Calgary Wine Life: Weingut Thörle Tasting @ Vine Arts

2 06 2017
IMG_6203

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.

FullSizeRender-626

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.

fullsizerender-554

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.

fullsizerender-549

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.]

fullsizerender-458

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

FullSizeRender-357

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 »





FLX: Finger Lakes Extravaganza – Part III

24 05 2016

In case you missed the prequels, click here:

Finger Lakes Intro & Conclusions
Part I – Long Island, Hudson River, Dr. Frank
Part II – Keuka Spring, Chateau Lafayette Reneau

We remained on eastern Seneca after the morning views of Chateau Lafayette Reneau, taking a quick jaunt north to one of the best-known new-era Finger Lakes wineries, Red Newt Cellars Winery & Bistro.  I first read about the growth of Red Newt’s legend around the same time it experienced its greatest tragedy, in 2011, when co-founder and executive chef Debra Whiting was killed in a car accident.  Her husband, Red Newt founding winemaker David Whiting, forged on, turning the winery into one of the few in the Finger Lakes with an international reputation.  He remains in charge as Red Newt’s president, but has recently turned the winemaking reins over to a cerebral, unassuming twentysomething who might already be one of the best Riesling winemakers in North America:  Kelby James Russell, a homecoming son now squarely on the global Riesling vanguard.

FullSizeRender-339

David Whiting and Kelby James Russell, Red Newt.

Russell was born and raised in and around the Finger Lakes area but found a good reason to leave:  Harvard.  He graduated with a major in Government (poli sci grads unite!) and a minor in Economics but then sought a job in orchestra management to soothe an ongoing passion for music.  A trip to Italy ignited a love of wine, however, and Russell returned home to work a harvest with Fox Run Vineyards in 2009.  After three years there and an equal number of off-season harvests in the Southern Hemisphere (Marlborough, Tasmania and Barossa), he moved to Red Newt to assume the head winemaker mantle at the venerable age of 25 and almost immediately started pushing the boundaries of New World Riesling. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Pewsey Vale’s Regal Rieslings

16 03 2016

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

FullSizeRender-262

I believe, Eden Valley. I believe.

I’ve talked before about how valuable comparative tastings can be.  Want to understand what Malbec tastes like, or what makes California Cabernet different from the same grape grown in Bordeaux, or what oak aging does to Chardonnay?  Don’t buy one bottle and drink it in isolation; buy two or three, which belong to your target group or establish your desired contrast, and have them together.  In this case my research question was:  how does Australian Riesling age, and what happens to it when it does?  My sample set was about as perfect as you can get:  two Rieslings from a star region (Eden Valley), from the same producer (Riesling expert Pewsey Vale), even from the same VINEYARD, separated only by six years of bottle age and the winery’s Museum Reserve library release program.  The results were phenomenal.

The Pewsey Vale Vineyard in the cool and elevated (and thus strangely named) Eden Valley, located northeast of Adelaide and right beside and above the Shiraz mecca (and actual valley) Barossa Valley, is a specialized Riesling-only shrine, exactly what you would see in the textbook description of a great Riesling site:  cooler climate (brought on in this case by its 500m altitude), poor rocky soils, hilly landscape.  The vineyard is 169 years old and has the distinction of being the very first spot planted to grapes in the area; when it was first planted in 1847, those inaugural vines included a few plantings of Riesling.  After the vineyard fell into disuse and disrepair, subsequent owners recognized its potential and single-planted the whole vineyard to Riesling in the 1960s, using cuttings from those first 19th century Riesling vines to do so.  Today all of Pewsey Vale Vineyard’s plantings have been propagated from those original 1847 vines. Read the rest of this entry »