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Even cooler Cali pinot
Terrific deluxe meritage from Two Sisters
A cool California chardonnay
Pinot grigio beats chardonnay!
Frame-up: The Beer Store, beer tax and beer prices


Feature

Far and Away

Published in Foodservice and Hospitality, Novmeber 2008. View PDF.

When shopping the world for wine, the broad categories of “Old World” and “New World” are useful because the origin of a wine is often a good indication of what you’ll get. But what’s happening now is that the lines are blurring and consumer taste is shifting.

The definitions are worth knowing: Old World (Europe) reds are generally more austere, medium to lighter bodied, and have more earthy notes and higher acidity. New World (Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) reds tend to have bigger fruit-forward noses, fuller bodied palates with ripe fruit, and less acidity. In whites, Old World versions tend toward higher acidity, less fruitiness and lower alcohol levels, while New World whites are rounder and fuller, with lower acidity, more fruitiness and higher alcohol levels. Both can have aromatic noses for certain grapes.
 
The phenomenal success of Australia in particular on the world market, but also Chile and California, proves that a lot of people like big, fruity wines. In several provinces, Australia is the number one source of imports. But that marketing juggernaut may be hitting the buffers as Europe fights back: Italy is poised to end Australia’s three-year run as the number one import by value in the big Ontario market, and France is marshalling its forces for a fresh assault on English Canada, where it has lost the top spot in several provinces over the past decade. Modern winemaking techniques and keen attention to sales figures mean that producers in France, Italy and Spain are now turning out fruitier, more easy-drinking reds. To confuse things further, some producers in Australia and California are turning to lighter, fresher and more subtle wines, as well as more blends: very European.
 
 

Top Five Countries for Wine Imports by Volume in 2007 (litres):
 
1. France: 62,366,000
2. Italy: 52,915,000
3. Australia: 52,426,000
4. USA: 40,861,000
5. Chile: 26,027,000
Source: Statistics Canada
 
 
Sales of French wines are heavily concentrated in Quebec, where France is by far the leader. Australia is far and away the sales leader in British Columbia. In Ontario, the top three by volume are Italy, Australia and France, with Australia the number one by value. (Source: LCBO 2007 Annual Report, BCLDB Quarterly Report, June 2008, SAQ Annual Report 2007)
 

 

Consumer demand is changing too. The big, sweetish, oaky New World chardonnay of the 80s and 90s is on its deathbed. Jennifer Kim, Director of Marketing for Ontario and the Maritimes at Philippe Dandurand Wines, one of the country’s biggest agencies, says the company doesn’t even offer any oaky chardonnays: “Pinot grigio is huge, sauvignon blanc is still going strong and unoaked chardonnay is doing well.” It’s the same story from Anna Hobbs at Hobbs & Co. agency. “We’re seeing more unoaked or very lightly oaked… like Pouilly-Fuissés and Chablis [white Burgundies with little or no oak], which have that more steely, minerally flavour,” says Hobbs. Nick Keukenmeester of Toronto’s Lifford Wine Agency says “our oakier chardonnays – even really beautifully done ones at higher price points – are languishing.” He added that pinot grigio and Alsace wines are doing great business, “and we just sold out of pinot blanc. Viognier is also growing hugely –its spicy notes and lush fruitiness work well with fusion cuisine,” he says.

Jennifer Kim says an emerging trend in value whites is Argentina’s Torrontés, which she says is “in the style of viognier – more aromatic, flowery almost. It’s very easy drinking and fresh. It’s a great patio sipper and it’s not mainstream yet, but that’s one to watch for next year.”
 
There is a general movement to lighter and more complex reds, but people still want the fruit. And “big” is still big: Jennifer Kim nominates malbec from Argentina for reds and notes sales are up 120% this year in Ontario: “People love it because it overdelivers at the price point.”
 
