Drink Chenin Day: South African Sampler, Part I

18 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

As far as concocted wine holidays go, this one has a rather organic beginning. The first Drink Chenin Day, a global celebration of the wonderful and perennially underrated Chenin Blanc, was not self-created by a trade association or a PR firm, but was held in 2014 by a group of American sommeliers and winemakers. Their initiative was picked up by the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa, which has turned the third Friday of every June into an industry-backed festival of all things Chenin. This year’s Drink Chenin theme for the big day on June 18th (this Friday) is “Chenin & Sushi”, which makes a whole lot of sense, particularly if your Chenin Blanc is in sparkling form — there’s nothing like the bready, yeasty notes of bottle-aged traditional method bubbles playing off the umami funk inherent in wasabi-tinged soy sauce and raw fish. Add in vinegar (in the rice) and citrus (in the wine, like you’d squeeze over fish in the first place) and you have something mesmerizing. I am on board with wine holiday theme years, and hope to see this trend continued by the next grape on the Hallmark docket. World Lambrusco Day is June 21st…maybe steer clear of the sushi for that one.

Photo Credit: chenin.co.za.

True story: one of the first “name” wines that I ever bought when I first started studying wine was a Chenin Blanc. I bought a book that discussed the major wine grapes of the world and listed a pinnacle producer or two for each of them. I took an interest to the Chenin Blanc entry, which described the varietal’s generous texture yet incisive acidity, and summoned up my bravery to enter the closest true wine shop to my home at the time (Calgary’s incredible Metrovino) to look for the recommended landmark Chenin winery. I swallowed hard at the $40 price tag, but walked out with a bottle of the Loire Valley’s Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec. Fifteen years, thousands of bottles and a WSET education later, I write a wine blog that I don’t have time for on evenings and weekends. And I still love Chenin. That bottle pitched me into wine headfirst.

For Drink Chenin Day 2021, we have an array of South African offerings on display that are…largely not Chenin Blanc. However, *spoiler alert* those that are clearly stand out from the crowd, as this Southern Hemispheric nation has embraced this grape (long known as “Steen” there, though less so now) more than most other countries and has clearly reaped the rewards of that allegiance. South Africa has undergone a quality renaissance recently that has largely been tied to improved farming practices and the avoidance of pesky vine viruses, so it is absolutely worth another visit for those whose prior memories are half a decade old or more. Some of the most pleasant vinous surprises I’ve had over the past few years have hailed from this burgeoning wine nation…and that’s without diving too far into their Chenin supply. (Pro tip: try the Raats Dolomite Cab Franc.) Raising a large glass of Testalonga Chenin to you all this weekend! Find some raw fish!

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Calgary (Virtual) Wine Life: Vina Chocalan Tasting with Fernando Espina

6 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Perhaps the only good thing about the state of our current COVID world is that you can still attend a wine tasting even if you miss it. Scheduling conflicts prevented our attendance at the recent portfolio tasting that winemaker Fernando Espina of Chile’s Vina Chocalan ran for key Canadian markets, but like everything else these days, the tasting was virtual, and thankfully for us it was recorded for posterity. A couple of days and a bottle delivery later, we were in business, and we were extremely thankful not to miss out on an introduction to a tremendously compelling winery honouring its maritime climate to the fullest extent.

Vina Chocalan is a multi-generational family winery that came into the wine business from a unique parallel industry. You hear a lot of stories about long-time grape farmers who finally take the next step with the fruits of their labour and try their hand at winemaking; you hear far fewer about people who instead come to wine from the glass in. Vina Chocalan’s Toro family owns the second biggest glass bottle factory in Chile and has supplied bottles to wineries around the world for six decades. In the late 1990s, they decided that they should put something in their own bottles themselves, and a grand project was born, focusing initially on the coastal western side of Chile’s Maipo Valley. While the Maipo is the heart of Chilean viticulture, in particular anchoring the nation’s red wine production, no one had planted a vineyard along the Valley’s Coastal Mountain Range until Vina Chocalan did so in 1998, planting 114 hectares out of a 350-hectare plot located a scant 35 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean ahead of their first commercial production in 2001. The next year, they took a step even further into the unknown, establishing a second estate and 25 hectares of white-focused plantings by the village of Malvilla in the San Antonio Valley, located almost due west from the Maipo and only FOUR kilometres from the Pacific. This extremely cool-climate site is a completely different expression of Chilean wine, and a reminder that the best wines nowadays are often made right at the edge of the line.

