Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tasting nine B.C. icon wines

King's Ransom was unavailable during photo shoot

Because several wineries this year released their icon Bordeaux reds around the same time, I assembled nine of these stars for a blind tasting by myself and three wine-loving associates.

With the possible exception of Nota Bene, these wines are all available from the wineries and in most VQA wine shops. Nota Bene was released in the spring. However, the Black Hills winery kept some back for sale at the winery (one per customer) during the wine touring season and at $60 a bottle. The wine was included in this tasting because it has such a cult following. We wanted to see how it stacked up against other icons (pretty well).

This is not an exhaustive list of B.C.’s icons; no Pinot Noirs were included, for example, because this was not meant to be a Pinot Noir tasting. As well, at these price points, there is an economic reality. Some of the wines were samples from the wineries but others had to be purchased.

Because the wines were all reasonably young, every bottle was decanted and then returned immediately to the original bottle. The point was to let the wines breath a little and open up.

Consumers need not be in a rush to open any of these wines. They all have the structure to improve in the cellar for at least the next five years.

Ideally, icon wines should score 90 points or better. Most of these did and the rest were close enough that time in the bottle just might lift them as well. These are all delicious wines that collectors seek out.

They are reviewed here in order of price, with such additional information as the wineries have made available. Surprisingly, a few wineries don’t bother to break out the percentages of each variety in the blend. I would suggest that a buyer of an icon wine wants to know that, especially those who collect vintage after vintage. To its credit, Osoyoos Larose puts the detail right on its front label.

Note that Merlot is often the backbone of a blend. This is not just because Merlot is the most widely planted variety in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. The terroir there produces Merlot that has structure and firm ripe tannins, a good building block for a red blend.

Herder Josephine 2007 ($40) Alcohol: 13.8%
Merlot (66%), Cabernet Franc (21%), Cabernet Sauvignon (13%)
Aged 12 months in French oak barrels

This is the flagship red blend from Herder Winery. This just-released vintage has a slightly raw, youthful edge, with firm tannins, suggesting the wine will benefit from aging in the bottle. The aroma has a note of vanilla and mocha; as it opens in the glass, there are floral aromas as well as dried fruit aromas. The flavour displays vibrant red currant hints. 87 and age-worthy.
A re-taste of the second half of the bottle two days later confirmed how aging will help. The wine had rounded out and developed a graceful elegance. Now it scored 89 points and rising.

Black Hills Nota Bene 2006 ($43) Alcohol:14.7%
47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot. 16% Cabernet Franc

Dark in colour, this wine begins with aromas of mint and sweet fruit. This follows through on the palate, where the mint (a Cabernet Sauvignon fingerprint) gives the flavours a brightness and an attractive lift. The oak is well integrated. 90

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2006 ($45) Alcohol:13.5%
Merlot (69%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%), Cabernet Franc (4%), Petit Verdot (4%), Malbec (3%)
Aged 16 months in 60% new, 40% one-year-old French oak barrels and six months in bottle. 10,000 cases produced.

The French winemaking touch shows here in this elegant and layered wine, with its flavours of plum and cedar. The tannins are firm but ripe, giving this generous wine the classic structure for aging. Le Grand Vin tastes good now but should keep improving at least to its 10th birthday. 90

Mission Hill Quatrain 2005 ($47.99) Alcohol:13.5%
Merlot (57%), Syrah (28%), Cabernet Franc (10%), Cabernet Sauvignon (5%).
Fermented in French oak fermenters; aged 15 months in French oak barrels

This is one the three wines in what Mission Hill calls its Legacy series (with Oculus and an elegant Chardonnay called Perpetua). The Syrah gives substance and depth to this full-bodied wine. Dark in colour, it develops attractive berry aromas in the glass. There are flavours of currants and black cherries, with a robust hint of earthiness. 90

Church & State Quintessential 2005 ($50) Alcohol:14.62%
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec.
Aged 18 months in French oak, 18 months in bottle. 364 cases produced.

Church & State owner Kim Pullen says he searched about a year for a good name for this new icon blend. Not making much progress, he asked his teenage daughter for an idea. Within minutes, she came up with Quintessential. (Eat your heart out, Bernie Hadley-Beauregard!). The wine begins with a wonderful aroma of mocha and fruit cake, shows flavours of cassis and blackberry and a hint of liquorice on the finish. A real charmer. 91

Sumac Ridge Pinnacle 2005 ($50) Alcohol:14.4%
Merlot (56%), Cabernet Franc (21%), Cabernet Sauvignon (18%), Syrah (5%).
Fermented in stainless steel, left on the skins for 16 days and aged 25 months in 70% American oak, 30% French oak. 500 cases produced.

The debut 1997 Pinnacle was released in 2000 and was British Columbia’s first $50 red blend. The early vintages were slow sellers. That was not a reflection on the wine but rather on how hard it was get consumers to pay the price before the industry caught up with Sumac Ridge. As usual with Pinnacle, this is a bold wine with a brooding dark hue. This wine spends more time in barrel than any other icon; there is vanilla on the nose and sweet oak flavours. It takes a while for the fruit flavours to take over in the glass. When they do, there is dark chocolate, cherries, plums and even sweet tobacco, with layers of flavour. 90+

Noble Ridge King’s Ransom 2006 ($65) Alcohol: 14.5%
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged in new American and French oak. 100 cases produced.

This is a new wine from Noble Ridge, just released on December 1. The wine begins with aromas of red liquorice, spice, vanilla and oak. At this stage in the wine’s life, the firm oak tannins are restraining the fruit flavours and giving the wine a somewhat dry finish. Either decant this or give it another year or two in the cellar to enable the fruit and oak to knit. 87

Mission Hill Oculus 2005 ($70) Alcohol:13.5%
Merlot (42%), 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot.
Fermented in small French oak vats, aged in French oak for 13 months.

This is Mission Hill’s flagship wine and is priced accordingly. No holds are barred in making this wine: the best grapes are selected during two passes over sorting tables, fermented in expensive oak vats and aged in expensive barrels. When it comes to blending, Michel Rolland, the super-consultant from Bordeaux, lends his well-travelled palate. This wine took a little time to open up in the glass but when it did, it showed aromas of red berries and cigar box; and layers of flavour, including spice and chocolate. This is a richly elegant and very polished wine. 94

Lastella Maestoso 2006 Merlot ($85) Alcohol:15.3%
Fruit harvested at just over one ton an acre. 250 cases produced.

