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: Thomas Perrin Beaucastel Component Tasting

23 02 2016

FullSizeRender-242I’m having myself a bit of a tasting month here.  A week after sitting down to some incredible 50, 51 and 52 year old Taylor Fladgate Ports, I was treated to one of the most memorable experiences of my wine life:  a chance to taste through the individual varietal component wines of the unparalleled Chateau de Beaucastel with proprietor Thomas Perrin, the first time such a tasting had ever been held in Alberta.  Beaucastel is the legendary estate of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the top region in France’s Southern Rhone Valley and the first area declared to be an Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC – now Appellation d’Origine Protegee, or AOP) in 1936, known for producing rich, dense and complex reds and whites of remarkable quality and longevity.  The Perrin family has owned Beaucastel for over 100 years, having purchased it shortly after most of the vineyards were ravaged by the phylloxera louse and just before the scourge of World War I. Two wars, 100 hectares and five generations later, Thomas Perrin and his family members carry on the legacy of the Chateau and the Perrin name.

Beaucastel’s winemaking philosophy was created and entrenched largely by Thomas’ grandfather Jacques Perrin, whose name graces the estate’s top wine, Hommage a Jacques Perrin, released only in top years.  The elder Perrin converted the entire estate to organic viticulture back in 1962, when almost nobody would even have known what that meant and the prevailing wisdom pushed hard the opposite way, toward the increased use of vineyard chemicals and pesticides.  Chateauneuf-du-Pape permits the use of an astounding 13 different grape varietals, 14 if you count the white version of Grenache (reds – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Counoise, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarese; whites – Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Picardin), which is way more than your standard high-end rigid French appellation; Beaucastel makes a special point of using them all, white and red, in every vintage of its CNDP release.  They plant, harvest, vinify and mature each varietal separately, as each has a different growth curve and ripeness window, but in all cases they aim to tell the harmonious story of grape, soil, climate and region, of terroir, in their wines.

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Wine Review: 2008 Kenneth Volk Enz Vineyard Mourvedre

11 01 2012

The bottle looks exactly like it tastes: black label, black wine.

How many old-vine, single-vineyard, 100% Mourvedre wines have you ever heard of coming out of North America?  Before last month, my number stood at zero.  Then my best friend Marc, a burgeoning wine lover himself (I’m working on it), got me this bottle for Christmas; it was one that he had tried at a party and couldn’t get out of his head, leading him to hunt it down and grab one for each of us.  It was about the most intriguing Christmas gift that I got this year — obviously I do good work in picking friends.

While most California winemakers would shy away from grapes like Mourvedre in favour of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and other varietals more recognizable to the general public (and therefore more sellable), Kenneth Volk seems to immerse himself in them.  While his company Kenneth Volk Vineyards also makes the classics, it produces a special series of “Heirloom Varietals” wines that examines and honours “underappreciated rarities” that don’t often get their day in the sun in the US.  Mourvedre certainly qualifies — while I’ve seen it in a GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) or two from my home continent, I’ve never seen it get the spotlight to itself domestically until now.  This particular Mourvedre is from the Enz Vineyard located in the tiny Lime Kiln Valley AVA in central California:  it can be found just southeast of San Jose, about 1/3 of the way south from San Francisco to LA.  Interestingly (or crazily), Lime Kiln Valley finds itself immediately beside the San Andreas Fault, one of the more tectonically unstable places in the world (you want interesting soils as a winemaker?  Plant in an earthquake zone!).  Even cooler, this bottle comes from one of the oldest grapevine plantings in all of California:  almost 90 years old, the Mourvedre vines in Enz Vineyard were planted in 1922.  Think of all the wines that come out of California.  Now think that, pre-dating almost all of them, before “California wine” meant anything to anyone, there was this lone patch of Mourvedre planted in this obscure valley close to the coast.  Who would plant Mourvedre in California in 1922?  Who knows?  But that decision let me, almost a century later, crack open this mysterious and alluring bottle, because it had previously worked its magic on a great friend.  Wine rocks.

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Wine Review: 2009 Gramercy Cellars “The Third Man” GSM

17 12 2011

I’ve wanted to try a bottle of Gramercy for over a year.  Last fall I bought Wine & Spirits Magazine’s annual Top 100 issue listing their hundred best wineries in the world for 2010, and there for the first time I read about a Washington producer called Gramercy Cellars, started by Greg Harrington, a Master Sommelier (the youngest to earn the title in the US) who quit his prestigious position as wine director for a group of NYC restaurants in order to move to Washington State and start making Syrah, despite no prior winemaking experience and no connection to the Pacific Northwest.  He was inspired by a chance tasting of Walla Walla wines that he attended, moved by their balance and sense of place to such a degree that he was motivated to drop everything and start a new life.  Gramercy Cellars was born in 2005, and within five years it was officially considered a force on the American wine scene; in addition to the top 100 honour in Wine & Spirits in 2010 (a distinction repeated in 2011) and other awards, Gramercy was named Best New Winery by Food & Wine Magazine in 2010 and promptly celebrated, uh, well, like this:

Since all you have to say to get my vinous attention is “Washington” and “Syrah” in the same sentence, I’ve been waiting and hoping to see a bottle of Gramercy around Calgary somewhere, but until very recently it simply wasn’t available.  So imagine my surprise when one of my go-to wine shops, Highlander Wine & Spirits, announced last month that they had arranged the provincial exclusive to carry Gramercy wines and were making a number of them available for immediate sale…it felt like some kind of strange karmic reward.  This particular bottle was an XMas gift from my friend Elliot (thank you!!), but needless to say I also stocked up on some of Gramercy’s varietal Syrah to enjoy at a later date.

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Wine Review: 2008 Juan Gil Monastrell…and Is Kraft Dinner the Perfect Wine Food?

20 03 2011

Old-vines Monastrell...or Mourvedre...or Mataro...or whatever.

Super interesting Sunday night wine tonight:  the 2008 Juan Gil Monastrell from the lesser-known Jumilla wine region in eastern Spain.  This wine comes from grapes grown on 40+ year old vines; the older the vines, the less fruit they produce, but the more concentrated and complex that fruit is (the wonders of Mother Nature), which is why producers trumpet Old Vines if they have them.  Monastrell is a grape of many names, all of which strangely start with M:  apart from its Spanish name, it is known as Mourvedre (and sometimes Morastel) in France and Mataro in Australia.  I don’t know if there’s any kind of movement afoot to create an Esperanto-like universal world wine language, but if there is, I would sign the petition.  What makes the Juan Gil interesting is that Monastrell/Mourvedre/Mataro is usually a blending grape that gets added to wines made predominantly of other varietals in lesser quantities to boost the blend’s colour and structure; very rarely does it get to be the star of the show in a bottle of wine, but this Juan Gil is 100% pure Monastrell, front and centre. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2006 Edward Sellers “Le Thief”

13 03 2011

If I wanted this much booze, I'd spend less and buy vodka.

Yet another well-made, well-intentioned California wine done in by an overabundance of alcohol.  I think I’m putting a personal embargo in place effective right now on any wine over 15%, because it seems like once a wine crosses that threshold, everything but the booze level just doesn’t keep up.  It’s a shame too, because some of the elements of this wine were quite impressive.

The “Le Thief” (don’t blame me for the butchered French…Le Voleur?) is a Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre blend from Paso Robles, California produced in very low quantities:  less than 800 cases total (or less than 10,000 bottles) made.  I got it from The Ferocious Grape on 8th St & 10th Ave SW, one of my favourite wine shops in the city due mainly to its friendly, helpful, knowledgeable yet laid-back staff (and also due to the fact that its vault-worthy wines are in an actual [sort of] vault).  FG just started bringing in Edward Sellers’ wines, which are not widely found in Alberta. Read the rest of this entry »