Monday, September 1, 2014

Winemaker Chat with KWV's Izele Van Blerk

Izele's Twitter picture captures her spirit so well!
When I read that South African winemaker Izele Van Blerk was training to become a professional tennis player before an injury led her back to South Africa to study winemaking, I didn’t get the connection right away. But when I had the opportunity to talk to her, the transition in professions made total sense.

“There’s a competitive side of sports and winemaking, but also the passion and the drive,” she says. “The energy during harvest time, is like a tennis match in the heat of the third set. It’s harvest time, it’s crunch time, you need to pull it through, it’s long hours, it’s hard work. Like sport, it’s also practicing, practicing, practicing.”

And Izele is certainly getting a lot of practice as a winemaker for KWV, one of the five biggest wineries in South Africa. She started with the company as an intern and has moved up quickly to become one of their winemakers. She is responsible for a large range of the company’s biggest sellers and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to taste through her 2013 releases at the iYellow Wine Cave recently.

In talking to Izele, you can’t help but be pulled in by her enthusiasm for wine. She is relatively young for a winemaker, but she is already an award-winner. “At KWV all our winemakers are on average 27 to 32, so we’re young, we’re new, we’re excited about the wines and the new styles and the new trends. I think if you get started at a young age, you’re still energetic and competitive and you strive to be the best and your passion is coming through in the wines,” she says.

Despite her young age, she is already an experienced taster who judges regularly in competition. “I think the difference between a good and an excellent winemaker comes down to tasting,” she explains. “Tasting is one of my passions. If I was to ever stop making wine, I would probably become a professional taster because I just enjoy it and you understand winemaking better if you can taste it and you understand what you need to improve. You have to be your biggest critic.”

She also values tasting wines from around the world. In South Africa, she explains most of the wines available are made in the county, but her travels with KWV and work as a judge have allowed her to taste more international wines. KWV also does a Friday event where each winemaker gets the opportunity to present a tasting of an international wine. This has helped give her a better understanding of winemaking techniques around the world.

But there is also a desire to create wines that are unique to South Africa. One of the most interesting is Café Culture, which blends South Africa’s signature wine, Pinotage, with coffee and mocha flavours. “You can drink it in the morning, because it’s coffee,” she says with a smile. “If you really like wine and you really like coffee, it’s a good combination.” KWV even has a special glass for Café Culture because they wanted to show this was definitely a non-traditional wine.

Having tried it at the tasting, I can concur that it is very different – it smells delicious, as they have captured the coffee and chocolate notes perfectly on the nose, but it wasn’t really to my tastes. Others at the tasting, however, really liked it so, as with all wine, it’s a personal preference.  My favourites from the tasting were The Mentors Chenin Blanc and the KWV Cathedral Cellar Brut Methode Cap Classique – a sparkling wine done in the Champagne-style, but with a much better price-point. The entry-level KWV Contemporary Chenin Blanc, while not as nuanced as The Mentors, was very good for the price.

I was shocked to see how quickly time flew during my chat with Izele. Her enthusiasm is infectious and I do think you can taste that in the wine she produces. If the winemaker feels like an old friend only a few minutes into a chat, it seems like she would be the perfect fit to design charming and inviting wines. I look forward to seeing her style develop over the years.

For more information on KWV:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wine Labels 101 with Two Oceans

Jackie Olivier
I am woefully behind in my blog posts, as I try to find that balance between work, wine school and blogging. It’s been a challenge and I definitely feel remiss in being so late with this post, as it was fascinating to speak with Jackie Olivier, Global Marketing Manager, Premium Wines, Distell Group Ltd., about the launch of Two Oceans’ new labels in July.

Labels have always been of interest to me – before I started to learn about wine, they were often the deciding factor (alongside price) in why I chose a wine. Not the best way to choose a great bottle, but what did I know? So when I had a chance to speak briefly with Jackie at a recent Two Oceans' event, I wanted to know more about why such a well-known brand decided to make such a big change.

