Archive for March, 2010

“I don’t like Merlot” Are you Sure?

March 30, 2010

Someone said once “A truth is a lie convened upon by many.”  (Just learned that someone was Lenin)…I don’t know if I concur fully with the idea, but got to say that in the case of Merlot it really hit it right on the nose. Back in the 90’s, when Merlot became popular in Northamerica, nobody seemed to object to the velvety varietal. As with any other wine, there are good and not so good versions, so condemning all the wines made from the grape just because some (or many) were pukeable, doesn’t ring right. But that is exactly what happened. The infamous movie Sideways was “cool” and cool was to order “anything but Merlot” (ditto for Chardonnay) and Pinot Noir became all the rage. In reality, Merlot still sold -and sells- a lot more than Pinot Noir. Ours is a culture of image. One wants to be seen as cool, knowledgeable, attractive. So, all the sudden ordering Merlot made you exactly into the opposite of desirable. Some people –especially those who don’t know an awful lot about wine but pretend to- repeated this mantra until it became “true.”

It is funny to think that actually, when it comes to good and not so good varietals, it is way easier to get a “good” Merlot under 30 dollars than a “good” Pinot Noir under 40. In fact, a lot of cheaper Pinots are not at all “true to type.” They taste like anything but. Even funnier is that most people –I say this without statistical back up but have no doubt about it- most people prefer full bodied wines. And this is not new. Back at the time when the movie shook the foundations of the North American wine culture, full bodied wines were already more popular. So, how do you end up drinking Pinot Noir when you really like bigger wines? We humans are a funny bunch, entirely illogical. Anyway, let’s go back to the point, which is, Merlot.

The variety originates in Bordeaux, where is the ideal complement to bony Cabernet Sauvignon to create all those legendary wines that are so far from reach –pocket depth wise- that most of us may never taste them. At that level, where appellations like Pomerol and St. Emilion shine, Merlot yields wines of tremendous richness, pronounced flavor intensity and with the typical velvety texture, provided by properly tamed tannins, round and smooth.

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend megabucks and buy a legend to taste a good, juicy, soft Merlot. There are several varietals made in the new world (and old) that will provide a good idea of what Merlot can do when well made. Let’s take a look at what is available here in Vancouver.

Thelema Merlot. South Africa. $40. Opulent, dense, will leave you breathless. Not sure whether there is a production/import problem but it is hard to spot these days. If you see one, grab it.

Marques de Casa Concha. Chile. $30. A dash of Carmenere makes it deliciously smoky spicy.

Stimson. Washington State. $18. Medium bodied, easy driking and soft on the tannin. A good entry level by Chateau St. Michelle.

Church & Estate. British Columbia $25. Merlot is one of the black grapes that do really well in British Columbia. This gold medal winner is truly delicious, with a sweet-fruit entry and nicely managed oak.

Sonoma Vineyards. California. $18. At this point you wonder. How can they make it so good at this price? Notice also that the price went down three dollars in the past few months.

Velvet Devil. Washington State. $28. Big, assertive in its fruit forwardness. A great example of what the reds from our immediate neighbor to the south can do.

Woodbridge. California. $13.99. A house wine in many restaurants in Vancouver, yummy and juicy.

Bouchard Pere et Fils. France. $11.99. Not from Burgundy, where a Bouchard Pinot would set you back a couple hundred. The French powerhouse makes this one in the sunny south part of the country.

Diego Murillo. Argentina. $10.99. Organic, tasty and coming all the way from Patagonia. Doesn’t get better for budget Merlots.

Homework: find a Pinot at the price points above and see which one –blind tasting-  you like better.

Ciao for Now


More Wines of IVSA March 21st

March 30, 2010

The week before IVSA, Alejandro Salinas of Marful Consultants told me about some Garagiste wines from Chile they are importing. So I was curious to taste these new products. Finally, on the evening of the 21st at the Four Seasons Alejandro poured the Polkura 2006 Syrah from the Colchagua Valley. I had to concur with Alejandro’s comments: the Polkura deserves all the recent scores garnered left, right and center. 90 Parker points, 90 Wine Spectator, Gold Medal at Syrah du Monde 2008. Decidedly Languedoc-ish in style (must be the dash of Mourvedre and Grenache Noir), smoky and full flavored, plus a very attractive, classic packaging, this Syrah rivals that other Chilean delicious Syrah, the Montes Alpha. The Polkura will retail in Vancouver at around $29. Don’t miss it. 

Robert Smith of Wine Quest was pouring the increasingly popular Scurati Sicilia Rosso IGT 2007. I already lauded this product but there’s always better things to say about it. This unoaked Nero d’Avola is all about being jammy, plump, intense and satisfying. I am sure Vancouver wine enthusiasts will learn to love Nero d’Avola through this rendition. 24 dollars well spent. When Robert poured me a sip of the Brunello di Montalcino Col d’Orcia (a 2003, 92 Parker pointer) he knew I would love it. He asked me, however, for my thoughts on a market for this wine in the 375ml format (32 dollars). I totally believe people will snatch this one. The demi-bouteille market is decidedly full of room for growth. The nose on this wine is so densely packed with aromas of ripe fruit and tobacco and mineral that one might forget to drink it. On the palate, outstanding balance in the medium plus body and great staying power. 

Enoteca Bacco didn’t have the delicious –and rare- Vigna Pedale Nero di Troia on this edition. Where can you buy this wine? I must find out for the benefit of the reader. Instead, signore Bellantoni poured me some Chateau Mourgues du Gres, the 2008 Costieres de Nimes Les Galets Rouges. 92 Parker points for this 20 dollar bottle don’t come across as an exaggeration at all. One of my favorite reds of the night, seething with the spicy waft and red fruit marmalade of a well achieved Syrah-Grenache blend. All the charm of the appellation plus an Argentinian sweetness in the tannins. 

David Herman Wine & Spirits Merchants’ booth was pretty busy and with all good reason. They were serving the Benegas 2006 Luna Cabernet Sauvignon ($19) and the Benegas Don Tiburcio blend ($22), both hailing from Mendoza. The former confirms previous assessments with its ripe dark fruit, sweet tannin and juicy, peppery full-bodiness. The blend, a passé-touts-graines sort of mélange that includes Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon was a surprise indeed, a very well balanced, smooth blend. These two I knew from before but the surprise was the Paradou Viognier and the Paradou Syrah-Grenache. From Cotes du Ventoux and both at 14.99, these are the little siblings of the well established Pesquie (Les Terraces and Quintessence) line of products. At this price they deliver all the quality you would expect from such a competent winery.  

 Sabrina Hira, of Appellation Wine Marketing briefed me on a set of newcomers to Vancouver, the Decero wines from Mendoza. The fairly recent winery has been making waves from the start and the wines tasted here did not disappoint. The Decero Malbec 2008  ($25.99) keeps in line with the plummy, juicy, slightly rustic style that comes to mind when you think of a good drop to push down barbequed steak, lamb and sausages. An “asado” wine. At the same price, I enjoyed the Decero Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, which starts with a breeze of dark fruit and eucalyptus globulus. Rich and satisfying, I see a good future for this CabSav in Vancouver. The Mini Edicion Petit Verdot was the darling at this booth, a blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec. Intense color and fragrant eucalyptus on the nose, medium body and dark fruited closing with a barrage of fine tannins falling on the palate like hail. Not everybody’s cup of tea (??) but surely will have a legion of loyal followers.

 The last Malbec of the night hails not from Argentina but from Australia and it is brought to Vancouver by International Cellars. The Bleasdale Second Innings  Malbec ($16) pleases with its rich plummy fruit and sweet, smooth tannins. You will not miss your Argentinian Malbec if you go for this one. From the Upper Galilee, where vineyards now thrive where decades ago tanks exchanged fire, Galil Mountain brings its Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromas of sweet fruit seethe in the warm nose, followed by a pleasant medium body. This wine is Kosher, tasty and inexpensive: it will set you back only 17 dollars.


Argentina Wine Regions: Uco Valley

March 27, 2010

Photo: Sol de Uco Winery

We saw in a previous posting how Argentina’s wine regions are climatically continental, and how this condition, with all the benefits that may have, can also be very detrimental, particularly when it refers to excessive heat or untimely precipitation. This latter case –namely hail- is a serious problem in southern Mendoza, as we will see later. Fortunately for most of Argentina’s wine country, it is located high in the Andes, helping alleviate the excess heat problem.

Such is the case of the Uco Valley, which vineyards, ranging from 900 to 1,500 meters of elevation, provide the coolest conditions in the whole of Mendoza. Until not long ago this area –between Tupungato and Pareditas- was considered too high and too cold for vine growing. The new wave of winemakers didn’t fail to recognize its potential and set up shop, taking advantage of the long ripening season, the well drained, rocky soils and the thermal amplitude, which reaches a whopping 14 degrees.

The Uco Valley has been a blessing for black grapes like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. such varieties benefit from solar radiation, which provides light for photosynthesis and heat to achieve ripe, rotund flavors. Those flavors, however, need be supported by right levels of acidity; without them the wine becomes flat, as so many Chardonnays from promising hot areas have shown again and again, to the disappointment of winemakers and wine lovers. The cool nights of the Uco Valley help the expert in the vineyard to juggle those factors to achieve a perfect balance between both.  This achievement is even more noticeable for white varieties, in which the lack of proper acidity can be the difference between the great, the good and the utterly forgettable.

The Uco Valley is such a recent development -when compared with the long history of winemaking- that we should expect higher quality products in the years ahead. You don’t need to wait though. Wines from this “appellation” to look for in Vancouver, among others, include:

Finca El Origen Malbec Reserve 2008 $16-19. As in the case of the entry level Cabernet Sauvignon, El Origen delivers the goods on this price range.

La Posta Pizzella Malbec 2008 $22-26. 90 pts by some famous wine critics. I give it gold.

Luca Malbec 2007. $45. You cannot miss Laura Catena‘s fantastic Malbec.

Lurton Pinot Gris 2009 $12-15. Great value and the promise of what this grape may produce in Argentina.

Andeluna Malbec Limited Reserve 2004 $60-65. One of the best Malbecs you will taste in Vancouver.

Andeluna Pasionado Blend 2004 $60. Another big hit.

Andeluna Torrontes 2008 $20-22. My apologies to Susana Balbo’s Los Crios but this is the arguably the best varietal in town.

Barrandica Blend 2006 $28-32. Lovely blend.

Other wineries to look for: Antucura, Clos de los Siete.

Peruvian Wine Adventure

March 27, 2010

By Lisa Stefan

Lisa’s adventures take her way down south, to Peru, where, like most other travelers, she heads to the southern portion of the country, where Cusco and Macchu Picchu act like magnets and attract every other foreigner. Most leave back to Lima’s airport and back home. Lisa, victim to her love of wine, takes a detour to check out the Peruvian wine capital, the Ica province….

“…After a week of exploring Cusco and the surrounding Inca ruins by bus, foot, bike and raft and an exhausting 4 day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I was in serious need of some R&R… and a glass of wine!  So, with 4 extra days to spare on my solo journey to Peru, I hopped on a bus and headed south to Huacachina, a movie-like oasis in Ica.

Ica, located 300 km south of Lima along the Pan-American highway, is considered the premier wine producing area of the country. The area is known by locals as “the land of the sun”, with a hot & dry climate year round this is the perfect place to grow grapes. The area has sandy soil with a rich underground water source that has been tapped for drip irrigation. In addition to grapes, many crops are grown in the area including cotton, asparagus, table grapes and olives.  Though there are traditional wines made in Peru, a large amount of the industry is Pisco production.  Pisco is a distilled spirit, or brandy, made from grapes.  Back in the 1500s the Spaniards brought grapes to the area from Europe, but in the 17th Century the King of Spain banned wine entirely, which forced the locals to come up with another way of making alcohol from the grapes.

The national cocktail of Peru is the Pisco Sour, a scrumptious little concoction containing Pisco, lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and regional bitters.  It is served up in local bars and restaurants and even in the local Bodegas (wineries).  I was fortunate enough to taste a few different versions of the national cocktail, and even had a “Pisco Collins” – like a Tom Collins but made with Pisco instead of Gin.

I stayed in Huacachina, the little Oasis in the desert (literally a small green lake surrounded by enormous sand dunes), located about 5km south of the town of Ica, and from there it was easy to hire a local driver to take me and a friend I met at the hotel on a “wine tour”.  Our first stop was at El Catador, a small roadside operation clearly marketed to tourists. The tour guide spoke broken English and spent a good portion of the time trying to charm us foreign ladies.  We were, however, able to see the traditional wine presses –lagares– where the grapes are stomped by foot, and the unique clay pots in which they store wine and pisco. The “wines” were all sweet and unremarkable, however I did pick up a small souvenir bottle of “Perfecto Amor”, a unique dessert wine, a mixture of pisco and sweet white wine (side note – I opened this bottle with a group of wine lovers and there were mixed reviews).

Next we were off to a “real” winery, founded in 1857, Bodegas Vista Alegre.  Pulling up to the 18 foot wooden gate at one notices the contrast between the affluent wine industry and the local agricultural industry.  There is security at the gate, and when you enter through the elegant archway, you enter a completely different environment.  Completely enclosed and separated from the town, one can see the surrounding sand dunes above the walls.  There are green grape vines planted along both sides of the long driveway leading up to the tasting room, and behind the tasting room sits the onsite modern wine making facility.

