How does a wine critic spend his summer staycation? Drinking beer, at least in my case. Thirst-quenching brewski helped fuel my delusion that Southern Ontario was experiencing actual summer during an August that felt like October. I hope you'll permit a brief holiday-report digression before I catch up on backlogged wine reviews. (Yes, I sampled wine as well, but, in my charmed life, that's called "work," not leisure.)
One highlight was Omnipollo Nebuchadnezzar Imperial India Pale Ale, a strong, hazy golden gem that – like most bookshelves in my home and a few of my embarrassing pop records – hails from Sweden. Some have called it that country's greatest beer, for what that's worth. I love "Neb" for its impressive balance, the way its hopped-up bitterness finds friendly counterpoint in a succulent peach-apricot core and rounded, creamy, drink-me texture. Fair warning: It measures 8.5-per-cent alcohol and costs $4.25 for a 330-millilitre bottle in Ontario (various prices in Alberta).
Then I bought myself a bottle of Black Hops Cascadian Dark Lager, a limited-release product from Parallel 49 Brewing in Vancouver – and promptly returned to buy three more. It's sort of a fusion of three styles: cold-fermented lager for crispness, dark-roast porter for richness and substantial IPA-style hop content for bitter backbone. Mission accomplished. It costs $5.50 for a 650-millilitre bottle in British Columbia and – wow – just $5.25 in Ontario.
I snuck in many other frothy bottles and cans this summer that are not readily available in Canada, including the excellent and sumptuously aromatic Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA from California and – be still, my heart – Westvleteren 12, a 10.2-per-cent fig-plum-date-raisin marvel made by Trappist monks in Belgium, the latter often described in blogs and reviews as the "best beer in the world."
And if I did not have to be sitting at this computer at the moment, I'd probably be glued to the bar at Indie Ale House in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood enjoying a Roll in the Hay. That's the brew pub's name for a glorious Belgian-style sour ale aged in used chardonnay barrels. It's a sublime marriage of fruit and grain, a delectable wine-like beverage for the proud beer lover who wouldn't be caught dead uttering "I'll have a chardonnay."
How's that for a segue? Today's release at Ontario Vintages stores shines a spotlight on new premium products from Ontario. I'm featuring a few of those wines below. These are not, however, all from the Vintages release, which, to be frank, is a mixed-bag quality-wise. I've thrown in some winery-direct and more generally available items, as indicated.
Charles Baker Riesling 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $35.20
Expect sweetness from this exemplary medium-dry white. If you're cool with that, then you'll be rewarded. A dollop of residual sugar has been part of the signature of Charles Baker's rieslings, which are made at Stratus Vineyards in Niagara. As with many good German rieslings, to which this can be compared, the sweetness is deftly matched by cool-climate riesling's racy acidity, creating tension and a vibrant backdrop for complex flavours below the surface. Light-bodied, it serves up suggestions of stone fruit, citrus, lanolin and chalk as well as a whiff of damp meadow on the long finish. (It's the sort of wine that encourages far-out descriptors.) Try it with simply prepared freshwater fish, smoked fish, spicy-marinated salmon, light curries or cheeses, among other things.
Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39
Ask Norman Hardie about traditional Burgundian techniques for crafting pinot noir and you may spark a marathon soliloquy with pauses saved only for gulps of air and more pinot noir. Prince Edward County's pinot preacher has turned out another fine effort with this 2012. Light-medium-bodied, it's supple and almost chewy, yet crisp on the finish, with smooth, jammy berries graced by a smattering of herbs. It would be great for lighter meat dishes.
Thirty Bench Red 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24
A blend of 51-per-cent cabernet sauvignon with 27-per-cent cabernet franc and the rest merlot, this Bordeaux-style red from Niagara is rich with plum and currant fruit joined by dark-roast coffee, bitter chocolate and spices. It all hangs on a firm, astringent backbone that would make it suitable for rare steak or lamb and worthy of five or more years in the cellar.
Rosehall Run Hungry Point Unoaked Chardonnay 2013 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Rosehall Run sits on land sometimes referred to by long-time locals as Hungry Point – "hungry" because of the rocky and relatively arid Prince Edward County soils that offered little hope to struggling vegetable and grain crops. Fortunately for gifted winemaker Dan Sullivan and his partner in vine, Lynn Sullivan, wine grapes love parsimonious soils, so there's no reason to be thirsty on Hungry Point. Not with such a well-crafted white wine as this. It's full-bodied and round, showing zesty notes of apple and pear joined by a drop of honey, calling to my mind an orchard in crisp fall weather. Versatile at the table, it's suitable for shellfish, pork chops and a variety of lighter vegetarian fare. Available direct through www.rosehallrun.com
Angels Gate Mountainview Merlot 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
A crisp style, this 2012 offers up bright blackberry and plum notes laced with tangy herbs, coffee and fine, chalky tannins. It's a good choice for seared duck breast.
Strewn Two Vines Cabernet-Merlot 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
Medium-full-bodied, here's a ripe red with juicy dark-skinned fruit along and hints of prune and dried dates, vanilla and chocolate in a solidly balanced package for the money. This one's good for heavier meat dishes. Available in the regular LCBO aisles in Ontario, on sale for $11.95 until Sept. 14.