Wine Clubs

From time to time I have toyed with the idea of joining a wine club, whether it be one associated with a specific winery or an independent one.  Both have their pros and cons.

According to the so-called experts, the best wine clubs give you key features including access to unique, curated wines for special occasions, last-minute gifts or simply to satisfy your own palette.

Wine clubs can help take the guess work out of deciding what to buy or drink, but more importantly a wine club can introduce you to new wines.

There are lots of clubs to choose from and most are accessible online.  At any given time there are as many as 20,000 Ontarians subscribed to wine clubs.  With over 200 wineries in Ontario and an additional 300 across the rest of Canada, as well as several independent wine clubs, it’s good to know all the facts first.

Most Canadian wineries have wine clubs although   there is difference in how the various club subscriptions work. So it’s important to understand things like frequency (when you’ll get your wine) and quantity (how much you’re getting) and what their rules are for opting in and out.

Things that are important to take into consideration are variety of wines on offer, exclusivity, early-access, value and quality.

It is beneficial to join a club that offers its members exclusive and early-access deals. Check to see if there are any savings from purchasing through the wine club versus through your local liquor or wine store, the quality of the wine being offered (award-winning, sommelier tested, etc) and the guarantees provided to its members regarding satisfaction with the product and service.

Some of the largest wine clubs (Peller, Hillebrand, Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, Great Estates of Niagara) are a good place to begin your investigation, but some of the smaller, boutique wineries should not be ignored.

Clubs, like kwäf’s ClubK, are not tied to just one winery, but instead offer an array of quality wines, providing the opportunity to enjoy the wines of many wineries. They work with top sommeliers to offer the best wines. Kwaf is Ontario based and curates the best of Ontario wine and delivers it directly to your door.

The Exchange is a wine club that offers wines beyond what is available through your local liquor or wine store.  The Exchange will provide a curated, mixed case of top quality wines directly to your door. They work with top Ontario wine agencies to find jewels for Exchange members. All the wines are rated at 90 points or more and have been carefully selected by their panel of critics for quality and value.

With an Exchange subscription you become part of a cooperative consisting of hundreds of like-minded wine lovers to ‘Exchange’ a purchase of a full case of a single wine with a mixed case of twelve different wines. The Exchange does everything from the curation, ordering, purchasing, warehousing, repackaging and delivery. The curated case of high-quality wine is delivered to your door once every three months.

With any wine club you should be able to:

  1. Access exclusive discounts
  2. Save time
  3. Discover new wines
  4. Have flexibility
  5. Gain from loyalty and rewards

Before making your ultimate club selection you need to determine whether your drinking habits and style suits the terms of the club. The main things to look out for are to ensure that there are no contracts or obligation to purchase wines; that the company has a large selection and variety of wines; and their prices are less than the retail outlets.

If you are a wine drinker and like discovering new wines, then wine clubs are worth joining.

Sláinte mhaith

Day Trip to The County

On the first anniversary of my hemorrhagic stroke I wanted to get away from the ‘scene of the crime’ so my wife suggested taking a day excursion to Prince Edward County.  The County is often compared to France’s Burgundy region in both climate and the grape varietals grown.

The County was officially designated as a VQA appellation in 2007.  It is separated from the mainland by the Bay of Quinte at Belleville and is completely surrounded by Lake Ontario.  The soils and microclimates of the County, coupled with a limestone base, provide an ideal growing environment for cool-climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  This island setting is now home to over 40 wineries, a dozen craft breweries, fine restaurants, cheese producers, farmers’ markets and other local food purveyors.

I hadn’t visited the county for a few years and had lost touch with what is going on there.  So to prepare for our journey I checked out the latest reviews of the County wineries, which I combined with some curiosities of my own and developed a list of destinations.  My list consisted of 7 wineries, 6 of which were considered as the County’s movers and shakers of 2020 and the 7th was one that I had an interest in.  The wineries included Closson Chase, Devil’s Wishbone, The Grange, Hinterland, The Old Third, Rosehall Run and Waupoos.

The day didn’t exactly play out as I had planned, at least partially due to COVID-19.  Both Devil’s Wishbone and the Old Third were closed and a number of the others had a very limited wine supply.   For example, at the Grange, in order to purchase the only red they had in stock, I had to buy two 375 ml bottles of their Merrill House 2016 Pinot Noir as they had no 750 ml bottles left.  However, having now drank one of the bottles, my wife and I agree it was a good purchase at the equivalent price of $37 for a 750 ml. bottle.

However, as it happened, our last stop made the day worthwhile.  At the very end of Greer Rd. lies Rosehall Run, one of the original wineries established in the County.   Among our finds there was their 2018 JCR Pinot Noir, which in August was awarded the ‘Red Wine of the Year’ at the Ontario Wine Awards.  This wine has the potential of being one of the greatest and longest-lived Pinot Noir they have produced. Even though the wine may be enjoyed now it can be laid down for the next 5 to 7 years to reveal the purity that will evolve with time.  With a price point of $42, it is good value.

Our second find was a 2016 Merlot which was the result of them being able to secure a couple of tonnes of Merlot planted at Prince Edward County’s Huff Estates which resulted in Rosehall Run creating their first and only County Merlot.  The wine was barreled down in their underground cellar for 18 months. New French oak was utilized in preparing this small lot.  There is only a small quantity left and with its price of $35 a bottle, it will be gone soon.

Overall I have always found the offerings of Prince Edward County to be on the expensive side compared to similar offerings in Niagara and especially at the LCBO.  For a big part it is a factor of demand and supply.  The County VQA region is much smaller than Niagara and thus the quantity of grapes available is less and this is reflected in the prices.  There are some good value wines to be found for sure but you just need to be prepared to make the effort to search them out.   There are a couple of wineries, such as Sandbanks, where you can always count on finding a good selection and good value.

Given the climate of the region it is important to keep in mind that the mainstay varietals are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Baco Noir.  To expect to find a lot of other locally grown varietals, such as Cabernet, is not realistic. 

Given that the County has so much more to offer besides wine, a trip there is well worth the time.         

