Five thrilling wines that cost less than $15

Here are some of the most deeply undervalued bottles on the LCBO’s General List.

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

 

You have better things to do than roam the aisles of the LCBO looking for a thrilling wine for about $15, so I did the legwork for you. I shortlisted, tasted and re-tasted dozens of bottles to find you five of the most deeply undervalued General List wines. Voilà! The big reveal.

2015 La Vieille Ferme White, Cotes du Luberon, France (LCBO 263640 $12.45 in stores and online)

This French white with its understated complexity and stylishly lean structure gives me a small thrill every time I taste it. Its lifted lemon-and-yellow-plum core seems to unfurl slowly with allusions of white flowers, wet stones, sea salt, lilac and marzipan. Then, as the silky fruit recedes, hints of salted almonds linger. What’s more, it’s reliable year in, year out. Pairs perfectly with fish, seafood or a nibble of mild cheese.

Score: 92

2013 Small Talk Faux Pas Riesling Sauvignon Blanc, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake (LCBO 343384 $12.95 in stores and online)

Sprightly scents of lemon-lime sorbet lead to a quick lick of fresh apricot, green apple, sweet peach and kiwi fruit — all mouthwateringly fresh and dry. The ripe, clean flavour and fruit-forward nature of this local drop makes it an easy cocktail alternative, but definitely enhances Thai-inspired dishes such as chicken skewers in a peanut sauce or spicy noodles.

Score: 91+

2015 Trivento Fair Trade Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (LCBO 160994 $11.95 in stores and online)

Expect a sleek attack of ripe crushed berries that quickly fans out to reveal precise, layered flavours — raspberry, blueberry, cherry, sage, bay leaf, lavender and cedar. The texture is succulent yet delicate — quite refined. In short, this red wine is a steal and offers the best value of all General List Malbecs listed today. Snap a bottle or two up and pour it with a simply prepared pot roast to let the wine shine.

Score: 92

2015 Marius by Michel Chapoutier, Grenache-Syrah, Languedoc, France (LCBO 470096 $12.95, available in stores and online)

I recommended this wine in October, re-tasted it for this piece and it’s still showing beautifully — a polished, elegant, juicy expression of berries, dried herbs, flowers and earth. Michel Chapoutier, best known for his celebrated Maison M. Chapoutier winery in the Rhone, makes this southern France gem as a tribute to his great grandfather Marius, who said, “A good wine is a wine you want to taste again.” Here’s to that. Drink it with everything.

Score: 94

2014 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State (LCBO 460154 $14.95 till March 31, reg. $17.95 in stores and online)

The 2013 vintage of this Washington wonder was outstanding — I scored it 92 in my October column. But the 2014 now on shelves is even better, largely because that year was one of the warmest vintages in decades. Terrific ripeness at the core with rich flavours of dark berries and black plums, dark chocolate, toasted hazelnuts, coffee and more. Very long, rich and brawny style of Cabernet that seriously overdelivers. Pour it with grilled steak for a real treat.

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

Five world-class Ontario wines worth snapping up

These bottles tend to fly under the radar because, for the most part, they haven’t been entered into competitions.

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

A reader recently sent me a question that mirrors something I’m asked often by friends in hushed, you-can-tell-me tones. She basically asked, are Canadian wines any good? Can they hold their own in international competitions, earning gold medals and such. And if so, which bottles are best?

The short answer to the first bit is, of course, yes, absolutely. B.C.’s Okanagan Valley produces some killer reds such as those from Osoyoos Larose and Nk’Mip Cellars. Nova Scotia is home to an amazing sparkling wine producer called Benjamin Bridge that rivals fine Champagne houses. And pockets in Quebec make some very good juice. But some of the best wine in Canada hails from right here in Ontario. And our province has earned awards at the gold and even platinum levels in national and international competitions.

Inniskillin 1989 Vidal Icewine from Niagara put Canada on the world map in 1991 when it won the prestigious Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in France, but our drier styles of table wine are gaining traction globally. Indeed, top drops can be stunningly good. But you need to know what to buy, so here are the important guidelines.

Ontario’s climate, soil, and geography favours Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and sometimes Gamay for table wine — and Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc for late harvest and icewine wines. Stick to these varieties; look for elegance, balance and finesse; and buy from trusted producers and you’ll find some charmers.

On the flip side, expect Ontario to produce saturated reds and creamy whites like the table wines made in the hot, sun-drenched regions of say, California and Australia and you’ll be disappointed much of the time. We might make the odd rich style of wine in a hot year and in a sunny, warm microclimate, but it’s not what we do often or well. Style and region go hand in hand.

Lucky for Ontario, lean, clean, crisp styles of wines are all the rage right now. Think of just how fashionable it is to drink Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir to name a few zesty varieties. In fact, everywhere in the world is looking for cool microclimates to produce wines with tight seams of acidity threading through cleanly fruited reds and whites — the very style of wine our province does best.

The five bottles recommended today are certainly world-class wines, but they fly under the radar because, for the most part, they haven’t been entered into competitions. So unlike medal winners that sell out fast, these wines are still available in significant quantities. But buy them now because they won’t last.

Wine recommendations

Sparkling

NV Trius Brut, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($27.95 LCBO 284539)

This sparkling gem has won multiple awards including gold at the reputable Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships in the U.K. in 2015. Like bona fide Champagne, it’s a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made bubbly by a second fermentation in bottle and aged on the lees, or dead yeast, to impart complexity. But it’s a masterful example of the style with classic flavours of cooked apple, gentle lemon and butter pastry, with a roasted nut undertow. Elegant, generous and long.

Score: 91+

Youthful Riesling

2014 Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara ($32 available at hiddenbench.com)

This limestone-rich, organic vineyard with 40-year-old vines produces a very concentrated, mineral style of wine year in, year out. It’s a wine with a huge and loyal following among Riesling lovers — but it’s not for everyone. It’s extremely racy, focused and almost austere, though if you understand the style, it will make you swoon. Aromas of bitter lime zest, white flowers and crushed stones lead to an intense, dry attack of lime, lemons preserved in salt and wet rock with plunging, mouth-watering acidity and resonant length. Great purity here and will age for decades.

Score: 94

Maturing Riesling

2008 Angel’s Gate Mountainview Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara ($16.95 available at angelsgatewinery.com)

This eight-and-a half-year-old stunner will thrill the diehard Riesling fan. Bone dry and dirt cheap (for what it is), this concentrated Riesling from 30-year-old vines grown on the limestone-rich Beamsville Bench teems with intensity, but it’s certainly not fruit-forward. It shows tightly-coiled flavours of white grapefruit, lime oil and salt edged with that hallmark kerosene note usually found in aging Riesling. Long and intense.

Score: 94+

Chardonnay

2014 Rosehall Run JCR Rosehall Vineyard Chardonnay, VQA Prince Edward County ($29.95 available at rosehallrun.com)

Although Prince Edward County doesn’t produce a lot of wine, it spins out some very exciting wines such as this polished, barrel-aged Chardonnay. Aromas of green apples, pralines and cream lead to a bright, cool, crisp attack that tastes taut and nutty, elegant and sleek, and more tense and restrained than gregarious and flashy. Flavours of baked apples, mixed citrus, cool steel, warm flint, and buttered toast taper to a long, refined finish. Stylish and serious offering.

Score: 91

Cabernet Franc

2012 Tawse Winery Van Bers Vineyard Cabernet Franc, VQA Creek Shores, Niagara ($49.95 available at tawsewinery.com)

This is a shining example of the heights to which Cabernet Franc can climb in Ontario. From warm 2012 vintage and clay-rich soil of the Van Bers vineyard comes this cellar-worthy, complex red that’s drinking well now but will age 10 to 15 years. Gorgeous aromas and flavours of red meat, blueberries, raspberries, black earth, coffee, smoke, tobacco, violet, granite and talc unfurl slowly. Finely-grained tannins create elegance, weight and poise. This wine should be decanted before serving to let it open up.

Score: 94+

The perfect night to open that special bottle: The Wine Find

Often, no occasion seems quite special enough to open the bottles we save up.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Feb 25, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, syndicated.

Sure, tasting notes describe aromas, flavours and mouthfeel; touch on balance, length and sweetness; suggest food pairings and such. But that’s only ever part of the story. Where, when and with whom you drink a bottle of wine deeply influences how good it tastes.

The red Californian field blend you drank on that fabulous vacation to Big Sur that takes you back there when you taste it. The wine you shared on a memorable first date. Or that bottle you were given as a gift that you built a dirty weekend around. These are the kinds of bottles you probably remember most and recall tasting best.

If you’re anything like me, you buy bottles to recreate those special moments or generate new ones, setting them aside to drink when the right occasion comes along. But often, that occasion never comes because no moment seems quite special enough. So there those bottles sit, quietly, edging toward their vinous cliff. Violins optional.

Brilliantly, former wine columnists for The Wall Street Journal Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher created Open That Bottle Night to address this silent conundrum. OTBN was invented in the late ’90s and held on the last Saturday in February every year.

We launched a local version of OTBN last year and are celebrating our second annual one tonight. We hope you’ll participate. You can open that bottle with pomp and circumstance, or none at all. It can be uncorked alone, with one special someone, or with a room full of people. You can plan a meal around it or drink it on its own. In short, there are no rules — but the bottle should be meaningful to you. And meaningful doesn’t have to mean pricey or fancy. It should just evoke feeling, or at least a story. Here’s an example.

A couple of years ago, I attended a dinner with a clutch of fellow wine scribes that required us each to bring a memorable wine — an open-that-bottle-night of sorts. I brought a one-litre box of white from Kenya that was given to me from a friend who had travelled there. It was far from fancy, certainly a curiosity and a bit amusing.

None of the usual indicators of what it might taste like appeared on the packaging — such as the grape variety. Instead, the ironic words, “Foremost in quality” were scripted across the package — something this particularly seasoned crowd thought hilarious. This box of wine ended up being a source of good fun, generating many photo ops and laughs. There was even talk of bronzing the box to create an annual award for the most unusual wine.

