Thursday, March 10, 2011

A tasting stroll of delicious and intriguing wines

Photo: Steve Wyse

Those who get to taste the wines of British Columbia are fortunate indeed.

Someone observed to me recently that this province is a “rare and special place” for wine production. Most of us who live here have been believers for at least 20 years.

What makes it special? The vineyards are among the most northern in the world. Conventional wisdom in the 1960s and 1970s was that the Okanagan (80% of our vineyards are there) was too cold to grow the classic European varieties.

The fact varieties such as Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Gew├╝rztraminer now flourish here is not due to global warming but because the growers have learned how to grow those vines.

The long, warm days and the cool nights of the Okanagan and Similkameen is the combination that yields mature grapes with vibrant flavours and good acidity. Our wines routinely have alcohol levels between 13% and 15% (which is sometimes too high). Compare that to the lower alcohol levels of Germany’s whites, also grown as far north as the Okanagan.

The Okanagan and the Similkameen are unique terroirs. The two mountain ranges between these valleys and the coast shelter the valleys from the rainfall that is so abundant on the coast. The long, narrow valleys trap the heat each day during the dry growing season while the clear, unpolluted skies allow it to dissipate at night. Grapes thrive in this.

This reflection leads me to offer notes on a range of wines that I have tasted over the last two months, or so, that I am happy to recommend as examples of what makes the Okanagan a “rare and special place.”

Let’s start with three reds from Young & Wyse, an Osoyoos winery that opened a couple of years ago. Winemaker Steve Wyse is a former winemaker at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery. There does indeed seem to be a family resemblance between the wines he used to make there and those he now makes in his own shop.

Young & Wyse Collection Merlot 2009 ($19.90) has flavours and aromas of black currants, tobacco and chocolate. The structure is firm, indicating that this wine needs to be cellared for a few more years to allow the sweet fruit to express itself. Decanting works for the impatient. 89.

Young & Wyse Collection Syrah 2009 ($22.90) begins with aromas of white pepper, cherries, blackberries and coffee. The flavours are plumy, with complex notes of leather and delicatessen meats. 90.

Young & Wyse Collection 2009 Black Label 33-30-24-13 ($26.90). No, this is not a fertilizer. The numbers are the percentage of each varietal in the blend – in descending order, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There is mint, pepper and bright berry aromas and delicious fruit flavours on a bed of long, ripe tannins. 92.

Let’s move over to the Naramata Bench and Van Westen Vineyards, a six-year-old winery that won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence last year. The wines have developed a strong fan base, both for reliable quality and because the owners, Rob and Tammi Van Westen hand deliver their wines to the Vancouver market.

There is nothing like personal service to make a connection with consumers. It always amazes me that many Okanagan wineries prefer to depend on DHL to deliver the wine. I like my DHL man but we never talk much about wine (or anything else, for that matter).

Van Westen Viognier 2009 ($24.90) is exactly the wine, with its 14.7% alcohol, that shows just how ripe a good Okanagan grower can get his fruit. The wine gets away with its potent alcohol because it is so rich, with flavours of guava, pineapple, butter and apricots. 88.

Van Westen Vivacious 2009 ($18.90). Primarily Pinot Blanc, this is a crisp and, yes, vivacious white with aromas and flavours of apples and a backbone of minerality. 88.

Van Westen Vino Grigio 2009 ($18.90). This is a crisp and refreshing Pinot Gris, with citrus aromas and flavours, along with hints of pears and apples. 88.

Van Westen Vivre la Vie 2007 ($27.90). As you know, every Van Westen wine has a name beginning with “V”. This wine is 100% Merlot. It is a big, ripe wine with 14.9% alcohol but so much fruit and chewy texture that there is no heat on the finish. The wine begins with abundant red berries on the nose. Its layered flavours include currants, blackberries and plums with hints of chocolate and vanilla on the finish. 90.

Van Westen Voluptuous 2007 ($29.90). You like them ripe? Try 14.8% alcohol, 18 months in oak. I found this wine – 67% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Franc – fairly tight straight from the bottle. Decanting definitely benefited the wine, which then showed a fleshy texture and flavours of sweet red berries framed by oak. On the finish there were notes of chocolate, tobacco and cedar. 88.

Staying on the Naramata Bench, let’s look at three current releases from Red Rooster Winery. This winery was started by Beat and Prudence Mahrer but was purchased in 2005 by Andrew Peller Ltd. The new owner named Karen Gillis, one of their rising stars, as the winemaker.

Because the estate vineyard is actually quite small, Red Rooster draws grapes from all over the south Okanagan, given Karen a lot of options.

The clever marketing ploy here is to have customers and potential customers sign onto the email list. Every so often, the winery offers worthwhile new releases first to this list, always at a discount.

Red Rooster Reserve Meritage 2008 ($24.99) is one of those rare Meritage wines built around Cabernet Franc – 58%, along with 33% Merlot and 4% Malbec. The wine has aged 14 months in oak, mostly older American oak barrels. There are aromas of vanilla and blackberries. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with ripe tannins and the brambly flavours typical of Cabernet Franc. 88.

Red Rooster Riesling 2009 ($15.99). The grapes for this wine came from Inkameep Vineyards at Oliver. This is a big, almost fat white with 14% alcohol but also with a touch of residual sugar. The nose and the palate have aromas and flavours of honey and marmalade. 88.

Red Rooster Chardonnay 2009 ($16.99). This wine acted almost like a red wine: a bit restrained when first poured, it opened gradually to show aromas and flavours of tangerine, with a hint of butter. 88.

Photo: Summerhill Winery's pyramid

Moving to Kelowna, Summerhill Pyramid Winery focuses primarily on organic grapes and wines.

Summerhill Organic Chardonnay 2009 ($22.95) is light and vibrantly crisp, with citrus notes and with a surprisingly moderate 10.9% alcohol. Think of this as an Okanagan Chablis. 86.

Summerhill Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($26.96). There is no information on the winery web site on the source of the grapes but the 14.6% alcohol and the ripe flavours are hallmarks of the south Okanagan. And this wine’s quality also reminds us that 2007 was one of the best recent red vintages in the Okanagan. Dense in texture, this wine has flavours of black currants, figs, black chocolate and tobacco. The wine remaining in the bottle opened up very well overnight, making the case for decanting. 89.

As special as the Okanagan is, one must admit that very fine grapes also grow in California. New Westminster’s Pacific Breeze Winery makes its red with California grapes and does a very good job. The wines are bold and, in recent years, some of the labels are equally bold.

Pacific Breeze Killer Cab 2008 ($22.99) is notable for its bright yellow label as well as for the gobs of sweet fruit – black currant, blackberry, plum and spice. 88+

Pacific Breeze Big Red 2008 ($24.99 but sold out) is a brawling, robust wine with 14.7% alcohol, aromas of vanilla and iodine, and flavours of plum and currant s and chocolate and tobacco. 88.

Pacific Breeze Vin de Garagiste P3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($19.99) comes at you like a broadside, with 15.4% alcohol and tons of port-like fruit. Don’t try finishing the bottle alone – but wine like this is meant to shared anyway. 88.

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