Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wine, Romantic Encounters, and WSET

I think Frank is having an affair. He mutters her name constantly – sometimes lovingly, sometimes not so much so. Her picture appears in books on the coffee table, on the dashboard in the truck, even pinned on the bathroom mirror with some unintelligible scribbles and notations below it. I know he sometimes even takes her to bed.

Like all relationships, there is a definite up and down cycle to his infatuation with this woman. As his WSET exam gets closer he finds her more frustrating. At other times, he finds her charming, witty, and distinctly sexy. But he relies on her totally and without reservation. “I just can’t be without her,” he’ll sometimes confess.

I suspect that if Frank ever actually met her face to face and in person, he would give her the traditional European greeting – three kisses on alternating cheeks – right, left, right. He might even hug her.

Tonight Frank writes the vinticulture portion of his WSET Diploma exam. Perhaps when he’s done and the marks are tallied, he will close the Oxford Companion to Wine and Jancis Robinson will be forgotten for a short while. Perhaps. At least until it’s time for the next exam.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Chianti Challenge: Three Decades of Frescobaldi

Anyone who’s read Blanc de Noir for long knows we’re both huge fans of Italian wines. There’s just something about the diversity, quality, and sheer fun factor of Italian wines – whether it’s a casual summer patio sipper or a robust vintage to accompany a big, festive dinner or one of the meditative Amarones that are still way up there on our list of favourites.

So when BC Wine Appreciation Society decided to add a couple of Italian wines to an educational tasting scheduled just prior to the 2008 Playhouse International Wine Festival – the theme country for this year’s festival was, after all, Italy – Frank and our illustrious BCWAS leader, Tim Ellison, decided to add a twist to the event. How about putting up a couple of Italian wines with the usual BC vintages? Frank, however, took the concept one step farther.

Here’s the deal. From BC: three sparklers, four Pinot Grigios, two Pinot Noirs, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Merlot. From Italy: three Chiantis – just three and all from Frescobaldi, one of Italy’s most respected winemakers (multi-generations shown above).

Here’s the catch. The Chiantis were bottled in 2004, 1982, and 1975. No, it’s not a typo. The last two came from the collection of Italian wines Frank recently acquired – one of those fantastic opportunities that come about from being in the right place and the right time and having way more patience than most when it comes to negotiating.

Alas, on the night of the event, Frank was sick with flu, but you can bet eyes went wide as people realized what he’d sent.

The 2004 was, pretty much as expected, dark purple with lots of fruit and tannins that were more “in your face” than makes for a good sipping wine unless you’re eating. But truth is, few people spent much time with that particular wine since they were all eager to try the two older offerings.

Immediately apparent was the change in colour – now tawny with a much larger rim than the 2004. Controversy was plentiful and several people found neither one was “quite my thing” as one member put it in an attempt to be diplomatic. The level of oxidization, especially in the 1975, caused raised eyebrows among half the folks there. It was virtually unanimous that the ’82 needs to be drunk now and the ’75 is clearly a bit past its prime – although not a soul suggested it should be tossed.

However wide ranging the evening’s opinions were, one thing we all did agree on. These are wines made with love and benefit from patience.

Frank’s Tasting Notes:

Castello di Nipozzano Riserva 1982

This wine has aged well, probably because it is a Riserva. After more than a quarter of a century there’s still lots of fruit left – black cherry and dark fruits with a note of white truffles in the background. The tannins have smoothed right out so they are now a little silky, and the finish is fairly long. This wine shows just how well age can improve a Chianti. Alcohol 12.5%. All the bottles for both these wines are numbered – I have 10 left, all around 84,960 series out of 293,600 bottles produced in 1982.

Castello di Nipozzano Chianti Rufina 1975
Sadly just a little past its prime but still drinkable as the acidity has helped this one hold up. Wide orange rim, brick red colour. Truffles leave sherry undertones. This vintage has shown a lot of bottle variation – the fruit showed up a little more in this one than the first one we tried. Alcohol 12.7%. The last bottle I have left is number 74324 of 80,000 bottles produced.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spanish Garnacha: A Steal of a Deal

I keep bumping into the guy. First in the Bordeaux section, a couple of minutes later we’re both cruising through the Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand. I head for Piedmont, and there he is – again. We smile at each other over Cognac, one of those “okay, this is either too weird or too funny” sort of smiles. But it’s not till we simultaneously hit Spain that we actually strike up a conversation.

Clearly, this man has a fairly upscale taste in wines. Not that I was actually checking out his purchases… much. I guess I just “happened” to notice some of the bottles. Since he obviously likes all the same wine regions Frank and I do, I wanted to see if he chose anything we hadn’t tried. Not much under $40 will find its way to his table. So when I see him piling bottles of $9.95 Castillo de Monseran Garnacha from Spain into the now groaning basket, I can’t help myself – I have to ask.

“One of the best deals going,” he tells me. Then he actually winks at me – it’s a cute wink too. “Just don’t tell too many people about it – all the more for us.” A good natured laugh and he’s gone. What the heck, at the price, if it’s awful, I figure it will pour down the drain more easily than some of the pricier stuff that’s been know to suffer the same fate. I snag a bottle.

A couple of days later I’ve got a spicy chicken stir fry on the go, a quiet evening with just my book ahead, and uh-oh – no Riesling to go with dinner. In fact, there’s nothing that seems to go with the food. I manage to catch Frank just before he goes into his meeting. “Am I absolutely crazy or do you think the Garnacha might work?”

Initially Frank’s not impressed, but after some deliberation, we decide it will probably be a more or less acceptable though not stellar pairing. With 12.5% alcohol, it’s at least not going to totally burn out the taste buds when it hits the chili spices on the chicken. I cross my fingers, open the bottle, and hope for the best. The kitchen sink is within arms reach.

The initial nose is surprising. Exotic spices – cloves, allspice, cinnamon. There’s a whisper of anise and leather too, kind of like John Wayne strolling through the kitchen chewing on a licorice Twist. Later coffee and cocoa appear introducing a not unpleasant grittiness like riding through the desert.

And it worked with the chicken too – as expected, not stellar, but not half bad. There was a complementary nature to the spices and just enough of fruitiness in the meat’s marinade to work with the wine. Alas, Tenderland Meats on Granville Island where I buy it aren’t parting with the secrets of all the seasonings they use, but they did confirm there’s allspice, cilantro, and sweet green chili peppers. I’m betting there might be a hint of papaya in there somewhere too.

Hopefully, one day I’ll run into the gentleman with the cute wink. I’d like to tell him he was right, this wine is a steal of a deal. And I wonder if he knows it also goes fabulously well with the chocolate Hedgehog from Purdy’s Chocolates that I had after dinner – that pairing is almost stellar. Sorry, Frank, I guess it slipped my mind to tell you about the Hedgehog.

The Wine: Castillo de Monseran Garnacha 2006 ($9.95) - if you find their website, please let us know because we couldn't
The Food: Chicken Chili Stir Fry from Tenderland Meats
The Chocolate: Hedgehogs from Purdy’s Chocolates
The Scoop: One of the best under $10 values going

Friday, February 29, 2008

Harry McWatters: BC Wines Visionary

After four decades in the wine industry, Harry McWatters, the spirited, fun-loving, and sometimes outspoken president of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland, British Columbia, is stepping down.

Harry’s accomplishments are legendary. He helped found the British Columbia Wine Institute, Wines of Canada, VQA Canada, the BC Wine Information Society, and the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society. In 2003, he was a recipient of the Order of British Columbia and is considered instrumental in propelling British Columbia’s wine industry onto the global stage.

But even more important, Harry is known and loved for his tireless commitment and enthusiasm. To be in a room with Harry, is to be instantly caught up in a contagious passion for all things wine-oriented. His wit is razor sharp, his smile impossible to resist, and few can match the sheer depth of his knowledge.

But there’s clearly no slowing down on Harry’s immediate horizon. Effective May 1st, 2008 – the day after he officially steps down as president of Sumac Ridge – Harry intends to begin work establishing The Okanagan Wine Academy, an educational program offering in-depth wine educational programs primarily to consumers. In addition to providing consulting services, he will also continue on as president of the Black Sage Vineyard.

And he’s going to finally be able to devote some time to completing his cookbook, Wine Country Cooking, British Columbia, a project he says “has been talked about and gathering dust for several years.” He smiles with that characteristic twinkle in his eyes. “This is by no means retirement, but an opportunity to find new reasons to get out of bed in the morning and shift gears, as I plan to remain active in the future growth of this great industry.”

Like everyone who has ever had the privilege of meeting this incredible man, we wish Harry every success and look forward to seeing what shifting gears will bring. We’ll also be first in line to try out some of his Wine Country Cooking recipes.

(Photo taken at the BC Wine Appreciation Society's Christmas party where Harry poured some of his Steller’s Jay Brut.)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Romance with 2002 Zinfandels

Okay, it was actually a few days before Valentine’s. But clearly our uncharacteristically small group of Vancouver American Wine Society members who had gathered to compare a horizontal flight of ten 2002 Zinfandels were jumping into the spirit of romance.

Here they come in the order we tasted, and although it would be fun, we can take no credit for the final “heartfelt” evaluations of the ten offerings – each was delivered from an appointed, if sometimes reluctant, spokesperson at a different table.

Wine #1: Paso Robles Westside from Peachy Canyon Winery
Thin, weak, and presenting surprisingly little fruit either on the nose or the palate. This wine is like a ghostly and somewhat disappointing lover. Neat tasting room though as seen at the right.

Wine #2: Alexander Valley Todd Brothers Ranch from Dashe Cellars
Made with 4% Petit Syrah, the general consensus was that this wine was approaching – or perhaps even past – its prime. Tannins were still a bit coarse, and there was definite sediment. This wine was ranked as a dark and sultry, if a bit over the top lover.

Wine #3: Sonoma Valley Rhinefarm Vineyard from Gundlach Bundschu Winery

Softer and with a better balance than the previous one, most people agreed this wine showed coffee, chocolate, and mint overtones. The finish was longer, smoother like a well-oiled lover – apparently appealing as this wine was ranked Number One of the evening.

Wine #4: Amador County Grandpere from Renwood Winery
Made from old vines though from a newer winery (shown right), this wine was deemed somewhat austere. Oak on the nose but light in fruit, this wine – according to the table’s spokesperson – would not be finding its way onto her table nor into her bedroom even on Valentine’s Day.

Wine #5: Dry Creek Valley from Chateau Souverain
Not offensive, merely flat and faded from time with not enough fruit remaining to be worth mentioning. This wine is one lover who simply doesn’t deliver – even after midnight.

Wine #6: Dry Creek Valley from Foppiano Vineyards
Although we knew this vineyard specializes in “affordable,” this vintage was rather like stuffing your face full of penny candy in the general store. A fickle lover – even on a one night stand, first he thought he loved her, then he didn’t, then he did.

Wine #7: Napa Valley from Napa Wine Company
Like a chameleon, this wine exhibited the most dramatic amount of change of any poured this evening and garnered second favourite in the process. On the palate cedar, tobacco, and barnyard. In bed, an almost schizoid lover – but definitely one you’d happily suggest a roll in the hay with.

Wine #8: Napa Valley Old Vines from Fife Vineyards
Simple and somewhat nondescript but still comfortable, this wine is from old vines. Good for mindless quaffing on an open-air patio. A lover wearing nothing but flannel pajamas.

Wine #9: Napa Valley from Ravenswood Winery
Although this wine didn’t open as much as many of us had expected, it was “no wimpy wine.” Brawny and well structured, a few people found a hint of cream soda. This one is a somewhat reticent lover but definitely well built lover – perhaps even a redhead. (Note: these guys have a really fun website and a terrific sense of humour. Here’s an excerpt: At Ravenswood, there’s no pinkie raising, Brie eating, wine spitting wimpiness. Oh no. At the home of No Wimpy Wines, you’ll get to taste mind blowing zinfandel, witty conversation with our behind-the-bar staff and, if you so choose, private or group tours of the winery aka Zinfomania Central.)

Wine #10: Napa Valley from Rutherford Ranch
Controversy swirled around this wine as it became clear there was an almost unbelievable amount of bottle variation between each of the three that were poured. Some felt theirs was corked, others said “no, it’s just the style.” Was it a Madame wearing pancake make up and a feather boa or a great lover who hadn’t showered for a week? Few could agree.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Ponderings on Points, Amarones, and Arias

I have been traveling back and forth across the country for the last two weeks and have been working long days for months. In between flights and endless delays in airport waiting lounges, I try to make study time for my WSET exam coming up all too soon in a few days. After a grueling, four-city tour, tonight I feel justified in picking something special to celebrate a clean desk and being home. A bottle of Amarone is definitely appropriate. The bottle I decide on is an Amarone Negar 1961. Yes the vintage is right, 1961.

It was a great year for Italian wine in 1961 – rain and sun in perfect balance. John Kennedy was president of the USA. The Berlin Wall was under construction. Maria Callas was 38 and at the height of her career. Sophia Loren was starring in El Cid, and I was all of nine years old.

The label is a little worn and torn. The fill level looks promising – still mid neck – although there is a little sediment. The cork seems to be okay – solid and removes easily without crumbling. Should I decant and risk adding too much air? I pour a glass to see what has happened to this 40-something wine.

The color is amazing – dark red, with a little orange and brick red on the rim. The nose is equally remarkable – still lots of fruit left on the nose, black cherry with truffle, and a little sherry oxidization odors in the background. A few swirls of the glass and the oxidative aromas disappear.

The taste and finish on this wine is surprising, still full of black cherry, truffles, and forest floor with a finish that lasts for minutes. The tannins are like silk, and there are not enough descriptors to describe the mouth feel and full body. The acidity must be holding this wine together.

Now, there is a caveat to this story. We both love Amarone, so there is a built in basis here. But points and ratings have no relevance to this wine. It is, quite simply, a great wine. It is like the Callas aria playing on the stereo – powerful yet filled with grace and finesse. It is an Amarone at its heights. Yes, 1961 was a good vintage year for Italian wines. I am going to lay down some bottles for the future.


This Amarone is a perfect example of why Frank and I both hate the point system. Is this a 98 or only a 97 point wine? After all, how do you define the difference of a single point? Or has this venerable liquid actually achieved the enviable position of 100 points despite its initial hint of oxidation? It is only two additional points after all.

And if we were to rate it as a 98, would that make it comparable to the 2004 Cabernet Blend IX Estate from that received a 98 point nod from Robert Parker? Hmmm, let’s see. A three-year old blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot from Napa Valley versus an Italian Amarone with almost half a century of love, care, and passion in its provenance. Somehow, the comparison just doesn’t work – although I suppose one day, some scientist, somewhere in the world, will come up with a formula that proves you can actually make a meaningful comparison between apples and snow peas.

(Photos of Maria Callas and Sophia Loren are both dated 1960, only a year before this wine was produced.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Celebrating the New Year with Sparkling Wines

New Year’s and bubbles always seem to go together perfectly, and this season was no exception. So with a lazy Saturday between Christmas and New Year Eve, it was hardly a surprise to find sparkling wines featured at every in-house tasting on our re-stocking the liquor cabinet route. How could we refuse?

We’re both fans of Spanish Cavas for their ability to combine great taste with solid pricing, and the Lavit Brut Rosado we sampled first was no exception. Light strawberry in colour, this sparkler was summer in a glass – raspberries, strawberries, and just a hint of peach. Even though it was slightly over chilled for this tasting we instantly agreed it would be one to that would help solve the “what actually goes with turkey dinner” dilemma. Good for pre-dinner sipping too.

The Sigura Viudas Brut Reserva that was next up is pretty much one of our standard stocker for its flexible nature and crisp taste. It’s also, according to Ian Farmiloe, the International Cellars rep pouring, BC’s largest selling Cava. Good for parties – especially potluck where anything is likely to show up. “So, is this one, like – you know – real champagne?” To his credit, Ian managed to keep a semi-serious expression on his face as he explained the intricacies of the Champagne region to the rather portly lady wearing a combination of tartan plaid, plenty of zestful holiday bling, and sturdy black walking boots. We weren’t quite so diplomatic and had to suddenly develop an interest in the Italian wine section several rows over.

However, we did pop back for the Reserva Heredad. Perfect for when we want a bit more of a treat for less than $35, this Grand Reserve Cava has plenty of lemon-lime acidity and always makes a reliable, refreshing pour.

For a complete change of pace, we also checked out two offerings from Gray Monk’s Odyssey series. Even our Scottish wanna-be would probably have hesitated to inquire about the authenticity of this “Champagne.” Neither of us got the yeasty nose that we would have expected after being left for 16 months on the yeast, although there was plenty of big time buttery texture from the Chardonnay. We settled for this one as an
aperitif. The Rosé Brut had pleasing strawberry notes but didn’t hit either one of us as a “rush out and buy” item. At $27 each, we took a pass on both these BC wines and headed back for a few more of the Cavas… with just a short detour through Champagne for some of “the real stuff.”


Lavit Brut Rosado
Winery: Sigura Viudas
Grapes: 80% Trepat, 10% Monastrell, 10% Garnacha
Price: $17

Brut Reserva
Winery: Sigura Viudas
Grapes: 50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, 15% Xarel-lo
Price: $16

Reserva Heredad
Winery: Sigura Viudas
Grapes: 67% Macabeo, 33% Parellada
Price: $32

Odyssey White Brut
Winery: Gray Monk
Grapes: Riesling and Chardonnay
Price: $27

Odyssey Rosé Brut
Winery: Gray Monk
Grapes: Gamay Noir, Pinot Meunier
Price: $27