Thursday, November 15, 2018

BC Iconic Reds 2018 is a sweep for Road 13

Photo: Competing wines clustered around John Levine's portrait and hat

In a convincing victory, wines from Road 13 Vineyards took first and second place at this year’s BC Iconic Reds competition.

Also noteworthy: A Road 13 wine took first place last year. In the eleven years of this competition, no producer has had back to back triumphs.

Road 13 is operated by the Luckhurst family. The winery and some of its vineyards are on the Golden Mile. It also controls Blind Creek Vineyards in the Similkameen, where most of the fruit for the two leading wines was grown.

The Iconic Reds competition originated with the SIP Wines VQA store in Richmond. When that closed three years ago, sponsorship was taken over by Sutton Place Wine Merchants.

The tasting, which the sponsors now bill as “British Columbia’s Premier Wine Tasting Competition,” emerged from brainstorming between the late John Levine and the owners of SIP Wines, Simon and Sandi Wosk.

John, a restaurateur and the founder of the Vancouver International Wine Festival, was an extraordinary wine lover and a perceptive champion of British Columbia wines. He recognized the dramatic increases in the quality of the wines. The Iconic Reds competition was conceived to bring more attention to these superb wines.

This year, about 110 tasters converged at a ballroom at Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel to judge 20 of the Okanagan reds. The wines, which had been decanted in the afternoon, were served blind one at a time in a random order. The wines were not identified until the three-hour tasting was over.

At the end, the tasters voted for their top five picks, an arbitrary but sensible number to prevent overwhelming the computer tabulation. In fact, the points were tabulated for the top six.

The two Road 13 wines were not just winners, but received an overwhelming proportion of the votes. Road 13 5 Element has a long history as the winery’s premium red blend. The first release was created in the 2005 vintage by Michael Bartier, then the winemaker. Because it was a blend of four Bordeaux varietals with a dash of Syrah, the wine was called 5th Element. The name has remained even when there are more or fewer than five varietals in the blend.

Blind Creek Collective, now a Road 13 label, was launched in 2016 as a joint venture that included a Vancouver wine merchant and J-M Bouchard, a former winemaker at Road 13. He was so enthusiastic about the Blind Creek Vineyard that the Luckhursts bought a controlling interest in the property.

“If there is a vineyard which is going to stand out in five, 10 years in B.C., that will be it,” J-M told me several years ago as the Collective was being formed. “I was tasting the 2013 Syrah one night beside the RWT Barossa Shiraz from Penfolds.” (J-M once worked at that renowned Australian winery). “For power and concentration, our Syrah killed it.”

I have listed the winners, followed by the others in alphabetical order. The tasting notes are from the wineries where notes are available. Otherwise, I have inserted my tasting notes.

These are 20 of the best reds from excellent recent vintages. Some of these wines are hard to find but Sutton Place Wine Merchants has allocations of all. The limited volumes mean buyers will need to move quickly to get these.

1. Road 13 Vineyards 5th Element Red 2016 ($42.61 for 240 cases and 30 double magnums). The blend is 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot, aged 22 months in oak (33% new). Most of the fruit is from the legendary Blind Creek Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley.  My tasting notes: “The wine begins with aromas of black currant jam, black cherry and vanilla. The rich, ripe palate delivers flavours of plum, black cherry, blackberry. There is a lingering finish of dark fruits and spice.”

2. Blind Creek Collective Consensus 2015 ($52.17). The blend is 32.5% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc, 18.5% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec. Winery tasting notes: The 2015 Consensus is generous and dense in colour. Intense aromas of cassis, black cherry and black berry leap out of the glass and immediately begin telling the story of the tremendous 2015 growing season. The primary dark fruits are so prominent, that you have to dig deep to find the notes of sage, vanilla and cigar box. The story of this wine continues on the palate, where these flavours explode into a crescendo of black-fruited splendor, storming out to all corners of your mouth, but held in check by a vibrant acidity and plenty of fine-grained, opulent tannins.”

3. Cedar Creek The Last Word 2014 ($84.99 for 390 cases.) This is a blend of 34% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Franc, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Malbec. The fruit was fermented in concrete and the wine was aged 20 months in French oak. Winery tasting notes: “An all around intense experience. Extraordinary wine from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec co-fermented in concrete. Excellent tannin structure. Spicy, dark fruit will evolve and intensify with age.”

4. Noble Ridge Reserve Meritage 2015 ($34.90 for 750 cases).   This is a blend of 77% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% each of Cabernet Franc and Malbec, aged 15 months in French and American oak (40% new). My tasting notes: “Bold and ripe on the palate, the wine begins with aromas of cassis, black cherry and chocolate. On the palate, the fruit is expressive, with flavours of black currant, black cherry, tobacco and dark chocolate. The tannins are firm but ripe.”