Sláinte mhaith

Alcohol-Free Wine

An ad for alcohol-free wines caught my I eye while reading a recent publication from the liquor store.  The ad promoted the wine as a great alternative for designated drivers, moms-to-be, or those just looking to abstain from alcohol. 

Not having seen alcohol-free wine before (I either don’t get out enough or don’t pay enough attention) I decided to investigate further.

Low and no-alcohol wines are something of an enigma since legally they don’t exist.  In order for a beverage to be called ‘wine’ it is required to contain a minimum of 8% alcohol by volume unless specifically exempted.

The subject of low and no alcohol wine tends to generate heated opinion. Traditionalists say it is a needless atrocity while others see it as an exciting part of wine’s future. Many criticize the lacklustre quality of these beverages from examples to date.

There’s also a lack of clarity about what ‘low and no alcohol’ actually means. Much has been written about ‘lower-alcohol’ wines (those containing between 6% to 11% alcohol by volume) but less on wines of 0.5% alcohol by volume or less. There are indications that this category is gaining increased focus from producers, retailers and wine drinkers.

As with the introduction of selling wine in cans for summertime consumption, the Europeans are leading the way with the development of alcohol-free wine.

Low and no-alcohol wines have not kept pace with low alcohol beers but sales have been steadily increasing. Market figures, scarce as they are, indicate 0%-0.5% wine to be a small but growing category. There are indications that 0% to 0.5% wine is the fastest- growing sector.  Consumers are identified as being regular wine drinkers over age 45 who want to reduce their alcohol intake without sacrificing on ceremony or taste.  These products allow abstainers to join in the fun or have the benefit of a drink at the end of a hard day without the guilt.

There is a general consensus that low and no-alcohol wine is a trend for the future. Britain’s Marks & Spencer has doubled its low and no-alcohol range wine over the last year as its wine sales in this category have risen 89%.

There is now a ‘scramble’ among wine producers to make low and no-alcohol products. Some of these are own-label wines, with Germany’s Reh Kendermann and Spain’s Félix Solís being two major suppliers. Big brands such as Freixenet, Hardys, Martini and McGuigan have all recently launched products in this market and more are said to be in development.

Bodegas Torres identified the movement of mature age markets toward less alcohol consumption about 15 years ago so they began development of a 0.5% white wine in 2007.  It received some positive feedback from markets in Sweden and Britain, as well as Canada.  Torres responded by adding a no-alcohol red and a rosé to its inventory.

German producer Johannes Leitz began development of no-alcohol wine after a Norwegian restaurateur asked him for an alternative to Coca-Cola or fruit juice for drivers.  Leitz was committed to making a good product so used good base materials in his Eins Zwei Zero Riesling.

Leitz then went on to produce a sparkling Riesling and is now planning to develop a more premium cru.

No-alcohol wine does not compete with traditional wine and that is not its purpose.  What it does do is provide an alternative to water, juice and soft drinks, which aren’t always a good match with food.

What should a no or low-alcohol wine cost in relation to traditional wine?  Some argue that such wines should be cheaper, since they avoid alcohol taxes.  However, producers using good quality grapes and ingredients say that the cost of producing their no or low-alcohol wine is similar to that of traditional wine.  The bottom line is quality matches price; the more you are willing to pay, the better the product and the more enjoyable your taste experience.

Whether these low and no-alcohol wines are as good as true fine wine is another matter. Many experts and consumers perceive it as nothing more than a hopeless aspiration while others are very enthused by the potential. If they are to truly succeed it will require time, patience, creativity and money. However, as the research suggests, there could be great rewards for those who accept the challenge.

Whatever you opinion it seems that low and no-alcohol wine are here to stay. More and more products will be appearing to tempt this growing market. My only stipulation would be that it has to taste like decent wine and not like Cold Turkey, Baby Duck, or heaven forbid, Welches Grape Juice.

Sláinte mhaith

Dessert Wines

While many dessert wines exist, there are a few that define the category, ranging from less sweet to more sweet, light to alcohol-laden, and best for youthful drinking to better when aged for decades.

In addition to fortified wines, which were discussed on February 22, 2020, there are a variety of offerings that are considered to be great dessert wines.

Late-Harvested / Noble Rot Wines

Late-harvested wines are exactly that, wines that are made from grapes that are left on the vine until late in the harvest season.  They are then extremely ripe and contain an abundance of sugar.

Included in this group are ice wines.  Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers of ice wines, and about 75% of Canadian ice wine comes from Ontario.  As it’s unaffected by noble rot and fermented slowly, ice wines retain many primary characteristics which set them apart from their botrytized counterparts. It is luscious, intensely flavoured, with aromas and flavours of ripe tropical fruits like lychee and pineapple when made with white grapes, although wines made with red varieties can give more concentrated strawberry flavours.

Much like Sauternes, icewine is a perfect match for strong cheeses such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola, or Parmesan. Milder cheeses aren’t strong enough to stand up to the drink’s lusciousness, but cheese-based desserts such as cheesecake are.

Salty hors d’oeuvres like tapenade or salted nuts enhance the fruity acidity of the wine, while balancing out the high sugar levels.

The high acidity also means you can opt for richer foods like pâtés.

Finally, similar to Riesling, ice wines go well with spicy foods, which are often hard to match with wine. This is because of its higher sugar content. Curries and aromatic Thai dishes which are usually difficult to match would go well with an icewine with pronounced tropical flavours.

Red ice wines, made with Cabernet Franc, shine when paired with richer desserts made with chocolate, which bring out their red fruit flavours.

Noble rot, or botrytized wines are a type of late-harvest wine, but the healthy grapes are actually attacked by a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, which punctures grape skins to dehydrate them and concentrate flavors, sugar and acidity. Botrytis adds its own unique flavors as well, such as hints of ginger, orange and honey.

Riesling

Riesling is one of the most versatile grapes in the world, making not only bone-dry wines, but lusciously sweet, high-quality ones as well. While Riesling is grown all over the world, the sweet versions of the wine come from Germany.

