Thursday, June 28, 2007

Celebrities Juice Canadian Wines

OK, I know that I've done a fair share of boosting Canadian wines lately, specifically wines of the Niagara Peninsula. Can't help it. I calls 'em likes I see 'em, and the wines in the Niagara region I tried during a recent trip there were very, very good across the board -- we're not just talking ice wines anymore.

I suspect, however, that there won't be any surprise about it in the near future since a few Canadian celebrities are putting their names behind some of these wines. Much as that annoys the purists who believe in the merits of the wines winning the day, I'm afraid star power is a much quicker route to fame and fortune, and Niagara wines are beginning to line up the big marketing guns.

The latest big name to get behind Canadian wines and start his own line of Niagara wines is Wayne Gretzky. And, just a few weeks ago, Dan Aykroyd announced that he was investing heavily in Niagara wines.

Keeping in mind how things work, this is not a bad thing. The wines of Niagara deserve wider attention. There has been a noticeable upturn in the quality of Canadian wines since most have adopted better viticultural practices and learned more about what does best in their respective terroirs. Let's face it, most of just don't know that much about the facts of Canadian wine.

The fact is that Niagara escarpment makes possible many delicious wines on the peninsula. And, British Columbia makes many fine wines as well.

But, what will really put them on the map, I'm sure, is the celebrity component. For some people, the celebrity name in and of itself is enough to get them out of the house and into these wineries. For others, the money celebrities have to invest in quality wines and state-of-the-art wineries is what will turn the region into a real destination. A lot of people are really attracted to the flashy, opulent palaces that many wineries are building these days. Celebrities help make them possible.

Yup, Canadian wines are headed for new-found status in the years ahead, and the way will be paved in part by celebrities. Joni Mitchell Wine, anyone?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Land of Enhancement

Seems like I routinely get SPAM inviting me to enhance one thing or another. But I was surprised recently to see that wines can and should be "enhanced" as well. A couple of days ago, Jim Shea at The Harford Courant wrote a humorous column about a product called The Enhancer.

The Enhancer basically looks like a New Age coaster. Supposedly, you put your bottle of wine on it for 6-12 minutes and any tannins in the wine are softened right out. Forget having to age big wines -- The Enhancer will smooth out the texture and bring out the wine's peak flavors, at least that's what the manufacturer says. And, fringe benefit, it will prevent red wine headaches.

Call me a skeptic, but it all sounds too good to be true. Jim said his test of the product did seem to find some subtle difference in taste between enhanced wine and non-enhanced wine. But as for preventing red wine hangovers, a complete failure, according to Jim. Yet, The Enhancer offers all kinds of testimonials on its website, including one from the almighty Spectator.

It's not cheap, either -- anywhere from $45 for a mini to $150. I'm not inclined to spend that kind of money on something so bizarre, but I am curious as heck to know more about how it's supposed to work. Here's what the manufacturer says:

"It is composed of a combination of organic (epoxy) and non-organic non-magnetic metals (copper and others) placed in a matrix with various crystals (12) also known for their specific vibrational frequencies. This combination of elements produces a powerful field of subtle energy/ frequency. . .Anything placed on the enhancer that has fluid in it will have its atoms resonated by the enhancer and the randomness of that fluid's molecules will begin to harmonize to the specific beneficial, natural frequency."

Very new agey. Now, I take vitamins, drink lots of tea and red wine for health, believe in copper bracelets, and I've read my Dr. Andrew Weil. But I'm still finding this one hard to swallow, er, so to speak. Besides, there already exists a great tool for softening tannins -- it's called a decanter. Hello?

But I'm willing to listen to other consumers, bloggers and non-bloggers alike. Help me out, here. Anyone tried it?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Mother of Direct Shipping

I'm afraid I was too distracted to note properly the passing of a very important person in the lives of wine enthusiasts everywhere -- Juanita Swedenburg. Juanita was a Virginia vintner who had enough of the frustratingly restrictive wine shipping laws so common across much of the country. As a consequence, she became the catalyst behind the case that would go to the Supreme Court in 2005 and begin to unravel many of the restrictions.

These archaic laws would have fallen eventually, but they fell a lot sooner because Swedenburg was a person of clear vision and mental toughness. She took on a very powerful wholesalers alliance in getting her case to the Supreme Court. And, we all owe her a debt of gratitude.

