Calgary Wine Life: Weingut Hiedler Tasting @ Bricks Wine Co.

26 06 2017

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Ludwig Hiedler Jr.

When Ludwig Hiedler Jr. speaks, generations of knowledge echo in his words.  His career has spanned many years of education and experience, multiple shifts in approach, and innumerable hours spent questioning how to create and reveal the truest form of a wine.  He at first chafed against the layers of tradition quietly imposed on him like sediment by his ancestors, and pushed back against them by experimenting in all facets of his self-described “artisanal, emotional” winemaking style, only to eventually discover his own truth where it always was, embedded within his family’s values and legacy.  He is 24 years old.

Ludwig Jr., his father Ludwig Sr. and his brother Dietmar now collectively guide the course of Weingut Hiedler, which has been producing wine in northern Austria’s Kamptal region since 1856, longer than Canada has existed as a country.  Ludwig Jr. represents the fifth generation of Hiedlers to take on winemaking duties at the estate, steering the winery into the future with a nod back into the past, through sustainable chemical-free practices in the vineyard, next to no use of oak for maturation, and wines made as a pure reflection of site and vintage, with no stylistic or flavour preconceptions guiding the journey to the finished product and limited intervention during fermentation.  Hiedler uses native yeasts to ferment all of his wines, but in an interesting way:  he allows the ambient yeasts around the winery to do some of the work during fermentation, but has also harnessed certain selections of these native strains with which he also inoculates the fermenting must, propelling the ferment forward without introducing any element external to the winery.

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Weingut Hiedler is a small piece of a 1,000+ year tradition of winemaking in Austria, and is part of a group of quality-focused producers working on taking the generational knowledge built up and passed down about vineyard sites, soils, aspects and qualities and creating a (long-overdue) formal comprehensive set of vineyard classifications for the country.  The Österreichische Traditionsweinguter (or the ÖTW for short, which translates to “Traditional Austrian Winemakers” and is roughly equivalent to Germany’s VDP) has identified a number of top “Erste Lage” (first growth) vineyards which they hope to see formalized at law in the future, bringing Burgundian rigour to Austrian soils.  Hiedler’s philosophy strives for longevity, tranquility, wisdom, harmony and elegance in its wines, a vision symbolized by the owl that graces its labels and has quickly become the most recognizable visual reference to the estate.

This was Ludwig Hiedler Jr.’s first ever trip to Canada, and his last stop in a hectic North American travel schedule before he returned to winemaking duties in Austria.  Before embarking on a transoceanic flight home, he graciously led us through a remarkable Gruner Veltliner and Riesling Masterclass at one of Calgary’s most impressive boutiques, Inglewood’s Bricks Wine Company.  Through four Gruners and three Rieslings, we got a clear sense of what Ludwig and Weingut Hiedler were all about, yet I still left thinking that there are many more undiscovered layers to both the man and the winery, to be unveiled in the coming decades of Hiedler releases. Read the rest of this entry »





Introducing: wYneYC

21 06 2017

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

fullsizerender-648.jpgI grew up in the days of monopolized government liquor sales and distribution in Alberta, and I distinctly remember going into the squat brick AGLC store with my parents when they were on the hunt for a new bottle of wine or spirits.  While government-controlled retail alcohol is still the norm in much of Canada, Alberta thankfully broke free of its state shackles before I hit adulthood, and now, not really that much later, it is a completely different world, with an ever-increasing number of remarkable producers from across the globe available in our market and very few barriers to introducing even more.  Slower to develop have been wine-buying alternatives to the standard visit to a retail shop:  online ordering, home delivery, personalized sourcing.  I can get almost every work of literature ever created from Amazon Prime within two business days, but our gloriously liberal wine commerce architecture has not yet fully embraced the electronic age and the consumer convenience that can come with it.  That’s why I always root for those ventures who come along and try.

wYneYC is just such a venture, an e-subscription wine club with a twist, featuring a revolving door of personally curated sommelier-chosen wines tailored to each customer’s palate and an absolute focus on eliminating hassle for buyers.  You sign up for a monthly subscription at one of three tiers, where a 2-bottle pack costs $36, $50 or $65 depending on your level of choice; you can also pick 4- or 6-bottle packs if you wish, which come with corresponding volume discounts.  But these are not just random bottles, and they are not the same for everyone:  when you subscribe on wyneyc.ca, you fill out a personalized online taste survey for each bottle (which you can later update at will), and wYneYC’s professional winos then pair your monthly selection with your palate preferences. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Checkmate Chardonnay Global Challenge @ Sub Rosa

6 06 2017
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Anthony Gismondi.

Checkmate Artisanal Winery has no shortage of vision or ambition.  It is both a newcomer to the Okanagan wine scene and the oldest of old hands, founded by Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl after his purchase of a pre-existing winery (Antelope Ridge, just west of Oliver) and some of its vineyards back in 2012.  Thanks in part to von Mandl’s existing land holdings, Checkmate began its life with elite sources of fruit from five top-tier vineyard parcels, the youngest of which is just shy of 20 years old and the oldest of which are some of the most senior in the country.  The vineyards scatter across the southern Okanagan:  there are two near the winery on the Okanagan’s first-ever formal sub-appellation, the Golden Mile Bench, two across the highway to the east on the neighbouring Black Sage Bench, and one literally 30 feet from the Canada/US border southeast of Osoyoos.  The fruit they produce is reflective of Checkmate’s quality vision and laser focus:  the winery makes SIX different Chardonnays and FOUR separate Merlots, and nothing else.  Their price is reflective of von Mandl’s burning ambition to elevate Canadian wine:  the Chardonnays range from $80 to $125 a bottle and the Merlots all clock in at $85.  It is probably safe to say that this country hasn’t yet seen a winery like this.

At the controls of this super-premium venture is winemaker and general manager Phil McGahan, who began his working life as a lawyer (I knew I liked him when I met him for some reason) and then switched gears and did winemaking stints in Australia’s Hunter Valley and for Sonoma cult Pinot and Chardonnay producer Williams Selyem before being lured north by Checkmate’s potential and master plan.  If your first reaction to the idea of a winemaker leaving California for Canada is surprise (or disbelief), McGahan went to great lengths to point to the Okanagan’s location vis-a-vis southern California as a selling feature:  with world temperatures rising in past decades, he saw Canada as being well-placed as a grape-growing region going forward, perhaps even better than existing warmer-climate regions that may soon find themselves outside of the ideal range for viticulture.  The Okanagan’s combination of (very) long summer days, extensive sunlight and substantial diurnal temperature shifts are proving increasingly attractive to grapes now tended with more careful farming practices, all of which makes up for the area’s shorter growing season.

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The Checkmate wines are created with a quality focus from start to finish, consistent with the raison d’être of the winery.  The Chardonnay grapes are handpicked starting at 3:00 a.m., when it’s cooler, and the fruit is then stored in a cool room at 4 degrees Celsius for 24 hours before being hand-sorted and gently whole-bunch pressed.  Long and slow ferments ensue, mostly with wild yeasts to tease out additional flavours, after which the wines spend 16 months in barrel for better oak integration, with lees stirring towards the end before the Chardonnay is bottled unfined and unfiltered.  All six Chardonnays are made in the same fashion, leaving any distinctions or divergences in their flavour profile to be explained by the story of their site.

So how do you convince the buying public that not just one but SIX Okanagan Chardonnays are worth $80 or more a bottle, and that what is coming out of British Columbia currently can suit up with the best in the world?  You line them up with the world, don’t tell anyone which is which, and let the public see for itself.  That’s what happened this week in the James Bond villain subterranean lair that is Sub Rosa, the quasi-secret underground speakeasy beneath The Guild restaurant on Stephen Avenue, where Canadian wine luminary Anthony Gismondi and winemaker Phil McGahan led a curious crowd through a Judgment-of-Paris style blind tasting of ten Chardonnays, all at similar price points, six of which were Checkmate’s new 2014 releases and four of which were various international heavy hitters.  We had 30 panicky minutes to taste through the full set of wines and rank our favourites, after which each wine’s identity was revealed.  What did this experiment say about the present and future of cult, super-premium, site-specific Canadian Chardonnay?  Read on. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Weingut Thörle Tasting @ Vine Arts

