Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New releases: Van Westen's 2008 white wines

The best white wine vintage in the Okanagan in many years was (in my view anyway) the 2008 vintage. Nearly all the 2008 I tasted over the past eight months were packed with fruit flavours, made ever more savoury by the vintage’s bright acidity.

Alas, many of the 2008 whites are sold out now … but here comes Robert Van Westen (photo above). Never one to rush his wines, he has just released the 2008 whites from his Van Westen Vineyards. It is one more chance to taste that vintage’s terrific whites. The wines are all under screw cap, further preserving their freshness.

There are three wines, all with labels beginning with V, a particular conceit at Van Westen Vineyards, and one that may prove limiting in the future, as when he releases his first Cabernet Franc as Vrankenstein, not a label I would expect to see on the table at, say, Bishop’s, however good the wine will surely be.

One never knows, of course. Robert and Tammi, his wife, have a regular list of customers in the Vancouver area to whom they deliver their wines personally. This engaging couple could sell ice cubes in Inuvik. Selling V wines should be easy for them.

Especially if they are selling the Van Westen Viognier 2008 ($24.90). Happily for Robert and for the rest of us, Viognier is a grape that begins with a V, grows brilliantly in the Okanagan and produces wines of distinction. The variety, unusual for a white grape, has a bit of tannin in the skins, resulting in wines with excellent structure. This wine is full on the palate, with aromas and flavours of apricots and tangerines. The bright acidity of 2008 turbocharges the fresh fruit flavours and gives the wine a crisp finish. Only 120 cases were released. 90.

Van Westen Vino Grigio 2008 ($18.90) is Robert’s take on Pinot Gris. Only 333 cases were released. Here is another delicious white packed with fruit – ripe pears, peaches and papayas, with a hint of anise on the finish. Again, the bright acidity adds to the crisp, refreshing finish. 88.

Van Westen Vivacious 2008 ($18.90) is primarily Pinot Blanc with a touch of Pinot Gris (230 cases released). Pinot Blanc can be a rather neutral wine but not when made by Robert Van Westen. A portion of this wine is barrel-fermented and aged on the lees, which were stirred regularly to enrich the texture and to add complexity to the crisp apple flavours. On the finish, there are stone fruit and mineral flavours, even a note of austerity. Definitely a food wine. 87-88.

Monday, December 21, 2009

New from Australia - Yabby Lake wines

Had it not been for the arrival of samples on my door step, I might never have heard of the Yabby Lake Winery.

It is one of the hundreds of Australian wineries created in the gold rush of that country’s winery proliferation in the 1990s. Since then, some have closed and others have been absorbed by conglomerate wine groups.

Yabby Lake remains family-owned and, judging by the quality of the wines, will come through the current cycle in that industry successfully.

You could look up Yabby Lake on the web. Since I have already done that, let me save you the time by providing a tiny snapshot about this winery. (There’s not much more on their website, anyway.)

What makes the wines exciting is the vineyard’s cool climate location on the Mornington Peninsula, about an hour south of Melbourne.

This region has emerged as something of a playground for Melbourne’s wine lovers, with about 30 wineries in close proximity of each other. The Peninsula has emerged as one of the best places in Australia for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. British wine writer Jancis Robinson, who was there for a tasting early in 2009, heaped praise on the wines of the peninsula.

An Australian businessman named Robert Kirby was, in 1992, among the pioneers of viticulture on the peninsula. The Yabby Lake vineyard was planted a few years later. The Kirby family also planted a vineyard in 1999 at Heathcote, just north of Melbourne, a long established viticultural region in the state of Victoria. Here, they grow only Shiraz on some of the oldest soil in Australia.

The resources to get into the wine business appear to have been generated by a business now known as Village Roadshow Ltd. It was started by the Kirby family in 1954 to operate drive-in theatres around Melbourne. It has grown into a substantial media company It operates cinemas, produces movies, and runs theme parks in Australia and in the U.S.

Given their apparently deep pockets, the Kirby family has invested in top vineyard sites and has hired top winemakers and consultants to produce top-ranked wines. For example, one of their consultants is a New Zealand winemaker called Larry McKenna who has a stellar reputation as a Pinot Noir maker.

For much of its wine history, Australia was not known for either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Prior to the 1980s, these varieties either were not grown or were grown in inappropriate terroirs. Who can forget the big, blowsy, over-ripe and over-oaked Chardonnays of that era?

The Mornington Peninsula is great terroir for both these varieties. The wines are full of flavour, not too alcoholic and finish with the crisp, bright focus that comes from the lively acidity.

The Yabby Lake wines are represented in western Canada by Renaissance Wine Merchants Ltd. of Vancouver. You might need that information since only one of the wines reviewed here is in the liquor store system. The others are all speculative listings; they are more likely found in private wine stores. They are all worth seeking out. Here are my notes.

Cooralook Chardonnay 2008 ($17.99 in the LDB): Yabby Lake’s entry-level brand, this wine is an excellent value Chardonnay – crisp, refreshing, very subtly oaked so as not to mask the attractive citrus flavours. 88.

Cooralook Pinot Noir 2008 ($20.38). Another good value wine, this tasty wine has flavours of raspberry and spice with the classic fleshy texture of Pinot Noir. 88.

Yabby Lake Chardonnay 2006 ($42.82). This sophisticated, barrel-fermented Chardonnay is a complex blend of six clones of Chardonnay. The wine delivers laser-focused flavours of lime and lemon. The oak comes through as a subtle hint of hazelnut. Even though this is a medium-bodied wine, the abundance of fruit gives it a richness on the finish while the acidity gives it crispness. 90-92.

Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2006 ($50.98). Here is a full and satisfying Pinot Noir, an almost jammy wine with black cherry, spice and strawberry notes, with a hint of sweet mocha on the finish. 92.

Heathcote Estate Shiraz 2006 ($42.82). Are you tired of soft, syrupy Australian shirazes? Then try a cool-climate take on the variety. The wine is dark, with aromas of spice and cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, cherries and spice. The wine has a rustic earthiness to the finish (remember that it grew on old soils) and good acidity and structure, all part of the wine’s interesting personality. 90.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Inniskillin's Discovery Series - Sandor Mayer's toy box

The winemakers who work with the Vincor wineries in the Okanagan are among the most talented in the valley. But Inniskillin Okanagan’s Sandor Mayer (photo above) occupies a special place among that group: he runs the toy store.

His colleagues all make wine with what you might consider the mainstream varietals – Merlot, Chardonnay and so on. Sandor also gets to work with those grapes but Vincor assigned him the additional task of working with some of the exotic varietals from its vineyards.

These are released under the “Discovery Series” tag, almost always in small lot quantities. The ultimate objective is to test additional varietals in the Okanagan and then plant more acreage of the best. Sandor was assigned the job of making these wines several vintages ago, starting with a hugely successful Zinfandel. Other interesting varieties have now turned up on his crush pad. Judging from the current releases under this series, everything is a keeper.

I would speculate that Sandor got the assignment partly because of his background in research and partly because he is a willing hard worker, as he proved when he got the job to redevelop what is now the Inniskillin Dark Horse Vineyard.

Born in Hungary in 1958, he began making wine at 14 with his father before getting a university degree in winemaking and viticulture. He went to work with Hungary’s major wine research institute and then moved on to a vineyard manager’s job in the country’s famed Lake Balaton region. When neither the salary nor the opportunities were adequate, he and his wife, Andrea (also a winemaker), slipped out of Hungary. After a year in Austria, an uncle in the Okanagan sponsored their emigration to Canada in 1988.

The timing was bad. There were almost no jobs in British Columbia’s shrunken wine industry after two-thirds of the vines has been pulled out in 1988. Mayer took what he could get – a cellar job here, another one there. Finally, Alan Tyabji hired him in the summer of 1990 to replant the vineyard at what was then Okanagan Vineyards.

This property, south of Oliver, had been the first estate winery in the south Okanagan. After it failed, it was acquired first by a car dealer and then in 1987 by Tyabji, a former Calona Winery executive. He was just in time to take advantage of the 1988 grape pullout program, when government compensated producers who pulled out Okanagan Riesling and other mediocre varieties. Tyabji pulled out everything in his vineyard. A couple of years later, when he was able to order premium vines from France, he hired Sandor to get the vineyard ready.

