Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Tasting with Blair Gillingham at Ruby Blues

Photo: Winemaker Blair Gillingham

One day this summer, Ruby Blues Winery’s winemaker, Blair Gillingham, and I were tasting his wines beside the vineyard, just off Naramata Road.

When I remarked that the Ruby Blues Viognier has won the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence four times, he pointed to the nearby rows of vines. We were sitting beside the Viognier. It was evident from the neat rows that exemplary viticulture is why that wine keep winning.

Winery owners Beat and Prudence Mahrer make Blair’s task in the cellar easy by delivering good grapes. It helps that the Viognier block is right beside the crush pad where it can be monitored all season and processed immediately on being harvested.

“Beat and Prudence have been farming for a long time,” Blair says. “Their vineyard management and protocol is spot on. These are really our babies. The Viognier is definitely the most babied. This is how a vineyard should be grown.”

Former fitness club owners in their native Switzerland, the Mahrers moved to the Okanagan in 1990, buying an apple orchard near Naramata and promptly replacing the trees with vines. Here, they opened Red Rooster Winery in 1997. They subsequently moved Red Rooster to the grand set of buildings it still occupies on Naramata Road.

They continued to farm 14 acres of vines after selling Red Rooster to Andrew Peller Ltd. in 2005. But Prudence missed the wine business so much that, in 2009, she and Beat opened Ruby Blues just across the road from Red Rooster.

Ruby Blues has had several good winemakers, starting with consultant Philip Soo. He was succeeded by Lyndsay O’Rourke. When she left in 2014 to concentrate on her own Tightrope Winery, Blair took over.

Blair was born in Kamloops in 1981 and grew up in Victoria. Initially, he thought of becoming a teacher.

“I took a year off between high school and university,” he says. “My plan was to go to Japan and teach English. That did not work out, so I went to Australia. I got to do a lot of surfing; I had a job at a ski hill. I was in Sidney during the Olympics, working there.”

He made friends with a family that had a winery in the Hunter Valley. He visited then during harvest and his wine interest was born. When he returned to Victoria, a sister who was working in a wine shop suggested he should move to the Okanagan, work in a winery and take winemaking courses.

He began by working the harvest at Sumac Ridge in 2001 and went on through a variety of roles – but none that seemed to be leading to winemaking. He enrolled in some winemaking courses in the Okanagan as well but was not satisfied he was learning enough. “I had opportunities to travel again and work overseas, so I went to New Zealand and worked the harvest there at Kim Crawford in 2006.”  

Blair returned to the Okanagan to a job at Jackson-Triggs Winery. He stayed there until 2010 before he decided to go overseas again. “By late 2009, I had decided I needed to expand my wings and gain more knowledge of the wine industry as a whole,” he says. “So I thought, let’s go to Germany, let’s learn how to make some Riesling.”

He had a contact in Germany, Johannes Hasselbach from Gunderloch Winery. They had met when the German was working the 2006 harvest at Jackson-Triggs. Johannes referred him in 2010 to one of the leading wineries in Austria, Weingut Jurtschitsch.

“Since I had just come off working two harvests in Australia, they said, great, you can make our red wine,” Blair says. “Over a period of time, I became a junior kellermeister. I worked with the cellar master and we oversaw all the operations in the cellar.”

He spent two years in Austria before he decided to return to the Okanagan in 2012. Bill Eggert at Fairview Cellars gave him a job. “I worked at Fairview for a year and a half. That was a solid year and a half,” Blair says. “I definitely learned a lot working with Bill. I really respected what he was doing. The red wines are amazing. I even had an opportunity to plant some Grüner Veltliner on his Crooked Post property at Gallagher Lake.”

Leaving Fairview Cellars early in 2014, Blair went back to New Zealand to work the harvest and pile on more experience. “During that time, I had been interviewing with Ruby Blues,” he says. “I came back from New Zealand, came here and got the job.”

His experience on three continents has equipped him with what amounts to a graduate degree in hands-on winemaking. The Ruby Blues wines continue to win awards.

Here are notes on some of his current releases.

Ruby Blues White Stiletto 2016 ($20). This is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, along with Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Muscat. The wine delivers spicy and floral aromas on a juicy palate, with flavours of peaches, pineapples and apples. It fills the mouth and lingers on the palate. 91.

Ruby Blues Late Harvest 2014 ($35). The grapes for this were picked in mid-November at Icewine temperatures. (The wine cannot be called Icewine because Ruby Blues is not under VQA rules.) The wine begins with a powerful aroma of tropical fruits. That carries through to flavours of ripe pineapple. The palate is lush and plump. The mouthfilling finish is persistent. 93.

Ruby Blues Peace & Love & Bubbles Frizzante NV ($25). This is a refreshing pink sparkling wine made with Merlot, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. Crisp and fruity, this is a classic brunch wine. 90.

Ruby Blues Red Stiletto NV ($25 for 2,200 cases). This is an easy-drinking blend anchored with 50% Syrah, with the addition of 20% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Pinot Noir and 3% Dunkelfelder. It is always a blend of several vintages, allowing the wine to be consistent from year to year. It is a big mouthful of fruit, with aromas and flavours of black cherry, spice, leather and chocolate. The soft tannins give the wine a generous texture. There is a hint of oak framing the flavours. 90.

Ruby Blues Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($30 for 150 cases). This is 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of black cherry, blueberry, cassis and vanilla, leading to flavours of black currant, leather and spice. The firm texture reflects a very fine Okanagan vintage. The wine benefits from being decanted. 91.

Ruby Blues Black Stiletto 2015 ($35 for 250 cases). First made in 2013, the Black Stiletto blend is a barrel selection reserve taking Ruby Blues consumers a step up from Red Stiletto. This wine is a blend of 35% Syrah, 27% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Pinot Noir and 4% Dunkelfelder. This is a dark and complex wine, with aromas of black cherry, blueberry and spice. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry and dark chocolate. The ripe tannins give the wine a generous texture. Decanting is advised. 92.

Ruby Blues Reserve Syrah 2015 ($50 for 50 cases). The grapes are from Prudence Mahrer’s Blue Pig Vineyard. Bold on the palate, it begins with aromas of pepper, black cherry and figs. On the palate, there are flavours of a potpourri of dark Christmas Cake fruits mingled with hints of chocolate and pepper. 92.


At November 8, 2017 at 6:22 PM , Blogger Neala Miles said...

Always pays to listen to your older sister! Very proud sister, I am. Thanks John, and well done Blair.


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