“Let the Vineyard Speak” – Musings on the Walla Walla Experience at the 2010 Wine Bloggers’ Conference

“Let the vineyard speak.” – I heard this phrase a couple of times during the whirlwind of experiences at the WBC 2010 in Walla Walla. To summarize what I learned about Walla Walla and the wine, I honestly believe that the artisans making wine in this region use this phrase as a guiding mantra.

In general, all the producers, growers and owners we met expressed a commitment to minimal intervention in the growth and path towards finished product. The results are an increasing number of organic wines that are really excellent examples of the region’s terrior.

I had some experience with Washington wines prior to visiting, and learned a great deal about the hallmarks and breadth of wine experiences available in the valley. Some but not all of the things that stuck with me are:

  • A commitment to elegant meritage style blends. Of the many we sampled, there was a distinct elegance characterized by beautiful floral hints, followed by in some cases the lovely graphite and rustic mineral finish often associated with Bordeaux.
  • “Letting the vineyard speak” was evidenced by the rocky, mineral soils we observed in the River Rock Vineyards, and tasting it in the fantastic Buty Wines grown there.
  • Balance was a hallmark through out the lineups of many of the wineries. There were very few “monster” wines; even the Syrahs and GSMs had nice balance and finesse. (The exception being the wines of Charles Smith, whom I sense wouldn’t have it any other way. – we wouldn’t want him to either, as they are such fun wines).
  • The whites were full of Old World-esque minerality (DeLille’s Chaleur White – wow!), and wonderful acidity. I loved the number of seafood beckoning Chenin Blancs, and gorgeously subtle Rieslings.
  • Another highlight was the handful of Rosés we sampled. Spicy, with light red berries, they are fantastic summer wines at even more striking prices. Barnard and Griffin, Mannina (made from Sangiovese) and L’Ecole 41 (whose is a Grenache rosé) all had delicious sips under $20.

Walla Walla is a fantastic place that is so welcoming for the wine enthusiast. The vineyards are beautiful and the vintners are warm and genuinely interested in sharing the work that they do. The town center of Walla Walla is also a great stepping off point to explore the wine, with dozens of tasting rooms, cool restaurants (tasty pizza at The Olive, by the way) and a fantastic mix of generations of architecture.

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Tasting Mexican Wine: San Lorenzo and Monte Xanic

Mexican wine is something I haven’t devoted much time to up to this point in my wine journey. Over the years, I have tasted a few of the LA Cetto wines, but that had pretty much been it. So, when I received an email through this site from Eduardo Ramirez asking if I’d like to try a few Mexican wines, I jumped at the chance. I met Eduardo a while later to chat about the wines he represents and to accept 4 samples.

The first two represent the value line from Casa Madero, which at close to 500 years old, is apparently the oldest operating winery in the Western hemisphere. These value wines are named for the original San Lorenzo Winery, which was founded in its current location in Central Mexico in 1597.

Here’s what I tasted:

2009 San Lorenzo Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay & Colombard: This is an interesting blend of 50% Chenin Blanc, 25% Chardonnay, and 25% Colombard. The nose is a mix of lemon, apricot and flinty stone, which lead to a really nice mix of flavours that finish with the whole citrus-melon-flinty stone thing going on. It’s a very nice sipper and went really well with a simple dish of grilled halibut with lemon. It’s a solid value at $17-20 here in Vancouver.
3 1/2 stars

2008 San Lorenzo Cabernet Sauvignon – Tempranillo: This is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Tempranillo. It has a nose that gives up a bit of red cherry/berry fruit, and a bit of tar and mineral. A sip had me thinking of dusty dark cherries and an earthy bitterness that led out to a medium finish with decent tannins. Not complex, but a nice sipper, especially for the money ($19.90 here in BC).
3 stars

Now onto the Monte Xanic wines. According to their site, the name, “Xanic” originates with the Cora Indians who continue to inhabit parts of Nayarit on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and means, “Flower which blooms after the first rain.” The winery was founded in 1987 in response to the recent opening of the border to foreign wines, which many deemed superior to Mexican wine. The owners of Monte Xanic set out to prove they could make wines to compete with any of the wines from outside Mexico.

While they may not be up there with the world’s best wines, they are doing a respectable job.

