Wine For a Rainy Day - Rías Baixas and the Whites of Northern Spain

Sep 24, 2009

Rain falls on Santiago
my sweet love.
White camellia of the air,
the veiled sun shines.
- Federico García Lorca

When we think of Spain, we think of sunny, medieval streets and tapas bars; we hear guitars and flamenco music flowing through the amber, dusky crowds; we see lovely senoritas dancing in their floral dresses. The click of castanets. There is laughter, late nights, paella and the mesmerizing wonder of beautiful women gathered  in the glow of candlelight. 

We don’t think of rain. (That's London)

We don’t hear bagpipes. (They belong in Scotland... right?)

And we don’t really see the green and verdant, Celtic hillsides. (We're daydreaming about Spain here, not Ireland...)

Rainy Day - Cathedral in Santiago de Campostela
Look at the rain in the street,
lament of stone and of glass.
- Lorca

But Spain is more than we imagine.

In the far north, just above Portugal on the Atlantic coast, you can find the wild and lush greenery of Galicia, a land where Galago  is spoken (which, like Castilian, is derived from Latin but strikingly similar to Portuguese.)

Galicia is the home of the gaita, the Galician bagpipes. The music this instrument evokes belongs to another world, both ancient and mysterious.

This other world also includes the city of Santiago de Compostela with its monumental cathedral, built in honor of St.James. For centuries, pilgrims have traveled the Camino, a sacred route in northern Spain,  to visit this holy place.

But like the rest of Spain, there is a tradition of good food and good wine. Galicia  largely depends on the sea for its cuisine. Percebes (goose-foot barnacles) is the local specialty amongst the delicious array of white fish (turbot, sea bass, sole and cod), prawns and shellfish.

The local cheeses are also excellent, ranging from hard-to-medium. The most appealing and popular is tetilla… named for a discreet part of the female anatomy. (I'm sure you can guess...)

 Galicia became part of Greater Spain in 1492. The port city of  La Coruña received its license to trade with the colonies shortly thereafter. Besides seafood, Galicia has several wine sub-regions producing mostly white wine (the red here is rather 'lightweight').

Ribeira Sacra or 'sacred hillside' is the most lush and visually stunning; Ribeiro remains one of the oldest wine-producing areas of northern Spain; Valdeorras or 'Golden Valley' happens to be the original gold mines of Ancient Rome; Monterrei is the hottest part of Galicia... and last but not least...

... the very wet, the very coastal Rías Baixas (Bajas) 'The Lower Estuaries' region. Here is our famous, soggy green Eden, a rural paradise, a vision of the world before industry and war.
A very green Albariño vineyard
The main grape of Rías Baixas (and the other sub-regions) is the lovely Albariño, believed by many (including Miguel Torres)  to be actually the Riesling grape. There is strong evidence suggesting the variety was first brought to Spain via the Camino by Rhineland Pilgrims (Alba - very white - Rino - Rhine or 'white from the Rhine').

For the wines of Rías Baixas, the word ‘cool’ is key. With a Maritime climate, (thanks to the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention buckets of falling rain), you can't expect anything else. The five sub-zones of the region include: Val do Salnés, O Rosal, Condado de Tea, Soutomaior, and Ribera do Ulla.

When the grapes are picked at harvest, they are rushed to the press houses to avoid heating by the sun. In some instances, vintners use cold water instead of air in the inflatable bags of the horizontal wine presses. Cold maceration (briefly steeping grape skins with juice at a low temperature) is typical and after fermentation, the wines are often left on their lees.

Albariño is ideal with seafood but can be a bit more pricey than regular whites. Because everyone loves the variety's brine-green fruit-yeast character (including the locals and the tourists, and the rest of Spain, not to mention Europe and North America), these wines are high in demand.

Loureira is another grape from Galicia, (sometimes used to add body to Albariño), imparting a seductive element of stone fruit.

Godella (or Verdello) is one to watch. A relatively new arrival in Rías Baixas, it is grown in nearby Valdeorras. It can produce crisp and magnificent varietal whites with bouquets swooning with ripe peach and green apple fruit.

Treixadura, also known as Verdello Louro is often blended with Loureira and Albariño.

As I mentioned, white wine is predominant but you can find some excellent Mencia in Monterrei.

If you're looking for something unique to bring to your table, whether to accompany shrimp and cocktail sauce or a cool seafood salad, nothing beats the best of Rías Baixas.  Nor the great whites of Galicia.

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.


Montepulciano - Italy's Easy Going Grape

Sep 22, 2009

There is Montepulciano the region and Montepulciano the grape. Don't confuse them. In the region, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ('the noble wine of Montepulciano') is made up of Sangiovese whereas the variety, Montepulciano finds its true home on the eastern coast in Abruzzo.

Montepulciano is a relatively late-ripening grape, harvested in late September, early October. Wines made from this variety often have moderate acidity and are soft, jammy and juicy in texture. Expect deep, delicious black fruits and earthier, exotic spices in some higher quality wines. On the whole, these wines are simply easy going, fleshy and pair well with meaty pastas - think ravioli, lasagna or  on a  lazy Sunday night, a heavy beef and pepperoni pizza. Molto bene!

The grape’s origins are relatively unknown. Documentation only goes as far back as the nineteenth century. Research conducted by Ampelographers (botanists who study and classify grapevines) in the 1800's maintained it was related to Sangiovese. Modern research has disputed this in our time. Unlike Sangiovese,  the variety that makes up Chianti and many of the great Super Tuscans, Montepuliciano thrives in a warmer climate and the chilly morning slopes of Tuscany will simply not do.

The history of winemaking in Abruzzo, however, goes as far back as the Etruscans, around the 6th-7th century B.C. The Etruscans were a tribe of mysterious origin, believed to have come from Asian Minor and lived  in and around Central Italy - 'Etruscan' gave us the name 'Tuscany'. Hedonistic in character, they were known for wife-swapping and orgies were said to be a part of their culture.

In the Abruzzo of ancient times, the apianea grapes, a sweet grape not unlike our modern Moscato, was widely planted. The wines from this variety were highly praised by the Roman and Greek scholars in the 4th century.

During the Middle Ages, the area became depopulated as was the case in rural and mountainous regions throughout Italy. Many villages stood abandoned as men and women migrated to larger towns and villages to find work.

In our modern era, winemaking in Abruzzo has only come to the forefront through the effort  and determination of many co-operative wineries and this has only been in the last twenty years!

Today Montepulciano can be used to make wines of both high quality and 'plonk'. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the most important DOC with half a million hectoliters pumped out each year. The soils here are calcareous (high in calcium) and morainic (glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris).

Recently the Colline Teramane region was awarded DOCG status. This is just one step in separating the quality wines from the rivers of sub-standard wine (15% of which can be blended with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese or other local varieties). Time will tell if we see further developments in this up-and-coming region.

