Monday, September 13, 2010

New discoveries in Prince Edward County, Ontario

The first time I visited this region, which is located less than 2 hours drive East of Toronto, was at the urging of my dear wife who wanted to show me the fine white sands and dunes of the Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario.  During that visit in the summer of 1998, I suddenly remembered an invitation from a guest in one of the wine dinners I presented who mentioned that I should visit his vineyards in the county.

Back in those days I had no idea this county even existed, but then he mentioned the neighbouring city of Belleville, and all I could think of was the cold winter temperature toward Kingston and Montreal as I am quite familiar with winter driving to Montreal to visit family.  I immediately thought that this guy was crazy for even planting a vine in the region.  As I vaguely recalled the area where his vineyards were located and happily drove in the direction of Waupoos, to my surprise, I saw rows upon rows of vines enjoying the summer heat and sharing the land with mature apple trees, which have been there for generations.  Ed Neuser created his dream winery after retiring from his company in Toronto.  The only wine available for tasting at the time was their Vidal, and it showed promise.

Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Stanners Vineyards
This truly excited my curiosity and we went about exploring the county for locations for possible vineyards - a dream that, one day, we may pursue.  From my many years of travels to various wine regions, I immediately saw the potential for making fine wines in the Hellier area of the county, owing to its large mineral deposit, with light slopes and excellent exposure and microclimate.  I can tell you, we walked into a Remax Real Estate office and met a nice salesman who offered to show us around properties for sale.  This memorable excursion showed us a 100-acre farm that was for sale at $99K, including a barn and a century home; 200-acre for $130K, and a few others that were so attractively priced.   We never ended up buying a property but continued to visit the country every summer for its bucolic and peaceful setting.  Sure enough, we started noticing new vineyard plantings and wineries in the Hellier area, and by 2005, several estates were already opening their doors for tastings and tours.

Richard Karlo, Leo & Vivian in the Karlo tasting room
This brings me back to the new discoveries I made during my recent visit to the county after a few years of absence.  To say that I am impressed with the wines is an understatement.  In fact, I was completely blown away by the level of complexity and style that I was incredulous, to say the least.  Tasting Pinot Gris from Stanners Vineyards, website: http://www.stannersvineyard.ca/, was a revelation of the great potential for this varietal in the region.  The winery was built using the straw insulation method. With only 2 days in the county, my wife and I also visited Red Tail Vineyards, website: http://www.redtailvineyard.com/en/, where another Pinot Gris showed a lot of promise with its sheer acidity and mineral notes.  This small winery is off-the-grid in terms of power use.  They depend solely on several solar panels in the property for their energy needs.  On highway 33, we visited Hellier Creek Estates, website: http://www.hilliercreekestates.com/, and discovered an amazing Rosé made from Gamay - bright garnet colour, ripe berry on the nose with a superb palate that hints of mineral, fruits and balanced acidity - one of the best rosés I have ever tasted in Canada!  The young winemaker, Lauren Horlock, is crafting some very impressive wines which include the Estate Chardonnay and Riesling - both wines show the elements of the region's terroir, while maintaining a classic and elegant style of the varietal.  Next on our list was Karlo Estates, website: www.karloestates.com, on Danforth road, created by Richard Karlo, a big, nice bear of a guy who's been making wine for friends in the last 20 years.  No doubt, the wines he's making are the next wave of top notch quality wines to come out of Ontario.  His Estate Chardonnay and Riesling are the finest you'll ever come across in Canada.  But what surprised me the most was tasting the Quintus, a wine made from a blend of five Bordeaux varietals and which I can only describe as awesome!  He also made a dessert wine made from Frontenac hybrid that offers lots of character and ripeness, not to mention the racy acidity on the finish.  Just to throw everyone off, he also created a Port-style dessert wine - which I found to be more similar to a very fine Amarone - luscious, earthy and very ripe black berry combine to create a complex wine, with no hint of oxidized notes one finds in a Port.