2008 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard The nose has a honeyed edge to lemony citrus and pear and is a blend of 95% Chenin Blanc and 5% Colombard. The flavours are all about exactly what the nose hinted at… the medium-bodied pear and lemon have a light coating of honey and the finish goes on for a minute with a crisp and flinty minerality that I really like. This is a very tasty and well-made wine. I think it would be delicious with some grilled salmon. It retails in Vancouver for $24.
4 stars

2006 Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot: This one is a blend of 60% Cabernet, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot and 5% Malbec. To me, the nose on this wine is a bit like sniffing the venerable “oak monster” itself. It mellows with some air, but this is definitely a case of a wine-maker choosing the new oak route. The nose has powerful vanilla, mocha and berry aromas – more a sign of the oak than the grapes. The flavours of the grapes do come through with delicious dark berries along with the oak-influenced vanilla spice. I liked it, but would like to see less of the new oak. In Vancouver, it retails for $36.
3 1/2 stars

All in all, I would say that I was both surprised and impressed by the wines – surprised that a white blend was my pick of the group and impressed with the overall quality of the wine. Check them out if you feel like trying a few of the wines of Mexico.

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2003 Sean Thackrey ‘Aquila’ Sangiovese, Eaglepoint Ranch

I’m currently down in San Francisco for work and haven’t really had much time to shop for wine. So, the other day I visited the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant to see what interesting wines they had in stock. I’m always on the lookout for wines from Sean Thackrey (they’re pretty scarce, so we don’t get them in Canada) so when I saw this bottle sitting there, it called out to me.

What’s it like? Good. Really good. It’s got a really cool nose that has eucalyptus, leather, ripe cherry and tar. The nose really says Cali-Italian Nebbiolo more than Sangiovese from anywhere. The flavors pretty much play that out. It’s a medium to full-bodied wine with a schwack of leather and tar with a floral thing going on as well as the full-on cherry liqueur flavours. It’s delicious and drinking perfectly right now.

If you can find it and are curious about the wines of Sean Thackrey this is the wine for you.

$35 USD at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants in San Francisco.

4    1/2 stars

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2007 Kim Crawford SP Central Otago Pinot Noir, Rise-and-Shine Creek

Are you looking for an affordable New World Pinot Noir? Think cherry Cola. Well, this may be exactly what you’re looking for.

Cherry Cola, fig and plum hit you in the nose when you take a sniff. The flavours are round, ripe and sexy. There’s dark cherry, blackberry and that cherry Cola the nose hinted at along with a dusty mineral finish that lasts a minute.

What does it all mean? Well, in short it’s a pretty simple, but very tasty New Zealand Pinot Noir that makes me yearn for an Old World quaff, but also makes me feel guilty for digging the flavours. The fruit is sweet and dusty… and I like it. It’s definitely not a Burgundy, but it makes my mouth happy.

All in all, it’s a great sipper on its own, but I’d look elsewhere for a really good food-pairing wine.

$34.99 at LDB stores here in BC.

4 stars

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Tasting the Averill Creek Vineyards Line-up

While I was at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival last month, I stopped by Averill Creek‘s table to say, “Hi” to Denis Chen, who I know from Kitsilano Wine Cellars. Well, it turned out he was also the VP Sales and Marketing for the winery and was at the festival pouring their wines. I had a taste and came away impressed. After my chat with Denis, he promised to set up a sample pack for me to review, so here we are.

Let’s get you some information about the winery. Its owner, Andy Johnston is a British-born doctor who had a practice in Alberta for around 30 years. He prepared for his gig as a winery owner and winemaker by apprenticing in the vineyards of Italy, France, Australia, and New Zealand. After retirement he bought his Cowichan Valley property in 2001.

Averill Creek is definitely an estate producer only. They have roughly 30,000 vines on a 30-acre vineyard in the Cowichan Valley north of Duncan on Vancouver Island. All of Averill Creek’s wines are estate grown and come from this vineyard.

I was supplied with what turned out to be most of their current line-up and have tasted them over the last week or so. Here are my thoughts:

  • 2007 Pinot Gris: A sniff gave up lemon and ripe peach juice drizzled on a rock. The flavours showed some really nice lip-smackingly crisp acidity along with mouth-filling lemon-peach flavours. This, folks, is a really nice food wine, but would also make for a great aperitif on a sunny patio. It’s a solid value ($18). 4 stars
  • 2009 Pinot Grigio: This 100% stainless-steel fermented version is the crisp, quaff-able wine of the portfolio. It’s got a schwack of bracing acidity along with the nice fruit and flinty minerality. You know when you buy a really nice bunch of green grapes, take them home and really enjoy stuffing one after another into your mouth? This is the vinous equivalent ($18). 3.5 stars
  • 2009 Gewurztraminer: This was a very pleasing light and crisp Gewurz. It had soft rose petal and lychee flavours followed up by a honey-edged citrus acidity and a nice mineral edge to the finish. Very nice and another really solid value ($18). 4 stars
  • 2007 Pinot Noir: This is really nice, in that ripe kinda’ way. Think blackberry tea with Chinese all-spice on the finish. The tannins are medium-soft, so this is a bit more of a quaffer than a food-pairing wine. I really enjoyed it though, especially for the price ($28). 4 stars
  • 2007 Prevost: On the nose, I got smoked bacon with a sour cherry edge. That pretty much followed up in the flavours that finished with a peppery edge ($18). 3 stars
  • 2009 Foch’eh: This wine was made using carbonic maceration, which kept the fruit cool and fresh and makes for a very Gamay-like wine, with its really nice bright cherry and strawberry fruit. A very nice simple sipper for summer. Cool it down a touch and enjoy on the patio. Again, another solid value ($18). 3.5 stars
  • 2008 Cowichan Black: This is made from 100% Vancouver Island blackberries and comes in at 16% booze. All in all, it was a bit puzzling to me. A sniff gave me sour, yeasty light berry fruit, but a sip showed some of the ripe blackberry flavours I was expecting… with a bit of a green edge to the finish. It’s decent, but a bit of a novelty wine in an otherwise solid lineup ($18 for 375 ml). 2.5 stars

Overall, I was fairly impressed. If anything, the wines pleasantly surprised me. The line-up is definitely geared towards providing value and they’re really hitting the mark, especially with the Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir. Would I buy them? Yes, I would.

If you’ve never tried wines from Vancouver Island and you want to support the BC wine industry, you should give them a try. They can be found at various wine shops around Vancouver (and the province of BC).

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2006 Mauro Veglio Langhe Nebbiolo “Angelo”

I’ve been looking for this Nebbiolo since Candace and I had it at the now-closed L’Altro Buca in Vancouver’s West End last year. Well, it seems that the fine folks at Kitsilano Wine Cellars have finally decided to stock it. I wandered in there  last week and was pretty bloody happy to see it on the shelves.

The nose is really sexy. There’s ripe berry fruit along with a walnut liqueur edge. A sip really shows the seductive side of this wine. The full body opens up with ripe strawberry, ripe black cherry and a walnut liqueur. It’s just what I remembered and reminded me why I had been trying to find it.

So good.

$41 at Kitsilano Wine Cellars here in Vancouver.

4    1/2 stars

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The 2010 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival – Our picks

Another year of the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, this time in the new Vancouver Convention Centre, has come to pass. The new location – much like the old –  served up some tasty sips from some fantastic producers. There were so many fantastic wines over the three days we attended. It’s impossible to mention them all, so here are the standouts what we saw as the standouts.

If money were no object:
These have me singing “If I were a rich man” a la Fiddler on the Roof.

  • Lanson Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs 1998– Floral, honey and lemon sorbet… decadent!
  • Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2006 – Intense, complex and everlasting.
  • Cheval des Andes 2003 –Wow, a seriously tasty treat that is full value for the price
  • Pascal Toso Magdalena 2005 – Serious Malbec with amazing dark chocolate, and plum with some nice floral softness.
  • 2005 Damilano Barolo Brunate Cannubi – So big, so elegant, long and lithe.
  • 2006 Penfolds RWT Shiraz – Rich, powerful and incredibly good.
  • 2006 Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon – This almost never misses.

Make you wanna Haka:
We were really impressed with the New Zealand Rieslings and Pinot Gris in particular. These were some of our faves:

  • Elephant Hill Estate and Winery – A really unique and peppery Sauvignon Blanc, an incredibly tasty tropical Viognier, and a tasty Pinot Noir. The SB is a little on the pricey side ($35 so we likely won’t see it around here).
  • Sacred Hill Rifleman’s Hawkes Bay Chardonnay – seriously full fruit, nice caramel balance with the oak.
  • 2007 Two Paddocks Central Otago Pinot Noir – The 2008 was tasty, but this one has all the nice red fruit and earthy goodness you want.
  • 2008 Matua Valley Central Otago Estate Pinot Noir – This had really nice fruit and stuck with me.

Not a miss on the table:
These were tables at which every bottle was a delight.

  • Paddy Borthwick – Fantastic Pinot Gris, Riesling and Pinot – Can’t wait to see these around here!
  • Altesino – A beautiful range of Tuscans from value to high
  • Panther Creek – Beautiful Oregon pinots. The Temperance Hill really stood out with nice red fruit and great silky finish.
  • Damilano – From their crisp Langhe Arneis to the Nebbiolo d’Alba to the luminous Barolo Brunate Cannubi – everything they poured was so good.

