Thursday, June 1, 2023

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin: a vertical tasting

Photo: Osoyoos Larose general manager Michael Kuhlmann
While I was hosting a recent vertical tasting of wines from the Osoyoos Larose winery, I heard of an episode illustrating how the winery’s low profile over the past two decades has impacted its sales. As the story goes, a keen amateur winemaker and wine judge found Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin discounted to $20 a bottle in a provincial liquor store in Parksville on Vancouver Island. She asked why the wine was selling at less than half its normal retail price. (The current release is listed at $57.99). The clerk said that no one in his market was buying the wine. She promptly bought a case and sent her husband to buy a second case, reducing the liquor store’s inventory to three or four bottles of Le Grand Vin. The couple got a terrific bargain. Since the first vintage in 2001, Le Grand Vin has been among the best and most collectible red wines from the Okanagan, as was shown by this vertical tasting.
Osoyoos Larose was launched as a joint venture between Bordeaux’s Groupe Taillan and Vincor International, the largest Canadian wine company at the time. Vincor’s purpose was to enlist its French partner in a transfer of expertise from Bordeaux to the Okanagan. The French sent over a viticultural expert to plant the vines; a seasoned winemaker to make the wines; and the production equipment for the winery.
The spot set aside at the top of the vineyard for winery proved impractical because it lacked the necessary infrastructure (water and sewage lines and heavy-duty electrical connections). The new Osoyoos Larose winery was set up in the back corner of the Jackson Triggs winery north of Oliver. It was well equipped but there was no public access for a tasting room. Vincor’s successor, Constellation Brands, was not committed to the partnership, so Group Taillan bought the remaining 50% of Osoyoos Larose. That triggered the need for the winery to move out of the Jackson Triggs facility. For the last five years, the winery has searched for a new site while renting production space at Bordertown Vineyards just north of Osoyoos. Last year, Osoyoos Larose purchased a former fruit packinghouse on the eastern edge of Osoyoos which, after renovations, will enable the winery to process the 2023 vintage there.
The winery’s profile in British Columbia is so low that the major market for Le Grand Vin, a leading Okanagan wine, is Quebec where consumers appreciate Bordeaux-style blends. That low profile has finally begun to change. Last year, Michael Kuhlmann, a London-born but French-schooled viticulturist and winemaker, took over as the general manager of Osoyoos Larose. One of the first things he did was set up a wine club. Osoyoos Larose was almost the only winery in British Columbia without a wine club. Most wineries discovered over the past decade how effective a marketing tool these clubs are. Some wineries even have waiting lists. Osoyoos Larose should have a waiting list, too, given the quality and the value of the wines. Michael is also expected to have a tasting room open in Osoyoos, making it easy for the first time in 20 years for wine tourists to taste and buy the wine on site.
I recognized from the very start that Le Grand Vin was an affordable and collectible premium blend which, like most of red wines from Bordeaux châteaus, was capable of aging well. But even I was surprised at how well the wine ages when I dipped into my modest cellar for a vertical of the vintages from 2002 to 2010. (I no longer have the inaugural 2001 vintage). All the wines are drinking well; the fruit flavours and aromas are still appealing and the colour of the wines, while a touch bricky around the edge, are remarkably dark. When it came to choosing my favourite, it was a toss-up between the 2002 and the 2005. The tasting group, members of the Vinovan winemaking club in North Vancouver, also favoured the 2007 and the 2010.
Here are some notes.
Le Grand Vin 2002. Blend: Merlot 57%; Cabernet Sauvignon 19%; Malbec 12%; Cabernet Franc 7%; Petit Verdot 5%. The wine showed aromas and flavours of cassis, dark fruits and spice. The wine is hardly showing its age.
Le Grand Vin 2003. Blend: Merlot 75%; Cabernet Sauvignon 11%; Malbec 6%; Petit Verdot 5%; Cabernet Franc 1%. This wine, from a hot vintage, shows slight browning and maturity of fruit flavours.
Le Grand Vin 2004. Blend: Merlot 68%; Cabernet Sauvignon 21%; Petit Verdot 5%; Cabernet Franc 4%; Malbec 2%. Hints of browning; hints of cassis mingle with strawberry compote. Appealing aromas.
Le Grand Vin 2005. Blend: Merlot 67%; Cabernet Sauvignon 23%; Cabernet Franc 4%; Petit Verdot 4%; Malbec 2%. There is remarkably juicy sweet fruit on the palate.
Le Grand Vin 2006: Blend: Merlot 69%; Cabernet Sauvignon 20%; Cabernet Franc 4%; Petit Verdot 4%; Malbec 3%. The wine shows a hint of browning but has aromas and flavours of cassis and dark fruit.
