm and intimate welcome from one of the prominent producers of this region. Jadot has the power of the qi. The winery is in the shape of an octagon, at the heart of which a small platform is perched six feet off the ground under a domed skylight. During long harvest days this is the spot where workers come to re-energize.

Louis Jadot produces an astounding 125 wines, of which we were fortunate to taste 19 from some of the top sites such as Puligny Montrachet, Meursault, Chassagne Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertain. In their damp and cool expansive cellars, it was an excellent exercise recognizing the sometimes subtle nuances of these appellations.

Domaine Comte Senard:

Domaine Comte Senard, BurgundyThere is no better welcome to a Domaine than that from a Grand Cru Chardonnay-eating Golden Retriever. Domaine Comte Senard, located in Aloxe-Corton, is set high up on the Côte with its Grand Cru sites enclosed by an ancient stone clos. They produce the only red Grande Cru in the Côte de Beaune. Comte Senard owns the oldest cellars in Burgundy which they discovered during an expansion, and in their good fortune unearthed intact bottles from the region – what a coup.

Alex Gambal:

Alex Gambal Visit in BeauneIn contrast, we capped off our Domaine tours with a visit with Alex Gambal, a modern day Texan making modern wines in Burgundy. Who would have thought this was possible? With the Napoleonic Code of land inheritance, farmers rule this region. Alex Gambal has gracefully managed to penetrate the traditional political landscape. He shared some of his tales of trials and tribulations of doing business here where verbal contracts are only as good as the Texan pony he rode in on.

In Awe of Alsace

Alsace, France

The route arriving in Alsace by way of Champagne takes you over the famed Vosges Mountain range to a lush valley, more Germanic than French, where Riesling reins supreme. The Alsatian valley is a long and narrow one, dotted with historical villages, each with a steeple peaking through the red-tiled roofs and brightly coloured buildings of yellow, turquoise and red all decorated with bougainvillea spilling from every window sill.

Alsace is renowned for its production of single noble grape varieties vinified to preserve the freshness and purity of the fruit and the minerality of the soils, packaged in elegant flûted bottles. Typically dry to off-dry, there are also two other classifications of Alsatian wines depending upon the ripeness of the grape: the sweeter styles of Vendange Tardive (Late Harvest) and the botrytis-affected Selection de Grains Nobles. The top examples of Alsatian wines have the ability to age for decades. Organic and biodynamic vinification and minimal intervention winemaking is the status quo for this region.

Alsace by iPhoneClos St Landelin, René Muré
This is a family-driven winery as we were welcomed into the tasting room by René Muré, the 11th generation of the business. Both children, Thomas and Véronique work at the winery and in the vineyards as well. The nurturing and care given by the family to the vines, which surround the domaine, is evident in the glass. Common among many Alsatian winemakers, René Muré produces the full range of varietals and styles of the region.

Alsace, France - Domaine OstertagDomaine André Ostertag
The front gates of the modest Ostertag Domaine open to a tranquil backyard lined with well-tended, biodynamically farmed vines. André classifies his wines into 3 categories, according to the expression of the unique terroirs: ‘Vins de Fruit’ wines emphasize the purity of the fruit, ‘Vins de Pierre’ expresses the soils and ‘Vin de Temps’ includes the wines that have the greatest longevity. The captivating labelling is another personal touch to the wines, as each bottle is adorned with the original artwork of André’s wife. André’s gentle nature revealed itself during a stroll trough his pet project: a small plot of vines that he planted in a yin yang formation above his cellar. It must be said that all 3 styles embody the passion, intensity and austerity of the winemaker himself.

Alsace, France - Domaine WeinbachDomaine Weinbach
Colette Faller et ses filles

The wines produced by this family are of outstanding quality as each exhibits the power, character and elegance of the women behind the Domaine. The winery and family home are one, located in the middle of the walled Grand Cru Clos des Capucins. Greeted at the door by the family monarch, Colette Faller, we tasted 19 unique wines with the sophisticated Catherine at their dining room table while her mother prepared the morning breakfast in the adjacent kitchen. Where else in the world would you taste top flight Rieslings to the smells and crackle of bacon? Each wine was exquisite.

Alsace, France - Anne Trimbach of Maison TrimbachMaison Trimbach
Maison Trimbach is a big player from the region, as evidenced by the company with whom we shared the extensive tasting: top buyers from around the world. Led by the young and graceful Anne Trimbach, who commanded the room with ease and charm, we tasted the range of the Trimbach portfolio including back vintage examples of their prestige and collection wines. The wines, especially the Cuvée Frédéric Emile and the domaine’s top wine, Clos Sainte Hune, are benchmark examples of Alsatian Rieslings. We wrapped up our day with a tour through the winery which houses both traditional and modern equipment and the rustic family cellars.

Alsatian wines, with their purity, power and broad food pairing abilities, are enough to draw any wine enthusiast to the region. However it is the charm of the villages and the openness of the people with their emphasis on family that will make every visitor a fan, leaving wanting more.

Heavenly Healdsburg

Arista Vineyard, Russian River

Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. I left mine in Healdsburg, humming.

Sonoma County is one of the great wonders of the California wine world, with a land and climate of incredible diversity, fantastic vineyards, beautiful architecture and winemakers who are crafting amazing wines. Some would argue this is where fine wine of California all began.

Resting just west of the (more famous) Napa County, Sonoma County is made up several AVA valleys (the American version of France’s AOC designation) with the terroir distinctive in the wines that are produced. The town of Healdsburg is perfectly nestled in the heart of it all.

Healdsburg is authentic with a welcomed touch of yuppie; It’s the real deal with sophistication and taste. Before you even touch down in this part of California wine country pack your layers, even in the dead heat of the summer. This is the region with that glorious foggy chill most mornings – from sunrise until noon hour – so you’ll need a sweater, or two!

I’ve been to Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley a number of times and what makes Healdsburg and the surrounding valleys in Sonoma County so rewarding is not only the wines but the approachability of the people. Your first order of business when you arrive in this charmingly quiet town is to find The Wine Shop and talk to Pedro.

Let it be known: Pedro is a walking Healdsburg encyclopedia. Born and raised in Healdsburg, riding bikes in the dirt and earth that has become the grape-growing soils, this man will point you in the right direction. Have a winery map, a pen and a palate – sit at the tasting bar and sip on some local specialties while you plot your attack. He is also an avid biker and loves the long, winding (read: challenging) rides that are dreamy to him, but get in the way of wine tasting for someone like me. Know what you want; he’ll hook you up.

To wine taste by bike or by car? Well, I did both, and to be honest, if you really love biking and you don’t mind cutting into some valuable wine tasting time, go for the bike. Plus there’s a little more leeway in the spitting vs. swallowing throughout the course of your day. There are a few bike shops in town that are very well equipped to handle the wine tasting biker novice or expert. You’ll be happy with Wine Country Bikes.

I’m all for the romance of “…biking along rolling country hills with vineyards on all sides, valley vistas and aromatics filling the air…”, however, there’s a limit. We rented bikes one of the days to tackle the Westside Road heading south through the Russian River Valley. There is no bike lane, the drop off of crumbling asphalt feels like a near-death experience with every roaring car that blasts by and the number of wineries you can visit is cut in half because you’ve spent your day hoofing it and sweating up several “rolling” hills. When I do this valley again, I will not bike the wine route. Even Pedro agrees. (If you are looking for an amazing bike ride, wine tasting aside, talk to Pedro and the guys at the bike shops. The Coleman Valley Road from Occidental out to the coast is supposed to be one of the most spectacular bike rides you will ever do.)

Onto The Wines!

We made it to a fraction of what these valleys have to offer; two days is not nearly enough time. Every tasting room we entered was a fabulous experience. The main ingredient for this was the people. We tasted amazing wines, some of the architecture was stunning, but the connection with the people and their generosity with their time is why we bought more wine and why I will remember my time spent there. A friendly, knowledgeable, easy-going staff goes a long way – and ultimately sells wine. (For etiquette and considerations like making appointments ahead of time and budgeting, Bill Eyer has written a helpful article on great tasting room tips.)

My Russian River Valley Hit List:

Twomey – Outstanding building and tasting room. Brought to you by the family of Silver Oak Cellars, we were lucky to taste the 01 Merlot thanks to our gracious host Ann. Relatively new Aussie winemaker Ben Cane doing nice things with Sauvy B., Pinot Noir and Merlot.
C. Donatiello – Relatively new, the wines, the building and the grounds are all beautiful – well worth the visit. Alyssa and Vanessa in the tasting room were tremendously helpful and kind with their time – a lot of friendly faces and big smiles from everyone who works here.
Rochioli – A well-established winery, working these vineyards for decades, making fantastic wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are rated as some of the best in the world (by none other than Robert Parker).
Hop Kiln – The building is definitely worth a look. Head inside if you have time on the clock. (I did not, so no notes here on the wines unfortunately, but they’ve been around since the 70’s and are known for the “Big Red”.)
Arista – A perfect place to park it. This winery has an interesting building architecturally speaking, but it’s the Japanese gardens with trickling waterfalls and vineyard vistas that makes this a picnic stop on the tour. Grab a chilled Gewürztraminer and get into that sandwich you’ve packed from Oakville Grocery in town (see ‘lunch’ below). You’re likely to get a visit from a curious and friendly chocolate lab too.
Lynmar Estate – This was my favourite if I had to pick just one. This place is out of a book. Somewhat of a new kid on the block, they are producing some wonderful and promising Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the people are brilliant, the gardens – oh the gardens! – are unbelievable. You could easily spend a few hours at Lynmar, and you should. Plan for lunch here, or wander the fresh vegetable and herb gardens after your tasting. If you’re in town on a Friday evening in the summer, check in with them for their outdoor “Pinot and Pizza” nights, offered once a month: pizza dinner outside from a woodstove oven at picnic tables, set in a wooded clearing between vineyards, steps from the tasting room.

There are so many more – I would have liked to have made it to Thomas George Estate (beautiful new caves), Merry Edwards, as well as arrange ahead of time for a tasting at William Seylem.

My Dry Creek Valley Hit List:

Bella Vineyards – My kind of place: tucked away at the end of a narrow, winding country road, vines sloping upward to the sky above you, opera soaring out of the winery and happy, full-of-knowledge tasting room managers found deep in the dimly lit caves – awesome Zins, Petite Verdot and rosé. You can also book a private vineyard trip and taste limited releases among the vines with a 360-degree view of the valley – Book it!
Zichichi – Wow, another favourite. This experience was pretty supreme. Barrel tasting with the winemaker himself, Mikael Gulyash and his assistant Mike. Their 70-year old vine Zin was the choice for dinner that night at a local restaurant (see ‘dinner’ below). Ask for the barrel tasting!
Mauritson – Simon and Mandy were so gracious. We squeaked into the tasting room at the 11th hour and they still spent 45 minutes with us after closing. This was special. We chatted about the history, the terroir, the soils, the winemaking and of course picked up a few wines to enjoy later. Plus Mandy made our dinner reservation for us on the phone while we sipped – now that’s service!

As well, definitely head to Preston, a must-see organic farm, Michel-Schlumberger, Unti, Papapietro Perry Winery and Nalle. Some of these tasting rooms require appointments.

Dining in Healdsburg

For breakfast, Costeaux French Bakery – great coffee, awesome bread, excellent full breakfasts, homemade granola, a perfect morning atmosphere (sit at the high top bar tables along the back wall with the morning papers splayed out in front of you), the best bathroom wallpaper I’ve ever seen (which I am planning for my next home), and you can’t go wrong with a freshly baked pain au chocolat.

Lunch: There is no other place but the Oakville Grocery Co. – they make the best sandwiches to enjoy either on their sun-drenched patio or take-away for your winery picnic lunch later in the day. It’s exactly the kind of specialty shop you wish for on your hometown street corner. Plus you can taste and buy wine (of course) and there are plenty of local selections.

Dinner: We decided this is where we were going to go big. Healdsburg is home to a few of California’s top restaurants. Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen was phenomenal. Here’s a teaser: four kinds of fresh baked bread offered throughout the meal, chilled leek potato soup, pork tenderloin fennel encrusted with swiss chard, duck confit and caramelized onions with black truffle jus, chocolate bread pudding and Guinness ice cream with chocolate Grenache cake. Outstanding. Small tip: bring in your own wines from any local winery and there’s no corkage fee.

The ultimate dining experience and where I had my most memorable meal to date was at Cyrus. Our chef’s tasting menu was superb, the service was impeccable, the atmosphere was the ideal blend of intimate fine dining and a lively, casual buzz. I will never forget it: fois gras torchon with rhubarb, butter poached lobster with marjoram spring onions, hoisin glazed short rib, lamb loin roulade, black truffle risotto, tiramisu, espresso gelato, a cheese cart to melt over – salivating yet? It was stunning. And the wines to pair. You can save on the wine cost and bring in your own. You can also sit in the outer bar and order a la carte, but that would be missing the entire dining experience, wouldn’t it?

Where to stay? There are ample places to choose from for where to lay your head. If you want to spend your money on wine and fine dining, there are a few cheaper options that are well known and liked, some in town and others just a 10-minute walk from the town centre. To have the ultimate experience, stay right in town, steps from everything, and book in at Hotel Healdsburg. One word: SPA.

Ah, Healdsburg. We shall meet again…

[To live my few days in photos and to get a visual sense of all that was written above, here is my Flickr set of the Healdsburg trip.]

Rosé Season Is Open

Antibes avec Rosé

If you live in a cool climate like I do, at long last: ‘tis the season for rosé. Morning dog walks are warm and fragrant, the afternoon sun heats your skin and backyard barbequing is well underway. It’s time for a little pink juice on that sun-drenched patio.

If this is any indication: a few weeks ago I was pouring for Loire winemaker Bernard Chereau – Chereau Carré, one of the top domaines of the Nantais, at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival and out of the flight of five spectacular wines (four of which were his well known and liked Muscadet wines), the ladies all flocked to the one rosé – in droves. And it’s not reflective of that whole “pink-is-for-girls” thing. The ladies definitely get it: rosé rocks and pink is still in. It’s summer in a glass. Who better to look to than the French? Rosé wine sales surpassed white wine sales in France, circa 2007.

Before getting to my short list of the wines you need to pick up and enjoy this summer, what makes a rosé a rosé? The wine gets its colour from the amount of time the red grape skins are left in contact with the juice after the grapes have been crushed. It’s up to the discretion of the winemaker as to the style of wine and the length of time this contact occurs, which helps determine the colour of rosé wine – anything from pale orange, to copper, to pink salmon, to almost red and purple. Getting a little more technical, rosé is also made as a by-product of red wine fermentation when the pink juice is removed at an early stage and fermented separately, known as saignée. Rosé wines are made with just about any red grape variety, the most common being Grenache and Cinsaut.

There still seems to be a massive misconception that rosé wines are sweet (think the once-popular Cali White Zin “blush wine”, off-dry to sweet). But the most enjoyed, and historically like the original rosé wines produced in the Loire Valley, are in fact bone dry – and bright, fresh and delicious!

