April 17: A Letter to My Fans + Austrian Wine Fair

An Letter to My Fans

Faithful Readers,

I have been over-extending myself, particularly with respect to Sip It or Skip It, which, I know, for many, has become the definitive source for wine news, and insightful commentary. The fan mail trickling in week after week, the missives about the level of enjoyment derived from reading my blog, and the disappointment expressed when, like last week, I am unable to deliver the quality you so depend on has indeed been touching.

It may come as a surprise to many, but this is not my day job, which does pose certain challenges, especially during busy weeks. In addition to being awesome at an organization that cuts me a bi-weekly paycheque, I am continuing to make headway on my first novel, and trying to fit in the level of blogging I think my readership deserves is just becoming too much!

Before you panic, Faithful Readers, this is not good bye. I do not intend to cease blogging, but I do need to manage expectations, and, unfortunately, scale back on the rigor each week. Alas, being as I am a lone reed in the vast pond of wine criticism, I lack the staff to supplement in weeks that I am stretched too thin (though, as I must gratefully acknowledge, some regular readers, and fellow wine enthusiasts have stepped in to offer solid prose, even if it was lacking in some of Yours Truly’s adorable sparkle). All this to say…

More changes to the blog format. I know, none of us like change, and I respect that there might be a terse note or two sent my way regarding this announcement, but that is merely the price I pay for a passionate, wine-loving audience. I will still be blogging, but sporadically, and when a whimsical mood strikes. If I have something to say, I will write. Gone will be the essay features based on extensive secondary source research. News clippings, too, will likely be dropped, unless there is something, in particular, that I wish to draw your attention to. Instead, I will move to an exclusive essay format in which I share my thoughts and experiences with wine, which, should help moderate the pressure I feel to deliver Sip It or Skip It weekly. Does this mean no more wine reviews? No, not necessarily, but it does mean no more regular wine recommendations. As I gear up to begin WSET 2 in May, I’ll likely be drinking a little less on the weekend to make up for the tasting extravaganza on Tuesday nights. I will still, whenever I feel so inclined, review the wines I drink, just in a slightly less formal format.

I hope you will all continue reading, even as we move to this new format. I have enjoyed the privilege of a weekly priority spot in your inbox (no doubt starred by Google as a Priority Message), and hope you will continue to subscribe and read.

xo


REFLECTIONS ON THE AUSTRIAN WINE FAIR

I am embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Austrian wine. Aside from the famous Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, and St. Laurent (which I knew of, but had never tasted), the Austrian Wine Fair last week at the St. James Cathedral Centre was certainly an exciting introduction beyond my first Grüner purchased last year at the Clearance LCBO that I so often write about.

When I first mentioned that I had purchased tickets for the event to a Faithful Reader and fellow wine enthusiast, he asked if I knew about an antifreeze scandal that that rocked the Austrian wine industry in the 1980s. Naturally, I had not; back then, being knee-high to a mushroom, I had tastes for other things, like pablum, and once my palate was sufficiently trained and sophisticated, Lucky Charms. My first encounter with Swiss fondue at age eight was the start of a lifelong romance with melted sharp cheeses and cubed bread, but this wouldn’t come until the 1990s.

It would appear that my tender age was a useful defence against diethylene glycol poisoning, since, in 1985, it was discovered that several Austrian wineries were upping the sweetness quotient of late-harvest wines with this highly toxic antifreeze ingredient. The 1980s were a simpler time, I suppose, and an era of few(er?) regulations; unfortunately, this led to this lapse in judgment on the part of many an Austrian wine-maker. The scandal was uncovered by German wine laboratories performing quality controls on Austrian wines that would be sold in Germany, and, naturally, this discovery led to some hefty jail time, and the destruction of over 36 million bottles of wine, or the equivalent of seven months’ worth of Austria’s total wine exports at the pre-1985 level. Although this scandal severely and almost irreparably decimated Austrian wine exports, contemporary regulations, coupled with the strictly enforced Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) region-typical quality wine rules made everything I drank on Thursday perfectly safe, and, in fact, quite impressive in some instances.

