Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Site Redesign

Hi everyone. This is a quick note for those still reading this version of the blog or getting this on feed - I have revamped the site and it is now available only through http://www.justgrapeswine.com so please update your account accordingly if you wish to still receive updates & read the blog. Cheers and thanks for all the support!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Domaine Weinbach Muscat Reserve 2004

Somehow, with luck and a touch of knowledge I find myself consistently educated and challenged by French wines. One of the most exciting journeys in wine appreciation is that from generalization into particularity - that moment you realize the true singularity of great wines and the futility of universalizing or objectifying one's love for such a temporal creation. It can be easy in the early days of many wine drinkers to write off certain grapes or even regions and instead rely on the tried and true, the gatekeepers or the reliable. But the first moment one experiences a truly great version of something previously written off is a revelatory experience. And, it is just such experiences that us wine geeks seek to replicate, or return to, as much as possible. The irony is that this nostalgia, which precipitates passion, dedication and even a little obsession, is itself the pursuit of a particular moment that will never return. Rather, it is that very instance of particularity where a glass of wine becomes a perfect moment that is itself the joy and the truth of what wine is and what it means.

Having previously 'written off' many a muscat, I knew I could turn to Weinbach for a reeducation. This wine had a floral and honeyed nose with candied orange, grapefruit and peach promising quite a ripe and rich experience. The palate, however, was dry, and its peach and nectarine flavours acompanied hints of orange blossom and light honeysuckle notes. This wine is very long in the mouth, very layered, and very complex on the mid-palate. While there may be leaner and more austere versions of Muscat out there, this ripe and fruity version is presented with both balance and varietal authenticity and is a superb Alsatian white that without a doubt has its own sense of particularity.

$40 at Marquis Wine Cellars

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Costs of Youth, The Price of Quality: Building BC's Wine Industry

In a recent piece I wrote on La Stella winery I lamented the price of British Columbia wines and put out a general request for information as to why the prices of BC produced wine seem so high. A few enthusiastic responses from various industry types prompted me to do some real research and get to the bottom of the pricing enigma. After some digging I found not only some very enlightening answers, but also real insight into the BC wine industry and its struggle for identity, quality, and market share.

To understand where BC is now we have to understand a little about where it came from. Before the ratification of the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements, British Columbia only had a handful of wineries making very low-quality wine from strange varieties of grapes. The recent international exposure of the "Cellared In Canada" controversy by Jancis Robinson actually harkens back to this pre "free trade" era in wine where it was common practice for local wine makers to blend internationally sourced fruit with Canadian fruit and a 'dash' of water and sell the resulting wine as a British Columbia or Ontario product.

With the advent of the Vinters Quality Alliance (VQA), which guarantees the origin of Canadian wines, BC wine producers started to focus more on quality and less on quantity and a quick buck. What the free trade agreements did was bring competition into the province and prompt the government to fund the uprooting of the old vines and the planting of the Vitis Vinifera varieties from Europe (Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.). Within the last 20 years or so the number of wineries in BC has exploded into the hundreds because of the modernization forced by the trade agreements. In fact, it is likely that we owe the breadth of our wine industry to the competition brought into the province from other countries. This competition forced old wineries to focus more on quality and gave a good reason for new wineries to fill the niche of quality 100% BC grown wines.

But this is only the beginning of the journey. Over the last two decades wineries have had to experiment, mostly on their own dime, in discovering how best to express the local 'terroir', or soil and climate conditions. What grapes grow best where? What are the best single vineyard sites and which plots have better potential for growing blending grapes? What are vineyard 'best practices' and what sort of winemaking techniques work for what sort of wines? And, the ultimate question, what is the best way for BC to find its vinous identity?

BC has yet to find its parallel to Oregonian Pinot Noir or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. As a young wine region it is still experimenting with varieties and styles. And, this experimentation is expensive. While there are some government programs to aid in the creation of biodynamic farming and some research, the costs of figuring out the best grapes, the best plots, and the best clones are largely shouldered by the wineries. Unlike a region such as Bordeaux, BC wineries do not have hundreds of years of tradition to rely on and capital costs have not been borne by their ancestors.

Beyond the research issue there are three distinct reasons for the higher prices of BC wines: land prices, climate, and labour costs.

Land Prices

Land in the Oakanagan is expensive, very expensive. According to Rasoul Salehi, executive director of the Enotecca group of wineries, "a decent vineyard in Oliver, osoyoos and naramata goes for 150-180K per acre". Bradley Cooper, winemaker for Township 7 and producer of his own Black Cloud wine, says "prices start in the 90K/acre [range] and go up from there. Recently, some vineyards were being offered for close to 120K/acre." Comparatively, vineyards in South America or Australia cost as low as $5000 an acre, and even the best sites can be purchased for $50k an acre. Sonoma County vineyards, with their beautifully sunny climate, old vines and established reputation, can be purchased for between $70k to $90k per acre. Even next door in Washington state it is possible to buy vineyard land for $10k to $20k per acre. And, lest we forget, many of the wineries in Europe have been passed on from generation to generation within the same family, meaning the land was bought and paid for a long time ago.

What are the reasons for this high cost? Pressure from the retirement community, who see the Okanagan as a choice retirement destination, drives land prices up. Furthermore, there just isn't as much land available in BC for vine growing due to natural conditions. Thus, despite my earlier skepticism about land prices, clearly they do play an important role influencing the prices that BC wineries have to charge in order to turn a profit.


Ask anyone in the world about Canada and their first response is usually some unclever remark about the cold weather. However, as Canadians we do understand the truth of this reputation for, even with its moderate climate by Canadian standards, lower British Columbia still has short growing seasons and the interior sees frost and snow earlier than any other wine region in the world. As Mr. Salehi explains, "harsh winters kill many vines that require replanting and it's not [so] simple that you take old vines out and you put new ones in. There is much more to it than that."

Labour Costs

Unlike South America where labour costs are extremely low, or even California where many wineries use illegal Mexican immigrants to reduce labour costs, the cost of labour in BC is very high. Casual labour in BC costs about $13-$15 an hour compared to perhaps $5 an hour for an illegal immigrant labourer. At La Stella, Mr. Salehi explains that "in our particular case we hand pick in 30 lb picking bins and then double sort the fruit as opposed to dump the 1 ton macro bin into crusher and then tank. As a result we employ 14-16 people paid 13-15 dollars and we process 1 ton of fruit in 1.5 to 2 hours as opposed to process it like a typical winery that takes 10 minutes to process 1 ton, with 1 person not 14-16." What does this mean? Making better wine is more labour intensive and requires more attention to detail. The result? Higher costs and, accordingly, higher prices.

Other Considerations

I've written about the legal framework that governs BC's antiquated liquor distribution and licensing system, but I have not stated clearly enough how this impacts BC wineries. You might wonder why you can only get the best BC wines in private stores, VQA stores or directly from the winery but not at your local BCLDB. This sad situation exists because if BC wineries want to distribute their wines through the BCLDB stores, their customers will have to pay the extraordinary markup of 117% that BCLDB forces on all other wines they sell. By avoiding the stores, wineries can offer better prices to their customers. But at the cost of what? At the cost of distribution and exposure to the huge number of people who either don't go to private stores or don't even have the option to. Is this fair or reasonable? Isn't the BC government supposed to support its wineries and not make it difficult and absurd to sell them at the government run liquor stores?

[NB CORRECTION: The BCLDB forces BC wineries to deeply discount sales to the BCLDB in order for them to acquire that 117% markup. Thus, wineries make more money selling to private stores, and if they want to sell through the BCLDB they have to either absorb the loss or increase the price of their wines. See Paul Rickett's comment at the end of article for more details.]

Furthermore, because of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act it is illegal for BC wineries to ship their wines across provincial borders and sell to consumers in other provinces. Al Hudec of the BC law firm Farris explains the legalities of this in his article "Reforming Canada's Wine laws" where he states:

"Canada’s liquor laws are an 80 year hangover from the end of prohibition. They rigidly regulate every aspect of wine production, bottling, packaging, labeling, pricing, advertising and shipping. Canada’s federal Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, enacted in 1928, gives provincial liquor control boards monopolistic power and control over the importation, inter-provincial shipment, distribution and retailing of wine in Canada. Under this law, a friend from Calgary can share a glass of pinot gris on the patio overlooking Burrowing Owl’s vineyards in the south Okanagan Valley, but if she takes a bottle of Burrowing Owls’ highly acclaimed merlot back home across the British Columbia- Alberta border, she commits a federal offense. Similarly, a colleague in Toronto breaches federal law by purchasing a case of Quail’s Gate proprietor’s reserve pinot noir or Heidi Noble’s Joie Noble Blend on the internet for shipment to Ontario."
This ludicrous situation exists because of an outdated bureaucracy that is more interested in protecting itself and its myopic views of how to build revenue than growing a local industry, creating an efficient modern distribution and licensing network, and probably in the end increasing the revenue poured back into government coffers. Why wouldn't we want to reform this system? I hope for the sake of BC wineries that change is on the horizon.


Given the industry's youth, the lack of old vines, time-tested methods and agricultural practices, and its massive start-up costs I can fairly say that I now understand why BC wines are so expensive. For me, even if competition from around the world is making better wine for better prices, understanding the challenges faced by the BC wine industry adds a level of depth and complexity that would otherwise be missing. And, even if pursuit of quality is expensive, I still believe that the industry cannot rest on its laurels or simply on local pride. Instead, it should aspire for more and always push to make the best wine possible for the best prices. With time, practices and techniques will improve, capital costs will be recovered and, hopefully, prices will drop. However, to achieve this goal, BC wineries really need a modernization of the liquor distribution system in the province, and the opportunity to sell and market their wine to Canadians who do not live in British Columbia. Doing so will help create a reputation for the industry and will further push quality improvements and price reductions. The more consumers are aware of the challenges and speak vocally about modernizing BC's antiquated distribution and licensing system, the better chance there is that BC's wine industry will not only continue to prosper, but will grow into an internationally respected brand.

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." ~Albert Einstein

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port 1980

1980, my birth year. I'm not sure I should be admitting that, but I suppose it's still within a reasonable distance from the present. 1980 was, it seems, a pretty good year for port, and while I was saving this for some occasion or another, my recent experience with heat damage prompted a 'what the hell' pop open of this very intriguing bottle.

The nose was a little toasty, but also had currant, raisins, and dried cherry. While at first I thought the alcohol on the wine was a bit forward and unbalanced, with a little air everything seemed to settle into place and this turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. For those who haven't tasted older vintage port, with time the youthful vigour and intensity gives way to subtle layering, moderate tannin and great delineated expression of flavours that, when young, are often lost in the density of the wine.

With this Smith Woodhouse I tasted cherry, blueberry, chocolate, wood, fig, strawberry, burnt caramel, bergamot, and cigar. The level of complexity was impressive and the fact that such distinct flavours expressed themselves to a moderate palate such as my own was quite exciting. I was also shocked by the level of juicyness in the port, despite its leathery and dried fruit character. Even compared to other older vintage ports, this was a special bottle, and not really over the top in terms of pricing. Port fans owe themselves a sip.

$50 at BCLDB

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

2006 Bordeaux Lunch and Tasting

Marquis wine cellars here in Vancouver occassionally hosts wine lunches with winemakers or regional themes, with this summer's big tatsing being the 2006 Bordeaux release here in BC. Now, for any American readers out there this may seem out of date, but unfortunately our BC distribution system means that we tend to see wines anywhere up to 1 year after the US market. My only hope is that they aren't languishing in some warehouse somewhere in the mean time.

In any case, the lunch at the Wedgewood Hotel featured three courses paired with seven wines and with another five wines from other vintages to taste after the meal - i.e. a lot of wine. As a brief note, the food was mediocre, but the 2006's were a pleasure to taste, if not decidedly almost all too young to drink now. Interestingly, most of the 2006's had a very similar flavour profile. What distinguished them was structure, integration, acidity and fruit density. All the wines are available at Marquis Wine Cellars.

2006 Bordeauxs

2006 Chateau Cantermerle, Haut Médoc

A nose of blackberry, graphite, lead and raspberry and a palate drinking well right now with wood/cedar, bright raspberry and cassis, chocolate and mint.

Very Good+

2006 Chateau Gloria, St. Julien

This nose was more closed than the Cantermerle, but offered suggestions of black fruits. The palate again was more backwards and tight than the previous wine and had a fair degree of acidity. I got cedar, chocolate and casis with potential for solid aging on the mid-palate.

Very Good+

2006 Chateau Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux

This is where the wines started to show their youth and tightness a bit too much. The nose here had blackberry, mint and stone and the palate was quite modern and smooth with cassis, caramel, and mocha. This is a sweeter and richer style of Bordeaux and will please those looking for a more modern styled wine. Perhaps a bit too rich/sweet for my tastes.

Very Good

2006 Chateau Grand-Pur-Lacost, Pauillac

The coffee-like nose led into a nice up front blackberry taste and fairly bright acidity on the palate. Along with the coffee, this also tasted a bit like wood along with the dark fruits. Drinking fairly well right now, but I would not pay this for a wine to drink it so young. In need of age.

Very Good+ to Excellent

2006 Chateau Cos d'Estournel, St. Estephe

The big-boy of the tasting, and the biggest wine too. There was incredible density and structure in this wine and, while way too tight right now, in my mind this will be the best of them all with age. The nose was a bit funky and again had black fruits predominating. A classic palate of cedar and cassis, there was tons of mid-palate fruit which is a good sign of the wine's aging potential.


2006 Chateau Coutet, Barsac

Barsac is part of the Sauternes region and thus this was a dessert wine. The nose here had lots of candied grapefruit and some pear and apple. The palate continued those flavours along with tons of candied orange and lemon. In the end, this is tarter and lighter than your standard Sauternes. While very tasty, I didn't find this as complex as other Sauternes I've had and the 2006 vintage doesn't seem to taste nearly as good in Sauternes as 05.

Very Good+
$50 / 375ml

2006 Chateau Suduiraut, Sauternes

One of my favourites from the 2005 vintage, the 2006 was sweeter and balanced a little less well. Nonetheless, it was still very tasty with pear, nectarine and peach flavours predominating. I also love this wine's thick but silky texture, which is not too sticky or cloying while also being quite huge and expressive. This will definitely get better with some age.

$65 / 375ml

Other Vintages

2004 Chateau Belle-Vue, Haut Médoc

Dropping down a level with this wine, I was not all that impressed. A nose of graphite and blackberry, and again on the palate with some cedar. The acid on this wine tasted out of balance tome and the tannins were somewhat too forceful.


2005 Chateau Les Gravieres, St. Emillon

Getting better was this wine with its blackberry and caramel nose. More interesting was the palate of forest floor, blackberry and wood. I enjoyed the firm mid-palate acidity and solid ageable structure. Not the best '05 though.

Very Good to Very Good+

2005 Clos du Marquis, St. Julien

Clos du Marquis is always one of my 'good buy' wines of Bordeaux. The second wine of famed Leoville Las Cases, the Clos is made in a very different style - more modern and fruit driven and immediately expressive. Nonetheless, this also has incredible aging potential and will probably be drinking great in another 10 to 15 years. The nose on this had cured meat and lots of density to the fruit. The slight graphite edge got overwhelmed on the palte with its heavy dose of blackberry and raspberry fruit along with a little pepper. This wine has wonderful balance and structure and amazing integration.

Very Good+ to Excellent

2001 Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere, St. Emillon

This may have been the wine of the night for me and it shows how much Bordeaux needs to age. I'm sure many of the wines tasted earlier would defeat this in a blind if they had as much age, this was just showing beautifully at the tasting. The nose was smooth and expressive and the palate impressed with its game, blackberry, cedar, eucalyptus, coffee and overall superb expression.


2005 Chateau Rieussec, Sauternes

One of the big-boy Sauternes of the 2005 vintage, this was huge: pear, nectarine and lemon curd on the nose. The palate was all creme brulée, with hints of lemon curd, meringue, and jasmine tea. As with all the 05 sauternes I've had this had fantastic acidic lift to prevent palate fatigue. Acid in my mind is what makes dessert wine work, and this got the balance right.

Excellent to Excellent+
$85 / 375ml

My conclusions after this brief excursion into 2006 Bordeaux is that the wines are very good, are not as approachable as the 2005's right now, but will also be ready to consume at their full potential earlier. This is a good bargain vintage and if you choose the right wines I have no doubt you will be rewarded in 10 years time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Darioush Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Darioush has one of the most over-the-top buildings in Napa Valley and has garnered a bit of a reputation as a happy-hour stop by. Despite this, they still make good wine. I have heard complaints that Darioush wines are over-oaked, but I can't say I feel that is the case here. This was the first of my heat-damaged wines that I started opening this summer in hopes they were still alive, and this flavourful Napa cab happily drank fantastically.

The nose gave up spice, cherry, chocolate, and plum. The palate was supple and elegantly balanced with raspberry, black cherry, baking spice, violet and molten chocolate. The long finish also tasted like graphite and cedar-box. I loved the soft texture of the wine and the nice long drawn flavours, but the midpalate was a bit linear. This is a very fruit driven and fleshy wine, but it also has fine tannins and elegance. Really just a great flavourful and well integrated Napa cab.

$115 at BCLDB

Monday, August 31, 2009

Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2007

California is not known for sauvignon blanc, and what it does produce gets very mixed reviews. Seemingly unable to find a niche, like New Zealand and its zesty citrus driven SB's or Sancerre and its mineral-laced wines, many California wineries treat Sauvignon Blanc too much like chardonnay. What this means is too much oak and too much opulence for a wine that should be acidic and refreshing. With all the sun that the state gets, however, it can be tough to find the right balance. Spottswoode, a Napa producer known more for their elegant Cabernet Sauvignons, is one of the few that gets it right.

How do they do it? First of all, this wine sees only a brief touch of oak, and is picked relatively early in the growing season. Instead of dominant oak, this is fermented in steel vats and concrete eggs, the former allowing the natural acidities of the wine to show and the latter making the fruit rounder and lusher without the flavour profile that oak imparts. The final result? A wine with tons of citrus fruit on the nose, but also grass, stone and clay. The palate is wonderfully full bodied, but also amazingly spritely given the intensity of the fruit. The finish is long and clay-like, suggesting this wine could find a place between New Zealand and Sancerre. And, what did it taste like? Orange, grapefruit, stone, and a slight edge of that distinctive cat's pee taste SB fans know and love. This is a wine that lifts the palate upwards before drawing it back into a carefully structured and lengthy climax, and is perhaps my favourite Sauvignon Blanc from the US. Woth every penny.

$54 at Marquis