Monday, September 21, 2015

The Grape White North -- Wines of British Columbia

Lining 'em up in Vancouver...
The jumping off point for my summer vacation with the Sweet Partner in Crime was Vancouver. Neither of us had ever been up to that particular area of the Pacific Northwest, and we’d heard that it was a really cool city. We weren’t disappointed. We ate and drank like royalty when we weren’t putting considerable miles on our shoes and the tires of rented bikes.

One of our missions for our time in Vancouver was to become acquainted with the wines of British Columbia. As you know, we’re big fans of the wines of Oregon and Washington in this space, and it seemed logical that wine grapes shouldn’t be constrained by silly things like national borders. At our various stops around the city, we tried to sample wines from across the region.

“Wines from Canada? Never heard of them,” could be crossing your mind. I wouldn’t be surprised. British Columbia’s total wine grape production in 2014 was about 1/6 of the production of the state of Washington alone. BC wine is prized across Canada. About 80% of BC wine is consumed within the province, while about 15% is distributed across the rest of the country. Only about 5% of the total production is exported.

Why worry about it? Because these are pretty damned good wines! And production in BC has been gradually increasing – more than doubling in the last 10 years. Which means, I hope, that more of these wines will start showing up on US shelves.

A quick primer on wines from British Columbia, in case you run into them. The province has a designation, BC VQA, which stands for British Columbia Vintners Quality Alliance. This designation means that the wine has met certain standards of the region. In this case, a wine labeled BC VQA must be made from 100% BC grapes, 95% of which must come from the region designated on the label. (More on that in a sec.) The varietal listed on the label must comprise at least 85% of the wine’s composition. If it says “Merlot,” for instance, it’s at least 85% Merlot. Also, 85% of the grapes must be produced in the vintage on the label, which is somewhat different than most countries – in which most blends of grapes from different years would not carry a vintage date.

There are six major wine growing regions in British Columbia. The largest and best known is the Okanagan Valley (pronounced Oak-A-Noggin), which is about a five hour drive east of Vancouver towards the Interior, which is why we weren’t able to make it there on this trip. The bulk of BC wine comes from this region. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands at the southern tip of V.I. are also major producers.

Merlot is the most planted red varietal, followed by syrah, pinot noir, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon. Among whites, you’ll find pinot gris and chardonnay leading the way, followed by gewurztraminer, riesling, and sauvignon blanc. The wine styles are fairly consistent with the cool climate wines you would ordinarily find in Oregon, Washington, and along the Sonoma Coast.
The Painted Rock rundown...

After returning from our vacation, I reached out to some of the wineries whose wines we’d really enjoyed along the way. One of them, Painted Rock – an Okanagan winery in the town of Penticton – was good enough to send some samples along. My thoughts:

Painted Rock 2010 Merlot – Their merlot is a sizeable wine that definitely needs some time in air to limber up. Even after decanting, the fruit stayed hidden for a bit, bringing out lots of graphite flavors with some restrained tannins. Once the blueberry flavors started popping after the wine got some air, the combination is really robust. I found some nice dark fruit and floral scents on the nose. It’s pretty smelling for a big ol’ honkin’ red. If a good Bordeaux decided that it wanted to be a little fruitier and softer in order to play nicely with others, you’d have a pretty good idea of this wine. Quite muscular for a cool-weather wine. But that was tame compared to…

Painted Rock 2010 Syrah – Hooboy, this one’s a biggie. Like the merlot, it really needed some time and space in air to get at the flavors. Decant early! I think the SPinC was intimidated simply by the pour of this wine. It’s some seriously thick, inky juice. After enough time in air, the nose becomes quite pleasant, full of violet and plum. Don’t let the soft nose fool you. This Syrah makes me think of a steroidal Chateauneuf-de-Pape. Big, dark fruits and a sizable whallop of tannins greet you in a hurry. I didn’t find it out-of-balance at all, but it’s not for the faint of heart. We had it with a roasted chicken and potato dish, and it was a little too big. Divine with chocolate, though. The SPinC, who is currently palate-wise calibrated for summer wines, just slid it aside. More for me! I quite enjoyed it.

Painted Rock 2010 “Red Icon” – The Red Icon was, far and away, our favorite of the three wines. This is a beautifully balanced red, made from a traditional Bordeaux blend (merlot, cab franc, petit verdot, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon in order). The nose is full of blackberries with a really pretty floral undertone. The flavor is full of cherries and plums, and it’s potent without being overpowering. The tannins are certainly firm, but they keep to the back, allowing the fruit to really shine, along with some strong vanilla notes. The finish is a lasting balance of leather, dark fruit, and smoke. I think this wine’s right in its wheelhouse right now. We opened this over Labor Day weekend and had it with some burgers from the grill. Grilled meat and this wine get along famously.

The Merlot and Syrah are both about $28-30 US. The Red Icon, which I really highly recommend, goes for about $35-40.

Some others that we really enjoyed along the way were the Blue Mountain Gamay Noir, which tasted like a cru Beaujolais; and the Tyler Harlton Pinot Noir, which was brambly and earthy – just the way we like it. There were also several nice whites that we had a chance to sample, the best of which for me was the Kanazawa “Nomu” -- a luscious blend of viognier, semillon, and muscat blanc full of creamy citrus, orange blossom, and peach flavors that was absolutely delicious next to some fabulous sushi at downtown Vancouver’s Shuraku Sake House.

[Other suggestions for awesome food and drink in Vancouver: Rodney’s Oyster House in Yaletown for fresh raw oysters and “Caesars,” Salt Tasting Room on Blood Alley for a unique, flavor-filled experience in a “Hamsterdam” portion of the city; “tacones” and fish chowder at Go Fish! on Granville Island; delicious tapas at The Sardine Can in Gastown; the hip young crowd at Hapa Izakaya for “Japanese tapas;” and Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar for late night downtown cocktails, jazz, and a smooth end to an evening.]

The SPinC at Salt Tasting Room

If you get a chance to try some of these north of the border selections, do so. With the unpredictability of climate change will be doing to many of our domestic wine regions – these BC wines may soon emerge as an interesting alternative. Keep your eyes peeled.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Tapas Tuesday, Part 1 – Cava, Curious Math, and Biutiful Bubbles

Since joining our CSA, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I have challenged ourselves to power our way through every last vegetable in that wonderful box before the next one arrives. This has required some creative cooking on our parts from time to time – and we’ve ended up with lots of little leftovers, stray peppers, the occasional bag of ground cherries, and the like. How to clear out the tupperware, you ask?

Tapas Tuesday!

We decided, once a week, that we’d go through the fridge and see what we could easily combine into a small plate meal. Now, much of what we end up with wouldn’t be considered traditional Spanish tapas, but early returns on this little project seem pretty positive just the same.

Along came an offer I couldn’t refuse. One of my favorite memories of our European trip several years back was a meal in Barcelona at El Xampanyet, a tapas place near the Picasso Museum. After we sat down, the waiter brought us a bottle of the house bubbly – which, of course, was Cava. Few things in the world go better with tapas than Cava. The day after we decided on our Tapas Tuesday project, Tiffany at Colangelo offered to send us a couple of Cava samples. I almost sprained my finger hitting “reply.”

Cava, if by some odd chance you’re unfamiliar, is a Spanish sparkling wine. It’s usually a white wine, although it can be made as a rosé (which we’ll get to in a moment). The name “Cava” means “cave” and refers to the caves traditionally used to store and age the wine. 95% of all Cava is made in Catalonia, the region of Northeast Spain where Barcelona lies.

Cava is made in the methode champenoise style used in the production of Champagne and many other high-quality sparkling wines. Most Cava bottlings, however, are consistently lower in price than other sparklers of similar quality. Cava has long been my go-to bubbly when I’m snagging a bottle for immediate, unfocused consumption.

Tiffany sent us two bottles, one white and one rose, for our perusal:

1+1=3 Cava Brut – Make sure you chill this one thoroughly before you crack it open. One Tuesday, I came home from work and popped the bottle in the fridge, thinking that a couple of hours would probably be sufficient to get the bottle to a serviceable temperature. After I took off the wire cage, I found the cork to be super-tight, which probably should have been a warning to me. Driven by testosterone and a craving for little bubbles, I applied somewhat more force than I likely needed. The cork finally came loose. For my futbol-loving readers -- let’s just say that if Barça is looking for a great-spraying victory bubbly, I’ve done Messi’s beta testing. I got a bit drenched, but hey – small price to pay for science, right? As for the wine itself, it turned out to be very crisp and acidic with sharp bubbles that would cut through just about any flavor you throw at it. Some yeasty flavors, green apples, and a friendly fruity finish were the major flavor features. A very solid sparkler, especially at ~$13. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my note as to the array of plates we had with it, so you’ll just have to trust me in its ability to be flexible.

Biutiful Cava Brut Rose – “Biutiful,” one of the few rosé Cava I’ve tried -- was much kinder to me than to my spellcheck! Most Cava are made from white grapes like Viura and Xarel-lo, but this rosé version is made from 100% Grenache, which I thought gave it a very interesting construction. It possessed the tight, powerful carbonation common to Cava. The initial flavor is very dry and, once again, crisply acidic. However, after a sip or two, notes of strawberry and pear start to emerge, but these flavors aren’t sugar-backed in the slightest. I guess you’d call it “fruity, but bone dry” – which certainly is not a problem around here. On this particular Tapas Tuesday, we had this bottle as a very nice accompaniment to slices of prosciutto wrapped around marcona almonds, paprika-ed potatoes, and pork tenderloin sliders topped with curried sauerkraut from a local place called Fab Ferments. Trust me on the slider pairing – it was delicious. The little extra fruit carried the flavors with the pork/sauerkraut mix nicely. If you’re looking for a sparkler with a little extra fruitiness, or you’ve got some food where you’ll have a little “fat in your mouth,” you could find a winner here. You can find this for $16-17, which is still a good value.

With Labor Day Weekend picnics abounding, consider snagging a couple of bottles of cava to pour. There’s no need to break out the good crystal. Cava tastes just as good out of a Solo cup, if you ask me. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Volte Dell’Ornellaia – Breezy Bolgheri makes a Svelte Supertuscan

The last jaunt the Sweet Partner in Crime and I made to California, we spent most of our time in the Sonoma Coast AVA. That close to the Pacific, the climate and soil yielded wines that were quite different from the Sonoma offerings to which we’d been accustomed. The coastal wines had, in general, more earthiness, less pronounced fruit, and a little rough-around-the-edges character that we really liked.

Fast forward to an offer I received to try an Italian coastal version of what would commonly be called a Supertuscan wine. To refresh your memory, the categorization of Supertuscan wines came about in Italy because some winemakers in Tuscany wanted to make wines above the quality of simple table wine, but didn’t want to follow the strict guidelines required to label the wines as Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino.

These blends usually included Sangiovese, but they often had other grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah – leading to a bigger, fruitier product which found much favor Stateside. These wines are usually labeled “IGT” (short for Indicazione Geografica Tipica), rather than the inexpensive vin di tavola.

The bottle I received, the Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 Toscana IGT, falls into that category – but looked to be a new experience for me because the Ornellaia estate is near the town of Bolgheri, which faces the Tyrrhenian Sea from the hills. The soil there sounds much like the soil in parts of Oregon – part volcanic, part marine sedimentary, and part alluvial – so I was quite interested to see how this wine would differ from the Supertuscan blends grown further inland in the Chianti or Orvieto regions.

This wine, a blend of 50% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese, and 20% Cabernet, pours somewhat lighter than many of the thicker IGT blends. Cool weather and coastal wines tend to be lighter in body than their warmer climate, inland counterparts. No surprise there. The nose is quite pretty – violets and some light stone fruit. The first sip, as the SPinC put it, is “straight-up Sangiovese” – light bodied cherries and chalk. Then things…changed.

The sensation was like someone fed the wine a Super Mario power-up mushroom halfway through the mouthful. Suddenly, I felt I had an eyedropper of dark fruits and tannin squeezed onto the back of my tongue. Imagine a wine with the eventual punch of a big California merlot, but without the initial fruitbombiness.

I thought, at first, this particular note may have been because I hadn’t decanted the wine long enough. Even a couple of hours later, I still got the same pleasantly peculiar perception.

For dinner that night, I’d grilled up some lamb loin chops with a side of grilled okra from our CSA share, some quinoa, and tzatziki sauce on the side. It’s definitely a meat-loving wine. It went fantastically with the lamb. I think it would certainly need to accompany richer fare – it would probably be too big for many chicken or pasta dishes, unless you had a good ragu over top.

I definitely enjoyed this wine. I thought it was an interesting twist on the often over-fruited Supertuscans – and I’ll certainly be looking for some other coastal Tuscan versions.

The Le Volte retails for around $30.

(Thanks to Claire at Colangelo for the offer.)