The Lastella winery opened this summer on a vineyard at the north end of Osoyoos Lake (the winery actually has 400 feet of water frontage). It is a sister to the Le Vieux Pin winery near Oliver. Both wineries practice extreme viticulture, producing fruit that yields wines of immense concentration. The model seems to be Harlan Estates or the big reds made by Helen Turley in California. Maestoso is a classic example, a huge wine with sweet, almost porty flavours. The wine is so rich that one does not notice the alcohol. As the score shows, this wine caused controversy at the tasting precisely because it is so over the top and so totally sensual. 87-92
A retasting of the second half of the bottle two days later showed that the wine had become more generous in structure; and delicious flavours of blackberry and plum jam had begun to emerge. This is an easy wine to like, even if contentious in the original tasting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rob Van Westen loads the bases

Robert Van Westen’s wine releases are out of synch with his peers. Most other wineries tend to release their white wines in spring. Robert, the co-owner and winemaker at Van Westen Vineyards, waits until late fall – when most of the competing good whites have disappeared from wine store shelves.

He has now released his three 2007 whites. What a triumph in winemaking they represent. The only complaint is that the quantities are limited; buyers need to move quickly to find these wines before they, too, have disappeared from wine stores and restaurant lists.

There are the best white wines so far from this small Naramata Bench winery, which has been open three years now.

Next year, Rob and Tammi, his wife, will be opening the winery’s first tasting room, making it easier to find the wines. A word of warning: call ahead because the tasting room is likely to be open only n Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Vino Grigio 2007 ($18.90) was released November 1. This Pinot Gris, of which 333 cases were made, is aptly named because its exuberantly fruity style mirrors what Pinot Grigio should be: a fresh, tank-fermented white that sets out to be delicious, not complex. The aromas show lemon zest and citrus notes. On the palate, there are flavours of ripe pears and more citrus. There is a fine skein of minerality and acidity to give this wine a crisp backbone. The finish is refreshing and very long. 92

Vivacious 2007 ($18.90) was also released November 1, with a production of 230 cases. This is Van Westen’s ingenuous take on giving complexity and a fruity lift to sometimes bland Pinot Blanc by barrel-fermenting some of wine and by adding four percent of Pinot Gris to the blend. This is a big, generous white with flavours of apple and melon. The time that the barrel-fermented wine spent on the lees shows through in the rich texture of the wine on the mouth. But the good acidity gives the wine a clean, tangy finish. 90

Viognier 2007 ($24.90) was released December 1 and the release is only 101 cases. This is emerging as the Van Westen flagship white. It is an explosion of tropical aromas and flavours – apricots, citrus, peaches – with an appealing aroma of grapefruit. There are layers of taste in this wine; it opens like a flower in the grass as it warms up, but it has good acidity to give it a crisp, tangy finish. 92

Fairview's Bill Eggert makes his first Pinot Noir

Photo: Bill Eggert

Fans of Bill Eggert and Fairview Cellars will be surprised, and probably delighted, to hear that in the 2008 vintage, he purchased enough Pinot Noir grapes to make “a couple of barrels of Pinot Noir as an experiment.”

Since opening Fairview Cellars in 2000, Bill has made his reputation primarily with the Bordeaux reds – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – with a little bit of Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

There was a very simple reason why he made those wines. “I am only a Cab man because that is what grows well on the property I have,” he says. His 2.4-hectare vineyard is on a sunny promontory at the start of The Golden Mile, not far from Oliver.

Why Pinot Noir? Bill recently has purchased two blocks of land, totaling 2.6 hectares, on the plateau south of Vaseux Lake. Here he intends to plant Pinot Noir, a variety already growing successfully in a nearby vineyard. It is, he says, “one of my recommendations to anyone planting grapes is to see what the neighbours are doing.”

He will begin by planting next year perhaps half a hectare as he feels out the property, which he describes as “very difficult terrain with all the large boulders, so I don't want to go overboard until I have it figured out.”

This is quite a different site from his current vineyard, likely more appropriate for Pinot Noir. “There are bluffs blocking the early and late sun, and reducing the heat units,” Bill says. “I have always believed one should plant the grape that is suited to the terroir.”

“I figured I better get some experience with the grape,” he adds, explaining why he made his first Pinot Noir this vintage. “I don't know if I will release this wine, or hold it until I have some from my own grapes.

If he does release this wine, look for it in about 18 months.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Winemaker Marcus Ansems heads new wine club

In a brief e-mail to friends and associates, Australian-born winemaker Marcus Ansems announced on November 12 that he has left Therapy Vineyards to run Hemispheres Wine Guild, a new wine importing club.

Marcus has been the general manager and winemaker at Therapy for the past three years, the latest stop in a varied Canadian winemaking career.

Born in 1974, he comes from the Australian family that formerly owned Mount Langhi-Ghiran, the producer of one of the top Australian Shiraz wines. After getting a winemaking degree from the University of Adelaide, Marcus launched a career as one of Australia's young flying winemakers. He did crushes in South Africa, Tuscany and the Rhone before joining the Creekside winery in Ontario in 1999. In four vintages there, he took Creekside from start-up to a rising star. He also handled the turnaround of Creekside's sister winery in Nova Scotia.

He returned briefly to Australia but was back in Canada in 2004, this time as the winemaker at Blasted Church in the Okanagan. He moved to Therapy the following year when it was starting up. As he left, the winery had just completed its 2008 crush, producing about 11,500 cases. In a matter of weeks, production moves into a new $2 million winery on Therapy's Naramata site.

The successor in Therapy's Cellar is Steve Latchford, a winemaker who has worked with the Jackson-Triggs winery in Niagara and recently with the Holman-Lang group of wineries in the Okanagan.

In his e-mail, Marcus that his new project "will allow me to travel to interesting wine regions with my family and bring back wine [for our members] not currently available in Canada."

He is president of Hemisphere Wine Club, which describes itself as a subscription-based co-operative. It is currently soliciting for members through its website, www.hemisphereswine.ca. For a $500 initiation fee (waived until January 1, 2009) and either monthly or annual payments, members will get quarterly shipments of imported wines chosen for them by Marcus. The quantities vary between eight and 16 cases a year, depending on what members sign up for.

Level one members (eight cases a year) pay either $209 a month of $2,500 a year. Level two members get 12 cases a year for $334 a month. Level three members (16 cases a year, four of which are ultra-premium and another four are icon wines) pay $500 a month or $6,000 a year.

The approximate model appears to be the Opimian Society, a wine club that was launched in 1973 and now claims a national membership of 18,000. The original general partner of the investor group that started Therapy Vineyards, John McBean, ran the Opimian Society in southern Alberta for many years. McBean and Therapy parted company this summer after an acrimonious dispute among the investors.
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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ann Sperling is back!

Ann Sperling, one of the finest of Kelowna-born winemakers, made wine this fall in the Okanagan for the first time in 13 years.

