Vertical tasting at Burrowing Owl Winery
How well do British Columbia wines age?
That is one of the questions most frequently asked of those of us who taste BC wines often. But for the most part, we are tasting newly released wines rather than wines that have had long-term cellaring – and not always wines from a leading producer.
Recently, however, the owners of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery – Jim and Midge Wyse and their son Chris (photo, opening wines) – invited me to a tasting of all the Chardonnays and all the Syrahs that winery has made. The results were instructive.
The tasting also included winemaker Scott Stefishen. Born in North Vancouver in 1979, he earned his winemaking degree in Australia and did several vintages in the Margaret River before returning to Canada last year. He worked with Road 13 winemaker Michael Bartier for the 2008 crush.
When he was still in Australia, which has had serious forest fires near vineyards in recent years, Scott did a study of smoke taint in wines. That expertise was reflected during the Burrowing Owl tasting.
Burrowing Owl made its first wines in 1997 and has been at the forefront of quality producers every since. A Vancouver wine agent (who represents other Okanagan wineries) says enviously that Burrowing Owl operates “under a halo” in terms of its reputation with consumers.
The reputation was built on a combination of good grape growing and good winemaking. The winemaker from the beginning through the 2004 vintage was consultant Bill Dyer, a talented and experienced California vintner. Steve Wyse, who was his cellar hand and assistant, took over when Bill left.
Steve left after the 2006 vintage (he is now launching his own Black Sheep Winery at Osoyoos). Australian-trained Jeff Del Nin did the next two vintages before leaving to join Church & State. Scott joined Burrowing Owl earlier this summer.
Even with all of those winemaker changes, the guiding style at Burrowing Owl is that established by Bill Dyer. The white wines are elegant and the oak never gets in the way of the fruit. The reds are big and ripe, reflecting the way that vineyard matures the grapes.
If anything, Burrowing Owl reds in the future might even be more ripe. On a small block of Cabernet Franc, the winery is testing the use of a white fabric strung along the base of the vines to reflect more sunlight into the north side of the rows. See the above photograph.
Here are notes and reflections from the vertical tasting.
Chardonnay 1997: Gold in colour with aromas and flavours of crème brulé. The acidity has softened, leaving the wine flat. The wine is well past its prime.
Chardonnay 1998: Gold. A hot vintage wine still being held together by its alcohol and minerals. The aroma recalls creamed corn. Drink it up now.
Chardonnay 1999: Gold. Cool vintage wine with enough acidity to give an austere finish to its citrus and mineral flavours. Drink now.
Chardonnay 2000: Gold. There is a core of lively, sweet fruit (tangerines, ripe pineapples). Drink within a year.
Chardonnay 2001: Light gold. Toast and citrus aromas. Bright citrus flavours. Still nicely alive but best within a year.
Chardonnay 2002: Light gold. Toasty aroma (from the barrels). Rich texture, with attractive citrus flavours. Drink within two years.
Chardonnay 2003: Dark gold. Seriously maderized and tasting like a dry sherry. This was the first year that synthetic stoppers were used rather than cork.
Chardonnay 2004: Fairly dark in colour. The wine is in the early stages of turning itself into sherry. These wines show how unsatisfactory synthetic stoppers can be for wines when aged more than two or three years.
Chardonnay 2005: Synthetic stopper but the wine is still drinking well, with rich flavours of citrus and toast and with slightly more prominent oak. But for the stopper, this could be aged further.
Chardonnay 2006: The wine is fresh and lively. Age it another year.
Chardonnay 2007: Back to a cork closure for this classically elegant Chardonnay, showing good minerality, lively citrus flavours and good length. Drink this over the next five years.
Syrah 2000: The debut vintage. Even though made with fruit from young vines, it is in excellent shape, with aromas of fruit, spice and liquorice, flavours of spicy plum and mocha, and a soft, chewy texture. Based on this wine, one would think that Burrowing Owl reds have at least 10 years of pleasurable life.
Syrah 2001: Another generous red, with aromas and flavours of spiced plum, black cherries and liquorice.
Syrah 2002: Dark in colour and firm in texture for Syrah (a good portent for aging), this shows earthy flavours of prunes, coffee and black chocolate.
Syrah 2003: This was the year of the forest fires in the Okanagan. Winemaker Scott Stefishen picked up a hint of wood smoke (“medicinal” he said) in the aroma of this wine. The rest of us described it as elevated pepper aromas. It is a big ripe wine, with liquorice, coffee and prune flavours again. The minimal smoke note has never been an issue with this wine, which has won serious awards.
Syrah 2004: This vintage stands out as the leanest of Burrowing Owl Syrahs. Perhaps the synthetic closure is causing mischief again. Drink it up.
Syrah 2005: This is drinking very well now, with generous flavours of black cherry, spice and chocolate. A very harmonious wine. Given the closure, enjoy this superb wine over the next year.
Syrah 2006: Classic peppery Syrah aroma; the wine has sweet berry aromas and flavours. Firm and full-bodied, it deserves aging. Happily, the winery returned to a cork closure.
Syrah 2007: This is as satisfying a Syrah as any in this line-up – bold and meaty, with aromas of pepper and deli meats and flavours of plum and chocolate. Take your time.