i remember when it started. i had to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, i was standing in the nova scotia liquor commission and i realised that the only thing that i knew about wine was that there was the distinct possibility that someone who had no idea what they were doing could end up with something really awful.
it was fortunate that i ran into a friend of mine who imparted to me two key pieces of information:
with french or italian wines, you generally get what you pay for
chilean and australian wines are good deals for the price you pay
this was a long time ago- wines from previously unheralded regions of france now offer a less expensive option to those from bordeaux or burgundy and it's been years since anyone uttered the words "australian wine" and "good deal" in the same sentence without also including the phrase "used to". but what those two little pieces of advice did was spark my curiosity. it was at that moment that i realised that you did not have to be a wealthy snob or an anachronism to know about wine. someone in my peer group could do it. someone just like me.
i have never become what you'd call an expert. i probably know more than the average person on the street, but that's as far as i'll go. over the years, i've picked up favourite varietals and favourite regions, but i know nothing about what area had good years when, or which house produces the finest of each wine. i figure knowing about the very best wines is sort of pointless to me, since i can't afford them anyway (if that changes, i'm sure it'll mean that i have lots of free time to catch up). i'd really rather know what $10 isn't going to make me think i've just imbibed a glass of balsamic. and that's just a matter of trial and error.
in the course of my trialing and erroring, i've tried to sample wines, red and white, from as many different countries as i could, even ones that i'd never known to produce a single grape. sure, these countries might not have the grand history and established wineries, but what they produce is well cheaper and, if you consult a map, you'll notice, for instance, that croatia is just across the adriatic sea from italy.
what i noticed rather shamefacedly a few years ago was that i'd never actually tried the wines being produced in my own country. perhaps it was that natural canadian sense of humility and self-deprecation, but i'd always kind of assumed that canadian wines were simply a plot to make us all feel guilty and buy domestic and probably tasted like mineral oil with alcohol added. but, especially after i moved to ontario in 2002, it became evident that there were a lot of people who disagreed with me. canadian wines of various sorts were getting stellar reviews from publications and bloggers around the world. i started to feel like i'd messed up.
to be honest, i had tried one wine from ontario, but it was an ice wine, which is an entirely different beast. no one had to explain to me why canadian winemakers would have an advantage in producing the ice variety, but at about a hundred bucks a bottle, it's not the kind of thing you're going to be grabbing on the way to a casual dinner with friends.
before plunging in, i decided to give canadian wines the best shot they were going to get. at the time, that meant going ontario, since they were (and still are, although the grip has loosened) the centre of canadian wine production and the ones with the greatest amount of experience. i read up a little on the varietals available and what had received positive comments. i went with a red for no other reason than i tend to prefer reds. nothing i could find expressed a strong opinion on whether niagara region whites or reds were superior, so i figured i wasn't doing anything wrong.
unfortunately, despite all my careful preparation, i ended up with something that tasted vaguely like what i remember communion wine tasting like- wine in name only. there are good wines and bad wines. the sheer glut of information available on winemaking means that you're unlikely to get anything too horrible, just bland, but this brought bland to a whole new level.
needless to say, i didn't rush back in for seconds, but a few months later, i got a bottle of wine as a christmas present through a work colleague and i decided that i might have simply picked wrong on my first try. if memory serves, after a valiant effort, that bottle ended its life in a stew and even the stew was kind of bland. 0 for 2.
a friend who knows a lot more about wine than i do suggested that i should be giving consideration to the climate of the niagara region. rather than just taking the vintners' word for it, i should think about what other areas of the world have similar climates and work from there. her suggestion was that i should try wines similar to those from northeastern france and germany, since these were areas that had similarly chilly winters and cool, wet springs. the key here is that i should have been sticking to white wines (as those regions do) and specific types of grape like riesling and gewurztraminer. so, with some trepidation, i gave it a shot.
i should add that this experimentation comes at a price. that is not a metaphor for anything. canadian wines, even on their home ground, are surprisingly expensive. one of the reasons that i took so long between attempts to like my native grog is that i was constantly faced with the question of whether to take a chance on the home team or to grab a perfectly serviceable bottle of plonk at half the price from chile, spain or my new darling, argentina .
sadly, i didn't find that the whites fared any better than their red cousins. i had one slightly-better-than-mediocre experience with some wine served at a company function, but the most i can say is that it didn't make me want to spit up in my glass. i wasn't rushing to take it home. other bottles i received, always as business-related christmas gifts (i swear they give out deals on bulk purchases at this time), ended up in my pots and pans rather than my glasses.
last summer, i was looking to grab a bottle of viognier, my absolute favourite type of white wine. finding these can be a dicey affair at the best of times, since there aren't all that many to begin with and not every location has them even when they are available. when i went to my liquor shop, i was sad to find that they were not apparently in the offing that week. (all this is government-run in canada, which i won't get into now, but it means that, other than for basics, you're forced to shop in government-run shops for your potables.) one of the store's helpful staff suggested a viognier/ chardonnay blend to me (NOT the same thing, even when done well), a product of ontario. i wanted to say no, but i also really felt like a nice viognier, so i decided i might as well give it a shot. wouldn't it be ironic, i thought, if the one varietal my countrymen could do well happened to be the one i love the most? yeah, that would have been ironic, if it had turned out to be true. mark down another one for some pasta vongole.
it's a sad situation, really. here i am a canadian who genuinely likes the range of flavours in a good wine and the only country whose wines i make a point of avoiding is my own. i wonder if people in france or italy or even australia feel this way. actually, i'm pretty sure that you lose your citizenship in europe if you don't like the homegrown.
a couple of weeks ago, i was in my local liquor store, searching for a nice bottle of wine to have with a nice dinner. "nice" in this case means that i was willing to go a little bit higher than my normal budget. there was one bottle i was looking at that had a delicious-sounding description and an impressive set of press clippings pinned next to its display. even with my extended budget, it was a bit more than i wanted to pay for something that was going to be devoured that night, but at the same time, i didn't just want to fall back on one of my usual choices. tonight i dared to be different.
as i was contemplating how much i was willing to pay for a new adventure, i took a better look at the bottle and groaned. "product of british columbia". i was disappointed, but also surprised, because the description didn't sound like anything even close to what i'd tasted from canada. at the same moment, one of the store employees noticed what i was doing and said "oh you have to get that one". huh? "it's amazing." really? i'd never heard anyone, even employees who were told to push the national product, describe a canadian wine as amazing.
of course, i remembered that this was the same store that made the dodgy chardonnay- viognier recommendation, so i was a little hesitant, but what won out was that the employee who said the wine was amazing was really cute and i'm convinced that everyone, even those like me who are in a happy relationship, is more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who's easy on the eyes.
and thus did i make my first foray into the world of british columbian wines. unlike ontario, there is a sort of geographical logic to winemaking in b.c. after all, it is adjacent to well-known american winemaking regions in the pacific northwest. but i guess i'd been living with the impression that there was something north of the 49th parallel that made the wine bad. but now i can say that, in at least one case, i was wrong. this wine was delicious. incredibly so. both of us agreed that it was one of the better bottles we'd had in months. and, although it was pricier than a standard bottle of dinner wine, i have to admit, the flavour was comparable with wines that sell for a lot more. so perhaps, in my traiterous, wine-soaked heart, i may yet nurse the spark of national pride.
you can see the bottle that won me over here (french only) or see the scant information available on the winery (call for a tour!) here.