Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Van Westen's V keeps flying

Photo: Robert Van Westen

Any winemaker’s greatest challenge is to find names for his or her wines that are not already protected by someone else’s trademark.

A winemaker in Washington State once told me that “the car companies have the best names.” Perhaps that explains by Van Westen Vineyards – where all wines begin with a V – has not called any of its wines Viper. Fiat Chrysler, as the company is now called, has had a Dodge Viper in its line since 1992.

As it happens, the company is ending production of the Viper this year. Perhaps that opens an opportunity for Van Westen, although Rob Van Westen does not appear to be running out of ideas. When he released his first Malbec, he called it Violeta, presumably because the beguiling aroma of this variety suggests violets to some.

In my Okanagan Wine Tour Guide in 2014, I had a bit of fun with Rob’s penchant for “V” wines. Here is an except:

Every wine that Robert Van Westen releases has a name that begins with V – sometimes with a hilarious result. The winery’s first Cabernet Franc was released in 2010 as Vrankenstein because the variety is usually harvested on Halloween. The Icewine was called Vicicle. But even if the wine labels are light-hearted, the wines are serious.

Rob, along with his father and brother (both named Jake), are some of the best farmers on the Naramata Bench. The family, now with 21 hectares (52 acres) of cherries, apples and grapes, has farmed on the Naramata Bench ever since Jake Van Westen Sr. emigrated from Holland in 1951 after graduating from agriculture school. Rob, tall enough to tower over his vines, was born in 1966. He left school after the 10th grade and worked at construction in Vancouver until 1999, when he returned to help with the family’s newly planted vineyard. He embraced viticulture with a passion, studying at Okanagan University College and, when he began making wine, spending nearly four months at wineries in Australia and New Zealand.

CedarCreek Estate Winery began buying Van Westen grapes. Impressed with the quality of the fruit, CedarCreek’s winemaker at the time, Tom DiBello, encouraged Rob to make wine. Rob launched the winery in 2005. Since then, he has moved winemaking into a hulking apple packing plant on one of the family’s properties. In 2009 he installed an informal tasting room here as well. When it is open, Rob presides over lively informal tastings. The spirit of the wine shop is mirrored aptly by the name that Rob has assigned to new Merlot: Vivre la Vie.

The Van Westens have five hectares (12 acres) of vineyards, with another hectare or two slated for planting. They grow Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc and plan to add Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon -- but no Chardonnay. “I’ve never been a Chardonnay drinker,” Rob admits. Conveniently, considering the winery’s “V” theme, he does grow Viognier.

Good fun aside, the wines are excellent. Here are notes on recent releases.

Van Westen Viognier 2015 ($25 for 164 cases). This wine, which was fermented in neutral French oak, begins with aromas of apricot and pineapple. On the palate, which is rich, there are flavours of peach, apricot and melon. The backbone of minerals and tannin contribute to a crisp, dry finish. 90.

Van Westen Vivacious 2015 ($20).  This is Pinot Blanc with a splash of Pinot Gris. Slightly gold in hue, the wine is rich on the palate. It begins with aromas of apples, leading to flavours of ripe apples, cantaloupe and marmalade. 91.

Van Westen Vino Grigio 2015 ($20). This is a refreshing Pinot Gris with aromas of citrus and apple. This leads to flavours apple, pear and citrus. 91.

Van Westen Vixen 2015 ($20 for 82 cases). This late harvest wine is 52% Pinot Blanc, 48% Pinot Gris. The hue is light gold. The wine, with a hint of botrytis, has honeyed aromas and flavours of ripe apples and apricots, hints of poached pears and caramel. The wine is well-balanced, rich in texture and with a lingering honeyed finish. Not overly sweet, it is a wine for cheese. 91.

Van Westen Violeta 2013 ($35 for 112 cases). This is the winery’s second vintage of Malbec. The wine had a peppery aroma mingled with red berry notes. On the palate, there are flavours of red and black currant punctuated with a note of pepper on the finish. 91.

Van Westen Vulture 2013 ($40 for 145 cases). This Cabernet Franc was aged 20 months in French oak. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, cherry and vanilla, leading to flavours of cherry, red currant and huckleberry, framed subtly by oak. The long ripe tannins give the wine a rich texture. 92.

Van Westen Vivre La Vie 2013 ($30 for 208 cases). This is 100% Merlot. The grippy tannins when the wine was newly opened were transformed, with decanting, to chewy ripe tannins. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, blueberry and vanilla, all of which are echoed in the flavours. 90.

Van Westen Voluptuous 2013 ($29.90 for 452 cases). This is 67% Merlot and 33% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged 18 - 24 months in French oak (one-third new). The winery has been making this blend – which reflects how the vineyard is planted – since 2005. Obviously, this is a collectible wine suitable for aging by those who spotted it early. It is a rich and complex red, with aromas and flavours of black currant, black cherry and spice. 92


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