Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jesus helps with the Seven Stones Meritage

Photo: George Hanson in his barrel room

Last Friday, George and Vivianne Hanson, the owners of Seven Stones Winery, invited four other couples to sit around their dining room table and participate in blending the winery’s 2008 Standing Rock Meritage.

How much help the panellists were (my wife, Marlene, and I were among them) might be open to question. However, we all came away with a heightened respect for the art of blending – an art so difficult that one of our number exclaimed “Jesus!” several times during the challenge of deciding whether this blend or that was the better one.

George, who would know his barrel samples better than any of us, had an idea of where he wanted to go with the blend. By the end of this three-hour session, the panel confirmed the direction he had in mind.

The Standing Rock Meritage has established itself as one of the leading wines from Seven Stones. The 2006 vintage was won three gold medals and two silvers in competition. It was one of nine finalists for red wine of the year in last fall’s Canadian Wine Awards (the winner was Sandhill’s 2007 Phantom Creek Small Lots Syrah).

The 2007 Standing Rock Meritage, recently released by Seven Stones at $32, has already won two silvers. A blend of 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, the wine will certainly pick up more medals.

The 2008 vintage promises to raise the bar because, for the first time, George has some Petit Verdot to add to the blend. In subsequent years, he will also have Malbec. Neither of those varieties was planted initially when his vineyard was being developed in 2000 and 2001.

George is an Alberta native who spent 25 years working with the telephone company in the Yukon, during which time he became – he believes – the best home winemaker in the territory. He had become interested in making wine after being exposed to it by his brother’s Italian father-in-law.

Like most home winemakers, George started with wine kits before switching to juice and then fresh grapes, even though it was prohibitively expensive to have California grapes shipped to him in the Yukon.

Born in 1957, he thought he might get himself a vineyard when he retired. Then he got lucky. In the late 1990s the telephone company offered financial incentives to employees who want to leave early. George took his package, began shopping for vineyard land and in 1999 bought a 20-acre parcel of basically raw land in the Similkameen Valley, strategically located beside the highway. He wanted to make big reds and that’s what the Similkameen excels in producing.

When his vines began producing some fruit in 2003, he let winemaker Lawrence Herder coach him through a first vintage. But he has been flying solo since he began making wine in earnest in 2005 (having taken a year off and selling grapes while building a house). Seven Stones opened in 2007.

George may be largely self-taught as a winemaker but he clearly is a natural talent, both as a grape grower and as a winemaker. This 2,500 case winery is one of the jewels of the Similkameen.

George compares his Meritage to a person. The blending trials began by identifying the varietals that will be the body. We started with two samples of Merlot and one of Cabernet Sauvignon. The two Merlots were quite different because one came from a block of grapes that was picked almost two weeks later than the other. The extra hand time yielded a notably fleshier wine. It was fairly obvious which Merlot would emerge as the foundation for the Meritage.

George confirmed that conclusion in the second round, contrasting one blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the fuller Merlot and another of Cabernet and the lighter Merlot. In a third round, we dug deeper into variations of the Merlot-Cabernet blend.

The fourth round introduced us to Cabernet Franc. “This is adding the personality to the person, putting a little feistiness into the wine,” George said. We did into variations on that theme for a couple of rounds, accompanied by the sotto voce “Jesus!” as the choices get harder.

Then he introduced Petit Verdot to the blends. “The Petit Verdot will be the adornment, the clothing, the style,” he said. “The soul would be the Malbec but there is no soul yet” – a reference to the fact that his young Malbec wines were not producing yet in 2008.

The surprise is that it takes a very small amount of Petit Verdot to make a big difference: the sample with one per cent Petit Verdot is remarkably distinct from that with two per cent. Which is the best blend? “Jesus!”

The blend that emerges in the final round is, like the previous vintages, built around Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and spiced up with small percentages of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The quantity of the latter two varietals not needed for the Meritage are more than adequate for release as single varietals.

Did we come up with a better Standing Rock Meritage than even the 2006 and 2007 vintages? He may have been flattering his earnest panellists but George Hanson thinks so.


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