The Toronto Taste Challenge

The Toronto Taste Challenge

It’s usually the Maple Leafs who put their reputations on the line at the Air Canada Centre, but Monday there was an event of career importance to over 200 of Toronto’s wine professionals. The city’s top palates gathered in the Platinum Club overlooking centre ice to compete in a blind tasting challenge for about $80,000 in wine-related prizes. It was free to any and all aspirants, with seven international wines presented to professionals, three to amateurs, with both groups also having to identify three Canadian VQA wines. With each wine, contestants had to identify grape variety (four points), country of origin (three points), region or specific appellation (two points) and vintage date (one point).

Now in its third year, The Wine Tasting Challenge is presented by the Rennaissance Project, a program backed by Via Allegro‘s Phil Sabatino and wine importer Howard Wasserman of B&W Wines to raise Toronto’s profile as a culinary destination. The competition is administered by the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticultural Institute at Brock University, with Toronto Life being one of several sponsors. Toronto Life will announce the winners in an upcoming issue, and I will keep you posted as to when that will be.

As a representative of the magazine, I wasn’t able to compete for the prizes (including a trip to Tuscany to visit Antinori) but I stuck my nose into the glasses—and into other people’s business—in order to convey some of the colour, aroma, texture and angst of a blind tasting competition. As competitor Alex Evans, sommelier at Boba said: “It was very humbling indeed.” Lesley Provost, a recent grad of the Canadian Association of Sommelier program at George Brown College, said, “I was waiting for at least one wine to jump and be dead easy. But none did. So I had to do it the hard way by making a series of deductions with each wine.”

It was indeed difficult. There should almost be a 10-minute limbering-up process at these things. For the first while I felt stuck in neutral, so I tried to get into the zone by smelling and tasting all the wines, making side notes, before committing my final guesses. I only easily recognized two reds, from Spain and Italy, where the grape varieties are out of the mainstream French and New World varieties.

Differentiation between Old and New World styling has long been the divining rod in the blind taster’s quiver. By the book, New World wine should be riper, higher in alcohol, and softer, with Europe showing higher acidity, less ripeness, more minerality. But this day the differences were not at all obvious. Defending champ Roger Torriero, a researcher and writer with the LCBO, put it perfectly. “It was very difficult because of the trend to blurring of Old and New World styles” he explained, and he is absolutely correct. Those who are concerned about global homogeny of wine style may have a point.

I was having real trouble in particular with the younger reds that showed the bright, ripe sweet fruit of the New World warmer climes, then also showed the firm acidity and minerality that had me thinking France. I could have sworn that lighter, inexpensive Argentine malbec was a ripe 2005 Cotes du Rhone, and that beautifully ripe, light Chinon cabernet franc from the Loire was sturdy village Beaujolais. And that the South African gooseberry-scented sauvignon blanc was a Loire Pouilly Fume. (I did, however, nail the three Canadian wines, missing only one vintage date.)

Torriero also summed it well by saying, “It depends on the day.” The potential variables of a particular terroir, winemaking technique, condition of the individual bottle, the mood of the taster, who chose the wines and why, are so enormous that no outcome can be assured. So what it is the point of the exercise? As true hockey fans might appreciate, it’s in the playing of the game. Blind tasting is the sport of wine appreciation pure and simple, and has very little to do with being able to assess quality, value, what wine will go with dinner, or should be given to Aunt Emma on her next birthday.

For a list of what wines were poured, and other details please go to