Today, Austria has approximately 46,000 acres under vine, and is home to 35 grape varieties – 22 white, and 13 red. (This is according to a very lovely small guide to Austria’s grape varieties, which I picked up at the swag table, and have been reading ever since!) Austria has nine DAC regions out of a total of 16 specific wine-growing areas. I can’t quite wrap my tongue around the names yet, but here’s a summary of the regions and the varieties they’re known for:

Weinviertel

Grüner Veltliner

Mittelburgenland

Blaufränkisch

Traisental

Grüner Veltliner, Riesling

Kremstal

Grüner Veltliner, Riesling

Kamptal

Grüner Veltliner, Riesling

Leithaberg

Pinot Blanc/Weißburgunder, Chardonnay,Grüner Veltliner, Neuburger
Blaufränkisch

Eisenberg

Blaufränkisch

Neusiedlersee DAC

Zweigelt

Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC

Gemischter Satz and Gemischter Satz

My tasting approach was far from systematic, but I nevertheless made an impressive dent in the thirty wineries represented. (Salomon Undhof, Kremstal DAC, was the only one I could say I was even remotely familiar with.) My companion and I always made a bee-line for the empty tables, desperate to lap up the knowledge of those not bombarded by outstretched arms and empty glasses, demanding a splash of this wine and that. Our first stop was Weszeli.

According to my tasting book, the vineyards of Weingut Weszeli are situated around the town of Langenlois in the Kamptal DAC. Growing Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, the tradition of the estate dates back to the seventeenth century. I had the great pleasure of trying six wines–four Grüners and two Rieslings, each in order of an improving degree of complexity and minerality. The Grüners were what I call “textbook representations”–vegetal, slightly spicy, with notes of white pepper. These were crisp wines, aged in stainless steel, and likely excellent accompaniments to antipasti platters, or even seafood dishes. The Reserve “Purus” Grüner was the standout, with its slight creaminess, and bright minerality on the finish. The Rieslings were more on the drier side (much preferred by Yours Truly), but with a slightly lingering-sweet finish. The charming young lady behind the table informed us that, while Weszeli hadn’t yet found a representative in Ontario, they recently scored an in-road in Quebec, so perhaps entry into our fine province isn’t too far behind?

Since this really was the Grüner-Riesling fest, I think I’ll spare you the run down of every single wine tasted, which probably numbered about half a dozen of each. My untrained palate leads me to make sweeping generalizations, like this one: a Grüner is a Grüner, and the best ones are probably those that have the fruity-vegetal combo down, with as bold a flavour profile as you could get with a light-bodied, unoaked wine. Rieslings don’t typically knock my socks off, so I’ll also skip over those, suffice to say that these are not your too-sweet, low-end German versions in cat-shaped bottles favoured by elderly ladies who enjoy diluting their glass with a few ice cubes; these are respectable, “adult” white wines, some with significant aging potential, that are not to be brought out for imbibing on girl’s night with cheap Chinese food. They are meant to be savoured, respected, and appreciated alongside dishes that compliment the stone-fruit, and honeyed notes, even discernible in the drier expressions of the grape.

Let’s get to the greatest hits and the worst flops of the evening.

Szigeti

This is Austria’s leading sparkling wine producer that bottles its fizzies using the “Méthode Traditionnelle.” This award-winning quality producer offers more than 30 different sparkling and frizzante wines. I tried the only two on offer: the Grüner Sekt “Brut” 2013, and the Sekt “Blanc de Blancs Adele Brut” made from Chardonnay. While my companion was unimpressed by the sparkling Grüner, I rather enjoyed it for its unique flavour. Imagine celery, pepper, and lentils, a light body, and a refreshing bubble-dance on the tongue, and you’d basically have this pleasant little number. It isn’t as bone-dry as a zero-dosage, which should make it perfectly palatable to those who favour sweeter sparkling wines, though it is still dry for the “sec”-lovers.