The logo hasn’t changed, Jackie explained, but the new artwork really brings out the symbolism of the weather and how it affects the vineyard. The weather in South Africa is very affected by the merging of the two oceans and the sea breezes. The choice to change was about wanting to make sure this message was understood and their research was very positive about the switch. In looking at the new design, which is very attractive, I can see that it was well thought out – not so far from the old label as to confuse the consumer, but a nice refresh that may catch the eye of someone who hadn’t noticed the brand before.

Two Oceans’ is arguably one of the best-known wines in Ontario – I have actually met people who drink it exclusively – so this decision was interesting to me. Familiarity is often why someone chooses a wine and it’s always a bit of a risk to change up something well-known. With such a popular brand, however, it likely pays to freshen things up once in a while. As I sipped their Sauvignon Blanc recently, with its citrus overtones and consistent, easy-drinking style, I could understand the brand’s success. If you want a reasonably-priced wine that is always consistent, this would be a good choice.That the packaging is attractive likely helped many discover the wine in the first place.

And, while their Sauvignon Blanc may be their best known wine in Ontario, Jackie introduced me to the Pino Grigio at their event and mentioned that they may also introduce a Chenin Blanc in Ontario. Given that many consider Chenin a grape synonymous with South Africa, I’ll look forward to trying it. Ontario Chenin Blanc has become one of my go-to food paring wines and I would be interested in tasting what Two Oceans does with the grape.

There is so much that goes into wine marketing and as a wine student it was fascinating to get a little glimpse of how one of the best known brands in the world makes their decisions. Do wine labels ever influence your buying choices?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Govino Wine Glasses – My New Wine Travel Must

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had while traveling is how to enjoy a glass of wine in my hotel room. Since much of our travel now revolves around visiting wineries around the world, Shawn and I often pick up a bottle at a winery so we can enjoy a glass in our room at the end of a long day of sightseeing. With most hotels offering the option of a fridge, this can be an easy way to save money on buying at the hotel bar or just allow you to enjoy the wine you want in the quantity you want, instead of whatever happens to be on the wine list.

Our biggest problem has always been glasses. I’ve read enough horror stories about hotel glasses and how they’re cleaned (or not) to want to avoid using those, and these days many places seem to just stock plastic cups anyway. I’m not above using a plastic cup to sip my wine, but it certainly takes away from the experience of a brilliant, nuanced (and sometimes expensive) bottle to be sipping from a cheap, plastic glass. It’s definitely not elegant and I can never get over the plastic aftertaste that mars the aroma and flavour of the wine.

We’ve tried bringing our own glasses, but that’s a challenge in and of itself – getting glassware to and from your destination, especially when there is lots of travel while there, is a pain. So we’ve just made do with whatever we could come across until now.

At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara there was a Govino glass in my conference bag. I’d never heard of Govino and I figured it was just some sort of cheap, plastic glass I would use once and toss. I ended up with two over the course of the conference and didn’t even use them until Shawn showed up to continue our tour of California and needed glasses for our daily water with fresh lemon.

And that’s when I noticed a few really important things about Govino – it doesn’t have a plastic-y aftertaste. It’s not glass by any means, but it affects the flavour and aroma of its contents much less than any other plastic product I’ve tried. And the cup is a great shape, easy to hold and fairly easy to swirl. Could this, I wondered, be a good option for wine in our hotel? The cups are billed as shatterproof, so we tossed them in our suitcases and took them to Paso Robles, then Monterey, where we decided to enjoy a glass of Hope Family Wines’ Troublemaker red blend in our room. And it was – good! No weird aftertaste, I could do a good swirl and sniff and, best of all, I didn’t feel like a college kid at a frat party drinking cheap plonk!

We washed the glasses after our wine and used them again and again on the trip – both for water and wine. Each time I was impressed – especially when I realized how durable the glasses are. We just put them in a Ziplock bag, packed them in next to our clothes and carried them in our suitcase. No wrapping them in towels, stuffing them full of paper or any other safeguards to make sure I didn’t open my bag to broken glass.