Sweet wines range from off-dry Kabinett and Spatlese with a small distinguishable amount of sugar and fresh, delicate fruit flavors, to late-harvested Auslese with a higher concentration, richer fruit flavors, and a broader mouthfeel, to fully botrytized Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines with lusciously-sweet, orange blossom-like, honeyed richness.  It is an excellent pairing with apple pie, caramelized desserts, tropical fruit, peaches and cream and sweet desserts.

Austria also makes Riesling using its version of the Pradikat system, and Canada is actually producing some delicious ice wine Riesling as well. All these Rieslings tend to be fairly low in alcohol, with the sweetest wines being in the single-digits of alcohol percentage and the double-digits of years to age.

Sauternes

There are those who would argue that Sauternes is the world’s greatest sweet wine.  Sauternes is one of history’s most coveted and expensive sweet wines. It is the gold standard when it comes to botrytis-affected wines, made from the Sémillon grape, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Producers selectively pick only noble rot-affected grapes as the fungus develops. These revolting looking grapes transform into a lusciously sweet dessert wine that is typically aged in oak before release. Dried fruit, saffron, honey, orange, golden apple, crème brulee and much more unfold over time in the bottle and the glass, aging for years and years after the vintage.

Tokaji

Originating in Hungary, made from the local Furmint grape, which is high in acidity and very susceptible to botrytis, Tokaji is best known for its aszú version, made from late-harvested, shriveled, botrytis-affected grapes gathered in containers called puttony. These super-sweet, barrel-aged Tokaji Aszú wines are low in alcohol, have a viscous mouthfeel, and are often quite honeyed. There is also a little amount of Tokaji Esszencia produced, which is made only from the syrupy free-run juice that comes from the aszú grapes. It is possibly the sweetest wine in the world, is extremely rare, can age for over a century and is typically sold by the teaspoonful.

If you happen to find yourself in a position to purchase some Tokaji, dessert pairings include roasted pineapple, caramelized apple, dark chocolate and Christmas pudding. 

Late-Harvest Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc, grown in its many Loire Valley appellations, is another one of those very common grapes, but whether dry or sweet, light or full, still or sparkling, it is always very characteristically Chenin.

Vouvray, perhaps the most famous Loire Valley appellation in France for Chenin, can range from dry to sweet even in this one region; the indications of demi-sec, moelleux, and liquereux will indicate the presence of residual sugar.

Sweet Chenin Blanc reaches its pinnacle in the region of Coteaux du Layon, where grapes are late-harvested in many passes through the vineyard. While producers hope for botrytis, it all depends on vintage, and some years will have more botrytis than others. The sub-regions of Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume are even more highly sought-after, and the wines develop golden apple, honey, and orange blossom characteristics. Because of the amount of sugar in these wines, they will continue to develop with age, getting smokier and more interesting over time.

Desserts that pair well with late-harvest Chenin Blanc include fresh strawberries tumbling over shortcake or lemon-meringue pie.

Dried Grape Wines

A technique traditionally used in Italy, Greece, and sometimes Austria, dried grape, or passito, wines are made by purposefully drying healthy grapes after harvest, typically on straw mats or by hanging grape bunches from rafters. This dehydrates the grapes, concentrating the remaining sugar and flavors and creating a sweet wine with clean and often-raisined flavors. The passito process yields less wine than typical vinification does, since the juice is essentially being extracted from raisins, making these wines more expensive than their still-wine counterparts.

Red wines pair well with most desserts or blue cheeses.  The whites are best suited with exotic or candied fruits.

Vin Santo Del Chianti

While “holy wine” can be found in several regions of Italy (as well as a version from Greece), this version from the heart of Tuscany is the most famed. Made from Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia grapes that are hung in whole bunches from rafters, Vin Santo del Chianti is barrel-aged between three and eight years in either small oak or traditional chestnut barrels, allowing some of the wine to evaporate and concentrate flavors in the remaining amber-colored wine. The wine is rich and sweet, with golden raisin and dried fruit flavors.

Dessert pairings include Crostata di Frutta, blackberry mini tartlettes, ginger desserts, pumpkin pie, dark chocolate, and nutty desserts like pecan pie.

Recioto Della Valpolicella

In keeping with the famed red wines of this region in the Veneto of Italy, Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet red wine made from dried Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. Traditionally, grapes are dried on straw mats or in lofts called fruttai, which ensure that air circulates through the grapes during the drying process so that mold does not form. Recioto winemakers will typically allow the wine to ferment until the alcohol content is around 14% and will then chill the wine to stop fermentation and leave residual sugar. Dried berry and raisin notes characterize the dense Recioto della Valpolicella, along with chocolate and vanilla.

Desserts containing chocolate, coffee, or dried fruit such as Black Forest cake or tiramisu pair well with the Valpolicella. But where Recioto truly stands out is with ripened cow’s milk cheeses, becoming unexpectedly delicious with blue-veined cheese served with macerated fruit.

I must admit that prior to researching dessert wines there are a number of them that I had never even heard of, let alone tried.  The wines that are most easily found in local liquor stores will include late harvest wines, fortified wines, and Canadian ice wines.  However, if I ever get the opportunity to travel to France and Italy, there are a few selections that I will be on the hunt for.

Sláinte mhaith

Ontario’s Trending Wineries

These are some wines and wineries which have been in the spot light for doing good things during the past year or so and would be worth while checking out if you have the opportunity.

The wineries presented here are based on my own interpretation of critic reviews and award results over the past year or so.  However, the overview of each winery is based on information provided directly from the winery.

Unfortunately not all of the wines mentioned will be found in your local wine or liquor store.  Many have to be obtained or ordered directly from the winery using their web site. Some can be found in select restaurants. I have included wines that have since been sold out in order to note that future releases of these wines should receive due consideration.

In order to be unbiased, the wineries are being presented in alphabetical order.

