Friday, October 30, 2009

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards at fifteen years

Photo: Robert Shaunessy (l), Sandra Oldfield, Kenn Oldfield (r)

This is Tinhorn Creek Vineyards fifteenth anniversary. In several ways it has been a momentous anniversary.

To begin with, this year’s releases from the winery – the whites in the spring and the reds this fall – have been among the best ever from Tinhorn Creek.

The releases also included the first new varietal from the winery since its launch: a fine Syrah has joined its portfolio.

As well, the winery committed itself this summer to becoming one of Canada’s first (possibly the first) winery to be carbon neutral. That involves capping the carbon emissions from winery operations and then beginning to reduce its production of greenhouse gases.

The first steps down that road are such common sense measures as replacing overhead sprinklers with drip irrigation; that reduces the winery’s energy consumption, to say nothing of conserving water resources. In addition, the vineyard tractors have been switched to using biodiesel fuel.

There is a delicious irony that Tinhorn Creek, of all wineries, should be leading the pack toward carbon neutral. The winery’s major owner, Robert Shaunessy, is an Alberta oil executive. He is obviously one oilman who is on side with the struggle to contain global warming.

In the immediate term, what matters to consumers is that of Tinhorn Creek’s wines are strong – and reasonably priced. Even the reserve wines, called Oldfield Series, are much less aggressively priced that most reserve wines from the Okanagan.

Oldfield refers to winemaker Sandra Oldfield and husband Kenn, whose focus is on the vineyards.

Currently, the most expensive table wine in the portfolio is the debut Syrah, the Oldfield Series Syrah 2006 ($35). Only 340 cases were released in October. This wine is a blend of Syrah grown at Tinhorn Creek’s Diamondback Vineyard on Black Sage Road; and Syrah grown across the valley at the winery. The wine spent 18 months in French oak barrels and another year in bottle before being released. This is a dark-hued and full-bodied red, as one would expect, a powerhouse with concentrated fruit. The complex flavours of this generous wine include plums, black cherry, liquorice and pepper. The finish lingers. 90

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Merlot 2006 ($28), with 1,551 cases released, has been tweaked for this vintage with the addition of 6% Cabernet Franc and 1% Syrah. The wine also spent 18 months in barrel (French and American) and one year in bottle before release. It is ready to drink now but can also be cellared at least five more years.

This is a rich and well-balanced wine with spicy berry aromas and with flavours of blackberry, cherry and plum. I saved half a bottle for next day and found that the core of sweet fruit flavours had become even more generous and appealing. 90-92.

Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2007 ($19) should be widely available because the winery released 10,442 cases. For obscure reasons, I found myself tasting and re-tasting this wine over five days and I swear that it was better on each succeeding day. It is a sturdy red, tasting of black currants, cherries, vanilla and dark chocolate. The tannins were a touch bitter on the first day but they softened right out, as one would expect. Do yourself and the wine a favour by decanting it. My score started at 87 on the first day and climbed to 90 by the fifth.

Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2007 ($18). On first impression, this is a rustic, earthy and spicy example of Cabernet Franc, with concentrated fruit and flavours of plums and currants – and the expected zesty lift of this varietal. This is another one to decant and let the fruit emerge. My point score improved over three days of tasting to settle at 88. The winery released 6,444 cases.

Tinhorn Creek Pinot Noir 2007 ($19). If my tasting memory is accurate, this is Tinhorn Creek’s best Pinot Noirs, more full-bodied that some of that rather light examples in previous vintages. The aromas are somewhat jammy but also a touch herbal. On the palate, it is a veritable berry cup of strawberries, raspberries and plums. The winery released 3,650 cases. 87

This fall’s release also include the winery’s Kerner Late Harvest 2008 ($13 for a half bottle). That sample has been set aside for a sweet wine tasting. Previous examples have been appealing, as is this price.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

[yellow tail] releases two-nation Sauvignon Blanc

With the latest release here of a new [yellow tail] ® wine, Casella Wines of Australia shows how to handle the labelling of wines with juice from different countries.

The way? Openly. Perhaps this is a lesson for how our big wineries should resolve the Cellared in Canada controversy.

The new [yellow tail] Sauvignon Blanc, a non vintage wine just listed here at $12.99 a bottle, is made with 86 per cent South Australian and 14% New Zealand juice. It says so right on the back label.

It is a pretty successful blend. The comparatively ripe Sauvignon Blanc from Australia likely accounts for the wine’s lush tropical fruit flavours. The New Zealand portion adds the zing (acidity and crispness) to the aroma and the fresh flavours. The wine might use a hair more concentration but that is really a picky point. Like all [yellow tail] wines, this is easy to drink on its own or with food. At $12.99, it is quite good value. I scored it 87 points.

