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VQA Wines to be sold at Farmer’s Markets

A small step towards loosening the tight regulatory environment…

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The Ontario Government announced this week that it will begin to allow sales of VQA Ontario wines at farmers’ markets across the province. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Premier and Minister of Agriculture and Food, has been the impetus behind the move. “I’m committed to supporting this innovative industry and I encourage consumers to choose Ontario wines first. They’re local, they’re good for our economy, and they support good jobs”, says Wynne.

While the details of when and exactly how wine sales will be integrated into markets have yet to be determined, “anything that expands distribution is good” says Wine Council of Ontario president Hilary Dawson in a phone interview. “We don’t know the details yet”, said Dawson, “but this is happening. The Wine Council has received an official letter from the government to attend a meeting in January with responsibility stakeholders like the Attorney General’s Office and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario”.

Essentially, what is being proposed is an add-on endorsement to an existing winery license. Wineries are permitted to sell their wines from their own premises, and in some cases from satellite outlets. The endorsement would simply expand a winery’s retail channels to include farmers’ markets. Any concerns that this move may lead to illegal trading are thus largely unfounded. As Dawson points out, “I think most wineries will be diligent in following the rules since their full winery license is at stake.”

Most local wineries have welcomed the news. “We’re farmers after all”, says winemaker Norman Hardie. “Having local wines sold alongside local foods will only serve to reinforce the connection to our land. Besides, it makes perfect economic sense. The sale of local wines puts many times more money back into the local economy relative to the sale of imports”.

Michele Bosc, Director of Marketing for Château des Charmes agrees: “Any opportunity to have our wines more readily available to consumers is a good thing. We are especially keen on linking local food to local wine and farmers’ markets are an ideal setting to do so. The local food movement has become mainstream so now we have to work to have VQA wines also to be mainstream in the minds of Ontario consumers.”

Doug Whitty, owner of both a private farm market and 13th Street winery, has some experience in the matter and has likewise greeted the news positively. “At our own winery and farm market, we experience many more customers, especially young people, who seek to make this connection as they include Ontario VQA wines and local food as part of a lifestyle that is fun, healthy, educational and promotes sustainability”, says Whitty.

Other local wineries are more skeptical, however. “In my humble opinion this is a bone being thrown to small wineries who are having difficulty getting shelf space in the LCBO/Vintages stores and to appease the LCBO privatization lobby”, writes Harald Thiel, owner of Hidden Bench, via email.

Thiel would like to see a more significant change to the VQA retailing landscape, suggesting instead to reserve shelf space in the LCBO for “100% Ontario wines”, and restricting the sales of all non-VQA Cellared in Canada wines (or “CICs”, wines made from a blend of local and imported wines), “to only the dedicated channels of those wineries that benefit from that license [to produce import blends]”, a reference to winery-owned stores such as The Wine Rack, owned by Constellation Brands. “That was the original plan under the 1993 free trade agreement. 2003 was to be last year when both channels were to be available to CIC wineries”, reminds Thiel.

Even those who support the Wynne government’s announcement question the viability of selling their wines at farmers’ markets. “It’s hard to say if this is a good opportunity or not as there is so much regulatory work that needs to be worked out by the government. And we are such a highly regulated industry it is never a straight line,” says Paul Speck, President of Henry of Pelham Winery.

Doug Whitty agrees that it will be logistically challenging and echoes Thiel’s concerns: “there are significant costs to selling at farmers markets and these costs, coupled with limited days and hours available for retail operations within them, may limit participation. This announcement is welcome but it certainly does not address the continuing need for increased retail market access for Ontario VQA producers in the province.”

Among the many questions to be answered include which farmers’ markets will be eligible. “Obviously the government wants to avoid someone throwing up a fruit stand at the end of their driveway in order to sell wine”, Dawson tells me. There’s also the question of how space will be allocated at highly coveted markets like St. Lawrence, the Brickworks, or St Jacobs, which are already at capacity in any case.

Another hurdle is the fact that most markets open long before alcohol can legally be sold or sampled in Ontario. Will wine sales be prohibited until after 10am, and sampling until after 11am?

And even if sampling is permitted, Thiel for one doubts that farmers’ markets provide any real opportunity for premium wines, considering the sampling costs in relation to projected sales. There’s also a high risk of “depremiumization” of a brand. Most winery principals agree that offering samples of premium Ontario wine in plastic or other disposable cup on a hot, busy summer outdoor market day, for example, is far from ideal. And serving in proper glassware brings a new range of logistical challenges such as transporting, storing, and washing the glasses. “Can you imagine premium brands like Roumier, Pierre Yves Colin, Ponzi or Anthill selling at a farmers markets?” questions Thiel.

Additional considerations include whether a winery stall will be required to have hard walls, or other restrictions on the physical space imposed in order to control access to alcohol, whether wineries will be permitted to group together save on costs or gain access to markets, how wine will be shipped and warehoused, and whether a winery principal will be required to be on hand to sell (as opposed to a winery representative or hired worker), as some markets demand from their food farmers.

But, “let’s not make this too complicated,” urges Dawson. “Too many conditions will limit participation”.

Although this is viewed as a minor victory for VQA Ontario wine, it can be also viewed as a small step towards loosening the tight regulatory environment surrounding the sale of alcohol in the province. As Dawson points out: “if the government can feel comfortable doing this, than other changes are possible”.

Stay tuned for more details on this story in January 2014.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for July 6th 2013

Why the National Wine Awards are Consistent; New VQA Wines to Love and Top Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week I share some thoughts on the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada put on last week in sunny Niagara wine country, and specifically make my case for why the results are as accurate and consistent as they could be. Along the same local theme, I’ve selected a few VQA Ontario wines for consideration, including some old friends and some new-comers (or returners) to the quality game, in time for Canada Day. A half-dozen additional smart buys from July 6th round out the liquid fun.