Currently based in the Niagara Peninsula, Ann and Peter Gamble, her winemaker husband, are spearheading her family’s new Sperling Vineyards Winery in Kelowna. At the same time, they are winemakers for Camelot Vineyards, another new Kelowna winery. Both wineries expect to be open in the summer of 2009.

The Sperling winery completes the circle of history. Through her mother, Ann is a member of the Casorso family that planted the first vineyard in the Kelowna area in 1925.

The East Kelowna vineyard that supplied grapes for the new winery is on Casorso Road. The first vines were planted here in 1930 by Napoleon Peter (Pete) Casorso, Ann’s grandfather. When he retired in 1960, the vineyard was taken over by his daughter Velma and her husband, Bert Sperling, who are Ann’s parents.

Ann, who was born in 1962 and has a food sciences degree from the University of British Columbia, stared her winemaking career in 1984 at André’s in Port Moody. She went to CedarCreek in 1991 and then moved to Ontario in 1995. There, she consulted for several wineries before becoming the inaugural winemaker for the well-regarded Malivoire winery. Several years ago, she took over as the winemaker at the new Southbrook winery in Niagara, Canada’s first certified biodynamic winery. Ann Sperling sorts grapes

Peter Gamble started his winemaking career at Hillebrand Estates Winery and ran the Ontario VQA program for a number of years. Over the past decade, he has consulted on the launch of several leading Niagara wineries including Stratus. Currently, he and Ann are the consulting winemakers for Benjamin Bridge, a sparkling wine project in Nova Scotia. They also own a seven-acre vineyard of 1920s-era Malbec vines near Mendoza in Argentina and are working with a winemaker there to make premium wines.

As busy as those careers have been, one thing had been missing in Ann’s life. “I have always wanted to make wine with my parents’ vineyard,” she says. “I got to make wine with some of the grapes when I was at CedarCreek, but not anything extensive.”

This summer, the family agreed to move ahead at long last with a small premium winery to complete the Casorso legacy. The partners in the project are Ann’s parents; her oldest sister Susan and brother-in-law Paul Richardson; and Ann and Peter Gamble.

The Casorso legacy is remarkable. It began when Giovanni Casorso (Ann’s great grandfather) arrived from Italy as an agriculturist with Father Pandosy’s Oblate Mission. One of his sons, Charles, planted the first vineyard in the Kelowna area in 1925. Two other sons, Pete and Louis, planted vines five years later on the Casorso Road property (as the street was named years later).

Rosa, Ann’s great grandmother, was the single largest investor in the consortium that launched in 1931 what later became the Calona winery. Subsequently, the Capozzi family acquired control but Pete remained a shareholder in Calona well into the 1960s.

Today, the 45-acre Sperling Vineyard, which sells its fruit to Mission Hill, includes a 45-year-old planting of Maréchal Foch, a 35-year-old planting of Riesling and another old planting of Perle of Csaba (a Muscat variety), along with Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. There are recently planted blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to support the production of premium sparkling wine.

This vintage, Ann and Peter shuttled alternatively between winemaking duties in Ontario and Kelowna. They have produced about 600 cases for Sperling Vineyards (some grapes still hang for icewine) and about 400 cases for Camelot, all of it done this fall in the Camelot winery, located a five-minute drive from the Sperling vineyard.

Camelot is owned by Rob Young and Denise Brass, two Air Canada flight attendants who have lived on an East Kelowna apple orchard for several years. Two years ago, they replaced the trees with vines and erected a winery.

Then serendipity came into play. They needed a winemaker and learned that Ann and Peter needed a facility in which to make the Sperling wines because Sperling has not yet applied for a licence. The Camelot winery was the ideal facility for Sperling’s first vintage. Ann and Peter also signed a three-year agreement to make Camelot’s wines.

This winter, the Sperling family plans to get a winery licence for the Pioneer Country Market, the busy restaurant, market and deli that Velma Sperling as run for years on Kelowna’s Benvoulin Road.

In yet another closing of the circle, the market is just down the road from the Pandosy Mission where Giovanni Casorso got his start in the Okanagan.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kathy Malone moves to Hillside from Mission Hill

A second surprise has emerged from the Naramata Bench’s Hillside Estate Winery. The new winemaker is Kathy Malone, recruited from the cellars of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery.

She takes the place of Kelly Symonds. As I reported in this blog last month, Kelly is moving to California Cult Classics in North Vancouver, a super-premium U-Vin that works with California grapes.

Kathy is a long-time Mission Hill veteran and has had substantial responsibility for making many of Mission Hill’s best-selling wines. Her move to Hillside is said to be prompted by a desire to work a small winery environment.

How good is Kathy? Put it this way: John Simes, Mission Hill’s senior winemaker, is advertising for two winemakers to replace her. One position is for a “commercial” winemaker to deal with the non-VQA wines that are made with imported wines.

The other is for a winemaker to take over production of Mission Hill’s growing range of small lot wines, such as the just released Quatrain (red blend) and the Perpetua Chardonnay.

Wade Stark, who has worked with Kathy for the last 10 years, looks after the bulk of the VQA portfolio, including the Prospect Winery products.

In the week that Mission Hill has advertised the positions, the winery has received more than 50 resumes, including applications from France, from Italy, from Napa and Australia.

According to Simes, some of the resumes are quite impressive.

“I think we are going to get someone who will bring some serious experience,” he says. “It has absolutely blown me away. People are noticing that there is real winemaking going on in the Okanagan.”

Friday, October 31, 2008

Tinhorn Creek wines may not follow the price rise trend

Tinhorn Creek’s 2005 Oldfield’s Collection Merlot, just released at $28 a bottle, should be a $35 wine on the basis of its inherent quality.

There’s a good chance that the next vintage of this premium red will also sell for less than $35. Over the next few weeks, the management at Tinhorn will sit down to talk about wine pricing for next year’s releases, just as the economy shows signs of tanking.

“We wonder if this is the time to raise the price,” admits Sandra Oldfield, the general manager and the winemaker at Tinhorn Creek.

That is great news for consumers who have come to expect Tinhorn Creek to deliver value. Indeed, in Wine Access magazine’s recent International Wine Awards competition, the winery’s $18 “regular” 2005 Merlot was judged the best value Merlot.

If a market leader like Tinhorn Creek is thinking of holding prices, look for many of its peers to do the same. If that happens, VQA wine, now averaging about $18 a bottle, should plateau after rising from a $13 average a decade ago. That is not an unreasonable price, given the limited scale of production in the Okanagan compared with, say, the massive wineries in Chile
or Argentina.

