Thursday, January 29, 2009

Burrowing Owl's new releases

Burrowing Owl Meritage 2006 ($45)

The policy at Burrowing Owl is to allocate its wines among three sales channels – restaurants and wine stores; internet sales and finally at the winery’s shop in the Okanagan. By the time the review sample of this magnificent wine reached me, the winery had closed down its internet sales. But stop by the winery on your next Okanagan trip. This is a 91 point wine.

Burrowing Owl has made a Meritage – another name for a blend of Bordeaux varieties – since 2000. In recent years, all five varieties go into the blend. This blend is Merlot (53.8%), Cabernet Franc (27.5%), Cabernet Sauvignon (12.5%), Petit Verdot (2.5%) and Malbec (3.7%).The winery further tweaks the complexity with its barrel program. The wine spent 22 months in a selection of barrels: 41% French, 26% American, 28% Russian and 5% Hungarian. Two-thirds of the barrels were new. Surprisingly, this wine is not over-oaked. The wine is so rich that it just seems to have soaked up the wood, reflecting in vanilla notes in the aroma and palate.

This wine is full-bodied, with an inviting aroma of plums, red berries and chocolate. That leads to flavours of chocolate, plums and currants. The long, ripe tannins contribute to the earthy, mouth-filling textures of this wine. The finish lingers forever, with a delicious hint of liquorice and mint. The winery suggests this wine, while drinking well now, will age to at least 2016.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($38)

This is a firm red with a disciplined structure that one expects in serious Cabernet Sauvignon built for aging. The wine is approachable now but needs to be decanted so that the aromas and flavours open up. My test with a young red is to leave half a bottle to be finished the next day. I was rewarded with a wine that begins with aromas of cedar, vanilla and red currants and opens to rich flavours of dark fruit and chocolate. Because this wine, along with the Meritage, is meant to age, the closure is natural cork. This wine will also still be drinking well in 2016. 89 points.

Burrowing Owl Chardonnay 2007 ($25)

This full-bodied Chardonnay begins with complex aromas of tangerine and subtle toasty oak. The palate follows through with citrus flavours enriched with the buttery notes that come from barrel fermentation, followed by malolactic fermentation. There is a layered complexity to the flavour profile. The acidity is soft, perhaps a little too soft. With 13.5% alcohol, this is not a shy wine. It has a warming finish with a hint of bitterness. This is a Chardonnay for those who appreciate a wine that has had the full treatment in the cellar. 88

Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2007 (N.A)

This is a seductive wine, no question about that, beginning with the lovely jewel-like ruby hue. The aromas show a medley of cherry and strawberry notes backed with a light toastiness from the oak. On the palate, this is a medium-bodied but juicy wine, with flavours of black cherries. This is a very cheerful wine with a vivacious, sexy personality. 90

This wine is also something of a paradox. The Burrowing Owl Vineyard on Black Sage Road, according to conventional wisdom, is less than ideal for Pinot Noir. It is a hot site and a sandy one. Normally, Pinot Noir is grown on cooler sites with clay soils. Yet Burrowing Owl has made successful Pinot Noir here since 1999. Invariably, the wines are - like the current release - full-bodied and bursting with fruit flavours. Obviously, the farming here is first class if Burrowing Owl can pull off good Pinot Noir year after year.

Burrowing Owl rediscovers natural cork

Jeff Del Nin, the current winemaker at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, rewarded himself with an Australian vacation after earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston in the mid 1990s.

That started his journey to winemaking. It also set in motion the chain of events that has Burrowing Owl begin a return to natural cork closures after several years of using synthetic closures.

The irony is that Jeff, who helped Burrowing Owl to change closures, had spent several years in Australia developing synthetic stoppers.

Jeff, who was born in Thunder Bay in 1971, had specialized in plastics and polymer research at university. In Australia, where he met his wife, he soon found work in the plastics industry.

“At the same time, I was developing my love of Australian wines,” he remembers. “Pretty much every weekend, I was off to a different wine region.” The weekend that hooked him, a gift from his wife, was a trip to McLaren Vale, a region that produces some of the most flavoursome of Australian red wines.

But he was still working in plastics. “I saw a job that was advertised, a plastics engineering job to develop plastic wine corks in South Australia [in Adelaide]. I thought, I love wines but realistically, as a plastics guy, that’s about as close as I will ever get to the wine industry.” So he took the job in 2000 and spent about two years developing synthetic stoppers for a company that also sold natural corks.

Obviously, the job kept him in close touch with winemakers. “I started to think maybe I could do this for a living,” he says. When he took a course for amateur winemakers, he realized how well his chemistry training had equipped him to make wine. He quite his plastics job and confirmed his career switch by working at the Barossa Valley Estate Winery before enrolling at the University of Adelaide’s wine school.

After breezing through that program, he decided to continue his career elsewhere. “I felt I was familiar with what was going on in Australia, after tasting those wines and travelling all over Australia for 10 years,” Jeff says. “I also knew that there are a lot of good winemakers in Australia, and they are cranking them out every year.”

