Good Old Wine

There’s too much in my cellar.   I’m finding, like many a cellar owner before me, that some of my cherished wines are over the hill.  I keep making a resolution to drink up all suspect bottles a.s.a.p., but then the next LCBO release comes out and there are six or eight that I would like to try.  And because my favourites never seem to last very long on the shelves, I need to pop those corks fairly expeditiously – if there is something that I just have to have for my cellar, I must get back to the store while there is still a supply remaining.  Now you begin to see the problem.  Since this process repeats itself every two weeks, there isn’t much time to drink the old stuff, and of course I may even exacerbate the problem by grabbing a half dozen Barolo that I loved out of the last release, thereby restocking the cellar.

Bottles aging in the cellar but begging to be enjoyed

Anyway, that’s all prologue to my main topic.  As I sniff and swirl wines that I laid down a decade or so previously, I find some gems and some dross, but the results don’t seem to correlate particularly well with expectations for aging potential.  So what’s going on?

It would be easy to blame my cellar, since it is not a $50,000 climate controlled work of art.  It’s just a small room in the corner of my basement with passive climate control; i.e. the ceiling, interior walls, and upper exterior walls are insulated, but the floor and lower exterior walls are not.  The result is a gentle and steady transition from 19-20°C in midsummer to 13-14°C in midwinter.  The average, then is 16-17°C, not ideal, but not bad.  I would expect slightly faster aging than in a cellar constantly at 13°C, but that’s about all.  Of course it’s dark and there isn’t much vibration – our house sits on bedrock.  In any case, I regularly uncork beautifully aged examples – if the storage conditions were very bad then I would expect most of them to be over the hill early.  So what gives?

One possibility is that some wines are not meant for long aging in spite of traditionally falling into such a category.  Even classified Bordeaux can lull you into a false sense of security.  Here vintage is all important.  I recently opened a 1995 Ch. Calon-Ségur that was fully mature and drinking beautifully – 1995 was a good year for aging.  On the other hand, my 1994 Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has never really come into its own.  The wine was as well reviewed as the Calon-Ségur at the time of release, and Pichon-Lalande did a great job in 1994, but that was not a great year.  In the long run, no amount of good work in the cellar and the vineyard can make up for that initial handicap.

Terroir makes a big difference as well.  Burgundy, both red and white, is well regarded for its longevity, but when you take Chardonnay or Pinot Noir away from home, they don’t last as long.  Even good Chardonnay from California tends to fade fairly quickly, while pricey Ontario Pinot Noir is losing it after three or four years.  In both these cases, however, there are signs of improvement.  In particular in Ontario vines are getting older and local techniques are adapting to local conditions.  You still have to keep a close eye on Pinot from the newer Prince Edward County DVA as a lot of it isn’t really cellar-worthy yet (although I keep trying!)  On the other hand, examples from Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne seem to be just coming into their own after several years in the cellar.  Even with the poster child for lengthy aging, Cabernet Sauvignon, terroir makes a difference, but in a more subtle way.  There is no longer much doubt, for example, that Napa Valley Cab can age as long as a good Médoc, but in a rather different way.  While Bordeaux evolves in bottle into something that (we hope) is completely different from and transcends the young wine, the Napa stuff can maintain its fruity elegance for decades, but always resembles its younger self.  Even a ham-fisted amateur winemaker like me can make age-worthy wine with good Napa starting material.  A recent bottle of my 1996 was fresh and fruity – maybe I should not have stopped making the stuff…

A number of factors affect aging of wine (for more information, look here):  the grape variety, the terroir (here I include local viticultural and winemaking practices), the vintage, and the cellar conditions.  Each has an influence on the wine’s chemical constituents, which is what really counts in the end.  Higher concentrations of acids, sugars, and phenols (including tannins) all increase longevity.  The hundreds of chemical compounds in wine, especially the aromatics (mostly esters, terpenes, and mercaptans) as well as phenols, affect flavour evolution as their concentrations increase or decrease with time.  The bottle stopper also affects the aging process, but I’m not uncorking that can of worms today – you can read more about the latest on the relationship between closures and “reduction” here.

So how does this all relate to my cellar experiences?  I think there are at least two lessons to be learned.  The first is to check on your keepers fairly often and then drink them as soon as they seem ready.  The second lesson is to drink sooner rather than later.  Wines are generally more enjoyable when they are a couple of years young rather than a couple of years too old.  If you want to keep a bottle or two out of a case for posterity or to see how a particular wine fades into old age, fine, but if, like me, you love about wine because you love how it enhances life, then drink it, don’t collect it.

The Legacy of Prohibition

Ontario suffered under the Ontario Temperance Act (“prohibition”) from 1916 to 1927.  Although it was repealed over 80 years ago, its legacy is still with us.  Repeal was not a reaction against temperance, since that concept still informs much government thinking.  Instead it was a realization that the province could reduce expenditure (by eliminating all that crime arising from selling and drinking alcohol) and increase income because of the vast profits to be made by assigning the retail role to itself.  What has been the legacy of that period and that transition?

