Friday 31 May 2013

May Acquisitions: Surprising Finds

Over the past month I’ve managed to add a few key BC wines to my collection, and would be remiss not to mention them. Some of the wines represent new releases, while others are long since sold out, found in the many obscure locations throughout Vancouver that savvy shoppers seek. I was lucky to stumble across a new source for BC wines right in the middle of downtown Vancouver, where a couple of the most memorable finds of my short wine-hunting career were seemingly awaiting my arrival!

Prior to a discussion on red wines both past and present, the new 2012 Pinot Gris from Gray Monk deserves recognition. Although I’ve enjoyed many Gray Monk wines over the years, and even several bottles of their Odyssey (Reserve) Series Pinot Gris, the “regular” Pinot Gris had always flown under my radar. That all changed when the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival singled out Gray Monk as having produced the best Pinot Gris this year. Say what you want about wine competitions and judging results, but in this case I was prompted to try a new wine I had neglected for too long, and I quickly picked up a bottle to my great pleasure. The excellent 2012 vintage was not lost on Gray Monk, as the ripe, sweet fruit salad on display makes for a great patio sipper, with a peach focus that ensures a clean, fresh finish.

When it comes to red wines, many of the local reds are released in the fall, to synchronize with the Okanagan Wine Festival, but there do seem to be more being released year-round. One notable example is Black Hills: the winery releases their famous Nota Bene blend in the spring, after bottling in September following less than a year in barrel. By the beginning of April the new 2011 Nota Bene was already reaching sold out status from the winery, although many local stores were just beginning to receive their allotments. I picked up a bottle at Yaletown’s Swirl VQA Store in order to continue the growing vertical collection I’m building, with plans to eventually drink from it someday!

A couple more 2011 reds made their way into my hands this month when some friends of mine visited Fairview Cellars in Oliver. I politely requested they pick me up Bill Eggert’s varietal Cabernet Franc and his “Crooked Post” Pinot Noir, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. While Bill focuses much of his energy on red blends like his “Bear” Meritage, he does release the occasional varietal beyond his well-known Cabernet Sauvignon. I couldn’t pass up the chance to try the small lot (280 cases) Cabernet Franc, nor the Pinot Noir (250 cases), a new project for Bill that began with the 2008 vintage. Bill’s approach to Pinot Noir is different from many, in that he doesn’t bleed off any juice during crush/fermentation to intensify the colour of the remaining wine (and to produce a Rosé as a side-benefit). As a result, Fairview Cellars’ Pinot Noir is on the lighter side colour-wise, but Bill feels keeping it this way retains more flavour.

Stepping back slightly to the 2010 vintage, I acquired a bottle of Sandhill’s Small Lots “Two” red blend during a visit to Granville Island Brewery in mid-May. The Brewery’s retail shop offers a small selection of wines from Peller (which includes Sandhill), a seeming holdover from when Peller owned the Brewery during 2005-2009 (after which it was purchased by Molson Coors). The 2010 “Two” is a traditional blend of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, and 27% Cabernet Franc, from Sandhill’s estate vineyards on the Black Sage Bench. The wine differs substantially from the 2010 “One” blend, which includes Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. Legendary winemaker Howard Soon and his talented assistants produced the “Two” in a style said to yield “a big, ageable red”. However, it being from the Small Lot Collection, only 275 cases of “Two” were ultimately put together, so adding a bottle to my collection upon spotting it for sale made plenty of sense.

My biggest finds in May were ironically not new releases, but older wines I never expected to see again, certainly not for sale in Vancouver at the present time! Visiting the (literally) underground St. Regis Wine & Spirits store inside the Granville Skytrain Station I came across a surprisingly good BC wine section, including a number of superb cellar selections. Alongside several older vintages of rare Poplar Grove reds, I found the inaugural vintages of two legendary wines: alone on a shelf full of newer vintages was a single bottle of 2007 Painted Rock Red Icon, and a couple shelves over I spotted several bottles of 2005 Church & State Quintessential. Both bottles got my heart racing, as I had neglected to buy more than one bottle of the Red Icon at the time of release, and had missed out entirely on the Quintessential. I now have vertical collections of both wines, so I immediately jumped on the chance to lengthen my Church & State vertical, as well as add an additional bottle from Painted Rock. Needless to say, it was an invigorating day for a wine geek, and I was sure to gush about my exciting finds to a great many people (those who would appreciate it at least).

With two trips to wine country coming up in June my May acquisitions will likely pale in comparison to what I bring home in a few weeks. I’ve been compiling quite a list of wineries to visit and bottles to seek out, so I need to prioritize opening some of the current stock to make room for more!

Sunday 26 May 2013

May Wine Club: From Magnum to Moscato

With the weather having taken a decidedly warm turn for the better we were looking forward to our first wine club dinner at the home of our new members last weekend. Their loft-style condo includes a fantastic roof-top patio a few stories up from street-level, giving us the perfect venue for a pre-dinner beer when the four of us mistakenly arrived a half hour early! Our gracious hosts tried to apologize for not being fully prepared but the mix-up was fully our own fault, plus if anything it merely provided for more time to relax in the warmth of the setting sun. Their view to the west from Commercial Drive encompasses over 180 degrees, from Grouse Mountain to Queen Elizabeth Park, and provides for a unique viewpoint of the downtown core not often seen in photographs of Vancouver. We almost regretfully headed downstairs to enjoy our first course, although a magnum of Gray Monk 2009 Brut provided plenty of motivation!

Zucchini, Cherry Tomato, & Bocconcini Pie

Gray Monk has produced their “Odyssey White Brut” for a while now, and in fact the 2010 vintage was recently released. The wine is a traditional method sparkling, with secondary fermentation in the bottle, but incorporating some non-traditional grapes including Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay Musque. The off-dry palate and fruit-forward flavour profile made for a superb pairing with Zucchini, Cherry Tomato, & Bocconcini Pie. The Brut, while possessing nearly 20 grams per liter of residual sugar, also presented a pleasant tartness to keep the flavours fresh, with prominent lemon and apple, and a cleansing mousse texture. Hints of savoury, earthy/mineral character had some guests suggesting it as a promising complement for oysters, but we were more than happy to gush over the rich and delicious Bocconcini Pie.

At $45 for a magnum the Odyssey White Brut is one of the very, very few large format bottles that’s actually less expensive than the equivalent multiple of 750mL bottles (which in this case retail for $25 a piece). If you’ve got more than a couple people present such a magnum makes for an obvious and easy decision. The winery also produces a Rosé Brut (Gamay Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir) and recently released a “Celebration Edition” Traditional Brut made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, to mark Gray Monk’s 30/40/50 Anniversary last year. The Celebration Edition label may change, but the (tasty) new wine should remain as part of the portfolio going forward.

Generous Barbecue Accompaniments

When it came to the main course our hosts had prepared an ambitious and extensive spring barbecue feast! Guests had a choice of chicken or Portobello mushrooms, with several different cheeses and types of buns, along with toppings that included crisp lettuce and tomatoes, red onions, and fresh avocado slices. As if that weren’t enough a giant salad decorated with chive flowers had been prepared by the inspired chefs, plus mouth-watering roast potatoes that we all ogled with glee! The colourful culinary delights made for a very photogenic table, and were sure to satisfy even the biggest appetites.

Barbecued Portobello Mushroom Burger with Grilled Vegetables and Roasted Potatoes

Given the bounty of fresh veggies and the dearth of red meat – plus the heavenly mushrooms – a light Pinot Noir made for an ideal wine pairing. Cassini Cellars’ 2011 “Red Carpet” fit the bill quite well, with a smooth texture and an almost zingy effervescent quality. Flavours of red fruits favoured cherry in particular, plus a plumy finish meshed well with items from the grill. The “backup” bottle of Burrowing Owl 2007 Syrah wasn’t truly necessary, but that’s not to say we didn’t open it and enjoy aromas of lilacs and caramelized sugar. The smoky palate and black pepper notes in the Syrah were natural partners for barbecue, with additional flavours of blackberry and leather rounding things out nicely. We were soon stuffed quite pleasantly full, and took our time sipping the remaining wine while patiently awaiting dessert.

Fortunately, warnings about the upcoming dessert we’d prepared didn’t fall on deaf ears, and the other four diners had taken sufficient care to leave a little room when they saw the size of the cake awaiting them. I had been inspired by a recent recipe I spotted for Caramel Cake, and eventually settled on a variant of a related Jam Cake, with homemade caramel frosting and candied pecans. Working together all afternoon my wife and I eventually produced three layers of heavenly, apricot jam spice cake, which she liberally iced with buttery caramel. On site the cake looked even better served alongside creamy vanilla ice cream, fresh apricots, and few extra pecans for good measure.