The property was then an ugly tangle of wires, posts and dead vines. “Many times, I went up to the vineyard, looked at the big mess, scratched my head and went home,” Sandor recounted later. But he hung in there and gradually the Dark Horse Vineyard emerged, among other strengths, to be one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon sites in the Okanagan.

Inniskillin bought the vineyard and winery in 1996. Except for a brief stint at the Jackson-Triggs winery, Sandor has been Inniskillin’s winemaker ever since.

Not everything that was planted at Dark Horse in the early 1990s was best for the sun-bathed site. Varieties better suited to in cool sites, such as Gewürztraminer, have been replaced. Several of the Discovery Series varieties now grow here: Marsanne and Rousanne, two Rhone whites, and Tempranillo, the Spanish red.

Other grapes for the Discovery Series wines grow in various Vincor vineyards in the south Okanagan. Here are notes on the wines. Most are available only at the winery or in restaurants, although the winery surely will ship case-lot orders. Contact Audrey Silbernagel at 800.498.6211.

2008 Discovery Series Marsanne Rousanne ($24.99). This is one of the most satisfying whites I have tasted from the Okanagan in some time. It begins with citrus and apricot aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of melon, apple and more stone fruit. The wine is fresh and crisp, but with good weight on the palate and with a lingering finish. Only 340 cases were made. 90-92

2007 Discover Series Chenin Blanc ($16.99). At 1,800 cases, this is the highest volume wine of any of the Discovery wines, and is available in Alberta and Manitoba stores as well as in B.C. The wine begins with lush tropical aroma, shows flavours of peach, mango, guava and tangerine. The wine has a honey-like late harvest character on the mid-palate but is balanced to finish dry. This wine is an unforgettable tour de force. 90

2007 Discovery Series Malbec ($24.99). There are 575 cases of this wine, which is a world-class Malbec of power and elegance. It begins with aromas of pepper and spice. Rich and full on the palate, the wine presents flavours of spice and cherry and blackberry and chocolate. Every sip invites another. 92

2006 Discovery Series Petit Verdot $29.99. The winery has released 400 cases of this wine, seldom seen as a single varietal because most is used in luxury red blends. This is a bright, vibrant wine, with aromas of spice and cherry and red berries, and with flavours of cherry and currants with a touch of spice and a hint of mocha on the finish. The tannins are ripe but firm, suggesting this wine will cellar well for some years yet. 88-90

2007 Discover Series Sangiovese ($29.99). Sangiovese is an Italian red that has often flopped when planted outside of Tuscany. I prefer this wine to a lot of Tuscan reds I have had. It is fleshier, bigger on the palate with ripe tannins and with classic aromas and flavours of spice and cherries. Only 100 cases were released. 90

2007 Discovery Series Tempranillo ($29.99.The winery has released 200 cases. The medium-bodied wine has an attractively dark garnet hue, with aromas of red fruit, oak and mocha. It has flavours of cherry and cranberry and spice. The wine needs decanting to round out the tannins. This would be a candidate for further cellaring. 88-90

2007 Tempranillo Icewine ($99.99). I believe Tempranillo icewine is a world first for British Columbia. In a decade of dedicated icewine tasting, I have never before tasted one elsewhere. (It would never get cold enough in Spain, not that the Spanish need another dessert wine anyway.) Here, D'Angelo Vineyards and now Inniskillin had produced this wine. It has a lovely ruby hue, with aromas and flavours of strawberry and plum jam. The wine is beautifully balanced; the sweet finish is vibrant and fresh, never cloying. 90

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is there Nothing Sacred at Blasted Church?

The newest release from Blasted Church Vineyards, Nothing Sacred 2007, is a milestone wine.

It is the winery’s first full-out Bordeaux blend. It is also the wine that says that Richard Kanazawa (photo above), the winemaker who joined Blasted Church in 2007, has put his stamp fully on the portfolio.

The wine also marks the beginning of other important changes that are coming here. The most noteworthy is that, next year, Blasted Church will begin offering its wines under new labels and in lighter (more environmentally friendly) bottles.

Based in Okanagan Falls, Blasted Church began life in 2000 as Prpich Hills. New owners two years later changed the name, hiring Vancouver marketing guru Bernie Hadley-Beauregard for the re-branding.

He came up with Blasted Church, a name inspired by an old church in Okanagan Falls that was moved there in the 1920s from a mining ghost town in the south Okanagan. The movers famously set up a charge of dynamite to loosen the building nails in what the locals soon called the blasted church.

Even cleverer than the name were Bernie’s labels (see an example above) – lively caricatures that made the wines stand out in any wine store or restaurant table. The winery had a lot of fun with the labels. For example, in a bit of strategic flattery, the images of senior Canadian wine writers appear on the Pinot Gris label.

The labels were an immense hit with consumers and played no small part in the growth of this winery into a 20,000-case producer.

When the labels were rolled out, Hadley-Beauregard advised Blasted Church to revisit the branding in four years. For one reason or the other, it has taken an extra three years for this to happen – but happen it will, next year.

“We are performing a rather neat brand rejuvenation project at Blasted Church in the new year,” Hadley-Beauregard told me in a recent email. “Essentially, the current (and very successful) label series will be retired, and a completely new series introduced throughout 2010 (as each of the new vintage wines come to market).”

No doubt, there is a market rationale for this. From the winemaking point of view, there is also a rationale: the wines of Blasted Church have become too seriously good for irreverent (pardon the pun) labels.

At last two developments account for the continual improvement in the wines.

First, Blasted Church has had professional viticulturists looking after its vineyards for several years. The current vineyard manager, Morton Serbon, who joined the winery last summer, is trained and experienced in Australian vineyards.

Second, the winemaking regime has stabilized. Due to various unfortunate circumstances, the winery has had six winemakers since 2002. Even though all were more than capable, the style of the wines never quite settled down.

Richard Kanazawa looks like a keeper. Born in Langley in 1972, he came to winemaking by chance. After a brief stint as a professional rugby player in Japan, he came back to Canada needing a job and got one delivering wines for Domaine de Chaberton. He studied food technology at the BC Institute of Technology, hoping that would springboard him into a winemaker’s job. When it did not, he went to Australia in 2002where he studied winemaking and worked with several wineries.

Returning to Canada in 2004, he found a job at the Red Rooster winery. Before leaving that winery for Blasted Church, he made the 2006 Malbec with which Red Rooster won its first Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence.

In the 2007 vintage, he shared cellar responsibilities with winemaker Kelly Moss. Shortly after vintage, she moved to Ontario for family reasons. Richard got the 2007 whites into bottle and finished the 2007 reds. Since then, he has been the senior winemaker here.

His 2008 white wines have been released for some months now. The Gewürztraminer (89-90), the Riesling and a blend called Mixed Blessings are sold out. Still available is a tangy, herbal Sauvignon Blanc ($18.99), fruity Pinot Gris ($19.99), underrated Chardonnay Musqué ($17.99) and the winery’s most popular aromatic white blend, Hatfield’s Fuse ($17.99). All of these score 88 to 90.

For Hatfield’s Fuse fans, the winery is making about 6,000 cases from the 2009 vintage.

The 2007 reds were finished very well. Nothing Sacred 2007 ($39.99) is a blend of 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 23% Malbec and 11% Cabernet Franc. Individual parcels of fruit came from vineyards on the Naramata Bench, Oliver and Osoyoos as well as Blasted Church’s Skaha Lake Bench Vineyard. Each lot was processed separately and aged in new French oak. In the end, 216 cases of a fine hand-crafted wine have been released. It is an elegant and complex red with the spice of Malbec defining the aroma. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, black cherry, cedar and blackberry. This is a 91 point wine, perhaps more with a few years in the cellar.

The winery’s Syrah 2007 ($25.99) is a generous wine with the classics notes that are beginning to define Okanagan Syrah – pepper on the nose and the finish, along with earthy, gamy flavours of plum and blackberry. 89.

At a recent tasting Richard also brought a barrel sample of the Syrah 2008. This wine includes some Viognier in the blend. Perhaps that accounts for the additional elegance of what will be a very delicious wine when released. 90.

The only 2008 red released so far is The Dam Flood ($18.99), a cheerful blend of 60% Merlot, 40% Lemberger, a juicy, quaffable red with flavours of plum and blueberry. 88. The winery has released 1,500 cases of this.

Just about to be released is Pinot Noir 2008. The 2007 is still in the market for $25 and that’s fine because the 2008 needs another six months or so to begin showing its potential.

At a recent tasting, Richard also brought along barrel samples of several exciting reds that are not yet finished. The Malbec Syrah 2008 (the sold-out 2007 vintage sold for $40) is a marvellous combination of Malbec’s coffee, plum and spicy notes with Syrah’s pepper and gamy flavours. 90.

There were also promising barrel samples of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec from the 2008 vintage. Clearly, Blasted Church has good wine with which to launch whatever the rebranding will look like.

Dutch treats in the B.C. wine industry

Photos: Rob Van Westen (top) and Fort Berens owners Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek

This is my column in the current issue of the Deep Cove Crier, reproduced here for your interest.

By sheer coincidence, two immigrant couples from Holland with economics degrees from rival Dutch universities and a former Dutch dairy farmer have just begun making wine in British Columbia.

That brings to seven the number of wineries run by individuals of Dutch heritage, with a possible eighth in the wings.

While there is a melting pot of many nationalities in our wine industry, this column zeroes in just on the remarkable Dutch collection.

Ancient Hill Vineyards (4918 Anderson Road, Kelowna BC V1X 7V7. Tel: (250) 491-2766

This winery, which will open its tasting room next spring, is on a hillside east of Kelowna International Airport. Ancient Hills is owned by Richard and Jitske Kamphuys (rhymes with compass). He is a graduate of the famous Erasmus University but he never practised economics. The couple came to Canada in 1992 to take up a rural lifestyle on an Okanagan apple orchard.

In 2005 they tore out the trees, replacing over several years with 27,000 vines (Baco Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Lemberger, Zweigelt and Pinot Noir). The first crush in 2009 was done in an attractive new winery, designed by architect Robert Mackenzie.

The winery is in one of the Okanagan’s most historic vineyard areas. In the 1930s, Hungarian-born Eugene and Virgil Rittich pioneered the Okanagan’s first serious trials with vinifera grapes not far from Ancient Hills. The orchardists who previously owned the Ancient Hills property planted vines in 1944 after being encouraged by the Rittich brothers. A hard winter five years later killed most of the vines although 40 unidentified vines remain on the property. The current owners have uncovered a fair bit of the history.

Celista Vineyards (2319 Beguelin Road, Celista, BC, V0E 1L0. Tel:
(250) 955-8600.) This Shuswap vineyard may be a few years away from opening a winery. However, owner Jake Ootes (rhymes with Otis) had another Shuswap winery make wine from his grapes this fall, allowing him to see what his vineyard delivers before investing in a winery.

Jake was born in Holland in 1942 and came to Canada with his parents when he was eight. He has had a remarkable career that included being an assistant to the commission of the Northwest Territories, publishing newspapers and magazines in the north, and going into politics. He was the NWT’s minister of education before retiring and, with his wife Margaret, moving to a lovely farm on the north side of Shuswap Lake and planting vines.

Echo Valley Vineyards (4651 Waters Road, PO Box 816, Duncan, BC, V9L 3Y2. Tel: (250) 748-1470. This winery was opened in 2003 by Alfred Brennink, a retired architect, and his son, Edward. This secluded property is worth the visit for its beautiful location.

If you go, telephone first. Alfred, who bright his family to Canada in 1979, is returning to Europe and the winery has been for sale during the past year. The future for this winery remains uncertain.

Fort Berens Estate Winery (PO Box 758, 1881 Highway 99 N., Lillooet, B.C., V0K 1V0. Tel: (250) 256-7788). This winery, which bills itself as Whistler’s local winery, opened in October on the site where the Hudson’s Bay Company started, and then abandoned, Fort Berens in 1859.

The owners are Rolf de Bruin and his wife, Heleen Pannekoek, who emigrated to Canada last year with two young children. The couple met at the University of Groningen where both studied business and economics. She had a 15-year career with ING Bank and he was a successful management consultant.

About five years ago, they made a lifestyle decision to leave the corporate fast track. Having vacation in British Columbia several times and being interested in wine, they chose to develop a winery here. They were getting discouraged at the price of vineyard land in the Okanagan when they learned of the grape growing trials on the banks of the Fraser River spearheaded by the former mayor of Lillooet. Late last year, Rolf and Heleen leased (with an option to buy) farm property. This spring they planted 20 acres of vines. They’ve opened with purchased Okanagan wine and they began making wine in 2009 with Okanagan grapes.

House of Rose Vineyards (2270 Garner Rd., Kelowna, B.C. V1P 1E2
Tel: (250) 765-0802.) Vern Rose, a native Albertan, started this winery in 1993. Due to ill-health, he sold the winery in 2009 to his daughter Aura and her Dutch-born husband, Wouter van de Hall.

OVINO Winery (1577 Yankee Flats Road, Salmon Arm, BC, V1E 3J4. Tel: 250 832 8304.) John Koopmans, who was born in Holland in 1956 and came to Canada in 1977, got tired of dairy farming and planted a four-acre vineyard instead. The first estate-grown wines were made there in 2009 and he plans to open the tasting room in 2010 on this lovely rural property about 20-minutes from Salmon Arm.

Sonoran Estate Winery (5716 Gartrell Road, Summerland, BC V0H 1Z7. Tel: (250) 494-9323. This winery was opened in 2004 by the Smits family, who came to Canada in 1981 and came to the Okanagan in 2000, initially running a bed and breakfast. Son Adrian, the winemaker, and his wife Sarah, are Sonoran’s public face. This winery has a good restaurant attached to its tasting room.

Van Westen Vineyards (2800B Aikens Loop, Naramata, B.C. V0H 1N0. Tel: (250)496-0067. The Van Westen family has grown tree fruits near Naramata since coming to Canada in the 1950s. The winery, which opened in 2005, is run by Robert Van Westen (one of the sons) and his wife Tammy. The tasting room, in a corner of an old packing house, is only open occasionally. It is worth phoning for an appointment because Rob’s wines are among the best in British Columbia.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bella bella! Sperling Vineyards's first wines

With the release this fall of the first wines from Kelowna’s Sperling Vineyards, winemaker Ann Sperling (photo above) has re-connected with the Okanagan, where she first began making wine 25 years ago.

But this is more than a story of the hometown favourite coming home after stellar success elsewhere. It is the story of fulfilling the dreams of Ann’s forebears, the Casoro family, pioneering Okanagan grape growers and vintners. As you will see from the tasting notes, Ann (her mother, Velma, is a Casorso) has done her family proud.

The Casorso family came to the valley when Italian immigrant Giovanni Casorso arrived in 1883 to work for the Oblate Mission’s farm. Soon he had his own homestead near the mission, succeeding brilliantly as a farmer (he was Onion King one year). When tobacco was grown in the Okanagan, he was one of the largest tobacco growers. Perhaps it is a coincidence but the barn on the label of Sperling Vineyards wines looks a bit like a tobacco-curing barn.

The family first got into the wine business when Rosa, Giovanni’s wife, and Pete, one of their sons, invested in the consortium that in 1931 launched what became Calona Wines. When the Capozzi family gradually bought control of the winery in the 1950s, Pete refused for years to sell his shares. “His pastime for many years was to go to their board meetings and raise hell,” Ann says.

A family history credits Charles Casorso with planting the first Kelowna vineyard near Rutland about 1925. His brothers Pete and Louis ordered vines in 1929 and planted grapes on Pioneer Ranch, as the family property was known. It appears, however, the major crops grown here were apples until Pete retired in 1960, turning the farm over to his daughter Velma and her husband, Bert Sperling, who are Ann’s parents.

Bert converted the entire property to grapes. Initially he grew the same hybrid and labrusca varieties that everyone else had before switching to Riesling, along with four hectares of Sovereign Coronation table grapes. Over the years he sold wine grapes to Calona, then to Growers in Victoria, and, in recent years, to Mission Hill.

