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.”
Photo: Roger WongLake Country’s Intrigue Wines opened in 2009, making a name as a producer of reliably made affordable wines.
The surprise among the current releases is the winery’s first reserve wine, a $45 red Bordeaux blend. Had the wine been available a few years ago, I would have included Intrigue in my 2017 book, Icon. This is definitely a wine that can be collected for cellar aging.
I have no idea why Roger Wong, one of the founders of Intrigue, waited until 2018 to make this wine. He has been making a comparable Red Meritage since the 2009 vintage at Gray Monk Winery where he made wine with nurturing Intrigue. In 2018, he was winding up his employment at Gray Monk. At the same time, he and his partners were undertaking a major expansion at Intrigue.
The Reserve Red is notable also because, like the Gray Monk Meritage, the grapes all were sourced in the South Okanagan. Many of the other Intrigue wines are produced from fruit grown in the North Okanagan where the vineyards rarely grow varieties needed for big reds.
Here are notes on the wines. The sparkling wines are also released in 200 ml splits, just right for one person.
Intrigue Social Bubbly 2019 ($20 for 2,000 cases). The blend is 31.2% Pinot Gris, 23.9% Pinot Blanc, 20.5% Gewürztraminer, 11.9% Kerner, 8.4% Chardonnay, and 4.2% Ehrenfelser. This is an off-dry frizzante style wine. Its active mousse creates a creamy texture on the palate. The wine is fruity, with aromas and flavours of apples and peaches. It is balanced to finish crisply. 90.
Intrigue Social Bubbly 2019 ($7 for 2,280 cases of 200 ml bottles). This is similar to the previous wine.
Intrigue I Do 2019 ($20 for 2,537 cases). This frizzante wine is made with 52% Riesling, 29% Gewürztraminer, 15% Merlot, 2% Pinot Gris, 1.7% Kerner, and 0.6% Ehrenfelser. The wine has a delicate rose petal hue and aromas of strawberry and raspberry echoed on the palate. The bubbles give the wine a creamy texture. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 89.
Intrigue I Do 2019 Bubbly ($7 for 2,280 cases of 200 ml bottles). This is similar to the previous wine.
Intrigue Social White 2019 ($15 for 5,605 cases). This is blend of 60% Riesling, 35% Gewürztraminer, 3% Muscat Canelli, 1.1% Kerner, 0.5% Chardonnay and 0.4% Ehrenfelser. The aromatics are appealing, with notes of a bowl of tropical fruits on the nose and palate. The underlying spice lingers on the finish. The wine is balanced to finish crisply. This is very good value. 88.
Intrigue Chardonnay 2018 ($17). This may be sold out, to be succeeded by the 2019 vintage. This is a fruit-forward Chardonnay, with only a portion fermented in French oak. The hint of oak adds complexity and mingles with notes of pear, apple and citrus. 88.
Intrigue Social Rosé 2019 ($17 for 3,776 cases). The blend is 37% Riesling, 25% Pinot Gris, 15.4% Gewürztraminer, 12.2% Merlot, 8.2% Rotberger, 2% Pinot Noir, and 0.2% Malbec. Light rose-hued, the wine begins with aromas of strawberry jam. On the palate, there is a medley of fruit flavours including Honeycrisp apple and raspberry. It is balanced to dryness. 88.
Intrigue Reserve Red 2018 ($45 for 430 cases). The blend is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Verdot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec, 8% Syrah and 5% Merlot, all sourced around Oliver. The wine was aged 18 months in French oak. This is the first reserve wine from Intrigue. It begins with aromas of black currant, black cherry and licorice which are echoed on the intense flavour palate. Like any collectible young red, this wine benefits from decanting. 92.
Photo: Ferdinand FochBoth the late Harry McWatters and Gray Monk Winery founder George Heiss disparaged the Maréchal Foch grape variety by saying it has not been exported from France: it has been deported.
That does an injustice to the variety, judging by the quality of Foch wines made every year at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. The Stewart family claims to have been the first to plant Foch in the Okanagan.
Some history is in order. Eugene Kuhlmann, a plant breeder in Alsace, created Maréchal Foch in the 1911 at the Colmar research station. This was at a time when the French plant breeders were crossing vinifera with North American species in a search for varieties that could withstand the phylloxera and the oidium mould threatening Europe’s vineyards.
When the variety was commercialized in 1921, it was name to honour Maréchal Ferdinand Foch who had been a leading general in the French army during World War 1, ending the war as Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces.
Many of these hybrids were imported by Ontario and New York vineyards either before or just after World War II because they were more disease resistant than vinifera and made better wine than the old labrusca varieties.
Most of the hybrids were pulled out after the 1988 vintage. They were judged of insufficient quality to make wines of international standard compared with vinifera grapes. As well, growers had learned how to nurture vinifera successfully.
