Being the Free Press wine critic has its benefits, to be sure -- I've been able to visit some amazing corners of the world and see how some incredible wines are created.
But it was an invitation to Toronto courtesy of Wolf Blass wines last week that ranks among the highlights of my seven years of wine writing. I was invited, along with a handful of local writers and scribes from Calgary, Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa, to a tasting called Master Blend Classification at Malaparte on the sixth floor of the TIFF Lightbox that was presented by Wolf Blass winery.
Twenty-seven wines were pre-poured into glasses so we couldn't see what was what; we were told the wines made up some of the world's best Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends from the 2008 vintage. Rather than consider it a competition, Wolf Blass senior winemaker Chris Hatcher explained, we should approach it more as a celebration of what the world's winemakers have to offer.
We scored the wines out of 100 points, and our scores were entered into a spreadsheet. Once we all finished tasting, the scores were presented to us and the wines were revealed.
The collection of wines was very Bordeaux-heavy -- all but nine were from the esteemed French winemaking region -- and included some of its most famous wines: Latour, Lafite Mouton Rothschild, Haut-Brion, and more. Also in the mix were global heavyweights: Italy's Sassicaia, California's Joseph Phelps Insignia and Opus One, Chile's Almaviva and more -- including, of course, Wolf Blass Black Label, the Australian winery's iconic flagship red blend.
The folks at Wolf Blass couldn't have hoped for a more fairy-tale ending -- the wine that came out on top once the scores were tabulated was none other than their own Black Label (which retails in Manitoba for around $95 -- pricey, but far less than many of the other wines tasted).
While many of the wines averaged out at around the 90-point mark, the Black Label came in nearly two full points higher. (It was my third-favourite wine, behind Ch¢teau Léoville-Las Cases and second-place finisher Ch¢teau Ducru-Beaucaillou, for what it's worth.)
To be fair, red Bordeaux is typically a lot earthier and more austere than New World reds, which tend to offer more up-front fruit and are often more immediately appealing. These wines are all quite young to be tasted now, and revisiting these same wines from the same vintage five (or even 10) years from now with the same judges might yield vastly different results.
There's also the regionalized palate to consider. Wolf Blass held this same tasting in Melbourne, Australia, and critics there picked a decidedly fruit-forward red from their home country that fared poorly in Toronto. The tasting will be repeated in London, England, next month, and I imagine the results will be more Bordeaux-centric.
Here in Canada, our preferences vary from region to region -- many in Quebec, for example, prefer more rustic, Bordeaux-type reds, whereas we in the west might prefer bigger fruit in our wines.
Regardless, the Toronto tasting spurred fantastic discussion among the tasters, especially once the winning wine's namesake joined us for dinner.
Wolf Blass (the man) is 78 years old, speaks with a German accent (he was born there), and sports his signature bow tie. While slightly hard of hearing, he's still famously charming. It was an honour to mingle and drink with such wine royalty.
OK, back to the real world, and wines I can actually afford to drink...
EVANS & TATE 2011 CLASSIC WHITE
(Margaret River, Australia -- $14.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
A Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay blend, the Evans & Tate is quite pale in colour, and brings bell pepper, grapefruit, herbal and lime aromas in large part thanks to the Sauvignon Blanc. It's light-bodied and crisp, with citrus and herbal notes on the almost-effervescent palate. Try with light cheeses or salads. 87/100
CLINE 2010 VIOGNIER
(North Coast, California -- $14.72, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Red apple, spice, mango, and light floral notes dominate on the nose of this aromatic wine. It's medium-bodied and slightly tart, although peach and tropical flavours do well in fleshing out this California white. Try with salmon or some savoury, seasonal grilled veggies. 88/100
SILVERN 2010 A GREENOCK SHIRAZ
(Barossa Valley, Australia -- around $18, private wine stores)
Black cherry, raspberry juice, milk chocolate and light perfume notes make for an expressive, intense nose on this Aussie Shiraz. Jammy and full-bodied, the Silvern brings loads of black cherry and raspberry flavours, with a hint of vanilla from oak aging and a bit of heat on the finish. It's juicy and aggressive -- tame this beast with something grilled. 88/100
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