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Value Wines, Calgary Dining, Portuguese Whites

Howdy, from the Hotel Arts in Calgary—site of the first International Value Wine Awards. There are 800 wines entered from 18 countries, all available somewhere in Canada for less than $25. As far as I know, this is the world’s first international judging for less-expensive wines, and I suspect there will be big world wide interest in this process. Results will determine a best red and best white under $25, then provide “top ten values” in each major varietal category—for example, the ten best shiraz in Canada under $25. They will also break out winners regionally or by country. By rough count, about 300 of the wines entered are found on Ontario’s general list or as Vintages Essentials, wines that I will be reviewing in the Toronto Life Eating and Drinking Guide this fall. The competition is being held in Calgary because Alberta, with a privatized market and over 700 stores, has the largest number of brands on store shelves of any province in Canada, over 10,000 at any one time compared to about 4,000 in Ontario.

I’ve dined at six Calgary restaurants so far, and am still yet to tuck into a big slab of Alberta beef. Closest was a very rich elk dish served at Belvedere, one the best bets in high-end downtown continental fare. But I’ve also had bison and pemican—so this just has to be Alberta. Sunday brunch on the patio at the River Café was the single most pleasant experience, enjoying “salmon benedict” with a glass of La Vieille Ferme 2005 Rosé *** while Calgarians walked, jogged and bladed through the park. The greatest wine surprises however came at the unassuming Thai Sa-On located at 351 10th Avenue SW. Like so many family-run, authentic Asian restaurants, the décor is sparse, with rattan chairs, plastic covered menus, and plainly presented, delicious food. But the wine list had us hooked within seconds—with far greater depth and diversity than the typical aromatic whites now considered de rigeur with Asian food. Although that’s what we ordered first, leading off with a Heartland 2005 Pinot Gris-Viognier ***1/2 from Australia that proved a bit too hot and spicy with the fierier dishes. Much better was a classic, suave German riesling at an equally cool price: Schloss Schonborn 2001 Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg Riesling Spatlese **** on the list at $32.95. Such a good deal we ordered two bottles, at which point Sam the proprietor noted our interest in wine and began to reveal the depths of his 300-label cellar. He urged us to try some reds with his cuisine. First up was Craggy Range 2004 Pinot Noir **** from New Zealand—deep, layered, racy and two years too young. Then came Grant Burge 2002 Filsell Shiraz ****1/2 from Australia, a big Barossa Valley shiraz with terrific structure, layers and depth that was not at all out of place with spicy Jackie Chan beef (Jackie visits often apparently). Despite the incredibly fair prices we restrained ourselves and passed on dessert wines icons like Ch. Rieussec 2001 and Ch. d’Yquem 200—two of the very best Sauternes on the planet.

And now for white wine summer value picks from Saturday’s Vintages release (June 24), wines that will be especially good with lighter seafood and shellfish recipes. I was pleasantly surprised with the handful of Portuguese whites. They are made largely from indigenous grapes little known outside of Portugal, yet made in a bright, modern style emphasizing clean fruit, freshness and a certain creaminess of texture. Two Douro Valley whites impressed in particular. Porca de Murca 2004 Reserva Branco ***1/2 ($15.95) is a very fragrant, intriguing muscat-based wine with yellow plum, banana and fresh herbs, a bit mindful of semillon. Quinta do Portal 2005 Branco **** ($15.95) is even more vibrant and charming with similar flavours and a bit more minerality on the finish. Light, spritzy, almost salty Vinho Verde from the cooler, greener north of Portugal is perhaps the country’s most well known white. Quinta de Azevedo 2005 ***1/2 ($11.95) carries the banner well with more concentration, flesh and finesse than I expected. Try it with oysters, mussels or clams. From a region not far over the border in Spain I also really enjoyed the freshness yet creaminess of the Bodegas Cerrosol 2004 Verdejo**** ($13.95) from Rueda—very classy at the price with ripe pear star fruit aromas.

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