The twenty-minute rule

In the last posting of Vintages release tasting notes (WVN 241) I referred to the practice of serving red wines in a slightly chilled state.

This requires some explanation…

In the Old World it was always the practice to serve wine at room temperature. This generally meant wines were served at the temperature they achieved when removed from the (coolish) cellar, wherever that may have been.  Invariably this temperature was below the air temperature but above the temperature inside the refrigerator.

All this is to say a temperature of 11-13 degrees was likely the norm for red wines and somewhat cooler for whites.

How does this translate to today’s practices?  This is where the twenty-minute rule comes in…

The twenty-minute rule is normally associated with the notion of spending 20 minutes each day on some form of personal improvement activity – building knowledge, building your network, doing a physical activity such as running or walking, pursuing  a new business idea, etc.  In other words, using a small amount of time each day on a continuous, disciplined basis to work towards a personal goal.

In the world of wine the twenty-minute rule has its own meaning.  This is a rule I learned from commentary made by Véronique Rivest, a Canadian who was a finalist in the World’s Best Sommelier competition in 2013.

Rivest has a reputation for her down-to-earth manner and her brilliant palate and she occasionally is heard on radio as a wine expert. On the occasion I speak of she articulated one of the most valuable and simple pieces of wine lore I have encountered: the twenty-minute rule.

The Rivest twenty-minute rule goes like this:

  • For white wines keep them in the refrigerator until 20 minutes before you plan to serve. Take out the bottle and place it on the table. This way the wine will warm slightly so the aromas and flavours have more expression in the glass.
  • For red wines put the bottle in the refrigerator 20 minutes before you plan to serve so the contents cool slightly. This way you will achieve some form of Old World room temperature, just as you might if you had just pulled the wine from your cellar. The wine will present freshness that will delight, regardless of the age or grape variety.

Try it… it works!

To see Mme. Rivest in action watch this video:

It’s a spellbinding, if not humbling, 12-minute performance.  Despite the pressure she retains her poise


à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2016.

LCBO Vintages release – April 18, 2015 (WVN 214)


My wife proudly suggested I write on this topic. I will explain shortly the background for this unusual suggestion but first let me explain the term.

Ullage is the space between the bottom of the closure (cork or screw-cap) and the top surface of the wine in the bottle. Jancis Robinson calls this the head space or, any space inside the stoppered bottle not occupied by wine. Normally this space is small but over time it will increase in size, at least in bottles stoppered by corks.

Cork is a tightly-grained natural closure material and while its texture is dense, there is some porosity and cork quality/porosity can vary widely. Porosity allows some entry of air into the wine bottle and this helps with maturation of wines that are expected to improve with age.

As a wine ages in the bottle the level of the wine can subside so that a small amount of ullage (say ¼ of an inch when young) can increase to the point where the wine level falls to the shoulder of the bottle (a Bordeaux bottle in this example). When there is an obvious, pronounced head space in a wine bottle, regardless of its age, it can be a warning yellow light of concern: is the cork defective resulting in a faulted wine? For instance, has the wine oxidized to a degree where it is no longer good; or, is the cork so poor that the wine may be corked (i.e. cork taint)?

Wines at auction are often rejected by the auctioneer even before the event if there is pronounced ullage, simply because this is a possible sign of a flawed wine. If there is doubt about a wine’s condition it is rejected.

This past weekend I was packaging my wine cellar for an upcoming relocation and I have considered donating some of my wines to an upcoming auction. With the possibility of the auction donation I checked each bottle of the older wines for evidence of wider-than-normal head space. One bottle stood out so I decided to put it aside and serve it with dinner that evening.

This brings me to my wife’s idea that I write about ullage.

When I opened the bottle I was disappointed. I asked my wife – who prides herself on having no powers of discernment when it comes to wine assessment – to smell the glass and tell me what she smelled.

Without hesitation she said it smelled like a wet basement.

Bingo! I was astounded at this hidden prowess!

Wet basement is the classic description of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) or cork taint. Cork taint is the most common reason wines are returned in restaurants and is the primary factor for widespread adoption of screw cap closures in the wine industry.