Now, let’s be realistic, these are never going to replace a real wine glass. But if you travel a lot and you like to drink wine in your hotel room, this is the best solution I’ve found so far to the ‘what do we drink this out of’ conundrum. They are reusable to a certain point (the company site recommends replacing them after they ‘lose their lustre’) and recyclable once you do toss them. We used ours every day for a week (mostly for water and lemon, but also for wine) and they are still in good shape. We hand washed them after each use and figure they may have a few more vacations left in them. We’ll see.

And while I did get these glasses for free, there was no expectation I would write about them. In fact, I didn’t anticipate I’d ever think about them again. But this is a product that really filled a need in my life and I thought my fellow wine lovers might find Govino useful too.

You can learn more about Govino here:

To order in Canada go here:

Govino is available at the following Canadian retailers:

- Art Gallery of Ontario -AGO Shop
- Chapters/Indigo - Online and Select Stores
- IQ Living
- Bergo Designs
- Cheese Boutique
- Rosehill Wine Cellars

Monday, August 11, 2014

Radio Boka – A Casual Spanish Wine

Shawn and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary with a trip to Prince Edward County. We had to make a quick detour from our PEC wine tasting to stop at the LCBO in Picton to pick up a wine called Radio Boka. I was scheduled to interview the winemaker as soon as we were back and I wanted to try the wine in advance.

That the LCBO in Picton had a shelf full of a new-to-Ontario Spanish wine was a bit surprising, but in the moment I was just happy to have been saved the hassle of searching it out downtown.

When I learned that Picton was the #2 store for sales in the wine’s first few weeks on sale in the province, I was even more shocked. Having tasted it, though, I can understand. Radio Boka retails for $10.95 in Ontario. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to wines at such a low price, but this is an exception – Radio Boka is a 100% Tempranillo from Valencia and it's quite a good value. For someone looking for a low-cost, but quality cottage sipper, this would be a great choice.

Winemaker Daniel Gimenez is very clear about the type of wine he set out to produce – very fruit-forward with ripe, vibrant Tempranillo. He wanted it to be easy-going, although with a richness that made it stand out. “We don’t want to over-deliver something too complex,” he explains. “It’s just about having fun with nice company.”

Inspired by the fact that so many of the staff at their winery had been involved in pirate radio when they were young, Radio Boka was built around the common love of wine and music. “We said ‘why don’t we make a wine souvenir of that time? Something really, really lively, not too technical or boring, just informal and fun,” Gimenez explains.

And it does deliver on that. This is a good wine to have at a party or relaxing by the lake. And I love that the team is so open about what they are trying to do. Sometimes winemakers shy away from the idea that wine can be uncomplicated – there is something refreshing about spending time with a winemaker who is very open and comfortable with talking about actively setting out to make a wine that is fun.

Radio Boka comes at a good time in the Ontario market. There has been increased demand for Spanish products and at its low price-point, it fills a niche. This is also a wine that will appeal to a younger, hipper audience looking for a lighter and more casual Spanish wine.

When Shawn and I returned home and cracked open the bottle, we were both impressed. The fruit was lively and the wine was easy-drinking and refreshing. It was enjoyable with dinner and just to sip while relaxing on the couch afterwards. Unlike many Spanish reds, there is almost no oak used, so it's lighter and less earthy than I have come to expect in a Tempranillo. We liked it.

And as to what the winemaker would pair with his wine? He suggests pizza, barbeque or Spanish tappas, but is quick to note that the ideal pairing is whatever the consumer decides – it’s a casual wine for casual food.

Nicholas Hammeken, CEO of Hammeken Cellars, the home of Radio Boka, notes that Gimenez is at the forefront of a transition in Spanish wine - one of the young winemakers who will shape the history of winemaking in the area. Gimenez, who trained in Burgundy and then went on to work in California and Chile, was inspired by the freedom to create he found upon his return to Spain. “Everything is really exciting when you are young and not following the history of what has already been done,” he explains. As Spain’s winemaking traditions are not as ingrained as in the Old World, there is room for growth and experimentation.

