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The tasting floor is no place for the weak of heart. You can amble around and (literally) drink it all in or you can act like a pro and zero in on some rarities that will blow your mind.
The tasting events at the Vancouver International Wine Festival run Thursday the 16th through Saturday—which means you’ve only got a few days to sample some of the world’s best bottles. So you’re going to want to be strategic. Presenting the 13 bottles you’ve got to make sure to try when you’re on the tasting room floor:Burrowing Owl Athene 2014At first blush, choosing this iconic B.C. winery seems counterintuitive for a venue where you’re on the lookout for the off-the-beaten path bottles, but my bet is that even those who have tried other Burrowing Owl wines haven’t tried the long sold out Athene, an unusual mix of syrah and cabernet sauvignon. I pulled out a bottle a few months back after a group of us had been sitting around drinking some pretty high-priced bottles and damn if this $35 wonder didn’t steal the show. Harper’s Trail Pioneer Block Dry Riesling 2014I’ll admit the phrase “Kamloops wine” takes a while to get used to, but do you know what helps? This bottle of riesling which is deadly serious, tricky to find and woefully underpriced. It’s flinty and citrus-y, and while I haven’t met the proprietors, I bet they’re swell to chat with—because they’re from Kamloops after all. Polar Grove The Legacy 2012People always want to try the big boys, but while Mission Hill is not pouring Oculus (except at a special seminar) and Black Hills isn’t pouring Nota Bene (except at a special seminar) our friends at Poplar Grove are vexing their accountant and pouring the 2012 edition of their blockbuster The Legacy. This is teeth-staining stuff—plenty of oak and waves of fruit, but the use of a solid swack of cabernet franc makes this big boy light on his feet, too, and the bottle age tames some of the exuberance.Spierhead Pinot Noir Cuvee 2015I hate to break it to you, but every Tom, Dick and Harriet is pinot crazy these days so expect long lines to try to get a pour of Quails’ Gate’s lush Stewart Family Reserve or Tantalus’ or Foxtrot’s slightly leaner, more minerally offerings. But plant yourself at pinot specialist Spierhead and you can bask in the heartbreak grape’s glory: their base pinot, their single vineyard Saddle Block or this flagship cuvée, a beautiful mix of cherries and some earthy grit. Amazing wine here made by very nice people. Stag’s Hollow Dolcetto 2015I’m such a nerd about this wine made from the Italian grape dolcetto, it’s not even funny. I enthused about it here and here, and if anything I’m even more of a fan now. So often we have to pay a premium to buy our own wine in Canada, but not here: this is not only the best dolcetto in the province it’s also the least expensive. So suck it Italy (I don’t really mean that Italy—I love you so much—but I want to be emphatic). Closson Chase Pinot Noir 2014I firmly believe that B.C. makes far and away the best wine in Canada and I re-enforce that view by making sure I almost never try Ontario wine. So when an interloper like this bottle rolls into town with it’s cool pedigree (it’s from the very hip Prince Edward County), it’s low alcohol nimbleness and light savoury notes I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to keeping up my prejudices. Elegant wine (from Canada’s second best wine-producing province). Kidding. Sort of. Benjamin Bridge Methode Classique Brut 2011This is not only likely the best sparkling in Canada, this is one of the best sparkling wines that doesn’t say “Champagne” on the label in the world. And it’s from Nova Scotia. A truly amazing achievement in balance and grace (and it’s quite pricey to buy so drink up while you can). Catena Alta Malbec 2013Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to skirt past the epic lines of people clamouring for cabernet and we’re going to ease ourselves right in front of Bodega Catena Zapata, the unquestionable gold-standard from Argentina. Then we’re going to drink this wine, a deep glass of refined power that is going to erase everything you think you know about malbec. It’s not often you get to taste the pinnacle of any one grape, but that’s the territory you’re in here. If this were a $35 innocuous wine from Napa instead of a $53 malbec from Argentina the line would be twice as long. Kit and Kaboodle: Alpha Box and Dice 2014Unlike our pal down south, we love the Aussies. And we love that they’re transitioning from the too-sweet shiraz business into being on the cutting-edge of almost every wine trend out there (save for icewine). To wit: this blend of barbera, montepulciano and cabernet from McLaren Vale’s amazingly named Alpha Box and Dice (I assume that’s some Aussie-ism). I’ve never even tried this wine but I love how crazy the idea is…and in the words of Peter Griffin, “it just might work.” Also the wine is sold out in the homeland, which is usually a pretty good sign. St. Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein Kabinett Riesling 2015There’s not a lot of German wines at this year’s festival and, to be honest, you can actually buy this wine at the BCLDB for $34—so why seek it out? Because in a world of spiralling-out-of-control prices for anything that is age-worthy, this is an amazingly affordable back door into the world of wine that you can plant in your cellar (or a box under your stairs) and let it blossom for the next 10 years, maybe more. It’s also pretty great right now—all white peach and apricot with a side of rocks (it’s quite minerally).Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio Dolomiti Alto Adige 2015If you spend enough time around wine folks you pick up on the refrain of anti-pinot grigio sentiment right away. And while it’s not entirely wrong—mass made pinot grigio does have the ability to be the most insipid wine around—it’s demonstrably misguided by this bottle. Lageder is one of the stars of Northern Italy (Lageder’s vineyards are at about the same latitude as Southern Burgundy) and this wine—green apple, lemon—eviscerates anyone who dare talk smack about pinot grigio. You can travel to any continent and if you find a good wine list they’ll likely have a Lageder wine on it—not the BCLDB, though.CVNE Cune Monopple BlancoThe Spanish white grape viura is criminally unknown—except amongst wine nerds who freak out when they can find aged versions from top Rioja houses. This is a more gentle introduction—you can pronounce the winery “Coo-N” even though the name is actually an acronym. They make some amazing Riojas that are very age-worthy, but this entry point viura is all about the balance between acidity and bright fresh fruit. The 2014 iteration of this wine made the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 last year. Justin Savant 2014Hello Paso Robles—hot enough for you down there? The central California growing area is a love or hate proposition. I’m not standing on either side of the fence here, but to figure out where you land try this wine. It’s from Justin Winery who have a wagon full of awards testifying to their ability to craft serious wine in these parts and it’s 16.5 percent—which in case we’re counting is more than double the St. Urbans-Hof we just chatted about. But it’s also a bushel full of ripe and powerful blackberries and plums with a smoky character. Take a sip and decide for yourself.