My Favourite Wines of 2011, or the Greatest Wine Experiences of the Year!

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In a year filled with travel to France, off the cuff trips to Portland and San Francisco , the first Natural Wine tasting in British Columbia and more than a few nice dinners with friends, the past 12 months may be the toughest yet to measure up my greatest wine experiences of the year. Thus, I’ve decided to mix in both experiences and wines and try to come up with something that includes both those amazing trips and some of my best domestic experiences.

I always look forward to writing this list each year because it reminds me of how spoiled and lucky I am, what a great group of friends I have and of the many wonderful people trying to make the wine industry in British Columbia work like a regularly functioning business sector. Kudos to all of them.

10. The “Home Vineyard” series of wines from Pyramid Valley Winery in New Zealand. Mike Weersing, the mind behind Pyramind Valley, may be insane. The vines may still be young. But this is probably some of the most exciting wine coming out of any New World wine region right now. For best new world wines, I had to decide between these wines or the Wind Gap Syrahs from Pax Mahl in California. The Pyramid Valley edged out Wind Gap simply because they seemed just that much more radical and were a total shock to me when I first drank them. For the record, I had the Earth Smoke Pinot Noir and the Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay. If any are left in the province, you can find them at Marquis Wine Cellars.

9. San Francisco Beer Week 2011. My infatuation with beer began around the same time as my love for wine. However, my budget as a student meant that I used to drink a lot more beer than wine. This trend has tipped back towards wine these days, but in the past 5 years I have witnessed Vancouver go from a beer backwater to an up and coming Portland. We still have a long way to go, though, as evidenced by my second time attending the San Francisco Beer Week, which is probably the best series of beer events in the world. While living in Berkeley I had a chance to try many of the USA’s top beers. This year’s trip down to SF in February saw me complete my quest to try all of the greatest beers in the world with a healthy dose of Russian River’s Pliny the Younger and Lost Abbey’s legendary Cable Car (a sour beer). The latter beer is only available at Toronado’s in SF and only during beer week. The former is largely considered to be the best IPA in the world and is released only on tap and only once a year. It was an epic end to a long journey.

8. The Wines of Etna, Sicily. This year I discovered that the grape Nerello Mascalese makes sophisticated, elegant and yet frutily delicious wines in the tiny Etna DOC in Sicily. Etna is a still active volcano and the vines are all grown in various volcanic soils. Many of the top producers (such as Passopisciaro) bottle individual crus and the differences are striking. In my opinion Etna is one of the most exciting regions in the world right now. Producers to try: Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Passopisciaro, Benanti, Cornelissen.

7. Emmanual Brochet Champagne “Le Mont Benoit” 1er Cru Brut: Discovered at a wonderful bottle shop in Lyon France and described to me as “Selosse but more consistent”, this stunning Champagne cost a mere 30 euros. No sulphur, grower champagne at a miniscule production level. A perfect example of what we’re missing over here in B.C. – a wide range of properly stored and reasonably priced grower Champagnes. Marquis is now one of the only places in town with a worthy selection. You won’t find this there, though. I’d say look for it the next time you’re in France, but that would make me sound like a douche.

6. Cune Vina Real Cosecha 1976: I was lucky enough to attend a few dinners at Rasoul’s (fanatical wine collector) place this year, and this wine was the pick of all those I tasted. It is amazing how well Rioja can age and how elegant, lithe and alive it can be after 34 years. A real treat and one of the oldest wines I’ve had.

5. Drinking wine poured by Jake at L’Abattoir. L’Abattoir has become my go to spot for wine in this city. Given our ridiculous licensing laws there are pretty much 0 wine bars. L’Abattoir (a restaurant) is my wine bar. With a wine program developed and championed by the ever-innovative Jake Skakun, you won’t find the likes of chilean merlot or argentinian malbec on this list. And, unlike most restaurants in B.C., B.C. wines are placed in reasonable numbers beside their international brethren rather than dominating the list. L’Abattoir is where you go to taste naturalist wine from top Beaujolais Cru producer Jean Foillard, a geeky little white from some small producer in the Languedoc, or if you feel like ponying up the cash, 10+ year old Barbarescos and other wine geek love. The wines also generally pair excellently with the food. Oh, and if you can get him talking, Jake exudes his enthusiasm for his wines and the discovery of ethically produced, innovative, challenging and ultimately delicious wines from around the world.

4. Tasting the Nichol Vineyard 2010 wines at the winery. I’ve long desired to get into B.C. wines, but have always found it a challenge when I can choose to drink some of the world’s most delicious wines for the same price. This summer, however, I enjoyed a fantastic tasting at Nichol Vineyard where I tasted their 2010 Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Syrah and found each to be excellently balanced, clean and refreshing and also very reasonably priced. These are really some of the best wines being made in Canada right now. Their new kegging program is killing it (yep, wine on tap) – try it out on tap at the Edible BC restaurant on Granville Island or grab a bottle at Kits Wine or Marquis Wine Cellars.

3. Mattieu Barret Billes Noirs Cornas 2004. Another wine I had in France. Sorry! But Barret’s Cornas was a revelation. Not only because it was the purest Syrah I’ve ever tasted, but also because Barret is a naturalist whose wines transcend the immediate pleasure of those wines’ texture and aroma to be a truly great wine, worthy of sitting in the Pantheon of the Northern Rhone’s best. Purchased in that same Lyon bottle shop.

2. Visiting Domaine Marcel Deiss. The highlight of my time in Alsace was spending 2 hours tasting and learning at Domaine Marcel Deiss. This was a complete experience from which I walked away with a completely different appreciation and comprehension of Alsatian wines. Deiss also happens to make some of the most stunning whites in all of France, and his Grand Cru wines are not only of the very best in Alsace, but can go toe to toe with many a great Burgundy for complexity. Deiss is a pioneer, championing a radical break from tradition in Alsace by, of all things, reengaging in the most traditional of French practices: labelling by vineyard site rather than variety. Deiss believes in coplantation and blends. He may be controversial, but one taste of his wines proves he is on to something. You can occassionally find some of his wines in Vancouver at Everything Wine and Kits Wine Cellar.

1. 3 Days in the Northern Rhone. If I split each of my experiences in the Northern Rhone apart, they would have dominated this list. As such, I will simply include them all in this omnibus item. It was an easy choice to put these three days at the top of my list. Walking the hills of Hermitage, tasting wine with and meeting all three generations of the Clape family in Cornas (post still to come), watching father and son at harvest side by side at Domaine Graillot, tasting Condrieu at the iconic Domaine Georges Vernay and eating dinner (with some fabulous wines) at the quirky wine-geek paradise Le Mangevins in Tain L’Hermitage were only the highlights. It helped that my hotel room overlooked the Rhone River and the vineyards of St. Joseph. The Northern Rhone has always held a special place in my heart, being the region that first got me seriously into wine. Perhaps it is for this reason that these are amongst my favourite wines of all. To be able not only to walk the vineyards and taste the wines in situ, but also to talk to and share a glass with the growers themselves, was without a doubt the best wine experience I’ve had to date.

Happy Holidays!

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