Besides Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, the grape is grown in Umbria, Molise and Puglia. In the Marche, Rosso Conero is made up primarily of Montepulciano whereas Rosso Piceno is 70%.

Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


Verdi and the Wines of Veneto – An Italian Pairing

Sep 19, 2009

I am not only passionate about Italian wine but Italian opera. One night I talked to a friend about my love of poetry and wine pairings. From our discussion, the idea of a wine and opera pairing was born.

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)
There are three great names in opera: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner.

Verdi is the first big name after Mozart. His operas appeared in all the famous 19th century opera houses in Italy: Milan, Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence and Trieste. Born not too far from Parma, his father provided his son with a reasonable musical education. Throughout his life he composed music for 28 operas.

Verdi’s greatest contribution to musical history came in the shape of his three most famous operas: La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. In his book A Night at the Opera Sir Denis Foreman opined that each work has imparted something to our popular culture from the 'Brindisi' of Trav, to the Anvil Chorus of Trov and who can forget Pavarotti’s version of ‘'La donna mobile' (Rigoletto), a ditty so popular you’d have to be born in a convent not to know it. Check the links.

When it comes to food, I prefer a pairing of wine with the region’s cuisine. In the case of opera, I’m going to be a little more lenient. Verdi is to Italy what Goethe is to Germany, or what Shakespeare is to England. Verdi was born near Parma but the wines of Veneto work perfectly, especially when paired with La Traviata, my very favourite of Verdi’s operas.

Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ play and novel, La Dame aux camellias, La Traviata featuring the tragic Violetta first premiered in Venice on March 6, 1853. (You see how it all works out – Verdi – Veneto – Violetta…?)

The opera is in three acts and takes place in Paris.

Violetta is a popular courtesan for wealthy men. In the first act, we find ourselves at her home where there is much celebrating, toasting (the infamous Brindisi), drinking and laughing. The music is lively and bubbly, the songs about the fleeting joys of life. For this scene, I recommend a Prosecco, the ubiquitous spumante of Italy’s north made principally from the Prosecco grape. The wine maker uses the charmant method (which is unlike Champagne) to give it its light, green fruit flavour.. Whereas Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle (which gives us the bubbles), the wine of Prosecco undergoes a second fermentation in a pressurized tank.

Anna Netrebko as Violetta in the Salzburger Festspielen  production of La Traviata, 2005

Alfredo is deeply in love with Violetta. While she is recuperating in her Paris home from an attack of tuberculosis he keeps a vigilant watch outside in the rain.

Un di felice is a lovely piece and when Violetta replies, the music sweeps you away into a mellow mood of heart-breaking tenderness and sweet, savage yearning. For this I recommend a Tocai Friulano. This white variety is not as popular in Veneto but you can find some excellent ones from regions in nearby Friuli-Venezia Giulia, considered part of the Tre Venezie (with Trentino-Aldige as the third). The wines are medium-bodied, some with a slight, viscous-creamy texture, a nice pairing with the love duet. Add to that some excellent Prosciutto, the famous ham meat from Friuli, (near the town of San Daniele) and Emilia-Romagna, (close to Parma and Verdi’s birthplace) – not bad for a little regional pairing.

By the time we get to the second act, the two have become lovers (Lunga da lei). Time for some Valpolicella. Like Beaujolais of southern Burgundy, the basic Valpolicella is a lighter wine, easy to drink, with soft cherry notes and candy. A blend of three red grapes (Molinara, Rondinella and Corvina), there are a few other styles to chose from.

Valpolicella Classico – with grapes sourced from the original region. (Throughout the years, many famous areas of Italy, such as Chianti, have grown grapes on older vineyards. They are now competing with the newer sites. These producers on the original sites feel their wines should be acknowledged – classico simply refers to the historic, long-established area.) These wines have a bit more body to offer.

Then, there’s Valpolicella Classico Superiore which must be aged a year before release. These wines have gorgeous licorice, smoky dried cherry components (highly suitable for the music of lovers swooning with love).

If your dad found out you were dating a prostitute, he’d be worried, wouldn’t he? Well Alfredo’s papa is very concerned. In the Paris of the 19th century, a courtesan was a high-end call girl but a call girl nonetheless.

The role of Germont is sung by a baritone, which is lower than a tenor (Alfredo). Baritones usually have the second-man-best-friend-paternal part to sing. Germont’s daughter is getting married and he needs Violetta to get out of the picture or else his daughter’s fiancé and family might not go through with the marriage (Pura siccome un angelo).

Violetta offers to lie low but that won’t do for the concerned father. You have to leave Alfredo, immediately and without explanation, I’m sorry.

This is when you pull out the Valpolicella ripassso. The wine is made by re-passing the newly fermented Valpolicella wine over the Amarone pomace (the pulp mound-mass of seeds and skins [i.e. leftovers] after an Amarone wine has fermented – we’ll get to that soon enough). The Vapolicella, in contact with this pomace, takes on a ‘jamminess’ as it picks up some additional colour, flavor, structure and tannins. Like a good California Zin, this is lush and pairs well with the moody but dramatic exchange between Germont and the pleading Violetta.

Alfredo is upset. Violetta has left him, her motive for leaving concealed (she doesn’t want to get between father and son), and while out at party, he see his lady love with the Baron Douphol (a real cad). There is a heated argument and Alfredo, at the height of his rage throws all his gambling winnings at her. Germont comes in, flabbergasted at his son’s behavior.(Ogni suo aver tal femmina, Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende)

Things don’t really work out until it’s too late. By Act III Violetta is alone and dying of TB, coughing uncontrollably. Beside her is her maid, the loyal Annina (and a former courtesan) as the doctor attends her. But where’s Alfredo?

For the last part of Act II and Act III, you can choose one of two wines. Since these are emotionally charged scenes, you’ll need a big wine to get you through them. If you like drier style wines, I recommend an Amarone.

Like Valpolicella, Amarone is made with the same three grapes (sometimes with the addition of Negara) but closer to Verona. The main difference is that the grapes are left longer on the vine and when finally picked, are laid out in bunches on bamboo shelves or mats in drying lofts. There they are left to shrivel and this concentrates their flavours for three to four months.

When the grapes are finally pressed, they look more like raisins, having lost a third of their weight, mostly water. The resulting wine is a glorious, full-bodied red, higher in alcohol content (15 – 16%). Amarone, the name meaning ‘big, bitter one’ could well be the final ultimate pairing for this opera.

But if you like something sweet, I recommend a recioto della Valpolicella. This wine is made almost exactly the same as Amarone except when the grapes are fermenting, the process is soon stopped to retain the sweetness. Since all the sugar is not converted into alcohol, this leaves the wine supple, seductive and of all things, beautifully dolce.

