Friday, December 6, 2013

Hester Creek champions Cabernet Franc

Hester Creek winemaker Rob Summers

Cabernet Franc as a varietal wine is being championed by more and more wineries in the Okanagan.

One of the most notable of these champions is Hester Creek Estate Winery. This winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserve has emerged as a red that should be in the cellars of serious collectors of Okanagan wines.

That might surprise those who recall that the winery was heading for receivership a decade ago. In mid-December 2003, a disgruntled winemaker named Glenn Barry, who had just been hired that summer, returned to Australia when he could not collect salary he believed was owing to him.

The bank sent a couple of Okanagan winemakers to look after inventory. They were astonished to find most of the records for the 2003 vintage were missing, along with identifying tags on tanks and barrels of wine. While it was never proven who did that, it was certainly the low in Hester Creek’s history.

The turning point occurred a few months later when Curt Garland (right), a businessman from Prince George, bought the winery. He has since invested about $25 million in the winery. Hester Creek is now one of the best wineries in the Okanagan and it has the awards to prove it. One example: its 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve won the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence earlier this year.

One of Curt’s shrewdest hires was winemaker Rob Summers. Recruited in 2006, Rob already had had a distinguished career in Ontario where he had risen to become the national winemaker for Andrew Peller Ltd. Since arriving in the Okanagan, he has designed Hester Creek’s modern winery and worked with the vineyard crew to improve what was already one of the south Okanagan’s better sites. And he has restructured the wine portfolio. It is now a trim and focussed portfolio led by an iconic red called The Judge and by several reserve reds.

This fall, Rob led an impressive vertical tasting of the winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserves from 2005 through 2011, the current release. For good measure, he also added the winery’s first Chardonnay, a Merlot Reserve and the 2010 Judge.

The quite evident rise in the quality of the Cabernet Franc wines tracks the significant improvements made at Hester Creek since Curt and Rob arrived.

 Cabernet Franc Reserve 2005 was made by Hester Creek’s former winemaker, Eric Von Krosigk, under challenging circumstances. The wine was still in tanks when Rob arrived in the spring of 2006 and he was able to tweak it.  “We were able to control the barrel program and the maturing program and that helped a lot,” he says.

“The old winery was the house that Jack built,” Rob explains. “It was added onto and onto. It was very hard to keep that place clean – there were a lot of wood walls, the floors were not sealed. We had no hot water. We had to make hot water with a little power washer and a generator. There were lots of challenges. There is a little more microbial stuff going on in the 2006 and 2007, a little bit of funkiness. It is good but the wine is a little more ‘old world’ style.”

Only 250 cases were made in 2005, compared with 1,200 cases in more recent vintages.

Should you have a bottle or two of the 2005, it won’t disappoint you. In fact, the firm texture suggests this might age a few more years. It begins with lovely berry aromas, leading to flavours of black cherry, blackberry, chocolate and tobacco. 88.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2006, Rob’s first vintage here, was made with leading edge Italian fermenters from a firm called Ganimede. The winery, on Rob’s recommendation, bought a pair in 2006. Today, the winery has 14. It is believed to be the only Okanagan winery with this equipment.

The fermenters are designed to capture the gas released during fermentation, recirculating it through the liquid. The gas breaks the cap of skins and keeps the skins immersed without releasing hard tannins.

“With red fermentations, cap management is a big part of how the wine will turn out,” Rob believes. “With the Ganimede, that mixing of the wine with the cap is very thorough but it is also very gentle. We get very good extraction of colour, with very ripe tannins very early on in the process.”

It certainly had a positive impact on the 2006, which – while still firm – is not as hard as the 2005. It is nice brambly red, with red currant and cherry aromas, flavours of blackberry and currant and with a spicy finish. 89.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2007 benefitted not only by further changes in processing but by much more attention to the vineyard. Beginning in 2007, the vineyards were converted over two years to drip irrigation, which not only saves water but is more precise. As well, Rob began introducing French barrels to a winery that traditionally used American oak.

