CRASH COURSE IN CHARDONNAY

By Carolyn Evans Hammond, Taste Magazine, BC Liquor Board's magazine, Summer 2017

From the nuanced, subtle bottle that sets off that candlelight dinner for two to the one you pour with abandon as you clink glasses and frolic with friends, Chardonnay’s got you covered. It’s got more range than the Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey combined. So this refresher on six sassy styles of Chardonnay will keep your summertime sipping on point.

French Oaked


Burgundy. Generally considered the world’s best white wine producing region, it spins out silky, swoonworthy whites made almost exclusively from Chardonnay. And just what makes so many of the white Burgundies sing? French. Oak. 

The vast majority of white Burgundy is fermented and/or aged in French oak barrels, which tempers the natural citric zing and makes the fruit taste cloaked in satin. It also imparts nuances such as nut, white pepper and toast.

While Burgundian vignerons were the first to use French oak many centuries ago, producers all over the have followed suit. And that’s a good thing.  

French oaked Chardonnay is a fabulous dinner party wine—always quite a stylish pour.=

American Oaked

Although French oak is the more respected timber in the wine world thought to impart the most subtlety and finesse in a Chardonnay, judicious use of American oak can be delicious too. American oak imbues a wine with sweeter notes of vanilla, coconut and sometimes burnt sugar.

American Oaked Chardonnay is a great cocktail alternative for casual summer nights.

Unwooded and Restrained

Chardonnay tastes quite clean and crisp on its own and, when well-made, purists argue the wine doesn’t need wood at all. Why hide such pristine fruit, they say, with its characteristic flavours of Granny Smith apple and bright citrus, often edged with a minerality hinting at flint, salt, and wet stones. Look for the word “unwooded” on the label and alcohol level below about 12.5 per cent, which indicates a leaner structure. Chablis and Canada are notorious for doing this style well.

Sip this style alongside fish and seafood for a real treat—maybe mid-day in the sun.

Unwooded and Fruit Forward

Though most unwooded Chardonnays are more restrained than fruit-forward, the latter can exist too. These expressions taste a bit riper and tropical—think, pineapple and stone fruit—while never losing the bright core of acidity for which Chardonnay is known. Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay from California as well as Kim Crawford East Coast Unoaked Chardonnay are fine examples available here in British Columbia.

This style is an easy solo sipper with salty snacks thanks to its full-throttle refreshment and juicy, ripe fruit. Around the pool, maybe.

Sparkling

The bracing acidity and light-bodied structure of cool climate Chardonnay makes lovely sparkling wine—something winemakers of Champagne recognized long ago. Most Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. But some, called Blanc de Blancs, is pure Chardonnay notable for its exceptional elegance.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: The Champagne method of making wine bubbly, which involves a second fermentation in bottle, is particularly well-suited for Chardonnay because the variety has a certain transparency of flavour. So when the yeast is added to the bottle and sealed to create effervescence, the lees (or spent yeast) imparts hallmark but subtle notes of bread, biscuits and the like that remain when the lees is removed.

While bonafide Champagne is still tough to beat, Chardonnay-based sparkling wines are made in many cool climates and microclimate outside the Champagne region of France today, and can offer excellent value for money.

Without a doubt, sparkling Chardonnay is one of the most versatile wines in the world. Serve it with anything or nothing.

Blends

Because it’s so widely grown, Chardonnay is an easy choice for winemakers looking for a workhorse variety to use in a blend and create a spectrum of flavour. Conundrum from California is a fine example. While the producer keeps the actual blend proportions a secret, it combines Chardonnay with Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Viognier and Semillon to stellar effect.

Because blends fan out with flavour, they have something for everyone. Presto: instant crowd-pleasing pours. Anywhere, anytime.

RECOMMENDATIONS

FRENCH OAKED

POUILLY FUISSE – 2014 CHARTRON ET TREBUCHET CHAPELLE

FRANCE $34.99 264945

Silky and rich style of French Burgundy. Bright citric core imbued with roasted hazelnut and a hint of cool flint.

AMERICAN OAKED

CHARDONNAY – CUPCAKE

CALIFORNIA $13.79 143776

Mouthfilling flavours of mixed citrus flavours laced with vanilla buttercream. A popular and classic style that’s dry and easy to enjoy.

UNWOODED AND RESTRAINED

CHABLIS – 2014 LA CHABLISIENNE LA PIERRELEE

FRANCE $29.49 359844

Cool, clean and crisp style of Chardonnay. Green apple, wet stones and a touch of seasalt on the finish.

UNWOODED AND FRUIT FORWARD

CHARDONNAY – 2013 MER SOLEIL SILVER UNOAKED

CALIFORNIA $28.49 143784

Vibrant flavours pineapple, mango and white flowers wrap the cool steely-lemon center of this dry-but-rich unwooded chardonnay.

SPARKLING

CHAMDEVILLE – NV BLANC DE BLANCS

FRANCE $13.29 187740

With subtle nods toward grapefruit, fresh pear, butter croissant and almond, this sparkling Chardonnay offers outstanding value.

BLEND

CALIFORNIA WHITE - 2014 CONUNDRUM

CALIFORNIA $24.99 390831

Juicy and complex with pronounced flavours and aromas of stone fruit, orange, lemon, pear, apple and a hint of honeysuckle.

 

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WUTHERING WHITES TAKES SPRING TO NEW HEIGHTS

By Carolyn Evans Hammond, Prepared for Taste Magazine, Spring 2017 Issue

Like a liquid gust of freshness racing across your palate, nothing tastes better than a cool, crisp white on a hot day. But the usual wines - Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay – are starting to taste a bit “old hat”, really.  Time to step it up a notch and look to the unsung heroes of the white wine world for this season’s refreshment.

Here’s a quick crash course in six exciting whites that are well worth getting to know as patio season approaches. 

Viognier

Pronounced vee-own-yay, this aromatic little wonder brims with scents of ripe pear and apricot. It tends to be quite full-bodied and rich but crisp and dry too—making it a marvelous sipper with which to refresh the palate alongside everything from a handful of potato chips to a plate of perfectly seared Salmon.

Although the variety hails originally from the Rhone Valley of France—especially the coveted and sun-saturated Condrieu region—other places now grow Viognier well. Look for it from Canada, South Africa, the south of France, Chile, California and, especially, Australia for a springtime drop of bottled delight.

Moscato d’Asti

Pronounced muss-caw-tow das-tee, this slightly sparkling wine from Italy’s province of Asti teems with deeply aromatic flavours of stewed peach, sweet mango, candied orange and honeysuckle—often with a subtle note of musk. Think sweet, juicy wine with bright, palate-cleansing acidity and low alcohol hovering around just five per cent.

Moscato d’Asti is a quintessential quencher that works as a cocktail alternative, toasting tipple or after-dinner drink as well as a food partner for spicy fare. Taste it with Pad Thai, jerk chicken or curried dishes for a pairing that’s greater than the sum of its parts—the juicy sweetness balancing the spice, the tart zip cleansing the mouth, and the lower level of alcohol letting you gulp with relative abandon.

Pinot Gris

Pronounced pee-no gree, this spiced peach-scented charmer is a seriously underappreciated variety. Did you know it’s actually the same grape variety as Pinot Grigio but is left to ripen longer on the vine, creating a richer, more full-bodied style of wine? True. The longer “hangtime” on the vine means it can be quite complex and generously-fruited while maintaining the mouthwatering zip of acidity needed to keep it fresh and crisp. 

Pinot Gris originated from Burgundy, France but made a name for itself in Alsace and Germany. Even British Columbia produces some excellent versions well worth snapping up.

Now that spring has sprung, pair a glass of this joy juice with anything that would go nicely with its spiced-peach essence—think samosas, grilled pork chops or smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Prosecco

Pronounced the way it’s spelled—pro-se-coh, this Italian sparkler is on fire right now both here and internationally for reasons few know. In 2009, Italy transformed Prosecco from a grape variety that could be grown anywhere into a protected, demarcated appellation in the Veneto region with strict grape growing and winemaking rules. The change harnessed and dramatically upped the quality of Prosecco, transforming it from a pear-scented fizzy drink to a far more nuanced, concentrated sparkling wine--yet prices have yet to increase.

You can still buy an excellent bottle for around $20 and something spellbindingly good for around $30. All that boils down to this: Prosecco is currently some of the best value bubbly on the planet. Pour it with pretty much anything, any time of day.

Riesling

Pronounced reese-ling, this variety is synonymous with range. It can be dry, off-dry or sweet, making it well-suited for a range of foods and situations. Regardless of the sugar level though, it’s always relatively low in alcohol and finishes clean and dry because of Riesling’s is natural shock of lime-squirt acidity.

Speaking of lime, Riesling also tends to taste of that little green fruit. That character can express itself as lime sorbet, lime zest or margarita-esque salty-sourness, sometimes with a bit of stone fruit or steeliness depending on where it’s from and who makes it; but always lime. Which is why Riesling enhances Pad Thai, guacamole and chips, fajitas, jerk chicken, or Indian spiced dishes or anything else enhanced by an electric shock of green citric zeal. Frankly, Riesling feels a bit like a burst of brilliance in the mouth. Seasonal perfection.

Pinot Blanc

Pronounced pee-no blonc, this variety is the archetypal bistro. Medium-bodied, almost always dry, and gently-flavoured with general allusions to stone and orchard fruits, it’s an innocuous crowdpleaser that goes with almost any food. And the acidity is never searingly high but rather pleasantly balanced—tasting more persuasively engaging the shockingly so.

All that to say, Pinot Blanc has the power to lift any occasion to new levels by adding subtle but instant appeal to a moment or dish without upstaging it. Think of Pinot Blanc’s moderate nature and broad appeal as the wuthering white that stays polite.