Whether Violetta is singing Addio del passato or during the tear-driven finale and brief reconciliation between her and Alfredo, these great fuller-bodied wines of Veneto will compliment the heart-throbbing beauty of Verdi’s most painful and transcendent moments of opera.

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon (as Alfredo) enact the painful finale.


Savour Niagara, September 2009

Sep 17, 2009

My thoughts and memories beat against my head in the early morning light. Yes, I’m hung over. I had a lot to drink last night but I met some wonderful people, drank some wonderful wines and ate some wonderful food. Laughing, drinking, eating, meeting, shaking hands, this is what wine events are for.

And this blog entry will be less focused on wine (although I mention a lot of it) and more subject, basedon my personal experience and is dedicated to my family. 

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at the Sheraton for the 13th Annual Savour Niagara to first meet up with my step-sister, Shannon, my father Peter and my step-mother Gay in the latter’s hotel room. Gay Douglas-Broerse is the President of the Board of Small Business Club Niagara. Not only is she an amazing entrepreneur, co-founder of One Source Solutions but perhaps the best ‘evil step-mother’ (her words not mine) in the world.

In the hotel room, the four of us enjoyed a few appetizers, also polished off a bottle of Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir I had picked up at that winery a few weeks back.

Around 6, we headed down to the lobby. I couldn’t have been accompanied by a more fashionable entourage. Gay and Shan were both dressed in black, sophisticated but also beautifully stylish. I’m sure they turned a lot of heads. As for my father, he cleaned up good with a casual grey blazer over a black t and blue jeans to match, what I call his Kaiser haircut and trimmed beard. (I too looked stunning.)

There was a small line-up and we met my step-brother, Aaron, stewing and cursing over some personal matters – he is in the midst of moving and the painters were a no-show for him yesterday afternoon.

“Things happen,” his mother told him. “Moving is not fun.”
"Oh [insert expletive] don't get me started," he said in his deep, bass voice.
With a smile, Gay replied, "We'll try not to."

But we all knew he had to catch up (being slightly in the sauce, it's hard to relate to those still anchored in sobriety.)

Starting in the Brock Room, my first healthy gulp of wine came from Cave Spring Cellars, a beautiful and bountiful glass of their 2006 Chardonnay Estate. A hint of buttery apples, beautiful acidity, lush but light.

I was in for a good evening.

Mark, my brother, arrived shortly after, looking pensive, intimidating and ready to take on a night of wine. The six of us found a table to linger around for the first bit, where I sampled the delicious honey-melon 2008 Sauvignon-Chardonnay blend from Reif Estate (I did a lot of white wine drinking last night).

I met up with another notable and lovely entourage, the ladies of Women in Finance: Renee Bermel, Linda Herkel and Connie Materno with their friend Nikki Enkellar of SendOutCards and JE Indoor/Outdoor Services. We headed over to the Herdner table where I had a chance to sip the 2007 Riesling. Excellent is all I can say (not to mention beautiful apples, some petrol and tropical fruit). Renee fell in love with their Iced Pear wine and paired it (yes, yes, yes, a pun) with the Thai Vegetable Curry on Kaffi-Scented Basmati Rice from Hospitality on Hand. They were heading over to Reif before I wished them a good evening and re-joined my family.

Mark, Aaron and I headed out into the corridor to Atrium I at the other end. There, they fell in love with the Colio Estate 2005 CEV Cabernet Franc - a full-bodied, deep,wine with notes of brooding green pepper, chocolate and black berry - while I indulged in 2008 CEV Pinot Grigio. A bit of old world and new in the glass – lemon and tropical fruit with a hint of banana. We feasted on Zee’s Grill offerings – a Capon Drummette Lightly Breaded and glazed in truffled honey and roasted garlic. The guy’s at Zee's got to know our faces (as did Arleen and Doug of Colio).

Being of Dutch background, I have a sweet tooth. For myself, the Chocolate Brownie with the slightly singed Marshmallow frosting of Zee’s Grill made my night. I had quite few of those, I can admit.

Stoney Ridge Estate Winery’s 2008 Reserve Gewurtztraminer – a bit of Alsace but with a sparkling bright acidity and a balance of lychee and roses.

Maleta Winery’s 2007 View Old Vines Dry Riesling – petrol and apple and just perfect.

Strewn Winery 2005 Riesling Terroir - a lovely, viscous wine with peachy apples.

Kacaba Vineyards 2008 Reserve Riesling - I just visited their winery the other week - excellent wines.

Calamus Estate Winery’s 2008 and 2007 Riesling – after drinking these wines, I truly have to visit the winery; I know, haven’t yet. (I know, I know, I’m a bad wine educator.)

But I have to say, we all kept coming back to Zee’s Grill and Colio Estates in the 1st Atrium. I think it was the way the room was set up, a nice little nook, very open and less busy than the Brock Room. It was also the entertainment. I’m not a lover of Jazz but when the lovely  Juliet Dunn (a popular compliment to many wine events in Niagara) croons Bésame Mucho, her voice easy on the ears and her beauty easy on the eyes, its easy to understand why we lingered.

Piensa que tal vez mañana                                                          
Yo ya estaré lejos, muy lejos de tí.                    

(I think that maybe tomorrow
I'll be far, far away from you.)  

The evening felt like many evenings all together, all at once, the music everywhere. I remember looking at my cell phone and saying, no, it can’t be just 7:30. Wine slows down time, changes it, one moment a myriad of moments  Aaron and Gay both felt the same. I sat sluggish with wine on a bell hop hotel cart sipping on a Palatine Hill 2008 Gewurztraminer - lovely lychee and grapefruit. 

After laughing and finishing her cell phone call, Shannon sat down beside me. I felt a little sentimental. With a silly, drunken fist I punched her tanned shoulder and told her it was great to have her as my step-sibling. She felt the same. We talked about relationships, that confusing line between passion and love. I confessed to a few situations where it was easy to want, but not, love.

(Ella in Victoria, you crossed my mind. A beautiful, wine-soaked regret. Black curly hair and carnation-white cheeks, red lips, green blue eyes. I shook my head. I can’t believe you almost got me into a fight with that bouncer.)

Gay, being the very intuitive mother, checked up on her daughter, brought over a coffee from Starbucks. I offered my seat.

“Going on your date?” Gay asked her daughter.
Responding with tough maternal love, “I want to check him out. I want to approve.”

My father also headed out, shaking our hands, kissing his wife goodbye.

Aaron, my brother and I met up with a co-worker, Tim and the three government workers (my brother works for Canada Pension) griped about the real world. We had a few laughs and the wine had definitely lightened my step-brother up for the course of the night.

I have to say, Aaron is quite a character. By the end of the evening, as the crowd dispersed and the agents cleaned their tables, while all the women were innocently nabbing flowers off the tables, a woman sidled up to ours.