A mass of information can be found at  One interesting point that you may not know is that, until 1975, the Ontario government tracked every person’s every alcohol purchase through the purchase order forms that each customer needed to fill out to buy alcohol at the LCBO.  If Big Brother felt that you were buying too much, you were cut off from all purchasing, province wide.  These surveillance forms were only phased out with the advent of self-serve stores in the late 1970’s.

Moving on to the present, my view on the current situation is as follows:

  • The government’s schizophrenic approach to temperance encourages a public attitude that alcohol is just a little bit naughty.  As a result, over-consumption becomes a goal for younger consumers.  The more mature approach would be to treat consumption as a component of everyday life where, for example, wine is an integral part of a good meal and a picnic in a public park can be accompanied by a picnic wine.  Prohibitions should not be placed on alcoholic beverages themselves, but on the misuse (drinking and driving, drunkenness leading to violence, etc.);
  • All alcohol is equally demonized.  Although the main impetus behind Prohibition was to curb the drunkenness arising from the consumption of whisky in saloons, the result was that beer, cheap wine, fine wine, cheap whisky, fine single malts, and fine cognac were all tarred with the same brush.  Other jurisdictions (e.g. Quebec) have recognized the differences by, for example, allowing private beer and wine sales;
  • Prices are artificially high.  It was recently disclosed in the Ontario Auditor General’s Annual Report that the LCBO sometimes encourages its suppliers to charge higher prices to the LCBO than to other customers so that it can maintain artificially high retail prices and thereby maintain the guise of “social responsibility.”  This revelation has slid off the Teflon LCBO like water off a duck’s back because the government figures that it is in their interest not to interfere with or reprimand the LCBO in any way at all in case profits should be affected;
  • Prohibition is clearly alive and well in the guise of several legislative attempts to place warning labels on all alcoholic beverage containers.  In this case, however, kudos to the government for resisting the pressure.  Such an effort is superfluous nowadays as anti-drinking-and-driving campaigns and informational campaigns about the effects of alcohol on pregnant women have achieved universal and very public awareness.  For the consumer, the downside isn’t really the additional expense per se, as trumpeted by the beverage industry.  Instead, such legislation further solidifies the hold on the industry of large (often multinational) companies that can easily handle the label modifications and that have the ear of the government.  Conversely, it marginalizes the small quality producer, whose product is generally used in exactly the kind of way that should be encouraged, i.e. as an integral part of a good meal.

Even in the United States, the former poster child for Prohibition, most states have decided that consumers of alcoholic beverages may actually be adults.  Wine is sold privately, sometimes even on sale or with case discounts, and you can enjoy a rosé with that picnic in the park.  The LCBO’s paternalistic attitude should be treated as the anachronism it is, with no place in our modern cosmopolitan society.  There is plenty of legislation in place to deal with misuse of alcohol:  by all means keep alcohol from young children, but don’t treat all adults as children too!

For more on this subject, you might want to take a look at this article by Connie Woodstock.

The Best of Prince Edward County

Vineyard at Long Dog Winery

Prince Edward County (known by locals as “the County”) may be Ontario’s newest wine region, but its wines have grown up a lot since the first all-grape winery (Waupoos Estates) opened its doors eleven years ago.  Viticulture was further kick-started by the tireless efforts of Geoff Heinricks to promote the County as a cool climate region and to educate prospective grape growers about the terroir.  Then the Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association was formed and they were off and planting.  The region has now established itself as a distinct Ontario DVA, boasting over 30 wineries and nearly 300ha of vines.

The land itself can be described as a giant slab of fractured limestone with a dusting of one sort of overburden or another.  When you enhance that terroir with a cool climate growing season (similar number of degree days to Burgundy), you can understand the excitement, especially for northern grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc.

Winery at the Grange of Prince Edwqrd

Winery at the Grange of Prince Edward

This excitement has manifested itself in lots of press coverage.  Reviews continue to appear with regularity and by all reports the wines are improving, even if they are a bit overpriced, by and large.  However, very few writers have come up with a ranking of overall winery quality, although Bill Zacharkiw has taken a small stab at it.  So I thought I would take the plunge and present my personal view on the best of The County.  My criteria are:  (1) they have been releasing wine long enough to have a reasonable track record; (2) the wines are good across the board with no stinkers; and (3) their portfolio should include one or more of the best individual wines of The County.  In no particular order, my County “Grands Crus” are:

  • Rosehall Run (winemaker Dan Sullivan), particularly good for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir;
  • Norman Hardie (winemaker Norman Hardie), best for Pinot Noir;
  • Closson Chase (winemaker Deborah Paskus), best for big-ass Chardonnay;
  • Long Dog (winemaker James Lahti), good for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay*.

*Provisional, pending more data on how well Long Dog wines last.  Most PEC
wines do not yet age particularly well, but Long Dog is more problematic because
of their use of plastic corks.  I tried a 5 year old (2007) Top Dog Pinot Noir recently
and it was not as good as I had expected.  However, I am not removing Long Dog
from the list yet because they are so good when young.
I just wish they would switch to cork or screwcap.