RECOMMENDATIONS

VIOGNIER

VIOGNIER—YALUMBA Y SERIES

AUSTRALIA $16.99 62450

Full-bodied saturated lick of poached pair shot through with apricot, grapefruit, and white flower notes that resonate on the finish.

MOSCATO D’ASTI

MOSCATO D’ASTI—BATASIOLO BOSC DLA REI

ITALY $20.49 288449

Deliciously sweet with balancing acidity, this gently fizzy thriller offers intense flavours of juicy peach and lemon-lime sorbet.

PINOT GRIS

PINOT GRIS—PFAFFENHEIM PFAFF

ALSACE $18.99 616144

Aromatic and fruit-forward with off-dry flavours of spiced peach, gorgeously silky mouthfeel, and clean, dry finish.

PROSECCO

BOTTEGA—PROSECCO TREVISO II VINO DEI POETI GOLD BRUT

ITALY $27.49 663187

Fresh, elegant attack of pear, green apple and honeysuckle nuanced with almond-floral notes that linger. Stylish drop.

RIESLING

RIESLING—SELBACH MOSEL

Germany $15.99 23242

Oodles of lime zest and tart green apple aromas and flavours, a kiss of sweetness, and a compellingly satin texture.

PINOT BLANC

PINOT BLANC—HESTER CREEK

CANADA $15.49 D 467316

Round, ripe style of easy-drinking Pinot Blanc with stone fruit and melon flavours edged with mixed citrus and wet stones.

 

 

 

 

Five Canadian wines that celebrate our diversity: The Wine Find

Toast the country’s 150th birthday in true north style.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues Jun 27 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Jul 1 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

In a world rife with fear, loathing and intolerance, it’s pretty nice to live in Canada don’t you think? Here, we don’t just tolerate difference but support, embrace and celebrate it. It’s a world view that pretty much defines what it means to be Canadian. 

For Canada’s 150th birthday, I’m proud to celebrate diversity by recommending five very different styles of Canadian wine — a robust red from British Columbia, thee gold-medal winning whites from Ontario and an iconic bottle from Nova Scotia. They’re all different and all beautiful.

2016 Nova 7 Benjamin Bridge Sparkling Wine, Nova Scotia (Vintages 256289 $24.95 in stores only) 

Shining the palest shade of salmon, this off-dry blend of Muscat and other indigenous varieties grown along the Bay of Fundy teems with arresting aromas of lychee, poached peach and sweet mango and explosive flavours of sour cherries and pineapple shot through with lemon-squirt acidity. Do as the Maritimers do and pour this characterful fizz with a plate of oysters — their fat, briny goodness offsetting the wine’s sweet, sour sassiness. And with just 6.5 per cent alcohol, you can quaff it in the sun with relative abandon.

Score: 91+

2016 Kacaba Unoaked Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 326975 $15.95 in stores and online) 

Pronounced aromas of poached yellow plum and juicy apricot lead to intense stone fruit and citric flavours — think apricot and mandarin — scored with electric acidity and a trace of minerality. This sunshine-in-the-glass, bone-dry thriller offers great purity of fruit and a long, orange zest finish. Good value wine in a forward, flavour-drenched style. Pour it with chili and orange chicken for a real treat. 

Gold Medal Winner, 2017 Ontario Wine Awards

Score: 93+

2015 Tawse Quarry Road Vineyard Organic Riesling, VQA Vinemount Ridge, Niagara, ON (Vintages Essential 198853 $24.50 in stores and online) 

Although the nose is quite shy with barely there aromas of bitter lime and white flowers, the palate is vibrant and lively with a brisk rush of mouth-filling lime purée edged with tropical fruit and crushed stones. This is an intense, captivating, sweeter expression Ontario Riesling that finishes clean and dry thanks to its vibrant acidity. Serve it with grilled salmon with a good crank of black pepper.

Gold Medal Winner, 2017 Ontario Wine Awards

Score: 92

2016 Sandbanks Pinot Grigio, VQA Ontario (LCBO 372219 $15.95 in stores and online) 

This Ontario white starts with the delicate scent of fresh pear and sliced lemons before zipping across the palate with full-on flavours of McIntosh apple, chin-drip white peach and lemon pie-filling. There’s a bit of sweetness at the core but it’s balanced by racy, mouth-watering acidity and finishes dry. This fruity, medium-bodied expression of Pinot Grigio with an attractive ruby grapefruit finish makes a great cocktail alternative with a handful of roasted, salted almonds.

Gold Medal Winner, 2017 Ontario Wine Awards

Score: 90

2013 Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin, VQA Okanagan Valley, BC (Vintages 626325 $48.95)

From an exceptional vintage, this Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, seasoned with Malbec and Petit Verdot, is drinking beautifully now but will certainly improve with proper cellaring. Right now, it exudes aromas and flavours of cassis and black forest fruits (all small berries, ripe and delicious) layered with black licorice, toasted tobacco leaf, black pepper, bitter chocolate and charred plums. I had a bottle of this well-made, tightly wound classic with roasted bison recently and it just sung. 

Score: 93

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com

A crash course in inspired expressions of Pinot Noir: Evans Hammond

They're all priced well enough to leave money in your pocket for other things, such as salmon to grill alongside.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues Jun 20 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Jun 24 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

The best red Burgundy falls somewhere between hot sex and falling in love — momentarily at least. And it’s always more feather than whip, which is why it fetches stratospheric prices. Burgundy’s top wine, Romanée-Conti, actually sells for thousands of dollars per bottle — if you can get your paws on it. The minuscule production is on strict allocation. 

But that wine is, quite simply, Pinot Noir. All of Burgundy’s better reds are — and have been for centuries. Today, winemakers all over the world try their hand at this grape variety, inspired by Burgundy’s best. But it’s a difficult variety to work with — in the field and in the winery. 

“Pinot Noir is thin skinned, so it’s sensitive to extreme in temperatures; it’s very tightly clustered so it’s very prone to disease; and picking days are essential — too early and it’s pretty nasty, too late and it’s mushy and jammy,” says Norman Hardie, owner and winemaker at Norman Hardie Winery, one of Ontario’s better Pinot Noir producers.

“Then in the winery, it’s delicate too. Over-extraction creates hardness and bitterness while under-extraction gives you nothing at all but maybe a nice rosé. And it can dry out in the barrel very quickly too. So you’ve got to nail perfection every step of the way.”

But the prospect of nailing perfection keeps winemakers all over the planet toiling away with Pinot Noir — at least in chillier regions. Pinot Noir prefers cool climates. 

Other than Burgundy and Ontario, Germany and cooler parts of New Zealand, Argentina, Oregon, California, and even Italy can produce it well, with each region teasing its own expression. 

In Burgundy, Pinot Noir tends to taste of tinned strawberries and violet (especially when young) but always has an earthy, savoury underpinning that comes to the fore as it matures. Italian and German versions of this variety are similarly savoury. 

Ontario Pinot Noir reminds me of cranberry and beetroot more than anything. New Zealand and Argentinian styles are often searingly crisp and all about tart red berries. And California and Oregon produce riper styles, often with smoky or nutty notes from wood aging.

But don’t take my word for it. Taste for yourself with this ready-made crash course; it’s a selection of five Pinot Noirs. They’re not top-tier Burgundy, but they’re all inspired expressions of the variety from each of their respective regions. And importantly, they’re each priced well enough to leave money in your pocket for other things — such as great Canadian salmon to grill alongside. After all, summer starts this week.

Burgundy

2015 Bouchard Père & Fils Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France (LCBO 605667 $20.20 in stores and online) 

Bouchard Père & Fils is a large producer in Burgundy that both grows its own fruit and buys in grapes from other growers to bottle a broad range of wines — from top-tier bottlings to this very fine entry-level drop. Made from the excellent 2015 vintage, it offers a well-toned core of crisp red and black berries imbued with roast squab, forest floor flavours and a touch of graphite. Lovely wine to pour with a summer meal if you’re looking for easy elegance.

Score: 90+

Ontario

2015 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Organic Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula, (Winery only, $29.95 + $1 shipping anywhere in ON with code JUNE50. Call 1-888-581-1581 or go to wineclub.southbrook.com)

This wine was awarded gold medal as best Pinot Noir at the 2017 Ontario Wine Awards, so it is very much worth tasting. So I arranged the shipping offer above since it’s not available at the LCBO. This wine starts with a muted damson nose before sliding all suave and polished over the palate with a crush of cranberry and gentle minerality. Great tension between open-handed fruit and elegant restraint. Well done, Ontario.

Score: 92+

New Zealand

2015 Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand (LCBO 146548 $19.95 in stores only) 

Marlborough is well known for its full-throttle Sauvignon Blanc but also makes an electric style of Pinot Noir — and here’s a classic example. The lean, taut fruit calls to mind sour cherries and redcurrants with traces of salinity and tea leaves on the finish. This Pinot Noir offers the quenching, mouth-watering style that sets off protein-rich dishes, but isn’t quite as fun sipped solo. 

Score: 88

Oregon

2015 Erath Pinot Noir, Oregon (LCBO 394718 $24.95 in stores and online) 

Relatively rich and forward, this wine erupts with a blaze of black cherry and super-ripe plum aromas before saturating the palate with almost robust black cherry laced with red meat, coffee and pomegranate followed by a long, slow grilled meat finish. It’s got the pale colour and crisp acidity of Pinot Noir, but tasted blind it could almost pass as a Syrah with all that ripe fruit and meatiness. But that’s Oregon for you. 

