i4c - Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration

Oregon has had their International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) since 1987, and Niagara has recently followed suit with their Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) since 2011. Only a few years in it's already getting serious attention as top international wineries, speakers and journalists are participating in the 3 day event in Niagara. The idea is to showcase Canadian cool climate Chardonnay in a global context alongside visiting producers and their like-minded wines.

Having never been in the past and with more hype building, this year I decided to go as consumer and take in the event, have some fun and celebrate Chardonnay. Here are some highlights: 

Lunch with Philippe Zinck

Earlier this week, Philippe Zinck of Alsace's Domaine Zinck was in Ontario for a market visit with Ottawa and Toronto restauranteurs. To kick things off in style we hosted a Monday Masterclass Luncheon at Supply and Demand with a group of Ottawa restauranteurs who dig French wine.

Philippe himself is younger than most principals of French wineries, stylish, unassuming and a bit understated, but a complete fountain of knowledge on Alsatian wine...and the wine he produces is outstanding in its own right, but an unbeatable value when you factor in the prices. It's no secret that Alsace is one of my favourite (if not my very favourite) regions, so any chance I get to learn from one of their best winemakers is exciting.

Domaine Zinck 'Portrait' line, at Supply and Demand.

The 'Portrait' line of Domaine Zinck wines are already a favourite in Ontario and many markets in Canada, but this was a great opportunity to re-introduce them, taste them side-by-side and learn about them from the winemaker. We showed the Crement D'Alsace Brut, Crement D'Alsace Rose, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, all of which have textbook varietal typicity and are incredibly versatile with food...as was showcased by their pairing with Supply and Demand's Chef Steve Wall's amazing menu! A 4-course sharing-feast mix of raw shellfish and pickled food to start, followed by a nod to Alsace with his Tart Flambee and finished off with a massive platter of pork stuffed with pork and sausage. One might think that such rich hefty meat would overpower the Alsatian wines, but the plump texture and crisp acidity balanced wonderfully.

We finished off the lunch with a Grand Cru tasting paired with a stinky cheese platter. Philippe's Grand Cru wines are another example of the outstanding value that is hard to ignore. For wines in the $30 range, they drink like $70+. At a tasting later that day, Ottawa restauranteur/sommelier Stephen Beckta likened Philippe's Grand Cru 'Pfesigberg' Riesling to Trimbach's epic 'Clos St. Hune', but at a fraction of the price. High praise in the Riesling world, but well deserved.

And it seems good times in Ottawa built to great times in Toronto with a wine dinner at Enoteca Ascari where many bottles Crement D'Alsace were sabered by Philippe, Vive La France!!

Terroir Symposium Chefs at Norm Hardie's

Between the winemaking team and the always visiting chefs or sommeliers, there is usually a fair amount of talent hanging around the winery at Norm Hardie's, but yesterday was a bit extraordinary. Most of the chefs, winemakers, speakers and organizers from Monday's annual Terroir Symposium descended upon Prince Edward County for a kind of day-after party, a hedonistic afternoon of culinary collaboration.

The Terroir Symposium crowd at Norman Hardie Winery

Terroir is an annual hospitality industry conference organized by Arlene Stein. A huge amount of work goes into organizing this one day event, and Arlene has done and outstanding job collecting many of the world's top names in hospitality to attend and contribute over the past few years...most of which arrived at Norm's yesterday for some extra fun, Prince Edward County styles. Notably absent at lunch was Terroir keynote speaker René Redzepi, chef/owner of Noma in Copnhagen, but the culinary firepower wasn't at all weakened as top chefs from all over North America and Europe all pitched in for a feast. Guests included former Gold Medal Plates champion Mark Lepine from L’atelier in Ottawa; Jeremy Charles, Raymonds, Nfld; Connie De Sousa & John Jackson, Charcut, Calgary; JP McMahon, Aniar Restaurant, Galway, Ireland; Magnus Nilsson, Executive Chef, Faviken, Jarpen, Sweden; Kobe Desramaults, In de Wulf, Dranouter, Belgium; Scott Vivian, Beast Restaurant; Mathew Matheson, Parts & Labour amongst many more.

