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Beppi Crosariol's Decanter

Vancouver wine fest: Taste the best of the Southern Hemisphere Add to ...

Weather-obsessed visitors may call it Rain City. But for a week each spring Vancouver could go by another nickname - Wine Town.

The annual Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival is in full swing, taking over restaurants and the Vancouver Convention Centre. It kicked off this past Monday and will climax on the weekend with a series of fancy dinners and two public tastings.

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Widely regarded as the best consumer wine show in North America, Playhouse has become a key promotional stop for wine producers from around the world. There may be more "important" wine shows, such as Vinexpo in Bordeaux and Vinitaly in Verona, but those are aimed at commercial buyers and sellers. To many winemakers, the Vancouver fest, a 32-year-old fundraiser for the Playhouse Theatre Company, is a litmus test for global consumer acceptance. That's because British Columbian imbibers have a reputation for regional ecumenicism (though in many cases with a slight bias for local product). In other words, they'll drink anything from anywhere as long as it's good.

Most years, the festival features a theme country. This year there are two, New Zealand and Argentina. It's a fitting tango, if you will, not just because those countries share the southern hemisphere. Both are outstanding sources of premium and super-premium wines that have set new standards for value, notably in the $10 to $25 range. They also cover a broad stylistic range.

New Zealand, a South Pacific island nation, excels at vine varieties that crave cool coastal temperatures. Grassy sauvignon blanc remains its signature, but other compelling styles have emerged, including pinot noir, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and bubbly made in the Champagne style. Barely four decades into serious wine production, New Zealand may be the most precocious wine country in the world, well represented on North American shelves yet responsible for just 0.5 per cent of global output. It's a drop in the ocean - with a very big splash.

Argentina, by contrast, has a long history with the vine thanks to European settlers, notably Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. It now ranks fifth in terms of volume, behind Italy, France, Spain and the United States. Only recently has the country become a formidable export force.

Its best vineyards are planted in exceedingly dry, sunny regions, conditions that drive grapes to full ripeness and yield wines with powerful fruit character. The country's signature red, malbec, is a French grape, yet many believe the South American country's climate is better suited to the mould-susceptible variety.

As with New Zealand, there are fashionable new grapes in the Argentine repertoire, notably Torrontes, a gloriously perfumed light white reminiscent of white table grapes and flowers, and such offbeat reds as crisp bonarda. There are also classic, full-bodied French varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah.

There's lots to savour if you're lucky enough to be partying in Vancouver this week, and not just from New Zealand and Argentina. A global focus on rosé taps into the wine colour du jour. And just about every region and style is on display, with 1,700 wines (941 in the main tasting room at the convention centre Friday and Saturday) and 197 wineries from 14 countries. Do your best to beat the other 25,000 attendees to get a taste from the following producers.

From New Zealand: Astrolabe (for the sauvignon blanc); Elephant Hill (syrah); Matua Valley (sauvignon blanc and chardonnay); Nautilus (sauvignon blanc); Sacred Hill (sauvignon blanc and chardonnay); Staete Landt (pinot noir); Two Paddocks (owned by actor Sam Neill; taste the pinot noir); Vinoptima (gewurztraminer). Some of these producers also will be pouring at the New Zealand wine fairs in Ottawa on April 27 and Toronto on April 29 (visit nzwine-events.ca).

From Argentina: Luigi Bosca (malbec reserve); Catena (cabernet sauvignon); Chakana Estate (malbec and bonarda); Etchart Cafayate (reserve torrontes); Finca Flichman (everything); O. Fournier (syrah); Trapiche (a much-improved big brand).

Tasting notes

Most of the following smart buys are or will soon be available in stores in select provinces over the next month

New Zealand

Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, white, $34.55 (Ontario)

There's so much going on in this big, balanced offering from a great producer. Buttery pineapple with a dollop of bread dough and puff of smoke. Marvellous.

Framingham Pinot Noir 2008, red, $24.95 (available May 1 in Ontario)

Dark fruit and cherries, framed by notes of game, mushroom and toasty oak. Pinot that walks like a syrah.

Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2009, white, $21.95 (available May 1 in Ontario)

Superb offering from the new label of Kevin Judd, founding winemaker of New Zealand's iconic estate, Cloudy Bay. Silky, plump and perfectly pitched.

Kapuka Sauvignon Blanc 2009, white, $14.95 (available May 1 in Ontario)

Round, silky and fruit forward, with notes of mango, lemon and peach.

Lake Chalice Pinot Noir 2008, red, $19.95 (available May 1 in Ontario)

Medium-bodied, silky, fruit-forward and jammy, packed with red berries balanced by crisp acidity.

Momo Pinot Gris 2008, white, $18.95 (available May 1 in Ontario)

Medium-bodied, silky and rich with flavours of pear and apple, framed by tangy acidity and gun metal. Dynamite 333white.

Argentina

Chakana Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, red, $15.95

Full-bodied, voluptuous and smooth, with notes of cassis, chocolate and tobacco. Remarkable cab for the money.

Familia Schroeder Saurus Patagonia Select Malbec 2006, red, $15.95

Smooth, polished texture carrying juicy berries, cedar and spice. Elegant malbec for the money.

Santa Julia Magna 2008, red, $14.95 (Ontario)

Full-bodied, rich and chunky, with a smooth core lifted by spice on the finish.

Tilia Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, red, $12.95 (available in May in Ontario)

New affordable brand from the famous Catena family. Crowd-pleasingly smooth and rich, with notes of mint and cedar.

Trapiche Broquel Torrontes 2008, white, $15.95 (Ontario)

Light, floral, with a classic blast of white table grape and spice. A fine dry white for Asian food.

Trapiche Varietals Malbec 2008, $8.95 (Ontario; $11.99 in B.C.)

Very ripe and almost raisiny, reminiscent of California zinfandel. Monster value. Pair it with barbecued meats.

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