WINE PICKS: David Lawrason’s best bargain barbecue reds

This article is part of the Ottawa Magazine 2014 Eating & Drinking Guide, which is on newsstands until Spring 2015.


The quality of less expensive wines continues to climb amid intense global competition. These modern reds are fruit-driven and casual, yet distinctive. Stock up ahead of grilling season.

Click on the thumbnails for a slideshow of affordable wines to serve this barbecue season.

TASTING NOTES: Best organic and biodynamic wines at the LCBO


There are about 260,000 hectares of biodynamically farmed vineyards in the world today — that’s roughly the area of post-amalgamation Ottawa. That is a mere sliver as a percentage of the total acreage under vine, but it has more than doubled in the past 10 years and is expected to double or triple again in the next decade. And not just because it feels good to be green, but because wine quality is better.

About 95 percent of the world’s organic vineyards are in Europe, with most in the sunnier, drier climates of Spain, southern France, and Italy, where lack of moisture reduces the need to use synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. Even in cooler, wetter areas like Germany, the increase has more than doubled in a decade, with seven percent of its vineyards now green. And the movement is underway here in Ontario too.

Forgoing the use of fertilizers and other synthetic applications is the basic definition of organic grape-growing. Biodynamic viticulture goes deeper — it builds a microclimate teeming with life, including the countless organisms in the soil and above ground. The theory is that this environment creates stronger vines that are better able to protect themselves from disease pressures. It’s an argument similar to the one regarding our own health — do you want to pop pills to cure every ill or prevent ills by living well?

The historic problem with organic wine is a public perception that quality sucks, i.e., that there are too many oxidized and volatile, sour wines. That is rapidly changing as winemakers become more experienced. I recently spent a morning at Germany’s Geisenheim University listening to Randolf Kauer, Europe’s only professor of organic viticulture.

“The quality argument against organics is now over,” Kauer stated bluntly. “In fact, producers are converting to improve quality.”

Indeed they are. I spent five days tasting organic and biodynamic wines in Germany and was blown away by the continuous demonstration of excellent wines that I would rate over 90 points. The wines have notable energy, with fine natural balance and depth of flavour, and — most of all — they spoke clearly of the various microclimate and soil structures in which the vines were grown.

Few of those wines I tasted are available in Canada, but here are examples of very good organic/biodynamic wines from around the world.

Southbrook 2010 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon
$22.95/ Niagara-on-the-Lake/ 89 Points
Several Niagara wineries are organic to some degree (Malivoire, Le Clos Jordanne, Tawse, and Hidden Bench), but Southbrook is certified as a biodynamic operation by Demeter, the leading international certifying body. This is a mid-weight, quite smooth, and mellow red from a warm vintage, so it’s drinking quite well, with youthful floral bloom, raspberry fruit, background oak, and a touch of earth and tobacco. The finish is dry, warm, and slightly tannic. Best 2014 to 2016. Vintages 193573.

Bonterra 2010 Merlot
$19.95/ California/ 89 Points
Bonterra pioneered organic winemaking from its base in Mendocino, becoming the number one selling brand of organic wines in California and proving to many others that it can be done. This authentic, balanced, mid-weight merlot features raspberry/sweet plum plus tobacco, mild chocolate, and spice complexities. It is medium-weight and fairly supple, and the length is very good. Vintages 984724.

Paxton 2011 MV Shiraz
$17.95/ South Australia/ 90 Points
Paxton was one of the early adopters of biodynamic viticulture in Australia. This not only is a testament to the quality that can be achieved, but it also proves organic wine need not be very expensive. This is rich, dense, and smooth, with a very ripe nose of dark cherry, chocolate, and mint. It’s full-bodied, even, and rich, with a dry, chalky finish. Vintages 327403.

Quartz Reef 2010 Pinot Noir
$36.25/ Central Otago, New Zealand/ 91 Points
Austrian Rudi Bauer is the pioneer of biodynamics in this new pinot noir area on the South Island. This is very elegant, layered, and deep. The nose shows ripe black cherry, fresh herbs, and oak sweetness and warmth. Excellent length. Vintages 599324.

Castello Di Volpaia 2010 Chianti Classico
$24.95/ Tuscany, Italy/ 90 Points
Centred on an 11th-century castle high on a hilltop, Volpaia is all about authenticity, including its organically tended sangiovese vineyards. This is a mid-weight, dense, tightly wound, and tannic sangiovese for the cellar, with complex if subdued notes of leather, earth, and ripe currant/sun-dried tomato fruit, as well as fresh basil/tarragon. Very good to excellent length. Best 2015 to 2019. Vintages 953828.Gutsriesling_vorne

Wittman 2011 Riesling Trocken
$20.95/ Rheinhessen, Germany/ 90 Points
Wittman is one of several young wineries leading Germany’s largest wine region back to respectability through biodynamics — not easy in a cool, often wet area but perhaps getting easier thanks to global warming. This is a lean, dry, chalk-soil-grown riesling reminiscent of many in Niagara, with green apple, citrus, and stony flavours.  Vintages 320366.

