Tuesday 26 July 2011

The BC Wine Variety Show

Last week we enjoyed an entertaining wine tasting at home for some new friends from south of the border – Arizona to be precise – as well as an old friend moving away to New York – her last night in Vancouver! Also present was another old friend, an experienced veteran of many tastings I've hosted over the years! I had been asked by my wife to put together a small selection of wines that could help to introduce BC wines to someone with next to no experience enjoying our homegrown viniculture (i.e., our American guests), with a focus on whites (it being “summer” after all). Armed with a few more hints about what our guests might enjoy I picked out some recent award-winners, old stand-bys, and new discoveries while emphasizing multiple regions and a few unique grapes that would show what BC has to offer.


Our first wine came to us from the Naramata Bench courtesy of Lake Breeze Vineyards: their 2010 Pinot Blanc continues a tradition of excellence with this grape, having recently been awarded Best of Category at the 2011 All Canadian Wine Championships. I knew I wanted to serve a Pinot Blanc given the low profile of this grape, despite the wonderful wines it can produce, particularly here in BC. Lake Breeze considers Pinot Blanc to be their “signature,” so the decision was easy. My choice rewarded us with beautiful aromas of apple, peaches, and pineapple, with floral flavours and a slightly creamy texture that I particularly enjoyed. This wine was the favourite white amongst two of the six of us, and came in a very close second for me personally.

Topping the Lake Breeze for me was the next wine, a superbly fashioned 2010 Viognier from Di Bello Wines. Long-time CedarCreek winemaker Tom Di Bello has now moved on to produce his own ultra-small-lot wines in partnership with his wife Tari, and this first release consisted of only 87 cases! Fortunately I found my bottle at Marquis Wine Cellars, where there is still some available (in addition to directly from Tom & Tari) if you want to get in on the ground floor of Tom’s new venture: four more varietals are coming soon including highly anticipated Pinot Noir and Syrah. As John Schreiner puts it, the Viognier is “an intense and exotic white” which conjured up myriad descriptors amongst us – particularly as the temperature changed – including cedar, menthol, bubble gum, and caramel! Tom’s notes include aromas of lychee, orange peel, and pears, all of which were present for us as well. The impeccable balance and thought-provoking flavours in this wine made it my favourite.

Next up was the sequel to one of our favourite wines last summer – CedarCreek Ehrenfelser. Ironically the 2010 release of this wine represents some of the first work by Tom Di Bello’s replacement at CedarCreek – Australian Darryl Brooker. With 2010 being a cooler season, it comes as no surprise that the new Ehrenfelser is more acidic than the delicate 2009 we fawned over last year, but it still garnered plenty of fans amongst our guests: fully half of those present declared it their favourite white of the evening. As in years past, the Ehrenfelser is still aptly described as “fruit salad in a glass” and we enjoyed aromas of honeysuckle and orange blossom, grapefruit, and melons. Flavours of honeydew and cantaloupe continued on the palate, ensuring an empty bottle in short order.

Seeking diversity in both grapes and flavour profiles – whilst maintaining the approachable summer theme – I decided a Gewurztraminer would be suitable as our final white wine. Knowing Thornhaven’s prowess with the grape led me to this Summerland winery, and their award-winning 2009 Gewurztraminer, another Best of Class winner from the recent All Canadian Wine Championships. Upon smelling the beautiful fruitful aromas wafting from this wine I’m fully in agreement with the reviewers at Icon Wines, and was also sure to prepare my guests for the decidedly off-dry flavours on the palate. Powerful lychee was most obvious, with some describing it as “candied lilacs,” while others detected smoky notes that reminded them of candles. Although this wine wasn’t anyone’s favourite, I fully respect it for what it is: a powerful expression of this very enjoyable grape variety.

I would be remiss to serve a selection of BC wines in the summer without including at least one Rosé, given the huge variety of styles we benefit from in BC. Although a great deal of excellent single varietal Rosés exist from wineries across the province, we’ve always enjoyed the blended approach from Dirty Laundry, and had yet to try their newest release. Inside the beautiful transparent bottle, Dirty Laundry’s 2010 “Hush” includes 50% Cabernet Franc and 30% Pinot Noir, along with a little Pinot Blanc and some other “hush hush” grapes. What struck many of us first and foremost is the incredible rich cherry colour of the wine, which reminds one once again of the huge range possible when it comes to Rosé wines. Although we enjoyed flavours of guava, strawberry, and pomegranate, the current incarnation was felt to be not as “patio-friendly” as in years past. It’s possible the lighter snacks we were enjoying did not maximize this wine’s potential, given that Dirty Laundry recommends pairing it with “bold Malaysian foods, Asian fusion cuisines, and East Indian dishes.” Those being some of my favourite foods I look forward to trying another bottle in a different context soon!