Score: 90

California

2014 Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Sonoma County (Vintages Essential 954834 $26.35 in stores and online)

Rodney Strong makes very good value wines, and this Pinot Noir from the cooler Russian River Valley is no exception. It’s super ripe but not jammy with a robust crush of black and red raspberries, warm smoked plums and baking spices before tapering to a long dark chocolate finish. While it’s certainly a fuller-bodied expression of Pinot Noir, the fine structure and lively acidity retains Pinot Noir’s hallmark elegance. 

Score: 92

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com

5 bestselling bottles — and why diehard fans love them so much: The Wine Find

A roundup of Ontario’s five bestselling wines by volume sold and why people love them so much.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues Jun 6 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Jun 10 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Pssst. Ever wonder what the most popular bottles of wine are right now in Ontario? I do. So I drew on my industry connections to find out, then interviewed a diehard fan of each. Here’s the juicy lowdown: The five bestselling bottles (by volume sold) and a sneak peek at who’s drinking each and why. 

1. 2014 Apothic Red, California (LCBO 234369 $16.95 in stores and online) 

Kristi Foley, 47, works for a medical billing company as a claims agent

“My favourite thing about (Apothic) is it’s just so versatile! It goes with anything. It’s easy. I’m not a wine connoisseur or anything so I don’t know what wine is supposed to go with what. But I just find this wine goes with everything and it’s so smooth. If you’re just having a glass, it’s nice; and we also have chicken with it, or shrimp, or meat. We served it at our cocktail party at Christmas and everyone liked it. It’s great!” 

2. 2016 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand (Vintages Essential 35386 $19.95 in stores only) 

Barb Goggin, 49, owner and principal instructor of the Goggin-Carroll School of Irish Dance

“I was introduced to this wine by other mothers who are also dancers at the school and by my sister-in-law who has always been a religious drinker of this wine and still is. Traditionally, I’d been a Pinot Grigio drinker and never really liked Sauvignon Blanc — including other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Then I tasted Kim Crawford and it was really light, really refreshing, not overly fruity or heavy — sort of like a Pinot Grigio but with a bit more body. I don’t drink red wine so I drink this with everything — steak, barbecue, pastas and chicken.”

3. 2014 J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, California (Vintages Essential 656561 $23.95 in stores only) 

Robert Antolini, 58, works as a financial planner

“It’s a very approachable wine and I think a very good price. Because everyone talks about Brunellos, Bordeaux and Napas — and I love Napa wine — but it’s kind of easy to find a good wine at $100, right? But to find a $23 wine that’s good; that’s something, right? It’s a bit more fruit forward — you’ve got to like that. It’s fruity. You know, tasty. Some people might like something drier. But for the dollar value, it’s just great. I’ve never had anyone not like it when I serve it — unless they’re a wine snob. And the world’s full of them.”

4. 2016 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio Valdadige, Trentino, Italy (Vintages Essential 106450 $19.95 in stores only) 

Katrina China, 21, works at Starbucks and attends university 

“I usually drink it at home with dinner with my fam — like for family dinners. We tend to buy this wine a lot, maybe because we’re Italian — ‘Santa Margherita’, you know? My family is not big on red wine; we’re white wine drinkers. And we like it because it’s not sweet — it’s, what do you call that? Dry. Not too fruity. And we basically eat it with a full-blown meal — salad with a vinaigrette, a pasta, and a meat like chicken or veal — and this wine goes well.”

5. 2016 [Yellow Tail] Shiraz, Australia (LCBO 624544 $11.95 in stores and online) 

Curiously, 800,000 bottles of this stuff was sold in Ontario April 2016 to April 2017, yet I could not find a single soul willing to admit to drinking it — despite repeated efforts. Why? Probably the stigma — it’s a bottle snobs love to snub. My final tweet, “Does anyone know anyone who drinks this wine?” was met with this quick public shaming starting with this reply from one follower who describes himself as a philosophy professor and oenophile. He wrote: “Thankfully not since the impoverishment of a grad school. It tastes like a Lowney Cherry-blossom (remember them?) put through a blender.” Yikes. I say drink and let drink

 

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com

Toronto restaurants with the best wine cellars: Evans Hammond

These venues have a proven track record of delighting diners with toe-curlingly good bottles and top-notch wine service.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues Jun 6 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Jun 10 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Many restaurants profess to cater to the wine enthusiast but few can wow even the most jaded aficionado. After all, doing so requires two things — a vast, well-stocked, carefully curated cellar and a knowledgeable, perceptive sommelier who knows all the wines on offer. Here’s why. 

Any place that stocks thousands of bottles prides itself on finding small wineries in far-flung places making minuscule quantities of amazing juice to list alongside better-known and iconic labels. Furthermore, every wine evolves from the moment it’s bottled, tasting profoundly better at some points in its development than others. So navigational support for any wine list is vital — especially when that list is tome-like. 

The best person to beeline you to the right bottle is always, always the person in charge of the cellar, whose title may be sommelier, wine director or owner. But never simply “server.” 

Restaurants may argue their wait staffs are knowledgeable about the list, but they’ll never know it as well as the person who stocks the cellar. When you dine at a wine restaurant, always ask to speak with the person who buys the wine. If that person is not available, speak to the sommelier. You’ll have the best shot at having your description of what you fancy translated into a bedazzling bottle within your budget. 

After all, if you’re dropping serious coin on fermented juice from a broad and deep selection of thousands of bottles served in opulent surroundings, you should expect to summit the sublime with every sip. 

Tony Amaro, who owns Opus Restaurant in Yorkville and stocks its 52,000-bottle cellar, says, “It’s about the buy, not the sell.” He gets a serious high from travelling the world, finding spectacular wines, listing them, then sharing them with patrons — something he’s been doing since 1992. 

I recently tasted a Portuguese dry rosé at Opus that Tony discovered, called 2016 Rosé Volcanico from the Azores Islands. It blew me and my dining companion away with its seamless structure and allusions of lilac, sea spray, stones and wild strawberries. Such a fetching drop — and just $65 per bottle. 

While top cellars will always feature Bordeaux Classed Growths, top Burgundy, cult Californians, and other feted wines, it’s the interesting stuff like this rosé that keeps a list exhilaratingly to-the-minute — separating the truly great cellars from the merely “correct.” After all, while the classics offer time-tested touchstones of quality, their stratospheric prices often put them outside most diners’ reach even for special occasions. Few can afford Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s top drop at thousands of dollars per bottle. So being able to recognize and pour undersung, undervalued offerings keeps business booming. 

The trick to talking to the wine expert on site is this: ask him or her to first recommend something based on what you fancy and your budget. Then, ask for a description of the recommendation before you order it. This way, you have a clear sense of what you’re buying. If you taste it and don’t like it, you have something to fall back on too.

“If you don’t think a bottle is up to par, let the sommelier taste it and ask if he or she thinks it’s a good example of the wine,” says Arron Barberian, who owns and runs Barberian’s Steak House and its 39,000-bottle cellar. 

“If the answer is no, have him or her bring you another bottle. If the answer is yes, say, ‘OK, I don’t think it’s what you described. Can we open another bottle and I’ll pick up both if the second bottle isn’t better than the first?’”

He says, “If there’s variation take the better bottle. If not, buck up and buy both. If you trust your palate, the odds are very high the second bottle will outperform the first.”

The question is, which restaurants have the best wine cellars in Toronto? And by best, I mean, largest, deepest, most sensitively curated cellars with a proven track record of delighting diners with toe-curlingly good bottles and top-notch wine service. 

These are my top picks. 

Recommendations

Opus Restaurant

37 Prince Arthur Ave., 416-921-3105, opusrestaurant.com. Open seven days 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner, and drinks are served till 2 a.m. 

Tony Amaro, a wildly passionate wine enthusiast, owns and runs this small, smart restaurant with his brother, Mario. In 2002 and every year since, Opus earned Wine Spectator Magazine’s Grand Award for its wine program — putting it within the top 80 restaurants in the world for wine for 15 years straight. When you dine there, ask Tony to help you select a bottle from the 2,400 listings that comprise his 52,000 bottle cellar. 

Barberian’s Steak House

7 Elm St., 416-597-0335 barberians.com. Open Monday to Friday 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 4:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. 

Arron Barberian, a self-described lunatic wine hoarder who loves to share, runs this 58-year-old Toronto institution with its 39,000 bottle cellar and 4,000 listings. The best time to go is when Arron himself is there, which is every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Ask for a recommendation from him to guarantee vinous delight. 

Bardi’s Steak House

56 York St., 416-366-9211, bardis.com. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday open for private events or selected conferences

Alex Manikas is the man behind this 50-year-old steak house with its 9,000-bottle cellar. Here, the atmosphere is “chummy,” with Alex priding himself in modest markups and knowing many of his customers by name. The wine list of nearly 450 selections ranges from Old World classics to new discoveries — and Alex, who is almost always there, can tell you about every one. 

Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse

12 Brant St., 416-366-0200, jacobssteakhouse.com. Open Sunday to Tuesday 5 p.m. to 10:15 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday 5 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. 

With sleek lines and a modern feel, this relative newcomer opened in 2007 and offers a contemporary take on the swanky wine and steak experience. The cellar is 8,500-bottles strong with about 900 labels, ranging from iconic classics to up-and-coming names. Wine director Robert Gravelle buys the wine and is trying to grow the list to about 1,500 selections now. He’s the man to talk to, so go between Tuesday and Friday when he is working the floor. 

The Platinum Club, Air Canada Centre

40 Bay St., 416-815-5983, theaircanadacentre.com/restaurants/PlatinumClub . Open for games nights from 4 p.m. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find another stadium anywhere in the world with a wine selection as vast and exciting as the one in the Platinum Club — the most exclusive restaurant in the ACC that opened in 1999. With 3,800 bottles and 500 selections curated by head sommelier Anne Martin, you can enjoy the excitement of the game with truly great wine. This posh place is accessible to anyone holding tickets with Platinum Club access. Ask for Anne by name; she stocks the cellar.

