Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cold Is Gold for Icewine Makers

By Julianna Hayes

Christmas came early for Okanagan winemakers when an unseasonal cold snap sent temperatures plummeting over the weekend allowing for the harvest of the region's priceless icewine grapes.

Vintners from north to south in the Valley were able to bring in a large quantity of the crop, which needs consistent temperatures of -8 C or less to get the Vintner's Quality Alliance stamp of approval.

Mission Hill Family Estate's chief winemaker John Simes noted that the winter blast this early has been fairly unusual this decade and that it is more common to have to wait until January/February for it to reach sufficiently cold levels to pick the icewine grapes.

He said the earliness of the harvest has resulted in fruit that is in excellent condition. Of note, a recent similar early harvest was in November 2006, which also produced superior Icewine grapes, as exemplified in the honour bestowed on Mission Hill’s 2006 Riesling Icewine that was awarded the International Wine Challenge (IWC) Trophy for the World’s Top Icewine at Europe’s major wine competition this fall.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

B.C. In the Grand Scheme of All Things Wine

By Julianna Hayes
Have you ever sipped a wine from the Finger Lakes, Nebraska, Idaho, Texas or Mexico?

Most people I know haven’t. These are not wine-growing regions with which most British Columbia. consumers are familiar. Indeed, anything from North America that ends up in our glass is either locally produced or hails from California’s Napa or Sonoma regions, or maybe Oregon and Washington states.

In fact, I’d venture a guess that a majority of people would consider those aforementioned regions as insignificant in the grand scheme of all things wine. Thus it would surprise them that the B.C. industry, despite its staggering growth, is considered slightly more or less trifling to most in the world of wine.

Acclaimed critic Jancis Robinson certainly made this apparent as her point of view in an article in the London Financial Times a couple years ago and lambasted us for our Canadian pride.

“In my experience no nation is more defensive about their own wines than the Canadians, perhaps because they have so little vineyard, less than, say, Slovenia or Japan. Every time I go there to launch a book, usually a reference book about the wines of the world, I am berated for not having devoted more space to the land of maple syrup. I suspect this is partly because Canadians tend to be fed stories which rather overstate Canadian wine’s place in the world of wine.”

Just to put Robinson’s comments into perspective, let’s consider some stats: There are currently 154 grape wineries in British Columbia and the total vineyard planted is 9,100 acres. We produce just over 13 million litres annually.

By comparison, Nebraska is about where B.C. was about 15 years ago with 23 wineries and under 1,000 acres under grapes, while Idaho has 32 wineries and 1,200 acres – about what B.C. had in 1995. Mexico’s Baja California region is home to about 50 producers and is experiencing unprecedented growth

The Texas industry closer in size with 163 wineries, but smaller in overall scale than B.C., having less than half the vineyard with 3,700 acres.

The Finger Lakes region of New York State has about the same number of wineries and vineyards as we do, yet somehow produces more than double the amount of wine as B.C. Still, little of what it makes seems to trickle our way and thus the region still seems obscure.

Now let’s take a look at some world’s largest producers:

California has more than 1,200 wineries and about 480,000 acres under vine – more than 50 times what is grown in B.C. Meanwhile, Argentina is the largest producer in South America and the fifth largest in the world, making some 1.5 billion litres of wine annual of its 520,000 acres of vineyard.

France and Italy are two largest producers of wine in the world. Both have more than two million acres of grapes in the ground and each produce more than five billion litres annually.

We make fine wines in B.C., but we’re a drop in the barrel…no, not even half a drop. Does this make us unworthy? No, but it makes it difficult to achieve worldwide recognition and appreciation mainly because we’re just “not out there.” There isn’t enough wine made here to find its way into the glasses of thirsty wine consumers worldwide.

Recently, a considerable milestone was reached by a winery on this side of the border. For the first time ever, a Canadian wine made it into Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the year. Albeit, the wine was from Niagara, Ontario, not B.C., and was 100th on the 2008 list released earlier this month – but it was a significant achievement on the list.

