Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to British Columbia – Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula and Cowichan Valley

The Sweet Partner in Crime had a conference to attend in Seattle recently. After our wonderful time last year in Vancouver, we decided to pop over to Vancouver Island for a few days prior to the SPinC’s work responsibilities.

If you’re thinking, “Hey…if you were just in Vancouver – why go back?” – the city of Vancouver, BC, is not on Vancouver Island. It’s a ferry or floatplane ride away. What *is* on Vancouver Island (VI) is British Columbia’s beautiful capital city, Victoria, and some wine regions that you should learn about if you don’t think climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

At nearly 50° N latitude, Vancouver Island has some of the northernmost vineyards in the world. My affection for cool climate wines burst into full bloom as we tooled around the island. We did most of our exploring in two regions – the Saanich (pronounced SAN-itch) Peninsula and Cowichan (pronounced COW-itch’n) Valley. Here’s a map for reference:

Click to embiggen. (credit: Tourism Vancouver Island)
Additionally, the island is well known for slow food/farm-to-table cuisine. “Fresh from the Island” signs dot the storefronts and restaurants using local ingredients abound. Many of the wineries double as neighborhood lunch spots, where you can swap stories with the locals over sandwiches, fresh fruit, and glasses of rosé.

We set down home base in Brentwood Bay, about half an hour north of Victoria. Brentwood Bay is in Central Saanich. The Saanich wineries are tucked back here and there among some pretty rural roads up and down the peninsula. A short ferry ride from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay (which, conveniently, loaded just steps from our hotel room), lands in the Cowichan Valley, which follows the Trans-Canadian Highway down to and along the southern coast of the island.

We quickly discovered something interesting – the wineries we explored on the island fall roughly into two camps: all-estate and kinda-estate. Most of the wineries grow at least some of their grapes on site. Many, however, supplement their harvest with grapes and juice from other regions of British Columbia – largely the Okanagan Valley, which produces 80% of all BC wine.

The winemakers who do “all-estate” wines – boy howdy, are they ever rightfully proud of that fact – are creating some pretty righteous juice from the workable varietals. Many varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, simply won’t grow there. But the ones that do – pinot noir and pinot blanc, especially – develop uniquely crisp, clean characteristics. The whites tend to end up fruity and floral and the reds, especially the pinots, have superb balance for lighter bodied wines.

I’ve long said that winemakers need to focus on terroir before tourism. Sure, people are more familiar with Chardonnay then Ortega or Gewurztraminer – but if the latter make better wines in your climate, plant ‘em!

The best, best thing about the estate wines – at least for right now? They’re inexpensive. Most of these wineries’ high end offerings topped out at about $25-30 Canadian, which with the current exchange rate puts a high quality pinot noir in your happy hands for about twenty bucks. And most of these wineries are in beautifully scenic locations, so getting there is half the fun – although a car is necessary.

Here were some of our favorites:

The patio at Cherry Point
Cherry Point – “I try to turn the land into art,” said Javier, who with his wife Maria, came to British Columbia from Columbia and Ecuador. After a number of successful business ventures, including landscaping and restaurants in the city of Vancouver, the two of them decided to buy a vineyard on VI.

They make a series of wines of quality. Our favorites were the floral, grapefruit-and-green appley Pinot Blanc; a tropical fruit flavored riot in their Ortega; a light-styled pinot noir; and a blend of Agria and Zweigelt (Hungarian and Austrian varietals) called “Bete Noire” that was full-flavored without being heavy.

The winery also does an annual paella-fest, where Javier shows off the recipe that has earned him multiple medals in competition.

Venturi-Schulze – After our taster, Gary, dealt with a gaggle of Snapchatting bachelorettes, we were treated to their interesting spread of estate grapes: a sparkling Zweigelt, an aromatic white called Siegerrebe, a light, peachy blend of Ortega and Schönburger called “Primavera,” and a beautifully delicate-yet-spicy pinot noir. The wines were good, but they weren’t the star of the show. The vinegar was.

Yes, vinegar. The folks at this winery make balsamic vinegar in the traditional fashion of Modena. What most people buy at the store isn’t really balsamic vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar takes 12-15 years, minimum, to produce Fermented grape must -- juice that includes the pressed grapes, stems, and skins -- is aged in a series of barrels in a “solera” system like sherry. (The ersatz three-buck-a-bottle stuff in your grocery store is just wine vinegar to which flavorings or colorings have been added.)

The result is headspinningly good – mellow and slightly tart, full of fruit, caramel, smoke, and wonder. It’s not cheap ($65 Canadian for a 250ml bottle) but it’s truly special. (As far as I can tell, the only other place that makes balsamic vinegar like this in North America is in New Mexico, of all places.)

Averill Creek – “This will be the home for pinot in British Columbia” said Andy Johnston, Averill
Averill Creek Winery
Creek’s vintner. If his product is any indication, I wouldn’t argue too much with him. Their 2012 Pinot was one of the highlights of the trip –beautiful, cool fruits are deep and smoky without being extracted, and ridiculously underpriced at $22. Seriously, it had no business being that good for that price. They also make a lovely, delicate rosé and a red from Marichal Foch that reminded me of Beaujolais.

Andy said that while he “goes where the terroir takes him,” he does have a couple of tricks up his sleeve. He experimented with wrapping the perimeter a block of grapes with cling wrap to give a little bit of extra insulation at the start of the season. He thought it worked so well that he’s considering doing it to his entire vineyard next spring.

Symphony – We shared a laid back tasting with Pat, half of the ownership duo, while she was cutting fresh rhubarb for one of the chutneys they produce onsite. She told us that they’d been on that land since the 50’s, but only started planting grapes about a decade ago. She treated us to a bright, lovely Ortega; an Alsace-styled dry Gewurztraminer; and a pair of pinot blancs – one oaked, the other not. (The SPinC and I split on which one we preferred.)

She poured us a rosé of pinot, which we both really enjoyed, as it was made in a very Provence-style, and a light-styled Pinot Noir. She also let us try a tank sample of their 2015 Pinot, which looks to be a real winner.

Enjoying a "slushie" at Sea Cider
I’d also recommend a tour and tasting at Victoria Distillers in Sidney, where they crank out small batches of spirits of various types. My favorite was their gin, which was done in a more botanical style than the typical London Dry.

Apples grow plentifully throughout British Columbia, so there are a number of cider houses scattered across the peninsula. We stopped for a tasting at Sea Cider, where we sampled a flight of six ciders, a couple of eaus-de-vie, and a “cider slushie” while enjoying a beautiful view of Mount Baker. Our favorites were the “Bittersweet,” “Rumrummer” and “Pippins.” Thumbs up. 
And finally, no column about this area would be complete without at least one mention of the spectacular eye-candy that is Butchart Gardens. Look it up and gaze in wonder. We had dinner in their restaurant, which lived up to its many recommendations. For anyone who likes playing in the dirt, this experience should be on your bucket list.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cool Climate Malbec? Cool Climate Malbec. Domaine Bousquet.

This space has a long history with Malbec, the varietal that has become the national wine and biggest export from Argentina. Malbec was one of the first wines I ever reviewed around here. Malbec’s popularity really took off in the mid-to-late 2000’s as Argentina started sending more and more of this fruity, sweetly tannined concoction to our shores, much of it from warm-climate areas of the Mendoza region. I was very excited recently to get a chance to try some cool-climate Malbec, produced by Domaine Bousquet.

One of my evolutions as a red wine drinker has been the change of my palate from a love of big, alcohol-laden fruit bombs to an admiration of lower-alcohol wines with more subtle flavors and textures. Some of this has to do with the varietals I prefer – I’m much more into Pinot Noir than Zinfandel these days, for instance. But a lot has to do with where the grapes are grown. You know, good ol’ terroir. I’ve discovered that I prefer wines from cooler growing climates.

The warmer the region, the more sugar is produced in the grapes themselves – which makes for a fruitier, more alcoholic wine. Cool weather makes grapes ripen more slowly. Sugar levels stay lower and flavors become deeper and darker. If you want a domestic example – compare a Pinot Noir from the cooler Sonoma Coast vs. those produced in Russian River Valley. I was very interested to see how this difference plays out in Argentina.

These Bousquet wines are produced in the Alto Gualtallary area of the region of Tupungato, one of the coolest regions in Argentina. This region, situated 4000 feet above sea level, is where Bousquet co-founders Labid Al Ameri and Anne Bousquet set up shop. The two met in school at St. Cloud State in Minnesota and founded the winery in 2005. I had the opportunity to ask them a few questions about the wine and what they’re terming a “cool climate revolution” in Argentina.

These grapes in Tupungato have a pretty good view.
“The cool climate in Tupungato offers plenty of sun during the day which helps increase the sugar level in the grape and good acidity during the night when temperatures can drop 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Labid. “This creates more balanced grapes and allows a longer maturity period that lead to more complex and fresher wines.” Anne added, “The disadvantage here is that that some high altitude areas could get frost once in a while due to low temperatures in Spring.” The soils, they shared, also have more in common with those in Burgundy than in most of the rest of Mendoza.

The two wines that I had the opportunity to try were the Domaine Bousquet 2013 Reserve Malbec and the Domaine Bousquet 2013 Grande Reserve Malbec. The two wines are produced from nearly identical blends – both are 85% Malbec with the rest comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The Reserve is aged for 10 months in French oak and 4 months in bottle, while the Grande Reserve goes for a year in both barrel and bottle.

The Reserve has really pretty nose of cherries, chocolate, and herbs like jasmine. It’s plenty fruity, but it doesn’t have the super-fruit forward nature of other Mendoza Malbec. The palate is full of rich, smooth blackberry and plum with a nice graphite and mineral backing. Tannins are well balanced. I thought it was a very drinkable, if slightly muscular, red, and a very solid value at $12.

As for the Grande Reserve, where its cousin was full of fruity brightness, the Grande Reserve shows some sexy restraint. The nose is deeper, richer. Blackberries and cocoa, as well as a little bit of herb. The first word on my notes is “silky.” I’ve sampled a fair amount of Malbec over the years, and this is one of the smoothest. Rich, opulent mouthfeel that eases on into a wonderfully balanced raspberry covered-chocolate and soft tannin finish.  It’s just a gorgeous wine, especially for $20.

I asked the pair what they would recommend, mealwise, to accompany their wines. Anne suggested, “Definitely red meats, red sauces, Indian and spicy Asian food such as Thai. The fact that Malbec tends to have sweet tannins cools down the spiciness of the food.”

We went the red meat route and tried them alongside a London broil that I’d marinated. It was my first attempt tenderizing meat with a kiwifruit. I was surprised at how well it worked, although I think I’ll still stick to my “salt and sit” technique in the future. (If you want to try, take half a peeled kiwi, mash it up, and smear it all over the steak. There’s an enzyme in kiwi that breaks down protein. Rinse it off in 30-45 minutes. Don’t marinate too long, lest you end up with pudding…)

Both of them, as expected, went well with the grilled meat. There wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two, pairingwise, so if you’re buying a bottle for dinner, I would suggest going with the less expensive of the two. With some chocolate, though, or to just drink on its own – oy, the Grande Reserve was quite choice.

I like asking winemakers what they drink when they’re not drinking their own stuff. “We love Pinot Noir from California, Oregon and Burgundy,” said Labid, “and we also enjoy Chablis, White Burgundy, Chateauneuf-Du-Pape red and white, and wines from the Sonoma and Napa regions.” (I liked this response, since if you asked me to list my own current favorites – they basically rattled off my choices.)

I’m very curious to see whether these cool climate wines will catch on. Some Malbec fans have strong opinions about what an Argentine Malbec is “supposed to” taste like. Exploring these and other Tupungato creations will certainly be on my list moving forward. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Purple Heart Wines

August 7th is national Purple Heart Day, a day to pay respect to those who were wounded or killed in the cause of protecting and defending our nation in the US Armed Forces. The Mondavi family (whose patriarch, Peter, is a veteran of WWII) and winemaker Ray Coursen, a Vietnam Veteran, collaborated on the Purple Heart 2013 Red Wine.

The wine retails for around $20. Purple Heart Wines will make a generous annual donation (up to $50k per year) to the Purple Heart Foundation, an organization set up to help provide for the unmet needs of military men, women, and families. They focus on PTSD recovery, cancer treatment, sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury treatment, and other such services.

The wine is a blend made up primarily of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from the Napa Valley. Its flavor profile lends itself to grilling season. Fruit-forward and firm, the nose is full of raspberry tart and plums. The body is medium-to-full, with big plummy flavors that slide towards licorice on the palate. The fruit’s pretty overwhelming at first pour, but as that calms down, the tannins start to emerge, yielding a long, somewhat smoky finish.

We tried this with a London broil alongside a grilled watermelon salad. (No, I’m not kidding – it was really good! Balsamic glaze is just the best.)  I thought it was a very solid pairing, and I think you’ll like it with most flame-kissed meals.

(Stop reading here if you don’t want to get semi-political.)

On a personal note, if you have veterans – especially ones who may have earned this particular medal -- in your circles of friends and acquaintances, thanks, thoughts and prayers are nice – but ask them how they’re doing and how you can help. Maybe it’s just hanging out. Maybe you offer a ride to the VA. Perhaps you offer to let them tell you a story or two. In most cases, they’ve seen things that you haven’t, and they know things you don’t. Listen.

We have a long way to go in this country regarding the way that we treat our veterans. I’ll just ask you to do your part to keep this from ever happening again:

This image still galls me.
We are America. We must do better. We are better.