The Platinum Club is the closest this article gets to a private members club. Full-fledged private members clubs such the National Club, the Albany Club and the York Club stock cellars that boggle the mind with service to match. So if you’re invited to one, order wine. 

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Five wines for the next big occasion: The Wine Find

These bottles aren’t cheap, but they’ll deliver for that upcoming anniversary, birthday or hot date.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues May 29 2017 on Star Touch and Sat June 3 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Maybe it’s an upcoming anniversary, birthday or hot date. Or maybe it’s a gift for the boss, the newlyweds or your darling self. But there are times in every wine lover’s life when only a deeply impressive bottle will do—one that’s such an exhilarating expression of its style it’s impossible not to love. 

Here is a list of five such wines for the next big occasion. These bottles aren’t cheap, but they deliver.

NV Pol Roger Brut Reserve Champagne, France (LCBO 217158 $66.80 in stores and online) 

When it comes to wine, it’s hard to get more blue chip than Champagne from one of the better houses. And this fine bottle is a no-brainer. Expect arresting aromas of ripe pear, lemon zest and white flowers that lead to a brisk, generous attack of lemon curd, honeyed pastry and apricot—all tightly-wound and shot through with tiny bubbles and electric zeal that lift the fruit. Love how the long finish calls to mind bitter orange zest and spice. Pol Roger by the way holds a Royal Warrant as a purveyor of Champagne to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Score: 92

2014 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California (Vintages 147454 $123.95 in stores only)

Pronounced aromas of butterscotch, struck match and lime zest lead to smooth, almost oily flavours of grilled pineapple, bitter lime and wet stones—balanced with bright, grapefruit-squirt acidity. The weight of this wine is immense with 14.9 per cent alcohol and the concentration intense but every element is in perfect proportion—creating a powerful yet poised expression of toasty, barrel-aged Californian Chardonnay. By the way, the 1991 vintage of this wine was the bottle Demi Moore seduces Michael Douglas in the 1994 American erotic thriller, Disclosure

Score: 90

2014 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Chapoutier Les Grands Merisiers, Rhone, France (LCBO 421073 $35.85 in stores and online) 

Offering outstanding value for money, this juicy red exudes aromas of raspberry jam, sun-warmed blackberries, and ground herbs before seducing the palate with suave yet potent flavours of black and red raspberries. The vibrant fruit is edged with smoked meat, dried herbs, cola and gingerbread while powdery tannins tug gently at the tongue. Made from Grenache seasoned with Mourvedre and Syrah, this classic expression of Chateauneuf-du-Pape by a reputable producer offers very good value. 

Score: 91

2015 The Prisoner, Napa Valley, California (Vintages 104299 $49.95 in stores only)

A small winery called Orin Swift launched this blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Charbono in 2000 for $35 a bottle and it instantly soared in popularity after garnering critical acclaim. Since then, the wine has appeared on Wine Spectator magazine’s annual Top 100 three times and remains a hot commodity among wine drinkers who like massive Californian reds. This bottle, which hits shelves June 10, starts with aromas of melting dark chocolate and macerated black cherries before blasting taste buds with almost spoonable flavours of berries, dried plum, chargrilled steak, cocoa powder, dried fig, toasted oak, espresso, and black pepper. 

Score: 90

2014 Tignanello, Marchesi Antinori, Tuscany IGT, Italy (Vintages Essential 986786 $105.95 in stores and online)

Bottled only in favourable vintages, this wine (affectionately called “Tig”) is a single-vineyard charmer that blends Sangiovese with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon to stunning effect. Bright yet brooding fruit, shy scents of roses and violet, and almost feral notes of peppery spice, underbrush, red meat and truffle offer an enticing tapestry of flavour while ripe, finely grained tannins frame the fruit. The 2014 vintage of Tig now hitting shelves is complex and concentrated, age worthy yet drinking well now, and achingly hedonistic. 

Score: 94

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Wine lovers don’t have to look south for value: Evans Hammond

Five outstanding wines that are significantly less expensive in Canada than they are in the U.S.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues May 22 2017 on Star Touch and Sat May 26 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

A reader recently wrote me a note lamenting the fact many wines cost less in the United States. And for a plethora of desperately dull reasons, this is certainly the case. But some bottles — especially Old World classics — actually cost less in Ontario than south of the border. Here are five outstanding wines that are significantly less expensive in this market. 

NV Foss Marai Extra Dry Prosecco, Veneto, Italy (Vintages Essential 729392 $19.95 in stores and online) 

With polished flavours and aromas of pear and flowers edged with minerality and sea spray, this elegant Prosecco tastes lively and brisk with a kiss of sweetness. Pour this delicious bubbly as a cocktail alternative or with salty snacks. By the way, if you’re wondering why the words “Extra Dry” appear on the label of this sweeter style of wine, here’s why: Brut is the driest style of Prosecco with less than 12g sugar/L, extra dry has 12-17g/L of sugar and dry is actually quite sweet with 17-32g/L. 

Average U.S. price in Canadian dollars: $27*

Score: 90

2012 Beronia Reserva, Rioja, Spain (Vintages Essential 50203 $20.95 in stores and online) 

It’s an open secret that red Reserva wines from Rioja offer outstanding value in general because by law they must age for least three years in the winery — including 12 months in the barrel — before release. And to withstand this aging, ripe, concentrated fruit should be used. Such is the case here. With power and poise, this bottle charms with bushels of sun-warmed fruit, savoury inflections, a tinge of iron and a long, chalky finish imbued with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Great buy.

Average U.S. price: $27*

Score: 92

2012 Masi Costasera Amarone Classico, Veneto, Italy (LCBO 317057 $43.45 in stores and online) 

I gave the 2011 vintage of this wine 92 points, but the 2012 now on shelves is slightly better still. It just brims with powerful aromas and flavours of dark fruit cordial, cigars, autumnal aromas and melted bitter chocolate with a hint of molasses. The mouth-coating fruit and full-bodied weight is supported by refined and textured tannins with no hard edges. Pour this exciting wine with steak charred on the surface — Chicago-style — and prepare to swoon. 

Average U.S. price: $69*

Score: 92+

NV Fresita Sparkling Wine, Chile (LCBO 383901 $14.15 in stores and online) 

This sparkling wine infused with fresh, hand-picked Patagonian strawberries — no artificial flavours or colours — tastes like the freshest crush of berries imaginable with just the right balance of succulence and mouth-watering acidity to draw you back sip after sip. In fact, it’s so full of strawberries, a fine pulp settles in the glass as you drink it. Whenever I pour it for someone, they just absolutely fall in love with it.

Average U.S. price: $25*

Score: 93

2015 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio Valdadige, Trentino, Italy (Vintages Essential 106450 $19.95 in stores and online)

This ragingly popular white — it’s actually the bestselling Pinot Grigio in North America — costs considerably less in Ontario. Nice to know given it’s a great go-to Italian that will please everyone from the newbie to the more seasoned wine drinker. Citrus scents lead to a brisk hit of grapefruit that quickly tapers to a long complex finish of grapefruit oil, raw nut, talc and salt.

Average U.S. price: $32*

Score: 90

*The average prices in the U.S. were obtained from wine-searcher.com, a searchable database of more than nine million wines from more than 84,000 merchants around the world.

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Fill up your rosé-coloured glasses: Evans Hammond

With few exceptions, paler pinks tend to taste drier and more restrained than their more boldly coloured counterparts.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues May 15 2017 on Star Touch and Sat May 19 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

This time of year, a new slew of pink wines hits shelves as rosé remains ragingly popular. And the LCBO is listing some pretty sexy stuff. But bottles range from bone dry and delicate to sweet and fruit forward, so how do you know which is which? The trick is to look at the colour. With few exceptions, paler pinks tend to taste drier and more restrained than their more boldly coloured counterparts. I’ve charted a sure course through the dizzying array of rosés now available with these five finds.

2016 Malivoire Ladybug Rosé, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (Vintages Essential 559088 $15.95 in stores and online)

Shining the exact colour of ripe watermelon, this popular pink tastes juicy and ripe with round with rippling flavours of raspberries and yellow plum. There’s some sweetness here but it’s balanced by zippy, mouthwatering acidity so finishes clean and dry. Those who like it, like it a lot. In fact, it sold out before summer was over last year and has been the best-selling rosé in Vintages for two years running. This local fave is great with Gouda. 

Score: 88

2016 Bacalhoa JP Azeitao Syrah, Peninsula de Setubal, Portugal (LCBO 404566 $8.55 in stores and online) 

I scored the 2015 of this glossy rosé 90 last year and this vintage is equally delish. Cherry-and-rose scents lead to a cool, brisk attack that flashes with flavours of ripe cherries, lemons preserved in salt, and roses in full bloom. A kiss of sweetness offsets the shock of acidity for a clean, fresh, well-balanced drop. Pour this easy smart buy from Portugal with paper-thin slices of Ibérico ham or prosciutto. 

Score: 90

NV Yellowglen Pink Sparkling Rosé, Australia (LCBO 15967 $12.05 in stores and online)

The dark bottle hides the shade of this pale coral bubbly so you can’t put it to the colour test, which is good because it’s a rare exception to the rule. It’s pale and delicate but also rather sweetish. Aromas of sugared plums lead to an off-dry, elegant expression of orange peel, lemon zest, dried flavours, peaches and cream — tightly threaded with cool acidity. This fine-boned sparkling wine offers considerable finesse for the money and would be a great patio pour with seriously salted, attractively gnarled, kettle cooked chips.