Hegemonic producer Concha y Toro, one of the 10 largest wineries in the world, might have had something to say about it if the Toro family had opted to name their nascent winery after themselves. They instead opted for their less-litigious moniker Vina Chocalan, which means “yellow blossoms”, after a prevalent local thorn bush flower in the vineyards. Our introduction to the winery came in the form of a half-dozen bottles ranging across both the Maipo and San Antonio estates, whites and reds that emphatically confirm this is a producer to know. Three bottles each, a new universe to explore. Buckle up.

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Distinctive Australian Whites (Almost)

30 04 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I had it all planned out. Australia is a red wine country, but is developing pockets of renown for dramatic and exciting whites that were worth their own dedicated post. One pioneering winery Down Under with particular experience in one such white grape had recently decided to create a new international vinous holiday as an ode to it, and I thought I had a bottle of that very variety from that very producer tucked away in the cellar. Kismet. My theme was set, my plan ready, my mind willing. It came…sort of close to working out. While you will quickly see the monkey wrench thrown into the works, the bottles below, and Australia’s burgeoning white wine culture generally, remain well worth highlighting and supporting. In addition to the new and classic styles of Southern Hemisphere white discussed in this post, don’t sleep on Hunter Valley Semillon (especially if you can wait 10+ years on it), Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner (yes, there is such a thing), Margaret River or Tasmanian Chardonnay (dangerously close to the very best out there), sweet Rutherglen Muscat, and all the other regional white wonders that Australia has to offer. It’s a world of possibilities in a single country, for which the below trio of nearly-whites offers a tantalizing glimpse.

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Malbec Maelstrom, Part I: Malbec World Day

15 04 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes]

When somebody sends you 14 bottles of Argentinian wine and instructs you to celebrate Malbec World Day, you pop some corks and celebrate the damn day. This global vinous event, which falls on April 17th (this Saturday), was created by the Wines of Argentina to showcase the country’s signature grape and celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2021. For the first nine of those years, I wrongly thought it was called “World Malbec Day” and I’m still struggling to recalibrate. April 17th was the date the first agricultural school was founded in Argentina back in 1853, the year that Malbec first hit South American shores. Nearly 150 years later, steeped in local history and tradition, it became a sudden massive worldwide hit. Alongside Australian Shiraz, Argentina’s own ex-French showcase export rose from international obscurity to overwhelming commercial renown thanks to its combination of bold, accessible fruity flavours and equally accessible price tags. Argentina exported 128 million litres of Malbec last year, maintaining its status as a world phenomenon.

Note to self: Malbec World Day, NOT World Malbec Day.

Like I did with Shiraz before it, I wonder about Argentinian Malbec’s next act. Its rise has been meteoric, but nothing sustains momentum like this forever, and when the next affordable and approachable varietal trend hits and the spotlight dims slightly, Malbec will have a choice to make. It has captured popular acclaim and is yanked off the retail shelf more quickly than most of its competitors. What does it want to be next? Certain shining examples are testing the limits of quality and identity in Argentina; is that the play, exploring the intricacies of the thrillingly unique altitude-induced mountain climates of Mendoza, or is slaking the thirst of the world at an affordable price a sufficient goal? As a wine-growing region, Argentina has a series of thrilling advantages, from massive diurnal shifts to easy access to extraordinarily old vines; in a world that is constantly seeking out extreme viticulture, for climatic or more adventurous reasons, the country’s entire growing area screams it. What’s it going to do with it? Let’s raise seven glasses of Malbec as we wait to find out, and Ray will bring us home later in the week with another seven.

