Monday, September 13, 2010

How Burrowing Owl Winery treats its whites

There is an interesting strategy at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery regarding the two white wines, which recently appeared on the market.

The Pinot Gris is from the 2009 vintage. It was bottled this March and seems to have been released a few months later, bursting with fresh fruit. The winery’s web site already says it is out of stock. I am not sure whether to trust that, since the tasting notes are actually for a Chardonnay. At $20, the Pinot Gris was excellent value and likely is still on many restaurant wine lists.

The Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris has long been a benchmark among Okanagan Pinot Gris. The simple winemaking process - whole cluster pressing, cool fermentation and aging in stainless steel – is designed to not mask the attractive natural flavours of the variety. Here is a crisp, refreshing white with herbal and stone fruit flavours and with a kiss of anise on the finish. 89.

Burrowing Owl Chardonnay 2008 ($25) has had interventionist winemaking because Chardonnay is a variety that lends itself to being shaped by the winemaker. The juice was inoculated with multiple yeasts and fermented in barrels (half new, half one year old and 90% French oak). Only a portion of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation, a technique that gives the winemaker a range of flavours when it comes to building a blend. The wine spent nine months on the lees, which were stirred every two weeks to add a rich palate to the wine. Then the wine spent months in bottle before release. A lot of work for a $25 wine!

The result is an attractive and complex Chardonnay that begins with aromas of citrus with notes of honey, butter and hazelnuts. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus and apricots subtly framed with just the exact amount of oak. The finish, with a hint of orange peel, is lingering and satisfying. 91.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wine photographer Brian Sprout opens SpierHead Winery in Kelowna

Brian Sprout photo: SpierHead Winery

There are many ways to get into the wine industry. Kelowna photographer Brian Sprout started right after high school by spending three years as a bottling line mechanic at Calona Vineyards.

Now he is one of three partners in SpierHead Winery which opened in July at 3950 Spiers Road in East Kelowna – more or less the head of Spiers Road.

The journey from the bottling line to the winery was not exactly a straight road, perhaps because bottling lines seldom inspire much wine passion. Brian was turned on when he visited the Napa Valley in 1979. He’s returned to Napa almost every second year, at least until the opening of SpierHead.

This will be a winery to watch. The consulting winemaker is Tom DiBello, formerly of CedarCreek, one of the most accomplished winemakers in the Okanagan. The winemaker of record for the five wines SpierHead has released is Richard Roskell because, until SpierHead’s own winery was completed this year, the 2008 and 2009 vintages were made at Richard’s boutique Marichel Winery on Naramata Road. And because SpierHead’s own vines will start producing only this fall, and then not much, the grapes come from Harry McWatters’s Black Sage Road Vineyards, a superbly run vineyard.

“I was confident going into the venture, even not knowing a lot of grape growing myself,” Brian says. “To make good wine, you need good fruit and you need expert advice and you need good people to make it work.”

It seems that he has the right pieces in place.

Brian was born in Kelowna in 1952, the son of the soil scientist who ran the Ministry of Agriculture office there in the 1960s and 1970s. After his three years on the bottling line, Brian decided he would rather be in photography. In 1973, he enrolled in the film-making program at Ryerson in Toronto. Later, he switched to photography, a field which then offered more opportunity.

On graduating in 1977, he partnered with a friend in Victoria to set up a small advertising agency. When that partnership dissolved two years later, he moved to Vancouver, working as a photographer for the short-lived Vancouver Daily Courier. That paper intended to compete in the Vancouver market but abandoned its ambitions when the established dailies settled a nine-month strike.

After the collapse of the Courier job, Brian became a successful freelance photographer. In 1998, he moved back to the Okanagan as the Vancouver Sun’s primary freelance photographer. The Vancouver dailies were the first in North American to switch to digital photography and Brian was in on the ground floor of that technology. It gave him an advantage over many photographers in the Okanagan at the time.

His assignments were primarily features, often involving the British Columbia wine industry which was just taking off. Brian photographed many winery owners and shared a mutual passion for wines. He became the “go-to” photographer when the Okanagan wineries needed images. His “big break”, as he calls it, came in 2000 when Mission Hill put him on a retainer to document the winery’s redevelopment, an assignment that lasted five years.

It only followed that he would want his own winery. “I had that passion for wine,” he recalls. “The romance of the grape had a real hold on me. For a couple of years, I was thinking that I wanted to buy some property in the south Okanagan and plant a vineyard and get a winery going.”