Breakfast fruit starter
On this recent visit to the county, I have learned that that are now close to 40 licensed wineries in the county - a real growth in just over a decade since my first discovery of the region.  Other notable wineries in the Hellier/Wellington area include Huff Estates, The Grange, Closson Chase and Hinterland, website: http://www.hinterlandwine.com/ - this one's a real treat as Jonas, the owner and winemaker is committed to making the best sparkling wine in the region.  I would agree with his goal as we tasted a fine Rosé Brut that could easily knock out the competition..yes, even from Champagne.  By the way, this was the property we looked at in 1998 for $99K!

Grilled duck breast on a bed of fava beans

This visit would not be complete without a mention of places we stayed and dined.  Henderson House B & B is a delightful stop in Consecon, with a peaceful garden setting and wonderful hospitality, not to mention the well-made breakfast.  We also enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Tall Poppy, with delicious sandwiches and salads from organic produce straight from the owner's garden.  We also dined at East & Main, website: http://www.eastandmain.ca/index.html, in Wellington. My former client who was the sommelier at a plush restaurant in Toronto opened East & Main in August 2009 - a bistro dedicated to locally sourced food.  My dinner was memorable for the well-executed grilled duck breast on a bed of sautéed fava beans.  Kimberly Humby and her partner, David have brought their skills to make this restaurant one of the best places for lunch and dinner in the county.  Another famous chef runs a popular bistro called Harvest, in nearby Picton.

I believe that Prince Edward County is now poised to capture serious attention from wine and food lovers alike.  What is happening in this tiny part of Eastern Ontario is giving real hope to the positive evolution of wine culture in Canada.  The time has truly come for us to be proud of Ontario wines in the global marketplace.  Some people even refer to the county as the Sonoma to Niagara's Napa comparison.  In many ways, it is quite true in terms of the more pastoral landscape of the county, as well as the growing attention to local fare and more down to earth winery designs and presentation.  Not having a casino or the falls obviously attracts only visitors who really want to escape for some peace and quiet, with some fine dining and excellent wines.
Sunset on Lake Ontario

Friday, September 3, 2010

A case for wine...hands-on experience and analysis of the Asian wine market

Looking back at my wine career which started officially in 1991, I have always enjoyed seeing so many exciting developments in the wine and related industry around the world.  It is also heartening to see a continued rise in wine appreciation even in countries where wine consumption was never part of the culture.

Wine dinner at the Press Club
You may have noticed my long absence from this wine blog, especially after posting regularly every month in 2008.  Let me explain why.  The last 18 months have kept me focused on my wine project in Asia, with Hong Kong as my base, to try and develop a wine distribution venture to accommodate a growing interest in wine among the new, large Chinese middle-class, flushed with lots of money and a strong appetite for Western lifestyle.  Thus it is no surprise to any tourist visiting Hong Kong and Shanghai to see so many Prada and Gucci boutiques lining up major avenues in both cities.

Alas, this obsession with luxury name brands have also affected their choice of wines to buy, more as status symbol than for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a glass or two.  In this market, Bordeaux First Growths represent the very top of prestige labels while other wine regions remain well below the pecking order.  In many cases, it is not uncommon to see them mixing such wines with Coke or Seven-Up.  Suddenly, my French suppliers do not like to hear the word Coke au vin (sic).   Hong Kong's only wine magazine is mostly focused on top labels, with a token article on wines from the "other regions".

Going back to my first year in wine sales in 1991 in Toronto, the city was more into pubs than wine bars, where the only new wines you find in restaurants were Bin 65 Chardonnay and Yellow Label Cab from Australia, while the most wine lists showed generic Chablis, Bordeaux and California wines, plus a house red and white from large format bottles of Valpolicella and Soave.  But Toronto has changed and became an exciting wine market in a few short years due to the consumer attitudes among new wine enthusiasts, journalists and wine importers who were open to exciting selections from various wine regions from Europe and the new world.  Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in Hong Kong and China, where the Bordeaux obsession has reached such ridiculous heights that the only talk of wine in the local media is about how many millions of dollars were paid by the Chinese on First Growth Bordeaux at major wine auctions.  Unfortunately, this perpetuates the impression that wine is a luxury product, and the Chinese think that one must pay high to enjoy a good wine.  As such, most Chinese never bother with wines except when they want to buy one as gift (only Bordeaux please).