By Okanagan standards, Tinhorn Creek is a large winery. Its annual production of about 40,000 cases gives it the financial resources to hold the price line during tough times. Perhaps the owners should have been more aggressive when pricing their Oldfield’s Collection or reserve wines when the opportunity was there a year or two ago. But they didn’t. The Tinhorn Creek fans are going to get relative bargains for a year or so at least.

The Oldfield’s Collection 2 Bench White 2007, the winery’s top white, is only $23 a bottle. This wine has a marvellous tropical fruit aroma, good mineral and fruit notes on the palate and a crisply dry finish. It is a blend of five white varieties: Sémillon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and a dash of Muscat. It is an outstanding food wine. 88

The Oldfield’s Collection Merlot 2005 ($28) is a dark red with attractive aromas of red fruit and vanilla that are preserved by the screw cap closure. This elegantly svelte wine has flavours of plums and blackberries. While the tannins are long and ripe, there is a structure here that suggests good aging potential as well. This wine, which has eight percent Cabernet

Franc and two percent Syrah, spent 16 months in new French and American oak and as long again aging in bottle before release. The winery produced 1,551 cases. 90

Tinhorn Creek also released two other reds in October. The 2006 Cabernet Franc ($18) – the winemaker once said this is her favourite red – has the bright fruit aromas and the vivacious flavours of spicy currants and blackberry that are typical of the variety. The wine has a firm texture but is drinking well already. Some 2,566 cases were released. 87

The 2006 Cabernet Merlot ($18) is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot. The varietals were aged separately in American oak before being blended and bottled last spring. The Cabernet Franc contributes aromas of red currants and mint. On the palate, the wine has a generous texture and an easy quaffability. The winery made 1,611 cases. 86

Friday, October 24, 2008

New releases: Pentage Winery's six pack

The Pentâge Winery at the south edge of the Penticton city limits has, for the most part, flown beneath the radar screen since opening in 2003. There are a couple of reasons why founders Paul Garner and Julie Rennie have maintained a low profile.

First, there has been no tasting room because, until recently, Julie continued to work at her day job in Vancouver (executive secretary to a top financier). Meanwhile, Paul was fully engaged with created a spectacular winery in 4,000 square-foot man-made cave in the mountainside. It has taken him at least two years but the cave was completed for the 2008 crush. There is a spot set aside for a wine shop.

Secondly, Paul’s real priority has been the development and nurturing of his vineyards, most of which now are producing good quality grapes.

With most of the heavy lifting done, the owners of Pentâge now seem to have a little more time to tweak their marketing. This fall’s release included six wines spanning three vintages, including three 2007 whites. The latter come along just as 2007 Okanagan whites – most of which are released earlier in the year – are getting hard to find.

Not only are the wines good but, unlike some wineries, this one has its prices rooted in reality. The wines are well-priced for the quality, in some instances better than the international competition.

The release includes the winery’s flagship red, Pentâge 2005 ($29). The winery’s unusual name is rooted in the Greek word for five, pente, because there would be five varietals blended in the winery’s best wine. The 2005 is a blend of 45% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 2% Syrah and 1% Gamay. The result is a wine with a powerful aroma of plums and spice and sweet fruit that just explodes from the glass. The flavours are a complex play of red currants, liquorice, chocolate and spice, laid over an earthy minerality. The structure is firm and robust. This wine drinks well now with decanting but can easily be cellared for another five years. 89 with potential to break into the 90s with age.
Pentâge Merlot 2005 ($25) begins with red berry aromas and flavours of currants, spice, plums and vanilla. The structure is robust with long ripe tannins and good concentration. It is a touch firm on the finish but that suggests the wine also has a fine potential to age. 88

Pentâge Pinot Noir 2006 ($23) has an attractive ruby hue in the glass. The aroma begins with a touch of toastiness as well as cherry. This is a bold, even gamy, Pinot Noir, with red berry flavours and a hint of that earthiness that Burgundy lovers appreciate. 87

Pentâge Gewürztraminer 2007 ($18) is an excellent Alsace-style of this variety; a boldly fruity but dry wine ideal for serving with your Christmas turkey, at a lot less that Alsace gewürztraminer. The wine has spice on the nose, with flavours of citrus and lychee and a spicy finish. The texture is rich and the finish is long and satisfying. 90

Pentâge Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon 2007 ($20). A wine with greenish tinges, it has an attractive grapefruit aroma. Not surprisingly, there are also grapefruit flavours, with a good backbone of acidity and minerals and with a dry finish. This tangy wine is a good food wine. 87

Pentâge Pinot Gris 2007 ($18). This is a lean, tangy Pinot Gris, with aromas and flavours of lemon and with bracing acidity, which is surprising since the 13.5% alcohol suggests the grapes were picked close to optimum ripeness. The wine is crisp and refreshing; it needs food to show off its best qualities. 86
The wines can be ordered on-line from the winery's website, www.pentage.com

Friday, October 3, 2008

New releases: Quails' Gate reds

There was little respect for Maréchal Foch wines in British Columbia before an Australian winemaker at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery in 1994 made an Old Vines Foch so big and rich that he passed it off at one tasting (only briefly) as an Australian Shiraz.

The wine has had a cult following ever since the first release. The winery has just released the 12th vintage, some 9,300 bottles of the 2006 Old Vines Foch Reserve at $40 a bottle. Who would have predicted that a wine from a French hybrid grape not even permitted anymore in Europe would command such a serious price? And deserve it.

Once again, this is a bold, robust wine with a dark, almost brooding hue in the glass. There are aromas of vanilla and plum, along with flavours of vanilla, mocha, plum and black cherries, even with a hint of port. The texture is rich and round, with soft tannins. The wine has been aged in new American oak barrels which add a note of spice. It is a very satisfying red, just the wine for game dishes. 90 points.

The secret here is that the grapes come from 40-year-old vines in the estate vineyard at Westbank that are well-farmed. The knock on Foch in the 1980s was that the wines were thin and medicinal. The problem was that the vines, which are quite vigorous, were over-cropped by virtually all growers. When Quails’ Gate started cropping Foch at low tonnages comparable to its vinifera grapes, lovely full-flavoured wines resulted.

A few vintages ago, Quails’ Gate bought an Osoyoos vineyard that has Foch vines which currently are 26 years old. These grapes go into the 2006 Old Vines Foch ($25) and the winery has released 26,500 bottles of this wine. Once again, the wine is dark enough to practically stain a table clothe through the glass. The aromas and flavours include plums, black cherries and mocha. The wine is slightly less concentrated than the OVF Reserve, which probably has something to do with the sandy soil in the vineyard. The alcohol is higher, at 14.8% compared with 14.4%, because grapes get riper in hot Osoyoos. It’s another delicious wine, also great for game. 87

Two other fine reds also have just been released by Quails’ Gate.

