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.