Score: 91

2016 Angels & Cowboys Rosé, Sonoma County, California (Vintages 332568 $22.95 in stores)

The colour of this wine is called oeil de perdrix, or eye of the partridge, which is the palest shade of silvery pink — a gorgeous shade, really. Expect wispy aromas of orange zest and gentle pomegranate, a satiny, almost oily texture, barely there flavours of white cherry, red plum, lavender and pomegranate that lead to a lingering Royal Gala apple-seaspray-white pepper finish. Light bodied and dry, this is quite a stylish and bone-dry thriller. Love the label, too. On shelves now but won’t last. So snap some up to pour with pan-seared scallops sometime.

Score: 92

2016 Saint Aix Rosé, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, France (Vintages 490904 $45.95 1500mL in stores) 

Hailing from the 130-year old Maison Saint Aix winery that only makes this one wine, this new release is a classic. It’s the perfect Provençal rosé to transport you to the south of France with instantly captivating aromas and flavours of restrained redcurrant, dried flowers and apricot, all bone dry and taut. Snap up a bottle to pour with paté or goat cheese salad in the sunshine — the larger format will add instant panache to larger gatherings. Oui, oui!

Score: 90

 

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

A wine for every mom this Mother’s Day: Evans Hammond

Treat your mom, no matter her style, to a celebratory bottle of wine this Mother’s Day.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues May 8 2017 on Star Touch and Sat May 12 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Instead of celebrating Mother’s Day by sending an animated ecard, booking brunch or purchasing more contraception, do the right thing on May 14 and give the mom in your life a bottle of good vino. After all, 99.98 per cent of women who have had children love, need and demand wine. It’s a fact — in my orbit anyway. Here are five outstanding bottles paired with classic mom types to make Mother’s Day shopping easy.

Doting mom

This woman has four kids (including her husband), two dogs, three cats, a bird and a hamster — but always makes time to host a playdate, throw a baby shower and read to her babes every night before bed. She drives a minivan, lives on coffee and hasn’t slept more than four hours straight in years. Frankly, no one deserves a great glass of wine more. So, give her this robust, smoke-chocolate-berry-rich red that’s so good it will hit the pause button on her three-ring circus life. On shelves May 13.

2014 Petite Petit by Michael David Winery, Lodi, California (Vintages 213017 $26.95 in stores only)

Score: 92

Sporty mom

She adds protein powder to her homemade brownies, makes egg white omelettes for breakfast and her idea of weekend fun is hiking the Bruce Trail with her child carrier backpack (because apparently, daily sprints with her jogging stroller isn’t enough exercise.) The perfect gift for this healthy, happy and well-toned mama is a bottle of blossom-and-citrus-scented Sancerre rosé by Jean-Max Roger — you know, to go with all that grilled fish and vegetables she eats. She’ll swoon, I swear. Released April 29 and still on shelves.

2016 Jean-Max Roger Sancerre Rosé “La Grange Dimiere”, France (Vintages 490813 $25.95 in stores only) 

Score: 90

Crunchy-granola mom

She gave birth at home; feeds her kids a strict a gluten-free, dairy-free organic diet; and attributes her constant glow to using coconut oil instead of soap. Not only is she the only person you know without a smartphone, microwave, or television, she spends most of September canning local fruit and vegetables to preserve Ontario’s best bounty. No doubt this neo-hippy would appreciate this bottle of multi-award-winning fruit wine made from Ontario berries. It tastes gorgeous on its own, mixed into sparkling wine or drizzled over dairy-free, gluten-free cheesecake. 

Southbrook Framboise, Ontario (LCBO 341024 $18.20 in stores and online) 

Score: 91+

Hot-mess mom

With the massive bags under her eyes, a frazzled perma-frown and her shirt on backwards again, the hot-mess mom is easy to spot — but not hard to buy for. Why? Because she gave up cooking well-balanced meals no one will eat long ago and feeds the fam pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So help this lass pull it together by giving her this Barbaresco to upgrade pizza night. It’s a suave, restrained Italian red that alludes to dried cherries, violet and licorice before tapering to a long, salt-and-slate finish. Prego!

2013 Enrico Serafino Barbaresco DOCG, Piedmont, Italy (LCBO 341156 $20.50 in stores and online)

Score: 91

Empty-nested mom

If her children have grown and flown, this mom has paid her dues. Now, it’s payback time. Give her a bottled ode to fabulousness (and the fact she spent the best years of her life raising children.) I’m talking about this classic and characterful Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that cascades with plush yet polished flavours of ripe plum, blackcurrant liqueur, vanilla, cocoa powder and baking spices. Worth every cent and hits shelves May 13.

2013 Franciscan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California (Vintages 39388 $29.95 in stores only)

Score: 93

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

LCBO’s online shopping option brings great wines to your doorstep: Evans Hammond

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Tues May 2 2017 on Star Touch and Sat May 5 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Last July, the LCBO launched online shopping. So I tried it out to report how it fares. Armed with the product numbers of bottles I wanted to buy, I set my stopwatch. From launching Safari to checkout, it took four minutes and 45 seconds. In addition to the cost of the wines, I paid a flat shipping rate of $12 plus $1.56 tax. The parcel arrived to my west-end Toronto home within two business days — within the two- to four-day window promised for non-remote areas. The experience? A happily uneventful success. Here’s what I bought, and why.

2015 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, California (Vintages Essential 369686 $19.95 in stores and online) 

If you like gently wooded Californian Chardonnay, this is your bottle. Preserved lemons and warm toffee aromas lead to a suave caress of creamy-toasty lemon meringue pie flavours anchored by a core of bright white peach. It’s gorgeous wine for the money, which explains why it’s a leading Californian Chardonnay in Vintages and the bestselling Chardonnay in the U.S. across all price points. I’ll be pouring this glossy white with grilled chicken and linguine soon, maybe with Caesar salad on the side.

Score: 90

2016 Caliterra Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley, Chile (LCBO 275909 $11.10 in stores and online) 

This bargain bottle tastes just like spring: bright, clean and cool. Expect a swift attack of mixed citrus that quickly expands to suggest lime zest, chili pepper and snow pea that lingers on the finish. Can’t wait to pour with simply dressed greens tossed with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and walnuts, with a slice of good bread alongside. 

Score: 91

2014 Hahn Pinot Noir, Monterey County, California (LCBO 226555 $19.45 in stores and online) 

Hugely reliable, this silky Pinot Noir teems with elegance and charm. Restrained flavours of sun-warmed black cherries imbued with suggestions of cinnamon, anise and cool slate offer quite a sophisticated expression for less than $20. Given Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to produce well, especially at an affordable price, this wine is well worth it. I’ve tucked it away for a dinner of grilled salmon with friends, maybe with some Miles, Ella or Frank playing in the background. 

Score: 89+

2011 Marchesi di Barolo La Tradizione Barolo DOCG, Piedmont, Italy (Vintages Essential 168179 $39.95 in stores and online) 

Barolo is made from Nebbiolo grapes, known to taste of tar and roses with a tug of tannin — and this version is no exception. Here, tar and roses underpin lovely bright fruit — dusty cherries and black plum purée — along with espresso, black earth and dark chocolate. The tannin is finely grained and chalky, offering terrific texture, especially on the finish. I’ll be decanting and pouring this bottle with homemade gnocchi in a sage brown butter dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Prego!

Score: 90+

2014 Firestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley, California (LCBO 292128 $20.00 in stores and online) 

Wines like this remind us of why Californian Cabernet is wildly popular. Gorgeous, saturated aromas of blackcurrant liqueur lead to crush of macerated black cherry, blackberry, cassis, roasted coffee and vanilla cream. Incredibly lush and velvety tasting with an open-handed generosity of fruit and long length. Definitely pour this sumptuous red with the first grilled steak of the season. In fact, this wine is so good I bought two bottles.

Score: 93

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Bottles with the most bonus Air Miles: Evans Hammond

Through May 20, these wines will net collectors extra points when they’re purchased at the LCBO.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Tues Apr 25 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Apr 29 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Air Miles collectors, this one’s for you. Although the LCBO normally offers one Air Mile for every $30 spent at the LCBO on a monthly cumulative basis, it also offers bonus Air Miles on a changing roster of bottles. But they change all the time so they’re tough to track. With this in mind, I did a bit of digging to find you the best bottles with the most bonus Air Miles now through May 20. After all, summer vacation season is coming up fast.

2015 Lupi Reali Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC, Italy (LCBO 486647 $10.80 (price subject to change) in stores and online)

You definitely need to know about this new general-list thriller that just hit shelves last week. It’s a smooth, easy-drinking, organic wonder that punches way above its price. Fetching aromas of smoked meat and cherries lead to juicy flavours of dusty black and red cherries underpinned with allusions of balsamic and granite. Love how a lingering chalkiness on the finish lends a bit of finesse to the experience. Perfect pizza pour.

Score: 90

Bonus Air Miles: 4

NV Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Rosé Brut, VQA (LCBO 217505 $29.95 in stores and online)

Shining a deep coral colour, this local bubbly exudes pronounced aromas of bumbleberry jam and homemade bread before racing across the palate like a thing possessed with brisk, cranberry-lemon flavours and a whole lot of zing. More electric than elegant, this is a wine to chill well and quaff in the sunshine, maybe with a plate of cheese and crackers — the salt and fat balancing palate-scraping acidity of this popular pour.

Score: 88

Bonus Air Miles: 10

2012 Villa Annaberta Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG, Veneto, Italy (LCBO 433961 $39.35 in stores and online)

This wine tastes darker than dark with rich, robust flavours of blackberry, black plum and black cherry imbued with layers of polished slate, espresso, bitter chocolate, black earth, black licorice and warm tar with a tug of tannin on the finish. Well-balanced and well-made, this is a wine with gravitas that will appeal to those with a taste for earthier styles of Amarone. Pour it with a braised short rib and mashed potato for comforting, hearty meal.