Young wine enthusiasts
The good news in Asia comes from Singapore. the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.  In my visits to the Philippines over the last 2 years, I have seen a natural evolution of the wine consumer market through a number of exciting wine shops, wine-friendly restaurants and wine bars, with many locals actually enjoying wine with their meals.  In fact, a modern wine bar, CAV, opened its doors in 2008 in the newly developed upscale commercial/residential zone called Global City, near Makati.  Singapore also has a very active wine culture, that wine has become an everyday part of the dining culture among many of its citizens.  Malaysia also has a burgeoning wine culture, despite the fact that it is a Muslim country.  Lastly, Vietnam now has returned to its former European wine culture during the French occupation and many among the young, successful business people are embracing wine once again. 

What are we to make of these dualities?  Well, let's keep in mind that many Asian countries have a unique and well-established food and beverage culture, which also includes diverse beverage choices as tea, sake and palm/fruit liquors.  Unlike the natural growth of the wine market in North America, where the food culture is similar to European counterparts, how the Asian market will develop is dependent upon a number of approaches to attracting the mainstream consumers to wine.  A good place to start is by encouraging the local media to make space for competent wine enthusiasts to write wine articles in newspapers and magazines on a weekly basis, with a strong emphasis on diversity of wine selections; promote the establishment of wine bars that are truly dedicated to sharing new discoveries to new consumers; allow various trade organizations to conduct regular wine tasting events open to the public.

Finally, I still believe that the global wine market will continue to grow as economies rise in Asia. It is only a matter of time.. but it will happen.  As discussed in my previous posts, Asia can become the largest wine market, but I must now add that one must tread very carefully.  Cheers!

Friday, May 29, 2009

The fine wines (and food) of Campania

Visiting the region of Campania is like going to a place where one discovers unexpected and delightful finds, such a great food, fine wines and gorgeous beauties: people and sites.

I must admit, my first visit to this region was full of apprehension due to concerns about the high crime rate in its major city, Naples - a historic capital once ruled by the Bourbons who transformed this city into one of the finest in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. One could still see the evidence of its once elegant promenades, impressive galleria and grand theatres.

This time around, I was fortunate enough to be invited as guest of the Vitigno Italia Wine Fair - a wine show dedicated to autochtonous Italian grape varietals. Held in the Castello dell'Ovo, an historical medieval fort situated on the shores of Naples, the producers came through with their impressive wines ranging from Greco di Tufo, Fiano, Falanghina, Aglianico, just to name a few of the hundreds of varietals cultivated in this region.

Outside of Italy, few consumers know enough about these exciting varietals - a real pity, as it would change the way they look at Italian whites beyond Pinot Grigio. Just imagine a Southern region producing top notch whites that would knock out competitions from other parts of Italy, if not Europe and the New World. A number of producers are even following organic viticulture, such as Fattoria La Rivolta. The only two famous names coming from this region are Feudi di San Gregorio and Mastroberardino - both quality producers who have created a strong brand and loyal customers. However, there are many more quality winemakers who just never get the chance to show their excellent wines outside their borders.

I believe that their day is coming - soon, I hope! In recent years, Italy has seen a renaissance in autochtonous viticulture, especially in the Southern regions. Not surprisingly, wines from Sicily, such as Nero d'Avola, Inzolia and Grillo are becoming popular among wine-by-the-glass crowd. The fine wines of Campania can reach a wider market with a carefull pricing strategy that would attract new consumers who are looking for value and quality. My advice to wine producers from this region is to look beyond internal competition and let the market discover the wines of Campania as a region. Marketing the wines according to the area or town where they are made does not help the new consumer - it is also confusing as an information overload. So, forget about Caserta, Campi Flegrei, etc. This can come later, once the consumers get to know the region well enough.

