Photo: Ann SperlingRecently, I drew up a list all the British Columbia-born winemakers working in our industry. There are more than 50 names on the list.
Arguably, the most respected one is Ann Sperling, the co-proprietor of Sperling Vineyards in Kelowna. Her roots go back a long way, as is indicated by the winery’s slogan: “Love and Labour since 1925.” That was when an ancestor, Peter Casorso, planted vines on a property still called Pioneer Ranch.
Ann’s father, the late Bert Sperling, married into the Casorso family and took over running the vineyard in 196o. Ann grew up on this historic vineyard. She went to the University of British Columbia to earn a degree in food sciences.
On 1984, Ron Taylor, then winemaker at the Andrés winery located in Port Moody, recruited her to do quality control. He soon switched her to a winemaking role. In 1991, she moved to CedarCreek Estate Winery where she was the winemaker through the 1995 vintage.
She crafted some legendary wines early in her career in British Columbia. “Even at André’s, I was experimenting with late harvest wines,” she told me a few years ago. “I made some botrytis-affected Ehrenfelser two or three times when I was there. I would come out and do the hand-picking myself. As well, my dad had Optima. I remember the first time I made botrytis-affected Optima [because her father could not sell the grapes].” She continues to be interested in late harvest wines, as two recent releases indicate.
In the 1992 vintage at CedarCreek, Ann made a Merlot so good that the judges at the 1993 Okanagan Wine Festival competition insisted it be given a platinum award rather than a gold medal. To this day, CedarCreek’s top reserve wines are released as platinum wines.
After CedarCreek, she moved to the Niagara wine region where she has had a distinguished career at Malivoire, Flatrock Cellars and subsequently at Southbrook Vineyards. She helped the wineries transition to organic winegrowing. She has done that again at Sperling Vineyards, the Kelowna winery she launched in 2008 with siblings.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to make wine here [Pioneer Ranch], because I am so familiar with every foot and every slope and every grape on the property,” she told me after she returned to Okanagan winemaking.
While getting Sperling Vineyards off the ground, she also made the wines for two other wineries that were being launched at the same time: Camelot Vineyards in Kelowna and Clos du Soleil in the Similkameen Valley. Both have since employed their own winemakers.
As if that is not enough, she and husband Peter Gamble own a small vineyard in Argentina which produces premium red wine.
She is respected throughout the Canadian wine industry. She should get an Order of Canada for her accomplishments in viticulture and winemaking. Sperling Vineyards is a leading producer of sparkling wine, old vine Riesling and natural wine, among other wines.
Here are notes on current releases, which are all organic.
Sperling Late Harvest Vidal 2018 ($30 for 375 ml). Golden in the glass, this wine begins with intense aromas of ripe pineapple mingled with a suggestion of botrytis. The wine is luscious on the palate with intense flavours of ripe pineapple and apricot. Bright acidity balances the 123 grams of residual sugar. The finish goes on and on and on. Try this wine with Cambozola cheese. 92.
Sperling Late Harvest Pinot Gris 2010 ($40 for 375 ml). This surprisingly fresh for a 10-year-old wine. It has aromas of spice mingled with honey, which is echoed on the palate. There is a hint of tobacco on the finish, perhaps a suggestion of botrytis. The wine is well-balanced: sweet but not overly so. 91.
Sperling Dry Riesling 2018 ($35 for 202 cases). This wine, which is austerely dry, is made with fruit from the estate’s 1978 Riesling block. The wine has aromas and flavours of lemon and lees. The wine needs to be decanted for consumption now. It will age superbly. 90.
Sperling Old Vines Riesling 2016 ($96 for a magnum). The fruit also comes from the 1978 Riesling block. The wine also has bright acidity and great ageability, with a little residual sugar. There is lemon zest on the nose and flavour, with a hint of petrol developing. The flavours are intense and the finish is very long. 93.
Sperling Pinot Noir 2018 ($35). This is a light and fruity take on Pinot Noir that can be served slightly chilled. There are aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry. 88.
Sperling Speritz Pet Nap 2019 ($30 for 368 cases). This dry and lightly effervescent wine is 85% Perle of Csaba, 15% Chardonnay. Perle is an aromatic variety no longer widely grown in the Okanagan. The Sperling vines were planted in 1934. The winemaking for this wine was basically hands-off: it was fermented with natural yeast in the bottle. It was not fined or filtered and it was bottled with light lees. The wine is fresh and lively, with hints of citrus. 90.
Photo: Adrian CassiniWhen the Golden Mile Bench sub-appellation was created several years ago, it excluded the vineyards and wineries immediately adjacent to Highway 97.
The apparent reason is that these are at a lower altitude than the Golden Mile vineyards, and have differing exposures to the sun.
Thanks to an initiative taken by Adrian Cassini – whose Cassini Cellars winery is right beside the highway – a new sub-appellation called Golden Mile Slopes is working its way through the regulatory process.
