Monday, May 10, 2021

Quails' Gate repeats as a best-managed company

Photo: Quails' Gate CEO Tony Stewart (courtesy Quails' Gate)
For the fifth year in a row, Quails’ Gate Estate Winery has received one of the “Canada’s best managed companies” award in the competition sponsored by the Deloitte accounting firm. This year’s award might feel a little more special. “Core values of the family-owned business were put to the test over the last year as they faced government restrictions due to the global pandemic and major shifts in their route to market,” the winery said in a news release. “Throughout these challenges, the business acted with an increased sense of social responsibility by prioritizing the health of staff and customers, achieved through a combination of on-site safety protocols, remote work environments and e-commerce solutions with curbside pick-up. The winery also launched The Market at Quails’ Gate to provide social distancing for estate visitors and prepared meals to dine at home.”
“At Quails’ Gate our staff are the driving force behind our brand values encompassing welcoming Okanagan hospitality” says CEO Tony Stewart. “This award is a reflection of everyone on the team who lead our innovative practices as pioneers in the BC wine industry.”
Throughout the Covid-19 challenged year, Quails’ Gate continued growing and releasing some of the best wines in the Okanagan. The winery’s spring release is an example of well-made, good value wines. Wines like this can only be made consistently year-in and year-out with good management.
Here are notes on the wines.
Quails’ Gate Chasselas Pinot Gris Pinot Blanc 2020 ($19.99). The wine begins with aromas of citrus and melon. These are echoed on the palate. The wine is crisp, dry and has a refreshing finish. This is one of the largest selling white wines in British Columbia. 90.
Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2019 ($23.99). The wine begins with aromas of citrus and butter which carry through to the very lightly oaked flavours. Fruit-forward and refreshing. 90.
Quails’ Gate Chenin Blanc 2020 ($24.99). This is 89% Chenin Blanc, with Sauvignon Blanc accounting for the rest. It begins with aromas of lemon and honeydew melon. It is crisply dry, with flavours of Asian pear and citrus. The lively acidity gives the wine a fresh and lingering finish. 91.
Quails’ Gate Rosé 2020 ($18.99). This wine is made with Gamay and Pinot Noir, fermented separately. One hour of skin contact gives the wine a fashionably pale hue. The delicate fruity aromas suggest strawberry and watermelon which carry through to the flavour. There are lingering hints of wild strawberry on the finish. The wine is crisp and dry. 89.
Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2019 ($29.99). This dark-hued Pinot Noir, which was aged nine months in Burgundian barrels, begins with aromas of cherry and chocolate that leap from the glass. The palate delivers flavours of cherry, blackberry and cocoa with a complexing forest floor note on the finish. 90.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Gray Monk's Rotberger now has a supporting role

Photo: Winemaker Jen Oishi (credit Mackenzie Dempsey)
Jen Oishi, the winemaker at Gray Monk Estate Winery, went to a remarkable amount of effort to make the winery’s 2020 rosé. There are six grapes in the blend. Any one of them could have been used on its own (and often are) for a rosé. She set to build a degree of complexity seldom found in rosé.
The irony is that for years Gray Monk’s rosé was made exclusively, or at least primarily, with just one variety: Rotberger. It is just 13% of the 2020 rosé. The variety is a cross of Trollinger and Riesling that was developed at the Geisenheim Research Institute in Germany in 1928. The current commercial acreage there and in northern Italy is miniscule. The same is true for the Okanagan, where the variety was planted initially by George Heiss, one of the founding owners of Gray Monk. It was one of the varieties I profiled in a 1998 book, Chardonnay and Friends, which is no longer in print. Here is an excerpt.
In Germany, Rotberger is virtually unknown to consumers because wineries seldom produce it as a varietal, even when authorities like Jancis Robinson, the British wine writer, writes that it is capable of producing “very good wines.” Rotberger’s brief moment in the sun every year rests primarily in the hands of George Heiss Jr., the serious-minded winemaker at Gray Monk. George Sr., his father, imported some vines from Germany in the 1970s -- six short rows, as George Jr. recalls it. “We knew next to nothing about it,” the elder Heiss recalls. “I doubt that at the time we took the vines we had ever tasted the wine ... we went totally blind.” The Heiss family subsequently expanded its plantings to six acres, having found that the wine has a loyal following in a niche so small that no competitor has asked for Rotberger cuttings. (One other grower once expressed some interest in cuttings but never followed through.) That should not be taken as a reflection on the wine, a fresh and lively rosé with a colour as vibrant as the gleaming paint on a fast sports car.
