Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Burrowing Owl is making port

The fans of Burrowing Owl wines will be excited to learn that the winery is maturing three barrels of its first port-style wine.

This was disclosed during a Burrowing Owl winery dinner this week at Vancouver’s Glowbal Grill and Satay Bar. The dinner is part of this year’s Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.

According to Burrowing Owl proprietor Jim Wyse, the “port” is made with Syrah grapes, with the winery’s staff crushing the grapes by foot.

That has been the tradition in Portugal (although labour shortages have forced the invention of mechanical devices). Stomping grapes is not a gimmick. In making port, the wine does not remain in contact with the skins as long as it does in making table wines. The challenge, therefore, is how to extract as much colour and flavour as possible. Crushing the grapes by foot does a more effective job than a mechanical crusher at breaking down the grapes, liberating colour and taste, all without bruising the seeds, which might release bitter notes.

(You would be surprised at how often some winemakers still crush grapes for other wines by foot when making small batches.)

There was a bit of serendipity behind the Burrowing Owl “port.” The winery had to reduce the alcohol in one vintage of Pinot Gris. Many wineries do this commonly, using reverse osmosis in super-ripe vintages in order to avoid alcohol levels higher than 15%. Aside from possible tax implications, some high alcohol wines, notably whites, can taste unpleasantly hot.

After dealing with the Pinot Gris, Burrowing Owl decided to use the recovered alcohol to fortify a Syrah “port.” This is also traditional. In Portugal, port wines are allowed to ferment to around eight percent alcohol; then brandy is added to bring the alcohol to 18%-20%. This stops fermentation while preserving the natural sweetness of the wine.

Port seems a natural extension of Burrowing Owl’s style. The reds here have always been big, ripe and full of flavour. “That’s because those are the kind of wines I like to drink,” Wyse says.

The 2006 Syrah is the vintage currently available at the winery. It is a dark, brooding wine, ripe (14.5% alcohol) with concentrated flavours of plums and prunes, with an earthy spice. It is easy to see taking this wonderful wine to the next level in a port.

The other good news (from Chris Wyse, the winery’s general manager) is that Burrowing Owl in 2007 bought a 30-acre vineyard just southeast of Osoyoos. It is a great site for red varieties. The vineyard grows Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah – as well as Malbec and Petit Verdot. The latter two will probably be added to the winery’s superb Meritage. However, it is always possible that Burrowing Owl will consider offering varietals from these two as well.

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