"You guys look like a nice bunch."
"We are," my step-brother formally and mischievously replied, his tone on the cusp of sarcasm.
Aaron introduced himself and us. The woman said hello and it turned out they had a mutual friend.
"John. Of course."
"You know him?" she asked.
"We worked together. He trained me for my position."
"He's a fantastic guy."
"Yeah, he's a great kisser."

That just got everyone. My brother chuckled, Gay burst into a hearty laugh. My lids swallowed my eyes, my head sunk and my shoulders bounced -I started and couldn't stop quietly howling for ten minutes.

The woman, concerned, asked if I was crying.

I shook my head, breaking into more laughter. I eventually composed myself, finishing my apple-citrus Wayne Gretzky Estate 2007 unoaked Chardonnay.

But we were all gone. Time had finally caught up to us. I tried to steal a glass on my way out but I couldn't. The ladies had taken all the flowers. The songs sung by the lovely Juliet whispered through my mind...

Piensa que tal vez mañana

My brother and I stayed in my step-mother's suite - she had the pull out, we crashed in the beds. On the way up, I waved goodbye to Aaron in the lobby, drunkenly telling him he too was a great kisser.

As I finish this blog entry, I look over at my bed, my body swimming with the faint remains of last night's wine. My head still hurts but the memories will be some of my happiest.

(I also want to add it was great meeting you Ashley - Gay is lucky to have you around. Don and Susan, I hope to see you guys at the next Savour Niagara.  Don, I've tried and I've tried but I can't remember the wine you recommended. A Pinot Noir from Oregon... ? I shake my head, memories washed in wine. It was great meeting you guys.)


Calamus Estate Winery
Cattail Creek Estate Winery
Chateau des Charmes Wines
Colio Estate Wines
Coyote's Run Estate Winery
Herdner Estate Wine
Kacaba Vineyards
Konzelmann Estate Winery
Maleta Winery
Niagara College Teaching Winery
Palatine Hills Estate Winery
Reif Estate Winery
Rockway Glen Estate Winery
Southbrook Vineyard
Stoney Ridge Estate Winery
Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery


French Wine, French Poetry - Pairings

Sep 15, 2009

As autumn approaches, the air will soon be laden with the quiet gravity of falling leaves and smoky evenings. The days will be crisp, the streets cooler, the lawns and parks shrouded in an amber-yellow collage of leaves. You can already feel the night getting longer, grayer, the brightness of dusk sharply fading.

For myself, autumn and winter are the times when I sit down to absorb more books. I want to slip away into myself, lock the doors, retire from the world and reach for a glass of wine and a book of poetry.

Some of my favourite wines are French and that goes for poetry, as well. The French are known for literature that exhibits a raw, decadent indulgence that is both delicious and disturbing. Uninhibited, passionate, their works are much more erotic and sensual than what I feel is the Olympian sterility and dryness of English writing. Even in translation (some day I hope to read the originals), the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud give the reader a pleasure not unlike that of good French wine.

Here are some of my personal favourite wines paired with what I consider the most apropos of poets and their poetry.

Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is a great poet when it comes to French letters. His writing was heavily influenced by the Romantics such as Victor Hugo (famous for the novels Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris – aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and also his poetry) and the realist approach of Honore de Balzac (his story Fanfarlo has taken its realist ideas from the latter author).

Baudelaire lived in fascinating times. When he was nine years old, France experienced the July Revolution (1830) which saw the overthrow of the French Bourbon monarch, King Charles X, in favour of Louis Phillipe, his cousin (who would, himself, be overthrown some 18 years later). Raised by his mother and step-father, the youthful Baudelaire was highly rebellious. Though he was expelled from one school for his lack of discipline, he eventually straightened out enough to finish his bachelor’s degree.

While in Paris, he lived a dissolute life and ran through his father’s inheritance. His step-father, a French Captain, attempted to set the young man straight but Baudelaire wouldn’t have any of it. He founded the Hashish Club with his friends, visited the great Nadar, fell in love with Jeanne Duval, a mulatto actress at the theatre and contracted numerous debts throughout his life.

Writing and journalism made up his career. He wrote art criticism (he was friends with Gustave Courbet, the great realist painter and knew the works of Eugene Delacroix), some short prose poems, translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe into French and composed his famous Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a work that continues to enthrall, dismay and intrigue readers today (he was taken to court for obscenity when the work was published in 1857).

Of wine, he wrote in his poem, ‘Poison’, it

can endure the lowest dive
with sudden luxury
and out of a red mist create
enchanted porticoes,
like sunset firing a sodden sky.
(translation by Richard Howard)

He wrote several poems about wine: ‘The Soul of the Wine’, ‘Ragpickers’ Wine’, ‘The Murderer’s Wine’, ‘The Solitary Wine’ and ‘Lovers’ Wine’. Many depicted the bleak existence of the lower classes in the company of what may have been wine from the south of France. (In the mid-19th century the railway made it possible for the wines of Languedoc and Roussillon to make it to Paris).

Despite Baudelaire’s compassion for the poorer Parisian souls, I am hesitant to recommend a wine from the south. But neither would I suggest a Bordeaux or a Champagne. Instead, I feel Burgundy to embody the erotic but brooding melancholic soul of Baudelaire’s writing. You could sample an elegantly sensual Volnay from the Côte de Beaune or if you want to splurge, a deep, exotic Clos du Vougeot from the Côte de Nuits. If not, a regular red Burgundy will do. There are five specific levels of Burgundy: regional ACs (i.e. Bourgogne), specific ACs taking in a whole group of villages (i.e. Côte de Nuits-Villages), AC wines that take a village name such as Pommard, Premier Crus which are relegated to several good vineyards sites and Grand Crus which are the best individual vineyard sites. Names to look out for: Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, Maison Leroy.

When young, red Burgundy’s flavours range from strawberry and raspberry to deeper damson and dark cherries. When the wines have aged, especially in the Premier and Grand Crus, expect more Oriental spices, whiffs of forest mushrooms, sometimes an air of light tobacco, chocolate and truffles – a charismatic complement to some of Baudelaire’s more intoxicating poems such as ‘A Head of Hair’ and ‘Twilight: Evening’. But it also exerts a floral quality that should compliment Baudelaire’s fleurs. As Jay McInerney writes of Burgundy in his humorous but educational book, Bacchus and Me, “[If] it’s red, French, costs too much, and tastes like the water that’s left in the vase after the flower have died and rotted, it’s probably Burgundy.”

Rotting flowers, truffles and mushrooms. Baudelaire would most likely approve. Any of these wines can be drunk in the company of such lyrics that ask:

Are you the sovereign harvest of the fall?
Are you the savor of Happy Isles?
- Ultimate urn that bides its time for tears,
Caressing pillow, or narcotic rose?
(translation by Richard Howard)

Born in 1844, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) was only 13 years old when Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal hit the Paris bookstands. Before his father relocated his family to Paris, his early childhood was spent in Metz, near Alsace. Of his hometown, Verlaine once wrote: “I lived there only a few years… but it was there that my mind and senses opened to life.” The boy was prone to melancholy but like his idol, Baudelaire, he exuded a dark, sensuous, Dionysian edge.