Argentine treats:
The Malbecs were superb, but the finesse and elegance coming with some of the Cabs and Bordeaux blends were certainly highlights as well.

  • Bodega Renacer – Great value malbecs and a killer 2007 Amarone-style blend called Enamore.
  • Terrazas de los Andes Afincado Malbec Las Compuertas Vineyard 2006, – the cab was tasty too.

All Day, Everyday…:
These are the ones that will be making frequent (and brief) visits to our cellars this spring and summer (if we can find them):

  • Damilano Nebbiolo d’Alba – beautiful Nebbiolo for $27.99? Oh yes.
  • Kim Crawford Small Parcel Spitfire Sauvignon Blanc 2008 – A superb Marlborough sip for $26.99.
  • Vina Cobos Felino Malbec 2008 – Drinks way better than $19.99.
  • D’Arenberg ‘The Dry Dam’ Riesling 2009– Petrol and zingy lime goodness for $21.99.
  • Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon – Really tasty for the money ($27.99).

I’m sure we’ve missed a few, so feel free to chime in with some of your favourites.

One of the non-wine highlights of the festival was the number of local bloggers and wine tweeps that were in attendance. Congrats to the @playhousewine folks and @hethpr as they created a great opportunity to share finds and suggestions with a large group of people.

Cheers!

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2008 Haden Fig Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

This is the second in the collection of Pinot Noir I brought back from my recent trip down South of the border. This wine is described as “a blend of 5 sustainably, organically, or biodynamically farmed vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley.” This piqued my interest as I’ve done a bit of reading and chatting about “natural” and “honest” wines, including Alice Feiring’s book.

This wine is certainly unique, and really likable. I popped it open and poured a bit for a swirl and sip. I should have been a little less enthusiastic and decanted as I quickly got a “sediment seasoned” sample (an unintentional alliteration). Not to worry though.

The nose on this wine is full of dusty black cherry with some musk and a hint of violet. Very interesting. On the palate the first that jumped up was tart cranberry and some seriously bracing acidity. It kind of makes you say “whoa” then you just want to sip it again. The finish had some green stalk and tart currant along with some nice pepper and sweet spice tones.

I sampled this again the next day and the acid had lessened and the flavors began to match the nose much directly with a very nice balance of fruit and acidity right through to the finish. Good stuff.

This is another gem in my mind. A really honest and authentic wine that has been allowed to just “be” without a great deal of manipulation. A good friend, this wine is. We all need more like it.

$21.99 at Esquin Wine Merchants.

4 stars

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Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival – Return to the French Classics Dinner at The Hermitage

This dinner at The Hermitage featuring the wines of Domaine Doudet Naudin was the first of two events I received invites to as part of my Media pass for the 2010 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. Classic French food paired with extremely food-friendly Burgundy wine – what’s not to like? Nothing as far as I was concerned.

I hadn’t been into The Hermitage before last night. It’s a cozy place that is what you’d expect of an old-school French restaurant with a dose of 70’s living room tossed in – decorative brick arches, flowered curtains and all… but it worked. The room was comfortable and many of the folks in attendance last night were regulars who seemed to be on a first-name basis with the Hermitage’s owner, Hervé Martin. He creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

I grabbed a seat at the table reserved for media types and started chatting with the folks seated there, including Julie Pegg (contributing editor for EAT Magazine), Kelly Robson (wine writer for Chatelaine Magazine & her Full Bodied wine blog) and a couple of non wine geeks, Arnaud and Bobby. Soon enough, the dinner kicked off with a chat from the event’s sponsor, Rare Finds Wine Importers LTD and we were off. Here’s a scan of what was ahead. My mouth and palate were watering.

While we waited for the first course, we sipped the 2007 Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, Château d’Antigny ($27.95 – 4 stars). It was the perfect palate cleanser – all flinty lemon with a puckering acidity that just begged for some food. Up next was possibly my favourite pairing of the night – the wild mushroom feuilletté with a veal and port reduction paired with the close to magical 2006 Savigny-Les-Beaune en Redrescul, 1er Cru ($45.95 – 4.5 stars). A white with a sauced mushroom dish? Yep, this white – and it was fantastic. It reminded me a lot of the Tissot Jura Chardonnays I tried a few months ago. It had a dill-like funkiness that really added to its powerful and earthy flavours. It was complex and delicious. Try some if you can find it.

After that, it was onto a delicate salmon fillet with a creamy sorrel sauce ‘troisgros’ paired with the last Chardonnay of the evening; the 2007 Pernand-Vergelesses Sous-Fretille, 1er Cru ($49.95 – 4.5 stars). It was another great wine-food pairing. The delicate flavour of the salmon helped highlight the crisp elegance of the wine. Delicious.