To kick this list off, I did a little ‘homework’ myself and tasted a fine selection of rosés of various styles. I think you’ll find a few here that fit your taste buds as well as your budget. While we can enjoy rosé at any given time of the year, I think we can all agree that it’s the hot sun and outdoor dining that somehow make these wines taste that much better. It’s scandalous to make a list of a mere five rosés – there are plenty more, but these are here to get you started and inspired to enjoy some summer sipping.

  1. Domaine des Huards, Cheverny, Val do Loire 2009
    $19.00 @ Marquis Wines
    This wine has everything you’d expect and want in an easy patio-sipper on a sunny afternoon, as the cliché goes. It’s light, refreshing, crisp, and acid to please with a healthy blast of citrus and subtle raspberry. Have it on its own or knock back a few grilled clams with a squeeze of lemon.
  2. Provenquiere Rose “Cuvee P” 2008
    $15.00 @ Marquis Wines
    Enter this classic southern French rosé filled with citrus, red berries, sweet spice and floral aroma. Enjoy this easy-drinker with a citrus summer salad, a soft-rind mild brie or, as the region would dictate, bouillabaisse.
  3. Frias Family Vineyards Rosé, Napa
    $30.00 @ Kitsilano Wine Cellar
    This wine is two things: really fun to drink and definitely an acquired taste. I say this because it’s almost sherry-like, but don’t let that dissuade you if you’re not a sherry fan. It’s a blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc, with characteristics that are quite complex and well balanced. I wouldn’t call it “refreshing” as the label touts, as it’s a little hot on the alcohol, but it has a good dose of fruit – black cherry and watermelon predominantly – with some earthy sweet spice and a kick of a pleasant tartness at the end. It demands to be eaten with an olive tapenade, bruscetta or oily fish.
  4. Domaine de la Mordorée, Tavel AOC 2008
    $40.00 @ Liberty Wine Merchants
    Perhaps one of the more popular rosé wine appellations of the world, and one of the finest, is Tavel in the south of the Rhone Valley in France, where all wines made here must be rosé. This is truly a beautiful wine: dry, crisp acidity, rich and spicy;  a bold blend of Grenache and Cinsaut. It’s a little pricey, but definitely worth it – a mouth-melter.
  5. Vina Tondonia, Vinos Fino de Rioja, Lopez de Heredia 1993
    $42.00 @ Kitsilano Wine Cellar
    This is going out on a bit of a limb, and it’s more expensive than your average “patio-sipper” rosé, however, if you want to try something totally radical, this is it. For starters, there is nothing pink about it – it’s a beautiful, rich orange. The style is slightly oxidized with nutty caramel, a little oak, some minerality and a touch of zesty orange. You simply must taste this wine.

I’m always looking for the next best rosé, so let’s hear your picks.

Thanks to John at Marquis Wines and Kirk at Kitsilano Wine Cellar for your recommendations.

A Week of Western Wines

The past week in Vancouver saw both California and Naramata winemakers on a brief stop to present and promote their latest stars. It’s tough to make your way around a jam-packed hotel ballroom and get to know all that’s there, alas, I managed to narrow in on a few wines definitely worth mentioning. Tough days, indeed, tasting all these wines…

First up, the 30th Annual Canadian Tour of the California Wine Fair, put on by the California Wines in Canada association. This is a great event to hit each time it swings through town, usually each spring and again in the fall. You get to taste some stunning wines, a lot of which are not yet available in BC and some of which are on the very pricey side, so it’s great to be able to indulge while meeting some of the wines’ masterful makers.

The best tactic in my opinion at such an event is to have a tactic. There is no hope you can taste everything. I am heading down to the Russian River area in northern Sonoma County in May so I tried to zone in on a few wineries I could follow up with a visit.

If I listed and described all the wines I tasted or the winemakers or agents I met and enjoyed some time with, we’d be here all day, plus there is no way any one person can retain a wine overload list in a blog post, so here’s just one from Cali to put to memory:

Alexander Valley Vineyards:
Before getting to the wines, lovely people. Just lovely. I had a great time tasting and learning about some of the wines and the winemaking with John Wetzel, one of the family partners of the Wetzel Family Estate. What a difference it makes when you can taste the wines with one of the key players of the business. I’m very much looking forward to making a visit to their tasting room down south, which is nicely situated in the heart of the their winery, and getting into those infamous caves!
Known For: Sin Zinfandel. Check out their clever marketing on the “Wicked Weekend: 3-Pack of Zins” – Temptation, Sin and Redemption: crowd-pleasing zins.
Must Try: Gewurz! This is a grape not typically grown in this region but these guys have a beautiful crisp and spicy Gewurztraminer, sourcing the grapes from the Mendocino’s Potter Valley. The fruit is there, the spice, florals and minerality – a well balanced wine. They nailed it.

Vancouver was the first stop on this month-long tour as it makes its way across the country, ending in St. John’s and Halifax in mid May. Check out the full schedule and details on the calwine site.

