It’s The Greatest Wine Festival On The Planet

Feature photo credit: Christine McAvoy

Article by: Debbie Trenholm, sommelier and founder of Savvy Company

In the middle of February, the Ottawa airport is full of people heading south destined for sand and sunshine. 

On the other hand, I was heading to Vancouver. I’m trading in thoughts of rum punches and margaritas for wine. . . lots of wine.

Every year, the wine world arrives in Vancouver to participate in the Vancouver International Wine Festival. 

There are numerous international wine tradeshows and events that rival ‘Van Wine Fest’ (as it is know in the biz, now in its 40th year), yet this festival is notably different on so many levels.

This year, 16 countries and 173 wineries were represented, showcasing 1,450 wines in 51 special events – from master classes specifically for wine writers, sommeliers and restaurant owners, to themed tastings at more than 20 restaurants throughout the city. 

There was also the spectacular Vintners Brunch, the festival’s grand finale. 

In all, 25,000 wine fans took over the Vancouver Convention Centre where 43,000 bottles were opened, and 82,000 wine glasses were used during the event.

What makes Van Wine Fest special?

Winery owners and winemakers make the trip to Vancouver especially for this festival. 

“It’s all about discovering new wines, connecting with winery principals, and learning more about the wine world,” said Harry Hertscheg, the festival’s executive director. “Since 1979, festival goers have met the producers directly responsible for the wines they are tasting and hearing the stories that bring those wines to life.”

Only at Van Wine Fest, would I have ever met Tony Torres – head of Torres Wines from Spain, a family run business that has been operating for generations and has become synonymous for quality Spanish and Chilean wine. Or Jose Zuccardi, the founder of Zuccardi Winery who produces LCBO’s top selling red wine from Argentina – FuZion. 

Also there? Sandra, the head winemaker at Friexenet & Segura Viudas Cava. 

“What struck me was how very approachable and sincere each winemaker was; this was not an arrogant and snooty wine event. This was a real, honest, down to earth opportunity to chat with winemakers who just happen to be among the best in the world,” said Karen Wright, also of Savvy Company. 

Photo by Debbie Trenholm

A different wine region discovery each year

Each year, the festival shines the spotlight on a wine region or country. 

This year was a double-header with Spain and Portugal sharing the limelight.

You can take a tasting tour of these countries by sipping your way around the Grand Tasting Hall or fill your week with seminars and special events involving notable wine industry personalities and winemakers. I have discovered – in the past – the wine regions of Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, France, Italy, and now Spain and Portugal. 

A warning though, the hazard of this festival is that you’ll want to visit these places. Better start saving your airline points!

A Taste of Spain and Portugal

These two countries have a fascinating wine history that has been intertwined for many years. 

The keynote speaker was wine marketing guru Paul Wagner from Napa, CA., who moderated the sold-out seminar Storied Iberia in 9 Wines.

Paul was more of a tour guide than a moderator as he presented the evolving backstory of Iberia’s wine industry, then engaged winemakers to share their family’s role as winemakers.

“I was blown away by the fact that practically the entire expert panel were 5th- to 14th-generation wine industry professionals, said Ottawa-based sommelier Matt Steeves. “It was great listening to their stories, getting insight into why certain styles of wine taste a specific way, and what their winemaking philosophies are for different wines.”

Kicking off the festival, we were introduced to high-end Cava sparkling wines which are ready to rival the finest French Champagnes.

The Sherry Revolution continued at the festival with winemakers debunking the myth that sherry is sweet and is your grandmother’s drink. In fact, it’s the hottest and newest ingredient on the cocktail scene. 

Same with Portugal – we were shown that vintage ports could be served young with barbecued steak or mushroom risotto rather than letting them catch dust in your wine cellar. 

These winemakers also unravelled some of the complicated details their wine labels. They took the time to explain the full range of sherries and differences of each style of port. They translated important information on the wine labels that is going to make my shopping for wines from these countries even easier. 

“It was a classic and humbling demonstration of the more you learn about wine, the less you know,” said Tony Gismondi, the Vancouver Sun’s wine columnist.

Oh, and the food.

There were lemon-stuffed olives, dark chocolates, cheeses and olive oils to enjoy. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket to one of the dinners or grazing events at a local restaurant, it was memorable. I will never forget the Crema Catalana (aka Crème Brûlée) served at the Graham’s Port dinner.

Consider this your wine tip: Skip going south next winter and block Feb. 23 to March 3 off in your calendar to join us at Van Wine Fest. California wines will be in the spotlight.