On Friday, May 9th the winners of the 2014 Ontario Wine Awards were announced at a gala evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Founded by Tony Aspler in 1995, the program was designed to highlight the quality wines coming out of Ontario. Two decades years later, one could argue that little promotion is necessary to reinforce the quality of wines coming out of the four major wine-producing regions of the province. While a few have memories of Baby Duck and similar poor-quality wines, many made from Labrusca grapes, those days are long past. Today Ontario wines hold their own on the global stage.
Of course, determining the best is an arduous task: hence the Ontario Wine Awards. This year, there were 548 wines entered from 73 wineries, competing in 25 categories. Says Tony: “The entries to the Ontario Wine Awards definitely reflect the trends in consumer tastes. Sparkling wine grew exponentially, and blended reds with Bordeaux varieties keeps surging ahead. All in all the quality of the wines submitted this year speaks to the health of the Ontario wine industry.” Professionals in the wine industry assess every single one of these wines over three weekends, in blind tastings, to determine the final winners.
I was lucky enough to participate in a tasting event on one of the judging weekends in April at Crush Wine Bar. Whilst not part of the formal judging (!), going informally through 14 Pinot Noir, then a formal blind flight of 18 Dry Riesling and nine appassimento style reds…well, it can be exhausting. And intimidating.
So for readers of eat. live. travel. write. here are some of my best tips for wine tasting. Use these when you’re next at a food & wine show, visiting a winery, or just having friends over and want to have fun exploring a new bottle or two.
Tips for tasting wine
1. Don’t Wear Perfume/Cologne
Okay this might seem a stuffy tip – but honestly, you’ll never be able to discern the aromas in the glass if you’re doused in Chanel No. 5 or Polo Homme. Go easy – or better yet avoid altogether – and other people will very much appreciate it, as will winery and show staff.
Unless you’re a professional, or aiming to be one, tasting is for fun. (And even the professionals let their hair down when not “working” – remember most of them got into wine because they liked it.) Don’t get stressed trying to find six aromas or a dozen distinct flavours. Make it a mystery, and just think how different the wines are. You’ll learn by osmosis – trust me.
3. White to Red, Light to Heavy, Dry to Sweet.
Not always easiest if you’re going to a big show, but generally that’s the best way to save your palate. Jumping from a Sauvignon Blanc to Shiraz and then to a Muscadet and then Pinot Noir will confuse your taste buds to no end, and dull them to boot. Progressing this way also means you can avoid rinsing your glass, which is really not required at this level until you dramatically change colours/styles/sugar levels.
4. Sight, Smell, Taste.
Three simple steps to tasting a wine. Before you down that glass (see next point…), take a quick minute and look at the colour. You’ll be amazed how many shades of “light yellow” or “dark red” there really are; it’s an early clue to what’s about to follow. Then give the glass a swirl and dip your nose in. Don’t be shy – go ahead and stick it right in there and take a deep breath. What do you smell? It’s absolutely fine if you say “grapes” – don’t let anyone give you a hard time! But, as you keep trying wines, have a little fun thinking what else you might notice. There could be a LOT going on: flowers (what kind?), fruits (pit, citrus, tropical?), herbs (fresh, dried?), spices (pepper, nutmeg) and more. Finally, what you’ve been waiting for: taste it. No need to make those embarrassing aerating noises…just have a sip, and hold it in your mouth for half a second before swallowing. Did it surprise you? Does it “taste” like it “smells”? Something else going on? Most importantly – did you like it?
Probably the only time it will be socially acceptable. Essential if you’re driving from winery to winery – they will always have a tasteful spittoon handy; if you can’t see one, just ask. But even if you’re not driving, if you’re planning on exploring many wines, it’s generally a good idea. That leaves room for the ones you really love.
There are no incorrect answers here: it’s all about you enjoying the wine, and exploring new flavours. Just as with cooking, you’ll learn what you like, and what’s not your favourite. Drink and eat what you like. If you find a wine you like, write the name and details down, and staff at a good wine shop should be able to help you find something similar, at the same price point or high-end examples for a splurge.
And what do you do when you bring home a wine you’ve fallen in love with, and have no idea what to pair it with? Well that’s another article entirely, but a simple tip is most wines will go with foods from the same region. Admittedly, this works more with the classical old-world wine regions.
Disclosure: Neil Phillips attended the Ontario VQA wine tasting event at Crush Wine Bar as a guest. He was not asked to write about this event and is not being compensated for doing so. All opinions are his own. Photography in this post by Mardi Michels.
Let’s ALL get kids excited about food on May 16th 2014 – Food Revolution Day! Check out all the details on how you can participate here.
Canadians: Win a @KitchenAid_CA hand mixer + At Home with Lynn Crawford. Closes Monday May 19th 2014 at 6pm EST. Details here.