Triple-Layer Apricot Jam Spice Cake with Caramel Frosting & Candied Pecans

For pairing with such a complex dessert I brought Cassini Cellars’ Moscato fortified wine, suggested as an excellent companion for “deserts such as pecan pie, dark chocolate cakes or ganache, carrot cake, crème brûlée…”  In our glasses the wine revealed lovely aromas of sweet melon and apricot, with a hint of cedar, but unfortunately it turned out to lack sufficient sugar and body to keep up with the cake. The complex, fresh, youthful palate of the Moscato actually got lost behind the sugar and spice of the cake; although on its own the wine was very enjoyable. I suppose the ideal pairing for such a cake would probably be a Madeira or a well-aged Tawny Port. However, we recently finished my only bottle of CedarCreek “M” Madeira, and I’m down to just one bottle of La Frenz Tawny – and a young one at that. Both the cake and the wine were superb individually, so the mismatched pairing did little to dampen our spirits, buoyed by a little extra cake and ice cream that eventually made their way around the table.

With nearly half the cake left despite our best efforts, a few slices were doled out to the hosts (and to more friends the next day) before we made our way back home. Having been on dessert duty twice recently, it’s finally our turn to take on appetizers at our next dinner, and we’ve had a fantastic idea for months! Due to conflicting travel schedules we’ll sadly be skipping June, with high hopes for a July get-together; I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about over a few more bottles of great BC wine.

Friday 24 May 2013

BCWAS: Quails’ Gate Wine Dinner

Every spring the BC Wine Appreciation Society embarks on an annual winemaker’s dinner at a celebrated Vancouver restaurant. Last week the Society visited vibrant seafood restaurant YEW in Vancouver’s Four Seasons hotel, and sipped from a spectrum of delicious Quails’ Gate wines in the company of winery proprietor Tony Stewart. Months of hard work by society Executive members had culminated in a carefully-crafted five-course meal put together by talented Chef Ned Bell and Sommelier Emily Walker.

At the back of YEW’s large open dining room there is a semi-private area for large parties such as ours, so we enjoyed a devoted section while the remainder of the large restaurant continued operating. Upon arrival BCWAS guests were treated to a glass of Quails’ Gate’s 2012 Chenin Blanc, a fresh, tart wine with grapefruit on the nose and apple flavours on the palate. One of only a handful of varietal Chenin Blanc from BC, Quails’ Gate’s lighter take differs from the well-known, honeyed, apples and quince flavoured version from Road 13.

Spot Prawn Nacho

To pair with our charming reception wine Chef Bell had arranged for a surprise amuse-bouche of a crispy spot prawn nacho with creamy aioli. With our dinner taking place precisely at the beginning of the West Coast’s celebrated spot prawn season Chef couldn’t miss the opportunity to feature such a fresh, local luxury, and we very much appreciated the treat!

As Society members caught up with old friends and made new ones around the tables we were served our first course of Spot Prawn Ceviche. A unique mason jar presentation contained layers of creamy avocado, pickled red chilies, and mouth-watering grapefruit-marinated prawns, to enjoy with more crispy tortillas. To pair with such an assertive dish we relied on Quails’ Gate’s youthful 2012 Riesling, backed up by a second glass of the elder 2007 vintage from the cellar.

Spot Prawn Ceviche

With two glasses of Riesling to enjoy we had the benefit of a little comparative tasting right at the table. The honeyed nose and dry, fresh palate of the 2012 stood up well to the ceviche, with well-balanced acidity keeping the pucker factor in the dish under control, given the generous grapefruit segments. With more than five years of bottle age under its belt the 2007 was still pleasantly delicate, including a zingy, similarly dry palate favouring orange marmalade flavours and a honeyed finish. The older Riesling had taken on some clear petrol characteristics but retained food-friendly cleanliness alongside the additional complexity gained over time.

Following the delicious starter was a sublime Corn Chowder with smoked bacon, leeks, celery hearts, and toasted hazelnuts. Ensconced in the middle of the creamy chowder was a perfectly cooked portion of halibut, and in our fresh glasses Quails’ Gate’s 2011 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay. The Reserve Chardonnay, made in small quantities of a mere 600 cases annually, sells out early each year, helped along by a stellar reputation. The 2010 vintage was recently awarded one of only seven Canadian gold medals at the Decanter Awards, along with being named Best of Class at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition.

Halibut Corn Chowder

The winery’s 2011 vintage carried on that impressive pedigree via an orchard fruit nose, with hints of melon and toast. On the butterscotch palate one could appreciate the deft balance between fresh fruit and oak leveraged by talented winemaker Grant Stanley. Lively acidity meshed well with the chowder, and the bright, fresh corn amplified the wine’s primary fruit. The long, toasty finish was perfectly complemented by the bacon and hazelnuts in particular, both ideal embellishments for the chowder.

