Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Stable of Wild Horses


The Artisan Wine Company is something of a holding company that encompasses a number of wine brands and wineries.

The best-known wineries in the group of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery and Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery.

A year or so back, Artisan launched the Wild Horse Canyon brand. As the literature puts it: "Our winery is named in honour of the wild horses which can still today be found in California, Washington and British Columbia." Never mind that there actually is no winery. The wines come from various wineries and are blended, one assumes, at the Mission Hill facility near Westbank.

The brand has been a big success, chalking up sales of more than $5 million across Canada in the past year. The wines are all priced at a very affordable $12.95 in British Columbia; at $10.99 in Alberta where taxes are lower; and as high as $13.97 in Nova Scotia.

The distiguishing feature of this brand is that all the wines but one claim to be from the "west coast appellation."

There is no such appellation. But not being too much of a purist on this point, one needs to give Artisan some credit for being transparent on the origin of the grapes (or wine) in each bottle. These wines are blended from wines produced in California, Washington and British Columbia. The labels, of course, do not break down the percentages from each region.

However, many other bottled-in-Canada wines from the commercial wineries in Canada are silent on the origin of what's in the bottles. You are probably drinking wine from Chile or Argentina or South Africa and you don't know it. Even if the west coast appellation is fiction, the consumer has some idea of where the wine comes from.

You might ask: why does it matter?

It matters because, over the last 20 years, the Canadian wine industry has totally re-invented itself and produces top quality wines by any measure. That achievement is not always recognized when the distinctive Canadian wines are submerged in a sea of "Canadian" wines that are not Canadian, and sometimes not very good.

Wild Horse Canyon's west coast appellation wines are solid wines for the price. I found myself scoring them between 85 and 87, which is respectable for $12 wines. Clearly, Artisan is sourcing well-made B.C., California and Washington wines for these blends.

The current releases, all from 2007, include a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Shiraz and a Merlot.

The Chardonnay is an attractive, fruit-forward example, full on the palate with honeyed, buttery flavours of citrus. The Sauvignon Blanc is the crisp, lean style of white Bordeaux. The Shiraz is a big, jammy hit of plums and licorice. The Merlot is ripe and juicy, with jammy blueberry flavours. The style recalls the wildly popular Yellowtail style. The Cabernet Sauvignon's candied mint flavours were the least appealing.

There is one more Wild Horse Canyon wine among the current releases, a blend of 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Blanc, that is called Left Bank White. This is the only wine in the range that is VQA - in other words, made only with Okanagan grapes.

In my view, this is the best of the Wild Horse Canyon wines. It is a vindication of the argument that wines from the Okanagan appellation easily stand on their own; their image does not benefit when they are thrown in the pool of brands made with imported bulk wine.

Left Bank White 2007 ($12.99) is a tasty white with layers of tropical fruit flavours and aromas of citrus and peach. Its soft acidity gives it a fullness on the palate. The finish is fruity but dry. 88.

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