California Wine Fair

Tasting Event April 2, 2012

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The Toronto stop for the California Wine Fair is hugely popular with both industry people and consumers. If you go to the trade session you get to taste a vast array of wines, meet many winemakers and other California industry professionals who come to talk about their wines, and of course chat with almost everyone you've ever met in the wine business! But there is a special reason why I enjoyed the recent California Wine Fair even more than last year — I had the privilege of tasting in the innovative "media" room, where I could work quietly and thoughtfully away from the hubbub (fun though that is), and then make notes on my computer. What a treat! The only problem was that while I spent more than 5 hours seriously working, I would have needed more than twice the time to take full advantage of the opportunity.

The offering of more than 140 wines, at least two-thirds of which were red, was frankly intimidating. I opted to begin with the whites and progressed through the Pinots, but ran out of time and steam as I hit the big reds.

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The first wine that really stood out for me, and the only one of the non-Chardonnays that made me sit up and take notice, was an unusual blend of Chenin Blanc and Viognier from Pine Ridge. While I love Chenin, I have quite diverging reactions to individual examples of Viognier, but this blend really worked:

  • 2011 Pine Ridge Vineyards Chenin Blanc & Viognier California, 12% abv, $19.95. The wine was a clear watery white. It had a clean nose of medium-plus intensity and featured attractive floral, citrus, pear and stone fruit aromas, along with a surprising hint of grassiness (possibly from the Chenin which composes 79% of the blend). The wine is just off-dry, with a medium-plus body, balanced alcohol, medium acidity. The aromas repeat on the palate, which has a honeyed texture from the Chenin. The finish is long – a lovely wine and a great value. 9+/10
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In my opinion the outstanding Chardonnay was the Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay:

  • Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2009 Napa Valley, 14.4% abv, $54.95 avalable in Vintages June 9. The wine was clear, pale straw in colour, with a clean intense nose showing smoky oak, leesy notes, fresh herbs and lemon. The palate was dry, with fresh acidity, the aromas repeating on the palate, with a fresh long finish. 9.2/10

The second Chardonnay that I highlighted was from Gloria Ferrer. I have had this wine before and really enjoyed it, especially given the price. Unfortunately it is not currently available at the LCBO, but I suggest that you watch for these wines as new vintages are released — I haven't been disappointed. The Ferrer brand is particularly known for its excellent sparkling wines, which were not available for tasting at this venue. The wine tasted was:

  • 2008 Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay, Carneros, 14.1% abv, $23.95.The nose was clean, of medium intensity, with notes of dusty oak and lemon. The wine was dry, quite smooth and full-bodied, with good acidity, and a long finish. 9+/10

There were only a few samples of sparkling wine at this tasting, but one that I enjoyed was from Domaine Chandon, owned by French Champagne house Moët & Chandon. There is only a small supply in the LCBO system right now, but I believe that this is often brought in, and it remains a good value.

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  • Non-vintage Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs, $24.95. The wine was clear, pale salmon in colour, with a fine mousse. The nose was clean, of medium intensity, with light toasty notes, honey, pineapple, lemon and a floral note. It was brut, of medium body— rich rather than taut — with medium acidity and a pleasant finish. 8.9/10

I've come to appreciate more of the California Pinot Noirs, especially those coming from cooler climates. Here is an example that had nice fruit, some Pinot character, and did not come across as being heavily oaked, although the website said that the wine saw 20 months of new French oak!

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  • 2009 Lucas & Lewellen Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara, 14.5% abv, $39.45 private order from Saverio Shiralli. The wine was translucent and cherry coloured, with a clean medium intensity nose that showed pretty cherry fruit and a hint of spice (from oak). The palate was dry, with soft tannins, med acidity, with berries and earth, the finish was medium to long. 9/10.

With less than half the wines sampled, I used my final minutes to try a few of the bigger reds recommended by other writers. Getting a perspective on the wide range of big California reds is a difficult challenge. I'll be looking for opportunities to follow that road over the next year.