Oh What a Year!

This is traditionally the time when people reflect back over the year that was and reminisce over the happy and sad times of the past twelve months.  Unfortunately this year there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for happy times.  The main and some would say, only event of 2020 was COVID-19. It has disrupted life as we knew it.

With the production of this last year’s wine supply still in progress, the situation heavily impacts the existing product stocks of the winemakers looking to sell the wine reserves of 2018. However, due to the measures applied in the spring by most countries, the biggest wine producing countries – Italy, France, Spain and the US – have seen sales decline steadily.

Mid-spring to early autumn is when wineries here in Canada do most of their business. However, with wine tours, tastings and exploration being limited or completely on hold for the foreseeable future, the number of visitors to wineries was drastically reduced along with associated wine sales. The sale of other merchandise, such as food and clothing, was also negatively impacted.  Some wineries closed entirely because of the virus.

The Demand for Champagne

Sales of champagne, one of France’s most iconic products, have tumbled over the past year with industry representatives estimating that some 100 million bottles will be left unsold.   Lower demand due to the pandemic has led to an exceptionally low harvest quota in France’s Champagne region, with pickers in the vineyards harvesting one-fifth less than last year.

With many cafes, hotels and restaurants being closed at various times, and weddings and music festivals being called off, people consumed less champagne.  However, lower demand will not necessarily lead to lower prices.

Australian Wild Fires

Wild fires wreaked havoc from late 2019 until the early part of this year in Australia.  The Adelaide Hills wine region was the hardest hit, destroying 30% of its production.  The Cudlee Creek fire affected more than 60 growers and producers in the region.

The financial blow to the Adelaide Hills wine industry was significant. The region lost $20 million worth of wine, which translates to 794,000 cases.

The Wild Fires on the U.S.  West Coast

Wineries were already facing great financial strains due to the reduction in restaurant traffic and smaller crowds visiting vineyards for tastings.  Many tasting rooms were closed due to fire and smoke risks, while many grapes have been damaged or totally ruined.

Oregon, Washington and California together produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months as crop damage can vary greatly from region to region.  Smoke blanketed much of the U.S. West as fires charred in excess of 2 million hectares.

Canadian Wine Awards

The judging of the 20th Anniversary Edition of the National Wine Awards of Canada has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sessions were to be held the week of June 24 to 28 in Penticton, British Columbia. The hope is that the competition can resume in 2021.

The 2020 COVID-19 version of the Ontario Wine awards finally took place on August 28th.  A small group gathered at Kew Vineyard, in Beamsville, Ontario as the awards were presented in front of a small, socially-distanced gathering.  Unlike previous years there were no judges and no formal tastings for the four main awards.  Instead the Awards Committee reached out to judges who had participated in the last three years of the competition and asked them to nominate their top three white, red and sparkling wines they had tasted during the year. Based on those responses the top scoring wines were tabulated.

Onward and Upward

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is starting to be administered hopefully everyone who wants it will be able to have it within next few months.  Then we can begin the journey toward a world that is better than what we are experiencing today.  In the meantime stay safe and though it may be much quieter than usual, have the happiest New Year that these times will permit.

Sláinte mhaith


I have been asked on more than one occasion the meaning of the phrase Sláinte mhaith which appears at the end of each of my posts.  These are the words of an Irish toast which are pronounced ‘slawncha va’.  It means ‘good health’.  It is often shortened to just Sláinte.  If you have ever experienced a true Irish pub, in all likelihood you will have witnessed the raising of a glass and Sláinte given as a toast.

A toast is a ritual in which a drink is taken as an expression of honour or goodwill.  As legend has it the custom of touching glasses came from concerns about poisoning.  By one account, clinking glasses together would cause each drink to spill over into the other glasses.  Another theory is that the word toast became associated with the 17th century custom of flavouring drinks with spiced toast.

The International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture says toasting “is probably a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words ‘long life!’ or ‘to your health!'”

Toasting has deep roots in Western culture, with some anthropologists suggesting that it goes back to ancient religious rites. While a toast is generally positive — good health and good luck are common — the act carries certain negative superstitions in at least three European countries. Making eye contact while toasting is considered polite in many countries and the penalties for failing to do so can be severe. French and German superstition suggests that you’ll suffer through seven years of ‘bad sex’ if you don’t maintain eye contact during a toast. Many Spanish believe that the same curse will befall those who toast with glasses of water.  Toasting with an empty glass may be viewed by some as acceptable behavior for the non-drinker though pretending to drink from an empty glass seems ridiculous.  I am not sure how the people who think toasting with water is not acceptable feel about toasting with an empty glass.  However, in many countries toasting with an empty glass is preferable to refusing a toast altogether.

Irrelevant of which theory is true, toasting traditionally involves alcoholic beverages. Sparkling wine, often Champagne, is considered festive and is widely associated with New Year’s Eve and other celebrations. Many people nowadays substitute sparkling fruit juice (often packaged in champagne-style bottles).

The words used during a toast vary from country to country, though the meaning is very similar.  The Scots of the western half of Scotland, in Scottish Gaelic, say ‘dheagh shlàinte, (pronounced like ‘do slawncha’).  This is often responded  with ‘slàinte agad-sa”, which literally means “health at yourself”.  Scots, like the English, and now Canadians and Americans, often now use the word ‘cheers’.