His family tried to point him toward a career in the civil service but his passion for writing brought him closer and closer to the literary landscape of Paris. As Martin Sorrell writes in his Introduction to his translation of Verlaine’s poetry, the poet “…spent his life facing in two directions at once.” He could write the most sensitive, tear-driven lyrics and yet be equally ‘gifted’ with the ability to compose bawdy, pornographic rhymes. He was also a brute, a terrible drunk who beat both his wife and mother yet strangely – or paradoxically - longed for a quiet family life.

When he hooked up with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, the older poet left his wife, Matthilde and the two men became lovers and traveled throughout Europe. During a heated argument in 1873, the tempestuous Verlaine shot the young Arthur in the hand and served time in prison.

Considering Verlaine was born so close to the German border, and there is a Germanic spirit to some of his more pensive lyrics, I highly recommend an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. It is a suitable and perfect match. Pour yourself a golden glass from a chilled bottle. Open a copy of Verlaine’s poetry. Breathe in the lychees, the roses and grapefruit, then read ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’

Il pleure dans mon Coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville
(It is raining in my heart
Like it rains on the town)

The wine is viscous, rich, and the poem is languorous, solemn. It seems to coat the palate of one’s mind and heart with a deep, satisfying intensity.

Take a sip and flip the pages to ‘Autumn Song’: “The long sobs of the violins of autumn lay waste my heart…” One can imagine the golden sunset streets of October in Paris by reading Verlaine’s work. With an Alsatian wine in hand, one can almost taste the dreamy, misted world of the poet’s imagination.

Notable producers include: Pierre Sparr, Hugel et Fils, Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Trimbach, and Domaines Schlumberger.

Paul Verlaine (left) and Arthur Rimbaud (centre) in a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

If Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine are less than worthy role models for a young man, let alone an aspiring poet, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is the enfant terrible. Born in northeastern France in the Ardennes département, Rimbaud was raised in the middle class. His father was a Captain of the Infantry and spent much of his career in Algiers. He abandoned the young boy to his mother when he was six. Known for her severity (one of the reasons Rimbaud’s father may have flewn the coop), she would deprive her son meals if he failed to recite prescribed Latin verses.

Before writing his great poems and prose poems, not to mention his famous letters, the young student wrote “I will be a capitalist”, a prophecy that would, in many ways, come true.

He wrote poetry relatively early in his life. By the age of seventeen he had composed his most famous poem, ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ (The Drunken Boat) and met the poet, Paul Verlaine. The two became lovers and traveled from Paris to London via Brussels. It was in London that Verlaine shot his lover in the hand during a heated, drunken dispute. The older man served 18 months in prison for his ‘crime passionel’. By 1874, after completing his Une Saison en enfer, (A Season in Hell) Rimbaud turned his back on poetry and writing, leaving it for a world of adventure. Perfecting his English in London, he travelled to Germany, Switzerland and Italy studying German, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Dutch and modern Greek. By the early 1880s he began to work in Ethiopia, eventually trying his hand at gun-running and slave-trading in Turkey and Arabia. In 1891, he contracted a tumor on his right knee. After an amputation, his recovery fraught with difficulty, Rimbaud returned Marseilles to seek out further treatment. His condition worsened and as a result, he died there at the age of 37.

What many men may have lived in many lifetimes, Rimbaud lived all in one. He is a dark monument, a legend, but still an artist. Whereas Baudelaire is the commanding figure in 19th century poetry (his work more than his life thrust him to the forefront of French literature), both Rimbaud’s persona and poetry have intoxicated generations of artists. This list is huge and includes Americans poets such as T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs; novelists Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith cite him as their songwriting muse. There is also a film, Total Eclipse with Leonardo Di Caprio portraying the young poet with Daniel Thewlis as Verlaine.

So what wine or wines would you drink in the company of Rimbaud’s poetry? Considering the poet was a traveler, and his poetry embodies his wild, ecstatic and dissolute vision of the world, with the sea and rivers as a feature in his influential ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, I’d recommend a sparkling wine, a Crémant de Loire. A Crémant is any sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method outside of Champagne (to be called Champagne it must be from the region). After Champagne, the Loire is the most famous of sparkling wine producers, especially around the town of Saumur where the three top Loire sparkling-wine producers (Bouvet-Ladubay, Gratien et Mayer and Langlois-Château – each in their own way related to a Champagne house) are located. While drinking the bubbly Chenin Blanc, read from ‘The Drunken Boat’

the storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakening
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves which men call eternal rollers
(translation by Oliver Bernard).

For his Une Saison en enfer, I would reach for a delicious, albeit decidedly decadent bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The history of the Popes have been known to include ‘some moments’ of hedonism (more than we know or can imagine I suspect). During the 14th century, there was a period between 1305 and 1378 when the popes reigned in Avignon. The period is called the ‘Avignon Papacy’ or ‘Babylonian Captivity’ when the French court had a certain influence on the papal court.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape or “New House of the Pope” is the vineyard area near Avignon and the most southern of major Rhone appellations. The vineyards are covered in ‘pudding’ stones, some small, some the size of pumpkins, remnants of ancient glaciers from the Alps.

The wines are made up of predominantly Grenache but the blend allows for 13 grape varieties in total, including Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.

Rimbaud was a definite ‘capitalist’ in his adult life but there is also the lusty spirit of the provocative adolescent in his writings. Known for his Symbolist imagery, the prose poems with its Catholic influence might be just right for a glorious bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Noteworthy and famous producers: Château Beaucastel, M. Chapoutier, Château Rayas, and Domaine de Beaurenard.

What better way to face the impending winter than with these poets and these wines.

Baudelaire, Charles, Les Fleurs du Mal (trans. Richard Howards). David R. Godine, Boston, 1983.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Richardson, Joanna. Verlaine. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1971.
Rickword, Edgell. Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet. Haskell House Publishers, New York, 1971
Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems (trans. Oliver Bernard). Penguin, London, 1997.
Robb, Graham. Rimbaud. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2001
Verlaine, Paul. Selected Poems (trans. Martin Sorrel). Oxford, 2009.


The Other Italy - Beyond Pinot Grigio: Exploring the Varietal Whites of Italy

Sep 9, 2009

The season of Pinot Grigio, alas, is sadly and quickly slipping away from us. For many summer patio sippers, this is the penultimate white for lazy, hot afternoons. The grape, either as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is grown throughout the world and has become the go-to varietal wine for a hot, dusky day. You can sample its various manifestations from California, Ontario, British Columbia, Alsace (France), Germany and of course, Italy. The Italian style - based primarily in Italy’s northeast - is the driest with a zest of mineral lemon. (Sicilia offers some good value varietal Grigios with a touch more tropical fruit.)

