I never need an excuse to go to Vancouver, but this is the best one I can think of. The Playhouse International Wine Festival takes place every year in late March, and this was my second—and favorite–visit. I stayed at the hip Opus Hotel, a sweet little gem just off the café-and-club-filled brick side streets of the Yaletown area. There were all the usual wine-festivally things, such as the Grand Tasting in the huge convention center ballrooms, with its allées of wine being poured from all over the world. This year featured Wines from Spain, so I was giddy with the chance to stroll a multi-cultural neighborhood full of Albariños and Temranillos not available in the United States, delicious BC Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, and just down the street, gems from Israel, Argentina, Burgundy, and just one of our own - Hedges Family Estate - owners Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges were there, perhaps, like me, to treat themselves to a few days in Vancouver and browse the world wine tables as well.
But the best part, I feel, is always the lineup of seminars, and my favorite this year was “A Whammy of Umami” - which ended up being more of a teaser than a theme, as the subject of umami was not really discussed. But no matter, the thing was all about sherry and Spanish cheese, and that’s good enough for me. The cracker-jack panel included César Saldaña, Director General of the Regulating Council of Jerez, complete with his sexy Spanish accent (Her-ETH), and Allison Spurrell, owner of Les Amis du Fromage, a Vancouver cheese shop.
The bulk of the seminar was Saldaña’s fabulous and crystal clear (no mean feat) Power Point presentation on the history and production of sherry. The process is fascinating, but way too long for a description here, but the interesting take-away for me was the pedigree of the sherry vinification process - basically that there are two directions sherry can go when choosing the initial wine for production - Fino (including Manzanilla) or Oloroso (both always white from three grape varieties including Pedro Ximénez, Palomino and Moscatel). Fino is the best, most delicate wine, aged biologically, with the flor, the living yeasts that live on the surface of the wine in the barrel and protect the wine from oxidation. Oloroso wines have a higher alcohol content which prohibits the flor from developing, so the wine is in contact with more air and therefore is aged oxidatively.
The solera system blends wines from many different barrels, stacked in rows, and each vintage, a bit is taken from all the barrels - combining the body and intensity of the older wines with the youthful vigor of the younger. The blend also determines the color and intensity, dryness and sweetness levels, etc. The names of different styles of sherry range from lightest to darkest, dryest (mostly) to sweetest): Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Pale Cream, Medium, Cream, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez.
My Tasting Notes (which could have gone on a lot longer - these wines are complex!):
Emilio Lustau Light Manzanilla Papirusa Solera Reserva ($14.97)
Aromas of lemon curd, white rose, linen, dried orange peel and chamomile. Pungent with fresh dough, almond. The palate shows fresh and dried lemon and orange peel, almond, very dry, moderate acidity. Great with fresh cheeses. Biologically aged, i.e. with flor, the layer of yeast and other goodies that covers the top of this non-vintage wine, and therefore, not oxidatively aged, as are oloroso sherry. Tasted with Ibores, raw cow’s milk cheese rubbed with paprika.
Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino NV DO Jerez - Xéres - Sherry ($21.99)
A non-vintage sherry with aromas of grain, hay, orange peel, dry and bitter on the palate that would be great with oysters. Tasted with Garrotxa, a chewy goat’s milk cheese.
Bodegas Alvear Amontillado Sherry NV DO Montilla-Moriles ($15.49)
This non-vintage sherry is a blend of biologically and oxidatively aged wines, with pungent aromas of yeast and nuts, caramel and root beer with a moderately viscous palate of brown sugar and sweet spice. Tasted with Mahon, a creamy soft-aged cow’s milk cheese, great with fruit.
Gonzalez Byass Nutty Solera Oloroso NV DO Jerez - Xéres - Sherry ($16.99)
An oxidatively aged oloroso sherry this wine has a fair amount of oak flavors and aromas extracted from the barrel, with fresh orange and concentrated nut flavors, fresh acidity and a super long finish. Luscious. Tasted with Mangego, a delicate and fruity sheep’s milk cheese aged one year.
Gonzalez Byass Palo Cortado Apostoles Rare Old Solera ($34.99)
The only Palo Cortado of the group, meaning the wine starts out as fino (the lightest, most delicate wine that is aged biologically with flor in the barrel), and then is aged for a long time—in this case, 30 years—in the barrels of the solera. Tasted with Idiazabal, a strong Basque sheep’s milk cheese smoked in sycamore leaves, with a nutty, meat-and-smoke flavor. Amazing.
Bodegas Alvear Pedro Ximénez de Anada 2008 DO Montilla-Moriles ($26.99)
This young vintage wine is what Saldana called “franco” - which means frank, I suppose - that it smells like it tastes. This wine does that: aromas of orange marmalade and dried fig and raisins. It has a lush, velvety mouthfeel. Deelish! Tasted with Valdeon, a strong blue blend of cow’s and goat’s milk.