And the WineAlign Team ‘Gels’:

How to Get Consistent Results in a Wine Competition and Learning By Example

Last week during the judging of the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada in Niagara, as 17 of us tasted out way through 1100 Canadian wines, I gave a lot of thought to the remarkable synchronicity, and much more occasional divergence, between such a large panel of judges. I wondered how it’s possible for so many different people hailing from all over the country to rate wines in such a consistent fashion, often within a point of one another or bang on. Of course, there was much discussion and passionate debate on each panel, but by and large consensus came naturally and no blood or tears were shed before the final scores were sent in. The results, for this reason, I think are extremely consistent. But consistent with what?

It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that wine must have some intrinsic, universal quality, independent of anything that’s not part of the fermented liquid itself. All one need do is observe that quality, good or bad, and quantify it. Since we mostly agreed on good and bad, it must be so.

WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada

WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada

And yet, you and I know that’s not true. It’s impossible to make the argument that wine has any measure of universal quality outside of the observer, appreciable by pure reason alone (in the Kantian sense, that is, the capacity to know without having been shown). Like many of the other panelists, I’ve judged at various competitions around the world. And it turns out, as you’ve guessed, that when you bring people together to quantify the quality of wine, not everyone agrees all of the time. The score swings can be ludicrously wide to the point where you wonder what the point of the process is in the first place. I think that for Kant, to carry on the comparison, wine appreciation would fall under practical reason – action, or in this case appreciation, governed by experience. You can’t know quality until you’ve been shown.

So why did the WineAlign judging team ‘gel’ so easily? It comes down to, as I see it, the fact that we’ve all had similar experience and interaction with the world. We’ve grown up along with the Canadian wine industry and know it intimately. And furthermore, virtually every judge on the WineAlign panel has some kind of formal wine training, and everyone without exception has taught others about wine, often within the same formal frameworks, such as the MS, MW, CAPS, ISG, or WSET programs (which are all variations on the same theme), thus we view wines through the same lens. In other words, wine, like language, is learned by concept, and we were all speaking the same language.

I was fascinated by this idea of concept learning and wine. Technically it can be defined as “the search for and listing of attributes that can be used to distinguish exemplars from non exemplars of various categories.” Sounds very much like working through a flight of wines, distinguishing the ones with the attributes that match a concept of quality within a given category, using the same diagnostic tools. Concept learning is often achieved by training someone to classify objects – wine for example – by showing them a set of example objects along with their class labels. Wine is nothing if not a huge set of labels within certain categories, using the diagnostics of colour, smell, taste and texture, to classify them in a regional and varietal context. Regional classic or outlier, varietally correct or non-representative, good, better, or best, or 85, 90, or 95 point quality. That sounds like precisely the way wine students are taught about wine. “Now here, class, we have a high quality, classic northern Rhône syrah…” That’s called learning by example.

Contemplating the quality

Contemplating the quality

It’s sort of like learning a language, which is also done through concepts (at least according to some linguists). You can be shown a rose, be told that it’s a rose, and then forever more associate the ‘concept’ of a rose with the word rose in sounds and letters. The concept of quality wine is more complicated because of the subjectivity involved – there’s no subjectivity in a rose – a rose is a rose is a rose. Ahh, but how beautiful is the rose?

I’d argue that assigning degrees of quality or beauty to wine or roses can be fairly easily taught and learned. Show someone a beautiful rose or a fantastic wine, and tell them it is so. You’ve established an example. But it doesn’t mean that the degree of beauty or tastiness is universal. The scale only applies among people who share the same concepts of quality and beauty – those with similar context.

Get a group of foreigners in the room, on the other hand, and communication is difficult. They can be speaking a different language, have a different concept of quality, based on how, where, when and from whom they learned their language. As I pointed out, I’ve observed this at various awards competitions around the world when people of widely varying backgrounds are brought together to quantify quality.

So it stands to reason then that since the WineAlign panelist share similar experience – were largely taught, or teach about wine using the same concepts of benchmark wines, and are part of the same generation that has seen the rise in availability and quality of Canadian wine – that the scores arrived at independently during blind tastings should be very close one another.

Judging wine - a collective experience

Judging wine – a collective experience

So what’s the point? How does this affect the results of the WineAlign National Wine Awards to be released later this summer. I’d suggest it means that the results are highly accurate and consistent, within the range of acceptability that the judges have collectively (and unconsciously) set forth for each category. But considering the incredible collective experience of the judges and the intimate knowledge of what Canada does best, I’d say that it’s a range of acceptability/quality/enjoyment worth knowing, even if it’s not the only possible range. Had foreign judges with little knowledge of Canadian wine, or individuals without any formal background or training in wine taken part, the results would surely have been different. Not necessarily better or worse – liking or disliking ultimately depends on the observer. (And it’s always interesting, even important, to get an ‘outsider’s’ point of view to benchmark the range of acceptability once in a while, just to make sure that the train hasn’t slipped off the rails.) But I definitely believe the results would have been less consistent. And in the world of subjective wine appreciation, consistency is king.

VQA Wines Worth Knowing

Château Des Charmes Gamay Noir Droit 2010Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2011Two fine local specialties stood out from the lineup for July 6th. It won’t come as any surprise to most to see the 2011 Hidden Bench Estate Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench ($23.95) listed among the recommendations. Hidden Bench is consistently at or near the top of the heap with much of their range, and Riesling is a strong suit. This ’11 is a fine value, terrifically intense, tense, lively and flavourful, with quivering acids, splendid complexity and lots of mineral 11.5% alcohol makes me want to come back for more.

