Monday, February 25, 2013

Vancouver Urban Winery, BC

I'm a bit of a nostalgia-geek... I love history.

I can remember being a kid and watching movies about the middle-ages; kegs of wine lining the walls of "The Great Hall" of a sprawling manor or estate. I always thought that was pretty cool, even before I was a wine-drinker. Flash-forward a few decades and I hear a story about some guys who are doing the same thing but with modern technology. Wow@! Wonderful@! Where are they??

the Lounge @ Van Urban Winery

Believe it or not, we have craftsmen here in our own little city of Vancouver, BC who are kegging wine in stainless steel. They're doing it, they're building a market, and supporting a growing clientele.

Vancouver Urban Winery ) has sprung to the fore-front of an emerging industry. As the wine industry itself continues it's unprecedented evolution with sales growth in the double-digits year after year, and now decade after decade, business people like Steve Thorp @ Urban Winery see opportunity.

I've worked in the hospitality industry for over 25 years, and have seen change after change. But one of the biggest changes must be the dramatic increase in "wine-by-the-glass". Most restaurants two decades ago carried a mediocre selection of wines period, and the wines they carried by the glass went by the monikers of "House Red" and "House White". Not terribly inspiring.

Now there are entire restaurant concepts revolving around wine-by-the-glass.

One of the greatest pities of this - can we call it evolution? Is that the pace of wine-education in the service industry hasn't kept pace with the dynamic leap forward in wine-consumption. It's been a hundred years or more since we as a society consumed this much wine per person, and yet the average server pouring your wine in a restaurant, pub or bar has relatively little more experience then the barkeep or waiter who was doing so in yesteryear.

And what does this mean for you? What does this mean for the consumer? It means that time after time, bottle after bottle, wine is being poured that is corked, overheated, over-chilled, oxidized and so on, and so-on. You, my friend, are not always getting the wine that the winemaker intended. Indeed, in many markets, you rarely are.

I certainly don't want to come across as if I'm condemning the service industry; far from it! However, this is a simple truth of today - that we have far fewer wine-savvy servers then we have serving positions, and the ratio doesn't seem to be improving. What do we do Steve Thorp?

We install a wine-keg; a FreshTAP system; we go to wine-on-tap. And why do we do this? Zero chance of oxidization, zero chance of corkage, zero wastage, total control over pouring, total control over temperature and let me go on a little rant about wine temps! Far too often I'm served white wines that are barely above zero degrees; the aromas are deadened, the palate is opaque... truly, the better the white wine, the closer to room temperature we can serve it. And the other spectrum isn't pretty either... I was at a Zinfandel tasting many months ago, in the middle of a heat-wave in Summer, and it was held in a facility that had no functioning air-conditioning. 15% ABV Zinfandels in 30C are not pleasant my friends... the alcohol seems to expand in ones mouth, in ones nose, and becomes truly offensive.

And so what's not to love about the idea of FreshTAP; of wine-on-tap? Well I for one had no problem telling Steve that I wondered about the base-line quality of wines going into a keg. A keg - like what Budweiser goes into. Of course, as soon as the words were out of my mouth I looked around the room and saw the impressive array of BC wineries who were choosing this new wave of packaging. Savvy business people are getting in line to work with the likes of Steve Thorp and the Vancouver Urban Winery, and small wonder!

Reduced costs per bottle, increased quality, increased control over wastage (which can reduce profitability by up to 25%) and a reduced amount of shelving (or real estate as restaurant-gurus will state) all yield phenomenal results for the open-minded restaurateurs who utilize this. And this is without considering the dramatic environmental impact; less bottling, less boxes, less shipping... you get the idea. Though the number of BC establishments utilizing this system are small (around 50 out of several thousands), the number is growing.

We as consumers, and I've said this before, are at a New Age of wine industry. We have access to quality for price like never before. We have access to varietals that were on the verge of extenction. We have access to wine from a global market to a global market. And all of this can benefit from the FreshTAP system.

It's a part of the puzzle. Here are fresh, young wines that will stay fresh and young for month-upon-month, in the same condition they left the winery in. Here is a chance for young winemakers to truly speak to an international market about what they are trying to accomplish. Do you really know Beaujolais? Or Sancerre? Or Marlborough? Unless you've been there, and had some barrel-samples from reputable wineries... perhaps you don't know it as well as you thought you did.

But I had the chance, the opportunity, to taste something special at Vancouver Urban Winery.

Roaring Twenties Sauvignon Blanc
New Zealand
$14.99 CAD (BC)
89+ points
  • brilliant example of typicity (the varietal). I would serve this in a lecture to illiustrate what a "classic" New Zealand Sauv Blanc can be
  • pale straw color with silver & green highlights
  • on the nose very soft herbaceous, green grass, melon tones
  • on the palate fresh lively acidity, tastes like young pineapple, strong undercurrant of minerality. Great balance and structure. Medium length
  • in short - this drinks like a $20+ wine for $15
Roaring Twenties Malbec
Argentina, Upper Mendoza
single vineyard
$14.99 CAD (BC)
88-89 points
  • what a treat to have a single-vineyard Malbec (or any varietal) for $15~!
  • to the eye this is a young wine, and so much more ruby color rather then garnet - lighter then most wines from this region that I've experienced
  • on the nose ripe plums and red cherries, savory earth
  • on the palate much the same, with fresh young acidity and approachable medium tannin, the concentration I found medium and somewhat simple, but simple isn't always a bad thing! On a Saturday night I would gladly crack open a few bottles of this when we have people over

In closing, I asked Steve what he would say to the wine-snobs in the audience who ask (and rightfully so) "What about wine being a living thing? What about a wine's evolution in bottle?"

Steve thought for a moment, then responded with true candor: (forgive me if this is not verbatim)
"The evolution of wine in a bottle is sexy. It's a sexy part of the wine-industry and something that I personally find appealing. We here at  Vancouver Urban Winery don't try to compete with that, we compliment it. We compliment how some wines are meant to evolve for years or decades by the same token that some wines are meant to be enjoyed fresh and fruity. 

There's nothing sadder to me, in this field, then knowing that the wine I'm having in a well-respected restaurant or bar is nothing like what the winemaker intended it to be. Now I get to facilitate that experience from winery to glass, and that's really the best part of my job."

Well said. I, too, have such aspirations.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Que Guapo! by Bodega Juan Munoz Lopez, Argentina

A few days ago I got to meet a colleague for coffee.

In preface; to those of you who have never visited Vancouver, British Columbia, we here take our coffee  very seriously. Perhaps too seriously, the point can be argued - but one must stand by one's principles! One of our principles here is that coffee can become an art form  Those who would disagree, please visit the Agrocafe ( and then we can talk.

Seriously just digressed! But it was to put into context a brilliant conversation where once again, the topic came around to social media and the role it can play in the promotion and evolution of wine. Well little did we know at the time, but Canada's premier wine magazine was just about to announce that they were shutting their doors for good. For bad.

Yes, Wine Access magazine, which had hosted the winemakers of the world and more then it's fair share of wine awards - is done ( ). And what does this mean for the "average" wine-consumer? Well not much, to the minds of some. The magazine, though jammed full of brilliant information - never seemed to hit the main-stream as much as perhaps the accountants would have liked. It was a solid distribution but, with rising costs, perhaps the investors were looking for more then just solid. Some people will always be greedy... but what does this mean for the "industry" in Canada?

The potentially irreparable loss of an icon. Winemakers, importers, sales staff, sommeliers, owners... all of these and many many more have counted on Wine Access to supply a genuinely informative and (mostly) unbiased review of the current state of affairs in Canada. As we grow now into a new age of winemaking in this northerly climate, and begin to make a solid presence in the world arena, it is more then a shame that we should lose such a valuable resource.

And so the burden will fall even more heavily upon social media to play an important role in the clear and effective communication of wine news and reviews over the coming months and years. It is not a role that one should take lightly.

vineyards of Las Perdices
Heavy thoughts for me, but luckily much releaved by the bottle of fun and fruity wine that my friend and colleague bought me. He's lucky enough to have been able to open his own wine-importing agency, and has a solid relationship with a winemaker from Argentina whose work I admire a great deal: Juan Munoz Lopez. If the name rings familiar then it will be because Juan started the brilliantly executed winery Las Perdices which I wrote about at the beginning of last summer ( ). Las Perdices is achieving a high level of success not only with the "wunderkinder" of the wine-world Malbec, but also with Cabernet Sauvignon and a number of other varietals.

And so when my friend told me that he was working with Juan to develop a new wine for $15 or less, and would be "fun, fresh and approachable" I thought to myself "Giddy-up!" There are a number of Malbecs, Syrah and Cab-Sauv that I enjoy from that part of the world, but many are "food-friendly" wines and don't always do well without a steak (or a cigar) to pair with.

What these two have come up with is a variation on the "Argentine-blend", which is a geographically-altered version of the "Bordeaux-blend". A traditional Bordeaux-blend being Cab-Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc, potentially with the addition of a small percentage of other varietals (under 10%). In Argentina some winemakers have been toying with a number of combinations, and in this instance we find Malbec, Bonarda and Syrah

So what does this blend mean should be in the glass? Since I've already written about Juan, and the winery, let's talk about the varietals and how they fit together!

What does Malbec bring to the party???
     Malbec is full of dark fruit flavors, a spicy earthiness and pairs well with aging in French oak (lending woody/leathery tones). Naturally leaning towards higher levels of alcohol and concentration - it was Jancis Robinson who said "It's difficult not to like Malbec"

What does Bonarda bring to the party??
     Originally from northern Italy, or southern France, the varietal has evolved over decades and adapted itself to Argentinian soil and climate. More then just adapted - it was the new winemakers who came to Argentina and evolved themselves in Argentina who raised the lowly Bonarda to more then it had been... low yields, older vines and more conscientious treatment of the grape has yielded fruit that now delivers moderate acidity, moderate tannin and body, and cheery cherry flavors. In short - an inexpensive flirty number than can pair well with food and is best (usually) in a blend.

What does Syrah bring to the party?
   Syrah; one of the varietals I enjoy most. One reason I enjoy it so much is because it can evolve into such a different beast depending where and how it is grown. Australia, Chile, France, British Columbia all grow beautiful Syrah - yet each one is unique and worthy of contemplation. In Argentina, whilst not main-stream yet, the varietal is growing in popularity - from about 1,500 HA to over 7,000 HA in less then a decade. Ripening to spicy, pepper, black fruit flavors, this is a varietal than stands well on it's own and yet brings a sultry edge to blends.

2011 Que Guapo
Beach City Wine Co, importer
$14.99 (CAD) British Columbia
88-89 points

  • visual:   clean; full garnet core with slight cherry rim
  • nose:    clean; moderate+ youthful aromas bursting with layers of ripe cherry and cherry compote, some floral notes and candied fruit underneath
  • palate:   clean; dry, moderate+ cherry acid, moderate+ slightly grippy tannin, moderate body, moderate alcohol (14%), moderate+ youthful flavors much like the nose; bright fresh red berry tones are accented by some floral notes and a hint of savory earth/terroir beneath. Some slightly green tones. Good balance and structure, short length
  • conclusion: in BC, the second highest liquor tax in the world, we find few examples of $15 and under wines that are well balanced, full of fun and concentration, yet hold some amount of typicity or sense of varietal. This is a classic example of young varietals from this part of the world. Drink now, drink often.
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   at last a pizza wine! Seriously pair this with your next meat-lovers delight from a good pizza parlour and prepare to be amazed... Also pairs well (from experience) with dark chocolate :)
Lujan de Coyo, Argentina

I was talking with another friend and colleague just a few nights ago. We spoke on many weighty subjects, as is often the case with good friends, but then we spoke on wine. I said "I think, sometimes, we in the wine-industry just get a little too full of ourselves when we talk about wine!"

He laughed, I laughed, we both laughed. But we also knew that we were laughing because it was true.

It's good to talk about typicity, and terroir, and soil-composition. These aren't bad things. But at the end of the day I as a wine-writer must talk about flavor. I need to stress balance and composition or structure. These are the things that an average person thinks of when they drink a $12 or $16 bottle of wine.

"Please let it taste good! Not too acidic, and please don't let it ruin the steaks I bought for dinner."

For $15 this is the best I can realistically hope for from a wine, and I am often let down. But not in this case! Juan and my friend Lorenzo have crafted a fun and flirty little number that dances and sings it's way across the palate. Enough depth to pair with simple food and enough balance to enjoy on it's own. I for one find this money well spent. You doubt me? The proof, my friend, is in the glass!

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Vancouver Playhouse warm-up from the Christopher Stewart Agency

I love a good plate of sushi, and living in Vancouver I can find it more often then not. What, might you ask, is the best accompaniment for sushi? Is it sake? A smokey pouilly-fuisse for the rockfish, a lean Cote d'Or for the tuna? No my friends, the best thing with great sushi is great company.

How lucky was I last Friday then, when two colleagues from the Christopher Stewart Agency ( ) invited me out for lunch to discuss the upcoming 2013 Vancouver International Wine Festival  (

This year marks a prestigious year for my career; not only am I attending with a much-coveted trade pass, but also being invited as a member of media and as a buyer! A colleague has only just recently asked that I help oversee the formation of his new import agency, a task that fills me with as much trepidation as it does enthusiasm.

Why the two mixed emotions? Because I see what my learned colleagues are doing at other agencies, and am quite honestly impressed. My friends from Christopher Stewart came to the informal luncheon armed with four bottle of great wine and an entire sheaf of substantial support information. We chatted over chirashi-don over the importance of strategic media releases and before I knew it I was was home with my new treasures. And treasures they are, rest assured.

To start with, a lighter white wine; filled with nuances of the rocky soil and clean air that was it's home. I can almost taste the brine!

2011 Astrolabe Sauvignon-Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand
$24 CAD (BC) listed in the
91+ points

locale:   Awatere Valley, Wairau Valley, and Kekerengu Coast, Marlborough, NZ
soil:    Free-draining stony, silty loam, with some vineyards having  clay or limestone content
  • visual:   clear; pale straw core with silver highlights
  • nose:   clean; fully intense youthful aromas of warm hay, brine sea-air, rich tropical fruit such as pineapple/melon
  • palate:   clean; dry, fully intense green apple acid, light+ body, light+ ABV (13.5%), medium intensity youthful flavor mimicking the nose with green apple and tart citrus notes dominating the front palate and briney/mineral tones the end. Excellent balance and structure with medium+ length
  • conclusion:   drink now~! This wine will not develop appreciably with age and is a brilliant example of varietal and area typicity
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   the long, lean acids in this wine ache for rich, fatty seafood... consider butter poached prawns with orange marmalade glaze. I would want to serve this wine at the beginning of a meal to open the palate, and prawns would be a natural marriage. Stay clear of spicy food however, as they will enhance the already ample alcohol

And so after what is widely regarded as one of the top Sauvignon-Blanc in the world, my friends treated me to an entry-level, easy-sipping Chardonnay from the Winemen of Gotham ( ). Started by two friends with a long and varied history in many facets of the wine industry, these intrepid voyagers dared to "charge-the-rapids" of business, and open a winery only a few years before what we now see as one of the greatest financial collapses of modern times.

And they succeeded.

But why? What could possibly lead these two Aussies to succeed at a time when many others had failed? And believe me, though it's true that we as a culture have experienced more growth in the wine industry then possibly any other time in history... there are still many businesses that have failed. But Bruce Clugston and Fiona White have followed in the mighty footsteps of Henry Ford by providing the best quality product  possible and at the best price possible. In fact, many people in the industry would say that the prices are virtually impossible given the quality.

A few days ago, I would have been one of those people, and let me show you why:

2011 Wine men of Gotham Chardonnay
South Australia, Australia
$14 CAD (BC) listed in the
88+ points

locale(s):   Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and The Riverlands
vine-age:   10-20 years average
  • visual:   clear; pale lemon core with light watery rim, gold highlights
  • nose:    clean; moderate+ intense and youthful aromas of young tropical fruit, lemon zest
  • palate:   clean; dry, moderate+ lemon/yellow grapefruit acid, light+ body, moderate+ ABV (12%), moderately intense and youthful flavors that play heavily on citrus tones. Well balanced and good structure, medium length
  • conclusion:   drink now, drink often in Summer
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   I make a sandwich, the recipe I stole and modified from a colleague: grilled chicken baguette with melted brie and fresh  berries ... use whatever is fresh and seasonal - I've made this with blackberries, raspberries, or arugula instead of berries. Brilliantly Summer~!!!

And so after the pangs of hunger had faded, my two colleagues and I got down to the meat-and-bones of talking about the upcoming Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. I love talking about this event, because it usually means that the event has arrived! And with the Christopher Stewart Agency hosting more visiting winemakers then any other company in attendance, I really wanted their take on this year's event. One of the visitors that they were most excited to be bringing in was Canepa Vineyards from Chile ( ).

 Self-billed as "Italian Soul. Chilean Soil." they really should add "French vines!". As some of you may know, Chile actually has some of the oldest, and truest, French vines on the planet. Because of that dreaded louse phylloxera, most of France's vines are actually on grafted root-stock from American vines. Chile never had an issue with that most devastating of pests and so was left with the original root-stock that many wineries had purchased from France at the end of the 1800's. What does this mean to the wine-geeks? Only that some of Chile's wines can be considered to be more French than France (from a certain point-of-view). And what does it mean for the average consumer? Stupendous quality, especially as is seen with many of the overtly French varietals (think Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc).

But for the purpose of this article, it's the Carignan that I'll speak of; a fleshy-red wine, this varietal has commonly been used for blending. Originally from Spain, it's found most often these days in ambiguous wines from Southern France and California, but rises to prominence in my wife's decidedly favorite red wine region: Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I have also been lucky enough to sample some brilliant examples from Chile and know quite well that many winemakers there are nurturing their ancient vines (70,80 years ++).

Canepa vineyards is one such winery.

2009 Canepa "Genovino" Carignan
D.O. Cauquenes - Maule Valley, Chile
$30 CAD (BC) spec
90+ points

vine-age:   60 years+
irrigation:   dry-farmed
cultivation:   manual
maturation:   French and American oak for 12 months

  • visual:    clear; fully intense garnet core with slightest cherry rim
  • nose:    clean; fully intense and youthful red cherries, bright raspberries, violets, savory cocoa, meaty-background
  • palate:   clean; dry,  full red raspberry/currant acid, full grippy/chalky tannin, moderate+ body, moderate+ ABV (14.5%), moderately intense and youthful flavors with emphasis on bright red berries on the front of the palate, followed by deep, savory earth tones. Excellent balance and very good structure with medium+ length
  • conclusion:   the wine taught me a lesson: Never, ever, let the first taste of a wine be your last impression! This wine took days to evolve and that was after aeration and decanting. My thoughts? Drinking best 2015-2020, this is as deep and sonorous as any Cab-Sauv blend and will reward further cellaring
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:  a full, rich red wine with lively acid - a natural for your beef dishes this has the acidity as a cheeky pairing for Beouf Bourguignon with caramelized pearl onions, grilled local mushrooms and steamed spaghetti squash. Let the enhanced sweetness from the onions draw out more of the sweet berry flavors whilst the dark grill tones play counter-tone and the squash acts as a palate cleanser. With an intense wine like this, something to cleanse the palate always allowed the imbiber to enjoy the wine more fully.
And then we came to the end of the "sneak-peek"; a charming Tempranillo from the area of Castilla y Leon in Spain. This wouldn't be my first taste of a rich red from this region, nor will it be my last. I've found over the past several years that the winemakers here are, by-and-large, producing very good to stunning value for the money in any price category that I've purchased in. 

There are now 9 D.O.'s in this, the largest autonomous region not only of Spain, but all the EU. I have been fortunate enough to taste reds, whites and roses from this region and am constantly caught by surprise at the bold, fresh fruit. Why so? Because this is one of the most extreme continental climates in all of Europe. Blazing heat in the summer and sub-zero temperatures in the winter, this region receives little in the way of precipitation, and were it not for the moderating effects of the river Duero would be a dustbowl. But the river flows, and the mountain ranges surround and protect the high plain from Maritime influences, and so... and so we have this almost barren landscape where all life needs struggle to survive.

The struggle creates more then just survival for the grapevine, it creates an environment that they can thrive in. For it is here the vine digs deeply, and in doing so, starts to tell a poignant story of it's surroundings - it's landscape. Just try one of these little treasures if you disbelieve...

2009 "Tridente" Tempranillo
Bodegas Trito, SL from Zamora province
the Gil Family Estates
$27 CAD(BC)  listed in the
90 points

varietal:   100% Tempranillo aka Tinto Fino aka Tinta del Pais
vineyards:   30 small plots
vine-age:   up to 100 years
harvesting:   manual
maturation:   15 months in French oak
  • visual:    clear; fully intense garnet core with slightest cherry/brick rim
  • nose:   clean; fully intense and youthful fresh red berry aromas, layer upon layer with developing dark berry notes, savory worn leather background, complex, with a hint of winter spice
  • palate:   clean; dry, moderate red currant and blackberry acid, moderate+ chalky tannin, moderate+ body, moderate+ ABV (15%), moderate+ intense and youthful flavors developing into something of true substance: the berry notes are warming into a blueberry/blackberry compote, stewed plums, hint of graphite like minerality. Very good balance and structure with long developing length
  • conclusion:   Already a treat, this will be a joy to open for years. Watch (or taste) it develop from 2013-2020. It has the persistence, concentration and acidity to withstand another 1/2 decade of cellaring
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   heathen that I am, I just want to light another cigar to match this robust wine! My choice would be a Romeo & Julieta from Cuba - something just as full of dimension and richness. If I had to choose food, then I would keep it simple: venison carpaccio with wild-berry compote on toasted dark rye and quark cheese (can substitute chevre, creme fraiche, or boursin)... the gamey venison always cosys up to Spanish reds, wild-berries will love the fresh and dark berry tones just as the dark rye will emphasize through contrast and the little dash of soft cheese will help soften the acid enough to wash your way through a bottle far too quickly :)

Every year the Playhouse Wine Festival chooses a varietal and a region as the theme, or focus. As for myself, I always find my own theme - my own focus. It's part of the joy for me; this joy at discovery and learning in one of the greatest classrooms in the world. Last year I was fortunate enough to learn the true art of cellaring great value wines, and being rewarding with an end-result worth many many times the original cost. I tasted $10 bottles of wine from the 80's and 90's worth, to my mind, several hundreds of dollars today.

What lesson do I think I'll learn at the end of this month?

Already I've learnt so much: a wine is a living, breathing entity. It takes shapes as it grows, as it develops in it's glass cocoon. Some of the families whose work I sample have been laboring for centuries so that I could enjoy this. Perhaps, just perhaps, they are deserving of more of my time before I decide that the moth will never become a butterfly. Both of these red wines, by-the-way, were sampled over a 5-day process. The evolution(s) were brilliant.

And humbling.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!