So join the fun. Grab that crazy-expensive or crazy-cheap wine and open it. If you don’t have a bottle handy with which to participate, grab one of these wines and let me know what you think of it, who you’re drinking it with and what food you served alongside — if any. I’ll be right there with you at #StarOTBN on Twitter and Instagram.

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author.

Show us your bottle

To participate in OTBN tonight, just grab that particular wine you’ve got tucked away and open it. Then tell us about it on Twitter or Instagram using #StarOTBN or email me at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com . I’d love to see a picture of your wine bottles or boxes — even more so with you and your friends in the shot! We’ll publish letters and photos with my next column.

This week’s wine recommendations

NV Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne, France (LCBO 462432 $60.15 in stores and online)

If you’re stumped for a special bottle to pour tonight, why not grab a bottle of this fine drop to gear up for tomorrow night’s Academy Awards. It is the exact same cuvée being poured exclusively at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and Governors Ball, the Academy’s official Oscars after-party. It starts with aromas of cooked Granny Smith apples rolled in butter pastry followed by a creamy-fresh attack of the same infused with lemon and marzipan. Pour it with popcorn.

Score: 90

2015 Konzelmann Estate Winery Pinot Blanc, Lakefront Series, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 219279 $12.95 in stores and online)

This lovely local Pinot Blanc slips over the tongue with silky flavours of white peach, apricot, honeysuckle and orange zest — all tightly knit and properly composed rather than too fruit-forward and overblown. This restraint makes it a versatile food wine — really, it goes with almost anything. I drank this wine recently with a homemade salmon tart and the pairing was gorgeous.

Score: 90

2015 Henri Bourgeois Les Baronnes Sancerre, France (Vintages Essential 542548 $26.95 in stores and online)

When I want something racy, delicate and restrained, I reach for this bottle of Sancerre that tastes great year-in-year-out. Fresh, clean aromas of green apple, lime oil and white flowers lead to a clean, bright attack of lime puree, gunflint, yellow plum and salted green apple all tightly spooled together. Quite classic and stylish. Goat cheese is a perfect match. I like it with goat cheese mozzarella melted on whole-grain crackers.

Score: 89

2013 Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir “Les Aspres” Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Cotes du Roussillon, France (Vintages 413245 $18.95 in stores only)

Love the way this French red combines rusticity with sweet, lush fruit. Like a hand-knit bulky knit, the texture is more chunky than polished, with flavours that flit from the sweet juiciness of wild field berry preserves to more savory notes of roasted meat infused with thyme, black olive and granite. It’s a great bottle to pour this time of year with a hearty meat and potatoes dish — or cheese fondue! This new release hit shelves Feb. 18 and won’t last.

Score: 89

2013 Monte Zovo Sa’Solin Valpolicella Ripasso, Veneto, Italy (Vintages Essential 650713 $18.95 in stores and online)

I’ve recommended this wine before and it’s still stellar value. Ripe, saturated flavours of black cherry, dried plum and black raspberry are edged with notes of black olive, truffle and grilled meat. Complex and concentrated, this is a resonant wine of richness and polish. Excellent buy at under $20. Pour it with a simply prepared but flavourful meat dish or a wild mushroom risotto drizzled with truffle oil.

Score: 94

Valentine's wines to drink for yourself: The Wine Find

These five fabulous wines are perfect to enjoy for yourself this Feb. 14.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Feb 10, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

It’s coming up fast — that designated day to declare our love of coupledom. But what about those who are single or unhappily partnered? Valentine’s Day must be tough for them, right? With that in mind, I’m recommending five fabulous wines to drink for yourself on Feb. 14. If you want to share with someone you love, like or simply tolerate, so be it. But here’s looking at you, kid.

CHAMPAGNE

NV Lanson Black Label Brut Champagne, France (LCBO 215962 $56.95 in stores and online)

There’s something special about Champagne. If there wasn’t, the entire world wouldn’t try so hard to emulate those bottles of fine fizz that hail from the region of Northern France of the same name. Sure, there’s bad Champagne too, but the better bottles such as this gem offer a consistency, elegance and finesse that delivers a heart-pumping thrill with each sip. Flavours and aromas of butter croissant, roasted cashew, marzipan, cooked apple and lemon zest are woven together in a smooth, tight tapestry. Drink it with salted popcorn. Délicieux.

Score: 92

WHITE BURGUNDY

2015 Louis Jadot Chardonnay Bourgogne, France (Vintages Essential 933077 $23.95 in stores and online)

It’s an open understatement to say Burgundy does Chardonnay well; but finding a breathtaking bottle for less than $25 is becoming increasingly difficult. Which is why this bottle is such a treasure. It is a gorgeous little number that teems with seamless flavours of crème brûlée, French lemon tart and hazelnut seasoned with notes of white pepper and salt. The mouthfeel is smooth and almost shiny-tasting with impeccable balance and a long, lingering finish. Drink it with cheese, pasta in a cream sauce or shellfish.

Score: 93

FULL-THROTTLE SASS-MACHINE

2015 Astrolabe Province Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand (Vintages Essential 10421 $19.95 until Feb 25, reg. $22.95, in stores and online until Feb. 25)

This reliable bottle offers all the revved-up refreshment you’ve come to expect New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc without compromising delicacy and complexity. Intense flavours of bright lime, peach and passionfruit slide glasslike across the palate before giving way to notes of damp herbs, elderflower and sea salt. Pour this stylish, sophisticated white wine with a goat cheese salad, coconut shrimp or pesto pasta with chicken.

Score: 92

TUSCAN WONDER

2014 Frescobaldi Tenuta di Castiglioni, Tuscany, Italy (Vintages Essential 145920 $21.95 in stores and online)

The 2014 vintage of this charming red is now hitting shelves and almost as good as the 2013, which I scored 92. But this vintage is a bit more firm and muscular. It’s a super-Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that layers compelling flavours of ripe red berries and black cherries with savory notes of cigar box, black pepper, espresso, black earth and cocoa powder. The taut tannic structure tastes dry and firm with a slight tug on the finish. Serve it with roasted red meat and potatoes for a hearty but hedonistic Feb. 14.

Score: 90

THE KNOCK-YOUR-SOCKS-OFF SWEETIE

González Byass Nutty Solera Medium Oloroso Sherry DO, Spain (Vintages 35204 $16.95 in stores only)

This fortified wine just hit shelves Feb. 4. Shining a gorgeous shade of amber in the glass, it will woo you with its magnetic aromas and flavours of roasted almond and Brazil nut, burnt sugar, dried fruit, roasted coffee beans, bitter chocolate and more. It’s sweet, yes, but well-balanced with mouth-watering acidity so it finishes dry while the dried fruit and nut flavours resonate on the finish. Enjoy a glass with a handful of nuts, a nibble of cheese, or — for a real treat — shaved Iberico ham.

Score: 91+

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 elegant Argentinean Malbecs: The Wine Find

Not all Malbecs are big, bold fruit-bombs with as much restraint as Donald Trump on Twitter.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Feb 4, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

If you think all Argentinean Malbecs are big, bold fruit-bombs with about as much restraint as Donald Trump on Twitter, think again. That hot South American country is totally stepping up its game with exhilarating bottles that teem with elegance, finesse and complexity. Taste these five outstanding value 90+ers to see what I mean.

2015 Trivento Special Selection Fair Trade Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (LCBO 160994 $12.20 in stores and online)

This killer red is not only dirt cheap, it trumped many more expensive Malbecs tasted for this piece. It glides across the palate luminously, with vibrant berry fruit edged with shy dried herbs — wild sage, bay leaf and lavender. Then, the flavours taper to a smooth, refined finish. Love the balance of succulence and delicacy here. Very stylish drop. What’s more, it’s certified fair trade, which ensures dignified wages and fair working conditions for the men and women behind this wine.

Score: 92

2016 Trapiche Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (LCBO 501551 $10.45 in stores and online)

What this gorgeous red lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for with delicious purity of fruit. It tastes exactly like Grandma’s best ever raspberry jam from berries she picked by hand and bottled lovingly. The jam you pull out mid-winter and presto it’s summer again. It’s like that — but dry and light-tasting with a moderate 12.5 per cent alcohol. Fresh and wild tasting with impeccable balance. In short, this 10-buck red is seriously fun to drink.

Score: 91+

2012 Finca La Escuela El Limo Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (Vintages 479600 $22.95 in stores only)

Hitting shelves Feb. 4, this stunner is well worth snapping up. It’s an alluring Malbec with all the full-fruited depth and power of old school Malbec as well as the delicacy, finesse and characterful complexity of a more modern expression. The sweet perfume of menthol and sweet tobacco, wild cherry and cassis leads to fleshy-but-electric attack of red and black fruit. Then, that ripe core quickly unspools with dried herbs, cigar box, violet and a whisper of eucalyptus before leaving a compellingly chalky texture on the finish.

Score: 92+

2015 La Posta Pizzella Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (Vintages 166298 $15.95 in stores)

Though this bottle was released in Vintages in August, there’s lots left on shelves. It’s well worth recommending because it’s drinking beautifully right now. The gorgeous floral-berry nose leads to expansive, high-toned flavours of raspberry and red plum that give way to hints of creamy dark chocolate, coffee, spice cake, cardamom and citrus peel. It’s juicy and opulent with great freshness, lift and charm. And the finish is smooth, polished and long. Snazzy label too. Can’t go wrong with a bottle of this juice on hand.

Score: 91

2015 Alamos Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (LCBO 295139, $15.45 in stores and online)

This label’s depiction of mountains pays homage to the fact growing grapes at higher altitudes can preserve freshness and elegance in a wine — without compromising flavour. Made from grapes grown 900 to 1500 metres above sea level, this rich-but-refreshing Malbec is chock-full of blueberry and blackberry liqueur flavours edged with graphite, all of which is lifted with spiralling bright cherry-almond delicacy. Excellent wine for the money.

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 .

 

Light wines to put the spotlight on drinking responsibly: The Wine Find

As alcohol becomes more accessible and enthusiasm toward wine grows, the burden to drink responsibly shifts to the individual.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Jan 27, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

It’s all very exciting, isn’t it? Wine in grocery stores. Online shopping at LCBO.com. The new “Products of the World Specialty Boutiques” tucked neatly into existing LCBO stores.