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Culmina Winery: Novelties and Rarities

31 03 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Well, I would say “happy spring!”, but this week has already seen a winter storm warning, wind chills down to -20, ice gales loud enough to wake you up at night and a fresh dump of new snow. “Happy Calgary spring!” seems more appropriate. As we head into what is ostensibly a season of rebirth and renewal, of overhauls and spring cleaning, the time is apt to check in on how a winery that has long been followed by this blog is approaching its own clean slate. Culmina Family Estate Winery was sold by founders Don and Elaine Triggs to Arterra Wines Canada in mid-2019, who appear to have approached their new venture with twin goals: (1) maintain the Triggs family’s legacy and vision for these meticulously studied and planned-out lands, and (2) use this existing knowledge and ambition to move the winery forward in a way that expands its reach and identity. Not easy things to try to do at the same time.

Perhaps luckily for Arterra, Culmina was already stretching and broadening its lineup when the new owners came on board. A string of additional bottlings outside of Culmina’s original core, whether as part of the standard release set or as part of the winery’s unique Number Series offerings, introduced a wave of variety while hewing to the estate-based philosophy on which the winery was founded, elegantly bridging the transition into Culmina’s new era and giving consumers tasting experiences that hinted at the winery’s own second wave. For each of these bottles below, it’s a clean slate for both the wines and their maker.

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Wine Review: Friends of Oceania

3 02 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Since we can’t travel right now (without being wildly irresponsible, at least), I find myself lingering more in the memories of places I’ve been. We went to Australia and New Zealand on our honeymoon in 2008, and were so smitten with the latter that we went back again, this time with kids in tow, for our 10th anniversary in 2018. Obviously a return voyage in seven more years will have to be in the works; rarely have I felt more at home in a place so far away. Our more recent NZ vacation featured a day trip through the South Island Sauvignon Blanc wonderland of Marlborough, which is both more pastoral and more compact than I would have expected in light of the extraordinary production figures emanating from the region, enough to flood global retail shelves with a piercingly distinctive take on an otherwise broadly familiar grape.

The visit included a stop at Greywacke, to me a pinnacle producer of the region, started by a man who found fame in wine and then reimagined the pursuit, this time on a more personal, artisanal scale. I got to show my sons grapevines, one of whom was old enough to take a passing interest in the subject. He has a special affinity to the winery that bears his name, from a country that he has yet to see, in a part of Australia that I have yet to visit myself. Vasse Felix will always be royalty in our household by word association, aided by the fact that their entire lineup is consistently exceptional, never chasing trends, always honest to its vision and its surroundings. That Vasse Felix’s entry-level wines bear the name “Filius” or “son of”, is hopefully as heartwarming to fathers of Felixes everywhere and not just to me. I currently feel like I would love to take off to ANYWHERE, but I would especially love to be back on this side of the world. For the time being, I will use these bottles as transport instead.

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Burrowing Owl: Reds of Prey

14 01 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

So it’s been a while. I think this two and a half month gap between posts probably represents Pop & Pour’s longest lull since I started the blog almost ten years ago. Blame work stress, or COVID malaise, or blogging burnout or existential dread or some combination thereof, but I have found it a struggle to write recently and the site has suffered as a result. However, I have come to realize that the longer I went without posting, the more I fell back into doing nothing remotely beneficial after tiring days, which just exacerbated the funk and malaise and made me feel worse. I’m not someone who can do nothing for long and feel good about it, and I failed to recognize the benefit of this creative outlet until I stopped using it. So cue my 2021 New Year’s resolution (other than to get vaccinated, hopefully as soon as humanly possible, and to act like a responsible adult until I do): get back to the blog. Game on.

