Winning wines: the show’s best bets

I’m very sentimental about the Ottawa Food and Wine Show. The first time I attended was 20 years ago — virtually to the day — and where I shared by first sip of Bollinger champagne and Ontario ice wine with my future husband.

The show’s changed considerably over the last two decades, much of it for the better. Ice wine, for example, is only a tiny portion of the great Ontario wines you can now find at the show. But you also can’t just wander over after work and meander around — these days, you need a better plan, especially if you’ve got limited time.
What hasn’t changed is the opportunity to try a huge array of wines. Even if you don’t know much about wine — perhaps especially if you don’t — this is the place to try everything from grape varietals you’ve never heard of to vintages with three-digit price tags.

If you haven’t signed up for a workshop or seminar — they sell out by the time the show opens — we’ve come up with a few strategies for getting the best wine tasting experience out of Ottawa’s Wine and Food Festival, with a few not-to-be missed stops in this weekend’s show.

1. Sparkling, white, red: If you really want to taste the wine, you need a bit of a plan. Start with cognac, and your taste buds will be thrown off. Bill Ellis, president of the National Capital Sommelier Guild, suggests starting with sparkling wines, then moving onto whites and finally reds — and if possible, from lighter bodied to fuller ones. “That gives the wine a bit of a chance,” he says.

Best in show: Alpine Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from New Zealand2. Search out the bling: Dozens and dozens of wines at the show have been awarded medals by a judging panel comprised of mostly local wine experts (including the Citizen’s Rod Phillips). Those attending Saturday’s show will get a taste of the best white and red in show — along with an amuse-bouche. But if you’d rather avoid the crowds, head right to the wine booths instead. In fact, if you could have a great time if all you tried were wines with a show medal around their necks. Keep an eye out! And whatever you do, don’t miss the best of the show. The white is the spectacular Alpine Valley 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and the red is Coyote’s Run 2010 Pinot Noir. They’re both 4 tasting tickets, and both available at the LCBO.

3. Make like a reporter: Ask a lot of questions! The folks at the tables love wine and they want nothing more than to tell you about their wines or wine-tasting in general. And ask other people at the show. If you run into acquaintances, trade recommendations. But ask strangers too — especially if you see them taking notes. Chances are they’re serious about their wine and they’ll be flattered if you ask for advice.

4. Invent a theme: If you don’t want to just wander blithely around, invent a little game for yourself. Try only wines that start with the same letter (for B, go to the DiVino Wine Studio booth, where they’re serving biscotti, barolo and brunello). Or sample only rieslings — you may be familiar with the ones from Ontario, but what about from New York state’s Finger lakes? Robert Ketchen has brought only award-winners from south of the border and has a range of different styles. Try the Glenora (all lemon peel), the more minerally, zippier Dr. Konstantin Frank and the Hosmer off-dry for a delicious — and different — riesling review. (All four tickets each.)

5. Go local: The LCBO does a much better job these days stocking Ontario wines, but there are still plenty that don’t make it to the retail shelves. You could have a fascinating all-Ontario time, especially if you asked for tastes of wines that aren’t in the LCBO. Start with the folks from Stanners Vineyards. They only make 1,000 cases a year in Prince Edward County. For three tickets, try their 2010 cabernet franc — to which “points miser” David Lawrason gave a 91 in Toronto Life magazine — or the beautifully balanced 2010 chardonnay.

6. Visit an unknown land: There are plenty of booths that are country specific, so if you ever wanted to explore the wines of New Zealand, France, Spain, Argentina, not to mention Tuscany or California, this is the time. But for something really different, go to Greece, the oldest wine-making country on the planet and still growing grapes no one has ever heard of. Start with the 2011 Moschofilero Boutari. That M-word? It’s a grape variety and the wine made from it is possibly the best deal at the show. Only three tickets, it retails at the LCBO for under $12, it’s a fresh, easy-drinking white a little reminiscent of pinot grigio. On the higher end, taste the 2009 Raminista made from Xinomarro. It’s a gorgeous red with wonderful tannins (four tickets).

7. Splurge on a vintage: Ever wondered what a $180 bottle of wine tastes like? You can find out for only 25 tickets ($12.50) at the LCBO’s Vintages booth. It’s a great place to try everything from the so-called Vintages Essentials (starting at four tickets a taste) to special bottles like that fabulous 2009 Sassicaia. And it can save you money, too. There was a $50 Pomerol from 1998 — the year my daughter was born. I thought of buying one to keep for when she came of age. But one taste, and it was apparent it’s not going to make it to next year, let alone her 19th birthday.

8. Share a sip: If you want to try a lot, as opposed to getting blotto, share with a friend. A one-ounce pour is more than enough for two people to taste what a wine is like, and it’s especially helpful to split the cost when trying those expensive vintages.

9. Get the inside scoop: If you’re really enjoying the wines at a certain booth, ask if they’ve got something a special behind the counter. Lots of winemakers will be keep a case of secret wine for either clients or people they like (so be nice!). I was wowed by the wines at Palatine Hills from Niagara — the 2010 Neufeld Vineyard Chardonnay is to die-for and only four tickets! — so winemaker Jeff Innes kindly poured by the 2011 sauvignon blanc. It’s six tickets, and worth every one for the bragging rights alone!

10. Things to remember: Enter the Ottawa Convention Centre from Colonel By Drive. The general wine tasting floor is on the third level, but before you head up there, be sure to check your coat check (cost $4). All tasting tickets cost 50 cents each and the best place to buy them is on the ground level. Remember, it’s a cash-only event! People are having a trouble finding enough ATMs on site.

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