OKANAGAN WINERIES PACK A PUNCH

IMG_1700
Time. Much like wine, it is something I can’t seem to get enough of. And something I run out of. Hence the absence of my blog for the last few months. Any extra time I had, I spent drinking wine, not writing about it.

So to kick myself into high gear, I took a couple of days off  from my new job and headed to BC wine country for some inspiration.

I picked a few places I had never been to before. Places with great stories. And great stories in the Okanagan are not hard to find. There are new wineries popping up here all the time.

There are anywhere from 120 – 250 wineries here depending who you ask, and whether they’ve been drinking.  And they are making some spectacular wines that we never see on the other side of the country.

I picked by grape. I know I love big reds, so I headed south to Oliver and  Osoyoos – home of some wondrous Bordeaux blends.  I also learned that if you mention you’re going to the Okanagan,  inevitably someone  sighs like they are remembering a visit to paradise and shows you a picture of that little winery that turned into a big experience.

Three days,  seven wineries and here are  a few highlights.

  1. Invictus by Perseus
    Invictus by Perseus

    Perseus – I sampled a bottle of Perseus wine a year ago and I have been dreaming about it ever since.  The winery opened in 2011 in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.  It has already picked up a number of awards for Invictus, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The winery is named after the constellation  which hangs above the Okanagan during harvest time. Had to take one home.IMG_1683

  2. Poplar GroveI visited this place  for the wine and the company.   Cindy, Cathy,
    IMG_1685
    Poplar Grove Winery

    Wendy and Sue have been friends since high school. Today they invited us join them  to  sample the best this stunning winery had to offer. One more for the suitcase. Imagine waking up to this treasure every morning?

 

Culmina Winery
Culmina Winery

3. Culmina Winery – This was one of the reasons I came back to  the Okanagan, Rumour had it the wine was among the best in the Valley – and it did not disappoint. Don Triggs (of Jackson-Triggs fame) and his daughter Sara have blended old-fashioned knowledge with high tech tools to create wines to remember, including wines that shouldn’t really be growing in that climate. The approach is inspirational and will be the subject of a separate story in its own. Stay tuned.  OK… we bought a case.

 

4.  Moon Curser This winery has a one-of-a-kind distinction for me. I actually had to risk arrest and  break-in to get a taste. My friend Lisa and I were staying in Osoyoos and decided to clock our 10,000 steps by walking to the winery (how cool is that)?

Let nothing stand between Me and My Wine
Let nothing stand between Me and My Wine

Google Maps directed us to a walking path along the cherry trees and vines. However, about 100 metres from our destination we were met by a locked gate, not that that was going to stop us. We got down on all fours and slipped under the fence. It was definitely worth the effort. Moon Curser – formerly Twisted Tree – is named after the smugglers who used to work in “them thar hills with veins of gold.” They cursed the light of the moon when trying to sneak across the border.

Moon Curser features  some old and new world varietals that are attracting attention. Owner and winemaker Chris Tolley, a former Montrealer, and his wife Beata, honed their craft in New Zealand. Their Tannant , Malbec, Sangiovese, Syrah,

Moon Curser Winery
Moon Curser Winery

Carmenere,  along with the Afraid of the Dark white and red blends, are all  worth a taste.  Yup, Moon Curser got the last spot in my suitcase.

Big Sky over the Okanagan Valley
Big Sky over the Okanagan Valley

Go to the Okanagan!  Demand more BC wines in your local wine store!  These are national treasures that stand up to Old World excellence. Thanks for the inspiration!

Cheers!

 

 

The Little Wine Shop Around the Corner

IMG_0129

A great wine store is like a great bookstore. It has to be welcoming. It has to offer something new and someone to prove their  passion with great recommendations,

Every time I visit a new city, I google “best wine bars”. You never know what will come up. In Portland, Maine – I met Jacques and Erin at  the Old Port Wine and Cigar Store .  Owner Jacques  is larger than life with a wine collection to match.

IMG_0134 IMG_0131
z
 

 

 

 

 

Uncorked is a gem in NYC’s West Village.  Canadian Paul Common turned the world financial crisis into a dream when he opened what’s been labelled the best wine store in the city.

IMG_0133

Uncorked features a tasting station with 40 wines. Unlike the LCBO or SAQ, Uncorked doesn’t charge for tasting. They simply hope it will lead to a purchase.

Lisa Carley, sommelier at Uncorked guided me through an around the world tasting tour – from a brilliant California Merlot –  to a Burgundy that did not cost a fortune. It’s no wonder they boast a client list from all over the world.

The true taste of success.

 

Tenuta Valdipiatta: A Wine of Distinction

Guilio Caporali Among His Vines
Guilio Caporali Among His Vines

 

Giulio Caporali is proud of his grapes, his wines and his daughters, and not necessarily in that order.  He grew up making wine.  His career steered him to the railway industry. In the 70s, Guilio decided to get into the wine business, buying a choice piece of land in southern Tuscany, close to Montepulciano.

Tenuta Valdipiatta is a family-owned winery producing about 100,000 bottles a year. And oh what bottles!  These are award-winning wines that have shared the spotlight with the much-heralded Super Tuscans Sassicaia and Ornellaia.

A Sign of the Times
A Sign of the Times

 

Giulio took us through the stunning grounds. He gave us a primer on the status of the vines and the way they are trained to produce the best grapes.  Everything here is done by hand.  The aging room was dug out of tufa rock. Etruscan relics found on the property are mounted on the walls. And inside the barrels… pure magic.

 

IMG_0582

 

We started with 100% Pinot Noir, unusual for this area. Critics said it could not be done but Guilio doesn’t really care about going against the grain, or the grape. He follows his own path – something his daughters learned from their father.

Miriam – an economist,  runs the winery and Cinzia, a mechanical engineer  is co-owner of La Locanda di San Francesco, the most romantic & luxurious B & B in Montepulciano with a wine bar where I first sampled Valdipiatta (in fact our group like it so much we cleaned them out of all 12 bottles that night – hey, before you get judgey, there WERE 8 of us.)

A Noble Favourite
A Noble Favourite

Each tasting came with a story of an evolution, a discovery or a philosophy.

 

A Man and his Wines
A Man and his Wines

Guilio on Decanting: 90% is theatre. A good wine, is a good wine. But if I were having friends over I would open the bottle the day before. How would you feel if you were locked up in a bottle for 10 years? You need to stretch.

 

On Super Tuscans: Great marketing strategy.

Barrels of Stories
Barrels of Stories

On Oak Barrels: Russian Oak was the thing until the Revolution and the French saw an opportunity to step in.

Today Valdipiatta uses Slavonian, French and some Russian oak.

I am not sure which I enjoyed most: the wine, which was spectacular or the conversation. Though I know exactly which wine I loved the most. The 2005 Riserva. 100% Sangiovese. So smooth. So spicy. So Savoury – with flavours that live on. When you are only allowed to bring 2 bottles each through Canadian customs, you become rather choosy about what those bottles will be, but the Valdipiatta Riserva has a permanent spot in my heart and my luggage.

Luckily Valdipiatta is available on occasion at the LCBO.

There are dozens of producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, but this tasting was one of the best. If you find yourself in the area, I highly recommend it for the wine and for the experience. Go to their web site – www.TenutaValdipiatta.it for a full list of tours and tastings available.

 

Montemercurio: On the Wings of Fine Wine

On the Wings of Paradise
On the Wings of Paradise

I am under the Tuscan Sun, the place  where magic happens, where grapes become wine, history becomes a playground, and life truly feels like this was how it was meant to be lived.

the square
The Grand Piazza of Montepulciano

Montemercurio Winery combines legend and science to create memorable wines.
It is said the grand piazza of Montepulciano was once the site of a temple honouring Mercury, the winged-God of Roman mythology. Mercury was the God of communication, commerce, eloquence (poetry) and travellers (how forward-thinking those Romans were).

Honour Thy Grandfather
Honour Thy Grandfather

 

 

In 2007, when Marco Anselmi decided to create his own brand of wine in the shadow of the hill town of Montepulciano or Mons Mercurio as it was once called, he honoured the legend and he honoured his grandfather Damo who taught him everything about wine.

 

First Place
Poetry in a Bottle

 

Last year at an informal blind tasting of producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano at the E Lucevan Le Stelle – a wine bar par excellence in the pretty hill town , Montemercurio came first. It sparked brisk sales, and my interest in getting to know their wines better. Much better.

 

Wine Tasting with Irene
Wine Tasting with Irene

 

Sommelier Irene Lesti was our guide. She drove us to the stunning fields just below Montepulciano, most planted with Sangiovese –  the Tuscan hero grape,  a little Merlot, Canaiolo, Colorino, and Barbera for blending –  along with Malvasia Bianca, Canaiolo Bianco, Trebbiano and Pulcinculo used to produce a kick ass white.

Owner and winemaker Marco Anselmi is a firm believer in traditional methods.  He respects the old ways – from the size of the oak barrels to the regional grapes.

Cementing the Future
Cementing the Future

 

His latest experiment, aging wine in a gigantic cement block as the Romans did 2000 years ago. It’s an idea that’s caught on in the last few years with Crush Pad in the Okanagan and a number of California wineries, including Conundrum and Cliff Lede, doing the same.

 

The Full Montemercurio
The Full Montemercurio

Back at the Cantina, Irene let us sample the entire production line, starting with Caduceo IGT 2012, a white even my husband Steve, a seriously dedicated red wine drinker, appreciated. It was full of all the flavour Pinot Grigio often lacks.

Irene took us on a journey through the Tedicciolo, an IGT Toscana Rosso which softens the 80% Sangiovese with 20% Merlot. “Sangiovese can be a very aggressive grape,” said Irene. “Merlot gives it a little fruit.” Steve, my official tasting companion, loved it….until he tasted the Petaso – a Rosso di Montepulciano that went down so nicely, we had to take one home. With a flavour that is equal parts intense and elegant, this is a great value wine. Snap it up if it comes to the LCBO or SAQ!

Of Gods and Great Wine
Of Gods and Great Wine

Messaggero Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2008 was my favourite. It was big, bold and beautiful – a delicious blend of 95%Sangiovese and 5% Canaiolo. The reason this vintage was special – Marco did not think the selection grapes met the standard for their premium wine, DAMO, so all the grapes meant for DAMO went into the 2008 Messaggero. Essentially a Riserva without the price tag. This was only the second harvest for the winery. The good news is Messagero is coming to the LCBO – so keep an eye out for it.

Finally, DAMO, Montemercurio’s premium wine is a blend of the best grapes of the vineyard. 80% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino and Barbera. Named after Damo, Marco’s grandfather and inspiration. Irene let us try the 2007 – the first vintage and the 2008, a complex blend that opens with age.

Montemercurio produces 30,000 bottles a year, 80% is exported. Thankfully that means you don’t HAVE to return to Tuscany to try it, HOWEVER  this is where the magic happens so I highly recommend it!

Saluté

Two Glasses Half Full
Two Glasses Half Full

 

Wine Meets Art at Mission Hill

august 19-2014 134A visit to Mission Hill Family Estate  in Kelowna makes you feel as relaxed as a floating yoga class. Stepping through the gates,  you feel  a sense of  peace paired with refreshingly crisp rose.

Just writing about it brings me back, “forcing” me to pause for a moment to pour myself a glass of white… even though it’s just shy of noon. Mission Hill  is a place to reflect, to wander and to drink some great wine.

And until October,  it is also a place to see some remarkable art.

august 19-2014 129“Encounters with Iceland” is an exhibition of the works of Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir.  There are 40 life-sized sculptures all over the Estate, each placed by the artist herself. august 19-2014 171

You find the sculptures in all kinds of places:  keeping watch over the underground cellars blasted out of volcanic rock, in a staircase, attached to a building.  Each looks as though it belongs, created with that exact space in mind.august 19-2014 140

august 19-2014 157august 19-2014 138Winery  owner Anthony von Mandl and his wife Debra discovered the sculptures on a trip to Iceland last year. He felt they were a perfect fit for Mission Hill..

august 19-2014 139august 19-2014 151august 19-2014 127The artist says the sculptures are inspired by her son. Some are playful and others intensely reflective, they are stunning in their simplicity.

In honour of the exhibition, Mission Hill Winery released a collection of two of its wines –  2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Riesling Icewine –  embellished with labels featuring 20 of  Thórarinsdóttir’s sculptures.

august 19-2014 143Mission  Hill’s commitment to art and beauty can be seen throughout the Estate.

The courtyard plays host to such world class musicians as Tony Bennett, Chris Botti and the Gypsy Kings.

The four bells in the 12 storey Tower were created by Fonderie Paccard in France, which created the bells for Sacre Coeur and St Patrick’s Cathedral.

august 19-2014 144The Chagall Room, set for someone’s private dinner the night I was there, displays a spectacular tapestry by Marc Chagall called Animal Tales.  It is one of only 29 tapestries created by the artist. Below it, a piano bought at a charity auction from  legendary music producer David Foster, autographed by Celine Dion, Sting, and dozens of other A-list performers.

august 19-2014 146If that is not reason enough to make Mission Hill a part of any visit to Kelowna, there’s always the award-winning wines and Terrace restaurant – voted one of the top five winery restaurants in the world by Travel and Leisure magazine. More about that in an upcoming blog, I need another glass of wine.

Cheers.

Wine Bars for the Bucket List

 

A Wall of Wonder
A Wall of Wonder

Rome is to wine bars what Montreal is to hot dog joints and Toronto is to Tim Horton’s. Business people negotiate deals over a glass or two, students study will sipping, and friends get together and savour. Where in North America you head to Starbucks, Italians go to the wine bar.

Paradise in a Piazza
Paradise in a Piazza

 

 

First of all, you can get a decent glass of wine for the price of a Grande Caramel Latte. There is no awkwardness about going into a bar by yourself. And there is no pressure to hurry up and clear the table.  How civilized.

 

 

 

The Hangout of Taste
The Hangout of Taste

Il Ritrovo del Gusto (The  Hangout of Taste) Via dei Coronari 30, Rome

I discovered a lovely wine bar next door to our apartment around the corner from Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most beautiful historical squares. A couple of priests sat in the back sipping on a beer. Five Polish women were laughing in the corner – enjoying the special day after coming here with one million other pilgrims for the Canonization of two popes by two living popes.

 

 

A Papal Procession
A Papal Procession

I sat back, by myself, and enjoyed  the show.   While it was sheer coincidence that I came to Rome the same day as the pilgrims,  I was moved by what was going on outside – the songs, the masses, the celebration of groups from all over the world. They joined the Old Nonno (Italian for grandfather) with a new pair of shoes, the young men who emerged from the shadows with armfuls of ponchos and umbrellas at the slightest drop of rain. This is the Rome I love.

 

 

And I am sheltered from the rain inside this little wine bar that treated each customer as though they were royalty.

steve's pics 312When I was not enthusiastic about  the wine-by-the glass choices on the board, the bartender brought me new choices;  a Cerasuola from Sicily and a  Primitivo from Puglia. The bartender lamented that tourists come in asking for Chianti, Chianti, Chianti – or if they feel adventurous Amarone, Barolo. “These wines need food to be properly enjoyed,” he says. As he tells me and my friends about the wine we are drinking, he offers us a plate of bruschetta to sample some of the local specialties. No charge.

Cul de Sac, Piazza Pasquino, 73, Roma

Cul-de-Sac
Cul-de-Sac

 

A five minute walk away in a neighbouring piazza, a different experience. Cul-de-Sac prides itself in having a great selection of wine. No kidding! There is a short one page menu for food and 3-inch  binder with wine picks. Fourteen hundred choices to be exact, 55 by the glass.

 

A Montrachet outside My Budget
A Montrachet outside My Budget

 

 

From best of local to exclusive bottles such as this 2000 euros (3000 dollars CDN) Montrachet that I passed on. They have something for every palate.

 

 

They have an interesting menu with such offerings as pasta with hare ragu to lasagna and a killer Tiramisu (My husband Steve should know, he has ordered it in every             restaurant in Italy.)  Everything is homemade.

steve's pics 309

 

 

We were surrounded by business people who work in the area – it is always a solid endorsement when the majority at the tables are local. The beauty of it is you can sit and watch the world go by, or you can catch up with the world with their free WIFI – which is offered at most places now.

 

 

Slowly after a two weeks in this country, I am losing my automatic skepticism that everyone is out to cheat the tourist. Because despite my proud but broken Italian, and my Euro-sneakers, they can spot that I am a tourist in a millisecond.  Offering that extra service is  good business.

Because…I went back the next day – and now I am telling my friends.

april 2014 444

.

The Wines of Sicily: Le Vigne Biondi

april 2014 381Some of the best surprises come from a little random research. Looking for a winery recommendation,  I searched #Sicilanwine, using my new favourite travel tool Twitter. Stephanie and Ciro Biondi of Le Vigne Biondi tweeted me back instantly inviting me to drop by.  It turned out to be one of the best tasting experiences I have ever had.

april 2014 380
Ciro Biondi met us in the tiny town of Trecastagni.  We followed him to his first vineyard, Chianta
( meaning “to plant”) which was a feast for the eyes.    The vines grow in perfect symmetry up the steep hills surrounded by the spent craters of Mt. Etna..
These vines have been in his family for generations.
april 2014 385As a boy, Ciro played here with his sisters. His grandfather tended the grapes. So did his father until he decided that life was not for him.  Ciro also chose a different path, studying architecture in Florence. But he could not stay away. In 1999, Ciro and wife Stephanie brought the vines back to life.  His father’s reaction, “Your education cost me a fortune. Don’t screw it up.”.
 While talking about the importance of respecting nature, Ciro  leans into a  flowering fennel, sniffs the fronds and picks just enough to make that evening’s dinner. He believes you must allow the earth  to express itself in the wine without manipulation. 
april 2014 388“You don’t own the land, you lease it,” says Ciro.
Located on the eastern slope of Mount Etna, the earth is black from volcanic soil. The quality of the specific terroir has been recognized with the appellation ETNA D.O.C. , responsible for creating rich reds and elegant whites.
Our tasting took place in a modest building in the heart of his Cisterna Fuori  vineyard nearby. A retro fridge last seen on “Leave It to Beaver”, a simple table and four complex wines.
Over a discussion of Sicily, its history, its strengths and its troubles, photos of his children, and his father’s pride when he first tasted Ciro and Stephanie’s wine.  We sampled two whites and two reds, all blends of Sicily’s traditional grapes.

.P1000966
There is a humbleness when talking about the success of their wines. When I asked him whether he has a winemaker – he says why pay someone to make mistakes when he can make them himself. He doesn’t seem to be making that many.
Biondi is one of the wineries featured in “Palmento: a Sicilan Wine Odessey” by Wine Spectator contributor Robert Camuto. The two became friends, and when he asked to bring a group to the winery including the American wine importer, producer and influencer Kermit Lynch, Ciro naturally agreed.   The group arrived, They tasted. They discussed techniques, terroir, exchanged philosophies. Some time into the afternoon, Ciro learned the group included Aubert de Villaine of Domaine Romanee-Conti – only the most prized and expensive burgundy in the world. romanee contiBoth share the highest regard for terroir. When de Villaine extended a invitation to visit Burgundy, Ciro and Stephanie jumped at the chance. “I was afraid to ask questions after one of the people in the group asked the head winemaker at Romanee-Conti about the PH level of their grapes. ” The winemaker snapped back  “Do you ask a beautiful woman what her cholesterol level is?”
P1000970
The Wines We Sampled:
Outis Etna Bianco
Outis Etna Bianco

Outis (Nessuno) Etna D.O.C. Bianco 2013 – straw-coloured, vibrant and delicious. 

 
Chianta Etna D.O.C. Bianco 2012 the blend of Carricante, Cataratte, Minello grapes looks like spun gold, with a flavour that is rich but not overly oaked.
And then there were the reds – oh, I wanted to take a case of each of these reds home.  
They are the pride of Etna:

 

Cisterne Fuori Etna  D.O.C. Rosso 2011: a blend of Nerello Mascalese and  Nerello Cappuccio grapes.  This is why Homer braved the wrath of Cyclops to travel to this part of the world. 
 
San Nicolo' Etna D.O.C. Rosso
San Nicolo’ Etna D.O.C. Rosso 2012 
St Nicolo Etna D.O.C.Rosso 2012 – the single vineyard blend was simply spectacular. We bought four bottles to take home to Canada. They didn’t make it that far.
Sadly the wines of Le Vigne Biondi  are not available at the LCBO or SAQ, but they are available at Terroni’s, the chain of Italian restaurants in Toronto. SO, I will just have to go back, to Terroni’s or better yet, Mt. Etna.