B.C. pinot noir: Apparently it is award-winning

Good news, everyone. A wine from British Columbia has been declared ‘best in the world.’ Yes, you read that right — the world. And not just any wine, but the most challenging of them all, the heartbreak grape, pinot noir.

Think I’m pulling your leg? If the Vancouver Sun says it is so, it must be true. And if Decanter hands out the award, well it really must be true.

There it is in the headline:

Mission Hill wins world’s best pinot noir award

Need any more convincing? Here’s a screen grab:

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 9.25.45 PM

That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Best pinot noir. In the world. Ah, but when we get to the story’s lead line, we are — thankfully — given the qualifying statement:

Mission Hill Family Estate has won ‘World’s Best Pinot Noir’ in the under £15 category at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Oh. Well that’s a bit different, isn’t it? So, with that nugget of information out of the way, let’s move on to the next sentence:

Considered the world’s leading international competition, the stunning win puts B.C.’s Okanagan Valley on the world pinot noir map.

In the past, Canadian wine was reviled. But with any luck, it will soon be revered. Perhaps Canadian winemakers can do a better job with pinot noir than our various national ice hockey teams have been at winning recent world championships.

Anyway, to the more boring part of the article; the bit where I drone on about wine I have tasted.

For years, I had always wondered what all the fuss was with pinot noir. When I first saw the film Sideways, I was intrigued by it for sure, but when I travelled around Santa Barbara County tasting the wine, I wasn’t exactly sold. In fact, I was more taken by the syrah on offer. Perhaps my palate needed time to mature.

This is probably not the sort of thing I should confess given the bottle that got me into wine in the first place was, in fact, a pinot noir from WillaKenzie in Oregon.

But back in June, during a tour of vineyards in my home province of B.C., I began to notice that the pinot noir was actually pretty good. This was a new one for me.

So what did I find? Good pinot noir is available all over the valley, but I couldn’t taste it all. The highlights from my small selection came from Nk’Mip Cellars, Quails’ Gate, La Frenz and Tantalus, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.

The styles vary dramatically. Nk’Mip, which I covered in a previous blog entry, offered a basic pinot and a reserve, the former being more delicate and the latter being more Burgundian and woody. Both are good and worth buying.

However, La Frenz and Tantalus were the two big surprises for me.

La Frenz is a winery I didn’t know before I visited, but its rich pinot won me over and reminded me of the sort you would find in New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Located on the Naramata Bench north of the town of Penticton, La Frenz is in a vineyard area that is earning a reputation for good pinot.


The La Frenz Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 is earthy, very New World and powerful, but with plenty of red fruits, some blackberries and a tannic kick. This is very New World but is also an homage to Burgundy with its woody notes. This was one of my favourites and, while it was powerful and could use some years to mature, it was balanced with dryness, acidity and tannins, so it didn’t have that annoying fruit-bomb characteristic that is found elsewhere.

IMG_0249The view of Lake Okanagan from the La Frenz tasting room

At Quails’ Gate, the operation is bigger, slicker and more commercially minded, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the wine is any lesser. This is a vineyard that makes good rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as a more curious variety called foch. Before you conclude that foch is a lesser wine, try the Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch or the premium Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Old Vines Foch. You might find it surprising.

IMG_0251Quails’ Gate tasting room

As for the pinot, again, there is quality here. The basic Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2011 seemed to offer some of the best value in the Okanagan. With bright red cherry flavours, medium tannins and medium acidity, it is correct to the variety. Meanwhile, the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 was a bigger wine. A very deep red colour with oaky aromas, medium tannins and a long finish, this had lots of bright red fruits and was very enjoyable.

IMG_0252Rows of vines outside the Quails’ Gate tasting room

And finally, to Tantalus. Now this is a winery that produces some satisfying wine. Best known for its incredible rieslings, its pinot noir is just starting to find its legs.

IMG_0261The Tantalus tasting room has impressive aesthetics

When I visited the vineyard, we had the opportunity misfortune to witness an event that all growers dread: a hailstorm.

This is what a hailstorm looks like from the windows of a tasting room:

IMG_0265Those clouds bring hail…

Okay, so you can’t see much other than dark clouds, but I assure you the looks on the employees’ faces was anything but happiness at that moment.

I simply loved the wines at Tantalus. This 40 acre estate produces mainly riesling and pinot noir, although they also have some chardonnay and even a syrah icewine.

The riesling is the showstopper at this estate. Made in a dry and an off-dry style, it could very well be the best riesling to come out of B.C. (more of which at another time).

But the big surprise was the Tantalus Pinot Noir 2010. Made from fruit harvested from young vines as well as older spätburgunder vines, this is a delicate, supple pinot noir with a good dose of acidity and tart red fruits. It isn’t yet polished as wines go, but there is real elegance here. Matured in 100% new French oak, there is something of a pine or cedar aroma to go along with the fruit. This has plenty of balance but still needs time in bottle.

IMG_0264Rugged Okanagan scenery as viewed from the Tantalus tasting room

And that Mission Hill pinot noir that won the Decanter award? I still haven’t tried it.

On tasting wine when you have a head cold

Blocked sinuses. Muted sense of taste and smell. My body dosed with those ‘all in one’ cold and flu tablets from Boots.

Not the building blocks of a successful competitive wine tasting event. This became apparent on the first wine of the evening, when what I thought was a sauvignon blanc of some persuasion was actually a riesling – from New Zealand. Through the art of blagging we gained points by getting the country, vintage and price correct.

However, the thought going through my mind at this moment was this: oh crap.

I say ‘oh crap’ because I was on the same team as the head honcho of the company hosting the event. Didn’t want to let him down. Didn’t want to look like…a failure.

Next wine. Something white, oaky, elegant and wonderful. Surely it’s a chardonnay, I thought. Surely this is…Burgundy? Someone said viura. I pretended not to hear. Don’t be daft, I thought.

Burgundy it was – a Domain Christophe Buisson Saint-Romain. Maximum points. Hurrah.

Third wine – another white – and I found myself being torn in two directions. First sniff and a taste – I’m thinking this is another chardonnay. Burgundy again? Couldn’t be. Someone said the compère described it as quirky, out of the ordinary. Well that ruled out our option for a premier cru.

By the process of elimination we took at stab at calling it a viognier. But it didn’t *smell* of viognier, I said. Another person tried to call it an albarino. An albarino? Oh dear. Consider all the oak and hint of butter in there, I snapped back. This *must* be a chardonnay, I said. But the team voted for a viognier, so we went with it – and failed.

Chardonnay it was. A Cloudy Bay chardonnay. Oh dear. Victory is slipping away…

Next, the reds. Mild success was had in correctly identifying a Domaine Coche Dury Bourgogne Pinot Noir, then a Stephen Aviron Morgon Cote de Py Beaujolais. And then there was the Peter Franus cabnernet sauvignon, correctly identified after very nearly thinking it might have been Australian, but for the lack of a eucalyptus aroma.

Nostrils letting me down again. Strategic questions posed to the experts on hand keeping us afloat.

Victory was nearly ours but slipped from our hands in the final round. We correctly identified the Chateau Cantermerle, but our guess for the vintage was off by four years. We settled for joint-second and a half-bottle of white Burgundy to take home.

English fizz: The Apprentice made me cringe, but don’t be deterred from the wine

IN MY LATEST article for Ella Mag, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and talk about English sparkling wine. (Don’t hate me for selling out.)

Wine drinkers like me have been banging on about English sparkling wine for ages now. Our arguments in favour of the bubbly stuff from the UK’s shores dragged on ad nauseum, although only recently has the drink gained wider attention.

It’s won awards (although I find them largely irrelevant); it tastes much like Champagne (which is what we’re after anyway, right?); it is generally just a great thing to drink.

With the Royal Jubilee not far away and The Apprentice dedicating an entire hour to it, even though the best they could muster were some utterly cringe-worthy TV adverts that made the product look cheap, it seems everyone is talking about bubbly from Britannia.

And don’t think the reasons for buying English wine are based purely upon patriotism (although I should mention I’m Canadian, not British, so you couldn’t accuse me of being patritioc here). This is not a case of me promoting it simply because it’s English while ignoring the fact it tastes of antifreeze. That might have been the case many, many years ago, but not now. It actually tastes very good. Really, it does.

Unfortunately, you’ll pay a lot for it, too, because English fizz isn’t exactly cheap. Quite often you’ll be paying Champagne prices, but more in the mid-range of £20 to £30. But there are a few bargains out there, so don’t despair.

The other week I wrote about sparkling wines from France’s Limoux region and said they could bought for as little as £10. If you find an English sparkling wine at that price, you’re likely buying a pup, so watch out.

Now, there are quite a few producers in the market so it’s important to know who makes the best stuff. Nyetimber is regarded as the best in the country, but you’ll pay more for their wine than most others. Lately it has had stiff competition form several other outfits. Camel Valley could very well be producing the current best sparkling wine in all of England. Same, too, for Ridgeview, which has an extensive range covering bargain bubbles all the way up to much higher-end fare.

Bolney Wine Estate is also highly regarded. In fact, the Bolney Wine Estate Cuvee Rosé, which sells for £23.99, received top markets from Steven Spurrier.

Other producers of note include Chapel Down, Plumpton College, Hush Heath Estate, Gusborne Estate, Breaky Bottom, Coates & Seely, Meopham Valley Vineyard and Denbies Wine Estate. Many of these wines can be bought from the Sparkling English Wine website and, overall, they all get good ratings.

Where English sparkling wine perhaps falls down is the fact many wineries release their creations too soon. Many of the vintages for sale now are from within the past four years, which doesn’t give a wine like this time to mature and develop all those great flavours we find in vintage Champagne. The result is many wines have been criticised for not being quite mature enough to drink, having not developed the deeper flavours and aromas that come about after time in the cellar.

While it would be ideal if the producers would hold back their stock for at least an extra year before releasing to the public, the economic reality of making wine means it’s often necessary to push stock out to retailers in order to keep revenues flowing. As a result, it is best to look for older vintages when possible. And if you have the appropriate space and the patience to go with it, storing the bottles for at least a year will doubtless make a difference.

Wines to try:

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee Vintage 2007 (£21.36 per bottle until 29 May, Waitrose Wine Direct)
This is one of the most famous sparkling wine producers in the UK and therefore one to try if you want a classic. Brioche on the nose, nutty like Champagne, excellent fizz. This was a joy to drink at Christmas.

Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2009 (£17.37 until 29 May, Waitrose Wine Direct)
As the entry-level wine in Ridgeview’s range, Bloomsbury is an absolute bargain but still provides all the hallmarks of great English sparkling wine. A little lighter in style than its more exensive cousin but not lacking in flavour: brioche, nuttiness, great bubbles. If you want a slightly more complete wine, try their Merret Grosvenor (which I happen to have in my cellar) for around £25 a bottle. Also available via Virgin Wines.

Bolney Wine Estate Cuvee Rosé 2008 (£24.99, Bolney Wine Estate)
If you fancy the pink stuff, this is probably the top sparkling rosé in England. It recently placed in second out of a heap of English sparklers rated by Steven Spurrier. Match it with goat’s cheese, olives, peaches or…perhaps a carbonara?

Camel Valley Brut 2007  (£33.99, Selfridges)
Rated one of the best sparkling wines in the country, Camel Valley is produced in Cornwall, far away from the traditional English wine country of the South East.

South Ridge Curvee Merret 2009 (£15.99, Laithwaite’s)
From the makers of Ridgeview, South Ridge is the Laithwaite’s own brand and represents one of the cheapest entry points into English fizz. For something more special, try the South Ridge Blanc de Noirs 2009 for £19.99 a bottle.

This is an edited version of an article written for Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

Wine and chocolate pairing – yes, it can be done

Whenever a chocolate-related holiday comes along, the internet is awash with suggestions that we should try to pair our chocolate treats with a nice glass of wine.

It’s a noble suggestion. We eat a lot of chocolate in this country. Various studies in the past decade have placed the UK at or near the top of per-capita chocolate consumption in the Europe, showing each person devours anywhere from 9 kg or more per annum.

That’s a lot for a country that isn’t even famous for its chocolate (although some of the most famous chocolate manufacturers in the world, such as Cadbury’s and Fry’s, are British).

And since it comes as no surprise that the British enjoy their alcohol, particularly wine, matching these two favourite vices is only natural.

Except for one problem. Chocolate and wine aren’t the easiest things to pair – at least it doesn’t seem that way. Dry wine is out of the question here unless a very dark, bitter chocolate is being paired with a full-bodied Bordeaux or something equally structured. Alternatively, a full-bodied Shiraz that has spicy, peppery aromas, can make a nice match for the brooding flavours of dark chocolate.

So what goes well with chocolate? Not your typical wines, I’m afraid, so you’re going to have to go off the beaten path here and try something new.

Vins doux naturels

These wines are made by adding – yes adding – alcohol to stop the fermentation process, meaning there is more residual sugar in them and, in turn, more natural grape flavours. Typically these wines are known as Maury or Banyuls and come from the south of France and most often made from the grenache grape. Around the 16% alcohol region, they are close to Port but not as heavy and certainly a lot cheaper because they are not nearly as well-known or popular.

One to try:

Waitrose Seriously Plummy Grande Réserve NV Maury, Roussillon, South of France (£9.77, Waitrose)


Another route to try is moscatel with its rich flavours and notes of citrus and marmalade. This is a dessert wine that will be heavy on the sweetness and have all sorts of floral aromas.

One to try:

Torres Floralis Moscatel Oro (£8.89, Ocado)


Another option here is to go for the slightly fizzy moscato wine. The right one will have a good balance of creaminess and fruit flavours to match the chocolate.

One to try:

Brown Brothers Moscato (£6.49, Tesco)

Sherry and Madeira

Creamy sherries and sweet Madeira could be a good match for chocolate, particularly rich and sweet chocolate cakes and puddings. A Palo Cortado sherry is somewhere between the rich oloroso and the crispness of an amontillado, so it won’t be too sweet or too dry. However, it might be worth going all-out for a Pedro Ximenez if you have a sweeter tooth.

One to try:

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference 12-Year-Old Pedro Ximenez (£7.99, Sainsbury’s)

Other options:

In addition to the above, you might also want to try an Amarone, one of the richest and biggest of the Italian wines, which is made by pressing grapes that have been dried to the point of becoming raisins. Malbec and zinfandel, too, can be good friends of chocolate for their full flavours and fruit content, although be sure not to choose to sweet a chocolate to go with them.

Look to Argentina

It was Steven Spurrier, the wine critic, who once said, “If some higher being were to tell me my years with Old World wine had to end, it would be to South America that I would turn.”

I have to confess I find it difficult to refute his statement. So much great wine is coming out of South America right now and it is only getting better as time goes by.

Sure, great wines are made in other areas known as the New World, but they couldn’t match the variety that South America can. Australia has only a few specific regions where great wine can be made. Same with New Zealand. The USA produces some great wines, but quality comes at a high price. And while I’m a big fan of the better Canadian wines from the Okanagan region, it is only a tiny production area compared to what can be found in South America.

Argentinian wine, in particular, is a compelling choice right now. While the malbec grape has dominated its red wine production for years and torrontes is known as its signature white grape, there is more going on than these two stalwarts.

The big thing in Argentina right now – as has been passed on by word of mouth and also is evident on wine retailers’ stock lists – are blends. No more are we just seeing malbec and a small scattering of other grape varietals. The cabernet-merlot blends and even shiraz-malbecs are hitting the market in droves.

Grapes like carmenere are being blended with cabernet sauvignon, while white grapes like chardonnay, viognier and marsanne are coming together to produce some racy wines.

While I’m not completely sold on much of the wine coming out of South America – much of it can be undrinkable plonk – I’m finding it a safer bet when I am presented with an unknown, and often limited, wine list form which to choose the evening’s drink.

Winemakers like Tabali in Chile and Altos Las Hormigas in Argentina are among many producers doing great things at a price that might be impossible for any other New World wineies to match.

Murky glimpse of my makeshift cellar

A few bottles in my collection. Some for immediate drinking, some for a later date.

People often ask me what my cellar is like, so here it is. First thing to notice is that it is anything but glamorous. But the temperature is fairly consistent, it has some humidity, it is dark and, most important of all, it ensures my wine isn’t being stored next to my fridge.

On the bottom row is a collection of various things that need some ageing. Nothing is particularly expensive, but they are all interesting in one way or another. For example, there is a Mas de Daumas Gassac 2008, a Ch Doisy-Daene Grand Vin Sec 2009, Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2006 and 2007, as well as a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2007.

I also have a few bottles of fizz, both French and English, most important of all being the Dom Perignon 2002, just out of view in this photo, which is looking for a reason to be popped.