Big Head Wines

According to their web site, Big Head is a family of passionate individuals that love all things vinous. They have been making wine in the Niagara area for over a decade, and this is their first project on their own. They source only the best fruit from the Niagara region, working closely with growers that share their attention to detail and pursuit of the highest quality.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2018 Gewurztraminer – Sold out
  • 2017 Chardonnay Stainless – Sold out
  • 2017 RAW Syrah – $48 at the winery
  • 2016 Special Select Late Harvest Riesling – $38 at the winery
  • 2017 RAW Chenin Blanc  – $38 at the winery

Creekside Estate Winery

Creekside Estate Winery opened in 1997 in small-town Jordan, Ontario.  The Winery is run by industry veterans who have decades of experience in their respective fields.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Iconoclast Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon – $23 at the winery, sold out at the LCBO
  • 2016 Broken Press Syrah Reserve – $55 at the winery
  • 2015 Broken Press Syrah Reserve – Sold out

Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock Cellars vineyard produces low yields, utilizes progressive viticulture practices and hand picking and sorting of the grapes.

Founded in 1999 on a section of the Niagara Escarpment known as the Jordan Bench, Flat Rock Cellars is located on a gently rolling slope.

Their predominant wine is red.  The rocks that are the geological foundation of the winery and found throughout the property are the roots of the Flat Rock Cellars name.

When Coyote’s Run was sold and closed, Dave Sheppard returned to Flat Rock and is back at the helm of winemaking – and for Flat Rock this is an amazing coup.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2015 Gravity Pinot Noir – $50 at the winery
  • 2017 Chardonnay – $19.95 at Vintages at the LCBO

Hidden Bench Estate Winery

The critically acclaimed estate winery is in the heart of the Beamsville Bench. Premium wines are crafted using only certified organic estate fruit with sustainable, non-interventionist winemaking techniques.

They create only 100% estate grown wines in two series: the Estate Series, which are blends of their three vineyards; and the Terroir Series, which are single vineyard and/or barrel selection, limited production wines.

They produce 100% estate premium Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Pinot Noir Unfiltered – Sold Out
  • 2016 Chardonnay Felseck Vineyard – $42.20 at the winery
  • 2017 Estate Chardonnay – $29.95 at the winery
  • 2016 Chardonnay Tête de Cuvée – $48.20 at the winery
  • 2016 Riesling Felseck Vineyard – $30.20 at the winery

Konzelmann Estate

The winery began in the small German town of Uhlbach near the turn of the 19th century, when a restauranteur named Frederick Konzelmann left the culinary trade to pursue the craft of winemaking. By 1984 the Konzelmann family immigrated to Canada, purchased a lakefront peach orchard and created the vineyard.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Lakefront Series Pinot Blanc – Sold out
  • 2016 Meritage Reserve – Sold out

Leaning Post Wines

Leaning Post began as a virtual winery and is proud to now have the quaint tasting room at 1491 Hwy 8 on their home property in Winona, Ontario.  Ilya and Nadia are the brains and passion behind Leaning Post Wines. It started with a dream to take unique, interesting single vineyard blocks in Niagara and turn them into distinctive, terroir driven wines.

Ilya has been a winemaker in the Niagara Region for the last 17 vintages working at Daniel Lenko Estate Winery, Foreign Affair and now at Leaning Post Wines. Ilya is also a consulting winemaker at the Good Earth Winery.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Chardonnay Senchuk Vineyard – Sold Out
  • 2016 Chardonnay Clone 96 – Sold out

Malivoire Winery

The winery began in 1995 with the purchase of what is now known as the Moira Vineyard, followed by the acquisition of the larger property where the winery now stands. Original plantings of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Gamay and Pinot Noir were supplemented in the following years by additional vinifera varieties. Today Malivoire operates at the top of its capacity, producing twenty-four thousand cases of wine per year.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2016 Stouck Merlot – Sold out
  • 2017 Old Vines Foch – $26.95 at the winery
  • 2016 Pinot Noir, Small Lot – Sold out
  • 2016 Courtney Gamay – Sold out

Marynissen Estates

Marynissen Estates has its roots deeply embedded in the soil of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Located in the Four Mile Creek sub appellation, the estate is home to the oldest commercial planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in Canada. The property, an old pig barn, was purchased in 1953 by viticulture pioneer John Marynissen and his wife Adrianna. John and Adrianna began growing their own grapes in 1976, planting the classic European vinifera grape varietals Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Merlot and Gamay Noir.  There focus is on small-lot winemaking. 

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2015 Heritage Collection Red – $34.95 at the winery
  • 2015 Platinum Series  Pinot Noir – Sold out

Megalomaniac

The winery first opened its cellar doors to the public in 2009. All operations from harvest to administration and even tastings took place in the underground cellar. Today, guests experience the Megalomaniac portfolio within a newly constructed establishment built above the original cellar.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • Bubblehead Sparkling Pinot Noir – $34.95 at the winery
  • 2017 Coldhearted Riesling Icewine – $39.95 at the winery
  • 2018 Sparkling Personality – $19.95 at the LCBO
  • 2016 Big Mouth Merlot – Sold out

Peller Estates Niagara-on-the-Lake

At the age of 58, thirty-four years after arriving in Canada, Andrew Peller’s modest Okanagan vineyard inspired a vision for the entire family and he opened wineries in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2018 Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – Sold out
  • 2017 Andrew Peller Signature Series Riesling – Sold out

Rosehall Run Vineyards

Dan and Lynn Sullivan, with support from Cam Reston, founded Rosehall Run in 2000.  The 150-acre farm was selected due to its proximity to Lake Ontario.  One of the earliest Prince Edward County wineries established in the west central region known as Hillier Ward; planting of the vineyard began in 2001 with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Today there are 25 acres of vinifera including Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Tempranillo.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 JCR Pinot Noir – $39.95 at the winery
  • 2016 Cabernet Franc Single Vineyard – $34.95 at the winery

