Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tasting with Howard Soon and friends

Photo: Howard Soon

Howard Soon is marking his 30th year as an Okanagan winemaker. He started with Calona Wines in 1980. Today, he is the winemaster at Sandhill Wines, the 2009 Canadian Winery of the year.

He also has some oversight for the team of brilliant female winemakers at the Calona (Katie Dickieson), Peller (Stephanie Leinemann) and Red Rooster (Karen Gillis), all of which are owned by Andrew Peller Ltd. Peller bought Calona, Sandhill and Red Rooster in 2005.

Because Peller has invested in vineyards and better winery equipment as well as personnel, these wineries are producing the best wines in their history. For example, at the spring wine festival competition in the Okanagan, three Sandhill wines, including a Viognier, won best of varietal awards, with Red Rooster’s Viognier as a runner-up. Peller’s Cabernet Franc was judged the best of that variety. Peller, Sandhill and Red Rooster had plenty of other wines that made it into the finals.

The good news for consumers is that most of the wines from these four wineries are still selling for less than $20 a bottle. The Sandhill Small Lots wines are more but they are worth every penny being asked for them.

Modest, down-to-earth and good-humoured, Howard has never let his success go to his head. For much of his career, he has worked from a funky office in the bowels of the Calona winery, a place with the decor of the workshop in your father’s garage. “I don’t spend much time in my office anyway,” Howard shrugs. He is very much a hands-on winemaker.

Recently, Howard and his team hosted me to a tasting of wines that either have just been released or are about to be released. Some of the prices here may be those of the previous vintage because websites have not always been updated. (The Peller website lacks prices entirely.) It is unlikely that prices have changed very much, however.

Here are my notes:

Calona Artist Series Sovereign Opal 2009 ($12.99). This is the only wine grape to emerge commercially from breeding at the Summerland Research Station and Calona has tied up all the grapes. The wine is exotic, with spicy aromas and peach flavours and an off-dry but well-balanced finish. The wine always reminds me of Argentina’s equally exotic white, the Torrontes. 88.

Calona Artist Series Gewürztraminer 2009 ($13.99). A juicy wine with lychee and spicy flavours and a rose petal aroma. The finish is dry. 88.

Calona Artist Series Cabernet Merlot 2008 ($14.99). A wine with bright berry flavours, with long ripe tannins giving it a soft, full texture. 88.

Calona Artist Series Merlot 2008 ($14.99). This quaffable wine has flavours of plums with a moderately jammy core of fruit. 87.

Peller Chardonnay Private Reserve 2009 ($NA). An elegant wine, with expressive aromas and flavours of citrus and a hint of butterscotch. 90.

Peller Pinot Blanc Private Reserve 2009 ($NA). The wine has the classic green apple flavours of this variety, with nice weight on the palate and with a crisp, refreshing finish. 88.

Peller Pinot Gris Private Reserve 2009 ($NA). Tasting of ripe pears, this is a rich wine with, in the Alsace style, a touch of warmth from its 14.5% alcohol. 87

Peller Cabernet Franc Family Series 2008 ($NA). A lively red with berry and cola flavours. 88.

Red Rooster Rosé 2009 ($15.99). Made in the south-of-France style, this dry rosé is made with Cabernet Franc juice, giving a hint of cranberry to the flavour. 87.

Red Rooster Viognier 2009 ($16.99). A lovely white with flavours of pineapple, peach and apricot. It is rich on the palate but with the classic firm and dry finish of this variety. 89.

Red Rooster Reserve Chardonnay 2008 ($21.99). A bargain considering the wine was fermented in new French oak barrels. It begins with powerful aromas of oak and butterscotch and toast. There are tangerine and mango flavours. This is a Chardonnay with power. 88.

Red Rooster Pinot Gris 2009 ($16.99). This wine has mouth-filling flavours of pineapple, pears and citrus, with a long, satisfying finish. 90.

Red Rooster Pinot Blanc 2009 ($16.99). Crisp and fresh, this wine has bracing apple flavours, a rich palate and a flinty finish. 90.

Red Rooster Riesling 2009 ($15.99). An off-dry wine, this begins with citrus aromas, juicy, sweet tangerine flavours and a hint of the oiliness that Riesling develops with time in the bottle. Now, it is a fine aperitif with the potential to age into a complex wine in a couple of years. 88.

Red Rooster Merlot Reserve 2008 ($29.99). Here is a generous red with ripe berry flavours and a long finish. 89.

Red Rooster Malbec Reserve 2008 ($22.98). A chewy, concentrated red with bright flavours of blackberry and currant. 89.

Sandhill Pinot Gris 2009 King Family Vineyards ($18.99). This wine has a laser-like focus and freshness, with tangy citrus, pear and melon flavours and with an attractive spicy note in the aroma. 90.

Sandhill Small Lots Viognier 2009 Osprey Vineyard ($24.99). The fruity aromas are so dramatic that an involuntary “Wow” came from my mouth when I put my nose into the glass. On the palate, there are layers and layers of peach, apricot, pineapple and other tropical fruits. 92.

Sandhill Rosé 2009 ($17.99). Fairly dark for a rosé, this juicy wine has strawberry and cherry flavours but a firm, dry finish. 88.

Sandhill Cabernet Franc 2008 ($19.99). The classic brambly, lively red that this variety delivers. 88.

Sandhill Cabernet Merlot 2008 ($19.99). A wine with a firm structure, this needs to be cellared another year before the lively fruit flavours show as well as they usually do in this consumer favourite. 89.

Sandhill Syrah 2007 ($21.99). A firm earthy red with flavours of spicy black cherries. 88.

Sandhill Small Lots Sangiovese 2007 ($29.99). Aromas and spicy cherry flavours recalling Black Forest Cake. 89.

Sandhill Small Lots Syrah 2007 Phantom Creek Vineyard ($34.99) A bold, gamey wine with aromas of deli meats and berries; with flavours of black cherries. The long ripe tannins give this length and richness. 91

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