Already very popular in other provinces across Canada and one of Hammeken’s best-sellers across the board on many continents, including Australia, North America, Asia, Europe and Africa, the Radio Boka team are confident that Ontarians will fall for their wine. They are hopeful that they can follow-up with a white and rosé in 2015.

You can find Radio Boka at LCBO stores across Ontario.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Thoughts From My First Wine Bloggers Conference

In July, I attended my first Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC). Those of you who follow me on Twitter no doubt saw many updates over the three days I was there, as I tried to capture as much about the event as possible.

Every year, WBC is held in a different wine region. This year, it was Buellton in Santa Barbara County. I’d never been to California before, so when I signed up I was excited to learn more about California wines. Shawn wasn’t so keen on attending a three-day wine conference, so he agreed to join me afterwards and extend our trip to cover even more of California wine country (from Buellton to Paso Robles, to Monterey to Napa).

I was nervous as I prepared to leave – there were no other bloggers from Ontario going and I had never met anyone else who was attending in person. Nothing intimidating about that! But what I’ve learned so far on my vinous adventures is that the wine community is an amazingly welcoming one, so I took a leap of faith and hoped for the best. My faith was well-rewarded.

A personal favourite from one of the tastings.
The amazing Bill Eyer from Cuvée Corner helped me plan my trip, as did Holly Evans-White – two lovely Twitter friends who were so kind to share their time and thoughts. And when I arrived I met other bloggers on the three-hour shuttle from LAX. Having been a fan of The Academic Wino blog for many years, I was thrilled that Becca is as nice in person as I’d hoped. And Elizabeth from The Vineyard Trail took me under her wing (and that of her fellow winers – Miki and Tom Joe).

While it's a bit long, here are some of the highlights from the conference, along with a few of my favourite photos. If you’re wondering, I’ve already registered for next year’s WBC in the Finger Lakes, so the highs well outweighed any lows!

At Standing Sun Wines
  • The Thursday night party at Standing Sun Wines, where we were treated to a late-night reception with local wines and a host of delicious desserts, was fantastic. I got to tour the winery’s art gallery courtesy of Christine from Standing Sun (who had also very kindly helped me plan my trip to the area) and tried a few of their excellent wines. I admit that I was so exhausted from a travel day starting at 4 a.m. Toronto-time that I wasn’t as present at this tasting as I hoped to be, but it was still a wonderful experience.

  • Friday morning’s Wines of Portugal brunch was a delicious opportunity to taste Portuguese wines paired with brunch items from Brazil, Japan, Portugal and India. It was a lovely spread and I was thrilled that there were so many options without red meat, so I had lots to try. I didn’t drink much wine at this event (and spitting was the norm at all events), but what I did try was delicious and a good reminder of how versatile Portuguese wine is. I’m glad to have had so many opportunities of late to enjoy wines from the region,
  • The official opening and the keynote from Corbett Barr was a major highlight. I admit I had never heard of him before the event, but I was blown away by how inspiring his message was. As someone who is struggling with what to do in terms of continuing my wine education and with how best to incorporate the blog in my life, he offered much wisdom. I understand this was the first year they had a non-wine related keynote and I have to say I was very pleased with this portion. I took away much I can use moving forward.
Learning all about wine blends.
  • The Wine Discovery breakout session – When the Sum is Greater than its Parts: Wine Blends from Around the World was fascinating. I learned so much in this session and it truly felt like a master class on international wine blends.
  • Friday night we were whisked away for dinner and tasting at one of the local wineries. Each of ten buses went to a different location and I was thrilled to visit and have an incredible meal at Buttonwood Winery. I’ll have a full post on that experience later.
  • Friday night there was a reception for Wine Tourism in North America and I did my best to try a few more wines (please note that I was spitting at every event except dinner, so the amount of wine consumed was minimal). I was so tired – jetlag is an evil thing – that I didn’t stick this one out very long, but I understand that many fellow bloggers did and then partook in some great after parties. I envy them their stamina!
  • Saturday’s breakout session on Search Engine Optimization was excellent. This was one of the many where I could barely take notes fast enough. I loved this session and the host Timothy Resnik was personable and spoke at a level that didn’t make me feel like the technology-challenged idiot I sort of am. There was lots to learn here and I walked away feeling inspired and excited about realistic things I could do to increase my blog’s chances for being found.
  • Saturday’s lunch was a delicious spread of various salads with wine pairings from our hosts – The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. I got to try even more local wines and the food was very good. I don’t know who did all the catering for the hotel events, but the food was always top notch and the service from the Marriott in Buellton was really incredible. 
  • After lunch I attended a breakout session on the New Wines of Greece: Ancient Wines… Modern Vines hosted by the very funny and refreshing Levi Dalton. Shawn and I are planning a trip to Greece next year, so this was one of particular interest to me. Levi was fabulous and made me even more excited to visit and try more wines. 
There were many other WBC events I enjoyed – the panel of Santa Barbara winemakers was informative and gave a good foundation on how winemaking in the area had evolved. And I did a breakout session on The Business of Wine Blogging that was hosted by two fitness bloggers, where I picked up some interesting tips. The Photography and Video session was very well done. The panel was more high-level than I anticipated – having a professional commercial director or the ability to hire a film crew is out of the realm of possibility for many bloggers, but it was still an interesting and informative session.  I think that if I was doing marketing for a winery and not a small, personal blog this would have been a much more effective session for me.

