Monday, March 2, 2015

Taking Time for Wine and Chocolate

When my best friend, Eva, suggested Shawn and I drop by for an afternoon of wine and chocolate pairing, I definitely couldn’t say no. Eva has recently started a blog, A Me Moment, in which chocolate features prominently, and I loved the idea of spending time together while combining one of my favourite things with hers. I’ve written about wine and chocolate many times and I think it can be a fantastic combination – especially when you have the right wine and chocolate combination.

Eva treated us to a very healthy homemade lunch to start our afternoon (she shares our love of healthy eating with worthwhile treats in moderation) and then we started our session of pairing.

Eva chose Blink’s dark chocolate and cherry bark and I had recommended a Tawse wine for my part of the process. She selected Tawse’s Sketches 2011 Cabernet Merlot and a 2009 Messias Late Bottled Vintage Port.

We started with the Tawse and I was impressed with the pairing. The wine really brought out the spiciness in the chocolate and you got a great pop of flavour when you combined the two. This is a very solid wine overall, nicely structured and perfect for sipping over dinner, so it was great to experience it in this way.

The port was, as expected, another strong pairing option. Dark chocolate and port are often combined because the chocolate is not sweet enough to overpower the port – it’s a delicious taste sensation. The 2009 Messias is drinking well now and is a very good après meal wine option. We all agreed that this was the most dessert-like of our selections and even Eva, who is not much of a wine drinker, agreed she would like to have it again.

Blink’s chocolate bark was a very good choice for pairing, except for the cherries. On its own, this is a fantastic treat, but when you get a bite of cherry with your wine the tartness really impacts on the experience. To solve this, we just ate around the cherries and enjoyed them on their own. Not a hardship at all.

You can check out Eva’s take on our experience here:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies – Book Review

Sometimes I think there is a bit of a stigma around the ‘For Dummies’ books, as the title can make it seem like these books are, well, for dummies. I hope that doesn’t discourage serious people away from their excellent wine titles – including John Szabo’s Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies, which I read in 2014.

One of the first wine books I ever read was Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan and it was a very valuable resource for a newbie. They covered the basics in a straight-forward and easy-to-understand way. I referenced the book frequently during my early wine classes.

Szabo’s book is another excellent reference for any wine-lover to have on hand. As with the rest of this series, his book breaks down the basics of food and wine pairing into easily digestible chunks so even a wine novice can benefit. He also looks at wine and food from regions around the world and includes some really useful and interesting pairing suggestions – I have to admit I’d never thought about what to pair with a Portuguese custard tart, but now I really want to try his recommended wine.

One of only three Master Sommeliers in Canada, Szabo is an authoritative voice on wine and it’s nice to see that his book is both accessible and informative. Whether you are new to wine or a seasoned aficionado, this book is worth having in your collection. I expect I’ll be pulling it out on many occasions in the years to come.

You can read more of John Szabo’s writing at or on his website

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Winemaker Interview – Derek Barnett, Lailey Vineyard

Photo provided by Lailey Vineyard
Whenever I see Lailey Vineyard wines at an event, I know it’s a good bet their winemaker, Derek Barnett, will be at the booth alongside his staff. Derek is one of the Niagara areas best winemakers and his welcoming nature and infectious enthusiasm for winemaking are as much a part of the Lailey charm as their exceptional wines. When I started this winemaker series he was someone I knew I wanted to interview.

I met with Derek in Lailey’s lovely tasting room on a beautiful fall morning to talk about the upcoming vintage and taste through some of their recent releases.

With harvest just completed at the time of our interview and wines beginning to ferment, Derek was enthusiastic about the wines he’ll be releasing in 2015 and beyond – despite fears early in the season that the weather was going to deal winemakers a rough hand. “Everyone talks about it being shorter, but it was a good growing season, although it was a bit late. In early September the weather seemed to change a little bit and we had a really long dry spell and the fruit ripened well. Harvest came in exceptionally well, so I’m excited,” he says.

“I think everyone I’ve talked to, it wasn’t quite the disaster we all talked about back in the winter,” he says. “Some places obviously are worse off as far as yield is concerned than others, but in our case it was better than expected.”

He’s especially excited about the Rieslings and Chardonnays and their progress so far and, of course, the Syrah his winery is known for. “The Syrah, I thought, came in very well. We don’t have as much Syrah as normal, our crop was down and one my suppliers had very little, so it will be a short crop, but the flavours are amazing.”

Lailey is one of the only Ontario wineries I know that does futures releases and I was lucky to partake in some from last year’s vintage, so I was a little disappointed to learn that they likely won’t have a futures program this year. However, the reason for this is a good one and I respect that they’re not planning to make it an annual event.