But as alcoholic beverages become more accessible, the burden to drink responsibility quietly shifts from the province to the individual.

This shift coincides with a rabid enthusiasm toward wine (not to mention craft beer, cider and cocktails), a fiercely competitive marketplace putting better bottles on shelves, and the LCBO focusing squarely on marketing. In short, we’ve never been more directly and indirectly tempted to drink more. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

LCBO total volume sales in the 2015-16 fiscal year (in thousands of litres) was 502,137, an increase of 7.1 per cent from the previous year. In fact, the LCBO reported record sales of $5.57 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year, 6.6 per cent more than the previous one. And sales will probably continue to rise. But this situation suggests risks associated with alcohol may also be escalating.

If you’re wondering why yours truly, a wine columnist, is penning this piece, it’s because of my social conscience. With every story I write and recommendation I put out there, I hope readers will enjoy responsibly. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for enjoying a drink — especially a good glass of wine. But moderation is key for reasons that may surprise you.

Did you know alcohol is a straight-up, well-documented carcinogen? The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, names alcohol as a definitive cause of oral, larynx, esophagus, liver, colorectal and female breast cancers.

And although wine may help cardiovascular health and possibly reduce your risk of stroke and diabetes, all benefits tank when you consume more than one drink a day. In fact, drinking too much is a known cause of heart disease as well as stroke, cirrhosis of the liver and other painful conditions.

Peel Public Health actually tallied the figures for its area. In its relatively small population of 1.3 million, alcohol caused 3,476 emergency room visits, 1,155 hospitalizations, 28 new cases of cancer, 127 deaths and 1,493 ambulance calls in 2015 alone.

Of course the more you drink, the higher the risks. But the dim reality is nearly 10 per cent of Ontario adults drink alcohol every day, according to Statistics Canada. And close to 24 per cent of adults in Toronto drink excessively, according to official city stats. These statisticss don’t reflect the fact people both notoriously under-report and underestimate how much they drink.

Ontario studies show wealthy, white, Canadian-born men — especially those who are unmarried — are the heaviest drinkers. That’s not the only group that drinks too much, of course, but it’s a clear reminder alcohol affects more than the most vulnerable subsets of society.

Is a glass of wine with dinner each night going to kill you? Probably not. But if that glass is topped up regularly and leads to nearly a bottle per night, there are probably serious short-term and long-term consequences to consider. And remember, one drink means a five-ounce pour of wine at 12 per cent alcohol.

The question is, what is an acceptable amount of alcohol to consume? Generally, no more than two drinks per day for women and no more than three for men — with non-drinking days every week.

And with that information in mind here are five light whites that contain 12 per cent alcohol or less.

2014 Angels Gate Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 160523 $13.95 in store and online)

Shining star-bright, this shimmeringly pristine Riesling is both vibrant and evocative. Chiseled aromas of flint, honey-crisp apple, lime zest and kerosene (a scent often found in maturing Riesling) take hold. Then polished-steel-smooth flavours of electric lime, salt and wet stones unspool and linger. Pour this local gem with grilled salmon, a spicy Asian noodle dish, or cod cakes. Alcohol: 11.5 per cent.

Score: 91

2015 Clean Slate Riesling, Mosel, Germany (LCBO 286237 $12.95 in store and online)

I like this wine for a few reasons. Not only is it excellent wine for the money, but the clean, linear label depicting piles of slate cleverly alludes to both character of the wine and the soil composition from the Mosel region of Germany. Notes of wet stone, honeysuckle, white peach and grapefruit zest infuse the lime squirt core. Great purity and freshness here in a classically styled, dry-tasting German Riesling. Serve it with fried fish or pumpkin ravioli topped with a brown butter sauce and walnuts. Alcohol: 11 per cent.

Score: 90

2014 Fielding Estate Winery Fireside White, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 303040 $13.95 in store and online)

Little wonder this tightly wound blend of Riesling, Viognier and Chardonnay won Double Gold at the 2016 All Canadian Wine Championships and gold at the 2016 Royal Wine Competition. It’s a sprightly yet suave little wonder that tastes something like the best mixed citrus sorbet you’ve ever tasted — all zip, slip and joy. The lacy acidity lifting the kiss of sweetness to ensure impeccable balance. Serve it with spiced nuts by the fire or with cherry pound cake or cheese in the afternoon. Alcohol: 11 per cent.

Score: 91+

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

With subtle flavours and aromas of fresh lemon and Granny Smith apple, this racy Pinot Grigio shows all the clean, lean character for which the variety is known. If you like Pinot Grigio, you’d be hard pressed to find a better value bottle for less than $10. Poised, harmonious and glossy, it’s an easy win. Goes very well with pork chops and mashed potatoes, chicken and French fries, or steamed mussels with garlic and parsley. Alcohol: 12 per cent.

Score: 90

2015 Fresh Beginnings Moscato, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 341776 $12.95 in store and online)

If you’re growing tired of winter, this liquid beam of sunshine should brighten things up. Intense and succulent, this approachable white brims with aromas and flavours of sweet orange, juicy nectarine, ruby grapefruit and white flowers. It’s sweet, yes; but the bright charge of mouthwatering acidity ensures it finishes clean and dry. Easy cocktail alternative to serve well-chilled with all things spicy, salty, or crunchy. Alcohol: 12 per cent.

Score: 89+

Alcohol reality check: a quick quiz

Discover your alcohol-related health risk by taking theAlcohol Reality Check. Developed by Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia and condoned by Toronto Public Health, this quick quiz offers personalized feedback about your alcohol use based on Canada’s official low risk alcohol drinking guidelines.

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 surprising wines for men: The Wine Find

Real men not only eat quiche; they eat it with Sauvignon Blanc.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Jan 20, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

Why is it when a guy says he likes a “good Cabernet,” it’s the equivalent of saying he benches 300 pounds or drives the latest luxury car? Hey, I don’t make the rules; I just interpret them and reflect them back in black and white. Here are five total “guy” wines — some of which may surprise you.

2014 Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon, California (LCBO 392647 $17.45 in stores and online)

This wine was designed specifically for men. After doing a ton of market research, makers learned guys want a wine that’s flavourful and robust, bold and smooth, and not too dry — one that signals manliness. They want to look at it on the shelf and immediately know they can serve it with a great steak. Voila. Carnivor was born in all its gruntingly stereotypical glory. It’s a plush, mouth-coating red with intense flavours of blueberry jam, cassis, melting chocolate and toasted oak.

Score: 89

2015 Gentleman’s Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia (LCBO 461533 $17.95 in stores and online)

We can probably all agree the rules for being a gentleman aren’t as well defined these days. But attempts at gentlemanliness amongst millennial men is trending huge — from meticulous grooming habits to an earnest appreciation for wine. Lindeman’s launched this collection to help them navigate the selection process. The range was inspired by Dr. Henry J. Lindeman, who moved from England to Australia, established his winery in 1843, and tried to civilize the hard-drinking colony through wine. Pretty priceless parallel, if you ask me. This soft, round, mocha-and-cherry-scented red just hit shelves in Ontario and is a respectable pour. You know, to take the guess work out of suave sophistication.

Score: 90+

NV De Chanceny Cremant de Loire Rosé Brut, France (LCBO 211466 $19.20 in stores only)

Guys are chin-deep in two forms of vinous bromance — an infatuation with rosé and a love affair with sparkling wine. What’s driving this trend is the recognition rosé and sparkling wine can be dry and complex badges of sophistication; so drinking either style is smart regardless of what your genitals look like. Taste this deadly delicious drop that combines both styles in one near-perfect pop to see what all the fuss is about. Elegant and dry, with insinuations of homemade cherry pie, lemon zest, sea salt, this sparkling wonder drinks like a bottle worth much more than $20.

Score: 92

2014 Sterling Vintner’s Collection Sauvignon Blanc, California (LCBO 445783 $15.95 in stores and online)

Real men not only eat quiche; they eat it with Sauvignon Blanc — one of the most versatile and food-friendly wines on the planet. And this bottle is a fine example. Come-hither aromas of orange oil and grapefruit lead to a crisp but understated attack of ripe guava, lemon zest and damp herbs that slowly taper toward a salt-and-lemon finish. Simply put, this wine has easy sophistication written all over it. And a glass of easy sophistication always looks great dangling from a man’s hand.

Score: 89

2014 Nederburg The Winemaster’s Shiraz, South Africa (LCBO 527457 $11.95 in stores and online)

Shiraz can get a bit of a bad rap — seen as a bit too sweet, straightforward and choco-berry to be taken seriously. But this deeply undervalued drop reveals the heights to which this variety can climb. Immediately captivating aromas of pipe tobacco, roasted coffee beans and chocolate lead to a smooth, ripe hit of macerated berries, damson plums, coffee, cigars and peppercorn. This dry, full-bodied red offers complexity, concentration and length, which are the three earmarks that make a good wine great. Snap this up, boys.

Score: 91+

 

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 .

How robots are helping us make better wine: The Wine Find

Here are five terrific bottles from wineries that invest heavily in technological advances.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Jan 13, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

A quiet revolution is changing the way we drink wine. Artificially intelligent machines in vineyards and wineries now calibrate the winemaking process to ensure bottles taste great at every price point. That translates to dramatically better wine on shelves and reduces our tolerance for mediocrity. In short, we know intuitively that we no longer need to buy a lacklustre bottle twice. But there’s a catch.

Only wineries that can afford to invest in the best do so, which tends to be the largest producers and the most successful superpremium wineries. After all, costs are high for the kind of technology being implemented today.

Sensors monitor grapevine stress; drones hover over to map vineyard health; and machines prune, harvest and sort berries better than people can (especially tired humans whose eyes glaze over from hours of this tedious work).

In wineries, Internet-based technologies let winemakers track every element of the winemaking process from anywhere in the world; smart bottling lines monitor spout efficacy to cut bottle variation; and cork screening technology minimizes contamination better than ever. And these are merely the broad brush strokes.

“Duckhorn has invested hundreds of thousands in to new technology in the last five years,” PJ Alviso, director of viticulture at Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa Valley, Calif., told me over the phone.

In the same period, Trinchero Family Estates invested $350 million (U.S.) in its Lodi, Calif., facility alone, which makes Sutter Home wines.

“Walk into that winery and it’s like walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory,” says Brett Marshall, director of sales in Canada for Trinchero. “The 660,000 square foot facility is fully automated and ships 100,000 cases per day in high season.”

As the larger and the moneyed wineries drop serious coin on AI, smaller wineries operating on a shoestring find it increasingly difficult to compete.

In Ontario, where most of our wineries are small scale operations, winemakers share new technologies to lift the quality bar across the board. One such technology is the optical sorter, a cutting edge machine that Vineland Estates Winery bought last year from France for nearly half a million dollars. After picking the grapes, it sorts them by size and colour better than humans can in order to improve the final wine.

“In Ontario, we view other regions not other local wineries as competition,” says Brian Schmidt, winemaker and vice president of Vineland Estates Winery in Niagara. “For instance, at Vineland, we will use our optical sorter to sort other wineries’ grapes so everyone can benefit from the advancement.”

Ontario wineries also benefit from a shared grapevine monitoring system called Vine Alert, which tracks weather patterns and wind machines to mitigate frost damage — a hugely valuable tool for winemakers in our challenging climate.

The global trend toward AI in winemaking in an already fiercely competitive and global marketplace means there has never been better wine on shelves at every price point — an evolution that will only continue.

The bottles below hail from wineries that invested heavily in technological advances. I think you’ll agree they deliver terrific value for money.

Here’s to that.

2015 Cavit Moscato IGT, Trentino, Italy (LCBO 277210 $12.95 in stores and online)

This dazzlingly fresh moscato offers a light, fresh, fizzy wash of dried apricot, tangerine and sweet peach. It’s deliciously sweet but finishes clean and dry due to a balancing core of lemon-squirt acidity. And the effervescence (not noted on the label unfortunately) amps up the refreshment — especially served ice cold. Terrific choice in the afternoon with salty snacks or served as an inexpensive dessert wine with butter pound cake, fruit tart, or a selection of cheeses.

Score: 90+

2014 Game Changer The Obstinate Red, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON (LCBO 457523 $14.95 in store and online)

Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estates Winery, bought the optical sorter in 2014. As he began to use it, he kept referring to the device as a game changer for its ability to boost the quality, so, Vineland built this brand around the phrase. Light, bright and fruity with tart flavours of red raspberry, red apple, and dried cranberry, this crisp, refreshing red tastes great chilled down and served with food — especially roasted poultry.

Score: 88

2014 Enigma Cabernet Sauvignon, California (LCBO 428847 $13.95 in store and online)

A rich, velvety hit of gorgeous dark berry fruit immediately saturates the palate edged with brawny notes of toasted oak, black pepper, chargrilled beef and mocha. This dry, sophisticated-tasting wine is beautifully made with all the balance, complexity and finesse of a good $20 bottle. It’s a knockout buy from E & J Gallo Winery, the United States’ largest winery, which designed this wine very carefully to deliver serious value for money. Terrific with roast beef.

Score: 92

2014 Ménage à Trois Silk Soft Red Blend, California (LCBO 462853 $17.95 in store and online)

This wine is the fasted growing wine in the United States and was just launched in Ontario this past September. It’s a silky blend of 70 per cent Pinot Noir, 20 per cent Malbec and 10 per cent Petite Sirah that’s aromatic and easy to enjoy. Aromas of wild raspberries and violet lead to a smooth, sleek wash of the same infused with strawberry-rhubarb pie flavours complete with golden brown pastry. Delicious with baked salmon.

Score: 90

2014 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California (Vintages 45583 $94.95 in store only)

If you’ve got the depth of pocket to splash out on a deeply gorgeous Chardonnay, snap up this bottle. It’s a tightly wound wooded Chardonnay from the sun-soaked 2014 vintage. Warm caramel, toasted almond, lime zest and flint aromas lead a flavours of citrus, pineapple, sea salt, white pepper, grapefruit zest, melting toffee and cream notes. Generous yet elegant wine that’s both strappingly muscular and well-sculpted. Pour it with Fettuccine Alfredo made with very good pasta, butter, cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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 .

 

Five fine wines for under $15: The Wine Find

These bottles of wine are perfect for this time of year and cost less than $15 each.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Jan 6, 2017 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

Washington wines are on fire right now — for good reason. That state’s lush, saturated reds and creamy, satin-rich whites compare closely with those of California at a fraction of the price. And dialed-in, value-conscious wine lovers know it. The LCBO sold about $9 million worth of Washington wine last year, up 65 per cent over the previous year — and the upward trend shows no sign of slowing. I sampled a slew of wines from this state to find you five of the best. Because, you know, I’ve got your back.

2014 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay, Columbia Valley (LCBO 462846 $17.95 available in store and online)

From grapes grown in the dry Columbia Valley during the very warm 2014 vintage comes this full-bodied, barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Wafting aromas of crème brûlée lead to a generous, tongue-coating attack of richness. The tropical fruit core of pineapple and mixed citrus glazed with allusions of caramelized sugar, warm nutmeg and toasted oak offer instant appeal. This is a gutsy but well-balanced little number that goes very well with fettuccine alfredo, chicken Caesar salad and your favourite cable-knit sweater on a chilly autumn evening.

Score: 88

2013 Seven Falls Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope, Washington (Vintages 360222, released Nov. 26, $20.95 in store only)

The Wahluke Slope — one of the warmest, driest sub-regions in the state — produces gorgeously ripe, deeply-fruited red wines, and this bottle is a fine example. Expect plush aromas and favours of black cherry, blackcurrant liqueur, plum, vanilla, cedar and chocolate that are intricately woven together. And the extra-dense, brushed flannel texture from the finely grained tannin holds the flavour in place for ages. Pour it with roasted, salted meat for a real treat.

Score: 90

2014 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington (Vintages Essential 210047 $19.95 in store and online)

When you taste this, you won’t be surprised that it’s the best-selling wine from Washington in Ontario. From Horse Heaven Hills, a sub-region known for making suave, seamless wines, this rich red offers more concentration, complexity and length than most sub-$20 Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Lashings of super-ripe red and black berries shot through with cocoa, granite, toasted oak, black tea, and red and black licorice keeps you riveted. This smooth sipper works as well as solo with maybe a few nuts as it does with hearty braised dishes.

Score: 91

2014 The Pundit Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington (Vintages 462945, released Nov. 26, $39.95)

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington collaborated with Rhone valley winemaker Michel Gassier and French enology consultant Philippe Cambie to create this crazy good, Rhone-esque red. Sun-drenched and delicious, this big red tastes dense, deep and dark with savoury underpinnings. Broad yet silky flavours of salted chocolate, bonfire, black earth and damson unfurl slowly and taper toward suggestions of black olive, tobacco leaf, allspice and clove on the finish. This well-priced pour is drinking well now but can improve for up to 20 years if properly cellared. Drink with rib steak and potatoes.

Score: 93

2013 Col Solare, Red Mountain, Washington (Vintages 20487, $99.95 in store only)

Col Solare on Red Mountain — owned by Marchesi Antinori of Tuscany and Chateau St. Michelle of Washington — shows the majesty that can be teased from the vines of the region. Instantly mouthcoating, polished, and almost liqueur-like, this bottle has so much going on — cassis, cocoa, tobacco, freshly turned earth, cherry pie, black plum puree, pipe tobacco and more. The layered flavours taste harmonious, the structure is superbly balanced, and the effect: swoonworthy. It’s drinking well now but will improve for another 40 years if properly cellared. Drink it with roast beef.

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 .

Think beyond the champagne bottle this New Year’s Eve

5 fizzy alternatives that will keep your guests — and your bank balance — happy well past midnight.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Dec 31, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, you’ll definitely want something fine and fizzy in your glass. But it doesn’t have to be bona fide champagne. Some pretty solid alternatives now exist at a fraction of the price. Here are five sparkling wines I’m currently enamoured with ranging from a cheap and cheerful four-pack from New Zealand to an underrated but totally fancy-schmancy Italian wonder. Here’s to 2017!

Fun Fizz

Joiy Sparkling, NV, New Zealand (LCBO 424036 $19.95 for 4 x 250mL bottles, available in store and online)

This adorable little four-pack is worth snapping up. Each wee bottle of Joiy offers a sweet-and-sour lick of lemon zest and lime sorbet that’s more gently sparkling than full-fledged fizzy. And what the wine lacks in depth, complexity and nuance, it makes up for in clean, well-balanced, unintimidating appeal. It’s an easy party wine to serve straight from the ice. Just add straws. And maybe some chipotle anything.

Score: 88

Local bubbly

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

A strikingly attractive bouquet of homemade cherry pie leads to a bright but understated attack. Suggestions of red apple, ripe raspberry and toasted butter pastry lead to a long, tangy-salty finish that leaves the palate scraped clean. This bone dry, complex and creamy blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and gamay is a beaming reminder of just how well-suited Ontario is for sparkling wine. All the elegant finesse of a fine rosé champagne for less than half the price. Hard to beat.

Score: 91

Cava

Villa Conchi Brut Selección Cava, NV, Spain (Vintages 386979 $14.95 in store only)

This wine is not just another pretty label. It packs a whole lot of delicacy and finesse for about 15 bucks. Barely there, wispy aromas of sea spray and white grapefruit lead to a crisp wash of the same laced with a hint of granite and bitter orange peel. The sheer wash of flavour can season almost any food perfectly while the tight seam of plunging acidity pulls it together nicely to keep the palate fresh and clean. The Tiffany blue label and foil capsule are sweet touches, too.

Score: 91

Franciacorta

Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Brut Franciacorta DOCG, NV, Lombardy, Italy (Vintages 105353 $41.95 in stores only)

Franciacorta is Italy’s answer to France’s champagne. It’s made from the same main grape varieties — chardonnay and pinot noir; undergoes a second fermentation in bottle to add layers of complexity; and is made in vintage, non-vintage and rosé versions — just like champagne. So if you like the fine French stuff, try this lovely wine with its suave insinuations of cooked apple, sea salt, stone, lemon cream, nut and warm croissant — all shot through with delicate bubbles and lacy acidity. The LCBO doesn’t bring in much franciacorta, so when you see it, you might want to grab a bottle or two.