For a complete change of scenery, he went to a New York winery on Long Island for the 2006 crush. He liked neither the region not his employer and decided to leave as soon as he could.

By chance, he had stopped in the Okanagan to taste wine on his way to New York and had been particularly impressed with the wines at Burrowing Owl. So he called Burrowing Owl proprietor Jim Wyse about a job. Jeff was welcomed with open arms. The 2006 vintage was one of the largest in recent years in the Okanagan. The winery was up to its eyeballs in grapes and short-staffed.

In 2007, when Steve Wyse, Jim’s winemaker son, left to do his own thing, Jeff was named Burrowing Owl’s winemaker.

Burrowing Owl had abandoned corks for synthetic stoppers several years earlier, after the incidence of cork taint had become far too high. This taint ruins wines by imparting musty aromas and flavours and by deadening the fruit flavours. It is damaging to business when a winery has too many so-called “corked” bottles because many consumers do not recognize the taint. They just figure that the winery makes lousy wines.

“We went to plastic and got rid of all our cork taint,” Jeff says, speaking of a decision made long before he arrived at Burrowing Owl. “Plastic corks are incredibly consistent. They perform in a certain way and they are very predictable. And there is no cork taint.” He suggests that the best synthetic stoppers are the quality equivalent of medium grade corks.

Synthetic closures also have drawbacks, one of them being the total barrier they provide against any oxygen transmission through the stopper. Arguably, this is not ideal for wines meant to be aged.

“It really just depends on what you are looking for in your wines,” Jeff contends. “If you are making a quick-to-consume wine, there is nothing wrong with the plastic corks and there is a lot to recommend them. If you are looking for a wine that is going to be put down for many years, then you are going to have to start looking at other options.”

In the most recent releases from Burrowing Owl, the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir still have synthetic closures. However, the two reds with a long-term aging profile, the Meritage and the Cabernet Sauvignon, now have a modified natural cork. It is a brand called Procork, made and tested in Australia. Burrowing Owl may well be North America’s first winery to use the Procork.

These corks are finished with membrane barriers at either end which eliminate the transmission of cork taint to the wines. The barriers seem to be as efficient as screw caps at sealing the wines but better at transmitting just enough oxygen to stop the wines from going reductive (i.e., developing slightly skunky aromas). The Australian Wine Research Institute has tested Procork extensively against other closures and determined that Procork does its job well.

Burrowing Owl expects that its new corks will benefit is big reds. Time will provide the final word on that.

For the consumer, there is already a benefit. The Procork closures, because they are natural cork, are easier to extract than most synthetic stoppers and much easier to insert back into a partially consumed bottle.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Andrew Peller bets big on B.C. vineyards

Andrew Peller Ltd. is now the third-largest vineyard operator in British Columbia (after Vincor and Mission Hill).

The irony is that Peller, then known as André’s Wines Ltd., took almost half a century to get over the disappointment of its very first British Columbia vineyard in the Similkameen Valley in 1962.

There is very little on the record about that vineyard. However, Ron Taylor, formerly a winemaker with the company, filled in some detail by passing along a photograph of that vineyard. To my knowledge, this has not been published anywhere until now.

Andrew Peller, now the largest Canadian-owned wine company, was founded in 1961 as André’s Wines Ltd. It built a winery in Port Moody, B.C., after Ontario regulators thwarted the company with unacceptable conditions. British Columbia allowed the winery to start with grapes from California while establishing its own domestic grape sources.

Founder Andrew Peller was astonished, as he recounts in his autobiography, that there were only 250 acres under vine in 1958, much of it committed to existing wineries. He thought that the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys had “such a perfect climate” for vineyards. He also learned that existing wineries quickly tied up all the grapes when they found out that Peller planned to start another winery.

So he went looking for vineyard property, if only because “the establishment of a vineyard in the province would confirm my good faith when I tried to get a license for the winery.” He found a 40-acre property in the Similkameen Valley, not far from Cawston.

“The day I went to see the property, the heat nearly melted me,” he wrote in The Winemaker, his privately published memoir. “It was ideal weather for grapes.” He bought the property after Robert Bonner, the attorney general at the time, assured Peller that the teetotalling Premier W.A.C. Bennett could be persuaded to grant Peller a winery license.

The property was developed as an experimental vineyard, testing varieties that could be recommended to growers who would produce for André’s. (One of those growers was Major Fraser, then the owner of the Okanagan Falls farm that later became Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards.)

The Peller memoir does not say when Peller got rid of the Similkameen vineyard, nor why. John Bremmer, now an Okanagan grower who once managed André’s, suggests that the cost of operating the vineyard was too high. “It was virtually given to John Bibby, a milk truck driver,” Bremmer recalls. “Bibby then sold it to Brian Mennell, who pulled out the vines in the 1988 pullout and planted fruit trees.

Peller, meanwhile, shifted its strategy and supported the Osoyoos Indian Band in developing the Inkameep Vineyard. André’s played a role in importing vines from Europe (Riesling, Ehrenfelser and Scheurebe) in 1977 for Inkameep. The winery has been one of Inkameep’s most consistent customers every since.