The winery has released 6,200 cases (12-bottle cases) of 2006 Merlot ($27), made primarily from grapes grown at the estate vineyard near Westbank. Winemaker Grant Stanley, who likes to live on the edge, fermented the wine with wild yeasts. He also gave it extended skin contact to extract maximum colour and flavour. The result is a plump, full-bodied Merlot. It begins with attractive aromas of red berries. It is layered and complex on the palate, tasting of plums, red fruit and chocolate, with long ripe tannins. 89

The winery also released 2,200 cases of 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($27), all of it from grapes grown on the Westbank vineyard. It says a lot for how well the vines are farmed that the winery makes a Cabernet so good from a comparatively cool site. This wine is every bit as delicious as Cabernets from hotter terroirs in the Oliver and Osoyoos area. Winemaker Stanley approached this much as he did the Merlot (both were aged 18 months in French and American oak barrels).

A medium-bodied wine, it is deep in colour, with aromas of spicy red berries, vanilla, chocolate and the classic cedar/cigar box note that Bordeaux lovers will appreciate. The long ripe tannins frame attractive sweet berry flavours on the palate. 89

The bottom line: four very solid red wines.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Deol Winery is newest Cowichan Valley winery

Gary Deol (l), grower and co-owner.

The Cowichan Valley’s newest winery, Deol Estate Winery, opened quietly last Saturday. It is the seventh British Columbia winery operated by an East Indian family; and there are others under development.

This is the classic story of immigrants who, after doing hard scrabble work when they arrived in British Columbia, are now part of the main stream of the province’s vibrant wine industry.

By a remarkable coincidence, Deol is the third winery owned by East Indian immigrants to open this year. Kalala Organic Estate Winery opened in July in Westbank. Chandra Estate Winery near Oliver began selling wines this summer but plans a grand opening next spring.

Already thriving are Westbank’s Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery (which opened in 2001); Desert Hills Estate Winery (2003) and Orchard Hill Estate Cidery (2007), both near Oliver; and Richmond’s Sanduz Estate Winery (2006).

Surgit Deol’s family immigrated to Canada from the Punjab in 1980, and spent a few years in the Cowichan Valley before moving to Oliver in 1982. As Surgit’s son, Gary remembers, there were perhaps four East Indian families there at the time. Today, he estimates that 300 live there and a number of adapted their Punjabi farming skills to growing grapes. In a growing number of examples, this has progressed to opening well-regarded wineries.

In the 1980s, the Deols, in addition to operating their own orchard, worked in some of the leading vineyards in the south Okanagan. When the searing Okanagan sun caused some health problems, they decided to return to the more moderate Cowichan Valley.

In 1999, the family bought a former dairy farm north of Duncan and, starting the following year, developed a 23-acre vineyard (Gamay, Maréchal Foch, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a few odds and sods). They have been selling grapes to other Vancouver Island but in 2007, looking to extract more value from their farm, they kept back enough fruit to make 1,600 cases of wine.

The cool, wet 2007 vintage on Vancouver Island challenged vineyards trying to ripen wine grapes. The winery owners turned this to an advantage. Rather than make insipid reds from the Gamay and the Pinot Noir, they made a refreshing rosé with the Gamay and a crisp white wine with the Pinot Noir. They froze the Chardonnay grapes and then made an Oregon-style icewine.

Maréchal Foch, the workhorse of Vancouver Island, seldom fails to ripen; so the winery was able to make a full-bodied, barrel-aged red.

All the wines are available currently in a tasting room that the Deol family has built in a renovated century-old farm house. Like the family and like the wines, it has a warm, unpretentious ambiance.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rigamarole wines make it without promotion

When the Okanagan's Artisan Wine Company launched its Rigamarole stable of wines last year, it was little more than a fun project between the winemakers and the marketers. The brand is a rising success. Quirky works - particularly when the wine is $16 a bottle but tastes like it should sell for more.

Perhaps the Artisan Wine Company is a new name to you. Think Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. Basically, Artisan is the holding company under which a number of wine brands, all made at the Mission Hill winery, are being managed.

The strategy is to build a complete wine company with a position in several segments of the market. Last year, Mission Hill recruited a California wine executive, Daniel Zepponi, with previous experience (at Foster's, among other companies) at running a multi-faceted wine group.

As the Artisan group matures, Mission Hill will be the icon property while Prospect Winery will encompass an affordable line of wines with a personality and labels exploiting Okanagan lore and legend, like Ogopogo.

The four-wine Rigamarole brand had been launched before Zepponi arrived last summer. He has been surprised at how well the brand has succeeded with minimal marketing. He wonders what the potential is if the Artisan team give the brand real push. Stay tuned.

This may be the [yellow tail] phenomenon at work again. The eye-catching labels succeed in getting consumers to take a bottle or two - or three - home. Why three? Because, in the case of the red blend and the white blend, there are three different labels. Apparently, the consumer who likes the Rigamarole White with the fainting goat label will go back for the one with the goose or the hedgehog on the label. Rigamarole Red offers a choice of an elephant, a zebra and a rhinoceros. The Sauvignon Blanc and the Rose each offer two label choices.

It may drive the bottling line nuts but it has caught on with consumers. Currently, there are about 4,000 bottles of the White, 2,700 bottles of the Red and 1,300 of the Sauvignon Blanc in various British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch stores (which are apparently sold out of the rose). Private wine stores will also have a good selection.

There is nothing wrong with buying a wine because the label catches the eye, at least the first time. That's how a label is supposed to work, especially with the entry-level wine consumers this is aimed at. Whether you buy the second bottle depends on how you liked the first.

The fact is these wines are well made. If your father-in-law has a wine cellar and a snooty attitude, he may disdain the labels but he is sure to like the wines, should you choose to serve them to him.

Rigamarole White 2007 is a tangy, aromatic blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and unnamed Germanic whites. It has a lush tropical aroma, refreshing grapefruit and lime flavours and a lingering dry finish. This is the absolute standout of the four.

Rigamarole Red 2006 is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Gamay and Pinot Noir. The wine is soft and ripe, with jammy fruit and an earthy hint on the finish.

Rigamarole Sauvignon Blanc 2007 is crisp and zesty, with flavours of grapefuit and with a nice mineral bite.

Rigamarole Rose 2007 is juicy and uncomplicated, with hints of cranberry and a dry finish.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

New Releases: Herder 2007 Three Sisters

Lawrence and Sharon Herder (left), the owners of Herder Winery & Vineyards, have moved their Similkameen Valley winery to a grand location with a tasting room that commands the most spectacular valley view of any winery. They now operate from a large and beautifully remodelled three-storey house set high against a cliff on the north side of the valley, overlooking Keremeos. The tasting room has an absolutely baronial look to it, a far cry from the sensibly modest little wine shop in their original winery near Cawston.

