Friday, February 22, 2019

CheckMate wines: are they worth it?

Photo: Winemaker Phil McGahan

The question I get all the time about aggressively-priced Okanagan wines is: “Are they worth it?”

Phil McGahan also gets that question. He is the winemaker and general manage for CheckMate Artisanal Winery, a winery on the Golden Mile Bench that produces just Chardonnay and Merlot. The wines are priced between $85 and $125 a bottle.

“People have to taste the wines,” Phil says. “Once they do, they don’t worry about the price point so much.”

These are world-class wines that deliver what consumers should expect from wines in that price range. For those needing re-assurance, the winery has a tasting room. The fee is $20 for four tastes, $30 for six (refundable if you purchase a bottle). That is not outrageous for sampling wines in this price range.

And yes, I think the wines are worth it, even if humble wine writers are not the target market for $100 wines.

It takes a considerable investment to make wines like these, starting with practises in the vineyard and carrying through to the winemaking. The current releases, two Chardonnays and two Merlots from the 2015 vintage, have all had prolonged aging (three years plus) in barrels and bottles before release. It costs money to inventory wine that long before release. However, CheckMate wines, while very age-worthy, are ready to drink on release.

The winery produces seven Chardonnays. Five from the 2015 vintage were released last fall and the others are just being released. 2015 was one of the hottest vintages so far in the Okanagan. “What the year drove me to do was pick quite early,” Phil says. “Picking early maintains the freshness of the wine.”

The CheckMate project began after Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl in 2012 purchased the vineyard from which Mission Hill made its legendary award-winning 1992 Chardonnay. At the same time, he acquired the neighbouring Combret vineyard with the mothballed Antelope Ridge Winery.

“I happen to love Burgundian Chardonnays,” Anthony has remarked. “I believed we could produce Chardonnays of similar sophistication.”

The Antelope Ridge facility has been renovated in stages. The final stage, which will be completed this summer, includes two tasting rooms and a hospitality area with a terrific view over the Okanagan Valley.

A worldwide search ended with the recruitment of Australian Phil McGahan to make the wine. The trial lots of wine made at CheckMate in 2012 were not released; the debut vintage was 2013.

Phil is a former lawyer who had become a winemaker and was working at the prestigious Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma when von Mandl recruited him. He is a 2006 bachelor of applied science (wine science) from Charles Sturt University. He grew up in Queensland and worked in the Hunter Valley before joining Williams Selyem about 2010.

“When I came to the Okanagan, to me it was an area ready to take the next step,” Phil told me a few years ago. “You could see the potential here. There was a lot of pioneering work done in vineyard establishment. You have the next generation of winemakers coming through now who are building on what was done. And there are a lot of people coming in with fresh ideas, too.”

He would be too modest to say it, but he is one of those people with fresh ideas.

Here are notes on the current releases.

CheckMate Little Pawn 2015 ($110). This is a single vineyard wine, with fruit from the Jagged Rock (formerly The Barn) vineyard on the Black Sage Bench. There two Chardonnay clones blended in this wine – Dijon Clone 76 and the so-called Dekleva Clone that produced the prizewinning 1992 wine. The wine begins with floral notes recalling citrus, orange and vanilla. The bright acidity gives the wine a lifted freshness, a lovely purity of fruit on the palate and a lingering finish. It is impossible to find anything negative about this wine. 100.

CheckMate Fool’s Mate 2015 ($80). This Chardonnay draws fruit from five vineyards – two on Black Sage Bench, one on Osoyoos East Bench and two on the Golden Mile Bench. Eighty per cent was aged in Burgundy barriques and 20% in concrete. The wine begins with aromas of citrus fruits, caramel and coconut. The texture is full. The flavours are complex, with herbal and citrus notes and hints of wet stone and sea salt on the finish. 95.

CheckMate End Game Merlot 2015 ($85). This wine is made with Black Sage Bench and Osoyoos East Bench fruit. It begins with aromas of cassis, blackberry and spice. The palate delivers dark fruits mingled with a hint of root beer. The tannins are ripe and the texture is approachable. 94.

CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot 2015 ($85). This wine is made with fruit from the Golden Mile Bench, a slightly cooler terroir on the west side of the Okanagan Valley, with more diverse soils. This wine has aromas of cassis and blueberries; those notes mingle in the palate with an array of dark fruits. Good acidity gives the flavours a pleasant freshness. The firm tannins suggest this is a wine to cellar for the next 10 years. 96.


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