“Futures we tend to do in years where we see an exceptional vintage,” Derek explains. “So 2007, 2010, 2012 were the years we have done futures so far.”

The futures program started with the 2007 vintage because fans of Lailey were wanting to order wines ahead of times to ensure they got them – especially the small production wines – and the success of that program encouraged Lailey to do it again, but only when the vintage warranted it.

You can still purchase all Lailey wines at their winery - provided they don't sell out. Their very small production old vines wines are some of the more popular bottles available. Lailey has some of the oldest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in the area – plantings that date back to the 1970s. “There’s always a lot of conversation started around old vines,” Derek says, noting that the wines these vines produce is exceptional, so they continue to keep them separate and create a unique line that is available to wine club members and visitors to the winery.

A stop at the winery is something I highly recommend – it’s a beautiful space set on a stunning parcel of Niagara land. The tasting room is a cozy place that fills up fast, but feels much more personal than many of the bigger Niagara wineries. There is a sense that Lailey is still a family business, though it has become a very successful one.

“We just try to meet people when they come to the winery to make them feel like they’re part of us and that gives us a little bit of a special edge,” explains Derek. “Saturdays and Sundays you can come in and talk to me anytime and visit the winery, get a tour if you come in when we’re doing them, and we try to take on a personal note and just make it kind of warm.”

While Lailey wines do pop up on occasion in the LCBO’s Vintages section, I highly recommend visiting the winery to truly experience the full range of wines Lailey produces. And if you have the chance to chat with Derek about his wines, be sure to take the opportunity to learn more about the old vines and new ideas that make Lailey so special.

For more info on Lailey Vineyard:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

iYellow Wine Club's Icewine Festival Bus Tour

Shawn decided early in our relationship he would rather be our designated driver on wine trips than endure group tours. He felt we could visit more wineries, save the cost of the tour, avoid waiting around for stragglers to meander back to the bus and not have to deal with the over-served or bachelorette parties. For the most part, this has worked well. He’s happy to wait around while I chat with winemakers, taste and shop – then we hop in the car and zip off to our next visit.

Given this, when I won tickets to the iYellow Wine Club Icewine Festival bus tour, I wasn’t sure he’d want to join me. But he did, and we had a fantastic time. What was it that made this group tour better than the ones we’ve tried in the past? I think it’s the iYellow touch – they’ve combined all the best parts of bus tours and managed to ease the annoyance factor significantly.

We set off from Toronto on a Saturday morning after being greeted at the bus by iYellow staff handing out light snacks and water. These supplies are a great touch and helped keep everyone fortified for the trip.

We made it to our first stop, Rosewood Estates Winery, in just over an hour and were in good spirits for our first tasting of the day. We had a warm mead welcome cocktail, played ‘guess the mead’ in a tasting flight, paired Merlot and chocolate and then had a few minutes to shop. Shawn loved that the shopping portion at each stop was fairly short – no waiting around forever to get everyone back on the bus.

And during the travel to our next stop – Pillitteri Estates Winery – there were giveaways, homemade treats and lots of fun things to keep us occupied. The tour at Pillitteri was extremely well-done. Our host, Neil, was hilarious and made the tour and tasting feel welcoming and special. He also chose very interesting wines for us to taste – an aged Riesling and several unusual icewines (2002 Cabernet Franc, a 2007 blend, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Sangiovese). This was by far my favourite tasting of the day and another reminder of how daring the winemaking team at Pillitteri can be.

It was a short trip to Inniskillin from there, where we had a lovely lunch in the barrel room. We were both impressed by the quality of the food and enjoyed chatting with the people seated near us. We followed lunch with another tasting and a few minutes of shopping before heading off to our secret stop – Niagara Oast House Brewers.

I’m not a big beer drinker, but it was nice to see the new upstairs space at Oast House and Shawn was ready to try something different. We had two samples, enjoyed a few more minutes of chatting with our tourmates, bought some beer and were back on the bus for the ride home in under an hour. Our tourmates chose quiet on the ride home over a movie (I was hoping they’d want to watch Blood Into Wine) and I actually got some reading done on the trip back – this wasn’t a crazy party bus by any stretch.

