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Get Stuffed - Wine Club

White gold

Wine club explores the world of whites beyond chardonnay

WHAT: Whistler Wine Club


WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m.

Chardonnay has long been the dominant varietal in the world of white wine. But those with a passion for vino are discovering there is life beyond the over-oaked, and some would say over-rated, chard. The newly formed Whistler Wine Club is offering a taste of two of the most popular alternatives growing in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, pinot blanc and pinot gris.

Organized by the Blackcomb Beer and Wine Store, with sessions held next door at BBK’s Pub, this is the wine club’s fourth meeting and the idea is quickly gaining momentum. The casual but informative discussions are led by beer and wine store manager Michael Kompass. Originally the goal was to educate his staff, but even without advertising, the night is becoming popular with the rest of the community.

"Because of the large amount of hospitality workers in Whistler, a lot of locals either need to know this sort of thing for their jobs or they develop an interest," says Kompass. "It’s also a nice way for our store to get more involved with our locals. And of course it’s the best way to showcase many of the great wines that we carry."

If you’re looking for an extraordinary complement to your special evening, the Blackcomb Beer and Wine Store is a good place to start. You’ll find many B.C. and international wines here that aren’t available elsewhere in Whistler, and in some cases, anywhere in B.C. Blackcomb was one of just two stores in the province selected to distributed the much raved about 1997 debut vintage of Burrowing Owl’s Pinot Gris. Its unique fresh pear flavour earned it ratings as high as 90/100 and Blackcomb was soon overrun with wine connoisseurs on the hunt for the hard to find white wine. Allocated just five cases for the entire year, the store had to insist on just two bottles per customer.

Alas, the ’97 Burrowing Owl isn’t on the menu for next Thursday’s tasting (although they do stock the newer vintages), but you will find eight outstanding wines, four blanc and four gris (rhymes with "free"), to titillate the palate and demonstrate the similarities and differences between these closely related wines. If you’ve never tasted the two side by side, they’re easy to confuse due to their fresh fruit and citrus overtones. But what might surprise you is that each come from entirely different coloured grapes. Pinot blanc is green/gold. Pinot gris is actually burgundy.

"Genetically, pinot noir is the parent grape of the pinot family," explains Cameron Cook of Carpe Diem, distributors for Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery. "That then stems out to the pinot blanc and pinot gris. They call it pinot gris because it’s a white wine derived from a red grape. In extremely hot years, the gris grape can be mistaken for the noir because it can turn very dark. And that’s why pinot gris wine can sometimes have a coppery hue, due to the very red skin. The pinot family is so close that it is not uncommon to find a cluster of gris or blanc grapes on a pinot noir plant. And from time to time, you can find all three on one cluster."

The difference in taste between the two often comes down to how the wine is produced. Winemakers tend to finish pinot gris in stainless steel instead of oak barrels, keeping the wine crisp, slightly acidic with citrus and mineral flavours. This wine can also be beautifully aromatic. Gehringer’s 1999 Optimum Pinot Gris, which is featured at Thursday’s tasting, is very floral on the nose and follows through with an earthy complexity. Pinot blanc has the same light and crisp characteristics, but its fruit-forward nose is usually more reminiscent of warmer apple or apricot and even vanilla, especially if it’s vinified in oak. In more delicate finishes such as Summerhill’s 2000 Pinot Blanc, which will also be on the tasting table, melon and honeysuckle greet the nose and tongue.

"At first, the industry was really trying to make pinot blanc a chardonnay," continues Cook. "But now what has happened is pinot blanc and gris definitely have their own identities. They are chardonnay alternatives, not for the fact that someone is going to pick one up and say ‘Oh, this is just like a chardonnay,’ but because someone may say ‘Let’s try pinot gris instead of a chardonnay.’ What’s nice, especially with pinot gris, is that the emphasis is really on the grape, as opposed to the oak, which is still very popular with southern hemisphere chardonnays. A lot of people mistake that oak characteristic for the grape."

The two pinots can indeed be paired with similar foods as chardonnay. They’re a great companion to your turkey and pork and stand up particularly well with fish and seafood, such as salmon, halibut, crab or mussels. The acidity in the pinots is a perfect balance for rich seafood oils, and the wines’ delicate aromas never overwhelm, allowing the fullest flavour with each bite.

"You should also remember to pair your wine with your sauce, not just the protein component," advises Cook. "You may think a wine goes well with chicken, but you can have everything from Cajun to steamed chicken. If you can find one wine that goes with everything then you’re doing well!"

Bearing that in mind, try a lemon or dill sauce with either pinot and even a light tomato garlic sauce with the gris.

Italian wine lovers will be familiar with pinot grigio. Although there is technically no difference between the two, die hard grigio drinkers do insist there are differences between the Okanagan and Italian wines. Pinot grigio tends to be lighter bodied than gris, with green and grassy aromas and flavours. You can judge for yourself on Thursday with the opportunity to taste the Italian Boscaino Firmiano Pinot Grigio. And to really make things interesting, sitting next to it will be a pinot grigio from the California vineyards of Robert Mondavi. Okanagan wineries represented will also include Sumac Ridge, Hawthorne Mountain, Lake Breeze, and Calona.

Admission for the evening and a pour of all eight wines is just $5. To ensure a tasting glass, call ahead at 604-932-9795.