Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Superb wines from Nk'Mip Cellars

Most wineries have several good wines in their portfolios. The hallmark of a top winery is consistent quality across the entire range.

That is what I saw at a recent tasting at Nk'Mip Cellars with winemaker Randy Picton. The quality of the wines just blows the doors off.

Nk'Mip Cellars opened in 2002 at Osoyoos as the anchor of a resort and condominium development. The Osoyoos Indian Band, which runs a string of other successful businesses, had just failed in an application for a casino. Building a winery was the fallback position. In my view, we are all better off with one less casino and one more winery.

The Band has a long history in winegrowing. They started Inkameep Vineyards just outside Oliver in 1968 and now grow more than 200 acres of mature vinifera grapes.

In 1980, the Band agreed to build a winery building and lease it to TG Bright & Co. This has grown over the decades into the sprawling Jackson-Triggs Winery, many of whose employees are Band members.

Vincor, the parent of Jackson-Triggs, also operates about 800 acres of vineyards on land leased from the Band.

When the Band decided to develop Nk'Mip Cellars, it engaged Vincor as a partner to provide the technical and marketing skills. These skills have come together with the excellent viticulture of the Inkameep and Vincor vineyards to generate this winery's success.

In hiring Randy Picton as winemaker in 2002, Nk'Mip brought on board someone whose natural talent for the craft took a while to unfold. Born in Yorkton, SK, Randy first earned a business diploma and took a forest industry job that was short-lived because of the recession of the early 1980s.

He moved from there to running a motel, then a recreational vehicle park. After that, the lean and wiry Randy became a tree planter until he decided in 1996 that he wanted a career not so hard on the knees. The wine industry was just beginning to roll in the Okanagan. He took the winery assistant program at Okanagan College and started as a cellar hand at CedarCreek.

CedarCreek proved to be a great winemaking school. Randy worked with two winemakers, Kevin Willenborg and then Tom DiBello, both graduates of the University of California at Davis and both good teachers. By the time Randy moved to Nk'Mip, he had risen to CedarCreek's assistant winemaker with full responsibility for several of the wines.

The Nk'Mip job was perhaps the best job open in the Okanagan at the time. The winery was new and well-designed. Randy once told me that the easy access to barrels or tanks of wine removed the human temptation of putting off cellar tasks just because it is inconvenient to get at the work. It is obvious from the quality of the wines that Randy and his cellar team are on top of the wines all the time.
Randy also access to well-grown grapes. Inkameep Vineyards, for example, goes the extra mile for him. Some of its Chardonnay grows in rows that run east/west. That means that the grapes on the south side of each row get more sun than those on the north side and thus ripen earlier. At Randy's request, the north side grapes are picked later than the southside grapes, ensuring that consistently ripe fruit comes into the winery. This is how top quality Chardonnay is made.

Here are notes on Nk'Mip's current releases. QwAm QwMT (or QQ) is the winery's designation for its premium tier wines.

Nk'Mip Pinot Blanc 2008 ($16.99). This winery's Pinot Blanc has always been one of the most consistent examples of this varietal in the Okanagan. The aromas and flavours always show notes of fresh apples, with a nice backbone of minerals and, in the 2008 vintage, a refreshing acidity. The winemaking style is commendably straight ahead: fermentation and aging in stainless steel, with early bottling to preserve its fresh-as-spring personality. 88 points

Nk'Mip Riesling 2008 ($16.99). This variety also benefits from straight-ahead winemaking. This wine begins with attractive floral aromas and has flavours of citrus and apricot, with an underlying minerality. The acidity is fresh and the wine ends with a clean, crisp finish. 89
Nk'Mip QQ Chardonnay 2007 ($24.99). This is a variety that benefits from complex winemaking techniques - fermenting and aging in barrels, using some wild yeasts, adding a buttery or honeyed profile to the acidity with malolactic fermentation. All of these tricks and others are employed here. The wine begins with aromas that are toasty, showing notes of bacon fat and oak. On the palate, the wine is rich in texture, with flavours of tangerine and orange rind. The finish lingers. 90

Nk'Mip QQ Pinot Noir 2007 ($30). The dark hue of this wine is just the start of its appeal. It has abundant aromas, with floral and red berry tones. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry and strawberry. The velvet texture is classic for this variety. 90. Randy also showed a barrel sample of his 2008 QQ Pinot Noir. It is every bit as good, if not better.
Nk'Mip QQ Syrah 2006 ($34.99). This delicious wine begins with aromas recalling deli meats and pepper mixed with plum and black cherry. On the palate, it is a big ripe wine bursting with black cherry and pepper flavours. As bold as the wine is, it still has elegance. Randy says he aims at make Syrah in the leaner European style, not in fruit bomb Australian style. This wine is a tour de force. 94
Nk'Mip QQ Meritage 2006 ($32.99). This is a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot. The wine begins with spicy, minty aromas on top of subtle oak. The wine has cassis flavours with a hint of cedar. The texture is firm. Clearly, this wine is built to develop in the bottle over the next decade. 90-92, with potential for a higher score in a few years.

Nk'Mip QQ Merlot 2006 ($24.99). This is a textbook expression of this varietal - a bold, richly concentrated red, almost jammy with its flavours of plum and black currants and with a touch of vanilla on the aroma and flavour. It has long ripe tannins that give the wine almost a chewy texture and a long, long finish. 94

Nk'Mip QQ Riesling Icewine 2008 ($60). Beginning with aromas of pineapple and lemons, this is a fleshy dessert wine tasting of ripe pineapple. The racy acidity gives the wine a refreshingly tangy conclusion. Well balanced, the wine has a clean, fresh finish. 92

Icewine is always a hard sell, not only because the wines are expensive but because many consumers can't figure out how to serve them. Here's an idea: start your next dinner party with a fine icewine like this one, paired with a savoury pate on crackers. If you wait until the end of the meal, your guests are usually too full to want something as intense as icewine.

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