In 1997, Mission Hill Family Estate launched its flagship
wine by making about 500 cases of Oculus, a Bordeaux blend.
It was an audacious move because the wine was priced at $35.
The average price of a VQA wine then was about $12. Only one other Okanagan
winery, Sumac Ridge, had a $50 red blend. Called Pinnacle, that wine struggled
in the market and ultimately was discontinued by Constellation Brands, the
current owner of Sumac Ridge.
Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl, with a grander
vision of the place of Okanagan wines on
the world stage, has persisted. Mission
Hill made 660 cases in 1998, 1,000 cases in 1999 and 1,330 in 2000. Since then,
the winery has not always released production figures but the volume of the
2012 (not yet released) at 76 barrels or 1,900 cases, is typical.
“It is not huge but it is not tiny either,” winemaker John
Simes told me in 2005. “I don’t like making really small quantities. If we make
a wine, we want to be able to have enough that you can realistically develop a
sales and marketing platform behind it and make it grow into something. If you
make 50 or 100 cases, as some people do, what are you going to do with it?”
And now, with the track record of 17 vintages, Oculus sells
for $100. It is generally regarded as one of the finest Bordeaux-style reds
from the Okanagan. In 2002, when Oculus still was $40, I asked Anthony when the winery would make its first $100 wine. "I would think it's in the offing," he replied. ""When we do release our $100 bottle, it has to over-deliver at that price. That's what we are working toward. This is one of the reasons why have another cellar under construction, specifically for red wines."
Oculus has provided leadership to the industry. A growing
number of other producers have added icon wines to their portfolios and a
growing number of consumers are collecting them.
Leaving aside the price, wines like Oculus are not the sort
of bottles that savvy consumers buy for immediate drinking. Oculus in
particular is structured like a Right Bank Bordeaux wine. It will have
a lot of tannic grip until it is at least five years old, revealing the qualities
that justify the price over the next five to 10 years.
Almost the only way to taste a mature Oculus (or another
icon wine) is to buy some each year on release and lay it down. You might find
into a 10-year-old Oculus in a high-end restaurant – at double to quadruple the
initial retail price.
Recently, the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society
dipped into its cellar (and the winery’s cellar) to offer a rare 12 vintage
vertical tasting of Oculus.
It is no surprise that Oculus is a far better wine today
than it was in the 1990s. The 1997 vintage was made with grapes purchased
almost totally from a Black Sage
Road vineyard (which Mission Hill bought the next
year). The 1998 was made from Osoyoos grapes, Mission Hill having planted a
Since 1998 Oculus has been made entirely with estate-grown
grapes, mostly from the Osoyoos Lake Bench. The steady improvement in Mission
Hill’s viticulture and the growing maturity of the vineyards generally is reflected
in the wine’s improved power and concentration.
There was a noticeable jump in quality that started with the
2005 Oculus. Michel Rolland, the legendary Bordeaux consultant who now helps with
blending Oculus, first visited Mission Hill in 2004 and recommended crucial
“In the winery, starting in 2005 and 2006, we effectively
built a small winery inside the big winery,” John Simes told me in 2013. “There
was significant investment in equipment that allowed us to really elevate what
we could do as winemakers with those premium red grapes.” That included sorting
tables that allow individual berry selections, oak fermenters and gentle basket
presses. The impact is evident in the wines from 2005 onwards.
The quality of the 2012 Oculus (to be released in 2016)
indicates continuing improvement, especially in the vineyards.
“I think the future is tremendous,” John told me in 2013. “We
are just starting really. Our oldest vines that go into Oculus were planted in
1997 in Osoyoos. That is like 12 or 13 harvests that have come off that
vineyard. That is nothing. In terms of what we can do into the vineyard and how
we turn it into wine here, there are tremendous opportunities ahead of us. We
don’t even know what they are yet.”
Here are notes from the Oculus vertical. Some vintages were
absent because the wines are no longer available.
Oculus 1999. The
vintage was cold and difficult. And the blend had 58% of Cabernet Sauvignon
even though the variety must have struggled to ripen. The wine is lean and the
fruit is drying out. It did not help that the time in French nd American barrels was just 12
months. Since then Oculus has had 14 to 16 months of barrel aging (always in
French oak only since the 2002 vintage). The 1999 Oculus is well past its prime.
Oculus 2002. The
blend was 50% Merlot, an earlier ripening variety that has anchored Oculus ever
since. It also included Petit Verdot for the first time, adding a touch of
spice. This is a silky wine at its peak.
Oculus 2003. This
was a hot vintage and there were massive forest fires in the Okanagan. This
wine is dense and brooding with just the tiniest hint of smokiness in the
aroma. It is past its peak.
Oculus 2004. In a
relatively cool vintage, the blend had 74% Merlot, the most so far in any
Oculus vintage. It also was aged 16 months in French oak, of which 71% were
new, accounting for a firm texture and a whiff of cedar. The wine has peaked
but is holding.
Oculus 2005. This
elegant wine is from an outstanding vintage accentuated by the cellar
improvements. The wine tastes of black currants and figs, with a spicy finish.
Five years of life are ahead of it.
Oculus 2006. This
was my favourite wine of the vertical – a wine with aromas of cassis and dark
fruits and flavours of black currants, black cherry and cola. The texture is
plush with lots of power. This will also last five more years.
Oculus 2007. This
was a great vintage in the Okanagan, producing a svelte and polished wine tasting
of a fruit compote with Christmas spices. Drink this within the next five
Oculus 2008. This
was another excellent vintage, delivering a wine with power (“fat ripe tannins”
I noted) and rich flavours of plum and black cherry. The winery recommends
drinking it by 2020.
Oculus 2009. By
this terrific vintage, Okanagan growers began to believe great vintages could
be counted on forever. This is a rich and concentrated wine with aromas and
flavours of dark fruit. Drink by 2022.
Oculus 2010. Talk
about a wake-up call! The only wineries that made good wine in this miserably
cool year were those who were brutal in dropping fruit so the remaining bunches
would ripen. The volume of Oculus was small and the wine is lean, but with the
brightness of fruit typical of the year. The winery recommends drinking this by
Oculus 2011. The
year was almost as challenging as 2010 but was salvaged by a long warm autumn.
This Oculus, to be released in the spring, is more generous than the 2010 with
bright cassis aromas and flavours. This will age well for 10 to 12 years.
Oculus 2012. Finally,
a vintage comparable to 2005 or 2008 in quality. This wine is already juicy in
texture with aromas of cassis, black cherry and red liquorice, leading for
flavours of red and black fruits. You should be able to cellar this until 2025.
The 2013 wine is still to be blended; but it was another
As for 2014, Ingo Grady, Mission Hill’s director of wine
education, calls it “the vintage of the century.” That should be a stunning
Oculus – when released in 2018.