Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bill Hardy – Spotlight on Hardys Wine

I recently had the opportunity to attend an event with Bill Hardy of Australia’s Hardys wine. Bill is the fifth generation of his family to continue the tradition of making Hardys wine, a company that was founded in 1853 by Thomas Hardy and has a long and storied history.

Bill Hardy, who trained in Bordeaux, no longer makes wine for the company and now travels the world as an ambassador for the wines, a role he is more than suited for. During our chat and his speech that evening, his passion for the wines shone through.

Hardys is a huge operation, there are 2 million glasses of Hardys wine drunk every day around the world! They have more than 50 winemakers on staff and have vineyards all over Australia. In our conversation, I asked Bill about whether, given this level of success, they experiment much with new or different styles. He said that they do and they are currently looking at working with more Spanish wines, as they see potential for those grapes in an Australian climate.

We also spoke about grapes native to Australia. While there aren’t many to speak of, he had heard about one and would love the opportunity to experiment with it. Having recently read The Wild Vine about the Norton grape, the only native vinifera in North America, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of an Australian wine grape and what that might taste like. Perhaps one day fans of Hardys will find out.

Bill spoke quite a bit in his speech about why Hardys tends to do more blends than some wineries. The company likes to find wines that really complement each other and use "the magic of tinkering” to make them special. He feels that blending two or more varieties can create a more complex wine.

For myself, I saw this to be true in Hardys Chardonnay/Semillon blend—on its own, this might be a fairly straight-forward value Chardonnay (it retails for $9.99), but the Semillon added a bit of character and made for a much more interesting wine. I’ve actually started keeping a bottle of this on hand, as it’s a very good value bottle.

The Shiraz Sangiovese was another good blend, making what Bill considers a very food-friendly wine. I’m inclined to agree and this was another popular bottle at the tasting.

If you have the opportunity, take some time to learn about the history of the Hardy family and their winery. This was such an interesting part of the evening for me—Thomas Hardy came to Australia with 20 quid in his pocket and started making wine, the winery burned down years later and they started over again. Then, in 1938, Tom Mayfield Hardy (third generation at the winery and then managing director) was killed in a plane crash and his widow, Eileen Hardy, took over running the winery. She is a fascinating woman who led a winery at a time when this was not the norm at all—and she is now the namesake of Hardys premium Eileen Hardy wines. I couldn’t find a book on this story, but I hope someone is working on one now, it would certainly make for a page-turning read.

Bill Hardy’s overwhelming passion for wine, and Australian wine in particular, is evident when you speak with him. I left the event feeling like I had learned much about the wines of the region and about the art of wine blending. An evening well spent.

Thanks to iYellow Wine Club for the opportunity to attend this event.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shiraz Week

During the last week of February, you may have seen the #ShirazWeek hashtag popping up all over social media. The week, which highlighted the impressive amount of Shiraz being produced in Australia, was a fantastic reason for a tasting.

I was a guest at the iYellow Wine Club Shiraz Week celebration, where they had 17 Australian wines available for sampling. For a wine student, these types of tastings are a real treat. They give you the chance to explore a range of wines from one country and see how terroir and winemaking style can really impact the experience you have with one type of grape.

While I opted not to taste through all 17, I did make it through quite a few and came away with some definite favourites. All of the wines were well-made and, while most were high-volume wines, there was enough variety to really see differences in expression and terroir.

There was also a ‘mystery’ wine, which was kept in a brown bag to avoid it being judged by its label. I gave it a shot and was unimpressed—too sweet, almost juice-like, and not to my tastes at all. What was it? Yellow Tail, a wine I actually enjoyed before I had much experience with wine. It was an interesting experiment and some of the tasters were fans, but my palate has evolved quite a bit since I started tasting regularly and now I find overly sweet wines are no longer to my tastes. That said, it’s one of the best-selling wines in the world and you have to respect that.

So what wines did I really like? The Small Gully The Formula Robert’s Shiraz (that’s a mouthful of a name) was at the top of my list. It hit all the right notes for me, being a good blend of fruit and spices on the nose and palate and a very well-structured wine. I’d like to try this one with food, as I feel like it would be a really strong pairing wine.

I also liked the 19 Crimes Shiraz Durif and the Teusner 2012 The Independent Shiraz/Mataro—both wines had great labels that drew me in and then held up on the structure and palate. The 19 Crimes seemed a bit hot on the nose, though the alcohol in the wine itself was balanced. The Jim Jim 2013 (The Down-Underdog) Shiraz also made a good impression and I’d like to try it again at a smaller tasting.

