January 31 Roundup: T.O. Wine List Blitz, Bordeaux Copyrights, and Currency Conundrums

Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
This week, we’re doing something a little different (and not just to appease those readers who think I don’t review nearly enough wines). I’d like to think it’s bold, interesting, and as subject to my own unique palate as everything else I’ve sampled. It’s always gratifying as a budding wine scholar to hate 93+-point wines, and rave about 89-point-or-under finds. So, this week, we’re doing a quick sweep of some wine lists and wines sampled at various restaurants and bars across the city. A culmination of my jaunts over the last few months, I’ll be recommending you to “Sip It” or “Skip It” based not only on the wines offered, but also what I tasted.
Trattoria Nervosa (Yorkville)
Serving classic Italian dishes including staples like Rigatoni al Pomodoro, and Margherita pizza, this moderately priced restaurant in the heart of Yorkville is something of a stand-out among local options competing in a crowded neighbourhood of continental European and American bistro fare. Steady streams of hungry diners seem to pour in regardless of the night of the week, sometimes making it a bit of a wait for a table, especially if you descend between about 6:30 and 8:00 p.m. Fortunately, a girlfriend and I snuck in just under the wire, snagging prime real estate as far as tables go–a wee two-seater right by the window with a great view of Yorkville Avenue.
Nervosa’s wine list is nothing to turn your nose up at, with its strong representation from every corner of Italy. Lazio, Piedmont, Alto Adige, Campania, Marche, Puglia, Umbria, Veneto, and the list goes on (pun intended), make strong appearances in the red, white, sparkling, and fortified wine categories; even Niagara finds a home in the Vini Bianchi family (but maybe a Tyrolean Riesling would have been more apropos?). 
I ordered the Risotto Nervosa ($25.49), which is deliciously described as Barolo-braised beef short rib, local field and porcini mushrooms, and fig-balsamic reduction. It was rich, creamy, and delicious; my only complaint was that the short ribs were every so slightly dry. I struggled with my pairing choice, intrigued by a Primitivo that boasted peaty-smokey tobacco-like aromas and flavours, and a full-bodied Negramaro. In the end, though, I landed on a deep purple Ripasso della Valpolicella La Dama, 2011 ($12.99/gls), with the weight, body, and complex fruit flavours we all love in young Amarones. The dark fruit notes, subtle hints of toasted wood, and warm baking spices tickled the taste buds and delighted the tongue. Without hesitation: Sip It!
Wine List: 
Bar Volo (Yonge & St. Joseph)
A craft beer-lover’s paradise, this hipster-haven can easily be missed if purposefully striding down Yonge Street–after all, it’s not exactly a neighbourhood that I’m drawn to when looking for interesting restaurant choices. 
The ambiance is casual and fun, with banquet-style seating at long wooden tables. (Here’s a tip: in the winter time, stay away from the windows, or make sure their space heater is turned on.) The craft beer list is regularly rotated, and the selections are all jammed onto a few vertical wall-mounted chalkboards corresponding to a letter of the alphabet: X and Y are the only two wine options–typically an Ontario red and white “on tap.” (Obviously, you’re not going to go out of your way to try this place for its vino offerings.)
To match the order of spicy chorizo sausage, thinly sliced prosciutto, and homemade kettle chips, all pretty mediocre, I tried the Stratus Merlot 2012 ($13/gls). On the nose, bright aromas of candied cherry and rasberry are pleasantly accented by pine needles, forest floor, and dark chocolate, making for an aromatic bouquet. Disappointingly, I found the pronounced woodiness on the nose to translate to the palate in a drying way; the red fruits were nearly absent, eclipsed by flavours of mushrooms, and a slight smokiness. I enjoyed the body of the wine, but wouldn’t seek it out. 
Wine List: Doesn’t even qualify (one red and one white does not a wine list make)…
Cactus Club Café (Bay & Adelaide)
How could I forget passing a place bounded by decorative flames (if there even is such a thing) before arriving at the location last Sunday night? The Cactus Club has a cute name, and a decent aesthetic when stepping into the first floor of its Financial District location. Bar seating is available on two levels, as are booths and high tables where drinkers and diners have an acceptable diversity of wines to try, alongside impressively crafted food. (The tuna stack was awesome! $16)
The wine list is alright, but it strikes me as a bit of a hodgepodge, with a lot of “name brands” in the sparkling section (from Blue Mountain to Veuve Clicquot to Tarlant), and not a great deal of experimentation in either the whites or the reds. Solid Ontario choices, like Flat Rock Cellars and Tawse, were paired alongside a more mainstream Pinot Grigio, and Vinho Verde. Some of the more unusual finds were a Greek Assyrtiko, and a Greco di Tufo, but I wasn’t bowled over. The red selection was equally disappointing: Malivore, Liberty School (which I love), and Barossa Valley Estate are paired alongside one or two interesting choices. 