I felt I should include at least one full-bodied red wine to finish off the tasting. Taking my cues once again from the All Canadian Wine Championships I expected that the 2008 Cabernet-Merlot from Blasted Church would fit the bill quite nicely. This Bordeaux blend was awarded Best Red Wine during the Championships, and easily impresses whether or not one knows its $26 list price. Even more impressive is the knowledge that Blasted Church went so far as to include both Malbec and Petit Verdot (for the first time), which are varieties rarely seen in such a reasonably priced red blend. After decanting this relatively young wine we experienced quite a bit of rich vanilla and chocolate aromas that followed through on the palate. A surprisingly smooth mouthfeel was reversed upon pairing with actual chocolate, which really brought out the hidden tannins! Similarly, accompaniment with aged cheddar was said to have expressed green notes for some. The pairing experiences were quite intriguing and memorable, while overall this wine was impressive and enjoyable for most of us. Personally, I will be seeking some more of what remains from the 2000 cases which are now sold out from the winery.

The six uniquely enjoyable wines I shared represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the excellence in winemaking we benefit from here in BC. Putting together a “BC wine variety show” to introduce our wines to others was a lot of fun! I hope to do it again soon given the many hundreds of additional superb wines available to share with those unfamiliar with what is on offer in our own backyard. Cheers!

Thursday 14 July 2011

Cabernet Franc Comparison

I’ve had the desire for a tasting of local Cabernet Franc for quite some time, and finally got the chance this past weekend to host a few friends for some tasty summer food and excellent BC wines! My decision to focus on Cabernet Franc came about due to the growing popularity of single varietal wines from this sometimes-maligned grape, which can offer much more than a minor (albeit important) component of Bordeaux-style blends. In fact, many people remain unaware that Cabernet Franc is one of the parents of the more well-known Cabernet Sauvignon grape – which is used for many legendary varietal wines the world round. In British Columbia Cabernet Franc has much more potential than Cabernet Sauvignon, with the ability to bud and ripen up to two weeks earlier – critical in this cool-climate wine region. Cabernet Sauvignon grown in BC often has trouble fully ripening, and as a result green notes can easily find their way in, yet wineries no doubt feel pressured to produce varietal Cab Sauv to meet the desires of consumers who are familiar with successful (and readily ripe) wines from France, California, Australia, or Chile. Wine Access magazine did not mince words in last Fall’s Canadian Wine Awards when reporting that the judges “agreed Canada should not focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.” As a result, it may be Cabernet Franc’s time to start shining more brightly, and fortunately a bevy of successful Francs are present in BC, and more follow each year as producers learn the advantages of working with this grape.

For our tasting I sourced several wines from producers big and small, and friends brought a few more: amazingly not a single bottle overlapped amongst the six of us! As it turned out, we had a few more bottles than we could healthily consume in one evening, but I tried to ensure we opened a variety, while paying appropriate homage to those on which we missed out. In fact, one of my favourites – from Tinhorn Creek – never made it to the table during the tasting, but that’s not to say it doesn’t deserve recognition. Tinhorn Creek has produced a single varietal for over a decade, always coming in at a very reasonable price: for only $18, the 2008 version gets top marks in my book as a go-to red; I’m learning to always keep a few bottles around for both special, and not-so-special occasions. In this case we started out the evening with Sandra Oldfield’s “Half-Screwed Sangria”, which included a full bottle of Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc along with generous proportions of brandy and Triple Sec. Although it almost seemed a shame to “waste” the subtleties of this wine in sangria, I figured if it’s good enough for Tinhorn Creek’s Owner/CEO/President/Winemaker it’s good enough for me! The sangria was a huge success, but I definitely recommend adding some of the “optional” soda water to thin it out a little!


With our palates loosened up from brandy and our plates loaded high with burgers, corn on the cob, and hearty salads, we delved into our first Cabernet Franc from well-known producer Burrowing Owl. This 2007 version really nailed it with a Gold medal at the 2009 Canadian Wine Awards and a resounding 91-point review from Anthony Gismondi. Despite the release of the 2008 vintage the 2007 can still be found in many stores, which is fortunate because I thoroughly enjoyed it! The ripe, dark fruit aromas and well-integrated tannins put a smile on my face immediately, and made me glad I have a bottle in the cellar.

We followed quickly with another 2007 from equally proficient Cabernet Franc producer Poplar Grove. I was quite impressed with this wine at the Playhouse Wine Festival earlier this year, which was where I picked up my own bottle, but hadn’t heard much else about it until recently. At the same time we were drinking ours, a couple of well-known local critics were also delving into this delight: recent reviews from Daenna Van Mulligen and Anthony Gismondi both sing the praises of Poplar Grove’s achievement. For what it’s worth, this one eventually came out on top at the end of the evening, with a texture even smoother than the Burrowing Owl, and pleasingly delicate hints of floral herbs amongst the vanilla aromas.

The final bottle from the 2007 vintage came from Hester Creek, which scooped a Gold medal at the 2010 BC Wine Awards. Although this wine is fairly difficult to find now following the release of the 2008 version under slick new labels, I figured the extra year of aging could only serve to benefit our experience. The prominent vanilla aromas reminded some of us of chocolate chip cookies, but nice ripe fruit was also present on the nose. The acidity seemed fairly high, and meaty flavours were also present that conjured up bacon and sausage. The newer release has received positive press from both John Schreiner and Icon Wines, and should be ready to drink now despite a few bottles of the 2007 floating around in stores.

Our dinner nearly complete, we took a short break for a delicious dessert of homemade strawberry shortcake, and a thematically-appropriate Late Harvest Cabernet Franc from Gehringer. Along with Gehringer’s Late Harvest Riesling, it’s a well-priced treat that isn’t too sweet or syrupy, and suitable for plenty of occasions; plus it goes quite well with strawberries.

We moved on to the 2008 vintage with a wine from a less well-known producer in Lilloet: the Fort Berens Cabernet Franc was produced from south-Okanagan grapes while owners Rolf and Heleen await first harvest from their own vineyard this year. Like the Hester Creek, this bottle has also been supplanted by the following vintage (in this case 2009), but I was lucky enough to find a few in Village Wines Dunbar. Solid reviews for some of their initial production bode well for Fort Berens; this wine has done well via positive reviews from Icon Wines, Daenna Van Mulligen, and others. Our experience yielded fairly herbal, floral aromas – once someone suggested dill I had trouble thinking of anything else. It was definitely the most savoury wine of the night, and unfortunately we had finished most of our dinner by the time it was opened, as the high acidity and very dry approach would pair well with food. I look forward to seeing if Fort Berens continues with Cabernet Franc via their Lilloet vineyards; in the meantime try the 2009 vintage in stores now.

Filled up with food and wine, we decided on one more bottle from Naramata producer Hillside. Experience over several years has led Hillside to settle on Black Sage fruit for their 2008 version, which is where a lot of top-quality Cabernet Franc seems to come from. Once again I suspect this savoury wine would have benefited from the hearty burgers we enjoyed earlier in the evening, but there is only so much food and wine one can consume at once. Reviewers such as Daenna Van Mulligen point out the benefits of “tangy tomato-based sauces” in addition to the grilled meats that Anthony Gismondi suggests.

The five Cabernet Francs that we tried represent only a portion of those produced in BC, and pleasingly I could have easily held another tasting the following night with others from wineries such as Herder, Nichol, Pentage, Sandhill, Seven Stones, SpierHead, and Sumac Ridge. Herder’s ultra-small-lot (104 cases) release from 2008 is particularly exciting, and I’m pleased to have recently found a bottle for my collection in Sutton Place Wine Merchant; John Schreiner describes it as “a powerhouse…that makes a statement.” I encourage you to experience some of these interesting terroir-driven wines that showcase BC’s potential particularly well. As one final example of how Cabernet Franc has a bright future here witness Painted Rock’s 2008 Red Icon: without using any Cabernet Sauvignon at all this big red blend relies upon 25% Cabernet Franc to work with Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot for a wine Anthony Gismondi describes as intense, yet supple. Cheers!