So much so that it created quite a buzz on Wine Spectator’s online forum. A poster from Toronto started the thread and it lead to some discussion about the lack of recognition for Canadian wines. One individual from Edmonton expressed disappointment that the successful Canuck product – Konzalmann’s 2006 Vidal Icewine – was a dessert wine.

“I just wish that WS would rate more dry white and red wines from Canada. I'm not sure if that is the magazine's choice or that not enough Canadian producers send samples to New York.”

That prompted a reply by Wine Spectator Senior Editor James Molesworth, who pointed out the supply problem concerning Canadian wines.

“We don't really 'choose' to review wines. What we review is a reflection of what is submitted, and to a greater extent, what is available in the marketplace. We make every effort to review everything that we can, and that we think our readers would be interested in knowing about...Many Canadian wines are simply not available here.”

Wine Spectator did review some 80 Canadian wines within the pages of the magazine throughout 2008, but that’s a puny amount when you consider the sheer volume of wines it writes about.

Still Molesworth comments must be reassuring for local producers that the lack of recognition for their products doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality and value, but rather an issue of scale.

Wine Notes

Van Westen 2007 Vivacious
Aromas: Floral, mineral, green apple skin, lime, spice, vanilla, lees
Flavours: Apple, mineral, citrus, spice, lees
Body and Finish: Crisp entry, bright flavours and medium-light weight, racy finish
Overall Impression: A bright, fresh wine that goes down easy but would make a lovely food wine (think roast pork loin) – Made with Pinot Blanc and a hint of Pinot Gris
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Would I Buy It: Yes, price is right
Points: 89
Price: $18.90
Availability: Winery, Private Retailers, VQA Shops

Burrowing Owl 2006 Syrah
Aromas: Black berry jam, smoke, pepper, earthy, coffee bean, dark vanilla, spice
Flavours: Black fruits, pepper, tobacco, herbal, vanilla, earthy
Body and Finish: Very weighty on the palate, ripe fruit with some drying tannins and a hot, elongated finish
Overall Impression: This is a bit of a monster and rather alcoholic tasting, but shows some finesse
Cellaring Potential: Hang on to it for a couple more years
Would I Buy It: Occasionally
Points: 89
Price: $38
Availability: Winery, Private Retailers

Monday, December 15, 2008

Xmas 2008: Give Wine Not Wine Gadgets

By Julianna Hayes

For Christmas last year, I received a pair of fuzzy red socks, a cheese plate, reindeer patterned flannel pyjamas, and hand towels with a Noel motif.

I never got around to hanging the calendar and tucked the pjs and socks away unworn. The cheese plate sits in a cabinet unused and I ditched the towels on sight.

Some say I’m difficult to shop for. But as an obsessed oenophile, I think the ideal gift is obvious. You can’t go wrong with a bottle of wine.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Many people are panicked at the idea of having to choose a wine for someone they perceive as an “enthusiast.” They don’t feel they have the knowledge to make the right selection to suit the more sophisticated palate of the receiver.

So if they do embrace a wine theme for their gift-giving, more often than not it consists of a collection of gadgets, most of which only serve to clutter up a junk drawer. For instance, in addition to the aforementioned goodies, I also received floral-shaped foam wine glass charms, grape-shaped oven mitts and an antique-style corkscrew.

Unless the wine geek on your list enjoys re-gifting, don’t waste your money.

Which brings me back to wine itself – it’s the preferred option for aficionados. Here’s four good reasons why:

- As serious wine enthusiasts, we are also serious wine consumers, thus we go through a lot of bottles.

- Even if we aren’t agog with the wine you’ve selected, I can assure you it won’t go to waste. Someone we know will enjoy it – either a visitor or host of a party we attend.

- We always need wine for cooking. A halfway decent bottle will fit the bill in most cases.

- We can always dump the wine into a holiday punch, make mulled wine or sangria.