The trouble with this establishment was the lack of knowledge around the wine list, and an inability on the part of the servers to make recommendations beyond the Cabernet Sauvignon, calling it a “good winter wine.” I was initially steered away from the Greco di Tufo because “it’s just average” (!?), and was encouraged, instead, to stick with a Pinot Grigio, no doubt of a similar middling quality. 
My first selection, entirely sans support, was the Norman Harding Cabernet Franc ($14/6 oz gls), a deep ruby wine, medium-bodied, and the absolute wrong pairing choice with the tuna stack. (This is what happens when I’m not a fan of the whites available.) Aromas of underripe red fruit, licorice, and forest floor are astonishingly subtle, yet complex. On the palate, the wine is abrasively acidic; tart notes of salty olives, bitter fruits, crushed violets, and tobacco smoke were slightly unappealing, though I did appreciate how bright and well-balanced the wine otherwise seemed. It was one of those instances where I could appreciate what I was drinking on an intellectual level, but it lost me on the taste, despite the flavours being classic Cab Franc. I’m sure professional wine critics will rave about this one, but it just didn’t grab me as a pleasant sipping wine.
My second choice was a Roussillon Syrah, which I was encouraged to stay away from because it was “too light” (!?), a Jaja Syrah 2013 ($10/6 oz gls). I was rather excited to try it, as there’s a certain curiosity for me surrounding wines from Languedoc-Roussillon, mostly because they tend to be excellent value for the flavour, complexity, and overall quality. Sadly, I have to report that this was not what I was expecting. Full-bodied, but flabby, this wine lacked acidity to balance out the otherwise bold flavours of dark cherry, plum, chocolate, grilled meat, and vegetal notes. Since wine is really meant to be paired, I have no doubt this would see infinite improvement if matched with game or red meat; but stay away from fatty things, like foie gras–this is missing the acidity to cut through it. 
Wine List:  
Wine  (Cab Franc),   (Syrah)
The Library Bar (Royal York Hotel)
If you were to ask me for my favourite bar in the city, it’s hands-down The Library Bar. Tucked away in a small corner of the Fairmont Royal York, the intimate space for fewer than fifty or so patrons reminds me of what a Manhattan lounge in the 1940s would have looked like with its crimson walls, heavy window coverings, and oddly accented animal-print couches. I’ve been coming here for years–enough times to watch them cycle through the gratis nibbles. (I was a big fan of the Japanese rice cracker mix with wasabi peas and cranberries several years ago. Not really digging the caramel corn, and garlic pretzels now.)
I expected more from the wine list: perhaps more unusual choices or more diverse ones. I was disappointed to find a humdrum offering of what I’d call red, white, and sparkling’s “greatest hits.” Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, and Piper-Heidsieck, with a Prosecco and a Niagara Blac de Blancs tossed in for good measure was the first pout-worthy section. The preponderance of Niagara white wines made me sigh, with only a New Zealand Sauvignon option (Kim Crawford!), and a Pinot Grigio (again, of all the whites available out there…) to offer diversity. What happened to new, exciting, and imaginative curation? Red fared only marginally better, but again, the old standards found their way onto the drink menu: Barossa Shiraz, Argentinian Malbec, and three California Cabs, one of which included Francis Coppola’s label. This calls for an emoticon: 😦
One of the things I do love about service at the Royal York is that it’s done properly–none of this pulling an already open bottle out of the bottom of the bar and measuring it first. (Goodness knows how long the bottle has already been open for!) Each wine, despite having been ordered by the glass, was appropriately brought to my table as a freshly opened bottle, which was first poured for me to sample, before the waiter eyeballed the six ounces. (This shouldn’t merit its own discussion, but fewer and fewer places are doing it properly these days.)
My first choice was B.C.’s Mission Hill Merlot 2012 ($16/gls), a decent but not exceptional choice, opaque red-purple, with a beautiful bouquet of dark plum, toasty wood notes, muted blackberries, and blueberries. I aerated quickly, though it wasn’t enough to get the true flavours of this wine to shine through, I think. The wine still seemed too closed, almost stifling the fruit flavours that should otherwise burst on the palate. Herbaceous notes of green pepper were prominent, a precocious acidity was refreshing, and, overall, I’d probably try this again, giving it an appropriate window of time to decant. 
When you follow the Merlot up with an exceptional Valpolicella, it’s almost an unfair comparison. The Valpolicella 2010 Delibori ($27/gls) was outrageously priced–a combination of typical mark-up and Royal York Hotel mark-up. Of course, you also get what you pay for and this was spectacular, even right out of the bottle. The inky-black wine has luscious aromas of stewed plums, sweet molasses, nutmeg, and cloves, reminiscent of an autumnal kitchen. On the palate, the full-bodied wine has a great balance of acidity and tannins, and a concentration of flavours from the dried grapes, which results in a lingering, slightly sweet finish. A steep price tag, I know, but a really great wine. 
Wine List:
Wine  (Merlot),   (Valpolicella)

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