Sunday, 19 March 2017

Enotecca’s Prudent Evolution

I recently enjoyed the valuable opportunity to visit the head office of two of my favourite and most respected wineries, and sample several brand-new releases. Enotecca Wineries is the parent company of both LaStella and Le Vieux Pin, Italian- and French-inspired wineries in Osoyoos and Oliver respectively. The two wineries share key staff, including highly talented Winemaker and Viticulturist Severine Pinte, who emigrated to Canada in 2010 after extensive education in France, and many years of international experience. Severine is now a Managing Partner, alongside Sales & Marketing Director Rasoul Salehi, who was eager to share with me the near-perfect 2016 vintage.

LaStella 2014 Espressivo

Although Rasoul hinted that a few new and upcoming reds from recent vintages were available, the focus was on the brand new 2016 whites and Rosés from both wineries. It is broadly acknowledged, and emphasized by Rasoul, that 2016 was a particularly excellent vintage – in his opinion the best since 2011. (Although thought of as cool, 2011 yielded beautifully-focused, elegant wines, as my own experience has born out.) For the varieties and styles aimed for at both LaStella and Le Vieux Pin, 2016 offered an ideal long, consistent, and moderate growing season without the overly high heat of recent years. As the most youthful whites trickle into the market these past couple of months, consumers are getting a chance to experience the quality on hand.

LaStella’s musically-named wines include a pair of crisp, dry whites in the form of “Leggiero” In-Oaked Chardonnay and “Vivace” Pinot Grigio, both echoing the style of northern Italy. Fresh out of the gate they are exactly that – fresh – with bountiful fruit presence and balanced by precise acidity, and deliciously moderate alcohol (e.g., 12-13% was typical for all whites, despite fermentation to dryness). Incorporating fruit from a newly acquired Golden Mile vineyard with old vines Chardonnay, Leggiero 2016 offers bright green apples and sourdough bread with lip-smacking minerality. Immediately expressive on the nose, with a basket of green and pink citrus fruit, Vivace 2016 is equally juicy, with a “chiselled” fruit cocktail palate of which LaStella is rightfully proud – it is a notably different beast than the lusher stone fruit of many BC Pinot Gris.

Avoiding overlap, Le Vieux Pin’s portfolio includes a long-time fan-favourite Sauvignon Blanc, harvested spectacularly early in 2016 by mid-August, to yield just 12% alcohol. First impression makes it clear this is not a standard simple sipper, if the $30 price tag wasn’t evidence enough; it is a complex, food-focused wine sparking thoughtful contemplation. I was struck by the nose of Guava and rich tropical fruit, showing little grassiness beyond some light herbaceous notes. The clean and fresh citrus palate was terrifically long-lasting, with enjoyable subtleties changing alongside the temperature. Just as distinct is LaStella’s fun-loving Moscato D’Osoyoos, where 44 g/L of sugar in 2016 is well balanced and pumped up by enthusiastic effervescence. I have no doubt that all 800 cases of this perfect breakfast wine will sell out once again, as the gorgeous musk melon nose and peach palate gain it even further fans.

With Spring well on its way wine fans are fortunate both wineries long ago embraced Rosé, offering opportunity to love either iteration. I have long-favoured Le Vieux Pin’s “Vaïla” Pinot Noir, but was surprised to lean for LaStella in short order. The 2016 “LaStellina” Rosé is much lighter in colour than previous iterations, entering with a traditional off-dry palate but finishing surprisingly dry (just 5 g/L is paired with 12.9% alcohol). Two thirds Cabernet Franc shows off red fruit and forest floor, while Merlot and 4% Sangiovese offer additional complexity to the silky palate. In contrast, Vaïla’s pure Pinot expression is bone dry as usual, lightly pinked and delicately creamy from time on the gross lees. Its rhubarb and rose petal profile comes in a close second to LaStellina this year, but I have no qualms about my inevitable purchase of both bottles.

Warmer weather welcomes reds as well as whites, and it is here that some very calculated growth is taking place. Neither winery has been focused on expansion, as the goal has always been to produce the best possible wine, but in doing so there can be germination of new opportunities. A few years back Le Vieux Pin’s renowned Syrah selection birthed the accessible Cuvée Violette, aggressively priced to become a restaurant favourite in no time. After some months without stock, merchants and customers must be relieved to see the newly released 2015 vintage, and should be quite satisfied with the big floral, mocha nose, black fruit flavours, and peppered finish from soft, ripe tannins. A generous 1,300 cases are available, and plans for larger releases to come are in place once the new Golden Mile vineyard comes on stream.