My wife was very proud and I was very impressed. Hence the suggestion for this little piece on ullage.

This taint is caused by exposure to chlorine, either in the process of sterilizing the corks without adequate rinsing or due to ambient chlorine residues in the winery. Suffice it to say taint is bad. Tainted wines are stinky – not something you wish to endure, regardless of price.

Suffice it to say, also, this is why ullage is important and why it is a helpful guide when considering wine quality.

April 18, 2105 Release Selections

Ontario, Niagara – VQA Beamsville Bench Cave Spring Vineyard CSV Riesling 2012

I will be up-front. This wine defines the genre: run-don’t-walk! This is my perennial favourite Ontario Riesling (and I say something to the same effect every time CSV appears on Vintages shelves). While it is medium is sugar content (apparently the sugar level is 14 g/L, barely above off-dry) this is a delight as there is enormous natural acid in the wine. This is a wonderfully-balanced wine with intense aromatics and an expressive palate. This is a wine which will age for years. It has concentrated lime and green apple fruit and a firm minerality which is a hallmark of the soils of the Beamsville Bench. The finish is long and precise. Pricy? Not at all. This wine has held the same $29.95 price for at least the past 6 years.

Medium, white wine – $29.95 per bottle

France, Alsace– AOC Alsace Hugel & Fils Riesling 2012

Hugel is one of the member families of the small international association of family-owned wineries known as Primum Familiae Vini (PVF). This association is a unique body comprising a maximum of twelve members each of which must be a family-owned enterprise known for the highest quality wine and brand value. Presently the membership is eleven in number and includes the families of Antinori, Torres, Symington, Perrin, Rothschild (Mouton, that is), Drouhin, Rocchetta (Sassicaia), Pol Roger, etc. I think you get a sense of the noble names. This wine is a classic Alsatian Riesling with brilliant citrus and tree-fruit aromas and flavours, flinty minerality and bright acid. The texture is crisp and the finish is very long. I called this a classic but I note, also, that it is very classy!

Extra dry, white wine – $24.95 per bottle

Australia, South Australia – Thorn-Clarke Barossa Valley Shotfire Quartage 2012

This wine is made from a Bordeaux blend, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon along with small proportions of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. It is an intense wine with lots of flavor and complexity. It has oodles of blackcurrant fruit, coffee, some mint and black cherry on the nose and palate. The structure is solid with firm tannins, juicy acid and a long finish. Well done!

Extra dry, red wine – $21.95 per bottle

New Zealand, Hawkes Bay, North Island – C. J. Pask Gimblett Road Syrah 2013

Hawkes Bay is a small, warm zone on the north island, noted, among other things, for the work done by C.J. Pask who was a pioneer in making Bordeaux style reds in the area. This wine is made with a grape that has shown great results in the warm climate of Hawkes Bay: Syrah. This is Old World in style: bright fruit, crisp acid, modest tannins and modest evidence of winemaking intervention. It has the blackberry fruit, black pepper, violet and earthy character of Syrah with sound balance and a clean finish. Very nice.

Extra-dry, red wine – $21.95 per bottle

Spain, Ribera del Duero – DO Ribera del Duero Torres Altos Ibéricos Crianza 2012

Torres is another PFV member (wines from this group are featured in this weekend’s Vintages release). This is a pretty wine with bright fruit, modest, well-integrated oak, medium body weight and an attractive, inviting mouth feel. The fruit character is of concentrated ripe black and red berry, the texture is light, soft and juicy and the finish is medium long and bright. This will be an excellent summer red. Buy lots at this attractive price.

Dry, red wine – $16.95 per bottle

à bientôt…

Copyright © W. John Switzer 2003 – 2015

Big news… for wine Ontario

The current issue of Decanter magazine features an article on the best Chardonnays (outside Burgundy).

The article reports the results of a recent tasting by three leaders in Burgundy/Chardonnay/New World wines: Stephen Brook, Jasper Morris MW and Steven Spurrier.

