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Syrah or Shiraz ? Anyone?

March 5, 2011 1:52 pm - Posted by otta in Learn

Like the ongoing debate over how to pronounce tomato, the Syrah/Shiraz question threatens to get nasty, but it shouldn’t because they’re the same grape. Honestly!

To set things straight from beginning, Shiraz and Syrah are the exact same grape variety. It is a black grape which originated in the Rhone region in the South of France where it is known under the name Syrah. The name Shiraz was invented by the Australians, like many of their other slang terms. The name Shiraz has been used in Australia for close to 200 years although some still believe it originated in Iran in the city of the same name. But it didn’t, trust me.

In France you will find Syrah under the demographical labelling, Hermitage or Crozes Hermitage in North Rhone, as well as Cote Rotie , where it’s being blended with a little bit of Viognier (a white, aromatic grape variety). In the South Rhone, Syrah is a secondary wine in a majority of blends including Chateauneuff du Pape, Cote du Rhone and Gigondas. In those wines Grenache is the dominant grape variety. In other southern French regions, including Vin de Pays d’OC it’s labelled simply Syrah for easier recognition.

The classic style of Syrah is a wine with high alcohol, full body, high level of tannins and moderate acidity. Dark berry fruit, pepper, chocolate and spice, with earthy and leathery under tones make it unmistakable.

Another important area for Syrah production is south Italy, especially Sicily. Their Syrahs are rich and full bodied with low level of tannins, but high levels of alcohol. Blackberries and dark chocolate covered cherries would be appropriate descriptors here.

By contrast the Shiraz in Australia is a very different tasting wine. In Australia Shiraz always carries it’s varietal name even if it is also sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or as in the French example with Grenache and Mourvedre. (a.k.a. GSM). Other large New World Shiraz producing regions include South Africa, Chile, Argentina, California and the Pacific North West (Washington State and British Columbia)

Shiraz in these countries seems to be much riper and juicier and is known for it’s chewy characteristics, meaty and deep dark fruit concentrations.  Chocolate and peppery spice dominates the flavours. In the cooler areas of the Pacific North West it seems to have more red and blue fruit characteristics and appears to be more gamey and minty, with flavours of green peppers. The cooler climate variations tend to also have much higher level of tannins than in the Southern locations.

Which is better Old World Syrah or New World Shiraz? I have no idea, just an opinion or two and so I think the debaters should just kiss and make up and  try each to learn about their own opinions.

In this spirit, many New world producers choose to use both names, and it is quite often that you find Shiraz and Syrah from the same producer, creating 2 different styles of wine.

California is producing some high quality examples combining the best of both worlds; offering the richness and concentration of the new world Shiraz, with great tannic structure and finesse of old world Syrah.

I recommend buying a bottle of French Hermitage and Australian Shiraz in the same price point and comparing those two styles side by side. I guarantee you will be surprise how different those 2 wines are. Cheers!!!

Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse Wine Bar

I am Touching the Stars | A Celebration of Sparkling Wine

December 30, 2010 7:58 am - Posted by otta in Drink

New Years is here and the best way to celebrate is by popping a bottle of bubbly and enjoying a wine that sparkles likes the stars in the heavens. For most of us this is a once a year chance to uncork a crisp and refreshing bottle of Champagne, a light and fizzy Prosecco, or a sophisticated yet value packed bottle of Cava. For the rest of us “bubbly lovers” it is just another excuse to pull the best bottles out of our cellars and pop the corks.

Because many people have questions about sparkling wines let me offer some suggestions on how to celebrate in style.

On the sweeter note:

The Asti region of Piemonte in Northwest Italy is a home to some amazing wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, but not everyone knows that the region also produces some amazing sparkling wines. Moscato d’Asti would be it’s sweetest version, known as frizzante (semi-sparkling). With low levels of alcohol (4-6%) and a honeysuckle and orange blossom floral characteristic this is a very unique and tasty bubbly. Look for producers like Batasiolo or Michaele Chiarlo.  The drier and more widely known version Asti Spumante (fully sparkling) is a cheaper alternative. It is still sweet and delicious with the most-widely recognized labels coming from the Martini company.

On the lighter side:

Wine in this category would be preferably made by a tank method which is an easier way of making quick, simple and refreshing sparkling wines. It’s best representative would be Prosecco. Produced from the Prosecco grape, this variety is also known as Glera in Northeast Italy. Mainly produced in the Veneto region, Proseccos come from a wide variety of producers. This wine’s popularity is due to its light body with higher level of fruitiness and a lack of the bready/yeasty characteristics. Add to this  lower price points, and you have a winner that is widely used for cocktails in bars around the world. My favorite producers are Villa Sandi and Bisol.

On the Value side:

Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine, made out of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada and also Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Cava is one of my favorite choices when visiting a liquor stores because of It’s low price ($12-16) and high quality (bottles can be similar to champagne).  I love the brioche, crackers and bread dough characteristics combined with crisp and citrusy aromas which leave your palate completely satisfied and refreshed. The best bargain is Codorniu, followed by Segura Viudas and it’s bigger sister Aria.

On the extravagant side:

Champagne, is the undisputed king of all sparkling wines. This is a wine that is usually a part of the largest and most prestigious celebrations around the world and it is a wine that will make you feel like royalty. Opening the best names like Krug, Crystal, Dom Perignon and Salon will impress even the snobbiest wine connoisseur. But, not everyone wants to spend a few hundred dollars on a bottle of bubbly so I recommend that you try any of the excellent Nicholas Feuillatte products. Their Brut and Grand Cru Champagnes are to die for and they are now very hip and popular around New York’s hottest night spots. Also Perrier Joulet and Pol Roger are producing great bang for your buck.

So never forget the romance of a bottle of sparkling wine as each bubble twinkles like a beautiful star.  And this year when you celebrate the New Years please do so with a bang or should I say a pop?

Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse and Wine Bar

What to bring to Christmas Dinner

December 23, 2010 10:36 am - Posted by otta in Eat, Learn

I must say I love Christmas, every year I attend numerous Christmas parties, dinners and host one or two my self. When my friends are coming to my house for a dinner, I am always looking forward to see what wine they bring and how well they did their home work in researching wine pairing for a seasonal feast.

So to help YOU pass the test I am going to give you some helpful tips for how to impress your host this Christmas season.

I personally like to start with a glass of sparkling wine, but this is a subject on its own, expect to see a blog before a new year regarding this subject.

Now lets start with the whites. Christmas time is all about comfort food and quite frankly that is all about butter, cream, potatoes, meats and gravy….so here you need to deliver wine to match the weight of the food. Chardonnay is a great wine to pair with big foods. Personally I would choose some of the new world Chardonnays from Napa or Sonoma, Chile and Argentina. These wines are full bodied, creamy and buttery, with loads of exotic fruit and floral notes.

If you are not a big fan of Chardonnay, you can tune down the boldness by selecting a White Bordeaux blend (a.k.a White Meritage) whitch is usually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion. These wines have an essence of tropical fruit with smokey, woody characteristics. But they have enough body to match heavy foods while still remaining  crisp and refreshing.  An American version of Sauvignon Blanc known as Fume Blanc is also great alternative except in some wines the smokey under tones may over power.

And now the reds. This is an interesting subject since you may want to choose one wine that you can pair with turkey’s white and dark meat, ham, vegetables and all the fixins. Believe it or not there are wines that go great with this diverse traditional Christmas menu.

In my opinion Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir (a.k.a. Beaujolais) and Cabernet Franc fit the bill. These are not full bodied wines most of the times but they have a great level of acidity, and bright fruity feel to them. They also have dominant herbal and savory flavours which will nicely match the gravies.

When choosing Pinot Noir look in your Burgundian section of France. Names like Cote d’Or, Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Pommard and Volnay are the wines you are looking for. There are also some great wines in Sonoma and Napa from the same grape variety. And don’t forget that Chile has now started to produce some amazing Pinots, at very good prices.

When finding Beaujolais, go for the best, carrying names like Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin a Vent, Brouilly. These are a few of the to 10 best villages in the area.

The type of Cabernet Franc you are looking for is a cool climate style with an earthy, floral and berry filled palate with medium body at the most. Look in the VQA section of Canadian Wine, Ontario and British Columbia are producing some great examples.

For those that just can’t drink anything else but full body reds, I will suggest to stay with hot climate wines like Argentinian Malbec, or Carmenere from Chile. These varietals are bursting with full fresh fruit flavors and have very low level of tannins.  Australian Cabernet and Shiraz would also be appropriate choices as well.

And for a dessert or cheese course? Icewine or Late Harvest Riesling is a safe choice. If you feel like treating your self to something more unusual but very tasty, try Hungarian Tokaji or French Sauternes, both are an excellent choice to finish your evening.

Blog by Otta Zapotocky

General Manager and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse and Wine bar

A Christmas “Warmer-upper”

December 11, 2010 11:30 am - Posted by otta in Learn

Malt Wine, Mulled Wine or by its original name GluehWein

This recipe takes me back to my childhood when I was living with my family in communist Czechoslovakia. We’d spend all the Christmas holidays together as a family, drinking hot tea with a splash of dark rum and slice of lemon, and passing out after the first few sips out of my tea mug. When my sister and I became little bit more sophisticated our parents introduced us to a new winter treat “Malt Wine”. So this recipe that I am sharing is as I remember it from my parents: rustic, but elegant at the same time. We didn’t use some fancy tea bags or copper pots, but just simple and honest ingredients to create amazing memories.

To prepare it you will need a half a liter of any red wine (don’t worry about the quality) because you will be adding sugar and acid and alcohol. You’ll want a good selection of warm spices such as cloves, cinnamon stick, cardamon, as well as in form of lemon and orange (whole). Dark Rum or Brandy if you have it, sugar of course and that is pretty much it.

Take a small pot and with a medium heat bring the wine to simmer, do not boil the wine too fast. During this process you are loosing the valuable buzz-like aspect but don’t worry too much as the rum will then come into to an effect. Next, put 6-8 cardamon seeds and 1-2 cinnamon sticks in the simmering wine. Cut 2 thick slices of orange and lemon, take 8-10 cloves and push them in to each piece of citrus, like a stud or nail. You shuld make it look pretty as this will also make a nice garnish. Place in to the liquid and add sugar to taste.

I like mine much more sweeter then others, so I use 4-6 spoonfuls of sugar in each half liter, but you can adjust to taste. Now comes the fun part.  W e could call a fortification (like in the Port production) where we add the alcohol to an already alcoholic beverage. 3-4 ounces of dark rum or brandy needs to be added. Again add to taste.

Simmer this mixture for at least 30 minutes, although I prefer an hour. Strain into cups, serve hot with a fresh cinnamon stick and a lemon or orange wheel taken out of the mixture.

Enjoy this drink in front of the fireplace or just cuddled up under a blanket while watching your favorite holiday fare on TV or with the one you love.

Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse and Wine Bar


The Art of Blending “The story of Meritage”

December 2, 2010 11:42 am - Posted by otta in Drink, Learn

“Blending is one of the few tools winemakers have to accentuate what Mother Nature creates”

Let me just clear something up right at the beginning.  Meritage is a word created in North America by combining 2 words: Merit and Heritage. So please do not pronounce it with French accent and be proud of your linguistic skills. Pronunciation should rhyme with the word heritage. Sometimes I think the  world of wine conspires to never let us be able to confidently pronounce the name of any wine – well maybe that’ll be the subject of another blog. read more


The Three Sisters of Barbera

November 26, 2010 5:43 pm - Posted by otta in Learn

Barbera is a red Italian wine grape variety which is believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piemonte, Italy in around the thirteenth century. The wine is deep in color with low tannins and high levels of acidity, which is very unusual for a warm climate red grape. There are many old-vine vineyards with century old vines that produce a wine with enhanced tannin content, robust body and an intense dark cherry and berry fruit. These wines are made for aging.

The oldest is Barbera del Monferrato. Due to its harsh acidic content and rusticity, this wine is mainly used for blends with other local varieties. Rules allow dor up to 15% of Dolcetto, Freisa and Grignolino to be added to a wine labeled Monferrato DOC. Interestingly this wine can be slightly sparkling.

The Best known appellation of the sisters is the Barbera d’Asti DOCG. When young, the wines offer a very intense aroma of fresh red and blackberries. In the lightest versions it exhibits notes of cherries, raspberries and blueberries and with notes of blackberry and black cherries offered in the wines made of more ripe grapes.

Barbera d’Alba is the most under estimated of the three. Personally  it is my favorite, but don’t we always cheer for the loosing team? Stylistically this is a richer and more fruit forward wine than it’s Asti sister. The concentration reminds me of veal jus, with dark cherry and black fruit characteristics, finished with a touch of herb and spice. The notes that will remind you of freshly shaved truffles found in the same Alba region.

Barberas are known for their incredible value, amazing ability to pair with a range of foods and their easy to drink style. I recommend that wine lovers who haven’t tried Barbera visit a local wine store and pick up a bottle to see just how flexible and diverse these wines are. Start with a simple tomato salad with little bit of fresh mozarella di buffala and sprig of basil, continue with veal cannelloni in a light tomato sauce or a fillet of Branzino in a light caper and olives tomato sauce, and finish up with an aged piece of Grana Padano cheese with some honey and dried fruit.  You’ll find these great, diverse wines, will take you through the entire meal.

Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager  and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse and Wine Bar


A lot of people ask me the question, “ when and why should I decant a bottle of wine”? There seems to be many misconceptions about this powerful yet dangerous tool so let’s take a look at all the ins and outs.

What is a decanter?

A decanter is a container that is used to hold a liquid such as wine which may contain sediment. Decanters are also used as serving vessels for wine. Decanters vary in shape and design. They are usually made of an inert material such as glass and will hold at least one standard bottle of wine (0.75 litre). A similar kind of vessel, the carafe which is also used for serving wine and other drinks. The main difference is that a carafe doesn’t have a stopper.

Enjoy more wines with decanting

Why do we use a decanter?

Decantation is a process for the separation of mixtures. This is achieved by carefully pouring wine from a bottle into a decanter in order to leave the precipitate (sediments) in the bottom of the wine bottle. This keeps the sediment out of your glass.

Aeration is another reason for decanting to help let the wine “breathe”. The decanter is meant to mimic the effects of swirling the wine glass to stimulate the movement of molecules in the wine to trigger the release of more aroma compounds. In addition it is thought to benefit the wine by smoothing some of the harsher aspects of the wine like tannins or potential wine faults.

Often we would recommend decanting young wines as immature bottles may exhibit excess amounts of tannins and high levels of alcohol. Decanting helps to trim those aspects and create a wine that is more balanced and pleasing to the palate. Please be cautious however when using systems like “double decanting” (pouring wine from one decanter in to another to speed up the process) as this can seriously harm the wine and leave you with a “fruit-less and acidic disaster”. That is unless of course you are trying to create a high end Red Wine Vinegar…no seriously, you can buy it in the store for way less…..

Which wines should I decant?

Old World – Bordeaux, Rhone, Super Tuscans, Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s

New World – High End California Cabernet and Shiraz, Meritage, High End Chile and Australia. In the new world you can usually use cost as a guide; wine that costs over $35 usually benefits from decanting.

Which wines should I not decant?

Old World – Burgundy Reds, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Chianti, and generic $10-25 new world Cabernets, which would only leave you with the woody, oaky taste.

99% of the world’s white wine should not be decanted but if you splurge on Grand Cru Burgundy Whites or Rhones White Hermitage, give it time to open up and it will change your world forever.

Remember, at the end of the day have fun and explore, don’t be afraid to try new things and simply learn from your mistakes.

Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager  and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse and Wine Bar


The Niagara Peninsula is recognized globally as an outstanding wine producing region.

Climate: similar to Burgundy and Loire Valley

Location: 41–44 degrees north latitude, same as Rioja, Chianti Classico, Oregon and Mendocino

Temperatures: similar to Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, the effects of Lake Ontario and Niagara escarpment are creating an area of moderate temperatures during spring and summer.

With rich, fertile soils and a unique micro-climate which is very suitable for growing Vitis vinifera grapes, Niagara becomes a prime grape-growing region. However due to its location and climate Niagara deeply depends on mature nature year by year. World wine regions like California, Australia, Chile and Argentina, produce fully ripe grapes at consistent quality every year, Niagara is not that lucky.  But wines grown in these temperate climates can produce superior fruit, with more complexity and intense flavors than in warmer climates. So all you need is a little guidance to enjoy the best wines.

Here are some vintage charts, that should explain variances between vintages in the last  5 years:


Whites: Drink now or cellar 5 years or less. Reds: Drink now or cellar 5 years or less.

(Tentative) In many ways, 2009 was similar to 2008 in all appellations. A cool, wet summer was saved by long warm fall. While still in the barrels, the 2009 is showing lots of promises. Bordeaux grape varieties like Cabernet sauvignon had trouble ripening and this years ice wine crop yielded only 1/3 of 2008 crop.


Whites: Drink now or cellar 5 years or less. Reds: Drink now or cellar 5 years or less.

It was a wet growing season  which brought challenge in ripening in all appellations. was a challenge. The quality of this vintage will depend entirely on vineyard management. Whites and cool-climate reds (pinot noir, gamay) are showing better than other varietals. Only the best of the best produced fruit worth talking about, and that only due to vineyard management and wine making techniques


Whites – Drink Now or Cellar 5 Years or Less. Reds – Drink Now or Cellar 10 Years or More

This is a Cadillac of all vintages, it is as good as it gets in all appellations. Many winemakers call 2007 the best vintage in Ontario’s history. It was warm, dry and ideal for extended hang time on the vines. Look for the last of the reds that you can find and hang on to those, they will only get better with time. This wines were made in the vineyard entirely.


Drink Now or Cellar 5 Years or Less

Not as wet as 2008, but still humid and slightly cooler than normal. The mood was upbeat as vines recovered from the terrible winter kill of 2005. There was plenty of sunshine in August, but a wet September meant wineries had to employ good vineyard selection. It was a decent year for chardonnay, riesling, merlot, gamay, cabernet franc, pinot noir and a great year for icewines.


Drink Now or Cellar 5 Years or Less

This was a disastrous year. An extremely cold winter killed any hope for a healthy vintage with more than 50 per cent of the vintage wiped out. Many producers didn’t have enough wine to even sell and suffered hefty financial losses. The irony of the vintage was that, even with a tiny crop, what was grown still ended up being pretty good.

Over all the vintage variations are huge and quality of fruit produced every year is ever different. However the most innovative wine makers have learned  “how to make a bad vintage, work in their advantage”

As an example, Andrej Lepinski previously of Foreign Affairs Winery and now at the brand new Collonari Winery creates great wines year after year. His secret is air drying the grapes which concentrates sugars and evaporates water. This is the same system used in Amarone production. When it is used in Italy it is called passimento. In the year 2007 Andrej only used this technique on few selected wines, however “2009 and 2008 is all about drying”, according to him. This shows the diversity of climatic and harvest conditions wine makers need to accommodate in Niagara.

Other winemakers use techniques like adding late harvested grapes or grapes affected by botrytis cinnerea (Noble rot) to their white wines. This works especially well with Rieslings which need a long growing season to ripen and loose their tart green apple like characteristics. By adding those grapes, wine makers create a richer and ripper fruit with characteristics of dried apricots and peaches.

Techniques like Malo-lactic fermentation (transferring Malic Acid (green apple) to Lactic Acid (Milky creamy one) are also widely used year after year. As well, batonage (stirring dead yeast cells inside of the barrel) helps add more richness and a creamier aspect to chardonnays.

So if you can’t get your head wrapped around which years are the best, just focus on wines produced by the most recognized and awarded wineries as those are the ones that can turn rain into gold. As a Sommelier it is my joy to help clients sample and enjoy the best wines from around the world, so I love to stay on top of regional vintages.

Blog by Otta Zapotocky, General Manager and Sommelier at Wildfire Steak house and wine bar

Whatever happened to the “Old School” Riojas?

November 11, 2010 7:29 pm - Posted by otta in Drink, Travel

One of my favorite wines of the world is traditional “old school” Rioja. Coming from a region in North Spain named “La Rioja” just south of the Basque province and east of Navarra, this region with a long tradition in wine making is ideal for Tempranillo grapes. Sometimes La Rioja wines are also blended with Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo grapes. The region Splits in to the areas: La Rioja Alta, La Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Baja.

Alta and Alavesa are slightly more elevated areas, producing a lighter style of wine with higher acidity levels. Baja is a dry and hot area, producing big and juicy wines with a higher level of alcohol. These wines are used to blend with grapes from other regions.

In the 1990 Rioja DOC was granted a permission to irrigate and this marked a turning point in the wine making styles of Rioja. Traditional Rioja comes in 4 different styles: Rioja (a.k.a. Joven) is the youngest, it is made either un-oaked or it spends less than 1 year in an oak barrel. Rioja Crianza is more complex, minimum aging is 2 years, with a one year minimum in a barrel. Rioja Riserva is wine with amazing complexity and pronounced oak characteristics from a minimum 3 years aging, with at least 1 year in an oak barrel. And finally, Rioja Grand Riserva which is only made in the best years, offers a wine with amazing age-ability and the most complex flavors. It is aged for a minimum of 5 years, with a minimum 2 years in an oak barrel. Traditionally Riojas spend more than their minimum time in oak and in the bottles before they get released to the market.

Some of the last vestiges of this style of wine are Bodega Lopez de Heredia and Bodegas Muga. These are wines with extreme depth of flavor thanks to their long aging practices. In some cases, the Grand Riservas are aged up to 9 years in oak barrels and 9 years in the bottle before the wine actually leaves the winery. Sadly enough, these styles of wine are long forgotten and have been replaced by new, fruit forward wines that cater to a wider consumer population.

Today, ambitious guys like Telmo Rodriguez are taking up the challenge to compete with the new world wine regions and capture the attention of young wine drinkers with low priced, value wines that exhibit a “New world like” fruit forward characteristic. Many bodegas have adapted to this trend and have begun to use some not so traditional techniques to produce their wines. For Example, some wine makers now use micro-oxygenation (pumping minuscule air bubbles into the wine tanks) which softens the wines and enhances its’ full fruit characteristics. Some also employ Carbonic Maceration (in which whole clusters are placed in large open vats and allowed to ferment inside the individual grape berries without the addition of yeasts) to help create wine with more vibrant fruit flavors.

So for all of you who prefer your wine to smell like burned leather, animal fur, dusty road and dry aged meat, you will have to focus your attention on private sales, winery private orders and auctions. But for all the rest of you who prefer wine to be juicy, big, rich and vibrant there is a whole new world of wine coming from Spain. Today this also includes the new Rioja wines. I like them but I do miss the “old school” Riojas.

Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager & Sommelier at Wildfire Steak house & Wine Bar