To be honest, I find most Pinot Grigios pretty boring. You either get the over-the-top fruity tropical fiesta from California (pineapple, banana and starfruit) or the run-of-the-mill mundane steely limp lemon offerings from Veneto. For those looking to celebrate the last few weeks of summer with some unique whites, I highly recommend the following Italian varieties with corresponding food recommendations:

This white variety, grown in Alto Adige, is better known in the wine world as Gewurztraminer. The region (also known as the Sudtirol) is on the Italo-Austrian border where only a quarter of the population speak Italian (at one point this region belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The majority use an Austro-Bavarian dialect while a small, small minority converse in the local mother language of Ladin.

For those who enjoy Alsatian or British Columbian Gewurztraminer you can expect some typical lychee and rose notes from the Italian version of the variety but also a fascinating and surprisingly delicious dose of orange juice with a hint of strawberry.

(You can also find Riesling, Moscato, Piano Bianco – Italian Pinot Blanc - Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio in Alto Adige.)

The Cortese is a white grape grown in southeast Piedmont in northwest Italy. This variety is known for making fun, refreshing wine meant to be drunk young. It is best as an aperitif, something to start the evening off or better yet, with a light sampling of seafood and shellfish. Its taste profile is on the grapey side, with a hint of pear drop and citrus nuances.

The most famous example of this variety in action comes from the limestone-rich southern hillside around the town of Gavi. The wines are dry with good acidity and a steely fruit tone.

If you’re looking for something a-typical at your table, why not spring for a white from the Marche on the Adriatic. You can’t miss them in the liquor store as these wines are often sold in green amphora-shaped bottles. Despite what many might think to be a tacky presentation, Verdicchio is often crisp, clean and delightful.

The most famous is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. The styles can range widely from the light and fresh all the way to the fully-rich complex herbal white to compliment a plate of pasta primavera (some critics note a hint of fennel in Verdicchio).

Falanghina or Falanghina Greco is a ‘character-full’, ancient white grape believed to be of Greek origin. It may well have provided the basis for the classical Falernian of Roman times (a wine commanding the prices similar to our modern Bordeaux and Burgundy classics).

Today, Falanghina (from the word ‘falanga’ and suffix ‘ina’ together meaning ‘small wooden stake’) is grown on the Italian coast just north of Naples in Campania. The region is famed for its natural beauty but also its grinding poverty. Following WWII, immigration increased in the south and Campania like Basilicata and Puglia suffered from the depopulation of their regions.

The grape ripens late and therefore craves the sunny slopes of Campania. In Sannio, one of the best examples of Falanghina, the climate is continental and the terrain mountainous, providing ideal conditions for top quality wines. They are often seductively attractive, un-oaked, fragrant wines, ready to savour and perfect with seafood and light pasta dishes.

Grown principally on the island of Sardegna, Nuragus offers something more exotic and scintillating than Pinot Grigio. The wines are lemony-lime with a pleasant, ethereal hint of white flowers. Often criticized for being boring, set it beside a plate of calamari with tzatziki and both wine and food will sing.

If you like Moscato of Piedmont, either still or sparkling, I urge you check out the Sicilian/Calabrian version. Zibibbo is basically an Italian translation of Moscato of Alexandria and belongs to the same Mosato family. Best known for making the passito wines of the island of Pantelleria, (off the west coast of Sicilia), Zibibbo also makes some excellent, dry, fuller whites exuding a honey-melon-cantaloupe. They are juicier, more alcoholic and less aromatic than their Moscato cousins but wonderful to savour. Delicious with Bruschetta bread topped with prosciutto.

You can find all three of these varietal whites in Sicilia. Grillo is big, juicy and relatively plump compared to the delicate, and clean whites made with Ansonica (also known as Inzolia).

If you enjoy Viognier from France or California, Catarrato should be next on your list of wines to try. Enjoy the notable nuances of apricot and peach with a sometimes nutty, but spicy beeswax aroma. If you keep a look out, you can find Catarrato/Chardonnay blends that give the wine additional complexity and flavor.

Ansonica pairs especially well with prawns whereas Grillo needs a Greek Salad to bring out its personality. Catarrato, like Viognier can be sipped on its own but a vegetarian Calazone (stuffed with red and green peppers) would taste tantalizing. But, if you are looking to be more casual, a Hawaiian pizza would be a great dining companion.

Italy is a country known for producing an eclectic and fabulous range of red wines contrasted with gallons of unremarkable whites. However, I find this perception (prejudice perhaps?) unfair and untutored. We can find some remarkable pockets of vineyards producing excellent white wine. If we can allow our minds to stretch beyond the romance of the reds and the simple, patio pleasures of Pinot Grigio, we might see that Italy’s whites can compete with those of France, Germany and the New World.

Take a determined look-see at LCBO for these whites. Whether you choose a Nuragus or Zibibbo, say adieu to the end of the summer on a wonderful, new note.

Bastianich, Joseph & David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2005.
Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001. Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Clark, Oz,
2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.),
The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


The Other Italy - Aglianico: The Nebbiolo of the South

Sep 8, 2009

Along with Spain, the Italian South is fast becoming the most popular choice for wines of value. The grape varieties are not only unique but in blends or as varietals they offer a delicious alternative to the popular wines of Piedmont. My personal favourite of these southern Italian varieties is Aglianico.

Pronounced ah-LEEYAH-nee-koe, the grape, like Nebbiolo produces one of the most powerful and interesting wines in Italy. The berries are small, dark-skinned and picked relatively late in the season, usually between the third week in October and early November. The wines made from Aglianico are deliciously deep in colour with nuances of chocolate, plum aromas and smoky acidity.

First thought to be planted around the Greek colony of Cumae (the site where the Etruscans first learned the alphabet from the Greeks; close to present day Avellino), the grape is believed to be of Greek origin. Before the end of the 15th century, it was known then as Ellenico, the Italian word for Hellenic.

Other scholars believe it was first brought to Italy in seed form and that it  traveled through Metaponto (Mentapontion), the major Greek colony on Basilicata’s Ionian coast. From there it headed north and east, finding its way into Vulture and Taurasi. There is some evidence suggesting it may well have come through Campania, possibly the area of Monte Massico north of Naples. Aglianico may likely be the red Falernum of Ancient Rome, a wine highly praised and prized by the nobles of antiquity.

Another theory is that it was a wild vine indigenous to the peninsula, grown and domesticated by the natives during the Bronze Age and only discovered by the Greeks. Enology professor Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan argues that its name comes from eilanikos, ‘vine that grows up trees’.