As the giver, the gift of wine is a no brainer. You’re probably going to the liquor store/wine shop anyway to stock up on festive refreshment, so picking up a few bottles for your wine weenie recipients eliminates a stop in what is likely already a hectic holiday schedule. Plus, presentation is inexpensive and a snap. Just drop the bottle into a dollar-store wine bag – which will likely be recycled by the receiver, so it’s eco-friendly too.

Plus shopping for wine for someone else will compel you to think about your own vinous purchases – so many of us tend to go back to the same bottles time and time again. In your hunt, you might be inspired to try something new yourself.

Having said that, don’t get caught up in trying to find the perfect wine for your connoisseur. And for heaven’s sake, don’t worry about spending too much and whether the wine got 90 points from Wine Spectator Magazine. It’s a myth that enthusiasts only drink award-winning, pricey wines. Like most people, we can’t afford to tuck into a $100, $50 or even $25 bottles every Friday night. I, for one, have plenty of favourites in the $15 to $20 range.

It’s certainly swell if you want to splurge on a fabulous bottle of Bordeaux or rare vintage Port. But many wine weenies would be just as happy with an affordable quaffable wine. Collectors, in particular, likely have plenty of cellar dwellers and don’t really need to add to their stash of untouchable-until-2015 wines. What they want are wines they can drink now – without the guilt that they’ve opened a vintage long before its prime.

When choosing a wine – whether it’s for a serious connoisseur or a fledgling enthusiast – first set a budget and then look for recommendations on wines in your price range. Many stores have what are referred to as “shelf talkers” which are hand-written by qualified staff. They’ll often include tasting notes and critical scores. VQA shops, private retailers with solid wine programs and Signature Liquor Stores often have knowledgeable personnel who can provide one-on-one consultation.

If you know what type of wine the person you’re shopping for enjoys, then look for something different in the same style or varietal. For example, if the individual typically drinks French Burgundy or British Columbia Pinot Gris, then consider similar wines from alternate regions. In the case of the Burgundy, look for a New World Pinot Noir from California or B.C. Choose an Alsatian Pinot Gris or Italian Pinot Grigio in place of the local Pinot Gris. Write a note to accompany the bottle explaining your selection.

If the above task seems too daunting, how about looking for something fun, like bottles with crazy names, unusual shapes or striking colours? Even if the wine itself isn’t up to snuff, you’ll guarantee the recipient a conversation starter.

How about a fruit wine? Many people dismiss this option and don’t take this category seriously, but many locally-produced fruit wines, such as those from Elephant Island or Raven Ridge Cidery, are a real treat.

One of your best bets is sparking wine. I can’t think of any enthusiast who doesn’t like bubble and there are plenty of very good wines of this style for under $30. And nothing is more festive.

Here are 10 hot wines for gifting:

Tinhorn Creek 2005 Oldfield’s Collection Merlot $28

Recently awarded 90 points by Wine Access magazine – denoting a wine of excellent quality. Features jammy black fruit, earthy flavours, some menthol. Robust on the palate with a long finish.

Peller Estates 2006 Private Reserve Pinot Noir $18
One of this winery’s four gold medal winners from the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, this is a stunning wine at an affordable price. Lovely cherry, chocolate characteristics with some earthy herbaceous notes. Silky texture. A best buy and widely available.

CedarCreek 2006 Merlot $20
This quaffable value wine is a real crowd pleaser, yet will appeal to even the most discerning palate. Concentrated red fruit characteristics, nice weight and silky tannins. Fill’er up!

Road 13 2007 Old Vines Chenin Blanc $19
Honestly, this winery could get away with adding another five bucks on this price and it would be well worth it – but we’re not complaining. Aromas of smashed lime jujubes, green apple, mineral, and tropical fruit notes in the bouquet and loads of racy acidity on the palate. Yum

Ganton & Larson Prospect Winery 2006 Shiraz $16
Few B.C. Shirazes/Syrahs come in under $20, so when you see one of this quality at this prices, grab it. Earthy tobacco notes, vanilla bean, black cherry and menthol. Smooth and easy to drink.

Quinta Ferreira 2006 Syrah $22
A truly stunning wine with aromas of violets, blueberries, jammy blackberries, vanilla and a distinct pepperyness. Quite savoury but with loads of ripe fruit. A bold effort worth double the price

Van Westen 2007 Viognier $25
One of the up and coming varietals in the valley and this one is a beauty with peach, floral notes, ginger spice, lemon, butter characteristics. Lots going for it.

Arrowleaf 2007 Snow Tropics Vidal $16
You don’t often see this variety in this drier style (it’s a 02), so an aficionado will certainly appreciate it. Quite perfumey and nutty with distinct stone fruit and floral notes, some citrus on the finish.

La Frenz 2007 Viognier $20
If you can locate a bottle of this stunner, the wine enthusiast on your list will be forever grateful. Selected Best White Wine in Show at the Northwest Wine Summit, among other accolades, this wine features super ripe character of dried apricot, peach and tropical fruits, plus some floral notes. It literally coats your palate and makes your mouth water. And can we talk about the price?

If you have your heart set on a non-wine wine gift, then think practical and choose something you know will be put to good use. Here are some ideas:

Wine Skins
In response to the banishing of wines in airplane cabins, the industry came up with these bags made of strong plastic and lined with bubble wrap and dual adhesive closures, sealing and cushioning individual bottles of wines so they can be safely tucked in your luggage. Perfect for the traveling oenophile on your list. $4 at the B.C. Wine Museum

If you have a wine collector on your list, this little gadget makes organization a snap. You use it to simply scan the barcode on a bottle of wine for automatic identification of the name, varietal, winery, country, region, type, and price. The information can then be downloaded to your Mac or PC for electronic storage. Saves inputting all the information by hand.

White Wine Decanter
Most serious enthusiasts have a decanter for their red wines, but what about their whites? There’s a cool one available for $80 at the B.C Wine Museum, and I mean “cool” literally. The decanter sits on a glass reservoir that holds ice so the wine stays cold. So there’s no reason for your whites not to be just as pretty on the table.

Gift Basket
If you want to give wine, but want to dress it up a little more, then a wine gift basket is a logical, practical, yet beautiful option. A BC wine and artisan food basket from Discover Wines celebrates local foods and wines. For $80, staff will tuck bottles of Arrowleaf 2006 Merlot and Gehringer Brothers 2007 Pinot Auxerrois in with olive oil and cracked pepper Gone Crackers, Sea Change Ice Wine glazed smoked salmon, Aunty Penny's vegetarian antipasto, Bernard Callebaut dark chocolate, Okanagan Lavender jelly and Langford Petals Layered Fieldberry shortbread. Other selections and prices are available.

Most enthusiasts I know appreciate a good wine-related book, particularly a buyer’s guide. Unfortunately, many of the internationally-produced ones from the likes of Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke contain bottles that can’t be found on our soil. Which is why I love the ones written by Canadian writers, particularly those from B.C., such as The Province wine critics Kenji Hodgson and James Nevison. Had A Glass: Top 100 Wines for 2009 under $20 appeals to the local and frugal consumer. This is their third edition.

And if you’re looking for a stocking stuffer, my own pocketbook, Okanagan Wine: A Guide to Valley Wines, contains tasting notes on 80-plus local wines, and retails for $10.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How Well Do B.C. Wines Age?

By Julianna Hayes

Since 95 per cent of wines are consumed within 24 hours of purchase, you wouldn’t think many people would get all worked up about the age-ability of their bottles.

Yet I get scads of queries from enthusiasts who want to know how long they can reasonably cellar a wine and how well they can expect it to age, should they ever have the urge. Typically the questions come from individuals who want to hold onto a special wine to enjoy on a momentous occasion in the distance future – such as a significant wedding anniversary, child’s 21st birthday or graduation.

I do my best to provide the information based on my own experience with aging wines, how the wines are made, and recommendations from vintners. But when it comes to B.C. wines, for the most part it’s been a crap shoot.

Old World wineries have centuries of making age-worthy wines under their belts. It’s fair to say that a proper Bordeaux from France can safely be tucked away for 10-plus years – but what about an Okanagan Meritage?

That’s what Rhys Pender of Wine Plus Consulting set out to resolve with a unique seminar last week studying how well local wines mature. Ten Years of Okanagan Wine featured a tasting of 12 B.C. bottles, all at least a decade old.

As someone with a few dusty local relics lurking in my wine rack, this seminar could potentially reveal whether I had a number of gems tucked safely away, or if simply I was in possession of some well-fermented vinegar.

Looking at Pender’s list, I suspected a number of the wines to be well past their prime. Included was a 1987 Gray Monk Riesling – complete with the garish red and black label that was the bottle’s uniform of the day.

There was also one of B.C.’s most famous wines – the 1992 Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay, which won the industry’s most talked about wine award: Best Chardonnay in the world at the 1994 International Wine and Spirits Competition. But at 16 years of age, I didn’t have much hope of it having held up.

Yet those wines and all the others surprised me – and pleasantly, I might add. While they might not be to everyone’s taste and a couple had certainly seen better days, none of them had deteriorated to the point of being undrinkable. In fact, many of them were quite delicious, which pains me to think of the potential lost in all those bottles I’ve opened and downed.

Pender, with the help of two skillful panelists – Sommelier Mark Filatow and Road 13 Winemaker Michael Bartier, facilitated the tasting, which included three Rieslings, two Chardonnays, two Cabernet Sauvignons, four Bordeaux-style red blends and one sparkling wine. Having multiples of most of these styles or varieties was terrific for comparison purposes.

Here are some of the more interesting points made during the seminar that you should consider of if you plan to age wines, local or otherwise:

There is a lot of bottle variation with older wines. Even bottles stored under identical conditions will sometimes not age and taste the same when opened even side by side. For example, one of two bottles of a wine we tried had a dusty, woody aroma that we assumed came from the cork. The cork wasn’t tainted, but somehow imparted some of its own characteristics into the wine. The other bottle was fine and both came from Pender’s cellar. That’s why it’s always a good idea to stock more than one bottle of a wine you plan to keep for a while.

As wines age, dominant fruit flavours begin to fade and are replaced by secondary flavours – more earthy, mineral or flinty, spicy and nutty characteristics. If you like them fresh and fruity, then drink them young. Sweetness also fades, acid and alcohol become more noticeable.

A wine that ages well should taste good on release, meaning you should also be able to drink it young. Unsavoury characteristics will not improve over time, said Bartier. Wines shouldn’t taste better or worse with aging, just different.

Cellaring wine may actually save you money – the average bottle of B.C. wine in 1992 was just over $6. By 1998, the price had risen to around $12. Now the average bottle retails for $17-plus.

It’s an accepted fact that the more mature the vines are, the better the age-ability of the wine. The Okanagan’s vineyards are considered quite youthful, so if wines made from such young vines are showing well after 10 years, the future should be very bright, remarked Filatow.

Alcohol content has risen significantly in the last decade, noted Pender. Most of the whites sampled in this tasting were under 12 per cent and the reds under 14 per cent. Now 13-14 per cent and more is the norm.

Check out Pender's website for information on his education programs –

Wine Notes

Here are some brief notes from the 10 Years of Okanagan Wine tasting:

Sumac Ridge 1997 Blanc de Noirs Brut
Still bright and fresh with fresh apple aromas and more pronounced yeasty, nutty character than would have been apparent when first released. Mineral and petrol hints, common to more aged sparkling wines.

Hainle 1997 Riesling
Most of the fruit character has given way to aromas and flavours of petrol, spice and mineral. Wine has searing acidity and alcohol is evident even at the relative low percentage. Would make a stylish food wine – Filatow recommends something like a cream of celery soup.

