Gretzky, Brazil and New Zealand

Gretzky, Brazil and New Zealand

Wine of the WeekWayne Gretzky Estates 2006 No. 99 Unoaked Chardonnay, Ontario ($13.95, 83 points, 63826)Celebrity, not quality, demands this wine be Wine of the Week, especially as it was just released Monday at the LCBO. I have always admired Wayne Gretzky as a quality hockey player and human being, and I still do, but I don’t admire the wine bearing his name and team sweater number. As always, my job is to assess what’s in the bottle and this is a mediocre, coarse, resinous, dry white. Like others in the growing family of Ontario celebrity wines (Dan Aykroyd, Mike Weir) there is no glaring fault except for a lack of joy (and fruit). The companion merlot released yesterday is just as mediocre—green and lean—definitely not as “lush and rounded” as back label claims. I hope Wayne brings his sense of class to bear when he begins to produce wines from his own winery, which is purportedly on the drawing board. For now, the wine is made at Willow Heights.

Until Wayne Gretzky’s wines showed up Monday, I was going to devote this week’s column to a fascinating day of international tastings last Friday involving Brazil and New Zealand. And having tasted Wayne’s wines I still will do just that.

There was a splashy launch of Brazilian wine at the no-longer-revolving Toulà restaurant atop the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. It was the first foray into Ontario for the Brazilian wine industry, which boasts an incredible 900+ wineries and 87,000 hectares of vineyards—about eight times the size of Ontario’s industry. Who knew? Actually, Ontario is about the last to know. A group of leading Brazilian wineries banded together to take their message to the world in 2002. I expect they find the LCBO a foreboding fortress to penetrate and were saving us for last.

I also expected Brazilian wine to be hot, flabby and low in acid, given the sub-tropical 30-degree latitude of its vineyards in the southern part of the country against the Uruguay border. But due to a humid, cloudy environment and higher altitude vineyards, the wines had fresher acidity and were lower in alcohol than I even imagined—quite different from the sun-baked and often hot wines of Chile and Argentina. My interest is tweaked and I will now be keeping watch as the wines begin penetrate the market next year.

The buzz is that we can expect to see some Brazilian wines show up in Vintages during 2008. In the meantime, importer Neil Fortes of Wineworld seems most of on top of it all, representing three of the eight wineries that showed up last week. I liked the wines from a company called Miolo, especially a nifty little cabernet-merlot called Duetto that should land here at about $15. Don Laurindo also impressed, although at a higher price range. The ambitiously priced $100+ Gran Reserva 2002, comprised of 80 per cent tannat and an Italian grape called ancellotta, was the best wine of the day.

From Brazil, I walked up Bay Street to lunch in New Zealand at The National Club, where the affable Andrew Hendry of Coopers Creek had laid out some new varietal wines showing promise in the clean, green land. New Zealand was the fastest-growing category at the LCBO last year, and I know why. The vast majority of its wines are clean, exuberant and fresh—a style Coopers Creek has been putting in the bottle for almost 20 years.

Most exciting this day was the Coopers Creek 2007 Arneis ($22.95, 91 points,) also called the Little Rascal, the translation of the name of this Italian grape from the Piedmont region. Arneis is often known for its searing acidity, which shone through brilliantly amid the lush fruit of this example from the Gisborne region. This is sub-tropical, humid appellation creates lavish, ripe whites, especially gewürztraminer and chardonnay. The Coopers Creek 2007 Viognier, Gisborne ($19.95, 90 points, coming to Vintages in May 2008) was virtually as good, with classic lime, lychee and nectarine; as was the 2007 Pinot Gris called The Pointer from Marlborough ($21.95, 89 points), with incredible aromas of peach, tangerine and fresh dill.

Among reds, Mr. Hendry showed a new 2006 Chalk Ridge Syrah, Hawkes Bay ($24.95, 88 points) with generous Rhone-like smokiness and a firm, slightly lean texture; plus a quite opulent 2006 Huapai Malbec, Hawkes Bay ($24.95, 89 points). Limited quantities of these experimental wines dictate they will hardly be flowing in the streets of Toronto any time soon, but to keep track of their progress contact importer Noble Estates