By Richard Healy

Ben Edwards in action.


From the end of the bar at Collins Quarter on the Paris end of Collins St in Melbourne I suddenly felt nervous. It’s that kind of unexpected nerves you get during an exam for no reason other than you’re in a situation where you want things to go well. In this instance the nerves stemmed from catching a glimpse of The Wine Guide team in action as I pulled out a select bag of VQA wines for their well trained palates.

But why so nervous?

I had nothing to gain from the tasting. I am in no way attached to the wines I was showing these two world class Sommeliers and I stood to gain nothing from these guys tasting the wines.

Well, much like the wines of Margaret River, I now am super impressed and stand behind the quality of the wines coming out of Niagara. Sure the wines from Canada usually warrant a 15 minute thumb nail description during most wine courses but I have been impressed consistently VQA wines over the past five years or so… and, I wanted these guys to be impressed also.

Dan Sims (a.k.a Hollywood), my former Head Sommelier at Fifteen Melbourne and all around nice guy, called Ben Edwards a.k.a The Wine Guru across after he finished his guest speaking spot in front of an enraptured dining audience at Collins Quarter. They had just completed an Australia vs. Italy lunch in the courtyard on a pristine late spring day.

Having just zipped through some top Italian reds and their Australian equivalents (yes, there are such wines) they had certainly tasted some outstanding stuff, including Nick Stock’s new wine.

Ben and Dan are neither Master Sommeliers nor Masters of Wine, yet I regard them in the same category.

Ben judges everywhere (seemingly) and Dan is a busy consultant amongst other things. The amount of wine these guys taste rattles my teeth enamel at just the thought. They don’t mess around when it comes to the grape juice…and they have super high standards.

As I pulled out my selection of wines, which were donated by suppliers or producers, their eyes lit up.

I had come up with this idea of the tasting as I knew these top tier VQA wines have never been on the continent of Australia ever before. Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure these are first for down there and would classify as esoteric for these guys.

We rattled through how the VQA was structured and how Niagara was as a region in terms of size, terroir and so on. I’m not going to lie I did a whack of reading for these guys before the tasting but they certainly had more questions than I had answers. That’s the nature of The Wine Guide team.

I’m getting to the wine now… I will tell you that one producer was really well received.

In fact I’m quite pleased to say that they ended up enjoying the wines so much that the bottles were soon circulating the room amongst the afternoon guests!

So what were the wines? In order of the tasting, as dictated by Ben, they were:

2007 Tawse”Quarry Road” Chardonnay
2007 Tawse “Van Bers Vineyard” Cabernet Franc
2007 Stratus Cabernet Franc
2007 Hidden Bench “Terroir Cache” Bordeaux Blend
2008 Charles Baker “Picone Vineyard” Riesling

As I type this I start to wish I had anyone of these wines in front of me now. I love all of these wines, yet I am biased. I have visited both Tawse and Stratus upon many an occasion. I also have stated recently that Hidden Bench is my favourite Ontario producer… full stop.

Their Nuit Blanche may be my favourite Canadian white ever.

I also think that Charles Baker is a true gentleman; since the very first day I met him when I was waiting tables at the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. I have always been partial to his Germanic styled Riesling at any time of day. It is amazing as a solo act or sensational with a diverse range of food. I like this wine a lot and have done for years.

The wines from Tawse kicked the tasting off in a positive fashion. Ben and Dan were really impressed by the quality of the cool climate 2007 Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay and impressed by the winemaking that had gone into the wine. I loved the integration of the oak with fruit with the classic Niagara acidity.

I’m confident to say that they were taken aback by the first wine. Sure they taste wines all the time but this might well be the first time they tasted anything VQA… plus sommeliers love anything from outside of the box and for them this is certainly that.

The 2007 Tawse Van Bers Vineyard Cabernet Franc may now be my favourite VQA red going currently after this tasting. I honestly had pre- conceptions about Cabernet Franc in general and I started to introduce the wine as “pyrazine this, pyrazine that”.

Quite quickly the quality of the work done in the vineyards at Tawse came to show that this Cabernet Franc had none of the that green capsicum business at all; and Ben was quick to tell me that.

Promptly they realised this was not the Cabernet Franc style of the Loire but a more vibrant, juicier, deeply-fruited red wine. Smartly, I learned not to lead these guys through the tasting as I came to realise that these guys pretty much taste for their livings.

The first two wines, it’s safe to say were a hit. My nervousness had dissipated entirely and I was enjoying the tasting, as Ben and Dan were, I’m sure.

We moved onto the 2007 Stratus Cabernet Franc…

Here the style really shifted from the lush fruit and perfume of the Tawse to a more savoury style. Earth and game were noted along with layers of red fruit. The two styles stood apart and really showed the diversity of the variety. For me I was stunned at the ripeness achieved from each producer. Cabernet Franc is now on my hit list from Niagara! In a good way.

Around this stage I mentioned to the guys that I would be typing this up for Good Food Revolution and that they may have met Jamie down at the Pinot Camp in Wellington New Zealand. They looked stumped for a few seconds and I repeated myself again. Ben finally clicked and spluttered “That crazy guy who always sends me weird links?! The guy who eats insects?!” I think Ben was referring to Charlie Burger’s insect night!

We moved onto the 2007 Hidden Bench “Terroir Cache” Bordeaux Blend which may or may not go well with insects; we would have to ask Jamie that. This wine was suffering a little bit from the dreaded brettanomyces. I wanted to fight through it and taste past it as I love the wines of Hidden Bench so much but these guys were not having any of it. Shame really. This said I don’t necessarily dismiss all wines with brettanomyces, in fact at lower levels I like the complexity it adds.

Finally we move onto my favourite wines of the day. The 2008 Charles Baker “Picone Vineyard” Riesling. Dan and Ben were suitably impressed by Mr. Baker’s wine. It showed purity of variety< refreshing acidity balanced with just enough residual sugar. I could write about this wine for paragraphs. Sure, it’s not Joh. Jos. Prum, but I would put it up against a wine of that calibre in a blind tasting any day.

At this stage of the tasting we had managed to attract the chef (who had been to Toronto and loved both Canoe and Susur) and some “mildly” inebriated patrons, it was 5pm on a sunday afternoon in Melbourne so one has to understand that this is pretty much par for the course…

One particular woman, a recent graduate of the educational courses from The Wine Guide, zipped through the wines. She spoke to the wines like a seasoned sommelier and really impressed me. This just goes to speak of the quality not only of the wines but of the educational team at The Wine Guide. This lady said her favourite wine was the 2007 Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay. In fact it seems Tawse may have a new set of fans in Melbourne. They were be far and away the crowd favourite from the group. Which speaks volumes about the work which is taking place down there at the vineyards (almost certified biodynamic) and within the winery itself. It’s not often wine professionals have zero pre conceptions about wines and for Tawse to come out clearly preferred is indicative of all that hard work.

My thanks go out to the kind donations from the suppliers and to Dan Sim and Ben Edwards for their valuable time and valuable palates.

Richard Healy is a full time student, who also happens to work as a sommelier at the Air Canada Centre. Whilst teaching the W.S.E.T courses he is always preparing for the next exam.