Photo: Winemaker Sandor Mayer
One of the oldest and most consistent Meritage blends is the
one that Inniskillin Okanagan has been producing since 1995 from its Dark Horse
It would be surprising to find older vintages in collector
cellars. The consumers who collected Okanagan wines in the 1990s were hardly
numerous. Okanagan wines were still being discovered in those days.
The winery’s current release is from the 2012 vintage. If
you have not been collecting this wine, it might be time to consider it. The
price still is affordable and the wine, in my view, is built to age at least to
This is the second last vintage that was made by Sandor
Mayer, the veteran winemaker who returned to his native Hungary last summer.
The 9.3 hectare (23-acre) Dark Horse vineyard was
first planted with hybrid varieties in the 1970s for a winery called Vinitera,
which opened in 1979. The winery failed twice before it was taken over in 1987
by Alan Tyabji, who promptly uprooted the hybrids in the 1988 grape pull-out
and then hired Sandor to replant with vinifera varieties.
Born in Hungary in 1958, Sandor had grown
up on a farm with a modest vineyard. That led him to study horticulture and
ultimately earn a degree in enology and viticulture from a leading Hungarian
university. He emigrated to the Okanagan in 1988 (he had relatives here). The
timing could have been better: there were few wine industry jobs because
two-thirds of the vineyards had just been pulled out.
Reviving the Dark Horse Vineyard was one of the few
jobs available. Sandor arrived in 1989 to find he first had to clean up a
tangle of dead vines, trellis posts and wire. He accelerated the work by
setting fire to the dead vines. The blaze was only prevented from incinerating
nearby hillsides by the arrival of the Oliver fire department.
Sandor feared he would be fired but he was kept and
replanted the vineyard. He made his first vintage there in 1992 and spent
almost all of his Canadian winemaking career at Inniskillin Okanagan, as the
winery has been known since 1996.
When Sandor returned to his native Hungary last
year, he was succeeded by Derek Kontkanen, a Brock University graduate who had
spent most of his career making white wines at Jackson-Triggs, a sister winery
to Inniskillin Okanagan. He is also an authority on Icewine (his university
thesis was on that topic). Inniskillin Okanagan’s Icewine is as renowned as the
reds from Dark Horse Vineyard.
Several factors make the Dark Horse Vineyard
special. The soils are complex and laden with volcanic minerals. The vineyard
is nestled slightly in a bowl, with sun-bathed slopes facing south and
southeast. In the early years, Sandor discovered the vineyard was too hot for a
few of the varieties planted there, notably Gewürztraminer. But the heat units
here are ideal for Bordeaux
red varietals now dominating the vineyard.
The wines invariably have ripe flavours of dark
fruit, with an earthy structure and firm tannins ideal for aging. The technical
notes indicate a shift in style, with more robust alcohol levels since 2002
that suggest riper, fuller flavours. The earlier vintages had alcohol levels around
12.5%. Since 2002, the alcohol has been around 14%, which is what one would
expect from this sun-bathed terroir.
“The lower alcohol level in early vintages was due
to above average crop and a vineyard that was still young,” Sandor explained in
a recent email from Hungary.
is a note on the current release.
Okanagan Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage 2012 ($34.99 for 932 cases). This is 60% Merlot
60%, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc 10%. The three varietals are
aged separately in French and American oak for 12 months before being blended. The
wine begins with aromas of cherry, cassis and tobacco. There are flavours of
black currant, blueberry, espresso and chocolate on the palate. At this stage,
the wine has a firm texture that calls for decanting or, better still, the
patience to let it develop in bottle for two of three more years. 90.