As for the Chardonnay blanc de blancs, it was the label that lured me. Who doesn’t love Klimt? (I used to walk by Davids every day on the way to work eyeing a coin purse with a picture of his “The Kiss” on it, but it disappeared before the annual sale!) The special addition “Adele” wine, we learned, had been created with Ronald Lauder from the Neue Gallery to commemorate the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which has been bought and housed in New York for the past decade. (By the way, it was sold for the record-breaking price of $135 million US.) The wine was marginally sweeter than the sparkling Grüner, coming in at a residiual sugar count of 6g, and though it was a lovely party bevvie, I can’t say it blew my mind.

Kracher

From Burgenland, the vineyards are proximate to Lake Neusiedl at Ilmitz and, as a result, benefit from the microclimate. Hello, botrytis! Of course, I couldn’t leave without tasting some Beerenauslese, with its 114g in residual sugar. When we asked the gentleman behind the table what varieties were used in its production, we were left mystified; the answer we got was “botrytis,” so this required some Googling on my part when I got home. A combination of Chardonnay and Welschreisling (also known as Riesling Italico for its potential place of origin, Friuli), the winery produces 9-15 Trockenbeerenausleses in two different vinification styles each year. (I tried the one vinified in stainless steel as opposed to new French oak barrels.) The “Fauxternes,” as I’ve taken to calling it, is, as always, an acquired taste for those who shy away from syrupy sweet dessert wines. This one was fine, but lacked a little age to intensify the flavours, and any acidity to help cut through the viscous finish.

I also tried a Pinot Gris, but it was so far from memorable, I shan’t comment beyond, This was obviously a Pinot Gris. Take from that what you will.

Esterházy

I think I’ve saved the best for last here, but why don’t I quickly encapsulate the disappointments before I highlight the excellent reds I tried from this centuries-old winery.

I sometimes think, rightly or wrongly, that cold-climate reds can pose certain challenges. I had a couple of appallingly bad St. Laurents that reminded me of all the reasons I detest Cabernet Franc, a Merlot that was thin and watery, and a Pinot Noir that was trying so hard to emulate a Burgundian classic, I dubbed it the “Little Wine that Couldn’t.” But then there was Table 19, with its wines from Burgenland and Leithaberg, and Blaüfrankisches that were both light and rustic, and robust and flavourful. My companion remarked that he could happily drain a few bottles of the Reserve Föllig Blaüfrankisch. This was a beautiful wine with a dark ruby colour, and a fruity bouquet with hints of peppery-spice. Its more rustic cousin–the 2013 Leithaberg Blaüfrankisch–reminded me a little of a Sangiovese in terms of acidity and tannins. I could see this pairing really well with Mediterranean tomato-based dishes.

Verdict: How to Buy Austrian Wine?

Unfortunately, I recalled too late that I should have given an ice wine a try, but after some twenty wines sampled, even I knew my cut-off.

It’s disappointing that the LCBO carries so few Austrian wines. For anyone wishing to continue their education (like me), there are about twenty wines to choose from right now, overwhelmingly dominated by Grüner. I suppose it’s a good thing that I jumped on this event when I saw it, otherwise I would have missed out on some very exciting wines, and a thoroughly delightful evening. Perhaps this is the beginning of a lifelong journey to learn and appreciate the delightful, and sometimes surprising, wines of Austria?

20160414_220038
Das ist meine kleine oesterreichische Weinbuch!

