Thursday, March 1, 2018

Quails' Gate Riesling pays tribute to history

A special Riesling table wine has just been released by Quails’ Gate Estate Winery to pay tribute to the “Okanagan’s first age-worthy Riesling, produced in the 1980s by Jordan & Ste. Michelle Winery.”

I did not think that was enough detail for a wine that celebrates a significant moment in the history of BC wine. In fact, I have been around long enough to remember some of that history. Knowing it should add to your appreciation of the wine.

Jordan & Ste-Michelle Cellars (the correct spelling) disappeared from the BC scene after it was absorbed in the late 1980s by T. G Bright & Co. Before that, there was a long and colourful history. The roots go back to 1923 and a loganberry winery near Victoria which became known as Grower’s Wines.

For many years, the controlling shareholder was Herbert Anscomb, who also became BC’s finance minister. The conflict of interest did not bother him. He actually used his power to stop Brights from building a bottling plant in BC in 1940. His greatest political rival was W.A.C Bennett, who stepped down as president of Calona Wines after he was elected to the legislature.

Anscomb died in 1973 and Growers was purchased by Jordans, an Ontario winery that had begun to operate nationally. The ownership story at Jordans is complex, but the important detail is that controlling interest was acquired by Rothmans, the big cigarette producer.

Rothmans gave its executives and winemakers (who were all well-trained Germans) the tools to get serious about winemaking in Canada. They built a large grape nursery in Ontario. In BC they began planting clone 21B Riesling in 1978.

“I think we brought in 22,000 plants that year,” says Frank Whitehead, one of the viticulturists for Jordan & Ste-Michelle. “All planted on the long weekend in May.”  And all were planted in East Kelowna, where some survive to make spectacular Old Vines Riesling at Tantalus, Sperling Vineyards and St. Hubertus.

Clone 21B, sometimes called the Weis clone, was developed in the Mosel in the late 1940s by Hermann Weis. When the variety’s superior winemaking quality were realized, he began to market it outside Germany, including in Ontario and then in the Okanagan.

“Jordan & Ste-Michelle financed growers in BC over three years and placed a price guarantee on the crop for the new plantings in the first few years of production,” Whitehead recalls.

Quails’ Gate enters the story because Richard Stewart, whose family now operate this winery, bought vineyard land on the slopes of Mt. Boucherie in the early 1960s. The current vineyard map shows two small blocks of Maréchal Foch, totalling about two acres, which were planted in 1965. There is also a two-acre block of Chasselas, a Swiss white variety, planted in 1975.

“The Stewart Vineyard was one of the main suppliers to Jordan & Ste-Michelle,” Whitehead recalls.

It is probable that the big winery encouraged Richard Stewart to plant Riesling as well, since Jordan & Ste-Michelle enjoyed an instant critical success with its 1981 Riesling  and other vinifera table wines.

At the time Jordan & Ste-Michelle had emerged as a quality wine producer. The winery had moved in 1977 from its decrepit and inefficient building on Quadra St. in Victoria to a new $6 million winery in Cloverdale. It was a beautiful facility with landscaped gardens and views of Mt. Baker. Unfortunately, the winery was dismantled in 1990 after Brights took over and moved production to its plain Jane facility north of Oliver.

But Jordan had had a good run. An undated press release, probably 1982, said the winery had just introduced “its 1981 line of seven premium varietal wines.” The winery singled out Auxerrois, Maréchal Foch and Johannisberg Riesling. “These varietal wines represent the company’s continued commitment to sourcing the majority of its premium products from British Columbia vineyards,” the release says.

Richard Stewart planted two blocks of Riesling. The 1981 block, likely 21B, was replaced in 2008 with 2.3 acres of Chardonnay. But the 1982 block, five acres of clone 21B grapes remains in production.

The 2017 B.M.V Collector Series Riesling, the wine just being released, is a blend of this Riesling and of clone 49. Quails’ Gate planted about six acres of this in its Martyna Vineyard in East Kelowna (not far from Tantalus).

Riesling lovers will be cheered by the increasing focus that Quails’ Gate winemaker Nikki Callaway (right) has been giving to the variety. While Pinot Noir remains the flagship at Quails’ Gate, the rest of the portfolio is every bit as well made.

“Since we already have a Riesling, I wanted to make sure the BMV was significantly different than our QG Dry Riesling,” Nikki explains.  “Our QG is stainless steel fermented, so I thought I’d try some barrel fermentation for the BMV.  Also, I wanted it to be indigenous yeast, which is easier to manage I find in barrels.  So I had some old white barrels empty, and thought I’d give it a try.  It took a good two months to ferment.  And because it was indigenous, there is some residual sugar, but I find that is balanced quite nicely with the higher acidity.  Again, the QG Riesling is dry. To differentiate BMV Riesling, I was happy to have finished it in a sweeter, more round style.” 

Here are my notes:

Quails’ Gate B.M.V Riesling 2017 ($29.99 for 550 cases). This wine, which was fermented with wild yeast and aged about two months in neutral barrels, has numbers that look like a fine German Riesling: 15.4 grams of residual sugar are balanced by a bracing 9.6 gram of acid. The alcohol is a moderate 12.5%. It begins with aromas of peach and lemon, leading to flavours of lemon, lime and stone fruit. The bright acidity does indeed balance the sweetness. The finish is exceptionally long. The wine is delicious now but it will age to even greater complexity and richness. 92.


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