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.

TASTING NOTES: How about gamay for Thanksgiving this year? David Lawrason gives gamay its due with 10 suggestions

Floral, fruity, and silky, it’s about time gamay received some love By David Lawrason

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

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia.

Poor gamay! The thin-skinned grape that makes those juicy, fruity reds of Beaujolais, France, has long struggled for respect. Yet when it works, it is one of the most satisfying, easy-drinking, versatile, and inexpensive reds on the market. And I see glimmers that it is bouncing back.

It’s not as if gamay’s problems are a new phenomenon. The disrespect began way back in 1395 when it was kicked out of its namesake village of Gamay in Burgundy’s Côte-d’Or district by a local duke named Philip the Bold who considered gamay an inferior ruffian compared with princely pinot noir.

Gamay took root in warmer Beaujolais’s granitic soils to the south, and there it languished for centuries, known as the cheap, easy-drinking “country wine” that fuelled the taverns of Lyon. In modern times — the 1980s, to be exact — someone got the bright idea to create Beaujolais Nouveau, an overly perky, gassy, barely fermented grape juice released every third Thursday of November, just weeks after the harvest. Nouveau, which is now in decline, was so successful that it obscured the fact that the Beaujolais region was capable of so much more.

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WEEKENDER TO WINE COUNTRY: Suggestions for picture-perfect wineries in Prince Edward County

Time for a weekender to pretty Prince Edward County. Visit some picture-perfect wineries, taste-test their latest offerings, and revel in the burgeoning local wine scene 


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

Field of dreams: A view over the vineyards taken from the wooden barn that houses The Old Third vineyard. David Lawrason has put a visit to the rustic Prince Edward County winery on his summer to-do list. Photography by Leeanne Munn.

Local wine fans, rejoice! Now, more than ever before, distinctive (and increasingly good) wine is available directly from wineries situated right on the city’s doorstep. The wine region of Prince Edward County is just an ambitious day trip — or a comfy weekend jaunt — away. And every year, the County produces an ever greater range of reliable wines. You, too, can finally do as Europeans have been doing forever — head to the country to buy your wine personally and oh so locally.

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RAISE A GLASS TO SUMMER: Natalie MacLean’s seasonal wine tips

A roundup of tips and sips to enjoy the best the city has to offer By Natalie MacLean

Bottled Sunshine
Here are my top three wine picks to quench your thirst this summer

2010 Grant Burge Summers Chardonnay
$19.95 • Barossa Valley, Australia • 91 points
Love the hazelnut richness and green apple vibrancy that mingle on the nose of this wine! The palate is a rush of white peach, nectarine, and nutmeg, with refreshing lime acidity on the finish. I also love the backstory on this wine: it was named in honour of the winery’s accountant of 30 years, Miles Summers. His sun will never set with this wine. Pair with roast chicken, lobster in butter, and corn dishes. Best 2012 to 2014. LCBO 269829.

2009 James Oatley Tic Tok Sauvignon Blanc
$14.95 • Pemberton, Australia • 88 points
A refreshing and crisp white with come-alive herbal aromas and mouth-watering lime notes. Not too grassy. A lovely clean finish. Pair with Thai food, grilled prawns, crab cakes, or other shellfish such as oysters and mussels. Best 2012 to 2013. LCBO 187039.

2011 Hungaria Sauvignon Blanc
$9.95 • Etyek, Hungary • 87 points
A zesty white with refreshing notes of green melon, lime, and gooseberry. Thirst-quenching, with a zippy finish. Incredible price for this quality. Pair with creamy pasta, Asian dishes, salads, and seafood. Best 2012 to 2014. LCBO 269688.

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TASTING NOTES: Argentinian wines are gaining elegance — and momentum — try these good-value picks from the LCBO

In the wake of the huge success of Fuzion, the versatile wine country strives to move beyond the bold malbecs that made it famous  By David Lawrason

A few years ago, Argentina’s bold malbecs swaggered into town, offering bags of flavour at unbelievably low prices. And they caught on like wildfire, with the now ubiquitous Fuzion — a malbec-shiraz blend priced at just $7.75 — becoming the largest-selling brand in LCBO history. With the LCBO shelves now bursting with dense (though often coarse and simple) malbecs priced under $12, it seemed that a visit to Argentina was in order to find out what’s on the horizon from the world’s fifth largest wine-producing nation.