Next up was a delicious house-made duck sausage with pistachio purée of Jerusalem artichokes paried with a delicious and light and 2007 Gevrey-Chambertin ($56.95 – 4.5 stars). This is the kind of pairing that really helps explain the earthy French Pinot Noir food pairing magic. You taste each separately and they’re good, but it’s together that they really sing. The light red fruit and crisp tannins of the wine perfectly balanced the fat and earthy meat flavours of the duck sausage.

We weren’t done yet… the kitchen then served the beef tenderloin medallions and the 2003 Savigny-Les-Beaune Les Vergelesses, 1er Cru ($42.95 – 4.5 stars). The meat was fantastic and the wine really grabbed my taste buds. It had gorgeous dark cherry and plum fruit along with a floral and black pepper edge to its earthy finish. Wow. Another great pairing, by the way.

The last food/wine pairing of the evening was a selection of French cheeses with the 2000 Aloxe Corton Les Marechaudes, 1er Cru ($56.95 – 4.5 stars). I loved the earthy elegance of the wine, but this was the only pairing of the evening that didn’t click. I separated them – downing the cheeses and then savouring the wine.

A delicious vanilla syrup soaked rum baba rounded things off and left me wanting a walk to wear off the meal. All in all, Hervé Martin and his team did a heckuva’ job with the food choices and the wines really stepped up as well.

I left determined to drink more wines from Burgundy. That’s never a bad thing.

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The 2010 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival

The Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival is on this week, and it’s always a fun time to sample a huge variety of wine from around the world and a great chance for some brief interactions with some cool people in the industry.

There is a LOT of information out there about “how to” with the fest – usually with valuable information like don’t wear perfume or cologne, dark clothing is advisable, eat before, spitting is completely acceptable and advisable, leave the giant bag at the coat check, etc…

That said, let’s look at what’s in the room. Once you enter and grab your glass – something sparkling is always a great way to toast the evening and get a nice fresh “zing” on the palate. Don’t miss:

  • Champagne: de Venoge, Lanson, Nicholas Feuilliatte
  • Prosecco: Catina Breganze
  • Franciacorta: Ca’ del Bosco

From there, the host countries have some fun stuff in both white and red. For New Zealand, most have some exposure to the Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough. That said, give some of the Pinot Gris a go. Of course the Otago Pinots are don’t misses, and keep your eye out for the odd Riesling or a Bubble of some sort as this can be where the real gems hide.

We’ll be checking out (at a bare minimum):

  • Ata Rangi
  • Spy Valley
  • Two Paddocks

With Argentina, the dominant grape will of course be the Malbec, but keep your eye out for the whites – there are some interesting Sauv Blancs, Pinot Gris, and the signature Torrentes which can really be unique while being in a great price bracket. The Syrahs and Bordeaux blends will certainly show well.

Not to be missed are:

  • Bodega Catena Zapata
  • Bodegas y Vinedos Renacer (killer value Malbecs)
  • Tomas Achaval
  • Valentin Bianchi

Rosé is the feature “variety” if you will, and a couple of likeable choices include:

  • Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato
  • Lanson Rose Brut

If you are getting late into the evening and are at the point that it’s time to hit the “can’t miss” booths, here are a few:

  • Altesino – Brilliant Super Tuscan sips.
  • Damilano – Good things from the glory that is Piedmont. Try the Cannubi Barolo and taste what it’s all about.
  • Louis Latour – Corton Charlemagne – need we say more?
  • Michael David Vineyards – Intense California wines from the Lodi region.
  • Panther Creek – Great Pinots from Oregon.
  • Penfolds – Classics from Australia.
  • Poplar Grove – Quality BC vino.
  • Ravenswood – Look for the single vineyard Zins.
  • Seghesio – More great Zinfandels. Try the Home Ranch.
  • Torres – Excellent Spanish staples – mmm Priorat!
  • Vina Errazuriz – One of the first and finest Chilean Wineries to arrive in BC.

To cap off the evening, it’s gotta be all about the port. Most of the room will head for Taylor Fladgate (great stuff), but look for Quinta De Passadouro and see if Penfolds has their “Grandfather Tawny.”

It should be a great week, and it will be interesting to experience the new Convention Centre as a venue. If you are on Twitter, watch the hashtag #vpiwf and offer up the gems you find- we will! Remember – Sip, spit and move the heck out of the way so others can get in for a taste. 🙂

Cheers!

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