Tawse Winery

Situated on the lower slopes of the Niagara Escarpment, Tawse is a family-owned organic and biodynamic winery, voted Canada’s Winery of the Year in 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2016. Founder Moray Tawse purchased 6 acres on the Cherry Avenue property in 2001. In 2005 he opened his state-of-the-art winery, complete with a six-level, gravity-flow design, geo-thermal system and a wetland bio-filter. The inspiration for his first Niagara property came from his love of Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Uniting traditional winemaking techniques with state-of-the-art technology, Tawse is dedicated to producing terroir-driven wines of exceptional elegance, depth and character.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2015 Meritage – Sold out
  • 2016 Riesling Sketches of Niagara – $19.95 at the winery or the LCBO
  • 2015 Chardonnay, Robyn’s Block – Sold out
  • 2013 Lenko Vineyard Chardonnay – Sold out
  • 2015 David’s Block Cabernet Franc – Sold out
  • Tawse 2013 Quarry Road Chardonnay – Sold out

The Foreign Affair

In 2000, taking a leap of faith, Len and Marisa Crispino bought prime farmland in the Vineland area of the Niagara Peninsula starting their journey to becoming one of the pioneers of appassimento in Canada. They then sourced quality vinifera varietals from Europe (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling) and after three years, the first crop was harvested in 2004.

When the grapes have fully ripened, the best bunches are hand harvested and placed gently in single layers on racks to air dry in their drying barns. They are left to dry naturally until their weight is reduced to approximately half, which can take between 2 and 3 months. The grapes are then hand sorted and crushed. This process concentrates the ripe flavours and adds the full-bodied character they are so well known for.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2015 Dream (red) – Sold out
  • 2015 Temptress (red) – Sold out

The Organized Crime Winery

This small boutique winery is located on the Beamsville Bench of the Niagara Peninsula. Their parcel of south-facing land lies over the hillside edges of the Bench, and provides an ideal environment for cool climate winegrowing.

They farm the land themselves and assist in the winemaking throughout all stages of the process. Production volumes are very small. They lean towards the passion side of the business, rather than the commercial.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Cuvée Krystyna Chardonnay – Sold out
  • 2017 Limestone Block Chardonnay – $21 at the winery
  • 2016 Cabernet Franc – $42 at the winery

Thirty Bench Wine Makers

“The Bench” is a narrow plateau that slopes gradually from the cliff of the Niagara Escarpment. Its mineral-rich soils, unique topography and favourable airflow patterns have made it one of Niagara’s most coveted sub appellations for growing grapes. Being tucked beneath the Escarpment offers the vineyards a longer season that allow grapes more time to ripen and cooler nights that help intensify flavours.

Thirty Bench wines are made exclusively with grapes from their own vineyards. The vines are hand cropped and thinned to produce very low yields that offer exceptional quality and an intensity of fruit.

They are committed to “Small Lot” winemaking which means many of the wines are made in extremely limited numbers.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Small Lot Riesling Triangle Vineyard – $29.95 at the winery
  • 2017 Small Lot Riesling Steel Post Vineyard – Sold out at winery
  • 2017 Small Lot Gewurztraminer – $29.95 at the winery

Trius Winery

It’s been over 27 years since Trius Red, a Bordeaux blend-inspired wine produced by Hillebrand Winery entered the international wine scene when it became the first-ever Canadian vintage to be recognized as the Best Red Wine in the World. In addition to positioning Trius Red as the little big red that could, the win marked an important step for the Canadian wine industry, sending a signal that Canada’s wine could stand on their own against old world wines.

While Trius Red was originally the only Trius wine in the Hillebrand Winery portfolio, over time the portfolio grew to include sparkling wines and other offerings including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. In 2012, Trius Winery was born.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2017 Showcase Clean Slate Sauvignon Blanc Wild Ferment – Sold out
  • 2016 Red Shale Cabernet Franc Clark Farm Vineyard- $65 at the winery

Two Sisters Vineyards

Two Sisters is located at the northern tip of the Niagara River sub-appellation bordered by the Niagara River to the East and Lake Ontario to the North.  The river’s flow creates air convection currents which create moderate temperatures and draw cold air away from vineyards and into the river gorge. To the north, breezes from Lake Ontario provide a reliable and widely distributed moderating effect on temperatures throughout the seasons. These air currents ward off early spring and late fall frosts and most notably support an extended growing season giving us an advantage on their later-ripening varieties.

Two Sisters is committed to produce ultra-premium reds which require superior viticultural practices. They emphasize the varieties the estate grows best with their terroir; Cabernet Franc with its earthy structure, Cabernet Sauvignon for its rich, muscular presence and Merlot for its perfumed, elegant harmony between red and dark fruit aroma and taste. Their objective is to let the grapes hang well into the autumn.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay – Sold out at winery
  • 2013 Stone Eagle Special Selection (red)- $77.80 at the winery, Sold out at LCBO

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate

Nestled into 11.5 acres of the Niagara Peninsula, the Niagara Estate vineyard makes the most of this cool climate viticulture region.

Premium quality grapes flourish around Niagara-on-the-Lake because of the warming and cooling influences of Lake Ontario and its proximity to the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Estate produces the same high quality wines that you would associate with similar world-class regions such as Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, but with its own distinctive characteristics resulting from the unique terroir of the area.

The vineyard features 3 classic varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling grown from the finest vinifera clones and rootstocks, custom grafted in France. The winemakers also work very closely with a number of carefully selected grape growers in the Niagara region to augment their supply of premium vinifera grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.

The wines of recent notoriety:

  • 2016 Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Merlot – $25.95 at the winery, Sold out at LCBO

Personal Taste

Prices can range dramatically on the wines within and between the various wineries.  Some of the wineries are mainstays that have been producing great wine for many years.  Others are newer to the industry and are making an impressive name for themselves.

On numerous occasions I have enjoyed the wines of Flat Rock Cellars, Jackson-Triggs, Konzelmann Estate, Malivoire Winery, Marynissen Estates, Peller Estates, Rosehall Run, Tawse, and Trius.  More recently I have discovered Two Sisters (a winner in my opinion).

I have yet to have the opportunity to try any wines from Big Head Wines, Creekside, Hidden Bench Estate Winery, Leaning Post,  Thirty Bench, Organized Crime or The Foreign Affair.

