Friday, July 30, 2010

Mission Hill releases two single vineyard whites

Photo: Anthony von Mandl

Here’s a scary thought: you might have to go to restaurants in London or New York to find some of Mission Hill Family Estate’s ultra-premium wines.

This week, during a release of two superb white wines, winery owner Anthony von Mandl revealed a winery strategy to get its top Okanagan wines into prestige locations elsewhere in the world.

It is his view that the world will discover how special a wine region the Okanagan is only if the Okanagan reaches out to the world with its premium wines.

“That is where we want to celebrate the Okanagan,” he said. “We now believe we can do more internationally, and actually have less wine available in British Columbia, and [get] more international exposure.”

Mission Hill, in fact, has turned down some export orders. Recently, it declined to ship a major volume of its flagship Oculus red wine to a buyer in China. While the winery was flattered with the offer, it is not going to “send hundreds of cases off to other markets” unless it knows “where it is going and where it is served.”

His thinking underlines the confidence that Mission Hill (and a fair number of other B.C. wineries) now make wines that are, to use a tired cliché, “world class.” Those of us who taste a lot of wines know that be true.

The Okanagan’s wine has been utterly transformed since 1981 when von Mandl bought Mission Hill, with perhaps the biggest transformation coming in viticulture. Since Mission Hill began buying its own vineyards in 1995, it has assembled 25 different vineyards, all of them professionally managed. This is the largest group of winery-owned vineyards in the valley (close to 1,000 acres) and Mission Hill is now 85% self-sufficient in grapes.

Some of these vineyards now are being managed to produce premium wines, sometimes single-vineyard wines. Two were released this week and the story behind each shows that successful viticulture takes time.

One wine was the 2008 Perpetua, a $35 Chardonnay that is the top of the line in Mission Hill’s family of Chardonnays.

Mission Hill and John Simes, its chief winemaker, have an affinity for the variety. It was the first premium wine that John made when he arrived in the Okanagan in 1992 from New Zealand. That Grand Reserve Chardonnay was the top Chardonnay in the 1994 International Wine & Spirits Competition in London. This was likely the first serious international award won by a Canadian table wine (although our icewines had also just begun to turn heads).

The victory of the Chardonnay gave von Mandl the confidence he needed to start investing in vineyards and ultimately turning Mission Hill into a showcase of wine.

“It was the moment that I knew that my dream had legs, that we could produce wines that would stand amongst the best anywhere in the world,” von Mandl says. “It precipitated a lot of other people coming in to invest in the valley, and bringing winemakers from elsewhere in the world.”

The winery has been structured as a legacy winery. “The winery will never be sold,” von Mandl disclosed at the reception where these two wines were released. "It has been set up so it can never be sold. It will always be dedicated to the art of fine wine, the culinary arts, the performing arts.”

Perpetua comes from the first vineyard Mission Hill bought, a slope above Osoyoos right on the U.S. border. Among other varieties, the winery in 1997 planted three clones of Chardonnay. A decade after the vines were planted, they were producing grapes of such a quality that Mission Hill was able to craft this single-vineyard Perpetua. The 2008 is the third vintage of what is arguably one of Canada’s most elegant Chardonnays.

The style of this wine sums up Mission Hill’s overall approach to Chardonnay: the oak is always restrained and the fruit is never obscured. For Perpetua, only 25% of the free run juice was barrel-fermented and aged 10 months in new French oak. The remainder was fermented in small stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine that is refreshingly clean. 94 points.

The other white just released is Martin’s Lane Riesling 2009 (92 points), a wine that is crisply elegant and satisfying to drink. It is a single vineyard Riesling that has been under development for about five years. Martin’s Lane is the vineyard just below Mission Hill’s winery which was planted about 1995 to Riesling and Pinot Noir. The vineyard is named for von Mandl’s father, Martin, who died in 1994.

To craft this wine, Mission Hill involved German Riesling ace Fritz Hasselbach, the owner of the Gunderloch winery on the Rhine. Several earlier vintages of Martin’s Lane Riesling ended up in a more generic Mission Hill Riesling. However, the 2009 vintage met the critical approval of Hasselbach, John Simes and Anthony von Mandl. The winery has released 400 cases at $25 a bottle.

“We wanted to create a new style of Riesling that the valley could be proud of and be known for,” von Mandl says. “We wanted to create a Riesling that would show extraordinarily well among all New World Rieslings. I have never been a fan of these austere, acid-driven Rieslings. To me there needs to be a balance. There needs to be a wine that can be enjoyed as an aperitif on its own and with many foods.”

What is next at Mission Hill? Von Mandl revealed that the winery is considering a special Pinot Noir program, with a winemaker dedicated to making this varietal. Mission Hill now has several strong plantings of Pinot Noir to support such a venture – and there is a demand for the wine.

“We have a problem right now with Pinot Noir,” he says. “We are oversold. It has been selling too quickly.”


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