Saturday, March 3, 2012

Quails' Gate goes totally screw cap


Photo: Grant Stanley

You can add Quails’ Gate Estate Winery to the list of producers that have switched entirely from cork closures to screw cap.

The winery’s latest releases, which include two of its premium reserve wines and two dessert wines in 375 ml bottles, all arrived with screw cap. Winemaker Grant Stanley suggests that the dessert wines would have been under screw cap even sooner but for the winery’s inability, until now, to get the required bottles from their supplier in Italy.

I am guessing that Grant had a lot to do with selling the switch to his boss, winery president Tony Stewart. Grant, who was born in Vancouver and joined Quails’ Gate in 2003, began his winemaking career in New Zealand.

The New Zealand wine industry began switching to screw cap more than a decade ago when it seemed like a daring move to go against the cork tradition. The transition turned out to be easier than expected. I once asked a New Zealand winemaker if he was getting any resistance to screw cap closures. “Only from white males over 50,” he replied.

The initial motive for the switch was to reduce or eliminate the number of “corked wines” – wines that had taken on musty aromas and dull flavours from tainted cork. The incidence of corked wines had become unacceptably high by the early 1990s.

For a time, some wineries switched to synthetic stoppers. They are still being used even though they are not entirely satisfactory and even though consumers don’t liked them.

Screw cap closures have been used in the beverage alcohol industry for a long time for spirits and for cheap wine. That image was the reason for industry reluctance: would sophisticated consumers buy bottles with a closure similar to the wines consumed by doorway drinkers?

The answer is yes. Of course, today’s screw caps for fine wine are a better design that those that sealed bottles in the 1970s.

The new motive behind screw cap closures is that wines age more slowly and retain their fresh aromas and flavours better.

That is not to suggest screw cap is a perfect closure – you can get a flawed wine from one of these bottlings if the winemaking is not quite up to standard. I would not worry about that with wine from Quails’ Gate.

Not that cork is bad. The cork producers have improved quality control vastly and the incidence of cork taint is way down. And red wines that age under cork develop complexities that many find appealing.

If the wines are good, they will show well under either closure.

Here are my notes on the new Quails’ Gate releases.

Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2010 ($19.99 for 4,387 cases). Grant Stanley occasionally takes some heat for making the winery’s “regular” Chardonnay so good that some wonder why they need pay $10 more for the reserve. The point is there is more of this wine and the style is different: only half of this Chardonnay is barrel-fermented. The result is a fresh-tasting wine with a core of sweet citrus-flavoured fruit and very subtle toasty notes of oak in the background. The balance is elegant and the finish lingers.  90.

Quails’ Gate Merlot 2009 ($24.99 for 2,842 cases). According to the winemaker, the accumulated heat units in the Okanagan in 2009 were the highest on record. The result is this super-ripe wine (15.4% alcohol) from grapes grown on the winery’s West Kelowna vineyard. This is a powerhouse, beginning aromas of berries, spice and vanilla and with flavours of blueberry, black currant and blackberry. As the wine breathes, its fleshy texture emerges and that texture seems to be why Zinfandel-like alcohol is not apparent. 90-92.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($29.99 for 1,142 six-pack cases). The winemaker makes this wine primarily from mature Clone 95 Chardonnay vines and ferments it in his best barrels. The wine begins with a touch of bacon fat and tangerine on the nose, leading to rich, buttery flavours of tangerine and grapefruit. Even though many of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation, the great acidity of the 2010 vintage has given this wine a fresh, tangy finish. This is a very complex wine and it certainly is worth the extra $10. 92.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 ($45 for 9,618 six packs). The heat of the 2009 vintage produced a wine with more power and less of the elegance of earlier cooler vintages. Dark in colour and sensuous in texture, the wine begins with intense fruit aromas (cherries, strawberries) and a hint of oak toast. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and mocha. 91.

Quails’ Gate Optima Late Harvest Botrytis Affected 2010 ($29.99 for 375 ml; 715 cases).  The kind of botrytis that is called noble rot is rare in the Okanagan because the climate usually is too dry. Quails’ Gate, however, has been making this wine almost every year for two decades. The nearby lake provides the early morning moisture that nourishes the botrytis spores and the Optima grape has thick skins, ideal for gradual dehydration on the vines. The grapes, in fact, are crushed by foot because it is not efficient to crush them mechanically. This is an attractive wine, with aromas and flavours of marmalade, honey and tobacco. 91.

Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch 2009 ($22.99 for 375 ml; 2,000 cases). The wine is fortified to 19% in the style of vintage port. It might be advisable to lay this down for a few years so that the structure, the plum, cherry and vanilla flavours and the alcohol have a chance to knit together better. There is a dollop of sweet fruit on the middle of the palate and a finish of liquorice and chocolate. 87.


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