I must admit that I have tried both Trius and Megalomaniac wines but did not find either to my liking.  That is not to say that their wines are not good, they just don’t strike a chord for me.  Trius is, in fact, one of the most critically acclaimed wineries in Canada and has been for many years so the quality of their wines is top notch.

If you get the chance to visit any of these wineries or see their wines in your local wine or liquor store, any of their wines would be well worth a try.  Don’t limit yourself specifically to the particular wines I have highlighted here.

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Wine Futures

What Are Wine Futures?

The practice to sell wine before it’s bottled, commonly known as “en primeur” or wine futures, is well established across many wine regions like Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Piedmont Port and in particular, Bordeaux.  The major châteaux of Bordeaux offer about 80% to 90% of their previous year’s wine production for sale as futures.

Beginning in late March or early April, the châteaus host tastings for the trade to evaluate the potential quality of the vintage harvested during the previous autumn.  This is the first opportunity to purchase the new vintage. At that point the wines have just been placed into barrels and are still about two years from reaching the market in bottles.

Over the course of the spring, the châteaux release their trade prices for the vintage based on the initial response to the wines, as well as current economic conditions. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds this spring given the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting effects on the economy.

The wines first go through courtiers (brokers) who take a small percentage of the cost.  Next the right to sell the futures is passed on to the négociants (shippers), who set a new price for the wine, referred to as the ex-négoce price. With very few exceptions, no one deals directly with Bordeaux’s châteaux; they deal with the négociants.

Why Buy Wine Futures?

There are a few advantages of buying wine futures.  The wine is often the least expensive at the first release because the margins made by wine merchants are the smallest. It is common for the price of the wine to increase and the margins made by wine merchants to also increase once the wine is offered for sale in the bottle.

Futures may be the only way for individuals to obtain high quality, low quantity, hard to find wine as such wines are often sold out prior to them being available for distribution.

Futures enable an individual to purchase a special wine for a special birth year, or as a gift or for weddings and anniversaries.

Futures enable people to purchase the latest vintage of wines that they like to get every year and where there is generally strong demand, such as Mouton Rothschild, La Mission Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc, Lynch Bages, Montrose, Pichon Lalande, Pontet Canet and Haut Bailly.

Wine futures, like other commodities, can be purchased with the hope or expectation that there will be a return on investment.  Those who invest do so to secure high-quality wines at the best prices, but there’s no guarantee that they will be more expensive upon release.

Other Considerations

The wines are often not quite ready for consumption at the time they are released for distribution.  This then requires the purchaser to have a suitable location to store the wine until it is actually consumed.  Suggestions on cellaring wine can be found in my post from August 24, 2019, “Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep”.

Since any wine you purchase in this manner won’t be delivered for about 2 years, you will need to keep track of what you ordered, the quantity you ordered, the anticipated delivery date, and how much you deposited and what portion is due on delivery.

Selecting & Ordering Futures

I have purchased Bordeaux futures several times through my local liquor store.  Once a year the store releases a catalogue containing all of the wine futures they have access to that particular year.  The catalogue provides reviewers comments about each release, a scoring of the wine, the price per bottle, and the number of bottles available.

On the identified sale date, individuals can then order their selections either online or by calling a specified telephone number.

Realizing the Futures

When the wines are released from the winery they will be shipped to the wine merchant, who then contacts the purchaser.  Since the wines are packaged and shipped direct from the chateau they are securely packed and often in a wooden crate that clearly identifies the chateau.

The wines can then either be cellared in the crate or placed on a shelf or wine rack until you are ready to enjoy them.

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Fortified Wines

A fortified wine is a wine-based beverage that is often enjoyed as a before or after dinner drink.  These still wines have been “fortified” with a distilled spirit such as brandy. The original use of fortification was to preserve the wine as it was prone to turn to vinegar during long sea voyages.

The spirit added might also enhance the wine’s natural flavors. The liquor is added to the base wine during fermentation. This fortification process increases the alcohol content from 12% – 13% up to around 17% – 20% by volume.

Fortified wines can be made in either a dry or a sweet style. The middle-ground of medium-sweet or medium-dry is covered in virtually all of the fortified wine categories and they will vary from one producer to the next.

How Fortified Wine is Made

Many fortified wines are blends of various grapes and vintages. Fortified wines are not distilled so are not liquor even though they are sometimes mistakenly categorized as such. This is particularly true of vermouth because it is used in making martinis.

Quite often, the fortifying liquor is simply called a “neutral grape spirit.” Essentially, this is a brandy or eau de vie (the water of life). The amount of time a wine is allowed to ferment before being fortified determines whether it will be sweet or dry.

Once the alcohol is added to the wine, the yeast stops converting sugar to alcohol and all of the remaining grape sugar is left in the wine as residual sugar. If a sweeter fortified wine is desired, the neutral grape spirits are typically added within the first day and a half of fermentation. To make a dry fortified wine, you would allow the full fermentation process to run its course. This consumes the remaining sugar before adding the neutral grape spirits.

Most fortified wines have no additional flavoring agents. However vermouth often has botanicals added during the process to give it an herbal flavour.

Aging

Many fortified wines undergo aging in wood casks. The actual aging time depends on the fortified wine. In general, the cheaper the fortified wine, the less time it has spent aging in oak. As a result of this deep wood aging, many fortified wines will benefit from decanting and aeration.  For additional information on decanting see the November 9, 2019 post “To Breathe or not to Breathe”.

Types of Fortified Wine

The types of fortified wine vary by regional preferences or the methods used in producing them.

Madeira

Madeira is a white fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name. It comes with various classifications, including by grape and age.  The wine can range from dry to sweet, and is most notable for its aging process known as estufagem.  Madeira is made from a combination of heating and aging, along with oxidization and mild pasteurization. Madeira can be produced in two ways: either over a period of months with hot water tanks or steam, or naturally over a period of decades.

Marsala

Marsala is an Italian specialty originating in Marsala, a city on the Italian island of Sicily. It is classified by both color and age, with sweet and dry varieties represented.  Sweetness is measured by grams of residual sugar per litre. Alcohol content ranges from 15% to 20% by volume, and styles run from dry aperitivos to sweet dessert-style wines.