In a press release, winery owner John Casella said that the company could have released a [yellow tail] Sauvignon Blanc years ago but “we were never really happy with the quality” until they hit on the idea of a two-country blend.

Sadly, the release of the wine coincided with the news that John’s father and the winery founder, Filippo, had died at 88. A third-generation grape grower and winemaker from Sicily, he immigrated to Australia in 1957 and established a vineyard two years later. He started the Casella winery in 1964. It sold its wine in bulk for many years.

John took over the business in 1994. Filippo and his wife continued to live on the property even after a huge tank farm grew up around their home with the enormous success of [yellow tail]. The label was launched in 2001 when John Soutter, the company’s former exporter director, bought the label from a label broker in a deal made on the fly in Sydney airport.

Since then, [yellow tail] has taken many markets by storm. In some markets, [yellow tail] has dominated the Australian category almost to the exclusion of other brands.

Why does the brand succeed? Taste this Sauvignon Blanc. The wines deliver good quality for the price point and do it consistently.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Painted Rock makes a strong debut

It did not take long for Painted Rock Estate Winery to create a buzz after owner John Skinner began selling its first wines in September, a mere month after he retired from his previous career as an investment dealer.

By early October, a number of top Vancouver and Whistler restaurants either had Painted Rock on their wine lists or were about to add them. That always works as a placement strategy for a new winery with a super-premium focus because patrons of high-end restaurants also have wine cellars at home and can afford aggressively-priced wines.

Whatever those consumers are buying for their cellars, there’s a good chance they’ll make room for some Painted Rock after tasting the wines. These are right up there with the other trophy wines from British Columbia.

“I don’t come to this with a pedigree,” John says of the wine business. “I come to it with a passion.”

The son of a Canadian Forces fighter pilot, he was born in 1958 on a Manitoba military base. “I moved 20 times by the time I was 20,” he says. He was working his way through college with a job in a lumber mill when he noted that a friend who had become a stock broker was much more prosperous. So he quit university, becoming a broker as well.

During his years as a broker, he developed a taste for wine that became a desire to have a winery. He had started looking at French vineyards when, about 2001, he noted the dramatic improvement in Okanagan wines and began looking closer to home. He thinks he made 25 to 30 trips to the Okanagan, looking for vineyard sites and sometimes looking at wineries for sale.

The available wineries, he concluded, “all had hair on them.” He decided to start from scratch. “I just didn’t want to fix something.”

He found his vineyard site in 2004. It is on a bench on the east side of Skaha Lake south of Penticton, backing up against the famed climbing bluffs. Once an apricot farm, it had been fallow for 17 years. He planted in 2005 and 2006 and now has roughly 25 acres under vine, all of it Bordeaux reds or Syrah except for a block of Chardonnay. On the advice of consultants, he has planted multiple clones of every variety, giving his winemaker good blending options.

The first vintage, 2007, was made at the Poplar Grove winery by a team that included Poplar Grove proprietor Ian Sutherland and his assistant winemaker at the time, Gavin Miller; and Frank Gigliotti, the owner of Vancouver’s California Cult Classics.

In 2008, when the wines were made at Stag’s Hollow, Gavin Miller became Painted Rock’s winemaker. He is making the 2009 vintage at Painted Rock’s recently completed winery.

Painted Rock also retained French consultant Alain Sutre (who works with Osoyoos Larose and Burrowing Owl in the Okanagan, along with clients elsewhere in the world). Alain, who comes about five times a year, has brought a lot of sage advice regarding the vineyard and the winery equipment. Most important, Alain had a major role in blending Red Icon, Painted Rock’s flagship wine.

John hasn’t cut any corners here. The winery equipment is state of the art. The barrels are all new French oak. The labels were designed by one of the leading designers in Napa. The winery’s name, by the way, is inspired by pictographs on the property.

The winery’s initial release is about 750 cases each of Red Icon and Merlot, 800 cases of Syrah, 320 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and (from 2008) 175 cases of Chardonnay. John’s target for full production is about 5,000 cases a year.

These are the debut wines.

Painted Rock 2007 Red Icon ($55). Alain Sutre started to build this blend on a base of Petit Verdot. The final blend is 33% Cabernet Franc, 20% Petit Verdot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 15% Malbec. This is a radical blend among Okanagan Meritage wines, most of which are built on Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. However, thinking out of the box produced a delicious wine. It begins with spectacularly lifted aromas of black currants, plums, blackberry, vanilla, mocha. All of these elements follow through to the taste. The long, ripe tannins contribute to the wine’s elegance and power and ageability. 92-94.

Painted Rock 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40). Svelte and polished in texture, this wine has aromas of spicy berries and red liquorice. On the palate, there are flavours of black currants, black cherries, and chocolate. The ripe tannins give the wine a good backbone for aging. 90.