 

April 3 Roundup: T.O. Restaurant Reviews,Starbucks Beer & Wine Menu, and a Little Gem from the Archives

TASTING NOTES
Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
***Salutations, Faithful Readers. I’m back from a much-needed vacation (hope you missed me!). I’m sure you didn’t handle the lack of a perky, pithy wine blog in your inbox very well, so this week I’m treating you to two restaurant reviews, which include, of course, a thorough commentary on their wine list, and a favourite from the archives. (Sorry – it was a busy weekend!)***

Volos (Financial District)
This isn’t your kitschy Greek resto on the Danforth. Absent are the murals of Zeus and nymphs bathing in front of the Parthenon. This is an upscale, rustically elegant dining spot that classes up standard Greek comfort food dishes, like moussaka, and tries to put an exotic spin on run-of-the-mill favourites, like Caesar salad.

Me and my enchanting dining companion descended on Volos before a performance of The Marriage of Figaro back in February. It was one of the coldest days of winter, and we erroneously decided to Uber to the restaurant (which was a way more circuitous route than we had imagined, forgetting about all the one-way streets that pepper the downtown core). The warm comfort of the Honda Civic was quickly replaced by a chilly dining space, not normally this nippy; on the evening we went the power had been knocked out of much of the city, and it was late to return by restaurant standards. As a result, some of the usual prep work was affected, and getting ovens up to that consistently hot temperature to ensure entrees were warm must have proved challenging since ours were cold.

This little hiccough, though, should not be held against an otherwise impeccable dinner service, from the attentiveness of the waitstaff, to the overall flavourful dishes. My companion had the Avgolemono (traditional chicken soup, lemon, dill, orzo), despite detesting lemon, and the moussaka, with a rich Kefalotyri béchamel. I had the organic baby kale salad with Kefalotyri, anchovies, yoghurt, and Pumpernickel croutons (slightly soggy), and the Exohico, a braised lamb with spinach, leeks, Feta, Kefalotyri, and lamb jus.

The food was respectable, but not out of this world; the dishes are tasty, but lack a certain pizzazz to take them over the top to extraordinary. Dessert, however, was sublime. The chocolate mousse was rich, yet light and velvety. It was incredible. We both raved about it, even during intermission.

The best part of Volos is the exotic wine list, with predominantly Greek choices. A VQA Niagara or two snuck its way in, but for me, it was a Xinomavro-Syrah-Merlot blend (‘Paranga’ Kir-Yianni, Naoussa, $12/gls) that knocked my socks off. Fruity, complex, and relatively light for a red, reminiscent of the weight of a Rhône blend, the wine is a blend of 50% Merlot, with the balance split evenly between the Syrah and the Xinomavro, sourced from Northwestern Greece. Aged in a combination of stainless steel and bottle, the wine is a regular bronze and silver award-winner, including a two-time Decanter World Wine Award recipient.

Wine Rating: 
Restaurant Rating:
 

Chabrol (Yorkville)
Anyone who knows me knows my penchant for French food, so when I read a review of this former clothing store-turned-restaurant in the Toronto Star, I had to go that week. A hidden gem in Yorkville, the establishment seats ten people at tables, and another nine at the bar area, and has been open since the late fall of 2015. According to our server, for approximately three months, the chic French-inspired dining spot was without a liquor license, which made New Year’s Eve particularly challenging. When I went in February, however, wine was very much available, and I selected the perfect day for dinner as I walked in on a tasting of Louis Jadot.

It must have been the longing in my eyes, but, within minutes, one of the restaurant’s partners came over to apologize for not including me. Before long, I had a glass in my hand with a complimentary splash of Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé to tickle my taste buds. The light, creamy Chardonnay was exactly what you’d expect from high-end producers in the appellation: fruity, yeasty, complex, and minerally, the optimal intersection of talent and terroir. 

I didn’t know where to begin with the menu, so I ordered a bit of everything: Puy lentils with smoked parsnip purée, beets, and Grenache vinaigrette; the gratin of potato, cantal, and thyme; an assortment of cheeses; and, of course, Crème Brûlée. Perhaps we should get the low-point of dinner out of the way first: dessert. The Crème Brûlée was runny under its burnt sugar crust, likely the result of too shallow a dish, but the Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($14/gls), which accompanied it (because they were out of Sautneres), was bright, sweet, crisply acidic, and chock full of tropical fruit flavours. The rest of the meal, though, was heavenly.