This wine begins with complex aromas of vanilla, prune plum and cherry, leading to flavours of black cherries and plum and a touch of new oak on the finish. The wine is full on the palate with soft, ripe tannins. 90.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2008 has no hint of the old world. By that vintage, Rob had exorcised the brettanomyces from the winery. The fruit aromas and flavours are fresh and clean and the texture has become seductive.  The flavours include raspberry with pepper on the finish. 92.

“If you are doing a blind tasting and you have to guess the wines, you can usually pick out Hester Creek’s Cabernet Franc by that raspberry character,” Rob says. “Sometimes it is very subtle, as in 2011 and 2010. But it will become more prominent as the wine ages. If you look at 2008, 2009, even 2010, there is that raspberry and black currant note. It even surprised me when I was making the wine: raspberry in Cab Franc! And pepper.”

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009, one of the better red vintages in the Okanagan, was the first made in the efficient new Hester Creek winery. Sanitation issues were a thing of the past. As well, about three quarters of the barrels were French oak. All that is reflected in the wine’s greater finesse.

It is bold and ripe, with spicy red berry aromas and with flavours of black cherry, raspberry and mocha. 92.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 begins to show the additional vineyard improvements made after Hester Creek hired Mark Sheridan  (right) as general manager. He is a veteran Australian-trained viticulturist who had been recruited to the Okanagan a decade earlier to manage Vincor’s vineyards.

“With the drip irrigation, that we can reduce the berry size by adding some water stress to the vine at a time when the cells in the berries are dividing,” Mark explains. “That is before veraison. You put a mild water stress on and the cells won’t divide as much. You end up with a smaller berry and the advantages of that is a higher skin to pulp ratio. You get more intense flavours.”

This wine – the award winner – begins with complex aromas of cherry and toasty vanilla, likely reflecting the barrels. The palate is rich with flavours of cherry, raspberry, blackberry and a lingering finish of spice and chocolate. 92.

Cabernet Franc Reserve Block 3 2011 ($28.95). Production reached 1,200 cases and that is not enough for a wine that now sells out every year. However, Hester Creel is unlikely to make more than 1,500 cases of this annually. The block, now identified on the label, will not produce more grapes. Cabernet Franc also is important as a blender in other Hester Creek reds.

“There is a finite amount we can produce from that block,” Rob says. “The Judge – our premium blend – also draws from that block.”

As one would expect, the 2011 is still lean and youthful, with aromas of blackberry and raspberry and with flavours of blackberry and red currant. This vibrant red should be cellared for another four or five years to allow it to develop toward its peak. 90-92.

“Stylistically, 2008, 2009 and going forward is where I wanted to be stylistically, where the fruit is very vibrant and clear,” Rob says. “It is not a fruit bomb but it is there. The tannins are well integrated into the wine. The oak aging program   is well integrated, with more French oak. That’s why you see that [quality] ramp up.”

At the completion of this vertical tasting, three other Hester Creek releases were also poured. Here are my notes:

Chardonnay 2012 ($24.95 for 500 cases). Hester Creek’s first oak-aged Chardonnay, this is an elegantly sculpted wine. It begins with aromas of citrus and toasty oak. On the palate, there are bright and refreshing citrus flavours delicately framed with buttery notes. 91.

Merlot Block 2 Reserve 2011 ($28.95 for 500 cases). A supple wine, this begins with aromas of cassis, plum and toasty vanilla. The concentrated texture is full, with flavours of cassis, blueberry and mocha. 92.

The Judge 2010 ($45 for 425 cases). The fourth vintage of this iconic wine, it is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine has layer upon layer of rich flavour – plum, cassis, vanilla – in a bold and concentrated frame. The ripe tannins mean it is approachable now but, with cellaring, there is more potential to unlock. 94.

If you find any of these sold out, you need to join the two-year-old Hester Creek wine club, which has more than 1,400 members. They get first crack at all of these premium wines.


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