Perhaps the elegance of the tasting room adds to the experience, but the current Herder releases taste really fine. That is especially so of the $20 white called Three Sisters, a blend of Chardonnay (46%), Pinot Gris (36%), Gewurztraminer (11%) and Viognier (7%). This is a complex and satisfying blend, starting with aromas of melons and citrus. The flavours are tropical - guava, tangerine, papaya - with a touch of minerals in the backbone. The tangy lingering finish has a hint of green apples. The moderate 12.8% alcohol contributes to the refreshing personality of Three Sisters. Only 250 cases are available. 90 points.

If you decide to visit, the new tasting room is at 2582 Upper Bench Road, Keremeos. Telephone 250-499-4495. Open daily from 10 to 6.
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

California Cult Classics lures a rising star from the Okanagan

Photo: Kelly Symonds

Hillside Cellars winemaker Kelly Symonds is moving to California Cult Classics, North Vancouver's super-premium do-it-yourself winery.

If the career move seems surprising, it actually makes sense: she will be making wines some of the finest grapes from California, an opportunity not available to her unless she moved there.

California Cult pays $6,000 a ton and up to buy grapes from the same vineyards, including Napa's Beckstoffer Vineyards, that grow for a number of the cult wineries in Napa. "Kelly and I share the same vantage point on winemaking," says Frank Gigliotti, who founded California Cult Classics in 2005. "She loves those big booming California wines that we make here."

A self-taught winemaker with 23 vintages behind him, Gigliotti recruited a professional so that he has more time to market his business. "I didn't ask her to join us to become a cellar rat," he says.

Located in an anonymous industrial mall in North Vancouver, California Cult operates under the stringent U-Vin license. Producers under that license must ensure that their customers take a role in making the wine - wine made for personal consumption and not for sale. California Cult has about 300 members who subscribe for wine by the barrel (or by quarter barrels). The members participate in various stages of making the wine, from adding the yeast to bottling the finished wine; and they take possession of the wine immediately on bottling it.

But there is plenty of room for a hands-on winemaker to help the members produce wines of professional quality. "She can bring a lot of skills to us that we don't have," Gigliotti says. During California Cult's first year, the professional in the cellar was Ray Signorello, the West Vancouver resident with a couple of Napa wineries.

Symonds is a rising star in British Columbia winemaking. A dentist's daughter, she was born in Abbotsford in 1977. She was studying science at university when her mother gave her a wine appreciation course. After a summer job at Sumac Ridge’s wine shop, she got a bachelor’s degree in enology from the University of Adelaide in Australia. In February, 2003, a few months after graduating, she became the cellarmaster at Hillside and, after taking increasing responsibility from Hillside’s consultant, became winemaker in 2005.

Hillside is a Naramata Bench winery that produces about 10,000 cases a year. "We make about a quarter of that," Gigliotti says.

Kelly is helping California Cult make the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from grapes that arrived from California on September 11. She will handle the 2008 vintage for Hillside, however, and will help the winery find a replacement.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Liquor Boards get tough on winery-direct sales

At least two Canadian liquor boards, including the mammoth Liquor Control Board of Ontario, have recently taken a tough line with wineries that have shipped wine across provincial borders to private buyers.

It has been illegal since 1928 to ship wine across provincial borders to any recipient but a provincial liquor board.

In the past, enforcement has been spotty unless the infractions were obvious. Some years ago, for example, a strike at the Saskatchewan Liquor Board caused residents to shop in liquor stores in neighbouring provinces. In one instance, unionized employees stationed themselves in Manitoba Liquor Commission parking lots to note down Saskatchewan license plates. These were passed on to the police in Saskatchewan so that they could stop cars returning from Manitoba and seize liquor.

The issue of trans-border liquor sales is on the regulatory radar screen this time because most wineries now sell through their websites. While they are not supposed to ship directly to purchasers in other provinces, some have been doing it.

Now they are being told to stop. The Red Rooster Winery in the Okanagan got a stern warning from the Manitoba Liquor Commission. As a result, Andrew Peller Ltd. has forbidden all of its British Columbia wineries from filling out-of-province orders.

Another Okanagan winery has had its knuckles rapped by the Ontario board and was threatened with a loss of its listings in Ontario.

The intent of the 1928 legislation, the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, very likely was control. Canadian provinces emerged from Prohibition, which began in 1917 in Canada, by setting up liquor control boards. This was a way of getting the temperance movement off the backs of governments.

The LCBO explained this in its 1990 annual report: “The creation of the LCBO recognized the concerns held by both prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists; it represented a mid-way point between unrestricted liquor sales and outright prohibition.”

Today, the ban on inter-provincial shipment of wine and other spirits through private channels is all about tax collection. Liquor boards insist on getting their mark-ups from every bottle sold. As they see it, when a winery ships directly to private buyers in other jurisdictions, the winery is evading tax.

The Canadian Vintners Association has been pushing Ottawa to lift the ban. The CVA was optimistic last fall when the federal government said it its throne speech that it intended to remove barriers to interprovincial trade. How many times have we heard that promise?

Once again, that has turned out to be an empty promise. Now, it seems that liquor boards are making sure the door is slammed shut.

The irony is that the United States Supreme Court tore down just such barriers three years ago. Most American wineries now can ship directly across that country.

It would be of great benefit to Canadian wineries if they were allowed to fulfill all orders that come to them from private purchasers. It would allow consumers to buy wines from other regions that are simply not available in most provincial liquor stores.

Try buying a Quebec wine or a Nova Scotia wine at your local liquor monopoly!

Don’t hold your breathe. It may not happen in our lifetimes.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

British Columbia Vineyard Acreage Explodes

Photo: New vines at Blue Mountain Vineyards

The area under vineyard in British Columbia has more than doubled in a decade, reaching 9,066 acres (3,626 hectares) this year.

Even though the pace of expansion is slowing due to a lack of suitable vineyard land, forecasts suggest that another 1,500 acres (607 hectares) will be planted during the next two years.

This data comes from the latest vineyard census compiled for the British Columbia Wine Institute by Oliver consultants Lynn and John Bremmer, principals of Mount Kobau Wine Services.

The numbers suggest a very dynamic wine industry but also one with marketing issues in the future. By 2012, when these plantings are mature, the industry will be able to produce about 23 million litres of wine, double the production of 2004.

Until recently, most British Columbia wineries sold everything they made with ease, primarily within the province. In the future, it may not be so easy to sell all that wine at home.