And onto BC and the Naramata Bench…

Being from Vancouver, I am more and more familiar with the wines (and the faces!) of the infamous Naramata Bench in the Okanagan Valley, BC’s interior wine region. There have been some awesome wines that have come out of this region: Tantalus Riesling being one of my top favourites; Poplar Grove’s Pinot Gris is a big crowd-pleaser as well. It was doable to try everything in the room, but I have a small list of favourites that I’d recommend you get your hands on.

Winner of the Day: Van Westen Vineyards 2008 Viognier

Pretty stunning. This wine has the fruit right there to match the acidity and the viscosity is what you would expect from a viognier. There were only 120 cases produced, so good luck finding it, but keep an eye on this producer for this varietal. They knock it out of the park.

And better yet, I heard you can sit around their kitchen table and taste it with them when you pay them a visit – now that is personal treatment!

Also Enjoyed:
Township 7 Rosé – one of the few who succeeded in producing a typical southern French style rosé. You could polish this one off in one sitting quite easily on a hot summer day.
Therapy Vineyards 2009 Freudian Sip Proprietary blend ($19) – again, suited for patio time. The same could be said for their 2008 Pink Freud ($20). Chill these two crisp wines, sit back and soak in the sun!

I guess those last few picks means it’s that time of year again… next post: rosé all the way!

Don’t Go To Maui For The Wine

Maui Soils

Well, who does, really? I certainly go for the surf, sand and sun, but on my recent trip to this island paradise, me being me, I had to suss out the wine scenario…

There are two things you are not going to get when visiting Maui: wineries and good-valued wine.

I didn’t expect to find any vineyards, given the soil is a giant lava rock in the middle of the Pacific, sitting on top of the equator. It’s no surprise grapes don’t grow here. Or so I thought. There is actually one winery in Maui and it’s surprisingly very well advertised and promoted, front and centre in the grocery stores and plastered across most tourism brochures. The hard sell.

Ulupalakua Ranch is coined as “Maui’s Winery” – notice the singular. “Step right up and get your crisp, well-balanced pineapple wine!”. That’s their “Maui Blanc” (the top-seller). They also have “Maui Splash”: pineapple and passion fruit, they sell a red wine, “smooth and creamy”, a sparkling pineapple (of course) and a sparkling dry rose. Last but not least, they produce “Framboise de Maui”, a raspberry specialty wine with 20% alcohol, ready to poor over ice cream. This one is interesting as it is totally organic: no chemical additives, stabilizers, fining agents, or sulfites. Bless them. “A” for effort, and though I didn’t make it to the winery, I bet it’s a cool slab of ancient rock on the side of a volcano.

The wine experience I was anxious for was the vast and excellent selection of well-priced, good-valued wine at the grocery store. In Vancouver, we are forced to purchase at the wine shops or liquor stores. What a treat it is to go to the States and stroll the grocery aisles for milk and eggs while also filling your bin with booze!

On our first day we hit the local Safeway to stock up on supplies for the week’s menu and headed straight to the FOUR aisles of alcohol, mostly wine. I couldn’t wait to fill my cart with inexpensive excellent wines. Boy, was I disappointed.

Firstly, any wine worth drinking was nowhere near economically priced. If anything, the wines were way over priced. Ah, right, an island. I’m on an island. I had not considered the cost of importing food and wine to this remote location. Or maybe this was another case of the Maui “stickin’ it to the tourist” fees which we gradually learned about over the course of our stay.

Secondly, the selection was so disappointing. Quite literally there was an entire wall of Kendall-Jackson. About ¾ of the whole wine section was Californian. That’s not a complaint, there’s plenty to love, but given the locale, you can imagine the markups. Aussie wines made up about 80% of the remaining ¼ of the overall selection, with enough Yellow Tail to set you straight for a year, and there was a measly 3 shelves dedicated to  every other wine region: some decent French, zero Riesling to be found, and Argentinean Malbecs mixed in with the Chilean. Rough go. Redeeming feature: the sake section was out of this world!

The laugh-out-loud wine moment was the very large display of “Matthew Fox Vineyards” wine. Being in Hawaii with the whole “Lost” tv thing, this was funny. Turns out it’s not the same guy, is it? My research (if you can call it that) tells me it’s some priest in California, but nobody really knows. Either way, reds and whites for 3 bucks? Sold! I had to try it. The shiraz knocked me in the side of the face but it was pretty drinkable. Perfect for a Hawaiian beach grilled-meat dinner. Let it also be known: there are some fantastic restaurants with some amazing wine lists. Search ‘top restaurants Maui’ for user reviews.

We did enjoy plenty of French Rosé, had our fair share of classic Kiwi Sauvy B.’s and some easy drinkin’ Cali Cabs – all with glorious food as we filled our boots with fresh fish every day and local fruits and veg from the Farmer’s market just steps from our abode. Given the wine circumstance and the fact that it was pleasantly sweltering hot, there was more gin, ceasars and good ol’ 6-packs of Bud consumed!

My top tip for travelers and wine drinkers heading to Maui: don’t rent a Jeep for a week (a classic rip-off, but that’s another post for some other blog). Save your money and spend it on over-priced, marked-up fantastic wines at the grocery store. Or, just drink Bud.