Wild Goose 1996 Riesling
Still fresh honeyed apricot, orange muscat aromas that are almost late-harvest or boytritis-affected in style. Pleasant sweet and sour on the palate with quite a lot of zip on the finish

Gray Monk 1987 Riesling
Some apple, honey, mineral, nutty and spicy character and lots of acidity. That aged petrol character is also evident. Impressive for a 21-year-old wine.

Mission Hill 1992 Grand Reserve Chardonnay
This big medal winner still shows peach, honey, with some petrol and a hint of aged sherry character. Comments were made that it tasted like a fine “Old World Chardonnay.”

Quails' Gate 1994 Family Reserve Chardonnay
This wine made an indelible impression on me when it was released and I was surprised to find just how much it still tasted the same after 14 years. Smoky bacon fat, baked apple, lime, nuttiness, spice and plenty of acidity.

Kettle Valley 1995 Cabernet-Merlot
Quite a lot still going on with cherry cough syrup, floral, olive, black cherry, orange zest characteristics. Quite a lot of acidity and some tannin remain.

Sumac Ridge 1998 Black Sage Meritage
Cherry, violet, blackberry, licorice and pie crust aromas. Velvety texture and still fresh and lively. Still has age-ability – has loads of finesse.

Mission Hill 1998 Oculus
Barnyard, earthy aromas with leather, soya sauce and coffee bean. More fruit is apparent on the palate with some white pepper, orange zest, spice and some tannin. Some people might find this too funky, but others love the style.

Poplar Grove 1998 Legacy
Cherry, chocolate, herbal, orange zest, kirsch and floral aromas. Texture is quite silky with some remaining tannin. Quite a yummy wine and still has further ability to age.

La Frenz 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon
Smoky, meaty, spicy aromas with coffee bean, black cherry and a touch of green bell pepper. Ripe black fruit and meaty, smoky flavours and a hint of herbaceousness.

Burrowing Owl 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon
Coffee, chocolate, cherry, olive juice, canned tomato paste and some herbal notes in the bouquet. Concentrated flavours of soya sauce, chocolate, dark fruits and spice.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wine Planning for Parties

Q: I am planning a holiday wine party for about 20 people. I have yet to finalize the menu, but rather than a sit-down dinner (I don’t have the table space or place settings anyway), I want easy finger foods that I can serve at different intervals that will allow my guests to nibble on at their leisure and encourage them to mingle. I’m open to your suggestions. I can’t afford to buy all the wine for the evening, thus they’ll be bringing their own, but I would like to have a selection of bottles on hand that will go with the food. What advice do you have?
- Shelley

A: Wine parties are popular this time of year. And I certainly appreciate that in these challenging economic times, it isn’t feasible for most but the truly wealthy to offer up a endless supply of booze – thus BYOB is the norm in most situations.
To this end, might I offer a suggestion? Rather than having your guests bring a bunch of random bottles, why not consider a “wine club” format?

Wine clubs are becoming very popular and the idea behind them is that the host sets a theme and purchases a variety of wines that suit the menu. The guests then pitch in some cash - $20 to $40 a piece (depending on the caliber of the wines) to assist with the cost.

This is advantageous for a number of reasons:
1. It simplifies things for your guests. They can attend without worrying about what and how much to bring.
2. You can ensure that the wines served will best showcase the food and vice versa.
3. You can select the order in which the wines are poured so that they will go side by side with the appropriate foods.
4. You can control the amount of wine poured – if you serve one- to two-ounce tastes your guests can sample more wines and you can limit the amount you and your guests drink. 5. You can select a range of price points enabling you and your guests to sample bargain bottles – perhaps finding a few new affordable favourites – and experience higher-end, rare and/or revered wines you might not normally have the opportunity to enjoy.

Let’s consider the food. Start with platters of gourmet cheeses, meats, smoked fish, olives, nuts and dried and fresh fruit. These are lovely in terms of presentation, flavour and texture and can be left out most of the evening for people to snack on at their leisure. But because there is so much variety, wine pairing is often difficult. This is when to break out the sparkling wine because it will act as a palate cleanser and refresher.

