Thursday, August 25, 2011

Burrowing Owl is a model of consistency

Photo: Bertus Albertyn

Since its first vintage in 1997, Burrowing Owl Winery has had a remarkably consistent house style, most notable in the generous, mouth-filling flavours of its red wines.

Part of that is due to terroir. The sandy vineyard here is one of the hottest in Canada. It is hard to imagine any place better suited to growing big, fleshy wines.

The other explanation for the consistent style is the continuing influence of California winemaker Bill Dyer. Even though he left in 2004, the winery has not abandoned his winning formula, even through three successive winemakers.

“If it is not broken, then do not fix it,” acknowledges Bertus Albertyn, the South African who has been the winemaker there since October, 2009. That is a refreshing absence of ego in a profession that usually is not short on ego.

Bertus, who was born in 1978, has an enology degree from Stellenbosch University and a good wine pedigree. While his father was a bank manager, an uncle is a senior viticulturist at KWV, South Africa’s wine giant, and his grandfather was a grape grower.

When Bertus finished wine school, he worked for a major co-operative and then, in 1994, he became the winemaker at a family winery called Avondale, which is about twice the size of Burrowing Owl.

“While I was working in South Africa, I did one vintage in California, at Geyser Peak winery,” he says. “I did one vintage in France at Domaine des Anges in Provence [where the general manager is a South African]. I did one vintage in Hermitage and another in a small cellar near Venice. Winemaking is about experience. The more wine you make, the easier it is to make the correct decisions.”

He came to the Okanagan early in 2009, having married childhood friend who now has a medical practice in Osoyoos. He spent much of that year working on the vineyard that Donald Triggs is developing. Triggs, the former chief executive of Vincor, is planning a winery in the south Okanagan. But since it is a few years down the road, Bertus joined Burrowing Owl to replace Jeff Del Nin, who was moving to Church & State.

The current releases from Burrowing Owl include wines that Jeff made and Bertus saw into the bottle, as well as wines Bertus made entirely on his own. If there was a hick-up in the winemaking style, I have not come across it yet.

Here are notes on the wines.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris 2010 ($20 for a production of 4,200 cases). The winery has made a great name for itself with this varietal and it is easy to see why. This is a lovely wine, with aromas of herbs, citrus and tropical fruit and with flavours of spicy ripe pear. It has good weight on the palate and a long finish. 90

Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2009 ($30 for a production of 1,086 cases). Pinot Noir were first grapes that Bertus dealt with when he joined Burrowing Owl just as the vintage was getting under way. The vintage produced ripe grapes full of flavour. This wine is dark in colour, with its 14.5% alcohol the result of the ripeness of the fruit. The wine has aromas of spice and black cherries. On the palate, there is more black cherry and red plum, with spice on the rich finish. This may be muscular compared with most Okanagan Pinot Noirs but it is tasty nonetheless. 89.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($38 for a production of 1,456 cases). This would blow away a lot of California Cabernets. It begins with aromas of spice, cassis, mulberries and vanilla. On the rich palate, there are flavours of plum, fig, liquorice, with a dollop of sweet fruit on the mid-palate. This is a very generous and satisfying wine, without any note of greenness. 91.

Burrowing Owl Meritage 2008 ($45 with a production of 969 cases). This is sold out at the wine shop and not available on line but it might be worth calling up a few high-end private stores. This is an elegant and complex blend: 50% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The alcohol is 14.9% but there is so much concentrated fruit here that you don’t notice the alcohol. It begins with brambly, spicy aromas of black currants and blackberries, with mineral and tobacco undertones. The flavours include currants, truffles and chocolates. The tannins are long and silky, reflecting both the ripeness of the grapes and the 22 months this wine spent in barrel. It is an impressive blend. 92.


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