Brook is an expert on many regions including California; Morris is the director of buying for the ancient (ca. 1698) London-based wine merchant, Berry Brothers & Rudd, and is the author of one of the modern references on Burgundy, Inside Burgundy (2010); Spurrier, of course, is known throughout the wine world for many things but is perhaps most famous as the man who put California wines on the map with the now-legendary Judgement of Paris.

The tasting covered some 80 wines from around the world made with the Chardonnay grape : Argentina, Australia, California, Chile, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Ontario. The wines were selected for tasting by an editorial panel independent of the tasters and they were tasted blind – the only thing the judges knew was grape variety and alcohol level.

There was no pattern where one region or style dominated the results. The best wines were distributed widely across the zones represented in the tasting with two Canadian wines achieving high scores. These wines were a Norman Hardie Prince Edward County 2012 (named a best-value wine by the judges) and a VQA Niagara Peninsula Tawse Estate 2011. In fact, the judges recorded the unexpectedly strong performances by wines from Lombardy and Niagara as the only surprises in the competition.

The panel selected a New Zealand Chard as the top wine of the tasting: Martinborough Vineyard Martinborough Terrace 2012.  This wine was cited for “finely expressed summer fruits”, “invigorating raciness and minerality”, “discreet oak influence… to support the structure of the wine” and a “long finish”. I have always considered Martinborough as an under-appreciated region and this performance demonstrates the quality and style delivered by makers in this place.

There were two runners’-up: a Lombardy Chardonnay made by the esteemed maker of Franciacorta, Ca’ del Bosco, and… the Niagara Chardonnay made by Tawse Estate (!).

This is a big deal: not only does this result demonstrate that a wine from Ontario can perform admirably against some of the best Chardonnays made anywhere, but most importantly this assessment is made by top-tier international judges – who bring no predisposed bias to the process.

The Tawse was described as showing ripe citrus and pineapple aromas – quite exotic with attractive florality. Good attack, with concentrated fruit and high acidity, showing real intensity and pungency. Discreet, fresh and very persistent. An extremely classy wine.

Classy, indeed! Hearty congratulations are due to vigneron Moray Tawse and winemaker Paul Pender. A big huzzah should also be extended to Noman Hardie for the strong showing of his PEC Chard.

Well done, Ontario!

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2015.

I like to count things

This weekend marks the second issue of WVN which will never be sent. The memory will live on however as I have decided to attach a WVN number to each set of Vintages release notes I post at my blog,

Just as J-S Bach’s ouevre is classified in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnissystem (BWV) catalogue, developed in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder, so too, Mozart’s works have been classified under the Köchel catalogue since it was developed by in the late 19th century by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel.

With these great precedents in mind I have decided to keep running the edition numbers for the now-defunct Winesights Vintages Newsletter.

In this case you will see each posting of my LCBO Vintages release notes recorded parenthetically as WVN 196 and so on (note, my first blog post in the new regime wasn’t numbered).

I am an accountant by training and I gain unmeasurable satisfaction from counting things.

Thank you for your forbearance.

à bientôt…
Copyright © W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014

On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog

In case you didn’t know already the clock is ticking on the life of the printed word, especially as it relates to wine writing. This is a timely look at blogging, wine-style.

I have noted in the past the growth in digital wine resources available on the web and the number of active professional and amateur wine bloggers continues to churn. Note I didn’t say the number continues to grow. Most amateur bloggers start with a flurry of activity and soon lose interest and their blog goes into hibernation. Nonetheless, for many of those bloggers who persevere and develop a following the quality of their efforts evolves in a most impressive fashion.

As WVN migrates full-time to the blogosphere it reminds me of some of the factors that have kept me away from this space.


The caption for this article refers to the most reproduced cartoon published in the New Yorker magazine (according to Wikipedia). This cartoon shows a dog sitting on a chair at a desktop computer where he is typing while speaking to a second dog sitting beside the desk. Dog 1 says to dog 2, “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

This cartoon was drawn by Peter Steiner and was first printed in the New Yorker in July 1993. Steiner was ahead of his time and his creative piece has spawned an array of like-minded cartoons including the drawing of a man sitting dejectedly at his desktop computer with his wife saying to him “Maybe nobody goes to your website because it’s all about you”.