Many people think of bubbly only for special occasions, but it is an ideal food wine because it can stand up to just about anything – sweet, salty, briny etc. B.C. makes a number of sparkling wines in the traditional Champagne style (only bubbly from the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne) and most are under $30. Comparable sparkling wines from France would be twice that at least.

Any other wines you serve with these foods should be light and refreshing. Think aromatic whites in an off-dry style like Ehrenfelser, Riesling or Gewurztraminer for goat and blue cheese and spiced nuts or a prepared appetizer like prosciutto-wrapped melon. Rosé wine would be lovely with smoked salmon or spicy salami. Lemony Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris are naturals with fresh shucked oysters. Super dry Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon are great with olives.

Supplement these platters with a few well presented “amuse bouche” which you can bring out at various intervals and wow your guests. Consider chicken “lollipops” which are bite-size pieces of flattened chicken, skewered and either grilled or broiled and served with a variety of sweet/spicy dipping sauces – serve up an off-dry white such as Bacchus or Auxerrois. Lime and chili marinated shrimp or scallops served on a Chinese soup spoon make for a delightful presentation – dry whites or sparkling wine pairs best.

One of my favourite recipes is grilling or roasting a mustard and herb-crusted rack of lamb, then cutting it up and serving the individual rib chops as an appetizer – no utensils are necessary, guests simply hold the meat by the bone. This is when you break out the big reds such as Syrah or Bordeaux-style blends.

I know you said “finger foods,” but the truth is most people attend parties with an empty belly so they’ll need something fairly substantial to metabolize the alcohol they drink. How about considering a couple of one-pot dishes like Coq Au Vin, Beef Bourginon or Lamb Stew? These are easy, can be made well ahead and left to simmer in a slow cooker so they’ll be ready when your guests arrive. All you’ll need in terms of serving are some small bowls, cutlery and a ladle. What’s more these dishes tend to be very wine friendly as wine is often a key ingredient in the recipe itself. Wine selection is easy as you can simply serve the same wine you used in the dish.

Other tips

1. There are roughly five medium-size glasses in a bottle and you can count on at least two glasses per person. That means if you have 10 guests, you should have at least five bottles. (Or if you’re one of my friends 10 bottles).
2. For “tasting” size portions you can squeeze out about 10 pours.
3. Pour the wine for your guests rather than having them serve themselves. It’s the responsible approach because they will drink less that way. If you are confident enough, talk about the wine and why you chose it for the occasion.
4. Be sure that you have different glasses for the whites, reds and sparkling wines. Consider renting them if you don’t or asking guests to bring their own.
5. As for serving temperatures, I tend to like my wines on the chilly side for parties as the temperature in the room goes up a notch with added bodies. I find the whites will taste fresher and fruitier when good and cold. Light bodied reds would benefit from 20 minutes in the refrigerator before serving. Open fuller bodied reds, pour into a decanter and leave in cool place to aerate for at least an hour prior to serving.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Luxury Lines of Wines

By Julianna Hayes

The packaging of a new Mission Hill Family Estate Chardonnay is minimalist yet undeniably upscale.

The Burgundy-style bottle is unadorned save for a band of real pewter on which the wine’s name – Perpetua – is embossed. Even without tasting it, you have the immediate impression that the wine must certainly be delicious.

Perpetua is part of a luxury line of wines called the Legacy Series introduced by the Westbank producer last week. Winemaker John Simes said the wine “gets the best of everything we can possibly do with a Chardonnay.” This includes coveted grapes from 10-year-old vines found in a single vineyard that is thinned aggressively to maximize ripeness and flavour. The wine spent about 10 months in “the best barrels that we know of.”

“I think this is close to being the best Chardonnay we’ve made. I’m really pleased with it,” said Simes. That bar was already impossibly high – the winery walked away one year with the trophy for the best Chardonnay in the world at a prestigious competition in the UK.

Perpetua is a beauty indeed – full and lush, loaded with ripe fruit, but without being annoyingly oaky. It’s the kind of wine that ruins you for all others unable to measure up.

