Highlights from 2011, Hopes for 2012 – WineAlign’s Critics Weigh In

Margaret Swaine’s Big Night in St. Emilion

The Ban des Vendanges in Saint Émilion celebrates the grape harvest and everyone’s invited to partake in at least parts of it. Eight years ago when I was inducted into this vinous brotherhood the ceremony was quite modest, held in the old town square. This year it was held outside the church on the upper plateau of the village where tourists could gather to watch from the periphery of the area roped off for inductees, press and officials. The day had started with the Jurade of Saint Émilion parading through the streets in their vermillion robes with white fur trim. It was a grand ceremony as was the Sunday Mass which followed, drawing standing room only crowds. Lunch for the Jurade members and invited guests (650 of us) began with champagne in the City Hall courtyard and continued in an ancient Clos with twelve Saint Émilion wines matched to multiple courses. In the midst a woman fainted and upon the call for a doctor, many people rushed forward. “There are always doctors near wine,” quipped the winemaker from Chateau Fourney sitting at my table. That night a mob of revellers packed the streets of this delightful medieval village in the heart of the famous Bordeaux vineyards. Just a few hundred people live here but thousands jammed the cobblestoned streets to watch the sound and light show, the fireworks and catch the outdoor entertainment.

In 2012…

I hope to see even more lightly oaked to non-oaked chardonnays with good acidity and modest alcohol. Also, Less jammy pinot noirs- instead more earthy, sour cherry versions with layered complexity. Balance, poise and judicious use of oak in reds instead of big flavour bombs that taste of jam, wood chips and inner staves. More unique, indigenous grape varietals in the spotlight from whatever country.

Steve Thurlow’s Magical Meal in Paarl

I travelled frequently in 2011 to many parts of the wine world so selecting just one experience is difficult. However one evening in November was memorable; dinner with 24 Canadian friends in the C17th Laborie Manor House in Paarl, South Africa. It was a beautiful magical evening with exquisite service, great food and superb wines. As the candles flickered, it was easy to imagine dinners over centuries passed that had been held in the amazing banquet hall. Conversation at the table was animated and you could tell that everyone there was enjoying an unforgettable evening. Many fine wines were served, each well matched to the course in question, but it was the Jean Taillefert 2009 Shiraz that was the highlight of the evening for me. It is Laborie’s flagship Shiraz full-bodied, with raspberry, blackcurrant & plum fruit aromas and flavours with dark chocolate, black pepper, soft vanilla, toffee & toast complexity. It is velvety smooth and well balanced with excellent length. I will return in November 2012 and dream of another unforgettable experience.

In 2012…

I hope that the wines of South Africa will become more popular in Ontario. There will be an increasing selection of wines in the $12-$20 price range available from the Cape; so let’s hope that wine lovers buy these, thus encouraging the LCBO to offer a greater selection in the future. South Africa produces very good shiraz and sauvignon blanc with cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in support. What you can get for $15 is frequently better than similarly priced wines from the northern hemisphere. Watch the reviews at WineAlign.com for guidance and experiment a little. You will not be disappointed.

David Lawrason Goes to Ground

My most important wine moment of 2011 occurred in Australia’s McLaren Vale where I spent a fascinating morning sifting through the amazing complexities of soil science with Rosemount viticulturalist Kim Ayliffe. It was one of several ah-ha moments that saw me become re-grounded through travel and become even more convinced that soil (not just the more holistic concept of terroir) is the key to wine quality. Not the type of soil per se,( ie limestone versus clay versus shale) but how well viticulturalists understand the soil they have, how it affects vine vigour, and how they adjust grape growing. I met many people whose passion was rooted deep the soil they owned, and cared deeply about how they were expressing that soil, while preserving the environment around it.  In a verdant corner of northwest Spain called Bierzo I met a most remarkable was young winemaker named Ricardo Perez of Descendientes de José Palacio, who is who is making wine biodynamically and in the process re-introducing his neighbours to an agrarian way of life they abandoned generations ago.  In Patagonia, Argentina, a very wordly European couple – Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano and Danish winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers – have found solace and challenge at Bodega Noemia in the other-wordly remoteness of the desert of the Rio Negro, where they too farm biodynamically. They have made some of the best wines I tasted in 2011.  And I predict they will be, and perhaps already are, the models of future generations.