Once it is approved, a number of producers who thought they should have been in the original sub-app now will have one of their own with which to label their wines. The wineries likely to have access to the new sub-app, in addition to Cassini, include Intersection, C.C. Jentsch, Rust, Castoro de Oro, Maverick, Winemaker’s Cut and Gold Hill.
“There is the same soil at the bottom of the valley as at the top,” Adrian Cassini contends.
Having said that, the wines as Cassini and at Gold Hill Winery also have a house style that sets them apart. It may be the terroir but it is also the penchant of these producer to make bold wines.
The red wines at Cassini positively swagger with power. These are generous wines. The current releases – some sold out since I got around to tasting the samples – are accompanied by a fortified Muscat, an unusual wine that also shows some swagger in the glass.
Adrian, who opened this winery in 2009, was born in Romania but he adopted his maternal grandfather’s name for the winery as well as his surname. Cassini rolls off the tongue more easily that his birth name, Capaneata.
At Gold Hill Winery, every wine is bursting with flavour. The red wines frequently have 15% alcohol (sometimes 16%) but seldom are “hot” because the fleshiness and the flavour more than carry the alcohol.
Gold Hill was opened in 2011 by Sant and Gurbachan Gill, immigrants from India in 1984 and 1989 respectively. They now farm about 75 acres. Consulting winemaker Philip Soo made the wines until last year when veteran viticulturist and winemaker Valeria Tait moved to Gold Hill from Bench 1775 Winery.
She has had a long relationship with the Gill brothers, including having designed one of Gold Hill’s major vineyards.
The Gill brothers have argued that the property including their vineyard had been referred to as Golden Mile long before a sub-appellation was declared. It seems that the orchards which preceded the current vineyards were so exceptional that the owners began referring to the area as the Golden Mile.
Whatever appears on future labels, the wineries here now produce interesting wines. Here are notes on wines from two producers.
Cassini Muscat N.V. ($25 for 225 cases of 500 ml or 375 ml). This fortified Muscat begins with aromas of baked apples and Crème Brulé which are echoed in the flavours. The wine is balanced with just a slightly sweet note along with the warmth that comes from 17% alcohol. 90.
Cassini Quattro 2017 Collector’s Series ($34 for 500 cases). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Dark in colour, the wine has aromas of cherry and cassis mingled with oak and vanilla. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied, with flavours of dark fruits mingled with leather and dark chocolate. This wine is best decanted. 91.
Cassini Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Collector’s Series ($36). This is one of the boldest Cabernets one is likely to find in the Okanagan – fully ripe in aroma and flavour. There are notes of cassis, plum, blackberry, black cherry and dark chocolate on both the nose and the palate. The finish is quite persistent. 93.
Cassini Maximus 2016 Limited Edition ($44). Here is another big wine (15.4% alcohol) that benefits from decanting. The blend is 46% Cabernet Franc, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot. It has aromas and flavours of black currants, black cherry, dark chocolate, leather and vanilla. 93.
Cassini Maximus 2017 Limited Edition ($44 for 550 cases). This is 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 8% Malbec. It is a big wine (alcohol 15.5%). The aromas of black currant, cocoa and vanilla are echoed on the palate, where there are bold flavours of dark ripe fruits with a long finish. 93.
Cassini Cabernet Franc 2016 Limited Edition ($40 and sold out). The wine begins with classic brambly aromas along with notes of plum. The flavours are intense, with notes of plum, black currant, dark chocolate and vanilla. 91.
Cassini The Aristocrat Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Limited Edition ($40 for 300 cases). This wine is now sold out. Those who have it in their cellars have a fine bottle, and one that should be aged for five to 10 years more. The wine begins with an appealing aroma of cassis mingled with black cherry, blackberry and mocha. The flavours echo the aromas. 92.
Gold Hill Cabernet Franc 2016 ($34.99). The wine begins with an appealing aroma that mingles black cherry, raspberry, blackberry and black currant. On the palate, there are intense brambly flavours echoing the nose, with spice and vanilla on the finish. Decant this wine to let it express itself best. 91.
Gold Hill Syrah 2016 ($34.99). This is a big (14.9% alcohol) wine, typical of the Gold Hill style. Even the aroma is rich and concentrated, with notes of plum and raspberry that carry through to the palate, along with flavours of plum, black cherry, and leather. There is a slight hint of pepper and spice on the palate. 91.
Gold Hill Grand Vin 2016 ($64.99). This is the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend. The alcohol, at 14.4%, is lower than customary for Gold Hill, giving the wine more of a Bordelaise elegance. There are herbal notes in the aroma leading to bright flavours of black cherry, blackberry and spice. This wine should also be decanted if you want to consume it in its youth. 92.
In December, just before he returned to Australia, CheckMate winemaker Phil McGahan sent me the most recent releases from the winery: four Chardonnays and two Merlots.