The challenge of Rotberger is twofold. First, the name is comic to those who do not pronounce it correctly: the first syllable rhymes with vote and not with pot. Secondly, the rosé market is small in a nation that only has three months of summer, which is the preferred time for drinking fresh pink wines. Neither of these difficulties trouble young George Heiss. He knows how to pronounce German grape names and he makes barely enough Rotberger to satisfy the demand. Straightforward in the vineyard, Rotberger is a mid- to late-season variety, ripening about the same time as Riesling. The large berries of Rotberger, when ripe, are dark purple; all the colour is in the skins while the flesh is colourless. Heiss crushes the grapes and begins fermentation immediately on the skins. The hue of the wine is the colour released in the first day; and there is no point leaving the juice on the skins beyond that because the tone will not deepen and may actually begin to brown. What Heiss wants, and invariably gets, is a lively cranberry shade that is achieved by pressing the must after that first day of fermentation and completing the process in stainless steel. “I try to keep it cool,” he says. “If it gets too hot, it can lose too much fruitiness.”
Fruitiness is the essence of this wine which, when fermentation ends, has no more than ten or eleven per cent alcohol and has a touch of residual sweetness. “Rotberger has the Riesling acidity,” he notes. “The acidity would be too strong to finish it off in a dry style. I find that extra little bit of sweetness brings out the fruitiness as well.” The wines usually are ready to be released nine months after harvest. They should be enjoyed when they are fresh and are not designed for long cellaring.
Since that was written, the market for rosé wines has grown substantially. It is hard to find a producer without one in the portfolio. On its own, Rotberger rosé could be a bit simple. The blending done here counters that. It could also be that the blending was driven by the need to make more rosé than is possible just from the Gray Monk Rotberger block. Some years ago, the winery needed to expand the parking lot in front of its tasting room. Several rows of Rotberger were sacrificed to make room for cars. George Heiss Jr. stepped aside as winemaker several years ago when the winery was acquired by Andrew Peller Ltd. in 2017. Jen Oishi, the current winemaker, was born and raised in the Okanagan. After completing a degree in microbiology from the University of British Columbia, Jen joined the Gray Monk team in 2011. She was mentored as winemaker by Roger Wong, Gray Monk’s other long-time winemaker and now one of the owners of Intrigue Winery in Lake Country. Jen became assistant winemaker at Gray Monk in 2015 and succeeded Roger in 2020.
Here is a note on the wine.
Gray Monk Rosé 2020 ($17.99). This is a blend of 36% Cabernet Franc, 29% Merlot, 13% Rotberger, 9% Gamay Noir, 8% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. The grapes were given five to 15 hours of skin contact to develop a delicate rose petal hue. The juice was fermented cool in stainless steel for 21 days. There are aromas of strawberry and apple, which are echoed on the palate, along with a note of watermelon. A touch of residual sweetness adds a little flesh to the texture. The balance still leans toward dry and refreshing, with a lingering, fruity finish. 90.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Hester Creek's releases in the time of Covid

Photo: The Villas at Hester Creek
If ever there is a winery anxious for the pandemic to recede, it must be Hester Creek Estate Winery. The winery’s luxury accommodation – the six suites called The Villa – is open, but only to local guests. The province’s ban on non-essential travel has forced Hester Creek to announce it is not taking bookings “for guests visiting from outside the Okanagan.” Other public health restrictions have crimped operations of the Terrafina Restaurant on the winery grounds. It is open but just for patio service and take-out service.
Hester Creek also has one of the most expansive tasting rooms on the south Okanagan. Since public health orders prohibit indoor events for the next few weeks, the tastings are done on the patio which, fortunately, is also large.
Like many other wineries, Hester Creek is doing its best to serve the few people who get there. The pandemic, however, is not stopping the winery from releasing wines to the market and to its wine club. A glass or two of Hester Creek’s legendary Trebbiano is an excellent way to watch the light at the end of the tunnel get bigger. Here are notes on the spring releases.
Hester Creek Pinot Gris 2020 ($16.99). This wine was fermented cool and aged four months in stainless steel before bottled early to preserve the crisp freshness. It begins with aromas of pear, apple and peach. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus, pear and pineapple. 90
Hester Creek Pinot Gris Viognier 2020 ($16.99). This interesting unoaked wine is exclusive to some Save-On-Foods stores. It is a blend of 67% Pinot Gris, 33% Viognier. It begins with aromas of green apples and grapefruit, leading to flavours of peach, pear and citrus. The spine of the Viognier defines the crisp, yet juicy, structure. 90.
Hester Creek Old Vines Trebbiano 2020 ($22.99). This is such a fine wine that one wonders why no one else has planted Viognier. The vines in the Hester Creek vineyard were planted there 52 years ago. The winery treats the fruit gently: after pressing the whole berries, the juice is settled in stainless steel and fermented very slowly (for 38) days. It is then racked off the heavy lees but spends four more months on fine less. Consequently, the texture is rich. It begins with honeyed aromas of tropical fruit, leading to flavours of citrus, peach and guava. 92.
Hester Creek Character White 2020 ($15.99). This is probably the best-value white under $20 in the Okanagan. It is a blend of 71% Pinot Gris and 29% Gewürztraminer. The lots were cool-fermented and aged four months on fine lees. It begins with aromas of citrus, peach and lychee. It delivers a fruit basket of flavours with a hint of sweet fruit on the finish. 90. Hester Creek Rosé Cabernet Franc 2020 ($17.99). This is a voluptuous, all-hands on deck deeply
hued rosé (four days on skins). It begins with aromas of cherry, strawberry and red plums, leading to tons of flavour where candy apple mingles with cherry and strawberry. 91.
Hester Creek Character Red 2019 ($18.99). This is a blend of 49% Merlot, 21% Syrah, 16% Petit Verdot, 5% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, and 4% Cabernet Franc. It h as been aged eight months on barrel (75% French, 25% American). The Merlot here is what Hester Creek calls “Italian” Merlot. The wine begins with aromas of blueberry, black currant and pepper. On the palate, there is more pepper mingled with dark fruit. Long, ripe tannins give the wine an appealing finish. 90.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Four Shadows releases for spring 2021

Photo: Wilbert and Joka Borren
When wine touring returns to normal, consumers can pack in several good wineries with little driving by spending a day on Upper Bench Road at the edge of Penticton. Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery anchors the south end of the road. Proceeding north, one would stop at Upper Bench Winery, Roche Wines and Da Silva Vineyards. And then Three Sisters Winery and Township 7 Vineyards are just around the corner. To me, this has always been one of the appeals of the Okanagan. There are a lot of wineries packed into a small area. And the wines are invariably appealing.
I will not give you the full tour in this blog. I will introduce you just for Four Shadows, For background on the winery, here is an except from the Okanagan Wine Tour Guide. The 510-page book was released for $25 at the end of April, 2020. The pandemic forced me and co-author Luke Whittall to cancel planned book launch events.
Wilbert and Joka Borren, both immigrants from the Netherlands, are nothing if not industrious. Wilbert was a 20-year-old graduate of an agriculture college when he arrived to work on an Alberta dairy farm. He met Joka in 1990, shortly after she arrived in Canada. In 1993, after the couple married, Wilbert concluded that the rising cost of milk quotas prevented him from realizing a dream of his own dairy. So he bought a hog farm near Lacombe, Alberta. “It took some persuading,” Joka admits. When they tired of hogs and hard winters, they moved to the Okanagan in 2011, now with four sons, to become grape growers. They bought the bankrupt Mistral Estate Winery and its 4.9 hectares (12 acres) of neglected vineyard on the eastern edge of Penticton. Wilbert made up for his lack of experience by engaging viticultural consultant Graham O’Rourke, co-owner of nearby Tightrope Winery. “I am a farmer,” Wilbert says. “Stepping into the wine business is a new game.”
Within a few years, Graham suggested that Wilbert did not need help anymore. Four Shadows Vineyard—a name inspired by the four Borren sons—was selling quality fruit to such top-flight wineries as Foxtrot Vineyards and Synchromesh Wines. “It was never our intention to start a winery,” Wilbert says. “But then we were selling grapes [to wineries] that were all making good wines. People started to ask why we were not making our own wine.” Once again, they overcame winemaking inexperience by turning to consultants. Tightrope’s Lyndsay O’Rourke made the Four Shadows wines in 2017, and Pascal Madevon, formerly the Osoyoos Larose winemaker, took over in 2018. The former Mistral tasting room, empty nearly a decade, was professionally renovated: one of their sons is a carpenter, while another, a welder, fashioned the winery’s unique steel signage. Four Shadows opened in May 2019 with five wines, well made and well priced. Cautiously, the vineyard continues to sell some grapes to other wineries. “We are starting small so we can just ease into it,” Joka says. “And we can expand if it goes well.”
Here are notes on the wines.
Four Shadows Riesling Dry 2020 ($23.99). The wine begins with aromas of guava. On the palate, there are flavours of green apple and lime. Bright acidity leaves a fresh, tangy finish. Another six to 12 months of bottle age will allow the wine to unlock more of the tropical flavours. 90.
Four Shadows Riesling Classic 2020 ($22.99). A little residual sugar balanced with fresh acidity accentuates the intensity of the stone fruit aromas and citrus and tropical flavours. There is an impression of fullness on the palate; yet the acidity leads to a refreshing finish. 91.
Four Shadows Sparkling Riesling 2020 ($24.99). The rush of bubbles give this wine a creamy texture. The offsetting natural acidity gives it a crisp finish, with notes of citrus and green apple. 90.
Four Shadows Chardonnay 2019 ($23 for 113 cases). This wine was fermented 40% in second year French oak and 40% in stainless steel. Aromas of apple and melon mingle very subtly with oak. The aromas are echoed on the palate. 89.
Four Shadows Rosé 2020 ($21.99). The blend is Pinot Noir and Merlot. The rose petal hue is appealing. It has aromas and flavours of strawberry and cherry. The touch of residual sweetness adds to the refreshing finish. 90.
Four Shadows Pinot Noir 2018 ($28 for 275 cases). This wine was aged for 10 months in French oak (20% new). It has aromas and flavours of cherry mingled with hints of mocha and vanilla. The wine’s silky finish gives it a feminine elegance. 91.
Four Shadows Merlot 2018 ($26 for 530 cases). The wine was aged 10 months in French oak barrels (30% new). The wine begins with appealing aromas of cassis and blueberry jam. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, figs and plum mingled with spice on the finish. The flavours linger on the palate. 91.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Township 7's quartet for spring

Photo: Winemaker Mary McDermott
Now celebrating its 21th anniversary, Township 7 Vineyards & Winery’s time in the industry has spanned the (so far) golden age of British Columbia wine. When the original Township 7 winery opened in Langley in 2001, the VQA program was two or three years old in British Columbia; and there were perhaps 50 wineries. Today, there are 350 wineries with so many under development that 400 is possible. The VQA program now is mature while a series of new sub-appellations are drilling down to an understanding of terroir wines barely contemplated 20 years ago. Township 7 consists of two of those wineries. The initial winery in Langley is now dedicated to the production of sparkling wines. The much larger winery at the start of the Naramata Bench makes a full range of table wines.
There have been three sets of owners at Township 7 and each has been better resourced. Businessman Ge Song, who acquired the winery in 2014, has made major investments to expand the Okanagan winery and upgrade the equipment. In 2018, he allowed the winery to purchase the 12-acre Blue Terrace Vineyard near Oliver, securing total control over a vineyard from which Township 7 has been buying fruit almost from the beginning. The winery also sources fruit for other excellent growers in the South Okanagan, as well as from the winery’s Naramata home vineyard. The current owner also has supported the winery in critical personnel decisions. Mary McDermott, a superb winemaker, was recruited from Andrew Peller Ltd. in Ontario in 2014. She has had a major impact on the quality of wines. And it was her idea to devote the Langley vineyard to sparkling wines.
A few years ago, Township 7 added bench strength by hiring Ryan McKibbon as assistant winemaker and vineyard manager. He is a graduate of Niagara College’s Winery and Viticulture program. His expertise includes organic and biodynamic grape growing. He did a vineyard internship focussed on organic and biodynamic viticulture at Felton Road Wines in New Zealand. He has worked with other organic/biodynamic producers including Hidden Bench Winery on Ontario, Crystallum Wines in South Africa and Phantom Creek in the Okanagan. Judging from the four wines released this spring. Township 7 is going from strength to strength. Here are notes on the wines.
Township 7 Provenance Series 7 Blanc 2019 ($20.97 for 825 cases). This is a blend of 60% Gewürztraminer, 15% Viognier, 12% Pinot Gris, 11% Riesling and 2% Muscat. It goes without saying that this is a complex and delicious dry white wine. It begins with floral aromas mingled with notes of pear and spice. The richly textured palate has flavours of peach, pear and citrus. 91.
Township 7 Benchmark Series Viognier 2019 ($27.97 for 648 cases). The fruit, sourced from two warm sites at Osoyoos and Oliver, was fermented in a combination of stainless steel and seven oak barrels (one new). The wine begins with aromas of apricot, grapefruit and vanilla, leading to flavours of apricot and passionfruit. Bright acidity gives the wine a refreshing and lively finish. 91.
Township 7 Provenance Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($29.97 for 998 cases). This wine includes two per cent Merlot. The fruit has a 14-day maceration and then, after fermenting, was aged 18 months in barrels (predominantly American). It begins with aromas of black cherry, blueberry, mocha and cassis, all of which is echoed on the palate. The long ripe tannins give the wine a satisfying finish. 91.
Township 7 Benchmark Series Reserve 7 2018 ($38.97 for 766 cases). The blend is 50.5% Merlot. 32% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17.5% Cabernet Franc. Here is a stunner! It begins with aromas of black cherry, black currant and spice, leading to rich and powerful flavours of plum, black currant and vanilla. 94.