Sunday, February 19, 2012

Playhouse Wine Festival tastings that should be on your bucket list

Photo: Masa Shiroki of Artisan SakeMaker on Granville Island

The Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, which begins on February 26, is always the year’s most intense week of wine tasting and wine dinners.

The three nights international tastings – March 1, 2 and 3 – at the convention centre can be challenging. There will be about 750 wines available for tasting. Most people that I know will be lucky to manage 50 wines over each three-hour session.

It helps to have a battle plan in mind when entering the tasting room. Here are some suggestions that may help focus.

Chile: This is the theme region this year, with 35 producers attending. This is a critical festival for Chile, whose sales in this market seemed to have levelled off around $44 million a year for several years.

One reason is probably that Argentina has been eating into Chile’s market share. But that should not be happening because the wines of Chile also are reasonably priced and good quality.

Each country has its strengths. While Argentina excels with Torrontes and Malbec, Chile produces better Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Your Chilean tasting priority should include visits to the tables of Anakena (for Viognier); Concho y Toro (if only for the $80 Don Melchor, an iconic red); Cousiño-Macul (of the Chile’s oldest Cabernet producers); Cremaschi Furlotti (full-flavoured wines); Viña Errazuriz (for the $90 Don Maximiano, another icon); Viña Montes (a super premium winery); and Lapostelle, (the Grand Marnier-owned winery showing, among other products, a $100 red).

Argentina: There are 14 producers here from Argentina. The wines from that country have been absolutely on fire in this market, with sales tripling in the past five years. Last year, with sales of $45.4 million in British Columbia, Argentina pulled ahead of Chile in this market.

Since you haven’t time to taste at all of their tables, let me suggest a few bucket list priorities.

Bodegas Catena Zapata is pouring, among other wines, a $54 Malbec 2008. Compare it with O. Fournier’s Alfa Crux Malbec 2008, at $50.  Bodegas Pascual Toso is pouring a $58 red blend, Finca Pedregal, while Familia Zuccardi has a $50 red blend, Zuccardi Zeta.

The point of seeking out the four most expensive Argentine reds is this: these producers already blow the socks off with their $15 wines; imagine how good the ultra-premium wines will be.


There is a lot resting on the shoulders of the 17 Australian wineries here. It looks like everybody has been eating Australia’s lunch. Sales of Australian wine totaled $97 million last year, down from $131 million five years ago.

Australia’s problem is the consumer perception that Australian wines all taste the same, due to the dominance of one or two huge brands. Here’s a chance to compare and discover that the perception is simply not true.

Check out Chapel Hill for its Bush Vine Grenache; Jacob’s Creek for its St. Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon; Penfold’s for its Bin 128 Shiraz (alas, no Grange); Wirra Wirra Vineyards for three solid reds and an intriguing white blend; and Yalumba for Viognier.

Ask the people behind the Yalumba table for the story of how this Australian winery virtually rescued Viognier when the variety was on the brink of extinction.

British Columbia: There are 20 British Columbia wineries including one that is new to the festival: Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery, one of three wineries now operating in Creston. The winery’s strong suites are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, wines that are well made by Dan Barker, a winemaker who comes up from New Zealand to do the vintage.

Other wineries to check out include Burrowing Owl for its delicious Athene, a Cabernet/Syrah blend; Hester Creek for its new up-market red, The Judge; Le Vieux Pin and LaStella for their powerful reds; Mission Hill for Perpetua, a very elegant Chardonnay; Painted Rock (a winery of the year runner up at the Canadian Wine Awards) for a taste of the winery’s flagship Red Icon blend; Poplar Grove for its flagship The Legacy red; and Quails’ Gate for the Stewart Family Chardonnay and Stewart Family Pinot Noir.

France: The dozen French wineries this year are heavily weighted to Rhône producers; and there is nothing wrong with that. One in particular that I plan to check out is Domaine de la Solitude which is offering, among other wines, a Châteauneuf du Pape at $250 a bottle and another at $128. But there is very little Champagne this year, sadly.

Italy: The 15 Italian wineries this year include such old favourites in this market as Antinori, Frescobaldi and Masi. The latter winery is one of the great producers of Amarone. If you are comparing again, Amarone wines also are being shown by Pasqua and Tomassi.

United States: By my count, there are 29 American wineries in the festival, enough for a second theme region; Chile will not be happy. The entries include all the familiar California wineries – Beringer, Caymus, Kendall-Jackson, Louis Martini, Paul Hobbs, Robert Mondavi, Signorello, Sterling and Stag’s Leap.  There are also two Oregon wineries and two from Washington, including Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Others: There are also Spanish, Portuguese and New Zealand wineries, along with one each from South Africa and Mexico.

Tawse Winery: This Ontario winery is making its first appearance at the festival. It is the only Ontario winery here – but it is arguably the best Canadian winery. Tawse won the Canadian winery of the year award in each of the last two Canadian Wine Awards competitions.

The winery was opened in 2005 by Moray Tawse, a Toronto financial executive. Located on the Jordan Bench, the winery is designed for the ultimate in gravity-flow processing. The investment in the winery is substantial. I once asked Tawse how much he was spending on the winery. He replied: “I won’t tell you but I can say that it will never make money.” I think he was joking.

This will be a rare chance to taste and buy the stunning Riesling, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from this winery.

Sake: There will be four producers of sake, or rice wine – two from Japan, one from Oregon and Granville Island’s Artisan SakeMaker.

This is not the first time that there has been a contingent of sake producers at the festival. Sake producers first applied five or six years ago. I was then the chair of the selection committee. Over the festival’s more than 30 years, it was the unwritten policy to exclude producers of non-grape beverages, such as fruit wines, as well as distilled spirits. Since as many as 300 wineries apply each year for the 185 tables in the tasting room, it was generally agreed that there were no tables to spare for the non-grape crowd.

The sake producers, however, were seen as a refreshing change from same old/same old. Once the seven-member selection committee made sure that the festival’s board of directors were on side as well, an area on the tasting room floor was set aside for sake. And it proved to be very popular.

It should draw crowds again this year. Japanese-born Masa Shiroki, who opened Artisan SakeMaker in 2007 on Granville Island, will be releasing what is a breakthrough product – sparkling sake made by the traditional bottle-fermented Champagne method. He is only releasing 240 bottles, priced at $50 a bottle. He will be pouring it at his stand and it will also be on sale at the festival wine store. Don’t miss it.


At February 20, 2012 at 10:27 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Great recap John, much appreciated. Hope to bump into you there!

At February 27, 2012 at 3:28 PM , Blogger Channell said...

Yes, great to have certain wineries highlighted. Thanks John!

At February 28, 2012 at 6:02 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

This is most helpful, thank you John!


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