Score: 91

Prosecco

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

I was poured this wine at a lunch recently, before the menu arrived to order, and took pause. It was such an impeccable start to the meal. Quite a refined and polished prosecco. Subtle suggestions of ripe pear, white flowers, salt and stone shot through with mouthwatering acidity balance the kiss of sweetness beautifully. Each sip offers a swift hit of racy refreshment without compromising elegance. Delicious.

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 .

For the holidays, these wines will keep things merry: The Wine Find

After a full day preparing for the big meal, relax with these flavourful wines to complement your meal.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Dec 24, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

Oh, holy night. You slave all day over the meal, set the table with tender loving care, round up the compulsory friends and family. . . you definitely deserve a decent drop when you sit down to Christmas dinner. None of that Baby Duck business, fruitcake. Here are four table wines to keep things merry and bright, and a decadent dessert wine for a spirited finish.

2015 Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin, Burgundy, France (LCBO 289124 $23.20 in store and online)

This unoaked Chardonnay with a glasslike texture and clean, crisp flavour, is the perfect Christmas pour. Not only does it go well with turkey, but it’s named after the Christian Saint Martin to symbolize sharing and conviviality. Legend has it Saint Martin, a Roman soldier in 316AD, met a beggar during night patrol in France and gave him his cape after splitting it with his sword. Since half his garment was paid by himself and half by the army, the gesture showed total generosity. Monks took Saint Martin’s relics to Chablis in 877, where the crypt still remains.

Score: 90+

2013 Aquinas Pinot Noir, Napa Valley and Sonoma County, California (LCBO 277657 $18.95 in store and online)

Finding a gorgeous Pinot Noir for less than $20 isn’t easy, but here you have it. Pure raspberry and sweet cranberry flavours edged with violet and vanilla cream offer a lush rush of pleasure that’s rich and mouth coating, while retaining the quenching zip for which Pinot Noir is known. Great holiday pour that would not only go well with roast beef, ham or turkey, but is appropriately named for the occasion. Aquinas was, of course, the important Christian theologian and philosopher who spent his life trying to prove the existence of God.

Score: 90

2015 Arterra Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula, ON ($29.95 at select Wine Rack stores and at — free shipping on this wine with promo code ARTERRA until Dec. 31.)

If you like gently wooded Chardonnay, you’ll want to grab a bottle of this terrific new wine, just released in November. Inviting aromas of cantaloupe, beeswax, white flowers and vanilla lead to a creamy-fresh attack that tastes refined and sophisticated. Polished flavours of preserved lemon, cool slate and Brazil nut unfurl seamlessly before tapering to a long, grapefruit-zesty finish. With roast turkey? Magic.

Score: 91

2014 Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Aconcagua Valley, Chile (LCBO 335174 $19.15 in store and online)

If you’re serving a roast of beef or goose, pour this saturated Cabernet Sauvignon that seriously over-delivers. Wafting aromas of dark, spicy fruit and chocolate covered espresso beans draw you in and then the entry is intense and complex with dried herbs, grilled meat and black earth flavours underpinning a sweet berry core. Then, on the finish, notes of tobacco, black pepper, smoke and roasted nuts resonate. Solid crowd-pleaser at a reasonable price.

Score: 90

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

Here’s a wine filled with sugar and spice and everything nice. Shining a gorgeous shade of mahogany, each sip is rich with flavours of warm toffee, spiced praline, homemade orange marmalade, cherry pound cake, almond paste, dried figs and dates. This stunningly good bottle would go beautifully with apple pie, plum pudding, or — my favourite — a nibble of blue cheese. Pour this and end the evening with just the right kind of holiday drama.

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 .

Gifts you should give a wine lover, and one you should not: Wine condoms, kitschy ornaments and sturdy glasses for outdoorsy types are all present perfect.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Dec 9, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

Looking for perfect gifts for the wine lover? Let’s start with what not to do. Guzzle Buddy — the wildly popular gizmo that turns a wine bottle into a giant glass — tops my list of what not to give. Cougar Town featured it two years ago in a shopping-channel episode, and now it’s a real thing that’s going gangbusters. It sells for $29.99 (U.S.) plus $15 shipping at guzzlebuddy.com exclusively. That’s right. For about $60 Canadian, you too can buy one. But here are five better ideas.

OUTDOORSY

For those who hike, camp or engage in the rugged outdoor pursuit of lazing by the pool, I highly recommend giving two, four or six GSI Nesting Wine Glasses. These are unassuming game-changers. Not only are they sturdy, shatterproof and BPA-free, the stem unscrews and snaps into the bowl to create a compact, bell-jar shape for easy storage. Voila. All the practicality outdoorsy types crave without compromising the oenophilic bits that matter to most wine lovers — a proper stem, a good shape and a clear bowl. Ah, the magic of Christmas. Available for $8.75 each at MEC and mec.ca, and $8.99 at Sail.

KITSCHY COOL

I immediately fell in love with these Kurt S. Adler wine glass ornaments — they’re nifty little glass numbers with real liquid inside. They not only look like something Iris Apfel would hang from her earlobes, they would dangle fabulously from a Christmas tree, menorah, bottle neck, or jar of homemade cheese straws. In other words, these ornaments have more range than Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande and The Weeknd rolled into one. Tie one on to anything over the holidays. They’re so achingly awesome, I just had to tell you about them. Available for $39.85 for a set of three at amazon.ca (shipping is free).

NAUGHTY BUT NICE

Forget the ordinary wine stopper; the hottest thing in closures? Wine condoms. Just place the rubber against the tip of an erect wine bottle, then gently roll the rubber down the shaft, smoothing out any air bubbles. These individually packaged condoms are designed to prevent leakage more than 99.9 per cent of the time when used correctly and are small enough to slip discreetly in your pocket, purse or wallet — ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. So give a box this season. And help the wine lovers on your list protect their Pinots. Available for $19.99 (U.S.) a box exclusively on amazon.com.

GOLD STANDARD OF STEMWARE

A set of these Zalto Denk’Art universal wine glasses is probably the very best gift to give a wine lover. They’re not inexpensive, but they have this amazing ability to amplify flavours and aromas, making good wines great and great wines incredible. What’s more, they’re lead-free, dishwasher-safe, and so impossibly thin that the crystal becomes almost imperceptible as you sip, putting you at one with the wine. Finding Zalto stems under the tree is sure to thrill any wine enthusiast. Available for $74.95 each at halpernwine.com.

THE OBVIOUS: A GREAT BOTTLE

Or you could just give a really good bottle of wine, such as this killer Chardonnay. It shines a deep yellow with tinges of gold; exudes intense aromas of cashew nut, warm cedar and vanilla cream; and then offers a slow, seductive attack. The wine’s mouth-coating, spun-silk texture and rich flavours of lemon meringue pie edged with kaffir lime leaf, cool granite and grapefruit zest are sure to please someone on your list. Quite a sophisticated expression of wooded Chardonnay that is a nod to the wines of the Meursault region of France. Oh, and it stuffs a stocking with ease.

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 .

 

Washington state wines are a value-conscious favourite

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Dec 3, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

Washington wines are on fire right now — for good reason. That state’s lush, saturated reds and creamy, satin-rich whites compare closely with those of California at a fraction of the price. And dialed-in, value-conscious wine lovers know it. The LCBO sold about $9 million worth of Washington wine last year, up 65 per cent over the previous year — and the upward trend shows no sign of slowing. I sampled a slew of wines from this state to find you five of the best. Because, you know, I’ve got your back.

2014 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay, Columbia Valley (LCBO 462846 $17.95 available in store and online)

From grapes grown in the dry Columbia Valley during the very warm 2014 vintage comes this full-bodied, barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Wafting aromas of crème brûlée lead to a generous, tongue-coating attack of richness. The tropical fruit core of pineapple and mixed citrus glazed with allusions of caramelized sugar, warm nutmeg and toasted oak offer instant appeal. This is a gutsy but well-balanced little number that goes very well with fettuccine alfredo, chicken Caesar salad and your favourite cable-knit sweater on a chilly autumn evening.

Score: 88

2013 Seven Falls Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope, Washington (Vintages 360222, released Nov. 26, $20.95 in store only)

The Wahluke Slope — one of the warmest, driest sub-regions in the state — produces gorgeously ripe, deeply-fruited red wines, and this bottle is a fine example. Expect plush aromas and favours of black cherry, blackcurrant liqueur, plum, vanilla, cedar and chocolate that are intricately woven together. And the extra-dense, brushed flannel texture from the finely grained tannin holds the flavour in place for ages. Pour it with roasted, salted meat for a real treat.

Score: 90

2014 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington (Vintages Essential 210047 $19.95 in store and online)

When you taste this, you won’t be surprised that it’s the best-selling wine from Washington in Ontario. From Horse Heaven Hills, a sub-region known for making suave, seamless wines, this rich red offers more concentration, complexity and length than most sub-$20 Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Lashings of super-ripe red and black berries shot through with cocoa, granite, toasted oak, black tea, and red and black licorice keeps you riveted. This smooth sipper works as well as solo with maybe a few nuts as it does with hearty braised dishes.

Score: 91

2014 The Pundit Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington (Vintages 462945, released Nov. 26, $39.95)

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington collaborated with Rhone valley winemaker Michel Gassier and French enology consultant Philippe Cambie to create this crazy good, Rhone-esque red. Sun-drenched and delicious, this big red tastes dense, deep and dark with savoury underpinnings. Broad yet silky flavours of salted chocolate, bonfire, black earth and damson unfurl slowly and taper toward suggestions of black olive, tobacco leaf, allspice and clove on the finish. This well-priced pour is drinking well now but can improve for up to 20 years if properly cellared. Drink with rib steak and potatoes.

Score: 93

2013 Col Solare, Red Mountain, Washington (Vintages 20487, $99.95 in store only)

Col Solare on Red Mountain — owned by Marchesi Antinori of Tuscany and Chateau St. Michelle of Washington — shows the majesty that can be teased from the vines of the region. Instantly mouthcoating, polished, and almost liqueur-like, this bottle has so much going on — cassis, cocoa, tobacco, freshly turned earth, cherry pie, black plum puree, pipe tobacco and more. The layered flavours taste harmonious, the structure is superbly balanced, and the effect: swoonworthy. It’s drinking well now but will improve for another 40 years if properly cellared. Drink it with roast beef.

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 .

Super-duper bottles that taste anything but atrocious: Plus-sized bottles may have a (deservedly) bad rep, but these wines are delicious — and less than $25

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Nov 26, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

With soiree season upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fabulous magnum on hand to pull out when friends or family come by? A magnum is only the equivalent of two 750 mL bottles, but the size makes it seem special. Trouble is, most wines in this format taste atrocious unless they’re super-expensive. But that’s not always the case. Here’s a list of five excellent magnums under $25 a pop.

2015 Yvon Mau Sauvignon Blanc, Cotes de Gascogne, France (LCBO 470450 $16.95, 1500 mL, in store and online)

A gentle nose of lime sherbet leads to a dry, racy blur of the same edged with insinuations of green pea, white flowers and honeydew melon. This restrained expression of French Sauvignon Blanc with a nice, light body — just 11 per cent alcohol — offers crisp, easy refreshment that pairs well with a whole slew of party foods. In fact, I can’t think of a salty snack or appetizer this wouldn’t take up a notch. Also works well with chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and basil.

Score: 89

2015 Folonari Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy (LCBO 26278 $22.95, 1500 mL available in store and online)

I love a well-made Valpolicella for its sheer wash of clean berry fruit and earthy-spicy undertow that leaves the palate perfectly seasoned. Never too fruit-forward or rich, it’s one of the most supremely “drinkable” reds on the planet, and this version by Folonari is excellent. Pour it with anything — even fish or seafood. A particularly stunning pairing is angel hair pasta tossed with truffle oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bang on.

Score: 90

2014 Mezzomondo Negroamara, Puglia IGT, Italy (LCBO 111930 $16.95, 1500 mL, available in store and online)

Those who like their reds rich and hearty will want to snap up a bottle of this insanely good value vino to have on hand over the holiday season. Its saturated flavours of grilled meat and black cherry edged with mixed peppercorn and dried oregano punches way above its price point. Couple the flavour profile with the satin mouth feel and clean, crisp finish, and you’ve got something of a steal. Goes best with simply prepared roast of beef or pork.

Score: 92

2015 Luccarelli Primitivo, Puglia IGT, Italy (LCBO 409631 $19.95, 1500 mL, available in store and online)

Primitivo tastes juicy, full-bodied and quite similar to red Zinfandel from California — and this bottle is no exception. Expect a controlled punch of black and wild red cherry laced with inklings of dried plum, blueberry, toast, black peppercorn and wild mushroom. And the 10 grams of residual sugar smooths the mouth feel to ensure it’s not too dry, which can turn off some drinkers. Easy choice for a pepperoni pizza party.

Score: 89

2014 Yvon Mau Merlot, South of France (LCBO 572370 $17.95, 1500 mL, available in store and online)

Yes, wine snob Miles famously said “I am NOT drinking any f-----g Merlot!” in the 2004 flick Sideways and it spiralled into a pit of unpopularity. But wineries have upped their game since then to renew your faith in that variety. And here’s a fine example of how Merlot can offer outstanding value for money. Smooth, ripe and full of fruit, this medium-bodied wonder offers a veil of ripe raspberry, dried cranberry, chocolate-cherry fruit that’s ripe but retains that stylish French restraint. Gorgeous with duck confit — which by the way you can buy pre-cooked and frozen at many grocery stores.

Score: 91

 

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 .

Avoiding the additives lurking in your wine bottle:The only two things that must appear on bottles sold in Canada are the alcohol content and whether the wine contains sulphites

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Nov 19, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

If you think all wine is simply fermented grape juice bottled, you’re wrong. Wine can contain all sorts of additives including high-fructose corn syrup, granulated white sugar, gum arabic, potassium sorbate and more. And none of it needs to be named on bottles because wine is exempt from having to list ingredients on labels — unlike, say, milk or Mountain Dew.

Of course not all winemakers load up their juice with additives; but many do because it can be an easy fix to enhancing the flavour and texture of wine from substandard fruit.

Sugar — white granulated, liquid invert, dextrose, fructose or high-fructose corn syrup — can sweeten a wine, hide lack of inherent concentration, or increase alcohol levels during fermentation. Acids of various sorts can change the tartness to improve balance. Gums can change the weight and texture of the final wine. And preservatives protect against fungal growth.

Meanwhile, the only two things that must appear on all wine labels sold in Canada are the alcohol percentage and the words, “contains sulphites.” Sulphites must be named on labels because it’s an allergen. And all allergens must be stated on all wines sold in this country as of 2012.

In small amounts, most additives in conventional winemaking won’t hurt you. But engaged consumers might want to know what they’re consuming — especially with things such as sugar in its various forms. But frankly, short of asking the winemaker, there’s no way of knowing.

Wine drinkers might also want to know what fining agent if any was used to clarify and stabilize a wine — a process that essentially removes any suspended bits before bottling. Although fining agents are filtered out of the wine, some people may prefer not to drink something fined with egg whites, milk protein, gelatin, isinglass (fish bladders), chitin (crustacean shells), or PVPP (short for polyvinylpolypyrrolidone, a powdered plastic).

In 2008 Randall Grahm, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard in California, was the first to take the principled leap of listing all the ingredients used in making his wine on their labels. Shortly thereafter, Ridge Vineyards in California followed suit.

“We decided to include our ingredients on the label because we believe that harsh additives and modern processing are not necessary to make a fine wine when you are working with a great vineyard,” Michael Torino, vice president, U.S. wholesale for Ridge Vineyards told me. “We follow a pre-industrial approach to winemaking that requires minimal intervention.”

But aside from these trailblazers, the voluntary option of listing ingredients has certainly not been embraced. So I’ve done a bit of digging on your behalf.

The following five bottles are made with minimal additives other than a bit of sulphur dioxide, which is just good basic hygiene as far as I’m concerned. But that’s a column for another day.

Wine recommendations

2015 Louis Jadot Macon-Villages Chardonnay, Burgundy, France (LCBO 164145 $18.85 in store and at lcbo.com)

This unoaked wonder tastes clean and fresh — the vinous equivalent of slipping into perfectly pressed bedsheets. Gentle aromas of white flowers lead to seamlessly crisp flavours of white peach, baked apple and lemon zest. I had it with friends the other day with poached salmon, and we all marvelled at the pairing. Fabulous. No additives other than sulphur dioxide was used to make this wine, and the fining agent was bentonite, which is a clay.

Score: 90

2014 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore DOC, Veneto, Italy (Vintages 995704 $17.95 in store only)

Valpolicella can all too often be tired-tasting and tart, but that’s so not the case here. Expect super-ripe raspberry flavour underpinned by sultry flavours of warm leather, black earth, freshly grated truffle and woodburning fire. Great depth and concentration while retaining the style’s easy-drinking, unpretentious nature. Pairs well with everything from salami sandwiches to Sloppy Joes. No additives other than sulphur dioxide and no fining agents were used to make this wine.

Score: 91

2014 Pascual Toso Limited Edition Malbec, Argentina (LCBO 162610 $16.20 in store and at lcbo.com)

This rich Malbec tastes lush and mouthcoating with a dark berry and stone fruit centre. The texture is more corduroy than silk with all its plush intensity imbued with shifting and shadowy notes of warm espresso, creamy chocolate, cocoa powder, dates and burnt almonds. Terrific wine to pour with braised meat dishes. No additives other than sulphur dioxide and no fining agents were used to make this wine.

Score: 90+

2015 Concha y Toro Marques Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile (Vintages Essential 337238 $21.95 available in store and at lcbo.com)

Wines from large producers carry a stigma — they’re often seen as less interesting and too commercial. But here is a shining example quantity does not always have an inverse relationship with quality. Made by Concha y Toro, the largest producer in Chile and the third largest in the world, this fine wine just sings. Tightly-coiled cassis-plum-cherry fruit threaded with a tight tapestry of cigar box, toast and more create a gem of a wine. Only sulphur dioxide and a bit of tartaric acid to adjust acidity were added to this wine. And no fining agents were used.

Score: 92

2013 Domaine Galaman, AOP Fitou, France (Vintages 395467 $14.95 available in store only)

Hailing from the Languedoc’s Fitou region in the south of France, this heavyweight blend of Carignon, Grenache and Syrah is deadly delicious. Brawny flavours of grilled steak, charcoal, black licorice, roasted hazelnut and black olive are explosively rich, mouth-filling and deeply savory. Quite a meaty, smoky style of wine with a dark core and velvet texture. Terrific drop to serve with any simply prepared meat dish. No additives other than sulphur dioxide and no fining agents were used to make this wine.

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 .

Perfect bottles for a perfect wedding day: Wine Find A selection of tasty, tasteful, cost-conscious wines that will complement the happy couple.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Nov 12, 2016 in The Toronto Star and on Star Touch, Syndicated

The other day, I received a particularly touching note from a reader. She wrote:

My daughter is getting married in Caledon on Dec. 31 this year. She’s our only daughter and we are trying to give her the best wedding while remaining mindful of costs. Would you recommend a red and white wine for the tables at the wedding as well as a Champagne? Your advice is greatly appreciated.

 

Kumari

 

How lovely is that? I rounded up the following selections of undervalued, reliable bottles worthy of the occasion that I’m confident won’t let Kumari down. I’ve recommended these wines before in different contexts, but they are all unquestionably ideal for a wedding.

2015 Cavit Collection Pinot Grigio, Veneto, Italy (LCBO 99218, $12.95 in store and online)

This dazzling white is inexpensive, widely available and consistent bottle-to-bottle, vintage-to vintage. It’s also hugely popular — people love it. It’s actually the top-selling Italian wine in the United States, by far. With its crisp wash of restrained fruit, I have no doubt people turn to it for easy elegance and pure refreshment without breaking the bank. And it goes with anything food-wise. What’s more, the Italian provenance lends a bit of cachet to a wedding with allusions of Old World charm. For the price, this selection is tough to beat.

