Handcrafted wines offer something different for those in the mood to experiment

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      At the tail end of my sommelier-on-the-floor days in 2010, I was fortunate enough to receive the sommelier of the year award from the Vancouver International Wine Festival and Vancouver magazine.

      I don’t bring it up for horn-tootin’: it’s mentioned because I was the first British Columbian sommelier to receive an opportunity from Summerland’s Okanagan Crush Pad to be a part of their Wine Campus program. The program lets each year’s winning sommelier work with the winery on making 100 cases of a wine of their choosing, with the proceeds going to local charity.

      I opted for a concrete-fermented Sémillon, something fresh, crisp, and lively to go with local seafood and elevated plant-based cuisine. Subsequent winners include Jason Yamasaki, now the group sommelier for the JOEY Restaurant Group, who crafted a sparkling Pinot Noir, and Mike Bernardo of Vij’s, whose off-dry Riesling was a no-brainer with Indian fare.

      The Okanagan Crush Pad team are generous with time and resources, and that’s something to which I can attest: if the grapes can be sourced and the style can be made, they’re generally keen to go along with any whims or direction.

      2019’s sommelier of the year, Matthew Landry of Vancouver’s Stable House Bistro and Fiore restaurants, opted to go with the most ambitious Wine Campus project yet, and it has just been released.

      First, a little back story.

      The Ontario native has always had a penchant for Italian wine. In fact, he’s a certified Vinitaly international wine ambassador, often embarking on restaurant programming to spread the good word on Italian wine. Do check out Fiore’s Facebook page.

      Over at the Stable House Bistro, the hearty cuisine bolstered by a hefty charcuterie program has seen him put Lambrusco wines front and centre. The fizzy red wines made from the grape of the same name originate from the Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy and most often harbour rich red, black, and purple fruit with a dry, peppery finish. They’re opulent and charismatic, tailor-made for standing up to rich and meaty dishes.

      Landry challenged himself and Crush Pad to mimic the style. First up was finding a variety that was suited to its flair. This resulted in the choice of a harvest of very limited Okanagan plantings of Touriga Nacional, a tannic and concentrated red grape more widely known for being a base variety of port wine.

      Now, how to get the bubbles in there?

      The crew opted to go with a pétillant naturel—or pét-nat—style. The recently repopularized old-school method involves sealing a wine before it has gone through a full ferment, trapping some of the carbon dioxide byproduct and resulting in a sparkling profile.

      Now in private stores like Firefly Fine Wine & Ales and Legacy Liquor Store (for about $30)—as well as Matt’s restaurants and colleagues’ eateries like AnnaLena, Old Bird, and Dachi—the wine is frivolous and full of character, just like its cheeky name.

      “Pet Matt Landrusco” is loaded with blackberries, raspberries, hibiscus, cola, and sarsaparilla, and it’s juicy as all get-out.

      Although this is a one-off project, the wine is so damn tasty and approachable that I’m thinking it’s not the last we’ll see of this style coming out of British Columbian wine country.

      Speaking of bold initiatives, I also wanted to commend David Stansfield, the Vancouver-based corporate sommelier for Earls Kitchen + Bar restaurants across North America. A fan of the still-growing natural-wine movement, he has recently brought the still cultish (but buzzy) category to the people on the wine programs across the Earls empire, with their own highlighted category on his lists.

      Without bravado or pedantic airs, he is exposing more food-and-wine enthusiasts across the continent to these handcrafted wines, often in very small production, with selected bottlings from all around the world.

      In Whistler and here in Vancouver, Earls patrons have a couple of fun options by the glass.

      Lock & Worth Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon 2018 from B.C. is a zesty, citrusy, and herbal delight, and Eric Texier Chat Fou 2017 is a Grenache-based red from France’s Rhône Valley, full of earthy, purple fruit, with a handful of gravelly mineral character adding dimension.

      Although some have been saying that the natural-wine movement is just a passing fad, it seems as though it’s really just getting started.