Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ten years of Rollingdale wines

Photo: Rollingdale's Steve Dale shows off back vintages 

Last September, realtors from RE/MAX Kelowna teamed up with Rollingdale Winery proprietors Steve and Kirsty Dale to host a reception at the winery for a delegation of Chinese investors.

At the time, the realtors had listed Rollingdale for $4.8 million. If ever there was a group of potential buyers of this or any other Okanagan winery, this group would have seemed to be it.

Zall Development Group, one of the five companies in the delegation, is said to have assets of C$4.9 billion. And that company is a minnow compared with the Dalian Wanda Group, with reported assets of C$64.8 billion.

This group was squired around the Okanagan by the British Columbia Ministry of International Trade which was facilitating introductions for potential investors in the British Columbia wine industry. To the best of my knowledge, no more Okanagan wineries have been acquired yet by Chinese buyers (aside from Lang Vineyards and First Estate Winery, both under Chinese ownership for several years).

If RE/MAX had clinched a deal last fall, there might not have been the remarkable wine tasting hosted this week in Vancouver by the Dales. They brought 52 wines spanning all the winery’s vintages, starting with 2004. The attendees were primarily restaurateurs and trade buyers.

Aside from Icewine, the older wines likely are no longer available. The Dales would have dipped into their stock of library wines. But even if one can’t buy the older wines, one had to be impressed by the longevity. The tasting settled the questions about whether BC wines can age: the Merlot “Rosebud” 2004 still shows lively sweet fruit flavours. The 2004 Chardonnay, while past its prime, still appealed with flavours of honey and marmalade.

You might think the realtors’ listing price a bit aggressive when you venture down Rollingdale’s unpaved driveway and find that the winery is in a large metal-clad industrial building. Of course, it is serviceable, with good winemaking equipment inside, just beyond the tasting counter. The friendly informality has its appeal. No doubt, the Chinese business people had a great time, even if no one wrote a cheque.

One feature should have impressed them: since 2007, Rollingdale has been a certified organic producer.  Steve and Kirsty have a long history in organic agriculture. “I prefer to consume products that are as clean as they can be,” he has said. “I like to taste the untouched terroir of a vineyard clearly in the wine.”

The Dales – she is his high school sweetheart - have had an interesting journey to this point. He was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, in 1971 and earned a degree in English literature at Carleton University in Ottawa. Kirsty studied communications at Queen’s University.

Surprisingly, given that background, they then moved to British Columbia to open a gardening shop in Port Moody, where they specializing in making organic preparations and giving organic advice to local gardeners and greenhouses. After three years, they were invited to join a horticultural consulting partnership in Switzerland. They spent four years doing projects around Europe, acquiring a taste for wine along the way.

Steve then sold his interest to his partners and, after a year in Spain, decided to return to Canada and open a winery. In the fall of 2003, he enrolled in the winery assistant course at Okanagan University College. His first practicum involved pruning a vineyard by the Hainle winery. By lunchtime, his employers had learned that Steve wanted a vineyard of his own and he discovered that they wanted to get out of their lease. “Within a day, I had taken over the lease on that vineyard,” he says. “It was just like that.”

The Rollingdale winery now occupies that vineyard because the Dales, after leasing for a year, bought the property.  The vineyard, then just a little over two hectares (five acres) was divided almost equally between Maréchal Foch and Pinot Gris, with a few rows of Pinot Blanc. He has since added other varieties, including Chardonnay.

His initial instinct had been to get rid of the Foch, a French hybrid then still sharing the negative reputations that attached to all the hybrids (perhaps unfairly). Steve changed his mind late in 2005 when he left some Foch grapes hang for a few litres of icewine, almost certainly the first time that variety has been used in this way. Steve was so impressed with the result, which he called Portage, that his very limited production of 32 bottles was priced at $840 a bottle. It is currently in the winery’s website at $199.90. Both it and the 2006 Portage were among the wines at this week’s tasting and showed very well.

Rollingdale has made Icewine something of its specialty since opening and has done very well. In a desert wine show in Spain in 2008, the winery’s 2006 Pinot Gris “Sweet Tooth Series” Icewine achieved a perfect score of 100. It is on the winery’s web site at $399.90.

The big Bordeaux and Burgundy reds in the winery’s portfolio have always been made with grapes purchased from South Okanagan vineyards (organic where possible).

In a nod to Bordeaux, Rollingdale has released several vintages of “La Gauche” Cabernet Sauvignon and “Le Droite” Merlot. The 2007 and 2008s are showing very well. Currently, the winery’s web site offers the 2011 vintage at $39.90 a bottle. I scored the 2011 “Le Droite” Merlot at 90 plus points – and the wine is still developing its potential.

While it is no longer listed for sale on the web site, the winery’s 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve is still quite impressive, showing why it has taken home a string of awards, including silver at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards.

This was quite a tasting. I wonder whether offshore owners would have hosted it.


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