Score: 89

Bonus Air Miles: 15

Radio Boka Tempranillo Valencia, Spain 3L (LCBO 491118 $37.90 in stores and online)

Last week, I named this wine one of the best new bag-in-box offerings at the LCBO, but it bears a mention this week too because buying it now will earn you 25 bonus Air Miles. Juicy and approachable with silky-crisp berry flavours edged with caffe latte and white pepper, Radio Boka is the number one selling Tempranillo in Ontario and the bestselling Tempranillo in Canada. At the price and with the bonus Air Miles, it’s tough to beat. Pour it with almost anything.

Score: 90+

Bonus Air Miles: 25

2013 Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California (Vintages Essential 710426 $116.95 in stores and online)

Taste this bottle to see why the Cakebread family, which owns and runs the winery, has earned itself a solid reputation for crafting outstanding Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Saturated yet elegant flavours of crème de cassis and cherry mingle with baking spices (nutmeg, allspice and clove), crushed granite, cocoa powder, and dried blueberry while firm, ripe tannins frame the fruit. With wedding season just around the corner, it might be a nice bottle to tuck away to give a lucky couple.

Score: 91

Bonus Air Miles: 30

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Ontario’s new premium bag-in-box wines are changing the game: Evans Hammond

Prompted by the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets’ recommendation in 2015 to let more producers sell bag-in-box wines, nine new three-litre offerings hit shelves this month.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Apr 11, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated

What do you think of bag-in-box wine? Lacklustre cheap juice? Decent at best? Embarrassing to serve in certain company? I won’t fault you for any of those perceptions. But I’d argue that they’re only valid because you live in Ontario.

In this province, the only wine that’s been sold in that format has been blends of non-vintage-dated imported and domestic juice, a much-maligned category called International-Canadian Blends (ICB). More premium boxed wine has always been forbidden. 

Also, competition has been squelched by a grandfathered policy that only allows three companies — Colio Wines of Canada Ltd., Constellation Brands Inc. and Andrew Peller Ltd. — to sell boxed wine larger than 1 litre in Ontario.

Meanwhile, premium bag-in-box wine is a fiercely competitive category growing in popularity. It doubled its market share in the United States in the past four years according to American market research firm Information Resources Inc. In fact, drinking boxed wine south of the border is like sporting a well-made T-shirt or the right pair of jeans at a party, it’s considered smart casual.

After all, the format is genius. Dispense the wine from the built-in spout, the bag of wine in box collapses in on itself, and no air (the enemy of wine) enters. So the wine stays fresh for about six weeks after opening compared with days for bottles. It’s also space-saving, relatively lightweight and handy. And here in Ontario, The Beer Store accepts and recycles empties. 

It’s a shame the LCBO has only offered sub-standard wine in this format. But the situation is starting to change. 

Prompted by the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets’ recommendation in 2015 to let more producers sell bag-in-box wines, nine new three-litre offerings hit shelves this month — four imports, four VQA Ontario wines, and one ICB wine by a maker other than Colio, Constellation or Peller. 

“We are thrilled to see these new import and domestic products now on-shelf. It’s a great first step,” said Heather MacGregor, executive director of Drinks Ontario, the trade association for beverage alcohol agents, suppliers and manufacturers here. “But to truly level the playing field we need steady sales in all of these new products so that LCBO will be encouraged to expand the selection for the Ontario consumer.”

Of course, truly levelling the playing field would require listing new 4-litre bag-in-box wines to compete directly with the 4-litre ICB offerings by Colio, Constellation and Peller. Sure, expanding that category would put the lucrative ICB wines’ market share at risk, but to the advantage of wine drinkers. After all, the 4-litre format is clearly popular. Just how popular? 

Four of the five bestselling wines by volume in Ontario are 4-litre ICBs — French Cross Dry White ($36.30), French Cross Red ($35.95), French Cross Pinot Grigio ($41.95), and Colio Extra Dry White ($33.95).

But for now, we’ll have to settle for a baby steps in the right direction with the introduction of the following nine new 3-litre boxed wines:

  • Bota Box Cabernet Sauvignon, California 3L (LCBO 492363 $42.45*)
  • Cupcake Red Velvet, California 3L (LCBO 510883 $46.50*)
  • Folonari Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie IGT, Italy 3L (LCBO 492116 $44.45*)
  • Long Weekend Chardonnay-Pinot Grigio VQA, ON 3L (LCBO 492355 $44.95*, available in stores and online by late April)
  • Open Riesling Gewurztraminer VQA, ON 3L (LCBO 492231 $39.95*)
  • Open Smooth Red VQA, ON 3L (LCBO 492249 $39.95*)
  • Pelee Island Winery Monarch Vidal VQA, ON 3L (LCBO 492215 $39.95*)
  • Pelee Island Rouge Ontario ICB 3L (LCBO 492223 $24.95*)
  • Radio Boka Tempranillo Valencia, Spain 3L (LCBO 491118 $37.90*, available in stores and online by late April)

 

I tasted all nine to suss out the top five — scored to reflect their value for money. Read on.

Best boxes

2015 Folonari Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie IGT, Italy, 3L (LCBO 492116 $44.45*, in stores now)

Folonari is the bestselling imported Pinot Grigio in Ontario by volume, which is not surprising. It’s a dry, suave little Italian that delivers restrained flavours and aromas of mixed citrus that lead to a lingering note of white flowers — in short, a clean, lean wash of refreshment with every sip. And its silky-smooth mouthfeel makes it taste quite refined. This 3-litre format represents about a 20 per cent savings versus buying the equivalent volume of this wine in the 750 mL bottle, which sells for $13.95.

Score: 91

2015 Pelee Island Winery Monarch Vidal VQA Ontario 3L (LCBO 492215 $39.95*, in stores by late April) 

This is a gorgeous wine from grapes grown right here in Ontario! Light-bodied and versatile, it starts with gentle scents of nectarine and orange zest before racing across the palate with fresh flavours of yellow stone fruit and mixed citrus. It’s a crisp white but a kiss of sweetness makes it an easy choice for spicy fare or served on its own as a cocktail alternative. This 3-litre format represents a 13 per cent savings versus buying the equivalent volume of this wine in the 750 mL bottle, which sells for $11.45. 

Score: 91

2015 Open Smooth Red VQA, ON 3L (LCBO 492249 $39.95*, in stores now)

This light-bodied read is a clean, super-smooth quencher. Juicy-fresh flavours of bright red fruit taste lifted and not unlike raspberry jam on toast. This off-dry blend of Cabernet Franc and Gamay, Ontario’s two best red varieties, seasoned with a dash of Merlot is certainly charming and easy to enjoy with or without food. Well done, Ontario. This 3-litre format represents a 35 per cent savings versus buying the equivalent volume of this wine in the 750 mL bottle, which sells for $15.45. 

Score: 89

Radio Boka Tempranillo Valencia, Spain 3L (LCBO 491118 $37.90*, in stores now)

This juicy and approachable Spanish red offers a stylish pour at a reasonable price. Expect a silky-crisp hit of ripe raspberries and wild strawberries laced with black cherry coulis, cafe latte and white pepper. Stylishly complex drop for a song, this 3-litre format represents a 13 per cent savings versus buying the equivalent volume of this wine in the 750 mL bottle, which sells for $10.95.

Score: 90+

2014 Cupcake Red Velvet, California 3L (LCBO 510883 $46.50*, in stores now)

If you like the idea of Black Forest cake in a glass, you’ll probably enjoy this rich, off-dry blend of Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah. Think saturated, mouthcoating flavours of dark chocolate, Chantilly cream and vanilla spiked with tart black and red cherry compote. This 3-litre format of this popular wine represents about a 10 per cent savings versus buying the equivalent volume of it in the 750 mL bottle, which sells for $12.95.

Score: 88

*prices subject to change

 

Wines to complement an Easter feast: Hammond

These five gems go well with traditional dishes on your menu.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Apr 11, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated

Easter at my place starts with a morning egg hunt, followed by a proper brunch of scrambled eggs, hot cross buns and sparkling wine — sometimes with a drop of freshly squeezed OJ. From there, the day builds slowly to a crescendo. I cook (it’s usually me) while friends and family gather for the feast, which always lingers late into the evening. It’s more secular than religious, but love and faith still fill the air. Here are some wine suggestions paired to traditional menu items to help you plan your own feast.

Hot Cross Buns and Scrambled Eggs

NV Freixenet Carta Nevada Brut Cava, Spain (LCBO 216887 $12.95 in store only)

Champagne and orange juice is a colossal waste of fine fizz. The juice totally obliterates all the subtle complexity and elegance for which you pay dearly, so jazz up OJ with Cava instead. I particularly like this bottle because it drinks nicely on its own too. You know, for afternoon sipping when you’re peeling potatoes and such. Neutral-tasting, inexpensive, and nuanced with gentle almond and lemon zest, this is almost certainly fine fizz for the occasion. 

Score: 89

Lamb goes well with 2014 Georges Duboeuf Brouilly, Burgundy, France.  (JUSTIN SMIRLIES)  

Lamb

2014 Georges Duboeuf Brouilly, Burgundy, France (LCBO 213934 $17.95 in store and online) 

This wonder-drop has so much going for it — elegance, finesse and the ability to please everyone from the newbie to the connoisseur. Its cherry-raspberry-violet flavours taste bright and juicy on the attack, then taper to an attractively chalky finish with a whisper of minerality showing through the fruit. Great quality and sophistication that totally takes lamb up a notch. By the way, this wine is a Cru Beaujolais, meaning a Gamay grown in one of the 10 top “crus” or growing areas of Beaujolais. Here, Brouilly is the cru, which is an area known for such fragrant, fruity wines as this wee lovely. Serve it with confidence.