In fact, he did plant a few vines at his Vaseux Lake recreation property. But in January 2006, when he and his companion were the only patrons at Burrowing Owl’s restaurant, Brian concluded that, if he were to open a winery, it should be located where there was more year-round business. The SpiersHead winery is 10 kilometres from downtown Kelowna.

Brian Sprout photo: SpierHead vineyard

The 20.4 acre property is a former apple orchard; all but the four remaining acres of apple trees were pulled out when Brian and his partners bought it in 2007. In the spring of 2008, they put about 13,500 vines on 6 ½ acres. The planting consists of 4 ½ acres of Pinot Noir (three clones), 1 ½ acres of Chardonnay (three clones) and Riesling.

The varieties were chosen on the advice of winemaker Tom DiBello and Ben Stewart, one of the owners of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. In his years as a photographer – Quails’ Gate was one of his clients – Brian has developed a remarkable network in the wine industry whose expertise he can tap. He came to know Tom DiBello while shooting images for CedarCreek. When Tom and his wife had to evacuate their home during the 2003 forest fire, they stayed with Brian and Virginia Sprout.

“I felt with the people I know that I could pick up the telephone and call a number of people,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I was a dentist from Calgary coming here and setting up a winery out of the blue. That was part of my comfort zone, having people in the industry I would talk to.”

His partners are William Knutson, a high school classmate who is now a Vancouver lawyer, and Bruce Hirtle, a semi-retired Vancouver investment dealer with family roots in the Okanagan. Bruce is primarily a silent partner but William and his wife Marina are generally in the winery’s tasting room on weekends.

The winery opened with 72 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon ($33); 190 cases of Merlot ($33), 119 cases of a Bordeaux blend called Vanguard ($40)(all from 2008), and 185 cases of 2009 Chardonnay ($25). Most will be sold by Thanksgiving.

Production is scheduled to increase, both from the estate vineyard and from purchases of premium grapes. Brian’s target is to reach a production of about 5,000 cases, having been persuaded by a Washington State University study that that is an efficient and potentially profitable model for a hands-on winery run by three people.

The stars in the debut release, in my view, are Vanguard and Cabernet Sauvignon. Vanguard is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (percentages not available). A wine with a fine dark hue, it has bold aromas and flavours of plum, black cherry, liquorice and chocolate nicely framed by the oak. It is a bit brooding in its youth but a few years more in the cellar will liberate sweet fruit flavours. 88-90.

The Cabernet Sauvignon is a beefy wine, with aromas of plum and vanilla and flavours of ripe, red fruit, with vanilla on the finish. 87-88.

Fabulous whites from Black Hills, Foxtrot

Two of the most interesting 2009 whites released this year from the Okanagan crossed my desk at the same time. Here is a two-for-one review.

Black Hills Viognier 2009 ($30) is the first Viognier from the winery that also makes Nota Bene and Alibi, among other wines. Winemaker Graham Pierce made 440 cases, with grapes grown for the winery at vineyards Osoyoos, the Golden Mile and Naramata Bench.

There is one word for this wine: exuberant! It begins with a glorious, room-filling aroma of tropical fruits. Think of guava, lychee, peaches and nectarines. The wine delivers all these flavours to the palate, along with ripe pineapple and citrus. The structure shows the classic backbone of minerals and tannin that give well-made Viognier crisp definition on the finish. The 14.2% alcohol adds a touch of warm but not too much. This is a memorable wine. 92.

Foxtrot Chardonnay 2009 ($45) is the second vintage of Chardonnay from this Naramata Bench production that already has an iconic reputation with its Pinot Noir. Winemaker Gustav Allander made 340 cases. His fruit came from two vineyards: six-year-old vines (three clones) at the Coolshanagh Vineyard north of Naramata; and 36-year-old organic vines at the Pisicoli Vineyard at Westbank. Both vineyards have rocky, gravelly soils.

There are two words for this wine: elegance and power! It begins with citrus aromas and a hint of spice. The winery suggests hazelnut toast and I won’t argue with that. I expect that reflects the fine French oak – Tronçais and Alliers, 75% new - in the wine was fermented. The oak flavours add subtle complexity to the buttery citrus flavours and minerality of the wine. There is a lovely taste of cloves on the lingering finish. As delicious as this wine is already, it really should be laid down for a couple of years, as one would with a good Burgundy. It will develop even more richness and complexity. 92.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Salmon Arm's Recline Ridge winery has new owners

Photo: Vintage at Recline Ridge

When vintage begins next week at Recline Ridge Vineyards & Winery, the pickers will include the new owners, Graydon and Maureen Ratzlaff.