Painted Rock 2007 Merlot ($40). Dark in hue, this wine begins with appealing aromas of red fruit, leading to flavours of plums, black cherries and mocha. The oak is fairly bold, with notes of vanilla on the nose and palate, and the structure of the wine is firm. This will cellar well. 88-90.

Painted Rock 2007 Syrah ($40). Also dark in hue, this wine announces itself with aromas of sweet fruit and pepper. Full-bodied, it has earthy flavours of plums and cherries, with both pepper and classic gamy notes. 89-91

Painted Rock 2008 Chardonnay ($30). This is an elegant premium Chardonnay aged in new French oak (like all of Painted Rock’s wines). The toasty and vanilla notes are very subtle, with the fruit – crisp, bright citrus flavours – being showcased. The bright acidity guarantees the wine will develop very nicely over several more years. 90-92

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How about tasting nothing but Chardonnay?

There is only one thing to say to the misguided self-declared consumer of “anything but Chardonnay” – that leaves more for those who know better.

The aversion to Chardonnay goes back a decade or so when there were too many over-oaked Chardonnays on the market, especially from Australia. In recent years some producers have gone to the other extreme by offering unoaked Chardonnays.

That often reduces a great white wine to a cocktail party beverage, although there are exceptions. The great Chardonnays are almost always made and/or aged in barrels, but not excessively. And many British Columbia wineries are now dialling in such great Chardonnays.

A great Chardonnay is a wine where the aromas and flavours of the fruit are paramount; but the potential complexity of the variety is enhanced by fermentation techniques (a touch of wild ferment, sometimes) and by subtle use of oak. Barrel-fermented Chardonnay integrates the oak much better than a wine that is merely barrel-aged. There may be a touch of malolactic fermentation which, in addition to softening the acidity, imparts richness to the flavour that recalls butter. By letting only a portion of the wine in the blend to go through ML, some winemakers preserve acidity that gives the wine a bright, crisp finish. The structure of the wine enables great Chardonnay to age in the bottle at least five years.

In short, there are many steps involved in growing and making great Chardonnay. This is the reason why the wines are unlikely to be cheap (but bargains can be found).

I have gone through my tasting notes for this season to highlight some examples. Since I have not tasted every Chardonnay, there will be some omissions. Please add your discoveries in the comment section at the bottom of this blog.

Here are my notes.

Arrowleaf 2008 Solstice Chardonnay ($23). By fermenting a third in barrel, the rest in tank, the winery produced what it calls, quite rightly, a “bright, nervy, cool climate Chardonnay.” It begins with attractive aromas of apples and citrus fruits, continuing to flavours of citrus with a touch of buttery richness, yet with a crisp finish. 90

Blue Mountain 2007 Chardonnay ($21). The style here is restraint and elegance. The wine has a core of sweet fruit subtly framed by very restrained oak. The finish is crisp and dry. 88

Blue Mountain 2006 Chardonnay Reserve ($26). A wine of finesse, like a white Burgundy, with the structure to age and bring out more richness on top of the citrus and apple notes. 90

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. Because this is a problematic closure for aging, you should enjoy this elegant wine within the next nine months. 88

CedarCreek 2007 Platinum Reserve Chardonnay ($30) The wine begins with biscuity, toasty and apple notes in the aroma, leading to flavours of apple and citrus with a delicate hint of hazelnuts and butter. Elegant wine with a long finish. 90-91

Cerelia Vineyards & Estate Winery Chardonnay MMVIII ($18.90). An unoaked Chardonnay, this wine is crisply refreshing with notes of citrus. 88

Gray Monk 2008 Unwooded Chardonnay ($17). A pretty wine, with clean fruit flavours. The finish is refreshing. A wine by the glass Chardonnay. 88

Foxtrot Vineyards Chardonnay 2008 ($49). This is the first Chardonnay from a tiny Naramata Pinot Noir specialist with a cult following – and the wine is a great success, beginning with a medley of tropical fruit aromas and flavours subtly framed by oak. The bright acidity makes the wine zesty and refreshing but also gives it the potential to age well. The flavours linger so long on the palate that the finish lasts for minutes. 95

JoieFarm 2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($30). Although the wine was just released in September, it was entered this spring in the Lieutenant Governor’s competition and won an award of excellence. If it was good in June, it has developed gloriously over summer. It begins with rich, honeyed aromas of tangerine. On the palate, there are flavours of honey, citrus fruits, a hint of butter, with a backbone of minerals and bright acidity. The finish of this elegant wine goes on and on. 93-94

JoieFarm 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay ($20.40) is modeled on the unoaked Chardonnays of Macon in Burgundy. This elegant wine is pristinely fresh in its aromas and flavours, hinting of newly sliced apples and freshly baked bread, perhaps reflecting nuanced lees treatment. The wine has good weight, with a tangy acidity to give it a crisp finish. 90