Ann has vivid memories of growing up on the Pioneer Ranch. “When I was very young, the area that is now under vine had grapes, peaches, cherries, apricots and prune-plums growing on it,” she remembers. “All the grapes at that time were labrusca or labrusca hybrids. The exception was the Perle de Csaba. It is a vinifera and a Muscat type. It ripened early, in late August, and tasted wonderful. I certainly attribute my love of Muscat and Moscato d'Asti to having gorged myself as often as possible on those grapes.” In the 2009 vintage she used those grapes for a light sparkling wine to be released with the coquettish name, “Sper … itz.”

With food sciences degree at the University of British Columbia, Ann began her winemaking career at André’s Wines in 1984. She moved to CedarCreek Estate Winery in 1991 and was soon making award-winning wines. She moved to Ontario in 1995, began a career as a consulting winemaker. She made inaugural vintages for highly-regarded Malivoire Wine Company and currently is director of winery operations for Southbrook Vineyards, a rising Niagara star.

The decision to reconnect with the Okanagan flowed from a family conference about the future of the vineyard. “It has always been in the back of my mind that I wanted to make wine here because I am so familiar with every foot and every slope and every grape on the property,” Ann says. In 2008, Sperling Vineyards got its toe in the business by making about 500 cases. In this vintage, production has risen to 1,800 cases.

This year, the family intend to get a winery license and open a tasting room in Pioneer Country Market, a market and delicatessen that Ann’s mother has operated since 1985 on Benvoulin Road in Kelowna, not far from the Father Pandosy Mission.

Meanwhile, Sperling Vineyards has been making its wine at nearby Camelot Vineyards. Ann also makes the wine for Camelot and for Clos du Soleil winery in the Similkameen Valley. Both are still relatively small producers and, as Ann points out, there is little overlap in the portfolios of all three of her British Columbia clients.

Sperling Vineyards has debuted with five wines. Here are some notes.

Sperling Vineyards Pinot Gris 2008 ($19). This is deliberately not a mainstream Okanagan Pinot Gris fruit bomb but rather is a crisp, lean white designed to pair with westcoast seafood dishes. It begins with citrus aromas, shows flavours of lemon, lime and minerals and ends with tangy acidity and a dry finish. 88

Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling 2008 ($29). Here is a Riesling to rival that of nearby Tantalus Vineyards. Both vineyards, fine Riesling sites, were planted in 1978 with the highly regarded Clone 21B Riesling (developed by Hermann Weiss in the Mosel and now grown all over the world). This is a wine with a pristine laser-like clarity of fruit and acidity. It begins with aromas of herbs and citrus, shows abundant flavours of lime and has a refreshingly tangy finish. 90

Sperling Vineyards The Market White 2008 ($16). Here is the fruit bomb for those who like a glass of wine or two before dinner and something a little off-dry with food. It is a blend of Pinot Gris (60%), Gewürztraminer (32%) and Riesling (8%). This aromatic white is an easy to drink charmer, with layers of flavour (grapefruit, lime) and with the fleshy texture that comes with residual sweetness. 88

Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Foch 2008 ($26). This is the winery’s big red. Ann made a similar wine at Malivoire where it has become a cult favourite in Ontario. I predict the same for this wine in B.C. Think of Australian Shiraz. Bold and fleshy, with smoky aromas of plums and black cherries, the wine offers gamy flavours of prunes lifted by the sweet spice of American oak. The spice on the finish is delightful. 89-90

Sperling Vineyards Riesling Icewine 2008 ($36 for a 200 ml bottle). Ann made only about 400 tiny bottles of icewine last vintage and none this year, and that is by design. At Sperling Vineyards, icewine will always be the niche product “that it is meant to be,” she says. This is another wine with a laser focus: bright, tangy, with intense tropical flavours of lime and grapefruit. The wine is beautifully balanced – not too sweet because the natural sugar in the wine is not over the top and is balanced with what the Germans would call “racy” acidity. 90

I can just hear Rosa smacking her lips as she tells her great-granddaughter: “Bella, bella.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Blue Mountain and a pinch of Salt

You might suppose that the Culinary Institute of America will never advise that one should locate a restaurant in Blood Alley in Vancouver’s occasionally rough Gastown.

This is a dim alley with 10 (!) dumpsters at one end and, occasionally, individuals putting something into their arms with needles.

Yet there, at 45 Blood Alley, is Salt Tasting Room. One of Vancouver’s funkiest little restaurants, it has been there for at least two years. A number of Okanagan wineries have hosted wine dinners here this year.

The latest wine dinner, on November 30, featured Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars. A sold-out house sat on metal stools along both sides of the very long table in the Salt Cellar, sipping Blue Mountain wines paired with cheese and cold cuts. A simple, affordable and quite successful evening.

This is a far cry from the annual events Blue Mountain used to have each January or February. These were toney charitable fund raisers in the ball room of one of Vancouver’s top hotels. Between 10 and a dozen top restaurants had stations around the room, preparing signature dishes paired with one of the Blue Mountain wines.

The guests at those events, all in their finest dress, represented the Vancouver business and professional community. Most are on the winery’s coveted e-mail lists that inform clients of new wine releases. It would be hard to imagine most of them venturing past those dumpsters to Salt.

The dinner at Salt, however, let Blue Mountain tap into a different and younger demographic, most of them probably not yet signed up to a place on an e-mail list. Congratulations for the Blue Mountain agent in Vancouver, Christine Fawcett, for doing what it takes to keep the Blue Mountain client pipeline full in a wine environment far more competitive that when Blue Mountain opened in 1991.

As for the toney crowd, take heart: shortly after thus tasting, Blue Mountain announced that it is resuming its charity event with a $90 per person tasting at the Four Seasons in Vancouver at 6.30 p.m. on January 26, 2010. The format will be familiar: 10 top restaurants will offer signature dishes paired with Blue Mountain wines. Proceeds benefit the B.C. Childrens Hospital. Tickets are sold through the winery, at 250-497-8244 - and they sell out faster than Olympic tickets.

The winery soon will have additional wines to show. In 2010 the winery will release the first addition to its portfolio since it opened. This fall, Blue Mountain harvested the first crop from a young Sauvignon Blanc planting. From what I hear, the tank and barrel samples are exciting.

This is winery focussed on Burgundy and Alsace varietals. The flagship red varietal here is Pinot Noir. The only other red is Gamay. Currently, the winery produces three whites – Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris – and two excellent sparkling wines.

The dinner at Salt featured several of these wines. All but two are currently available from the winery and possibly in such private stores as Everything Wine.

Blue Mountain Brut Gold Label ($23.90). This is a crisply disciplined wine with a satisfying weight and with toasty flavours on the palate but with a wonderfully clean finish. The cuvée is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a dash of Pinot Gris. 88-90

Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2008 ($17.90). This is a complex example of this variety. About 40% was aged on older barrels, contributing to roundness in texture. There are flavours of apple and citrus and the finish lingers. 88

Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2008 ($20.90). About 40% of the wine in this blend was fermented in barrel, adding some weight and richness to this crisp and refreshing wine. There are flavours of citrus and pear. 88

Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2008 ($20.90). Think of a Beaujolais Cru when you taste this wine. It is full-bodied with spicy notes of raspberry. 87

Blue Mountain Pinot Noir Reserve 2006 ($35.90). This is a lovely wine, with toasty and berry aromas and flavours of raspberry and strawberry. 88

Blue Mountain Pinot Noir Reserve 1997 (N.A.) No doubt about it – this was the star of the evening. In 12 years, this has developed into a rich, silky red with flavours of mocha and strawberry. The finish is long and satisfying.

I am often asked how long B.C. reds will age. Well, we have an answer with this Pinot Noir from Blue Mountain which is at its peak now.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mission Hill will add a major hospitality complex

Mission Hill Family Winery has taken the next step to achieve owner Anthony von Mandl’s object of turning this into one of the world’s top 10 wineries.

At a District of West Kelowna council meeting in mid-November, Mission Hill launched the process of having the District approve an ambitious expansion over the next decade that cost at least $80 million.

That’s at least double what was invested in previous redevelopment of a winery. The project, which was completed about five years ago after more than six years of work, gave the winery the look of hilltop palace in Tuscany.

