Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sunny California is Calling…but it’s in Toronto

Every year, a large number of California wineries make their way up to Canada and tour the country presenting their wines for both trade professionals and wine lovers alike to try. At the beginning of April, the California Wine Tour arrives in Toronto at the Fairmont Royal York and fills the room to capacity while GTAers sample the largest selection of California wines under one roof. The wineries come from as far north as Mendocino County, which is north of Sonoma Valley to as far south as Santa Barbara County in the Central Coast region.

Twelve different wine regions are represented – Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, Los Carneros, Lodi, San Fran Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Amador – and the sheer number of wines makes it impossible to try all of them…to even try one eighth of them. So, how do you go about finding that amazing wine that you can picture having with friends and family at your next party? It is not always easy, and it is a little bit daunting when you see the size of this event but IT IS POSSIBLE. If I learned one thing this year at this event is that you need to keep an open mind – my favourite wines of the day came from a winery that, in the past, I had always considered to be silly, laughable, and – essentially – not worth the waste of time. Boy was I ever wrong! With an event this size, you tend to need to do a little bit of research prior to arriving and have a divide and conquer approach once you get through the doors. The California Wine Institute makes the research part very easy to accomplish – more than a month before the event, a list is available on the website announcing which wineries are participating so you have a general idea of who will be attending. A lot of the same wineries return from year to year so when you find a winery you like, it is always a good idea to return the following year to see what they have available in their current releases. When we got to the event, my colleague and I grabbed a tasting book and quickly flipped through the pages to mark off the wineries we wanted to visit. Once that was done we decided to start randomly selecting wineries that we had not already visited in the hopes of finding something really incredible.

Mark’s table of choice was actually two wineries in one – Dierberg Family of Wines and Silverado Vineyards – and what a find that was. There were two Sauvignon Blancs on the table, a Chardonnay to die for and a Syrah to finish it off. The 2006 Star Lane Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc was everything you can expect from a typical Sauvignon Blanc. It had an excellent balance of fruit and acidity with flavours of mandarin orange, lemon and grapefruit making it mouthwateringly delicious. The second Sauvignon Blanc – from Silverado Vineyards in Napa Valley – was a year younger (from the 2007 vintage) and was at the same price point as the first Sauvignon Blanc…around $20 Cdn. There is a lesson to be learnt here – a year can contribute to a lot of changes in the finished product in the bottle and that is never more apparent than with these two wines. The 2007 Silverado Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc was overflowing with aromas of grass, flint and citrus while the palate carried the citrus flavours to the max – honeyed grapefruit, slight hints of fig and melon with a very noticeable presence of Thai lemongrass to round it out. I happened to visit California in 2007 for research on a book I was writing and while I will never forget that 2007 is proclaimed to be the Vintage of the decade in Ontario, the same can easily be said for California.

Now, on to the amazing Chardonnay that was on the table. There was a time, not all that long ago, when Chardonnay from California equated to a heavily oaked, not very interesting, single flavoured wine. Thankfully, times are changing and California Chardonnay’s no longer taste like you are “licking the inside of an oak barrel”. The Star Lane Vineyards 2006 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay was amazing from start to finish. The aromas of this wine are unmistakably fruity – mango, grapefruit and lemongrass are immediately identifiable when you take your first sniff. The flavours continue along the same line with a lot of citrus – mostly lemon – with just a slight hint of cream and hazelnuts. This wine has such amazing balance of the different flavours that the $32 price tag is well worth every penny of it.

As we were finishing up the last wine on the table – the Dierberg Vineyard 2006 Santa Ynez Valley Syrah – we got our tip for our next table, which I will get to in just a moment. The Syrah was almost a contradiction of terms – it was smooth and silky in one taste but then strong and forceful in the next. Almost like yin and yang battling it out for the optimum balance – but in a glass this time. The predominant aroma of grilled meat epitomizes why this powerhouse red always pairs well with steaks and your Mom’s Roast Beef. Adding to the grilled meat aroma was a variety of berry, smoke and herbs. These aromas continued on to the flavours making it a seamless transition in what we are tasting but the struggle between yin and yang on the palate is what made this wine indescribably amazing.

So, what was that tip of our next table to try – it was Bonny Doon Vineyards. For as long as I can remember, Bonny Doon Vineyards had this perception of California jug wine and a very odd website. Well, some people may still call that website odd - my descriptor would be intriguing and maybe a little wacky – but the perception of California jug wine could not be further from the truth. The specific recommendation for this table was their Malvasia Bianca – which is a typical aromatic white wine. Most of the “aromatic whites” produced in Ontario wineries are either Rieslings or Gewurztraminers so it is very refreshing to try an aromatic white wine that is not available in Ontario’s vineyards. Malvasia Bianca is a great combination of floral, melon and citrus notes all combined into one and this one was one of the best wines of the day. The other great wine – and this was Mark’s favourite of the afternoon – was 2004 Le Cigare Volant. You will not find the combination of grapes used in this wine anywhere in Ontario – but they are the combination that makes up the famed Chateauneuf du Pape wines from France. This particular wine was a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault and the aromas were very fruit forward – a wonderful combination of black cherry and raspberry with just a hint of licorice to make it interesting. The flavours are a perfect continuation of the aromas – berry and cherry that continued on to show black raspberry and an herbal backbone. It was silky smooth, and was the perfect balance of flavours, tannins and acidity. This would be great with a wide variety of grilled meats and you could even try a salmon fillet with it if you want
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