Thursday, April 11, 2024

Ruffino: historic Chianti producer at Vancouver International Wine Festival

Photo: Ruffino brand ambassador Beppe d'Andrea
It would be hard to think of a Tuscan winery more strongly identified with Chianti than Ruffino. No doubt, that is one reason why it was among the large contingent of Italian wineries at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival. Ruffino was represented by its veteran brand ambassador, Beppe d’Andrea. There is an extensive portfolio of 14 Ruffino wines in the BC Liquor stores; and elsewhere in this market. I would bet there is not an Italian restaurant in B.C. without at least one Ruffino wine in the list; and likely more than one. That reflects how long Ruffino has been a major exporter to this and other North American markets with quality wines at sensible prices. Ruffino was the first producer to export Chianti to the United States.
The winery was founded in 1877 by brothers Ilario and Leopoldo Ruffino. They soon established a reputation with gold medal winning Chianti wines. That resulted in Ruffino being named an official wine supplier to the Italian royal family. In turn, that led to the release in 1927 of what became its signature Chianti, branded as Riserva Ducale to acknowledge the patronage of the royal house. The winery was purchased in 1913 by the Folonari family. At the time, Ruffino probably was better known for Chiantis offered in traditional flasks wrapped in straw. I don’t know when that packaging was abandoned. I do remember buying it but I never used the empty flask as a candle holder. Many others did.
Beppe d’Andrea began his career at Ruffino in 1987 when the winery still was owned by the Folonaris. Beppe began working in the vineyards but soon moved to the cellars, first making white wines and then graduating to Chianti Classico and other red wines while also qualifying as a sommelier. His ability as a raconteur led to his appointment as Ruffino’s brand ambassador in 1995.
The Ruffino winery and its estates were acquired in 1999 by Constellation Brands, the big American wine and conglomerate. The Canadian market will recall that Constellation, on the way to becoming the world’s largest wine company, once also owned Vincor International and its brands here (Jackson-Triggs, Sumac Ridge, See Ya Later Ranch and others). In the last decade, Constellation’s Canadian wineries were repatriated by Alterra and are back under Canadian management.
Ruffino, however, remains under Constellation ownership. Beppe says that it is an arms-length relationship. “Constellation is the owner but we manage the company, not someone from Constellation,” he says. “The company is Italian. But it is important to be part of a big company. We talk to the other winemakers … how we can improve; what do they do in California or Oregon or New Zealand. We can share information on how to improve. This is why it is important to be part of a big brand.”
Chianti has changed profoundly since the days of the flasks in straw baskets. “A long time ago, Chianti Classico was always a blend, since 1700, when the regions was created,” Beppe says. “The rule then was that Chianti Classico was a blend of two red grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and two white grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia. Then it changed again. In the 1990s, most of the producers including Ruffino, started to use some international varietals [Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot] in blends, giving the wines a different taste.” He continues: “Now, we are going back – not using white grapes but using indigenous red grapes. We are mostly using Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero, Colorino, Malvasia Nera. We would like to more identify the wine with the place where we make it. The taste has changed a lot in the last several years.” In addition to avoiding French varietals, Ruffino also has stopped aging most of its red wines in French oak barriques. The wines are now aged in large casks, mostly neutral Slovenian oak, another reason why the fruit in today’s Chianti wines is more vibrant.
Ruffino began converting its vineyard to organic practices in 2006 and expects to be fully certified organic by 2025. The winery has switched its eight estates to solar power. “All company cars are electric,” Beppe says. “And we are pushing the company to move as fast as possible to electric tractors. We have to do everything possible to improve the quality of the life, not just the quality of the wine.”
Here are notes on some of the wines that Ruffino has in this market, either from my tastings at the festival or from the BCLDB website.
Ruffino Aqua di Venus Pinot Grigio 2022 ($26.99). The grapes for this wine are from a Ruffino estate in Friuli. This is one of the best Pinot Grigio wines I have tasted: refreshing with notes of lime, peach and citrus. 91.
Ruffino Chianti ($14.99). This is the successor to Chianti in the straw-clad flask. BCLD describes it thus: “Floral notes of violet on the nose lead to fruity flavours of plum, sweet cherry and a lightly spicy finish. Medium-bodied, this red shows fresh fruit on the finish.”
Ruffino Il Ducale Toscano 2018 ($21.99). The BCLDB describes it thus: “Dark ruby in colour, this wine is made predominately of Sangiovese, with a touch of Merlot and Syrah. The flavour is rich with aromas of dark plum, black cherry, spice and notes of cassis and chocolate. On the palate, it is well-balanced with pleasant acidity, fruit intensity and round tannins.”
Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale 2017 ($27.99). The BCLD says this wine “opens to a lean raspberry or ruby color with bright aromas of tart cherry and wild plum. This is a recognized, well-traveled wine and a mini-ambassador for Chianti Classico around the world.”
Ruffino Modus 2020 ($34.99). This is a classic Super Tuscan wine: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (aged in French oak), Merlot and Sangiovese. This is a big, bold wine, with lots of dark fruit flavours mingled with notes of oak. 92.
Ruffino Gran Selezione Riserva Ducale Oro 2019: $52.99. Gran Selezione is a classification created in 2014 that sits at the top of the Chianti Classico range. The wines must be made entirely from estate-grown grapes, with a minimum of 80% Sangiovese and an extra six months aging in cask. Various wine critics have scored this wine between 91 and 94 points. I was impressed by the concentrated flavours of dark fruits. The BCLDB says: "This shows notes of dried cherries and red plums with cured meat, dried sage and tree bark undertones. Medium- to full-bodied with plenty of structure. Ripe and velvety tannins with a fluid and polished mid-palate. Flavourful and intense." 92.
Ruffino Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Romitorio di Santedame 2015 ($70.99). The BCLD quotes a Wine Advocate review: "Showing a ripe and robust personality, the 2015 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Romitorio is a wine of depth and dimension. The wine exhibits a polished and fine bouquet of aromas with wild cherry, red rose petal, spice and crushed rock at the front. It shows a dry, polished texture with plenty of fruit-driven endurance.”

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Quails' Gate Chasselas and friends

Photo: Quails' Gate president Tony Stewart (courtesy of Quails'Gate winery)
The best-selling white wine at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery usually is its blend of Chasselas/Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris.
Chasselas is the major white varietal of Switzerland. Not much is planted in the Okanagan; the 6.4-acre block at the Quails’ Gate vineyard is there only because a vine nursery shipped the varietal in error when the vineyard was being developed in 1961. The Stewart family had ordered a labrusca varietal called Diamond. Several years later, after the vines were established, a visiting French grape expert identified them as Chasselas. The error was fortunate for the Stewarts. Diamond was then widely grown in Ontario, producing grapey and foxy wines that consumers were drinking because they did not know better. You would have difficulty selling it to today’s sophisticated consumers. Quails’ Gate’s Chasselas, on the other hand, has had a good following for the past 30 years. At one point, a Canadian regional airline even offered it in its in-flight service.
Some years ago, one of the Quails’ Gate winemakers had the bright idea to stretch the limited volume of Chasselas by blending it with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. It is a good blend: Pinot Blanc adds structure while the Pinot Gris lifts the fruitiness. The volumes of the four wines discussed here have not been disclosed. The 2022 Chardonnay is from a year of better than average production. The 2023 vintage, on the other hand, was about half the average production due to winter damage and late 2022. It is anticipated this fall’s vintage was be far smaller because even more serious winter damage in January this year.
Joanna Schlosser, the winery’s marketing director, warns that Quails’ Gate wines likely will be in short supply for the next several years. “In January, our vineyards experienced winter's severity, a reminder of the delicate balance we navigate as farmers and how we manage climate change,” she writes. “The damage felt valley-wide will require extensive replanting and the full impact will not be known until the end of June. At Quails’ Gate, we're proactively addressing these challenges by planting new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones, enhancing both vineyard quality and wine craftsmanship. We're planting 80,000 vines across 40 acres this year, with similar plans for next year, focusing on areas affected by recent winters. These efforts will ensure our long-term vineyard production.”
The winery also is considering temporarily sourcing grapes and wines from other regions. I would take that to include California. Quails’ Gate president Tony Stewart and his family dipped a toe into California in 2011, first with a Napa joint venture and in 2012 with a major investment in Sonoma. The Stewart family purchased two historic Sonoma wineries, Lake Sonoma and Valley of the Moon, from F. Korbel & Bros. Four years later, the Stewarts bought a third Sonoma producer, primarily to get a production facility and tasting room for Lake Sonoma. The strategy has been to get those wines into Canadian markets. Currently, a Lake Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon is listed for $30 in 121 BC Liquor Stores while Everything Wine has five Lake Sonoma wines.
Meanwhile, Quails’ Gate has just released three wines from the 2023 vintage and one from the 2022 vintage. Here are notes on the wines.
Quails’ Gate Dry Riesling 2023 ($19.99). The grapes were cold in stainless steel. The wine shows great purity, with aromas and flavours of lime, lemon and orchard fruits. The touch of residual sugar is well balanced with bright acidity. This wine is easy to drink, especially at the price. 90.
Quails’ Gate Chasselas-Pinot Blanc-Pinot Gris 2023 ($21.99). This is a blend of 50% Chasselas, 30% Pinot Blanc and 20% Pinot Gris. The varietals were cold-fermented separately in stainless steel. This is likely the most popular wine from Quails’ Gate: a wine that manages to be juicy on the palate and refreshing on the finish. There are aromas of citrus and pear, leading to flavours of apple and peach. 90.
Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2022 ($26.99). The fruit for this wine was whole-cluster pressed and fermented in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak. The wine was aged nine months on the lees. The wine begins with aromas of butter and citrus, leading to a rich palate with flavours of mandarin orange and orchard fruits. 91
Quails’ Gate Rosé 2023 ($21.99). This rosé is a blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir. The colour is fashionably pale. Easy to drink and quite refreshing, the wine has aromas and flavours of watermelon, strawberry and raspberry.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Bordertown releases excellent wines from small 2023 vintage.

Photo: Bordertown's Mohan Gill
Judging from the excellent 2023 wines which Bordertown Estate Winery is just releasing, the 2023 Okanagan vintage is terrific. That is the good news. The bad news is that it is the smallest vintage in several decades, to be followed by an even smaller vintage in 2024, the result of two consecutive winters with hard frosts. However, Mohan Gill, Bordertown’s proprietor, believes that his winery’s deep inventory of red wines will sustain his business until grape production is back to normal.
The intense flavours and aromas of Bordertown’s 2023 whites is, ironically, a consequence of the short crop in that vintage. “On average, the crop was around 45% in 2023 compared to what we get in an average year,” he says. “The plants produced really small bunches. That’s what makes the difference. The crop was very light.” As well, the vines had a generous canopy which helped drive more flavour into the small bunches. “The ripening was more even and quicker than normal because the crop was not there,” Mohan explains. “But there were a lot of leaves and that gave energy and nutrients that contributed to the ripening and the better flavour.”
The winery produced close to 10,000 cases of wine last fall, down dramatically from 23,000 cases produced in 2022. It is too early to forecast what Bordertown’s vineyard will produce this year. The industry believes that the severe freeze in January this year killed most of the fruiting buds and likely some vines. Wine production is expected to be minimal. “We hope we can save the plants,” Mohan says. “Some have more damage than others. I probably need to replant a couple of vineyards. Last year, we pulled out one Malbec block and we put in Cabernet Franc, because it is winter hardy. And also, it is our flagship red wine.”
There are two reasons why he does not sound too distressed. Bordertown’s production is 80% red and 20% white. The winery still is selling reds from the 2018 and 2019 vintage and has a good inventory of successive vintages. “A lot of wineries have a backlog of red wine -- three to four years anyway,” Mohan believes. Secondly, the market for BC wines, including cellar door sales, softened last year. Highway closures and wild fires in the interior had a negative impact on wine touring. Mohan has always sold grapes to other wineries. Last fall, despite the short crop, some of his customers were reducing their orders, matching production to softer sales.
Because of the widespread vineyard damage, there has been a lot of discussion in the industry about importing grapes this fall from the United States or Ontario. Mohan would not support that. “That would ruin the whole B.C. market,” he argues. “If we bring in fruit from another country and try to manufacture wines here, the fruit quality is not there. People realize that BC is growing number one quality wine. So we would be ruining our own market. Consumers understand. They know the crop is less.”
Mohan also has not responded to the diminished production by raising wine prices. “People realize that I am a grower and there is no middle man,” he says. “That is one of the reasons that the prices are really decent.
Here are notes on his 2023 releases.
Bordertown Living Desert White 2023 ($18 for 470 cases). This is a complex blend: 52% Grüner Veltliner, 18% Pinot Gris, 15% Muscat, 10% Gewürztraminer and 5% Chardonnay. The wine begins with aromas of pear, peach and apple. The palate delivers flavours of citrus and stone fruits with a touch of spice on the crisp finish. 91.
Bordertown Pinot Gris 2023 ($20 for 3,500 cases). This is a delicious wine, full of aromas and flavours of peach, pear and citrus. 90.
Bordertown Gewurztraminer 2023 ($20 for 300 cases). The wine begins with aromas of spice and tropical fruits. On the palate, there are flavours of lychee, pineapple and peach. There is a well-balanced touch of sweetness on the finish. 91.
Bordertown Unoaked Chardonnay 2023 ($22 for 350 cases). This wine struts its fruitiness, with aromas and flavours of apple and peach. The lush texture leads to a persistent finish. 91.
Bordertown Grüner Veltliner 2023 ($22 for 350 cases). This wine begins with aromas of pineapple leading to flavours of quince, pear and peach. There is minerality and a hint of spice on the finish. 91.
Bordertown Viognier 2023 ($22 for 265 cases). This is a rich and luscious wine beginning with aromas of apple, apricot and pineapple; those are echoed on the flavour-packed palate. The finish lingers. 92.
Bordertown Rosé 2023 ($23 for 385 cases). Made with Cabernet Franc, this wine presents in the glass with a pink/bronze hue. It has aromas and flavours of strawberry and watermelon. 90.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Il Molino di Grace: a Tuscan jewel at the Wine Festival

Photo: Daniel Grace, the Tuscan vintner from California
Among the 71 Italian wineries at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival, perhaps the most unexpected discovery was a producer from Tuscany called Il Molino di Grace. Daniel Grace and his family, who launched the winery venture in 1995, originally came from California. Frank Grace, Daniel’s father, formerly operated a shipping business based in Britain. Wine lovers and wine collectors, the Grace family were intimately familiar with the Chianti region in Tuscany. When the opportunity arose to buy a 350-year-old 20-hectare Tuscan vineyard, “we leaped at it,” Daniel told me in an interview.
The state-of-the-art winery, which was built in 1997, is named after a 19th century historic windmill on the property. Molino is Italian for windmill. One of the first moves by the Grace family was to pull out the Cabernet Sauvignon vines and replacing them with indigenous Tuscan varietals such as Canaiolo and Colorino. The Grace family was at the forefront of the movement away from blending French varietals into so-called Super Tuscan wines. While the Super Tuscan wines were delicious, many Tuscan (and other Italian) producers have rediscovered the purity of wines made with the native Italian varietals. There are at least 600 indigenous Italian varietals. Many were on the cusp of extinction in the 1980s before Italy recognized that the world did not need another Chardonnay or Merlot.
“When we first set foot on the property,” Daniel says, “there was a sense of, oh my God, here come Californians. We will Napa-fi Tuscany. I think Napa is sort of Disneyland. If anything, we fell in love with this majestic purity [in Tuscany]. All of our Chianti has always been 100% Sangiovese. Our Super Tuscan is all made with indigenous fruit. We made significant changes to the vineyards. When we first arrived, we ripped out all the Cabernet, so we would not be tempted to scratch that itch. We went into it acutely aware of tradition and authenticity. I think it has been our compass.”
The rise in the quality of Chianti in recent decades has been dramatic. “The Chianti Classico region hasn’t had such a sexy swagger since the days of the Medicis,” Daniel says. “Ten, 15 years ago, I would walk into a room and say, sheepishly, let me change your mind about what you think about Chianti Classico wines. Now, I see it in people’s eyebrows --- that eyebrow-raising expectation one glass at a time. It is such a pleasure to see the response in the market place.” He gives a lot of credit to the Gran Selezione designation established in the Chianti Classico region a decade or so ago. It is the tide that “lifts all ships,” he says. “With the inaugural crop of the Gran Seleziones in the 2010 vintage, we were one of 19 producers,” Daniel continues. “And ours was the only 100% Sangiovese.”
The Chianti Riserva region encompasses the premium terroir of the larger Chianti producing area in Tuscany. The wines from the Riserva producers are divided into several quality classifications, starting with Chianti Classico, followed by Chianti Classico Riserva and then by Chianti Classico Riserva Gran Selezione. Regulations define the production methods that influence the quality of each wine designation.
The requirements for Gran Selezione became official in 2014. They specify that the grapes must be from the producer’s estate; that the wines must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese; and that the wines must be aged a minimum of 30 months (compared with 24 months for Riserva and about a year for Classico). “The requirement is 90% Sangiovese but I love to push it to 100% Sangiovese for Gran Seleziones,” Daniel says. (The current requirement is 80% Sangiovese, rising to 90% with the 2027 vintage.)
The winery has been certified organic since 2010. “Since its inception, Il Molino di Grace has made every effort to be a sustainable, bio-dynamic winery,” the website says. “We plow each vineyard only once every three years to the most shallow depths between the rows (maximum of 45 cm.) We use the cuttings from the vines to fuel the heating and air conditioning in the winery, thus eliminating the use of gas. All of the fertilizer used in the vineyards is organic, the yeast is indigenous, and the grapes are harvested and picked by hand only. Farming sustainably is a critical part of everything we do.”
Here are the four Chianti wines that Daniel Grace poured at the Wine Festival. His Vancouver agent, Patagonia Imports, has the wines in the Vancouver market.
Gratius Toscano IGT 2018 ($97.99). This is a powerful Super Tuscan incorporating only indigenous varietals (Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino), proving that one need not have French varietals in the blend to make a great wine. This wine will age very well. 95.
Il Margone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2018 ($57.99). This wine is made entirely with estate-grown Sangiovese. The wine is full-bodied with aromas and flavours of cherry, blackberry, black currant and spice, with a spine of minerality and long ripe tannins. 93.
Chianti Classico Riserva 2020 ($51.99). This wine has a lovely core of fruit, an almost unexpected richness for a Sangiovese wine. That is complimented by notes of cherry and spice, with a long finish. 92.
Chianti Classico 2020 ($38.99). The style of this wine, which is 100% Sangiovese, is brighter and leaner, with flavours of red fruit and with firm tannins. 90.