This is the final instalment of a three-piece, two-author review saga of the always-dependable wines from Burrowing Owl, starting with my initial assessment of the winery’s carefree Calliope side label, then turning to Ray’s foray into the first part of the Burrowing Owl lineup, and culminating with tonight’s look at a couple of the winery’s top reds, the Merlot and the flagship Meritage. Through its long Okanagan history, Burrowing Owl has been known for the big red portion of its portfolio first and foremost, thanks to its enduring determination to craft accessible, powerful versions of Bordeaux varietals in BC, even back when it was an extraordinary challenge to do so consistently. Vineyard age (their estate vineyard is now nearly 30 years old) and honed-in farming and winemaking techniques have dialled in this objective, while also making room for compelling white wines and other offerings. But the heart never strays too far from home, even if the body explores new horizons.

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Calgary (Virtual) Wine Life: Taylor Fladgate 1970 Single Harvest Port Release

29 10 2020

By Peter Vetsch

How’s this for an on-brand 2020 story? There is no event on the annual blog tasting calendar that I look forward to more than the release of Taylor Fladgate’s latest 50 year-old single-harvest Port. Not coincidentally, there is also no event that has been covered more on this blog — this will be the fifth consecutive year that I’ve been fortunate enough to post about the yearly half-century-old release. However, this year, quite understandably, an in-person tasting was not in the cards, so for the safety of all involved, it was held virtually over Zoom. I couldn’t make the Zoom tasting due to work commitments, but fortunately it was recorded for posterity…until it wasn’t. The recording got technologically tripped up and dissipated into the ether along with the rest of our hopes and dreams for this year, so I missed the event entirely. Thankfully for me, these wines speak for themselves; and to the credit of all those who made it happen, despite it all, the story of these amazing wines will continue to be told, even in the most forgettable of years.

Taylor Fladgate has been around for over three centuries and has access to an astonishing array of library Ports from its own cellars, which have been expanded by way of a number of acquisitions of lesser-known Port houses, particularly Wiese & Krohn in 2013, a producer with its own vast holdings of back-vintage stock. While often older barrel-aged Ports are used as blending components for 30 Year or 40 Year Tawny Ports with an Indication of Age (the number on the bottle represents the average age of the blended Ports inside, allowing both older and younger tawnies to come together in any given release), Fladgate longed to do something more memorable with these liquid historical snapshots, and it turned to the flexible Colheita designation as the vehicle to make it happen. “Colheita” simply means “harvest”, and officially the term applies to any Port from a single harvest vintage that has been oxidatively aged in wood for at least 7 years. There is no maximum aging period for the designation, so in order to go beyond 40 Year Tawny, Taylor Fladgate began releasing limited edition Very Old Single Harvest Colheita Ports on their 50th anniversary from vintage starting back in 2014. These thrillingly memorable wines demonstrate the near-eternal longevity and ageability of good Tawny Ports; protected by both potent sugar and alcohol levels, they have been exposed to the rigours of an oxidative environment for decades before bottling, rendering them near-impervious to further degradation. This is the seventh release of these half-century-old masterpieces, and each one has been a thrilling glance at an increasingly distant history.

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Calliope: (End of) Summer Releases

27 08 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I have recently seen an opinion expressed more and more on wine-drenched social media:  that wine should be more expensive.  The basis behind the statement is that quality farming techniques, proper vineyard vigilance, ethical labour compensation and the avoidance of interventionist winemaking heuristics all cost money, and supporting a rigorous and chemical-free production process not only pays off in the result, but is worth paying more for on the shelf.  I empathize with the sentiment, and generally agree with the idea that more handmade vine-growing and winemaking processes necessitate a greater degree of care and focus in order to achieve success, which in turn can raise the ceiling of a wine’s potential.  I routinely pay more money for wines like this, which strive for quality through attentiveness.

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That said, there will always be a place for gateway wines, for both economic and marketing reasons.  There is a fairly significant portion of the wine-drinking population who won’t, or can’t, pay substantial sums for a single bottle of wine, regardless of its ostensible merit or authenticity.  In addition, our closest local winemaking industry here in Alberta, the Okanagan Valley next door, already faces pricing pressures to land on retail shelves at costs that are at least somewhat competitive to the Chilean and Argentinian offerings in the next aisle over, due to higher land and personnel costs and a host of other reasons.  If you want to convince people to pay a bit more for a certain region’s wines and to drink better as a result, you have to start them somewhere that combines both immediate enjoyment and and a subtle hint that they’re just starting to scratch the surface.  Enter Calliope.

This accessible, approachable, expressive value line from the Wyse family that brought you Burrowing Owl Winery is named after yet another bird (Canada’s smallest bird, in fact – a hummingbird found in southern BC) and is designed to offer wines with clear typicity and bright flavours in an attractive package that doesn’t scare people off.  While they could maybe do with a bit less stock photography on their website, their wines have consistently achieved this goal, and opened up the world of BC wines to new consumers as a result.  Calliope’s latest set of releases seek to maintain the formula, and bring some pink back into the winery’s vocabulary to boot.  But first, the whites. Read the rest of this entry »





Culmina: Summer 2020 Releases

21 07 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I love getting wines hot off the presses, just as they are hitting the market for the first time.  There is always a sense of anticipation associated with latest vintages of wines you have come to appreciate over time; with a baseline of familiarity about a particular bottle’s standard expression, it’s much easier to pick out differences based on vintage conditions or stylistic variations in winemaking.  Instead of trying to puzzle out what a wine is all about, you can look for how it approached a given year, what it suffered through to make it into the bottle, or whether its new rendition stretched its ambition or capabilities.

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I was especially interested in tracking the evolution of this latest set of releases from the Golden Mile Bench’s Culmina Family Estate Winery, as it was this month last year when it was announced that the estate’s founding family had sold the winery to Arterra Wines Canada, whose number of wineries under ownership has cleared the triple digits.  Arterra’s reach in the Okanagan includes stalwarts such as Laughing Stock, Nk’mip, See Ya Later Ranch and Sumac Ridge, as well as Jackson-Triggs, whose co-founder Don Triggs also founded Culmina, and also founded Arterra’s corporate predecessor Vincor International, a few mergers and acquisitions ago.  Time is a flat circle.  Don and his wife Elaine are now enjoying a well-deserved retirement (for real this time), leaving Culmina in the hands of winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon and the established winery management team.  What will they do with it?  The 2019 releases are our first chance to find out. Read the rest of this entry »





Castoro de Oro: Canned Heat Edition

5 07 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I have been on record for a while firmly in support of wines in cans.  While these aluminum-encased wonders will likely only ever play the role of sidekicks to the glass bottle in the world of wine packaging, they absolutely have their time and place:  specifically, whenever you need your wine to be portable and unbreakable, whenever you know that a full bottle won’t be needed, whenever you’re in a place where you need your wine’s container to be its own glassware, and whenever you want to stand outside and sip on a cold one that’s better than beer.  Cans are transportable, stackable, packable, TCA-proof and fully sealed from damaging oxygen, and once the wine is in the glass, you’d never know that a container bred after the Industrial Revolution was involved.  I’m all for the romance of wine, but I’m also for not wasting money on preventably damaged goods.  Cans are not a fad.  Bring them on.

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And Castoro de Oro has.  The Golden Beaver of British Columbia’s Golden Mile is the first southern Okanagan winery to bring out a line of canned wines, selected from the white, red and pink sides of their portfolio and line-priced at $8.99 across the board for the British Columbia and Alberta markets.  Each can is 250 mL, equivalent to a third of a bottle (or a can of Red Bull, for anyone who has ever had to work late, has had a baby, or just likes being jittery), and the wine inside is 100% estate fruit, the same as what the winery bottles in its standard glass packaging.  Quality, meet portability.

