Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Wine Regions, Part 2

Pinot Gris is likely one of the first of the four Alsatian noble grape varieties wine connoisseurs think of. Although it is the third most planted varietal in Alsace, many consider Alsace to be the benchmark of Pinot Gris wines. Can an Okanagan Pinot Gris hold up against a strong Alsatian contender? My husband and I put it to the test this week.

Also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy and Grauburgunder and Rulander in Germany and Austria, it was once known as Tokay-Pinot Gris in Alsace, but the Tokay part of the name was dropped for good in 2007. The grape was first documented in 1711 when it was found growing wild in a garden in Baden-Wurttemburg, Germany. Other legends suggest that the grape was brought to Hungary from France in the 1300s, and returned to Alsace from Hungary in the 1500s. What makes it unique is the colour of the grapes; the skins tend to be grayish-pink in colour unlike other white grapes. Some might say that what makes Pinot Gris unique is a musty, smoky aroma that complements the aromatic flavours of the wine. The grapes generally produce wines that are low in acidity and higher in alcoholic content with flavours of stone fruit, melon and even butter when aged. Pinot Gris is well known for making sweeter, late harvest wines when able to reach full ripeness.

(Photo Courtesy: The Wandering Palate)
I pitted a 2011 Laughingstock Pinot Gris against a bottle of 2011 Pfaffenehim Pinot Gris for this week's battle. We started with the BC wine, the Laughingstock PG. We purchased this bottle directly from the winery in 2012 and it spent the last year of it's life in our cool, humid cellar on it's side. The first thing we both noticed was the mouth-watering acidity of the Laughingstock, which lasts well into the long finish. Both intense and complex, the wine showcases a flavour profile that includes lemon, red apple, tangerine and a hint of honey. This wine seemed a little "angry" at us for not letting it sleep for longer, so I recommend this wine be cellared for 3 more years to mellow out the acidity a little bit. It is a youthful wine, but still of good quality.

The Pfaffenheim Pinot Gris is off-dry, full-bodied and smooth, with a unique and beautiful bouquet of tangerine, candied ginger, orange blossom and honey. Although not as intense as the Laughingstock, the Pfaffenheim is also complex, well balanced, and very expressive of what an Alsatian Pinot Gris is said to be. Both wines were excellent values at $21 CDN each.

I noticed that with both the Gewurz and Pinot Gris tastings, the Okanagan wines showed riper fruit flavours, more mouth-watering acidity and a hint of minerality. Both the Alsatian Gewurz and the Pinot Gris were smoother and a little sweeter. Will these trends follow in the Riesling battle? Stay tuned to find out!

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Wine Regions, Part 1

"So why do Okanagan wineries generally produce whites like Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris?" My husband asked me on our annual trip there this past month.

Good question. And coincidentally, those three varietals he mentioned also happen to be 3 of the four Noble Grape varieties of Alsace, France.

Let's face it, the Okanagan isn't known internationally as a major region with high-demand, high-priced wines. But Alsace is located in one of the most well-known wine regions of the world: France. If all three of these varietals produce the majority of the wines made in both regions, can Okanagan whites can be just as good in quality as Alsatian wines? I am hoping to find out, so I made it my late summer project of 2013.

The Purpose: To compare and contrast the flavours and structural elements of the Okanagan aromatic white wines with the quality of the same Alsatian Noble Varieties via 3 blind tastings of each varietal from both regions (6 wines total). Can my husband pick out which wine is from which region?
The Grapes: Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris
The blind-tasting "Guinea Pig": My Husband. I won't be tasting blindly (someone has to pour the wine!), but will be taking subjective notes as if I didn't know what each wine was
Timeline: 2-3 weeks, with 3-4 blog entries devoted to the project

Alsace and the Okanagan have a few terroir-related things in common. They are both classified as having continental climates, meaning there is a wide temperature range between the warmest and coldest months of the year (the Okanagan has a much wilder temperature swing). Both regions generally experience hot, dry summers and longer-lasting Autumns, ideal for ensuring the grapes have reached both full and physiological ripeness, and provides ideal conditions for late harvest wines. Both regions are also known to have arid, drier conditions; Alsace is protected from wind and rain thanks to the Vosges Mountains, and the Okanagan lies between 2 mountain ranges, creating an arid, semi-desert micro climate. The soils are extremely varied in Alsace, also due to the Vosges mountains. The Okanagan's vineyards are planted on sandy loam or alluvial gravel soils. This could reflect the differences in the wines between the two regions, as well as other factors like vineyard practices and vinification techniques, which can vary from winery to winery. But if the climate is fairly similar, do the regions produce similar wines?

We started with Gewurztraminer, a wine that enthusiasts tend to either love or hate. Wine snobs generally stick their noses up at Gewurz - the HoseMaster of Wine refers to it as "The first choice of sommeliers everywhere to be left off the by-the-glass list.", among other pretentious comments. However, women tend to love it for it's perfumed bouquet, slight sweetness and approachable, easy-to-drink nature.The German word for “spice", Gewurztraminer wines tend to be full-bodied, with an oily texture, low to medium acidity, and also can be high in alcohol, with aromatic notes of lychee, roses, and naturally, spice. Gewurz wines have proven to be a good match with turkey, spicy dishes like curry, and ladies' nights out. The 2 bottles we compared were Trimbach's 2010 wine (Alsace) against Sumac Ridge's 2012 Gewurz. Since I wasn't able to get both wines of the same vintage, I took into account the fact that Sumac's acidity may be higher and the flavours riper, whereas the Trimbach may be showing more signs of age (golden colour of the wine, smooth texture, etc). Both of the wines were bottled in the well-known "Flutes d'Alsace", a taller, thinner wine bottle with a long neck.

I found the Sumac Ridge Gewurz to have a complex and intense flavour profile of green apple, lychee, pineapple and blossom, along with well-balanced acidity. Although it needs a few years to settle a bit, it is drinkable now. My husband detected notes of nectarine & apple with a hint of minerality and crisp acidity.

The Trimbach Gewurz had the trademark oily texture with a rich, golden colour, smooth texture and flavours of pineapple, apricot and spice. My husband also found the Trimbach to be a thick and oily wine, with a bouquet consisting of green apple, blossom and honey.
We found that both wines had similar flavours; blossom, pineapple, the traditional lychee and green apple. Both wines also showed great body and flavour intensity, as well as intriguing complexity. The Sumac Ridge Gewurz showed a hint of minerality that the Trimbach did not have, and the Trimbach seemed to be more typical of a Gewurz wine with more aromatic flavours and the typical oiliness. When I asked my husband if he could pick out the Alsatian wine, he thought it was the Sumac Ridge.

All in all, my opinion is that Gewurztraminers from both regions have similar flavours and complexity and a few minor differences. But this is just my opinion. Despite the fact that some in the wine industry look the other way when it comes to this varietal, I recommend both of these wines for those who love Gewurz and the elements that make it what it is. Try it yourself and see what you think!

Up next: Trimbach vs Gray Monk: A Ries-slinging (like mud-slinging?) battle

Thursday, July 25, 2013

PEI Brewing Company: The Unfiltered Story

When you think of Prince Edward Island, what comes to mind? Is it Anne of Green Gables, with her straw hat and braided hair that tourists love to buy, or is it the abundance of fresh seafood, including the best lobster, oysters and mussels you will find anywhere? Perhaps you think of PEI potatoes, or the beautiful beaches full of unique red sand and inspiring vistas. There are many great things about "The Island in Bloom", but would beer be included in those thoughts? Have a Beach Chair Lager and you will think so!

The PEI Brewing Company is an up-and-coming microbrewery located in Charlottetown that is starting to make waves among Canada's craft beer market. Located at 96 Kensington Road, the brewery offers hourly tours of the facility starting at $10 per person. Two of my cousins and their wives took the tour and spoke so highly of it, my husband and I decided to check it out last day on the island.

The man behind the PEI Brewing Company is Kevin Murphy, who established his own brewery in 1997 at a different location. Two years later, he relocated his practice to a historical building in Olde Charlottetown called the Gahan House Brewery, and a smaller brewery and restaurant remain there today. Kevin teamed up with Jeff Squires in 2011 (currently the company's CEO) and formed the PEI Brewing Company, which absorbed the Gahan House Brewery but the name remains on some of their beers. The Beach Chair Lager was created in 2012 and has since gained a large maritime following.

There are four main ingredients in beer: water, barley, hops and yeast. Water is the main ingredient and needs to be of excellent quality. The watersheds in PEI generate pure water, which helps contribute to the high quality of PEI Brewing Company's beers. Malted barley is the starchy ingredient used here. Pilsner malt is used for Beach Chair Lager, barley is used for all the ales, and chocolate barley is used for the Iron Horse Ale (and this barley tastes delicious on it's own by the way!). The hops are used to enhance the flavour and aromas of the beer, and the yeast converts the sugars converted from the barley into alcohol during the fermentation process. Although some breweries will use preservatives and artificial flavours and colours to lengthen the shelf life and improve the flavours of their beers, the PEI Brewing Company only uses the four main ingredients listed above. This gives the beers a much cleaner, more crisp and classic taste, with a refreshing purity not seen in many other breweries.

The barley is stored in a silo until it is ready for use. It is then moved through a system of pipes as it takes it's journey to become delicious beer. The first stop is a mill, where the barley is crushed and cracked to make it easier to access the flavour. It is then held in a grist tank and moved when ready to the mash mixer, where it is mashed (the starch of the barley is converted to sugar in preparation for fermentation by the addition of wort, aka liquid) and then lautered (the spent grain is separated from the wort). The next stop is the kettle, where the wort is heated and all the impurities/bacteria are killed off. The hops are added here, which breaks down the proteins in the wort and decreases the pH level as well. The mixture is then fermented, where the addition of yeast converts the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Once fermentation starts to slow, the yeast pulled to the bottom of the tank and is filtered out. Some of the beer is then aged and bottled on-site.

While we were there we sampled the Beach Chair Lager, the Blueberry Ale, the Sir John A honey wheat beer and the Iron Horse dark ale. The Blueberry Ale comes unfiltered and real blueberries are used during the brewing process to add natural flavour. Although the ale is a little heavier than other blueberry beers I've had in the past, this one has much more natural flavour and is definitely worth a taste or two. The Beach Chair Lager is crisp and refreshing, with a mouthful of flavour that is perfect for a patio with friends or paired with food. I personally think wings and ribs are a perfect match with this beer! The Sir John A honey wheat is my new personal favourite of all the honey wheat ales I've had before, with the same density as the Beach Chair Lager and plenty of honey flavour without overpowering the beer. My standout favourite, however, was the Iron Horse Dark Ale (now labelled Iron Bridge). This is the perfect beer for anyone wanting to try dark ale but were too afraid. Full of chocolate and coffee flavour, this beer is still light enough to drink more than one of, with a refreshing long finish. I highly recommend this to the beer drinking ladies out there.

PEI Brewing Company is really starting to make a splash in the Canadian craft beer market. Click here to find their beer in the Maritime provinces. Lucky for us Calgarians, Willow Park Wines & Spirits has just received their first shipment and the beers were on the shelves as of last week, and Beach Chair Lager was featured in the weekly flyer as well. Needless to say, we stocked up! Look for PEI Brewing Company beers to be on the shelves in BC soon, as they have just placed their first order with the brewery.

There is a sign in the front area of the brewery that states their philosophy: Dream Big. Work Hard. Have A Beer. Kevin Murphy and Jeff Squires did just that and the result of their dreams and hard work are pure, natural, well flavoured craft beers that will be a tough act for other microbreweries to follow. If you ever find yourself in Charlottetown and you're looking for excellent local food and drink, it's definitely worth a trip to the PEI Brewing Company for the tour, the great local hospitality, and of course, the beer! Special thanks to Charlie, our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide on Monday, July 15. Make the beers a must-try on your list and I promise you won't be disappointed. Cheers!