Saturday, May 21, 2011

Church & State releases its first Rhone whites

Photo: Jeff Del Nin at the Coyote Bowl tasting bar

This spring, when Church & State Wines opened the Coyote Bowl winery’s tasting room just off Black Sage Road, it also released its first Viognier and its first white Rhone blend.

No one was happier with these new products than Jeff Del Nin, the winemaker who joined Church & State in 2009 after two or three vintages at Burrowing Owl.

A Canadian – he was born in Thunder Bay in 1971 and has a master’s degree in chemistry – he earned a winemaking degree in Australia after working in the chemical industry there. In Australia, he was attracted to the Viognier grape and the wines made there by Yalumba, the winery that brought Viognier back from near-extinction, adopting it as a flagship variety. In Jeff’s view, Yalumba’s Virgilius is the best Viognier in the world; and it is his benchmark.

Burrowing Owl, which he joined in 2006, grows no Viognier. Nor do many other Okanagan wineries. But Church & State, with more than 100 acres of vineyard on Black Sage Road, planted Viognier about the time Jeff was starting his Okanagan winemaking career, providing him with his first small harvest in 2010.

“I have been waiting for years to make a Viognier,” he said as he poured a glass of the 2010.

This wine represents a tweaking of the Church & State portfolio now that its young vineyards are producing. The winery started on the Saanich Peninsula, where it still has a winery and a vineyard. There, it plans to focus on sparkling wines.

However, Kim Pullen, the winery’s owner, has turned it primarily into an Okanagan winery, leasing a former packing house south of Oliver as a production and storage facility. Last year, Church & State opened a boutique winery and tasting room amid the vines of its Coyote Bowl vineyard.

The stylistic direction is to make Church & State wines that full-bodied, full of flavour and sensual in texture. “Kim likes a big soft pillow,” Jeff quips, a reference to the juicy reds with tannins that are ripe but not aggressive. Another influence on the style comes from consulting winemaker Bill Dyer, a Californian who made wines like that in the seven vintages he spent previously at Burrowing Owl.He supervised several Church & State vintages before ending his contract in November, 2009.

Church & State plans to produce 10,000 to 12,000 cases a year, 65% of it red wine. And all of the wines will be as big and a lush as Jeff can make them from grapes grown by Michael Mauz, the winery’s Geisenheim-trained vineyard manager,

The red wine portfolio, from which Pinot Noir has now been dropped, is built largely around the Bordeaux varieties. There are two flagship blends, Quintessential and the Coyote Bowl Meritage. Supplementing these are single varietals from the Bordeaux grapes. There is also a Syrah; it stays in the portfolio because Church & State grows it and because it makes a big red, supporting the overall style of Church & State reds.

The white wine portfolio is led by two big whites. The Chardonnay is made deliberately in what Jeff calls the California style – lots of ripe fruit flavour backed up with good but not excessive oak. The 2008 Chardonnay has won double gold and best of show in two major wine competitions. The 2009, not yet released, is made in the same style.

“It is unapologetically a new world style of Chardonnay,” Jeff says. “We are digging in our heels and we are saying this is the way Chardonnay should be done.”

The Viognier is also big and ripe. The grapes for the 2010 vintage were left on the vines late into the season because Viognier develops its flavours only late in the year. That was a risky thing to do in 2010 when there was bunch rot in the valley. Church & State eliminated unsuitable grapes at the sorting table. The upside of the year was that some of the rot was noble. The wine has the honeyed finish that comes from a touch of botrytis.

Jeff described the wine as “an apricot bomb,” an aroma and taste profile that was preserved by long, cool fermentation of very ripe grapes. “It has that huge rich mouthfeel,” he says. “That is stylistically the Viognier that I wanted to make.” He is considering barrel-fermenting some this fall.

The companion wine is Rhone blend called TreBella. It has about 12% Viognier (for the aromatic component) and roughly equal portions of Marsanne and Roussanne. Again, it is full and ripe.

“I place a very high priority on the texture of the wines I make,” Jeff says. “I try to do everything I can in the winery to build texture, all the way from the choice of yeasts, to how the grapes are handled to how the wine is handled afterwards – lees stirring and so forth.”

Two other new releases this spring will be a Gewürztraminer and a rosé made with Cabernet Franc grapes.

In the future, the wine portfolio is expected to be rounded out with a blend comprising the noble Alsace varieties – Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat.

“When I joined the company, we talked a great deal about the intended style of the wines,” Jeff says. “As a comparatively new entrant into the wine game, you can’t make styles of wines that have to put away for 10 years before you can appreciate them. You have to craft wines that are stylistically pleasing to people. They may still last for that period of time but they are far more pleasing to people up front.”

Even Quintessential, the winery’s icon red blended from the best wines in the cellar, is made to be generous and approachable.

Here are notes on the current releases.

TreBella 2010 ($24.90 with a production of 170 cases). The wine begins with floral and herbal aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of apricot and tropical fruits, backed by hints of honey and minerals. It is rich in texture, dry on the finish. 90.

Viognier 2010 ($24.90 with a production of 155 cases). This golden-hued wine has aromas and flavours of apricots and peaches with hints of honey on the finish. The texture is lush, almost fat, with the good backbone of minerals and tannin that sets Viognier apart as a white wine for red wine drinkers. 90.

Chardonnay 2008 ($24.90 for a production of 1,152 cases). This is a rich, bold Chardonnay. Half of the grapes were grown in an old Golden Mile vineyard and half in a vineyard on Black Sage Road. The two terroirs have been blended into a wine with complex citrus flavours – think marmalade – along with white peach and the buttery caramel note from malolactic fermentation and almost a year in French oak. The finish is long and lingering. 92.

Merlot 2009 ($25.90 with a production of 559 cases). This is a juicy, generous red with appealing berry aromas and flavours of black currants and blackberries and with a hint of spice. 90.

Coyote Bowl Meritage 2007 ($35 with a production of 550 cases). This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It has been in the bottle long enough to develop appealing aromas of berries and sage. It has flavours of sweet, savoury berries and has a meaty texture, with a long finish. 91.

Quintessential 2007 ($50 with a production of 547 cases). This is a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend of all five Bordeaux varietals, including meaningful quantities of Malbec and Petit Verdot. It begins with aromas of mint, vanilla and chocolate. On the palate, there are rich flavours of currants and plums and chocolate. The long, ripe tannins give the wine a concentrated texture. This is a red for those who want to linger over a glass as the layers of flavour reveal themselves. 92-93.

Photo: Coyote Bowl winery


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