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[The lawyer in me has to intervene here for a second.  Often progress does not move as quickly as formal legal recognition, and this is one of those times.  British Columbia’s Wines of Marked Quality Regulation under the province’s Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act does not — yet? — allow for VQA wines, those of the highest recognized legal quality distinction in the province, to be bottled in cans.  Section 49(2) of the Regulation specifies that wines must be bottled in glass bottles; section 49(3) requires them to be sealed by real or fake corks or by screwcap.  Legislating quality practices is critically important, but it only works if you focus on what assures quality and don’t unnecessarily impede what doesn’t.  I predict an amendment to the Regulation is coming, but probably not until after the VQA emblem is regularly eschewed in favour of this wine delivery mechanism that consumers demand and that provides convenience without forgetting its primary purpose:  to respect and protect the wine inside.  Get on it, BC government.]

Those interested in further details about this peppy, approachable winery focused on delivering value and non-wallet-crushing wines should check out Ray’s excellent introduction to Castoro de Oro from last year.  Those interested in crushing some cans, read on. Read the rest of this entry »





Gerard Bertrand: Domaine de L’Aigle

23 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

The South of France is paradise, for vines and tourists alike.  Consistent weather, tons of heat and sunshine, yet just enough reprieve thanks to surrounding bodies of water — it’s the recipe for both stress-free ripening and a highly satisfying vacation.  Because of these climatic blessings, the growing areas around the Languedoc-Roussillon can successfully cultivate almost any grape you can think of, which helps its ability to generate value-priced reasonable facsimiles of varieties grown at enhanced pedigree and cost elsewhere.  This flexibility may come at a cost, however, hindering the area’s ability to carve out its own identity, one not tethered to other regions’ preconceived notions.  Languedoc luminary Gerard Bertrand has above all sought to let his home region’s soils sing loud and clear, and over the years he has cultivated an impressive array of vineyards and standalone estates that aim to do just that.  It is somewhat ironic, then, that one of his most compelling recent acquisitions is a place that doubles as a convincing stand-in for what I would have told you was the least possible French region to reflect in the deep South:  Burgundy.

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I should be careful to clarify:  Domaine de L’Aigle is nobody’s copycat.  Located at the northern peak of the Limoux appellation, which itself is slightly inland of the Mediterranean Sea and just south of famed fortified board-game city Carcassonne, the Domaine is situated at the foot of the Roquetaillade cliff, always the home of numerous nesting eagles (hence the winery name).  The combination of the highest altitude in the region and the cooling air coming down off the adjacent Pyranees mountain range makes average temperatures here 2-3 degrees Celsius lower than its neighbours in the Languedoc, resulting in substantially more rainfall and a massive drop in temperatures overnight.  In this one specific spot — which was France’s first home of sparking wine, by the way, back in 1531, before Dom Perignon figured out bubbles in Champagne — the climate is sufficiently moderate and bracing that the Burgundian duo of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay excel.  The focus of Domaine de L’Aigle is to explore these northern French varieties (as well as a little Gewurz, in a nod to even-more-northerly Alsace) as translated by the Languedoc’s terroir.  Gerard Bertrand acquired the Domaine in 2007, and it is now one of 16 biodynamic estates under the Bertrand umbrella, joining the previously reviewed Domaine de Villemajou and Chateau la Sauvageonne.  Bertrand’s focus is eternally on clearly transmitting the voice of the South; let’s see how it speaks through the grapes of the North. Read the rest of this entry »





COVID Wine Life: Fine Vintage Ltd. Food & Wine Pairing Online Course

5 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

Living pandemic life feels strangely like becoming a new parent for the first time.  You rarely leave your house.  There are places you suddenly just can’t go.  At times you feel like your very will to persist is being sucked from your body.  And you need to find other ways to pursue your interests, in those slices of time not taken up by survival interest and existential pondering.  When my first son was born back in 2011, he was a less-than-ideal sleeper, and there were only so many late evenings that I could spend watching bad TV, waiting for the next wake-up, so that my wife could get a few uninterrupted hours of unconsciousness.  My need to find a better way to spend that time led to this blog, which is now 9 years old and over 600 posts strong.  Now my kids sleep fine (except when they don’t), but during our current times of COVID-19 distancing, that same feeling of isolation weariness started to arise.  It was promptly banished, and my similar hope of avoiding stagnation was satisfied, by a virtual trek through the online Food & Wine Pairing certification course offered by Fine Vintage Ltd.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.