Another predictable recommendation hitting the shelves July 6th is the 2010 Château Des Charmes Gamay Noir Droit, VQA St. David’s Bench ($16.95). It was a deserving medal winner at the 2013 Ontario Wine Awards and may well be the best edition yet. In case you missed the story, it’s made from a gamay clone that’s unique to the estate; it grows particularly straight shoots, hence the name ‘droit’, so baptized by Paul Bosc Sr. back in the 1980s when he discovered it growing amongst other gamay vines in his vineyards. The 2010 edition is a solid and densely packed wine as far as gamay goes, with a nose full of lush dark fruit like blackberry and black raspberry. It’s made without oak, and is slightly reductive off the top (like roasted root vegetables), so I find that time in the glass or a quick carafing before serving opens up the aromatics nicely. Tannins are ripe and plush and the palate comes across as meaty and generously proportioned, without sacrificing the freshness and lively acids that make gamay so appealing.

Fielding Pinot Noir 2010Peninsula Ridge Sauvignon Blanc Wismer VineyardI was pleased to see the Fielding Pinot Noir 2010, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore ($24.95) take a jump up in quality over the 2009 in my view, and the estate seems to be reaching a new level of quality (their 2012 gamay is terrific). I don’t think this is one for the cellar, but I very much enjoy the bright red berry fruit, floral and pot pourri notes, and integrated barrel spice – a pinot for fans of mature savoury styles.

Peninsula Ridge appears to be another winery happily returning to form, that is, if the Sauvignon Blanc Wismer Vineyard 2012, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($19.95) is anything to go on. There was a dip in quality (particularly in the sauvignon range) following the departure of Jean Pierre Colas in 2009, but this 2012 from the highly regarded Wismer Vineyard delivers solid grip and evident intensity. I like the way this has maintained the appealing lively and crisp side of the variety, without slipping into the tropical fruit cocktail spectrum of flavours that was a danger in the warm 2012 vintage. Really fine length and well done all around. I can only hope this level of quality is the new standard.

Pondview Estate Winery Bella Terra MeritageAngels Gate Pinot Gris 2011I can’t recall when I last recommended a wine from Angels Gate, but their Pinot Gris 2011, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($14.95) is well worth a look for fans of the true ‘gris’ Alsatian style at an attractive price. It comes across as an almost late harvest style with deep golden colour and plenty of honeyed fruit, dried peach, ginger spice and toasty-leesy notes. Impressive flavour and complexity for the money all in all.

Pondview Estate is another new addition to my quality radar, based on the strength of the 2010 Bella Terra Meritage, VQA Four Mile Creek ($39.95). It’s terrific to see Pondview hitting such quality highs so early on. Four Mile Creek is one of the warmest, and therefore best-suited sub-regions in Niagara for Bordeaux-style blends, and this 2010 Meritage, a blend of 50-50 cabernet franc and sauvignon, is a fine example. I appreciate that the temptation to over-oak and over extract in this warm vintage was avoided, as this retains a good dose of fresh, leafy, floral cabernet franc character, though neither greenness nor leanness. Really lovely, drinkable stuff here.

Closson Chase Chardonnay 2011Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2010Closson Chase is more familiar in these pages, and the next bottle to track down is the 2011 Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay, VQA Prince Edward County ($29.95). The home County vineyard has by now earned a proven track record of quality, and indeed pound-for-pound, I frequently prefer Deborah Paskus’ PEC chardonnays to the Niagara bottlings. Her predilection for super low-yielding, very ripe grapes works very well here, yielding chardonnay that has uncommon density and richness, with the mineral backbone and acidity to balance that is occasionally absent in Niagara. This comes across as a slightly late harvest style with the signature elevage-over-fruit profile, though there is plenty of ripe orchard fruit flavour to be sure and a vague impression of sweetness, such is the glycerous texture and concentrated nature of this wine.

Syrah/Shiraz from Ontario continues to surprise. By all logic it shouldn’t be planted here, and yet example after example defies all reason, that is, if your concept of quality includes the cool climate profile of smoke and pepper, such as you’ll find in tasty Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2010, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($19.95). This is a zesty, lively, fresh and highly drinkable example, though wood influence is a little dominant at the moment, so tuck this in the cellar for another year for better integration.

Smart Buys from July 6

Click through my top picks this week and you’ll find a cracking pair of southern hemisphere sauvignons, an unctuous single vineyard grüner veltliner, a riveting northern Italian red made from none of the expected grapes, and a mature and savoury mourvèdre from arguably the best spot on the planet to grow the grape.

That’s all for this week. To get you thinking about Canadian wine for Canada Day, my WineAlign colleague, Janet Dorozynski has proclaimed today (June 28) as the first Canadian Wine Day on Twitter (#CanadianWineDay). What will be in your glass today?

John Szabo MS

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links to find all of John Szabo’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

From the July 6, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
All Reviews

Photo credits: WineAlign and Jason Dziver Photography

Stags' Leap Winery Viognier 2012

Tinhorn Creek - Free Shipping

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Made in Ontario

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Impress your visitors from away with these three well-priced, made in Ontario beauties. Find them via

Flat Rock Riddled Sparking 2008
LCBO No. 187377; $29.95 (91 Points)
Made from grapes grown in Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench area, this sparkler boasts a modern, non-traditional crown cap. A great Champagne alternative for a lot less money, it has a toasty biscuity bouquet taht carries through on the palate. Medium bodied with good fruit, it’s a refreshing way to start a meal.

