Hands up if you have attended all 37 Vancouver International Wine Festivals (VIWF). If your hand is in the air it's possible you have been living or working in Whistler since 1979, the year the annual winefest got underway.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler was incorporated in 1975 and it was then that construction began in earnest. In some ways the festival and Whistler have both grown at an astounding clip over the past 37 years, and both have played key roles in attracting international visitors to B.C.
A little-known secret about the wine festival's success has a lot to do with its proximity to Whistler and the desire of many international wine folks to both attend the festival and go skiing. Believe me, the chance to ski for a few days, before or after the show, has been a great draw.
Now the 2016 version of the festival kicks off next Monday, with some 156 winery principals attending from around the world, including 60 from this year's theme country, Italy.
The Italians will be a huge draw all week as they spread out across Vancouver for tastings and dinners and, of course, commanding the prime real estate afforded the theme country inside the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre for the festival itself. According to VIWF winery selection chair, David Hopgood, the 2016 entourage from Italy is the largest in festival history.
"This gathering of Italian producers will allow Vancouver wine lovers to explore nine of Italy's storied regions, discovering an extraordinary range of grapes — more than 50 varieties in the tasting room alone. No other country in the world could come close to offering such a diverse array of rare and exciting grape varieties," he says.
In fact, the breadth of grapes grown in Italy inspired festival organizers to not declare a theme grape this year so as not to tie the hands of Italians, who revel in growing hundreds of different grapes. I must say, in a market where many red wines tend to be overripe and, in some cases, swimming in residual sugar and oak, it will be a pleasure to taste the dry wines of Italy.
When it comes to wine, the Italians talk a lot about place, especially about specificity of place and grape varietal. While we are currently debating the merits of sub-appellations in B.C. and trying to agree on a system to tie our wines to specific sites (think Naramata Bench, within the Okanagan Valley, or Cawston within the Similkameen Valley), the Italians have "been there and done that" for close to a century.
They have also spent a great deal of time experimenting with which grapes work best with which soils, spawning a diverse selection of wines that, ironically, over the decades have developed an identity far beyond just that of the grapes.
In the region of Piemonte, in northern Italy, the nebbiolo grape reigns supreme, responsible for the great wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Both wines are long-lived and require a decade of aging in any decent vintage to show their real stuff. The selection of nebbiolo clones has been refined for centuries, but in the demarcated wine area known for Barolo, the wines are all about the producers and the best vineyards or crus, not the grape.
Similarly, in Tuscany, the sangiovese grape rules but the best bottles you will encounter are labelled Chianti, Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione and Brunello di Montalcino, especially those bearing the "reserve" designation. Again, wines capable of aging for the better in bottle.
The Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Valpolicella is the official association of grapevine growers, wine makers and bottlers of Valpolicella wine. They will be at the festival explaining the intricacies of Valpolicella, a red wine made from multiple grape varieties in a multitude of styles including Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella. From dry to sweet and everything in between, Valpolicella has emerged over the last three decades as a wine for all seasons.
All that and we have not even mentioned food, which is likely the path most of you have travelled to get to Italian wine. There is something about Italian cuisine that simply does not intimidate the average food and wine aficionado in the way French food and wine traditions do. Perhaps it's the Italian propensity for showing up late and staying late that sets a tone for informality.
This month, as the Canadian dollar heads south faster than a snowbird, we suggest you consider organizing an in-house dinner party and end a hectic day, Italian-style, at home, with friends.
To get the party underway think about serving a selection of antipasti and your favourite Prosecco. Prosecco is a softer style sparkling wine with ripe fruit and a clean finish. Think marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, a selection of olives, and some thinly sliced sopressata, capicola and/or Genoa salumis. We recommend Ruggeri Giustino B. Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore 2013, Treviso Italy $34.99.
Make pasta your secondi, or second course, and keep it simple. You can pick up a variety of fresh pastas and sauces at most specialty markets. To accompany the pasta, think about cooler, fresher style Italian whites. A current favourite is Umani Ronchi Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi Classico (Exclamation Point) 2013 $16.
The main course sounds impossibly challenging but grilled Florentine steak or Bistecca alla Fiorentina could not be simpler to prepare. Rub the steak with a good olive oil and generously season it with salt and pepper. Then simply toss it on a pre-heated grill and prepare it to order for your guest. Tuscan sangiovese or Super-Tuscan reds is the perfect match, and we suggest Rocca della Macie Roccato 2009, a 50/50 mix of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.
Now all you need do is add music (Italian, of course), and you will have your own Italian adventure.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com.
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