So what was it that made this tour work for us?
  1. The iYellow experience. If you’re studying for your level four WSET, this isn’t the place to prep for your exam – it’s a tour to remind you that wine is fun. The iYellow staff bring a chatty, unpretentious vibe and everyone is there to enjoy themselves. I think Shawn really liked the break from talking vintage variation and weather patterns with his cork dork wife.
  2. Good pacing. The activities were well-planned, the shopping time was reasonable and there was no sitting around waiting. The drinking was also well-paced. There was good spacing between tastings, spittoons were available, snacks and water were plentiful, lunch was hearty and there was no encouragement to over-indulge. There was plenty to drink, but this was a party, not a bacchanalian.
  3. The people. iYellow has found their sweet spot amongst a younger crowd who want to learn about wine without pretension. Most people are fairly new to wine and they don’t take it super seriously. No one judged you if you were buying the $12 pink bubbles – in fact, no one judged you at all.
Shawn and I will be revising our stance on bus tours after this. While we will still choose do our own wine touring most of the time, we’d definitely consider another iYellow tour in the future. 

A few tips from Shawn:
  • Bring headphones if you’re picky about music or want to drown out bus chatter.
  • You can burn out on icewine pretty easily – don’t feel like you have to try every single thing.
  • Take advantage of the snacks offered and bring your own – that will take the edge off the wine and you’ll feel much better at the end of the day.
  • Enjoy the fruit offered or bring your own. The vitamin C helps counterbalance the alcohol and it’s full of other things that are good for you too.
Do you like group wine tours? What makes a tour really work for you? I’d love your thoughts in the comment section.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Wild Vine – Book Review

It’s no secret that I am slightly obsessed with wine books. In 2014, I read some pretty fabulous ones – The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Wine & War being two major standouts. Another favourite was The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine and I thought it deserved a special shout-out, as I have encountered far fewer people who have read it. That needs to change.

Evan Dawson, one of my favourite wine writers (and the author of the amazing Summer in a Glass), suggested The Wild Vine to me on Twitter when I asked for recommendations for what to read next.  I had recently purchased the book and figured if Evan suggested it, it must be good. Not surprisingly, he was right!

The Wild Vine is the story of the Norton grape, the first wine grape successfully cultivated and grown in the United States. Most wine grapes are of European origin and many believed that U.S. grapes – let alone one from Missouri – would never be suitable for winemaking. An intrepid medical doctor with a major grape fixation proved them wrong.

If you had told me the history of a grape I’d never heard of would turn out to be a page-turner, I’d have scoffed. But after a bit of a slow start (common in wine books), I was completely sucked in to the story of how this grape went from skeptical responses to years of glory and then on to relative obscurity.

Author Todd Kliman has meticulously researched the Norton and you can tell he was completely drawn into this unusual tale. While the backstory about winemaker Jenny McCloud wasn’t as interesting to me as the history, I was impressed with her passion for the grape and her decision to continue to grow Norton grapes and make wine from it. Wine is full of stories of those who persevered when they were told something wasn’t possible (just talk to the original winemakers from
Prince Edward County or read Geoff Heinricks excellent A Fool and Forty Acres for a few examples). This is a case where an obsession with Norton is seen as a bit of folly, but applauded just the same.

The Norton touches on so many things – Thomas Jefferson, German history, winemaking in the U.S., prohibition and more – I walked away from the book knowing so many new things about American history and wanting desperately to try some Norton. So far I haven’t had any luck tracking down a bottle, but that just means Shawn and I need to add a few more states to our travel wish list.

I highly recommend The Wild Vine and look forward to hearing your opinion on the book. Already read it? Feel free to leave your thoughts (or links to your reviews) in the comments.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hope Family Vineyards

When we started planning our trip to California for the Wine Bloggers Conference, I knew I wanted to visit Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles. I had tried their Troublemaker red blend at the California Wine Show and I was impressed (it ended up being one of my favourite wines of 2014) and the team at Trialto (who represent Hope Family Wines in Ontario) said this was a winery not to be missed.

The winery itself is not as big and fancy as some of the sprawling California wine estates I saw during my time in the state. It reminded me a lot of the wineries in Niagara, which may be another reason this place stole my heart. It’s a lovely building set on a beautiful vineyard and feels warm and inviting. This is a comfortable place for a tasting and you feel right at home.

Having been farming in Paso Robles for more than 30 years, the Hope family started out growing apples and grapes, but now the land is exclusively vineyards. They grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Mourvedre and Grenache grapes. They were certified sustainable by the Central Coast Vineyard Team in 2009, as part of the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) program. Sustainability is important to the winery and it came up numerous times during our visit – they are committed to growing grapes in a way that benefits the wine and the environment.

Our tour and tasting had been arranged in advance and we arrived early in the day so I could do a tasting before Shawn drove us along the Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey. Our host was so generous with her time and her explanations of each of the wines. I sampled through their catalogue and discovered that Troublemaker is only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Hope Family line of wines.