In 2012…

I would love to predict that Ontario wine will finally be unshackled from its government’s outdated policies around wine retailing – and that we will finally see independent stores selling 100% Ontario-made wines – not just VQA wines.  (I believe VQA needs to be a pure appellation structure that is not tied to financial incentives or disincentives for the producers). At the same time I would also like to see an equal number of private stores selling imported wines – again in a truly democratic fashion. There is mounting political pressure for Ontario’s outmoded alcohol retailing system to change, and it has been proven by Premier McGuinty’s own hand-picked review panel  that the LCBO is not the best financial model for generating alcohol revenue or getting the best deal for the people of Ontario.  Change will not likely come in the next 12 months because the current regime lacks the will to take on the unionized public service. But pressure to cut provincial spending and reduce the deficit will make the LCBO a very tempting and increasingly controversial target.

Sara d’Amato Stays Home

This past year has been a string of wonderful wine-related memories including tasting century-year-old wines from some of the world’s most prestigious Chateaux, a most enlightening revisit to Prince Edward County where Pinot Noir now reigns supreme, along with a brilliant, record breaking year with my esteemed WineAlign colleagues. The most significant event of 2011 for me, however, was the birth of my second son, Morgan, who, perhaps to his benefit, narrowly escaped being named Pinot or Nebbiolo.  Before Morgan’s birth we gave considerable thought to what we would crack open in the delivery room to toast to his arrival into the world.  Indecision regarding this seemingly most important choice resulted in our hurriedly grabbing a bottle of 1997 Laurent Perrier Brut Millésimé out of the cellar in our dash to the hospital; a fine bottle, but not too esoteric of a choice for exhausted, new parents to appreciate. In other words: despite our haste we stumbled onto the perfect wine for the occasion. It is always worth a reminder that context is so important to experiencing wine -  wine is at its best when enjoyed along with friends, fine foods and paired with the most exceptional of events.

In 2012…

I predict it is going to be a most interesting year for local wine production. In Ontario, we continue to master certain key varietals and focus more of our energies on their production. The unpredictable and highly variable growing seasons here in Ontario make for exciting, cutting edge and expressive wines. This fringe climate with such variable outcomes puts us in the company of the most coveted and successful wine regions of the world. Like Burgundy and Oregon, we also seem to have a knack for the most illusive of varietals, Pinot Noir. Producers such as Norman Hardie and Keint-He in Prince Edward County, and Le Clos Jordanne and Tawse in Niagara, have made efforts to reduce yields and put forth surprisingly ripe, distinctive and complex models of Pinot, which has begun to shine the international spotlight on our small but proud region. Riesling also continues to have great success, and although some believe it will never achieve the mainstream success of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, certain examples by key producers are starting to turn heads. Impressive achievements from Château des Charmes and Cave Spring this past year continue to pave the way for what I hope to be the year of Riesling for Niagara.

For my part, I have been fortunate to have stayed close to home this year (for the aforementioned reason) and have had the opportunity to rediscover our local wine producing regions. In 2012 I am looking forward to spending more time abroad discovering bourgeoning wine regions and forging new connections with wine producers around the world.

John Szabo: The Year of Natural Wines

You’ve heard about sustainable, unfiltered, organic and maybe even biodynamic wines. And in 2011 yet another category started to slip into the mainstream: natural wines. Judging by the startling amount of press to date (especially given their microscopic share of the wine market), I’d prepare to hear a lot more about them. That’s not to say that other wines are somehow ‘unnatural’, as the term implies (vinegar is the only truly ‘natural’ outcome of fermenting fruit), but there are degrees of more and less manipulated wine. Though the fine details vary, most adherents to the natural wine movement can agree on the broad strokes: grapes should be grown without synthetic pesticides or herbicides (like organic or biodynamic wines), and then treated with minimal intervention in the winery.  See the charter on the website of the Associations des Vins Naturels for a definition. While some of the so-called natural wines I’ve tasted are downright faulty, by and large these are intriguing, sometimes extraordinary expressions with a real sense of place. It’s a backlash against, even the antithesis of industrially made, formulaic commercial products. I for one welcome the resurgence in diversity, which can only be good for humanity.

In 2012…

I would like to see the emergence of other great regions of Europe. A few countries made their first big impression on the Ontario market in 2011, most notably Georgia and Croatia. Judging by the quality I’ve seen so far, they are definitely on my radar for this year. Other obscure, but potential great regions such as Hungary and the giant Island of Crete (Greece) have really yet to hit their commercial stride. Will 2012 be their year to emerge from the shadows?