I took a tour, offered only in Spanish, and though my Spanish is limited, I have done enough winery tours to be able to piece together what was being said.   The wine tasting was held at the end of the tour in the beautifully decorated tasting room/sales office.  I enjoyed the wines and the vistas while a little old man spoke too fast in Spanish for me to understand.  I don’t have notes on the wines as I was in vacation mode on this tour, but Bodega Vista Alegre left a great taste in my mouth, and was a great way to wrap up my time in Peru.

I headed back to Huacachina, did a little dune buggying and sandboarding, went out for a few Pisco Sours and called it a wrap.  I had to head back to Lima the next day to get my flight home and managed to pick up a $40 bottle of 2005 Tacama Cabernet Sauvignon at the duty free shop at the airport. This wine proved to be a beauty.  Dark fruit, currant, cedar & tobacco notes with firm tannins and a lengthy finish.  Too bad you can’t find that one in Canada!

Note of Winecouver. Two Peruvian wineries have products available in Canada (not in BC). Tacama and Tabernero. Tabernero’s Malbec Merlot blend is arguably Peru’s best today. With Argentinian investment and technology, we should expect better wines coming from the Inca nation. Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat are the most promising black grapes. Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier are the white varieties to keep an eye on.

ps. Text and Photos by Lisa Stefan

Bonarda, the other Red Wine from Argentina

March 26, 2010

With the ever increasing popularity of the wines of Argentina in Vancouver, Malbec seems to be on everybody’s mind, not to say everybody’s palate. The grape’s name is as recognizably Argentinian as the Tango itself. Torrontes, Argentina’s white signature grape is slowly carving a space for itself on the city’s wine store shelves. Vancouverites are also becoming more familiar with other grapes –both black and white- coming alongside Malbec: Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier. But there is another new arrival, a black grape that is received with curiosity. That is Bonarda, an Italian variety that is planted extensively in Argentina. In fact, until not long ago, it was the most planted vine variety.

As such, Bonarda has always been blended to make the table reds that the southamerican nation demanded to quench their thirst for wine. Never considered a “noble” blend, Bonarda was limited to the passenger seat due to its character as a wine and its wild vigor in the vineyard. Bonarda grows and produces fruit like it is nobody’s business. That was precisely the reason for its ubiquitous presence in Argentina’s vineyards: lots of grapes were needed to make lots of wine. Let’s not forget that until the 70’s consumption in Argentina reached a mind –guzzle- boggling 90 liters per head per year.

With the arrival of the nineties, the innovative approach of familias like Catena, technology and investment, winemakers quickly realized that Bonarda would not satisfy the demand for quality export wine. Malbec took that honor. The rest is history. For Malbec, that is. The curious Vancouver wine drinker may have noticed Bonarda on the back labels of their favorite Malbec, with which is blended to add  perfume, inky purple red color, moderate acidity and to lighten up the tannic load.  They get along so well that it is considered a signature Argentinian corte (blend). Some say that they tango with each other. Bonarda is also blended with Sangiovese to make agreeable table reds for early consumption and it also has an interesting synergy with Syrah.

In conversations with different Argentinian winemakers it seems that there are two bands: one claims that Bonarda will become the next Malbec phenomenon; the other –idea I share- think that the grape will have a less exalted role, given that keeping yields low will always be a viticultural challenge. A little bit like what we see today with vigorous grapes like Carignan in Languedoc. In blends it does really well; alone it makes a few good wines. The rest of the varietals are just….Carignan.

To sum up, Bonarda on its own is intense in color, frequently rich, inky. The nose is perfumed, with easily identifiable aromas like red fruit and mulberry. Spice in the background is not unusual, and when oaked it can exhibit pleasant tones of vanilla and tobacco. In the mouth it shows vinous intensity, ripe, sweet fruit and velvety tannins. It can also show –testament to its ferocious vegetal vigor- a “green” background, a bit like biting into a fresh arrugula leaf.

 There are several bottlings that are available in Vancouver. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Colonia Las Liebres $12.99

Maipe $14-16

Dante Robino $19-22

Don Domenico El Escondido $28-32

All of the above are quite nice sips. Without doubt the best of the lot is the Finca El Escondido (San Juan region), by Don Domenico, perhaps reflecting the increasing viticultural costs of keeping the vine’s growth in check. Dante Robino is also very competent although it lacks the ripe, sweet fruit of the former.

Maipe and Las Liebres are also pleasing varietals; the second one is great value. Anecdotically, I once tasted the Las Liebres aerated through a Vinturi. The gizmo really enhanced the texture and flavor of this baby, suggesting that other Bonarda may benefit from aeration. 


Among the blends to be found in Vancouver we have:

Los Crios Syrah Bonarda (50%-50%), Vina Antigua Sangiovese Bonarda and Benmarco Malbec (blended with 10% Bonarda). This latter one speaks for itself, with its plump texture and sweet tannins.  Vina Antigua is a simple pleasing table red like the ones Argentinians put on the table any week night; follow suit and wash down your daily dinner with a sip or two.

Pour Bonarda to accompany grilled meats and vegetables; roast beef, pasta and hard cheese.



Chimichurri Sauce, No Better Sauce for Grilled Meats

March 25, 2010

The name is long and seemingly hard to pronounce. Which is not: shee-mee-shoo-reeh. Try it out. The recipe, on the contrary, is deceitfully simple. Few ingredients, nothing to cook, nothing to reduce, no time frame, no measuring cup. It is a little like ceviche: anyone can crank out a decent one following a recipe, but only the masters can make the really memorable ones. And they never follow a recipe. Anyway, I think I am digressing. Chimichurri is a super tasty cold sauce, which origin the beef eating nations of the Cono Sur (and this has nothing to do with the wine brand), i.e., Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay ardently dispute. Not to mention Bolivia, home of some of the best tasting beef you may ever find, to the dismay of the abovementioned peoples, particularly the denizens of Rio de la Plata (that would be Buenos Aires and Montevideo, for the geographically challenged). By the way, there is a good discussion on the subject of Chimichurri in the blog Asado Argentina.

Just like ceviche, Chimichurri’s versions are as copious as the promises of a politician in full campaign.  And just like ceviche, everyone argue that theirs is the best. In the case of ceviche, no doubt the Peruvian version trumps them all (there goes the chauvinist) but when it comes to Chimichurri….ay x 3 = carajo!* I favor the one from around Buenos Aires, with modifications, of course. So, for ease of narrative we’ll say here that Chimichurri is the archetypical Argentine beef asado (BBQ) sauce.

But before going to the recipe let’s say that within Argentina itself there is ample room for discussion –if not dissidence- as for when and how to make and use the sauce. Some Che’s will swear that you should never eat Chimichurri on anything else than on a ChoriPan, (Chorizo sausage in a bun “pan”) a juicy BBQ’d sausage in a bun. Others love it on their asado beef. Others slather it on the beef before grilling, which is anathema to most. Some never eat it with asado, as the beef flavors themselves suffice to render one’s palate entirely pleased. I must say that me, when in the Pampas (plains) of Argentina, never allow anything on my beef other than coarse salt. Again, for the ease of reading, let’s say that you want the Buenos Aires version on asado beef after it is done.

Having said this, I learned to eat Chimichurri as a kid, from my dad. He spent a good chunk of his young years in La Plata, studying medicine and came back to Peru full of Argentinisms. Among them, Chimichurri. But, to add fuel to the fire, I should add that I never ever enjoyed a good Chimichurri sauce better than on grilled squid, octopus or pan fried white fish. Ok, now, to the recipe.


1 bunch of Italian parsley. The plant with flat leaves, I mean. Who cares about that curly green stuff that is only good for buffet decorations. Chop it really fine. That is, the leaves only. Lay in bowl with coarse salt (start with a little and adjust to taste after sauce is complete), a teaspoon of chili flakes (or more if you like it hot), 2 or 3 large cloves of garlic crushed into tiny bits, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar (you may add two but don’t exaggerate with the vinegar), two heaping tablespoons of dry oregano leaves. I would say fresh, but here in Vancouver, oregano has very little umpf, really. If you have Sicilian or Greek oregano, use that instead. If you have Peruvian (from Moquegua region) oregano, you are laughing. No other oregano has that irresistible fragrance that only the sun drowned west slopes of the Andes can produce. Lemony and pungent, it will hold its perfume for months after you open the bag. Mix well with olive oil. When it comes to oil, there is a myriad interpretations: ¼ cup, 2 cups, blah blah. I say just start with a little, stir, then keep adding/stirring until the whole mix is glistening, then stop. Thin up with boiled and cooled water, until it is slightly runny. You can add a bit more, if you like it thinner like that. Moi, I like it thick, voluptuous, almost sinful. That is why, my friend, I was expelled from priest school, but that is another story. Stir well, pack in Mason jar or something and put in fridge. Scoop over bbq’d meats, chicken, fish or even over pan fried fish. Accompany with white rice in this last case. Don’t forget to Chimichurri your sausage in a bun sandwich.

No matter where it was invented, Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Brazil or Paraguay, Chimichurri is simply amazing.

Bon Apetit

*carajo! (kah-raw-hoe) is perhaps the most rich sounding, expressive expletive in the Spanish language. Gabriel Garcia Marquez inmortalized it in his novel A Hundred Years of Solitude: “Carajo! vociferated Jose Arcadio Buendia. Macondo is surrounded by water!”

Warehouse Wines in Washington Act II

March 25, 2010

By Lisa Stefan*

The late afternoon found us traveling a little ways up the road, maybe 5 minutes, to the Warehouse District where we stumbled upon some fantastic small production operations.  Young, hip winemakers have rented warehouse space, and filled the back with their barrels and set up cozy little tasting rooms/salescounters in the front.  You could literally park in the parking lot and walk to 15 different tasting rooms if you wanted… definitely get the number for the local taxi service before attempting this! The feel was urban, grunge…with an understated and unjudgemental crowd, and very different from any wineries we’ve visited before. As I mentioned, the young, trendy, 30-40 something winemakers are the ones pouring their wines for locals and tourists alike. Everyone seems to know each other and say fabulous things about each other’s wines.  In fact, we were lucky enough to stumble upon 2 release parties that day. The first party was at Efeste (pronounced F-S-T), where winemaker Brennan Leighton was pouring, for the first time, his 2007 Jolie Bouche and Ceidleigh Syrahs. The other at Darby, where wine maker Darby was debuting his 2007 Darkside Syrah.  Darby even poured us the Efeste wine to compare the difference in style as they source their grapes from the same vineyard. Side note, Efeste 2006 “Ceidleigh” Syrah was rated #36 in Wine Spectator‘s top 100 of 2009, and Darby 2006 “Darkside” Syrah received 92 points from Wine Spectator.  We can’t wait to hear the reviews on the 2007 vintage.

Probably one of the favorites for us was Barrage.  Wine maker Kevin Correll, his partner Susana and their dog Murphy, welcomed us, poured us all their wines and spent close to an hour chit-chatting with us and everyone else who seemed to linger for a very long time over their wines, all with great names like Double Barrel and Secret Weapon.  We loved the 2005 Alias Cabernet Franc, a 100% Cab Franc from the Horse Heaven Hills area, aged 41 months in oak (50% new French oak and 50% once used French oak). This wine is big and bold, well balanced, with great fruit and aromas of cinammon, cocoa, clove and white pepper, a nice vanilla undertone and lengthy finish. This was one of only 4 bottles (duty free limit) we were able to bring back into Canada with us, and at a price of $38 we couldn’t resist.

I should mention that my wine adventure sidekick is Daniel Collins. In addition to being a wine lover, my partner, Dan is a real beer enthusiast, so the Red Hook Brewery was a perfect Sunday afternoon adventure.  Daniel shares his love of brews with his other passion, which is Latin America. Fluent in Spanish and with friends everywhere South of Rio Grande, he is the Director of All Access Volunteers, an organization that helps match volunteers with non-governmental organizations throughout Latin America, and he so kindly posed for a couple pictures to help me capture the day on camera.

Exhausted after the day’s tasting, we retired to our hotel in Lynnwood, only about a 10-15 minute drive from Woodinville, and a great place to stay if you want to shop, dine out or catch a flick while you are across the line (where everything is so much cheaper, especially right now considering the strength of our dollar).

Our lazy Sunday took us back to the Woodinville area just in time for the one o’clock tour of Red Hook Brewery.  Yes, I said Brewery.  There is a fantastic craft-brewery located right in the heart of Woodinville and right next door to Willows Lodge where we had lunch the previous day.  Red Hook brewery offers a tour and tasting of 5 beers for $1.00 –the best $1.00 I think I’ve ever spent!  Valerie, our tour guide, was fantastic, funny, outgoing and knowledgeable about the history of the brewery and beer making. She kept everyone entertained by leading us in a cheerful and blasting music while we all lined up for our beer samples.  Of the 5 beers poured our favorite was the Red Hook ESB, Extra Special Bitter, and with an a/v of 5.8% this beer is not like many low alcohol beers we know of from the United States.  We had lunch at the on-site pub and bought ourselves a couple single bottles at the souvenir shop, full of all kinds of Red Hook apparel, to bring home and enjoy in the complimentary beer tasting glasses we received on the tour.

Our last stop on the way out of town to head home was at Brian Carter wine shop.  He has some great red blends, but we had to pick up the $58 bottle of 2005 Solesce, a Bordeaux blend (50% Cab Sauv. 34% Merlot) made from the best of the best grapes sourced throughout Southeastern Washington, that spent 28 months in oak, and was just released in November 2009.  Though drinking well now, with strong aromas of blackberry, currant, cedar, tar, chocolate, and earth, it is a bit tannic, but still quite smooth, and this wine will only improve with some age. We are assured it has the potential to age 12 years so I think we’ll sit on this one for a while.

We were so impressed with the Woodinville area’s wine culture, food, people  and of course – wine, we can’t wait to go back in the spring or summer time, when the weather is a little nicer, and perhaps this time we’ll bike the local river trail, which seemed popular even in rainy January, and stop at a few more winery tasting rooms along the way, and of course at the Pub for more Red Hook Ale.

To find out more about the Woodinville area and wineries, check out

Jump to Warehouse Wines in Washington Act I

Hot Wines from Argentina, IVSA March 2010

March 23, 2010

Pulenta Estate Winery, Mendoza

Thanks to warm weather the IVSA show was not as packed as the last two episodes. Packed is good; one feels the vibrancy of wine lovers pushing to get a taste of the stuff they love. But hey, its nice to get some room too, and probably this is the last IVSA of the year to get just that. As I promised before, most postings these days will be devoted to Argenwines, that is, Argentina wines. Let’s start by one of the very best. Vistalba Corte C Blend. I have been wondering for years why we don’t get Carlos Pulenta wines here in BC. That is Argentina at its best. Small production runs? I don’t know. Thank god, Patagonia Imports brings the Vistalba Corte “C” (corte is Spanish for blend) to Vancouver. Cortes A and B are really spectacular and hopefully, we’ll have them here soon. Lucila Planas of Patagonia Imports treated me to their Xumek Reserve Blend 2006. All adjectives fall short for this soft,  crème-bruleey  textured 14% alcohol blend. Lovely under 30 bucks. Another offering by this importer, the Acequias Oak Malbec , which I tasted in its native Mendoza a couple of years ago, still satisfies with its chocolatey tobacco notes, its concentrated flavors and its excellent price. Not very many Malbecs deliver this quality at 20 bucks.

The surprise of the night was Enoteca Bacco with Natino Bellantoni. I always loved to taste his particular –unique- picks from the land of Garibaldi, Pasta Faggiole and Pizza Napolitana. Verve Negroamaro, Belisario Verdicchio and Nero di Troia are usual staples at this booth. But tonight, Natino poured an unbelievably good Malbec, with all you expect from a good Argentinian varietal plus an Italian touch in the tannin and acidity. The Altavista Malbec Grande Reserve, at 35 dollars, will turn many heads. If that were not enough, Natino challenged me to estimate the price of the 2007 Altavista Atemporal Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah-Petit Verdot blend. It was delicious and I overshot way higher than the humble 22 dollar price tag. This is a wine you don’t want to miss.

Renaissance Wine Merchants had but one Argentinian wine, and they hit right on the nose with their Tapiz Malbec 2008. There is a muddle of inexpensive Malbecs and most of them as are good as you would like them to be. Fruit forward, plummy, aromatic, soft-tannin, they all share the goods. Tapiz is a bit like Maradona; lots of players are really good. Only a few make that special move that nobody else does. At 19 dollars, this a serious contender for best Malbec under 20. With the Playhouse looming ever closer with the Argentinian theme, Red Dog keeps up with their Calafate wines. These wines hail all the way from Patagonia and they want to be noticed. The Calafate Pinot Noir Grande Reserva is probably the first Argentinian Pinot Noir to really challenge the undisputed reigning champions of this segment, the Chilean Pinots. With sweet fruit and confident tannin, this Pinot will make its mark in the Vancouver wine market. The other offering by Cafalate is the Reserva Malbec 2009, a lovely smoothy of chocolate, plum, cigar, double cream cheese and sweet tannin for 18 dollars.

For those who don’t know yet Winecouver is also a wine scout in Argentina and Uruguay. The first successful effort by yours truly is the impressive Mapema line of wines. Lone Tree Cellars’ Susan Doyle poured Mapema’s first arrivals in Vancouver. The Sauvignon Blanc, at 18 dollars, departs from the classic grassy nose and instead delivers a self-confident blitzkrieg of lime and melon. Wonderful. The Tempranillo-Malbec blend is the perfect sip for those who look beyond the classic Malbec offering. Lighter, less plummy and more strawberriesh, this is a wonderful drink for a lazy mid-afternoon, with or without snacks. But Mapema really shines with the Malbec varietal. From the elegant label and packaging, it delivers all the plummy soft tannin goods you expect from a good Malbec. Plus an unflagging acidity and Bordeaux reminiscent elegance that sets this wine apart in the 20-25 dollar category. Winecouver was not wrong when he approached Pepe Galante, one of the most knowledgeable Argentinian winemakers.