For reds, Anna Hobbs likes South Africa and Australia, but also France’s Languedoc region, where producers aren’t tied to so many rules as Bordeaux or Burgundy. “They’re breaking new ground,” says Hobbs, “and the Languedoc Vins de Pays are terrific value and can be great as a house wine.” The man responsible for quality control for the Vins de Pays d’Oc, Guillaume Senechal, was in Toronto recently and said that with 33 different grape varieties, the region’s producers offer “a multitude of possibilities, including the world’s most popular varietals. Chardonnay remains the number one white, sauvignon blanc is growing in volume, and viognier has a very strong demand,” says Senechal. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah are the region’s leading reds. For French wines in a fruitier, bigger style, look to the freewheeling – and value-priced – Languedoc.
 
On the front lines, sommeliers and restaurateurs agree today’s customer is more knowledgeable about wine and more adventurous. And it pays to push the envelope. Jennifer Heuther-Vranjes is a sommelier at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, which has three restaurants catering to everyone from ordinary suburban Joes to big corporate muckety-mucks happy to drop $100 on a glass of champagne. “We’re the only place in Canada offering Krug by the glass,” says Jennifer. With its predominantly male clientele and its busy months being the cold ones, over 90% of the wines sold at the ACC are reds. But even their conservative clientele is restless. Heuther-Vranjes says not only do more diners show an interest in offbeat varietals and blends, they respond to “insider information” – they want to know what she recommends and why. With the caveat that you have to “read” your table, Jennifer has recommendations: “for someone who normally likes a full California cab, I’d direct them towards the Douro Valley wines from Portugal, or Priorat in Spain. Argentina is also very hot in the value-driven category.” The trend towards lighter reds is even reaching the bloody steak crowd now: “We’re also selling more pinot noir,” says Jennifer, adding that Italy is “on fire right now too, especially Montepulciano d’Abbruzo with its bright red fruit and a hint of sourness.” Jennifer is also firmly in favour of offering a good selection of wines by the glass and says it’s an effective way to boost sales, especially of pricier wines.
 
When you buy 62,000 cases of wine a year and have the same list in every branch, it’s a good idea to have a plan. George Piper is the wine buyer for Vancouver-based Earls, a big casual dining chain with branches in several provinces and a few in the States, and he took a really fresh approach. Piper says that Earls and sister chains Joey’s and Saltlik Steakhouse are all about establishing and maintaining relationships with suppliers and he decided to do the same with the new wine program, which launched earlier this year. “If a producer’s been making good wines for the last ten years or more, chances are he’s going to keep doing it for the next ten years or more.”
 
Piper got together with, among others, Vancouver wine critic Anthony Gismondi, to put the wine list together. They created a grid on a spreadsheet, putting grape varieties and wine styles on one side and countries on the other, and then tasted over 500 wines before settling on the 80 that make up the list, with 24 available by the glass. “We’ve ended up with a real mix of New World and Old World. In the end, what we’re looking for is quality and value.” On the menu, the wines are grouped according to style and rather than country or grape. With Australia now producing delicate rieslings, Italy delivering easy-drinking fruit bombs and more Californians getting elegant, this is a wise way to go. 
 
Earls made a decision to become a wine destination and has trawled the world to source its new list. And the result? According to Piper, “the customers are loving it. They’re ready for it.”
 
 
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Three agents’ picks
 
Tall Poppy Merlot. $13.25
The bold rich and dark nose gives way to light, bright and fresh cherry and plum fruit on the smooth, soft palate, which has a hint of sweetness. Simple, easy drinking, but lighter and more delicate than a typical Aussie. [Hobbs & Co. Toronto. 416-694-3689]
 
Castello di Fonterutoli Badiola 2006. $15.85
This blend of sangiovese and merlot has a big nose of bright red fruit, including cherry and blackberry. Acidity is fresh and tannins are soft – it’s smooth and easy drinking, but there’s enough earthiness to make it interesting. A real crowd pleaser. [Philippe Dandurand Wines. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver]
 
Telmo Rodriguez Gaba do Xil 2006. $18.99
Here’s a great chardonnay-esque wine made with the Spanish grape godello. Very Old World nose, with muted lemon notes and apple. Smooth and quite full on the palate, which has more apple and a hint of vanilla. Nice finish of fresh yellow plums. [Lifford Wine Agency. Toronto 416-440-4101]
 

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