Lentils are not my favourite, yet the review I’d read recommended the salad, so I had to order it. The parsnip purée, obviously pressed through a fine mesh sieve, was the star of the dish, well-seasoned, and a perfect consistency with the other textures on the plate. Though it was very good, I probably wouldn’t order it again when I return. Now, the potato gratin is a whole different story; I will be ordering this every time. Layers of thinly sliced potatoes interspersed with carmelized onion, and topped with melted cheese so hot that the entire dish was still bubbling as it arrived at the table in its cast iron pan…this was the unquestionable superstar of the evening. Despite being very full half-way through my selections, I still polished off the entire side gratin. My dining companion ordered the ragoût of wild mushrooms with braised artichokes, which I sampled as well. Very tasty; this was my first up-close encounter with a hedgehog mushroom.

Let’s get down to the wine. The list is small and all French. Some Bordeaux made it on, a little Burgundy, and the South of France, mostly. By-the-glass offerings were virtually non-existent, particularly if you cared to try anything interesting, so my dining companion and I split a bottle of Lirac Domaine de la Mordorée ($80, I think…I forgot). Dark ruby, dense, and intensely fruity with notes of plums and berries, the mildly tannic wine was a solid accompaniment to the fare, a blend of 40% Grenache and 60% Syrah. The hand-harvested grapes are grown in a sandy soils, mixed with clay, and topped with the ubiquitous galets roulés. The wine could’ve done with a bit of aging, but overall, an exquisite little number from the Languedoc-Roussillon, one of my favourite French regions for finding budget finds that taste way above their price point.
Wine Rating: 
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FROM THE ARCHIVES
THIS WEEK: WINE REGION

Casablanca: Spotlight on Chile’s first cold-climate wine region

I pulled myself back from a dangerous precipice: providing an overview of all Chile’s viticulture areas from north to south. I’m reminded that this is not only a weekly blog (so, I need to conserve material), but also one that I wanted to ensure achieved a level of pithiness in the entries that allowed readers to breeze through while still acquiring some new knowledge about wine. So, for this week, one region.

Why Casablanca? In an informal poll which included a sample size of one, I asked, “Do you think of Chile as having a warm or cool climate?” Those polled said “warm,” adding that they didn’t expect to see penguin (a subject, no doubt, handled by a different blog). For that reason, I think Casablanca is pretty neat, because summers can be as nippy as 15-18°C.

Casablanca Valley’s climate is strongly influenced by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the cooling effects of the Humboldt Current which carries chilly sea breezes inland, contributing to colder night temperatures and to morning fogs that help minimize frost in the winter and spring. The temperate climate — which allows for a longer ripening season for white varieties and warmer, frost-free zones for red varieties — has led to comparisons being drawn with the U.S.’ Los Carneros AVA (which includes parts of Napa and Sonoma County) and Bordeaux, though these are both further from the equator than Casablanca Valley. Noting the latter, in particular, it’s probably little wonder that many of the varietals grown in the region include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others. Many Burgundy and Southern Rhône varieties also make an appearance, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Chile’s Casablanca Valley also grows a number of those fun aromatic grapes we so adore, like Gewürtztraminer, Muscat of Alexandria, Riesling and Viognier.

Serious winemaking in this region is relatively recent. During the gradual influx of domestic and international investment in Chilean winemaking in the late 1970s and 1980s, the country also saw the pioneering efforts of viticulturalists and vignerons, like Pablo Morandé (note the Morandé wine reviewed in this week’s “Tasting Notes”), who planted the first vines around the industrial city of Casablanca in the 1980s, defying skeptics and naysayers who doubted the region’s potential for making quality wine. According to wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd, today the wines from the Casablanca Valley now enjoy an “internationally established reputation…for [their] arresting, vibrant, mouth-watering white wines.”