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Vancouver Wine Fest Pours Plenty of the Good Stuff

03/03/2015 01:40 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT

Darryl Weinbren has attended the Vancouver International Wine Festival from its inception. During its 37 years, he has witnessed it emerge as one of the leading events of its kind in the world. As the president of Authentic Wine & Spirits Merchants, Weinbren is among the many buyers who mark the British Columbia festival as a must-attend on their calendar -- and the wine importers are not alone. The festival is increasingly a tourism draw for oenophiles.

"It was a very small event in the beginning, with just the Robert Mondavi winery, then it got more producers from California and then the wine industry here became more important, and then it went international. When that happened the festival became a big deal -- a place you had to come to," says Weinbren, who imports wines from around the world for Authentic.

At this year's festival, he featured varieties from Italy's Farnese Estate during a dinner at Siena, a small Italian bistro in Vancouver's South Granville neighbourhood that serves well-prepared dishes using local ingredients and evoking the flavours of Tuscany. Plates paired with the Farnese wines included a Braised Elk Short Rib served with the delicious Fantini Edizione Cinque Autoctoni, a blend from southern Italy that features 30% Montepulciano and 28% Sangiovese grapes, among others.

Although the festival's "theme country" for 2015 was Australia, I found the Italian wines from family-run estate vineyards were the best choices, even though their numbers were much smaller. Australia had 55 wineries that took over a significant portion of the showroom at the Vancouver Convention Centre's west building while Italy had 16 exhibitors. Collavini stood out for its Merlot dal Pic, which is stored in French oak barrels for two years and then bottled and kept for another two years before hitting the market.

Australia did have several interesting wines that demonstrate the nation's ambition to evolve beyond the big, bold Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties it is known for. Two exhibitors -- Tar & Roses and Serafino -- showed Tempranillo bottles. The grape is traditionally grown in Spain and Italy, but has been planted in Australia's hot wine-growing regions. Wyndham Estates offered a sparkling Shiraz that was refreshing, unique and practical. It provides a less fruity option to sangria for a drink on a scorching summer day. Introducing new or unrecognized products is important for a nation whose wine sales have plateaued around the world.

"This is a big event for us," says Kevin Lamb of the Australian Trade Commission. "To have 55 wineries attend is significant and it shows we are serious about educating people that there is more going on with Australian wine than Shiraz and Reisling."

The event -- the largest and finest wine event in this country -- is also significant because Canadians continue to consume wine in impressive quantities. The nation ranks seventh in terms of wine consumption and is expected to increase its intake by 7.8% by 2018, according to a recent report from International Wine and Spirit Research. The Vancouver Wine Fest has grown from 1,000 patrons in 1979, its inaugural year, to many times that number of attendees this year. In all, there were 170 wineries from 14 countries in 2015 for patrons to try. During the one-week festival, 53 events took place, including dinners at Hawksworth and Boulevard, and a Restaurant Australia promotion at the convention centre that featured dishes such as grilled lamb chops and kangaroo sliders, matched with the many Aussie wines at the event.

While the Tasting Room at the convention centre ballroom is where the public had the best chance of sampling the more than 1,750 wines on display, the distinction between the Vancouver Wine Fest and others I've attended is its community involvement. Not only is the festival a major fundraiser for the annual Bard on the Beach Shakespeare production, it annually pairs restaurants like Siena with wineries like Farnese, creating a dining experience that Vancouverites normally would not enjoy. While the food at the convention centre event was sparse and even disappointing, the restaurant experiences are sensational. Such promotions are one reason why the event is increasingly popular with tourists, some of whom can enjoy reduced rates at participating hotels.

"Tourism is more and more an element of the event. We have some hotel partners and the restaurant program is an excellent one," says Harry Hertscheg, the wine festival's executive director. "The festival takes place after Valentine's Day and before March Break, so it's a bit of a slow time for travel and because of that we are able to get the hotels on board to offer some excellent deals."