Just Ask: Via Allegro’s Lead Sommelier Talks Pairings and Managing Canada’s Largest Wine Selection

SHARP & Mark Anthony Wines

For 25 years, lead sommelier Wendy Votto has been helping her guests navigate the multiple award-winning wine list at Etobicoke’s Via Allegro, a restaurant that’s something of an institution as well as many peoples’ go-to special occasion restaurant. A wine list of this scale will often require a helping hand, as even more seasoned wine enthusiasts can be struck with analysis paralysis. While a hefty list often means plenty of fantastic wines to choose from, it can just as easily turn into that unnerving dread of making the wrong decision — that’s where Votto steps in, eager to steer diners in the right direction.

We recently had a chance to sit down with her to get some insight into how to always win at wine.

I know it’s been named Canada’s largest wine selection, but just how big is the wine list at Via Allegro?

We have 70,000 bottles and there are nearly 7,000 wines on the list. When people ask for it, they say “Can you bring the bible?” or “Will you bring the Harry Potter Book of Secrets?” And then when it comes to the table, it’s leather-bound and about four inches thick and it looks like the New York white pages.

How do people choose a wine from a list that big?

I always say I’ve been here 25 years and I wrote that book, so I’m the Coles notes version of that thing that is sitting on your table. So, please pick my brain. You know, ask me anything.

via allegro wine list

What’s a good question to start with?

One good place to start is to just tell me what your go-to is at the wine store and what you’re eating for dinner and then, from there, we can talk about Old World versus New and intensity until we start to narrow it down to a specific region and bottle.

What do you usually suggest pairing with the antipasti course?

Pinot Grigio is a light and simple easy-drinking starter wine that makes a great aperitif. We have this one, Attems Pinot Grigio from Friuli, that’s very unique since the winemaker at Attems leaves the skins in contact with the juice for just long enough to pull out a little bit of a pale pink colour that’s so attractive. It’s delicious, crisp and dry, but it also has a little bit of a fruity nuance that makes it perfect for some of our simpler appetizers like Calamari Fritti or Grilled Shrimp.

via allegro wine selection

Could you bring that wine forward to pair with fish entrées also?

For fish, there’s this wine from Ornellaia, a famous winery that’s known for its super Tuscans, but the same hands that make those stunning reds also make this great white blend, Poggio alla Gazze Ornellaia, which is predominantly Sauvignon Blanc with a little Vermentino and Viognier. It just has so many layers and is so beautifully finished that it’s ideal for pairing with dishes like our whole Branzino or a wild Patagonia Sea Bass filet.

When it comes to meat, we all know California Cab is a match. But because there are such big regional differences, it’s harder to know which one to pick. How do you make a choice between regions?

I would say there are three main regions in California for you to get your Cabernet Sauvignon from — Sonoma, Napa, and Paso Robles. Sonoma is closer to the Pacific Ocean, so it gets the benefit of the Humboldt current that has a cooling effect on the vineyard. A wine like Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma will be a little more fruit-driven and a little higher in acidity and it is more like a Bordeaux style Cabernet, but it’s definitely something you can drink with all the steaks on my menu and could also go with a meaty pasta.

via allegro cellar

How does Paso Robles compare?

Can wines from there also be paired with red meat? Absolutely. We have this Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon that’s just been a driving force. We have so many regulars who just love, love, love, how rich and deep it is. It’s an undeniably big, old, chewy Cab Sauv that our regulars order almost automatically, no matter what they’re going to eat. But it’s definitely a good match for any of the steaks or even a rack of lamb.

Any other advice for having a good conversation with your somm?

Asking for a tour of the wine cellar is so much fun. Customers often ask if they can bring their wine and I say I won’t let you come to the cellar without a glass of wine in your hand, because it’s a big cellar and just so conducive to sipping and chatting about wine. Plus, it’s a great photo opp.