Score: 90

The 2016 Yalumba “The Y Series” Viognier, South Australia matches glazed ham.  (JUSTIN SMIRLIES)  

Glazed Ham

2016 Yalumba “The Y Series” Viognier, South Australia (LCBO 470062 $13.95 in store and online)

The gorgeous 2016 vintage of this white is just hitting shelves now and works marvelously well with glazed ham. Made from Viognier with its hallmark poached peach and pear aromas and flavours, the wine almost quick-slithers across the palate with crisp-creamy flavours of stone fruit, leaving hints of juicy pineapple, aniseed and beeswax behind. Yalumba is well-known for its world-class Viognier and this bottle certainly doesn’t disappoint — but remember to reach for the 2016. It trumps the 2015.

Score: 89+

Roast beef matches 2014 Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon.  (JUSTIN SMIRLIES)  

Roast Beef

2014 Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon by Michael David Winery, Lodi, California (Vintages 405175 $29.95 in store only)

If you’re serving roast beef, this is your bottle. It’s a big, bold Californian Cabernet brimming with gorgeous crushed velvet fruit framed with warm notes of toasty oak. Think ripe, lush black cherry and cassis threaded with dark chocolate, vanilla bean, hazelnut, bonfire, espresso and cinnamon. It’s not cheap but you can be sure it will sell out; Freakshow wines have quite the following. The label makes a lively conversation starter as well — as does the 14.5-per-cent alcohol. 

Score: 90

Chocolate eggs go well with 2011 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port, Portugal  (JUSTIN SMIRLIES)  

Chocolate Eggs

2011 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port, Portugal (Vintages 533364 $19.95 in store only)

Turn all those Easter Bunny droppings into something special after dinner by enjoying them with this succulent, saturated Port. Here’s how it works: pop a piece of chocolate in your mouth, let it melt a bit, then take a sip of this deeply-fruited fortified wine. The bright flavours of macerated berries and plums balance the candy’s butteriness while the wine’s cigar box, plum pudding and baking spice notes add intricacy. Sadly, Port doesn’t pair well with Peeps; those marshmallow chicks only seem to work with coffee. 

Score: 93

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Refreshing sherries that deserve the spotlight: Evans Hammond

A crash course on the fortified wine that’s winning hearts in bars across the world.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Apr 8, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated

From the dry, sea spray scented finos to the deeply complex olorosos and PX styles, Sherry makes pretty much every wine pro I know weak at the knees. What’s more, this fortified wine is fast becoming the hipster drink of choice as Sherry bars crop up in major cities all over the world. To put you squarely in the know, check out these five quintessential types of Sherries. 

Fino

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Extra Dry Palomino Fino, Jerez, Spain (LCBO 231829 $17.95 in stores and online)

While this world’s bestselling fino looks basically like every other white wine you’ve ever seen, it’s not. It has spent at least five years in barrel under a layer of flor — a natural yeast film — developing fino’s signature tang and deep subtlety. Pay attention when you drink it, and notice fascinating complexity — aromas and bone-dry flavours that call to mind grapefruit zest, warm bread, crushed raw almonds, brine, dried citrus rind and white flowers. It’s a pleasure to drink chilled with green olives. 

Score: 90

Manzanilla

Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla Sherry, Sanlucar de Marrameda, Jerez, Spain (Vintages 745448 $16.95 in stores only)

Manzanilla is essentially the briniest style of fino you can drink made in the cool, seaside town of Sanlucar de Barrameda in Jerez. The exposure to Atlantic breezes creates conditions that impart a signature seaspray character to the wine. Taste this world’s bestselling Manzanilla to experience a true and reliable expression of this style. Aromas of crashing ocean waves leads to dry, refreshing flavours of sea salt, almond and chalk that taper to a long Brazil nut finish. Love the lean, linear structure and precise articulation of flavour. Serve it chilled with dry-roasted almonds. 

Score: 91

Oloroso

Gonzalez Byass Nutty Solera Medium Oloroso Sherry, DO Jerez, Spain (Vintages 35204 $16.95 in store only)

When the flor under which a Fino sherry is aging is destroyed, the wine is exposed to air, turns brown and becomes richer and more complex. The resulting wine is called Oloroso Sherry. Olorosos can be dry or sweet, but they’re always nutty and flavourful with higher alcohol levels than Fino — hovering around 18 per cent. This bottle offers exceptional value. Flavours and aromas of Brazil nut, burnt sugar, dried fruit, coffee and more shine in this sweet but balanced amber liquid. Serve it chilled with paper-thin shavings of Iberico ham. 

Score: 91+

Cream

Osborne Santa Maria Cream Sherry, Jerez, Spain (LCBO 31120 $13.10 in stores and online)

While Olorosos can be dry or sweet, Cream Sherry is always sweet. The most popular Cream Sherry in the world is Harveys Bristol Cream, which is quite good (I score it a 90), but my favourite general list Cream Sherry is this bottle with its mahogany hue and rich flavours of warm toffee, spiced praline, orange marmalade, cherry pound cake, almond paste, dried figs and dates. It’s a gorgeous little tipple sipped on the rocks with homemade apple pie. 

Score: 93

Pedro Ximenez (px)

1967 Toro Albala Don PX Seleccion DO Montilla-Moriles, Spain (Vintages 491647 $199.00 in store only)

Made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes, PX is a dark, unctuously sweet style of Sherry. To see the heights to which this style can rise, taste this wine bottled exclusively for the LCBO. Aromas and flavours of black walnut, cocoa powder, molasses, pencil shavings, melting dark chocolate, gingersnap and sea salt imbue the blackberry jam and stewed plum core. Bright, mouth-watering acidity lifts the luscious sweetness and feathery notes of grapefruit zest and French lemon tart resonate on the finish. Once opened, PX remains fresh for at least two years and is spectacular with blue cheese.

Score: 96

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .

Celebrate April Fool’s with these five bottles that will fool any wine enthusiast: Evans Hammond

Pour any of these wines for a blind taste test that will have your friends thinking they're drinking the real deal.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Mar 31, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated

Because fake poop on Persian rugs, saran-wrapped toilet bowls and sugar bowls of salt won’t amuse anyone over about the age of 12, it’s time to up your April Fool’s Day game. Here’s how. Pour any of these wines blind and see if the wine enthusiast in your life can name it. The twist? Every bottle resembles an iconic wine style — but isn’t.

Rosé Champagne Lookalike

13th Street Winery Cuvée Brut Rosé, NV, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (Vintages Essential 147504 $27.95 in store and online)

The gently-berry scented restraint and butter pastry elegance of this coy sparkling rosé from Ontario could fool any connoisseur into thinking it hails from Champagne, France. This dry bubbly is not only about half and half Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, much like most bonafide rosé Champagnes, it’s made by Jean-Pierre Colas—an esteemed French vigneron. Monsieur Colas was head winemaker of the renowned Chablis house, Domaine Laroche, for 10 years, so he’s no stranger to teasing subtlety and finesse out of cool climate grapes.

Score: 91

 

German Riesling Lookalike

2015 Vineland Estates Semi-Dry Riesling, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 232033 $14.95 in stores and online)

Did you know that in the early 20th century, German Riesling fetched higher prices than top Bordeaux (which now of course commands stratospheric prices)? Prices have since dropped as German wines fell out of fashion, but the quality often remains quite high and fine German Riesling still makes seasoned wine lovers weak at the knees. But Ontario also makes very good Riesling not too dissimilar to its German counterpart. Pour this lime-sorbet scented lick of lusciousness for any wine enthusiast and see if they can guess what it is and where it’s from.

Score: 90

 

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Lookalike

2015 Rustenberg Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa (Vintages 456020 $14.95 in stores only)

New Zealand stormed the world stage in the 80s with an explosive style of Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region that quickly became wildly popular. Today, that full-throttle flavour is still associated with that region. But occasionally, you’ll come across a bottle such as this wee gem that tastes quite similar. Such is the case with this great-value bottle with its bright peapod and kiwi fruit aromas that lead to a brisk attack of parsley, passion fruit, lemongrass and lime zest.

Score: 89+

 

Napa Cabernet Lookalike

2014 14 Hands Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington (Vintages 70573 $18.95 in stores only)

Who doesn’t love a good Napa Cabernet Sauvignon? Honestly, with its plush, velvety fruit and layers of comehither complexity can be utterly magnetic. Which is why the prices for top drops from there are starting to soar. So it’s really fun to find a Napa Cab lookalike. Which is exactly what this is. Hailing from a similarly sun-drenched region and made by a reliable producer, this wine with succulent, cassis-rich middle nuanced with pipe tobacco, orange peel, vanilla and more, it could definitely pass for a Napa Cabernet that would sell for twice the price. 

Score: 90+

 

Northern Rhone Lookalike

2014 Nederburg The Winemaster’s Shiraz, Stellenbosch, South Africa (LCBO 527457 $12.95 in stores and online)

Most of us associate sub-$15 Shiraz with the sweetish choco-berry styles from Australia. But Shiraz is also a synonym for Syrah, the main grape variety of the Northern Rhone. And occasionally, a wine labeled Shiraz can taste like a Syrah from the Rhone. Such is the case here. Expect a dry, full-bodied hit of macerated berries, damson plums, black coffee, bitter chocolate, cigars and peppercorn with a long, lingering aftertaste. Definitely worth the money and a perfect pour for April Fool’s Day.

Score: 91+

 

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Five tasty wines for under $14: The Wine Find

From white, to rosé to red, you'll find something wonderful in these 'dirt-cheap' bottles.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Mar 24, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated

You don’t have to spend a lot to get a decent wine these days, thanks to today’s competitive industry. I tasted a slew of bottles under $14 to find you the five dirt-cheap 90+ers. Of course, scores reflect value for money; a 90+ $10 wine is not the same as, say, a 90+ $40 one, which must be held to a higher standard. But these riveting discoveries are worth every cent. 