Kettle Valley 2005 Adra Station Reserve Chardonnay ($30). Partially barrel-fermented in French oak, this wine was held back to mature into a richly-textured Chardonnay. The flavours suggest baked apples and apricots with a hint of spice on the finish. 88-89

Kettle Valley 2008 Chardonnay ($22). This winery has changed the style of its white wines in recent vintages so that wines are fresher, lively, less alcoholic. This wine is fresh and juicy, with flavours and aromas of apricots, peaches and citrus. 88

La Frenz 2008 Chardonnay ($20 – and sold out). Winemaker Jeff Martin describes his style of Chardonnay as “peaches and cream.” That is spot on for this lush, tropical fruit version of Chardonnay, with a finish that is crisp and refreshing. 90

Lake Breeze 2008 Seven Poplars Chardonnay ($24.90). Totally barrel-fermented, with subtle oak notes well integrated with the wine’s buttery tangerine flavours. The finish is long. 89

Laughing Stock Vineyards 2008 Chardonnay ($26). Here is a barrel-fermented Chardonnay partly done in the larger puncheons which subdue oak flavours. This wine, tasting of pineapples and lemon zest, has bright acidity and a steely backbone of minerals. This wine will age well. 89

Le Vieux Pin 2008 Chardonnay ($35). The wine is made from the Chardonnay Musqué clone, noted for its spice and intense fruitiness. To preserve that unique flavour profile, half the wine was fermented in tank, the rest in barrel, and the entire lot was barrel-aged. The wine is crisp, with a backbone of steely minerals. It tastes of baked apples and citrus. 90

Meyer Family Vineyards Micro Cuvée Chardonnay 2007 ($65)- of which only 141 cases have been released - resulted from tasting and selecting the six best barrels of Chardonnay in the cellar that vintage. This wine is the match of a fine Burgundy, with intense flavours of citrus framed by toasty oak. The wine is finished with commendably bright acidity, giving it a crisp, fresh finish as well as the ability to age. The winery says three to five years. 94

Meyer Family Vineyards Tribute Series Chardonnay 2007 ($30) represents the remaining 399 cases of this vintage. It shares the flavours, aromas and crispness of its big brother, with a texture that seems a bit leaner. Again, the acidity, which is not at all overdone, lifts the fresh fruit flavours and gives the wine ability to develop in the bottle. 90

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Chardonnay 2007 ($13.99) is a very nice Chardonnay at this price. The wine is fruit-forward because it was cold-fermented in stainless steel and spent only seven months in American oak barrels. The result is a refreshing wine with citrus flavours and very subtle oak, with a crisp, clean finish and an appealing lightness in weight. 88

Mission Hill 2007 Perpetua Chardonnay ($35). The winemaker stayed away from malolactic fermentation in order to keep the fruit flavours fresh and lively. This wine begins with clean, delicate aromas of citrus, pineapple and tropical fruit, carrying through to the palate with citrus flavours and with a fine mineral structure. Extended lees aging added to the fullness of the wine on the palate. This elegant wine is drinking well now but has the potential to development further complexity and richness over the next two or three years. 92-94

Nk’Mip 2007 Chardonnay($17). Here is one of those good values. The wine presents a medley of buttery, toasty, tangerine flavours and aromas with an astonishingly long finish. 89

Nk'Mip QQ Chardonnay 2007 ($24.99). This is a variety that benefits from complex winemaking techniques - fermenting and aging in barrels, using some wild yeasts, adding a buttery or honeyed profile to the acidity with malolactic fermentation. All of these tricks and others are employed here. The wine begins with aromas that are toasty, showing notes of bacon fat and oak. On the palate, the wine is rich in texture, with flavours of tangerine and orange rind. The finish lingers. 90-91

Orofino Vineyards Chardonnay 2008 ($24.90). This wine was 30% barrel-fermented in new oak, 70% in stainless steel, achieving a complex balance between the fruit and the subtle oak. The wine has a lovely core of tropical fruit flavours with a long finish of spice and citrus and with bright acidity. 90-91

Painted Rock 2008 Chardonnay ($30) From a new Okanagan winery comes this elegant premium Chardonnay aged in new French oak The toasty and vanilla notes are very subtle, with the fruit – crisp, bright citrus flavours – being showcased. The bright acidity guarantees the wine will develop very nicely over several more years. 90-92

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve 2007 Chardonnay ($30). The wine begins with appealing aromas of citrus framed by the delicate toastiness that comes from barrel fermentation in good French oak. It is a surprise that the wine completed full malolactic fermentation because it still presents lively, tangy acidity, giving the wine a refreshingly crisp finish. On the palate, the wine is rich, with abundant flavours of lemon and lime and subtle spice, likely from the barrels. This Chardonnay will develop additional character with a year or two of cellaring if you can keep your hands off it. 90-92.

Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2007 ($18.99). Two-thirds of the blend was fermented in barrel (20% new French oak as well as American oak) and that comes through on the palate with buttery and honeyed marmalade flavours. The one third that was tank fermented adds the fresh and crisp citrus notes. The texture is rich and the finish is lingering. 88

Red Rooster 2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($22). This wine was barrel-fermented and aged in American oak for five months. The oak combines with the wine to bring a sweet note to the aroma and a note of corn amid the bright citrus flavours. This is a different take on the variety but it succeeds. 88

Road 13 2007 Jackpot Chardonnay ($35). The aromas begin with subtle mingling of oak and fruit. On the palate, this is a richly flavoured wine – tangerine, vanilla, butter – with good weight and with a lingering finish of fruit flavours and cloves. 91

Robin Ridge Winery Chardonnay 2007 ($18.90). From a winery that opened just last year, this is a full-bodied Chardonnay with buttery flavours of citrus and pineapple. 88

Sandhill 2008 Chardonnay Block 11 ($30). Only 132 cases were made of this Small Lots wine. The fruit flavours are pure and focussed, with notes of apple, pineapple, citrus and minerals with a rich texture. 93

Seven Stones Winery Chardonnay 2008 ($24.99). This winery, which opened in 2007, still sells half of its grapes to Okanagan wineries. They are lucky: George Hanson is a superb grower and it shows in the quality of Seven Stones wines. This wine is a complex Macon-style Chardonnay, with tangy flavours of citrus and tropical fruits. The Macon echo comes from the earthy minerality of the wine. This wine deserves to aged a few years. 90

Therapy 2008 Chardonnay ($25). This is a delicious wine with citrus flavours and a tangy finish but also with richness and a note of butterscotch produced during fermentation and barrel-aging. 88

Tinhorn Creek Chardonnay 2008 ($18). The style is fruit forward. Only 20 percent of the wine was aged in new French oak, and just for two months. The finished blend has a touch of oak in the aroma and taste. The wine tastes of citrus, with a good core of minerals. 88

Township 7 2007 Chardonnay ($20). Barrel-fermented in French and American oak, this wine shows flavours of citrus and peaches with the light nutty/buttery note that malolactic fermentation brings. 88

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2007 - no rebate needed

In an inspired piece of marketing last February, Laughing Stock Vineyards owners David and Cynthia Enns pegged the price (in part) of the winery’s flagship Portfolio blend to the stock market index when offering the wine for future delivery.

The Toronto index then stood about 9000. It had been as low as 7,600 in the earlier market crash and there was no assurance of recovery in the near term.

So David and Cynthia offered a deal. The futures price of Portfolio was $35 a bottle – but if the market tanked again by the time the actual wine was released in September, there would be a further discount. Buyers could get rebates that would take the price of the bottle as low as $28 in what the winery called “recession-proof pricing.”

Well, you know what happened to the market. The index currently is around 10,500. There are no rebates going out to those who paid for their orders in February.

Portfolio 2007 has now been released with a retail price of $40. Those who took a chance in February at $35 are not complaining, since they already got the wine at a reasonable discount. In any event, their mutual fund statements are so much healthier these days that they can think about buying wine again.

Whether you bought futures or are paying full price, you are getting a wine worth every penny being asked for it.

Many of those ordering futures had taken the option of directing rebate cheques, if any, to charity. Even though there are no rebate cheques, David and Cynthia, on their own initiative, have sent the amount that would have been rebated – had the market tanked – to the capital campaign for the Naramata Centre.

It seems to me that everyone has come out a winner.

The vintage in 2007 turned out to be quite good in the Okanagan even after a rainy three weeks in September (very unusual) caused much concern. But when the sun came out again, the weather stayed fine to the end of October. The Bordeaux varieties had lots of time to ripen and develop great flavour.

Laughing Stock produced 2,750 cases of Portfolio 2007. The wine is a blend of 56% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. You might ask why bother with just one per cent of Petit Verdot. The answer is that the variety adds an important hint of spice to the aroma and flavour. Any winery making a Bordeaux blend will use all five varieties if they are available.

This wine spent 19 months in French oak barrels, 60% one year old, 40% new, a mix that prevents the oak flavours from overwhelming the wine.

This is a bold wine. It is drinking well now but it has the structure to develop well for the next seven to 10 years.

The wine begins with aromas of plum, chocolate and mint. The fruit flavours are vibrant, showing currants and cherries set against complex tones of chocolate and tobacco, with long ripe tannins that lend richness to the weight. This wine delivers its power with elegance. 90

Monday, October 12, 2009

Therapy Vineyards - current releases

In the past year, several important changes have occurred at Naramata’s Therapy Vineyards.

First, a new winemaker, Steve Latchford (above), took over last November when Marcus Ansems left to run a wine importing club.

Secondly, Therapy completed a new winery about four times the size of jam-packed previous winery. This gives Therapy, which is making about 10,000 cases annually now, the capacity to grow to 15,000 cases.

Thirdly, the winery’s latest releases include a wine – its first Malbec – with a label that has nothing to do with psychoanalysis theme that Therapy explores on most of its labels. Artists were asked to submit label ideas on a winter sports theme. The winning art shows hockey players, in what may well be the first time, surprisingly, that there has ever been a hockey figure on a Canadian wine label (excluding private labels).

Therapy was launched in 2005 by an investment group led until 18 months ago by an Alberta businessman, a leading member of the Opimian Society. A nasty fallout among the investors in the summer of 2008 led to a management restructuring.

Judging from recent tastings of Therapy’s wines, whatever was happening at the front of the house caused no damage in the cellars. The wines, made by Marcus and finished by Steve, remain solid.

Steve was born in 1982 new Prince Edward County in Ontario and worked at a dairy farm before enrolling in the winemaking program at Niagara College in 2001 – before he was old enough to drink legally. Graduating in 2004, he joined the Jackson-Triggs winery in Ontario and worked in a number of the Vincor vineyards there.

He moved to the Okanagan in 2007, tasted at almost every winery from Osoyoos to Kelowna and left his résumé at every place where he liked the wine. Several wineries called him. He took a job at Lang Vineyards because he and winemaker Bernhard Schirrmeister “hit it off.”

Therapy recruited him during the 2008 vintage. “Everything was a nice fit for me here,” Steve says. Indeed, what winemaker would not want to a place with a good reputation and a new winery?

There was not a lot of room for expansion at Therapy’s compact site. The previous owners of this site, when it was the original Red Rooster Winery, simply moved to a much larger property on Naramata Road. Therapy’s owners found room for the new 7,500 square foot winery by removing a block of underperforming Merlot vines. The tasting room, while remaining in the previous building, has also been enlarged.

The winery’s barrel cellar – there currently are 450 barrels here - is dug into the hillside, a design that harnesses the earth to insulate the building. The tank cellar has high ceilings to accommodate slender tanks. And there is a top floor for a spartan set of offices. In sum, a functional winery.

The latest releases include three reds from 2008. Here are notes on those and other recently tasted Therapy wines.

Therapy 2008 Merlot ($26). Dark in colour, the wine begins with appealing aromas of plums and blackberries. It is a full-bodied wine, firm but accessible, with flavours of black cherries, blueberries, mocha chocolate. I tasted this over several days and found the wine, which has a screwcap, opened up, releasing more sweet fruit flavours as the tannins softened. 88

Therapy 2008 Pinot Noir ($26). This wine has aromas and flavours of cherries, with a juicy texture. The fruit flavours are bright but the wine is still doing that Pinot thing of going through cycles. It was generous in one September tasting but finished short in a more recent tasting. Patience. 85

Therapy 2008 Malbec ($22). The winemaking notes on Therapy’s website say that the wine was made somewhat in the style of a “Pinot Noir with a medium body.” It beats me why anyone would sacrifice body and concentration when the big Argentine Malbecs constitute the benchmark for most consumers. The bright spicy fruit flavours have charm even if this is atypical for Malbec. 86

Therapy 2008 Chardonnay ($25). This is a delicious wine with citrus flavours and a tangy finish but also with richness and a note of butterscotch produced during fermentation and barrel-aging. 88

Therapy 2008 Freudian Sip ($19). This is a rare blend of Riesling, Kerner and Pinot Gris. The wine has aromas and flavours of citrus, melons and green apples with a crisp flinty finish. 89

Therapy 2008 Pink Freud ($19). While we are close to the end of the rosé season, there might still be a few bottles of this around. The wine was made by bleeding some juice from freshly crushed red varieties and co-fermenting the juice. The result: a refreshing charmer with strawberry flavours and with a crisp, dry finish. 88

Therapy 2007 Freud’s Ego ($20). This is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. It has aromas of mint, red berries and oak. It has sweet flavours of plum and black cherry and currants, with long ripe tannins. 88

Therapy 2007 Super Ego ($37). This big, bold red, with flavours of currants, plum, chocolate and tobacco, is the red blend taken to another level. This is 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and two percent each of Petit Verdot and Shiraz. This is a fleshier blend and a more complex one. 89-91

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mission Hill's wine quartet really sings

Mission Hill Family Estate’s ultra-premium family of wines is now a quartet with the release this week of Compendium, a new blend of the Bordeaux red varieties.