I was highly familiar with Fine Vintage already, having already taken my WSET 2 and 3 classes through their excellent Calgary-based school, one of 18 locations they have across Canada and the US.  Founded by Master of Wine James Cluer (who memorably was a substitute teacher for one of my WSET 3 class days), Fine Vintage has enlisted some of the most respected names in the Calgary wine industry, Matt Leslie and Jennifer Book, as course instructors.  But what if you can’t currently sit in a classroom and share wine with 30-odd strangers in the name of wine education?  Fear not – they now have COVID-friendly solutions too.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.

Fine Vintage has assembled a series of online wine certification courses to help fill the void while the in-person sessions are on pandemic hiatus.  Compiled by James Cluer himself, along with fellow MW Phillip Goodband, they do not result in any formal WSET classification (the WSET, or Wine & Spirits Education Trust, is an independent education and qualification body based in London that only governs over its own licensed courses) but do culminate in a final exam and a Fine Vintage certification.  There are three ascending levels of wine courses, an introductory course on spirits, and the course in which I have been immersed over the past few days, the Food & Wine Pairing Online Certification Course.  This is a 4-6 hour crash course (including the exam, it took me just shy of 5 hours total to complete) about the basic principles and some of the more advanced concepts behind properly matching food and wine.  It costs $99 USD to register and consists of 8 different modules that can be completed in stages at your leisure, from the sanitized comfort of your own home; from my experience, the collective content is easily worth the registration fee. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Henry of Pelham Triple Baco Battle

27 05 2020

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

By Peter Vetsch

The hardest part about writing a review like this is resisting the urge to pun the headline.  Baby’s Got Baco.  Backstreet’s Baco.  Baco to the Future.  Baco Tuesday.  Where Baco Noir goes, a world of pun glory follows.  But in the end, I decided the title had to focus on the mission.  Three different Baco Noirs from one of the world’s best-known producers of this star-crossed grape, Niagara’s Henry of Pelham, at three tiers of the winery’s portfolio.  One survivor.  Take what you need, give nothing Baco.  OK, I’ll stop.

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Opening a bottle of Baco Noir feels a little like drinking Canadian wine history.  One forgets in our nation’s current golden era of properly ripe bigger vinifera reds and advanced farming techniques allowing warm-climate grapes (even Grenache!!) to flourish in northern climes that it was not that easy in the beginning.  Micro-soil-mapping to ascertain the perfectly right spot to plant the right varietal didn’t exist. Climate change hadn’t yet made the task of Canadian viticulture slightly easier.  It was not always clear what would grow, and when it did, there was always the chance it might just freeze and die the next winter.  The grapes that did the best in the conditions were not necessary the ones that made good wine, but at least they lived long enough to make wine.  You can understand the allure of Baco Noir, a grape that attempted to do both.

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Baco Noir is a hybrid variety, meaning that it is a human-bred cross between two grape parents, one of which hails from the vinifera species of vitis (grape) native to the Old World (from which all of the world’s top wine grapes are found), and the other of which is from a North American vitis riparia species, which makes a poor choice for winemaking but has a constitution much better suited to marginal climates.  Baco’s vinifera mother was Folle Blanche, one of the traditional (white) French grapes of Cognac and Armagnac; its riparia father was previously not known but has now been shown to be Grande Glebre, which carries on a sort of half-life in the wine world currently as a producer of phylloxera-resistant rootstocks onto which many susceptible vinifera vines are grafted.  These parents were crossed and bred by Frenchman Francois Baco in 1902, who obviously decided to name the result after himself.  It was initially called Baco 24-23 (giving you a sense of just how many Baco varietals there likely were out there) before being more convincingly changed to Baco Noir in the 1960s.  After a brief flirtation in Burgundy and the Loire Valley, the hybrid was planted in North America in the mid-20th century, where it gained a foothold in the northeast part of the continent.

