Archive for February, 2013

A Quick Guide to the 2013 Vancouver International Wine Festival

February 27, 2013

Hard to believe it is that time again, but the 2013 Vancouver International Wine Festival is on this week! With 176 wineries pouring over 600 wines, it can be a pretty intimidating evening of tasting, to be sure. So here is a quick guide to some of my recommended wineries and wines.


California was the only winery represented at the initial festivals, and it is great to see them back as the feature wine area! While prices have soared in the past years, the quality – and ripeness – of many wines continue to be very high. Here are five wineries to visit:

1) Antica Napa Valley – a venture by the Antinori family of Italy, this relatively new winery is producing fabulous Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays
2) Joseph Phelps – one of the most reputable and established wineries in California, Phelps is justifiable famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, especially its Insignia blend
3) Paul Hobbs – another relatively new winery, but Paul Hobbs has been growing grapes/consulting for cult producers for years. Try his Cabernets, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs
4) Ridge Vineyards – one of my favourite wineries, led by legend Paul Draper. A Zinfandel specialist – check out their Lytton Springs and Geyserville bottlings – Ridge also makes very nice Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay
5) Wagner Family of Wine – the new name for the winery that makes Caymus (among other wines), and go to taste the Caymus Cabernet Sauvignons. Year in, year out, they represent all that is great about California Cabernet – super ripe black currant fruit, just enough wood, and the structure to age well!


Not as many wineries as in past years, but still a few that make really nice Malbec (the signature grape of Argentina). If you only go to one winery, visit Catena Zapata, which makes rich, ripe Malbecs in all price ranges, as well as some nice Cabernets and Chardonnays.


Disappointing to see so few Australian producers this year; not sure why (they are among my favourites). Of those attending, I would recommend visiting Gemtree Vineyards (nicely valued Shiraz), Inland Trading Company (they own Turkey Flat Vineyards, which can make great old-vine Shiraz) and Yalumbia, which makes the full range of wines (I particularly like their Grenaches).

British Columbia

By comparison, I was very happy to see so many BC wineries attending, including some of my favourites. That includes Averill Creek from Vancouver Island (Andy Johnson makes amazing Pinot Noir in Duncan), Blue Mountain (not sure if they will have their Reserve Pinot Noir, but it is one of the two best made in BC; also try their Gamay and Sparkling Wine), and NkMip Cellars (a First Nations winery making very good Pinot Noir and Syrah).


I am also disappointed by the low number of French wineries this year! Even so, there are a couple of very good ones from the Rhone Valley – Chateau de la Gardine and Les Halos de Jupiter (both of which make very nice Chateauneuf du Pape). And, of course, the Perrin Family, which makes perhaps my favourite wine – Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape – as well as great Gigondas, Cotes du Rhones Villages and others.


Italy has also sent a smaller than usual roster of wineries (am I sensing a trend here?). Worth checking out, however, are the Chianti Riservas from the likes of Antinori (as well as their Tignanello if they have it), Fontodi, Ruffino and Rocca della Macie.


Finally, a great way to end the evening is with some Port! Three of the “biggies” are there – Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft – so it will be interesting to see if they bring any of their vintage wines.

So have a great time at the festival! My final advice, as is the case every year, is two-fold – spit if you can (to avoid getting drunk) and get out of the way once you’ve tasted (to avoid causing a line-up).


PS I will once again be “tweeting” my Festival experience, so feel free to follow me at @sbwinepage.

Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better

February 21, 2013

Interesting piece in Business in Vancouver this week….a list of the biggest BC wineries! But as I scanned down the list — and saw who was on, and who wasn’t — it struck me once again that “bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better”!

Now don’t get me wrong — I understand how these lists work. In this case, the wineries were ranked by sales volumes, so the bigger you are/the more you sell/the higher up on the list you end up. Vice versa, if you are smaller/don’t have as much wine to sell, then you aren’t going to make it. Same thing if you don’t want to supply this info to BIV.

And I also acknowledge the positive role that the larger wineries play in helping promote BC wine in general. Without their advertising and marketing budgets, the profile of the industry in the province wouldn’t be what it is today!

However, all of this doesn’t mean these wineries make the best wine.

A look at the list quickly shows that. Yes, there was NkMip (which makes nice Pinot Noirs), Laughing Stock (with its good but increasingly expensive Portfolio), Black Hills (ditto re the Nota Bene) and even Tantalus (which makes great Riesling).

But nowhere to be found were what many believe to be the wineries producing the best BC wines – La Frenz (best overall winery by a mile for reds and whites), Nichol (best Syrah), Kettle Valley and Blue Mountain, who make the best Pinot Noirs (Hayman, Reserve and Striped Label, respectively). Smaller wineries like Marichel, Howling Bluff, Cassini Cellars, Moon Curser, Eau Vivre, Averill Creek (from Vancouver Island) and even Mt Lehman (from the Fraser Valley) are also not there.

The problem with all of these exclusions is that for folks who don’t know wine, they may assume that the “biggest are the best”. And that would be a shame, especially if it meant people didn’t search out and find some of these other wineries.

Before concluding, I want to emphasize that size and quantity doesn’t always mean lower quality. Washington winery Columbia Crest makes hundreds of thousands of cases a year, and yet some of their lowest price wines are great bargains. Beringer, from California, makes even more wine, and I just had a bottle of their entry level Cabernet that was incredible (and amazingly cheap)!

But in BC, anyway, things are different. If you want ‘big’, go to the list. If you want the best, however, check out some of the wineries I noted above!


