Friday, August 12, 2011

Hillside Winery's new management, new releases


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Photo: Duncan McCowan

Duncan McCowan, the Alberta geologist who first invested in Hillside Estate Winery in 1998, is back as winery president as well as chairman.

A long-time chair, Duncan was the winery’s president from 2002 until 2005, before turning that post over to Bill Carpenter during one of the several restructurings that Hillside has been through.

In July Duncan resumed the president’s role at the winery when Bill left in an apparent management shakeup.

While this signals changes in Hillside’s operations, there will be no change in winemakers. Kathy Malone, who came to Hillside late in 2008 after a long career at Mission Hill, is highly regarded by her employers as she continues to raise the bar on wine quality. At a recent tasting, I found the new releases from Hillside among the best I have ever tasted at this winery.

I was also interested to learn that Kathy is focussing, as much as she can, on making Hillside wines with grapes grown on the Naramata Bench. “We want to show the Naramata fruit,” she says. “It is the best place in the Okanagan to grow grapes.”

By bringing the focus back on Naramata grapes, Hillside is coming full circle. The first winery on Naramata Road when it opened in 1990, it began in a roadside farmhouse with a postage stamp vineyard planted by Czech immigrants Vera and Bohumir Klokocka. Hillside’s signature white wine, the Muscat Ottonel, was a variety planted here in the mid-1980s. One of Hillside’s best reds, the Old Vine Gamay, is from vines planted in 1984.

After her husband’s death, Vera sold the winery in 1996 to Vintage Holdings, a Calgary company that over-extended its resources by building the current winery. In 1998 a group of investors – there eventually were 95 – took over Hillside. Hillside did a second restructuring in 2005, consolidating the ownership structure to 22 shareholders, including Bill Carpenter.

Duncan McCowan was one of the 1998 investors when, while he was making a presentation about one of his junior oil companies to an investment banker, he was persuaded to invest in Hillside. “I have always just had a passion for the wine business and wine,” he says.

“We’d have a board meeting and have to write cheques,” he recalls his early years with Hillside, when the winery needed cash infusions. “I think I wrote a few more cheques than some of the others and became a fairly significant shareholder of Hillside.” And eventually he became chair.

“I am a true entrepreneur by most standards,” he says. “I have started several oil and gas companies.”

Born in Calgary, Duncan has worked as a geologist since graduating from the University of Alberta in 1972. Currently, he runs McGowan Exploration Management, a consulting company and is chief executive of a private gas producer. He is also a director of Alberta Wind Energy Corp. “I am interested in all forms of energy,” he says.

He suggests that there will not be major changes in Hillside’s future direction. But there will be some, including more focus on Naramata grapes along with the release of single vineyard wines, possibly the development of a second label and a paring down of the long portfolio. Hillside has made as much as 12,000 cases a year but has settled down to making between 9,000 and 10,000 cases annually.


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Photo: Kathy Malone

The current releases are beginning to reflect Kathy Malone’s hand in making the wine. She moved from the anonymity of Mission Hill’s big cellar to work in much smaller, hands-on winery. She took over from Kelly Symonds in time to finish the 2008 wines.

Here are notes on some of the wines.

Muscat Ottonel 2010 ($19.99 for a production of 1,084 cases). The classic aroma of this variety is like a bouquet of flowers. That adds to the appeal of this exquisite wine, with its delicate flavours of spice and citrus. The moderate alcohol of 12.7% underlines the delicate elegance of the wine. 91.

Gewürztraminer 2010 ($18.90 for a production of 685 cases). Again low in alcohol (12.1%) and with a trace of residual sugar, this wine is light and elegant. It begins with aromas of spice and grapefruit and delivers flavours of lychee and grapefruit. 89.

Pinot Gris Reserve 2009 (September release of 907 cases). This wine was fermented and aged primarily in Hungarian oak barrels and spent time on the lees. As a result, the wine has a rich, fleshy texture, with aromas of orange blossoms and flavours of peaches. There is a note of spice on the finish. The oak is handled very well; it does not submerge the fruit in this delicious wine. 90.

Rosé 2010 ($18.99 for a production of 360 cases). This wine is based primarily on Merlot but also includes juice of Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir. The colour has an appealingly vibrant hue. The fruity aromas signal what comes next – luscious flavours of strawberry, cherry and cranberry. The finish is crisp and dry. 89.

Old Vines Gamay Noir 2008 ($24.99 for a production of 650 cases). Think of a Beaujolais Cru, perhaps a Fleurie. This wine’s aroma of cherries and strawberries explodes from the glass. On the palate, it is juicy and appealing, with cherry and raspberry flavours. The texture is smooth and the finish is long. 91.

Old Vines Gamay Noir 2009 (Not yet released). This tastes like a different Beaujolais Cru but I can’t put my finger on which one. It is a darker, more intense wine than the 2o08, with aromas of red berries and pepper. On the palate, the wine has a pleasant earthiness, with flavours of plums. 91.

Merlot 2009 Hidden Valley Vineyard ($24.99 for a production of 190 cases). The Hidden Valley vineyard is tucked away in a valley above the winery (i.e., hidden from view). Something in the soil here gives this wine a note of graphite on the nose, along with the dark plum and fig flavours. The wine has good aging potential. 90.

Merlot 2009 Taylor Vineyard ($24.99 for a production of 190 cases). This vineyard, with 15-year-old vines, is just below the winery. The aromas and flavours reflect quite a different terroir. The wine is concentrated, even meaty, in texture with savoury flavours of plum and fig and with a hint of chocolate. 91.

Mosaic 2007 ($39.99 for a production of 750 cases). This is Hillside’s flagship Bordeaux blend, first created in 2002. Since 2006, the grapes have all been sourced on the Naramata Bench. The wine is 34% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc, 13% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot. The moderate alcohol, 12.5%, also recalls a classic Bordeaux style as opposed to the powerhouse Okanagan style. However, this is an elegant and complex red, with aromas of cedar and cassis and with flavours of currants. The wine has at least five years of cellaring ahead of it. 91.


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