Photo: Mission Hill winemaker John Simes
A saying with which we are all familiar is that a riding
tide lifts all boats.
An icon wine performs that role for a winery’s portfolio.
There might be no better example than the impact that Oculus has had at Mission
Hill Family Estate.
The first vintage of Oculus – the Bordeaux blend is named after the opening
that looks onto the winery’s barrel cellar – was made in 1997. Cautiously,
Mission Hill made just 500 cases, followed by 660 cases in 1998 and 1,000 cases
in 1999, 1,330 in 2000. Since then, the winery has not released production
figures. The production increases were as much a matter of the rising supply of
premium grapes as they were of growing market acceptance of the wine.
The debut vintage got a tepid 87 points from Winetidings
Magazine. The next vintage garnered scores of 89 and 90, along with a gold
medal at the All Canadian Wine Championships. Technical notes on each subsequent
vintage show the winery’s ongoing efforts to refine the wine with such measures
as longer aging in better barrels.
That culminated in what winemaker John
calls the “significant investment in 2005 and 2006 in
equipment that allowed us to really elevate what we could do as winemakers with
those premium red grapes. We effectively built a small winery inside the big
This facility was equipped with oak vats (there are 17 now)
that each have the capacity to ferment six tons of grapes at a time. A highly
sophisticated destemmer was added, so that the berries seperated from the
hand-picked bunches are the best quality and very clean.
“Once we have gone through that mechanical sorting, the
grapes get lifted onto a conveyer that is about the length of this table,” John
says. “There are people on either side, sorting any other bits of pieces of
stalks and stems.” The grapes drop into bins which are lifted to catwalks above
the vats, allowing the grapes to fall in by gravity. That avoids pumping
Fermentation temperatures are monitored and controlled by
computer. The vats are equipped so that the winemakers can either punch down
the cap or pump wine over it, as required. When fermentation is complete, the
free run wine is drained away and the remaining skins are pressed gently in a
basket press. It is designed to yield press wine of such a quality that some
can be blended into Oculus.
At the same time as Mission Hill was investing in the
mini-winery, it was making evolutionary improvements in its vineyards. The
driver was the need to grow the best possible grapes for Oculus and the other
wines in its top of the line Legacy tier.
“There is a lot of effort into targeting quite small areas
in the vineyards that we believe will have the potential to achieve that
quality level,” John says. “Once you have been making premium wine for a while,
the best area in the vineyard is always the best area in the vineyard, even if
it goes up and down with the season. The best areas are usually the best.”
In recent years, Mission Hill has taken infrared photographs
of its vineyards from the air. These help identify the strongest blocks and
also to direct the efforts that elevate grape growing in the other blocks.
“When I set the overall plan for the vineyards in spring, it
is based on what volume we believe we should be making for all of the wines at
that tier,” John says. “The sales guys will work out what they think they can
sell of each wine. I have a master planning spread sheet and I know exactly how
many tons I should be trying to make of Legacy Tier Cabernet or SLC Tier
Cabernet or Reserve Tier Cabernet, or whatever it is. Everything gets targeted,
even down to the Five Vineyards. Every single block has a targeted quality
expectation within it. The viticulturists will know that this block is targeted
for one level and this for another, and they manage it accordingly.”
The production of Oculus and the Legacy wines sets the gold
standard for viticulture and, in my view, pulls everything else up.
The investment in the mini-winery also opened the door for
Mission Hill to start making premium Pinot Noir like the 2011 Martin’s Lane
Pinot Noir that garnered a major award in a London
competition last fall.
The equipment installed to make the Bordeaux reds also enabled Mission Hill to
handle Pinot Noir gently. “One of the biggest was gravity-fill tanks,” John
says. “Pinot Noir does not like being pumped. There were two things we needed
that we didn’t have [before 2005]. One was that we did not have that capacity
in the winery. Pinot Noir really punishes you if you can’t treat the grapes
gently. And then we didn’t have Pinot Noir vineyards in the cooler part of the
valley. We have both now.”
As a result, Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl is
now giving serious consideration to building a winery just for Pinot Noir.
“We have a site and something in the plans right now,”
Anthony told me recently. “But it is a pretty major undertaking and it follows
the significant investment we have been making in planting new vineyards and
Pinot Noir development. We are really starting to get a handle on growing Pinot
He has also hired Phil McGahan, an Australian winemaker who
had been working at Williams-Selyem, a leading Sonoma Pinot Noir producer, to
manage CheckMate Artisanal Winery. That is the new name for the Golden Mile
winery formerly known as Domaine Combret. Anthony bought it in 2012 and
operates it entirely independent of Mission Hill.
“We are using it as a base to do experimentation on Pinot
Noir, given Phil’s background,” Anthony says. “But we likely are going to do
something else specifically for Pinot Noir.”
Clearly, the Oculus project has had far-reaching
ramifications for Mission Hill.
Here are notes on an eclectic selection of recent Mission
Hill releases. Most are from the winery’s entry level Five Vineyards range.
Mission Hill Compendium
2010 ($50). The little brother to Oculus, Compendium has emerged as another
red. This vintage is 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 21% Cabernet Franc.
The fruit is from some of the winery’s best blocks on the Osoyoos and Black
Sage Benches – blocks that have come to be called ‘Compendium’ blocks. The wine
is fermented in the small French oak fermenters as Oculus, with three weeks of
post-fermentation maceration on the skins. Then the wine ages 13 months in
barrel and almost another year in bottle before being releases. I still took
pains to decant the bottle, allowing it to reveal aromas of red fruit and
flavours of black currant, blackberry, coffee, chocolate and cedar. There is a
lovely core of sweet fruit on the palate, framed by the oak. 92.
Mission Hill Perpetua
($34.99). Mission Hill put itself on the map with a barrel-fermented
Chardonnay from the 1992 vintage – the debut vintage made by John Simes
, who remains the chief winemaker and who
continues to refine Chardonnay. The first Perpetua, as the ultra-premium
Chardonnay is called, was made in 2006. The 2011 is a superbly elegant wine
with a focused purity. It has lovely aromas and flavours of citrus. The
satisfying texture reflects the barrel fermentation and the biweekly lees
stirring during the eight months the wine rested on lees. 91
Mission Hill Reserve
Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($19.99). This vibrant wine begins with aromas of lime
and grapefruit. The palate echoes those fruits, along with herbal notes on a
finish that is crisp and refreshing. 90.
Mission Hill Five
Vineyards Chardonnay 2012 ($14.99). This is a crisp, fruit-forward
Chardonnay whose citrus and apple flavours are very subtly supported by almost
imperceptible oak. This is Mission Hill’s entry level Chardonnay; it
over-delivers, having benefitted by the winery’s long focus on this varietal.
Mission Hill Five
Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2012
($15.99). The wine is surprisingly robust for a
Pinot Grigio, even sporting a light bronze blush suggesting some skin contact.
It has aromas and flavours of citrus, pears and peaches, with a crisp and spicy
Mission Hill Five
Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2012 ($14.99). Here is a textbook unoaked Pinot
Blanc, with aromas and flavours of apples and grapefruit. The crisp finish is
Mission Hill Five
Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($14.99). This unoaked wine is an excellent
expression of the varietal’s notes of herbs, grapefruit and lime. The finish is
bright and zesty. 89.
Mission Hill Five
Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2011
($16.99). This is a blend of 47% Merlot, 29%
Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged
11 months in French and American oak – probably used barrels because the wine
explodes with fruit. There is red cherry and black currant on the nose; that
carries through to the lively palate, where there also are notes of black berry
and sage. 89.
Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012
($18.99). Juicy and silky in texture, this wine has aromas of cherries and strawberries, with flavours lightly recalling plums. The wine is straight forward and easy to drink. 87.