Thursday, August 25, 2016

Steller's Jay releases Sparkling Gewürztraminer

Photo: Jason James in the Steller's Jay cellar 

Since establishing Steller’s Jay as a sparkling wine brand on its own, Constellation Brands has slowly expanded the portfolio.

With the release of a Sparkling Gewürztraminer, there are now three sparkling wines under the Steller’s Jay label, including the original Cuvée and a Sparking Shiraz, released last year.

Sparkling wines from Gewürztraminer are comparatively rare. It is a variety that drops acidity as it ripens – but acidity is important in a good sparkling wine. However, Jason James, the Steller’s Jay winemaker, obviously saw to it that the grapes for his sparkling wine were picked before they were super ripe. This wine, which did its secondary fermentation in bottle like Champagne, has enough acid to give it a refreshing finish.

Jason did not make this a clone of the very popular Sumac Ridge Gewürztraminer table wine, which has often been an off-dry fruit bomb. The sparkling version is made with wonderful restraint and delicacy.

Steller’s Jay formerly was a star in the portfolio of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery (also owned now by Constellation Brands). It was the first premium quality British Columbia sparkling wine made by the classical method. The first vintage of  Steller’s Jay Cuvée was 1987.

The development of classical sparkling wine in British Columbia dates from trials started in 1983, by Gary Strachan when he was at the Summerland Research Station. Soon after arriving there from Ontario in 1977, he noticed the wineries all complained that British Columbia grapes were excessively acidic. "Why don't we exploit that and make sparkling wines?" he asked himself.

Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters soon involved himself with Strachan's research project, which was funded by a grant from the National Research Council. To a degree, they were re-inventing the wheel. After all, Dom Perignon, who died in France in 1715, generally is credited with figuring out how to retain bubbles in wine. However, the French, understandably, have had a long tradition to keeping to themselves the technical nuances of making Champagne. "There were lots of books about Champagne but they didn't give you the technical background in how to make it," Strachan found.
Winemaker Harold Bates, who had acquired sparkling wine experience with T.G. Bright & Co. in Niagara Falls, helped in the first year of the Summerland trials. In the second year, technical assistance was provided by Eric von Krosigk, a Vernon native who was just completing winemaking studies in Germany that included apprenticeship with a sparkling wine producer. (Subsequently, Eric became the winemaker at Summerhill Winery, the producer of Cipes Brut and other sparkling wines.)

After several trial lots of sparkling wine had been made at Summerland, Sumac Ridge committed to commercial quantities of sparkling wine, with the first major release being made July 1991, on the winery's tenth anniversary. The wine, blended from pinot blanc, pinot noir and chardonnay, is Steller’s Jay Cuvée, named for the raucous blue-feathered creature that is British Columbia's provincial bird.

 In the years since then, Steller’s Jay Cuvée has established itself as one of British Columbia’s top sparkling wines, with a consistent string of awards. For many years, the wine was made by Mark Wendenburg who preceded Jason James as the Sumac Ridge winemaker.

The Sparkling Shiraz released last year was actually the second release of a wine in that style by Steller’s Jay. The previous release was in 2006.

This is a bottled-fermented sparkling wine (like Champagne). Jason James, the winemaker who made it, is quoted as saying: “This is a very special wine with a lot of depth and complexity. Only premium grapes were selected and blended to produce this special sparkling wine. The base Shiraz was treated like a red wine; harvested at 24 brix and fermented on the skins. As a result, there is more tannin than in a normal sparkling.”

This style of wine has been produced for many years in Australia. The Liquor Distribution Branch used to list several examples. There are none in its product catalogue now, which speaks to the limited popularity of this novel style of sparkling wine.

Here is a note I did last year on Steller’s Jay Sparkling Shiraz.

Steller’s Jay Sparkling Shiraz NV ($25.99 for 1,000 cases). Open this wine carefully to avoid having the energetic magenta-coloured bubbles frothing all over the table cloth. With its deep colour and its bubbles, this is a spectacular wine in a Champagne flute. The flavours are intense, starting with black cherry and going on to chocolate, coffee and spice. The wine is technically dry, with its 25 grams of residual sugar balanced with modest acidity. The texture is plush and rich. This is a tour de force. 90-92.

And here is a note on the Sparking Gewürztraminer, which is available just at the winery.

Steller’s Jay Sparkling Gewürztraminer NV ($21.79 plus tax). As remarked above, the delicacy and restraint show up with floral and citrus aromas. There is a hint of lychee and peach on the palate. The wine is very slightly off-dry (18 grams of residual sugar) but balanced so well that, helped by the fine bubbles, the finish is dry. 91.


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