Sunday, November 29, 2009

Burrowing Owl's 2007 wines: another excellent vintage










Unless it is already being done, here’s a suggestion for an MBA student looking for a thesis subject: do the paper on those British Columbia wineries that have achieved a cult status. Many other wineries would benefit from such an analysis.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery should serve as the opening chapter for any such paper. One of the many reasons for the winery’s strong reputation has been the consistent style of the wines right from the first vintage in 1997. Even allowing for vintage variations, the winery always delivers some of the Okanagan’s biggest, most generous reds. Consumers know what to expect and the winery delivers.

The winery’s new releases, all from 2007, are chips off the old block. The fans of Burrowing Owl seem prepared to pay moderately aggressive prices because the wines seldom let them down. The winery’s only significant mistake, in my view, was its three-vintage flirtation with synthetic closures in a well-intentioned effort to eliminate cork-tainted wines, a bane of the business. It turned out that the synthetic closures failed to protect all bottles from oxidizing; some bottles, but not all, aged prematurely. (Other wineries also were burned with certain synthetic closures.)

That’s all history now. Burrowing Owl returned to improved cork closures in 2007. The wonderful 2007 wines can be cellared with confidence to 2015 at least.

There are two major explanations for the consistent quality of Burrowing Owl wines.

1. Farming. Some of the most capable viticulturists in the south Okanagan have managed the Burrowing Owl vineyard since it was planted in the early 1990s. It is a cliché, but still true, that perhaps 75% of the quality of a wine is achieved in the vineyard. Year in and year out, superior quality grapes are delivered to Burrowing Owl’s winemakers.

Furthermore, the winery is devoted to ongoing improvements in its vineyard. This past vintage, the winery began stretching reflective strips of cloth in its Cabernet Franc blocks. These reflect additional sun into vines, notably on the north sides of rows. This promotes riper grapes with more flavour, supporting the rich, packed-with-flavour Burrowing Owl style.

2. Winemaking. The first six or seven vintages were produced under the direction of California consultant Bill Dyer. There have been three winemakers at Burrowing Owl since he left in 2004 but none have deviated in any major way from the quite singular Napa Valley style that Dyer stamped onto Burrowing Owl. Dyer hit the sweet spot of consumer taste. A winemaker would mess with that style at his peril.

The 2007 vintage was made primarily by Jeff Del Nin, an Australian-trained Canadian winemaker. These wines still have the basic Napa style with a touch of Barossa richness and with the brightness that sets them apart as Okanagan wines. It is a pretty good combination.

Here are my impressions:

Burrowing Owl 2007 Chardonnay ($25). The wine begins with a toasty aroma that it picked up from the barrels in which it was fermented. The wine has good weight on the palate, with citrus flavours and with a long finish. The wine is sealed with a synthetic stopper (not so in subsequent vintages). Because this is a problematic closure for aging, you should enjoy this elegant wine within the next year. 88

Burrowing Owl 2007 Merlot ($30). This is simply a delicious example of this varietal, dark and juicy and rich, with gobs of plums and blackberries and black cherries and currants. The ripe tannins contribute to the soft, full-bodied texture of the wine; yet it has the structure to age well. The winery recommends drinking the wine anytime from now to 2015. 90

Burrowing Owl 2007 Cabernet Franc ($33). Another juicy red, this shows the typical spicy and berry aromas of Cabernet Franc. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, currants, chocolate, tobacco and a hint of liquorice on the finish. There is always something generous, friendly and yet rustic about the character of this varietal when well done, like this wine. 88-90

Burrowing Owl 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($38). I tasted this elegant wine over two days, letting half the bottle breathe overnight. A fine young Cabernet Sauvignon needs this time to open, and this one opened beautifully. It moved from tight and disciplined the first day, when it took work to dig out the spicy and berry aromas, to generous on the second day, delivering a host of sweet fruit flavours – black cherry, plum, black currant. 90-92

Burrowing Owl 2007 Syrah ($38). The winery has made Syrah since 2000, establishing a style that is (no surprise) bold and generous. This is achieved by starting with ripe grapes and giving the wine long skin contact during fermentation. This wine fermented about 20 days. The wine was then aged in a combination of French, American and Russian oak; a quarter of the barrels were new.

This wine begins with complex aromas of fruit, iodine and game meats. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, blackberry, liquorice and a hint of pepper. The wine is almost jammy in its concentrated fruit and rich texture. Beautifully balanced, it has good acidity to lift the fruit flavours. The wine, while tasting really good now, also has the structure and depth to age well. The winery recommends drinking it anytime until 2015. 90-92

Burrowing Owl 2007 Meritage ($45). The whole point of blending the Bordeaux varietals is to build a wine where the whole is greater than the parts. This is such a wine. While I tasted this over three days, it announced itself immediately on the first day with an appealing aroma of spice and red berries. On the palate, there is layer upon layer of flavour, a veritable fruit cake of a wine with a concentrated structure, bold, ripe tannins and a hint of vanilla and chocolate. This is an immensely satisfying red. 92-94

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