As Le Vieux Pin further cultivates Syrah, LaStella is shepherding small plantings of Sangiovese towards greatness. I was lucky enough to get an early taste of the 2014 “Arioso” Sangiovese, already oozing appeal with a ripe and ravishing nose. One experimental barrel in 2012 has yielded to a relative boom of 106 cases from 2014, set for release towards the end of 2018 in all likelihood. The newest Fortissimo, an existing Super Tuscan blend, deftly incorporates 11% Sangiovese alongside a quarter of Cabernets and nearly two thirds Merlot as 1,711 cases of 2015 are now available. Even more exciting, new sibling “Espressivo” will soon arrive to provide complement from 2014 with 55% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, and 5% Sangiovese. Although only 123 cases of the inaugural release have been produced, gradual growth is hoped for, offering a darker, spicier partner to Fortissimo’s lush earthy berries.

My visit concluded with an extra treat thanks to the always-impressive Coravin, with which Rasoul was able to offer tastes of the 2006 and 2008 Allegretto Merlot. Having over a decade behind it, 2006 was unnervingly smooth, with continuing complexity of forest floor, black olives, and leather. There were in fact still some tannins lurking in 2008, but the ripe and mouth-filling palate was going strong, showing rich fruit with a coffee-flavoured, meaty undercurrent. As both wineries enter their second decades, I look forward to seeing similar iterations of Espressivo, Arioso (and all the other superbly crafted reds) in the future. In the meantime, I have plenty of options for my glass this summer.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Curve Ahead: A Beer Post!

I recently had the delightful opportunity to visit Victoria for the closing weekend of Victoria Beer Week, and better yet, it was all complimentary! No, I wasn’t being feted for my tireless work nit-picking BC wine, I quite surprisingly won an online contest. My prize package for two included flights on Harbour Air, two nights in a suite at Swan’s Hotel & Brewpub, and tickets to Friday night and Saturday afternoon events. With my wife’s blessing and encouragement (allowing her to avoid it), I brought along a friend (and home-brewer) much more likely to appreciate the suds.

Co-Producer Joe Wiebe addresses beer fans at The Hudson, while Wandering Mollusk is hard at work

Our Friday afternoon harbour-to-harbour flight from Vancouver gave us a good view of the city we had both called home at one point in the past, with anticipation of visiting some old haunts. The evening welcomed “Friday Night Casks #2”, the sequel to the previous weekend’s opening cask celebration. Expecting traditional oak casks we were pleasantly surprised to see many steel kegs amongst the breweries present in the Victoria Public Market at The Hudson (just one block from my old apartment). Some purists will likely scoff, but I prefer the higher carbonation in kegs over casks.

Fortification courtesy of Saltchuck Pie Company and L'Authentique Poutine & Burger

A monumental two dozen BC craft breweries (and cideries) were present in the cavernous space formerly the ground floor of The Bay department store - now remade into a striking market for local food and goods vendors. Armed with tasting tokens we set out to find the most exciting rarities and experiments to be had. Our high expectations were easily met with a great many extremely creative brews; some of my favourites incorporated exciting fruit-forward infusions: Category 12 Danish Blonde with Cucumber & Lime, Coal Harbour Sunrise Gose with Apricots, Lighthouse Perfect Storm Grand Marnier Citrus Ale, Steamworks Flagship IPA with Mango, and Yellow Dog High 5 Hazy IPA with Pineapple. Even host Swans had joined the infusion action by adding Apricots and Roasted Habanero to their heritage Scotch Ale “Regal Standard” to give it a memorable spicy kick!

Excitement to be had from Powell Street and Twin Sails, among many others

Sleeping off the many hard-to-miss brews, plus a hearty brunch at John’s Place, fortified us for Saturday’s new release celebration “Lift Off!” Under some daunting clouds outdoors in Centennial Square a dozen brand new beers were being sampled for the first time - and in gratitude the sun eventually emerged. Mindful of the job ahead of us we set out to sample each and every one in the lengthy afternoon allowance (1-6pm). All the beers will eventually find their way to taps and bottles in the near future, but it was a priceless opportunity to preview those we hope to be drinking this summer. Powell Street’s “Ode to Wallflower” Gin Barrel-aged Citra Pale Ale was one such delicious drink, a “hyper-local” collaboration between the brewery and neighbouring Odd Society Spirits. Equally striking, in a whole other direction was Twin Sails’ stunning Blonde Stout, conditioned on coffee, cocoa, vanilla, and toasted coconut to leave a major impression. I was further engaged by crisp hops in Yellow Dog’s tart Domesticated Sour Wild IPA, Spinnakers’ refreshing “Juice Monkey” IPA, and 4 Mile’s terrifically tropical Mosaic Session IPA. Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time relishing the early-access VIP treatment at this well organized and smoothly executed exhibition.

