The future of Australian wine here at home

I had the pleasure of attending the Toronto sommelier training for Australian wine last week where experts on the Australian wine industry took us through the future and direction that they see their industry heading. I took away some great insight into the next steps for one of the worlds top producing wine countries. However at the conclusion there was one burning question: “What are the challenges and opportunities for selling regional Australian wine in Ontario?”

I thought about this for awhile then realized the answer was actually quite simple because the challenges and opportunities facing the folks at Wine Australia are one and the same. How will they convert the Australian wine perceptions of people like me?

Let me explain.

Australian wine has a stigma attached to it. Even as a WSET trained wine writer I held certain perceptions of Australian wine, which I believe are shared by many of the average everyday consumers. The terms flabby, oaky, over the top, high alcohol, jammy, tannic, mass produced, meddled with, and Yellow Tail all come to mind. You see Australia essentially launched a marketing juggernaut onto the export market over the years selling bulk, low priced wines and getting consumers to buy into their value proposition. For better or worse their export market grew but the perceptions referenced above were slowly formed in the minds of many over time, myself included.

At least I DID feel that way.

After attending the sommelier training session I have a new found appreciation for Australian wine and feel as though we are entering a new age for their wine industry. Folks, we are officially embarking on Australia”PS” (post Shiraz).

We will enter AustraliaPS with an open mind excited to try more unique wines and grape varieties not typically synonymous with Australia. In AustraliaPS Shiraz will still be available but it will be coveted and won’t be the single grape variety consistently associated with the country. The words mentioned above will be replaced with terroir driven, regionality, finesse, elegance, balance, texture, depth, complexity, low oak, soft tannins, and well integrated.

Value bulk wines will be replaced by value from boutique wineries with historical and regional significance, some of which have been producing wine in Australia for over a century. Ontarians will understand that for every bulk Shiraz they’ve had there is a unique expression of Semmillion available from a region called “The Hunter Valley.” Then they can try an excellent cab sauv from a winery called Tahbilk that shows beautifully at a $20 price point.

You see in AustraliaPS we will seek out regions called McLaren Vale, Margaret River, and the Clare and Eden Valleys. We will go to the LCBO in search of premium Chardonnay and will consider Australia alongside California and Burgundy. I know this all sounds like a dream, but I assure you it is not. This is just AustraliaPS.

What I am hearing from the folks at Wine Australia is that they recognize that the stigma which I mentioned off the top does in fact exist. I am here to tell them that they are right. But I am also here to tell them that I am one of the converted and there is huge market opportunity in Ontario to convert the rest of the people who think (thought) like me. Ontarians are a smart and savvy bunch who are beginning to better understand the nuances of the wine world. However they are also still in search of affordable wine. The catch is this doesn’t just mean “cheap” wine, it now means “quality wine in their price range.” AustraliaPS has the potential to hit on all these factors but also appeal to the wine connoisseur amongst us. Lets all raise a glass of Shiraz to that.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Just imagine… Ontario with private wine stores

Privatization: “to transfer from public or government control or ownership to private enterprise.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/privatization).  OK I admit I probably didn’t have to publish that definition for you to appreciate what this article is about.  If you have been following the Ontario wine industry, or Ontario politics, over the past few weeks you are well aware that the issue of privatizing the sale of alcohol in Ontario is once again heating up.  Of course this is nothing new as the debate over privatizing the LCBO has been going on for decades.  In fact in 2005 a report titled “Beverage Alcohol System Review” commissioned by Dalton McGuinty himself strongly recommended privatization at that time.  Needless to say it didn’t happen.

The LCBO has been in place since 1927 and few times has it even come close to being abolished or integrated into a joint system with the private sector.  However I have been following the discussions very closely over the past few weeks and I feel as though not only is the discussion once again heating up but it has the structure and backing to potentially succeed this time.  I am all for it.

I had actually been perched on the “privatization” fence for a while before jumping over.  At first I blindly supported privatization but only because I believed many of the “myths” which I’m sure many of you believe.  I had initially assumed that privatization would instantly lead to lower prices, ala our friends to the south.  Then I realized that is likely not true as evidenced by higher prices in many other provinces which have adopted at least some form of privatization.  Many believe that the LCBO – due in part to a relatively low tax rate compared with other provinces – actually helps keep pricing in check.  In fact a private system may lead to higher prices mostly because a store owner would still have to mark up their product considerably; both to cover contributions back to the government and to make a living.  Then for awhile I jumped on the anti-LCBO bandwagon striking them down as a monopolistic Goliath who does nothing but serve the interests of themselves and the government – ignoring consumers all together.  That is also not true.  The LCBO contributes hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to the Ontario government, which many believe helps keep all of our taxes down.  They also have such a massive structure that they can afford to operate what are sometimes unprofitable stores in many outlying areas of the province.  This includes many small towns where a privately owned store would likely struggle.  Plus in my personal opinion the LCBO is actually a wonderful shopping experience.  The stores are well merchandised, easy to shop, and they employ very knowledgeable staff.  The buyers for the LCBO are extremely talented and as such the product we get access to is quite good.  All of which, from a consumer perspective, is very positive.  They are also governed to help curb major societal problems including alcoholism and under-age drinking by keeping the sale of the product so regulated.