Le Grand Vin 2007. Currently listed in the BCLDB at $160 a bottle. Blend: Merlot 70%; Cabernet Sauvignon 21%; Cabernet Franc 4%; Petit Verdot 3%; Malbec 2%. This wine was the consensus favourite of the tasters, slightly ahead of 2002 and 2005. It is a lean, elegant wine, very much a classic Bordeaux blend. These are the BCLDB’s tasting notes: “Typically the nose is a mix of smoky coffee, black cherry and olive aromas and the '07 is no different. The entry is dry, but with density and richness that will need five years to fully develop. The finish is long with bits of dark chocolate and that south Okanagan savoury thread.”
Le Grand Vin 2008. Blend: Merlot 60%; Cabernet Sauvignon 25%; Cabernet Franc 7%; Malbec 5%; Petit Verdot 3%. There is lots of life in this wine, with dark fruit on the nose and palate and savoury spice on the finish.
Le Grand Vin 2009. Blend: Merlot 58%; Cabernet Sauvignon 26%; Cabernet Franc 7%; Petit Verdot 7%; Malbec 2%. This bottle may have suffered in my cellar. The cork fell apart (as did the corks on 2002 and 2003) and the fruit was fading. It should not have been, since the 2009 vintage in the Okanagan was strong.
Le Grand Vin 2010. Blend: Merlot 67%; Cabernet Sauvignon 20%; Petit Verdot 6%; Cabernet Franc 4%; Malbec 1%. This was one of the biggest surprises of the tasting – a wine from a cool vintage which is dark and concentrated, with flavours of dark fruit, chocolate and even licorice. Superlative viticulture was practised for the winery to pull off such a powerful wine in a cool year.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Noble Ridge celebrates its 20th vintage this year

Photo: Proprietors Leslie and Jim D'Andrea (courtesy of Noble Ridge)
Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery is celebrating its 20th vintage in 2023 with as many celebrations as can be packed into a busy summer. Check the winery’s website to find an event that works for you if you are visiting the Okanagan Falls wine region this summer. Proprietors Leslie and Jim D’Andrea purchased a small vineyard here in 1986. The vineyard holdings subsequently were expanded to 24 acres, supporting a production growth from 540 cases in 2003 to 7,500 cases currently.
The portfolio now encompasses three tiers of Chardonnay along with other white blends; topflight sparkling wines, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and red Meritage blends. The surprise is that most, if not all, of the wines, are estate grown. The topography of the two Noble Ridge vineyards is such that the winery can mature Cabernet Sauvignon on one steep, south-facing slope and Pinot Noir and other Champagne varieties on a cool northerly exposure. A currently-released trio of wines celebrates the versatility of the vineyard. Here are my notes.
Noble Ridge Rosé 2022 ($24.99 for 460 cases). This delicately pink rosé is made with Merlot grapes that were given just two hours of skin contact. It has aromas of apple and rhubarb leading to flavours of strawberry and watermelon. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 90.
Noble Ridge Pinot Noir Reserve 2019 ($34.99 for 376 cases). This wine is made with clones 113, 114, 115 and 777. The bunches were destemmed, crushed and cold-soaked for five days before undergoing a warm ferment. The wine was aged 14 months in French oak (10% new). It is a dense, brooding wine with aromas of dark fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of black olives, plums and spice. The finish lingers. 92.
Noble Ridge Meritage Reserve 2020 ($42.99 for 900 cases). The blend is 74% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Malbec. The wine was fermented warm and aged 14 months in barrel – 70% French, 30% American and, with 27% being new oak. The wine begins with aromas of cherry, blueberry and cassis. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, plum and blueberry. The polished texture and the seamless balance are typical of the 2020 vintage. 92.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Little Engine's no compromise wines

Photo: Proprietors Steven and Nicole French
When a package of samples includes Pinot Noirs from a topflight producer, I invite a friend with exceptional knowledge of Pinot Noir to taste with me. Because a recent selection of six wines from Little Engine Wines included four Chardonnays, we decided in the spirit of Burgundy to taste them as well. It was a good decision. This Naramata Bench winery is an exceptional producer and the wines were a delight to taste, impressing both of us. Here is an excerpt for the 2020 Okanagan Wine Tour Guide to provide background on Little Engine.
The wines of Little Engine have three designated quality tiers: Silver, Gold, and Platinum. In the winery’s first vintage, 2014, owners Steven and Nicole French elevated just 10% to Platinum and left 60% as entry-level Silvers. The intention, however, is to get to 60% Platinum as quickly as viticulture and winemaking can support that quality. “Our family motto is ‘Dreams don’t come true—dreams are made true,’” Steven says. After all, the winery’s name was inspired by the 1930 children’s story The Little Engine That Could.