The bustling crowd had on-site stores from which to bring home the memories

With Saturday capping the week via the highlight of Lift Off, the evening saw a celebration of the many hard-working organizers, volunteers, and sponsors who made the seemingly flawless festival possible. Back at The Hudson we were honoured to join the revelry, where any leftover kegs and casks were soon helpfully emptied, plus a few special gems saved in anticipation of appreciation. The acknowledgements were well worthy, for events like this - even day-long, not to mention a full week - live and die on the backs of the time volunteered by passionate advocates. Should you find yourself with opportunity to join the fun in subsequent years - as I certainly hope to – keep Victoria Beer Week on your radar!

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Collectibles: February 2017

One of the largest gatherings of Canadian wine was shared with lucky locals at this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival, featuring a national focus to mark our sesquicentennial celebrations. While numerous charming Ontario and Nova Scotia contributions were on hand, the Festival’s on-site BC Liquor Store carried particularly generous reams of rarities and pre-releases from BC’s top wineries. For those looking to jump the line, the Festival offered notable advance purchasing opportunities. I took advantage of the occasion to stock up on some excellent cellar-worthy reds amongst other gems.

February 2017 BC wine collectibles

Liquidity 2014 Estate Pinot Noir: The young Okanagan Falls winery helmed by  experienced cross-Canadian winemaker Alison Moyes produces no less than three Pinot Noir from mature vines in ideal terroir. Five different clones were blended to yield the workhorse version, the only one remaining in stock before release of the 2015 vintage. While small lots of the higher tier Reserve and “Equity” bottlings sold out in short order at least some of the Estate’s 910 cases remain for sale. In spite of what may seem to be an entry-level price point, the wine was one of six BC Pinots to garner Gold at the National Wine Awards last summer. Second only to one (of three) from neighbouring Meyer Family Vineyards, Liquidity’s offering was the best value amongst those top drops, accompanied by a slew of compliments from the judges, including optimism for its aging potential. VIWF BC Liquor Store $30

Van Westen 2015 “VD” Pinot Noir: Since 2011, Naramata’s Robert Van Westen has been producing a collaborative Pinot Noir with industry veteran Tom DiBello. The resulting wine, cheekily named VD, is released annually on Valentine’s Day, and the newest now gives me five vintages merrily aging away. In Rob’s bigger red portfolio the VD is an outlier next to a series of Bordeaux varietals and blends, and always shows up in the smallest numbers: just 86 cases were eventually bottled from the warm 2015 vintage. The bountiful conditions that year have resulted in a more fruit-forward wine than previous iterations, with fewer earthy notes in favour of generous ripe fruit and toasty spice. It remains on the fuller side of Pinots, dark and rich, for fans of a more intense style, but still retains floral aromatics to remind you of its provenance. Winery Direct $40

Foxtrot 2014 Foxtrot Vineyard Pinot Noir: After ten vintages the Allander family’s Burgundian icons have become a benchmark in BC, and the newest release launches their second decade from a position of great strength. John Schreiner’s recent update on the winery’s progress includes extensive coverage of Foxtrot’s growing international presence, and substantial vineyard expansion. The flagship wine in the growing portfolio is the Foxtrot Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the original estate plantings on the Naramata Bench. It should come as no surprise that Winemaker Gustav Allander has continued to work wonders with the exceptional fruit, providing for Schreiner’s easy 93-point score from an elegant and seductive wine that “is appealing to all the senses.” Apart from ordering case lots from the winery (where there is no tasting room), the bottles for sale at the Wine Festival were the best prices in town; lucky shoppers snapped up signed bottles with rapidity. VIWF BC Liquor Store $59