Chateau des Charmes Old Vine Riesling 2008
LCBO No. 277228; $16.95 (91 Points)
Its wins — Ontario Wine Awards white wine of the year, best in show at Toronto Gold Medal plates — are well deserved. This riesling from the winery’s most mature vineyards is forward, fruity with great minerality and a touch of classic fusils. Its tangy lemon, lime and mineral flavours are rounded nicely by a bit of sweetness. Perfect for Thai, Indian or other exotic spiced dishes.

Inniskillin Winemaker’s Series Montague Pinot Noir
LCBO No. 997353; $24.95 (90 Points)
Inniskillin’s Montague Vineyard pinot noir is an excellent value, well-made red that rarely disappoints. Grown in Niagara’s Four Mile Creek area, it’s medium bodied with supple tannins. Cherry aromas and flavours, well-integrated oak and a fine acidity make it an all-round pleaser for lighter meats, duck or goose.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages Sept 10th Ontario Release – Sparkling Success, 2009 Pinots, Fine Unoaked Chardonnay, 2010 Rieslings, Baffling Red Blends and Ontario Wine Events

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Ontario wines take over the LCBO’s promotional cycle this month under the Go Local banner, so Vintages has prepared a special mini-release of 20 wines on September 10.  Actually, many stores have released the wines already so you may not need to wait until Saturday. Check availability at your local store via WineAlign.

This release is taking place amid a provincial election campaign at a time of growing public and political pressure for Ontario to expand the distribution network for Ontario’s increasingly numerous and improving wines.  PC leader Tim Hudak, MPP Niagara West-Glanbrook, is a vocal proponent.  It says right there on page 10 of the Conservative’s platform called ChangeBook that “we will increase market access for Ontario VQA wines”.

I’m all for that, but at the very least Ontario needs private stores that sell only Ontario wine – just as has successfully been done in British Columbia for years.  And while we’re at it, how about an equal number of private stores for international wines, again as in B.C.  I want complete price and selection freedom for all wines, and Ontario VQA stores are a first step in the right direction, a toe in the door.  Government should not be in the business of selecting which brands we can buy, where we can buy them, or at what price. Its only roles should be licensing, taxation, product safety and label integrity. But until that fine day…

Vintages mini-release takes a good run at presenting very good (two excellent) Ontario wines that snuggle in Vintages comfort zone of $15 to $30.  Ontario’s very best cost more than that. The selection is however an accurate snapshot of where Niagara stands (no PEC or LENS wines this time) in terms of price/quality ratio, styles and important grape varieties. It is also a good reflection of what might be considered a typical span of Ontario vintages, with a difficult rainy year (2008), a high acid, cool year (2009) and a hot, dry year (2010).  Each vintage favours some varieties and styles, and makes others less appealing. It’s complicated out there, so stayed tuned.

Sparkling Success

At the end of August I judged the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards in Halifax. The results are weeks away but I can tell you that there was true excitement among the judges over the evolving quality of Canadian sparkling wine. And my excitement is reflected by all three wines on this release.  Ontario has the right climate (cool), soils (limestone) and grape varieties (chardonnay and pinot noir) to make fine sparklers – just like Champagne in France.  Ontario bubblies are finding true energy, vitality and finesse, with increasing flavour depth and complexity as vines and winemaking mature. 13TH STREET PREMIER CUVÉE ($29.95) is the excellent work of one of the industry leaders. Although now guided by the hand of J.P. Colas, this winery first started making serious, traditional method sparkling wine over a decade ago.  I was also impressed by the quality attained in VINELAND RESERVE BRUT ($19.95) by using the cheaper charmat method, wherein the second fermentation occurs in a capped, pressurized tank instead of in the bottle.  And the delicate ANGELS GATE ARCHANGEL PINOT NOIR BRUT ROSÉ ($25.00) demonstrates that our field of sparkling expertise is widening, with veteran winemaker Philip Dowell now in the arena as well.
13th Street Premier Cuvée  Vineland Reserve Brut 2008  Angels Gate Archangel Pinot Noir Brut Rosé 2008

Impressive 2009 Pinot Noirs 

The long, cool 2009 growing season proved difficult for later-ripening red grape varieties, but earlier ripening pinot noir fared well.  I have tasted most of Ontario’s 2009 pinots by now and I am quite impressed. Not by their weight or ripeness, but by their tension, elegance and what I call their classic cool climate cran-cherry fruit profiles.  They are highly strung to be sure thanks to 2009’s acid levels, but I suspect that they will live long. There are four 2009 pinots in this release and all are worth exploring.  LE CLOS JORDANNE 2009 VILLAGE RESERVE PINOT NOIR ($30.00) is the one to consider for the cellar; about as ripe and well stuffed as you will find in 2009 although edgy and a tad green indeed on the finish. This is the first glimpse of the long awaited 2009 Le Clos Jordanne pinots, with at least five more to come this fall from specific vineyard sites. With the Village Reserve is a barometer, I expect they will all crack the 90 point level. Other very good pinots on the release in include the intense COYOTE’S RUN 2009 RED PAW VINEYARD PINOT NOIR ($24.95) and cellar worthy LAILEY 2009 PINOT NOIR ($25.00)
Le Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 Coyote's Run Red Paw Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009  Lailey Pinot Noir 2009