The Vitigno Italia wine fair was a great opportunity for the producers, large and small, to showcase their wines in three different locations, including the Castello dell'Ovo. Autochtonous wines from other regions were also featured and did not disappoint. Sadly, the ongoing financial crisis around the world reflected in the lack of foreign buyers and low attendance in some of the venues. Let's hope this, too, will be resolved soon. Campania is also famous for its buffalo mozzarella and other cheese products. Enjoying this fine cheese where it's made is unforgettable. Like many other major cities, Naples is proud to showcase its innovative cuisine at the Citta del Gusto, a recently renovated old factory now used as restaurant and venue for fresh local cuisine. Unfortunately, our Gala dinner scheduled at this venue was more of a finger food extravaganza, including jamon iberico (why?), that disappointed many guests who left hungry and mad, desperately looking for an open pizzeria after midnight. LJB.

Monday, April 27, 2009

When winemakers follow the wrong lead

A rather thought-provoking title, I felt that it was time to enter the ring after reading all these discussions about influential wine critics and major wine publications.

I have been watching the wine industry evolved into a position of a global giant thanks, in part, to several wine journals and wine critics who emerged in the late 80's and helped change the perception of wine as a snob drink to one that has become a regular choice beverage for many. The rapid and continuing growth of the North American wine market also created the need for wine reviews and quality ratings, turning some into very influential publications and star personalities - giving truth to the words "The medium is the message" as written by the famous Canadian, Marshall McLuhan.

As in any industry, there is always danger when wine reviews and critics become a source of influence rather than a guide that they once were. This leads me to the very issue as indicated by the title of this blog. Many colleagues will agree with me that the style of several wines being made these days no longer express the true character of the regions where they come from. It becomes obvious when you start speaking to winemakers who justify their new style due to a change in customer preference as indicated by higher demand for wines made popular by certain critics.

This happened to me in Bordeaux where I tasted a selection from a group of winemakers in St. Emilion. As many of us are familiar with the style of this region - elegant, nicely perfumed and velvety.., I just could not believe what my palate was assaulted with: aggressive tannins, lots of oak and massive extraction - none of the elegance and finesse I was expecting. I actually thought that they were trying to fool me by pouring some Pauillac wines! Then I asked a simple, but vital question: Why the change? Answer: Parker!

Let's look at the market since the 90s. Wine consumers are a finicky bunch, and while many are dependent upon wine reviews and recommendations from various journals, they also follow a collective trend in a particular market. A good example is the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) trend in response to the Chardonnay craze in the 90s. This was followed by another equally important trend: Unoaked wines (typically applied to white wines than red). Suddenly, consumers became confident enough to make their own choices, and some in the industry listened. These developments came at a time when there was an explosion of new wines flooding the North American markets.

Yet, here we are in the 21st century. Every time I taste wines from producers who are eager to enter a new market, nearly half of the wines are over extracted and lacking in distinguishable character of a varietal or region. Very often, they try to create wines that follow a particular style in keeping with what they perceive as the new trend in wine. Thus, wines that would have tasted according to their classic flavours now offer distinctly varied taste profiles that, in many cases, are so far from their original taste. Sadly, many producers are guilty of this crime, and they come from every wine region you can think of.

Thankfully, there are still a great number of winemakers who are truly dedicated and passionate about their work. They understand that each wine reflects the character of the terroir where their vines grow. In the end, that's how wine making should be followed, and not because of some powerful critic whose idea of a good wine is one that Dr. Frankenstein would also prefer.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Being a foodie makes selling wine a breeze

It used to be that cooking well was seen as something only a Cordon Bleu graduate could accomplish. For years, except for a few die hard followers of Julia Child, this domestic endeavor was mostly performed without any care for flavours and creative input, and many found cooking an unexciting chore, save for weekend barbecues and the required roast turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This was the typical scene in North America until the nineties.

These days it's exciting to see so much interest among young people about cooking, thanks to the Food Network and other TV shows on Travel and Food. Cooking has become a COOL thing to do and, suddenly, the continent is full of foodies who, not only love food, but are also eager to try new and exotic ingredients. Just look at the number of cookware shops that have set up around the country, and the cooking schools that proliferated due to the growing demand from people who are taking the plunge; not to mention the many food and wine magazines that are now a common sight on the racks.

As a wine merchant, being part of this fascinating evolution is important in successful wine sales. Here's why: knowing about food preparation, spices and flavours provides me with valuable information that allows me to propose the right wines to my customers. Think about it. If you have no clue how the food is prepared or tastes, how can you possibly suggest the right wine?

Over the years, my passion for cooking dishes from various cultures has actually helped me provide correct wine matching advice, even in restaurants that were not always wine-friendly. Sadly, there are some in the wine industry who just couldn't care less about this and they continue to perpetrate the old, one-dimensional rule: white with fish, red with meat. It does not take a lot of work to learn a few basic cooking tips, but it is essential to achieving success in wine sales, as more and more consumers are actually becoming food and wine savvy.

Just imagine the possibilities for wine matching once you become familiar with spice aromas and flavours. Food that you would not have served with wine could now work with rosé, white, red or sparkling. It's all in the flavours in the final dish - the opportunity to expand your skills in making the right wine suggestions.

Cheers,
Leo

Monday, April 13, 2009

Next generation winemakers in Europe

I always look forward to visiting Europe several times a year in search of new wines to import into Canada and Asia. Each time, I am fascinated to meet a few young winemakers who are quietly making a name for themselves by creating wines that are exciting and fresh, without sacrificing terroir and tradition.

One such visit brought me to the Roussillon, a rugged and beautiful region of Southern France, near the border of Spain. The first time I visited this region was in 1995 on a recommendation of a French wine writer in Canada who hails from the area. Through my contact, I was kindly introduced to the region's respected Dean of Oenology who took me on as an ardent student of the region's wine history and showed me around vineyards and wineries he consulted. Back then, I saw an incredible potential for making top quality wines that reminded me of Santa Barbara, California

Sadly, this first visit was a real disappointment in terms of finding consistent quality wines, save a few producers like Domaine Gauby and Sarda Malet, as well as excellent Banyuls and Muscat. I came back to this region 3 more times, still unimpressed as before.

Forward to February 2009 at a Muscat Conference in Perpignan where a wonderful surprise awaited me. Not expecting much based on my previous experience, I simply went around the hall tasting samples. Quite suddenly, I started noticing an upward trend in quality and style in many of the booths I visited: Domaine Tour Vieille, Domaine des Schistes, Sarda Malet, Piquemal, Mas Cremat, to name a few. Finally, I met a young man at a small table where I tasted what I considered the finest white wine I have ever tasted in years: Domaine les terres de Fagayra Maury Blanc 2008: exquisite, luscious and well balanced. I'm even at a lost for words here.

The wine came from Roc des Anges, a new domaine owned by a dynamic young couple, Stephane and Marjorie Gallet. Stephane was a winemaker at the famous Mas Amiel in Maury, and Marjorie came from the Rhone valley where she worked at Yves Cuilleron and Pierre Gaillard. This couple has truly captivated me and renewed my hope for the Roussillon.

For me to go crazy over a wine is rare, as I have always been a tough taster and quite unrestrained about my assessment, good or bad, of any wine during a tasting. But this was a real discovery, completely unexpected and even made me giddy (if I can use that word). This is what I call a WOW moment - when everything just falls into place. I rarely have this experience, even when tasting top grand crus.

Next on my list is Guillaume Nudant, a 25 years old winemaker at Domaine Nudant, his family estate in Ladoix Serrigny. Unassuming, shy and smart, he is making some of the finest wines in the region, as evident in the very fine Aloxe Corton, Nuits St. Georges and Corton Charlemagne, to name a few. He is the 5th generation in the Nudant family of wine producers and negociants. As he proudly shows his small plots of Premiere cru and Grand Cru vineyards, one can see that passion runs in this young man's blood.