Score: 90

2015 Marius Rouge Pays D’Oc, France (LCBO 470096, $11.45 until Nov 6 — reg. $12.95 — in store and online)

As one of the best value wines on LCBO shelves today, I think this bottle would be a great wedding wine. Made by the famous and hugely respected winemaker Michel Chapoutier as a tribute to his grandfather, Marius, it speaks to family values, tradition and honour — all of which are notions that dovetail beautifully with tying the knot. And importantly, this blend of Grenache and Syrah grapes combines juiciness with poise, power with finesse. It’s a polished pour teeming with ripe berry fruit and a subtle savouriness that would complement any meal.

Score: 94

NV Bottega Vini dei Poeti Prosecco DOC, Italy (LCBO 897702, $14.95 in store and online)

I’d opt for Prosecco instead of Champagne if you’re price conscious. Prosecco is widely regarded as the best-value sparkling wine in the world right now due to recent, significant quality strides in the region. In fact, prices are expected to shoot up shortly, but right now you can still get a terrific bottle of DOC Prosecco for less than $15. And this gently pear-scented bottle with almond-floral underpinnings is a fine example. Not only is it complex, consistent and sophisticated, the label design makes it tableworthy.

Score: 90

NV Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (LCBO 217273, $25.95 in store and online)

If you love Champagne, don’t want to go the Prosecco route and can’t really afford the bona fide French stuff, a smart choice is a sparkling wine made at a French Champagne house’s California property. And this particular drop is a fine example with its signature aromas and flavour of freshly baked butter pastry and cooked apples. All the refinement and grace of a Mumm Champagne with a tad more ripeness from the California sun. Stylish drop.

Score: 89

NV Tarlant Brut Reserve Champagne, France (LCBO 325167, $43.25 in store and online)

If you are married to the idea of serving true Champagne but still want to remain cost conscious, this is the wine for you. It’s much less expensive than a bottle from any of the larger Champagne houses and far more complex, concentrated and interesting than most. And it has the added charm of being a “grower Champagne,” meaning it’s made by the same estate that owns the vineyards where the grapes are grown — rather than made by bought fruit. Brioche, butter pastry, cooked apple, pear and nut flavours are delicately intertwined to riveting effect.

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 .

FIVE SPIRITED HOLIDAY TUNES WITH TIPPLES TO MATCH

By Carolyn Evans Hammond, Taste Magazine, BC Liquor Board's magazine, Winter 2016

It’s fine to deck the halls with boughs of holly, but it’s all a bit flat without the spirit isn’t it? In the air and in the glass. So put on some holiday tunes and whip up some classic holiday drinks. But not willy-nilly. Pair them properly to put some pep in your step. In fact, these six son and sipper duos should keep the spirit bright.

Baby It’s Cold Outside and Hot Rum Punch

Is there anything quite as convincing as this jazzy tune to keep you from venturing out in the chill of winter? Actually, yes. This tune paired with a cup of hot and spicy rum punch. Here’s how to whip up a batch in a flash.

Squeeze one tangerine and about four lemons until you have three quarters of a cup of juice. And set it aside.

Now, pour two cups of aged rum and one cup of Cognac in pot. Add three quarters of a cup of dark brown sugar and four cups of boiling water. Then, stir it all up to dissolve.  Then stir in the juice an heat the mixture until it’s just warm enough—being careful not to let it boil.

Ladle the punch into mugs, grate some nutmeg on top, and serve it.

Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) and Eggnog

So you’re finished your holiday shopping (for now), which has no doubt been hard work!  But that’s only the beginning. Now it’s time to haul out the scissors, tape, tags and paper, and wrap everything up. Daunting, itsn’t it. 

Infuse the moment with some musical momentum that reminds you time is tight, coupled with a proper treat. Eggnog. Here’s how to whip up one serving on the fly.

Add one half a cup of milk and one half a cup of 18 per cent cream in the blender with one egg, one tablespoon of white sugar, one quarter teaspoon of good quality vanilla extract, a couple cubes of ice, and one ounce of Oloroso Sherry. Blend it up. Ten seconds on high should do it. Pour it into a mug, Sprinkle some ground nutmeg and cinnamon on top. And ho-ho-Ho!

Silent Night and Tawny Port

There’s something about a quiet holiday night that suggests a certain level of reverence. And when you’re feeling a wee bit wistful, play this song and pour yourself a few ounces of something made to ponder—Tawny Port poured neat. Its compelling complexity mirrors the wonder of the season; magic, really. In fact, a glass of Tawny Port with a handful of nuts and Silent Night on the player can almost be a spiritual experience. Or at least infuse the moment with soul.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas with something deliciously local

I'll be home for Christmas/You can plan on me/Please have snow and mistletoe/And presents on the tree..

If you’ve got someone special coming home for Christmas, there’s no better song to play than this fine tune poured with delicious drop of something local. Sharing a bottle of the sumptuous 2009 Black Sage Vineyard Pipe, which tastes like a fine ruby Port, is just the drop. Serve it slightly chilled with a plate of fine cheeses, nuts and dried fruit and, of course, this song is the stuff from which memories are made.

Let it Snow and Bailey’s

Is it even possible not to like Bailey’s Irish Cream? It’s just such liquid goodness. In fact, when the weather outside is frightful, Bailey’s is still delightful. So when you’ve no place to go, let it flow, let it flow, let it flow. With this song softly playing in the background, of course.

Those pairings should add some serious joy to the world. Here’s to that.

THE SPIRIT

APPLETON ESTATE—12 YEAR OLD

JAMAICA 105742 $39.99

Deep golden rum with an almost creamy texture and flavours of brown sugar, toffee, and mixed citrus zest. Intense.

 

COURVOISIER V.S.O.P FINE CHAMPAGNE COGNAC

FRANCE 9902 $79.99

A rich, heavy and warm cognac with mouthcoating flavours of tree fruit, salt, fresh apricot and nuts. Smooth.

 

GONZALEZ BYASS—OLOROSO NUTTY SHERRY

SPAIN 35204 $15.99

Praline, dried fruit, roasted walnut, caramel and a hint of orange oil. Terrific value.

 

TAYLOR FLADGATE—10 YEAR OLD TAWNY PORT

PORTUGAL 121749 $37.99

Lush sweetness infused with notes of dried apricot, coffee, and candied hazelnuts.  Mouthwatering acidity creates great tension. Long.

 

2009 BLACK SAGE VINEYARD PIPE

BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA 713750 $25.99

Ruby Port-style wine erupts with super-ripe flavours of dried and fresh berries, melted chocolate and creme de cassis. Lovely.

 

BAILEYS—ORIGINAL IRISH CREAM

IRELAND 5959 $26.99

Creamy, nutty goodness suggesting café latte, milk chocolate, vanilla bean and of course Irish whiskey on the finish. Yum.

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Californian Dreaming

By Carolyn Evans Hammond, Taste Magazine, BC Liquor Board's magazine, Winter 2016

Sometimes the damp chill of winter stirs a not-so-subtle hankering for sunlight. You know the drill: long, dark, dreary days that make you want to hop on an airplane and fly somewhere, anywhere hot and bright—preferably every weekend. Few have that luxury but feeding the need for sunshine may be easier than you think. 

Californian wine is notoriously bottled sunshine so with each sip, some small part of you slips away to the Golden state. To send you on your way, here are terrific styles that part of the world does particularly well.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Honestly? Does it get much better than a great Napa Cab with its succulence and rich velvety goodness? Ever since 1976 when the British wine merchant Steven Spurrier hosted the famous “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting, Napa has been squarely on the fine wine map. That famous tasting pitted top Californian Cabernet Sauvignon wines against leading Cabernet-based wines from Bordeaux, France, and the results placed the regions pretty much neck-and-neck.

Not terribly surprising really. The climate ripens the grapes beautifully and consistently. The soil is well-suited to that grape variety. And the know-how is certainly there. Iconic names such as Cakebread Cellars, Clos Du Val, Ridge Vineyards, Caymus, Opus One, Stag’s Leap and others regularly command top dollar for their saturated flavour, deep complexity and lush texture. No better way to taste the Californian sunshine than with great glass of Cab.

Chardonnay

As well as ranking reds, the 1976 Judgment of Paris compared whites. Californian Chardonnays competed against those from the top Burgundy appellations such as Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. The results shook the fine wine world. Amazingly, a 1973 Californian Chardonnay called Chateau Montelena came in first place. In fact, three of the top four wines were Californian Chardonnays.

It’s now an open secret California makes sterling Chardonnay with all the piercing precision, undulating layers of flavour and resonant length Burgundy can offer. Signorello, Paul Hobbs, Cakebread, Rombauer, Edna Valley Vineyard and Wente are certainly some names to trust.

Without a doubt, a great glass of Cali Chardonnay can brighten up any meal or moment—especially in the dead of a B.C. winter.

Zinfandel

The flagship red grape of California has got to be Zinfandel. And those who like it, like it a lot. It’s a black grape variety that produces deeply-rich reds that tastes of blackberry, blueberry and raspberry cordials with hints of peppercorn. Fruit-forward and opulent, this delicious red is very easy to enjoy and offers terrific value much of the time. Names to look for include Caymus, Joel Gott, Ravenswood and Dancing Bull.

White Zinfandel, which is also made from the black Zinfandel grape, is of course pink, often sweeter, and can be quite delicious to quaff ice-cold on those days you want to channel a sunshine-on-your-shoulders moment (John Denver tunes optional). Its juicy flavours tend to suggest chin-drip peach and wild strawberries, and Beringer makes a very good version.

Red Blend

Sure, single varieties from California are terrific. But blends can knock it out of the park too because each grape variety brings something to the mix, the winemaker can fiddle with the components, and the results are frequently better than the sum of its parts.

