Backyard BBQ prizefight

Going to head-to-head in a friendly wine competition
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Going to head-to-head in a friendly wine competition
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Every year, I board a Greyhound bus and head to my hometown to have a barbeque with an old friend and our two favourite English teachers from high school. It’s a manly tradition. We eat gigantic charcoal steaks, gab about our hi-fi stereos, smoke cigars and drink quarts of wine. The wine is my favourite part: we have a sort of backyard BBQ prizefight, as each of us tries to outdo the other with a more impressive bottle.

I was pretty bullish about my contender this year, Gnarlier Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2005 ($27.95, Vintages #67785) [Ed. Note: No longer available at the LCBO] . Red Zinfandel from California is the classic summertime wine because its spicy and jammy flavours match every assortment of BBQ sauce, condiment and flame-broiled meat. The Gnarlier Head is a classic of the “New World” style, meaning it’s fruity, clean and requires little aging. I was thrilled with its light body and its mesmerizing hit of blueberries.

Unfortunately, it was knocked flat by the superior wine opened by my host: the 2002 Merlot from Marynissen Estates in Niagara-on-the-Lake ($18.95 from winery). Not only did the Marynissen cost less and taste better than mine, but it was a Merlot from Ontario. I couldn’t believe it. A Merlot from where?! Our fair province makes excellent white wines, but (except for Pinot Noir) I have often found Ontario reds to be unripe, coarse and veined with notes of green pepper.

The Marynissen Merlot was relaxed, rich and complex. No green pepper in sight. The tannins and acids were mature and perfectly in-balance. It had an array of earthy flavours that reminded me of the “Old World” style of Merlots made in Bordeaux, such as my pet favourite, Chateau Puygueraud. Dusky wines like this age beautifully and are not easy to come by for under $40.

I called their winemaker, Jeff Hundertmark, and urgently asked him “How is this possible?” His answer is good news for everyone. John Marynissen planted Merlot grapes over 25 years ago, long before the latest winemaking craze. Old vines can create more intense flavours than young ones. Hopefully this bodes well for the entire Ontario wine industry – if more vines can age as gracefully as Marynissen’s, then we are in for a treat in a decade or two.

The 2002 Merlot is no longer available, but the winery is selling the 2004 Merlot for $22.95 [Ed. Note: No longer available]– it won silver at a recent international competition in Ottawa. Their wines also periodically appear in Vintages. I’ll age mine for a couple years, and then I too will have a champion.


Matthew Sullivan is a lawyer with the Department of Justice in Toronto. He writes a weekly blog entry here on lawandstyle.ca. The Short Cellar column appears in the print edition of Precedent. Matthew can be reached at matthew@lawandstyle.beta-site.ca