The combination of ripe, black and red fruit with the peppery overtones that bring a strong, savoury note to Shiraz is the hallmark of this grape for me. I always think of peppery fruit and this tasting brought that to life. While each wine had its own individual nuances, I began to better understand the shared characteristics of Australian Shiraz—a valuable lesson along my wine journey.

The majority of these wines are available at the LCBO or your local wine store. I'm hoping to hold a Shiraz tasting of my own soon, so I may be stocking up on a few of these bottles. What's your favourite Shiraz?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ontario Vidal – A Blind Taste Test

I confess that I haven’t spent much time tasting Vidal. While I do enjoy it as an icewine and Lighthall’s Progression (a Vidal-based sparkling) is a personal favourite, I can’t say I’ve spent much time drinking Vidal table wine. That may change after a recent tasting session arranged by the amazing André Proulx.

André challenged our notion that Vidal wasn't a go-to table wine by procuring several selections from Ontario (mainly Niagara) and inviting a few friends to taste them blind and see what we thought. Going in, I wasn't sure what to expect or if I'd find any favourites. I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

While it was a mixed bag, I was once again impressed with the magic of wine – here were six bottles made from the same grape, much of it in the same region, and each bottle was completely different. The winemaker really does make a huge difference in how the final product develops and we each had opinions about our favourites and least favourites.

There was one wine that seemed a bit oxidized, so I’ll write that off as a bad bottle and not review, but the rest were solid, well-made wines. My two favourites – selected completely blind – were the 2013 Sandbanks’ Dunes and 2011 Lailey Vineyard. A big surprise for me was the 2012 Monarch Vidal from Pelee Island. While not my favourite, at $8.99 this is a pretty impressive value wine, especially if you like a floral wine. I also liked the 2013 Lailey Vineyard, which had a sour gummy worm quality on the finish that was really refreshing.

Some overall things about Vidal – it’s a fairly high acid grape and each of these wines showcased that. Some, like the Lailey, were much more balanced than others. Peach and green apples figured prominently in my tasting notes – I now consider these to be hallmarks of Vidal for me, as is a certain funkiness we were all joking about by the end. It’s not a bad thing, just a slightly vegetal note that was more pronounced in some wines than in others.

This was a valuable lesson in not being judgemental about a wine grape. I walked away impressed by the range of Vidal being produced in Ontario and looking forward to trying more in future.

Special thanks to Angela Aiello for hosting our event and having some of the most fun tasting notes!

Be sure to check out even more posts about this evening from André and Jason Solanki.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Winemaker Interview - Glenn Symons, Lighthall Vineyards

Photo provided by The Cellar Sisters
I have never been shy about my love of Lighthall Vineyards' Progression sparkling wine and, in general, I'm a pretty big fan of the wines Lighthall makes. Winemaker Glenn Symons has created something very special in his corner of Prince Edward County - even his own Lighthall brand cheese - and I am thrilled he agreed to be the next winemaker profiled in my ongoing interview series.

Why did you decide to become a winemaker? How did you study winemaking?
I’ve been passionate about wine since I was “legally” allowed to drink it, and have been a home winemaker for 25 years now.  I’d always wanted to get into winemaking on a larger scale, and when I divested from pharmacy operations, I finally had the opportunity to do so.

In terms of formal academic training, I didn’t have any at the outset. However, when I purchased the vineyard from Alice and Peter Menacher early in the 2008 growing season, they agreed to stay the remainder of the season to allow me to learn how they had been looking after the vineyard.  In exchange, they kept the harvest from that year, which they sold to Huff Estates (as in previous years).  At harvest time, I went to Huff along with the fruit, and worked the entire harvest with Frédéric Picard, the winemaker at Huff, where I learned to adapt my knowledge from small-scale to more commercial-scale winemaking.  Since that time, I have been studying and working towards a winemaking certificate through distance education at UC Davis.

Was it hard to change careers and take on this new challenge?
It had always been my ultimate dream to end up at an estate winery, so I was quite motivated from the beginning with the career change.  It has been a tremendous challenge keeping up with a huge learning curve, as well as the variation in vintages and growing seasons.  From a lifestyle perspective, it’s entailed many more hours than I expected as well.  Overall though, I have no regrets whatsoever!

What have been the biggest challenges of winemaking in PEC and what have been the biggest successes? 
The winters in PEC are most definitely the most difficult challenge.  The protection of the vines through burial was difficult to get a handle on, but after six winters I’ve learned a lot.  The cold in winter can be variable, and seems to have the single greatest impact on potential yields–if they are not ALL perfectly buried, the yields in the following vintage can be next to negligible.  Add to that the year-to-year variation in climate, rainfall, humidity, disease management, it’s all a very delicate juggling act.

