Monday, April 30, 2007

Dusty, Earthy, and Delicious: An Evening of South Africa Reds

April 25th marked a night of tasting premium South African reds with our local chapter of the South World Wine Society. As usual, it was a gregarious group with a diverse range of opinions and no hesitation sharing them. Here’s a short review of the wines we sipped in the order we sampled.

2002 Mulderbosch Steen Op Hout, Stellenbosch
The evening began with a bit of a mystery as we attempted to identify the grape variety of our reception wine. Frank and another young man we later learned is also going through WSET training got it almost immediately – Chenin Blanc (for those who know, clearly identified on the label by its Afrikaans name of Steen). Although, I’ll boast on Frank’s behalf because he figured that one blind – unlike me, he hadn’t gone back to check out label. An overtone of burnt matches and a bit bitter at the back of the mouth, this is the first South African Chenin Blanc to have contact with oak.

2001 Walker Bay Pinot Noir, Hamilton Russell Vineyards
Descriptors from our assembled company included mineral, slate, just plain beautiful, and “a haunting perfume like night on the plains of Africa.” Typical old world style, this was Frank’s favourite of the evening, my second favourite. Denise, who claims to “really dislike Pinot Noirs,” said it turned into her top choice but only after she began pairing it with food.

2003 Reserve Cape Blend Simonsig Frans Malan, Stellenbosch
A blend of 45% each Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon rounded out with 10% Merlot. Designed as an attempt to create the definitive “Cape Blend” (which must, by law, include Pinotage) this wine prompted a true love/hate relationship. Most people loved it big time chatting happily about the spicy notes and rich vanilla. But those who didn’t like it, really didn’t – and were extremely vocal about it. Consensus was it needs food – as one woman said: give me laaamb, baaaah. (Photo of the dusty plains and mauve sunsets above courtesy of Simonsig)

2001 Rosendal, Stellenbosch
Not just organic but biodynamic we agreed this is what the British would call a “correct wine.” Dusty like the African desert, earthy, and with the bakery nose that comes from using only naturally occurring yeasts, Paul, our cellar master described this wine as “a convivial evening with good food and friends” – apparently perfectly aligned with the winemakers philosophy of getting right down to drinking and enjoying a wine rather than talking about it too much. (Rosendal barrels in the field shown left. Photo courtesy of the winery.)

2003 Saxenburg Cabernet Sauvignon Private Collection, Stellenbosch
Stalky green pepper and barnyard earned this wine the title of being “a young, angry teenager waiting to make a statement.” This is a winemaker who used to divide his time between France and South Africa, but now chooses to concentrate his talents only in the latter.

2002 Ruste en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch
Literally translated as “far enough,” this Ruste en Vrede Cab is the only South African wine to place in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines four times – although this particular vintage is not considered one of their stellar ones. Controversy raged as to whether it was leather or barnyard. In the end, opinion seemed split 50/50, but all agreed this is perfect for nights when the planned activities are throwing a steak or two on the barbie and watching mindless TV – like that would be hard to find on the tube these days?

2004 Syrah Glen Carlou, Paarl
Smooth, voluptuous, alluring, with perfect balance and tannic integration, this Syrah was named Wine of the Year in the 2006 John Platter South African Wine Guide – long acknowledged as the definitive authority on South African wines. “It’s really great, but it’s a bitch to find,” someone let us know from the far end of the room. But at an approximate cost of $30, it’s also one I’m betting a whole bunch of us will rush out to snap up whatever few remaining bottles we can find. Words of wisdom from cellar master Paul: This is the wine you pull out on the first date.
FYI: In the annual Platter Guide competition, wines are first tasted sighted. Subsequently, all five-star wines are tasted blind to determine the ultimate winner.

2003 Shiraz Radford Dale, Stellenbosch
This Shiraz could hang out with the Aussies undetected – hardly a surprise when you realize the winemaker harkens from Barossa. More about international style rather than terroir, we agreed this wine is designed to appeal to the North American palate. There were brief rumours this is the wine you open now you’re half way through the first date and have moved into the living room. Most, however, said it was the one to sip as you’re sitting around with “the gang” after work and telling jokes about your boss.

2002 Syrah Boekenhoutskloof Estate, Franschboek
Coffee, chocolate, and all those yummy flavours come together to create a slightly restrained but full wine that’s surprisingly different from its 2001 younger sister which was actually made from grapes grown closer to the Indian Ocean. (Note: this winery doesn’t appear to have an individual website but they are listed if you follow the link above.)

1996 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Klein Constantia
Amber poetry on the nose, it took us both a while to actually take a sip of this one as we savoured the distinctive aroma of Noble Rot. After great anticipation, however, we both felt let down when it hit the palate – a little flat and bordering on harsh – especially disappointing since only four or five vintages have been produced.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Chip Off the Old Barrel

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about barrels lately – varying amounts of toast, using radar to plot flavor profiles, and technical specs from various cooperages. Okay, so it’s part of my WSET training, but it also reinforces some interesting – or more accurately startling – information.

For example, the oaked Chardonnay you have in your hand may actually have never seen the inside of a cask. That Napa Cabernet Sauvignon for 60 bucks? Quite possibly nada
in the barrel department but high in the oak chips or staves.

So here’s how it works. To fake the flavour, there’s a selection of oak chips (now does the image at the right really make you want to run out and buy a wine that's been sitting on these - go on, be honest), oak powder, oak inner staves, or something called oak extract – chips, dust powder, (shown left) from one supplier. And let’s not forget Quertain Effervescent Tablets and Liquid Oak Tannin.

Sound like a drugstore rather than a winery? Well how about this? The April 2007 issue of Wines and Vines Magazine is all about oak alternatives. One advertisement boldly asks, “Is it barrels or alternatives? Only the winemaker will know for sure.”

So do you really know how the oak flavor got into your wine? Can you tell if the oak is from barrels or a bag of chips?

Wines and Vines did a taste test of wines made using alternatives – mostly barrel staves – and found that “only the most highly trained palates will be able to taste the difference between barrel only and oak adjuncts.”

Funny thing, though, the Italians have banned oak chips and the French are just waiting for legislation to pass banning them – this is contrary to new EU laws that do allow use of chips and other oak adjuncts. Do they know something we don’t?

My research into barrels may never be useful in a practical sense. After all, Robert Parker gave a Napa Cab Franc (Larkin 2004) made with staves 92 points and called it one of the finest Napa Cab Francs made. Perhaps the question is not so much who is using Liquid Oak or what they charge for it. Perhaps it’s more about whether there is a difference between industrial wines and artisan wines. If you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter?

Let me draw a comparison. Think about buying a bag of vanilla cookies from a company that spits out millions per day off an assembly line. They’re a bit hard and dry, but you know it’s a vanilla cookie. True the fake vanilla leaves a residual, slightly off taste in your mouth, but hey the bag was cheap – like a $10 vintage of almost any wine.

Now think about the little mom and pop bakery just down the street. You bite into one of their softy, gooey, delicacies hot off a baking sheet. I don’t need to describe the fragrance, the texture, and the richness of the genuine vanilla. Do you care this single cookie cost almost the same as the bag of its mass produced distant cousins? Doubtful.

There’s definitely a place for assembly line products – cars, computers, video games. Wine just isn’t one of them.

Barrel photos courtesy of Haut Brion

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Developing Terroir: BC Wines Come of Age

Big, bold, and daring or crisp, delicate, and sophisticated. Whatever your preference in wines, BC’s burgeoning wine industry now boasts some of the finest. “BC is clearly developing its own, unique persona,” says Tim Ellison, co-founder of the BC Wine Appreciation Society and long-time sommelier. “As we become more connected to the many individual terroirs and as our vines age to produce grapes with more complexity, we are creating a truly identifiable BC style.”

Award Wining Vintages

“We are no longer trying to mimic other parts of the world,” adds Mike Smith, owner of Recline Ridge Winery(shown left). “Thus our wines show well on the world stage.”

Judges agree, and BC wines are now receiving an ongoing stream of accolades from international, domestic, and local competitions. In one that shook the wine world, last year Jackson-Triggs Estate Wines became the first North American winery to win the prestigious Rosemount Estate Trophy for best Shiraz/Syrah at the London International Wine and Spirits Competition beating out competitors from such Shiraz/Syrah heavy weights as Australia and South Africa with their Okanagan Estate Proprietors’ Grand Reserve Shiraz 2004.

The Wines We Love to Sip

BC consumers are clearly passionate and loyal, so much so that according to the BC Wine Institute who regulates the VQA program, more than 80% of the VQA wines produced in British Columbia remain here.

“British Columbians have a very sophisticated palate, but they are also willing to be adventurous,” says communications manager Lisa Cameron. Although names like Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are still at the top of the list of BC-grown grapes in terms of production, you’ll also find many other intriguing varieties to tantalize your taste buds. Ehrenfelser, Foch, Kerner, Madeleine Angevine, Siegerrebe, Sovereign Opal, and Zweigelt are just a few of the lesser known varietals gaining a steady following of loyal sippers. Hazel Manser, who with her husband Jack, (shown right) owns Larch Hills Winery, says they are also now produce three organic wines – Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and a Pinot Gris.

Climatic Opportunities

With global warming an increasing concern in many commercial sectors, a surprising number of industry watchers are cautiously optimistic the wine industry might actually benefit from climactic changes. In fact, Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell recently suggested the wine industry could expand by 50% thanks to warmer weather making it feasible to grow grapes in new areas. “Ten years ago,” he points out, “no one would have guessed we could grow Shiraz grapes in the Okanagan – now it produces some of the best in the world.”

“We are already seeing it happen in Europe,” says Gary Kennedy, one of four owners at the family-run Granite Creek Estate Wines. “Grapes that used to grow well in France are now being grown in England. In 20 years, we may see wines that were grown in Oliver being grown here in Salmon Arm – and we may see new wineries opening up farther north up the valley.” (Lush and juicy, some of the Granite Creek grapes are show above.)

But Gary stresses he believes it will be a long time the public’s appetite outstrips production. “Shortage of good land is one of the industry’s challenges,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we opened the winery – to preserve and expand viable farmland. I believe we can stand a lot more wineries in this province before any of us suffer any pressure from over production.”

Looking for more information on BC wines? Here are two resources worth bookmarking on your web browser:
BC Wine Institute:
Okanagan Wine

This article was first published in BC Wine & Golf Magazine (April, 2007)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Semillon: Plain Jane or Belle of the Ball

Tonight’s wine tasting gives new meaning to the word “contrast.” On the table are two wines from Down Under: a Parri Estate and a Noble One Botrytis Semillon from De Bortoli. Both wines are 2004 vintages, both are 100% Semillon, and that’s about where the similarity ends.

First up is the Parri Estate (shown at the right with a magnificent gum tree in the foreground).

According to the Parri website, this wine has citrus, gooseberry, and grass aromas. One whiff is all it takes to get the citrus. One sip and Frank face contorts into that lip-puckering expression usually reserved for the big, fat, tannic-laden Shiraz wines I’m so fond of. “High acidity – yup, we’ve got that.” He grabs the bottle to read the label. “Well structured, the palate is driven with whips and chains and wooden sticks by fresh citrus.”

I’m still trying to figure out why it reminds me of Riesling, so it takes a minute before I catch his ever so slightly embellished commentary regarding the whips and chains. “But that said,” Frank carries on still absolutely deadpan, “it would be a great wine paired with the right foods – like those tiger prawns with chili sauce at Joe Forte’s or a seafood salad.”

Following our usual tradition, the next thirty minutes are consumed with cross checking all possible references we can find among the ever-expanding library of reference books. (Although we do take a few minutes to check out the photos of hand picking grapes at the Parri Estates - shown at the left)

“In most of the vineyards Semillon sits around sullenly like an overweight schoolgirl, showing awkward fatness or just plain dullness in the wine it produces. In odd places though, as if under the spell of a fairy godmother, it can be transformed into a raving beauty,” says Jancis Robinson in Vines, Grapes, and Wines.

According to Oz Clark in his classic Oz Clark’s Encyclopedia of Grapes, Semillon is “a grape that doesn’t like to do it the normal way. It will grow just about anywhere and reckless produce gigantic crops of grapes that taste of …? er, nothing really.” He adds that winemaker Michael Hill Smith succinctly describes the flavour of unoaked Hunter Valley Semillon as “battery acid.”

However, we also discover that in Argentina, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are frequently blended and sold under the guise of being Riesling. Ah ha! I feel vindicated. Apparently the combination of 50% wild yeast with 50% Alsace yeast contributes to the Riesling illusion in this particular wine.

We agree the Parri Estate Semillon is a wine that begs for food. Perhaps buttery, fatty oysters which, alas, are not to be found at this hour of the evening. We try it with prosciutto (a good match) and a slice of parmesan (disaster – don’t even think about trying this combination).

This wine should also come with a big warning label: Do Not Serve Too Cold! As it warmed, the nose became more complex, the taste less overwhelmingly acidic. The finish is definitely longish on the mid-palate, but this is not high on our list of sipping wines. And the slight fizz that seemed to last for the entire hour we spent with it was somewhat distracting although we believe it was more a quirk of the wine than an actual fault.

As Frank pops the cork – yes, that’s real cork – on the De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon, we both suppress a sigh of anticipation. “I just love noble rot wines,” he says as fragrances of apricot, nectarine, and peaches float out of the bottle filling our nostrils.

We don’t talk much for about 15 minutes – this is simply too delicious to interrupt with words. Frank’s descriptor is finally “an angular schoolmarm who’s been softened up with Botrytis.” I prefer to think of it as “a Chippendale in a bow tie and nothing else.” And if both are both sexist descriptions – who cares? Certainly we don’t.

We spend a few minutes attempting to find the perfect musical pairing – Etta James doesn’t work, nor does Edith Piaf. Ray Charles and Diana Krall’s duet, You Don’t Know Me, is close. Eventually, we settle on Nat King Cole.

The finish is still lingering on our palates after an hour as the word “heavenly” comes to mind. The contrast between this and our previous selection is astonishing. I would have never batted an eye if Frank had simply poured and told me it was a French Sauterne. Luscious, rich, full, the sugar lingers on the lips but not on the palate.

Later, with a bit of investigation, we find out that the vintage filling our glasses has accumulating over 320 Gold Medals, 98 Trophies, and 95 International Awards including being named a three-time winner of the International Wine and Spirit Competition for Best Botrytis Wine. No question this is one Semillon that definitely qualifies as a ravishing beauty under the spell of a fairy godmother.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Margauxs

The other day I was at a supplier’s shop to pick out some materials for a movie I have coming up. To my surprise, Corrine, the young lady who meticulously keeps track of the accounts, asked how my wine classes were going – which led quite naturally to a conversation about wines in general. Suddenly Corrine looked at her boss and me. “So what’s the oldest bottle of wine either of you had ever had?”

In unison, we both replied: Chateaux Margaux 1953. At first Corrine had an issue with the fact we’d actually drunk a wine older than she is – like I said, she’s young. But when she realized we’d both mentioned the same wine, she wanted to know our stories.

Being a gentleman, I felt it only proper to let Margot, my supplier, tell her story first.

This particular bottle, she explained, was a birthday present – the vintage year meant to be approximately the same as the her own. Her boyfriend of the time was working out of town, and she was meeting up with him to celebrate her birthday.

Apparently said boyfriend, realizing he’d forgotten her birthday, went into panic mode. What to get as an appropriate birthday present and how to have it flown to an isolate spot on the ice fields of Jasper? He made many, many calls on radiophone trying to secure a gift. Finally, he talked to a friend in the restaurant business who suggested the wine – brilliant. A Chateaux Margaux for a Lady Margot.

But how to get a bottle of wine across a province, down some logging roads to a remote helicopter pad, and then to a camp in the middle of nowhere in the 12 hours before Margot arrived? After bribing the transportation coordinator, several office assistants, and a few others – at a cost of great favours to be rendered in the future – the wine was on it way. The boyfriend’s ass was saved.

Little did either of them suspect Margot was unknowingly going to become the courier for her own gift – she also worked in the film industry and often handled time sensitive deliveries of one sort or another. All her boyfriend knew or cared about was that the wine, the lady, and a box containing some gear were on the road heading for Jasper.

Everything arrived safe and sound, but the ground crew informed Margot her boyfriend was still working on top of a mountain on the ice fields. Would she like the helicopter to fly her up the mountain so she could drop off this very important box of gear personally? With a little gentle “persuasion” from the office staff and transportation people, it seems the production company was under the impression this box of gear was critically needed in order for them to finish this project.

Margot still remembered the wine and celebrating her birthday under a clear, blue sky on a snowy mountaintop. She said there were no corkscrews, so they opened the bottle with a screwdriver and drank Chateaux Margaux out of thermos mugs while watching wild mountain peaks stretch unending into the distance.

At this point, I told everyone I couldn’t possibly top Margot’s story and would tell mine another time. I had pulled the cork with a piece of climbing gear, and we drank it out of plastic cups not thermos mugs. The weather was cloudy and a storm front was on its way. But this had been her story, so who I am to argue? I remember the wine was elegant, refined but not too much more about it. The lady was a wild gypsy, clearly contrasting the wine in her own, wonderful way.

Photos taken on location during filming of Wings of Courage. Frank takes a spin behind the wheel then relaxes in anticipation of the first sip - nectar no matter what you're drinking it out of.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Calling All Centenarians: The Wine Century Club

If you’ve been sipping Assyrtiko, Ehrenfelser, Xarel-lo, or Zweigelt lately, chances are you’re eligible for membership in the Wine Century Club. Now more than two years old, this obviously fun-loving group of wine enthusiasts was founded by Deborah and Steve De Long in the spirit of adventurous wine drinkers everywhere. Now I ask you, do the people at the Second Anniversary Dinner Celebration shown here not look they are having big time fun?

Requirements are simple: you must have tasted at least 100 different varietals. For us, it’s been a competition to see who can find the most obscure, unknown grapes. Frank puts it down as being an invaluable addition to his WSET training; I’m just contrary and like to go against the grain. We have no idea who’s ahead in ferreting out new vintages at this point – but last week we both took great delight in submitting our membership applications. And yes, we’ve tried all four of the above wines.

According to the Wine Century’s website, the “big six” are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Let’s face it though, when you get right down to it, isn’t every wine considered ordinary or typical in some part of the world – which, as the club website points out, makes trying “uncommon” wines all the more fun since “you can be transported to a faraway place with just a sip!" Or, as Jennifer shows in the photo from the Wine Century's First Anniversary Dinner at the right, with a sabre and a bottle of champagne.