Fine Unoaked Chardonnay 
Lailey Unoaked Chardonnay 2010
Given the prominence of chardonnay in Ontario I would have expected more chardonnay on this release. But perhaps it was felt chardonnay already had its turn during the special International Cool Climate Chardonnay event and sale in July.  Anyway, it was a chardonnay that got me most excited, and I was even more impressed that it was an unoaked edition selling for only $16 – LAILEY 2010 UNOAKED CHARDONNAY.  Generally unoaked chardonnay is boring in Ontario, due to a selection – I think – of less good fruit and less ripe fruit with the better material going into the top dog barrel fermented chardonnays.  Winemaker Derek Barnett’s take is exactly what I am looking for in the genre – balance and richness combined with ripe, distinctive and distinguished chardonnay fruit character.  It could be that 2010 vintage is also responsible, but after years of tasting Derek’s wines I also know that few winemakers have a better sense of harmony.  Often this talent is masked by liberal use of oak, but here it stands in plain sight.
Fielding Riesling 2010
Riesling in 2010

Riesling and other aromatic, unoaked whites are usually the first wines released in any given vintage. In what is being hailed as another excellent, warm, dry and ripe year, I am not ecstatic with the rieslings so far. They are plenty powerful, complex and ripe, but they are also a bit thick, soft, sweet and sometimes lazy.  Riesling should be like a marathoner, not a couch potato, so to me 2009 was a better riesling year.  That said FIELDING 2010 RIESLING  ($18.95) is a very good example, having a sense of tenderness, polish and purity I have come to expect from winemaker Richie Roberts. Actually the style has been evident through three winemakers at Fielding, but Roberts has honed it best. It is the kind of riesling that will sip on the patio (not the couch) then carry to the table.

Baffling Red Blends
Vintage Ink Mark Of Passion Merlot/Cabernet 2009
Two things baffle me about the avalanche of new lower-priced, concept and lifestyle blends now breeding like bunnies in Ontario wine country. (It’s like Australia’s critter phase).  The first is why people buy them when the price/quality ratio is average.  In reality most are leftover stews not works of dazzling creativity. I know, I know – the younger generation to whom they are pitched can’t afford more expensive wines, and they are more likely to buy a label concept than a grape variety.  Which leads me to bafflement number two.  What in the name of common sense are some of this labels saying?  Take VINTAGE INK MARK OF PASSION 2009 MERLOT/CABERNET ($17.95), which is a new concept blend by Vincor Canada. I don’t get the ink to wine connection at all – both liquids maybe?  Or is that very lack of connection actually the selling feature – like naming a rock band?  So maybe I should just stick to what’s in the bottle. In this case, this is a well made 2009 Ontario red, but a sour-edged 2009 red nonetheless, despite efforts to mollify the acidity with gentle oak and fairly well polished tannin.  A decent value at $13.95 wine, not $17.95.  And it’s the same story with Henry of Pelham’s new Family Tree 2009 Red, also priced at $17.95.

Wine Country Ontario Comes to the Ritz September 19

Looking for a chance to sift through these wines, and hundreds more, for yourself?  The annual Taste Ontario event comes to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Monday, September 19 with an afternoon trade event (registration required) and a public evening event (tickets required).  Over 150 wines will be poured by over 50 wineries from Niagara, Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore. Go to

A Pinot Affair October 15-16

Wherein eight Niagara pinot noir producers present eight different winery-based events focused entirely on pinot noir.  A $40 Passport ticket gets you into a variety of pinot experiences from the vineyard and winemaking, to barrel blending, to horizontal single vineyard tastings to vertical tastings. Wineries involved are Coyote’s Run, Hidden Bench, Inniskillin, Lailey, Le Clos Jordanne, Malivoire, Rosewood and Tawse.  For programs and tickets go to

Sip and Savour Ontario at Steam Whistle October 19

If you can’t make the Taste Ontario event in Sept you get another chance to dip into the Ontario wine pool at Sip and Savour Ontario, being held Wednesday, October 19 at the Steam Whistle Brewing Company at the foot of the CN Tower. This is the annual showcase of the Ontario Wine Awards that has usually been held in June. For tickets and info go to .  This year it is also a fundraiser .
That’s it for now. Watch again next week for my take on Vintages, Sept 17th release with a focus on 2008 Bordeaux.
David Lawrason
VP of Wine

See all my reviews from September 10th here.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

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Caroline Granger is a model winemaker

As a model, Caroline Granger’s first professional gig was a shoot for French Vogue with legendary photographer Arthur Elgort. These days, the model-turned-winemaker doesn’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 cases — that’s about how many of estate production wine The Grange of Prince Edward County, her family winery, produces annually.

Granger became a Ford model in 1978 at age 16 and had a successful career based in Paris for nearly a decade but she no longer counts calories; instead, she counts down the days until picking (13 — when they start harvesting the grapes for sparkling wine Sept. 20, a week later for the rest).

Read the rest of this entry »

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Steve’s Top Wine Values at LCBO – Focus on Ontario Wines

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

WineAlign launched a new monthly report on September 1st: Top 50 Value wines from LCBO. We were delighted with the feedback we received; it seems everyone appreciates high quality wines at a low price. However we did hear from many Ontario wine lovers who wanted to know why local wines did not feature more prominently.

Ed Madronich Since this month the LCBO is sponsoring the campaign Go Local, I thought I would search our database of reviews to find the best wine values from Ontario wineries. On launching Go Local, Wine Council of Ontario Chair Ed Madronich said “Ontario wines are really taking hold with consumers, thanks to LCBO’s support, the quality products being produced by our winemakers and more shoppers taking pride in supporting local producers,” he continues, “It’s great to see our wines front and centre at LCBO stores, including many wines from 2007, probably the best vintage ever for Ontario wines.”

There are many reasons for supporting local companies; they employ our friends and neighbours, contribute many dollars to our economy and drive a valuable tourism industry along with Ontario hotels and restaurants. Over the last ten years as a regular judge at the Canadian Wine Awards I have witnessed an unprecedented and rapid improvement to the quality of Ontario wines. This year at this competition there were many excellent wines vying to be the best  in every category and choices were more difficult than ever. Whereas five years ago there was usually a clear winner, this year many panels were spoilt for choice and opinions divided as to which was the best. This is so encouraging and Ontario wineries are rightly proud to have made this transformation.

The Ontario wine industry is, and will probably always be, tiny when compared to giants like France, Italy and Argentina, where economies of scale mean production costs are low.  So little of our country is suitable for grape growing, though global warming is increasing that area. As a result of advanced logistics, like containerisation, a packaged product such as wine can be shipped very inexpensively and efficiently from the other side of the world; today transportation costs form a small part of the price of a bottle in the LCBO’s stores.

Moreover wineries and grape growers in Ontario have to buy land at high prices since they compete with golf courses and real estate for the use of that land, plus they have to pay high labour costs to attract the best employees. As a result of these factors among others, it is a fact that wine production is a high cost business in Ontario and it is and will probably always be difficult to produce inexpensive wine that will compete with other low cost countries.

However there is value at all price points and Ontario is doing well at the higher quality levels. Our assessment of value is based on the ratio of quality, as measured by our subjective scores and the cost of the wine. We have a sophisticated mathematical model that compares the thousand or so wines at the LCBO and finds the best values. Our first report detailed 50 wines of average price around $9.50, a tough price point challenge for VQA wines.

Here are some value picks from Ontario wineries at LCBO: Wayne Gretzky Estates made some very good wines in the bumper 2007 vintage which are now in the stores, among these Wayne Gretzky Estates No 99 Cabernet Merlot 2007 VQA $15.95 is great wine at a good price with its lush red and black fruit, structure and length.  The Malivoire White 2008 VQA $13.95  is on sale at LCBO as a limited time offer (LTO) until October 10th and so is better value than usual. The Vineland Estates Dry Riesling 2008 VQA $13.95 is consistently, vintage to vintage, one of the best value rieslings from Ontario and the 2008 is especially good. A fourth good value wine Inniskillin Cabernet Merlot Varietal Series 2007 VQA $12.95, is also on LTO until Oct. 10th adding to its value appeal.

Wayne Gretzky Estates No. 99 Cabernet Melot 2007 Malivoire White 2008 Vineland Estates Dry Riesling 2008 Inniskillin Cabernet Merlot Varietal Series 2007

Given its high cost nature several Ontario wineries have developed a method for producing inexpensive wine. They import wine in bulk from low production cost countries and blend this with a proportion of locally made wine. These wines are designated Cellared in Canada (CIC) since they are indeed cellared here but usually have 70% foreign content, whereas VQA wines are 100% from locally grown grapes. The LCBO’s shelves are full of these products, now clearly separated from VQA wines and they form an important part of LCBO and ON winery revenue. So if you want cheap wine but also want to support local industry to an extent, this is a category to consider.

Here are a couple of CIC wines that are worth seeking, both are on LTO until Oct. 10th adding to their appeal. Pelee Island Shiraz 2009 CIC $8.95 comes to us from one of Ontario’s largest wineries. It is pure, fruity with good varietal character and is well structured with surprising length for such an inexpensive wine. Andrew Peller, the largest Canadian owned winery, is responsible for XOXO Shiraz Cabernet CIC $8.95  which is a fullbodied strongly flavoured red well extracted with very good length.

Pelee Island Shiraz 2009 Xoxo Shiraz Cabernet

Look out for our monthly update to Top 50 Value Wines from the LCBO on Monday October 4th. Recently listed wines, new vintages, price changes and LTOs all combine such that the Top 50 is always changing.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview – Sept 18th release – Ontario’s Signature Styles & Douro Reds

John Szabo, MS

I’ve written recently here on WineAlign about the Canadian Wine Awards and what I think are the signature styles emerging in Canada, and Ontario in particular, and, well, this Vintages release gets it spot on. Out of 18 Ontario wines on offer here, there are 4 rieslings, 4 chardonnays, 4 pinot noirs, 4 Icewines and 2 sparkling wines. While I may not agree with all of the particulars, I have to say that if LCBO head office had called me to plan an Ontario release (it has yet to snow in the underworld) and gave me 18 spots to fill I would likely have come up with the same plan-o-gram. These are the styles in which Ontario excels, which I buy, and which I drink with pleasure. Obviously there are many excellent wines in other categories, but if you’re talking signature, these are the categories to start with.

That Ontario is a world leader in Icewine there is no doubt. My personal view, however (not necessarily reflected by other WineAlign critics), is that the industry is too reliant on Icewine. There is too much produced, too much of dubious quality, and the market simply isn’t there. True, it’s our only significant export product and the international emblem of the Canadian wine industry, and when it sells the profit margins are extremely attractive, but I wonder how dumping poor quality Icewine in Asia and elsewhere will affect the industry long term. The rest of the world just doesn’t drink much of it; folks love it at the winery tasting bars when it’s free or very cheap, but I wager that the majority that’s actually purchased is destined to be a gift for someone else, or sits in the cellar waiting for that special day that hasn’t come yet. How many glasses of Icewine have you consumed in the last year? (please do comment on this posting and let me know. Maybe I’m dead wrong). At least in the restaurant market, I see sweet wine sales reports and they are not encouraging. Most is given away as a “comp” (not in the restaurants where I have a hand in the beverage program, ‘cause that’s illegal), or sales are tied in to desserts or tasting menus. Otherwise Icewine bottles collect dust.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that Icewine is and should be a signature style for Ontario. There are some glorious examples. But that’s the point. I’d love to see less of it made, more of it of top quality, and tighter controls on which bottles get the VQA seal of approval from the tasting panel. Make it truly the exclusive, prestigious, signature product it has always wanted to be.