How Sweet It Is

What is it about sweet wines getting such a bad rep? When offered a sweet wine, in my experience most people respond with a “No thanks. I don’t like sweet wines.”. Really? Are you sure about that, or are you basing that on the one cheap Asti you tried 15 years ago or the infamous Black Tower days of the 70s era? It’s kind of like the “I don’t drink white wine” syndrome that is purely based on the lesser, usually heavily-oaked Chardonnays we all had to choke down at weddings.

If you’re not drinking sweet wines, you are missing a big party in your mouth.

I recently took a few wine courses and tasted more than 30 wines at one go or over the course of a few hours – every kind of wine across the board. Reds, whites, cheap, expensive, sparkling, fortified, sweet… you name it, we tried it. It’s easy to swirl, swish, taste and spit when you’re on a mission. With a lot of wines to get through when you’re learning about this stuff, you want to spit and be sober at the end to know what end is up or down, for the most part. It’s the sweet wines that sneak by you, or rather, by your mouth. The “whoops, had to let that one slip down” wines – the mouth feel and taste on these guys are just so damn good you can’t spit them out.

So what is a sweet wine? Well, a few things. Firstly, a sweet wine is commonly referred to as dessert wine, simply because it’s nicely matched with, you guessed it, dessert. Sweet with sweet – a classic pairing. Sweet wines can be fortified, distilled, late harvest, Nobel Rot, enjoyed as an aperitif or with dessert.

I am hoping that laying out sweet wines in a bit of a mish-mash list might help to inspire you to hunt down and try some of these suggestions, starting with some fortified. Port is a perfect place to begin.

Port and Sherry are perhaps the better known fortified wines. Wines can also be made as dry and semi-dry, but my point here is to direct you to the excellence of the sweet ones. These can be strong and maybe even an acquired taste, but like all grape varietals and wines, you can always find one you like.

Port is typically sweet, can only be called Port if it is produced in Portugal (in the Duoro Valley in the north) and is made by adding a neutral spirit such as Brandy to the fermentation process. Other countries make fortified wines in the port-style but cannot be called Port, such as Rutherglen Muscat, a dark-sweet syrupy wine from Victoria in Australia. You’re not going to find a specific varietal on a bottle of Port; they are made as a blend. Try these:

  • Late Bottled Vintage (Noval Quinta do Noval)
  • 10 Year Old Tawny (Graham’s)
  • 20 Year Old Tawny (Taylor Fladgate)
  • Vintage Port

Like port, Sherry can only be called Sherry if it comes from a specific region. This time it’s Jerez, Spain, and like port it’s fortified with a grape spirit, but after fermentation. To most it is an acquired taste, but it’s so fine if you can get there. For the sickly sweet ones, look for Oloroso or PX on the label. It’s one of those things you just need to try it to believe it:

  • Lustao Pedro Ximénez
  • Sacromonte Oloroso

Very similar to port, this is a fortified wine but specifically made on the island of Madeira, off the coast of Portugal. Ranging from bone dry to luscious, these fine wines are most famous for their high refreshing acidity and their longevity, some able to last a 100 years+. The sweeter styles are sometimes labeled with the grape Malmsey or ‘Doce’, which means sweet. Next time, rather than a bottle of port, give Madeira a shot.

Frozen grapes on the vine typically only happens in cold climate countries, Canada and Germany being the most famous for their ice wines. The grapes used are often Riesling, Vidal, Cabernet Franc, Gewurtztraminer. Some Made In Canada picks:

  • Henry of Pelham Cab Franc Ice Wine
  • Inniskillin’s Vidal
  • Tinhorn Creek

A little sweet bubbly never goes astray. Your cheap and fresh recommendation is Moscato d’Asti. Try Cava dulce from Spain and of course there’s much to choose from in the Champagne aisle. Look for “Doux” on the label for the sweetest you can find.

Saving the best until last. I love late harvest anything: Luscious and mouth-watering. Late harvest simply means the grapes were left on the vine longer than a typical harvest in the hopes of developing Nobel Rot, or “Botrytis Cinerea”. Yes, a thing called Nobel Rot is a very good thing when it comes to these grapes and wines. Some of my favourites and must-tries:

  • Sauternes – from the Sauterne wine region in France, these wines are arguably the finest created (made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes). Hunt down a Chateau d’Yquem. You’ll pay dearly, but it’s worth every cent.
  • Tokaji from Hungary, a National Pride. Try Oremus Tokaji Aszu 3 Puttonyos.
  • Late Harvest Riesling – Winery Schloss Johannisberg from the Rheingau is a good place to start.
  • Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc – look for the affordable Errazuriz Late Harvest from Chile.
  • German Wines – check for Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese on the label – these are harder to find specialty items, age-worthy, and absolutely delectable.

Best pairings for some of these luscious wines are some of the best foods that by no coincidence also melt in your mouth: cheese (stilton for Ports, soft cheese for ice wines), rich chocolate, nutty desserts with Sherry works well, or match up sweet or fruity desserts – and foie gras can definitely slip down with it all!