We have no idea what to expect when we receive our official membership certificates, but you can be sure we’ll keep you posted. And whether you’re as obsessive about discovering new varietals as we are or not, the club’s website is a delightful romp through the world of unusual wines and unexpected taste sensations. Just be aware that though the application works on an honor system, the fine print notes: “Should you lie, may the wrath of Bacchus curse your palate.”

Check it out for yourself at You can also download the application form and begin your own explorations. Cheers.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wolf Blass Changes Your Outlook on Picnics

Listen up all you folks who think the move from cork to Stelven is horrific. Here’s a new one to ponder. How about plastic wine bottles? Yup, that’s plastic – just like a bottle of 7-Up or Pepsi. So call me a hypocrite. Like Frank, I’m a big time advocate of Stelven closures over cork. But plastic wine bottles? Some things just aren’t done.

The event was a tasting at our local liquor store. And yes, it was the press release announcing Wolf Blass would be rolling out their 2004 Bilyara Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and 2005 Bilyara Reserve Chardonnay in “environmentally friendly PET containers” that attracted my attention. Actually, it attracted my ire. Drink wine from the same, ugly container I pour my OJ out of? No way. I want beauty with my wine.

I arrived at the tasting gunning for bear – or more accurately, gunning for Wolf. The fragrance of roast lamb from behind the demonstration kitchen appeased me momentarily – the folks at LCB usually like to further entice people with food. I still couldn’t see those ugly wine containers, but there were a couple of bottles sporting the distinctive Wolf Blass label sitting on a display table with a particularly charming young man apparently eager to pour for me standing behind. Twist my arm.

I reach for the Chardonnay just as a voice behind me says: “Think you could get away with this with a regular wine bottle?” I turn just in time to see a woman grab a wine bottle from the Wolf Blass display, and with great aplomb, hurl it to the floor. I’m not sure if my eyes went as wide as the young couple’s who were standing in front of her did.

But the anticipated sound of shattering glass never happened. The young man behind the table was suppressing a laugh. I picked up the bottle he’d just poured from – plastic. I’d been had.

And the wines? The Chardonnay was surprisingly pleasant – a bit too much oak for my taste, but not the overpowering wood bomb I’d anticipated. And it went superbly with the halibut appie created by Kristopher Barnholden, executive chef at the Stanley Park Pavilion (shown above with his assistant Chris and Susan in between). The Cab was overall disappointing – lacking in body but not bad as an afternoon sipper for when you want a patio red. And it did complement the lamb shown here that was our second tasty treat from Chef Kris.

After a lengthy discussion with my jovial, gentleman pourer, we agreed it was probably grossly unfair to either wine to attempt making a true assessment out of the mini plastic (what else?), disposable wine glasses used at these events. He stressed the concept that a plastic bottle would allow you to chill the wine faster while carefully sidestepping my question that surely the reverse would also hold true – they would also come back to room temperature faster. And although I could never quite get him to say he actually liked plastic bottles, we did have a meeting of minds that this alternative might be great for picnics or hiking due to its much lighter weight.

Bonus, these bottles also save you about a dollar per bottle over the same wine in glass. But wine from a plastic bottle? This is going to take me a while.

Note: When I asked Frank for his thoughts on vintage PET bottles, there was an uncharacteristic silence that stretched out for a long moment. “Well, what do you think?” I asked again. He mumbled something that sounded remarkably like “too weird – not even going to comment on that one” and just walked away. Guess we’ll still be hauling glass for our summer picnics – which is quite okay with me.

More info of interest:
The lightweight PET bottle holds the same amount of wine as a standard 750ml wine bottle, yet it is designed to be 33 percent shorter for easier storage in a refrigerator, cooler or cupboard. It is fully recyclable and weighs just 54 grams prior to filling, offering an immediate 85 percent reduction in packaging weight. With the reduction in weight, more wine can be transported per load than with glass bottles, so the net environmental benefit from the reduction of fuels used in shipping and trucking is significant.

FYI: Here’s the Wicipedia definition of PET bottles.
Polyethylene terephthalate (aka PET) is a thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family that is produced by the chemical industry and is used in synthetic fibers; beverage, food and other liquid containers; thermoforming applications; and engineering resins often in combination with glass fiber.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wine Quote of the Day April 13, 2007

Okay, so we have no idea who Hannu is - other than that we believe he's Finnish - but this was fun.
If you can't put the bottle in a safe place under your chair, you are either in too fine company or you've fallen off your chair just to meet your bottle on an equal level.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Perfect Pairings: Amarone Intentions

I’ve been feeling under a bit pressure over the last few days. An astonishing number of people have been inquiring how our lady did with the Amarone pairing – the pairing being herself with the wine.

So far, I’ve resisted recounting the tale of how it all worked out because what you, our readers, probably don’t realize is that I would really like to live a little longer. By not sharing this info, the lady in question will not kill me or attempt to remove body parts I have been accustomed to having. However, she is currently off on holidays and will not likely be reading the blog for a few days. So I’ll take a chance and share what information I have – as long as you all promise not to tell her I let the story out.

When we last left her, she had in her possession not one but two bottles of Amarone to help fuel some serious amorous intentions. A semi-unsuspecting gentleman was coming over for dinner. He probably thought it was going to be a nice relaxing evening. Poor soul. Knowing the lady’s state of mind, the chances of him getting out of there before dawn were somewhat less than nil. Little did even I know he wasn’t going to be getting out of there for a few days.

Now you need to appreciate that the wine and the woman both have a whole lot of character and style. This was probably one of my better pairings, though usually I am thinking about pairing food with wine. Still, isn’t this is really what wine is all about? To find the perfect match, to share special moments, to mark a time and place and people coming together? Happy holidays guys. And I didn’t tell anyone anything – not really.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Jet Li's Dream Wine Accessory?

You should have known better. The house party wasn’t exactly a wine lover’s haven, but you brought a bottle of your favourite Sancerre just because you felt like sipping something that didn’t remind you of either purple-tinged vinegar or pancake syrup mixed with some type of unidentifiable vegetal matter. You went to pour your first refill and discovered… an empty bottle.

Here’s a wine accessory you can brandish around that just might solve the problem – the brass knuckle corkscrew. No, we’re not kidding. This nifty what-do-you-get-the-geek-with-everything gizmo was so weird we just had to laugh.

Merlot meets the Mob. Or visualize this scenario from one reader. “What, you don’t like red wine? Have you seen my corkscrew? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Who thinks up this stuff?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Canadian Taxation Woes

There’s a move afoot to tax wines made from 100% Canadian grapes, and the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA) isn’t impressed – neither are we.

The European Union (EU), the world’s largest producer and exporter of wine, accounts for 50% of the Canadian market and its wine-producers are supported by over $2.3 billion in annual subsidies – support Canadian wineries currently don’t enjoy for either domestic or export production.However, the EU is considering WTO action against Canada over a small excise duty exemption that applies to only 5% of Canadian producers’ sales – an exemption currently also granted to domestic producers in the United States and Australia.

Above: watering the vines at Burrowing Owl, one of Canada's many award winning wineries.

Why the EU appears to be singling out Canadian producers and leaving both US and Aussie producers alone is anyone’s guess. But CVA president Dan Paszkowski believes many of Canada’s smaller wineries need this excise measure to help level the competitive playing field, so he’s launched a new website where Canadian wine lovers can log on and support the domestic wine industry. You can check it out for yourself at


The Canadian Vintners Association (CVA) and its predecessor, the Canadian Wine Institute (CWI), has a mission statement: “To encourage the growth and development of a vibrant, competitive, and economically viable Canadian wine industry through focused leadership.” Some of the ways they achieve this include:

- Initiating development of the first Canadian national quality standard for wine in 1996.
- Advocating labelling regulations that are fully transparent and informative for the consumer, while being commercially acceptable to the wine industry.
- Participating in wine and health symposia and providing financial support for research
- Coordinating an annual export strategy for Canadian wine that has successfully obtained over $2 million dollars in export funding from the federal government over the past few years.
- Initiated and reached agreement with Germany and Austria on an International Icewine Standard that played a fundamental role in enhancing Canada’s terms of access to the European Union.

The CVA also awards scholarships at the following post-secondary institutions:
Brock University
Niagara College Foundation
Okanagan University College
University of British Columbia
University of Guelph

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Celebrating British Columbia's Wine Industry

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you probably already know both Frank and I are big time fans of the BC Wine Appreciation Society (BCWAS). Now more than 140 members strong, BCWAS brings together a diverse, vibrantly eclectic mix of wine aficionados, wine newbies, and unabashed wine geeks – yes, that would be the crowd who can intelligently discuss residual sugar and malolactic fermentation numbers with Frank.

But no matter what the event, laughter and camaraderie are always the true “main course” – no stuffiness allowed here. It is certainly the first organization either of us have ever belonged to where a member actually had the chutzpah to suggest “we’re all about enjoying wine so let’s adjourn, sip some wine, and socialize so we can really get down to business” at an AGM. The motion was passed unanimously, and within less than a quarter of an hour we had committed volunteers on board for membership coordinator, events coordinator, and newsletter editor.

Over the past two years, word is spreading. At our event last month (shown above), we were privileged to taste several wines that remain completely unavailable to the general public or even many exclusive local restaurants. But don’t take our word for it, check out the BC Wine Appreciation Society for yourself at, and when you visit in person, be sure to come over and say hi – we’d love to meet you.

Here’s an introduction to one of the founding members of one of the best wine associations going.


Getting to Know Tim Ellison
Originally published in the April 2006 BCWAS newsletter

He’s dynamic, bubbling with enthusiasm, and unfailingly generous with both his time and his knowledge. Teaching a wine appreciation class dressed in a traditional Japanese obi doesn’t faze him in the slightest. Nor, it seems, does most anything else. He considers himself a hospitality enthusiast although he’s been a chef, the proprietor of his own restaurant, and is currently a much sought after instructor at the Art Institute. Who else could it be but our own Tim Ellison.

Known for his devilishly quick wit and flamboyant charm – don’t you just love a man with the √©lan to make a pink and orange striped shirt look outright fantastic – Tim, along with Francis Dorsemaine, was one of the founding members of the BC Wine Appreciation and remains an avid supporter of our British Columbia wine industry. Check out any of Vancouver’s wine events, and you’ll likely find him there expanding his already extensive knowledge. After all, it’s tough work but someone has to do it.

Although he’d long been fascinated with the relationship between food and wine, Tim’s journey into “the wild and wonderful world of wines” didn’t truly begin until 1988. “I was on a road trip through Oregon’s Wette Valley. It had been an exceptional year for winemaking in 1985, so the shelves were packed with all these great wines. It really piqued my interest, to the point I started reading and visiting the wineries just to educate myself.”

In no time Tim was hooked. But it was more than a decade before he took formal training. “I waited forever because I was actually afraid of failure,” he admits. “The thought of doing a blind taste testing was downright scary.”

Eventually, though, he signed up for the first level of the International Sommeliers Guild certification, ultimately graduating from the program in 2003. “It was like a light went on,” he says, adding that the biggest surprise was just how much influence the winery and winemaking techniques has on what ends up in the bottle. “The mystification was gone, no more misconceptions because now it was all based on fact.” Now also enrolled in the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) diploma program, Tim has his sights set firmly on gaining the prestigious Master of Wine designation.

Last fall, Tim made yet another career shift when he took on the responsibility of teaching full-time at the Art Institute. “It’s such a privilege to be able to contribute to people’s success, to help them avoid the mistakes I did and get there sooner,” he says. “When I read about them in the newspaper or visit them in their own restaurant… there’s no feeling to compare.” He laughs. “Actually, my students typically end up teaching me almost as much as I teach them because they have such a variety of backgrounds and experiences – I just don’t usually tell them that.”

Tim offers this advice for anyone interested in a wine career. “Just go for it. Don’t think about the expense, don’t be afraid of blind taste testings. You absolutely don’t need to be intimidated. Pursue the passion and you will get there.”

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Wine Quote of the Day April 14, 2007

Here's one we came across the other day that really sums up a great attitude to life.
Excellent wine generates enthusiasm. And whatever you do with enthusiasm is generally successful.
Philippe de Rothschild in conversation, 1980

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The World's Most Useless Wine Accessory?

And now for something completely different. I think I have discovered the world’s most useless, utterly pointless wine accessory – the Champagne Parachute.

Here’s the premise. When you fire the cork out of a bottle of sparkling wine, the parachute enables you to follow its trajectory and find it.

The entire underlying idea here is just plain faulty, wrong – so wrong I can’t even find the right adjectives to express how bad this is. The thought of firing a cork out of the bottle – which will cause the wine to froth out and wasting one of life’s basic food groups – leaves me at a complete loss. Why anyone would do this, I can’t imagine. Morally it has to be wrong. I suspect it’s dangerous as well.

The correct way to open champagne without hurting anyone or damaging the champagne is really quite simple. Remove the foil and cage, hold the cork down with your thumb, and twist the bottle – not the cork, the bottle. Counter-intuitive I know but no one loses an eye, windows don’t get broken. You’ll get a gentle, sensual pop, no wine wasted by fizzing all over you or the floor, and better yet, the bubbles actually last longer. Trust me, Susan and I have run repeated tests to ensure the accuracy of this statement.

If anyone finds an accessory more useless than the Champagne Parachute, do let us know. We’ve put a link to the website for this device just to show it really does exist.

For now, I’m going to ignore a suggestion that if we were to have cork-shooting contests to see who could shake the bottle the hardest, this device would aid in judging the distance. Some people just need a little work.

Note: Dom Perignon is the Benedictine monk credited with inventing champagne. We hope he really did have as much fun as it appears in the saucy illustration above and can only imagine what might have happened if someone really did find the cork that night.

Monday, April 02, 2007

To Screw or Not to Screw: A Matter of Geography?

Controversy continues to rage about closures – and this year’s Playhouse WineFestival was no exception. Cork is king says the old world, stelven is stellar says the new.

Speaking at “The Iberian Criterion” seminar, Cristiano van Zeller, owner of Douro’s Quita do Vale, got right to the point when a participant put the thorny question to the entire panel: what about stelven closures? While others squirmed uncomfortably and avoided eye contact, Cristiano spoke out in clear, ringing tone. “I’ll use cork. I’ll pay for the bottles returned because I believe cork is better – for the wine and for the environment.”

Now there’s no question this is a man with a sense of humour to go along with his extensive wine knowledge. Earlier, he’d explained the reason one of his wines is named Ecclesiastical Sin is because they are still, centuries later, trying to uncover the link between the Abbot of the monastery that once owned the vineyard and a lady of somewhat dubious repute named Dona Maria.

He’d also described his response when a journalist, intrigued by the concept of pressing grapes by foot, had once asked: but how do you get rid of the hair of the legs? “Simple, you just go ptoot, ptoot, ptoot.” His imitation was spirited and his grin irresistible. But when it came to closures, there was no room for debate. Cork is king in Cristiano’s vineyards.

Fast forward to the following evening at a lively tasting of Aussie Shirazes entitled Regional Heroes. “I don’t want any more of those filthy rotten corks,” said Bruce Tyrrell principal of Tyrrell Wines. A ripple of spontaneous applause went through the room.

From the back, the outspoken and much loved Aussie Master of Wines, Michael Hill Smith quickly forestalled another question. “And if you define romance in your life by the pop of a cork, you really need to get a life.” More applause, this time punctuated by a few cheers.

An interesting side note: this was also the only tasting we attended with a senior lady wine principal in evidence – Vicki Arnold, general manager of Glaetzer Heartland Wines shown here with Grant Tilbrook, Ben Glaetzer, and Scott Collett (left to right – we know you know which one Vicki is).

One final anecdote in the spirit of cultural exchange – a little known definition among gourmets from Down Under. Moderator Mark Davidson maintained an absolutely straight face as he informed the gathered group that it was on a visit to the Margaret River wine district he learned the local definition of a seven-course Australian dinner: that would be a six-pack and a meat pie.

Seriously, this was our favourite of all the wine tasting. More than a superb opportunity to experience the true breath of Australia’s most famous grape, it was gave us insight into the life philosophy of Australian winemakers. It’s true – every one of them present could legitimately be classified as “a character.” Good natured banter is clearly as much a part of the heritage of these wines as the grapes themselves. Descriptors included such scientific gems as “yummy” or “bloody delicious.”

And while debate over cork versus stelven will likely remain as hot as the Aussie sun far into the future, one panelist finally asked an even more burning question. “What’s the difference between a winemaker and god?” The answer is simple. God doesn’t think he’s a winemaker.

Photos at the top of the page courtesy of Heartland Wines.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival

We’ve done it. We’ve survived the 29th Annual Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. Three delicious days of swirling, sniffing, sipping, and savouring. We’ve made some new friends, re-connected with several old ones, and, as is the tradition of this annual extravaganza, discovered an astonishing number of new wines and wine knowledge. The theme this year was wines from Down Under with the grape varietal focus being Riesling. Here's a brief overview with more detail to follow.

Hands down the best value we found were the selection of sit down, formal tastings – an opportunity to compare as many as 14 wines related by grape varietal, country, or producer. Top of our list was “Aussie Shiraz: Regional Heroes” – an eye-opening comparison of Shiraz wines from every region of Australia. The diversity left us breathless. And good news for Frank, these were a long, long way from the fat, in your face tannic bombs most often associated with Aussie Shiraz.Smooth, delicious, and boasting a long, long finish several he freely admitted would challenge the most sophisticated WSET hopeful to differenciate from a Cote Rotie.

We were far from the only festival-goers who agreed the International Tasting Room, while utterly spectacular in its breadth – 1,550 wines from 17 countries including more than 200 from Australia – was also overwhelming. We usually pick varietal as our method of attack for large venue tastings – typically concentrating on two whites followed by a couple of reds. It took about two minutes for us to recognize this was not going to happen when confronted with thousands of square feet of displays.

Ultimately, we settled on pursuing wines we either hadn’t seen or felt were unlikely to find elsewhere. Skalani from Boutari, a blend of Kotsifali and Syrah that’s coming soon to BC and Visanto, a blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani – both proving the point that this wine producer is about far more than cheap pizza wines.
Naousa has always been the Boutaris’spiritual and commercial center. The dining room at Dining Room at their Naousa Winery is a popular spot to experience this viticultural heritage.
Four Chateau Musar wines from Lebanon – the winemaker, a crusty white haired gent who definitively qualifies as a “character,” was not about to let anyone sample out of the order he felt best. And RPF Tannat from Pisano, the sole representative of Uruguay’s wine industry.

We tried Super Tuscans while people cued up for sparkling wines with a more aggressive marketing campaign behind them, and sipped a Maison M Chapoutier Viognier that was poetry in a glass – we both made a toast to the forward thinking vintners who said “No!” when this grape was nearing extinction.

In all, for any wine lover, the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival is still one to mark on your calendar. For info on next year’s event, check out