After 2010, however, Vincor will get nearly all of Inkameep’s grapes. That appears one reason why Peller has moved to own vineyards of its own in British Columbia.

Peller returned to the Similkameen in 1997 when the company invested in a joint venture with a grower to develop the 70-acre Rocky Ridge vineyard, not far from its original property there. In 2007, the company took 100 percent control of this vineyard by purchasing the grower’s interest.

Peller also became the owner of nearly 200 acres on Black Sage Road, now called Sandhill Estate Vineyard, when it took over the Calona and Sandhill wineries in 2005.

And since 2007, Peller has planted 294 acres of grapes on land leased from Covert Farms near Oliver. As well, the winery entered into a grape purchase contract on the 80-acre Vanessa Vineyard in the Similkameen where vines were planted in 2006.

What a pity that Andrew Peller, who died in 1994, is not around to see how prescient he was.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Meyer Family Vineyards buys Stone Mountain

Photo: JAK Meyer (r) and Janice Stephens

Meyer Family Vineyards, an Okanagan premium Chardonnay producer that launched a year ago with 650 cases of acclaimed wine, has just wrapped up a $2 million vineyard and winery deal that accelerates MFV's growth significantly.

In a recent court-supervised bankruptcy auction, MFV has purchased virtually all the assets (except wines) of Stone Mountain Vineyard in Okanagan Falls.

Stone Mountain, based on a producing 14-acre vineyard just five minutes east of Okanagan Falls, was started in 2005. The winery produced several vintages under the direction of consultant Brad Cooper, the winemaker at Township 7. Strangely, Stone Mountain never released any of the wines under its own label and never opened a tasting room. At the time of the bankruptcy sale, the wine inventory totalled 23,000 litres in bottle, barrels and tanks. An outside expert reported that the wines are good.

However, JAK Meyer, who owns MFV with his family, chose not to buy those wines because he prefers to make a "fresh start" with the Okanagan Falls property.

Stone Mountain was to be the first of three Okanagan wineries developed by a former Kelowna native, Gordon Pekrul, a builder of residential housing in Arizona. The collapse of the American housing market during the past two years appears to have pulled the financial support from Stone Mountain.

JAK Meyer, a Vernon-based developer, had just begun planning a winery for MFV on its Naramata Bench vineyard when he spotted the chance to buy Stone Mountain.

The Naramata Bench property, which Meyer bought in 2006, is planted exclusively with about four acres of Chardonnay. Most of the vines are about 15 years old. The site has stunning views across Okanagan Lake. Because of this, Meyer commissioned a showpiece winery design from Penticton architect Robert Mackenzie.

That has now been placed on the back burner (not indefinitely) while Meyer fits the Stone Mountain property into his super-premium approach to the Okanagan wine business.

When he decided to develop a winery of his own, Meyer enlisted the guidance of Vancouver wine educator James Cluer MW. In turn, they engaged Road 13's winemaker, Michael Bartier, to make MFV's vintages in 2006 and 2007. It was in inspired move: Bartier is a master of Chardonnay.

The first pair of Chardonnays released last February received great reviews, including this comment from British wine critic Stephen Spurrier: "the best dry white wines I have ever tasted from Canada." The 2007 Chardonnays are about to be released.

Last fall, MFV hired its own winemaker, Edmonton native Christopher Carson, 36. He developed his interest in wine while backpacking in New Zealand in 1996. Subsequently, he enrolled in the Lincoln University winemaking program and then worked for several New Zealand wineries. He has also done crushes and vineyard work in Burgundy and California, and in the Okanagan at Quails' Gate and Lake Breeze Vineyards.

Last summer, Chris and Jacqueline Kemp, his New Zealand-born wife, decided to move to Canada. Chris's resume landed on Meyer's desk and he was snapped up to do the 2008 vintage for MFV, using the winemaking facilities at Lake Breeze, not far from MFV's Naramata property.

While MFV is not really big enough to a fulltime winemaker, Meyer just could not pass up the talent that had landed on his doorstep. In New Zealand, Chris acquired experience not only with Chardonnay buy also with Pinot Noir. MFV bought Pinot Noir grapes in the 2008 vintage. This fall, it will have its own Pinot Noir from the Stone Mountain property.

JAK Meyer thinks he may have tumbled into a two-for-one deal on hiring Chris. Jacqueline Kemp is also a winemaker and, before the couple's son was born, she worked for a substantial winery there. Right now, she is a stay-at-home mom - which should make it pretty convenient for Chris to tap her expertise if needed.

The purchase of Stone Mountain should give MFV the production volume to justify a fulltime winemaker. The vineyard grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Gewurztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and a Muscat variety. JAK Meyer is not planning to add either Gamay or Muscat to the MFV line. However, he will plant a few more acres at Stone Mountain, likely another Bordeaux variety to support a big red blend in the future.

The other importance of the Stone Mountain purchase is that the vineyard supports MFV's preferred strategy of making only estate-grown wines. "At the end of the day, you have to own the grapes," Meyer believes.