For Steven and Nicole, Little Engine is a career change from the energy business in Alberta. Both were born in 1969: Nicole in London, Ontario, and Steven in Winnipeg. “We finished university [in London] and moved to Calgary and stayed there for over 20 years,” Steven says. In 2011, they bought acreage near Penticton, where their sons attended hockey school. The following year, when the fruit trees were removed, they began planting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Deciding to launch a winery, they made Little Engine’s first two vintages at another winery until Little Engine’s production facility was completed in 2016, amid about 2 hectares (about 5 acres) of vines right beside Naramata Road. To make the wine, they recruited Scott Robinson.
Scott, who was born in New Westminster, earned a degree in kinesiology and worked in that field for several years while his interest in wine grew. By 2005, he began juggling that with part-time work at Township 7. When he decided to commit to winemaking, he went to the University of Adelaide in 2008 and worked at leading wineries in New Zealand and Australia. He returned to the Okanagan to become the winemaker at La Frenz Winery and then, with a partner, to launch Stable Door Cellars in 2014. When that partnership ended, he was snapped up by Little Engine. The owners describe Scott as an “absolute perfectionist.” That fits Steven and Nicole’s philosophy. “We won’t compromise anything,” Steven says. Perfectionism has its price. Little Engine wines are expensive, reflecting the cost of keeping yields very low to produce intensely flavoured wines. The big and bold house style, especially with the red wines, has found such a strong following that many are sold out by the end of the season.
Here are notes on the wines.
Little Engine French Family Release Chardonnay 2022 ($38 for 460 cases). This wine was fermented entirely in stainless steel. It has the crispness and freshness of Chablis, with aromas and flavours of citrus and apple. 91.
Little Engine Silver Chardonnay 2021 ($39 for 634 cases). This wine was fermented 71% in barrel (none new) and 29% in stainless steel; and aged eight months on the lees with battonage. The wine announces itself with dramatic aromas of stone fruit and citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of peach and nectarine, with an intriguing note of salinity on the finish. 91.
Little Engine Gold Chardonnay 2020 ($62 for 755 cases). The vineyards were cropped at three tons an acre, resulting in a wine of great concentration. The wine had a long, cool fermentation in French oak and was aged 17 months in French oak (53% new). Golden-hued, the wine begins with buttery oak aromas. It is lush on the palate, with well-integrated oak framing flavours of stone fruits. There is a long finish with hints of spice. 96.
Little Engine Platinum Chardonnay 2019 (Wine club only; 180 cases). This wine also had a long, cool ferment in French oak barrels. It was aged 17 months in French oak (58% new) with regular stirring. The oak is slightly more pronounced in this wine, framing flavours of overripe apricots. The finish lingers. 94.
Little Engine Silver Pinot Noir 2020 ($47.50 for 805 cases). The destemmed grapes went into one-ton fermenters and were allow to cold soak on the skins for seven days and then fermented with indigenous yeast. Total maceration time was three weeks. The wine was matured in French oak barrels (none new) for 14 months, undergoing spontaneous malolactic fermentation. The wine has intense and vibrant fruit aromas and flavours, including cherry, cranberry and blackberry. There is spice on the persistent finish. 93.
Little Engine Gold Pinot Noir 2020 ($69 for 744 cases). This wine is comprised of eight clones (115, 667, 777, 828, 943, 91, Swan and Mt. Eden, all estate-grown). The grapes are destemmed into one-ton fermenters and, after a six-day cold soak, are allowed to ferment with indigenous yeast. The wine is pressed off near dryness and tank settled before going into French oak (28% new) for 15 months. Concentrated in texture, the wine begins with aromas of plum and fig. On the palate, there is plum and dark cherry mingled with spice on the finish. 95.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Maverick's new releases showcase the 2022 vintage

Photo: Winemaker Andrew Windsor (courtesy Maverick Estate Winery)
Since taking over Maverick Estate Winery early in 2020, winemaker Andrew Windsor and winery president Jan Nelson have built effectively on the winery’s excellent reputation for quality. Four current releases showcase the 2022 vintage, which Andrew and numerous other winemakers believe is one of the best yet in the South Okanagan.
Andrew and Jan are backed by Bob and Barb Shaunessy, the former majority owners of Tinhorn Creek Estate Winery. Andrew and Jan had met the Shaunessy couple at Tinhorn Creek, where Andrew, with a master’s degree in oenology from the University of Adelaide, spent several years as chief winemaker. The Shaunessys are backing a strong team. Maverick was already an outstanding winery under the original owners. Now, the winery has the additional investment to advance it to another level both in volume and in quality.