With about 30 percent of Argentina’s vast, arid Andean vineyard planted with malbec, it’s obvious that this variety is not going away anytime soon. But there is a reservoir of upgraded malbecs — plush, creamy, and more complex wines that still offer great value in the $15-to-$30 range. These wines come from more narrowly defined regions, with differences in style based on vineyard altitude. Though Argentina is dragging its feet on the creation and marketing of appellations, within Mendoza (the country’s largest region, with over 75 percent of the production) the malbecs of higher Uco Valley areas such as La Consulta, Tupungato, and Altamira display a more floral character, better acidity, and greater elegance. Conversely, malbecs from medium-altitude Luján de Cuyo and the lower altitudes of Maipú tend to be dense, soft, very ripe, and a touch earthier.

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TASTING NOTES: Wine writer David Lawrason discovers some lesser-known reds on a trip to Spain

What reigns in Spain: Heart-warming Spanish values for the dead of winter

By David Lawrason

One of the great revelations on a recent trip to lesser-known wine regions of Spain was the value of the wines I encountered. At every price point, I found shockingly good wines selling for much less than wines of equivalent quality from France or California. Being known as a “value wine region” can be a double-edged sword, attracting the budget-conscious consumer but often, at the same time, pigeonholing a region as cheap or somehow incapable of producing top-quality wines. Spain continues to walk that thin edge, with many of its wines currently at the LCBO selling for $10 or less. That said, in my view, Spain has recently become much more focused on making fine wine.

Illustration by Alan King.

Most of Spain’s quality red wine comes from the north, with Rioja being the best-known and largest region. As Bordeaux is to France, Rioja is to Spain — both having huge market presence and a deeply rooted tradition of aging wines a long time in barrel and bottle. But modern tastes have moved to fruitier, earlier-drinking wines, and while Rioja has embraced this trend to some extent, lesser-known regions such as Navarra, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Bierzo, Penedès, Priorat, Montsant, and Cariñena have moved faster.

Of those, Ribera del Duero (on the banks of the Duero River, which flows west into Portugal, where it becomes the Douro) is the best established, with some big-name houses, such as Vega Sicilia, Alion, Pesquera, and Aalto, commanding luxury prices. But elsewhere, countless small, new wineries are blooming on the arid steppes, many of them boasting young but well-travelled winemakers at the helm. In each of three small appellations I visited last fall — Rueda, Toro, and Bierzo — the number of wineries has grown from about a dozen to over 50 in the past decade. These new wineries are focused on the export market and are making very good wines styled for international tastes.

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FROM THE WINE & FOOD FESTIVAL: Checking out the WineAlign booth

WineAlign.com's David Lawrason (who also publishes reviews in Ottawa Magazine) is at the Wine & Food Festival all weekend

Stopped in at the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival to do a little sipping and schmoozing. Ottawa Magazine (and Toronto Life) wine writer, David Lawrason, is running tutorials and manning the www.WineAlign.com booth (Booth 522). So stop by, say hi, and ask about all the cool wine stuff on the website. We came straight home after the show and watched the site’s fun series of videos, in which the experts (Lawrason, sommelier Sara d’Amato, wine educator Steve Thurlow, and master sommelier John Szabo) face off in a series of blind “taste-offs.”

WINE AND FOOD FESTIVAL PREVIEW: Expert David Lawrason on events to attend — and some don’t-miss wines

DAVID LAWRASON sits in as a panellist on the Ottawa Wine Challenge, rates the
competition, checks in on a speed dating meets wine tasting event, and highlights some don’t-miss wines to look for at the
Ottawa Wine & Food Festival

As the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival moves into the fabulous new convention centre, it also promises to take it up a notch this year. The festival, which now takes place over a full five days (Wednesday, Nov. 9 to Sunday, Nov. 13), offers up hundreds of wines. Indeed, more wines than one palate could possibly assimilate over such a short time frame. So check out the website, see which events intrigue you, and plan your tastings.

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TASTING NOTES: A sampling of fine pinot noirs to complement your turkey dinner

DAVID LAWRASON calls it his desert-island wine: versatile, light, and chillable. The added bonus? With Thanksgiving dinner hovering on the horizon, his beloved pinot noir is the perfect complement to turkey

Illustration by Jeff Kulak

Until the 2004 hit film Sideways exposed pinot noir to the masses, it was a wine suffering from rarefied self-importance — and priced accordingly. A 500-year reign as the only red grape grown in Burgundy created a mystique that the ornery, low-yielding, thin-skinned, heartbreak grape needed to suffer in cool climates and be grown in limestone-laced soils for its greatness to be evoked and appreciated. Burgundy’s top wine, Romanée-Conti, is the world’s most expensive red, a bottle selling for $10,000 on release.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, some daring Burgundy-inspired pinot pioneers began to gain respect for their efforts in cool pockets of Oregon, California, New Zealand and, yes, Ontario. Their top wines were exciting — and expensive (charging $50 a bottle was a bit of a stretch when their experiments didn’t quite pan out). Still, the New World winemakers persevered and succeeded, spawning the cult following uncovered in Sideways, which chronicled a pinot-swilling road trip through southern California. Since then, pinot has been on everyone’s lips. Versatile, light, refreshing, and chillable, pinot is my desert-island wine — as long as the food on the island is really good and includes rare red meats, all manner of poultry, grilled salmon, pasta, risotto, and any recipe incorporating mushrooms.