They took over the winery this summer in a career change motivated in some measure by a desire to change lifestyle.

“We view the wine industry as a happy industry,” says Graydon, a 35-year food processing veteran. That career included designing and managing the plant in Metro Vancouver where the Spagnol’s division of Vincor produces kits for home winemaking. “I could see that it [the wine industry] was kind of a community of folks that just love the products. They put a smile on genuinely.”

When it opened in 1999, Recline Ridge described itself as Canada’s northern-most land-based winery. It lost that title this summer when Celista Winery opened at Celista, on the north shore of Shuswap Lake, and with global warming, Celista may one day also be eclipsed by an even more northerly vineyard. Recline Ridge, however, helped inspire the growing number of wineries around Salmon Arm (five and counting).

Recline Ridge was launched by Michael Smith, then the manager of the cable television system in Salmon Arm and, like Graydon, a veteran home winemaker. But in 2008 Michael put Recline Ridge on the market. “I want to do something different,” he told me last year. “It’s just been a whole lot more work than I wanted.” A one-time hobby pilot who sold his airplane in 2008, he has teamed up with friends to sail an ocean-going yacht.

“It is a huge amount of work and it is risky at best,” Graydon acknowledges. “But I think we have acquired a solid, well-constructed company. It has a lot of potential yet to grow. That was what led us toward this, aside from the fact that it is such a beautiful site. My new commute is about 10 seconds, so you can’t beat that. It is the right thing for us at this time in our lives.”

Both he and Maureen were born in New Westminster in 1952. Graydon grew up in Summerland when his father, a dentist, moved there in 1958. Interested in science, Graydon enrolled in science at the University of British Columbia and then switched to the university’s new food sciences program. He recalls there were only 16 in his graduating class in 1974.

He began his career in food processing at Kelowna’s Sun-Rype Products Ltd, spending 12 years there in quality control, technical services and production. In 1985, he and his family moved to Vancouver where he worked two years for Nalley’s Canada Ltd., the snack food company.

From there, he joined first a division of British Petroleum that made the food products needed by fish farms and then its competitor, Norwegian-owned EWOS Canada Ltd. With these companies, he managed the start-up and operation of processing plants in Canada and overseas for 12 years.

By 1999, when he was ready for a change from the fish farming industry and its controversies, Vincor recruited him to get its wine products plant up and running. After that he spent two years with a company making frozen bakery products, a year with Golden Boy Foods LP, another snack food company, and finally several years as a senior executive with Sunrise Poultry Processors Ltd. in Surrey.

“I learned a lot about people along the way and how businesses run,” Graydon says. “I have always had a love for wine, as does my wife. We said at some point in our lives, we wanted to get out of the Lower Mainland. We wanted to get back to the north Okanagan or Shuswap, ideally.”

He was canvassing various business opportunities when, as he puts it, “Recline Ridge popped out of the woodwork.”

The winery comes with an attractive tasting room, a large log building that Michael Smith had acquired. The staff has stayed on, including Jesse Steinley, the vineyard manager and now also the winemaker.

There is seven and a half acres of vineyard growing Maréchal Foch, Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Madeleine Sylvaner and Ortega. In its early years, Recline Ridge also bought grapes from the South Okanagan. Michael stopped doing that once more vineyards came on stream in the Salmon Arm area. Graydon plans to continue that.

“What I would prefer is that we exploit those varietals that are grown locally,” he says. “If I have a bunch of cool climate wines in the cellar and bring in a Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon, I am competing with 175 other wineries down south that do it better from their own grapes.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Blue Mountain Vineyards & Cellars at 20

Photo: The Mavety Family. Photo by Andrea Johnson

Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars has come a long way since making its first wines in a reefer because winery construction was not complete.

The Okanagan’s original cult winery, Blue Mountain is celebrating is 20th vintage this year. As part of that celebration, it recently hosted a grand tasting of 17 wines recently in Vancouver.

One of those wines was its first commercial Pinot Noir, made in the inaugural 1991 vintage. It was a big surprise. Here was a 19-year-old Okanagan wine made from grapes from young vines by winemakers still getting their arms around how to do it. Yet the wine is very much alive, still dark in colour and tasting of rich fruit.