Mission Hill began working on its latest project two years ago. The architectural features are so creative that a scale model was built to help the District’s technical staff understand the concepts.

“Anthony’s vision now is more towards the hospitality side, to make it a true world-wide destination location,” Art Phillips, a Mission Hill consultant, said in an interview.

Construction is not expected to start until 2011, after architectural details are final and all of the approvals are in place. The project is to be done in four phases and completed about 2019 or 2020. It is believed there will be nothing comparable among other North American wineries.

The tentative plans call for a 104-room country inn, 30 guest cottages, a conference centre, a wellness centre, a year-round restaurant and an underground parking garage. The major structures will be anchored into the side of the mountain below Mission Hill’s current demonstration vineyard.

Mission Hill owns 17 acres on two mountainside benches below that vineyard. Seven acres are to be developed and the remainder is to remain in its natural state.

Because some of the structures are bored into the rock and because some roofs will be covered with vegetation harvested from the site, Mission Hill expects the development will blend into the hillside. Almost none of the buildings will be visible from the winery itself. The best view of the development likely will from a boat on Okanagan Lake.

In preliminary community meetings and at the District Council, questions were raised about the implications for the traffic volume to the already busy winery. Mission Hill plans to bring additional traffic up Mission Hill Road and then around the back of the existing winery and not through other public roads that have access to the site. The plan is that vehicles will disappear into underground parking on entering the development. Most of the development will be designed for pedestrian access.

However, Mission Hill does not expect a significant increase in traffic. The winery already has a concierge service to pick up visitors from the airport. This will be enhanced. “We’re trying to minimize the reliance upon the vehicle,” Phillips says. “You are not going to be looking an additional 100 to 150 cars coming into the area.”

Mission Hill opened originally in 1966, constructed in the style of an 18th Century California mission. Part of the original business plan relied on attracting winery visitors to what even then was the Okanagan’s most spectacular winery site. However, wineries were not permitted then to operate tasting rooms or wine stores. Mission Hill went into receivership twice between von Mandl bought it in 1981.

At that time, the winery had dirt floors, and welcomed visitors to a gravel parking lot with picnic tables. Government policy changed, allowing tastings. Von Mandl opened one of the first retail shops in a British Columbia winery.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Burrowing Owl's 2007 wines: another excellent vintage

Unless it is already being done, here’s a suggestion for an MBA student looking for a thesis subject: do the paper on those British Columbia wineries that have achieved a cult status. Many other wineries would benefit from such an analysis.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery should serve as the opening chapter for any such paper. One of the many reasons for the winery’s strong reputation has been the consistent style of the wines right from the first vintage in 1997. Even allowing for vintage variations, the winery always delivers some of the Okanagan’s biggest, most generous reds. Consumers know what to expect and the winery delivers.

The winery’s new releases, all from 2007, are chips off the old block. The fans of Burrowing Owl seem prepared to pay moderately aggressive prices because the wines seldom let them down. The winery’s only significant mistake, in my view, was its three-vintage flirtation with synthetic closures in a well-intentioned effort to eliminate cork-tainted wines, a bane of the business. It turned out that the synthetic closures failed to protect all bottles from oxidizing; some bottles, but not all, aged prematurely. (Other wineries also were burned with certain synthetic closures.)

That’s all history now. Burrowing Owl returned to improved cork closures in 2007. The wonderful 2007 wines can be cellared with confidence to 2015 at least.

There are two major explanations for the consistent quality of Burrowing Owl wines.

1. Farming. Some of the most capable viticulturists in the south Okanagan have managed the Burrowing Owl vineyard since it was planted in the early 1990s. It is a cliché, but still true, that perhaps 75% of the quality of a wine is achieved in the vineyard. Year in and year out, superior quality grapes are delivered to Burrowing Owl’s winemakers.

Furthermore, the winery is devoted to ongoing improvements in its vineyard. This past vintage, the winery began stretching reflective strips of cloth in its Cabernet Franc blocks. These reflect additional sun into vines, notably on the north sides of rows. This promotes riper grapes with more flavour, supporting the rich, packed-with-flavour Burrowing Owl style.

2. Winemaking. The first six or seven vintages were produced under the direction of California consultant Bill Dyer. There have been three winemakers at Burrowing Owl since he left in 2004 but none have deviated in any major way from the quite singular Napa Valley style that Dyer stamped onto Burrowing Owl. Dyer hit the sweet spot of consumer taste. A winemaker would mess with that style at his peril.

The 2007 vintage was made primarily by Jeff Del Nin, an Australian-trained Canadian winemaker. These wines still have the basic Napa style with a touch of Barossa richness and with the brightness that sets them apart as Okanagan wines. It is a pretty good combination.

Here are my impressions:

Burrowing Owl 2007 Chardonnay ($25). The wine begins with a toasty aroma that it picked up from the barrels in which it was fermented. The wine has good weight on the palate, with citrus flavours and with a long finish. The wine is sealed with a synthetic stopper (not so in subsequent vintages). Because this is a problematic closure for aging, you should enjoy this elegant wine within the next year. 88

Burrowing Owl 2007 Merlot ($30). This is simply a delicious example of this varietal, dark and juicy and rich, with gobs of plums and blackberries and black cherries and currants. The ripe tannins contribute to the soft, full-bodied texture of the wine; yet it has the structure to age well. The winery recommends drinking the wine anytime from now to 2015. 90

Burrowing Owl 2007 Cabernet Franc ($33). Another juicy red, this shows the typical spicy and berry aromas of Cabernet Franc. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, currants, chocolate, tobacco and a hint of liquorice on the finish. There is always something generous, friendly and yet rustic about the character of this varietal when well done, like this wine. 88-90

Burrowing Owl 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($38). I tasted this elegant wine over two days, letting half the bottle breathe overnight. A fine young Cabernet Sauvignon needs this time to open, and this one opened beautifully. It moved from tight and disciplined the first day, when it took work to dig out the spicy and berry aromas, to generous on the second day, delivering a host of sweet fruit flavours – black cherry, plum, black currant. 90-92

Burrowing Owl 2007 Syrah ($38). The winery has made Syrah since 2000, establishing a style that is (no surprise) bold and generous. This is achieved by starting with ripe grapes and giving the wine long skin contact during fermentation. This wine fermented about 20 days. The wine was then aged in a combination of French, American and Russian oak; a quarter of the barrels were new.

This wine begins with complex aromas of fruit, iodine and game meats. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, blackberry, liquorice and a hint of pepper. The wine is almost jammy in its concentrated fruit and rich texture. Beautifully balanced, it has good acidity to lift the fruit flavours. The wine, while tasting really good now, also has the structure and depth to age well. The winery recommends drinking it anytime until 2015. 90-92

Burrowing Owl 2007 Meritage ($45). The whole point of blending the Bordeaux varietals is to build a wine where the whole is greater than the parts. This is such a wine. While I tasted this over three days, it announced itself immediately on the first day with an appealing aroma of spice and red berries. On the palate, there is layer upon layer of flavour, a veritable fruit cake of a wine with a concentrated structure, bold, ripe tannins and a hint of vanilla and chocolate. This is an immensely satisfying red. 92-94

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Niagara's Wine Visionaries" is a good read

The new book from Linda Bramble, a prolific and authoritative Ontario wine writer, is a must for anyone interested in Canadian wine, with its lively profiles of leading figures that have shaped the business.

The book is Niagara’s Wine Visionaries: Profile of the Pioneering Winemakers, published at $29.95 by James Lorimer & Co., Toronto. It is a slim 224-page volume but it is packed with information, including an opening chapter that moves briskly through early history and through viticultural essentials about Ontario.

Each of the subsequent nine chapters is built around one individual. The pen portraits of those individuals are fleshed out with their accomplishments. At the same time, each individual’s story brings with it larger stories about significant industry developments. It is a lively way of personalizing the history of Ontario wine.

The first profile is of distiller Harry Hatch who brought the T.G. Bright & Co. winery from the founding family in 1933. Ontario had emerged from prohibition six years earlier. It was an odd prohibition because the production and sale of wine was still allowed as long as the wines were sold either in large containers or as prescriptions through doctors and pharmacies. Guess what happened?