And an extra big congratulations to Ottawa's Stephen Beckta for winning the GE Monogram Terroir Award for Outstanding Service Professional! You can read all the details and Stephen's response here in the Ottawa Citizen Blog. Here are a few highlights from yesterday afternoon:

The Night That Was: Mariposa Maple Dinner

This past Saturday night I realized a career-long dream of hosting a wine dinner in my work boots. Having grown up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario, I don't get many opportunities for country wine dinners. So when organizer Katie Worobeck started planning a Maple Syrup Celebration dinner for Mariposa Farm in Plantagenet, about 45 mins east of Ottawa, I was immediately on board. Katie's plan was to round up 3 of Ottawa's best young chefs and have them join Mariposa Farm's Chef Matt Shepard to each prepare a Maple Syrup inspired dish for a big dinner. The rest of the lineup included former Mariposa Chef Mark Currier now of Hintonburg Public House; Jon Svasas formerly of Domus and Taylor's Genuine who is soon to open Fauna; and also Gold Medal Plates champion Jamie Stunt of OZ Cafe. The wine pairings included selections from Ontario's finest: Tawse Winery, Norman Hardie, Thomas Bachelder, and Hinterland Wine Co. All the wines paired perfectly with the dishes, each in a different way contributing to the rustic maple theme of the dinner.

Mariposa Farm owner Ian Walker gave everyone a tour of his sugar bush and syrup boiling operation. He does things the old-school way, boiling down the sap in a large cauldron hung over a fire that burns all day. ÄLska Farm owner Genevieve was also onsite with her boutique maple syrup production which she was reducing down the syrup to make some fantastic maple taffy on popsicle sticks! And we kicked off the dinner with me sabering open a few bottles of Hinterland's 'Les Etoiles' traditional method sparkling from Prince Edward County...

The Night That Was: Joseph Mellot 500th Anniversary

As I mentioned in an earlier post, last Tuesday night we planned a 500th Anniversary celebration dinner for Domaine Joseph Mellot at Play Food & Wine here in Ottawa. This dinner was certainly worthy of a half-millennium birthday party! Stephen Beckta and his team did an outstanding job. The menu and wine pairings from Chef de Cuisine Tim Stock were classic flavours, but inventively presented and perfectly matched by Wine Director Kerri Smith. There were even a couple gentlemen who loved the dinner so much, they made reservations for our 2nd Mellot celebration dinner the next night in Toronto at Loire Restaurant!

A special thanks to winery President Catherine Corbeau Mellot and her Sales Manager Olivier Rivain for flying in to present their wines at the dinner. Here are a few pictures of the evening's pairings and goings on:

Joseph Mellot 500 Year Celebration

HEADS UP OTTAWA!! We are hosting a very special event at Stephen Beckta's Play Food & Wine on Tuesday April 2! Domaine Joseph Mellot from the Loire Valley in France is celebrating their half millennium birthday...That's right, they're turning 500 years old as a family owned and operated estate winery! Established in 1513 Joseph Mellot is one of the oldest and most respected Domaines in all the Loire Valley. They are a benchmark producer of Sauvignon Blanc as their Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumes are some of the most acclaimed wines in the region.

Please join us for this rare celebration being hosted by Joseph Mellot President Catherine Corbeau Mellot and Play's talented Wine Director Kerri Smith. Chef de Cuisine Tim Stock has designed a very special five course menu for the occasion and  Kerri has paired 7 outstanding Mellot wines, including their Sancerre Rouge and the legendary Grande Cuvée Pouilly-Fumé.

Please see the poster below for the details. Seating is extremely limited so please call Play directly to make your reservations at 613-667-9207 or email them at info@playfood.ca. This is sure to be a very memorable evening of food and wine!

