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 WineAlign.com or on his website http://www.johnszabo.com/.

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: http://www.laileyvineyard.com

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.