Zind-Humbrecht 2010 Riesling Turckheim
$27.95/ Alsace, France/ 91 Points
Famous for some of the most opulent wines of Alsace, Zind-Humbrecht is also a leader of the biodynamic movement in the region.  This dry riesling has splendid rich aromas of honey, apricot, petrol, and spice that reminded me of banana bread. It’s spry and elegant, with all kinds of mouth-watering acidity, even a touch of spritz. Excellent focus and length. Vintages 31039.

Tawse 2011 Quarry Road Chardonnay
$34.95/ Niagara Peninsula/ 91 Points
Inspired by biodynamic producers in Burgundy, Moray Tawse began converting vineyards to this method one by one. Quarry Road atop the Niagara Escarpment is a cooler site producing taut, firm, mineral-driven chardonnay not unlike some of the best from Burgundy. The cool 2011 vintage has built in even more tautness. Look for pear, citrus, and toasty aromas and flavours, but give it a year or two in the cellar. Vintages 111989.

TASTING NOTES: David Lawrason highlights winning wines from the WineAlign National Wine Awards

Eighteen wine critics from across the country recently assembled for a week at Niagara’s Hilton Garden Inn to blind-taste through 1,100 wines submitted to the 2013 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.  I was among those judges, and the theme of our conversations, as well as the results, was that certain regions are doing certain types of wines very well and that Canada needs to continue to specialize in matching specific grapes to specific terroir. In order to be taken seriously as a quality producer, both by Canadians and by the growing number of international buyers and critics who are sizing up our growing reputation, an increased focus on specialization is key.

As B.C. judge Rhys Pender, one of only four people in Canada to hold the esteemed Masters of Wine distinction, commented, “Specialization encourages competition, and competition encourages improvement, resulting in better wines for customers to drink and a better reputation for the region and country.” This specialization is what European wines long ago achieved in regions such as Burgundy, Tuscany, and Rioja.

The platinum- and gold-medal winners in the major varietal and style categories below provide a blueprint as to what grapes are key in Canada and which regions are doing them best and in which vintages. Canada’s northern latitude results in considerable vintage variation.

Laughing Stock 2011 Syrah
$36 • Okanagan Valley • Gold
Syrah is emerging as the single best red variety in B.C., especially in the arid south. Laughing Stock is based farther north in Naramata but sourced grapes from the south for this massive, rich wine. It has terrific floral, black cherry, tarry, and smoky aromas and flavours. Road 13 2011 Jackpot and CedarCreek 2010 Platinum also won syrah golds, but the shocker was platinum for Jackson-Triggs 2010 Grand Reserve from Niagara, where syrah is in its infancy.

Mission Hill 2009 Compendium2011_Hardie_PinotNoir
$50 • Okanagan Valley • Platinum
The Red Blends category was the largest in the competition, as winemakers ramp up efforts to create more complex reds. Most, like this elegant red from Mission Hill — which took Winery of the Year — were “Bordeaux” blends based on cabernet and merlot. This sports blackcurrant fruit lined with leafy, cedary, and spicy notes. Road 13 2011 Syrah Malbec and Burrowing Owl 2010 Meritage were also big winners from B.C.

Norman Hardie 2011 Pinot Noir
$35 • Prince Edward County • Gold
The thin-skinned “heartbreak grape” showed gold medal flair in three regions, with Norman Hardie’s version being my personal favourite. It is a very elegant, charming pinot with fragrant cherry jam fruit, well-integrated spice, and a seam of minerality based on the County’s limestone soils. Hidden Bench 2011 from Niagara and Nk’Mip 2010 Qwam Qwmt from the Okanagan were also awarded gold.

Ravine Vineyard 2010 Merlot
$34 • Niagara Peninsula • Gold
It was a big year for merlot in Niagara, especially the warm sub-region called St. David’s Bench, which delivered two gold medallists. Ravine’s very fine example is much like a fine St. Emilion (Bordeaux) with ripe berry fruit nicely fitted with chocolate, cedar, and mineral notes.  Château des Charmes 2010 St. David’s Merlot also won gold. In B.C., where merlot is the number one planted variety, several wineries won silver.

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WINE PICKS: 10 fine cellaring wines (perfect gifts for Thanksgiving hosts!)

Illustration by Remie Geoffroi

Illustration by Remie Geoffroi

Ottawa Magazine wine writer David Lawrason says this international selection of more expensive $25-to-$50 wines is fine to give as gifts, either to wine lovers intent on building up their cellars or to good friends who enjoy a fine bottle.