Orin Swift wines are a prime example of cutting edge blends from California that ooze appeal. Orin Swift is a small winery founded by a guy named Dave Phinney who became a bit of a winemaking legend—first in California, now globally. He launched a $35 wine called “The Prisoner” in 2000. That wine instantly gainted a cult-like following and earned top accolades from respected critics, which repeated vintage after vintage. The Prisoner was even on the coveted Wine Spectator Top 100 List multiple times. Now, the label has since been sold. Twice. But it’s still wildly popular. And Dave Phinney’s other wines from Orin Swift—a winery he still owns and runs—are off-the-charts characterful expressions of Californian joy-juice.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir isn’t a wine that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of California, but maybe it should. There are microclimates there that offer a huge affinity to that grape variety. And keeping with the theme of the region, the wines tend to be riper and more fruit-driven than those in cooler climates such as Burgundy without losing the elegance and finesse for which Pinot Noir is known. La Crema and Hahn always makes a delicious drops.

Here’s to sunshine in a glass.

RECOMMENDATIONS

2013 CAKEBREAD CELLARS CABERNET SAUVIGNON

NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA 191411 $99.99

Concentrated, complex and long, this stunner teems with tightly wound fruit, velvet texture and layers of goodness.

 

2014 BONTERRA ORGANIC CABERNET SAUVIGNON

CALIFORNIA 342428 $19.99

Magnetic tension between ripe berry fruit and feral red meat notes.  Olive, damson and charcoal edges and a long resonant finish.

 

2013 LA CREMA PINOT NOIR

SONOMA COAST, CALIFORNIA 366930 $30.99

Deeply fruited Pinot with smooth ripe cherry, bright raspberry, dark plum and coffee laced with vanilla and baking spice.

 

2014 EDNA VALLEY CHARDONNAY

CENTRAL COAST, CALIFORNIA 81430 $17.49

Elegant expression of Cali Chardonnay here with bright lemon and mineral core gently warmed with vanilla, butter and wood.

 

2014 RAVENSWOOD LODI OLD VINES ZINFANDEL

LODI COUNTY, CALIFORNIA 599381 $22.99

Fierce, firm attack of black forest fruit, dark cocoa powder, black peppercorn, vanilla, espresso and moist black earth.

 

2014 THE PRISONER

NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA 457291$56.99

Explosive big red with fig, plum, blueberry, black cherry and raspberry laced with toasted oak, roasted nut and coffee bean. 

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An expert’s guide to exploring Napa: Drop all those pesky preconceived notions that Napa is intimidating or pretentious and let our wine writer show you around.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Nov 5, 2016 in The Toronto Star 

NAPA, CALIF.-Did you know you can hop on a 6:30 a.m. flight from Toronto, arrive in San Francisco by 9 a.m. and be in Napa by noon?

True. But this only matters if you’ve got a great game plan. And there are two ways to go.

You can play rich man connect the dots and swan to all the big-name wineries and restaurants all the other pie-eyed, oenophile-wannabe tourists hit and leave poorer than a church mouse. Or you can go local.

I was hosted by a pretty switched on woman who works in wine and goes to Napa on the regular, so she knows every locally loved haunt. So that’s what we did and I left happier than a pig is sherbet.

Related story:6 ways to experience Sonoma

Here’s what you do.

Start with Gott’s Roadside in the heart of Napa, an idealized version of the American burger stand. That means, hell ya, you can drink killer wine with locally-raised turkey burgers in the sunshine. Hell ya, the tattooed hardcore foodheads flipping the burgers and piling the fish tacos high with fixings really know what they’re doing. And importantly, hell ya, this place reminds your body it’s its own absolute.

So start there and breathe in the come-as-you-are vibe and drop all those pesky preconceived notions that Napa is intimidating or pretentious.

From Gott’s Roadside, walk just up the road to the pretty town of St Helena. Pop into shops. Restrain yourself from buying the gorgeous Manolo Blahniks you see and locate 1325 Main St. This is Orin Swift’s tasting room, which opened in June of this year. And it’s a bit of a big deal.

Orin Swift’s founder Dave Phinney launched a $35 (U.S.) wine called “the Prisoner” in 2000 that soared to popularity immediately, earning rave reviews from critics annually, including a coveted place on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List multiple times. The label has since been sold. Twice.

The Prisoner put Dave Phinney’s wines on the map and now he continues to make small lot, killer juice with distinctive labels. So go discover a favourite. I fell hard for three — 2013 Papillon, 2014 Mannequin and 2014 Machete.

Next, check into the Silverado Resort and Spa and chill a bit. It’s centrally located and offers decent value. So drop your bags, then head to Louis M. Martini for a wine tasting. In some ways, this is where it all began for Napa.

“Louis M Martini’s history runs deep in Napa as one of the original five wineries built here at the end of prohibition,” says Michael Eddy who heads up winemaking there. Michael worked closely with Louis Martini’s grandson, Mike Martini, who retired last year and knows the family well.

The Martini family has always focused on the mastery of Cabernet Sauvignon, which has obviously become the region’s flagship grape. Book the $25 Seasonal Flight or plump for the $50 Good Life Flight, which includes food, and go to town tasting textbook Napa Cab.

Slip back to the hotel and into something casual-chic for dinner at Mustard’s Grill. Just casual or just chic works too, though, because here, it’s about the food not the scene. Winemakers lunch and chefs dine at Mustards Grill on their night off. It was a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement and much of what you’ll eat will have been plucked from the garden on-site hours before. The wine is on point, too. Just remember to bring the bottle home if you don’t finish it! It’s what they do in Cali.

The next morning, hit the Oxbow Public Market — where locals gather to shop for gifts people actually want to receive, stock their pantries and eat well. Give yourself a good hour to poke about; then, stay for lunch. This writer had a terrific taco from C Casa, piled high with seasoned ground buffalo, goat cheese, black beans, micro greens and a chipotle aioli. But if oysters are your thing, don’t miss Hog Island Oyster Bar. Marvellous molluscs.

Take winding Silverado Trail to William Hill Estate Winery to be greeted with a splash of its mouthful-of-joy Sauvignon Blanc. The hunky winemaker, Mark Williams, is a bit of a rock star in the area. His father was a UC Davis viticulture professor, he studied oenology at California State University and now he’s been making wine for 15 years. His wines are excellent, the prices reasonable ($20 to $40) and no silly crowds. Book at least 48 hours in advance.

For your last night in Napa, dine at Farm restaurant at the Carneros Inn. Start with a glass of bubbles in the open-air pavilion, then move indoors to dine. Consider the seasonal, five-course tasting menu with wine pairing ($185). Then, after dinner, return to the pavilion for the smooth groove of live jazz. Heat lamps and blankets keep things cosy on chillier nights.

When you’ve done Napa this way, you’ll have saved money and not compromised a thing. Then, you can skip over to Sonoma for 48 more hours of easy delight.

Carolyn Evans Hammond travelled to California as a guest of E & J Gallo Winery, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go:

Get there: Fly to San Francisco and then drive about 90 minutes to Napa Valley.

Get around: Rent a car at the airport.

Visit:

  • Gott’s Roadside: 933 Main St., St Helena, gotts.com
  • Orin Swift Tasting Room: 1325 Main St., St. Helena, orinswift.com
  • Silverado Resort and Spa: 1600 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa, silveradoresort.com
  • Louis M. Martini: 254 South St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena, louismartini.com
  • Mustards Grill: 7399 St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena, mustardsgrill.com
  • Oxbow Public Market: 610 1st St., Napa, oxbowpublicmarket.com
  • William Hill Estate Winery: 1761 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa, williamhillestate.com
  • Farm restaurant: 4048 Sonoma Hwy., Napa, farmatthecarnerosinn.com

6 ways to experience Sonoma: Yes, there is wine, but this area of California also offers fine dining and baked goods.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published on Sat Nov 5, 2016 in The Toronto Star 

SONOMA, CALIF.-After 48 hours in Napa, slip over to Sonoma for these top six food and wine experiences. Locals love every one of them.

Wine pairings: The one place you simply must go in Sonoma is J Vineyards and Winery’s Bubble Room (11447 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg; jwine.com). Indulge in a sublime five-course food and wine pairing by chef Carl Shelton, from Chicago’s Michelin-starred BOKA restaurant. He performs culinary magic with every morsel, plates it perfectly and pairs it with a carefully selected cuvee. What’s not to love? It’s $95 (U.S.) and worth every cent.

Deli delight: Established in 1881, Dry Creek General Store (3495 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg; drycreekgeneralstore1881.com) remains a mainstay of everything good to eat. Locals and tourists flock here daily for their fill of fresh deli sandwiches, old-fashioned drinks (such as real ginger ale) and charming handmade treats. Pack a picnic or nosh on the old front porch, then poke around the shop for vintage goodies including books, candy and nostalgic finds.

Legendary bakery: When in Healdsburg, be sure to pop into the Costeaux French Bakery (417 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; costeaux.com) to taste its legendary artisanal breads and pastries. It also serves wickedly good coffee and is just the spot for breakfast anytime. After all, the Costeaux omelette filled with applewood smoked bacon, spinach, sun-dried tomato and French brie is too good to relegate to just one time of day.

Michelin-starred dining: The Farmhouse Inn restaurant (7871 River Rd., Forestville; farmhouseinn.com) is every bit worthy of its coveted star. Shown here, the asparagus soup with crab, asparagus heads and edible flowers is a feast for the senses. Expect to spend hours at the Farmhouse when you dine there — but they’ll speed by. The place is magic that way. Go early to enjoy a glass of pre-dinner bubbly in the garden.

Cocktail hour: Spoonbar just outside of H2Hotel in Healdsburg (219 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; spoonbar.com) is where to head for a great cocktail. I spent a spirited evening here with travel companion Rebecca Yates-Campbell sampling locally and domestically produced spirits shaken and stirred with organic herbs and juices. Try “the Joanie” when you go, a sweet mix of Hanger 1 Kaffir Lime, pomegranate vodka, coconut liqueur, pineapple and lime ($11). Dangerously delicious.

Foodie heaven: Half retail store and half restaurant, Shed (25 North St., Healdsburg; healdsburgshed.com) has risen to fame in the U.S. since opening in 2013. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Shed Café . . . might be the best restaurant in Sonoma County.” The James Beard Foundation gave it a design award for its beauty and functionality. And chef Perry Hoffman is at the helm — he’s a local legend with seven years at Yountville’s Domaine Chandon under his belt. Foodies flock there.

 

Carolyn Evans Hammond travelled to California as a guest of E & J Gallo Winery, which didn’t review or approve this story.