Between dogs impersonating as sages and struggling self-indulgent webbies there is a ton of noise on the internet and it is a difficult place to navigate if you seek original, informative and reliable content.

An event that is growing in its scale as the blog phenomenon continues to flourish is the annual Wine Bloggers Conference. This year’s event will be held in Santa Barbara in early July and will attract some 400 bloggers from around the world. This will be the seventh edition of the conference and the agenda covers a wide range of wine and food themes as well as topics such as search engine optimization, social media for the wine blogger and a panel of professional print writers (!).

Leading to the event the conference organizers conduct a survey of bloggers. This survey takes the pulse of the wine blog space and provides some interesting data on who these people are, their motivations and their degree of success.

This year’s survey has not yet been published but the 2013 survey report was titled State of Wine Blogging Report. 256 bloggers responded to the 32 question survey and of these the majority were citizen bloggers (people like me) along with some small business owners and corporate bloggers.

Responses came from all over the world with the US, Canada and Europe representing the bulk of the respondents. 62% of respondents were male and 64% were under 50 years of age.

The background of bloggers was split with roughly 48% coming from a food or wine background and approximately 43% having a professional writing or editing pedigree.
44% of the respondents were experienced bloggers with over 4 years of blogging on their odometer. On the other hand 25% of the bloggers had been posting of less than 2 years.

An amazing 3% of bloggers post updates several times a day. 24% update their site 2-3 times weekly while 31% blog once per week. The rest are less frequent in their rate of posting.

As for content 76% of bloggers post wine reviews, 71% write wine stories and 67% write about wine travel. Food and wine pairing content ranked 4th in this category at 66% while 48% of bloggers write about wine business.

Wine was the motivating interest for 82% of the bloggers in the survey. Other motivators included To have a voice (51%), To create a name for myself in the world of wine (45%) or Writing is my passion (39%). Note, more than one response option was offered in the survey for this and the previous question.

How do bloggers measure success?

• The most important measure was personal satisfaction: 80%
• The second most important measure was number of unique visitors: 63%
• A crowd of responses indicated number of shares, number of links and number of comments were all valuable measure of success.

To generate traffic to their site bloggers use social media to a significant degree with 84% of respondents using Twitter and 75% using Facebook. These two channels are considered more effective as drivers of traffic generated than either LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest or Google Plus. Many bloggers are very effective at attracting followers with the average number of Twitter followers recorded at over 3000 and a media number of over 1600.

Social media are affective as sources of traffic with the average number of unique visitors among all respondents reported at 5380 per month and the median at 1475 per month.

Despite good traffic volumes 70% of bloggers report no monthly revenue and another 18% recording less that $200 per month. 3 survey responses reported monthly blog revenue of over $2000 per month. For those bloggers who report revenue the largest number generated earnings through freelance writing, advertising sales, brand promotion for clients and sale of books or e-books. In all cases these respondents succeeded by building a credible blog presence which enabled the blogger to create sources of off-blog income.

The final question probed what has changed since respondents started blogging. The most notable change is the growth in use of social media, along with increased use of photography. A third area of change is the increased consumption of other bloggers sites.
This takes me back to my point: there is so much content on the blogosphere that you could spend all your waking hours checking out sites. In the meantime a great way to get a glimpse into the variety and quality of this growing arena is to visit the website for the annual Wine Blog Awards where you will find the finalists across all categories: The Awards are sponsored by the same people who host the Wine Bloggers Conference. The Awards were founded in 2008 by Tom Wark, the host of the blog, one of today’s most sound and informative blogs. There are several categories up for grabs and the Awards site has a link to the blog spot for each finalist in this year’s awards. There is some wonderfully creative material out there…

After last year’s Wine Bloggers Conference Tom Wark observed “The term blogger will more and more come to take on a pejorative meaning in the next few years as it continues to be the term associated with an amateur who should be taken lightly.” (

With that comment in mind, perhaps the way to wrap this piece is with another New Yorker dog/internet cartoon caption. Two dogs are sitting on the floor having a chat. One says to the other, “had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking.” (September 2005).