The hodgepodge of state laws that govern wine shipping have not gone away totally. But the Swedenburg case helped usher in a much saner era, since the decision requires states allowing in-state wineries to ship direct to consumers to also allow out-of-state wineries to ship direct to consumers. No more different standards for in-state wineries vs. out of state. Most states responded by opening up their borders to distant wineries, the dream of wine collectors everywhere. A few states went the opposite way in their bid to find equanimity.

Connecticut's wine shipping laws, though not perfect, have changed for the better since the Supreme Court decision, and I know I have Swedenburg, who died on June 9, to thank for it.

I was concerned last year when a couple of out-of-state wineries told me that, though they are legally allowed to ship to Connecticut they would not do so because of exhorbitant licensing fees required by the state. I was perturbed, since the state seemed to be undercutting the sale of out-of-state wines to consumers without actually banning them.

But the state has clarified its position since then, allowing small production wineries (less than 100,000 gallons per year) to pay roughly $350 for permits and licenses. And, consumers are now allowed up to five gallons of wine instead of four gallons.

It's better than it used to be. And, Swedenburg helped make it so. Bless her.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Riesling to the Rescue

Reuters did an interesting story this week that demonstrates riesling is starting to come on strong with the American wine-buying public. It could soon, gasp, compete with chardonnay, the Hulk Hogan of white wines.

Of course, some people don't believe riesling will ever earn that kind of status here in the states. Maybe not, but the numbers tell an interesting story. Riesling sales, for example, in the U.S. climbed 24 percent in a 52-week period that just ended in early May. As a fairly recent convert to the joys of riesling, I'm delighted. But I'm especially excited when I think what this trend could mean for wineries in the Northest.

Having completed a tour of the Finger Lakes wineries in May, I can tell you that the quality of riesling around here is steller. I wasn't surprised by that, considering what I've been reading about Finger Lakes' wines. But I can tell you that when I did a tour of Connecticut wineries last year I was very impressed by the high quality of the rieslings I was finding, and that was a surprise.

That brings me to an interesting point. As I noted in a previous post, some have wondered why the Finger Lakes region is not more widely recognized for its quality. Is Robert Parker correct that the area is likely to remain insular?

I think the rise of riesling nationally is likely to change that. For years, a lot of us have held onto the misperception that riesling is always simple and sweet when, in fact, many critics believe riesling to have the greatest potential for longevity and varietal complexity among white wine grapes. But as more and more of us begin to appreciate that riesling can be vinified in many different styles and that the nose is often explosive with lively fruit and floral notes, many will seek out wines from the regions that make it best and embrace them.

And, that's good news for the Northeast. If consumers like to keep an eye out for a Russian River Valley or Oregon pinot noir, and Napa Valley cabernet, perhaps in the near future they also will aspire to find New York or Washington State riesling. Why not? I have no doubt authors and critics will continue to extol the virtue of these wines, and if consumer interest catches up to critics' enthusiasm, great things are in store for non-California rieslings.

Perhaps we're approaching a time when the most celebrated microclimates for a number of different varietals will be located in many different and unexpected places across the country. Stranger things have happened. Most states are still learning what varietals do best in their climates, so it's still hard to properly gauge what's possible. One thing's for sure -- no state will ever surpass California for winemaking potential overall. But look out for the emergence of new niches across the country for many different varietals.

All I know is that it's summer, a time when my my normal 80-20 preference for reds over whites shifts to something like a 50-50 split. I love crisp white wines for the lighter dishes we prefer in summer. And, the percentage of New York and Connecticut whites I have on hand has never been higher. At the very least, curiosity should take you there as well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hailing a Washington Cab

This month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday, hosted by Catie, was a real treat for me. While the call is for a tasting of Washington state cabernets, I did not have far to go in order to comply. In fact, it was the perfect excuse to run down cellar and grab a delicious wine I've been sitting on for four years. And, it brought back fond memories of our wine tour through Yakima Valley and Walla Walla in the summer of 2003.

We were on our way to an Alaska cruise, and I just knew we had to find time to visit some Washington wineries since we were going to be so close by. We tasted a lot of terrific wines in a largely unspoiled, rustic setting. Among my favorite wines were those of the Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla.

Now, I really enjoy wineries located in bucolic farmland, surrounded by acres of grapevines. But visiting Seven Hills was a change of pace, and an enjoyable one at that. Seven Hills is located in an old, restored industrial building in the heart of downtown Wall Walla. The brick structure gives the winery a hip, urban feel unique to the wider region. We had a delightful tour there courtesy of their Kiwi cellarmaster, and tasted a number of terrific wines.

I carried back and cellared both an awesome syrah and a 2000 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet. Now I remembered the cab as a really rich and delicious wine full of cassis, black cherry and a bit of cedar and cocoa on the nose. It's still very good, but I was sorry to note just a couple of days ago that it may be just a bit past peak.

It still tastes of cassis and black cherry with a bit of earthy complexity, and the tannins have softened quite a bit so that it's drinking quite smoothly. However, I couldn't help but feel that it tasted just a bit faded, as though its just a wee bit tired.

I've tasted enough outstanding cabs in the Walla Walla area to know that these are wines of great body, so seven years shouldn't be much of a challenge to this wine's backbone. But I can't help it -- I'm certain this wine had a bit more power when I first tasted it. Perhaps it did not travel well during the return trip home.

One thing I know, however, is that there are plenty of fantastic wines to try from Washington state. In addition to Seven Hills, we also were very impressed by the wines of L'Ecole No. 41. I also brought some of that home, though that's gone almost two years now. I've got one more special wine from the 2003 trip -- more on that another time.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Shape of Things To Come?

In many people's eyes, winemaking is just an extension of farming. After all, most wineries have their own vineyards and operate tasting rooms out of glorified barns. As Williams Selyem demonstrated years ago, brilliant wines can be made out of one's garage. Nothing fancy about it, except maybe the labels and the price tags.

But there is a winery on the Niagara peninsula that is the embodiment of a completely different perspective, that everything about wines is chic and hip. In fact, everything about the place is meant to convey a sense of the contemporary, if not the future of winemaking. I'm talking about a winery called Stratus.

Coming upon Stratus for the first time in the Niagara countryside is just a bit jarring. It rises up from its humble suroundings as a rectangular, steel and glass box -- with a few barrels out front to reassure skeptics that they have indeed arrived at a winery. It's an urban look built on a largely black and white color scheme that I'm guessing must be meant to draw on today's sophisticated young wine-sipper down from Toronto for the weekend. I've never seen another winery like it anywhere.

Environmentally Friendly
But it's not all about looks. Stratus bills itself as a "sustainable, innovative winery" dedicated to growing and producing limited quantities of "premium wines." Open since 2000, Stratus believes the building says a lot about the product a winery produces, so they have invested in not just a chic, stylish building but one that has the smallest possible environmental impact. In fact, the Stratus winery is the first building in Canada and the first winery anywhere, according to Stratus, to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the Canada Green Building Council. Never heard of 'em, but it sounds good.

The building includes a "high proportion of recycled materials" and energy-efficient windows, roofing, electrical and plumbing systems. Stratus also drilled 24 wells to pump up 55-degree water that is circulated throughout the building to warm it in winter and cool it in summer. Believing in the benefits of a gentle gravity-flow system, the winery is pump-free. Only gravity is used to move the juice through a unique system of elevators that mimic the design of a hillside winery.

The Wines
As for the wines, the 35-acre estate is planted with 13 different varietals, including all the Bordeaux varietals plus syrah, gamay, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, riesling and viognier. In keeping with the gentle-handling, all-natural philosophy, Stratus relies on low yields, no herbicides and picking by hand to cultivate and harvest the grapes. It is reflected in the prices.

You have your choice of a 2006 Riesling for $35, a 2000 Chardonnay for $36, a 2004 Stratus White (blend) for $44, a 2004 Cabernet Franc for $36 or the 2006 Stratus Red (blend) for $44. The 2002 Merlot, for $64, is sold out. And, the 2006 Riesling Icewine (200 ml) goes for $39.

I can tell you that all the wines I tasted were well made, with good body and some complexity. But the issue becomes, are they worth the price? That is, of course, a very subjective line of questioning. Without going off on a rant about upscale prices, I'll just say that most people I know would not buy these wines -- especially the non-varietals. Most Americans, I think, are willing to splurge now and then chiefly for varietal wines (Bordeaux excepted) from hot producers -- wines with cache.

The Stratus blended wines (they call them "assemblage" wines) are decent enough but lacking in the kind of distinction consumers typically look for when spending more than $40. For example, the Stratus White is a blend of chardonnay, gewurztraminer, riesling, sauvignon blanc and semillon that is supposed to be a quite floral wine with spicy apple, peaches and apricot notes. What I tasted was muddled chardonnay. I got the spicy apple and peach, but not a lot else. Don't get me wrong, a good wine but not distinctive.