Culmina 2014 Merlot: After the Triggs family’s ambitious new project launched with the 2011 vintage Culmina tripled the red portfolio last year by introducing the first varietal wines to accompany the Hypothesis blend. The second varietal vintages were on hand at this year’s Wine Festival, including new Cabernet Franc, alongside existing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The 2014 Merlot was the only one actually for sale, but still a lucky break as formal release (and final pricing) is not anticipated until June (to provide for a full year of bottle age). Little surprise it’s still young and tight, but the move towards less new oak as the winery ages is a great thing: last year’s 50% new French is now just 15%, letting the Golden Mile Bench fruit shine even brighter after 16 months in barrel. With anticipated aging of at least several years, I’m holding mine until the twenties. VIWF BC Liquor Store $36

Church & State 2013 Quintessential: The icon wine from Church & State has bounced around vintages lately, and 2010 is in fact the current release, with 2013 anticipated later this year (and 2011 and 2012 sold previously). Vintage variation leads the decision to bottle age as necessary, regardless of envisioned schedule. Finding the pre-release 2013 at the Wine Festival was a perk not to be missed: a taste poured by Marketing Manager John Pullen greatly impressed thanks to robust integration of the complex blend. The Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc came from three distinct south Okanagan vineyard benches (Golden Mile, Black Sage, and Osoyoos East), aged in one third new French oak before 475 cases were bottled. Fans will be glad to know that’s a heck of a lot more than the 100 cases of 2012 that took home a Lieutenant Governor’s Award in 2015. VIWF BC Liquor Store $56

Sandhill 2014 Soon Series Red: I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful, recently-renovated Kelowna tasting room of Sandhill during precisely the right time last July, and snagged the ultra-rare inaugural “Soon Series” wines. A step up from the already exclusive Small Lots series, the Soon Series pay homage to long-time Head Winemaker Howard Soon, whose signature prominently graces the crisp white label. Like last year, a mere 50 cases were made of the second vintage, and it was generously being sampled and sold at the Wine Festival; I was thrilled with the dark berries and chocolate flavours amongst very fine, ripe tannins. The unusual blend includes 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec, and 5% Merlot, aged in new French and American oak for 22 months after co-fermentation. Currently available and in stock exclusively at the Kelowna tasting room, it doesn’t even appear on the Sandhill website! VIWF BC Liquor Store $69

Culmina 2013 Hypothesis: While the varietal reds at Culmina get a year of bottle age, the blended Hypothesis has at least two years time to contemplate its fate. That being said, Don Triggs didn’t miss the opportunity to submit his third vintage for review just after bottling in 2015, and even that young Hypothesis struck a chord. WineAlign’s top talent thrice provided 91+ point accolades as early as November 2015, praising the depth, balance, and elegance at present despite significant aging potential. Like the Merlot, oak treatment has changed as the winery has more used barrels with which to work: 70% new oak in the second vintage has stepped down to 60% in year three. Eschewing any additional varieties, the blend is a minimalist Bordeaux red, with 38% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Franc, and 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, harvested from the Golden Mile estate. With just a single bottle at hand, I hope to obtain more during the winery’s anticipated fall release later this year; my growing vertical is edging up in size! VIWF BC Liquor Store $44

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Collectibles: January 2017

Although maintaining budgetary restraint before the upcoming Vancouver International Wine Festival – and the acquisition opportunities it offers – is often necessary this month, a few collectibles must be mentioned. Upon review I was very pleased to have amassed a diverse range to launch the year, from Cowichan Valley Pinot Noir to Osoyoos Tannat. Any one of these exceptional wines would keep you warm in the crisp weather that remains in our midst, but could easily handle aging to even further greatness in the years ahead.

January 2017 BC wine collectibles

Carson 2014 Pinot Noir: When he isn’t delivering world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for the Meyer family in Okanagan Falls, Winemaker Chris Carson quietly releases small lots of his own-branded bottles. A mere 295 cases of Naramata Bench Pinot Noir came from a one and a half acre block in 2014, hand harvested and wild fermented before spending 11 months in (one third new) French oak. Carson makes no bones about the wine’s cellaring potential, listing an optimistic 15 years on the label, but he’s built up a lot of trust at Meyer that carries over to the personal brand he started in 2011. The Dijon 115 clone makes for what Anthony Gismondi feels is an “exuberant, fruity, spicy” wine even riper than the superb 2013 I was more than happy to acquire previously. Marquis Wine Cellars $40