Another surprise was how lively the 1998 Reserve Chardonnay still tastes – peaches and honey and citrus. Ian Mavety, who launched this winery with his wife, Jane, remembers 1998 as the hottest vintage he ever experienced in his 40 years of Okanagan viticulture. One would not expect a 12-year-old Chardonnay from young vines in a hot year to age much left. But this is a gracefully aging white Burgundy.

Tasting these wines is a reminder of how quickly Blue Mountain came out of the gate when the winery began selling its first 1,000 cases in 1992. In addition to Pinot Noir, the winery also offered Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc and then added Chardonnay and Gamay. Other Okanagan wineries at this time were making primarily off-dry Germanic white wines. Blue Mountain marched to its own drummer.

The Blue Mountain whites were dry. The Pinot Noir … well, no one else in the Okanagan was then making a Pinot Noir of that quality (although Quails’ Gate was heading in that direction). Very few wineries then were making wines quite this sophisticated and polished. For most of the 1990s, Blue Mountain owned Vancouver’s cultivated palates.

“The people who buy our wine don’t use barbecue sauce,” proprietor Ian told me in a cocky quip in 1995. He was probably right, too.

These days, the cultivated palates have a lot more choice among British Columbia wineries. But Blue Mountain seems to be holding its own with consistently good wines. Some believe that the wines are underpriced in comparison to the $50 to $100 icon wines offered by other producers, even in the teeth of the recent economic slowdown.

Ian is not going there any time soon. “The past two years have proven that grossly overpriced wines will not sell forever,” he told his Vancouver audience, with characteristic frankness.

Look at the prices on those Blue Mountain wines currently available (either through the winery web site or from private wine stores). Brut NV, one of B.C.’s best sparkling wines, is $23.90. Pinot Blanc 2009 is $17.90, Pinot Gris 2009 and Chardonnay 2008 are $20.90, and Pinot Noir 2008 is $24.90.

Ian and Jane Mavety, who have now been joined in the business by son Matt (winemaker) and daughter Christie (marketing), have been growing grapes since 1971 at Okanagan Falls, on a photogenic vineyard that undulates gently toward Vaseux Lake. At certain times of the day, the distant mountains have a blue tint; hence the name of the winery.

In the 1970s and into the early 1980s, they were growing the same hybrids (Maréchal Foch, for instance) as everyone else in the Okanagan. Well before the 1988 pullout, however, they saw there was no future with those varieties. They became interested in Pinot Noir after attending a Pinot Noir conference in Oregon in 1984 or 1985. They followed that up with visits to vineyards in France and when they came home, began replacing some hybrids with vinifera. That first round of planting was done over several years through to 1988. They planted most of their Pinot Noir in 1990 and 1991.

Today, most of the 150,000 vines on their 32 hectares are strictly Burgundy varieties: Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. Only recently have they planted a Loire variety, Sauvignon Blanc. Blue Mountain will be releasing the first 100 or so cases of its debut 2009 Sauvignon Blanc in October.

The complexity in the Blue Mountain wines reflects astonishing attention to detail. First, they grow multiple clones of virtually every variety (there are at least five clones of Pinot Noir). Each clone brings its own contribution to the flavours of the wines. Plantings are matched to the soils and microclimates optimal for each variety. That is why there are blocks of Pinot Noir, as an example, in almost every part of this vineyard.

When grapes are crushed for wine, most lots are fermented and stored separately. Only a portion of a vintage is barrel-fermented and only smaller portions of these lots go through malolactic fermentation. When blending decisions are made in February or March, the winery thus has a large selection of wines with subtly different flavours – the building blocks with which finished wines are assembled.

Winemaking techniques have become more complicated with the increasing use of wild yeast for fermentation. Matt did his first vintage at Blue Mountain in 1997 after completing wine school at Lincoln University in New Zealand. In 2000 the winery began trials with letting Pinot Noir ferment with natural yeast. By 2007 – the current reserve Pinot Noir is the 2007 – half the wine was fermented naturally. Matt believes the wild yeasts are delivering better expression of the terroir and better texture.

However, the Mavetys never plunge into anything rashly. They are not betting the farm totally on wild yeast when they know that cultured yeasts provide reliable results.

The best lots of wine are chosen for Blue Mountain’s reserve wines, which comprise perhaps a quarter of its production. More wine is not sent to the reserve program in order to maintain the quality and integrity of the regular wines.