The number of wineries quadrupled in a decade. There were about 50 in 1927. Not many were competent and all struggled during the Depression. Hatch saw this as a buying opportunity. After buying Brights, he folded a number of other wineries into Brights. Then he hired professional winemakers and ordered French grape vines to replace the native American varieties, which made poor wines. He died in 1946 but the team of professionals assembled in Brights went on to do ground-breaking research and development. The first varietal Chardonnay in Canada, for example, was made by Brights in 1955.

That leads nicely into a profile of Donald Ziraldo who, with Austrian-born winemaker Karl Kaiser, founded Inniskillin in 1974. Inniskillin was the first new winery (except for a honey winery that failed soon after opening) to get an Ontario license since 1927. There were seven big wineries in Ontario in 1970 and the bureaucrats maintained that was enough.

Ziraldo and Kaiser got lucky. The new chairman of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario was Major General George Kitching, an elegant man who drank decent wine. Soon after he took over, he said, in response to a reporter’s question, that he enjoyed a good French Burgundy with his roast beef. When an Ontario grape grower chastised him for favouring imported wine, Kitching snapped: “Good God, you don’t think you make good Burgundy!” Or words to that effect.

He was persuaded that Ziraldo and Kaiser could make good wine. He gave them a license and made sure that the LCBO supported this new winery. The subsequent success of Inniskillin laid the foundation for estate wineries in both Ontario and British Columbia. And Inniskillin, by winning a major international award for icewine in 1991, put Canada on the world’s map for wine.

One of the fine estate wineries that emerged in the 1980s was Len Pennachetti’s Cave Spring Cellars. Although he and his winemaking partner, Angelo Pavan, both have degrees in philosophy, they were leaders in establishing good viticulture on the Jordan Bench (although you would not suspect it from the hilarious photo here of the absurdly crooked rows in one of Pennachetti’s early vineyards).

Perhaps his legacy (he remains in the business) is the legislation that set out standards for Ontario wine and influenced the development of standards elsewhere in Canada.

The Paul Bosc chapter profiles a leader of grape growing on the Niagara Peninsula. Born in Algeria, trained in France, he did absolutely ground-breaking research and development. He also launched Chateau des Charmes, a fine Ontario winery. Both Bosc and Ziraldo hold the Order of Canada.

There is a charming story of the prolonged French litigation which began in 1964 against Chateau-Gai, Bosc’s first Canadian employer, to stop the winery from selling "Canadian Champagne". Bosc risked his job by refusing to testify that it was anywhere near as good as the real thing. Canada finally agreed in 2003 to stop using European geographical indicators. Bramble neglects to note this was done so that Canadian icewine could be sold readily in Europe.

The profile of Paul Speck and his brothers, who operate Henry of Pelham Winery, serves as the vehicle for describing the impact of the free trade agreement on Canadian wineries. The winery had been started by Paul’s father but the sons (one not old enough at the time to drink) were pitched into running it during a turbulent period when the elder Speck succumbed to cancer.

Bramble has an inelegant turn of phrase to describe the reaction of Ontario grape growers to free trade: they felt “gobsmacked.” But it is close to the mark. The California wine industry wanted Canada to dismantle the protections for Canadian wine. The Canadian negotiators agreed because few thought the wine industry worth protecting anyway. But when the industry got over being spit in the face, it pried the conditions from government (money for replanting vineyards or modernizing wineries, access to imported vines) that have turned Canadian wine around so brilliantly.

The profiles of Don Triggs, the founder of Vincor, and Andrew Peller, the founder of André’s Wines Ltd., are vehicles to describe corporate risk takers and also to detail modern-day consolidation.

Peller started his winery in B.C. in 1961 because Ontario would not give him a license. He got into Ontario in 1970 by buying an existing winery. By that time, he was badly over-extended and he got his son, Joseph to give up a successful medical practise and run the business. Joseph did a good job but what really made André’s successful was Baby Duck. Launched in 1971, it once was Canada’s best-selling wine. The company today is run by Andrew’s grandson, John, who has invested heavily in buying additional estate wineries and vineyards in both B.C. and Ontario.

Just after the free trade agreement took effect, Triggs led the management group which bought John Labatt’s wineries with a ridiculously small down payment, taking on huge debts. Not only did Triggs pull that off with skill: he built it into Vincor, the eighth largest wine group in the world until it was swallowed up several years ago by Constellation Brands.

In my view, the Triggs chapter could be longer. By focussing on Niagara, Bramble reduced the scope of this account. Triggs was a world player, not just an Ontario player. Vincor acquired or developed five superb wineries in British Columbia and has vastly more vineyard here than in Ontario. His strategy of acquiring wineries in the U.S. (two), Australia and New Zealand gave the Canadian-controlled company global presence – even if buying a South African brand made Vincor vulnerable to being taken over.

Bramble notes that Ziraldo has started a new winery. It should be observed that Triggs has planted a vineyard in the Okanagan and, with daughter Sarah just back from wine school, likely will also open a new winery in a few years.

The profile of Norm Beal, founder of Peninsula Ridge, is of a recent entry into the Ontario wine industry, one who brought refreshing corporate savvy from a previous career. Both he and Linda Franklin, who runs the Wine Council of Ontario and is also profiled, are consummate and effective movers in government circles. These two profiles underline the astonishing amount of government lobbying that the wine industry needs to do to get ahead.

The fact is this isn’t Europe where wine is a central part of culture and national pride (see France) or, along with bread and water, a daily necessity (see Italy). In Canada, the industry is over-regulated, over-taxed and, in some quarters, still not respected.

Bramble’s book lays out well most of the industry’s war stories over a century or so. This industry and these people have triumphed against long odds.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jackson-Triggs will roll out new labels next year

Take a long look at the labels above: all will disappear next year as part of a major overhaul of the labels at Jackson-Triggs Vintners.

The overhaul will provide more distinction between Jackson-Triggs tiers. It will also a solution to this summer’s contention over the lack of transparency on the Cellared in Canada wine labels.

As Jackson-Triggs brand manager Casey Howe put it in a recent interview, Jackson-Triggs was the lightning rod when the wine media, led by Britain’s Jancis Robinson, tore a huge strip off the Canadian wine industry.

But let’s get one thing straight. This label overhaul was not rolled out this week in a panic reaction to the recent Cellared in Canada controversy.

Go back and read my blog of June 25 in which I reported on a tasting in Vancouver led by Brooke Blair, the red wine maker at Jackson-Triggs Okanagan.

This is what the opening paragraphs said:

The many fans of Jackson-Triggs wines may finally see an end to the frustrating confusion among the winery's labels.

Over the past year, the winery has consulted numerous focus groups. The apparent feedback is that consumers have trouble sorting out the tiers. That is similar to what wine critics have been saying and even what the company's own winemakers have been suggesting. Finally, the marketing executives at Jackson-Triggs intend to sit down and do a major brand review.

That report was based on comments the winemaker made during the tasting. The Cellared in Canada controversy erupted later in the summer. The flashpoint was the Jackson-Triggs label for an Olympic wine brand called Esprit. The non-VQA Esprit wines (now withdrawn) had labels that mirrored the VQA Esprit. The only difference was the lack of a VQA identifier. The critics complained that Jackson-Triggs was passing off imported wine bottled in Canada as Canadian wine.

Vincor, the company that owns Jackson-Triggs, would probably admit now that it made a mistake. However, the overhaul of the Jackson-Triggs labels was running on an entirely separate path.

The Jackson-Triggs brand was launched in 1993 for both wines from Canadian grapes and non-VQA wines. As Howe corrected notes, VQA was then in its infancy - two years old in B.C., four years old in Ontario. Curiously, commercial wineries were not allowed into the VQA program for the first few years because smaller wineries feared there might be leakage of non-VQA product.

Since then, however, the VQA brand – wines made from grapes grown in Canada only – has won huge consumer loyalty, given the dramatic improvement in the quality of Canadian wine. And Jackson-Triggs has become one of the strongest VQA brands in Canada.

The new Jackson-Triggs labels clearly separate the VQA wines from the non-VQA wines. The new line-up has three tiers plus the non-VQA tier. The Jackson-Triggs name appears on all four tiers because the company, in its consumer research, found a great deal of consumer loyalty invested in the brand.