There was definitely some very cleanly scoured empty chowder bowls when it came time for our third course, a unique dish not found anywhere on YEW’s menu: because the synchronicity was too valuable to pass up, Chef Bell had arranged for roasted quail! Stuffed with spot prawns and beautifully presented in a bed of balsamic-drizzled chanterelle mushrooms, earthy lentils, and asparagus with currants and rosemary, the quail was ideal for the 2011 Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir.

Spot Prawn-Stuffed Quail

Given the youthfulness of the wine, it was no surprise that ripe tannins were present, but the juicy acidity, berry aromas, and dark fruit made for an ideal pairing. The mushrooms and lentils helped to bring out the wine’s earthy, smoky flavours, including baking spice and a touch of leather. A couple tables encountered over- and/or under-cooked quail or prawns but most diners were quite pleased with the result, and Chef Ned was very apologetic for the hiccups!

Pinot Noir soon made way for Quails’ Gate’s 2009 Old Vines Reserve Foch, it having been opened and poured a couple hours in advance to mellow before serving. To tempt our palates with the Foch a plate of local cheese and a very creative Fig & Anise French Toast was served by the attentive staff. Generous wedges of Velvet Blue Camembert and the legendary Tiger Blue paired well with the assertive wine, and the sweetness of the crispy French toast helped to mellow the wine’s finish. Bright acidity and a smoky palate with notes of cedar, spice, leather, and a bit of barnyard provided for a challenging partner but the well-crafted cheese plate stood up to it admirably.

Local Cheese & French Toast

The final course of our meal came with a glass of Quails’ Gate’s famous Optima dessert wine, late harvested in 2011 and botrytis-affected to amplify the flavours and sugar. From the kitchen we received an Apricot Pudding rich in vanilla custard and caramelized apricots, which made for an ideal pairing with the concentrated, sweet Optima. The smooth and creamy pudding was complemented by caramelized honey and a refreshing white peach sorbet on the side. The wine’s elegant, honeyed nose and ripe apricot notes synchronized perfectly with the pudding, and garnered many commendations.

Apricot Pudding with Peach Sorbet

A few keen eyes noticed an obvious difference between some of the glasses of Optima, and it was revealed that the winery had accidentally shipped a mix of 2010 and 2011 vintages. Two tables ended up with the darker-golden older vintage, which Tony explained came from a wetter season that encouraged more botrytis, immediately noticeable on the nose. Versus the fresh, fruitier 2011 release the more complex 2010 was an unexpected surprise; that exceptional vintage was named Dessert Wine of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Wine Awards. I was lucky enough to have received the 2010 in my glass, but from what I heard of the 2011 it was a marked departure from my last experience with the same vintage: it seems likely now that the bottle we opened in March was flawed in some way.

As we protectively sipped from the flavourful Optima and licked our lips of sorbet Chef Bell joined us to provide his thanks. He jokingly referred to firing himself over any disappointments surrounding the quail, but one could tell he was genuinely disappointed and apologetic. Given the spectacular presentations of each dish, he and his team are clearly perfectionists who strive for constant customer satisfaction. To make up for anywhere he had fallen short Chef Bell offered everyone a can of YEW’s very own custom-canned albacore tuna. Described as the only truly sustainable form of tuna, and cooked in a way that maximizes flavour retention, this locally-caught Ocean Wise certified product continues YEW’s commitment to responsible dining. Combining the tuna cans with platters of chocolates and power cookies for the next morning left everyone with a fair-sized bounty of gifts to take home!

Chocolates & Power Cookies

There were plenty of satisfied smiles as we gradually filtered out that night, with lots of praise for the hardworking kitchen team and the servers. The gracious Tony Stewart received many thanks as well for sharing his family’s well-crafted wines, including the signed magnum of Reserve Pinot Noir that went to one lucky raffle winner. And so begins the advance planning for next year’s dinner!

Monday 20 May 2013

Sunday School with JoieFarm

Naramata Bench winery JoieFarm has enjoyed a very productive and positive spring season so far, with some notable awards and honours from international wine competitions. It began earlier in the month when the results from the California-based Riverside International Wine Competition revealed that Joie’s 2012 Rosé had been selected as the Sweepstakes Rosé Wine – the best across all categories/varieties. The Riverside competition has been running for over thirty years, providing wineries from around the world a venue for their wines to be blind-tasted by dozens of professional judges. Not unexpectedly, nearly all of the judges, and many of the nearly two thousands entries come from the United States, yet BC wineries often perform remarkably well: this year Penticton’s La Frenz was named Small Winery of the Year, and last year Wild Goose took home the same honours!

While having your wine named as one of the top five amongst two thousand at such a prestigious competition would be great on its own for proprietors Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble, Joie also received two Best in Class Gold Medals for their 2011 Gamay and 2011 PTG red blend. Both wines are slated to be released this fall, with the varietal Gamay serving to further increase Joie’s growing portfolio of Burgundian red wines. Of course, five silver and five bronze medals are simply the icing on the cake from Riverside, but they also revealed some interesting new developments at the winery, including an upcoming Reserve Gewurztraminer.

Only days after the Riverside results were announced, Michael – who oversees sales and marketing at Joie while Heidi supervises winemaking – found himself composing an additional press release touting another impressive award! The Decanter World Wine Awards had just bestowed a rare gold medal upon Joie’s upcoming 2011 Reserve Chardonnay, one of only 229 golds amongst 14,362 wines in the 2013 competition! The ten-year-old Decanter Awards are often touted as the world’s leading wine competition, and are known to be quite stingy with their top honours; in fact, only seven gold medals were awarded to Canadian wineries this year (out of at least a couple of hundred entries)! Canadian winners included two Ontario and one Okanagan Riesling (See Ya Later Ranch 2011), a pair of Ontario icewines, and Quails’ Gate’s 2010 Reserve Chardonnay. Given the popularity and many years of accolades garnered by the much larger Quails’ Gate for their Chardonnay program, they make for great company, gold medal notwithstanding. One can imagine that upon release in September, Joie’s Chardonnay will see spirited sales indeed!

The aroma bar at Vancouver Urban Winery

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to taste some of Joie’s current and upcoming releases as part of a series of bi-monthly tasting sessions conducted by Vancouver Urban Winery: the third of four “Sunday School” sessions featured the wines of Joie under the “Better Know a BC Winery” moniker. Gregarious Sommelier David Stansfield was present alongside Michael Dinn to welcome the multitude of “students”, and had even prepared an impressive aromatic spectacle along the bar. An array of wineglasses containing fresh fruits, herbs, and other delights for the senses provided guests with a chance to familiarize themselves with common wine aromas, ranging from fresh-cut grass to chocolate and cinnamon – it made for quite a conversation piece as well!

After an introduction by David, Michael discussed his young winery’s accomplishments and growth since he and Heidi purchased the initial five-acre Naramata Bench vineyard (and their house) in 2002. Their first vintage of 800 cases was financed by a bevy of credit cards in 2004, and produced at neighbouring wineries before their own facilities came into operation. Less than ten years later JoieFarm boasts production of 14,000 cases annually, and 17 acres of estate vineyards, not to mention myriad beneficial relationships with local growers as well. The winery has always focused on aromatic white wines, although more recently natural growth in reds such as Pinot Noir and Gamay has brought about further expansion of their portfolio.

Joie's white wines in VUW's personalized stemware

For our Sunday School session David had arranged two flights of Joie’s newest wines, starting with four 2012 aromatic whites. I was immediately impressed with the Pinot Blanc, a new addition to the portfolio since 2011, when the winery held back some juice from being mixed into their “Noble Blend” in order to facilitate a small (180 cases) single varietal bottling. The Pinot Blanc comes from two old-vine vineyards, one in Kelowna and the other on the Naramata Bench, and fortunately those same two 25-year-old vineyards were available for the 2012 vintage. The wine was showing off a beautiful floral, vanilla-scented nose, and very fresh, clean flavours of apples, peaches, and grapefruit. The well balanced acidity did wonders to extend the vibrant freshness, and set a high standard for the remaining whites to measure up against. Best of all 288 cases were produced in 2012, so it should last a little bit longer this year.

The additional white wines in our flight of four included the varietal Riesling, one of Joie’s most championed wines given their Alsatian inspirations. More than 800 cases of 2012 Riesling were produced, once again from a blend of Kelowna and Naramata Bench fruit. It being so young, I didn’t detect any hints of “petrol” on the nose – as it should be in the opinion of some – which was instead awash in lime and grapefruit aromas. A lime-focused citrus palate followed, with lower acidity than I expected, but balanced by a relatively low 15 g/L of residual sugar (low in comparison to many other Rieslings at least).

Like all good Riesling, Joie’s should be able to age, and in order to get a better perspective I recently opened a bottle of their 2008 Riesling from my own cellar: it had easily stood the test of time, retaining plenty of fruit and evolving an appealing light petrol aroma – no overwhelming diesel fuel here. The nose retained freshness while taking on more mature tropical aromas like mango, and the palate was a study in honeyed peaches, while mouth-watering acidity and a lengthy finish helped to perpetuate the enjoyment. I wouldn’t hesitate to add the 2012 vintage to my vertical if this elegant maturity is what I have to look forward to in the years to come.

Following the Riesling we had the chance to enjoy the varietal Muscat, a long-standing and storied component of Joie’s portfolio that comes in part from the winery’s home vineyard on Naramata Road. The 2006 vintage was awarded a Lt. Governor’s Award, and the next year Vancouver chef Vikram Vij bought up the entire 2007 vintage for his eponymous Indian restaurant! From 2012 about 450 cases of Muscat were produced, and in our glasses it easily exuded the intense aromatics for which it is known. Once again I was struck by how clean and fresh the wine came across, with floral, herbal, and stonefruit aromas, and a balanced palate with the characteristic “grapey” flavours of Muscat that David was sure to point out. Although the Muscat contains 12 g/L of residual sugar, it has sufficient acid as well; still, the Pinot Blanc struck me as more pleasantly tart overall.

David had smartly arranged for the 2012 Noble Blend to come last, seeing as it incorporates all three of the aforementioned varieties, in addition to Gewurztraminer (35%), Pinot Auxerrois (12%), and even Schoenberger (4%). Riesling contributes the other major component of the blend, at 29%, while Pinot Blanc makes up 17% and Muscat a tiny but important 3%. The Noble Blend is Joie’s anchor wine, with more than 4,200 cases produced from the 2012 vintage, in addition to several hundred magnums and Jeroboams that make quite a statement with their giant size. The Noble Blend can be found on tap in a growing number of restaurants due to Joie’s partnership with Vancouver Urban Winery and their FreshTAP system of steel kegs. Despite nearly 11 g/L of sugar the Noble Blend possessed the lowest acidity of all four whites; I would have preferred a bit more acid but it remained relatively balanced nonetheless, with aromas of citrus, spice, and clean laundry. The theme of freshness and youth exhibited by the preceding wines was maintained, and should provide for plenty of summertime enjoyment with a variety of foods given its inherent complexity.

Raincoast Crisps donated by Lesley Stowe

When it came time for our flight of red wines guests were in for quite a treat, as Michael had brought with him samples of four upcoming wines not scheduled for release until September. Included amongst those wines was the winery’s first varietal Gamay, and two versions of the new Pinot Noir. Joie has produced a Pinot-Gamay Noir blend called PTG (“Passe-Tout-Grains”) for some time, but it was only last year that they first released a single varietal red, their first Reserve Pinot Noir (from 2010). For the 2011 vintage the winery has expanded the Pinot Noir release into a “regular” $24 version and the smaller lot $40 Reserve. The very food friendly PTG, usually about two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Gamay, continues to deliver, and the winery produced about 450 cases from the 2011 vintage.

We had the chance to try both Pinot Noirs and noted the differences between them: the Reserve version, of which 270 cases were produced, was noticeably darker and earthier, with toasty, mushroom notes. The brand new varietal Pinot Noir, reasonably priced and with more than double the production quantities, should be very popular, with bright red fruit on the nose, cherry flavours, and hints of cedar and toast. The upcoming 2011 Gamay was actually even better than the Pinot Noir in my opinion, at the same $24 price point. Similar red fruits and hints of cedar were present, but the palate felt pleasantly rounder, and minus the minor bitterness I detected on the finish of the Pinot Noir. The new reds will likely enjoy much consumer success, perhaps even more than the PTG blend given New World familiarity and comfort with varietal wines. Many thanks to Michael (and Heidi) for sharing them, and the superb whites as well, and to David for putting together such a successful tasting!

Wednesday 15 May 2013

BC Grape Crop Report: 2012 Insights

The BC Wine Institute recently released the annual Crop Report, a voluntary survey of BC wine grape growers conducted and compiled by accounting firm BDO Canada. The summary message of the 2012 Report was that total tonnage has “returned to normal levels” thanks to an increase of 17% over 2011. Extrapolating from the wineries/growers that responded to the survey the report concludes that a total of 27,257 tons of wine grapes were harvested in 2012, versus 22,722 tons in the challenging 2011 vintage.

A mild winter, good spring fruit set, and warm temperatures throughout harvest combined to yield the success witnessed last year. Although consumers are already enjoying the stellar 2012 white wines, the Wine Institute quotes BC Grapegrowers’ Association President Manfred Freese as noting that “the resultant full ripening of the berries all but guarantees this will be a superior vintage year for red wines.”

Seeing as the Crop Report survey is voluntary, only a limited percentage of vineyards provide data in any given year. Last year 110 of the 206 wineries in BC participated, representing a historical low of only 53%. Frustratingly, as the number of wineries has increased over the past several years, the number responding to the survey has fallen, accelerating the participation decrease from a high of 84% in 2008. Should this trend continue the Crop Report faces a dim future slide into obscurity: hopefully the Institute is aware of the potential problem and is seeking to boost the response rate in the future.


2012 Rank

2012 Tons


2011 Rank

2011 Tons













Pinot Gris



Pinot Gris



Pinot Noir



Cabernet Sauvignon



Cabernet Sauvignon



Sauvignon Blanc






Pinot Noir



Sauvignon Blanc






Cabernet Franc



Pinot Blanc






Cabernet Franc









Those wineries that did respond have provided a fascinating look at the ongoing changes in the BC grape-growing industry. Perennial champions Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris remain in the top three once again, but due to a massive 564 additional tons harvested, Pinot Noir bumped Cabernet Sauvignon from fourth place – this despite an additional 300 tons of Cabernet being harvested in 2012!

More changes saw Sauvignon Blanc falling from fifth down to seventh place, despite a slightly larger harvest than 2011, and an additional 251 tons of Gewurztraminer pushed this aromatic variety up from seventh to sixth. Perhaps the biggest upset in the rankings comes via Syrah, which didn’t even crack the top ten in 2011 but emerged to help push Pinot Blanc out entirely via a huge 450 ton increase over the relatively unimpressive 2011 harvest. Even a slight increase to 1,187 tons in 2012 wasn’t enough to help Pinot Blanc retain a place in the leaderboard. Lastly, Cabernet Franc’s 310 ton increase helped this increasingly popular variety into a solid eighth place (Sandra Oldfield must be ginning somewhere), while elegant Riesling maintained position in tenth, with nearly 300 tons above 2011.

The full report also includes price details for every grape variety, revealing some of the most (and least) valuable grapes in the local market. Averaging $2,284/ton over 436 tons helped Viognier trounce varieties like Chardonnay ($1,991) and Pinot Gris ($2,063), but Roussanne had them all beat with a maximum price per ton of $6,161 (although averaging $2,994 on a mere 33 tons).

Amongst reds, Merlot exhibited a shockingly low minimum value of only $533/ton at one point, although the grape averaged a respectable $2,378. What must have been some exceptional Cabernet Franc grapes maxed out at $7,500/ton (while averaging $2,434), but 204 tons of Malbec were the most valuable red table grapes, averaging $2,791 per ton.

To view the full 2012 Crop Report (and those of other years as well) visit the BC Wine Institute webpage.

Sunday 5 May 2013

LaStella & Le Vieux Pin Ring in Spring

I recently stopped by the Vancouver headquarters of a couple of my favourite wineries to taste their newest releases: LaStella and Le Vieux Pin produce some of the finest wines in the Okanagan valley, not to mention the most in-demand, so it is always a treat to sample their highly acclaimed wares. With summer rapidly approaching the time is perfect for the two wineries to release their respective 2012 rosés, along with several fresh white wines to enjoy over the coming months. The two small southern-Okanagan wineries are operated by the same parent company, and mutual General Manager Rasoul Salehi as well as winemaker Severine Pinte were on hand to discuss their new and upcoming wines.

LaStella is located just north of the town of Osoyoos, in a beautiful vineyard property on the western shores of Osoyoos Lake. The winery’s Italian musical theme sees them producing a Pinot Grigio named “Vivace” as well as an unoaked Chardonnay with the charming moniker “Leggiero”. As 2012 was quite fortunately a highly productive vintage the wines have benefited from very clean, ripe grapes, immediately evident upon tasting the whites. The Leggiero impressed me with wonderfully ripe orchard fruit flavours and food-friendly acidity that will pair with many fresh local foods – the winery recommends seafood in particular. The Vivace continued the trend with a crisp and refreshing palate favouring citrus and apples, with tropical fruit salad complexity providing for even more versatility in the kitchen.