The original estate vineyard, where planting began in 2009, has 7.4 acres under vine. Under its new owners, Maverick acquired 77 acres on the side of the mountain south of the winery and is developing additional vineyards there. The first 15 acres, at an elevation of 520 to 600 meters, were planted last year. Another 10 acres will be planted this year at elevations of 370 to 410 meters. “We planted the bulk [of the upper vineyard] to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc,” Jan says. “We added in a half-acre each of Vermentino and Tempranillo. This may be the only Vermentino in BC.” The lower vineyard will be planted to red varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and a half-acre each of Tempranillo and Petit Verdot. The winery also leases three vineyards in the South Okanagan. With these and the new plantings, Maverick is positioned to expand significantly from the 3,900 cases it produced in 2019.
Here are notes on the four wines from 2022.
Maverick Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($23.98). This wine was fermented in both stainless steel and French oak, and aged for six months. It is an excellent expression of the varietal, with aromas of guava, lime and pineapple leaping from the glass. On the palate, tangy flavours of lime mingle with savoury herbal notes. The finish is bright, refreshing and very long. 94.
Maverick Pinot Gris 2022 ($22.98). This wine was fermented and aged six months in stainless steel. A small portion was fermented in neutral French oak to achieve a rich texture. The wine begins with aromas of pear and spice. The wine has flavours of pear, nectarine and apple. The finish is persistent. 92.
Maverick Rosé 2022 ($26.98). This wine is made with Syrah and had 12 hours of skin contact to give the wine a vibrant coral hue. The aroma is delicate and floral but the flavours are assertive: pink grapefruit, cherry and citrus. There is a pleasing hint of pepper on the long finish. 92.
Maverick Carbonic Syrah 2022 ($34.98). This wine is whole-clustered fermented. The point of carbonic fermentation is to encourage fermentation within each berry, accentuating aromas and flavours. This wine begins with intense aromas and flavours of pepper mingled with tapenade. There is an impression of fizz on the palate. The texture is soft. I would recommend drinking this young and lightly chilled. 91.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Poplar Grove adds a low-alcohol rosé

Photo: Winemaker Stefan Arnason
Poplar Grove Estate Winery in Penticton has joined the producers of low-alcohol (and non-alcoholic) wines. This is a segment of the wine market that has been growing in response to the demand from consumers who are counting calories or who have been spooked by the neo-prohibitionist campaign against drinking. These consumers still enjoy the taste of wine (and beer). More and more producers are serving this market.
Poplar Grove, which is run by Tony Holler and his family, has an extensive portfolio. The winery’s website currently has 24 wines in bottles (including multiple vintages) along with two wines in three-litre boxes. As an aside, boxed wines have also risen in popularity. The New York Times recently published a review of ten boxed wines from around the world that it judged better than average. Poplar Grove has both Pinot Gris and Rosé in its boxes. The winery happens to be one of the Okanagan’s major Pinot Gris producers, both in volume and in quality, so much so that the winery plans to expand its own acreage of the most widely planted white in British Columbia.
The winery is also an important player in the rosé market. In addition to its boxed rosé, it has three in bottle, including the low-alcohol wine launched this spring as Rosé Nouveau. Poplar Grove’s veteran winemaker, Stefan Arnason, described making the Nouveau “as an educational journey that has undoubtedly shaped aspects of our future winemaking.”
Both the Nouveau and the regular Rosé are made with similar varietals. The grapes had about three hours of skin contact before being pressed and fermented cool at 15◦C, a technique that preserves the fruitiness. The varietals for the Nouveau were fermented separately and then blended. The finished wine for the Nouveau was membrane-filtered to reduce the alcohol to eight percent, compared with the regular rosé’s 12.5%. Both wines were finished dry. The third rosé in Poplar Grove’s portfolio is Lakeview Rosé 2022, a single vineyard rosé made with Malbec grapes and priced at $30 a bottle. I have not had a chance to taste this wine. Only a handful of wineries in B.C. have enough Malbec to even think about making a rosé. It speaks to the demand for rosé wines that Poplar Grove would have three, plus the boxed wine.
Here are notes on two of those wines.
Poplar Grove Rosé 2022 ($21.65). This is 40% Merlot, 36% Malbec, 17% Syrah, 4% Pinot Noir and 3% Cabernet Franc. The wine presents with a delicate (but not anaemic) rose petal hue, and with aromas of strawberry, raspberry and rhubarb. There is more of the same on the palate, which is juicy and refreshing. 90.
Poplar Grove Nouveau Rosé 2022 ($25.99). The blend is similar to the other rosé. The colour of this wine is a bit darker and more dramatic in the glass. There are aromas and flavours of strawberry and watermelon. Perhaps because the alcohol is lower, there is a little less concentration on the palate – but that is hardly a fault in a rosé. 90.