Thursday, January 22, 2015
Friday, January 16, 2015
With the 2015 Vancouver International Wine Festival just around the corner my mind has started leaping ahead to the star-studded line-up of world-class winemakers who will be jetting in. Over 1,700 wines from 170 wineries will be poured and some of the most exciting, to me, are from this sixth-generation producer from the Barossa valley.
Let's be honest about why I'm so excited to meet these folks: it's all about quality. But maybe I don't mean quality in the way that you're thinking. It's not just that this family, who've been pouring heart and soul into South Australia since the 1850's, released an entire line-up of wines that are great value for money. Hey - it's the "Golden Age" of wine! We're used to getting great wine for a great price.
THE thing to me is that I'm continually impressed, each and every year, because this is what they do with every vintage. I'm entering my fifth year writing about wine (a "youngster" still to many) and I taste a silly amount of wine... on average it's over 2,000 per year. And I can tell you, without reservation or hesitation, that there are very very few producers who are releasing quality of this magnitude year after year after year. Every year just a little better than the last, every wine being sold for less than it's true value.
The Clarke family state categorically that they:
"-take a long-term view of the future and our goal is unashamedly to be still growing grapes and making wine for another six generations."
And this is how it's done. This is why James Halliday, who knows more about Australian wine than any person who ever walked the Earth, has given Thorn-Clarke 5 stars for the ninth time in a row! Not familiar with Mr Halliday? Suffice it to say that when a winery earns it's first 5-star rating, it's going to be written about in the news. It is the benchmark for "outstanding quality" in Australian wine and is used as the yardstick by which every winery judges it's calibre versus it's colleagues and it's own previous vintages.
Nine times in a row means that the man who knows the most about Australian wine considers this tightly-knit team to be amongst the top echelon of a country brimming with brilliance. And when one hears the stories - of David Clarke testing soil samples by the light of the headlights of his car, at night, so as not to arouse suspicion in local farmers... well, stories like this are what feed the intuition that herein lies something beyond a desire to make good wine, it's (mild) obsession in the best of all possible ways.
This is the team that outfitted entire vineyards with moisture-probes: calibrated to only allow the vines access to irrigation under the most stringent conditions. Is this an environmental responsibility? Of course it is, but the benefit to you and I is that Thorn-Clarke is keeping it's berries small; less water per grape means a higher concentration of flavors!
Planting cover-drops between the rows of vines, planting thousands upon thousands of trees on the properties; these are environmentally responsible as well right? Once again - the winery and it's team are to be lauded, but as someone who's just one generation off the farm I'm thinking about the bio-diversity! What is happening is a return to, as some call it, ancestral farming. Through these techniques Thorn-Clarke is creating an environment that will allow full expression of flavor to come through the grapes and give their land it's own unique taste.
And this vision is all the more apparent when one hears them speak of their ardent efforts to now return the local waterways to " -a pristine example of native vegetation.". It's funny in a way, to think that in 100 years we as a First-World culture have come full circle; from the early 1900's and respecting the land and it's cycles, to the mid 1900's when we first decided that we needed to control Mother Nature and her many flights of whimsy, to the early 2000's when the trend is coming back to a place of respect.
And perhaps that's what separates Thorn-Clarke most of all from their competitors. In a time when quality is easier to come by then ever before and even great value can be found on almost any wine-vendor's shelves, respect in it's most sincere form is still rare enough to be extolled when we see it. Respect for the land, respect for the water, respect for the grapes and the winemaking process and, most of all, respect for you - the customer.
I hope you find value in my thoughts on these beautiful wines.
89+/90 points, $13+ USD, Great Value
... Expansive yet not expensive: this wine is rich with aromas of wild blueberries and Saskatoons, tomato leaf, warm earth, hints of vanilla, oak. On the palate is a perky acidity with fine, well integrated tannin and an intensity of flavors that well-matches the nose. Very good balance and structure, the length on the palate is also substantial for the price.
... When I smell and taste those darker berry flavors: blueberries, black currants, Saskatoons, I immediately think of venison! To me there's nothing that would pair better with this then a dish of venison stew/ragout with steamed new potatoes and fresh garden veggies. Although, I say that and then I savored the bottle over successive evenings and a ration of premium, hand-made, fresh peppercorn beef jerky from Hopcott farms, Pitt Meadows.
89+ points, $16+ USD, Great Value
... What I love about this wine is its ability to express young Cab: big, beautiful, pear-shaped tones of ripe red fruit, summer flowers, the backbone of pencil-shaving/minerality and the warmth of musk/forest aromas. The bouquet is inviting, the palate offering substantial yet well balanced acid and more of the trademark well-integrated tannin though these are more substantial then the previous blend. Great structure.
... Food pairings abound! A natural for beef dishes, this will also bring beauty to the meatier Italian dishes like a lamb bolognese but I found it light enough to serve with grilled panini for lunch. This is a terrific introduction to the "softer-side-of-Cab" and pairs well with Tuesday nights and a warm fireplace :)
Left Bank Bordeaux-styled blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot
91+ points, $18-$25 USD, EXCELLENT Value
... it's no secret that I love Bordeaux, but good Bordeaux is becoming out-of-reach for a writers salary. Top-tier Bordeaux is out-of-reach for most doctors and lawyers. But~! But there is great Bordeaux-style coming from all corners of the world and Australia is certainly a part of that wave. This wine is a personal favorite of mine and I have been constantly impressed vintage after vintage. For the money, this may be one of the best values in the North American market! Rich, nuanced dark floral aromas burst from the glass with violets and dark roses followed by black currants/black cherries/red raspberries. The palate is brisk with lean/focused young red currant acid, fine/chalky tannin and a concentration of flavors that well-mimic the nose and outperform the price-tag. Excellent balance, very good structure, this wine drinks well now and holds for several years but will not develop in bottle due to the Stelvin enclosure.
... Food pairings? Try cigar pairings! From Rocky Patel "Decade" to Montecristo, this wine is a cigar-lovers delight. If you must pair it with food, consider the price and then spoil yourself: this is a decadent treat for a Wednesday afternoon and gourmet pizza, capicollo panini or a simple steak frites... use great ingredients and let the beauty of this Barossa shine!
90+ points, $15-$22 USD, Great Value
... first, a word on Shiraz if you're thinking right now "Oh - I don't like Aussie Shiraz, I only like French/Spanish/California/etc". In a recent blind tasting with a dozen highly skilled industry professionals, no one could tell which Shiraz out of ten bottles was from Australia. Well... I could tell one of them, but only because I was incredibly familiar with that particular winemaker and knew his "signature". But my point is that there is a new era in winemaking and what you tasted 10 years ago (or older) isn't necessarily what you will find today! I have shown colleagues time and time again that the "New Face" of Aussie Shiraz is a sophisticated, elegant one that merits attention.
... Harmonious. This wine achieves a delightful balance of dark floral aromas, dark exotic chocolate and warm earth tones. The palate is awash in fresh red berry flavors and achieves mouth-watering acidity yet in a balanced and approachable manner. Very good concentration of flavors that match the nose with that ever-present peppercorn finish, to me this is a great example of the modern Shiraz.It will keep well for several years in cellar but, once again, will not develop due to Stelvin enclosure. Enjoy it young with sea-salt and olive grilled lamb and an herbaceous quinoa-tabbouleh salad!
93+/94 points, $40-$50+ USD, WORLD CLASS
*97 points James Halliday
*in my TOP WINES, 2014
*minimum 1 hour decant or 2 runs through the aerator
... made from small, select lots and only in the best years, this is the essence of truly Great Barossa without the staggering price that some can fetch. That James Halliday of the Australian Wine Companion would bestow 97 points on this is enough for any reasonable person to ascertain that here-in lies beauty... created as an Ode to one of the patriarchs of the Clarke family, this wine offers the "Holy Trinity" of stunning: balance, structure and concentration.
... if you open this wine and find the aromas closed, just try decanting another 30 mins to an hour; it is impossible to over-decant this. To the eye this wine is so dark in it's bruised purple tones that it appears black in the glass. I was most struck by the plethora of floral aromas; the usual suspects of red and dark berries, dark cocoa, peppercorns and warm Barossa soil abound, but the lifted scents of violets, soft roses and irises is both feminine and tremendously alluring. On the palate, it presents tight, lean, well-focused red currant and young red raspberry acid that reminds one of Northern Rhone; tremendously fresh. The tannin is full, yet ultra fine/chalky/chewy and is delightfully approachable considering it's relative youth. The flavors are as full, and full of life and dimension, as the bouquet; a true craftsman's work. If you would drink this now (and it is utterly delightful now) I would highly encourage buying another few bottles to set aside. This wine will live and evolve for at least 15 more years with grace. Food pairing? Consider this dish I created for my Chef du Cuisine final project:
lamb, 3 ways (sourced from Elliot Ranch, Strathmore, Alberta)
1. tenderloin (wrapped in duck pate and spinach) on braised chicory
2. two points of rack, baked in coarse salt with vanilla bean & fresh thyme, Hainle vineyards Gewurztraminer icewine poached Anjou pear, warm crab-apple compote
3. individual tortierre with braised shank and shoulder, charred heirloom tomato ketchup
Many thanks to Renaissance Wine Merchants (importer to Western Canada) and Thorn-Clarke Wines for the very generous sample bottles. As always you can find more recipes, free wine reviews and my notes on premium distillates and cigars on:
Monday, January 12, 2015
One of the best evenings I had in 2014 was with the fine folks at the Vancouver Cigar Company as we shared a host of genuine Cuban cigars and a terribly fine bottle of Colombian rum courtesy of Juan Santos. Latin music drummed in the background and the machismo energy was on overdrive as we savored the world-class spirits, smokes and slick rides. It was impossible not to remember the year before and the massively brilliant evening shared by hundreds of cigar aficionados.
And it got me to thinking: there's an art to smoking great cigars! Notice my friend Simon Yang, customer service-extraordinaire at Van Cigar Co, and the way he lights this beautiful Cuban tobacco; the time he takes, the attention to detail... every bit as much an artisan as the inspired rum that comes from Juan Santos. I've long been a fan of their work and wanted this chance to share with you the why: why do I love the rum, why are they working so hard and why haven't you tried it yet?
But I can't do that.
It seems that, for all my research skills, I can't find any proof that the distillery for Juan Santos exists. Or, at least, that it exists in Colombia. I started wondering: "Why would the importer not want to link their website to the website of the distillery?" but it goes further than that... they won't even name the distillery, or the name of the family who theoretically own the business. Why would that be?
I know that the label Juan Santos has been created solely for the Western Canadian market and so, should you live outside of that, there is the very good chance that you will never try this rum. Or will you? It turns out that a colleague of mine who writes about rum prolifically was gifted a bottle of aged rum from Cuba. Now he ascertains that the company producing Juan Santos is Casa Santana and they claim to have started their company in Colombia in 1994 - having come from Cuba.
It's a good story and might very well be true and, yet, it immediately raises a red flag: how did a distillery started in 1994 start releasing a 21-year rum in 2012: 18 years later? And how did this colleague of mine, who was gifted the rum from Cuba, end up with a bottle that looked and tasted identical to Juan Santos? The Cuban distillery I speak of Ron Santero and they may very well be the producers of Juan Santos rum. Cuba does, after all, share a bilateral free trade agreement with Colombia.
Well enough of my "Conspiracy Theory"... at the end of the day all I know for certain is that an importer bringing beautiful rum to a population of 10,000,000 people (Western Canada) hasn't figured out that they need to share Who the producer is. As if, somehow, the Who and the Why aren't as important - or even more important - than the What. A shame... I'm betting money that there is a great story in this and one that I sincerely hope I get to share with all of you one day.
For today, I'll let the tasting notes stand on their own. Quality spirits, and quality cigars, are meant to be shared. Indeed, to me, that's where most of the pleasure comes from; seeing a friend, a brother, a colleague, your sister - try something truly special and savor the moment. Every time I've been to the Vancouver Cigar Company I have been wholeheartedly impressed with the consummate professionalism and the unquenchable enthusiasm these master tobacconists display. Their functions are memorable, as was the rum, and I hope I have the pleasure of bumping into you the next time I'm down there.
Anejo 12 anos / aged (for) 12-year
89+ points on its own/90+ points with a dram of water: Very Good Value
... warm caramel and toffee pudding. Summer flowers growing in the garden - the aroma wafts through the kitchen window as you snooze on the couch. These are the kind of inviting aromas that surge from the glass; a plethora of sweet-welcome, like the beautiful girl you dated in college. Slightly hot alcohol hiding beauty; the palate conveys strength and discipline: the (expected) caramel tones warm the tastebuds to open for mineral tones, hints of peach and apricot and the savory edge of Macadamia nut. Very well balanced, with good structure and medium+ length, this has just passed the realm of mixed drinks and entered the "land-of-rocks" because, really, we should only enjoy this just with a glass or "on-the-rocks" with an ice-cube if you must (a dram of water does a better job). For rum aficionados this is a must to show yet another dimension to artisanal rum.
And so what have I learnt through this? I admit, I was a little jealous of my friends and colleagues down at Van Cigar Co when they started talking about the Cuban cigars we were smoking. It seemed like for every cigar that was lit there was a story about "the last trip to Cuba" or "remember when that cigar-roller visited us a few months back?". I was so proud of the fine rum that I'ld brought but had no story to share. Maybe it shouldn't matter! Maybe I should be able to look beyond who made a product and where and just concentrate on the quality of what's in the bottle. Right?
But we human beings aren't like that; we aren't so analytical. In fact we're anything but. We make decisions impulsively and with our hearts. We yearn to hear a fantastic tale of a "David" slaying the mythic "Goliath"... without this human connection consumers are soon left cold and move on. This is a lesson that Van Cigar Co learnt a long time ago and is why, in a sea of non-smoking legislation, they not only survive but continue to thrive. My hope is that other businesses will learn from their success.
Many thanks to The Liber Group for the very generous sample bottle of Juan Santos and to (General Manager) Trevor of the Vancouver Cigar Company for their incredible hospitality. As always you can find more recipes, free wine reviews and my notes on premium distillates and cigars on:
Monday, January 5, 2015
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
New Year's Eve: a time for celebration and reflection.
Did we accomplish everything we set out to this year? Did we mend the broken fences in our relationships? Did we set the bar a little (or a lot) higher in our chosen work? Were we dutiful and present with our loved ones? And what seemingly impossible task will we set for the next 12 months?
As a culture it seems as though we are at odds with our own desires so much of the time and on New Year's no less so than any other. We cherish the coming of a "New Day"; a chance to begin fresh... clean slate and all that. And, yet, we often fail at seizing this very opportunity when it presents itself three times a day.
I speak of the family meal; that red-headed step child of modern North American culture. We eschew the ideologies of the 50's and all that they stood for: the blind pursuit of accumulating material goods, of always needing to find a faster way to do things, of always wanting NEW NEW NEW! And yet, for many families here, the 1950's were a time that celebrated - even venerated - the family meal.
This "Big-Band" generation of adults could remember - vividly - that only a few years earlier the world had been engulfed in a war that threatened to consume humanity. Soldiers were separated from wives and children for years, mothers were for the first time (for many) working full-time jobs and forced to leave their children for most of their week. Years of this were endured: the family unit has rarely suffered such long-term torture.
And then - Peace. And with it came the reunion of husband with wife, father with child, wife with family. And the dinner table? In those eyes dinner wasn't a chore (mostly) - it was a gift, to be treasured. This was the time that North Americans began reaching for greater heights with their family time: barbeques became chic rather than rustic and the thought of everyone not convening around the table at 6 pm? Incredulous.
No matter what your definition of family is, we all suffer from a lack of time - proper time - with those we hold most dear. It's no surprise that the fastest growing area of food-sales in North America today is the ready-to-eat meal followed closely by take-out/quick-service. The rate at which we eat a meal in our car is growing faster whilst the rate at which we sit with loved ones and carpe diem is withering.
It was in the 1950's that the Swiss-American chef Konrad Egli popularized the dish fondue and, as with many "new" things of the time, fondue-mania swept the land. Bravo I say! For what creates better ambiance, a better setting, for conversation than the fondue or, in this case, raclette.
In essence, take some hard cheese and melt it under a small heat-lamp until it's soft enough to spread like butter and smear it on fresh bread or, more traditionally, slices of potato with shaved cured meat and some sour pickles/pickled onions on the side. Wash it all down with a few bottles of Riesling or Pinot Gris and you have the dish that has captivated central Europe since the 1200's and probably much further back.
But wait! I hear you claim... Watch cheese melt? Isn't that the culinary equivalent to watching paint dry?!
True my friends! This is why we don't raclette alone (note to my Editor: I've just used a noun as a verb - this is artistic licence not cheese-induced dementia). Whether we're "racletting" or "doing-the-fondue" we always do this as a team-activity: the joy is in the moments between the food as much as the food itself. For, really, what else is there to do when cheese is bubbling happily in front of you, a plate of cold-cuts and pickles to nibble on and full glasses of vino all around - what else is there but to eat, drink and be merry?!
My family discovered this New Year's event quite by accident only last year and, we enjoyed ourselves so much, we decided immediately that it would become tradition. We invite people we haven't seen enough of, buy far too much dairy product then can be good for a body, slake our thirst with more wine then is prudent and smile, laugh, joke and carry-on into the wee hours. That's when the dark-chocolate-fondue comes out and the belts get loosened a notch or three. It's a bloody good time had by all.
And so whether you find yourself seeking a kitschy last-minute plan for food on New Year's Eve, or needing an excuse to pull old friends 'round your table for a long-awaited night of mild gluttony and excessive cheeriness, perhaps this is the thing for you. The wines we chose for our evening were from wineries that made my list of Top Wines 2014 and are, in my opinion, some of the best value-for-money that can be found today in any market. Each winery has excellent shipping options and should be exercised if you love finding stunning wine at a fraction of its true value.
Enjoy the slideshow and HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Cipes Blanc-de-Noirs 2008
$35 CAD (in BC)
92 points, EXCELLENT value
SILVER - National Wine Awards of Canada, 2014
... someone once said "It is the duty of all wines to be red!". Well, whether in a red dress or a white one, Pinot Noir shows an impeccable ability to pair off a variety of foods without weighing down the palate. Perfect choice for New Years Eve when, we know, there will be food and drink a-plenty running the length and breadth of the evening (and early morning). This offering from Summerhill is certainly one of my favorite sparkling wines of this style; the restrained elegance showcasing the Kelowna terroir as much as it does Eric von Krosigks' winemaking deftness. Light golden hues with bright silver highlights would indicate a youthful wine but, as one pauses over the glass to inhale, the aromas show a sophisticated maturity. Traditional notes from the Methode Champenoise are expected: the toasty-brioche-fresh-from-the-oven and almonds, but, then comes the Okanagan soil with it's burst of lime zest, young apricot and cranberry finished by a light spice much like good ginger tea. Finessed pearls of small, creamy goodness wash over the palate and the flavors mimic the nose with ease. EXCELLENT balance, structure and concentration this wine will cellar well for several years and is a joy to drink now. Enjoy 2014-2018++ FOOD PAIRING: a new treat for me, I'm enjoying south Indian/Asian with bubbly - mango, ginger and cilantro absolutely adore this sparkling wine!
McLean Creek Road Vineyard, Okanagan Valley DVA
$40 CAD (BC)
92+ points, STUNNING value
... to many: there is Pinot Noir and then there is Burgundy. I would be remiss if I didn't stipulate that, to me, Burgundy is as much a frame of mind as it is a geographical location... it's been explained to me that Burgundy is as much, if not more, a sense of respecting the land, the soil, the forest, wind and rain. Natives of that oenological haven explain that to be truly Burgundian (as a winemaker) is to observe the land, listen to the vines and only then does one start to help the land produce the wine it wants to make. It is a selfless passion.
... The team at MFV are consummate Burgundians. This wine sings with precision and roars with passion; unfiltered - the bouquet carries layers of warm Arabic spice, musky sandalwood, oiled leather, green peppercorns, blackberry pie and raspberry-wild thyme compote. The palate carries brisk yet inviting medium+raspberry/currant acid and medium+ ultra-fine tannin with substance to them; the flavors convey an utter symmetry to the aromas. Excellent balance, structure, concentration - this would be a bargain at $150 from Musigny and, indeed, I've seen wines of this caliber reach $300. Cellars well for years, drinks superbly now without any need for decanting/aerating: enjoy 2014-2020.
(and with the chocolate fondue...)
Painted Rock Merlot 2012
Skaha Lake, Okanagan Valley DVA
$40 CAD (BC)
91+ points, EXCELLENT value
*MERITS DECANTING OR 1 PASS THROUGH THE AERATOR*
... oh Merlot, you much-maligned grape! So in vogue in the '80's until consumers realized that there were other varietals. Then they turned their backs on you - shameful. Merlot can carry depth like CabSauv, ruggedness like Malbec, minerality like Pinot Noir and all the smoothness of a Michel Bubblé song. Yes - that's right - in a craftsman's hands this becomes a wine of excellence and, with chocolate, an absolute dream. Deep earthy aromas punctuated by red and black floral tones (irises, rosehips) and sticky blueberries, blackberries and Saskatoons bubbling in a pan on the stove. The young palate is tightly coiled precision; medium+ red currant acid plays well with full chewy/chalky tannin that crave some fat for balance. And here's the fun part! Chocolate has just the right amount of fat to balance a Merlot like this impeccably! This wine has excellent balance, structure and concentration and cellars with ease for years. Enjoy 2014-2020++
Many thanks to Ezra Cipes at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Jak Meyer at MFV: Meyer Family Vineyards and John Skinner at Painted Rock Estate Winery for the very generous sample bottles. As always you can find more recipes, free wine reviews and my notes on premium distillates and cigars on: