Sommelier School and Washington Whites

Sommelier School and Washington Whites

While most wine drinkers, buyers and sellers have booked off for a summer hiatus—to finally sit back and enjoy those great value rieslings, rosés and sauvignon blancs— a group of Toronto sommeliers are in summer school, with no relief on hot days. They are the second class to register for the intensive 39-week Sommelier Certificate Program at George Brown College, offered in conjunction with the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers. This trade association has chapters in Toronto and Montreal, with links to similar European organizations. Certified members of CAPS can compete in the annual Meilleur Sommelier du Monde Competition being held next year in Spain.

I am currently teaching an eight-week segment on New World wines, and enjoying every minute of it. It is a treat to spend five hours tasting with 15 to 20 people who are so passionate and inquisitive. Almost all from this group are currently working in Toronto restaurants, and naming some of those restaurants is the best way to point you to eateries where wine is obviously important. The biggest supporter of sommelier education is Jamie Kennedy, who has encouraged a half dozen of his staff to attendthis and the previous program. Others are Auberge au Pommier, Scaramouche, Canoe, The Fifth, Splendido, the York Club, Aeli, and Olive & Lemon.

Last week we studied the Pacific Northwest—including Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It’s a dynamic, rapidly growing geographic wine block vastly under-represented in Ontario. Sharing common topography—Pacific Ocean influences, mountains and hot, arid rain-shadowed interiors—the wines’ similarities are much more important than national or state boundaries in defining the Pacific Northwest style. That style involves pure fruit expression, firm northern acidity and less alcohol (normally) than you will find in California. It’s a zone that combines New World and European influences in the bottle.

Back in the ’90s, Toronto was the largest export market for Oregon pinot noir— supported by Pacific Northwest Wine fairs—but all that evaporated when U.S. prices went sky high during the boom and our dollar was weak. Washington state, which is celebrating Washington Wine Month, has made some attempts to get a foothold in Ontario but struggles with our indifference. Red-hot B.C. meanwhile, has had very little wine or any inclination to export to Ontario. But hope is rekindled with a special release of Pacific Northwest wines at Vintages on August 19. I have not tasted these yet but will report when I do.

For now, here are some interesting whites from Washington’s Columbia Valley that are currently on shelf. Hogue 2005 Pinot Grigio ***1/2 ($12.85 LCBO) is a clean, polished, delicious young screwcap white bursting with peach-nectarine fruit set in a creamy, squeaky clean frame. No great complexity or depth but loads of fruit and very good value. Chateau Ste. Michelle 2005 Riesling **** ($16.95, Vintages) is also very polished, with generous, pure peach-apricot aromas, white flowers and a touch of riesling petrol. It’s an off-dry version fashioned for American taste in riesling (Canadians are more open to driers styles), yet well balanced, focused and thoroughly enjoyable. L’Ecole 41 2004 Barrel Fermented Semillon **** ($24.95 Vintages) is a different beast, a whopper with over 14% alcohol. It’s loaded with peat smoke, honey, fig and butterscotch caramel aromas, set in a creamy, almost satiny frame. A great grilling white.