Calgary Wine Life: Catena Virtual Tasting with Laura Catena

26 08 2017

Laura Catena is my wine hero.  Her list of credentials reads as if it must have been accomplished by at least two people over the course of long, full lives:  fourth-generation winery owner, global Argentinian wine ambassador, Harvard magna cum laude, Stanford medical school grad, San Francisco emergency room and pediatric emergency doctor, multilingual published author, viticultural researcher and innovator.  And these parallel tracks of success are not a story of a mid-life career switch; she has been excelling in one of the most challenging careers in medicine and continuing her family’s proud wine legacy simultaneously, on two different continents, since she was in her early 20s.  As I have a hard time juggling more normal professional work demands and writing a weekly wine blog in the same city, I hold Dr. Catena in some degree of awe, as an example of what purpose and passion truly can accomplish in a single lifespan.

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Argentina has long been highly ranked on global lists of national wine consumption, made up as it is of a high percentage of European immigrants and their descendants, who brought with them an imbued wine culture and the know-how to introduce vines and winemaking practices to their new home.  One such voyager was Nicola Catena, Laura’s great-grandfather, who came to Argentina from Italy in 1902, at age 18, and planted his first vineyard, which became the origin of Bodega Catena Zapata.  However, it was Laura’s father Nicolas, two generations later, who brought the winery to the world’s attention and ended up bringing the whole country along with him.

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Nicolas travelled to California in the 1980s, shortly after the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, where Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay were first thrust into the global spotlight after besting top Bordeaux and Burgundies in a surprising blind tasting that went viral.  He met up with Robert Mondavi, perhaps the man most insatiably driven to keep California’s star burning ever more brightly, and was inspired by the quality and ambition in this burgeoning rogue wine nation.  Convinced that Argentina could follow the same path to prominence and be the equal of California (not to mention France) in quality, Nicolas Catena returned home, sold the domestic-consumption table wine portion of the family winery, and zeroed in his focus on quality wines for export, aiming to “put Argentina on the map as a grand cru” for world wine.  He spent years studying climate patterns and geology and gradually came to realize that the most popular vineyard areas in Argentina at the time were mostly too warm for quality wine production.  He had two choices for cooler planting zones:  south, away from the Equator, or up, into the Andes.  He went up, and Argentina’s wine fates rose with him. Read the rest of this entry »

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Happy Canada Day: Stag’s Hollow Summer Set

1 07 2017

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

Happy Canada Day all!  Our majestic and humble home turns 150 today, which makes me both celebratory and reflective, emotions which both inevitably lead to wine.  (OK, many things inevitably lead to wine, but these do too.)  As a nation, even at its sesquicentennial, Canada is still young and developing, growing increasingly confident in its global identity but not yet possessed of that inner calm of countries who have already seen and lived through it all.  As a wine nation, we are younger still:  while grapevines have been planted in Canada since the 19th century, our movement towards becoming a commercial producer of quality wines probably only dates back 40 to 50 years; the oldest producing vinifera vines in British Columbia are likely of a similar age.  In many ways, we are still finding ourselves and only starting to chart our path.

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British Columbia wasn’t blessed in centuries past with Burgundy’s army of soil-testing, site-delineating monks, who segregated cohesive parcels of land and determined which grapes did best in which spots.  As such, and without a suite of indigenous varietals to choose from, BC is playing global catch-up, still trying to sort out what might succeed in its soils and what is destined to fail.  In this New World landscape, it would be useful for the province to have a sort of advance wine scout, someone who is unafraid to push the envelope in terms of planting options and help set the boundaries for the area’s future course.

I nominate Stag’s Hollow Winery in the Okanagan Falls, which, led by winemaker Dwight Sick, has done nothing but innovate since I first found out about them.  Make reserve-level small-production Tempranillo?  Check.  Create the Okanagan Valley’s first-ever bottling of Grenache?  Check.  Solera-style fortified wines?  Orange wines?  If you can envision it, Sick and Stag’s Hollow have probably made it, and have expanded the range of possibilities for Canadian wine in the process.  A recent further jump:  Albarino, the crispy, crunchy white grape that is the pride of Galicia in northwest Spain, features heavily in Portugal’s Vinho Verde and has been gaining an increasing worldwide audience.  I had never yet seen a Canadian version of this hot and trendy grape – but if I had had to place a bet on who would be among the first to come up with one, it turns out that I wouldn’t have been wrong.  I got to check out this trail-blazing New World version of Albarino along with a couple other patio-friendly new releases from the winery just in time for summer. Read the rest of this entry »





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: 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: 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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Calgary Wine Life: Greywacke Tasting with Kevin Judd

7 10 2014

Kevin Judd is a New Zealand visionary, a trailblazer who has left a permanent imprint on the nation’s young wine culture.  As the founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay, now the near-ubiquitous signpost for the sharp, tangy, herbal style of Sauvignon Blanc that is instantly recognizable in the glass, Judd pioneered a flavour profile for New Zealand’s signature grape that put the country on the world wine map.  He helmed the ship at Cloudy Bay for 25 years, taking it from an unknown producer in an anonymous wine nation to a whirlwind New World phenomenon, the crown jewel of a Sauvignon Blanc revolution that saw millions of bottles fly off the shelves.

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After Cloudy Bay was sold to luxury brand behemoth LVMH (whose wine portfolio includes such luminaries as Krug, Dom Perignon, Chateau d’Yquem and Cheval Blanc, upper-crusters all), Judd finally realized a lifelong dream of starting his own label and making wines in a manner that best suited his palate:  riper batches of fruit, slightly softer acid, yet retaining all of the structure and complexity that a cooler climate can provide.  He called the new venture Greywacke, a name he had quietly reserved 15 years earlier while waiting for his opportunity:  the word (pronounced “grey-wacky”) refers to the grey sandstone rocks that are commonly strewn across New Zealand’s vineyards.

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Calgary Wine Life: Torres Mas La Plana 40th Anniversary Tasting

16 07 2014

photo 4For the CEO of a global wine empire, Miguel Torres Maczassek is a pretty chill guy.  Soft-spoken yet jovial, the 5th-generation head of one of the wine world’s largest family businesses initially comes across as unassuming, but his passion for his multitude of intercontinental wine projects and his pride in the Torres family legacy shines through whenever he speaks.  Torres (the estate) has vineyards and properties across all of the major wine regions of Spain and many other countries, and Torres (the man) recently spent 3 years living in Chile running the family’s operations there, making connections with local growers and taking steps to preserve and revive some of the country’s oldest known varietals.  He was in Calgary recently to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Torres’ flagship red, Mas La Plana, which I have had and enjoyed many times before and which is one of those rare premium wines that can still be found locally at a fairly reasonable ($50ish) price point.  We had the opportunity to track the evolution of this wine through four different decades, from the 1980s to the 2010s, and to witness firsthand the steps taken to fully realize the family’s vision for its top bottling. Read the rest of this entry »