Cave Spring Csv Cave Spring Vineyard Riesling 2008All of this is really just my week attempt to justify the fact that I didn’t make it to taste the Icewines in this release. There was simply too much other good wine on which to focus. My top three Ontario picks are unsurprisingly all rieslings, led off by the outstanding 2008 CAVE SPRING CSV RIESLING VQA, Beamsville Bench, $29.95. Always a classic, this old vines wine achieves signature expression in 2008. Château des Charmes delivers the best value Ontario wine, with the killer 2007 CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES OLD VINES RIESLING VQA, Niagara-on-the-Lake, $16.95. This is one of the most compelling 2007 rieslings out there, mature but not tiring as many of the 07s are, delivering beautiful minerality and depth for under $17. Also superb but needing some time in the cellar is yet another ‘old vine’ Riesling,2008 VINELAND ESTATES ST. URBAN RIESLING VQA, Niagara Escarpment, $19.95.

Chardonnay, Ontario’s other signature white variety, puts in a good showing, filling up the next two spots in the top ten Ontario list. The really top stuff is missing from the release, likely due to questions of price or availability or both, but I definitely enjoyed the 2009 FLAT ROCK CELLARS UNPLUGGED CHARDONNAY VQA,Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula, $15.95, a fresh, crisp, Chablis-esque example that goes down real easy, unplugged, unoaked and no batteries required. If you do prefer a little plugging into barrels, then you’ll enjoy the 2008 TAWSE SKETCHES OF NIAGARA CHARDONNAY VQA, Niagara Peninsula, $19.95. Le Clos Jordanne’s 2008 TALON RIDGE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY VQA, Niagara Peninsula, Vinemount Ridge $37.00 is the most ‘serious’ example, which needs another 2-3 years in the cellar to reach peak, I’d estimate.

The disappointment from the release is the selection of pinot noirs. There are some real beauties in Ontario as I have written earlier, but they’re not here, perhaps because of that price/availability thing again. The only one in the top ten is the 2008 NORMAN HARDIE COUNTY PINOT NOIR VQA, Prince Edward County, $35.20, which is a light, delicate, finessed style that’s highly drinkable overall, but lean and leafy at the end of the day. As most know I’m not a bigger-is-better drinker, but for $35 I expect a little more depth and complexity. I know that Hardie’s not pocketing fat margins at our expense – it’s costly to grow grapes in the County – the vines just need to grow older and the sun needs to shine a little more.

Montepeloso Eneo 2006Have a perusal of the non-Ontario wines in the top ten smart buys list. I’ve included some higher-than-usual priced wines, but they still represent value. In particular, fans of Tuscan wines  can’t miss the astonishingly good 2006 MONTEPELOSO ENEO IGT, Toscana $44.95. This was my first encounter with Montepeloso (where have I been all these years?), and just when you rekon that the last thing the world needs is yet another expensive super Tuscan made by some well-heeled foreigner looking to live the Under-the-Tuscan-Sun dream (Montepeloso was purchased from Willi and Doris Neukom in 1998 by the quality-obsessed Swiss-Italian historian Fabio Chiarelotto), along comes this stunner. After a taste of this, I was struck as if by the Ebola virus, immediately and irremediably (although in a better way), and suddenly, I was dreaming of owning a Tuscan property with vines and writing a book. The Montepeloso estate is situated on what some consider to be one of the finest terroirs in Italy, on a gentle, chalky, gravel-clay hillside just above Tua Rita (another famed property) in Suvereto near the Tuscan coast. Eneo is not the top cuvee of the estate, but this montepulciano and sangiovese-dominated blend aged in 2nd and 3rd year barrels is a fantastically pure expression that oozes class at a mini-Tuscan price.

The other mini-theme of the release is Red Hot Douro reds, which merits a section of its own. There are so many outstanding table (dry) wines being produced in the Douro these days that it’s hard to keep track. In some cases the prices have crept above the $100 mark, but the selection here is definitely still in the value category. Even my top pick, the 2007 QUINTA DO CRASTO OLD VINES RESERVA DOC, Douro at $34.95 can be considered extraordinary value, considering the mixed ancient vines parcels on ultra-steep slate slopes where this hails, not too mention the quality of the wine itself. Look for my full article on the wines of the Douro to be posted shortly on WineAlign, originally written for the Sommelier’s Guide to Portuguese wines commissioned by ViniPortugal.

Quinta Do Crasto Old Vines Reserva 2007

Click on the following to see my:
Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Ten Ontario Wines
Top Douro Reds
All Reviews


John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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Top Value Banquet Wines – by John Szabo

John Szabo

Recently I tasted through about 70 100% VQA wines from across Canada in search of the country’s best value wines. The purpose was to select the top VQA examples that would be worthy of showcasing at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for banquets and intermissions.

Since celebrity Chef Michael Blackie took over in the kitchen early last year, the NAC has seen significant changes on all levels and is on its way to becoming a premier dining destination in the nations’ capital. No longer is it an old-fashioned meat-and potatoes menu for quick, pre-theatre sustenance. Blackie has elevated the sophistication of the food to top standards with a very ambitious menu indeed. The wine program, evidently, needed significant revamping and updating to say the least, and I have been working with Chef Blackie and dining room manager Tegan Schioler to bring the beverage side of the operation, including service, to the same level. There is still much to be done, but I’m happy to report that it is going very well. If you haven’t been in a while, be sure to drop in, no theatre tickets required!

Having participated for the last 5 years as a judge in the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards, The country’s best wines are certainly familiar to me. But what was most satisfying was the overall level of high quality and drinkability, knowing that these were all very reasonably priced. VQA wines are often knocked for their poor quality/price ratio relative to international stage, but this tasting belied that belief once again.

In order to select these wines, I sent out a call to tender to Canadian wineries, from which I pre-selected 70 or so samples to be tasted. It was hardly a comprehensive look at all of Canada, and many of the wines I would have liked to see were missing from the lineup, but it was still representative nonetheless. The wines were set up in flights and tasted blind, that is, I knew the style/varietal category and the wines that had been submitted, but not the order in which they were served. Not surprisingly, many of the classic good value Canadian producers emerged, along with a few unexpected surprises. In the end, a dozen whites and ten reds made the cut. Virtually all are under $15/bottles (licencee price), and many are even under $10. In the end it will be the banquet guests and intermission wine drinkers who win; you can bank on a good glass of wine at the NAC. Here are my top picks. Some are available at the LCBO, others are winery direct. If you’re looking for good ‘house wine’, this is a reliable list to start with.


2007 Riesling Off-Dry, Rosehall Run, VQA Ontario

2008 Chardonnay Unoaked, Palatine Hills, Niagara

2008 Chardonnay, Vineland Estates, Niagara

2007 Dry Riesling, Vineland Estates, Niagara

2008 Semi-Dry Riesling, Vineland Estates, Niagara

2008 Riesling Dry, Cave Spring, Niagara

2007 Chardonnay, Cave Spring, Niagara

2008 Sullyzwicker White, Rosehall Run, Prince Edward County

2008 Pinot Grigio ‘Ogopogo’s Lair, Prospect Winery, Okanagan Valley

2008 Sauvignon Blanc ‘Spotted Lake’, Prospect Winery, Okanagan Valley

2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Vineland Estates, Niagara

2007 Chardonnay Estate Bottled, Château des Charmes, Niagara


2008 Huff Estates South bay Vineyards Rosé, Prince Edward County


2008 Lakeshore Red, Palatine Hills, Niagara Lakeshore

2007 ‘Noirs’ (Pinot & Gamay), 13th Street, Niagara

2007 Gamay Noir, Estate Bottled, Château des Charmes, Niagara

2007 Cabernet Franc Varietal Series, Inniskillin, Niagara

2008 Pinot Noir Reserve, Pelee Island, VQA Ontario

2007 Pinot Noir Five Vineyards, Mission Hill, Okanagan Valley

2007 Cabernet-Shiraz, Dan Aykroyd, Niagara

2007 Rosewood Estate Renaceau Vineyard Merlot, Beamsville Bench

2008 Cabernet-Merlot, Pilliteri

2007 Cabernet- Merlot Five Vineyards, Mission Hill, Okanagan Valley

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Cellared In Canada Controversy

There has been lots of discussion recently about Cellared In Canada (CIC) wines. If you don’t know, there is a common international practice of making wine by mixing imported wine from different countries. In Canada there is some controversy around our current labeling standards and the potential for consumers to be confused between wines that are ‘Cellared’ In Canada (mainly foreign wine) and wines made with 100% Canadian grapes (VQA). In keeping with our mission of providing consumers with the most objective information possible, we have created a new Cellared In Canada region and have re-classified all CIC wines from Ontario and British Columbia in this new region. Wines classified as CIC will no longer be presented when you are searching for wines from Canada, Ontario, or BC.

Cellared In Canada Filter

Cellared In Canada Filter

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Big Guns Arrive but the Party Is Over

“The Vintages Sept 26 release starts to trot out the iconic triple-digit wines for the Holiday silly season, particularly from Bordeaux and Napa Valley. I suspect they will move slowly. At a recent lunch with a highly placed Vintages employee, our table learned that Vintages has done very well, better than forecasted during the 2009 recession, with high-priced wines the only area to go flat. I love great wine as much as the next person, and understand it. But it’s really difficult to be sympathetic to the unfolding plight. By that I mean wines whose price soars beyond intrinsic value, as measured by quality. If flush enough with cash, I would actually pay $200 for a 98- to 100-point wine, or $100 for a 95 pointer, or $75 for a 93 pointer. This is a personal measure to be sure, and each has his own, but none of the offerings in this release hit these numbers; the closest being the gorgeous Ornellaia, which, at 94 points, sells for $174. I would love to buy it but I won’t, although I might consider seven bottles of Ornellaia’s peppy 90-point cousin, called Le Volte, for the same outlay. It’s easy to both hype very expensive wines and to harp on them. I just have a gut feeling that for the icons of the world the party is over, at least for the current generation. People are smarter now, and less wealthy, and there is just too much excellent wine being made for much less money. David’s Half Dozen selections in each release do often list very high quality, expensive wines, but this time all are spiffy buys are under $20″

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of close to 100 wines in this release.

David’s Half Dozen


Stocco Friulano Doc Friuli Grave 2008
Stocco Friulano Doc Friuli Grave
Friuli, Italy $14.95  89pts

Ironstone Vineyards Obsession Symphony California 2007
Ironstone Vineyards Obsession Symphony 2007, California  $14.95  89pts


Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Excellence	Ac Costières De Nîmes	2007
Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Excellence 2007, Ac Costières De Nîmes, Rhone, France
$18.95  90pts

Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz Barossa, South Australia 2007
Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz 2007, Barossa, South Australia
$19.95  91pts

Terra Andina Reserva Carmenère	Rapel Valley 2007
Terra Andina Reserva Carmenère 2007, Rapel Valley, Chile  $12.95  89pts

Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2006 Luján De Cuyo, Mendoza
Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2006, Luján De Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina  $16.95  88pts

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008