The non-VQA wines, now called Proprietors’ Selection, will be called Unity. That happens to be a brand Vincor previously used for a line of wines blended from Ontario and British Columbia fruit. That idea didn’t catch on. Vincor is recycling the brand, a reflection of how hard it is to come up brand names not already taken by someone else.

The Unity wines, which will sell for $10 a bottle or less, will have a nice big white labels. The name of the varietal is displayed in a coloured panel at the bottom. Right under the variety is a tag line that says the wine is a blend of “international and Canadian wine.” The back label reiterates this.

That should be clear enough for those consumers who care. It is debatable how important this is to consumers who only want an affordable everyday wine. But it is important to the purists, to the supporters of Canadian wines and to the integrity of VQA.

The Jackson-Triggs VQA wines are grouped in these tiers:

* The current Proprietors’ Reserve range is replaced by black label wines selling in the $10-$15 range.

* The new silver label wines, selling for $15-$20, will include wines repositioned from both the Proprietors’ Reserve and Grand Reserve lines. Part of this overhaul also involves reducing the number of products being offered. Jackson-Triggs Okanagan will slim down to 29 offerings from 44. Gone will be wines such as the Cabernet Franc Rosé and the Proprietors’ Reserve Riesling. There is more focus on core varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz.

* The new gold label ($20 and up) is the top tier. This will include Meritage blends and select single vineyard wines, such as SunRock in the Okanagan. And the SunRock designation will be trimmed to rich reds only because that is what the vineyard does best. The Chardonnay vines in that vineyard have been pulled out and are being replaced with appropriate reds.

In a clever innovation, Jackson-Triggs will add a little panel on the back label that looks a bit like an electronic circuit. This can be scanned by the average smart phone, drawing consumers into web-based information on the wine and on food pairing and whatever else the imagination comes up with.

“It’s about making the back label work a lot harder,” Howe says.

Look for a lot of other wineries to jump onto this device because of its obvious appeal to young and tech-savvy consumers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Stonewell Shiraz is collectible and affordable

Photo: Phil and Sara Lehmann in Vancouver

During the past five years, the price of Grange, Australia’s most iconic red wine has gone into orbit, well beyond reach for all but the wealthiest of wine collectors.

Enthusiasts have been collecting Grange, which was first made in 1951, for almost half a century. It cellars so well that Penfolds, in the fifth edition of The Rewards of Patience, reported that most vintages are still alive. The 2001 vintage can be cellared to 2040.

If only it were affordable!

There is good news, however. Not every collectible Shiraz from Australia comes with a prohibitive price. There is, for example, Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz. The 2002 vintage in this market sells for about $82 a bottle. It is also a stiff price but not so high as to deter laying a few down each year.

A recent Vancouver tasting, hosted by winemaker Phil Lehmann and his wife, Sara, show just how well the wine cellars. Every available vintage of Stonewell was tasted including the first, 1987. The first few vintages have faded slightly but still are sound enough to enjoy. Every vintage of the 1990s was delightful and had lots of life left.

Based in the Barossa Valley, the Peter Lehmann winery now is owned by The Hess Group of Switzerland but continues to be run by Peter Lehmann and his sons (Phil is one).

In the 1970s, Peter was working for Saltram Estates winery, one of the oldest of Barossa wineries. In the late 1970s, a glut of red wine on the Australian market led to a decision by Saltrams not to make any red for a few years. Peter’s role included grower relations. He was ordered to tell growers that Saltrams would not be buying their grapes.

Instead, he gathered a few friends and some money, bought the grapes and began making wine for his own winery, which was built in 1980. Needing cash flow, the winery sold most of its production in bulk for several years.

Then in 1987 Peter and his chief winemaker, Andrew Wigan, decided to make what the Australians call a “show” red – a wine to win competitions. Stonewell was born.

The winery makes a range of Shiraz wines. For Stonewell, it cherry picks the best old-vines Shiraz from the best of the 185 growers that supply the winery. The growers whose grapes make it into Stonewell are honoured by the winery’s own hall of fame. One of the three growers who supplied fruit for the 1987 Stonewell was named Ralph Schrapel. His grapes have been in 12 vintages including the 2002. Perhaps he has now retired because his name has not appeared since. But what a run!

The first two vintages of Stonewell fared well enough on the show circuit but the reputation of the wine was sealed when the 1989 Stonewell won the Jimmy Watson Trophy, the most prestigious trophy on the Australian circuit.

The irony is that the trophy always goes to one-year-old red. I can report that the 1989 Stonewell, while perhaps past its prime, still tastes very good. It has mellowed to become soft and charming, with aromas and flavours recalling plum jam.

Perhaps the three stars of this 20-vintage vertical were the Stonewells from 1996 (huge, almost porty), 1998 (elegantly showing cassis, plums and liquorice) and the 2000 (exceptionally complex). These are wines from three of Australia’s finest recent vintages.

The 2002, which is on the market now, shows the triumph of good grape growing and winemaking in a cool vintage. The wine has good, earthy concentration; the aromas and flavours are still developing. The winery’s own notes suggest that this is an “amazing wine that has a very strong case to be considered the best Stonewell do date.”

Hopefully, the liquor board and Stonewell’s agents here will bring in succeeding vintages so that collectors can lay down these amazing wines. I thought that the 2004 and 2005 Stonewells are every bit as good as 2002, if not more so.

On another note, the Peter Lehmann winery has recently begun packaging its wine in lighter bottles. Working with its bottle supplier, it has reduced the weight of its proprietary bottle by 15% and is now doing the same with its other bottles. The lighter bottles are just as strong as the previous ones.

As a result, the winery will be shipping 800 tonnes less glass around the world each year and that, according to the winery, translates into an annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from transportation of about 200 tonnes. Every bit counts.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Howard Soon's Sandhill is winery of the year

Photo: Sandhill winemaster Howard Soon

To those who know Howard Soon’s wines at Sandhill, it is no surprise that Sandhill is this year’s winery of the year at the Canadian Wine Awards.

Sandhill walked away from that competition with 21 medals, including White Wine of the Year (Small Lots 2008 Viognier) and Red Wine of the Year (Small Lots 2007 Syrah). Howard’s title is winemaster and obviously that is no exaggeration.

One can have a chicken-and-egg debate: did Howard’s great talent turn Sandhill into a legend or did the superbly-grown Sandhill grapes make a legend of Howard? In this instance, evolution doesn’t help up. I think God created both on the sixth day so that He would have something good to drink when He rested.

All 12 vintages of Sandhill have been made in the sprawling Calona winery in downtown Kelowna. While a spot has long been reserved on Sandhill’s Black Sage vineyard for a winery, Andrew Peller Ltd., which owns Sandhill, has had that project on hold while investing in Okanagan and Similkameen vineyards instead.

Over the years, however, the Calona winery has been upgraded significantly. Howard now has a new red wine cellar, including new fermentation tanks and a vast array of barrels. In one previous vintage he was able to buy a modern press and that resulted in immediate and dramatic improvements in the quality of the white wines. Howard no longer has to improvise to make good wines, as he did in the early years when Sandhill was undercapitalized.

Howard’s winemaking career began at Calona in 1980. He has been there ever since, first raising the quality of Calona’s wines and then taking on Sandhill when that wine project began in 1997.

Sandhill and Calona are sister wineries. Both have been owned by Andrew Peller Ltd. since 2005. As Peller’s senior winemaker in British Columbia, Howard has a supervisory role in the winemaking for Peller, Calona and Red Rooster. He is the full-time winemaker for Sandhill.

Sandhill grows roughly 200 acres of its own grapes on Black Sage Road, adjacent to the Burrowing Owl Vineyard. The wineries were viticultural partners for several years early this decade and, for most of that period, have used the same superb vineyard managers. That is one reason why Sandhill’s wines have shown many of the positive qualities of the Burrowing Owl wines, even though different winemakers ran the respective cellars. Both vineyards were planted at the same time, beginning in 1993 and 1994.