The late Richard Stewart, whose family now operate Quails’ Gate, planted Foch in 1969 on the vineyard near Westbank. For some reason, it was not pulled out in 1988 – a good thing, as it turns out.
Stewart also planted Pinot Noir in 1975. It was one of the first Pinot Noir plantings in Canada. It eventually set Quails’ Gate on the road to becoming one of the country’s leading Pinot Noir producers, with at least eight clones in the vineyard. As a wine, Pinot Noir is the polar opposite to Maréchal Foch.
To get back to Foch, Quails’ Gate in 1994 hired a new winemaker, Jeff Stewart, from Australia (now the owner of La Frenz Winery on Naramata Road). He brought a Shiraz-maker’s mentality to the Foch and, in the 1994 vintage, made a dense and concentrated red that the winery released as Old Vines Foch. It became a cult wine and has never lost that following.
The dramatically improved quality of the wine compared with virtually every Foch that preceded it had much to do with how the grapes were grown. Left to its own devices, the Foch vine (and other red hybrids) will produce easily ten tons of grapes an acre. That was why most Okanagan red table wines in the 1980s were thin and light.
However, when the yield is reduced to something sensible, perhaps four tons an acre, the resulting wines have weight and flavour.
The Quails’ Gate advantage with Foch is a combination of good viticulture and mature vines, which limit yields naturally. The winery’s Old Vines Foch Reserve is made with grapes from those 1969 plantings. Its Old Vines Foch is made with grapes from 30 plus-year-old vines in an Osoyoos vineyard that also escaped being pulled out.
Here are notes on the wines.
Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch 2018 ($25.99). This wine was aged in oak barrels for 19 months after fermentation in stainless steel, with nine days skin contact. The colour is quite dark. On the nose, there are aromas of spice and plums: think of a figgy pudding! The palate is generous, showing flavours of cherry and plum. 90.
Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch Reserve 2018 ($46.99). This wine was an astonishing 19 days on the skins during fermentation – astonishing because the grapes are dark, with red flesh. This wine, which is quite dark in colour, was aged for 20 months in American oak barrels. The wine begins with aromas of cherry, vanilla and black olives. Those are echoed on the palate, along with flavours of coffee and dark fruits. There is a touch of oak on the lingering finish. 92.
Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch 2017 ($26.99 for 375 ml). Dark in colour, this wine seems a cross between a ruby port and a tawny port. It begins with rich aromas of fig, plum and dark fruit, which is echoed on the palate. The texture is generous and warming and the finish lingers. 90
Photo: Leslie and Jim D'Andrea of Noble Ridge
On its website, Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery, based near Okanagan Falls, currently offers free shipping to major centres for orders of as few as six bottles at a time.
It is, of course, not the only winery offering deals on shipping wine to online purchasers. Many wineries began doing it in the spring when, due to the pandemic, winery visits were not allowed. When the restrictions were relaxed in June, some producers discontinued free shipping.
Late this fall, I have noticed some resuming this incentive to its customers, as some restrictions again have been imposed on visiting wineries.
I single out Noble Ridge’s free shipping because it applies to three recent releases that are already quite affordably priced.
In a note accompanying the release of the wines. Noble Ridge’s chief executive, Leslie D’Andrea, writes: “We believe that wine, when consumed responsibly, can offer great relief and aid in these crazy times.”
She adds that the winery “a surprising but encouragingly busy summer and fall season. Our guests came out in force, spending time enjoying Noble Ridge wine in our picnic and outdoor tasting areas with their family and friends.”
Many Okanagan and Similkameen wineries were surprised at the success of summer and fall wine visits and sales, considering the three months of restrictions they weathered. And they are all anticipating a more normal 2021.
Here are notes on the good value wines from Noble Ridge.
Noble Ridge Stony Knoll Chardonnay 2019 ($22.99 for 626 cases). The wine was fermented 94% in stainless steel tanks and 6 in one-year-old barrels. A fruit-forward Chardonnay, it begins with apple, pear and citrus. The palate delivers flavours of apple and pear framed with good minerality. The finish is crisp. 91.
Noble Ridge Reserve Pinot Grigio 2019 ($19.99 for 807 cases). The grapes were whole cluster pressed and fermented cool in stainless steel. The wine has aromas and flavours of apples, pears and melon. The bright acidity gives the wine a refreshing vibrancy. The finish lingers. 91.
Noble Ridge Meritage 2018 ($21.99 for 1,165 cases). The blend is 83% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes were fermented after a three-day cold soak. The wine was aged 12 months in barrel (75% French, 25% American, and 20% new). The aromas of black cherries, currants and raspberries are echoed on the palate. There are hints of cedar and chocolate as well. 91.