The other spring releases from LaStella include the “LaStellina” Rosé, and the delightful little Moscato d’Osoyoos – a sweet, low-alcohol, delicately effervescent wine that comes in a 500mL bottle perfect for brunch! The orange blossom aromas in the Moscato lead into a very clean, mouth-watering palate that would also be ideal in the aperitif role. The LaStellina is off-dry as well, and rather pale in colour this year, due to a reduction in Merlot from 100% to 80% – the remainder of the wine now comes from a unique blend of 10% Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) and 10% Cabernet Franc grapes. The bright palate is dominated by strawberry flavours with earthy, mineral hints; the winery suggests a spicy food pairing to mesh with the lush aromatics and low alcohol – sounds perfect!

Winemaker Severine Pinte with Whites & Rosés

Sister winery Le Vieux Pin can be found further north outside the town of Oliver, where Winemaker Severine embraces the winery’s French theme that is centered on Rhone-style wines. Although striking Syrahs and a voluptuous Viognier blend are prominent, Le Vieux Pin also produces a varietal Sauvignon Blanc: the 2012 vintage continues the tradition of a mild, subdued approach that shows off herbal, floral perfume. The wine eschews strong grassy notes and overly tart citrus flavours in favour of a more subtle, complex take on the grape, certainly more to my liking.

The Viognier-Roussanne-Marsanne blend named “Ava” sees at least several months in oak before delayed release, so the 2011 vintage is only now coming onto the market. In 2010 the blend consisted of more than 90% Viognier, but now 11% each of Roussanne and Marsanne have contributed to a very round, mouth-filling texture, and a long, smooth finish. There is a toastiness on the nose brought about through the partial oak aging, but lush tropical fruits emerge over time. Since it’s my opinion the 2011 has improved on the already excellent 2010 version I’m quite pleased to see that nearly twice as much was produced this vintage – almost 500 cases are available for sale to the wine’s many fans.

Not to be outdone by LaStella, Le Vieux Pin’s take on rosé once again proved to be extremely impressive. The 2012 “Vaila” Pinot Noir Rosé is very aromatic, with an intense, tart red berry palate and dry finish that keeps you coming back for more. It will sing during summer months, but I remember opening my last bottle of 2011 Vaila during a large Christmas dinner potluck last year: it was a near-perfect pairing praised by everyone in attendance, showing the easy versatility of this consistently superb wine.

LaStella 2010 Maestoso Merlot & Le Vieux Pin 2011 Syrah "Cuvée Violette"

While Severine was busy pouring the whites and rosés for guests on one side of the room Rasoul had a special treat around the corner as he poured the brand new LaStella 2010 Maestoso Merlot. The Maestoso is LaStella’s flagship wine, containing grapes lovingly tended to in the winery’s home vineyard on the lakeshore. Each year only a small amount of Maestoso is produced, typically on the order of 150 cases, due in part to the low yields, often approaching 1 ton per acre. I have been carefully collecting a vertical of this wine since the first vintage in 2006, without much of an idea what to ultimately do with it however; fortunately it will last until I make up my mind! Maestoso is a big wine, full of dark fruit, mocha, and black olive flavours, but I was honestly surprised at how approachable the 2010 came across given its youth. It should age gracefully given the rich, ripe tannins, so there is no hurry to consume it any time soon, and additional complexity will no doubt emerge over the many years ahead.

Alongside the Maestoso, Rasoul was happy to show off a surprising new wine from Le Vieux Pin: the upcoming “Cuvée Violette” 2011 Syrah is an easy-drinking, more entry-level red aimed particularly at restaurant wine lists. Although it will retail for an approachable $30 an aggressive sommelier might be able to list it for $50 after the wholesale discount. Being able to include a well-made varietal Syrah from a highly respected Okanagan winery at that price should make it an easy sell, while helping to introduce consumers to the higher-tier Syrahs from the winery, including the exciting Equinoxe reserve version.

In fact, both the “regular” 2010 Syrah, and the yet-to-be-released 2010 Equinoxe Syrah were available to sample as part of an international comparative tasting Rasoul had assembled for the occasion. Along with a few bottles from France, California, and even New Zealand, local versions from Burrowing Owl, Church & State, Jackson Triggs, and Nichol Vineyard were also present. The Le Vieux Pin Syrah had no trouble standing up to the competition, with plenty of bright fruit and a fresh, tart palate leading into a smooth, slightly raisiny finish. The Equinoxe version exhibited additional complexity coming across on the spiced nose and intense dark fruit palate, framed by a sublimely rich, full texture. Fortunately, with so many options over the summer in the form of delicious whites and rosés, I should be able to keep myself busy while I await the fall Equinoxe release!