Calgary Wine Life: Washington Wine Tasting @ Bricks Wine Company

16 09 2016

If you have been sucked into the vast and wonderful world of wine at some point in your life, I guarantee there will be distinct moments that you can remember with shocking clarity, a series of epiphanies around particular bottles that made you go:  “I didn’t think wine could be like that.”  You form loyalties around those bottles, the producers that created them and the regions that birthed them.  You seek them out, and those like them, and you try to find out everything about them.  They shape what you look for in wine going forward, but they also increase your awe and appreciation of wine in general, and by doing so they give you an incredible gift, a passageway into a realm that bridges art and science, sensuality and precision.

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I’ve had maybe half a dozen such bottles in my life.  One of them was the 2009 Walla Walla Syrah from Gramercy Cellars, which opened my eyes to the remarkable potential of Washington State wine and made me a lifelong proponent of the area, the winery and even the grape.  I’ve discovered since that it wasn’t a fluke:  Washington is filled with a shocking amount of top quality wine, and an array of producers pushing the envelope of what a young New World region should be able to accomplish this soon.  Even the large producers and the entry-level wines of the state come to play, somehow bypassing the plonk basement that consumers of most other areas have to wade through.  Despite all this, the gospel of Washington has been slow to spread, partly due to familiarity (“there’s world class wine WHERE?”) and partly due to price (no $14 slam dunks to be seen, at least in this market).

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All of this is why I was so thrilled to attend a Washington State wine tasting at Bricks Wine Company last night.  Bricks is the newest entry into Calgary’s impressive boutique wine scene, nestled in a historic old brick (natch) building at the start of trendy, funky Inglewood, but despite being in the process of establishing a foothold in the market, it hasn’t held back on inspired and daring wine selections, including one of the best arrays of Washington wines in town.  Regions like Washington need wine-savvy guides to take people by the hand and point them to the great wines nestled where they never thought to look; Bricks is the type of shop equipped to do just that.  And that showed in spades in the lineup of wines we tasted through, an array of luminaries that erased any questions about Washington State’s ability to stand with the elites of the wine world.

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Before the tasting, we were greeted with Gramercy’s 2015 Olsen Vineyard Rose, which I have previously enjoyed and written up here.  Then came six straight reds that laid out Washington’s past, present and future:

Wine #1:  2013 Rotie Cellars “Little G” ($90)

Rotie Cellars is the creation of Sean Boyd, a Washington State native who pursued a very Alberta-like career path through geology and oil and gas before shifting course and launching into the wine world.  Rotie has existed for less than a decade, but Boyd’s geology background has attuned him to the distinctions of various soils and made him a quick study in accentuating them in his wines.  The winery name is no coincidence:  Boyd named his project after the famed Cote Rotie region in France’s Northern Rhone, and focuses all his wines on Rhone varietals.

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Little G is probably the creme-de-la-creme of the Rotie portfolio, a 100% Grenache premium red that is a throwback to the more elegant, aristocratic side of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Rotie’s Alberta importer has told me on more than one occasion that Little G is a New World dead ringer for the renowned (and pricy) all-Grenache CNDP Chateau Rayas – a heady compliment, but one that’s totally borne out when you try this wine.  Despite coming from a fairly hot, arid region, the Little G was a completely transparent ruby-garnet, beaming out candied cherry and strawberry fruit laced with savoury herbs and white chocolate, celery root and rhubarb.  It is feather-light and yet round and silky at the same time, a textural marvel, and despite delicate tannin likely has a long life in front of it given how easily it held its poise in the glass (after a full day decant) and how absurdly long it kept going on the finish.  A truly sui generis wine – Sean Boyd may be the only one who can make a wine like this come from here.  Marvellous.

94-95 points

Wine #2:  2011 Rotie Cellars Southern Blend ($58)

Back to back Rotie Cellars to lead off the tasting, this one a Southern Rhone-inspired blend (hence the name) of Grenache and Mourvedre, rounded out by hints of Syrah and Cinsault.  We were lucky enough to try a back vintage of this bottle, a benefit because most of the wines at this tasting were built to last and needed some time to show themselves.

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The Southern Blend was a clearly deeper ruby colour than the Little G, with much darker blackberry and blueberry fruit, a whiff of the black olive tapenade flavour so prevalent in Washington wine, dusty pavement/asphalt and copper.  The immediate palate sensation was so different from the Little G that it’s almost unbelievable that they’re both Grenache-based and both from the same winemaker:  the Southern Blend is more squat and plush, significantly heavier in texture and with a sort of muscular density.  Impressive and very tasty, but without the lifted nature that (literally and figuratively) elevated the Little G to the heights it reached.