At $40 a bottle, this is the wine to buy if your budget does not stretch to the $70 asked for Oculus, the winery’s signature red.

Compendium is one of three wines in what Mission Hill calls its Legacy Series. The others, first released last year, are Quatrain, a red built around Syrah, and Perpetua, an elegant Chardonnay.

And there are more high-end wines to come. Last month I tasted a very impressive tank sample of a 2008 dry Riesling. The working title of this unreleased wine is Fritz Riesling because Fritz Hasselbach, the proprietor of German’s Weingut Gunderloch, has been involved since 2006 as a consultant and blender on Mission Hill’s Rieslings.

A veteran of 30 vintages in Germany, Gunderloch is a leader in the Riesling Renaissance and a worthwhile addition to the Mission Hill brains trust. The so-called Fritz Riesling will take its place at the front rank of Canadian Rieslings – a tangy, concentrated and savoury wine. I scored the sample 90-92.

While Mission Hill winemaking team, led by John Simes, is superb, it never hurts to tap the skills and the ideas of a few outsiders. That became evident a few years ago when Michel Rolland, the French super-consultant, became involved in the production of Oculus. He doesn’t make the wine, of course. On his advice, Mission Hill added a number of sophisticated pieces of wine-making equipment. He also comes around to help Mission Hill’s team put together the blend for Oculus.

Mission Hill began making Oculus in the 1997 vintage. The last four vintages of Oculus have seen the wine move to a higher level. It may have been the influence of Rolland coupled with the impact of maturing vineyards. This wine aspires to a First Growth of the Okanagan.

This month’s releases include Oculus 2006, Quatrain 2006, Compendium 2006 and Perpetua 2007. Here are my notes on those wines:

Oculus 2006 ($70). This is a blend of 51% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 8% Petit Verdot. The wines were fermented, and got extended maceration, in the French oak fermenters that Mission Hill installed several years ago, apparently at Rolland’s suggestion. The wines then were aged 14 ½ months on French oak barrels. The finished wine aged a year in bottle before being released. The result is a classic Bordeaux-style red that belongs in the cellars of collectors. At this stage, the structure of the wine is still tight and concentrated, with firm, ripe tannins framing the favours of red currants, plums and dark chocolate. 94

(I tasted that wine side by side with the Oculus 2005, which I have rated 92-94. The extra year of bottle age has enabled the wine to develop a more generous texture, with flavours of black currants, black cherries, cedar and tobacco. There is no rush to drink either of these wines. They promise to be drinking well for at least 10 years.)

Compendium 2006 ($40). This blend is 52% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdot. This wine was fermented and aged in small French oak barrels. It is structured deliberately to be more approachable in its youth than Oculus – in other words, the wine to drink while waiting for Oculus to age. It is a very appealing wine, juicy on the palate with flavours of blueberries and raspberries with an undertone of spice. The tannins are still firm enough to give this wine five to 10 years, even if it is drinking well now, if decanted. 89-91.

Quatrain 2006 ($45). This is a blend of 41% Syrah, 32% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in small French oak barrels for 15 months (only 45% of the barrels were new). Dark in colour, this is a full-bodied, satisfying red with spicy flavours of black cherry, blackberry, prunes and chocolate. The big ripe tannins and the chewy texture give this wine a long finish. 90.

Perpetua Chardonnay 2007 ($35). No doubt it is a coincidence that this wine, now in its second vintage, shares the name of a Christian saint in Carthage whose father imprisoned her when she would not renounce her faith. That has nothing to do with the wine, although tasting this wine should convert those who have renounced Chardonnay in recent years.

The winemaker stayed away from malolactic fermentation in order to keep the fruit flavours fresh and lively. This wine begins with clean, delicate aromas of citrus, pineapple and tropical fruit, carrying through to the palate with citrus flavours and with a fine mineral structure. Extended lees aging added to the fullness of the wine on the palate. This elegant wine is drinking well now but has the potential to development further complexity and richness over the next two or three years. 92

This is a fine quartet.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cellared in Canada controversy blows up

The latest controversy over so-called Cellared in Canada wines seems to be heading toward a resolution that is in the interest of proponents of genuine Canadian wines.

Tine will tell, given the wine industry’s long history of importing either fresh grapes or finished bulk wines. Let me provide some perspective.

The recent controversy was triggered this summer by British wine writer Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s most influential wine writers. She was in the Okanagan for the first time in several years, tasted a selection of top British Columbia wines and was hosted at dinner by Vincor Canada, a leading bottler both of quality Canadian wines and cellared in Canada wines.

In subsequent columns on her website and in The Financial Times, Robinson scolded the Canadian wine industry, not for the first time, for its Cellared in Canada wines.