For many years, Blue Mountain differentiated the reserve and the regular wines by labels: stripped label meant reserve, cream label meant regular. The winery resisted putting reserve on the label for some years because, as Ian explains, the word “reserve” had become meaningless. There were (and still are) cheap and mediocre wines from all over the world that are labelled reserve.

The tasting included nine reserve Pinot Noirs spanning the vintages from 1995 to 2007. Those from 1999, 2001, 2003 and the rather light 2004 should be consumed soon. The 1995 and 2000 remain big, satisfying reds.

The stars, at least in my view, were the reserve wines from 1997, 2005 and 2007; all of them elegant and polished, with delicious fruit flavours and appropriate textures. “Pinot Noir is all about finesse,” Ian says.

Monday, September 6, 2010

JoieFarm releases its 2008 Reserve wines

JoieFarm, Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble’s winery on Naramata Road, released just over 800 cases when it opened in 2005.

The winery gained a cult following almost overnight. Today, it produces about 10,000 cases a year. Its two reserve wines now constitute more than the entire winery volume in the original year.

By any measure, this winery was one of the most successful launches of any British Columbia winery in the last decade. That was achieved with novelty -- aromatic Germanic whites at a time when most other new entrants got into the market with big reds and big whites – and quality.

A few years ago, JoieFarm launched its reserve program, covering off the demand for a big red and a big white. The winery is just releasing its two reserve wines from 2008.

The big white is the 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($29.90 with a production of 502 cases). The entire range of winemaking art was employed here: whole cluster and whole berry pressing with primary and malolactic fermentation in French barriques and puncheons. A quarter of the barrels were new, 50% were a year old and the remainder were neutral.

This wine begins with an appealing gold hue. It has the aroma of ripe apricots, tangerines and honey (there was some botrytis among the grapes). JoieFarm’s own notes speak of ripe Anjou pear, hazelnut skins and freshcut pineapple. That should tell you something about how complex the wine is. On the palate, there are rich but tangy flavours of citrus, pineapple and honey. There is so much going on that it is like drinking marmalade. This wine has plenty of heft, with the structure to age like a good Burgundy. 90.

The big red is the 2008 PTG ($29.90 with a production of 780 cases). PTG stands for Passetoutgrain, which is what Burgundians call wines made from blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay. This wine is 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Gamay, with fruit from four vineyards on the Naramata Bench one in Vernon.

Once again, all the stops were pulled out in making this wine, starting with the use of a sorting table to select the best berries. Some of the fruit was fermented in small tanks; some was fermented in a French oak cask and was actually trod by foot. You would be surprised how many Okanagan winemakers use bare feet to press Pinot Noir. The foot is much gentler than mechanical methods and gentle is good with Pinot Noir and Gamay.

The wine is dark ruby with aromas of spicy cherries. On the palate, there are flavours of cherries and spice and cola. This is another wine with heft – a rich texture and a long finish. 90.

These are interesting wines, made for food – after all, Michael and Heidi came to wine from careers in the restaurant business and Heidi is trained as a chef. The wines also have the structure to age. The winery suggests both will improve for another five to seven years.

As if there will be any left!

It's September and Twisted Tree is almost sold out

Since opening in 2006, Twisted Tree Vineyards at Osoyoos has developed a following among consumers who appreciate wines that are not always mainstream varietals.

This summer’s releases, for example, have included the first two vintages of Tannat made in the Okanagan. The winery also releases Tempranillo, Carmenère and blends of the Rhone whites, Marsanne and Roussanne.

As well, Chris and Beata Tolley, owners of the winery, also buy grapes to make such mainstream varieties as Syrah and Gamay. Invariably, the wines are made in small volumes and some of the wine is available only at the wine shop. For example, the 2007 Tannat is only sold there and, when I checked last week, the winery only had 14 cases.

It is never dull to visit the winery or to pick the wines, some of which are available in the VQA stores from time to time. Currently, the 2008 Tannat is still available.

The wine business is a second career for the Tolleys, who former Calgarians where Beata was a chartered accountant and Chris was a software engineer. Before they bought vineyard property, they both spent a year at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand’s top wine school.

On returning in 2004, they bought a cherry orchard at the eastern entrance to Osoyoos. The cherry trees were old and twisted, hence the name of the winery. Ironically, the layout of the vineyard, which was planted in 2005, called for the removal of all the cherry trees.