Winter Wines and Comfort Foods

Cornucopia Food and Wine Festival in Whistler

Given the recent blasting of snow on the east coast of Canada and the US, along with some rainy, foggy days of winter in the west, it’s definitely a time to shake off the cold, lock the doors, light the fire and crack into some seriously delicious wines with steaming hot comfort food.

Shorter days with the sun setting at 5pm in most parts of Canada is reason enough for dinner to be relatively quick and easy, but this does not mean the food has to be blazé. And it certainly is no excuse for not balancing your palate with the right wine. Think of it as a reward for your hard day and an escape from the ugliness happening outside. It really does enrich the food experience when you’ve got the right wine to match. And it goes both ways – wine tastes that much better with the right food. It seems a lot of people don’t pay particular attention to food and wine pairing. Maybe it’s a mix of not being properly equipped with the knowledge, a general misunderstanding and plain ol’ laziness after a long day of work. Time to add a few suggestions into the weekly menu rotation and to start to think about balancing meals with wine pairings.

A heaping bowl of pasta is pretty easy for most to whip up after a few hours of shoveling snow. A very easy and basic fresh tomato, basil and parmesan recipe goes a long way when you pair it with the classic match: Chianti. There are a lot out there to choose from, but here’s one that will definitely please: Castello di Bossi, Chianti Classico ($35).

Nothing says comfort food like a big pot of stew. Provided you’ve gone with beef, bring out a big gun like a Syrah, a Zin or a Cab. Try this: Cote-du-Rhone Domaine de la Veille Julienne ($30). There’s a savoury note in the wine that brings out the salt in the dish.

Homemade soup is always an easy bet. Make it when you have the time and stick it in the freezer for those nights when all you really want is to polish off a whole bottle. Whether it’s roasted pepper, leek and potato, or hearty vegetable, piping hot winter soups would be fantastic with this 80-year-old Grenache vines wine Capcanes Vall del Calas ($25)

How about a little roast chicken dinner? A Sunday meal on a Wednesday sounds good. Pop a few herbs, onion and garlic in the chicken and the roaster, cover the chicken in butter and huck in a pile of veg. The oven does the rest. A beautiful red with soft tannins to pair with this dish is the Vietti Tre Vigne Barbera d’Alba ($45). Keeping with the softer tannins, try a Merlot or a fruity Beaujolais. Whites that work are dry Rieslings, Alsatian Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Some would consider making a traditional cassoulet without duck confit is sacrilege, but a vegetarian cassoulet dish can be as tasty. I’m not a veggie, I love my meat, but either way you definitely have to enjoy it with a French wine. A Burgundy or Rhone Valley works. The classic for this dish is a Gigondas – a well-balanced, full body red from Southern Rhone.

Ordering something spicy for take-out? Forget about the reds. People who love their red wine have a hard time getting around this one, but it makes such a difference if you head straight for a Gewürztraminer with spicy food. Gewurtz means ‘spice’ in German, so there is something to the madness. Choose a wine that is refreshing with crisp acidity and also look for wines leaning toward off-dry. You need a wine that can cut through the heat and the spice of the dishes. My personal favourites include German and Alsace Rieslings. There are several levels of sweetness in these wines. Lucky for you: to find the one that suits your taste, you get to try them all. Bubbly and rose are great choices for spice as well.

I, for one, have occasionally resorted to the straight-up chocolate and cheese dinner. It’s incredibly liberating, not to mention satisfying. Taste-test the various dark chocolate options in your grocery and pop into your local cheese shop for a few samples of soft, hard and stinky. You are sure to melt your mouth with a side dish of Late Bottled Vintage Port.

Creating a list of dishes with one wine choice for each can be a challenge. There are so many great wines to try. This is a barely-touching-the-surface starter list. Let me know what you’ve paired and tried. I’m always up for getting through some tough home work assignments.

Navigational Nightmare Made Easy

Sonoma Wine TourFinding your way through dusty aisles, stacked shelves and a blur of labels to choose that perfect bottle with the ideal price tag has to be one of the more challenging shopping experiences. Ah yes, navigating the wine shop. Picking a wine can be intimidating and daunting. It’s right up there with painting on new jeans or examining the “fit” of a potential bikini in the change room.

And even if you know a little bit about wine and have been in the same wine shop a hundred times, we’ve all wandered the aisles aimlessly trying to find a sign of inspiration.

Shopping for wine is supposed to be a fun event, not an overwhelming one. There are a few things to do and consider in conquering this wine store conundrum. First things first: find your people. Take some time to visit all of the wine stores near your work and home. It will be evident which ones you prefer just based on the vibe. Once you get to know these stores, and the wine, and the prices of course, chances are you’ll go with the location that has the best selection and valued wines for you. And like any kind of store, you’ll return to the place you want to give your business to because of how it makes you feel.

Quick Checklist

Before heading out to buy wine, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What’s the wine for: easy drinking or paired with a meal?
  • What’s on the menu?
  • Is the wine for yourself, a generic gift or are you buying for a wine aficionado?
  • And most importantly, what is your budget?

If you know the answers to these questions, you’re ahead of the game before crossing the doorstep.

“Can I Help You?”

