Friday, January 20, 2017

Tinhorn bids farewell to Kerner

Photo: Winemaker Andrew Windsor

In 1993, when the founders of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards bought the Golden Mile vineyard for their winery site, one of the varieties planted there was Kerner.

That block of Kerner was finally pulled out after the 2016 vintage. Roussanne will be planted instead, undoubtedly a better choice - but another nail in the Kerner coffin in the Okanagan. Perhaps a dozen wineries once made Kerner but the number of producers is declining.

I profiled the variety and some of the producers in Chardonnay and Friends, a 1998 book now out of print. In memory of Tinhorn Creek’s Kerner, here are a few excerpts that provide background on the variety. It was planted in the Okanagan in the first place in the belief the valley was best suited for cool-climate German varieties. Kerner was a comparatively recent variety at the time.
Here is what I wrote:
In 1969 Germany’s Weinsberg Institute in Württemberg classified a new white grape created in 1929 by crossing Trollinger, a red variety, with the great Riesling. Vine breeder August Herold called the variety Kerner -- for nineteenth century German poet Justinus Kerner who had been one of Weinsberg’s leading citizens. It is one of the most successful new varieties to emerge from German plant breeding. The vine is vigorous, ripening reliably while maintaining the essential acidity in the grapes. The variety now has a toehold in vineyards beyond Germany, including both the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. Exceptionally versatile, Kerner’s wines cover the field from dry table wines to icewines. The wines are comparable to Riesling while perhaps slightly fleshier on the palate. The wines are attractive when fresh and young but also age well.

In her otherwise excellent 1986 book Vines, Grapes and Wines, Jancis Robinson dismisses Justinus Kerner (1786-1862) as a mere librettist of drinking songs. In fact, he was one of the most distinguished citizens of Weinsberg where he lived most of his adult life and where he is buried beside his wife, a clairvoyant about whom Kerner once wrote a book. He had a medical degree from the University of Tübingen and ultimately settled his practice in Weinsberg, becoming district health officer. He also was an accomplished writer of both popular medical books and of poetry which blended romance, melancholy and the supernatural. In 1840 composer Robert Schumann set fifteen of Kerner’s poems to music, including Wanderlied (Travel-song), which opens with the line “Wohlauf, noch getrunken den funkelnden Wein (Come, one more glass of shimmering wine). The poem, however, is not a drinking song but a nostalgic memorial to a friend with whom he had shared wine. Weinsberg was so proud of its literary doctor that the city gave him a house (now a museum) just outside a historic medieval castle. Public buildings and city squares have been named for him; in 1895 a monument to Kerner was erected in Stuttgart, the state capital of Württemberg. The vintners who work with the Kerner, Weinsberg’s most successful wine grape, have quite some reputation to live up to.

Sandra Oldfield at Tinhorn Creek only makes icewine from the Kerner grown in the winery’s Fischer vineyard (named for vineyard manager Hans Fischer who owned the property before selling it to Tinhorn Creek). The California-born Oldfield, who had never encountered the variety before coming to the Okanagan, enjoys the flavours of dry Kerner table wine but dedicates Fischer vineyard grapes to icewine because this gives Tinhorn Creek a product of appealing uniqueness amid a sea of Riesling icewines.

Thick-skinned Kerner is well suited for icewine. “It likes to cling to the vines and does a good job of hanging on the vines when the weather gets quite cold,” Oldfield discovered. “It holds its acid really well and the fruit remains healthy.” There are only two acres of Kerner in the vineyard, arranged in twenty-four rows, only eight of which are reserved for icewine in any year (the remaining grapes are sold to other wineries for table wine). The stress of retaining icewine grapes is rotated each year to a different eight rows.   “There is a theory that you will kill them if you use the same vines for icewine year after year after year,” Oldfield says.   Tinhorn Creek limits its production to a maximum of 2,500 half-bottles of Kerner icewine each year, all of it sold from Tinhorn Creek’s wine shop, where Oldfield cheerily takes her turn explaining the variety to visitors.
The final vintage of Kerner Icewine made by Sandra was 2013. In 2014 she moved up to the presidency of Tinhorn Creek, handing over winemaking to Andrew Windsor. Born in Ontario and trained in Australia, Andrew had made Icewine in Ontario. But when he was confronted with Tinhorn Creek’s Kerner in 2014, he made an orange wine instead, fermenting the Kerner on its skins.

“We did it in the cellar for interest’s sake,” Andrew told me last fall as we tasted the wine, which has not yet been released. The winery made just 75 cases of 500 ml bottles.

“This wine has had no additives at any point,” Andrew said. “Originally, I had aspirations of making it slightly off-dry because we stopped making the Icewine. I knew we would need a dessert wine for winemaker dinners. That didn’t happen. It finished fermenting in about six days to total dryness. It was on skins for about two weeks. It was very lightly pressed into two French oak barrels. It sat there for a year, maybe longer, and then we bottled it in June 2016.”

The wine, which has a lovely orange hue, ended up as an interesting aperitif wine. “It is not oxidative but, for me, it has that dry, briny flavour profile that makes you want to eat some olives and hard cheeses,” Andrew said.

Andrew also let me tastes three table wines that are favourites of the winemaking team. All will be released this spring.

Tinhorn Creek Pinot Noir 2014 is a favourite of Korol Kuklo (left), the assistant winemaker at Tinhorn Creek (where she has worked since 1998). “We are certainly not known for Pinot Noir,” Andrew conceded. However, the winemaking here has been tweaked. About 10% of the grapes going into the fermenter as whole clusters. Half the ferment was with native yeast. A modest quantity of new oak – 10% new, 5% second fill – ae used for maturing the wine which, traditionally was aged just in neutral barrels. The result is a rich and juicy style, with spice and cherries in the aroma and on the palate. I scored it 91 points.

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Chardonnay 2015, with a production volume of 450 cases, was fermented in new French oak and has aged in French oak. The wine has an appealing toasty note on the nose and in the finish, sandwiching a rich core of marmalade fruit flavours.  I scored the barrel sample 93 points. It is expected to be priced $35.

“I love Chardonnay,” Andrew said. “I buy a reasonable amount of white wine and most of the dollars would go to Chardonnay. Chardonnay easily is the wine we make here in the Okanagan that is as good as anywhere in the world.”

The third sneak preview was Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Syrah 2014. Andrew had plenty of experience with the variety, both in Ontario and in Australia, where he worked for Mollydooker Wines in McLaren Vale but he never had a chance until Tinhorn Creek to co-ferment Syrah and Viognier. In that and in subsequent vintages, the winery pressed its Viognier and put the juice into a white blend. The skins, however, were put in the fermented with the crushed Syrah, adding complexity to the wine.

“This is my favourite wine that I have made anywhere,” Andrew said. “We don’t make much Syrah … 800 cases or so. It is an underrated variety. It is a nice change of perspective from the Bordeaux varieties that dominate the valley.”

The wine began with the perfumed aromas hinting of stone fruit and black cherry, with a whiff of white pepper. Densely textured, the wine has flavours of plum and fig, with black coffee and dark cherry on the finish. I scored it 92 points.

Previous vintages were labelled Oldfield Series. That label is being changed to Oldfield Reserve “just so that we don’t have to explain to people the wines are reserves,” Andrew said.


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