Since varieties such as Merlot and Syrah can be purchased from other growers, the Tolleys decided to devote their five-acre planting entirely to interesting varieties grown by hardly anyone else. The strategy has proved an excellent way of differentiating Twisted Tree from its 200 peers.

Many of the wines reviewed below are now sold out at the winery but may still be available in wine stores and restaurants.

The winery also has a second label, Second Crossing. Currently in the market is Second Crossing 2008 Long Creek Red ($18), a delicious brambly red with soft ripe tannins, an easy drinking red. There are no technical specifications but that may be, like the 2007 version, a blend of Tannat and several Bordeaux varietals. 88.

Twisted Tree 2009 Marsanne Roussanne ($21.90). The winery made 387 cases of this wine. This is a dry white with aromas of melons and citrus fruits and flavours of citrus and herbs (think sage). There are notes of herbs, flint and even a hint of anise on the crisp finish. 88-90.

Twisted Tree 2009 Viognier Roussanne ($21.90 but sold out). This is 52% Viognier, 47% Roussanne, 1% Marsanne. It begins with aromas of lees which give way to aromas that are both floral and fruity (pineapple). On the palate, there are flavours of pineapple, citrus and apricot. The Viognier gives the wine good weight, along with generous alcohol. 88-90.

Twisted Tree 2008 Carmenère (Sold out). The winery grows only an acre of this old Bordeaux variety and uses most of it in its Bordeaux blend (see below). Only 96 cases were released as a varietal. It has intense aromas and flavours of pepper and even tingled on the palate. This makes the wine a bit one-dimensional on its own but sensational in spicing up blends. 86.

Twisted Tree 2008 Gamay Noir (Sold out – only 167 cases were made). The wine appeals immediately aromas of cherries, cinnamon and chocolate. On the palate, the wine is generous with flavours of spiced cherry and plum. The soft ripe tannins add to the mouth appeal. A damned delicious wine. 90.

Twisted Tree 2008 Pinot Noir. Only 124 cases were made from fruit grown on a moderately cool site west of Osoyoos; and the wine is sold out. This is a dark Pinot Noir with dramatic aromas of spice, mocha and ripe cherry and flavours of cherry and plum. The weight is a bit muscular but silky texture is there. The fruit tasted sweeter on the second day, suggesting this wine will benefit from a few years in your cellar.

Twisted Tree 2008 Syrah ($24.90 but sold out). The winery released 492 cases. This is a full but elegant red. In an original twist, the wine is aged in Hungarian oak, a choice the Tolleys made after several years of barrel trials. This oak enhances the aromas of blackberry and contributes tannin to the structure. There is a hint of pepper and flavours of black cherry, liquorice and chocolate. 89.

Twisted Tree 2008 Tempranillo (sold out). The winery produced 240 cases of this wine, its second vintage of the fine Spanish red variety grown only by a handful of Okanagan wineries. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and shows bright fruit flavours, again cherries and red currants with a hint of mocha and smoky notes of oak on the finish. The wine benefits from being decanted. 88.

Twisted Tree Six Vines 2008 ($Sold Out). The winery made 916 cases of this wine, a large volume by Twisted Tree standards. It is a blend of all six Bordeaux varieties, including Carmenère. There is no other Meritage blend quite like this. It is a big ripe red with flavours of blackberry, black cherry and plum framed by toasty oak. The personality is rustic in the very best sense. This is also a damned delicious wine. 90.

Twisted Tree 2007 Tannat Select Vintage (N.A) This is the winery’s first vintage, but second release, of Tannat, a red varietal grown primarily in the south of France and in Uruguay. Earlier this year, the winery released its 2008 Tannat (see the following review). In style, the wines are quite different. This wine reminded me of Vega Sicilia because of the volatile acidity. A little bit can be a good thing. Here, it the aromas (red berries, spice, iodine) and also propels the flavours of ripe plum, black cherry, spice and vanilla. This is a bold full-bodied wine with 14.9% alcohol. 90.

Twisted Tree 2008 Tannat ($27.90) is a dark wine with a bold 14.9% alcohol but with so much fruit that one never notices the alcohol. (Obviously, this variety ripens reliably in the South Okanagan.) It has an aroma that is smoky, meaty and redolent with red berries. As my companion put it, it is a nose like a good cigar. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, cherries, mocha, leather and spice. The flavours are vibrant and the finish is lingering. The tannins are firm enough (but not hard) that the wine benefits from resting in a decanter for a time; it was still tasting very good the next day. 91.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Osoyoos Larose releases its 2007 vintage

It there is a British Columbia red that should be in every serious collector’s cellar, it surely is Le Grand Vin from Osoyoos Larose.