Averill Creek 2014 Somenos Series Pinot Noir: It’s no secret Vancouver Island wines are a rarity in retail stores just a few kilometers across the Straight of Georgia. I get few opportunities to add the Island’s top wines to my collection, but jumped at the chance to piggyback on a friend’s case order for this extreme rarity. Already highly respected for his complex and finely crafted Pinot Noir, Proprietor Andy Johnston stepped up his game recently with the new premium-tier Somenos Series. The inaugural Pinot Noir is the Cowichan Valley’s bold, earthy, rich expression of the grape, and a wine Anthony Gismondi puts in contention for the Island’s best Pinot Noir yet. Keep your eyes peeled to see if any of the 300 cases make it over to the mainland. Winery Direct $44

Cassini 2013 Grand Reserve “Nobilus” Merlot: I stopped by Cassini Cellars’ convenient roadside Golden Mile winery late last year just as three new premium reds were released. Despite having closed the tasting room for the season proprietor Adrian Cassini generously took time away from several recently-arrived bins of (immaculate) grapes to ring in my enthusiastic purchase. The Merlot is his smallest lot of the batch, with only 187 cases produced after two years in new French oak, and was named best in class with a Double Gold at the 2016 All Canadian Wine Championships. John Schreiner focused on the new “high calibre” reds in his December review, finding the Merlot worthy of 92 points amid mention of its superb aging potential. Winery Direct $40

Cassini 2013 Collector’s Series Cabernet Franc: The new follow-up to last year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award-winner has continued the tradition of excellence, taking home a Gold medal from the All Canadians last spring. It’s hard not to be taken in by Liam Carrier’s recent enthusiasm for the “stunningly beautiful” and utterly unique profile that evokes the coasts of California and Australia. Mention of the Cabernet Franc goes hand in hand with the equally superb 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (“The Aristocrat”), bought from the winery at the same time. Last May the 2012 vintage received 94 points and a Best in Class nod from the Los Angeles International Wine Competition; the 2013 is already equally highly regarded: 93 points from John Schreiner parallels Wine of the Year praise from the fans at IconWines. Winery Direct $34

Painted Rock 2014 Red Icon: Although 1,153 cases were ultimately produced of this top tier red from the Skaha Bench, it remains a preeminent collectible alongside other smaller lot rarities. Given the wine’s cachet it can often be just as hard to come by as much more limited bottles, resulting in an early release when the Painted Rock tasting room ran out of 2013! The (thoughtful) roller-coaster blend in Red Icon upped Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon this vintage, to combine 33% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc, 19% Malbec, 16% Petit Verdot, and (still only) 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. The established oak regime using just 30% new barrels should let the ripe 2014 fruit shine, even over the long haul (where the wine really excels). John Schreiner sought to “stay one step ahead of Decanter” (where Painted Rock’s wines are increasingly reviewed quite favourably) with a taste in September, complimenting the svelte polish with 94 points of praise. Winery Direct $55

Burrowing Owl 2013 Meritage: With the arrival of 2013, the days are numbered for 2007 in my cellar – the old must make way for the new, and a decade is long enough to slumber. Needing room for the newest vintage is great motivation for drinking up its well-aged ancestors. After at least fourteen vintages of Meritage this legendary Black Sage Bench winery is one of the few to retain the trademarked nomenclature for their flagship red. The name is technically accurate, given the blend of 39% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot, and 3% Malbec, so why fix what isn’t broken. The components spent a total of 21 months in barrel (18 separately before blending), ensconced within a complex mix of European and American oaks of various ages. Finding a few bottles at retail level is unusual, but Burrowing Owl seems to be loosening up their notoriously tight grip in favour of greater shelf presence these past couple years. Firefly Fine Wine & Ales $58

Moon Curser 2014 Dead of Night: Chris Tolley’s commitment to – and success with – Tannat has yielded one of BC’s most unusual and desirable wines. Although uncommon varieties are prevalent at the Tolley family’s Osoyoos winery this equal-parts blend of Syrah and Tannat is considered the icon, and well known for its rich intensity. In 2014 the terrific growing season was a boon to heat-loving reds: one of the Tannat lots – a blend of both estate vineyards – came in at nearly 28 brix! After what must have been an exciting fermentation, the components aged in French and Hungarian oak for one year, with just 25% of the barrels being new. Bottled last March at a generous 14.6% declared alcohol (and nearly 3g/L of sugar remaining) it should age wonderfully under screwcap despite the fine and soft tannins said to exist at present. I’m in no rush as the 2009 vintage stares me down from the wine fridge. Winery Direct $43