à bientôt…
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.


The end is nigh

WVN banner 062114 (2)In my newsletter this week I have written the following:

This is the last edition of my newsletter to be distributed as an email attachment.
I started writing the Winesights Vintages Newsletter on December 8, 2005 with a readership of some 11 friends (most of whom still receive the bi-weekly update).

The first words from my digital pen read as follows:

“My friends and colleagues ask constantly “What wines would you recommend for… this occasion… this type of cuisine… this company… the 2000 Bordeaux vintage… etc, etc.” Put on the spot I am always at a loss – What do you like? What are you prepared to pay? Is the wine I recommend available? Do we share similar tastes? …in short, I have more questions than answers. As a result I rarely have a quick, helpful response.

To take the pressure off my back and to be as helpful as I can, I came up with a solution last weekend: send to friends, colleagues and other wine lovers I know, an e-mail with my suggestions from the current LCBO Vintages catalogue.

In this case, I am sending you my biased recommendations from the December 10, 2005 release.”

I still get questions such as the above and it is easy to suggest that the curious wine lover send me an email so they may subscribe to my newsletter. Currently there are some 250+ subscribers who receive my notes every two weeks.

I have been diligent in my pursuit to be independent of any third party influences in my newsletter and despite invitations from some well-known wine writers I have remained independent and do not contribute to any other sites. My wife would argue I’m too independent: I promised in some moment of weakness never to charge subscribers for my newsletter and I have stayed true to that promise.

Effective with the next Vintages release I will no longer distribute this newsletter as an email attachment. This is a move I had planned to do at some point but my decision was accelerated by the pending effective date of the Canada Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), July 1, 2014.

For the past few years I have occasionally posted articles and wine reviews from WVN to my blog, Starting with the next Vintages release the blog will be the only place you will find my thoughts.


Accidental wine

I recently spent a day in the city of Funchal on the island of Madeira. The island of Madeira is the largest in a small archipelago called Madeira which is an autonomous region of Portugal located some 300 miles off the coast of Morocco.

From what I saw and experienced on a short visit to this place it is clearly a place to revisit for a more lengthy stay. The island is visually stunning with lush gardens, steep mountainous terraces everywhere, traditional Portuguese architecture and food, friendly people, an hospitable climate and countless historic and natural sites to visit.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Madeira is an incredible system of walking paths which follow the path of a system of engineered aqueducts (called levadas). These aqueducts cover the island and collect and transport rainwater for agricultural use and power generation. The aqueducts and walkways crisscross the island and cover a distance of over 2000 km on an island that measures 57 km long and 22 km wide at the widest point. Hikers of all levels of skill and experience come to Madeira from all over the world for a unique and challenging way to enjoy a close-up perspective on this beautiful paradise.

Madeira is famous as the birthplace of Cristiano Rinaldo, one of the greatest soccer players of our time. It also famous for its embroidery, its tourism and its annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display – apparently the biggest and most spectacular in the world.

This is the long way of introducing something that has been of historic and economic importance to Madeira – but today much less so – Madeira wine. This is a fortified wine which has been made for centuries but which developed its unique character by accident.

Because of its location Madeira was an important port of call in the 16th to 18th centuries for trading and exploration ships travelling to and from the new world. Supplies would be loaded at Madeira for long trans-Atlantic journeys and these supplies would include wine. To ensure the wine did not spoil it would be fortified with neutral grape spirits which both preserved the wine but also increased the level of alcohol.

The accidental part of this story occurred when one consignment of wine which had been shipped to the Caribbean for sale was returned to Madeira. When the casks were opened the wine was discovered to have taken on a pleasing, complex, oxidized character. The wine had been exposed to intense heat on the out – and back journeys and had oxidized in the process. The wine was rich and sweet and showed flavours of marmalade, dried fruit and roasted walnuts.

This discovery resulted in frequent shipments of wine specifically for the purpose of letting them madeirize on a return journey to from and to Madeira. Over time this practice was replaced by an artificial way to replicate the heat effects of a trans-oceanic voyage. This process, called estufagem, saw the wine placed in large, old casks which would be placed in racks in full exposure to the sun, where they would rest for months if not years, cooking and oxidizing in the process.

In the 18th century Madeira became a widely popular wine, especially in the new world where it is rumoured to have been the celebration wine consumed at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Shipments to England, Russia, Brazil and North Africa expanded the market for Madeira wine until disease struck – phylloxera and powdery mildew – resulting in a collapse of the wine industry which took until the late 20th century to restore to a modest level of sustainability. Madeira wine became more known as a cooking wine in the meantime, until major replantings of noble grapes enabled dramatic improvements in quality.

Several grape varieties are used to make Madeira in different styles/levels of sweetness. In order, from dry to sweet, the main varieties are Sercial (dry with relatively high acid), Verdelho (a white grape which makes a smoky style wine in a fino style), Bual (sweeter still with rich ripe texture) and Malmsey (the darkest and sweetest at up to 120 g/L of residual sugar). All Madeira wines show fine balance and complexity. Acid levels are high and this has offsets what would otherwise be a cloying texture.

Modern techniques have evolved to complete the estufagem process. The most common is the use of stainless tanks which have heat coils allowing the wine to be cooked at temperatures of up to 55°C for a minimum of 90 days before transfer to large oak barrels for further ageing. Some makers use large casks placed in rooms with steam pipes and others still use the traditional estufagem process ageing the wines in huge oak casks for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or more.

The resulting wines are always full of character and can be enjoyed in many ways. They are complex, well-balanced and consistently rich with citrus, nut, smoke and dried fruit aromas and flavours. These wines can last for decades in bottle and are appreciated by collectors for their long-life potential. Once bottled the wines stop evolving but they are stable and unique for their age-worthiness.

Some experts believe that the Madeira wine sector will have difficulty surviving. Why? Consider:

• Today only 450 hectares of DOC vines are cultivated and this land is under constant threat of re-development in an economy that has seen rampant real estate development during the first decade of the 21st century.
• Cultivation of grapes and maintenance of the vines is extremely difficult and expensive on a terrain that is inhospitable to the extreme.
• Consolidation has characterized the industry with one family, the Blandys, acquiring many of the storied names such as Miles and Cossart, all brought under the corprorate umbrella of the Madeira Wine Company. A handful of small producers are still operating (such as the Henriques and Justinos – see more below) but the market for their wines is small and needs rejuvenation if the industry is to stabilize and grow.
• The industry has a history of association with old men, cigars and privilege (think Winston Churchill, a regular visitor to the island of Madeira over his lifetime). The world of wine has moved beyond that tradition and Madeira wine needs to be re-branded as a versatile drink that can be enjoyed as an aperitif, as an accompaniment to many foods or as a digestif – depending on the style of Madeira chosen.

While we were in Funchal we were hosted at the Blandys lodge by the young CEO of the Madeira Wine Company, Christopher Blandy.

Christopher is the latest of some 10 generations of Blandys to head up the firm and he looks to be the man for the times. He is youthful, in his mid-30’s, and he has worked in the wine industry in several countries before joining the firm. He brings a marketing bent to his role, something that will be critical to expanding markets, not just for the Blandy brands but for the industry as whole.

The first wine I purchased when I became old enough to buy at the LCBO was a 20-year old Madeira. I remember vividly the nose and palate of that wine as though I had tasted it only yesterday. This memory was re-kindled at the Blandy tasting and I was reminded of the unique and complex character of these wines and the sheer pleasure they can deliver.

You will see in the May 24 Vintages article above one of my selections this weekend is a Rainwater Madeira. This is a coincidence as I planned to write about Madeira long before I knew this wine would be on offer this weekend. Try it.

You may become a member of the Madeira wine appreciation society: may it grow and prosper.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.