Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Inniskillin's Discovery Series - Sandor Mayer's toy box

The winemakers who work with the Vincor wineries in the Okanagan are among the most talented in the valley. But Inniskillin Okanagan’s Sandor Mayer (photo above) occupies a special place among that group: he runs the toy store.

His colleagues all make wine with what you might consider the mainstream varietals – Merlot, Chardonnay and so on. Sandor also gets to work with those grapes but Vincor assigned him the additional task of working with some of the exotic varietals from its vineyards.

These are released under the “Discovery Series” tag, almost always in small lot quantities. The ultimate objective is to test additional varietals in the Okanagan and then plant more acreage of the best. Sandor was assigned the job of making these wines several vintages ago, starting with a hugely successful Zinfandel. Other interesting varieties have now turned up on his crush pad. Judging from the current releases under this series, everything is a keeper.

I would speculate that Sandor got the assignment partly because of his background in research and partly because he is a willing hard worker, as he proved when he got the job to redevelop what is now the Inniskillin Dark Horse Vineyard.

Born in Hungary in 1958, he began making wine at 14 with his father before getting a university degree in winemaking and viticulture. He went to work with Hungary’s major wine research institute and then moved on to a vineyard manager’s job in the country’s famed Lake Balaton region. When neither the salary nor the opportunities were adequate, he and his wife, Andrea (also a winemaker), slipped out of Hungary. After a year in Austria, an uncle in the Okanagan sponsored their emigration to Canada in 1988.

The timing was bad. There were almost no jobs in British Columbia’s shrunken wine industry after two-thirds of the vines has been pulled out in 1988. Mayer took what he could get – a cellar job here, another one there. Finally, Alan Tyabji hired him in the summer of 1990 to replant the vineyard at what was then Okanagan Vineyards.

This property, south of Oliver, had been the first estate winery in the south Okanagan. After it failed, it was acquired first by a car dealer and then in 1987 by Tyabji, a former Calona Winery executive. He was just in time to take advantage of the 1988 grape pullout program, when government compensated producers who pulled out Okanagan Riesling and other mediocre varieties. Tyabji pulled out everything in his vineyard. A couple of years later, when he was able to order premium vines from France, he hired Sandor to get the vineyard ready.

The property was then an ugly tangle of wires, posts and dead vines. “Many times, I went up to the vineyard, looked at the big mess, scratched my head and went home,” Sandor recounted later. But he hung in there and gradually the Dark Horse Vineyard emerged, among other strengths, to be one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon sites in the Okanagan.

Inniskillin bought the vineyard and winery in 1996. Except for a brief stint at the Jackson-Triggs winery, Sandor has been Inniskillin’s winemaker ever since.

Not everything that was planted at Dark Horse in the early 1990s was best for the sun-bathed site. Varieties better suited to in cool sites, such as Gewürztraminer, have been replaced. Several of the Discovery Series varieties now grow here: Marsanne and Rousanne, two Rhone whites, and Tempranillo, the Spanish red.

Other grapes for the Discovery Series wines grow in various Vincor vineyards in the south Okanagan. Here are notes on the wines. Most are available only at the winery or in restaurants, although the winery surely will ship case-lot orders. Contact Audrey Silbernagel at 800.498.6211.

2008 Discovery Series Marsanne Rousanne ($24.99). This is one of the most satisfying whites I have tasted from the Okanagan in some time. It begins with citrus and apricot aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of melon, apple and more stone fruit. The wine is fresh and crisp, but with good weight on the palate and with a lingering finish. Only 340 cases were made. 90-92

2007 Discover Series Chenin Blanc ($16.99). At 1,800 cases, this is the highest volume wine of any of the Discovery wines, and is available in Alberta and Manitoba stores as well as in B.C. The wine begins with lush tropical aroma, shows flavours of peach, mango, guava and tangerine. The wine has a honey-like late harvest character on the mid-palate but is balanced to finish dry. This wine is an unforgettable tour de force. 90

2007 Discovery Series Malbec ($24.99). There are 575 cases of this wine, which is a world-class Malbec of power and elegance. It begins with aromas of pepper and spice. Rich and full on the palate, the wine presents flavours of spice and cherry and blackberry and chocolate. Every sip invites another. 92

2006 Discovery Series Petit Verdot $29.99. The winery has released 400 cases of this wine, seldom seen as a single varietal because most is used in luxury red blends. This is a bright, vibrant wine, with aromas of spice and cherry and red berries, and with flavours of cherry and currants with a touch of spice and a hint of mocha on the finish. The tannins are ripe but firm, suggesting this wine will cellar well for some years yet. 88-90

2007 Discover Series Sangiovese ($29.99). Sangiovese is an Italian red that has often flopped when planted outside of Tuscany. I prefer this wine to a lot of Tuscan reds I have had. It is fleshier, bigger on the palate with ripe tannins and with classic aromas and flavours of spice and cherries. Only 100 cases were released. 90

2007 Discovery Series Tempranillo ($29.99.The winery has released 200 cases. The medium-bodied wine has an attractively dark garnet hue, with aromas of red fruit, oak and mocha. It has flavours of cherry and cranberry and spice. The wine needs decanting to round out the tannins. This would be a candidate for further cellaring. 88-90

2007 Tempranillo Icewine ($99.99). I believe Tempranillo icewine is a world first for British Columbia. In a decade of dedicated icewine tasting, I have never before tasted one elsewhere. (It would never get cold enough in Spain, not that the Spanish need another dessert wine anyway.) Here, D'Angelo Vineyards and now Inniskillin had produced this wine. It has a lovely ruby hue, with aromas and flavours of strawberry and plum jam. The wine is beautifully balanced; the sweet finish is vibrant and fresh, never cloying. 90


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