Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bold or batty? Road 13 switches to blends from varietals

Photos: Road 13 winery (top) Michael Bartier (bottom)

In a daring move that their peers might even called foolhardy, Road 13 Vineyards has decided to phase out several of its major varietals and to switch to releasing blends.

Out: Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In: Stemwinder (a white blend) and Rockpile (a red blend). These join the winery’s other blends, Fifth Element (red), Honest John’s White and Honest John’s Red.

The rationale? Here is what winemaker Michael Bartier said in a news release: “It is a bold and risky move to stop the production of some of our most popular wines but we are sacrificing them for a higher cause – even better wines. … Don’t get me wrong, I love Chardonnay and I love Sauvignon Blanc. I just happen to love them more when they are put together.”

He is right. Time will tell whether the consumers are ready for this.

Blends, in fact, are in the best tradition of wine. The producers of Bordeaux, as an example, have been blending varietals for centuries in the knowledge that the whole is better than the parts. Europe’s traditional producers (with the significant exception of German Riesling producers) have always released wines with labels naming the site or the appellation and never the varietals.

It was the New World – notably California, Australia and Chile – that educated their consumers with the varietal on the label, not the site. They were so effective that the French over the last decade, and even the Italians, began releasing named varietals as well. Consumers had been trained to want to know what grapes they were drinking, not where the wine came from.

New world winemakers knew, of course, that they were sacrificing quality sometimes by not blending, so they quietly did a little blending. In the United States and in British Columbia), a named varietal need contain only 85% of that variety. That gives the winemaker the chance to blend in up to 15% of something else if it improves the wine (as it usually does).

Road 13 is saying: why be just a little pregnant?

Stemwinder, to be released April 1 at $21.99, is a blend of Chardonnay, Chardonnay Musqué, and Sauvignon Blanc. (Stemwinder is the name of the soil in Road 13’s Home Vineyard.)

Rockpile (named for the vineyard) will be released April 1 at $24.99. It is a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, with a touch of Viognier.

“We think that BC wine drinkers are more than ready to look beyond varietal names as a purchasing guideline,” Bartier says. “By blending, we are putting our best efforts forward.”

He also makes the point that “blending is how you get wines to represent their place, rather than trying to make another ‘Old World’ style Riesling or another ‘New World’ style Syrah.

The winery is sacrificing some of its most popular varietals, notably its Merlot. “Yes, it is a martyred wine,” Bartier says. “This is not about Merlot – it’s about the Okanagan. Wine that tastes like the Okanagan ….”

Bartier is arguably one of the best blenders in the Okanagan. Now we will find out whether the consumers will embrace his skill or default to a safe varietal.

The wines:

Road 13 Rockpile 2008 ($24.99). The winery has released 4,500 cases of this blend, around a quarter of Road 13's entire production, so the wine had better be good! And it is. Dark in colour, it begins with aromas of vanilla, mocha and red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of plum and mocha lifted with a hint of pepper (this is after all a 60% Syrah wine). It is full on the palate, with long, ripe tannins, and it has a lingering finish. The blend, in addition to Syrah, is 19% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 2% Zinfandel, and 1% each of Viognier, Mourvedre and Grenache. 90-91.

Road 13 Stemwinder 2009 ($21.99). The winery has released 1,837 cases of this wine, an unusual blend of 60% Chardonnay, 32% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Chardonnay Musque. The wine begins with subtle aromatics (banana, canteloupe, herbs) and delivers flavours of melon and tangerine. The texture is soft (perhaps a touch too soft) but the impression is that this is a delicious wine and tastes like more. 89.

Eliminating varietals creates a bit of a challenge to those competitive-minded tasters who like to line up several wines side by side and see how they compare. I'd suggest tasting the Stemwinder along side Tinhorn Creek Oldfield's Selection White, Blasted Church's Hatfield's Fuse, Joiefarm's A Noble Blend and Stoneboat's Chorus. Rockpile might be tasted against Mission Hill's Quatrain or Fork in the Road Oliver Block 249 Red.

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