*For those of you without access to something the size of a wine barrel in which to mix the original recipe, here is the single-pitcher version of the Half-Screwed Sangria:

1/2 cup brandy

1/2 cup triple sec

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/3 cup frozen lemonade concentrate

1/3 cup orange juice

1 bottle Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc

1/2 lemon, sliced into quarter-rounds

1/2 orange, sliced into quarter-rounds

1/2 lime, sliced into quarter-rounds

8 maraschino cherries

1/4 cup sugar or honey (optional)

carbonated water (optional)

Friday 1 July 2011

CedarCreek Platinum Club

Last month I received my first shipment of wine from CedarCreek’s newly launched “Platinum Club”. With so many BC wineries devising wine clubs it was great to find out CedarCreek had done the same – with some great perks to boot. In general I find most winery clubs are of greatest benefit to those residing in smaller communities: the large number of public and private stores in Metro Vancouver tend to negate their greatest benefit – hard-to-find rarities. It can be challenging to justify paying for shipping multiple times per year for wines you can get just as easily in the VQA Store down the street, for example. CedarCreek has fortunately avoided that conundrum by offering complimentary shipping on their thrice-annual shipments, which immediately makes the Platinum Club economically viable for those in even large, well-served communities. The offer of a 15% discount on additional orders is just icing on the cake: 6-bottle mixed lots can be added to any club shipments to piggyback on the free shipping (plus 15% off in the wine shop in Kelowna).

The Platinum Club consists of three annual shipments, each with a different focus: aromatic whites in the Spring/Summer (June), mixed whites and reds in the Fall (September), and the reserve Platinum tier wines in February. I’m not sure what the first February shipment next year will yield, having heard that the 2008 vintage did not produce any Platinum-calibre red wines. (I’m not concerned however, some of the excellent 2007 Platinums, or even older library releases will undoubtedly be well received.) With twenty wines in CedarCreek’s portfolio (including Madeira and two entry-level Proprietor’s blends) club members are likely to receive a bottle of nearly every wine available for purchase each year.


My order included some excellent new wines for Summer – and as you can see I added on some additional bottles, including the well-priced and very food friendly Proprietor’s Red and Proprietor’s White. I’m particularly pleased to have acquired a bottle of the new Pinot Noir Rosé, which has been well-received in its inaugural vintage under the supervision of new winemaker Darryl Brooker, in addition to some respectable medals in competition already. It has great aromas and flavours of strawberries, and should be a welcome addition to the Summer wine list.

Also included in the Summer shipment were two bottles of the racy 2010 Riesling, winner of Best of Varietal at the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival. Having sampled it at the “Bloom” BC VQA Spring Release, and having opened two bottles of my own already I can vouch for Anthony Gismondi’s description of a “citrus theme.” High acidity ensures that there is a lot of lime present in this wine, but paired with the right food it makes a superb Summer sipper: I recently discovered it is excellent with peanut sauce for example. I’m hoping the 2010 Gewurztraminer is equally interesting, with one bottle of this brand new release having arrived as well. It’s not yet listed on the CedarCreek website, nor have any local critics reviewed it to my knowledge, but the wine profile that came with my shipment describes a nose of rose petals benefiting from an extra-long, gentle pressing. The acidity is slightly higher than 2009 – 7.55 g/L vs. 6.28 g/L, but nowhere close to the domain of the Riesling – 12.20 g/L. Less than half as much Gewurztraminer was made in 2010 compared to the 2,843 cases made in 2009, but there should still be enough to go around. I’m actively seeking out Gewurztraminer this year for a change of pace, so I’m looking forward to opening this one when the time is right (CedarCreek suggests a pairing with Green Thai Curry).

Another wine not yet appearing on the CedarCreek website is the 2010 Pinot Gris, although Daenna Van Mulligen recently reviewed it quite positively: I love her suggestion of an Alsatian Onion Tart and plan on enjoying such a pairing soon! Over 4,000 cases of Gris are being released – almost the same number as last year – so you can look forward to plenty of this versatile wine over the next 12 months. One big change from last year is the dramatic increase in residual sugar, going from 0.66 g/L in 2009 to 7.90 g/L listed this year, which probably really ups the sweet peach, pear, and melon flavours.

The final wine Platinum Club members received in their first shipment was the 2010 Ehrenfelser, CedarCreek’s famous “fruit salad in a glass.” The winery likes to point out that so few wineries produce varietal Ehrenfelser that they have earned a mention in the Wikipedia entry for this grape! Sadly barely 100 hectares of Ehrenfelser remain planted worldwide according to that same Wikipedia article, which is a tragedy given the beautiful expression coaxed out of it by CedarCreek. Anthony Gismondi feels that Darryl’s first shot at Ehrenfelser has been very successful, producing a classic patio wine with excellent balance. I’ve tried a couple bottles already and have been quite pleased as well. Although in my opinion the 2009 still holds the crown for pure enjoyment, this newer, more acidic approach retains the intoxicating tropical, floral aromas we fell in love with last year.

CedarCreek wines are widely available in BC Liquor Stores and VQA Wine Stores, but for an easy and economical introduction consider the Platinum Club if you prefer your wines to come to you – it just seems so much more civilized that way ;)