I started with the Liberty School 2013 Central Coast Chardonnay, which has lots of peach and melon on the nose and is creamy, light and refreshing. I would love to try this wine with some of the delicious California cuisine we sampled during our vacation.

The Paso Robles 125 commemorative white wine blend was a real treat – it was created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Paso Robles and its release coincided with the city's fourth of July celebrations. It was made predominantly of Rhone varietals and was very balanced with nice acidity. This wine was available only through the winery tasting room and is a very limited edition.

The Liberty School Rosé had lots of sour cherry and grapefruit on the nose with quite a bit of citrus on the palate. This is a wine we bought during our visit and enjoyed on the patio of our hotel in Napa – it was absolutely perfect for a sunny California afternoon.

The Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon has cherry, spice and smoke on the nose. It has good grip with a long finish and fresh, vibrant fruit on the palate.

The 2011 Austin Hope Grenache has raspberry and dried fruit on the nose. This is a super small production wine with a focus on being a special occasion wine. It was really just a gorgeous, full-bodied sipper that I would love to have again.

The 2012 Austin Hope Grenache was a little heavier on the nose – likely due to being just a bit younger, but still had a lot of raspberry and smoky notes.

Candor is a mult-vintage and multi-region Zinfandel with a vibrant nose featuring green grapes, cherry and strawberry. It’s very fruit-forward and refreshing and not a heavy-feeling wine. This is a great option for warm weather sipping.

I so enjoyed our visit to Hope Valley Wines and I wish they were readily available at the LCBO – I’m sure that their Troublemaker and Liberty School wines would be very successful, especially if the price-point was similar to what they cost at the winery. Trialto does have some of their bottles available for order by the case - contact them for availability.

If you get the chance to visit Paso Robles (and I hope you do), be sure to book time to stop in at Hope Family Wines – it’s well-worth a visit.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

#NiagaraChilled - Three Weekends of Fun in Winter Wine Country

Niagara in January may not be top-of-mind for a getaway, but with icewine, great eats, music and lots of fun activities on the schedule for Ontario’s biggest wine region, it should be. In fact, this weekend was the first of three jam-packed weekends full of all of the aforementioned.  For 2015, the region is celebrating #NiagaraChilled, which includes the Icewine Festival, 20 Valley Winter WineFest and much, much more. Niagara is definitely a hotspot for winter wine fun right now.

Shawn and I have visited the Icewine Festival over the last two years and we’re excited to be returning this year with the fabulous iYellow Wine crew. iYellow put together a preview event last week to make sure local bloggers were aware of just what Niagara has to offer this month.

You can find a full schedule and information about the many events and tastings at  While the first weekend activities have taken place, there are still two more weekends to go and they are chock full of things to do.

At the preview event, I was able to taste through some fantastic examples of Niagara icewine – a great reminder that Ontario icewine is an incredible treat. Here are the wines we sampled:

Peller Estates Ice Cuvée Classic - This is a long-time favourite for me. It's a traditional method sparkling with an icewine dosage added after fermentation. It's also delicious.  This was a popular option for those looking for something less sweet and more in line with the typical wine experience. For me, this showcases the diversity of icewine and is a reminder that it can be used in many ways.I'm really wishing I could be in Niagara for this year's icewine cocktail contest, which takes place on the second week of #NiagaraChilled.

Cave Spring Cellars 2013 Riesling - A popular choice at the event, this icewine has very balanced acidity that helps the sweetness seem less intense on the palate. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend this for those wanting to introduce someone to icewine.

Peller Estates 2013 Oak Aged - This is a Vidal-based icewine. Personally, I like Vidal icewines, but they present as much sweeter. While the actual sugar levels may be on par with a Riesling icewine, I always find the Vidal comes across as sweeter because of the lower acidity. I was curious about the oak aging on this one, but really didn't get a lot of oak on the palate or nose.

Chateau Des Charmes  2012 Cabernet Franc - I love Niagara Cabernet Franc and am always interested in how winemakers use this more savoury grape in icewine. The CDC 2012 was a good example of how you can do something a little different with icewine and still keep the most important characteristics. I got a great licorice note on this wine on the first few sips and then it developed more ripe berry and candied fruit qualities. It was nicely balanced and didn't feel overpoweringly sweet. I paired it with a lamington (Australian white cake with chocolate and coconut) from  Kanga quite successfully. The cake wasn't overly sweet, so it didn't overpower the icewine.

This sneak peak has me excited to try even more fabulous icewines when we visit on the 24th. Be sure to add me on Twitter and Instagram if you'd like to follow along. And you can book your own icewine adventure via

Learn more about #NiagaraChilled via this video from Angela Aiello: