Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cassini Cellars - a winery still being discovered

Photo: Adrian Cassini

In only its second full year in business, Cassini Cellars of Oliver has been rolling up awards at an astonishing pace.

It won enough medals at this fall’s British Columbia Wine Awards to be named “Best New Winery.” It was in second place at the Intervin 2010 competition as the “Best New Winery.”

Yet Cassini is still a small enough producer that it remains a winery still to be discovered.

I was recently on a panel with six other wine professionals. When the discussion turned to British Columbia wineries, none of the others had even heard of Cassini.

Perhaps that is not surprising. There must be a million wineries in the world and only Hugh Johnston has heard of them all.

But professionals in the British Columbia market only have 200 wineries to be familiar with – assuming the wineries make a reasonable effort to get the word out. Clearly, Cassini is still working at elevating its profile.

Having tested a selection of the current releases, I would encourage you to look for the wines. They are impressive. My only quarrel is that the winery uses synthetic stoppers in its Collector’s Series wines. The red wines are built to age for five to seven years. I would prefer natural cork because I don’t trust synthetic stoppers for long haul aging.

Of course, that may not be crucial. Once you get into these delicious wines, you will probably drink them up, not cellar them.

Here is some background on the winery. It is owned by an entrepreneurial Romanian named Adrian Capeneata. He bought a lavender farm beside Highway 97 and, in 2007, replaced the lavender with grape vines. He is a builder, among his many skills, and he has erected a Tuscan-style winery right beside the highway south of Oliver. Wine tourists cannot miss the winery with its golden walls, its red tiled roof and its big parking lot.

The winery’s name, Cassini, is the surname of Adrian’s Italian grandfather. In 2010, Adrian decided to change his own surname to Cassini as well.

The consulting winemaker is Philip Soo, an alumnus of André’s Wines who consults with four or five Okanagan wineries. He tailors the wines to suit each winery’s terroir while producing the styles desired by the owners. Adrian at Cassini is a forceful man. Forceful sums up the personality of these bold and ripe wines.

Here are my notes on the wines.

Cassini Mama Mia 2009 ($18). Now that every one makes Pinot Gris, how do you get yours to stand out on the shelf? Cassini’s answer is to give the wine a saucy name and a bold label. It’s a pretty good wine, too – crisp and fresh, with notes of citrus and pear. The winery released 494 cases and has been selling directly and to restaurants. 88.

Cassini French Couture Viognier 2009 ($19). The rationale for calling this French Couture is that Viognier is a French grape. This is a bold and rich white with flavours of melon, pineapple and pear set against a mineral backbone. 88.

Cassini Chardonnay Reserve 2008 ($29). The winery released 290 cases of a Chardonnay that is rich in tropical flavours. It begins with aromas of tangerines and peaches. On the palate, there are flavours of butter, marmalade and guava, all framed with notes of cloves and toast. The finish does not want to quit. 90.

Cassini Pinot Noir Reserve 2008 ($34). Only 115 cases of this elegant wine were released. It begins with an alluring aroma of strawberries. That leads into flavours of strawberry, cherry and spice. It has the classic sensuous texture of Pinot Noir. 90.

Cassini Malbec 2008 Collector’s Series ($29). This is a really forceful red, with 15% alcohol according to the winery’s online data and 14% according to the label. Perhaps this is what happens when the labels are ordered too soon. It begins with aromas of blackberry and spice and red berries. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, plum, spice, mocha and vanilla. A delicious wine with a long finish. 90.

Cassini Syrah 2008 Collector’s Series ($34). The winery only released 367 cases of this wonderfully brawling red. It has pepper on the nose and the finish, with lovely ripe blackberry flavours. In the second day, the pepper had settled down a bit and the sweet fruit revealed itself better. 90.

Cassini Nobilus Merlot 2008 Collector’s Series ($39). With this wine (only 290 cases were made), Cassini establishes itself as one of the Okanagan’s best producers of serious Merlot. The wine is richly concentrated with aromas and flavours of blackberry, black currant and plum; there is liquorice and dark chocolate on the finish and just enough ripe tannin to ensure good aging potential. 92.

Cassini Maximus 2008 ($29). The winery released 862 cases of its Bordeaux blend, a wine with 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 6% Malbec. It begins with aromas of black currants, vanilla and mint, as one would expect with this much Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. On the palate, the flavours are ripe – currant, blackberry, black cherry – with spice and sweet fruit on the finish. The wine benefits from being decanted, so that the aromas and flavours really open up. 90.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blue Mountain invites its friends to a tasting

Even at $90 a ticket, the January 17 tasting of the wines of Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver will, as usual, be sold out.

Tickets are still available at the Blue Mountain website, but probably for not much longer.

The winery has been doing these tastings for a number of years (there was a recent two-year interruption due to scheduling problems). The winery enlists as partners a dozen of the west coast’s best restaurants.

Each restaurant has a table at which it prepares a signature dish to pair with one of the 12 Blue Mountain wines available for tasting.

The two-and-a-half-hour event, which begins at 6.30 pm, is a fund-raiser for the British Columbia Hospitality Foundation, supporting scholarships for industry students and help for industry professionals facing medical hardship.

Predicting a sell-out is easy. Blue Mountain has had a cult following since opening in 1992. In the early years, the wines sold in a flash. The appeal has always been the disciplined European styling of these wines. Blue Mountain has never adopted the New World habit of making high-alcohol blockbusters. These are wines meant to be enjoyed with food.

There are five times as many B.C. wineries today compared with 1992, which means more competition for the Blue Mountain wines. That is why some Blue Mountain wines will actually be available for brief periods in private wine shops (such as Everything Wine.)

Even so, the reserve or stripe label wines are released in limited quality and are always hard to get. You need to take in this tasting to savour some of these. As well, the winery’s first Sauvignon Blanc, which was released in the fall, has never been in any wine store. It will be at this tasting.

The restaurants partnering with Blue Mountain are an equal attraction. Few of us have the opportunity of dining at The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn. The restaurant will have a chef at this event, making one of its remarkable dishes.

For those who can’t go to the tasting, here are notes on some of the wines you could taste. Most are still available through the winery’s website and, perhaps, in private stores.

Blue Mountain Rosé Brut 2006 Sparking Wine ($32.90). If ever there is a cult wine in the Blue Mountain portfolio, this is it. The wine sells out as soon as it is released. Made in the traditional style of Champagne, this is a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend with enough skin contact to give it a good bronze hue. There are flavours of raspberry and notes of toast, with a complexity gained from having aged 36 months on lees before being disgorged just like Champagne. The finish is dry and crisp to the point of being austere. I would like to revisit this wine in 2016; I think it will age very well. 89-91.

Blue Mountain Brut Gold Label N.V. Sparking Wine ($23.90). This is half the price of Champagne but in a blind-tasting line-up, it would be hard to pick which is the Canadian bubble and which is from Champagne. This is made with 47% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are traditional in Champagne cuvees. What sets this apart is the 6% Pinot Gris, a variety not found in Champagne. Here, it adds a hint of spice to the notes of citrus, toast and yeast on the nose and palate. The bubbles are every bit as festive as in Champagne. 91

Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2009 ($20.90). Here is a concentrated red as serious as a Beaujolais Cru, with flavours of raspberry, black currant and black cherry. It has the structure to age well for the next four or five years, developing more complexity and lushness of texture. 89.

Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2009 ($20.90). For those turned off by overoaked Chardonnay, this restrained wine will restore their faith in the variety. Even though 60% was fermented in barrel, the oak treatment shows only in the full texture and toasty notes. The aromas and flavours show clean and focussed citrus notes, with refreshing acidity. 89.

Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2009 ($20.90). This wine begins with the aroma of fresh apples. On the palate, there are flavours of apples and p0ears, with a hint of anise on the finish. The wine is crisp with a nice spine of minerality and with bright acidity. 90.

Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2009 ($17.90). This is a solid, complex Pinot Blanc from a varietal than can be boring. It is a bit yeasty on the nose, with flavours of green apples. The vibrant acidity is edgy, perhaps too edgy, for the wine is a touch sharp on the finish and drops crystals of tartaric acid after a few days in the refrigerator. A wine like this needs food, but of course, that’s the whole point of Blue Mountain wine. 88.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Meyer honours Okanagan Falls rodeo legend

Photo: Left to right: Laura, Terry and JAK Meyer with winemaker Chris Carson

It is a safe bet that JAK Meyer, who runs Meyer Family Vineyards with his sisters and his wife, Janice Stevens, , would be an engaging guest at a dinner party.

It is a judgment based on the winery’s choices of individuals that it has honoured each vintage since 2006 with what is called a “Tribute” Chardonnay. The idea is to recognize Western Canadians who have outstanding achievements in their fields. The winery also donates $5,000 to a cause or foundation associated with the honouree.

The 2006 Tribute Chardonnay (the winery’s first vintage) was dedicated to Emily Carr while the 2007 honoured Bill Reid. These are two of the finest artists ever to emerge from British Columbia. One assumes that you could have a pretty good conversation about art with JAK.

The winery shifted cultural gears in 2008 with a Tribute Chardonnay dedicated to hockey great Steve Yzerman, who directed the $5,000 donation go to the Cranbrook Minor Hockey League where he began his career.

In an another cultural lurch, the 2009 Tribute Chardonnay honours the late Kenny McLean, a great rodeo rider who once lived at an Okanagan Falls ranch, not far from Meyer Family’s winery.

The McLean tribute tells us that JAK Meyer is a man of eclectic interests. It also tells us that he has found roots in Okanagan Falls two years after buying a vineyard there, just east of the community. Meyer Family Vineyards started in 2006 with a vineyard on Naramata Road. That is still the source of some of its top Chardonnays, including the 2009 Tribute, but the winery’s tasting room and processing facility now are both at Okanagan Falls.

Kenny McLean was born in 1939 in Penticton and grew up on an Okanagan Falls ranch. According to notes supplied by the winery, he started breaking colts when he was 12 and was competing in rodeos at 17. He turned professional in 1959. He won 14 major Canadian championships in this sport, more than any other Canadian rodeo rider. In 1962 he was the World Saddle Bronc champion. In 2002, while riding at a rodeo, McLean suffered a fatal heart attack. There is now a life-size bronze statue of him, on a horse, at Okanagan Falls.

The $5,000 donation from the winery supports a B.C. high school scholarship for young rodeo riders.

Even though McLean is in several rodeo halls of fame, he is probably not well known outside of rodeo circles. His profile is certainly a little higher now with the non-rodeo crowd, thanks to the 292 cases of Chardonnay that Meyer has released.

And those who collect the Meyer Chardonnays will be eager to see where JAK’s catholic tastes take him with the 2010 Tribute.

The winery was launched initially as a Chardonnay specialist. In the last several years it has also added Pinot Noir, partly at the urging of winemaker Chris Carson, the New Zealand-trained Canadian who joined Meyer in 2008. As well, the Okanagan Falls vineyard that was purchased that fall included producing Pinot Noir (and more has been planted).

The winery recently has released its 2009 wines. Here are my notes.

Micro Cuvee Chardonnay 2009 ($64.90). This wine is made with grapes grown in the winery’s 1.6-hectare Old Main Road Vineyard on the Naramata Bench. The wine is a selection of the best three barrels of Chardonnay from that vintage, which means there are 72 cases in total. It is a very elegant wine, with toast and oak aromas along with citrus aromas. The winery used very good French oak and the winemaker has not hidden it but has used it to lift the fruit and mineral flavours. Given the wine’s texture and the bright acidity, this is a wine, like a good white Burgundy, that should be cellared a few years, enabling its complexity to bloom. 91.

Tribute Series Chardonnay 2009 - Kenny Mclean ($35). This is the other 11 or 12 barrels of Old Main Road Chardonnay. I would not have wanted to job of picking the best three barrels when all are this elegant. This is a carefully crafted wine, fermented very cool for about three months in stainless steel before being transferred into French oak barrels (33% new) to finish fermentation and to spend another 11 months quietly on the lees. The result is a wine with toast and oak on the nose and with bright and focussed citrus flavours. I would recommend cellaring this as well for a few years. 90.

McLean Creek Chardonnay 2009 ($35). The McLean Creek vineyard at Okanagan Falls includes a 1.2 hectare block of Chardonnay. The winemaking is similar to the other two Chardonnays, except that this wine received only partial malolactic fermentation since the grapes started with less natural acidity than those grown on the Naramata Bench. This wine has attractive aromas and flavours of toast, butter and lime. It has the vibrancy of Chablis but with more weight. The winery produced 261 cases. 88.

Meyer Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2009 ($25). The winery has released 620 cases of this wine, having sourced grapes from several growers. The winemaker’s gentle handling of the grapes and the wine results in a wine with the classic silky texture of Pinot Noir. It has flavours of cherry and raspberry that, with time in the glass, evolved to rich flavours of black cherry and mocha. 88-90.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nk'Mip Cellars launches its first icon wine

Nk’Mip Cellars has entered the icon wine sweepstakes with the release of its first $50 red wine – with a label name that collectors may find challenging at first.

The wine, a 2008 Meritage, is called MəR’R’IYM. Pronounced mur-eem, it is a word from the dialect spoken by the Osoyoos Indian Band, which runs Nk’Mip in a joint venture with Vincor Canada. The word means marriage – in this case, the marriage of five Bordeaux varietals.

“This is the first time we have had all five Bordeaux varietals available to us,” winemaker Randy Picton says, explaining why Nk’Mip, which opened in 2002, is only now releasing an icon wine.

Photo: Randy Picton

The winery already had a reserve range. Since the 460-member band owns and lives on a large reserve in the southern Okanagan (with some of the region’s best vineyards), it needed another term to identify the premium wines. These are all labeled QwAM QwMT, a phrase that means achieving excellence. The pronunciation shortcut is to refer to these wines either as QQ or Q Squared.

The QQ wines invariably are excellent. The 2007 QQ Meritage ($30), which is 75% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc, was a gold-medal winner and best of class this year at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition – among its other awards.

The object with MəR’R’IYM is to take advantage of the great selection of grapes to move the quality up another notch. The wine is a markedly different blend. It is 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 7% Malbec and 2% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Picton and his cellar team skimmed the cream from the 350 barrels of red wine in the Nk’Mip cellar to come up with a 20-barrel blend, or about 500 cases.

From the winery brochure, here is how he explains his blending approach. The wine is “largely Cabernet Sauvignon based; we added Merlot for mid-palate sweetness, Malbec and Cabernet Franc for their aromatic contributions and Petit Verdot for increased structure and complexity.”

At a coming-out party for the wine in November in Vancouver, Randy added: “It’s not meant to be a blockbuster. It is about elegance and harmony.”

To get the best from this wine in its youth, I was careful to decant it and let it breathe. The wine has the structure to age well, to develop further complexity and to be drinking very well on its 10th birthday. It begins with aromas of spice, cassis and plum. On the palate, there are flavours of plum and cassis, with a note of chocolate on the finish. The long ripe tannins and the 18 months of barrel-aging contribute to the cedar character on the finish often found in Bordeaux reds. 92.

Collectors of iconic British Columbia reds will need to add MəR’R’IYM to the list.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Burrowing Owl reds sometimes pack 12-cylinder torque

When Jim Wyse bought Burrowing Owl Winery’s Black Sage Road property in the early 1990s, he recognized that he was acquiring one of the most sun-bathed vineyard sites in Canada.

That has enabled Burrowing Owl to produce among the biggest red wines made by any Canadian winery, with remarkable consistency, as is shown by the four 2008 reds released this fall. These are all powerful wines.

This comparison may seem strange but the Burrowing Owl 2008 Syrah ($35) reminded me of a Jaguar sports sedan that the car company loaned me for a week, coincidentally about the same time that Jim was buying his vineyard land.

Let me tell you the story. In those days I was writing for The Financial Post in Vancouver. One day, my telephone rang. It was the Jaguar publication relations executive, wanting to know when he could schedule a media test drive for me. Taken by surprise, I spent a few minutes protesting that I was not the paper’s automobile writer. That did not matter: my name was on the list of journalists that Jaguar wanted to put in the seat of a $75,000 car for a week, no strings attached. (Later, the experience did in fact inspire an article and that was undoubtedly what Jaguar was counting on.)

The long red convertible had a huge 12-cylinder engine. When the power kicked in, this hot car gave you quite a ride. I think the odometer went to at least 150 miles an hour. If I hadn’t backed off, I would have been in Squamish in 15 minutes.

Well, Burrowing Owl’s Syrah has the equivalent of a 12-cylinder power plant. It is an intense and ripe wine, with aromas of spice, vanilla and plums and flavours of earthy plums, blackberries, chocolate and pepper. And the wine packs 15% alcohol! When this high-torque package of flavour and warmth kicks in, hang on for the ride. The winery released 2,751 cases. 88.

As much as I liked that Syrah, I thought the variety was put to better use in a new blend from the winery. Burrowing Owl 2008 Athene ($ not shown in the web site) is 53% Syrah, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon and a slightly more moderate 14.5% alcohol. It seems to me a better balanced wine and a more complex one – the finesse of, say, a BMW compared to force of that Jag.

This wine – only 663 cases were produced – started as an experimental blend in the winery’s cellar. Both the Syrah and the Cabernet Sauvignon were picked at the end of October. The grapes went into the same tank, to be co-fermented on the skins for 20 days before being pressed.

The result is outstanding: a big, rich red that starts with aromas of spice, mocha, vanilla and black cherry and delivers those flavours, along with touches of mint and cedar and red liquorice on the finish. 92.

The name of the wine – the first new label from Burrowing Owl in eight years – is pronounced “a-THEE-nee.” It comes from athene cunicularia, the biological genus to which the burrowing owl belongs.

Another excellent release – 1,453 cases - is the Burrowing Owl 2008 Cabernet Franc ($33). The wine begins with the classic brambleberry nose of the variety. The flavours are both ripe and vivacious – spice, black cherry, blackberries, chocolate. The blackberry notes linger on the long finish. The ripe tannins give the wine a satisfying texture and weight. The alcohol is 14.9% but is not nearly so obvious as the alcohol in the Syrah. 90.

Burrowing Owl 2008 Merlot ($30) is the winery’s bread and butter red, with a release of 6,391 cases. The winery’s own tasting notes speak of flavours of dark cherry, gooseberry, cassis and red berry fruits. I certainly found the cherry, with a note of mocha and coffee in the aroma. What they described as gooseberry corresponds to the tangy cherry note I found on the palate. The 14.6% alcohol, not evident on the finish, tells you that this is another big ripe red. 88.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Holman Lang wineries are in receivership

The Holman Lang group of wineries on the Naramata Bench have been placed in receivership.

According to an article in the Penticton Herald this morning, the group owes $15 million to the Bank of Montreal. The assets, primarily land, are valued at $22.7 million.

Above is a photo of the notice that the receiver, Wolrige Mahon Ltd. of Vancouver, placed on the door of Lang Vineyards.

The company was placed in receivership on November 24. The assets that the receiver will seek to liquidate include three wineries and 53,691 bottles of wine.

The documents relevant to this receivership, including the complete lists of assets that are open for bids, can be found at www.wmltrustees.com.

The Holman Lang group, which has seven wineries, has been struggling for some time. Last March, the company announced the departure of Geisenheim-trained winemaker Bernhard Schirrmeister, who had been the senior winemaker there for more than five years. No reason was given. Bernhard was snapped up quickly by The View Winery.

Also in March, Vancouver wine educator James Cluer was announced as the general manager at Holman Lang. It appears he was brought in by the bank to market 95,970 litres (about 10,600 cases equivalent) of Holman Lang bulk wine at between $3 and $7 a litre. He left the group this fall when he completed his assignment.

In 2009, Holman Lang tried to raise cash by listing two of its wineries for sale with Sotheby’s International Realty, the carriage trade realtor. Mistral Estate Winery, with a 16.5-acre property in Naramata, was listed for $5.5 million. The neighbouring Stonehill Estate Winery, with nine acres of vines, was listed at $3.9 million. Several vineyard properties were also listed.

It is believed that none of the properties was sold, a reflection of the illiquid state of B.C. winery properties coming out of the recent recession.

Keith Holman and his wife, Lynn, are veteran Penticton area fruit growers. They got into the wine business in 2003 by launching the Spiller Estate Winery, a fruit winery with a bed and breakfast located near the beginning of Naramata Road.

Appetite whetted, they started developing Mistral, located nearby, in 2004. Soon after, they were able to buy the Benchland winery next door, which they renamed as Stonehill.

In 2005 they bought Lang Vineyards from Günther Lang. One of the first wineries on the Naramata Bench, it had opened in 1990. The Holmans added it to their growing group because, unlike Mistral and Benchland, it was an established brand with a marketing organization behind it. It also had an experienced winemaker in Bernard at a time when the winemaker at Mistral and Benchland, Craig Larson, was about to depart and work in the United States.

In 2005 the Holmans also bought a spectacular property on the Naramata Bench overlooking Okanagan Lake, planted a vineyard there and developed Soaring Eagle Winery. This became the main production facility and the headquarters for the Holman Lang group.

Two more wineries were developed before the group stopped expanding: K Mountain Vineyards was created in a fruit stand at Keremeos and Zero Balance Vineyards was opened next door to Soaring Eagle, both in 2008.

The strategy with this chain of wineries was to keep wine tourists in house, sending them from one winery to the other to taste the differing styles of wines. It appears that the strategy ran head on into the recession that left many Okanagan producers with unsold or slow-selling inventory.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Michael Bartier and J-M Bouchard both launch new Okanagan winemaking careers

Photo: J-M Bouchard (courtesy of Road 13 Vineyards)

Michael Bartier’s decision to launch his own winery in partnership with his oilpatch brother, Donald, is triggering a winemaker change at Road 13 Vineyards.

The Bartier winery, yet to be named, will be built on a small Gewürztraminer vineyard near Summerland planted two years ago by Donald Bartier, who is a land man for a Calgary oil company.

There is already a Bartier red blend in barrel and a white blend in tank. Michael, who is not disclosing the components of the two blends, expects no wine will be released before late winter or early spring of 2012.

Michael, who also wants to secure a source of grapes in the south Okanagan, is not aiming to build another winery to the size of Road 13 (which makes up to 20,000 cases a year).

“I want to go with two wines, maybe three,” Michael says. “I have no plans beyond two at the moment. The cash flow plan I have set out over the next 10 years maxes out at 5,000 cases. It is quite small. I want to make it myself.”

He is handing Road 13 over to J-M (Jean-Martin) Bouchard. A Montreal native, he was the winemaker at Ontario’s Hidden Bench Winery near Jordan until he moved to the Okanagan early in 2010. Here, he worked with Donald Triggs, the former co-founder of Jackson-Triggs, at Arise Vineyards, the new Golden Mile winery that Triggs is developing.

“I have tasted a few of his wines from Ontario,” Michael says. “To a wine, they are exceptional. I feel pretty good by sending [Road 13] on to him.”

At Road 13, J-M takes over an established producer with a leading brand. Under Michael’s winemaking, Road 13 had begun to emphasize blends over varietals in much of its portfolio, although its reserve Jackpot range continues to include major varietals such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and Riesling.

J-M has had a remarkable and diverse career, starting with a bachelor of business administration degree in the early 1900s from the University of Québec and later a wine science degree from Charles Sturt University in Australia.

He came to wine through the hospitality industry – assistant manager of the Jardin Nelson Hotel in Montreal from 1994 to 1997; food and beverage supervisor in 1998 at a Holiday Inn in Perth and then two years as the manager of the Blue Waters Lodge in Western Australia.

J-M moved into wine in 2000, first as a vintage cellar hand at Mooroorduc Estate in the Mornington Peninsula, followed by vintage cellar hand at Barossa’s St. Hallet in 2001, vintage lab technician at McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra winery and vintage cellar hand at Barossa’s Torbeck Vintners in 2002. In between those jobs, he found time to do a vintage in 2001 at the Wurtemberg State Winery in Germany and in 2002 at Domaine du Clos Landelin in Alsace.

He worked as assistant red winemaker at Penfolds in the Barossa Valley in 2003 before coming to the Okanagan’s Sumac Ridge as assistant winemaker. He moved to Ontario in 2005 to help establish Hidden Bench Vineyards. That winery came out of the gate so fast that, in the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards, it was runner up as best winery. The Hidden Bench Riesling was judged the best Riesling and the White Meritage as the best white wine in those 2007 awards.

In the Decanter awards in 2010, Hidden Bench’s 2007 Red Meritage won the trophy as the best Canadian red wine.

Road 13 appears to have landed a very capable winemaker to replace the very capable Michael Bartier, who also did not start out as a winemaker.

“Like a lot of careers, I got into this quite by accident,” Michael says. “I feel really privileged. I was at the right place at the right time. I can’t see anyone now coming into the wine industry as wet behind the ears as I was, and rising so fast.”

Photo: Michael Bartier

The son of an accountant, Michael was born in Kelowna in 1967 and grew up in Summerland. He has a degree from the University of Victoria in recreational administration. On graduating in 1990, he took a job with a wine marketing agency. “I wasn’t interested in the recreational field,” he says now. “By the time I realized that, I was too far along in my degree to stop those studies.”

At the wine agency, he got to visit wineries in France and in the United States. “It gave me the interest and the passion for wine,” Michael remembers.

He left the agency in 1995 to return to the Okanagan, intending to pick up his original interest in the outdoors. “My dream was to become a professional climbing guide. I came out to the Okanagan to boost my résumé on difficult climbing routes.” Those include the Skaha Bluffs just south of Penticton, one of the world’s more challenging rock climbing venues. Ultimately, Michael decided this was definitely not for him. While he considered himself a capable ice climber and mountaineer, he concluded he was “a mediocre rock climber.”

While working on his climbing skills, Michael took a job as a cellar hand at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now See Ya Later Ranch). By the end of a season, he had been promoted to assistant winemaker, leading him to abandon professional climbing. “I realized it was just too dangerous an occupation,” he says. “And I was having too much fun in the wine cellar.”

He left Hawthorne Mountain in 2001 because he wanted to develop his own label; Vincor International Inc., which owned Hawthorne Mountain, does not permit its winemakers to freelance on the side. Michael had no problem with that policy. “Vincor is an outstanding employer that treats its people very well,” he says. “I had just been there a long time. I always knew I wanted to do my own winery.”

As first step, he became a consulting winemaker for various Okanagan wineries, including Stag’s Hollow for the 2002 vintage. He was the winemaker for Township 7 from this winery’s inception in 2001 until he left to join Road 13 in December 2004.

Like J-M, he has made wines that racked up medals at the Canadian Wine Awards. His Hawthorne Mountain 2000 Gold Label Chardonnay was the top Chardonnay in the 2001 competition. Township 7’s 2002 Chardonnay was judged not only the best Chardonnay but the year’s best Canadian white wine in the 2003 Canadian Wine Awards.

“A winemaker can really put his fingerprint on Chardonnay,” Michael says. As a consultant, he made the initial Chardonnays for Meyer Family Vineyards and the wines that launched Noble Ridge. After he finishes at Road 13 in January, he will resume his consulting career (with Haywire and Stoneboat Vineyards, among others) while developing the new Bartier winery.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A toast to William Baillie-Grohman

Photos: Petra Flaa (top), Bob Johnson

If the citizens of Creston are fed up with the notoriety that the commune of Bountiful has brought, they might want rebrand the city as the wine capital of the Kootenays in southeastern British Columbia.

Okay, there are only two wineries there so far but both offer solid to impressive wines. Skimmerhorn Winery and Vineyard opened in 2006. Its neighbour, Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery has just begun selling its first wines.

So far, Skimmerhorn wines are sold only in the Kootenays. Bob Johnson and Petra Flaa, the Calgarians who own Baillie-Grohman, have made their wines available both in Calgary and Vancouver as well as the Kootenays.

Last week, Bob and his New Zealand winemaker, Dan Barker, were in Vancouver to show the winery’s first releases to the wine writers. While I can’t speak for my colleagues, I believe we were all very impressed with what we tasted.

Bob is a reservoir engineer and a director of Sproule Associates, a major consulting firm in the oil industry. Petra, who now manages Baillie-Grohman’s 15-acre vineyard, spent 20 years as an information technology executive. She and Bob also live on a farm just outside Calgary. One of their two sons, Wes, who is 20, is becoming a winemaker.

The couple have had a love affair with Creston for 25 years. They visited regularly; helped Bob’s sister on her organic farm; and eventually bought a cherry orchard.

Creston has a long history of fruit growing. There is no doubt that wine grapes, if carefully selected, will thrive wherever peaches and cherries thrive. Skimmerhorn began planting its vineyard in 2003. In 2006 Bob and Petra were able to buy the property immediately next door and cleared what remained of an apple orchard to make way for the vineyard.

In 2007, they planted the bulk of the vineyard, about 16,000 vines. The largest blocks are Pinot Noir (three clones) and Pinot Gris. There is also Gewürztraminer, Schönburger, Chardonnay and a small block of Kerner.

Both of the Creston wineries recruited experienced New Zealand winemakers – Mark Rattray at Skimmerhorn and Dan Barker at Baillie-Grohman – and that explains the professional polish and finesse of wines from both. The winemakers both spend three to four months in Creston, typically arriving in September just before harvest and staying until just before Christmas, when the vintage is complete and the wines safely in barrels and tanks. This arrangement works because those months are the quiet months for winery activity in the southern hemisphere.

Photo: Dan Barker

Dan Barker has been making wine since graduating from wine school in New Zealand in the mid-1990s. He worked at several wineries until joining Moana Park in 2005 and then buying the winery in 2008.

He already knew something about Canadian wineries when he was recruited by Baillie-Grohman. He worked the 2006 crush at Ontario’s Hidden Bench Winery. On his way home that fall, he stopped in the Okanagan and was “blown away” by British Columbia wines.

“Creston reminds me of Central Otago,” Dan says, referring to New Zealand’s southern-most and highest-elevation wine region. There, the growing season is hot but short – and very good for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. That is true as well for Creston, except that the vineyards are about twice as high above sea level as those in Central Otago.

“We’re about wines with texture,” Bob Johnson says, describing the Baillie-Grohman philosophy. “We are trying to let the wines show what the terroir of Creston is.”

The winery is named for one of the great characters of Creston’s history, William Baillie-Grohman. A European aristocrat who loved to hunt, he discovered the Creston Valley in 1882 – so the story has it – when he was hunting mountain goats with his friend, Teddy Roosevelt, a future president of the United States. The following year, he embarked on an ambitious scheme to build dikes, divert the Kootenay River, reclaim farm land and bring in settlers. By 1885, he had organized a syndicate in Britain with the rights to 71,000 acres.

A substantial amount of land was reclaimed and settled and is productive to this day. But the whole scheme unravelled with engineering and financial problems. The syndicate’s Victoria lawyer apparently made of with funds that he held in trust. Baillie-Grohman returned to England and was suing to get some of his money back when he died in 1921. He had fallen into obscurity until Bob and Petra re-discovered him.

If he was a wine drinker, which is very likely, Baillie-Grohman would be immensely pleased with the wines bearing his name.

Baillie-Grohman Pinot Gris 2009 ($21.99). This is a superb Pinot Gris, with aromas of tropical fruits, flavours of peaches and long, refreshing finish. Part of the wine was fermented in neutral barrels, enhancing its texture without imparting any noticeable oak to the flavour. 90.

Baillie-Grohman Gewürztraminer 2009 ($19.99). Elegant and understated, this wine has aromas of rose petals and spice that carry through to the flavours. There is a light touch of sweet fruit on the palate, making this a crowd pleaser. 88.

Baillie-Grohman Blanc de Noirs Rosé 2009 ($19.99). A deep-coloured rosé, the wine was made by bleeding 20% of the juice from the lot of Pinot Noir dedicated to the winery’s unreleased reserve Pinot Noir. That is a winemaking trick to concentrate the Pinot Noir. It also produces a big, juicy rosé with flavours and aromas of strawberry. There is also a touch of sweetness on the finish. 89.

Baillie-Grohman Pinot Noir Estate 2009 ($24.99). Dark in colour, this wine still has that muted tightness of a young Pinot Noir. The nose is still opening up. It is a meaty Pinot Noir with notes of strawberries and minerals. I would like to retaste this in six to 12 months because it has lots of potential. 89+

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A tasting of iconic BC red wines

For three years now, SIP Wines, Simon Wosk’s VQA wine store in Richmond, has hosted a tasting of British Columbia iconic red wines.

Every year, the tasting becomes larger. This year, there were 17 wines, all of them red blends of Bordeaux varieties or Bordeaux varieties with the addition of Syrah. The wines were all tasted blind to prevent any one from voting for their favourite label.

The event, one of the hotter tickets on Greater Vancouver’s wine scene, was sold out this year, with about 30 guests attending. The success of the event is beginning to strain the capacity of the store. If it continues to grow, Simon will look for a larger venue.

An icon wine can generally be defined as a wine that is priced at $50 a bottle or more. Not every wine in the tasting was that expensive. The wine that received the most votes from the crowd, Clos du Soleil Red 2007, was $39. The 2008, just being released, is called Signature. The price remains unchanged.

An icon wine is not just about price. It is generally the flagship in a winery’s portfolio. If it sells for less than $50, it only means that some winemakers see no need to have an aircraft carrier as the flagship.

Having said that, an icon wine is hardly going to be inexpensive. Wines of premium quality begin with low-producing vines that yield grapes with concentrated flavours. These wines generally are aged in the winery’s best and most expensive barrels. Remember that a premium French oak barrel costs $1,000 to $1,200. The barrel cost alone is $3 to $4 a bottle. Add the raw material costs, the packaging costs, the winemaker’s salary. Pretty soon you get a big number. The producers of iconic wines are not gouging.

These wines are also special because all are built to age. These are not wines for consumption 20 minutes after you get home. These are wines that connoisseurs collect and lay down for another five or 10 years. Then they should have flowered to their full glory.

Simon and his staff at the wine store double-decanted this wines in mid-afternoon for the tasting that began at about 7.30 p.m. That aeration allowed the wines to open up. All had wonderful aromas and, with one exception, all had supple and ripe tannins. They were ready to drink. This is a tip for the impatient collector.

I am listing the wines in the order in which they were ranked by the participants. However, the notes and the point score are mine alone. I had somewhat different preferences on occasion. That is not because I have a better palate, just personal preferences.

All 17 wines have merit. I did a similar iconic tasting a few years ago and found the quality variable. The current lot of iconic wines are consistently better, reflecting older vines, better wine growing, better winery equipment and better winemaking.

These are the wines.

Clos du Soleil Red 2007 ($39). A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Franc. The wine has an appealing aroma of cassis, vanilla and plum jam, with spicy berry flavours and a sort, ripe texture. I reviewed this a few years ago and gave it 88. The extra bottle age has allowed the wine to develop gracefully. 93.

Mission Hill Compendium 2007 ($40). This is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 21% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot. The aroma is elegant and restrained, with notes of spice, mint and cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry, chocolate, even tobacco. 92-93

LaStella Fortissimo 2008 ($35). This wine, not yet released, is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese (about 8% of the latter). This wine, aged mostly in puncheons rather than smaller barrels, begins with sweet berry aromas (blackberry, currant). On the palate, it has savoury, minty flavours with notes of cherry. It is a concentrated wine with firm tannins. 91.

Church & State Quintessential 2007 ($49.90). This is a blend of all five Bordeaux grape varieties. It begins with aromas of cherry and chocolate that reminded me, pleasantly, of Black Forest cake, enhanced with a touch of oak. On the palate, there is sweet, even jammy, flavours of plum and cherry, with lingering fruit on the finish of this delicious wine. 89.

Mission Hill Quatrain 2007 ($45). This is a blend of 42% Merlot, 24% Syrah, 19% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine begins with striking aromas of blackberries, mocha, pepper and even violets. On the palate, the wine is rich, with flavours of blackberries, plums and black currants. On the finish there is spice and liquorice. This is a wine that struts. 94.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2007 ($40). Another blend incorporating the five Bordeaux reds, this begins with aromas of cassis and other sweet berries with a touch of mocha. It has flavours of black berry and black currants, with a ripe, rich and earthy concentration. This wine may be sold out; the equally impressive 2008 was released recently. 90-92.

Mission Hill Oculus 2006 ($150 for a magnum). Another blend of Bordeaux varieties, this is Mission Hill’s aircraft carrier. It begins with aromas of vanilla, blackberry and lingonberry. On the palate, there are juicy and generous flavours of red fruit. The tannins are firm. This is built for the long haul, even if it appeals right now. 92.

Sumac Ridge Pinnacle 2005 ($50). A blend of Bordeaux varieties with Syrah, this is the granddaddy of B.C. icon wines – the first vintage was 1997 and it was the first $50 table wine from a B.C. winery. The aromas here include vanilla and dark fruit, leading to flavours of fruit, herbs and tobacco. The backbone of tannin is still firm. 88.

Road 13 Fifth Element Red 2006 $41.90). This is 38% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec and 6% Petit Verdot. It begins with bold aromas of plum, vanilla and earth, leading to flavours of plum and chocolate. The texture is cut-with-a-knife rich. It is a bold, brooding red with a long finish. 89.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2007 ($45). A blend of the five Bordeaux varieties, this wine is made by a winery that is a joint venture with a Bordeaux winery. The style of the wine reminds very much of classic Chateau wines from Bordeaux that are tight and unyielding when young because they are meant to be aged for seven to 20 years. Assessing this wine now is all about predicting the future. 87 if you open it tonight, 90 plus is you open it in 2017.

CedarCreek Platinum Meritage 2007 ($39.90) This is 44% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot. It begins with aromas of plum, cassis and vanilla. On the palate, the wine is richly concentrated, with chewy flavours of plum and black cherry. 91-92.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2006 ($45). What a difference the extra year of bottle age makes. It shows where 2007 is headed. The wins begins with bold aromas of red fruit and vanilla. The texture is concentrated, with flavours of red fruit, dark chocolate, mint and tobacco. The firm tannins suggest a long life for this wine as well. 90-91.

Black Hills Nota Bene 2007 ($52.90). This cult wine is sold out, as is the 2008. The 2007 is 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Sauvignon shows through in the notes of eucalyptus and spicy flavours. I would cellar this a few more years. 88.

Poplar Grove Legacy 2006 ($49.90). A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec, the wine spent 24 months in barrel and another 18 months in bottle before release. This is an elegant and polished wine, with sweet fruit on the nose and flavours of black currant, plum and mocha. 89-91.

Fairview Cellars Bear’s Meritage 2007 ($35). Another blend of Bordeaux varieties, this has appealing aromas and flavours of plums and sweet berries, with a touch of mint and spice. The finish is elegantly polished. 90-91.

Painted Rock Red Icon 2007 ($54.94). This wine won a Lieutenant Governor’s award of excellence. The blend is 33% Cabernet Franc, 20% Petit Verdot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 15% Malbec. The aroma is complex – red berries, mint, toast, bacon fat. On the palate, there are flavours of cassis and red liquorice. 90.

Herder Josephine 2006 ($39.90). This is blend anchored with Merlot, supported with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It begins with sweet aromas of boysenberry and cassis and oak. On the palate, there are notes cassis, spice and cedar. The wine impressed me as Bordeaux in style; I found it more appealing than the group and scored it 91.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wild Goose and friends make rare TBA wines in 2010

Photo: totally shrivelled Riesling grapes

Because of the Okanagan’s dry climate, wineries rarely can make totally botrytis-affected wine. However, it seems that the 2010 vintage has produced a good handful of these delicious dessert wines.

Wild Goose Vineyards of Okanagan Falls was able to make about 100 litres of “totally botrytis-affected” or TBA Riesling. That is about 250 half bottles and it will be released next year, probably in May.

Roland Kruger, who looks after marketing for this family-operated winery, has not yet decided on the price or on how to manage the sales. As this news gets out, I would expect there will be a scramble to get on the waiting list.

The only previous TBA vintage at Wild Goose, whose vineyard was planted in 1983, was in 2004. The story of that wine is critical to the production of the current vintage.

The Okanagan winery with a consistent record for making botrytis-affected wines is Quails’ Gate. The winery has a block of Optima grapes in a part of the vineyard that is touched by the morning mists from the lake. It is a very rare terroir for botrytis-affected wine.

The View Winery in Kelowna has 1,300 litres of totally botrytis-affectd Optima from 2010.It is a first for this winery, which only opened in 2008. The winery intended to sell all of its Optima to another winery for table wine. When botrytis appeared in the vineyard, the unaffectd grapes were selected for sale to the customer winery while those with noble rot were allowed to hang two more weeks until mid-October, shrivelling and concentrating the sugar until the grapes hit 40 Brix.

"Most winemakers are scared when they see a little bit of botrytis," says Bernhard Schirrmeister,The View's winemaker. It does not scare him because he trained and worked in Germany, where botrytis wines are made often. The View's Optima should be a classic TBA, having finished with 120 grams of residual sugar balanced by 10.1 grams of acid.

Clos du Soleil winery in the Similkameen also has just picked enough botrytized Sauvignon Blanc to make about 350 litres of a wine styled on Sauternes. Ann Sperling, the winemaker, has a real love of and affinity for late harvest wines. Those with long memories might recall a wonderful botryized Ehrenfelser she made for Andres in the 1980s.

Conditions for noble rot, as the beneficial botrytis is called, generally are mist in the morning that fosters the growth of the mould, followed by a dry day that prevents it from turning into grey rot.

This year, the Okanagan received an unusual amount of rain and cool weather in the first half of September. In most vineyards, this set up the conditions for grey rot. It can be – and in most cases was – controlled with timely spraying.

In two of the Wild Goose vineyards (the estate vineyard at Okanagan Falls and the new one on Secrest Road north of Oliver), there were small blocks of Riesling where the botrytis evolved into noble rot.

Noble rot does not rot the grapes; it dehydrates them (see the photos). What remains in the grape is a concentrated solution of sugar, acidity and flavour.

The Riesling that Wild Goose picked on October 18 had readings of 39 Brix (roughly 39% sugar) and 12.5 grams of acid per litre.

To put that in perspective, those would be good readings for Icewine. (The weather forecast for the Okanagan over the next week portends superb conditions for Icewine this year.)

I am a great lover of Icewine but I would not argue with anyone who maintains that TBA wines are even better. The botrytis contributes wonderful flavours and aromas of honey and fresh cut tobacco. TBA wines also age well, probably better than Icewine. If you have had a child this year, the Wild Goose TBA might be just the wine to lay down for that child’s 21st birthday.

The connection between Wild Goose’s 2004 TBA and this vintage is quite poignant.

In 2004, a young winemaker from the Loire in France, Fabian Jamet, was in the Okanagan. A top-ten graduate from the University of Bordeaux, with a speciality in TBA wines, Fabian spent six months at St. Hubertus Estate Winery.

When his job there ended, Wild Goose offered him employment. It was their good fortune that he was at Wild Goose that fall when the TBA grapes came in. He was able to show winemaker Hagen Kruger how to make wine from this shrivelled fruit with the high Brix.

“It was an honour to work with Fabian,” Hagen says. “We will always be inspired by his passion for making this very special wine.”

Fabian actually wanted to stay in the Okanagan rather than return to the Loire and work with the same grapes his family had grown for generations. Wild Goose offered him a permanent job and applied to Immigration Canada for permission to hire him. “While the immigration process snailed along, we began harvesting the TBA,” Roland remembers.

Then the government refused Wild Goose’s application.

“We ended up buying him a plane ticket back home,” Roland says. “Two days later I drove him to Vancouver. My last memories of Fabian were of him sitting at the airport, having a glass of wine and watching his favourite basketball team on TV, the San Antonio Spurs.”

The Krugers were never to see him again. A year later, at the age of 27, Fabian died when overcome by carbon dioxide in a French winery.

“Although he is gone, he still lives on in the few bottles of 2004 TBA that we have tucked away in our cellar,” Roland adds. “He has also been resurrected in memory as we produce our new 2010 TBA.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Domaine de Chaberton wows with Siegerrebe

Photo: Domaine de Chaberton's Eugene Kwan

How often do you say “wow” – or something comparable - when you taste a wine?

Last month, I presided over a tasting at the Surrey Museum. One of the wines was Domaine de Chaberton’s Siegerrebe 2008.

One of the guests at the event came up for a second glass, exclaiming in some wonder at how delicious the wine was. Like so many consumers, he had never even heard of the varietal.

That wine won a gold medal at the B.C. Wine Awards (the new name for the Okanagan Wine Festival’s competition). I was one of the 12 judges. I recall the mild surprise in the room as we voted this unheralded variety to its medal. We did not know the name of the winery, of course, but we did know we were putting forward a Siegerrebe.

The other day, I got the complete list of awards won by that wine this year. It is a remarkable record of achievement, including three golds, a source of pride to Eugene Kwan, the Vancouver lawyer who is one of the winery's owners.

Chaberton's 2008 Siegerrebe was judged Best of Class & Gold Medal Wine at the 2010 Los Angeles International Wine Competition. It won gold at the 2010 Taster’s Guild International Wine Judging in Michigan and, of course, in BC.

The wine also won two silvers – at the 2010 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition and at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. And it won bronze at the All Canadian Wine Competition this past spring.

Not bad for a variety that is relatively unknown and that retails for only $16.25 a bottle.

The variety was developed in Germany about 100 years ago and is a cross of Gewürztraminer and Madeleine Angevine. My guess is that the plant breeder was someone called Sieger because “rebe” means grape vine in German. It is Sieger’s vine. Pronouncing the name of the variety would have been easy for him: it is Zee-ger-ray-bee.

The plant breeder was trying to develop a variety that would ripen early in cool climate vineyards, achieving fairly high sugars along with spicy aromas and flavours. These are so dramatic that Jancis Robinson, the British wine writer, once cracked this variety was grown by the same sort of “exhibitionists” who grow giant vegetables.

The plant breeder succeeded in spades in developing an early variety. In vineyards like Domaine de Chaberton, which is in Langley, and on Vancouver Island and in the Shuswap, Siegerrebe is usually ready to be picked by late August and certainly by early September.

It has a few drawbacks in the vineyard as well. Most notably, the fine aroma and the early sweetness often is a magnet for wasps. The insects settle on the grapes and suck the juice from the skins, leaving behind hollow grapes or grapes with wounds that attract disease. Several winemakers on Vancouver Island have admitted to clearing the insects from the clusters with portable vacuum cleaners. I can’t imagine cleaning the bag!

Once the wasps have settled in, they tend to hang around for the entire vintage, moving from variety to variety as the grapes ripen. There are ways to control wasps but some growers just plant other varieties and minimize the issue.

Domaine de Chaberton’s vineyard is 40 acres in total. Perhaps the wasps are not a problem in most years; or perhaps the wasps are already satisfied with the abundance of blackberries in the Fraser Valley.

Domaine de Chaberton’s 2008 Siegerrebe is now almost sold out. However, the 2009 vintage – 529 cases – is just about to be released. I would expect the quality to be comparable, if not better, since 2009 was a fine vintage on the coast. Dr. Elias Phiniotis, Domaine de Chaberton’s winemaker, believes the 2010 Siegerrebe will also be very good. This was quite a cool season but the variety, after all, was bred for seasons like this.

What does Siegerrebe taste like? It is a lot like Gewürztraminer, with a spicy aroma and with an intense array of spicy tropical fruit flavours. The wine is finished ever so slightly off-dry, preventing the variety’s Muscat notes from coming across as bitterness.

Dr. Phiniotis thinks he knows why he is so comfortable making Siegerrebe. “Maybe I was lucky to start my career with wines like that in Cyprus, a long time ago,” he says.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Beauty and the Beasts from Quails' Gate

Excuse me for being a smart alec, but when I considered the three most recent releases from Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, the quip that ran through my head was Beauty and the Beasts.

The wines are quite exceptional – but one is a Pinot Noir, the queen of red grapes, and two are Maréchal Foch, a French hybrid work horse that was in danger of disappearing from the Okanagan until Quails’ Gate winemaking saved it.

Grant Stanley, the winemaker at Quails’ Gate, once told me that he spent 80% of his time thinking about Pinot Noir. Yet the wines he makes from Foch taste as if – to use the hockey cliché – he puts 150% effort into everything. The Foch is not a second class grape in this winery.

Some history is in order. Eugene Kuhlmann, a plant breeder in Alsace, created Maréchal Foch (and other hybrid grapes) in the 1880s. This was at a time when the French plant breeders were crossing vinifera with North American species in a search for varieties that could withstand the phyloxera and the oidium mould threatening Europe’s vineyards.

Many of these hybrids were imported by Ontario and New York vineyards either before or just after World War II because they were more disease resistant than vinifera and made better wine than the old labrusca varieties.

Most of the hybrids were pulled out after the 1988 vintage. They were judged of insufficient quality to make wines of international standard compared with vinifera grapes. As well, growers had learned how to nurture vinifera successfully.

Richard Stewart, whose family now operate Quails’ Gate, planted Foch in 1969 on the vineyard near Westbank. For some reason, it was not pulled out in 1988 – a good thing, as it turns out.

Stewart also planted Pinot Noir in 1975. It was one of the first Pinot Noir plantings in Canada. It eventually set Quails’ Gate on the road to becoming one of the country’s leading Pinot Noir producers, with at least eight clones in the vineyard.

To get back to Foch, Quails’ Gate in 1994 hired a new winemaker, Jeff Martin, from Australia (now the owner of La Frenz Winery on Naramata Road). He brought a Shiraz-maker’s mentality to the Foch and, in the 1994 vintage, made a dense and concentrated red that the winery released as Old Vines Foch. It became a cult wine and has never lost that following.

The dramatically improved quality of the wine compared with virtually every Foch that preceded it had much to do with how the grapes were grown. Left to its own devices, the Foch vine (and other red hybrids) will produce ten tons of grapes an acre. That was why most Okanagan red table wines in the 1980s were thin and light.

However, when the yield is reduced to something sensible, perhaps four tons an acre, the resulting wines have weight and flavour.

The Quails’ Gate advantage with Foch is a combination of good viticulture and mature vines, which limit yields naturally. The winery’s Old Vines Foch Reserve is made with grapes from those 1969 plantings. Its Old Vines Foch is made with grapes from 26-year-old vines in an Osoyoos vineyard that also escaped being pulled out.

So what does Grant Stanley do with these grapes?

The winery has released 2,817 cases of Old Vines Foch 2008 ($24.99), a wine aged in American oak. The aromas display smoky black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, prune plum, liquorice. It takes a bit of breathing in the decanter to get the core of sweet fruit to show itself. There is an appealing, gamey rusticity about this wine. 88.

There are 1,708 six-bottle cases of Old Vines Foch Reserve 2008 ($39.99) aged 18 months in new American oak. The fruit is so concentrated that one barely notices the oak. This wine is voluptuously rich, with aromas of plum and blackberry jam and spicy flavours of plums and mulberry, with chocolate on the lingering finish. A truly delicious red. 90.

Now to Beauty. The winery has released 3,112 six-bottle cases of Pinot Noir Stewart Family Reserve 2008 ($45). This seductive charmer of a wine invites with a spectacular aroma of red fruits. On the palate, there are layers of flavours – cherry and strawberry and spice from both the fruit and the French oak. The wine has good weight and a silky palate. The bottle, which shows great elegance and finesse, is a winegrowing triumph. 93.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Summerhill blows its horn with Gabriel

Photo: Ezra Cipes, general manager at Summerhill

A recent tasting of current releases from Summerhill Pyramid Winery ended up with a round of chocolate cupcakes – to celebrate the birthday of Ezra Cipes, the general manager.

However, the tasting began with sparkling wines, the way most of us celebrate. On this front, Ezra has another reason for celebration. At the recent International Wine & Spirits Competition in London, Summerhill’s Cipes Gabriel Brut walked off with the Denbies Trophy as the best bottle-fermented international sparkling wine.

This is a validation for the two decades of work that Summerhill has invested in producing good sparkling wine in the Okanagan. It is also a feather in the cap of winemaker Eric von Krosigk and his almost fanatical dedication to sparkling wine.

Eric was the winemaker who helped launch Summerhill in 1991, primarily as a sparkling wine producer. He left there in 1994 for 12 years as a consultant; almost every winery that he worked with had a sparkling wine in its program sooner or later. He even made a sparkling elderflower wine at the now-closed Marley Farm winery on Vancouver Island.

Eric rejoined Summerhill in 2006. Summerhill had never stopped making sparkling wine but the wines seem to have become more refined. Cipes Brut, the winery’s original sparkling wine, was made just with Riesling grapes. Now the winery has produced a vintage Cipes Brut which is a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. This wine is sold exclusively through the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch.

After Eric rejoined the winery, Summerhill became a certified organic winery, meaning that it not only uses organic grapes but that it processes them according to a strict organic protocol.

Credit for the organic motivation goes to winery founder Steven Cipes, a former New Yorker who arrived in British Columbia with strong environmental values. He chose not to spray his vineyard because he and his young family were living there. He was also appalled at the thought of the residues draining into Okanagan Lake.

Ezra and his brother, Gabriel, grew up imbued with their father’s values. Initially, Ezra did not embrace the wine industry but chose to play with a rock band. A few years ago, however, he decided to rejoin the family business and is now the general manager. Winning the Denbies Trophy is a great boost for the winery and for Ezra’s wine career.

Here are notes on the current range:

Cipes Vintage 2008 ($28.95). This is a crisp sparkling wine with toasty notes as well as fruit on the nose and with refreshing and clean green apple flavours. The wine only had 12 months on the yeast lees and that explains the pleasant freshness. 90.

Cipes Gabriel NV ($45). This wine, 100% Chardonnay, had 45 months on the yeast lees, giving it rich nutty and creamy flavours and aromas of toast and nuts. The wine still has good acidity, giving it a crisp and dry finish. Clearly, the judges in London liked the complex style of a wine that could be compared with an aged Champagne. 92.

The wine, by the way, is not named for Ezra’s brother but for the archangel. Next year, Summerhill will release a companion angelic sparkling wine, Cipe’s Michael, which is a traditional Champagne cuvée of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Cipes Rosé NV ($29.95). Made from Pinot Noir, this wine spent 18 months on the lees. The fruit is still on display here – notes of strawberry and cranberry, with a tangy and dry finish. 88.

Summerhill Riesling 2009 ($19.95). This wine is style after the Rieslings that Eric came to love in the nine years he studied and worked in German wine regions. The alcohol is a moderate 10.5%. That was achieved by leaving some of the natural sugar unfermented. This wine has herbal and citrus aromas with flavours of lemon, white peach and apricots. The acidity balances the sweetness very nicely. 88.

The wine is made from organic grapes but the label does not proclaim it as organic. The reason: a touch more sulphur was needed to stabilize the wine than is permitted under organic rules. “Our goal is to make good wine first and then go organic,” Ezra says. Having said that, the winery is actively reducing sulphur levels in all its wines, when feasible.

Summerhill Ehrenfelser 2009 ($19.95). Only four or five Okanagan wineries still make Ehrenfelser. It is a good niche – the best selling of Summerhill’s whites. The popularity has to do with the variety’s fruit bowl aromas and flavours. This wine has aromas of apricots and gooseberries and flavours of tropical fruits. 88.

Summerhill Robert Bateman Merlot 2007 ($29.95). The winery has an agreement with artist Robert Bateman – the first time he has lent his name to a wine – for a line of five wines. The winery will donate $1 from every bottle sold to Batemen’s non-profit foundation for connecting youth with nature. Summerhill will also export some of these wines to California.

This Merlot has aromas and flavours of plum, chocolate and tobacco, with a concentrated texture and tannins just firm enough to support a few more years of aging. 88-90.

The grapes for this Merlot are from a grower in Kaleden. Summerhill is sufficiently impressed with the terroir that it has just planted its own 18 acres of Merlot and Cabernet Franc near Kaleden.

Summerhill Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($26.95). This is a classic Cabernet, with aromas of red fruit and mint, flavours of black currants, good weight on the palate and a lingering finish. Sulphur levels are very low. 90.

Summerhill Cabernet Franc 2007 ($28.95). The price – compared with Cabernet Sauvignon – suggests which variety Summerhill thinks is better suited for the Okanagan. This wine is a delicious mouthful of fruit – raspberries and ripe plums. The aroma shows spice and vanilla and the finish includes a burst of chocolate. 91.

Summerhill Chalice NV ($29.95). This moderately fortified wine (14.8% alcohol) is a cross between tawny port and Madeira. The wine was made mostly from second pressings of 2003 Pinot Noir and Merlot after they had been pressed for icewine. The wine was aged in barrels which, in summer, were baked in the sun. The result of this unconventional winemaking is a delicious, nutty-tasting wine with a touch of sweetness. 88.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Township 7 releases a new white blend

Township 7 Vineyards & Winery is the latest producer to join the trend to making white blends.

It’s most recent releases include 784 cases of a wine called 7 Blanc 2009, a blend of Gewürztraminer (45%), Pinot Gris (41%) and Muscat Ottonel (14%).

While wineries in France, for example, have made blends forever, New World wineries developed as producers of single varietals. In truth, many of these wines are not 100% pure. The rules usually require that the wine contain a minimum of 85% of the variety named on the label. Wines generally can be improved with some blending – whether it is 15% of a complementary variety or several clones of the same variety.

Credit for popularizing white blends in North America generally goes to a wine called Conundrum. It was created in 1989 by Caymus Winery in California. It became so popular that Caymus spun it off in 2001 as an independent brand.

The mystique surrounding that wine arises from the producer’s refusal to say exactly what is in the blend. We are told there are five white varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli, and small amounts of Sémillon and Viognier. The exact blend is a secret – and it probably changes a bit each year. The result is an aromatic white with a fruity but reasonably dry finish.

That seems to be the template for many excellent white blends. Tinhorn Creek’s Oldfield Series 2Bench White 2009 is 44% Chardonnay, 26% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Sémillon, 12% Viognier, and 1% Muscat. Road 13’s Stemwinder 2009 is 60% Chardonnay, 32% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Chardonnay Musqué. JoieFarm’s 2009 A Noble Blend is 60% Gewürztraminer, 20% Pinot Gris, 12% Auxerrois and 8% Riesling.

These are all big, successful brands. It is not surprising that other wineries are following the trend, seeing that consumers are ready for interesting proprietary blends that will vary year from year. (The JoieFarm 2008 had six grapes in the blend.)

Township 7 is one of just two British Columbia wineries with multiple outlets. The original Township 7 opened in 2001 in Langley and its clone opened in 2004 in Penticton. (Church & State has a winery near Brentwood Bay and a new one just off Black Sage Road.)

Township 7 builds its release program around events at both wineries. And August release of three wines was combined with an open-air performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the winery’s Naramata Road vineyard.

The most recent two releases were combined with a Hallowe’en Day grape stomp and costume party at the Langley winery.

And why not? The wine business should be fun.

Here are my notes on the wines.

Township 7 2009 7 Blanc ($18.99). The wine begins with an appealing aroma of spicy tangerine. On the palate, the fruit flavours are rich and abundant – citrus, pears, spice. The finish delivers a surprise: whereas the fruit leads you to expect a sweet finish, the wine is crisp and dry. As much as I like the wine, a little more residual sweetness would really pop the flavours and aromas. 89.

Township 7 2009 Sauvignon Blanc ($18.99). This is not the grassy Kiwi version but rather a cross between Fumé Blanc and Graves. There is smoky citrus and honeydew on the nose. The flavours include grape fruit and grapefruit rind and the structure has a flinty discipline. 87.

Township 7 Merlot 2007 ($N.A.). This 1,150-case wine is 92% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon – a typical example of a winemaker tweaking a single variety with a dash of complementary fruit. This wine begins with aromas recalling spice cake. On the palate, there is bright fruit with flavours of vanilla, blueberry, cherry and even a hint of cranberry. 87.

Township 7 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($19.99). The 587-case blend here is 68% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Cabernet Franc. Once again, lots of bright fruit flavours – cherry and black currant – and some vanilla, chocolate and liquorice. The tannins are ripe but firm enough to suggest that this wine will cellar well for another three or four years. 88-89.

Township 7 Syrah 2007 ($24.99). This wine won gold at the Northwest Wine Summit and silver at the recent B.C. wine awards. It is a classic, beginning with aromas of pepper and black cherry and continuing to flavours of pepper, plum, leather and earth. 90.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A surprise from Château Pichon Longueville

Photo: Gildas d'Ollone, general manager of Château Pichon

Bordeaux’s 1975 vintage was one of the most controversial in that decade. Most of the reds were markedly tannic. Tannin will always soften with age but the question is whether there is any fruit left by that time.

I have tasted a number of 1975s over the years. A few were satisfactory but many were lean and dried out.

And then I got to taste the 1975 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. It is a delightful wine, with mellowed tannin and with fruit still fresh and alive. The alluring bouquet shows that perfumed sweetness that happens when Cabernet Sauvignon spends a long time in the bottle.

Perhaps this is all academic. It would be a rare cellar that still has any 1975 Bordeaux, if only because the wine should have been consumed by now. In his The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent – having tasted the wine in 1978 – recommended drinking it between 1983 and 1995. Well-stored red Bordeaux has remarkable longevity, however.

This bottle of 1975 came directly from the cellars of Château Pichon. Gildas d’Ollone, the winery’s general manager, presented this wine plus some current vintages at a recent Vancouver tasting for members of the Guild of Sommeliers.

He was supposed to be in Vancouver this spring at the Playhouse International Wine Festival. However, he was among the number of European producers who were prevented from coming when the volcano in Iceland basically shut down Europe’s air space. His wines were at the festival, presented by Sid Cross, one of Vancouver’s super-tasters and a friend of the Pichon wines.

Gildas had a second reason for coming to Vancouver this fall. Like most leading Bordeaux producers, Château Pichon is being besieged by buyers from China who would take all of the production if allowed.

“I want to keep our wines in traditional markets,” he says. “I don’t want to have all of our wines put into one basket.”

Château Pichon is one of the second growth estates in Pauillac, a neighbour of Château Latour, a first growth. The winery has records of vineyards from the late 1600s, when it and other properties were all owned by a very large landowner. In 1700 what became the Pichon vineyards formed the dowry when the landowner sent off his daughter to marry Jacques Pichon de Lonqueville, the president of the Bordeaux parliament.

Ownership has changed several times, usually driven by French inheritance laws. In 2007 the winery was on the market again because the family faced payment of inheritance taxes. A number of offers were made and the winner was Roederer, the great Champagne house.

Aside from making significant investments in the vineyard, Roederer has not messed around with this great chateau. Interested in maintaining the style of the Pichon wines, Roederer kept the staff intact (other than adding to the vineyard staff). The elegant Gildas d’Ollone, a nephew of the previous owner, remains the general manager.

What is the Pichon style? “We are not a blockbuster wine,” Gildas says. “We have never been. The challenge is to get balance with finesse.”

The winemaking has changed a lot since the 1975 vintage but balance and finesse would describe that wine. That was a warm, dry growing season. By September, the grapes hanging in the vineyard were small with thick skins, little juice and green seeds, a recipe for excessive tannin. Then the weather forecast threatened rain. Many producers chose to pick.

Pichon took the risk of leaving the grapes hang after the rain. It harvested grapes with adequate juice and ripe seeds, making one of the better wines of that vintage. As Michael Broadbent wrote: “… the really well-run properties made outstanding wine ….”

Perhaps the biggest change in Bordeaux wines over the last 15 years has been the greater concentration in the wines resulting from generally smaller production per vine. More recently, global warming also has influenced the vintages: grapes are often riper, higher in sugar, yielding wines which, if not blockbusters, are bigger than was traditional.

The Pichon 2003, one of the wines Gildas poured, is as rich and bold as this chateau has produced because 2003 was an unusually hot year. Gildas may grumble that it is not a traditional Pichon and will not age that long but, to a New World palate, this is really delicious wine. The fruity aromas jump from the glass and blackberry and cassis flavours emerge from a concentrated wine.

Gildas suggests that the Pichon 2004 and Pichon 2007 are “benchmark” wines from the château.

The 2004 is an elegant medium-bodied wine with aromas of red fruit and flavours of blackberry, black currant, spice and cedar. The finish lingers.

Pichon 2007 ($129.00), which recently arrived in this market, shows smoky and red berry aromas, with flavours of blackberry, plum and graphite. The texture is juicy and the tannins are fine and ripe. While this wine is drinking well now, it clearly will cellar for a decade or two. 91 – 93 points.

Occasionally, Pichon’s second wine makes it into the market as well. The Reserve de la Comtesse 2006 might be available in private wine stores for about $80. It is also very fine, with a fleshy concentration and flavours of plum, chocolate and cedar. 89.

When a great château makes a second wine, it is hardly second rate. There is always good wine left over after the property’s first wine is blended. These are blended into second wines. They will taste different from Le Grand Vin because the varietal composition is different, but the wines still have all that great breeding – at a lower price.