John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 1st 2012

A-List Champagne for the TIFF; Resto Wine Lists: Creative Expression or Esoteric Alienation? Top Ten Smart Buys.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Since you’re probably not even reading this, unless there’s WiFi on the dock or at your campsite, I’ll be brief. In fact, I’m camping, and would rather hear from you instead of writing a lot. If late summer leisure allows extra-curricular thoughts to displace your common concerns, I’d like to know what you think about restaurant wine lists.

There’s a sea of change underway across the city and across North America, and wine lists have never been so diverse and unique. But maybe in some cases they’ve become too esoteric? Do you want comfortable old friends or an introduction to someone new when you dine out? Let me set it up for you to comment below.

I’ve also got a couple of A-list champagnes at B-movie prices (relatively), and the Top Ten End of Summer Smart Buys from the September 1st VINTAGES release. Happy camping.

Smart Buys

Marimar Estate La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard ChardonnayAntica ChardonnaySéguinot Bordet Vaillons ChablisSince we’ve already established that it’s cool again to like chardonnay: here’s a trio of fine examples:

2010 Séguinot-Bordet Vaillons Chablis 1er Cru ($29.95)
2010 Antica Chardonnay Napa Valley ($35.95)
2008 Marimar Estate la Masía don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma County ($25.95)

All three are regional classics, with an extra degree of class and balance at fair prices. But if provenance and recognizability are trumped by extreme value for you, than check out the following:

2010 Château Ka Source Blanche Bekaa Valley, Lebanon ($15.95)
2010 Jean Perrier & Fils Abymes Cuvée Prestige, Savoie, France ($12.95)
2010 Tbilvino Tsinandali Dry White Kakheti, Georgia ($12.95)

Château Ka Source BlancheJean Perrier & Fils Abymes Cuvée PrestigeTbilvino Tsinandali Dry White

These won’t set the world on fire (when’s the last time the world was ablaze from a $13 wine?), but are well worth a look for everyday-delicious wines from not-so-everyday places and grapes.

Also in the top ten you’ll find a solid, neither overly traditional nor modern Rioja (this one’s juuust right), a meaty, savory southern French red, an exceptionally classy pinot blanc for less than $14, and a fine local Riesling made by (labeled under the name of) a Canadian sports hero.

Check them out here.

And How Would You Like That Wine List, Sir?

From the days of house red and white, to comfortable lists with recognizable regions, grapes and brand names, to lists filled with esoteric, limited production wines from obscure places or virtually extinct varieties known only to a small handful of sommeliers, the restaurant wine list has undergone almost as dramatic a revolution as menus have since the bad old seventies. Many voices, pro and con, have weighed in on the subject, particularly in the United States where the likes of Jon Bonné in a recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle and Eric Asimov for the New York Times have examined the development of wine lists in recent years (a change that has been mirrored here in Canada, albeit to a lesser extent thanks to our archaic, diversity-hindering monopolistic system of alcohol distribution), and raised some interesting questions about the direction many wine directors are taking.

In the most recent rounds of thoughtful criticism, both Bonné and Asimov take New York Post writer Steve Cuozzo to task for his controversial rant entitled Sour Grapes, railing against unfamiliar wine lists. Cuozzo begins his discourse: “Wine is one of dining’s, and life’s, great pleasures. Yet it can seem anything but when an esoteric or pretentious list leaves you stumped over what to order. You’re at the mercy of a sommelier determined to teach you a thing or two, when all you want is a nice, affordable Bordeaux to go with chicken and summer greens.”

He continues: “Ordering wine can be a nuisance even in the easiest case. You’re making a pricey decision that will affect everyone’s meal. You poke through the list under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room while thirsty friends beg you to get on with it. Seasoned diners can cope. What’s tougher is when a restaurant sets out to prove a point with its “wine program,” a strategy that results in a list that’s 100-percent inscrutable.”

Cuozzo’s argument amounts essentially to the belief that diversity beyond a handful of well-recognized grapes and brand names, is a hindrance for diners. So the real question is, should all restaurants offer something for everyone, or, are some restaurants smart to stay true to a unique vision, even if the inscrutable vision will likely alienate some guests?

Asimov counters Cuozzo’s argument with: “Restaurants are not intent on annoying people. Even the proudest, most rigid chef wants you to share a vision, not walk away unhappy. I treasure restaurants that do not pander as long as they succeed on their own terms. The same questions apply to wine. Must a restaurant offer bottles that even the most timid diner will recognize? Or can a wine list reflect a restaurant’s best conception of itself, no matter how unconventional? The world is dominated by the ordinary and the mass-market. Most restaurants, even in New York City, conform to a mainstream vision of food and wine. For that reason alone we should celebrate the departures, not feel threatened by them. If a restaurant is so unorthodox that you feel discomfited, plenty of more conventional choices beckon.”

The Wine List PleaseIt’s interesting to note that discussions of mainstream versus innovation and diversity used to be centered on food menus. Most reasonable people seemed ready to accept a chef’s right to remain uncompromisingly true to his or her culinary vision. The ultra successful Terroni Group of Restaurants (including five in Toronto and one, soon to be two, in Los Angeles) is a case in point. Owner Cosimo Mammoliti is infamous for his no modifications, no substitution policy. They wont even cut your pizza for you at Terroni. Why? “We simply want our customers to have the experience of eating those dishes in the same way that they’ve been enjoyed for generations” is the answer. The implication is that if you don’t want to eat what Italians have been eating for generations, there are plenty of other restaurants you can go to. (Incidentally, the wine list is also filled with inscrutable wines you won’t find anywhere else, since Terroni imports dozens of Italian wines exclusively, which doesn’t seem to deter diners from drinking.) Terroni’s success vindicates their no mods policy.

So why should wine directors and sommeliers be accorded any less latitude to express a vision than a chef/owner? If it doesn’t work, they won’t be in business for long in any case.

The Canadian dining landscape is ever more interesting. Young chefs who have trained under our most celebrated culinary artists are opening restaurants at an alarming (comforting) rate, adding culinary multiplicity to the dining scene of myriad neighborhoods. It’s virtually a pre-requisite for survival in the hyper-competitive market. And so many young, and seasoned, sommeliers are seeking to reflect that diversity and distinctiveness with the beverage program.

So, the question is, are you as afraid of unknown wines as you are of unknown ingredients? Or is dining out an adventure in discovery? Let me know what you think.

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Oxymoron: Value Champagne for TIFF

Cristal Brut ChampagneCharles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ChampagneVINTAGES is splashing out (or re-splashing) on champagne for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, which runs from September 6th – 16th. After all, champagne is a virtual sine qua non for the A-list beat. You, too, may have champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but reluctantly live in reality. And for you, I have two “value” options from the release. In lieu of the predictable names on offer, namely Dom Pérignon 2003 (which was not available to taste), and the really very fine 2005 Cristal Brut Champagne (any wine at nearly $300 could scarcely be considered a value), head instead to the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne for $54.95. This has long been one of my favorite non-vintage champagnes with vintage-like quality, and might rightly fall in the value realm. The secret is a significant proportion of reserve (old) wines, which gives the Charles its distinctly toasty, fully mature profile. Add to that a rich, creamy, dry but generous, mouth filling impression packed with peach cobbler and toasted oat flavour, and you’ve got a serious bubbly that could easily pass for one of the pricier labels.

Piper Heidsieck Brut ChampagneVery nearly as good but stylistically contrarian is the 2004 Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($75.95). The same company owns both Heidsiecks, and there’s a purposeful division of style between labels: Piper is the lighter, fresher, more citrusy bubbly, and the 2004 vintage is true to form. I particularly liked the rare combination of power and elegance. And again, considering the price of most vintage champagne, this could almost be considered in the value category. For A-listers, this would be embarrassingly cheap.

From the September 1st, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Champagne Picks


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS


Wolf Blass Premium Selection Shiraz

The Wine Establishment - Le Nez deu Vin