2 06 2017
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Christoph Thörle

It’s been a bit of a banner wine week, seven days tailored to the precise preferences of my palate.  My personal favourite types of red and white wine are Washington Syrah and German Riesling respectively, and late May has seen visionary producers specializing in each of these areas visit our fair city.  My Washington wine prayers were answered last week when Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars put on a remarkable Master Class in Calgary; this week it was Germany’s turn, thanks to an eye-opening portfolio tasting put on by the dynamic Christoph Thörle of the eponymous Weingut Thörle, from the global home of Riesling’s Rheinhessen region.  Through four different earth-shattering Rieslings and seven total wines, Thörle took us through what must be some of the world’s best expressions of my first vinous love.

If you say the word “Rheinhessen” to a wine person, the tenor of their reaction might be a generational one.  The region, located in west-central Germany, due south of Rheingau and southwest of Frankfurt, is the largest in the country in terms of planted acres and is tailor-made for grape-growing:  it’s dry, sunny and relatively warm, with limestone-based soils overlaid by a variety of alluvial deposits, as long ago it was largely part of an underwater seabed.  Rheinhessen once had a reputation to match its physical advantages, and was long considered one of the pinnacle areas of German viniculture.  But a mid-20th-century flirtation with new lab-crossing grape varieties and mass-market, quantity-focused bottlings turned into a 1970s and 80s Liebfraumilch obsession that saw lesser varietals dominate much of the vineyard area and Blue Nun and Black Tower nearly obliterate the world’s prior impressions of German wine.  If you stopped paying attention to Rheinhessen then (as many did), you will have missed out on what’s going there now:  a quiet quality renaissance, and a return to the right grapes properly planted and tended on the right sites, perhaps not better personified than by Christoph Thörle and his brother Johannes.

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They took over the operation of the Thörle family winery in 2006, when Christoph was just 22 and Johannes 24.  Together they have overseen an expansion of the estate’s vineyard holdings and a corresponding increase in annual production, paired with a return to simple, hands-off viticulture and winemaking practices:  no pesticides or herbicides in the vineyards, multiple-pass harvests, all natural yeasts and no additives in the cellar, minimal sulphur at bottling.  Weingut Thörle now has 80 acres of vine holdings, remarkably spread over 100+ different vineyard parcels but largely centered around the town of Saulheim in north-central Rheinhessen.  The area features a wide array of different slopes, soils and sun exposures, allowing for the production of multiple different varietals, and Saulheim itself is surrounded by Thörle’s three crown-jewel vineyards:  Probstey, Schlossberg and Hölle.

Thörle has been generating increasing acclaim for both its white (Riesling, Silvaner, Chardonnay and more) and red (Pinot Noir, known Germanically as Spätburgunder) wines and made its glorious entrance into the Alberta market last year.  Now some new offerings are on their way to the province, and we were fortunate enough to have Christoph talk us through most of them, including a few bottles that might change your perspective on, well, everything. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Gramercy Cellars Master Class @ Divino

26 05 2017
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Greg Harrington, Gramercy Cellars

A month ago I had never been out to visit my all-time favourite winery, and they had not yet had the opportunity to come to Calgary for a tasting event.  Three weeks ago I finally made it out to Walla Walla for the first time, and among other amazing wine memories made, I paid a couple visits to my wine pinnacle, Gramercy Cellars, attending their Spring Release party on my birthday.  Almost immediately after I got off the plane in Washington State, I got an email inviting me to Gramercy’s first ever tasting Master Class back in Calgary, led by the winery’s founder and winemaker Greg Harrington.  That tasting was held this week at the marvellous Divino restaurant, and I left thinking that my next trip to Walla Walla couldn’t come fast enough.  It would be an understatement to say that this month has ticked a lot of boxes.