5. Poplar Grove Legacy 2014  ($53.08). The blend is 44% Cabernet Franc, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot and 4% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine aged 21 months in oak. My tasting notes: “This superb wine is from one of the Okanagan’s best vintages and will age well. Already, it appeals with aromas of cassis and black cherry. On the palate, there is rich, dark fruit mingling sweetly with chocolate and spice.” 

6. Black Sage Meritage 2015 ($60).  The 10 best barrels were selected, with the resulting blend being Merlot 4 barrels; Cabernet Sauvignon 3 barrels; Cabernet Franc 3 barrels; plus a splash of Petit Verdot. Winery notes: “There are plenty of cassis, blackberries, vanilla, dark chocolate and roasted coffee notes on the nose. The palate displays luscious blackberries, rich dark plums, smoky toasted notes and a lengthy finish of dark chocolate. The acidity is well balanced with the rich full tannins in this full-bodied wine.”  

Black Hills Nota Bene  2016 ($59.90). The blend is 43.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot , 14.5% Cabernet Franc; aged 16 months in barrel. Winery’s notes: This wine possesses intense aromas of raspberry, crushed violets and cassis on the nose. A second sniff presents gentle scents of leather, white pepper and subtle menthol. Flavours of raspberry and cocoa hit the palate and linger, revealing a full and elegant mouthfeel with notes of earth and cigar box in the background.”                 

Clos du Soleil Signature Red 2014 ($44.90). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak barrels. Winery tasting notes: “The taster is enveloped in the dense aromatic profile of ripe red berries, forest undergrowth, and hints of both cedar and mint. On the palate the wine is the epitome of elegance with integrated flavours of blackcurrant, blackberry, raspberry, and black pepper notes.”

Hester Creek The Judge 2015 ($49.95)   This blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon was aged 24 months in barrel. Winery tasting notes: “A sumptuous Bordeaux style wine that sums up the richness of a warm year, this red blend of estate fruit has heady aromas of black cherry, malt, plum and caramel. Crafted with nicely ripened fruit, enjoy a generous palate of black cherry, mocha, and vanilla flavours with a touch of cedar and mint. Beautifully structured with supple, fine-grained tannins.”     

Intersection Axiom 2014 ($44.90 for 244 cases). This is a blend of 33% each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Winery tasting notes: “Ground coffee, dark chocolate, and cherry jam on the nose open up into star anise, roasted capsicum, and black pepper. Hints of mushroom and cedar on the palate point to the wine’s time in oak. Mouthfeel is rich and developed with well-structured tannin that will continue to age for more than a decade. The long finish lingers with tones of earthy plum preserves.”
Lake Breeze Tempest 2013   ($49.90). This is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon 30% Cabernet Franc and 10% each of Malbec and Merlot. Winery tasting notes: “A classic Bordeaux blend … aged in new French oak for 15 months, this wine is full and rich.”             
Lariana Fifteen 2015 ($45 for 565 cases). This is a blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Syrah, and 17% Carménère, aged 18 months 85% French oak, 35% new. My tasting notes: “This is a bold and generous wine. Aromas and flavours of dark fruit mingle with spice, fig, dark chocolate and tobacco. The wine has long, ripe and polished tannins.”

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2016 ($49.99). The blend is 51% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot, aged 20 months in French oak, 33% new. Winery tasting notes: “Baked plum, red fruits and baking spice rise up from the glass like the TSX in a bull market. On the palette this wine is lively and powerful with fresh tobacco leaves, vanilla brioche, and cherry on the finish. This elegant blend has round tannins and a long finish with lots of aging potential.”        
La Stella Fortissimo 2016 ($29.99 for 2,087 cases). This is a blend of 76% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Sangiovese, 7% Cabernet Franc, aged 14 months in French and Slavonoan oak. Winery tasting notes: “The large format puncheons and Hungarian/Slavonian oak are evident in the subtle way the oak is present with whispers of baking spice notes. Overall the wine has fantastic layers of fruit and savoury flavours. Bing cherry mingles with red and black cherry fruit. Aromatic herbs and cured tobacco leaves are also starting to emerge. The palate is layered.”
Mission Hill Oculus 2014 ($135). The blend is 50% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot, aged 15 months in French oak. Winery tasting notes: “Notes of brambleberry, bing cherry and dark plum are complimented by hints of tobacco and spice, all held together with great structure and concentration. This vintage is full-bodied with tremendous freshness and length on the finish.”

Painted Rock Red Icon 2015  ($54.99).  The blend is 45% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in new French oak (30% new). Winery tasting notes: “This wine invites you in with rich aromas of blackberry, dark plums, cassis and sweet spices. The palate, with its velvety tannins and high acid, offers bold and juicy black fruit layered with pepper, baking spices, vanilla and chocolate.”
Perseus Invictus 2015 ($54.99). This is a blend of 42% Cabernet Franc, 38% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec. Winery tasting notes: “This wine bursts out of the bottle with concentrated aromas of black cherry, truffle and shades of pencil lead which lead into an opulent yet well structured wine of impressive complexity. Flavours here straddle both old world and new, with boysenberry, anise and dark chocolate hints.”       

Summerhill “OM” 2014  ($74.75). The blend is 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 5% Malbec, aged in French and American oak barriques.   Winery tasting note: “Unfined and unfiltered. Cellaring and decanting highly recommended.”

Vanessa Vineyard Right Bank 2014: ($39.99 for 1,090 cases). This is a blend of 77% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 26 months in 90% new French and American oak barrels. Winery tasting notes: “Deep garnet in colour with seductive aromas which promise brambly fruit, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries with smoky notes. The rich palate shows ripe black cherries, blackberries and a dusting of cocoa with a lingering, pleasing finish.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

Clos du Soleil buys a third vineyard

Photo: La Côte, Clos do Soleil's new vineyard

A vineyard purchase last week has extended Clos du Soleil Winery’s footprint in the terroir of Upper Bench Road in Keremeos that is critical to the winery’s Bordeaux-inspired wines.

To be christened La Côte, the 10-acre property, which is just 300 meters east of Clos du Soleil’s estate vineyard, has about 7.25 acres under vines. The vines are more than 10 years old. The remainder will be planted.

The largest block on the property is Malbec, a complement to the Bordeaux varietals grown in the estate vineyard.

“We have been buying a small amount of Malbec from this vineyard for a number of years now, so I know the fruit quality, and the site quality, very well,” says Michael Clark, the managing director and winemaker at Clos du Soleil (photo below).

Last year, Clos du Soleil purchased a 12-acre Upper Bench property west of the estate vineyard. It was christened Les Collines. This spring, about 5 1/2 acres was planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. About one remaining acre will be planted, with the rest left as natural mountainside.

The estate vineyard, where planting began in 2007, grows primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with some Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.

“Like our estate vineyard, La Côte is tucked right up against the mountainside, with the same rocky soils,” Michael says. The southwest-facing vineyard “exhibits exactly the same terroir characteristics: well-draining stony soils, with water-holding capacity and some organic matter.”

The vineyard will be transitioned to the organic and biodynamic techniques now practised on the winery’s other two vineyards.

La Côte will allow Clos du Soleil to expand its portfolio to include a Malbec and perhaps other small lot varietals.

“Beyond the Malbec, there are smaller blocks of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Viognier,” Michael says. “We will be growing those varieties and assessing their suitability for the site, over the coming year.  Our plan is to convert select blocks to our core Bordeaux focus. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are both slotted for us to plant on this site. However, we'll take time to make a considered decision about which blocks to convert.”

Clos du Soleil now makes wine only with Similkameen fruit, some of it purchased from other growers or vineyards managed by Clos. The winery leases a 6 ½-acre vineyard near Keremeos called Whispered Secret; and the winery has bought fruit for some years from a property called Middle Bench Vineyard.

“The Whispering Secret Vineyard has Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Pinot Gris planted there,” Michael says. “We have been working with this vineyard for a number of years now, and the Sauvignon Blanc it produces is very high quality, and ends up in some of our best wines.  In fact, we have some special new releases coming out shortly, just before the holiday season, including a new vintage of Saturn, our well known late-harvest dessert wine from Sauvignon Blanc.  It is sourced solely from the Whispered Secret vineyard.”

In the past, the Pinot Gris was sold to other wineries. “This year we elected to use a portion of this fruit at Clos du Soleil, to create a new small-lot Winemaker's Series Pinot Gris that will come to market next year,” Michael adds. 

The tag, Winemaker’s Series, distinguishes these wines from estate-grown wines.

Here are notes on three recent releases from Clos du Soleil.

Clos du Soleil Béton 2016 Winemaker’s Series ($N/A for 118 cases). This wine, a blend of 89% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc, was fermented and matured entirely in concrete. The technique seems to express intense fruity aromas and flavours of black cherry, blackberry and raspberry. 90

Clos du Soleil Syrah 2016 Winemaker’s Series ($32.90 for 396 cases). This dark wine begins with aromas of red fruit, spice and pepper. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, cherry and fig. The wine was aged in oak for 16 months (12% was new). The oak shows subtly with vanilla on the nose and palate. 91.

Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve Red 2014 ($59.90 for 151 cases). This is the winery’s ultra-premium red. The blend is a blend of 45% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec. Each variety was vinified separately and aged 15 months in French oak (31% new) before being blended. This bold, dark wine has a rich texture. It begins with aromas of cassis, black cherry, plum and cedar. The palate delivers layers of flavour – black cherry, fig, dark chocolate, black coffee and hints of slate. Decant it if you need to drink it now. It will cellar well to 2025 and beyond. 93.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Class of 2018: Echo Bay Vineyard

Photo: Winemaker Kelsey Rufiange (left) with parents Kathy and Mark

Echo Bay Vineyard
224 Eastside Road
Okanagan Falls, BC, V0H 1R5
T 250.490.6228

Are you looking for terroir-driven wine? Meet Echo Bay Vineyard just north of Okanagan Falls, which has recently had a “soft” opening.

The winery is based on a bucolic five-acre vineyard planted in 2013, tucked on a west-facing slope on a bay on Skaha Lake. The vineyard is farmed on organic and biodynamic principles. From the first vintage in 2015, fermentation has been with only natural yeast, the ultimate in allowing the vineyard to express itself in the wines.

The vineyard is planted entirely with red varietals: Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon along with smaller quantities of Malbec, Carménère, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese. Synoptic, the winery’s flagship red, is a blend of all varietals except Sangiovese.

“Our goal is to have a blend that represents our entire vineyard,” winemaker Kelsey Rufiange says. “We vinify everything separately, for the most part. Then we blend near the 16-month mark, and decide then what we want. Instead of making the same wines every year, we will let the vintage decide what wines are going to be made.”

The excellent 2015 vintage yielded about 300 cases from the vineyard. With the exception of two barrels of Cabernet Franc and a bit of Sangiovese made for the family, the wines all went into Synoptic. At full production, the vineyard will produce just 1,000 cases of wine.

The wines are excellent but hard to get. Friends and family are likely to snap up the initial releases – and the Rufiange family has a lot of friends and family.

Kelsey’s grandparents were Al and Nella Kenyon, who bought this Okanagan Falls property in 1967 and eventually turned it into a retreat for the many members of the Kenyon family in the Okanagan. This has long been a leading Penticton business family (founders of Greyback Construction in 1963).

Kelsey’s parents, and partners in the winery, are Mark and Kathy Rufiange. Formerly a nurse, Kathy is a Kenyon. Mark, who was born in Edmonton in 1960, is an engineer who ran Structurlam, a Penticton company that produces engineered wooden beams. He retired 10 years ago but retirement did not suit either of them.

“We were getting antsy,” Kathy says. “I can’t sit still.” She and Mark decided to plant a vineyard. “I took the viticulture course in the [Okanagan] college. And Kelsey got interested.”

To make sure they did it correctly, they took vineyard advice from Richard Cleave, the legendary Okanagan viticulturist who formerly owned the Phantom Creek Vineyard.

Kelsey, who was born in 1988, already had a geography degree from McGill and a consumer’s interest in wine. Now, she also took the viticulture course and went to Lincoln University in New Zealand for a postgraduate degree in enology. She polished her skills by making wine in New Zealand, Australia and California before taking over the cellar at Echo Bay.

She and her family have a clear focus on the wines they want to produce. “We don’t like big, extracted wines,” Kelsey says. “We are looking towards the more elegant style. Our alcohols, for the most part, have been in the low 13s.”

She made the first two Echo Bay vintages at the nearby Synchromesh winery while Echo Bay built its own winery. “He has the same kind of principles that we have,” Kathy Rufiange says of Synchromesh owner Alan Dickinson. “He does not use pesticides.” He also espouses fermenting with natural yeast.

“That is so important in your wines,” Kelsey says. “Yeast is a very important part of your flavour profile. If you want to make a wine that speaks of place, that is what it is. We have said if the ferment does not start, we will use yeast. We are not that pure – but we want to be pure.”

When she began making wine in Echo Bay’s virgin winery, it occurred to her that natural fermentation might not begin because there had never been a ferment in the building. “But it worked,” Kelsey says. “I think there is more of a vineyard influence than we know. We are growing our own grapes, so we have control. If the grapes are healthy, they will start by themselves.”

The design of that well-equipped building recalls a large barn, echoing the time when the Kenyons grew hay and raised livestock here before vines were planted. The Rufianges once had two sheep among the vines, now taken by bears, and still keep chickens to help deal naturally with cutworms. Vineyard operations incorporate many organic and biodynamic principles.

“To me, the proof is in the wines I drink from biodynamic farming; and looking at the vineyards, and the long life they have,” Kelsey says.

The unusual labels make one think of the Rosetta Stone. The hieroglyphics on the Echo Bay labels are historic meteorological symbols.

“The weather symbols act as a metaphor to what becomes a bottle of Echo Bay wine,” Kelsey explains. “The symbols are each a snapshot of a moment in time. During the course of a growing season we accumulate a whole lot of these moments, creating a story that tells itself in the wine we have bottled. We pay homage to nature’s influence in shaping different wines with different seasons, without human manipulation trying to make a certain wine the same year to year.”   

While the flagship wines are red, Kelsey also makes white wines. Because she uses purchased grapes for these, the wines are not under the Echo Bay label. However, Mark has his eye on a nearby acreage where, with the agreement of family members, a small block of white varieties might be planted in the future. Kelsey would like to work with varietals such as Albariño and Chenin Blanc.

Here are notes on the Echo Bay wines.

Echo Bay Synoptic 2015 ($40). The blend is 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec and 3% each of Carménère and Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 19 months in oak (30% new). The complex wine has layers of dark fruit and cherries in the aroma and on the rich palate. 92.

Echo Bay Cabernet Franc 2015 ($45). The two best barrels of Cabernet Franc were selected for this wine, which was aged 19 months in oak. One of those barrels was new. The wine begins with appealing brambly aromas. The rich palate shows flavours of black cherry and blackberry with notes of cherry and chocolate on the lingering finish. 93.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Fort Berens releases six reserve wines

Photo: Fort Berens founders Rolf  de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek

The nine wines released this fall by Fort Berens Estate Winery include six reserves.

If memory serves, this is the largest proportion of reserves I have ever seen in a Fort Berens release. And these are wines that really merit that designation.

Fort Berens is the winery located in Lillooet, a recently approved sub-appellation that will appear on Fort Berens labels beginning with the 2019 vintage.

The number of reserve wines points to at least three conclusions. The red wines (and one white) are all from the 2016 vintage. The more 2016 reds I get to taste, the more I am impressed with the vintage. The wines usually as nicely balanced with fruit flavours that are bright and refreshing.

Secondly, the winery’s investment several years in a well-equipped winery is paying off. Danny Hattingh, the winery’s young South African winemaker, has excellent wine-making tools.

Thirdly, the vines are now well established in the estate vineyard. It is apparent that Lillooet can no longer be considered a trial region for vineyards, as was the case a decade ago when Dutch emigres Rolf  de Bruin and his wife, Heleen Pannekoek, decided to put make wine in this area when they were deterred the high cost of Okanagan land.

The 20-acre estate vineyard just outside Lillooet was planted in 2009. It produced its first crop in 2011 and is now in full production. Another 20 acres of vines are being planted this year and next, now the terroir has proven itself.

This spring, the winery planted four acres of Merlot and five acres of Cabernet Franc. In 2019, Fort Berens will plant a further two acres of Merlot along with two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5 acres of Riesling and 1.5 acres of Grüner Veltliner. Over the next few years, an increasing number of Fort Berens wines will come from the estate vineyard.

The pioneering work of Fort Berens is now attracting other entrants to this region’s wine business.

Heleen Pannekoek, in a note with these releases, says: “There are now four additional vineyards in Lillooet, including Frugal Vineyard, Winches Spur Vineyard, Roshard Vineyard and Fraser Bench Vineyard. We are thrilled to work with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir grapes from these vineyards.”

And the news gets better. A project at the Texas Creek Ranch near Lillooet has recently received its winery license. The winery is called Cliff and Gorge Vineyards. It plans to open its tasting room next spring.

Here are notes on the latest Fort Berens wines.

Fort Berens Chardonnay Reserve 2016 ($25.99 for 187 cases). This wine – 80% of the grapes from Lillooet, 20% from the Similkameen - was fermented in barrel with indigenous yeasts. The wine begins with buttery and toasty aromas mingled with ripe apple. On the palate, the texture is rich and delivers flavours of orange and apple mingled with oak. The wine has a long, luscious finish. 92.

Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2017 ($22.99 for 213 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lemon and raisin. It is rich on the palate, with layers of fruit flavours – citrus and ripe nectarine. The finish is off-dry but the sugar and acid is superbly balanced. The finish is persistent. 92.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2016 ($25.99 for 1,061 cases). This wine is 79% estate grown fruit, with the remainder from the Similkameen.  The wine begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry. The wine is lively on the palate and displays the classic brambleberry flavours of the varietal. 90.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc Reserve 2016 ($31.99 for 350 cases). This wine is made with 70% estate-grown fruit, 30% from the Blind Creek Vineyard in the Similkameen.  This is a selection of the best barrels – with the wine being transferred under nitrogen to keep it away from air. It begins with aromas of cherry mingled with hints of spice and herbs. On the palate, the brambly flavours are framed by the polished texture. The finish is long. 92.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2016 ($25.99 for 810 cases). This wine was made with 74% estate-grown fruit; the remainder was from The Rise Vineyard in Vernon. The wine was aged nine months in French oak (30% new). It is a pretty wine with aromas of toasted oak, cherry and strawberry, echoed on the palate. The silky texture adds to the wine’s delicate charm. 90.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 ($29.99 for 131 cases). Made with fruit from the estate vineyard and The Rise in Vernon, this wine was made by placing 25% whole clusters at the bottom of the fermenter and covering them with crushed fruit. The objective was to extract more fruit aromas and flavours. The wine also was fermented with indigenous yeast and aged 12 months in French oak. The colour is deeper than the previous wine and the aromas of cherry and vanilla are more intense. The flavours are complex – cherry and ripe strawberry – with a lingering finish of sage and spice. 92.

Fort Berens Meritage 2016 ($25.99 for 1,302 cases). The blend is 76% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Cabernet Franc, with 56% of the fruit from the estate vineyard and the rest from the Similkameen and the Okanagan. Some 20% of the bunches went whole into the fermenter, along with the stems. The remainder was destemmed and crushed. The technique is designed to accentuate the fruit and soften the acidity. The wine begins with aromas of blackberry and cherry, leading to flavours of  red fruit mingled subtly with toasty oak. 90.