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BACO.

Baco’s allure in a nascent Canadian wine industry is not difficult to understand.  Not only was it resistant to phylloxera, but it grew vigorously and ripened early (critical in a short growing season) and yet still retained plenty of acid.  It was cold-resistant through the difficult winters.  It is a teinturier grape, so unlike most red grapes, its flesh and juice were dark-coloured as well as its skins, allowing for guaranteed depth of colour in the finished wine.  Back when the idea of ripening and keeping alive most of the big red grapes of the world was sheer fantasy in Canada, here was this hearty and disease-averse grape that could reliably produce a dark, deep, rich, meaty red without losing its acidic backbone and without dying before the next spring.  Nowadays local alternative options have improved significantly, but the love affair with Baco Noir, particularly in Ontario, has never fully gone away, particularly at Henry of Pelham, where the Bacos are often some of the first wines to sell out every year, despite healthy production levels thanks to 60+ acres of plantings.  Bring on the Baco ladder. Read the rest of this entry »





Synchromesh Wines, Part II: Storm Haven Awaits

14 05 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

After last weekend’s right-on-cue random Calgary mid-May hailstorm-then-blizzard combo, I now feel comfortable saying that spring has finally arrived in our corner of the world, far later than it should have, as always.  When things turn green and start to grow, and when the world once again sheds its winter coat for another half-turn around the sun, I tend to reach for wines of brightness, freshness.  The heavy reds have their time and place, but it is not here and now.  After Ray’s excellent introduction to the history and new offerings of the rapidly ascending Synchromesh Wines, and after watching my environment awaken and shift into growth mode, I needed some Riesling.  Good thing I have three.

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As noted in our last post, Synchromesh’s crown jewel site is the place where it all began for the winery, the Storm Haven Vineyard right near (and well above) Okanagan Falls.  A subsequent acquisition of an adjacent parcel on the same hillside brought the total vineyard acreage up to 107 acres, but of that only 21 acres are planted to vines, with the rest intentionally left accessible for wildlife habitat and conservation works.  This allows the Dickinson family both to help out local wildlife charities and to ensure that Storm Haven remains an active, lively, biodiverse site in which the vines are a harmonious partner instead of an invasive intruder.  Altitudes range from 1300 to over 2000 feet as the vineyard rises up the base of Peach Cliff Mountain, straddling a fault line and enjoying the corresponding mineral explosion in the sandy loam soils (quartz, granite, slate, metal deposits) that goes along with such geologically interesting positioning.

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Storm Haven Vineyard.  Photo Credit: Andrew Melville.

Riesling makes up over 70% of the plantings here — I was honestly surprised they planted anything else at this hallowed Riesling altar, one of the top sites for this grape in the country.  The remaining acreage is largely comprised of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, except for a single block (0.33 acres) of own-rooted Cinsault which was planted last year.  It’s safest to assume that the latter is destined for rosé, but I would absolutely buy a single-vineyard Storm Haven red Cinsault, if Synchromesh needed any further production ideas.  Tonight’s Rieslings all express the site-hewn power, intensity and scope of Storm Haven, but in varying degrees.  All also hew to Synchromesh’s Riesling credo of low alcohol, notable residual sugar and incisive acidity; the combined ABV of this trio of wines is 24.14%, basically equivalent to a single bottle of Turley and a Moscato.  Let’s start at the quieter end of the crescendo, although with these wines “quiet” only applies in a relative sense. Read the rest of this entry »








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