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Fine Vintage Blind Tasting at the IVSA New Products Salons

Congratulations to Michelle Theobald! Michelle won the Fine Vintage Blind Tasting Challenge at the IVSA-Vancouver New Products Salon. The wine was a 2009 Vincent Paris “Granit 30” Cornas from France with 13% alcohol priced at $65.

Congratulations to Erika Steffanson! You won the Fine Vintage Blind Tasting Challenge at the IVSA-Victoria New Products Salon. The wine was a Lopez de Heredia “Vina Cubillo” Rioja Crianza 2005 with 13% alcohol and priced at $45. You guessed a 2008 Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain with a 13.8% alchohol priced at $22.

Thanks to all those who participated, and we look forward to seeing you at the next IVSA New Products Salon.

Generally Accepted Descriptors for Wine

I’m confused when I read some critics’ tasting notes. I wonder how they manage to find so many different flavors, especially in wines costing less than $20 that are not usually very complex.

Sometimes you read a tasting note that has a string of descriptors that includes opposites, like honey and green apple, which is bizarre. There always seems to be hints of this and flecks of that. It’s all a bit dubious… but I suppose the writers would argue that it’s somewhat subjective.

That said, you can train your palate to identify a range of flavors and aromas. The way to do it is to buy fruits, spices, flowers and vegetables in the supermarket and then do some blind tasting and smelling exercises. Ask a friend to choose a fruit, like a strawberry, and hold it under your nose, and then pop it in your mouth. Of course the size and texture of many fruits can be a clue as to what they are when you taste them, so focus on trying to identify them by smell. It can be a fun game, hopefully with a happy ending.

There are generally accepted descriptors for wine. The so-called Aroma wheel is a good reference ( and you can see the typical categories that you can focus on learning. But don’t forget that in a tasting note it is equally important to tell people about the structure of the wine. For example, is it dry, off-dry or sweeter? Is it high or low in acidity, or somewhere in the middle? This is much less subjective, and even more helpful to the wine lover than a long string of flavors/aromas in a tasting note.

IVSA-Victoria: Blind Tasting Challenge

Congratulations to Erika Staffanson on correctly guessing the wine at the FV Blind Tasting Challenge at IVSA-Victoria. She wins a bottle of Krug Champagne.

The wine was a 2005 Rioja Crianza from Lopez de Heredia “Vina Cubillo” of Spain with 13% alcohol. Erika guessed a 2008 Tempranillo from Spain with 13.5% alcohol.

Racy Wines?

Racy is a word used to describe the amount and style of acidity in a wine. It’s used to describe white wines with high acid, one that tastes vibrant and crisp, and would be applicable to wines like Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. In terms of the origin of the word, well that beats me. Perhaps a taster thought the vibrancy of the wine was akin to a Ferrari zooming around your mouth. And no, I’m afraid “racy” has nothing to do with anything else.

Is Buying a Vineyard a Good Idea?

Back in the early 1990’s Harry McWatters, the founder of Sumac Ridge winery, was told by all his friends and financial advisors not to buy vineyard land on the Black Sage bench. They thought he was crazy to pay the $3,000 per acre. Fast forward twenty years and Harry was selling that same vineyard for over $200,000 an acre, after making some very good wine from it.

Getting some good advice before you set sail is your first smart move. I can tell you some basic facts about the market. A planted vineyard is currently selling somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000 per acre. The Naramata Bench and parts of the southern Okanagan are on the higher side, and parts of the Similkameen cost less. But you do often get what you pay for, and inexpensive land may cost you more in the long run because of problems with the site.

If you plan on selling the grapes then you’ll have to find a buyer. Buyers usually pay by the ton, and the price varies according to variety and quality. The average prices paid are published by the B.C. Wine Institute every year. Growers often count on producing about 4-6 tons per acre, and selling the grapes for $2,000-$3,000 per ton. But both prices paid for grapes and the tonnages grown can be higher and lower than the figures I’ve quoted.

So if you had a nice little 3 acre vineyard planted to a high quality grape and you cropped it at 4 tons per acre you could probably grow about 12 tons of grapes and sell them at $2,500 per ton. That would create $30,000 in annual revenue.

But of course you’ll have various expenses to manage the vineyard, including things like labour, water and sprays. You can reduce expenses by doing some of the work yourself, but otherwise you could hire a grape grower to take care of it for you. Expect to pay somewhere between $4,000 to $6,000 per acre, or somewhere around $15,000 for your 3 acres, per year.

So in theory you should make a small profit, but don’t forget that actually you’ve signed up to become a farmer. So the weather is now your partner, and some of the severe frosts and winter freezes can be devastating. There are growers that have lost their entire crops in the Okanagan and Similkameen to winter kill in the last few years. No doubt these growers will tell you it’s not a good idea to own a vineyard…

Add to that the fact that disease can cause serious problems, and the market for grapes can fluctuated too. There’s a long list of other reasons that I could roll out to highlight the risks and dangers of owning a vineyard. It would probably put you off.

But what the analysis doesn’t account for is that this is your dream. And who wouldn’t want to own a vineyard, walk through the rows of vines with your dog at your side, tasting grapes in anticipation of the upcoming harvest. It’s magical. And it can work financially.

Just make sure you select a very good vineyard site that minimizes the viticultural risks, ensure it is planted to a grape in high demand, managed by a skillful grower, and get a buyer lined up well before harvest.

A Good Bottle of Wine for $10?

For red wines that’s pretty easy to answer. Malbec from Argentina and Merlot from Chile are the best quality wines on the market that I’ve tasted for under $10. In fact, I’ve often found them to be as good as wines priced at $15-$20 from a host of other countries. The reason that these are such a good deal is because land and labour cost a fraction of what they do in most other countries, and the weather is pretty reliable enabling producers to get the grapes nice and ripe almost every year. If you’re looking for a European wine, I find that Portugal can offer amazing value, although the wines often seem to be much tougher, more rustic, and need some food to soften them up.

When it comes to white wines, it really depends on what type of grape or wine style you like. There are some good German Rieslings on the market for around $10, although these often have some sweetness. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is the best value for a clean, crisp, snappy white that you can sip by itself. Australian Chardonnay has changed in style and is not as oaky as it used to be, and frankly most people have a tough time telling them apart from a $60 white Burgundy.

The bottom line is that there are some pretty decent wines on the market for less than $10. To put things in perspective, when someone pays over $100 for a bottle they are, at least in part, paying for a dream, an image, or a notion that they want to associate themselves with. Buying luxury goods can make you feel good, and some wineries like to be priced in a zone that is “reassuringly expensive”. Obviously expensive wines can be much better quality than your sub $10 bottle, but sometimes I wonder if the factor of price to quality can be justified.

Working the Vineyard

The most fun I’ve ever had in the last 20 years working in the wine trade has definitely been working vintages. I’ve been fortunate to do a few of them in Bordeaux and Australia, and one in Napa and the Okanagan.

It’s certainly the best way to learn about wine, and I’ve always been perplexed by so-called wine experts that have never done this. You can’t learn everything from a book.

My advice would be to pick a country or a winery where they speak your language. You won’t learn much if you can’t understand a word they’re saying. Next, give yourself a minimum of 3-4 weeks so you can see a good chunk of the process and keep in mind that harvest in the southern hemisphere is in our Spring.

To land a job, simply email dozens of producers in the targeted area offering your services. The directories of all the wineries can usually be found on the national trade associations website, such as Wines of Chile.

Wineries often take on additional “cellar rats” at harvest, and if you can show you are keen and reliable then sooner or later someone will take you on. If you offer to work for free then the replies come back much faster… Some of the places I worked at gave you accommodation, meals and a small payment.

The critical thing is to find a winery that will let you move from one task to another, so you get to work in the vineyard sampling grapes, then working the crusher/destemmer/presses, managing ferments, working in the barrel cellar and the lab etc.. That way you’ll maximize your learning experience. Don’t get stuck picking grapes for a month.

Your best bet might be to make friends with a visiting winemaker to a local wine festival. When you’re asking for a job in person you’ll have more chance of success, especially if you smile pretty.

Food and Wine Pairing – An Introduction

There are several useful guidelines in food and wine matching that you may want to consider. The whole point is to make both the food and the wine enhance one another, so the experience is even more pleasurable. It should be a happy marriage, where both compliment and neither party is too over-powering.

One of the most important guidelines is to match by the intensity of flavor. Some foods, like spicy Asian dishes, can be very strong and so it is important to have a powerfully flavored wine to stand up to them. Chilled German Riesling, Gewurztraminer from Alsace, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can stand up to powerful spicy foods, and also have the benefit of being more refreshing than a red wine because of the service temperature.

On the other hand, more delicate foods pair better with less intense wines. Oysters and Muscadet, crab and Sancerre, smoked salmon and bubbly are some good matches.

Another useful tip is to pair food and wines according to their weight. If you have heavy food, like a steak, then it generally pairs better with a fuller bodied red wine, like a Cabernet or a Merlot. If you then put a peppercorn sauce on the steak you are increasing the level of flavor intensity, and so now maybe an even more powerful red, like an Aussie Shiraz or a California Zinfandel, would work better. On the other hand, you can take my word for it that oysters and Shiraz don’t make for a happy marriage.

Highly acidic foods can be tricky to pair with wines. The important thing to know is that high acid wines taste softer when paired with dishes containing a lot of citrus, or tomato. Many Italian red wines can be quite acidic, but when they are drunk with pasta in a tomato sauce, or a Pizza, they become much more enjoyable. So when in Rome, do as the Romans. That’s to say, look for the classic regional pairings.

Finally, there is a myth that red wines pairs well with all types of cheeses, but this is simply not true. For soft cheeses, like chevre, the ideal wine is a crisp dry white like a Sauvignon Blanc, which can cut through the creaminess of the cheese. This can be a great way to start a meal, served as an appetizer.

There are some good books on food and wine matching, like “What to Drink with What you Eat” where these guidelines are explained more in-depth, along with several others. Given that you might be eating and drinking for a few more years, it’s probably worth buying.