Commandaria

Commandaria is from Cyprus and is predominately a sweet dessert wine. It’s made with only two types of grapes, Xynisteri and Mavro, which are indigenous to the island. It’s said to have a history of production stretching back nearly 3,000 years. Maximum alcohol content is 20% by volume, and the wine’s taste is highly rich, sweet, and fruity.

Moscatel de Setúbal

The Portuguese love their fortified wine, and this is another geographically specified rendition coming from the city of Setúbal, located in the Setúbal Peninsula along the country’s coast. It’s primarily made from the Muscat grape, and is dominated by a single company, José Maria da Fonseca. The style is known for more floral, and sometimes funky aromas because of the Muscat grape skins that are added after the distilled spirit has been incorporated into the wine.

Port

Port wine is the best-known fortified wine.  It originally comes from Portugal’s Duoro Valley. However, it is now produced throughout the world. You can choose from tawny, ruby, vintage, and white ports.  Grapes must be grown and processed in the region, and to become port, the wine is fortified with unaged brandy before fermentation is complete to yield a product with around 20% per volume. Port is most commonly rich and sweet, but a range of styles exist.

Ruby Port

Ruby Port and Reserve Port are fruity Ports that are aged for a short time in a vat or tank. They are intended to be drunk at a young age.

Tawny Port       

Tawny Port is aged in vats, and Aged Tawny can be aged for up to 40 years. The older the Port, the more intense the ageing bouquet is, adding complex layers of flavours to the standard fruity tastes. Aged Tawny is typically available in 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old formats. It will be bottled when it is ready to be drunk, meaning that you can drink it straight away without having to patiently wait for this ageing process to happen.

Vintage Port

The finest wine available from a specific vintage will be bottled earlier than most Ports and will require bottle aging to mature the flavours further. This is quite different to the other types of Port, which are matured in vats and ready to drink when bought. There won’t be a Vintage Port every year, as only the very best harvests are turned into Vintage Port.

Late Bottled Vintage Port

Late Bottled Vintage Port is produced from a single vintage wine that is aged for around seven years in a cask, as opposed to being bottled earlier as with the Vintage Port. This process creates a very fruity, yet highly tannic wine.

Sherry

Sherry is a well-known fortified wine produced in Southwest Spain. It comes in fino (dry and light-bodied) and oloroso (dry but richer) styles.

Sherry originates from Andalucía in the south of Spain. Viticulture has been practised in this region for over 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest wine producing areas in Europe.

The primary grape type used is the Palomino Fino varietal, which is a white grape with good levels of acidity. While Palomino Fino is used for most styles of Sherry, the Pedro Ximenez grape is used for sweeter styles of wine.

The process of producing sherry is very complex and particular and differs from other fortified wine-making practices. White wine is fermented and placed in a ‘Solera System’ which are barrels that are stacked up on their sides in a pyramid-like shape. Yeast develops on the wine, known as flor, which stops the wine turning to vinegar and adding extra spice and flavour to the wine. The wine gets transferred from the top of the Solera system down through each layer over time, blending with older wine each time to create a complex ageing process. Alternatively, sherry can be aged oxidatively, by being left in contact with the air.

A number of types of sherry are produced:

Fino

Fino is a dry sherry that is aged solely under the yeast layer, producing a lighter drink, in both style and colour. It is also the least alcoholic form of Sherry, as it will only be fortified to 15% by volume.

Oloroso

Oloroso sherry is produced simply by leaving the wine in contact with the air, so no yeast is added to this style. It, therefore, presents far more intense flavours and colours and tends to be far more alcoholic than Fino sherry – usually a minimum of 18% by volume.

Palo Cortado

Palo Cortado and Amontillado style sherry is aged firstly under flor, before being aged oxidatively, producing a dry wine fortified to around 17 % by volume.

Cream Sherry

Cream and Dulce Sherry is produced using a sweeter grape varietal for a more dessert-like sip. These sherries tend to see the most variation in quality and price.

Vermouth

Vermouth is probably better known as the “other” ingredient in a martini, but it’s great to sip on its own as an aperitif. It is generally available as either dry or sweet. Vermouth is produced worldwide and varies in taste and quality depending on the producer.

Others

There are other fortified wines that do not fit conveniently into one of these categories. Those typically rely on proprietary recipes and, quite often, utilize a special blend of herbs or botanicals to make them distinct from all others. Dubonnet and Lillet are two labels that fall into this non-category.

Storing Fortified Wines

Since fortified wines vary by style, it’s difficult to give general guidelines about storing and serving. While it is best to look into the recommendations for a particular type, there are a few suggestions you can keep in mind.

Unopened bottles of fortified wine can be stored in a cool, dark location. Some, such as fino and manzanilla sherry, should not sit on the shelf long after bottling. Others will be okay for a few months.

Once opened, it is best to drink fortified wines as soon as possible. However, vermouth can retain its flavor for up to three months. All open bottles of fortified wine should be stored upright in the refrigerator.

Serving Recommendations

Similar to other wines, serving temperatures vary with fortified wines. While some are best chilled, others should be served at room temperature. This is also going to depend on your personal preference as well.

While any fortified wine is designed to be enjoyed straight from the bottle, they’re useful in mixing up cocktails. They’re often best in simple drinks, such as the sherry cobbler and white port and tonic.

Fortified wines also make a great cooking wine. If you find that your wine is too far gone to drink, add it to a sauce or another recipe that calls for a little wine.

Foods Pairings

Food pairings depend on which type of fortified wine you are drinking. In general, fortified wines are known as both an aperitif and a dessert wine option.  Many kinds of cheese, nuts, fruit tarts, and cream-based or chocolate desserts have found a magnificent pairing partner in a fortified wine.

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Italy’s Quality Standards

Similar to Canada, France and Germany, Italy has developed its own safeguards where grape growers and producers must adhere to strict regulations in order to be certified.  The laws also govern things like the type of grapes used, the alcohol content, and how long the wine is aged.