There are now 144 licensed wineries in British Columbia and 20 more grape wineries with pending licenses. That is up from 90 licensed wineries in 2004.

In fact, the number of wineries and potential producers is higher. The census has omitted several fruit wineries recently opened or under development. It has not counted the three meaderies or the two rice wine producers and it has omitted several winery projects that will not open before 2010. A ballpark figure of wineries open or solidly under development is about 175.

Here is the rising vineyard acreage

2008: 9,066 acres/3,626 ha
2006: 6,632 acres/2,653 ha
2004: 5,462.47 acres/2,185 ha
1999: 4,184 acres/1,693 ha

Some 84.3% of that acreage is in the Okanagan Valley, with 6.4% in the Similkameen Valley, 7.3% on the coast or Vancouver Island. The remaining two percent are in what the census calls “other” areas, including the Kootenays, Kamloops and the Fraser Canyon.

At least 100 acres have been planted in these other areas, as new or would-be vintners in British Columbia have begun to push the envelope. With global warming reducing winter’s severity and with hardier grape varieties, the prospect of wineries in locales such as Kamloops is becoming real.

The census also tracks the grape varieties being planted. Red varieties account for 51% of the plantings.

These are the five most widely planted reds

Merlot 1,585.46 acres or 17.49% of total plantings

Pinot Noir 793.41 acres or 8.75% of total plantings

Cabernet Sauvignon 680.87 acres or 7.51% of total plantings

Syrah 516.27 acres or 5.70% of total plantings

Cabernet Franc 391.18 acres or 4.31% of total plantings

These are the five most widely planted whites

Pinot Gris 928.29 acres or 10.24% of total plantings

Chardonnay 866.26 acres or 9.56% of total plantings

Gewürztraminer 643.77 acres or 7.10% of total plantings

Sauvignon Blanc 438.76 acres or 4.84% of total plantings

Pinot Blanc 369.14 acres or 4.07% of total plantings

The most significant changes in those planting areas are:

* Syrah plantings have more than doubled since 2004, to jump ahead of Cabernet Franc.

* Pinot Gris has jumped ahead of Chardonnay for the first time since these vineyard censuses were begun.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Oculus Breaks Out

Photo: John Simes

Here are the top 10 VQA wines in the Liquor Distribution Branch

There is a big surprise in the just released annual report of the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch, covering the 12 months to March 31, 2008.

Mission Hill’s Oculus, one of the most expensive table wines made in the Okanagan, is among the top 10 British Columbia VQA brands by sales volume. The 2004 Oculus, the most recent release, sells for $70 a bottle.

In the 2007/08 fiscal year, the LDB sold $1,121,000 worth of Oculus. That’s serious coin. Clearly, Oculus has made a break through, winning a substantial following among top restaurateurs and serious wine collectors. Hats off to Mission Hill.

Now Mission Hill’s flagship red, Oculus was first made in the 1997 vintage. Recent vintages showed a major step up in quality and complexity, with more of the Bordeaux red varieties going into the blend than was the case initially. The 2004 Oculus is a blend of 74% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot.

When I tasted this wine last September, I scored it 94 points. With a higher percentage of Merlot than usual (the previous vintage was 47% Merlot), the wine is the richest Oculus so far and one of the finest that winemaker John Simes has made.

Mission Hill’s decision to raise the price to $70 for the 2004 vintage very likely accelerated the sales of the wine. Earlier vintages sold between $35 and $50 a bottle, and sold relatively slowly. Mission Hill’s marketers scored with the psychology that drives wine collectors and high-end restaurant wine lists by giving the wine a premium price and luxury packaging. The soon to be released 2005 will sell for the same price.

Mission Hill’s achievement is not just that it made a great wine but that it made a surprising quantity of it. The LDB’s sales figure suggest that about 16,000 bottles moved through the liquor stores alone; and the wine was also sold through other channels.

With one exception, all of the top 10 VQA brands showed an increase in sales through the LDB compared with the previous year. Here is the table, showing sales in the 12 months to March 31, 2008, and the percentage change from the previous year:

Sumac Ridge Private Reserve Gewürztraminer $2,143,000 15.8

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio $1,486,000 19.8

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Cabernet Merlot $1,324,000 79.7

Gray Monk Pinot Gris $1,221,000 79.9

Quails’ Gate Limited Release Chasselas/Pinot Blanc $1,220,000 68.9

Gray Monk Latitude 50 Select White $1,203,000 22

Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris $1,164,000 78.7

Mission Hill Oculus $1,211,000 N/A

Jackson-Triggs Vintners Reserve Merlot $1,211,000 22.2

Burrowing Owl Merlot $1,101,000 -31.4

Oculus is on the list because the 2004 vintage was the first one that Mission Hill sold through the LDB in volume. What is so remarkable is to see a $70 wine on a list with wines selling between $15 and $25.

Sumac Ridge’s Gewürztraminer ($15) is Canada’s largest selling VQA Gewürztraminer and has had that ranking for quite some time.

Mission Hill’s Five Vineyards tier of wines is slowly migrating to a new brand that the winery launched last year: Ganton& Larsen Prospect Wine Company. Look for these value wines under that label.

Gray Monk and Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris both are long time favourites among those who love that white. The wines are quite different in style; Gray Monk’s wine is fruitier, with perhaps a touch of sweetness while Burrowing Owl is drier and more herbal. Both are exceptionally consistent.

Jackson-Triggs and Burrowing Owl Merlot also are long-time favourites for Merlot lovers. The decline in Burrowing Owl sales likely is because the winery sold less through the LDB and more through other channels.

The Quails’ Gate Chasselas/Pinot Blanc ($16.99) and the Gray Monk Latitude 50 ($13.99) are popular on many wine lists because the wines are very well made, affordable and food-friendly.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Starling Lane Winery: Small is Beautiful

Photo: Jerry Mussio (l), Jacqueline Wrinch, Ken Houston (standing), John Wrinch (r)

The challenging cool and wet 2007 vintage on Vancouver Island put all the wineries to the test. The Saanich Peninsula’s Starling Lane Winery mastered that challenge well to release remarkably-crafted wines.

This is one of British Columbia’s smallest wineries. It makes a mere 6,000 to 7,000 bottles a year Most is sold from the wine shop on a picturesque farm on Old West Saanich Road that once belonged to Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, British Columbia’s first chief justice. He enforced the law so firmly that someone after his death dubbed him The Hanging Judge. That was briefly considered as a possible winery name before the three couples behind Starling Lane opened the winery in 2005

The couples are all gentleman farmers who are retired, or nearly retired, from various professions. They all planted two-acre vineyards in the 1990s. When they could not get a decent price for their grapes from a large winery, they formed their own winery.