2016 The Beachhouse Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa (LCBO 122390, $9.95 in stores only)

Wow! I recommended the 2015 many moons ago, but this 2016 vintage is even better. It’s fresh and ripe tasting with full-on flavours of green apple, lime, kiwi and lemongrass all tightly wound and shiny-tasting with a cool, steely core. Quite fruit forward, but it retains a certain sophistication that stems from the satiny mouthfeel and dry, crisp structure. Great bottle to have in the door of the fridge to pull out and pour with salty potato chips, spicy noodle dishes or jerk chicken.

Score: 90+

2016 Barone Montalto Pinot Grigio, Sicily, Italy (LCBO 73148, $9.45 in stores and online)

Pinot Grigio lovers, you’ll want to taste this suave Sicilian. Rushing understated flavours of lime zest, lime sorbet and fresh pear unfurl, leaving hints of stones, grapefruit and a kiss of bitter almond in the wake. In short, this Pinot Grigio offers more complexity and sophistication than you’d expect for the price. What’s not to love? Pour it with a nice antipasto plate or white pizza.

Score: 91+

2015 Dunavar Pinot Grigio, Hungary (LCBO 335422, $9.55 in stores and online) 

I recommended this hidden gem in January, but I’m writing about it again because it’s one of the top sub-$10 wines available in Ontario. Aromas of freshly sliced lemon lead to lively flavours of lemon curd and crisp, green apples. While it’s not particularly complex, it offers the pristine purity of fruit and a seamless mouthfeel. And it goes with almost anything you care to serve with it. But I particularly like it with fish tacos. 

Score: 90

2015 Ogier Ventoux Rosé, Cotes du Ventoux, France (LCBO 134916, $13.95 in stores and online) 

Sheer flavours of rose petals, white peach, ruby grapefruit and the slightest suggestion of wild strawberry hover on the nose and palate of this always-available dry rosé from France. Love the long finish of wet stones that seems to draws you back again and again. Pour this wine with seared scallops, crab cakes or coconut shrimp for a whole lot of easy fun. 

Score: 91

2014 Fonseca Periquita Original Red, Setubal, Portugal (LCBO 25262, $7.95 in stores and online) 

This particular bottle was Portugal’s first-ever bottled red produced since the 1840s — hence the word “Original” on the label. The blend of three native Portuguese grapes — Castelao, Trincadeira and Aragones — delivers articulate flavours of blackberry, black plum puree, ripe black cherries, bright raspberry and dried figs edged with black earth, toasty oak, coffee and vanilla. Great value. And the clean, mouthwatering finish and gentle tug of finely grained tannin yield a food friendly structure. Pour it with dry-cured ham and aged cheeses. 

Score: 90

Fly to wine country from Toronto in 12 minutes

A day trip to the Niagara-on-the-Lake region from Billy Bishop Airport covers wine tastings at Cave Spring Cellars and Angels Gate Winery, lunch at Inn on the Twenty and a visit to Jordan Art Gallery.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Wed Mar 22, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch

Hey, did you know you can now hop on a 12-minute flight from Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake?

It’s true. And it will only set you back $180 return, creating the foundation for a great little wine-tasting adventure when you’re tight for time but need a getaway. Here’s a fantastic way to spend a spare 10 hours:

Book a flight through Greater Toronto Airways — 10 a.m. out, 5 p.m. in. Arrive at Hanger 6 of Billy Bishop Airport about 30 minutes before takeoff to check in and get ready for a treat. 

The plane you board is a tiny eight-seater with Wi-Fi and a cruising altitude of 1,000 feet as opposed to around 30,000 feet common for most commercial aircrafts, which means great views. Then, before you know it, you’re at Niagara District Airport smack dab in the middle of wine country. Flight time for me was 11 minutes and 38 seconds.

Have the driver you booked meet you at the airport. First stop: the art gallery. 

Jordan Art Gallery is 20 minutes away and nicely fills the gap between touch down and 11 a.m., when wineries open. So shoot over to that magical little spot on Main St. in Jordan Village, stroll through, get inspired, feel cultured and shift into full-fledged vacation mode.

From there, meander up the street to Cave Spring Cellars for a wine tasting.

Cave Spring Cellars is a historic winery with a polished tasting experience. After all, with limited time you don’t want to end up at some random shack of a winery with lacklustre juice. See? I’ve got your back.

So taste away and try the 2014 Estate Cabernet Franc and the 2015 Dolomite Pinot Noir.

By noonish, you’ll probably start to feel peckish; so walk through the hallway to Inn on the Twenty restaurant for a civilized lunch. I like the duck confit with a glass of the 2014 Dry Riesling, but I’ve heard good things about the salmon pie, too. Enjoy a long, leisurely three-course meal, then hop back in the car at around 1:30 p.m. and head to Angels Gate Winery in Beamsville — no appointment necessary. 

This award-winning winery makes excellent wine — from riveting sparkling to sublime still reds and whites. Taste the 2009 Archangel Pinot Noir Rosé, 2012 Old Vines Chardonnay and 2008 Mountainview Riesling to see what I mean.

Although the winery itself is only 15 years old, the property had originally been owned by a sisterhood called the Congregation of Christian Sisters from about the turn of the century to 1950 — hence the name and the mission style of the building. 

Head back to the airport for 4:30 p.m. to board the 5 p.m. flight back to Toronto. The timing is terrific for catching a gorgeous view of the city’s skyline at dusk, which caps the end of a day well spent. 

By the way, although these Toronto-Niagara flights have been running weekdays since Sept. 15, shuttling about 150 people each direction per month, Greater Toronto Airways is expected to add weekend jaunts in March. 

Carolyn Evans Hammond was hosted by the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go

Do this trip: Here’s what a trip for two might cost. The Greater Toronto Airways(flygta.com) flight is $179.67 return per person, so $359.34 for two, including taxes. 

Niagara Airbus (niagaraairbus.com) chartered Lincoln Town Car from 10:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: $525.81 including tax. 

A tasting for two at Cave Spring Cellars (cavespring.ca) at $1 to $4 per wine sample, will be about $20. 

A three-course lunch for two at Inn on the Twenty (innonthetwenty.com) restaurant is about $150, including tax and tip. 

A tasting for two at Angels Gate Winery (angelsgatewinery.com), with $5/3 sample pours, is about $20. 

The grand total is $1,075.15.

Restock your wine rack for less than $100

Prepare for warmer weather with five bottles that are perfect for spring.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Mar 18, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated

As spring draws near, we start daydreaming about sunshine. Heat. Frolicking about outdoors without a parka and toque firmly in place. Sure, we still might be blasted by a blizzard, but we know with certainty the chill won’t last. It all boils down to this really: time to restock the wine rack. Here’s a ready-made springtime cellar to set you up, and all five bottles set you back less than $100 ($99.75 to be exact).

2015 Gérard Bertrand Gris Blanc, Languedoc, France (Vintages 409870 $16.95 in stores)

Vintages releases this palest of pale rosés on March 18. It’s a delicately nuanced number from the south of France that starts with barely there aromas of white flowers, cherries, figs and lemon zest before racing across the palate all shiny and cool. The wine is racy but not fruit-forward, instead taking an understated approach to charm as it winks and nods toward floral-berry-melon-and-brioche notes and then tapers to a long, vibrant orange zest finish. Pour this elegant wine with poached fish. And be happy.

Score: 89+

2015 Jaffelin Bourgogne Aligote, France (LCBO 53868 $16.95 in stores and online)

Made from Aligoté, the second white grape variety of Burgundy after Chardonnay, this unwooded beauty tastes bright and crisp — like a ray of sunshine on a brisk morning. It’s pure refreshment teeming with mouth-watering acidity and notes of mixed citrus and green apple that scrapes the palate clean with razor sharp acidity then retreats leaving a compellingly chalky finish on the tongue. This bone-dry wine is a great way to usher in spring, particularly with spicy grilled shrimp or aged goat cheese.

Score: 89

2016 White Cliff Winemaker’s Selection Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand (LCBO 610972 $14.95 in stores and online)

Aromas of a freshly mowed lawn and handfuls of damp herbs leap from the glass of this classic but very well-priced Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, calling to mind all things fresh and green. Then attack is brisk and mouth-filling with saturated flavours of lemongrass, lime puree, fresh asparagus and snow pea. This absolutely tastes like springtime in a glass. Pour it with pasta tossed with parsley, peas and feta for a real treat.

Score: 88

2015 La Vieille Ferme, Cotes du Ventoux, France (LCBO 263640 $10.95 till March 25, reg. $12.45 in stores and online)

This raspberry, violet and earth-scented red wine is light and lively with a slightly savory flair and dried herb underpinnings that draw to mind bay leaf, rosemary and thyme. It’s a silky-tasting red wine with finely grained tannins and a chalky finish that holds the flavour in place and lends a certain gravitas to an otherwise purely affable, easy-drinking, French blend of Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah grapes. Outstanding value wine to pour with pan-fried poultry and steamed, buttered vegetables.

Score: 89

2013 Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel, Napa Valley, California (Vintages 599183 $39.95 in stores)

For many of us, the only real way to usher in springtime is by grilling that first steak of the season to enjoy with a killer red with the power to stand up to grill marks. If that’s your gateway to the season, grab a bottle of this Californian Zinfandel, which is a new Vintages release that hits shelves March 18. It’s not cheap, but it’s definitely worth every penny with its rich, robust flavours of blackberry, stewed black cherry, mint, cedar, tobacco wrapper, red meat, toasted oak, coffee, cocoa powder and nutmeg. Complex, saturated and velvety, this bottle just sings.

Score: 91