Cloudy Bay 2012 Sauvignon Blanc
$29.95 / Marlborough, New Zealand / 93 points
This is a very intense, complex, nervy young sauvignon blanc. But for all its exuberance, it retains a nice sense of control and rigidity. The nose sparks immediately with passion fruit, pepper, nettle, celery, wasabi, and grapefruit rind. It’s mid-weight and crisp, yet juicy, with a firm, dry, almost mineral finish. Outstanding length. Vintages Essentials 304469.

Sonoma-Cutrer 2010 Chardonnay
$26.95 / Russian River Valley, California / 89 points
The cool Russian River is a hot zone for winemakers who draw chardonnay inspiration from Burgundy, France. This one has complex, if subdued, peat smoke, toasted almond, pear, butter, and lemony flavours in a crisp yet generous texture. Very stylish, fairly slim, and long, with a mineral edge common to this region. Vintages Essentials 608653.

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TASTING NOTES: David Lawrason covers some of the hottest wines coming out of B.C.

As British Columbia wine continues to grow in both stature and popularity, the industry is sprouting new wineries like mad — there are now over 200 in total. These vineyards are emerging not only in the Okanagan Valley but in the adjacent Similkameen Valley, on Vancouver Island, and even in new areas of the southern interior like the Creston Valley. Imported and domestic winemaking talent abounds, leading to a big boost both in the quality of the grapes being grown and the wine being made. All these positives are fuelling demand from other provinces, and especially from Ontarians who travel regularly to Vancouver on business or take golf and ski vacations in the Okanagan Valley.

Last year, local fans of B.C. wines were cheered by news that the federal government had changed legislation to permit direct interprovincial purchasing and shipping from the wineries. Unfortunately, the stick-in-the-mud Ontario government has not bestowed its blessing, preferring to retain a hands-on approach that allows it to collect the maximum tax on B.C. “imports.” Still, Ontarians have already begun direct ordering, and no one will stop you if the winery is willing.

Here are some of the hottest examples of B.C.’s best varietals. You can track them down online or find them through the websites of their Ontario importers if you want to go the long and winding private-order road through the LCBO.

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WINE TOUR: 12 must-visit wineries for your summer road trip to Prince Edward County

The 2012-2013 edition of Ottawa Magazine’s Eating & Drinking Guide is a food lover’s bible for everything local, with 80+ pages of restaurant, wine, food shop, and kitchen store recommendations. Look for it on newsstands or order it here.

Sneak Peek: Ottawa Magazine wine writer David Lawrason provides the Eating & Drinking Guide with the 12 Prince Edward County wineries on his summer tour list. Order the Guide to read Lawrason’s top 60 wine recommendations for this season.



Norman Hardie is known for its great chardonnays and pinots.

In 2013, some of the pioneering wineries of Prince Edward County will be harvesting their 10th vintage. Growth in the past decade, in terms of both the number of wineries and the range and proficiency of their wines, is nothing short of astounding.

Located just three hours south of Ottawa, the area has become the national capital’s backyard wine region — lucky us! Plan to visit or revisit this season, with fair warning that a one-day jaunt just won’t cut it. Here is an opinionated look at the must-visit wineries and what makes them interesting:

Casa-Dea Estates Winery (Greer Road, Hillier)
Thanks to Niagara-trained winemaker Paul Battilana, this little red-roofed winery is now making very good well-priced, crisp, and solid County classics such as pinot noir, chardonnay, franc, and riesling, as well as a delightful pink gamay-based sparkler called Dea’s Rose. La Pergola Restaurant on-site offers an Italian lunch menu.

Closson Chase Vineyards (Closson Road, Hillier)
Very serious and seriously complex, rich, creamy, and expensive chardonnays from County and Niagara vineyards are the signature of iconoclastic winemaker Deborah Paskus. Pinot noir is also a County leader, with the Churchside 2010 a personal favourite. Small, classy tasting room and art gallery.

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TASTING NOTES: David Lawrason raises a toast to Merlot, that great forgotten grape

Merlot has become the great forgotten red grape since being mercilessly panned in Sideways. David Lawrason believes there may be a resurrection in the offing

Illustration by Kyle Brownrigg

Once a wine hits mainstream success, it tends to fall out of favour with wine critics, sommeliers, and even some winemakers themselves. This has been the fate of merlot, one of the world’s most widely planted red grapes.

When mellow merlot became so widely popular in the 1990s, the wine opiners began to look down their collective noses at it (it happened to chardonnay too).

This gave rise to a famous line in the 2004 Academy Award-nominated movie Sideways in which the lead actor threatens to leave a restaurant if his companion orders “a fucking merlot.”