Events: Mariposa Maple Celebration

Heads up Ottawa!! Mariposa Farm is hosting a quintessentially Canadian dinner party on Saturday April 6th to celebrate Maple Syrup season! There will be a Sugar Bush tour, Maple Syrup tasting, Quebec cheese tasting and a collaborative 5 course meal prepared by 4 of Ottawa's top chefs. To boost the Canadiana of this already kick-ass event, I'll be pairing each course with wines from Ontario's very best wineries: Tawse, Norman Hardie, Thomas Bachelder and Hinterland. There might even be some champagne sabering...

See the poster below for details and visit http://mariposamaplesyrup.eventbrite.com/ to get your tickets. Seating is limited, so hurry up!

This is food and wine appreciation in The Great White North!

Dinner with Luca Speri

Speri Viticoltori was one of the first houses to produce Amarone and was part of the original six families in the 1960s when it was granted DOC status. As one of the oldest winemaking families in Verona with generations of grape growing going back well before the invention of Amarone, today only the Speri's and Quintarelli remain family owned and operated of the original six--and both happen to be represent by Lifford.

Luca Speri is the 5th Generation of the Speri family and earlier this moth he spent two days with me in Ottawa visiting restaurants promoting his family's outstanding wines. Fortunately he arrived early on Sunday afternoon and I decided to host a dinner party with some close friends and clients showcasing an incredible lineup of his wines. We pulled out a vertical of Speri Amarone from 1996, 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2007, so I thought a simple yet rich wild mushroom and Italian sausage risotto would be a great compliment for dinner. After a glass of Champagne we got right into his Valpolicella Classico and Valpolicella Ripasso to start with appetizers...

I've long considered Speri's entry level Valpolicella Classico to be one of the best on the market, but it wasn't until Luca's visit that I understood why. He told us a great story about his Grandfather teaching them that you cannot judge a winery in Veneto on its Amarone alone (as many houses make impressive Amarone) but you need to taste their entry level Valpolicella and their desert wine Recioto, which is most difficult to produce. He said that if they take the care and effort to produce high quality Valpolicella and are talented enough winemakers to make a great Recioto, everything else in the house will follow suit. This logic comes from the fact that many wineries either buy bulk grapes to produce a cheap Valpolicella, or use all their best grapes from an estate vineyard for the Amarone, then use the leftover 2nds and 3rds for the regular Valpolicella. This often creates that tart, insipid, sometimes astringent style of so many cheap versions we've all had before. By contrast, Speri buys no grapes or juice, using only estate owned and hand harvested fruit. Their vineyards are all hillside vineyards for better sun and wind exposure and their Amarone comes exclusively from their hilltop single vineyard 'Sant Urbano'. This means that outside of the single vineyard reserved for Amarone everything else is 100% dedicated to a great Valpolicella Classico, part of which will also become their Ripasso once the Amarone skins are refermented on it. So further to their logic, the better the Valpolicella base wine, the better the Ripasso will be as well.

This philosophy definitely pays off. The Valpolicella Classico is characteristically light, fresh and fruity as is typical of the Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara blend; but it also has a richness and depth that is extraordinary for an entry level Val. The wine sees no oak, only 5 months of stainless steel and cement vats to retain a purity of fruit and freshness. Red cherry fruit jumps out of the glass, but also keeps going with a rich mid-palate a great lingering finish. Amazing pizza or pasta wine. Similarly, the Ripasso is rich, complex, and balanced with great acidity and a very dry long, elegant finish. It's definitely the driest Ripasso I've ever had, and Luca tells us it is one of the driest produced in Veneto. This is another wine that they do not cut corners with, the law permits producers to produce 2 bottles of Ripasso for every bottle of Amarone produced, but they believe that dilutes it too much and can start to extract the harsher tannins on the second round of fermentation. So they produce only one bottle of Ripasso for every bottle of Amarone...a mandate of quality over quantity. Unfortunately this is a disappearing philosophy in Veneto as Ripasso becomes more and more popular many producers are trying to crank out as much as is legally allowable and often need to leave a lot of residual sugar to create a false sense of richness.

Then came the Amarones. As is inevitably the case when you have only one bottle left of each vintage of old wine, something will be corked. And unfortunately the 1998 was, but the rest of the lineup was so outstanding we didn't fret too hard. Starting with the 1996, which according to Luca wasn't the best vintage, but you wouldn't have known it. Not only was it still holding up perfectly, but seemed to have lots of life left. Perfectly smooth and still fresh. The 2000, 2004 and 2007 followed suit, seeming effortlessly elegant. As we got to the younger vintages, the wines got expectedly firmer, but all were still exceptionally drinkable. The current release 2007 actually showed as one of the smoothest, which was a reflection of that vintage. The Speri Amarone's are a benchmark of traditional style, you can find it on many of Ottawa's best wine lists, give it a whirl...you'll be glad you did!

And finally, to bring it back full circle with Luca's grandfather's philosophy, we came to the Recioto with desert. I haven't had as much experience with Recioto, as with the other wines, I've tasted ones of varying quality from Veneto over the years, but several of the people at dinner were big Recioto fans and Speri's certainly satisfied everyone. Luca had packed these in his luggage and we paired it with Pascal's ice cream, drizzled with an aged fig balsamic from Ottawa's The Unrefined Olive. My god...ultimate desert pairing. Its safe to say that Luca's grandfather's philosophy checks out: the Valpolicella Classico and Recioto were outstanding...and the Ripasso and Amarone followed accordingly!

Wine Context: Religion, Terroir & Pinot Noir

Recently a number of my Lifford colleagues flew down to New Zealand for Pinot Noir 2013, their triennial conference that is attended by many of the world's top producers of the grape, critics, writers, importers and enthusiasts. Last week I was forwarded a link to the transcript of Matt Kramer's keynote address titled: Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir?  It is definitely worth taking a moment to follow the link for a great read...

Not surprisingly, this is one of the best things I've read recently. Matt Kramer seems to be one of the few broader thinkers amongst the major critics in wine writing and who I've been most philosophically aligned with. Like the title of my graduate work "The Cultural Production of Fine Wine" I've long believed the context, history and sociology is as important to understanding wine as the technical production or tasting. Too often bottom line answers are produced out of strictly scientific data, but as science proves and disproves itself time and time again (as is inherent in its method) there is a lot of value in the things that aren't scientifically proven or measured...like terroir and biodynamics.

A cross outside the vineyards of Burgundy's Vosne-Romanée.

Kramer makes an interesting and important link between the religion of monks who developed France's major wine regions and how their sacred terroir (of Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Loire, etc) came to be so revered today. By using single varietals like Pinot Noir for an unbastardized interpretation of the terroir they were attempting to let the voice of God shine through as purely as possible in flavour. It may not be the voice of God we're looking for anymore in viticulture, but this history has no doubt influenced the same venerated approach and intense respect for the soil that they have today. It accounted for something otherwise unaccountable, as Matt Kramer suggested making 2+2=5.

There are many technically perfect or stylistically typical wines where 2+2=4, but they lack that je ne sais quoi that takes it to 5. And we all know those wines that we've tasted that have it, that are somehow extra special and most often come from Old World regions with this type of history. They taste like they're slightly outside the box but perfectly within it, which almost always is an effect of terroir, not "winemaking". Kramer highlights that it's no coincidence the highest proportion of biodynamic viticulture today is found in Burgundy. Even if it not explained in these terms, this is partially how biodynamics helps with viticulture these days. By instilling a philosophy of minimal interventionism and working with the earth's cycles, it allows the vineyard to find its own equilibrium to naturally showcase its terroir...Fostering the conditions necessary to potentially let 2+2=5.

Shortly after the New Zealand Pinot Noir conference, a similar one was held in the Mornington Penninsula and Ted Lemon, winemaker at Littorai in California and Burn Cottage in Central Otago, gave a speech about New World Terroir that helped bring Kramer's idea full circle. Lemon recalled his early days in Burgundy learning winemaking and in his research stumbled upon a history of prestigious vineyards just outside of Paris, which nearly all memory of has disappeared. Lemon extrapolates this forgotten history of once-prestigious terroir to an idea of Noble Places, instead of only inherently superior dirt. He positions 'terroir' as a human construct that is "composed of historical, cultural, economic, scientific and agronomic components." Similar to Kramer's history of religion underpinning the development of France's great regions, here Lemon uses the concept to explain why the New World does not yet have the same venerated 'terroir' sites, because "there will never be pure, great and true New World terroirs until we accomplish the esthetic and cultural parts of building the edifice."

In other words, 2+2 will not equal 5 solely on the basis of growing grapes on an inherently "better" piece of dirt. Kramer demonstrated this with his mention of the character-less and boring Burgundian wines made through the 70's and 80's when many producers experimented with chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. Reverting back to the more natural processes developed culturally over time has brought back the ability to produce the superlative wines they were known for. It seems the foundation for many of the greatest wines in the world is as much cultural as it is physical, whether it be through religion, biodynamic philosophy or some other cultural construct. And overall this is another great example how in wine the context is everything.

Jay-Z + Wine

I've long been a fan of Jay-Z and his music--his collaboration with R Kelly on Fiesta was the soundtrack to many high school beach parties and 99 Problems that he did with Rick Rubin was one of the most listened to songs on my iPod. Since working in the wine industry I've also been a big fan of how legit Jay-Z's wine appreciation is. So I was delighted to happen upon this great video on Jay-Z's blog Life + Times over Saturday morning coffee that features Francis Ford Coppola Winery at harvest time, interviewing head winemaker Corey Beck:

Because I represent Francis Coppola's wines--both the Coppola Presents line from Sonoma and the flagship Inglenook property in Napa--I've had the chance to visit the winery and have met Corey a number of times. He's definitely the affable gentleman depicted in the video, and he produces some of California's most sought-after wine. So glad to see them featured on Life + Times and know that Jay-z is a fan of Coppola's wines as well.

Wine has always been a part of Jay-Z's image; and since famously boycotting Cristal as the unofficial Champagne of hiphop in 2006 over perceived racist comments by Louis Roederer's managing director Frederic Rouzaud, Jay-Z has championed a new brand of ultra-premium bubbles: the Ace of Spades by Armand De Brignac in Chigny Les Roses. He is also rumoured to also have a financial stake in the distribution with NYC's Sovereign Brands and it was named #1 Champagne of the year in 2010 by Fine Champagne Magazine. The mainstream recognition of its unique pewter and gold bottles is almost exclusively thanks to Jay-Z replacing Cristal with it in his music videos. But since leaving behind Cristal he's also moved into drinking red wine over backroom card games with Harvey Keitel and hosting Champagne political fundraisers for Barack Obama at his Manhattan 40/40 Club...a party that I imagine looked a little like this:

So be it resolved that between Jay-Z's promotion of Armand De Brignac; his $280'000 Champagne tower for Obama; $250'000 on wine at his buddy Chris Martin's Coldplay concert (with wives Beyonce and Gweneth Paltrow dancing with Champagne in the wings); and featuring guys like Corey Beck and Francis Ford Coppola Winery on Life + Times...Mr. Shawn Carter is one of the most serious wine guys in the music biz.

But maybe the coolest thing is that between hanging with the Obamas, Chris Martin and Gweneth Paltrow, etc he is still humble and comes off like this:

For more info on Francis Ford Coppola and Inglenook wines in Ontario please visit www.liffordwine.com