Sandhill also buys grapes from select vineyards whose operators are tightly aligned with Howard’s objectives. Sandhill makes single vineyard wines exclusively – wines that reflect the specific terroir of where they are grown. It assures wines of unique quality. The Phantom Creek Vineyard is owned by veteran grower Richard Cleave while nearby Osprey Ridge is owned by Robert Goltz who, with son Nathan, has managed the Sandhill Vineyard. King Family is a Naramata Bench vineyard operated by Don and Rod King.

Sandhill’s reserve tier wines are released as Small Lots and include, among other offerings, the only varietals of Sangiovese and Barbera currently available from an Okanagan winery. By definition, Small Lot wines are produced in qualities ranging, generally, between 100 cases and 600 cases.

The wines sell quickly but some are held back for later release. Recently, several older vintages of Small Lots wines were released at the Wineshop (in the Calona winery in downtown Kelowna). These are worth looking for; Sandhill reds benefit from a few years in the bottle before being opened.

Here are notes, either from a recent tasting with Howard or of Sandhill samples that came my way.

Sandhill 2008 Sauvignon Blanc /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($18).
Crisp and tangy with refreshing citrus and gooseberry aromas and flavours. 1,300 cases were released. 88

Sandhill 2008 Pinot Gris /King Family Vineyard ($18). Crisp and clean, with pear and citrus flavours and a lingering finish. 6,300 cases were released. 88

Sandhill 2008 Viognier Small Lots /Osprey Ridge Vineyard ($24.99). A stunning wine with a peachy, tropical aroma, flavours of peach and apricot, a rich texture and yet so exquisitely balanced and refreshing. 514 cases were released. 92

Sandhill 2008 Chardonnay Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Block B11 ($29.99). Elegant and focussed, this 132-case release was fermented in new French oak which is very nicely integrated with the fruit. The wine has notes of apple, pineapple, citrus with a hint of richness from the oak. The finish is crisp (Howard does not do malolactic fermentation). 93

Sandhill 2008 Rosé/Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($18). The winery released only 372 cases of this seriously dry rosé. With an attractive pink hue, the wine has fruity aromas and flavours of strawberry and pomegranate. The wine is made with Gamay and Cabernet Franc grapes. 86

Sandhill 2006 Malbec Small Lots /Phantom Creek Vineyard ($29.99 – but the 107 cases are sold out). Here is a big satisfying wine to take on the Argentines. It begins with an appealing floral aroma; it delivers flavours of cherry, blueberry and blackberry. The long ripe tannins give it a full texture. 89

Sandhill 2006 Petit Verdot Small Lots /Phantom Creek Vineyard ($29.99). This Bordeaux varietal is seldom released on its own but usually is reserved for making elegant blends. This lovely wine is a bit of the blend as well: 87% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec. This is a firm, age-worthy red with spicy aromas and flavours of plums and black currants. 223 cases were released. 90

Sandhill one 2006 Small Lots / Phantom Creek Vineyard ($34.99). This superb wine is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon (three clones) and 7% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Deep and rich, the wine begins with aromas of berries and vanilla. The fruit is concentrated, with a lovely core of sweet fruit and hints of cherry and mocha. The finish is very long. 356 cases were released. 92-94

Sandhill two 2006 Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($34.99). This equally superb 428-case release is a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot and 5% Syrah. Dark in colour, the wine invites with aromas of black currants, plums, mocha and delivers flavours of mocha, currants and figs, with a core of sweet berries. Generous in texture, the wine has a long finish. 92-94

Sandhill 2007 Syrah Small Lots /Phantom Creek Vineyard ($34.99). This is a great Syrah, period. It is almost aromatic with an array of aromas from pepper and delicatessen meats to iodine. On the palate, the long ripe tannins support layers of red fruit with complex notes of pepper and minerals. 92

Sandhill 2006 Sangiovese Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($29.99). This 644-case releases remains, so far, the Okanagan’s only Sangiovese. It is almost a classic Chianti, with aromas of violets, flavours of cherries and a backbone of dry tannins. 88

Sandhill 2006 Barbera Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($29.99). This deliciously rustic red is also the Okanagan’s only Barbera. Blood red in hue, it has a brambly aroma with hints of tobacco and oak. The flavours deliver a medley of bright fruit – cherry, rose hip, blackberry – against ripe earthy tannins. In the glass, the wine keeps delivering surprises as it opens up. 90

There are additional Sandhill wines, all worth looking for based on previous vintages. In particular, Sandhill three 2006 Small Lots ($34.99) is an excellent Okanagan answer to super-Tuscan wines. This is a blend of 53% Sangiovese, 18.6% Barbera, 15% Merlot, 13.4% Cabernet Sauvignon and it is a very complex wine.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards at fifteen years

Photo: Robert Shaunessy (l), Sandra Oldfield, Kenn Oldfield (r)

This is Tinhorn Creek Vineyards fifteenth anniversary. In several ways it has been a momentous anniversary.

To begin with, this year’s releases from the winery – the whites in the spring and the reds this fall – have been among the best ever from Tinhorn Creek.

The releases also included the first new varietal from the winery since its launch: a fine Syrah has joined its portfolio.

As well, the winery committed itself this summer to becoming one of Canada’s first (possibly the first) winery to be carbon neutral. That involves capping the carbon emissions from winery operations and then beginning to reduce its production of greenhouse gases.

The first steps down that road are such common sense measures as replacing overhead sprinklers with drip irrigation; that reduces the winery’s energy consumption, to say nothing of conserving water resources. In addition, the vineyard tractors have been switched to using biodiesel fuel.

There is a delicious irony that Tinhorn Creek, of all wineries, should be leading the pack toward carbon neutral. The winery’s major owner, Robert Shaunessy, is an Alberta oil executive. He is obviously one oilman who is on side with the struggle to contain global warming.

In the immediate term, what matters to consumers is that of Tinhorn Creek’s wines are strong – and reasonably priced. Even the reserve wines, called Oldfield Series, are much less aggressively priced that most reserve wines from the Okanagan.

Oldfield refers to winemaker Sandra Oldfield and husband Kenn, whose focus is on the vineyards.

Currently, the most expensive table wine in the portfolio is the debut Syrah, the Oldfield Series Syrah 2006 ($35). Only 340 cases were released in October. This wine is a blend of Syrah grown at Tinhorn Creek’s Diamondback Vineyard on Black Sage Road; and Syrah grown across the valley at the winery. The wine spent 18 months in French oak barrels and another year in bottle before being released. This is a dark-hued and full-bodied red, as one would expect, a powerhouse with concentrated fruit. The complex flavours of this generous wine include plums, black cherry, liquorice and pepper. The finish lingers. 90

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Merlot 2006 ($28), with 1,551 cases released, has been tweaked for this vintage with the addition of 6% Cabernet Franc and 1% Syrah. The wine also spent 18 months in barrel (French and American) and one year in bottle before release. It is ready to drink now but can also be cellared at least five more years.

This is a rich and well-balanced wine with spicy berry aromas and with flavours of blackberry, cherry and plum. I saved half a bottle for next day and found that the core of sweet fruit flavours had become even more generous and appealing. 90-92.

Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2007 ($19) should be widely available because the winery released 10,442 cases. For obscure reasons, I found myself tasting and re-tasting this wine over five days and I swear that it was better on each succeeding day. It is a sturdy red, tasting of black currants, cherries, vanilla and dark chocolate. The tannins were a touch bitter on the first day but they softened right out, as one would expect. Do yourself and the wine a favour by decanting it. My score started at 87 on the first day and climbed to 90 by the fifth.

Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2007 ($18). On first impression, this is a rustic, earthy and spicy example of Cabernet Franc, with concentrated fruit and flavours of plums and currants – and the expected zesty lift of this varietal. This is another one to decant and let the fruit emerge. My point score improved over three days of tasting to settle at 88. The winery released 6,444 cases.

Tinhorn Creek Pinot Noir 2007 ($19). If my tasting memory is accurate, this is Tinhorn Creek’s best Pinot Noirs, more full-bodied that some of that rather light examples in previous vintages. The aromas are somewhat jammy but also a touch herbal. On the palate, it is a veritable berry cup of strawberries, raspberries and plums. The winery released 3,650 cases. 87

This fall’s release also include the winery’s Kerner Late Harvest 2008 ($13 for a half bottle). That sample has been set aside for a sweet wine tasting. Previous examples have been appealing, as is this price.