Since that low blow, merlot has wallowed, bruised and dejected, in the shadow of pinot noir (the star of the same film) and, to some degree, syrah. Merlot is still out there on the shelves (so someone is buying it), but wine pundits continue to ignore it.

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BEAT THE CHILL: 10 cold-weather wines guaranteed to warm you from within

With the depths of winter upon us, David Lawrason profiles 10 cold-weather wines guaranteed to warm you from within

Maybe you’re planning to take advantage of the cold to spend some quiet cuddle or reading time beside the fire — or perhaps Mother Nature is about to unleash a blast that forces you to do just that. Either way, the key is to be prepared. And this season, being prepared means considering tippling some fabulous winter wines instead of the heady single malts or cognacs usually associated with the season. Winter wines are lightly fortified (up to 20 percent alcohol), sweet, and most definitely rich, complex, and concentrated.

There is a wide world of such exotica — ports, sherries, tokays, vins santos, and vins doux naturels — that rarely get attention nowadays because they don’t fit the fast-paced, calorie-counting lifestyle that yanks us away from the table too soon and sends us to bed too early.

But the fact that these wines are currently less popular is also keeping their prices ridiculously low, given their quality.

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FESTIVAL PRIMER: Wine expert David Lawrason’s top picks for the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival

Drink up: David Lawrason and his fellow 13 judges tasted more than 300 wines as part of the Ottawa Wine Challenge. Illustration by Kyle Brownrigg.

After tasting their way through 337 wines as part of the Ottawa Wine Challenge, the experts have their say on which wines you should seek out at this year’s Ottawa Wine & Food Festival

By David Lawrason

This story appears in the Winter edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.

The task was a pleasant one for an autumn Saturday — find the best wines out of 337 bottles submitted to the Ottawa Wine Challenge. The purpose? To guide visitors attending this year’s Ottawa Wine & Food Festival (Nov. 7 to 11 at the Ottawa Convention Centre).

Yes, one of the big joys of browsing the show is making your own discoveries, but with hundreds of wines, beers, and spirits on offer, it certainly helps to have some direction. And so 14 judges — sommeliers, wine writers, and LCBO product consultants from the capital region, along with a handful of interlopers from Toronto — assembled a few months before the festival for a blind-tasting competition.

Pourers dealt out over 50 flights of numbered glasses among four panels. Here, collected in one list, are the best white and red of show, plus six other gold medallists and two silver medallists that I personally think are of particular interest. The ratings out of 100 are mine, as are the tasting notes. The unveiling of the gold medallists at day’s end revealed some great surprises — all of them, of course, pleasant.

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WINE WIZARD: A Q&A with Steve Robinson, Atelier’s sommelier and dining room manager

This story appears in the October edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.

He’s a sommelier on the rise. At just 26, Steve Robinson placed second in April’s highly competitive Best Sommelier in Ontario Competition. The impressive showing came just weeks after he was included in the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s prestigious Top 30 Under 30 list. Robinson studied chemistry at the University of Ottawa before completing the sommelier fast-track program at Algonquin College and being certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2011. He pairs his passion for science and wine perfectly as the sommelier and dining room manager at Atelier Restaurant, renowned for its molecular cooking and innovative wine pairings. By Natalie MacLean

Bottle opener: Steve Robinson, who pairs his passion for science and wine as the sommelier and dining room manager at Atelier Restaurant, talks about wine and life with fellow oenophile Natalie MacLean. Photo by Miv Fournier.

What was it like vying to be Ontario’s top sommelier?
Nerves are the big X factor in these competitions. This year my biggest fear was not qualifying for the finals, since I had made it there in my first competition [in 2010] and wanted to prove to myself that that wasn’t a fluke. The service exams are straight-up ridiculous — like being on the television show American Gladiators: The Wine Edition. I tried to view it as a pleasurable experience for both me and the judges, more like a normal dinner service as opposed to jumping through the hoops of the competition. I used to be a competitive figure skater, so I have experience in these stressful situations. I go into my own world prior to the service portion: pop in my earphones, rap to myself, and focus. If there’s a question you can’t answer or if you make a mistake, just keep going as if nothing had happened.

What did you enjoy most?
I’ve always done well with the wine and food matching portion of the competition, which is a result of my experience at Atelier. I have the opportunity to taste about 75 new dishes each year: that’s a lot of wine pairing. If a judge is asking for a food match to a specific wine, I’ll try to come up with some molecular influences on the dish I recommend — it always confuses the judges. Also, it was amazing to see two contestants from Ottawa place in the top three this year. Lucie Trepanier, who also used to work at Atelier, came in third. There were 16 sommeliers in the competition, and all but Lucie and I were from Toronto. I’d love to see more representation from Ottawa in the future. It’s an enriching experience, both personally and professionally.