You may have observed the dominance of Pinot and Chardonnay from the best producers in The County.  That trend confirms the Burgundian nature of the terroir with limestone soil and a cool climate.  Now, there are also wineries that are producing good stuff, but don’t have a long track record.  The “Ones to Watch” are:

  • Stanners (winemaker Colin Stanners), best for classic Pinot Noir as well as Pinot Gris;
  • The Old Third (winemaker Bruno François), only makes Pinot Noir;
  • Keint-he (winemaker Geoff Heinricks), best for Pinot Noir;
  • Hinterland (winemaker Jonas Newman), all sparkling, best for Les Etoiles and Rosé;
  • Lighthall (winemaker Glenn Symons), best for Chardonnay;
  • Exultet Estates (winemaker Gerry Spinosa), best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Then there are the following wineries producing generally Good Quality Wine that on occasion can excel:

Finally, where are the Good Value Wines?  Well, wine growing in the County is intrinsically difficult, low yield, and expensive, so don’t expect a lot of bargains.  However, there are a few wine growers that produce decent quality at reasonable price.  The most noteworthy are Rosehall Run, Huff Estates, By Chadsey’s Cairns, The Grange, and Sandbanks Estate Winery (winemaker Catherine Langlois).

Wine and accessories shop at Huff Estates Winery

Of course, many of the wines from these producers are unavailable at the LCBO, since they don’t produce enough quantity for the whole province (at this point we all wistfully wish for some private niche retailers and then we wake up to reality).  Wineries with a presence at the local monopoly (at least some of the time) include Rosehall Run, Norman Hardie, Closson Chase, Huff Estates, The Grange, and Sandbanks.  Otherwise, you can try them at the winery, at some restaurants, and by ordering from the winery websites.

For a complete list of County wineries, take a look at one of these sites:
Wikipedia article on PEC wines
County wines official website
Wines of Canada (PEC page).

Mission LCBO

I’ll have a lot to say about the LCBO in future – some of it is even good!  But first it’s worthwhile to try and understand why it is here at all and what it is trying to do.  The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (the quasi-monopoly responsible for retail alcohol sales in Ontario) was formed after the repeal of the Ontario Temperance Act (“Prohibition”) in 1927 – more about that in future.  That’s why “Control” is so prominent in the name.  Surely that’s all changed after more than 80 years!  What is their mission now?  I’ll bet very few of you have any idea what it might be, in part because it’s so contradictory.  While they still have the mandate to control and restrict the sale of alcohol, they are also a major retail organization with the need to maximize sales and profits.  According to the LCBO website, its mission statement is:

“We are a socially responsible, performance-driven, innovative and profitable retailer, engaging our customers in a discovery experience of the world of beverage alcohol.”

Clearly the fourth point (“profitable”) is the most important because the very next paragraph boasts that:

“Sales in fiscal 2010-11 were $4.55 billion and the LCBO delivered a $1.55 billion dividend to the Ontario government.”

OK, no wonder a mind-numbingly long succession of Ontario governments have chosen to do next to nothing to reform or replace the LCBO – they love the money too much.  So what about their number one mission objective – “social responsibility?”  That phrase primarily means preventing alcohol sales to minors while incidentally campaigning against drinking and driving and so forth.  So how are they doing?  Well, a recently published study sent out secret shoppers, both underage (15-18) and legal age (19-24), to the government run LCBO, the privately operated Beer Store chain, and privately owned convenience stores (purchasing cigarettes in this case), in order to test their dedication to the prevention of underage drinking.  The results were:  convenience stores only sold to minors 1 time in 8; the Beer Store record was 1 in 5; and the LCBO came dead last at 1 in 4.  There was a similar trend, in terms of carding, for the legal age customers.  Oops.

The other mission objectives are to be performance-driven and innovative.  For performance-driven, read “profit maximization” (see above.)  As for innovation, not much has happened since the requirement was dropped that every drinker in the province had to be licensed and under surveillance (for more information, check out the Punched Drunk website), and since the service model evolved from purchase order forms and a furtive booze-in-a-paper bag philosophy to normal retail self-serve.  Sure, they’ve added some new purchasing vehicles over the years (Classics catalogue, Shop Online, etc.), but what about evolving the stores to resemble normal retail wine stores elsewhere in the world, with case discounts, sale prices on more than bin-ends, quality in-store tasting events, and delegation of some power to product consultants so they can stock independently?

But reform will be hard.  Successive political parties have always made noise about how the LCBO should be privatized and liquor laws modernized, while they were in opposition.   But as soon as they get into government, they can’t resist the profits.  As usual, when trying to understand human behaviour, remember Jerry Maguire’s immortal words:  “Follow the money.”

P.S. – For  more on the subject, check out the latest newsletter from Michael Pinkus, the Grape Guy, at