What I’m trying to say is that I had previously supported privatization based on limited knowledge of how it would actually unfold and because of an unfounded bias against the LCBO.  I’m sure there are many out there who think the same way.  So why now, based on everything I just outlined with full knowledge of the situation and a better appreciation for the LCBO, do I still support the privatization movement?  Simple, it ultimately benefits consumers with better selection and more choice.  Regardless of the structure a private wine system may take it would put the availability of products in the hands of individuals in the private sector.  These people would be able to stock their shelves with whatever product they wish.  Small wineries from around the world would have more chance of being available at retail stores because they wouldn’t have to meet the massive production requirements of the LCBO.  Shops could cater to an individual market, location, and unique consumer demands.  These are the very fundamentals of a free market.  Then picture Toronto where you have true ethnic diversity.  You would likely find this diversity in the availability of wine.  Just like a descendent from Tuscany can open a truly authentic restaurant, that same person would theoretically be able to open a truly authentic Tuscan wine shop.  How amazing would that be?   Finally what garner’s the most support from me is the rather obvious benefits to our local wine culture and businesses.  Private wine stores would allow for better stocking of Ontario wineries who can’t find their way onto LCBO shelves.  A recent study showed that wine consumption in Ontario has surpassed liquor and now accounts for 30% of Canadians’ total alcohol consumption.  That number rises year over year, while both beer and liquor consumption continues to fall.  Furthermore the study showed that one third of the wine consumed is now domestic wine (see the full article).  It’s no secret that the quality of wine in this province is getting better year after year, so the availability of this wine to the local consumer should be without barriers.  It shouldn’t require you visiting that winery to get the product.  I have personally predicted that Ontario wineries will be a major force on the world wine scene in 5-10 years. For that to happen, and for us to be considered up there with France, Italy, California, Australia, etc. privatization also needs to happen.

This movement is being driven largely by the Wine Council of Ontario which has launched a consumer driven approach called #mywineshop which you can find on www.mywineshop.ca.  This is basically a glorified petition where consumers can create a virtual wine shop and put it on the map.  They can then directly e-mail their local MP with support for the privatization movement.  This consumer involvement is new and is fundamental to the most recent lobby for change.  Check it out and if you can spare even 5 minutes put your very own wine shop on the map.  Their model is one where the LCBO and private wine stores co-exist and more importantly, their model is well laid out and could actually happen.

As I also mentioned there is significant momentum behind this and I am far from the only person writing about it.  Check out the great writers below and their take on the possibility of private wine stores.

John Szabo, Wine Align
David Lawrason, Wine Align
Shawn McCormick, Uncork Ontario
Mike Dicaro, Spotlight City
Rick VanSickle, Wines in Niagara

Just imagine more consumer choice when it comes to purchasing wine.  Just imagine a shop in the middle of Niagara which carried wines from every single winery in Niagara with a store owner who is an expert on the region.  Just imagine being able to open your very own wine store.  Just imagine our wine industry, finally structured the way it needs to be.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

The readers have spoken – Pinot Noir is your favourite!!

My first official readers poll has ended and the readers have spoken… Pinot Noir is your favourite Ontario grape variety!!

First off all I thank all of those who participated.  I was a bit nervous that I would only get a few votes, but I am pleasantly surprised by the vote tallies, the comments, the re-tweets, and the overall feedback… so thanks!

Pinot Noir came in first just a single vote ahead of Riesling which came in second.  Really not bad choices.  Along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is all the rave in Ontario these days, then you have Riesling which has been a staple of our wine industry for years.  We are a cool climate region and producing world class cool climate wines, mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Writers and wine enthusiasts around the world are beginning to take note of this and Ontario is getting some much due respect for these wines.  In my opinion it is these two grapes (along with Ice Wine of course) that will carry us to wine superstardom in the wine world in the years ahead.  Chardonnay for the record received my vote, so though it tied for third I am giving it the nod to round out the top 3.

