Enjoying wine is all about enjoying the moment.

When Nation editor-in-chief Will Nicholls asked me to review the wines at the annual wine and spirits event, La Grande Dégustation de Montréal 2011, I thought – now there’s a moment.

I walked into the huge, brightly lit hall at the Palais de congrès in Montreal to behold hundreds of white-table-clothed exhibition tables adorned with upright bottles of wine and spirits – as far as the eye can see, in a symmetrical pattern. They looked all the same from far, though identified by sober signs indicating booth numbers. It was noisy: the drone of hundreds of people talking at a large indoor event, a sound peppered with clinking of glasses and faraway inaudible speeches.

With tasting glass, note pad and event program in hand, I wandered wide-eyed into the din. I thought the program, which had all of the wine producers listed by country and booth number, would give me an idea of where to start. Scanning the brochure frantically I was looking for a strategy, or at least a place to begin. The room was spinning, the drone was getting louder, and I hadn’t even had a drink yet.

How was I possibly going to review a decent percentage of these wines?

It was then that Nicholls gently grabbed my arm and led my empty glass and myself through the havoc to the far end of the hall. He said, “There is no strategy, just start sipping and asking questions and your taste buds will give you the answers.” And with those words, we barreled ahead.

As we navigated through 250 exhibitors and over 1500 products being swirled, sniffed and savoured by critics and general “oenophiles” (people who love wine, like me), I started to gain focus. I recognized some of my favourite labels and noted some of the special-order products from reputable vintners that I just had to try.

The displays were simple for the most part, as the bottles spoke for themselves – ranging from classic-style wine-label design with cursive writing and etchings of old castles to the modern incarnations of bold designs bursting with colour on sculptured glass, looking as though they belonged in a modern art gallery or on a hip-hop t-shirt.

Behind each table, without fail, was a smiling wine representative ready to pour a glass and bend an ear with a story about why this or that beverage is special. They were talking, pouring, gesticulating with their hands, sharing anecdotes and critiques with patrons of the event. I heard accents from around the globe.

Although France was the showcased country at this year’s event, I decided that I would work my way from the farthest wine-producing country to the closest. I couldn’t resist having some sort of strategy: one day whites, the next day reds.

Day 1: The Whites

Australia: McWillams Handwood Estate, White Muscat 2009 (SAQ $14.45)

For my first tasting, I thought I would start light. At 6%, the Muscat from Australia’s McWilliams Handwood Estate has a lower alcohol percentage than most wines. Less alcohol in wines translates to a lighter wine and less calories, in tune with the trend for healthier eating. Light-bodied, fruity and sweet, with a spicy and floral note, this is a great summer sipper or business-lunch wine – when you have to go back to your desk as opposed to the poolside.


Chile: Errazuriz, Estate Fumé Blanc 2011 (SAQ $14.95)

The Errazuriz wines from Chile are very popular in Quebec and served in many restaurants. They are very reasonably priced and consistent in taste from year to year. The Estate Fumé Blanc is 100% Sauvignon and fumé blanc implies very refreshing attributes. This wine was described to me as like “biting into a grapefruit”. Great with sushi, or white meats, especially if there is a rich sauce. A nice wine to drink before dinner, but you have to like the taste of grapefruit to enjoy it.
France: Riesling Rebgarten Bestheim Alsace 2009 (SAQ $18.85)

I’m not usually a huge fan of Reislings because they tend to be too sweet for my taste. With this wine, it was love at first sip. Not sweet, very dry, with a hint of lemon and mineral overtones, and almost a buttery colour to it, this wine has a very good balance between alcohol and acidity. It would accompany the usual white wine partners – fish and chicken – but as it is not that light, so it would equally be a great match to a hearty Alsatian meal of sauerkraut or a Cree roast goose. A winter white, I’d say.


Quebec: Le Domaine du Ridge, Vent d’Ouest 2010 (SAQ $13.83)

One of my last stops on my white-wine route was at a Quebec vintner’s table. Quebec’s climate makes it tough to compete with other wine-producing countries, yet we are seeing more and more wine producers in this province take on the challenge. One of them is Le Domaine du Ridge, laying low in the Eastern Township region of St. Arnaud. Here, they can only grow certain hybrids of grapes that have proven to be resistant and can tackle our climate – Merlots or Cabernets are out of the question. Despite being resistant, in part because of our harsh winters, they still have to be pampered and covered in the fall. As if growing quality grapes in this area isn’t hard enough, Le Domaine du Ridge produces ecological wines that use five times fewer pesticides than regular vineyards. Denis Paradis, the owner of the vineyard, noted with raised eyebrows: you really have to WANT to be a wine producer in Quebec to make it work! A passion that he has embraced.

Denis poured me a glass of Vents d’Ouest 2010. This wine has won several awards and is improving every year. A light and fruity wine, with a hint of pear on the nose, slightly acidic, it’s a lovely white to drink with seafood, or a light fish like Walleye.

I was curious about another of the vintner’s wines that is produced in small quantities (1000 bottles per vintage) and only available at the vineyard itself. Cuvée du Fouloir is a white wine made the traditional way. Instead of using machines to press the juices from the grapes, this wine method uses stomping bare feet. Women’s feet, in particular, 25 pairs of them in a large 12-by-12 foot outdoor vat. It’s a festive, two-hour event: with grapes under foot, and a glass of wine in their hands, the women dance and stomp while they are serenaded by an accordion player.