The Begbie farm is owned by Victoria radiologist John Wrinch (who is the winemaker) and his wife Jacqueline. The other partners are Jerry and Sherry Mussio and Ken and Susan Houston. The skills of the six partners are conveniently complementary. Sherry is an artist who designs the labels; Susan does the books; Jacqueline runs the tasting room; Ken manages the cellar and Jerry does much of the marketing. Each couple looks after postcard vineyards planted carefully with varieties that can ripen on the Saanich Peninsula.

Pinot Noir is the only variety that really struggled here in 2007. Even with a very low crop on the vines, the berries did not get ripe enough to yield table wines as fine as the prize winners made in the two previous vintages. Starling Lane found a silver lining in this, turning its Pinot Noir into a classic sparkling wine.

I have been impressed with Starling Lane’s wines every since the winery opened. The current releases, mostly from 2007, do not retreat from the standards the partners have set for themselves. Because production is so tiny, most of the wines are sold out but they may be encountered in a few Victoria area restaurants.

Pinot Noir 2006 ($25). This dark wine begins with aromas of chocolate and black cherries. On the silky palate, there are flavours of vanilla, strawberry and cherry. The wine is rich and satisfying and unexpectedly big for a Vancouver Island Pinot Noir. 88+ points. Only 100 cases were made.

Pinot Blanc 2007 ($19). With the most tangy acidity of Starling Lane’s 2007 whites, this wine demands a plate of oysters. The wine begins with aromas of melons and shows green apple flavours. It has a clean, crisp and tangy finish. 86. Only 31 cases were made.

Pinot Gris 2007 ($19). This wine has the bouquet and taste of citrus, lifted by an alluring spiciness (possibly from a subtle use of oak barrels). The finish is clean, fresh and dry. 88. Only 68 cases were made.

Ortega 2007 ($19). This white is arguably the flagship variety on Vancouver Island because it ripens reliably to produce a fruity wine that – like this one – reminds one of Sauvignon Blanc. This wine begins with aromas of herbs, flowers and melons. On the palate, there are zesty grapefruit notes. It finishes with a refreshing crispness. 89. The winery made 142 cases.

Not tasted is the winery’s 2007 Maréchal Foch and its Blackberry Dessert Wine. Previous vintages of these two were among the best on the island.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Blasted Church scores with screw caps

Screw caps and juicy-tasting wines: is there a relation?

By John Schreiner

July 17, 2008

Several years ago, Blasted Church Vineyards switched entirely to bottling all of its wines under screw cap.

This was done because the winery’s owners and their winemakers agreed on the importance of avoiding the issue of cork taint. Only a small percentage of wines ever develop that mustiness that is called “corked” but those wines reflect poorly on everything a winery releases.

Screw cap closures, while not without problems of their own, at least eliminate cork taint. But more importantly, they are better at preserving the exuberant fruity aromas and flavours of young wines. A year or two later, when those bottles are opened, the aromas and flavours are still fresh and attractive.

I believe the closure is one reason why the 2006 Blasted Church Syrah just won a Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Excellence. I tasted the wine at the winery this spring. Then as a member of the judging panel in the LG Awards, I tasted it blind. My notes were similar and my score exactly the same (88). The wine is medium-bodied for a Syrah but it wins with lovely aromas of cloves and cinnamon and pepper, nicely preserved by the closure.

Recently, I have tasted several new releases from Blasted Church. All show the benefit of their closure, to say nothing of good winemaking.

This winery, located near Okanagan Falls, has had more than its share of winemaker turnover. The original winemaker was replaced when Chris and Evelyn Campbell, in 2002, bought what was then a two-year-old winery. Their first winemaker, Frank Supernak, died that fall in a tragic accident.

The winemaker who did the 2003 vintage was a promising young South African who could not get his work visa extended. The winemaker who did the 2004 vintage left the following spring after a falling out with the owners.

Kelly Moss, formerly a winemaker at Calona Vineyards, joined Blasted Church to do the 2005 and 2006 vintages before moving back to her Ontario hometown to raise a young family.

The 2007 vintage was done by Australian-trained Richard Kanazawa, a one-time cellar hand at Domaine de Chaberton and then winemaker at Red Rooster. He looks like a keeper, if only because he revels in working at a winery that grows nearly all of its own grapes. It is an ideal situation when the winemaker can ask the vineyard manager for the kind of favours that permit him to make good wine.

For example, Blasted Church grows both Chardonnay and Chardonnay Musqué. Often, the two clones mingle together in the vineyard. Richard gets away with asking that the Musqué clone be picked separately so that, in the winery, its spicy personality is not diluted by the broader flavours of the other Chardonnay.

Blasted Church 2007 Chardonnay Musqué ($17.99) is crisp and fresh, with aromas that ran from floral to spicy to cantaloupe and with clean melon flavours and a dry finish. 88

Among the winery’s other current releases:

Blasted Church 2007 Pinot Gris ($19.99) is another fruit-driven wine, with pear and banana aromas and flavours of pears, apples and melons. The finish is persistent. 88

Blasted Church 2007 Hatfield’s Fuse ($16.99) is a tropical fruit bomb, a blend of Chardonnay, Ehrenfelser, Optima, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. There are flours and aromas of bananas, guava, melons, pineapple and tangerine. It is rich on the palate but finishes crisply. 90

Blasted Church 2007 Gewürztraminer ($16.99). This a wine that goes for elegance rather than the oily power that some Gewürztraminers show. The aromas are floral (rose petals and spice) and the flavours recall grapefruit. The wine is lively, refreshing and dry on the finish. 89

Blasted Church 2007 The Dam Flood ($18.99). This is a blend of 60% Lemberger and 40% Merlot, if only because consumers won’t buy Lemberger varietals. In any event, the blend is better than the straight varietal. This is a dark, peppery red with flavours of red currants, cherries and raspberry. The wine’s rustic personality makes it an excellent barbecue red. 86

Blasted Church 2006 Cabernet Merlot ($25.99). This is 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot and it shows a bit of the herbaceousness and firmness of the Cabernet. With decanting, the wine opens to show flavours of currants and plums. 87

Blasted Church 2006 Merlot ($25.99). I tasted this wine in the spring and again recently and noted a superb bottle development occurring. The wine is lusciously seductive in texture, with aromas and flavours of blueberries, blackberries, cherries and plums. The wine has good weight on the palate. It also develops in the glass, with the result that my point score climbed from 88 to 90 as the wine was being enjoyed with a meal.

In every wine, I believe that the closure did a brilliant job at retaining the fundamental flavours and aromas of the grapes that Richard and Kelly captured in the winery.