I had mixed feeling about the live wine blogging, which I’d heard much about in advance. It’s basically speed dating with wineries. Each winery has five minutes to visit the table, pour a taste and then explain the wine – all while we try to blog or tweet about the wine. It went well for the first few wineries, but I quickly got lost trying to keep up (I’m notoriously slow at tasting notes, so this was a real challenge). While I loved being able to try so many wines and meet the winery reps, I felt I was trying so hard to get my notes done and my Tweet posted that I wasn’t even really listening to them. I worried that I seemed rude and that I was missing key information on the wine. I liked the take-away info each winery provided, but it came well after my Tweet was posted. I’m still not 100% sure I’d want to do this one again, though, I really liked trying the wines. I skipped the red session the next day – though I hear I missed out on some awesome wines.

The Panel of Professional Print Writers was another mixed one for me. A lot of bloggers have written extensively about this panel and I’m not sure how much my thoughts add, but here goes. As someone who trained and worked as a professional journalist, I was interested in what the panelists had to say, but I think on some level there was a lack of understanding about the audience. There seemed to be a sense that everyone attending strived to be a professional writer and be published in magazines – certainly not the goal of many bloggers. And it felt as though there was some disdain for blogging in general. I have huge respect for all three writers on the panel and am a fan of their work, but I felt that perhaps a more diverse selection of writers (was there not one female wine writer available?) and a better understanding of who they were talking to would have helped. Still, there was enough genuinely good advice given about the art of storytelling, the importance of editing, and managing the fine line between editorial and advertorial to make this a positive experience for me.

Delicious Zin-infused chocolates
One big conference take away for me was that when I signed up and made my travel arrangements in January, I didn’t realize there were so many pre and post events. I missed out on some great winery visits because I didn’t get there until too late Thursday and we left for Paso too early Sunday. Next year, I’ll know better.

Overall, WBC was incredible. I made many new friends and contacts, I gained a much broader understanding of a wine region that was new to me and I took away so much about wine and blogging from the sessions. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

For more information on The Wine Bloggers Conference:
For more information on Santa Barbara Wine Tourism:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mata Petisco Bar - South American Food and Wine Pairing

I have been lucky enough of late to have the opportunity to try wines with all sorts of unusual pairing options. Being invited to taste through the wines of new restaurant Mata Petisco Bar (1690 Queen Street W.), in advance of their media tasting, was a great treat.

Mata has only been open a few short weeks, but already they have plenty of buzz. Partly, this is the lucky coincidence that their opening came during the World Cup, meaning big crowds on game days. The fact that Mata’s food is delicious and authentic South American cuisine should keep those crowds coming back.

For most South American food, the obvious pairings would be beer (and Mata has a huge Ontario craft brew list) or cocktails (of which Mata has several delicious South American choices). But wine is just as great an option and co-owner Sharath Dwarkanathan walked me through the restaurant’s small, but mighty list.