The latest release, the 2007, is now in wine stores at $45 a bottle, along with its little brother, Le Pétales d’Osoyoos at $25 a bottle.

Both wines are made in the style of fine Bordeaux reds with, one might argue, the advantage of Okanagan fruit ripeness (although some recent Bordeaux vintages have been as hot, if not hotter, than the south Okanagan.)

Osoyoos Larose is the joint venture established in 1998 by Vincor Canada with Groupe Taillan. The latter is the parent company for something like half a dozen chateaux in Bordeaux, including the distinguished Château Gruaud-Larose.

The Okanagan venture gets its name partly from that chateau and partly from the fact that its vineyard is just northwest of Osoyoos, on a hillside looking over the valley. Vincor did the joint venture to benefit from a transfer of knowledge and technology. The Canadian company let its French partner pick the vineyard site and choose the varieties planted. The French also recruited a veteran Bordeaux winemaker, Pascal Madevon.

The wines are made and cellared in a segregated production area in the back of Vincor’s big Jackson-Triggs winery at Oliver. An area is set aside in the vineyard for a winery but I somehow doubt that has a very high priority with Constellation Brands, the giant American company that took over Vincor several years ago. After all, Pascal has quite an adequate facility already. The one thing that Osoyoos Larose lacks is a tasting room of its own, a bit of a marketing drawback.

Pascal arrived from France just in time to do the inaugural 2001 vintage. He likes the terroir and the project so much that he has since become a Canadian citizen. He will tell you, forcefully, that he is making Okanagan wine, not French wine.

As true as that is, the style is reminiscent of Bordeaux. Le Grand Vin, like top wines from Bordeaux’s classified growth wineries, is really not ready to drink on release. You can drink but the structure of the wine really calls for more cellar aging. And while you are waiting for Le Grand Vin to soften, you should be drinking Le Pétales. That wine is somewhat softer, with less aging in new oak (although it also has the backbone to age well for several years).

Unlike a Bordeaux chateau, Osoyoos Larose announces the blend of Le Grand Vin on the front label. That would be heresy in tradition-bound Bordeaux but New World drinkers want to know what they are drinking.

Le Grand Vin 2007 is 70% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. This is a dark, concentrated wine with aromas of red fruit and cedar and with a complex palate of black currants, plums, coffee, chocolate, liquorice and cedar. On first opening, the tannins were firm and even a bit bitter on the finish, which is quite normal for a young red made in the Bordeaux style. Half a bottle was reserved for re-tasting on the second day, by which time the wine had rounded out to a rich palate with Christmas pudding flavours. If you must open the wine now, please decant it an hour or two ahead of time. If you can, put it away until at least 2015. My rating on this wine, 90-94, reflects where I think it will grow to be with cellaring.

Le Pétales 2007 is a little more accessible straight out of the bottle but it also benefits from decanting. The wine has ripe red berry aromas and flavours, with a touch of vanilla and chocolate. It seems a little lighter than Le Grand Vin but it is still a first-class Meritage blend with the structure to take it through to 2015 as well if you put a few bottles in the cellar. 90

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lillooet's pioneering wine growers

Photo: Vineyard at Fort Berens

Lillooet is a long way from earning its own appellation but wine grapes have been growing here in a modest way for half a century – and now it is getting serious.

I checked it out for myself recently, saw three vineyards and met interesting people. What else does a wine region need?

The vineyard that started the current flurry of interest is at Roshard Acres, a farm just east of town perched on a plateau with the Fraser River rushing by 200 meters below. The farm is owned by Christ’l Roshard, a former mayor of Lillooet, and her partner Doug Robson.

There is a small block of hybrid vines, primarily Maréchal Foch, which was established here in 1972 by Christ’l’s father, Robert, who died in 2008. In the 1960s, he managed Riverland Irrigated Farm for B.C. Electric Company. Wanting to see how wine grapes would do at Lillooet, the farm planted the varieties then commercially important in the Okanagan.

After B.C. Hydro took over B.C. Electric, the farm was sold. The vineyard trial was abandoned but Robert salvaged vines for a little home winemaking at his own property. Doug and Christ’l continue to make wines but they have no intention ever of opening a winery. The Maréchal Foch in particular still produces well and, to Doug’s credit, yields good wine.