Personally, my biggest success is the 2014 vintage – after the coldest winter since I’ve been here, we had a very slow start to the season, but the stars aligned in the spring when we avoided the dreaded late frost as well as rain during flowering, and we had a record-breaking fruit set.  Although the summer itself was not quite warm enough, we had a perfect fall – hot and dry weather brought the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir through to the fullest ripeness I’ve experienced, with the best yields to date.  The final hurdle will be to bring the 2014 wines to bottling without messing them up – I think my seven years’ experiences at Lighthall Vineyards (LHV) have taught me what works and what doesn’t work in the winery, and I’m confident the 2014 wines will be my best since the beginning.

The Muté fortified dessert wine is so unique - how did that come about? 
The Muté arose from a bumper Vidal crop in 2011.  The yields were more than expected, and after regular harvest for the Progression that year, I still had 30% of the fruit left on the vines.  Unsure of what to do with it, it stayed on the vines through to the end of December.  Over the Christmas holidays, my kids were struggling with keeping busy, and I decided New Year’s Eve to put them to work in the vineyard.  We harvested what was left, with a few friends, and the resulting juice I had destined for a late harvest product.

Once in tank, I felt the juice tasted very familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it reminded me of until I got home that night. I had some Pineau des Charentes as an apéritif before dinner, and it hit me – that’s what the Vidal juice tasted like. So rather than fermenting the newly pressed juice, I had some old wine that I didn’t want to market which I got distilled by my friends at Still Waters Distillery in Toronto. I used the distillate to fortify the Vidal juice, turning the juice into “Pineau du County” as it were, aged it in old Chardonnay barrels for a year, then released it.  Although it is significantly different from authentic Pineau des Charentes, there are striking similarities.  Every glass I have brings me back to that day!

What should people be most excited for in the coming vintage?
From LHV’s perspective, although the 2014 vintage was slow to start, and almost stalled mid-to-late season due to lack of heat units, the fall caught us up, and led to what I would consider the ripest as well as most voluminous harvest to date.  The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have developed never before seen depth and expression of varietal and terroir characteristics.  At harvest, the sugar and acidity levels were in perfect balance.  I think that after proper aging, the 2014 wines should be the most PEC-terroir-driven, classic examples of what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can give us, with unequaled balance.  And the prices should not increase, as the yields were superior as well.  2014 should be the best value-for-money vintage on record.

Want to learn more about Lighthall Vineyards wine? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on how Glenn's Progression sparkling wine came to be.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Wines of Vinho Verde

If you’re looking for great Portuguese wine and food in Toronto, you’re bound to end up at Salt Wine Bar, so you didn’t have to twist my arm very hard when I was invited to a recent Vinho Verde tasting at Salt.

Led by Salt’s Manager, Philip Carneiro, who is one of the city’s foremost experts on the wines of Portugal, and organized by Vinho Verde Canada, this was an informative tasting where each wine was paired with one of Salt’s incomparable tapas selections.

Vinho Verde is a coastal wine region on the north east end of Portugal. I’d experienced their wines during my wine classes, but Portugal is one of the regions my instructors didn't spend much time on. That’s disappointing, as the country produces some incredible wines.

The wines of Vinho Verde definitely stand out–crisp and light, the grapes from this region tend to have a nice, balanced acidity. They produce white, rosé, red and sparkling wines, though I am much more familiar with their whites– these tend to be the ones I’ve seen at the LCBO and on wine lists. White Vinho Verde wines are a great companion to fish and seafood, which made them perfect compliments to the ceviche and calamari dishes we tried at Salt.

The grapes grown in Vinho Verde are not ones you may be familiar with – but you should be: Alvarinho, Arinto, Azal, Batoca, Loureiro and Trajadura are the main white grapes and Amaral, Borracal, Alvarelhao, Espardeiro, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Anho and Vinhao are the main red grapes.

My favourite wine of the evening was the 2013 Anselmo Mendes Avarinho Contacto (shown at the top of the post). While it’s still a bit young, this was already drinking nicely. This wine is made using a technique where the must has contact with the grape skins and it is complex and delicious.  There was mango and passion fruit on the nose, stone fruit on the palate and a very balanced minerality. I highly recommend this one.

All four wines we tried were quite good and each represented a different taste profile for the region. Carneiro had also chosen perfect pairing options from Salt’s kitchen to ensure the wine and food worked in perfect harmony. It should be no surprise that Salt was named one of the city’s top ten wine bars in a recent Toronto Life article–this restaurant offers some of the best tapas in the city alongside a perfectly planned selection of Spanish and Portuguese wines.

You can find several options from Vinho Verde at the LCBO or via agency in Ontario and you can learn more about Salt Wine Bar at

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: