Wine Review: Calliope White Trio

3 10 2017

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

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Pop and pour power.

There are a few ways to measure how far British Columbia has come as a wine industry in the past 10-15 years, during which time for my money the jump in quality, understanding and identity has been close to exponential.  Here’s one way:  15 years ago, I don’t think you could have convinced me that a BC winery’s SECOND label could produce a suite of balanced, expressive and generally delightful wines worth seeking out.  In 2017, Burrowing Owl (or, more accurately, Wyse Family Wines, founders of Burrowing Owl) have managed that exact feat with the 2016 releases of their Calliope label, a lineup of wines that according to the accompanying campaign literature is meant for easy and early enjoyment; a true pop and pour.  Sourcing grapes from both the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, the Wyse family focuses mostly on whites for Calliope, creating (at times) multi-regional blends under the general “British Columbia” appellation, yet still under the BC VQA banner.  These are marketed as easy-drinking patio wines, meant for drinking rather than dissecting…but since we’re all here, let’s dissect them anyway.

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Stelvin Rating:  8/10 (See what you can do if you apply yourself to screwcaps?  Dead sexy.)

I was provided three different single-varietal examples of Calliope’s white regime:  Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Viognier.  When I’m drinking single-grape wines on the lower end of the price spectrum (these bottles probably straddle the $20 mark Alberta retail), the first thing I look for, even before balance of component elements or general deliciousness, is typicity.  In non-wino speak:  if the wine is a Sauvignon Blanc, does it smell like a Sauvignon Blanc?  Does it taste like a Sauvignon Blanc?  Does it help people understand what Sauvignon Blanc is all about, and does it then go the next step and show people what Sauvignon Blanc from its particular home region is all about?  Varietal wines that do this exhibit strong typicity, and as such become extraordinarily helpful barometers for both learning about wine and understanding your own preferences.  If these 2016 Calliopes have any major strength, it is dialled-in typicity:  they are clear and precise examples of what’s in the bottle and what comes out of the ground. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »





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 »





Entering The Hatch, Spring 2017

23 05 2017

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

IMG_6146Ever since I first saw The Hatch’s avian-Thomas-Crown-Affair primary logo shortly after it opened a couple years ago, I have been sort of transfixed from a distance, finding both the winery and its artistic ethos strangely compelling despite knowing basically nothing about them.  Based out of a rustic-modern “shack from the future” in the heights of West Kelowna and sourcing grapes from across the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, The Hatch initially comes across (quite intentionally) more like an artists’ collective than a commercial winery, listing Salman Rushdie on its personnel page and expounding in esoteric wine-code about “Ross O” and B. Yanco” (I’ll give you a second to sort that one out).  They confidently found their visual style from the outset thanks to the remarkable imagery provided by local western Canadian artist Paul Morstad (who is also found on The Hatch’s personnel page, playing a banjo); once people have been drawn in by the graphics, it’s up to winemaker Jason Parkes to keep their attention.  The whole artistic cacophony and the simultaneously grand yet whimsical presentation lends The Hatch a jolt of personality that the generally strait-laced BC wine scene can happily use…but does the buzz extend to what’s in the bottle?  Happily, I got to find out.

FullSizeRender-601The Hatch releases its wines in stylistic series, of which I had the opportunity to experience two:  the mid-tier Hobo Series wines, featuring a panoply of hand-drawn labels of hobos (seriously) that risk making you cry thanks to their sheer beauty (also seriously), and the ambitious Black Swift Vineyards series wines, which collectively form an expansive single-vineyard project focused on the various facets of BC’s glorious dirt.  The wine, like the winery, was never boring. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Pierre Sparr Tasting @ Cassis Bistro

3 02 2017

Can there be any major French wine region more overlooked and underrated than Alsace?  It has all the frozen-in-time charm of Burgundy, with picturesque centuries-old villages dotting rolling hillsides of vineyards, and all the stately history of Bordeaux, but without the matching dose of self-importance.  Add in a dash of international conflict (the region has passed back and forth between France and Germany many times in the course of modern history) and a pinch of consumer friendliness (unlike almost anywhere else in France, Alsatian wines are all varietally labelled so everyone can easily see the grape that’s in the bottle) and you’d think you’d have a sensation.  But perhaps due to its location, tucked away in the northeastern corner of France, or to its primary focus on white grapes and prevailing Germanic influence, Alsace doesn’t get the hero’s welcome internationally that its fellow French stalwarts do, often left unexplored and misunderstood by New World consumers.  Thankfully, Bernard Sparr and others are out to set things right.

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Maison Pierre Sparr, 9th generation.

Bernard is part of the NINTH generation of the Sparr family that it carrying forward the legacy of Maison Pierre Sparr, the Alsatian house named after his grandfather but rooted in a winemaking family going back to 1680 (there’s that history I was talking about).  Pierre persevered through the ravaging of his domaine and vineyards in World War II, expanding the business and passing on a thriving enterprise to his two sons.  Bernard is the son of one of those scions, Rene Sparr, learning the rigours of blind tasting and the rhythms of the family winery from an early age.  Now he is helping expand the profile of the domaine overseas, settled in Quebec and taking on the role of North American ambassador for Pierre Sparr.  He is almost continually on the road, but despite the weariness of travel and an unfortunate cold that sapped his sense of smell, he was a warm and gracious host on Wednesday night, leading a cozy group through a lineup of French wines whose unifying trait was show-stopping value.

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In addition to directing international sales for the family domaine, Sparr also arranges for a small portfolio of like-minded tiny-production French producers to find their way into North America.  A few of these joined him for his visit to Calgary, so to accompany an absolutely marvellous five-course meal at Cassis Bistro, we were treated to a mixture of Pierre Sparr classics and intriguing finds from other regions, starting with a rosé with a distinct connection to a PnP favourite… Read the rest of this entry »





Cellar Direct: German Riesling Powerhouses

3 11 2016

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

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Serious wine, serious value.

You owe it to yourself to drink more German Riesling.  You may not know it yet, but you do.  I know the idea of turning to something German doesn’t conjure up the same (somewhat oversold) feelings of art or romance that something French or Italian might, but I’m here to tell you that startling clarity, absolute transparency and unfailing precision can be much sexier than you give them credit for.

And I know, I know – you don’t like sweet wine and all German wine is sweet, right?  Except (1) your palate may be more attuned to sweetness than you expect, and (2) no, no it’s not.  In fact, some German Rieslings are as dry as a bone, often helpfully highlighted by the label indicator “trocken”. A “trocken” designation doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be no residual sugar left in the wine, but any that remains will be minimal (9 grams per litre or less) and the wine will taste dry, thanks to a helpful assist from German Riesling’s often raging levels of scouring acidity.  Another hint of dryness in German whites is (relatively) elevated levels of alcohol, since this is an indication that the bulk of the sugars in the grapes have been converted to alcohol during fermentation instead of left in the finished wine.  Generally speaking, if it’s 10.5%-11% abv or higher, it probably won’t taste sweet (and frankly, even if there is some discernible sweetness, you will probably welcome it given how much else will be going on.  Trust me.) Read the rest of this entry »





FLX: Finger Lakes Extravaganza – Part V

28 05 2016

Roll call for the previous chapters in this saga:

Finger Lakes Intro & Conclusions
Part I – Long Island, Hudson River, Dr. Frank
Part II – Keuka Spring, Chateau Lafayette Reneau
Part III – Red Newt, Knapp Winery
Part IV – Hermann J. Wiemer, Lamoreaux Landing

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Kees Stapel, Boundary Breaks Vineyard

Ten wineries into our multi-day tasting tour of the Finger Lakes, we continued along the eastern shoreline of Seneca Lake for a different kind of meeting with a different kind of winery.  Rather than gather around a tasting room counter with a winemaker, we were told to head out to the vines at Boundary Breaks Vineyard for a grape-growing lesson with the winery’s conscientious viticulturist, Vineyard Manager Kees Stapel.  He is such an integral part of what Boundary Breaks is all about that he is the very first person listed and pictured in the list of personnel on the winery website; owner and president Bruce Murray doesn’t mention himself at all.  This unusual (but laudable) level of marketing focus on the vineyard team is partly because Boundary Breaks is a winery without a winemaker:  it was founded based on its vineyard, planted in 2008 to four different Riesling clones on an ideal sloped, breezy, sunny, west-facing site arcing gently downward to the lake.  It only makes Riesling and focuses its energies on only five different bottlings, which are presently vinified by Red Newt winemaker and FLX Riesling star Kelby James Russell. Read the rest of this entry »