In recent years, pinot has gone even more global, expanding into cooler nooks of Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, and parts of Europe not previously on the pinot’s GPS. There are suddenly hundreds of “commercially priced” pinots out there. And so I offer a world tour of pinots under $25 — a survey of how pinot is doing from the perspective of a man who still believes that it’s the world’s greatest grape.

Amity Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir
$24 I Willamette Valley, Oregon I 89 points
Amity’s Myron Redford was an early ’80s pioneer in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley, near Portland, and has stayed with a Burgundian footprint while some Willamette neighbours tilt toward a softer California style. This pinot noir is coarse and edgy, loaded with complex cranberry fruit inlaid with oak spice and barnyard notes. LCBO 124594.

Rosehall Run 2009 Cuvée County Pinot Noir
$21.95 I Prince Edward County, Ontario I 89 points
This cool limestone-laced region on Lake Ontario south of Belleville is North America’s newest stage for the pinot noir passion play, growing from zero to over 30 wineries in the past decade. This light, crisp, floral, cran-cherry-scented example embodies the charm, precision, and minerality of County pinot. Available through the winery only.

Barwick 2010 White Label Pinot Noir
$15.95 I Pemberton, West Australia I 88 points
Great value! This far-flung cool corner of southwest Australia is very promising, if barely on the global pinot radar. This offering is light-to-mid-weight, fairly smooth and juicy, with classic pinot cran-cherry fruit, tobacco smoke, and underbrush character. Tannins are fine; there is some heat. LCBO 215194.

Hahn 2008 Pinot Noir
$18.95 I Monterey County, California I 88 points
New commercial-scale plantings in Pacific-cooled Monterey County are delivering better value than such established California regions as Carneros, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Barbara. This charming easy-drinking pinot packs complexity and richness with generous oak mocha, cranberry-sour cherry jam, leather, and meaty notes. LCBO 226555.

Lenswood Hills 2010 Pinot Noir
$17.35 I Adelaide Hills, South Australia I 88 points
Pinot was considered folly in hot Australia until the emergence of cooler sites in Tasmania, the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, and the forested slopes in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs. This energetic, tense light red blasts classic cran-cherry fruit with floral, cinnamon, and pine forest. It’s zesty and a touch green, with gritty and juicy acidity. LCBO 215095.

Stoneleigh 2009 Pinot Noir
New Zealand is becoming a world leader with pinot noir, especially in the under-$25 category. This is a generous, complex pinot, maturing and ready to go, with nutty, woodsy, and marzipan notes around cherry/raspberry fruit. It’s medium-to-full-bodied with a sweet-and-sour palate. The length and complexity are very good to excellent. Drink over the next 12 months. LCBO 54353.

Bouchard Aîné & Fils 2009 Bourgogne Pinot Noir
$16.95 I Burgundy, France I 87 points
Under $20, most basic burgundy (called bourgogne) is scrawny and tart. But the generous, warm 2009 vintage has packed in good ripeness and weight with sour cherry fruit fitted with cedary spice and wood smoke. It’s mid-weight, a touch sweet, and juicy, with peppery spice and some new oak tannin and resin. LCBO 665406.

Cono Sur 2010 Pinot Noir
$10.95 I Central Valley, Chile I 87 points
Chile is warm for pinot noir, but Cono Sur, a large and innovative winery, has taken it under its wing, designing a separate winery just to make it. It’s not graceful, but few deliver better pinot character so cheaply, with vibrant cranberry, cherry, cinnamon, and green herb flavours. LCBO 341602.

Cave Spring 2009 Pinot Noir
$17.95 I Niagara Peninsula, Ontario I 86 points
Ontario’s cool climate and limestone-based soil are more like Burgundy than any place in the world, so expect classic cool-climate, high-acid, low-alcohol wines with cran-raspberry fruit. This is a pale, light prototype with herbs and some toasty oak. Quite complex and accurate for the money, if sour-edged. LCBO 417642.