Time to snooze.

More Argentinian wine in the next one.



Warehouse Wines in Washington Act I

March 22, 2010
By Lisa Stefan*

When plans to visit a friend in the Okanagan fell through last week, we found ourselves with a wide open weekend.  Being the kind of people that love to go-go-go, the Sunshine Coast was not going to work for us – it’s too sleepy, Whistler – too busy, and Vegas just a little over budget after the holidays. So with wine on the mind, as usual, I was quick to hop on the internet and search out a weekend get-away for us that met these three criteria: inexpensive, within reasonable driving distance, and something different.

What I found was Washington, our neighbour to the South.  With over 700 wineries and growing, Washington is #2 (behind California) in wine production in all of the United States.  And only 25 minutes North East of Seattle is the small community of Woodinville.  The Woodinville area is home to about 50 small wineries and tasting rooms, and after only a 2.5 hour drive (from Vancouver), we found ourselves in a wine lover’s paradise.

The first on our list were the large production operations of Columbia Winery and Chateau St. Michelle.  Located across the street from one another, how convenient, and with gorgeous grounds, grand tasting rooms, boutique shops and an array of flatbreads, cheese and crackers for purchase – these two wineries were very much what we are used to from our many visits to the Okanagan and Niagara regions in Canada.  There was however, one huge difference…. NO VINEYARDS?!?! That’s right, all of Washington’s wine grapes are grown in the south eastern part of the State, where the climate is much warmer and dryer than the cool and wet North West. So, to pull up to a winery where there were no gorgeous grapes or vineyard vistas was a little foreign to us, but what they lacked in scenery, they certainly made up for in service and selection.

At Columbia Winery the knowledgeable tasting bar staff provided us with a full sampling of what was available, waived our tasting fee, and gave us a 30% discount on any purchases – as we came to find, this is an industry standard, as long as we provided a business card, we were completely taken care of – talk about Southern hospitality! Our wine educator even gave us a map of the area and circled a few competitors to check out.  We ended up falling in love with the Semillion Ice Wine, 375 ml for only $20, what a steal!  Flavours of sweet apricot and honey abound, and with great acidity and a clean finish this is an exceptional value ice wine!

Chateau St. Michelle staff was equally friendly and knowledgeable and we were able to taste the entry level wines compared side by side with the Ethos and Eroica wines.  The Chateau has quite the line-up of wines, including collaborations with Antinori and Ernst Loosen.  Our favorites were the entry level dry Riesling which sells for $8.99 and is definitely comparable in terms of value with some of the $15-20 Canadian Rieslings, the 2005 Ethos Cabernet Sauvignon $38, and the 2006 and 2007 Limited Release Mourverdre that we tasted side by side and spent at least 20 minutes savouring and comparing the very different noses.  Mesquite bar-b-que on one vs. goat cheese on the other – unique and interesting.

After 2 hours of tasting at only 2 wineries, our palates were tiring, and our stomachs growling, so we stopped in at the Barking Frog restaurant at Willows Lodge for lunch.  Ambiance = A+, service  = A+, food  = A, wine selection  = A, highly recommended and definitely a must visit if you are in the area.  I had the chicken breast served with butternut squash stuffed spinach ravioli, swiss chard and pearl onions in a gorgonzola cream sauce.  Fabulous Gourmet for $16.

Note of Winecouver.  More to come in the second installment of Lisa’s wine explorations South of the border soon.

*Contributing writer Lisa Stefan has a passion for travel, wine, food and all things combining the three! Besides writing Lisa works part time as a wine sales consultant at Everything Wine in North Vancouver.  Lisa completed her Intermediate Certificates through the International Sommelier Guild in 2009.  Full Sommelier Diploma certification, wine travel, wine writing and more wine tasting  are part of her plans for the near future.

ps. Photos: Chicken butternut squash, Lisa Stefan Headshot, Dan Collins


Fonterutoli Chianti Classico DOCG

March 19, 2010


Chianti Classico 2005


375ml. $23.99. 

Wine house Mazzei 2005 Chianti Classico is a truly impressive effort. A distinguished nose, bursting with dark fruit, tar, stone. This full bodied wine leaves on the palate imprints of sour cherry, charred mineral and very active, dust-like -almost effervescent- tannins. The acidity is beautifully leashed here, never getting out of control. There is a pleasant bitter cherry background, mouth drying, leading to a persistent finish supported by a dense fruit aftertaste. Perfect for a dinner for two; this half bottle’s price tag is fully justified.