It doesn't stop there. Another modern theory further fueling the mystery suggests that Aglianico was first introduced to the south under Spanish rule. Daniele Cernilli and Marco Sabellico write in their book, The New Italy, that the name could well be an Italianisation of the Spanish ‘vino de llanos’ or ‘wine of the plains’.

Aglianico is grown throughout the south, especially in Campania and Basilicata where Aglianico del Vulture is the latter region’s only DOC wine (Denominazione di origine controllata – Italian quality regulation similar to the French appellation system) and also the most important. The DOC zone of Vulture is approximately 400 hectares/1000 acres of volcanic soil from nearby Mount Vulture, an ancient, extinct volcano located in the northwestern area of the zone. The soil is rich in potassium and because of the steep slopes, supplies good drainage so the grapes don’t get too flabby.
Mount Vulture
Basilicata is the most mountainous region in Italy and this is also true for Vulture. Here the nights are cool and the vineyards are planted between 450 to 600 metres above sea level. Aglianico del Vulture makes up only 3% of the total output of Basilicata’s 500,000 hectolitres, the lowest yield in Italy. Despite this, the wines are powerful, full-bodied and a dark, rich inviting red requires aging a few years before ready for consumption.

In Campania, a region once known for the greatest wines of antiquity, the village of Taurasi, in the hilly part of Irpinia (a region of the Apennine Mountains) is located just 64 km away from Barile. Like the heart of Aglianico del Vulture, it shares a preference for volcanic soils and does especially well at 500 metres above sea level. Promoted to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a level above DOC) status in 1993, the wines here must be aged three years to meet regulations (one in barrel, two in bottle). If the wine is a ‘Reserva’, it must be aged for four years.

The wines here must be made with 85% Aglianico. They are concentrated but complex wines – smooth, rich red fruit, high levels of tannins but ideal with southern Italian cooking.

My first impression of Aglianico came with a bottle of ‘Terra di Vulcano’ Bisceglia, a DOC Aglianico del Vulture. It was just curiosity. I had studied wine at the Art Institute but sadly missed the Italian wine seminar.

I came home on a dark, winter’s eve. Boiling some water, preparing the lean ground beef, opening a bag of pasta, I decided to uncork and pour my bottle. Right away, I noticed the deep rich colour. I took a long, pensive whiff and found myself falling in love with the disarming nuances of smoky blueberries and spicey, violet drenched plums. I took note: the wine was over three years old.

When I went to purchase another bottle, it was the newer vintage. The wine was tight, only two years old and the blueberries and smoky spices sat muted in the glass. These wines need at least three to four years, sometimes five to come into their own. Like Nebbiolo, they thrive when given time.

Other notable Aglianico del Vulture producers I can recommend include: Basilium, D’Angelo, Cantine del Notaio, Paternoster (one of the most famous), Tenuta del Portal and Le Querce.

In Taurasi, Oz Clarke would most likely add an additional five years to my recommendations. Mastrobardino practically created the DOCG’s reputation but if you can track down bottles of Caggiano, Feudi di San Gregorio, S Molettieri, Struzziero and Terredor di Paolo, you’ll find some excellent Campanian examples of Aglianico. They are well worth the wait but if you’re impatient to try a varietal Aglianico, check out the IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica – wine that satisfy some Italian wines but the regulations are not nearly as strict) values of Irpinia in Basilicata. These wines are still quite strong and tannic but they’ll get you by while you wait for your Taurasi and Vulture wines to age.

The majority of these wines can be found anywhere between $15 to $25 Canadian so there’s no excuse not to try them. If you’re a wine lover, you might wonder where they’ve been all your life.

Bastianich, Joseph & David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2005.
Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001. Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


Drink Canada - A Brief History of Ontario Wines

Sep 7, 2009

Growing up in St.Catharines, I hardly paid any attention to the surrounding wine country of the Niagara Region (I was a kid, c’mon). My main brushes with wine came through the Grape and Wine Festival Parade and family drives through Virgil, Vineland and Niagara-on-the-Lake. On our way to our cousins’ in the countryside, we passed the vineyards of Chateau des Charmes countless times. Watching the vines whip pass, I’d get hypnotized by the speed at which they flew across my vision. The visual effect intoxicated me long before I drank any of their wines.

While living in Victoria, British Columbia, I started work in a local liquor store at a mall near UVIC. (Unlike Ontario, B.C. has allowed a large portion of private liquor stores to open). The owners were half-Swiss Italian and were passionate about their cuisine and their Chianti. Besides learning about their favourites, I found myself drinking some of the local whites from up-island wineries such as Echo Valley, Zanata and Blue Grouse. Not only did I find these wines from Duncan and Chemainus surprisingly good but I suddenly realized I had fallen in love with wine and wondered how I came to discover it thousands of miles from my home, the Niagara heartland of vines.

After living in both Victoria and North Vancouver, I studied at the Art Institute, worked in both the hospitality and retail industry, and taught wine seminars. After a family visit back East, I decided to come back to St.Catharines and appreciate the land and region I had taken for granted all these years. I dedicate this entry to the many wine producers, past and present, who have developed the industry here and maintain such high standards of quality.

There is an obvious difference between grape growing and wine making though the two are immeasurably linked. Native grapes (vitis labrusca) have long grown wild in our prestigious province well before borders were established, settlers set their homesteads and cities built. However, there is little evidence to suggest that native peoples used these grapes to make wine. It was only with the arrival of European pioneers do we see the faint beginnings of a wine industry. These souls, simply looking for a new way of life, first brought wine, beer and spirits to North America before attempting to make them in their new backyards.

Shipping wine across the Atlantic proved too costly for many families. The rich could afford this luxury but some attempted to use the indigenous labrusca grapes to make wine either for daily consumption or for religious purposes.

By the 1700s, grapes were being agriculturally grown and used throughout the North Eastern United States to make wine. Early Ontarians were not only of British descent but many came from France, Germany, Holland and neighboring New England. The vines were principally native and wine made from Concord and Catawba were most likely the norm. Many wine makers, including Thomas Jefferson in Virginia became frustrated with the poor results of growing vinifera varieties (i.e. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay).

In Ontario, we don’t have an iconic figure like California’s Agoston Haraszthy, often considered the Father of the state’s wine industry. Perhaps the closest figure we have is Johann Schiller, a German immigrant who made wine in what is today Mississauga. We know very little about him, other than he came from a military background, that he gathered wild grapes from the banks of the Credit River, that he planted a vineyard with local varieties and cultivated hybrids. As Rod Phillips suggests in the Wines of Ontario, there is “no evidence he was a model or inspiration to others”.

It is only until the 1860s do we take a significant and historical step forward and see some true progress towards our idea of an Ontarian wine industry. Count Justin de Courtenay purchased Schiller’s land and in 1864 set up a Vine Growers’ Association. De Courtenay was a writer of agricultural pamphlets and a founder of Chateau Clair winery, well known for its large annual production of some 20,000 gallons of wine (the equivalent of 10,000 cases, far exceeding the amount of most modest wineries in the province).