91-92 points

Wine #3:  2013 Gramercy Cellars L’Idiot du Village Mourvedre ($68)

Gramercy Cellars is the brainchild of Greg Harrington, who was the youngest American to attain the rank of Master Sommelier and had a dream gig running the beverage program for a prestigious group of restaurants in NYC until a chance tasting of Walla Walla wines quickly led him and his wife Pam to uproot and head to Washington to make Syrah.  Gramercy has some fun with its mailing list every year, releasing members-only wines that highlight certain vineyards or grapes that don’t always get top billing in the winery’s regular rotation.  In 2010 they made a 100% Mourvedre for their wine club (which Greg has said was one of his favourite wines ever, and some of which snuck onto Albertan retail shelves, which allowed me to buy a LOT of it); shortly after they decided to turn one of their annual stalwarts, L’Idiot du Village, into a Mourvedre showcase.  In the world of underrated reds, Mourvedre has floor seats.

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The 2013 L’Idiot (which is 90% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah) belies Mourvedre’s chewy, rough-and-rustic expectations by appearing mostly translucent and smelling almost pretty, in an Old West, sepia-toned kind of way:  pure raspberry and cherry meets smoke, dust, black pepper and charcoal briquettes.  It explodes on the palate, juicy yet structured, raspberry cough syrup, orange zest and red currant cut by cured meat, concrete and an underlying, somehow-pleasant dankness.  This would just hum with food and would sail through a decade of aging.  So good.

92-93 points

Wine #4:  2013 Trust Walla Walla Syrah ($50)

Trust Cellars has been gaining increasing acclaim recently with a portfolio focusing on my favourite white and red grapes:  Riesling and Syrah.  I first tried their Syrah shortly after discovering Washington wine, and their current offering was certainly a crowd-pleaser at the tasting.  There was an immediate visual difference between this wine and anything that had come before it:  it was deeper, darker, thicker, blacker.  The nose similarly stood out, featuring sweeter cola, blackcurrant Wine Gums, fruitcake, anise and sunbaked earth – this was a bigger, riper wine through and through.  Both the Trust Syrah and the Gramercy L’Idiot were stated to be 14.1% abv on their labels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Trust was actually a full degree higher in alcohol based on how they came across.

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That said, although the Trust Syrah was certainly big and bold, there was eminent structure and surprising levels of acidity for such a powerful wine.  Brambly yet polished, with a hint of boozy heat and thick concentration of flavour, it could have broken loose and been all over the place, but it wasn’t, impressively restrained by its construction.  Yet I still had visions of Amarone dancing in my head when the fresh fruit notes dried and the potency increased.

88-89 points

Wine #5:  2012 Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon ($78)

I almost felt like I should genuflect with this bottle — Woodward Canyon is a pioneer of Washington State wine, helping put the region on the map with other luminaries like Leonetti, L’Ecole No. 41 and Pepper Bridge.  Their Artist Series Cab is a signature wine, a benchmark of Washington State vinous history…yet I had never tried it until now.  Bring it.

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The colour difference between Cabernet and Rhone varietals was immediately apparent, as this one pulled down the shades and was mostly opaque, a deep dense ruby colour hinting at a touch of maturation.  The nose was classic, traditional Cab, a mixture of blackcurrant, blackberry, leather, lead pencils and eucalyptus, just starting to lean towards the tobacco-y notes of middle age.  That said, the old school, nearly Old World, structure was still firmly in place, with pervasive tannins and subtly potent acidity behind a dense cherry cola veneer.  A beautiful wine that will be even better in five years, it was a thrill to check this off my list.

92-93+ points

Wine #6:  2013 Force Majeure Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($160)

The grand finale of the tasting created a Cab showdown which turned out to be a classic New World versus Old World (sort of) battle.  Force Majeure is an emerging powerhouse on the Washington wine scene, armed with premium estate vineyards on the highly sought-after Red Mountain AVA (not actually a mountain, but with enough elevation to make a difference in the grapes).  For years they produced wines using their fruit and borrowed winemakers from other top Washington estates, but these Collaboration Series wines are soon coming to an end after they recently brought on California cult winemaker Todd Alexander (formerly of Cali stalwart Bryant) to work with their grapes.  This particular Cab is a non-collaboration estate-based wine, the last one before Alexander’s hiring.

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Um, wow.  This wine was barely open enough to drink after a DAY airing out.  The word “powerhouse” barely begins the conversation.  This is PURPLE and DENSE, in that order. Right now everything you get is primary:  grape Kool-Aid, blueberry jam, black licorice, purple Mr. Sketch marker.  When you taste it you’re met with an absolute wall of tannin, concentrated and ferocious, black and tight and thick.  We are drinking it so prematurely that it has moved me into the present tense.  This Cab reminds me most of when I was in Napa and visited Joseph Phelps, where every tasting group is offered the chance to try the most recent version of Insignia, a 30+ year wine that is murdered when its cork is pulled so early.  This has that kind of build and that kind of potential.  There is something here that won’t be unwound for at least a decade, maybe two.  If you have a bottle, wait.  Please.

93-94+ points

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This was an absolute stunner of a tasting from start to finish, and the first and last wines of the night could not have been more different, but they were equally memorable and each showed a different facet of what makes Washington State a global standout in the world of wine.  What a night.  Bravo.

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