Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Clos du Soleil and the taste of regret



Photo: A vertical of Clos Du Soleil Signature

During a vertical tasting last fall at Clos Du Soleil Estate Winery in the Similkameen Valley, one guest sighed: “I taste regret!”

By that, he meant he regretted having not collected enough of a particular vintage of Capella, Clos’s signature Bordeaux-inspired white wine.

To be fair, until recently it would have been hard to collect Clos Du Soleil wines in quantity. The winery opened in 2008 with the release of just 200 cases of 2006 vintage wine, half red, half white.

However, Clos Du Soleil has changed significantly since Michael Clark, now managing partner and winemaker, joined the winery in 2012. Last fall, it repatriated production from rented space in a Kelowna winery to a new winery on its Similkameen vineyard. The new winery enabled Clos Du Soleil to raise its production, which had been growing slowly, to about 5,000 cases.

Given the winery’s small volumes in early vintages, it is perhaps surprising that enough wine had been kept back for vertical tastings. The tasting in October 2015 was the winery’s fourth annual.

Clos Du Soleil is among a small, but growing, number of British Columbia wineries that are beginning to offer vertical tastings to consumers - usually members of their wine clubs.

By definition, a vertical tasting is one where a number of vintages of the same wine are tasted side by side.

At last fall’s Clos Du Soleil tasting, the guests tasted nine vintages of Capella, from the inaugural 2006 to the unreleased (at the time) 2014. They moved on to vintages 2006 through 2012 of Signature, the winery’s Bordeaux-style red blend. They finished with three vintages (2010, 2011 and 2013) of Saturn, the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine.

And there were two bonus wines: a 2012 Estate Reserve Red and a 2013 Estate Reserve White. These are very fine small lot wines meant to be the best expression of the terroir of the vineyard.

The point of sponsoring verticals is to encourage consumers who would prefer not to taste regret to get in the habit of collecting wines.

“It’s a cultural thing,” says wine educator Rhys Pender MW, who presided over the Clos Do Soleil tasting. “We have to get into the habit of doing that. B.C. wine is never bad when it is freshly bottled and just released, but these kind of wines are always better with two or three or four more years. I really encourage people to get into the habit of keeping some for cellaring.”

Vertical tastings provide insights into vintage variations, differing fruit sources, maturing vineyards and evolving winemaking practices. All of this was on display at Clos Du Soleil.

The winery did not plant its vineyard until 2007. The early vintages were made with grapes purchased both in the Similkameen and the Okanagan. Since 2012, all of the winery’s grapes have been either from its own organic vineyard or from other Similkameen growers. The change in the flavours and character of the wines is noticeable.

“We get a lot of calcium in the soils here,” Rhys explained. “A lot of that is eroded limestone.  It is a weak rock here. As the water washes through it, limestone leaches out and settles in the soil. That often gives acidity in the wines and minerality. There is almost a saltiness in wines. It enhances the freshness and the acidity in wines. That is what you get from the Similkameen. No matter what people do, it is there.” (One should note that Rhys also has a vineyard and a winery in the Similkameen.)

He continues: “The wines are not as intense in fruit but they are more complex in fruit. Think of old world versus new world. On Black Sage Bench, the wines are very intense but one dimensional. The Similkameen wines are less intense but have more red and black fruit components. The tannins here are much more elegant. The wines come across lighter, less firm and hard, but with more elegant tannins. If people want to make complex, interesting, age-worthy wines, it happens pretty naturally here.”

Making wines like that resonates with the French-inspired sensibilities of Michael Clark (below), a former banker and bond dealer who has emerged as one of the best winemakers in British Columbia.

“Anybody will tell you that I am a bit of a detail person,” he told guests at the vertical tasting. “It served me well in finance and it is serving me well now. I think that plays well in winemaking, which is the sum of a million little details that add up to the final wine.”

Michael, who was born in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1972, describes wine as “my number one passion literally before I could drink wine. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with wine. Champagne is for Breakfast – I read that book when I was probably 10 years old. I don’t know other children who love to read wine books.”

