Photo: Tinhorn Creek's Robert Shaunessy
Pinch yourself: the B.C. wine industry has emerged from its
A case in point is Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, which celebrates
its 20th anniversary this year.
When I look back at my first edition of The Wineries of British Columbia, which was published in 1994, I am
struck by how many wineries today are 20 years old or older.
That book included 40 profiles, among such familiar names
now as Blue
Poplar Grove, Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate.
Two of the 40 never opened. One was a figment of the
ambition of a romantic with no money. The other was a Black Sage Road vineyard developed by a
businessman, who changed his mind. That was the first of many vineyards
purchased in 1996 by Mission Hill.
The final chapter of
the book was entitled “They Keep Coming.”
“The vitality of British
Columbia wineries is truly astonishing,” I wrote.
“Throughout the eighteen months in which this book was being researched and
written, new winery projects emerged … almost every month.”
As Yogi Berra said, it still is déjà-vu all over again. In
the 20 years since that was written, new winery launches have never stopped and
surprising few have fallen by the wayside. Only two of the wineries in the 1994
book are closed totally: Peachland’s A&H Vineyards and Vernon’s Bella Vista Vineyards. And even the
latter may yet re-emerge because the vineyard is still growing grapes.
Today, there are about 240 producers in British Columbia, including cideries, fruit
wineries, meaderies and sake makers. And they still keep coming.
I suspect that whenever consumers become bewildered at the
available choices, they fall back on the brands they have become comfortable
Tinhorn Creek is certainly one such brand. It was
established primarily by Robert Shaunessy, a successful Calgary oilman. He was going into the wine
business for the right reason: if run well, it is a successful business.
He began buying and planting vineyard property in 1993 in
spite of the abiding pessimism about Okanagan winegrowing. Two thirds of the
vineyards had been pulled out in 1988 as the industry rid itself of mediocre
grapes unlikely to compete in the new free trade environment.
“There’s money to be made in this business – in a new
revitalized wine business,” Robert told me in 1994. “Anytime there’s a massive
change in a business, there’s an opportunity for someone who is relatively
quick and can capitalize on the changes.”
I am toasting the success of his contrarian thinking by
tasting the Oldfield Series (or reserve) Merlot that the winery will be
releasing this fall.
The winery has long been regarded a strong Merlot producer.
When its vines became mature, it began releasing a reserve as well as a regular
Merlot. The reserve originally was called Oldfield’s Selection, from winery
manager Kenn Oldfield and winemaker (and now winery president) Sandra Oldfield
The 2001 Oldfield’s Selection Merlot was used to make a
point when the winery wanted to switch the screw cap. A portion was bottled
under screw cap and a portion under cork. The winery sold two-bottle packs (one
of each) so that consumers could judge for themselves which closure is best for
aging the wine.
When the consensus backed screw cap, the winery switched its
entire production to that closure.
I still had a bottle with a screw cap and decided I would
taste it next to the 2011 reserve. The 2001 reserve is also an impressive wine.
Oldfield’s Collection Merlot 2001. The rules allow a wine to be released as
a named varietal with up to 15% of other varietals in the blend. It is a good
rule that enables the winemaker to build in a little more complexity. This wine
is 86% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc and 1% Syrah. A decade in bottle has
integrated these flavours into superb harmony. The first surprise about this
wine is how vibrant the colour is; there is barely a trace of the browning that
often comes with age. The aroma includes cassis – almost black currant jam. On
the palate, it has flavours of blackberry and currants with a delicious hint of
cherry, mocha and spice on the finish. There is still enough firmness to the
tannins to carry this another year or two even if it is drinking very well now.
The 14.8% alcohol is part of the robust ripeness of the wine. 91-92.
Oldfield Series Merlot 2011
($29.99 for fall release). This wine is 89%
Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 2% Syrah. The junior partners being something to
the party, as always – a touch of spice in the aroma is almost certainly the
Cabernet Franc while the Syrah adds a hint of leather on the finish. The
flavours are all about Merlot – black currant, blueberry, blackberry. The full
texture in the mouth reflects the Merlot and the silky tannins developed in
barrel and in bottle aging. The hint of sage on the finish is quintessential South Okanagan
. Alcohol is 13.8%. This is an elegant red
with the ability to develop another 10 years in the cellar. 92-93.