Italian certification falls into three categories of decreasing strictness: DOCG, DOC, and IGT.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines contain the DOCG letters on the label.  For the consumer this means that the producer followed the strictest regulations possible to make that wine. The wine is tested by a committee that then authenticates the geographic location and the quality of the wine. There are currently only a handful of Italian wines that qualify for DOCG status.  DOCG wines are easy to identify as they contain a numbered government seal attached to the neck of the bottle.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines are much more commonly found. The rules governing quality and authenticity are still very strict, but not quite as stringent as those containing the DOCG insignia. For instance, the geographic zone might be a little bigger or the rules about what kind of grapes might be a little more relaxed.  The letters DOC will be found on the label, similar to DOCG.

The final quality designation is Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT).   This category was created after the DOC and DOCG designations in order to accommodate growers who couldn’t meet all the DOC or DOCG requirements but were still producing good quality wines. 

The following will help provide an understanding of the information commonly found on an Italian wine label.

  • Abboccato = Slightly sweet
  • Amabile = Medium sweet
  • Amarone = Dry red wine made from dried grapes
  • Azienda/Tenuta/Podere = Estate
  • Bianco = White
  • Cantina = Winery
  • Cantina sociale = Co-operative winery
  • Chiaretto = Pale red or dark rosé
  • Classico = Denotes the traditional, theoretically superior, vineyard area within a DOC/DOCG zone
  • Dolce = Sweet
  • Frizzante = Slightly sparkling
  • Imbottigliato all’origine = Estate bottled
  • Metodo Classico = Sparkling wine made by the classic Champagne method
  • Novello = Describes light, fruity wines intended for early consumption rather than cellaring
  • Passito = Generic term for wine made from dried grapes (usually sweet but occasionally dry)
  • Recioto = Sweet red or white wine made from dried grapes (a form of passito)
  • Ripasso = Full-bodied, powerful wine style made by re-fermenting wine with amarone grape skins
  • Riserva = Denotes extended aging (in cask, then bottle) before the wine is sent to market
  • Rosato = Rosé
  • Rosso = Red
  • Secco = Dry
  • Spumante = Sparkling
  • Superiore = Wines with greater concentration and higher alcoholic strength
  • Vendemmia = Vintage
  • Vigneto = Vineyard
  • Vin Santo = A dessert wine style originally from Tuscany, generally made from air-dried grapes
  • Trebbiano = A name shared between many different Italian grape varieties, planted almost everywhere within Italy. It is dark gold or amber-coloured with high acidity and a rather neutral flavour profile

I myself have sampled quite a few Italian wines over the years and they have not all been DOCG or DOC.  I have found that IGT wines are often very similar in taste to their higher rated cousins.  In general, the quality standards are very good. 

With Italian wines I am more inclined to purchase what intrigues me and not pay so much attention to whether it contains a certain insignia.  It is also interesting to note that the price point of DOCG wines is often no higher than, and sometimes even less than DOC or IGT wines.

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Tasting Wine

Of course when you drink a glass of wine you indeed taste it as you drink it.  It isn’t chugged like a beer might be or downed in a single gulp like you would if you were doing shots, or at least I hope not.

There are, however, different types of tasting.  There is tasting, as you would when you sit at the dinner table enjoying a glass a wine with a meal. And there is the other type of tasting, the one you do if you go to a winery or attend an event hosted by a sommelier, vintner, or other wine expert. 

This second type of tasting is more of an event than simply the enjoyment of a glass of wine.  Such wine tasting events take place for a variety of reasons, but the process is generally the same.  Perhaps you are visiting a winery and want to know which, if any, of their wines suit your palate.  In other situations you may be comparing and matching certain wines to various types of food.  That is how I acquired a passion for blue cheese, much to my wife’s chagrin, but that is a story for another day.  Another purpose of formal wine tastings is to learn how the various types of wines (grapes) relate to each other, whether it is dryer, sweeter, robust, etc.

In any event, the process for tasting wines in these situations is the same.  In order to truly judge the character of the wine to determine if it is to your liking, it requires the use of a few of your senses – your eyes, then your nose, and finally your taste buds.

The first thing to do once you are given the glass of wine is to hold it to the light to see how transparent or opaque it is.  Generally speaking, the more transparent a wine, the lighter the taste.  Although I have never tried it, it is said that you can read a book through a glass of Pinot Noir, where the same could not be said for a glass of Shiraz.  But I ask, why risk spilling the wine?

Second, you can determine the relative amount of alcohol in the wine by tilting the wine glass toward its side and then straightening it back up to see if there are “legs”, which are streams of liquid lingering along the side of the glass that was tipped.  The longer the legs, the higher the alcohol content.  The higher the alcohol content in the wine, the stronger the flavour.

The next thing you should do is swirl the wine in the bowl of the glass and sniff it to see whether there is an aroma or bouquet, and if there is, whether it is appealing to you.  Wine reviewers will describe what they smell, whether it be apples, pears, grass, etc. in white wine or hints of leather, turf, cocoa, etc. in red wines.  You may or may not smell any of these things; what is important is determining whether it is an aroma that is pleasing to you.

Finally, it is time to taste the wine.  It is best to close your eyes so as not to be distracted by the sights of what is going on around you.  When you taste the wine, let it linger in your mouth, being sure to completely taste before swallowing or spitting it out into the spittoon that will have been provided specifically for that purpose.  Spitting out the wine during a formal tasting is not being disrespectful.  If you are going to be tasting a number of wines, many people prefer not to ingest that much wine, especially if there are a number of varieties being sampled.

When tasting the wine you may find that there are recognizable flavours similar to what is found in the wine’s aroma, such as green apple or pear in some white wines, or cocoa or coffee, for example, in red wine.  Some wine experts will go so far as to say that red wines may have a hint of leather or an earthiness in their flavour, though having personally not chomped on a piece of leather or dirt, I am not sure how they can come to that particular conclusion.

Wine tastings are something that you can experiment with and conduct them with your friends and fellow wine enthusiasts in the comfort of your own home.  It is a fun way to learn about wines and experiment with wines you haven’t tried before.  There are all kinds of different things you can do and try.

Enjoy!

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