Photo: Painted Rock proprietor John Skinner
John Skinner, the proprietor of Painted Rock Estate Winery, aims to penetrate key European wine markets, including Bordeaux, with his Okanagan wines.
Showing Painted Rock wines in Bordeaux is the suggestion of Gustoworld, Painted Rock’s agent in Brussels. They have suggested that he pour Painted Rock wines at several tastings there in March. Initially, John’s astonished response was: “Isn’t that like selling sand to the Arabs?”
“Christophe Heynen, the founder of Gustoworld, said they know more about wine than anybody,” John says. “It is the centre of it. They are curious. They don’t just want to be drinking their own wine all the time. Not only that – I employ somebody that they know and respect.” The reference is the Alain Sutre, the Bordeaux consultant who has guided Painted Rock since 2006.
It would be a feather in John’s cap if he impressed the Bordelaise, among the most knowledgeable tasters in the wine world. He began showing Painted Rock wines in London four years ago – and he continues to do so. Last year, he hosted a Painted Rock tasting for about 100 members of 67 Pall Mall, which claims to be the world’s most exclusive wine club.
London, with its top-flight critics, collectors and masters of wine, is arguably the most sophisticated wine market in the world. Canadian producers have hosted tastings there since at least the 1960s, formerly to the embarrassment of Canadian wines. The biggest fiasco was the failed attempt to launch Baby Duck in Britain. But that was yesteryear, before the sea change in the quality of Canadian wine. It is safe to say that Canadian wines this time will get a far better reception.
“I like a challenge,” says John, now the leader of a group of six Okanagan wineries beginning to explore London and other European markets.
Painted Rock’s wines have been impressive since the first vintage in 2007 from the winery’s Skaha Bench vineyard. And they have been getting steadily better as the maturing vines have put roots through the topsoil and the alluvial silt layers of varying thickness deep into underlying gravels. The majority of the 52,500 vines in the 25-acre vineyard were planted in 2005. The flavours have become more intense and complex with each vintage.
“When I started Painted Rock,” John says, “we augured a hole every three meters. We know the depth of the alluvial silt layer everywhere on the vineyard. We have a map of it.”
The thinnest layer of silt was in the two Merlot blocks. “That’s where we first noticed the most profound change in the flavours. Once the roots reached into the gravels, the flavours opened up like a flower. That happened first in Merlot, then in Cabernet Franc. Now it is in Malbec and Petit Verdot and everything. The flavours are just exquisite and markedly improved year over year.”
The thickest layer of alluvial silt was in the Chardonnay block. In the fall of 2016, when John and Alain were tasting the fruit before harvest, the consultant noted a significant step up in the complexity of the flavours of Chardonnay. A trench was dug beside the vines and confirmed that the roots were now 10 feet down into the gravel.
That led to a significant change in how the Chardonnay was processed that vintage. In earlier vintages, the harvest had been spaced out over three pickings in order to build more complex flavours from grapes at three stages of ripeness. In 2016, the harvest was compressed because the flavour profiles were more vivid. As well, the wine had enough substance now that 60% went through malolactic fermentation, compared with 10% in previous years.
“In previous vintages, had we had more ML, that would have overwhelmed the fruit,” John believes. “Now that we had this complexity, it could handle it. That’s the journey of the Chardonnay now. We did it again in 2017. I am ecstatic with it.”
A corollary benefit of vine age is that Painted Rock now is releasing more single varietal red wines. Individual varietals now have enough flavour that the wines need not be tweaked with a dash of another variety or two. In 2015, for example, there was enough Malbec left over after making blends that a small lot was produced just for the Painted Rock wine club.
Perhaps not every Okanagan or Similkameen vineyard has as much vine research, but it is certain that many of the vines now have roots deep into what one might call the flavour zone. There is no doubt in my mind that wines from Painted Rock and other Okanagan producers will more than more than hold their own in Europe.
As I was working through the Painted Rock wines, a house guest arrived with a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild 2007. One of Bordeaux’s best wines, this vintage is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon and 19% Merlot. The average price per bottle, according to internet sources, is about $700. Robert Parker scored it 92 points.
It is a wine great elegance and refinement. But is it better than Red Icon? That is a matter of taste. It is not fair to compare a mature Bordeaux with an adolescent from the Okanagan, to say nothing of the dramatic differences in terroir and winemaking style. But Red Icon belongs on the same table.
Here are notes on the current releases.
Painted Rock Chardonnay 2016 ($30.49 for 488 cases; sold out). I first tasted this wine shortly after it was bottled in late May, 2017, scoring it 90+. A second bottle tasted nine months later scored 95, a dramatic illustration of how moderate bottle aging benefits a well-made Chardonnay. The complex, layered flavours of this wine were crafted by spreading out the harvest somewhat. More layers were built by aging 80% in French oak (55% new) and 20% in stainless steel. Sixty percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. The winery explains: “This process enabled us to embrace the beautiful bright acidity while building mouthfeel, complexity and aromatics.” The result is a delicious and refreshing wine with aromas and flavours of citrus, apple and peach. It dances brightly on the palate, the complete antithesis of those over-oaked, mouth-tiring wines that turned consumers against Chardonnay. 95.
Painted Rock Merlot 2014 ($34.99 for 1,356 cases). This is a bold (15.2% alcohol), richly flavoured and concentrated Merlot. It was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). It begins with aromas of spicy red fruit, leading to flavours of black cherry, blueberry, mocha and vanilla. 92.
Painted Rock Malbec 2015 ($NA for 140 cases). This wine was released just to Painted Rock’s wine club. Again, the alcohol is 15.2% but the wine has the substance and ripe fruit flavours to carry it. It begins with powerful and appealing aromas of violets, cherries and plums, leading to flavours of black cherry, blackberry and plum. The finish goes on and on. 92.
Painted Rock Cabernet Franc 2015 ($44.99 for 400 cases). This is a wine remarkable for its power (15.3% alcohol) and intensity of flavour. Aromas of cassis, blackberry and cherry bound from the glass, followed by a rich medley of red fruit on the palate, including cherry, blackberry and raspberry. The hint of mocha on the finish supports a lush texture. 93.
Painted Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($39.99 for 328 cases; sold out). The wine, which was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new), begins with savoury aromas of cassis, blackberry and mint. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry, fig, tobacco, leather, dark coffee, spice and vanilla. Concentrated in texture, the wine should be decanted before being served. 93.
Painted Rock Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($34.99 for 146 cases). A wine club only release, this is 80% Syrah and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The wine is made with grapes from 2009 infill plantings in the Syrah and Cabernet blocks in the vineyard, with each varietal fermented and aged separately from the older plantings. The wine begins with aromas of pepper, black currant and cedar, leading to flavours of plum, black cherry and vanilla. The soft, ripe tannins give the wine a svelte, polished texture. 92.
Painted Rock Syrah 2015 ($39.99). This wine delivers terrific fruit aromas and flavours – black cherry, blackberry and fig, with notes of leather, vanilla and pepper. The wine was aged 18 months in barrel (30% new), of which 80% was French oak and 20% American oak. 92.
Painted Rock Red Icon 2015 ($54.99 for 1,487 cases). This blend is 45% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine begins with aromas of black cherry, cassis and vanilla which are echoed in the flavours. The texture is rich and concentrated, backed by long ripe tannins. On the finish, mocha and coffee mingle with spicy dark fruit. Decanting helps open up the aromas and flavours. It would be preferable to let it blossom in bottle for five or 10 years before opening it. 94.