In La Morra, Piemonte, I have been following the progress of Rocche Costamagna under the direction of winemaker, Alessandro Locatelli, whose family owns the property for 4 generations. Over the last 15 years, Alessandro has been fine tuning his wines to express their natural character and complexity, and he has won several medals and top ratings for his efforts. Today, the wines of Rocche Costamagna stand out in major tasting events for their consistent quality and superb craftsmanship - there is not a sign of massive oak or atypical flavors one finds in Barolo these days.

The same kudos goes to Paolo Avezza and Lorenzo Ruris - close friends, each owns a small property in Asti where they produce outstanding Moscato, Barbera and Dolcetto that will impress even the toughest critic. Again, they represent the next generation of winemakers that are changing the views of the fickle market.

In Hagenbrunn, a small town near Vienna, another young couple is getting a lot of media attention these days for their Gruner Veltliner DAC and single vineyard wines such as the GV Sätzen-Fürstenberg 2007 (90 Parker) under their winery label, Weingut Schwarzboeck. Rudi and Anita run a neat winery operation that turns out award winning wines made by Rudi in their small, 20-hectare vineyards around Hagenbrunn.

It's refreshing to know that the wine world continues to grow with enthusiastic winemakers who are committed to making their own stamp on quality wines. They, along with many more who are not mentioned in this blog, represent the future of wine as emerging markets develop a taste for this wonderful fruit of the vine. Decades from now, we will look back at these passionate individuals and thank them for their hard work and dedication.

Cheers!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wine by the Glass: The road to wine discovery

Over the years we have seen a rise in the number of wine bars in cities and towns in North America and Asia. It wasn't long ago that all you could get were the house red and white wines (normally unpalatable and cheap) available by the glass, half liter and bottle.

This exciting evolution shows that consumers on both sides of the Pacific are developing an appreciation for better quality wines, thanks, in part, to the many wine journals and newspaper wine articles that are readily available in the last 10 years, as well as movies such as Sideways and Bottle Shock; not to mention several wine related shows on the Food Network television.

Yet, despite this unprecedented growth, many establishments are still stuck in their old ways by offering the most uninteresting selections that are over priced and usually oxidized. Many are unwilling to take the risk of opening bottles that may not sell quickly; not having the right equipment to preserve open bottles; or simply not buying the idea of having several wines available by the glass as economically sound. In both markets, the real culprit is actually the price for a glass of wine. Read: Needs to be lower. The old system that relied on wine sales as the MAIN source of revenue needs major revision. Read: Wine and spirits sales should be part of the overall revenue. I never understand why a wine that wholesales for $15.00 becomes $50.00 a bottle and $13.00 per glass in many restaurants and wine bars. Imagine if this same wine was offered at $28 per bottle and $7.00 per glass? Here's what I would do if I was a customer: I would order 2 glasses instead of one.

You can see where I'm going with this. It is a no-brainer. Sure, some of these establishments would say that they need more than 200% markup to cover costs. Here's my answer: the more expensive your pricing, th
e less you sell, vice-versa. Of course it does not help that some cities have higher taxes or monopolies which charge high markups. Still, if we use the same wholesale price of $15.00, why can't they offer it for $28.00 per bottle?

I remember one of my earlier visits to Turin as a guest of the Italian Trade Commission along with several wine importers from Canada. One memorable part of this trip was the last dinner in the city where we were all amazed at the low price for quality wines that were on the restaurant list. As expected, we went crazy ordering bottles that were priced at a fraction of what we would pay in Canada.

As the title of this post suggests, wine by the glass program is a road to wine discovery. Just imagine new wine consumers having access to several exciting selections that change each week, all priced below $10.00 per glass. If you are the wine bar proprietor, you'd be smiling all the way to the bank. Why? Your spot becomes the hottest destination for wine lovers to discover new wines without having to buy a bottle. This has been proven in many cities. But you have to do more than just serve offer wine. In Italy, France and Spain, many places provide small plates of bite size goodies to accompany your wine, gratis. Read: Goodwill and loyal clientele.


Cheers,
Leo J. Baduria