But developing a taste for it will cost you. At $33 a pop, it’s by no means the priciest wine on the market, but it puts it out of reach for everyday quaffing.

Perpetua’s cellar mates in the Legacy Series are equally as rich in the glass and on the pocketbook. Quatrain, a four-grape red blend, is savoury, spicy and jammy and retails for $48. Oculus, a Bordeaux-style red blend – which has been part of the Mission Hill portfolio for some time, but will now be part of this line – is elegant and complex and sells for $70.

In today’s economy, when everyone seems to be clawing back spending on the non-necessities, it may not seem foolish to launch such top-of-the-line products. Simes acknowledged the timing might not be perfect, but the series was hardly a spur of the moment project.

“We’ve been working on it for quite a while,” he said, pointing out that the Quatrain and Oculus releases are both 2005 vintages. “We’ve been sitting on Quatrain for awhile. It’s nice to finally be able to talk about it.”

Even though the marketplace may seem volatile, Simes said the series has been well received at other launches in Vancouver and Calgary. And the wines are getting rave reviews – all three were awarded more than 90 points by renowned Canadian wine write Anthony Gismondi, a critic notoriously stingy with his marks.

And Mission Hill certainly isn’t the only B.C. producer targeting the high-end market. While a decade ago, a local wine selling for more than $25 was almost unthinkable – now that price-point is close to being average and “luxury lines” of wines are becoming more commonplace.

Some of the smaller Okanagan wineries don’t even bother to cater to the low- to mid-range consumer. The cheapest wine at Le Vieux Pin, for example, is a rosé for $25, while its priciest bottle is $65. Likewise, Black Hills Winery routinely sells out its wines in days, if not mere hours, even though nothing comes cheaper than $24.

Larger wineries like Mission Hill, CedarCreek and Jackson Triggs don’t really have that option, as they need broader consumer appeal to move their volumes of wines. Which is why their top of the line products must truly stand out.

Sandhill Estate, a spin-off of the Calona Vineyards portfolio, is marketed as a producer of “single vineyard” wines which come from carefully tended sites in the Okanagan. The Small Lots Program under the label goes even further by isolating “unique and distinctive barrels that deserve very special attention.” These bottlings are usually limited to a few hundred cases and are considered “finely crafted creations.”

At Quails’ Gate, the luxury line is the Stewart Family Reserve wines, which are produced from the “very best blocks of fruit the Quails' Gate vineyards have to offer.” The winery makes the series rare and exclusive by producing Reserve wines from vintages where the quality is exceptional – meaning some years the wines might not be available at all.

Jackson-Triggs already had Proprietor’s Reserve and Proprietor’s Grand Reserve lines when it launched its Sunrock Vineyard series three years ago. These wines narrowed the focus down to just one key vineyard in the very south, and arguable hottest, part of the Okanagan Valley. The emphasis is heavily on viticulture and wines made in limited quantities.

Among other wineries with specialty high-end bottlings are CedarCreek (Platinum Reserve), Road 13 ( Jackpot), Tinhorn Creek (Oldfield’s Collection), Summerhill Pyramid (Platinum Series), Sumac Ridge (Pinnacle) and Gray Monk (Odyssey).

Here are some notes on Mission Hill’s Legacy Series wines:

Mission Hill Perpetua 2006 Chardonnay $33
Luscious fruit aromas of orange, green apple, hints of lime, some buttery notes, a touch of toast and mineral and lovely vanilla. Very fresh on the palate with just enough roundness and creamy character without being overly woody. Citrus, apple skin, tree fruit flavours, a hint of nuttiness and a clean elegant finish. 91 points

Mission Hill Quatrain 2005 $48
Very jammy, blackberry pie aromas, fresh red berry fruit, black cherry, chocolate, spice and peppery notes with hints of tobacco and cedar. There is a distinct fresh dark fruit and earthy character on the palate, spice, pepper and a silky texture. Tannins are moderate, but the dryness on the finish will disappear with a bit more time in the bottle. This is a four-grape blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. 90 points