I'm sure the staff would tell me I'm all wet because this wine is one of their best selling. I would argue that is a result of their unique marketing efforts. It's clear Stratus has a three-fold strategy for selling its wines: convince consumers theirs is an ultra-premium product unlike others, theirs is an environmentally friendly product you can feel good about drinking, and theirs is a product meant for hip, sophisticated consumers who want products to match their lifestyles. As a well-designed winery located less than two hours from Toronto, the strategy probably works just fine for them. But it would not work everywhere.

A lot of the same environmently safe practices are being used successfully in Oregon and parts of California these days, so Stratus is not unique in this respect. But this environmentally friendly, modernistic winery dressed up in designer clothes certainly stands out from the rest in the way they have combined these separate elements. And, if the look and the prices are not exactly my style, it certainly was fun to experience. It's definitely worth a stop -- maybe it will fit your lifestyle.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gold in Palatine Hills

Generally speaking, here in the Northeast I've found that the older wineries make a better product than those newer to the game. But I don't mind being wrong now and then, since it usually means a nice tasting surprise. Such was the case when we visited Palatine Hills Estate Winery during our winetasting tour through the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of Ontario.

Open to the public only since 2003, Palatine Hills is a fairly new winery on the Niagara scene. But they know their grapes. For 30 years, Palatine Hill has been a very successful vineyard that sold its crop to area wineries.

In the late 1990s, they decided to try their hand at producing an ice wine, a specialty of the region. Next thing you know, they've got a prize winner on their hands in the 1998 Vidal Ice Wine. A few years later they hired a full-time winemaker and began producing a full line-up of table wines and ice wines.

I had little to go on when we arrived at the winery on a busy Saturday morning. No one had recommended Palatine to me. During the previous day, I tasted both great wines and poor wines. So I had no expectations to speak of.

But it didn't take many glasses for me to decide that we had stumbled onto some very good wines. The wines at the lower end were all good, if not quite remarkable, including a chardonnay, a fume blanc, a riesling and a gewurztraminer. The gewurz was best.

The Proprietor's Reserve wines were another matter. The Proprietor's Reserve Chardonnay, Meritage and Cabernet were all very good -- at reasonable prices, unlike some other area wineries that sell their reserve wines in the $50 range. The Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet 2002 at $21 was especially interesting, with its cedary, smoky black fruit. It's still tight and perhaps a bit aggressively oaked, but I expect it has fruit enough to show well when the tannins settle down in a couple of years.

I couldn't get over this wine's body and style, so I pressed for more information about it. Next thing I knew I was in quite a conversation with co-owner John Neufeld and was on a personal tour of the winery with John Jr. This 120-acre site features vinifera plantings that go back to the early 1970s, one of the advantages of being a farm property for so long. Consequently, the winery gets plenty of mature, complex fruit with which to make its reserve wines.

This also was our first extended conversation with anyone local about the Niagara Escarpment (see last post), which affords the Niagara peninsula an extra few weeks of growing season each fall -- enough time to give Niagara reds more heft than other nearby wine-producing areas. We also learned that wines get a fair amount of aging time in Hungarian oak as well as French oak -- many wineries these days are turning to Hungarian oak to get similar characteristics as from the French oak but at a fraction of the cost.

All of this, mind you, was unscheduled and on a festival weekend. But that's one of the joys of discovering a quality winemaker before they have gotten too well known and inaccessible. We had a fabulous time with lots of interaction with the people behind the wines -- how could you not develop a very healthy respect for Palatine Hills wines?

By the way, I have not yet mentioned the Palatine Hills ice wines, for which they first made a name for themselves. We got a little distracted by their fine table wines. But trust me, the ice wines were absolutely fabulous for a little more than half the cost of what the big boys are churning out just down the road. They not only make a delicious vidal, they make a gewurztraminer and a cabernet ice wine. The cab was not available for tasting, but I can vouch for the wonderful honey and flower aromas of the gewurz ice wine. You don't have to spend a lot at the best-known wineries to truly strike gold in the Niagara peninsula.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Celebrated Niagara Escarpment

When you think about wines of the Niagara Peninsula, you think icewines -- luscious, world-class icewines. You might also think a climate cold enough for great icewines would produce a few good cool-weather whites, such as riesling, but that's about it.