Why a “Signature Grape” for BC Doesn’t Make Sense

February 15, 2013

There has been some media coverage in Vancouver recently regarding a debate that is apparently going on between local “wine geeks” about whether British Columbia has – or should have – a “signature wine grape.” But lost amidst the “Pinot Noir vs Syrah vs etc.” has been the fact that, in my opinion, this is a silly question to begin with!

Are there grapes that grow better in BC than elsewhere? Of course there are! But there is also significant climate variation here, not only between our main wine regions (the Okanagan, Similkameen, Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley) but also within those same regions. Anyone who has driven from Kelowna down to Osoyoos can see – and feel – that. As a result, grapes that grow well in one area may not in another.

But even that is the main reason I think this is a silly question. Because, the fact is, even if you have perfectly ripe grapes, a winemaker still has to make the wine. And that’s where both expertise – and style – come into play.

Interestingly, from my perspective, style is actually a bigger factor. There are lots of well-educated, experienced winemakers working in BC right now. Give them ripe fruit, and they have shown the ability to make technically sound wine just about everywhere.

But style? That’s where it gets interesting – and why a “signature grape” doesn’t make sense.

One example is Pinot Noir.

It is grown in just about all regions, but the style and quality can vary significantly. In the hands of some winemakers, it can be leafy, herbal and woody. From others, you get a classic California style wine with rich, ripe, red cherries and strawberries, a touch of spice and just the right amount of oak. Leading examples include Blue Mountain (in Okanagan Falls), Eau Vivre (in the Similkameen) and Kettle Valley (their Reserve and regular Pinot Noir from Naramata). Finally, a few – very few – make a “Burgundian” style Pinot Noir – with darker cherry fruit, still ripe, but with fascinating secondary flavours and aromas of earth and mushrooms. The best example is Kettle Valley’s Hayman Vineyard – a truly extraordinary wine!

And what bout Syrah? At Nichol in Naramata, they make a wine in the true Rhone style, with peppery, earthy black cherries that are ripe but not jammy and which can age for 8 – 10 years. Yet only a few miles down the road, Marichel makes another gorgeous wine that is closer in style to a Shiraz than a Syrah. And La Frenz actually makes a Shiraz!

Finally, there is Cabernet Sauvignon. Hard to get ripe anywhere in BC, it is often made into a tannic, woody, herbal – and expensive – monster. And yet, La Frenz manages to make a ripe, fruit-forward, California style wine for under $30, as well as a more Bordeaux-style that still has more fruit than wood for a few bucks more.

With this kind of variety in style – and I have only talked about the red wines, even though it applies to whites as well – I don’t know how you could pick a “signature” grape for BC. Because, by doing so, it would imply that grape turns out wines of similar style and quality all across the province. And that is obviously not the case.

So why don’t we forget about this debate and instead focus on what is important – finding the style of wine you like and the winemakers who make it best?


2010 Southern Rhones – A Vintage that is turning out to be as good as expected

February 8, 2013

I have talked a number of times before about the dangers of falling into the “Vintage of the Century” trap. By that, I mean the annual claims from at least one wine region around the world (and often more than one) that their upcoming vintage is the “best ever”.

Logically, of course, this isn’t possible — “ever” is a long time! Practically, you can also never generalize across all wineries and wines in a certain region, because even if the grapes are wonderfully ripe (the key characteristic of a good vintage), there is still the fact that the winemaker has to make the wine. And, like anything in life and business, some are better than others no matter what the circumstances.

So, unfortunately, the whole “vintage of the century” phenomenon is usually about selling as much wine as possible. And, at the highest possible price (justified, of course, by the so-called quality of the vintage itself).

But having said all that, there are rare times when it does seem that a great vintage means almost all the wines made at that time are also at least very good. And 2010 may be shaping up to one of those in the southern Cotes du Rhone based on what I have tasted to date.

Many of the most inexpensive 2010 wines (Cotes du Rhones, Cotes du Ventoux) have actually already come and gone from store shelves, making way for the 2011s. I was impressed by almost all of them in the $12 – $15 a bottle category. In fact, I can’t think of a single one that was disappointing, both in quality and – just as important – by the fact that I didn’t see any significant price increases from the 2009 (which was also reputed to be a very good vintage). Producers like Perrin, La Vieille Ferme and Delas Freres all made nice wines.

The next level up — $15 – $20 – has been even better, resulting in some of them flying off the shelves very quickly. The 2010 Cotes du Ventoux by Chateau Pesquie ($18.99 in B.C.) was amazingly ripe Syrah and Grenache, with some tannin built in for aging. It’s gone – helped no doubt by Robert Parker’s 94 point rating. But even the mid-level offerings from the producers referenced above are riper than usual, making them worth the extra few bucks.

Now we are starting to see the more prestigious wines show up – Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and single vineyard Cotes du Rhones. And while they have never been cheap — $30 a bottle and up, including way up for the single vineyards Chateauneuf du Papes – I also haven’t seen any significant price increases. Chateauneufs from Chante Perdrix ($44), Vieux Lazeret ($40) and even Vieux Donjon ($59) are the same price, even though highly rated (the latter is a 96 point Parker wine!). Same with the Gigondas – Domaine Brusset’s Le Grand Montmirail ($34) and Grand Montmirail ($49), both of which are 92+ wines. For those of us who like to buy wines that will age and develop for 10, 15 or even 20 years, than means some great deals (relatively speaking, of course).

Now, don’t get me wrong – that still doesn’t every high end Rhone wine is going to be great and worth the price (even if it hasn’t gone up). But it does give me confidence that if the wine is highly rated by a reviewer who I trust, that I am going to get what I paid for. And, in 2010, maybe even a little more than usual!