We spend so much of our days on the phone and emailing – communicating online and on mobiles has taken over 24-7. So when we walk into any store, a lot of the time we just want to be left to our own devices. However in a wine shop, you most definitely should speak with the people that work there. Typically they are extremely helpful, they have a wide range of knowledge and chances are they love wine more most (they are working in a wine shop after all). Ask for help. Tell them how much you want to spend and for what or whom the wine is intended. They will point you in the right direction and a lot of the time will introduce you to a wine you have yet to try.

My Region, My Country

Most wine stores are organized by country and region, with some form of signage. Occasionally you will wander into a store that has chosen to display their wines in another fashion, such as by grape varietal, which can be helpful but comes with its own challenges. Have a look around to see if the organized creative chaos suits your style. Generally speaking it’s much easier to scan for wine when it’s organized by country, which most stores are. Wines are often shelved based on price as well with the higher price points at eye level. Pay attention to those small labels on some wines called “shelf talkers” – they give you the Coles’ Notes on the wine; things like what’s in the wine, what it best pairs with, a rating and discount information. Every store varies but once you find the store you enjoy, you’ll get to know what’s what soon enough.

You’ll likely find both red and white under most countries. Know what you like or don’t like. Reading and understanding wine labels from every wine region of the world takes time and effort (and drinking!). Again, talk to a staff member. If you need a ready-to-drink chilled white or sparkling, there are normally a few gems to choose from in the cooler section. Some specialty stores have a “staff’s picks” section – definitely check this out. It often means good wine at great value, chosen by the experts. And if you really want to spend the bucks, there’s always a few Barolos and Brunellos behind lock and key!

What Was The Name Of That Wine…?

How many times have you stumbled around a wine store hunting for that label you know you will recognize when you see it? When you find a good wine, record it. There’s an app for that. Or get a Moleskine. Whatever your preference, start to take notes. This way you’ll have your favourite go-to wines right at your fingertips. I use an iPhone and I like to snap the labels of the wines I like (or don’t like) wherever I am – this makes it easy when shopping for wine. Check out Wine Snob which allows you to record the image of the label and the details of a wine, plus your own tasting note, in less than a minute. The Wine Guide is an app of reviews and ratings from Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s editors – literally a wine expert in your hands. I also use an app for tracking and storing wine called Cor.kz powered by CellarTracker – easy and excellent.

In short, being surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine has to be a good thing. The real trick to feeling comfortable and confident in a wine store is quite simple: buy and drink more wine!

Update: Great tip from Madeline re a new Moleskine wine journal – it’s about time! Get it via Amazon here.

Fancy Cars and “Select” Wines

Warning: When tasting delectable wines in a Mercedes-Benz showroom, spit as much as humanly possible. At the end of the night, you’re walking out with at least a case of wine… oh, and look: it comes in the truck of a shiny new S65 AMG Sedan. How did that happen? (Oddly, I now know what a S65 AMG Sedan is.)

Select Wines has it going on. As a pre-holiday tasting event, the Canada-wide agency held a customer appreciation night this week in Vancouver at the Mercedes Benz dealership in Kits. Oo-la-la. Smart move. What else gets you in the mood to pick up a case or 2 other than flashy hot-rods, a shiny black grand piano crankin’ out not-sick-of-them-yet Christmas tunes and several stations of big reds, crisp whites and happy bubbly to keep the room buzzing for hours? This was a great event. Small, casual and nicely orchestrated by the fine people of Select who kept those glasses full…

They had a selection of about 15 wines in total. We were greeted at the door with a little bubbly to kick it off – their Piper-Heidieck Brut Reserve ($55.98 | #462432) – excellent start to the evening. After we wandered through the dangerously available for spontaneous radical purchasing autos, we hit the whites and enjoyed a classic Riesling, 07 from Hugel, Alsace ($24.99 | #365486), the Wither Hills straight-down-the-middle classic Kiwi Sauvy B. ($18.99 | #493619 ), and the seemingly more trendy wine of 2009: a 07 Grüner Veltliner from Austria’s Salomon Undhof ($26.99 | #843045) – nuts and honey, fantastic mouth-feel.

Moving into the reds, there were 10 on hand and we of course tasted a healthy portion of each one. Here were a few of my big-body fav’s:

  • 06 Sicilian Merlot Collezione di Famiglia. Full body, chocolatey, balanced, smooth, smooth, smooth. Nice to discover from the south of Italy. Great for any heavy sauce or meaty Christmas dish ($19.99 | #760223)
  • 05 Barbaresco Ricossa – Great value for this big-bodied, complex guy ($21.99 | #929406)
  • 07 Firesteed Pinot Noir – One of the better valued new world Pinots under $25, thanks to those Oregon winemakers who know a thing or two on old world Pinot style ($22.99 | #361782)
  • 06 Shiraz Viognier from Yering Station in Oz – this was my favourite of the night. A great find. It’s got a pleasantly unsuspecting mouth feel and an intensity from different directions, giving way for varying flavours. A must try. ($26.99 | #699785)

Thankfully, plenty of wine and hours later, we didn’t end up with a car. We did however end up with a Christmas mixed case of great wines. Thanks to everyone at Select, especially Risha, and to the Mercedes crew for a very memorable night.