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A few weeks ago, I attended the 28th Annual Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival and have attended just about every year since 1997. It is one of my favorite annual wine festivals because the theme changes along with the featured country and it is so adeptly organized. Although there are events throughout the week, I normally just go up for Thursday through Saturday for the tastings.

This year France was in the spotlight and there were producers from all of the major regions of the country. I had the opportunity to try the current vintages from some top notch producers and some that I had never heard of. I concentrated on Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone regions while trying their lineups of current releases and quite a few well-known producers offered some mature vintages as well, which offered a great juxtaposition to the young bottlings.

Fortunately I was able to attend the trade tastings that took place on Thursday and Friday afternoons. These tastings were uncrowded and provided the ability to spend time with the winemakers, owners and/or local reps of the wineries. I enjoyed being able to ask questions and learn about some new wines. In addition to France, there were wineries from dozens of countries. Additionally there was a solid concentration from both Canada and the USA, but also a half dozen Port producers which is always a special treat for me.

There are also Grand Tastings which are open to the public each of the three evenings between 7-10 p.m. and this is more of a large party atmosphere where you can focus on specific producers or just follow the tables in alphabetical order which makes things very easy from a tasting note standpoint. The attendees seemed very eager to learn and asked many great questions but the Grand Tastings are more for trying wines from around the globe.

Now, onto my wine discovery:

I tried a few hundred wines from many countries during the five 3-hour tasting sessions that I attended. There was one particular wine that stood out from all the rest and here are the three reasons why:

• The wine came from the Tannat grape
• The grapes came from Uruguay, which is a wine producing nation which is not well-known by most wine enthusiasts
• This was a dessert style of wine and possibly the most unique one I have ever tried

The Pisano Family Winery in Progreso, Uruguay first produced wine on this estate in 1924. It is located slightly Northeast of Buenos Aires and just about on the same parallel as Santiago, Chile. They produce about a half dozen wines from their own vineyards which encompass about 25 hectares. There are actually more hectares of Uruguayan Tannat vineyards than in Madiran, (Southwestern France) where Tannat is perhaps best known. In fact, Tannat is the “national grape” of Uruguay, having been brought there by Basque immigrants in 1870; and today, it is not found in greater quantity anywhere else in the world.

In close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, the sunny and cool micro-climate around the family’s vineyards in Progreso provides great ripening conditions for the grapes with excellent levels of acidity. The winemaking for the vast majority of the wines is handled by Gustavo Pisano.

The 2005 Pisano “Et Xe Oneko, which translates into “from the house of a good family” is produced from low yielding, high density 64 year old vines. In speaking with Daniel Pisano, the head of marketing & sales for the family, he mentioned that his 21 year old nephew Gabriel vinified this particular wine. I asked him to repeat his sentence, as I was not sure that I had heard him correctly when he said, “21 years old.” The Pisano’s employee a minimalist approach to their vinification process, which would make the most finicky Burgundian producer proud. They hand pick all of the grapes, add very little SO2, do not filter their wines, then manually fill bottles, label them and drive in the corks with small machines. They like to keep things simple which ensures they have time for constant quality inspection.

2005 Pisano Etxe Oneko – is produced from 100% Tannat grapes which are late harvested about six weeks after all other picking is finished. The alcohol content is 17% and that does not come from fortification, but the natural residual sugar when picked and the nature of the Tannat grape which is normally higher in alcohol than most grapes. Before I describe the wine, I must be honest and state that I normally do not like wines from the Tannat grape. This is true of Madiran or the Uruguayan Tannat, which makes it even more incredible that this particular wine captured my full attention and won me over..

The Etxe Oneko shows an inky purplish-black hue that is every bit as dark as any cask sample of Vintage Port I’ve encountered. The nose offers a flamboyant mélange of mocha, espresso beans, black currants and a wild earthy, dusty clay aroma. Taking the easy way out, just blend the finest Pedro Ximenez, Banyuls and Vintage Port and that about sums up what I found here! On the palate this is every bit as much about the texture as the flavors. The viscous, chewy milk chocolate, ultra ripe plums and sweet blackberry preserves are so intense that “complexity” fails to work as a descriptor. Fortunately there is plenty of acid to keep the massive fruit in check but not for long. The finish almost doesn’t as the ripe tannins join the massive fruit in a tsunami wave that literally crushes the palate. The aftertaste was like a berry laden, chocolate malted milk shake and I immediately walked over to one of my Port producer friends and coaxed him back to the Pisano table to try this wine. Although this can be enjoyed now, I would love to revisit this wine after a decade or more in the cellar, to see how well it has aged. 500 cases produced. 93+ points

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