In Hebrew, it is’ L’chayim’; in French it is ‘À votre santé’; the Germans often say ‘Prost’ (rhymes with toast); in Spanish it is ‘Salud’; in Portuguese it is ‘Saude’; and the Italians say ‘Salute’.

So if a toast is offered up this year at a holiday gathering (no matter how small that gathering may be) now you have some insight as to how the tradition may have began.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Rioja Spain

Rioja, situated in Northern Spain, is best known for berry-scented, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes. It is arguably Spain’s top wine region and the most famous. The vineyards follow the shores of the Ebro River for roughly 100 kilometers between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.

In addition to Tempranillo and Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) are also used in red Rioja wines. A few wineries also use small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon. White grapes on the other hand  are not widely planted.

By 2017 the vineyard area was recorded at 64,215 hectares, 91 percent of which was planted with red grape varieties. Certified production of wine exceeded 250 million liters.

Aging Categories

Rioja’s traditional classification system for aging has influenced other Spanish regions. For example the words Crianza and Reserva occasionally appear on South American wine.

All top-end red Rioja is matured in new oak barrels.  With French oak being difficult to obtain, winemakers in Rioja used American oak, which was both plentiful and inexpensive.  More wineries are now using a mix of American and French oak. American oak maturation is what gives more traditional Rioja red wines their distinctive notes of coconut, vanilla and sweet spice.

The amount of time that a Rioja wine spends in barrel dictates which of the official Rioja aging categories goes on the label: Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.


Joven is Spanish for “young”, indicating that these wines should be consumed within a short period of being released; generally within two years.  Joven wine spends little or no time in oak barrels so they are low in tannin and are not suited for retention.  This category may also include wines which have undergone aging, but for one reason or another do not gain certifications for the higher categories.


Crianza red wines are aged for at least one year in oak, and another year in the bottle. They are released in the third year. White Crianza wines must also be aged for two years but only six months needs to be in barrels.


Reserva red wines spend a minimum of one year in oak. They cannot be sent to market until a full three years after the vintage. The white Reserva wines need only spend six months of the three years in oak.

Gran Reserva

Gran Reserva red wines must undergo a total of five years of aging with at least two of those years being spent in barrels. The white counterparts must age for at least four years, with a minimum of 12 months in casks.

In order to be more competitive internationally, many wineries now produce a premium wine that is aged entirely in French oak barrels.   Because these wines are often the most expensive in the winery’s portfolio, but may only qualify as Crianza or Reserva, they are not often marketed with any emphasis on the aging classification.

Site-Based Classifications

In 2018, the governing body Consejo Regulador introduced three geographic categories. These can be implemented from the 2017 vintage onwards. 

If producers adhere to strict guidelines they may now produce single-vineyard wines under the Viñedo Singular banner. Vines must be hand-picked and be at least 35 years old. Yields are set low and a tasting evaluation must be passed. If the fruit is not from an estate-owned site, then the winery has to have a ten-year history of buying grapes from the vineyard.

Wine labels may now also be labeled with the name of a village but the winery must be located within the village boundaries, as well as the vines.

White Wines

Rioja Blanco consists of 7 to 8 percent of Rioja’s annual wine production. The region’s top white-wine grape was once Malvasia, which was used to create flavourful, oak influenced high-alcohol wines. Today, the emphasis has shifted to Viura (Macabeo) and Chardonnay, to give a slightly lighter, fresher and more international white-wine style. Other varietals that are now included in white Rioja are Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc.

Other Styles

Rioja also produces some other styles of wine, the most notable of which are sparkling wines referred to as Cava. Certain parts of the region are authorized to produce Cava.  A few dessert wines are also produced on a commercial scale from both red and white grape varieties.

The wines of Rioja are well worth a look.  They are competitively priced and of equal quality to the better known Italian and French wines.

Sláinte mhaith

Shopping for Wine Online

During these difficult times, and trying to minimize my contact with crowds, I have become a fan of online shopping through the LCBO.  My overall results have been favourable and my selections are not limited to the products available at any particular store.

My closest liquor store is located in a small town about 10 km. from where I live.  For obvious reasons the selection of items available there is rather limited.  However, online shopping provides me with a full range of products that I can order and then pick up at my local store. The online price is the same as the in store price and all orders of $50 or more are shipped free of charge.

Online shopping provides other opportunities as well.  Many Canadian wineries offer websites with online ordering capability. If you have a favourite wine that you can’t purchase locally, you may find that it is available direct from the winery via their website.  There is no price difference whether you pick the wine up at the winery or order it from their website.  Many wineries offer free shipping with a minimum size order.

There are several online companies that also make both Canadian and international wines available online.  These companies work on a different premise than wine clubs (see my post from October 3, 2020).  These companies simply provide a wide selection of wines for sale at varying prices.  In order to get free shipping you may have to buy up to 12 bottles, though they don’t need to be all of the same type of wine.

Although it isn’t common, bottles may arrive broken. However, if it does occur, the provider will replace or refund any portion of your order that was damaged. An extra advantage of dealing with the LCBO is that if goods were damaged on arrival at the store they are replaced before you pick up your order.  No fuss no muss.

Sláinte mhaith