The result of the traditional pressing process is bunch of tipsy women who have had a fun workout, but also a more delicate wine with elevated aromas. The seeds and skins are not crushed as harshly when feet are used, gently massaging the tannins out and reducing the bitterness. With more time to oxidize, and flavour compounds are released more slowly, changing the nose of the wine.

Cuvée du Fouloir is indeed a very refreshing, delicate and light white wine, in colour and on the palate. A real feat for a Quebec vintner!

Day 2: The Reds

On our second day of at La Grande Dégustation, I felt like an old hand at tasting and swirling a glass, and no longer felt the need to have a strategy. Red wines were on the menu this evening and I let my taste buds loose.


France: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de La Gardine 2007 (SAQ $35.75)

This red wine from the Rhone region is Grenache-based and has a very fruity, berry, plum and sometimes kirsch flavour. It’s an easy-going, very versatile wine that is a great pick for Christmas party dinners, especially with cooked fruit like cranberry sauces. Strong, flavourful and intense, it is not aggressive – typical of the Grenache grape. A great choice for grilled or roasted meats, especially game. It’s a wine that can be enjoyed now, but if you can wait five years to drink it, all the better.
Spain: Campo Viejo Crianza 2008 (SAQ $14.95)

This red is predominantly Tempranillo, a grape indigenous to the Rioja region in Spain. Tempranillos generally have a red-fruit aroma – plum, cherry, blackberry – and a peppery, spicy touch, sometimes with a hint of chocolate and a mineral touch depending on the soil and location. The 2008 that I tried smelled like coconut and vanilla, apparently from the barrels it ages in. On the palate it stayed true to the red-fruit flavours. Soft and medium-bodied, it’s a wine that intensifies appetite.

Alfredo Del Rio, my Spanish host at this table, attested to the fact that in his country, like most, wine is a cultural activity. People socialize around wine and food, so wine has to be able to meet a wide range of flavours. To prove that this wine can sustain different flavours, he prepared a special appetizer, or “tapas”, for me to taste with this Crianza. It’s a snack his grandmother used to give him as a kid: a slice of baguette drizzled with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and adorned by piece of dark chocolate on top. A little counter-intuitive, blending saltiness with bitterness, but a sip of this wine with this unlikely flavour combination was absolutely delicious. Definitely a hit.
California: Austin Hope Syrah 2009 (SAQ $45.50)

The Hope family wines also the more common Liberty School Wines in the Paso Robles region of California. This Syrah is a bold, full-bodied wine but with a long, silky finish. Elegant, but it bites back – in a good way. Spicy, and with a deep, dark colour, it has the aroma of blueberries and blackberries. It’s ready to drink now or later, depending on whether or not you can resist it. A hunter himself, producer Austin Hope recommends pairing this wine with wild meats like deer or caribou – better yet, moose stew with dumplings. It’s got the power.
Italy: Masi Toar Veronese 2007 (SAQ $23.35)

Masi President Sandro Boscaini has a special relationship with this Valpolicella from the northeastern part of Italy. “This wine is like my son,” he says. Why? Because in an area where winemaking is like a religion, Boscaini claims to have resurrected a variety of Italian grapes that had long disappeared from production. The Oseleta grape variety added a spicy personality and structure to the Valpolicella. But, the Oseleta (which means “little bird”) had a late harvest and a low yield in terms of grapes so when it disappeared no one made the effort to reintroduce it. Until Boscaini got lucky. His Masi Toar wine is a blend of 80% Corvina and 20% Oseleta. A step up from Valpolicella, it has a deep ruby colour, a woody, spicy nose and great fruity depth, especially a cherry character. I asked him if he thought the find was luck or divine intervention. Probably both, he replied, plus curiosity and the knowledge he had from his grandfather, from whom he learned about the different vines that existed.

A sobering finale to the event was a visit to the Alco Prevention Canada booth, a private company that makes products to detect alcohol blood levels.

Catering mostly to businesses that have a corporate responsibility for employees when they hold events that serve alcohol, Alco Prevention Canada offers several detection solutions. One is the Alco tube, a single-use breath detector that is available in drugstores and the SAQ for about $6, or in bulk for about $4 a piece. A sage gift for employees during the holiday season, the device packaging can even be personalized with the company logo.

Another option for large events is to rent a breathalyzer machine, equipped with technician to ensure that no one leaves the party to drive impaired. People can use it as many times as they like in order to check their alcohol levels throughout the evening. This rents for $395 plus $100 for the technician, per night. In larger cities like Montreal and Quebec, Alco Prevention Canada offers a service called Extreme Limit, like Nez Rouge, to drive party-goers and their vehicles home.

Despite my first impressions of the daunting, overcrowded hall, I managed to taste a wide and varied selection of wines at the La Grande Dégustation de Montréal. Some vintages I had already tried, others were new discoveries. The Rebgarten Reisling was a pleasant surprise, the Hope Syrah a revelation. The Cuvée du Fouloir a local tribute to tradition. But really, I most enjoyed meeting the people behind the wines. And really, that’s what enjoying wine is all about.