We were able to discuss the wines over Zoom, with Phil still in the mandatory two-week quarantine in Sydney. Because of the complexity of CheckMate wines, I generally have made it a point to discuss them with the winemaker before reviewing them. These are extraordinary wines. For the third time, I have found a Chardonnay that merits 100 points.
Phil, who became the CheckMate winemaker in 2012, is in his native Australia on a leave of absence to help deal with some serious health issues involving related family members. He has left CheckMate in the seasoned hands of assistant winemaker Leandro Nosal and the experienced cellar crew.
Phil took a leave rather than resign because he will return to the Okanagan if his personal circumstances allow it.
“It is, without doubt, one of the best areas in which I have worked,” he says. After switching from a legal career to winemaking, Phil began his wine career in Australia’s Hunter Valley and continued it with the Williams Selyem winery in Sonoma before being recruited for CheckMate, one of the most prestigious wineries owned by Anthony von Mandl.
Phil acknowledges that the Okanagan’s cold winters pose some viticultural challenges. Those are manageable. The reward is that the vineyards produce fruit that is clean and pure.
“In Hunter Valley and in California, it was never like that,” Phil remembers. “There was always the pressure of being in a humid area [in the Hunter]; or from the marine air and the moisture” of Sonoma.
The high quality of Okanagan grapes is reflected in the purity of aroma and flavour in the CheckMate wines. CheckMate produces just Merlot and Chardonnay, selecting its fruit from Von Mandl’s best vineyards in the South Okanagan.
In the past, I have awarded 100 points to both the 2015 and 2016 vintages of Little Pawn Chardonnay. For this review, I move that crown to the 2017 vintage of Fool’s Mate Chardonnay, with the 2017 Little Pawn just a nose behind.
Here are notes on the wines.CheckMate Fool’s Mate Chardonnay 2017 ($80 for eight barrels, one foudre and one concrete egg).
Considerable pains are taken with making this wine and it shows in its perfection. Some 74% of the fruit comes from the Jagged Rock Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench; 11% is from Osoyoos East Bench; 5% from the Sunset Vineyard on Black Sage Bench; the remaining 10% comes from neighbouring Golden Mile vineyards near the winery. Sixty-six per cent was fermented with wild yeast. The wine was aged in a combination of French oak barrels, a French oak foudre and a concrete egg. The wine begins with aromas of peach, citrus and apple. The palate delivers intense flavours of nectarine, pear and apple mingled with herbal notes. The finish is persistent and overall impression is seamless harmony. 100.
CheckMate Knight’s Challenge Chardonnay 2017 ($85 for six barrels). The fruit for this wine comes from the Sunset Vineyard on Black Sage Bench. Some 67% was fermented with wild yeast. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak barrels (44% new). It begins with aromas of orange, guava and vanilla, leading to buttery flavours of citrus and tropical fruit. The creamy texture gives the wine richness and good length. 95.
CheckMate Little Pawn Chardonnay 2017 ($110 for eight barrels). This vintage comes close to matching the 100 point scores I awarded the two previous vintages. The fruit comes entirely from the Jagged Rock Vineyard, clearly one of the best sites on the Black Sage Bench. All of the wine was fermented with wild yeast and was aged 16 months in French oak barrels (46% new). The wine begins with a lovely perfume of rose petals and mandarin orange. On the tightly structured palate, there are flavours of mandarin and peach mingled with herbs and hints of salinity. The finish is crisp. 98.
CheckMate Attack Chardonnay 2017 ($115 for one foudre). Some 67% of the fruit is from the Jagged Rock Vineyard; the rest is from the Border Vista Vineyard on the Osoyoos East Bench. The winemaking here was minimal: fermentation and 16-month aging all happened in the 1,600-litre new French oak foudre, with no racking until the wine was removed briefly to stainless steel before bottling. The wine begins with aromas of citrus, apple and spice. On the palate, it delivers flavours of mandarin, lychee and spicy oak. 94.
b>CheckMate End Game Merlot 2017 ($85). The fruit for this wine is from both the Black Sage Bench and vineyards near Osoyoos. The wine, which was aged 21 months on oak, is the more immediately approachable of these two Merlots. It begins with aromas of black cherry and cassis. Those are echoed on the palate, along with a hint of spice and licorice on the finish. 96
CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot 2017 ($85). The fruit for this wine is from vineyards on the west side of the valley, from west
Osoyoos, the Golden Mile and Oliver. The afternoon shading from the nearby mountains preserves slightly bright acidity in the fruit compared with grapes from the eastern side of the valley. This wine, also aged 21 months in oak, has aromas and flavours of black currant and black cherry with a hint of tobacco. The wine shows some youthful grip with a structure suitable for aging. 97.
“We are trying to showcase the two sides of the valley – not saying this Merlot is better than the other one,” Phil says. “Consumers are 50/50 on which wine they prefer.”