“I know I keep going on about this … but I think it is doing a disservice to real Canadian wine and its reputation abroad to continue this misleading practice,” she wrote. She argued that the big Canadian wineries “mislead” consumers by releasing wines made largely or entirely with blends of imported wines – and not making this clear on the labels.

Her criticism was picked up by other media, including The Vancouver Sun in a scathing September 18 article suggesting consumers were being “deceived” by the Cellared in Canada wines. The Sun followed that up with several more articles while the CBC aired the issue nationally.

Yesterday, the presidents of Vincor and Andrew Peller Ltd. met with the editorial board of The Sun and promised to resolve the issue with much more transparent labels.

“There has never been any intention on any part of our companies to mislead consumers,” John Peller told The Sun. “We will take immediate steps to rectify and clarify the confusion because there never has been any intention on our parts to deceive.” Vincor president Eric Morham was quoted saying much the same thing.

So Jancis Robinson has prevailed? We’ll see.

Wine moves across borders all the time, ending up in international blends. Sometimes the labels are transparent, sometimes not. Austrian wine, for example, was blended anonymously into German wine prior to the 1985 Austrian wine scandal. Last year, I tasted some wretched international blends at a big German winery.

The Canadian industry has a long history of importing grapes, concentrates or wine. In the 1920s, Ontario wineries imported grapes from New York because they were short of home-grown grapes.

When winery expansion began in British Columbia after the war, a shortage of grapes led the government to sanction the use of imported grapes, provided that the wineries supported vineyard development here. André’s Wines, as Peller was then known, opened in 1961 with wines made from California fruit; at the same time, André’s planted the first vineyard in the Similkameen Valley.

In the 1970s, regional development grants fostered substantial wineries in Quebec even though there were no vineyards at all. Some of those wineries imported Italian grapes while others imported concentrates. The wines were shocklingly mediocre and most of those wineries failed.

Canadian wineries in the 1970s faced the daunting challenge of making the European-style wines (that consumers here were demanding) with grapes that either were ill-suited for European wines or were not grown well enough to make good wines at all. In both Ontario and BC, the grape marketing boards could force wineries to buy nearly all the grapes, however poor they were.

To survive, the wineries did two things:

1. They imported California or Washington grapes or bulk wines from the United States or elsewhere, releasing wines (sometimes blended with domestic wines) that better suited the changing consumer palate.

2. They created families of pseudo-labels to associate the domestic wines with the image and style of Europe. The labels pictured above are typical. Such labels were the complete antithesis of transparency. However, some were so successful – like Calona’s Schloss Laderheim – that they still sell. The pseudo-label wines undoubtedly kept Canadian wineries in business.

Unlike today, Canadian wine could get no respect. In 1983, when I was completing a booked called The World of Canadian Wine, I chanced to meet Hugh Johnson in Vancouver. He was then the most influential British wine writer. I offered him a look at the galleys of the book and he was not remotely interested. I can’t say that I blamed him.

Canadian wines began to turn the corner in the late 1980s. Mediocre grape varieties were pulled out; vineyards were replanted with quality French vines. And the Vintners’ Quality Alliance program was launched in Ontario and BC. The VQA wines must be made with grapes grown in Canada.

In the past decade, thanks to far better grape growing and winemaking, the VQA have achieved world class quality. For the first time in history, Canadian wines are taken seriously.

So why are big wineries still importing bulk wines to make Cellared in Canada wines? Two reasons:

1. Generally, they can’t produce VQA wines cheaply enough to meet the consumer demand for $7-$8 wines. Bulk wines from, say, the vast vineyards of Argentina, are cheap and good enough.

2. The profits from the Cellared in Canada wines support the investment that the large commercial wineries have made in developing the vineyards and the wineries needed to make high-quality VQA wines.

The irony is this: where mediocre Canadian wines once were clinging to the coat tails of bottled-in-Canada imports, today the inexpensive Cellared in Canada wines are hanging on to the coat tails of high-quality authentic Canadian wines.

You see that in liquor stores where both wines are sold in the “Canadian” section. There are wines labelled Jackson-Triggs or Peller Estates in both the VQA aisles and the non-VQA aisles. Mission Hill has discontinued Caves Chauvignon or Schloss Weinberg but has created such labels as Sonora Ranch and Wild Horse Canyon for its Cellared in Canada offerings.

Many consumers (even some liquor store employees) don’t know the difference.

I would suggest many consumers don’t care either. They continue to buy Toscano Bianco, Hochtaler, Schloss Laderheim and Domaine D’Or, and no doubt enjoy the products. The fact is that the big wineries cannot afford to walk away from Cellared in Canada wines, however much those of us in the wine writing community would prefer a pure focus on Grown in Canada wines.

Now the big wineries have promised to put more information on labels about the origin of the wines and get rid of the lookalike labels that have been less than honest. That is a positive step forward. Thank you, Jancis Robinson.