Fort Berens Meritage Reserve 2016 ($31.99 for 350 cases). This is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc. The varietals were fermented separately and aged 10 months in oak, with the best lots being blended into this outstanding wine. It begins with aromas of black cherry, cassis and spice. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied, with flavours of black cherry, cassis and plum. The texture is polished and the finish persists. 92.

Fort Berens Red Gold 2016 ($44.99 for 173 cases). The wine also produced 174 magnums of this, its flagship red wine. This is a blend of 38% Cabernet Franc, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Merlot. The fruit is 46% from the estate vineyard, with the remainder from the Similkameen and the Okanagan. The wine was fermented in open-top French oak barrels, then aged a year in barrel and another year in bottle before release. The result is an elegant wine with a polished texture. It begins with aromas of black cherry, blackberry and plum which are echoed in the core of sweet fruit on the palate. There is a hint of sage and licorice on the finish. 93.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Gray Monk: steady as she goes

Photo: Gray Monk Winery 

Gray Monk Estate Winery was acquired in 2017 by Andrew Peller Ltd.

Most of the current portfolio was still made under the original owners and by winemakers Roger Wong (below left) and George Heiss Jr. (below right). The latter left soon after the Heiss family sold the winery.

One would expect changes will come under Peller. Some of the growers that had supplied Gray Monk for years now are selling their grapes to other producers, likely because Peller has a number of its own vineyards.

I don’t expect that to impact negatively on the quality of Gray Monk wines. Peller manages its vineyards well.

The Gray Monk portfolio, which is lengthy, might be pruned a bit going forward. I don’t expect Peller to be quite as emotionally invested in Siegerrebe and Rotberger as the Heiss family was.

Pinot Gris will certainly retain a major presence in the portfolio, if only because Gray Monk pioneered that varietal in the Okanagan. It is now the most widely planted white in British Columbia. Gray Monk is still a leading producer.

Gray Monk once produced just white and rosé wines. Over the last decade and especially after the winery’s south Okanagan vineyard began producing, the winery’s reds have also become impressive. Peller has access to additional red varietals to support the red portfolio.

I also expect Peller will expand Gray Monk’s excellent portfolio of sparkling wines. This has become one of the hottest categories in B.C. wine.

However, the Peller hand on this portfolio seems light, at least so far. It could be a matter of not fixing what isn’t broken.

Here are notes on some of the current releases. The reserve tier is called Odyssey.

Gray Monk Pinot Gris 2016 ($16.99). The wine presents in the glass with a light blush. It begins with aromas of peach and nectarine leading to flavours of nectarine and ripe pear. The finish is dry and lingering. 90.

Gray Monk Chardonnay Unwooded 2017 ($15.99). The wine begins with aromas of citrus and apple. On the palate, there are flavours of apple and citrus. The wine is crisp and refreshing. 90.

Gray Monk Pinot Noir 2016 ($16.99). The wine presents with a light hue, signalling this is a light Pinot Noir that benefits from being slightly chilled to bring out the charm and the cherry flavours. 88.

Gray Monk Odyssey Pinot Noir 2014 ($23.49). The wine presents with a dark hue. In the glass, aromas of cherry mingle with hints of oak. It has flavours of cherry. The texture is firm. There is a touch of oak on the finish. 90.

Gray Monk Merlot 2015 ($16.99). The wine begins with aromas of black currant, black cherry and blueberry. The flavours are packed with dark fruits mingled with a hint of vanilla and cedar. 90.

Gray Monk Cabernet Merlot 2014 ($17.39). This wine begins with aromas of cherry and cassis, echoed on the palate, along with flavours of black currant, chocolate and tobacco. 90.

Gray Monk Odyssey Merlot 2014 ($20.89). The wine begins with aromas of cassis and black cherry. The texture and the fruit flavours are concentrated, with layers of dark  fruit mingled with vanilla, blackberry, blueberry and spice. 91.

Gray Monk Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($26.09). This begins with aromas of cherry, cassis and mint. The wine is generous on the palate with flavours of black cherry, blueberry mingled with vanilla and tobacco. 92.

Gray Monk Odyssey Meritage 2014 ($30.49). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. In the glass, it opens with aromas of toasted oak mingled with dark fruit. On the palate, the flavours are rich and complex – black cherry, blackberry and cassis. On the finish, dark fruits mingle with dark chocolate and coffee. The flavours linger and linger. 93.

Gray Monk Odyssey III ($17.39 for 500 ml). This is a fine port-style fortified red with aromas and flavours of black cherry, figs and spice. The finish lingers. 91.

Gray Monk Odyssey White Brut 2015 ($23.99). This sparkling wine is a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. The wine is clean and fresh, with aromas of citrus, apple and brioche and with a fruity palate. The finish is crisp. The overall impression is elegance. 91.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Laughing Stock Portfolio and friends

Photo: Laughing Stock's David Enns

This fall, Laughing Stock Vineyards three wines. Two are superb and one left me confounded.

First, the two I found superb. Portfolio is the winery’s iconic red. I am fortunate to have a few 10-year verticals in my cellar. The wine no longer is easy to get, unless you join the wine club. The individual on whose orders I was piggybacking let his membership lapse this year, sadly for me.

The superb white is a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It will also be hard to get because only 317 cases were produced.

The wine that I have trouble with is a Syrah that was fermented in a clay amphora. I have no doubt this wine will sell out, if it is not already sold out, to those consumers who like “natural” wines. Every wine has its champion.

Let me quote the winery’s notes on how winemaker David Enns made this wine.

“This small cap release is a tribute to how wine was made in ancient times,” the note begins. “Using a hands-off winemaking approach, this is our fifth year of working with two 500 litre terracotta clay Amphorae. The result is a wine that challenges you to define it to a specific region or style.

“The 2017 Amphora Syrah project is in its second year with a blend of 91% Syrah and 9% Viognier. At harvest, we placed whole berry Syrah grapes in our two Amphorae and left them fully untouched for eight months. After 10 days, the natural wild ferment began at a low temperature and slowly progressed for five weeks. The hands-off approach resulted in slower extraction from the grape skins, while the tannin worked as a natural antioxidant.”

In previous vintages, David made Viognier Roussanne wine in the Amphorae. He switched to Syrah in 2016 and again in 2017 and extended the time in clay from five months to eight months. At that point, the wine is pressed off with a basket press and bottled.

My palate prefers conventionally-made Syrah. However, this bottle will create a sensation and likely controversy at your dinner table.

Laughing Stock was acquired in 2017 by Arterra Wines, the national producer owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. To the best of my knowledge, none of the other Arterra wineries in the Okanagan produce anything quite this edgy.

Here are notes on the wines.

Laughing Stock Chardonnay 2017 ($28.99 for 312 cases). This was fermented in oak barrels (15% new) but the oak is subtle and well integrated. The wine begins with aromas citrus and brioche leading to flavours of apple and pear. The wine is fresh and elegant with a lingering finish. 92.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2016 ($49.99 for 3,300 cases). This is a blend of 51% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. The wine announces itself with powerful aromas of black cherry, plum, spice and vanilla. On the palate, layers of dark fruit fill the mouth. The long, ripe tannins give the wine a polished texture, with ability to age 10 or more years. 94.

Laughing Stock Amphora Syrah 2017 ($49.99 for 100 cases). First, here is the winery’s description: “This beautiful deep blue-violet coloured wine has vibrant aromas of anise and ripe mixed berries. The palate is silky with raspberries baking spices, and warm mocha.” I thought the wine also had aromas and flavours of chocolate, plum and fig with a hint of licorice on the finish as well as an earthy note. On re-tasting the opened wine over several days, I found that intense sweet fruit flavours also developed. Clearly, the wine needs to be decanted. I won’t even try to score this wine. I did not like it on first opening but I did like it by the fifth day.

As for food pairing, the wine’s robust flavours call for game meats.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Blasted Church updates its labels – again

Photo: Blasted Church winemaker Evan Saunders

For the third time since Chris and Evelyn Campbell bought the winery in 2002, Blasted Church Vineyards has revised its labels.

The winery, which is near Okanagan Falls, originally was called Prpich Hills, after the surname of the founder. The Campbells retained the Vancouver label guru, Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, to come up with a new name.

He suggested Blasted Church. The inspiration was an Okanagan Falls church (still in use) which had been moved in 1929 from Fairview, the abandoned mining town near Oliver. The movers set off some dynamite in the church to facilitate taking it apart for the move.

Beauregard and his team at Brandever Design retold the story on the winery’s labels, with a series of lively caricatures. The labels were an instant hit with consumers, propelling Blasted Church to success.

In 2010, the winery decided to refresh its labels. The new generation of labels still were story-telling caricatures but the art was bolder and more sophisticated.

The third generation Blasted Church labels are more painterly. They seem inspired by Baroque and Renaissance painters, with some Vancouver scenery for good measure. For example, the Sauvignon Blanc is a female nude that the 16th Italian artist might have posed on Wreck Beach, which is in the background.  

The new labels spotlight the wines of Evan Saunders, who took over in mid-2017 as the senior winemaker at Blasted Church. He has begun to tweak the style of the wines – notably whites which are lower in alcohol and fresher in flavour. He has also begun to push the envelop, notably with small lot reds fermented and bottled in clay.

Born in Manitoba in 1984, Evan took a microbiology degree at the University of Victoria, originally to prepare for medicine until an interest in wine took over. In 2011, he went to Brock University for a diploma in grape and wine technology. He returned immediately to the Okanagan and spent three years at Osoyoos Larose before moving to Blasted Church in 2014 as assistant winemaker.

“The first wine I started drinking consistently at University of Victoria was Hatfield’s Fuse,” Evan says, referring to a popular Blasted Church white blend. “I walked into a wine store. The colours [on the label] were bright and it caught my eye. It is a funny coincidence that I ended up here.”

The larger volume wines at Blasted Church remain consistent in style, compared with previous years and previous winemakers. Evan suggests this is largely because the vineyard sources have been relatively constant. The winery’s grapes come from a 40-acre estate vineyard on the east side of Skaha Lake. The winery also contracts grapes from about 60 acres, mostly in Oliver and Osoyoos.

“I probably tend toward a fresher style,” Evan says of his winemaking. “I do a little earlier picks to get a really vibrant acidity. A little fresher, a little less residual sugar, on the whites especially.”

With the red varietals, he likes longer hang time, long maceration time and more intense pump overs and cap management. “I am just focussing on the vineyards, to try to bring out everything that I can.”

“And I have done a lot of work on the barrel program, trying to match coopers and forests and grain and toasting to specific vineyard blocks, learning what works together the best,” he adds. In 2015, he began fermenting some small lot wines in barrels.

The small lot wines he ferments in clay eggs are the edgiest (and most expensive) wines now released by Blasted Church. The winery underlined the uniqueness of its 2016 Sacrosanct Cabernet Franc by bottling 120 bottles in clay bottles produced by the Italian manufacture of the amphora. It is almost sold out at $125 a bottle. Some 35 cases also was bottled conventionally.

Here are notes on some current Blasted Church releases.

Blasted Church Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($24 for 660 cases). This wine, which has six percent Sémillon in the blend, includes a 20% barrel-fermented portion. The wine begins with dramatic aromas of lime, grapefruit and herbs. The bracing acidity focusses the refreshing tropical fruit flavours. 91.

Blasted Church Unorthodox Chardonnay 2017 ($19 for 500 cases). This unoaked Chardonnay is made from the aromatic Musqué Clone. The wine begins with tropical and spicy fruit aromas leading to flavours of melon and apple on a crisp and dry palate. 90.

Blasted Church Gewürztraminer 2017 ($18 for 700 cases). Dry and food-friendly, this wine has classic aromas of rose petal and lychee. The moderate alcohol (12.9%) gives the wine a lightness and elegance on the palate, with flavours of melon and orange. 90.

Blasted Church Viognier 2017 ($22 for 500 cases). This wine includes the first harvest from the Viognier block planted several years ago on the estate. The wine has aromas and flavours of stone fruit. There are also hints of pineapple and quince on the finish, along with a spine of tannin to give discipline to the structure. 91.

Blasted Church Small Blessings Sémillon 2017 ($35 for 48 cases). The Sémillon in 2017 was so good that two barrels were set aside for this small lot wine. It is rich on the palate, with flavours of mango, guava and orange peel. 91.

Blasted Church Cabernet Franc 2016 ($31 for 491 cases). This wine – only the second Cabernet Franc varietal released by the winery – begins with classic brambly aromas (raspberry, strawberry and sage). On the palate, there are flavours of blackberries and spice which persist on the long finish. 92.

Blasted Church Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($32 for 487 cases). This is 88% Cabernet Sauvignon with 11% Petit Verdot and 1% Merlot. The wine begins with aromas of cassis and sage, followed by notes of chocolate. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and blackberry with a hint of peppers. The tannins are long and ripe. 92.

Blasted Church Cross of Bear 2015 ($40 for 200 cases). This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged 22 months in new French oak barrels. The rich flavours have soaked up the toasty oak very well. There is spice and cassis on the nose, leading to flavours of blackberry, plum and black currant. The ripe tannins support a long and generous finish. 93.

Blasted Church Nothing Sacred 2015 ($45 for 202 cases). The blend is 40% Merlot, 38% Petit Verdot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% each of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This is a bold wine, with aromas and flavours of black cherry, plum, chocolate and coffee. This wine also aged 22 months in barrel, about two-thirds new. 95.

Blasted Church Holy Moly 2015 ($40 for 225 cases). This is 100% Petit Verdot. Dark in colour, the wine begins with floral fruit aromas supported by leather. On the dense palate, there and flavours of fig and plum and dark chocolate. 94.

Blasted Church Sacrosanct 2016 ($125 for clay-bottled wine, $65 for glass bottles). This is a Cabernet Franc fermented with wild yeast in an amphora, where it remained nine months on the skins before the wine was pressed off the skins. The wine is quite fruity – think black currant jam – with a voluptuous texture. 94.

Blasted Church Small Blessings Be Fruitful 2017 ($65 for 36 cases). This wine (fermented in a clay egg with wild yeast) is a blend of 42% Teroldego, 42% Lagrein and 16% Syrah. The former two varietals are Italian grapes from a Similkameen vineyard. The wine has aromas and flavours of tar, dark fruits and chocolate with an earthy finish. The wine is so unusual that I can’t begin to score it. Suffice it to say, it will create a sensation at someone’s dinner party, especially if paired with game.