Friday, September 27, 2013

Stellers Jay Brut and friends





About a year ago, Constellation Brands deconstructed the portfolio of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery.

Sumac Ridge wines, now value-priced, continue to be sold but two of that winery’s iconic brands have been liberated to exist on their own.

These are Steller’s Jay Brut, long a multi-awarded sparkling wine, and Black Sage Vineyards, premium wines anchored to that vineyard on Black Sage Road.

Even if Constellation is the world’s biggest wine company and has abundant market intelligence, its Sumac Ridge strategy can be questioned. Sumac Ridge is the oldest continuing estate winery in the Okanagan, with strong brand recognition. Carving out its two premium brands could reduce Sumac Ridge to a commodity wine producer.

The contention for setting Steller’s Jay free is that premium sparkling wines are made by dedicated sparking wine houses. If that is so, the Sumac Ridge winery should be re-badged. Steller’s Jay continues to be made and aged in the cellars here while table wine production has migrated to the larger and more modern Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver.

The Sumac Ridge tasting room remains open, however.

Many other Okanagan wineries celebrate their icon wines. Hester Creek has The Judge. Seven Stones has The Legend. Mission Hill’s Oculus has become so prized that sales are basically restricted to the winey tasting room.

Icon wines are important for several reasons. Their prestige reflects across a winery’s entire product line. The first red icons in the Okanagan were Oculus and Sumac Ridge’s Pinnacle (now discontinued). At $50 a bottle when it was released a decade or so back, Pinnacle did not sell well. However, Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters told me that it “reduced the price resistance” to the winery’s $25 Meritage. C0nsumers figured that if the winery made a product good enough to cost $50, its other wines must also be good (and they were).

The second benefit of having icons in the line-up is the discipline these wines impose on a winery’s viticulture. Unless a specific block of premium grapes has been identified, entire vineyards need to be managed as if every wine were to be a $50 quality. The superb quality of Hester Creek’s $20 Character blends and its $28 Reserves results in part from growing grapes to make the $45 Judge.

Constellation has close to 1,000 acres of Okanagan vineyard. All of it is farmed well. No doubt, the exceptional blocks – like Jackson-Triggs’s SunRock Vineyard – get special attention.

Black Sage Vineyard is another of those exceptional blocks. It is half of a 115-acre block that Harry McWatters planted in 1993, mostly with Bordeaux reds. A few years ago, when Harry unwound his relationship with Sumac Ridge and Constellation, the vineyard was divided. Because Constellation owned the Black Sage Vineyard name, Harry called his half the Sundial Vineyard, the site of his new winery called Time Estate.

The advantage of the Black Sage Vineyard is its mature vines grown in a great terroir. Constellation has decided to showcase this vineyard with vineyard-designated wines.

I understand but it just feels a bit odd not to anchor the brand to a winery.

Here are notes on the wines.

Steller’s Jay Brut 2008 Méthode Classique ($25.09). This is a cuvée of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which, like Champagne, is aged en tirage for at least three years before being hand-riddled and disgorged. In the glass, the wine puts on a wonderful display of fine and long-lasting bubbles. The aroma is slightly bready from its time on the lees. The wine has citrus and apple flavours with an attractive nutty undertone. The finish is crisp and bright. 91.

Black Sage Vineyard Merlot 2011 ($23.09). This has a rich and juicy texture with flavours of black cherry and blueberry as well as hints of sage and tobacco. This is a generous Merlot, benefitting from the concentration of old vines. 90.

Black Sage Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2011 ($24.09). This variety is a great favourite of Jason James, the winemaker. The wine appeals, with brambleberry aromas and flavours of black cherry, blackberry. There is an earthy spice on the finish. Give it a year or two in the cellar. 88-90.

Black Sage Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($25.09). This begins with the classic eucalyptus aromas of the varietal, followed by black currant flavours and hints of cedar. The firm structure suggests that this wine will age well in the cellar and reveal more than it does in its youth. 89-91.


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