Other Interesting Results:
- Ice Wine only received two measly votes.  What happened out there?  Is our Ice Wine only popular to the rest of the world and not domestically?
– Chenin Blanc was the only grape variety not to receive a single vote. However I am not surprised at all as I threw it in there just to see if anyone would submit a faulty vote. There is no way you could pick Chenin Blanc above all the other options given.  So this is my proof that the results are indeed accurate and relevant.
– Cab Franc and Cab Sauv rounded out the top 5.  Other than Ice Wine missing (as mentioned above) it is no surprise that the top of the list included Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cab Franc… but I am slightly shocked at the Cab Sauv support out there.  I guess there are just that many people who love Cab Sauv no matter where it’s from.
– Someone voted “other”.  Please reveal yourself and the grape variety you are referring to as your favourite in Ontario. Seriously I am very curious.  My guess is Baco.

Here are the final results:
1. Pinot Noir – 27%
2. Riesling – 23%
3. Chardonnay – 12%
4. Cab Franc – 12%
5. Cab Sauv – 12%
6. Ice Wine – 8%
7. Gamay – 4%
8. Other – 4%
9. Chenin Blanc – 0%

Based on the results here are some recommendations on what to try for under $20:
O’Leary Wines, Unoaked Chardonnay, 2011, #307751 – $14.95
Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir, 2007, #13904 – $16.95
Chateau de Charmes Estate Bottled Riesling , 2009, #61499 – $12.55
Thirty Bench Riesling, 2009, #24133 – $18.95
Lakeview Cellars Riesling Reserve, #294074 – $16.95
Angels Gate Mountainview Chardonnay, #116384 – $18.95
Mike Weir Pinot Noir, 2009, #75 – $19.95

Once again thanks to all who voted.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

What is your favourite Ontario grape variety?

If you have been following along you will have noticed I have written a lot about Ontario lately in support of the upcoming LCBO campaign (#LCBOgolocal) and also just in support of our industry as a whole.  But today I open it up to all of you and wonder what is your favourite Ontario grape variety?

Results will be summarized over the next few weeks and compiled in a follow-up post.

Comments are very much appreciated as well.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

A trip to wine country – #LCBOgolocal – Aug 21st

Well I am spoiled.  Simply spoiled.  I was chosen to be an active participant in this years #LCBOgolocal campaign to provide much tweeting, blogging, and active Ontario wine discussion in the social media community.  I certainly tried to do my part and I hope those that have been following along to #LCBOgolocal have learned a thing or two and are excited for the upcoming Ontario wine releases we will be seeing in-store over the next few weeks.

If you have been following along you would have noticed that the group attended a full day in Niagara wine country on Tuesday August 21st.  It was truly a celebration of all Niagara wine country has to offer.  At the risk of sounding as though I am bragging I wanted to provide a recap of that day and I think the pictures say more than enough.

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But aside from the obvious fact this was a special day in wine country it was a great opportunity for us all to take a step back and appreciate all that Niagara has to offer.  You can read my take on it with 20 reasons to drink Ontario wineto learn more.  The LCBO in partnership with Wine Country Ontario are strongly supporting this years “buy local” campaign and are continuing their strong support of the local industry.  The concept this year (and the reason’s bloggers and social media types are involved) is to get people talking.  The theory, and rightfully so, is that not enough consumers appreciate what our local wine culture has to offer.  Not enough people are talking about it and subsquently picking up bottles when they visit their local LCBO.  That is why we all visited wine country on Tuesday so we could write about it and provide you all reasons to go visit and to buy local.  Foodland Ontario uses the tag line “Good things grow in Ontario” and we are all familiar with it.  While you know what?  The exact same thing applies to wine.

The #LCBOgolocal campaign “People Are Talking” runs September 16 to October 13, 2012 and will feature many Ontario wines.  The promotion will showcase 137 products including 24 new VQA wines.  There will be 5 Vintages Essentials and 21 VQA wines released through the Vintages September 15th catalogue. There will be in-store tastings, fun opportunities to give a video testimonial, and the Taste Ontario event running at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Friday September 28th.  Then on September 22 and 29, you can take part in your own tasting, including locally-sourced food pairings, at one of these LCBO event kitchens.

  • Summerhill – 10 Scrivener Square, Toronto
  • The Kingsway – 2946 Bloor Street W, Toronto
  • Bayview Village – 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto
  • Orion Gate – 54 Steeles Avenue, Brampton
  • Millcroft Centre – 2000 Appleby Line, Burlington
  • Rideau Street – 275 Rideau Street, Ottawa
  • Nepean Crossroads – 543 West Hunt Club Road, Nepean
  • Roundhouse – 3165 Howard Avenue, Windsor

You can find out more about these events, the tastings above, and all things Ontario wine at the LCBO Go Local site. In the meantime, you can get involved by using the hashtags #LCBOgoLocal and #VQA on Twitter or simply talking about Ontario wines on Facebook and with your friends and family.  Enjoy all that Ontario has to offer!

