Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bonarda and its Mill Bay patrons

Chayee Bourras owners Katrina O'Reilly-Ryan and Gordon Ryan at home in Mill Bay

Gordon Ryan believes that the next popular star in red wines from Argentina, where Malbec dominates now, will be wines from a grape called Bonarda.

In fact, Gordon is so convinced that he and Katrina O'Reilly-Ryan, his wife, have invested in an Argentine winery called Bodega Chayee Bourras and they are working on that winery’s Bonarda wines in the Canadian market soon.

The Ryans, who now live in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island, tell a remarkable story about the development of their love of Bonarda.

Both were born in Newfoundland in the mid-1960s. Gordon, who is the youngest of 14 children, has had a long career in the oil industry and now runs his own consulting firm from Mill Bay. Katrina is an employment counsellor.

“My background is petroleum engineering,” Gordon says. “I started out about 20 years ago working in a refinery in Newfoundland and spent seven or eight years there until I started to look for a change.”

Gordon grew up a beer drinker. The first of his wine epiphanies came when he was best man at a wedding for a friend of Italian heritage. The Valpolicella flowed freely and the flavours were a revelation to his palate.

The second epiphany came in 1999 when the couple took a sabbatical to Australia and New Zealand, volunteering as vineyard workers in McLaren Vale in return for room and board. After doing the harvest in Australia, Gordon decided that he wanted a vineyard. “That’s where the wine ideas came,” Gordon says. “We tasted some good red wines down there.”

“We worked on a couple of vineyards,” Katrina recalls. “It was in your face, right from the growing to harvesting to watching the wine being made.”

On returning to Canada, they made a Vancouver Island stopover, intending to stay two weeks. That lasted three years, with Gordon working a year at Cherry Point winery near Duncan to get some vineyard experience.

They thought about going to New Zealand and getting involved in a vineyard there. The reality, however, was that this was going to need money. They headed back to Newfoundland and lucrative work in the oil industry.

They returned to Vancouver Island in 2005 with the thought of finding a vineyard. At the same time, Gordon partnered with colleagues to establish his own oil and gas consulting business and that generated the cash flow to keep him hunting for his own vineyard. Initially, they looked on Vancouver Island. They tried to buy Blue Grouse Estate Winery but could not agree on terms.

The hunt turned to Argentina in 2007. “My favourite wine is a good full-bodied red,” Gordon says. Plenty of those were coming from Argentina, so he began looking there. His timing was right. Argentina has just coming through one of its periodic financial crises in which the peso has been devalued. Vineyards and wineries were a comparative bargain.

After several years of looking, Gordon found a vineyard in the Cuadro Benegas district near the city of San Rafael, about two hours south of Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital. The vineyard owner, Carlos Gomez Bourras, had run short of funds while building Bodega Chayee Bourras.

“Our idea was to buy a vineyard and, if we want to produce wine later, we would build a winery,” Gordon says. “It just so happened we came upon a guy who was looking for a partner. He had to sell his land to finish his winery.” The winery was completed after Gordon purchased the 50-acre vineyard (half of it planted) in 2009.  With another Canadian, Craig Gamble, Gordon is just taking a 40% interest in the boutique winery which was completed in 2010.

“We were able to make the wine in partnership with him,” Gordon says, noting the owner’s son, José, is a winemaker. The winery also employs an experienced consulting winemaker.

Much of Gordon’s vineyard consisted of 40-plus year old Bonarda vines. “We ended up with one of the best Bonarda vineyards in Argentina,” he believes. “The Malbec is what I thought I would be producing but we happened on the Bonarda. It is going to be the next niche wine from this area.”

Depending on the source one goes t0, Bonarda is an old French or Italian varietal. The cuttings likely were brought to Argentina by one of the early waves of Italian immigrants. The variety thrived to become the most widely grown red until this decade, when it was overtaken by Malbec acreage.

Gordon and Katrina plan to launch the Chayee Bourras wines in Canada with an allotment of just 200 cases from the 2011 vintage. Of course, they plan to have more for sale as the brand gets established. Total production at the winery in 2011 was 800 cases of the “classico” and about 580 cases of the “reserve.”

“That’s what the plan is for three years,” Gordon says of the winery, which still sells most of its grapes. “We will ramp it up when we get it established.” He also plans to make a Malbec.

The two Bonarda wines they are offering illustrate the versatility of the variety to make both an easy-going quaffer and a big, cerebral red.

Chayee Bourras Bonarda Classico 2011 (estimated price $23 - $25) is aged entirely in stainless steel with oak immersed in the wine. It is a delicious wine, with aromas and flavours of a potpourri of red fruits (blackberry, raspberry, cherry), placing sweet fruit flavours on the palate. However, the wine, with soft tannins, has a dry finish, with persistent fruit flavours. 90.

Chayee Bourras Bonarda Reserva 2011 (estimated price $45) benefits from more winemaking tricks, starting with longer hand time and maceration after fermentation (30 days) as well as before. That extracts more flavour and a richer tannin structure. The wine also is aged six months in oak – 70% French barrels, 30% American barrels. The result is a rich and full-bodied with dramatic aromas of black cherry, vanilla, spice and coffee. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, black cherry and coffee. 91.

The Ryans are not the only Canadian investors in Argentina. In March, Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble released (in Ontario) a $60 Old Vine Malbec under the Versado label. Ann and Peter are leading consulting winemakers in Canada who also own a vineyard and guest house near Mendoza.

The couples know each other. On his first trip to Argentina, Gordon stumbled on the guest house. Subsequently, the Ryans have stayed there.

“I have kept in touch with them,” Gordon says, who bought a bottle of Sperling Vineyards sparkling wine this summer as a gift for his Canadian staff.

1 comment:

DanaLeeHarris said...

great story John - I look forward to seeing there wines in BC