FullSizeRender-612Washington State has both the sun to grow big red grapes and the soil and climate to make them interesting.  The main wine areas are all in the southeastern part of the state, separated from lush, drizzly Seattle by the Cascade Mountain range, whose rain shadow blocks most of the coastal precipitation and creates a warm, dry canvas for grapevines to thrive.  The Walla Walla Valley, straddling the Washington/Oregon border, is bounded on the east side by another mountain range, the Blue Mountains, gaining both altitude and cool nightly winds off the slopes as a result.  Over millennia, the historically recurring Missoula floods have laid fine sandy soil, massive rocks and other alluvial deposits over an already-impressive volcanic basalt soil base.  Put all that together and you end up with an area that sees heat and sunlight during the day but features significant diurnal temperature drops at night, ideal for prolonging ripening and retaining acid in grapes; fine soils with intriguing mineral content that drain well and in which (thanks also to the cold winters) the vine scourge phylloxera cannot survive, allowing all vines to be planted on their own rootstocks; and a remarkable array of slopes, aspects, exposures and microclimates in a relatively concentrated area, letting farmers and producers match specific varietals with specific sites to maximize their potential.  In short, it screams winemaking opportunity.

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The Gramercy winery and tasting room, Walla Walla.

And it screamed loud enough to bring Greg Harrington there.  Harrington, a Master Sommelier holding a prestigious position for a group of New York City restaurants, had a chance tasting of Walla Walla Syrah lead him to a trip to Washington State and then to a life-altering decision to change careers and time zones, all in the span of a couple years in the early 2000s.  After a crash course in winemaking and some assistance with grape sourcing from Washington wine pioneer Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge in 2004, Gramercy Cellars came into existence and released its first vintage in 2005.  It has been honing its style and its craft since, continually looking for ways to sharpen its approach.  While Gramercy has always aimed for lower ripeness and alcohols and higher acid and longevity in their wines, as of 2014 it strove for further complexity by switching over to all native-yeast fermentation and introducing large square concrete tanks to its winemaking armada.  Future plans include going fully organic with its growers in the vineyard and gaining additional control on the farming side of the process, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of the well-regarded Forgotten Hills vineyard just south of Walla Walla.

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Concrete.  Badass.

Greg Harrington spoke of these things and more across two riveting and information-packed hours with the Calgary wine trade, and at some point while we were at it we also found the time to taste through the bulk of Gramercy Cellars’ portfolio, starting off with the ultra-small production 2016 Picpoul (electric limes! on fire!) as we came in the door and not stopping until we had gone through FOUR consecutive groundbreaking Syrahs that firmly established Washington State’s place as a New World powerhouse.  Buckle up. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Taylor Fladgate 1967 Single Harvest Port Release

11 04 2017

I almost always try to write up a tasting as soon as possible after I’ve experienced it, while memories are still fresh and the wines that were presented are still alive on my senses.  This is unfortunately not one of those times.  I must have triggered some kind of ancient Douro warlock’s curse upon cheerfully exiting La Chaumiere restaurant two weeks ago today, after tasting 100 combined years of Taylor Fladgate tawny Port and a trio of aged single-harvest releases that were collectively over a century and a half old, because within an hour of the tasting I was feeling queasy and unwell.  It only got grimmer and sicker after that, and I’ve only just emerged from that bleary world of nausea and cough drops and decongestants and come back to some semblance of myself.  But even if it was the Port gods who struck me down, it was totally worth it.

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Taylor Fladgate, thanks to savvy rationing and recent acquisitions of significant quantities of extensively aged Port stocks from another historic house, has one of the largest inventories of old cask-aged Port in the world.  In 2014, it decided to make use of this bounty by launching a remarkable program:  releasing a 50 year-old Single Harvest Port on an annual basis commemorating the half-century that came before.  The 1964 Single Harvest Port was the first of the line, but has since been followed by the 1965 in 2015, the 1966 in 2016, and, this year, the impending “new” release of the 1967 Taylor Fladgate Very Old Single Harvest Port.  Each of these bottles retails for around $250 and is the best possible 50th birthday or anniversary present that could exist on this world.  As a special nod to Canada, the 1967 bottling is also a Canadian Centennial edition (at least in this country), with a maple-leaf-adorned box liner marking our country’s 100th birthday on the year of its 150th.

FullSizeRender-578A quick tangent to explain this Port’s name and aging designation.  All Port starts just like other red wines do, with crushed grapes fermented on their skins.  With Port, however, the fermentation is halted halfway through, before much of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, by spiking the juice with high-proof (75+% abv) grape brandy, which kills the yeast, retains a large part of the grapes’ natural sweetness and boosts the alcohol level of the finished product to around 20%.  The Port is then put in large oak barrels for maturation, and what happens next is what determines its final identity.  In top vintages, some of this wine only spends a couple years in wood before being put in bottle for further non-oxidative aging.  This is Vintage Port, arguably Portugal’s crown jewel.  In lesser years, or with other lots, the wine stays a few extra years in barrel before hitting the bottle 4-6 years past vintage; this is Late-Bottled Vintage Port, generally a less ageable, earlier-drinking style, and one that was actually invented by Taylor Fladgate in the 1960s, a rare innovation in a very traditional winemaking landscape. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Moet & Chandon Winemaker Tasting @ Ruth’s Chris

24 03 2017

As it turns out, there is no inopportune time for Champagne.  Although the bubbly beverage has built its brand on being the drink of choice for special occasions and other times of celebration, it turns out that it’s equally nice to kick back with a glass of fine bubbles on an otherwise-normal Thursday afternoon.  It’s even better to kick back with six of them, which is what I was fortunate enough to do when Moet & Chandon winemaker Amine Ghanem came to town to lead an attentive and appreciative group through a good portion of the Champagne powerhouse’s portfolio.

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Amine Ghanem, Moet & Chandon.

Ghanem is one of 10 winemakers employed by Moet & Chandon in addition to their cellarmaster, or chef de cave, who directs and decides on the ultimate blend for each of the house’s Champagnes.  Moet has been doing its thing for centuries (since 1743, to be exact – Ghanem informed us that the very first bottle of Moet & Chandon Champagne arrived in Canada in 1839, before we were even a country!), and as such has honed its house style to a fine point, with very clear goals as to the characteristics it seeks to draw out in its Champagnes and specific strategies in place to reach them.  The three pillars of the Moet & Chandon style are, in Ghanem’s words:  (1) “bright fruitiness”, which is attained in part by careful non-oxidative winemaking techniques, even to the point where the house has developed a technique for “jetting” oxygen out of the neck of the bottle after disgorgment to avoid degradation during the maturation process; (2) “seductive palate”, with a welcoming, easy-to-drink texture aided by full malolactic fermentation; and (3) “elegant maturity”, achieved largely through extended lees contact pre-disgorgment, for much longer periods than required by law.  These foundational principles must be working, as we were told that there is currently a bottle of Moet being popped somewhere around the world every second.

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In case the ten full-time winemakers on staff wasn’t a tip-off, Moet & Chandon is a massive undertaking.  It is the biggest house in Champagne and the owner of its largest vineyard holdings, amounting to almost 10% of the entire area under vine in the region.  Since 1962, it has even had its own brand of proprietary yeast, which helps accentuate the characteristics that reflect the house style.  Moet’s primary brand is Imperial, so named in recognition of founder Claude Moet’s 18th century friendship with a certain French emperor, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon visited the winery many times and was a steadfast consumer of Moet Champagnes, and in 1869 the Imperial brand was christened in recognition of the 100th anniversary of his birth.  The Imperial NV blend starts out as 800 different base wines, which are gradually combined into 3 proposed blends (each featuring solid proportions of all three of Champagne’s grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) before one is selected.  The blending is as much of the artistry as the winemaking itself, and the efforts show in the bottle, which led off our tour-of-Moet tasting. Read the rest of this entry »