Initially, he set out on a career in theoretical physics with bachelor’s degree from Queens University and then a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia. Then he switched to finance with a master of business administration from UBC, where he also founded a campus wine tasting society.

“Then I worked in finance in Canada and in the U.S. and Switzerland, for about 15 years.” That included eight years with two Swiss banks where, in spite of holding senior positions, he committed to winemaking by taking winemaking and viticulture courses there in 2010. He then gained experience by doing crushes at wineries in Switzerland and in Bordeaux.

In 2011, he enrolled in the rigorous winemaking program from the University of California at Davis. While still in Europe, he began researching British Columbia winemaking opportunities before moving here in 2012 to become a partner at Clos Du Soleil.

He provided the missing link at Clos Du Soleil. None of the four couples in the founding partnership lived in the Okanagan or the Similkameen. Consulting winemaker Ann Sperling made the first five vintages and continues to consult after turning over the ultimate decision making to Michael.

As a winemaker, Ann is a Canadian superstar. However, she is responsible for the Sperling family winery in Kelowna, along with clients across Canada and a small winery in Argentina. Michael is totally focussed on Clos Du Soleil.

“Every single year with all of our wines, I am trying to tweak things to make it better than the previous year,” he says.  “Each year, we get more data on how each vineyard site reacts. I have more of a sense on how to deal with the grapes in a particular situation.”

He has introduced significant technical changes in Clos Du Soleil’s winemaking.

“All of our estate fruit in the recent vintages have been fermented with wild yeast,” he says. “That has changed some of the characters. It has made them a little more complex; it allows a little more of the minerality/pencil lead/slate character” of the Similkameen terroir to show through.

His detail-oriented approach extends to doing many small batch ferments. That gives him a better understanding of each vineyard block. Many of these are not just fermented individually but remain separate in barrel until final blending decisions are made.

“My focus on the crush pad and in the winery is to try to make each of those individual lots and individual barrels a complete wine in terms of balance and structure,” Michael explains. “Typically, they spend about a year and a half in barrel. I taste them over that period. I approach each barrel with an open mind. I have not decided what final wine they will end up in: whether our entry level Bordeaux red, our flagship Signature or our Estate Red.”

He says he does not want to be locked in on a blend too quickly.  “The whole magic of blending is that you take two barrels and they can work together synergistically, or not. So there are months of trialing; swapping out one barrel and putting in another to see how they work together. There are no magic formulas.”

His approach, he says, is “in line with the overall philosophy of Clos – being based on a Bordeaux aesthetic – where the art of winemaking reaches it pinnacle in the art of blending.”

Except for Saturn, the late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, the wines presented at the Clos Du Soleil vertical were blends. Capella, with the sole exception of 2006, is between 90% and 95% Sauvignon Blanc, with a small but important fraction of Sémillon completing the wine. The wine is priced $27.90. The barrel-fermented Estate Reserve White 2013 ($60) is two-thirds Sauvignon Blanc and one-third Sémillon. The style is quite reminiscent of an expensive white Graves from a classified Bordeaux chateau.

Signature, a $45 wine, includes the main Bordeaux varietals in a wine always anchored with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Signature 2012, which I scored 94 points, is 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot.

The $60 Estate Reserve Red 2012 – four barrels made from the winery’s own vineyard – is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot,  13% Cabernet Franc, six percent Petit Verdot and one percent Malbec. My score: 93-95.

These wines are capable of aging at least 10 years from vintage, based on how the wines showed.

Those who decided to collect Clos Du Soleil reds might also consider two other reds from the winery, both made to be consumed earlier while Signature and the Estate Reserve are aging.

Clos Du Soleil Célestiale 2013 ($26.90). This is a blend of 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. It has aromas of black cherry and black currants. One the palate, there is a generous helping of ripe, red fruit supported by long, ripe tannins. 91.

Clos Du Soleil Makepeace Cabernet Merlot 2013 Grower’s Series ($24.90). This has aromas and flavours of black cherry, plum and raspberry with a touch of chocolate. The texture is juicy. 90.























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