In 1866, just a year before Confederation, in southwestern Ontario, Thaddeus Smith and two other associates from Kentucky planted 10 hectares (25 acres) of labrusca vines on Pelee Island, later establishing Vin Villa. The grapes were sold to wineries in Ohio and in the province by 1871.

The last few decades saw an interesting growth of entrepreneurs in the wine industry with wineries popping up around St.Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Branford.

By 1900, 4,500 hectares (11,250 acres) of vine land were planted in Ontario. There were approximately three dozen wineries in Niagara and five dozen in North Shore Lake Erie.

As I mentioned, many of the grapes used to make wine here were vitis labrusca. Pick up some store-bought grape juice, add an ounce of vodka and you might have some idea how these wines tasted (or simply buy Manishevitz Kosher wine for $6.99 at the LCBO). Niagara (a cross between Concord and Cassady – another labrusca variety) was used to make white wines (and still is today) and Concord for many red wines (over two-thirds of New York State are planted with labrusca varieties to make Welch’s Grape Juice and jelly).

The reason many native varieties were used instead of the superior wine grapes of vinifera is simply because they could survive. Whereas Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other vinifera varieties succumbed to pests, to the pesky phylloxera, (a root-eating aphid), diseases and Ontario winters, the native varieties, Concord, Catawba and Niagara managed just fine.

After Prohibition (1916 to 1927 - a time during which wine was thankfully legal as opposed to beer and spirits, unlike in the United States where the California wine industry experienced a major setback), there was a switch from labrusca to Hybrid varieties. A Hybrid is a cross between two different grapes of two different species, i.e. between vitis labrusca and vitis vinefera (whereas a Crossing is a cross between two grapes within the same species i.e. Pinotage, a South African grape whose parents are vitis vinifera Cincault and Pinot Noir). By the 1950s and ‘60s, the Niagara Peninsula wine producers began to make the switch over to Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc, Vidal and Marechal Foch. Labrusca varieties still remained in the market (and to this day although they make up a tiny portion of the wine market).

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many countries throughout the world began to move towards a higher standard of wine production. Before that, for many decades, wine makers in California, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada attempted to make cheap imitations of French wines. Chablis is made from Chardonnay but a California ‘Chablis’ was often a sweet blend of cheaper white grapes. Producers attempted to woo their customers with ‘European sounding’ names – Alpenweiss, Toscana, Red Burgundy and Wunderbar.

(For many of our parent’s generation, the baby boomers found themselves drinking the infamous Baby Duck, a sparkling wine made from Concord!)

This period of mediocre mainstream wine had to go. The worldwide leaders of quality sprouted up individually, synchronistically to some degree and included Robert Mondavi Jr. in Calfornia, Miguel Torres in Spain and Wolfgang Blass in Australia.

Here in Ontario, it was more of a duo.

Donald Ziraldo met Karl Kaiser, a native of Austria in the mid 1970s. The two knew each other through Ziraldo’s nursery. Ziraldo had just received his degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph while Kaiser had a degree in chemistry from Brock University and played around with home winemaking. One ‘fateful day’ as Ziraldo puts in his book, Anatomy of a Winery, Kaiser came to the nursery with some French hybrid grapevines and later a bottle of wine. Perhaps lost in the wake of the wine, they dreamt of their own winery and decided to apply for a wine license.

With the help of General George Kitching, Chairman of the LCBO who also shared the two men’s vision, they were issued a license (the first since 1929) and Inniskillin was born.

Inniskillin led the new wave, shortly followed by Newark (now Hillebrand), Colio Estates, Pelee Island Winery, Reif Estates (just down the road from Inniskillin), Konzelmann Estate and Henry of Pelham.

It was also about this time that Icewine put Canada on the world-wide wine map. Pelee Island and Hillebrand had produced icewine in 1983 but it was Inniskillin who helped win our first wine awards in France. (Kaiser’s 1983 crop was a feast for the birds apparently… it was a lesson learned as Karl believed they didn’t need netting to protect the vines. As Debi Pratt, Public Relations Manager at Inniskillin recalled: “Early in the morning, Karl came in and asked us when we had picked the ice wine grapes. He thought we had finished the harvest. We told him we didn’t touch the grapes. He then realized we should have used netting.”)

The advances in the sciences and study of wine making were also an immediate boon to our local industry as wine producers learned what varieties to plant, how to maintain them and what to look out for. It was around this time that vitis vinifera varieties started to take root.

When the Canadian government entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States in 1989, local wineries were deeply affected. “Together with other trade rules, it cut away at the preferential treatment and pricing of Canadian wines in provincial liquor stores,” writes Rod Phillips. “Ontario wines would have to compete on a level playing field with wines from California and elsewhere.”

The Ontario government, however did compensate and provided $50 million to growers to uproot inferior varieties. Ontario is said to have lost 20% of vines but there was an increase in vinifera plantings.

Around the same time, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) was founded, setting a new standard for the emerging industry. The VQA assured customers that wine came not only from a specific appellation (i.e. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Jordan, Beamsville) but assured variety (85% of the wine made from that specified on the label), vintage and overall quality. If a wine producer indicated a particular sub-appellation or vineyard site, the wine must be exclusively made with the grape grown there.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the number of wineries increased substantially and newcomers like Daniel Lenko Estate, Palatine Hills, Tawse, Stratus, Fielding Estate, and 13th Street have all contributed to making Ontario wines world renowned. In 1996, Brock University opened the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) in partnership with the Wine Council of Ontario (WCO) and the Ontario Grape Growers Marketing Board, now the Grape Growers of Ontario (GGO).

I have to stress this: if you’ve been in the LCBO recently and you see a section called ‘Cellared in Canada’, this means the wines are not completely made with Ontario fruit. Most likely there is nothing of Ontario in these wines. If you’re buying a white label Jackson Triggs without a vintage date, you are buying a wine made with imported juice. For many local wineries, especially boutique-size, this is a strong issue as it undermines the direction and achievements of many Ontarian grape growers and wine makers. As devoted wine buyers, we are better off supporting the true local wines. In a time when many Ontario grape growers are struggling, these ‘Cellared in Canada’ wines do not truly represent Canada.

If we want to see future wineries develop and our present wine producers flourish, we need to focus on the craftsmanship of their products. For this history to continue, let’s support the legacy and enjoy Ontarian wines that are so easy to love.

Phillips, Rod, Ontario Wine Country. North Vancouver, WhiteCap Books, 2006.
Phillips, Rod, A Short History of Wine.
Ziraldo, Donald J.P. Anatomy of a Winery: The Art of Wine at Inniskillin. Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1995.


About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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