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

20 Reasons to drink Ontario Wine

Well we are officially closing in on the harvest for Ontario’s 2012 vintage, and for some grapes we are a mere 2 or 3 weeks away.  In some cases we will see one of the earliest, most ripe, harvests in some time.  It’s also time for the LCBO’s yearly “buy local” campaign (http://www.lcbogolocal.com/).  This year, more than ever the LCBO is promoting this campaign through traditional and nontraditional media outlets.  The idea is to get people talking about and drinking Ontario wine and the LCBO goes live with an in-store promotion in 3 weeks to support the industry.  As an active participant in the promotion this year I have been very fortunate.  I have sampled over 40 Ontario wines in the past two weeks and have been able to interact one on one with some of the best in our industry.  On Tuesday I spent the entire day on a grand tour of Niagara, tasting, eating, and exploring all that Niagara wine country has to offer (look out for the entire blog recap of the day coming very soon).

Being part of this experience has certainly taught me a lot.  I have always supported Ontario wines and our local culture.  I have spent many hours in Niagara and my in-laws are actually from the heart of the region.  So I certainly knew that our wine industry was great long before I joined this promotion.  I knew that the wines were consistently underappreciated by writers and the general public and that the people in the business were knowledgeable and passionate wine professionals. I knew that the restaurants and the tourist industry were as good as any, and that we we we’re producing some quality wines.  What I didn’t quite realize was just how true all of those statements really are, and just how poised our wine industry is to become one of the great wine regions in the world in the years to come.

So I’ll make this very easy on you.  Here are 20 reasons why you should drink Ontario wine and visit Ontario’s wine country.

1) Because our winemakers are passionate… I mean very, very, passionate.  Don’t believe me? Then introduce yourself to Ed Madronich of Flat Rock, Daniel Speck at Henry of Pelham, or Brain Schmidt at Vineland the next time you are out at those places. And they are just a subset of the great people you will come across.
2) Because VQA stands for 100% Ontario grown grapes.
3) Because the experience of visiting Niagara wine country can be as good a wine country trip as the other major regions in the world… but by comparison it is in our backyard.
4) Because as Michelle Bosc from Chateau de Charmes says “We want to be Niagara. We don’t want to be anyone else”.
5) Because the region also produces fantastic locally made cheese and locally grown foods.
6) Because we are permitted to experiment and be innovative. At Chateau de Charmes they are experimenting with hybrid grape varieties and at Peninsula Ridge their Ritafia is a blend of a Chardonnay and an in house spirit made from distilled Plums… and it is fantastic.
7) Because the wineries all support each other.
8) Because we are the only region in the world guaranteed to make Ice Wine every year.
9) Because the wine experience is wonderful right from the food, to the wine, to the exceptional service at every stop.
10) Because we produce exceptional Pinot Noir, Baco Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, Riesling, Ice Wine…….
11) Because the people are down to earth and approachable.
12) Because our terroir is so unique with the moderating lake effects from Lake Ontario coupled with the Niagara escarpment.  Furthermore we are situated on the same latitude as some of the greatest wine regions in Europe.
13) Because we are still so small that we can’t afford to be snobby or stuck-up.  As a result no question is a dumb one and everyone is simply out to have you try and enjoy their wine.
14) Because there is value to be discovered in quality wines at reasonable prices.
15) Because if you start drinking it now you will that much more appreciative and knowledgeable when Ontario is one of the great wine regions of the world in 5-10 more years.
16) Because even outside of Niagara there are great wines to be discovered in Prince Edward County, Pelee Island, and Lake Erie North Shore.
17) Because the restaurants in the wineries have come a long way and now employ some of the finest, most creative chef’s in the province.
18) Because it is absolutely gorgeous.
19) Because we have big chateau’s, small family owned wineries, & B&B’s.  We have completely green, organic, and sustainable vineyards.  We have stunning modern vineyards, as well as old world victorian style.  We have vineyards within a 45 minute drive from downtown Toronto and we have close to 80 wineries in the Niagara region alone.
20) Because the wine is truly excellent.

Enjoy!

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

O’Leary wines win the night – #LCBOgoLocal – Aug 7, 2012

Last night, alongside a number of my Twitter and Blogging friends, I attended a tasting for a line-up of Ontario’s next wines to be hitting the LCBO shelves in mid September.  It was cool because it was a pre-tasting for wines that haven’t hit stores yet.  A sneak peek into the direction the Ontario wine industry is headed.  Plus I will always jump at the chance to support the local wineries and the “buy local” movement of both food and wine.  With 19 Ontario wines to try and hosted by the LCBO, Ed Madronich (winemaker at Flat Rock Cellers) and Dan Sullivan (winemaker at Rosehall Run) I was flattered to be invited and happy to attend.

What the LCBO is doing is they are getting behind Ontario wine in a big way.  These wines will hit store shelves on September 16th and will be supported by the “People are Talking” campaign.  The Ontario wine industry wants to be more involved in social media and is recognizing that those with some Twitter influence, who largely support Ontario wine anyways, can be big allies for them in helping grow the market and bring more Ontario wines to the masses.  So under the hashtag #LCBOgoLocal we tasted and tweeted all night long, and at the end of it all the “People are Talking” campaign has my full support.  I would also encourage you to keep looking out for updates on the campaign on the LCBO website.  In the weeks leading up to the promotion you just might find a few video clips of yours truly speaking about Ontario wines.

But the reason it has my full support is not because I was part of last night’s festivities.  It has my full support because I firmly believe that Ontario wines are still undeveloped with so much for the everyday consumer to discover.  We are barely a blip on the world stage in production and consumption, but our winemakers are producing quality wine across all regions.  I believe in the next 5-10 years Ontario will make major strides in both quality and quantity of the wine being produced and will continue the push to become one of the top wine regions the world over.  Our tourism will see the benefits and the wine industry will be better for it.  Personally I am happy to be involved in it all, because at the end of the day all of us will benefit because as consumers we will continue to have access to wine of increasing quality and decreasing prices… and who wouldn’t want that?

This is all evidenced with the wines hitting the shelves next month.  We sampled 19 wines and only 4 of them were over $20.  These Ontario wines are made to be approachable for the everyday consumer as the theme for this release seems to be easy drinking wines, made to be drank now (not put in the cellar), loaded with ripe fruit flavours that can appeal to even the most basic of wine consumers.  I may have missed just a couple pictures but here are the photos of what we sampled. (Click on any image to view a larger size or to view the entire gallery)

What should you buy?

1)      I was blown away by the O’Leary wines, both the Chardonnay ($14.95) and the Cabernet Merlot ($14.95).  Yes the same O’Leary that is famous for his role on Dragon’s Den.  In partnership with the folks at Vineland Estates (winemaker Brian Schmidt already producing fantastic wines) Kevin O’Leary branches into the wine world with these releases.  I didn’t know what to expect however I declared on Twitter following the tasting that the O’Leary wines won the night for me, and I stand by that.  Brian even tells me that Mr. O’Leary was actively involved in the production of the wines so full points on that one as well.

2)      The Sandbanks Baco Noir Reserve ($19.95).  To be honest I didn’t want to like this wine.  I have not been the biggest Sandbanks fan in the past and I am also not the biggest fan of Baco Noir.  So the fact that this hits the list is a big testament to this wine.  It was great, is very easy drinking, and would go very nicely for those out there that consider themselves white wine drinkers but want to get into red wine.

3)      Lakeview Cellars Riesling Reserve (Vintages, $16.95). A very nice and fairly elegant Riesling for this price point.  It also showed a candied nose without being overly sweet somehow.

4)      Rosehall Run Liberated ($15.95). A very easy drinking Chardonnay/Muscat blend.  This wine is loaded with peach and ripe, fresh acidity, with a nice lingering finish.  This would be a nice summer wine for out on the dock at the cottage.

5)      Andrew Peller, Ice Cuvee Rose Signature Series (Vintages $34.85).  Ok this was the most expensive wine on the evening by a landslide, but I strongly recommend it if you want to spring for $35 bottle.  It’s a Rose sparkling wine that went down so easily.  Perhaps the next time you are put in charge of buying some bubbly for a special occasion you will consider this one.  Still a better price point than most French Champagnes.

You know what… the Ontario wine industry is fun.  There is little to no snobbery out there.  Ed and Dan embodied such a passionate and approachable personality and were so eager to talk about their product showing more enthusiasm then is demonstrated by most.  That comes across in this batch of wines.  They are fun.  They are approachable.  But at the end of the day they are also quite good.  Ed started the evening with a 20 minute rant about the future of Ontario wines.  In that speech he said “We are always innovating and getting better… because we have to.  We have to meet the LCBO’s extremely high standards, which is unique to our industry.” This is a good thing for the quality of wine you will see from Ontario.  So forget about California, France, Italy, and Australia for awhile and get behind #LCBOgoLocal.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman