Our Wine Editor discovers worthy California wines at Vancouver Wine Festival.
The first Vancouver International Wine Festival 35 years back featured a single winery, Napa Valley’s renowned Robert Mondavi Winery. Today, the festival attracts hundreds of wineries from California and around the world, including Chile, Argentina, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Germany, Israel, France, Australia, and others. It is truly an international wine lover’s festival.
California remains a big player at the Festival. Although for years other wineries had been producing wines, most notably California’s native Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, it was Robert Mondavi who really put California on the wine map. His signature oak-fermented Fume Blanc, first produced in 1966, became the benchmark for many California Sauvignon Blancs that would follow. (Fumé referred to the wine’s flint and lightly smoky expression aimed to emulate the wonderful crisp steely Pouilly-Fumé from France’s Loire Valley.) Likewise the launch of the 1968 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon forged the path for the varietal that remains the backbone of Napa Valley.
It wouldn’t be too long, though, before grape nuts were seeking out lush Pinot Noirs from Sonoma’s Carneros and Russian River regions and heady Zinfandel came into its own. There were rich buttery Chardonnays and lively bubbles, again from Napa, and floral, fruit-driven Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Mendocino’s cool coast. Monterey County became the biggest wine growing area in the state.
California in Vancouver
The Golden State was this year’s regional theme at the Vancouver International Wine Festival, which has grown into one of the world’s better wine festivals—most notably because a wine principal must attend. Folks from more than 60 California wineries proudly poured wines from six wine major growing regions that stretch from Mendocino to Santa Barbara and from the Pacific coast to the Sierra Foothills. Within those areas are 24 counties (of which Napa is one) that are responsible for an enormous diversity of wines and wine-styles. Other countries and regions, including France, Italy, Argentina and BC’s own backyard, were present. But I stayed focused on California.
Pioneering California wine growers were not limited to matching grape to geography, as were, historically, their European counterparts, such as limiting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Burgundy, France; Sangiovese to Tuscany, Italy; or Tempranillo to Rioja, Spain. The land and law in California were open to discovery and experiment. (As later it was the Pacific Northwest). And those Wild West grape growers took advantage.
The fact remains that the finest wines happen when grape, climate, and soil are best of friends. To that end, California’s better producers work on making them just that.
Here I’ll give you a tour of some of the California wines I sampled and let you know which ones you should fork out the bucks for.
My week began at Market Restaurant in the posh Shangri-la Hotel. While firmly planted in comfy chair, I got to tour three markedly different wine regions and wines while being treated to upbeat twists on some culinary classics. For starters, a couple of distinctly different 2010 Chardonnays from Edna Valley and Bridlewood wineries respectively were partnered with steelhead sashimi, trout caviar, and pineapple vanilla emulsion. While Edna Valley’s Paragon Chardonnay reflects the coastal influences on its San Luis Obispo wine and provides a lean counterpoint to the oily richness the steelhead and caviar, the creamy texture and tropical fruit of the Bridlewood Santa Barbara County Chardonnay complement the emulsion. Both worked well.
Chef Wayne Harris rightly surmised that cherry puree, gamey duck, and foie gras shavings foil perfectly the earth and cherry flavors of Bridlewood Santa Rita Hills Reserve Pinot Noir.
We then scurried north to the Napa Valley. Louis Martini Winery was built just after prohibition in 1933. In 2002, Louis P. Martin’s good friends, the Gallos (as in the famous Ernest and Julio) purchased the winery. Today, third generation Mike Martini is still the winemaker. His Gnarly Vines Zinfandel 2010 is a beauty—all clove, pepper and toasted spice. What better than BBQ pork, hinting at slightly sweet Asian five-spice glaze to pair with it?
Next up was lamb and Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic food/wine match. Louis M. Martini Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is right up there with Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet and is among the pantheon of Napa Valley Cabernets. It is voluptuous but elegant with layers of black fruit that are absolutely perfect with slow-braised lamb shank. A truly California touch, Meyer Lemon marmalade with its burnt citrus note, bridged the wine’s vibrant youthful fruit to the lamb’s intensity.
Does chocolate go with wine? According to the pundits, not so much. However, a fruity red wine with low tannins has proven that red wine and chocolate can work. Apothic is a juicy California blend which wine shops can barely keep on the shelves these days and which admittedly fairs well with warm chocolate cake and cassis sorbet. Is it my thing? Not really. But gathering from the cleared plates and empty glasses about me, I was in the minority.
All in all, my California Dreamin’ evening was a promising start to my wine-laden week.
More to Come
What was in store for the next few days of the Festival? There was the International Festival Tasting Room where 175 wineries make up the heart of the festival. (I had a tasting plan, spit cup, water and a vial of aspirin–just in case).
I had a chance to chat with some of California’s finest winemakers. There was a vertical tasting of Sonoma’s Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages and the good fortune sip Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and stunning Petite Sirah. I was definitely “California Cruisin” at Brix. It made me wonder if I should have fished out my Beach Boys concert tour shirt! I know one thing. I sure wasn’t drinking Boone’s Farm or Thunderbird like I might have in 1969.
In my next few stories, I’ll bring you more of my adventures and advice from Vancouver’s International Wine Festival. Stay tuned. – Julie Pegg, RFT Wine Editor