Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival 2011

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Returning to the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival after being out of the country during the previous two has been an educational experience. When I first attended the festival in 2007 my interest in wine was fledgling and the festival was an exciting opportunity to taste a huge range of wines that would otherwise take years to sample.

Today I see the wine festival in an entirely different light. Very few wineries are of particular interest and most of them are large corporate wineries or offer only their entry level wines to the average consumer. Of course, it is always possible to sweet talk the principals and prompt them to reach under the table for something special. In fact, it is the presence of the principals more than the access to interesting wine that makes this festival stand out. I was fortunate enough to meet Alvaro Palacios, for instance, which isn’t something you get to experience at most wine events.

While I used to be overwhelmed at the variety of wine fest, these days it has become harder to become as excited at the main event. This speaks more to the fact that I have now tasted a very large and diverse number of wines than to the quality of the festival. And, even though I am fairly jaded I did manage to find a couple exciting wineries at the fest that are most certainly worth sharing.

The first was Sacred Hill from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay – a winery making some fantastic stuff in its high end series. I found the Rifleman’s 2009 Chardonnay an excitingly dense and balanced chard built for aging rather than immediate enjoyment. While it was closed when I tasted it, the raw material was of exceptional quality and the structure and balance to the wine promised this would become something special in a couple years. It was neither a big opulent New World chard nor a minerally old world one. Rather, it had its own uniqueness that combined rich but restrained fruit with a round and fresh palate.

Their Deer Stalker 2007 Syrah made more than a few mouths happy in the little group I was tasting with. This is a dense tannic Syrah that is meaty, peppery and floral but is also a very clean very well made wine with no signs of Brett. Again, like the chard this was particularly unique, being neither typical new world nor typical old world. In an attempt to provide some context, the wine seemed somewhat like Cornas meets the Pacific Northwest – which was a great thing. Again this will age for another few years or you could drink it now with a good decant.

The most exciting whites of the festival were from Austria’s Brundlmayr, which I would imagine most attendees passed over both because of Austria’s obscurity in this market and because they were relegated to a single “Austria” table along with several other producers. The Zabinger Heiligenstein Lyrah Riesling 2007 was one of the best Rieslings I’ve tasted in the last couple years with incredible depth, rich ripe fruit and length unlike most rieslings. In other words, this is serious stuff and well worth the $65 they were charging for it.

The Kaferberg Gruner Veltliner 2009 was perhaps even more impressive than the Riesling, with its richer and fruitier palate. There was plenty of white pepper and a hugely impressive mid-palate. This is the best Gruner I’ve tasted and I was excited to bring a bottle home. So, when I walked into the festival store I was particularly pleased that these wines were nowhere to be seen despite the fact they were the most exciting in the entire festival. They weren’t sold out, they just simply weren’t for sale on the shelves. That sort of thing really pisses me off. But enough of that.

I was also impressed with a Hidalgo single vineyard Manzanilla, but I also could not find that at the festival store. In any case, the Sherry station that the festival set up was a great idea and I was very happy that so many people were exposed to some great sherries. Having been to Jerez there was nothing new I had not already tasted, but both Sean and Graham from enjoyed the impressive sweet Pedro Ximinez sherries from Williams & Humbert and Valdespino.

I was also excited by the Roquette & Cazes Douro 2006, a joint project between Quinto do Crasto and Chateau Lynch Bages. This wine was feminine and extremely elegant and polished. Like silk on the palate, this is for immediate enjoyment or long term cellaring – a rare combination. The fruit is pure and smooth and the use of oak is at a level that you only really find in the top Bordeaux houses. Truly outstanding stuff.

Thus overall I enjoyed finding the above producers as they made some truly outstanding wines. I did wish there was a little more excitement in the Spanish wines, but the sherry station was a great idea and well executed. I finished the night with a “wine cocktail” made by Jay Jones of Market, which rounded out the evening well.

That rounds out this year’s coverage of the festival. Hopefully next year I’ll be given media credentials to attend the seminars and dinners rather than just the grand tasting so I can report on a few wineries in more detail. The seminars and dinners are usually the best opportunity to sit down and seriously consider the wines and chat with the winemaker rather than the festival crush. So here’s to another year and another festival where even this jaded taster must admit that finding wines like Sacred Hill, Roquette & Cazes and Brundlmayr make it all worth it.


  1. Debbie
    April 12, 2011

    Hey Shea,
    It’s funny; the Sacred Hill table and the Austrian booth (particularly the two Brundlmayer wines you mention) were also my favourites of the festival. I didn’t really have time to taste wines from every booth, but the Deerstalker Syrah plus Kamptal Gruner and Riesling really stood out for me.
    Other highlights from the Sacred Hill end of the world: Yabby Lake Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir, Man O’ War Dreadnought Syrah (Waiheke Island, NZ).
    Fave theme wines: Telmo Rodriguez Pegaso Granito (from a seminar, not on the fest floor), Osborne Fino Quinta, La Gitana Manzanilla (not sure producer’s name – is it the same one you’re blogging about?), Torres Celeste (Ribera del Duero) and Salmos (Priorat), Dominio Romano Grativinum 2[pi]R (Priorat)
    Which wine cocktail did you drink, and btw were you at Market too (didn’t see you)? The Rueda “Basablanca”? Or the tempranillo float whisky sour one?
    Hope you had a good Playhouse week! 🙂

  2. Shea
    April 14, 2011

    I heard good things about the Dreadnought so I picked up a bottle. The La Gitana is not the same one I was talking about – La Gitana is one of the largest production sherries and accordingly cannot come from a single vineyard. It is very good quality, though. I tried both the cocktails – not sure I’d put wine in my cocktails over just drinking a glass of wine, but it was a nice way to finish off the evening. I did not see you at the event either – too bad! I will look to find that Yabby Lake Pinot, thanks for the heads up.

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