Well, part of the joy of traveling is learning new and interesting things about different parts of the world, some of which prove prior assumptions wrong. Just last week, having finished our tour of the Finger Lakes area, Kathy and I moved on to the Niagara peninsula where I was pleasantly surprised to find many different wines of high quality, reds included. And for that, winemakers practically get on their knees and bow in thanks for something called the Niagara Escarpment.

Ontario produces the largest percentage of Canada's homegrown wine from about 15,000 acres of vineyards, and the Niagara area is its epicenter. The Niagara peninsula is the largest single viticultural area, accounting for 80 percent of the country's grapes. With numbers like that, you know the area has something serious going for it.

The locals say their climate, during the growing season, is comparable to that of Burgundy or the Loire Valley in France. It's a temperate climate for much of the year made possible by Lake Ontario to the north, the Niagara River to the east and the Niagara Escarpment to the south. The escarpment is a 575-foot high ridge that stretches in an east-west direction for 550 miles.

What this does is moderate climate conditions and extend the growing season by delaying the first hard frost. Offshore breezes that moderate the peninsula's weather actually get recirculated across the peninsula because they are buffeted back toward the lake by the escarpment. When other nearby areas are hit with frost in the fall, the circulating air of the peninsula makes it much harder for cold air to settle in low-lying areas -- hence the farmers' affection for the escarpment.

More than 50 wineries populate the Niagara peninsula, providing plenty from which to choose for those walking the wine. In my book, a good place to start is with two of the region's best known wineries, the only two whose wines are generally available back home in Connecticut -- Inniskillin and Peller Estates.

Our first stop was at Inniskillin, perhaps the region's best known winery thanks to its surprise win in 1991 of Vinexpo's (Bordeaux) highest award, Le Grand Prix d'Honneur, for its 1989 icewine. I've been drinking Inniskillin's vidal and riesling icewines for years, as often as I could afford to, that is. Icewines, of course, are not cheap.

But I never had a chance previously to try their other wines, and there's a lot to try. Their inexpensive wines include a lot of vinifera, such as pinot griogio, riesling, pinot noir, merlot and gamay noir. Those I tasted were a bit thin, but largely decent table wines.

Many of the reserve wines, in contrast, showed a lot more stuffing. For example, the Founders' Reserve Pinot Noir 2004 had wonderful earth and smoke aromas that would match very well with grilled foods. The Reserve Meritage 2002 had very good black fruit in a medium- to full-bodied package. The Brae Burn Shiraz had interesting pepper notes, very French in style, but not quite the body I hoped for.

The icewine tasting, as you might expect, was just an absolute delight. In icewines, Inniskillin offers a vidal, a riesling, a sparkling vidal, an oak-aged vidal and a cabernet franc. All were delicious, though I found the riesling had the best balance and the most interesting finish.

One of Canada's first estate wineries, Inniskillin is a terrific place to visit with a couple of different tour options and different bars set up for tasting table wines vs icewines. Operating out of a couple of grand-scale barns, Inniskillin has not lost its sense of being a farm business despite its success.

Peller Estates
Peller Estates also has many fine wines to try, but, in contrast, you are more likely to feel like you are visiting a country club than a winery. Peller has probably the grandest, most posh winery facilities in the area -- perhaps in Canada. You sort of feel antsy for a moment about stepping inside in jeans and sneakers.

But the staff is decidely not stuffy. In fact, the winery offers so many different levels of tours, tastings and other events that there is something for everyone. If you like things plain and simple, you may want to avoid this winery. But I would recommend that everyone else simply must experience Pellers Estates.

Again, you'll find an interesting and varied lineup of wines, and, again, you'll find the wines at the Reserve and Founders' Series levels really excel. Of those I tasted, the Reserve Merlot 2002 was a real standout with its earthy complexity and great finish. The 2006 Riesling Icewine also was fantastic.

Just one other point, if you are not on a tight budget you might want to try the Peller Estates restaurant. It's simply a wonderful dining experience, with top-notch service and fanatastic, imaginitive foods that seem French-influenced but local in character. As I said, it's quite expensive, but if you can afford one "special occasion" dinner, you'll love Peller. The vineyard views alone while dining make the experience unforgettable.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Falling For Niagara Falls

On our way from the Finger Lakes wine country to Niagara wine country, we, of course, had to stop off at the falls. My first time. It was an awesome sight, as long as you focus on the falls and ignore the still growing casinos and high-rise hotels that continue to spring up all around. But the falls were so cool I thought I'd show off a few shots here before moving on to those Niagara ice wines. Oh, and the butterfly sanctuary was cool, too.