A generation ago that might have been a joke in Canada. Wine was something you bought in stores, not ordered to your door. Home alcohol delivery happened in libertarian places such as Texas, along with over-the-counter hand-grenade sales and motorcycling without a helmet.
Then came a few key developments: the unstoppable Internet, the age of wine enlightenment and the growing demand for small-lot brands that, frankly, are ill-suited to chain-store retailing.
I wrote in January about the rise of delivery companies WineryToHome.com and Wineonline.ca, as well as the move into Internet retailing by the LCBO in Ontario, the SAQ in Quebec and wineries across the country. The LCBO, through www.vintagesshoponline.com, offers products that are exclusives to the Internet. In just a short while, it's come to the point where if a Canadian consumer isn't shopping by phone or computer, he or she is missing out on many great products that don't make it to bricks-and-mortar stores.
Let me highlight a few current examples. (Keep in mind only a few vendors are licensed for out-of-province orders - Wineonline.ca, for example, ships to Ontario and Alberta. In most cases deliveries are only possible within the retailer's provincial home.)
Tantalus, in British Columbia's north Okanagan Valley close to Kelowna, makes some of the country's best rieslings. Much of the wine is sold at the cellar door, but now British Columbians can order online or over the phone. Tantalus Riesling 2008, the winery's basic offering, is marvellous ($22.90, Tantalus.ca, 1-877-764-0078). The cool 2008 growing season, which marked Tantalus's transition to organic farming, worked wonders on the grapes, infusing them with plenty of acidity to balance the ripe, sweet fruit. The wine is dry and light in weight but unfolds with an abundance of flavour, from lemon zest to passion fruit to tingly minerals. Just 1,350 cases were made.
Also excellent from the same winery: Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2007 ($29.90, just 290 cases produced) and Tantalus Pinot Noir 2007 ($29.90, 560 cases). The Old Vines Riesling is tangy, with a whiff of pine, vigorous acidity and flavours of green apple, lemon and stone. It's worthy of three to five years cellaring. The pinot is made in a solid, sunny-climate style, with a velvety texture and spiced-plum and licorice flavours.
And staying in B.C., Blasted Church, the Okanagan winery with the catchy name, has come up with a cute novelty label for wedding season. But don't expect Blasted Church Mixed Blessings 2008 ($17.99, Blastedchurch.com) to be your run-of-the-mill wedding-reception white. It's medium-bodied and plump, with flavours of apple and tropical fruit backed up by good acidity. The cartoon-sketch label features a sharp-dressed foursome at the altar, two men and two women. It's a visual tease, with interracial- and same-sex-marriage innuendos; you don't really know who's getting hitched to whom. The wine's name is a play on the fact that it's blended from a variety of grapes, though the winery is not disclosing which.
While you're ordering a case of Mixed Blessing for your wedding, consider getting some Blasted Church Riesling 2008 ($18.99), which won a gold medal at the All Canadian Wine Championships.
In Ontario's Niagara, Thirty Bench, a boutique producer purchased recently by the Andrew Peller company of Hillebrand Estates and Sandhill fame, specializes in small-batch wines from individual vineyards. Its forte, again, is riesling. My favourite is Triangle Vineyard, which last year was named by Calgary-based Wine Access magazine as Canada's best single-vineyard wine (for the 2007 vintage). The follow-up, Thirty Bench Triangle Vineyard 2008 ($30, Thirtybench.com) is very good, too, dry with notes of green apple, pear and tropical fruit.
Still on the domestic-wine front, WineryToHome.com is featuring several Niagara standouts this month, including Peninsula Ridge Chardonnay Reserve 2007 ($25.15, winerytohome.com; 1-866-254-6075) and Henry of Pelham Dry Rosé 2007 ($12.45).
For wines from afar, the LCBO continues to impress with its choice of small-lot and niche-appeal wines available exclusively at Vintagesshoponline.com. There's just one catch: The wines are delivered to the store of your choice, not to your home. The next four wines are available at that site and were still in good supply at press time.
A good buy at less than $30 is Vignerons De Caractère L'Authentique Vacqueyras 2006 ($29, No. 0123836). Full-bodied and weighing in at 14.5-per-cent alcohol, this southern French red is velvety, with unctuous dark-fruit and licorice flavours and fine-grained but considerable tannins. It could improve with five to eight years in the cellar.
If you're fond of big-bodied red zinfandels from California but not the prices that go with them, try Castello Monaci Artas 2005 ($25, No. 0124925). It's made from primitivo, genetically identical to zinfandel, from the Salento peninsula that forms the heel of Italy's boot. This is a full-bore, ripe, raisiny example with a sweet-spicy profile and good balancing acidity as well as a kick of astringent tannin. It could use three to five years in the cellar.
More expensive but also worth the money is Castello di Querceto Il Picchio Chianti Classico Riserva 2005 ($44, No. 0938738). Here's a succulent, concentrated Chianti that, unlike some too oaky riservas, actually benefited from extra time in barrel. Inky-purple, full-bodied and rich, it offers notes of dark fruit and violet, with a sturdy tannic backbone and kick of acidity on the back end. Give it another couple of years in the cellar if you can.
And finally, you don't need a computer to get home delivery, just a phone or fax. In Ontario, the Classics Collection, a service of the LCBO's Vintages department featuring luxury rare wines, has been taking orders by such ancient technologies for years. You can check current offerings at Vintages.com/classics.
I've sampled just a tiny fraction from the current list, but one standout is Il Palazzone Brunello di Montalcino 2003 ($69 in Ontario, No. 21105; $65 in Quebec, No. 11034901). I suppose one could say the relatively young Il Palazzone estate doesn't lack for expert management. It's owned by Richard Parsons, chairman of financial conglomerate Citigroup and former chairman and chief executive officer of Time Warner. Among his other credits, Mr. Parsons co-chaired a commission on social security for George W. Bush and is a member of the economic advisory team to Barack Obama. Despite his packed schedule, New York-based Mr. Parsons takes time off every year to be in Tuscany for harvest and at key times during the growing season.
I can't comment on his boardroom skills but he sure has a touch with Brunello, the most cellar-worthy style of wine produced from Tuscany's sangiovese grape. The 2003, from a hot season, is impressively polished, with flavours of cherry jam, damp forest and a salt-like tang on the finish. It's long, harmonious and perfectly ripe. The equally good 1998 vintage is available in B.C. for $120. To order in Ontario, call Vintages at 416-365-5767 or toll-free at 1-800-266-4764.