Currently, their wine list is a short one, but the plan is to enhance it over time. With many of the Mata team coming from Portuguese restaurant and wine powerhouse, Salt, it’s inevitable that the wines they do have on the list are smart, South American choices that compliment the flavours of the food. Chosen in consultation with Salt’s resident wine expert, Philip Carneiro, the list is focused and well-balanced.

Starting the line-up of whites is a 2012 Aromas Das Castas Alvarinho Trajadura Vinho Verde blend that has an extremely fruity nose – stone fruit, pears and apples – and is light and refreshing on the palate. This is a wine that’s perfect for drinking on a warm summer day and which would work extremely well with the ceviche or watermelon and tuna tartare.
Grilled Octopus

The 2012 Don David Reserve Torrontes is a bit spicy on the nose, with some floral notes. On the palate it works well and is a nice compliment to South American cooking.

My personal favourite, however, was a full-bodied white. The 2012 Esporao Reserva is a blended white from Alentejo Portugal, which spent several months in French oak. This rich, slightly buttery wine would pair well with the restaurant’s smoked crispy chicken hearts, ceviche or baked Escondidinho and is substantial enough even for red meat.

The three reds, a 2011 Montes Alpha Pinot Noir, a 2011 Santa Rita Reserve Carmenere and a 2007 Aconcagua Malbec , move nicely from light to heavy. The Pinot, from Chile, is very fruit-forward and perfect with tuna tar tare or picanha sliders. This is a very versatile wine that would pair well with many options and is light enough not to completely overpower some of the more delicate dishes.

The Carmenere is earthier with a bit of spice on the palate, a nice pairing with smoked meat, pastel and the cassava fries in the beef cheek poutine. This is a one with a lot of pairing options on the menu – it’s a wine that cries out for food and works well as a compliment to South American dishes.

Smoked, Crispy Chicken Hearts
The Malbac, with seven years of age on it, has nice grip and is the heaviest option. This is one that works with the extensive red meat options on the menu. I don’t eat red meat, but my fellow bloggers devoured the beef cheek poutine and picanha sliders, which I understand would be perfect with this Argentine wine.

Whether you opt for a glass of wine, a bottle of beer or a traditional South American cocktail, Mata will not disappoint. I was very impressed with everything I tried. The lobster pastel was ooey- gooey comfort food, the grilled octopus was cooked perfectly and the smoked crispy chicken hearts were very unique. While I learned that chicken hearts are fairly chewy (who knew?), I was impressed with the creativity of the menu and the authenticity of the food. I haven’t had the opportunity to try a lot of South American cuisine, but I felt that Mata’s kitchen, helmed by chef Felipe Facciolli, really delivered. 

And Mata has recently started serving brunch on the weekends – I’ve never had a South American brunch, so I expect I’ll be making another visit to check that out soon.

For more information on Mata Petisco Bar click here:

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

GLAS Wine Bar

Now this is a salad...
We are very lucky in Toronto to have so many great wine bars – that they offer fabulous food is an even more amazing thing.

One of my personal favourites is GLAS Wine Bar in Leslieville. I like their focus on Ontario wine and that they offer a plentiful and delicious selection of vegetarian options. As a pseudo-vegetarian, I love that on Tuesday nights I can indulge in their well-priced vegetarian tasting menu. And for those who prefer a more carnivorous wine and food pairing experience, there’s plenty for you too.

Chef Danny Pantano has a knack for developing great flavours and for knowing exactly what to pair them with. His staff is knowledgeable too – always ready with a wine suggestion when you’re stumped. Or you can simply choose the option of the tasting menu with the restaurant's pairings.

Below are some photos of my recent visit to check out their latest Tuesday vegetarian tasting menu. While I was a little sad that the lentil mac and cheese I’d fallen in love with from the winter menu isn’t on the current menu (it’s not really a summer dish), I wasn’t disappointed with a single bite I had that night.

For more information on GLAS Wine Bar, visit:

GLAS is very small, so reservations are highly recommended.