In 2004 a small group of farmers led by Christ’l decided to re-examine the future of wine grapes at Lillooet, in part to replace the jobs lost to a declining forest industry and a total collapse of ginseng production. They secured vine cuttings of 20 vinifera varieties from the Okanagan and, with some funding from the province, planted test blocks in 2005 and 2006 on three farms, including Roshard Acres.

The funding, which might run out next year, has paid for the deployment of 87 weather data collectors, the logging of the information, the analysis of grape ripeness and other information that future wine growers will need. The cold winter of 2008/2009 (it got down to -24.6ºC on December 20, 2008) caused measurable damage to the young plants. However, that needs to be kept in perspective: the same freeze hit the Okanagan and the Similkameen and triggered $20 million in crop insurance claims. Those vineyards have not been abandoned; nor have the Lillooet trial blocks even if some of the vines seem to be struggling.

Photo: Brad Kesselman and Eckhard Zeidler

Independently of the Lillooet trial, two Whistler residents planted 20 or so varieties in 2009 on a 10-acre test block at a property called Texas Creek Ranch, a one-time orchard that now grows hay. The owners are Eckhard Zeidler, a former investment banker and now a Whistler councilor, and Brad Kasselman, who runs Whistler’s biggest photography company.

They have a spectacular winery site once they figure out what grows (Auxerrois looks good) and what does not (Sauvignon Blanc). “We have a number of years of evaluation,” Eckhard says of his vines. “We have to prove we can grow excellent wine grapes. If we can’t do that, then we are doing other things.”

Photo: Rolf De Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek

At the Fort Berens Estate Winery at the edge of town, Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf De Bruin are betting the farm, so to speak, on Lillooet viticulture. In 2009 they planted 20 acres of vines (Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). The vines are luxuriant, looking established enough to get through a normal winter and produce the winery’s first crop next year.

Meanwhile, the winery is open, selling wines made with Okanagan grapes. Their objective, however, is to become self-sufficient when their vines are in full production. “Since we are pioneers out here, we decided we would need to be pretty much self-supporting,” Heleen says. “The Okanagan is quite a way away. We don’t want to depend on that forever.”

They are career-changing immigrants from Holland, a professional couple (he was born in 1970) with two children. They met at the University of Groningen where both studied economics and business. Heleen worked 15 years at the ING Bank and Rolf, after being a financial controller with a telecom firm, switched to management consulting.

“One of the primary reasons why we chose to start a vineyard was that we could not foresee ourselves working in a corporate environment and having kids,” Rolf says. “We are both very, very ambitious. We knew that a vineyard and a winery will be a huge amount of work but we saw the opportunity to put our energy to good use. We find it very difficult to move at half pace. If we embark on something, we go all for it.”

They are getting advice from some of the best brains in the Okanagan: Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters, veteran vineyard manager Richard Cleave and form CedarCreek winemaker Tom DiBello.

Earlier this year, they also brought in three partners with capital. These resources will be used to complete the vineyard and to build a new winery next year with the capacity to produce 4,000 cases. The winery will command a spectacular view over the Fraser River as it cuts through Lullooet.

For now, they make the wine and operate a tasting room in a renovated tractor barn on land where the Hudson’s Bay Co. once planned (but did not build) a post called Fort Berens.

These are the current offerings from Fort Berens, most of them made with Black Sage Road grapes:

Chardonnay 2009 ($18): In style, this will appeal to lovers of California Chardonnay with its buttery textures and its flavours of tangerine and peach nicely framed by oak. 86.

Meritage 2007 ($28): This wine got a silver medal at this spring’s All Canadian Wine Competition, a nice credit for a debut offering. It has soft ripe tannins with plum and berry flavours. It is 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. 87.

Meritage 2008 (likely $28 on release): Youthful and still firm, this has excellent flavours plum and black cherry and a structure to age well for another five years. 88.

Cabernet Franc 2008 ($N.A.) This wine has the classic spicy, brambly fruit that makes this variety appealing and, arguably, more reliable in B.C. vineyards than Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is generous on the palate and again has the structure to age. 88.

Late Harvest Riesling 2009 ($20). This wine was virtue from necessity when super-ripe grapes arrived at the winery. Rather than make a dry and alcoholic white, Rolf and Heleen have left residual sugar here. Not overly sweet, the wine tastes lightly of honey and apricots. 86.

It is a good start for Lillooet’s first winery.